Friday, August 24, 2012

The Character Creation Cardgame

One of the problems that's kept me from breezing through the creation of my system (hah) is finding a good way to determine how much a character gets at start.  I was stumped until lately, when listening to podcasts on tabletop gaming, I was reminded of Traveller, which has a game as part of character creation.  Never one to miss an opportunity to latch on to a good idea, I tried making my own.

This is still early days--I'm not really finished with the prototype yet, and by prototype I mostly mean an application to let me gather data on how viable the system seems.  But it is interesting.

The current system uses a method akin to poker, or perhaps Gin Rummy--there are four suits numbered 1-10, those being "Items", "Skills", "Attributes", and "Contacts".  Additionally, there are Aspect cards that both serve as wildcards (guaranteeing more matches), and at the same time, constrain the result.  The objective is to lay down a run of cards that is either a set (3,4, or "5" of a kind), flush, or straight.  Each score gives you a small number of points, and we want a lot of matches, so you keep drawing until your deck runs out.

Suppose for example you have the 2, 3, and 5 of Contacts, a Mind Aspect card, and the 7 of Items in your hand.  Because the Aspect card is a wildcard, you can play the 2, 3, and 5 as a small straight flush -- however, this determines something about your character, right away!  Not only does your character have  new 2-point contact, that contact must be associated with the Mind aspect; either a highly intelligent person, perhaps a scholar, or just a deep thinker that's good at giving advice.

There are a few other rules, and I'm sure I'll be changing them and adding things as I go along.  For example, the 10 of each suit can always be played on its own--or if you're particularly lucky or into hoarding, you get substantial bonuses for playing a set of 3 or 4 tens.  The most points from one hand would be all four tens, plus a wildcard, which gives you seven(!) points to spend on one thing in any suit--as long as it's within that Aspect's domain.  Considering you can't really combine other scores, that's a pretty amazing to have with your starting character.

Speaking of starting characters, I expect the system to work well with making characters at different stages in their life.  Say, for instance, that a decade's worth of boring life (or a couple years adventuring) allows you to reshuffle the deck when you're finished, and play another round.  What new contacts, or items, or skills will you gain in that time?  Will it change the way you view your character?  It's hard to know, because a lot could change.  Sometimes, your character gains skills in areas you wouldn't expect, simply because it comes up in the cards--and sometimes that progress is far greater than you expected.

I think it'll be interesting moving forward.  And it's one of several things that makes me believe that the Aspect system is a good idea; there are lots of little things like this where the effect just seems right.  Hope I get to tell you about other such things in the future!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Setting: Draco (First Age)

Common to both Terra and Draco are mysteries and questions about what came before the First Age. On Terra, this question took the form of, "Why did we seem to lose so much knowledge about the past?" On Draco, the question is, "Where did we come from?"

Human civilization on Draco is limited primarily to one continent, Contel, on the southern hemisphere. Contel is divided into seven nations, an in each nation is an extension of the Dragon System, a spiritual engineering project that grants living beings access to "magic". The origin of the Dragon System, although within the limits of cultural memory, remains a mystery; the people who traveled the continent and built the temples among what otherwise amounted to anarchy are described most clearly as "Hardened sages, bitter in temperament, preoccupied with an idea they are not wont to explain, and more than willing to do violence to any who oppose them."

The seven nations of Contel are Azael, Tiyoma, Ooria, Daeyul, Alyon, Seyona, and Yora. They contain, in order, the Elemental Dragon Temples of Fire, Thunder, Wind, Earth, Wild, Water, and Void. The last, Yora, is also the home to various religious orders; by dictate of the Yunian Order, all known religions must base their operations there. This is, apparently, not unrelated to the spiritual phenomena that occur around religions on Draco; spirits known as Angels may haunt a person or object, and use magic (with some difficulty) to aid or hinder them. The churches, and some specialists in Yora, exist to give order to this process, making it a somewhat saner proposition. The main church of a religion is considered home to the Archangel, and it is believed that the calmness and Void-element nature of Yora helps them keep a clearer mind, making them sane and helpful rather than evil or vindictive.

The Yunian Order, previously mentioned, is a society of masters spread across Contel, but centered on the city of Aeda, the capital of Daeyul. They accept into their order anyone who is a master of any skill--in other words, anyone who can meaningfully contribute to the Order's own library of knowledge. In return, everyone who is accepted into the society can access this library, barring only a few taboo subjects.

Aside from Contel, there are two known continents, both vaster in scope. The first, Anstra, is mostly on the northern hemisphere, and is easiest to reach from Contel via the port at its southern tip; the second, Katran, extends across both hemispheres and is by far the largest. Katran is mostly reached by travelling east from the edge of Anstra, and is little explored. Anstra (being easier to circumnavigate by boat) is well enough mapped as far as coastlines go, but the interior is too dangerous to explore for most people. (There is also a fourth, smaller continent, undiscovered in this era, which has no intelligent life.)

Both are home to various feral populations of Evoloid halfbreeds, and naturally are also home to a few roaming Evoloids per se. Evoloids, a miraculous (or, by other accounts, freakish or demonic) race, are wont to bring races out of being mere animals by granting them intelligence and a human-like form--by mating with them, a process about which the less is said, the better. This, like the Dragon System, is one of the strongly peculiar situations on Draco, which was clearly engineered by someone or something, but the history of which is not known.

The Evoloid halfbreeds, who are often feral but (by all accounts) can be civilized given effort, vary quite a bit in their properties based on not only individual history, parentage, etc, but also by the species (plural) which are mixed into their genetic code. This becomes extremely complicated (and awkward) considering that halfbreeds can always breed with other halfbreeds, even of different lineages.

Evoloid halfbreeds are largely shunned or viewed as second-class creatures by the human population of Draco, although they are considered a fascinating research opportunity by many Necromancers, who view their complicated genetic code as an adequate base for bio-transformation magic. Generally, they are not allowed onto the continent of Contel, unless they have received a pass from the few human settlements on Anstra, certifying them as sufficiently civilized. Similarly, the Evoloid race is given short shrift, although there is no such thing as a "Feral" Evoloid; they seem to be genetically predisposed to being gentle, even affectionate. It is wholly unique to their population, indeed, that they get along with every animal species, and every plant species, that has been tested. Only intelligent creatures (feral halfbreeds not among them, although "civilized" halfbreeds are) seem wont to do them harm.

When speaking of race, there are three other peculiarities on Draco, none of them related to Evoloids. First is Proto, a peculiar substance with the appearance of soft white clay, which nonetheless is a living substance. It is notable in that its properties can be changed by spellwork to appear as, and have the properties of, virtually any other form of biology, from bone to flesh and fat to wood, spore, and mold. It is psychoreactive--so highly, in fact, as to be very dangerous to the touch, as it can accidentally become part of your anatomy, but responds in peculiar ways to your emotional state. It is highly prized by enchanters and necromancers for its varying uses and abilities, but is perhaps most widely known for being the base of several kinds of necromantic (and horrific) viruses, collectively called Proto-viruses or psi-viruses.

Second, and related to proto, are the Fae. Most common in the deep forests of Anstra, these are small (3"-9"), winged human-looking creatures. However, their biology is distinctly non-humanoid, and can only be described as repurposed Proto; they have no organs, and must feed by either a form of osmosis, or by absorbing "magical energy". Perhaps most notably, Fae are parasitic; they can attach themselves (not physically, but spiritually) to a creature, becoming Fae-ra, and in this form they slowly learn complexities of language, culture, tool use, magic use, etc, providing of course that the host knows such things intuitively. They do not speak, but have a limited form of telepathy, which can be expanded through practice to be the mental equivalent of speaking out loud (such that it can be heard by most or all people in an area). In all cases, Fae-ra do not exert any real control over the hosts, instead becoming by all accounts a willing tool of theirs. If two people, both possessed of Fae-ra, fall in love (as has happened only a handful of times), the Fae-ra will apparently merge (spiritually) over time, becoming a psychic link between the two hosts.

Fae can attach to more than just intelligent creatures, however; they can attach to trees, animals, feral halfbreeds, etc, and rather than taking on human-like intelligence, they become essentially a copy of the host creature in all but form. Tree Fae-ra, for example, will usually fly above the trees, soaking up sun, and have little to no interest in goings-on. Note that it is possible (and looked askance at)
for a non-intelligent Fae-ra host and an intelligent one to merge as described above. Mystery surrounds this, but the only real records of this being observed end as follows: "[the subject] claimed, with all sincerity and straightforwardness, that there was nothing amiss in his relationship [to the wolf], and that the two simply had a working relationship that made them inseparable... one is left to assume, from observing them, that this is the case, but I think I have no desire to explore further in any case."

The third mysterious race is the Gritten, who seem exclusive to the rocky northern wastes of Anstra. They are wholly crystalline in form and structure, and all attempts to use any magic to observe, monitor, or affect them meet with instant and complete failure. They seem to operate as a hive-mind, and seem in many ways insensitive to all else around them, except the use of magic, which attracts their attention. Nothing comparable to them have been describe anywhere else on the planet. They are, however, alive, and shamble around the rocky wastes aimlessly. Their forms are only vaguely humanoid, and vary from day to day. Little if anything more is known about them.

Profile: Seyona

Seyona (the water nation) is the easternmost nation on Contel. It is by all accounts a feudal nation, with a large number of noble houses, and also a nation of trade and commerce; although they are a large importer of goods, they are also a great exporter, usually of finished, enchanted, or refined goods. It is structured in many ways as a magical-industrial nation, with large, offensive, and opaque structures along the main trade routes which are dedicated to some industrial or magical task. All the main cities are walled, and most are controlled by some noble faction or other, often to the exclusion of outsiders. Most frequently, a given citizen's allegiance is not to the nation of Seyona, but to their local Lord or Lady.

Merchants are, according to some, a separate and higher caste in Seyona, but this does not appear to be literally or legally the case. The only particular accommodations which Merchants receive over others is unfettered access to cities, and this is still, in some cases, restricted only to market districts. Nonetheless, crime by travelling merchants is a frequent problem, as they are likely to be gone from any given city before the crime is discovered.

The magic of Seyona is predominantly Water, consisting largely of enchantments, bindings, magic circles, and manipulation of an object's magical self. According to reports widely circulated in the Yunian Order, it is also by far the least balanced nation of the seven, elementally speaking, to the point where most Void-element casters do not wish to live there.*

Seyona has a substantially above-average population of necromancers, although they are forbidden by the Yunian Order, largely based on the misconception that Necromancy is, in practice, a form of enchantment (and therefore Water magic). Such practice remains a criminal activity, but as there is no small amount of corruption in the nation, in many places it gets by under the radar.

Seyona is also home to a sororal society known as the Keystones. They keep their organization, members, and practices heavily secret, mostly by use of special Water and Earth magic to create out-of-plane meeting spaces. The magic in question, collectively called Wardwalking, allows travel into objects, although in order to hold even one person completely, the material used must be carefully prepared with Earth magic. These out-of-planar meeting spaces are dangerous, and essentially impossible to detect, when planted within existing architecture. They are typically expansive pieces of stone, which are likely to have several places which can serve as a viable entrance or exit. These locations can also be entirely inaccessible physically, and only can be accessed magically by skilled (and well-informed) use of the Wardwalking spells. (The Yunian order also uses Wardwalking as a means of fast transit across the continent, by making use of leylines, which seem to serve admirably in this capacity)

There is also a substantive problem of human trafficking in Seyona, due to the problems of high population density, Wardwalking as a common practice, high crime rates among traders, and many locations that are off-limits to investigators. Some effort is being made, but by all accounts it is not a high priority. The Keystones, as one of their founding premises, do not tolerate such crime if they detect any hint of it, but it is a particularly difficult crime to track down even once you have the proper knowledge and tools.

*Elemental balance, it is generally understood, requires equal usage of the six elements, and the balance of a location affects the way casters see the world. A heavily imbalanced place will, in fact, allow you to see and understand certain elements better than a perfectly balanced place, but at the expense of losing clarity with other kinds of magic. Void magicians must maintain both internal balance, and some amount of external balance, to maintain their non-elemental clarity, which is a daunting task.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Prophecy and Time Travel

I make this commitment now: the Demonsword Project rules-as-written and setting-as-written do not support travel into the past, and as a direct consequence, do not support prophecy (knowledge of the future, or in other words, knowledge travelling to the past). This seems to be a strange statement, especially when you realize the official canon suggests that time travel may have happened.

The justification for this is iterative time-space--in other words, this moment erases the one that just passed. The past does not literally exist anymore, and therefore cannot be traveled to; similarly, the future does not yet literally exist, and you cannot discover anything about it by prophetic means. By mundane means, by all means try; meet people, learn physics, understand the world and predict it, but it is a guess, not prophecy, binding or otherwise.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Combat and Gameplay

I'm getting ready (I hope) for a playtest, the first since the first test in college. With each iteration, I'm trying desperately to make it be less confusing. Things that seem decent on paper turn out to be less so when I try to explain them, and the more I think about it, the less I like the ideas that had little thought behind them.

All of which is poor justification for all the delay! And I apologize. But the more time goes on, the more I feel like the mechanics are getting better. Part of this is refining the core mechanic, which was unmanagably intricate. If you were to examine some of my documents, and see how the same word is used differently in different places, or could see how even I can't keep straight all the work that needed to be done to finalize a playtest version, you'd understand.

So I'm working on what I guess you could call α2.4, and it's becoming reminiscent of, of all things, Magic: The Gathering. Not what I would have expected of a serious game engine, and certainly not a design intent. Will it work? A playtest will let us know for sure, but it's sure getting easier to make as it goes along.

As stated previously, you have a limited number of skill uses per round, and crits (critical success bonuses) are pooled, until used or discarded (for example by ending your turn). However, the crits now have a flavor, not dissimilar to Magic's colored mana pools. The base system has three flavors--mind, body, and spirit--but more will be added when you apply a setting. Any particular skill can only generate certain flavors--for example, basic sword proficiency does not give Mental crits.

At any point in your turn, you can deploy an Effect by spending crits you have already gained. Like the Magic cards, you may only gain an Effect by spending the appropriate number and flavor of them. Unlike your skill rolls, Effects do not cause the target to get a Defense turn; rather, the time to defend yourself is earlier, when the skill is rolled. However, that does not give you carte blanche to affect your enemy.

Any offensive Effect is described in terms of "damage," usually paired with the intended result. As a trivial example, actual physical damage is termed "Lethal Damage", because the intended result is the target's death. After all other factors are exhausted (armor soak, magic, etc), remaining damage is applied to the character, and they must then Resist it.

A character's Resistance to some given damage is described by a die size, from "Frightfully low resistance" (d4 or d6) to "Very high resistance" (d12, d20, or higher). Whenever they are forced to resist damage, they must roll over the damage they currently have. If they roll over, no effect; if they match or roll under, the intended effect happens. If you have d10 Lethal resistance, taking one point of damage gives you a 10% chance to die. Taking another, on the next round, adds 10%--for a sum total of 20% chance on that roll. Those odds get bad fast--but even one measly point of damage (after armor) can kill you, no matter how tough a character you've built. Of course, not all damage sticks around; Disarm damage, for instance, never stacks, and each attempt to disarm you is taken separately.

That makes DSRPG a fairly lethal system. However, it's also a very tactical system. Any particular character build (until you get to scarily high-experience or expensive ones) has some number of weaknesses. Perhaps your highly-armored warrior is prone to trip attacks, or worse, disarming. Or, perhaps your highly nimble monk is susceptible to attribute damage, bringing his stats down to manageable levels. Preferably, battle won't deal damage (of the lethal variety) every round, but will involve characters trying to find ways around each others' defenses, or trying to force a withdraw.

Interestingly enough, the same mechanic applies quite well to social combat. Convincing someone of a given fact or point of view has a different resistance than changing their attitude. And either may happen with the first social action, or the hundredth; it's hard to know.

The various resistances, etc, will take some ironing out, let alone the wiles and tribulations of the magic system, but it's far more workable than before. I'm enthused, and hope to have something for y'all that's a bit less theory soonish.

(Note: Soonish may not actually be soon)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Skills, Cards, & Battle

The overhaul of the skills system is nice, because it allows me to bring back something I was thinking about adding to the project--a card-like battle structure.

First, to clarify, the number of actions you can take in a round is low--with an Aspect bonus, maybe 14; without it, at maximum Wit (the relevant attribute) you can take 7 actions per turn. This replaces an admittedly messy MP cost / MP total mechanic that I never really liked.

Every skill has a card, which has on it (in addition to quick-reference information like the dice used) a brief list of the abilities the skill allows, as well as the bonuses available should you get a critical success with the skill (or carry crits over from previous actions), and of course, what benefits or hindrances apply at each skill level.

When your turn comes up (or you need to take a defense action), you can look at all the options available to you, using the cards as quick reference. (If you should need details of anything, refer to the core book, or printouts if the GM has modified anything) Then, lay out your cards as you take actions. I haven't decided if it's a hard rule to only use each card (action) once per round; perhaps not. But since only one card is actually happening at any moment, it shouldn't matter.

As you lay out actions, any action which is both unopposed and un-rolled (taken at average value) happens immediately. If the action has a target, the target can at any time choose to oppose the roll by taking a defense action. The person taking a defense action can do any action available to them, including other opposed rolls; if the attacker chooses to take a defense action, it cancels out their previous action, whatever it was.

Additionally, the defender can cancel incoming attacks by using a Defense ability or Movement ability. Using these skills, your defense action's average roll becomes the DC the opponent must meet to succeed. If the defense action has a synergy (explained below), bonuses from that skill may be used to increase your defense.

If the attacker wins an opposed action, their turn continues, and they can keep taking actions until they either use a skill with the Turn Eater hindrance, run out of actions, or decide to pass. If the attacker fails an opposed action, their turn ends immediately, and any unspent critical successes are lost.

Remember that the skill system allows you to accumulate critical successes, and use them later in the round. You must declare how many stored bonuses you are using on an opposed action before the defender chooses whether or not to defend against it; however, you can choose to roll the skill after seeing the defense action. Once you have rolled the skill, you must take the result, even if it is below average.

There are two additional sources of bonuses to your actions. First are items; they may be used manually, or automatically by related skills. If the item is used as part of the skill, it may also have a unique Critical Hit Pool; you can select critical success bonuses from this pool in addition to those given by the skill. Some items, such as armor, apply bonuses constantly or conditionally.

The other source of bonuses are synergy skills. These skills are used for free, without your character spending an action. Generally, synergy skills are specified on an ability or item as "Add one X ability" where X may be move, observe, attack, defend, some school of magic, etc; you are free to use any skill which has an ability fitting that description. If the skill you choose has synergy skills itself, you cannot gain more actions; synergy skills do not stack. You can, however, gain multiple synergy skills in the use of one ability (such as from an item and one from the skill).

Synergy skills are excellent for helping you leverage your character's specialities. For example, a character who focuses on his keen eyesight, and also uses ranged weapons, would make use of the Aim mental skill; in addition to bonuses from the Aim skill, it has the ability Eagle Eye, which has an Observation Skill Synergy; the character can choose any Observation skill he likes, and add the bonuses to the Aim skill. Likewise, the same eyesight-focused character may, in social combat, be in the middle of a tirade about the follys of a tyrant, and use the Gossip skill's Cutting Observation--which also has an Observation Skill Synergy. In each case, the character's eyes give him additional leverage, for free.

Note that as with all good RPG systems, the card mechanic of combat is entirely optional--you can do the same with a book, pencil, and paper, or less. However, I think it adds clarity to what would otherwise be a somewhat jumbled proposition.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Skill System Candidate 2

I've been mulling over the skills system; in the current (prior) form, it's complicated, and also a lot of work. However, most of the ways I've attempted to simplify it only make it harder and harder to explain. This below system seems to be a good mix of strong mechanically and easy to understand, although if you have feedback, I invite it.

Augmented skills no longer exist. Instead, the same function will be folded into the skill system as a whole, without the d12 extra dice for "affinity". Additionally, you can no longer choose to use abilities at lower than your training level; instead, you will automatically use the skill at your current training level at all times. Additionally, there are no longer distinct abilities at every skill level; instead, if the skill grants abilities (actions you can take as a character), the abilities will be the same at every level, but they will be penalized or granted bonuses depending on your skill level.

Every skill is designated as being part of one of three tiers (a term no longer reserved for augmented skills). You can generically call these tiers "General", "Specialty", and "Super-specialty", although I may find better terms for them later. (Magic and other special skills may use different terms for the tiers, if they are appropriate). In order to get a higher-tier skill, you must meet certain requirements; usually, a certain training level in one or more lower-tier skills, and a minimum level in one or more ability scores. Gaining your first level in a higher-tier skill may also require a sacrifice of training levels in the prerequisite skill, unless you visit a skill trainer. Even then, super-specialty skills generally require some sort of quest to acquire. In the event that there are several specialties per generic skill, or multiple super-specialties per specialty, you may train in more than one, but you must train in each separately.

When you gain a higher-tier skill, you find that your abilities in that skill are improved. Abilities in general fall into one of six levels:
  • Untrained - You are severely penalized for using skills at this level
  • Amateur - You have a minor penalty using skills at this level
  • Journeyman - You use skills at this level normally
  • Advanced - You gain small bonus using skills at this level
  • Mastery - You gain a moderate bonus using skills at this level
  • Grand-mastery - You gain a large bonus using skills at this level

These ability levels are related to skill level as follows:

General tierSpecialty tierSuper-specialty tier
Skill Level 0
DC 5
Untrained - -
Skill Level 1
DC 15
Skill Level 2
DC 25
Skill Level 3
DC 35

It is in your interest to gain specialty skills for actions you perform most; this gives you better skills in the long-term.

However, as the name implies, specialty skills have a narrower focus than generic skills. For example, take three mental skills: General Education, Knowledge: Physics, and High Knowledge: Astrophysics. These three skills fit into the three tiers, from general to super-specialty. An HK: Astrophysics roll may tell you a great deal about how you need to maneuver your spaceship to avoid asteroids, capture high-energy solar winds, or avoid dangerous quasars. However, it cannot be used to substitute for a general physics question, and a Know: Physics roll will cannot be used in place of a general knowledge check (for questions outside the domain of physics). Similarly, there should be a drawback to every specialty and super-specialty skill, such that it has an ever-increasing blind spot at higher tiers. As you become more powerful, keep your weaknesses in mind; if you gain enemies, it will be simple work for them to find a way to nullify your advantages, or worse.

Note that the same general rules regarding tiers apply to magic and other (previously augmented) special skills; however, in a way, they are arranged backwards; the skills you have the greatest control over are the higher-tier skills, while at lower levels, you are pigeon-holed into doing a few very specific things.

Draconian magic has three main skillsets per element, corresponding to the three tiers; these three are called Cantrips, Mentalisms, and Spells. They are all psionic styles of magic; the only arcane magic is done with engravings and enchantments, and is not usually used directly. However, you have varying levels of control; with Cantrips, you are limited to instant effect abilities, or in general, ones that require only knowing the ability and having the skill to pull it off--you do not need to control it after it is cast. (You may need to maintain it, but only in an on-off fashion.) In the middle, Mentalisms involve very coarse control; you may be able to tele-kinetically manipulate the fire in the area, or slice with a blade of wind as though it were in your hand, but finer control eludes you. At the high end, you can do much with Spells; you can manipulate things freely and delicately, using light or heavy touches, or making complex shapes. Exactly how capable you are depends on your skill level, of course...

However, there are also other skillsets in each element, and you are free to take any or all branches as you wish by training in each in turn. (Understand, however, that you will typically lose training points in the prerequisite skill when you train in a higher tier for the first time) For example, instead of learning Cantrips for each element, you can learn Auric Effects; these affect your body and your surroundings and are typically used in conjunction with martial arts. You can also learn Dragon summoning skills at the super-specialty (Spell) level. There are other examples, but we'll leave it at that.

In sum:
* You always roll at your training level
* DC goes up with level, so be sure to raise your ability scores!
* Higher tier skills have prerequisites and blindspots, but are powerful
* Augmented skills are no longer special, and not quite as fixed