GURPS Simple Fantasy

It can be tough being a fan of GURPS.

Once, long ago, on /r/rpg, I complained that while GURPS is very simple at its core, it’s got so much cruft and minutiae and spiderwebbed corners in it that it puts most people off.

The second problem with GURPS is that far too often SJ Games doesn’t treat it like an RPG. They treat it like a “make your own RPG system”. Thus, ferreting out the rules that you need to run your high fantasy campaign from the ones that explain how futuristic medicine works can be a pain in the butt, and there’s very little to help you.

The third problem is that while there is a Lite version of GURPS, it tries too hard to be regular GURPS instead of being a simple way to introduce new players into the game. And Ultra-Lite is even worse – it doesn’t provide a path back to “real” GURPS at all!

So I did it my damn self. Presenting GURPS Simple Fantasy, an eight-page handout. The first four pages include all the rules necessary to make real GURPS characters and run a simple fantasy campaign, while the last four pages are an adventure specifically designed to work with the simplified rules. As I designed this handout, I made certain that every rule I presented either came from GURPS Lite Third Edition, GURPS Lite Fourth Edition, or GURPS Ultra-Lite. This handout does not “give away” any rules. The characters made with GURPS Simple Fantasy are full GURPS characters and can be brought over into “real” GURPS without changing anything.

While I feel like I’m mostly done with this, feedback on both the rules and the adventure is still welcome. There is no perfect thing, everything can be improved.

(I have since learned of the existence of the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy and Dungeon Fantasy RPG products, both of which seem to try to fix the same problem…but I didn’t know about them when I was writing my version.)

An Epiphany…

Once, there was a game where each player controlled an army. And it was fun and people liked it, but one day a player thought, “Why don’t we create a variation of this game, where each player only controls a single figure and about five of them team up?” And it turns out that this variation on the original wargame is far more popular than the original game, spawning countless similar games and creating an entire industry!

Now, am I describing how Dungeons & Dragons grew out of Chainmail, or how DOTA grew out of Warcraft III?

(Yes. The answer is yes.)

A Tale of Two Demos

(Have I used this title before? I’ll have to check. Anyhoo…)

So! I recently played two demos, one excellent and one terrible and I figured I’d tell anyone who still reads this blog what they were and why I rated them such.

The terrible one was the Halo Wars 2 demo. I’ve actually been looking forward to Halo Wars 2, ever since I participated in a beta a few months ago. I’m fully aware that, even on Windows 10, the game was designed to be played with a controller. And I’m more willing to play it that way (unlike some poncy British guys who review games).

But this demo is terrible because it represents the game so poorly. The demo consists of – wait for it – one single-player level and a Blitz mode where you play against the AI. That’s it. Not even a single multiplayer map – and multiplayer is where this game is really at! As something designed to get me to buy the full game it’s a colossal failure.

On the other hand, just a few days ago a demo for Dishonored 2 was released. Dishonored 2 is overall considered a good game, if you can get it to run well on your computer. Since its release it’s been patched many times to improve performance and this demo was designed to show people who are on the fence not only how Dishonored 2 plays, but how it will run on their setups.

And it succeeds at both of its goals perfectly! The game runs fine on my middle-of-the-road i5/Radeon R9 290 combo on medium settings. It includes the first three missions of the game – and if you played the original Dishonored then you’ll know that a single mission can take well over an hour to complete, so you get a very generous chunk of gameplay. It also includes both Corvo and Emily as playable characters, so even the demo has replay value! And if you decide you like it, you can carry your demo save over to the real game and pick up right where you left off. It really is an amazing demo. And its release coincided with a 50% off sale of the game on Steam. I really hope that this results in lots of people playing, enjoying and then buying the game. I don’t want to see Dishonored die because of a bad launch.

Game Archeology – Zarch

As you may know if you’re a long-time reader of this blog, I like Populous. I like Populous 1, I really like Populous 2 and have a love-hate relationship with Populous: The Beginning (though with mods that made it easier to play it’s swinging back towards love).

So I was browsing Wikipedia. You know how it be.

And I ended up at the entry for Populous (again). Only this time I noticed a little sentence I hadn’t earlier.

Peter Molyneux led development, inspired by Bullfrog’s artist Glenn Corpes having drawn isometric blocks after playing David Braben’s Virus.

Virus? What the heck was Virus? I knew a lot about David Braben (co-creator of Elite, creator of Frontier and founder of Frontier Productions, which, among other things, published Roller Coaster Tycoon 3.

But I had not heard of this game.

The game named as “Virus” was actually Zarch, a game for the Acorn Archimedes. (Virus was the name of the Atari ST version). In the game, you…well, just watch the damn video.

This game was released in 1987. Braben expanded on his groundbreaking work with Elite (which was the first game to use 3D polygonal objects with hidden line removal) to move up to a fully 3D, heightfield terrain using shaded squares to represent terrain types, altered the color of squares based on how far they were from the camera to simulate lighting, and had particle effects. As the game progresses, the terrain changes as it gets corrupted by the aliens – the colors go from green to brown and red and the trees become twisted and mutated. The game also had an incredible frame rate due to the fact that the Archimedes was quite a powerful machine for its time.

(It was also very difficult to play because of its mouse-only control scheme but that’s irrelevant to my point.)

Now that I’ve seen Zarch, I think it’s clear that it was an absolute inspiration – not for Peter Molyneux, but for Glenn Corpes.

Glenn was the landscape programmer for every Bullfrog game made, from Populous all the way through Dungeon Keeper. Populous actually got its start after Glenn played Zarch, got fascinated by the landscape generation, and came up with his own isometric version. But Glenn didn’t stop there.

Here’s a screenshot of Zarch:

Zarch_screen

Now compare it to Powermonger:

maxresdefault

It’s obvious that Zarch sparked Glenn’s interest in terrain generation in general. But now I think it’s clear that Powermonger was Glenn’s attempt to both replicate and improve on Zarch in every way he could. Powermonger even used a particle system almost identical to Zarch’s!

And here I thought I knew everything about the development of these games. That’ll learn me.

Deep Space Settlement

And now on to something else. I found another indie developer who also has a long-standing project she is obsessing over, and from what I’ve seen it looks like it could be really good.

The project is Deep Space Settlement. Your job? Turn a colony ship into…well, you get it, and then defend that settlement from anyone or anything that tries to harm it. The kicker is that the game uses RTS mechanics even though it’s more of a build/strategy type game.

The game manages to give off both Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire vibes, which resonate deeply with me. And despite the plurals on the home page, the entire game and its underlying engine have been written by one woman, St├ęphanie Rancourt. So she’s working on a labor-of-love project that’s probably way too big for her and writing everything herself from scratch. I’ve found my French-Canadian distaff counterpart!

About Godus

Well…um…

Do you know why I’m making Planitia?

Because I want to play Planitia, and nobody else seems to want to make Planitia.

Several times over the course of Planitia’s development, I’ve been excited to hear about a different game that seemed like it would scratch my “play Planitia” itch. From Dust, Reprisal and now Godus all seemed like they might do that.

And every single one of them has let me down. From Dust turned out to be more of a puzzle game, with no multiplayer component. Reprisal has the basic Populous thing down but doesn’t have multiplayer.

And now Godus looks like it’s going in a different direction completely.

Even putting aside the myriad annoyances listed in that video (most of which will certainly shake out before launch), it looks like the basic design of Godus is that of a real-time empire-building game rather than a strategy game. Finding resources, using them to unlock technologies and advancing through ages make Godus more complex than Populous by at least one order of magnitude. And makes it sound like Age of Empires. Wait, wasn’t there already a simplified version of Age of Empires with guys dressed in little blue tunics? That’s right, there was!

And right now, the multiplayer looks horribly deficient – it’s not played on the main map, terrain alteration (a big part of Populous multiplayer) doesn’t appear to be a factor any more and the fastest way to finish off an enemy is to just send your units over to kill his before he can get anything going. Yes, it was an early multiplayer battle but even then you should at least be using earthquakes to slow down their villages.

It reminds me of Black & White 2, which was absolutely schizophrenic about how it wanted you to play the game. Your goal – conquer all cities on a map. But if you raised an army and did it directly, you were evil. If you spent hours and hours and hours slowly building up your influence until they decided to join you, then you were good. This means that, if you want to play as good, the RTS element of Black & White (which is sorely needed) was useless to you.

So once again, I am happy and sad. I’m very, very sad that unless Godus undergoes a complete redesign it’s not going to scratch my Planitia itch. But I’m happy that I’ll still get to bring Planitia to the masses instead of giving up on it because something better came along.

Stardock and Star Control

When I initially wished that I could still be at Stardock so I could work on Star Control, I didn’t have all the facts. I didn’t know that Stardock only got the name, not any of the content, and because of this they say they’re going to “reboot” the franchise.

Um.

As every schoolchild knows, the name Star Control had been trademarked by Accolade, so when Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford left that company they couldn’t take the name with them. They did, however, retain rights to all the content of Star Control, which meant that nobody could make another game featuring the Syreen or the Melnorme or the Ur-Quan without their permission.

Which they gave to a ragtag group of programmers intent on re-creating the original game (which for a long time was available only second-hand or through nefarious means). This group of codiferous rebels produced a new version called The Ur-Quan Masters and it’s a really good version of the game – anyone who played the original will feel right at home. Except that the exploit that allowed you to sell more planetary landers than you actually had to get infinite money was removed. Bummer.

Now, Fred & Paul gave the permission to use their content because it wasn’t a commercial project. This is not the case with Stardock’s Star Control game. And Fred & Paul sold their company, Toys for Bob, to Actiblizzion back in 2005. Which means that they are still Blactivizzard employees.

So, I’m seeing a few options for Stardock here…and most of them aren’t that good.

1. License the Star Control 2 content and get Paul & Fred to consult on the project. This will give the highest chances of success but will be damn hard to pull off. Fred & Paul may not be in a position to actually license the content for commercial use (I don’t know the legalities there). And Fred & Paul almost certainly won’t be in a position to consult on the project since they work for, you know, a competing game company. But if the stars were to align in this manner I feel confident Stardock could pull off a good new game. The fact that the original developers were involved would also cause the fanbase to be more forgiving of any missteps.

2. License the content but go it alone on both gameplay and story. This would tie the game back to Star Control 2, but unless they do a great job themselves it could result in a poor game hurting the Star Control brand. This is exactly what happened with Star Control 3.

3. Do a complete reboot with completely new aliens, story and gameplay. This is the worst possible outcome; the lack of involvement of any of the previous developers and the complete break with the original Star Control storyline means that fans will judge the game as harshly as possible, so unless Stardock pulls off an XCOM, there will be significant internet backlash and they don’t need that after Elemental. Again, it would be very easy for Stardock to ruin the brand like this. Elemental was supposed to be a new version of Master of Magic, but Stardock couldn’t get the license. Imagine if they had, and the shipped version of Elemental had been called Master of Magic instead…

So, I’ve got some misgivings. But at least there’s a chance for a new good Star Control game, which is better than no chance.

More Heroes!

Wow, I can’t believe I forgot these guys. Mike Hommel and Seth Robinson are two friends of mine who I got to know better during the Indie Conversation.

They have conspired to create a game called Growtopia, which is a collaborative creative MMO on iOS and Android (Seth claims desktop versions are Coming Soon). It is apparently the business and has generated tons of sales for them, which makes me very happy. Seth wrote an excellent postmortem for it, which you can read here.

Andy Moore, who is apparently the only remaining contributor to the Conversation, also had a recent big hit with Monster Loves You. MLY is published by Dejobaan Games, one of my favorite “indie” publishers. (I still want a sequel to A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, guys.) Again, you can read a postmortem of Monster Loves You here on Gamasutra. He also took MLY to Pax and wrote up a great article on how to take your game to Pax if you’re an indie.

So, while I was unemployed and feeling sorry for myself, my friends were out doing great things! I should follow their example.

Heroes

It’s interesting to track my own metamorphosis as a game developer.

Not too long ago, if you asked me who my heroes were when it came to game development, I would mention people like Warren Spector, Richard Garriott (de Cayeux) and Peter Molyneux. These guys all started their work when game development was a very nebulous endeavor – no one knew what would work and what wouldn’t. They hit upon winning formulas, allowing them to become well-known and at least moderately wealthy.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, the “rules” of game development at the upper end are now set in stone – or at least in ballistic-grade gelatin. Add the fact that the cost of game development has skyrocketed and the fact that the industry is so volatile that it’s almost impossible to have a “work for 20 years at the same company and then retire” kind of career, and you’ve got an industry that makes games I like to play, but one I don’t find myself wanting to work in as much.

Which brings me great sorrow, but such is life.

So who are my heroes now? Who is Doing It Right? Who do I want to emulate?

My heroes now are mostly indies – guys and gals doing it hardscrabble fashion, showing lots of talent, doing whatever they want and almost certainly not getting compensated enough for what they do.

For instance…

Jeff Vogel. I’ve talked about him before. Since I wrote that article, he has since found further success on Steam and iOS devices. Again, he’s doing it just the way I’d like to – making the games he wants and making a good living at them.

Christer Kaitila. He’s a huge game jam fan – to the point where he wrote a book about them. He’s a longtime Ludum Dare contributor and composed my favorite LD Keynote ever. His star is currently rising as the creator and maintainer of #1GAM – the One-Game-A-Month project. The response to this has been overwhelming, the site has tons of entries and the new IRC channel is as busy as #Ludumdare usually is.

Jay Barnson. I’ve mentioned him before and I’ll probably mention him again. He’s a longtime friend who is currently working on a sequel to his successful game, Frayed Knights. He, like I, spent many years doing professional game development before going indie.

Sophie Houlden. She’s an absolute master of Unity, doing crazy awesome things in a frighteningly short amount of time. Unfortunately, a lot of her games (Swift*Stitch in particular) appear to be underrated.

Sos Sosowski. Not only did he design his own website, which is awesmoe, he developed the crazy/fantastic McPixel, which was all over YouTube after its release.

Daniel Remar. Yeah, yeah, I talk about Daniel all the time. I can’t help it; I’ve loved everything he’s done. And he somehow manages to make games while holding down a full-time job and then release them for free.

I also read recently about a woman who wrote a dozen books, one a year, while home-schooling her autistic son. I think you can see how a setup would be attractive to me.

I need to rekindle the dream of my own independent game development…and as far as I can tell, there’s only one path open to me. More on that later.

JRPGS (Jewel’s RPG System)

I ran a game for my youngest child, Jewel, this weekend. She’s eight, and in the second grade.

Now, just like her older sister, she has been immersed in Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying concepts in general for her whole life. Hitpoints, mana, elves, orcs, swords, sorcery – she’s seen it all in video games and movies. Ever since she saw me buy the D&D Basic Set for her older sister Megan, she’s been asking if she could play Dungeons & Dragons.

And I’d been putting her off, for two reasons. First, she couldn’t do the math. Second, she really didn’t have the attention span.

Now that she’s eight I felt she was ready to experience roleplaying in some fashion, but I still didn’t want to let her play Dungeons & Dragons. Why? It’s just too heavy and confusing for a young roleplayer. In order to play that particular game she’d need to be able to read and do math at a much higher level than she can now.

But I felt that she was more than ready for the roleplaying experience itself, especially since she would have her older sister helping her along. What I needed was a simple, easy-to-understand roleplaying system. My goals were:

* Based on 2D6; I didn’t want to introduce polyhedral dice yet
* Low modifiers to make the math easier
* Fast-playing. I mean, really fast-playing. No charts or tables for the players.

Now, I had written up what I thought was a pretty good system based on the old Traveller rules. It had rules for buying stats and skills and general task resolution. I asked Megan to read it and she said something brilliant. She noted that high stats gave bonuses and low stats penalties when buying skills, and asked the question, “Why are there skills at all? Why don’t we just add or subtract those stat bonuses when we’re trying to do something related to that stat?”

“Well,” I huffed, “it would mean that someone with a high Intelligence, for example, would be able to do everything Intelligence-related well. They’d be able to program a computer, solve a Rubik’s cube, do theoretical physics…”

“Oh, please,” she retorted. “You effectively pick what you’re good at when you pick your class. If you’re trying to do something very different from your class description then you’d get a penalty. There isn’t any real reason to have skills; they just make things more complicated.”

I’d already had a nagging suspicion that the system I was coming up with was more complicated than it needed to be, and buying skills was one of the worst parts. Megan’s one question allowed me to greatly reduce the complexity of the system without it being any less fun. She is definitely my daughter.

I hereby present the system for your perusal and critique.

JRPGS (Jewel’s RPG System)

Characters

Characters consist of five stats – Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Intelligence(INT), Endurance (END) and Personality (PER). Stats range from 2 to 12. Characters start with 7 (an average score) in each stat and players take away and add points to stats until they’re happy with what they have. Every point of a stat above 7 gives a bonus and every point below 7 gives you a penalty. Characters have (END * 3) hitpoints and (INT * 3) mana points to begin with.

Examples:

I asked Jewel what kind of character she wanted to play and she said a wizard (of course). To make things even easier, I asked Jewel what two stats she felt would be most useful to her character and she picked Intelligence and Personality, surprising me. Then I asked her what two stats she wanted to give up; she chose Strength and Endurance. So I simply gave her a +2 for the ones she picked and a -2 for the ones she gave up. I gave her three times her Intelligence in mana and three times her Endurance in hitpoints so, she ended up with this:

Name: Nyan
Race: High Elf
Class: Wizard

STR: 5 (-2)
DEX: 7
INT: 9 (+2)
END: 5 (-2)
PER: 9 (+2)

Hitpoints: 15
Mana: 27

Her sister Megan wanted to play a rogue, and she juggled her numbers herself to get this:

Name: Dahlia
Race: Half-Elf
Class: Rogue

STR: 7
DEX: 10 (+3)
INT: 4 (-3)
END: 5 (-2)
PER: 9 (+2)

Hitpoints: 15

Task Resolution

The basic throw to succeed at a task is 8+ on two six-sided dice. Based on the type of task you are resolving, you will add or subtract whatever stat bonus or penalty the DM thinks is relevant to that task.

For instance, Jewel’s spellcasting would pretty obviously be an INT-based task, so in order to successfully cast a spell she would roll two dice, add her +2 INT bonus and try to roll 8 or higher.

The GM can make tasks more difficult two ways – they can assign penalties or they can have tasks be opposed. Penalties are fairly obvious, so let’s talk about opposed tasks.

An opposed task is one where another character is trying to stop you. A good example would be attempting to lie to someone convincingly. You would roll a Personality task to do so – if you roll 8+ then you have spoken well and there’s a chance the other character will believe you. But then they roll against their Intelligence. If they also roll 8+ then your attempt fails – they’re too smart for you.

Combat

I initially thought about having all combat rolls be opposed – a player would roll a Dexterity task to see if they hit, then the enemy would roll a Dexterity task to see if they could dodge the attack. I realized this would be slow and frustrating (I could hear Jewel saying “But I hit!” in my mind).

So melee attacks are Dexterity tasks; succeed and you hit. A basic attack does 1d6 worth of damage. If you have a Strength bonus, you add that bonus to your damage. Damage can be reduced by wearing armor; one point of armor negates one point of damage from each attack.

Magic

This required the most work and imagination on my part. I absolutely did not want a huge list of spells with their effects cluttering up everything so I gave Jewel a basic attack spell and a sleep spell and went from there.

What I did was allow her to tell me what she wanted to do, and then based on how effective that task was I would assign it a mana cost of 1, 2 or 3. (If I felt it was too game-breaking, I didn’t allow it at all.)

She would then roll an Intelligence task to cast the spell. Her attack spell would do the same damage as a weapon attack – 1d6 – plus however much mana she used to cast it.

Armed with this system, I was ready to run Jewel’s first roleplaying session. Since this is already a bit long, I’ll save that for the next post…