July 15, 2010

The Vivid RPG System: Goals

The Vivid RPG system I’m in the process of refining now is a distillation of what I most enjoy in RPG’s, and an exercise for me in going out of the box with regard to rules.   

Interestingly enough, the system wasn’t that hard to design save for a few details on which I went round and round for months before settling on what I really wanted.  My goals:

0) Simplicity. Above all things, the rules must be simple enough for even my wife, who’s very interested in gaming but quailed from the 3rd edition PHB.  And personally, the less rules I have to worry about the better for the quality of my adventures.

1) Descriptive Character Creation. My eyes glaze over whenever I look at a D&D 3.x or 4e character sheet, and I’ve had bad experiences with players who take forever to make their characters when using a ‘shopping list’ of skills and ads/disads as in GURPS.  I’ve also often experienced friends complaining that they couldn’t quite create their concept in a given game because of the game’s limitations.

I think this is actually one of the big barriers keeping more people from entering our hobby.  The amount of information that must be digested just to get in and play a character of your own can be enormous – and we don’t often see how big the pile is until an outsider points it out. 

So I’m going for very simple, description-based character creation.  Let’s start from the assumption that every player character must be good at something, to be able to have a role in the game.  (A totally good for nothing character may have a role in traditional forms of fiction, but not in a game, IMO). 

And to make things simple, all Traits are rated with a number of dice, from 1 to 3 or more.  Yep, it’s a simple, very granular dice pool.

To avoid players having to choose from a list of stuff, and to avoid players having to agonize over the expenditure of points, I’m making character creation a simple matter of assigning freeform Traits by tiers.  You have one Primary Trait that describes what the character is at core, some Major Traits that describe what else the character is good at, and some Minor Traits representing minor advantages, scraps of knowledge, and little-used but potentially significant skills. 

And there’s no standard list of Traits – you, the player, tell me what your character is like in your own words. In fact I encourage players to make up interesting, very specific Traits for their characters.  I admit I’m very influenced by Risus and Over the Edge here.  The philosophy is certainly the same: use your own words to create exactly the character you want.  Don’t worry about game balance. You all get the same number of dice anyway.

2) One Die Type.  I wanted to use D6’s exclusively, as I want to create a game that anyone, even someone totally new to gaming, can pick up and play.  As not everyone knows where to find exotic die types, the common cubical d6 was my ideal.

3) Extended Roll Results. There was one major problem I had to beat in deciding to stick with a D6; the darn things only roll 1 to 6!  How to extend the roll range of a six-sided die without having to resort to too much math? 

I knew also that I wanted a die pool system. First, it’s easy to think of stats in terms of increasing numbers of dice.  Second, an observation made by my friend Marc; as a player, he felt empowered when he could physically scoop up a handful of dice to roll.

I rejected the idea of summing up the die results outright.  Then I experimented with a variation of L5R’s roll and keep system, where you could roll a variable number of dice, but added up only two, for a total of 2-12.  It worked all right, but I was still not content.  For one thing, it made abilities rated at one die too poor in comparison.

Finally I found the answer: don’t treat the die result like a number, treat it like cards.  In a deck of cards, you have your spot cards, where you count the number, and the face cards, which have their own rankings.  So to extend the roll result range, I made the roll consider only the highest die in a pool, but rolls of multiple sixes trumped any rolls with less sixes or no sixes at all.  All rolls are made opposed.

The mechanic now answers the requirements I made of it – it’s easy to remember, needs no math, is very fast to process, and positively rewards the player for having more dice without guaranteeing success. 

4) Positive Feedback with Bonus Dice. In the spirit of rewarding behaviors that I want to see at the game table, I give players positive feedback by giving them bonus dice for playing Vivid, well, vividly. 

In fact I’m doing something a bit sneaky with the way I rated Traits.  Most players will find 2-3 dice too few for facing major threats and challenges to their characters, which of course will motivate them to find ways to get more dice.  Which I am too happy to provide if they play the way I like. 

I also like the idea of being able to make an extra effort at certain very important tasks, so I’m giving players the option to ‘tap’ Traits for more dice.  When you tap a Trait, you temporarily lower its die rating, but you get an extra die to roll.  Better yet, you can tap any Traits that are relevant to a task, so you can have a bunch of Traits supporting a main Trait – for example, you could tap your Street Smarts and Quick as a Rat to add to your Dirty Street Fighter trait in a brawl.

5) No Hit Points. I’ve decided to get away from the idea of Hit Points.  How to have a simple damage-tracking technique that lowers the capabilities of a character with attrition, yet doesn’t create a frustrating death spiral? And how to keep players’ minds on the story and the action, rather than on numbers and the inevitable min-maxing that comes with them?

I came up with two solutions.  First, let’s get rid of weapon damage ratings.  My new philosophy: any weapon, correctly used, is very effective at doing what it’s meant to do.  Second premise: being defeated in combat means you’re dead, disabled, or otherwise totally at the mercy of your opponent – UNLESS you have a reason not to be. 

This led to the idea of the Save.  (I could use a  better name, if I could think of one).  If you have any Trait or Resource that lets you avoid that certain doom, you can spend from it to say ‘No, I’m not finished yet!’  For example, armor can be tapped to absorb damage; agility can be tapped to say ‘I dodged at the last minute’; and so on.  Different forms of damage determine what Traits or Resources can be used to Save agaiinst it; for example, you may not be allowed an agility-based Save against area damage if the character was at ground zero for the effect.

As a side benefit, I no longer need additional rules or exceptions for Mook-type NPC’s.  Instead, everyone’s a Mook by default, unless created otherwise.

I’m really liking Vivid as it is now, far better than my earlier attempts at a generic ‘house’ system I could use for all my games.  From FLEX, which used a d20 roll-under mechanic, to Cineflex, which used a pool of d20’s, to Vivid, I think I’ve made progress in the right direction.  Light, fast, cinematic.

It won’t be to everyone’s taste, I’m sure.  I even have friends who’d run gibbering from a system of this sort. But it works for me, and I’m sure somewhere in the world there are those who think enough like me to appreciate it.

Rumbles of a Dystopian Future

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Proof positive that criminal elements are definitely savvy to the use of high technology!  This photo shows a mini-sub created expressly for smuggling cocaine from Central America.  What else might law enforcers encounter in the not-too-distant future?  Definitely food for thought in creating a near-future, dystopian RPG adventure or campaign.

July 13, 2010

On the Fly GMing

Recently I ran a session as guest GM for a friend's group, but thanks to being loaded with writing assignments just before game day, I had almost no time to prepare at all.   I also expected no more than four players, but ended up with eight, which later became nine. Thankfully however I had a bunch of adventure seeds in mind, some nicely proactive players, and some tools which aided on-the-fly GMing.  The players liked the cinematic nature of the game, and were suprised when I revealed my prep time.  Thinking back on what I did, I realized there were techniques there that other GMs may also find useful. 

1) Have a Bunch of Adventure Ingredients Ready
We were playing a game of pulp air-adventure, where the players would be mercenary fighter pilots from the end of the Great War.  So I dug into my mental library of pulp tropes and came up with zeppelins, air pirates, and the Red Baron. 

The key here is to have a bunch of plot elements and visuals that you can throw together to create points of interest for your players.  As long as you're familiar with the genre and/or the milieu of the game, it's pretty easy to come up with adventure ingredients quickly.  Raid movies and other media for visual ideas.  The innermost kernel of the adventure I thought up was the climactic scene from Flyboys, where you have this big swirling dogfight around a huge balloon.

2) Pick a Player and Hand Him the Ball
We kicked off the adventure by going right into one of the core elements of the pulp air-adventure genre -- a dogfight.  To get the players into the spirit of things, I introduced one of the PCs as a senior pilot of the merc squadron, and the situation was he was there to test the rookies.  This passed a goodly burden of the GMing load on this player, as all the other players were now responding to his cues. 

In your games, you can select a player character as the lead-in to the adventure; find something about that character that will give him or her the motivation to get all the others involved, and set up the scenario accordingly.  A side benefit of this is that the players will get more opportunities to roleplay with each other.

3) Give the Villain a Plan and Modus Operandi
Give your villain a goal, and a means of accomplishing it.  The villain will execute the plan whether the PCs are there or not; the adventure however revolves around the fact that the PCs can either find out about the villain's plans, or get involved through the villain's execution of the plan. 

In my adventure, the mock dogfight suddenly turned real when the squadron received an urgent radio message (I introduced radios, though a bit anachronistic, so the PCs could interact during combat) alerting them to a luxury liner zeppelin being attacked by air pirates.  The villains were trying to force it to dock with their as-yet unseen zeppelin carrier so they could rob the rich passengers -- who were the cream of European society-- and hold them for ransom.  The PCs thus had a chance to interfere with the villain's plan.

4) Take Player Cues and Run With Them
One of my players gave his character the name of 'Sir Guise' and roleplayed him with a British accent, so we agreed he was of the British aristocracy.  When they landed with the zeppelin, the wealthy passengers came pouring out to thank them; I had one of the passengers recognize the aristocrat pilot and greet him by name.  To my surprise, the player said 'Hey Edward, old chap, how're you doing?'  Edward? British aristocracy?

I had said the game was set in 1926, so I quickly thought, Aha, THAT Edward!  Imagine the players' surprise when I told them they'd just saved the Prince of Wales.   This was not something I'd planned at all, in fact the idea I had at the time was to have a rich Italian-Spanish heiress looking for a sunken galleon in the Caribbean -- but hey, having the Prince of Wales made an interesting plot hook! 

I hinted that the Vultur Squadron would be very interested in kidnapping this prize, and right on cue, the players cooked up a scheme to use the Prince's presence as bait.  (It turned out the player wasn't thinking of Edward VIII either, but Edward just happened to be the first British-sounding name he could think of).

5) The World is Your Character
Think of the whole milieu as your character.  Every NPC, every location, every object that the PCs interact with is just a facet of that mega-character that you're running. You can have it respond to player character words and actions in a fluid, lifelike way by coming up with details you know are appropriate to the milieu at any time because you know the milieu so well. 

And just as individual characters have a purpose, so the world-as-mega-character has its own: to engage the PCs.  Depending on how they interact with your world, the world can challenge them, provide clues and info, and spring surprises that twist the story of the game in wonderful new directions, as that player did with his casual drop of a name.

Dawn of the Jedi

Before the Empire ...

Before the Sith ...

Before the Republic ...

There were the Jedi, but they were still finding their Way ...

The fledgling Jedi Order is in chaos.  Having left their home planet of Tython for the first time only a few centuries ago, the Order has been wildly successful in attracting Force-sensitive people from across the galaxy to its teachings.  But the Jedi Order has grown too far, too fast.  Conflicts both within and without threaten the Jedis' existence. 

Already the interference of good-intentioned Jedi has stirred up the wrath of the powerful criminal empires ruling the vast frontier regions.  Within the Order itself, the scattered masters have seriously diverged from each other in their teachings, some of them even beginning to descend into the Dark Side.  The Jedi have found they are not alone in knowing the Force, and the masters are divided as to how to deal with these other traditions.

From the remote planet of Ryloth, a band of apprentices who have lost their master have come seeking safety and enlightenment.  They are confused, angry, terrified -- and they are being hunted.  By Jedi.

Project: Hari Ragat

A long long time ago, our people fled from a mad king’s wrath. Following the promise of a land where we could be free, our ancestors sailed west for week upon week until they sighted these islands. Overcome with joy, they landed on the glittering white sand, marvelling at the lushness of the jungle just beyond the shore. Parties of warriors were sent to hunt for meat, so that a feast and sacrifice could be offered to the gods. Soon they returned, one after another, laden with fat deer and wild boars; save for one band.

As the smoke of the cooking fires rose into the evening sky, there was a horrible roar from the forest, and out of the trees burst a giant with the maned head of a lion, great ram’s horns curling down to his jaws, his teeth dripping with the blood of our brave hunters. The people scattered in all directions but still the giant snatched up and devoured many. Then did your ancestor Laguyen, son of the god Maragayon, step forth, and putting all the power of his great spirit into his spear he did battle with the pitiless foe …

Welcome to Hari Ragat, a game of epic heroes set in a mythic world of lush and mysterious tropical islands populated by giants, dragons, guardian spirits and demonic beings. Hari Ragat is inspired by the myths and legends of the Southeast Asian archipelagoes. The game is played using the Vivid System.

In Hari Ragat, you will play a hero of the Vijadesan people; you must protect them from threats both human and supernatural, help them survive, and explore the isles in search of treasure and magic.

Your hero is no ordinary mortal, but a descendant of the gods, able to perform incredible feats of might and magic by expending Baraka, spiritual power, to fuel the body through amazing stunts or to cast spells. There are heroes whose spears return to their hands after throwing, heroes who can leap across a strait between islands, or call a storm to fill their sails at need.

However Baraka is not free; it must be earned. Baraka is gained by taking the heads of mighty foes, performing austerities for the spirits, killing and eating the flesh of magical beasts, and obtaining magical treasures.

Heroes must also compete for Karangalan, honor and prestige, which proves their worth before the gods. Karangalan is vital to gaining status in Vijadesan society, and more importantly it is what allows a hero to gain greater wealth and followers. Karangalan is won performing great deeds, zealously defending one’s honor, getting married into an honorable family, and throwing feasts and sacrifices for the community.

Project: Remnant Saga

Filling the skies with a sinister droning, immense alien war machines float over stretches of scorched and barren land. Robot troops march droves of haggard refugees into teeming, reeking warrens walled with steel.

In the rusting hulks of once-magnificent cities, tribes of devolved cannibals prowl and fight over their human prey. Living their entire lives in furtive secrecy, a few bands of free humans eke out a bare existence as hunter-gatherers, scavenge junk to trade, or simply steal from those weaker than themselves.

Welcome to the world of Remnant Saga, a science-fantasy RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been invaded and occupied by a powerful alien civilization.

In Remnant Saga, you play one of the remaining free humans of the planet Weyler, trying to survive in a broken world and hang on to your precious freedom. The game was inspired in large part by the art and stories of manga creator Johji Manabe.

You will find yourself fighting against Reavers, free humans like yourself who live entirely by pillage; against the tyrannical Doletown Lords and their flunkies, who have sold out to the alien invader; against all sorts of mutated monsters, such as the once-human Morlocks; and against the powerful Bioroids sent by the invader.

You might even be an Esper, one of the extremely rare humans born with a mental power such as telepathy or psychokinesis. Espers are hunted by the aliens and their servants, but perhaps possessed of the power to fight the invader as no normal human can.

Project: Sea Rovers of Syrene

Hear my tales, O wanderer, of voyages across tropical seas the colors of sapphire and jade, to mysterious jungle-covered islands haunted by unseen guardians … of battles with dragons, feasts in underwater cities, and wild magical creatures only sorcerers can tame … tales of veiled princesses in alabaster palaces, of kings magnificent or mad, and of the dauntless mariners called the Sea Rovers of Syrene.

Sea Rovers of Syrene is a role playing game of swashbuckling adventure and exploration set in an exotic fantasy world called Syrene. You play a sea rover - part trader, part pirate - questing far across the oceans for the rarest merchandise but always ready for the joy of a treasure hunt or a rousing good fight. There is fame and fortune to be won, and it is not unheard of for sea rovers to retire with their own kingdoms.

The game draws much of its inspiration from the seafaring tales of the Thousand and One Nights such as the adventures of Sinbad, specially their Hollywood adaptations, plus other Asian mythologies and tales, and a light twist of Japanese anime.

I’m planning to eventually release this game through Lulu and/or RPGNow. The text is done, the system under some minor revision, and all I need are illustrations.

Sea Rovers of Syrene has an Illustrator

I’ve found my new illustrator for SRS in Boogs Rosales, a new friend who’s into diving and underwater photography.  Boogs has been drawing in Marvel comic style for years, so this plus his intimate knowledge of sea life and love of the sea should translate into some great images. Art previews coming soon!

Hari Ragat Games is born!

Hello! Today marks the start of my new blog, and the crystallization of my game design goals.  With the demise of my old blog, which got hacked, I’ve decided to relaunch my gaming and F&SF blogging with a new and more directed blog.

First design goal: I want to fill a niche for Asian-themed RPG’s. As a Filipino I’m in a unique position to do this – it’s easy for me to write in English, the language most of the gaming market uses, and I have that connection to the culture and milieu that I want to write about. It’s about time to break the pattern of ‘Asia ends at Japan and China’ in mainstream RPG’s.

Second design goal: Monetize the hobby.  Actually, I’m there already with a project I have for Polymancer Studios in Canada.  Top-secret for now, but you can guess that it’s not going to be set in the typical Medieval European mishmash type of milieu.  :-)

Third design goal: I’m working to finalize my Vivid RPG system, which I plan to be the vehicle for most of my game designs.  

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