Pretty much within minutes of me releasing the Ghost Punchers RPG, people have been asking about how to get a physical copy. I get that. PDFs are fine, and even superior to hard copies when it comes to looking stuff up, but there’s something extra-real about having that object — that artifact — in your hand. I think it has something to do with the smell.
So now, after days of working on a print-on-demand version, I’m pleased to announce… that I’m still working on it. But I’m getting closer!
Really, it wouldn’t be that difficult if I’d just set up my files correctly in the first place. And honestly, it’s not that difficult. It’s just a matter of figuring out what mistakes I’ve made and how to fix them. It’s a learning curve, but I’ve got my curve-climbing boots on, so it’s all good.
So when can you expect Ghost Punchers POD to be available? Let’s just say Real Soon Now, and rest assured I’ll be virtually shouting it from the electronic rooftops when it’s ready for prime time.
Welcome to the third entry in a series on the storyworld of Steel Dragons!
Steel Dragons, as you may recall, is a digital adventure board game I’m designing for Quickcharge Games. Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at the steam-infused feudal Japanese setting, as well as the hardy and courageous characters who live there. Today, I’d like to focus on the most important aspect of any storyworld: conflict.
The conflict at the heart of Steel Dragons is between the order of civilization and the chaos of the wilderness.
In the game, this conflict is embodied by the players’ heroes adventuring through the Broken Lands fighting monsters and barbarians, defending local outposts of civilization, and reclaiming the land on behalf of various nobles and factions in the (civilized) Outer Provinces.
Of course, the conflict can manifest other ways as well:
- The locals, though they struggle against the dangers of the wilderness themselves, may not appreciate outsiders interfering with their lives, throwing off the balance they’ve established, and generally imposing more civilization and order than they wanted.
- Likewise, while the movers and shakers of the Outer Provinces are united in their goal of bringing order to the Broken Lands, they have competing visions of what that order should look like. One faction wants to restore the Empire to its former glory, another wants to establish a theocratic utopia, and another doesn’t care about ruling the land so much securing its own financial success.
- What about the players’ heroes themselves? Depending on the scenario being played, they may cooperate against the chaos of the Broken Lands — or they may need to win at any cost, and might even choose to embrace that chaos to ensure their victory. Even players who are cooperating may come into conflict as they decide whether it’s more important to help their allies or get ahead themselves. (“Sorry! I know you need this lotus pearl, but I need it more.”)
Conflict is key to any storyworld and, as you can see, Steel Dragons has plenty to go around!
Stay up to speed with Steel Dragons and feast your eyes on a steady drip of awesome artwork! Join the mailing list, follow QuickCharge on Twitter, or like QuickCharge on Facebook—or all three, just to make sure you don’t miss anything!
Playtesters, as I mentioned previously, will have many opinions on your game’s balance. These opinions are essential to the game development process—especially as they relate to what’s “fun” and what’s “worse than doing your taxes”—but shouldn’t necessarily be taken a face value. As you ponder the playtesters’ insights, ask yourself some questions:
Do the testers want what I want?
Players (and by extension, testers) want to win the game. You, on the other hand, want all players to have fun while having a specific play experience. In other words, you have a pattern of play in mind. (We talked about that before.) For example, while the “kill all the zombies” card may be over-costed compared to the “kill this one zombie here” card, if the point of the game is to kill zombies individually, that “imbalance” is actually a feature, not a bug. It drives players to play in the manner you intended.
Is the imbalance somewhere deeper in the system?
When I was working on trading card games, I’d sometimes hear from playtesters that certain cards were “overpowered” when, on paper, they were perfectly fine. Turns out, the real problem was not those cards themselves, but with certain other cards that allowed the troublesome cards to be game-breakingly efficient. Believe your testers when they tell you there’s a problem. But don’t assume the problem’s cause is as obvious as it seems.
Is it truly unbalanced, or does it simply feel unbalanced?
Often related to the question above, playtesters may report an aspect of your game that they feel is totally unfair that actually only feels unfair. For example, video game testers may say that a cannon that does 60 damage every 6 seconds is way worse than machine gun that does 10 damage every second. Mathematically, the two weapons do the same damage over 6 seconds, but feel different. Do you just ignore the feedback? (“Numbers don’t lie.”) Adjust the visual feedback on the cannon to make it feel more impressive? Or change the machine gun to do 20 damage every 2 seconds? As the designer, it’s up to you, but remember that perception can be as important as reality when it comes to game balance.
Once you’ve established that there really is a balance issue, is it acceptable to sometimes leave that part of the game unbalanced? I’d say yes, and I’d explain why in part 4.
* I assume you’re doing the math. Don’t look at me. I’m not going to do the math for you. And if you can balance a game without math… That’s actually pretty intriguing. Drop me a line and let me know how you pull that off.
Steel Dragons, as you may recall, is a digital adventure board game I’m designing for Quickcharge Games. The game is set in a steampunk version of feudal Japan, which I’ve already described a bit last week. This week, I’d like to take a closer look at the people who live, work, and seek adventure in this world that’s similar to our own, and yet so very different.
While those in the Outer Provinces may consider the Broken Lands an uninhabited wasteland, there are pockets of population throughout the region:
Survivors: These are peasant farmers, craftsmen, and merchants who have rebuilt a life for themselves in the aftermath of the cataclysm. They fear and hate the monsters and barbarians that threaten their lives, and may or may not have strong feelings regarding the newcomers to their land. Mostly, they just want to be left alone and try to get ahead in life. (While most survivors come from peasant stock, some are descendants of nobility or slaves, which may shape their outlook on life.)
Barbarians: When chaos tore the Empire apart, some embraced it, and turned to violence and savagery as a way of life. Today, these tribes of barbarians roam the wastelands, preying on the weak and vulnerable. They welcome new blood from the Outer Provinces, for newcomers are often fat with riches and unprepared for the dangers they’ll find. Barbarians are one of the biggest threats to resettling the land.
Settlers: With the discovery of smart-steel, a new wave of settlers has washed over the frontier of the Broken Lands. Many are here for the steel, but others look to harvest lotus pearls, dig for smokestone, or claim farmland for themselves. Still others come to establish colonies where they can be free from provincial authorities, and live their lives as they see fit (for good or ill). A few of these settlements are deep inside the Broken Lands, but most are on the frontier between the core and the Outer Provinces.
The heroes of the Steel Dragons adventure board game represent those explorers, warriors, and fortune-seekers broadly known as “adventurers.” Here are some of the most common adventurers of the Broken Lands:
Samurai: Honorable warriors sworn to serve, samurai are typically found in the Broken Lands enforcing their masters’ will or protecting their masters’ investments. Most serve a specific daimyo, but some are sworn to broader organizations, and others wander as masterless ronin, seeking new challenger to fight and new wrongs to right.
Steel Shapers: Smart-steel is s a metal that can be formed to any shape – including liquid – as guided by the minds of those called Steel Shapers. In the Outer Provinces, shapers use their gifts to craft new steam-powered devices. In the Broken Lands, shapers are more likely to use smart-steel as a weapon, converting it to sword, shield, or whatever tool they need to survive. Shapers are often drawn to the Broken Lands by the promise of cheap, plentiful smart-steel with which to practice their arts.
Gunslingers: Craftsmen have learned to use steam to power rifles and pistols. While these devices are often more effective than traditional bows, they are very expensive and hard to use. Such weapons typically remain in the same noble family for generations, and rarely fall into the hands of commoners. Those trained in the way of the gun are often elite soldiers, enforcers, or agents of important rulers. They may be in the Broken Lands on behalf of their masters, or on their own seeking fortune and glory.
Shinobi: Secretive clans of ninja sell their services to the rulers of both the Outer Provinces and the Broken Lands. Independent shinobi sometimes use their skills to hunt treasure or monsters in order to enrich themselves or their clan.
Warrior Monks: Inside the Broken Lands, monasteries are fortresses, and the monks who live there are sworn to protect the people who live nearby against barbarians, monsters, and other threats. In order to carry out their vows, the monks train in martial arts, tactics, and strategy. While they seek peace, they do not fear violence.
Wild Guides: Traveling through the wilderness of the Broken Lands is dangerous. Traveling with a wild guide can make it less so. Wild guides know the best routes from one place to another, and the best ways to deal with any dangers or challenges that arise along the way.
Want to stay up to speed with the project and feast your eyes on a steady drip of awesome artwork? Just join the mailing list, follow QuickCharge on Twitter, or like QuickCharge on Facebook—or all three, just to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Game balance is part art and part science. Today, we’re tackling the science.
Previously, we discussed the three steps to laying the groundwork for game balance. (Go on, read it and come back. It’s pretty short, but pretty important.) In today’s entry, we’re looking at how to build on that groundwork to bring balance to the game.
First of all, it’s important to note that the map rarely matches the terrain; that is, the game balance that you’ve thoughtfully worked out on a spreadsheet during feverish, caffeine-fueled game design sessions might not actually exist once the game hits the table. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad designer. It just means that players are unpredictable creatures that love to abuse your game in ways you didn’t foresee.
And that’s okay!
That’s also the reason you need to get your prototype into playtesting as quickly as possible. While the players are playing it, make sure you’re taking note of
- what the players enjoy doing (“They seem to like building traps from discarded dragon body parts.”)
- what they don’t enjoy or avoid doing (“Why is no one playing their ‘Heroin Overdone’ card?”)
- what’s a game-winning strategy—especially one you didn’t expect (“Just letting the clock run out works?”)
- how well the actual play overall matches your pattern of preferred play (“They’re not supposed to do that!”)
Looking at your notes, you’ll no doubt find some surprises. Maybe the players loved the part of the game you thought wasn’t that important (like the trading aspects of a war game). Maybe they found your favorite part of the game to be tedious or actually unnecessary for winning. Or maybe they discovered a totally different way to use your economy and play the game, warping it into something you’d never intended.
Now, not all of this has to do with game balance. But you can use balance to address these issues. If your players love the dragon-body-part aspect of the game, you can make that aspect more efficient, with more options. If they’re not playing the “Heroin Overdose” card, you can make it cheaper. And if they’re pursuing paths to victory that are effective but not fun, you can make those paths so expensive that only the truly desperate will trudge through them.
Of course, the playtesters themselves will have plenty of feedback on the game’s balance. And they’ll likely have plenty of suggestions as to how to improve it. Their input is important, but we’ll get to that in part 3.
In the Empire of Venom & Silk fantasy storyworld, the world has been been invaded by giant, sentient spiders. Today, thanks to the generosity of my patrons, we’re taking a look at the magic-using spiders known as “spell-spinners” and the spells they spin.
Spell-spinners use their webs to create magical effects. Specifically, they arrange their webs into intricate, arcane patterns charged with magical energy. These patterns, called “weaves,” affect the objects and creatures onto which they are cast, enchanting them or cursing them according to the spinner’s will. Spell-spinners can also spin weaves into the forms of magical objects, such as weapons or armor, for themselves or others to use.
In order to perform these feats of magic, spell-spinners must ingest Milk of the Earth. A little Milk goes a long way, but without it, spinners must draw on their own spiritual reserves in in order to create weaves. This is exhausting. And spinners who spend too much of their energy casting spells can weaken, sicken, and even die.
Under ideal conditions, spider magic is powerful, but slow. Weaves require time and concentration to cast properly. If a spell-spinner is interrupted mid-weave, it may not be able to pick up where it left off, but need to start over again from the beginning. Most weaves take at least 30 minutes to form, but if the spinner takes longer, the spell is more effective.
Spell-spinners can cast magic quickly (such as in the middle of a battle), but their weaves are not nearly so effective. They can get their casting time down to a minute or less, but the spells they cast are mere shadows of their more time-consuming counterparts. This is why human rebels prefer to ambush spinners far from their nests; an entrenched spinner is nearly unbeatable, but one that’s firing webs without time to think or prepare is little better than any other weaver.
Weaves don’t last forever. A weave’s duration depends on many factors, the most important of which are how long the spinner took to craft it, and how much Milk of the Earth went into its creation. Spinners can reinforce existing weaves at a fraction of the time and Milk the original cost to make.
Weaves are divided into two broad groups: enchantments and creations. Enchantments are those that affect the person or object onto which they are woven. Creations are objects created from the spinners’ magical webbing and infused with mystic energy. Below are examples of the weaves of both types.
Animate: By casting this weave on an object, the spinner can give it a crude semblance of life. While such objects have no true intelligence, spinners can, with enough effort, give them a bit of autonomy.
Change Size: Depending on the how the weave is implemented, it can cause its target to grow or shrink many times over.
Degrade: This weave causes its target to weaken or even crumble away. Spell-spinners have used this to create holes through walls, ending their sieges on human cities.
Enshroud: This weave makes its target invisible.
Enlighten: Often used to illuminate the gloomy corridors of the spiders’ castles, this weave makes its target give off a light of a color and intensity chosen by its caster.
Ensnare: This weave forms a pattern that entraps those who look at it. All but the strongest-willed humans, upon seen the weave, want nothing more than to stop what they’re doing and look at the weave.
Harden: This weave strengthens its subject, making it sturdier and more resistant to damage. It’s used on structures to help build up walls, and on creatures to give them a form of magical “armor” in combat.
Manipulate: Objects with this weave on them can be lifted, rotated, and generally manipulated with the mind of the caster or his designated proxy. Spinners use this weave to compensate for their lack of hands or fine motor control.
Mindspeak: When a spinner casts this weave onto a human, that human can telepathically communicate with any spider in line of sight.
Sense: A spinner can turn the target of this weave into a remote sensor, allowing it to telepathically see and hear activity near the enchanted object.
Cloth: Weave cloth is imbued with a long-lasting enchantment of the spinner’s choice: armor, protection from the elements, the ability to fly… the list is endless, but the more elaborate the charm, the longer the cloth takes to make, and the more Milk it requires to produce.
Weapons: Spell-spinner web can harden, creating a substance that’s unbreakable as iron but light as balsa wood. Weapons made of such web are effective on their own, but are often imbued with a weave as well, such that they inflict extra damage, set the target on fire, or have some other battlefield ability.
Knowledge Scrolls: Spinners can imprint their knowledge on woven silk scrolls. When other spiders (or specially-skilled and/or gifted humans) see the scrolls, the weaves on them impart the spinners’ knowledge. It is a form of writing, but so condensed and specific, it goes beyond the normal into the supernatural.
Barriers: While any web-weaving spider can create a wall of web, spell-spinners create walls imbued with magical powers. A common version of this weave has the ability to drain the life-force of any living creatures who get stuck to its strands.
This post was made possible through the support of the heroic patrons of my Patreon page. If you’re not a patron yet, I’d encourage you to swing by the page and see what we’re up to.
As a guy who specializes in creating storyworlds, I’ve found Steel Dragons to be a blast to work on. It’s been a fun challenge to take all the cool stuff that everyone already knows and loves (Samurai! Airships!) and integrate it with new, unique features (Lotus Pearls! Smart-Steel!) to create a world that’s exciting and original, but still accessible.
If you’ve been following my world-building exploits for a while, you know that there are four aspects to a storyworld: setting, characters, conflict, and tone. Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about the Steel Dragons setting.
Central to the Steel Dragons setting are the Broken Lands. This vast, dangerous wilderness was once the domain of the Steel Lotus Empire, but the Empire fell centuries ago in a great cataclysm, and the land is now a realm of monsters, barbarians, and isolated settlements.
While a few heroes in Steel Dragons are born and raised in the Broken Lands, most come from the Outer Provinces. When the cataclysm struck, these provinces were the regions that were spared. In the centuries since then, these backwater fiefdoms have grown into powers in their own right. And now the Daiymo who rule these lands have turned their ambitious eyes to the Broken Lands once more.
Since the Empire fell, the Broken Lands have been a place for treasure-hunters and thrill-seekers. Brave adventurers could find riches in ruined palaces or the lairs of great beasts. Explorers willing to risk their lives could return to civilization with fortunes in exotic lotus pearls or scavenged steam machinery. Monster-slayers could collect countless bounties stalking deadly mutant creatures.
But now the Broken Lands offer even a greater source of wealth: smart-steel! This substance, necessary to build the best steam-powered machines, has recently been discovered in large supplies where the Empire once stood. The steady drip of adventurers making their way into Broken Lands has turned into a stream of settlers, pilgrims, steel-mad prospectors, and more. They dream of riches, but the wilderness is treacherous, and does not give up its treasure easily.
Here on the frontier between civilization and the unknown, between safety and untold danger, is where the players enter the game. They are explorers, protectors, and agents of order in a land of chaos. They are heroes in the world of Steel Dragons.
Want to stay up to speed with the project and feast your eyes on a steady drip of awesome artwork? Just join the mailing list, follow QuickCharge on Twitter, or like QuickCharge on Facebook—or all three, just to make sure you don’t miss anything.
I hate game balance. I mean, I like when games are balanced—who doesn’t? But I hate doing the balancing. You know the creative rush, the wide-eyed glee of the initial burst game design inspiration? Game balancing is sort of the opposite of that.
And so, for those of you who, like me, groan when we get to this part of the game design process, I present:
Darrell’s Guide to Game Balance That Mostly Works When I Remember to Use it
The first step is laying the groundwork, which is done in three steps:
Step One: Define your resources.
Think of everything in your game that has a number attached to it, and write it down. In a tabletop game, this is pretty easy: think victory points, action points, whatever you’re using for money, and anything that requires different colors of wooden cubes. Video games can be a bit trickier, especially if the players never see discrete units of your economy, but you probably still have elements that can be measured, like damage, speed, or even happiness levels.
Step Two: Find the common currency.
Now that you’ve got your master list of resources, you can start balancing. Only, it’s hard to weigh apples against oranges (or damage points against grain production) without a resource that they all have in common. To that end, pick a resource to be your common currency. This is usually your “money” resource—which allows you to say things like “apples are worth 2 gold apiece” or “a point of damage is worth 10 gold”—but really, it could be anything.
Step Three: Balance for preferred play.
Imagine how you want people to play your game. Is it primarily about trading with opponents, with little direct conflict? Is it a war game that discourages defensive play? Is a game of exploration, with many paths to victory and little penalty for failed experiments? With this mental model in mind, set the prices for your resources accordingly. (“This is a racing game, so speed and handling enhancements should be cheap, and weapons expensive but worthwhile.”)
Don’t worry about getting the numbers right the first time, because you won’t. I’m serious. Unless you’ve only got one or two resources to balance, or you’re a mathematician whose name rhymes with Steiner McSneezia, your first pass at game balance is going to be way off. And that’s fine! That’s what iteration is for, and that’s what we’ll talk about in part 2.
I don’t remember why my daughter and I decided to check out the Amazon original series Just Add Magic, but I remember that I didn’t expect much. It was, after all, a live-action kids’ show (strike one!) with a cast of unknowns (strike two!) and a premise that promised the saccharine “every episode ends with an obvious life lesson” kiss of death (strike three!).
I didn’t expect much. But I was surprised by how much the show delivered.
The premise is that a trio of tween-age girls finds a magical cook book that lets them cast spells by cooking food. Their cooking creates as many problems as it solves, and they often learn lessons about family and friendship along the way.
Okay, that sounds pretty… um… yeah. Not great. You can see why I had such low expectations.
But the show delivers. The friendship at its heart is real; I can believe that these girls are life-long friends. They squabble and get jealous of each other, but at the end of the day, their love and loyalty win out–and not just because we need a “valuable lesson” at the end of 22 minutes. The family relationships are likewise real. We don’t have wacky idiot sitcom parents, but actual loving, competent parents who might be flawed but are clearly doing their best.
If the relationships are the heart of Just Add Magic, the titular magic is its soul. Over the course of the two seasons, the girls (and through them, the audience) discover the deeper mysteries of the cook book, its history, and how it ties into the secrets of their small town. While the episodes all stand on their own, each one peels away a layer of the greater mystery, and my daughter and I often found ourselves agreeing to “just one more” when the end credits rolled.
That said, it is a kids’ show starring kids. For some people, that’s enough to take it out of the streaming queue right there. And that’s fine. But if you’re willing to engage with it on that level, I totally recommend checking it out on Amazon.
Welcome to the third part of my series on how stories and storyworlds relate to each other. We’ve already discussed how storyworlds only exist to serve as backdrops for their stories, and how creating stories can develop new details for their storyworlds.
Today I’d like to take a brief look at revealing the storyworld through the story. There are three main things to keep in mind:
Keep it Minimal: Only reveal the parts of the storyworld that are relevant to the story. You may know the complete ecology of the two-headed bird-ape, but unless that trivia’s essential to the plot, you don’t really need to share that knowledge with the audience. Just mention the bird-ape in passing (“Jane tossed the bird-ape an apple. It caught the fruit in one mouth while continuing to sing with its other.”) and move on. Avoid the dreaded info-dump.
Think Organically: Reveal the world organically through character actions, words, and attitudes. Characters don’t spout well-known backstory, but act as though everyone knows it. For example, instead of having Jane explain to someone, “Bird-apes are vicious when they’re hungry, so we need to keep them fed,” have Jane stay a healthy distance from the beast and ask its keeper, “You just fed this thing, right?” You can get a lot of mileage out of inferring background by how the characters act.
Learn With the Characters: As your characters learn more about the world, so does your audience. Over the course of the story, more worldbuilding elements may become relevant; as they do, reveal them to both the characters and the audience. The Harry Potter books were great at this. While the author had a whole wizarding world fleshed out, she only gave us bits of its history, economy, and weird relationship with house elves as Harry ran into those elements, so it wasn’t overwhelming.
Thanks for joining me on this jaunt through the realm of mashing stories into storyworlds. As always, if you have any questions, suggestions, or great meatloaf recipes, please share them in the comments or hit me up on the various social media. And if you’d like more of my world-building thoughts, please come visit behind the scenes at my Patreon page, and consider helping support this website.