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.

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“What is Steampunk?”

Our first YouTube video! This is an audio recording of a panel at a Texas anime convention. In it, one of our lead developers deals with the question of how to define steampunk. Very insightful for anyone looking to understand how we’re approaching the genre.

Sex and Gender in Aes

When we designed the character sheet, one thing we included was to have two separate boxes for sex and gender. This has attracted some attention from our players, since most have never seen that in any RPG before.

We treat sex in biological terms. Sex is determined by the biological attributes an explorer has. Gender, on the other hand, is the societal identification that explorer takes with regard to those biological attributes. For humans, baihu, qinglong, and zhuque, these two tend to be both binary and in sync. Male sex will typically mean male gender and female sex will be highly correlated with female gender. Binary sex is average for them and their societies assign their gender roles based on it.

Where the differentiation adds to the depth of the world is for the kindred who don’t follow the human normal arrangement. Sex binary is not a universal. The feichong, insects, are not wholly sex binary. Some versions exist with a third sex that contributes necessary enzymes to the reproduction process. The touzulei, who can manipulate life, have created myriad ways of reproduction with dozens of niches to fill.

Gender has greater variations, even among those kindred that tend to have binary concepts. Part of the punk aspect of steampunk is allowing explorers to defy what is average for a given society. A man can present as a woman and vice versa. Such subversion of Victorian mores are part of the steampunk genre. (The Constantine Affliction plays with this as a central theme.)

Tishli, predominantly female, have complex views on gender. The aggressive nature by which their masters in Zahnrad assign them a rigid place in society (i.e. economic slaves) leads some of the free tishli to question many kinds of apparently rigid structures, including how they present their sexual identities. The male tishli are deliberately genderqueer, since by design they are meant to represent the subconscious values of their creators. These creators have a false notion of masculinity (the bull-headed machismo stereotype), so they create the male tishli in response to that false image. They are a rebuttal to an argument that is only perceived to exist.

With baihu, the hyena variants are matriarchal, with males forced into a submissive role. Touzulei have as many genders as they do sexes, since they alter their forms and presentations on a whim. The sea going qinglong have variants that play with the “typical” gender roles, such as seahorse versions with males as the child caregiver. There are feichong that differentiate the gender between females based on their place in the hierarchy, with some breeding as others are expected to be asexual workers.

And, just as in the real world, there are those whose mental identification (gender) don’t align with the physical form (sex) they were born into. (Though, in the world of Aes, such a situation is much easier to fix thanks to evo control.) while it’s possible to play a transgender character in almost any game, we felt that splitting sex and gender made it at least somewhat implicit that it’s fine to do so here. As opposed to leaving it as an undocumented feature.

Currently, there’s a transgender character in playtesting: a biologically female tishli who identifies as male, who acquired shape shifting and identity theft abilities. Now they prefer to present themselves as male in more ways than one. At GamExpo, we had a bi-gender character, as well. Both did so to explore role-playing opportunities and to create explorers they thought were interesting.

We didn’t split sex and gender to be trendy or pander. Issues regarding transgender individuals are serious and deserve earnest discussion moving forward. Our decision to split sex and gender, rather than treat them as synonyms, was not an effort to try and make the game seem more legitimate by inserting that discussion into Aes. It was done because, in the context of the game world and the game’s themes, differentiating the two allowed for greater depth of lore and expanded options for players.

The questioning of what constitutes normal is where Aes draws much of the punk side of steampunk. At the same time, we avoid sweeping generalizations condemning all aspects of normal or deeming all rebellion as foolish. If an explorer wants to dig into the issues around a gender-sex disconnect they can. If they want to go with the average and have the two synchronize, they can do that, as well. Sex and gender, especially through a Victorian lens, are fascinating topics to explore, which is why we’ve put them in our game.

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.

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!