Magical Burst and Tactical Combat

I’ve sporadically gotten inspired to poke at Magical Burst, but I haven’t made a lot of progress until very recently. I posted about it a while back, but Magical Burst has two combat systems. “Skirmishes” are based on the combat rules from Magical Fury, a lightning-fast system that distills battles down to a handful of rolls and determining the consequences, while “full battles” are meant to be a tactical combat system that still generates consequences, but is also fun to play for its own sake. Shinobigami and some of Adventure Planning Service’s other recent games has a thing where there’s a “Climax Phase” to a game session where an all-out battle can happen, but otherwise clashes between characters end as soon as one character takes damage. It’s a little arbitrary perhaps, but particularly in the context of Shinobigami, it helps reinforce the genre. In the Persona games, although they use the same combat system, there’s a sharp distinction between fights with dungeon mobs and bosses. When fighting random shadows, your goal is to use their weaknesses to short-circuit things and end the battle as quickly as possible, whereas bosses are always more of an endurance test as you try to balance damage and healing. I really like having the flexibility to decide how much time you want to spend on combat in Magical Burst, because as much as I enjoy good tactical combat, I also sometimes want to just get on with the story.

Of course, that means that I’ve set myself the task of designing a tactical combat system, for the first time. Most of the RPGs I’ve designed have either minimized fighting or handled it with a more narrative approach, and while I have some really useful inspiration in D&D 4th Edition and Strike!, I needed more. I ended up looking to video games for inspiration. I went and bought a Nintendo Switch with Octopath Traveler and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.

Octopath Traveler is a recent game from Square Enix, a a 16-bit throwback reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI with modern touches, including a gorgeous “2D HD” look with sprite characters moving through a beautiful 3D world with sprite textures and extensive lighting effects.

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OT has a turn-based combat system typical of old-school JRPGs, but each round, each of your characters gets a Boost Point (unless they spent BP the previous turn). You can spend these to increase the potency of the character’s actions, turning basic attacks into multi-attacks, making magic attacks more potent, making buffs last longer, and so on. Characters can store up to 6 BP and can spend up to 3 on an action, and there are a few special skills that can manipulate BP as well. (Enemies also have various vulnerabilities, and hitting them enough times with attacks they’re vulnerable to temporarily incapacitates them. This becomes a vital strategy in the game, and makes boosted basic attacks really useful beyond doing more damage.)

It’s a little bit different, but I hit on the idea of adding a currency called “Resonance” to full battles in Magical Burst. Magical girls start with 1 Resonance, and get one at the end of each round, plus (inspired by the Miss Tokens from Strike!) one when they miss with an attack. The different specializations also get bonus Resonance based on actions that relate to their roles in combat.

  • I wanted to have an action economy similar to D&D4e and Strike!, but a little simpler, so I had it so that each character gets a Main Action and Support Action. Having movement be a Support Action tended to put a squeeze on the action economy though, and letting players spend a Resonance for an extra Support Action (or 3 Resonance for an extra Main Action) will hopefully alleviate that.
  • With characters taking Overcharge points for both rolling too high with magical checks and for using certain Talents, there’s a significant risk of full battles generating too much Overcharge relative to other parts of the game. Letting players spend Resonance to power Talents and to negate Overcharge will allow them to manage both better when they want and take bigger risks when they feel it’s worth it.

I really hope this works out in playtesting, because it feels like a really fun mechanic that will hopefully shore up the full battle system in multiple ways.

Mario + Rabbids is turning out to be more or less exactly what I’d heard it was, which is to say XCOM Lite with Mario and Rabbids characters, which somehow results in a way better game than you’d think. Some of its core mechanics are deliberately cartoony–like how if you move one of your units into the position of one of your other units, they get catapulted to another location of your choice, letting them do a double move that ignores terrain obstacles–but it also does a good job of implementing tactics fundamentals like cover. It’s a bit weird that once you get past the prologue Mario promptly gets a gun (albeit a cartoony blaster thing) and winds up with mutant Peach and Luigi Rabbids as companions, but the game shows real skill in how it gradually introduces you to its mechanics, slowly increasing your palette of tactical considerations and options.

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I’m still in the process of playing Mario + Rabbids and figuring out what to take from it, but I think the biggest take-away so far is how it makes such extensive use of terrain to create new tactical considerations. One of D&D4e’s shortcomings was that while terrain was (rightly) very important, the game needed better tools to create and use interesting terrain. As much fun as we had playing it, there were a few too many battles in mostly-empty rooms, regardless of whether or not the DM was using stuff out of modules.

Looking to video games for inspiration when designing tabletop RPGs is weird, because while video games are limited in how they can use human interaction, their mechanical aspects are much more varied, with sophistication in different places. I most likely wouldn’t have come up with something like Resonance if I’d only been looking at other RPGs for example. While in RPG design you do have to use and accommodate the conversation and the fiction, the medium has a long tradition of perhaps excessively falling back on (a certain vision of) realism.

I’ve also been working more on the youma rules, and one thing that’s been really helpful is Blog of Holding’s Monster Manual 3 on a Business Card. (There’s a 5th Edition version too by the way.) As good as D&D 4th Edition was in terms of tightly designed tactical combat, it took them until Monster Manual 3 to really nail down the math for monster stats. That’s especially true of solo monsters, which had too many hit points initially, making them a slog to fight. BoH distilled that improved math down until it could fit on one side of a business card, which lays bare the sheer simplicity of determining HP, damage, defense values, etc. once the designers figured out how to balance everything right. This is proving immensely helpful to me, especially since Magical Burst, following its source material, naturally tends towards solo monsters, which are significantly harder to design. While I think the ideas I’ve been working on (like having a “Spread” value that determines how good a youma is at fighting multiple enemies) are on the right track, I needed to see there in black and white that a solo monster outright has 4x the HP.

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Dragon World Hack 0.4

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Dragon World is a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG for fantasy comedy adventures in the vein of classic anime like Slayers and Dragon Half. The game has been in the works for a while now, and we’re now gearing up to launch a Kickstarter some time in the next few months.

Dragon World Hack 0.4
Dragon World Playbooks

I had the idea for Dragon World when I finally got my hands on the Dragon Half manga. (Which BTW is finally getting an English language release from Seven Seas.) In anime there was a weird trend in the early to mid-1990s of making short direct-to-video adaptations of much longer manga, which in turn sometimes wound up being the only versions that made their way to the English-speaking world. Dragon Half started as a 7-volume manga (later re-released in a 3-volume “omnibus” edition, which the English version is based on), which could’ve worked nicely as a full 26-episode TV series. Instead it got a mere two OAV episodes, and plans to do two more episodes got scrapped. The Dragon Half OAVs had a little bit of a cult following in the early anime scene, and I devoured the manga once I got my hands on it. It shows its age and anime-ness with a lot of fanservice (our heroine pretty much only wears a metal bikini), but the zany humor, flagrantly ridiculous take on the fantasy genre, and Ryusuke Mita’s energetic art make it worth your time.

That wasn’t too long after I’d discovered Apocalypse World, and as I made my way through the manga, I kept seeing it in terms of different AW-style moves and their outcomes. This was before the term “Powered by the Apocalypse” came about and while it was still the thing to have those “AW hacks” end with “World,” so “Dragon World” was born. A certain portion of anime and manga, especially from the 90s, used “dragon” in titles to essentially signify “fantasy,” probably a result of Dragon Quest being so massively popular and influential, plus it was a tongue-in-cheek nod to Dungeon World. (And I did talk Jonathan Walton into making a game called “& World.”) From there I watched a ton of Slayers (probably the single most popular comedy fantasy anime), and a bunch of others, giving me a wider palette of ideas to draw on. Dragon World most blatantly shows its influences in the selection of classes, ranging from the likes of the Explosive Mage and Dumb Fighter (which have Lina and Gourry from Slayers at their core) to the Angsty Shadow Warrior (for whom Dororo from Sgt. Frog was an inspiration, but also a bunch of fantasy tropes) to the Shiny Paladin and Ruthless Warlord (who come from silly takes on D&D classes). One of my favorites is the Chosen Visitor, which is a Japanese teenager sent to this fantasy world and given weird powers, echoing shows like Magic Knight Rayearth and El Hazard.

This is the fourth version of Dragon World that I’ve shared with the world, and it’s generally been through a lot of revisions as I did a bunch of playtesting and figured out what did and didn’t work, and thought of new stuff to add. The game started considerably closer to Apocalypse World, but I dropped things like highlighting stats and marking experience. On the other hand (although I refined it a bit), the concept of replacing Harm with “falling down” remained a core part of the game from the start. I changed the selection of classes a little, adding the likes of the Ruthless Warlord and changing the Useless Bard into the Foolhardy Bard (which was how people had been playing the Useless Bard for the most part anyway).

It’s not in the Hack, but the final commercial version is going to have a setting chapter for the land of Easteros. (Not the only Game of Thrones reference in there, but there’s copious anime nonsense regardless.) It was generally an opportunity to put together a bunch of toys and plot hooks, plus some dumb humor (like a pun-laden list of 100 slime names).

In any case, I’m looking forward to finally bringing this game fully to fruition in a nice book with actual artwork, and possibly putting together some supplements and alternate settings. I’m also planning a Creative Commons release, in the hopes that (not unlike with Dungeon World, though presumably in much lower quantities) people will take the opportunity to design and publish their own Dungeon World weirdness.

 

I Hate You: A Cartoon Game

Growing up, cartoons were a pretty massive component of my mental landscape. I was a socially awkward loner (today I’m significantly less awkward, but possibly even more introverted), and I largely filled my time by being a media junkie. TV was the major source of content available to me, and as my family graduated from rabbit ears to cable, I watched so, so many cartoons. There was then-current stuff like the Disney Afternoon, Muppet Babies, and the first generation of Nicktoons, but also old Looney Tunes shorts and episodes of shows like Tom and Jerry, Pink Panther, and Rocky and Bullwinkle that stations put on more or less as filler. In high school I got into anime in a big way, and while that filled a whole lot of my viewing time, I never completely stopped watching cartoons. Today we have brilliant stuff like Steven Universe, Regular ShowStar vs. the Forces of Evil, and Gravity Falls, though if I get too much into talking about those I’ll stray from the original point of this post. The major thing I’m winding my way towards discussing is that I’m working on a mini-RPG inspired by old-school cartoons called “I Hate You: A Cartoon Story Game For Two Good Friends.”

Cartoon Precedent

The first RPG I played was Palladium’s Robotech game, but the first one I ever owned was Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, designed by Greg Costikyan (of Paranoia fame) and published by Steve Jackson Games. I got it by doing a special order from the local B. Dalton Bookseller, which was a store that still existed at the time. (That particular one became a Waldenbooks, then a Borders Express, then finally closed.) Toon is a great game that provided me and my friends with a lot of fun times, but some parts of it hold up better than others. It does a great job of explaining how to play–the “Toon Commandments” are a lot like PbtA Principles–and brilliantly codifies and explains a bunch of cartoon conventions. Kyle Miller did a ton of great art for the books that managed to capture the general feel of old school cartoons without directly aping the styles of existing ones.

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Continue reading I Hate You: A Cartoon Game

Channel A Returns!

Back in 2012 I designed my first ever card game, Channel A: The Anime Pitch Party Game. In 2013 Asmadi Games published it, bringing it to Kickstarter backers and then game stores. It’s been well-received, but once the original print run sold out, Asmadi was never quite able to get it back in print. While I’m still a fan of Asmadi Games and Chris Cieslik–and the other Asmadi Games offerings are well worth checking out!–I’m very pleased to be able to announce that Evil Hat Productions will be taking up Channel A as part of their line of board games. It’ll be their first real foray into both anime-inspired games and party games, but Channel A still has some heady company given that it’ll be alongside the likes of the Dresden Files Cooperative Board Game.

EHP is launching Channel A with a Kickstarter, and the game is getting an upgrade in the form of new art (by Dawn Davis, the same artist, who has improved her skills considerably over the past 6 years or so) and around 70 new cards (with Clay Gardner doing the logo designs for the new Title Cards). We’re calling this new version the “Alpha Genesis Edition,” and hopefully new and old fans of Channel A will find a lot to like in what we’ve changed and added. (Also: more normal cardstock!)

If you want to give the came a test drive first, Evil Hat has some cool stuff for that:

There are also stretch goals! The first is a set of stickers of chibi characters, and the second is an expansion called “Channel A: Second Season.” And we have more waiting in the wings! Kind of a lot more!

The Evil Hat folks have generally been great to work with, and their huge enthusiasm about the game has been pretty inspiring to me. Fred is a fan of the game and it really shows!

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Continue reading Channel A Returns!

D&D is Weird, and That’s Fine

Even though back in my Yaruki Zero book I had an entire section about D&D, I’m still grappling with it. There are a lot of reasons for that, the biggest being that it continues to dominate RPGs, even as there are new developments in how people relate to RPGs. Podcasts and other online media have given us actual play shows with a heightened level of polish, to the point where they can develop their own fandoms, but I still find myself feeling the need to remind people that RPGs other than D&D do in fact exist. D&D is also genuinely a very deep an interesting topic though, and we’re belatedly starting to get a clearer picture of its history.

Despite its position of dominance and its massive cultural reach, D&D is a very strange game, even within the weird niche that is tabletop RPGs. It’s not a bad game, but it is an incredibly specific one, in countless ways. It’s situated in a “dungeon fantasy” subgenre that it created, and despite its massive popularity, in many ways it sits outside the mainstream of tabletop RPG design.

Wargame Origins

D&D evolved out of wargames, and there were more transitional forms than people realize. Wargames are roughly divided into miniatures and board wargames. Board wargames typically come complete in a box, with maps and cardboard chits, whereas miniatures wargames were a surprisingly informal and creative hobby, even though in the 60s and 70s they’d attracted a fanbase that looked down on anything not based in historical warfare. The vagueness of miniatures wargames caused a lot of disputes during play, which led to experiments with having a human referee. The referee role existing led to the referee making rulings on the fly, so that players could conceivably try things that weren’t in the rules. The rulebook might not have anything to say about whether units can ford a river, but a referee can make a ruling and the game can roll on. I think that’s a really interesting development for wargames, and in general it’s rare to see anything remotely like it in tabletop games other than RPGs. These days, while wargame rules aren’t always as clear as would be ideal, they’re closer to board games in that they generally allow for straightforward play without recourse to a referee. (And the most played wargames today are ones with copious fantastical elements.) While this was of course before the internet, the wargames scene communicated more broadly through zines, letting these gamers communicate these ideas around the country and beyond.

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…And Some Friends and Polyhedral Dice Even Though They (The Dice) Are Hard To Find Because It Is 1974

Continue reading D&D is Weird, and That’s Fine

Tools for Dreaming: Publishing

Apart from some appendices that aren’t really ready, this is the last chapter of Tools for Dreaming, which is advice on how to go about getting your game out to the world, with an emphasis on self-publishing (since that’s by far the most practical way to go about it these days). Much like with the previous chapter, it’s basically stuff I’ve figured out through trial and error, and I’m sure someone with more experience could fill in some stuff.


There was a time when publishing an RPG meant you had to either find an existing publisher or take out a second mortgage. Nowadays publishing is vastly easier, and can range anywhere from putting a PDF up on a website for free to running a Kickstarter and doing a traditional print run.[1] Turning a game into a fully realized book can be really satisfying (though a lot of work), but don’t feel obligated to go that far. I’m generally of the opinion that (almost) anything worth making is worth sharing, but you don’t even have to do that if you don’t want to. If you do want to share it, you can do any number of things less involved than a fully-illustrated book.

One of my self-published games is called Raspberry Heaven. It’s the result of a decade of off and on struggle to figure out how to make an RPG for charming slice of life stories about schoolgirls in the style of manga like Azumanga Daioh and Hidamari Sketch. I went through three radically different versions of it before Jonathan Walton’s game Restless game me the inspiration I needed to finish it. The result is a game that comes as a set of 6”x6” cards, and it’s a weird story game with no GM or stats involved. It hasn’t sold a lot, but it’s more important that I achieved something as a game designer, and now I have a fun game I can play with friends. Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Publishing

Tools for Dreaming: Games Given Form

This chapter is my attempt at providing advice on stuff like layout. It’s something I’m still working on myself, but I’ve at least distilled what I’ve learned (with a lot of trial and error) here.


The next chapter gets into the details of publishing per se. This chapter is about how to take an RPG you’ve created and make it into something you can show to the world.

Titles

Like a lot of things in most any creative endeavor, there’s not really any single way to decide on a title. It depends a lot on your particular project and the audience you’re going after. For a retroclone intended to evoke old-school D&D, an alliterative title with an ampersand in the middle could be a good way to communicate what you’re about. Titles like Dogs in the Vineyard or Thou Art But a Warrior may not grab your average geek, but that’s totally fine if you’re going for a different crowd.

While keyword optimization can be kind of obnoxious, it pays to google potential titles to see if there’s anything else out there already, and generally if it’s possible to find your game online. Even if you’re unlikely to get into legal trouble, a name that resembles something else makes it harder for people to find your game even if they do know the name. I like the title of my card game Channel A overall, but it’s also the name of a Korean TV channel, so to find it online you have to search for something like “channel a card game” unless you really want to dig through posts about Korean pop stars.

In the 1980s Steve Jackson Games developed a multi-genre RPG—not the first of its kind, but one of the most notable—and in 1986 they published it under what had been a placeholder title, “GURPS,” short for “Generic Universal RolePlaying System.”        That in turn made acronym titles kind of a running gag in the RPG world, with the likes of FUDGE (Freeform Universal Donated Game Engine),[1] TWERPS (The World’s Easiest Role-Playing System), CORPS (Complete Omniversal Role Playing System), SLUG (Simple Laid-back Universal Game), and there are more but we don’t have all day. Some are old favorites, some are well-supported small press games, and a lot are joke games. I won’t say you should never go for a title like that, but I wouldn’t personally unless it was a particular kind of satire or I had devised an agonizingly clever pun. Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Games Given Form