Aes Year 3 and Beyond

This month marks a milestone for Aes: Brass Revolution: our third anniversary! It was July 2015 when the first version of Aes saw the light of day, crawling its way from a collection of loose ideas and inspirations to become the most popular steampunk tabletop RPG on Facebook.

What have we accomplished in these three years?

  • What started as 61 pages in version 1 is now 390 pages in version 10.
  • Ten different versions, completing the alpha phase of the game.
  • A free Quickstart Guide for new players.
  • A mailing list with over 250 people!
  • Sponsoring numerous conventions across the country.
  • Aes version 10, “Alpha’s End,” is available in print through Amazon!
  • And so many positive connections and friendships formed with all of you.

The game and world have evolved well past what we originally envisioned. The level of detail in the lore and world dynamics – assisted by player suggestions – has progressed deeply. The game engine balances simplicity and depth. We’ve reduced the “accounting mini-game” and are still looking for ways to trim it.

That’s where we’ve been. What about where we’re going?

Aes’s Alpha test phase is officially over. Now the Beta test phase begins. From here, the books will spend longer in testing between versions, with each one having more drastic differences. The plan is to not require 10 beta version before the final release – just a handful.

Some of these changes include:

  1. Revising the talent system and balancing them.
  2. Overhauling the faculties to increase synergy and playstyle support.
  3. Revising the Invisible Hand section to support GM’s.

Before any of these changes take place, though, we’re going to do something we planned early in the release cycle: take a break. To best revise Aes, we need to approach it with fresh eyes.

That doesn’t mean Aes will lay dormant. We currently have several testing groups in Austin and other cities. Those will continue along with the steady flow of ideas. But version 10, “Alpha’s End,” will remain the primary version of Aes for a while.

Here’s to the beginning of year 4!

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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!

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.

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.