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.

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!