Iconic Spotlight: Ji Wang

Welcome to a new series of articles, “Iconic Spotlight!” We recently released the Aes Quick Start Guide for “pay what you want.” Included are a half-dozen pre-made characters. We wanted to highlight each of these explorers in turn.

Our first iconic to feature is Ji Wang, the concoction expert. Ji Wang is a very old character, whose existence predates Aes: Brass Revolution. She was originally developed as an NPC who uses a new class of concoctions, serums. Her scientific research in turn supplied lore and background on the history of serums, as well as concoctions in general.

Since being shifted to a pre-made, her specialty went from serums to solvents, but her quest to discover new chemicals remained. Thanks to her status as the very first pre-made character we envisioned, she is also the character we use in the core book to provide an example of character creation. We also made her the leader of the iconic heroes, as we felt it made our team composition a bit more unique than what we’d seen in other games.

Background

Ji Wang, science heroine and leader of the crew of the Airship Zhuge! Steady and analytical, she supports her teammates in clashes with her array of concoctions. In the social arena, she often acts as the team’s lead voice to academics and omnipresent innovators.

Ji Wang’s passion has always been concoctions. As a young girl, she’d spent hours mixing various compounds in her home in Tanso. One particularly memorable incident involved her pet hamster, Huey, and an explosion of sticky solvents. From then on, her parents worked hard to afford her access to books and tutors as they could find them. They dedicated everything they had to ensuring she would advance to a better life – a chance she swore not to take for granted.

Growing older, she studied the history of concoctions and their myriad uses for inspiration. The Tanso immigrants didn’t have many volumes on ancient Zhengqi concoctions, but she absorbed what she could. Applying to Guozijian University, she was admitted by demonstrating a new solvent for safely dissolving glues and gels without damaging solids.

Graduating with full honors, Ji Wang went into the world to pursue her studies in the wild. While at Guozijian, she’d become fascinated by the ancient herbal concoctions that predated the formal sciences. While some had been formally studied and integrated into balms, many more remained untapped. She set out into Aeneam to find these “lost” ingredients and bring their properties to modern science.

Her research caught the eye of Christy Eosolvo, who offered her a faculty position at Eosolvo University. With the sanction of the university, Ji Wang began to travel Aeneam. Along the way, she met the doctor, Draben, whose knowledge of vis exceeded her own; and the artist, Anna, whose keen eye proved valuable. A chance encounter in Buffalton brought her into contact with Aisa, Gurgen, and Yegor. Together, they set out to explore the continent.

Abilities

Ji Wang has three main faculties: Solvent Maker, Maker Haste, and Hammer Space. The first gives her the ability to create and customize solvents. That plainly ties into her back-story. Maker Haste allows her to create these solvents faster than a normal person, which is useful during a clash. Hammer Space allows her to draw small items from nowhere on the fly. That means she’ll always have a handy solvent vial ready if she’s caught by surprise or in a difficult pinch.

Thanks to both a human adaptation and knowing Solvent Maker, Ji Wang knows 4 modifications. One allows her to create gases. Another creates traps. The third deals damage to living things and the fourth gets herself out of being stuck in glue.

Play Style

Ji Wang is the crafting example we supply to players. Since a key focus of Aes is “heroic science,” we needed a crafter who would function both in and out of combat. Ji Wang focuses mainly on the use of flair, making her great at dealing with people as well as manipulating items. Her high clarity in invention means she looks intelligent – good for interfacing with Laton’s R&D labs or university professors.

Normally, a crafter has to spend their whole turn to make a new item. By giving her Maker Haste, Ji Wang can craft and move in the same turn to keep herself from harm. As that improves, she’ll eventually be able to make concoctions on the fly for free while still helping to deal damage to targets.

Her ability to create traps that cause targets to stay put is highly versatile, since it can be used offensively and defensively. By making gases, she can reach targets that are behind closed doors. While she has little offensive power on her own, she can inflict some with at least one concoction type if she needs to. Lastly, she has the ability to get herself and allies out of sticky situations if her own solvents are used against her.

Ji Wang is a support build – she helps the combat characters from the rear and by helping to control the battlefield with her traps. Unlike other games, her status as a crafter does nothing to hinder her ability to participate in combat, so those who play her aren’t totally on the sidelines.

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Version 10 “Alpha’s End” By the Numbers

Version 10, “Alpha’s End,” the newest version of Aes, has finally been released! This has been a long, extended undertaking for us, fraught with delays, but also yielding some very high quality results.

Pages: 389
Faculties: 249
Modifications: 718
Testing time: 15 months

The first major difference: time. Version 10 had the longest development cycle of any single version. In the 15-month span it took us to finish this, we’d completed the first eight versions of Aes!

We’d like to say all of this was testing and refining. Indeed, quite a lot of it was. We wrote entirely new crafting material and went through several versions for each. We added dozens of pages of lore. We radically altered how distance and motion work in the game’s engine. However, there was a distinct delay in development caused by personal life issues during this time. We’re only human, so we’re glad we were able to work through it in the end.

No surprise version 10 was tested at the most conventions of any version before it. This was the first one tested twice at the same convention and the first to be used twice for other annual events in the fall. We doubt it will be the last in this regard. For weekly sessions, we actually paused running Aes in stores for a few months to help focus energy on development. However, even with that pause, there were well over 50 sessions of Aes run using this incarnation. The extended testing cycle meant we caught a lot of typos and the wording for several faculties got tweaked several times to be easier to understand.

The new content is evident in the other numbers. Compare them to the stats of version 9. Fifty-seven new pages and that’s despite cuts! We removed items like charges and serums we felt worked better in expansion material.

As for material added, we had 23 new faculties (a modest gain), but a crazy 232 increase in modifications! This is not shocking given how much crafting we added on: vis tinnabulators, thrumbines, simuloids, capes, and bucklers. With their addition, we now have the fully realized stock of tinnabulators and turngears we wanted for the core book. We also added faculties supporting armor usage and some new tricks for Volition.

And the changes went far beyond more faculties and mods. Lore has been greatly expanded. Taking a recommendation to focus on Laton as the main setting rather than the entire nation of Aeneam, we zoomed in on the capitol city. There’s enough lore and hooks for each sector of Laton that an Invisible Hand can likely think of some clever ideas. Memberships have been implemented, accompanied with lore on several major groups in Aeneam that players can join.

To improve accessibility to new players, character creation has been revamped to flow even better. There are a lot of steps, but that’s because we unpacked each one for maximum clarity. Down the line we might group some of them together, but for now this highly detailed breakdown has tested well with new players. At the end of the book is now a glossary so all the jargon and pronouns are succinctly summarized for quick and easy reference.

We also did one of the first major system changes since version 5 and 6. Motion and distance are no longer measured in exact numbers. Instead, they are listed as relative speeds and proximities. This allows the Invisible Hand to “fudge” things in combat. The main benefit is an explorer caught in the wrong place during combat doesn’t have to wait as long as to come running in if they’re slow. It can be said just a single turn running is enough.

Range is now a set of approximate distances from one another, rather than a carefully calculated sum of meters. This addresses one of our major issues from testing since day 1: the accounting mini-game. Explorers want to play the game and do crazy maneuvers and stunts. Running the math to see if they can run and then attack with the AP they have and then being disappointed if they come up a little short goes contrary to good action. Now the Invisible Hand has greater freedom to handwave it away. (The official term for running an Aes game is “invisible handwaving.”)

The other major change we made relates to an earlier post about the Armor Problem. We’ve dropped the health point / body point system. Now, explorers start with sturdiness from armor. Once their armor breaks, they start taking damage to health. Health is hard to recover (only 10% per respite), so taking HP damage is quite dangerous. That leaves explorers to balance the downsides of taking heavier armor over ensuring they aren’t killed in the field.

What’s next?

Version 10 is the end of the alpha phase for Aes. At 2 years and 4 months, this is longer than we anticipated, but not well outside expectations. It can take RPG’s 5 years or more to see completion.

Our next version will be the beginning of the Beta. This will be noted in the numbering. When we began, we numbered the alpha versions as 0.01A. We later scrapped this in favor of 1.0A, 2.0A, etc. since people were reluctant to play a game with decimal iterations. With version 10, we’re now at 0.10A. The beta will begin at either be 0.1B or 0.2B – we’re still de-beta-ing (ha). We’ll likely refer to them as 1.0B and 2.0B, but the goal is that 10.0B will in fact be version 1.0 of the game – the final release copy.

To get the first beta version ready, we have several long-term tasks. First, talents need to be balanced and revised to match the lore focus on Laton. Second, the Invisible Hand section is going to get an overhaul so we can grow the number of game runners.

Third, and the largest task, we’re going to a broad meta-review of every faculty and mod to evaluate exactly what play styles and combinations are currently at work. We’ve already observed that certain faculties are more popular than others. We have a rough idea of what works as an individual faculty that makes explorers want to use it. Insight into synergy is what we’re missing at this stage. We want to make sure that many common types of explorer behaviors – combat and non-combat – are supported and encouraged in the core book.

These three issues will take time. As we begin work on them, we’re going to resume running games. Our focus is going to be developing a suite of adventures for Laton we can formalize and release to go with the core book down the line. It’ll also let us see what content is most relevant to the setting and what we can move to other planned releases in the future.

Version 9 “Fully Charged” By the Numbers

Version 10, the end of the alpha stage for Aes, is currently in the final stages of being printed! Before that’s finalized, we wanted to give the summary of how version 9 came to be, as we see it exiting the testing landscape.

  • Pages: 332
  • Faculties: 226
  • Modifications: 486
  • Testing time: 4 months

Looking back at the numbers for version 8, several things are clear. Version 8 was focused on removing content we knew would not be a focus for the core book, such as sand shapers and grit tech. Version 9 focused on moving us closer to beta by adding core content: 34 more pages, 27 new faculties, and 122 new modifications.

On the faculties front, hurled weapons finally got support through specialized faculties. There were also additions made to self-defense and invention.

With crafting, the two biggest additions were charges and thrumbines. Players now had the chance to customize explosives, making a demo man a viable player type. Thrumbine mods allowed for personal vehicle creation, a definite thematic necessity. A new type of hybrid between mods and faculties – habits – were added, finally allowing explorers to customize their animal companions, at least a little bit.

Two major systems implemented with version 9: memories and vending points. Memories had been on the character sheet since it was first drafted. We always knew we wanted a system that players could use to signify special in character knowledge. It also gave us a way to impart more lore about the world from a “first person” perspective, so that players could put themselves into the minds of their explorers more readily. Version 9 saw memories added for each of the four main nations, with Aeneam and Zahnrad being the main focus.

Vending points are a system of special “chits” players can cash in once per game session. We’ve discussed their implementation and relation to the five ideals already.

In terms of testing duration, version 8 to 9 had one of the longest periods to date with 4 solid months and multiple conventions. There were 2 regular sessions a week for much of it, so the total sessions alone were easy above 20. That allowed for robust testing of all the new material and helped identify some bugs.

However, this length of testing time was quickly dwarfed by version 10’s dev cycle. Version 10 featured cuts and additions, but overall sported very different numbers from version 9, as we’ll see in its upcoming “By the Numbers” breakdown. We’re planning to have the print version ready before the end of November, in time for the holiday season and to close out 2017 on a high note!

Aes-y Listening 17

For episode 17 of Aes-y Listening, we did a reading of “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

Here is the full text of the poem:

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

The Five Ideals

Earlier, we posted about the nature of good and evil in Aes. Now it’s time to look at one of the core mechanics of the game: the Five Ideals.

The Ideals

When designing Aes, we wanted the game to not only be about action, but also philosophy. We wanted it to represent the best parts of 19th century thought to contrast with the worst parts. So we chose 5 ideals that represent our concept of good in the game world:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Exchange
  3. Invention
  4. Self-defense
  5. Volition

Autonomy is the ability to care for oneself and belongings. It’s based on the Principle of Self-Ownership. You own your body and that is your first property. All possessions you have derive ownership from the ownership of your body, being the result of your time and labor investment. Thus, violating private property rights is like violating the sovereignty of your body. Autonomy is a measure of how well a character respects the belongings of others.

Exchange is social grace, the ability to trade ideas and information respectfully and in an intelligent manner. It’s the way you carry yourself in social situations. Since a main focus of Aes is non-combat resolutions, making positive social interactions part of what rounds out an explorer This is how well a character interacts with others, both allies and enemies.

Invention is science and the love of it. Positivism is alive and well in Aes, and many in its game world view science as the solution to nearly all problems. This plays to the steampunk nature of the game. Science is progress, not a hindrance or something to be feared. It lifts up the quality of life for all and a key path for advancement – any clerk with an idea can strike it rich. Someone who loves scientific exploration and uncovering new data – or even just a general advanced curiosity – will have a high score in Invention.

Self-defense is derived from the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). We didn’t want to encourage players to start fights and always solve problems with violence, but we also didn’t want to condemn using violence in an absolute sense (pacifism). Protecting what you own from harm, including yourself, is a fundamental right. Having the ability to do so is important given the relative lack of protection from a central body in Laton. You have to be willing to follow through on the expectation that what belongs to you will not be taken by others. Someone who is a bully or unable to protect themselves will have a low score, while a capable fighter who is also compassionate will have a high score.

Volition is willpower, or the “will to power.” Skill is no good without the will to use it. One must be able to push through adversity and tackle issues to succeed. Explorers in Aes have to be willing to go out and do their own exploring. One of our design hopes with the “Goals” explorers write is that they will determine the path those characters follow. We wanted character centric play on the part of the Invisible Hand, rather than it being entirely about pre-constructed adventures that players follow on a rail. We include Volition to reward and encourage explorers to seize more control on the direction of play. Being passive and allowing the world to happen to you earns the explorer a low score, while actively seeking out quests or determining avenues to walk earns them a higher score.

Game Play

To measure the ideals, we have a stat for each called clarity. We allow clarity to be positive or negative: a positive value means the person expresses the ideal, while a negative means they work against it. This gives Aes a five variable good-evil scale, as opposed to the common “good vs. evil + lawful vs. chaotic” 2-dimensional plane.

The benefits of using a five point scale over two is depth of character. Instead of being merely good or evil, now an explorer might be reluctant to pick fights (positive self-defense), but struggle to deal with kleptomania (negative autonomy). They might love research and investigation (positive invention), but be very lazy in finding opportunities for it (negative volition). It encourages the creations of explorers who are flawed in a specific manner, but may still have strengths in others. The Invisible Hand is given a framework that supports nuanced non-player characters (NPC’s).

Clarity begins determined by faculties and kindred. Taking faculties aligned with an ideal gives the explorer more points in clarity for that ideal. With kindred, their personalities were largely defined at creation by a positive/negative pair of ideals – an ideal they embodied and an ideal they struggled with. For example, the zhuque are great at social interactions (exchange), but aren’t very keen on scientific research (invention).

Over time, clarity shifts with the choices of the explorer. If they choose to steal, they will lose clarity in autonomy. If they always take command, they’ll gain clarity in volition. It’s a way for the Invisible Hand to recognize the style of play being used. Losing clarity is not necessarily a penalty, either – an explorer could always be choosing to do it on purpose to reflect the personality.

We don’t have explorers use clarity in rolls like with the four core stats. As measures of how well a character expresses philosophy, we wanted to keep them “big picture” in how they affected game play. We based two mechanics on clarity:

  1. Vending Points
  2. Affinity

Vending points are special chits that explorers get as clarity in an ideal increases. They can be spent to affect the game world in a way that transcends what the explorer can achieve on their own, such as subtly changing an NPC’s mind or a small alteration to the environment. They allow for an extra external nudge to help guide the story the way the player wants. The more vending points are spent, the more permanent and far reaching the effect can be. The main caveat is that the effect has to be related to the area covered by the ideal it’s from (autonomy for property, invention for research, exchange for social scenarios, etc.). Vending points are a reward for good role-playing, as they give an explorer a reason to pursue some or all of the ideals in how they play their role.

Affinity is the subjective measure of how people see an explorer. The first impression an explorer makes on an NPC is determined by the clarity they have in the ideals. If an explorer has a negative clarity in invention and tries to discuss things with a scientist, they are more likely to be dismissed or ignored than someone with a high positive invention clarity. In this way, the choices explorers make will be reflected in their countenance. Someone who steals a lot will look like someone NPC’s shouldn’t trust with items. Someone who frequently relies on words to smooth relations will appear socially well adjusted.

Future Development

For the core book, we only really explore the effects of positive clarity. Negative clarity will have a place with expansion materials. Zahnrad, for example, is a land based on the evil opposites of the five ideals (names still TBD). Playing characters from that background will unlock different features for explorers to use.

The five ideals are also not the only possible ideals. At present, we expect Ayaziwa to share Aeneam’s focus on autonomy, exchange, invention, self-defense, and volition. However, Zhengqi, being explicitly east Asian, will very likely have its own set of five ideals that are fully compatible with the original set. These ten overall ideals will then be the full lexicon of the morality of the ancients, the in-world explanation for where the five ideals originate.

Hopefully this provides some clarity (ha) for how we’ve chosen to implement morality in Aes: Brass Revolution. A five number line scale of positive and negative, to finely tune exactly what an explorer values and what they’re flawed in, and to encourage and reward good role-playing.