Game Design

Transmissions From The End #011: Sneak Peak – Putting It All Together

Here’s another excerpt from the Systems Malfunction manuscript, as progress continues slowly and steadily. We really ought to get art briefs written up and out before the end of the month, which means we should be able to preview some art after Origins (which is suddenly very soon!).

As any of you following the Kickstarter closely probably noted, we didn’t make one of the Stretch Goals I was most excited about, which would have allowed us to include capital-scale starship combat rules and actual deck-plans for common capital ships in the Systems Malfunction universe. This is a major bummer, but one bright side is that with how far behind we are on a couple of projects, it would have been a nightmare trying to get those deck plans done in time. I still look forward to publishing a book of SysMal vessels, complete with deck plans, in the future.

In the meantime, here’s the chapter on scaling personal and vehicle combat from the Systems Malfunction manuscript. For those backers/fans/players who don’t have the Singularity Core Rules (and the extensive Strategic Starship Combat rules therein), I tried to provide some guidance on how to incorporate big honking starships into your campaign without having their full stats. The formatting of the table is incredibly janky, but obviously, won’t be in the final product, because it’s not being published through WordPress 😛

Astute readers will note that some of the suggestions for running combats involving both infantry and vehicles have changed from those provided in Singularity Core, in attitude as much as in content.

Bringing It All Together

If personal combatants and vehicles are involved in one fight, the shit has hit the fan and (meta)human beings are going to die historic—and become red mist. Some of those metahumans might be PCs.

If you have a battle mat and miniatures, bust ‘em out. Crude sketches are fine, but if you like some production values on your table, that’s cool too. It is very hard to do a vehicles-on-drones-on-infantry-on-Jackhammers fracas using only “theater of the mind” because vehicles can move much faster than infantry and in more directions. You use a vehicle’s Tactical Speed as its move speed in meters per turn. You ignore the ‘change range maneuver’, and resolving other Tactical Maneuvers (see p. XX) as Minor Actions (see p. XX), with Tactical Actions as Major Actions (see p. XX). This enables vehicles to use a Minor Action to take evasive maneuvers.

Instead of 10 seconds like turns with only personal combat, a turn of “mixed” combat is assumed to last the same duration as a turn of Tactical Vehicular Combat: a number of seconds equal to the highest initiative rolled (again: do not think about this too much!). ReAct (see p. XX) applies the same to metahuman and vehicular combatants, allowing extra partial actions after the “all-skate” phase.

Personal weapon damage and personal armor rating are designed to scale directly into those of tactical combat. If a personal weapon looks like it would not even scratch most vehicles, that’s cause it wouldn’t. If on the other hand, a vehicular weapon looks like it would unfailingly vaporize even the toughest, most heavily armored Replicant (and everyone standing next to him) it totally fucking would.

People trying to fight Jackhammers and drone-tanks and attack helicopters isn’t fair. The only chance of it being a fight at all lies with the odd chance that the people involved remembered to bring heavy anti-vehicular weapons.

There is a silver lining to having brought your frail metahuman body to a Jackhammer fight. Humans are very small targets; sensor assisted targeting can’t be used against them and they get to roll Evasion against all vehicular attacks: although ‘blast’ weapons will probably kill them even if they miss. Missiles cannot attack individual humans at all, nor can other weapons you can’t picture being fired at a man with a gun. For a human attacking a vehicle, the base difficulty stage is Easy. That is the last and only advantage humans get, however.

Capital Ships

Unfortunately, due to budgetary and page count constraints, the full rules for capital-ship combat (“Strategic Starship Combat”) can’t be reprinted in this book, which is a real shame. The rules appear in full on pp. 75-115 of the first (2013) printing of the Singularity System Core Rulebook, if you have access to that text. The silver lining to not being able to reprint those rules here is that they were as discovered in play less than perfect, and are definitely less than perfect for Systems Malfunction.

Generally speaking, it is probably best to treat capital ships as “set pieces” in any given Systems Malfunction campaign. Describe a larger space battle if one is happening, but keep the focus on the PCs and their actions (resolved through the rules for vehicular and personal combat). In other words, a Ferrata-Class Heavy Destroyer or a Narcissus-Class Planet Cracker is a location that exciting things are happening on, such as boarding action and defense, or a tense game of cat and mouse with an unknown alien lifeform. When in the course of space combat, a Destroyer that the PCs are assault boarding (or fighting off boarders from) becomes treated by the game more as something that things are happening to, rather than someplace that things are happening on, the likely “realistic” outcome is that a lot of PCs are going to die, very abruptly and without any chance (any roll to make) to survive.

In other words, if the Ferrata destroyer the PCs are waging an epic sword/gunfight on has its hull ruptured by ASGMs and railguns and explodes, the PCs and their enemies are all, most likely, immediately and anticlimactically dead.

On the other hand, it’s likely that at some point in a good, action-packed science fiction campaign-scape like Systems Malfunction, one or more PCs are going to be in powered armor, Jackhammers, or Starfighters, attempting an assault/boarding on a much larger ship. It’s the kind of iconic scene that good military sci-fi is chock full of. When someone’s closing in for boarding action, characters will unfailingly come under fire from (or be firing themselves) point-defense weapon systems. The least I can do is offer the stats for some common point-defense weapons, and the damage they do to vehicles and unlucky individuals alike (all have Piercing 10).

Starship Turret Weapon Accuracy Damage Starship Turret

Point Defense Weapon

Accuracy Damage
37mm Gatling Autocannon 0 24 Flak Gun -1 10×4
Quad Pulse Laser +1 4×10 20mm CIWS 0 15
Grenade Machinegun -1 32 Point Defense Pulse Laser +1 4×4
Gauss Cannon +1 28 Point Defense Beam +4 10

Note that each turret a capital ship mounts can have up to two turret weapons, up to four point defense weapons, or up to one turret weapon and two point defense weapons (when firing a twinned weapon system, i.e. two or more weapons of the same kind on the same turret, the point defense operator receives +1 to his Gunnery roll). While a small torpedo or missile boat or a Prospector-Class scout or Traveler-Class Light Transport mount only one turret each, a mid-sized capital ship like a Ferrata mounts three turrets (each with two 20mm CIWS), a Great Dragon-class Red Army flagship mounts 12 turrets, and a Vitrix-Class Supercarrier boasts 18 turrets. Only attempt a boarding or bombing run on a serious capital ship if you’re part of a massive wave of smaller craft, or if you’re feeling particularly suicidal.

Note that ground and naval bases often have mounted turrets with similar weaponry, although in that context it’s properly referred to as “anti-air” rather than “point defense”.

Closing & Boarding

It takes at least a full combat turn to close to boarding or vehicle weapons range with a capital ship: how long it takes is ultimately up to the GM, based on how far your point of launch is from the target ship, but one turn is the minimum. A Hard Helmsman, Jackhammer Rig, or Pilot (2) Test is required to bring the vehicle within boarding distance of the target starship. During this time, point defense fire must be weathered.

Jackhammers and characters in Powered Armor get to make Evasion rolls against each instance of incoming point defense fire as normal (and at a cumulative penalty of -1 for every Evasion roll made that turn, as normal). Other vehicles such as fighters and drones, however, do not make Evasion rolls. If the Gunnery roll produces a number of hits equal to the vehicle’s Handling (minimum 1), the point defense attack hits.

Jackhammers and dropships (including the Fulminata) can breach and board enemy ships after closing. Breaching and boarding is a dangerous, time-consuming process, because of the risk of fatally depressurizing both vessels. The process of penetrating a hostile hull to deploy a boarding party takes one full turn. It requires a successful opposed test versus the target ship’s Repairs subsystem rating (range of 2 to 6 depending on the size and sophistication of the enemy vessel). The boarding party either rolls Demolitions (for a combat hardbreach), an Electronics test (to rewire an airlock), or a Computers test (in the case of a software override). If the test fails, the boarding party can try again, but not by the same means, and again combat boarding takes one full turn to attempt.

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Transmissions From The End #010: Sneak Peak – Extra Lives

An excerpt from the Systems Malfunction roleplaying game manuscript:

Extra Lives

Human cloning is an established technology in the Systems Malfunction universe. However, as cloning works a little differently in every sci-fi setting, we need to be a lot more specific about how clones work here. An amusing anecdote illustrates why. During a playtest/promo game, a group of actual play podcasters were faced with a scenario where they had to evacuate as the colonists from a planet under invasion by aggressive, biomechanical aliens (if you’re your group’s GM, see In Keeping Secrets, p. XX, and Robots, Monsters, and Worse, p. XX). There were too many colonists to fit in the dropship along with the Colonial Marine PCs, so the players assumed they could avoid leaving anyone behind by decapitating all of the colonists—after all, their heads would weigh less than their bodies and take up less space!—and then have them cloned later.

That is most emphatically not how cloning in Systems Malfunction works, and acting on those assumptions would have been a disastrous mission failure. They would have brutally murdered all of the people they were there to rescue. I found this misunderstanding hilarious, but also enlightening. It was an eye opening reminder that just because I’ve been immersed in the Systems universe for over a decade, newcomers to the setting don’t automatically know its nuances and details.

Here is an overview of how cloning in Systems Malfunction does work:

  • Clones are essentially “extra lives”. All Player Characters start with three clones (see p. XX) but may “sell back” any number of them during character creation, receive +1 Edge per clone sold back (see Building Your (Tragic) (Anti)Hero).
    1. After a character dies, there is a 24 hour waiting period before their clone becomes available as the clone is thawed and awakened. It may take substantially longer than that for the character to rejoin the action, depending on where they have decided to store their clones and what arrangements they’ve made beforehand. If a PC dies, this should be worked out between the PC and the GM. If the character was an NPC, it is at the GM’s discretion how long it takes for the NPC to reappear, but the minimum time is still 24 hours. Only important NPCs have clones, and the average Joe Galaxy doesn’t have any clones.
  • With currently existing technology, a clone can only be “copied” from a living being. Preserved genetic material (or a bunch of heads in a garbage bag) is not sufficient to create a new clone from.
    1. Clones are very expensive. Creating a clone of your character costs 100,000 Credits multiplied by the number of times you have had your character cloned. In other words, creating a third clone of a given character costs 300,000 Credits. Any clones you started with don’t count towards this cost multiplier.
    2. Every clone has 10 less Purity than the “generation” which proceeded it. See Purity & Consequences on p. XX and “Spiritual Machines” on p. XX for the consequences of Purity loss. (An average, heavily augmented human can die and transfer into a clone about nine times before their 10th clone has a Maximum Health of 0 and is effectively stillborn.)
    3. Most capital ships, space stations, and cities have facilities where clones can be created and stored. Backwater colonies may not, and uninhabited/uncharted planetary bodies certainly don’t.
    4. The scanning process to create a clone takes only 10 Minutes. The creation of the clone body takes between one day and one week, at the GM’s discretion.
    5. A Player Character can attempt the cloning process himself, but doing so is incredibly challenging. The PC must have access to an advanced scientific facility (and obviously the person being cloned), must spend 50,000 Credits (multiplied by the number of times the subject has been cloned, as described above), and must succeed a Hard Science (5) Test. Attempting to clone someone in this way takes one hour for the scanning process, and the usual time for the creation of the clone body. Failure on the Science Test means that you have created an invalid abomination it would be merciful to terminate: the credits are still spent. No character can manually create a clone of herself.
  • In addition to the scientific and technical limitations on how clones can be created, there are also numerous scientific, technical, and legal limitations in place on why clones can be created.
    1. Carter’s Laws of Biogenics prohibit duplicative cloning, i.e. it is entirely illegal for two instances of the same person to be active at one time. The entire government-military-medical-intelligence-communications infrastructure of the Republic is engineered to make duplicative cloning impossible. The primary limitation is in the InfoLink Implant which allows for recording of memories and continuity of consciousness (see p. XX). The implant’s hardware has been designed in such a way that none of the galaxy’s major known powers—the Republic, House Yamamoto, House Dresden, or House Dallas—can produce duplicative clones. Attempting duplicative cloning is the single most serious crime in the Republic’s legal clone, and carries more substantially more serious legal consequences than 1st degree murder.
    2. Carter’s Laws of Biogenics also prohibit reproductive cloning, i.e. it is illegal to use cloning technology to produce an offspring that is genetically identical to yourself. The legal consequences for attempting reproductive cloning are less serious than those associated with duplicative cloning, as long as the clone created is a fetus or an infant. Otherwise, this crime is treated the same as duplicative cloning.
    3. Finally, Carter’s Laws of Biogenics prohibit “longevity” cloning. For a human example, it is illegal to create a clone of yourself at the age of 30, with the intent of transferring your consciousness into that clone when you die of natural causes at the age of 76. Other treatments exist to extend the human life-span, but they cost even more than cloning, making them prohibitively expensive for all but the extremely wealthy.
      1. While modern nanomedicine can easily cure most cancers known to man, it is still worth noting that a clone made of a body with a systemic disease will still have that disease upon becoming active. In other words, a woman with Crohn’s Disease who purchases a clone now has a clone in storage that also has Crohn’s Disease.
    4. The only cloning actually permitted by Carter’s laws of biogenics is cloning as “life insurance”. In other words, it is only legal to create and store a clone as a form of insurance against death by violence or accident.
  • Cloning works exactly the same for Replicants as for characters of biological Origin with two minor exceptions.
    1. Replicant “Clones” are instead called “Backups”.
    2. Replicants needn’t worry about Purity loss from iterative cloning, as Replicants begin with 0 Purity and can never lose Purity.
  • To review, Carter’s Laws of Biogenics limit the function of clones in Systems Malfunction to that of “Extra Lives” for people who die by violence, accident, or suicide. (If a nasty fall breaks both of your legs or leaves you paralyzed from the waist down and you aren’t near an Autodoc or anyone who can help you to one, if you have a clone, it is legal to blow your brains out and wake up in your clone body 24 hours later.)

>>>BEGIN SIDEBAR: WHY IS CLONING TECH SO LIMITED?

For a mixture of reasons that are around 70% in-universe and 30% game-balance. The early Presidents in the Carter “dynasty” had specific ideological reasons for creating the Laws of Biogenics and making their enforcement so air-tight and the penalties for violating them so severe. The rationale behind the policy making was as follows.

Duplicative cloning was criminalized to prevent anyone—including future Republic administrations—from creating clone armies. To do so, it was reasoned, would create an underclass of people so replaceable they would have effectively no rights, and to protect the stability of the Republic from an “attack of the clones” type scenario. (From a game balance perspective, a character with multiple duplicates of themselves would be both overpowered and slow down gameplay.)

Reproductive cloning was criminalized under the rationale that the human race had benefitted from the genetic diversity granted by “traditional” reproduction for its entire history. A non-stagnant gene pool was desired to populate the galaxy. Also, natural biological reproduction was simply cheaper and therefore more effective than reproductive cloning.

Finally, “longevity” cloning was criminalized to prevent the further growth of the gulf between the Galaxy’s haves and the have-nots by adding a major line item like immortality to the gifts the wealthy enjoy that the poor do not.

In general, Armand Carter’s children and their children and grand-children were very reticent to allow human scientists to “play God”. After all, it was their famous ancestor that had saved the human race from enslavement to the will of a machine god during the War Against the Gaia (see A Brief History Of The Future, p. XX).

>>>/END SIDEBAR

dat room

SPOILER ALERT: I really like the musical Hamilton.

So what’s up guys? I’m going to write down my method for designing a game, and you get to be (figuratively speaking) in the room where it happens.

The room where it happens.

The room where it happens.

{Repeats}

the_room

No, not THAT Room, for the love of God!

SPOILER ALERT: I might actually be said to have a Hamilton “Problem”.

My method is just my method. My method is not the best method. My method is not the only method. My method was arrived at by designing games, which means my method is informed by the 10+ roleplaying games* I have already designed.

(There is exactly one inaccurate word in the sentence “Devon Oratz has been actively engaged in game design for his entire  adult life”. That word would be “adult”.)

(more…)

That Feeling When

TFW: You realize that a rule that you both wrote and published makes no fucking sense.

I think that Firefight came out in 2013 or 2014? I forget. Anyway, anyway, there’s this Combat Maneuver on p. 15, Defensive Roll, that makes literally no fucking sense.

IF CHEWBACCA LIVES ON ENDOR YOU MUST ACQUIT.

The rule says “A character with this Combat Maneuver decreases the Difficulty Stage of all Evasion rolls made versus Splash Attacks by one, from Hard to Normal.”

This makes exactly 0 sense. In The Singularity System you do not ever ROLL an Evasion test versus a “Splash Attack” because that is NOT A THING. Instead, attacks have a BLAST Radius and you suffer damage based on how close you are to ground zero, your Armor, the attack’s Piercing, and nothing else.

In 2013 I published a rule that was goddamn nonsense. But that can’t have happened! I’m perfect!

new20sorry20so20perfect

Except for that pesky part where I’m totally NOT Perfect, or even close.

Still, though…that…fucking…feeling…when. So, Errata, effective immediately:

For Firefight, p. 15:

  • Replace the Description of Defensive Roll with the following text: “A character with this combat maneuver can make an Evasion or Athletics roll (whichever is higher) when caught in the Blast Radius of any attack with a Blast Radius. Each Hit achieved on this test reduces the damage of the Blast attack by one–after reducing Base damage by meters from target,but before applying Armor.”

In summation:

Splinterpunks (A Brief History Of The DicePunk System)

Join me chitlins for a  bit of an open-ended game design ramble.

Somewhere around 2004, at the tender age of 18, on my laptop at the house of one John Jemmott, I set out on one of my first fumbling forays into designing my own tabletop roleplaying game. A few things about this roleplaying game:

  • Its primary design goal was to be as dirt simple and accessible as possible. It didn’t actually fail at this design goal, per se. Ironically, at the same time, this place called The Forge was in its heyday, a bubbling cauldron of game design: many of the games being designed there had similar design goals, but due to a shared design environment and certain shared assumptions, they came out almost unrecognizably different.
  • I gave it a name that, even as a dumb teenager, I should really have known was very, very taken, and had been, even at that point, for nearly as long as I had been alive. This should have been clear to me at the time, because when you make a game system that uses six-sided dice, the d6 System is a rather obvious choice for a name. But of course I didn’t even google it, because derp.
  • The end result was a very poorly designed game indeed. There were things I liked about it, sure. Design features that I carried over into the many, many tabletop RPGs and LARPs that I went on to design over the next five years: only having four attributes, instead of the 6+ that most “traditional” RPGs carried around, not having a set skill list, but rather using easily generated (if arbitrary) custom player-created skills, and maybe one or two other things. But it had serious problems, too.
  • Namely, the core mechanic was shit. You rolled 1d6 and added a bonus from +0 to +3 against a target number from 3 to 9 assigned by the GM. The reasons that this is absolute shit eluded me then, but are obvious to me now. First off, you have at the outset a “bonus” that is 50% of the size of a very small random number generator range. From the outset, you are very likely “off the RNG”, i.e. “off the reservation”. Secondly, a tiny RNG range means very little granularity. Finally and perhaps most importantly, using a roll of 1d6 for the core mechanic, you have a perfectly flat distribution of results like with 1d20 (without the d20’s advantage of granularity), rather than the nice pseudo-Gaussian or “bell curve” distribution you get with 2d6 or 3d6. In layman’s terms, average results are more likely with 2d6 or 3d6 due to something called “binomial distribution”. Because average results are more likely, it’s less swingy, and random chance hold sway less. (I’ve always been math averse, but you can’t spend your entire life playing games where you roll dice to see what happens without accidentally learning SOME math.)

Now, over the next ten years or so the “d6 System” (Devon Oratz, 2004), no relation to the D6 System (WEG, 1996) was gradually refined and in the process renamed into the more betterer DicePunk System. This system forms the core of a couple little indie games you may have heard of called Phantasm(2010) and Psionics. But midway through this process of refinement, something dumb and stupid happened.

In 2008, I designed a game called SPLINTER. This game was weird as shit. It was so weird, it needed TWO core mechanics: one for the “real world”, and one for the “game world” wrapped up inside that one, like a cocktail weenie inside of that delicious croissant biscuit stuff. For the “real world” mechanic, I used an intermediary stage of the system I’m discussing. It had a few improvements on the (har har) “d6 System” but it had not yet reached the stage of refinement that the DicePunk System is operating at.

This, obviously, annoys me to no-end. It means my company publishes two games that are compatible with the DicePunk System and each other (great), a third game that uses a completely separate system (whatever), and then SPLINTER, which both has its own system and uses a half-formed, half-baked precursor of the DicePunk System, which is terrible, and confusing, and terrible.

BUT I AM FIX.

The following documents convert SPLINTER’s Earthside rules to use the proper DicePunk System instead, including an overhaul of the rules for (yes you heard me right) “Player Creation”. No need to thank me, I did this for my own sanity. But hopefully a more permanent and prettier application of this patch will be forthcoming in the near future, with you know, layout and stuff.

Rulesburst – Playing A Player

The Id, The Ego, and the Avatar.

“Coming” “Soooooooooooon”

The development of the first official game setting for the Singularity System, Setting Module 00: Systems Malfunction (based on my long-running LARP of the same name) has been pretty much a goddamn nightmare. A nightmare of the endlessly recurring kind. The reason for this is no mystery: this is the first time that End Transmission has sought to publish a work of which I was not the sole primary author, and I am far better at producing my own content than I am at managing the content ouput of others. The fact of the delays was no surprise either, but the scale of them is staggering.

Some history: in January of last year, I began developing the Sol Invictus setting for the Singularity System. I realized that I could not possibly develop BOTH the Sol Invictus setting and the Systems Malfunction setting for tabletop and meet a reasonable production schedule (i.e. a GenCon ’13 release), so I decided that I would outsource the development of the Systems Malfunction setting book to an independent contractor familiar with the universe and subject matter. It soon became clear that no matter what, the Sol Invictus setting would take years for me to bring to fruition (which should have clued me in to something), but the choice to put the Systems setting book in someone else’s hands had been made, and there was nothing to be done about it. (As of now, only 110 .doc pages and 36,000 words of Sol Invictus exist, meaning that the first draft is nowhere near complete.)

The project was assigned by February of 2013, but we did not issue a contract until May of that year due to general inexperience at business, and more importantly, we were working our butts off making games.

Our plan was for a GenCon 2013 release of the Systems setting book, following hot on the heels of the Singularity System which we managed to release at Origins 2013 to modest sales (we’d initially been planning on releasing THAT at Lunacon to substantially modester sales, but that’s another story and a far less outrageous one). Contracted deadlines were missed again and again throughout July, and things became increasingly quite tense. By the time we got anything resembling a completed manuscript, it was mid-September, two months behind schedule, and GenCon had come and gone. At that point we were dealing with the stress of moving, and neither of us was looking forward to rush-processing the draft for a Con on the Cob October release. We wound up calling in sick from Con on the Cob entirely last year.

It’s a good thing we didn’t try to go to print with that manuscript, because it wasn’t actually complete at all. It took me entirely too long to realize this, as I spent three months going and carefully editing (for content and format) the rules section, before I could take a month to carefully review the setting chapter (editing again for content and format) and realize that some of it in fact was missing. At this point, it was January of this year. I had gotten over the extreme rage at all the missed deadlines between July and September, and was feeling a bit live-and-let-live. So never one to realize that a fire tends to burn rather consistently so you shouldn’t thrust your hand in it twice, I reached out to the original author. Could he deliver all of the missing and incomplete content by February 8th, so that we could get the book to print for a March Lunacon release? Of course he could, he assured me, no problem.

As of this writing it is February 25th and I still do not have a complete manuscript for layout: it is completely impractical, if not impossible, to publish this book for a Lunacon release, since Lunacon is in less than three weeks and the layout-to-publishing-to-shipping process involves several proofing stages and is rather time consuming. The complete draft is, as of this writing, 225 days late, also equivalent to seven months and 10 days, also equivalent to 32 weeks and one day. Oh well, there is always Origins. Maybe we will have a book by then. Anything is possible. This cannot all be blamed on the contractor. The truth is that the sheer scale and enormity of the project, the book, and the content it contains has expanded and expanded with seemingly every other revision and addition that we’ve done recently. Even culling everything not absolutely necessary, which I have been doing for months now, this project has lost weeks and weeks to the phenomenon software developers identify as scope creep.

In all seriousness, I can’t say that I have only myself to blame for this. But I also can’t say I don’t blame myself.

And all of this is…OK. I’ll repeat that, all of this is OK, just growing pains (even if some are more painful than others), mistakes we can afford to make, and learn from, and not make again, like the shipping thing last year. The truth is, we are (fortunately) on steady enough financial footing that this doesn’t knock us out of business as a company, and (fortunately or unfortunately) at this point we’re still very much under the radar. This is a book almost no one has heard of being talked about in a blog post that almost no one is reading. There are no legions of fans crashing our gates with rage that this book is seven months late (something that, I understand, happens even to the biggest in the business) and I am, perversely enough, almost grateful for that at this stage. It is bad enough dealing with my own frustrated expectations.

One lives, and one learns, and one continues to make games.

Exciting Stuff, Good News, And Some Reminiscence

So the cat’s already out of the bag that Phantasm(2010) has been nominated for an Ennie Award for Best Free Game. I fully don’t expect to have any shot at actually winning, because I know what our sales are like, and from that I can extrapolate how many…er…few…people have heard of us, but still, even being nominated for something like this is a great big delight and a great big honor. Not to mention a great big shock!

Phantasm is among the very first games I ever designed; the original version of it dates back to 2004, or even earlier. If memory serves, originally, I began developing the game, on my laptop one morning at my friend John’s house actually, as an act of pure fannish enthusiasm for the old b-movies of the same name. I did not once consider things like if this idea was saleable, if anyone else was interested in playing this concept, etcetera. All I knew is, I wanted there to be a Phantasm roleplaying game so I could play one, with the obscurity of the source material, no one else was likely to make one for me (fun fact: I wassss wronnnnnggggggg, but I wouldn’t find out that my idea had already been gnabbed by Jared Goddamn Sorensen of Lacuna fame until years too late), so I’d better do it myself.

And I did.

The results were…mixed. As you can imagine with any first serious effort at game design, first effort at adapting non-interactive source material for interactive play, and so on. I was, after all, only 18.

Fast forward a bit…

When in 2010 I vowed to spend the year rebuilding my mechanically crappy, deeply flawed old Phantasm game (entitled Phantasm D6) from the ground up, again there was no thought of if this idea would “sell”. This second take at Phantasm, to be completed by 2010–hence the title, Phantasm(2010)–wasn’t motivated fanboyish glee for the source material like my first go-through. This time I was completely obsessed with the idea of creating something that was mechanically vastly better than my first attempt. I thought I had learned a lot about game design in the last five or six years (from running my own LARP for years, from playing and GMing a ton of different tabletop RPGs with a ton of different people, and so on) and I wanted to bring all of that newly minted knowledge and experience to an idea I thought deserved a better treatment than my adolescent self had managed. There’s no way I was going to come up with a game that was mechanically perfect, especially as a one-man show  taking on a full length, full-sized RPG. Phantasm(2010) is a full-length RPG, at 56,000 words in manuscript form and 218 pages in print, comparable in sheer size and scope to the heavy duty corebooks adorning some of your shelves. I knew there was room in there for a lot more source material taken from other beloved grindhouse horror movies of the 70s’, 80s’, 90s’, and 2000s, and I squeezed it all in. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, and it wasn’t, but it was a heck of a lot better than my last attempt, which was gratifying. There was no thought of making money off it, obviously, as it was a completely derivative fanwork: that’s why it remains in the *Free Game* category in spite of the production values.

I first gave Phantasm away for free on the Forge forums (in the dwindling days of that place) in January or February or 2011, a release marked with not even a piffle or a tumbleweed. It was just a big 143 page PDFified .doc with no art assets to speak of. No one would download it, even for free, to tell me what they thought. I was a bit disheartened and disappointed, not really realizing. I don’t have the time right now to explain the form of limited dementia that made me think the Forge was the kind of place you’d go to find people who want to *PLAY* homebrew RPGs, rather than just the kind of people interested in making them. I also didn’t realize that Phantasm(2010) wasn’t exactly the kind of “Indie” The Forge was into.

Now, backed by the amazing production values afforded to me by publishing as End Transmission Games my “this is way too obscure for anyone but me to show an interest in” fangame has been nominated for a gosh-darn Ennie award. I’m flabbergasted, but happy. Words fail. Who knows, maybe we’ll even break the top 100 small press on DriveThru…but I doubt it. : P

Speaking of things that make my heart soar, back at Origins 2013 I got to meet the incomparable Steve Long, the superhuman, (seemingly) single-handed creator of the massive pile of Hero System books I own. I gave him a copy of the Singularity System core rulebook that we were launching at that convention (just *slightly* overshadowed by the SR5 launch, as you can see on the front page of http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/), mainly to lighten the heavy load of books and shame we’d have to carry home. He was kind enough to give us a shout out on his blog, which I have to admit made my inner fanboy squeal with furious glee.

I already gave the “secret origins” of Phantasm(2010) (ok, not so secret, I love Phantasm, I made a shitty game about it, I learned a little about game design and made a markedly LESS shitty game about it), so let me wrap up with a bit about the origins of The Singularity System, our current flagship product. The short version, because it strikes me this may be running long.

I mentioned a larp earlier. Well…since 2005 I’ve run a science fiction LARP of my own devising and creation. Mechanically it’s evolved from a first incarnation as a bastardized derivative of Tales Of The Dreaming which itself evolved as a bastardized derivative of NERO; but that’s neither here nor there. LARPing is great, and using your imagination is great, but there are things in my imagination that LARPing doesn’t work great for: like massive space battles between cruisers, carriers, destroyers, and squadrons of fighters and bombers, or massive land battles between towering mechs, menacing tanks, and assault choppers. Also, I noticed that not only did LARPing not work as a way of roleplaying that kind of action, but the vehicle combat rules in most tabletop games I had played were sorely, sorely lacking.

Initially, the Singularity System was just Systems Malfunction The Tabletop game; but then I realized that a) that would be creating yet another game system inexorably tied to an obscure Intellectual Property virtually no one has heard of b) with a few tweaks here and there, I could create a set of core rules for doing science fictiony stuff, starship, and vehicle combat that would work for Systems Malfunction, and could be customized to work for any other science fiction setting I could think of, from Star Wars to Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to…Aliens. Ran out of things with “Star” in them. So that’s exactly what I did, and since then I’ve been pitching Singularity as being to science fiction what D&D is to fantasy; a generic, highly modular toolkit for creating your own setting and stories within that milieu.

Where I’m going with all this is that Singularity System hasn’t actually been set up to work as Systems Malfunction the Tabletop Game, until now. Meaning my friends and I wanting to stage un-LARP-friendly adventures in that beloved (if obscure) universe we’d created were out of luck. Again, until now.

Coming soon, and if we’re really lucky (verging on the miraculous) maybe even coming by GenCon, the Systems Malfunction Setting Module, SET #00 for the Singularity System, is being written. Has been being written since February or so and is now desperately speeding towards completion. It will come with a “default” setting for The Singularity System full of history, personality, and character–a setting years in the making, authored by dozens of people over tens of thousands of man-hours. And it will, combining like Voltron with the Singularity System, make Systems Malfunction the Tabletop Game a possibility. At last.

Eventually.

If not that, we are cooking up a little something else for the upcoming Gencon, as a contingency plan of sorts, so keep a lookout.

– DTO (MM) Out