Saturday, June 30, 2012

Infinite Earths Overview: On Buffing and Debuffing

So last week, we gave you a kind of short post.  Let's make up for it this week, by talking about buffs and debuffs in the Infinite Earths roleplaying game system.

There are a lot of different ways to buff yourself in a lot of different systems.  Some systems use magic, providing a complex series of buffs with different modifiers to stats, some of which overlap and some of which don't, in a dizzying array designed to reward the most dedicated of players, the ones who can work their way through the dense language and find combinations so obscure it almost seems as if the designers couldn't possibly have intended them to work.

Other systems make it relatively easy to buff yourself, either by eliminating buffs wholesale or making buffs some kind of specific card or token that you get at the beginning of an encounter and maintain throughout combat.  Alternatively, some systems allow only a single buff on a character at a time.

Our goal was to find a method that would allow characters to buff and debuff simply, without a lot of arcane hoops to jump through, while still providing engaging gameplay and tactical use of buffing and debuffing.  We didn't want a system where characters buff up and then kill the bad guy--that's what World of Warcraft is for, and it's great at that.  Nor did we want a system where buffs were determined solely by a GM or were static throughout a combat.  We were not, however, opposed to limiting characters to a single active buff or debuff at a time.  The trick was, how do we create that limit (to reduce complexity) while still making buffing tactical and fun?

The solution was presented by Ray way back in January or February.  He proposed that rather than having a limited number of "buff slots," we could instead provide each class with a "Bolster."  The Bolster for each class would provide a different effect, and "buffing" would boil down to Bolstering the other characters in your party (or yourself).  This would ensure that buffs were always useful to your character.  Sarah then proposed a counter-mechanic, called a "Hinder," that could remove a Bolster from a character or, if the character was not Bolstered, would apply a negative condition to that character specifically tailored to that class.  And, for a while, we were set.

But there were problems with this mechanic.  Foremost, it was still a "buff at the beginning of combat and keep it on" mechanic, and second it would turn very quickly into a battle of vetoes.  I Bolster, my enemy Hinders me, we're back at square one with the buffs/debuffs having ultimately proven meaningless.  There had to be another way.

We then experimented, starting back in April, with the Bolster providing one reroll per encounter.  We didn't even think about having Bolsters or Hinders providing bonuses or penalties to rolls; we don't like that much math.  We very quickly changed the mechanic from "reroll, taking the second roll" to "roll twice and take the higher die," because we felt that the reroll didn't feel awesome and fun enough.

You might recognize that mechanic.  We did, too, when the playtest materials were released.  We were pleased to see it was a sound enough mechanic that the granddaddy of all roleplaying games was also flirting with it.  A little frustrated, admittedly, because it steals a little of our thunder, but that's all right.  We have more thunder.

The problem we kept coming up with, though, was the constant vetoing.  So then it hit us:  Bolsters and Hinders should be conditional, based on specific talented mechanics, to represent skills and abilities the characters have developed especially well compared to other people.

What this means is that characters are able to Bolster themselves through talents they take, and the Bolster is consumed by the action that benefits from it.  Here's an example:

Weapon Master (Bolster Talent)
You slash across your opponent.  He flinches behind his shield but, after a few heartbeats, he realizes that he still lives and grins at you.  "Is that all you've guh. . ." His self-satisfied smirk disappears behind a gush of blood as the new smile you gave him opens.
Roles: Combat Only
Mechanic: Select a single type of weapon (hammer, axe, sword).  When wielding a weapon of that type, you may Bolster an attack roll with that weapon once per encounter.  You gain additional Bolsters with this weapon type at levels 5, 10, 15 and 20.

Bolsters can be activated with a Swift Action, and are consumed as part of a Major or Minor Action.  You can apply Bolsters to yourself by purchasing conditional talents such as the one above.  Additionally, the Social Role can Bolster the entire group.  Bolsters provided by other characters are non-conditional--that is to say, they can be used on any d20 roll, including attacks, saves and skills.  The player always decides when to use any Bolster he has.

This allows players to take more control over their buffs, and allows them to use those buffs tactically, in the midst of combat, in a way where they are not buffed all the time and they are not debuffed all the time, but still have viable ability-boosters.

Hinders work much the same way, but they provide a "roll twice and take the lower die" mechanic.  Additionally, the player does not decide when to use any Hinder he has--the character that applied the Hinder decides when the Hinder is used.  That allows players to control, again tactically and in the midst of combat, how to debuff their enemies.  Hinders are non-conditional--they can be used on any d20 roll that is performed by the Hindered character during the combat encounter.

"Ho-hum, that sounds boring," you might be thinking to yourself.  We thought that to ourselves, too, that it might become boring.  So we came up with another way to make things exciting.  Have a taste:

Overcomplicate Matters (Hinder Talent)
You act quickly once you see the telltale signs of the spellcaster twitching his hands.  You can tell this is going to be a big spell, something really nasty.  You reach out your hands and start twitching them wildly, hoping to catch the spellcaster's attention--and you do!  You see him watching your hands, trying to figure out what you're doing, and you can tell he doesn't even realize he's mimicking your motions in the midst of his spell.  You grin as he tries to launch the spell and instead collapses into an exhausted heap. 
Roles: Combat Only
Mechanic:  Hinders that you apply to spellcasters may be invoked to cause a spellcaster's spell to require twice the mana it normally would.  This cost is paid immediately by the spellcaster.  If the spellcaster does not have enough mana to cast the spell at its new price, the mana is lost and the spell fizzles.  If the spellcaster is also a blood caster, the spellcaster must exchange morale for mana at the standard rate in order to attempt to cast the spell.

As you can see, you're not limited to just double-rolls, if you don't want to be so limited.  You can talent yourself into a horrifying debuff machine if you like.  Or you can largely ignore the mechanic entirely, your choice.

I hope this big post makes up for last week's skimpy one!  Have a great Fourth of July holiday, and make sure to stay safe and out of the heat!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Infinite Earths Overview: Roleplaying and Flavor Text

Good morning once again!

Today I'm going to talk about something I'm particularly proud of in Infinite Earths, and that's our flavor text and roleplaying sections.  You got a bit of a taste of our flavor text a couple of weeks ago, in the write-ups for the teamwork advantages.  We're working hard to pepper the whole book with similar flavor text, small little vignettes that give you a taste of the coolness of people who have certain talents, abilities, advantages and the like.

In fact, while writing up our Combat Tactics chapter this week, we decided to frame the Social Tactics and Combat Tactics chapters' opening stories as a debate between Sage Aryon, a diplomat and courtier, and Master Tyroshi, a warrior and master swordsman.  Both gentlemen have very different takes on the power of their particular professions and those of each other, and I'm looking forward to sharing some of that with you.

Part of the reason we're remaining focused on flavor text is because we won't be including any setting information in the core rulebook.  Without that, the rules can seem to exist almost in a void--a dead, storyless void with nothing interesting to bring them to life.  So this is our part in attempting to bring the rules to life.

We're also including a fair amount of "roleplaying" sections within the core rulebook, to help players and GMs get a feel for ways in which they can play their characters.  We've completed the roleplaying section in the Attributes chapter--there will be further sections in Combat, Social and Vocational Roles, Social Tactics, and Combat Tactics.  In addition to a Character Creation chapter entirely dedicated to story and characterization, with no game rules whatsoever within it, we feel this works well to highlight our passion for engaging roleplay.

That's all we've got for now--a short post thanks to a busy week.  See you next time!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Taking Advantage of Being People

Hello and good morning on this fine Free RPG Day!  If you're not already planning on it, we encourage you to travel to your Friendly Local Game Store and enjoy some of the events they've probably got planned for today--no doubt there are Pathfinder and D&D 4E games galore, and in some stores perhaps even some other RPGs will be available.

Today I'll be brief, not really providing specific insight into Infinite Earths but rather talking about something that we've been keeping in our minds as we develop the system.  Specifically, I'm talking about the fact that we're people playing a game with other people--no computers involved, limited only by the boundaries of our own imaginations.

Now, I love a little Skyrim or Diablo III as much as the next guy. . .but throughout those entire games, you're playing the same way.  You're a sturdy adventurer delving into monster-filled places and slaughtering them, trekking back to town to sell your loot and/or craft more, then heading back out into the field.  It's very fun, but it's ultimately very limited compared to the infinite options available to players when playing tabletop games.

And yet.

And yet when we play tabletop games, so often our games become. . .go into this place, kill everything that fights us inside, gather loot, now head back into town to sell the loot.  What madness is this?!?

Yes, that's fun, but don't we have video games to do that kind of playing for us?  Granted, the hobby predates video games like what we have now, but now that we do. . .shouldn't we strive for something unique in our tabletop experiences?

To our minds, the true advantage of tabletop roleplaying over RPG video games is that, at the table, a human being filled with cleverness and personality has taken the place of the computer.  And that changes the possibilities of the game, makes it such that the game can be shifted in direction and focus at the whims of the players and the GM, working together collaboratively, leveraging their creativity, and adapting their entertainment in ways computers just can't do yet.

And one of the core ways that's possible is by changing the nature of the game.  When you're an adventurer in your teens, and you have spells that allow you to routinely have a chat with the gods, or can step across entire continents with a word and a bit of powder, or can slay entire armies with a few swings of your sword--why are you still going into the dungeon to murder green people?

It doesn't make a lot of sense to us.  People, when they accumulate power, accumulate also people who flock to them--either to try and take advantage of that power, or to benefit from it.  Such people build allegiances, they build organizations, they build strongholds.  This was evident in systems such as D&D and AD&D, when the rules explicitly stated that by the time you were in the double-digit levels, you were probably lords in your own right.

In modern games and game systems, that seems to have disappeared.  We kind of wish it hadn't, because that was kind of cool.

So what we're trying to do is build a ruleset where, if you want to go dungeon-delving from levels 1-20, you're welcome to do so.  The power imbalance of the teens, the sheer insanity of spells and abilities increasing exponentially in power from one level to the next, is gone.  The power curve is much steadier now, and we like that.

But we're also going to include rules for developing your own organizations, building your own strongholds, and becoming powers in your own right.  Not so much that doing so will become the focus of the game (such as it tends to be in games like Reign or Adventurer Conqueror King), but so that--should you and/or your players want--they will be available as options to help you expands your play beyond the dungeon.

We hope it's a good idea.  As has become our mantra around here as we prepare the Infinite Earths rulebook, "We're gonna have to playtest that." 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Infinite Earths Overview: Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork!

Hey howdy all!

Our preparations for beginning full playtesting proceed apace, and today I'd like to talk about the subject of teamwork.  Often, in roleplaying situations, we have found players who are interested or eager in screwing over the rest of the party (or some specific member of it) in some way.  In fact, some games and adventures are specifically structured by their authors to encourage back-biting, secret-keeping, purse-stealing and even Player vs. Player combat.

We hate that.

Boom, there, right out in the open, some of you may have been expecting us to feel as much by reading our previous posts, some of you may already be reaching for the close button on your browser.

Our feeling on "competing" roleplay is that it is very brutal, very me me me-focused.  And for that sort of play, there are many of fantastic options on both the tabletop market and the video game market to allow players to scratch that itch.  And, ultimately, if people want to be nasty to each other. . .well, history shows we've found a nigh infinite number of ways to do it without encouragement, so why, as game designers, would we encourage it?

That's why characters in the Infinite Earths system will be created in the open, with the GM and other players present.  The structure of character creation will be to bounce ideas across the table, to the other players and to the GM and back, in order to create a party that feels both custom-crafted for the adventure(s) they will be facing, and to ensure that there are character "hooks" between each character and into the setting.  The character creation chapter of Infinite Earths is the first chapter, and in a departure from traditional game design, there is no numeric or system-specific information within it.

The point is that you are creating people, people you would like to be for a time, not batches of statistical information.

Now, does this mean that you can openly create people who are competitive with each other and don't like each other, and who will be constantly trying to get one over on the other members of the party?  Oh, yes.  So we're introducing the Adventuring Party mechanic.

Some of you may be familiar with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which has a mechanic in which the adventuring party itself is a kind of character, and provides benefits/detriments based on how well the party is getting along.  The design of that strikes us as being innately competitive, in that the push is toward non-cooperation, and the subtraction of abilities and powers should the party be successful non-cooperative.

Our mechanic is a little different, in keeping with a philosophy of rewarding good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior.  There are several different adventuring styles the party can choose from during character creation.  These adventuring styles represent the theme of the party, what they are and what they hope to accomplish.  Here's what we have so far:
  • Defenders of the Realm:  the party is tied to a specific town, city or nation, and are working to protect it and its people from the forces of evil
  • Wandering Heroes:  the party are all great heroes, defeating evil wherever they see it, and travel the world seeking adventure
  • Mercenaries:  the party doesn't lift a finger unless it's paid, half up-front
  • Fortune Hunters:  the party seeks the accumulation of wealth and power and accolades, and will be diligent in ensuring that their cost-benefit ratio remains high
  • Chance Companions:  some fortuitous (or not-so-fortuitous) event has drawn the party together, and they must try to deal with it
  • Seekers of Secrets:  knowledge, and nothing else, is more powerful to this party, and they will place themselves at risk to acquire it
That feels like very few, and it is--we can't think of everything!  That's why we're actually going to be including how to design your own adventuring party structure and benefits within the core rules.

The Adventuring Party mechanic is designed to encourage the players to stick together and work cooperatively.  We've all seen that player that wants to go off to the bar and hang out while the rest of the party does all the hard work.  In that kind of situation, the party loses the benefits of being a party, because they're not collaborating.  But if, for instance, the party is sending their Infiltrator ahead to scout a location so their Tactician can come up with a plan of assault. . .in that case, the party would still be gaining their Adventuring Party benefits, because they are working together even though they are apart.

And what kind of benefits are we talking about?  Here's a couple of examples (now with flavor text!):
Shadow Training
You check over your companions. Their steel is blacked, their buckles cinched tight, and even the fat one is bouncing on the balls of his feet. Not lightly, but it will do. You gesture for them to move, and they begin to creep along through the darkness. In this old wooden manor, they could be easily mistaken for the creaking of ancient timbers.
Prerequisites: Mercenaries Adventuring Party, Stealth autoskill on 1+ party members
Mechanics: The character in the party with the highest ranks in Stealth may make a single check for the entire party, with a -2 to the roll for each additional member of the party present other than himself.

Finder of Lost Places
You study the map, looking across entire leagues at a glance. In your mind, you overlay the ancient trade routes, the patterns of old rivers on the landscape. The weapon you seek would have traveled on the road long-buried there, on its path to the lost capital, recently rediscovered in the forest here. Since it never finished its journey, but was seen in the village here, it would have to be. . . “Here,” you say with authority, your finger dimpling the parchment around an unassuming patch of sparse woodland. “It is here.”
Prerequisites: Fortune Hunters or Seekers of Secrets Adventuring Party, Knowledge (World) and Knowledge (History) on 1+ party members
Mechanics: When seeking specific artifacts, the character in the party with the highest ranks of Knowledge (World) may make a check against DC 25. If successful, the location of the item is successfully identified. If unsuccessful, the character knows that he cannot correctly identify its location but will identify a location where he can find out more information.
Both of these are what we call "plot-benefit" advantages:  the first allows the players to control their ability to Stealth much more prominently, thereby keeping the party together when approaching potential danger.  The second allows the players to control not only how quickly they can get to a certain point in the plot, but allows them to direct the plot to either "where they can get more information" or "what they're looking for specifically."

The Adventuring Party mechanic will also not force "lock-in" on the part of the players.  Let's say they begin as "Defenders of the Realm" and, during the course of a campaign, realize that they hate their realm and don't want to defend it (perhaps their king turns out to be evil).  One, that should be a big deal as far as the story of the campaign is concerned, and should be woven into the storyline.  Second--okay, you switch.  No mechanical penalties for that.  The switch, though, has to be unanimously decided by the party.  Fundamentally changing who you are and what you'll be known for isn't the sort of thing that passes lightly when truly roleplaying--and we do so want to encourage roleplay.

This Tuesday night,  June 12th at 7:00 pm Eastern our lead game designer, Bryan Shipp, will be hosting a discussion on Consequences in Gaming for Raleigh Tabletop Roleplayers at Mimi's Cafe in Cary, NC.  If you're in the area and interested in checking it out, stop by!  And as always, if you have any comments for us please feel free to leave them in the comments section.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Infinite Earths Overview: Attributes

Hello once again!  Let me begin by thanking everyone who came out to see me last night at the Raleigh Tabletop Roleplayers Casual Meet, and thanks to the RTR Organizers for allowing me to present our (still unfinished) game to the membership!  I was and am both deeply gratified and deeply humbled by all the interest expressed in Infinite Earths, and your enthusiasm for what we're developing has given us new drive and new fervor to make sure we get it right!

For everyone who was interested in playtesting, we will be in touch shortly, providing additional preview material as we develop it.  And if anyone reading this not from RTR is interested in being a part of our directed playtesting, which is currently scheduled to begin in late July, please leave us a comment or drop us a line at contact@ (this domain name).

Today we're going to talk about Character Attributes, and how we've changed them slightly from the Open Gaming License standards in order to clarify and simplify their meanings.  We've been doing a lot of that throughout our development process, to such a degree that while we are still developing an OGL-based product, it's not going to look, feel or play a whole lot like most OGL games once we're done.

So we've changed the names of the classic Character Attributes, in order to more accurately reflect what they represent in our system.  Here they are:
  • Brawn represents the pure physical power you can muster--how well you can batter through something, break something, and how much you can lift.  It is the Combat Attribute of Guardians and Warriors, the people who wrap themselves in heavy metal armor and the people who try to just smash through your defenses with brute force.
  • Agility represents your physical grace--how deft you are at having your body in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment.  It governs how well you aim, how well you can find an opening in someone's defenses, and how well you can avoid blows when not wearing heavy armor.  It is the Combat Attribute of Archers, Assassins and Dervishes, who all use dextrous, graceful movements to acquire and destroy their targets.
  • Vitality is unique in that it represents both a metal and physical quality of how much you can endure before you can endure no more.  No class uses this as a primary attribute, because it is equally important for everyone--it serves as a bonus to your Morale (your hit points in combat tactics, largely determined by where you slot your combat role) and your Resolve (your hit points in social tactics, largely determined by where you slot your social role).  The higher your Vitality, the tougher you are in both social and combat situations.
  • Intellect is a representation of your sheer reasoning power, a mental stat representing how quick-thinking you are.  It is the Combat Attribute of Bladecasters and Spellcasters, who must assemble their magical spells quickly in the heat of combat.  One thing it does not provide, though, is additional skill points for characters with high Intellect--after much (and heated!) debate, it was agreed that if that were the case, everyone who did not play a very smart character was disadvantaged, and we didn't like that.
  • Awareness replaces that old standby "wisdom," and is now purely representative of your character's ability to notice his or her surroundings.  And while that sounds kind of bland, it fits in very well with the Beastmaster, Monk and Tactician combat roles for which it is the Combat Attribute.  The Beastmaster and the Tactician must be constantly aware of everything happening on the battlefield, and able to anticipate how best to maneuver their pawns.  The Zen-like Monk can sense what you're doing almost before you do it, and his strikes are at pressure points and his movements are between the swings of your blade--precisely because he has such a preternatural awareness of what is happening around him.
  • Presence represents your ability to get people to pay attention to you, and to command a room by entering it and beginning to speak.  It has nothing to do with your physical appearance (there is no "physical appearance" stat), and everything to do with your ability to communicate the force of your will to others.  It is the attribute used for all Social roles as both an offensive and defensive bonus.
Now, some of you may look at those new names and say, "Well, they're pretty much the same thing as before," and you'd be largely right.  We felt, though, from a design perspective that we didn't want to have any of the old arguments about Charisma being representative of physical beauty, Dexterity meaning only that you can make a hit easier, but not do any extra damage, Constitution only representing the physical damage you can take, and Wisdom. . .well, Wisdom was always tied to Clerics very heavily.  Once we decided we wouldn't have Clerics in our system, because we wanted to handle healing completely differently, that started a chain reaction that led to the above.

Additionally from a design perspective, we recalled the difficulties in transitioning between D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder:  the design of the games was so similar, that it led to a lot of early rules-skimming because if you knew 3.5, you thought you knew Pathfinder.  By changing these names, we're underscoring the idea that "hey, you really want to not think of this as the same game you've been playing. . .cuz it's not."

And in keeping with our idea that nothing should be wasted--that there should be no "this step sucks, but you've got to take it to get to the next step, which is awesome"--we've done away with the "bonus every other point" in the Attributes.  In standard OGL, you get a +0 bonus at 10-11, a +1 bonus at 12-13, a +2 bonus at 14-15, and so on.

In Infinite Earths, your Attributes all begin at 0, representing the "average human" level of skill.  You can then buy them up, at the time of character creation, to a maximum of 4.  These Attributes are directly your bonuses, so are no "skipped" or "wasted" steps.  Our default method is point-buy, because we want to let you customize your character to your desires, but a random-roll system is also available (roll 1d10, divide by 2, then subtract 1).

And you may have realized something with that last paragraph:  you can buy up from 0, you can roll as low as 0, but you cannot go lower.  There are no "dump stats" in Infinite Earths.  This is a thing that we as designers, as GMs, as players have always hated, because our approach has always been to try and create people to play.  

The capacity to have a "dump stat" has led to a lot of games devolving into intellectually disabled hulks and fragile brains-in-a-shell smashing their way through a series of rooms and calling it roleplay.  And if that's your thing, God bless you and we're glad you enjoy it.  But it's not our thing, we don't enjoy gaming that way, and we're building Infinite Earths to reflect the notions of how we like to play.

So to that end, player characters will always be at least as good as the average human in any given way.  Does it take away some of the challenge?  For some people, I expect it will.  But our intention isn't for the challenge to be overcoming the statistical limitations you've placed on yourself in order to gain statistical benefits elsewhere--our intention is for the challenge to be achieving your goals, stopping the bad guys, and saving the town. . .or the kingdom. . .or the world.  That way, you can play the game not of, "how do I make this situation into one in which my good stat is useful," but the game of, "how do I handle this situation?"

See you next week, and as always, feel free to leave any comments!  We're not joking when we say we would love to hear from you :-)