I’ve been working on Pix quite a bit since I last blogged about it, and while there’s plenty left to do, I’ve made some considerable progress.
Pix is a lot of different things coming together, and it reflects my unique influences and style all throughout.
On a pure design level, it’s a deliberate and transparent blend of two of my most important game design influences, Golden Sky Stories and Apocalypse World. I’ve ended up writing a pretty enormous amount of GSS material, and I’ve reached a point where the vast majority of my game design efforts have a significant amount of AW’s DNA in them, particularly in terms of moves and principles. While I adore GSS overall, I’m in the odd position of having written around 150 pages of material for it, including 13 original character types. (4 more and I’ll be tied with Kamiya himself.) With Pix I have the freedom to tweak every little rule however I want, and it’s decidedly refreshing to just get in and tinker like that.
Undertale was a vitally important source of inspiration for Pix (and the selection of character options will let you make reasonable facsimiles of most of the cast), but a dozen or so other titles inform its sensibilities to varying degrees, including Homestuck, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time. There’s enough of a melange of influences and creative choices that to me at least Pix doesn’t feel like it quite mimics any one. The fact that it’s a non-violent game also separates it from most of those titles, which will happily blend in a hefty dose of violence.
The story the inhabitants tell is of the origins of Pix is of a princess who found respite in a game, only to have one of her tormentors (“Lord Chaos”) come after her in the game, causing the Sundering that created Pix. In my head this involves a (possibly transgender) girl in a setting something like Ready Player One, a near-future world suffering serious ecological and economic problems, where virtual reality as a major part of everyday life, and Pix is something that was somehow severed from that world.
Those who remember call the times after the Sundering the Bad Times, because Lord Chaos rampaged across Pix (since to him the monsters there were just game characters he could do whatever he wanted to), and monsters fought with one another. King Raster and Queen Vector knew they had to do something to save Pix before it came apart, and they reluctantly introduced the Glitch into the Core of Pix. This rough patch to the world’s underlying code trapped Lord Chaos in the Rainbow Spire and made the Fight button stop working, but it also had a number of unforeseen effects, including leaving King Raster trapped in an animation, not dead but not really alive. Prince Voxel (GET IT?!) has since left Pix in search of a way to free his father.
The Glitch has become a fairly important setting element, and one that I hope will do a lot to reinforce the general strangeness and video game feel of the world of Pix. There are instances where the physics or other features of the world are just off, and there’s a basic move players can use to try to take advantage of such errors.
A Certain Sensibility
I feel like we’re seeing a trend emerging in entertainment where there are a small but growing number of titles that come from a sort of “post-anime” sensibility, not in the sense that they’ve abandoned Japanese animation, but rather they’ve subsumed it into their aesthetics to the point where a certain amount of anime-ness emerges organically, without any need for conscious imitation. Steven Universe for example has some decidedly anime elements to it (including a very deliberate homage to certain shots from Utena), yet its visuals feel a lot more like American cartoons (albeit with some anime DNA apparent), and its overall story seems to owe a more to the personal experiences and creativity of the creators than any source material.
I’m just old enough that there are trends that are passing me by (like Let’s Play videos, which are ludicrously popular and are creating a new kind of celebrity, but which don’t really interest me), but I’ve managed to keep some semblance of an open mind, so that I can at least comprehend some of the appeal of things like Minecraft even if I don’t indulge in them myself. I’m always going to be creating from my particular perspective, but as much as I can I want to present some of the emotion behind those things. Minecraft, with its voxel graphics and surreal world, captures its fans’ imaginations enough to not only be an engaging video game, but has been known to inspire playground play and published novels. Homestuck and Undertale celebrate the kind of goofy humor that the internet has enabled while showing us the fundamental humanity of the characters involved. There’s a certain kind of cloying, sincere affection mixed in there too, and one of the things behind Pix is a desire to make a game that invokes warmth and kindness.
I don’t know if there’s a proper term for this sort of thing, but it seems to capture a side of people’s reality that other kinds of fiction by and large haven’t quite figured out how to address.
Part of a World
One of the major themes of Pix (or at least something I want to be a theme) is that the characters have to help each other because they live in a small, fragile world. The setting of Pix isn’t going to be expansive or anything, but it’s getting more than I’ve put into my games in the past, with a series of distinct locations painted in broad strokes. The places within Pix are in a sense a part of the cast, and they’re places you can come to know better over time.
One relatively simple change I made to character creation that I really like is that along with Name, Look, and Stuff, one of the Details for which you have a list of options to choose from is “Home.” Each PC is assumed to have some kind of home somewhere in Pix. It could be a hut in the Memory Marsh, a little apartment in Spark Town, a picturesque house in the Town of Start, etc., but they always have a place in the world. Thinking about it now, very few RPGs have PCs with a defined home of some kind. D&D adventurers generally only have connections to the world if you go out of your way (and beyond anything the rules ask of you) to create them, and even in Golden Sky Stories the henge only really have a defined home within the town if a particular character trait calls for it.
Pix is a non-violent game, and that’s one of the biggest ways in which it parts ways with Undertale. A tabletop RPG that emphasizes the consequences of violence similar to Undertale could be really interesting, but Pix is a slice of life game, or rather an entry in the “everyday magic” genre that Ryo Kamiya proposed for Golden Sky Stories and Witch Quest. It’s a game about (magical, surreal) everyday life, so violence would only be a part of the events portrayed if something is going horribly wrong.
I don’t want to overly mechanize it, but I do want Pix to have some degree of mechanical support for helping and coaxing others. (Kinda sorta like the Act command in Undertale.) That line of thought led me to the game having a “helping system,” with various ways of helping out other characters in order to make progress. An NPC might need a task done, or you might need to persuade them, or they might just be in pain so that you need to do what you can to remove their Stress points.
The connection rules in GSS are simultaneously one of the most compelling and most confusing aspects of the game, and for Pix I want to preserve as much as I can of the appeal of these rules while cutting down on the confusion they can cause. Playing with that particular knot led to some of the game’s biggest steps away from GSS.
Keeping track of relationships with separate values on each side naturally causes a bit of confusion. It’s not insurmountable by any means, but in order to make a more streamlined game, having it so that each player only has to track one side of the relationship makes sense. (You see something similar with Apocalypse World‘s Hx rules and World Wide Wrestling‘s Heat mechanics.) Thus instead of Wonder and Feelings, Pix characters just have Magic, which they spend on using Powers. In place of spending Feelings on checks, I slotted in Apocalypse World-style die rolls, with the aim of letting the game have a little bit more of an adventure-y feel, even if it would still be non-violent. I could have simplified the relationship rules and such much more than I did, but I wanted to retain assigning Dreams (called “Love” in Pix).
Mike (the other half of Star Line Publishing) has talked to all sorts of people about GSS. At some point I really want to put together something on running GSS for children and using it as an educational tool, but that’s a ways outside of our own expertise. One thing that Mike heard from an educator is that the whole structure of assigning Dreams and boosting connections that benefit both sides is that it has the potential to teach kids, including kids with autism, about sharing and such. While I don’t have anything like the pedagogical background to design games based on what’s good for educational purposes, I do like the idea of the game emphasizing cooperation and sharing that way.
That’s part of why I wound up making it so that you don’t actually spend Love points to boost your own friendships, but rather you use them to increase other characters’ friendships towards your character, which benefits them rather than yourself. (It also retains a reason to assign Love to the GM.) There’s also the little twist that any time you spend Love to build a friendship, you have to give the other character a compliment.
Golden Sky Stories totally eschews die rolling in favor of resource-based mechanics, and I think it uses them better than most any other RPG I’ve yet encountered. In GSS it contributes to a very particular atmosphere, which is really different from a typical RPG. Die rolls create a certain kind of tension, and they ask the player whether they think the odds are worth it. Spending points shifts that to asking the player whether they’re willing (or able) to expend a particular amount of resources. It totally removes that tension from the equation, and fundamentally changes the role of attribute checks. Pix on the other hand has a collection of basic moves, which include social tasks as well as things like traveling around Pix (partly inspired by Mouse Guard) and dealing with physical challenges. While there are no fights, unlike in GSS there are adventures.
The die rolls in Pix use basically the same mechanic I came up with for Magical Burst, which is to say Apocalypse World style rolls with the numbers on a slightly higher scale (since the stats have a baseline range of 1 to 4 rather than -1 to +2).
I have kind of a mixed opinion of D&D5e, but I think the advantage/disadvantage mechanic is probably the single most innovative and adaptable thing about it. On the other hand I felt that going from 2d6 to 3d6 with advantage/disadvantage would be smoother and generally better than going from 1d20 to 2d20. I was happy to see that Jacob Randolph apparently felt similarly when I saw he had such a mechanic in his Fellowship RPG (which is really neat BTW), and it wound up being a pretty natural thing to slot in to Pix. It provides a pretty easy way to implement a number of different character traits, since giving advantage or disadvantage on certain kinds of rolls allows for strongly differentiating characters in particular areas, in a way that’s easy to handle at the game table.
Little Solo Games
Another thing I’m working on for Pix is a couple of small solo games that will serve as a sort of introduction to Pix as well as something fun in their own right. The first is going to be a Five-Card Fictions deck that generates little stories about the origins of Pix, and the second is going to be a card-based guided writing exercise, somewhat similar to The Beast in form, but with specific characters and setting details included in the cards. I’d like to try my hand at some other things, like maybe a Twine game, but we’ll see.