Mercenary Mondays: Design and Simplicity

Note: Mercenary Mondays is an ongoing series of posts about the Schlock Mercenary Roleplaying Game and it’s behind the scenes development!

I know, I know.  It’s Tuesday, and I’m late. I offer my sincerest apologies. One of the biggest influences on my design philosophies of RPGs is Dieter Rams. I was gifted a copy of As Little Design as Possible in college and it’s my go-to book for design focus. The Wikipedia article I linked will fill you in on the most important details, but I wanted to talk about his 10 principles of design and how they affect and drive the Schlock Mercenary RPG.

  1. Is innovative – When it comes to RPGs, lots of things have been tried. Games have succeeded, failed, and moved past their predecessors. Innovation in RPGs is a hard metric to measure to, and it’s hard to come by. Luckily for us, Howard came to the table withour innovation already in his mind, and we’ve been able to utilize that to create a game that’s unlike any other. Innovation and Imagination have to come together to create good design, and once we had the innovations in place, our design snowballed into the game we’re going to be playing.

  2. Makes a product useful – You buy an RPG to play it. But in a setting like Schlock, we want to be able to have a fan buy an RPG just to read and enjoy the setting, regardless of the play of the game.  If the game is too hard, or too easy, or uninteresting, or too complex, no one will play it, and the product isn’t useful. Our game needs to find the balance and be a product that we can show someone and say, look, this will provide use, either through fun, laughter, knowledge or pride.

  3. Is aesthetic – Top-tier art, top-tier writing, production and more drive the visual presentation, and in a saturated and niche market like RPGs, you need to have great presentation. If your book isn’t pretty, you will have a harder time selling. One of the best examples of this is any of the 4th edition Legend of the Five Rings RPG books. Great binding and hardcovers, full-art, art on every other page. The books really capture the eye and hold you to it.

  4. Makes a product understandable – You have to deliver a product that anyone who picks it up can use and understand quickly. Part of that is an easy to read, logical progression of data and rules throughout the book. But even the rules need to be intuitive and understandable. Part of the flaws many RPGs see is that their rules do not intuitively fit together. You feel like you’re putting a puzzle together and one or two pieces aren’t the right fit. You want your RPG to be a solid, focused, driven project. I use words like linear, logical, and flowing to describe how RPG rules should all click together.

  5. Is unobtrusive – Size. Have any of you ever tried hauling around the HERO system RPG? That book is massive. It was close to 600 pages. Same with Pathfinder. As much as those books and games are great, their size becomes a problem. The Schlock Mercenary RPG needs to be unobtrusive, well-balanced, and effective. One of the great things that Savage Worlds does, is release their core book as a 100 page soft-cover that costs $10. Every player can have one, and the GM can just keep a copy of the setting book around.  RPG books are works of art, so you wan’t them to catch the eye. This is really the only rule you can’t follow 100%.

  6. Is honest – I’m going to just leave the base text here from the Wiki article. I think it sums it up nicely: “It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”

  7. Is long-lasting – Quality of production will keep a well-used book together and see it hit many a gaming table. That’s what you want. Players to be proud of how well and long their copy of the game book lasts.

  8. Is thorough down to the last detail – I’m going to just leave the base text here from the Wiki article. I think it sums it up nicely: “Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.” Pretty easy to get, eh? Make your rules work. Make sure you playtest. Make sure you prepare and you follow up with support for the product after the release.

  9. Is environmentally friendly – This falls back onto production, but is pretty easy to use.

  10. Is as little design as possible – Also know as K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). Rules for the sake of rules are a waste of ink, time, and complexity that can be used for better space. The recent redesign of many of the CCGs in the market (Magic the Gathering, Legend of the Five Rings, Pokemon) have moved their games towards this focus. Simplicity and ease of use are key.

I have found the following rules invaluable during the creation process of the Schlock Mercenary RPG and I intend to keep using them going forward.

As always, leave comments, ask questions, and more!

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Terror in the Khadoran Tundra! Now with more guts and blood!

Hey yo! Part two of my recap of our first session of IKRPG is here.

So, Gort and Nikolai the Terrible have leapt off of a moving train in the northern tundra of Siberia Khador and are chasing down a Iosan (elf) witch who has an item that Nikolai wants, due to the orders from Nikolai’s order. They proceeded to hunt down the elf before cornering her in a cave…before Nikolai could finish the witch off, she teleported from the room, leaving behind a lot of gear she didn’t want to.

They managed to obtain a map of Iosan survival caches throughout the tundra that will doubtlessly be useful.

 

While all this was going on, Lutero, Overbeck and Grey were searching the room of the now-deceased Drogen. Noticing the train had slowed to a stop, they began to pick up the pace. Finding the item they’d been hired to obtain, Overbeck was searching the room, when the whiskey in his glass begin to ripple a la Jurassic Park. He looked out the window, just in time to see the side of the car he was in catch a faceful of Carnivian…
Carnivean

Yeah. I know.

 

Anyways, gunfire flew off the armored hide of the thing, and the three daring heroes broke and ran, clearly putting their lives in front of their allies and the other passengers.

Meanwhile, Gort and Nickolai had arrived at the front of the train, noticing it was stopped. Of course, this was the perfect moment for a raek to leap on Nickolai and bear him down.

raek_warbeast__hordes_mini_by_noncharon-d56h887

 

Again. Yup.

I’ll make it easy to understand though. Everyone ran like hell, got on the engine and left the rest of the train behind…

Oh, Gort has some weird maggoty/wormy infection in his shoulder where a Raek bit him…

 

And they’re running low on fuel and food in the tundra….

 

 

Mercenary Mondays: Manic Mondays…

Note: Mercenary Mondays is an ongoing series of posts about the Schlock Mercenary Roleplaying Game and it’s behind the scenes development!

This post will deviate from the general theme of Mercenary Mondays to talk about a topic that is very close to my heart. The advent of some close friends of mine announcing an anthology, and my desire to ensure no one has to suffer alone.

First, please look at this IndieGoGo campaign. Then please read these posts:


 From Howard: Schlock Mercenary

From Rob’s brother, Dan Wells: Fearful Symmetry.

From Larry Correia: Monster Hunter Nation

From Sandra Taylor, Howard’s better half: One Cobblestone


Now for my spiel. In the last few years, I’ve become much more open about a struggle I’ve faced for a long time. At age 19 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, type 1. I am also rapid cycling, in addition to the usual effects. At last count, in one year, I had 18 cycles between manic and depressive.  I tend to level out on the side of depression if I do level, but it generally only lasts for a few weeks.

When I was 18 and at college, I was away from home for the first extended time in my life. I struggled with loneliness, failure, and emotions I hadn’t had to deal with on my own. High School had always been easy, and I’d never tried, so my average grades weren’t any indication and I knew it. My grandfather had suffered from manic depression, and my parents had brought it up to me in the past, but it’d never really gone anywhere.

So when I was suddenly alone, watching debt mount up due to poor spending habits, watching my GPA suffer and struggling to maintain a positive social life. And I was failing at all of that. So, that spring, I attempted suicide. It was a shock to me the next morning, first that I’d survived, but second that’d I’d hit so low. Before the semester was over, I’d tried three times. Let me try to explain how it feels:

Depression is a complicated mental illness, especially for the sufferer. You’re sad, which is a common emotion. You’re frustrated, again, common. Angry, upset, hurting, and more. All of these emotions are common ones we all struggle with. So you wonder, in the depths of an illness you might not even realize you have, why it’s so hard for you to deal with everything that is so easy for so many other people. I mean, I’m just sad. Other people get sad. You don’t realize how dark and deep it goes. Depression is an anchor that weighs down on your life. It holds you, pinned beneath a sea of emotion you can neither swim out from, or breathe in. And suddenly, as this anchor is weighing you down, the only option you see out is to end your life before you drown here.

Depression isn’t so simple as that metaphor. It’s the saddest you’ve ever felt. I’ve never been so angry as I am when I’m depressed. I rail against my life. I push people out. It’s the worst feeling in the world, and all your failures, and everyone telling you to “snap out of it”, “buck up” and more simply drive you further down. It’s the worst sadness you’ve ever felt. You’re so sad you can’t get out of bed. You don’t eat, because it’s too painful to try to cook. You don’t sleep, you don’t shower, you simply lie there and hate yourself. And invariably, you are forced to power through your regular life, and act like nothing is wrong. But you feel worse, because emotions everyone can handle are causing these problems.

Couple that with manic phases, and it’s worse. When manic, you can do anything. You can accomplish any number of tasks, do them perfectly, change the world, never sleep, and be the greatest person. You start every project you’ve ever wanted to do. But the manic only lasts so long before you crash into depression. Then you’re realizing you can’t do anything. You can’t change the world, you can’t even finish these projects you started. So you spiral deeper and deeper into the black morass that is just eating you up.

Have you ever tried to explain happiness to someone? What terms would you use? It’s a truly impossible task to describe emotions to someone, the best you can use is a close analogy. An imperfect metaphor. And it’s never good enough, like hearing only the refrain of your favorite song on the radio. Sufferers from depression, anxiety, and manic disorders have the same trouble, but it’s a herculean task to share how that affects a person with someone who has never seen the colors of the soul that are darker then black.

There is so much resentment, and anger, for no one truly grasps what you go through. How could they? You’re alone. No one supports you.

After I tried suicide, I felt like a worse failure. Not only was I this bad at life, but I couldn’t even kill myself properly. What an incredible conceit I had! I thought I was worthy of just escaping the pain. I wasn’t. Depression wouldn’t let me go, it’s talons were in my skin, holding me back.


That was eight years ago.

I still go to therapy regularly. My doctors and I are still trying to find a medicinal combination that leaves me as a functional human being, while curbing the worst of the feelings on both ends. I’ve survived multiple suicide attempts, and dangerous liaisons with my self. I’ve become much better at handling my life. I’ve held a job for the longest in my life now. I’ve advanced and done well. I’m working on Schlock Mercenary RPG with Howard, and developing my own game line for publication, becoming that much closer to my dreams.

Every time I wake up, I have to look in a mirror and see myself. I see a person who hates himself so much he tried to kill himself. I see a person who overcame that to become a (hopefully) good person. I see a person who still allows himself to be defined by his depression and anger. I see a person who wants to be so much more, and is always trying to climb that mountain, regardless of how many steps down the slope he slides.

It’s hard to be this person a lot of days. But I’ve slowly come to terms with it, and I can honestly say, I wouldn’t be anyone else (except Captain America) most days.


Now, you might be asking how this relates to the Schlock Mercenary RPG and I could spin you a tenuous line of logic and you could all nod your heads and agree.

I won’t do that.

Games like this, comics like Schlock, novels like Rob’s, and more are all created by people who are human beings. We put love, and time into this craft, because we want to accomplish something. Making players, readers, and fans happy. Pride in craftsmanship. Selfish desire to self-promote. But it gives us something more valuable. A platform.

I only ask that you remember all those who don’t have a platform to vocalize about this. We have the benefit of readership and presence, and these sort of posts are an attempt to bring more awareness to a struggle several million people have. You probably know someone with bipolar disorder, depression, or another mental illness.

Appreciate them.

Love them.

Don’t pressure them, but try to understand and support them.

Above all, please ask for help if you need. No one deserves to handle these things alone.

I’m always willing to turn an ear. I know others are too.

Mercenary Mondays: The Primacy of Defense

Note: Mercenary Mondays is an going series of posts about the Schlock Mercenary Roleplaying Game and it’s behind the scenes development!

Additional Note: Sympathies and sadness to the affected at CCP and White Wolf (one of the oldest and one of my personal favorite RPG companies). Their RPGs live on at http://www.theonyxpath.net. You should all check it out. 

One of the hardest struggles in designing and balancing an RPG will always be combat. It gets harder when you approach the science fiction genres due to the rather varied and excessive power levels of weapons and armor. For example: In World of Darkness (see note above. A modern setting) RPGs, when you shoot a gun, the only defense is reduction against the damage. You can’t dodge or leap out of the way.

In Pathfinder, you can use your dexterity to apply defense against ranged attacks, which stacks with armor.

In science fiction, you have to strike a balance between deadly combat, powerful weapons, and powerful defenses.

But then you run into other problems. Games that utilize  reduction mechanic for damage and a defense mechanic struggle with balancing both. Generally one is better then the other.

For example, in the Scion game, damage tends to always outweigh reduction, so in combat, it’s preferable to have high defense to avoid getting hit at all, as your reduction will not balance up with that.

However, in Mutants and Masterminds, it’s very easy to get hit, and requires much more investment to avoid an attack. Therefore, combat tends to skewer towards high resilience characters.

To throw additional wrenches into our intricate machinery here, what about different types of damage? Should all armor block bullets, lasers, explosives, and gravity weapons equally? Should we separate out damage types? And then how do we handle that? What blocks lasers? How does that impact bullets? What about weapon calibers, scale, melee combat, and more.

Geez, right? Welcome to the mess inside my head. Honestly, designing a intuitive, dynamic, effective, and tactical combat system, whilst trying to adhere to the prime rule I had established at the start of the design (keeping it simple), was the hardest task of the initial game. So, whew. What do I do to resolve such a dilemma?

 


 

Now seems like a good place to discuss my overarching design philosophy towards Schlock. During the first few weeks and my reread of Schlock, I established a few rules regarding how I should approach the game.

 

1.) Keep it simple. Complicated and convoluted RPGs tend to find difficulty grabbing long term players, and one of the primary goals of the Schlock RPG was allowing easy entry for all sorts of gamers, not just fans of Schlock.

2.) Keep it in the realm of common sense. All the rules should be easy to follow and be extremely logical in how they work. No THAC0 to overwhelm your brain. No calculus or algebra during creation.

3.) Keep it fun. Part of the appeal of Schlock is the humor and fun you get when you read it. Every day brings a smile to your face, and that’s something ever session should have.

4.) Keep it something people want. There’s a lot of SciFi RPGs on the market, and Schlock needs to stand out. We really need to deliver a top notch experience that shows that cooperative storytelling has a place in the Schlockiverse.

 

So, when approaching combat how did I handle each of these points? I feel like each rule requires it’s own post to really show the details and thoughts of how we got there.

Next week, I’ll talk about how Rule 1 affected combat design, and what we did.

 

 

Iron Kingdoms: Terror in the Khadoran Tundra!

Bum bum bum!!!!!

That title is probably a little over the top for the two hours of gameplay we had. But hey. Whatevs.

My one-friday-a-month gaming group launched our new game last Friday. This group is great, because our “writer-nerd-game-night” group is populated by excellent authors and storytellers.

Larry Correia (one of our players) does fiction for Privateer Press, the company that publishes the excellent Warmachine tabletop game, and the Iron Kingdoms Roleplaying Game set in the same universe. So, Larry lobbied pretty hard for us to play IK, and after some serious arm twisting and threats (actually it was really easy), I agreed to run a game.

I warned the group that my idea for the campaign was a mash up of The Thing, 30 Days of Night, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

So, we got together on Friday. Had an excellent barbecue (all thanks to Larry and his amazing wife), and retired to the nerd attic to make our characters.

So let’s go down the roll of our characters:

Juan Gaspar Tavoro de Lutero, played by Larry Correia. A military officer/investigator/rifleman, Larry has based his character concept in part, on Idris Elba in Luthor. Sort of a team leader style character, Juan Lutero can buff and assist the party in achieving success. He’s searching for the man who killed his wife.

Gort, played by Brad Torgersen. A Ogrun from Cygnar, Gort is a rifleman/highwayman/soldier who was orphaned around humans and is shunned by Ogrun for not being…ogrun-y enough. Think ogre with a chaingun. Tons of fun.

Weston Longbarrow Overbeck III of the Caspia Overbecks AKA Burton Rice Edgars (phew!), played by Pat Tracy. A outcast Cygnaran noble/sorcerer, Weston is a pulp fiction/dime novelist who travels the Iron Kingdoms writing the exploits of legendary outlaws and more! Also..he uses frost magic to explode heads.

Grand Inquisitor Nikolai Heinrich Von Dolphus, played by Tony Battaglino. Nikolai the Terrible is a Paladin/Scrutator/Knight who specializes in dispensing Old Faith Justice to the heretics, traitors and scum who inhabit the far north. Also, he’s got some pretty big secrets of his own.

Lucius Grey played by Steve Diamond. Lucius is patterned off of Raylan Givens from Justified. A Llaelese gunmage/pistolero/duelist with a sordid past of broken hearts, empty cartridges, and drained bottles of whiskey, Lucius is a bit of a legend with a pistol.

Together they form a mercenary company called the Black Foxes.

And how the first session went? Well, the players will be writing up some fictions that I’ll be posting at some point. But suffice it to say, it went great!

This campaign is only going to take about 6-10 sessions to play out, so here’s hoping it’s as rocking the whole way through.

Below is my write up of the session:


 

After character creation, our characters find themselves aboard the Iron Dragon trainline running across the northern tundra of Khador (think Imperialist Russia with Steampunk). As the players are attempting to locate a fellow named Drogen the Black and regain an item from him, they begin to search one of the train cars they are on. A fellow sees them, and bolts towards the back. Gort easily manhandles him into a barstool and the party questions him.

Meanwhile, Nikolai is staring at some Iosans.

Lutaro and Grey question this man (named Dimitri) about what he knows. Dimitri tells them he’s a Kayazy (Russian mafia). He informs them his boss is in the back of the train and can probably help them. So the group leaves to go talk to Boris the Fat.

Meanwhile, the paladin is still starting at the Iosans.

The group means up with Boris who informs them he’d like Drogen dead, and that Drogen will board the train at the next stop. The group parts ways from the train car full of hired killers and thugs and they arrive just in time to see the paladin get thrown across the bar in the train car by a large Iosan. The Paladin had apparently demanded some item back and the three Iosans erupted into violence towards him. One of them, a young magic-user was able to bypass the Paladin’s shield with her runebolt cannon, and proceeded to steal the item (a box) back and teleport ontop the train to escape. The other two Iosanwere quickly dispatched by the paladin and his allies, and the Ogrun proceeded to use his chaingun to mow down the Iosan on top the car. Nikolai and Gort leapt of the train to pursue the corpse of the Iosan.

While this is all going on, Lutaro, Lucius, and Weston are all drawn into a gun fight with Drogen who was hiding on the train. They quickly gun him down, but not after Lucius has taken a hefty beating.

While the part is searching Drogen’s compartment for the item they are to retrieve from him. What happens after that…well…I’ll write that up tomorrow! It deserves it’s own post.

Mercenary Mondays: Defining Schlock

Ooof.

What a weekend. Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out. It rocked. Launched a new campaign with my “once a month on Friday group”. We settled on Iron Kingdoms. You can expect a write-up about that shortly, but I suppose that’s not why you’re here is it.

You wanna here me talk about the Schlock RPG.

Alright, alright. I’ll get to it.

When you set out to make anything new, roleplaying game, film, story, anything, you need to have a plan of attack. A idea of where you’re going. When making a new RPG, we need to decide what direction and goals the game needs to have.

There’s a lot of options. Some games just provide frameworks of rules (Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, etc.) These rules are designed to be used in whatever setting, story or style of play you want. Their feel is up to the players. Other games, especially licensed games, have a very specific set of goals. A Song of Ice and Fire RPG is a very different animal then a generic fantasy framework. A Star Wars RPG has a very different tone then a Firefly RPG and the rules are often times constructed around that conceit.

So, in approaching Schlock, we really have to narrow down what makes Schlock unique among scifi, and how that should define our rules/approach to the game.

So, I sat down, and reread Schlock from the very start to (at the time) the current point in the story, which was 2/3 of the way through the Broken Wind storyarc. Here is what I took from my reread of the Schlockiverse.

1.) Schlock is grounded. Bear with me as I explain my thinking through this. Schlock is grounded in it’s characters and their struggles. Any RPG of Schlock needs compelling characters for it.

2.) Schlock is hard-(ish) sci fi. Unlike Star Trek or even Star Wars, Schlock takes it’s internal science very seriously and is very grounded in real science. I used the “-ish” above because I am not an astrophysicist and I don’t always know.

3.) Schlock is violent. Whoa…major characters die regularly in Schlock, and they rarely get to come back. Alright, so character death needs to be a real concern, but we also need to include the advanced science stuff.

4.) Funny. Schlock is funny (clearly, it’s a comedy after-all). Whew, funny is always hard to translate into RPGs. However, Schlock’s comedy is more dry humor then slap-stick. (We’ll come back to this in a full post on it’s own. It deserves it.).

5.) It’s about a group of people. This is different. Schlock very much thrives on the idea that this is a company of soldiers working together, and any game based on Schlock will need to grab that feeling and tone.

 


 

Alright, so that’s core to the Schlock RPG. It needs to be hard grounded SciFi that’s driven around characters. Easy enough from a design perspective, but then the rule set needs to fit with the idea of complications, good storytelling, and fun.

But the thing that make Schlock unique above all else, is being in a mercenary company. So, the biggest focus in Schlock is that your character, isn’t the most important thing to the game. That’d be the mercenary company you work for. Because that’s who pays you to be a trigger-jockey.

So how do we approach such a thing? Well, first off, making your merc company is an integral part of character creation, and  the company gets it’s own character sheet. It defines a lot, and your characters are somewhat defined by the roles they fulfill for the mercenary company.

Your character does not level in this game so much as your mercenary character levels and gains more benefits to impart to your characters. With the advent of soldier-boosts, cybernetics, and more, sophont potential has pretty much been capped or rendered effectively moot. Your character does improve, but it’s not via experience points. Experience is spent to gain more advantages for your charter.

So far, it’s been a lot of fun, and the focus on the group mechanics of the charter have allowed us to mitigate some of the difficult parts of many roleplaying games. New character integration, splitting the party and more, becomes rolled into the charter rules and usage.

It really is an exciting new game to play, and I can not wait to get a chance to show you all!

 

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Spoilers/Review)

ImageNote: I am an avid (some would use the word fanatic) Captain America fan. I saw the first one in theaters multiple times (19), and my house is littered with Cap memorabilia. I am predisposed to love this film. However, I try to be objective. As of this review, I’ve seen the film 3 times. 


 

After reading the disclaimer above, I feel I can sum up this movie in three words. Greatest. Movie. Ever.

Let’s start with the positives, and we’ll end with the negatives. 

Plot? Simple. Concise. An excellent example of straight forwards, interesting, storytelling.

Pacing? Tense. Movie did not feel 2 and a half hours long. I was on the edge of my seat still, during my third viewing..

Cinematography? Overall, an A-. There were some issues with shaky cam during a few of the action sequences, but overall, not enough to distract or jar me from the film.

Fight Choreography? Wow. Literally, the only word I have to describe the action in this film is “bonecrushing.” It was hands down, some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen imparted on a film in recent years. (Man of Tai Chi is up there also). 

Acting? Great. Every actor nailed their part, and there was no weakness among the principal cast. Really, the only part of the cast I’d call out would be Emily Vancamp’s Agent 13/Sharon Carter, who wasn’t bad at all, but she simply wasn’t playing on the same level as veterans Robert Redford, Chris Evans, or even recent TV-to-film transfer Colbie Smulders.

Uh…Marvel callbacks and references? Awesome. The movie was so jam packed, and so heavily integrated into Agents of Shield and the Avengers, that I could hardly keep still. Or from talking. (Sorry fellow viewers).

I’m carefully trying to avoid spoilers, since the movie just came out today, so I’ll keep it short. This is my favorite movie of the year.

And this is hands down my favorite Cap costume thus far. I loved the callback to Captain Steve Rogers of the Secret Avengers.

 

On to the negatives. There aren’t any.