Last night I set up a Cinemechanix Playtest Group on Facebook. A couple of groups from Patreon are already playtesting (or about to start) using the current (incomplete) draft of the rules, but the plan is to start official playtesting in about a month. We'll probably post big updates elsewhere and I'll answer questions or respond to comments on any platform if I notice them, but since I (and most other Hex staffers) are on Facebook more often than other sites, the Facebook group is the best place to stay in the loop, give feedback, ask questions, or whatever. Plus I already know how Facebook groups work and don't want to have to keep track of and cross-post to half a dozen different groups. If you want in on the playtesting, ask to join the group. As long as you're not an obvious spammer or known jackass, you're in.
Last week I talked about the decision to get rid of Body, Brain, and Nerve and the roll-under central mechanic from QAGS. Once I did that, the game was no longer especially recognizable as QAGS, which is why the title of this series is "Cinemechanix Design Journal" and not "QAGS 3E Design Journal." The decision allowed me to rethink the whole system, which led to much bigger changes than I'd originally planned, but I'll get to those in future posts. They'll be much easier to discuss if everyone knows how the core mechanic works, so I'm going to go over that this week. Since I've already written it up, I'll just cut and paste it:
Whenever a player makes a roll, he gets to roll at least one twenty-sided die (d20). This free die is his right as a living being who exists in the world and represents basic human potential, unquantified life experience, and blind luck. Depending on the situation, the player may also get to roll Bonus Dice (which increase the chances of success) or be required to roll Penalty Dice (which make failure more likely). When a player rolls a Bonus Die, he simply adds an extra d20 to Dice Pool. A Penalty Die also adds an extra d20 to the player’s pool, but after he rolls he has to remove the highest die in the pool (this is called Zapping). After Zapping his Dice Pool, the player adds his Hero Factor to the highest remaining die. If there are two or more dice left in the pool, the player adds 1 to the total for each die beyond the first. The result is the value of the character’s roll. Exactly what that value means depends on what sort of roll the character is making.
EXAMPLE: Sparky’s Dice Pool includes 1 Bonus Die and 2 Penalty Dice, so he rolls a total of 4 dice (free die + Bonus Die + 2 Penalty Dice). He rolls 19, 15, 11, and 8. Since he rolled 2 Penalty Dice, he has to Zap the 2 highest dice (the 19 and the 15), leaving him with a pool of 11 and 8. Since his Hero Factor is three, his total roll is 15 (11 for the highest die, +3 for Hero Factor, +1 for the extra remaining die).
Bonus and Penalty Dice are mostly based on the characters stats, but GMs can also add Bonus or Penalty Dice as situational modifiers. For example, a character using a crappy old laptop might get a Penalty Die to a hacking roll or a character with the element of surprise might get a Bonus Die to an attack roll.
Hero Factor is the character's power level and runs from 1 (completely normal people) to 10 (extremely powerful heroes like Superman). Action movie heroes are usually in the 3-5 range and super-heroes start around 6. Hero Factors higher than 10 are possible for cosmically powerful characters, but not really recommended for PCs. Nameless mooks who only exist to get punched or shot have a Hero Factor of 0.
All rolls have a target number they need to beat, usually an opponent's roll or a difficulty number set by the GM. The difference between the roll and the target number (officially called Effect) determines how well the character succeeded or how badly he failed (if the Effect is negative). For some rolls the Effect has a specific game use. For example, the Effect of a (successful) combat roll is the damage of the attack. For others, the number is just a guideline for the GM to use in interpreting the results of the action. An Effect of 1 is a pretty crappy success; an effect of 20 is epic.
There are of course nuances and variations and special situations, but that's the central rolling mechanic. Understanding it should help upcoming posts make more sense.
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For those of you who follow my non-gaming stuff, I just added a store section to the Brainfart Press website. I've only got the print version of Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed) in stock right now, so you can mostly just get PDFs, but I'll be getting print books in sooner or later (and you can always order them from Amazon). Also, I figured out how to make the fixed-format books work in Kindle format, so all the Brainfart books are now available through the Kindle store.
Last week, I talked about some more design goals for QAGS 3E (and later Cinemechanix). When I started, I had several ideas for how to fix the problems and make things better, which eventually led to this version of the Q3E rules. There are a lot of changes here from Second Edition, but the big changes are to how the different Words work. The target number for every roll is now either Body, Brain, or Nerve and the target numbers are never modified. Some of the other Words give you extra dice, others modify the result if the roll succeeds, and some do both, but you never roll against Job or Gimmick or anything but Body, Brain, or Nerve.
When we playtested this version of the rules, it kind of worked and the new rules made more sense in terms of how the different stats worked together. Unfortunately, the game wasn't much better in terms of playability. Most of the things that confused people about earlier editions of QAGS were still there, and a few of theme were more confusing because of the different ways the stats worked.
I decided to look at each remaining problem individually. Since they were first on the character sheet, I started with Body, Brain, and Nerve. The biggest problem with the Words themselves is that they cover a lot of different aspects of the character that gamers are generally used to having finer control over (especially in terms of Body). Most gamers don't want, for instance, agility and physical strength tied to the same number. In QAGS, the only way to get around the connection is by using your Gimmick or Weakness (or maybe Skills and Flaws) to define the discrepancy.
Since one of the things I wanted to do with the new rules was get rid of things that were only there because they're things that games have, I started thinking about whether Body, Brain, and Nerve were even necessary. The more I considered it, the more I decided they weren't. In fiction, all characters are slightly above average in all the characteristics measured by Body, Brain, and Nerve (except for physical attractiveness; most TV and movie characters are far better-looking than real people). If a character is notably stronger, more agile, clumsier, smarter, or whatever, that's usually part of the character' shtick. The idea of getting rid of Body, Brain, and Nerve and just assuming that all characters are slightly above average (and really pretty) unless the character has some specific trait to indicate otherwise was starting to grow on me.
The main problem with getting rid of Body, Brain, and Nerve was that now I didn't have a number for players to roll against. at first I thought of just setting a default target number for all rolls, but then it occurred to me that the best bet might be to get rid of the idea of a target number entirely. Instead of rolling against something, you just roll a d20. For most QAGS rolls, you've already got a Difficulty Number (either one set by the GM or an opponent's roll) that you've got to beat to succeed anyway, so you've still got a way of determining success or failure. The rolls that don't work are ones with no DN and nobody opposing the action, but if it's not difficult and nobody's trying to stop the character, why are you even rolling? Since a lot of misunderstandings about the QAGS system are rooted in the roll-under mechanic, getting rid of it entirely seemed like a good idea.
The big question about getting rid of Body, Brain, and Nerve and the roll-under mechanic was "is this still QAGS?" During an earlier discussion of the integral things that made QAGS QAGS, both the specific Words and the roll-under mechanic came up. I might be able to cut one and still call it QAGS, but cutting both probably made it a different game. Still, the idea seemed to work much better than the QAGS fixes I'd come up with, so I decided to abandon the idea of a QAGS 3rd Edition in favor of creating a whole new system.
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Last week, I talked about some of the specific rules quirks of the first two editions of QAGS that I set out to fix when I started working on the 3rd Edition QAGS rules that ended up turning into a whole new game called Cinemechanix. This week, I’m going to talk about some of the broader design goals behind the new rules set. Actually, I’m just going to cut and paste them from an early version of the Q3E draft (from July 2014, based on the comment dates for this section of the document). These design goals were written up after I’d written and kinda-sorta playtested an initial draft of the new rules, so there are some game mechanics mentioned here that don’t exist in QAGS (some survived into Cinemechanix, some didn’t), but you don’t really need to understand them to get the gist.
Strong Central Mechanic
The basic procedure for determining Effect (formerly Success Degree) should be the same for every roll. Some rolls might have extra steps (like adding a bonus die or figuring up the bonus based on number of success for Gimmicks or subtracting a Difficulty), but there shouldn’t be any weird exceptions or radical changes to how you make the roll (in this situation you divide your Success Degreee by 4. In this one you add your bonus to the Success Degree instead of the target number, etc). After the Effect Number is figured out, what you do with it or how it’s interpreted may vary a lot from game to game and even character to character or situation to situation, but the basic way of arriving at it is more or less constant.
Strong Supporting Mechanic Concepts
These are things like Bonus and Penalty Dice or Hero Factor Bonuses. The idea here is that most situations that don’t have rules can be handled by applying an existing concept. If a character is chasing a bad guy on foot and one of them steals a horse, give the guy on the horse a Bonus Die--no need to try to figure out what kind of Speed Modifier a horse gives or whatever.
I almost think we need a different word here. In gamer-speak, “Cinematic” usually means “has rules for doing big action stunts.” And they’re often just as complicated and time-consuming as the rules for simulationist games like D&D. We do a little better than a lot of games because most of our “cinematicness” comes from YYs, which are very open ended. In the new edition, we need to try to apply the “the game models fiction, not reality” idea to all the rules. One example is doing away with things like Damage Bonus for weapons and Armor Ratings. In fiction, a character’s weapons and armor are usually just costuming. A naked oily Spartan with a name is going to beat the crap out of a heavily-armored Persian extra every single time, and Machete can kill you just as easily with his bare hands as he can with a machine gun. We included those in 2E because they’re something that games are supposed to have, but the only reason games have them is that the roots of gaming are based in military simulation, not storytelling. If a rule doesn’t have an obvious counterpart/example in fiction, there’s a good chance we don’t need that rule.
This is something we’ve talked about before as a different way of saying “generic” or “universal,” but I think it should actually mean something different. The best way I can explain what I mean is by example. A generic supers game says “Here are the rules for Super Speed. This is how your Super Speedster works.” An adaptable game says “Here is a toolbox of mechanics. Use them to define how your Super Speedster works. Another Super Speedster may work differently. That’s ok.”
Character Stats are Descriptive, not Defining
This is in part the “your character sheet is not an inventory, you can also do other stuff” idea, but also a “you don’t need to define every aspect of an ability” thing. Batman’s Gadgeteer Gimmick means he has a lot of crazy equipment. You don’t need to list it all out or inventory the capabilities of the Batmobile. If the GM doesn’t believe that Bats keeps shark repellent in his utility belt, he can make the player roll. Even if the roll is successful, that doesn’t mean Batman always has shark repellent. If the roll fails during the next sharknado, Bats forgot to replace it after he used it last time, or took it out to make room for a delicious peanut butter sandwich, or the shark repellent was in the beach vacation utility belt and right now Batman is wearing the underground survival utility belt. If Superman tries to use the X-Ray vision that was established a few episodes ago and the roll fails, he suddenly discovers that lead blocks the power, or he can’t use the power because there’s some kind of weird sunspot thing happening, or maybe there’s kryptonite in that box. It’s kind of along the lines of the Bonewitz quote from Magic Rules (“the universe is changing every millisecond and each ritual must be tailored to the specific situation at hand.”)--a good world is dynamic and there’s always a way to explain why something that worked before doesn’t work this time, so don’t worry too much about letting the player do new stuff with an ability “establishing” something that makes him “too powerful” (because game balance is a myth anyway).
Most of these core ideas survived through to the current draft of Cinemechanix, but the implementation of them has changed numerous times as the system has developed. Next week, I’ll talk about when the system stopped being QAGS 3E and became Cinemechanix.
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You've probably already figured out that I took a break from blogging last week because of the holidays. I was tempted to use the same excuse this week, but decided to start the new year off on the right foot and finally get around to the Cinemechanix posts I hinted at a few months ago before I decided to write a bad fantasy novel and a (I hope) good book about being a GM (which should be on sale when I write next week's blog; I'll let you know where to buy it then).
As I mentioned in the first post about Cinemechanix, the new system grew out of ideas for a 3rd edition of QAGS. After running the game for over a decade, I'd noticed a few problems. Most of them aren't a big deal if all the players are on the same page (they rarely come up when I'm playing a game with the Hex crew, for example), but they get annoying if the GM and players have interpreted the rules differently or have different expectations. There are also some that rely on applying "fixes" that most regular QAGS GMs (or at least most of the ones I've played with) apply (sometimes without even realizing it) but that aren't in the book. Since the whole reason for doing a new edition of the game was to fix the problems, I started by making a list of what the problems were. I'm going to revisit that list this week to show you the starting point. In future posts, I'll talk about how trying to fixing those problems morphed the system into something that wasn't really QAGS anymore.
The Stats Are All Independent
A lot of the problems with QAGS from a game standpoint is that (with the exception of Skills) the different Words don't "stack" with one another since you're always rolling against one specific Word. If you're rolling your "Soldier" Job to punch somebody, that's the only Word that matters for that particular roll. A 90-pound weakling with a Body of 8 punches just was well as a tank with a Body of 16. This isn't very "realistic" and no doubt drives min-maxers crazy, but that doesn't really bother me, but it does lead to weird things like the wonky Second Chance Rolls rule and having to roll Weakness before you make the roll for the thing you're trying to do. Another problem is that it makes character design extremely dependent on how your GM runs the game because of the next problem.
Which Stat To Use Relies Heavily On GM Judgement
Since you're always rolling against a single stat, the stats that the GM tends to tell you to roll against plays a huge roll in determining how often your character succeeds. While there are guidelines in the rules about when to use Gimmick or Job and when to fall back on Body, Brain, or Nerve, which Word gets used often depends on how broadly or narrowly the GM interprets Jobs and Gimmicks. If the GM interprets Jobs and Gimmicks broadly, you're going to use them for nearly every roll and your Body, Brain, and Nerve don't really matter. If he interprets them narrowly, your Body, Brain and Nerve are going to be far more important than Job and Gimmick Numbers. If you put your best Numbers in Body, Brain, and Nerve and the GM asks for Job rolls for almost everything, your character is going to fail more often (and vice versa).
It's Hard To Differentiate Characters in "Team" Settings
Since characters usually just have one Job, Skills and Gimmicks are the only way to differentiate characters in games where everyone has the same basic Job (like "Spy" or "Monster Hunter"). Different writers have found different ways of getting around this problem, but none of them is completely satisfactory. We want to keep characters simple, but the "one of each Word" set-up can be limiting. This can also be a problem if you want a character with one aspect of Body, Brain, or Nerve that's better or worse than the basic Number would indicate (like if you want a character who's really strong but clumsy) since you have to waste your Gimmick or Weakness on the outlier trait.
Success Degree is Very Random
QAGS was initially designed for pick-up games, so the decision to roll a single d20 was in part so you only needed one die to play. Because of math things involving bell curves and stuff that I can barely grasp if someone explains it to me using small words and lots of pictures, rolling a single dice means that your number only affects your chance of success, not how well you do. A character with a Number of 14 is twice as likely to succeed as a character with a Number of 7 (70% chance vs. 35% chance), and can succeed with a higher roll, but he's just as likely to roll a 1 as a 14 (or a 20, for that matter). If you were rolling, for example, 3d6, not only would the character with a 14 succeed a lot more often than the guy with a 7 (73%-ish to about 16%, based on ballpark math from a random bell curve chart I googled), the result is generally going to be higher (somewhere around 65% of rolls are going be be between 8 and 14, with 25% or rolls being a 10 or 11). Basically, the random roll of the die has a lot more to do with success than your character's stats, so you get a lot more situations where the Heavyweight Champ gets knocked out by the random nerd. Again the lack of "realism" here doesn't really bother me, but it can lead to situations that don't make a lot of sense in terms of story.
Even the addition of Skills in Second Edition doesn't really improve things, since they add to the target number rather than the Success Degree (though I've noticed that a lot of people misread that and add Skill Bonuses to the roll instead, which brings us to the next problem).
Nobody Understands How The Rolls Work
In QAGS, you want to roll under your target number, but you want a high roll. This confuses a lot of people, in part because in the most well-known "roll-under" mechanic (at least when QAGS was released), 2nd Edition D&D Non-weapon Proficiencies, a lower roll is better. So a lot of people assume they want to roll low. To help combat this misconception, we came up with the "Price is Right" explanation: You want to get as close to your roll without going over. This helps (though I still meet new players who think they're supposed to roll low), but creates a new problem of people thinking that the difference between the target number is important and always telling the GM "I got 14 out of 15" or something. Getting across that the number you're rolling against only determines whether you succeed or fail, not how well you do (that's all based on the roll, regardless of target number) is tricky.
The "One Roll For Attack and Defense" Idea Sounds Good, But...
The idea of doing one roll for combat and the winner causing damage was meant to reduce the number of rolls you have to make in combat and thereby make combat faster. The fact that we immediately had to write exception rules for ranged combat and combat with multiple opponents should have been a sign that it doesn't quite work outside of a duel type situation where characters only have one person to attack. Most GMs I've played with use the more standard "everybody gets one attack" set-up ("you attack the monster, then the monster attacks you" (two rolls) rather than "you and the monster attack each other"(one roll)) anyway, so fixing this one is just a matter of making the rules fit how people actually play.
Combat Is Really Fucking Deadly
Since damage is based on the difference between attack and defense rolls and a failed defense counts as a zero, an attack from a completely average person without a weapon can cause 11 points of damage if the defense roll fails. Since an average person in QAGS has 11 Health Points and they don't normally increase, this means most characters can be killed with a single lucky hit. We knew this when we designed the system, but the assumption was that Yum Yums would fix it. If you want your game to be gritty with lots of death, be stingy with the Yum Yums. If you don't want characters to die very often, give out plenty of YYs for them to use to reduce damage. If GMs get this and give out Yum Yums and players remember to use them (and since the alternative is character death, why wouldn't you?), this works, but since most QAGS games aren't of the "life is cheap" variety, it wouldn't hurt to make the default combat rules less deadly and explain the role of Yum Yums better.
The Experience System. It's just...
I'm not sure if QAGS First Edition even had an experience system, but if it did it was an afterthought. By the time we wrote Second Edition, we'd realized that most gamers really want some kind of reward system, so we added one. Since I'd just come off a campaign where character advancement was basically a matter of asking the GM "hey, shouldn't my character be better at basket weaving now, since he's been weaving all those baskets?" I tried to build a system where the stat increases were tied to things happening in the story. Unfortunately, it's tricky to combine the two and even harder to explain it, so the experience system is so wonky as hell.
As I said in my first article about Cinemechanix a few months ago, all of these problems disappear or become relatively minor if your play style matches the play style that QAGS was written for. While the GM and player advice in QAGS encourages that play style, the style and the rules aren't as integrated as they really need to be. The plan with the 3rd Edition that became Cinemechanix was to make the style and the rules fit together more smoothly and explain things more clearly. I'll get into how I tried to do that next week.
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Since people seemed to like last week’s blog about writing adventures for publication (and since I’m still trying to figure out the best way to approach the more in-depth discussion of Cinemechanix), I’m going to follow up with a blog about actually submitting the game. I haven’t actually done very much submitting (nearly everything I write is self-published or written for a specific project that someone I know is publishing), but I have been on the receiving end of a lot of submissions. Therefore, this post won’t be so much “ways to make a game company notice your submission” as “ways to avoid getting your submission dismissed immediately.”
Don’t Send Unsolicited Manuscripts
There may be a few companies who accept complete manuscripts from any random person on the internet, but most just want a proposal at first. In fact, most submission guidelines specifically state that unsolicited manuscripts will not be read. The main reason is to protect the company from charges of IP theft. I know that you think your game is a beautiful snowflake, but all snowflakes look pretty much alike unless you look at them really closely. If we’re working on a game about Ninja Space Sharks, we don’t want to see your complete manuscript about Ninja Space Sharks because if we do you’re going to see any similarity between the two as evidence that we stole your idea. If we only saw a 400-word proposal and responded with “sorry, but we’re already working on a game about Ninja Space Sharks,” you’re more likely to realize that most of the similarities between our finished product and your rough draft exist because there are just certain things that you’ve got to have in a game about Ninja Space Sharks.
Don’t Send Form Letters
In my experience most form letters are from people who are looking for freelance work rather than from people with a game they want to publish (here at One Hex Tower, a surprisingly high percentage seem to be from South American artists), but we’ve gotten a couple of “I’ve got a game I’d like to publish” emails that were obviously form letters. Hex doesn’t usually hire freelance writers, so “I’m looking for writing work” form letters go into File 13 (we respond with our own form letter and keep the information around in case we ever get desperate, but the folder they’re in rarely gets opened). For artists, Leighton keeps a short list of people who we’d like to work with if a project comes along that fits their style. Artists who send form letters rarely (actually “never” might be more accurate) end up on that list; they go into File 13, too. The handful of game submission form letters we’ve gotten have also gone to File 13, but usually more because we weren’t interested in the ideas (see next section) than because they were form letters. Other companies who use more work for hire are probably less annoyed by form letters than we are, but including a few sentences that make it clear that you know who the letter is going to and have some idea what kinds of games they produce will probably give you a better chance of standing out from all the form letters.
Read The Submission Guidelines
Most companies that accept submissions have a set of submission guidelines on their web site, and you should read them before you send anything. In addition to telling you what the company wants from you, they can often save you time by telling you what the company doesn’t want. For example, the Hex Writers’ Guidelines (which are on the same menu as the link to the contact form most freelancers use, but still obviously don't get read by most people who contact us) clearly say that we’re not looking for new game systems or traditional fantasy games. If you submit a proposal related to either of those without preceding it with “I know you aren’t looking for new game systems or traditional fantasy, but,” we’re going to stop reading as soon as we hit the part that makes it clear you haven’t read the guidelines. If you can’t be bothered to read the submission guidelines, it’s a warning sign that you might be difficult to work with. Either you’re lazy, you can’t follow simple instructions, or you’re arrogant enough to think the rules don’t apply to you because your idea is so brilliant (statistically speaking, it’s not).
Even if your revolutionary encumbrance system is so great that any company would be foolish not to publish it, ignoring the guidelines can keep it from ever being seen. If your submission includes everything the company asks for in its guidelines, whoever receives it can put it directly into the workflow for new submissions. If it’s missing something (or in some cases, if it includes stuff the company doesn’t need or want), you create more work for the person who receives the submission. Every new step they have to take to move your submission along is a new chance for them to decide it’s not worth the hassle.
Your submission letter doesn’t necessarily need to be formal and follow the format for a business letter that you learned in English class, but an email that says “doodz, gotta kickass idea 4 a game about ninnnja space sharks what u pay me 4 it” isn’t going to cut it. A half-assed proposal is a warning sign that the work will be equally half-assed, and there’s a limit to the amount of editing and revision a company can justify putting into a game to make it publishable no matter how great the premise. Don’t give the publisher reason to believe your submission isn’t going to be worth the effort.
Also, since most freelancers don’t work at the company offices, the bulk of the revision, editing, and other work required to get the book ready is going to happen through email (or some other form of written communication). Don’t give a company reason to think they’re going to need a decoder ring to decipher every email you send. Think of your submission letter as a job interview and try to look smarter and more competent than you actually are.
Expect To Make Revisions
I know you think that everything you type is pure brilliance, but you need to understand that if your submission gets accepted, there’s still a lot of work left to do. Some of it’s just basic copy editing, but usually you’re going to have to make some changes to your manuscript. Keep in mind that the company has (probably) published more games than you have, so most revision requests exist for some reason beyond just making your life miserable. You don’t necessarily have to accept every suggestion your editor makes without question, but you should choose your battles. If you don’t understand why your editor is asking you to do something, ask them. If you think a suggestion makes the game worse, explain how. If you fight the editor over every single change (especially relatively meaningless ones), your first project with the company will probably be your last, and even that first one might get cancelled if you’re a gigantic pain in the ass to work with.
Finally, never try to create a game that can be described as “like D&D, but better.” It won’t be to the people who play D&D, and those of us who don’t play D&D don’t give a shit. If you've got a game about Ninja Space Sharks, though, the Hex Writers' Guidelines are right here.
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