Don’t “Save” Your Ideas

                As a new game designer there’s a problem I wish I had known about when I was first trying to start. I have a ton of awesome ideas, but I have no idea how to implement them. These ideas were so good that I didn’t want to waste them on the version of me that was just starting. There’s no way I could make them the way I imagine them in my head right now! So instead, I would “save” them for later, and try to come up with a disposable idea to learn on. Of course, I could never find a disposable idea that I was passionate enough about to finish. If you’ve ever experienced this then I’d like to pass along some advice I wish I had.

                Working on an idea you love is hard, let alone one you don’t like. If you’re ever going to get any good at game design then you’ll have to design games. And to see if your designs are any good you’ll have to actually finish making those games. This means you’ll have to use ideas that make you excited and figure out how to make them as best you can. If you can’t make an idea you’re excited about happen then good luck working on other people’s ideas.

                But don’t despair at using up your good ideas! As you progress in your skills as a designer, you’ll find something magical happens. You realize that your old ideas are actually not all that great and more importantly you’ll find out why they aren’t great. Furthermore, you’ll be able to come up with even better ideas and iterations of your old thoughts.

                 If you strike gold and realize that one of your earlier ideas was actually the best one don’t despair! You can always come back to it and keep improving it. Even the biggest studios in the world resort to making sequels of their best ideas and IP. If they can reuse them then you can do the same.

                So get out there, take your favorite idea out of the vault and try to make it happen!

Minimum Viable Campaign: A Guide to Setting up Your D&D Campaign in Half an Hour

                If you’ve always wanted to be a Dungeon Master but have had a hard time setting up campaign, or you’ve got a game starting soon you haven’t prepped for this guide is for you. In this post, I’ll show you the bare minimum you need to set up a D&D campaign, and some suggestions on where to add some more time if you have it. The areas you’ll need to set up are The World and Tone, The First Adventure, and I’ll give some productivity tips too. The effective use of this post assumes access to the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual (MM).

The World

                To set up your world you just need a style and a starting area. The style needs to be decided first because it informs every other decision you should make about your world. Swashbuckling adventures need interesting islands and port towns to explore, while sword and sorcery settings need evil sorcerer kings and blighted landscapes. Some example styles are Epic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Mythic Fantasy, Horror Fantasy, and Mystery. For more examples check out pages 37-41 of the DMG. But don’t take too long, just choose the setting you think is coolest.

                Once you decide a style, you need the setting. This starting area consists of the region name, the starting city, and what the environment is like. Adding a map is great, but it takes time and requires you to build the whole world ahead of time. It’s best to build in chunks, describing only the area immediately around the players and keeping the rest of the world mysterious. For your first session, all the players need to know is where they are right now, what that area is like, and what is close by. This is also your chance to establish your style. Is it the sprawling capital city of a great kingdom, an outpost on the edge of untamed wild jungles, a monetary complex in the midst of a blighted hellscape, or an elven city carved into a magical forest? All of these settings set up different types of adventures for your players and set certain expectations about how the world should feel.

                If you have extra time, creating a regional map can be a great way to communicate the locations in your world. Creating the history of your world and making a timeline of important events is a good way to further establish your style

The Quest

                The first quest the players embark on is their first introduction to your world. Every quest needs the following: Characters, an Objective, and a Place. The standard arrangement is to have a questgiver give the players a goal, the goal take the players to a dungeon, and have a villain oppose the goal. Other arrangements of these certainly exist so let’s break down the components.

Characters

                Every Non-Player Character (NPC) in your world needs at a bare minimum a name, traits, goals, and resources with which to achieve those goals. Names are easy, use the last name to establish familial relationships with other characters and a first name that you think fits. For traits, just choose four concepts that describe a character, and make two seemingly contradictory if you want an interesting character. A character who is Humble, Hard Working, Loving, and Proud can cause some interesting tensions between her humility towards her work and her pride towards her family. Next, you need some goals for the character. To make a character more important give them many short and long term goals. For average characters, one general goal is sufficient. A blacksmith might want to earn enough money to send his only child to the national academy. The powerful wizard main villain of the campaign might want to secure a suitable phylactery to harbor her soul in the short term, establish a network of spies across the land, gain favor with an ancient dragon, and establish a marriage alliance with a Barbarian prince, all in an effort to start a yearlong ritual to become an immortal lich. Having a few supporting goals to the main goal will give the players opportunities to interact with the main villain and thwart her plans without killing her off right away. Lastly a character needs some resources with which to achieve their goal. These can be monetary, relationships with people in positions of power, influence, or property. Simple characters like a blacksmith might only have their shop, and their friend on the town watch. Kings will have armies, diplomatic networks, alliances, vast gold reserves, a fortification, food distribution networks, roads, and industries at their disposal. The resources at their disposal measure the power of a character.

Objectives

                Objectives are just the goal of the quest. Don’t be afraid to just steal the plot of one of your favorite movies, books, or games and change it slightly. Goals can have many layers if you want them complex, or be straightforward if you want a focused experience. This is where the character goals become interesting. Allies become those who have goals aligned with the quest, and villains have opposed goals. Allies use their resources to help the players achieve their goals and villains use them to stop the players.  This is also an opportunity to reinforce your world’s style.

The Place

                Many D&D adventures take place in dungeons, but feel free to come up with any other locations that make sense for your quest. Dungeons are easy because you can control the experience of going through the network and you confine the players to a known space. The place should have a description and opponents who live there. These inhabitants are the enemies the players will have to defeat to accomplish their goal. The description is what the place looks and feel like. With more time you can create a map of the place, but when pressed for time you can just make a sketch on a sheet of grid paper when necessary. Don’t be afraid to just make something up on the spot! Additionally you can plan out encounters based on page 82 of the DMG with extra time, or just choose some monsters from the monster manual that make sense and have a challenge rating lower than the players level. As a rule of thumb players can face up to one monster that’s equal to their challenge rating (CR), two monsters of a 1 lower than their level, and 4 monsters of CR 2 lower than their level. Feel free to add a few random treasure hordes to the place too (DMG pg 136-139). Players love treasure, and better yet players love rolling dice to decide the treasure. Just record which tables you’ll roll on and where in the place they are.

The Quest Continued

                Once you have an objective, some characters with goals that intersect with the goal of the adventure, and a place for the adventure you’re good to go! Whenever you face a question during gameplay, just do what feels cool and right without worrying how exactly it fits into the world. After the night is over you’ll have time until the next session to figure out the ramifications in your world.

A Twilight Imperium Discussion

                The other weekend I played the third edition of Twilight Imperium (TI3) for the first time and was blown away. This board game sees each player take control of an intergalactic civilization vying to become the galaxy’s next leader. The game plays like a wargame, but adds elements of technological advancement, diplomacy, and objective cards to determine the winner. It took us about 8 hours to play, and in this blog post, I’ll highlight some of the best parts of the experience and some potential improvements.

                First off let’s take a look at this game’s table presence:

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                This game is huge, and component is packed with details. In the lower left hand corner you see my reserve of black units, my technologies, currently occupied planets, diplomats, and current trade agreements. Then each player has a reference sheet with tokens showing their allocation of commands, the galaxy itself, action cards, the current public objectives, the currently enacted laws, the strategy card each player is taking this turn, and it just keeps going. The game took 8 hours in part because there’s just so much information to take in and consider. But the overwhelming number of components is also enthralling. Just look at my giant fleet of ships in the lower right of the board! Doesn’t it just make you want to take over the galaxy? And the number of options available to you makes you feel in control of a sprawling race of people.

Player Story

                If good board games are story machines TI3 created one of the most immediately compelling stories I’ve ever experienced. My faction was called The Nekro Virus. I can’t vote on laws at the galactic council, and I can’t research technologies like everyone else. Instead, I can only gain technology by defeating an opposing unit and copying a technology of that opponent. On my first turn I chose the diplomacy action and was allowed to propose a new law to the galaxy. The law I chose immediately gave everyone the WAR SUN technology, allowing them to build death star like weapons. The diplomat from the goblin race assassinated my diplomat, but everyone went along with the proposal and got the tech. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that since I was the virus I couldn’t earn new technologies this was! So, I had to defeat someone in battle first. Later on in the game another player encroached on my territory, so I quickly retaliated and captured their home world. However, by the end of the game everyone was so exhausted and the game started to drag that a few players colluded to end it unceremoniously. The game started off so strong that I loved it just from a few moves, but ended so abruptly and poorly that I felt robbed of the epic conclusion I thought I deserved

Victory Point Win Conditions

                To win in a game of TI3 you need to get to 10 victory points. These points can be gained by completing a random secret objective, and by completing public objectives. These public objectives for our game were “pay 10 resources to gain a point”, “capture at least 3 unoccupied planets this turn”, and “control at least 5 planets”. These sorts of objectives don’t lend themselves to epic conclusions. Every battle, technology, action card, and political meeting is so rich with theme that having these generic objectives feels wrong. And equally disappointing is when someone just happens to meet the criteria for their secret objective. It’s extremely difficult to intentionally stop a player from completing these conditions, especially if they’re on the opposite side of the galaxy. Victory point win conditions are often included to more easily allow for a variety of strategies to contribute to victory, like diplomacy, warfare, and trade. But the objectives I experienced mostly just boiled down to controlling a lot of territory and making good use of your resources.

Structural Win Conditions

                More appropriate for wargames are structural victory conditions. Risk is a great example of a structural victory condition; a game about global domination that you win by dominating the whole board. A game like Twilight Imperium could benefit from giving players huge structural advantages from completing objectives in the game instead of points. Maybe taking over 5 planets gives you a huge boost in production, capturing 3 unoccupied territories allows an extra production phase, or spending 10 victory points lets you gain an extra technology. This would also allow players to feel a stronger sense of progression, by gaining immense power over the game. To win the victory could be the last player to have a leader figure alive, the player to capture all the homeworlds, or the player to hold the center planet Mekatol Rex for a number of rounds.

TRPG Combat System Design 101: Variables

                Tabletop RPG combat is a sore spot for many players. Even the most popular system: Dungeons and Dragons can get dull unless you’re a wizard or the dungeon master is exceptionally skilled. In this RPG combat design series, I will be talking about how to design the turn-by-turn combat. This post is about all the variables you can use to add depth to your system.  

                An action is the singe non-movement activity a character does on a player’s turn. This is mostly attacking an enemy, casting a spell, or defending oneself. Let’s take a look at all the variables you can tweak for any given actions.

1.       The Speed of the action in terms of when it resolves in initiative order. Many games represent this by having players roll initiative at the start of combat to determine the order of actions. This makes initiative quick to determine, but detaches it from the actions a player is taking on their turn. Outbreak has players roll speed dice based on each action, so the players must decide between acting quickly and acting more powerfully. This works great in a horror setting, since a player may find out their action is no longer useful when they finally act! However, this requires a round of action declaration where every player says what they are doing and which action they are taking along with a round of action resolution that changes each round. This greatly increases the time it takes to run combat.

2.       The Accuracy of the action in terms of how reliable it is. Virtually every game uses accuracy to some extent. This can be the odds to hit a specific enemy based on a character’s stats, or the odds that a spell or action will be successful in absolute terms (This spell has a 50% of working regardless of enemy). If an action directly affects an opposing character, it’s a good idea to vary the accuracy so there’s a difference between powerful and weak opponents. If the action supports an ally then it’s a good idea to make it automatically successful, so players don’t feel punished for helping each other. Fixed random chance is good for item use, or spell effects mainly cast into the environment (wall spells, controlling the weather, summoning monsters, etc.)

3.       The Potency of the action in terms of how effective it is. The typical representation of this variable is the damage dealt by an attack based on the weapon used. This can be the magnitude of effect of any attempted action though. The amount of healing done by a spell, the distance an enemy is pushed by a charging action, how strong the summoned magical armor is, how far you can detect magic, how hard it is to dispel a magical effect, and anything else you might try!

4.       The cost of the action in terms of how many resources are used to attempt it. Dungeons and Dragons used to use a resource management system only for spellcasting. Casters got a number of spells per day and must use them wisely or they will have to wait until the next day. Now many other classes get actions that can be used only once per encounter, per rest, or per day. Many other RPG systems use a fatigue system where players can gain fatigue to improve the accuracy or potency of an action. Think about using cost to balance weapons of different potency or special attacks that otherwise would always be used (in D&D that could be the fireball spell, the highest damage weapons, the power attack feat, etc.). Giving players a resource to manage makes combat instantly more engaging as players will need to make choices about when and where to use those resources. Cost can also be measured in how many turns it takes before the action occurs although this should be avoided for actions designed to happen in combat. Having to wait 3 turns for an epic killing curse might make sense based on its Potency, but it’s no fun to do nothing for 2 rounds of play.

5.       The range of the action in terms of how far it can affect. Swords can only be used up close, but laser sniper rifles might be able to shoot across a city. Use range to give variety between the actions characters can take with weapons or the spells they can cast. What does a healing action that requires a player to be next to a character look like compared to one that can be shot from a gun? Closely related to range is line of sight, which is where within range the action can affect. Typically, a character can’t use an action on someone hiding in a building or who is otherwise unseen. However, having an action that can attack around corners, shoot in the dark, or cast spells behind a building adds depth.

6.       The breadth of the action in terms of how many targets can be affected. Can a character only attack one opponent with a sword, or can they hit many enemies with a blast of confusion. Think about how many targets an action can affect and whether it should have an area of effect. Spells make a lot of sense to have AOE to represent large magical powers, but don’t be afraid of having weapon attacks affect many enemies if you want a fantast feeling. Closely related to breadth is the rate of fire or rate of attack. How many individual attacks a character gets when they attack multiplies the potency of the attack and gives a faster and more skilled feeling to the character. What if a character has to choose between one single high powered attack and attacking several times with a less potent smaller weapon?

7.       The versatility of the action in terms of how many situations it’s useful in. If your game features underwater storylines, that greatly changes the value of fire and electricity spells. Think about adding highly effective, but situational actions to a player’s available choices along with less effective and more generally useful actions. Also give players the ability to create the circumstances that make their situational actions more effective. A lightning sword that grows more powerful during thunderstorms becomes much more interesting if a player can summon a dangerous storm during battle. Giving players actions that let them change the environment are a great way to add versatility. A spell that creates a cube of wood can be useful as a bridge, a wall, repairing a house, stopping a flood, or anything else the player can imagine. Versatile actions are great for giving players options, but restricted ones can be good too. Just make sure the restrictions aren’t too constricting, are interesting, and can be avoided or worked around. A bow that can only shoot orcs is much less interesting than a bow that is especially potent against orcs.

8.       The Duration of the action in terms of how long its effects last. When considering the duration of an actions’ effects, consider both the impact on the current combat, and the effect after the combat. A spell that makes a wall of fire may deal damage for several rounds of combat, but what if the wall becomes permanent? A permanent wall will have consequences in your world and in roleplaying much more than a temporary one. When considering temporary actions keep in mind that damage dealt now is always more valuable than damage dealt later, so the potency of the action isn’t just divided among the rounds of the effect, it is also reduced. For example if I have an acid blast that deals one damage each turn for 5 turns, if may seem like it will do 5 damage, but what if the enemy is defeated before the duration expires? And the enemy can still attack me before all the damage is dealt! This acid blast will be worth much less than an attack that deals 5 damage all at once. However, the player faces an interesting choice if its between dealing damage now and dealing even greater damage over many turns.

9.       The setup of the action in terms of its impact on actions in the future. A powerful sword attack that weakens my defenses for a round, a spell that makes my allies move faster, or a spell that makes all my enemies easier to hit are all examples of actions with setup. Typically referred to as buffs and debuffs, setup is used in many RPG systems as the effect of spells. Don’t be afraid to add buffs and debuffs to regular actions a player can take. Can I enter a defensive position, spend my hit points to deal more damage, protect an ally, or paralyze a foe with a well-placed strike? Setup is important because it requires players to think about the impact of their actions over many turns and across their whole team to use effectively.

                Taken together, you can tweak each of these variables to create a dynamic combat system. Make sure that each playable class has choices using each of these variables, even sword fighting classes! It’s no fun to just find the best weapon and use the same attack every turn with it over and over! Next time we will use these variables to create a gritty sword and sorcery system so stay tuned!

5 Things Pitbull's Fireball can Teach us About Designing an RTS

Pitbull's hit single "Fireball" is a high energy party anthem from 2014. In it we find what appears to be a song about drinking, dancing, and passions of the night. But what can this song tell us about designing a real time strategy game? It turns out, quite a lot. 

1. The Importance of Immediacy
In a cheeky announcement of design wisdom Pitbull sings "I saw, I came, I conquered, or should I say I saw, I conquered, I came." This lyric is a mashup of the phrase Julias Caesar himself popularized with Veni, Vidi, Vici. However, Pitbull reorganizes the words to show the importance of conquest in a real time strategy game. Players should see their opponents, conquer them, then feel the joys that go with that victory without wasting time on the logistics of real warfare. To do this the units under a player's command should move with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Long delays between action delivery and unit response make the player feel less powerful, especially when accompanied with slow moving units.

2. Rewarding Skill and Focus
One hallmark of a good strategy game is the ability of a player to pounce on the mistakes of an opponent to gain an advantage. Pitbull knows this. When he sings "They say the Chico on fire and he no liar. While y'all slippin’ he runnin’ the game." He literally means that Chico is taking over the game when he catches an opponent slippin'. When designing a competitive RTS, this is extremely important. Look for any opportunity to let players take risks and capitalize on successfully countering these risks. 

3. Fire and the Aesthetics of Destruction
Real time strategy games done well make the player feel powerful and strong. In a competitive battle setting this often translates to defeating opposing units and destroying their buildings. But just as Pitbull's classic punctuates his chorus with a loud "FIREBALL" so too should your game emphasize destruction with fire, explosions, and other visual effects. These provide powerful reinforcement for the player's successes and reward them for their progress. As a player progresses through the game and creates more advanced units, you can build this sense of power by having even more powerful explosions and yes fireballs.

4. Usability and Pathfinding Through Fog of War
In his own way Pitbull has a lot to say about prompting units and letting them lead the way forward when the path is unknown. He belts out "I gave Suzie a little pat up on the booty, And she turned around and said, Walk this way". Likewise the units in your game should respond to orders from the player with intelligent movement through the map. If a player directs their troops into the fog of war of a map, make sure your pathfinding system makes the units appear to find intelligent paths through. If they get stuck on walls or in a group of trees, it will destroy the player's confidence in their units. This detracts from the player fantasy of being a strong commander or general.

5. Don't be Afraid of Sequels!
Towards the end of his dance-floor scorcher, Pitbull chants "we're bringing it, we're bringing it, we're bringing it back" because he's not afraid to bring back what's great. Many of the best real time strategy games built on the successes or earlier titles in their franchise. Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2, Age of Empires 2: The Conquorer's Expansion, Starcraft: Brood War, and Warcraft 3: Frozen Throne were all expansions, sequels, or both and are widely acclaimed. Each of these perfected the gameplay that came before to create widely popular and beloved titles. So when working on your next project don't be afraid to expand on past works.

Thanks for reading! Hopefully I was able to pass some of Pittbull's wisdom onto you for your next big RTS project, good luck out there!