Sunday, August 30, 2015

About the Advantage Die

I had the chance to review some comments about the Advantage Die used in and I wanted to share some thoughts about this specific mechanic. Somehow, this is also connected with the Spirit counter mechanics.
In a few words: the Advantage Die is incremented during the game by some successful moves (usually on a 10+, sometimes on a 7-9), and the same happens to Spirit (increased by certain moves on 10+ or 7-9). Both are “good” for the characters when they have high values: the Advantage Die can be used to replace any die that rolled low, and Spirit can become problematic especially if getting to a negative score.
Both of them are somehow a measure of how well things are going for the given character.

Now, in terms of design, an epic RPG telling the story of a group of heroes, would reverse this mechanic.
If we’re aiming for powerful characters — with solid chances of defeating any type of opponent and with some sort of “balancing” power against unfavorable twists in the story — then I’d say give +1 to the Advantage Die on a 6-, and give +1 to Spirit when the character suffers some setback (bad outcomes) in certain moves.
This would basically create a mechanical counterbalance for failure.

The reward for success (let’s say 10+) would be the fictional result of the success itself, while the consolation prize for a 6- would be a +1 to the Advantage Die - that would allow the player perhaps later on to break out from a series of bad rolls by using indeed a high Advantage Die.
This is all nice and cool.
Actually, if anyone wants to give it a try, please do! and let us know how it went.

But City of Judas is something different. It aims to create a different fiction.
It gives certain rewards (i.e. the +1 to the Advantage Die or to Spirit) as additional prize for certain successes, inline with the spirit of each playbook. It does so to make certain actions, certain successes, to bear even more weight in fiction — so that we see the ripple-effect of these positive consequences even later on.
When players roll a 6-, on the other hand, City of Judas can be quite harsh. In combat, and in general when it comes to harm, City of Judas can be deadly. Should be deadly.
A single 6- won’t kill a character, but a few of them, against a powerful opponent, would do it. This is by design.

I think you can see now why — since I wanted to depict a harsh and dark-fantasy world — there is no “consolation prize” for failure. The prize of failure has to paid by the character, and the rules offer no compensation for it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hunting demons

Here is another short report; this is about a sorcerer and the Hunting Demons (see the preview image below).

Hunting demons are relatively weak monsters, although I wouldn’t underestimate them unless I was playing a seriously martial playbook like the Veteran or the Sellsword (or the Raider, with my gang covering my ass). The annoying thing about Hunting demons: they can be raised from corpses, even random pieces of dead meat assembling together and coming to life fueled by the dark force of sorcery. Sometimes, they appear as an animated statue or an empty armor. So, basically, they can appear almost anywhere, without notice.
They are evoked by the GM by spending points on the Taint Tracker; which is increased by characters taking -1 to Spirit. For a brief comment about Spirit, see +Michael Sands quick and cool review here on G+.
Having a more detailed look at the characters, I really like the interaction with Spirit and the Tainted condition.
In brief, Spirit is kind of your moral/humane health. Each class has a couple of  conditions where they will lose some (e.g. the barber if they ignore a person in need of healing). If you lose too much you mark a condition, either Tainted (by evil magic) or Infamous (due to your callous murdering).
Now the thing about the Tainted condition, is that everyone has a bunch of moves that say "If you are Tainted, you are more effective in such-and-such a way". Nicely tempting!
I also note that a very efficient way to recover Spirit is for everyone to get stoned with a Priest of Judas :)

When you invoke with the Taint Tracker, as GM, you act as the Hell Prince himself: you know how to find your targets (including the character!). This is really a pain in the ass for my players (in a good way).

One of my best players (say hello to Tom, everybody) plays a Sorcerer.
His first encounter with a Hunting demon (in the form of an empty armor coming to life) was within a tower, while he was sleeping. He had no time to prepare a spell, so he just went for his mace (he’s got quite an attitude, combining spells and furious mace swings). He made it out of the room, while the Raider and his gang came to his aid, blocking the demon inside the room while the sorcerer ran out.
Then the Barber stepped in, got hurt, and the Sorcerer got mad. They finally burned the bastard after breaking the armor into pieces.
The next time, in the desert, the Sorcerer (I have a soft spot for him, I know…) was on duty watching the camp, and was attacked by another Hunting demon (this time a collection of pieces of – mostly – human corpses, with dogs heads instead of hands). He had a big fire next to him, and managed to use his elementals powers to get rid of the beast.

Now, after a third encounter with a Hunting demon, our Sorcerer is gaining a strange reputation among the ranks of the Iron Fist.
He’s already quite a peculiar subject, with a nasty attitude (and dresses like a scarecrow basically). Add to that, that now he demands to have always a big fire lit in his room at night (remember, we’re in quite a warm climate), or several buckets of water always at his disposal (he likes to use water to confuse enemies and then strike with the mace). He needs the fire or the water to cast his spells fast enough to be able to fight the next Hunting demon.
I am inclined to let the mercenaries of the Iron Fist think he’s a paranoid, crazy bastard. And then to bring up a Hunting demon just so that he can go all smug on them with his “I told you so”.
What’d you think? :-)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Against the Cult of Nergal

Against the Cult of Nergal is an actual play from the playtest phase of City of Judas, by Richard Sardinas.

Aberlardus – The barber indebted to Geilar for saving his life. Played by Fred.
Eban – The Sorcerer. Hungry for magical power. Played by Adrian.
Geilar – The Raider. A Vandal prince who stole the ring of the King of Corsica. Played by Ray.

We started the game in media-res. The caravan the characters were escorting was attacked by what appear to be indigenous nomads. The sorcerer acts first, and with some foresight, by creating a stone barrier around one of the nomads who is trapped there. Geilar charges a large concentration of raiders with his gang, but is repulsed. Geilar took the move Last Stand so elects to face the enemy force by himself on one flank, while the rest of the group attempts to attack the other flank. Aberlardus goes to Geilar’s aide. With a few good rolls the nomads are beaten back and retreat. The character’s have a prisoner.
The caravan master, Calix of Damascus, tells the characters that his rare beetles (a delicacy around these parts) have been stolen, but even worse the nomads kidnapped his daughter. He beseeches the characters to go find her. The characters agree for a fee then interrogate the prisoner. The raider starts torturing him, allowing Eban to manipulate the captive. The nomad talks saying they took her to an abandoned barn and adds cryptically that “She is to be give to the One that rises from Meslam”.
The captured raider leads the group to the barn. The nomad claims that they have taken the girl into the tunnels under it. Eban casts the light spell on the captive. They go into the tunnel and after a long walk enter a large room where the captive is shot in the chest and killed by 2 other raiders. They run, but the sorcerer casts a fire spell blocking the way. One of the raider knocks the other one into the fire, and he is subsequently killed by Geilar’s gang. Since it’s difficult to carry a glowing body Geiler decides to cut the body to pieces and hands out body parts to the group to use as torches. (I added a level of taint here because this was pretty gruesome and the players were treating the captive pretty callously.) Eban took the create fire, but not the control fire spell, so the fire can’t be stopped. He had to cast Stone Spell to turn the burning stones away from the tunnel. They continue and emerge from a trap door into a house.
The house is empty right now. Eventually the players leave (Geilar’s gang stays behind in the house waiting for the sign) and poke around town, finding a few things. The name of the town is Karak and there are several issues going on. Animal pit fights, infighting amongst the ruling houses, and of course mysterious disappearances. The characters ignore the pit fights and go directly to the militia and bully help from them by showing them the glowing body parts, claiming they are from some weird cult. The militia captain admits he has heard rumors that the cult of Nergal has been up to no good, but that cult has been dead for hundreds of years. We assumed that most of the inhabitants are Christian with a few Judiasts here and there. With amazing perception rolls they figure out that everything points to one of the weakest noble families.

They convince the militia to give them authority to search the family’s compound. While there they use perception moves to find a secret doorway. Once inside they come to a large room with some demonic statue at one end. There are body parts all over the place (all those disappeared people) and 3 masked nomads. Spirit rolls are made, but the barber gets a minimum success; he takes the -1 spirit and we move on. The nomads attack the characters. Abelardus jumps to block the attackers to prevent harm befalling Geilar, and is badly wounded (received the unstable condition). A fight ensues, with 1 of the nomads getting killed and the rest escaping. Geiller gives the signal, the sorcerer causes the body parts to flash, and his gang is on its way. One of the nomads ends up killing several of the militia guards and then scales the walls of the compound like a spider. The other nomad is killed by Geiler’s gang. The killing of the guards causes the family to escape and a chase ensues.
They reach the outskirts of the city and Eban causes the groundsunder the family head to rumble and they all fall. The group catches up to them and slaughters most of the family except one of the servants who agrees to take them to the Temple of Nergal.
The characters arrive at the ruined temple and come up on a ceremony. The sorcerer can tell that the ceremony is charged with magic energies. Geiler tells Eban to prepare the Stone Spell to collapse the temple. The characters charge in, and with crazy rolls manage to push back the cultists who outnumber them. Abelardus then runs up and grabs the girl, but he is hit by the high priest (who is the surviving nomad from the shrine encounter in the city). He rolls over the altar with the girl and they escape. The rest of the group pulls back, and Eban causes the temple to collapse on all the cultists killing them.
The characters head back and collect their reward.
The final scene shows the blood of all the dead cultists running to the altar. It then opens and two large Hell Knights step through. The end.

If you’re interested in the game, check it out by clicking here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Exploring politics in City of Judas

During our playtesting, I played a few sessions with only a couple of characters, and the game went well. Having only two characters of course leaves less room for possible conflicts between them; but the game holds.

In this specific adventure, we decided to explore some political conflicts between the Church of Christ and the Cult of Judas. The Iron Fist worked to convince the two sides to negotiate a truce, and finally both Christians and Judaists sent a couple of negotiators to the location designated for the talks. The characters, a Veteran and a Priest (which in the game is a follower of the Cult of Judas), were in charge of the security of the meeting, which was held in a small fortress half a day out of Jerusalem.
While the four prelates began the negotiations, which lasted for several days, the characters collected evidence of someone trying to sabotage the meeting. In one case, a messenger sent by one of the negotiators was killed while carrying a truce proposal to Jerusalem for approval from the high clergy of the Church of Christ.
Seeking a final proof of the talks being sabotaged, the Priest broke into the rooms of the two negotiators from the cult of Judas. In one trunk, he found ciphered documents but managed to get a sense of what was going on: someone inside the Cult of Judas was subtracting money from the cult, and using it to hire mercenaries. In a previous adventure, in fact, the characters have retrieved a shipment of opium that someone stole from the Church of Judas ‘ and apparently it was an inside job, orchestrated from the same man.

With this final proof in their hands, they confronted the two prelates from the Cult of Judas. They managed to obtain a confession from the guilty one, but not before he managed to poison both the emissaries of the Church of Christ. While the Priest worked to save the lives of the Christians priests and avoided what could have triggered an armed conflict between the two religions, the Veteran managed to stop the traitor from escaping.
We ended the session with the militia of the Cult of Judas escorting away the traitor, while he threatened the members of his own cult of their mistake. And in the next session, those mercenaries indeed could have proved handy when the Book of Q. moved a little army to raid along the southern borders of the Kingdom of Jerusalem… but that’s another story.

So, this was for those who asked for another session report. I chose this one because, in contrast to the first that presented the giant demon, the characters basically had almost no need to resort to violence for the entire session - and it was a great session even for the Veteran which is in theory a ‘tank’ playbook.

This time, our preview image is text-only: it should give you an idea of the basic instincts and GM moves for threats like the Church of Christ and the cult of Judas.

If you’re interested in the game, check it out by clicking here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Facing a giant demon

In our last session of City of Judas, my players faced a Giant Demon:

They’ve been hired by the Christian church to investigate an obscure cult - apparently christian as well - that is raiding villages north of Jerusalem and killing priests. It turned out that the cult is searching for three little girls, born in the same day, and all three named Pax (Peace, in Latin). The girls, as our Sorcerer established, have some kind of significance in a ritual the cult is trying to complete.
The characters (a Barber, a Raider and a Sorcerer) kidnapped the girls to bring them to Jerusalem and protect them, but the demon managed to track them. They refused to let the demon take one of the girls and faced it in combat instead.

The fight was real fun: the Raider (known in our group for refusing to use anything but his own, cursed dice that roll 6- embarrassingly often) finally stepped up and his gang proved decisive in protecting the girls. The Barber, although not best equipped for the fight, did her share. The Sorcerer had a somehow clumsy start, but recovered and contributed to the final victory.
But the fight wasn’t easy: both the Barber and the Sorcerer ended up taking a Debility to survive. The Barber is now limping, and the Sorcerer horribly burned by his own magical fire, which the demon spit back at him.

We’re now on hiatus for some weeks, but the players really enjoyed the session and the final “boss-fight”. They felt all the time like they were facing a possible horrible death - which they did - but finally managed to prevail. We’ll be back in Jerusalem next.
I wonder why the church will now demand that the Iron Fist mercenaries will hand over the little girls to them, and what the characters will do [evil grin]

If you’re interested in the game, check it out by clicking here.

Monday, June 29, 2015

About the Setting in City of Judas

Again about the design process of City of Judas. I’d love to hear your opinions – as fellow game designers and as players as well.

This time it’s all about the Setting - the crusades, the medieval times, and why the Middle East…

Previous articles about the game design:
intro and inspiration
starting to design the game
playbooks, counters, and moves
about the number of moves, and about accepting good advice

The Setting
When I released the first beta (or actually, alpha) of the game, it already had a very precise setting: the characters are mercenaries, and they start in the area of Jerusalem, in a setting that is a mix of real historical events (such as the crusades) and imaginary ones (the most prominent being the cult of Judas).
What I wanted to achieve was a setting that would stand out as clearly different from the dark “European” fantasy setting that most of the games have. This choice required some sacrifices: there is no Empire, there are no Fantasy Kingdoms with their wars and their nobility, for example, but here the characters are somehow part of an invading force, or anyway forced to cope with a mix of war and politics where it’s very hard to determine who to side with…
There is no space for a dark and cold forest with ogres or goblins - but there are demons, many of them; they’re at work in the dark, influencing the politics of men in power and trying to exploit the weaknesses of the various religious cults. And there are other monsters like Carnivorous Elephants, Sand-worms, Scorpion-men or Horned Wild-cats (for all of those I took some inspiration from the ancient persian and arab monsters).

I felt that the setting had a great potential: both for its intrinsic value and for the simple fact that it is different than others.
The temptation to recycle a more common stereotype was strong (and I guess City of Judas could be also played in such setting with a very minimal adaptation, if you feel inclined to do so). I was actually working on a different system with such traditional setting. But judging by the feedback I received, the choice of the holy land and the crusades was a winner.
Another positive side of the combination of the medieval times and the holy land, is that it presents a subject which is reasonably familiar for most of the players; there’s no need to study some alternative history or geography. But at the same time, since this is not the real history, not the real crusades, it leaves space for improvisation and original stories.
Strongly tied to the setting is the issue of religion and sorcery.

But before we discuss that, here are some questions for you.

What’s your favorite part about the setting or the City of Judas flavor and color?
Did you have a chance to exploit, in terms of fiction material or inspiration, this setting with its very well defined premises?
Do you feel still free enough to improvise, to re-write history with your players?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Reducing the number of moves

Again about the design process of City of Judas. This time it’s about accepting good advice - and about how I reduced the number of Moves in the game.

Here is the first part, here the second and here is the third.

The number of Moves
The first drafts of the game had a lot of Moves. There were a lot of Basic Moves and a lot of Peripheral Moves, and also a lot of Combat Moves. For example, in combat you had a standard move to fight, one to be more on a defensive stance, and one to be attacking in full force.
Several of the feedback I received were clear about this: there were way too many Moves.
My initial response was to be defensive. It’s normal to be defensive I guess: it was my game, it was for free, and I wanted advice but most of all I wanted to be given compliments and confirmation. Still, while it’s legitimate to say: that’s the game, play it as it is or don’t play it at all, well… feedback is exactly that: telling you what you did right, and what you should perhaps consider to change.
What I did with the number of moves, was indeed was to change and simplify.

There are a couple of reasons for this: one is indeed that I recognized the wisdom of the commentators that insisted that there were too many moves. A lot of them were smart people that in other cases I found myself agreeing with.
Perhaps this time they were wrong, or perhaps I thought they were wrong just because they were talking about my own work. Yes, of course the real reason was the latter, I was just being defensive.

More importantly (the second reason for this change), I thought about the process I followed when doing other work: when I write fiction, I write following the inspiration, but then I need to review and clean my work, and a lot of it involves taking out stuff.
Same when I write code: when you get the job done quickly, there’s a lot of clutter in the code. When you take your time to tidy up, you usually end up with a better script, which is also shorter.
So yes: I reduced the number of Moves, and in some cases that paired up with reducing the number of Counters.

Bottom line: usually good people give good advice, and while it’s good in an early stage to throw into a game all the ideas you have about that subject, later on you will need to simplify and cut away some useless (or nearly useless) chunks.
An example: Rings were used to improve your rank within the Iron Fist; they had a special rule and a dedicated counter.
Now the rank is just a single Advancement you take with XP. From a rule and a counter, to a single checkbox, without actually removing anything relevant from the game.

So, how’s your experience with your own game design? Does it feel painful to cut certain pieces of your work, to simplify? Or perhaps you don’t have this problem at all?
And as a player/GM, do you find yourself house-ruling to simplify games that are too (unnecessarily) complex? (of course, again, this is often a matter of taste)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Simplifying the design

Again about the design process of City of Judas. I’d love to hear your opinions – as fellow game designers and as players as well.

Here is the first part and here the second

Designing the Playbooks
Designing the Playbooks was very easy at the start. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of AW-hacks begin with Playbooks: they contain a great deal of the game flavor and color, they’re what you hand out to Players, they say who and what the characters (the protagonists of your story) are, they say what they can do, they contain all the Moves with their exciting options and possibilities…
Of course, after the first couple of drafts, things started to get harder: there are a lot of interactions between the Playbooks to consider, there are the various fields of expertise to define, areas where characters can overlap and others where you want to make sure they don’t; there are some things to keep in balance, and others that clearly need to be out of balance so that the game gets rolling. There are Playbooks that feel easier to design and others that feel a bit boring at the start, until you don’t find the way to turn the concept around and give it the right twist.
At this stage, I still thought: alternative playbooks, alternative combat system, but this game is still going to be running as basic Dungeon World. Or perhaps as a Dark Age spin-off, or maybe under AW. It didn’t go exactly that way.

The Counters & their Moves
I liked so much the Health Counter used in the combat system, that I made more Counters.
There was a counter for Gold (how much money the character had), for Equipment (did the character have all the necessary gear?), for Rings (that were the ranking system of the mercenary company of the Iron Fist), for Taint (how much the character’s soul was dark). Some of them were a different take on classic RPG stuff like money and equipment, and others were tied to the setting (the Rings and the Taint).
I was initially afraid to move to so many Counters (and in the end, I simplified this part in my latest design) but the feedback on the SG forum was that indeed this was an interesting feature. All of those Counters had Peripheral Moves associated with it. This lead to a high number of Moves (which is a painful topic I will discuss further in a dedicated paragraph).
The idea behind this, was to avoid tracking static numbers (how many Rings you have, how much money, which exact equipment you have), and instead make all those components to work basically like Stats.

And now, for two totally unrelated questions:
What is your favorite City of Judas playbook? (if you didn’t play it yet, we don’t mind, just tell us which one looks cooler!!)
Have you played and used the Health, Equipment and Spirit counters? Did they make book-keeping easier??

Thursday, June 25, 2015

City of Judas: how the design process started

Back to the design process of City of Judas. Again, I’d love to hear your opinions – as fellow game designers and as players as well. So feel free to comment, ask questions, present your own experiences!

Click here for the first part

How it started
As I wrote in the introduction to the manual, I was lucky enough to put my hands on the Dark Age beta version from Vincent Baker. It was an inspiring game, and the sessions I’ve ran, at the table or in forums, where always really good.
Now that I designed my own game, I fully understand why Vincent needed to take his time between the various releases of the different versions of his Dark Age game. But back then, after playing the first beta, and while waiting for the next, I grew very impatient.
I didn’t design any AW-hack before, and I thought: “Well, if he doesn’t put out a new version soon, I will”.
And I thought also: “How hard could it be?”
It turned out to be of course harder than I expected, and way more exciting and rewarding, a great and interesting experience. And frustrating at times, tiring. But most of all, it became clear that it was necessarily a slow process. It took me a year from the first public beta to the manual now published, and I had the luck of having a lot of time on my hands to work on it.

Where did I start
Honestly, I don’t remember exactly but there were two things: the Harm Moves (which were inspired by Paul Taliesin), and the Playbooks, and especially the Barber.
While I was still undecided about how I was going to approach the subject (doing my own AW-hack or not, work perhaps with DW instead, or FATE…), I drafted an alternative combat system for Dungeon World. That system was never really tested and I believe it never made it to any real game at the table, but it stuck with me. It felt rough, harsh, and with a flavor to it, something that made it different from AW or DW harm for example.
It felt exactly like the things I would have liked in a slightly crunchy fantasy RPG with bloody, risky combat. And it had no Hit Points, but a Health Counter, from +3 to -3 like a Stat.
Then there was the Barber. Later on I think I’ve read somewhere that Vincent - if I recall correctly, I might be wrong actually - designed the Angel as the first of the AW playbooks. If that’s true, it was a nice coincidence that I got to design the Barber as the first playbook of my own AW-hack (the Barber is the medieval surgeon, and the “healer” in the City of Judas game).
And then I started to play around with some ideas for this dark, medieval setting, and one by one the other Playbooks followed.

And what about you guys; does anyone what to share how did they start to write their game?
Where did the inspiration come from?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How I wrote City of Judas

This is going to be a series of very brief discussions about the design process of the game. I’d love to hear your opinions – as fellow game designers and as players as well. So feel free to comment, ask questions, present your own experiences!
I am absolutely not an authority on game design, so I’m sharing these with the hope the discussion can actually help me to improve!

While I designed the City of Judas, I looked at multiple sources of inspiration. I hope I mentioned all the important ones in the Credits, but I might have forgotten someone. I apologize for that; if you notice something in my game that resembles the elements of another game, or a concept that was mentioned in some article, blog or forum, feel free to notify me. I will be glad to give the proper credit to those who influenced me.
I did not mention every single source of inspiration, both because some I forgot, and others because the list would have become too long. RPG design is an extremely interesting field, and quickly evolving, as far I can see: it’s really great to see so many committed people, which are also usually very nice in person and kind when you ask for advice.
So if you’re a designer, pick your contacts, ask advice from your favorite authors and don’t be afraid: always look also at other people’s work for inspiration.

If you’ve ever designed a game (who didn’t?), what were your main sources of inspiration? Have you ever reached out to other authors and asked their help? How did it go?

As a Player, what’s your feeling towards game that somehow “recycle” known mechanics, or tune or tinker with them a little? Did you ever encounter an hack which did something in a way that felt “just right” and perhaps suited your personal taste even better than the original?