For whatever reason my “weird little games” have gotten bigger and started taking longer to finish, moving from 10 pages to more like 60+ pages. On the plus side, I’ve been pretty happy with how they’ve been turning out. One of the big ones at the moment is The Dungeon Zone.
I have a weird relationship with D&D. Of course, the RPG scene in general has a weird relationship with D&D, but in particular I started playing RPGs with Palladium’s Robotech RPG, then didn’t really play any D&D until 3rd Edition came out (though I owned and read a lot of AD&D books and made a handful of faltering attempts at playing them), and then across 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions I played it for about a decade of regular play in all, before basically deciding that I’d played A Sufficient Amount of D&D. I have a lot of criticism of the game (I’m even working on a book that’s an extended critique of D&D, though it’d be a lot of work to actually bring it to fruition), though also a good amount of praise to go along with it. It can be a rollicking good time, but it’s a pretty specific game that excels at certain kinds of play and is mediocre to actively harmful for others. You can use it for stuff other than its core dungeon fantasy competence, in much the same way that if you’re determined enough you can put in nails with a screwdriver. The best D&D fiction and actual play celebrates how it’s a kitchen sink dungeon fantasy game about a band of weirdos flailing around and getting into trouble, and doesn’t try to ape Tolkien or other authors far removed from the dungeon fantasy genre.
One that particularly inspired me was The Adventure Zone‘s “Balance” campaign. The McElroy Brothers are best known for their My Brother, My Brother and Me podcast, but they do a kind of ridiculous number of other podcasts and other online stuff. TAZ is the result of them (and their dad) sitting down to play RPGs, and the Balance campaign (loosely) uses D&D 5th Edition (with a custom PbtA hack for one arc), and to me it’s pretty much everything that D&D play should aspire to. There’s also the fact that they apparently record for several hours and edit it down to a reasonable podcast length, cutting out the inevitable boring bits. Continue reading The Dungeon Zone→
I wrote a blog post about it back in August of 2016 (wow), but Spooktacular is basically an updated retroclone of the West End Games Ghostbusters RPG, which was a forgotten gem of 1980s RPG design that among other things served as the starting point for the D6 System that powered the beloved WEG Star Wars RPG. Much like the many OSR retroclones of D&D, I’m hoping that with Spooktacular I can help preserve a pretty amazing game that was way ahead of its time, a game that created or was an early adopter for several innovations that we largely take for granted today. (Like, it legitimately appears to be the first RPG ever to use a dice pool mechanic.)
I made some relatively small changes to the rules, but for backwards compatibility the main thing you need to know is that 1 point of Ectopresence in Ghostbusters equals 2 points of Presence in Spooktacular, owing to the slightly different damage system.
I’m also working on some supplemental material for Spooktacular. I was originally planning to just make one big book called “Spookstravaganza,” but I have enough ideas that it seems like it’ll make more sense to do 2-3 smaller ones.
Ghostbusters is kind of a weird franchise in that its core it basically consists of 2 movies, but it has kind of a lot of non-canonical secondary stuff. There was The Real Ghostbusters cartoon in the 80s (with tie-in comics), Extreme Ghostbusters, a bunch of video games (most notably the 2003 Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which brought the original actors back to do voices, and for which Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis did a lot of the writing), the 2016 reboot movie, and the IDW comics series (which has established its own universe that’s had a series of crossovers with other titles). There have also been some surprisingly good tie-in books recently, notably Ghosts From Our Past: Both Figuratively and Literally (based on the in-universe book from the 2016 movie), Tobin’s Spirit Guide, and Ectomobile (which is framed as an in-universe guide to Ectomobiles and other gear for Ghostbusters International franchisees).
One of the major challenges of Ghostbusters is that the premise includes some concepts that should have mind-bendingly huge implications for that fictional world. The Ghostbusters have scientifically demonstrated the reality of ghosts–which at least strongly implies that life after death is a thing in some form–and technology to detect and capture them. Ghostbusters II essentially dealt with this by trying to sidestep the question entirely, declaring that despite the marshmallow kaiju smashing up New York, most everyone had decided that the Ghostbusters were full of shit, including the courts, and they had to essentially claw their way back to restarting their business. Patrick Willems did an interesting video about the idea that Ghostbusters is “a movie about nothing,” which I think nicely encapsulates how the original Ghostbusters somehow manages to be a more or less perfect comedy movie despite having no character arcs or themes per se, instead presenting a procedural plot that periodically bends towards a number of themes but doesn’t quite develop any of them. The 2016 movie in contrast was written with more modern storytelling sensibilities, making skepticism of the supernatural and social acceptance and friendship into important themes. It doesn’t have the perfect alchemy of on-screen chemistry, a new and irresistible concept, an all-around fantastic soundtrack, cutting-edge special effects, etc. that made the original film so incredible, but the use of clearer storytelling devices makes it a much better film than it could’ve easily become.
For an RPG, the good thing about all of that is that Ghostbusters doesn’t create too many expectations beyond using dodgy gadgets to zap ghosts. In Spooktacular I’ve tried to find a happy medium between charting out my own approach to the premise and leaving it open for the people playing to decide on their own. My ideal take on a Spooktacular story is kind of like a Graham Lineham comedy with busting ghosts, but maybe yours is different, which would be totally cool.
Between the source material, real-life reports of hauntings, and just exploring possibilities there’s kind of an enormous amount of stuff I can do for Spooktacular. I’m working on some new archetypes, new gear, options for different types of containment grids, a zillion different ghosts, paranormal organizations, a selection of human NPCs, dangerous paratechnology for NPCs villains to use, and monsters other than ghosts to spice things up now and then. I never really got the hang of writing up adventure scenarios, but Spooktacular is both a game that lends itself to them (unlike some of my other games that run more on GMing procedures) and a simple enough game that I already know the rules inside and out, so I’m seriously thinking of making the attempt.
I’ve been running a Doctor Who RPG campaign for some friends, and while the rules that Cubicle 7 put together for it are pretty good and the campaign has been a lot of fun, I kept thinking that something derived from the rules of Spooktacular could do pretty much the same job more simply. When I brainstormed ideas for different settings and genres to do with the system, I quickly wound up with an impractically long list of possibilities. While I want to do a bit more with the system myself, the sheer potential I see combined with the fact that it’s so much standing on the shoulders of giants led me to the idea of releasing it as an open system. I arrived at the name “Sixtacular” for the system (owing to its familial relation to the D6 System), and I’m planning to release an SRD under the Open Game License so people can go to town making games. It may not amount to anything or there may be an annoying prevalence of games with “-tacular” in the title, but regardless it’ll be there for you to play with. The 1.0 version of the SRD will be a pretty basic thing with the Spooktacular core rules minus the tables and the ghost-specific parts, but I’m hoping that through myself and others developing the system further it’ll change and grow over time.
I’m planning for my next Sixtacular game after Spooktacular to be Zaptacular: Mad Science Adventures. Rick & Morty is an important influence, but it basically mashes up elements of all my favorite comedy sci-fi stuff–Red Dwarf, Futurama, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and many, many more–with a cynical modern-day Earth as the default setting (but options for time-hopping like Doctor Who, being lost in deep space like in Red Dwarf, and so on). There’s kind of a ridiculous amount of media that I really love that fits squarely into Zaptacular’s wheelhouse, as well as a bunch of my own random creations that work well with it, so I expect to have a lot of stuff to stick into the game’s multiversal setting.
I decided to try taking a more incremental approach to what will hopefully be the last leg of the development of Magical Burst, starting with an “alpha” that will have the bare minimum necessary to play and then filling out more and more elements of the game as I go along, hopefully better informed about how the game really works at the table while I do so. For previous drafts I put in a whole lot of work on things that ultimately wound up being wasted as the game changed, so this time around I’m going to get it out there before I get too far, and not worry too much about stuff like formatting.
The other day I realized that I’ve been trying to make Raspberry Heaven off and on since 2007. Magical Burst has been a greater source of frustration, but Raspberry Heaven has regularly left me with no idea how to proceed, to the point where I’ve basically made about four or five games under that name. That journey is finally complete with the release of a new version that comes as a set of 6″x6″ cards, available through DriveThruRPG (and an 8.5″x11″ PDF version too).
I was into Azumanga Daioh when it first came out as an anime in 2002. The manga was one of the very first I read in Japanese, with a Japanese-English dictionary and a kanji dictionary on hand, and I picked up a lot of vocabulary from it. At a time when anime, at least the anime that American fans were watching, was full of the most fantastical sci-fi and fantasy elements, Azumanga Daioh was a refreshingly everyday kind of funny. It seems to have started something of a trend, and I later got into the genre in a big way, with titles like Hidamari Sketch, A Channel, Uraban!, Suzunari, Sketchbook, Ichiroh, S.S. Astro, Yuru Yuri, etc. (Also the creator went on to do the really excellent Yotsuba&!, which in turn inspired Ben Lehman’s game Clover.)
I have a bunch of games cooking for my Patreon, enough so that some other things are tending to fall by the wayside. One that’s kind of fallen through the cracks is AnimeCon, a freeform game about going to an anime convention. I have a first draft completely done, but I have no idea when I’ll be able to actually give it the playtesting it needs, so I figured I’d go ahead and post it up for free.
In terms of game design, the major inspirations for AnimeCon are Remodel and Amidst Endless Quiet, and the rules it has exist to give a basic structure to what is otherwise freeform role-playing. It has a set of 6 role cards to quickly establish a cast of characters, and you essentially play through a series of scene prompts. It plays with some of the ideas I’ve been working on for Beyond Otaku Dreams, finding the humanity of anime fans at a con, but without the fantastic conceits. It would certainly be possible to rewrite it to deal with other fandoms, but as written it requires a reasonable knowledge of anime fandom.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how RPGs handle combat. It’s one of those things that people are weird about. People who enjoy entertainment without fighting on a regular basis and whose RPG campaigns include all sorts of other things nonetheless often seem to have trouble understanding how an RPG without combat would even be possible.
The traditional approach essentially makes combat into a highly detailed mini-game, often the single most complex portion of the game’s rules. As usual I’ll say that the traditional approach isn’t bad, just something that we need to examine critically, as it’s one valid approach among many. There’s a lot of variations of this general theme, but broadly speaking the major drawbacks of the traditional approach are:
It leans towards fights to the death being the default. Killing or incapacitating foes is often the most efficient way to do things in RPG combat systems. Some go as far as to penalize attempts to deal with foes in combat without killing them, and a whole lot of games find ways to gloss over all that killing as well. Character tend to cut off more story possibilities than they create. I won’t advocate for every character to be an immortal (though I think that’s a valid approach for some games), but fights to the death shouldn’t be the default quite so often.
It tends to make fights highly time-consuming. Some games do better than others, but by and large RPGs make fights just take a lot of time at the table. More than once I’ve had to cut a game session short because although we had some more time to hang out, we didn’t have an hour and a half to play out a battle.
It can detract from other parts of the game. There are a lot of things I like about D&D4e, and a lot of things I think RPG designers in general could stand to learn from. But there’s still the fact that it made it really easy to get sucked into the combat mini-game and not really role-play unless you went way out of your way to put effort into it. 4e has one of the more sophisticated and fun combat mini-games in an RPG, but it’s nowhere near alone in the tendency to take away from other parts of the game.
Rules and character options tend to be excessively concentrated around it. These two things dovetail into one another, because if combat is the most involved thing in the game, it’s also the thing that game designers can hang the most character traits off of. Since combat is so often life-and-death for the PCs, players naturally tend to make it a high priority since they want their characters to not die.
All of these are tendencies rather than ironclad consequences of course, and things that RPGs can do better at even without taking a radically different approach. D&D4e for example made the simple change of letting you incapacitate an enemy simply by declaring that you’re doing so when landing a final blow on an enemy, which makes it vastly easier to, say, spare a foe’s life to interrogate them later. Strike! removes so much of the busywork from combat that it takes 4e-style tactical combat and cuts them down to 20 or 30 minutes.
I’ve been playing JRPGs pretty intently of late (notably Final Fantasy X and Tales of Hearts R). The combat systems in those kinds of games are descended from D&D (with games like Wizardry! and Dragon Quest as intermediary steps), where you’re mainly using your attacks to wear down the enemy’s HP before they can do the same to you. However, the way the games use battles as part of the overall story can vary enormously. Usually when you deplete a monster’s HP it’s implied that you kill it, but named characters are a very different matter. Unless you’re close to the end of the game, in a JRPG a battle against a named human character will typically result in them being too beat down to fight, but almost never means they’re dead.
In general I find it interesting how JRPGs will establish a combat system and then use it in a variety of different ways to tell a story. Final Fantasy games and Tales games have some major differences in their styles of combat systems (Tales is real-time and makes considerable use of positioning), but they’re similar for how the game designers will determine the narrative purpose of a fight, using the design parameters of the enemy and the story elements before and after (and sometimes during) the battle to make it fit into the flow of the game’s story to a certain effect. They sometimes do this badly, slotting a contrived hoop to jump through where there at first seems to be a gameplay challenge. For the first few hours of Final Fantasy X there are almost no battles that work as normal battles for example; the game is constantly interrupting them to toss story stuff at you.
For a while I’ve been thinking about how to make an RPG in the style of JRPGs, and those games’ relationship with combat is one of the things that potentially makes it a tricky proposition. In the 90s there was a fan-made Final Fantasy RPG project that tried to duplicate the mechanics of the video games, and the result was something that I suspect only would’ve felt like a Final Fantasy game story-wise with a lot of extra work on the GM’s part. Tabletop RPGs don’t have or need “cutscenes,” and JRPG mechanics don’t have any way to address how to handle those kinds of events, because they come down to what the writers can write and the programmers can portray.
There have been some tabletop RPGs that take an unconventional approach to combat. Here are a few:
Combat in Apocalypse World has dramatically less of a distinction from other parts of gameplay. Certain aspects of the game are much more likely to come into play during a fight, but the game never stops being fundamentally about “the conversation.”
Taking it even further, games like Fiasco have very few rules at all, including where combat is concerned. Apart from the epilogue, the game doesn’t impose any consequences per se, and this can be very freeing. A player can have their own character die in the first scene, and then appear only in flashbacks for the rest of the game, something that would be next to impossible to arrange in a typical RPG.
Many games make no particular distinction between combat and other types of conflict. Polaris for example follows the same conflict resolution process regardless of the nature of the conflict. Dogs in the Vineyard has different levels of escalation that distinguish an argument from a gunfight, but the fundamental rules of conflicts stay the same.
In Golden Sky Stories, the subject matter and overall approach are non-violent. There might be an occasional scuffle (though I’ve never seen one when running the game), but GSS shows us that an RPG just plain doesn’t have to involve violence.
In Magical Fury, I cut combat down to a few quick die rolls and an evaluation that tells you what the consequences of the battle are. Although battles are a regular feature of gameplay, they take up very little time, and primarily serve as a means to determine what consequences arise from a fight.
World Wide Wrestling is based on professional wrestling, and that led it to a pretty unique take on how fights work out. The GM “books” each match, and decides on its outcome ahead of time. It’s possible for wrestlers to swerve a match to an unplanned outcome, but the real purpose of the matches is their place in the story and determining whether they make the crowd go wild or just fall flat.
Although I like all of these, I think for me the most interesting at the moment are the games that prioritize the consequences of a conflict. An awful lot of the various narrative forms of entertainment we experience deal with combat in those terms, I think because otherwise there’s usually not much point in including it. Even an impressively choreographed fight can be boring if it doesn’t lead much of anywhere, as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace demonstrated several times over, whereas a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road can get away with being one long, violent chase scene because the movie skillfully gives you reasons to care about how things turn out.
Anyway, all of this leads me to yet another RPG project. I started on a mini-RPG, called Zero Breakers: Battle School Chronicle. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make an RPG in the style of shounen fighting manga (stuff like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, etc.) for ages, and I was thinking about taking a stab at it as a Patreon mini-RPG. That in turn met with an idea for a game about students at a school for people with special powers, where school life is bent around epic battles that keep the students busy, inspired by Mikagura Gakuen Kumikyoku. Zero Breakers takes place at Narukami Gakuen, a school for Breakers. “Breakers” are people with a limited ability to bend reality around them, fueled by their passions and interests, and the school is one of several institutions that basically exist to keep them busy so they don’t destroy the world. Lots of fighting, in a setting where characters can have zany powers and fight with paintbrushes or staplers or whatever, and not the kind of thing where characters die. Even if you beat someone, chances are you’ll still see them in class the next day.
Although the outward trappings vary greatly, shounen fighting manga has a very distinct style, and one that I think runs against the grain of how tabletop RPGs typically work. My original “Zero Breakers” game (I decided to reuse the title) was going to be diceless, and battles would’ve essentially involved jockeying to bring your Power Level up higher than that of your opponent. It wound up being one of those drafts with some stuff that sounded neat on paper, but never gelled into a game. A friend of mine meanwhile literally went through about 40 different iterations of his own attempt at the genre without really getting anywhere. To me shounen manga battles have an air of inevitability about them. That was why I initially went for a diceless approach. A shounen RPG could have some kind of randomness, but I feel that the typical RPG approach with to-hit rolls is just flat-out wrong for the genre. There’s just no element of dumb luck in them, except maybe when “luck” is a very deliberate plot element.
But making a competitive, non-random combat system that’s still fun to engage and produces interesting stories may be a bit beyond me. Like a lot of the design problems I’ve run into, the solution seems to be to approach it from a totally different angle, creating rules that are situated orthogonally to the usual things RPG mechanics concern themselves with.
I’m still trying to work out how exactly I’m going to put Zero Breakers together, but my initial thinking is that it will be centered around playing cards to narrate stuff rather than playing with mechanics to see if you win. I’m debating taking an approach similar to World Wide Wrestling, where the default outcome is pre-determined, and you’re playing out the fight more to see its broader effects. (But I’m not sure how exactly that decision should be made if I do go that route.) In any case I’m thinking players will accumulate cards over the course of the setup by doing things that fit their character, and then do different things with the cards to trigger “moves” that let them narrate different kinds of things that show the overall thrust of the battle. Players on the sidelines have the option to do “side narration” (the Speedwagon role, to anyone who knows JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), playing a card now and then to enhance one side’s plays while narrating details about the fight in-character.
Anyway, that’s where I am with things right now. I’m a bit into the first draft of Zero Breakers, and generally liking how the whole thing is coming along.
Dragon World is a game I’ve been working on for a while now, and at this point one of my more polished games. It’s an Apocalypse World hack (or as the parlance came to be in the time since I started working on it, a Powered by the Apocalypse game) for comedic fantasy in the general style of anime series from the 90s like Slayers and Dragon Half.
This new version has important tweaks and revisions throughout, but not any huge changes. It also adds the Shiny Paladin class to round out an even dozen in the book, and the setting section has several new entries, including the Kickin’ Rad Skeletons, the Desert of Yunqarth (with the Ma’al of the Western Fields in there somewhere), and the Moon (home to a degenerate Lunarian civilization that at this point can only communicate through interpretive dance).
I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun with this game already, and I’m currently running a playtest campaign that I’m enjoying a lot. It’s high on my list of games to full-on publish before too long, though it will undoubtedly need some more tweaking first.