One of my main design goals with Ruralpunk is to balance narrative decision making with streamlined advancement. Today I want to share the different group advancement mechanics I've created and how they all fold into the same theme: interwoven relationships.
In Ruralpunk, you don't have different crew types, you choose a town type. This determines your starting town, the local factions, the contacts you can make, and the improvements you can build.
You advance your town through three systems: managing corruption, contacts, and town improvements.
My favorite experiences involve contrasts. This is why games that mostly lean into a power fantasy, or games that try too hard to create a gritty experience, only hold my interest for a short time. When I designed Tides of Gold, I wanted to explore a game that tried to weave these two elements together. The fantastical experiences would be inspiring and fun, but the difficult decisions would introduce a sense of meaningful, weighty decisions.
There were two reasons for this.
One, I know in my game groups, our desire to play something light or challenging can be heavily influenced by real life circumstances. I wanted a game that allowed groups to adapt the tone of their campaign session-to-session, depending on their mood and IRL circumstances..
Two, my strongest memories in game campaigns are the bittersweet ones. The sessions that mixed humor with loss, heroic success with sacrifice, or over-the-top antics with a serious underlying theme. I wanted to design a game intended to create these moments more often in play: the contrast of inspiring and gritty.
The rest of this post is going to review how I designed Tides of Gold with this contrast in mind.
I've been quietly experimenting with idea of RuralPunk since last fall. There's always been a disconnect between me and traditional cyberpunk caused by its urban focus. I've spent most of my life in small towns and rural communities. While many of the stressors of the future between urban and rural places are connected, they manifest in different ways.
So that's the question that has teased me for months: what would a cyberpunk future look like in a rural setting?
I decided this month I need to dive in and explore that space. I am going to revise the Karma in the Dark rules and focus them on a ruralpunk setting. Immediately, I realized that this process would mirror my original process of adapting Blades in the Dark to a cyberpunk setting. Many mechanics will stay the same, but many others will need to be tweaked to fit this new setting.
The question became: what needs to change? And what does that look like?
The answer, I realized, is based on how I see and want to explore this ruralpunk future.
Revisiting the concept of a play pyramid for game design recently helped me focus my editing process for game mechanics.
Crossing Worlds is going to be a new game based on mechanics developed for Karma in the Dark. But just hacking Blades for a Shadowrun inspired setting (Karma) required mechanical adjustments; taking Karma into a game world about Cherokee futurism in a off world sci-fi setting would definitely require mechanical adjustments. I also learned a lot in my three years of designing Karma, so many of my mechanic choices now seem...questionable.
I've been grappling with this pretty massive revision project, and not well. My direction for tackling the revision drifted over the past few months as I struggled to find a good way to making editing decisions.
Then I watched Cory Barlog's GDC presentation on reinventing God of War. As he described the process of moving from the original franchise to pitching a new game to actually developing that new game, one image stood out: the play pyramid for the new game.
Thinking about pilars of gameplay isn't revolutionary (I've even looked at it before for Karma in the Dark) but this image struck me for two reasons:
This dynamic appealed to me because Karma (and by extention, the first draft of CW) had begun to feel unwieldly. There were too many ideas, too many systems, too many rules to learn. I wanted something more streamlined.
I stepped back and asked myself what the play pyramid would look like for Crossing Worlds.
As I've been revising the foundational rules of Karma in the Dark for my first full release of Crossing Worlds, I've been reconsidering the utility, theme, and synergy of every mechanic. I found myself stuck on what to do with Harm for weeks. In the basic Forged in the Dark engine, harm is one of five possible consequences from a roll that doesn't get a 6 result. If you take harm, you write a short description in the box. Level 1 means you have decreased effect, level 2 means you have -1d, and level 3 means you need to push yourself or get assistance for actions.
Harm as it stands achieves three main purposes: narratively, it captures more long-standing injury; during scores, it creates a penalty for failure; and during downtime, it acts as a time/money sink because it requires downtime actions to recover.
Examining each purpose through the lens of Crossing Worlds, it didn't seem to fit.
This is just a brief peek at a current prototype.
As I mentioned in my update post, I've been reworking/rethinking my idea of mixing Dungeon World with the teenage-superhero vibe of Masks to make a game about being heroes-in-training. Think Fable 1, especially the short interlude where you were training in the Heroes' Guild fighting beetles and bandits.
I want to combine this concept with my burning desire to have a game designed for West Marches style play, by which I mean you can have a different group of players every week but still have a sense of progression individually and within the larger world narrative. In addition, I want a game with minimal GM prep...inching towards the realm of a GMless game. The idea is to make picking up and playing the game as easy as possible, with as little extra time investment as possible.
This is part 3 of 3 about safety tools in tabletop RPGs and why I chose to make Brie Beau Sheldon's Script Change Tool a core mechanic in Karma in the Dark.
In this post, I explain why I didn't choose some common safety tools. This is not to say those tools are fundamentally "bad" or "wrong", they simply didn't provide what I needed for my game.
This is part 2 of 3 in a series about safety tools in TTRPG's and why I chose to make Brie Beau Sheldon's Script Change Tool a core mechanic in Karma in the Dark.
Part 2: Why Karma in the Dark Needed Safety Tools
I was playing a D&D game at a con, and the GM told me I woke up in my inn room to the realization that a stranger, a man, was sneaking across the pitch-black room towards my bed. A beat later, the GM explained that he belonged to the same secret guild as my pre-made character.
In the space of that beat? I was a female player, with a female character, in a group of all men, with the image of being woken up to a dark room with a strange man moving close.
I honestly don't think the GM meant to push the "fear of sexual assault" button. It just didn't occur to him.
A speaker at GDC (unfortunately I can't remember the specific speech) made the argument that we shouldn't aim to please everyone with our games; that tactic often leads to more bland, middle of the road game design. Instead, we should design in a way that sparks conversation and controversy. If a game mechanic is polarized between "loved it vs. hated it", your design is more interesting than "everyone said it was fine."
This speech crystallized some of my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of team advancement. In v3.1 of Karma, team upgrades often follow a similar pattern: get the ability that increases our action skill, get an ability to make training xp more efficient, etc. Even the upgrades that were less optimization focused felt...dull?
So I decided to rework almost all of team advancement around a few principles:
If I drop everything that influenced Karma to this point, I have to rethink what dystopia, awakening, and cyberspace mean. So far I have some ideas about how I want that to go:
(To recap past posts) The Mortal World/Dystopia is defined by: extreme polarization/segregation that causes deadly competition; stagnation; and reduction of people to tools i.e. a means to an end.
Mechanically, these dynamics are reflected in the fact the GM's Karma front cannot really be stopped; the world can only be changed with great effort; and social relevance is a defining source of power. The PCs are hired by factions because they are tools; they are expendable, because more tools can be bought. They are hired not for their anonymity, but for their expendability. (I am writing least about this aspect, because it is pretty well developed in the game already and just needs some honing.)
The Magic World/Awakening is in direct revolt of those tenants. In the awakening: everyone has the same innate access to magic; everything is connected, with the flow of cause-and-effect resulting in constant, sustained changed; and magic is a sentient, self-determined and motivated personality.
Now for the new additions.
I plan for Rootless to have two different game phases: the exploration phase and the bonfire phase.
The exploration phase is inspired by the hexcrawl type of adventure. The Alexandrian provides a design overview of hexcrawls while Run a Game provides an introduction to the game style. The game takes the form of a sandbox-discovery game. The GM creates a landscape or world populated with points of interest for players to discover and tinker with. Rather than focus on a set narrative or even a defined goal, these points of interest act as prompts for adventures. I’ll admit this plays to my preferences as a GM—I like tossing out intriguing things for players and seeing them run with it—and as a player, because it allows for open-ended play that adapts well to different group preferences and moods.
The West Marches game run by Steven Lumpkin on Rollplay is a great example of this type of game, which you can find on the Rollplay youtube here.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has studied the basics of human motivation for over 50 years. It all started with one experiment. The research team had people engage in a task and rate their intrinsic enjoyment of the task in the beginning. Then they created three groups: one received money for completing tasks, one received money unrelated to the task, and one group received positive encouragement. The groups rated their intrinsic enjoyment of the task after receiving their different rewards.
Who would say they enjoyed the task most? Surely the people who received money for their work.
Nope. The group that received money for the tasks had their intrinsic enjoyment decrease after their reward. The group who received money unrelated to their work had their intrinsic enjoyment remain the same. But the group that received positive encouragement? Their intrinsic enjoyment actually went up by the end.
This finding has been replicated over and over and over.
A friend and I were talking about family memory. She asked, “But what if you don’t know anything about your family history? What if no one remembers?”
Her question years ago started my ideas about nomads within the Rootless world: they would be people who could travel throughout the Wild, relatively unharmed, despite not having memory of the land they moved in because they had self-knowledge, a memory of themselves, where they came from—not in the genealogical/historical sense, but in the “these things have shaped me sense.”
When I started designing character mechanics for the TTRPG, I became intrigued by this idea of character stats not based on skills i.e. “things we do”, but on self-identity or “who we are.” The better a player character knew themselves, the more defense they would have against the Wild and its assault. But I needed to turn this abstract idea into concrete stats and mechanics for the game. Luckily, I studied a lot of personality theories in my academic career, and I mentally started flipping through them. I needed a theory that could be summarized quickly, turned into concrete mechanics, and be both relatable and easy to comprehend—which immediately eliminated most theories.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.