Brief update: finished the layout for all character sheets. I'll upload previews in a few days after I have some time to review them for typos.
The final layout required more time than I expected. Since players pick 2 special ability categories, I wanted to make sure there was balance between the different categories. When I reviewed them all for balance, I found a lot of abilities that needed to be tweaked, moved to other categories, or replaced.
I noticed that the magic and cyber categories all included special abilities that introduced new ways to play the game (e.g. illusion magic, possessing machines like a Shadowrun rigger, etc.) while the mortal souls did not. I spent a lot of time trying to develop a special ability that introduces new gameplay in every category. Similarly, I made sure almost every category includes only one ability that gives +1d or increases effect.
At this point I am pretty satisfied with the balance between abilities. The majority of them are unique to this game rather than imported from Blades in the Dark. It will take play testing to improve ability balance beyond this point.
Up next: layout of all team sheets.
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: