Oct 232013

As I discussed earlier, the Twenty Palaces/Voidcallers setting is likely to feature a pretty lethal magic environment. It’s dangerous out there, people. While Peers might have a better chance to withstand a showdown with a Predator or rogue practitioner, it’s not a given by far. Investigators are smart to stay away from conflict hotspots; they do their recon and then get away because shit’s so dangerous. And Wooden Men… man, Wooden Men. They’re recruited and designed to be expendable. Walking targets.

Point being, however we choose to implement the lethality of the setting, it’s gonna be lethal and that means that the risk—and actuality—of character death has gotta be on the table. Yes, PCs are probably going to have a certain small amount of plot immunity at the least, but if the PCs aren’t at actual risk of death[1] as often as not, it’s just not going to feel right, and the setting will not be served.

This, then, is a concern that’s actually separate from the lethality of the setting: expendability. When you know there’s a real chance that the player characters will get dead[2], your design goals should probably address that.

Earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons addressed this with fairly simple character designs, easily put together, with the activity of creating a new character being a kind of solo fun of its own and thus something a recently killed player could go and do off on the side while the survivors continue the fight.[3]

In Fate Core, fights should—hopefully—run a fair bit shorter than that, and character creation shines best when it’s done in the context of and by interacting with the playgroup, so sending Bob off to do some solo character creation when his prior PC starts pushing daisies doesn’t necessarily provide the same fun.

To solve this, we might do well to look to the upcoming Atomic Robo RPG[4]. In that game there’s a kind of expendability at work, too, but it’s not because the game is particularly lethal. It’s because the game may well jump to other time periods or scenarios where your prior character doesn’t yet exist, or is too old to go adventuring, or what-have-you. As a result, it’s important for the game to make it very fast to create new characters when the situation demands it.[5]

As a result, in the Atomic Robo RPG, character creation is done in a matter of a couple minutes[6], with pretty much everything else being something you can decide as you’re playing. About to do something where a specific skill or stunt would be useful? Buy it right then, revealing the capability on your character sheet with the same timing as it would be revealed in a story or movie or what-have-you. Establish something new about your character’s backstory? Now’s the time to write down an aspect about that on your sheet — not before.

This kind of “stat your character as you need to” approach works wonders for keeping the set-up time of a game short, and so long as your options and rules for adding more detail to a character sheet are simple and clearly understood, making in-the-moment edits and additions to your character is hardly any more of a speed bump than taking a turn in a round of combat.

With Twenty Palaces, spells are contraband. They are not many in number. So, for example, adding a new tattoo[7][8] to your character will involve choosing an option from a fairly short list of what’s out there and known to you (and/or your Peer, if you’re working for one as a Wooden Man or other operative would).

Adding a new aspect is as always super easy, especially when it’s sourced from what’s already been established in play. Taking a quick stunt to represent how you’re specialized in a particular skill, also nice and fast, so long as there’s clear and strong templating available and a relevant task in front of you that needs doing. And if we keep the skill list fairly compact, there won’t be too many options to trip over there, either.[9]

So, strategically, our best move here is to address expendability not with plot immunity, but with an ease of character creation that makes it possible to get back in the game quickly, behind a new face. Knowing this should make our goals in designing the character creation process a lot more clear and, importantly, a lot more specific.

But that’s for another post.

  1. This will present some big challenges and is most certainly a blogpost of its own. At the very least, high actual lethality in a game carries some risk of deprotagonization for the players, which may be the largest actual hurdle here, especially in Fate Core, a game system that’s designed to feature highly proactive, effective protagonists.  ↩
  2. or at least permanently removed from play!  ↩
  3. And with fights running as long as they do in D&D, the ways in which creating a new character isn’t quick aren’t much of a concern: the same fight that killed you might still be going by the time you’re done.  ↩
  4. Among others, of course. There are other games out there that support or focus on character creation on the fly — it’s been a secondary character creation option for a number of Fate games in the past, and it’s not exclusive to Fate either. For our purposes, tho, and with the game coming on the nearish horizon next year, we’ll focus on Robo.  ↩
  5. a.k.a., “Okay, we’re going to do a flashback session set in the 1970s. Brian, you’re Robo as usual. The rest of you are too young to play your modern-day action scientists. Who wants to play Carl Sagan?”  ↩
  6. e.g., pick a high concept and three things you’re good at from a short list, then rank those three good things from best to least best. Congratulations, you’re ready to play.  ↩
  7. A tattoo that, thanks to the principle of dramatic revelation, was there all along, it just wasn’t seen by the audience nor relevant to the story right up until you happened to need it to be there.  ↩
  8. A lot of the “street-ready” magic in the Twenty Palaces setting takes the form of glyphs inscribed on a surface. You don’t want it to be something that washes away easy, and on a body, that surface is skin. So there’s a lot of fixed-effect power that gets carried around by operatives and Peers by way of tats.  ↩
  9. Super-true particularly if we use a skill modes implementation as was invented for the Atomic Robo RPG and introduced in the Fate System Toolkit.  ↩
Oct 232013

Suppose that all power in a game is come by through making a bargain with the source of the power.

This current runs through the Dresden Files RPG and setting to an extent, most overtly with things like Sponsored Power and the Lawbreaker stuff, but really in general through the whole refresh-reduction thing with powers. One assumes that if you have a ton of power, to the point where you no longer generate Fate Points and are thus beholden to take compels with no option to resist them, that those compels and their associated aspects are in some way tied to that bargain you’ve made: to follow the dictates of your nature utterly, because that is what your power wishes you to be.

Honing the cutting edge of compels was important for us with the Dresden Files RPG. The mechanics of compels lined up strongly with the themes and truths of the Dresden Files setting. That said, refresh reduction is not the only path to achieving this sort of thing.

Let’s look at the bargain itself. Thanks to the Bronze Rule[1] of Fate Core, we know that anything can be a character, or be character-like, when treated as an Extra. Therefore, a bargain for power can be a character.

Imagine that instead of spending refresh for your magical powers, you’re crafting a bargain, which creates an Extra. The bargain’s job is to work against you whenever you’re trying to subvert the intentions and restrictions of the bargain. Every “point” of the power that you get[2] gives the bargain a little extra juice: two skill points, or maybe even a stunt of its own.

The bargain probably has aspects: these aspects would define the rules of the bargain. Compels possible for you at the least. Invocations possible for the bargain itself.

The bargain might have a stress track if there’s some way to put it off for a lasting amount of time: paying off your debt’s interest, so to speak. Or it might have a stress track if there are means (rituals, etc) that let you suppress or sunder the thing.

Those skill points, tho: they’d go into buying one or more skills representing how the bargain can interject itself into your life to enforce the goals of the bargain. No skill cap, here; and maybe there’s just one skill, so each point of power gives it a +2. You want a 4-point power (or 4 points of power under the same bargain), you’re giving this thing Enforce Bargain +8 — a Legendary bargain indeed.

Regardless of whether there’s one enforcement skill or several[3], the aspects of the bargain would serve to justify rolling an enforcement skill to oppose actions that run counter to the bargain’s intent. While this could be done via a compel, it might be more interesting to your game to make this a case of whether or not the character’s skill can overcome the ability of the bargain to resist its use in an unapproved fashion. Especially if you start to bring in the potential to succeed at a cost.

Anyway. This is not a fully formed idea, but I thought I’d put it out there as a starting-point. Where might you take it?

  1. a.k.a., The Fate Fractal  ↩
  2. A “point” for a power here would be analagous to a point of refresh in a refresh-spending paradigm  ↩
  3. The consequence of going for a multi-skill approach is that you’re essentially making the bargain “cost” the bargainer less. Thing is, with several skills you’re implying that each skill the bargain has is narrower in scope; and with more options to spend those points on, it’s harder to create a strong bargain that covers all its bases with a very high rating. If I have 8 skill points and they all go into making a Enforce +8, that’s one thing. If I have 8 skill points and I decide to make two skills representing the bargain’s ability to affect the character mentally (“You want to enter that church, huh? Face some overwhelming fear!”) vs physically (“The bargain thinks your legs shouldn’t work; running away isn’t part of the deal!”), then I may end up with Enforce (Physical) +5, Enforce (Mental) +3, which as targets to be overcome are gonna be a lot more surmountable than that +8. So keep in mind what you’re getting yourself into here when you split things up and adjust accordingly. Skill caps (for the bargain) may play into this as well, starting as PC-equivalent, but something the bargain could burn a few extra skill points on going above.  ↩
Oct 052012

At the dinner table yesterday, my daughter kept talking about how she had “more breath” than her little brother. The idea of breath as a thing one has more or less of stuck with me and, naturally, turned to gaming. Then it kind of collided with Daniel Solis’ Dead Weight setting idea (parkour-using survivors navigate a zombie apocalypse) and started turning into a mechanic.

The game designs I’ve done in the past have largely been about mechanics, with everything else growing up out of them. And when I design a mechanic, I try to think about the ebb and flow of energy into and out of the rule. When the thing — whatever it is — is at low power, how does it gain that power back? When it’s at high power, how does that go away? Answering both of those means that the “thing” can be a nexus point for the design, a locus of economy and energy and dynamism, all of which go towards creating momentum in play.

Momentum’s important; the last thing you want players to do in a game is feel like they should sit still.

So, let’s go to the “thing”. Breath. That’s our root concept, the resource at the center of the rule. Seems like the notion of exertion should be important in the game — that’s the first realization I had, which caused the collision with Dead Weight. (It needn’t, though — as presented below, this is a mechanic that could be added onto any number of games, so it works as a house-rule hack, too.) If you’re running from zombies, running out of breath is a matter of some concern, dig?

What can happen with breath? What sort of actions or events might occur with breath in a game? My short list looks like:

  • Catch your breath
  • Lose your breath
  • Get the wind knocked out of you
  • Out of breath
  • Get a second wind
Okay. That’s a few good hooks that tie to the concept of the “thing”. So long as I don’t torture my mechanic to fit all of those — they need to be natural when they show up — then I’ll have a good foundation going: unity between the concept of a thing, and the system implementation of a thing. (This connects to Daniel’s concept of mechaphors, for that matter.)

For implementation, I’m going to go with a dice-pool-success-counting system — I’ve used that in Don’t Rest Your Head, and I think it’ll help me reach for those conceptual hooks. (I’m betting someone could adapt the ideas here to a non-success-counting system pretty easily tho.)

So: everyone starts with a small number of “breath” dice — differentiated by color, typically. Maybe they’re rolled with every roll (or every “exertion” roll, at least), or maybe the players opt-in, with the inclusion of breath dice indicating that exertion is happening in the first place.

When the breath dice are rolled and produce no successes on any of the dice, you catch your breath: the size of your breath dice pool increases by one. Originally, I thought that there should be an upper-bound cap on how many breath dice you can get, but this will produce a natural kind of soft limit — the larger your breath pool, the less likely it is you’ll roll 0 successes. So big pools increase rarely, and small pools increase rapidly. As with exhaustion Don’t Rest Your Head, the bigger your pool is, the more awesome your performance, but the dynamics (and meaning) of a bigger pool are very different.

On the other hand, exerting yourself can and should take it out of you. So when you roll successes with your breath dice, you lose your breath: remove any dice that rolled successes from the pool. Big breath pools won’t last very long; this should produce a kind of “bursty” pattern of big successes followed by smaller successes and recovery.

Between the catch and lose rules, you’ll see a pool that slowly grows over time (but most rapidly when it’s at its smallest), and can drop precipitously (but only after it’s given you a big hunk of success). This should produce a kind of pacing to the breath system that hopefully feels a bit athletic.

Some players are going to look at this resource and try to game it as much as possible — avoiding rolls once their breath pool gets to a certain size (or if it’s opt-in, choosing not to spend breath) until a particularly vital roll hits. That’s a valid (and potentially fun/tense) play strategy, but it also comes off as a bit too safe. When you have a resource like this in play, though, you can start looking at it as a kind of hit point pool, too. Particularly powerful attacks, or maybe attacks in general, should threaten this resource if they succeed. That’s where you might get the wind knocked out of you — big whallops that knock a die or maybe more out of your breath pool.

And that plays into the idea of being out of breath — it’s conceivable that, either by rolling all successes or by getting the wind knocked out of you, you could drop to a breath pool size of zero. Depending on the rest of the system and the setting concept, that might be catastrophe (death or other transformation of character), or it might be a period of higher risk before you can recover. Generally, something you want to avoid, as a player. (If the character remains playable in such a state, the way the rules behave in those circumstances should be mechanically interesting and still fun to play, but not optimal in terms of performance. You’re winded, after all.) This makes small breath pools still kinda scary — while it’s easy to roll no successes, it’s also easy to roll nothing but successes, wiping you out, too.

If character death isn’t on the table, you’ll want options for characters to get their breath dice back to a non-zero level, so I’ll need to think about other ways to catch your breath without breath dice hitting the table. Downtime or low-exertion scenes make a certain amount of sense, there. If you actually get a chance to rest, those dice should come on back, of course. Maybe as simple as short rest/long rest getting you 1 dice/2 dice. That’d be something to explore in later design and playtesting. In the Dead Weight setting, recovering breath could also happen when you score some of those resources you need — food, water, supplies.

But especially if catastrophe is the result of getting out of breath, giving players a one-time “get out of death free” card would be nice. Let folks dance close to the edge, fall off it, spend that card, and then find themselves more exposed, more at risk. Once the player spends that card, it’s not available if the character gets out of breath again, so the catastrophe’s no longer avoidable. This card, then, would be the second windif you become out of breath, you spend your second wind and reset your breath pool to 3 or 4 dice. Getting your second wind back would be a major event — rare when it happens.

These ideas are by no means fully baked; it’s a rough draft, a quick effort to connect the idea of breath-as-game-resource with an ebb-and-flow game economy. But it’s a start, and a snapshot of the process. What do you think?

May 222012

If you’re curious about what’s happening with Evil Hat’s Atomic Robo RPG, you owe it to yourself to give the latest Bear Swarm podcast episode a listen, where Mike spills lots of great detail.

Like, whoa.

 Posted by at 11:35 am  Comments Off on Lead Developer Mike Olson Talks About the Atomic Robo RPG  Tagged with: , ,
Jan 102012

Evil Hat Productions Announces ‘Atomic Robo’ RPG License

Double 2011 Origins Award Winner Licenses Eisner-Nominated Comic Book

SILVER SPRING, Maryland— January 10, 2012 — Evil Hat Productions, LLC, today announced an agreement to produce, publish, and distribute a role-playing game based on the Eisner-nominated Atomic Robo comic book. The Atomic Robo RPG will be co-written by Atomic Robo scribe Brian Clevinger and Kerberos Club: Fate Edition author Mike Olson, creator of the Strange Fate version of the Fate engine.

“I’m such a big fan of the world Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener create in every page of Atomic Robo,” said Fred Hicks of Evil Hat. “When I found out they were fans of role-playing games—including Evil Hat’s own Spirit of the Century—it was clear we had a giant-sized opportunity that had to be pursued.”

With The Atomic Robo RPG, Evil Hat will build on the legacy of Fate games like Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG—together with the ideas of Evil Hat’s upcoming Fate Core project and Mike Olson’s Strange Fate work. The stand-alone game will deliver a fast-paced and fast-to-play role-playing experience focused on the themes of Atomic Robo—action-science, robots, angry talking dinosaurs, high weirdness, and more.

“Brian and I are lifelong RPG nerds, I mean enthusiasts, and we could not be more excited to partner with Evil Hat and Mike Olson to bring readers even closer to the world of Atomic Robo,” said Scott Wegener. “There’s over a century of adventure in our comic book, but we can only show you guys slices of the whole picture. This game opens up so many opportunities to play with that world, its history, the weird unexplored corners, and the might-have-beens,” added Brian Clevinger.

The Atomic Robo RPG  begins development in late February of 2012. “We’d love to get The Atomic Robo RPG out in 2012, and if everything comes together fast and smooth we might just manage that,” said Hicks. “But as with all licensed projects at Evil Hat, we want to take our time to make sure we serve the license and the fans well. Thankfully, Brian and Scott have the same opinion, here. The Atomic Robo RPG that we release will be the best one we can possibly make, period—and that may take us into 2013.”

For more information about Evil Hat Productions, the Fate system, Spirit of the Century, and the Dresden Files RPG, visit www.evilhat.com. For more information about Atomic Robo, visit www.atomic-robo.com. Atomic Robo is published by Red 5 Comics, available at www.red5comics.com and in comic stores everywhere. Kerberos Club: Fate Edition is published by Arc Dream Publishing, www.arcdream.com.

About Evil Hat Productions

Evil Hat Productions believes that passion makes the best games. It is this passion for gaming that raised Evil Hat to its acclaimed position in the RPG community. Our games can be used to build the best kinds of role-playing experiences—full of laughter, storytelling, and memorable moments. Today we don’t just run games, we don’t just make them, we work with you to make your play the best it can be—the kind that upholds and gives birth to passions of your own. That’s the Evil Hat mission, and we’re happy to have you along on it.

Since its inception, Evil Hat has won accolades ranging from the Indie RPG Awards, the Golden Geeks, the ENnies, and the Origins Awards, most recently claiming the Origins Awards for both Best Roleplaying Game (The Dresden Files RPG: Your Story) and Best Roleplaying Game Supplement (The Dresden Files: Our World).

About Atomic Robo

Brian Clevinger is a ten year veteran of online and independent comics. You can laugh at and sometimes with his early work at nuklearpower.com. Follow him on Twitter at bclevinger.

Scott Wegener used to fly planes until he found out it was nothing like High Road to China. Now he draws comic books as a form of very slow starvation. Follow him on Twitter at Scott_Wegna

Press contact

Fred Hicks
Email: feedback [AT] evilhat.com
Website: http://www.evilhat.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/fredhicks