Playtest Results

I am currently designing a new roleplaying game, with the working title of Universitas Magarum. It is a GM-less, co-operative roleplaying game, and, as one playtest group said, it is sufficiently different from those currently on the market to avoid the question of why you would play this game rather than something else. If you want to do what this game offers, this is your only option.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
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Playtest Scenario Draft Finished

I have a complete first draft of the playtest scenario for the Universitas Magarum game. It’s about 17,000 words long, and has five situations, introducing all the major rules for the game and the background, just like a playtest and introductory scenario should. I’ve already played through it by myself, because the rules do support solo play, and it works.

Obviously, I do plan to go through it again before I send it out to other people for playtest. There may be places that need a bit more explanation, and I need to check for typos. Then I need to lay it out do that it’s easy to use; there are a few bits in the rules that work much more easily with a nice layout.

I am not, however, planning to do any more structural revisions. There are a couple of things that occurred to me as I wrote it. For example, I think it might be better to have more explicit connections to the climax from earlier in the scenario. Everything does build up to it, but the results of some situations do not make a significant difference to the final outcome of this scenario, although they would be very significant in a campaign using the rules. However, I want to get feedback from other players before I start tinkering like that. There may be more fundamental problems that need fixing first.

I’ll be asking around my friends and contacts to find playtesters from next week, I think, but if anyone reading this would be interested in playtesting, leave a comment. The playtest scenario should work with one to six players; with more than six players there would be situations where at least one player had no opportunity to act.

Nearly there! (And then, of course, I have to revise, and start working towards the full game, which will be at least five times the length of the playtest scenario.)

Starting the Playtest Scenario

I have started work on the playtest scenario for Universitas Magarum, the current name for the School of Magic game. I’m not absolutely confident that I’ll finish it by the end of this month, but that is looking entirely realistic, and even if I fall behind, I might well be close enough to motivate a final push to get it done at the last minute.

As I have mentioned before, this game has no gamemaster. One thing that has really come home to me while writing it is just how much conventional roleplaying games rely on the gamemaster’s creativity and knowledge of the game rules and world. This is particularly true when writing the playtest scenario, because this scenario has to be run by people with no prior knowledge of the game, its rules, or its setting. There is no other public information available, so they have to play it based entirely on the scenario. That makes the writing quite taxing.

Let’s take a couple of examples from contemporary game design. The first is from the 7th Sea Second Edition Quickstart. (The Kickstarter for that is still live at the time of writing, and arguably the most successful RPG Kickstarter so far; you should probably back it at the Scholar level if you have any interest in RPGs at all.) In the very first scene, there is the possibility that one or more of the characters will get no successes: “You (the GM) say what happens.” The GM is supposed to make it interesting and fun, and make the failure meaningful without seriously derailing the rest of the plot. Obviously, a good GM can do that, but it is not a trivial skill.

The second example is from Kult: Divinity Lost (which also has a live Kickstarter as I write this, and is also doing well). This is based on the Apocalypse Engine, and when characters investigate something, they have to roll. If a player rolls high, she can ask two questions about the scenario. If she doesn’t roll so high, she asks one question, but there is a cost. The GM sets the cost; maybe she puts herself in danger, or there is some cost. What sort of danger is appropriate? What would be a reasonable cost? For the most part, those sorts of questions are left to the GM to answer.

This is quite possibly a large part of the reason for the conventional observation that the quality of a game depends almost entirely on the quality of the GM, with a very weak influence from the quality of the rules.

In Universitas Magarum, the players are bound to succeed at the core part of their task, so the game always moves forward. However, that success might come with added benefits, or with associated problems. When that happens, and to what extent, has to be built explicitly into the structure of the rules, because there is no GM to whom I can turn and say “you decide!”.

It is not easy to make this work, but I’m getting there.

Going to School

I have been a bit distracted over the last month or so.

First, I was asked to translate an academic paper into Japanese. That’s hard work. In general, it is a bad idea to try to translate things out of your native language. Fortunately, the translation was for internal use only, so awkward language is not a problem if the meaning is fairly clear. Even so, it took a lot of effort, so I couldn’t do any work on this for a couple of weeks.

Then, Wizards of the Coast announced the Dungeon Master’s Guild, which is an opportunity to write D&D material for the Forgotten Realms and get paid for it. I’ve wanted to do this since I was 15, so I’ve been getting myself up to speed on D&D 5th edition. (It’s good. It is notable that the elements discussed as things you might want to include in a game do not include any of the elements I’m working on here.)

However, I’ve not abandoned Kannagara by any means. I have, however, switched to the School of Magic for now.

Development there is going much more quickly than it did for Kannagara. It is quite easy to design situations, and I have a lot of ideas. This is a much better way to work out how the mechanics should go than doing Kannagara, where I also have to worry about accurately portraying Shinto.

And working out how the mechanics should go is important. I am still happy with the basic structure, but “game balance” is not easy. There are a whole bunch of things with numerical values, and I don’t have a good sense for how high those values should be. This isn’t really surprising, as neither I nor anyone else has ever played the game. I’m getting an idea for what sort of things make good elements of situations as I go along, and more ideas for how different situations can interact, but I do think I’m going to need to finish the basic rules for the school of magic before I can realistically do Kannagara.

Once I know how the rules fit together, I will know what I need to take from Shinto to make a workable game, and how the things I want to include can fit in.

In addition, from my point of view, the school of magic game is another one I have wanted to play for years, so I still get what I want.

I’m not sure whether I will have a fully playtestable version by the end of March, but it is still looking realistic.

This is a good example of how creative work is unpredictable. Given the brick walls I kept running into with Kannagara, and their complete absence in the new game, I think the switch is clearly going to be a faster way to complete Kannagara, even though there is a whole other game in the mix. I’m not going to commit to any schedules on Kannagara, but I want that one soon, as well.

School of Magic

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I decided to look into whether designing the School of Magic game I’ve been wanting to make for decades would speed up the process of getting the mechanics into playtest. The only way to do that, really, is to try writing, and see whether progress is significantly faster, so I tried it out this morning.

The answer would appear to be yes.

The broader structure of how individual situations would fit together, and what the personae could achieve, was much easier to do in this setting. I guess twenty years of working on Ars Magica has made it rather easier for me to think about this sort of thing. (And yes, the broader structure in question does show the influence of Ars Magica. That’s not really something I could hope to avoid, even if I wanted to. It also has a very specific bit of influence from GURPS.)

I have a lot of background ideas, all of which can easily be made to work as story drivers given the system. Even exams fit in really easily as a major point of tension.

There is one important thing that I still need to test: how easy is it to design a specific situation? “Situation” is a specific term in the game system, referring to the units that serve the same purpose as “encounters” in other game systems. It has a different name because the personae are not typically encountering anything in a situation, so “encounter” is a bad name for it. A situation is quite elaborate, just like encounters in most other games, and has a number of elements that need to be designed. Players would normally take these from published material, in much the same way as they take Pathfinder monsters from the Bestiary, so the game needs to have a lot of them before playtest. This bit actually went quite smoothly in Kannagara, at least for some of the areas, so if this doesn’t go more smoothly in the School of Magic game (which will need a name, if I continue), there’s a good chance that I will go back to Kannagara. I’d really like to try this out this week, and my schedule suggests that I should be able to.

In practical terms, my thinking is this. If this week’s tests suggest that I will be able to finish a playtest scenario for the School of Magic by the end of March, I will do so. If they suggest that it is going to take longer than that, I will go back to Kannagara. I’d like to finish the playtest scenario earlier than that, if possible, but that’s the deadline I have in mind. I plan to continue working on Kannagara directly when the School of Magic is in playtest, and then fold the responses back in. However, if School of Magic continues to move more quickly, I will probably look at taking it to publication before I do the same for Kannagara.

My hope is that this change of tack will, in the long term, actually speed up the appearance of a playable form of Kannagara, as well as of the School of Magic game, but creative work is never that predictable. We’ll have to wait and see.