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 and Origins
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.