Come for the Punching, Stay for the Swashbuckling

gaming_diceToday I’m playing the part of the fire-fighting lumberjack, swinging from one burning tree to the next, an axe in my belt and a fire extinguisher in my hand. So I’ll be keeping this post brief and to the point.


This weekend (starting tonight, actually), if you’re in the Denver area and want to get your game on, come on down to Tacticon. They’ll have board games galore, and so many RPGs being run, my metaphor engine burned out trying to come up with a figure of speech to describe the quantity. (Seriously. It’s like hundreds of RPGs, including tons of Savage Worlds, Pathfinder Society, every edition of D&D, and lots more.)


I am running three slots over the course of the con. Friday night, I’ll be running the inaugural public session of Ghost Punchers. On Saturday, I’ll be running two sessions of Karthador (you know, the RPG of swashbuckling science fiction): one at 9 AM and the other at 7PM.


As of this writing, I’ve still got some slots available in you’d like to play. And even if you don’t, there are plenty of other great games at the con, so you should definitely check it out!

There’s a Storm Coming

While I’ve never actually run my own Kickstarter project (yet), I’ve been attached to a number of them, either as a game designer or a stretch goal. But I don’t know if any of them have had a full-blown trailer quite as fancy as the one for SIENNA STORM, the espionage thriller video game I’m helping design.




My role on the project is “card game guy.” The game is presented as an interactive graphic novel, with lots of dialog trees and decisions to be made. When the time for talking is over, however, the action scenes are resolved by playing a card game with your own customized deck against the computer. It’s my job to design the cards, the enemy AI, and the dynamic events that might pop up over the course of the game (such as reinforcements arriving on the scene, a bystander wandering onto the scene, or a piece of vital equipment being destroyed).


The Kickstarter campaign is live. If you’re interested in video games, or just curious what I do beyond ghost-punching and pastel ponies, check it out. If you’ve been looking for a modern-day spy thriller with hand-painted art and choices galore, this might be the game you’re looking for!

Snapshots of GenCon 2014

I should adjust the photo but have already spent too much time on itWe now interrupt your regularly-scheduled ruminations on ghost-punching to bring this recap of 2014′s “best four days of gaming.”

Pony Palooza

The biggest event of the show for me was the continental championship for the My Little Pony CCG. This massive, two-day event brought together the biggest players in the country (and a few from Canada) to duke it out for sweet prizes, bragging rights, and the severed heads of their enemies! (One of these might not be true.) It was fun and educational to wander amongst the players, checking out their decks and watching them play the cars I helped design. (Check out the official Tumblr for more pics and details.)

How to Pony

Of course, most of my time at the Enterplay Pony Corral was spent with our crack squad of volunteers running demos and teaching people how to play. Since it was GenCon, we had quite a few gamers-who-are-defnitely-not-bronies come up and sheepishly ask for a demo, as if they were embarrassed to be seen playing with pastel ponies. I have to say, we made quite a few converts this way. Their mantra, which I heard more than once, was “This was like nothing I expected. This is fun!”

Moments in the Chaos

There was more to GenCon than ponies, of course. Like standing in the rain outside the food trucks, waiting for a dozen orders of mac & cheese with a giant bag of cupcakes in my hand. Or sitting around the hall after hours talking game design with an old colleague working on his doctoral thesis. Or reminiscing with the CEO of Fantasy Flight about the old days of GenCon, when the whole company would crash in a dorm room, rather than take up the 50 hotel rooms they need today.

Until Next Year…

Yeah, it’s their slogan, but GenCon truly is the best four days in gaming. It’s like coming home to see all my gaming friends again, and I’m already making plans for GenCon 2015.

Ashley Carpenter, Ghost Puncher

gp_rpg_logoLast week, we took a look at the Savage Worlds stats for a typical ghost in the Ghost Punchers roleplaying game. This week, I’d like to look at the stats for a typical ghost puncher. To that end, I’ve rolled up Ashley Carpenter, a woman whose ghost-punching abilities manifested themselves after she experienced a traumatic ghost-related incident.


Ashley Carpenter

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d8, Guts d8, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Ghosts) d6, Notice d6, Spirit Medium d8
Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 6; Toughness: 5
Edges: Arcane Background (Spirit Medium) – Powers: Spirit Sight, Enchanted Fist; 10 power points
Flaws: Heroic, Big Mouth, Mean
Gear: Tire iron, matching pair of engagement rings, a musty leather-bound journal with a locked clasp on it.
Background: Ashley didn’t believe in ghosts when she, her fiancee, and their friends headed out to remote cabin in the woods for the weekend. But after a weekend of horror, blood, and shocking discoveries about her fiancee and her best friend, Ashley was ready to believe — and ready to fight. While she’s been cleared of all charges regarding that grisly jaunt into the woods, Ashley’s been marked a crazy woman, which makes it hard to live a normal life. She says she doesn’t mind; she’d rather spend her days in pursuit of revenge against the spirits that killed her friends than waiting tables or working a cash register.


I’ve got a Ghost Punchers playtest scheduled for the 24th. That gives me (does some math, carries the one, subtracts the howling void of space-time that is GENCON) about a week to put together a batch of playable characters. I’ll share them here, to give a sense of the feel of the game, and to force myself to stay on track. I’ve learned there’s nothing quite like public accountability to help one hit deadlines. Behold the power of shame!

Fleshing Out Ghosts

gp_rpg_logoAs I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like reinventing the wheel. If a game system already has stats or mechanics for a thing, I’ll generally use them rather than create my own. With that in mind, I’ve take a close look at how ghosts are written up in the Savage Worlds core rulebook and Horror Companion, to see how I can use them for the Ghost Punchers roleplaying game.


The core book ghosts are good, the Horror Companion ghosts (technically “phantoms”) are better, but in the end, I’ve decided to riff on them both to come up with this:


Ghost

The phantasmal dead come in a number of shapes and sizes, but this is their basic ghostly form.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d10, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d12+2, Notice d12, Taunt d10, Stealth d12+4
Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5


Special Abilities


  • Spiritual: As creatures of spirit, ghosts can pass through solid objects and can’t be harmed by physical attacks. However, this means they can’t affect physical objects (or people) unless they make a Spirit roll or spend 1 Essence per turn to do so. Ghost are also invisible unless they allow themselves to be seen.*

  • Fear –2: Ghosts cause Fear checks at –2 when they let themselves be seen.**

  • Essence Burn: When making a trait roll, a ghost may spend a point of Essence to roll an additional 1d6. (This is similar to, but not the same as, a Wild Die.)***

  • Essence Drain: By winning an opposed Spirit roll against a human in melee range, a ghost gains a point of Essence and the victim takes a point of Fatigue.

  • Essence Transfer: A ghost can donate some of its Essence to another ghost at a rate of 1 point per round.

  • Weakness (Fade Away): Ghosts need to spend a point of Essence once per day in order to resist the constant pull of their Final Judgement. If a ghost fails to spend the requisite Essence, it must make a Vigor roll to avoid taking a level of fatigue that can only be recovered by spending a point of Essence. (A ghost incapacitated by lack of Essence fades away to the afterlife in 1d6 hours.)


* I decided to create “Spiritual” as a new monstrous ability rather than simply use “Ethereal” from the core Savage Worlds rules. Ethereal is great, but it assumes the immaterial creature can still throw things and otherwise interact with the physical world, which isn’t something I want. (I debated whether to roll ghosts’ invisibility into this ability, as it is with Ethereal, or to create a new “Invisibility” ability. I decided to keep it together, since I’m not a fan of creating new abilities unless absolutely necessary, and it keeps it consistent with Ethereal, for those who are familiar with that ability.


** This is straight out of the core rules. I’m not positive I want to stick with this fear effect. I suspect I’ll have to tinker with the whole “fear” system, and changing this would be part of that effort, but I’ll leave it for now.


*** This might be too good, but I want to give ghosts a default thing they can spend Essence on.

The Essence of Punching

gp_rpg_logoWhile discussing the Ghost Punchers roleplaying game last week, our discussion of how ghosts fight back against the living delved deep into a rabbit hole of potential game mechanics and how they all work together. (And then I vanished down a rabbit hole of pastel ponies, from which I am just now emerging.) So now that we’ve seen how the rules can handle spectral violence, let’s look at how the rules should handle such things.

Essence

First, it’s important to understand that each ghost has a pool of Essence points. Essence is the supernatural fuel that ghosts spend to keep themselves from vanishing into their final reward. They can also spend it to activate certain powers and abilities, or make those things more powerful.


To gain Essence, ghosts have to drain life force from humans — or, in the vernacular, go haunt some fleshies. This is an opposed Spirit roll between the ghost and its victim. On a success, the ghost adds a point to its Essence pool and the victim takes a level of Fatigue (it takes a day to recover this Fatigue level). On a raise, the ghost also creates a “drain link” with the victim, and all subsequent drain rolls against this victim receive a +2 bonus.

Crossing Over

In order to touch the world of flesh, a ghost must first make a Spirit roll or spend a point of Essence. (This might be easier or harder depending on where the ghost is located.) Once the ghost has done so, it has one round to push, pull, or punch the world around it before going ethereal again.


The exception is when facing those who have used the Enchanted Fist power (i.e., ghost punchers). Since those with this power activated are able to interact with the spirit world, the spirit world can interact with them — “interact with” in this case meaning “make an attack against” — without making a roll or spending Essence. The ghost doesn’t have to cross over to the physical realm to punch the punchers; the punchers are already here on the spirit side.

Essentially Done?

The core of the ghost experience is Essence, and we’ve just scratched the surface of what can be done with it, mechanics-wise. But surface-deep is all we need to to put a playtest together, so I’m going to leave it dangling there, like a sparking power line hanging from a tree after a storm, and get back to it later.

When Ghosts Punch Back!

gp_rpg_logoThis “designing roleplaying games” stuff is hard. Not because it’s hard to come up with mechanics for doing what the game needs to do, but because it’s hard to tell which mechanics are best-suited for the job. For each game-design problem, there are countless solutions. The trick is finding the right one that works in balance with the rest of the system.


Case in point: As promised, I’ve been working on the mechanics for how ghosts attack people in Ghost Punchers. While Savage Worlds comes with a full suite of systems for combat, ghosts are a little trickier since they are, by nature, immaterial, which makes punching something in the world of flesh a little bit of a challenge.


Furthermore, we’ve established that:


  • Ghosts can drain “human life energy” or “Essence.”
  • This Essence is what keeps them from fading into the afterlife.
  • Essence can also be spent to let them interact with the physical world.
  • More powerful ghosts (the “feudal lords” or “mob bosses” of the underworld) collect tributes of essence from lesser ghosts.

So now, in conjunction with spectral violence, I’m looking at mechanics for draining, stockpiling, and spending Essence — and how ghosts “fade away” if they don’t get enough of it on a regular basis.


Whew! All that to figure out how a ghost can punch back.


I’ll be honest. My first thought is to use Power Points to represent Essence. But that would mean creating a new Arcane Background just for ghosts, and using Savage World‘s powers system to represent ghosts’ supernatural abilities. But the more I thought about, the more I realized this would be redundant, since the core rules already have “monstrous abilities” for antagonists that replicate most of the powers in a streamlined fashion.


Adding a new Arcane Background would work, but it would force the GM to track Power Points for every ghost in the adventure, which is extra bookkeeping. Also, the “stockpiling” aspect of Essence would require ghosts to be able to exceed their normal allotment of Power Points, which deviates from normal Savage Worlds rules. Clearly, the mechanic would do what I needed, but wasn’t the right one for the job.


Oh, well. Back to the drawing board!


Now that you’ve seen how the sausage is made (and seasoned with a bit of RPG design theory), next time we can check out the sausage itself and see if it is indeed fast, furious, and fun.

I’ve Got the (Ghost-Punching) Power!

gp_rpg_logoThe time has come. Yes, in today’s installment of “Designing the Ghost Punchers Roleplaying Game with Your Host Darrell,” it’s time to actually start writing up some new game mechanics. “About time!” you may say, and start rolling up your metaphorical shirt sleeves and preparing to get your metaphorical hands dirty. But where to start?


In our previous entry, we looked at what rules the game needs that Savage Worlds doesn’t automatically provide. The two most important of these key mechanics are Seeing Ghosts and Punching Ghosts, so let’s start there.


In Savage Worlds, characters can’t have powers unless they have what’s called an Arcane Background. In the core RPG, Arcane Backgrounds include things like “Magic” and “Psionics” and “Weird Science.” Our first task, then, is to create a new Arcane Background for our friendly neighborhood ghost punchers.


Arcane Background (Spirit Medium)
Arcane Skill: Spirit Medium (Spirit)
Starting Power Points: 10
Starting Powers: 2
Available Powers: Spirit Sight, Enchanted Fist


Yes, I called it “Spirit Medium” instead of “Ghost Puncher.” It’s just a label, but naming it thus makes it feel like it can be used for characters who have these abilities, but haven’t dedicated themselves to violence against the unquiet dead. In other words, it encourages character diversity, which I hear is a good thing to have in an RPG.


Next, let’s look at these two new powers:


Spirit Sight
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 1
Range: Self
Duration: 1 hour (1/hour)
On a success, the hero can see into the spirit world. He can see auras around the living and the horrific shapes of the ghostly dead. Seeing a particularly ghastly ghost when or where he isn’t expecting it may require the hero to make a Fear check.


This is your basic “see ghosts” power. As I expect players to use it all the time, it’s about as cheap as a power can be, at a cost of only one power point and the ability to maintain the power (without a roll) for the cost of one point per hour after that. The line about making a Fear check isn’t technically rules (“here’s how this works”) so much as it is a hook (“here’s something that can happen”), since I thought it might be fun for the GM to startle an unsuspecting character.


Enchanted Fist
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 2
Range: Self
Duration: 3 (1/hour)
On a success, the hero can harm ethereal entities (like, say, ghosts) with her bare hands as if the entity were not ethereal. On a raise, the hero does +1 damage to any ethereal targets she hits during the duration of the power.


And here’s the baseline “punch ghosts” power. I based the cost on the Savage Worlds power “Smite,” (which costs 2 to give +2 damage for the duration), figuring that it isn’t doing extra damage (usually) but does let the hero hurt a range of enemies she normally can’t touch… which seems about even. We’ll see how it tests out.


The last key mechanic on our list is “being attacked by ghosts.” That’s going to be interesting, and probably pretty complicated. So meet me back here next week and we’ll dive right into it.

A Ghost-Punching Companion

gp_rpg_logoAs I mentioned when I first brought up designing a Ghost Punchers roleplaying game, I really don’t want to spend time reinventing the wheel. That’s why I chose to base my game off Savage Worlds, rather than create a new system from scratch.


In the interests of avoiding reinvention, I’m taking a side trek today to check out the Savage Worlds Horror Companion. As the name would suggest, it’s a book of supplementary rules for dealing with horror tropes using the Savage Worlds system, and I suspect it might have some rules I’ll want to use.


Let’s take a look and find out…


First of all, I see that ghosts are still the same as they are in the main book: “ethereal” monsters that can only be hurt by magical weapons. Also, while there some cool new “character class” style Edges such as Exorcist and Monster Hunter, none of them come with the built-in ability to see or harm spirits, so that’s definitely still a niche I’m creating/filling.


The book does have some rules for stuff I can see using: rules for characters going insane, or using rituals to bind or ward off spirits. And while the “atomic ghost-hunting packs” refer to a very different and specific sort of violence against the supernatural, the rules covering how the weapons interact with the spirit world could be adapted for my purposes (he said while rubbing his hands together like a Bond villain).


So the results of my side trek look like this:

  • I’ll still need to design the ghost-punching rules myself.
  • The Companion has some great rules for rituals, sanity, and ghost-fighting equipment I can work from.
  • After seeing all these cool new rules, I want to run a “Buffy the Cthulhu-Slayer” game. Ah, Savage Worlds. You just get me sometimes.

Now that I’ve seen what’s out there, it’s time to start focusing on what’s new. In the next entry, we’ll look at creating the actual rules for ghost-punching.

The (Game) Mechanics of Ghost Punching

gp_rpg_logoBefore diving back into creating the Ghost Punchers roleplaying game, I’d like to take a moment to talk about two different types of RPG game mechanics: core mechanics and key mechanics.


Core mechanics are the engine of the game: the rule or rules that drive everything else. In Savage Worlds, for example, the core mechanic is “Roll a die. If you roll a 4 or more, you succeed.” There are other rules covering what type of die to roll, and what bonuses or penalties to apply to the number you roll, but they’re all there to support the core mechanic.


Key mechanics are the rules that fulfill the value proposition of the game’s premise. Or, to put it into English, key mechanics let you do the stuff that the game is about. For instance, if you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, you’d expect rules for exploring dungeons and fighting dragons (and you’d find them).


Other examples of key mechanics would include rules for…

  • sailing ships (in a pirate RPG),
  • finding clues (in a detective RPG),
  • drinking blood (in a vampire RPG), or
  • lurking outside children’s windows (in a clown RPG).


Without key mechanics, it’s hard to have a satisfying experience. After all, playing an RPG is, at some level, creating your own story within the game’s storyworld. The mechanics should make it fun and easy to create that story; if they don’t, it’s a flaw in the game design.


Which leads to some questions regarding the Ghost Punchers RPG…

What’s our Core Mechanic?

Because we’re running with the Savage Worlds RPG system, that answer is easy: a die roll against a target of 4.

What are our Key Mechanics?

Obviously, we need rules for punching ghosts. The punching part is easy (Savage Worlds has a combat system), but it’s the ghost part that’s tricky, since ghosts are traditionally intangible, which makes punching difficult.


Savage Worlds touches on these things (it has rules for “ethereal” monsters that can only be hurt with magical weapons) but not with the depth that we need. It doesn’t, for instance, have rules for seeing invisible spirits, or cover the other metaphysics of ghost-punching.


So it appears that the list of key mechanics we need to introduce looks something like this:

  • Seeing ghosts
  • Attacking ghosts (without magical weapons)
  • Being attacked by ghosts
  • Ghost punchers’ other “Kewl Powerz” alluded to here


I’m sure I’ll come up with more stuff, or realize I’ve forgotten a key component somewhere, but for now, it seems like something I can get done in time for the convention at the end of August… And I might have a shortcut, which I’ll go over in the next post.