Sunday, January 31, 2010

Divers: Concrete Explanation, Part 1

"...Okay, we've officially gone down far enough now."

Here's the actual nuts and bolts of the process of Diving, inasmuch as I've presently conceived it. Let's start by going over the various terms and concepts. . .

"Diver Level" is a metagame term describing how far any character can 'push' themselves downwards. In terms of game balance, the score representing your Diver Level plays a similar role to your character level in D&D, since being able to dive deeper means you can then work to further unlock your own powers.

"Depth Level" is another arbitrary metagame number, essentially a unit of measurement; if I describe how a character "dives from level 4 to level 5", it means about the same thing as saying that "the submersible dives from 40 fathoms to 50 fathoms". All human beings exist across all depth levels, but their presence is generally imperceptible unless they're presently on the same depth level as you (give or take). The exception to this is depth level 0, the "surface" that we all normally operate on.

"Inner Powers" are the first type of supernatural abilities divers gain while in the depths. These powers simply enhance what you can do with your own physical body- unnatural levels of speed and strength, as well as more unusual talents such being able to run up walls and casually balance on power lines. They never involve any visual "special effects", though there are certainly cases where the use of the power makes a pretty striking image in and of itself.

"Aura Powers" are the other type of supernatural abilities. Your "aura" is your personal supply of an energy/force that can be willed into being and manipulated to create various effects; some basic example would be creating a shield or launching section of your aura as projectiles directed towards your enemy. The raw form of one's aura and the ways it can be applied are unique to each diver; swirling red flames, interwoven bands of pure white light, a crackling mass of blue-tinged lightning- all are possible.

"Manifestation Types"
are the different ways one's aura can manifest. Most divers carry out most applications of their aura by projecting their aura as raw energy and then directing it. Common variants include being able summon specific items (such as a weapon) or even shadows with specific abilities and applications. Meanwhile, one of the rarer options (albeit one that's much more frequent with spirits) is the actual transformation of your physical form. Manifestation types provide some of the most clear-cut implications about a diver's inner nature and personality.

"Partial Submersion" is when you're diving while maintaining your awareness of the Surface, allowing you to simultaneously perceive and operate across depth levels. Partial submersion has several limits; you can't use aura powers, and your location and actions in the depths can't vary too much from that of your surface self (though the exact amount of leeway increases the deeper you go).

Dive Link:
The phenomenon that occurs when you are partially submersed and observing/being observed by someone who isn't fully submersed. The downwards 'push' you exert on yourself in order to dive is distributed evenly among you, and can be assisted or opposed by another diver who's a part of the link. An effort which would normally take you down to depth level 6 would take you and a second person down to level 3, three people (including yourself) down to level 2, or 4-6 people down to level 1. Take someone down far enough and they become fully submersed, breaking the dive link- though you can still hold them in place by more direct means. Many divers and spirits can establish a weaker form of dive link that lets them pull someone on a different depth towards them (i.e. it's a skill).

"Full Submersion" is when you're diving without bothering to "keep one hand on" your surface self (meaning that it falls unconscious). You can dive further downwards and freely travel to distant locations, while having full access to both types of powers. You operate on your current depth level only, rather than being able to perceive and affect things all the way back to the surface. Since you can't perceive people who aren't currently diving to the same level, you have to make educated guesses as to how the elements at your present depth are tied to situations on the surface.

"Borders" are points in a region's depths where the current level is separate from the one below it. They don't exist as any kind of physical barrier, but divers can sense when they're pressing against one. The depths on two sides of a border can be markedly different, rather than being a part of a gradual transformation. The challenge a border poses is determined by its depth and your Diver Level. At first they're hardly noticeable. Then they act like speed bumps- you have to pause for a moment to force your way past, but it takes no significant effort. Next, they're like hills- it does take effort to get across, and that effort is increased by the number of 'hills' and 'speed bumps' you've already forced yourself past. Eventually (say, 75% of your maximum depth at the deepest) you reach the point where your Diver Level isn't high enough to push yourself over border at your current depth. Fortunately, borders never completely separate two sections of a region's depths; there's always some common link connecting the two, letting you cross so long as you've worked out the conditions (which usually involve some key location).

Art Credits: Unknown.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Divers: Spirits

Some spirits are friendly. This probably isn't one of them.

Spirits and shadows have a good deal in common. Both can be found throughout the depths, and will generally be stronger and stronger the deeper you go. Key to their natures is the close bond both types of entities possess with the section of the depths in which they dwell; a connection that strengthens both sides, while allowing them to heavily influence one another. So what's the difference?

Shadows imitate human behavior; they're like echoes, or a reflection in the mirror. But Spirits are bona fide sentient beings- intelligent, with a decent amount of free will. And the reason for this is that all of them- from the pitch-black silhouette of a lost child to a wiseass talking crow to the twisted nightmare demon- used to be human.

When someone loses their connection to their surface body, they're effectively cast adrift through the depths. This can lead to them gravitating towards/"snagging onto" a given location and depth, becoming bound to that place. All fairly straightforward- the variety comes into play when you consider all the various ways that this severed connection can actually happen. A diver who pushed their range much too far or whose surface body is killed while they're submersed, a depth that acts like a trap for the hapless individuals who're drawn into it (usually with the assistance of other Spirits the depth has already generated), or even cases where a malevolent Diver deliberately subdues someone and then severs their connection (perhaps as a way of holding them hostage).

In terms of powers, Spirits and Divers are nearly identical- which makes sense, since the latter can easily become the former if they're not careful. There's two key differences. The first is that a Spirit is tethered to their location in the Depths, rather than having a the more flexible/elastic link to one's surface body. The second involves an important diver skill- that of that of 'channeling' the nature of your current environment on a temporary basis- with the corresponding risk that you'll get caught up in your assumed role. Similar tradeoff to going into a berserker rage in a fantasy rpg, but with a huge variety of situational benefits/drawbacks. Spirits channel the power of their location in the same way- but they can't turn it off. The resulting mutual influence is a battle of wills no one can hope who completely win; the best you can do is adapt, carving out a 'niche' for yourself that lets you fit into the Depth you're at without having to change too much.

Sometimes a Spirit didn't even have any prior diving experience. People who have near-death experiences seem to start to Dive during the process, and tend to be alot more likely to develop full-fledged Diver abilities later on (all it takes is one brush). There's a couple different theories explaining this and several other phenomena. One of the more commonly accepted ones among Divers is that when you die, your soul sinks through the depths like a rock- all the way down to whatever awaits at the bottom. Going off this theory, these people caught a snag on the way down- that and/or were the type to try and grab onto something as they passed.

Regardless of the precise metaphysical sequence of events, there's no question that these Spirits rarely retain their selves for very long. Since these people have no experience with the Depths, they usually have a pretty unstable reactions to their new circumstances, and can lose their humanity pretty quickly. Altruistic divers will generally try to help such spirits on their way- ideally a cooperative effort, but if they're too far gone the Diver will probably fall back on force to send the spirit on its way. It's what their old self would have wanted.

Of course, a responsible diver will have done their homework first. Just because a spirit's lost their connection to a body doesn't mean it's actually dead. The vast majority of coma patients are cases of this; if a diver can identify a spirit and track down their physical body, they can slowly push the spirit back down into it (over the course of several days), restoring them to their old selves. Of course, not all spirits will go along with this willingly. . .

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Divers: Shadows

I was originally going to try and review all the remaining disparate elements of Diver's concept that I'd come up in the initial brainstorm several months ago. But I've been building alot on the concept since then; this isn't to say that things are set in stone, but I do have a full post worth of info on each of the two main topics I haven't covered: Spirits and Shadows.

AS mentioned before, one of the fundamental principles of Divers is that the Depths are given form by the experiences humans have on the surace. Shadows, then, are formed by the parts of those experiences that consist of other people. Naturally, this means most shadows match the role most people play in the experience we're having at any given moment- a part of the background that we're not really focusing on. As such, when you're not deliberately focusing on them, their presence hardly registers- the same way you maintain a token awareness of someone in the same room of you, without taking the time to consciously keep an eye on them. They can often make passable small talk, though it'll be difficult to recall substantive detail regarding how they looked or what exactly they said.

When faced with a situation that doesn't fit within the patterns of interaction that spawned them, shadows might adopt the closest behavior- if two Divers do battle in the depths of a city block that was recently the site of a violent protest crackdown, the resident shadows might react to the destruction as though they were riot police. Most of the time, though, any close interaction with a shadow will cause them to waver and disappear. They're not sentient; just vague composites of similar memories.

Of course, that doesn't mean a diver takes shadows lightly. As you dive deeper, the number of shadows will usually diminish; but those that remain tend to have much stronger presences. These shadows are intricately connected to the nature of their location, and in many cases will respond fiercely if provoked. The patterns of interaction they represent are much more significant- a beloved child, an abusive partner, a trusted friend. Strong instances of bonds like these tend to plant the seeds for a corresponding shadow; that 'echo' then feeds back into similar bonds over the months and years, a mutual influence that refines the shadow into a stronger form which emphasizes parallel aspects of all the surface bonds it's resonated with- in other words, a transformation from specific memory to a universal archetype.

Though they'll readily describe it as playing with fire, many experienced divers regularly interact with shadows as a way of investigating a given location's depths. If you've done your research right, you might be able prod them into providing you with re-enactments of critical, formative moments in that location's history. If not. . .the event you pegged as the birth of a trend might turn out to be a part of something much bigger, triggering a response far beyond anything you were ready for. And there's an even bigger threat- that seemingly-normal shadows may be under the influence of something more sinister, perhaps even something with a definite mind of its own. . .

As how you tell whether you're looking at shadows or something more real, why, that's so obvious it hardly bears mentioning. You will never see a shadow's eyes. Perhaps they're turned away, perhaps they have their hood up, perhaps they just wear dark sunglasses. There are even some areas where the shadows have black censor bars appearing over their eyes. No one's quite sure why.

Art by Manamaraya.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

One of those more depressing brainstorms.

Today, a team of scientists announces they have figured out a way to reincarnate yourself. The process, which costs about as much as a series of expensive surgeries, "transfers" your brain into a fetus that's still in the womb (killing your old body). Ten years later your consciousness emerges from dormancy, as the child hits puberty and its brain develops to the point where it can support you. One moment you're in a lab with wires hooked up to your head, the next thing you know it's a decade later and you're in the body of a nine-year-old. Amazing!

Of course, you just 'overwrote' the child who was using this body up until now. And no, they can't be kept in a coma their whole lives, that'd cripple their mental and physical development to the point where your consciousness would never emerge.

In other words, humanity just rendered immortality possible, and all it requires is the death of a child. What effect does this have on society? What's the world going to be like in 50 years?

This is just one of those open-ended brainstorms, where I focus on seeing where the idea naturally leads rather than trying to push it in a certain direction. Still, it's not hard to see how things would go. There'd be a lot of countries which outlawed the procedure and consigned all reincarnated individuals to a quick execution. Others would be more. . .flexible, perhaps even allowing it so long as one had obtained the mother's consent.

Regardless of their official laws on the matter, every nation would likely have a thriving illegal market for the procedure. It's a matter of human weakness. Say you find out tomorrow that you have a terminal illness- you have about a month.

Someone approaches you and discreetly offers you the reincarnation procedure. The price is simple: You will all your assets to a certain charity, i.e. to them.

They don't expect an immediate response. They'll wait. You can signal that you want to do it at any time; or you can die.

Will your convictions hold?

That's how you end up with a world that has the horror of foster parents realizing that their child is no longer their child. Where children secretly worry that their minds are time bombs, that sometime around the age of 9 they'll go to sleep one night and never wake up.

You have a world a reincarnated individual's first act being to read a letter under the pillow they were sleeping on- a letter addressed to "the new me", asking them to please take care of the child's dog and to be nice to his little sister.

If I'm tying this back to a premise for roleplaying game, the "light" option is to simply have it be one particularly bleak facet of a cyberpunk setting- the sort of thing that might be investigated by Ghost In The Shell's Section 9.

The "heavy" option. . .well, one particular scenario comes to mind. You're a part of a terrorist organization that assassinates reincarnated individuals, as well as abducting "eggs" and crippling their hormonal development so that that they never 'hatch'- the child will live to about 25 on average, but that's much better than dying at 9, right?

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Campaign Premise: Demon Blades

Another case of /tg/ discussions inspiring something interesting. The original subject was an order of knights that fought demons by pairing themselves with demon-infused items. No details were given beyond this; one of the subsequent ideas that quickly came up was that this was actually a way for demons to gain sanctuary, since Hell isn't exactly a fun place for them to be in either. My reaction was to expand on the idea using cues from the Soul Eater anime/manga series (whose protagonists wield partners that can turn into weapons).

The ritual itself is simple; you put out the call, and a demon who chooses to answer you is summoned. If willing, said demon can then be converted into a weapon, while retaining their consciousness and an awareness of their surroundings (including an ability to sense other demonic presences). The weapons they form negate virtually all forms of damage reduction and regeneration (or the setting's equivalent), making them great for monster hunting. In addition, they enhance the wielder's physical prowess (speed, grace and/or strength, distribution varying with each weapon) to a degree that corresponds to the bond between demon and wielder.

This bond is achieved through intimate mental interaction- I'm not saying the process is somehow sexual, there's just nothing more 'intimate' than directly interfacing with someone else's head. It would be both melodramatic and a terrible understatement to call this a 'battle of wills'- two vastly different minds must reconcile their differences, with each picking apart the flaws that lurk in the blind spots of the other's personality/ worldview, a process that no personality can escape wholly unscathed. Every demon that undergoes this process is humanized to some degree, and every human gains a new outlook on life that has a decidedly ruthless edge.

In the end, to have derive power from their bond, a wielder and weaponized demon must trust each other. They must reach some kind of understanding, one where each has no quarrel with the other, nor hides any secrets beyond those the other knows of and allows their partner to keep.

The tricky thing is that not all demons who participate in this process seek redemption. Yes, any demon who participates in such an arrangement is branded as a traitor throughout Hell, an outcast any other demon may freely rend to pieces. But if they gain enough power through the bond- a bond which tolerates no deception, but can be used to twist a mortal to their way of thinking. . .

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

10 Increasingly Savvy Uses For A Flame-Calling Sword

Someone on /tg/ was asking about how a medieval setting (about the time of the First Crusades) would work if you included magic artifacts that had elemental powers. More specifically:

Controlling such a weapon or item gives you control, down to molecular control where applicable, over the element. How would such a setting advance? Where would technology, war and civilization be 50 years on?

I think the key here is simple- how well would people utilize such fundamental powers? I mean, say you've got a flaming sword with control over fire, right? Ranking various applications of it from 1-10, on the basis of cunning/vision...

1: My sword's on fire, bitches! Still want to fight me?
2: My sword's on fire, bitches! Clearly I am destined to be a glorious leader!
3: God has granted me control over fire, bitches! Clearly I am destined to be a glorious leader! Pay no attention to the way I always hold my sword in my left hand when I exercise this innate god-given ability!
4: Oh look. The room is on fire, yet none of the flames seem to be touching me. Shame the same doesn't go for you.
5: Use oil and flaming arrows, we'll end this siege tonight. Trust me, it doesn't matter that there was a downpour this morning.
6: Oh look, this city I was visiting incognito is now burning down despite spirited attempts to quell the flames. Guess they aren't gonna be in very good shape when my army rolls in next week.
7: We can make our forges' flames burn far hotter than than would normally be possible. Give our metalsmiths a year or two and we'll be churning out equipment that's miles beyond anything anyone else can offer.
8: Get your scholars, we are going to analyze the crap out of this thing and figure out how to track down more of these items.
9: Get your scholars, we are going to analyze the crap out of this thing and figure out how to *make* more of these items.
10: Get your scientists. We are going to analyze the crap out of this thing so as to figure out how *magic itself* works. Hop to!

Of course, by the time I finished writing out that list, the thread had fallen off page 10 of the imageboard and been deleted. Good thing I thought to CTRL-C the text before hitting "submit".

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Monday, January 18, 2010

How can games have artistic merit?

Just to be clear: I'm using the term "artistic merit" to denote cultural value- a creation whose worth extends beyond simply providing entertainment. I have no interest in the concept of games as art, because I'm not an artist- the most high-falutin' label I'd give myself is "craftsman", i.e. someone who focuses on the *craft* of a creative effort rather than its potential for abstract self-expression. The concept that does interest me is games as a medium for storytelling; and that's a matter I already worked through a year ago. In some ways that post concluded my personal ruminations on game design, because I'd finally identified my priorities as a designer and could thus pursue them in earnest. I'm not revisiting the subject because I've since advanced my definition of a good roleplaying game; I'm revisting it because I've since advanced my definition of a good story.

See, in my mind a story's 'artistic merit'- the quality which earns it the right to be taken seriously by society as a whole- doesn't just come from the quality we refer to as depth. By my understanding, that concept doesn't take into account another factor, which I label as authenticity. Authenticity comes from working to ensure that your story makes sense; that the internal logic is consistent, and the plot points occur naturally rather than being forced. Creating an authentic story requires that you actually do your damn research on the subject matter, and work through the implications of any fantastic elements.

Call of Duty 4 provides a good example of a story that has authenticity without depth. It's not trying to explore beyond the surface of its characters or grapple with any particularly complex themes. But it offers a portrayal of modern warfare that's well-researched and avoids being compromised by unrealistic set pieces (like the sequel's snowmobile jump). I see both war hawks and doves refer to the game as though it had clearly taken their side; this happens because the game focuses on a genuine portrayal of the subject matter, leaving the interpretation in their hands.

The oft-praised, oft-mocked anime Code Geass is the opposite- a story that has depth but lacks authenticity. It's constantly striving to grapple with advanced themes- human nature and how it acts in concert with society to steer us towards prejudice and violence (rather than just having speeches about fighting spirit and twoo wuv). The characters are complex and multifaceted; I still remember how my jaw dropped when a journalist named Diethard explained his personal motivations and philosophy-and this was a minor secondary character.

But because of that lack of authenticity, it's still not something worth taking very seriously. The story has few qualms about using contrived coincidences to augment the level of drama, rather than having the plot develop in a particularly feasible, natural manner.

So how can a game have depth, and how can it have authenticity? Well, I made this post more to pose this question than to answer it. But I'll take an initial stab at it anyway...

I think that depth in a game's design (again, the focus here is on mechanics first and foremost, rather than a background story told through other mediums) comes from the system's exploration of ideas and concepts. Specifically, the exploration of ideas and concepts in an original and thoughtful matter, both via choice of subject matter and personal interpretation. A hypothetical example of an rpg with this conception of artistic depth could be one that explores an abstract side of a real-life scenario, perhaps quantifying an abusive relationship via the hopes and vulnerabilities of those involved.

Authenticity in a game's design is trickier, but the closest example I can come up with is whether the game's mechanics dictate the narrative in a believable fashion (rather than causing you to feel like events are scripted and/or the result of arbitrary game mechanics). In a way, I'm touching on the concept of a game's "Simulationist" value here.

On the whole, this has been an interesting thought experiment, but it hasn't quite led me to any major insights. Perhaps I'll revisit the matter again some other time.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010


WARNING: The following concept came about during a sleep-deprived brainstorm, and has proven tricky for me to express in a coherent fashion. It's a metaphysical idea that leads to an original premise, resembling a fusion of Silent Hill, Bleach and The Matrix. At the moment I'm actually looking for suggestions as much as I'm after questions; when I don't give more details on something, it's often because I haven't worked out just what those details are.

To start off, you've got the modern-day world as we know it. Nothing supernatural here- no vampires in the shadows that we've somehow overlooked as a society. The trick is that this world we know is like the surface of an ocean, and there are people out there who can "dive" beneath. They don't physically move- instead, they concentrate, and the world around them starts to change.

The location they're in transforms into what you could describe as a more "stylized" version of itself, revealing its inner character. An apartment where someone was violently murdered years ago would start to feel dangerous and sinister, with fresh bloodstains appearing on the walls (assuming you can dive that far). These Depths are basically given form by the experiences people have on the surface. Demolish an office building and its spiritual equivalent will fade away over time. Replace it with a playground and it'll get overwritten much more quickly, because the excited children are having experiences which are much more intense than those of the bored office workers. The influence goes both ways; much of what we attribute to social psychology or describe as the "mood" of a place is actually the Depths subtly influencing us. Visit a devout church and there might be a sense of peace and community, go into a bad neighborhood and you'll feel more inclined to hold a grudge. The result is a feedback loop that slowly builds up over time, one that's can be vaguely sensed by many Feng Shui experts and psychic mediums.

Divers, on the other hand, can be the abrupt wrench in the works. Because when they dive it's not just the world around them that transforms to reveal its inner nature-divers change as well, developing supernatural abilities in the process. Use your powers to destroy the parallel version of a building, and it'll reform in a week or two- but the real-world building's structural integrity will decrease in the process. By meddling with a location's parallel equivalent divers can "exorcise" the evil aura of a haunted house, or "defile" a church to diminish the sense of devotion felt by the people who worship there.

An initial 'stylization' of predatory facial features could foreshadow a transformation into a bestial monster. Other potential powers include telekinesis, or an aura of light that restores everything around you, or the ability to summon the archetypical 'memory' of an object or person and use it to assist you. The deeper a diver goes, the stronger their abilities become- but only while they're at that level of depth. Divers improve in steps, first learning to dive further and then spending time at that level of depth, developing their abilities beyond the previous limit.

When someone dives in the presence of others, the pressure that pushes them downwards is applied to everyone present instead, keeping them all on the same level. To use metagame numbers: Say you have a diver who can dive down four 'levels' (in this context, an arbitrary unit of depth). If he fights a diver who can go down to level 6, and both are trying go as "deep" as they can, their tug-of-war leads to them fighting on level 5; but the first diver will stop transforming after he passes level 4, and thus be at a disadvantage. Here's a similar example: A level 6 Diver has to face a SWAT team. He pulls them all down as far as he can, but they're all instinctively tugging the level back towards 0, so the lowest he can get things is 2. This limits his superpowers to the degree of raw power possible at level 2, but if he takes out some of the team fast he'll be able to pull the rest deeper and become strong enough to finish them off. On the other hand, one of the SWAT team members could manage to unlock some of *their* inner power mid-fight, instinctively using telekinesis or moving at super-speed for the first time.

Phew! Okay, I think that's enough for one post. Thoughts? The above piece of art was done by Alexiuss.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cultural Character Creation Systems

The last post talked about representing cultural backgrounds by giving players different versions of the reference material on the setting. This time, we're dealing with a new idea that pursues the same line of though in a much more concrete/mechanical direction.

Each culture has its own system for creating your character's stats.

I'll explain via an example where the d20 system (particularly as seen in D&D 3.5) is the character creation system for Culture A, a society that favors formal education towards various roles/professions/trades via a master-apprentice relationship. Hence the use of classes; if someone from this culture knows military tactics, you may assume he is either a Soldier or a Scholar. All other cultures in this example also use the core rules d20 system, in that they make checks/attack rolls in the same manner. For simplicity's sake we'll also assume that all cultures provide characters with feats and involve the same six ability scores. The GM can still call for a climb check and have each player check their sheet for the bonus they get on that skill. What differs is the process by which they determined the size of that bonus.

Culture B, for instance, follows a rigid caste structure. The very first step for making a character is to specify your bloodline's caste; the higher your station, the higher your base bonus for all skill checks and attack rolls. After all, you're a superior being, even if your so-called 'sheltered' upbringing means your hit points and save bonuses aren't quite on the same level. Skills also have varying associated stations, with their max ranks decreasing based on how far they're above/below you. Upper castes receive extensive education and thus have more skill points, while lower classes must draw on practical experience and receive more feats instead.

Culture C is primitive and tribal, with a pragmatic focus on survival in harsh conditions. I'll bring Maelstrom back into the picture by saying that the conditions in question are the aether-filled interspace between worlds; thus, all members of this society automatically receive bonuses based on their level for various space survival matters that are on par with the maximum possible benefit someone from another culture could receive. Their key choice during character creation is how to assign their ability score points, as this largely set up all their other benefits- after all, these are tribes where your talents determine your role. The smartest ones are taught the lore and learn how to navigate, the strongest and swiftest acts as hunters and scouts, the wisest and most insightful serve to lead and nurture the tribe.

Culture D (Maelstrom's Trevata people) lives in isolated structures where all residents selflessly serve the whole. The vast majority of their people have no personal identity- no concept of a unique individual that provides the thoughts which pass through their heads. On occasion, one develops a sense of self, and thus becomes capable of good and evil. Such individuals manage this confusing shift through the use of masks, which they illustrate with designs depicting the various traits that make up their newly-forming personality These characters essentially choose whether to develop their "strength" each level (primarily increasing base statistics) or enrich their mask if they have one (meaning a sharply reduced rate of advancement but access to numerous packages of specialized skills, feats, etc.)

I can go on, of course. Culture E's nomadic, esoteric ways mean their members use a fairly pure point buy system, allowing for a striking level of flexibility regarding any given member's talents (though specialization is more difficult). Culture F highly values the concept of closely linked spiritual and physical health/growth/development, meaning that one must invest equal amounts in the "physical" and "mental" ability scores/skills/etc. The more primitive culture G does the opposite, first and foremost presenting its people with a choice between roles that emphasize strength of body and roles that emphasize strength of mind. And so on and so forth.

The main question from this point is how to handle character advancement once your characters immersed in a different culture. I suspect the answer will boil down to the option each level to give up the offered 'bundle deals' of your system (at least to some degree) in favor of points that can be spent in a more flexible fashion. But we'll see. . .

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Culturally Enriching Your RPG

A moment from Thunderstruck nicely demonstrates the kind of exposition PC interaction could provide.

One thing about Maelstrom is that I really, really want each race (even the different peoples among each race) to have unique worldviews, which in turn serve to enhance the quality of the game experience. This isn't just motivated by personal preference. The whole point of this project is to develop a setting that's highly original, to avoid deriving too much from other works/genres by instead pursuing the internal logic of Maelstrom's core backstory. But since the setting's one of adventure and discovery, I don't want to actually reveal this origin story- better to have it be a grand mystery!

Unique worldviews help with this matter because they're elegant way to deliver clues. The markedly different explanations they offer for a given topic (everything from the nature of a given species to the color of a planet's sky) serve to deepen your understanding of the fundamental principles the world follows. It's not just a matter of every version containing "grains of truth"- each cultural perspective is largely accurate, but only covers one side of the bigger picture. And that's just the first brainstorm this matter has given me. . .

Including mystery in a pen and paper rpg setting is difficult, because players learn about most of your world in a metagame fashion rather than doing so through their character. Eberron, for example, has some really cool secrets and intrigues that would be the stuff of stunning plot twists- but the impact is diminished because the people at the table tend to already know about them. The origins of the Blood of Vol, the truth about Karrnath's king, these are common knowledge among anyone geeky enough to have done a moderately thorough job browsing of the core rulebook. Dwelling on this a while back, I came up with one possible tactic- include each culture's account of the setting, as separate sections or even small books (available individually or accompanying the core rules as a set). Not only could this be a great method for avoiding information overload, it would be an effective way of conveying distinct flavors through each culture.

Say we have a multicultural party, and they encounter some creature for the first time while traveling between worlds. Player A's knows what this creature is- the book says it's a sacred guide whose kin led Brave Hunter Malani to many great treasures. Player B's also heard of this creature- his book identifies it as a fiercely territorial predator who picks a new home each year, leading to many attacks by them on ships that were following trade routes usually regarded as safe. Player C's book has very little info on anything space-related; all he knows is that it's one of the biggest space beasties he's ever laid eyes on.

Each 'textbook' would be written with a distinct voice- or even multiple distinct voices, each matching the source for the society's mainstream understanding of the current topic. So if you took this approach for colonial Britain, the book would adopt an educated/scholarly tone when providing information on the neighboring nations of Europe (Maelstrom's equivalent being the other worlds orbiting the same gas giant), then shift to a more 'gentleman adventurer' voice and provide a sensational account of the exotic foreign continents. To round things out (both regarding the information the text offers about the setting and the picture it paints of your own society), I'd sprinkle short anecdotes throughout the whole thing, each from a person whose station is unique to their society- a traveling judge, a tribe's champion hunter, an outcaste begging on the street corner. Returning to the example using colonial Britain, the sensational account of a foreign people's barbarous ways might come with a brief counterpoint by a missionary who spent many years among them, praising their close-knit families and willingness to dedicate themselves to God.

Maelstrom's one of the projects I write about least (and there's alot of competition for that honor, believe me). Everything described in this post, I came up with at least a year ago. Today, though, I came up with another idea in the same vein- something much more revolutionary. I'll lay it out in my next post.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jade Empire's Fighting Styles, Part II

Image by Jason Engle.

The last post discussed the relevant aspects of Jade Empire's design, and explained the mechanical changes to the game's fighting styles that (in my opinion) would improve gameplay. This time I'm providing the hard details, for those who're already familiar with the game.

To review: The different factors for each style are no longer upgraded separately. Instead, each style also provides a passive secondary benefit (usually a small one, i.e. 5%/style rank for general benefits or 10%/style rank for ones that come up less often). You constantly receive the secondary benefits of your 4 chosen styles, regardless of which open you're using at any given moment. Switching in a new power mid-combat gives you that power's secondary benefit after a delay of several seconds.

-Legendary Strike: Improves the speed of power attacks.
-Leaping Tiger: Improves the speed of your evasive moves.
-Thousand Cuts: Improves the speed of basic attacks.
-White Demon: Improves the damage of power attacks.
-Viper Style: Increases recovery time for basic attacks.
-Iron Palm: Reduces recovery time against enemy basic attacks.

-Long Sword:
Improves how quickly you start/stop blocking.
Increases recovery time for opponents you knock down.
-Dual Sword: Increases the damage of consecutive basic attacks (escalating benefit, starts with 2nd uninterrupted basic attack and maxes out with the 4th).
-Twin Axes: Reduces damage taken by attacks that interrupt one of your attacks.
-Mirabelle neither grants nor receives secondary benefits.

-Ice Shard: Decreases the cost of chi strikes.
-Dire Flame: Increases the damage of chi strikes.
-Tempest: Increases speed of area attacks.
-Stone Immortal: Increases the radius of your block.

-Toad Demon: Increases reach of melee attacks.
-Horse Demon: Blocked melee attacks reflect damage against attacker.
-Jade Golem: Decreases the focus cost of weapons.
-Red Minister: Decreases the durations of disabling enemy powers.

-Heavenly Wave: Increases the benefit of chi healing.
-Spirit Thief: Reduces the cost of chi powers.
-Storm Dragon: Increases the speed of magic projectiles.
-Hidden Fist: Increases the damage dealt to disabled opponents.
-Paralyzing Palm: Increases the durations of your disabling powers.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Backseat Designer: Jade Empire's Fighting Styles

I'd never really given Jade Empire a whirl. I knew it was good, but never developed a hunger for it because I didn't own an xbox. It took a Steam sale price of $5 for me to get the game, and even then it was one of those "I know I ought to but don't feel like it" moments normally associated with eating your vegetables. But once I sat down and started playing, that ambivalence towards the game was quickly gave way to delight. Fantastic story, graphics that still wow by virtue of some fantastic art design, and (most relevant to this blog) some really neat bits of original game design. It always warms my heart to see an rpg system that's custom-built to fit the game's premise on a fundamental level. The implementation of these design elements has its share of flaws and balance issues, but I can avoid fixating on them when the designers' hearts were clearly in the right place.

There's already plenty of other sites offering previews and reviews of the game, so I'll skip to the subject of this particular post. Eurogamer's review of the game lays the matter out nicely:
Jade Empire's big idea is the inclusion of dozens of different fighting styles, ranging from weapon styles to unarmed martial arts styles, magic abilities, support styles that don't damage directly but might slow an enemy down or steal their Chi (which is used for magical attacks, or to replenish your health), and even transformation styles which morph you into a powerful monster.

Four of these styles can be mapped to the four directions on your D-pad, and you can access the rest of them through a pause menu during combat. The idea behind the game's combat system is that while fighting in each individual style is very simple, the combination of different styles yields a range of more interesting techniques. This almost works.

I'm in agreement- the martial arts styles are great stuff, but a handful of mechanical changes could go a long way towards improving what is already a solid experience.

You get new styles throughout the game. Sometimes you're offered multiple styles (literally or not) and must pick one, with the ones you didn't pick usually becoming available for some extra coin after another chapter or two. I especially love cases where your actions lead to someone offering you a new fighting style as an unexpected reward; the fighting style is always thematically linked to the person teaching it, as though the game was converting them into a new toy for you to kick ass with. It lends a degree of flavor to your abilities (and a sense of accomplishment to your character's development) that's far beyond what most RPGs can offer.

In light of this approach, the designers a pair several smart decisions when it comes to improving the styles you've obtained. First, they didn't make it too important. All of a style's special abilities are available from the get-go rather than having to be unlocked, and heavily investing in a given style will only make it roughly twice as damaging as the style you neglect. This keeps the player focused on choosing which styles to use and then learning to apply them effectively. Second, they gave the styles escalating upgrade costs while slowly increasing the number of points players received to spend on those upgrades. You're free to invest points in a style you've already improved or one you just received, rather than having one option be inferior.

Taking these elements into account, here's the big change I'd make: Each style gets a passive secondary benefit. You constantly receive the secondary benefits of all 4 styles you've got selected, regardless of which one you're currently using. One style grants a small increase to your attack rate, another boosts the damage of your power attacks, a third reduces the cost of chi strikes... This would probably replace the option to level up different aspects of a given style; either way, the secondary benefit would improve in relation to how much you'd leveled that style up.

Make this change and you make good on the concept of a player's individual styles combining to produce something more. It adds a layer of strategic depth, that of choosing and refining your unique approach to combat. In-game, it represents your character drawing on the fundamental lessons they've learned from the different styles they favor.

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