New RPG Project, New Design Questions

With the pandemic continuing to be the opportunity America just can’t pass up, I have been finding hobbies to entertain and challenge myself. One of these new hobbies was playing around with building home grown RPG settings and systems and associated fun with publishing software (I highly recommend Serif’s Affinity Suite if you want to avoid the Adobe subscription tax.) The last ten months and change have been on a custom Amber game (if you know what that is, you should be concerned. If you don’t know what that is, there’s no cause for alarm.) I have learned enough to be dangerous, while also becoming painfully aware of how much more room I have to grow.


The game I have been working on, a custom Amber game (If you don’t know what that is, there is no cause for alarm. If you know what that is, you should be worried.) has most of the nuts and bolts around design done, and is going to be a matter of tweaking and trying to make the layout look semi-professional and finishing up the art and color. That means I’m looking for something new to tackle while I polish that work.


Now, the challenge for me is based around the fact that I am largely a FATE RPG sort of person and have spent most of my adult life playing hacks of that game. While my overall preference is to just use FATE to build anything that I want, part of the appeal of doing something like RPG creation is the challenge of learning something new. In that vein, I’ve built the Amber game (and am working on building this new upcoming game, code named Archons) on the Forged in the Dark (FitD) framework, itself based on Powered by the Apocalypse. Why? Because the system drives me nuts and I figure constructing something around FitD is a good way to get my head around it. It also stretches my understanding of systems theory in general, which helps because there is absolutely no fucking common ground on the subject despite the internet being chock-full of people who have opinions on the matter.


Maybe the biggest lesson learned in my first go around is that by far the two hardest/most time consuming things for me in building the Amber game were system design and art. I’m going to front load the shit out of those first this time.


Archons is going to be a super heroes game because that is the bread and butter of those I normally create and run tabletop RPG games for (Hence known as the Jacksonville, or J-Ville) crowd. There are three design tenets I have for what I want to achieve with the Archons system when complete:


  • Powers are a mix of potency and flexibility. The more potent a power is, the less flexible in what it can do.
  • There are a base set of powers /abilities / keystones, and players should be able to construct their powers from these (want to be Magneto, you build from the earth and electricity keystones. You will have a more flexible `power set than, say, the Hulk (lol all earth lmfao), but you will never have the same potency of the Hulk.
  • I really don’t like the FitD abilities model, and will do everything in my power to build something I like more (I’m not saying it’s bad, far from it. It’s just not my bag, baby)


Archons Concept Art
Archons concept art by Claudia Duran

The short version is that FitD dice are a varying number of D6 rolled – the basic idea is that the highest (or lowest, depending on the situation) die tells you the effect. 6 is a full success, 4-5 is a partial success (you get what you want, but there is a complication) and 1-3 is a bad outcome. The appeal of this is something interesting always happens – you don’t swing at the kobold and miss and that’s that. The challenge for me is that potency is currently modeled on how often a 6 is going to come up (or if you get more than 1 6, thereby getting a critical result). The challenge is in both reducing complications and making things easier.


With this in mind, I’m tackling the adjustments to the core FitD system that I want to handle before expanding on the game’s world and powers design (I’m also working on art, because Amber also taught me art is effort). This is a hard lesson I learned from the Amber game, where I decided to do system design incrementally and thus successfully added 6 months of ‘almost there’ optimism. One of the biggest issues with FitD is a lot of tuning from its source material, Blades in the Dark, and the need to understand how to expand things in a cinematic style while still appealing to the ‘all rolls lead to something interesting’ conceit built upon the idea that success without issue is the least interesting outcome.


There are a few different ways I’m thinking about tackling this, though I don’t have any clear answers:


  • The initial idea was in splitting dice pools into different stats (or domains, as they’re called in Amber) and building in the idea that you would get one result from each domain being applied. This would mean more results, both good and complicated, would happen for characters with flexible powers. This adds both a counterweight and an incentive to not go for high crits/success rates with stacking into one deck. The problem with the approach describe is that it is an active disincentive (and if I’m going to provide negative weight towards a play style, I shouldn’t design around that style, because what the fuck).
  • Rob Donoghue of Evil Hat fame came up with a really neat idea of allowing an action based on not only the highest die but other die in the pool. The catch to this, of course, is that more actions mean more complications. I really like this idea, but the problem at that point is that FitD kind of breaks down when you think about how to tackle multiple complications, so that needs to be engineered for.
  • There is a FitD/Blades in the Dark mechanic around vices and trauma. I was never really a big fan of it, because it was more of a tripwire than a mechanic. In theory you could play into your traumas as they built, but as someone who will stir as much shit as possible in a game I never found an easy way to effectively move into this in a way that was fun or worthwhile. See my earlier ‘why engineer for something you encourage against’ comment earlier. That being said, saying that super heroes have virtues and that there is trauma from the effects of these virtues and they are part of being a hero? There is a way to potentially incentivize that by not making it a tripwire system but a trade off system.



I have no idea how to go about any of this, but it helps me think to write it out, so here we are.

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