Version 5 “Arms Race” by the Numbers

Aes: Brass Revolution Version 5, Arms Race, has now premiered! Here’s how it looks:

  • Pages: 210
  • Faculties: 159
  • Modifications: 281
  • Number of testing sessions before release: 6

With 66 new pages of content, this tops version 4’s 50 page jump over version 3. The development cycle for version 5 was longer than version 4, with double the testing sessions, and the increased time and feedback to create content clearly shows.

This version focused more on rules and mods than faculties. The 7 new faculties since version 4 are all maker faculties. These come from the addition of new gear, including all the weapon types.The large bulk of mod development went into melee weapons, since they didn’t have any. General mods which can be applied to any weapon were also added. Range weapons now only have about a fifth of the mods as melee, so they will be the focus in later versions for development.

Most of the page content is from rules more than anything. The seven main playable kindred have been added. A character creation section is now at the front of the book (with image examples) to help new players. In addition to the gear, there are new status effects, the introduction of postures, a new subtype of modifications, and other expansion of the rules.

One of the most requested features is also in version 5: page numbers and a table of contents! These two basic items were left out of prior versions, mainly due to forgetfulness. Now that they’re present, it will make navigating the book a lot easier.

One of the goals of version 5 was to expand what the game featured so it felt more like a functioning game. The lack of kindred and gear were two of the “flags” that made people see it as incomplete. With them present, Aes feels more like a whole game. There are still elements missing (memories, memberships, etc.), but these are less immediately obvious. The last major missing element is the talents system, which we’re hoping to have ready by version 6.

This will likely be the last version compiled on Page Maker. We’ve finally gotten a copy of InDesign we can use, so we’ll be making the transition over for version 6. That should improve our speed and appearance of the manuscripts, since InDesign can handle formats Page Maker can’t.

Looking ahead, our goal with version 6 will be less in the way of adding new rule and play mechanics and more about expanding on what’s possible already. There are about 30-40 new faculty ideas we have in the wings that will get added in, along with more mods for contraptions, concoctions, and evo control. Autonomy needs to be redone to account for the addition of gear. Haberdashery (armor making) and range weapons will be finished off, as well, to try and put the combat elements of the game fully into testing. The one new thing we want to add is Saboteur, a means of adding negative mods to items. It doesn’t require new rules, but adds a very interesting approach that favors spies and stealth builds.

Version 5’s playtest cycle starts with a bang this weekend: RealmsCon (10/2 – 10/4)! Followed by GamExpo shortly after (10/9 – 10/11). The target is for version 6 to be ready for the next major event on the docket: Extra Life’s 24-hour Game Marathon on November 7th!

Kindred and Adaptations

We recently finished development of a major game element for Aes: the playable races.We followed in the traditional sci-fi RPG mold of having these races – here, called kindred – arise from evolution in the world, rather than created by magical or mystical forces as in fantasy RPG’s. The only “new” race arose from scientific creation, a protean species to harken back to the steampunk theme of creating new life. (This is a theme that will be drawn from in other ways down the road.)

Why do we have non-human races in Aes? An essential part of an RPG is the ability to be something other than human. This has numerous benefits. For one, it adds diversity to the game world. New and interesting conflicts can arise from the relationship between different factions.

Second, they can promote exploration, as beings able to traverse climates hostile to human life, such as under the ocean or volcanoes. Third, they allow for symbolism, as a way of representing the best or worst traits of humanity distilled and simplified. Elves and orcs are commonly employed examples.

Lastly, there are numerous role-play benefits, as well. Putting yourself in the role of someone who isn’t human requires extending your own thoughts and perspective to match. It can give fresh challenges for experienced and new players alike, as well as allow for fresh takes on the same scenario.

Why do we use the terms “kindred” and “adaptations” over the more common “races” and “traits?” Race is a term that’s rather muddled in modern language. In game terms, it typically means a species that is distinct in genetics and physiology from another. Traits, likewise. Race in this sense means something that has arisen after millennia and more of natural selection to choose certain traits that are now common in the population. New races are slow to form as off-shoots of the main ones.

We prefer “kindred” because it has less of a connotation for hard genetic differences. We like the idea of representing smaller differences that can arise from culture and geography, rather than the large gulfs of different species. For example, the kindred in the core book will be generalized versions, a mash-up of the most common traits. Later versions will explore the nuanced differences based on regions. Adaptations reflects both the behavioral and physiological changes we make as we grow used to new environments.

For example, humans who live in Aeneam are acclimated to living free at the cost of having to deal with greater risk. Residents of Zupcanik, though, have had to handle the abominations that roam the countryside due to the wild experiments of the Gefahr family. These two kindred – kinfolk – will have different adaptations to their environment. They’re both human, their the same race, but what they’re good at will be very different due to their different surroundings.

Currently, the plan is for the core book to have seven distinct kindred, each one representing the main races of Aes. Expansion materials will then add kindred and adaptations as possible, such as for nations or different environments. Later on, we’ll post about the seven kindred as well as how we designed adaptations.

Photos

Two new sets of photos uploaded on the Facebook page!

The first are a few pictures taken during a playtesting session on August 28th. They mark the last time one of our regular testers could attend in-person gaming for a while, since he’s moving to a new state.

The second are from an open play session hosted at Outlaw Moon on September 5th. We had three new players join, two of whom had never played an RPG before! Their feedback was very helpful. The game session was one intended for use at GamExpo in October.

Qualitative Faculties

Feats are a key component of many games. They’re also known as abilities, specialties, talents, skills, and a host of other terms. Their purpose is to give an explorer what sets them apart from normal people, what makes them above the rabble or gives them a fighting chance at changing the world around them.

Feats are often clear cut bonuses and stat boosts dependent on situations or triggers or an expansion of abilities. For example, a feat might grant a bonus to avoid being grabbed. Or could allow an explorer to lift more than normally allowed. Feats tend toward a hard quantitative aspect, expanding on mechanics and rooted in numbers.

A direction we’ve gone with feats in Aes – called faculties – is to balance the usual quantitative format with a qualitative format. Qualitative faculties work not by giving hard definitions of what they allow an explorer to do in terms of game mechanics, but instead via metaphor and description. For example, instead of saying “+2 to notice a detail,” we say, “You can thread a needle without having to look.”

Aes is intended to be centered on story telling and role-play more than combat. Qualitative faculties mesh with that goal wonderfully in several ways: interactions with the Invisible Hand, as a game running tool, to encourage careful consideration, and increasing variety of play styles.

First, they improve the dynamic between player and Invisible Hand. Debates over, “Do I succeed?” happen regularly. With quantitative feats, this is often a matter of adding numbers and haggling for a specific quantity. The numbers can bog down the sense of immersion. With qualitative feats, this flows differently. Now the explorer has to be creative to justify being able to accomplish a task. They need to plead their case with cleverness over rules. This makes debates over “Am I successful?” ones requiring even more immersion, as the explorer has to search for an in-world justification.

Second, they provide a great tool for the Invisible Hand. Fudging the dice in favor of players is a time honored tradition. Qualitative faculties allow for even more leeway. Circumstances could grant an explorer extra bonuses. Knowing what their explorers are capable of in terms of metaphors, they can create richer contexts for them to explore by deliberately tying it in.

Third, it rewards lateral thinking on the part of explorers. Numbers provide only so many ways to employ them. A metaphor or description, though, is open to interpretation. We deliberately write them open-ended for specifically this purpose. An explorer could find a new way to spin or re-frame a sentence to see new uses and applications. Word association and brainstorming of possibilities are encouraged. At the same time, the Invisible Hand retains the power to quality check and hold them to high standards, so that not just any word salad goes through.

Last, and this builds on point three, by being open to individual interpretation and use, it keeps the game fresh. Quantitative feats can become stale, as their uses are explored thoroughly by those who love them and they become central to established archetypes. Number and mechanical oriented feats are often pinned down to a single targeted use, taking their utility from how they can be combined with other feats.The replay value derives from inter-feat interactions.

However, qualitative faculties provide greater flexibility within the feat – intra-feat interpretations. Two characters with the exact same faculty could be employing them in very different ways. Take the “You can thread a needle without having to look” example. One explorer may emphasize the needle part, using it to craft micro-inventions. Another could focus on the “without having to look,” arguing it lets them get around penalties from being blind while sniping. An inventor and a sniper, both employing the same faculty to improve their ability. Thus, it defies easy characterization of the “This feat is best for snipers only” sort found in many games.

Now, there are problems and issues with qualitative faculties. For one, not every player is as comfortable with the written elements of games as others. Reading disabilities are not uncommon even among role-players and some may have English as a second language. This can cause issues for some players through no fault of their own and game runners need to be mindful of this.

Second, there are players who don’t like open-ended things. To them, numbers are comforting and definite. They like sticking to what’s solid rather than something “squishy.” This is why also including quantitative faculties is important, so these players can also have something to latch onto. Gaming preferences cover a wide span and there are people who want their abilities to be straight forward and predictable.

Third, it can increase the complexity of the game’s language. Aes is intended largely for all ages, so that even someone in middle school can join in. Advanced language skills can represent a barrier to this goal. It also reduces the speed with which a player can pick up and play, since they have to think and contemplate when reading these faculties. During con demos, I have noticed that qualitative faculties are rarely chosen, with players tending to prefer simpler ones for their first run through.

An exception has been Psychoanalytics, which several players have found a fascinating concept, enough to overcome the textual barrier. This speaks of the need to make sure that any qualitative faculty – as well as feats in general – need to sound interesting. The higher the cool factor, the more a player will put up with to use it. A good maxim for any game designer.

Qualitative faculties will be one of the key design traits for Aes, since they provide the game a longer span of time before growing stale and tie in wonderfully to the principles of role-play and discovery at the core of the game. So long as we make them awesome, they should appeal to a broad section of players and improve game play for everyone!