Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Monster Manuals as Catalogs

Well, hello there. Took a bit longer of a break than I'd intended after two straight months of daily updates, but I'm back. So what have I been up to?

Well, in part I've been thinking about monster manuals.

I finally got around to designing proper random encounter tables for my AD&D 2e campaign. Prior to this, I'd been using various third-party resources, but there's really no substitute for making your own. Particularly with 2e, which has the marvelous Very Rare/Rare/Uncommon/Common 1d8+1d12 table system. And then noisms went and posted a fantastic variation on that table that simultaneously generates circumstances of the encounter and, well, I pretty much had to get off my ass and make my own tables.

One of the things that's cool about making your own random encounter tables is that you're effectively designing the local ecology as you do. You're saying, "Okay, this region's forests have elves living in them in enough of a population that you're more likely to run into them than goblins. And there's at least one green dragon in this forest, too." Stuff like that.

But in the course of making the tables, I had a small epiphany. Now, I haven't run a ton of D&D since my callow youth, so you'll have to forgive me if you're a regular DM who figured this out years ago, but...it occurred to me that just because a monster is in the Monstrous Manual (or whatever) doesn't mean it has to exist somewhere in my game world. In fact, until I've placed that monster in a random encounter table or scenario design, it doesn't exist in my world.

The fact that I just assumed otherwise (in the way we often carry a strange, unexamined assumption from our youth around in our heads until we shine a light back on it) is probably due to the aforementioned Monstrous Manual. Don't get me wrong; I love that book, with its wonderfully overwritten monster descriptions. But the "Ecology" section in each description definitely conveys the idea that these are monsters that already exist in a given game world, and it's simply up to you, the DM, to place them geographically on your particular map.

And you see this sort of approach in published D&D adventures quite a bit, this idea that you've got to interweave all the different monsters somehow and give them presence in the world. "The jermlaines, in concert with the wolfweres, are working to summon a guardian naga." Personally, that sort of D&D monster mash gets really tired for me really fast, either as DM or player. I'm a big fan of less-is-more world-building, where most allies and opponents are human and the monsters are truly monstrous. So the idea that I'm starting essentially from zero and building out was quite pleasing to me.

In effect, it changed the process of building random encounter tables from building a local ecology to an act of world-building in its own right.

Friday, April 4, 2014

[Breachworld] Q&A with Jason Richards

I found out about the Breachworld Kickstarter about a month ago, and it quickly shot to the top of my list of most-anticipated games. The Kickstarter is wrapping up this Sunday, but I was able to bug Jason Richards, the game's author, for a bit of Q&A before it does. Read on. . .

I was a big fan of Palladium Books back in the day, but had largely drifted away from their products by the late 90s. I understand you've done some freelancing for them in recent years. What sort of work did you do for Palladium? Have you done any other projects for tabletop RPGs, commercial or otherwise?

I've been writing for Palladium in some form or other for about 17 years. I started writing Rifter (the Palladium fan publication) material with Rifter #2 back in 1998. I contributed to a number of sourcebooks and then wrote World Book 28: Rifts Arzno - Vampire Incursion. My writing focus is now for Chaos Earth. My manuscript for my first Chaos Earth book, First Responders, has been in for a while. Once that's published, I'll pick up working on Psychic Storm. Chaos Earth is a great setting that I love to play and to write for, so I'll be excited to put pen to paper on that again.

Beyond working for Palladium, I've just done some more self-publishing. I have a series of detailed characters, done under the d20 OGL, called Complete Characters. It was a warm-up project for Breachworld where I learned some of the ins and outs of self-publishing and distribution. They're still up on DriveThruRPG, so feel free to check them out.

Due in part to your association with Palladium, comparisons have been drawn between Rifts and Breachworld (including on this very blog!), but you've stressed that the two games, while sharing a broadly similar genre, are quite different. Care to expand on the differences between the two?

Rifts and Breachworld have some common themes, simply by way of both being post-apocalyptic, open-world, "kitchen sink" games that incorporate a lot of different genres all mashed up together. Both include alien invasion of a sort. Beyond that, there aren't many similarities, particularly in tone and theme. Rifts is very big. Sourcebooks cover dozens of countries on every continent. There are vast empires and international corporations. Whole cities are brought into the future, and whole land masses have reappeared and reshaped the planet.

Breachworld is far more focused, and fleshes out a relatively small area to begin the game. Supplements seek to cover all of the bases of that setting. In the future, other parts of the world will be discussed, but in a similar fashion, in small bites. In Breachworld, technology is rarer and more precious, and most of the world is far more primitive than seen in Rifts. Maybe most importantly, Breachworld has an intrinsic goal built into the setting: close the Breaches and secure Earth's dimensional shores. That's not to say that every campaign needs to revolve around that task; there is plenty of adventure waiting for a game as bandits or treasure hunters or quests for hidden knowledge, but that basic setting element does exist to tie everything together. It provides drive and purpose to a significant element at large in the world, and even if the player characters aren't directly tied up in it, it will affect the world around them, just as you could play a game set in the 1940s without being directly involved with World War II, but the war would still be a driver for world events.

Now, having just explained how Breachworld and Rifts are different, what appeal do you think Breachworld offers to fans of science-fantasy games like Rifts or Gamma World, particularly lapsed fans such as myself?

I think that Breachworld's focus in regards to the building of a tactile, down-to-earth world is its biggest appeal. It seems like a strange reference for what is effectively a sci-fi/fantasy game, but a huge influence on my world design is Rockstar's console hit, Red Dead Redemption. That's a world that feels so real, so complete, that just "living" in it was a great gaming experience. Each village and camp had such character. Roaming around that open map you would routinely come across some link to a wider world, like an abandoned house or an old battleground that has nothing to do with the story and is never even brought into the context of the game, but there it was, adding flavor and texture. That's what I aim for in developing Breachworld. Of course a 160-page RPG can't fill out the map on its own, but I want every town that I map, every NPC that I write, every creature I design, and every random encounter that I conceive to feel like that. I want the players and their characters and even the Game Masters absolutely submerged, swimming in the fun of running around in this sandbox.

Sorry if that sounds too poetic or melodramatic, but it's really how I feel. I've put a lot of time and thought into this setting, for years and years. World-building is important to me as a writer, gamer, and designer, and I believe in Breachworld.

Breachworld uses Mini Six for its game engine. What, in particular, drove your decision to use that system?

I'm a "system doesn't matter" guy, and somewhat ironically, it's easier to be that way when you've got a great system. That's paradoxical, I know. Basically I want a system that is simple, adaptable, and gets things done without getting in the way. You shouldn't need a calculator on your table. Mini Six is incredibly fast and fun, and easy to teach and learn. It has a single mechanic and a single type of die. Its statistics are very solid without too many weird soft spots. If things get too hard or too easy in the game, all it takes is for the GM to slide difficulty scales to compensate and maintain Rule #1: have fun.

It doesn't hurt that the whole system can be written right into the core RPG and not take up the whole volume, which eliminates the need for a separate system book. It also doesn't hurt that it's basically the system behind one of the most beloved RPGs of all time, the old West End Games D6 Star Wars RPG. Who doesn't get nostalgic for rolling up Brash Pilots, Wookie First Mates, and Cunning Smugglers? Last time I was at Gen Con (and it's been a few years, before FFG's new incredible take), there were more D6 Star Wars games being run than all of the other Star Wars RPG games (3rd ed., Saga, etc.) combined. That's the sort of enthusiasm that is great to tap into, and using Mini Six helps in that regard.

The Breachworld Kickstarter has funded at this point, and you're getting into stretch goals. So far, you're mostly offering expanded content, which I think is a wise move. Can you give readers a preview of further stretch goals? Once Breachworld has been launched into the world, do you have any plans for follow-up supplements or adventures?

So far, I've included in the stretches just about every type of expansion that you'll see over the months after Breachworld hits the shelves, such as new Player Races, new Breach Creatures, additional Character Folios with templates, new Destinations to explore, etc. The next Stretch Goal is at $10,000 and comes in the form of a full plot-point adventure. We're on pace to hit that one, and it's going to be a great expansion.

The next one that we'll have to push to make at $10,500 is a real winner. This is a major expansion that adds a whole character type to the game. Currently, you could generally say that we have "basic" characters, though I don't mean that to say that they are overly simple or lower-classed, and then you have Epics, who are the spellcasters and psychics of Breachworld. They have special Feats that they can perform that more or less align with spells or supernatural abilities. That's the only "advanced" type of character in the core RPG, or perhaps more appropriately, the only highly "focused" character type; players will have to leverage a lot of build points or experience to step into that role and gain access to those Feats.

The $10,500 Stretch Goal is for the Fighter, which is a similarly "advanced" character type. Instead of wielding supernatural powers, the Fighter has a set of Feats focused on hand-to-hand combat. These are treed abilities such as special combos, advanced techniques, and special attacks. A Fighter might learn skills that help him or her fight off multiple enemies at once, focus on heavy-hitting "boss" type opponents, become master of a particular weapon, or similar sort of upgrades. The specifics are still in development and need some testing, but backers will get access to that as well. This will be just the first of many such specialties to be released as supplements, to include things like piloting power armor, being a jockey for a giant robot, having a special mount, becoming a cyborg, or filling any of a dozen other roles. Players can even start to combine some of these elements for some real fun that changes with every character build.

Just to say one more thing about the digital add-ons, I'd like to point out that these are a great value to backers. Each dollar that goes to one of these add-ons directly adds production value and brings new assets to bear for the benefit of the game. There's no profit here for Jason Richards Publishing, at all. This Kickstarter is about building and improving upon a quality product. Your add-on dollars go to pay for additional art, editing, proofreading, and all of the things that make a good product, a great one. Supporting the Kickstarter supports the gamers, directly, with every cent. I think that's as good a deal as there is in the market.

In closing...

Thanks to David for the chance to talk about Breachworld, a game and a world and a project that I believe in all the way down to my core. Thanks to all of my backers that have shown such faith in me, and in the promise of this game. I take your trust very seriously, and will do right by it.

I honestly believe that as a publisher, my duty is with those who spend their hard-earned money on my product. I serve you, the gamer. If there is anything at all that I can do to improve your Breachworld experience, please let me know. I'm always happy to answer questions, field complaints, or listen to suggestions. In the end, we're all gamers sitting at the table together, grinning at each other over the rattle of six-sideds. Game on.
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