Heart [of the Game System] Surgery

'Oh, man - how many times have I told you? Measure twice, cut once.'

I took some time after my last post to stew on what to do with the Pick 2 game engine for Playthings. While the game play worked great, the initial concepts proved to be an initial stumbling block. The method of deriving stats, while simple in theory, proved to be too convoluted for players to grok quickly and I decided that before I could proceed any further I had to address changes that needed to be made to the very heart of the system. Heart surgery, if you will.

It hasn’t been easy to come up with a solution. Frankly, I was disheartened to discover that the one thing I saw as a selling point of the system – its simplicity – turned out not to be simple for players. It negated the whole point of the system and I wasn’t sure it could survive this sort of fundamental change. I struggled for a while trying to think up a way to fix the problem, but couldn’t come up with anything. Then I toyed with the idea of scrapping the system altogether and using an existing system, but I just didn’t like the idea of being beholden to someone else’s system.

Finally, with the deadline of Gen Con game registration looming, I came back to the idea of trying to fix the system. Apparently enough time had passed for a solution to present itself, although it did require a sacrifice. The Pick 2 system was based on the (I thought) simple concept of “Body, Brains, Balance: pick 2”. The idea was that each area started with 1 point, but you moved one of those points to a neighbor giving you two, one, and zero. So far so good. Players understood that. Then from these points the ability scores were extrapolated. This is where problems began.

For starters, people had trouble with the concept that any action required two skills, even if it was two of the same skill. So you would have, for example, Body/Brains, Body/Balance, and Body/Body (or Double Body). In my mind this seemed really easy, but this was consistently confusing to players. I believe the problem is a matter of labels. The ability names confused players.

This, however, was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem was the zero. Since you had two, one, and zero to work with for ability scores that meant that one of your abilities, even when doubled, would be zero. In nearly every game I’ve run there was at least one time where a person needed a particular skill (say Double Body) but they had a zero for that ability, meaning that unless they had some sort of bonus in their Features, they had no chance of succeeding. Definitely not cool. I knew that I had to fix this.

The hard decision to make was that I had to give up the “pick 2” concept. It simply didn’t work and had to be abandoned. However, the actual mechanics of the system beyond that were fine.  So basically I needed a simple way for players to come up with their ability scores and I needed those abilities to have unique names.

The names were the easy part. In essence, what you have is Power, Constitution, Willpower, Concentration, Intelligence, and  Cleverness. But since the game needs to be kid-friendly I went for simpler terms: Strength, Grit, Will, Focus, IQ, and Wits. Done. So now instead of asking for a Body/Balance roll I ask for a Wits roll, and instead of asking for a Double Body roll I ask for a Strength roll. Simple. Quick. Specific. Problem solved.

As for how to come up with ability scores, I decided the easiest way was to give players a point pool and let them fill the ability buckets as they wanted. But of course if you allow them to do that then you’ll always have that one guy who puts everything into a single ability, making them useless in almost everything, but damn near unstoppable in that one ability. Plus, the whole problem was having a zero ability score, so clearly some boundaries had to be set.

So first, how many points should they get? That was pretty straightforward. The scores previously broke down to four, three, two, two, one, and zero. Total that up and you have 12. However, that divided a little too easily; they could just have two in every ability. I want players to have to choose at least one ability that is better than the rest. I want them to have to make that decision because it forces them to think about their character and in what area they excel. The answer: add one more. Make it 13. That way it doesn’t divide evenly. That way, the players can have almost all twos, but one ability has to be at least three.

This was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t solve the zero problem. To fix that I decided to set some limits. All scores have to have at least one, but can be no more than four. This gives the players flexibility, prevents power stacking, and eliminates zeros. We’ll see how this all plays out, of course, but I feel like this new approach addresses the most glaring problems with the system.

Now there’s just one last problem to solve. Since you’re no longer picking two, the name Pick 2 Engine no longer works. So what to call it… Hmmm…

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting

Heeeere Bessie, Bessie, Bessie…

Sacred Cow

Didn’t know sacred cows had ear tags, did you?

I learned several very important things in my Playthings playtest at Gen Con. First, I learned that creating an adventure where the characters can pop back and forth between two different planes of existence is twice the work and a real pain in the butt. Believe me, I won’t be making that mistake again. Sheesh.

Second, I found that the setting easily supports a darker tone. No one ever questioned the pairing of toys and horror. In fact, they seemed to relish the idea. The juxtaposition of such innocent things against creepy, unsettling surroundings played very well among my players. Including it as a play option is a must.

Third, I learned that while I’ve billed the game as playable for six years old and up, it depends upon the kid. I’ve run the game very successfully with six-year-olds before, but the adventure failed to hold this year’s six-year-old’s attention. Maybe it was the subject matter, maybe the kid was hungry or tired, who knows. Point is that instead of saying the game works for kids six and up, I think I need to say kids “as young as six” to set proper expectations.

But most importantly, I learned that the system – as written – has several major problems. First and foremost, because of the “pick 2” aspect of the attributes it means that every player has one attribute score that is zero. I’ve tried to make up for this by including complimentary “Features” and bonus “Proof Of Purchase” dice, but I still ran into instances where a player had a zero and was just screwed. That… Cannot… Happen! The players want to be awesome and the system should at least give them a chance, even if just a small chance, to be awesome.

In addition, the damage system is too complex. The adults in the game had trouble grasping it, so I can’t expect young kids to grok it. I like the idea of having simple levels, but the system used to move between levels needs to be far simpler.

Finally, the players are consistently confused about what number to roll. Maybe I’m just not communicating it well, but I think the circle graphic I’m using on the character sheet along with the using two attributes for any action is just too confusing. This goes directly to the core on which the system was based. As much as I hate to admit it, the “simple” idea I had is the very thing that is complicating matters. I’ve worked and reworked the system on and off for three years now. Since the setting is working very well, but the system is not, it’s time to slay the sacred cow and cut the system loose. Time to either develop a system that is more streamlined and will compliment the setting or else adopt an existing system that will work well with the setting.

Wish me luck.

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting

Going a Little Bit Darker


When I ran Playthings at last year’s Gen Con I sort of half-assed it. Time got away from me and I hadn’t worked on the adventure at all and before I knew it the con was a week away and I had nothing. So I cheated a bit. I used the same house layout (setting), the same PCs and the same NPCs from the game I ran in 2013 and just gave them a new goal. Yes, I know, it wasn’t actually cheating, but I felt bad that I hadn’t put much effort into it. Thankfully, it went well despite my laziness.

This year I want to put more effort into the adventure by exploring a darker corner of the game; something that broadens the game’s scope and is less for the kiddos. An aspect of the setting is that toys are given life by the faith and imagination of their child, so for this year’s adventure I want to address the fact that the fears and anxieties of a child can also bring things to life. I can’t say much without giving things away, but suffice it to say this should open up a whole new branch to the game, one that should appeal more to adults.

I’m excited about the concept and I can’t wait to see what the players will do with it. Now I just have to make sure that I don’t piss away all of the time I have to do it.

Posted in Game Design, Playtesting Tagged with: , ,

Finger Painting, 2013 Style


Not long ago I was fishing around to find artists for Playthings. I got a number of responses and to those people I say a hearty thank you and I hope to have my act together soon so we can get this party started.
In the meantime my lovely wife, Beth, asked me why I couldn’t just do the art myself. I scoffed at the idea originally thinking that she gave me way too much credit in the art department, but as my knee-jerk reaction slowly gave way to curiosity I decided to give it a go. To the artists that responded to my prior query, fear not, for in the end I want professionals handling the art, but I was surprised to find that my work came out better than I expected.

Just for funsies (and because I have the image versions to do it) I’ll take you through my process. I opted to try out an image editing app on my tablet, SketchBookX, to do the work. I started out using a stylus, but eventually I ditched that and just used my finger. That’s right, I was finger painting. Deal with it. Anyway, I began by doing a rough body position in blue.


This just served to give me a basic frame from which to work. To be honest, up to this point I didn’t know what I was drawing, I just started out with a human figure because I know how to do that, and the position is a weird one because I just wanted to try something out of the ordinary. Having sketched this much I decided to draw a doll. I was originally was thinking of a Barbie type doll, but the design morphed over time. You’ll see what I mean. Using this framework I soon fleshed out the rest of the body, making sure to add where the joints of the doll would be. I even experimented a bit with shading, but soon decided that it was way too soon for that.


I made the choice to try to make a lanky, somewhat awkward character. I think the pose works all right for that, but with the human-like proportions it still seemed too graceful. I needed it to feel more off-kilter It was at this point that I decided a more exaggerated proportion would be better.


It didn’t take much, just a larger head and feet did the trick, but I was tired of the poor girl being naked, so I started sketching out some clothes. Also, her head was a bit too disturbing without hair. I wanted it to be vaguely creepy, but the bald head was too much, so I started to work on a hair style as well. After toying around with a few different hair styles I had the basic look I wanted.image

I experimented with giving her some striped tights ala Sally in Nightmare Before Christmas, but I didn’t feel it was working, so I ditched it. Overall I was happy with it, I just needed to take care of some small details. I eventually ended up with this:image

This is the finished (as much as these things ever are) picture. (I haven’t given her a name yet. Maybe you can help me out with that.) The last item, I admit, was not done on my tablet. Due to the limitations of the app I couldn’t put a shadow behind her, so I exported the image and finished it in PhotoShop. But everything else, even the shading on the doll, was done on my tablet.

As I said, the artists I spoke with are in no danger of losing my business. However, having done this I may be confident enough to include a few of my own images in the game. And who knows, maybe having this might give my artists a better idea of the feel I’m going for.

Posted in Game Design, Publishing Tagged with:

All Work And No Play Makes Matt A Dull Boy

I’m of the opinion that when it comes to writing a game book, producing something is better than producing nothing. I have sections of the rules that need to be addressed, but I haven’t been able to get myself to focus on them. So instead of trying to force myself to work on that, I decided to allow myself to do something more fun; to work on something that will rekindle my interest in the project; to create something that may not be as crucial, but is still necessary to the final product. In short, I decided instead of writing rules, I would write some fiction.

For those not familiar with RPGs (role playing games), they typically do not come in a box like other consumer games. When you buy an RPG you buy a book that includes a set of rules – a framework, basically – for creating characters and role playing in different scenarios. In addition, and more important than you may think, the books typically include art and fiction to set the mood for, and fire the imaginations of, the players. So yes, I need to finish the text for the rules, but I do also need some fiction, so it isn’t like this was a waste of time.

It’s been a long time since I tried my hand at writing fiction. Turns out just like any other skill, if you don’t use it you get rusty. Getting started took me a while, but after struggling through the first half I started to find a rhythm and it started to flow a little better. The piece needs to be cleaned up a bit, but overall I’m happy with the outcome. See what you think.

*      *      *

Sam cautiously peeked around the corner. When he was satisfied that there was no movement in the darkened hallway he dashed across and took refuge behind the base of a floor lamp. He glanced this way, then that, and then beckoned to a figure back at the doorway.

A small, pale blue car bolted out of the bedroom and streaked toward Sam. When it reached him it quickly unfolded into a robotic form and took its place alongside him.

“Is this really necessary?” asked the robot, mimicking Sam’s cautious examination of the hallway, “The family is out of the house for the day. Who’s going to see us?”

“I’m not worried about the family, Bug” Sam growled back, “I’m worried about Sweety.

Bug visibly stiffened at the name. “D- Do you think they left him out of his crate?” he stammered in a whisper, “They normally keep him locked up.”

“They were in a hurry to get out of the house this morning and I don’t recall hearing the crate door latch.”

Once again Sam dashed across the hallway, this time taking refuge behind the stairwell bannister. Bug waited, alone in the dark behind the lamp, his joints quietly rattling as he waited for the signal. The shadows around him seemed to deepen and press in as the seconds ticked by. All was still by the bannister.

“Whatcha doin’?” Bug jumped at the voice suddenly behind him and let slip a high pitched squeak. He spun around and found himself face to face with a large, worn, plush bunny with droopy ears. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you” the bunny said apologetically.

“Shhhhh!” Bug said waving his arms frantically as if he could swat the sound away. “Quiet Flopsie!” he hissed, “Can’t you see we’re in the middle of a mission?”

“Oh!” said Flopsie, his ears perking up a bit, “What’s the mission?”

Emboldened by Flopsie’s interest, Bug straightened up, smiled, and puffed out his metallic chest importantly. “Well, if you must know,” he said, clearly enjoying having an audience, “Alex couldn’t find his blankie this morning and he was really upset, so we’re going to find it and bring it back so he’ll have it when he gets home tonight.”

“Isn’t that dangerous with Sweety out of her crate?” said Flopsie looking behind Bug.

“Well,” Bug continued taking no notice, “when you’re a trusted member of the Room Guard like I am, you can’t let fear rule you. You have to be ready to lay down your parts for the good of the room.”

Suddenly a clear, viscous fluid landed with a splat on Bug’s shoulder and oozed down his arm. He instinctively inspected it with his other hand and his face twisted in disgust as he pulled it back and found slimy strands of drool draped between his shoulder and fingers.

“Aw, gross!” he exclaimed, but then he froze as the realization slowly washed over him. Flopsie, he noticed, was staring wide-eyed just behind and above him. Slowly Bug turned his head only to be greeted by a massive set of schnauzer jaws. “H- Hi, S- Sweety,” he stammered, “We were just t- talking about you…”

*      *      *

Yes, that’s where I’m leaving it. As I said, these pieces are here to help fuel the players’ imaginations, so I want to leave them wanting more. I want them to think about how the story might continue. But, of course, I’m less than objective. So, do you think it works?

Posted in Game Design

Round and Round

It’s really true that everything old is new again. I happened upon a news article on TabletopGamingNews.com regarding a new game coming from Fantasy Flight called Warhammer: Diskwars:

In August, we announced the upcoming release of Warhammer: Diskwars. This ferocious, fast-paced tabletop wargame allows two to four players to contest tumultuous battles with some of the Old World’s mightiest heroes and most iconic units.

Sounds like it could be fun, right? Here’s an image of said game:

Warhammer: Diskwars

Colorful circles o’ war game fun!

But wait… These seem awfully familiar. Does anybody remember Clout Fantasy? Here’s a little reminder:

Clout Fantasy

Holy crap! It’s been done before!

Yes, I believe the two bear a striking resemblance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for breathing new life into an old game. It’s just in this case it’s not exactly an old game; it’s only been eight years since Clout made its debut. This just feels a bit like picking the corpse before it’s cold.

Posted in Game Design, Game Industry

Kickstarter: Quality Over Quantity

I’ve been watching Kickstarter.com for a long time. I like to think of myself as having taken part in Kickstarters “before Kickstarters were cool.” It’s a great way for small start-ups who wouldn’t normally get a chance to break into the market to bring their ideas to fruition, which I believe is good for the industry as a whole. More games means more healthy competition, and an influx in creative ideas breeds even more and better ideas going forward.

In the past couple years I have backed a number of projects on Kickstarter and it’s normally the same shtick. There are a couple lower levels that get you very little, usually not even the game. Then there are mid levels where you get the game plus an increasing number of bonus items. Then often times you will see packages intended for store owners to get multiple copies of the game at a discount. Finally you have the stupid expensive levels that frequently pimp out the designers and artists in some capacity. And all along the way as different milestones are reached new Add-ons are unlocked. This normally means that they’ll “let” you buy additional “exclusive” items if you’re willing to give them more cash.

This is all fine. I like feeling like I’m helping a project. I even like getting access to “exclusive” stuff. I’m a sucker like that. But what I would love to see some Kickstarter campaigns try is to start out with a humble goal and as different financial milestones are met increase the quality of the project itself. For example, start out with a black and white paperback game book on pulp stock. Then you move up to a brighter, glossy stock. Then you move up to targeted spot color throughout the book. Then you move up to a hardcover book. Finally you move up to full color. I think this would give backers even more of a sense of helping to build the project because backer dollars are directly affecting the quality of the end product.

Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people are more interested in the freebies they can get, but it seems to me that people back projects because they want that project to be made. (At least I do.) And I feel like, given the opportunity, backers would prefer more focus on the core project than on add-on trinkets.

Posted in Game Design, Game Industry

More Free Time Please

I’m not sure why it is, but it seems everything takes precedence over my hobbies. This isn’t new, I’ve bitched about it for years, but it has returned to the spotlight recently as I’ve wanted to get things restarted here.

I mean, I get it. My game designing is a hobby, so it gets nudged off of the stage by any work or family issues. It’s a matter of too little time to get done what needs to be done vs. what I want to do. Still, I feel like there should be more of a balance. Even just a little bit more ‘me’ time might make the difference. Instead I have to squirrel away time when I should be working or doing something around the house, which makes me feel guilty.

I know other people manage to do this successfully, and I would love to know how. Do they simply have fewer demands on them? Do they manage to get things done faster, thereby freeing up more time for themselves? Is it that they are just more selfish and forceful and claim a larger chunk of time for themselves? I really don’t know. Whatever it is, I’m rubbish at it.

Needless to say I have no new updates on what I’ve accomplished. Real life keeps throwing a wrench into the works. Maybe another week will see some sort of momentum. Here’s hoping… Again…

Posted in Game Design

New Digs

I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time, but I finally managed to switch over to the WordPress framework.

What’s that you ask? Wasn’t I on WordPress before? Mmmm, yes and no. I was using the XOOPS content management system with a [out of date] WordPress module. It was clunky and difficult to upgrade, and it made trying to post just that much more difficult.

So great, I have new digs. Does that mean all of the old content is gone? Perish the thought! Since the old blog was at least partly based on WordPress the data tables lined up well enough that I could port them over. It was a bit messy, but I got it all.

So does this mean that I plan to post more frequently? And by frequently, I mean at all? Yes, this move is in part to make it easier to post. I’m trying to eliminate any excuses I have. I want to try to post no less than once a week. More if I can manage it, but we’ll see how it goes.

But do you have enough content to post that frequently? Are you really that prolific in your game designs? Yes, I do and no, I’m not. I’ve decided to widen the focus a little bit. The main focus is still a window into my game designs, but I figure that can also include anything that might influence designs. That could be game news, events that inspire ideas, or media that influences my designs. It’ll be more like looking at the world through a game design filter.

My once-or-more-per-week mandate begins as of today; in fact, as of right now. Wish me luck, I may need it.

Posted in Game Design, Website

…Aaaaaand We’re Back

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve written, and I don’t have long for this post as the battery in my laptop is about to die, but I just had my first play test of Playthings and I wanted to jot down a few items for posterity.

First and foremost, it went well. Actually, it went shockingly well, considering that this was just an alpha test. The players grokked the system quickly and they seemed to enjoy themselves for the most part. (A couple players were quiet, so I couldn’t tell.) Especially promising, one of my play-testers was 7, and he kept up with everyone else with no trouble.

A few points to work out:

  • Right now the system doesn’t really have a ‘hit point’ system. The characters may be toys, but they can still get into scuffles and they can still get hurt. I need some reliable way to measure that.
  • As is so often the case, players want rules defined. I tend to leave things open so that players have a wide range of creative choice, but that much choice can be overwhelming to many players. In particular, define the toys’ Features. Also, define how many characters can have.
  • I never got around to writing up the characters’ Recalls. Still need to test that aspect.
  • I need to fully define (for myself) the ‘so what?’ factor. I need to define why players would want to play a game where they are toys. I also need to find a way to make it clear that the game is not just for kids / families. The game can stand on its own with adults. I know that, but I need to make sure others get that as well.
  • I need to spell out how the world works. Some players thought that when the toys came to life that all of their accessories would become real as well. The way the world works is in my head, but I need it written out.

I don’t want these points to diminish how well the test went. This game has legs. I could really make something out of it, I just need to keep going and make it happen.

Posted in Website
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