Test, Test, 1, 2…

My fantasy RPG, Ashmerl, is coming along apace, I wrote previously about the ease with which a rules system can grow and develop, how one thing can lead to another, and the entirety can be left bloated. An obvious solution is to test, test, and test some more, then cut, cut, and cut some more. The main thing I am testing at the moment is the character creation system.

In Ashmerl, players create both their characters, and the place the character are from. In this way players and the GM together create the protagonists for their story, as well as their own slice of the setting. The aim of all of this is for the characters to enter play with a back story and a context, with drivers and motivators, with things and people they already know, facing dangers and threats they are familiar with. It is my vague hope that playgroups will, through this process, end up with enough material to fuel the first few adventures, or even the first leg of a prolonged campaign.

So many little pieces can lead to rules creep, so testing and testing and testing is the key to seeing how it flows. At the moment I’m still in the development phase, fleshing out and honing ideas into written rules. The testing so far has largely been done in-house, so to speak. With my own playgroup willingly (well, I hope) humouring me by putting up with repeated character generation sessions. I’ve done this a few times now, and I am broadly happy with what I have. The next stage is the trickier part, it’s where the rubber hits the road, it’s time to test the dice system…

Having run through some test scenarios myself, and burned through eight or nine different ideas for dice systems over the last four months, I think I have settled on a system that works the way I would like it to. Testing such systems in solitary is only so useful though, so the next test session we run here will be a simple trial adventure, to see how skill test resolution and conflict resolution all fit together in the heat of the moment.

I have questions… Are there too many little things? Has the rules creep gone too far? Is it lacking in options, or not have enough? Is the complexity all in the wrong places? Does the dice system actually work? Does it need to change to something else? Do the other systems, the in-game GM-Player currency system for example, add to the game or impede the flow? Does the actions/rounds/turns/time and timing system in the game work? So many more.

I need to create some enemy stat blocks, pull together a simple encounter, and let nature run it’s course. No doubt many things will have to change, they always do, but that’s what testing is all about.

Looking ahead… once this round of testing is through, and I feel like the dice system is functional (if not well balanced yet), then the time will come for another leap… Finding people to test externally, asking friends and contacts to have a look and see what they think, to poke holes and break the game. I have a few people lined up, who have been kind enough to offer, but I need to jump a few more hurdles yet. With every test session down the list of bullet points of things that need to be done seems only to grow, in time this will turn around, but for now it’s onward.

It feels like the path is getting harder and more arduous, there are more barriers and rougher terrain than I could see from my cosy little Hobbit hole, where it all began. But the road ahead is becoming clearer at least, for all the mountains yet to climb and the forests left to explore. I can envisage my destination, even if it is still shrouded in the distance, with many lands have yet to be crossed. But I have a path forward, so I must bow my head, tighten my belt, and get on with getting on.

The Cost of Greed

It’s very exciting to see a project you have worked on getting closer to release, to see the amazing art work, maps and layout all making the thing pop. The latest update for the Infinity Role Playing Game Kickstarter dropped the other day, and along with it came a PDF for backers, of a campaign I wrote: The Cost of Greed.

Cover art by Francisco Rio

The blurb…

A chance discovery on Paradiso leads to the uncovering of a VoodooTech smuggling ring, with the clues pointing to an intelligence agency or corporation. Follow the rabbit hole, follow the money, and the trail of breadcrumbs may soon provide clues to a plot that could put the entire Human Sphere at risk.

The Cost of Greed is a mini-campaign of five non-linear adventures that provide the characters with a chance to meet, work alongside, and challenge the key characters from Corvus Belli’s Dire Foes Mission Packs 1 to 5.


• First Domino: Follow the trail of a smuggling ring trafficking
VoodooTech from Paradiso to the crowded streets
of Yinquan. Will the tight-lipped Yănjīng be involved,
or perhaps the shady MagnaObra corporation?


• Ice and Fire: Seeking clues to the architect and purpose
of the smuggling ring, the characters will need to brave
the icy cold of Svarlarheima to find the answers they seek.


• Quantronic Noise: A hacking cell operating from
an enclave on Bakunin are a key factor to the operation.
Their ability to manipulate the characters’ patinas,
however, may flip the Wilderness of Mirrors on its head,
creating enemies of both civilians and friends.


• Hot Sands: Chasing an executive for intel she’s
hiding will lead the characters into a fight to survive
on the Silk Route, but her enemies could prove more
overwhelming than expected.


• The Black Box: With the very war on Paradiso under
threat and the safety of the Human Sphere at stake,
infiltrating the operational centre of the cabal
responsible could turn disaster into victory.

Key to these adventures was providing scope for the players to meet and interact with well-known characters from the Infinity universe. The missions in The Cost of Greed begin in parallel with the Dire Foes Mission Pack 1, and then spiral from there, drawing in the main characters from Mission Packs 1-5. I hope those GMs and players who manage to play through this campaign find a little of something for everyone. Each adventure aims to allow different player character’s to shine, and hopefully offer some interesting challenges along the way!

I’ve written this before: it’s one thing to see the words on a computer screen, and it’s entirely another to see everything come together in layout, with art, style, maps and so on, in place. It reminds you that something like this is a team endeavor, a fact that is easy to forget when you’re knocking away at the keyboard in the privacy of your own home. Scrolling through the PDF I am reminded how talented the pool of people at Modiphius is, and I for one am greatly impressed (though naturally, I’m biased)!

The Cost of Greed PDF is currently available to backers of the Kickstarter, but it won’t be long before the files are off to the printers, and then the book, as a physical item, will see the light of day.

The PDF will soon be available to purchase from the Modiphius online store, followed in due course by the physical book.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing this campaign, and I hope anyone who reads or plays it gets as much fun from it as I did!

Rules Creep…

Wouldn’t it be cool if… A neat way to handle that would be… Ohh, this rule would be interesting… Maybe when defending a character could… Maybe when working together characters could… So many good ideas! I am just drowning in them!

Options, exceptions and little rules can add depth, story, interest, and strategy to a game engine. When designing something like an RPG, which traditionally have fairly lengthy rule sets, a thought sits in the back of the mind: this is only a small exception, this is only one extra option, this little rule works seamlessly with the rest of the system. The slow addition of complexity is the rules creep…

Creating characters and having then fight each other. Test, test, and test some more…

I’ve hit the stage with the fantasy RPG I’m working on where it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, as it were, where characters are created and dice are rolled. Sure, I’ve tested along the way, but it was isolated, not a holistic picture. In recent testing however, I have come to realise I may have added too much, I may have been subjected to rules creep. A good meal is spoiled with the addition of too many spices, and I may have walked that path here…

The question sits, uncomfortable and demanding attention: are there are too many times when players need to reach for the dice? Or must apply a special trait or ability? Or need to compare some result with some other thing? I suspect the answer is yes. Experience tells me that if I ‘suspect’ I ‘may’ have done a thing, I have most definitely done the thing, and that the thing needs fixing.

It was easy to get to this position, it always is. In the writing and development process it’s ever so easy to add just one more thing, or to develop a concept and then take one step further exploring a cool idea related to it. It’s a more difficult thing to work out how much is too much, when the game starts feeling like a procedure and the story takes a back seat to the interplay of mechanisms. In my ideal game the rules are easy and the exceptions few, the story takes the front seat and the players attention is almost wholly dedicated to the development of it. When things need to be checked, or mechanical systems employed, the rules are taking center stage. This is not ideal.

And yet, by the same token, rules exist to add flavour to the story being created by both adding an element of risk (am I going to succeed), and as the vehicle through which the setting and themes of the game influence the direction the story takes (leaping from the rooftop to the ground will surprise my foe (as opposed to shatter my legs)). Exceptions and rules detail add all this flavour in, they provide the internal physics that govern the world in which the story will take place. Rules are important, but too many, or ill applied, brings the risk of derailing the flow of a game by miring the players in the procedure of playing it.

When I worked on miniatures games I often considered exceptions and little rules (short hand for rules that modify the core system), let’s call them complexities for short, to come in two broad varieties: front loaded, and back loaded. Front loaded complexities, to my mind, are the variety that often appear as ‘rule 12.2a’… Everything bundled together, and the exceptions, additions, bonuses, and negatives always applicable: a part of the core rules, all there, up front. Back loaded complexity seek a similar level of depth, but usually only apply if a character or model has a special ability (or, insert game specific parlance here), and therefore only really need to be remembered by the person in control of that character or piece. The core rules are explained, and are usually relatively simple, and the complexities are back loaded as abilities and powers that apply on a case by case basis known to the player to whom it is relevant. In short: front loaded rules are a detailed encyclopedic description of how everything functions from start to finish, and back loaded rules are a simpler core engine, with a range of exceptions tucked away as special abilities or powers.

Using this simplistic dichotomy, I prefer back loaded rules, a simple core engine, where detail and depth (if required) are to be found in exceptions applicable only to characters/players if they have access to them, and they’ll know if they do. Having too much back loaded though, makes a game just as obsessed with minutia as the most detailed of front loaded systems, and of course, the lines are blurred because that’s how lines are.

The balancing point for either approach, to my mind is: how much adds depth and interest, and at what point does the added complexity cause the game play experience to veer into procedural ‘fact checking’ or so much die rolling that the the progression of the story (all about action and outcome) takes a back seat to performing the functions of the rules?

There is no real answer to this question, as every game sets out to achieve something different, and employs a mechanical system to approximate that sought after ‘feeling’ as best the designer/s is/are capable of. Every player will have a different take as well as different preferences, and this whole issue veers into the ‘simulation’ versus ‘narrative’ discussion in RPG design.

For me, the first words I wrote down as I sat to flesh out the concept of Ashmerl were: ‘A simple rules system where story takes pride of place.’ A lot of things I have added in over the course of development and writing so far have been cool, some of them I am really proud of. I know, however, that much of this will have to go. This is a natural part of the development process for me, and I’m sure others. Design a thing, put it all in, follow the rabbit holes, see where they lead. There are cool ideas in there for sure, but the next step, which sits alongside playtesting, is the ‘great culling’. The part of the process where I must go back through and pare back the layers I have added till the system feels right – till the mechanisms of play are something that drives and adds to the story playing out, rather than chaining it to the detailed or laborious procedure of playing it.

From the edge of the world the mountains march, as far as anyone knows they march to the end of the world. In the valleys and on the mountainsides and peaks, civilisation, a thousand stuttering candles, strains to drag itself back from the brink, to survive, first, and to reconnect a shattered world…

An experiment with watercolours to get a feel for how I want to visualise the setting…