Wednesday, December 16, 2009

System X Update

It's been awhile since my last posting (perhaps that's why I don't get much of a following?). This doesn't mean I haven't been working on System X. Quite the contrary. I've worked out a combat mechanic I like. Ditto a task resolution system. I've got a handle on the elements that make up a character (i.e., what appears on the character sheet). Eventually, I've got to start plugging in numbers to see if it all works.

As I write, however, I discover there are a whole host of issues I never even considered. As is characteristic of a modern game designer, I find myself fretting over every little detail. I have this urge to be complete, to cover every possible aspect that might arise during game play. I also find myself defining every game concept. These tendencies expressly violate what it is I'm trying to do. I've over writing, when I should be sticking to an economy of words.

For example, when it came time to design the task resolution mechanic -- the rules governing your character's action, for you non-gamers out there -- I created a whole list of possibilities. Combined tasks. Extended tasks. Resisted tasks. Additional attempts at failed tasks.... Some of those things are necessary, but others are not. Particularly, I can see a Ranger trying to pick up the trail of something he's tracking through the forest (an additional attempt at a failed roll), but not so much two Thieves working together to crack a safe (combined tasks). I think the rules have to make certain assumptions, what's allowed and what's not allowed, simply by what's in the rules.

Moreover, I think by now it's safe to assume that gamers know what hit points are, and how they work. You just have to tell them how to calculate hit points, how you lose them, and how you recover them. The same can be said for initiative. And attributes. After over 30 years of gaming history, is there anyone out there who doesn't understand these concepts? (Among gamers, I mean).

And while I'm over thinking some issues, I'm completely forgetting others. I have yet to consider experience points and leveling, which are sort of key to a level-based system. I haven't thought about movement during combat, either. Or myriad things like fire damage, the effects of poison, falling damage, and on and on. As I tackle the big issues, such as combat mechanics and saving throws, I find there's a lot more to do. Ever more narrow, or fine, elements of game design.

Another issue I've run into is organization. Do I put all the hit point rules in one place, or in their appropriate sections? This means the difference between putting the healing rules alongside the hit point rules, or putting them in a Gamemaster's section (since he's the one who's going to rule on healing). In general, I'd like to put all the player-specific rules in a player's chapter, and all the Gamemaster-specific rules in a GM's chapter. But this may not be feasible.

So far, game design has been like peeling back the layers of an onion. You peel one layer, only to find another layer; you peel back that one, and there's (you guessed it) another layer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Over vs. Under

I seem to recall that in first edition Dungeons and Dragons, someimes you had to roll over a number, and sometimes you had to roll under. Today, all games follow a different trope, consistently requiring the player to roll over a target number. I'm not sure one approach is better than the other.

In 1e, you had to roll over your To Hit number in order to hit the target. This was a mathematical formula taking into account the opponent's armor class. For saving throws, which is a way to avoid monumental damage or horrific effects, you had to roll under a target value. Thus, if you looked into a medusa's eyes, and were about to be turned to stone, you rolled a save vs. paralyzation, using a number dependent on your class and level; let's say you had to roll under 10 as a first level character. Over time, your to hit number went down (making it easier to whack an orc), and your saving throws went up (making it easier to avoid being turned to stone). Those "target numbers" were a function of your character.

Nowadays, you always want to roll higher than an assigned value, for everything. This fits the trope that "higher is better". Jonathan Tweet specifically changed the saving throw mechanic for third edition AD&D to harmonize it with every other mechanic. He also ditched all the other rules that required you to roll under a target number, like thief abilities. I think, in general, this fits with human psychology. Players like to brag about how high their stats are, or how big a modifier they have, or jump for joy when they roll a really high number.

The idea is that rolling lower for success is counter-intuitive. And it's not just in AD&D. In Call of Cthulhu, every skill is represented as a percentage chance to succeed, Climb 40% or Drive 50%; you have to roll under this number in order to succeed at climbing or driving. I've played a lot of CoC, with a lot of different people, and no one seemed to have a problem with wanting to roll low.

Meanwhile, I think there's something to be said for having to roll under an assigned value. Sometimes, it just fits the mechanic, makes the math easier. Sometimes, it just feels right to vary the die rolling mechanic. I don't necessarily agree that it's confusing to require players to roll higher in some instances, and lower in others. I think it all adds to the flavor.

Old School Games

I spent my Thanksgiving holiday looking over a stack of roleplaying games, creating a mental survey of what's out there. I asked myself "what various game mechanics are out there?" and "how do various game systems handle them?" One of the central features of "old school" games is their use of multiple sub-systems that work in congress. So it would be helpful, I figured, to break down roleplaying games to their constituent parts, to deconstruct the roleplaying game, as it were.

A caveat, first. I know what elements make up a roleplaying game. There's a combat mechanic, a skill mechanic, magic systems, etc. Each game handles these differently, however, and sometimes it can be hard to keep them all straight. Not every game uses saving throws, for example, but has some other mechanic that works the same way.

During my research, I noticed one central difference between games from the early days and those being produced today.

In "old school" games, the central mechanic for resolving things is a part of the character itself. The number you are rolling against is integral to the character. For example, if a thief has a 30 percent chance to find a trap, then the player has to beat that number; it makes no difference how well-hidden that trap is (though the referee could modify this number based on the nefariousness of the trap). A fighter has to roll his saving throw, which comes from class/level, to escape the dragon's firy breath; it makes no difference if the dragon is a great, old wyrm, or if the fighter is only five feet away. Those numbers are part of the character. A thief with Find Traps 30 percent always finds a trap if he rolls under his percentage; a fighter with a save 19 always survives the dragon's breath if he makes his roll.

I believe this stems from the hobby's origins -- miniatures gaming. Each figure has a list of stats which determines its success or failure. In Warhammer, for example, an individual figure has a Weapon Skill, which is used to determine whether or not it hits a defender. So it makes sense that this philosophy was carried over to other aspeects of a character.

It wasn't until later that the central mechanic was separated from the character. The numbers that define a character plug into a core mechanic. This allowed for designers to model difficulty. In a sense, the player was no longer rolling against his character, but against outside circumstances. For example, a thief with Find Trap +4 adds that number to a random die roll, with the result being compared to a target number. That target number accounts for how well hidden the trap is, for example. A fighter dodging a dragon's breath has to account for the potency of the fire, how close he is to the dragon, and so on; his saving throw plugs into another algorhytm, often as a modifier to this roll. It's more realistic, and allows for more shades of gray, but it also puts more work on the referee (who has to come up with these target numbers).

This, to me, is one of the central differences between roleplaying games from the Golden Age and how we design today. In the old days, the target number was a function of the character. Today, the target number is the perview of the referee.

Am I making sense?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Your Help

Okay, it's high time I ask for your help. I have a lot of friends who are game designers, and you have a vast knowledge of both game design and game history. I'm trying to remember all the various saving throw mechanics out there.

Personally, I'm a fan of the saving throw. It gives players an additional statistic to track as his character increases in level. And there's something to be said about the thrill of having to roll a save vs. paralysis or save vs. spell.

Does anyone remember how saving throws worked in the original AD&D (no second edition, 3.0, 3.5, etc.)?

Can anyone think of other games that include the saving throw mechanic? If so, how did the mechanic work?

I'm having a hard time remembering; I end up conflating how saving throws used to work, and how they work in D20.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hating on Games

Normally, I spend my time telling you about games I like, and why. This time, I'm going to hate on a game: Assassin's Creed. I played about two levels of this game before trading it for something more useful, like ten GameCube disks I could use as stylish coasters. Let me see if I can force my mind beyond the mental barriers I erected to protect myself from the memories....

In Assassin's Creed, you play Altair, an assassin in the Holy Land. Actually, you play a memory of him, locked up inside his 21st-Century descendant. This is the beginning of the land of suck for me. When you are forced to "play" this guy, he's trapped by a nefarious high-tech organization seeking the location of a fabulous treasure. It's locked up inside this doofus' head. First, memory is not genetic, so sticking a descendant inside a brain-reading machine isn't going to help. It's a similar device to what pulled me out of the Underworld sequels; memory is not in the blood, either. Second, you play the aforementioned doofus, who's relegated to wandering around an office and reading e-mails. Sounds more like The Office video game. Dull, dull, dull.

Okay, so the majority of the game is spent "remembering" what Altair did, which means playing Altair. The mechanics of climbing towers and stabbing people in the back was fun for the first three or four times I did it. After that, it became a world of suck. Here's how:

1) Stance: You adjusted Altair's stance as he moved around the world, from innocent (and slow as hell) walking to aggressive (and slightly less slow as hell) running. If you run, you have a good chance of knocking over a peasant, or attracting a guard's attention. This always happened whenever I ran. Some guard would run up behind me and start pummelling me. Keep in mind, I had no idea I was running near a guard, because he was *behind* me. Apparently, no one was ever late for a caravan, or church, in the Middle Ages, because if you ran, guards would beat the piss out of you.

2) Pickpocketing: You could, if you were stealthy (which often involved not running) pick someone's pocket for important information. Nice. But if you screwed up, the guards were on you like rats on papayrus. Apparently, you did not want to start shit up in the Holy Land, or you were toast. Shit, Jerusalem was safer back then than NYC is today. More importantly, you could only pick pockets of certain marks. It's not like you could pick a merchant's pocket for a little coin. So let me get this straight, technically, if the game doesn't take into account picking the pockets of ordinary people (since I can't) then I'm getting the snot beat out of me for nothing. Which brings me to bitch #3.

3) A complete lack of economy: Can I buy better knives? Nope. Can I buy healing? Nope. How about some ersatz knucklebones of a saint? Nada. I can pick pockets, but not really, because there's nothing to spend money on. Also, one of the side quests involved beating up Templars who were guarding relics. The Templars are even more badass than the town guards (who were already more Robocop than Robocop), and they're a bitch to kill. My reward for doing so? Did I get the relic? Nope. So my reward for getting the piss beat out of me is... nothing. Gee, this game is FUN! There are merchants all over the place, would it have killed Ubisoft to give me a merchant screen with some stuff to buy?

4) I felt railroaded: I happened to stumble upon my mark in the second mission, while I was out exploring. I knew he was my mark. Now, the game boasted that I could tackle my target any way I wanted. I tried walking into his lair, a church, using the non-threatening walk mode. The guards went apeshit and killed me as soon as I entered the room. Hmmmm. Obviously, back then you went to church only at specific times, otherwise you were assumed to be an assassin and beaten silly (really funny, the guy is in charge of an infirmary, so it's not like I might be a leper looking for some healing. Nope, I MUST be an assassin!). Let's try climbing through a hole in the roof. Nope, apeshit again. The game was not satisfied until I investigated (which meant going through all the sub-missions), learning the name of the dude I already knew I had to kill. In fact, even though I was told I could kill my victims any way I wanted, I really had to do it the way the computer wanted. Unless I wanted my Middle Eastern ass handed to me.

This game taught me all kinds of useful things about game design. If you're going to include an element in the game, then include it. Don't go half-assed. If I can pick pockets and steal relics, then you're suggesting an economy. Give me something to spend the dough on. Don't include useless elements like the frustrating walk/run mechanic. And provide a variety of things to do, instead of "you must complete these six sub-missions cuz we said so." Needless to say, I'm not buying Assassin's Creed 2, even though they swear they fixed the problems.

To Hit

I've been thinking about the "to hit" mechanic in roleplaying games. Combat still plays an important role in roleplaying (pardon the pun), whether you're a vampire stalking prey down the alleys of New York City, a Jedi Knight defending the Republic, or a child facing down monsters in the closet. Storytelling is about conflict, and the easiest mode is fighting. In most respects, we're still mired in the miniatures games that proceeded RPGs. Therefore, the "to hit" mechanic is critical to an RPG.

Contemporary games typically handle combat as any other task. Once skills were broken out separately from a character's profession, it made sense for the "to hit" mechanic to work the same was as skill resolution. That is to say, shooting a gun is really no different from driving a car -- it's something that can be learned and improved upon with practice.

Once this was done, it was generally assumed that players would pick combat-related skills for their characters. This is a valid assumption. You can't kill monsters and take their stuff without killing them first (though some sort of game where you get the monsters to invest in your Ponzi scheme would be fun). Some games automatically assign combat skills to characters. I always liked the system in Call of Cthulhu, where the rules assumed a basic, innate proficiency in certain skills; you start with Drive 40%, for example, while academic skills start at zero percent (which makes sense, because you have to study algebra, you don't just know it). I'm surprised no other game mimicked this particular mechanic, but I digress. In CoC, you could conceivably never put any points into a combat skill, and still shoot a gun.

Venerable Dungeons & Dragons assigned a "to hit" number based on the character's class. Warriors knew how to swing swords, wizards not so much, so the latter had a much lower "to hit" number. Oddly, there was no connection between a character's weapon skill and his "to hit" chances. A fighter got a proficiency in longsword, and that was that. If he picked up a proficiency in battle axe later on, he got to use it at the same proficiency as his longsword, as though he'd been using it for years. That is, he used the same "to hit" value for all weapons, no matter when he learned to use them.

Since System X is an attempt to go back, as it were, in game design, I'm wondering if I should copy this mechanic. Should I assign each class its own "to hit" value? I generally like this approach for the above-mentioned reason: Different classes have combat values that reflect their focus. I'm not a fan of wizards swinging swords as well as fighters.

Also, both sorts of games modify this "to hit" number through the character's base attributes. Typically, this is through dexterity (or agility, or whatever it's called in a particular game); sometimes, strength plays a factor, too. I'm toying with the idea that intelligence and perception play a part in modifying the "to hit" number, as well. Twisting the blade at the last moment to slip through an enemy's defenses. Determining the weak spot in an opponent's armor and aiming for it. These would be examples of intelligence and perception affecting battle.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


One of the things that's driving me crazy as I attempt to design System X is the need to be original. So many games have come out, with so many different mechanical systems, it can be hard. As I write, I find myself thinking "well, that's Palladium" or "that's just D&D." I figure, if I can see it, so can you.

How many different ways can there be to generate basic attributes, calculate hit points, and so forth? Even if you simply come up with a different calculation -- add your constitution twice and multiply by three -- there has to be a reason for it. And even if you just pull some equation out of your ass and call it good, you're still just doing what other games have done before. It's not like you're basing hit points off of Intelligence, for example.

What I keep bumping up against is rationale. Why do things work the way they do in System X. I find that if I can answer that question, I feel better about the mechanic.

But there's still the question of originality. Take skill levels, for example. They can come as a flat rate from class, such as a thief's pick pocket ability being set at 30 percent for first level. They can come from Intelligence, as in "take your INTx2 and allocate to skills." Similarly, they can come from class at a variable rate. Take your INT x 3 + 10 (which I suppose means skill levels come from both class and attribute). There aren't a lot of other options, and they've all been done before.

I haven't even addressed the question as to whether or not allocating skill levels violates the spirit of a class-based system. Some might argue that skills must come from class, and at a fixed rate, or else you're no longer designing a level/class system.

As with the Coda system, I find that as I make decisions, this leads to difficulties later on. Meaning I must go back and re-visit earlier choices. It's a constant process of fiddling. Maybe that's just how I work.

Elements of an RPG

I asked James Maliszewski to define the central difference between the level/class games of the "old school" and the point-build systems of today. I asked James this question because he blogs about retro-gaming on his most excellent site, Grognardia. He's engaged in a bit of archeology by attempting to rediscover the roots of the hobby by playing old school RPGs. So he's perfectly placed to answer this question.

James' answer was "...old school games have simple designs that use multiple sub-systems that work in unison (rather than a single unified system)..." An interesting answer.

Nowadays, when we design a game system, we use a "single, unified system." It makes sense that once you separate skills from character class, then task resolution should use the same mechanic. Rolling dice to determine your character's success in shooting or punching an antagonist is really no different from doing the same to sneak down an alley. Once you establish that, all other mechanics can follow suit; if you're going to use a "saving throw" mechanic, then it, too, should logically follow the same system.

Having participated in the design of two rules systems (Icon and Coda), I understand how we (as a profession) got here. Yet in the early days of the hobby, designers used a different methodology. I'm not sure if it's because Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson came out of table-top wargaming, or if it's that they were inventing a hobby and didn't think to use a single, unified system. There is a certain elegance to a unified system, but as I stated in my last post, level/class systems make it easier for players to play; that's elegant, too.

What are those multiple sub-systems that work in concert? What are the elements of a role-playing game? In no particular order:

Attributes: The way to measure a character in a game, his strength, his speed, his brains. Every game uses this methodology to represent a persona (whether level/class or point-build). I find it odd that someone hasn't come up with a different method, or expanded the medium beyond numerical representation. Universally, the higher the attribute, the better the character in that given area.

Hit Points: This system measures how much damage a character can withstand. It typically plugs into the attribute system and class system through a modifier. Once you lose all your hit points, your character is dead.

Saving Throws: D&D used this mechanic to cover other kinds of threats besides swords and arrows. Disease, poison, electrocution... anything that needed to be resisted or avoided was covered by the saving throw mechanic. James Maliszewski suggests on Grognardia that this sub-system was basically an "oh, shit!" mechanic to cover those instances where the player has gotten his character into trouble and needs a way out. But there's really no reason to use a separate sub-system; disease could be handled by a constitution attribute test, for example. (Oddly, in the original D&D, you wanted to roll under your save number, but over your "to hit" number.)

"To Hit" mechanic: The basic system for bashing opponents. It's really the central sub-system, since the whole point of most RPGs is whacking someone with a weapon. This is a function of character class (fighters are better at combat than thieves, who are better at it than wizards), modified by attribute. You want to roll over this value.

Levelling/Experience: This is the sub-system governing your character's improvement over time. We all accept and agree with the idea that a person gets better at his job the more he does it. This is measured with points awarded for specific tasks, and once a certain threshold is met the character "levels up." With this comes an improvement to class-based elements.

Class skills/abilities: The central feature of a class-system, these various sub-systems define what your character can accomplish in the game. Wizards get additional, and more potent, spells, for example. Their ability to hit goes up, and their saving throws improve. I believe character class is the central sub-system off of which all the others feed. Once you determine what elements make up a character class, you can plug in all those other sub-systems.

Race: If the game includes other races, such as elves or Klingons, then it requires sub-systems to handle them. Typically, this is a modifier to attributes, as well as certain special abilities.

"Other" mechanic: If the game includes psionics, there needs to be a psionic system. Games with magic need a magic system. Giant robot games need a sub-system(s) to handle them.

I'm certain I'm missing additional sub-systems, as well as the myriad ways these sub-systems plug into each other. I've been thinking about how to advance this, to push them edge of the envelope, as it were, with a level/class system.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Warts and All

The central purpose of this blog is to provide myself with a place to think, out loud if you will, about game design. I want to share the process with you, and hopefully spark some interesting conversation. There's also an element of self-promotion here, to be honest, to design "in public." So I'm going to take you through my thought processes, warts and all. Today, we start with a quote from a friend, from an interview he recently gave.

"I had been doing a lot of thinking about the roots of RPGs and how the games have changed over the years, and I had started writing notes on a theoretical class and level fantasy game based on my analysis. It was really just a thought exercise..."

I've made no secret of the fact that I want System X to be a class and level game. But just what are the benefits of just such a system? What is it they accomplish?

Level/Class systems reduce the choices the player has to make. As James Cambias pointed out offhandedly, this kind of system compresses many aspects of an RPG. Your decisions by-and-large consist of selecting a race and class, which shuts off all the other avenues to you. Once you choose to be a thief, for example, you don't have to worry about selecting magic spells or naming your warhorse. Those elements belong to other classes. You are a thief, and that's that.

Benefit 1: Simplicity. This makes character creation easy. You make your choice of profession, write down the relevant information about the class, and you're done. Nowadays, we look at this as supremely limiting, as it railroads you down a particular path. In the interest of versimilitude, we broke down these barriers by allowing players to choose whatever they want. Thieves can select spells, if they choose to be wizard-thieves. All elements are broken out into a smorgasbord of creativity, allowing the player to create whatever he or she wants. But this makes character creation more complicated.

The counter-arguement is that a class system is inherently limiting. What if I want to create a fighter-thief (but don't want to go through some cumbersome "combine the classes" process)? Also, all thieves end up having the same relative potentcy; every first level thief has X percentage to sneak, for example. Maybe I want my thief to have specialized in sneaking, to the detriment of picking locks? In the name of expanding player choices and indulging his creativity, we went in a more simulationist direction. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it's inherently more complicated.

Character improvement, the level part of the equation, occurs at discrete points. That is to say, when you reach a specific number of experience points, your character automatically improves in specific ways. Your "to hit" number improves; your hit points increase; your abilities rise.

Benefit 2: Measured Growth. The process of levelling occurs at a measured pace. You know you need 1,000 experience points to "level up." It doesn't occur at some capriciously determined time, such as when the referee tells you to, or based on some skill improvement system (as the one used by Call of Cthulhu). At 1,001 points, your skill at picking locks goes up. Also, the process of improvement is predictable. At level X, my sneak skill goes up by Y value, or I get to choose Z number of spells. There isn't a lot of choice here, either. You don't have to spend skill points or allocate anything.

Again, the counter-arguement would likely be that this limits player creativity. It also goes against common sense. A thief who happens to never use pick lock between levels wouldn't logically have the ability to improve that skill; he hasn't used it. It's not "realistic."

Pramas again:

"There is a tendency these days to look back on the games of the 70s and early 80s and pat ourselves on the back about how far we've come from such primitive beginnings. I felt like there were still important things we could learn from those games..."

I wonder what those things are. I wonder what other benefits to a class/level system I haven't even considered yet. And I wonder if perhaps the boundaries of a class/level system can be expanded.

Favored Games: Bad Company

You may have noticed that I include both video games and traditional tabletop RPGs on my list of Favored Games. The criteria for this list involves my personal tastes. These are not the greatest games of all times. Sometimes, a game on the list has had an influence on me creatively, but not all have; some are on this list for that reason. Others represent, to me, just what a game should be. They establish an objective, and meet it head-and-shoulders. Hell, I may even put a few games on the list that are complete, howling messes, just because they're fun. All of this is just a long-winded way of saying "I like these games."

Battlefield: Bad Company made one basic promise: 95 percent of the environment can be destroyed. I, for one, have always disliked games where the environment remains unchanged, no matter what you do. I'm in a tank, I fire the main gun, hit a building -- and it remains standing. I chuck grenade after grenade, and the trashcans survive better than the people.

I understand why it has to be this way. It's a limitation of the medium. Computer game levels are basically like mazes, and it can be hard for the program to handle the maze being destroyed. But I don't accept this anymore. If Bad Company can have destructible environments, so can Halo, Fallout 3, and Modern Warfare 2.

Why is this seemingly insignificant element make me so happy? First, because I revel in the destruction. There's a mission in Bad Company where you have to advance on a town, and the enemy has set up machine gun nests throughout. But, you have a target designator, so you can call in artillery strikes. I blew up every single building in that town. Even ones I knew had no one inside. Just for the joy of it.

Second, I hate the scenario where you're pinned down by this bot, and you just can't get to him. You don't have a clear line-of-sight, because he's under cover. In Bad Company, you can vaporize that cover and leave him exposed. If you're really fortunate, the bad guy gets caught in the blast.

Bad Company added the extra bonus of a great engine, with excellent weapons. The latter are scattered throughout each level, so you must find them. It's a great Easter Egg feature. Find the gun, and you get to use it. I was less engaged by the whole "find the gold bars on each level" aspect, because you couldn't do anything with them.

Finally, the game has a wonderful sense of humor. Aside from the dialog, which is hysterical, I rather enjoyed escaping from two tanks by driving a golf cart to safety. It wasn't my only option at the time, there was a APC on hand, and I wanted to see if I could do it. Not only that, but you get to adjust the radio dial and listen to different music while you do it.

In the end, Bad Company is on my list because it delivers on its premise, and then some. There's nothing extraneous or out-of-character. Nothing feels tacked-on, or left incomplete. I wish more games did that.

I can't wait for Bad Company 2 (which promises full environment destruction!).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Favored Games: Palladium RPG and Rifts

One of the first D&D clones I remember was the Palladium Roleplaying Game. It had a black cover with a dragon on it (Red, I believe), and it looked for everything like something Metallica or Black Sabbath might put out if they were game designers. The Dungeon Master for my high school group at the time entered his parent’s basement one afternoon and proclaimed that this was the game we were going to play from now on.

And it was basically just a clone of AD&D. The central mechanic was the same -- you rolled 1d20 to hit. You rolled 3d6 for attributes. But it quickly became clear it was a much more detailed, and to our minds realistic, version. You had skills, which were separate from your character class. No longer was the thief the only one who could sneak around. The number of stats you had to generate for your character were staggering. Mental Endurance? Physical Beauty? To this day, I look at all those abbreviations for your character’s attributes and my mind boggles. There were tons of new player races (Ogre? Orc? Wolfen?! Our teenaged minds thrilled. Wow!), and new classes (I liked the Diabolist best).

But what I really loved, we all did really, was the “to hit” mechanic. You rolled to hit, and your opponent rolled to parry/dodge (also with a 1d20). The one who was highest won. No longer did combat seem like “you take your turn to whack me, now I take my turn to whack you”. Damage was applied to armor, which in addition to armor class also had structural damage points; so your armor absorbed damage, not just being a factor in whether you got hit or not. Large scale battles were a holy mess and took forever. We loved it.

That’s why it’s on my list of Favored Games to the left. To this day, I remember wasting countless weekends playing this game. It showed me that games could be more complicated and detailed, but not in the way we make them today. It took AD&D and expanded it in ways I’d never even considered. And it was complete in one book. I don’t think there was a supplement for it for years. I want to say it was Beyond the Old Ones, which finally detailed Kevin Siembeida’s world. Finally, it seemed to me that Palladium grew out of Kevin’s own game sessions with his friends. It was as though they played the same AD&D I did, and created their own “house rules” which became Palladium (it would be years before I encountered Empire of the Petal Throne). I don’t know if this is true or not, but it seemed cool that we could take our homebrew rules and do the same thing.

It was a formative game for me, one that showed me that I, too, could become a game designer. Even though it wouldn’t be until I was 26 for me to actually embark on this career.

Yet those are not the only reasons this game is on the list. When I landed the gig to design the Star Trek RPG for Last Unicorn Games, I would frequently turn to another of Kevin’s games for inspiration: Rifts. That game was ruthless in the publishing of it’s supplements. We were developing a year’s worth of titles for the production schedule, and I was listening to ideas go around the table. “No,” I recall telling then-owner Christian Moore, “every book has to have the same five things.” New Character Classes. New weapons. New “spells.” New races. New gear. If you can’t come up with something for each of these categories, the book shouldn’t be published. They’re the meat and potatoes for gamers. That’s what Rifts did, and did relentlessly.

I don’t think it was a unique observation on my part. I think all game designers would say “well, duh.” As I say, it was Kevin’s naked ruthlessness about it that impressed me. They weren’t clothed in a lot of story-telling falderall. You didn’t have to wade through a hundred pages of exposition to get to the goodies. One chapter of setting, then BAM!, you were hit in the face with new bells and whistles. It was Palladium’s style that impressed me.

[Personal note: I learned years later that Kevin’s wife, Maryann, actually laid all of Palladium’s books out using a linotype machine (which I’d used in high school print class, and let me tell you -- it’s a bitch). It has this giant dial on the front with all the letters on it. You rotated the dial to the desired letter, then pushed a button, which stamped it on a long, thin piece of tape. It was sort of like those old Dymo label-makers, on a giant scale. You then took the strips and taped them to the page. Which is why sometimes a line would be slightly off parallel -- someone taped the line down crooked. Kevin, it seems, did not like or trust layout programs.]

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Religious Settings

I spent yesterday working on a setting for my first roleplaying game. I felt I needed to do this, since a game is more than just a set of rules. There's no point in continuing if I don't have an intellectual property. Nor can I continue with the cynical idea that I can pull whatever setting I like out of my ass. I needed a proof of concept, as it were. I'd been noodling around with an idea for some time now, and I sat down to write it last night.

It came out in a shot. A summary of the central idea (who do you play? What do you do?). A description of the game world. Several character classes. I was pleased with myself. Except for one thing: It's religious in nature.

In general, religious-themed roleplaying games don't do well in the marketplace. I can think of three that came and went. I don't remember their names, except for one (Armageddon). One of them did for demons what White Wolf did for Vampires (which is a logical progression).

Given the success of the Left Behind series of novels, I'm surprised that religious games don't do well, especially those involving the End Times. It's obviously a subject that interests people (since game companies keep trying). All I can think is that people object to the overt Christian nature of the subject matter. I don't know if it's a strong athiest/agnostic strain among gamers. Or a sense that all religions are equally valid, and thus reject the whole angels return to earth to clean house thing. Or maybe they don't hew closely enough to Christian dogma.

No matter what it is, religious roleplaying games don't do well. Which is a problem when you come up with what you think is a strong property.

So am I foolish for writing a religious-themed game? Is it destined to fail? Or is there a way to make it more paletable to the buying public? And if the latter, how would you do that, by going more "universalist" or going into hard-core Christian dogma?