Saturday, April 28, 2012

Infinite Earths Overview: Roles

So far, we've been a little down--we've spent more time examining what we aren't, through rules we don't like, instead of examining what we are.  That changes today, as we start defining and previewing what we're on about, what makes us "unique and special."

Infinite Earths is an OGL-based gaming system designed to simplify and streamline the mathematics involved in gaming, while opening up new capabilities to players.  This is not a game to be played merely in dungeons, fighting monsters--this is a game designed to be played on the streets of cities and small towns, in musty tavern backrooms, in the courts of the kingdoms of men, and in the ruins of once-great civilizations.

To that end, we have divided the standard "classes" into a triune system, where you can customize your character by choosing not only three different roles, but the priorities you give to each of the roles.
  • Combat Role:  These are the roles of classic fighting styles--will you be a deft archer, a shadowy assassin, a stout fighter, or a mysterious spellcaster?  The combat role determines your overall durability in a fight and the techniques you can use to harm others.  We currently have eight defined combat roles in the system, each based on a separate and distinct fighting style.
  • Social Role:  These are the roles you take up when you are communicating with other people--would you be an easygoing charmer, a dainty courtier, a crowd-manipulating demagogue, or a crass trickster?  The social role determines who you are most skilled at communicating with, and provides options for every character to participate in social play.  We currently have fifteen defined social roles in the system.
  • Vocational Role:  These are the roles that define how you interact with the world and the world interacts with you--your "skillset," as it were.  From the hearty blacksmith to the clever thief to the greedy merchant to the wise sage, vocations define what you can to when you're not in direct conflict with someone else.  We currently have twenty-four defined vocational roles in the system.
Each of the three roles you decide upon (you get one from each) can be slotted into your Primary, Secondary and Tertiary role slots.  Each of these slots helps you define how powerful and focused you are in that particular role.

That means that, as of this writing, there are almost twenty-four billion combinations of roles that can help you define your overall "class."

"But," you might be saying to yourself, "wouldn't I be gimping myself if I didn't make my Combat Role my primary role?"

Excellent question!  And the answer is--not at all.  Because this game isn't just about crawling through dungeons, murdering their denizens and stealing their equipment for your own use.  This game is about convincing allies to help you, authorities to look the other way while you do your work, crafting powerful and dangerous equipment, sneaking past house guards so you can get to and unlock the secret treasure vault. . .and so much more!

Do you want to be a skillful character who's not particularly good at combat, but can still hold his own?  Do you want to be a combat jockey who can convince the local sheriff that protecting the town requires deploying the guards a certain way?  Do you want to be first and foremost a diplomat, only resorting to violence when talk has failed?

There is a place for all of these character types in Infinite Earths, and the rules--and the adventures, campaigns and supplements--that we produce will reflect that.  We aim to break the classic tabletop roleplaying cliches, and we hope you'll join us!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Infinite Earths Preview: Goodbye, Christmas Tree!

One of the changes we'll be making to standard d20 systems is the so-called "Christmas Tree;" the propensity for magic items, which are basically just "statistics enhancers," to accumulate on a character over time and boost the character's numbers.  What this eventually means is that, ultimately, the character that you created, that you are making the decisions for, that you are making your way through a story with. . .is not the hero of the story.  Her equipment is.

Games about numbers aren't about play; there is no "good playing" or "bad playing" or "skilled playing," because play is essentially about doing the math correctly.  As long as you've done your algebra and gotten the proper result, with the exception of a bad night of die-rolling you win.

Ultimately, this play becomes meaningless, because the math is either balanced (in which case rolls of the dice, not the actions of the players, are the ultimate arbiters of success), overbalanced (in which case, adversaries are designed to be defeated and there is little challenge to play no matter the numbers), or underbalanced (in which case, adversaries are mathematically superior and success against them is unlikely).

In all of these cases, if play is boiled down to the numbers, "play" is about finding numeric combinations unanticipated by the designers of the game.  In this kind of game, an Excel spreadsheet becomes the party's MVP, and something about that strikes us as fundamentally incorrect for a role-playing game.

So we're saying goodbye to the Christmas Tree, and making the design decisions you make for your character more vital to what you can do.  Magical equipment isn't the only culprit; feats and abilities designed solely to provide statistical increase are also problematic for the same reason.  They add no flavor, no interest. . .just a bigger number.  Just a little more math.

By removing the statistics-based gaming inherent in most d20 products, we open the door for more skillful gaming, because play becomes about what you do, and how clever you are, and it allows your actions to have actual consequences.

You become the hero.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Infinite Earths Preview: No Story on the Character Sheet

Today we're going to talk a little more about the ramifications of our approach to keeping setting and the rules separate.

GMs want to tell the stories they want to tell; and Players want to be the characters they want to be.  By keeping setting and ruleset separate, we can develop a ruleset that GMs can use no matter what setting they prefer to tell their stories in; they are not restricted, by the rules, to being in a world they don't care for.
Similarly, we want the players to be able to play the characters that interest them without running the risk of being told, "you're playing your character incorrectly."  The character sheet, to our minds, should contain the information required to numerically arbitrate contentious situations:  did you hit, or not?  Does the NPC agree with you, or not?  Have you accomplished what you set out to do, or did you fail to do so through some combination of circumstance and chance?
So we've gotten rid of, on the character sheet, all "story" information.  That includes such old standbys as alignment, social advantages and disadvantages, and the like.  By doing so, we tighten the character sheet so that it is merely a set of statistics, devoid of life or personality.
Well, you're saying to yourself.  That doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun.
But this approach is actually designed to ensure that players can play their characters as they see fit.  There is no danger of the GM saying, "I don't think your Lawful Good Paladin would behave that way."  That allows for flexibility on the part of the player.

This also enables character evolution.  A character who's locked into a certain set of personality traits at character creation often never grows or develops past them--and while this can (and has) been argued as a problem with the player, a problem with the GM, and a problem with the system, the fact of the matter is that it is, to a degree, a problem.  If all the adventures a character goes on do not change him or her in some way, then they have had no impact--no import.

And as developers of a system designed to aid in storytelling, we want every action a character takes to have importance, and to have consequences.

And that's where the GM fits in.  By not having story information on the character sheet, the GM is freed from having to arbitrate whether or not a player is playing his character correctly, and can instead focus on the story being told.  By focusing on the story, the GM can develop the actions and reactions of the NPCs around the actions of the players, and evolve the story through that interaction.

For example, let's say a character who is always portrayed as a nice guy, loving and caring and sweet, by the player is, once combat roles around, is a brutal fighter who takes every advantage and doesn't hesitate to murder whoever fights back.  No talking, no surrender.

That character might be perceived by NPCs as a loose cannon or a person who must be placated, because he's kind of a berserker.  Which, the NPCs may wonder, is the facade:  the smiling sweetheart, or the bloody monster?

The NPCs' reactions might then, in turn, invoke different kinds of roleplaying on the part of the character.  Perhaps, seeing fear in their eyes, the player decides that perhaps he's going too far, and reins in his bloodthirst.  Or perhaps, seeing that same fear, he decides he likes that effect, it makes him feel like he's getting things done more easily than with smiles and politeness, and pushes aside the nice-guy persona.

With character traits such as "nice guy" and "caring" or "neutral good" on the character sheet, the GM may feel he needs to step in and say, from a rules-perspective, that the character isn't really demonstrating those traits, thereby instructing the player how to play.  But without those on the character sheet, the player is free to make his own choices, and the GM can frame the story around those choices, ultimately making for a richer and more collaborative experience.

And that's what Infinite Earths is all about.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Infinite Earths Preview: Rules Independent of Setting

One of the biggest trends in game design is marrying a specific ruleset to a specific world, so that if you enjoy that ruleset and advertise that you play using that ruleset, people have an immediate understanding that you're playing in the world the ruleset is designed for.  Even rules that don't try to force that relationship usually can't escape some kind of intrinsic tie (like the names of deities, for example).

The danger of this approach, the way we saw it, is that it either reduces the rate of adoption for a ruleset or it makes adopting the rules extra work for the GM who would like to use them for a world other than the one they were designed for.  This was highlighted to us when conversing with several local GMs who like certain rulesets, but whose players had no interest in the worlds the rules were designed for.  Some of the GMs started working to modify the rules to fit with worlds of their own design (or even worlds built around other, different rules).  Others decided that even though they really liked the rules, they would never find players willing to try the (sometimes radical) game worlds, and gave up on the rules.

Our approach to developing the Infinite Earths rules is to divorce them from story, and from setting, entirely.  The rules must be free!  From all constraints, so that if you use one of our worlds, you can use the rules as written.  If you use one of yours, you can use the rules as written.  Or if you want to use someone else's world entirely--our goal is to make the rules as broadly useful as possible, while still providing the pinpoint adjudication that makes rules useful in the first place.

That said, our introductory ruleset will be classic western Fantasy, with expansion into a Space Opera ruleset later.  As we take many of our design cues from fiction, and not from classic game staples, we'll expand outward as we go.  Not with splat books or rules that pile on, but with rules designed to encapsulate that particular genre.