Sunday, August 30, 2015

About the Advantage Die

I had the chance to review some comments about the Advantage Die used in and I wanted to share some thoughts about this specific mechanic. Somehow, this is also connected with the Spirit counter mechanics.
In a few words: the Advantage Die is incremented during the game by some successful moves (usually on a 10+, sometimes on a 7-9), and the same happens to Spirit (increased by certain moves on 10+ or 7-9). Both are “good” for the characters when they have high values: the Advantage Die can be used to replace any die that rolled low, and Spirit can become problematic especially if getting to a negative score.
Both of them are somehow a measure of how well things are going for the given character.

Now, in terms of design, an epic RPG telling the story of a group of heroes, would reverse this mechanic.
If we’re aiming for powerful characters — with solid chances of defeating any type of opponent and with some sort of “balancing” power against unfavorable twists in the story — then I’d say give +1 to the Advantage Die on a 6-, and give +1 to Spirit when the character suffers some setback (bad outcomes) in certain moves.
This would basically create a mechanical counterbalance for failure.
The reward for success (let’s say 10+) would be the fictional result of the success itself, while the consolation prize for a 6- would be a +1 to the Advantage Die - that would allow the player perhaps later on to break out from a series of bad rolls by using indeed a high Advantage Die.
This is all nice and cool.
Actually, if anyone wants to give it a try, please do! and let us know how it went.

But City of Judas is something different. It aims to create a different fiction.
It gives certain rewards (i.e. the +1 to the Advantage Die or to Spirit) as additional prize for certain successes, inline with the spirit of each playbook. It does so to make certain actions, certain successes, to bear even more weight in fiction — so that we see the ripple-effect of these positive consequences even later on.
When players roll a 6-, on the other hand, City of Judas can be quite harsh. In combat, and in general when it comes to harm, City of Judas can be deadly. Should be deadly.
A single 6- won’t kill a character, but a few of them, against a powerful opponent, would do it. This is by design.

I think you can see now why — since I wanted to depict a harsh and dark-fantasy world — there is no “consolation prize” for failure. The prize of failure has to paid by the character, and the rules offer no compensation for it.

You can go ahead and comment on the original G+ post here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

About the Setting in City of Judas

Again about the design process of City of Judas. I’d love to hear your opinions – as fellow game designers and as players as well.

This time it’s all about the Setting - the crusades, the medieval times, and why the Middle East…

Previous articles about the game design:
intro and inspiration
starting to design the game
playbooks, counters, and moves
about the number of moves, and about accepting good advice

The Setting
When I released the first beta (or actually, alpha) of the game, it already had a very precise setting: the characters are mercenaries, and they start in the area of Jerusalem, in a setting that is a mix of real historical events (such as the crusades) and imaginary ones (the most prominent being the cult of Judas).
What I wanted to achieve was a setting that would stand out as clearly different from the dark “European” fantasy setting that most of the games have. This choice required some sacrifices: there is no Empire, there are no Fantasy Kingdoms with their wars and their nobility, for example, but here the characters are somehow part of an invading force, or anyway forced to cope with a mix of war and politics where it’s very hard to determine who to side with…
There is no space for a dark and cold forest with ogres or goblins - but there are demons, many of them; they’re at work in the dark, influencing the politics of men in power and trying to exploit the weaknesses of the various religious cults. And there are other monsters like Carnivorous Elephants, Sand-worms, Scorpion-men or Horned Wild-cats (for all of those I took some inspiration from the ancient persian and arab monsters).

I felt that the setting had a great potential: both for its intrinsic value and for the simple fact that it is different than others.
The temptation to recycle a more common stereotype was strong (and I guess City of Judas could be also played in such setting with a very minimal adaptation, if you feel inclined to do so). I was actually working on a different system with such traditional setting. But judging by the feedback I received, the choice of the holy land and the crusades was a winner.
Another positive side of the combination of the medieval times and the holy land, is that it presents a subject which is reasonably familiar for most of the players; there’s no need to study some alternative history or geography. But at the same time, since this is not the real history, not the real crusades, it leaves space for improvisation and original stories.
Strongly tied to the setting is the issue of religion and sorcery.

But before we discuss that, here are some questions for you.

What’s your favorite part about the setting or the City of Judas flavor and color?
Did you have a chance to exploit, in terms of fiction material or inspiration, this setting with its very well defined premises?
Do you feel still free enough to improvise, to re-write history with your players?

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Reducing the number of moves

Again about the design process of City of Judas. This time it’s about accepting good advice - and about how I reduced the number of Moves in the game.

Here is the first part, here the second and here is the third.

The number of Moves
The first drafts of the game had a lot of Moves. There were a lot of Basic Moves and a lot of Peripheral Moves, and also a lot of Combat Moves. For example, in combat you had a standard move to fight, one to be more on a defensive stance, and one to be attacking in full force.
Several of the feedback I received were clear about this: there were way too many Moves.
My initial response was to be defensive. It’s normal to be defensive I guess: it was my game, it was for free, and I wanted advice but most of all I wanted to be given compliments and confirmation. Still, while it’s legitimate to say: that’s the game, play it as it is or don’t play it at all, well… feedback is exactly that: telling you what you did right, and what you should perhaps consider to change.
What I did with the number of moves, was indeed was to change and simplify.

There are a couple of reasons for this: one is indeed that I recognized the wisdom of the commentators that insisted that there were too many moves. A lot of them were smart people that in other cases I found myself agreeing with.
Perhaps this time they were wrong, or perhaps I thought they were wrong just because they were talking about my own work. Yes, of course the real reason was the latter, I was just being defensive.

More importantly (the second reason for this change), I thought about the process I followed when doing other work: when I write fiction, I write following the inspiration, but then I need to review and clean my work, and a lot of it involves taking out stuff.
Same when I write code: when you get the job done quickly, there’s a lot of clutter in the code. When you take your time to tidy up, you usually end up with a better script, which is also shorter.
So yes: I reduced the number of Moves, and in some cases that paired up with reducing the number of Counters.

Bottom line: usually good people give good advice, and while it’s good in an early stage to throw into a game all the ideas you have about that subject, later on you will need to simplify and cut away some useless (or nearly useless) chunks.
An example: Rings were used to improve your rank within the Iron Fist; they had a special rule and a dedicated counter.
Now the rank is just a single Advancement you take with XP. From a rule and a counter, to a single checkbox, without actually removing anything relevant from the game.

So, how’s your experience with your own game design? Does it feel painful to cut certain pieces of your work, to simplify? Or perhaps you don’t have this problem at all?
And as a player/GM, do you find yourself house-ruling to simplify games that are too (unnecessarily) complex? (of course, again, this is often a matter of taste)

Click here if you prefer to comment on G+.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Simplifying the design

Again about the design process of City of Judas. I’d love to hear your opinions – as fellow game designers and as players as well.

Here is the first part and here the second…

Designing the Playbooks
Designing the Playbooks was very easy at the start. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of AW-hacks begin with Playbooks: they contain a great deal of the game flavor and color, they’re what you hand out to Players, they say who and what the characters (the protagonists of your story) are, they say what they can do, they contain all the Moves with their exciting options and possibilities…
Of course, after the first couple of drafts, things started to get harder: there are a lot of interactions between the Playbooks to consider, there are the various fields of expertise to define, areas where characters can overlap and others where you want to make sure they don’t; there are some things to keep in balance, and others that clearly need to be out of balance so that the game gets rolling. There are Playbooks that feel easier to design and others that feel a bit boring at the start, until you don’t find the way to turn the concept around and give it the right twist.
At this stage, I still thought: alternative playbooks, alternative combat system, but this game is still going to be running as basic Dungeon World. Or perhaps as a Dark Age spin-off, or maybe under AW. It didn’t go exactly that way.

The Counters & their Moves
I liked so much the Health Counter used in the combat system, that I made more Counters.
There was a counter for Gold (how much money the character had), for Equipment (did the character have all the necessary gear?), for Rings (that were the ranking system of the mercenary company of the Iron Fist), for Taint (how much the character’s soul was dark). Some of them were a different take on classic RPG stuff like money and equipment, and others were tied to the setting (the Rings and the Taint).
I was initially afraid to move to so many Counters (and in the end, I simplified this part in my latest design) but the feedback on the SG forum was that indeed this was an interesting feature. All of those Counters had Peripheral Moves associated with it. This lead to a high number of Moves (which is a painful topic I will discuss further in a dedicated paragraph).
The idea behind this, was to avoid tracking static numbers (how many Rings you have, how much money, which exact equipment you have), and instead make all those components to work basically like Stats.

And now, for two totally unrelated questions:
What is your favorite City of Judas playbook? (if you didn’t play it yet, we don’t mind, just tell us which one looks cooler!!)
Have you played and used the Health, Equipment and Spirit counters? Did they make book-keeping easier??

Click here if you prefer to comment on G+.

City of Judas: how the design process started

Back to the design process of City of Judas. Again, I’d love to hear your opinions – as fellow game designers and as players as well. So feel free to comment, ask questions, present your own experiences!

Click here for the first part

How it started
As I wrote in the introduction to the manual, I was lucky enough to put my hands on the Dark Age beta version from Vincent Baker. It was an inspiring game, and the sessions I’ve ran, at the table or in forums, where always really good.
Now that I designed my own game, I fully understand why Vincent needed to take his time between the various releases of the different versions of his Dark Age game. But back then, after playing the first beta, and while waiting for the next, I grew very impatient.
I didn’t design any AW-hack before, and I thought: “Well, if he doesn’t put out a new version soon, I will”.
And I thought also: “How hard could it be?”
It turned out to be of course harder than I expected, and way more exciting and rewarding, a great and interesting experience. And frustrating at times, tiring. But most of all, it became clear that it was necessarily a slow process. It took me a year from the first public beta to the manual now published, and I had the luck of having a lot of time on my hands to work on it.

Where did I start
Honestly, I don’t remember exactly but there were two things: the Harm Moves (which were inspired by Paul Taliesin), and the Playbooks, and especially the Barber.
While I was still undecided about how I was going to approach the subject (doing my own AW-hack or not, work perhaps with DW instead, or FATE…), I drafted an alternative combat system for Dungeon World. That system was never really tested and I believe it never made it to any real game at the table, but it stuck with me. It felt rough, harsh, and with a flavor to it, something that made it different from AW or DW harm for example.
It felt exactly like the things I would have liked in a slightly crunchy fantasy RPG with bloody, risky combat. And it had no Hit Points, but a Health Counter, from +3 to -3 like a Stat.
Then there was the Barber. Later on I think I’ve read somewhere that Vincent - if I recall correctly, I might be wrong actually - designed the Angel as the first of the AW playbooks. If that’s true, it was a nice coincidence that I got to design the Barber as the first playbook of my own AW-hack (the Barber is the medieval surgeon, and the “healer” in the City of Judas game).
And then I started to play around with some ideas for this dark, medieval setting, and one by one the other Playbooks followed.

And what about you guys; does anyone what to share how did they start to write their game?
Where did the inspiration come from?

If you’d like to comment on G+ click here