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!

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!

Realms Con Report!

Realms Con was amazing! For the photos, check out the Facebook gallery.

We ran three games at RealmsCon: 2 on Saturday and 1 on Sunday. We were fortunate – there was another RPG there that tried to run games but couldn’t find players. We managed to get full tables of 6-9 players each time.

The first game had explorers protecting a tishli from being kidnapped by slavers from Zahnrad in the Aeneam town of Coithwaite. Unlike the first time this adventure was run, the explorers managed to avoid burning down the building.This plot was continued on Sunday in the third game, who decided to head to Luxoglen to steal a boat. They then ran into the head of one of Aeneam’s main criminal organizations – La Marabunta – and barely managed to escape with their lives. One of the cool “to be added later” items highlighted were tattoos that acted as responsive armor, their images changing in response to attacks to boost defenses.

The second game (which the WIP Podcast, USS Joan of Arc, and Steam Engine Intrepid participated in) had explorers in the Aeneam city of Kwiv. They were supposed to stop two pirate factions, lead by Jadescale and Dahlia, from fighting and destroying the place. Instead, there was a 2 hour battle over lawn gnomes and a final battle involving 3-on-1 PVP. Hilarious all the way through. One player gave a speech that I wish I had recorded, an appeal to Jadescale that successfully convinced him to allow some of the explorers on his pirate crew.

One change to come from the experience were tweaks to character creation. We had blocks of text in the kindred that we’ve separated out under new headers. This will make it easier for players to find basic info such as speed. We also typed up a clearer explanation of ideals, faculties, and mods. This will hopefully make testing at GamExpo run even smoother.

In addition to the games, we also donated several art prints and bookmarks to the con for prizes and hand outs. This earned Aes a shout out at the closing ceremony!

Kudos to the following groups who helped make Realms Con awesome for Aes: Dark Tide Comics, WIP Podcast, Steam Engine Intrepid, USS Joan of Arc, Gold Coast, Master Bones Jangle, Airship Nikolai, Ramen Pride, Art Blocked Creations, and Rod Thornton!

We’ve been invited back to Realms Con next year to help run the table-top room and coordinate games. We’ll post more info later!


Two new sets of photos uploaded on the Facebook page!

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

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

Running Game Demos

Game demos are one of the key ways of expanding the player base of a game. While it’s possible for people to just see the book and buy it for the art or content, many buy games after they had a great time playing it. There is something about an in-person demo that lets a person connect with a game on a more personal level than simply reading the book.

This means the purpose of demonstrating a game is to entice sales or attract other players. A successful demo is one that ends with a sale or at least a positive recommendation. Therefore, there is a protocol in place to make sure the demo accomplishes this.

I’ve seen this principle missed a couple times by people trying to sell me on games (one board game and one video game), so I thought I’d write up their errors. It’s a good example of what not to do if you want someone to be invested in something you enjoy or are trying to sell.

1. Give the person learning the best starting situation you can. When I had the video game demonstrated, the guy picked a character and then revealed after character selection was done that he had taken the one with the best performance in the game. This is something you help someone with before hand. If you know a certain character or combination works well, recommend it. Don’t force it, but it’s information a new person will appreciate.

2. Try to make the initial experience as balanced as you can between challenging and straight forward. If it’s a cake walk, then the game will come off as too easy. If it’s too “curb stomp the new guy,” they won’t have any fun. For example, when I tried the board game, the other person deliberately chose the play style my chosen faction was weak against. As a result, the game was one-sided with no hope of victory. I ended up going through most of it frustrated I couldn’t do anything interesting. No one wants to play a game they feel is broken.

3. Suppress the desire to win quickly. You need to balance your play style – if you know you’re going to win, deliberately make a few mistakes or bad calls to give the other person a chance. Let them try something out. Let them discover the game’s magical combo bits. Shutting them down by going cut throat (as both demonstrators did) denies the essential experience of the game.

4. When demonstrating a game with lots of options, recommend a set you know to work well. I have a poor impression of the video game because my chosen combination wasn’t very good – but the guy trying to sell it to me didn’t help even though I asked!

5. Be a good sport. This is the biggest sin the board game demonstrator made. He made a huge deal of his wins, crowing about it non-stop, even though he knew I was frustrated. Taunts have no place in this setting if you want to get someone into it. If you make the other person think that everyone who plays the game is a jerk, they will stay away. (Magic the Gathering has this issue in spades.)

Since Aes is a role-playing game, there are some special caveats that come with that.

Designing pre-made characters (iconics) is a good path toward getting points 1 and 4. Part of the fun in an RPG is character creation, but some want a quick game to get to the mechanics and lore. Each iconic should be balanced and playable in their own right, with a variety of options the player can pick from. You don’t want one out of six of the icons to be “the sucky one,” since then the player who ends up with them will have a terrible time and you just lost a customer. (This is not the same as the character not matching the play style of the explorer – that’s just a mismatch and they’ll be able to see that.) It can help to couple pre-made characters with preset demo scenarios that give each of them a highlight. Players who get even one “Moment of Awesome” in a game are far more likely to buy it.

The second is to generally avoid GM vs. player situations. Challenge maps, where the Invisible Hand is deliberately trying to kill everyone, can be fun, but only if announced in advance. Aes is focused on storytelling with the Invisible Hand as a guide rather than a tyrant, so challenge maps wouldn’t work to show off the game’s best traits. By not having a “win” condition for the Invisible Hand pegged to player loss, you stay in line with point 2 and 3 above. The GM wins when the players are smiling and laughing.

Player vs. Player (PvP) should be strongly discouraged. PvP can bring out another competition source that can derail the intended positive atmosphere of the game. PvP often leads to a violation of 5 above, since bad sportsmanship can quickly emerge if the players start to war among one another. This is especially bad if there are a mix of experience levels. Aes is meant for cooperative play more than PvP, so this again is a necessary choice to convey how the game is intended to unfold.

Avoid the mistakes, focus on how to create the right environment, and you’ll be good at drawing in new players to your favorite games!

San Japan 2015 Action Report

San Japan 2015 was an amazing debut for Aes: Brass Revolution! Over a dozen people played games throughout the weekend with many more taking bookmarks and signing up for more info. The universal consensus is that Aes is a fun, well paced game with numerous options for problem solving and game styles.

Aes was compared very favorably to several other RPG’s (steampunk and non) and in several respects judged better implemented than even some finished products. Aes‘s crafting system, for example, was praised for its intuitive setup and called by one RPG fan, “The best crafting system in an RPG so far.” The use of a single d10 was especially praised for making the percentages easier to calculate as was the “faculties determine nearly everything” backwards character creation. Another great quote from a player: “You should start selling this alpha booklet instead of giving it away for free.” This is huge praise for a game still in a starting state!

The weekend provided a lot of great feedback on the system. It has prompted significant revisions to the use of action points to make several choices even more elegant than they were before. Instead of faculties being used the same way each time, they can be combined with others to create novel uses. This means two characters with the same faculty could be putting it into use in very different scenarios, which really amps the customization and avoids cookie cutter min-maxing.

We also had a chance to commission several pieces of art for the first iconic character of the game: Ji Wang, concoction discoverer! She’ll be one of six pre-made characters (and story figures) we’ll be using to promote the game. Aes is a game that specifically strives to combine the steampunk aesthetic with diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds, so including a main character of Asian descent seemed a natural course of action. The other five are still in development, though the goal will be a group that represents all the key aspects of the game.

To see photos from San Japan, check out the gallery on the Facebook page!