Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Will of Rot

As part of a campaign i'm currently running, I needed a forest to house Mother Mohln of the Mohln race from my very first post on this blog. 

I thought about using Dolmenwood which there is a lot of content for. However, a lot of it is split up between a lot of the Wormskin Zine Issues and I wanted something I could bring along to every session for reference. Plus, its fae aesthetic wasn’t exactly how I envisaged the home of the Mohln.

So, in true OSR fashion, I decided to do it myself! I’ve been wanting to put time into producing another one page adventure location since the One Page Dungeon Competition as I found it so much fun. I’ve also been eating up all the amazing content from Michael Prescott of Trilemma Adventures as i find his stuff so useful at the table its incredible.

I ended up creating The Will of Rot - small hexcrawl adventure set the the Forests of Mohln. I have put it up for pay what you want on itch.io, so click the button below to download it for free.


If you like it, throw me a buck! If your from the UK like me, that’s like 76p! I’ve seen chocolate bars more expensive than that! It ended up being 3 pages, mostly because I have little self control, but also because I created some Maps and a couple tables for use in play. It definitely wears its inspirations on its sleeves, as i've been consuming a large amount of community content lately! Can you name all the OSR creators that I have unashamedly ripped off here? If you end up running it, let me know! Its already inspired viscous hatred of the townspeople of Timberwick and casued the forced adoption of a young Vash in my games. What will happen in yours?



While we are on the topic of self promotion, I’m currently writing an article for a Kickstarter Silver Swords: An RPG fanzine as part of Kickstarter’s Zine Quest initiative. If you like RPGs, especially DIY, OSR and Indie stuff, check out Silver Swords and the other projects that will be running this month!

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

[REDACTED PER PROTOCOL 4000-ESHU] - A Dread Scenario

I wrote a SCP themed Dread scenario to run as a spooky one-shot.

If you don't know about The Foundation, I'm sorry about that thing you wanted to do today, but I'm also not sorry because you get to read all of these for the first time!

Player packets ready to go.
This scenario is based on the SCP article Taboo, written by PeppersGhost. It recently won a contest to be SCP number [REDACTED], so I can only hope this scenario does this fantastic piece of fiction justice!

The idea behind this game is to split the required information needed to keep everyone safe between the players, then sit back and watch the inevitable chaos as they attempt to survive not knowing quite enough to stay alive.

Here is a link to all the documents needed to run the scenario - Including digital, and print copies. (Even in letter size for you Imperial heathens.)

I'm very excited to be running a game of this for Halloween this year. If you end up running it, please let me know! I’m really curious to know how it goes for others. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 3 – Mage & Priest Classes


Let’s talk Classes. This is a breakdown of my design and process for coming up with the classes for Myth & Malice, my fantasy heartbreaker RPG I designed some time ago now. This is part 3, find part 2 here and part 1 here. I have posted a discussion thread on this topic, on the r/RPGDesign subreddit like last time. Onwards!

Classes

The classes were where I began with Myth & Malice. I was frustrated with the spell caster classes I was playing/running in my games and felt I wanted to provide players with more control over the magic they cast. Enter; The Mage, (AKA the Arcane Magic User originally) my first foray into RPG design, a custom class for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.


Dug up from the archives, this is the original hack I wrote for Lamentations.

The Mage

The core concept behind the Mage is a character who doesn’t cast pre-defined “spells” from a book, but instead can construct their own unique spells by combining different predefined components. I settled on a system that asks a player to pick from a base set of elements to define a spell’s overall theme, and a selection of effects to define its general function, then leave the rest up to player and GM fiat.

The idea here is to provide just enough rules and structure as to produce “balanced” or at least consistent spell power levels, while leaving enough space for creativity and imaginative problems solving.

The incarnation of the Mage in Myth & Malice is a refined and attempted “simplification” of the original Arcane Magic User class. The class’s core mechanic remains the same, and uses a pool of dice, the size and composition of which is dependent of level. Called Power dice, these are the class’s “spells per day” equivalent. Each dice represents a spell the Mage can cast, with bigger dice representing more powerful potential spells.  The mechanic is fairly simple, though requires a few steps;
  1. Pick a dice
  2. Pick one or more Aspects
  3. Pick one or more Forms
  4. Roll equal or over the number of Aspects + Forms
If the roll succeeds, the spell works and the player describes the effect. If the roll fails, nothing happens, and the player keeps the dice. The “Effect” can be mostly anything the player wishes, so long as no direct mechanical benefit is gained. However, if the player wants a mechanical benefit, the value of the mechanical benefit is determined by the size of dice they used to make the roll.

Already, re-reading what is laid out in Myth & Malice, this isn’t very clear. Instead of breaking down these steps clearly, the rules are spread about through the various paragraphs, interspersed with “fluffy” description. Also, I refer to a spell “Difficulty” which is effectively the number of Aspects plus the number of Forms in the spell. This is certainly a hold over from a time when the Forms had different costs, something that should have been caught in an edit.

Now that I hope you have a decent grasp of the concept, let’s talk about its execution

The Mage Breakdown

My aim with these mechanics was to make the “power level” of a spell determined roughly by the dice the player chooses to use to cast it. Thus, my conceit was that the more complex a spell was (that being the more things it was doing) the more powerful the spell was. So, I set about deconstructing what a spell could do into a series of components for players to recombine later.



Inspired by Ben Milton’s Maze Rats, I split spells into the two core components; Aspects (A spell’s overall theme) and Forms (A spell’s purpose or effect). Aspects determine what kind of effect a Form might have based on common sense or GM/Player fiat.  I.E., a spell with the Fire Aspect will burn things, a spell with the Light Aspect will provide illumination. If the meaning isn’t 100% clear, that comes under fiat, a part of the OSR playstyle the Myth & Malice system already leans into.

Forms were a little more difficult to design. I tried the make my list is as exhaustive as possible, while remaining fairly short. I’m fairly happy with the result, but I understand that I’m inherently adding soft limits to my spells providing a defined list, a conceit I was willing to make for the sake of simplicity.

This is probably the only area of the game where I actually considered probabilities. Something which I very likely should have done for other areas. My goal with the spells was for a “reasonable” spell at each power dice size should have a ~75% chance of success. I think I just about achieved this. The below table shows the probabilities of 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 components (that’s Aspects and Forms) added to a single spell, and rolled using each of the power dice sizes.

% Success4681012
275%83%88%90%92%
350%67%75%80%83%
425%50%63%70%75%
50%33%50%60%67%
60%17%38%50%58%

Deciding how many power dice a Mage gets at each level was a little trickier however. To do this I initially used the LotFP’s magic user spells per day and D&D 5e’s Wizard/Sorcerer as guides but the results were not received well during playtesting. Players simply felt they had too few spells, and wanted more to do. This is why Mages don't lose Power dice unless the spell succeeds, and why the number of d4 Power dice a Mage can use are unlimited. Both of these changes I’m not happy with now I’m looking back. I think I too easily caved to my players’ demands. I should have stuck with my initial design decisions and simply tweaked the numbers until it felt fair. Outright changing mechanics as I did destabilised other elements of the game too much in the end, and the Mage began to feel too powerful in my later playtests.

Deciding on the lists of Aspects was fairly straightforward. The classic 10 elements seen in most D&D-esk Fantasy works well and I liked the symmetry they provided. Looking back, the extended table of Secondary Aspects by combining Aspects is probably fairly redundant. Most GMs would probably be happy to rule these themselves.  As presented, the table takes up a lot of space and probably overwhelms an already confused new player even further. On the point of redundant information, the referenced Clash tables here do exist, and were intended to be in the GMs guidelines I so often refer to. In truth however, they never came up during play, so I’ve no idea if they were any good.

The list of Forms was produced using a bit more of a scattergun approach. I stole a load of words I liked from the aforementioned Maze Rats tables, before refining them again and again based on existing D&D spells, trying to isolate core themes like “Transport” and “Harm”.

My goal was to provide a fairly comprehensive list, so that players were able to make a vast array of spells. In many ways I think having a defined list actually encourages more inventive spells, as I’ve heard it said before that creativity can be stoked by limitations.

Ideally I also wanted a bit of overlap between the Form’s functions, as I wanted players to be able to create the same effect with different combinations of Aspects and Forms. An example may be a flight spell;

One way of producing it could be Air + Transport, which could move a person with air, perhaps with a gust of wind. Alternatively, Insects + Bind could have a character grow bug wings and use them to fly. Both produce the same end result mechanically, but the in fiction context may make one favourable over the other.

The final table for this class is the Form Mechanics. The intent behind this part of the design is to provide another limitation on spell power. By aligning the Power dice size to the actual numbers of a mechanic, the idea was that effectiveness of a spell is reigned in. While it doesn’t ensure players cannot exploit these loose rules to produce “overpowered” abilities, it does force them to be more inventive.

Overall, I think my solution is still too clunky. There are too many tables a player must consult to produce a spell, the Form Mechanics feel fairly arbitrary and also too specific compared to the rest of the system. 20 Forms seems like too many. I think fewer, with more overlap is potentially more easier for players to digest, and could create more instances of players producing similar spells with different fictional positions.

The Mage Playtesting

I ran a few playtests with the Mage class in a couple of dungeon crawls and a wilderness exploration. I received positive feedback overall for this class (more than the others), and people very much liked the freedom of creating their own spells.

What I found was that people approached the ability in a couple different ways. Some wrote down a list of spells themselves beforehand, and others just made things up on the fly. I hadn’t initially thought players would create spells in advance, but it ended up working just as well, but gave more of a traditional D&D wizard feel to the class. The first playtest quickly found that the number of spells was far too low, this was an iteration that started with 2 d4 spells and 1 d6. In the second playtest I increased the number of spells, and had them only expire upon a filed roll but found people still felt like they had too few spells.

Having spells only expire of a successful casting has its problems however. It meant that there was basically no downside to simply re-trying the spell. Something I did not try was to use the “Clash Tables” hinted at in the text. If I rolled on this table on a failed spell casting, it would provide more gravitas to a player’s decision to cast them, and potentially solve the issue.

I settled on an infinite number of d4s but I’m not certain that was the correct call. Giving the class such a powerful ability makes balancing the other classes to feel as powerful difficult, if not nigh impossible, something which we will cover when we see the Warrior and Adept classes.

The Priest

Next let’s look the priest, I'll do these in the order they were designed for the sake of chronology.
If it's not already clear, my approach to class design is to provide each one with its own “core mechanic” that defines the class’s special ability, unique to it. For the Mage, that was the Power dice system. For the Priest, we have Favour dice.

This class was largely inspired by Mystics from Logan Knight's blog Last Gasp Grimoire. In contrast to Logan’s class, I didn’t want the Priest to require a separate playbook that defined their abilities, unique to each religion. Instead, I lifted the core concept from the Mage, of constructing unique spells from a series of components.

However, the difference is where the restrictions on the spells lie. Mages run out of spells as their Power dice are used. The Mystic by contrast can cast any number of Prayers, and is limited instead by how favourable their God views them, and their Religion’s themes.
At least that’s the idea.

The Priest Breakdown

Instead of a player constructing spells from well defined Aspects and Forms, the player is a devout follower of a certain deity. This Deity has a collection of core beliefs or “Principles”. These work in much the same way as Aspects, but are intended to be more specific to the Character’s religion. In place of Forms, we have Invocations, similar but with a more “miracle” like flavour. Also, in theory any Priest can use any Invocation at Level 1 (however practically, that’s not possible).
In terms of actual mechanisms, casting works totally differently. Priests have a pool of dice, the number of dice is determined by level, and the size of all the dice (from d4 to d12) is dynamic, and has a maximum again determined by level. The “dynamic” element comes from the ability to lose and gain “Faith” through play. “Faith” is the in-game term for the size of dice with which the player rolls. By performing priestly duties, and witnessing holy events, the Priest increases their Faith, and can cast more powerful miracles. However, by witnessing their Deity misunderstand them, or perhaps neglecting their religious duties, this power decreases.

Again… At least that’s the idea…



The intent of Faith is two fold:

Firstly it is to provide another alternative to the “Spells per day” Vancian magic system from traditional D&D. The Priest can make any number of Prayers per day, the limit instead is how much they are willing to risk, and how well they can convince the GM that what they want is in the interests of their religion.

Effectively, when a Priest prays, they choose a Principle and an Invocation like a Mage would choose an Aspect and a Form, and come up with their desired effect. Then, they roll all the dice from their Prayer Pool and count the number of dice that roll equal or over the Target (determined by the Invocation), and tell the GM. Depending on how well aligned with the Characters religion the GM rules the request to be, the Prayer may succeed or fail.

By having better Faith, the Priest is rolling bigger dice, and is therefore more likely to succeed a Prayer Roll, and may try asking for something less aligned to their Religious beliefs. However, as Faith dwindles, the prayers become less and less likely to work, thus the player is reluctant to ask for things outside their religion’s direct desires for fear of rejection.

The second intention was, to give the GM an interesting way of framing failed Priest Prayers, as either their Deity misunderstanding them, or simply snubbing them. This brings the Character of Gods into the forefront much more directly than in usual play. I intended to make “Misunderstandings” much more thematic that is demonstrated in the rules. Again, inspired by the Mystic class from Logan Knight, a misunderstood prayer could be horrific and hilarious; such as a snake god causing their Messiah to vomit forth several snakes instead of spitting venom.

I wanted this to encourage a certain way of roleplaying. I wanted to make the Priest feel more like a religious character, pining for their deity’s attention, but fearful of the repercussions of upsetting them.

In actuality, the priest felt thematic, but as a result of the Prayers, not because of the mechanics I’d built around it. As I discovered when playtesting…

The Priest Playtesting

I did a fair amount of playtesting of this class, more than the others. I had the same 3 Playtests involving the Mage, in addition to a character in an on-going campaign running the class before I moved to a different system. In all cases, the results were the same. Thematically, they were adored. Players loved how much they were embodying the religion, and creating spells was enjoyable and often hilarious. However, the actual mechanic was often misunderstood, or felt disconnected from the fiction.

I created a few religions for the class myself, outlined in the rules. I wanted them to be used as templates, as I think the class is most effectively used when the GM has a good idea in their own heads how the Deity behaves and what it represents. That way, coming up with fun misunderstandings or required religious rituals is easy to improvise. However, any guidance on how to GM the Priest isn’t covered in the rules as is which is a problem.

A Failure of Execution

Re-reading my design notes, and what I put into the actual ruleset now, I can’t help but feel like I pretty heavily missed the mark with this class. The idea behind it, of a very thematic character based almost exclusively on their religious beliefs still excites me. However, I do not think what is presented in the rules comes close enough to evoking the feeling I wanted.

Let’s break down where I think I went wrong, and what I could do to improve it.

  • The Mechanic

It’s needlessly complicated, and unlike any other part of the game. I should unify this with the other mechanics in the game, and make it more robust. Currently, Prayers feel too similar to Mage Spells, and are in some ways far more limiting, with little benefit compared to them. (Especially since Mages get infinite d4 power spells now.)

  • “Misunderstandings” need to be more explicit

I think these are key to making the class feel different. If I let the Prayers be more powerful, and make misunderstanding a more interesting and enjoyable risk-reward system, Players have a tougher choice as to what prayers they may ask for.

  • Gaining and Losing Faith

This needs a rework and a rethink. Currently at low levels it doesn’t have much of an effect in play. Heck at levels 1 & 2 it’s literally pointless. Faith needs to have harsher consequences for losing it, and better definitions about regaining it.

  • The Religions

I loved the ones I came up with. However, that’s not terribly useful for other GMs. I’ve already said that to most effectively use the Priest, a GM needs to have a good “headcanon” about the Religion of their Priest Player(s). Thus, they should really create their own unless they get really inspired by my own. I should make this clear, and create better defined rules around their creation. (More tables, etc.)

To be continued…

Wow! Ok, I had a LOT more to say about these classes than I thought. Hopefully this breakdown was insightful.

As always, please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it a bunch.

Last time again had a great discussion on Reddit, so do check that out if you haven't already.

Next time, we shall continue to clamber through the Classes, and have a final thoughts summary on their interactions!!

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 2 - Combat

It's time to tackle Combat in my breakdown of an old Fantasy Heartbreaker I was working on. This is part 2, find part 1 here. I have posted a discussion thread on this topic in the same place as the last post, on the r/RPGDesign subreddit. Anyway, let's get into it.

Combat


As I alluded to in the previous post, this was an area I put a lot of work into, and had a large focus on during the design. I knew I wanted a combat system that felt “crunchier” than regular D&D style combat of roll attack, roll damage, passive defence.

This was one of the few areas of the game where I had clear design goals in mind before I began work.

What I set out to achieve was to provide players a set of mechanics they could exploit to give themselves advantages in combat that lead to flavourful decisions and more tactical choice without having to resort to a grid.

The key dichotomy I kept focusing on was the idea of a single, high damage attack, versus several low damage attacks. This would be a trade off between a single target high potential damage attack and more consistent, multi-target attacks, with a lower average damage.

This leaves plenty of room for rudimentary tactics, some that are regularly employed in videogames. With a single enemy with high hit points, a higher potential damage attack may be more desirable, but with several low hit point enemies lots of weak attacks is probably more effective.

I imagined certain characters would be better at different kinds of attacks, thus complicating the decision further. In that space I saw the potential for some mechanical depth, something I think is lacking in most TTRPGs.

I however don't think what I produced in Myth & Malice gave the desired effect, so let's discuss the design as it's presented.

Design Goals


I decided early on to do away with the traditional roll for attack, and roll for damage separation we see in D&D-a-likes. I wanted a single roll for determining both. Considering my core mechanic is roll under a stat, this does not immediately cause problems.

If a Character has a high stat in something, they are more likely to hit, which I want. This also means a higher stat allows for a higher roll to be successful. If the number directly corresponds to damage, then a higher roll, deals more damage. With a low stat, Characters are less likely to hit, and even if they do, they will inherently be doing less damage.

There is nothing wrong with this design, but it is a kind of positive feedback loop. The more likely a character is to hit, the more potential damage they can do.

What I also wanted was to use dice of various sizes, based on player choice. This presents a player with options in terms of how a character “feels” when in combat. Rolling a dice with fewer sides is more likely to succeed, but has lower potential damage.

That is, rolling on a d4 or a d6, you have a lower range of potential numbers rolled. But a higher (sometimes guaranteed) chance of success. On bigger dice like a d10 or a d12, you have a higher chance of failure, but with the potential to roll a bigger number.

In the case of fighting, this was meant to be a trade off between a quick jab or a heavy slow swing.

The System




Lets quickly summarise how the combat system works as it is presented in the rules.

I never wrote rules for initiative or starting combat. I intended to outline in a GMs section how to deal with situations involving two opposed agendas using the Opposed Check rules outlined in the Mechanics section, but i never finished writing those rules. Thus, rules as writ, there is no defined way to enter combat. During playtesting, if who goes first was not fictionally obvious, i would use an opposed Move Check (both sides roll move dice under the most relevant Ability Score) highest success wins and goes first.

In Combat, time is dealt with at at an Encounter level (we will cover time, and the action economy in more detail in an upcoming part), meaning second to second action is important. It is up to the GM to determine what is possible each turn, which lasts around 3-10 seconds.

The rules define three types of distinct actions that are most likely to come up; Attack, Defence, and Maneuvers.

Maneuvers allow a character to forgo an Attack or Defence action in favour of an additional in fiction benefit. These are fairly standard in most D&D-alikes.

Attack and Defence are both sides of the opposed roll mechanic outlined in the Mechanics section, in the context of combat specifically.

So, each side rolls a dice, and succeeds if they roll under their most relevant Ability Score. Whoever rolls highest, and succeeded, wins. Combat takes this mechanic, and adds some complexity.

To start with, the dice rolled depends on what the Character is using to perform the action. In the case of an attack, this will almost always be a Weapon Dice. In Defence, this could be a Move Dice, Weapon Dice, or other equipment dice (namely a Shield Dice). All these dice will be anything from a d4 to a d12.

The complexity here is added when it comes to determining what Score the player must roll under to succeed. That is, they roll under all of them.

Depending on what a Character is doing, rolling under different Scores provides different benefits. For an Melee Attack for example, if a roll is under Might, the character can do damage equal to the roll. If the roll is under Dexterity, the character can make another attack, immediately after this one is resolved. Finally, if the roll is under Focus, they deal Damage equal to their focus, instead of the result rolled.

The intent here, is that each of these conditions are not mutually exclusive, Its perfectly possible for a character to roll under all, some, or none of these scores, thus each character, depending on their makeup of Scores in combination with the dice they roll, will feel slightly different to play.

A Character with high Dexterity, low Might and high Focus, is not likely to hit on any individual attack, but will be likely to attack multiple times, and if they do hit, will do a large amount of damage (equal to Focus).

In contrast, a Character with high Might, low Dexterity and low Focus, is very likely to hit, and has the potential for high damage, but is unlikely to get off multiple hits.

This should inform a Player how they want to kit out their character as well. A Weapon with a large weapon dice, has higher potential damage, but will roll over their Scores more often if they are lower than the dice’s max value.

This extends to defence, and ranged combat, but the benefits are slightly different, with the intent being no Character can be good at all types of combat, they must specialise.



Why it doesn’t work


There are multiple reason why this system has failed to embody my design goals, and to be honest, their intent. Let's break them down, point by point.

1. Score Generation 


My decision to use random score generation, means, it is perfectly possible to have a character have high Scores in all Abilities, and be likely to succeed in all areas of combat. It is just as possible to produce a character who is bad at all areas of combat.

In my opinion, this is bad design. Making it possible to create objectively worse or better characters is one thing, but making this not the result of player decision, but just random chance is not fun, and is not satisfying.

2. Score Scale


In a last ditch attempt to make the Warrior class more relevant, I reduced the scale of Ability Scores from 2-12 to 1-6. The idea being Warriors have the ability to add a value of 1-6 dynamically. We will cover this decision in more detail in the Class Breakdown, but what this does to the mechanic is catastrophic.

Players are (in theory) rolling anything from a d4 to a d12, thus they can roll values from 1-12. This means for most Characters, any dice above a d6 is basically irrelevant, they cant use them.

This is sort of intentional. This puts a soft cap on what weapons/shields/etc, a character should be using. A weak character will little Might will not perform well weilding a huge Greatsword.

However this just makes the player’s “choice” an irrelevant one. Nobody in their right mind would use larger dice when all it does is make a Character less likely to hit. There is absolutely no benefit, as opposed to producing an interesting tradeoff.

3. Equipment Dice & the Move Dice Problem


So all equipment has a dice rating which determines the dice rolled when performing actions with it. As mentioned above, this is meant to provide player a choice when it comes to kitting out their character, and how they fight in combat. Equipment with small dice are more likely to roll under Scores, and gain the benefits, but have lower potential damage.

What i found in playtesting however, is that for players, this is a non-choice. They just pick the biggest dice they can, that means they cannot fail rolls. Nobody picks the bigger, higher damage weapon because it simply won't hit at higher damage values anyway, so there is literally no upside.

This is poorly thought out, and does not invoke my intended play.

And while we are on the subject of dice size, lets discuss the Movement Dice. The intent with this mechanic, is that each player has a Movement Dice rating used to roll any check involving Opposed Movement, like chases, initiative, or dodging in combat. The dice goes down in size as a Character don’s Armour, thus making a trade off between damage reduction and damage avoidance.

Characters with “better” movement, use a bigger movement dice. The logic here being they can roll higher potential values. However, what this means practically, is that Characters with better movement, fail more often, because they are more likely to roll over their Ability Scores. Urg. I have few words for this decision other than it is a terrible design choice, that caused unending problems during playtesting.

The Lesson here, is rules cohesion. My Combat system, my Scores system and my Equipment system, are at odds. They do not produce the desired effect in combination.



Summary


In summary, perhaps this system could be reworked. I got a lot of positive feedback during playtesting about rolling one dice under all scores, and determining the outcome.

It produced varied combat rounds, and sometimes, an interesting choice as to what enemies the party decided to approach with what characters.

However i also got a lot of frustrated players who felt they could not produce the desired fighting style they wanted from their character. I also saw a couple characters who were clearly out classing others when it came to combat. This on its own was not a huge issue, but in combination with the Warrior class not feeling much better in combat than other classes, ment players felt a disconnect with what a character was and what they could do.

I have mentioned this before, but I do feel, this easily the worst part of the game, and who's surprised really? This is by far the most complex and central part. Looking back, I immediately ask myself; Why? Why do the legwork for your first game, when you could make a hack?

Good question! I started the design process by slowly replacing parts of The Lamentations of the Flame Princess, so technically it evolved from a hack, but I always knew I wanted rid of the mechanics from that game, so I wasn't kidding anyone.

All in all, if I were to return to this project, I would certainly gut this area of the game, and replace it with a much more familiar system. I'm too inexperienced as a designer to produce something that can stand up to the current zeitgeist that is D&D style combat.

That's it for Combat. In all likelihood we will return to this subject later when we cover Equipment, Classes and other areas of the game in later posts.

Last week had an informative discussion of Reddit, so do check that out if you haven't already.

As always, please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it.

Next time, my Favourite part - The Classes!



Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Gemstone Archive

About a week ago FM Geist posted a challenge on G+, after finding an amazing map in an old Ravenloft adventure.

I decided to give it a go, feeling inspired by the idea of a dungeon within a gemstone.

The idea here, is its something player characters can find within the world, and carry it with them as they adventure. Then they can enter it whenever they wish, solving its riddles, and gathering its treasure as and when they wish.



This was a lot more work than I anticipated! A lot of fun, and something that challenged by dungeon making skills.

I'm only really 100% happy with the Amethyst room, being an interesting puzzle to play out IRL.

I may revisit this later, as I cut the scope of the adventure down drastically from my initial plans.

Regardless, if you end up using parts of it, let me know! Id love to hear how things turn out. Ill certainly be using it at least one of my ongoing games.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 1 - Core Mechanics

A while ago I got deep into the design and testing of a heartbreaker system before feeling road blocked and leaving it for a few months. I have since moved on to other projects, and I think tearing it apart ceremoniously in public is probably not only valuable to me, but could provide some insight for other designers.

For the full system, I have posted it here, so feel free to read the whole thing for context if you wish. Hey even play it! It’s technically functional, although it takes a lot of liberties. I’d absolutely love to hear any feedback you may have. I’m simultaneously posting this on the r/RPGDesign subreddit for in-depth discussion, so join in the conversation there as well if you like. I’ll be breaking out bits of it to talk about specifically in these posts, as this is far too big a topic for one sitting.

I by no means think this is a good game, but I think it had some good ideas, admittedly a lot of them stolen and reworked from better designers than me. I think my goals were noble, I just had (and still have) such little experience and knowledge, I couldn’t follow through on my grand ideas. Maybe doing this breakdown will help me, and maybe you?

Before we start, ill pitch it:

“Myth & Malice is an OSR inspired fantasy table top role playing game designed to emphasise player creativity, and minimise GM workload.”

Let’s get into it. This week - Core Mechanics.

Mechanics



Page 3 and we kick things right of with the games core engine. I think this is good. One thing about many games that frustrated me during my research was being unable to find this kind of a page. This is integral to the game, and should be front and centre. If I’m ever confused at the table about how to resolve something, I should be able to come back here and re-calibrate my thinking.  We will talk more about layout and presentation in a later post, but the simple fact this page exists is good design IMHO.

As for its actual content… well let's dive into that.

I wanted a roll under mechanic at the heart of the game. Once I played The Black Hack (a game from which M&M unabashedly takes a lot of inspiration) I realised how quick and simple it made checks in game. Very little on the fly maths has to be done to determine a result, and I liked that a lot. What The Black Hack lacked for me was some crunch and nuance. By this I mean, I wanted there to be some player choice/control over the roll, instead of just declaring a certain situation depends on a certain stat and asking the player to roll under a number determined (mostly randomly) at character creation. This is where the following comes in:

“The Dice and Score used depend on the context of the check.”

You read that right, not only will context change the number under which a player rolls, but also the dice used. Not to tease, but this if probably the fatal flaw of this system, and i'm not going to cover it in detail here, it’s simply too big a topic. This will become much clearer when we get down to combat, which needs its whole own post because… woo did I get lost in the weeds there!

Suffice to say, it's not elegant. I attempted to give players some form of a choice with this mechanism, but it ends up not being an interesting one, nor one that's really that difficult. We will leave it there for now, and move on to other parts we can talk more about.

I split checks into three categories; Base, Opposed and Group checks. In my eyes these were situations with clear distinctions, and clearly needed distinct approaches. Base checks are for Characters doing this solely dependent on themselves, Opposed are for when there is a force actively working against the Character, and Group checks are situations involving more than one Character working together. Simple, easy to distinguish, and the mechanics feel like they reflect this. This is one decision I came to early on in the design process, and even after play testing I stuck with it. I am still happy with this breakdown.

I did further breakdown Group checks, which I do also feel is a valuable distinction, one that i don't see made in other RPGs. The way I see it, there are situations when working together, that benefit from lots of people being involved, and others where that is detrimental. There is a reason you don't send a whole party to scout out the next room, but you do want everyone to push when the door is stuck, and this puts the benefits and consequences of this in the forefront of Player’s and GM’s mind.

This also makes working together super powerful, which I also wanted. This is a cooperative game after all, it should be encouraged. Though one thing I did find during playtesting is I often had to remind players that working together gave them a significant advantage is certain scenarios. Perhaps with more plays and experience, they would have figured it out themselves, but it is something I probably should have emphasised better in the rules.

Finally, I lifted the ever popular usage dice mechanic, also inspired from The Black Hack, as well as various other iterations. I tweaked it to my taste and I knew it would be serviceable. This is also the first of a few mechanics in the game which I would also consider optional. During my research, I found a lot of people, especially in the OSR community, who tend to treat new systems as libraries of interesting mechanics that they pilfer for their own homebrew systems. This one of those rules that if it's not to your liking, removing it has little impact on the games overall structure.

Modularity of rules like this is one thing I tried to include where I could in Myth & Malice. While I think a game is stronger for having tight knit rules that all work together like a well oiled machine, OSR games are not played like that. They rely heavily on improvisation and the “Rulings not Rules" mantra. Therefore I was aiming more for a collection of quick reference ideas than a comprehensive ruleset.

...Or at least looking back, that's what I should have been aiming for. My core mechanic is sort of the antithesis of that idea.

So here is kind of the first lesson from this section. One that will be no doubt repeated throughout this analysis; Define your design goals, and do it as early as possible.

I basically didn't have any goals laid out before or even during design. I hear designers harp on about them a lot, and I figured I would establish them as I went, but I just never did!

I think part of that was I didn't really know what I wanted from the system. Perhaps I needed to fail miserably to learn this, but the point still stands I should have tried!

Stats

Right, how do we define a Character? These do fit quite tightly with the core mechanic, so we will get onto why I chose the numbers I did in a bit but firstly I'll run through what they are and what I was aiming for.

Myth & Malice has 9 core stats, split into 3 groups of 3. The groups are based on how they are used, and each group contains an equivalent body, speed, and mind stat.

Let’s run through the groups and why I added them first. The groups are; Attributes, Abilities and Qualities.


The Attributes; Brawn, Agility and Resolve, are basically saves from D&D. These are meant to be used in situations where the GM wants to test a character's reaction or their raw ability. Honestly, looking back these are a bit of an afterthought. They serve a fairly minor function, and are sat front and centre in the rules, and on the character sheet.

The Abilities are Might, Dexterity and Focus. These are exclusively used for combat. I wanted to separate combat stats to avoid scores being used for multiple purposes, like the classic example in D&D 3.X of Dexterity determining initiative, AC, ranged attack and some skills.


Finally the Qualities are used to… generate more stats. Kind of janky, but the other scores only require some simple maths to be done on these numbers. We have Stock, which is used to calculate hit points, Mobility, which is used to work out movement, and Insight which is used to work out Memory, or basically skill slots.

So those are all the stats that are effectively rolled randomly, which we will talk about in more detail last, but the rest are either worked out from these or determined from other player choices such as Race. Let’s dig into those.

Derived Stats

Flesh and Mettle are my own version of Logan Knight’s Flesh and Grit. I liked the idea of a split health pool for more reasons than those outlined by Logan’s rules.

My grand idea with these split pools was two fold. On one hand, by limiting Flesh to smaller numbers, and allowing it to be hit directly by various means such as critical hits, or sneak attacks, it makes Characters susceptible to a quick death at all levels. Something which is missing time and again in D&D-a-like games. Mettle is easy to gain easy to lose, the Flesh harder to lose, but far more serious when you do.

Another advantage is it gives the GM a resource they can chip away at through means other than combat. My idea with Mettle was to have it taken away through things like strenuous activity, or hunger, or weariness, etc. However I never wrote rules for that! As it stands, it's basically pointless. I had vague rules for how to use them written up, but during playtesting I pretty much winged it, and I guarantee it only worked because I knew what to do with them. Perhaps this could have been elaborated in a GM section, but that’s not included here, so there is little point discussing it.


Armour will be covered in the equipment discussion, but I will say here I don’t think armour as damage reduction just isn’t fun I table top games. It slows things down, and can create situations where a character is literally invincible. At least the way it's laid out here. I'd like to revisit this topic because I feel there has to be a solution, but for now, lessons learned.

Encumbrance is pretty much lifted from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, one of its best innovations. I've even further simplified it because why does it need to be at all complicated? It’s abstract in any form regardless. I simply use Brawn number of items. Easy. Exactly what you fill those slots with is one of most interesting choices in D&D style games in my opinion. Though that does require some lists of interesting items. I was using various tables from different OSR blogs, but I should have written my own.

Movement. Eesh. It basically doesn't work. The idea here (which now looking isn’t even laid out in the rules properly) was that you roll this dice when movement is contested, and you roll it under an Ability score.

What’s ridiculous is faster characters actually end up losing in tests of speed far more often than slow ones. I tried too hard to pair it up with my core mechanic, and it just didn't work. The idea here is, the less armour you wear, the bigger dice you roll, thus the bigger potential number you get. The problem is, it’s designed to be rolled under Ability Scores, meaning a bigger dice (in most cases) means you’re more likely to fail. It never worked, and I pretty much ignored it during playtesting. This is an example of where I am too beholden to my own rules. I should have either resolved it differently, or removed it entirely.

Finally we get to Memory and Skills. I liked the idea of Memory, and in some ways it did simplify character creation. It boils down to, each character gets a number of “Things” they can be good at, and you just pick them.

For example if Dave has 3 points to spend, he might pick Swords, Thievery and Diplomacy. This is simple, and evocative. Believe it or not, I wrote all this without having read how proficiency worked in 5th Edition D&D. Perhaps I subconsciously absorbed it prior, but having only recently played 5e, I can already see many ways to improve on this system. I think have players just pick things from a list of choices is far quicker and actually more engaging than putting x number of points into a skill, which is what I had before.

I've added in part of the Mage mechanic here, and I think that was a bad call. Ill go over how that affects the class when I discuss those, but the idea behind this choice was to temper a Mage's’ abilities a bit. Like how in other D&D style games where magic users can't wear armour or use weapons. This doesn't ban anything, it just requires more investment.

I think I’m still split, because writing this out again now, it sounds like a neat idea. I think my main problem was how I generated the numbers involved which we will get to shortly.

For now, let's have a quick look at skills. These evolved a little from Lamentations of the Flame Princess also. I picked a set I felt covered more situations, and were a little more evocative. Players got to interpret them how they liked, and would often roleplay them how they saw them being used as opposed to requiring me to define them.

However, boiling skills down to an x in 6 chance sounds straightforward, but I actually found doing playtests that players really disliked this. They complained it felt random, and that having a 1 in 6 chance to do things by default felt too low.

What's also an issue is scalability. You can only improve a skill so many times before is maxed out, and this leads to either infrequent improvements or players with too many maxed out skills.

One thing I think this highlights very well is that for similar mechanics, similar levels of granularity are needed for things to feel fair. The “feel” of skill rolls are markedly different to Ability rolls or Combat rolls in Myth & Malice, thus you notice it more. In most D&D-a-likes, all rolls feel roughly the same (All use d20 + numbers or d20 under a number, etc). This isn't an issue for damage rolls, because they are so disconnected from the rest of the game, but if the system to work out if something happens or not is different in different situations, I  think it can feel unfair. At least from my limited experience.

Learning is another one of those after thoughts. I think I read something that inspired it, and decided to add it in because the game didn't have much else in the way of progression. It's not great, but it was serviceable. Id probably change it a bit, maybe just mark off after a “significant failure” or something. Tracking multiple failures sounds easy, but it ends up being just another thing for the GM and players to forget while playing.


My summaries of how to use skills and tools feel a little out of place here. These are essentially GM guidelines for how to use them. I don't think they are needed for the player facing rules, or at least should be put in a “Playing the game” section or similar.

Other than that, there isn’t much else to talk about with them. They are fairly standard rules found in most other RPGs, and in my experience tend to be forgotten or ignored anyway.

Now let's talk numbers.

Right out of the gate here, I’m going to say; I wish I’d just done point buy or arrays for character statistics. I think that alone would have solved a lot of problems I came across during playtesting. I chose to have players roll randomly for a couple of reasons, both were misguided, and I should have thought them through more thoroughly, as well as been open to other options.

My first and stupidest reason, was because it’s “Old-School”. That is to say, this is an OSR game, thus, it’s the status quo. Bad move. I think it’s probably generally accepted that good design means questioning the status quo, every step of the way. Ask yourself; why are things done this way? Will your game benefit from it in the long run? Does it go against your design goals? Well I just committed to it, and my game was worse for it as far as I can tell.

The second reason was a little more sensible. I originally designed the stats to be “die-dropable”. The idea was they sat in a 3x3 table and you could drop 9d6 on them to instantly generate a character. Perfect for GMs!

The problem is, as the game evolved I changed how the stats worked to the point where this wasn’t possible anymore. Thus, at that point I should have reconsidered my original design, but I didn’t.

The original plan was that the stats could be laid out like this:

Brawn

Might

Stock

Agility

Dexterity

Mobility

Resolve

Focus

Insight

Now, drop a d6 on each cell, and then add along rows cumulatively from right to left, that is to say, Stock would be 1d6, Might would be 1d6 + Stock, and Brawn would be 1d6 + Might + Stock. Then repeat for the other two rows.

In theory, this provides numbers within ideal ranges for my purposes, the Qualities in the right most column all have values from 1 – 6, Abilities from the center column have values from 2 – 12, and Attributes from the left have 3 – 18.

For Attributes you roll a d20 under the value, Abilities you roll anything from a d4 – d12 under the value, and Qualities are numbers for working things out, so I wanted those low.

Voila! We have a nice-ish distribution, a quick way to generate characters and everything if fine and dandy no?

Well… during playtesting, I immediately found that my Warrior class, the class that was supposed to be good in combat, was no more or less good than any other character. We will get it what changes I made to the class when we approach them all, but I foolishly decided to hamper all other characters by reducing all Abilities to a single d6.

This basically made the whole game fall apart, and I didn’t really reword anything to fix the glaring holes that appeared as a result. Due to this, Movement is even more dysfunctional as characters have even lower Ability scores to roll under, making failure even more likely. It’s a mess.

A couple other minor changes that were made here was I removed the additional d6 roll for Attributes, and instead replaced it with a flat bonus depending on what Race you are. An ok change I guess, but it kind of comes across as half-committing to both random stats, and what is effectively a point-buy system or player choice. I should really have picked one or the other, the rule doesn’t really add anything other than more complexity to character creation. Something which is actually against one of the few design goals I (kind of) had going in my head; quick and simple character creation.

That’s enough rules analysis for now, lets move on to a summary of this section.

Summary

All in all, I think a lot of the poor decisions in this system can be traced back to the core mechanic, and stat generation. And really, who’s is surprised by this? I tried to innovate with core resolution on my first game. It was unlikely to go well when I simply don’t the experience to foresee potential problems, and then stubbornly refuse to rethink my design when I come across them.

Stat generation was a big problem, because I found during the playtests that the divide between good and bad stats was just too great, and some characters were simply much better than others, and that’s not the feeling I wanted to invoke. Point buy solves this by ensuring you cant make too terrible a character, and also allows players to make the Character they want to play, which I think is important. That is certainly a change would make. I’m willing to sacrifice “instant” character generation for that, ad in theory it’s still possible.

Breaking out Stats into three separate groups depending usage worked pretty well, and committing harder to that idea I think is a good idea for future projects. With point buy, it may become a real choice. Do I want to be really good in combat, at the detriment to my skills? Or vice versa? Or a mix? That’s an interesting choice I feel. In its current state, its just sort of pot luck.

Skills are something that would need a rework. They are serviceable in this state, but were not fun during play. More tightly integrating them with a core mechanic would be a better idea. It definitely still stands though that asking players simply to pick from a list of options is a good design choice. Perhaps one that can be extended to other parts of the game? Ill leave that question open for now.

I’m done throwing all my thoughts about this section into a word document. Please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it. Regardless, I hope your able to glean any value from my ramblings. If no-body else benefits from this, I certainly am learning a lot about my own design process and decision making. I shall continue this in my next post – the Combat System I keep harping on about!

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Isle Of Splinters

As part of a Pirate campaign I have in the works, I have been building and stealing islands to populate my world map with.

One of my original ideas was The Isle of Splinters, which I have created a one page adventure for below:



A small collection of rock "Splinters" jutting from the sea, there reside a flock of Harpies who harass any ship foolish enough to get close.

In my campaign, Esmerelda the Witch Queen, will hold vital information that the players will need to extract from her, in order to find secret Treasure.

I have entered it into the One Page Dungeon Contest, an awesome initiative which produces some fantastic RPG content. If your reading this post, this years entry is likely closed (I entered fairly late!), but there are a wealth of adventures out there, free to download and use.

Perhaps one will inspire you to enter next year?...