It was over a decade ago when one of my friends asked, “Hey, man! Have you seen the movie Cannibal! the Musical?”
I hadn’t. I hadn’t even heard of it.
He handed me a DVD.
“I think you’ll like it,” he said. Turns out he was right.
For the uninitiated, Cannibal! the Musical is a musical comedy retelling the actual, historical tale of an ill-fated trip over the Rocky Mountains in 1874 that ended in death and (you guessed it!) cannibalism. It’s a low-budget film from a pair of filmmakers who went on to do other, more famous things.
Cannibal! remained a cult favorite among my friends. But it wasn’t until I learned I was going to move to Colorado (where much of the story is set) that I dug into the history of the incident. Because there was only one survivor (Alfred Packer, the eponymous cannibal) and his story kept changing, it was a mystery with no clear answers…
…But a lot of potential for a really cool game.
Next: Why cannibalism and board games are two great tastes that taste great together!
The suit itches, and it stinks of sweat and other, less pleasant things. Still, it’s all for science, and so I persist.
Okay, I’m not really doing cat-science. But I have been buried under several NDAed projects, such as:
- That one un-announced game design I’ve been forcing all my friends to playtest.
- That other unannounced game project that’s had me working IN AN ACTUAL OFFICE several days a week.
- The video game writing contract that’s allowing me to stretch my creative muscles in new directions.
- The other video game writing project in which I’m helping polish a fun and charming story to a high sheen.
- The tabletop RPG line that lets me practice my InDesign wizardry.
Whew. You know, writing it all down like that, I don’t feel quite so guilty about letting the blog lie fallow a bit, or how much Ghost Punchers has languished the past couple months. Still, I look forward to when I can start showing this stuff off you fine folks and say, “See? I’ve been busy not lazy!” and have you believe me.
I hate buying new computers.
Oh, I love shopping for new computers: catching up on all the improvements since I was last in the market, comparing bells and whistles of various makes and brands, and ferreting out those secret spots on the Internet where the best deals are hiding. Fun stuff!
I love having a new computer. The upgrade in speed and functionality is always a rush.
But the moment of purchase? The actual buying of the computer? If freaks me out, man.
Because I know—I know—the moment I pull the trigger, a better deal come along. As soon as the charge hits my credit card, I’ll see an ad for a machine twice as good for half the price. As soon as I casually mention that I picked up a new computer, one of my tech-guru friends will appear and say, “I hope you didn’t get [insert exact model of computer I just bought], because it’s slow, prone to catching fire, and actually full of tarantulas.”
I know. Because it happens every time.
That’s why I’ve put off replacing my work laptop for months. I’ve tried to deny its shuddering instability and love of crashing at inopportune times. But the truth is, it’s costing me money. “Time is money” is a horrible cliché, but it’s true—especially for a freelancer like myself. And when I lose two minutes out of every 10 while the computer randomly freezes, the beast takes 15 minutes to fully reboot after a crash, and it crashes at least once a day… That adds up to a lot of time.
I can’t afford to lose this much productivity. I can’t afford not to buy a new computer.
The new laptop is supposed to show up this week. No, I won’t tell you what it is, because I don’t want to hear how it’s overpriced and gives off radiation. But for my friends on Facebook and Twitter, I will tell you this much: it has a solid state disk drive.
It’s true. I’m obsessed with storyworlds and world-building. I’m also a huge fan of tabletop RPGs. And while these things go together like whatever “two things that go together” cliche you like (I prefer “like peanut butter and bananas” myself), mashing them together does raise some challenges.
Me: “Hello, gaming friends! I have picked up the Dino-Elves RPG and it is amazing! But before we get started, I’d like you to listen to me tell you about the setting for an hour, so we’re all –“
Friends: (Threatening growls and reaching for sharp objects.)
Me: “On second thought, why don’t you all take it home and read it over. It’s only 200 pages of –“
Friends: (Flip the table, snatch the book from my hands, burn the book, burn the table for good measure.)
Me: “Or… we can stick with the game that we’ve all been playing for 20 years because — I get it — who’s got time to learn a new world just to play a game?”
Learning new RPG worlds is work. And it’s stressful when you’re looking at 50-200 pages of storyworld, and don’t know what’s “fun to know” versus what’s “essential to play the game.” Of course, if you’re the GM and it’s a world of your own creation, it’s not quite such a hassle, but even then, it can be intimidating or annoying for your players.
With this in mind, I’d like offer a few tips for you Game Masters who want to introduce a new game world without assigning homework, or having your table flipped:
Go Broad: Explain the storyworld in the broadest terms possible, giving your players just enough context that they can create characters or start playing without being completely lost. (“It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy world that used to be full of high magic, but is now a low-magic wasteland populated by psychic elves who ride dinosaurs–that’s you–fighting evil mutants–that’s everyone else.”)
Expand as You Go: Bring up details as they become relevant, and not before. But again, keep them as broad as you can; the goal is to keep the game going, so don’t get bogged down in minutia.
Make it Personal: Possibly an exception to the “as broad as possible” rule, you may wish to give players details about the setting that their characters know. So instead of having all the players read five pages of background, give five players one page, and let them share their information with each other as it comes up. (“The acid swamp? I’m actually from there! We’ll have to watch out for swamp-squids and albino gators, but the tree goblins are actually friendly.”)
Make it Rewarding: Background details can be valuable. This could be a mechanical reward (“You learned the true history of the Bird-gods of Cerland! Here’s 100 experience points!”), a narrative reward (“Now that you know the dirt on the Bird-gods, the people of Cerland will join your revolt!”), or some combination of the two. The point is that the adventure causes the players to ask questions about the storyworld, then rewards them for finding the answers.
Encourage Expertise: If a player loves some aspect of the storyworld and becomes an expert in it, run with it. Let her memorize the Giant List of Dinosaurs and Their Habitats, and let her character expounds on the topic, even if that character doesn’t technically have the “Know Stuff About Dinosaurs” skill. Make sure there are opportunities for that player’s knowledge to pay off. After all, she’s put in the work. Give her a chance to shine!
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the setting, characters, and conflict of Steel Dragons, but if you’ve been muttering to yourself, “Yes, that’s nice, but how does it feel?” then today’s entry is for you! Because today, we’re talking about tone.
Steel Dragons is a digital adventure board game about heroes exploring a steampunk version of feudal Japan, fighting monsters, finding treasures, and generally making the world a bit safer for decent people.
The tone of the Steel Dragons storyworld is one of ambition and opportunity.
While there are many challenges ahead, the world is full of new opportunities for those ambitious enough to seek them out. This tone is generally optimistic (“A better life awaits if you’ve got the courage!”), but opportunism can have a dark side. After all, ambition without compassion is how you get tyrants, conquerors, and evil corporate overlords. The game definitely focuses on the positive side of the coin, but the negative aspects are there in the background. Lurking. Tempting. Waiting for the right story to be told.
This concludes our look at the storyworld of Steel Dragons. In the future, we’ll be exploring the game components, the technology involved (hey, it’s digital!), and how the game actually plays.
In the meantime, stay up to speed with Steel Dragons by joining the mailing list, following QuickCharge on Twitter, or like QuickCharge on Facebook—or all three, just to make sure you don’t miss anything!
Welcome to the final post in this series, in which we will discuss the TRUE MEANING OF GAME BALANCE.
Previously, we talked about defining your game’s resources and common currency, iterating for balance, and listening to playtester feedback. Today we’re going to get a little philosophical and talk about balancing for fun.
Remember when I wrote that game balance is both an art and a science? This is where it gets to be an art again.
As a general rule, if you need to choose between making part of your game balanced or fun, choose fun. Exciting, interesting gameplay trumps making sure everything adds up perfectly. After all, players are here to enjoy themselves, not to reverse-engineer your formulas and spreadsheets. (Okay, some players are here to play auditor, but they’re probably not your target audience.)
Am I crazy? Is this is crazy talk?
No, this is art talk. Because in the end, “balanced” means that the numbers are set to deliver the gameplay experience that you, the designer, want the players to have. If that means that some elements are a bit better or worse than they “should” be according to some arbitrary formula, then so be it. You’re creating an experience, not sending a monkey to the moon.
Finding those numbers, adjusting them, making sure they do what you want them to do… that’s artistry. And you won’t always find art in a spreadsheet.
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.