Here is a tutorial video for the game I’ve been developing, Salvage Team. Behold:
Here is a tutorial video for the game I’ve been developing, Salvage Team. Behold:
After grinding Human Revolutions achievements from both the standard edition and the Director’s cut and walking away from the the game for good, I noticed something I’ve always known: If you want players to do something, reward them for it. Killing an enemy nets you 10 experience. Knocking the enemy unconscious gives 20 additional experience. And doing it with a melee takedown awards yet another 20 points of XP. If you go through an objective without setting an alarm off, you gain 250 XP. And if you manage to do it without being seen at all, it’s a whopping 500 XP bonus. There is absolutely no reason to ever use lethal force, since killing people is noisy, therefore negating pretty much every XP bonus.
Now, this is completely understandable. Human Revolution is at its best when you play it as a stealth hacker. Stealthing is fun and well-made. I could tolerate all 4 additional playthroughs because the gameplay was good and fluid. But the thing that makes me sad is that there is a LOT of content for treating Human Revolution as a shooter. You have a ton of different guns, gun upgrades and augmentations that would be very interesting to test out. But the loss of potentially hundreds of XP is too much. Therefore, there is a lot of content that I will never experience because the game rewards me to play it like it wants me to. My master has a name and it’s Pavlov.
So here’s the dilemma: Deus Ex wants me to be a stealth hacker, but it still wants to have all sorts of cool weapons and weapon upgrades and all that. It motivates me to be stealthy by giving me XP. But by being stealthy, I’m not going to use the guns and toys. What to do?
First of all, remove XP gain from takedowns. In my stealth playthroughs, I knocked out every enemy since they were always worth XP, regardless whether they were in my way or not. This way players become as stealthy as they naturally are, knocking out only the characters that they deem important enough to knock down.
Second, have knocked out enemies wake up by themselves. This way killing becomes a viable choice: Knocking people out is silent, but short-termed. Killing people is noisy, but permanent. Then you can have Jensen automatically cuff and gag them automatically when they are dragged. This way you have to take the enemies to a place far from people where they won’t cause scrutiny when they wake up.
Third, make the total XP gainable by shooting people equal to the XP gained by avoiding detection. This way if you screw up, you do not lose that sweet, sweet XP bonus, but instead you have to fight for it. Then the people who have all the sparkly gun mods will get to shine, and there would be a reason to lug a large, inventory-space-eating gun with you at all times.
So that fixes combat. But there is another point that irks me: Hacking. If you hack a device, you gain XP. If you input a password, you don’t get anything. In the old Deus Ex, finding a login and a password was pure joy. It played to the natural human urge to scavenge, and it let you cheat your way through an otherwise impassable wall. In Human Revolution, you don’t ever use passwords because hacking gives XP. So that is an entire feature sacrificed to the altar of Experience.
This should be the other way around: Give XP for using passwords and keycodes. This encourages exploration, taking guards down (they might have pocket secretaries) and puzzling out what the passwords might be. And whenever you find a set, you get that small dopamine spike: “Ah, sweet! XP and a key to secrets!” Only if you have no other option do you sit down and hack, which is time-consuming and might give your position away.
So there. Wield XP wisely and responsibly.
Hello again. If you have been wondering what I’ve been doing lately, then wonder no more. For I have done pretty much nothing interesting. I’ve been working on Salvage Team and Audatia during the days, and spent evenings playing video games, board games and roleplaying games.
The reason I’ve been silent in here is because I have had many forums where to share my groundbreaking observations and thoughts. At work, in my gaming groups… Logging them here has felt unnecessary.
But now I’ve been summoned to write about roleplaying in Finland, in the present and in the future. While I feel that extrapolating the future is probably beyond my capabilities, I shall share my observations of the present, and what I hope of the future.
Here in Oulu, I’ve been roleplaying a lot of different things, mostly on a whim. I’ve tried to improve and test myself in a myriad of games: Linear, Deus Ex-like conspiracy investigation, Lovecraftian horror, realistic fantasy, light-hearted Star Wars crime drama, straight Werewolf the Forsaken and others I might have forgotten about. Some of them have been system tests, like the Dawn of Worlds-based realistic fantasy thing (failed because of too many players), while some have been explorations into new systems, like Edge of the Empire.
Regarding other roleplaying games, trying out new things has been a theme around here. People have been crafting their own rpg systems, either scratch-built or modified from existing ones. Very few people have stuck with one game for extended periods of time. Almost no-one plays D&D, except for a few nostalgia-driven forays into the ancient first and second editions in the form of ready-made adventures. Others play Cyberpunk where they have built over the years a book’s worth of history and lore. Yet others play KERP, the Middle-Earth Role Playing Game, Dungeon World (or at least they used to play it a few months ago) and other, lighter games.
Then again, for the past few months, starting from my Werewolf campaign, Storyteller has gained a strong hold over the people. One of the players is planning on starting a Werewolf of his own, where he hopes to fix the stupidities of Storyteller. Right now I’m trying to get a Changeling campaign off the ground and am in the process of running a Wizard the Stolening mini-campaign series. Additionally, there is a lot of activity in the grim darkness of the far future, since there has been two full Only War campaigns, one active right now, Dark Heresy one-shots, Rogue Trader and now Deathwatch, where I’m playing as Battle Brother Nobilitus, an Ultramarine Tactical Marine and possibly the best individual in the galaxy.
Wizard is one of the most interesting of games I’ve ran recently. It all started with a one-shot game where a group of university students found an ancient tome of magic spells under a barn. I wanted to integrate Magic the Gathering’s more amusing spells into a modern setting. In the end, it evolved into a long mini-campaign series, following one of the emerging group of Wizards and ultimately the fate of the world now that magic is back.
So that is the present. I am doing preliminary thoughtwork for a sci-fi game set in the universe of Endless Space, using a heavily modified Edge of the Empire. Additionally I’ve thought about a mini-campaign series set in a sci-fi universe of my own, which would follow the evolution of humanity when a synthetic human replicas enter the fray. I would also like to finally run a Changeling campaign where the players play as themselves.
About the future. I’d like for our roleplaying groups to keep on doing new things and keep an open mind. There are precious few people who can do the latter, who have the strength and courage to sacrifice their free time into testing and pioneering instead of sitting in their comfort zones and keeping playing the same old games in the same old settings with the same old themes.
I want to see experience new things! Learn new techniques! I want to play in an atmospheric horror game, I want to be entangled in a complex web of romance and intrigue, I want to play as an entire group of people, I want to have dialogue with myself, I want to share control of a character with many players. I want to play as myself, I want to play as someone I know. Try it all. Challenge myself. Find myself. Improve myself.
Sadly, as I mentioned, there are only a few people who share my interests. The future of roleplaying will very likely be the same as now: People doing things they like. Some people will keep playing D&D (the best and only edition), some people will juggle between Cyberpunk and Storyteller, and some will be game for anything. Some people will always gather around the kitchen table with dice and paper, some will embrace technology and replace the table with a tablet. Roleplaying is a group-based activity, and those groups will most likely stick together. As our acceptance of connectivity increases and the technology evolves, perhaps our pool of like-minded gamers will no longer be limited by physical distance, but for now the most efficient way to play roleplaying games is face-to-face.
A friend of mine played a mortal World of Darkness game in the summer. I did not take part, but I was very inspired by the initial drafts: An old prison converted into a youth rehabilitation facility. A rusty, concrete building with many broken windows, rusty, screechy doors, and old, somewhat unnerving wardens. When I envisioned the cold and dark interiors, with rain drumming on the windows and an old, faulty generator powering the flickering lights, I knew that I had to try to get that atmosphere of creeping horror into a game of my own. From there I envisioned Manor in the Woods.
I got three players, but scheduling started to fall apart. I wanted to have a whole day for the game, since I wasn’t intending to have a longer campaign. Eventually the thought faded and drifted into the background. But a couple of weeks ago it resurfaced and we finally managed to schedule a Saturday for the game. That Saturday was yesterday as of writing. My verdict of the game is that I’ll allow myself to feel satisfied about it.
Manor in the Woods has been one of the most educational of games that I’ve played in some time. I learned a lot about the atmosphere and structure of a horror game, and now I’ll share my findings with you.
Comprehension is the poison of fear
I rarely plan my games in great detail. I usually have some sort of rough outline of the plot and some scenarios that I want the players to experience. But originally, I wanted a very detailed structure for Manor. I drafted the blueprints of the eponymous manor, and decided to form a plot around it. But during the hiatus, I forgot about that. The day before the game I had decided to dedicate towards planning and making notes. Instead, I just ground the last achievements from Rogue Legacy.
As I was sitting in the bus, heading to the ground zero, feeling guilty and very nervous about the lack of preparation, I realised something: If I didn’t know what the evil in the manor was, neither would the players. And people tend to fear that which they do not comprehend.
So my plan was to just toss more or less random clues and mystery towards the players and tie them together as the game progressed. The history of the manor and the significance of the things the players discovered evolved constantly. Whenever I started to form a pattern inside the game, I deliberately broke it. This way they couldn’t anticipate what the Entity wanted. Did it want to kill them? Did it want to make them suffer? Keep them prisoner? Have just some company? In the end this worked very well.
So if you, dear reader, wish to make a horror roleplaying game, I suggest you do not try to understand your main evil. It is in the human nature to make sense of things and form patterns. Resist that nature, and gleefully break your own rules. This will keep the players on their toes. It is frustrating, sure, but the inhuman entity of your game is allowed to be.
Invest in the props
Our usual roleplaying place has been a big table in the hallways of Oulu University. It is a very-well lit space with various amounts of random passersby. I knew that playing there would have been a death knell to the atmosphere, so I decided that we play in the apartment of one of our players (my place is 8 kilometers away from the 1×1 km area which houses the rest of the players). It did not have a lot of table space, but there would not be any distractions.
On-site we closed the curtains, put an 8-hour YouTube video of rain and distant thunderstorm on the speakers and lit some candles when the sun went down. The players sat on a couch and a bean bag, while I took a large armchair and sat with the candles between me and the players.
This worked. The gloom brought voices down and I could keep a low and slow tone in my voice. Everyone was pleased in the atmosphere. I think the game would have lost it all had there been one electric light in the room.
On retrospect there could have been one addition which would have brought a kinesthetic aspect to the game: Flashlights. In the start of the game the manor did not have any lights, and the characters had to rely on flashlights to find their way. If the players would have had flashlights, they could have used them to focus their actions. Talk to an NPC? Shine it on me. Another player? On them. It would have also kept the air of darkness tangible. If the party had two flashlights, then the players whose characters had them would have all the light in the room.
So invest in the props. You are going for an atmosphere, so do everything to achieve it.
Do not let the dice dictate the action.
Let’s imagine a scenario. Your character is in a dark kitchen, looking for candles and matches. The GM tells you to roll a Perception check.
You fail, and the GM tells you that you feel as if something moved behind the cutting table. Do you think “If I had only succeeded I could have seen what it was?”
Now what if you succeed, and the GM tells you that you feel as if something moved behind the cutting table. Do you think “Oh my god, what if I had failed? Would it have immediately attacked me?”
From the perspective of the GM, the outcome is the same: The player notices the threat (or something else), regardless whether he succeeded in the perception check or not.
I used this fact in Manor. That is to say, I mercilessly fudged the results of my own rolls, if I had a more useful (read: Added to the atmosphere) situation in my mind. But remember that fudging rolls is very delicate: If the players feel like their dice rolls do not matter, they get frustrated, and not in the good way. So try to fudge your rolls to advance the situation.
Death is the greatest immersion breaker.
Shamus Young had a good point about horror video games: Killing your player is the worst thing you could do. Because as long as the player is in the game, finding dread secrets and running away from incomprehensible monsters, he is immersed in the world. But as soon the “YOU ARE DEAD. LOAD, RESTART, QUIT”-screen appears, all of that hard-won horror is gone. He remembers that he needed to go to the bathroom. He checks the watch and ponders whether to wait and see the rest of the game or go study.
That is a hard balancing act: Keeping the threat of death in the air, but the player still alive. In the Manor, there was a thing prowling the gardens known as “The Groundskeeper”. It was a 2-meter vaguely humanoid thing, wearing shiny scythes, saws and other sharp gardening tools on its person. At one point it gave chase to one of the characters who wandered too close. The player failed his run away roll, so the thing dealt 1 damage (about third of a character’s hit points), and tossed him in a lake. As the character swam towards the center, the Groundskeeper walked after him, slowly submerging until it entirely under the water. It kept following the characters, and interrupted their bickering on whether they should go to the Mausoleum or the Mansion, which was apparently safe.
The Groundskeeper was a ticking clock: The characters could outrun it and hide in the questionably safe mansion, but outside it would always follow them. If it would have just killed the character, it would have ended the game prematurely for one character, and would have spoiled itself on the one central question: What does it do if it catches you?
So do not put instant deathtraps to your characters. Give them opportunities to evade threats, possibly horrible opportunities. Or, instead of deathtraps, just put traps for them. Mysterious traps. Traps that very certainly do something for the trappee, but what exactly?
The blueprints of the Mansion were based on the Ankh of the Triach, the most evil symbol I know. (It is the Necron icon from Warhammer 40k). I did not want to show the map to the players, because one of them would have recognized it, and it would have killed some of the mystery. So when the players inevitably requested some sort of map, I solved the problem by drawing very quick and very crude perspective images of the various rooms and spaces of the Manor.
The other reason why I didn’t want to have a top-down map is because it would have brought the focus from the players’ heads to the table in front of them. In their head, they hopefully imagined the manor as they explored it, from their perspective. In first-person. With a map, the place would have just become a board game.
I know that some players might be upset about this, but do not allow the players to draw a map (unless their characters have tools for it). Maps bring clarity, which kills mystery. Isn’t the point of a huge mansion with a weird layout to make the players feel like they’re lost?
When the real-world clock struck 12, the characters had all either succumbed to fatigue, or had gone to sleep in the various bedrooms of the manor. We began to plan for the second session, since the characters had a couple of leads on some of the answers, but then I realised that we could just end it right there. The characters are all asleep. This is the perfect ending.
What would have additional time done? The players would have gone to the Spirit World, found a giant Spirit Spider, evaded it, found a spinning puzzle thing and then would have faced the Entity, which would have probably killed them all. Or not. The atmosphere would have jumped the shark.
Now only questions remain. Do the characters wake up? All of them? Do they find the mystery of the Manor? What IS the mystery of the Manor? Questions arise, and the players can imagine their own answers to them.
So those are the lessons I’ve learned from Manor in the Woods. Now I have a hankerin’ for another horror game, but not a sequel. The Aldritch Manor will live on in the imaginations of the players, and they do not need a poorly conceived sequel to ruin the mystery.
Perhaps Unsung Horrors….
Yes, you read right. This is a new post.
I’ve been playing a lot of tabletop roleplaying games this past year. The latest of them is Edge of the Empire, the new Star Wars rpg. I almost immidiately fell in love with the concept: A hard-edged living on the fringes of galactic society. No mystical Jedi, no idealistic Rebel Alliance, just doing business for some creds. Finally!
Edge of the Empire uses the Fantasy Flight Games’ unconventional dice as its base. There are two types of dice: Positive and negative. Positive dice (Ability, Skill and Boost) grant Successes and Advantages, and the negative dice (Difficulty, Challenge and Setback) issue Failures and Threats. Basically, you calculate from your skills and charasteristics what your Ability and Skill die pool is. Then the GM gives you Difficulty dice based on the difficulty on the check, and possibly upgrades some of them to Challenge dice. Then you and your fellow players toss ideas on how to help the check. If the idea sounds good, the GM awards you some Boost dice. Then the GM thinks about any outside difficulties and possibly adds some Setback dice.
Then you roll the pool. Each Failure eats one Success from your results. The Advantages and Threats cancel each other out on one-on-one basis. If you have at least one Success remaining, you succeed. Regardless on whether you succeed or not, if there are any Advantages remaining, something good happens. And if there are any Threats remaining, something bad happens.
So that’s the core mechanic, which I think is very, very good. Rolling dice is a big event, and ideas and narrative description can add tangible rewards to your check in the form of additional dice. The huge handful of dice feels very nice to roll, and the results shape the narrative in a very wide fashion. Your attempt to pass off as an important diplomat fails, but the security guard seems to be in an amicable mood and will let you go for a small bribe. Your blaster shot hits the bounty hunter squarely, but you find yourself exposed after making the shot.
In addition to the basic mechanics, there is the most interesting mechanic of them all: Obligation. Each character has an Obligation, a reason why he is living in the Edge of the Empire. It might be that he is in a deep debt, or that he has a large extended family whose matters require his constant attention. Obligation has also a Magnitude, which is typically in the range of 10-20. The party’s Obligation is tracked in their group sheet. At the beginning of each session, the GM rolls d100, and if the number hits any of the players’ Obligation, then that Obligation triggers, and the players can expect anything from calls to bounty hunters in that session.
The Obligation is a powerful narrative driving force and a resource. Generally, the higher the Obligation, the less official parties will want to deal with the players. Also, the higher the Obligation, the easier working with criminal elements will be. Players can purchase goods and services by increasing their Obligation, and they can adventure and pay off their debts, thus reducing it.
Sounds vague? Well, that’s the interesting thing. The whole book practically oozes the phrase ”Interpret this as you wish”. Everything, from combat rules to the Obligation is very loosely written, and most of the text consists of general guidelines the GM is free to interpret. Go fast and roll with it. Why do the government of this out-of-way-planet care about your family grievances? Because your family has questionable contacts to the criminal underworld, and you are too, by association. Or you can just say: You are right, they don’t. Your Obligation does not matter this time.
That’s what I love about Edge of the Empire. The lightness, openness to interpretation and general feeling of the game. After the horribly old-fashioned d20, the heavyset 40k Roleplay and problematic Cyberpunk, I really like Edge of the Empire.
Say what you will about Facebook, but I certainly appreciate the thing. Without it, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
One day, I beheld a status in Facebook. One of my contacts was asking if anyone knew any game designers who would be interested in making a card game. His friend’s friend (or somesuch) had apparently heard that Guy Windsor, a modern swordmaster, was scouting out game designers for a swordfighting card game project. I tossed a message at him, introduced myself and asked for a chance at a face-to-face meeting. One train voyage to Swordschool at Helsinki later, I was selected for the job.
When I went to meet Guy for the first time, I knew pretty much nothing of real swordfighting. Most of my nearly nonexistent sword experience came from boffer-fighting, which has very little to do with Fiore’s art, and from couple of my acquaintances who have had taken his lessons. Having grown up with lighsabers and video games, I found the idea of realistic swordfighting dull. So I was a bit afraid of what I was going in to.
But my fears were unfounded. Guy was a very jovial person, and we got along very well. And the art itself was a game unto itself. All the elements were already in place; The four Virtues were just begging to become resources to be managed, the seven basic blows of the sword were instant cards, and the logic of swordfighting became quickly clear. Well, quickly and quickly.
The first thing I requested from the swordmaster himself was a simple summary on how a typical duel, or ”bout”, goes. What I got was several emails worth of descriptions and a flowchart. After that, I spent about a month learning theoretical swordsmanship. I kept polishing and pruning the flowchart, and compressed concepts such as parries, attacks, binds and such until I had a fair understanding in what happens when two competent people wish to hit each other with sharpened steel.
Then came the first prototype. Forged in the flames of Openoffice Writer, I condensed Fiore’s art into a handful of keywords and 5-page flowchart. The prototype was ugly as hell, and confusing to boot. But thankfully I had Cryo, the gaming club of Oulu University, and their keen gamers to help me playtest the thing. After a couple of playtests I got confirmation; The system was logical.
After the first playtests, I pretty much just polished the system, listening to feedback, asking questions about authenticity and doing other things (such as designing Salvage Team). And just before Ropecon we got the prototype art ready. But since our artist was already working above and beyond original call of duty, I sneaked off with the prototype assets and printed out the second prototype, which was easier on the eye, easier to read, and just plain better.
So here is the history of Audatia from the perspective of the game designer. Be a dear and purchase it from Indiegogo so I can finish the fight.
Also, hello! I’m still not dead, despite what my posting frequency would indicate.
Apparently my thoughts have wider use than merely game design. I was contacted by Ms. Morris from the Open Site blog, regarding my post on game difficulty, which apparently had something in common about multitasking. Here is a test her team created that examines the user’s ability to multitask. Check it out, if you have a minute or two: