Design Diary: Angels & Aberrations – The Cherubim

My next DM’s Guild product is likely to be a monster compendium of astral creatures (as my previous design diary may have suggested). Initially, I wanted to do every creature that is “from the Astral Plane” in 5e style, but there’s a lot of 1e-era creatures that mention spending a lot of time on the Astral Plane that maybe make more sense in other capacities in 5e. So I’ve cut the Shedu form it, as well as some more “campaign specific” astral creatures.

One category of creatures that this winds up cutting that I’m a big fan of (and might just splinter into a separate compendium) are the Weird Celestials. These creatures are super-interesting – benevolent, chimeric beasts, often based on Near Eastern or Asian creatures, sometimes given psionic powers for…some reason…. This includes monsters like…

  • Shedu
  • Lammasu
  • Baku
  • Foo Dogs / Foo Lions
  • Dragon Horses
  • Hollyphants
  • Moon Dogs
  • Opicinus
  • Phoenix
  • Couatl
  • Ki-rin

In general, these creatures struggle a bit with their particular place in the multiverse. I’ve often thought that you could crib notes from various angel mythologies for this. This suite of benevolent beasts could easily be the “cherubim” to the deva’s “seraphim,” though that would be taking many of the actual mythological creatures out of their native mythologies (not necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater when re-starting a narrative).

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I was tempted to put many of them in Angels & Aberrations, using the cherubim motif, but found that they were largely described as “travelling” the Astral Plane rather than of or from the Astral Plane. Thinking about their narratives a bit, I think generally they’re more interesting if they’re from isolated areas of the Material Plane, rather than sitting on some other plane. DM’s are more encouraged to use these creatures if they’re part and parcel of the world rather than off somewhere else and needing to be summoned.

Maybe I’ll go back on that at some point.

For now, I think I’ve got plenty of Astral Critters for the doc. These include…

  • Astral Dreadnought (the poster child for planar monstrosities since 1e!)
  • Astral Hulk (an umber hulk taken to eating astral matter)
  • Astral Render (a powerful god-created ooze that tears the planes asunder to teleport enemies around)
  • Astral Searcher (a ghostly shell of raw emotion that seeks to possess material form)
  • Astral Stalker (a tribe of god-created hunters that, in my new narrative, specifically hunt blasphemers and turncoats like the Athar)
  • Astral Vermin (a re-named 3e Astral Kraken – a behemoth squid-spider that cocoons astral travelers)
  • Astral Warwing (god-created constructs that defend the sites of powerful relics)
  • Aoa (a silvery ooze that reflects magic)
  • Berbalang (a fiendish creature that lives most of its life astrally projected)
  • Brain Collector (good ol’ Far Realm weirdness! These horrors are very knowledgeable about the anatomy of creatures over here…
  • Couatl Variants (including the 4e Cloud Court couatls, Couatl Redeemers who associate with Mithral Dragons, and the Discord Incarnate, created in an ancient clash of good and evil that hasn’t exactly stopped…)
  • Devete (humanoid wanderers that mimic the emotional state of those they come across)
  • Dhour (Intelligent psionic oozes from the Far Realm)
  • Mithral Dragons (agents of prophecy and the gods – who, in my writing, often predict apocalypses)
  • Garmorm (Far Realm horrors that are basically worms covered in singing mouths. New mouths appear when they eat your friends – and those new mouths have your friends’ voice!)
  • Astral Giants (outcast from the ordning, these giants serve the gods of civilization)
  • Inevitables (judges and enforces of multiversal order)
  • Maledictions (lightning-thunder-necrotic-psychic elementals that are the result of a dead god)
  • Psurlons (flesh-warping worm-psions of the Far Realm)
  • Quom (fanatical humanoids who travel on comet-ships to retrieve the specks of dust that are the remnants of their god)
  • Astral Deva (like a regular deva, but with a stunning attack, and a blade barrier)
  • Astral Streaker (basically, songbirds that serve as messengers)
  • Astral Whale (great, nigh-immortal beasts of deep intelligence who roam the planes)
  • Cerebral Parasites (essentially a disease that afflicts psionic people)
  • Void Kraken (A Kraken….from the FAR REALM. Woah.)

These are all in a first-draft-finished state, so once I get a chance to do some editing, they’ll likely be out.

Design Diary: Shedu

 

I’m whipping up a few astral creatures for the DM’s Guild, and I figured I’d document some of my thoughts while doing so. First up is the shedu.

What Does the She…du?

My first step for this critter was to look at its history in D&D as far as I could see it. It’s present in the 1e and 2e Monster Manuals, and the 3e Fiend Folio, but doesn’t make an appearance that I could see in 4e (that edition generally steered away from statblocks for things you weren’t meant to fight, so that makes some sense).

Stat-wise, we’re looking at a mid-to-high tier challenge in all editions, though in each case, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of power to back up that XP value or Challenge Rating. Offensively, each iteration of the shedu is a little underwhelming, with essentially two 1d6 hoof attacks. In 1e, this could have been augmented by powerful psionics, but in 2e it’s psionic load-out was distinctly utility-based, and in 3e this remains true (though it does gain a trample ability to augment its hooves). Defensively, the shedu does a little more respectably, but this is largely thanks to their ability to peace out of a fight entirely by traveling to another plane. In 2e, this ability was the weakest (astral projection does leave your body behind), but in 1e a shedu could travel the planes “at will,” and in 3e, it has an ethereal jaunt it can call upon.

Shedu are one of the more labor-intensive monsters to use as a DM in 1e and 2e, requiring you to pick some psionic abilities for them. This could shore up their defenses or offenses, but would rely on DM expertise with psionics to do this effectively.

So, we’re looking at a creature, encounter-wise, where if the party was to fight it, it would simply run away. More often, this creature was likely to be an ally to the party, perhaps for a few sessions (making sure the DM gets some mileage out of choosing their psionic powers), vanishing to another plane when things got too hot in combat. From a functional mechanical perspective, it’s a friendly NPC with some cool powers.

From a narrative perspective, we’ve got a fairly nebulously-defined agent of Good and Law. They travel the world doing good and helping others. 3e expands on this role a bit by making them advisors to clerics who summon them. This is still pretty bland, but 2e and 3e do like to talk about their head-gear. In 2e, it was emblematic of a heirarchy, and in 3e, it was a mysterious link to a perhaps-lost kingdom. They also are among the “random psionic powers” crowd in earlier editions, without much of a reason for why their spells were psionic and not just…spells…

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The New Shedu

I didn’t have a whole lot of meat to work with, as you can see, but that’s OK – it gave me some room to breathe. In looking to spice up the story, I did some research on shedu in history (their original inspiration being the man/bull/eagle/lion creature that can be found with frequency in many cultures of the ancient middle east) and found a bit about them guarding a threshold. Combining that with the intended mechanical perspective gave me a bit of a hook: they’re creatures who serve communities, summoned by others to help them repel invaders. This presents one immediate scenario where they can be used in your game: to rise up in defense of an attacked location. They also worked well as a Celestial creature type, making them well-suited to conjure celestial.

I liked the oddness of the psionic powers. It is good grist for the story-mill (why do these creatures have psionic power? What is psionic power in your world? How do these celestials fit into it?) but by 3e, the shedu had gained a lot of cruft with their multiple powers and fifth leg. So I wanted to simplify.

I took the planar travel ability and made it a limited plane shift as part of the psionic suite, defining it and limiting it. It’s still a nice “adios, muchachos!” ability, but it’s no longer an evasiveness. Their inherent magic circle I also turned into a magic circle psionic ability. I took the telepathy devotions from 2e and reduced them to charm person, which seemed to mimic the function of those abilities well enough. I’ve also given them telepathy, which fulfills the “many tongues of mortals” camp. For ability scores, I cribbed the auroch’s physical stats (because they’re bulls!) and gave them 5e-ified stats based on the 3e numbers. 5e tends to have lower ability scores across the board, so I reduced each modifier by about 50% from their 3e numbers. I collapsed the 3e skill list down to two main skills (which could replicate the effects of all those 3e skills).

I’ve also left them weak. The current CR of the shedu is 2. This serves a few purposes, design-wise.

  1. Keeps them good for conjure celestial, to evoke their narrative better.
  2. I don’t need to arse about with a lot of new ways to power-up their defenses and (especially) offenses that might ring hollow with their history.
  3. They’re good allies, even for mid or low-ish level parties. They can actually see use before level 10.
  4. It makes it easier to use a herd of 8 or so of ’em in practice
  5. It leaves plenty of room for a “greater shedu,” if I were inclined to make it.

That’s a lot to gain! Their weakness isn’t an uncontroversial choice (this powerful being of celestial might is less mighty than…an owlbear?), but it’s one I’m happy with, and I imagine the existence of a Greater Shedu would do a lot to appease those looking for a bit more badass in their man-bulls.

The other semi-controversial choice I’ve made is to make them no longer just bearded middle-eastern dudes in their heads. The symbolic meaning of the king-with-a-big-beard head in the original art is as a representation of wisdom and authority. I kept the crowns, but ditched the gender-specificity, so now we can have wise, authoritative lady shedu, too, why not.

Domains of Play

 

It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that Jason VandenBerghe is one of my *favorite* devs. He’s one of those “I want to be like this when I grow up” guys.

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His beard alone is #facegoals.

He’s got a series of talks up in the GDC vault that revolve around developing his thesis regarding Domains of Play, a kind of player-typing system that helps developers look at their game through the eyes of many different types of players so that they can consciously choose their audience.

First: The Intro.

Second: Development.

Third: Over Time.

Fourth (this is an article): The Follow-Up.

A few things really resonated with me in terms of the regular practice of design. Let’s dig into them!

Continue reading “Domains of Play”

Mega Man 2 and Resource Management

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I played through (most of) Mega Man 2 this week, and in doing so I saw how the designers iterated on the original Mega Man‘s use of the iconic limited-use Special Weapons. In many instances (such as with the Quick Boomerang and the Metal Blade) the energy consumption of the weapon is mild enough that you can use it as a replacement for your Arm Cannon. Others (such as the Time Stopper and Atomic Fire) have variable rates of energy consumption, and can suck up a little or a lot of energy.

However, the point of no-return frustration for me was that the demand for a weapon often outstrips its energy, especially in the late-game. This perhaps reaches a peak when you hit the Boobeam Trap at the end of Wiley Stage 4, which are invulnerable to anything other than Crash Bombs, and are located behind walls that themselves can only be detonated with Crash Bombs. This is a sudden Pop Quiz about your knowledge of this specific weapon – it’s ammo capacity and it’s blast radius, specifically. And if you screw up once, because weapons don’t replenish when you lose a life, you’re forced to Continue, and play Wiley-4 all over again.

And then, if you manage to accomplish this, you are faced with a boss rush with no weapon recharges, where, at the end, you meet Dr. Wiley who, with his most unavoidable weapon, is mostly vulnerable…to…crash bombs.

WELP.

Clearly, the idea is that you’ll have to use a few Continues to grind through this, but JD ain’t got time for that.

In thinking of alternatives to the energy system, I was wondering what other trade-offs one could make for these “better” items. It’d be an interesting experiment to see these Special Weapons done as horizontal power-ups rather than vertical power-ups, as in a Metroidvania-style explore ’em up – to bake into the weapon’s use a reason not to use it that isn’t “I might run out of it.”

MM2 has a bit of this – the limited range on the Quick Boomerang, the charge time on Atomic Fire, the “time limit” on the Time Stopper, and the “wait for the bomb to explode before you fire another Crash Bomb” are good elements of that. What would the game look like if these were the ONLY limitations? Would the player want to use more weapons more often, in more situations? Try to make “difficult” weapons work? Express their personality with their weapons of choice? I think it’d be an interesting pressure on Mega Man’s jump-and-shoot platforming basics to be able to change so much about the “shoot” verb (and maybe the jump verb, too, with things like Item-1, Item-2, and Item-3) on the fly, without having to deal with the loss aversion of limited ammo.

We Should Let Them Die

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Fujibayashi is a stone cold killer.

In this, I’ll be talking about this interview with the Breath of the Wild devs from The Verge. It is good and pretty and you should read it.

That interview has helped crystallize a thought in me about how death mechanics are often treated as burdensome in the play of a game, or even tacked-on. A game like Uncharted features death as a speedbump, because death gets in the way of the story, interrups the character arc. Most deaths in games are a version of “but that didn’t really happen…” that serve mostly a perfunctory role at this point.

When a game chooses to bear some teeth with swift death, they are often characterized as “hard.” Dark Souls comes to mind, as it always does, but anyone familiar with the Zelda franchise is happy to note how easy it is to die in Breath of the Wild in comparison to most of the games.

I think part of what these games are exhibiting – and what a generation of gamers is re-learning after the days of “Nintendo Hard,” – is that these deaths are a way to reinforce the rules of the game you’re playing. “They fall, they learn,” as Takizawa puts it.

Deaths are not learning experiences in a game like Uncharted because it’s systems are simple and there’s not much to really learn. You move, you shoot, you press X at the right time. These aren’t especially complicated interactions. Do what the game tells you to, or die. You just learn to do the thing.

But in a game that takes death seriously as an opportunity to communicate with the player, it can be a fiercely effective method of communication.

As par for the course, tabletop games have been wrestling with this particular dichotomy for a while, and most right now are rather squarely in the same place that a lot of videogames are: death is to be avoided, because it interrupts the story. Resurrection makes death cheap, the argument goes, because if characters don’t really die, then there’s no consequence!

As I launch into my next design project, I’m keeping in mind what fail-states look like and how to make them say something, and not just serve to make the player occasionally press some buttons.

 

Mega Man (Analysis)

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Well, hey there, classic game from my childhood that I never played. What’s a thing like you doing in a place like Steam? Come here often?

Yeah, so, Mega Man! The classic! I got started with the series with Mega Man X on the SNES, and that’s a game I played very thoroughly (hadouken!). I was reminded of it recently watching Daniel Floyd of Extra Credits play through old awful Sonic games – reminded me of another franchise that has gone spectacularly off the rails in recent memory (Mighty No. 9, or How to Dissapoint a Fanbase). I picked it up in the achingly authentic Mega Man Collection, and whipped through it.

Unlike most of the games I analyze here, I haven’t completed it. I’m not sure that I will…the Yellow Devil is The Worst, and it might be a meat wall I can’t chop through. But I’ve given it a fair shake, having worked my way through the six levels. This game is Danny DeVito in It’s Always Sunny – nasty, brutish, and short.

So, some lessons learned:

Continue reading “Mega Man (Analysis)”

Character Creation is the Whole Game (Analysis)

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This neat little microgame by Rob Beschizza is a pretty fascinating idea. You’re assigning points to six ability scores D&D style, but each time you add a point, your avatar goes on an unseen adventure and returns with gold, XP, loot, and, potentially, a promotion of some sort. The goal of the game is, apparently, to achieve as much as possible in your short life (much like life itself, I suppose!).

I appreciate it as a bit of a study in minimalism. Character creation is probably half the fun of any RPG, as the complex character options in various tabletop RPG’s and, well, anything there’s a Monster Factory episode on demonstrate nicely, and turning it into a game in and of itself is a nice bit of elegance.

Lessons Learned

  • Fit as much as possible into a single action. No sense in complicatin’ things up.
  • Building a character is inherently rewarding. Envisioning your fictional avatar is a fun toy in and of itself.
  • Discovering hidden options adds replayability. With a game loop this short, the ability to add to different stats and experience subtly different stories adds some replayability. If the game wanted to enhance this aspect of itself, it might make unique endcards for the higher-ranking achievements (I got up to Warlord while I was playing, which is a neat title, but it’s the same job screen you see above).
  • Clarity helps the experience. First few times I played, I didn’t realize you could go into negative points or reduce your scores, and the various careers or paths you follow aren’t really differentiated, leading to feel pretty samey in practice.

Night in the Woods Analysis

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I was pretty delighted by my experience with this game. I found the strongest elements to be character and setting, rather than mechanics, but this is a strong vote in favor of narrative as a key part of a game experience – sometimes, the only part that really matters.

Mechanically, I first thought of NitW as akin to a dating sim – the core loop seems to be developing relationships with the various townsfolk, and especially one of your core group of friends. But unlike a more straightforward “spend time with the NPC until they like you” kind of game, NitW takes these opportunities to showcase character dynamics. It puts you in some situations where, no matter your choices, your friends will be a little fed up with you, a little annoyed by you, and – justifiably – pissed off at you for some of your character’s own negative traits.

That’s some damn fine storytelling, and it’s a place that many games fear to tread – to have characters who are multifaceted and who have relationships rather than just tropes that validate whatever choices the player makes. It’s deep and grown up.

The other bit of game mechanic that is prominent is the exploration of the town – runnin’ and jumpin’. This can be a bit repetitive, and does get a little dull as you hop-hop-HOP, hop-hop-HOP, hop-hop-HOP, hop-hop-HOP all around town to visit everyone. The town is well-realized, but the character of Possum Springs is more developed in dialogue than it is through exploration. The decision tree is simple enough that it could’ve been a Twine game, and it would’ve lost a bit of tedium in that interface. (Of course, the price to be paid would be the beautiful artwork and animation, so perhaps not worth it!) NitW is superb literature, and any survey of great American post-industrial writing would be improved by its inclusion. I don’t know that it’s a rewarding challenge or a rewarding system, but it is a very rewarding experience.

So, in the end…

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Flawed characters make you want to learn more and dig deeper. Give people problems that can’t be solved.
  • Protagonists can be flawed, too. Don’t automatically make the protagonist their best friend.
  • Multiple characters that talk of one thing can give you insight into different angles on that thing.

One Year on DM’s Guild

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After a little less than one year selling products through the DM’s Guild, I figured this new year would be a good time to analyze some actual numbers. I’m probably on the smaller side in terms of sales on the platform (no bestsellers), but I’ve got consistent sales and well-reviewed products across a range of purchase models and product types, which gives me a lot of ways to slice and dice the limited amount of data I’ve got.

So here’s a few Interesting Things, if you’re into the data crunching. It’s a long post, but I am kind of a nerd about this stuff! Sneak Preview:

  • I made about 1/10th of what I’d make per word as an actual writer (or less!)
  • Pay What You Want might not be worth it from a creator’s standpoint
  • People don’t comment on products
  • Products linked to WotC Storylines lead to better sales overall

Want some more details? Okay!

Continue reading “One Year on DM’s Guild”