Core Mechanic: Even/Odd Clarification

The most frequent topic to come up in feedback about our core mechanic is about interpretation of even/odd results. While we will have guidelines on what it means to various types of common checks (combat, social skills, disarming traps, and so on) it is intentionally vague. That’s where it can be tailored to fit with character flaws and situational issues. It’s where the twists in the story happen.

Example 1: You roll high (succeed) but odd (unfavorable). The character scales the wall, but drops her knife, possibly alerting the guards (you win but opponent gains advantage).

Example 2: You roll low (miss) but even (favorable). You miss hitting the orc with your axe, but in evading your blow he stumbled backward, possibly falling (you lose but gain advantage).

There are mechanical consequences as well, which tie into our hero point system (which will be detailed in a later post). In brief, if the situation is that you spend or earn a point and you roll even, you keep or gain a point. If you roll odd, it’s gone. If an opponent is spending a point against you and you roll even, they lose the point, but if you roll odd they get the point.

The idea is to make a single roll narratively nuanced. You can succeed in a task but still have consequences, or fail but still manage to come out ahead. As playtest continues we’ll post some actual play excerpts to illustrate more exampled.

 

 

Our Core Mechanic

This is the core mechanic currently being playtested for our as-yet-untitled house system.

Roll a d20. You’ll get two things from the result: high or low and odd or even.

  • If the roll is low (1-10), your character fails.
  • If the roll is high (11-20), your character succeeds.
  • If the roll is odd, it favors your opponent.
  • If the roll is even, it favors you.

Outliers: a 1 is the lowest odd result, so it’s the worst possible result for you. A 20 is the highest even result, so it’s the best possible result for you.

A Handy Table

  • 1 (natural) No, and… (you fail, and something else bad happens to you)
  • Low/Odd No (you fail)
  • Low/Even No, but… (you fail, but something good happens to you)
  • High/Odd Yes, but… (you succeed, but something bad happens to you)
  • High/Even Yes (you succeed)
  • 20 (natural) Yes, and… (you succeed, and something else good happens to you)

There will be modifiers (+1 to +5, -1 to -5) that apply based on ability and conditions that can affect success/failure and even/odd results. A +3 might pull you out of failure into success, but might flip you from even to odd. Your chances of success will increase with skill, because the goal is always “roll 11 or better”, but the odd numbers will aways have unintended consequences.

There will be specific examples of what “but” or “and” mean relative to character abilities.

The Problem We’re Solving For

The goal was to create a core mechanic that required no tables. The Handy Table is there for reference and will be included on the character sheet, but in playtest people quickly picked up on the meaning of high/low and odd/even and things flowed smoothly.

We wanted rolls that were both concrete (”you rolled a 5, that’s a failure, period”) and abstract (”but” and “and” leave room for interpretation).

The Case for Polyhedrals

Many of the rules-light and story games I have used to introduce new players to roleplaying use nothing but d6s or playing cards. A frequent response to this is “Don’t we get to use the funny dice?” At the same time, I have met hardcore gamers who have had fun with alternative games but commented that it doesn’t feel like a roleplaying game without polyhedral dice.

The Backup Plan

If polyhedral dice aren’t available, take an ordinary deck of playing cards. Remove the face cards (jack, queen, king). Aces are equal to 1. Black is high, red is low. Shuffle the cards and draw as needed, interpreting the cards using the same high/low odd/even matrix.

Secret Origins: Starship Tyche

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the original Star Trek. Of all the series, all the novels and games and other media, that’s my favorite. It still resonates with me as much as it did when I first watched it as a kid. My reasons are no different than anyone else’s: I love the characters and their relationships, I love the social issues addressed allegorically in the stories, I love the emphasis on science even if the science is hokey and wrong, I love the pulpish action, I love the idea that whatever our issues are today we’ll survive them and move forward.

What I feel officially licensed Star Trek roleplaying game have missed is the sense of discovery and social conscience. I’m not saying they were bad games — I’m quite fond of both the original FASA RPG and the Last Unicorn Games RPG – but they were focused on what had gone before. Rather than giving me the tools for my group/crew to discover new worlds and new civilizations, or to learn new things about the established but mostly glossed-over races and places seen on the shows and movies, we get a lot of details codifying what were already familiar with. Yes, I love John M. Ford’s take on the Klingons; it’s brilliant. I just wish there were still some mysteries about them left for my players to explore.

My goal for Starship Tyche was to create a Trek-like game that resonated with fans and played with the same tropes, but captured the elements of Trek that other games missed. I wanted to tie some things together in a more coherent manner — a connection between all of the computer-gods, a common origin for all of those super-intelligent godlike beings, a reason why certain things kept coming up over and over again. I also wanted to move beyond the social issues of the 1960s and take a look at contemporary problems — gender issues, terrorism, nationalism, religious extremism, income disparity, any number of things. The goal was to not just try to file the serial numbers off of Trek and make a cheap knock-off.

The original plan was to create adventures that riff on all 79 episodes of the original series, taking the elements, updating them, trying to tie them together, making them not just fit in with the setting we created buy expanding upon it. I thing we did pretty well. I think there are things we can do better. A second edition of Starship Tyche is on the top of the list, once we get the house rules completed. Instead of individual episodes, we’re going to do Episode Guide books, one per season, with 13 episode/adventures in it. That’s six seasons, if you’re counting, with a pilot adventure in the core book.

What I really want to emphasize isn’t starship combat. I want to focus on worldbuilding and story potential. I want to create a universe that’s just as textured and intriguing as Trek, with ample room for players and gamemasters to add their own touches and emphasize the elements they love best. I want to create a setting that isn’t Trek, but scratches the same itch, offers the same sorts of inspirations, and allows for some level of creative fulfillment.

Secret Origins: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a roleplaying game that I really love. Playing it and running it has been ridiculously fun. Writing it was a joy, and out of everything I’ve ever worked on it’s possibly my favorite. It’s also one of the worst-selling things that we’ve ever published. A lot of people don’t seem to get it. One of the responses on Facebook when we announced the game said, and I quote, “Oh HELL no!”

Hey, I don’t expect every game, or any game, to be all things to all people. I certainly don’t expect a game like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to have universal appeal. I still hold out hope that it will grow a long tail and eventually find an audience. I’d just be happy if it found a small core audience of people who love it as much as I do.

The original movie was banged out over a couple of weekends in 1964, and featured a bunch of well-regarded Broadway actors. The thing had no budget, but it wasn’t meant to be a blockbuster. It didn’t even have national distribution. It was meant to be a holiday film for kids, back before there were a plethora of holiday special on television or color TVs to watch them on, with limited regional distribution. It’s not an Ed Wood situation, where anyone thought they were making great art.

Entertainment at the time was leaning toward camp. As I explain in the book, this was an era when My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, The Addams Family, I Dream of Jeannie, and Bewitched were popular on TV. Lost In Space would eventually follow them down the road of camp, and the crowning jewel of such silliness, Adam West’s Batman, was only a couple of years off. The formula of mixing sci-fi and fantasy with comedy was an established thing. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is in the same vein.

That’s why the central conceit of the game is that the movie was widely distributed and a box-office smash, and spawned a spin-off television series. Not only do you have a game where you could play elves and Martians, and fiddle with both magic and technology, you have all of the possibilities presented in early 1960s sitcoms to tinker with.

Once we get the new house rules broken in, a second edition of the game will go on the schedule. I’d like to get it going for Christmas of this year, but that might be pushing it. I also want to do a campaign book, turning all 13 episodes of the fictional first season into playable adventures further expanding the film’s universe while playing with all of those wonderful wacky sitcom tropes. Until then, the first edition is still available, powered by Fate Accelerated.

Secret Origins: Fate RPG

My fascination with Fate RPG boils down to this: It’s a solid system that’s easy to teach to new players, the rules are not overly complicated for casual players, and it has an Open Game License. My real interests lay in writing settings. Fate is malleable enough that I could do just that, focusing on setting and adventures rather than rules. In theory, the rules familiarity could work in my favor, as fans of the system seek out new material.

The drawback in working with Fate is the same as with Pathfinder: an excess of competition. Evil Hat puts out a lot of high-quality material. They’ve set a fantastic standard, and overall that’s a good thing. It does mean, however, that when people look at how they can spend their gaming dollar they have to choose between the name brand and the off-brand. I do not blame anyone for picking the tried and trusted name brand over the little guy.

There’s also a stigma around third-party publishers in general. Some people feel that stapling a setting to an existing set of rules is cheating; if you want to make a game, go all the way and write rules too. Big publishers with established bona fides — people who have worked for the established game publishers — typically get a pass on this, and that’s fair. They’ve made their bones and established their credibility in the big pond, so they’re not-so-little fish when they swim in the little pond. There are also enough third-party publishers churning out crap to lend some truth to the assessment that third party material can be outright crap. We’re back to how we spend our gaming dollar, and the value of established brand names.

To excel at third-party publishing, you either need to be extremely different, or exactly the same, as what’s selling well on the existing market. The problem with being different is that you risk alienating the core audience. If I write a Fate-based game that radically changes what people expect from a Fate-based game, then you’ve lost the fan base. If you’re not different enough, then you end up with a bland vanilla product that offers no compelling reason to buy it over something official. If you want to be the same, then you need to develop very similar trade dress and style, which in many cases seems to mean hiring the same artists and writers that the official company uses. That makes business sense, but it doesn’t seem as if it’s very fulfilling creatively.

In trying to establish a means to differentiate Asparagus Jumpsuit’s products from other third-party publishers, the answer seems to be to go all—in and write a system. Rather than taking a flexible system like Fate and bending it to fit the needs of a setting, just write a rules set. The best way to overcome the stigma and drawbacks of being a third-party publisher is to simply stop being a third party publisher.

AJ, as I’ve stated elsewhere, began as an experiment while I was in business school. As I leanr things, the business evolved. We have a whole roster of games that we want to release, based more on the power of the settings than the rules. We were going to hang them on the Fate framework, but a compelling business case can be made for developing a house system to suit those needs. This dovetails with our assessment of our Pathfinder line; the next logical step in writing game aids to help with character creation and gamemaster prep is to write a game that simplifies character creation and gamemaster prep.

That said, we’re stepping out of the Fate arena. New games will have new rules. We’re already eying eventual second editions of Starship Tyche and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians with the new rules. What we’ve learned — what I’ve learned — from what Asparagus Jumpsuit has published so far will only serve to make what we publish next that much better.

Secret Origins: Pathfinder

Back in the 1970s, the Proctor & Gamble company thought they were in the soap business. They had a product, Ivory Snow, that was really nothing but soap flakes. The target market was for cleaning cloth diapers, and their selling point was that their soap was gentle on a baby’s skin. To maintain their market share, they were continually looking for ways to make their product “new and improved.” There are only so many ways to make better soap, though.

One day, someone made the intuitive leap that they weren’t in the soap business. Their actual business was the hygienic care of infants. They weren’t looking for better soap, they were looking for better ways to clean diapers. New and improved Ivory Snow turned out to be Pampers, the first disposable diapers.

I started writing Pathfinder Roleplaying Game material because I was in a long-running campaign with time-harried friends. People with 60+ hour per week careers, families, and all sorts of other commitments. Gamemaster prep was a chore – there were night when we played a board game because the gamemaster hadn’t had time to put anything together. Leveling up was a chore – no one had time in between games to do it, so we’d end up spending a session sitting there passing books around, reading over feats and spells and making decisions.

The Character Workbooks were originally just written for my group, before there were released as a very successful product. They continue to be bestsellers. The Monster Hide and Instant Character lines were put together for gamemasters who wanted non-player characters and alternative monsters but didn’t have the time to write them up.

I love Pathfinder. The 3.x rules in general are my favorite edition of the game. I’ve played it since day one. But it’s a pain in the arse for time-strapped players and gamemasters. I wrote those game aids to try to soften the barriers to entry.

When it came time to look at what other Pathfinder material I could create, I hit a wall. I could make more monsters, or more non-player characters. I could take the next logical step and start selling pregenerated characters of various races, classes, and levels. All of which were addressing the same issues over and over. What would a truly “new and improved” solution to the problems at hand look like?

How about a game that makes character creation, character advancement, and gamemaster prep a lot easier?

That’s why I’m no longer working on new Pathfinder material, and have turned my sites to writing the Foragers Guild Roleplaying Game.

Secret Origins: Asparagus Jumpsuit

Asparagus Jumpsuit was formed at the intersection of two personal needs. The economic downturn had struck, and like many people I found myself without a job but still possessed of a need for food and shelter. I lived in a state with high unemployment and low wages, so the best opportunity seemed to lay with starting my own business. My wife Katie, who years earlier had abandoned the corporate world to follow her passion to be a teacher, encouraged me to follow my bliss. That’s how I ended up pursuing a career as a writer in general, and a roleplaying game writer in particular.

Secret Origins: Asparagus Jumpsuit

At the same time, I’d gone back to school for a business degree. I already had degrees in unmarketable subjects, and I knew that I wanted to pursue being a self-employed entrepreneur for the long haul, so business school seemed like a solid investment. I started Asparagus Jumpsuit with the idea of using it as a “live lab.” Rather than just reading about things, I put theory into practice with a small startup business. It wasn’t a requirement for school, but I took ideas from various classes and experimented with them. I had practical applications for marketing, distribution, and accounting. I incorporated these experiences into my papers. I got positive feedback from professors for my initiative. Even the things I did wrong paid off with knowledge and experience. I graduated summa cum laude.

It’s Not All Fun and Games

There are some folks who’ve lobbed some criticism at me for my business-first approach to game publishing. Games should be fun, they say, not a money-making scheme. Well, why can’t they be both? Most of your favorite geek things weren’t created by non-profit corporations. Games should be written due to a passion for gaming, they say, not so you can pay your rent. Well, if I can write a passion project and keep a roof over my head, that seems win-win. The challenge is to put so much passion into it that the game is so good it catches fire and sells really, really well. It also means making decisions about what to write an publish; given the choice between writing something that only interests me, or writing something that a whole bunch of people will think is cool and be willing to pay for, my time is better spent on the thing a whole lot of people will be able to enjoy.

The thing is, I’m as much of a business geek as I am a game geek. I like seeing how all of the moving parts work, how systems connect, and frankly how to min-max things for the best results with the least effort. There’s a creative component to both. I write more about the intersection of creativity and business at my personal website, and more about the roleplaying side of things here, but for me they’re intertwined. The measure of a good game is how many people are playing it and talking about it. My ability to continue writing and publishing things that I love depends on sales. The desire to continue paying my bills doing this drives me to work harder to create better games.

Conjunction Junction and RPGs

Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?

And, but, and or will get you pretty far…

 

This isn’t something I want to spend a lot of time on, but given the feedback and comments I’ve received regarding my past few blog posts, I think it’s worth mentioning.

Thirty-something years on in this hobby, and I still encounter edition warriors and one-true-way advocates. Yeesh.

My woolgathering about potential new audiences and markets for roleplaying games does not equate to any sort of “gamers are dead” statement. I don’t think most people believe that’s what I said, and I know that most people understood what I was saying, but the internet being what it is, trolls.

My consideration of what elements of roleplaying games might appeal to people who don’t identify as geeks or gamers or roleplayers is not a battle cry to squelch traditional RPG tropes. We can have what we have while still seeking new frontiers.

My desire to include more people at the table is not tantamount to excluding people already at the table. It’s a pretty big freaking table, metaphorically speaking, with room for everyone.

This is not a zero-sum game where there’s only so much roleplaying to go around. This is not Sophie’s Choice where one thing must die in order for the other to live. No one is actively seeking to make you lose so they can win. I think there’s nothing but win-win in this hobby, and the sorts of things I’ve been pondering.

Think of it in terms of and, but, and or. Some examples:

And…

  • I can like traditional class/level structured tactical RPGs and story games.
  • I can like like rules-heavy games and rules-lite games.
  • I can hang out with hardcore geeks and “mainstream” people.
  • I can read science fiction novels and literary fiction.
  • I can like what I like and you can like what you like.

But…

  • I can enjoy rules-heavy games but sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the crunch.
  • I can enjoy rules-lite games but sometimes crave a little more meat on the bones.
  • I can like Marvel movies but prefer films by Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Anderson…
  • I can like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but think the first season got off to a slow start.
  • I can like some things you like, but not like other things you like.

Or…

  • I can publish another art-heavy coffee table-style core rulebook, or I can publish something small and simple.
  • I can compete with the traditional adventure games market, or I can try to find a non-traditional audience for my work.
  • I can keep doing the same stuff that everyone else in the industry is already doing well, or I can experiment with new things.
  • I can create what I feel like creating, or I can just create more of what other people tell me I should create.

Get it? I know you do, and I appreciate the support. I know that some of you understand what I’m saying, but don’t have the opinions born of anecdotal experiences that I do. You can argue about it, or you can find some constructive points to make so we can have a civil and useful conversation on the topic. See how that works?

5 Possible Barriers to Entry in RPGs

Brain SalsaWith an eye on designing a “house system” for Asparagus Jumpsuit, I’ve been narrowing down the problems I’m seeking to solve. I definitely want to create a system that appeals to veteran gamers, as well as new and casual players. The former I understand well enough; I fall into that category, of have in the past. To design for the former, I think it’s important took into barriers to entry to the hobby.

It Costs Money

When people think of tabletop roleplaying games, they tend to think of Dungeons & Dragons. Reasonable enough, since it’s the first RPG and still the 800 pound gorilla in the industry. The 5th Edition Players Handbook has a suggested retail price of $49.95. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook has a suggested retail price of $49.99. Then there are accessories, both necessary and optional, like dice and miniatures. It starts to add up quickly. There are also people somehow conflate tabletop roleplaying games with miniatures wargames and cases and cases of meticulously painted minis, or LARP with costumes, weapons, and other accoutrements.

Yes, there are less expensive alternatives — boxed starter sets, games with economical core books, PDF and ebook editions, used books, Amazon discounts, free basic and quickstart rules, and more. Yes, it’s relatively cheap compared to other hobbies and things like new video games and theater tickets. Yes, when you divide the cost by the number of players and the number of hours of play you’ll get out of a book, it’s ridiculously cheap.

But we’re dealing with perceptions here, and when most people see the hobby they see hardcore roleplayers who have invested in all of the toys, and big, thick, hardcover books on bookstore shelves. I’ve talked to people who think they have to buy all of those things, when they’re not even sure that they’ll like it. I invite them to my own games, loan them books, and point them to local game store and game day events where they can try before they buy, but I have to wonder how many potential gamers have gotten away because they think this hobby is expensive.

It Takes Time

My last regular gaming group had three teachers in it. Two of them also had kids. Carving out a few hours to roleplay was a big deal. Add game prep for the gamemaster on top of that, and it often meant we ended up playing Settlers of Catan. Even with multiple gamemasters, there were weeks when no one had any time to put something together. We used a lot of published adventures, but it still took time to read them through and become familiar with them before sitting down at the table and trying to run them.

Most of us like to tell tales of marathon sessions that ran all weekend, and epic campaigns that ran for years. That’s daunting to a lot of people struggling to find a couple of hours in their week for play. It makes time-restricted alternatives like going to a movie or playing a video game seem more appealing. They think tabletop roleplaying is going to require a lot of their time, and they’re not entirely wrong, so they have to decide how they want to spend their precious time.

Again, I’m aware that there are solutions to this, and games that are ready to play out of the box or book. Are new and casual gamers, who don’t have their pulse on the hobby, aware of this? Are the people who don’t browse forums or strike up conversations with the folks at the friendly neighborhood game store getting the word-of-mouth buzz about what’s available to them?

It Demands Familiarity

Roleplaying is thought of as a “geek” hobby, and “geek” implies genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superheroes. While all of those things have become more mainstream thanks to popular television shows and movies, not everyone is into them in a hardcore way, or at all. They might be into games that offer tactical combat, or games that let them tell stories, or any of the myriad things that games allow you to do, but they might think they need some deep knowledge of genre to participate.

Yes, there are games in every conceivable genre and games without genre. We’re still talking about perceptions here, which again are based around D&D being the recognized brand name. If they think fantasy is stupid or science fiction is boring, and they think that’s what roleplaying is all about, it’s going to be a hard sell to convince them that killing monsters and taking their stuff, and exploring the relationships between fictional people they make up, can be fun.

It Requires Opportunity

Everyone roleplayer I know got into this hobby in one of two ways. Either we heard about a game, bought it, learned it, and ran it for our friends, or we were invited into a group someone else was running. There aren’t a lot of other options. You invite, or get invited. It’s rare, in my experience, for someone interested in playing but not running to seek out a group if they’ve never played before, or for a gamemaster to seek strangers to run for if they haven’t already cut their teeth running for friends.

Look, I know that there are game stores and game days and conventions and websites where players can connect. I know that there are people who jumped in with both feet and sought the company of strangers. There’s still a barrier to entry for people who don’t have an existing circle of friends who share these sorts of interests. It’s a stereotype that geeks are a socially awkward lot, and it’s not universally true, but there’s a kernel of truth to it.

It Has Its Own Culture

It’s awesome that we have game stores, conventions, forums, and all sorts of ways to connect and be part of a community. It’s also sort of terrifying. I’ve been roleplaying for over three decades, and I sometimes find gatherings of gamers intimidating. Imagine how potential new players and casual gamers who haven’t already found their place in a geek tribe — our RPG clans, or some adjacent form of fandom — must feel. The fact that we tend to fight amongst ourselves certainly can’t make outsiders feel welcome and, again, 30+ years in this hobby and there are corners where I still don’t feel welcome.

I’ve said this before, but I think that we need more games that don’t require interaction with the community at large. Yes, I know, you can play D&D and never interact with a forum, a game store, or a con and there are people who do just that. Yes, I know that the vast majority of roleplayers are very welcoming to new and casual players. Once again, I invoke perceptions of the hobby, and wonder what the outsiders who are interested in roleplaying think. We can talk about our experiences with RPG culture as insiders, but we don’t know if the culture is a barrier to entry, or how much of a barrier it might be, or what we can do about it. I can’t say that it’s a barrier to entry, but I also can’t say with certainty that it isn’t.

My Takeaway

  • I need to design a game that’s going to be affordable.
  • I need a game that’s easy to prep and can be played in short sessions.
  • I need a game that doesn’t require deep genre knowledge.
  • I need a game that people can play with existing friends and family.
  • I need a game that doesn’t require any sort of “geek cred” to play.