Planet Mercenary – A retrospective?

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Planet Mercenary is a game I helped to write and did a majority of the rules design on, especially the initial engine and concepts.

It’s a game I’m very proud of. Exceptionally so, and I consider it firmly in the “Best Work” category of my career (which while small, is growing rapidly.)

Last night, the Game Chief Secrets PDF was delivered to backers.  That marks the last big item from the Kickstarter owed to backers.

It also marks at least three months of downtime without thinking about Planet Mercenary (the team is taking a break.)

With the looming conclusion of the first round of the Planet Mercenary lifecycle, and the break hanging over my head like the famed Damocles Sword, I find myself reflecting about Planet Mercenary and the journey it set me on.


That’s September, 2013. That’s is the day I sat down with Howard at the Dragon’s Keep (a game and comic store) in Orem Utah, and we talked about how I’d approach a Schlock Mercenary roleplaying game.

He told me a mechanic he had in mind that had been roughly outlined (Mayhem), and basically put me in a on-the-spot job interview, asking how I’d approach the design problem.

Howard has a mind for story telling, humor and understanding what an audience needs as opposed to their wants. It’s these qualities (among others) that make Schlock Mercenary amazing, and it was apparent even in that first conversation, that those qualities were going to be core to how he approached Planet Mercenary.

You all know the phrase: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” That’s exactly what this meeting was. Years of homebrew, entering online adventure and RPG writing contests, and dinking around as a freelancer or consultant made for a fun hobby.

Suddenly, it was a job.

And when Howard sent out those tweets that night after our meeting, it was a job like one I’d never had.

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This was the day I had to sell Sandra Tayler on Planet Mercenary (to the best of my recollection.)

If you don’t already know, Sandra is…sort of the gatekeeper for Hypernode Media. She’s business-minded power behind Schlock Mercenary, and her and Howard handle all of it together.

This was the day where the project would live or die. Kinda a big deal. Sandra has a mind for business and potential I find myself jealous of. She understands what she does in a way I can only hope to approach.

In the Game Chief Secrets PDF, Sandra talks about this day and meeting, so I’ll avoid it. Just one note.

She says I was focused and sharp. All I remember is throwing up on the way to the meeting from nervousness, and the rest of the meeting is kinda blurry.

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This cover mock-up is an older one, and it wrongfully omits Sandra’s name (which thankfully, the actual book has printed on there.) I’m terribly at google-fu. No skill points there.


The Schlock Mercenary fandom is rabid (in a single word.) There’s an active reddit, Facebook group, forum thread, all the pieces. They support Howard and Sandra, and were exceptionally welcoming.

There’s even a whole, very active Facebook group for Planet Mercenary. It’s one thing to make something, it’s another to be able to watch it be embraced, criticized, and commented on.

It’s apparent that Planet Mercenary has a life of it’s own.


At the core of the experience are Howard and Sandra.

At points we were talking once to twice a week, with emails every day in between.

When you work with someone that much, you either learn to appreciate and love them, or you learn to hate and dread them.

Luckily, on my half (and hopefully Sandra & Howard’s), I landed squarely on the love and appreciate side.

Sandra & Howard are wonderful collaborators, among the best I’ve worked with (and I’ve worked with some serious talent.)

They’re supportive, understanding, engaged, and passionate about all their projects and all parts of their jobs. Even the ones that grind on, or drag, or could be considered tedious. They bring the same zeal and drive to everything they do.

I couldn’t have asked for better partners, and I’m grateful that they invited me in to their world and let me play around in their sandbox for bit.

I count myself lucky in some ways I never thought I would.

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One quick note. I often comment on how only a handful of folks know how the popular sophont type of Esspererin got named.

During the Kickstarter, one of the stretch goals was more playable sophont types. We hit it, Howard and I were reviewing the list (at this point, we had something like 30 sophonts prepped for the game.)

Howard sent out an email listing the sophonts we hadn’t included, and some requests for “something robotic”, “something small”, and some other requests. I sent back a something small that became the Queltro (a popular sophont in it’s own right.)

With a wry joke (I’m not funny like Howard or Sandra), I also sent in a bonus small sophont (because “two Something Smalls, make a Regular Sized Sophont.) I had asked my wife for some feedback before I sent them over (as I’m wont to do.) She mentioned the game needed gremlin space fairies.

Below is the original pitch for the Esspererin (dated 5/12/2015.)

Extra Something Small: Extra Something Smalls are tiny little humanoids with 4 wings. They can actually survive in the vacuum of space without breathing, and LOVE mechanics (their home planet never developed technology like that, due to their size). They’re considered bad luck, and tend to act like pilot fish, following ships around space ports and repair station, doing “unauthorized repairs, which usually go horribly wrong.”
  • Gremlins: Anytime a Extra Something Small does a Mechanic, Engineering, or Computer’s check, invert the color of the Mayhem dice. That’s right. The two regular dice are now Mayhem dice. The mayhem dice is now a regular dice. However, the GM automatically gains the Mayhem card before a player can look at it and this card can’t be negated by a player. The Extra Something Small gains a RiPP every-time they make one of those skill rolls. 
  • Flight: Extra Something Smalls can fly. Simply allow them to move in 3 dimensions. No biggie here.
  • Skill Bonuses: +1 Dodge, +1 Computers, +2 Engineering, +1 Mechanic.
  • Skill Penalties: None. 

Obviously it changed. I have to confess, I’m exceptionally proud that the Queltro and Esspererin are such integral parts of the Schlock Mercenary canon, and that I could provide the story seed that Howard was able to take and spin into something wonderful and unique. Every time they appear in the comic or a player raves about them, I smile. Knowing something I helped start is going to last a long time and bring enjoyment to others is a feeling I never thought I’d have.

And since I promised: Esspererin stands for “As Per Erin”, since the base idea of space gremlin fairies came from my wife in a conversation with her.

Howard says: “Small correction. Esspererin is not “as per Erin.” It’s “Extra small something, per Erin.” E.S.S., per Erin.”

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You can buy Planet Mercenary here. And I think you should. Not just cuz I get paid if you do (I do), but because it’s the smart thing to do if you like good, clever, unique games.

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Gen Con Schedule!

Hey folks.

So once again, I will be attending Gen Con in Indianapolis. It’s always pretty fun, but I have a pretty full plate this year, so I figured telling everyone where I will be might help you track me down.

I’ll be the tall balding fellow with the cane and backpack full or swag.

So, let’s go:

Wednesday Night

4:00 pm – Arrive, check into hotel, meet with Planet Mercenary Game Chiefs for pre-GenCon briefing.

7:00 pm – Run a Kickstarter reward game for the Battlefield Press Sherwood Kickstarter (the original GM had a priority conflict, so I’m backfilling).

Thursday

9 AM to Noon – at the Hypernode Media booth or wandering the Exhibit Hall. If you need me, Hypernode Media can reach me.

1 PM to 4 PM – Game demos I’ll be participating in.

9 PM to Midnight – Gaming with Friends!

Friday

9 AM to Noon – I’ll be running Planet Mercenary!

1 PM to 2 PM – I have a seminar! “Third Party Publishing for 5th Editon D&D, DMsGuild, Pathfinder, 13th Age, Fate, etc”

2 PM to 6 PM – Exhibit Hall or Gaming with Friends.

6 PM on – Dinner, gaming with Friends.

Saturday

9 AM to 11 AM – Exhibit Hall

11 AM to 2 PM – Gaming with Friends (LotR LCG!)

2 PM to 7 PM – Exhibit Hall, Gaming, Dinner w/ Friends.

7 PM to 10 PM – Special Invite Planet Mercenary Game!

Sunday

Early early early – Fly Home.


There you have it! If you need a map, here’s a handy little map

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Mercenary Mondays: The Joys of Vegas

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

Phew.  What a weekend.

So I went to Las Vegas over the weekend. I went for two reasons. First, I’ve never been to Vegas and I wanted to see. Secondly, It was the weekend of the Las Vegas Kotei for Legend of the Five Rings.

What? That makes no sense? Indeed! Basically, Kotei is a L5R tournament for the card game, but the winners get to impact the storyline of the game overall. Great times. Great times. Did well, 7th place, top of Clan out of 8 Crane players. Was fun.

But it sparked some interesting thoughts about RPGs and RPG designs in general. One of the big aspects of any CCG is the prevalence of “meta”. Meta is a term used to designate a card you slot into your deck simply to handle a problem that exposes itself. Things that cancel your opponents actions or cards, things that shore us weaknesses your deck has, meta is where you dedicate a slot or resource to handling a potential problem that might not even come up.

In roleplaying, one of the biggest things I remember as meta is the idea of “bane” weapons in D&D. Bane weapons deal extra damage against specific foes, but against any foes of a different species/race, they’re effectively non-magical. And there is a serious damper when a player gets an item at seems useful, but never really comes into play.

Same with skills, abilities, weapons, what have you. Players want to use their tools and toys in the game. So do you par that sort of thing outta the game? Do you add it in? What is the appropriate handling of such a situation? There is a lot of complication that goes into fitting a jig-sawed ruleset together.

It’s the GM’s responsibility to ensure that players have fun, and a GM should make sure that a player gets a full chance to use all their abilities, gadgets, toys, and more. So should the GM stop the player from taking “meta” they want? Or should it be encouraged? How should the game’s ruleset handle it?

 

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!

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

Mercenary Mondays: Characters!

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

A good story, in any form, can live or die on it’s characters. Strong characters can often drive a story past any of it’s faults, flaws or shortcomings. Weak characters, expose those same issues to the reader.

As the imitable Joss Whedon said: “You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.” And really, that is the core of any good story, and as we all know (or I assume you do since you are reading this blog), roleplaying games are all about the stories. And that’s really something we wanted to convey with the Schlock Mercenary RPG. Space Opera can live or die on it’s grand scale, and it’s driven by the choices and decisions of their characters. A good character in an RPG can be a joy to play. You really attach, tell stories years later, and really empathize with that character you created.

I know for myself, if I really like a character, you know, because I’ll buy new dice, stick the sheet in a sheet protector, and ensure that particular character never gets lost.

With a roleplaying game, the first choices you make as a player are about your character, and we wanted to drive the Schlock RPG to show that. There are really a few ways we can set about it.

The first set of choices are class driven. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) really sets up your class to define your characters, and any extra bits you want to add it are the rules. They’ve tried to modify this over the years, with the introduction of background feats, traits, etc. Pathfinder has done similar.

The second set is really how The Dresden RPG does it. A series of questions that define your character, and by answering them, you generate your stats and abilities.

Lots of systems meld the two ideas. Legend of the Five Rings has a 20 questions you answer, and then your family, clan and school of training all generate your stats and abilities for you. World of Darkness uses a vice/virtue system to help define how your character reacts, but your background is mostly left to you. Traveller takes the other extreme and has your background generated for you as you make the character, ending with the possibility that you could die during character generation.

So how does the Schlock RPG plan on sending you on your journey across the stars!? We got a couple ideas and I’ll let you in on the current way we’re handling it. Obviously this is all in beta, and subject to change.

You select a Sophont template. This gives you some stat modifiers/skill adjustments. These changes reflect the inherent abilities of your “race”. You then use our character creation method to generate your stats.

After that, you answer 10 questions about your characters past. These questions have answers that send to a ranked list of possible background selections. The background you select gives you some flat skill bonuses. These skills represent what you’ve learned throughout your life.

Second you’d pick your “command package.” This defines your role within the ships hierarchy and gives you yet more skill bonuses to represent your training in the mercenary charter.

After all that, you get free skill points to modify your skills with. These final points reflect your characters chosen areas of study and expertise.

All in all, this should really give you a feel for how your character came to be.

Looking at the spread there, it seems pretty complicated, but in practice it’s actually really quick and simple. Our goal was to have your character be generated in under 20 minutes and provide a list of options.

After all that, we have a list of questions that pose situations to your character. You answer them, and in doing so, attempt to determine how your character would react to specifics, and to breathe a little bit of life into your character.

Equipment and all that falls later into the process, and we’ll get into that latet with the next topic! After that, next step is your mercenary charter creation. That’s a topic for another post!

Thoughts? Suggestions? As usual, sound off below!


 

As a teaser, here is the current list of Sophonts, background and command packages:

Sophont Templates:

Humans

Uniocs

Uplifted Gorllias

Kreely

Frellenti

Neophant

Vhorwed

Fobottr

Amorphs


Background Packages:

Military (Grunt)

Military (Officer)

Espionage

Criminal

Pilot

Scientist

Medical Professional

Civvie


Command Packages:

Commander

Quartermaster/Munitions Officer

Engineer

Doctor

Legal Counsel

Captain

Chaplain