One Rule

It would be interesting to make an RPG out of only words, no math, no charts, just words. Maybe it would be simple and refreshing.

A game like that could easily become just as or even more complex than any normal RPG though. In order to build a world engine that only used descriptions, could end up taking up a huge amount of time to convey.

To circumvent that eventuality, it may be useful to give the engine a direction so that things stay simple. This is what I thought of.

One Rule

Every story worthy element has One Rule. The GM gives the world a rule. Players give their characters a rule. Important (special) equipment gets a rule. An important NPC or maybe a group of NPCs get a rule. Weather can get a rule. A maze can have a rule.

There are a few conditions that make things clearer.

No two elements can have the same rule. This is important so that two unstoppable forces don’t collide and annihilate everything.

A more specific rule supersedes a more general rule. If one player has a character that is “The greatest fighter in the world” and another has the rule that they are “The greatest swordsman in the world” as long as the fighting is being done with swords, the swordsman wins out.

That’s very Amber like in it’s certainty however. A character can always win in a specific contest, a randomizer could be employed, but that doesn’t seem interesting. I’ll have to play with the idea and see if it I can make something of it.

A Beginner’s RPG

RPGs are often designed for the expert player’s experience. An RPG game designer is likely to have had many experiences playing games and already has a concept of how the game “should” work. It would be great to see a board game designer who has no experience with RPGs be asked to make one. A game for beginners by a beginner that knows how to make a game, just not “our” game.

The reason I find that situation intriguing is that it would seem like it would produce a game that is much more beginner friendly. It would probably ignore ideas that an experienced RPG designer would think of as important. Like knocking out chunks of DNA and seeing what happens to an organism, we could learn immeasurable lessons about what it takes to make an RPG.

So what are things that you find in almost every RPG? Character sheets come to mind. What if you didn’t have them? How would you track who your character is and what they can do? Cards might be a way of keeping track of who your character is. Simple things like a special ability or equipment. Maybe if there were only a few attributes, you could simply remember what your character could do? Would a board game designer even use attributes?

I think it’s fairly obvious that a board game designer would not have a big beefy game book. If anything, they might make some kind of board for tracking game states. Things like hit points, would easily be managed by on a board with tokens. If you want a record of a game that’s interrupted, take a picture of the board.

Things like initiative might not even come to mind or if they did, might not show up like we’re used to. Either you take turns in the order you sit around the table, or it might be tracked on a board by how many rolls you’ve made in something like a racetrack.

Although most game makers would be familiar with the idea of experience points from things like video games, someone who was truly starting fresh would probably not come up with that idea. It’s more likely that if there was some kind of advancement, that you’d draw from a reward deck. As that deck depleted, the chances of advancement reduce because the player’s keep the advancement cards while the other rewards cycle in and out of the deck. This would also cap the total possible advancement so you don’t see overpowered characters. It would require a very large reward deck though.

Now, what about a “win” state? Most games have some kind of an end state that tells you that you’ve won. RPGs don’t do well with that because they’re supposed to be open ended. I’ve seen “arena world” RPGs that no one wants to play because there’s not enough of a story to them. They have a clear goal and a clear win state, but it’s not interesting. What if each player got a card that said what their “win” state was? Maybe the character is retired after that? Maybe the “win” is that you get to take one of the reward cards?

What about for the GM? Maybe the game board would track enemies in very simple terms. Maybe the game board also acts as a kind of random encounter table for generating games on the fly.

The real question is story, and how is it treated? I think there needs to be a specific world for the players to act in. A universal game engine is not beginner friendly because it’s not specific enough for the GM or even the players. It has to be open enough so that each player can pursue their own interests, but the main way to get what you want is usually via one path (traditionally this is slaying monsters). This also has to be communicated quickly and simply.

I’d like to make a free version of this game. A game tracking piece of paper for 1 to 4 players (if you have more players, print off another page). A printable deck of cards (printable decks are not my favorite, but it’s a workable solution). A small game book, under four pages describing how to play. A boxed version of this game would be a nice upgrade.

What Does The Energy System Do?

My two new RPGs both use my Energy System (ES), why am I using it and what is the system good for?

ES is designed to play a game that tells the story of characters exerting themselves. The core of the system is that each character (or really any entity) has a certain amount of energy to exert on the world. Traits say what the character is good at and makes the energy they spend more effective.

Why ES and not some other system?

ES handles a number of things organically that other systems need special rules for. It was developed with the question of “What might an RPG look like if they didn’t stem from war-games?” For example, there are no Hit Points, a staple of war games. The closest thing a character gets to hit points is their Energy Dice. There are no separate rules for combat or other skill challenges. They’re all handled the same way. This results in a game that handles any type of in game challenge using the same rules. The only special cases are more like examples of how to use the core rules in specific situations.

What is different about playing ES?

One main difference is the approach to storytelling. This is not a storytelling game as some RPGs have sold themselves. The game dictates what happens in mechanical terms, then the player interprets the game result and tells the story from that. Players are free to tell exciting and impressive tales about their character, but are constrained to make the tales fit the game result. This is a very different experience that some love but others find alien.

Another big difference is in the pacing of the game. Often many dice are rolled at once for each turn. One of the original design criteria was that my players wanted to use a range of dice types so ES obliges them. The important thing to remember is that, rolling the dice is not telling about a single action, but is a stage of a challenge. A character in the ES doesn’t swing a sword, they enter a duel. They don’t dodge an attack, they engage in defensive maneuvers. If players try and explain their rolls in terms of single actions as most RPGs do, the story of what goes on in game will seem very short. If the explain the game results in broader efforts and tell the story of how those efforts went, the game is fuller and will feel properly paced.

At it’s core ES has two main elements to the rules, Agents and Traits. Player Characters are not referred to as an Agent, but are in fact special instances of an Agent. NPCs are Agents but so is equipment, vehicles, and even things like super powers. An agent is anything that has it’s own pool of energy dice. Traits make the dice the player will roll bigger, making the numbers larger and the results higher (on average). There are different kinds of Agents and Traits, but the whole system boils down to those two elements. In play, this sometimes takes players a little bit of getting used to, mostly to unlearn all the baggage that many games require.

ES simulates a large number of situations and interactions with it’s simple ruleset. For vehicles, fuel tracking is handled by their Energy Dice. Weapons ammunition are handled by their Energy Dice. A gun jamming is handled by the Energy Dice. Encumbrance is handled by Energy Dice. At the same time Energy Dice are how the characters get things done so they aren’t tracking several different values, it’s all managed the same way. Social conflict, survival situations and combat are all handled in the same manner.

Is the ES a universal system?

The ES is flexible, but it’s not universal. In each application, the ES needs adjustment to set the proper tone. In most cases, specific types of Agents are considered special to the setting and get special rules. Character creation also has to happen differently to handle different genres.

Balancing Function With Simplicity

I’m a simulationist. When I make a game, I want it to handle the situations that I throw at it and I want the whole thing to be elegant. The problem I have is, I’m always adding more situations that I want my games to work under.

For example, in the Energy System (the system that is powering Protector and Jump Temp) the function of things like vehicles is pretty simple. The problem I’ve been having is how many passengers a vehicle can carry. On the one hand, I could just say “use common sense.” A motorcycle can carry one or two people and a car can carry four or five and be done with it.

But then I wanted to throw a light airplane in the equipment list. How many people does it carry? One? Four? Twelve? How big is a “light” airplane?

That’s a bit of a minor issue, but not simulating things like passengers properly leads to weird issues. For example, a motorcycle is probably a little faster than a car, but the car can probably travel further. As things are, they kind of balance each other out and motorcycles cost about the same as a car, which is an odd result.

That kind of thing really bugs me. There are structures in place to handle this kind of problem, but the system handles everything in terms of challenges and I’m not sure what kind of challenge “passengers” are and if I want to spend time in game even handling that.

I could write it off and say “Adding one passenger costs one die” and that could work. The problem with that is it’s one more rule to add to the system.

I had to half add a rule for money. In reality, all I did was explain how to handle money in the existing framework, but it had to called out and explained. I’d rather not have to add a special rule for passengers.

I’ll work on it. . .

Aliens In Jump Temp

Yep, it's ugly

You can have your bumpy headed aliens that you’re likely to see on shows like Star Trek, but if you’re serious about your science fiction, you want to have alien aliens.

With that in mind, the aliens in Jump Temp are not humans with bumpy heads. Not only do they look weird, they’re darn hard to communicate with. Considering an alien is likely to have very different thinking than humans, it would seem unlikely that they would speak languages that we’d easily translate. The closest thing we have to an alien language on earth is whale song. So if it’s hard to talk to a creature that breaths air like we do, imagine how hard it would be to understand a creature that breaths ammonia at pressures that would crush our lungs.

There are three races established in the Jump Temp book. Two were discovered before they achieved space flight (no prime directive here!). One, the Neamasta, have their own starships and maybe a different FTL technology. They’re being very secretive and although humans have allowed them into our space, they have not returned the favor. What are they up to? What are they hiding? The book leaves that up to you. I know what I’m going to have happen in our gaming group, but the idea is to establish the world and then let the players find their own way.

Jump Temp Starmap

central starmap

I realized it would be very helpful to have a star map for Jump Temp so I started looking for a real map of stars. I ran into Winchell Chung’s HabHYG maps and though, “Perfect!” only I realized his warning about the 30 parsec maps being accurate, that they were unusable due to the number of stars in them. I then realized I needed to reduce the number of inhabited stars in the map but I couldn’t do that without re-drawing the map. I also wanted to indicate where alien worlds were. I resolved to re-draw the map for myself. Which proved to be far harder than I thought, which is saying something because I thought it would be pretty difficult.

I ended up getting a new web server running (my old development one died a bit ago) and fired up the ol’ PHP code to read the HabHYG dataset and draw the maps for me. I’m very happy with the results even though there’s a lot of crowding going on. I’ve never used PHP to create an image so this was really new to me. It took way less time than I thought it would. The above picture is the central region, about 15 parsecs square.

I still can’t show the whole map in one image. If I make the text bigger, the stars start to crowd each other so I split the map into regions.

Thanks to Winchell for the dataset!

Drive

I was leaping down the rabbit hole that the internet is, and found a comic called Drive that has some very similar ideas to the game I’m working on Jump Temp.

The comic story and the game story are actually very different, but there are key elements that show a similarity. The drive tech is discovered by accident and while it can be modified and recreated, no one knows why they work. The other is a class of characters that are very short lived, are big and strong. And there are no shields.

Okay so other than that, the two stories are very different. I just thought it was a little weird. And you should check out Drive if you haven’t already because it’s funny and well done.

Jump Temp and Protector

We’ve been playing two games that run on the Energy System lately. Jump Temp is a space opera that’s near future maybe 50-100 years from now. Protector is alternate history where aliens attack earth and super heroes save the world, are idolized, take over the world and then are hated.

We’re having fun in both. Jump Temp had the players transporting an alien government official which I would have loved to spend more time on but it was getting late after character generation. In Protector, the heroes were investigating a newly formed volcano off the coast of Scotland and found a giant lava snake and lava coated robots. Pure fun! I’m looking forward to continuing both games.

My last post was about getting larger numbers represented in the system and that’s really opened things up as far as functionality. It’s also brought a lot of clarity to the system. The thing is that the Energy System just plays differently than any other system I’ve played. As GM I have to keep reminding myself that small challenges are ok. The idea that a hero is invulnerable to small fries hasn’t happened yet. I have a feeling that we’ll get there, so I’m working on tweaking the system so that it doesn’t.

It also paces itself differently and I’ve been struggling to not fall into old habits formed from every other game I’ve played. I’m starting to feel the system’s flow a bit now and that’s good. I wonder how other GM’s would handle it though.

Although I tried to keep the concepts in the game to a minimum, they are a bit alien to players but after a play or two they’re starting to get the ideas. Heck, I’m trying to write the games using the simple concepts and I don’t always get it right. Things like money are a challenge to handle but I’m getting that nailed down.

All in all, the game takes adjustment, but it does things that I’ve always wanted in a game. It organically handles normal RPG fare like combat, but also deals with something like a space flight being mentally fatiguing. Most of our last Jump Temp game was the new crew dealing with two transits they had to make. The interesting thing is, the players enjoyed it! The Artificial Intelligence character wasn’t challenged by the trip though and the player lamented that he wasn’t getting in on the action.

So we’re having fun and the Energy System is maturing. Watch this space!

Large Numbers In The Energy System

I was having a problem with large numbers in the Energy System. The problem didn’t show up until I started to work on a super hero game using the system. In it there is one vastly powerful superhero that is part of the background story. To use the character in a game required rolling 30 or more d20s and adding up all those dice. It plainly didn’t work.

This is mainly a problem because the system doesn’t scale to things like simulating a WWII battleship or a starship. It was beyond the system, until now that is.

To give you an idea of how the system works, a player gets abilities that grant them die steps. For instance, a skill with four die steps would take a skill from a starting d6 up through a d8, then a d10, then a d12, and then to a d20. Each step making the roll more effective, but d20 was the practical limit of dice steps since most people don’t own d30s or d40s.

The solution is to make a second tier of dice steps. That may sound overly complicated at first, but in for most characters it doesn’t come up so it’s a special case rule. If I was making a space opera, it might be needed more frequently to simulate vehicles or space ships.

So how would a second tier work? If a skill has 8 dice steps, or the equivalent of 2d20 it equals a 1d4x10. If another 4 steps (another d20) is added, the die becomes 1d6x10 and so on. If the character or equipment has 28 dice steps (7d20) they get a 1d20x10.

Is there anything past that? Of course! If you combine the total of 56 dice steps (2d20x10) it becomes 1d4x100. Add another 28 steps for a total of 84 steps* and it becomes a 1d6x100 and so on. 196 steps equals 1d20x100, two of those then flips to 1d4x1000 ad infinitum.

There is one problem with this though. One of the core concepts behind the energy system is that when you roll a die and get a one, the die depletes and can’t be used again until regenerated. That still works under the system, but one of the big draws of higher dice steps is that they deplete less often. A 1d4x10 either never depletes (since it never rolls a 1) or it depletes far more often than a d20.

I could say that if you rolled a 1d4x10 and got a 10, you then had to roll a d10 and if you get a 1 on that die, you deplete the die. The problem is, even though that technically works, it’s kludgy and adds a step for something that is going to be pretty rare. I think it’s better to say, that the die can take damage (which works similarly) but not deplete on a roll of one.

*This is a totally ridiculous number at this point, but I’m offering it to show the system could handle very very large numbers if needed.

Protector Update

The majority of the game is written. I’m adding NPCs here and there to add some big shot heroes for the different ages.

I started doing art, but only have one piece that I want to use at the moment. One big thing I’ve run up against is that most super hero stories only go as far back as World War 2. Protector goes back to World War 1 and that ends up having significant impacts on what heroes would look like. For one, most men had beards. Women wore big skirts, how do you use your powers in a skirt? If anything, the early age is going to have a more steampunk look than a normal superhero story.

It gets easier to go back to capes once you get past the first World War. There are a bunch of super hero inventors and it’s almost like the 50’s happen in the 20’s. The spandex suit could be invented during this time and be popularized by super heroes. There would then be a backlash against it.

This sets up some interesting cultural precedents. Supers after WW2 that wore spandex would be people that see that age of supers as heroes while the majority hate them. It would almost be like saying you were a neo-nazi.

Then there’s the WW1 look, that supers might try and evoke to remind people of the time when supers were saviors.

Steampunk equals saviors.

Spandex equals monsters.

I still can’t figure out what look women supers should look like. I do have one sketch of a mech like hero shooting lasers out of it’s eyes. Maybe I could put a nice lady at the controls, or maybe it’s autonomous and the lady is it’s master.

It also occurs to me that nurses were pretty active in the trenches, starting with their simple dresses may get me somewhere.