A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


16Nov/13Off

Class Acts

Who knew that designing an RPG was HARD?!?

In the past few days I've stepped away from documenting mutations, augments and other weird stuff and tried to decide exactly what classes were going to be in this thing.

This is, this is not a magical world, or at least not in the way you're familiar with. But I would like some sort of arcane-like option, so I've come up with a class I called a "channeler" which - through technology or innate power unlocked by mutation - can manipulate elemental forces. Apparently bright minds think alike because, without me knowing, that name is used in several other post-apocalyptic RPGs... So the name might change just so I don't look like I copied it. Who knows?

I also wanted something similar to a psion, who gains his power from technology's ability to increase the power of the mind. This power is mostly manifested in psychic attacks but can also affect the environment in such ways. This could open up the possibilities of things like telekinesis, clairvoyance, domination and fun things like that. For now he's called a "controller" but that will most definitely change.

That being said, these are the classes I'm currently planning:

  • Berserker: The stereotypical wasteland marauder, like all those guys in Mad Max. Right now it's functionally identical to the 13th Age barbarian.
  • Channeler: Able to manipulate elemental energy and bend the laws of physics around him. As close to a mage as you can get (probably closer to the 13th Age sorcerer than wizard).
  • Controller: Able to attack and control the minds of others, and also has some other options such as telekinesis. Basically a psion, although I have no intention of implementing power points or any complex stuff like that. My only problem with this class is that it becomes effectively useless against things without a brain, like robots. Logically that makes sense but mechanically it's no fun to be in an encounter and not able to participate in any way, so I need to come up with something they can do when they're fighting robots.
  • Engineer: The "tech savvy" class. I'm modeling this around a ranger but giving them a few tech options. For example, instead of an animal companion they can get either an autonomous robotic companion or a drone (which is the equivalent of a wizard's familiar). They aren't so hot in hand-to-hand combat, but they have a lot of tech support to back them up in a fight.
  • Scout: Like the veteran (see below), but much lighter and not so much a weapons expert. This would be somewhat of a hybrid between ranger and rogue.
  • Veteran: The "warrior" of the game, a mix of the paladin (without the religious aspects) and fighter. You've been around, and you've seen it all. A true weapon and combat expert.

I'm also debating a rogue-like "scoundrel" class, but that's still up in the air.

Professions

My intention with these classes is to make them basic and, especially in the case of the veteran, fairly generic. If you want to specialize your character, you can choose a Profession (which takes up a feat slot); for example, here are some of the Professions I have in mind:

  • Gladiator: The kind of guy you'd see in Thunderdome. Proficiency with melee weapons.
  • Soldier: Proficiency with guns (except sniper rifles)
  • Sniper: Proficiency with sniper rifles
  • Hacker: Able to infiltrate computer systems and robotics using a handheld "deck". This is the rogue of the tech world.
  • Wheelman: Expert driver. You even get your own car!
  • Field Medic: The closest thing to being a cleric. Basically the party healer.

These professions can be used in conjunction with any class. So, since there is no class that is the equivalent of a cleric, any character can take the Field Medic profession and become one. And if you want a channeler that can use a gun, you can choose the Weapons Expert profession and there you go.

More Than Rewording

Right now my primary issue is that things feel far too similar to 13th Age, but I'm not exactly sure if that's a good or a bad thing. For example, my implementation of the berserker is almost identical to the 13th Age barbarian. And the spells my channeler has are very similar to wizard or sorcerer spells, with some names changed... and some not (how many ways can you describe "fireball" anyway?).

Part of the benefit of using what's already given and re-fluffing it is that what's already in 13th Age has been tested for balance and playability. I don't have to reinvent the wheel and hold it's load bearing.

My hope is that the basics of the game remain the same, using the same mechanic that everyone is already familiar with, and adding more diversity through Professions and Mutations.Because of how many options there are going to be I'm debating increasing the number of feats you get at 1st level by one, but I'm not exactly sure what that's going to do to balance.

I also intend to have races have more of an impact than they do in 13th Age.

Lepus Sapiens

In the end, anyone can be anything they want. You pick the class and profession that's functionally what you want to be, then layer on mutations (small ones or big, feat-using ones) to make you appear like what you want to be.

For example, you want to be a giant rabbit with a gun?

  • Race: Humanoid. Get one extra feat and the Ready for Action ability (roll two d20s for initiative).
  • Class: Veteran. I haven't decided on the Class Talents yet, but you get three of them.
  • Profession (Feat): Soldier, which gives you the weapon of your choice that is considered your "signature weapon". You choose an assault rifle, like an M4. You get a +1 to attack rolls with your signature weapon and you also get the Quick Reload feat (reload as a quick action instead of a move action) for free.
  • Feat (2nd feat granted by race):  Nervous System I augment, which grants +2 to Dex skill checks and +1 to initiative. After all, you're supposed to be quick... You are a rabbit!

The fact that you're a rabbit is flavor text; it has no mechanical impact. Now, if you want to have a complex mutation just for being a rabbit, like being able to jump really far, you would replace the augment with it and come to a mutual understanding with your GM as to how and when that can be used. It doesn't have to be a highly detailed mechanic... If you're in combat and say "I want to jump", let the GM decide how to handle it right then and there.

Anyway, all this still requires a crapton of work and still may change drastically by the time I'm done. And I haven't even started to think about the 800 pound gorilla in the room: creating a crapton of monsters that won't get me sued.

12Nov/13Off

One Unique Mutant

So in light of my last post regarding mutations, I've been doing some thinking.

A Step Back

Before I proceed with the full on development of this project, I had to stop and think of what exactly my goals are. I have a general vision, and I have the game mechanics to do it, but what exactly is the expectation? This whole idea popped in to my head because I was denied creating content for the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless... but is that really what I want? Is that really what everyone wants?

The thing with all the other systems is that they are significantly more complex mechanically than 13th Age was designed to be. Like I mentioned in the past post, I don't want to create a game based on the Archmage Engine that includes a new "feature" that consists of several dozen rather large tables, because that defeats the purpose and turns the system in to something it was never meant to be.

But I want what the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless brought to the table: diversity. You can be anything you wanted to be, and you can either play it serious or be as off-the-wall zany as you want to be. Want to play the hardened veteran driving his Interceptor, dog at his hide, down a barren road to nowhere? Yes, you can absolutely do that. Want to be a mutated chicken with an Uzi and a jetpack? A sentient gorilla that throws explosive coconuts and can call lightning? A giant tulip with a broadsword that can breathe fire? Maybe we can do that too.

So my goal is simple: I want to create a system that provides all these options, but doesn't overburden the game with thousands of new rules and tables in order to do so.

Balance

In doing my research of other post-apocalyptic systems, and reading through the lists of 100+ mutations some of them provide, I came to realize something: they are imbalanced as hell. While some mutations might be mundane or mechanically insignificant, others have paragraphs of mechanics and could end up being far too powerful. Skewing the balance too far in either direction makes it really difficult for the DM, mainly because every encounter and event is more or less balanced and based on the fact that each and every PC is more or less the same.

Let's take an example from D&D 4th Edition: horns. Tieflings and minotaurs both have horns, but while the tiefling's horns are just cosmetic the minotaur's horns are significantly beefier. Therefore, they have mechanics defined for them: all minotaurs have a gore attack as a racial power. But in order to be able to use those horns for a mechanic effect they have to give something up, so the gore attack is all they get at the race level. Tieflings have a different, not-horn-based racial power they can use, but giving a minotaur a gore attack and something else will suddenly unbalance the system.

Levels of Mutation

So before we decide what cost a powerful mutation will have, we have to define what they are.

For further discussion, let's use an example...

Example: Tom, a player, decides his PC is going to have a mutation that gives him wings because he wants to everyone to think he's some sort of demon and he wants to be an all around badass.

The way I see it, there are three possibilities:

Cosmetic

A cosmetic mutation has zero mechanical effect. It has no impact on the game mechanic at all. Players and PCs alike may choose to use it like they would a background or a "unique thing", but it should be under very specific circumstances and not all that often.

Example: Tom's PC has thin, frail wings that are incapable of flight. He uses them only to make everyone think he's a demon, but he's not very good at it. While having social interactions with NPCs he may try to use them to appear intimidating, but the wings are frail enough that he's not all that convincing.

For things of this nature, there really isn't a need to take anything away. As far as I care, so long as you don't abuse them functionally you can have as many cosmetic mutations as you like (within the limits of how many mutations you can physically have; we'll get to that some other time). So if you want to be a six foot tall rabbit with wings, a forked tongue, a unicorn horn and a tail... so long as none of those has a mechanical impact and are "for presentation purposes only", by all means knock yourself out.

Low Impact

The mutation has a modest mechanical effect, but it is only applicable in very specific circumstances and even then is not all that dramatic.

Example: Tom's PC has wings that he still can't use to fly, but they are beefy enough that he can use them to appear intimidating and be convincing. He can also use them to make a controlled landing when he falls from high altitude, similar to a wizard's feather fall spell, but doing so can be somewhat painful as it puts a lot of stress on his wings.

This category is the hardest to manage, at least in terms of a DM. It crosses a fairly thin line between "insignificant" and "major", and would be up to both PC and DM to decide how the mechanics are going to play out. This type of mutation should only have one, maybe two, special cases in which it can be used; any more and it stops being "low impact" and graduates to being "high impact."

I don't think this merits taking anything away from the PC besides limiting how often they can use the ability. For example, the ability for the wings to arrest a fall should be limited to once a day because of the stress it places on the wings. As a DM, I'd be very careful that something initially defined as "low impact" starts getting abused. Worst case, it gets promoted to "high impact" and has an associated cost.

High Impact

The mutation has a major impact on everything the player does, and pretty much has to be taken in to consideration regardless of what they may be doing.

Example: Tom's PC has wings that would make dragons jealous. He wants to be able to fly at altitude, use them to block incoming attacks, use them to make attacks and be an overall demonic badass that makes everyone cower in fear.

I sometimes hate players like this, but that's a separate topic.

Being able to fly, especially at altitude, is what many will call a "game changer". It significantly alters the tactics of any fight, and could be abused more than you can imagine. D&D 4th Edition restricts flight significantly for that very reason; pixies, human-shaped insects that should be able to fly wherever the hell they want, are denied high altitude flight for that reason. Letting them continually get out of range and fly circles around their opponents grossly tilts the balance scale in their favor.

This is the sort of thing that either has to be documented fairly rigidly or agreed upon in full by the DM and players, and a mutual agreement has to be made to ensure that the rules are not only worth the cost (we'll get to that later) but don't break everything the DM has planned.

For example, some of the possibilities on how wings of this nature can be used and how they may translate to mechanics:

  • Tom's PC can look intimidating as all hell when he spreads his massive wings. This can provide a bonus to skill checks in social interactions, similar to backgrounds.
  • Tom's PC can wrap the wings around his body forming a shield. This would require a standard action and would grant him a +1 bonus to AC and PD until the start of his next turn.
  • Tom's PC can fly, but he will get fatigued easily. If he takes off and ends his turn at altitude, he is weakened (save ends). If he is at high altitude or been aloft for long, it becomes a hard save (16+). If he fails a save, he falls.
  • Tom's PC can use his wings to perform a wing beat attack (Target: all engaged opponents, Attack: Highest attribute + level vs AC, Hit: Level x d6 + Strength mod damage, Miss: Level damage). He can only do this once per battle.

Needless to say, these are some serious mechanical advantages. But, after mutual discussion, they actually sound cool when you think about it! And I'm always an advocate of doing cool stuff at the table, so it wouldn't take much to convince me to use these rules... but there has to be a cost. So to get all of that, or maybe part of it, it'll cost you a feat. And the advanced abilities of the wings (such as flight or wing beat) may cost you a second feat at Champion Tier.

Conclusion

Given all that, here's what I'm thinking.

  • You can have as many cosmetic mutations as your body will bear, without any cost besides physical and biological stress (we'll cover that another time). I will probably document some examples, but I don't know if I will document 100+ possible mutations. Maybe in a supplement...
  • Several "high impact" mutations, at least the most common ones that I can think of (wings, cybernetic limbs, tough skin, etc...) will be documented. Some of those mutations will also have secondary and tertiary feats associated with them, all with a mechanical effect. A PC can take one of these mutations in place of a feat, and the mutation will have a mechanical effect more or less parallel to what a feat of the same tier would.
  • Provide guidelines on how PCs and DMs can work together to flesh some of these ideas out, specifically the "low impact" options that tread the middle ground. I might provide some basic examples of "low impact" options as well, but won't spend too much time on them.

So do you have any ideas?

10Nov/13Off

A Mutant’s Life

In case you haven't heard, I'm working on a new project. I'm bringing the apocalypse to the Archmage Engine!

Although I have a mental image for what I want this project to be, I've been curious as to what everyone else wants it to be. So I've been doing some research, acquiring rulebooks and reference materials for every other post-apocalyptic game system I can find. And, I must say, it's been somewhat interesting.

Mutations

One thing I've seen addressed time and time again is the concept of mutations. In a post-apocalyptic world, where you have to watch your step or you might fall in to a crater of radioactive sludge, everyone has a mutation of some sort. Some might be cosmetic, while others might be unbelievable. But almost all post-apocalyptic systems seen to expect mutations to be present, and actually they are expected to be quite common.

Tables of Tables

Most game systems I've seen provide massive tables and pages upon pages of information regarding mutations, and how they function both stylistically and mechanically. For example, the one system I currently have open next to me has over 120 possible mutations and spends close to 20 pages of fine print detailing them.

Although I understand that that's what people might want, the ability to customize their character with that level of detail, that kind of goes contrary to the principles of 13th Age and the Archmage Engine. 13th Age has been designed to be simple, providing only the rules that are necessary, and leaving everything else to be nothing more than a mutual understanding between player and GM.

Nowhere in the 13th Age book is there a d100 table that spans two pages, and I think that's by design. Providing something like that, with hundreds of possible mutations, goes contrary to everything the system was meant to be.

A Different Apocalypse

As I mentioned, most of these game systems also go with the assumption that mutations are common in the apocalypse because it was inevitably brought on by nuclear holocaust. Humans were stupid... they couldn't resist pushing the big red button... and here we are.

Does that have to be the case? An apocalypse can happen for a variety of reasons - nuclear war, meteor strike, zombie plague, aliens... - only a handful of which would have genetic mutation as a side effect.

My plan was actually to either make the apocalypse a result of various events, all occurring almost simultaneously, and their collective chaos causing the downfall of humanity. Either that or simply not define what caused the apocalypse at all, leaving it up to the DM to decide what caused the world to be how it is now.

Regardless of which approach is taken, mutations do not seem to be a requirement. At least to me, that is.

Limiting Options

All that being said, I'm considering not providing mutations in the same manner, or at least not providing mutations that are based on radioactive exposure.

What I'm envisioning is that a player can customize their character using a specific set of possibilities:

  • Cybernetic implants, upgrades or other technology brought on by advanced science. Anything from bionic arms to electronic eyes.
  • Biologic augmentation, brought on by advances in biology and genetic alterations. Not exactly mutations since that word does have negative connotations. This covers things from having an improved muscular and nervous system to having wings. It can also include cosmetic things like a forked tongue, but I'd like to keep those as options the player has chosen through science rather than a side effect of radiation exposure.

If you want to have a character that has some sort of genetic mutation, you're welcome to do so. But, unless you come to a mutual agreement with your GM, it will not have any mechanical impact. Only the above, which will be a somewhat limited set, will have a documented impact. Everything else is fair game but up to mutual acceptance.

Diversity of Races

Then the question comes up: what races should the game have? I wanted to have the two basic types: human (organic) and android/robotic (inorganic), but what to do beyond that? Given sufficient customization using the above I imagine that those two options would get the most play, but I still wanted to provide other options for diversity. But those options can't be something that could also be brought on by mutation or they would be redundant... I originally thought of a race that would have wings, but in thinking about it that's not much different than a human who has chosen to grow wings and darker skin. The races need to stand out.

That being said, I am choosing to create races based on animal and plant life, not direct descendants of human. Currently that includes sentient plants, insects and reptiles. All three of these currently have corresponding icons in the game world, so it kind of fits.

Furthermore, I am considering the possibility of providing a tight framework by which you can define your own class. Want to be a sentient rabbit with a gun? OK... Here's a list of racial attributes and powers you can choose from... Pick two or three. That covers the mechanics, which don't care whether you're a six foot tall rabbit with a gun or not; anything else is flavor text and up to you and the DM.

Feedback Requested

So I have to ask the question: for those of you that have expressed interest in a post-apocalyptic game setting... What are you looking for in terms of mutations? Do you want a 20-page long list of possibilities? Do you want the option of mutations at all, at least in the same form that's common amongst other post-apocalyptic game systems?

8Nov/13Off

The Archmage Beckons

A long time ago I did some content for a certain game system who, for reasons you may already know, will remain nameless. I was rather enthusiastic about that game system/campaign setting, but I was denied the option of using it to publish content.

But I really liked what that game system brought to the table, and ever since then I've been thinking about what it would take to publish a full, standalone RPG based on some of those concepts.

For months, maybe years, I've looked for a system by which to make it a reality... and I think I've found it.

Recently, Pelgrane Press and Fire Opal Media released the Archmage Engine SRD, which is the driving force behind 13th Age. And it is everything that I wanted it to be!

So this is a formal announcement of sorts... I have begun development of an RPG, using the existing Archmage Engine framework but all new content. A "total conversion", if you will. The premise? A post-apocalyptic society where the stupid decisions of man compounded with nature's urge to make our lives miserable has led to a changed, unforgiving world filled with destruction and chaos. It is inspired by the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless, by lesser known systems such as the now defunct Alpha Omega by Mind Storm Labs (which is a beautiful book and has a brilliant back story, but the game mechanic is one of the worst I've ever seen), and by movies and other pop culture (from Mad Max to Oblivion).

The RPG will be centered upon a dramatically changed United States, mainly because I don't want to have to worry about long distance or overseas travel. The way I see it, the U.S. is not much larger than the Dragon Empire is in 13th Age, so it kinda works.

I have a personal dilemma, though: the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless has a reputation for being, short of a better word, zany. It's one thing to have genetic mutation, and it's another to have those genetic mutations create some of the most cooky, off-beat, "you're kidding, right?" type of monsters the mind can imagine. And there are games like Numerena that contain similar aspects but try to maintain a level of seriousness and are not rife with over the top absurdity.

My hope is to do both. I'm keeping the icons and classes as serious as possible given the circumstances, but the monsters are going to be somewhat of a mixed bag. It will be up to DM's discretion on how to use them.

Right now, if you're curious, I have planned:

  • 10 brand new icons, from massive self-aware supercomputers to sentient plants
  • 6 "races", and I use that term loosely because I'm not sure if to consider a robot a "race".
  • 8 classes, from the battle tested veterans to wasteland berserkers to "channelers" that can bend the fundamental laws of physics ("Laws of Thermodynamics are more of a suggestion than a rule" sort of thing).
  • New rules for augments (socketable items that can increase performance like magic items), mutations and other forms of genetic modification.
  • Basic vehicle and mount rules.
  • Expanding a little on traps and hazards, based somewhat on what I've already talked about on this blog.
  • Monsters, lots of them.

My intention with all this is, once I have enough written, to launch a Kickstarter to fund the project in full and get the thing published. But that won't happen until I have a comfortable amount written, and there's still a long way to go.

And, once this hits Kickstarter, the two projects I've had shelved for far too long - The Fortress of Dr. Neb and When Worlds Collide - will no doubt be stretch goals (after some obvious changes, of course).

So there you have it... my crazy dream. Hopefully I can make it a reality sooner than later, and if I decide to go the distance on this I hope some of you will be willing to back me up on it.

Stay tuned to this blog for more news on this project.

-=O=-

In the meantime, as yet another form of practice, I decided to make the vector Archmage Engine SRD logo I made available for everyone to use! That is, at least until the 13th Age guys create one for real.

Archmage Engine SRD logo (1.51Mb)

The above link contains the logo in multiple formats: Fireworks, Illustrator 10, Illustrator CS6 and flat JPEG.

 

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31Aug/13Off

A New Age

13th AgeRecently I was introduced to 13th Age via a Google Hangout play session hosted by Aaron R. (@WolfSamurai on Twitter). You can read more about him and his campaign HERE on Obsidian Portal.

If I was only allowed to say one thing about 13th Age is that the ruleset has the amazing ability to win over players and DMs alike in just one session. And I'm not the only one that is fascinated by the product; I've been seeing several people moving away from traditional D&D and Pathfinder towards 13th Age. Heck, even Sersa at SVD Press released a PDF of conversion notes for Crucible of the Gods.

So minutes after I participated in that gaming session, I ran to the Pelgrane Press website and bought the rulebook, and now I wait here patiently while the thing travels halfway around the world to reach me in Miami. While I wait I've been pouring over the PDF (the "low resolution" version is available immediately when you buy the book) and thinking about what to do with it.

First off, even though The Coming Dark, Chapter One is 80% done for Pathfinder, I'm seriously considering converting it for 13th Age. The #1 reason for doing that is because it's so much easier; monsters don't have these huge, mathematically complex stat blocks. So I can focus more on the story and the environments instead of spending days on end tweaking the monsters in PCGen. I am practically convinced that I will make the switch, but I'm waiting until I receive the physical book to make my official decision.

I've asked the guys that created 13th Age about licensing; if you've read this blog before, you know that is an important issue and a very touchy subject for me. Officially they're not licensing it out yet because the system is still in its infancy and they want to build up their own products before letting third parties do it. So, depending on whether I wait for licensing to become available or not, I might end up releasing it as simply "13th Age Compatible". I still need to figure out the legalities in that.

I'm also considering flexing my software development muscles and creating either a character builder or a monster builder, but for this sort of thing I can't proceed until I get the publisher's blessing. So that may happen eventually... I just don't know if or when.

In the meantime, if you haven't already I highly recommend that you at least try out a game. Aaron's running games online almost weekly,  I think, so I'd recommend hitting him up on Twitter (@WolfSamurai).

My hardcover's scheduled to arrive Wednesday. Barring legal limitations in doing so, I'm predicting I'll make the official switch then, so I expect I'll be talking a lot about it in the near future.