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In the last entry, I detailed the elements of a playing-card based game system. Inspired by that, I jotted down some details for a cyberpunk game that would use cards. However, being Old Skool, I've always believed that system is not independent from the setting but instead sets a certain kind of reality or mood that is also an integral part of the setting. I like my new cyberpunk (or should I say, "wirepunk") rules already but with that particular setting, with its speciation of Humanity based on your social status in a corporate-driven society, does not mix well with playing cards.
Something else does: Mobsters 2.0
This is a very old plan of mine, born almost immediately after the original Mobsters but I've just never gotten around to do it. Whereas the original Mobsters is a roleplaying game (with a heavy strategic element) inspired by the Noir and Pulp-era gangster movies, Mobsters 2.0 repeats the concept in a world depicted by modern-era crime- and action-thrillers, from Casino Royale to Ocean's Eleven to whatever Tarantino film you can think of. Max Payne was also a big inspiration for this setting (the videogame, not the film) but while nothing stops you from using it in a heroic cop campaign, the roleplaying game is really supposed to be about the criminals. Not losers like real-life criminals but the kind of glorified antiheroes you see in films and novels. And making life-and-death decisions with playing cards just screams underworld to you, doesn't it?
Mobsters 2.0 is based on the idea that the world we live in is every bit as crooked and corrupt as the movies make it out to be and it is possible for a single person or a small group to build an empire with quick wit and even faster trigger fingers. They starts just above the street gang level and take part in a global criminal underworld, first taking over a slot from somebody weaker than they are then making and breaking alliances as they build their empire. In the original Mobsters, the Jazz City was divided into turfs of different potential. In the global world of Mobsters 2.0, the criminal world consists of operations, opportunities in illegal business, Black Operations for strictly illegal stuff like hard drugs, infocrime, gun smuggling etc. and Grey Ops for borderline cases like conflict diamonds, mild drugs and bootleg pornography. All these opportunities exist independently of the operators and if the players won't be exploiting them, someone else will.
To make a good start in the game, the player gang must take over an operation as a source of resources and connections. Unlike in Mobsters, most modern criminal operations do not require a lot of manpower, so the players will probably cope without henchmen for quite a while. However, their operations also depend on a long chain of dealers, suppliers and traffickers from around the globe. These chains will inevitably generate trouble for them to solve, just like in the original Mobsters. The gamemaster designs his scenarios around these troubles. Solving the scenarios will ensure the operation continues, resources accumulate and eventually new operations and henchmen will follow. That is the start of a criminal empire.
Mobsters dealt only with the mob, or American Mafia. Mobsters 2.0 deals with a whole bunch of different organised crime cultures and their exchanges with each other. The Cartels, the Organisatsya, the Triads, the Yakuza, the Enterprises, the Confraternities, the Comandos and whatever other modern-day criminal organizations one can dig up. In a world based on action-thriller films, often the governments and authorities involved are every bit as crooked and the line between legal and illegal gets blurred at the both ends of the power spectrum. Just think of the influence private security contractors have had on the recent conflicts in the Middle East.One thing I would really want to build into the system for creating movie criminals are "Drives". I want criminal characters who flaunt their wealth and status, spend it on dangerous things, build dangerous liasons and have A) a constant need for more and B) look good while at it.
Bling bling, baby!
It seems that playing cards in roleplaying games are becoming all the rage, assuming you can say something like that of a nearly extinct hobby. The idea is by no means new: I dabbled with playing cards as game elements already in Miekkamies and Taiga. Castle Falkenstein used a game system based entirely on playing cards and the Masterbook System by West End Games (in my beloved Shatterzone) relied heavily on a complex system of cards that handled initiative, skill bonuses, story-driven elements and so on. That got me thinking about a game system based solely on cards and since Burger Games knows no dice other than D6, it is only fair that Burger Games acknowledges no other cards than the ordinary playing cards.
The effective stats range is 1-6, with 3 being the human average. Physical stats are black. Mental or Social stats are red. In Praedor, this would mean that Strength, Fitness and Agility would be black stats and Perception, Willpower and Charisma would be red stats. The default is value for all stats is 3.
In my games the characters are always superior to the average people, so if there are six stats and the player has less than 20 stat points (6 x 3 = 18), he can put the used cards back into the deck, shuffle and redraw.
There can be any number of skills, rated from +1 to +5 (at least when the character is created; a skill of 4+ is already extraordinary). Depending on what the player wants to do, the right stat and skill are matched to produce the effective skill value.
For example, if the player has Perception of 4 and Charisma of 2, but has Swords at level +3, his total for inspecting a blade for weaknesses or the fighting style of someone else would be 4+3 = 7, but his total for impressing the audience in a flashy mock combat would by only 2 + 3 = 5. He is not much of an actor.
Difficulty levels are figured from the level of total skill expected to succeed. So, from stat + skill, we can figure out following tresholds:
For the task to succeed, the total + random must be equal or greater than the treshold. As you can see, an easy task fails only if the random element takes the total down to 0 or into the negative.
As a rule of thumb, a task resolution is unnecessary if the treshold is less than the effective total skill and there is no dramatic or emotional investment in the task. However, when a task resolution is needed, draw a card:
Draw a card and add result to your skill total:
Unless the player kept the card, all drawn cards go into the discard pile. When the deck runs out of cards, the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the deck.
If the end result is 0 or less, the character really botched it. If it is well into the negative, he botched it badly. However, it still counts 0 in all comparisons but he probably screwed up his odds for next few challenges as well.
If the player has picked up cards during the play, he can expend them within the same session. Except for the Ace, these cards are expended in addition to the usual draw from the stack.
Expended cards go into the discard pile. Note that by using cards the player can overturn "automatic results" determined by the Draw.
Combat - Action Draw
The first thing in a combat round are the Action draws. The players declare what they want to do and all combatants then draw a card for a task resolution to that effect. It does not really matter what they are attempting to do; if they are part of the combat, they do the Action draw. Combatants can have multiple goals but the draw is made with the lowest skill total and there is a -1 penalty for every additional objective. However, only one objective per target is allowed.
For ranged combat, shooting beyond the most effective range means a -2 penalty on Action Draw. Shooting at extreme distances or in poor visibility could mean a penalty of -4 or more.
The highest total wins the Action draw and gets his way. If the draws were even, the round was inconclusive.
For example, PC is fighting three bad guys. He decides his action is to flee (through a window). The bad guys want to work him over with crowbars. The PC uses the total of Agility + Dodge of 7 and draws an 8 of Clubs. That is "good" for this action, so it is halved to 4, for a total action draw of 11.
The bad guys are using Strength + Crowbar at 6 and draw a 5 of Spades, a 10 of Diamonds and a Jack of Clubs. This makes their totals 9, 1 and 16. Since one of the attackers is the winner, the PC did not get to the window. While he dodges one blow and one of the attackers stumbles on a fallen chair, he finds his way to the window blocked by the third assailant. That crowbar is coming awfully close...
Combat - Save Draw
Not every action draw requires a Save Draw but if the action is something aimed directly at somebody (like most attacks are), the target is entitled to a save. If struck by many attacks, they are resolved in the order of the attack draw total. Every save after the first one has a cumulative -2 penalty on the draw.
If all three foes had beaten the PC in the Action Draw, his Save Draw would have been normal against the first attacker, at -2 against the second attacker and at -4 against the third attacker.
Save can be any activity that could feasibly explain why the character was not hit. In melee it is typically about blocking or dodging. In firefight, it is leaping behind cover and so on. Task resolution is done normally, except that there is a +/-3 penalty for beneficial and adverse conditions. For example, the character is in a firefight and has good cover, it would not help his action draws but it would give him a +3 bonus for saves if and when the enemy gets a shot at him.
If the Save Draw is equal or greater than the attacking Action Draw, the character made it. Cards (except for figures) are put into the discard pile and the battle moves onto the next round.
Combat - Taking Damage
If the Save fails, the target is hit. Hit margin (the amount by which Action Draw result exceeded the Save Draw, if any) is added to the damage.
Melee damage = Weapon Damage + Strength + Hit Margin - Armour Value
Ranged damage = Weapon Damage + Hit Margin - Armour Value
If any damage remains, the target takes 1 Wound. For every full 5 points of remaining damanage, he takes an extra Wound.
Our hero could not get out of the window so he saves against the third attacker. This is also Agility + Dodge as before, against the enemy action draw of 16. This is a tall order. He draws a 3 of Spades, which is the Best suit for the circumstances but for a total of only 10. The crowbar hits home, with a Hit Margin of 6.
Crowbar damage is 2 and the enemy has a Strength of 3. 2+3 + Hit Margin of 6 = 11. The PC is wearing padded motorcycle leather for 3 points of Armour. 11-3 = 8. He takes 1 Wound since any damage is penetrating and another Wound because there is more than 5 but less than 10 points of incoming damage. He tries to dodge the blow but the crowbar smacks him in the back, knocking him flat on the floor. There is nothing more happening in this combat round but the next round he will have -4 penalty to everything, both Action and Save Draws. If the player has any good cards in store, next round would be a good time to use them.
Combat - Wound Effects
The immediate effect is that for this and the next round, there is a penalty of -2 per Wound to all activity. The long term effect is that there is a penalty of -1 per Wound to all activity.
When the number of wounds exceeds the Health stat, the target is incapacitated, most likely unconscious although some people have managed to crawl quite a while. At Health x 2 Wounds he will die.
Wounded character can receive medical aid and successful application of proper skills will immediately heal 1 Wound. The rest will heal at the rate of 1 per week. In some settings magical healing, nanotech or heavy dose of painkillers will fix things much quicker.
Rapid fire, the old bane of diced systems. If the weapon is at least semi-automatic, it can be used to fire shots in a rapid succession. So a quick burst or a rapid succession of 5 shots if target is in optimal range and 10 shots if he is farther than that will give you +1 to Action Draw and +2 to weapon damage. If the weapon is fully automatic you can let go twice as many rounds, get +2 bonus Action Draw and +4 to Damage. And if the character has a weapon with a belt feed or a high-capacity magazine, he can select an area he fills with lead and getting through it will be difficult task against a treshold of 3 + fired/10 for everybody moving into the area. Those who fail are hit, with the failure margin used as a hit margin for the bullets.
Surprise means the other side does not have an Action Draw against you. He only has the Save Draw and the Gamemaster can decide on penalties up to -6. If the target is completely helpless, unaware and/or immobile at point blank range, there is no Save Draw either. The shot is either lethal outright, or if the gamemaster likes to crunch numbers, hit margin is the Action Draw total and the target has no armour.
Explosives means that if no one stops you (beats you with a higher Action Draw in an action aimed at you), everybody within the blast radius has to save against your Action Draw total or be caught in the explosion. Explosives have insane weapon damages but subtract 10 for every metre and obstacle between you and ground zero.
Enviromental hazards like fire, radiation etc. simply have hazard rating and cycle period. For fire, the period is one combat round. For radiation it can be minutes or hours. In any case, at the start of every period, the character must make a Health Draw against the hazard rating or take a Wound. There are no skills to overcome this but certain types of clothing and suits can have very high bonuses against certain types of environmental hazard.
I haven't playtested this but already some interesting considerations arose from writing it. For example, it would be theoretically possible to model every single dice roll with cards but this would exhaust the deck really quickly. For the sake of playability, it would be optimal that the deck lasts through the combat scene and can be reshuffled while processing the aftermath. Another thing I briefly considered were hit locations. It would be easy to assign cards to hit location but what it players have cards X, Y and Z picked up? That would mean these locations could not be hit. Neither could any previously hit locations because those cards would already be in the discard pile. Crazy.
I believe it is the setting that makes the game and generic rules systems like this one are dime a dozen. However, I also enjoy this kind tinkering with game mechanics and it is a healthy brain exercise for my dayjob as a game designer. Besides, I've had some really good experiences with partly card driven RPGs. Playing Renegade Legion with Shatterzone rules was a blast.
Some friends of mine are planning a Stalker-spirited photo-op. Somehow almost everybody seems to be impressed or fascinated by Stalker RPG and the concept, even if they rarely play it. Now one of them, a fellow with more than passing skill with the camera I might add, asked for my visual sources, or in short, "what movies should one have seen to recreate the desolation of Zones" (and to lesser extent the Border Regions). My list of references is based on what I have on the shelf at home. It is therefore by no means complete but if you know me well enough to drop by without getting chopped up for the Wok pan, all you need to do is ask.
Stalker (by Tarkovsky) is of course the defining movie of the genre, the basis of my description for Zone Russia and a great source of inspiration overall.
B13 (or Area 13) thinks it is a French Parkour-Action flick but actually it is set in the Border Region of Zone France, maybe some part of Toulouse. Just ignore the Eiffel Tower in one scene.
The Ugly Swans combines Roadside Picnic and Ugly Swans novels into a single movie and it works like a charm. I don't have a sunken city in the roleplaying game but after seeing this film I seriously considered adding one. The movie also conveys the feeling of Institute really well.
Outpost takes place in Zone Russia or in a quieter part of Zone France. Just tweak one of the themes a little and you're there. Something like that could actually happen in the Stalker RPG canon.
Antikiller is a description of the kind of people, good and bad, I would expect to find from the Border Regions. Also some of the sceneries are spot on and I like the way how your average criminal fumbles and fails in firefights.
Last Border is my Bible. Everything is influenced by Last Border. Most people have never seen it. Of those who have, the majority think it is crap. For me, it is an accidental masterpiece on the level of original Star Wars.
Black Hawk Down - don't you just love the Bakara Market? With the exception of skin colour, welcome to Zone China. Especially up north, just across the Mongolian border.
Escape from New York stands for all the urban centres lost behind the Boundary.
Doomsday works better as cyberpunk but even so there is something really epic about the evacuation scenes in the beginning and the devastated Glasgow later on.
Tomb Raider is a movie about Stalkers. They just didn't want to pay for it.
Everest - Beyond The Limit - Season 1: The original season of this mountaneering reality show from Mount Everest does a great job in portraying the Base Camp as a sort of a Border Region town, from where groups of Stalkers venture out into the unknown. I admit the theme does not apply, the scenery does not apply, the people do not apply... but the mental image I get is still there, very, very strongly.
Resident Evil with Milla Jovovich. The first one. I am not generally a big fan of zombies but I am all for advanced but clandestine xenological research facilities where shit has hit the fan so hard that it takes a group of stalkers to clean it out. And they mostly die in the process.
I must be forgetting something but that should get you started. Hmm. Maybe I should list some computer games while at it:
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. titles, both of them. They have grappled with the same issues and considerations as I have and I am a big fan of the first title, even if I don't agree with its approach to the Zone. But it would work and could make an interesting game in itself. My favourite mods are Clear Sky (not the sequel) and Oblivion Lost. Priboi Story isn't bad. I'd just like to slap the narrative designer a few times.
F.E.A.R. 2 - Project Origin. I did not expect this one but from the first moment I stepped outside and into the ruined city, I was home.
Thief - The Dark Project. Thieving was fun and the non-thieving levels were less well designed. But sheesh! From Stalker perspective the Horn Quest or the Key quest into the quarantined part of the city... wow! Now that's what I mean with the sense of isolation, vulnerability and danger in the Zone.
Fallout... or pretty much any post-holocaust CRPG.
I ran my first session of Stalker/Japan. I am also a bad person because some people I had already talked to about did not make it into the group. We are attempting to play at least bi-weekly so the criteria was strict and the group limited so there would be as little scheduling conflict as possible. Some people got dropped at the last minute and I feel like a fucking airline company who bumps passengers because of overbooked flights. *Sigh*. My only consolation is that people in question will be taking part in my upcoming Rogue Trader campaign even if I have to drag them in kicking and screaming.
Our first session was straight out of an anime series. We have a repressed computer-genius nerd with a troubled relationship to the opposite sex. He is forced to do shitty errands for gangsters but then his bosses get wiped out as part of a gangster war. Adrift, he runs into three female stalkers; a robot-building techie, a scantily-clad super-scientist and a veritable amazon from Europe. Our young nerd then gets framed for the murder of a yakuza boss and is now a fugitive from both sides of the law. Despite their initial misgivings and him making an embarrassingly bad first impression, the stalker chicks sort of take him under their wing, implying if not outright promising to turn him into a stalker and take him into Zo-n, which is his lifelong dream. Actually the young geek was just one of four protagonists but it is more fun to write the thing out like he was the bumbling hero of your average anime series. The theme of growing from a bumbling loser to something special and having awkward issues with the opposite sex is very common in manga and anime storylines. Maybe the hard-boiled stalkers will also soften up a little as time goes by. There were already signs of what could be interpreted as "motherly care".
Btw, all four players are women in their mid-thirties, thank you very much for asking. We managed to agree the date of the next session only about a week from now, which is very fucking fast these days. My other Stalker campaign has been on hiatus all summer. As for where we were, I can't remember a thing.
I have made Sapporo the polar opposite of Toulouse in this campaign. The city has grown after the Visitation and the Zo-n, which is very visual compared to most, fits so smoothly into the Japanese cosmology and folklore that tourism is booming and the city is a mecca for cults, gurus, popularized science and young people fascinated by the Zo-n. And the Stalker myth, oh boy... rogue adventurers risking life and limb in a real-world hell while wearing suits and gear straight out of a scifi flick. Japanimation studios are scrambling over each other to make profit on the stakeru boom. Videos shot by stalkers are a hot item in Youtube. Best groups and lone wolves have fan clubs, merchandise and what not and their loose association with the Yakuza only adds fuel to the fire. For the young fans, coming to Sapporo to see the shifting lights and shadows of Zo-n with their own eyes, then soak in the crazy ambience of the Zone-crazy city and finally dancing and trancing the night away in the thousands of Zone and Stalker-themed clubs, it is a pilgrimage. It is their personal expedition to the Zone. It is the closest they can get to becoming a real stakeru.
In other news, Fantasy Flight Games just announced a new version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It will cost 100 bucks and include four books, 30+ special dice, 300+ cards, counters and the Zone knows what else. Holy crap! Since the industry crashed in the mid-nineties, leaner and meaner games have been the trend. I am myself part of that trend, publishing games in single books containing all you need to know. Low cost, low price and very little opportunity for accessory sales. Now, first with D&D4 and then with Warhammer, you can say the trend has been reversed. Think about it: Boardgames are hot right now. They come in deluxe editions that are right at home in the best bookshelves with all the real leather books and medieval manuscripts we have in the showcase shelf of our living room. Major roleplaying franchises are apparently repositioning themselves as a type of elite boardgames and include all the trappings normally associated with the latter, like counters, playing boards, special image dice and cards. It also makes it easier to keep selling more crap with every supplement. Whether the gameplay method changes as dramatically remains to be seen but boom or bust, we live in interesting times.
Hmm. I have already published a diceless roleplaying game. Turning an essentially normal dice roll into something gimmicky by using images instead of numbers would be lame, but what if Taiga 2.0 would be played with cards instead of dice? Now that's... that's something to think about.
After a three-day recovery from Ropecon, it was time to go back out there. Assembly, from August 6th to August 9th invaded Hartwall Areena with some 5000 sweaty nerds (mostly, but not entirely male). I would have gone anyway because it is the closest thing to a games industry convention we have in this country. However, I also agreed to sit behind the EFFI (Electronic Frontier Finland) desk for two hours each day and got myself a free computer seat ticket for that. This time my girlfriend had also prepped us two desktop workstations (our workstations from the previous generation) to take with us. While laptops are occasionally stolen in Assembly and should not be left unattended, no one has yet attempted to walk away with an entire workstation. Ours came through unscathed as well and we will be taking them to Alternative Party later this year.
Officially, Assembly is a demoscene event but for me, the most important part are the Artech seminars. This time there were more seminars to watch than ever before (and founding Wirepunk also expanded my choice list of seminars to attend). To my surprise and delight, they were mostly excellent.
Developing graphics technology for non-AAA games was very technical but I grasped, if only barely. It is more useful for graphic artists and programmers but we designers also need to be aware of what can or can be done with different levels and budgets for graphical tools.
Learning how to teach making games was a panel discussion between representatives and students from institutions in Finland that teach game development. Unfortunately Adulta was not involved; given their recent turmoil it would have spiced it up a little. This wasn't a bad panel but I kind of felt it was not meant for me. However, with the founding of Wirepunk and all, I may have to deal with interns one day.
Developing the technology behind Love was astounding. I don't know what they are paying to Eskil Steenberg for his work but I am pretty sure it is not enough. I haven't been this impressed since .krieger came out.
Rapid Game Design was fun to watch but I don't know if I really took anything new away from that. Most of these cheap or free games developed in 4 hours are just plain bad as play experiences, even if the ideas have potential.
The Mystery Seminar turned out to be a presentation on non-standard and sometimes intentionally shitty games, in the hopes that the ideas within would make the audience's neurons fire a little more vigorously. A noble goal.
Fighting Organized Online Crime was, once again, solid gold. Hyppönen had lost none of his touch of making working for F-secure sound like something between James Bond and Matrix. He had adapted his presentation to include the recent denial of service attack against Twitter and Facebook, apparently to silence a single Georgian blogger. F-secure is not actively recruiting so I can only surmise that Hyppönen is giving these presentations just for the fun of it. I wish I was a TV-producer...
Creativity and Art proved once more that if the presentor has trouble with his output, in this case largely because of language, the audience will lose focus even if the presentation itself is okay. Practise, practise, practise... although this Bechard guy is not supposed to be a novice.
Confessions: Starting Your Own Game Company drew me in for obvious reasons but I didn't expect was Jussi Laakkonen to be so very open and honest about his mistakes with the Everyplay, including the failed tactics, the misguided product plans and the overall frustration over "Kamuworld", their current project that nobody in Everyplay really wants to do. Regardless of what all this says about his management or business planning skills, his honesty won me over. Much more so than the hyped-up variety show he put on last year. Wirepunk is not in the casual/social business but I still took his lessons to heart. And at any rate, we fully agree on the right reasons for founding a game company.
Paneelikeskustelu tietoyhteiskunnan polttavista aiheista had a panel with representatives from the youth organizations of most political parties out there. It was a two-hour session on Lex Nokia, Lex Karpela, e-voting etc. This was EFFIs contribution to the Artech seminar programme and although I was on desk duty at the time, I watched it from Assembly TV. I think it went very well and it is nice to see that political youth organizations have a much better grasp on the dos and don'ts of the information based society than our current political leadership. I hope they take their ideas into the parliament when the time comes.
Revisiting the Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Social Feminism in the 21st century concluded my seminar programme and fell flat on its face. I think it just plain sucked but then again, I am not a true academic. The true academics watching it told me it was okay but the presentor simply had no prior experience from public speaking and had not modified the content and vocabulary to suit her very non-academic audience.
Even so, this was the best seminar programme ever during my time in Assembly (since 2004, I have to admit) and I am eagerly waiting for next year. Besides the seminars the 4K demo compo is well worth mentioning, short film compo had its highlights and demo compo was quite enjoyable too. I think the GameDev compo was surprisingly mediocre this year, while 64K demo compo was just plain bad and the Old School Compo failed outright when there were only two entries.
While Everyplay turned its troubles into good programme, Recoil Games was quiet while sitting in the centre of a raging rumour mill following their relocation to somewhere in Haaga. However, after talking with Samuli, I thought they made a wise move. They also have a whole bunch of other wise and survival-oriented moves in mind. It is a far cry from the elite AAA game studio we had in mind in the early days but when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. I think they have a good chance of pulling through.
Wirepunk (or "Wirepunk Partnership" in the official papers) is an independent games studio founded by four Finnish games industry veterans. Wirepunk focuses on browser-based massively multiplayer online games with hardcore themes and attitudes. Their first release will be "HAX" in Q1/2010, a free-to-play open prototype of their wirepunk MMORPG-in-development "Terminal". HAX is scheduled to launch in Q1/2010.
Official company and game websites will follow.
Wirepunk is thinking man's science fiction. It deals with information-based realities, the creation of virtual societies and memetic tribalism, the emergence of rival intellects and the artificial evolution of both human mind and identity. It draws on a great literary tradition pioneered by Gibson and continued by Neal Stephenson, David J. Williams, Robert Morgan, Charles Stross and countless of others. HAX/Terminal will be entertainment but also our tribute to these visionaries and our contribution to the genre as a whole.
I don't know how to write this entry.
This is obviously big news to anyone reading this blog. It will dominate my life and artistic endeavours from now on. Yet I don't really know what to write. If you are not from the industry or have never been involved in setting up a company, you can't know how I feel. There are great hopes and passions involved, while drawing up the profitability estimate as a part of the business plan aged me by 10 years. But it is possible. It can be done. There is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow although it is bloody hard to get there.
Wirepunk will be my second job from now on. We neither need nor can afford a full-time lead designer so I will be continuing my dayjob at Casual Continent (which has graciously allowed me to participate in Wirepunk despite obvious conflicting interests; they are just not that much into hardcore). Besides, there are synergy benefits in doing this that go both ways and I really, really, owe them one for this. There will be some people working in Wirepunk full-time but despite being the lead designer and one of the owners, I won't be one of them.
I am writing this on the Arena Floor in Assembly. It is very fitting because the process that lead to Wirepunk began here in Assembly, three years ago. What followed were many meetings with other hairy old men, mostly in pubs over beer or Pepsi Max, presenting ideas, taking in feedback, making notes for further polish and so on. With four guys plus extras, even if they are experts, we couldn't afford to fuck around. If we did this, we would have to know exactly what we were doing every step of the way. A little over a year ago we were finally pleased with the concept. Now the pre-production and prototyping began. And when we were finally sure that we knew what were doing for tools, technology and design, we did the unthinkable. We drew up a businessplan and a profitability estimate (thanks, Mikko Honkakorpi and the Game Finances Course in Adulta!). When that started giving off a pale and flickering green light, all that stood between us and the founding of WP were our own fears.
It is easy to sell a game idea to twentysomething students and singles. Doing that to thirtysomethings married with children and/or mortgage was a very different matter and believe me, working out the numbers is no joke. The risks are enormous but then again they are something we can do something about ourselves. Besides, if everything was done according to risk estimates, there would not be a single rock band in the world. As for personal reasons I will let the others can speak for themselves. My reasoning is simple: I am not getting any younger. If I was going to start something new or pursue any outlandish dreams, it would be now or never. And it beats the hell out of getting a tattoo and a motorbike in a vain effort to reclaim my not-so-wild youth.
What would I do if I won a million euros in a lottery right now?
I take back all my complaints about the lack of maps in Efemeros #2. The back cover is a medieval-style map of the Isles of the Inner Sea. Somehow I missed that when reading it in Dipoli.
So, add one star to the already glowing review. Now stop reading this and BUY the damn thing!
It came and went, the annual high point of the Finnish RPG scene. I always feel like there were less people than the year before bbut so far I've been proven wrong, so let's not make that assumption this time. What definitely had changed was the number of costumed people walking around. This was the most mundane-looking Ropecon I have seen since the event moved to Dipoli and the photography stall my girlfriend was working in saw two-thirds of the traffic they saw last year. And of course, every year there are more cars as people get older and get a license to drive.
On Friday, I attended all three release events, for Ikuisuuden Laakso, ENOC and Itras By, respectively. Ikuisuuden Laakso is a really beautiful book and very evocatively written. This book has a soul and I could feel it talking to me through the facade of paper and ink. Sadly, very few people will ever buy it and even fewer will ever play it, because it is a low-fantasy roleplaying game about some bloody penguins. And no, it is not some charming penguin tale for children but somewhere along the lines of Praedor as the gore levels go. Penguins. And anti-penguins with their plumage colours reversed. I shit you not.
Itras By, on the other hand, is a groundbreaking Norwegian roleplaying game of a genre best described as Noir Surreal. It was favourably reviewed by Helsingin Sanomat and has been illustrated by some Norwegian guru of an artist. Inevitably, I think the concept is shit, the layout is shit, the system is shit and the illustrations scrape the bottom of the shit barrel. It just proves that weird does not equal cool. Frankly, I skipped the Speculative Games panel this year because I just knew their absurd designs could not hold a candle to the hilarity of Juhana trying to make sense of an actual, existing product he was trying to sell us. I wish I had filmed the event.
Juhana openly admitted that the whole purpose of Pohjoismaisen Roolipelaamisen Seura was to con public instances to award them grant money. Ever since Tähti, they seem to have had a thing for high production value games with bad systems and near-unplayable contexts that at first seem to be aimed at a well-defined target group and then miss it by a mile. He also told us that he had lost all hope of ever making money with roleplaying games. I think we were all waiting for that one but we did not expect them to give up the idea of having a fanbase as well.
ENOC is a different beast altogether. Ironspine is out to make products that sell and I can respect that even if they still have some ways to go. ENOC is basically the setting and concept of Code/X (to a slightly disturbing extent) but finished and polished all the way to the end. It is supposed to be the first release in a line of RTP (Ready-To-Play) games that could be started on a moment's notice and can be used to draw newbies into hobby thanks to their easily explained concepts and streamlined rules. Sounds perfect and apart from the god-awful cover, the book even looks great. I actually ran a session of ENOC today to my friends in Keltsu and we made a few observations.
Anyone even dreaming about making a Ready-To-Play RPG should first take a look at West End Games' Star Wars RPG (1st edition). If you can beat that in "Readiness To Play", you actually have a prayer. ENOC is not any more ready to play than your average roleplaying game and actually loses out to STALKER in this regard. This could have been salvaged if Ironspine had not done some elemental mistakes. First, the use of ready-made characters as archetypes should have been the primary format of character generation right from the start, with optional rules for creating your own archtypes mentioned in a small box somewhere towards the end of the chapter. These archtypes should have come on filled-in character sheets that could have been photocopied and then just handed out to the players. Maybe there could have been like 5 extra skill points the players could throw around to personalize them. Also all the sub-stat formulas and special abilities should have been right there in the character sheetso that players do not need to browse the rulebook when tweaking them. There is more than enough space for that.
Now, the ready-made characters are presented as adventure-specific, which is bad. They have to copied from a stat list onto the character sheet, which is worse. The weapon stats are not included in their equipment listing and have to be checked separately from elsewhere in the book, which is sad. Finally, ENOC was released before its website had even character sheet pdfs available, which is a fumbled roll on launch management.
It is not a bad game by any means. We had a lot of fun with it and I hope our scenario in Keltsu will act as a live advertisement for the game. I like the concept, I like the character classes, the character creation system is fun, the game system is at least acceptable and new scenarios are easy to come by. The cover might be horrible but the next RTP game will undoubtedly do better. However, the RTP-factor itself still needs work, especially if they plan on building an entire product line on it.
Saturday started with a #praedor IRC-channel meet and a breakfast at the food stalls. It was short but sweet and I am always amazed at how elfin some of our bloodthirsty barbarians are in real-life. Then we went to watch Miska Fredman's interview and it was exactly what the programme said it would be, so no complaints even if I still found it a bit creepy. Then Juhana and a good part of the Roolipelaaja staff held a public discussion on what to do with the last issue of 2009 and with some features of the magazine in general. It was one of the unambigiously positive highlights of my Ropecon experience this year and I hope the magazine will live long and prosper, even if we, the customer base, are a bunch of whining and ungrateful elitist gits. Actually, later that day Ilkka Leskelä told me, with an unmistakeable tone of pride, that he prefers reading Tiede-lehti to Roolipelaaja for roleplaying material. This opens up some pretty interesting vistas on what Roolipelaaja has to compete against for readership.
For the record, I like my roleplaying stuff to be written from the roleplaying perspective, which is why I also disagree on Ile's assesment that Suzy Yee's presentation on Silk Road would be a waste of time since there are already good books on the historical Silk Road. If so, I guess nobody should ever publish supplemental material on anything that has a historical analogy since the real historians have already done the subject (and the RPG industry) to death. Or, why read Conan when you have a perfectly good books on ancient Middle East and the European Dark Ages waiting in the library? Ze Mind Boggles.
Having escaped the clutches of science, I found myself watching Koponen's presentation on RPG self-publishing and learned that I was a mythical being. Or more precisely, what has happened to me as a self-publisher is a myth and the harsh reality is something completely different that I just happen to be exempt from. That was flattering in a creepy sort of way. However, Koponen's presentation was great and he has really improved as a speaker. It was funny, edgy and loud; just what I like. Unfortunately, when it ended Koponen asked for my opinion about Efemeros #2. By that time I had only browsed it through and told him that I would either praise it to boost my sales or condemn it to protect my brand. I wish I hadn't, because over the next hour or so I did read it it through and found it to be bloody excellent. You can read my opinion about in the previous entry but now Koponen will naturally think I am just trying to boost my sales. I am. But Efemeros #2 also deserves the praise. If it didn't, I wouldn't be bothered by the goofy name.
Suzy Yee's Creating Adventures concluded my Saturday and I have nothing bad to say about that one. She writes them for living and while her system is too hardcore for a lone indie writer like myself it certainly has its merits. I haven't really paid attention to the ready-made adventure market for years as writing my own has been a point of pride.But I should and I am the first one to admit that. ENOC sets a good example as roughly half of the rulebook is one big opening adventure, Operation Eisenberg. I have usually gone for the more traditional route of adventure nuggets. For example, all the adventures in Praedor 1.1 have been written by outsiders.
My Sunday was a quiet one. After a shop tour we settled down in Keltsu and played the session of ENOC we had agreed on the previous day. I ran a very simple and quick adventure where a bunch of agents were sent into the Nigerian coast. A vengeful shaman whose wife and kids had died from contaminated water got some help from the "outside" and turned the local villagers into demon-possessed monsters. He then unleashed them on the Shell oilfields nearby. While there was certainly some sympathy for the shaman among the party members, there was also no doubt that the hole he had torn into this world had to be patched up. They evaded (and in cases slaughtered) the monsters, found the shaman and broke the ancient witch doctor's mask he had used to communicate with his demonic allies. The gate collapsed on itself and the curse was lifted. I have already expressed my complaints about the shortcomings of the RTP features in ENOC but once we got into the adventure, it worked. Then again, we did sort of skip over the finer points of the combat system which have been criticized quite a bit on #praedor.
With that and the customary meal at Grilli Toro, my Ropecon was over. Now I have a couple of days to rest and and recover before Assembly. There are more interesting seminars in this year than ever before and I will write about them, of course. Assuming I have any readers left after next week.
Since Ropecon is still going on, you'll have to wait for my post-mortem. But I know one person in particular who is itching to know what I thought about Efemeros #2. I had browsed it through right after I got my hands on it but this evening I actually took my time to read it through. I was not originally too thrilled about the idea of having Efemeros #2 be all about Praedor but we did give him the permission to go ahead. I had decided early on that if the product was even half-way decent, I would praise it in the hopes of boosting Praedor sales (I'd really like to hit that 900-mark). And if it was bad, I would condemn it to the pits of hell because I need to defend the Praedor brand. I just wish I hadn't told that to the author, because now he won't believe I am sincere.
Efemeros #2 ROCKS!
Okay, the name is goofy but all of you who have been crying about a Praedor supplement, either go get this book or shut the fuck up. Efemeros #2 is different from what I would have written but I am not sure I would have done it better. Besides, having different authors for some of the articles adds colour and variety I would have been hard pressed to match. This is something to remember if I ever release more stuff for STALKER. And while I would still love to have something that says "Praedor" on the cover, the cover image of two guys stalking (or being stalked by) a Nameless Monster in Borvaria is right on the money. Even the long, vertical lines of the palace architecture are there.
I have to admit that the foreword got me a little worried. Koponen implied that Praedor had not been gritty enough for him. Efemeros #2 would therefore present a grittier and more decadent Jaconia where everything was basically shades of evil. He even invented a new term for it: "mutapaskafantasia" (dirt & shit fantasy). However, reading the book I did not find the Jaconian society any grittier or more decadent or oppressive than before. Maybe I am illiterate or it was all a marketing ploy, but either way I was relieved. Even his definition of "mutapaskafantasia" turned out to be exactly a part of what the rest of us have called "low-fantasy" for years. Even that was not really underlined in the text: it was simply one of the themes offered to the gamemaster for creating encounters and adventure seeds.
The actual content kicks off with a reworked character generation system that uses lifepaths instead of skill points. I would not use it myself but the lowdown of the background options and archetypes provided an excellent insight into the various social classes and sub-groups within both Jaconian and barbarian societies. It is recommended reading for anyone who wants more depth and realism for his Praedor character, regardless of whether he actually uses the lifepath system or not.
This is followed by a section that should have been part of the Gamemaster's Book in Praedor RPG but wasn't because I was a few braincells short of a pair at a time (*stupidstupidstupid!*). These 23 pages are red meat and spicy potatoes for any Praedor Gamemaster worth his salt. There is a good lowdown on the effects of having a group of people that routinely break the otherwise strict feudal structure of the society. There are suggestions on how Jaconia and its different elements and hazards can be presented in the game, which include some observations I had never thought about, like the very Finnish portrayal of wilderness as a positive opposite to the cities in all Praedor fiction. There is interesting stuff about the social structures within the praedor community and how the pulp fantasy genre in general works out in the context of the game. Adventure seeds abound on almost every page and the scenario generator is excellent, especially with different tables for different themes.
Koponen has also dared to tackle the huge challenge of writing gamemaster instructions for running adventures in Borvaria, including a clever card-based system for generating locations and encounters during the play. Petri was never that interested in Borvaria, which is why it has been pretty much skipped over in most fiction and given such a light treatment in the roleplaying game itself. Efemeros #2 goes a long way in fixing that fault. I would have liked to have even more of it, like a building map or two plus some further evolution of the monster roster. But don't take this the wrong way.
"Kokemuksia Praedorista" (Experiences from Praedor) is the closing chapter. While my interest in some dude's exposition of his background in roleplaying games in general and Praedor in particular is largely academic, what follows is an article by the organizers of Kuolleen kukon majatalo about their series of Praedor-themed LARP games and arranging Praedor-themed events in general. It was interesting stuff and I hope the tradition will continue.
Then I turned the page and my jawbone fell clean off. My two favourite things in Jaconia are the Forest Folk and the untapped potential of the Isles of the Inner Sea in general. Koponen has written a 13-page article on the latter, in exquisite detail. Again, I am crying out for a better map but the text content is great! I have no idea if this is anything like what Petri had in mind but we have long since agreed that there is no such thing as canon and Efemeros #2 is not an official Praedor product anyway, so who gives a fuck? Myths, peoples, leaders and clues, major locations... it is all there. Except for a map. Damn it!
(There is actually a picture that looks like a reproduction of an actual medieval map but it is far too small to be of any real use).
There is nothing wrong with the following chapter but it just pales in comparison. The book finishes with a lighthearted epilogue written by a somewhat disgruntled (if still an eager) Praedor player. This was my favourite part:
"...Praedor on jääkiekon ja kännisten naapureiden kirveshipan ohella parasta väkivaltaviihdettä, mitä tässä maassa tuotetaan."
Looks like I did something right.
You have all guessed by now that I really, really liked this book. Efemeros #2: Ryövärien Maa is THE unofficial Praedor supplement and I would be hard pressed to write an official supplement to would match it. My expectations were low but it was not only interesting to read but also managed to rekindle my inspiration for Praedor RPG. Petri has not done anything new for the Praedor franchise in years and the hard adventuring has worn me out. I had already left Praedor behind by the time STALKER RPG came out but this...this... fresh perspective has made me reconsider. If only all unofficial supplements for old games would have the same effect.
...or "Synkkä yksinpuhelu". That's what Tuomas Pirinen called Elämäpeli in the review he wrote about it in the Roolipelaaja magazine. He also gives it four stars out of five and recommends it to anyone interested in games and the games industry. I am very pleased with the review, especially since Tuomas Pirinen is no stranger to game development himself. He is a game designer at EA and just as deep in the "industry" as I am (and with a bigger budget). The Roolipelaaja review is one of the big yardsticks I am watching out for. Jiituomas' blog is another since I know he is not going to give me any slack. I am still waiting to see if any of the major papers review the book. Helsingin Sanomat has usually been kind to me but all I can do for now is wait.
(If they have reviewed it already and I have missed it, please drop me a note)
Other than that, I am reading this issue of Roolipelaaja with mixed emotions. Two new Finnish roleplaying publishers are about be founded: Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Myrrysmiehet. Miska (Ironspine) is not dead either and says he hopes to publish a game per year from now on. Then there is this whole Nordic Roleplaying Society thing involving both Juhana and Mike. They've got two games out already! That's four active Finnish RPG publishers! Hmm... Arkkikivi. Five! My job here is done. The Finnish RPG industry has been revitalized and with a delightfully wide spectrum of themes, methodologies and genres, I might add. Now, if only the demand for new RPGs would have gone up as much.
I just delivered a batch of freshly printed Praedors to Fantasiapelit, so they are well-stocked for Ropecon (and beyond, unfortunately). Sadly the packaging documents had a wrong number of copies per box (or I just looked at the wrong paper in the print) so the delivery is still a few books short. Man, that was embarrassing! I have to lug the few missing books to Ropecon on Friday. Other than that, nothing big seems to be going down this week.
The next is a whole different story.
I have just returned from my week-long exile to Hyrynsalmi and it is only a week before the busiest time in the Summer for me, the Ropecon-Assembly week. This time I have no events in the Ropecon itself (I still have some chores to do beforehand) but there is more programme to watch than ever before. I will probably miss most of them because of interesting discussions at Keltsu or sunbathing if the weather is up for it. There is also a bunch of game release events but unfortunately none of them are mine.
Last year, when I did have something to talk about, the idiot organizers did not give me the Auditorium for the "Last Stalker Presentation Ever". Instead, they tried commit mass murder by having a few hundred people choke to death in Room 26. The auditorium had been given to Markus Montola for his presentation on Pervasive Games and he later apologized for it (not his fault but I guess he was still embarrassed by it). It was obvious from the start which one of our two events had more mass appeal but somehow this had eluded the programme planners. Faux Pas. It happens but don't make a habit of it.
Speaking of programme, lets look at the current chart for Ropecon 2009:
Ikuisuuden Laakso - release event (16-17, Auditorium)
Auditorium? I guess last year left just as lasting impression on them as it left on me (and other survivors from room 26). Anyway, Juhana's concept of a deep penguin RPG is such a wacky combination of absurdity and Old Skool that I try to leave early from work just to make it here in time.
ENOC - release event (17-18, Auditorium)
I can already feel those benches eating into my buttocks but I can't miss this one either. Miska has done what I attempted to do with the original Code/X. It is not plagiarizing: Nazi Occult (complete with zombies) is public domain and I never really did anything about it. Code/X is incomplete and looks like shit compared to ENOC.
Itran kaupunki - release event (21-22, Auditorium)
I want to see this one as well. Everything I've heard about it so far has lead me to believe it is a Norwegian version of Over The Edge, albeit less cool. I expect the Finnish release team to prove me wrong and want to be there when they do.
Yes, looks like they've finally figured out what the Auditorium is for. Finnish RPG writing and translation needs this kind of visibility and support from Ropecon, even when the mass appeal of the products might be unclear. This is and has always been one of the core purposes of the entire convention.
Historical assassinations (22-23, Klondyke)
Miska Fredman, up close & personal (Sat 12-13, Room 25)
Now this is interesting. What is even more interesting is that it competes with Mike's presentation on his television endeavours. I think I am going to find the audience of this event every bit as interesting as its subject...
Blood, Sweat & Tears (Sat 18-19, Klondyke)
Sami Koponen claims to know something about this thing. After two issues of Efemeros (the worst-named hobby publication in the history of Mankind) I am inclined to believe him. But we'll see. Tuovinen's Lumpley-presentation would be right after this one and it could be interesting but I won't risk it. I have a quota of one Forge-fanatic per day and Koponen just claimed the spot.
Creating Adventures (Sat 21-22, Auditorium)
That's what I do. Sometimes I consider myself pretty decent at it but there is definitely room for improvement.
Azeroth's Immersionists (Sat 23-01, Klondyke)
It is in the middle of the fucking night but this is something I dabble with in my dayjob (and will be dabbling with even more in the near future).
LARPing in the Middle Ages (Sun 11-13, room 26)
WTF? And I have to cut it short because of...
Silk Road: More than Camels and Caravans (Sun 12-13, Auditorium)
Silk Road is possibly the most interesting, exciting and inspiring thing that ever actually happened. I am so there!
CSI: Real Life Forensics (Sun 13-16, Auditorium)
Shit! Too much programme! But this would probably be quite interesting as well.
Of course, there is more to life than Ropecon. This guy in Roolipelaaja forums proposed a culture shift into computer-assistend roleplaying. I am deadset against it. I have nothing against the gamemaster having auxiliary programs to help him sort out content during the session or using computerized tools to prepare his adventures. But the actual play event, the interaction between the gamemaster and the players, is untouchable as far as I am concerned. Subjecting the play event to a computerized interface also imposes the limits of that interface on the play event, and more importantly, on the minds of the participants. Call me a luddite but I am not going to risk having roleplaying games lose the one definite edge they still have over videogames; absolute freedom. I have enough of that shit at work.
Finally, there's been a new review of my book Elämäpeli, this time by a non-gamer and a non-roleplayer who barely knows me. I am very happy with it but my happiness can be short-lived if Tuomas Pirinen rips the book to shreds in his Roolipelaaja review next week. And there are still more reviews to come, each of them a brand new opportunity for failure and melancholy. You'd think authors would develop a thicker skin over time but mine is still paper.
I have always been suspicious about rock bands using Kalevala as their theme and inspiration. However, with Skyforger, the heavy metal band Amorphis has shown not only that it can be done but also how it should be done. And if you don't care for heavy metal, just try reading the lyrics as poetry.
If I were on on the Finland Brand Team, I would send these guys on a mixed heavy metal festival/opera festival tour at government expense. I would also order anything ever designed by Alvar Aalto to be demolished with high explosives (and fireworks).
Long time no see but for the first half of the July there wasn't much to write about. Now there is.
Elämäpeli got into the shelves safe and sound and we already have one review up in the net. Jiituomas defied my expectations again and gave it four stars out of five and a well-written explanation on why he did it. I take it as a good omen but the jury is still out there. Roolipelaaja got its review copy yesterday and it will be reviewed by Tuomas Pirinen, just like the last time. They said the next issue would be out right before Ropecon, as usual. We'll know more by then.
I had already consigned Praedor RPG to the dustbins of history but Fantasiapelit suddenly ordered more of it; so much more, in fact, that another print run is coming out. The materials have been delivered to Yliopistopaino and I should see the draft tomorrow. If there is nothing funny about it, Fantasiapelit will get a fresh batch of 2009-stamped Praedors at the beginning of the Ropecon week. However, the price of paper has gone up quite a bit (over 60%, actually). This won't affect the price of Praedor but it will affect the retail price of Stalker RPG if I ever need another print run. I still have some at home so there is a buffer but after they are gone, the price will go up to 35 euros, just like the Praedor price tag. And if I ever write something else as big, we'll be looking at a price tag of 35 euros or more right from the start.
Blame the idiot businessmen who sank the Finnish forest industry. Paper is becoming a rare luxury import.
In videogame news, Blizzard announced that Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 won't have LAN-support for the fear of pirates. Not being much of a LAN-monster I am not directly affected but it has cost Blizzard quite a bit of goodwill even in my eyes. Until now, they seemed to be the company that did everything right and core gamers loved them for it. After this announcement that love affair is in a big trouble. If they also go ahead with their plans to make the current Battle.Net pay-per-play (as well as the compulsory Internect connection even for single player gaming), it is all over for me. I will be sorely tempted to buy Diablo 3 but might be too pissed off to actually do it.
In other retarded news, J.K. Rowling, among other authors, actors and celebrities, has to register into a government paedophile watch list if they want to continue make visits into British schools. I am proposing a blanket ban on having children since it seems that having them as a part of a free and sensible society is flat-out impossible. The problems associated with the integration of immigrants into the Western societies are absolutely peanuts compared to the integration of children into the same.
In better news, System Shock 1 has been made available again as System Shock Portable and since you won't be playing it on full screen it should not even look half bad. Area 51 is also being distributed freely (sponsored by the US Air Force, wtf?) and I even got my hands on the super-rare A.I. Wars The Awakening, although some might argue that my methods were somewhere in the grey area. Although I don't pirate games by principle, I will make an exception if there is no legal way to get it. In this case I found the website of the original developer and ordered this game (from 2001) from them, only to have the website disappear the next day. Fortunately they did not cash my credit card for it. If the legal holder of the rights shows up, I will pay him. So far, none have come forward. All of these games work just fine on my ancient laptop and I will be taking them with me wherever I go.
Now, before I head up north to relax and recuperate, there is one final thing...
P.S. DICE AND FLOW
Now that the discussion on the merits and flaws of diceless systems in general and FLOW in particular has died down, I can publish the diced conversion rules without really taking a stand on either side. Personally, I will probably use a combination of the diceless model and these rules when gamemastering Flow-based games from now on. After all, rolling dice can be a bit of a bother and should be applied only where dramatics, randomness, GM inspiration or player interest calls for it. That is a good guideline for any game, actually.
Basic Roll: 2D + Stat
If the player faces a challenge and the outcome is not immediately obvious, the default roll is 2D + the most logical stat. You want to lift something heavy? 2D + Body (Kunto). You get the picture. If the player has a relevant Ability (kyky) AND he roleplays his character in a way that brings it out in the circumstances, roll 3D and pick the two highest-scoring dice.
A roll of "2" is always a failure and usually a rather drastic one at that. A roll of 12 is just a roll of 12, unless the player did have a relevant ability. Then it becomes a "stroke of luck that saves the day".
FLOW has effectively a six-step difficulty scale. Converted into roll limits, this is how they would map out:
Really good ideas by the player reduce the task difficulty by one step. This is how Superhuman tasks get done. However, if the ideas are out of line with the character he is roleplaying, he risks losing the potential extra dice from having the right ability.
As a rule of thumb, if the player has a good idea and the odds of making the roll are 50% or more (either when adjusted or to begin with), the idea should work just fine out without rolling the dice. Of course, the dice can still be rolled to figure out the exact effects or the "colour of success".
Roleplaying is rewarded with the ability die. If the player roleplays his character right, the extra die is there. Otherwise it is not and gamemasters should be fairly strict about it. There is no real reward for really good roleplaying, although the gamemaster might allow some more unorthodox choices of ability if the character is otherwise untrained for the task at hand.
Success and Failure
Reaching or exceeding the difficulty treshold means the task was successful. Naturally, the better the margin, the better the success. As a rule of thumb, for every additional difficulty treshold cleared, something extra good happens.
The player attempts a Challenging (7+) task and rolls 12. This is two levels above the requirement so he succeeds in whatever he is doing with two extra benefits. If he was welding a car frame back together, he not only succeeded but did it in half the time and so well that the next time the frame breaks it will be anywhere else but where the weld is.
Rolling less than the treshold means the task was not complete BUT if the result was still good enough for the next easier difficulty step, the attempt was a partial success and could perhaps be salvaged into a full success with more rolls, extra materials, new helpers or fresh ideas.
The odds of a partial success in most things are quite good. Gamemasters can use them to create dramatic situations or mini-scenarios. For example, you fall off the roof but are left hanging from a flagpole. You fail to fix the engine but discover that you could do it with a new distributor, so the next task is not tinkering with engines but looking around for another car to salvage it from.
Just like in the FLOW rules, you can also buy a success by expending a Stat point. This is an extra effort, a stroke of luck or a kind of sacrifice to make things work. The price is both mental and physical, as the reduced stat will not be restored until the next session (or otherwise a suitably dramatic temporal transition or regenerative event; e.g. Frodo in Rivendell). Stroke of luck only buys you the basic success, although usually in a very unorthodox manner.
You can't fix the engine and in frustration hit it with a wrench. You get a jolt from the car battery but the shock also bypasses a block in the wiring and starts the engine up. Congratulations, problem solved! Except that your arm hurts like hell and since nothing was really fixed you are screwed if the engine shuts down again.
FLOW does not have combat, it has confrontations. And as for round-to-round combat, forget it. As before, you state your objective for the battle and the gamemaster figures out the difficulty of beating your opponent. The difficulty depends on relative enemy toughness and nudged and up and down for everything that clearly nudges the odds one way or the other. One major difference is how well the weapons used by different parties are suited to the occasion; this is a much more crucial difference between various weapon types than calibers or relative damages would be. Finally, all the effects of good ideas and roleplayed abilities apply. Odds are described in detail in STALKER but this is the basic logic:
Enemies are bunch of special forces soldiers. They are typically hard to beat so their basic toughness is "Very Difficult" (11). There is more of them than there are player characters, so the treshold is now 13. However, the characters know they are coming and have good cover (back to 11). Also, the players have bullet-proof stalker suits that in theory should withstand the impact of a 9mm round fired by the submachineguns the attackers are wielding. The attackers have protective vests too but the AKSU-assault rifles used by the characters go through them like hot knife through butter. That takes the difficulty down to 9 because the characters can take more risks than the enemy.
When the odds are figured out, all players make their roll. Those who make their roll succeed in their stated goal to the extent it is possible. If they succeed with a wide margin, extra benefits convert to extra hits.
Those who fail the roll, fail to achieve their stated objective and are struck by enemy fire/attack. There is no round-to-round resolution here, no initiatives, no rates of fire, no nothing. Usually everybody needs to reload after a confrontation check but there is no sensible way to keep track of ammo expenditure.
The enemies attempt to tie down the characters with a frontal feint, while sending half of them to outflank the characters' position. Player with the stated objective of first keeping the bad guys at bay and then taking opportunity shots at unwary foes rolls 11. He spots the group attempting to outflank him and sends them packing with vicious suppressive fire (primary success). Luck or skill, his hail of fire also catches one of the foes in the side and he goes down (secondary goal). Dead or wounded, it does not really matter; the enemy is out of the fight and his retreating buddies have to drag him back. The flanking maneouver did not work, so for the next confrontation also the bad guys need a new game plan.
If the player's primary objective would have been to just kill the enemy with carefully aimed fire, he would have targeted the frontal feint attack and gunned down two enemies (as both primary and secondary goals were the same). However, he probably would have missed the flanking maneouver and the next confrontation would have been hellish because the players would have effectively lost their cover and been surprised. So be very careful about what you set as your objective.
Oh yes, roll for damage, then for the hit location, then for the critical effect and finally shock... forget it! If the character is hit but has Body (Kunto) points left, he can expend one of those and it becomes a flesh wound. Sure, it affects his rolls in the Body ability category but other than that he can tough it out. Head, neck, shoulder, we don't really care. If he was hit with a nuclear missile, maybe he got a cut from the tail fin while the missile as a whole failed to detonate and went on its merry way.
If he is out of Body points, he takes a solid hit from whatever he was hit with. The immediate effect of this is that he is no longer an active participant in this battle. The long term effects are up to the gamemaster. There is a fairly good description of the kind of damages different things do in Stalker but again, as a rule of thumb, you can crawl around and scream with agony, but without medical help you will probably die before long. If treated, it takes you about a week before you are mobile in any real sense of the word and about a month before you are fully healed.
Hit by submachinegun fire, a player character goes down. Gamemaster decides that he was hit by a burst of fire cutting across his upper thigh and into the torso. Up there the bullets were checked by the vest and just broke two of his ribs but there is a really nasty hole in his abdomen and the hip bone is fractured. The hit in the upper thigh looks nasty but the big muscles took the brunt of the impact. First aid by a team mate stops the bleeding and enables them to carry him off to a clandestine hospital in the Border Region. Here, a quack of a surgeon pulls the two bullets out, puts a stiff bandage around the abdomen and a less impressive bind around the thigh. However, the player is effectively immobilized from waist down and has to be carried, preferably on a stretcher.
After a week or so, he can hobble around with a pair walking sticks for short distances. Hurts like hell and any major exertion will probably cause intense pain and add another week of immobility because of refracturing. His buddies drive him to Monte Carlo where he can rest and recuperate in a mafia-owned hotel. One month after the incident he is back in Toulouse. The leg is still stiff and gets sore easily but it is nothing that painkillers and a bottle of cognac can't handle. He is good to go and after another month it is all just a painful memory. Of course, healing artifacts can change everything.
Those of you who have been paying attention to my work will probably notice more than passing similarities between these rules here and Code/X. This is true as Code/X was always my inspiration for FLOW as a whole. These rules are a compromise between the two and frankly, I like these rules better than Code/X vanilla. I am getting too old to believe in gun porn, like the relative damages from different weapons. Weapons that fit the situation best are always the deadliest ones. I don't care if you are packing .50 Barrett when we go face-to-face in the dark confines of some abandoned basement. If I have so much as a knife, you're fucked.
To the delight of everybody (with the possible exception of Jiituomas who was not too enamored with its predecessor), Elämäpeli is now officially published and will hit the shelves in Finncon. I just grabbed my box of author's copies from the mail and my first reaction was: "Woah! Pink!"
I'm not kidding. The printers have turned the wine-coloured covers of the proofreading PDF into hot pink, giving the book a look that reminds me one of those "how to draw manga" -manuals for girls. That said, greater understanding and awareness of the games industry among the fairer sex might be just what the doctor ordered and I applaud BTJ for its non-prejudiced approach to graphical design. And at least no one can argue that I would be a conservative author. And the colour of the book matches with my mobile phone.
Since it is so hard to define what this book is all about, let's just take a look at the chapters:
0. Esipuhe (Foreword) was written, paragraph by paragraph, throughout the whole process. It was originally longer but pieces of it have been moved to more appropriate chapters.
1. Unelmien Ammattilaiset (Professionals of Dreams) is like a second foreword, my personal take on what it is like to be a games industry worker.
2. Seikkailutehtaat (Adventure Factories) is a brief rundown of the game developement industry and related markets for the uninitiated. Not much new stuff here if you have read your Pelintekijän käsikirja thoroughly, although since it is more about personal experiences the tone is occasionally bitter. We've all been manhandled by the realities of the games market, one way or another.
3. Etsimässä rehellistä työtä (Looking for an Honest Job) is a bizarre stroll through the work cultures and the scene culture of those parts of the Finnish games industry I am familiar with.
4. Pelaajan valta (Player Power), me and the rest of us in pursuit of that elusive and utterly incomprehensible creature, the player. For some reason the chapter numbering is bugged, jumping from 3 to 5. Somebody should have picked that up. Oh well...
5. Luovuus ja liukuhihna (Creativity and the Conveyor Belt) tells about high-flying design and the economic realities that have burned my wings off.
6. Leikkivä ihminen (Playful Human, or homo ludens) is about the drives and instincts that make me play, how I first got the bug and what I still get out of it. The implication here is that what applies to me might also apply to the gamer demographic at large.
7. Aivot ovat kiinni selkäytimessä (Brains are attached to the Spinal Column) is about recognizing and leveraging the instincts and urges. If chapter 6 was about Ville the Gamer and why he likes to play games, chapter 7 is about Ville the Designer conspiring to hook Ville the Gamer through his conscious and subconscious urges, desires and weaknesses. Game violence is discussed here. I am very surprised if somebody does not take offence.
8. Oi jospa sinne satumaahan kerran käydä vois (old pop-schlager where the vocalist wants to escape into a fairy tale land), or the pursuit of immersion in games, through storylines, simulated features and the like. Personal experiences, stupid ideas and disturbing trends.
9. Pelihylly (Game Shelf), the epilogue.What was I playing while I wrote this book? What did I think of those games?
The backcover is a marked improvement over the bloated hype-piece they had in Pelintekijän käsikirja but it still feels kind of grandiouse:
Ville "Burger" Vuorela (s.1970<wtf?>) on ollut Suomen roolipeliskenen keskeinen tekijä parinkymmenen vuoden ajan. Hän on kirjoittanut viisi roolipelikirjaa, yhden romaanin ja Pelintekijän käsikirjan.
Thank you very much but still, I was born in 1973, not 1970. And while most people are going to take that part about me being a pivotal figure in the Finnish RPG scene at a face value, I suspect some people I know might have nuanced opinions about it. Or at least the 20 years mentioned here because I don't recall having made much of an impact back in 1989. Still, I'll take honest mistakes over unsubstantiated hype any time.
There you have it. Elämäpeli, 150 pages of thrills, spills, triumphs and failures. Fan fiction from Elite, Frontlines, Neocron, WoW and possibly something else I've just forgotten. All mine and by me. I never claimed to be a neutral observer. Some people (you can guess who you are) already have books in the mail. For the rest of you, Elämäpeli will be available for sale at Finncon at a special campaign price which I do not know at the moment. The regular price seems to be 38 euros if the BTJ website is to believed. Woah. I guess I have really been underpricing my roleplaying games.
Whew! Looks like light at the end of the tunnel. I guess I can chalk this sickness up as yet another postcard from Death. I am still coughing but it is mostly dry cough and frequency is dropping and apart from being tired from lack of sleep I am doing fairly well and slowly starting to pay attention to my surroundings. While I have been ill, three things have happened: First, Fantasiapelit wants more Praedor and this means ordering another print run of the game. I am not touching the printing company that made the last batch with a ten-foot pole anymore but Yliopistopaino, who did such an excellent job on Stalker, has yet to reply to my request for a cost estimate. I don't know what the hold-up is but I will try to get another batch ready for Ropecon. With the new print-run and the already agreed sales, Praedor total sales would be approaching 900. It is wishful thinking but I am quietly hoping that the game would surpass the watermark of 1000 sales before the trend dies out. In any case, I am waiting to hear from them and until that happens things are not going to move forward.
However, the trend does not look exactly dead right now. The next Efemeros-magazine by Koponen will be dedicated almost completely to Praedor RPG in a desperate effort to actually find some readers for it. And Kuolleen Kukon Majatalo LARP will be arranged also this year and they've made a cool banner for it, which you can see just beneath my faithful portrait on top of this page. They score bonus points for setting the larp locale into the southern woods and amidst the Forest Folk. As those of you who have read Vanha Koira might have guessed, of all the barbarians in Jaconia, the Forest Folk are my absolute favourite.
The third piece of news is that my publisher, BTJ Finland, has announced that Elämäpeli will come out early next month (July) and will be available at Finncon. The publishing chief also asked me for journalists to send review copies to. So if you have any in mind, let me know. I can't even begin to imagine what the reaction to Elämäpeli will be like. Of course, the vast majority won't acknowledge its existence but I am also a little worried about those who do. Quite frankly, to my knowledge nothing like this has ever been written within or without the industry, although some bloggers get pretty close. Game industry books are always manuals for doing something or the other, or historical analyses of games technology, media or marketing. There are no game developer biographies or "journeys on the seas of gaming" type of works out there that I would know of. If this is really so, it is kind of funny that I would be the first to write one, as opposed to Warren Spector, any of the Japanese greats, or even one the Finnish industry vets from the early 90ies.
Guess what? I have what the doctor calls "an unspecified bacterial pulmonary inflammation", which loosely translates to "looks and feels like segmented pneumonia by symptoms and bloodtest but we don't know because we did not x-ray the lungs and it would not affect the choice of medication if we did". I was so bloody careful all through the winter to avoid lung problems and then I catch this fucking thing in June? Statistically, I am a sickly thing and have health complications far too often for comfort. In any other time and setting I would have copped it years ago but thankfully the western medicine is good enough to drag me through one health crisis after another. My poor state of health is also causing concern in my circle of friends and relatives. It also complicates matters for my employers. I try to make for it by working on home and trying to come up with cool new shit. Nabbing the Nordic Game Fund grant went a long way for that but frankly, I am a bit more of a risk than I would like to be.
This shit is getting worse as I grow older and I think my lungs will get to me before my obesity and related problems ever will (I have a surprisingly low blood pressure for someone as fat as me).
In the meantime, the world moves on. The K30 party thrown by game studios holed up in Kalevankatu 30 was the best game industry event I've attended in Finland, complete with all the gossip and backroom deals that go with them. But I had to leave when drunk Recoillers started telling me how they loved my stories and buying me vodka. I wonder how the story design in Earth No More is coming along these days? Then again, even if I had solid information I probably would not be able to tell you. And just when I was writing this, my publisher emailed me. Elämäpeli will come out of the printers at the beginning July and the first launch is aimed at Finncon. Although Finncon is undoubtedly a good place to fire it off, Summer is generally bad for book sales. Factbooks are not as heavily affected by it as fiction but since Elämäpeli falls somewhere in between... it is difficult to say what will happen. Upon its success depend my coming works on BTJ. There is some new stuff in the works I would like to write about, actually, but I am too jaded to do it without a publisher. I will tell you more about when certain issues are cleared, done and out of the way.
On a less positive note, I am feeling completely apathetic towards the rapidly approaching Ropecon. I was going to run two sessions there, at least one of them of Stalker but the Fastaval incident killed my interest (the blog entry was later removed as it referred to a discussion on what was technically speaking a closed mailing list). This is the price of being Old Skool. There are some new trends and practises I don't agree with but people who do make more noise, so that makes me the niche. I used to be proud of never having paid myself into Ropecon but now I just don't care. Maybe I am finally starting to lose interest in roleplaying games and all the bloody baggage that comes with it when you stick out of the crowd. Hell, I've been at it for 26 years. Burger Games is 12 years old. Praedor RPG is fast approaching 9.
Maybe I have outstayed my welcome. Then again, maybe the feeling of having my lungs rot their way right out my ribcage has contributed to this melancholy.
Talking about games, I just finished F.E.A.R. 2 a few days ago and for the life of me, I can't understand people who claim to play through something like this in 8 hours. It must have taken me 20 hours to finish the damn thing! Either I suck so badly it borders on apocalyptic, or nobody else does any exploring in these games.
I thought the industry had pretty much moved past straight shooters in major AAA releases by now. Modern games tend to be more elaborate, have more features (which often boil down to gimmicks) and try so hard to stand out from the straight-shooter crowd that the crowd itself has pretty much disappeared. As a straight shooter, F.E.A.R. 2 has been criticized for being a simplistic and narrowly focused throwback to the earlier days of action gaming. But even though it does one thing and one thing only, it does it really, really well. The very act of shooting things, most of which are shooting back, has never been this much fun. In my books, F.E.A.R. 2 gets bonuses for knowing what it wants and polishing it to a diamond shine so that none of its more modern and elaborate competitors can even begin to touch it on its key strength. On the whole, with the story, level design and all that crap, I rate it 8+, a pretty good action experience that I will definitely want to repeat. On the shooting part, the grade is "the best I could have imagined possible and then some". Let's make it 10+, shall we?
I would also like to say something about the power armour sequences in F.E.A.R. 2. They are not as much a plot or a gameplay element as they are a customer service feature. My guess is that the developers at Monolith realised that the intensity of the combat is such that players will succumb to battle fatigue and post-traumatic stress. If they did not do something, F.E.A.R. 2 would leave behind scores of mute virtual warfare veterans with thousand yard stares and an inconvenient tendency to flip over tables and desks at any given moment. So they invented a minigame, a virtual stress ball, where you faced all the bad guys that had manhandled and abused you throughout the previous levels with the difference that this time you are a walking tank and they have nowhere to hide. I don't think I have ever experienced such a visceral sensation of firepower in games before. These things look and feel suitably massive and the torrent of hot lead they sweep the streets with is a religious experience.
Take that, you ugly motherfuckers! Eat lead, you masked freaks! Who's crying now, bitch? Oh! Your momma's gonna feel that one! Sorry, I mistook you for a STAIN on the asphalt! Reinforcements, huh? Bring it on! I've got a bag of candy and I wanna to share!
Don't think I didn't like the storyline even if I rated the whole game as 8+. It may be simple, straightforward and predictable, but it is also stylish (downright classy compared to the standard FPS story fare), builds atmosphere nicely, does not steal the spotlight from the action and helps to generate some very memorable scenes. My personal favourites are the city scenes, first with burned human figures reminiscent of Pompey and later with ghostly apparitions of people who got caught in Alma's telesthetic blast but seem mentally unable to die. I really liked the mixing of supernatural and the pseudo-science of ESP, as well as the whole concept of Alma. But it all makes the idea that this whole incident was just a another supersoldier project gone haywire (a relatively common occurrence in videogames) downright banal.
While I've been away in Netherlands, the neighbouring country of Germany has, once again, achieved a critical mass of stupidity and the resulting explosion in idiotic policies will be the buzz of the games industry this summer. Since Germans in positions of leadership are inherently unable to process their social problems and have to find scapegoats instead (you know, the Jews, the French, the British, the Russians, the multi-party system and subversive literature), they have now decided that because of the two recent school shootings, a total ban of violent videogames should be imposed. Old news, yes, but the new wrinkle is that the law now appears likely to pass sometime this summer.
Germany has always banned the sale of violent videogames, typically defined by R- or M-rating but sometimes anmy ratings as they have their own ultra-conservative board of censors to process them. So on the streets, nothing would change since Germans have been buying or downloading their games from abroad for ages. For the games industry it is a different story, as the economic giant of Europe is home to many successful game development studios (which , ironically, have been unable to sell their products in their home country). Since the development of said games (we are still waiting for the exact criteria of a violent videogame here) would be criminalized, they would have to shift or outsource all game development activities outside the borders of Germany. In some cases this means that business development and marketing could remain in Germany but in most most cases they would have relocate to their (in most cases) to their already existing foreign and overseas offices.
The news article I linked above cites a number of game franchises which could be endangered because of this law. I don't really buy that because the said franchises are such money-making machines that even if this law was applied to the whole world the development would continue in a hidden cave somewhere in Antarctica.
Videogames are the second biggest branch of media industry and it is also highly resistant to sudden swings in the overall economy. Given the success of many German studios we are talking about tens or hundreds of millions in lost taxes and such for the German government but apparently their government has decided that their economy is strong enough to do without and their IT sector smart enough to ignore the inevitable brain drain that will follow.
Or they could be just be idiots.
So why am I not worried about the effects of violent games on children? Because these games are not for children. The average consumer is a 30+ highly-educated male with an above average income. Also, these games are properly rated and labelled to keep them out of underage hands and after all this buzz it is laughable for anyone to claim that they did not know about the age ratings. So when I get to read something like this:
...my reaction is somewhat like this:
Kun lapsi pelaa päivittäin useiden tuntien ajan väkivaltaisia tietokonepelejä, voidaan perustellusti miettiä pitäisikö hänet ottaa huostaan ja hänen vanhempansa kastroida enempien lapsien estämiseksi koska he ovat selvästi aivan helvetin tyhmiä.