I've spent most of this week working on the first sample game, which is about terrible Image-style 90s super-heroes. It's turned out a long longer than I expected, but that's in part because I went a little overboard with the character backgrounds (at least half of the document is character information). I'm hoping to finish up the last few bits and post it to the playtest group later today. In the meantime, I thought I'd show you what a character for the game might look like. I chose to go with Captain Deity, since his abilities include some good examples of adding custom rules.
High school football star Mike Deity left Nebraska and joined the army right after graduation. After returning from Operation Desert Storm, he was selected as a Special Forces candidate, but before he could complete his training he was recruited into a top secret program called Project Helios. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, his role in the project was that of test subject in an experimental program that sought to create the first “solar powered soldier.” The project was a partial success, giving Deity the ability to store solar energy and channel the sun’s energy, but the human body proved to be a less than stable storage receptacle for so much energy. When Sergeant Deity “went supernova” and exploded with the energy of five atomic bombs, Project Helios was discontinued.
Although Mike’s component atoms were strewn throughout time and space by the explosion, his consciousness ended up on a non-corporeal plane of pure light. Assuming that this was the tunnel of light to Heaven, Deity waited for St. Peter to lead him home, but St. Peter never came. The tedium and isolation of what seemed to be an eternity of waiting caused Mike to lose all hope and come to terms with the realization that existence was a meaningless exercise that led nowhere. When he awoke back on earth some time later, two years had passed. Mike has never satisfactorily determined how or why Dr. M managed to reassemble his body and pull his consciousness back into it, but his return to the world of the living has given him a tiny glimmer of hope that life has meaning.
Role: Brooding Team Leader
Backstory: All-American Soldier
Fatal Flaw: Nihilism: Since his return to the world, Captain Deity has had trouble convincing himself that anything matters. As long as he keeps busy he can avoid thinking too much about the meaninglessness of existence. When he’s faced with a situation that seems overwhelming or unwinnable, however, his natural inclination is to just give up. He gets maudlin when he spends too much time alone with his thoughts.
Power Theme: Solar Battery (can use solar energy to increase strength, resist injury, fly, create light, and shoot solar blasts)
Origin Story: Failed Military Experiment
Costume: Black spandex suit with yellow trim and sunburst chest design
Hooks: Legally Dead, Moody, Unstable Powers
Tag Line: “I’m gonna light you up!”
WWPHITM? Alexander Skarsgard
Trademarks: Solar Blast (2 Dice), Kick In Some Teeth (2 Dice), Feats of Strength (1 Die), Commanding Presence (1 Die)
Hero Factor: 6
Solar Points: 60
Solar Battery: Captain Deity’s body act stores solar energy. He can use this energy to increase his physical power and speed, resist damage, heal himself, and even fly. He can also release deadly blasts of solar energy from any part of his body. Captain Deity’s solar energy reserves are measured in Solar Points. His maximum Solar Point capacity is equal to his Hero Factor times 10. His specific abilities, along with Solar Point costs, are:
- Flight: Captain Deity’s flight ability doesn’t cost Solar Points, but he can add Bonus Dice up to his Hero Factor to any flight roll by spending 5 Solar Points per Die.
- Increased Strength & Speed: Captain Deity gets a Concept Bonus and appropriate Trademark Dice for strength and speed rolls at no cost. He can add additional Bonus Dice to the roll up to his Hero Factor at a cost of 5 Solar Points per die.
- Resist Damage: Captain Deity can resist any or all damage from an attack by spending 1 Solar Point for each point of Stamina loss he wants to avoid.
- Accelerated Healing: Captain Deity can spend Solar Points to recover lost Stamina at the rate of 2 Solar Points per point of Stamina recovery. He can also repair any Wound he has received for 20 Solar Points.
- Solar Blast: A Solar Blast aimed at an individual only costs 1 Solar Point. If Captain Deity wants to use an area effect Solar Blast, he must spend Solar Points equal to the radius of the blast in feet. He can add Bonus Dice (up to his Hero Factor) to either version for 5 Solar Points per Die.
All of Captain Deity’s powers stop working if he drops below 5 Solar Points. Captain Deity recovers lost Solar Points from direct exposure to sunlight. If he’s outside and the day is reasonably clear, he regains a Solar Point every 2 minutes. If he’s indoors but still exposed to the sun’s rays (for example, through a large window) or the day is overcast, he recovers more slowly (as determined by the GM). He doesn’t recover any Solar Points for exposure to artificial light. For every 24 hours that Captain Deity is completely deprived of sunlight, he loses 10 Solar Points.
Unstable Powers: If Captain Deity rolls double 19s on any roll, he releases a massive solar blast centered on himself that uses up all his Solar Points. The radius of the blast is equal to the number of Solar Points he had when the blast occurred and the roll gets Bonus Dice equal to ⅕ of the blast radius. Captain Deity himself does not get a dodge roll and takes full damage from the blast.
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This week's blog is going to be short, because I've been busy this week. I posted a partial draft of the rules (mostly just the players/rules section) to the playtest group during the last week of January, and a couple of people have run some games using that draft. My goal was to get the full draft of the main rulebook finished and posted on Monday, but I got some other work that I'll get paid for much sooner come up towards the end of last week that cut into my writing time. I finally got everything finished up and posted at 3 a.m. Thursday morning (or about an hour before bedtime on Wednesday by my schedule).
This isn't the complete book, but the main rulebook is finished. The biggest section left to go are the game set-ups (which will hopefully get a fancier name) that will go at the end to provide players with examples of how you might use the system and enough basics to actually play the games. They're kind of much more detailed version of the sample campaigns in the Qik-Start Genre Guides at the end of QAGS 2E (and some of those campaign ideas will probably be expanded to game set-ups here). I wanted to have the first game set-up in this draft, but that didn't happen. I'm working on it now and will hopefully post it sometime next week. There will probably also be some more appendices: worksheets, dumb tables, that sort of thing.
For those of you who want to take a look at the game but aren't sure if you want to get involved in the playtest group, I've uploaded a copy to dropbox that you can check out. Feel free to share the link, but I ask that you follow the playtester guidelines at the beginning and refrain from re-posting the file publicly (I can do it because it's my game). If you want the character sheet, the sample games when I get them finished, and other goodies (including some character sheets, cheat sheets, and playtest reports others have posted), you'll have to bite the bullet and join the playtest group. Also, keep in mind that this is an unedited first draft. Except for whatever incidental editing other Hex people have done as they've read the draft and rewriting I've done as I've re-read sections, this is all straight from my brain to the keyboard and nobody's cleaned up my errors and bad habits (expect weasel words galore). That will come later once we make sure the core rules and concepts are solid.
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I know bitching about political correctness is popular these days (mostly with comedians whose relevance is quickly fading, as far as I can tell), but the PC movement is totally correct in the assertion that what we call things matters. The go-to modern example is the estate tax, which is basically an inheritance tax on the wealthy. In 2001, the estate tax was 55% and only applied to estates worth over $675,000. Somewhere around that time, Frank Luntz, who has George Carlin level linguistic insight but uses his powers for evil, came up with the idea of making sure that GOP lawmakers called it a "death tax" instead. Not everybody has an estate, so most people don't feel too bad about some rich dead guy's leftovers being taxed. Since everybody dies, changing the name made people feel like the tax could apply to them, even though most Amercians check out well below the exemption. Thanks to the widespread support for reducing the "death tax," the estate tax now only applies to estates worth over just under $5.5 million, and the tax rate is 40%.
What does this have to do with games? Well, words are the raw material that games are built from, so the words you use can greatly influence how players approach the game. I first noticed this when QAGS started getting reviews. I can't tell you how many reviewers seemed to like the game in general, but had reservations specifically because one of the stats is called "Yum Yums." Apparently some people believe it's important that you treat pretending to be a magical space elf with a pet unicorn with the proper dignity and gravitas. Lots of games have dumb stat names (Karma Points, anyone?), but they stop being dumb once you get used to them. The same thing happens with "Yum Yums," but since the phrase is so unapologetically dumb, it makes a bad first impression on people who forget that they're using it to help them pretend they're cyborg ninjas.
With Cinemechanix, the trait names are more traditional. Since the whole game uses TV series and movie analogies and examples, I've tried to use words with a "Hollywood" feel when possible. For example, the Cinemechanix equivalent of "Yum Yums" is "Acclaim," which (at least to me) brings to mind a bunch of well-dressed celebrities politely applauding at an awards show. I've changed most of the trait names dozens of times, usually for incredibly nitpicky reasons, and the current draft currently uses two trait names from QAGS, Gimmicks and Weaknesses, because those are the best words I could come up with that described what the traits needed to be.
The problem, as someone on the playtest group articulated last week, is that Gimmicks and Weaknesses in Cinemechanix aren't the same thing as Gimmicks and Weaknesses in QAGS. Since we can safely assume that a majority of Cinemechanix players will be QAGS players, that's a potential source of confusion. Using just one of them wouldn't be as much of a problem; lots of games uses similar words, and neither is unique to QAGS (Weakness, especially, is used in a bunch of RPGs). The problem is really the pairing. Since QAGS uses the same pair of words, QAGS players are going to expect them to mean more or less the same thing, especially if they know that I designed both games. So one or both of those traits will probably end up getting renamed between now and the final draft. It's just a matter of finding words that have the right meaning and flavor but don't have baggage.
It's been a long week, so I don't have the energy to come up with a snappy way to beg you for money.
Before I get into the blog, the whore-like nature of my existence obligates me to mention that my newest ebook, 20 Movies You Probably Haven't Seen Reviewed By Some Guy You Don't Know is now available for just 99 cents at the Kindle store. My reviews of Dark Dungeons and the D&D movie may be of particular interest to a few of you.
Moving on to gaming, even though we haven't officially started playtesting yet, one brave GM (James Pearson) managed to convince his players to act as guinea pigs in a Flash Gordon-inspired game. They didn't run into any major problems and came up with some good questions and observations about the game. You can find out more by joining the playtest group on Facebook.
As I'm sure I've mentioned here before, on of the ideas behind Cinemechanix is that it's "adaptable" rather than "generic." What I mean by that is that rather than giving you, for example, a set of supposedly universal rules for magic that you're supposed to make work for everything from the Hyborean Age to Hellblazer, we want to give you a set of tools you can use to define magic for the game you want to run. Last week I wrote the section that goes into more detail about how to do that, and since it's more about game design choices than Cinemechanix-specific rules, it seemed like the kind of thing that even readers who aren't interested in the new system may find useful, so I'm going to pass off an excerpt as this week's blog.
Abilities that are too broad or vaguely-defined can be problematic. The most common problem is that it’s hard to present meaningful challenges to a character with an ability that’s so ambiguous that he can use it to overcome almost any obstacle, and a story with no meaningful challenges isn’t very compelling. Additionally, a character who’s too versatile can overshadow the other members of the group, which can result in friction between players. Even when an ability’s versatility isn’t problematic, special rules can be useful in modeling genre conventions in greater detail and giving players a better idea of what’s possible. For example, a game based on martial arts movies might benefit from special rules that define specific fighting styles or specialized combat maneuvers.
Since most people have a reasonable idea of what sorts of things real-world abilities allow people to do, the abilities that tend to need special are those that pertain to the supernatural and fantastic: magic, super-powers, alien abilities, and other weirdness. If these abilities work in a way that’s strongly influenced by a particular story or style of storytelling, the source material sometimes provides limits for the ability either in the form of specific “rules” or a more general sense of tone and flavor. If that’s the case, you probably don’t need any special game mechanics unless they’re necessary to model the source material. For settings without a distinct example to follow, it helps to come up with some rules and guidelines so everyone knows what to expect. When it comes to implementing special rules for character abilities, there are several common models you can use (in whatever combination works best for your game).
Specialization is just narrowing down the broad ability into something more distinct so it can’t be used as a Swiss army knife to solve all the character’s problems. Since all games already require the players to put some thought into how broad or narrow traits should be defined, this option is the most straightforward. Just like one character may need a Trademark in “Biology” instead of “Science,” another might need his Role to be “Demonologist” instead of just “Wizard.”
This method works a lot like specialization, but instead of narrowing a broad skill down to a specific theme or area of expertise, the GM and player agree to a specific set of (often completely unrelated) abilities that come with the trait. This method is useful for traits with a very specific set of benefits and drawbacks, like racial abilities for non-human characters. For example, fairies might get a Concept Bonus for stealth and charm rolls, have the ability to use glamor, and suffer a Penalty Die to all rolls when touching iron or within earshot of a ringing church bell. Some enumerated abilities (a vampire’s vulnerability to sunlight, for example) may have additional rules or Special Effects associated with them.
As the name implies, arbitrary limits are conditions or limitations placed on an ability purely in the interest of preventing overuse or modeling the source material. Most arbitrary limits are tied to a specific time frame (the character can only use the ability once per scene), but other kinds of limits are possible (the ability only works at night). It’s not unusual to place arbitrary limits on specific enumerated abilities. For example, werewolves always get a Concept Bonus for perception rolls due to their keen senses and always take extra damage from silver, but can only assume wolf form if the moon is at least half full. Even though there’s a clear meta-story reason for limiting character abilities (if a character can use Awesome Power six times in a row in a scene, the scene will be dull and Awesome Power will seem a lot less awesome when it’s done), arbitrary limits usually work best when there’s some in-story logic to explain why the character can’t use the ability as often as he likes.
Skill slots are similar to enumerated abilities, but instead of a fixed set of abilities, the character gets to choose specific abilities from a larger list. Depending on the nature of the main ability, the character may be limited to using the selected abilities (wizards can only cast spells they know) or may get a bonus for selected abilities and/or penalty abilities that the character hasn’t specifically mastered (a wrestler can attempt any wrestling technique, but gets bonus for his “go-to” moves, like a figure four leg lock or piledriver). If access to abilities are restricted in some way, you can impose pre-requisite abilities (a psychic character has to learn ESP before he can learn mind control), story requirements (a battle mage can’t learn the War Song of Thul until he’s killed a man with his bare hands), or a minimum Hero Factor and/or Trademark dice requirement (a character needs a Hero Factor of 4 and 3 dice in Kung Fu to learn the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique).
Variable Ability Slots
These work like regular ability slots, but only some of the abilities the character has access to are available to use at a particular time. For example, a cyberpunk character might have to decide which skill chips he’s got installed or a wizard might have to memorize his spells. Some slotted abilities (like the skill chips) can be used as often as the character wants when they’re active. Others have arbitrary limits on usage. For example, wizards in a setting with Vancian magic forget spells immediately after casting them.
Limited Power Reserves
If you use this method, the ability draws on some source of power and each use drains the power source, kind of like a battery. Abilities can be powered by Acclaim, Stamina (probably with special rules for recovering Stamina loss incurred by using the ability), or a custom stat that represents the character’s power reserves. Abilities can also be powered by external resources, like Unobtainium batteries or ritual components that are consumed by when used. For “batteries” that don’t draw on the character’s personal energy, you have to be careful to make the resources required rare enough that players will want to conserve them, but make finding and tracking them simple enough that resource management doesn’t get in the way of the story. When designing this sort of system, you need guidelines for determining how much using the ability costs. Unless you’re using an existing trait, you’ll also need rules for determining limits for how much power a character or power source can hold and how (or if) the energy gets restored after it’s used.
With this method, there’s no game mechanic or (meta-) physical law preventing the character from using the ability however he wants, but there are superstitions, taboos, and other codes of conduct or societal consequences that discourage using the ability in certain ways or situations. For the limitation to be meaningful, there has to be a reasonable chance that forbidden uses will be discovered. Since characters often operate in an environment with few potential witnesses, story consequences are most effective when using the ability leaves behind some kind of “psychic residue” or other sign that can be traced back to the character. For example, maybe occult authorities or investigators can check the Akashic Records to see who cast a particular spell, or using dark magic temporarily corrupts the caster’s aura.
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My original plan was to hold off on posting the Cinemechanix rules until after I'd finished the GM section and could post the complete draft, but I changed my mind and posted them to the playtest group earlier this week. Most people can get by without a GM section and there's a good chance that questions and comments from early readers and playtesters will reveal stuff that I need to cover in more depth than I originally planned in the GM section, and maybe even some things that I thought were obvious but need to be added.
As I mentioned previously, one of my design goals for the system was to get rid of rules concepts that only hang around because all games include them. Most of these are things that made perfect sense for the early RPGs that were essentially still primarily strategy games, but are really just dead weight for games that focus on storytelling. One of the earliest things to get chopped on that bases was the idea of intricate equipment rules, which are second only to super powers rules when it comes to adding unnecessary crunch to game systems.
While there are are certainly gamers who think that a character is defined by his stuff, those guys aren't the target audience for this game. Most equipment rules are written with simulation or "realism" in mind: a guy with a sword has a better chance of winning a fight than a guy with a pocket knife. In fiction, though, the outcome is based more on who's using the equipment than what equipment they're using. A hero with a pocket knife can take out ten sword-wielding extras without breaking a sweat. Even when it's not a "hero vs. mook" situation, most equipment in stories influences how the scene is described a lot more than they influence the outcome of the scene. Gimli's armor doesn't make him any harder to injure than his much more lightly-armored companions, it just makes him look more cool and dwarf-like. If armor was actually useful on Middle Earth, a lot of those orcs would be much harder to kill.
Long story short, rather than having stats for equipment, Cinemechanix just has a handful of rules:
- If the thing you want to do is impossible without the necessary equipment, you can't do it.
- If the thing you want to do is possible but very difficult without the proper equipment, or if the equipment you have is sub-standard, incomplete, or otherwise crappy, you get a Penalty Die.
- If a piece of equipment make a job much easier, or if the equipment you're using is really awesome, you get a Bonus Die.
- If two characters are directly competing against one another and one has equipment that provides a significant advantage (a race between a Corvette and a Pacer Wagon), the character with the better equipment gets a Bonus Die.
There are two exceptions to the general rules, Signature Props and Hero Props. Signature Props are props (either a unique item or fairly specific class of items) that the character is known for using, and characters get them by putting Bonus Dice into the Signature Prop. So if Indiana Jones has 2 Bonus Dice in "Signature Prop: Bullwhip," he gets 2 Bonus Dice whenever he uses a bullwhip to do something. In the hands of anyone else, the same Bullwhip isn't worth any extra dice. Hero Props work about the same, but the Bonus Dice belong to the prop itself rather than the character using them, so anyone who uses the prop gets the bonus. Hero Props tend to be items that have their own story (a legendary sword) or require the PCs to complete a sub-plot in order to acquire them (the supercomputer that the characters need to access to break the code). Hero Props usually don't last long (then tend to get destroyed, lots, returned to their rightful owner, or used up at the end of the story they show up in), but those that do can become Signature Props for the characters who use them.
There are some situations and genres where equipment is more integral to the story and probably needs more detailed rules (cyberpunk and some super-hero equipment come to mind), but Bonus and Penalty Dice should work for most stories.
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