All the Colours…

I’m working with a co-designer on a series of card and board games. It happened fairly quickly:

Karl: “Did you want to work with me on this design.”

Me: “Hell yes.”

Us: <Initiate torrential stream of concepts/>.

Karl (of Ark Angel Games) and I quickly found three core concepts to explore, all originally centered around the use of transparent cards that Karl had concocted. How things have changed in the months since.

Iteration, playtest, iteration, playtest, iteration, playtest. Two of the three are on version 3 or 4, while one is on version 11.

Some of these have come together quickly, feel close to being ‘right’, one is a work in progress, still missing a core something. All of them have changed, as is only good and right.

It’s like finding a path through a jumbled and dark room, ironically, one that you yourself have created. Feeling for what’s in front, trying to find the light switch. Once the light switch has been located of course, it’s not the end, oh no! The room needs to be surveyed, assessed, ordered, tidied, and made presentable.

At different points throughout the iterations I feel like I’ve found the light switch, but the playtest to follow reveals I have, in fact, found nothing of the sort. Things work differently in the mind to how they play out on the table, and that, while obvious, highlights *again* the vital role that playtesting has in the design process.

I have a brilliant idea! It will work! It will be glorious! It will add depth, and strategy, and… <initiate playtest/>… it just doesn’t work at all. How did I not see that!

Time and again we have come back to one or other of the games and asked ourselves – what do we want this game to achieve? If this game were on a shelf next to other games of a similar weight and a similar depth, what would those games be? What is the target audience? What other games do the people who will play this game play? Knowing the destination is vital to keeping it on track. But, by the same token, being open to a change in destination is also important.

Working with a co-designer has been a great experience. The ability to bounce ideas, come at things from other angles, and play to different strengths has been fantastic. If we have a tendency to spin one idea into three, that’s ok, I’m confident that one or more of these is going to turn out great!

Breaking Eggs

You can’t make an Omelette without breaking eggs, as the saying goes. The same is true for game design. Owlbear Omelette has been through a number of revisions, most recently an update to the random dungeon system that will be in the extended edition.

Run Goblin! Run!

The dungeon creation rules started as a card driven system: split a deck of cards into three, divided by colours and numbers. Flip this card, then that card, corridors, rooms, and encounters defined by suit and then number… Explaining it to a friend at a later stage I realised something that should probably have been quite obvious earlier: all the same could be achieved through dice rolls. In fact, rolling dice and checking tables is simpler than splitting up a deck of cards into three specific decks, and then having to check tables.

The Lost Paladin… Which way did the rogue say to go?

It’s funny how, in the moment, we can get lost in needless complexity. That the solution to a problem we see can swiftly spiral into complication. But… would the dice system exist without me having first created the overly complicated card system? No, it would not.

There is much to be said for building the thing; complexities, complications, warts and all. Once the things exists, in a form that approximates, roughly, painfully, and no doubt awkwardly, what you want to achieve, cut it back, pare it down. Ask of the thing: what can be done more simply? Is there another way to achieve the same thing?

I changed from cards to dice not just because the system is simpler, but because it doesn’t ask the GM or the players to pre-prepare. Thinking about the physical actions required of either preparing or executing an action in the game is important. Such things can add a fun aspect to the game experience when they are deliberate and purposeful, but can detract from the fun just as easily. A system that involves some sort of procedure or preparation can be a barrier to entry, a step or series of steps that add needless ‘busy work’ to a process that doesn’t necessarily require it.

I have a tendancy as a designer to add all the things in, one idea leads to two others, which in turn add some system or sub-system, and so the teetering pile grows. This is a part of my process, and just as important as growing that messy pile, is the act of going back and shaving it down, of cutting away and reorganising. Of removing the things that don’t add to the experience, but simply add processes. This cutting back is the step that is key… As I wrote at the beginning: when making an omelette, you need to break eggs.

Owlbear Omelette will be the next game released by Caradoc Games. The basic edition will be available as a free download in all the usual places (Patreon, DriveThruRPG, and Itch.io), while the Extended Edition, which includes extras such as fun secret character goals, armour rules, and random dungeon creation, will be available exclusively to Patreon supporters.

Questions, questions, questions…

Some things I am wondering…

I have set up a Patreon account, and intend to release a number of micro-rpgs as backer rewards. These would later be released on itch and Drivethru as pay-what-you-want (PWYW) products.

I currently have two tiers, the lower tier gets the game before everyone else, the higher tier gets an expanded version of the same game. I’ve written two of these micro games so far, and have drafts in various stages for the next four or five. BUT…

I am wondering whether I should drop the higher tier, and just have one Patreon level, at which you get the expanded version. Along with this the base game would go up on itch and Drivethru as PWYW, and the expanded version would also go there at set price to match the Patreon level (say at $2, $3, or $4).

A number of things concern me:

  • I don’t want to undervalue my time in creating these.
  • I don’t want to overvalue the games and put a price point that no-one is ever going to be interested in paying.
  • I am not sure whether just having one level on Patreon (at a similar price as above) is a good idea as whatever I begin with, I must continue (though of course I may add new tiers or whatever. But what I offer now I should continue to offer – changing the price or what is received is not fair for any backers – not that I have any yet, but still).

I feel like the answer is to create a single tier on Patreon, and offer the expanded version of each micro-game as the reward. These would then go on itch and Drivethru for the same price, and the cut down version as PWYW. I could add further tiers later if there was a need to do that. How to value these is a difficult problem though, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the Patreon accounts of many other people working in the table-top role playing game field, and there is a wide variance on what price the tiers are set at, and what is offered in return. $2 seems the entry point, but many are as high as $5. Whatever I end up choosing can always be reduced, I suppose, but not increased without a damn good reason and the likelihood of annoying any backers I do have at the time.

Then of course is the age old issue of impostor syndrome. Will anyone actually want to buy the games I am writing? Are they any good? On one shoulder is perched a little dragon saying that I’ll never know until I try it, and that I should, at least, give it a go. On the other is another little dragon telling me not to bother, that I’m wasting my time. One may be right and the other wrong, or they could both be right, who knows…

For now I remain here, chewing over the specifics of my Patreon account and what to do with the games I am working on…

Horns of Dilemma…

Horns of dilemma… uncertainty… vacillation… indecision… unwillingness to commit… Is it one of these or all of these? It’s time for the rubber to hit the road, as it were, to make a choice and commit to it. I’ve been putting it off, easier to vacillate and make no choice than set goals, which have targets, which can be missed.

At the start of the year I wrote about wanting to write a novel manuscript. I still do. I also wrote about developing my role playing game, something I am still doing. But I have come to realise that I am too often using one as a distraction when the other is looking tough. Stepping from fiction to RPG and back again is fine, but I would like to actually get to the point where I have something or somethings to put out there in the world.

While maintaining my freelance work I have come to realise that of the two things above I can really only focus on one for now. I simply don’t have the time or mental acuity to get both done. So here we are: the horns of dilemma. Fiction writing or RPG development?

If I choose fiction writing I would be committing to write one or two short stories a month, as well as working on my novel. I’d be committing to build a reader base, starting an email list, probably completing some courses, and getting my work out there to magazines, and other publications. I would be looking at dropping my work on my RPG (though maintaining my freelance work) and focusing on getting a novel manuscript finished by the end of the year, hopefully three by the end of next year, and looking at options for either self publication or mainstream publication.

If I choose RPG development I am similarly locking myself into a commitment. I would be aiming to build my current big project up into a publishable piece, playtesting, blind playtesting, and looking at self-publication through Kickstarter. I would be looking at creating a range of smaller products, like zines, on a regular basis, for publication on DriveThruRPG and/or through a Patreon page.

Both are commitments, both are two to three years of focus, quite probably more like 5 or more. I can’t do both however, not at the same time. So we return to the horns of dilemma. I’m sure the easiest question to ask is: which am I more passionate about? To be honest I find it difficult to answer this question. I want to do both. But I can’t do both right now. I want to write fiction, I love it. I want to work in the role playing space, I love it too. Right now though, doing both is is more like forgetting one for a while and doing the other, and making little progress on both as a result.

Doesn’t this look sexy! I cringe, looking back. But Zev never outright said he hated it…

I’ve been working in the gaming space for years now. I wrote the old Z-Man Games newsletter back in 2008, and wrote some 20-30 issues over the following few years. I worked on miniatures games like Halo: Fleet Battles, and Dystopian Legions, for Spartan Games. In more recent years I have been back working on Role Playing Games, writing mainly for Modiphius on the Infinity The Role Playing Game line, but also a little for Star Trek Adventures, and more recently for Red Scar on their Devil’s Run line. In the RPG world I have had/will have more than a quarter of a million words published, over more than 20 books, and while it’s not a huge amount for many freelancers out there, it is experience.

As a result of this experience I ask myself whether choosing the RPG option from my horns of dilemma scenario is the easy way out. By which I mean something I find sits more in my wheelhouse, something I am more comfortable doing. Something where I find the words flow a little more smoothly. The actual next steps to getting my drafts to anything worth publication will be anything but easy, but I hope you get my meaning.

I also worry… If I choose fiction will I be disappointed I didn’t choose role playing games? If I choose role playing games will I be disappointed I didn’t choose fiction? I shouldn’t be, it’s not like I can’t later do the second if I pick the first now. But while it’s easy to tell myself that, it’s much less easy to not feel it.

So here I sit. A week of busy vacillation, of active uncertainty, struggling with this problem. Is it I don’t want to let one go? Is it I don’t want to actively commit? I don’t know. I do feel the growing pressure, however, of needing to make a choice…

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.

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…