Happy Bishop Games

If the bishop's happy, we're happy

Happy Bishop Games - If the bishop's happy, we're happy

Am I close enough to eat him?

Many of the rules in Outlive Outdead are uncomplicated. One of our design goals is to keep the rules quick and fluid so players can focus on the game experience. However, distance and movement are vital to a game about zombies and need extra attention. Because zombies can only harm humans when they’re within arm’s reach, players need to know how far away the zombies are. Since you can play zombies in  players also need to know if they are close enough to eat someone.

All distance in the game is broken down into lengths. A length is purposefully vague. No counting meters or feet here. Instead, the game only worries about how distance can affect choices in the game.

Distance starts at length zero, known as “L0″. A human and zombie at L0 are right on top of each other, and more importantly, the zombie can bite the human. A bite isn’t always the way to make more zombies. That can change in each setting. See this post for more info. That said, humans will likely want to get away from L0 where zombies will always want to get to L0.

At L1, humans and zombies can still fight and hurt each other, just no bites. At L2 and higher, zombies can’t do anything but moan and try to get closer, whereas humans can shoot guns, bows, and the like. This goes on until L10; farther than that means out of range for anything that’s not a cannon.

As for movement, humans can move 2 lengths each round if they are healthy, 1 length if they are injured. Zombies always move 1 length.

All of this works to give players (and the GM) a sense of how close they need to be to attack, escape, and whatnot without bogging the game down with complicated rules. A player with a human character carrying a bat will need to get to L1 or L0 to hit the zombies. A player with a zombie character will always try to move closer, hoping to get to L0 for that bite attack.

This also provides the fear unique to zombies: the slowly closing circle. As the GM maps out the action on the table top, players will see packs of zombies slowly but surely coming at them. It always seems easy at first; just run. Zombies can only shamble. Then you realize there are 20 zombies or more, all closing in on you from different directions. Can you outrun them all? What if you get injured–will the other players help you limp to safety or will they abandon you to your death? Don’t forget that if your human character dies, you get to play a zombie. That means other players aren’t being jerks when they let your character die.

Balance in RPGs

What makes an rpg balanced? And is it something to strive for in game design? I say it depends on what you mean by “balanced” but, for the most part, yes.

Let’s take old school D&D. Wizards were complete chumps at early levels–you often could cast 1 or 2 spells per day and you were easier to knock down than a drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. Yet by the upper levels, wizards were bad-asses who could bring down dozens of foes with a single waggle of a finger. That’s balanced, isn’t it? Weak, then strong?

No. It’s unbalanced and stupid, and here’s why.

First of all, how many of us actually play one game enough to reach high levels? In my experience, that happens occasionally but much more likely is abandoning the game for any number of reasons: GM needs a break, players move away, someone gets a second job, oooh look at this shiny new game I bought let’s give this a try, and so on. The idea that balance eventually comes from long-term play is wrong because long-term play is hard.

Second, who gives a rat’s ass about balance when your character can’t do anything at early levels? “In a real-time year, my character will be able to cast spells all day long! In the meantime … I cast my magic missile. Wake me in an hour when I can do something again.” Balance should be about the emergent gameplay experience that rules bring to the table.

What is a balanced rpg then? It’s a game where each player has an experience that comparable in terms of doing stuff but distinct in what that stuff is. Also, everyone’s experiences need to be compatible. Remember those early cyberpunk games when everyone waits while the hacker navigates past black ice? That character does lots of crap while everyone waits–then he waits while everyone else does stuff.

If you’re designing a game, examine each role players take and make sure they all have similar amounts of activity. The activities should be different–otherwise everyone has the same role–but think about the experience players receive from playing by your rules. Do they all have similar amounts of opportunities to play the game?

Designer’s GenCon XP: Dread

The following is not really a review of Dread by Impossible Dream.  Rather, it’s my experience playing the game at GenCon 2011 filtered through the game designer part of my brain. Your mileage may vary.

I was impressed with Dread. It’s the kind of impressed that grows the more you think about it. There was one design element that in anathema to me but that’s definitely in the realm of preference rather than a design flaw.

You’ve probably already heard about the system in Dread, but just in case …. To play, you have to have Jenga. Yes, the game with the little wooden thingies piled high in a tower. Whenever you want your character to do something difficult, you need to pull a block from the Jenga tower. If you pull it out and place it back atop without the tower falling, your character succeeds! If you knock down the tower, then your character dies.

This amazingly simple mechanic is a beautiful piece of design. It reinforces the theme of the game: horror. Succeeding early in the game is easy, but it gets harder and harder as the game progresses. Tension builds just like a good horror story until finally the tower falls and someone dies. This brings respite from the tension, but as player-characters die off, more blocks are pulled away before the story ends.

I’ve been told repeatedly that, when designing a roleplaying game, you want your system tied into the setting. In other words, have a good reason for picking a certain mechanic. If you’re making a game focused on combat, don’t use a rules-light system like Paranoia or a story-based mechanic like Dogs in the Vineyard. Use a system like 3.5 OGL.

Dread is a great example of this. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic–there are no modifiers!–but that’s not what Dread is about. The system fits a game that’s more survival horror than anything else.

Now, the bit I don’t like. When the tower falls, your character dies and you are out of the game. See, I don’t like that. If I schedule a few hours consecutively to roleplay, I don’t want to die early and sit there. Since Dread is more closed than anything else (the story ends at the game’s end), it’s not like you can role up a new character and get back in the action. To put it simple, I don’t like games that stop players from playing the game.

Still, from a design standpoint, it’s awesome. It works–wonderfully so.




Designer’s GenCon XP: Dying Earth

The following is not really a review of The Dying Earth RPG by Pelgrane Press.  Rather, it’s my experience playing the game at GenCon 2011 filtered through the game designer part of my brain. Your mileage may vary.

Overall, I was not happy with The Dying Earth. The GM was fantastic, as were the players. My main beef is with the resolution mechanic.

In Dying Earth, you roll 1d6. 1 – 3 is a success while 4 – 6 is a failure. That’s how you handle every roll. Yes, you have skills and these allow you to reroll the d6 a number of times up to your skill rating, but this is a resource. For example, if you have Pettifoggery 5, then you can reroll a d6 for a pettifoggery check up to 5 times.

That’s it! You still have a 50/50 chance of success no matter how skilled your character! I found this more than unsatisfactory–it is dull. Even though you can reroll checks with strong skills, each reroll is still 50/50. No matter how many times I get to reroll a d6, there’s still an even chance at success or failure.

Can you imagine that in other games? Would you play D&D if a level 20 half-orc barbarian had the same to hit chance as a level 0 elf wizard? Would you play Shadowrun if every character had the same 50% chance of hacking?

Again, I understand that the mechanic recognizes differing skill levels by awarding extra rerolls to higher skills. First, that does not alter the percentage; if I rolled seven failures, the 8th d6 I roll still has a 50/50 chance. Second, rerolls are a resource earned by roleplaying. The player sitting next to me wasted 5 reroll attempts to succeed at a single action. In one turn, he’s now at the same skill level as an untrained person.

In other words, taking advantage of being highly proficient decreases your proficiency. A clever charmer becomes less charismatic every time he rerolls.

To me, this is bad design. It punishes players for using their best skills; the more you use ’em, the worse you get in them. That wouldn’t be as bad if the resolution mechanic didn’t offer a straight 50/50 chance for every single roll. There’s precious difference between character this way. Yes, that emphasizes roleplaying instead of roll-playing but you want some of both in a roleplaying game. Too much in either direction, IMHO, is bad.

Oh the Artwork!

I love rpgs. I love designing them too. But I hate artwork.

OK, so that’s a little strong. I like artwork in rpg books when it’s done well (Paranoia XP, Pathfinder, CthulhuTech, etc.). And I don’t mind artwork in rpg books that’s not done well (Dogs in the Vinyard, SLA Industries). It’s just that, from a publishing point of view, artwork sucks.

Beyond opportunity costs, writing an rpg is free. Publishing online in PDF format is more or less free, as long as you either have layout skills or have a good friend who’s willing to do it for you. (Hi Allen!) But artwork costs an arm and a leg! I commissioned three pieces from an artist I know. Each piece is 1/2 page B&W. The cost? $200–and that’s cheap! (Hi Tim!) Plus, you have to pay before publication, meaning you have to dip into your own pocket.

To avoid costs that I cannot afford, I’m doing a lot of artwork myself. How? By purchasing royalty free stock photos and artwork, then running them through several Photoshop filters until they have a unique but common look. It won’t win any awards but it will be connected by a common feel and, more importantly, it will be done on the cheap.

Of the stock photo sites, I’m using BigStock. It’s fairly cheap and has an impressive amount of photos. (Just be warned–when you search for a term, they include the same photos over and over again. If your search comes up with 200 pages of images, many will be identical.) iStockphoto is also good but they have lots of expensive photos and it’s hard to find the cheapies.

Hopefully, Triune will sell well enough to invest profits back into artwork for another game, and so on and so on. So much for being a wealthy game designer.

Goodbye, Digitali

Early on in the process of writing Triune, we had a neat idea: sub-sentient software called digitali that acted like capable pets. For example, the Domo breed would run your home: Regulate temperature, order food, record your shows, announce visitors, that sort of thing. Everyone would have several digitali, like Ebenezers to control your finances or Scoops to run cameras and recording devices.

After much debate, we have decided to cut digitali from the core book.

Triune is science fiction, so we have to think about what gadgets and devices would be present in the future. That said, this is a game and good design cuts away things not necessary for the player’s experience. Triune focuses on the conflict between religion and society, not anything involving digital life. Therefore, when we looked objectively at digitali, there was no reason to include them in the game. It’s a good idea but simply not necessary.

If Triune sells well enough to warrant an expansion, perhaps we’ll include them with some mechanical effects, such as granting an extra successful Effort Die if you use a digitali. Until then, however, our little digital pets shall have to wait.

Effort System revised

Our upcoming rpg Triune uses a new mechanic called the Effort System. Thanks to a very kind and smart gentleman in the UK, the system just got better.

Here’s how it works. At the core, it’s very simple: Roll 1d10 against a target number; equal or lower is success; and higher is failure. This is called the Tell Die roll, because that d10 tells you whether you succeeded or failed. However, things get more strategic with the introduction of Effort Dice.

Effort Dice are 1, 2, or 3d6 used to represent how much effort you are putting into the task at hand. They don’t affect your chances–that’s solely the purview of the Tell Die–but they affect the level of success or failure. Players decide whether to roll 1, 2, or 3 Effort Dice, and for each Effort Die rolled, 1-3 means a success and 4-6 means a failure.

  • If your Tell Die was a success, one successful Effort Die means a Basic Win; two successful Effort Dice mean a Major Win; and three successful Effort Dice mean a Critical Win. Any failed Effort Dice are ignored.
  • If your Tell Die was a failure, one failed Effort Die means a Basic Loss; two failed Effort Dice mean a Major Loss; and three failed Effort Dice mean a Critical Loss. Any successful Effort Dice are ignored.

The Effort System gives players have some control over the degree of success or failure. If a player really needs a big success on a roll, they can use all three Effort Dice. However … if you fail, you risk a big failure. You cannot get a chance at a Critical Win without a chance at at Critical Failure. Players manage risk in the Effort System–it’s their choice how much to reach for.

Is Continued African Corruption Racist?

We’ve been writing setting material for Triune, including descriptions of nations in the future. Since the game focuses on enforcing the Anti-Church Act that makes all religions illegal, and since players take roles as police, we need to describe how nations deal with all of this.

When describing central and west African nations, we tried to think 1) what would they be line in the future, and 2) what would make for interesting gameplay. We settled on a continuation of the corruption and internecine warfare that plagues the continent today. There doesn’t seem to be an end to the corruption in sight, and it would make for good conflicts in the game.

Now, we’re wondering if that’s racist. Are we predicting the same kind of instability in other regions? No–Asian and White nations are stable. Are we assuming nations like Chad and Burundi will never get their act together? For the purposes of a game, yes. Are we predicting and assuming just because these nations are mostly black?

Our answer is no, not at all. First, we’re not making predictions–we’re writing a science fiction roleplaying game setting. Science fiction doesn’t try to predict the future; it tries to entertain by creating a possible future.

Second, the reality is that many African nations are incredibly corrupt. This isn’t news nor a contested, unproven idea. It’s a fact. We are simply using that fact in creating our game setting.

To answer the question we posed in the title, we believe that having African nations still struggle with tribalism and corruption in our futuristic setting is not racist. We aren’t making any judgment calls on the people of Africa. Besides the fact that this is just a game, the currently corrupt African nations don’t seem to be on the road to improvement. It makes sense to depict them this way.

New classes for 4E/Paranoia

In two days, I will begin the first playtest of my hybrid 4E/Paranoia game, temporarily titled Kingdom of Teria. How exciting! How nerve-wracking!

Some people have wondered how I can combine such different games. Not easily, I can tell you that.  I started by creating some new roles that focused on how players can screw with each other. (Like D&D roles, they are focused on combat.)

This gave me much more focus when designing new classes that, while working within D&D, could also fit into the Paranoia paradigm. The new classes are:

  • Disconcerter: Disconcerters use magic to create problems for others, usually a specific person. They create vulnerabilities, warp senses, or otherwise open others up to devastating attacks. If you want to pick on one ally at a time with a powerful debuff, play a disconcerter.
  • Evangelical: Arrogant, proud to a fault, and completely convinced of his inevitable sainthood, evangelicals use guilt and fear like an artist uses brushes and paint. If you want to guilt people into protecting you and make them expect, even seek out, punishment, play an evangelical.
  • Feral Mage: A natural magic user who escaped the High King’s purges through luck or conspiracy, feral mages have immense power but no training to control it. If you want to hurt friend and foe alike in a burst of magical fire, cause everyone to suffer, and somehow emerge unscathed, play a feral mage.
  • Officer: Trained in shouting loudly and expert at making other people do stupid, dangerous tasks, officers send others to their deaths so they may live. If you want to slide other player’s characters around the battlefield and win debates through sheer volume, then officer is a good class to take.
  • Prankster: Physical jokes are always funny to the prankster, especially if they hurt someone. If you want to knock allies about, embarrass them, then claim it was all a joke, play a prankster.
  • Zealot: Power-mad is the perfect term for these: they have holy power and they are crazy enough to think they know better than the gods what the gods want. If you want to wield barely-controlled power that can take out the unworthy in groups (and only you are truly worthy), play a zealot.

I am proud of these classes and I think they’ll work well,  but we’ll see on Saturday how well these all work together. Or not, as the case may be. After all, there is a lot of Paranoia in my 4E these days.

Space Peanut Butter

Triune is set in the future, so we need to describe how the future looks and works in our game books. But where do we stop?

A fantasy rpg setting is pretty easy to describe. People already know what castles, horses, swords, and 10′ poles look like. Yes, you might have to explain what a bec-de-corbin is, or what the elven Council of Elders is all about, but for the most part, players understand the imaginary world wherein they’re killing and looting. No one wonders what peasants eat.

peanut_butterA science fiction rpg setting is more difficult. Some tropes are understood–rocket ships are rocket ship no matter what you call them–but the basics of life could be so different from now that they need some level of description. Are guns still guns? Maybe, but maybe not. Players need to know which version of the future has shaped the setting. Does a FutureGun have a stun setting? Is there money? Do Space Peasants eat Space Peanut Butter?

It’s impossible to describe a sci-fi rpg setting completely. Quite possibly that’s a bad idea anyway; GMs should be able to tailor the setting to their needs. Yet you cannot leave too much for GMs to decide, especially if it impacts the gameplay. Where do you draw the line?

Our line is this: define what players need to know to play the game. In Triune, players are police hunting down religious sympathizers and rogue angels and devils. Do they need to know how the future criminal justice system works? Yes. It’s part of their character’s purview. How authorities handle criminals is important to the PCs. Do they need to know what peanut butter is like two hundred years from now? No. It has no bearing on the gameplay (at least none that can be reasonably predicted).

Therefore, we will be describing gear that PCs will encounter, prayers they can use and face in the course of an investigation, underground movements they might fight, and more. As for Space Peanut Butter, that’s up to your friendly GM.