Another Magical Burst Update

I’m still just amazed at how far Magical Burst has gone already as an unfinished free PDF. I think some of that is that there’s a very solid niche of anime fans who want RPGs of stuff that the RPG industry just doesn’t understand or cover. It’s not hard to find forum threads where people are trying to start up a magical girl game, but pre-Cel*Style it feels like with a couple exceptions the RPG industry’s forays into anime have basically been BESM and mecha stuff. I think it really lends credence to my contention that anime inspiration is vastly under-utilized in tabletop RPGs, and too many of the efforts that have been made have been tone deaf about anime as seen by people who actually care about and understand it. I don’t know how the numbers really line up, but if there can be a Leverage RPG, there sure as hell can be a Madoka Magica RPG.

Although I do want to make a pretty book out of Magical Burst (and try to capture some of the amazing artistic style of Madoka Magica’s witches and such), I’ve decided I’m also going to take a cue from Christian Griffen’s Anima Prime and keep having a free version of the game available. If I’m going to be spending money getting lots of art and such done I will need to make some amount of money from the whole thing, but I’m realizing that getting the game into people’s hands is the more important thing. In that respect this is a really successful game already, and it’s given me a lot to think about with regard to how I pursue RPG design in the future. I tossed up a rough draft with parts that make me wince (though I like to think it has some good ideas in it regardless), and it’s getting tons of actual play, with people invariably pitching it as a Madoka game. Also, with people already doing things like adapting the rules for Persona[1] I most definitely want to encourage hacking.

I’m reminded of something I once said at a panel, which is that the guy who’s always hiding his game and making people sign NDAs and getting copyright paperwork done and stuff doesn’t usually produce anything worthwhile, while the guy who’s running around showing his game to people and thereby making it better is much more likely to have a great game in the end. Now that I think about it, that’s something I need to try to live up to more. Certainly Magical Burst wouldn’t be anywhere near as far along without all the feedback I’ve gotten.

The other day Ryan Macklin put up a blog post titled “Action Sequences are Conversations,” which I think points at the heart of where I’ve been dissatisfied with the combat system in Magical Burst. In dealing with fight scenes in RPGs in general I’ve often felt trapped between the extremes of a tactical sub-game (which is what I have in place right now) and noodly stuff that takes a lot of GM and player finesse to actually work well. I do enjoy throwing down with some D&D4e[2], but I feel that tactical combat just isn’t the right fit for a game like Magical Burst where the point is to build up to a certain melodramatic mood. Ryan Macklin’s post is about having action sequences be a conversation with rules that serve to moderate that conversation, and I think that’s the mental model I was missing while trying to grope towards what I want out of battles in Magical Burst. I want the conversation to be the primary thing, and for this game I don’t want a fight breaking out to yank you out of the normal flow of conversation. I think that’s what I wanted to do all along, but I didn’t know how to articulate it, much less design it. I don’t know how these ideas will really shake out, especially since when I try to figure stuff out in my head every time I move one part of the rules a bunch of others start to shift and look precarious. The fourth draft may end up looking pretty different, but then I’m realizing that that’s just how I design games.

Today I’m starting re-watching Madoka Magica to try to get a better feel for how the action flows. Reading Macklin’s ideas for Gun n Fuck I knew specific ideas inspired by Jason Statham movies weren’t what I needed. I want something that gets people narrating stuff like Mami going to town with her magical flintlock rifles or Kyouko’s spear splintering the concrete. Over on Google+ Ben Wright pointed out that the flow of action in Hong Kong movies bears very little resemblance to the turn-taking that’s all but universal in RPGs. I don’t know if I have the design chops to make that notion a part of Magical Burst, but I think it rings true in how fights typically work in anime too. Engaging an opponent means more than just taking a potshot at them, and characters don’t always get a chance to act, especially if they’re fighting an overwhelming opponent. I’m not yet sure what this is all going to look like, but I think fights in Madoka Magica have a rather small number of exchanges to them, and are present exactly as much as needed to drive the story.

Also on my to-do list is to formulate better advice and play procedures to help give the game the kind of mood and style it calls for. In large part that means the GM needs to come up with different story elements to use to mess with the PCs, and put them in at the right pace, in a manner very much like Kickers and Bangs.

So, that’s where I’m at right now. I’m getting really excited about this game all over again, and I’m about ready to dive back into intensive design work.

[1]Persona seems to be another one of those properties where a solid tabletop RPG is something of a holy grail for a whole lot of people, with or without the serial numbers filed off. (And now I move “Finally play Persona 3” up a bit on my to-do list…)

[2]And it’s the kind of thing I aspire to create myself with Slime Story/Quest. I could probably write a whole other blog post on why I like 4e’s combat despite not liking most board games or war games, but in short I think that both the “no winners and losers” thing and putting the “game” part into the context of an ongoing story are vitally important to me.

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12 thoughts on “Another Magical Burst Update

  1. Unintentionally funny -> “Reading Macklin’s ideas for Gun n Fuck I knew specific ideas inspired by Jason Statham movies weren’t what I needed.”

    In the trying to be helpful department… Have you read the rules for Wushu Open recently? It really leverages the player’s imagination and the spontaneous creation of details that you can directly apply to the nightmare zones. Yes, it allows you to pull out 20 flintlock rifles and blast the mooks/minions. Yes, you can provide negative details and they still add to your dice pool. It would take some tweaking to give Wushu that Magical Burst feel. Perhaps you have dice pool caps related to stats and you can add extra dice by stressing relationsships. You’d have to re-work overcharge, perhaps based on too many successes on the dice or perhaps rolling too many ones over the course of a battle. Use, lose, or abuse as you see fit. :-)

    Wushu Open has a creative commons license.
    http://danielbayn.com/wushu/freebies.html

    TAZ

    1. I was thinking I ought to work it into the post, but I’ve actually been playing in a Wushu game for the past few weeks and enjoying it a lot. (Though that’s partly because what we’re doing with it is so hilariously zany; my character is a bibliomancer trained by Mark Twain and entrusted with the Amerinomicon.) I’m still digesting the game’s implications, but I’m really glad my friend talked us into giving it a try.

      1. Honestly Random explody dice are an interesting way to set up becoming a witch and negative effects, but I feel some alternate ways to be in danger of fall out and despair would be better, ultimately, I find the idea of choosing to risk more overcharge to be more conductive to the game than just having the PC obtain burst by randomly blocking the lamest familiar attack roll ever.

  2. Hmmmm!

    1. The “Discussion” makes me think of Polaris, and With Great Power… (for the flow), and somewhere between AGON and Dogs in the Vineyard for the “Exchanges”.

    2. I think part of the answer would be to separate player actions in combats from character actions, and take a page out of freeform chat role-playing, which amusingly enough, both Christian and I seemingly were heavily involved with at some point. Even if my character has no chance to react, I as the player need to have some say in it.

    It might actually be easier with something like Madoka Magica, because just before, during and after your character is getting beat, you get to narrate how it feels about the world, about its struggles, about friendship, which as Itweeted at you, I really belief friendship is one of the core concepts of Madoka Magica.
    It might pay off to really downgrade combat and upgrade discussion, and that includes “Monologues” (inSpectres “couch”).

    3. I really need to get Persona 4, and finish 3 :)

    4. Shameless plug, to my heavily Mai-HiME inspired RPG: “You are My Destiny – Wrestling the Fates“, which probably could just go by the shorter title “You are My Destiny”.

  3. Playtester, reporting. We’ve been at it some more since the update, running with new attribute rules and whatnot. There are STILL a lot of kinks in the system, though, and a few of the things you’re looking at seem like they may be a little off on how the system’s been flowing. We’ve moved from Rizon and run everything on #magicalburst at irc.thisisnotatrueending.com now; think you’d ever be able to swing by again? We have a bunch of things prepared thanks to playtest results but it’s a bit much to dump on here all at once. Thanks if you can.

    1. Thanks! I’ll see about swinging by the channel some time tomorrow or later this week. I’m definitely planning to rework the Normal Attributes and Moves significantly BTW, though I’m just barely starting to work out how.

  4. combat is always a real pain to play and ref imo, for pretty much every game I’ve ever played, well any game where you want flare and razzmatazz and has a combat system, sure Friday night firefight and a whole host of others are functional and interesting on paper and technically work very well but they do end up often being more tactical combat than action packed fragfests. I’m always faced with the “how do we make it fast, how do we make it frantic, how do we make it fun, how do we make it simulate the genres we want to imitate” problem with combat. It can be very jarring that a 3 minute long battle can take an hour to play out with dice rolling and book keeping and the like.

    Somekind of flurry system perhaps, with a secret bidding system, (which has just spewed into my head) characters get a number of points based on a stat or some such, at the start of a combat players and the GM place their bid, players working together against a enemy can pool as can enemies, if the players are working against each other than they keep their bids from each other. Bids are declared and all the points bid are lost (or put somewhere – who knows) wining character gets to attack, each attack increases the bid points for the defender and each block nets the defender 2 bid points, the attacker continues to attack until the defender has enough bid points built up to defeat the attackers current bid limit plus enough for a new bid. Another bidding round begins.

    In a way the general premise works quite well for most anime/manga/fantasy inspired worlds as normally one side pounds the other for a bit, then the other side comes back and gives them a hiding, and just before it looks like Nanoha is all done for, boom Starlight Buster, or Macross boom dead enemy fleet. How it could work in any game though beats me. olol

    Anyway keep up the good work! I’m off to think about combat systems.

  5. Minion fight sequence, round one…

    Player: “The scarab beetles form a black carpet of skittering and chittering death around Momo. In a flash of static electricity, she transforms into Sailor Death with twin katanas literally falling out of her sleeves and into her hands. Whirling and twisting she lashes out creating a virtual cyclone of bug guts, carapace, and twitching beetle legs. The ground is slick with insect gore.”
    GM: Right, plenty of details and you easily hit the ceiling cap of six dice for this round. How many are you going to assign to attack and defense?
    Player: Using my skill, “Death has a name, and it’s Momo.” We’ll go four offense and the rest in defense.

    Using the rule of narrative truth, that actually happens as described in the game. The dice determine how effective the action was, not whether it succeeded. This is why I’m hoping for a little Wushu action in Magical Burst. :-)

    TAZ

  6. “…characters don’t always get a chance to act, especially if they’re fighting an overwhelming opponent.”

    This makes me a little wary, because leaving players with nothing to do for long periods can be pretty annoying; it’s one of those genre conventions that doesn’t necessarily work in games, like splitting the party, because players are focussed on their characters rather than the story as a whole. (And if they’re fighting an opponent so overwhelming they don’t get to act, why do you even need rules rather than narration?)

    That said, it would be interesting to simulate the sense of shifting momentum that you get in anime and martial arts movies. I think it would really rely on two things:

    1) Positive reinforcement for not attacking. The bidding system from Matt_D above is an example, but something simpler might just be a stat like Momentum that increases as you defend and reduces when you attack. It might provide constant bonusses or be spent to pull off signature attacks. The important thing is that defending for long periods should be seen as building up to something impressive.

    2) Meaningful tactical choices when defending. Even if you get a long-term advantage from it, sitting there saying “I defend” for five rounds in a row will get boring fast. There needs to be something else going on, whether it’s trying to anticipate what form of attack is coming (rock-paper-scissors style) or using manoeuvres to penalise your opponent in specific ways (or give a specific type of bonus to your eventual attack).

    Of course, I suppose all this is really only important if you want the mechanics to specifically support the style; it’s always possible to narrate a single action as a flurry of attacks lasting several seconds, after all. In any case, I enjoy reading your work, so I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

  7. I’ve been reading “Block by Bloody Block” and figure it could be a useful model for roleplaying games in general. It splits a city down into different chunks (the subways, the suburbs, etc.) and then details

    General Modifiers for the area (free wifi gives Computer Use a +1, the widespread use of CCTV means Stealth is at -2, etc.),

    Control Conditions (what is necessary for the PCs or NPCs to rule this area), Assets (what bonuses having the area confers – such as buying Allies (Homeless) at reduced cost, or being at +2 to Streetwise rolls in the alleys there),

    Liabilities (living in the tunnels means learning is harder – learning any Mental skill costs 2 extra XP, etc.),

    Consequences (problems that come with taking control of the area – enemies that will come, etc.)

    It then details special Locations in the chunk (hidden bases, etc.) and several key NPCs that are in the area, including the Lord of it.
    How the Lord feels about other people is also detailed through a Rapport system, which lists boons and drawbacks that come when the PCs are gaining positive or negative Rapport (he’ll help you get a low-interest loan for a house in the area, etc.)

    This is generic enough to be useful for any roleplaying game system. I hope you will find it handy.

  8. It’s great to see you working on this game!
    I direct a game and will soon be playing in one as well.

    Some short bits of feedback:
    -Clashing is WAY too powerful for characters. Action denial on enemies that are usually singular to make them powerful neuters them heavily. I implemented that Clashing gives you -1d3 to all of your Magical attributes until your next non-Clash/Cover action is taken.
    -The advancement system seemed a little restrictive, making all of the players eventually being very similar. I fixed it by saying my players only needed to take 3 before buying copies of advances.
    -I increased the number of Seeds dropped by enemies due to our large troupe of girls (5) and it has generally lead to more conflict, chaos, and character interaction. All things this system is wonderful for!

    I also ended up making player-piloted tsukaima rules because a player got to the 13 and wished for ultimate power. Will have to see how it pans out!

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