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Marginalized people don’t exist for you to weaponize

For the most part this blog deals with RPG mechanics, but today we have to go down a slightly different path.

A recent Fail Forward blog post has seriously agitated the RPG world with a whole bunch of energy focusing on how RPG’s do or don’t remarginalize those already marginalized in our society.  This post is damning to rpgpundit and Zak Smith.  It focuses on how these two individuals were paid consultants for 5e Dungeons and Dragons, and supposedly engage in misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia.  I can’t speak to how accurate these claims are; in fact so far as I can tell, no one can since they all come from anonymous sources.  What we can do however, is see that this article is presenting these facts in a hyperbolic way with an agenda.  Which I will show later.

Why is that a problem?  Because it is an attempt to weaponize trans* people to forward a personal agenda.  Which means it’s the Fail Forward article, not Dungeons and Dragons, that is problematic.

Note

I’m going to mostly be looking at the accusations against Zak, because I know more about him, and it’s easier to get information about him than it is about RPG Pundit.

I first became aware of Zak through his series involving pornstars playing Dungeons and Dragons.  I was hugely impressed because the rights of Sex Workers is an important issue to me (Zak himself is a sex worker), and it was a hugely important in terms of humanizing Sex Workers (in this case pornstars).

As far as their RPG philosophies; word on the street is that they are both major proponents of Old School RPG’s (thus them being hired as 5e consultants) which is going to make me agree with them about as much as I agree with Ron Edwards; as in… not much.

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Game Balance and Dice Mechanics

One of the fundamental factors needed in game design is balance.  Of course balance is a funny term that gets interpreted differently by various people, so here I will define it as “A game is balance the same amount of resources (XP, Feats whatever) invested in different ways afford the investor roughly the same amount of impact on the story over the course of the campaign”*

The easiest way to fail at this is to allow a character to maximize one thing with no marginal cost.  Consider this: you have two characters, one has even distributed their resources among all abilities, and another who has simply maximized one.  The latter character is guaranteed to have a larger impact on the story over the course of the campaign.

Why?

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Re-Examining Skills

Nearly every game has some sort of fixed list of things a character is capable of doing.  Sometimes that list is attributes, other times it is skills.  The design goal in these cases is to have a fixed point reference to make checks against to determine success.

So when I wrote up Constructing an Ability List I was working from the same premise.

Here were going to explore those assumption, deconstruct the idea, and investigate an alternative.

 

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The Problem with Generic Systems

RPG Design is a particularly unrewarding endeavor for one to go into.  It’s unimpressive to tell someone you’ve designed your own game system, the market is over-saturated, and even if one successfully publishes and makes sales one is likely to face criticism from a fickle market.

Along with that, an RPG requires both the talents of a good game designer, and the talents of a good writer.  This combination is unfortunately rare, so designers tend to be substantially better at one of these things.  Naturally system designers are inclined toward generic systems, and writers toward genre games.  The writer in this scenario is the More Valuable Player; because a Genre Game will always beat a Generic System.

Why is this? Why are Genre Games better?  Why does D20 outsell GURPS?  The reason is that Generic Systems must always be too complex.  Genre Games, on the other hand, provide a User Interface that enables gamers to understand and utilize the system with ease.

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Drafting a Lite version

One of the things that D&D does well, and that a game like, say, GURPS does poorly is sufficiently staging the complexity for players.  GURPS, has to a lesser extent remedied this by releasing GURPS Lite, and they smartly made it free.  In that vein we’re going to want to start with a set of minimal rules that can be expanded upon without violating those minimum rules.  This also lets us spin up a game we can start testing sooner, and makes future rules modular.

So what do we have to do to get to Living Myth Lite?

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Handling Scale

One of the things you may have noticed when I was discussing Skill and Difficulty is that I went all the way up through Grandmaster, Through Superhuman, Through Godlike, to Divine.  In continuing in that vein in fact, I have set “60” as the difficulty under which anything is possible. That means when assigning difficulties to tasks I need to keep in mind the scale.

How exactly do we do this.

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Constructing an Abilities List

If we’re going to stick with a flat list of abilities for the purposes of allowing Anything to be a Character, we’re going to need a sensible default ability list.

I say default because as a generic system one skill list isn’t going to work the same for everything.  A game about doctors is probably going to need more than one Doctoring “skill”, and a game in a Wind and the Willows types setting is going to need it’s own skills.  However, since most games are humanish adventure games of some sort, what we’re looking for is a set of abilities that represents the “moves” characters make in adventure games.

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Further Scrutinizing the Dice Mechanic

Previously we looked at linear Dice Mechanics and I expressed fondness for a 2d6-2d6 system.  Here we’re going to explore this in a little more depth, see what problems it has, what our options are, and work out any kinks.

Some of the questions that come up are, are “How does the range affect play?”, “What happens with Highest Rolls?”, “Who Rolls?”, “How complex is this?”, etc…

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Character Oriented Systems and Statistics

One completely novel concept that comes from the RPG Fate, is what they call the “Fate Fractal” or the “Bronze Rule”.  The Fate fractal states that “Everything that can be described in play can be modeled as a Fate Character.  Want to introduce an Earthquake?  Make the Earthquake a character.  Want to set a house on Fire, make the Fire a character.

z-arbol_humanoFred Hicks outlined this concepts pretty well in a series of blog posts on the Fate RPG website, though Fate Core Rulebook didn’t delve into the concept as thoroughly as it could.  One of the best and easiest to understand illustration of this concept is a post called It’s On Fire!.

While the concept of Character Oriented Systems can be applies to other systems (it’s really a modeling paradigm), Fate is particularly adepts at doing so.

For example, we could model a Fire as a D&D monster, we give it special abilities like “Spread”, and “Burn”, and we give it some physical attributes, etc…  however, it is a best a painful process.  With Fate there is actually little effort in Characterizing anything in play.  You simply define what it does, and go.

So what is it about Fate that allows Character Oriented System so readily?  If you are familiar with Fate you might be inclined to say Aspects, but I’m here to tell you it’s not aspects.  What makes it work is that Fate “Skills” are a single set of stats that defines what a character does.  Fate without Aspects would work almost as well for Characterizing Anything.

The flexibility to a certain extend comes from not nesting abstractions.  In other systems the Skill List is dependent on other things, and there are lots of derived stats.  In Fate you simply need a Set of Skills, Aspects, and a Stress Track and you have something that can be modeled as a Character in Play.

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How to derive Skill and Difficulty from a Dice Mechanic

In the previous post. I discussed using a 2d6-2d6 dice mechanic, for the purpose of the examples in this article we’ll use that.  What we’re going to do here is explore how the statistics of our mechanics can inform our character traits and target number.  Again, we’ll be leaning heavily on that Standard Deviation.

So, what we have with a Linear (i.e. Roll and Add) dice mechanic is a distribution of numbers that gives us fixed intervals, and a standard deviation.  Working with 2d6 – 2d6 we know we have a range of -10 to 10, with  a standard deviation of 3.42.  From this we’ll first figure out how big each +! is worth relative to that, use that information to figure out interesting statistical information, and finally relate that to probabilities and difficulty.

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