Values and Rewards

I’ve been bugging a couple of other designers about their games, one because he asked me to and one because I’m helping with playtesting. I really like both of these games and I think I see ways they can be improved. As with any critique, it’s up to them to decide if there is value in my comments, and value is what is forefront of my mind right now.

Games have values hard-baked into them. Whether intentional or not, a game has activities it values and others it does not. Just because an activity is necessary for a game to function does not necessarily mean the game values that activity. All my games include rolling dice as a randomizer, but the games do not value this. I can confidently say/write that because none of my games reward dice-rolling. They reward the results of dice-rolling, but that could be the result of any randomizer, and I have chosen dice because they are the randomizer I understand the best.

Right there I revealed what I’ve been thinking about: rewards as signifiers of value. A game will reward what it values. The main mechanical reward in Dungeons & Dragons is experience points. There are other rewards which have a mechanical function – they effect the “behind the scenes” system that gives structure to the narrative/story – but they also exist within the story. Experience points – at least as I understand them – are wholly mechanical. PCs gain experience points from defeating enemies. In 5e, one can provide story rewards or rewards for noncombat challenges, but these are optional. The system rewards defeating monsters, so the game obviously values defeating monsters. You can do a lot of things with the D&D system, but if you are running it “rules as written,” your PCs will be fighting and defeating monsters and other opponents because that is what the game values and what it rewards.

If there is a reward in the game, it is because that is an activity in which the game wants you to engage. However, when designing a game, I think it is easy to disassociate rewards from values. Sometimes, we design at an instinctual level and only later review and consider what we have created. Rewards are a part of design, and the giving of rewards is not bad, but it does make the activity one is rewarding a required part of the game. Sure, one does not need to engage in that activity – no one is coming to your house to force you to defeat monsters – but the character will actually be penalized for not doing so. The character will not be rewarded while other characters undertaking the activity will be.

In my experience, when designing a game, it’s super important to ask yourself does the activity I am rewarding have value? Do I feel it is valuable? If it is not and does not, why am I rewarding it? So in Sword’s Edge, there are two activities which the players control that provide rewards – hitting Pivots and having a character act in a way that might seem sub-optimal, but that fits in the genre being replicated. Like D&D, there are other optional ways, but these two are “rules as written” (basically, Luck exists to reward players as a way of reinforcing activities at the table to which the GM or group has assigned value).

Why do Pivots have value? Pivots are the signposts that tell everyone about the character’s goals, quirks, and style. They are also signposts to help GMs design adventures. By hitting those, the player is reinforcing the character as expressed by that player. This in turn means that if the player wants to change her vision of the character, there is incentive to change the Pivots which then assists the GM in fashioning adventures that will speak to the player and character. There are two levels of reinforcement, but the mechanical one is likely the one that will motivate as the other – the enjoyment of the game – might not be significantly impacted.

You know who I’m talking about . . . right?

Why does following genre conventions have value? Following conventions has value as it helps to support an atmosphere and approach which the group has agreed it wants to foster. There’s no problem playing a Stormtrooper in a Star Wars campaign, but remember that the characters in Star Wars are basically good. They can be anti-heroes, but they fight the good fight, so that Stormtrooper needs to abandon the Empire/First Order and help the Resistance. The player still gets to play the character desired while being rewarded for sticking to the genre on which the group has agreed. This balances the desires of the player and the group.

So when designing a game, consider what your game rewards. That signifies value. Did you intend your game to value that activity? Is it in keeping with the concept or stated aims of the game? Rewards are good. Values are good. Consistency is better because it generally delivers a better play experience, closer to the stated aim of the system.

At least that’s what I think.

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As Sword’s Edge slowly moves towards completion and delivery to its backers, I have been using what time I have to get some other projects in order. Right now, both Lawless Heaven and Face ‘Splosion are ready to go. These are Sword’s Edge adventures designed for convention play, meaning they are one-shots with prepared characters, although they could be introductions into longer campaigns if so desired. Right now, I am working on the Nor’Westers, which may get a new name for its release, and is different than the other two releases in that it is a campaign, though one built of the truncated summaries I use to run adventures, which I tend to lump together as one-pagers.

Along with these three Sword’s Edge products, I have a Centurion and a Nefertiti Overdrive adventure that I could release, as well as a possible second campaign product (a covert special forces campaign set in modern Africa) that could be completed.

You may wonder about this flurry of activity. It is because I am intent on exploring another type of crowdfunding – Patreon. Unlike Kickstarter, Patreon is a subscription service in which one pays a specific amount per month or per release. My intent is to set mine to “per release” and to release adventures as well as some other items at a planned rate of once per month.

As it stands, I’ll have three months (possibly four) covered, and I intend to keep that buffer going – so I will always have some extra time in case there is a month in which I am unable to get a product completed. Each product will be around 20 pages. The idea is that they will be provided to backers of Patreon. Depending on the amount of money I am making on Patreon, the products may then be sold elsewhere or they may remain available only through Patreon. Along with adventures, I intend to offer game supplements – such as an Egyptian history and culture supplement for Nefertiti Overdrive and a Sword Noir supplement for the new version of Sword’s Edge – and fiction – I am toying with the idea of a serial novel along with speculative fiction short stories.

This will happen once Sword’s Edge reaches its backers as a PDF. I don’t want to put a date on that as all is going well and I don’t want to raise expectations only to then have to dash them.

I’ll be talking about this both at the SEP Google+ community and on Twitter.

I hope that you’ll be kind enough to support me on Patreon when the time comes. If you like what I do, it is a way to make sure I keep producing.

You can find the SEP G+ community here.

You can find me on Twitter here.

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Centurion Ruminations

A discussion elsewhere has led me to consider choices made in designing Centurion – one of my games that was not inspired by other systems but was wholly independently designed. Centurion: Legionaries of Rome, as its title implies, is a game about Roman legionaries, and more specifically the kinds of special troops that might find themselves in a testudo facing raging barbarians, but which are more likely to be in advance of the legions, scouting out the activities of those barbarians or even infiltrating the camps or cities of rival civilizations. The development of Centurion seems so long ago (I guess 2012 was a few years back), but I had some very clear design goals.

For a simple system with a strong focus on narrative, Centurion’s dice mechanics are somewhat complex, certainly much crunchier than the other aspects of the game. This was the result of an intent to develop a relatively light game that still required a level of strategy – or, to be more true to the definitions, tactics. Since it was a game about legionaries, the idea was to incorporate the kind of tactical thinking required when you were in a legion. Legionaries had to make decisions for themselves – when to receive attacks and when to strike – but these decisions also had effects on their squadmates – when shifting a shield for a strike, one left the legionary to one’s right vulnerable. So the decisions made on who to build one’s hand to best counter the GM was intended as an extension of the decisions required of a legionary.

In a Test, the GM must assemble their hand of dice first – the character’s stats are based on a number of d6, and these can be used to buy larger dice or used as d6s, and this collection of dice is the player’s “hand” – and this gives the PCs a decided advantage. This was not an unexpected result but was the goal of that design decision. PC s are intended to have an advantage – actually, a few – and the major advantage is the ability to respond to the GM’s hand. This is one way to mirror the incredible professionalism and level of training of the Roman legionaries in comparison to almost any foe that they faced. While PCs had certain other advantages, this one was the primary way in which the training of the legionaries was modelled.

Centurion is certainly not the most popular game that I have designed, but I think it is the one about which I am most proud. This was something that I designed completely from the ground up with a very strong idea about what I wanted it to do. I really believe that I accomplished that, though others might disagree.

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How Starship is Commandos?

Starship Commandos is very explicitly inspired by the movie Aliens and the novel Starship Troopers. Recently, an individual had a bit of a disconnect between the perceived nature of those intellectual properties and the game. Basically, the interlocutor saw mortal threat as an important part of both inspirations, whereas in the default mode of Starship Commandos, there is no threat of PC death.

My response is rather lengthy, but as a TLDR, I guess I would just say that the PCs are Ripley and Rico in those pieces of inspiration, and the survival of those characters is never – in my opinion – in question. I would further opine that observation has led me to conclude that players do not invest in characters when they expect those characters to die, that the way players build characters in such situations changes. I explicate a lot more for clarity below, but it’s a bit of a slog.

This isn’t to try to claim that my way is the correct view, just that this is how I interpret the media properties and link that to my game design.

In regards to theme, it is my opinion that while Alien was absolutely survival horror in a science fiction setting, Aliens was not. To me, the question is not will Ripley survive but how. Elements of horror are woven into the story, and that helps to escalate the stakes. The lack of supplies provides the same, while also setting in motion the ticking clock aspect of the plot. The xenomorphs are horrifying and their use of humans in their life process is horrifying, and in this sense the movie is a monster/horror movie. But all of the Alien movies have attempted to approach the subject matter from a different angle and provide a different story – although Alien Resurrection came very close to mimicking some of the themes of Aliens – and rather than survival horror, Aliens seems much more an action movie with horror trappings.

For me, survival plays even less of a role in Starship Troopers. It has aspects of a coming of age story but I read it as an investigation of a militaristic society. I believe the story uses the alien threat as a backdrop to discuss civic engagement, public service, and the military as a focus for both. Again, this is Johnny Rico’s story, and I don’t believe there is much fear as one reads the novel that he might not survive.

So, for me, survival and threat was not a chief theme in either of the identified inspirations. Both included military responses to alien menaces, and that’s what I took for Starship Commandos.

Still, what about the threat of death as a means to build tension? I believe that when adapting intellectual properties to RPGs, one is generally dividing up the role of a single heroic protagonist (in this case Ripley or Rico) into the PCs. The novel/movie focused on just James Bond or Jason Bourne, but in the game, the PCs embody different aspects and competencies of the character. In the novels/movies, the protagonist generally has plot immunity, and in my RPGs, that extends to the PCs. One expects Ripley to survive because it is her movie (something that was not clear in Alien, which allowed it to play much straighter as survival horror), and this extends to the PCs. The PCs are all Johnny Ricos rather than one Johnny Rico and some supporting players.

The threat to the PCs in Starship Commandos is much the same as it is to Ripley and to Rico – there are narrative elements that can be considered a threat, but death is not an obvious outcome.

And this leads me to the death of PCs and the investment of players. To my knowledge, there are no real studies on how players react to RPGs, so we all base our assessments on our own experiences and the experiences of those whom we know. As such, I have no data, only anecdotes. What the anecdotes have led me to believe is that in RPGs with high PC mortality, players build mechanical PCs – PCs built for tasks within the mechanics of the game. They may initially infuse their PCs with personality and backstories, but the effort to do so declines with the repetition of creation. It is my belief that one does not invest in the fifth character of a campaign in the same way as one does a character that been part of five different adventures – or five different stories. One does not identify as strongly with and so one is likewise not as invested in the PC’s story.

I have not noted nor witnessed tension at the game table lessened due to the removal of death as a threat to PCs. I received strong evidence of this during the playtest of Starship Commandos, in which the players knew that their PCs had plot immunity but were nevertheless freaked out and extremely tense when they finally did encounter the xenomorphs. Just as with watching Aliens or reading Starship Troopers, it was the build to the scene rather than its mechanics or specifics that fed the tension. I have seen the same when I have run Nefertiti Overdrive, which very explicitly has no mechanic for PCs to receive damage (there is a method to degrade their ability to succeed but not to “harm” them – and this was specifically part of the design philosophy).

So, very long-winded, but I hope it gives some insights into some of the design decisions made in Starship Commandos and how that might run contrary to expectations.

You can find Starship Commandos here.

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Karimala – Queen of Kush?

As part of my research into a cultural and historical primer for Nefertiti Overdrive, I’m reading Robert G. Morkot’s The Black Pharaohs. It’s a bit rough going because it’s a very technical book and not a popular history. My readings on Egyptian history have been at the popular history level, and much of the archaeological and historiographic discussions in the book are over my head.

I have hit on a very interesting point. There’s an inscription on a temple in the fortress of Semna in what would become Kush, and it refers to Karimala, whom the inscription calls “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, King’s Great Wife, King’s Daughter.” While she was apparently a great wife to a pharaoh, that inscription seems to suggest she also ruled in her own right. Dr. Morkot’s assumes this is not true, even though he does not indicate a specific reason why it could not be. He does indicate that the hieroglyphs are difficult to decipher, though I do not know enough to be able to make a guess as to why.

I understand that female rulers in Egypt and its surrounding cultures were uncommon, but they were not unknown, and given the accepted – if uncertain – translation, it seems reasonable that someone, quite possibly Karimala herself, considered her the pharaoh. Certainly Hatshepsut ruled as pharaoh, as did Sobekneferu, and possibly Merneith and Ahhotep I, among others. As serendipity would have it, the temple on which the inscription was found was believed to have been built by Thutmose III, with whom Hatshepsut jointly “ruled,” as he was a child of her husband, Thutmose II, and a lesser wife. It was also in the rule of Thutmose III that an attempt was made – possibly by him or his counsellors – to remove Hatshepsut from all monuments and inscriptions: to erase her from history.

The Karimala inscription also relates to a period in which the ruling powers – whomever those might be, let’s say it’s Queen Karimala – turned away from Amun, which created turmoil in the kingdom. The carving shows Karimala giving sacrifices to Isis, so maybe – like Akhenaten – she tried to change the state religion and raise Isis above Amun. Imagine her nation in turmoil as the nobles and warlords turn against her. The inscription seems to indicate that in the end, Amun was returned to his place of pre-eminence, so I guess in our story Karimala would have to lose.

In the end, for me, it’s a great piece of inspiration, a seed that could grow into a really interesting story. I don’t have the knowledge or skills necessary to actually ferret out the truth, but Nefertiti Overdrive is about kick-ass adventures rather than strict historical accuracy, so there’s nothing stopping us from running a game in which Karimala, an acolyte of Isis, challenges the status quo and finds herself embattled by her own subject – though maybe not all of them.

It’s also important not to assume anything. There may be plenty of evidence not presented that Karimala was a wife of the ruler rather than a ruler in her own right, but that’s not included. Unfortunately, it seems very much like an assumption based on expectations, and that is very dangerous.

You can find The Black Pharaohs on Amazon here, where you can also find Nefertiti Overdrive,

You can get the print+PDF combo of Nefertiti Overdrive at Indie Press Revolution.

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Adventures in the Anglo-Saxon Migration

When I consume media of any sort, I get inspired and think about how I could apply it to either my fiction or my gaming. Since my gaming is the creative endeavour on which I spend most of my time these days, it tends to default to gaming. This happened when I listened to the most recent episode of the Fall of Rome – and, as a side note, if you like history or just Rome, you need to be listening to this podcast.

Episode 20: “The Anglo-Saxon Migration, the North Sea World, and the Birth of England” got me thinking of Great Britain in the fifth century. Now, this period has been mined pretty extensively, but generally as it relates to King Arthur. Patrick Wyman, the host, had previously mentioned Riothamus, a possible candidate for the historical Arthur, but other than an offhand reference to this being the period of Arthur, he focuses on the much more interesting – for me – topic of the Anglo-Saxon culture and the history and process of migration.

What I really loved was the discussion of a hypothetical Saxon family, their first introduction to Britain through the father’s work as a mercenary in a Romano-British aristocrat’s armed retinue until his grandchild has carved out a “kingdom” for himself. This is something that could work with Kiss My Axe, which does discuss the Age of Migrations but doesn’t look at the Germanic migration into Great Britain. In Kiss My Axe, all Vikings are linked by the Quality of “Sailing” – the term Viking likely refers to seaborne raiders – and I think for an Anglo-Saxon migration game I’d change that to “Honour.” This would work as a pretty common modifier, mostly to the benefit of the characters – providing them with courage in battle and defence against deception – but also as a Weakness, as that honour can easily be used against them in many situations.

I’m thinking of a game in which the PCs arrive in post-Roman Britain around 420 or so, and follow this group of mercenaries as they rise to positions of power and prestige. This version of Britain would include the supernatural aspects that we now consider superstition, and I would be interested in referencing the religious friction of the heathen Saxons vs. the Christian Romano-British.

Right now, I have a fantasy and a modern spec ops campaigns happening, but there’s nothing stopping me from mapping this campaign out for possible later usage. Perhaps backburner until it comes Kiss My Axe’s turn for revision.

You can find the episode in question here.

You can find the excellent the Fall of Rome podcast here.

You can find Kiss My Axe here.

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Lawless Heaven at CanGames

Are you going to be in Ottawa this weekend? If so, do you want to kick some ass in Ulsan? Then “Lawless Heaven” would be your jam.

I’ll be running “Lawless Heaven” on Saturday at 14:00 and Sunday at 09:00 this weekend (20 & 21 May).

In case you don’t know, “Lawless Heaven” is my homage to South Korean action cinema using my recently Kickstarted RPG Sword’s Edge. Seats are still available.

You can find the schedule here.

You can find CanGames here.

Here‘s a quick rundown of “Lawless Heaven”

And you can find out more about “Lawless Heaven” here.

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Ballad of a High Plains Samurai

As I’ve mentioned a few times in a few places, I’m working on a fiction commission. It’s done and dusted, handed in and awaiting editing. It’s also okay for me to let people know what it is.

I’ve written a four-part story outlining the early history of Black Scorpion, a major figure in High Plains Samurai. Black Scorpion is a legendary bandit who once challenged the warlords hold on the One Land, and the story I’ve finished takes her from childhood to the final battle between the Desert Sun gang, with Black Scorpion as its chief, and the warlords of the Five Cities.

I’ll let you know when and where you can read the fiction when that information becomes available, but it’s probably best to follow Broken Ruler Games for all the breaking news. You might notice, if you are checking up on High Plains Samurai, that there is a stretch goal for fiction with my name attached. This would be a continuation of the four-part saga which would reveal more about my version of Black Scorpion.

And I would say my version, because if you are playing or running High Plains Samurai, your Black Scorpion might be different. Your One Land might be different. For me, it is a place where the weak cannot hope for justice and order is the same as submission. For me, Black Scorpion began as an outcast and became the most powerful warlord in the One Land, becoming such a threat that the other warlords united against her. For me, Black Scorpion is a tragic hero who desires justice but is fuelled by rage. In a world in which justice is absent, she is left with her rage.

So I hope you’ll enjoy it when its available, and I hope you’ll support High Plains Samurai, a fantastic game and a fantastic setting.

You can find out more about High Plains Samurai here.

You can find Broken Ruler Games here.

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This Is How (What) We Do It

After having a fair break with minimal pressure following the success of the Sword’s Edge Kickstarter, with the payments in, project management has started. But that’s not all. There are a bunch of other projects on which I am working, and here’s a general overview of what I’m working on and what stage it’s at.

Sword’s Edge: So the text is off for editing, and I have both the indexer and the fulfillment locked in. Right now, I am finishing off the setup for BackerKit and once that is running, this will move to project management, which means long periods of monotony punctuated by spurts of effort.

Fiction Commission: I can’t say more until this happens, but I am updating a fiction commission that I had thought was done. That’s okay, because the reason for the revision is one I whole-heartedly support. It has kind of changed how certain characters should be impacting on the story, but it is totally manageable and I’m happy with how this is turning out.

More to follow when I can.

“Lawless Heaven”: This is going to happen. It is actually very close to being in presentable form. Unfortunately, I won’t have portraits for the pre-made characters, but I do have some art for the book and most of the text is written. I will be doing some tweaking with it before it is released, but it won’t actually hit the public until after Sword’s Edge is released as a PDF – which will likely be November 2017, a month after the Kickstarter backers get theirs.

“Face ‘Splosion”: Another Sword’s Edge adventure, this time a science-fiction high octane actioner heavily inspired by Borderlands and especially Borderlands 2. Like “Lawless Heaven,” this will be released after Sword’s Edge hits the public, but this requires more work. The adventure and pre-made characters are all ready, but I need to write the other text that will be included, like an introduction, an explanation of the genre, and a discussion of the intended setting in case this will become the intro to a wider adventure.

Head Crushers: Another role-playing game, but this one is at the intersection of Nefertiti Overdrive and Sword’s Edge. Its default is fantasy, and it was designed to replicate the Skull Kickers comic, which was itself based on RPG sessions. The writing on this one is done, but it’s going to sit on the backburner for now, though I have plans to release it.

The Wall: And yet another RPG, but this one far and away from anything I’ve done before. Rather than fast, high octane action, the Wall is much more about creating narrative scenes. Its subject – the difficulties of being a foreign occupier in an unfriendly city – screams for deep thinking and drama rather than hacking and slashing. The mechanics on this one are ready, but there is a lot of writing to get it ready to hit the public. The intention, though, is there.

“The Nor’Westers”: This is a Sword’s Edge campaign set along the North West Company’s fur trade route in Canada in 1810. This campaign is made up of short scenarios, and so needs to be fleshed out more with lots of supporting text. This will likely be the last of the Sword’s Edge supplements that will be put out as it needs the most work. This is very much a backburner project. Once Sword’s Edge is out, this will take a higher priority.

Sword Noir: I paused on the updates for this, my first RPG, but much of the mechanics revision is done. There is a lot more, though, because the included setting of Everthorn needs much more work than the SN mechanics do. For now, SN is going to follow Sword’s Edge, but with its own special differences. Everthorn, however, needs a very major overhaul in regards to characters, and I have considered releasing the mechanics separate from the setting.

Nefertiti Overdrive: The historical addendum to this game is growing, but I am still in the middle of research on the 25th Dynasty. This is scheduled to happen after Sword Noir is done, so likely not for a while. A cool part of this project is that I have an actual Egyptologist who has agreed to review my work. For those who wanted more history in their insane action, this should go a long way to scratching that itch.

Crowd-funding: One of the ways in which these projects might see fruition is through Patreon. I have been toying with the idea for a long time, and I think as a system it works better for me than Kickstarter. All of the projects listed could be Patreon projects – some of which might be released in components rather than a single work. I need to get enough in order that I will have a regular release schedule, so this is not something that will likely happen for a couple of months, but I think it makes sense. It is also a way to release my games and supplements in advance of Sword’s Edge hitting the public.

So, yeah, I’ve got a few things on my plate.


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Burying Games in a Shallow Grave

I have amassed a fair number of RPG PDFs. Some are free previews and quickstarts. Some are games I have purchased for themselves, some are Kickstarters, some are parts of bundles, and some are from Bundles of Holding. Most of these have been acquired for their mechanics. I have never been big on settings or genres because that’s kind of what I love doing. That hasn’t always been the case, but right now I would much rather research and design a game about . . . I don’t know, let’s say special operations forces or Roman legionaries, than buy what someone else has done.

So my interest is almost exclusively in mechanics.

I have been going through these PDFs and looking at the mechanics. I’m saving those that have something really interesting. For others, I’m saving those pages that have the basic mechanical information. For most, though, I’m deleting them.

I’m not deleting them because they are bad games. I’m not deleting them because I don’t like them. I’m not deleting them because I believe I made a mistake when I acquired them.

I’m deleting them because I’m not using them right now and I can always recover them.

See, that’s one of the nice aspects about PDFs. In general, these come from sources to which I can return if I want them. And if they aren’t, there are lots of places I can store them out of the way where I can get them if I want them, like cloud storage or a USB.

And while ripping pages out of my print copy of Night Witches should lead to some kind of traumatic punishment, copying and saving some pages from my PDF to use as reference isn’t a problem – as long as I’m not sharing them or something.

As much as I love books on a shelf, I’ve become very fond of PDFs for RPGs. They are generally more useful to me.

You can find print and PDFs of my games here.

You can find PDFs here.

You can find Night Witches here.

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