Monday, September 19, 2011

Dino Questions

So I have a few free minutes now that the baby's asleep (the days of using my "day off" for late breakfasts and power writing are long gone, I'm afraid), I wanted to revisit some of the questions and critiques of my micro-game Out of Time (downloaded 170 times! right on!). Since I don't have a whole lot of time to organize this stuff in any sort of alphabetical FAQ, I'm just going to run down the list and address folks' concerns:

Inconstant Hit Points: Out of Time (which I will hereafter abbreviate OOT) uses an abstract method of tracking "damage" to a character called Hit Points, a familiar term to most role-players. HPs in OOT are determined by rolling a D6 and adding it to a certain base number depending on your character's ability scores. This D6 is rolled at the beginning of each session, meaning your character may have more or less hit points to work with each session.

This is purposeful within the context of the game. As a survival game (you're stranded in a prehistoric time hoping to find someway back to your own time), your overall health will vary over time...who's to say your character isn't ill some week with a tropical disease one week or feeling great and on the ball the next. Living like a castaway, you're sure to experience rough patches "off stage" between're not always at your level best. There is no "home base" to which you can retire between sessions. Sure, you might fix up your cave so that it's livable, but there's no guarantee you don't pull your back carrying water up the cliff face. The D6 roll is just random health/fatigue/luck of the week; your ability scores could provide as many as 21 base hit points or as few as 0. And if a T-Rex bites you, well, it won't matter all that much regardless.

Wildly Skewed Abilities: In OOT you are dealt a hand of cards at the beginning of the game that determines your abilities; it is possible that your character is completely deficient in one or more areas or evenly balanced.

For the OOT character, one has to realize this is just a starting point. Think of your character as one on a television show or movie: especially in B-Grade adventures (the type featuring dinosaurs, natch) characters are often 1st presented as cardboard archetypes...the strapping action hero, the weedy scientist, whatever. Also keep in mind that having a single card in one of the four abilities makes the character average in that ability; drawing 7 cards gives you a good chance of being at least average in most of the four categories. But as with a TV show or film, characters start with a strong concept and then deepen and develop over time, gradually changing or revealing hidden depths. The "hand you're dealt" is just a starting point for the player, a direction of how to play your character. Think of yourself as an actor and THIS is how you were cast by the director. Consider the characters in the TV show "Lost:" mostly average Joe-types whose actions later determined their depth.

"Advancement" (or lack thereof): There is no "advancement" in OOT, there is development...a character's gradual change over time. Your character might start out as Joe Shmoe, but after a session of dinosaur survival, he might trade one of those extra cards in Skill for one in Strength...a little more physical exercise, a little less video game playing. The development is start with a certain hand, but you can change over time, reflecting your preferences of how you want your character to change.

But it's not "infinity up." If you develop a hardened persona from living on the edge of survival, something else is going to give: perhaps you start to spurn technology, taking a more "back to nature" approach (moving Supply to Skill). Perhaps your character becomes less empathetic to his fellow man, having watched so many folks die (moving Spirit to Strength). There is a price to be paid for developing one ability over others, and the development rule reflects that. Likewise, people who are already excellent in an area (face cards and aces) have a more difficult time changing their ways...they've found what "works for them" and are set by inertia. To me, this reflects a bit of real life. A guy used to relying on his muscle to get things done will tend to continue to do so, rather than develop other strategies. Characters with more minor ability draws (i.e. number cards) will be more adaptable over time (necessity being the mother of invention and all that). I find this to be a nice little bit of game balance.

Anyway, the goal of the game is to find your way home, not to become "He-Man Dino-Killer." This isn't a game about superheroics. It's about survival and ingenuity.

Deficient Abilities - Too Harsh?: There are four ability scores in OOT and if a character is deficient in any one of them (i.e. has no cards) then he automatically fails any challenging task (i.e. "rolled" task) that would use that ability. For example, if Spirit-deficient Tarzan tries to sweet talk socialite Jane ("Hey, Me Tarzan, Yo") there's no way she's going to dig his rap. Likewise, if Joe Scrawny tries arm-wrestling Tarzan, he's going to lose-lose-lose.

However, as stated in the rules, there's more than one way to skin a cat and if you can find a way to use another ability score to accomplish a task then you can do so. This is, after all, what we do in real life. We may not have the strength to haul a piano upstairs, but we can rig a pully system to do so. We might not be able to come up with the most romantic patter to woo someone, but we can find other ways to impress/interest the subject of our affections. Finding ways to do this (i.e. player cleverness) is the name of the game.

Why Shooting is a Supply Roll and NOT Skill: There are no skills in OOT; your ability scores determine your capability in each of four areas and you can develop from there over time (if you choose to do so). "Supply" is the ability that governs all use of mechanical stuff, including firearms. If you want to repair a vehicle found in the jungle or fly a plane or fix a transistor radio (not that you'll get any good stations), or shoot a gun...all of those things fall under Supply.

A gun is a tool and like any tool, requires a certain degree of knowledge to use effectively, especially in combat. There are plenty of very coordinated and athletic folks out there that don't know the first thing about guns or how to use one effectively, just as there are people who are great shots despite being lousy in the "Skill" ability (mental acuity and dextrous proficiency). And yes there are some people who can do OOT, these would be people who drew cards in both categories.

For the purposes of OOT, there are people who have mechanical aptitude and those that don't. This particular conceit comes from my own experience: I am pretty terrible and hate most things technical or mechanical. Other folks (like several "manly guys" I know), love screwing around with guns and cars and power tools and aren't afraid to take shit apart when it breaks. For purposes of the OOT game, that is one category of capability (i.e. ability score) that not everyone is proficient in.

Likewise, these same folks have a tendency to collect and hang on to useful tools and such; the real outdoors types carry Swiss army knives or Leatherman multi-tools and are ready to dismantle or tighter or jury rig shit they come across in the random time-dimension of the OOT game. If you want to be a skilled surgeon or chess player or fencer or academic than you have a high Skill score. If you want to be MacGuyver or Joe Survival Nut, then you need a high Supply roll. That's how OOT works.

Equipment and Resources: OOT is NOT a resource-type game. It does not track the number of bullets left in your clip or how many beers are left in the mini-fridge that just dropped through a temporal portal. My idea for the more "robust version" of the rules was to have certain "special bennies" available for characters who drew Aces in a particular a working vehicle for an Ace of Supply or psychic intuition for an Ace of Spirit. I also toyed with the idea of characters having available equipment based on their starting draw in the diamond suit (i.e. Supply category).

But Supply is more about your ability to use gear and make something useable out of nothing. Yes, the person with a high starting Supply score should be able to start with some decent equipment ( depends on where and when the character was when initially sucked into the OOT world). But people (and things) are sucked into the OOT world all the time. Even if your character didn't make the trip with his trusty thirty-ought-six, it doesn't mean he won't find a .50 caliber Browning somewhere along the way. And anyway, all weapons are (generally) on "human scale" anyway...the game is designed to be cinematic and abstract, and for the purpose of OOT there's no practical difference between a handgun and a rifle. Especially when it comes to a charging T-Rex.

Scale of Damage: The damage rates are pretty satisfying to me, though I might include a "big game" category of firearm for those foolhardy types looking to hunt a triceratops with an elephant gun (good luck!). Such a weapon...and possibly .50+ caliber military weapons...would do 3D6 damage ONLY TO CREATURES LARGER THAN MAN-SIZED. Against humans, there's a finite amount of tissue damage a shot can do, and this is determined by the random damage roll.

Because it's a cinematic game, the full version would probably also have rules for "knocking out" opponents with fists and clubs (and rocks) instead of "mortally wounding" them. I like the "contusion scale" found in Horror Rules, and might try adapting something like that to the game. Or maybe not...I think it's totally valid to leave the decision to K.O. someone in the hands of the player administering the beating (and if they choose to break the character's neck or back, well, that's okay, too).

All right...I think I've answered all the issues. If anyone else has follow-up questions or comments (or actual play feedback!) please post it here. I appreciate the input, truly!
: )


  1. Such a great post! Love visiting your blog!

    Lola x

  2. I like OOT but I don`t think my players would ever go for something so abstract. You ever play "Jurassic the Hunted"?

  3. @ Pierce: No, never heard of it. Looks like an XBox game (from a Google search) and my XBox broke down a year or so ago. Is there a table-top RPG for it?

  4. You've made good arguments here for your rules, though theres a couple of issues I still have here- and not related to the ones I raised before, which you've defended against admirably.

    For your Advancement/Development, I get the feeling it will end up with characters going two ways- being "extremists" in a single ability, or more commonly "jack-of-all-trades" with averaged-out scores across the board after a few sessions as players hedge their bets. This may just be pessimism on my part, as a solid ROLEplaying focused group shouldn't fall foul of this one.

    The other is your 3D6 damage for bigger guns applying _only_ to big creatures. I'm not buying the "limit to tissue damage" you throw out here- I have it on very good authority of military and ex-military friends/relations that getting hit by a .50 calibre rifle round will end you. Limbs will be pulped, torsos will be emptied etc. etc.

    I don't mean to make it sound like smaller bullets aren't deadly (even the relatively tiny .22 LR will kill) but with a .50 it is almost a certainty. Leave it as 3D6 _always_ I say.

  5. @ Dusk: Actually, I agree with you on the .50 cal issue. That being said, it's more for the PLAYERS' benefit that the damage be limited ("heroic player characters" and all that jazz). I suppose, though, that if you don't want to mow down all the PCs, there's no need to throw them up against a Nazi pill box.

    As for the what? They can't move more than 1 card per session, and I'm fine with letting characters develop however the players want. Personally, I think the idea of Jerry the mild mannered grocery store clerk turing into Turok Son of Stone is kind of fun! As well as an interesting story over time.
    : )

  6. One of the really great things about designing your own games is you can and should make the game the way you want it. You can EXPLAIN your rule decisions, but you certainly don't have to DEFEND them.

    Likewise, people who do not have a controlling interest in the game are welcome to share their ideas, but not to consider those preferences in any way binding.

    It is good to hear the thinking behind some of your decisions.

    A thought on hit points--you might want to either put in some systemic encouragement to end a session in a position to have down time (get out of the dungeon by the end of the session), or reconsider re-rolling hit points if you pick up right where you left off on a cliffhanger.

    Still, at this level of abstraction, you could explain the sudden shift with a handwave and a shrug.

  7. It is an Xbox game but with pretty much exactly the same premise. Portals keep opening up all over a tropical island dropping off people and creatures randomly. There is all kinds of weapons and equipment scattered around including a Nazi sub and a crashed alien spaceship.

    Also Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was one of the best cartoons ever.

  8. @ Fictive: While it's not explicit in the micro-version, I intended that hit points are not regenerated (and re-rolled) in the case of cliff hangers. Though it is expected that cliff hangers will NOT be a usual occurrence (at least as imagined by moi).

    @ Pierce: Sounds neat.

    I didn't know C&D WAS a cartoon...I own the RPG and the collected comics and the latter are fantastic (the former may be THE most boring RPG ever written).

  9. I finally got a chance to download the rules, and I am in love. The system hits the pulp feel dead on. I hope you'll consider including these expositions of reasoning behind the rules in the expanded edition - not only do they dispel any head scratching over why a rule is the way it is, but reading them also sets the pulp mood even more. :)

  10. @ Run: Thanks for the kind words. If I wrote up a full version it would include more exposition/explanation (as well as examples) to help folks wrap their heads around the concept. That's one of the main issues with micro-games: because of space considerations, authors run the risk of "what were they thinking?" moments, even when the rules make perfect sense in their own brains!
    ; )