RPG Dev Diary 02 - plans within plans

In my previous article I expressed the intention to work on a new game project that would lead me to both learn how to code in Elm and create a new tabletop rpg that uses an app as the only element needed to play.

But to see this project to fruition I need a plan.

Recently I’ve seen plenty of blogs and vlogs about coding and they all look illuminating until the moment I try to get down to do the thing myself. I am suddenly lost, whatever it is I want to do, it suddenly seems a huge and insurmountable task. The main reason is, I get to the coding part and only then realize “I don’t know what to do”. They show me a fancy new way to put nails into wood, but I lack the basic know-how regarding house building. I mean, is there “something” I need to know/plan/organize before I get to the actual injection of nails? Obviously yes. But I’m not a programmer by trade and to me such obvious (?) things are not obvious at all. So here I tell you, the very first step is to shape the initial idea into an actionable plan.

More than one plan, actually.

The game design plan, regarding this game’s themes, goals, style and then the specific techniques to make it happen at the table.

The app design plan, regarding what the app should be able to do, and how, and when; how the game experience can be delivered through the device the app runs on, how the Players are able/supposed to interact with it.

The coding plan, regarding the organization of all the above stuff into small logical/functional chunks that can be expressed in terms of functions... which will, finally, lead me to sit at a keyboard and do the actual coding.

Other blogs go straight from idea to coding with almost nothing in between. This is not that kind of blog.

My Patreons can already access the game design document I produced so far.
It is somewhat playable already, although many details and subsystems are still missing. For everyone else I’ll try to summarize here my main design goals, to offer an idea of what I want the game to be about and how I intend to achieve it. Just an overview, a plan, a chat; more technical and in depth details will be discussed as I develop and implement specific sections. So, where do I come from with this project? Well, once upon a time...

...in the late ‘70s the way to play rpgs was very different from what is mostly common today. The person running things behind a screen was called Referee, their job was to challenge the Players in a sporty but merciless way, killing off characters as if they were nothing, until the Players eventually learned how to be good (imaginary) adventurers. Story was a thing that happened to other people; mostly you had the gruesome chronicle of the actions happened during the last session and how they led your PC to grudgingly survive yet another dungeon delve, or of how they died an unglorified death. In and of itself the game (the rules and procedures) was just a platform allowing the people at the table to make use of the real creative stuff: the adventure modules, either official or homebrew. By far and large they were what made the actual play experience unique. There is obviously more to this style of design and play, but in a nutshell this is what people call Old School.

Soon after that, games started shifting towards different design goals and play styles, with varying degrees of effectiveness and quality. It has been a bumpy ride from then to now, and it is still far from over. Nowadays we have, among other things, a whole rpg subculture that tries to recapture the unique feeling of the Old School; they do it by playing the original old games, or their retro-clones, or by creating new games that do things in more or less the same way as the old ones. Some try to improve this or that specific aspect of a specific set of rules, but by far and large the keyword is “nostalgia”. And again, the real meat is in the adventure modules. Of course this rpg subculture is deeper and more complex than what a few words can describe, but I think this can be a minimalist yet functional introduction to what people call Old School Renaissance.

As made apparent by a few interesting conversations I had in the last year, this project of mine will not be part of the OSR universe, even though it will cut as close to the OS values and ideas as possible. This is mainly because I have no interest in the nostalgia factor. I want to deconstruct what made OS gaming great and use modern design tools and techniques to build something new from the ground up.

At its core OS dungeon delving is very similar to a thought experiment, a game of mental puzzles. Dice rolls and other mechanics represent, if at all available, an ineffective and dangerous backup plan for when the Players fail to puzzle out a better and safer solution to a problematic situation. By keeping the rules simple and minimal, thus lacking what today are common “simulation” mechanics such as skill/stat rolls, OS games force both Referee and Players to rely on the only thing at hand: the fiction. All participants to the game need to have a clear mental picture of the situation, to describe in concrete terms what is happening and how, to ask questions about it. Saying something like “I look for traps” is unacceptable. Not because it would be bad roleplay, but purely because it is too vague of a statement to be actionable, and the Referee would not know what to answer to the Player. Can they find the trap? Are they triggering the trap? Who knows!
This, I want to keep.

In OS gaming Player errors translate, often, to character death, which translates to a game-over condition for the Player, which means they will have to sit idle through the rest of the game session and then generate a new character of less power than before.
I want to keep this, but only in part. Character death must be a real danger lurking behind every corner, but such loss must not be a fun-killer. To this end I’m lifting a page from rogue-lite videogames. Characters will not have an inherent power lever; instead their cool stuff (class, powers, items) will depend on a sort of Player Account Level. Character death will mean the loss of current progress, but not a total reset as the time and effort invested by the Player in the game will be “saved” in the PAL account.

Also, character death will not mean game-over for the Player during a play session, but rather a change of role; dead characters will see their Players become the Enemy and continue play with the others until the delve is over. Enemies will give viciousness and malice to the otherwise automatic game opposition, while earning Player Account Points through a different set of means and goals.

Talking with a lot of OS/R Players one gets a mental image of a very interesting game experience, with a unique and vibrant personality, exotic, weird, grim, grotesque, swinging between horror and comedy depending on how seriously the Players take themselves. Then you read the rulebooks and find little to no trace of such things. Where is all the flavor? Where is all the good stuff?

It's in the adventure modules.

OS/R adventure modules are what makes the game memorable. They bring to the table all the things that in a modern rpg would be part of the basic structure of the game itself: a theme and the practical tools to explore it.

This is interesting to know, but I don’t really care about it. I want the adventure to be procedurally generated moment by moment. I want the typical OS flavor to be an emergent quality of gameplay rather than a handcrafted addition on top of it. The game itself (as in rules/app) needs to provide the necessary structure and core content, supporting and guiding the Players in filling the missing fictional details.

Although I am doing away entirely with the role of Referee/GM and the need for preparation and modules, the one thing I am trying to avoid at all costs is to go down the road of a dungeon crawl boardgame. Fiction is the keyword here. I want the Players to immerse themselves into an imaginary world that feels vivid and solid; I want them to think, and think hard, to solve the puzzle that is a fantasy adventure.

Now, if only I could fit such a game experience into a convenient app...