This is a nuts-and-bolts update, i.e. a basic list of where everything stands.
Game Design: 100% complete
Character Sheets: template complete, 8/9 still require final layout
Team Sheets: template complete, 18/24 require final layout
Rulebook: 4/7 main rule sections still need to be typed up/edited
It's a relief to have all of the design work done. In terms of character/team sheets, I have the templates and all of the character designs, so now it's a matter of copying and pasting from the text file into the Indesign file.
I design best by hand, so I have all of the rules written down now in my notebook; a little over half still need to be typed. Basically, I'm at the stage where everything is semi-mindless but still takes a significant chunk of time.
Below are two example character templates. Characters have an archetype (cyber, magic, mortal) along with a starting class (e.g. occultist, wise one, mystic). Your starting class determines your first of two specialties (e.g. the occultist has elementalist, enchantment, and force specialties). When you get a playbook advancement you can continue to select special abilities in your first specialty, or pick your second specialty. Your second specialty can come from any class within your archetype (e.g. an occultist could pick another occultist specialty, or a different magic specialty from the wise one or mystic classes).
The goal is to balance flexibility with some niche-protection, and also to balance some freedom of choice without overwhelming you with choice. Importantly, this specialization only applies to special abilities: any character can use any action, so a Mystic could still Engineer and Hack as much as they want.
Like Blades, you can get veteran abilities, and those can come from literally any playbook, even ones outside your archetype. So if you really want to be a Mystic Hacker, you could level up your Hack action and grab two special abilities from the Hacker class.
The attached examples include one occultist who chose only occultist specialties, and one occultist who chose a mystic specialty.
The character sheets hint at some of the mechanical changes.
The bottom left corner of the character sheet shows the professional skills that go along with the magic archetypes and can be unlocked once you invest in them. (Each archetype has a different set of 3 professional skills). Even though I said I would wait on the crafting system, I went ahead and finished it. The magic professional skills are pretty straightforward; I probably had the most fun with the mortal professional skills, which include the ability to raise a paranormal critter as a sidekick and make poisons from paranormal plants.
There are also three veteran professions, which you can learn with the "veteran" special ability. So if you find you like crafting, or want one of the specific veteran professions, you can get that instead of a special ability with the veteran advancement.
Contacts are integral to the game, and you can see that your relationship with a contact can range from -3 to +3; the more intense the relationship, the more it will affect the game.
The Relevance rating will have a huge impact on the game. Essentially, your social status will affect your effect level in almost every interaction.
Finally, vice is replaced with rebellion (how your character rages against the established order); ideals are important beliefs that grant you XP; and "trauma" is replaced with jaded conditions, which represent the ways the stress of the outcast lifestyle has worn away at you, and caused you to become more like the very establishment you are fighting.
For the past week I've been focusing on redesigning the team playbooks. In Blades your crew sheet is compelling partly because you gain cohorts, turf, and status as a gang. With those mechanics removed from Karma, I wanted to find a way to still make the team model compelling. This draft of one playbook begins to capture some of those tweaks:
Some significant differences:
For the first time in a month, I feel like I got back into the design flow. This update includes two parts. In the first part, I give some insight into how character creation and customization will work. In the second part, I talk about some of why this design has been so challenging, i.e. why it has taken so long.
Modular Character Customization
This update comes because of a question someone asked, which I think highlighted an important and time consuming aspect of my design. The person wanted to know how character customization/creation will work, because in v1.2 it was almost entirely open, then the samples on the webpage look more like traditional Blades sheets.
One of the original reasons I started this design was because I loved the game-within-a-game of Shadowrun when you design your character. The customization opportunity is massive. On the other end of the spectrum, Blades uses set playbooks with the option to diversify through veteran advancements or by changing your playbook.
I originally went back to the Blades style simply for ease of play testing. It made balancing mechanics easier and meant I was changing less, which helped with my mental/design load.
The v3.0 design is in the middle. I wanted a balance between choice and being able to jump quickly into play without agonizing over decisions. I also wanted some variety, while not tasking myself with trying to balance a million different combinations. I am currently using a modular approach to character design.
In the beginning, you make one choice that can't be undone: which archetype you will play. The options are cyber based, magic based, or mortal based.
Each archetype has 3 classes. You can play a straight class, or multiclass within your archetype.
Each class has 3 specialties. Each specialty comes with a starting ability, and three additional abilities within the same theme, for a total of 4 abilities per specialty.
Your character will be able to train in up to 2 specialties and 3 veteran abilities (which are "pick any ability you want within your achetype"...though some abilities do have prerequisites). So even if you play one class entirely, you will play 2 of the 3 specialties.
For example, I could decide to play the magic archetype. I decide my starting class is the Occultist, who can specialize in elemental magic, manipulation magic, or force magic. I only pick my first specialty at character creation. I pick force magic, and begin the game with the ability to move objects with my mind. When I get advancements, I can continue to gain force magic abilities, or choose a second specialty whenever I want. I could choose another occultist specialty, but I decide to choose the Mystic's warrior specialty and take the ability that lets me make potent unarmed strikes against armored targets. So now I can move things with my mind and punch people in the face.
Characters can be customized further, in terms of your social standing, contacts, beliefs, history, etc. I am also working on a crafting system so characters can basically create their own specialized equipment and spells. (That system will likely wait until v3.1 or 3.2).
This system allows you to create a character quickly because you make few choices in the beginning, allows you to pick different areas to specialize, and means I mostly only need to balance mechanics within modules, since people can't pick every possible combination.
It does represent a lot of work. For comparison, Blades started with 7 playbooks. Each playbook has 8 abilities, one of which is usually a form of special armor. Karma has 9 classes, each with 12 abilities. At this point, I have completed 10 of the classes and I'm work 75% done with the remaining two. I tried to create mostly new abilities and the type of abilities that change gameplay in noticeable ways. How successful I was with that will be one of the main focuses in my next round of play testing.
One of my goals with this game is to create the feel of cyberpunk through the mechanics and gameplay experience. While I've been immersing myself in a range of different touchstones for the project in movies, books, and games, I always come back to the way Adam Koebel once described the genre: "the bad guys have already won."
In the fantasy genre, the heroes try to save the day, whether it be saving the world, saving their family, saving their own life, etc. In the cyberpunk genre, you can't save the day because the world is already lost. This poses several challenges for adapting Blades in the Dark into a game that feels like cyberpunk. In Blades, you might be scoundrels and do terrible things, but you overcome desperate situations and try to "win" by making your crew as powerful as any other faction in the city. Winning isn't only achievable, but a big part of the gameplay goal.
All of these questions fell into a broader challenge set by my own personality and life experience. I've spent ten years working in real life with the aftermath of violence, ranging from victims of crimes to combat veterans to prisoners who perpetrated violence. I couldn't create a game that feeds into the glorification of violence or exploitation of others, but I also didn't want to create a game that forced my morals onto other people and the gameplay experience.
This left me with several tricky problems:
I have been testing out different ideas and systems to try and answer these questions for over a year. I've been reading and playing dozens of other TTRPGs to see how they answer some of these questions for themselves, especially when it comes to reward systems and creating mood in gameplay.
Nothing I created and tested worked to my satisfaction. While a lot of the peripheral work of the game was finished last summer, without these core questions answered, I really didn't have a game...or not one that I liked.
This week I finally found the answer for 3 of the 4 questions in an integrated way. Credit for that eureka moment goes to Girl by Moonlight, which encouraged me throw out all of my preconceptions of how to use the Forged in the Dark system, and the board game version of This War of Mine, which showed me how game mechanics can create moral tension and how sometimes surviving can be a win state of its own.
I won't detail the game system here (yet) because I haven't finished writing the rulebook pages. But this week definitely felt like the most progress I've ever made, getting very close to matching my design to my vision for the game. As of now I have a reward cycle with its own win state, a gameplay mechanic to create the feel of oppression while still being (I hope) fun, and a karma system that puts some moral tension on how the team solves problems.
I am still tweaking the social currency system as an alternative to money/turf. I have a draft of it, and it does integrate into the reward cycle and win condition system, but I'm not entirely satisfied with it.
I've tried to write a thoughtful reflection on game design for the past hour, to give insight into how I'm using the position/effect system differently in Karma and why, but I'm giving up. All of that will have to wait until I have the rules out for play testing or feel less burned out on writing game rules.
So more to the point, I used the long weekend to:
I think it was Kevin Crawford who said recently that the difference between people who design games and those who don't is the ability to do tedious work.
I've been using that quote to motivate myself this month. No interesting rules design or playtesting for me, just tedious, necessary editing of the main rules document.
The past two weeks I have been integrating my game design with the SRD. This basically means pasting the SRD, piece by piece, into my word processor, highlighting the parts that need to be changed for Karma in the Dark, pasting those unique parts into the document, and leaving notes for myself about where to come back and edit so the parts flow together.
It means v.3.0 is starting to look like a real document, but the work is slow. I think I have 1/3rd of the rulebook done at this point. I expected this to be fast since 90% of the final document already exist, either in the SRD or my unique rules, but it turns out my brain can only sustain focus for short periods of time after work.
So this will probably continue to be the next few weeks or month: the slow, tedious work of editing together two different documents.
First of all: I apologize for the radio silence. My real life job became insanely busy and I pretty much disappeared from the world for three months (to the point even my family was leaving "are you still alive??" voice messages and emails).
About 3 days ago, the official bladesinthedark.com website launched, bringing the SRD with it.
Work-life will continue to be insane until mid/late January, but this news has certainly reinvigorated my desire to return to KitD. I imagine my progress week-to-week will be small for the next month, but I plan on posting weekly updates again here to help keep myself on track and motivated.
The time "off" has allowed me to continue to test, design, and think through some mechanics. I've also been able to play and read several different TTRPGs, which has helped me get a better idea of how mechanics impact play, and how to tweak my own mechanics to illicit the intended experience. As a result, I will be making changes to the design from September which is why it isn't ready to release at this point.
At this point in the development, the unique mechanics for Karma v3.0 have been designed and had the layout mostly finished. I've decided to wait 1 month to see how progress goes on the Blades in the Dark SRD. When that comes out, I can start making this came for official--and also don't have to rewrite the core Blades rules just to avoid copyright infringement.
If there is no new progress in the SRD by mid-October, I'll go ahead and release a hack version of v3.0, which will basically be like the current Scum & Villainy release--unique rules defined, and then just pointing players at the Blades book for the rest. I don't like that patchwork method, but I think it's the best way to do until the SRD and common creative license is put in place.
In the meantime, I'm working on a small side project. I'll write up some details on the design blog.
"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." -- Thomas Alva Edison
This past week has seen significant progress, but it's the "great behind the scenes not interesting for users type." A friend reminded me of the scrum approach to projects. While I didn't adapt it 100% for this project, I did spend some time defining the game pieces, organizing my timeline, and committed myself to working on small piece-by-piece in line with my timeline, instead of jumping all around.
So as of this point I have finished all design work on v3.0. What does that mean exactly? I've separated game concepts into two general bins: necessary for v3.0 launch, and can be added as supplemental sections later.
Every part of the rules I decided is required for the initial release of v3.0 is now defined. There will be no more experimenting or tweaking until after I get this out and get playtesting feedback.
What remains? I have written the text for ~64% of the v3.0 rulebook. Those sections need layout and copyediting. The remaining 36% is all planned out in diagrams and text scraps, but needs to be translated into chapters, then laid out and copy edited.
What made it into version 3.0?
Overview of the game
Characters, Teams, and Faction edits
Everything needed to run missions and downtime, including a crafting system to help make individual characters more unique
Player's best practices
GM best practices
What will be added as later supplements?
(No August week 4 update planned, since I will be traveling for work).
I spent most of the past week with the most frustrating cold. Because I had a fever, my work literally ordered me home for half the week which could sound awesome, but I was in a weird state of not-sick-enough to sleep all day, but also too fuzzy headed and fatigued to do much. As a result, I spent chunks of time sketching out ideas for the game, but every time I tried to compose sentences it was so excruciating I gave up. I can compensate for my dyslexia on a good day, but when I'm tried/sick, my language skills are the first thing to vanish.
With all of my sick days, I picked up video games I had given up on years ago: Hearthstone, Path of Exile, and Mirror's Edge: Catalyst. I found out (by having an excess amount of hours with nothing else I could do) that Hearthstone and PoE both get amazing once you stick with them through the initial learning curve.
Not so with ME: Catalyst. Despite my disappointment with the game, it helped me crystallize some design ideas for Karma.
I kept playing ME: Catalyst because moments reminded me of my love for the original, with its unique combo of endless runner + jump puzzles + cyberpunk aesthetic. But the more I played, the more the flaws became clear. The game was trying to do too many things at once. They had the same core parkour mechanics as the first, but rather than pushing those to the fullest, they threw in collection questions, timed runs, forced combat with multiple enemy types, a skill tree, user generated content, etc. I hated the new runner's vision, but since this game overburdened the landscape with colors and details (in stark contrast to the elegant simplicity of the original) I found that I required the full runner's vision at certain parts. In making everything flashier, they seemed to lose sight of the fact the original design brilliantly hinted you through the levels without making it as simple-minded as "follow the red line" like the runner vision in this game.
I walked away from ME: Catalyst thinking, "The designers didn't know what made their game fun. All of the new additions distracted from the core mechanics of the game, rather than enhancing them."
And THAT is the wall I have been beating my head against for the past five months with the next version of Karma. I know there is a core, fun element to the game. I also know I want to create a different experience than Blades, which means changing the core mechanics and making sure all of the peripheral mechanics enhance that new core, rather than act like disjointed noise.
I have spiraled around this question countless times: What is the premise of the game? What is the core experience? What is most fun?
With that comes the question: What is the reward cycle?
Walking my dog today, I finally realized the missing piece: there needs to be an endgame. The reward cycle needs to be moving you towards something in order to feel meaningful, and that means having a set end goal. In Blades, the goal is to become the biggest, baddest criminal empire. In Karma your team can never grow bigger than a corporation . . . you can never fundamentally change the world . . . but what if you could?
I need to plan out the details before I reveal more, but I think this is the end goal: to become a faction. In Blades you start as a low tier faction and work your way up; in the cyberpunk world, once you become a part of the system, the game is over.
Core Mechanics: layout stage
World Creation: editing stage
Character Creation: layout stage
Team Creation: drafted
Factions: layout stage
Missions & Downtime: drafted
Players Best Practices: drafted
GM Toolkit: in progress
Appendix - Random Generators/Sandbox Tools: drafted
The entire design process feels a lot like wandering around a maze; it feels impossible to know far everything really is, and how much progress has been made.
This week I: