Monday, April 30, 2018

Moon's Grave Design Diary

For months after putting Fiend Wake up for sale on DriveThruRPG, I found myself wanting to start working on another edition of the exact same game.  It was the first game I'd worked on without somebody smarter holding my hand the whole time so it was bound to have imperfections.  Haunted by perfectly typical "first-timer" mistakes, I saw myself at risk of becoming like many other designers I knew -- folks who (proudly, for some reason) tell you that they've "been working on a game for twenty years" or more.

To save myself from this fate, I unearthed an old joke document I had in my "game ideas" folder and forced myself to focus on making this idea concrete.  To ratify this resolve, I set the goal of having copies of a working game printed so I could it to the Salt Lake Gaming Con this July.  We'll see if I can pull it off.

This game began fifteen years ago as something satirizing the trope of the chain mail bikini but (more importantly) it also accidentally stumbled upon a game mechanic that I think is worthy of experimentation.  The working title was "Buxom Babe Battallion" because I had an embarrassing tendency to alliterate in those days.

A friend of mine once pointed to an illustration in one of her rule books.  It was some busty she-elf with cleavage spilling out while casting a spell.  She said "that's a cute outfit" and proceeded to lament the fact that the rule book never seemed to describe actual gear that matched such attire.  She jokingly declared this a horrible case of narrative/mechanical dissonance and called for game designers to fix it!  We all had a laugh and then, to cement the joke, I drafted a game in her honor.

Today, I call the project "Moon's Grave." 

Core Mechanics


The game involved rolling as many dice (in the original draft, it was D20's) as whatever talent stat you were using and comparing them to a difficulty number.  Each die that met or exceeded that number "scored" and you wanted as many scoring dice as possible.  The twist was in the "random perks."

Your character started with a certain set of special abilities.  They lived in numbered "slots" and those abilities would activate every time you rolled a die that matched that perk's slot number.  Starting characters would have a few perks but would obtain more as they gained experience.  The creative strain of coming up with twenty possible perks forced us to rework the system using twelve-sided dice and since then, the core essentials of the game have been shockingly unchanged.  It just works.

The perks mechanic was always also "reciprocating" -- meaning that we believed that you should be able to activate perks when you roll dice but also when an enemy rolls dice "against you."  This resulted in fights where players were interested even when it wasn't their turns and it also meant that having an enemy that rolled crap-loads of dice wasn't going to be a wholly depressing affair because although more dice were at risk of hurting you, they also could trigger perks.  This actually makes players feel special and powerful even when they're clearly out-classed by the enemy.  They feel like they're really confronting foes that may even out-class them.

All characters also have an entourage following them around in the form of "followers."  Originally inspired by Alternity's "last resorts," these limited resources allowed players to benefit from adoring fans who would sacrifice themselves for their convenience.  Narrating the deaths of followers as they leaped in the way of enemy attacks turned out to be a gold mine for comical role-play opportunities and it helped smooth over the rough edges that came with the dice mechanic.

Core Stat Allocation


Star Thugs and Fiend Wake are polar opposites in terms of the complexity/richness of the character creation process.  Experience has shown that the greater richness of Star Thugs has remained more compelling to us in the long run so we knew that Moon's Grave would need something richer than a series of "pick one of three" prompts.

Point-buy systems became popular in the 90's for a reason; they allow you to make stat values a result of strategic choices which can engage the player more in the character building process.  To help prevent insane min-maxing, they often made the costs of raising stats some triangular number that ensures diminishing returns.  But for Moon's Grave, the level of arithmetic involved with point-buy concepts just felt wrong.  We wanted character creation to be crunchy without making it calculations heavy.

We settled on having five core stats: Awareness, Cunning, Endurance, Grace, and Power.  These stats would start at a minimum value and you could freely allocate points to raise them (one point allocated is always a bare +1 to the stat's value).

We then added ten "talents:" Dodge, Durability, Initiative, Maneuver, Parry, Precision, Strike, Subterfuge, Tactics, and Willpower.  Each talent is derived from a unique pair of core stats, deriving its value from the lower of the two core stat values composing it.  The talents are what's used during actual dice rolls. 

This has two consequences:  First, core stat allocation can be very simple without worrying that players will boost a single stat way out of whack.  If you did max-out a single core stat, the result would be minimum possible values on all your talents.

Second, min-maxers will notice that the overlap in stat uses means that you could make fun, thematic trade-offs when deciding which other core stats you increase. e.g.: you may choose to emphasize Dodge (made of Awareness and Cunning) to make it hard to hit you with ranged attacks.  Doing so may then tempt you to raise Precision (made of Awareness and Power) or Tactics (made of Cunning and Endurance) because both have a stat that overlaps with Dodge's constituents.

Classes and Perks


When you choose a character class, it gives you a menu of perks.  Different perks will have different synergies with other perks.  In addition to your class perks, there are universal perks that everyone gets.  Finding combinations of perks and planning how/when you take each perk is a fun strategic process.

Perks were also designed to help further skew a player's tendencies in the stat allocation process.  The Assassin character class has a perk that allows temporarily substituting the Dodge talent in for the Parry talent -- making it easier to avoid attacks with a single talent.   Though very handy, it's not a perfect obviation of Parry (the melee defense talent) because it is still contingent on rolling a die at the perk's triggering value.

In this way, we believe that we've avoided the usual pitfall in point-buy systems; that different characters tend to devolve into the same generic mush.  Even if certain perks prove to be ubiquitous, how they will interact with the other perks in the line-up means that the game-play experience of the players will vary.

Earlier drafts of perks were bloaty affairs that sometimes came with their own unique mechanics.  As the game progressed, we distilled more of the perk functionality down to essential components and were able to put the pressure on emergent dynamics more than explicit, flavorful but time-consuming procedures. 

Deprecations


We started with eight character classes, pruned it down to five, and now, in the interest of shortening the play-testing cycle, reduced it again to three character classes.  Even with just three classes, the perk variations within each class leave us with plenty of room for variety in character builds.

At this point, it feels like there's very little left to remove in the domain of character creation.  We're going to miss the nifty features of the deprecated classes (Huntress and Priestess) but maybe we can reintroduce them in an expansion.

We had a wider variety of weapons and magical items as well.  Just like Fiend Wake, we tried to emphasize sideways game effects over raw numerical bonuses.  This helps gear feel like more than just a subset of your final numbers and allows us to express more of the game-world's personality with pure mechanics.  Though a couple of artifacts may creep back into the final draft, we are currently happy with the sparse nature of the equipment section of character creation.

Conclusion


In general, this is shaping up to be far more entertaining than I'd expected.  It's so much fun that I've almost forgotten all my gripes with Fiend Wake.  The core mechanics are sound and the character building process seems engaging.  

Next entry will be an overview of how combat plays out in this game.

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