Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Thrill of Victory

My new Remnants book went to the printer for proofing today. That means it's done! Happy dance time? Not quite yet. Proofing is one of the many parts of game design that has yet to go smoothly for me.

Proofing works as follows: create PDFs, upload to printer, get printer approval, have proofing copy shipped back, approve proof, green-light sales, profit. Well, that's how it's supposed to work. Things have yet to be that simple.

Problem crop up at every step. Just getting the PDFs right takes multiple attempts. This book took three attempts before everything looked right, and I was happy with the setup. Uploading to the printer went very smoothly this time.

When I tried to upload the first Remnants book, I first tried to upload it in a size the printer can't print, then I had colours on the cover that were outside the printer's saturation limits, and then I accidentally tried to upload a black & white book as a full colour product. After fixing all of that, the printer finally approved it. So now I hope the book gets approved a little faster than the last one.

Getting the proofing copy is always exciting. All of your work is laid out in front of you in a slick finished product. Too bad it's always full of problems. I am 0 for 2 for the first proof being "right". There is art that is too dark, or too light, or too blurry. There is a glaring spelling mistake in a major heading, or there is a format error that needs to be fixed on EVERY. SINGLE. PAGE.

So this means we do a bunch of formatting, editing, and uploading, and do the whole dance again. Remnants made it through on the second proof, but Edge wasn't right until the third. After all of that we can move onto the sales stage.

All of this means I am not ready to do the happy dance yet. That book still needs to be approved by both the printer and us before it's done, and that might take a while. When you can go to, click on the link and buy the book then, and only then, will I do my happy dance.

And it will be very silly.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Getting Things Done

So I have to write to make games happen. I also have to wrangle artists, go to conventions, convince local retailers to carry the books, keep track of expenses for my taxes, keep an eye on the forums, and also, attend my day job.

The good news is that I have a team that works with me on a lot of this stuff. My wife is also my editor and fellow salesperson. My brother-in-law and his girlfriend handle a lot of the online/publicity stuff, my friend Patrick is a professional copy-editor who edits and proofs my work, and I know a bunch of gamers who are happy to play-test my games and give feedback on how to make them better.

All of that stuff is great, but it is all predicated on one thing: I. MUST. WRITE. There is no way around it. I have to sit down in front of my keyboard and slam the keys until the jumbled ideas in my head become a semi-coherent stream of 10 point helvetica characters. I must do this until tens-of-thousands of words are typed and sorted and then split up into chapters, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, sidebars and charts.

The problem is that writing, for me, is really hard. I am not exaggerating when I say the ideas in my head are jumbled. There are a lot of them in there, and some of them are pretty damn good, but they alternate between all wanting to escape at once, and all of them refusing to leave. They fight for attention and sometimes just give me a headache. I often find myself caught in what I call "cognitive loops" where the same ideas, images, or phrases repeat over and over agin inside my head. Trying to write out a cognitive loop is pointless, as the loops are abstract and lack structure, and have almost no bearing on what I am supposed to be writing.

So let's say I manage to get the loops out of my head for a few minutes, and I want to write. Well, let's see how many ways I can distract myself first: reddit, facebook, emails, playing with my daughter, TV, movies, making dinner, wikipedia, let's look for the perfect Youtube clip, now I will stress out about life for a few minutes, ooh cats, hmmm or I could put up a blog post. During my time in University I mastered procrastination, and I have yet to unlearn the skill.

Despite all of the crap in the last two paragraphs, at some point I obviously sat down and wrote. A lot. Edge was 250 000 words, and we cut it down to 180 000 before publishing, Remnants was a lot tighter, and clocked in at around 45 000. My sequel to Remnants, despite taking forever to write, will be a little over half the length of the original book. (hmmm, at this rate my next book will be a 2 page pamphlet) So, somewhere along the line I did a whole lot of writing.

So what do I need to write? I make a lot of barriers for myself (see above), but I found that a few things can come together, and the words just flow. They are:

Solitude - I need some privacy to really get writing. That means everyone at home but me is asleep, or I go somewhere alone like a coffee shop (does that make me a hipster? I think it does... I am ashamed) or restaurant. Perfect solitude doesn't seem to work though. If I am home alone and my wife and daughter are off visiting family, the words don't come. I have to leave the house and be in a public place to find the words.

Music - I was a teenager in the mid 90's. My youth was awash with bands like Nirvana, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, The Offspring, and Pearl Jam. I still listen to "alternative rock" and consider it by far the best writing music. Rather than spending time building the perfect playlist via file sharing or itunes, I just tune into the radio. Most radio stations stream their music online, so I just pick one and go. I recommend Kingston's 98.9 The Drive, Ottawa's Live 88.5, or if you must, Toronto's 102.1 the Edge. I am hesitant to recommend the Edge, as it's commercials include those for Spence Diamonds. Their announcer is the most annoying bastard on the face of the earth, and every time I hear a Spence ad, I want find all of their stores just so I can fire-bomb them (that was hyperbole, firebombing is wrong. Still, never buy Spence diamonds. Their ads are shit clogging up the airwaves).

Stress - This one is a little hard to define. I need to be a little stressed for the writing to work. I first noticed this when I was running games back in the 90's: I did all of my best work when I was miserable. Well, that wasn't exactly right. I did all of my best work when I was using gaming to escape the things in life that upset me. It's still true. The problem is that if I get too stressed out, then I can't concentrate, but if there aren't at least a few things bugging me, then I can't get the words out either. I guess in those cases I should just think about telemarketers, or religious fundamentalists, or that damned Spence diamonds bastard. Ugh, I hate that guy.

Anyways, assuming I get everything right, I can type thousands of words a day. When things aren't coming together I can go weeks or even months without writing a damned thing. To make matters worse, I set my own deadlines, so I can always just push shit back and encourage my own procrastination.

All of that being said, I swear: New Game. This August. It will be done on time and it will be awesome. There internet, hold me to it.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Single Roll Resolution

If you have been reading the rest of my posts on rules systems, you will notice I hold simple, smooth, effective rules in high regard. I want a game to flow through its conflicts and combat like water. Grind is the enemy, as is needless complexity.  So, this is the post where I talk about my games and their rules.

I have 2 published games, and I am writing a third. They are each in different genres, but they share a common rules system: Rapidfire. The Rapidfire system is so name because that is how results to rolls should come about: fast. The premise of the system is to sacrifice some accuracy in simulation in favour of speed of play. For the most part, it works. Every roll in Rapidfire looks like this:

1d6+Stat+Skill versus Difficulty

There are only three stats and they go from -2 to +2, and there is a short skill list where every skill is rated 0 to 6. The idea is to keep the numbers low enough that you can pretty much count them on your fingers. Nowhere in the system will you have to do additions or subtractions of more that 5 or 6, and it avoids multiplication and division whenever possible. That's it. One roll to decide success or failure with numbers low enough that they can be sussed out in just a few seconds.

The real magic of the system is how it handles combat. The concept from the start was single roll resolution. One roll decides if a character's attack is a success or failure, as well as determining how much damage is done, how much damage armour stops, and ultimately the overall effectiveness of the attack. The way we accomplish all of this is by generating some static numbers, and gleaning more info from the roll. First, a target's defence (the difficulty of the attack roll) is a set number. Much like in the D20 system, there is no defence or dodge roll. Next, armour is designed as straight damage reduction: a character with 2 points of armour negates 2 points of damage. Finally, damage done is based off the roll. However much an attack beats the defence number becomes the lead. That lead is added to a static number based on the weapon being used to determine the damage being done. Armour subtracts from the damage, leftovers get marked down as damage to a character's health.

That sounds kind of complicated. It's not. Here's how it plays:
Player: "I attack with my sword"
GM: "His defence is 6"
Player: (Rolls 1d6, get's a 5) "Rolled a 5, with my stat and skill that's 8 total"
GM: "You hit. Lead is 2"
Player: My greatsword does Lead+3, so that's 5 damage.
GM: "His light armour resists 2 of that, 3 gets through. He only has 3 health, so he is down and dying."

Ta Da.
One roll to resolve attack, armour and damage. The rules make big hits REALLY big, and you never get that problem where you have an awesome roll to hit, but roll shit damage (I hate that).

There are some drawbacks to this system. It lacks the "spread" of results that games with larger/more dice have. It is also a linear distribution (all results are equal probability) instead of a normal (middling results are most likely) distribution. The system mitigates these problems with a few other fiddly bits that allow for adjustments to the dice, but we have to pay the price for speed somewhere.

Still, I love being able to wow players by resolving a combat between two heavily armoured battle mecha in just a few minutes instead of a few hours. I sold a lot of books on that simple demo.

That's all for now. Next time I think I will shift gears and talk about something other than rules.

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Mechanics of Combat

Most games out there possess a combat system. Often this combat system is separate from everything else within the game and takes up a huge chunk of what's going on. That's cool. Games are often about conflict, and the life and death nature of combat is very compelling. So it's important that combat the combat system be clear and concise. The problem is that some games let the combat system get a little out of hand.

So, what makes a good combat system, Steve? Hmmm... that's a really tough question. There are some amazing ways to deal with combat resolution, and they take very different approaches. As with many questions in game design, we are thus presented with multiple right answers. A better question is what characteristics do all good combat systems share? That's a little easier to look at. As I have a propensity for lists, here's a list of what a good combat system needs to be:
-Able to provide Genre Appropriate results

I talked about speed of play in my previous post on mechanics. The danger of combat is that it is often more complex and intricate than other parts of game rules. While tension should be high (you're fighting for your lives, dammit!), it can drag as players spend long stretches looking up rules, determining if attacks connect, determining damage, assigning penalties etc. I have been part of small combat encounters that stretched on for hours, and it sucked. A good combat systems moves, and it moves fast.

Every character in a group has strengths and weaknesses, but during combat, they need to feel as though the rules are fair. Combat characters should dominate in combat, and if they don't they will feel cheated, and rightly so. Example: Back in the very first edition of D&D all weapons did 1d6 damage on a successful hit. That meant a warrior with a great sword was just as effective as a thief with a knife. But that's not all. Daggers allowed 2 attacks per turn. So the thief had double the damage potential of the warrior. That is an example of terrible balance and was somewhat fixed in subsequent editions (dart specialists were deadly in 2nd edition. Seriously, darts!) and was sorted by version 3.5.

Combat is messy and unpredictable, and most rules emulate the randomness of it fairly well, but if you really want to get combat right, your system needs a lot of flexibility. If the system can accomodate and reward innovative ideas, and provide quick solutions for unusual circumstances, then the system has the flexibility it needs to work well. A flexible game can easily deal with a player stating "I want to do X" where X is some random action that might not fit within the standard combat actions. Some good examples of X that I have seen over the years include, "I want to jump on the Ogre's back like Legolas did in Fellowship" or "I want to let the monster bite off my arm, that way it'll swallow the grenade I'm holding" or "The zombie lord is nuclear powered? I hit him with this handy bag full of pencil shavings. Graphite is used to inhibit nuclear reactions!"

Genre Appropriate Results
I can't stress this enough. A combat system needs to provide the feel of its setting. A game about gritty gangland conflict between mobsters better have some good rules for spraying bullets, car bombings, bleeding out, and car chases, while a game about swashbuckling duelists needs to have rules for different sword styles, a way for characters to taunt their rivals, and a very flexible system for dealing with using the environment to assist characters in combat. In short, the rules need to feel right for the game. Believe it or not, most games get this right, but when it's wrong, it's really wrong.
          My favourite example of a botched combat system is Palladium's Robotech RPG. Robotech, the anime, is a soaring space opera full of transforming fighter jets, complicated love triangles, and terrible (but very important) music. Palladium's system kind of got the feel of massive robots with its "mega damage" system, but it totally missed the point of Robotech when it created it's incredibly slow and clunky melee system of combat. It utterly fails to capture the elegance, power, and especially the speed of combat within the anime. It frustrated me enough that I have hacked Robotech for multiple other systems. My favourites to date were using the BESM tri-stat system, and the DP9 silhouette system. But even these hacks were incomplete. To really capture Robotech, the game needs to emulate those giant mecha dogfights, but it also needs to have rules for inspiration and emotion. Emotion (and lack there of) is a core concept in Robotech, and inspiration, especially from music and love, deeply affects how well characters perform in their Mecha. If the game fails to incorporate these aspects in some way, then in my mind, it fails to capture the true spirit of Robotech.

I was originally going to only do 2 posts on mechanics, but I got caught up in the details (and Robotech) so I will do one more later. The last post will be about Resolutions. It really gets into the nitty gritty of rules mechanics, and explains why my system (Rapidfire) is the way it is.

That's all for now.

Monday, 7 January 2013

One Mechanic to Rule Them All...

A game should only have one mechanic. That is a pretty bold statement and there are some who would quickly disagree, but I think I am on very solid ground with this one. So, what the hell am I talking about and what does it mean to you. Let's break it down.

A roleplaying game has the open narrative structure of improv, but is constrained by rules and to make it fair, concise, and to allow for the story to progress. Those contraints are what I call mechanics, and they are how actions or conflicts are resolved within game. Simply, mechanics is the stuff you do (dice, cards, elaborate descriptions, etc) that determines what your characters do, whether the succeed or fail, and by how much. 

A good game will have just one core mechanic to deal with all of this stuff. One of the great sins of several (though by no means all) older games was to have multiple mechanics in the game. For example, a game, that shall remain nameless, dealt with combat using D20's, skills using a percentage system, and combat damage using this multi-layered thing with all sorts of multipliers and hit locations. In short the game was, and still is, a mess. In comparison, later games have much tighter rules mechanics that hew closer to my single mechanic rule. Two examples: First, CCP Whitewolf's Storyteller system. Now I have some personal issues with the World of Darkness, but they worked hard to design a single, cohesive dice pool mechanic that works the same for almost everything done in the game, and for the most part, they succeeded. Most rolls to do anything in Whitewolf games are roll a number of D10's equal to Stat + Skill + Other Modifiers, compare to difficulty, determine success or failure. If I can explain it in 1 sentence, then it is probably pretty good, if not great. The second example is the D20 system. Now, I get A LOT of complaints about various aspects of D20, but the single core mechanic of roll 1d20+Stat modifier+Skill/BAB+Other Modifiers versus difficulty is a simple, elegant mechanic that holds up well, even if other parts of the game fall flat.

So now you know what I mean, so why is it important. I will give a 3 reasons: Barrier to Entry, Speed of Play, Clarity of Results.

Barrier to Entry
I think this is the most important of the 3. Whenever some one is learning to play a new game, there is a chunk of time where they have no clue what is going on. Now for savvy, experienced players this time span might be mere minutes, but for young and/or inexperienced players, this can last several sessions or longer. If it lasts too long they will lose interest, and stop playing. Having a single mechanic they need to lear means players spend less time learning the game and more time playing it. Lowering the barrier to entry means more people play games, and I get to keep making them.

Speed of Play
There are those who love the minute details of combat and are glad to spend hours exploring a single combat encounter. And to them I say, "Go and play a strategy game. There are some really fantastic ones on the market." Role playing games should move fast. They are not truly about strategy (though there is some), but are about character, story, narrative, success, failure, and a good time all around the table. Actions and conflicts should be resolved quickly so as not to get in the way of what's going on. Singular mechanics are simple and thus fast. And less time a game spends bogged down with complex rules, the better.

Clarity of Results
There is a certain beauty to a Natural 20. Every gamer knows what it means and what it signifies. In the rules of D&D it is a perfect, unmitigated success. That is clarity. When there is only 1 overarching mechanic in a game, then everyone at the table will have a better grasp of success or failure for anyone's roll. You never run into "that guy" that make's use of obscure optional rules that are mysterious to the other player  and don't seem to make a lot of sense (I'm looking at you, 2nd Edition Complete Psionic's Handbook!). A single mechanic that everyone understands enhances everyone's understanding of everyone else's actions, and makes the game better for everyone.

So which mechanic should be the one to rule them all? I don't know. As a game designer, I say, "Mine!". It's got a low barrier to entry, it plays very very fast, and the system for measuring success makes for easy to understand results. Unfortunately, I gotta say that my game mechanic is not right for every game. In fact, I modify bits and pieces of it for each new game I design. There are tonnes of other games out there with very nice mechanics that do what they do very well. Find one you enjoy, and make sure everyone else at the table enjoys it as well.

There will be a part 2 to this mechanic discussion where I talk about resolutions and combat and stuff, so stay tuned.