What is an “Action Movie RPG”? [∞ Infinity]

I’ve described this system as “my own little action-movie RPG”. Just yesterday, the question came up: What do I mean by that? Since this goes to the heart of what I intend the system to be, I thought I’d give a good answer.

1. It’s an RPG. It’s not a storygame, not a larp, not a wargame. You sit around the table, rolling dice, joking with each other. The players play characters, the GM runs everything else. If you’re good and decent people, there’s soda, pizza, and chips involved at some point.

Everything else is subordinate to this. If something ruins the RPG-ness of it, or ruins the play of the game, it’s out.

2. It’s an action movie game. The mechanics of the game are meant to allow for, and encourage, the feel and events of action movies: fast-paced scenes, furious combats, confrontations and duels, sardonic quips, and heroism.

So how do I do that?

Fast-paced action depends on mechanics that are as simple as they can be, keeping in mind other considerations. Combat is 1 roll, 1 stat for each combatant, and one simple mechanic for damage (said mechanic being used everywhere else). The other mechanics are equally straightforward.

Simple, clear, direct. That’s my motto.

Furious combats are implemented by giving players something to fight for every single round. Combat isn’t just about killing the enemy, it’s a fight to gain or keep the Initiative. (I’ll explain this in a bit.)

Confrontations and duels depend on the combat and social rules, so I’ve made sure that the same rules that work for parties also work for individuals.

Sardonic quips? Combat Interaction skills. TauntIntimidateOverbear, and so on. These provide benefits in combat, and can be quite useful.

Heroism? Well, other than the bit in the XP rules, that’s pretty much up to the players and GM. Everyone has a different definition of heroism — some like or prefer anti-heroes, others don’t — so I leave that to them. A smidgen of subtle nudging here and there, but nothing overbearing.

Then I made the rules amenable to description, so GM’s can bring the world to life. Plus a mechanic to encourage player descriptions of character actions. This doesn’t directly implement any of the action-movie goals, but it does make the game world come alive a little bit more.

The above goals and ideas may not be obvious to people reading these posts, but I do have a clear concept of what I want the game to be. Everything in the game is built to support that.

(With that out of the way, I’m gearing up to start Combat again. Hopefully tomorrow.)

A Smidge of Theory [∞ Infinity]

I want to begin these posts with a tiny smidgen of game design theory.

My belief is that most people play RPG’s to have an enjoyable time controlling imaginary characters in an imaginary world. Most people play for immersion: they want the world to “come alive” for them.

Immersion happens in the minds of the players and GM, when they use their imaginations to see the world. And that is facilitated by GM descriptions of the world and player descriptions of what their character is doing and thinking.

The central mechanic of the game is the Skill Challenge: characters using skills to do things in the world. Nearly everything in the game is built around this mechanic. And this mechanic is built around immersion, in three different ways:

  • The mechanics encourage GM’s to describe the world vividly, by making it easy for them to describe both the difficulty of a Challenge and the outcome of a Challenge. (Without going overboard.) The mechanics encourage, but don’t mandate this.
  • The mechanics also make it easy for players to understand the difficulty of a Challenge and the Skill/Attribute Rating of their characters in relatable, real world terms. This makes the game world more tangible — their own experiences allow them to better understand the world of the game, which makes the game world seem more real.
  • The mechanics encourage players to describe their character’s actions in vivid terms. By depicting what their characters do, it helps the GM and other players imagine the world.

I’m not claiming that I’ve suddenly fixed roleplaying, because everyone else got it wrong for 40 years. I’m not claiming this is this one, perfect approach. But it seems like a great approach for an action-movie game.

Action movies are about heroes doing great things: jumping off a rooftop as it explodes behind them, defusing a bomb on a crowded airplane, shooting at hordes of bad guys in a burning refinery. Action movies revolve around action, and action is more exciting when it is described in colorful terms. The mechanics of the game encourage this, in players and GM’s.

The goal of the game is to encourage vivid descriptions, and get out of the way. As I post the mechanics, I’ll try and show how I’ve worked towards these goals.

And Now, Some More Game Related Material

Winston, long time commenter (for, like, more than a decade) asked the following question about this post:

[J]ust to clarify about the Advantage bonus, is that the cumulative bonus for holding the initiative? And now it’s gone?

This is an easy question to answer, and I already did in the comments — yes, that was the Advantage (see here) and yes, it’s gone. But the “why” of it is more involved, and illuminates the thought processes behind all of ∞ Infinity.

Advantage is a neat idea, but it adds extra work on top of everything else. And I’m honestly trying to simplify.

Now, I tried to think of a way to express that better, as it doesn’t really explain what I’m doing. All I came up with were cliches: pare away, focus in on, simplify. None of them do the concept justice.

I’m striving to achieve clarity and precision.

Mechanics exist to embody certain ideas: how hard it is to pick a lock, what does a gunshot do to your body, how frightening is that Elder God? Some mechanics do this well, some poorly.

When I first have an idea, it’s kind of vague. I sort of understand it, but not fully, and as a result it’s impossible for me to precisely explain it or operationalize it. (“Operationalize” means “encode it in a game mechanic”.) It takes time until I can really understand the concept.

The Initiative is, conceptually, very brand new. (The ideas behind it are found here.) It is the most radical idea in all the game mechanics for ∞ Infinity. And, though I was excited about it and determined to bring it into the game, my mechanics lacked the necessary precision.

First, they were vague and bloated. (“Gambits.” God.) And, in the case of the Advantage, they required an explanation: “Why do we get this bonus? Why isn’t it a penalty to the enemy? Why does it go up each round?”

The new mechanic (in contrast) is simple to explain and easily implemented in play. One side gets a Move+Action, the other a Move+Action+Reaction.

Easy. And yet, it implements the concepts I was describing: being aggressive and reacting faster than your opponents.

In fact, it implements them so well, that I don’t need to explain them. They just are. You go first, you go more often — of course you’re reacting faster than the enemy. Duh.

Simple. Clear. Direct.

With this mechanic, I don’t have to explain a damn thing. The mechanic explains itself.

There’s a kind of beauty in that.

Seeking Perfection In Design

Like them or hate them, one of Apple’s passions is pursuit of perfection. No, they’re not perfect, as a company or as designers. But that’s the point: Real Artists Ship. They make the most perfect product they know how, and ship that. Then they make it better. 

This is the how: simplify, perfect, start over. And this is the why: “The experience of a product. How it makes someone feel.”

That is, and always has been, my design philosophy. I strive to make games that delight the players. The mechanics, the setting details, the raw ideas embedded in the language — I want to make people say “wow, that’s pretty cool”.

That’s what Apple does. And, like them or hate them, on this one, Apple’s got it right.

Remixing RPG’s and Copyrights Thereof

Everything is a remix. (Also watch parts 2 and 3. Well worth your time.) D&D, the first RPG ever, was a remix of a lot of different fantasy sources (halflings, treants, and balors from Tolkien, for example), combined with rules from Chainmail. And every other RPG since then has remixed D&D.

This is, by the way, wholly legal. Let me quote the US government’s copyright site:

Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it. Nor does copyright protect any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in developing, merchandising, or playing a game. Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles.

So, suppose we were talking about an RPG which used cards in its play. (Deadlands, as an example.) Any other RPG could adapt that idea, and it’s wholly legal. So long as they don’t use that game’s text, it’s all kosher.

In the RPG community, we kind of skirt around acknowledging this. Which is understandable, as few of us are lawyers (excepting Necromancer Games and Kenzerco) and none of us can afford to be sued. Litigation could bankrupt us.

There’s also the issue of “creativity”. As expressed by most people, “creativity” means “being wholly original”. So people can’t acknowledge their antecedents, because then they’re “uninspired” or “a ripoff”.

But that’s just not true, because (and see the top of the post for why) everything is a remix. If you think something is wholly original, it’s because you don’t know where the author borrowed his inspiration from. There are uninspired ripoffs, but just borrowing elements from other games or settings doesn’t make them so.

The Matrix is a remix of a dozen prior movies. So is Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Kill Bill as well. (As seen here, after the credits.) In fact, Quentin Taratino’s entire approach as a director is to take inspiration from all of cinema, and mix it together in his own original way. (Not that I’m claiming the skills or talent of a Quentin Taratino.) What determines originality is not if you borrow inspiration (because everyone does) but what you do with it.

I’d like to see more people acknowledge the sources they borrowed from. I’ve done so in the past, and want to again.

To be clear, the ∞ Infinity Gaming System takes strong inspiration from Torg: Roleplaying the Possibility Wars. Several of the character mechanics are adapted from FATE’s Aspects, as is one-roll combat. The inner logic of the Action economy is loosely inspired by d20. 2d10 Dice is adapted from a similar system (using 2d6) from The Babylon Project RPG. The rest is a mish-mash of ideas inspired by many different games (such as Savage Worlds) and wholly original ideas, as modified by feedback from commenters (winstoninabox, John McGlynn, Glen Taylor, Ks. Jim Ogle, and many others) and playtesting.

But as a coherent, unified whole, ∞ Infinity is wholly mine. It draws inspirations from other games, but is exactly like none of them.

I used all those elements (making my own remix), but tried to make something unique. Of course, like all RPG’s ∞ Infinity is also a remix of D&D.

Which — as I’ve stated — isn’t a problem. Everything is a remix.

Infinity: Mangling the Math

This is the story of a premature panic, and a cautionary tale about how you should take the time to understand even accurate information. It starts almost a week ago…

One of our playtesters — John — is a programmer at an absurdly prominent software company. One day he sends me an email, telling me he’s written an Infinity combat simulator in C#.

Input Attack and Defense for two characters, and the program will roll the dice for attack, keep track of Wounds and Wound penalties, and simulate the fight. Then it does this 100,000 times. After, it gives you victory percentage, average length of combat, and damage per round.

My response was precisely this:

That is, seriously, so cool. And now, a Japanese emoticon: 

b ^.^ d

This aid is a tremendous boon to playtesting. It means I can skip all the mundane PvP combats, and concentrate on specific scenarios that test parts of the rules other than “Wham! Wham!” But, there was a problem.

The next day, John sent me the first table of results (using Attack/Defense figures I suggested). The very first result listed the length of combat for that A/D combination…

203 rounds.

!

!

At that point, my brain shut down and panic set in. 200 rounds? How the hell can a combat between two identical characters with equal Attack and Defense last 200 rounds? That’s a huge hole! That’s a wreck-the-game’s-playability hole. And how did I miss it?

So, John sent in another batch of results, and I looked those over. Then he called up and we spent his lunch hour talking over the various rules changes and how those might effect the game. At this point, I was still in panic mode.

The next day, I decided to try a more comprehensive test. I came up with three scenarios, all involving average characters, in a fist fight, a gun fight, and a knife fight. In the back of my mind, though, was the panic:

200 rounds? That’s insane! How did I miss that? How the hell do I fix that without wrecking the core mechanic of the entire system?

So, I wrote out the unarmed combat bout, which has evenly matched characters. And I went back to the results file, and this is what I found:

                Adam       Bob
Attack:         15         15
Defense:        20         20
Win %:          49.89%     50.11%
Avg DPR:        0.045      0.045
Average # of rounds: 202.7314

Do you see the error I made? I misread the table. In my mind, this was 20 Attack, 20 Defense for each character. Instead, it was 15 Attack and 20 Defense. As soon as I understood that, my panic faded away and I began to really analyze the data: what does this mean, in concrete terms?

15 Attack vs. 20 Defense represents two absurdly well-armored people with pretty weak weapons. In other words, a duel between two Abrams tanks, armed only with Nerf dart guns.

Of course such a combat is going to take forever. It should. It’s two guys who only hurt each other 1 out of 10 rounds (and then only for 1-4 Wounds). And, instead of using a better weapon, switching to a different attack, changing tactics, using Combat Interactions, calling for reinforcements, fleeing, or anything else, they just continue wailing away at each other.

The length of the combat matches the stupidity of the participants. It is, as I’d suggested in the call, a corner case.

But what about more reasonable situations? Let’s take the sample three I suggested.

Common situation: Two average people with minimal training in a gun fight, knife fight, and fist fight.

Average people, pistols:

Dex 8 (+2), End 8 (+2). Dodge 1 +2 = 3, firearms 1 +2 = 3. Pistol DR 14 (.38 Revolver).

Attack: 17
Defense: 11

How long does the combat last?

                Adam       Bob
Attack:         26         26
Defense:        20         20
Win %:          49.94%     50.06%
Avg DPR:        3.7        3.7
Average # of rounds: 3.32583

Combat lasts 4 Rounds. That seems pretty reasonable, and logical (given how much damage .38 pistols do).

Average people, knife fight:

Dex 8 (+2), Str 8 (+2), End 8 (+2). Melee weapons 1 +2 = 3. Knife (Str+1), DR = 9 (8 +1).

Attack: 12
Defense: 11

                Adam       Bob
Attack:         21         21
Defense:        20         20
Win %:          49.83%     50.17%
Avg DPR:        1.1        1.1
Average # of rounds: 10.31562

A little longer, but pretty reasonable, especially for two equally matched combatants. Those kinds of fights are the long-running, epic duels of the cinema. Bond and the fencing master in Die Another Day, as an example, or the several duels in Disney’s The Three Musketeers.

Average people, fist fight:

Dex 8 (+2), Str 8 (+2), End 8 (+2). Unarmed combat 1 +2 = 3. Fists DR 8.

Attack: 11
Defense: 11

                Adam       Bob
Attack:         20         20
Defense:        20         20
Win %:          50.20%     49.80 %
Avg DPR:        0.76       0.75
Average # of rounds: 14.44288

14 rounds is a little long, but not unreasonable (especially for two barely trained fighters wailing away). And that’s the worst-case scenario for typical combats.

That is, 14, 10, and 4 are not the “average” length of combats. They’re the upper limit on combat length for 1 on 1 fights. Every other combat that isn’t “Abrams with nerf guns” will be shorter. And 14 rounds is pretty good.

After I realized this, the panic subsided and I could look at the numbers and analyze the entire situation. My conclusions:

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions. Even accurate data can be misread. Take the time to understand the data, before you act on it.
  2. The system holds up well. At 20 Wounds, combat lasts a reasonable amount of time. More, the length of combat is directly related to perceptible and logical differences. For example, fists don’t do as much damage as knives, so those combats last longer. That’s how it should be.
  3. The system covers a hole that comes up in many systems: no matter the skills, weapons, or Attributes of the characters involved, any attack can miss, hit for no damage, or do a varying amount of damage. More, which of the three happens is directly related to how well you did. A better attack does more damage than a worse attack.
  4. 20 Wounds for everyone was absolutely the right decision. The reason 17 Attack vs. 11 Defense is exactly the same as 26 Attack vs 20 Defense is because of this. With 20 Wounds for everybody, the odds and mechanics can scale indefinitely. 15 Attack vs 10 Defense is exactly the same as 55 Attack vs. 50 Defense, and 105 Attack vs. 100 Defense. The system is playable at low levels, high levels, and insanely high levels without needing patches or odd rules. That’s a tremendous strength.
  5. As a designer, I actually have a good grasp on the odds of the system. Part of what caused the panic was a completely unforeseen result. Once I understood the real math (see #1), I realized that the above round lengths for pistol fights, knife fights, and fist fights were all roughly what I would have predicted. The realization reassured me that I wasn’t as incompetent as I’d thought.
  6. With two combatants, and allowing only for attacks and passive defenses, there are 4 variables: Attack(a), Attack(b), Defense(a), and Defense(b). If you were to create a matrix of where each of these 4 variables were independently varied, to map out the probabilities and round length, it’d be a 4-dimensional probability map. Yeah, RPG’s are complicated.

Now that the panic’s passed, and I can look at the numbers straight, I’m reassured. It looks solid enough to take to testing.

Big thanks to John for doing some brutal (virtual) playtesting, and for serving as a sounding board. (Also, people should note that John’s data was (AFAICT) utterly accurate. The error was one of interpretation, not computation.)

Post written under the influence of: AC/DC, Survivor, Simon & Garfunkel, Sheena Easton, Falco, Kid Rock, Run-D.M.C., Fastball, Bush, Falco, Styx, Puff Daddy, & Delerium. (Individual tracks, in that order.)

Infinity Design Notes: Skills

One of the goals in design is “to make mechanics that can easily be understood and described in relatable terms”. The idea is to give labels and information which can easily be compared to people’s real-life experiences.

This begins with the Attributes, which are described with labels people can easily grasp. (Not unique to this system, fairly common in fact, but critical to my approach.) We all know what Average is, we know Exceptional people, we know people who are Very Weak in something.

It’s relatable.

This idea is carried into the skill system. We’ve all been Unskilled in an area, right now in fact. We’ve studied and become Minimally Trained, when something is new and even the basics are a struggle. We know of people who are Proficient and even Expert at what they do.

We can relate the abstract numbers to real world experiences. This makes the game feel real.

The Skill Rating labels and descriptions serve the same purpose. But, as they are a combination of Attributes and Skills, there’s some internal logic to how the two relate.

The bonus for an Average attribute is +2. With Minimal training, 1, Average people have a Skill Rating of 3, Novices. An Average person with Minimal training is a Novice.

This is a common-sense, easily understood measurement. People with minimal training/experience are Novices. (Even the very talented but minimally trained are Novices: Skill 1 +3 bonus = Skill Rating 4. Everyone, even those with potential, have to start somewhere.)

Average people (+2) with a Beginner’s training (4) are Skilled (Skill Rating 6).

Average people (+2) with demonstrated Proficiency (9) are Professionals (Total Skill 11).

Average people (+2) with Expert training (14) are Accomplished (Skill Rating 16).

Average people (+2) with a Mastery of the subject (19) are World Class (Skill Rating 21).

Again, all of these are straightforward and make sense. You can easily understand why a Master of a subject would be World Class.

The rest of the Skill Ratings follow similar internal logic, as do the Challenge Ratings. Challenge Ratings are defined by how challenging they are, in relation to specific Skill Ratings. Difficult Challenges are apt for Professionals, for example.

The idea is that not only can players and gamemasters relate to the mechanics, but gamemasters can translate mechanics into real-world equivalencies and vice versa. How this works will become clearer when I post Skill Challenges.