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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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!

The Armor Problem

We love it when we find solutions to problems in the game, even if it means having to change how the game works a bit. It’s one reason we’ve kept Aes as an alpha for over a year and a half: it’s easy to change what’s rough (as John Lasseter has said).

In the current version of the Metric Steam Engine (the game system that powers Aes), there are five tiers of armor players can choose from. We noticed a problem, though, with how they interact with this: they would either have nearly none or maximum. The middle 3 tiers went largely untouched.

Contrast this with our weapons. Every weapon comes in 5 types, with varying damage and limitations. Larger equalizes require bracing to shoot straight. Larger blades require 2 hands. Players often picked a variety of sizes, from the small to the very large. The problem with armor selection was not an issue with the tiers themselves.

Like weapons, armor also varied by tier in benefit and trade off. Heavier armor soaks more damage. However, it reduces speed and give penalties to dodging attacks. The bottom tier armor soaks a little while giving no penalties, while the maximum tier armor slows an explorer down and makes them easy to hit while absorbing considerable damage. Players were choosing either max soak or max speed and nothing in between.

This problem isn’t new, either. We based how we model weapons and armor on other RPG’s that use a similar increasing rank method. The idea is that rather than trying to differentiate hundreds of different kinds of items, they’re grouped broadly by fundamental characteristics. Players then add whatever flavor they prefer. In these games, developers noted a similar problem: only the first and last tiers of armor were used.

More specifically, most players tend not to utilize much armor at all. Those who used max armor tended to play specialized tank characters. They use faculties allowing them to mitigate the penalties of high tier armor. They are in the minority. Most players simply choose to take no penalties and low soak over even medium armor.

The reasoning, based on this behavior, appears to be that players value a lack of penalties over the ability to absorb damage from being hit. They’d rather leave their dodge higher to avoid being struck rather than be able to take a hit well. What we realized as a solution to the problem was to find another trait of the armor they might value and have the game system encourage players to choose it as a focus. But what?

What we’ve done is restructure health points. In Aes, armor, like all items, has durability. Before, a player had health and body points. Health were combat points that measured the ability to sustain controlled injuries. Body damage was more severe. In our new system, armor durability replaces HP as the first line of points depleted in combat. Health replaces body, where losing health represents taking damage to your physical form.

What does this accomplish? Adventurer’s now have a reason to take the middle tier armor, because higher durability means a higher buffer before serious damage is taken. For non-combat types with low health, this buffer can be very important. Early testing has shown it does change player decision making with armor choice.

We feel pretty good about our solution to this design issue. We’ve also revamped range and speed. We’ll post more on that later.

Good and Evil

When developing Aes, one of the early choices was to have a defined “good and evil.” This dichotomy is central to both genre and design.

The decision to have a good and an evil defined is part of what makes our game heroic. In the 90’s, the trend toward “edgy” blurred the distinction of the two, essentially negating them. By choosing to differentiate, we went with a classical feel to Aes. The core of romanticism is the clash of ideals, and good vs. evil is the easiest starting point for that.

The other main reason to delineate good and evil: conflict. Conflict drives game play. If every faction is just as sleazy as the next, then there’s no emotional connection to their battle. Good and evil helps give it more punch that explorers can attach to. And it still leaves open room for more complex battles, such as between two viewpoints that are both correct in their own way.

Knowing that good and evil would be implemented, the next step was answering the design question: what would be presented as good and what as evil?

The Evil

We began by defining our evil. Artists communicate a lot about their values by what they choose to define as the problems of our world. Even those who have no solution may seek to raise awareness of an issue. The expression of values is one of the defining traits of art itself. Games are a form of art, so making a values determination in Aes was necessary for it to be complete.

The evil we’ve chosen is the dominant groupthink of our current time. For many years – over a decade by some estimates, far longer by others – there has been a kneejerk tribalism rising in various political circles. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – has been a driving force, as more and more people put themselves into echo chambers rather than challenge themselves to think and debate. Tumblr culture has been particularly toxic, with the tribe mentality driving some on that platform to push those they disagree with to suicide. “Conform to our way or you’re worthless” is a common mantra. With it, the breakdown of communication and empathy between people.

This way of thinking – or rather, this way of not thinking – holds numerous beliefs antithetical to rational human existence, such as:

  • Censorship is fine if we define what’s being censored as offensive.
  • Questioning authority is treasonous if the tyrant is “our guy.”
  • It’s okay to use violence on those you disagree with if they won’t shut up when you tell them to.
  • Your every action is justified if you feel you’re right.

To us, this sort of mentality was an obvious choice to be portrayed as the mindset of our antagonists. And since our genre is steampunk, we filtered that fundamental nature through aspects of the Victorian times. Social Darwinism, colonialism, racial atomism, socialism, and other plainly evil doctrines of the era became the values of those who behaved as unthinking tribes.

These factors gave rise to Zahnrad. There, central planners manage the lives of its citizens, to the detriment of all but the ruling elite. Lacking an “other” to blame for their failure, they created it, giving rise to the tishli. Their “you are not us” feelings lead them to treat the tishli as second-class, little more than objects. Sacrifice and obedience to the state are held up as patriotic ideals. And they seek to spread their views at the point of a gun to neighboring nations.

An interesting digression: when we first conceived of this form of evil, it had a very particular aesthetic. But with the change in political climate, the trappings have changed as well. Now there is more bombast and populism, rather than smug elitism. Still, both forms seem to be coexisting (if superficially conflicting), so we will likely present them as ideological siblings.

The Good

With our evil chosen, we designed the good to be its opposing force. We wanted a solution – a counterargument – to the problem we had defined. If an all-feeling mob addicted to the use of force to get their way was the great enemy, then the great hero had to be opposite: the rational individual, who used violence for self-defense only and who sought cooperation, not conformity.

Fortunately, the Victorian era had a lot to use for this. Positivism, the belief in science as fundamentally good, provided a basis for rationalism’s primacy. Classical liberalism held to a respect for the life and property of every person. And the very nature of the “punk” half of steampunk meant that defying the group to express individuality was expected.

One trap we avoided: utopia. While dystopias work great for gaming since they give explorers something to struggle against, utopias are very terrible – because they lack conflict. So even if we created a nation to contrast with Zahnrad, it could not be written as “it’s perfect.” That wouldn’t be believable; Zahnrad is a believable horror, because it’s based on history. Our contrast should be equally believable, if a much nicer place to live in.

Thus was born Aeneam. A nation where the only laws were in place to protect individual rights: no theft, no murder, no slavery, etc. There was no safety net, but there was no ceiling, either. Everyone treated equally, with value determined by character rather than how well they conformed to the party doctrine. However, while the average person sought to get ahead with cleverness and hard work, there were always those who would lie, cheat, and steal to get their way. And those are who explorers face off against.

Another source of tension within Aeneam: in any given nation that has a good beginning, there will always be internal forces that seek to knock it off its path. At this point in the world, Zahnrad is already fallen and corrupt. However, in its older days, it resembled Aeneam. Aeneam today is starting to see the same forces and thinking that lead Zahnrad down the path of oppression exert themselves. Will history repeat itself? Or will explorers be able to stave off corruption and keep Aeneam on the path of prosperity for all?

Going Beyond

Good and evil are just the starting point to our design. We favor the victory of the good over the evil, because clearly people seeking to control and oppress others are villains and need to be stopped. Authoritarianism in its various forms has been a primary antagonist we’re all familiar with. These are conflicts where the side that ought to win are clear cut.

What we are also looking to embed into Aes is the higher order romantic conflicts, those were two sides could both be right, or where their ideals are at least not clearly evil, yet their goals are opposed. These kinds of conflicts, such as the type Victor Hugo loved to use in his works, put explorers in a much more interesting position of choice.

Aeneam will feature many of these, since its residents and leaders may differ on the direction for the nation, with no stand out “right answer.” In Zahnrad, too, the militias who resist the government will need to determine what lines they are willing to cross for their cause. By leaving these matters to explorers to determine, it gives them a larger role in deciding the long term fate of the world around them.

We hope this has been an insightful look into our design process for Aes. It would be much easier to try and avoid making choices of values when making art, but that would leave you – the player – with a more empty and lifeless world. That’s why we’ve taken the time to really think about these concepts.

Later, we’ll look at how we chose to integrate mechanics for our morality system into the game and broke away from the old “lawful/chaotic” “good/neutral/evil” categories of old.

Version 8 “Tinnabulate Rasa” By the Numbers

This post has been long overdue! Version 8 has been out since April, but a number of technical difficulties have plagued it, preventing us from uploading it to CreateSpace as planned. In the meantime, here are the version’s stats:

  • Pages: 298
  • Faculties: 199
  • Modifications: 364
  • Testing sessions: 6+

As expected, removing content caused a drop in pages from 332 to the current count, a reduction of 34 pages overall. This number is expected to increase, though, as the focus will be more new content in the next version before more cuts to the Expanse are made.

Version 7.5 had 246 faculties, while 8 only has 199. The 47 ones cut were moved to the Expanse and will be used for expansion material. Similarly, 7.5 had 519 mods while 8 has 364. Those 155 mods are now in the Expanse.

Version 8 didn’t only remove content, however. Balms and solvents became playable with this expansion, allowing explorers to heal and damage with chemicals. Aether tinnabulators were also finally implemented, replacing sand shapers. Aether tinnabulators allow for the control of light and introduced needed stealth support. We also did a faculty-by-faculty review, fixing typos and improving wording. This was very helpful for some of the oldest faculties from versions 1 and 2, which were using old verbiage or didn’t explain their mechanics in enough detail.

Sadly, the amount of time since the last post means we’re uncertain how much testing 7.5 had before moving to 8. Version 8 itself came out at HavenCon in late April and has since been at 2 cons and several weekly sessions. We can say that quite a lot of testing did go into it, with aether used several times before release.

Version 9 is planned for release before San Japan – our approximate 1 year anniversary of Aes! Our goal for version 9 is more new content. We already have new and revised talents, a new called shot system, an update to durability, and animal habits done. More faculties and mods are planned, as well.

Version 7.5 “Hybrid Hand” – By the Numbers

Aes Version 7.5, “Hybrid Hand,”has been out for a while now. While 7.0 was a huge leap forward for content, 7.5 was a more incremental step.

  • Pages: 332
  • Testing sessions: 4

It has the same number of mods and faculties as version 7. Instead, the page count comes from two main additions: rules for hybrids and additional content for Invisible Hands.

Hybrids are what we call mixed race builds in Aes. Instead of limiting what can and cannot interbreed, we allow players to determine what they want to be a mix of.This allows the 7 main kindred to become building blocks for new mixtures and greatly expands who an explorer can be. We go from having just the main seven to some 28 new combinations – and even more as the different hybrids can have different characteristics.

To help players, we’ve identified several of the most common hybrids and given them their own names. In expansion material, we’ll be giving these named hybrids their own unique adaptations and traits, to help flesh them out beyond just pastiches of their parents. The lore behind the different hybrids offers a glimpse into the inter-species dynamics of Aes and we’ll be keeping them in mind as we flesh out more of the world setting.

Mixed races and interracial relationships tie into an important undercurrent in the 1800’s, when many of them were criminalized. In Aes, social stigmas are indeed attached to hybrids, as many find themselves as outcasts from both sides. At the same time, their parents rebelled against societal standards to have them, making hybrids the offspring of punk in a literal sense.

On the Invisible Hand front, we’ve been making progress toward our goal of making it possible for more people to run Aes. For version 7.5, we added several key GM sections, such as plot hooks, story spoilers, and themes in Aes. These go toward helping new GM’s figure out adventures to run. We also expanded on material to help Invisible Hand’s interpret results and challenge players outside of combat.

All of the material added in version 7.5 is expected to remain or version 8. Version 8 will see material moved from the core book into the Expanse, which should cause a net decrease in page count. We’ve already been identifying faculties and mods to shift and have moved over several large items. Version 8 is planned for a release in time for HavenCon in April.

After the Core

A trap that many indie game publishers can fall into: planning for the core book and little else. A tight laser like focus on completing the core book is important in the early stages – the game can’t start until it’s out – but overlooking “what next” can leave a team rudderless once that milestone is accomplished. Or, it can force the developers to have to start the process all over again as they ramp up for the next book, causing delays in necessary expansion material to keep the game going. The years between causes reduced player interest and lost opportunities.

With Aes, we’re trying to be mindful of that trap. The core book is our main focus right now – most of the content we choose to develop is intended for it. But only “most.” We’ve deliberately seeded material for expansions in our alpha book so it can be tested, especially when it’s a novel system or mechanic. That will reduce the gap between the core book and expansion material.

What do we have planned after the core book? Plenty! Obviously, all plans are subject to change since these are the very early stages. Having the future in mind as we write helps us decided what to leave in and what to put to one side: we know there will be other books that can contain all the nitty gritty details that a starting player may not need right away. Here’s a breakdown of what the future after the core book is done will look like.

Book Size

First, we intend for there to be several categories of books based on their page count. Not every release is going to be as big as the core! Here’s how the sizes are classified:

  1. <24 pages – PDF only
  2. 24 – 64 pages – Small book
  3. 65 – 128 – Medium book
  4. 128 – 200 – Large book
  5. 200+ – Core book

Having these sizes lets us determine how much content we want to include in a given release and lets us outline and plan page counts in advance. That kind of structure is very handy for tracking progress and editing!

Intended Releases

At this point, we have an idea of major releases we want to have. Small PDF releases will be determined later as content is written. Who knows what kind of fun add-on we might think of 2 years from now? For right now, these are the spine of Aes – the books that will forward the story and build the world.

Each of the four major nations will get their own large book. Their working titles, in intended publication order:

  1. Aeneam: The Shining Brass
  2. Ayaziwa: The Expanding Wild
  3. Zahnrad: The Grinding Cog
  4. Zhengqi: The Rising Steam

Each of these four books will add core content to the world, with a balance of both lore and new player content, such as faculties and talents. There is already content in the alpha book that will be used in each of these four releases.

Additionally, each of the four books will be the start of a “development cycle” that will focus on that region of the world and the surroundings. For example, the first planned adventure for Aes – Junkyard Wars – will be set in Aeneam. When the Ayaziwa book is released, we have another adventure – Ayaziwan Monster Hunters – ready for release in conjunction there.

The Aeneam cycle, being first, is the one we have planned most in depth. It will be accompanied by medium books that focus on its bordering nations: Zupcanik, Aruyr, Zhuknarod, and Tanso. A large book is planned for Daizhong, a key city-state on the same continent. There are also small books planned for several of Aeneam’s major cities, such as Laton, Ottone, Denarius, and others. These setting pieces will provide players and Invisible Hands with greater depth for planning games in these environments.

Parallel to geographic centered releases will be material for the various kindred. Just as D&D releases source books for their races, so we plan to have books expanding on adaptations and lore for each kindred. Kindred source books will range from medium to large.

In several instances, books on nations and kindred will overlap. The Aruyr Hegemony book for the Aeneam cycle will double as the touzulei source book. The Zhuknarod book will expand on the feichong. Most of the nation, city, and other country books will expand on humans.

We will integrate kindred source books into the cycle where they make the most sense. The Aeneam cycle will include touzulei and feichong info. Ayaziwa will see the release of source books for the baihu and zhuque, since those are the two main kindred of that continent. Zahnrad will have the tishli source book (likely to be rated mature due to the very heavy themes involved there). Lastly, the qinglong are explored in the Zhengqi cycle.

The last kind of release are those focused on events, both historical and current. For example, the Scrub Wars and Zupcanik’s attack on Aeneam are pivotal historical moments for Aeneam. Providing source materials outlining the campaigns and key figures can be useful to Invisible Hands who want to set games in those periods. Zahnrad’s invasion and occupation of northern Ayaziwa likewise provides an interesting setting. These sorts of releases are likely to range from small to medium and will be lower priority than those above.

Going Forward

The core book is obviously our top priority. We’ll begin winnowing out the expansion material in version 8, trimming the alpha tester down and starting the process of transitioning the alpha into the beta. Once the core is released, the Aeneam cycle will begin immediately.

The plan you see above helps us plan for what’s next: we can have developers work on expansion material that won’t be core, but know roughly where in the development cycle it will be. It means there won’t be any frustrating questions of, “When will this thing I wrote be published?” Knowing a rough timeline in advance means everyone can know what the priorities are. And that means we’ll be able to move forward a lot smoother than simply making it up as we go in a mad scramble.