Saturday, December 31, 2011

Average Joes Released (PDF)

Average Joes is up for sale in PDF: Average Joes

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Release Schedule Update

It has been an interesting year for Bedrock Games. The Terror Network line continues to grow, we've developed new lines for next year and we released our long awaited Horror Show RPG. We also won a Gaming Genius Award for Best Adventure Scenario.

Unfortunately the year has been a challenge for me personally due to poor health. I just had my fourth operation for an ongoing issue and while this blog clearly demonstrates it hasn't impacted my writing, it has impacted my ability to coordinate things on the business side of Bedrock in a few instances (particularly the release schedule).

Notably Orlando's Guide to Organized Crime hasn't been released yet (it is complete and just needs some re-editing before I feel comfortable putting it out) and Average Joes is a month or so behind schedule (it too is done we are just working through the finishing details to make sure it is perfect). I apologize to any of our readers who were looking forward to these products. If you were eagerly awaiting either Average Joes or Orlando's Guide please contact me at and I will send you a free PDF of any Bedrock game of your choice.

Right now I expect Average Joes will be out by January or February in PDF and shortly after in print. Servants of Gaius appears to be on the road to a March release date and Orlando's Guide to Organized Crime will hit shelves sometime in 2012. Things may be bumpy with the release schedule because of my health but I am continuing to work with Bill on new projects. In terms of design and writing we are at the top of our game (I am very, very happy with Servants of Gaius now that it is complete).


Monday, December 5, 2011

Investigations and Mysteries Part One: Dynamic Design

Most of our games are friendly to investigation and mystery campaigns. This should be no surprise as our initial release, Terror Network, was built with counter-terrorism investigations in mind. But Crime Network and Horror Show are also well-suited to these kinds of adventures (as is our upcoming project Servants of Gaius). The reason for this is pretty simple: this is one of my favorite gaming styles.

Even when I play or run fantasy adventure games like D&D my focus is mostly on city adventures (with a heavy dose of mystery and role play). It isn't that I don't like exploration or dungeons crawls, but I would much rather solve mysteries or investigate a foe's weaknesses than simply move from one combat to the next.

In my opinion, good mystery adventures are relatively open and aren't on a track. But more importantly, they are dynamic. At least that is the style I enjoy as a player and GM. I like when solving the mystery isn't the only thing going on, when all the NPCs (or monsters) are moving organically and doing interesting things. They aren't just sitting there waiting for the PCs to discover their guilt.

This not only makes some logical sense, it makes for a more lively game. All too often you see people running mystery adventures as if is a static quest against the environment. But at the core of every good mystery are the characters. Everyone from the victims to the guilty (don't forget witnesses) have something important to add to the game. And while physical clues are an important feature of any mystery the true investigation occurs through character interaction. If your characters are fleshed out and your backstory concrete, you have most of what you need to run a game.

Clues aren't just things you find in drawers or amid shell-casings on the carpet, they are also found in the minds of your NPCs. When preparing possible leads (a term I like much better than clues) consider what the NPCs know, what they don't know, who they know, how they know these things, and why they are/aren't willing to talk about them. Equally important make sure you know their motives.

A clue in a drawer is great, but a witness or suspect moves around, has things to do and places to be. Some of them also have an interest in preventing the PCs from completing their investigation (some even have an interest in helping them). This really helps keep the game fun and exciting even if the players aren't having an easy time putting together the pieces.

The trick is to design the adventure with failure in mind. By this I don't mean set your players up for failure. But plan for the worst case scenario. What happens in the players miss a critical clue? What happens if they miss all the clues? In my case I find rather than lead them through the investigation when they falter, it is better to make the consequences for not solving the mystery fun and exciting. Raise the stakes a bit and make your villains proactive. This method won't work for everyone, but it has worked wonderfully in my own experience.

This is where your NPCs can truly shine. Perhaps the killer in your murder mystery is just getting started. He starts killing more and more victims the longer the PCs take to figure things out, finally looking to the PCs themselves for blood if they take an especially long time. In a more supernatural style campaign the murders might be part of a cult's efforts to open a doorway to another dimensions, and doing so unleashes an army of demons on the city. It can be good to have an interesting end-game in mind.

To simplify the process it can help to devise a timeline (something I have used in all of our published material). This charts all the major events that may occur over the course of the investigation and should be subject to alteration if the PCs do things to disrupt it. A timeline can be used to add urgency and drama to the game (a countdown to something awful if the characters don't solve the mystery by a certain time or day).

Whether it is for published adventures or for my own personal campaigns, when I design an investigation I try to approach it as if I were designing a setting. Mysteries take place in their own world where the characters and places create a unique environment for adventure. Think about how all the characters are tied to the mystery and how they connect (or don't connect) to each other. Ultimately it is the interactions that matter so try to make these interesting and even dangerous. Some suspect turn violent when questioned or try to lure the PCs into a trap.

As you run the mystery be flexible and open-minded. I remind myself that there is always more than one way to solve a mystery. There isn't a single path from beginning to end and you should reward players who put together clues and leads in unexpected ways. This doesn't mean you alter the facts to keep things moving. It means if there is a clue and the PCs thought of a clever but realistic way to obtain it, let them, don't force them to go through the hoops only you thought of. Perhaps you hadn't accounted for PCs who check a suspect's phone records. If checking the phone records would yield an important clue (even if it is a clue you haven't thought of but one that would exist) go with it.

As with anything in roleplaying (but especially with Investigations) your mileage may vary. There are numerous approaches to running these types of adventures, most of which are available online. One people often invoke is the Three Clue Rule for example. Take what works and discard what doesn't. Hopefully you will find my advice useful. But if it grains against your style, there is nothing wrong with taking another approach.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Unified Mechanics

It seems like the trend in roleplaying has been toward a nearly universal use of unified mechanics (having a basic rule that repeats throughout the game such as d20+modifier). The first time I became conscious of this concept was when TSR released Alternity in the late 90s (though it wasn't the first game to do this and I had certainly played unified systems without realizing it prior to this). One of their marketing claims was that they built the game around a core mechanic. Whether they succeeded or not I can't say, because I never played Alternity, but the marketing campaign created a strong impression on me. When Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition came out a year or later it was clear they built the game around the d20 roll (though I have no idea whether Alternity impacted WOTC design of 3E). This was a major change for D&D because the previous edition had a number of disparate mechanics throughout. Yes d20 wasn't a pure universal mechanic like some games have today, but at the time it was a huge break from 2nd Edition. I think it is fair to say that the d20 system helped make the unified mechanic a feature of most modern RPGs because of its popularity. It just became the default assumption that unified was the way to go.

Unified mechanics are good. I like them so much that our own games feature a unified dice pool mechanic (with a handful of edge cases). The benefit of a unified mechanic is you don't have to stop and look things up all the time because you pretty much know how the system handles any situation requiring a roll. So count me as a fan of unified systems.

At the same time, it is kind of a shame that non-unified approaches have fallen into disuse. It is a little like when movie makers adopt a single aesthetic or formula for a decade. Even if the aesthetic is breathtaking and the formula is tight, the brain craves a little variety once in a while. It rebels against the style's omnipresence.

I hadn't given non-unified systems much thought until I ran an AD&D 2E campaign last Winter and realized they have their advantages. The game was set in the Ravenloft Setting and I noticed a number of things when running it. A lot of my observations had more to do with the different assumptions of 3E and 2E, but some of them relate to the subject at hand.

One of the problems with a unified system is it forces you to apply a single solution to every problem. What works for attack rolls may not be the optimal choice for damage or skill tests in your game. Even in unified systems there is rarely pure unity because of this issue. Take d20 for example, yes you apply the d20+modifier to skills and attack rolls, but not damage. Imagine if they had attempted to make damage a d20 roll. It certainly could be done, but not without affecting other parts of the game like hit points. By assigning weapon damages to different dice the designers retained more control over damage. It was something they didn't want to compromise in pursuit of the core mechanic.

When I ran 2E, the first thing I noticed (or remembered since it was the system I cut my teeth on) was there was pretty much a different kind for of roll for any action. Non-Weapon Proficiencies were handled by an Attribute Check (roll under your score) on a d20. Attacks were handled by THAC0 using a d20. But many of the rolls used different dice entirely. Initiative was a d10 with lowest results going first. Thief skills were a percentile roll. Some rolls called favored the higher number, some the lower number. The system truly was all over the place and this did make things a little trickier to master. However I found some things worked better than in 3E.

The Non-Weapon proficiency roll was more contained than the d20 skill roll. Sometimes in d20 the modifiers get a little crazy. But since you roll under your attribute for NWP in 2E, that kept things well under control. The d10 roll for initiative made things easier for the GM (perhaps not for players) because it was much easier for me to keep track of a range of 1-10 possible initiative scores than 1-20+.

It also allowed actions to feel different from each other. That is a vague claim but it was my experience going back to 2E. Making a thief skill roll felt like a substantially different experience than making a THAC0 roll. There is something to be said for the feel a mechanic produces. And I think in this case I started to enjoy rolling 1d10 for Initiative.

At the end of the day I still prefer unified mechanics. Ultimately you can still fine tune the probabilities however you like using a single system. But there is an appeal to games with lots of fiddly bits that do different things very well (and yes I realize there is a strong argument 2E doesn't achieve this).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Middle Way of Design

I've been thinking a lot about game design lately, largely because we are retooling the Network system for ancient and medieval settings. There are numerous of theories of game design out there, and it is very easy to get lost, confused or misled. I am not suggesting that design theory is bad, but I think it is critical to understand your own gaming philosophy and not blindly embrace another person's way of looking at RPGs. Otherwise you risk using a set of tools you either don't understand or don't care for.

At the end of the day Bedrock Games is about making RPGs that we ourselves want to play. However we are guided by a simple philosophy that design goals should be held in balance with one another.

When we first started out, Bill and I settled on three core principles to reflect this approach: playability, plausibility and personality. In my case, I like games that hit all the right buttons. So three principles that broadly encompass what I expect from a game make sense. Anything beyond this would honestly confuse me as a designer.

First let's take plausibility. All plausibility means is keeping things believable. It doesn't mean our games have to simulate reality at a granular level, just that the rules should support plausible consistency. What is plausible of course will vary from game to game (since a fantasy setting has different expectations than a military setting), something we've tried to pay attention to with each release. In general it means we strive to create mechanics that don't strain suspension of disbelief. It is also about evading blind spots or oversights in design.

A simple rule of thumb is to ask "why ?" with any mechanical consideration (something Bill excels at). It is very easy to design with a broad brush and forget about the rare cases where a mechanic breaks down. A good example of this occurred during the design of Servants of Gaius. We wanted a simple mechanic to govern the inequality of women in the setting. So I proposed a -1d10 penalty when any character interacts with someone of the opposite gender. Since men control most positions of power, I assumed it would wash out and that the penalty was an elegant way to handle the issue. I was wrong.

I didn't want to be wrong. At this point I was in love with the mechanic. It seemed so simple, so easy to remember and so all-encompassing. Bill pointed out the problem by asking a simple question "What about when a woman tries to seduce a man?" At first I resisted, but he was right. There was no denying that my simple and elegant solution would produce situations that would strain credulity. The mechanic was disruptive and had to go. This is an example of playability coming into conflict with plausibility.

But sometimes plausibility comes into conflict with the second principle: playability. This isn't just about game balance (though it includes that). Playability also includes the smoothness of the mechanics and the excitement they produce. It is about numbers and mechanics, but also about how people perceive and experience those things. At times what is the most plausible isn't the most playable. So we try to balance the two out. Another approach would be to go completely in the direction of playability or of plausibility (and some believe this is the only true option). We adhere to the belief that balance between the two is not only possible, it is desirable. Done well, you end up with pleasant mechanics that don't disrupt the believability of the setting.

Sometimes when you strive for realism, you create problems if you don't keep playability in mind. It doesn't mean every single aspect of the game needs to be balanced out perfectly. But it means we need to be aware of the impact of realism on the mechanics and take ownership of that. A good example of plausibility conflicting with playability is how we designed the poisoning rules for Servants of Gaius.

Initially there wasn't much containing the poisoning rules. You could brew poisons all day until you have a stockpile. The concern was there was nothing stopping someone from brewing too much poison. The best solution for a playability issue is a plausible one, so we went with the following: anytime you brew poison, on a failure there is a small chance of accidentally ingesting a dose yourself (this chance decreases with skill level).

The final principle is personality. To be honest we picked this label so all of our principles would start with the letter 'P'. This is essentially about flavor. In Crime Network we wanted the game to feel like a mob movie, so the text , the setting and the mechanics were designed with that in mind. When we made Horror Show, our focus was on bringing Horror Cinema to life, so we created mechanics to emulate horror movies.

Flavor can also interact with plausibility or playability in funny ways. The important thing with Flavor is making sure it is reflected in the rules. For instance, when we made Servants of Gaius we wanted the gods of Rome to be real. That meant they needed real powers and we needed mechanics for appealing to the gods. Otherwise there would have been a serious gap between the personality of the game and the playability. With plausibility things are even more critical. The flavor has to be internally consistent. We can't say on page 10 of the rule book that Caligula likes dogs but contradict this statement on page 50. The flavor content has to not only be consistent but it has to make sense too.

Flavor is important, but so are the other elements and this is what keeps our products firmly in the realm of traditional role playing games. There is nothing wrong with hyper-focused design. But we want the focus of our game to balance out with the other principles. For us this creates a more enjoyable experience for everyone at the table.