Here is draft 2 of the Board Game Geek Contest Game, Siege of Armagh. I put together some better icons, as well as some clarified rules with diagrams.
Here is draft 2 of the Board Game Geek Contest Game, Siege of Armagh. I put together some better icons, as well as some clarified rules with diagrams.
So I have a new project. Don't worry, I will still be working on Vikings and Valkyries, but I spotted a contest on Board Game Geek for Two-Player print and play games. I figured I would give it a shot, and see what I could put together under a more limited time constraint. Plus, I have never made a board game before, so we will see how this goes. I have a post up on BGG here.
The rules will be posted below, and attached to this document as a PDF with the components. If you found this place from the BGG thread, grab the document attached to get the rules and the print and play components.
Siege of Armagh is played on a standard 8x8 chess board. This game will also come with a game board that can be printed out. First, players must set up the terrain on the board. First, the river pieces are placed. 8 river pieces are laid down in a straight line across the board on one of the two middle rows by the Viking player. The Irish player then must move three, though may move up to five of the river tokens to the other row. The Viking player can then remove a single river tile.
Next, the Villages must be placed. The Irish player will begin, placing a Village between the third row from their side of the board and the fifth row from their side of the board. The Viking player then places a Village, then the Irish, and so forth until all the Villages are placed.
Finally, the Vikings place their troops along the row on their side of the board. Then, the Irish place their troops along the first two rows on their side of the board. The Irish can hold back any number of troops, and deploy those troops at the Villages on the board.
The Viking player begins the game. Each turn, the players can move up to two pieces. Pieces move one square at a time in any direction. Pieces may not move off the board or onto a river tile. Irish pieces may move through un-looted Village pieces without consequence. Viking pieces can move into an un-looted Village square, looting that Village. This move counts as a push.
If a piece wishes to move into a square occupied by another piece, it can push that other piece out of the square, straight away from the direction the piece is moving. If the pushed piece is an opponent’s piece, a Stun icon is placed on that piece until the end of the opponent’s next turn. When a piece is Stunned, it may move, but not push. If a piece is pushed off the edge of the board, into a river, into an un-looted Village (if Viking), or into an opposing piece, the pushed piece is destroyed.
When a piece is destroyed, it is simply removed from the game. When a Viking piece would be destroyed, flip it over. If the reverse side shows a Berserker or Chief piece, that piece instead remains where it is, and has a Stun counter placed on it. Berserker and Chief pieces can push with the strength of two pieces. When Irish pieces are destroyed, they are removed to the side, and placed on the Reinforcements tracker. Each turn, move the piece one space down the tracker. When it reaches the end, that piece may be played back onto the board at any un-looted Village as if it was held in reserve.
If a player wishes to push an opponent’s piece into a square occupied by another opposing piece, then that player must push with two pieces at once. This move places a Stun counter on the front piece only. This move counts as one move.
Players in Siege of Armagh face off in an attempt to garner two Victory Points. The player who gains two Victory Points first, wins.
The Irish begin the game holding one Victory Point on their side of the board: the Monastery’s Treasure. The Irish side can gain further Victory Points by either defeating 4 of the Viking troops, or by defeating the Viking Chief.
The Vikings can steal the Monastery’s Treasure. They can do this by moving a troop to the Irish side of the board. As long as a Viking troop holds the Treasure, the Vikings count as having that Victory Point. If an Irish piece defeats the piece holding the Monastery’s Treasure, that Irish piece takes the Treasure, restoring the Victory Point to the Irish. If the Viking piece holding the Treasure returns to its side, the Treasure is placed on the Viking side, and is safe there. If the Irish piece returns to the Irish side, the Treasure is placed on the Irish side again, and a Viking piece must return to the Irish side to claim the point. The Vikings can also loot the Villages present on the board. If the Vikings loot all 5 Villages, they gain a Victory Point.
Once one player has 2 Victory Points, that player wins.
And that is it. The icons to play the game can be found in the rules below. These icons are sized for a standard chess board, so your mileage may vary depending on the size of board you have. These are just the first draft rules. Updates will be at the BGG thread, but I will post the final game here as well.
One fine day in England 793, at the monastery of Lindisfarne a ship with a prow like the head of a dragon pulled up on the shore. Shields adorned the sides of the ship, and its square sails bulged with the wind. As the monks watched on, a group of men leaped from the sides of the boat, and stormed the monastery, changing the face of Europe forever. While not all of the Norse were vikings, those hardy raiders defined the popular image of Scandinavia for centuries after the raids ceased. They are the basis for this game, and as such, we need to talk about the viking raid, and how it will inform our design in the weeks to come.
A game is a goal with a set of limitations. I first heard this definition for a game in reference to soccer at the Games for Change Festival in New York. I unfortunately do not remember the name of the speaker, but I want to thank him from the void of the internet. He has forever changed the way I think about designing games. In soccer, the goal is to get the balls in the net. The limitation is that the players cannot touch the ball with their hands. Wait, you might say, isn’t the limitation that they have to kick the ball? No. Players can hit the ball with their heads, or their chests, and even some of the shoulder region so long as the arm and hands do not get involved. So why do they kick the ball so much? This is because the limitations that are set in a game end up defining the style of play. The best limitations will create strategies that are not only fun, but match the goal of the game. In soccer, players kick the ball to the net because it is the easiest way to get the ball there without using hands.
Tabletop games follow the same ideas. Goals can be a bit more nebulous in a tabletop, but a good GM will create compelling goals for the party for each adventure. The limitations are the rules. These limitations can create strategies such as the aforementioned kicking in soccer, but they can also create structures within a game. To look at another sports example, take basketball. In basketball, one team will score, and then run across the half court line as the other team takes possession of the ball and moves across their side of the court. Now, there is no rule in basketball about having to cede all that ground. A team can try to keep the opposing team from ever leaving its side of the court. This is called a full court press. You don’t see the full court press all that much, mainly because it is too exhausting. Those pauses while the teams return to their side to defend give them much needed time to rest and reposition. The full court press denies the teams that rest. So, the other rules of basketball and the limits of the human body have set the pace of an entire sport without having to make a rule to specify that pace. Structure in tabletops is very similar. Tabletop games do not have a set rule about how they are structured, but they do make other rules that inform that pace.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the adventuring day is king. Players are expected to spend a day adventuring and take a night to rest when their characters are spent. Why is this the case? Well, there are some rules for exhaustion in the book, and not sleeping can technically kill a character, but the actual reason for that structure is the Long Rest. A Long Rest in DnD 5th Edition is defined as an uninterrupted 8 hour rest, and it is crucial for restoring lost resources. Adventurers in DnD have a lot of resources, and are constantly spending them throughout the day. Every character has Hit Points. These get spent when the character takes damage, and are recovered throughout the day using spells, abilities, and items. Spells and abilities are usually only recovered during a Long Rest. Efficiency becomes a major strategy in DnD because of these rules. An efficient party can adventure longer, and defeat more evil in less time. Notice that at no point in that description did I say that the rules demand the party take a Long Rest. Instead, the mechanics encourage that style of play. We want a system of pacing like the adventuring day in VnV. We want to identify a basic structure that we want to encourage in play, and make sure that our mechanics line up.
Notice though, that I am not saying we should not explain the structure to the GM and the players. A lot of parties have less fun than they could with DnD because they miss the explanations about the adventuring day and try to play with a structure that the game does not support well. This is where complaints about parties running back to town and resting after every fight come from. If that is the case, the adventure at hand has not been built to encourage the adventuring day structure. We want to avoid that problem by creating a structure that is clear, entertaining, and thematic. We also want to create a structure that can still allow for a variety of adventures.
The vikings spent the better part of 200 years raiding Europe. They sacked monasteries, towns, castles, and even took kingdoms and land. The Norse at the time prized valor in battle, material wealth, and the wisdom that could be gained by distant travels. These will be themes of our game, and we can use them to create our adventure structure. Going viking was no easy task. The raiders would need to supply themselves with armor, food, and supplies. Then, they would brave the harsh seas of the northern Atlantic ocean, navigating tricky waters and new lands to find good targets. Finally, the vikings would reach their goal, and engage in battle or pillage. If they survived, they could load up on loot and make the long trip back home. Doesn’t sound too different than a standard adventure structure, does it? Well, it isn’t, but it is going to provide a useful lens through which we can view the rest of our mechanics.
We are going to need to create mechanics that encourage the party to travel to distant lands in order to complete some kind of task before returning home. The journey itself will be dangerous, and the party will need to manage its supplies in order to survive. Upon arriving at the destination, the party will be met with their final challenge, and if they succeed, they can return triumphant to the relative safety of their homes. Sounds kind of neat, right? It is kind of like the adventuring day of DnD blown out to a full adventure. The party will be able to take the equivalent of Short Rests as they resupply and rest on the journey, but will need to make it all the way back to a safe haven before they can consider themselves victorious.
The first step in any VnV adventure is Preparing. The party will need to stock up on supplies and potentially allies before setting off to complete their goal. Now, DnD has a lot of character resources and items that the party manages each day. What will our characters have? I know I have not talked too much about the magic system, but I have mentioned it would be powered by the Valkyrie, who will be with the party most if not all of the time, so spells are not a resource that will be lost on the Raid. Hit Points, however, will be fairly limited, so the party will need to manage those. Getting injured in battle will not only effect that battle, but the ones to follow, as I plan for healing to be a slow process. So Hit Points and Wounds are the first resource characters need to be worried about. Allies will also prove important on any journey. The players can recruit vikings, sages, healers, lords, kings, farmers, whoever works for the adventure at hand. These recruits will need some rules governing who controls them and how they operate, but we can get to that later. For now know that recruiting allies will be an important part of preparing for the Raid.
This leaves one major mechanic on the table, and possibly my favorite: items and gear. And do you know what having items and gear means? Encumbrance rules! No? Anyone? I might be the only one excited about that, but it’s my game, so I get to include them. Supplies and gear will be our final resource that the party must manage throughout an adventure, and I want to take a moment to look over how we might track these things, because as you are probably expecting by now, I am going to steal some good ideas from other games.
Before I get to what I want the gear and encumbrance system to look like in this game, I need to express why I like the idea of encumbrance, and what I want the system to do. For most DnD players, encumbrance is an obnoxious rule that is mostly ignored. Every item has a set weight, and a character can carry a certain amount of weight based on his Strength score. This system has a lot of issues. For one, the numbers are bloated and way too granular. To find out how much weight a character can carry, the player has to consult a chart which shows Light, Medium, and Heavy loads for each Strength value. Then, the player has to count up all of the weight of his gear and compare that to the chart to see what kind of load he is carrying. If he is carrying a heavier load than his armor’s weight class, it encumbers him. On the surface, this isn’t the worst system, but the problem is that it ends up being super boring in play. Why? Well, it is too complicated to play with at the table. Having to add and subtract really granular numbers like the weight values in DnD means the players can’t reasonably keep track of their encumbrance as they gain and lose supplies. This ruins the moment to moment engagement with the system, making it an oddity that might come up during character creation but probably won’t because most groups ignore it.
So why am I bothering with encumbrance? Because it has the power to be an integral part of the balance and play of a game in a way that is actually interesting. A few years ago, when Edge of the Empire first came out, and yes I am going to be borrowing inspiration from that game again, I played in a game as a Twi’ilek Bounty Hunter. I wanted to make her a sniper, so I started allocating points, focusing on her shooting and intellectual abilities over raw strength. Then, when I went to buy her starting gear, I noticed that she could not actually use the gun I had planned to give her without an added sling attachment to compensate for the weight. So, that ran me an extra 50 Credits. After buying that and some light armor, I went to buy extra gear and noticed something else, I could not carry any gear beyond my gun and armor without becoming encumbered. See, calculating encumbrance is super easy in EotE. You add 5 your character’s Brawn score and you are done. No charts. The gear itself also uses low numbers to track encumbrance. A rifle is Encumbrance 4, a pistol Encumbrance 1. This makes doing quick math on how much your character is carrying so much easier. So, looking at my numbers, I decided to buy a backpack with grants an extra 4 Encumbrance to my character. This allowed me to take a few extra items, but also limited my starting funds which forced me to stock only the essentials.
That is how it played out during character creation, but did any of that matter in play? Actually, yes. I had my character totally loaded down. This meant that I would need to drop stuff to pick anything weighty up if I did not want to be encumbered. I had to make sure that my gun’s Sling attachment did not get damaged, because then I would not be able to use it effectively. The backpack let me bring items like extra reloads and stim packs to keep myself in the fight, but I could not do much to take things back out of the fight. More importantly, this became a concern about money and gear. Money is the main driving factor of a lot of EotE games. The protagonists are mainly out to enrich themselves as much as they can without dying. To assist in this style of play, the game designers included a lot of ways for gear to get lost, damaged, or broken so that characters would need to spend some of their hard earned credits on repairs, preventing them from ever quite reaching the kind of financial stability that would end the campaign. The Encumbrance system is a huge part of that because it can cost players extra credits up front, down the line, and costs mod slots on gear. Encumbrance even extends to the players’ base of operations: their ship. The ship can only carry so much, forcing players to make hard decisions when smuggling cargo.
Games are complicated beasts. Every part of a game feeds off of at least one other part. Designed well, this can make systems like encumbrance critical, interesting parts of a game. Designed poorly, these systems get ignored. DnD’s encumbrance system gets ignored because it is too complicated to be of use at the table. Combine that with most groups’ propensity to ignore rules about needing to eat and drink, light dark dungeons, and other situations where supplies would help, encumbrance becomes an unnecessary hanger on. We want to design our encumbrance system to integrate to the rest of the game, and to assist in creating the kind of game we want to see. We also want our system to be simple and easy to understand so that the players can engage with it at the table.
Let’s set up some guidelines for the encumbrance system, and what we want it to do. First, we want encumbrance to limit the amount of stuff a character can carry. Items and supplies should be both useful and necessary in this system. I want characters to make tough choices about what they take with them. Second, encumbrance should allow gear to exist in physical space where it can be acted upon by characters in the game. EotE accomplishes this task with Despairs and Triumphs on rolls that can cause gear to get damaged, destroyed, or lost. We want Binary Success and Failure on most rolls in this system, so we will need to think of another way to influence player gear. We already have the idea of Sundering as an action in combat, and that can take care of intentional shots at gear during a fight, but what about accidental damage and loss? We will need to think about that as well. Finally, encumbrance should provide difficult choices about what loot to take. Look, we are making a game steeped in Norse mythology and history, and that means vikings and raids. The Raid is the basis for this whole game structure that I promise we will get back to. So, looting will be a major endeavor. Whether the players are sacking monasteries, plundering caves guarded by giants, or rustling cattle to feed their families back home, they will need to keep track of what they can carry both on themselves and in their ships.
To accomplish this, I am going to ignore the concept of encumbrance as weight capacity. In DnD, the encumbrance value of an item is expressed in pounds, and the amount of items that a character can carry is determined solely by that character’s Strength. There is a bit of hand waving about needing a backpack to carry lots of stuff, but you could theoretically carry 30 spears in a backpack and unless the GM decides she does not like that, you are good to go by the rules. It’s weird. Instead, I want to think of encumbrance as an abstract representation of weight and size. EotE kind of does that by allowing both Brawn and gear like backpacks and utility belts to add to the character’s carrying capacity, but it does not actually determine where an object is held on the player. Wait. You mean to say that you are going to make players keep track of every item and where it is? Won’t that be insanely complicated? I do intend that, and nope. Behold! Someone else’s brilliant work.
If you don’t have a minute to read that much more concise article in the middle of this mess, I will summarize: each character gets 6 bags with 3 slots in each. The bags themselves can be whatever the player wants, and any piece of gear that the player brings will take up a certain number of slots. Weapons like swords and spears take up 3 slots, while something like a dagger or compass takes up 1. Equipping armor reduces the number of gear slots a character has based on the weight and bulk of the armor. This system, as the author states, allows the GM and players to have an easy and quick understanding of what each character is carrying and where that item is. It is also very harsh, only allowing players to carry a few important items. It fits all of our goals, and so for now, we are going to use it. I don’t yet know if characters will have attributes or what those attributes will be, so I am going to just slap this system in and see how it works at the table.
Regardless of what system we end up using in the final game though, we know how we want encumbrance to work in this game, so we have a sense of how to proceed on designing the first step of an adventure: Preparing. Players will need to assess the journey they have ahead of them, whether they are sailing to the west to go viking, journeying into the mountains to face off against unruly giants, or delving into the woods to uncover the mystery of a local monster, the characters will need supplies and weapons in order to succeed. So for each character, they will need to note down all of the stuff they have with them, but what about something like a ship? Ships can carry a lot of stuff. Will the players be expected to note down the exact quantity and makeup of the food and supplies inside? No, that would be too complicated, and so far our encumbrance rules have been simpler. So what if we say that things like ships and horses can carry a certain number of “slots” of gear, just like the slots in the encumbrance rules. A ship might have the capacity for 20 passengers, and 30 units of gear, for example. The players can fill that up with as much theoretical gear as they want, and when they want to grab supplies from the ship, they subtract the size of the stuff they pull out from the gear pile. For instance, if my character loses her sword in a fight when her raiding party first lands on the beach, she can go back to the ship to get another. Instead of having a complicated ship manifest detailing the specifics of every item on board, we can simply say that the ship has 15 slots of gear. My characters wants a short sword, which takes up 2 slots, so she grabs it from the ship, and now the ship has 13 slots of gear.
This system will simplify the Preparing step because it will allow players to simply note that they want 15 units of weapons, 20 of supplies, and 10 of gear, and be done with it. In fact, let’s even use those categories. Weapons include any mundane weapons and armor. Supplies constitutes food and water. Gear is a grab bag of other items like torches, tents, bags, and chests. These three categories could all be smashed into one generic supplies category, but I like the idea of the players having to keep in mind how much of each they want. It keeps it simple, but allows for a bit more strategy. Each of these types of goods will have a set cost per unit, and only becomes real objects when drawn from the pile. Once an item is removed from the pile though, that itemt is now out in the open and must be tracked separately.
So the first narrative arc of an adventure will be the characters prepping gear, intel, and gathering allies before they head off into the dangerous wilds of the world. The final note to make on this section is that, unless it involves some interesting politicking or combat, the Preparing stage should be short. The players are setting up their adventure and getting ready to go. This is the tail end of Act 1 in a 3 Act Structure. We do not want to force players through the whole of Act 1. Act 1 is before the action starts, and this is a tabletop game. We want our players getting to the interesting bits.
Not every adventure is going to involve sailing, but almost all of them will involve travel. The travel portion of the game will involve navigation, dangerous environments, and potentially combat. The most important thing to focus on in the Sailing portion of an adventure is that it should be a drain on the party resources. This section will probably take the most in game time, so food will be eaten, supplies lost or damaged, and resources strained. This is where DnD style resource burn encounters will be most present. The party will need to brave things like dangerous storms, monster ambushes, thick, confusing mists, and the like. Getting lost should feel dangerous and frightening. Spending two extra days traveling could burn out the food that the party brought, and an accident could cause the party to lose some critical gear. The Sailing portion of the Raid should be the point at which the party most needs to maintain efficiency in order to keep their supplies in good order.
The Viking is where the meat of the adventure takes place. Whether the party is hunting a monster, leading an army to battle, or doing some good old fashion raiding, this is the portion of the mission where it comes to a head in the most intense encounters. This should be the part of the adventure in which your characters are now facing off against the threat they left home to deal with. Whether they are going to raid a wealthy town in order to bring riches home to prop up their local lord, or facing down a monster that has been attacking villagers, this is the part of the adventure where they will face that final fight. This is not the only time when the players will face conflict and combat, however. Fights can happen during any other phase, but this is where the game will include the most conflict. The heroes have made it to their destination, and now they have to accomplish their task.
The heroes have won! And now they are going to reap the rewards. This section will be kind of like an abridged Preparing section. The heroes will want to grab whatever loot they can and stash it on their boats, horses, backpacks, whatever. In a standard viking raid loot might be gold and silver, while on a monster hunt loot might involve gathering monster parts for a potion, or a mysterious map that leads to greater adventures. Whatever the characters are taking from their conquest, they need to have some kind of reward, but also possible further complications. During a viking raid, the raiders would need to grab their loot and go as fast as possible. While the targets they hit were usually lightly defended, especially in the early days of the viking raids, soldiers could still reach them if given enough time. This kind of complication can add tension to this stage. While the Preparing stage might have required politicking under the pressure of the seasons back home, Looting might be done under threat of a counterattack that could leave the heroes’ forces ruined.
Finally, with the conflicts won and the loot gathered, the heroes get to return home. This stage is an abridged version of the Sailing phase. The heroes know their route, they have defeated whatever they needed to defeat, and they have loaded their ships down with gold and silver. If they make it to the Returning phase with enough supplies to get home, it will usually make sense to let them get home. If they are missing supplies or pursued or otherwise hindered, that can lead to a new adventure. Otherwise, this is a good denouement to an adventure. Let the heroes sail home without bothering to make rolls about it unless it is dramatically appropriate to do so. Don’t throw a random storm or monster attack at them to throw them off. Just let them go home.
Now, this adventure structure is all well and good. We have seen how it can be used for a couple of different types of adventures, and we have seen how it might fit into a satisfying narrative structure, and guide the game to that structure. But, we talked about DnD’s adventuring day up top, and the most important idea in that topic is the word day. DnD does not really guide the structure of a whole adventure. Instead, it breaks down a smaller unit of time to make sure that each day can provide satisfying adventure. Sure, giving our GMs an adventure structure to draw from is helpful, but what are they supposed to do each day? How will sessions play out and smaller units of time be dramatically satisfying? Well, all we have to do is take this adventure structure, and shrink it down.
Every day of adventure can be broken down into the steps listed above. Characters will have a goal to accomplish, so they will need to prep for that goal, travel to it, face it, gather whatever boons they can from the aftermath, and then return to the path of the adventure. If characters are leaving their ships to search a nearby island for some extra food, they will need to take supplies and weapons with them, explore the island, face the threats present there, and then gather the food supplies that they hope to find. The kind of long-game resource management that this broader structure supplies works at a smaller scale too, with the heroes seeking to hold onto their supplies and hit points as best they can each day and each encounter. The other thing to remember is that this adventure structure is not a set of hard and fast rules. I am not building a game with hard locked storytelling rules. This structure fits the myth of the vikings as hardy traveling raiders, and it fits the myths of the Norse of the time, who believed travel and knowledge of foreign lands provided power and wisdom. It makes for a satisfying story as it follows a nice standard story structure. This does not mean it can never be mixed up. The Preparing stage of a grander adventure could involve a large battle to claim the loyalty of a local clan, the Viking stage could include a daring climb into a monster’s lair followed by a conflict resolved with secret knowledge discovered during the Sailing phase. This is just a general framework from which to think about the adventure, and the days within that adventure. Mix it up.
This article has been a bit of a ramble, and that is okay. It is important to dog into structures like this and see how they can inform the design process. Just like any other rule I write down in these articles, everything here is subject to change, but by building the structure of the Raid as adventure, I have established ideas about what I want the game to do. Now, I need to see if it does. Join us next time, when we talk about the basics of lore for the system setting, and I might talk a bit about creating characters for the playtest.
Hoo boy it’s time. This article got a bit delayed because of GDC. My apologies. If it is any consolation, I had a great time, and I will be posting another article later this week. So, we’ve spent about two weeks laying out the basic ground rules for the game. We have some overall thematic, conceptual ideas that we want the game to use, and we have a set of more concrete rules that we would like our dice rolling mechanic to follow. Let’s take just a moment to lay them out here.
Make an Action Game
Make a ROLE Playing Game
No Combat Swoosh
Active and Reactive Combat and Conflict
Simple and Quick Dice Rolls
Strong Lore Framework
Remember these from article one? These general guidelines are just that: general. They are thematic ideas to keep in mind while I work. Obviously definitions of an Action Game might differ, or I might create Lore that some people don’t like. That’s okay. These guidelines are not hard and fast rules. This is some Pirate’s Code business: more like guidelines than rules. I will keep these ideas in mind so that as I work on the game, I can check back in with my guidelines to see if my decisions are falling in line.
As an aside, I just noticed that my second rule might cause some confusion. The role playing community likes to use the slogan, “role play, don’t roll play”, which means that the players should play their characters, not the dice. It is a bit vague, and absolutely not what I mean. Players must use the numbers they have and an understanding of the probability of the dice in order to make decisions. These are the laws of the universe in a tabletop game. Just like I would decide if it was safe to jump over a gap based on my understanding of my physical strength and the laws of physics, so too can a DnD player decide based on their character’s Acrobatics skill and the DC of the check. Refer to [this Angry GM article] if you want a better breakdown of why it is important for players to have an understanding of their chances. What I mean by ROLE play is that I want players to play their character, and only their character. I do not want them to have to make poor decisions based on character quirks or to decide things about the scenery and the game world. That is the GM’s job. Players play their characters, the GM manages the game world and presents situations. I want the GM to have plenty of hooks to give players hard decisions, but I do not want a FATE style compel mechanic to make players act outside the interests of their character. Got it? Good.
The Valkyrie Must Be Able to Pass Dice to Empower Rolls
Binary Success and Failure On Most Rolls
Only One Dice Mechanic
Encourage Diversity of Strategy
Enough Dice to Power Runic Magic
And these rules are from the last article. These are more specific, and lay out some concrete things that I want to be able to do with my dice. Checking in with these will be a bit easier. If my dice system is not Binary success or failure, I can tell that right away. Easy. So I will be keeping these rules in mind when making the game. I might even make a separate post to hold all of these rules as we go through the project.
Hold up. I thought we were talking about battle systems today. Well, we are! But first I need to get a bit historical on you. I know, I know. This is a fantasy game about a mythologized Scandinavia, but how can I properly build a mythological world without some grounding in reality? Besides, history is cool. All my best ideas come from history. So, while I have been writing these articles, I have begun doing research. Nothing too crazy. Right now I am just listening to a podcast on the history of the viking age. It’s called The Viking Age Podcast, conveniently enough, and it is definitely worth checking out. In twenty or thirty minute episodes, Lee runs through all of the history leading up to the viking age, why it might have happened, and how it influenced both Scandinavia and the greater European continent. It rules. I studied mostly Japanese, Wild West American, and Jewish history in college, so it is great to get some exposure to a culture I spent little time reading about. And, I have already learned something that will be hugely important for our project: not all of the Norse were Vikings.
I know! It’s crazy right? Okay, maybe that doesn’t seem crazy to you, but it felt like big news to me. Here was this word that I used so very wrong for my whole life. It’s not a slur or anything, it is actually a word used to describe the people who went to raid outside of Scandinavia. Vikingar: the people that went Viking. This may not seem like a huge deal. After all, it is just a terminology change, but facts like these can paint our project in a whole new light. I do not intend to be authentic every step of the way. Again, we are talking about a world in which Ragnarok has happened and the Valkyries are left to run the show. But, the best fantasy takes inspiration from reality. Knowing that the Vikings referred to a specific group of raiders changes how I might write this world. Why not, if I can, use a more authentic representation of Scandinavian culture during the viking age in order to create a world that is both more authentic and more unique.
So, what does this new information do for our battle system? Well, not a lot if I’m being honest. I know that this is the battle article, but I started listening to this podcast while writing the last one, and got excited about some of the new information I was learning. So, this kind of aside might become more of a regular thing. Every now and again, if I have learned something particularly cool, I might pop up at the beginning of an article to share it. And, while this information might not pertain to the topic of the article, I can promise you that learning about this period of history will get my wheels turning for other aspects of the game. Finally, you never know when inspiration will come to you. I talked in the first article about inspiration as a seed, something that you must tend to for it to grow into something usable. Well, I am going to need a lot of inspiration for a project like this, and historical facts are going to be the manure for my inspiration field. Yes, sometimes it will be kind of gross, and sometimes it will be tedious to get all that manure spread, but at the end of the day, the inspiration planted there will grow all the stronger. See, I brought that metaphor around.
No! Actually, I’m just messing with you. Yes. Now we can talk about fighting. I have thought a lot about the combat system in Vikings and Valkyries. I have planned whole imaginary fights in my head, detailed mechanic after mechanic, and worn a hole in my apartment floor pacing back and forth for so long thinking about it all. This article is my chance to codify some of those ideas. I need to make the basics of this combat system material so that I can stop jumbling it around in my head. It’s picked up some good ideas in there, but the system needs to get some fresh air. A lot of things need to get decided in this article, and when I went through the fist draft it got really long, so I am shortening it down to just regular long by making these sections a bit more efficient. That might mean that some of the decisions I make are not as well explained as others, and that is okay. I am going to be testing this game as soon as possible, and it is entirely possible that the quick ideas I have here will get revisited. So, if I seem a touch cavalier about this combat system, that is because I am.
The first thing any combat system needs to know is will it use maps and minis, or be a “theater of the mind” kind of affair. How the players are expected to visualize a fight will affect how complex and deep things like positioning and terrain can be. First off, the combat in VnV will not be “theater of the mind” by default. I voiced my complaints about those systems in the first article, and I stand by those issues. I can create a much better tactical combat experience if I have some kind of battle map. What does that battle map need to look like though? Dungeons and Dragons uses a set of 1 inch by 1 inch squares that each represent 5 feet of space. Savage Worlds throws the mat away altogether and just tells you to use a ruler. Most characters can move about 6 inches on a turn, and 1 inch is equal to 1 meter of distance. FATE even has a battle mat. Instead of granular inches or squares, FATE uses Zones. Zones are kind of cool. When laying out a conflict area, the GM (called the Judge in FATE, which is kind of dope) writes the zones on a handful of index cards or post its or something. Then, the GM lays them out to create a simple map. Characters can move from one Zone to another on their turn. Some Zones might have a tricky challenge in the way to cross them, others might provide cover, others might have some hazard that makes fighting in them perilous. I kind of like Zones, they are a neat way to abstract out the tactical movement of combat and create compelling maps quickly.
Too bad we aren’t going to use Zones in VnV. They might be quick and easy and elegant, but they abstract combat too much for my tastes. It works fine in a game like FATE where combat is not the main driving factor, but combat will be important in VnV, so we are going to want a more granular system. That granularity will add some complexity to the game. After all, we talked about not having too tight a distinction between combat and non-combat conflict in VnV, but now GMs will have to break out a battle map and pens in order to transition to combat encounters. What gives? Well, what gives is that despite wanting to avoid the combat swoosh, I want deep tactical combat more. Movement and positioning is incredibly important for that kind of combat. Games like FATE and Edge of the Empire do a solid job of creating a semblance of that depth, but the systems they use to replace maps feel just as complicated. This is a bad trade in my opinion. I want players and GMs to be able to see exactly what is going on in a battle so that they can make the best tactical decisions possible. I do not want to limit them to simple imagined scenes. Say what you will about the complexity required in setting up a map, it allows GMs to create much more engaging encounter spaces. Trying to run complex encounters with multiple moving parts in a game like EotE takes way too much brain power, and leads to arguments about where characters and objects are positioned more often that not. I want my players to be able to know right away where things are.
As for what type of battle map, I am going to go with a standard mat. The squares will be 1 inch by 1 inch, and players can use either the square side or the hex side. My reason? Well I want granularity, as I said above, and I don’t feel any need to reinvent the wheel on this one. Most tabletop players will have access to a battlemat for DnD, and so I am going to go with that format. Measuring things with a ruler and finding terrain is kind of a pain in the butt. Usually when I play Savage Worlds I would end up using the hex grid side of my battlemat anyways. So, 1 inch squares it will be. For now, I don’t feel any need to define the distances on the squares. DnD calls them 5 feet by 5 feet, and that seems pretty reasonable. I have some ideas about weapon ranges that we will get to in a later article, and that might necessitate smaller distances on the squares. For now though, it does not matter. I will define ranges and player movement in squares, and leave the distances until later.
Now that we know we want a mat, let’s talk about initiative. This, I promise, will be a bit different than the standard initiative of DnD and Savage Worlds. The reason for this? Reactions. See, I want players to be able to make decisions both on and off turn. When attacked, I want the players to be able to decide if and how to defend themselves. This means that the concept of a player turn is a bit more nebulous. For a great example of this kind of nebulous Initiative, look at Dungeon World and other Apocalypse Engine games. The Apocalypse Engine has no concept of structured combat time. Instead, the GM presents scenarios to the players, and the players decide how to react. Now, in a DnD game, this would be massively unfair. See, DnD runs on what I call an Opportunity Action Economy. Basically, the players get a finite amount of opportunities to do stuff during structured time. If I am playing DnD and attack a goblin, the only thing that I am risking is my turn. If I fail, I simply deal no damage, losing my opportunity to act. Apocalypse Engine games run on a Risk Action Economy. If I attack a goblin in Dungeon World, I will make what is called a Hack and Slash roll. In a Hack and Slash roll, I might damage the goblin, but the goblin may also damage me. I am taking a risk by taking the action. This also applies when the goblin is the one directing the pace of the scene. In DnD, I would simply hope the goblin would miss me. In Dungeon World, if a goblin attacks, I can decide to try and avoid all damage, which would lead to a Defy Danger roll where I have no chance of hurting the goblin and less chance of being hurt myself, or I could fight back for a risky Hack and Slash roll. This means that structured time is less important in Dungeon World, because any time my character is acted upon, I get to make a choice about how to act and might gain the upper hand because of the risks associated with rolling.
In VnV, Reactions will not be equivalent to Actions, but the fact that the player will be able to make decisions and take unique actions when it is not their turn changes the power of Initiative. Going later in a round might be beneficial for players who are opting for a more defensive strategy. So, what does that mean for our Initiative system? Well, it means that Initiative is going to be a choice. Reactions are not like armor class in DnD. The player will not just be picking which defensive option they have the highest numbers in. Reactions are going to be strategic moves, moves that can only be done off turn, and that will have their own value depending on the character’s strengths, and on the situation at hand. So, I want my players to be able to influence when in the turn they will be able to act. Maybe they cannot decide it exactly, but it must be a decision. How will that work, you ask? Well, first I need to find my dice system, so for now we are just going to say that Initiative will be influenced by player choice combined with a roll of the dice, and figure out the specifics when we have our dice.
I know I warned you about this, but I want to reiterate: the goal of this article is to design the pieces of the combat system separately from the dice system, so that I can change the dice if need be down the road without having to rebuild the game from scratch. That means that I will need to make ambiguous statements about the specifics of mechanics until that dice system gets nailed down. The good news though, is that by working on the initiative system for this article, I have started to see the dice system in my head. It isn’t fully ready yet, and I don’t want to distract too much from the combat right now, but know that by thinking about initiative as a decision, and about the mechanics of Actions and Reactions, a dice system idea is coalescing. This was my idea all along, if you can believe it. I mentioned that I wanted to be able to go back and change the dice if need be, but I also needed an idea in the first place. I knew what I wanted some of the systems to feel like, but had no idea how to resolve those systems with dice. That is partially why I started working, so that the systems could show me the dice that I needed. Now, I can push forward through the rest of this article, and get the rest of my systems down. Who knows, maybe I will get some more good ideas.
Reactions are going to be moves that the characters can perform when attacked. The first thing I want to do is to figure out what kind of reactions I might want to have in the game. In a sword fight, the defender has myriad options when deciding how not to get hit, but we want some more limited options to present our players. For inspiration on this, I am going to look to the Infinity Tabletop Miniatures Game. Infinity is the game I mentioned in an earlier article that inspired the idea of Actions and Reactions. When a unit is fired upon in Infinity, its controlling player can decide to Counterattack or Dodge. Counterattacking is risky, but if the unit succeeds, it can damage the attacker. Dodging is less risky, and allows the unit to move a bit, but does not allow the unit to do anything else. There are some other options for reaction in Infinity, but let’s focus on these two for now.
Counterattacking is an aggressive defense, or not really a defense at all. A unit that decides to counterattack opens itself up for damage in the hopes that it can damage the attacking unit. I like the idea of exchanging safety for damage as a reaction. So, in VnV, a counterattack is a reaction where the defending character sacrifices all defense for the chance to hit the opponent. To accomplish this, the players involved in the attack-counterattack exchange must roll off or compare scores in some way. The winner will hit first, resolving all damage, and if the loser of the roll is still alive, they will hit. On a tie, damage is resolved at the same time. Notice that this means guaranteed damage for both sides so long as the first attack does not kill. This will be a high risk high reward move where the counterattacker is hoping that the attacker will die from one hit.
Dodging seems like a move we will want to have in the game as well. When attacked, a defender can decide to dodge. The attacker and defender roll off, and if the defender wins, they move out of the way of the attack. They can then decide to take a follow up action by spending some resources. Notice how this reaction still allows the player to do something to advance their cause, but at the cost of more resources. While a counterattack allows the player to hit back right away at the possible cost of health, a Dodge will allow the player to follow up by spending some other kind of resource. Again, right now we don’t know what that resource is. It might be action dice, stamina, magic, whatever. All we care about is that resources will be spent. I also want characters to be able to use their weapons or shields to parry. After all, that is a huge part of sword fighting. So, what if Dodging and Parrying are basically equivalent, but require different stats and allow for different follow up actions? Both of these defensive moves will be less risky than a counterattack, but will require extra resources to be followed up on. So, to update the rule above: When attacked, a defender can decide to dodge or parry. The attacker and defender roll off, and if the defender wins, they move out of the way of the attack or deflect it with a held weapon. They can then decide to take a follow up action by spending some resources.
Now, this seems like a solid reaction system. All we need to do now is decide on the actions a player can take after a Dodge or a Parry, right? Wrong, me! I want to include one extra type of defensive option. See, both counterattacking and the parry/dodge actions allow the defender to take a follow up action with some risk involved. What if a player does not want to follow up, but instead wants to hunker down completely in order to avoid damage at all costs? This is partially inspired by the video games For Honor, and Dark Souls as well as my time spent fencing. In those games, parrying and dodging are risky actions that allow for follow ups, but the player can also simply block incoming attacks, or dodge away from them, disengaging from the fight. So, let’s add a Full Defense option. Full Defense allows the player to block or avoid incoming attacks. If the player does a Full Block, they stay in place, but ward off damage. If the player does a Full Dodge, they disengage from the fight. These actions cannot be followed up. These moves will be less risky than a Parry or Dodge, but provide less reward. Also, the Full Defense options still have some risk associated with them. The player can still be hit if they lose the roll. This is just the best way to avoid damage entirely.
Notice that this format has created a divide between blocking an attack, and moving out of the way of the attack. This is useful to note because we can use it to help create focused character builds and strategies in the game. Some characters might be better at dodging, others at blocking. Maybe different weapons will be easier to dodge or block. We won’t be getting to character creation until after the first playtest, but for now, keep that idea in mind.
So what can a character do after a successful Parry or Dodge? After a Parry a character can: Riposte: the character makes an immediate attack roll against the attacker, Cast a Spell: do that, Shove: the character can make an opposed check to push or pull the attacker into another square, Disarm: the character can make an opposed check to knock the attacker’s weapon out of his hands. Sunder: the character can attempt to damage or destroy the weapon used to attack her. Let’s call that good for now. Some of these actions might require specific abilities to use, but for now let’s say that all characters can do this.
After a Dodge, a character can Riposte: see above, Cast a Spell: also above, Adjust: the character can move up to half her movement (rounded down) in any direction without invoking another attack from the attacker, Sweep: the character can attempt to trip her attacker. And that will be all for Dodging for now. Notice that Riposte and Cast a Spell can be done from both a Parry and a Dodge. Also, Dodging has one less action, that is honestly because I cannot think of another good one. If anyone has ideas, let me know. Otherwise, Adjusting seems pretty powerful, and that might be good enough.
Now we know what characters can do when it is not their turn, but what can they do on their turn? Well, this is going to be a bit more standard. As much as I like the idea of shaking things up with the action economy in a tabletop, some things just work, and are worth sticking to. On a player’s turn, they can take 1 Action, and as many Free Actions as they like. Free actions will include moving up to that character’s move speed, talking, dropping something, taking something from a willing target, and giving something to a willing target. I might add more later, but those are it for now. In terms of how far characters can move, I am leaning towards 5 squares. It works for DnD, and I don’t see a reason to shake it up until a playtest tells me otherwise. So, 5 squares. As for talking, most games limit talking to a short sentence on the player’s turn. I like a little in combat banter, and I want players to be able to move a conflict out of combat dynamically, so I am going to be more lenient than that. If a player wants to talk to another character, that character can respond with one sentence of their own. If all participants in the combat stop to talk, move out of structured time until hostilities resume.
Now, as for the Actions a player can take: attacking with a weapon, throwing something, running more distance than the character’s movement speed, drawing a weapon, sheathing a weapon, casting a spell. These are all going to fall into pretty standard tabletop territory, so I won’t spend any time on each action.
Getting hit by a sword will probably kill you. I hate to break it to you, realism buffs, but if we want to go full realistic, characters would most likely die in one hit and that sucks. Most games include some kind of system to mitigate damage coming in or to allow characters to survive some hits with little or no consequence. After all, no matter how well our players play the tactical game, whether they get hit or not comes down to a roll of the dice, and a single die roll killing your character isn’t any fun. So we want to have a resource that can be spent to keep characters alive. Savage Worlds uses the Shaken state and Wounds, and while that is my preferred system most of the time, for this game we are going to use Hit Points.
Now, a lot of you might be lamenting right now. Hit Points lead to drawn out fights! Hit Points don’t make any narrative sense! Hit Points ate my parents! Is that last one just me? Okay. As much maligned as they are on the internet, Hit Points serve a useful purpose: they provide a consequence free damage mitigation resource. In Savage Worlds, the Shaken state prevents players from acting until they make a roll to remove the state. Wounds are even more devastating, causing a bane to all rolls and movement distance. Hit Points don’t have that problem. Hit Points provide a small amount of consequence free damage for each character. Notice the phrase “small amount”. While DnD HP increases work well for a game about characters gaining massive leaps in strength, this is going to be a lower powered game. The protagonists will be skilled, but ultimately human warriors.
What happens after a character loses all of his HP? Does he just die? Well, in other games, that might be fine, but this is a game about Vikings, and what are Vikings known for? Berserking. Well, not every Viking is known for that, but toughing it out through grievous injuries is a huge part of the Viking narrative. So when Hit Points are reduced to 0, the character will receive 1 wound, and make some kind of endurance roll to see if they can fight through the pain. If they succeed, do not roll on the wound chart. Instead, simply mark down the existence of the wound, and continue fighting. If they fail, roll on the chart adding up extra wounds as a modifier, and lay the character prone until combat ends. After combat ends, roll on the wound chart for any character that has 1 or more wound and is still standing. Right now, I am figuring wounds will be rolled on a chart, and cause long term effects. For inspiration, I am looking at the EotE wound chart. This chart does something brilliant, which is it increases the severity of the wounds the more wounds that a character already has. A character cannot be killed the first time they get reduced below 0 hit points. The worst that can happen is that they start to bleed out. I want to copy that idea. Characters will not be in risk of dying right away, instead, they will be able to decide how far they want to push themselves in order to prove their Viking strength. Dropping out of a fight early will help ensure that they do not die, but might cause the party to lose, and lose confidence in their ally’s bravery.
After stealing liberally from EotE in the last section, I am going to do it again now. I want to avoid having a damage roll in this game. In EotE, there is no damage roll. Instead, each weapon has a fixed amount of damage, that is improved based on how well the player rolls on the attack. I like this idea, and now I am going to steal it. All weapons in the game will have a fixed damage number that is improved based on how well the attacker succeeds. Notice, that this does break the Binary Success and Failure rule. Also notice that when I established that rule, I said I might break it at some point. Here it is. I have broken it. For now, I am going to have variable damage. Why? Mainly because it is fun. Hitting an opponent well and taking them out early feels good, and rolling low and plinking an enemy, while it feels bad, can add drama to the fight. Besides, if I balance the numbers out well, I could always go back to fixed damage and not have the balance change much at all. If I use the average damage dealt by each weapon as its fixed damage, then it will be roughly the same as if the damage varied.
To go along with my damage rule: Armor will grant Damage Reduction to any hit that strikes the armor. So much of the combat in VnV is about using tactics to avoid damage, and taking risks where applicable. I want armor to provide some DR so that heavier armored characters can take more risks, potentially at the cost of movement speed, but I don’t want it to add to a character’s chance to avoid a hit like in DnD. Honestly, it just makes the concept of hitting and missing confusing when the armor would need to be struck to help, but if you don’t hit hard enough it is called a miss and yes this is incredibly nit picky, but it’s my game so there. Besides, acting as DR means that it will act as a second layer to avoiding damage. If the character wears heavy enough armor, they have a chance to avoid damage against weak hits entirely.
In terms of hits that strike the armor, I do need to make an aside here about Called Shots. These are a huge problem in a lot of tabletop games, because sometimes the designers do not seem to consider them. Called Shots are when players pick a specific target on an enemy to attack. Usually, rules make the attack roll harder, but allow for secondary effects or increased damage. Savage Worlds has a great Called Shot system, where it is assumed that all attacks are aimed at the torso and will be hitting the torso armor unless otherwise specified. I am going to take that rule. If players want to make a Called Shot, they can reduce their chance to hit, in exchange for striking a specific body part. Otherwise, all hits hit the torso. I do not want to bother with complicated hit location rules unless I think it will be very funny. The only other stipulation I have for my gear system is that gear will be of varying quality, and better weapons and armor might do or absorb more damage, along with having other effects. I like finding new and exciting weapons. This does not mean every sword will need to be enchanted, instead, think of it like a classic JRPG where you can buy better made swords in each town. Sometimes the players will find a haul of well made steel weapons that can outperform their current equipment.
You are probably exhausted by now, and I do not blame you. That was a very long article to read through and not get all the specifics of the system. The great thing is, this document can now provide the basis of any combat decisions going forward. Unless my playtest goes disastrously, I now have a combat system that I can adapt to any numbers that I need. Join us later this week for a hopefully much briefer article on viking raids and how they will helo structure the game.
Before we jump into anything, I need to get this out of the way: we are not going to pick a dice rolling system in this article. I know, I said last time that we would be talking about dice, and we will be, but I am not ready to pick the system for rolling that Vikings and Valkyries will use quite yet. Given that dice rolls are the primary way players will interact with the system rules themselves, this is a pretty big decision, and not one that I am prepared to make so early in the development process. Every dice system is going to be best for specific kinds of results and gameplay systems. I will need to spend some time figuring out the systems in VnV before I can determine which dice will fit those systems. I want to design every system in the game so that each piece works even if I change the dice rolling system part way through, so today we will be laying some ground rules to help with that.
Before we talk too much about the reasons for skipping out on a dice mechanic, I want to take a moment to talk about what a dice mechanic is, and why we might want to use one. Most of you will think this is obvious, but digging into obvious questions can present unique mechanics and solutions. Do we really need dice in this game? What are they for? Dice are random number generators. They are tossed onto a table, and the number that faces up is the number we use. In tabletop RPGs, board games, and gambling dice are used to randomize results. Dice are used in gambling to provide the rush of uncertain victory and to help the casino win big. Dice are used in boardgames that demand risk management from players, so that even the best strategist might sometimes lose to some risky plays and unlucky rolls. This can keep board games fresh because working out a perfect strategy is impossible if a roll of the dice can tip a game one way or another. RPGs employ dice in order to achieve both of those goals, well not the casino one, and also to create uncertainty in actions. Uncertainty is important in an RPG because the players are also the audience. The people playing the characters, and this includes the GM, want to be surprised by the events as they come. Otherwise, where is the drama? All of this is covered in much greater detail in this article. In fact, if you ever want a good dive into specific mechanics in RPGs, the Angry GM is just about the best resource on the net in my opinion.
So we want to have dice rolling in this game in order to allow for uncertainty and drama, and also for fairness. The reason we are going to spend all this time making rules and systems is because at the end of the day we are making a game, and games need to be fair in order to be fun. Now, fair does not mean equal. If I am playing DnD, the Barbarian will be able to lift more weight than the Bard. Some mechanics need to be different, and that means that some mechanics will be unbalanced, but that is okay. Fair means that there are rules that all of the participants in the game must follow. Soccer has rules, video games have rules, and tabletop RPGs have rules. Rules in RPGs are often even more important because one of the players is in prime position to abuse her power: the GM. The GM is the adjudicator of the RPG, which means she has the power to make or break the game, and while she technically has the power to supersede the rules in most tabletop games, we want to design a game robust enough that she does not have to ignore our rules. Breaking rules in a game is tricky. The GM can very easily harm the trust between her and her players if she decides to do something that violates the rules. Those rules are there so that every player understands the working of the world. If that changes suddenly, all bets are off and the players will not be able to make intelligent decisions in the game world. Moreover, the players will not be able to trust that their decisions are being respected by their GM.
The die roll is how the players will understand their odds of success on actions, and also how they will see that their successes and failures are a product of both their decisions, and some randomness. Randomness is easy. The players can see the dice on the table. The numbers that come up when rolled are close enough to random, so that part is taken care of. Being able to see their odds is trickier depending on the system. D100 percentile systems are easy to understand, because they can be expressed as percentages. D20 rolls are a bit more complicated, but the player can tell that they are rolling a skill that they are good or bad at, and plan accordingly from those numbers. Players will also be able to track bonuses that they receive for certain actions, so that will allow them to strategize within the game world. We want dice rolling in the game not only to enforce fair play between the GM and the other players, but also to create a sense of danger and risk that the players can understand.
When programming a video game, one of the most important tools to make use of is the variable. Variables can be used to assign a value to a word. The programmer has a part of the code where they decide what the variable is, and then they can use that variable in the code instead of a number or string of text. For example, if I want to give my player 100 hit points in a game, I can make a variable called “hp” that I set equal to 100. Now, whenever my code needs to look at my player’s hit points, I can type “hp” instead of 100. This is useful if I change my mind later. If, after much testing, I decide the player should have 90 hit points, I can simply go back to the place where I told “hp” to equal 100, and change that to 90. Done. If I typed out 100 manually every time, I would have to change every instance of the 100 to 90, and that is a lot of work.
Now, I am not a computer. I cannot create a set of mechanics with a variable and then simply replace that variable to change all the numbers Moreover, I am talking about the basic logic by which this game will function. I have tossed around the idea of a d20 system, a d100, d10, d6 dice pool, d10 dice pool, a system where dice directly correspond to stats and skills, and on and on. Each of these systems would represent a massive change to the game. So, I cannot simply design the game with the dice system as a variable, so why don’t I pick one now? The reason is that I plan to design the next handful of mechanics in a general state. I want to define what I want each mechanic to feel like, and then I can start assigning actual dice and numbers to them. If I know parrying should be an action that players can take, and that they should succeed roughly 70% of the time, I can set any dice system to get close to that value. This is as close to variables as I can get in the design of such core mechanics. I can create a framework and then plug mechanics in manually later. So that is the plan for the next couple of articles. I am going to design the mechanics of this game with no dice, and then return and apply dice to them.
You may be asking if it would be easier to design the dice mechanic first, and then the other mechanics. After all, that would allow me to design each mechanic in one pass instead of two. You would be right, but that returns to the problem of changing my mind. See, I started this project with a dice mechanic in mind. I wanted the characters to have three action dice each, and for the Valkyrie to have two plus another one for each Einherjar in the party. Players could commit dice to actions and reactions on their turn. The Valkyrie could, at any time, pass any number of her extra dice to a player. So, you might say, I need a dice pool system for this game. Well, not so fast. One of the issues I had with this system is that it mirrored a problem we had when designing Psychout. When we designed Psychout, I wanted actions to be more fluid than the standard turn based structure. So, we gave each player three actions per turn. These actions were represented by tokens. When the player took an action, they had to discard one token. I thought this would cause players to hold some tokens in reserve for defensive moves, but instead the optimal strategy turned out to be spending all of your action tokens on a single overwhelming attack. The best defense is a good offense after all, and being able to fire off three attacks on a turn was usually enough to take down most enemies in the game. We struggled with the system for a while, before abandoning it for a more standard structure, and the game was better for it.
The other issue we noticed with Psychout’s early action economy was that the tokens ended up being kind of boring. See, I expected that players would see the tokens and come up with interesting strategies about balancing their offense with defense. The problem was that the tokens did not translate well into that strategy. It did not feel like a mechanic where a character could sacrifice defensive ability for some extra damage or accuracy. It felt confusing, out of character, and slowed down player turns as each player tried to figure out if they should drop one, two, or three actions right away. Plus, it felt like a mini game stapled on top of the real game. Players were not deciding between diving for cover and shooting at an enemy: they were deciding between one, two, or three tokens, totally divorced from the fiction. This was a system that sounded cool in my head, but ended up being not very fun when implemented.
So, what is this article for? The next few articles will be spent detailing the specifics of each of the major mechanics of the game, but in this article, I want to lay some ground rules for what I want my dice rolls to be able to do. This might seem like a strange thing to do: make a bunch of rules about how I will go about making rules, but it is essential to making a cohesive gameplay experience. See, I can hem and haw about my action resolution mechanics all day long, but I will never be able to decide on a system without a coherent set of goals. As much as internet arguments would have you believe otherwise, every dice system has something going for it. Some people may not like a certain type of dice system overall, but if that system is the best for the goals I want to achieve, I will still want to use it. So I am not worried if a system is “good”. Instead I am worried if the system works for my goals. I cannot decide which system to use based on mythical objective quality. I need a set of guidelines to judge the system by.
The Valkyrie and Passing Dice
The Valkyrie must be able to pass dice to players in order to empower their rolls. I have played with the idea of the Valkyrie passing power tokens or something like that, but no. Dice are more elegant, easier to understand, and goddammit this is the mechanic that started this whole project, and I want to get it working. So, the dice mechanic has to be able to accommodate extra dice in a roll. And, I will add another piece to that, the extra dice have to empower the character’s roll, not just allow for a re-roll or extra chance. Getting spirit power from a Valkyrie should be a big deal. It should allow characters to perform superhuman feats, so whatever way we pass dice, it needs to actually make rolls better, and allow characters to perform actions they had no chance of succeeding before.
Binary Success and Failure… On Most Rolls
Look, I have not had the best time with dice systems that make liberal use of degrees of success. Degrees of success are best used to add complications to rolls, and I find this does not pay off enough depth for the complexity it adds. Edge of the Empire’s dice system is a great example of this. Not only can every roll lead to complex results, but as the stakes and skills involved in a roll increase in value, the likelyhood of unexpected results increases. Seriously, check out EotE if you every want to look at an elegantly designed system for creating chaos and Star Wars style movie magic in a game. Despite it being great at creating chaotic results, EotE is sloooooow. Sometimes, I just want my players to be able to roll a check to convince an NPC of something, or to spot a hidden foe, or balance across a rafter. I don’t need checks like that to produce a laundry list of secondary effects that only serve to bog us down in deciding what each and every extraneous symbol means. I respect that on simple rolls like that, I can just hand wave those symbols away with a simple added effect, but then why bother with the system on every roll if we acknowledge that it is cumbersome on most rolls?
The other issue I have, is that the system robs the GM of the power to determine the consequences of the players’ actions. If my PCs threaten and cajole a local ruler into giving them something, I would probably have the ruler try to get back at them later in the game. In EotE, I could do that, but what if my players roll a Triumph, and no Disadvantages? Is it unfair of me to make the ruler have it out for the players? What if they roll a Despair? That would make the ruler having it out for the players make sense, but do I need to have a Despair on the table for that result to be fair? What if I don’t want the ruler to have it out for the players, but they do roll a Despair? Then I have to figure out some other consequence, one that might not even be related to the actions the players just took. The game book certainly doesn’t offer any insight into those questions, and it slowed me down at the table every time. In DnD or Savage Worlds or Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM doesn’t have to worry about any of that. She can decide that the players have pissed off the local ruler and enact those consequences. Done.
Now, Savage Worlds is a game with degrees of success, but they have limited use. If a player rolls 4 more than the target number, he gets a success with a Raise. This acts as a critical hit on attacks, and can give him something extra on other rolls. Continued Raises mean nothing on most rolls. Only damage rolls allow for continued Raising. This limits the effects of Raises to rolls where the drama of a super high roll matters. DnD is a binary system on almost every roll. There is, however, one notable exception: the attack and damage rolls. Attack rolls have critical hits, and critical fumbles, and as much as players like to scream about natural 20s on skill checks, only the attack roll has that mechanic. Damage rolls are a separate roll made after the attack roll that determine how well the player hit his enemy. That mechanic is nowhere else in DnD. Every other roll is determined by a single d20 check. Why do DnD and Savage Worlds use graded checks in combat, you ask? Because combat is the primary focus of these two games.
I am not sure that I will use graded checks for combat in VnV, but I want to be able to distinguish a system or two with degrees of success if need be, so I will primarily focus on binary success and failure, but allow the chance to make more complex rolls if need be. Simple rolls just don’t need a bunch of added effects. We can give the GM guidance on how to create consequences for player actions. The dice just need to tell us if the players succeeded or failed most of the time.
Only One Dice Mechanic
Almost every tabletop game does this, with a couple of exceptions. DnD uses the d20 for every roll, only having a damage roll that is different. I guess DnD also technically has a different roll for determining starting attributes, but as that is a totally different system that is only used in character creation, I can let it slide. I want to see if I can avoid a secondary dice rolling mechanic like damage. I will probably have some variants of my core mechanic, but every check should be made with the same kind of dice.
The Dice Should Encourage Diversity of Strategy
This is not a DnD style game. While I may still use character classes, I expect that these characters will be more well rounded than a standard DnD hero. This means that the dice system cannot overly reward specialization. This does not mean characters will all be the same. I want characters to be able to specialize in weapon types, professions, magical runes etc. I don’t want that to mean that these characters cannot do anything outside of their wheelhouse. For example, have you ever tried punching someone in a high level DnD 3.5 campaign? It doesn’t go great unless you are playing a Monk. Every character is specialized to use specific weapon types, most of which are not punching, and every character is expected to be loaded down with so many magical weapons that their opponents will be able to easily shrug off a non magical, untrained fist. This is not entirely the d20’s fault, but its style of constant upwards progression means that non-specialized strategies fall off at high levels because the bonus numbers can get so big as characters increase in power.
The d20 system is not the only culprit of this. Some dice pool systems can have a weird arc where the deeper a character gets into a skill, the greater the result of putting more points into that skill. I would go so far as to say I would like to see the opposite of that arc: where putting points into a skill early on leads to rapid growth that tapers off as the character continues to specialize. That is a softer goal, but either way, I want to make sure that my vikings can throw a punch and expect to do something with it even if it is not their primary skill. Come on, they are vikings. If every campaign in this system doesn’t have at least one long house drunken brawl in it, I will have done something wrong.
There Must Be Enough Dice for Magic
I know I have not explained the magic system yet, and I promise I will once it crystallizes a bit more in my mind. For now, know that magic is performed by using the dice the Valkyrie passes to the other players. Each player will have a chart of runes that they can place the dice on in order to activate them and create spells. This means the Valkyrie will need to be able to pass out a decent amount of dice, or that magic dice need to persist even when the Valkyrie restores her own dice, however that will work. I would say the Valkyrie probably needs to be able to give three dice to a character for magic. Whether she will have anything left over to give to the other players is something I can work out later. Let’s say for now that, whatever dice system I go for, I want players to be able to place at least three dice on their rune charts to create a spell.
What I haven’t Included
You may have noticed that I have left out some goals that seem important. I haven’t said how fast I want the dice system to be, or how many dice I want the players to roll. Well, both of those questions can be answered the same way: the minimum amount for the maximum depth. Every tabletop RPG worth its salt strives to have the simplest, quickest dice resolution possible. That key word, possible, is what will determine how long it takes to read a roll in this system. I can’t sit here and say a roll should take no longer than 30 seconds without putting some rules to the test at the table. What if the rolls themselves are an interesting exchange of choices, or what if the roll takes longer but provides build depth that would not be possible without that time? So yes, I want my rolls to be simple, not take too long, and not take too many dice, but “too long” and “too many” will be determined by a combination of seeing the game in action, and gut feeling. I will make my rolls take as long as they need to to achieve the feel I am going for, and no longer. If I feel the rolls still take too long, it will be time to reassess the level of complexity I need for the depth I want to achieve. Basically, the dice system being fast is not really a goal in and of itself because I cannot measure it. I can see if the dice system encourages multiple strategies, or if it can be used to pass dice from Valkyrie to Einherjar, but I cannot pick an arbitrary dice roll time and hold the system to it. It wouldn’t be healthy for the game’s development. So, I am going to use these other goals, and make the simplest dice system that meets all of them.
That’s it! This article is just here to lay a foundation for my dice mechanic. I have a set of rules I need to follow, and now I have a document detailing each rule. Next time, I am going to dive right into combat and break down my design to see if I can’t get us the best dang combat system we can have without a dice mechanic.
While this blog has thus far been mostly about video games, I also have a passion for tabletop roleplaying games. I started like most people do, with Dungeons and Dragons, and continued on to play Savage Worlds, Dogs in the Vineyard, FATE, and a number of others. I own many more rulebooks than I have used, and picking through the rulesets has provided hours of entertainment and inspiration. In college, a friend of mine and I designed an RPG, and playtested it a few times with our gaming group. It was a fantastic project. About a year ago, inspiration struck again. I wrestled with the project a bit, got excited, then got frustrated, and progress has been slow going since then. A few weeks ago I started work on a new video game project, and the RPG fell by the wayside. The thing is, I still want to make this game, but I know I cannot keep myself on task with it if it just sits in a file on my computer. I need to document the process, to showcase what I am working on, my thoughts and ideas about game design and the process of creating, and to ultimately give myself an audience, however small, to be beholden to. So, this is the start of a series of articles that will document my progress on the game I have temporarily dubbed Vikings and Valkyries. There is already a supplement for Mazes and Minotaurs called Vikings and Valkyries, so that is unlikely to be the final name of this game.
The first thing to note about this project is that I will be tossing around a lot of game names, mechanics, and other lingo. I will do my best to explain these ideas as I go, and will be happy to answer any questions about the mechanics or games in question, but I will probably leave some unexplained. I am trying to build an RPG from scratch, and that is going to mean pilfering the best ideas from a lot of other games. It is also going to mean looking to other games for what not to do. This means I will be talking about a lot of mechanics and rules and trying to explain them on the fly. I am going to miss some stuff. I miss some stuff in this very article. Just to get you ready.
Inspiration is a fickle beast. Sometimes ideas spring from your forehead almost fully formed, and other times inspirations slowly grows and pieces together threads from your life and experiences over the years. The truth of inspiration is that the first situation is almost always a myth. Even ideas that present themselves as fully formed and complete in your mind will need work in order to grow into something good, and if you try to simply roll with the initial idea, you will most likely be disappointed. That is what happened on my first pass with VnV. I had an idea that seemed so solid. A core mechanic and fictional underpinning appeared in my mind at the same time, and I thought I had a perfect idea. I soon found out that was not the case. The mechanics I had thought of turned out to be unwieldy, and not properly fleshed out. The lore that seemed so clear at first turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton of an idea, something that could one day be a real story, but was not one then. The project needed work. So, I did what any good creator would do and abandoned it in a huff.
The thing is, VnV was a good idea. The mechanic I had created did not work like I wanted it to on the first pass, and the lore was half formed. Neither of those situations are compelling reasons to abandon a project. So, my brain never let go of the idea. It nurtured VnV through the year, letting it grow in the background. Every now and again something in my life would bring it back up, and I would start to work the problems a bit before letting it sink to the background. Recently though, inspiration struck again.
So, where did the idea for this game come from. It really did pop into my head all at once, but it grew out of thoughts on class balance in Dungeons and Dragons and a piece of lore from Norse traditions that made its way into a classic PS1 videogame: Valkyrie Profile. Valkyrie Profile follows the adventures of the Valkyrie Lenneth, and her quest to raise an army of Einherjar (the spirits of fallen warriors) to defend Vallhalla during Ragnarok, the final war between the gods. This is a simplification of that game’s story, and of proper Norse lore, but it provided the jumping off point for what will probably become VnV’s core mechanic mechanic. You see, what interested me about Valkyrie Profile’s lore was the relationship between the Valkyrie and the Einherjar. Lenneth descends from Valhalla to Midgard, the human world, and listen for the approaching death of a warrior. She finds this warrior, witnesses their demise, perhaps helps them defeat some kind of monster or other supernatural evil, and then takes their spirit. But, Lenneth does not send these spirits to Valhalla right away. First, they need training. So she uses the warrior spirits as party members, diving into dungeons, defeating evil monsters, and sending them to Valhalla when they are ready. I thought this would make for a fascinating party dynamic in an RPG: One player would play the Valkyrie, the centerpiece of the party, and the others would be her Einherjar, helping her to defend Midgard from threats both mystical and mundane.
To represent this relationship, I thought of a dice mechanic: what if each player had 3 “action dice” that they could assign to various actions in and out of combat. The Valkyrie would only have 2 dice, but she would gain an extra die for each Einherjar in the party. At a glance, this would make her more powerful than any of the other characters in anything more than a two person party; however, the Valkyrie would have the power to pass out her extra dice to any of the party members in order to increase their power. This would make her the focal point of the party, the character most able to control the flow of battle and the survival of the party. This mechanic would cause some problems that eventually led to me abandoning the project, but we will get to that in a later article.
This, I thought, would present an interesting alternative to the Wizard bodyguard problem present in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. See, in DnD, spellcasters tend to be very powerful. So powerful that they will eventually invalidate the abilities of anyone else in the party. This reduces the rest of the party to the role of bodyguards, protecting the spellcaster from threats while the she solves all of the problems. Now, whether this problem is overstated, understated, the product of bad game design, good game design, or anything in between does not matter for this project. What matters is that I thought that dynamic seemed like it could be something worth exploring. What if the game promised that from the get go: a single character in the party who acted as the centerpiece. Thus, the idea of a party of a single Valkyrie and a group of Einherjar was born. One character would be the backbone of the group, with the others each supporting and being supported by this central character. The dice passing mechanic would mean the Valkyrie’s role was different from that of a DnD spellcaster, however. Instead of solving all of the major problems herself while the other characters scrambled to protect her, the Valkyrie would empower the other players and herself as needed, in order to solve the challenges facing the party. This relationship is ultimately what saved the project.
All of this mechanical pondering led to an interesting idea: what if all of the players died in the first session? Valkyrie Profile did this with the introduction of each Einherjar, and games like Dungeon Crawl Classics have shown us that a session 1 death crawl that kills off a series of characters can be a hilarious and enjoyable way to start off a game. If the first session consisted of created a scenario in which the players would die, and be chosen by their Valkyrie, the players could get to know the game, their characters, and each other in a low consequence environment where their failure would be inevitable. Then, when released into the rest of the campaign, they would already know the rules in time for the stakes to be raised.
Each of these steps might seem like something I sat and worked through, but that happened after the fact. You are getting this step by step presentation so that it makes sense. When the idea hit me, it happened all at once, a series of threads from a life of gaming coming together to create something new. Exciting, yes, but now it needs to be worked into something actually playable.
Building an RPG from the ground up is going to take time. Lots of time. I will need to figure out how I want the game to be structured, the granularity of the rules, the pace of play, the tone, the lore, whether we will use a battle map or try and fail to imagine the positions of all the characters. I am going to need to decide what kind of dice to use. All of that is stuff I have thought about, but that will need to be worked, written down, and ultimately tested. And testing is where things are going to get really screwed up. See, testing is where you realize that all of your ideas are stupid. Players are not going to understand the rules, they are going to misinterpret or push back against ideas, and even if they don’t, something is going to bother you as a designer. The pace of play will be too slow, abilities, gear, and spells will be unbalanced, and ultimately, it might not be all that fun. Then, you will test the game with another group, and find a whole different set of problems. This is why we are going to test this game early, test it a lot, and be ready to scrap work. Sometimes that is what a game needs in order to grow.
So the schedule for the game is as follows: I will be posting at least one article a week discussing some aspect of the game. Each article will discuss the design process behind each idea, and why I have come to the conclusion that I have. Some articles might combine multiple mechanics or pieces of lore if each piece is small enough, other articles may be split into multiple parts if the scope of the mechanics and lore involved demand it. Ultimately, I want to explain my design decisions to create a record of what I am thinking about and doing, and to potentially receive feedback. This is going to be my project, but that does not always mean I will have the best ideas, and I would be happy to hear from the audience if you have any thoughts.
The final thing to note is that this is probably a terrible idea. Game design is hard enough without having to write an article explaining every little thing, but this is what I feel like doing, so I am going to try it out. Sometimes my weekly update might be fairly anemic, other weeks I might pump out a series of articles about wildly different topics, because I had a breakthrough that week. Who knows. This could all come crumbling down, but I am excited to see what it will be like to design a game post by post.
When my design partner and I worked on Psychout in college, we did not have a set of design goals. We had an idea, and we had some thoughts about how that idea might come to fruition, but we mostly assumed that we were on the same page, and that the mechanics we were coming up with fit our vision. Luckily, we had pretty compatible ideas, my partner was also the DM of the DnD game I played in, and it went pretty well. I am not going to leave that to chance this time. Right now, I am working alone, but the me today might have very different ideas from the me tomorrow. So before we launch this project, I need to establish some coherent goals. These will act as the framework for the game. Any time I am questioning a mechanic, I can check them with my goals to make sure they line up. I will also lay out some principles of design. This being a solo project, I get to decide what principles to follow, and if you have read this blog, you might know that I have fairly strong opinions about games.
Make an Action Game: Sorry fans of the new wave of “story games”. My favorite tabletop games are still DnD and Savage Worlds. This is going to be a game about Valkyries and Viking warriors fighting men and monsters in a post Ragnarok Midgard. There will be sword fights, monster battles, and challenge aplenty. I want to create a game with a solid action system at its core. These are Viking warriors risen from the dead to do battle with the supernatural and horrifying that have taken to Midgard after Ragnarok. They should be heroic and powerful, but the challenges facing them should be all the more daunting because of it.
Make a ROLE Playing Game: VnV being an action game does not mean I won’t take any inspiration from games like FATE, Edge of the Empire, or Dogs in the Vineyard. I have played and run all of those games, and there are some good ideas there. Ultimately though, I don’t like games where the players play anything but their characters. FATE forces the players to make bad decisions instead of allowing the GM to put the players into a situation where they have to make hard decisions, EotE demands that players take control of the whole scene, not just their characters, and I actually think Dogs in the Vineyard is just great, but not what I want to make. I want this game to focus on the adventure and action, and to allow the players to occupy their own characters. The GM is the GM, and she will have control over the NPCs and scenery. The players will play their characters. Ultimately, the rules should not ask the players to make decisions that harm their character’s goals arbitrarily. No taking over the GM’s role or being forced to make a bad decision for lack of FATE points.
No Combat Swoosh: Ideally, I want to create a robust enough action system to encompass both combat and non-combat scenarios without something like an initiative roll. The idea of the Combat Swoosh is one I stole from the Angry GM, and refers to turn based video games where the game swipes away from the world map to the combat screen. This creates a hard distinction between fighting and not fighting that prevents the player from transitioning smoothly from one mode to another. In tabletop games like DnD, the combat swoosh takes the form of the initiative roll and breaking out the battle mat. This hard break from the default mode of play can make players and game masters feel trapped in combat, like they cannot do anything else once the fighting begins. FATE and other games remove the combat swoosh by making all conflict the same, but I want to be able to distinguish the feel of a fight and a debate without forcing the game to a stop at the start of each scene. I want the game to be able to flow from a fight to a dialogue to a race and back to a fight without seeming strange. That flow is really the major goal of this idea. If I am being honest, I prefer battle maps to imagining the positions of all the characters in a conflict. Maps allow for greater tactical depth because they can show a complex and granular situation. When the players and GM have to imagine the positions of every character, it necessitates a simpler understanding of position and distance like EotE’s range band system. Despite that simplicity, I find that it ends up taking longer in practice because players will forget where things are, and then have to figure that out and then fights become arbitrary and less interesting. So we will probably have battle maps. That means some kind of swoosh is inevitable, but I want to see if I can still transition from conflict type to conflict type. Dogs in the Vineyard has a combat swoosh in that all the rolling happens at the beginning of a conflict, but the players can escalate a conflict to a new type by rolling more dice. This can cause a tense conversation to transition into a chase which culminates in a fight, or it can cause a fight to turn into a chase, and then into a discussion. It is brilliant and I want to ape some of that system if I can.
Active and Reactive Combat and Conflict: Look, this is gonna be a game about fighting. I have said it before, but it bears repeating. Recently, a friend of mine got very into the Infinity tabletop wargame. Infinity is about small squads of soldiers facing off in quick, highly tactical combat. I love it. The game is beautifully designed, simple, and tactical as all heck. One of its most brilliant ideas is that when a unit is acted upon, that unit’s player can decide how the unit reacts to the action. If one of my riflemen is being shot at, I can have him run for cover, drop prone, or even shoot back. Then, the players roll off and see if the action and reaction is successful. The die resolution system itself is also one of my favorites, and I have been trying to find a way to integrate that into the game. We will get to that more in a future article about the dice. For now, suffice it to say that I want players to be active participants in a conflict, even when it is not their turn.
Feeform Magic: I don’t have too much to say about this goal except that I have a cool seed of a magic system in my head, and I want to see if I can get it to work in practice. It involves using magic runes to create a spell instead of picking from a list of generated spells. This might not work, so I am considering it a kind of sub-goal for now.
Simple and Quick Dice Rolls: Playing EotE is fun as hell. The game lets me take some control of the scene as a player with each dice roll and allows me to give my character some real screen time because of it. As a player who likes to GM, this is heaven. Running EotE is a miserable experience for me. The stats are well laid out, the game is satisfyingly crunchy, but the dice rolls take so, damn, long. Especially if players do not want to contribute to the scene, and plenty of players do not. What I realized running EotE was that I want my players to inhabit their own characters, and I want dice to simply tell me if something succeeded or failed. I don’t need to know how well a character jumped over a pit, or if he succeeded, but got some consequences. I don’t want simple rolls to convince somebody of something to spiral out into massive consequences because a player rolled three despairs and two triumphs. I want to be able to have characters succeed or fail by the dice, but then be able to decide the consequences based on their actions, not their rolls. This means I want to find a binary yes-no dice system that can work with the idea of the Valkyrie empowering the other players.
Strong Lore Framework: I know, right? Crazy. This might seem like an obvious one, but games like DnD and Savage Worlds rely more on their feel than their lore. They have a unique feel to their system, and they can get away with having minimal lore, knowing that players will want to make their own. This game cannot do that. The mechanics are way too tied to the setting for the game to be used for generic fantasy. Sure, players will be able to replace Valkyries with Angels or something like that, and I want to offer ideas for players on how to do that, but the base game should have a strong framework of lore so that players can jump right into creating adventures that feel unique to the game’s world. Eclipse Phase does this by creating a towering mass of lore that the GM and players have to sit through before getting started, and while that is one approach, I prefer to ape Dogs in the Vineyard on this one. In Dogs, the lore framework is pretty much all spelled out on the back of the book, and is evocative enough to tell players how to play in that world without requiring hundreds of pages of reading material. I want something like that for this game. I want to build a lore framework that gets players into the right feel for the game without them needing to spend their lives studying the game world.
And that is it for now. VnV will be an Action Game that can Flow Between Conflict Styles while maintaining a unique feel for each style. I want Conflict to be Reactive, Freeform Magic, a strong Lore Framework, for players to Play a Role, and Simple and Quick Dice Rolls that allow the players to spend more time playing and less time doing math. Now, you may notice that these goals do not necessarily encompass everything you might expect to see. I have not said if I want the game to be focused around crunch, or fluff. Is the game going to have simulationist stats, or gamey stats? Will there be “story mechanics”? Well, those things will come up in the details. They are not goals in themselves. If creating a strong lore framework means that we need some mechanics in place to guide narrative creation, we can do that. If simple rolls require gamey stats, we can do that. Moreover, crunch vs fluff, sim vs game, and story vs action are not very helpful definitions. Any good game will fall somewhere in the middle of all these ideas, and frankly, a lot of these distinctions are not that useful. We need to define our game on actionable goals first, and then we will see how things shake out as we design.
Our first goal to work towards is a playtest. I can sit here theorizing long and hard about how I want the game to play, what I want from the fiction, the dice, the mechanics, but will not know if I have the right idea until some people play the thing. Don’t get me wrong, I can figure out a lot of the game from design, but sometimes the way I think a design will work is not how it will go down at the table. So, a playtest. What do we need for that? First, I will need to define what I want to play at the test. Is it a combat? A whole session? For Psychout, our first playtest was a simple combat with no fiction attached. Here are some dudes, here are your characters, duke it out. It worked well enough to highlight the flaws in the system, but I want to give myself and my playtesters a little more for our time, so I am going to run a short scenario. This will give us a taste of the conflict resolution mechanics, the lore, and allow me to see the holes in other pieces of the game. So I need a scenario. I will also need combat rules, gear rules, magic rules, and non-combat conflict resolution rules. I will also need some pre-made characters, some NPCs, some basic maps, and a time and date. Most importantly, I need to decide how actions resolve in this system. I know I talked earlier about characters having a number of dice for actions, but that caused me some conceptual problems before, so it will need rethinking. Once I have all of these things, I can run the scenario for some friends, take notes on how it goes, and hopefully run the scenario again for some different groups. Doing so will let me see if things I noticed were anomalies, or endemic to the system.
So there is the basic idea. Let’s hope this does not turn out to be a terrible idea. Next week, we will talk a little bit about dice rolls and a lot about what dice rolls are for.
2016 is the first year that I have kept something resembling a journal. Back in August, my girlfriend got me a planner for my birthday, and I have written in it almost every day since. It is a calming experience, and has allowed me to take a moment to breathe and remember not only what I must do in the future, but what I have already accomplished.
It is surprising then that I spent very little time documenting my gaming life in that planner. Gaming, as anyone reading this blog might assume, is my most abiding passion, yet I take very little time to think about my gaming time as it relates to my life. I analyze the games I play. I discuss and write about the experience and the design of games, but I do not spend a lot of time considering how it is that games fit into my daily schedule. I sometimes like to pretend that gaming is separate from “real life”. I pretend that the time I spend gaming is somehow less worthy than the time spent out in the world. But it isn’t. It is exactly as worthy as those other times. Looking back through my planner, I have little to no record of what I played this year, what I thought about it, or how these games have factored into my life.
So this year seems as good as any to create my first Game of the Year list. It can be an accounting of what I played, why I played it, and why it meant something to me. Plus, The experience of thinking back on all the games I played this year was cathartic and enlightening. For one, I remembered a lot of games that I played this year that I had all but forgotten about. For two, I got to reconsider each game and think about what it was that made that game interesting to me. What was it that made these games work so well for me when I played them. What did the game do to make me like it so much, and what about the external experience helped it along. I found that a number of games this year stuck out to me so much because of the situations in which I played them.
Stellaris is a 4X game, which means I was EXtremely (haha) unlikely to enjoy it as much as I did. This is the first of many games on this list that surprised me in 2016. 4X is a genre of grand strategy game that involves allows players to create empires, and conquer the world through science, military might, or some other form of discovery. Usually, I find these games too impersonal to enjoy. I don’t have a place to sink my emotional anchor. The king of 4X games, the Civilization series, always felt too abstract to me. Playing as an immortal Gandhi negotiating with immortal Genghis Khan felt impersonal. These are not characters, they are avatars for a nation. What Stellaris does differently is offer a narrative to go along with its grand strategy. Not that it has a pre-written story Instead, as you play through the game, it does a fantastic job of developing a unique story for your alien empire. At the beginning of the game, players create a species both biologically and politically. Then, they take this species through their conquest of the stars. Throughout the experience, new leaders will rise and fall, time will pass, and events and characters will rise from the ranks of the randomly generated denizens of the player’s alien empire.
To help me create these narratives, I also brought in a ringer: a good friend from high school. We sat and played Stellaris for hours earlier this year. He was leaving town for grad school, and the two of us had always played games together. Sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively, or sometimes we would play two different games in the same room. Stelllaris is the perfect game for that over the shoulder play, with both of us making decisions about the direction that our peaceful space mushroomms would take in their quest to conquer the galaxy through negotiation and friendship. Stellaris found its place on this list because it gave me a reason to look at 4X games, and gave me a chance to hang out with a good friend and tell wonderful stories.
I played the browser-based demo of SUPERHOT all those years ago (I think it was like, 2) and wished for more immediately. Recently, I got my wish. The full SUPERHOT experience is simply fantastic. In SUPERHOT, time only moves when you move, making for a stylish bullet time experience. The only reason this game is not higher on my list is that I haven’t finished it yet. This is the flip side of seeing how games relate to my life: sometimes events in my life make my gaming experiences better, and other times my life gets in the way of my full enjoyment of a game. I love SUPERHOT, but other games and a busy schedule have kept me from tearing all the way through it. What I have gone through so far has excited me.
Darkest Dungeon is a game that I spent a decent amount of time with before 2016. The strange pattern of modern game releases means that some games are functionally out long before they are technically out, and I spent a lot of time with this game in Early Access. Darkest Dungeon is a disaster factory. As you lead your band of merry adventurers into the various randomly generated dungeons on offer, they will proceed to get less and less merry. Exposed to various horrors both Gothic and eldritch, your characters will pick up maladies that hinder their ability to function. Normally, I don’t like these kinds of games. Getting screwed over always makes me feel like I need to restart the game to try and get a better run. Darkest Dungeon is so cruel that all notions of having a clean run go out the window. Characters will go insane, they will turn on each other, and they will die. Once I accepted that, I began to have a great time with Darkest Dungeon, and despite its cruelty, the game feels fair. I can mitigate the horrible circumstances that befall my characters using good tactics, and the party building and moment to moment combat feel so satisfying and deep. I have a run going now where I name every character after friends of mine, and picking up this game for an hour or so every couple of days has been a great way to experience its horrible, horrible journey.
I thought I would hate Overwatch. Its MOBA trappings, and its competitive nature worried me at first. I am not a big fan of MOBAs, and I don’t usually find the time to put into competitive games, but Overwatch played with both of those ideas in a way that allowed me to dive into the experience. For one, aside from the skills that each character has, the game bears no resemblance to a MOBA. As far as the competitive side goes, Overwatch made me feel competitive without feeling like I sucked. The characters played differently enough that I could find a niche to fill in any game, and I enjoyed it enough to get good at it. Combine that with forgiving hit boxes and a community that genuinely seemed to be there for a good time, and Overwatch successfully dragged me into the competitive shooter scene for a time. It also helped me to make my first friends online. I played a lot of Overwatch with a friend of mine that I game with regularly, and he introduced me to a whole crew of people that played Overwatch practically every night. It fell by the wayside when other games I wanted to play more came out, but it has a special place in my heart.
What is there to say about DOOM that has not already been said? It is just a fantastic shooter from top to bottom. It modernizes a classic without losing the soul of the original experience, and provides one of the most exciting shooter campaigns I have ever experienced. Also goddamn. A shooter with good shotguns in it. Oh man. I could not be happier with that.
Virtual Reality may not be “here” quite yet, but I am having a blast with it. When the VR headsets first hit the markets earlier this year, I was excited to see what they could offer and to see where the technology would go, but I had no interest in picking up a headset for myself. As the year wore on and I saw more and more VR experiences come out, I became increasingly excited about the platform, and after seeing some footage of Tilt Brush, an idea started to form. I called my dad, and we decided to go in halfsies on a Vive, and set it up somewhere we could both play with it. Day one of using the headset, and I had the same experience that everyone has seemed to have with VR: I was giddy, and excited about doing even the most simple tasks. That excited me, but what really got me about the potential of the system, was watching my dad play with it. A few years ago, I convinced him to play Journey as a birthday present to me. We spent almost three hours working through the game, and he loved the experience. The controls hindered him though. Controlling a character in 3D space is hard for a person who has never played a video game. VR solved that problem. Within minutes he was through the tutorial and painting in Tilt Brush. I have never seen a gaming experience so thoroughly enrapture a non-gamer. Not the Wii, not the rise of cell phone games, and not even the story games like Journey that I love so much. Google’s Tilt Brush has been the standout experience for my family. My dad is an artist, and Tilt Brush has brought him into giggling fits a number of times. Seeing someone who struggled through Journey with me have such an intuitive and fun experience with Tilt Brush has convinced me that virtual reality, in whatever form it takes, is going to be a lasting and encompassing experience in the years to come.
Brigador gets the award for my favorite game of 2016 that most of my play time is logged in 2015. I played a lot of this game in Early Access, and the experience has only improved with Brigador’s official release. For those not in the know, Brigador is an isometric mech action game billed as a “Kool-Aide Man simulator” by its creators because of the characters’ propensity for smashing through walls. Brigador is a challenging game, at least in part due to its controls. Each type of vehicle controls differently, and the game’s combat requires constant awareness of positioning, facing, and aim. Stealth ends up being a surprisingly viable option, making smashing through walls like the Kool-Aid man to surprise enemies a critical strategy. Most enemies can be dispatched with ease if they are not prepared to take you on, but concentrated fire can shred even the toughest of tanks. It is a fantastic experience: tactical, stylish, satisfying, and all backed with some of the best gritty mech fiction I have read in a long time. Also, the soundtrack rules.
Look, I just really like Monster Hunter. It is a series that has lived on incremental improvements, repeated monsters, and repeated maps, but with Generations, Capcom took a few exciting steps forward. The addition of Styles, and Hunter Arts has broadened the hunting experience. The weapons feel alive and exciting, and the fights have lost none of the edge. At least for me. A lot of people on the internet claim this game is a lot easier than previous entries, but I suppose I am not good enough at the games to make that call, because I still feel challenged. Either way, in this game I have used more weapons, fought more monsters, and all before high rank. Also, I got to go to the official Capcom Monster Hunter meetup in San Francisco last month, and it ruled. Meeting so many people as excited about the series as I am, and getting to hunt with total strangers rekindled my love of the series, and definitely contributed to this game placing so highly on this list. Plus, I won a Tigrex statue in a raffle by completing in game challenges, and that felt pretty good.
Titanfall 2 is my favorite multiplayer shooter. This is a major endorsement given that this year also saw the release of Overwatch, one of the most elegantly designed games I have ever played. I never got into the Left Trigger, Right Trigger shooter genre. Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4 both pulled me in with their excellent single player campaigns, but I bounced off of the multiplayer modes for those games. It felt like I could not defend myself from attack in those games, and I did not have the speed on the triggers that I needed in order to do well. Titanfall 2 has alleviated those problems for me. For one, the Titans allow for a slower pace of play from the Pilot combat. In a Titan, I can survive an incredible amount of damage, and take down waves of NPC enemies and human-controlled Pilots. With the battery system, I can even remain in my Titan indefinitely with a supportive team. Pilot combat is where the game shows how it has solved the problems I had with more traditional Left Trigger, Right Trigger shooters: in Titanfall 2, I can outrun bullets. In the Call of Duty games, once an opponent has gotten me in their sights, I have no chance of escaping. Maybe I can get a lucky headshot in and survive their attack, but most likely I would just get gunned down. In Titanfall 2, I can get moving so quickly, that I can get out of an enemy’s cross-hairs, outmaneuver them, and take them down. It is a major change to the genre that gives me a feeling of agency that none of its competitors ever have. Also, the single player campaign seems great. I have only gotten through a couple missions in it because the mulitplayer keeps drawing me in.
Not since Journey have I been so surprised by a game. When I first saw Stardew Valley so highly recommended by Dan Ryckert of one Giant Bomb dot com, I expected a cutsey game that would be fun to while away some time with. What I did not expect was to fall so head over heels in love with a fictional town and its pixelated inhabitants. Stardew Valley delivers an experience that is at once free and constrained, relaxing and stressful. While at first glance, it seems like a simple farming simulator, you can only work for so long on your farm in a given day. This forces you out into the town where you find a town filled with well written characters and some truly interesting mysteries. From skeleton arcade cabinets, to monster filled mines, to broken bridges, and a wizard’s tower, the town of Stardew Valley is littered with tantalizing secrets. It is also the game that taught me to let go of some of my desire for efficiency in gaming. Whenever I play games, I feel badly if I perform less than optimally. This used to mean that I spent hours repeating sections and levels, missing huge chunks of games that I never finished because I burned out trying to nail that perfect run from the get go. Stardew Valley is a game that initially seems like an optimizers’ nightmare: every day is limited by your character’s Energy as well as time, and there are so many things to do that someone trying to nail an optimal pattern would probably never make it past the first day. So, I had to let go. Fitting that a game about breaking out of a schedule and enjoying the simple things taught me not to worry so much about its schedule. Stardew Valley became something I returned to daily, both for short trips and for multi-hour sessions, and it never left me feeling bored. It is one of the most soothing games I have played in years, and I am always excited to boot it up and see what else I can turn up in the valley.
This year, I began listening to the Bonfireside Chats podcast. It is a podcast that takes a deep look at all of From Software’s Souls games, from Demon’s Souls to Bloodborne. I played Demon’s Souls when it first came out, and though I learned to respect its tough but fair attitude, I eventually moved on to other games, and never finished it. When Dark Souls came out, I bought it for the Playstation 3, and played through a solid chunk of it. Unfortunately, after taking down the Gargoyles that guard the Undead Parish bell, I got lost. I had no idea where to go next, and spent so many hours wandering aimlessly, that I gave up on the game. About a year later, a friend of mine got into Dark Souls on the Xbox 360, so I picked up a used copy and embarked on my journey again. This time, I found the door that I needed to unlock after the gargoyles, made it all of the way through Ornstein and Smough in Anor Londo, and then just kind of stopped. The slow pace of play and the slew of new games coming out eventually drew me away. In 2015 I played through Bloodborne, and actually beat it. I had a free week with no work, and the faster pace of the game allowed me to drive through to the end.
Fast forward to now, and the Bonefireside Chats podcast inspired me to dive back into the Souls side of the series and rediscover what makes it so good. I bought all three Dark Souls games on PC, and began my journey.
As of now, I am deeper into Dark Souls than I have ever been, and I am having a blast. Knowing so much more about the game, but also getting to rediscover that feeling of finding a new area and not knowing what to do with it are so exciting. The deliberate combat and tough but fair challenges really cannot be had anywhere else. If nothing else, Dark Souls is a master class in level design, and something that should not be missed by any game developer.