Since a comment on an old article may be missed by both my fans, here’s a link to awesome Not Star Wars Really They’re Not Honest Mr. Lucas Don’t Sue Us minis for Star Rovers!
Stellar Warriors Update
I’ve mentioned, several times, my desire to an over-the-top sci-fi game inspired by late 70s/early 80s tropes in both game design and science fiction (and by “science fiction”, I mean, the pulp space opera, movies, and TV shows of the era and earlier, not the actual quality SF that dealt with meaningful themes of the era. We’re talking sci-fi, not SF.) I’ve been waffling badly on this, with a lot of initial design steps petering out. Going to far in the purely old-school mechanics, limiting myself to things like AD&D 1e as the defining point, bored me as a designer… if I found AD&D too limiting as a player back then, why embrace those limits? My attempt to do it as a full-fledged Pathfinder game got a bit further, but I felt I was spending too much time mimicing Paizo’s style and dealing with an accumulated body of rules that all had to be edited to fit my desire, with the risk of losing compatibility with each edit and the problem of balancing my content with the rest of the game. Finally, when rereading my collection of Knights Of The Dinner Table, it suddenly hit me I was looking in the wrong place for system inspiration. I’ve often praised Hackmaster 4e as the kind of old-school game that captured the spirit of old-school as I remembered it. Even stripped of the purely parodic/silly elements, the core of the game embodies the attitude that spells “old school” to me, the kind of exuberant, unapologetic, energy and enthusiasm that the best old school books have, and it makes no bones about complex mechanics — it has them and loves them and expects you to be smart enough to decide which to use and which are too much bother, and as for game balance… whatever. Good enough is good enough.
So I realized I don’t want to write, per se, AD&D in Space, or Pathfinder in Space… I want to write Spacehack, or something close to it. I want to capture the kind of universe implied, but never clearly defined, in Star Rovers and the Arduin miniatures line. I want to pull from the same kind of influences that produced Encounter Critical, but not as a parody. I also realized I want elements of the first edition of Warhammer 40K, before it started taking itself too seriously — space dwarves and space elves and space vampires. I want bounty hunters and space ninjas. I want it all… and I want it wrapped in a system that’s actually playable and that satisfies the things I look for in a game, as a player and as a GM.
At this point in the very mercurial development process, it looks a lot like AD&D 1e after going through a radioactive blender. We’ve got descending armor class (-10 is better than 2, and a +2 bonus to your AC lowers your AC by 2), attack charts cross-indexing level and AC (what the hell’s a thayko, anyway?) using a roll-under D20 mechanic, roll-over saving throws, and a skill system shamelessly borrowed from Hackmaster (in terms of some mechanical ideas, no text is copied and the actual implementation differs in many ways, let’s be clear here).
Some of the mechanics are deliberately more obtuse, contradictory, or idiosyncratic than they need to be… that’s a big part of the spirit of the era. Percentile systems, roll-under systems, roll-over systems… I’ve got ‘em all. My hope is that the different types of mechanics will be siloed enough that you won’t actually have trouble figuring out what to use in play or how to resolve any situation the rules don’t explicitly cover.
I’ve also finally got the tone right, the authorial voice. If anyone thought Earth Delta was written with a bit too much snark… well, I’ve got the ghost of Gary Gygax whispering in one ear, Gary at his most authoritative and belligerent, the early Gary of the AD&D 1e DMG and the fire-spewing editorials in The Dragon, and David Hargrave whispering in the other ear. (The fact my writing in no way compares to theirs in quality and imagination is best attributed to poor communication from the spirit world, and it should be considered no failure of their talents that I am a poor, poor, copy of the departed masters.)
Here’s a sample… this may end up highly changed as the editing process continues, and certainly the raw mechanics will be tweaked a lot, but I simply like the tone of it all:
If you roll a natural 20 (that is, the number “20” is the number showing. Does this really need to be explained to you?), you have scored a critical hit if the modified roll would have hit the target’s Armor Class (so if you needed a 24 to hit, and you had total bonuses of +5, so your modified roll was 25, then, this is a critical hit). If the modified roll would have missed (say, you needed a 30 to hit his AC), then a natural 20 is just a normal, run of the mill hit, and, by the way, if you’re missing when you roll a freakin’ 20, this means that the guy you’re fighting is way out of your league, or you’re a blind epileptic diplomat using a weapon you have no proficiency with, or both. Run, you idiot! Where was I?
Oh yeah, Critical Hits.
Your basic, run of the mill critical hit is a Grade A critical. For every 3 points by which your modified roll exceeds the number needed to hit, the critical improves one Grade, so if you needed a 15 to hit and your modified roll was a 26, you scored a Grade E critical! (There are some things which can reduce a critical grade; a critical reduced below Grade A is Grade 0 (that’s “Zero”, not “O”). Grade 0 criticals are kind of “Participation Ribbon” criticals. You showed up, so you get a token to soothe your fragile little ego. Anything reduced below Grade 0 isn’t even a critical, it’s just an average hit. Better luck next time.
The critical chart is nothing more than a shadow of an idea at this point; it’s going to be a bear to complete, because I ultimately want different weapon types to have different critical effects, ideally with Rolemaster-esque flavor text.
The biggest design issue I have now is that I want a fairly rich set of skills, proficiencies, and talents which players can choose as they level up, but I also want a strong class system, and deciding what kind of things should be class-specific and which should be accessible to anyone who wants to spend the Customization Points on them is not always self-evident.
I’m also trying to decide if I want racial level limits. Limiting classes and levels by race has a great ability to add flavor to a race and to avoid some kinds of munchkinism, but it can also be a real game-killer if the campaign goes on too long. Multiclassing is another issue I’m playing with; I’m likely to part with tradition and let humans multiclass.
As with all my projects, this may go on to semi-completion, or it may be abandoned from this moment forward.
Honestly, this is sort of being posted because I don’t like long stretches of “No posting”, not because I genuinely think it’s likely to be of interest to anyone. (Oh, BTW, the next stage of the Battlelords walkthrough is almost ready; I need to decide if I want to split it into three parts or charge ahead and finish it now.)
Anyway, work on Stellar Battles proceeds in fits and starts; I’m still having trouble finding the right tone for it, in terms of rules. On the one hand, I’ve really been wanting to do the Ultimate Kick Ass Space Opera Laser Sword Five Mile Long Starship Pew Pew Pew Lasers Barfights And Smugglers And Ancient Mystic Powers And Forgotten Alien Artifacts science fiction game for a long time. A very long time. As in, honestly, it was the very first thing I tried to design back when I was 14 and one way or another it’s been in the back of my mind for a while. I know I want race/class/level, because while I love freeform systems for a lot of reasons, I honestly find that I prefer RCL designs because they let me better define the core archetypes for a game while still (if using more modern variants, i.e, OGL-based) allowing for the kind of fine-tuned character control I like. I’m definitely not interested in doing a new game w/the 4e engine, not because I don’t like the system, but because I’d rather focus all my 4e efforts on Earth Delta.
This leaves me pulled in two directions.
One, go very much mid/late 1970s, esp. pulling from the “unofficial” stuff and the things Gary Gygax (sometimes with good reason, sometimes without) hated, and that’s Classes Galore… lots and lots of classes, most with some kind of simple “At this level, the blah can blah 1/day” powers to liven them up — see, well, classic Arduin, and no real skills/feats/goodies/ whatever, just boolean proficiencies or class specific powers laid out in varying levels of detail (ranging from simple notes bound to cause arguments to pages of niggling detail bound to cause arguments).
Two, give in to my passions and use a more “modern” system, either an OGL/Pathfinder variant or FantasyCraft, the latter being a system I really like for its plethora of crunchy bits and how it weds the kind of meta-gaming systems you normally find only in wussy free form commie hippie “story telling” games with the kind of hard tactical crunch I find endlessly appealing.
Three, screw it all, make up my own core rules that will draw from many strains of inspiration but not be particularly “plug and play” compatible with anything else. This is another thing I keep waffling over. I have argued, many many times, that the world doesn’t need one more way to kill an orc. And I stand by that. At the same time, I like creating systems for their own sake, knowing that they’re unnecessary and redundant. There’s a few mechanics I really like (non-Boolean success systems, for one) that aren’t a common part of the core D20 family. (By “non-Boolean”, I mean “multiple successes”, where how well you do matters. Hitting someone by 10 points does more damage than hitting him by 1 point. Tasks such as picking a lock require accumulating successes over time. The best known systems that use this mechanic, though, are dice pool systems which tend to fail in terms of granularity.)
Putting it more plainly, since I get no money, and very little in the way of fame or even feedback, for these kinds of projects, the only thing that drives me is passion, and if I don’t have passion for a particular style, it doesn’t get done. While I’m willing to play almost any game, except that which must not be named, when it comes to either running games or designing games, I like high granularity and high levels of mechanical character differentiation. That last one is important and it’s what tends to keep me out of the “Old School Renaissance” except as a source of
ideas I can rip off inspiration. (It also kept me very annoyed at 4e until the first wave of “Power” splatbooks and Dragon articles.) I don’t care if one 4th level Fighter is run as an axe-wielding illiterate barbarian and another 4th level Fighter is run as a gallant Knight — if, when the dice hit the table, they are mechanically identical, then, for me, the system doesn’t work. The more generic the mechanics, the less interest the game holds for me.
However, the title of this topic was “Hyperspace”, was it not? It was! I’ve been dancing around the system issue by focusing on the setting, which is going to be, like most of the settings I prefer, something mostly drawn in big, bold, colorful strokes with unending room for GM improvisation and expansion. However, it does need some “rules of physics”, both literally and figuratively, and if you’re doing a grand space opera setting, you need to set out how faster than light travel works, as this is going to shape the game universe more than any other decision. It will influence politics, economics, and character backgrounds in all sorts of ways. There is no disconnect between “swashbuckling action” and “world building” — if the universe in which you’re buckling your swash has no sense of verisimilitude to it, you are not Errol Flynn innnn spaaaaaaaace… you are a four year old running around a living room, waving a plastic sword and going “I’m a piwate!”.
Thus, the first draft of the hyperspace rules.
So I’ve started very casually puttering on “Stellar Battles”, enough to already know that if I finish it, it will be a bit different than “OSRIC in Spaaaaace”, thought it’s still going to draw from a lot of older design patterns and probably be pretty “Generic retro-clone compatible if you work at it”. If it gets any further, which, who knows, it may or may not. I like to be definite.
Anyway, in the course of writing Generic Flavor Text while describing how hyperspace works, because that’s the bit which grabbed my mayfly-like attentions, I need to put in $DEATH_STAR, or, in other words, “Something that isn’t called a ‘Death Star’ but which is patently obvious to even the most clueless reader that it occupies the same trope-space.” (I want to use the word ‘tropic space’, but that implies a hot part of space with palm trees and suntanned women in bikinis. Tropeic? Doesn’t look right either.)
So I’d started with Omega Base, but it seemed meh, and I am using Greek letters thematically in Earth Delta, and while Judge Judy would inform me that my trousers have been involved in a conflagration if I ever said anything like “And I hate to repeat myself”, I did want to at least try for something else.
“Murder Moon” sounds great and I’ll need to use it for something, but it’s too Jack Kirby for this. Granted, “too Jack Kirby” borders on inherently contradictory, much like “too much sex and violence” or “too much money”, but it is tossed to the holding pen for now.
So I’m throwing this out to the world.
Random brainstorm of adjective-y words: Death, murder, mayhem, chaos, omega, apocalypse, genocide, armageddon, slaughter, massacre, alpha, prime, ultimate, nova, cataclysm, omni-, fire, firestorm, laser, fusion, plasma, war, doom, dark, orbital
Random brainstorm of noun-y words: Base, station, star, platform, moon, world, complex, center, fort, fortress, craft, point, nova, cannon, sphere, satellite, core
So we can get things like “plasma sphere”, “alpha base”, etc. with any additional decoration as needed… Imperial Plasma Sphere, Imperial Plasma Omni-sphere, Dark Omni-Nova Complex, or something.
Any other ideas?
Yes, those long awaited (by, what, two of you?) words! Earth Delta Beta 1e is now up on the main Earth Delta page. This offers a smegload of new material, mostly for Paragon tier, as compared to Beta 1c, which was posted in October. (And a reminder, all creatures are now in the Mutant Manual). It also represents, not an ending, but a momentary break — Earth Delta has been my sole “big project” for a year now, and I need to work on something else. I am still overflowing with ideas for ED, and I’m likely to post more of them here directly (and put them in the book, of course), so there will be a constant flow (I hope) of new monsters, feats, tech items, mutations, etc, along with a more public creation process for my next Big Whatever, which is looking more and more like Stellar Battles.
I’d also like to re-iterate that if anyone has posted legitimate comments and not seen them approved within 24 hours, it means my spam filter is being overzealous and to please repost them and/or email me directly.
September 12, 2004
I’ve been seeing previews of your new “World of Warcraft” game, and I think you’re wasting the rumored 50 million dollars you’ve put into it. It’s nothing but a clone of the market leader, Everquest, and there’s really no way you can overcome the huge advantage EQ has on you in terms of subscriber base and development time. They’ve had over five years to constantly refine and improve the game experience; you’ll be starting out where they were five years ago, and doing nothing but playing catch-up. You’ve got the same “Go kill 10 rats” gameplay and the same endgame, except you have almost no raid content ready and I hear that your “innovative” PVP system, using the same “instancing” technology that Everquest implemented years ago in their Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion, will not be ready at launch. Only something totally new and radical will work — have you considered making it over into a twitch-based FPS game? Just doing what’s already proven to be popular and genre defining, but doing it better, cleaner, sharper, and faster, is no recipe for success. Originality is far more important than competence, and building on your competitors work and taking advantage of all they’ve learned the hard way, and then bettering it, is a foolish gambit. Only the totally new and totally unproven, especially if it’s not what customers have previously demonstrated they’re willing to pay for, will win the game. You may want to look at Tabula Rasa, which has been in development since 2001 and will probably release soon. It’s so original and groundbreaking even the developers aren’t entirely sure what kind of game they’re making — that kind of shattering of genre boundaries is the best way to have a mega-hit. I feel sorry for the developers, artists, and so on who will be laid off when World of Warcraft bombs, dismissed as just another Everquest clone in a field already crowded with them (Asheron’s Call, Dark Age Of Camelot, Horizons, etc). I wish you luck — you’re going to need it.
For those wondering what the hell that was all about, it’s a response I posted on this Slashdot page which was itself discussing this article about how KOTOR (Knights Of The Old Republic) was going to fail, fail, fail because someone who played part of one starting zone which is still in beta didn’t like the quests.
I’m not claiming it won’t fail, mind you — just that if the arguments you make for its “inevitable” failure are exactly the same as arguments you could have made (and I’m sure some people did make) in 2004 to Blizzard, you might want to check your premises.
Imagine, if you will, that around 1977 or so, a certain E. Gary Gygax saw Star Wars and thought, “Wow, you could make a fortune turning this into an RPG!”. He set about a parallel project to develop a Star Wars RPG that would use the still-evolving AD&D core rules, confident he’d have no trouble securing the license rights. By 1980, the game was done, but the licensing had fallen through completely. With hundreds of manuscript pages written and playtested, a hasty editing job scrubbed all explicit references to the films (and the books by Alan Dean Foster and Brian Daley), tossed in some sci-fi elements ripped off from other media sources, just to make the game more “generic”, and released “Stellar Battles”, the RPG of science fiction adventure. (Maybe “Galaxy Wars”. “Star Rebellion”? “Starships & Smugglers”?)
At the moment, not one word has been written on this; it’s simply an idea. A science fiction RPG based off the OSRIC retro-clone, as it might have been written in 1980 or so, drawing from the first wave of Star Wars material (pre “I am your father” and all that), with plenty of nods to Lensmen, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and John Carter. Classes, levels, lower-is-better Armor Class… in this fantasy alternative universe, a good chunk of the development work was passed to freelance writer David Hargrave, who brought his own unique worldview and style to the project.
It’s hard for me to even think about working on this, as my time is very accounted for over the next few months, and the parts which aren’t accounted for are given over to Earth Delta, which is going to be one of the few projects I actually finish, by Ghod. Still, if there’s interest expressed at all, I might post whatever random dribbles of text I actually create for this, or whatever thoughts, however inchoate and unformed, I have about it.
This would be old-school as I remember it… big, bold, balls-to-the-wall attitude, a deeply personal and raw writing style, a somewhat adversarial player/DM relationship, a chaotic mix of concepts and mechanics, rules that are highly abstract (one minute combat rounds) and highly detailed (weapon vs. armor class) at the same time, and yet, eminently fun and playable. A small dollop of affectionate parody of the era, but mostly as close as I could come to a game that could have, would have, should have, been published a couple of realities over.
Source Of Inspiration
This article is written for the June RPG Bloggers carnival; to see other people’s replies, you can go here.
The question is “What non-game media have most inspired your games and how?”.
I’ve got a couple of cheesy answers, like “Serious drugs, dude!”, or “What doesn’t?”, but the first is a lie, as I am, sadly, a lifelong tetotaler, and the second is just lame and pointless, and what would the Internet be if it consisted mostly of lame and pointless content?
So I’m going to attempt a serious answer. I hope both my readers forgive me.
Star Wars came out in 1977; I discovered D&D in 1978. Someone once said “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 13.” Well, I was 12 in May of 1977, and 14 in December of 1978, so two of biggest influences of my life hit me right square in the formative years. There’s a lot of things about Star Wars that makes it an obvious inspiration, but there’s one thing, one line, in particular which I can point to, time and again, as one of the most important lines spoken in a movie, at least in terms of how it has shaped and influenced me.
“You fought in the Clone Wars?”
Why does that simple line have so much resonance, so much meaning, to me? Especially since didn’t learn what the “Clone Wars” were until decades later, until I’d turned into the cantankerous, fossilized lump of grumpiness you all know and love so well?
Because we didn’t learn what the Clone Wars were!
Because Obi-Wan didn’t turn to Luke and says, “Yes, we fought in the Clone Wars, when Palaptine created armies of clones to fight against the Secessionist forces, though we didn’t know at the time he was manipulating both sides. Those clones became the Empire’s Stormtroopers, you know.”
Because with that simple line, and the equally important refusal to explain what it meant, the movie exploded outside the boundaries of the screen. This wasn’t simply a story; this was a peek into a world, the movie screen being simply a window through which we looked onto one part of that vast infinity which lay beyond. There were other stories there — a past, a thousand worlds, a tale that began before the opening credits and would continue afterwards.
I knew I needed to do that. I knew I needed to make worlds, worlds in which stories could happen, but the world was the important thing. A world would create stories to fill it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the tools I needed.
Then D&D came along. I was drawing my first dungeon within two days of learning to play. Never mind that I didn’t have any version of the rules, I drew the map on graph paper and drew little pictures for monsters — skeletons, blobs, dragons — and wrote down their hit points, making up numbers which “seemed right”. (And I hit the hit points for a large, adult, red dragon right on the button — 88 !) Dungeons quickly gave way to cities and continents and multiverses, and I could never keep a campaign running for more than a few weeks before I decided I had a better idea for a cooler world. I’ve lost only a little of that creative ADD since then, become slightly more focused, but I still have more ideas than I will ever be able to detail — or even sketch out — in a lifetime.
It took me a while to realize that while I thought I could say a major influence was “comic books”, the truth is that Jack Kirby is at the heart of those comics which have influenced and shaped me the most. He loved teams of iconic, clearly-defined and visually distinctive heroes battling equally iconic enemies. He built worlds by the dozens, too, but fortunately for him and his readers, he lacked some of my obsessions with crop yields and how many peasants could actually fit into a city of size “X”. He painted in broad strokes, with bright colors, and didn’t shy away from “cheesy” names like “Darkseid” or “Bernadeth“. If you’ve read Earth Delta, with its thermites (heat-generating termites) and squirkills (they’re squirrels.. that kill you!), you’ll see Jack’s influence at work. Even more than names, though, was the sense of style, pacing, and most importantly, wonder. Jack loved Big Dumb Objects. Jack loved world-shattering explosions. Jack loved massive armies of exotic warriors with ludicrously shaped swords fighting in glorious battle, surrounded by “Kirby Crackle”. He stole shamelessly and lovingly from mythology, folklore, religion, and himself. He didn’t care if he was telling the same story over and over in different costuming, as long as the costumes were really cool looking – and they were!