Category Archives: Design Diaries

Design Diaries: The Final Edge of Fantasy

It should come as no surprise to anyone that has followed anything I’ve done in the past year or so that I am a fan of Fantasy Flight Games Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion. More importantly, I’m a huge fan of the things that Jay Little did when designing the mechanics that go on behind the game. The “narrative dice” as they are called help to make every single roll of the die important not only to the characters, but to the story as well through the use of several different axes of success and failure. Hearing about the idea of an action failing but still having something positive come out of it was exciting to me. Seeing it in action was mind-blowing in it’s simplicity. Since then, I’ve run the hell out of the game.

But like many others out there, I saw the potential of this engine to run games other than Star Wars. A lot of people started using it to play fantasy games. One poster over at the d20 Radio boards was simply running a general fantasy world. A few other posters were working on running a tabletop game of The Elder Scrolls with the system.

My mind went to a different kind of fantasy when I started thinking about what this game could do. My mind went to something I had spent countless hours in my youth and even into my adult years playing. Something that had gone through so many incarnations in it’s lifetime. Something that had gone from straight fantasy to science fiction and everything in between. My mind went to Final Fantasy.

The thing that drew my mind immediately to the idea was when I saw how Edge of the Empire handled the Force. When rolling to activate a Force power, you gather up a number of white 12-sided dice equal to your character’s Force Rating, and roll them, sometimes by themselves and sometimes as a part of bigger action depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with that particular use of the Force. Each face of the Force Die generates either dark side points or light side pips which are used to power these abilities. As you invest XP into improving your Force powers, you need to generate more and more of these points to activate the upgrades. Each face of the die has either one or two of these pips on them. The total number of pips is the same between the two, but the distribution is different. There are more faces with dark side pips then there are with light side pips, but that dilutes the potency of the dark side results, meaning that you will have a greater chance of rolling one dark side pip than two, whereas with light side pips you have a much greater chance of getting the more potent result of generating two. A character generally cannot use dark side pips to power their Force powers without suffering some ramifications in game from “touching the dark side.” And seeing as a character that is just starting out with the Force only has a Force Rating of 1 and thus only rolls one Force Die when activating his powers, it becomes easy to see that the temptation to use the dark side results will be there. This not only serves to almost perfectly model the use of the Force during the era the game is set in when the Emperor had all but eradicated the Jedi and their vast libraries of information and knowledge on the Force, but also, rather ingeniously I might add, gives a nod to the classic line in Episode V when Luke asks Yoda if the dark side is stronger.

“No. No. No. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Absolutely blew my mind when I first heard Jay Little describe it like that.

“But enough of that!” your saying. “This post is supposed to be about Final Fantasy! Right?” Well, yes. Technically. But how the Force Die was used in the game was the launching point of of this mental exercise that later developed into a full-fledged system hack, so bear with me. Some of you more astute readers may have already picked up on where I’m going with this. If so, good for you. You get a gold star*

Final Fantasy has always had a rich tradition of magic in it’s games. And more often than not, there’s a clear delineation between black magic and white magic. Black magic is the stuff that tends to hurt people and white magic is the stuff that tends to heal people.

There are two kinds of pips on the Force Die. One that is a white circle, and one that is a black circle. One side to power white magic, on side to power black magic. Obviously is wasn’t going to be quite that simple in practice, but in concept, the idea was the perfect springboard. The distribution would work quite well in theory – while the level of success would be skewed slightly towards the black magic spells, the number of points generated on those dice would make it harder to hit the required number to activate all the upgrades a high level caster would want.

The spells themselves could all be presented as the Force powers are – a basic ability that you can buy and then a series of upgrades you can purchase to modify the spell instead of just being able to cast more powerful versions of the spell like you get in the console titles. For example, looking at the classic Fire spell for an example, the basic power would simply allow you to cause damage to a target within a short distance from you. You can then spend XP on upgrades to increase the damage of the spell, making it more potent. Or you could spend it to hit more targets, or to hit targets that are farther away. What about giving it the Burn quality?

I’ve got some more notes typed up, but seeing as this post has already broken 1000 words, I think it’s best to save those for a later post. Hopefully this has whet your appetite somewhat.

*Gold star is non-transferable and not redeemable for any other rewards. Gold star has no cash value. Offer void outside of the continental US, MA, and the District of Columbia, or where prohibited by law.


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Design Diaries: What’s in an Engine?

There has been a project kicking around my head for some time now, something that I’ve come back to time and again with new thoughts and new angles. The key focus around this engine has always been about including Tension as a tangible mechanic in the resolution of scenes and actions, but I was never sure how best to approach that, and nothing has ever seemed to stick. But over the past few weeks of brainstorming, I think I’ve finally hit on something that feels like it might be the angle I was looking for. I’ve since then finally been able to sit down and hash out a couple of details, and have the outline of a game engine that I think may have some legs after testing and development. However, in the spirit that is alpha development, I thought I would throw my musings and brain scribbles up here for you to read and respond to.

The base dice mechanic is relatively simple, and is a highly distilled version of the One Roll Engine mechanic, in which the players will throw two different d10s. One of these is the Power Die and the other is the Finesse Die. Each of them will have different uses in different aspects of game play, but at the core of it, the Power Die represents how well a character performs a task and the Finesse Die represents how quickly a character performs a task. When an action is taken where a dice roll becomes necessary, the player grabs his two dice and looks to beat a total of 10 on those two dice. If he is successful, the action succeeds. If he doesn’t beat a 10, the action fails.

Certain actions are more difficult to perform than others. A lock on a door may be particularly well made, or a wall constructed to be more difficult to climb. These types of actions will be represented by having minimum success thresholds assigned to them. These will either be a Power Threshold or a Finesse Threshold, based on the nature of the task and the action. Picking the lock of a very sturdy door would be an action that carried a Finesse Threshold. Breaking it down would carry a Power Threshold. Thresholds are rated between a 2 and a 10, and in order for an action carrying one to be completely successful, the relevant die needs to equal or beat the Threshold in question. If the Threshold isn’t met, but the action would still have been successful otherwise, the character can choose one of two outcomes. He can choose to have the action simply fail. Or he can choose to have the action succeed, but at a cost.

Let’s look at an example – Jarrek the thief has just stolen a valuable gem from the treasury of a local noble, but managed to raise the alarm. Now he is trying to make good his escape from the manor while being pursued by several of the noble’s house guards. He comes to a locked door at the end of a hallway. He has a small lead on the guards and decides to try to quickly pick the lock in order to hide in the room and throw the guards off his tail. The GM decides that this action is going to carry a Finesse Threshold of 3 since the lock is fairly well made and Jarrek is trying to accomplish the task quickly and under pressure. He rolls his dice and gets a 9 on the Power Die and a 2 on the Finesse Die for a total of 11. Normally that would be a total success, but since his Finesse Die did not meet or beat the Finesse Threshold, he can decide to either have the action fail or succeed at a cost. He decides that he’d rather not let the guards catch up to him, so he chooses to succeed at a cost. The GM thinks for a moment and then describes Jarrek deftly picking the lock, opening the door a crack and slipping through while the guards run past. However, in his haste, he didn’t realize that he was standing at the door to the bedroom of the nobles daughter, who happens to wake up as he steps in the room and sees him…

At the core, I want this to be a very simple system, keeping the actual resolution on the narrative side instead of the narrative side, but I also want to include a sense of… economy for lack of a better word to the game, and as such have devised a series of pools, between which points will flow back and forth in a zero-sum fashion. When points are spent from one pool, they go to another pool. Right now there is the Player Pool, the GM Pool, and the Tension Pool.

The Player Pool is the communal pool of points that the players all share amongst themselves. They can choose to spend points from the pool to do a number of things. The first thing is that they can spend points in order to lower the base difficulty of an action at a one to one rate of exchange. If a player decides to spend two points from the Player Pool on a action to lower the difficulty, he would only need to roll an 8 or higher to achieve success. Alternatively, the player can spend 2 points to lower the Success Threshold of an action by 1. Points that are spent from the Player’s Pool go directly to the GM Pool after the action is resolved. The GM on the other hand, can spend points at the same rate to either increase the base difficulty of an action or to increase the Success Threshold of an action by 1. Points that are spent from the GM Pool go directly back to the players pool. Points can be spent on the same action, and the player and GM can cancel the effects of each other’s actions by spending points, but points do not officially move until the action is resolved.

But what about the Tension Pool? This represents the risk/reward element of the game in such a way that the basic dice system doesn’t. Some actions require the player to “wager” a number of points on it. He moves these points to the Tension Pool and then attempts the action. If he succeeds, he gets his desire. If he fails, the action fails and the points are spent without effect. Certain character abilities will also utilize the “wager” system as an activation mechanic. The GM is then able to spend these points from the Tension Pool in order to increase the danger present in the scene, whether by introducing new threats or by activating abilities in present threats making them more dangerous. He might spend Tension Points to have a monster use a high powered attack. Or he might turn a small fire into a conflagration that begins to envelop the room. Points that are spent from the Tension Pool go back to the Player Pool when the action is resolved.

Tension at work.

But Tension itself is a dangerous thing. The bigger the Tension Pool, the more potential there is for things to go wrong. The following values have not been determined, but for every “X” points in the Tension Pool, the base difficulty of all actions increases by 1. For every “Y” points, the Success Thresholds of actions increase by 1, and actions that didn’t previously have a Success Threshold have one at 2. These uses only affect the players at present, and so they have another action with which they can try to mitigate the effect of Tension on the scene. They can attempt an action directly against the Tension Pool, increasing the base difficulty of the task by the number of points they want to remove. They cannot spend points from the Player Pool to lower the difficulty, but the GM can spend points from the GM pool to increase the difficulty. If the player’s action is successful, that number of points is removed from the Tension Pool and split evenly between the Player and GM Pool, with any remainder going to the Players.

This idea is still very much in it’s infancy, but like I stated above, I think it has some traction, and I’m excited to see what directions it takes me as it grows and evolves. Feel free to leave me comments on what you think works, what doesn’t work, and any other suggestions. I can’t promise I’ll use them all, but I will read and consider everything.

Until next time.

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