Recently I had the chance to create a character for Catalyst Game Labs’ latest Battletech roleplaying game “A Time of War”. While the core mechanic is a pretty simple and straightforward “roll 2D6 + bonuses vs. difficulty level” mechanic, character creation is rather quirky.
You start out with 5000 points to spend. At first you pick your Affiliation, then your Early Childhood, followed by your Late Childhood, and so on. It’s basically a Lifepath system where each step of your development consists of one or more modules you have to buy which grant you with experience points spent in various attributes, skills, and traits. Yes, that’s right, you don’t get ranks directly, but the XP to buy them.
In some cases you get bad traits or maluses on your abilities that you can later buy off. The whole process takes a lot of time, especially when you are new to the game. And some of the modules you pick or the traits you get XP for have prerequisites you have to fulfill at the end of character creation. The “Nobility” early childhood module for example gives you the prerequisite of having Rank 5 in either Title, Wealth or Property. If you don’t make sure you got enough XP to buy one of those traits, you couldn’t have picked it in the first place.
Luckily we all had more than enough XP to basically create the character we wanted to play. But for most of the character creation process I had pretty much no idea how my character would turn out. At the end you’re allowed to make some optimizations. If you – for example – have 26 XP in a skill, you can either pay 4 XP to raise the Rank to 3 or take Rank 2 and spend 6 points on other abilities. It’s definitely a novel way of doing things, but I am not sure if it’s really worth all the hassle.
But regardless of my criticism of the character creation mechanics the process was pretty satisfying in the end. My character turned out great and I am extremely excited to actually play the game. We decided to start the campaign shortly after the arrival of the Clans. We might even be working with the Kell Hounds when they first encounter the Clans. Let’s just hope we don’t get our asses kicked too bad.
For a while I have been struggling with a long-time dream of mine: a homebrew cyberpunk setting. I always loved the genre but I am not 100% happy with the cyberpunk games commercially available. Either I don’t like the rules attached to the setting or the setting itself has some elements I dislike. But creating a whole near-future scifi setting from scratch is not an easy task.
As usual I made the mistake of starting with a big picture. Don’t get me wrong, the outside-in approach of campaign design works great, but it takes a lot of work. For some reason when designing campaigns I follow this approach, even though I know deep down that it’s the main reason most of my campaign projects failed.
Instead of focusing on the big picture I should think smaller, focus on the place where I want the players to have their first adventures. In cyberpunk the action usually takes places in a bustling metroplex, a huge city housing millions of people. Having an elaborate background for other places in the world is nice, but how much impact will it have on your game anyway? If the players are freelance operatives working for the highest bidder, is it really important what happened in the Eurowars 25 years ago?
Instead of trying to come up with every little detail I want to use a different approach in the future. For the cyberpunk campaign setting I have been struggling with I want to focus on a single city first and just create some broad-strokes background for the rest of the world. If these places become more important in the campaign I can still flesh them out. But with focusing on just one city things get much easier. For starters I can use the same approach for the city itself. Perhaps the action will focus on a certain city district first. So why bother to write up many pages of background information on the rest of the city if you don’t use it?
This approach is pretty common in fantasy settings. You start out with a small place and then the world slowly opens up. But for some reason doing it this way feels wrong in a scifi game. In a fantasy game travel is slow and dangerous and information about faraway lands is hard to come by and often inaccurate. So it’s easy to focus on the “starting area” first and then add details to the rest of the world when needed. But in a near-future cyberpunk setting you can easily charter a flight to any place in the world (perhaps even the solar system) and getting information about the most obscure places is just a click, a touch, or a thought away. But in most cases you don’t need to know everything – not even as the GM. A broad-strokes setting is often even easier to work anyway. Too much information often feels like a burden to the creative GM who likes to wing things during the game.
Long story short, I think sometimes it’s better to think smaller not bigger when it comes to campaign design. In the end nobody is having fun if the campaign never sees the light of day because the GM is still working on some obscure details just to appease his or her inner completionist.
Again I am breaking one of the rules that I wrote down when I started this blog. Today I want to write about a topic unrelated to pen & paper RPGs. While pen & paper RPGs are my primary hobby, there are other things I enjoy doing very much. Writing software is one of these.
Of course I am no professional programmer. Back in the 1980s I wrote simple programs in BASIC on my Amstrad CPC 464. Those were exciting times. With a few lines of code you could achieve pretty cool things (at least I thought it was cool back then). Later I switched to Turbo Pascal on the PC. I wrote a couple of pretty crappy games, a simple engine for text adventure games and a database application for my dad.
Recently I stumbled upon a YouTube playlist by Tom Francis who developed the awesome indie game Gunpoint. He used YoYoGames GameMaker software, which is basically an engine for 2D games with it’s own development enviroment and it’s own programming language called GML. The huge advantage of Game Maker Studio over similar products is that you can get things done very quickly and easily. Of course something like Unity is vastly superior in most aspects, but it also has a much steeper learning curve.
In the free version of GameMaker Studio I was able to write a simple Asteroids clone in about two to three hours. Of course the game is far from being polished. Heck, it doesn’t even has a score counter, no highscore list, BUT you can fly around in a little spaceship, shoot at asteroids and it’s actually fun doing so. So far I think GameMaker is a perfect tool if you want to get results quickly, especially if you prefer the “quick & dirty” approach. The code I wrote definitely doesn’t look pretty and some of the solutions I came up with a at least quirky, but I had a blast adding new features and coercing the PC to do my bidding.
By the way, if you want to have a look at the latest version of my game (please note that I disabled background music, because it got annoying pretty quickly), feel free to download the Windows executable here (Some antivirus solutions like Avira’s may report the file as potentially malicious, but that’s a false positive – you can trust me). Please let me know what you think.