Thursday, August 27, 2015

Velour Thursdays: The Ship Rules, Version 1

Every time I try to design a role-playing game, there's always a section of the rules that gives me agita.  In no particular order:

Fantasy:  Magic
Horror:  Sanity
Modern:  Finances and Income

Velour and Go-Go Boots is unique for games that I have designed in that it comes with two rules sections that stress me out. The first section explains how the captain (and, to a lesser extent, the other command ranks) work aboard ship. That particular section has been rewritten many times and, as of this writing, may be doomed to be rewritten at least once more. I'm sure I'll wind up talking about all that--as well as perhaps sneakily soliciting ideas from the community at large--in a future installment.

The second section, whose identity has likely been spoiled by the title of this post, has to do with ships.

As anyone who has seen any iteration of Star Trek knows, ships are kind of a huge deal.  The ship of any given series (usually, but not always, the Enterprise) is both a setting and character in its own right.  According to my garbled notes, which I will paraphrase here, I knew that I needed to make the players' ship central to the game and also figure out a way to make them feel a certain amount of attachment to it. 

Shining a spotlight on the ship was relatively easy, but making the players feel invested in their particular ship was significantly more difficult.  The rules governing that didn't really come into their own until the second draft of the game.  But that's another story and, as you might guess from seeing the big old "Version 1" up there in title, will be told another time. 

The big reason for the lack of player-ship attachment in the first version of the rules is because, though I started prancing down the Road of Good Design Intentions, I almost immediately tripped and fell face first into the Bog of Unnecessary Mechanics.

I have a modest collection of older role-playing games.  One thing that seems to be fairly common to many of them (and one of the things that has probably been unconsciously drilled into my tiny brain) is that vehicle rules are inordinately complicated.  If an older game has both vehicle rules and unarmed fighting rules, it's kind of a toss-up between which system will be more difficult.

It also didn't help that my train of thought was going a little bit like this:

  • The players' ship will mean more to them if they can customize it.
  • Customization requires a lot of options.
  • A lot of options requires a lot of rules.
  • A lot of options also requires a lot of choices.
  • I played Star Fleet Battles once. Maybe I should do something like that.
Before long, I had a huge pile of tables, numbers, systems, sub-systems, and so on, but not much else to show for it but several very disorganized Word and Excel documents and a throbbing pain between my eyes.

Unsure of what to do with my unruly pile of stuff, I got my friend Bob Dunham on the horn (and by horn, I mean gchat).  I explained the problem to Bob and was about to inflict all of my notes on him when he said the following (All of this is heavily paraphrased.  Don't sue me, Bob):

BOB:  You don't need to waste your time with all those numbers.  On the show, the ship is mostly an abstraction, anyway.  It's a TV set that flies through space.  Pretty much everything about it is handwaved.  How fast does it go?  As fast as the plot needs it to go.  How much damage can the shields take before they go down?  I don't know.  Whatever's most dramatic, I guess.  Just think of it like that.  Don't worry about the numbers.

I liked that advice, in no small part because it seemed like it would be a lot less work.  I started over again, rebuilding the ship rules with Bob's more abstract method in mind.  The new system worked okay, but it had a number of inherent limitations: It didn't account for different types of ships, shields were sort of incorporated into overall ship integrity instead of being a separate system in their own right, and there were a hell of a lot of tables.

That said, I did have a few interesting ideas that I wouldn't mind letting Future Geoff cannibalize for other games.  Here's a quick walkthrough for the rules-inclined among you:

All ships have a Threat Rating.  The default is Threat 0.  Weaker ships (or ships that were already damaged), start with a higher Threat.

An enemy ship fires at you.  Pew pew pew!  If their weapons hit your ship, your ship takes damage based on how high its Threat is.  Ships with low Threat will shake ominously.  Ships with moderate Threat will have people thrown from side to side while instrument panels explode in showers of sparks.  Ships with high Threat will have catastrophic system failure, hull breaches, and similar.  Whenever a ship takes damage, its Threat Rating increases.

It was clunky, but it mimicked the space battles I had seen on various iterations of Star Trek to a reasonable degree.  All ships tended to start out on relatively even footing, taking increasingly (And dramatically) severe damage as the battle wore on.  By the end, all of the ships would be covered with burn marks, limping around in space on their backup engines, and forced to choose between keeping their life support or their weapons systems online.

It helped that every time I ran a combat simulation between two starships, the battles ended pretty much like the description I gave in the preceding paragraph. 

"Your engines are offline!" 

"Yeah, well your weapons systems are offline." 

"No big deal, I'm going to fly up next to you, roll down the transparent aluminum windows, and throw rocks at you!"


The new system (Version 2) manages to keep all of the above while removing the bulky tables and adding in some crucial ship customization rules.  But this post has already gone on quite long enough, so I'll talk more about that some other time.

See you next week, when I talk about Occupations and lead into the discussion of my other favorite rules system.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Velour Thursdays (+1): Initial Design Notes

Okay, I got a little side-tracked yesterday.  Sorry about that.  I'm just gonna hop back up into the saddle and pretend that today is also Thursday.  Yee haw!

When it comes to game rules, there are a lot of avenues for the budding young game designer with a song in his heart and an idea in his head.  He could take an existing system and tweak it to suit his purposes.  In the mid-twenty-teens, such systems as Fate and Apocalypse World come readily to both mind and hand, though there are numerous other systems out there that would also fit the bill. Or, because he must do every damn thing in the hardest, most ass-backward way possible, the aforementioned game designer can just go ahead and build his own system from the ground up.

Yeah, I opted for the second one.

This is despite the fact that I'm kind of not very good when it comes to crafting the mechanical underpinnings of game systems.  Oh, sure, I can make a tweak here or suggest an interesting rule idea to an established system there, but give me a whole sandbox to play in and some numbers to crunch and I will either design a game that looks an awful lot like something else (as evidenced by my early attempts at a fantasy role-playing game), or I will design a nightmarish amalgamation of overcomplex rules and creaky supports that collapses the first time someone tries to roll dice.

I think it's because I'm not very good at math?

My first pass at the rules system was kind of a disaster, so much so that it's not even worth discussing it.  If you wish, feel free to imagine me alternating between scrawling figures on an old-timey desktop blotter and playing around with a slide rule before chucking everything, including my green accountant's eye shade, into the nearest wastebasket.

For my second pass, I decided to let the show do a lot of the heavy lifting for me.  I began watching each episode with a notebook and a pen close to hand, taking notes any time one of the following two things happened:

  • The show revealed something about how the Star Trek universe works.
  • The characters revealed how they reacted to and dealt with problems in that universe.

The plan was to make a system that, both consciously and unconsciously, encouraged the players to behave as if they were in a Star Trek episode and be rewarded for doing so.  That's a tall order, and the second rules set I made...wound up not doing this very well at all.  This necessitated a complete redesign which so far hasn't, according to another nerdy classic, "burned down, fallen over, and sunk into the swamp!"

By the end of the second season, I had accumulated quite a laundry list of notes, as well as briefly entertained the idea of doing a spin-off version of the rules based on the adventures of Gary Seven. (And I still might; who knows?)  I have transcribed a few of the notes here, as well as some implementation ideas, for your edification and amusement.

EQUIPMENT:  Not very much in the way of gear.  Most away teams have basic gear common to all (communicator, phaser, etc.).  Science officers get their tricorders, so we'll need an analogue for that. Medical kit for doctors.  Tool kit to round things out.  What else? Translator, disguises for the away team (with convenient hats or headbands for alien crew), found/scavenged gear on missions, space suits.  Oh!  Maybe make a deck of item cards, since there's not that many items.  Emulate losing or destroying items on missions by forcing player to discard appropriate cards.

FIGHTING:  Fights in ST seem to be lethally quick, aside from protracted/ dramatic battles between Kirk and whoever. Usually one or two hit KOs.  Few hit points (if we're going to have hit points), unless the opponent is really tough.  Most of the faceless mooks probably can take one hit before dropping unconscious. Addendum:  Kirk's shirt gets torn up a lot.  Maybe it's his very own version of the umbrella from Kung Fu Fighting--he can sacrifice it to avoid taking damage. Okay. That's definitely going in the game somehow.

SKILLS:  It doesn't seem like there's too many skills (I mean, we could have Astrogation, etc. etc., but it almost seems better and more fitting with the show to have "Fly Ships.")  It also seems like there's a lot of overlap.  Maybe because of basic training?  Kirk, for instance, knows a lot about science (MacGyvered cannon to fight the Gorn, geology stuff in Horta ep.).  Spock knows more, of course.  Maybe your assignment aboard ship gives you a bonus?  Hmm...

RAYGUN:  It's an all-purpose weapon.  Number of shots is extremely hand-wavey, but they do have battery packs, so they run out of juice at some point.  Stun, kill settings, obviously.  Turn them into bombs!  Oh, and you can heat up rocks, melt doors (maybe heavier rifle does that), and make coffee (thanks,Yeoman Rand)!

SAMPLE CHARACTER IDEA:  Would like to re-imagine Yeoman Rand as a bad-ass.  Found out that Rand is Middle English for "shield."  Maybe have another "shield" name.  Janice Shields? Janine Shields?  Oh, and she could be a tough security officer who wears pants!  

SHIP:  Oh man.  The ship is going to kind of be a big deal.  How are we going to do this?

How indeed?  The mysteries of how I got ships to work in Velour and Go-Go Boots (and the first instance of Bob Dunham Doing a Cool Thing) will be revealed in next week's episode.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Writing Tuesdays: Explaining Dialogue to My Uncle

HB:  Writing Tuesdays?
FB:  Yes.  Is that a problem?
HB:  Well, I was just thinking, you know, how much we like alliteration...
FB:  And you want it to be Writing Wednesdays.
HB:  Uh huh!
FB:  That means back-to-back posts on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
HB:  So?
FB:  We're lazy.
HB:  Aw!

My uncle has come to writing in his sixties after living a life of thrill-seeking adventure.  He is a camper, hiker, fisherman, hunter, explorer, former Marine, former Army Reservist, former police officer, former insurance adjuster, and contributor of at least two of the many boots on the ground featured in such military exploits as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

His first book just so happens to be about the last thing in the very long list above.  It is called In Spite of It All and it details the often-times Sisyphian ordeal of the 143rd Military Police Company of the Connecticut National Guard as they attempted to both survive and do their job in Baghdad from 2003-2004.  The publication of the book has been delayed due to legal issues (one of the perils of telling a true story), but you can keep tabs on the process over here, if you're so inclined.

While waiting for the red tape around his first book to be snipped away, my uncle has started writing his second book.  Book number two is a work of fiction, which features a young police officer squaring off against a criminal who is gaming the legal system so that he can avoid capture.

One of the issues he's running into is how to write dialogue.  His first book, being a work of non-fiction, didn't have any.  His second book, being fiction, has characters talking to one another about things like breaking cases and sweating perps, in the vein of all good detective stories.  Now that his characters are talking to one another, my uncle has begun wrestling with dialogue.

The issue, as my uncle discovered, is that dialogue is tricky to write well.  Being unsure of how to tackle the dialogue in his work, he decided to send an email off to his shiftless layabout of a nephew, whose one redeeming quality is that he puts words on paper occasionally.  I am that nephew (spoilers), and his question to me sounded almost exactly like this:

"When I am writing a conversation between two people, do I need to identify the speaker in each paragraph?  (Dan said, then Bill replied, then Dan remarked, etc.)"

I tried to answer his question as simply as possible and, since the answer also could potentially do double-duty as a blog post, that meant that I could just cut and paste into Blogger and not have to do nearly as much writing this week.  Ha ha!

This is what I told him:

Not always.
First of all, you should use "said" as often as you can.  "Said" is an invisible word.  There's almost no way you can use it too often. Stuff like "remarked" "replied" "countered" and so on are extremely noticeable to the reader, and should be used sparingly.
If there's just two people speaking, you can go for stretches where you don't have to use dialogue tags (that's the "Bill said" stuff).  So you can just have alternating dialogue.
However, if you do that, you should probably break it up with the occasional dialogue tag, so that the reader doesn't get confused as to who is speaking.  You may also want to break it up by giving a description of what the people are doing, or of other things going on in the environment, so that you don't get the "two disembodied voices talking in a white room" phenomenon.

And, because I'm a writer and I show and don't tell (because they drum that into your head with the Showing Stick the first week of writing boot camp), I decided to round things off with the following utterly ridiculous example:

"Hey, Dan," said Bill.  "What's with all the quacking?"
"Trying to get all my ducks in a row," said Dan.  "They're pretty feisty, so it's taking a while."
"I'd imagine."
"Yeah. I keep trying to coax them into standing still, but they get bored and start wandering around before they're all in a row."
"That's a problem."
Dan scratched his head as one of the headstrong waterfowl took an ungainly dive off the table.  "I'm not sure what to do."
"I hate to suggest this," said Bill, rubbing his chin.  "But have you tried tape?"
"Duck tape?"
"That's the worst pun I've ever heard, Bill.  You're fired!"

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Velour Thursdays: How We Came to Be Here

I am dusting off this dormant blog in the hopes of using it to promote my latest pie-in-the-sky venture.  That venture is Velour and Go-Go Boots, my science-fiction role-playing game that is inspired by Star Trek.  To be completely accurate, you can replace, "is inspired by" with "completely rips off (please don't sue me, Paramount)."  In the spirit of additional accuracy, I will now tell you that the game is based mostly on the original series, though there are frequent nods to Next Gen.

I'm going to try to post things about Velour and Go-Go Boots every Thursday for the foreseeable future, possibly up until the game's release sometime in 2016.  I'll probably use this space to talk about design decisions, game features, and examples of play.  I will also probably talk up my good friend Bob Dunham, who helped me to tear down and rebuild the game when it really needed it, and to plug my wonderful artist, Vanessa Walsh.

Seriously, take a moment to look at her body of work.  It is amazing.

While I'm telling you about all of those things, I will also be kicking myself for not having the necessary prescience to come up with a game name that shares a letter with one of the days of the week. Because having alliterative titles for things is fun, and also because it assuages my OCD.  The closest I could manage was Velour Wednesdays, but a) that name made it seem like I was trying too hard and b) I was tired yesterday and didn't write anything.

Anyway, now that the preamble is out of the way, we can proceed to the meat of this post.


When I was a young lad of nine or so, I was laid low for a week by some disease or other.  I don't remember all that much about it, because I was sick, but I do distinctly recall my parents bringing one of our chaise lawn chairs into the living room so that I could sit in it and comfortably watch TV.  My illness just happened to coincide with a Star Trek marathon, so I wound up sitting there for hours and hours watching the amazing adventures of Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the gang.

For this reason, Star Trek has always had a warm spot in my heart, but I didn't consider myself a "fan" in the completely obsessed, fully-devoted sense until recently.  I watched episodes when they were on TV and I was in the room.  I was conversant enough to talk about tribbles and transporters and the whole bit, but I've only seen a tiny percentage of the shows (though I am slowly rectifying that), I've never read any of the books, and I don't speak Klingon.

I believe the gamer term for what I am is "filthy casual."

Anyway, all that started to change when the Fire Nation attacked when I wound up becoming unhealthily obsessed with Red Letter Media's oeuvre in general and with the Plinkett reviews in specific. For those who don't know, Harry Plinkett (a character voiced by Mike Stoklasa) is a dangerously insane old man who dissects popular movies (most famously the Star Wars prequels) with the incisive analysis of a film scholar.  While portions of his reviews are extremely dark and can be problematic, Mike's/Plinkett's insights into film are top notch.

I burned through all three of the Star Wars prequel reviews in rapid succession and found myself hungering for more.  Luckily, there was more!  I discovered that Plinkett had done reviews for all of the Next Gen movies.  They weren't as in-depth as the prequel reviews, but they were still really good and offered a lot of insights from a guy who (despite playing a violent, murderous sociopath for the purposes of making an entertaining review series) deeply loves Star Trek.

While Plinkett panned all of the Next Gen movies, his enthusiasm for all things Star Trek kindled a tiny spark of nerdiness deep inside my breast.  "I remember watching Star Trek," I said to myself.  "The episodes that I saw were pretty good.  Oh, and I have Netflix now!  And Star Trek is on Netflix.  That means I can watch all the Star Trek I want.  Forever!"

I started with The Man Trap and went on from there.  Yes, some of the stories are hokey, and some of them are downright dire (not that you care, but despite all of the faults of Spock's Brain, I find it to be a more enjoyable watch than The Alternative Factor), but there was something charming about them that kept me watching.

And while I was watching, the part of my brain that likes to make things (let's call him Hindbrain) was already whirling away.  I think it was right around the time that I finished The Devil in the Dark that my Hindbrain and my Forebrain had this conversation:

HB:  Hey!  Hey!  You know what would be a cool idea?
FB:  What?
HB:  A Star Trek role-playing game! That's my idea!  Isn't it great?
FB:  Wow, that's extremely clever.  No one's ever thought of that before.
HB:  I know, right?
FB:  Yeah, no one other than FASA, Last Unicorn, Decipher, or the publishers of Starfleet Universe.
HB:  Oh, come on!  Stop being such a killjoy.
FB:  Fine.  What did you have in mind?
HB:  Well... (furtive whispering)
FB:  Actually...That is pretty good.
HB:  See?
FB:  All right, all right.  I stand corrected.  Maybe this is an idea that has legs. Not that Paramount would ever give us the license for it.
HB:  Oh, I know. That's why I want to call it Velour and Go-Go Boots.
FB:  What?!

Thanks for making it all the way to the end of my ramble, Faceless-Yet-Extremely-Patient Internet Person!  Next week, I'll talk about some of the initial ideas I had for the game and how some of them even worked.