Category Archives: Design Journal

Magical Burst Development Stuff

I had kind of hoped that my next post about Magical Burst would be the release of the next version, but I’ve wound up setting myself up with a lot of work to do before it’ll be ready.

One thing I’m doing is a lot of writing in general, filling in advice and even setting information in more detail. I’m trying to better articulate the aesthetic for magic and the youma for example. In Madoka Magica, it’s as though characters don’t have spells so much has colors of paint they can use to scribble all over reality. Mami uses magical flintlock rifles, but that goes anywhere from hauling out a single one to making about a dozen appear to creating a giant cannon version for her finisher. I also want to dig into the characterization of the youma a bit more, about how destructive they are emotionally.[1] I’m also filling out tables of Secrets and Youma Motivations, and I expanded the magical girl costume tables. More importantly, I’m trying to properly clarify and nail down a lot of things that had been entirely too vague in previous versions of the game, like running out of resolve, stealing Oblivion Seeds, when Fallout kicks in, etc. There’s also the stuff with Shocks that I mentioned previously.

I have quite a bit to do in the way of digging into the actual rules. Overall I’m doing more refinement and less adding novel elements, but there are a couple key things I’m now planning to add.

Looking at one of the /tg/ threads I found out about someone’s “Magical Burst ReWrite Edition.” I don’t want to steal from it, but I do really like their idea of giving magical girls different specializations similar to D&D4e’s roles. I myself like games that give characters a decent amount of mechanical differentiation, so I’m hoping to pursue this route, though I’m not totally sure what I want the specializations to be.

That dovetails into some stuff I’m doing tinkering with the combat mechanics. I’m adding something like the Movement and Engagement rules that have appeared in numerous F.E.A.R. games. I really like semi-abstract movement and positioning type rules, but for Magical Burst I need them to be a bit more fluid than the Meikyuu Kingdom style battlefield concept allows, on account of magical girls can potentially do so many different kinds of things with magic, including the most outlandish modes of movement. (It also gives me an excuse to get printable cardstock magical girl and youma minis made.) 13th Age does have something kind of similar to this, though without the “engagement” vocabulary. I think it does a good job of creating a distinction between melee and ranged combat,[2] which I’m hoping will make magical battles a little less like a series of attack rolls. I also like it for how it gives me some more things to hang crunchy bits on, and I think it’s going to be really helpful in terms of the aforementioned specializations.

With NaNoWriMo I’ve tended to go to extremes of not trying or cranking out the requisite 50,000 words, if just barely in time for the end of November. This year I had originally been planning on trying to do a sci-fi comedy story (“Tiny Aliens”), but with magical girls on the brain I decided to make an attempt at the Magical Burst novel I’ve been wanted to do, Magical Girl Radiant Yuna. (Which will indeed concern the same Yuna and Makoto from the intro comic script.) If I manage to do NaNoWriMo it’s going to put work on the game itself on hold throughout November, but it’ll be a strong step towards getting the one tie-in thing I really wanted to do for it. As I mentioned earlier, I want the novel to have full game stats and such for the relevant characters in an appendix in the back.

Another really cool thing that a fan did was Rabbit Eclair went and made a magical cipher. Madoka Magica makes extensive use of a special “rune” alphabet, which fans managed to deciper despite the text spanning English, Japanese, and German (with many quotes from Faust) and three different variant fonts, and I really want the final Magical Burst book to have a similar magical script of its own. I hadn’t been able to find anything quite right, but the “Magical Burstnary” is just about perfect. (Plus it obliquely fits what I want to do with the backstory for the novel.)

Update: NaNoWriMo has begin! I put up a blog post about it on Studio UFO (my non-RPG blog site), and you can check my progress on my NaNo profile.


[1]I based the sample tsukaima in the book on the Seven Deadly Sins, and I was looking for a comparable theme for the youma. I wound up going with basing them off of the tracks of Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral.” I’ve been wanting to do something with the pictures that album puts in my head for ages now, though I never would have guessed that I’d find the perfect place to do so in a magical girl RPG.

[2]That also means players need to decide if their Magical Weapons are melee or ranged, which in turn leads to the realization that it’s rather arbitrary. You could have a magical girl who magically throws swords instead of doing actual melee combat with them, and if your Magical Weapon is a car or tea set you can potentially go either way.

More on Magical Burst

The other day someone on 4chan’s /tg/ board pointed people to Carly Ho’s Magical Burst character generator, the result being a rather glorious thread where people used the generator and interpreted the results. I wouldn’t even know where to begin pointing out the amazing stuff in the thread, but this was suitably funny and twisted:

Onigawara Yuri
Pretty Strawberry Lovely Yuri

>Already feeling that pain in my legs, better check my blood sugar.

What kind of girl are you?
Sickly Victim

>Eh. Guess I SHOULD check that blood sugar alright. And stop with the strawberries – it fucks with the chemo.

What convinced you to make a contract?
I realized I’m tired of feeling helpless.

>What, no deep spiritual satisfaction in sitting in that hospital bed being miserable?

What is your wish?
I wish I could be my old self again.

> I assume that she’s referring to the self that has a good chance of living to adulthood.

Weapon
Dagger

>Damn, bitch is hardcore.

Magical Element
Radiation

>SEE HOW YOU LIKE CANCER

Magical Power
Analysis
By magically analyzing things you can discover secrets, and locate weaknesses.

>Say, you seem to have a genetic predisposition to developing leukemia, don’t you?

Costume Elements
Omega

>DOOM AND GLOOM, I TELL YOU. DOOM AND FUCKING GLOOM

Crisis
I’m hopelessly attracted to someone I probably shouldn’t be.

>But… sempai… we’re both girls, right?…

More creepy lesbian carcinogenic goodness!

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Anyway, with NaNoWriMo coming up I’ve been trying to shift out of card game mode, and this inspired me to get back into Magical Burst. It’s incredibly gratifying to see people not only enjoying but being creative with something I made. The magical girl creation tables are this mass of cliches and strangeness, and at times the random results come together in the most amazing ways, doubly so when people as creative as some of the /tg/ posters are the ones interpreting the results.

One thing about me is that I have a tendency to hyper-focus on one creative project or area, and the amount of time I’ve been putting into Channel A and related projects is kind of ludicrous. I have a thing I do where I carry around a notebook to write down whatever comes to mind, and then I’ll periodically write down a list of all my projects. I never leave Magical Burst off the list,[1] but I think I had put out of my mind how messed up it was. I tend towards a very shiny aesthetic, but I also go to some pretty dark places sometimes. Going back to that place was a little bit of a journey, and I had to put on some Nine Inch Nails to set the right mood. (Did I mention that the sample youma in the book are going to be based on the 14 tracks of “The Downward Spiral”?)

I don’t have much of anything to report in terms of changes to the game that I haven’t talked about before, basically because I got stalled and am picking up where I left off, with a bunch of things pretty well planned out but not implemented yet. Today working on Magical Burst was pretty much the extent of my productivity,[2] and most of that was tweaking and expanding the text and working on filling out some tables that were incomplete. Entirely too much of my life is about filling out tables and similar lists of discrete items these days. But anyway. One of the major things I’m trying to work on is more procedural clarity, especially when it comes to setting up a campaign. It’s one of those things where RPGs habitually leave you to muddle through yourself, and I know I appreciate it when a game gives advice on how to achieve its intended tone, especially when its something like this where you have to work at it.[3]

I did already finish up the Instant Magical Girl section (here’s an example of it in action), which now covers pretty much everything for character creation, including a new table for rolling up finishing attack names. It would be hard to pick a favorite from the tables, but the Crisis table is definitely up there. “Crisis” is basically my word of choice for what Ron Edwards called a “Kicker” in Sorcerer, and the table is appropriately full of stuff a character can’t ignore. To me that’s the essence of what makes Magical Burst–and Madoka Magica–so compelling.

Update Stuff


[1]I’ll do that sometimes with, say, Tokyo Heroes. That’s a game I sincerely do want to work on again some day, but that I’ve pushed so far on the back burner that it’s fallen back behind the stove.

[2]Unless you count making a batch of “slutty brownies.”

[3]Like its source material, Magical Burst is meant to have a heavy, oppressive atmosphere and be about characters dealing with some really scary shit. It’s been my experience that that’s exactly the kind of thing that gamers have a natural tendency to use humor and generally step out of character in order to back away from. I really want someone to formally study this phenomenon, but that would require the kind of people who have the expertise and funding to care about tabletop RPGs.

Dragon World: Moar Stuff

And now even more blather about Dragon World.

Guts and Falling Down
My major new innovation is what I’m tentatively calling “Guts points.” The idea is that players have these points that they can spend to avoid falling down (and for things like enhancing die rolls), but any time you do you have to roll with Sanity, and on a failure you have something like a Maid RPG style Stress Explosion.

Dram/Plot/Story/Fate/whatever points aren’t a bad mechanic, but I think they tend to be bland too, and they would feel doubly so next to the level of flavor you get in a typical AW-derived game. I like what I have so far with Guts points for how they have obvious risks and feed back into the fiction in an interesting way.

Advancement
In recent years I’ve had mixed feelings about advancement and rewards in RPGs in general. On the one hand people do genuinely just plain enjoy getting and using shiny new things for their characters, but on the other hand it can create weird incentives and makes the game that much harder to design for. There’s also stuff like how, much as I enjoy D&D4e, some improvements are in an important illusory. You gain more HP with each level, and +1 to just about every die roll at every even-numbered level, but level-appropriate monsters tend to grow at a comparable rate.[1] One of the many, many brilliant things about the Sacred BBQ RPG is that hit points and accuracy are static and super-simple, and leveling up simply gives you more and better powers to use.

Anyway, I mentioned in my last post how the default Apocalypse World advancement rules are a very poor fit for my gaming group. For Dragon World players will simply get to “gain a level” once per session. This has to be between scenes, and it nets the character a Guts point and an AW-style advancement. With D&D4e in particular my friends and I have found levels to be first and foremost a pacing mechanism, and actual experience points are more important as a way to budget balanced encounters than as a thing to hand out to PCs, since it’s easier and equally effective for the DM to just periodically tell the players to level up. That way the DM is basically saying, “Okay, now it’s time for you guys to do Level X stuff.” I’ve never really liked having individual characters advance at different rates, and tying it to character advancement is, at least for my group, much too strong of an incentive.

Story Threads
I basically tossed out the AW Hx/History mechanic because I find it fiddly and misplaced in Dragon World. But what I love about it is that it creates a story and history between characters, so I’m keeping some semblance of that even if it doesn’t have mechanical force behind it. One thing I’ve been thinking about (and ranting about on Twitter a bit) is that part of why RPGs have traditionally allowed for the risk of death is that they’ve also traditionally been poor at providing tools to help come up with other things that can be at stake. At one extreme there’s old-school D&D where your starting character is, like, a guy with a sword and no particular connection to the world. At the other extreme is something like the Smallville RPG, where PCs basically only die if the player allows it, but they’re bursting with connections and affiliations, and the GM/Watchtower’s main job is to mess with those.

My idea for Dragon World is to take the History concept and extend it a bit beyond History/Connections, though not as crazy as Smallville’s Pathways system, because while there’s a lot to like about Pathways, I really don’t want to have character creation take a full session. The concept I’m going off of is to have something like the Bonds in Dungeon World (where you fill in the blanks of sentences with names), except that the players come up with a short list of NPCs and other elements that can also go into the blanks. This is going to be a fair amount of work of course, and I’m finding that the stuff I wrote for connections/Hx feels a little weak sauce for “story threads.” So, that’s another thing I get to rewrite 11 times over.

Space! Wanna go to space!
Yet another idea that’s been floating around my head that I won’t be actually getting into any time soon is to basically make a sci-fi version of Dragon World, in the vein of stuff like Vandread, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Tenchi Muyou!, Space Pirate Mito, etc. (Also maybe a little bit of Ryo Kamiya’s Infinite Universe mini-RPG, though that one is ludicrously over the top.) It would of course face the issue that sci-fi doesn’t have nearly as many clear cliches as D&D-ish fantasy, plus I think I’d have to address vehicle combat in some way. I definitely want to give it a name that doesn’t quite make sense, like Universe World or Galaxy World.

Also, I’m looking forward to making a “space cat princess” class that’s a cross between Eris from Asobi ni Iku yo! and Di Gi Charat.

[1]On the other hand everyone concerned tends to forget that you really don’t have to use level-appropriate challenges all the time in 4e. One of the coolest things in the Dark Sun campaign I ran was the PCs escaping with a paragon-tier monster in the form of a skill challenge.

Dragon World: Monsterhearts Lessons

Monsterhearts is one of those things that doesn’t necessarily interest me personally, but where I think it’s awesome that such a thing can exist. It’s an Apocalypse World hack that turns it into a teen paranormal romance game, and does a damn good job of it. It’s a genre that’s easy to make fun of–it’s aimed at women, Twilight is a seminal entry, it’s overdone to the point of getting its own shelf at bookstores–but Joe Macdalno unironically embraces it. I don’t know that it’s a game I’d want to play, but the Skins and Moves point to amazing things happening in it. The Mortal character is basically Bella Swan, and it gives you the tools to explore everything that’s messed up about that, including the things Stephenie Meyer isn’t talented enough to get into. Practically every character type makes me want to see/read something with them. “Twilight, but well-done and the boyfriend is a demon” could be amazing. (I also want a Twilight parody where the Bella type girl has a whole reverse harem of supernatural boys, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The other thing about Monsterhearts is that it really makes the framework of Apocalypse World its own. Dragon World has suffered in some places because I stuck too close to AW, whereas Monsterhearts embraces basic AW exactly as much as it needs to and no more. For example, aside from their sheer flavor, one of the things I like about the Skins in Monsterhearts is how they’re simpler in certain places. Each has only one set of stats (you get to add +1 to any one stat, which reminds me a lot of how certain Japanese TRPGs work), and the range of advancement options always include 2 slots for skin moves, 2 slots for moves from other skins, 1 gang, and a +1 to each of the four stats. Calling them something as simple and evocative as “Skins” is a nice little touch too. Even though I have a million other things to work on, reading Monsterhearts set wheels turning on Dragon World, hence this post.

I’ve done a fair amount of playtesting of Dragon World, and it’s right at that point where I know I’m onto something, but it needs work. I’ve also found that for me at least 3 players is the sweet spot, and 5-6 players is too many. I don’t know how it stacks up with other AW-derived games, but I’ve found that Dragon World requires a certain amount of GM attention per player, especially in terms of making their Temptations and Heart’s Desire relevant.

One of the biggest things I want to change is how character advancement works. Apocalypse World’s experience rules just plain don’t work well for my group. Highlighting stats is easy to forget, and it creates perverse incentives that lead to players trying to spam relevant moves. Monsterhearts includes the “Singleton Rule,” which says that you can’t mark experience from a given move or stat more than once per scene. While I like that idea–and will likely use it as a house rule any time I run AW or its progeny–for Dragon World I’m still planning to just drop the experience marking concept entirely and have players get one advancement per session. There are some other moving parts that tie into marking experience (like History), but after looking at Monsterhearts I’m feeling a lot more confident about slicing things out.

Relationship mechanics are one of those things that are very appealing for certain kinds of games, but a bit difficult to get right. Monsterhearts’ “Strings” system is note-perfect for the particular game. Strings are a currency you gain per character, and you can spend them to get an advantage over someone. Relationship mechanics have the issue that it can be hard to make them able to keep up with what’s going on in role-play, and Strings are ephemeral in just the right way, so that they don’t seem like they’d be trying to dictate or play catch-up with how characters relate to each other except insofar as they convey a very visceral advantage. This is definitely going to influence Slime Story whenever I get back into working on it. As for Dragon World, I’m thinking that while connections are awesome for developing the characters’ stories, the game doesn’t have any great need to assign a number to them. For DW’s source material I think helping or hindering others should work a little differently, and doesn’t really tie into relationships per se.

One of the big things in Dragon World that needs work is Falling Down. Not unlike Toon (or Teenagers From Outer Space), damaged characters are temporarily, comically incapacitated. The difference is that in Dragon World I made it binary–either you stay up or you Fall Down–with the caveat that for powerful enemies you need some kind of MacGuffin to make them Fall Down. As currently written, there’s the issue that PCs can be very resistant to falling down, but when they do fall down it kind of sucks because the player can’t participate in the game until the next scene, and they had no control over it. For a while I’ve been thinking about adding some kind of currency that players can spend to avoid Falling Down, and in turn I’ve been thinking that it would be very genre-appropriate for it to be easier or cheaper to avoid Falling Down by having some kind of freakout (not unlike a Maid RPG Stress Explosion) instead. I’m not sure what to call said currency, but it could well have other uses, and of course interact with certain moves. I definitely want to put a cap on how many a character can accumulate in order to prevent hoarding.

This is in addition to the stuff I was already looking into, notably story moves (a kind of temporary and sometimes detrimental move representing a story element like a curse or a certain situation) and an abstract wealth system aimed at getting PCs into trouble. I’ve also been working on an assortment of NPCs and setting elements, and trying to generally make the text better. I definitely needed a little extra distance from the text to come back to it fresh, and I can see the cracks a lot more clearly now. On the other hand this is a game I really want to play, because if I can pull it off it’ll be bursting with bright, silly fun.

Channel A: Progress Made

I now have a few playtests of Channel A under my belt, and I’ve made a few refinements. The biggest and quickest of these was letting the Producer draw a hand of 5 Premise Cards and pick two. After that, I’ve got a lot of things where I have a ton of options and it’s hard to discern which is the best.

One rather interesting thing I found out recently was the story of The Big Idea, a game originally from Cheapass Games that Funforge later re-released. Not unlike Channel A, a major part of the game is putting cards with words together to make something, in the case of TBI a silly invention. I’d played the Cheapass Games version with my brother-in-law (the one who has a wall of board games), and I hadn’t known that the newer version, along with non-cheapass production values, simplified the rules considerably. The game originally had an “investment” phase where players put currency towards different inventions, rolled dice, and got dividends if the investment/die roll worked out. The new version cuts out the investment phase entirely, making it into even more of a party game. (Is there a term specifically for card/board games that revolve around using the components to springboard into saying stuff?) It has an extra set of scoring cards, so that each player has blank cards and a medal card to hand out, face down, and that’s the extent of the evaluation/scoring mechanism.

The article also mentions that Apples to Apples was more complex before its publication, and I think that’s a good lesson to take working on this game. It’s easy and tempting to add more complexity to Channel A, say a thing where you see how your series fares on TV, but I’m increasingly sure that what I need to do is refine the core of the gameplay I already have. Aside from expanding and refining the decks,[1] the big thing I’m considering is whether to stick with the Producer setup or make what I currently have as the “Anime by Committee” variant rule (which coincidentally is closer to The Big Idea) into the default. I made a set of Voting Cards to try out the TBI method, though on paper it strikes me as a little cumbersome. I’ve updated the rules with that and some other ideas, and there’s a PDF below. I have entirely too many ideas for new Title Cards and Premise Cards, but I’ll get into that stuff later.

Voting Cards PDF
Channel A Rules (Alpha 2)
Bonus Title Cards

Update: I made a Channel A page and posted up another revised set.

My friend Suichi made a rather interesting observation about me as a designer, which is that where he thinks in terms of numbers and hard mechanics, I tend to think more in terms of the human interactions and how they shape the game. It’s why I came up with a game like Channel A where he never would have. I think I play RPGs for the interaction and in-the-moment creativity as given a springboard by the rules, which goes a long way towards explaining why the card games I really like, and the one I’m designing, are basically just vehicles for that.

…Though if you get all the expansions you can call it “11 Wonders.”

Last week I got together with some friends for what turned out to be an afternoon of board gaming. We played Cards Against Humanity, playtested Channel A, and then played 7 Wonders. It was really, really strange playing a Euro board game on the heels of CAH and CA, since we went from “Make an anime about vampires racing!” to “So I need to spend 2 Gold to buy lumber from Aaron.” It was very much the polar opposite, a thoroughly mechanistic if incredibly well-designed game, and in the Ewen/Suichi dichotomy definitely more of a Suichi type game.

[1]There’s also the possibility of later reskinning the game to have it be for video games or American cartoons, though I don’t know of anything with titles quite as over the top as anime.

Channel A: Alpha Prototype

To say that I’ve been inspired lately would be an understatement. The day after I posted up my Cards Against Humanity expansions, I thought about what I would do in the way of a friendlier original card game in the same general “using cards to make jokes” kind of style. The premise that resulted is a game I’m tentatively calling “Channel A” where you assemble cards to make titles of anime series.

One player is the Producer, and he or she plays two Premise Cards, with things like “School Romance” and “Giant Robots Fighting.” The other players each have 10 Title Cards, which have bits of anime titles like Perfect, EX, Penguin, Galaxy, etc. Each player tries to assemble an anime title from the cards and give a brief pitch for a series with that title that fits the Producer’s premise. The Producer picks a winner for that round, and then you rotate Producers and keep going.

It’s admittedly a bit derivative–it came from this fury of inspiration from CAH and there’s some of The Big Idea in there too–but I’m okay with that for my first attempt at card game design ever. I don’t know if I’ll make a habit out of it, but I’m definitely jazzed about this particular game.

For the initial prototype print and play version I used 2″x2″ cards like CAH, mostly because printing 20 cards per page makes life easier. Yesterday I roped some friends into a playtest with just the Title Cards (on account of I hadn’t finished the Premise Cards), and it was a lot of fun. I’m also tempted to start recording sessions to preserve some of the nifty ideas it produces.

Channel A (Alpha Prototype) PDF Download

Update: Some more on the game, including revised rules, in this blog post.

Update Again: I made a Channel A page and posted up another revised set.

If you want to make a deck, get the PDF printed on heavy cardstock and carefully cut out the cards. You can get a clear plastic box to keep them in at places like The Container Store or Tap Plastics. I’m looking for feedback both on how it plays and on elements to include in the cards (and the cards’ contents are just the sort of thing where I expect plenty of people to have opinions on what I’ve left out).

Magical Burst Update Number Whatever

Even though I have like a zillion other things to do, I got inspired to put in some more work on Magical Burst, which I’m sure a lot of you will be glad to hear. I have no ETA on when the next draft will be ready, but I’m in the thick of things working on it in any case. This post is a series of disconnected paragraphs on some of the different bits I’m working on.

I mentioned it in my last post on the game, but one of the big things I’m doing is more clearly writing out the procedures of play, which I think is really important. The big thing that I’ve kind of been groping towards is that the game and its source material are driven by “shocks.” In Madoka Magica the narrative has a constant escalation of shocking revelations, and in Magical Burst a lot of the rules are ultimately an engine for delivering similar kinds of shocks. I want to make it crystal clear in the text that this is the GM’s key tool for making things happen in the game. A whole lot of RPGs leave that kind of thing to trial and error, but I’m aiming for a fairly specific play style. There’s also the part about how my first playtest was kind of flat and I think not pushing the shocks was partly to blame.

In the 3rd draft I added Apocalypse World style moves to the game, especially for non-magical stuff. I did so kind of thoughtlessly, and now that I have some more experience with Apocalypse World (and Dragon World) I have a better idea what it is about the game that does and doesn’t work for me and the friends I play with.[1] The big problem I’ve had with moves is that players tend to want to treat moves as push buttons rather than role-playing towards them first. (Doubly so for moves that use a highlighted stat.) My solution is to treat moves a bit more as a thing the GM brings to bear, and to remove them from the player reference sheets. Moves don’t have to be secret from the players, but I do think the game could work better if the moves weren’t staring the players in the face the whole time. I’m also going to be rewriting them a bit to better fit this GM-oriented approach. I pared down the Normal Attributes to Charm, Insight, and Tenacity too, and let players assign points for them (but with fewer points and lower values than Magical Attributes). I still need to dig into moves and such to get a better feel for them though.

My philosophy for revising the rules for youma this time around is basically, “Make them fucking MEAN, and scale back later if need be.” My experience and pretty much all of the feedback I’ve gotten so far as been to the effect that as written youma tend to get wiped out pretty quickly, which isn’t anything like what I’d intended. It’s surprisingly hard to make good “boss monsters” (or solos in D&D4e parlance) that can effectively fight a full team of PCs, and I think that for the purposes of designing such enemies I need to ignore some of the kind of advice that I think of as good sense in other circumstances, like being stingy with extra actions in a combat round.

I renamed Appendix 1 to “Instant Magical Girl,” and I’m working on expanding the tables enough to make it possible to generate a completely random magical girl. I had intended for it to be more of an optional thing for people to turn to when they’re stumped, but it’s pretty clear it’s become core to how a lot of people play the game. The folks from the Empire Tabletop podcast (who previously did Maid RPG) did a Magical Burst AP episode, and their attitude was basically, “Why would you ever NOT make a character randomly?” For attributes I’m working on a d66 table that gets you one of 36 sets of attributes, and I rearranged the tables so that they follow the same steps as the character creation rules. When I mentioned that I want someone to make an online random magical girl generator on Twitter I got three replies almost immediately, so it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a thing that will happen. I may try to get the youma rules to the point where you can generate one totally at random too.

Update: Carly M. Ho put together a great little Magical Burst character generator!

Update Again: And then she went on to make a Youma Generator and a Tsukaima Generator!

I have a rough outline for a Magical Burst novel about Yuna and Makoto (from the intro comic script), though I’m struggling a bit figuring out how to get started and how to find the right tone. (Watching Brick the other day has me wanting to explore a stark noir style.) I like the idea of making it a tie-in with the game with game stats and info for the characters and such in the back, but first I have to, you know, write a novel and make it not suck. I’m actually worse at finishing novels than I am at games, if you can believe that.

I just finished re-reading Planet Guardian, a manga which hardly anyone but me seems to know. (Even scanlations haven’t gotten past chapter 2.) It doesn’t have all that much influence on Magical Burst, but I like it a lot nonetheless. The main character is Koyuki Kisaragi, a girl who got magical girl powers from a little critter named Pirosuke. Five years later there’s been no sign of the alien criminals that were supposed to show up, and Koyuki just wants to study hard and get a cushy government job (and Pirosuke has gotten so fat that he’s spherical). When the first bad guy shows up, Koyuki goes to fight it only after massive badgering from her brother Itsuki, who berates her for failing to be a properly cute magical girl like in anime. When another magical girl shows up it’s Ririka Saotome (real name: Yoshiko Yamada), an abject psycho whose desire to be the center of attention is potent enough to break the fourth wall at times. There’s also a boy named Shizuku, who treats being a Guardian as a serious duty, at least once he gets over his older sister’s attempts to dress him up in weird outfits. The story is kind of random and aimless, but I really like the differing attitudes towards being a magical girl (or boy) on display, as well as how Koyuki’s attitude evolves over the course of the story as she starts to take the responsibility of protecting the world seriously. But anyway. I may see about ordering the Madoka Magica novel, though it’s apparently over 500 pages.

[1]AW style experience tracking pretty much just fails for us, though that’s more relevant for Dragon World. It’s also related to enough other things that rejiggering the rules to work differently in Dragon World is going to be… interesting.

A Further Update on Magical Burst

I think I’ve finally reached a point where I have a good roadmap for where to go from here with Magical Burst. Future iterations are going to be much more about refining what’s already there instead of ripping stuff out or bolting new things on.

After talking to a group of guys who’ve been playing MB on IRC a ton, I’ve realized that I’m not quite as dissatisfied with the combat system as I thought. It definitely needs refinement–youma are still much too easy to kill for example, and lots of people find specific crunchy bits unclear–but the foundation seems pretty sound. One thing I am going to add is an (optional) thing for narrating details much like in Wushu, as part of the general action resolution rules. I realized it could fit nicely into the existing game, and is easy to skip if that’s what you’d prefer.

I think moves and normal attributes just need general rejiggering. Some attributes are under-utilized, or very easy to under-utilize depending on how you play your character, and some moves (especially Sorcery) just need to be fixed up. I’ve just barely started working on this part, so while it’ll follow the same general concept, I can’t say how it’ll go exactly.

Feedback from playtesters has led me to reevaluate how Fallout will work. The IRC group strongly prefers for the GM to tailor fallout to the circumstances, which is totally the kind of awesome thing you think of while playing the game. I had originally intended for Fallout to purposely be senseless and random, but I think explicitly stating that fallout can be more deterministic and tailored will help encourage better play. With Changes in particular there’s the problem that it’s too easy for a random Change to be something a character can brush off.

The whole thing about Changes dovetails into the matter of what for lack of an established term I’ll call “character safety.” Magical Burst isn’t a very lethal game, but Changes can “damage” your character concept. I wonder if the fact that some people have expressed concern over that sort of thing is a difference in subcultures, but regardless it’s something to at least address in the text. I suspect that relatively few indie RPG types would be too concerned about character safety, whereas from what I’ve heard of the freeform RP scene it’s of paramount importance to some people. I think this is another thing to address textually rather than mechanically, both because it’s a social contract issue and because it’s trivially easy to (for example) re-roll a random Change that a player finds particularly problematic.

I’m also working on reorganizing and rewriting the text to better reflect the intended style of play and hopefully to be more accessible. I think the thing I was groping towards with Secrets was along the lines of the Bangs in Sorcerer, stuff that forces the PCs to react. Secrets, the presence of a youma, and Fallout are all ultimately aimed at pushing the story around. Madoka Magica basically runs on a succession of shocks as the characters learn what’s really going on and struggle to cope with its implications. That’s something I’ve done informally as a GM before, and I think that a big part of why the playtest I ran was kind of flat was that I didn’t particularly try to make the shocks happen.

You may have seen the picture of a Magical Burst character named Sumire by a very talented Taiwanese artist who goes by Len. His Pixiv gallery has tons of impressive artwork of his RPG characters (going by his artwork he seems to play a lot of GURPS and a fair amount of D&D), and he’s part of the group that’s doing a Chinese translation of the game. Torbadomy got in touch with me the other day, and it’s worked out that Len is going to be lending his considerable talents to producing artwork for Magical Burst.

Magical burst – Sumire by Len on pixiv

I derive far more amusement from meduca meguca than I really should, and I’m planning to write up something called “meguca borsht,” though I realized it’ll be surprisingly hard to do on purpose. I think it’ll look something like D02: Know No Limit though.

Design Journal: Dragon World

“Something is wrong with these people, and I don’t know what it is.”

I’ve said it before, but Apocalypse World provides a fascinating framework to work with. There have been certain big hit games that have thrived in part by encouraging hacks and customization. Fiasco’s playsets are an obvious example, and there are AW hacks, IaWA oracles, and Technoir‘s transmissions are poised to become the next example of this phenomenon. Technoir also joins AW in having a printable player reference book[1], an idea I think I’ll have to try for quite a few of the games I’m working on.

The more I work with moves, the more fun I have with them. Where AW has moves that play into desperate badassery, Dragon World moves reinforce a very different kind of fiction. I’ve ended up writing a lot of moves that say things like “You end up looking stupid in front of everyone.” Writing up moves for the different character types is proving a little harder, and I suspect that’s where a lot of the real challenge of this thing is going to come from. Here’s my first draft of the Explosive Mage character type, which is basically for players who want a character like Lina Inverse from Slayers. I’m not satisfied with the moves yet.

Writing the MC moves for Dragon World is really interesting too, since in a sense I’m trying to distill my own best practices for running silly games like Maid RPG. And when I think about it that way, it becomes incredibly awesome in my head, since it means I’m using ideas and techniques that go back to when I first got my copy of Toon back in middle school, literally something like 20 years ago[2]. I’m too intuitive a designer to make some grand point about how humorous RPGs should work, but I think I’m on the track with Principles like “Break your toys in the name of comedy.” Comedy is subjective and challenging and all that, but I think if an RPG can give players better tools for, say, horror, then the same is surely true of humor.

The thing that’s been sticking in my head for quite a while now is how slapstick characters react to physical punishment. Toon handles this by having Hit Points[3], except if you run out you Fall Down for three minutes and come back. A while back I dug out my Toon rulebook and ran a session. It was a lot of fun, but the whole time part of my brain was saying, “Cartoon characters don’t have hit points!” I’m still feeling out how to handle this kind of thing, but I think that cartoon physics work more on a scheme where characters are fine until they hit a certain threshold, whereupon they Fall Down, and then the scene changes shortly thereafter. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to implement that, and especially how to implement it gracefully within the framework of Apocalypse World’s rules. The big problem with a binary system like that is making it work appropriately for a genre where powerful evil overlords are pretty much a given. For that I think I’m going to have to sit down and really rigorously brainstorm.

Also, it occurs to me that if I finish this and try to publish it, finding someone who can do the right style of art is going to be a challenge.

[1]Though AW’s ludography mentions that Vincent got the idea from XXXXtreme Street Luge.

[2]The fact that there are notable things in my life that were 20 years ago makes me feel old, though my grandma would tell me that I’m nowhere near old yet.

[3]Specifically, a Toon character gets 1d6+6 HP, and things typically do 1d6 damage. Also, I’m trying to not think about rewriting Toon to use AW moves.

Magical Burst Development Update 2

Matt Sanchez’s recent blog post on Adventure Planning Service‘s Saikoro Fiction[1] system got me inspired to finally sit down and read the rules of Shinobigami, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for way too damn long. It’s a really neat game, and the design of it makes me wonder how much is American indie RPG influence and how much is Kawashima just being that brilliant by himself. The rules are pretty short too–something like 70 pages including stats for NPC enemies and setting info–and about 2/3 of the book is taken up by a replay.

There are a ton of things I could gush about with regard to Shinobigami (especially where the combat system is concerned), but Matt’s planning to cover all of the Saikoro Fiction games in depth, so you can tune into his blog for more detail in the future. The big thing from Shinobigami that has me all inspired to work on Magical Burst after taking a bit of a break from it is the way it breaks the action into scenes. I’ve realized that on paper at least my problem with the current version of Magical Burst is that the rules do very little to guide the action. There are important bits of the narrative (like how the magical girls actually find the youma) that are pretty much handwaved. I know for a fact that the folks who’ve been playing the game have been able to work with that, but personally coming at the game I’m not sure I could actually do that good a job of running it.

Shinobigami is about modern-day ninjas, and while it’s possible to have the PCs all work together, the default assumption is that they end up in two competing factions[2]. With conflicting goals and secrets (established by the GM giving out Handouts[3]), the players basically take turns setting up scenes where they pursue information, relationships, etc. that can get them closer to their goal. You can also attack another PC on your turn, but you have to first figure out where they are. After a certain number of rounds of player-led scenes (usually 3), they arrive at the Climax Phase, which is typically an epic battle.

I think something similarly player-led is about what I’m looking for to make Magical Burst more like what I want. There can be other variations, not to mention a distinct possibility of failure or just ignoring the threat, but the base Magical Burst story is about the magical girls finding and defeating a youma and what it costs them to do so, so the kind of structure that Shinobigami uses makes a lot of sense for it. That’s going to affect how I approach a bunch of other things (especially relationship scenes), but we’ll see how it goes.

Aside from that, the things I’m looking at in this stage are going to be relatively small until deeper analysis and/or playtesting suggest otherwise.

  • I’m planning to make youma stats scale with the number of magical girls. It’s become a thing for me with both design and actual play that finding the right balance in terms of opponents that can challenge an entire group of foes while not being burdensome for the GM to keep track of is a big deal. On top of that, in Magical Burst a youma is (in D&D4e terms) normally a solo, and even the guys at WotC have had a hard time getting those right. This is mirroring some of the stuff I’ve been working on for Slime Quest, and I think “solo” type monsters need to scale not only stats but capabilities in order to keep up with a growing number of PCs.
  • In general I need to do a more rigorous analysis of the math to keep things on track. Luckily today a fan pointed me to AnyDice.com, which I think will become a very useful tool for that kind of thing.
  • Obviously, the Change tables need some work. Since I made the decision to switch from Magic uniquely producing Mutations to all three kinds of Overcharge producing Changes, I want to have three full d66 tables instead of one giant table and two half-size ones. I’ve tried to make the Heart and Fury ones be more derangements, but I’m thinking I’ll let them get more into the realm of mutations. Plus, I can prune the Magic Change table considerably, since I’m sure there are results in there that are at the far end of what I got from wracking my brains.
  • The magical girl creation tables were one of those “stumbling across the finish line” kind of things, and I do need to revise them some. The costume table in particular has a bunch of elements that belong (or are duplicated) in the weapons table. Plus I think “Key” is in there twice. (Did anyone catch on to how the names table is mostly taken from names of magical girls and other anime heroines?)

A Couple Other Things
Jake Richmond is going to be on the Yaruki Zero Podcast at some point to talk about the new Cel*Style games and such, but in the meantime you can listen to him on the Found in the Alley podcast. Jake and the podcast hosts are really entertaining, and I got really inspired listening to him talk about the new games. There’s also the full Panty Explosion head-punching story (amongst others), and it seems Jake is even worse than me for having his eyes glaze over from long rulebooks.

I’ve also been brainstorming for a new iteration of Raspberry Heaven, my heartwarming slice of life Japanese schoolgirls game. There will definitely be some other things at play, but it seems like it’s going to look a lot like a cute, happy version of Fiasco that uses playing cards. I really like Fiasco’s subtlety, and I think the trust it puts in the players is one of the things that Raspberry Heaven really needed. I have half a page of notes so far, but I’ll have to get into things to get a better idea what’s what.

Also, Raspberry Heaven is another project where I’d want the final product to have manga rather than anime style art.

[1]“Saikoro” means “dice,” and the logo on the back of the books abbreviates the name to “Sai-Fi.”

[2]The book also offers Battle Royal as a scenario setup (but warns it can be time-consuming) and hybrids of the various types.

[3]It’s an increasingly common thing in Japanese TRPGs that the GM gives players “handouts” that set up where their respective PCs fit into the story. I’m sure it would get mixed reactions from Western gamers, but it also seems like it’s one of the things that would make Shinobigami sing in actual play.