So, we’re on the Modiphius playtest for the upcoming John Carter of Mars RPG, and finally got a chance to play the packet of rules they’d sent to us. My interest and hopes for the game were quickly dashed by an absolutely disastrous experience.

Straight off, the packet did not specify how the main core die mechanic worked; I had to open the Conan quickstart file, which — while indisputably beautiful — is a monstrously large file due to this and was absolutely killing the iPad, speed-wise. I thought I had that simply basic rule down, but the players were continually asking the same question about it, so I second-guessed myself and that was that. What had started out at a good clip quicklyy bogged down to my flipping back and forth and trying to read through the dense colors of the highlighting the design team had throughout the playtest file.

Professional tip for developers/editors of any type #1: when sending something to a group of people, keep the highlighting colors as low contrast as possible. It’s damned near impossible, for instance, to read black type through a deep red highlight.

Professional tip #2: When describing a process, be specific, be simple, and assume congenital idiocy. No, most of your audience isn’t stupid, but they might be busy, as many of us are, or they’re former PhD students who no longer can stomach reading after 400 books in 3 months, and they’ve only skimmed the file. “That’s their fault!” you cry. Nope. Be simple, direct, and specific. How does the die mechanic work, in this case.

So, 2d20 is actually relatively simple, but describing it might be hard. In the case of this game you add two stats and try to get below their total. If you do, it’s a success; if you’re below the highest attribute on any die (or is it on all dice — this is where they fell down) you gain two successes; below the lowest stat, three successes. Say you need four successes (which they did not bother to explain was what D4 meant), you roll two dice and hope you get low enough on one or both dice to get four successes. So you could, in theory, get upwards of six successes on 2d20, or more with use of “momentum” (More on that in a moment.)

Really not that complicated. Any extra over what you need is “momentum”, which can be spent for yet another d20 on a following action, on damage, or a number of other things. Damage comes off of the attribute/stats you used to defend. The mechanics aren’t that bad, but the packet was a hot mess to read through. You should not have to go to another playtest book on another related game to understand what you’re doing. (Yes, it’s a work in progress, but assume no one has read your other stuff.)

Strangely, my five year old immediately grasped the rules. She wanted to play desperately, but when things bogged down, she got bored and wandered off. Shortly after, I pulled the plug on continuing and we pivoted to Hollow Earth Expedition for the rest of the night.

Which bring me to a sidenote, as I am working through product development, myself: Conan, both the Quickstart packet and the book in development are beautiful. A lot of the new RPG books are full-color, loaded with graphics, art, and high-quality layout work. They really are gorgeous. But they are 1) expensive, 2) staggeringly heavy on the pdf file sizes, and 3) for all this is supposed to help set the tone for players…I’m not so certain this isn’t working against some of the publishers.

The expense of making these books is high. The art costs, the layout costs, the fine paper and full color costs, the hardcover costs, and they’re often bloated 300+ things of late, so they’re heavy — which makes shipping (especially international) cost-prohibitive in the extreme. (Drop over to Fred Hick’s blog to read more on how shipping can crush a successful Kckstarter.) I love to love and feel of these books, as well as others…but part of me wonders if this focus on the aesthetic over the substance isn’t becoming a problem.

Some of these fancy products mean counter-productive color choices where contrast between text and background color or patterns interrupt the ability to read the rules. The focus on sounding appropriate to the setting (Firefly was a good example of this) can help set the mood, but make understanding how the hell the rules work difficult. You don’t want to sound repetitive or boring to the reader, but you are also describing a process — it’s technical writing, really — and clarity, brevity, and simplicity rule the day when teaching something to a person.

So I suppose my question is — do we need all these gorgeous books, or do we need a return to more simple layouts, good clear writing that cuts the size of a game book from a 300 page, $60 tome to something more in lines of 150 pages and $25-30? Maybe grayscale will do. Maybe black and white, save for a few color plates, will do. (It would certainly make the pdfs easier to use!) Maybe softcover will do.

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While I was putting together my review on Things Don’t Go Smooth — the new(ish) sourcebook for the Firefly RPG, I found myself starting to think about elements of game design over the years, and how they sought to achieve fairness, or player agency, or certain narrative focus. A bit of history —

When RPGs first evolved out of war games, there wasn’t much focus on stats and what they meant outside of how many spells you could have, how hard you hit in combat. The players might be stupid or super-intelligent, but ultimately, they knew what you did, and the player had to figure out the problems that were presented to them, and the dungeon master had a definite antagonistic role — both as the NPCs and creatures you encountered, but also in their design of the adventures you took on (which usually wound up with the party exploring high-improbable “dungeons” — from underground cities to cave structures that borrowed heavily from Moria in The Lord of the Rings. You were looking to outwit the DM — that was the fun of it — to figure out the riddles or traps, beat the monsters to steal their treasure. The DM was “the bad guy”, but in many ways, he was also “god” in the game — less a referee and more the capricious force you were playing against. In many ways, it was a more traditional competitive game experience. Did you “beat” the DM or not?

In the case of fairness, most DMs and players of the early games looked to randomizers to keep the action “fair.” Roll that d20 and let the universe decide if you succeed or fail. Did your character get killed? Maybe the DM sent something truly awful that would be near impossible to beat, but ultimately, a few good rolls could see you win the day. A bad DM might use his position as the referee to rule by fiat — declaring outcomes, rather than facilitating them. (See the movie Zero Charisma for an excellent rendition of this sort of DM.) This notion that you take your lumps, no matter what, because you made your decisions and the dice are impartial, is very popular with the older “grognard” (old soldier — very telling.) These guys usually like rules for any situation they could encounter…especially in combat, hence why D&D, GURPS, and other rules sets from this period normally have a combat chapter that dwarfs the rest of the chapters on mechanics.

This style of game design is very good for the beginning player and GM. There’s rules, you implement them, and adjudicate as prescribed by the rules. People good at finding the loopholes and using them to their advantage (the much maligned “rules lawyer”) do very well in these kinds of mechanics.

Quickly, however, role playing games started evolving away from the combat simulation-focus and DM-as-antagonist position of early Dungeons & Dragons (although D&D or variations on the game have remained, easily, the most accessible and popular of RPGs for the reasons evinced in the last paragraph.) To try and give the players more say over the stories told, and their characters more uniqueness, the statistics of the characters became more important, hence the shift to mechanics that usually had some form of die roll+skill level. Also, these games took a position that game master (GM) and player have a more collaborative relationship. The GM might still be creating the adventures and looking for ways to challenge the players, but the idea of the TPK (Total Party Kill) tended to be something that happened because the dice screwed you or you made dramatically bad decisions. One way to avoid this was the mechanic of the “hero point” from James Bond: 007 — a game that differed sharply from Top Secret (essentially D&D retooled for the modern spy genre) in the design philosophy that the players should succeed most of the time. It was cinematically appropriate, and in some ways, more fun.

Another idea for  making the rules serve a story was the elimination of randomness. Diceless systems, the first being (and I could be wrong here) Amber, focused on the relations of the characters as more important than the stats and fighting. In competitions between characters, the person with the higher stat won. Early World of Darkness settings from White Wolf tended to work this way, especially in the LARP community, where ties between characters of equal ability were settled with a quick round of rock/paper/scissors. The point was to increase player agency by having your actions (in character) be more important than GM (or in the case of WoD, “Storyteller”) fiat. For these systems, the “fun” is in having the characters interact, and having those interactions drive the story.

Serving the narrative and giving more control to the players was the design philosopy behind Fudge, its more evolved descendent Fate, and Fate’s cousin Cortex + (Firefly uses this last rules set.) In these games, giving narrative control to the players is central, and it is enshrined in the mechanics of the games. Players can create aspects or assets or complications (whatever they’re called in the game or the situation) as an outcome of a test, and invoke these to improve their control of the scenario or other characters through that targets’ aspects or weaknesses.

Thus endeth the history lesson. Let’s talk about the design intent and reality. When creating a game, the first goal should be to make something that when played is fun. You can have other intents — sharing narrative control, de-emphasizing combat, trying to make gaming more “inclusive.” The philosophy of the mechanics should be to make the game fun (and in my bias, that also means simple to use.) Keep in mind there is “no right way to play” a game; it’s a function of player (and this includes the GM) preferences when playing, but the goal is the same for nearly all players — to have fun.

A central dialogue in game design these days concerns player agency and how best to give or contain it. It is nearly always cited in opposition to GM fiat. The notion of the “sandbox”, where players direct where the story goes vs. the “railroad” — where the GM attempts to lead players through a tightly scripted story where the players’ characters are more puppets to make things happen. (Think any character in the Star Wars prequels….Obi Wan does stupid thing #3 because event A has to happen.)

Giving the players control over the mechanical factors of a scene using Aspects or through their narration of what they do — essential to the diceless approach — allow them to manipulate the events and outcomes. In Fate and Cortex+ this is systemized in that the actor in a scene declares the optimal outcome of the scene. “I slip in to the master villain’s fortress, taking out the guards without raising the alarm. I will invoke the “Moonless night” aspect, my “Expert with a Knife” asset…”

I question I have is the necessity to have this mechanized. Do I need to invoke “moonless night”, or should the GM have taken into account it’s dark and I’m wearing basic black sans pearls to give me a bonus. Which is easier and faster? The end product — maybe you got a +2 to your die roll, to use Fate as an example — is the same, but I would suggest the latter example is easier. In a diceless system, the hero might have a better stealth and the bad guys’ perception rating — he’s going to succeed, so why bother slowing the action with a die roll. As in a movie, unless the action is heightened by fighting the major henchman to get to the Big Bad, you should just go through the mooks like Captain America does in the ship scene at the beginning of Captain America 2: The Winter Solider. (A similar idea resides in the Ubiquity “take the average” mechanic — if the average number of successes you should get is better than the difficulty, just roll on.) Player agency, ultimately, is the most powerful element of RPGs in that the characters have to act or react for anything to happen. As the grognards might say, “The story develops from what you do.”

One mistake I think designers make when attempting to maximize player agency is misunderstanding the role of a game master. The GM is a facilitator — to use an educational term. They aren’t there to tell you a story, but to help you keep it on course. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is a good axion here. Having the players decide every aspect of the narrative leads to  1) a natural erosion of story or setting cohesion — what you might liken to having too many writers on a television show leads to a series jumping the shark, and 2) less “fairness” in that, while everyone supposedly has an input on events — as with the aspects idea of Fate and its ilk — particularly clever or charismatic players will naturally bend the story in the directions they want. While that can create some level of enjoyment and surprise, having someone rewrite the direction of an adventure that was obviously going in another can be less than satisfying. Case in point — the movie Event Horizon, which seems to have been cobbled together from two different scripts. The first half is a solid sci-fi thriller with some supernatural suspense aspects; the second half is a muddled slasher flick that feels like it was adapted from a Hellraiser reject script then slapped on the back half. Can you kit bash them together? Sure…but it doesn’t really work well.

Which brings us to GM fiat. How much control should the game master have over an adventure? It is unlikely that your players want to sit and listen to you do an audio book of your latest novel, while they periodically roll bones to allegedly “do something”, but leaving your players to wander about Night City while waiting for something to catch their attention is also not a particularly productive way to spend a few hours of your gaming time. Can it be fun? Sure, but is it fun for everyone at the table, or are some bored with yet another barfight to fill time? Can the gamemaster having strong, but not total (or even most,) narrative control create a cohesive game universe than is consistent (a central element to verisimilitude) and which doesn’t favor one player (not a character, one of which might naturally be “the lead”, but the player) over another. In a mystery or other suspense setting, having one guy that knows the secret can be much more rewarding when the surprise is unveiled than having another player say “You know what would be cool..?”

The idea that a stronger GM presence can make a game more fair is probably controversial to some in the gaming community. I suspect people with this viewpoint have had a bad experience or two with the old-fashioned DM-as-antagonist game master, and those who have their entire campaign plotted out with the players on rails.

Ultimately, all of these positions I’ve laid out show some preference for how to get at the fun of playing a role playing game. Should the players spitball together a plot like they did playing on the playground? It’s a natural way of playing, and feels “fair” when there are rules to contain the actions of the players. Can a game with an oppositional game master who sets up challenges and leaves you to handle them as you will be fun? Do you need dice and rolling to slow down the action? Do you need to mechanize every aspect of play, or can the mechanic themselves be part of the fun?

I finally getting around to responding to a reader’s question…

“Hey, Scott, why do you hate Fate so much?”

I don’t hate FATE, so much as I find some of the fast and loose aspects (See what I did there..?) can create a much higher level of complexity that is needed. I had the same issue with Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Firefly from Margaret Weiss — which are essentially Fate with Cortex die schemes. The plehtora of assets, complications, etc. adding to dice pools can get a bit hard to manage. (Although it doesn’t reach the wheelbarrowful dumping of dice majesty of d6 Star Wars when a Stardestroyer opens up on you.) I also dislike the “damage” system of the rules. (I’m not a hit point guy, either.)

Speaking of dice: I hate the idea of the Fate dice, which is why the MWP stuff is a big more palatable for me. Similarly, I was okay with the positive/negative die mechanic of Chameleon Eclectic’s The Babylon Project, although I’ll admit it was also a crappy way of resolving chance. I’ve bought the Ubiquity Dice for Hollow Earth Expedition, but they aren’t needed; they simply make rolling dice pools (and Ubiquity does have a Shadowrun-esque love of dice pools) easier. You can play HEX with a bunch of coins, if you need to.

“But, Scott, you can do Fate die with a normal d6 — just assign positive, negative, and nought to the sides.” Well, there you go making sense. Away wi’ you!

The real issue isn’t Fate — they’re great pick-up game rules that can be tweaked any ol’ way you wish — it’s that I can’t seem to get a game that doesn’t have Fate trying to claw its way into the game mechanics. It’s like trying to escape OGL d20 junk in the early aughties.

“You like [enter game name]? you know you can get those rules in d20, right!?!” Scott: “Screw you, and get off my lawn!”

I’ve looked over a bunch of the new Fate and Fate-infected products that have been hitting the shelves over the next few months. There’s some really good stuff. I’ve been very complementary of Mindjammer — a game that really plays to the strengths of Fate — and Firefly — a Fate-ified Cortex product that makes good use of some of the Fate ideas, while retaining some of the flavor of old Cortex, but which, like the previous book, really shines for the writing, production values, and background material. I’m looking forward to Atomic Robo, but anticipate that’s going to get played using the MHR rules.

Addendum: This is also, apparently, the 1000th post for The Black Campbell!

I was having a look over the retro-clone Classified which repackages the old James Bond: 007 RPG very faithfully. It’s no secret I’ve been working on and off on a similar project for a few years — slowed and distracted by professional concerns and child care duties. As writing carried on two years ago, I realized that a redesign of a few of the rules were needed. That expanded into tearing the system apart and putting it back together. Here are a few of the points that I’ve been working from:

1) Less freakin’ math! Let’s face it — James Bond: 007 (hereafter JB:007) is a pretty simple setup for character creation…except for the math. No, it’s not GURPS or Champions, where you need to buy time on a supercomputer to build a character in less than a weekend, but the numbers are big enough for people to bone up if they’re working quickly and by hand. This has been rectified. Additionally, I’ve stripped off some of the extraneous stuff you had to buy.

2) Why the hell do Fields of Experience exist? Because no one wanted to buy those as skills in the initial design of JB:007. Fields of Experience have been given actual mechanical effects, and the same goes for Weaknesses. They help define your character, now.

3) Simplify and make consistent the rules. The different mechanics for gambling, seduction, torture, and other aspects of the game were cool in 1983. They’re a headache for GMs used to more streamlined games now. If you want to really capture the excitement of being at the green baize, have the players play baccarat, or whatever, against the GM or each other. Connected to that —

4) Lose the d6. Initiative is based on speed. If two characters have the same speed, roll a d10. Highest wins. There’s another initiative system in the works that might capture the action movie flavor better that I’m working on.

5) Speaking of — modern action movies have had a much different pacing since the 1980s, even Bond movies. Gone are the days of deliberative one shot from a .32 Walther kills a guy at 50 yards…Bond characters may not spray and pray the likes of Martin Riggs of John McClane, but they’ve a lot less ammo discipline in these days of high-capacity magazines. Combat rules are being tweaked to reflect this, and add in things like martial arts styles.

6) Hero points: Only on a 01? Nope. Hero point now look more like plot points/story points/style points of other game systems. You get them for playing to your weaknesses, for good roleplaying, for rolling QR1s, or making good suggestions for how failure might be interpreted.

7) A game’s corebook does not need to be 500 pages and full color to be good. I’m aiming to keep the book cheap, easy to read, and fast to get into playing. There will be a lot of background material on the modern espionage world, policing, etc., and the obligatory short adventure scenario. The goal is a book running about 200 pages.

The goal: Keep all the good stuff about JB:007, lose the bad, and bring these mechanics into the 21st Century.

 

It’s been a hellishly busy couple of weeks. The daughter’s on a massive growth spurt (an inch in a fortnight) and is teething, I finished my certification work to teach history and political science at the University of Phoenix’s Albuquerque campus, and knocked out a chapter for my dissertation. I had to take this past week’s gaming and the weekend off just to maintain my sanity.

I’ve had an offer to work on another game book for a certain game publisher, but I’m looking at getting into my next project — one that, if I can get the funding in order, will lead to a new game product under the Black Campbell label titled (tentatively) Double Aught. Right now, I’m in the process of trying to work out artists and I may already have a layout guy lined up. I will be doing the research, (re)design, and writing for the game. The goal is to have it on the shelves next year, with the pdf coming sometime earlier than that.

I don’t want to do the dickish “we’ll pay you later” or “it’ll get your name out there” thing most of the game companies like to do, so I’m not to the point of putting together contract work yet. I’m hoping I can get a sense of the interest in the product from the blog — so if you are a regular reader, a fan of the James Bond fan material here and think you might be looking for something familiar, but new and fresh…well, I’d appreciate comments. Once the initial rules are wirtten, I’ll be looking for a limited number of playtesters, who will get access to the game’s raw files once ready, and would get a free pdf once it’s put together.

I’m not promising time to market, right now; there’s a lot of other issues to hammer out and I’ve got the dissertation work, teaching, and child care to budget my time around…but I think a working copy of the rulesset by end of summer should be doable.

If you’re interested in the