Sunday, March 29, 2015

[Guest Post]Can Logic and Fairness get in the way of Good Game Design?

So how should games be designed to allow logically possible actions of PCs?  In many games, things default to something else like an attribute.  The problem here is that many GMs are bad GM’s that ignore that aspect or are not aware of the rule because it is two sentences long in one section of the book.  Thus, when people play games, many times PCs cannot perform actions because they lack the skill even though common sense says they should be able to.  Consider a game set in contemporary times.  Almost everyone above the age of 18 in a modern society can drive.  Yet, there are dramatic differences in a person’s talent for driving.  Some can barely make it a few blocks without hitting parked cars.  Other people can pull off driving that you see in action films.  This means that if you have a driving skill you will want the ability to measure the differences in ability.  Now, what happens if someone does not have the skill?  Does that mean they cannot drive a car?  Certainly, anyone who has been a passenger in a car will know how to turn it on, turn the steering wheel, and know to press the pedals to move and stop.  Now, could such a person drive to the store without hitting something or getting into a ticket?  Maybe.  However, they certainly could get the pickup truck to move in a field to get away from the zombies. 

In designing SteamCraft I made the decision to make it obvious to players and the GM that PCs at least have a chance to perform logically possible actions.  I had considered just putting in a rule to default to 10% of an attribute’s value.  That raised concerns for me.  It is basically saying that each PC already has some skill in everything.  If that is the case, then isn’t it unfair to make players spend extra points?  Let me explain.  Suppose you have 60 in Agility.  That means the PC has 6 by default in Ranged Weapons even if the PC does not select that skill.  Now suppose the player selects Ranged Weapons at 40.  That would cost 40 points.  However, if he already has a default at 6, isn’t it unfair to make the player spend those 6 points?   Shouldn’t the player spend 34 points instead? 

I also had a concern that in many games I have played, both the players and GM assumes that if you had nothing in a skill, you could not do those actions.  But that is just illogical.  I mean if you live in a time where everyone rides horses, then the PCs will be able to ride a horse.  I needed a way to make it obvious to both the player and the GM they could try almost anything.  I also wanted to make sure that the players are being treated fairly and not having to spend extra points.  Because of that, I had the players record 10% of an attributes value for each associated skill.  Once that was done, then they player could spend more points.  This made it clear to everyone that players had a chance and it resolved the fairness issue I was having. 

However, there were two unintended consequences.  First, some people viewed it as unnecessarily complicated.  The second issue had to do with many people felt having a 5% chance to do something was worthless.  However, the 5% chance is misleading.  The ratings just conveyed general knowledge and basic ability.  It is to enable the person in a runaway train to have the knowledge to pull the brake lever.  It isn’t to allow them to build a train.  The ability also is meant to be used in stressful situations.  Mundane situations gain bonuses.

In retrospect, I wonder if it would have been better for me to be less fair.  I could just put in a default box that players put in 10% of the attribute’s value.  So, under Agility it would say default 6 if the attribute was 60.  However, players would not have 6 in every skill meaning they would need to spend that 6 points.  It is less fair, less logical, but it would speed up character creation and address a perception issue some people have about character creation when they read through it. 

On thinking through this issue it does seem clear that sometimes having better game design means making illogical or unfair decisions in the rules for the sake of better game play.  There seems to be a balancing act that must be done and sometimes you are never exactly sure what way to go, especially if it is a minor issue like a few extra points being able to be spent on skill during character creation.  Is being fair and spending a couple more minutes or character creation better?  Or, would it be better to be less fair, speed things up, and be better received by the players when they read through the rules?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

[Guest Post]Differences between Victoriana and SteamCraft

In my previous post, I indicated that Victoriana and SteamCraft come the closest to matching what you think a steampunk rpg would be.  That is both games tend to have dystopian instead of pulp elements and both have elements of the steam aesthetic/technology level.  In this post, I will cover the differences in the Victoriana editions and how SteamCraft compares to them.  Before I begin, I will point out that all of these games are skill-based games instead of class/level games. 

Victoriana 1st Edition released in 2003 (Proto-Steampunk)

The first edition is based on the FUZION system.  The first edition of Victoriana laid the groundwork for what is now popularly labeled as steampunk.  However, much of what we think of as steampunk items or attire do not exist.  It is perhaps, proto-steampunk.  Magic is a key component of generating what we would think of as steampunk items.  There are also non-human races.  It is set in 1867 but is very anachronistic with its history. The basic setting, however, is the same between the 1st and 2nd editions.  As you will see, there are going to be some major differences to the game and game world between these two editions.  

Victoriana 2nd Edition released in 2009 (Victorian Fantasy)

The second edition changes the game system to the heresy game engine.  The game tries to be more historically accurate.  Additionally, Victoriana became a Victorian RPG not a steampunk RPG.  What I mean by that is that the game emphasizes the fact that it is a Victorian setting.  At the begining of the setting section, it refers to the time period as the Victorian era and society.  It refers to people as Victorians.  Part of this is certainly that we refer to this time period as Victorian, but it really appears that the Core Rules want to make the case that it is a Victorian RPG.  For example, most of the artwork is clip art reminiscent of the 19th century.  It also uses old photographs.  The setting rules, for example, emphasize that women don’t wear pants.  It stresses class warfare and it stresses conflicts between women and men.  Social etiquette is of paramount importance in the second edition.  The major themes are from the Victorian period.  You are not going to see anything like airship pirates or a fashion trend of wearing goggles in the 2nd edition.

The second edition of Victoriana, at least in the core rules, lacks much of what we would consider steampunk.  For example, there aren’t fantastic weapons nor are there really airships available.  Instead primary method of air travel wyverns.  The airships are available all are reserved for the very rich.  Items such as clockwork lambs are only available through the guild the guild is an organization that controls all magic on the planet.  It’s the guild the provides us with mostly items that we be consider steampunk.  This is done either through direct magic or the use of magic to enhance technological items.  It should be of note, that with the rise of the use of steampunk and other RPGs calling themselves steampunk, Victoriana 2nd edition has put out supplements making the case that it is a steampunk rpg. 

Victoriana 3rd Edition released in 2013 (Steampunk)

The third edition of the Victoriana uses the same game system as a second edition.  One major change is to character creation.  It is designed to make it easier and faster to build characters.  Especially ones that will fit with the new setting and themes of the third edition. 

The third edition drastically alters the game world.  First, the game year changes from 1867 to 1856.  In doing so it returns to the roots the first edition by adding additional anachronisms and playing fast and loose with historical events.  Next, it abandons the sexism of the Victorian age.  This is done to bring in line with the other steampunk RPG’s that came about after the second edition of Victoriana.  Third, this latest edition of Victoriana, has abandoned being a Victorian era RPG and instead argues that it is in fact a steampunk RPG.  The beginning of the book refers to the world as a world of sorcery and steam.  On page 262 it says that steampunk was left to supplements, but now they are in the core rules.  But, if you want more fantasy you can leave the steampunk out.  Additionally, the artwork is no longer clipart but instead has gears and goggles that are prominent in other steampunk RPG’s.  C7 commissioned new art and removed the clipart.  The new art dresses up the characters in quintessential steampunk attire. It also embraced a different method of explaining the game world.  For example, it now tells at history using in person writings from historical figures or prominent NPCs of the day.  Additionally it has added newspaper clippings. These elements are in other steampunk games that came out after Victoriana 2nd edition. 

The third edition of Victoriana has made changes to the magic system both in terms of rules and the setting.  The magic system is tweaked from the second edition to supposedly make things easier.  Additionally the guild is no longer a global organization but instead adheres to either national boundaries or religious boundaries.  Because of this, the use of magic and machine has become more common enabling more powerful items than with the use of either magic or technology alone.  In other words, magic has made its way to mass-produced items.  Because of this, airships are more common and electric guns are available.  There are automatas (robots) that work plantations.  However, such a creation would not have been available in the 2nd edition core rules. 

While the third edition does mention class distinction, it does so in a different manner than the second edition.  The second edition used class distinction, social strife, economic exploitation, and sexism as major themes in the core rules.  All of this is either removed or downplayed.  In fact, it seems it is only a nod to the past editions that communism is mentioned. 

Instead, the 3rd edition focuses on themes more in common with steampunk rpgs. Thus, it focuses in on technology, horror, and investigation.  This replaces the societal conflicts that are in the 2nd edition core rules. 

In all, I would say that third edition Victorian is to second edition Victorian what NWoD is to OWoD. Similar rules, but a completely reworked setting.

SteamCraft RPG released in 2012 (Steampunk)

Shadowrun is to cyberpunk as SteamCraft is to steampunk.  SteamCraft creates a world based on what you think steampunk would mean.  It has steampunk attire, airships, goggles, and fanciful steam and gear based technology.  To this, it introduces non-human races and magic.  However, magic is returning to the world after an absence and magic and machine do not mix.  The result is usually disastrous and is banned in the civilized world.  Those who do manage to mix magic and technology are called technomages.  Their creations tend to result in malign creations such as clockwork beholders and zombies with mechanical limbs.

Unlike most other games, SteamCraft is not set on Earth.  It is on a different world influenced by Earth, but with many differences.  The main setting of the book is a new world situation.  That is, it is centered on countries founded on a new continent instead of existing ones.  Instead of having an entire world sketched out with such minimal detail it is useless, SteamCraft provides you a small detailed area to set your adventures.  There is history and significant setting material provided, but without being bound to Earth or a well developed area, this frees the hands of the GM and players to make the game world their own.  The setting is also less Euro-centric.  While the settlers of this new continent are influenced by what we would think of as Europe, Middle-Eastern and East Asian influences are represented.  The dominate nations of the world are not England and France, but are what we would think of as East Asian. 

While racism does exist, it is not a cultural norm or legally established.  The biggest issue of racism is between playable races and non-playable humanoid races that are deemed more like animals than people.  Sexism does exist, but it more akin to the mid-1960’s than the 1860’s.  Women can be educated, they can hold jobs, they can be adventurers, and they can wear pants. 

Some of the major dystopian themes are: the weakening of the nation-state by foreign corporations, corporations exploiting the population, a push back against technology, religious conflicts, potential communist rebellion, potential civil war, and conflicts between the security forces of various companies.  Additionally, the game can go more in the pulp direction through the exploration of uncharted lands, ancient tombs, and being airship pirates. 

SteamCraft uses a percentile system.  It contains rules for item creation that allow players to attempt to build almost anything they can think of.  It contains rules to making alchemy items.  It has rules for airship creation and airship combat. 

Victoriana 3rd
Anachronistic Earth
Heresy System (d6 dice pool)
Magic is key to making steampunk items
Magic and machine are at odds
Euro-centric primary setting
Multi-cultural setting
Larger sketched setting
Smaller detailed setting
National conflicts
Corporation conflicts
Just beginning mechanical computer age
Mechanical computer closer to 1960’s ability


Clacking (hacking analytical engines)
Steamships/trains primary method of travel
Airships/trains primary method of tavel

Sunday, March 1, 2015

[Guest Post] Decoding ‘–Punk’

Over the past few years, the number of ‘punk’ games have started to increase.  In addition to the long established cyberpunk genre, there is steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, biopunk, and even stonepunk.  Unfortunately, there is not a clear usage of most of these terms.  This makes it difficult to know what you are buying.  What follows is a brief history of the usage of ‘punk’ followed by a decoding of what these different words means in terms of games.

Cyberpunk is the granddaddy of all of the other usage of punks.  It refers to a specific literary genre that began in the early 1980’s.  The ‘cyber’ portion of the term refers to a technology level and aesthetics.  It denotes an advanced level of technology, but not one too far ahead of the current level.  The cyber often refers to cyberspace and sometimes cybernetics.  The setting is urbanized artificial landscapes filled with glowing neon lights.  The Shibuya district in Tokyo is often used as a reference for the city’s aesthetics.  The ‘punk’ aspect refers to the dystopian nature of the setting.  International corporations sometimes take over government services or are more powerful than governments.    Those who have money and are favored by the corporations live comfortable lives.  Others are marginalized, persecuted, and treated as criminals.  They live in high crime areas filled with urban decay.  The protagonists in these stories are antiheros.  They are outcasts from society who never seem to come out ahead. 

Based on the cyberpunk description, it should be easy to decipher the other punks.  For example, steampunk should allow us to say that it is steam era technology.  It will have a certain steam era inspired aesthetics.  It should be urban.  The punk should denote that it is dystopian.  Technology should have made some very well off, and others very poor.  Robber Barons should wield extensive power and government influence.  The protagonists should be antiheroes.  They should be marginalized in society.  The antiheroes should be using technology or perhaps fighting the technology.  However, that is not the case.  This is because the boundaries of what is steampunk were never properly set.  The term steampunk came about as a tongue in cheek reference to a style of fiction that was attempting to replicate the science fiction style of Verne and Wells.  The term, however, stuck and has since been used to refer to various media that have little in common with each other besides a loosely linked aesthetics

Contemporary usage of ‘-punk’ means more like era.  The prefix denotes why type in terms of a technology level.  For example, steampunk denotes an era of steam power where technology based on steam goes beyond what the actual Victorian era had. 

What does this mean for gamers?  If something says steampunk you should investigate beyond that.  I would say that most games are steampulp not steampunk.  Pulp is not dystopian and has storylines in common with the pulp fiction of the early 20th century.  Many games that might be put under steampunk are very different.  Iron Kingdoms is a fantasy game.  Wolsung is pulp.  Victoriana 2nd Edition is a Victorian game.  It plays up the Victorian era themes.  It imposes Victorian era societal rules.  Fantastic technological devices are limited and the ones that do exist only exist because of magic.  Victoriana 3rd edition reworks the game and makes the case that Victoriana is a real steampunk game and jettisons many of the Victorian aspects of the 2nd edition.  SteamCraft does put forth a steampunk game that tries to put both steam and punk into the game.  It tries to be the type of game that someone familiar with cyberpunk game would think a steampunk game is based on the label of steampunk.  Of games still in print that are available at game stores, Victoriana 3rd edition and SteamCraft come the closest to what you would expect a steampunk game to be based upon the word steampunk. 

What does this tell us about other punks?  Well, it is pretty much just a technology level with some aesthetics. 

Stonepunk – This refers to the Stone Age. 
Clockpunk – precursor to steampunk where spring power dominates.
Dieselpunk – post steampunk era.  A narrow definition places it the interbellum period of 1917-1939.  Some extend it from 1914 to 1950.  It was art deco aesthetics.  Clothing tends to be military inspired.  Trains and Zeppelins are common. 
Atompunk – This is after the development of nuclear weapons.  It usually mixes the early nuclear age with the space age in terms of aesthetics.  It covers say 1950-1965.
Biopunk – This is referred to as post-cyberpunk.  It takes up many of the same themes but replaces cybernetics and the internet with genetic enhancements and human experimentation.   

Unfortunately, the change of punk from meaning dystopian to era means that gamers and readers now have to do a lot more research to know what a game or book is like.  It also means that just because you play some game that is labeled as steampunk does not mean that it similar to other games that are also called steampunk.  As odd as it sounds, game makers might soon need to says dystopian steampunk to denote that it stays true to the punk roots of the word.