Saturday, April 24, 2010

Houses of the Blooded

I'm here in Albany, NY, visiting George Vasilakos and his family for a week or so. Which means I'm hanging out in George's game store, Zombie Planet. Basically, I'm sitting in what amounts to being a giant game library. The store is truely impressive, stocking as much as a store can possibly hold within its physical space. Sometimes, I think it's the TARDIS of game stores, with an interior volume larger than its external space (and if you have to ask what a TARDIS is, then why are you here?)

One of the games I've been intensely interested in seeing is Houses of the Blooded. John Wick has been a friend of mine since my early days in the hobby game business. I always looked forward to seeing John at conventions, because he's got a great energy and enthusiasm, and because we'd always have great conversations. What's really remarkable with John is that we pretty much fell into a rhythm whenever we got together. He was Rowan to my Martin. Sammy Davis to my Dean Martin. When I got to work with him at AEG, going to work every morning was something to look forward to.

When I heard about his newest game, I eagerly ran down to the Complete Strategist in Manhattan to find it. Those of you in the know know that the Complete Strategist is sort of like fabled Camelot, a magical place reputed to carry every game ever published. It was that, once. I remember finding a 20-year old copy of Empire of the Petal Throne in a pile of books on the floor. Sadly, those days are long gone, because when I asked for Houses, they didn't have it in stock. Which is odd, because Complete Strategist is also a distributor, which means they should have it in stock. No, I had to go to Zombie Planet, in bumblefuck Colonie (a suburb of Albany) to see it. (And no, John didn't send me a swag copy either. *hint*hint*)

What makes John's newest game so great is that John is an artist. John could have been a Jackson Pollock, if he painted. He could have been a Michael Moorcock, if he wrote novels. But John has chosen to be an artist in the field of game design. Houses shows this.

The game tells the story of the ven, a passionate people who ruled the world before the Atlanteans and Hyperboreans. It is his ruthless devotion to promoting his vision of their decadent culture, their power struggles and their devotion to romance and revenge. He treats his subject matter as though the ven were real, that he'd discovered their existence through research, as though he were writing a game about the Scythians or Eskimos. He even provides a bibliography of academic scholarship into the ven. He creates an evocative world in which Lady MacBeth would not only feel at home, she'd seem ordinary.

What really impresses me about John's design is that he writes in a breezy, conversational style. He addresses the reader. He writes the way he speaks. So his enthusiasm for his creation reaches out from the page and grabs you. The second thing that impresses me is that John explains his rationale for things. He lifts the curtain on his game and lets you peek inside. He says, in effect, I did this because of that. It's unpretentious and makes the reading enjoyable.

But the reason I like this game appears on page 8. John sat down and asked himself some questions. Or rather, he set out some objectives. He wanted players to play characters who were the antithesis of Dungeons & Dragons (and consequently many other games out there). In most games, you play wandering nomads -- people who are far from the center of power. These characters go out to dangerous places and fight monsters and steal their stuff, all in an effort to climb the social ladder. The ven, however, are the movers and shakers; they wouldn't be caught dead in a dungeon. They're the nobility; they have kingdoms to run. They hire others, vassals, to do the dirty work.

The rest of the game is designed with this purpose in mind. There are rules for romance, betrayal, revenge... and rewards characters for acting the right way -- Passionate but short-sighted, loyal but treacherous, the iron fist in a velvet glove. I don't want to go too deeply into the rules, partially because I haven't gotten too deep into them myself, partially because it's not the mechanics of the game that impress me. It's John's ruthless devotion to his vision.

This is not to say that the game is perfect. I found his referenced to orcs (sorry, orks) took me right out of the fictional narrative. And his reference to a scholarly publication from Miskatonic University in the bibliography, while cute, seemed one wink to the reader too many. The one rules quibble I have, so far, are the attributes. I find them a little too granular and a little too vague (or imprecise).

Also, when I first saw the Houses of the Blooded website, I assumed the game was set in the modern age. The ven, I thought, were a secret race hidden amongst us; sort of like Vampire: the Masquerade without the vampires. But it's not. It's a quasi-medieval setting, more akin to Ars Magica. Frankly, I like my vision better. I want to play this game, and am wiling to do the work to modify it to my conception. That's not damning to John's work, but rather a compliment.

In the end, as a game designer, I'm impressed with John Wick's work. It's a joy to read, and I appreciate his ambition. He set out to do something, and he swings for the fences. It's as though Michael Moorcock (one of my favorite authors) set out to design the Anti-D&D in the same way Elric was the Anti-Conan. It's good that he got back to designing Big Games.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

True 20 Admiration

As a part of my halting and haphazard progress on Studio Manta and System X, I recently finished reading Blue Rose, a Green Ronin RPG that uses their True 20 game system. (I've carefully hidden some alliteration in the previous sentence. Can you find it?) I've been slowly reading through some old school games and contemporary games, as part of my effort to understand game design (why do we do what we do?), and that's how I encountered Blue Rose.

The True 20 System builds upon Jonathan Tweet's revisions to the venerable Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Which is to say, it embraces his axioms "rolling higher is better" and "all systems must work the same way." Personally, I don't agree with the direction, primarily because it's come to dominate the game design community. To me, all games after AD&D 3.5 look the same, even if they try not to (I even recall Warhammer 40K using the term "stack" in its rules, which shows you how wide ranging Tweet's influence has been). But there is an elegance to the True 20 system, which I immediately appreciated.

There are no numeric stats in True 20. The use of numeric attributes to define your character is as old as the hobby itself (which goes to show you the dominance of Gygax and Arneson). Every game defines a character by things like strength, dexterity, intelligence, or whatever nouns the designer chooses. Some games use three stats, others use 23, but they all use numbers to represent the physicality of the character. Which begs the question: why? Why are we so obsessed with how strong, fast, or smart a character is? But that's a subject for a later post. Anyway, True 20 eschews using whole numbers; it goes directly to the modifier. Players choose whether they have a +1 to Strength, or a +2 to Intelligence. The actual way in which the player chooses their modifiers is pretty simple, too. What I like, however, is the break with defining the character as Str. 13, Dex. 10, Int. 16. It's simple, elegant, and gets rid of a meaningless step (generating those numeric scores).

Similarly, I like the skill system. Every class has one or more favored skills, as well as "known skills." Favored skills are the skills on which the profession focuses; a thief might focus on Disable Device, for example. Known skills are those other skills the character simply knows, like riding a horse. A table provides you with the skill level for each skill type, based on level. So at first level, your character's favored skills are ranked at 4, and your known skills are all at 2. So once you decide the skills your character possesses, skill level is simply a function of level. No spending skill points. No rolling for number of skill ranks. Again, simple and elegant.

Finally, the game lacks hit points. Instead, all characters utilize a "wound track" ranging from perfectly fine to "dead." Damage becomes folded into the saving throw system, which makes perfectly good sense to me. I never understood why one type of damage was treated with hit points (getting whacked with a sword), and other kinds could be avoided with a saving throw (dragon fire). It seems so simple that it never even occurred to me to violate the hallowed sanctity of hit points. But now that True 20 does it, it makes perfect sense. When you get hit with an attack, the damage inflicted adds to a base saving throw value; you have to roll over this on 1d20 to avoid the damage. All attack forms have a modifier, so a longsword might cause +5 damage. If you fail the saving throw, your character checks off a box on the aforementioned wound track. So you would go from "healthy" to "wounded", with an attendant modifier being applied to all your dice rolls. What's really nice about this is that it jibes not only with the saving throw concept, it also harmonizes with the attribute system (turning what is normally a randomized whole number into a modifier). Nicely done.

I don't know if I'd agree with eliminating rolling damage, because I think gamers like to chuck dice and roll maximum damage. It's a lot more fun to yell "take that!" after rolling 16 points of damage on 2d8, than when you cause a mere +5 damage with your sword. And I'm not certain about eliminating hit points, because that's a key element driving a leveling system; gamers want to level up to get more hit points. Also, since all characters use the same wound track, there's little to distinguish between characters. It would be nice if there were some way to add additional levels to the wound track (like at level 5 you get two boxes at "wounded").

But hey! I respect True 20 for the decisions it makes. It takes on certain tropes in game design -- attributes, the concept of damage -- and doesn't look back. For what is basically your typical contemporary RPG (see above, paragraph 2, the "Tweetization of Gaming"), it's pretty sweet. Good job, Green Ronin!

(It's also got me thinking about doing away with the concept of attributes altogether, since we're taking on foundations of game design. Next up I want to look at Dragon Age, because it seems to do just that (what with its inclusion of a Magic stat, which I think points the way).)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Improvisational Cues

Today, I'm focusing mentally on the phrase "improvisational cues." One of the things I like about the Old School Movement (OSM) is its embrace of randomization in almost all aspects of the game. One of the great things about the Golden Age of gaming was its use of tables for everything. Monster encounters. Treasures. Dungeon design.

I would sit and create an adventure a few days before a game session, using those tables. If I was really busy, I would do it at the gaming table. What was great about it was that, being random, the game could take unpredictable turns. I might not think to introduce a dwarf with a cursed map leading to treasure, but the tables would suggest it, and it would take me off in wonderful directions. Because no one knew the map was cursed, and would lead to doom and false treasure.... And if the tables produced something wholly inappropriate, I could just ignore it.

And it seems to me that there's a swing back to that with the whole "sandbox" approach to console games. It's not so much about unpredictability, but about opening things up. About not knowing what's around the next corner. About being able to go anywhere and do anything. Now, unless you have thousands of hours to dedicate to designing your game setting, you can't create this level of detail on the fly without random tables. The designers of Grand Theft Auto have this kind of time; it's what they're getting paid for. The rest of us have to rely on something else. In the old days, that was random tables.

The group made a left instead of a right, and gone someplace you haven't detailed yet? No problem. Your favorite NPC got killed when you expected him to escape? No problem. In contemporary games, we'd be expected to either have already created that undiscovered country already, or somehow fudge things for the NPC to escape. It seems to me most contemporary games would benefit from some random tables. Imagine what Vampire: The Masquerade would be like with a Random Vampire Conflict Table.

What's really great about random tables is that it takes the GM out of his comfort zone. If all he's thinking about is ogres, because the group's in ogre territory in the badlands, and he gets a Xorn on a random table, then he has to think of a rationale that leads in a new direction. Maybe the Xorn is the proxy of a wizard whose made his new home in the badlands, and the Xorn are pushing the ogres out. The few travellers in the region have noticed these "super ogres" clustered around a particular hill. Perhaps the PCs could talk to the ogre chieftain about an alliance.... Hmmm, the campaign takes off in an unexpected, and interesting, direction.

So I love the random table. Which is why I'm thinking about improvisational cues.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bad Company 2

Battlefield: Bad Company was one of my favorite games. I played that game over an over, trying to unlock all the non-online achievements that I could. I was successful, too. It's the only game for which I've accomplished this goal. So it was with great expectations that I awaited the release of Bad Company 2.

While I am largely happy with the experience, I find myself similarly disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I love the game, its characters, and mechanics. The AI is crisp and intelligent. I highly recommend getting this game.


Bad Company 2 doesn't pick up where the last one left off. In the previous game, you spent much of your time trying to steal mercenary gold. We last see the members of Bad Company driving off with a truck load of stolen gold bars. The new story completely ignores this, as though it never happened. We simply pick up with Bravo Company on a mission to save the country. And this time, the conceit of stealing mercenary gold is dropped entirely. This is a shame, because it put the "bad" in Bad Company. You were elicitly stealing, which put paid to the idea that you were in a unit of misfits. There was a guilty pleasure in hunting around each level looking for gold bars. Now, all you do is blow up satellite communication stations for your achievement. Not exactly exciting stuff.

And speaking of the levels, I find them tiny compared to the giant, sandbox levels of the first game. I used to roam around every inch of each level, looking for the aforementioned gold bars. Along the way, I'd usually find a pocket of resistance I'd missed during the mission proper, and get to cause mayhem along the way. This also helped me unlock some of the other achievements, like the one for destroying houses. Rumbling around a massive level in a tank gleefully demolishing buildings was part of the original game's charm. Now, the levels are more focused on the objective. There's less wandering around, which I suppose makes sense since they eliminated the primary reason for wandering around -- the gold.

The game is also missing a lot of the fun toys of the first game. Where the heck are all the secondary weapons? Gone is the radio transmitter that allowed you to call down artillery strikes, and obliterate whole villages. Ditto the tool that let you repair your damaged vehicles and stay in the fight longer. (This last one hosed me pretty good on the one mission involving the tank). I understand that maybe people thought these tools were a bit over powered, or perhaps unnecessary in a shorter campaign. But I miss them. I feel like I'm playing an autistic version of the first game.

In the end, I think this game suffers from what afflicts most video games these days: they're geared more towards on-line play. Hey, that's great. On-line play is a great arena to exploit. I'm all for on-line play. However, I don't have an internet connection. And if I did, I don't think I'd get much milage out of on-line play. It would be nice if developers would devote equal disk space to both on-line and off-line play, rather than sacrificing one for the other.

I liked Bad Company 2, even though it's less "bad" and feels truncated. Perhaps they'll get it right with Bad Company 3.

Lack of Progress Report

I see by the old date stamp on the blog post that I haven't written anything about Studio Manta since January 8th. That's because I haven't done anything with Studio Manta since January 8th.

It's not that I've lost interest in the endeavor. It's just that I've run into a little snag. Since I haven't done any work in two months, I have no idea where I stand on the project. This would require me to read everything I've written so far, including my hand-written notes. This isn't really a good excuse, since one would think I would want to read my own writing.

Like all writers, I think, I'm a raging egomaniac. I like to read over my work, delighting in a turn of phrase or marvelling at my intellect. I also take a critical eye to my work, finding flaws that I should have caught, or thinking of better ways to express my thoughts than I had at the time of writing. I know some writers who never read their own material, believing it to be dead to them once its been written, or thinking it perfect as is. That's not me.

I have, however, run into a practical problem. I have a tiny little netbook upon which I compose. The screen is small, which is why I bought it -- for its portability. However, it's a bitch to read documents on. Which means I've got to find a printer and print out what I've got so far. This has proven to be a bit problematic.

Yet I need to read what I've got, in order to remember where I was, and figure out what needs to be done. I take that I'm becomming frustrated by my lack of progress as a good sign. It means I want to get back to work.

I haven't dropped the project.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Setting Thoughts

I don't know how to start this entry... it's sort of a mash-up of thoughts running through my head, but by the time you get to the end, I think you'll see how it all comes together. The one thing I've been doing this past week is thinking about a game setting. A lot little elements occupy my mind, but I haven't tried to assemble them in any order. That's what I'm going to do now.

I've been playing a lot of Darksiders on Xbox. The game is a mash-up of God of War and Zelda, where you control War (one of the Four Horsemen) battling out demons on a shattered Earth. And it's this part that drew me to the game. While I enjoy the action and game play, I catch myself oogling the scenery. The twisted skyscrapers leaning precariously over smashed asphalt. The rusted cars littering the streets. The empty windows staring out like eye sockets on a skull. It's creepy and eerie, and I love it.

Why do I love the apocalypse? Indeed, why do any of us? It's a popular genre right now, if you look at the movies being made. 2012, Book of Eli, Zombieland, hell you can go all the way back to The Road Warrior and Logan's Run... We like thinking about the end of the world, likely because we like to see how we're going to survive it. I'd go so far as to say that post-apocalyptic movies are uplifting; they say "we're going to make it."

But this isn't an analysis of the genre, so let's get back to the point. One culture that's obsessed with the end of the world is the Japanese. In their popular culture, there's often some kind of war that's radically changed everything: Vampires rise up to found their own empire; people squat in a once-verdant desert, attempting to resurrect ancient technologies; survivors try to find clues to the cause of the world-shattering event... It's no surprise that the Japanese focus on the aftermath of war, considering they're the only ones to experience a nuclear bomb, which radically altered their traditional society. Since I'm going to emulate a Japanese anime with my setting, you can already tell the direction I'm taking.

The last comparable event to the "end of the world", to my mind, was the collapse of the Roman Empire and the start of the Dark Ages. Not really the "end of the world" in the sense that we currently think of it, but it was still pretty nasty. The collapse of central authority led to the rise of the Catholic Church, which, with it's supra-national organization, could not only keep things going, but also preserved a great deal of knowledge. A Canticle for Liebowitz marries the Church to the survival of the human race after a nuclear holocaust.

Which brings me to the Antikythera mechanism. This device was discovered in the waters off Greece in 1900. It consists of delicate gears and cogs for tracking the sky (including accounting for the moon's elliptical orbit, even though they didn't know it was elliptical, as well as when the Olympics should be held), and speaks of a level of technological sophistication heretofore unknown for the time. The Antikythera mechanism was likely made in Sicily, and was apparently mass produced, some 1500 years before we would be able to produce it again. We're not talking Chariots of the Gods type stuff here. The question remains not "how did they get it" but "why haven't we found more"? It speaks to the idea that we've lost more knowledge than we know.

(You can find out more about recent discoveries on the mechanism here:

That's an idea I'd like to see explored in a game. As it stand now, it'll be post-apocalyptic, with the Church rising again to shepherd and guide humanity. There'll be smashed cities crawling with monsters, and stuffed with loot the characters can only guess at. But most importantly, because this is supposed to be an Old-School game, there is no central story I'm trying to tell. Moreover, no where will I explain any of this. I want it to emulate those pulpy tales of weird science and sorcery existing side-by-side, without a lot of explanation. I want the players to come to it in media res.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Playing this Weekend?!

Writing my last entry got me to thinking: What would I need to run System X this weekend? (Assuming, of course, I could find four or five people willing to play.) What would I have to complete in order to play this game?

First, a little background on my last post, to give you an idea where I'm coming from. Last night, I was watching Finding Forrester. (One of my friends considers this to be a terrible movie, but I find it interesting mostly because of Sean Connery). I don't want to bore you by summarizing the plot for you; neither do I want to spend the time, because it's not important. Connery has this line, "why is it the words we write for ourselves are so much better than the ones we write for others?"

It's a good question, and one that's true. I always wrote better when it was a subject in which I was personally interested. The midget zombie wrestlers from All Flesh Must Be Eaten and the ancient Vulcans driving their sehlat-drawn chariots into battle (Way of Kolinahr) should tell you that. I don't want to analyze the truth of Connery's question; I know the answer, and you do, as well. The question led me to thinking "yes, the words we write for ourselves are better, so why aren't I writing for myself?" See, this entire project is my way to get back into the game design business, my focus is to sell a product. I'm doing this bass-ackwards....

Therefore, what would I need in order to run a System X game this weekend?

1) Character classes. I have a sense of what elements make up a character class. I simply haven't written them yet. I need to select skill groupings and assign numbers. This means I also have to go back to the stats and create the numerous tables of bonuses and penalties. Which means I need to finally decide how to calculate skill points...

2) Weapons. Let's face it, eventually players are going to fight. I also find that players define their characters through their choice of weapons. So I need to present a selection of weapons and their game-related stats.

3) Monsters. The game emulates anime and video games, with hoardes of monsters to battle. That means I need to stat up some monsters. Which means I have to create some. Which further means I need to figure out what a monster stat card looks like in this game....

Whew. As I think about this list, I see I have a lot to do. It's like pulling the thread on a sweater. Next thing you know, the whole thing's unraveled. There's tons of stuff I didn't even put on my list, like experience point tables (mostly because I'm actually becoming demoralized by how little I've actually done. But hey, this exercise was supposed to help me find direction). Some of these things will take a tremendous amount of thought, like the whole "monster question."

Other elements, thankfully, can be added on as they come up in play. Like the aforementioned fire or poison rules. Still other rules can be grafted on as part of the experiment. I'm not sure, for example, if I want to include a "feat" system or a "benefit/flaw" mechanic. This could be included later, to see if players like it or need it.

What I have is an idea of the way I want things to go. I've written down the blueprints for the combat mechanic and the skill mechanic and a few other things. But, clearly, I have lots to do.

Welcome to the Blog of the Future... Today!

Looking at the old calendar on the wall, I see I haven't updated this site since December 16, which is, coincidentally, the last time I did any substantive work on System X. I haven't updated the site in awhile because I haven't written in awhile. No, it's not that I drowned in a bowl of holiday eggnog, nor have I been especially busy on my days off. I've been thinking about why I haven't been motivated to write.

Motivation comes from within. When I catch up with my fellow game designers, I'm always impressed by how they get up in the morning and get to work. Or how they all return from the holidays and start working. Almost like they have a real job or something. This is natural, because for them, it is a job (albeit a part-time job in some cases). For me, however, I don't have deadlines and I'm not earning a pay check from this, so I do what anyone in my position would do. Play Xbox and eat Ring Dings.

It doesn't help that I'm at the point where I have to write all the stupid, boring rules that I don't care about it. I care as much about falling damage or poison rules as I do about Paris Hilton's dating habits. I don't want to think about poison potency and how it relates to saving throws. Fire damage? Yawn. There's nothing interesting or exciting about all these little rules; I may as well write "pick your favorite RPG and use their rules for fire damage. Now leave me alone."

It also doesn't help that I'm designing the rules first, and the setting second. Generally, my idea was to make sure that I could use the same system for other settings. I didn't want to design an Empire of the Petal Throne, only to discover it would be impossible to separate the setting from the rules for my next idea. In that sense, I guess I set out to design a generic universal roleplaying game, which was not the smartest thing in the world; it's a good idea to come out with your first game before you start worrying about your second or third.

Not to say I don't have a setting in mind. Quite the opposite. I'm at that point where it's time to write character classes and weapon descriptions and monsters. Which means numbers. Lots of numbers. Which means number crunching. Believe it or not, this is about as exciting as it sounds. Because the devil is in the details, and the numbers you come up with over here may not actually work over there. You end up thinking only in numbers. You become a wretch mumbling number sequences to yourself over and over again, as though you were trying to program in binary. Those guys eventually go insane. It goes something like this "plus 2, plus 2, that means this has to be a minus 3, a minus 3, but that can't be a minus 3." You end up sounding like Rain Man. I would rather have a midget singe off all my arm hair with a soldering iron than number crunch.

One of the things that's supposed to make this effort not only interesting, but also rewarding, it that I'm writing for myself. It's always better to write for yourself than for others, because you're interested in what you're writing. More of yourself comes out. I'd hate to look inside the psyche of the guy who wrote Little Fears, or Hol. What made Deadlands so interesting is Shane Hensley's obvious love of the genre and alternate history. Nowadays, many (even most) games are designed by committee; there's sort of a homogenous-ness to the material. I'm not knocking that, but this is supposed to be me, my game. I'm supposed to be writing for myself. What I've noticed, however, is that I'm writing for you (the consumer, the end user). I guess old habits die really hard deaths.

What would really help would be to have a gaming group. First off all, this would motivate me to stick to a schedule. It would be good to have to finish this or that bit of the rules because we're playing this week. It would also help on the creative side, in that whatever I create -- monsters, treasure -- would go into the setting. Lastly, regular gaming would help me see what's working, rules-wise, and what's not; it's also a great way to see what rules need to be written, what situations come up in play. I need to finish the basics, then find a gaming group.