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Friday 29 March 2019

The other side of reality

I finally got around to watching Stranger Things. After all the hype it came as a disappointment. I get that it's a pastiche of '80s movies, but I like my pastiches to be more than just familiar ingredients slung together and reheated. Nostalgia doesn't rule out putting something fresh in the mix. Think of Super 8, or even Fargo (season 1, obviously). Without the spark of originality, you might just as well be listening to greatest hits covered by a tribute band.

But I digress. I don't want to talk about 1980s, Stephen King, or pastiches in general. It's just that the Upside-Down in Stranger Things jogged my memory about a game concept I sketched out at Eidos in the mid-'90s. We needed a quick-n-dirty game (famous last words that have brought many a developer low, those) to show off Sam Kerbeck's cutting-edge 3D engine. It needed to be a realtime strategy game because that's what our game Plague, later renamed Warrior Kings, was. Sam happened to flip the landscape upside-down while showing off what it could do, and something in my brain put that together with the Aztec land of death.

We never got around to doing the game, as Eidos shut down internal development a few months later and Sam went off to do other things. His engine got used for another RTS game, Warzone 2100, but never in the freaky way I had in mind.


A variant on Plague set in pre-conquest Mexico, using the same engine and basic game design principles. It's anticipated that Plague will make quite a splash, and Aztecs will satisfy demand for follow-ups in the long wait for Plague 2.

Aztecs will however not be simply a copy of the original game swapped into a different setting. The Mesoamerican world is uniquely colourful. The architecture, costumes and imaginative mythology have rarely been used in computer games and merit a product that stands alone.

City management will be less intricate than Plague. This will be a game of warfare and keeping the gods happy.

All flesh is grass
Villages supply food. Food is not an explicit resource in the game as with Plague but is simply shared out to any units within range of your buildings. Rather than bothering with quantitative measures, you can tell how well the farms are doing by the landscape textures used: rich green if there's plenty of food, dusty scrubland if times are hard. Lack of food leads to loss of hit points; an excess is required for units to recover from injury.

As long as your people are healthy and well fed, new Aztec children continually appear in the School. You can pick these up and drop them onto other buildings, which will determine their fate in life. For example, a child dropped onto a Temple becomes a Priest, one dropped onto the War Lodge becomes a Soldier, etc.

Do it this way
Units are given orders through a (graphic) verb/adverb icon system. This means you can tell a unit to Attack (the verb) and just leave it at that, or you can go to the next level of icons to specify how the attack should be carried out: Aggressive, Balanced or Defensive (the adverbs). As with Plague, what you don't specify is left up to the individual unit's AI.

An eye in the sky
Your view is provided by a flying camera giving an eagle's-eye view of the world. You can fly the camera anywhere, but how much you get to see depends on whether you have any units nearby. Within range of a friendly unit, the camera can see enemy units and the condition of enemy farms and buildings. Outside this range the view enters the Fog of War; it becomes sepia-tinted, buildings appear stylized without hit point info, and enemy units freeze and gradually fade as if from a persistence of vision effect.

Trading in secrets
Merchants were notorious in the Aztec world for spying. This is reflected by allowing all players to have a clear view, free of the Fog of War, when within range of any player's Merchants. Thus the Merchant who increases your wealth by trading with another city will also allow you a clear view of that city's defences during his visit there but this advantage is a two-edged sword.

Discriminating views
View of enemy units is subjective. This reflects Aztec warfare, where experienced soldiers were needed to recognize details of enemy deployment. In the game, you can only distinguish the enemy's elite units (Eagle Lords, Jaguar Lords, Arrow Knights and Hummingbird Priests) if you have elite units of your own near at hand. Otherwise all the enemy's troops appear as generic soldiers and you won't know where the danger lies.

The flipside of reality
Slain units become Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld: a subterranean mirror-image of the living world, where mountains ridges become narrow defiles and vice versa. You view the Underworld by flipping the world around to see the underside. The Underworld is another front where you must fight wars, because the concentration of your Skeleton Warrior forces in the Underworld affects the power of your Wizards' magic in the world above. You have only very limited control of your Skeleton Warriors: you can order them to move, but once they get where they're going they'll just attack any other tribe's Skeleton Warriors that are nearby - even if the other tribe are your allies.

Open heart surgery
Morale is improved by human sacrifice, making it worth capturing foes and taking them back to your Temples. This also prevents the slain foes from becoming Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld, as well as earning you the favour of the gods. You can see this as a strengthening of the glowing aura around the shrine on top of the Temple, which is what your Priests draw on to cast their prayer-magic.

Visitors from heaven
Sometimes, when a Temple's aura is very strong, a Hero will emerge from inside it. These Heroes are beings sent by the god to aid you. They have special strengths in battle, magic, etc, depending on the god. (There are gods of Rain, War, Sun, Learning and Luck.) However, the main advantage of a Hero is that they can dreamwalk. This is essentially a way of setting up a long string of orders for the Hero to follow: a dream-self (Nahual) is created which you can run rapidly around the map, giving it a sequence of orders which it will remember. When the dreamwalk ends and the dream-self merges with the Hero's physical body, he carries out the orders you gave during the dreamwalk. This allows you to set up complex tactical patterns of attack and defence and hold them in readiness, waiting to awaken your Heroes at the moment of greatest need.

The nitty-gritty
There will be considerably fewer buildings and unit types than in Plague. The basic buildings featured in the game are:

  • Palace School (spawns new units)
  • Ball Court (increases public contentment)
  • Skull Rack (each unit sacrificed adds a skull, boosting morale)
  • Market Plaza (stimulates trade)
  • Gladiator Platform (combatant is upgraded to veteran or killed)
  • Wizards' Tower
  • Priestly College
  • War Lodge
  • Temple (five types)
  • Canal
  • Well
  • Road
  • Causeway

Buildings concerned with resource production &/or processing:

  • Farm (can be set to produce food or cash crop)
  • Fishing village (produces canoes that can be seconded in wartime)
  • Weaponsmith (upgrades swords, invents spearthrower)
  • Cotton Mill (supplies cotton for armour)
  • Quarry (supplies obsidian for swords and stone for buildings)
  • Mine (supplies gold)
  • Banner Maker (improves the commands you can issue to units)
  • Aviary (supplies Banner Maker)

Resources that the player is told about in detail:

  • Gold
  • Stone
  • Mana (decreases over time, but never below increasing limit based on total sacrifices)

Hidden resources that you have only qualitative control over:

  • Food
  • Cotton
  • Obsidian

Basic unit types:

  • Commoners
  • Merchants
  • Nobles
  • Priests
  • Wizards
  • Scouts
  • Swordsmen 
  • Javelineers

And veteran units:

  • Eagle Lords
  • Jaguar Lords
  • Arrow Knights
  • Hummingbird Priests

Not all of those ideas would have made it into the finished game, of course. This is just a brainstorming pitch document to get the design process started. That's my favourite part of any project, incidentally, though I'm also willing enough to roll my sleeves up and keep toiling away to the finish line.

Friday 15 March 2019

A rules rutter

What are we looking at here? A good question. You know I was talking about having another crack at revising the Dragon Warriors system? More like completely rewriting it, in fact. It's a project I've returned to many times over the years, usually abandoned in short order as the need to actually crack on and run a fortnightly campaign gets in the way.

This time of going back to the well, I have a rules mechanic that I'm finding pretty neat. Those could be famous last words. I did remark to one of my gaming group that "designing a new set of rules is like doing a jigsaw. After early frustrating dead ends, everything seems to come together, gathers momentum, gets exciting – and then you see the gaps that the remaining pieces just won’t fit into. Rinse and repeat."

But I think I can punch through the doldrums of design to arrive at a workable set of streamlined rules that will fit any contingency. God knows we need it. The obscure rules lurking in the thousands of pages of GURPS books is starting to try the patience of most of my players. We only get a few hours' gaming every couple of weeks. We need something simpler.

So, that book in the picture. In order not to repeat the false starts I've made in the past, I took all the notes I've made on different versions of DW2 rules and collected them into one volume, which I then printed up on Lulu. I find having a physical book like that is easier than wading through multiple files on the computer. Just behind the rules book there you can see the homemade booklet I used to prep for writing a chapter in The Design Mechanism's upcoming Lyonesse RPG.

Just to give you a taste of all these notes, one of the briefest sections in the booklet is this overview I sent to Grenadier Models UK when we got to talking about collaborating on a new roleplaying game in the early '90s.
Everything is based on a skill system, so a character might be a Rank 3 Wizard and a Rank 8 Fighter, or whatever. Ranks are purchased with Improvement Points, which are acquired by training or experience. There are no "character classes". The cost to acquire ranks of different skills depends on the character's culture. So elves need fewer IPs to advance a rank of Wizardry, more to advance as Fighters. 
Combat is handled by comparing Attack and Defence values. In some ways it is similar to the Dragon Warriors system, but characters can exercise a degree of choice in how much they concentrate on attacking as opposed to defending. The range of choice reflects different styles of combat. When a hit is scored, damage is determined by a single dice roll which is modified by the weapon used and the attacker's rank as a Fighter. Armour works by absorbing some of the damage.

I am in two minds about whether to include hit location or not. It adds a certain colour to any combat system, but it does tend to slow things up - and you get into problems where non-humanoid creatures are involved. The alternative system uses "wound values" - any wound causes Attack and Defence penalties, depending on how much damage is inflicted in a single blow. Characters are more likely to pass out from cumulative wounds than to fight on until cut to ribbons. This means that combat is fairly ferocious and damaging, but as long as the players' side wins in the end they will generally be able to heal up their fallen companions.

Magic is divided into three types. The first is Wizardry. This uses up no spellpoints, but requires a skill roll to work properly. It is also quite difficult to learn. It is the way a magic-user would contrive most of his "special effects" - weird events that are not directly related to combat. About a hundred Wizardry cantrips allow the magic-user to pass through locked doors, go unnoticed, conceal a trail through woods, and so on. I dislike the idea that wizards in many systems have to use up their spellpoints for quite minor effects. I cannot imagine Merlin or Gandalf crossing off a couple of spellpoints for an illumination spell, for instance. The Wizardry rules are intended to represent the popular fictional concept of the magic user more accurately.

The second branch of magic is Thaumaturgy. This is combat related magic. Wizardry illusions do not do real damage, for instance, but Thaumaturgy illusions can. Thaumaturges expend psychic points to cast their spells. The number of points available increases only slightly with rank, but what does increase significantly is the number of spell-matrices the Thaumaturge can hold in his mind. When a spell is cast, the mental matrix for that spell "fatigues". It will defatigue with sleep, but a further casting of the spell when the matrix is still fatigued will cost double points. Higher ranking Thaumaturges therefore never get to the kind of artillery-level capability of a D&D magic-user, as their power really lies in the greater versatility they get from having more spell-matrices available.

The last magical skill is Theurgy. This involves the manipulation of campaign magic. Such things might include gathering information about a foe's army or creating an enchanted artifact. Theurgy is often done in conjunction with other magic-users, as it involves a permanent loss of psychic strength and it is better if this loss can be shared between several characters. It takes long periods of time to work (and must often be performed on specific astrologically-favourable days) so it is useless within the limited time-frame of one adventure.
The idea is to capture all the rules notes from over the years so I can sort the wheat from the chaff. So I'm not sure which of the ideas here (if any) will make it into Dragon Warriors 2 but we'll see. I certainly want magic to be more mysterious, less "artillery".

Oh, and while you're here -- did I mention my Kickstarter for the final Blood Sword book? It's going strong and there's still one day left to jump aboard.

Friday 1 March 2019

How a surfeit of skills in an RPG stifles interesting stories

This is going to look like another Gripe About GURPS, but the fact is that I’ve been thinking (for the millionth time) of writing a new edition of Dragon Warriors, and so I’ve been taking a look at what I’ve liked and disliked about various roleplaying systems over the last forty years.

Early on we hardly had skills. Lots of people started out dungeon bashing, a form of tabletop skirmish wargame on rails. So, apart from hiding in shadows, opening chests and hitting things, they didn’t think about skills much. The more roleplaying broke out of the dungeon and became about the whole scope of a fantasy life, the greater the demand for rules that covered all the things a character might do.

My 1979 edition of Runequest lists about twenty skills. That felt like a great liberating leap forward. My 2010 edition of GURPS has more than twenty skills that begin with the letter A alone. There's maybe two hundred and fifty skills in all. And that doesn’t feel liberating, it feels like being tied in knots.

Having too many skills limits the narratives that will emerge, because not having a specific skill tends to block potentially interesting developments.
‘In the back room there’s a guy who’s tied up. “Thank God you came! They kidnapped me.”’
‘I free him. But as I do I’m taking a look at those ropes. Is it possible he could have tied himself up?’
‘Suspicious, huh? Have you got Knots skill?’
‘Er… no.’
‘Too bad. Nice idea, though.’
OK, Knot Tying defaults to Dexterity -4, so the player could still try to make the roll. But in practice DX-4 pretty much scotches it. With DX of 12, that nice idea gets squashed down to a 26% chance.

Obviously a good GM is going to find a workaround, maybe make it an IQ roll with a bonus if the character had had Knot Tying. But now we’re falling back on off-the-cuff rules, often a sign that the system isn’t fit for purpose.

In a much simpler system, with no rules for knots or ropes, you might just ask for an IQ roll. Some early RPGs didn’t drill down to the level of skills, but they did allow for character background, so you’d often hear an exchange like this:
‘…I free him. As I do I’m taking a look at those ropes. Is it possible he could have tied himself up?’
‘That’s going to be an IQ roll.’
‘I’m a sailor, too, so I’m familiar with knots.’
‘OK, I’ll give you a +1.’
That’s also making a ruling on the fly, but the difference in the second example is that the rulebook was probably 50 pages rather than 500. In a very granular system like GURPS 4e, skills are differentiated down to the level of Shadowing (following a person in a crowd, which could just as easily have been dealt with using Stealth and Observation rather than inventing a new skill) or Forced Entry (kicking a door in – yep, there really is a skill for that and it has no default).

The problem with all these skills is that PCs are unlikely to have most of them (Knot Tying, for instance), which will often block a course of action that would keep the game moving and be fun. Often they overlap, and inconsistently to boot, so the game degenerates into sophistry as players argue the case for why their obscure skill has a bearing on this situation. And of course, when you do decide to take a character with Forced Entry, the entire world starts looking like it’s made up of doors to kick in. These are all factors that straitjacket the kind of fluid improvisation that powers the best game sessions.

Instead of all that, you could design a system that lets players unpack the level of detail they want. So say I have Melee skill of 10. I can just roll that in any fight, whatever weapon I’m using. But if I prefer there's an option to specialize in one weapon – sabre, say. So now I get a +2 in my specialized weapon but -1 in everything else. Meleeing with a sabre, I now use a skill of 12, but with a club or spear I’m at 9.

And I can unpack further. Specialising in parry, I can now parry with a sabre at 14, but if I attack or dodge I’m at 11 – and at 8 with other weapons.

That’s not necessarily the way I’ll go with Dragon Warriors 2e. I’d like something that moves away from the kind of abstract number-crunching that accompanies character creation in something like GURPS and is instead based around the character’s life up to the time the game starts. Traveller began that trend back in the dawn of roleplaying, I used it in Tirikelu, and it’s in games like Warhammer too. The advantage is that you end up with a character with a history, a context in which his or her skills make sense, rather than just the best numbers you could wrangle using Excel.