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.