A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

5Jul/140

To Crunch or Not To Crunch

Development has continued on the Atomic Age RPG... Granted, not as fast I would like due to personal and "real life" issues (how awesome would gaming be if we didn't have to do things like, you know, pay rent and eat food!) but it's moving along.

This past week I've been focusing on two things:

  1. Rewriting the rules so that they have more fluff. Right now, except for entirely new material, it's 90% text from the SRD which... let's be honest... reads like the owner's manual to a 747. It's presentation of the rules is as raw as it gets, and it isn't exactly as fun a read as the 13th Age book is. I'm hoping to fix that.
  2. Seriously reconsidering some of the new implementations I'm doing. Besides the all new classes, races, monsters and content, there are a few major things I'm creating exclusively for The Atomic Age:
  • Radiation sickness
  • Disease and toxins
  • Gun mechanics
  • Vehicles and driving mechanics
  • Hacking

#2 above is the one I have the biggest issue with right now. You see, I'm a crunch guy... As a mathematics/computer science major, I love crunch and can't get enough of it. But 13th Age isn't exactly designed that way... it's meant to be "rules light", comparatively speaking. So it's hard to do certain things without becoming what 13th Age isn't.

Some things could be unavoidably complex... Yes, I could make vehicle rules be no more than one paragraph, but do I really want to? I'm not the kind of person that would make it a single paragraph and expect the DM to figure out what to do with that. I want to write rules, but is doing so a direct violation of everything 13th Age and the Archmage SRD stands for?

Let's take the firs example above: radiation sickness. Or let's put it in terms I'm actually using: the distinction between radiation damage and radiation exposure.

Radiation damage is just that: raw damage, no different than any other. Radiation exposure is how much radiation your body soaks up; it may not be immediately lethal, but it probably won't be god for you. But how do I quantify that? At what point do I decide "OK, you've had enough exposure... time to start feeling icky."

So I conceived the concept of a "radiation tolerance", which is half your maximum hit points. Once you get exposed to an amount of radiation that exceeds your tolerance, your sickness level increases one stage. And it keeps stacking... For example, you start at Stage 0 but if your tolerance is 20 and you take 50 exposure your stage is now Stage 2 (with 10 points to spare).

So what are the stages? Here's the list I currently have...

Stage 0: No adverse effect.

Stage 1: Your Constitution score is reduced by 1d4.

Stage 2: Your Constitution and Intelligence scores are further reduced by 1d4. When you use a recovery, you only recover half the hit points you normally would. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may start to experience one small, cosmetic mutation that may not fully develop until your exposure increases or until you go a long time without treatment.

Stage 3: Your Constitution, Intelligence and Strength scores are all further reduced by 1d4. You cannot use any recoveries until your radiation level is reduced. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may experience one significant mutation (see Advanced Mutations on page XXX).

Stage 4: All your attributes are further reduced by 1d4. During each full heal-up, you must succeed in a hard Constitution skill check (see Environmental DCs for Skill Checks on page XXX) or die.

Stage 5: Death.

The problem with this is that now I'm introducing another mechanic: ability drain. Every time this happens you'll have to recompute everything: armor class, defenses, max hit points, attack rolls, etc... etc... etc... Do I really want that? This feels very... 3.5E/Pathfinder-ish.

So I thought of an alternate list:

Stage 0: No adverse effect.

Stage 1: You take a -2 penalty to all attack rolls and skill checks.

Stage 2: You take a -2 penalty to all defenses, and when you use a recovery you only recover half the hit points you normally would. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may start to experience one small, cosmetic mutation that may not fully develop until your exposure increases or until you go a long time without treatment.

Stage 3: You are vulnerable to all attacks against you, and you cannot use any recoveries until your radiation level is reduced. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may experience one significant mutation (see Advanced Mutations on page XXX).

Stage 4: Death.

It's one stage less because I'm honestly running out of things to penalize.

So all of the above, with the addition of details on how to reduce your exposure and whatnot, takes up two pages of a Word document, which would translate to about a page and a half (sans art) in the final format. For a game whose rules on invisibility take up three small paragraphs, that feels like a lot doesn't it?

Again, is that such a bad thing? If I had to simplify it, I'm not sure how I would... any more and I might not as well include it at all.

This happens with all the other sections I mention above as well. Vehicle rules are like six pages right now, and that might sound absurdly long but, to me anyway, it feels right. So I have to force myself to adjust my way of thinking and create new rules that have the same design ethic as the rest of the document. Well that or create the entire damn game from scratch, which is not something I think I can do in any reasonable amount of time.

Anyway, I'll revisit these rules some of the day I suppose. I still got a lot of text to write for my icons in the meantime.

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4Jun/14Off

A Developer’s Hell

Gosh, it's been a while... To say my life has been hectic, or difficult, is somewhat of an understatement. So much so that I have had to effectively cancel my trip to GenCon this year because I see no way whatsoever that it can be logistically or financially possible. So, to those of you that are going, I will have no choice but to experience it vicariously through you.

Meanwhile, my little pet project - the Atomic Age RPG - has been languishing in something I can only describe as "development hell". Or maybe "launch a Kickstarter hell", if such a thing exists.

Here are my concerns with the project:

1) I have no art

Right now, at this very moment, I can probably launch a Kickstarter, distribute or sell the product... but I can't bring myself to do that. You see, right now at it stands it's nothing more than a text dump, an almost identical copy of the Archmage Engine SRD with some words and numbers changed. That does not make for a successful RPG by any means, and I feel that if I were to do that the product wouldn't last a day before disappearing into obscurity.

If I'm going to do this I'm going to do this right, which means that I need some sort of art. And there are many levels that need to be covered by art...

  • I don't even have a LOGO yet
  • The Kickstarter listing alone needs some sort of art
  • The core book needs art. A LOT of art, quite frankly
  • Everything else (stretch goals, backer rewards, etc...) needs art

Now I know a handful of artists I want to approach with this project, and I have even had business-like discussions with them, but with all of them there is a cost to get this off the ground. Maybe some will do it free, I don't know... I didn't ask and I don't want to ask. Like I said, I want to do this right: I do not want contributions or charity. I'm going to treat this like a business, which means I will pay my artists what the market bears.

That being said, although the cost of prettying up the core book and supplementals will be covered by the Kickstarter itself, the logo and Kickstart art will not and has to be paid first. The financial turmoils I've already mentioned make that rather difficult to do, and I can't bring myself to take the next steps without knowing - without a doubt - that I can afford my artists.

2) It hasn't been officially announced

I've mentioned the project in passing, and have even posted images of some of the content I've been working on, but it hasn't really been officially announced. There's a website, and a Facebook page, and a Twitter account... but few people know about it.

Why not? I don't have a logo, and for personal pride reasons I feel I can't start officially directing people to the social media venues without having a product identity.

So, until I can do that, they stay clouded in obscurity and amidst the whispers of a select few.

3) It hasn't been playtested

Because it hasn't been launched, few people know about it. Even fewer have actually seen it. Actually, I can only think of two people that have, and even those two have probably only glanced over it, figuring I wasn't quite serious about this whole thing because I haven't done everything I mention above.

For that reason, I have no idea if what I'm doing is "right" or "broken". I don't know if I properly grasp the concepts and game style people expect or look forward to, or if I've created any single element that needs radical changing before it gets abused all to hell.

Granted, the playtesting could theoretically happen during or after the Kickstarter, but as a long time game designer it's a serious concern for me. I've had issues before with games that weren't properly tested... Sure, this isn't a video game, but I feel it needs an equal level of analysis and testing before getting anywhere near production.

4) It hasn't been edited

I'll be honest: I'm a lousy writer. And if you're a writer reading this, I bet you can admit (to yourself, at least) that in the early stages of your writing career you were a lousy writer too. Heck, there are probably several dozen grammatical errors and misspellings in this post alone (yes, I know they're there... No, don't point them out).

If I want to do this right, the game has to be the best that it can be, and for that an editor is absolutely necessary. Yes, I know that the editor can do his job pretty much at any time before the product reaches the final stages, but that would mean that the early "alpha" or playtest releases might end up looking like they were written by a child who can't speak English. Once again, personal pride steps in... You can be the creator of the best RPG the world has ever seen, but if you give it to the world using text that looks like it was written by a monkey with a typewriter it doesn't matter how good the game is.

5) It's not done

In the video game industry, there was a time when if you asked pretty much any video game developer when they were going to release their product they would answer without hesitation "when it's done" (I guess we can thank 3D Realms for that one). But the thing is, if it were entirely up to me and my creative flow, what exactly defines "done"? Honestly, I could keep writing content until the core manual is 3,000 pages. Who decides "OK, you can stop now and publish this"?

Furthermore, as many authors will probably attest to, it's hard to be satisfied with what you've written. When you think you're done, you look at it and think "you know, I didn't like [X]... let me fix that"... And six months and 400 pages of rewrites later you keep thinking the same thing. It's very hard for a writer to stop themselves because, in their eyes, it's never done... it's never perfect... and there's always room to do something better.

Let's look at the classic example of someone taking forever to write something: George R. R. Martin. Do you honestly think he sits down and starts writing page one, then as soon as he writes the last word of page 1,200 sends it off to the publisher and never thinks about it again? Heck no. Let's be realistic here, there probably is at least one version of The Winds of Winter that is already written cover to cover... He's knows it's terrible,  he's probably been writing and rewriting and rewording and fixing it for the last four years, and will probably keep doing that for another four years because that's the way he works. If he had someone that made him publish the books when they were ready, we'd have fifteen books in the series by now. They may not be as awesome as the five books we've seen (they'd probably suck, to be honest), but they'd be out there.

So unless you're George R. R. Freakin' Martin, eventually you have to put your foot down and say "OK, I might have spent five years rewriting this thing eighteen times, and I know it's probably the worst thing I've ever written, but I can't keep doing this until the end of time", send it to your publisher and hope that you're the only one that thinks it sucks.

I know a lot of things in my product are deficient, or "broken", or nothing more than a "// TODO" tag. It's personal pride again, preventing me from having anyone besides myself see how bad or lacking this product is. Every day I write something, even if it's a sentence or a paragraph or changing monster #135's Mental Defense stat... But I know that at some point I'm going to have to force myself to stop and let other people look at this mess.

Anyway, besides the personal issues I will not elaborate on here, I have a lot of things to do and a lot of battles with my own pride to overcome. This product will get done, sooner than later, and I just have to get my crap together to do it.

Until the Kickstarter launches, "ever forward..."

30Mar/14Off

A Place In The World

Gosh, it's been a while. Saying "I've been rather busy" is somewhat of an understatement.

ArchmageEngine_RGB_150x150.fwAs of late I've been having a but of a problem in the development of the Atomic Age RPG: I'm not exactly sure what the RPG is meant to be, in a manner of speaking.

You see, when I first saw the Archmage Engine SRD and decided "I could make a game with this", my original vision was to make something along the lines of Gamma World, and capitalize on that system's appeal. Create the utterly bizarre, and give the GMs the artistic liberty to create an environment that could be whatever they want it to be, however zany, off-the-wall and madcap they would want to make it. You know, gun-toting badgers and land sharks... that sort of thing.

But over the past four months of development it seems I've ended up with something different. The zaniness isn't there, at least not on the surface, and replaced with the elements of a gritty reality of a post-apocalyptic world. I found myself writing pages on gun mechanics, on vehicle driving rules, on poisons and toxins, on radiation exposure and so on...

That's mainly because, and I've mentioned this before, I'm a mechanics guy. As a computer science/mathematics major and a career software developer, I find myself at home writing crunch and could spend days, weeks, or even months writing mechanics. But writing fluff for me, quite honestly, is rather hard and takes a great deal of effort. You can't imagine how many rewrites I've done to some of the fluff pieces in this product... such as the icons or the geography. They're still 90% filled of "TODO" sections that are yet to be written.

So, after looking at the project as it stands now, rather than having something like Gamma World - which is what I originally intended, at least superficially - the RPG has ended up leaning towards something along the lines of Fallout or Mad Max. A gritty, harsh, post-apocalyptic world that has its share of weirdness, sure, but it isn't as over the top "WTF?!?" crazy that is Gamma World.

Although I accept that that's how the mechanics turned out, now I have to put together the fluff around it. The major dilemma I have right now is trying to decide what the system actually looks like... I need branding. I've asked a few people for ideas on what that should be, with the intention of at least getting a logo to start the social media blitz, but a lot of examples I've gotten in response to my inquiries have been leaning towards the original intent of this project: very Gamma World-like. And, now that I think of it, my project isn't that any more. And those that weren't GW-like seem very Fallout-like... I don't want to be "Fallout: The RPG".

Don't get me wrong: the weirdness is there. I have sentient plants, rampant AIs that want to kill you, an vorpal rabbits.

Part of the reason is that, by design, 13th Age is kind of open ended. They don't ram the setting down your throat, leaving it with a gray area on purpose and hoping that the GM will fill in the blanks. For example, very little is said of the icons, and the GMs can weave their stories any way they see fit without fear of breaking canon... because there is no canon. So for a while I thought to not pigeonhole myself in to something GW-like or not GW-like, leaving a gray area on purpose. If the DM wanted to make it like the Gamma World of old, he could do so with nominal effort. If he wanted Fallout, he can do that as well...

But the problem with that is that it makes it very difficult to present a product identity when the product doesn't have an identity in the first place. It's hard to give an elevator pitch to a product that's 99% gray area.

So that's where I stand right now... I have a whole metric truckload of mechanics waiting to be playtested, but no look and feel. It's ready to be reviewed, at least in terms of mechanics and playability, but I'm hesitant to do so without any identity. Yeah, that didn't stop D&D Next from getting playtested without a logo, but they have a foundation.

And I have to wonder... do I have an audience now? Doing something like Gamma World had an audience because that niche had yet to be filled, but since I'm not that I wonder how much appeal my product would actually have. And I'm not the type of person to turn my product into something like Gamma World by force just because it can be more successful. The product is what it is... 13th Age exists because it's the RPG the creators wanted to create and would play themselves. Atomic Age is in the same boat. I don't feel bad about that I suppose, but in light of my goal to have a successful Kickstarter I can't help but wonder if I'll have an audience for it.

Anyway, for now I'm going to work on reformatting all my Word documents into a PDF format for playtesting. By the time I'm done, hopefully, I'll have a better idea of what the project is and is meant to be, and maybe we can start getting it out there for my would-be audience to review and see if there's a place for it in this market.

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2Feb/14Off

Atomic Age Preview: The Vorpal Rabbit

In case you aren't aware, my pet project - the post-apocalyptic treatment of 13th Age's Archmage Engine SRD - has a name now: Atomic Age. We have a website and a Twitter account, but I'm not exactly advertising yet because I don't have appropriate branding for it. I want a logo and a few creative assets before I head unto the breach that is social media.

In the meantime, development continues... Most recently on the catalog of monsters that will be included with the core book. Initially I had created the "straight", not off-the-wall monsters that could be present in a semi-realistic post-apocalyptic world - robots, soldiers, wasteland marauders, etc. - but now it's time to do the weird ones that make a post-apocalyptic game entertaining and offbeat.

While I was converting Lepus Maximus to Atomic Age, someone mentioned Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And with that the thought process was unavoidable.

Since it's actually compatible with 13th Age, here you have my latest creation: The Vorpal Rabbit. Hope you enjoy!


Rabbit, Vorpal

Normal 3rd level Wrecker Beast [RABBIT]
Initiative +7

AC 20
PD 15
MD 11
HP 44

Huge, sharp teeth +8 vs. AC - 8 damage, and the rabbit pops free from the target

Charge: The attack instead deals 12 damage on a hit if the rabbit moves first before attacking an enemy it was not engaged with at the start of its turn.
Natural 17+: 6 ongoing damage (hard save ends, 16+)

Quick footed: The rabbit gains a +5 bonus to disengage checks.

Leap about: As a move action and with a successful disengage check (if applicable), the rabbit can hop to any nearby space it can see.

Fear: While engaged with this creature, enemies that have 15 hp or fewer are dazed (–4 attack) and do not add the escalation die to their attacks.

Nastier Specials
Critical threat: When the rabbit makes a charging attack, it scores a critical hit on a 17+.

Vicious streak: When the rabbit scores a critical hit, it can move to engage another nearby target and makes a charging bite attack against it as a free action.

2Dec/13Off

Future Plans

So although there is still a metric crapload of stuff to be done for my new project, I can't help but think of what I'm doing to do with it.

First off, a Kickstarter is probably a definite at this point, but that notion terrifies me more than you can possibly know. I've heard the horror stories, and although I've heard all the things that can - and probably will - go wrong I question whether I can avoid them. I'm afraid of doing it wrong and either paying a heavy cost or disappointing my backers.

But, honestly, what terrifies me most is that it ends up being hugely successful. Although I like to think I can make sound business decisions and have no intention of disappointing anyone who has placed their trust in me, I'm scared to think of what might happen if Amazon Payments suddenly drops several thousand dollars worth of backer funding in my lap. I'm not saying I'll end up at a crap table in Vegas or anything, but it's a big concern that I use that money wisely and not do something absurdly wrong with it. I mean, I can think of at least three half-million-earning Kickstarters that came out and sad "Sorry, we spent all our money. Project over." I don't want to be another statistic like that.

I've started to shop around for the resources I will need, filling the gaps that I know I am personally deficient in. I need artists more than anything, one or more people that would be willing to commit to doing several pieces of art for a project of this potential magnitude. I need editors, and possibly a layout person, and more editors, and probably even more editors. I may also need a cartographer because I suck at outdoor maps and I'm going to need a well-messed-with map of the continental United States. And did I mention editors?

Then there's the cost of printing and shipping, which combined are the downfall of many a Kickstarter. I've been shopping around for book pricing, and the spectrum of quotes I've gotten is hard to understand. As far as I know so far, printing a 200-page color book could cost anywhere between $6 and $60, depending on who you ask, how many copies, the type of paper stock, etc... Deciding what volume rate to base the Kickstarter goal on kind of involves Calculus to determine what the exact point is at which it all becomes profitable. And then there's mailing of course, having to worry about shipping costs to godforsaken places that have Internet but are so expensive to ship to you'd think they can only receive packages by way of dog sled.

And, while taking all those expenses into consideration, you have to find the sweet spot that is your Kickstarter goal. Make it to low and you'll lose your shirt in costs, make it to high and the project might not fund. Unless your Kickstarter listing has the words "Monte Cook" in it somewhere, you may have a hard time funding it if it's too high a goal.

Anyway, maybe I'm thinking too far ahead... but it is exciting in its own way. I want to do this right, get this done the way the project deserves, without mucking it up like so many other people have.

So what will the Kickstarter include? Well, here's what I'm envisioning... And mind you, this is some very premature thinking...

  • The core rulebook, which will probably be slightly smaller than the 13th Age rulebook - but not by much - simply because I have less classes and some sections will be shorter.
  • I'd like a nice big map of the United States as it stands today. I know which artists I'm going to ask for this, but they're pricy.
  • Although I have to look back on the legalities of it all, I am considering converting Fire From the Sky in to the sample adventure in the back of the book (replacing "Blood & Lightning" in the 13th Age core book).
  • The Fortress of Dr. Neb as a standalone adventure, for either Adventurer or Champion tier. Designed to be very Gamma World-like, zany and weird.
  • Where Worlds Collide as a standalone adventure, for either Champion or Epic tier. Since this concept originally revolved around the LHC after the "Big Mistake", it may have to be reworked a tiny bit to fit in to the setting. It will probably be high difficulty, along the original intent of making it a Fourthcore-like adventure, and will probably be more serious and less zany than Dr. Neb.
  • I'm also considering converting A Night in Seyvoth Manor, but that's a long story I don't think I can talk about yet.

Like I said, a lot of work to do... and I'm diligently working on it all as best I can. I'd like to get as much possible done before actually launching the Kickstarter, but my impatience might get the better of me. We'll see how long I can hold out before taking the big step into the realm of crowdfunding.

In the meantime, I'll keep talking about it... revealing some of the design concepts behind it... trying to detail my thoughts and what I'm actually doing. Just bear with me; should be a fun ride.

Oh... and this project still needs a NAME...

Filed under: 13th Age, Design, RPG 2 Comments