Friday, April 30, 2010


Remember when I said the cyberpunk genre struck me as a gritty, high-tech version of the heist film or a spy story? Wouldn't you know there's some inspiration to be had from a spy game then. I refer specifically to Wilderness of Mirrors, a superspy game by, yes, John Wick.

In discussing this game's development, Wick notes that if you reproduced any of the most popular spies from fiction in a game system, they'd all have high scores across the board. No one would have anything in the normal range, let alone sub-par. So he didn't bother with attributes. Instead, he created areas of expertise, ways in which the spies acted to get what they wanted.

This is such a cool idea. As far as Shadowrun is concerned, the only times I can think that my players have rolled their attributes have been in concert with skills, i.e. their attributes served the role of determining how they were using their skills (Charisma + Interrogation to lie the information out of someone, Strength + Interrogation to physically rough up the target and get him to talk). Well, if that's the case, why not ditch the attributes entirely and replace them with methods that determine how you're applying a skill?

The next bit of inspiration comes from a very brief blurb I read describing the game Cyberspace. The description of the classes available screamed cyberpunk to me, and they fell into neat categories almost without work.

So, after tinkering with the language just a little bit, here is Shadowitz's method list:
  • Razor - when using violence or direct, forceful confrontation of any sort, this is your method. This used to be called Killer, but in the first instance of reader suggested edits, someone dropped this name instead, and it fit the bill exactly.
  • Fixer - if you're working through contacts, this is your method. I really like this particular method because it makes a character's contacts part of the character himself. Instead of spending precious build points on buying access to other people, your web of connections is now one of your attributes (method, really, but you know what I mean).
  • Data Rat - this method covers knowledge of all sorts. If you want to work the information angle (scholarly information, not cluemongering), this is where you're going.
  • Face - charm, guile, and charisma. If you're doing anything socially, you're going to use face as your method.
  • Sleaze - if you want to do it undetected, this is your method.
I realize that these could easily be attributes with exotic names, so here's how I imagine them working. You can combine any skill with any method; your action's description determines how they come together. Thus, you can combine your gun skill with the methods in the following ways:
  • Razor - shoot someone
  • Fixer - get some of your contacts to shoot someone
  • Data Rat - learn something about a particular firearm
  • Face - shmooze someone about guns
  • Sleaze - fire your weapon undetected, such as assassinating someone with a silenced gun
UPDATE: Much thanks to reader Lyle for the suggestion of Razor in place of Killer. Perfect! After all Molly Millions, the original street samurai, was known as Steppin' Razor in the Zion Cluster, and was also called a razorgirl at times. So much more genre appropriate than "Killer."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Discarding Assumptions

I've decided to go with a die pool mechanic for the basis of the system (which my gaming crew has dubbed Shadowitz). I don't know if I ever seriously considered anything else. Single die systems (such as Dungeons and Dragons) have plenty to recommend them, but I don't think I've ever liked them as much as die pools. There's something that feels much more appropriate about die pools for Shadowrun than a single die, and since this is a game I'm designing for my friends and me, going with a feeling is a perfectly fine reason to do something.

Okay, so it's a die pool system. Well, the traditional die pool system typically takes an attribute, combines it with a skill, and then has you roll that many dice. But that goes against one of the rules I laid out for myself: keep the pool small. If I'm combining two different numbers to get my pool and I still want a small pool (say 10 dice or less), then either the skill or the attribute, or both, need such low caps that I'll lose granularity.

I'd heard that small press and indie games often flout traditional game design, so I started looking around to see what was out there that was outside of the traditional mold to give me some ideas.

Among the things I found were:
  • No attributes
  • No skills
  • No experience
  • Player defined attributes/skills
Call me sheltered, but having taken a gander at how differently some systems do things, I suddenly have whole new vistas to explore. Much like the setting and mechanics analysis, I'm thinking of starting with the essentials and building up from there. This means there won't necessarily be attributes, or skills, or anything. There's got to be something, but just because most games have used these things since the 70s doesn't mean that they have to be in this game.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Dreams of Dice

I've now got a list of setting elements that I want to represent in the rules. But there are a couple of other things to consider before putting everything to dice, because when my group first started playing Shadowrun 4e, we were all over it. It was only after a number of sessions that things began to fray, and they were problems with the mechanics that had nothing to do with what they did or did not represent in the game world.

My biggest problem with the SR4 mechanics was speed. It took too long to run combat. To attack someone you calculate your die pool (remember that recoil, folks), then roll your attack and count up your successes. Your target then gets a free defensive roll, and after he generates his successes, you compare results and cancel one another out. If you have any successes left over, you hit and your opponent then makes a soak roll. Finally, he records damage and you move to the next person in the round.

Now, there are ways to speed this up. Rolling simultaneously, for example, does cut down on the time a little. But SR4 die pools are large, and it takes a short while to sort out your results on a roll. Individually it's not a big deal, and this is why it wasn't a problem at first. But eventually the entire thing begins to drag. Multiple opposed rolls that use big die pools was something I couldn't get over.

I had previously attempted to port the game over to Feng Shui, but while it was fast, even modified it didn't feel like Shadowrun. It didn't find any traction with my players. I also tried using the One Roll Engine of Wild Talents, and while this worked reasonably well, there was a problem in that I found I needed to individually craft every piece of cyberware, every adept power, and every spell. The game is a super hero game, so it had everything I needed to do this, but it prevented the players from feeling like they had control over their own characters. I like both games quite a bit, but for Shadowrun, the dice weren't right.

I think the best way to approach the system is to do something similar to the setting exercise for the rules themselves: create a list of essential elements that either must or must not be in the rules, except this time it's a strictly mechanical discussion. So for now, this is what I'm working with:
  • Limit Die Pool Size - As noted above, one of the limiting factors I found in SR4 was the sheer number of dice everyone threw to perform actions. If you had an optimized character (and my group had several), you could be chucking close to 20 dice for an action. Even with simple resolution mechanics, that's a lot of dice to sort. In the interest of speed, I want to keep die pools small.
  • Limit Die Resolution Complexity - This was something I think SR4 and nWoD both do right: they make reading your dice easy. Roll a die, look for a number. If you got that number on a die, it's a success. Thing is, the number is the same every time. In Shadowrun, if you roll a 5 or 6 on a die, it's a success. Difficulty is set by the number of successes you need, not by the number you need on any particular die. That reduces the amount of math required in resolving your action, and that makes things go faster.
  • Minimize Opposed Rolls - Opposed rolls require two people to roll and calculate their results, then compare them and perform some other calculation. Even if these things are simple, an opposed roll is inherently more complicated and takes longer than a static one. I'm not opposed to the idea of an opposed roll, and I can imagine a number of situations where they are the most logical way of resolving a situation, but I don't want them to become the default mechanic. I think a lot of situations in which other systems use opposed rolls can be resolved with rolls against static targets.
  • Build in Gradient Success - Some systems use a binary success model: you succeed or you don't. Gradients means something about your roll says not only if you succeed or fail, but also by how much. This isn't anything new, but it's a very popular concept among my gaming crew, and it sits well with me as well. In fact, my group has asked me to include this in the system, specifically as it pertains to combat. They want the quality of the attack to modify damage, and perhaps to merge attack and damage rolls into a single toss of the dice, much as Shadowrun has done for decades.
  • Speed - As I noted in the flavor elements, speed augmentation is important to the genre. Thus, there needs to be some kind of speed mechanic in the game. Some games, for example, forgo initiative and combat order in order to make the entire thing simpler and faster. Neat idea, but counter to my purposes in this game. A street sam with wired reflexes needs to be able to jump all over the slower opposition. At the same time, the advantage can't be overwhelming. This is a game, after all, and the guy playing the mage begged me not to leave those unable to get cyberware out in the cold as happened in some older editions of the game.
  • Wound Penalties - This is an old staple of many, many games, but there are a few reasons I want to include these beyond precedent. First and foremost, Shadowrun is a game about supernormal characters, and I don't want to lose sight of the normal part. Even highly skilled people take a ding in their performance when they've been shot through the leg. Plus, wound penalties provide something else cyberware can mitigate, creating another use for the implants and ensuring greater variety of available enhancements.
  • No Death Spiral - We've all been there: you're in a fight and your character's not out, but he's so crippled by penalties that he's effectively useless. The best you can do is hope the fight ends soon. No fun at all. This means while I want things to become more difficult for the characters as they get hurt, I need to be careful that as long as they're active they're still capable of succeeding. However I represent damage penalties, be it increased target numbers or roll penalties, they need to stay within certain limits.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The First Step

First things first: what's this game about? In some ways this is already answered since we're using an existing game's setting. Shadowrun's a game in which skilled, and often augmented social outcasts perform clandestine missions, usually against and for faceless megacorporate powers.

That's a pretty accurate summary of Shadowrun's premise, but it's not much to work on in terms of saying what the game's about. So I think it best to go broader and examine the fundamental aspects of the cyberpunk genre as a whole. What's core to the genre? What needs to be represented? In answering those questions, I paraphrase John Wick (yes, I read a lot of what he had to say on the matter, you should too): It doesn't matter what your flavor text is in a campaign; if you don't have a mechanic for it, your players will ignore it.

After doing some reading and talking with some of my players, I got the following list:
  • Cybernetics - duh, right? Well, not just cybernetics, but specific implants. As in there needs to be rules for specific implants, not just some vague hand wave approach that "you're stronger" or "you're faster." There should be a catalog of implants, and it really should feel like you're shopping for body parts. The dehumanizing elements of advanced technology seemed like a strong undercurrent in much of what I read, and turning your biological makeup into a parts list really punches that home.
  • Broken Characters - a player of mine pointed this out to me: characters in cyberpunk stories almost always have something wrong with them. They're on the outskirts of society not because they're all cool and rebellious, but because they've broken in a way that prevents them from living a normal life. Nothing revolutionary here; flaws have been a part of RPGs for decades, but they need to be in this one too. They may even need to be mandatory.
  • Speed - this isn't so much something that came up in the non-game fiction, but it's a core part of the Shadowrun universe, and shows up in its stories all the time. Speed is key. Samurai are always talking about the edge their boosted reflexes give. There needs to be some mechanic that allows faster characters to get an edge over slower ones, be it simple initiative bonuses or something else.
  • Guns Guns Guns - it's a joke among my friends that every time they go shopping in Shadowrun they invariably forget to buy whatever it was that sent them to the catalog and instead buy three or four guns apiece. More than that, though, is that the wide selection of firearms and other weapons allows people to spout off about the particulars of their weapon like a true expert, which actually helps establish character. So, extensive gun/weapon catalog with rules that differentiate them.
  • Supernormal Characters - cyberpunk stories, and Shadowrun missions as well, are about a group of specialists who come together to pull off some difficult, covert operation. In a lot of ways they're like high-tech, gritty versions of the superspy story or a heist (think Oceans 11 or The Italian Job). Thus characters, even starting characters need to be better than average, at least in one area. They should be specialists who right off the bat are better than most at their chosen field.
  • Planning - I noticed something in my Shadowrun games throughout the years. There was a pattern of behavior that showed up again and again. A new group takes a mission and plans for hours on how they'll execute it. Somewhere in the course of things, something goes wrong and they shoot their way out. So, they plan multiple contingencies in order to address this, something they didn't plan for happens, and they shoot their way out. Eventually, the group decides that no matter how much they plan something is going to screw it all up, so why not just skip the hours of planning and go in shooting. After all, everything on their sheet is about combat anyway. It's a logical progression, but not the way I want my games to go. Thus, planning needs to be rewarded or encouraged.
  • Contacts - I was very impressed with the use of contacts in Neuromancer, and I never felt that Shadowrun addressed them in a way that encouraged such widespread use as I saw in that book. In fact, unless I gave them out for free, my players routinely skipped them. Something that makes contacts cooler or promotes their use is called for.
  • Trust - "It ain't a shadowrun until the Johnson screws you twice." Anyone who's played Shadowrun at all knows that saying. That and "Never deal with a dragon." And yet there is an expectation of playing straight with your employer that appears in cyberpunk in general and Shadowrun in particular. It's okay for a character to seek vengeance on an employer who double crosses him, but if he's the one to pull a fast one, the narrative punishes him. Thus there needs to be some kind of encouragement to play it straight, even if you are playing a criminal.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What is This?

This blog is an outgrowth of my inability to leave RPGs alone. Rarely do I run them as is. In particular is the game Shadowrun, which I fell in love with in college and have been trying to run ever since. There was a problem though.

I couldn't stand the rules.

I tried everything, from really buckling down and studying them until my brain bled (really, it did), to modifying them, to exporting the game world into other systems I thought would work better. Sometimes it made things a little easier, but never did it hit bullseye.

Eventually I stumbled across some articles by the esteemed game developer John Wick, who noted once that you'll never make the game you're looking for by modifying someone else's work. You've got to do it yourself. So, in taking that advice, I set out to create my own rules system for Shadowrun, whole cloth.

This blog is a record of that attempt.