Over the past couple weeks I got inspired to start working on the next revision of Magical Burst, and I’m really liking how it’s coming along so far. It seems somehow appropriate that the 5th iteration could be the one that actually works how I want it to. I think working on smaller games has been doing me a huge amount of good as a game designer, forcing me to finish and polish things, and maybe giving me a better eye for what does and doesn’t work. My designs in general have been leaning kind of heavily on Apocalypse World for inspiration, but that’s a pretty sound foundation at least, especially since I seem to be getting a bit less clumsy about using that framework. I also made a point to start a new document from scratch rather than revising from the 4th draft, particularly since my RPG prose has gotten leaner of late.
A lot of the changes I’ve been making have been in the way of simplifying things. That’s partly due to the influence of Jim McGarva’s Strike!, a game that started as a hack of D&D4e, but has since transformed into its own thing, with downright radical levels of simplicity that expose how much of the math in other RPGs is potentially just busywork. Having more detailed rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given that you can role-play with no formal rules at all, it’s worthwhile and even necessary to take a hard look at what effect each rule actually has.
Although I find the idea of relationship rules appealing, they seem to be hard to make flow well in play. The system I came up with for Magical Burst in previous versions was cumbersome, especially during character creation. In the new version I replaced all of the relationship rules with the question, “What two things connect you to the world?” I realized that what I really wanted was for players to decide on how their characters fit into the world and what things in the world they care about. Madoka cares about her family and friends, Sayaka has her crush that defines her, Homura is obsessed with Madoka, and so on. It’s more open-ended (you could answer “My best friend,” or you could say something like “My music”), it serves the purpose of developing the character’s connections to the world around them, and it does so with a minimum of rules.
Overcharge, attributes, and the action resolution rules are simpler too. I pared the list of stats down to four (Heart, Fury, Magic, and Real), with ratings from 1 to 4, and made it so there’s only one kind of Overcharge, which works more like the Magic points in Magical Fury. The “Real” stat is a character’s ability to handle herself in the real world, and for example it’s what you’d roll with if you want to convince your mom that nothing weird is going on and you’re just going out at night to study. The other three stats become a bit more for what they sound like they’re for instead of being flavor text for Fallout. I’m also sticking a bit closer to the AW paradigm of having fixed target numbers and no opposed rolls (7 or less is a miss, 8-10 is a weak hit, and 11+ is a strong hit), the idea being that it should speed up every roll. Although magical actions still have the exploding dice, they only generate a point of Fallout if you roll a 15+ (a “critical hit,” which can also have additional effects for specific moves), which significantly cuts down the amount of bookkeeping you do when you roll dice.
A common theme in this is that I had a lot of game procedures that were more complicated than they needed to be, which would variously get in the way of pursuing story stuff or (as in the case of Fallout) jam the game with too much story stuff.
The combat rules are getting a pretty substantial overhaul, and I’m really happy with where they’re going so far. (It’s also where the game most emphatically parts ways with Apocalypse World.) The big thing is a split between “skirmishes” and “full battles.” Skirmishes work basically like in Magical Fury, and come down to more or less one die roll per PC and an evaluation of the overall outcome, so that you can resolve one in a matter of minutes. (And you could run a whole campaign using nothing but skirmishes if you wanted.) Full battles are going to use a simpler version of the tactical combat from 4th Draft. I’m drawing on Strike! in that it uses small numbers of non-random damage points, and dispenses with defense rolls per se. Characters will still potentially be able to make themselves harder to hit and/or reduce damage, but without the time involved in defense rolls. (Which is practical to do with the change to how Overcharge works.) Removing two steps from every single attack should definitely make tactical combat go considerably faster.
This also led to a significant change to how I write up Talents, since they need to be functional enough to be worthwhile even if the GM decides to only use one type of combat. Where 4th Draft had a lot of Talents that were only useful in combat, in the new version most Talents have at least some use outside of combat. I’m also cutting down on the sheer number of talents, which should make them easier to manage all around. (Likewise, not having 3 flavors of Fallout effects makes it easier to fill out a d66 table without stretching myself too far and running out of good ideas.)
I’ve been playing Persona 3 lately, and the distinctions between the two types of battles parallels (but doesn’t exactly match) the distinction between random encounters and boss battles in a JRPG video game. Although both types of battles use the same systems, a minor dungeon encounter has a substantially different place in overall gameplay, to the point where it largely becomes a matter of tapping the X button and watching your overall resources instead of a careful all-out battle. For Magical Burst there is also a distinction in simple speed, but I think this kind of division and prioritization of different types of battles is one of the more fascinating things I’m playing with in RPGs.
Starting and Advancement
Another change I’ve mentioned before is explicitly setting the game up to start out with the PCs as normal girls who become magical girls during the early stages of the game. Not every magical girl anime works that way, but the vast majority do. Even when they do become magical girls, they’re defined a bit more simply now, and gain their optimum abilities over time. In particular, they start with only one Talent, and can obtain a Specialization and other abilities over time. (Though a GM who’s so inclined could easily give PCs one or two Advances over the course of the first session to introduce those elements faster.)
Setting and Themes
I also made some tweaks to the game’s (loose) setting. Although previous versions allowed youma to have minions, this version names them “imps” and makes them an explicit part of the setting, as they are proto-youma that can eventually grow into full youma. Dark magical girls (which I’m calling “witches,” sidestepping the kind of icky “dark = evil” thing) are also a more explicit setting element, taking inspiration from how they’re presented in various magical girl anime.
One thing that I’ve been trying to do more is to explore themes of femininity in the game. It’s an important part of the genre (if perhaps a bit less so in Madoka Magica than in other series), and something that I’ve struggled with a bit for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here. One kind of ham-fisted but seemingly effecting thing is to add the “What does being a girl mean to you?” question from Magical Fury. The answers that playtesters (men and women alike) gave to that question have been really fascinating, ranging from statements of feminine power to lamenting the expectations society forces on women. I also made the small but important distinction that magical girls’ powers are not inherently flawed, but rather it’s the nature of the world around them that twists their magic in the unfortunate ways that are so central to the game.
I’m also trying to address transgender and non-binary characters in the game, with some help from some trans women who were very patient and supportive with my questions. Writing about transgender issues in an RPG in a non-terrible way is not easy, partly because the language itself works against you, but hopefully I’ve arrived at something that will work, by leaving the question open-ended while suggesting some possibilities. Magical Burst is about magical girls–issues of femininity do in fact play a role–but in real life there are lots of kinds of girls. On a practical level, since the tsukaima who recruit magical girls are alien beings, they generally don’t fully understand human notions of gender anyway.
Anyway, that’s where I am right now. There’s still quite a bit of work to do–and a ton of other projects I’m working on–but I’m pretty happy with the foundation I’m laying down here.