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.
Please consider supporting me on Patreon. The less time I have to spend working for other people, the more games I can write.
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.
Hey look, I've got a Patreon account!
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.
If you appreciate this blog, you can show it with cash on Patreon!
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.
Want to give me more time to work on games and dumb books about fictional blues musicians? Support me on Patreon!