Tag Archives: Apocalypse World

Dragon World Hack 0.4

dw cover new

Dragon World is a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG for fantasy comedy adventures in the vein of classic anime like Slayers and Dragon Half. The game has been in the works for a while now, and we’re now gearing up to launch a Kickstarter some time in the next few months.

Dragon World Hack 0.4
Dragon World Playbooks

I had the idea for Dragon World when I finally got my hands on the Dragon Half manga. (Which BTW is finally getting an English language release from Seven Seas.) In anime there was a weird trend in the early to mid-1990s of making short direct-to-video adaptations of much longer manga, which in turn sometimes wound up being the only versions that made their way to the English-speaking world. Dragon Half started as a 7-volume manga (later re-released in a 3-volume “omnibus” edition, which the English version is based on), which could’ve worked nicely as a full 26-episode TV series. Instead it got a mere two OAV episodes, and plans to do two more episodes got scrapped. The Dragon Half OAVs had a little bit of a cult following in the early anime scene, and I devoured the manga once I got my hands on it. It shows its age and anime-ness with a lot of fanservice (our heroine pretty much only wears a metal bikini), but the zany humor, flagrantly ridiculous take on the fantasy genre, and Ryusuke Mita’s energetic art make it worth your time.

That wasn’t too long after I’d discovered Apocalypse World, and as I made my way through the manga, I kept seeing it in terms of different AW-style moves and their outcomes. This was before the term “Powered by the Apocalypse” came about and while it was still the thing to have those “AW hacks” end with “World,” so “Dragon World” was born. A certain portion of anime and manga, especially from the 90s, used “dragon” in titles to essentially signify “fantasy,” probably a result of Dragon Quest being so massively popular and influential, plus it was a tongue-in-cheek nod to Dungeon World. (And I did talk Jonathan Walton into making a game called “& World.”) From there I watched a ton of Slayers (probably the single most popular comedy fantasy anime), and a bunch of others, giving me a wider palette of ideas to draw on. Dragon World most blatantly shows its influences in the selection of classes, ranging from the likes of the Explosive Mage and Dumb Fighter (which have Lina and Gourry from Slayers at their core) to the Angsty Shadow Warrior (for whom Dororo from Sgt. Frog was an inspiration, but also a bunch of fantasy tropes) to the Shiny Paladin and Ruthless Warlord (who come from silly takes on D&D classes). One of my favorites is the Chosen Visitor, which is a Japanese teenager sent to this fantasy world and given weird powers, echoing shows like Magic Knight Rayearth and El Hazard.

This is the fourth version of Dragon World that I’ve shared with the world, and it’s generally been through a lot of revisions as I did a bunch of playtesting and figured out what did and didn’t work, and thought of new stuff to add. The game started considerably closer to Apocalypse World, but I dropped things like highlighting stats and marking experience. On the other hand (although I refined it a bit), the concept of replacing Harm with “falling down” remained a core part of the game from the start. I changed the selection of classes a little, adding the likes of the Ruthless Warlord and changing the Useless Bard into the Foolhardy Bard (which was how people had been playing the Useless Bard for the most part anyway).

It’s not in the Hack, but the final commercial version is going to have a setting chapter for the land of Easteros. (Not the only Game of Thrones reference in there, but there’s copious anime nonsense regardless.) It was generally an opportunity to put together a bunch of toys and plot hooks, plus some dumb humor (like a pun-laden list of 100 slime names).

In any case, I’m looking forward to finally bringing this game fully to fruition in a nice book with actual artwork, and possibly putting together some supplements and alternate settings. I’m also planning a Creative Commons release, in the hopes that (not unlike with Dungeon World, though presumably in much lower quantities) people will take the opportunity to design and publish their own Dungeon World weirdness.

 

More On Pix

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.

CatkdpeW8AEw4bl.png_large
A placeholder cover thing.

Hybridization
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.

Continue reading More On Pix

Pix

The other day I finished playing Undertale. If you’re not familiar, it’s a pretty incredible PC game that’s… hard to properly explain without spoilers. The trailer calls it “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die.” It takes place in a world where, following a war between humans and monsters, the monsters were sealed underground. You play a human child who finds themselves in the lands of the monsters, trying to find their way. You wind up in a lot of fights, but you have the option to  try to deal with them in a peaceful way (though it’s not always easy). It has a pretty distinctively quirky style to it. In some ways it reminds me of Homestuck, but then the creator of Undertale also composed music for Homestuck.

Undertale definitely seems to have struck a chord, and is a huge success in terms of both raw sales and inspiring tons of fanart and cosplay. I think that like Homestuck it speaks to subcultures and experiences that pop culture doesn’t really cover, but where Homestuck is a sprawling work of incredible scale (the creator once mentioned that if they do in fact put the whole thing out in book form it’ll be something like 40 volumes), Undertale is a relatively short experience, though certainly a memorable one. It has a lot to say about violence in video games (not unlike how The Stanley Parable is a commentary on choice and plot in video games), some interesting worldbuilding, and lots of charming and memorable characters.

Very much like how Madoka Magica helped crystallize what I wanted to do in a dark magical girl RPG and paved the way for Magical Burst, Undertale helped bring a vague soup of ideas together into the idea for a game that I’m tentatively calling “Pix.” (Or that may just be the name of the setting if I can come up with a better name for the game itself.) I’ve been wanting to do something with the inspirations that titles like Homestuck, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Cucumber Quest have been putting in front of me for several years now, and Undertale was what led me to the spark of an idea. Just as Magical Burst isn’t quite a Madoka RPG, Pix isn’t going to be an Undertale RPG per se, but its own animal, albeit with a healthy dose of Undertale inspiration.

Pix is the name of the land where the game takes place. The inhabitants are a little vague on the details, but its origins involve a tormented child finding escape in a video game, until her tormentor comes into the game world, and then some kind of cataclysm happens. Pix is a fragile mishmash of different kinds of reality, tethered to the human world by the Rainbow Spire. It has definite aspects of video games in its basic reality, but it’s rather like what happens with the NPCs when the player’s character isn’t around. The inhabitants of Pix try to live peaceful lives and help each other, partly because they know they need to in order to survive. They do receive information and artifacts from the human world, so they tend to get a bit fixated on pop culture. The aim of the game is to foster weird but gentle stories with a touch of pathos and (nonviolent) adventure.

So far the game is looking to be sort of a hybrid of Golden Sky Stories and Apocalypse World, with the twist that PCs are made by combining a Type (the general sort of creature they are) and a Job (what they do). This is kind of like what I was thinking of doing for the possible Adventure Time-inspired GSS setting, though I’m planning to change the basic structure a little more, and have AW-style stuff for naming and describing characters. I haven’t gotten too far into writing up the Jobs and Types (because I need to nail down more of what mechanics there are for Powers and Weaknesses to play with), but I do like how (for example) the Nerd job (which can variously be a super-scientist or just a huge dork) has a “Shipping” power that helps other people become friends.

Although I’ve now created two setting hacks for GSS, I haven’t done all that much tinkering with the actual engine before. Pix thusfar sticks fairly closely to GSS on several points, but parts ways in many others, and I’m trying to simplify certain parts (like connections). On the other hand I want to try for something kind of like Undertale’s Act commands, giving some degree of mechanical support for coaxing and befriending creatures you encounter.

I don’t start a project with a big manifesto in mind, but while Pix started with a burst of random inspiration, I think I want it first and foremost to be a heartwarming game that says “you belong.” The PCs are going to mostly be good-natured weirdos who are kind of broken inside, but need each other. Even when they’re lizards or sentient patches of fire, they’re people with their own feelings, hopes, and value.

Anyway, I have way, way more than enough stuff to take care of just now, but I wanted to do a bit of a brain-dump on this, since I’m finding it so exciting.

Dragon World Hack 0.3

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.

Dragon World Hack 0.3
Dragon World Playbooks

Slime Story (Now Powered by the Apocalypse)

RitaI had the idea for Slime Story around 2006, while I was playing Maple Story (which, somehow, is still running, so it’s had a lifespan that’s virtually unheard of in free-to-play games). It’s a Korean-made MMO/sidescroller hybrid, and thanks to spending a couple dollars on cosmetic equipment I had a girl walking around in a pleated skirt and raglan shirt, whacking monsters with a spiked club thing while listening to music on her headphones. That image became Rita (pictured to the right), who in turn became kind of a signature character for the setting. She’s an archetypal Slime Story monster hunter, and she has a popular video blog about monster hunting.

The setting is a world like ours, except that 10 years ago one-way portals opened up all over the world, dropping these MMO-like monsters into the world. It turned out that certain pieces of these monsters were useful for various purposes, from weapons to obscure industrial uses to healing potions. In many places the portals became the property of corporations or warlords, but in other places subcultures of monster hunters have popped up. In small-town America, monster hunters are mostly teenagers looking for spending money or just something to do. A company called Monster Mart has dominated the business side of monster hunting, and is the easiest place to do trade-ins and buy monster hunting gear.

It took a while for it to come together, but the first full Slime Story RPG I wrote had a manuscript of some 47,000 words. It more or less worked, but it wasn’t ever quite right, and I didn’t know how to fix it. As soon as I entertained the idea of making it as a Powered by the Apocalypse game, it started to fall into place. The first thing that really made it for me was the idea of dividing fights into mobs and raids, and handling mobs with a few quick die rolls–the “fight mobs” move. The previous game had fairly detailed combat for every single fight, whether against a dangerous dragon or mopping up slimes, and the whole concept of “summarizing” some fights is I think something I’m going to be playing with a lot in the future. It’s winding up owing a lot to Monsterhearts, but then my game is about teen drama too, albeit with a bit more of a Kevin Smith vibe, or maybe Rainbow Rowell if you prefer. Where Dragon World has a lot of my usual verbosity, so far Slime Story has a lot more of the economical writing style of Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, which I think fits.

Monster Geeks

The big thing I realized is that deep down Slime Story is going to be a commentary on how geeks socialize. Recent events in gaming have certainly been food for thought in that respect, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the contrast between what people are saying on the surface and what lies beneath. A lot of the harassment and such we’re seeing happening seems to be rooted in a fear of marginalization, for example. Which isn’t to say that geeky relationships are always bad–far from it. It’s also about friendships formed through common interests, I think. It fits into the “being human together” thing I’ve been talking about to the point where I added “Be human together” to the list of Agendas.

The setting presents monster hunting as a hobby scene and a fandom. That creates kind of a terrarium where we can look at an artificial model of a fandom, and play around with it at the distance that creating fiction allows. How that’s going to play into the actual game is something I need to think about more, but in the setting I’ve built up monster hunting has its own weird little subculture. There’s stuff like a nerdcore rap artist called who does monster hunting songs, a documentary about hunting a dragon in New England, a middling MMO based on monster hunting that’s influenced the terminology of the hobby scene, and MonsterCon, a yearly con held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It has its perennial issues (especially when it comes to their weird relationship with regular game hunting and firearms) and identity politics and so on. But being a physical activity mostly available in small towns (in cities portals tend to fall under the purview of companies or the authorities), it can develop more distinctly on a local level, like some kind of larp community stretching across the daily lives of a town.

Characters

Putting together character options is proving to be a really interesting exercise, since it’s a setting that cleaves a lot closer to reality that what I’m used to dealing with, and involves thinking about how people are in real life, trying to distill things down without resorting to caricature. That’s how I’ve ended up with things like the Geek’s “Looks” section turning out like this:

  • Nerdy T-shirt, worn T-shirt, or swag T-shirt
  • Overweight, scrawny, or average
  • Thick glasses, no glasses, or stylish glasses

One thing I’ve had to do is rethink the selection of cliques. I decided to keep the concept of characters having a clique and a class from the old version of the game (though it’s required some tweaks to make it work in the PbtA framework). Your class is how you fight monsters, whether with a sword (fighter), a bow and arrows (ranger), with cunning ambushes (ninja), etc., while your clique is how you function socially. Cliques were originally a set of stereotypes (Average, Geek, Jock, Popular, Punk, Weirdo), but I felt the game needed the cliques to reflect who a character is rather than the label being attached to them. A person who identifies as a “punk” could act like the queen bee, a “jock” could be a stereotypical bully, but could equally be really nice, or just really focused on self-perfection. (This also helps avoid having clique stuff overlap too much with class stuff.) The compactness of the playbook type format also makes it easier to make more of them, and it’s easier to keep from setting myself the task of squeezing out an inordinately long list of Talents for each splat.

For the time being I’ve settled on 8 classes and 8 cliques, just enough to cover some basics and fit in a couple oddballs in each category. While the cliques include the Geek and the Rebel, they also include the Touched, which is someone who’s started to commune with the slimes. This came straight from a Slime Story novel I want to write some day (“Slime Story: The Song of Michael”), and it generally plays into how the word “slime” being in the title is in fact really significant. The selection of classes meanwhile kept the ones in the old version of the game, but add the Mastermind (basically a leader/warlord type class) and the Tank (which is indeed a tank/defender).

Anyway, that’s about where I am with it right now. I’ve got my copies of Apocalypse World and the pocket Pokedex book on my desk to look to for ideas.

Progress Sort Of

I wanted to take some time to write a bit about what I’ve been up to, admittedly in part just to not have that D&D post at the top of my blog. I’d rather think about making and playing cool stuff myself than worry about what’s going on elsewhere, and I have a heck of a lot of cool stuff going on. On the other hand I’ve had some writer’s block and had a hard time getting serious writing done, which is probably a lot to do with why I keep getting ideas for more random projects.

Magical Burst
I’m just about ready to wrap up my first playtest campaign of the 4th Draft. It’s exposed a huge number of issues with the game, and Versions 4.1 is going to take a good amount of work on various fronts. Right now I’m right about to where I need to step back from the project and mull over all the feedback I’ve gotten and my experiences with the playtest. One key thing I’m definitely writing into the GM advice is to let the magical girls have some semblance of normal lives, because that’s where a lot of the tension and drama of the game come from.

Golden Sky Stories Stuff
Apart from stuff like taking care of the few remaining packages that went missing or got returned, the major thing left to do with GSS is finish up the remaining original material. I was able to knock another thing off the to-do list when I found an artist for Faerie Skies, namely Clove, who among other things did the cover and some other art for Inverse World. He sent me the first of his sketches for Ellisandra the elf, and I am ridiculously happy with the results so far.

Dragon World
For some reason I got inspired to look at Dragon World again. This led to spending an evening reading through the 25k or so words I’d already written, and brainstorming more classes. Among others, I’m working on one called the Digital Invader, which is an MMORPG character being mysteriously projected into the fantasy world. I’m also making some minor tweaks to the rules here and there. It’s going to need more playtesting of course, but it’s looking really good, which I guess shows the advantages of building off of an existing system rather than trying to build one from scratch. Also, using this as an excuse to start watching the 52 episodes of Slayers I haven’t seen. I kind of want to Kickstart it, both to get it out into the world and to have the excuse to see what classes and such my various gaming friends and colleagues could come up with. (Ben Lehman already floated the idea of doing either a maid class or something based on Ryuuko from Kill La Kill.) Also possibly custom dice, though of course I’m getting way ahead of myself.

That also has me inspired to look at what else has been going on in the way of PbtA games. Since I already backed the Kickstarter I finally started reading Inverse World, which turns out to be pretty fantastic, particularly in how it evokes the setting. Likewise there have been some really great new third party Dungeon World playbooks like the Princess and the Dashing Hero. Although core Dungeon World seems really good at what it does, some of the third party stuff seems just spectacular, especially for the stuff where they weren’t beholden to D&D cliches. (And that’s before we talk about Monsterhearts, which is just astonishingly good.)

Slime Story
Looking at all this Apocalypse World-based stuff led me to think about the possibility of reworking Slime Story as a Powered by the Apocalypse game. Slime Story is a concept I came up with literally about 8 years ago, a present-day setting where mysterious magical portals have appeared and started dumping cute monsters like something out of a Korean MMO into the world, and while in many places they’re under the control of warlords or corporations, in suburban America a subculture of teenage monster hunters has arisen. The “Slime Engine” system that I’d been struggling to put together may eventually turn into a good base for Slime Quest (my anime/JRPG-influenced fantasy heartbreaker), but the more I think about it the more it seems a poor fit for Slime Story’s weird mishmash of monster hunting and teenage slice of life. Among other things, it definitely calls for a system where many monster fights are routine and come down to a few quick die rolls.

i.hate.everyone
I got inspired to finish and publish i.hate.bronies, the MLP-themed expansion to i.h.e, and further to do a prototype of i.hate.gimmicks, an experimental expansion with a bunch of stuff to try out new mechanics (which I’ll have to do some actual playtesting on). I also got inspired to do a Game of Thrones expansion. I was going to call it i.hate.thrones, but I realized that i.hate.joffrey might be a better name. It’s coming along slowly though.

Sharkicane vs. Dolphoon
Not an RPG thing, but after watching the RiffTrax Live of Sharknado I got inspired to write this incredibly weird story. The sharks are using dark magic to summon up the Sharkicane, and the dolphins may be our only hope. Also, I realized that the reason the people are being so slow and dumb when they should be evacuating right away is because the sharks’ sorcery has dulled their wits.

Beyond Otaku Dreams
And for an added bonus, reading Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master (in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master) got me thinking about Beyond Otaku Dreams. It’s a game I really want to make happen, as it’s based on personal experiences far more than any other game I’ve done. SWM has this intriguing thing where you roll to set the mood as either Jovial or Glum (with passing the dice around the table being an important part of how you play the game), which put me in mind of how Beyond Otaku Dreams is about a collision of Hope and Delusion. It’s incredibly tricky to figure out, since it needs to be a simple but carefully-made mechanism for group storytelling, and it generally gives me a feeling of trying to build a castle in the air.

Dragon World Hack v0.2

I’ve posted about it a good amount already, but Dragon World is my 90s comedy fantasy anime hack for Apocalypse World, a very silly fantasy game. Dragon Half and Slayers are major inspirations, but just about every fantasy anime I’ve ever seen figures into it a bit, along with Discworld and the sillier parts of every D&D campaign I’ve ever been in.

This is the “Hack” version of the game, so to play you’ll need to have a copy of Apocalypse World, or at least a good knowledge of how AW works.

Here are the major changes I’ve made from the previous version:

  1. Leveling Up: I replaced marking experience with leveling up, which characters can simply do once per session between scenes.
  2. Guts Points: PCs now have Guts points that they can spend to avoid Falling Down (or to affect die rolls), but every time they do they have to make a roll to avoid having a Stress Explosion.
  3. Wealth: The group shares a special Wealth stat that can fluctuate up or down, and which they get to roll on when they buy stuff.
  4. Story Threads: Instead of connections/History, PCs now have Story Threads, which encompass other PCs as well as other story elements. These don’t have mechanical significance, but they do create relationships and story hooks.
  5. Setting Ideas: I filled out my initial section of NPC and setting ideas.

Dragon World Hack 0.2 PDF
Dragon World Reference & Class Sheets PDF

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.

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.