Thoughts on maps

One of the things I’ve struggled with for The Artifact is maps in combat. The issue has been that most combat happens at hundreds of meters to kilometers away. The scale that most RPGs base their combats on is a few dozen meters. A combat map with a grid representing 24 meters or yards fits nicely on a map. A map at that scale that covers 5-10 kilometers is not very practical.

So then, why not have each square represent a hundred meters? The same size mat is about two and a half kilometers. That would work some of the time for when a vehicle combat gets into short range and would be comfortable for infantry weapons. A major problem becomes that a character on foot takes several turns just to cross one grid square. Characters are effectively immobile if they’re not in a vehicle.

Maybe a ten meter grid square then? That works for character movement and even though vehicles will really tear around that map, it almost works. The issue is that weapons are going to hit far before you actually get on the map. Most approaching combatants are going to engage long before they show up on that scale.

So what if everyone got their own little mini-map? The only thing you need to track in between the maps is distance and direction. The little mini-maps can be moved around or replaced with one or two markers for characters on them. That’s an interesting idea that I’m going to pursue and I think there’s a simple way to produce them using resources from I could even have tokens with distances on them printed (50m, 100m, 500m, 1Km, 5Km, etc) and they could be placed in between the local maps to remind everyone of the distances involved.

There would be a lot of maps to represent all the terrain you can encounter in the various Hexes. I’ll have to think about how to economize the number of map representations. Still, it might be doable, so it’s worth a shot.

Also I’ve been working on converting a lot of the content that’s available in third edition to the rules in fourth edition. This book will contain a lot of the Player’s Handbook, The Fringe, and Tortuga. I’m calling it The Artifact Pole to Core.

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I’ve been holding out on you

For a long time, this website has been my way of sharing The Artifact with the world. Lately, my focus has been shifting over to using DriveThruRPG and to share projects because they accurately track the games being downloaded. Because of that, I’ve neglected the website here.

A playtest print for The Artifact 4th edition has been available for a while on DriveThru, so here’s a link to that. Slowly all the downloads will be hosted elsewhere. As I mentioned, there are features on these sites that allow better tracking.

The Artifact fourth edition playtest print

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Art For Fourth Edition

I Started to lay out the fourth edition book, making corrections to the text as I went. Then I started to realize the layout was pointless without the art. I could just jam the same pictures back into the book and that would be fast. I could also do all new illustrations for the book, but I haven’t been drawing in a long time. I’ve mostly been writing. I did a little warm up, I like the result, but I don’t really think it’s good enough.

I like the color and even the raw brushstrokes, but I don’t think I’m a good enough artist. Maybe it’s okay if this was scaled way down the poor quality is less noticeable. It was a picture that popped into my head and I wanted to try it out.

I could go in a completely different direction with the art. I know artist hate all the AI art that’s popping up, but I’m already seeing it in game books that are selling well. It would be easier and cheaper, but I’d probably get someone yelling at me about it. They say even negative publicity is still publicity, but taking that attitude is distasteful to me. Who knows? At the rate the argument is going, maybe by the time I finish everything the RPG scene will be so full of AI art that no one will notice.

Someone could ask why I don’t just pay someone for art. That answer is simple. I don’t have any money. I’d love to drop a few thousand on some art and get something I’m really proud of, but I’ve never made any money on this game. I give it away for free. Even if I started charging for it, I doubt I could make any money.

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4th Edition Rough Draft

I’m making the 4e rough draft available. At this point, there’s no art and maps are missing but the text is almost complete. There will still be errors and adjustments to make but this is the basic shape.

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It’s been a year?

I’ve been distracted by other projects. I recently brought my four novel Glyph series to a close. I wrote a non-fiction book. I moved. Excuses all around.

That doesn’t mean that nothing has happened in my silence. I’m on the third development print of the fourth edition. I’ve said this update is a big one, and to be honest, it’s usually easier to start something brand new than to buckle down and work on the new edition.

I think that after one more development print, I’ll have a coherent game that covers all the territory of third edition. You know what needs to happen then? Play testing!

That will also take time, but I think that I’ll also release the bare bones book for others to poke at before play testing is done.

I keep asking myself if this change is worth it. Is it worth upending a rule system that’s been in use for 27 years? I hope so. I think so. Even when it’s all done, there’s a few hundred pages of material that also needs to be adapted to the new system. Some of that will come easier, all that will need to happen is a scan through and update of values. In the case of the Player’s Handbook, the big thing that needs to be updated is the equipment building system. I have a few fans that absolutely love the detail of the extant system, but it’s impenetrable to most.

I’m currently just over half way through the third development print in my edits. The big thrust of this print is harmonizing all the changes and most of that is done. Now the thing I’ve realized is that a lot of the lore that we’ve built up over years of play isn’t available in the book. It really should be, so that’s my current project.

I really could get this done if I don’t start any new projects. I was lamenting that I didn’t have a coherent idea for my next novel. With that in mind, I’m taking this opportunity to focus on fourth edition. If I don’t get distracted again, I could be done before the game’s 30th anniversary.

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4th Edition Is More Than I Expected

Producing prior editions of The Artifact has always been a slow process. I’m one person and frequently get distracted by other projects. I just released a new novel, and released my new non-fiction book before that. I say that to emphasize my getting distracted. At the same time, I am still working on 4th Edition.

The reason I get distracted is because the new edition is a strange jump in philosophy. It feels revolutionary to me but I know that if I put it out onto the internet as it is, it would be a struggle to describe why it is so. The real revolution is that it’s doing so much that I personally want out of a game with far fewer actual core components. The core components make it easy to build in game effects with a description and a few figures.

I am in the minority among game designers when it comes to what is called crunch. I enjoy crunch, but as I get older, with less working memory to devote to, well anything, I realize that simplicity is also something that a lot of people crave.

With that in mind, I’m cutting out parts of the game that are infrequently used and collapsing some features like skills into hierarchies that mean starting players can ignore some complexity.

My position has always been that crunch creates its own kind of simplicity. It’s a conceptual simplicity. It’s a limited but rich palette that allows the players to make interesting, maybe even surprising connections.

It’s taking time for me to align the thousands of moving parts in the game and apply them evenly and effectively.

On Friday, I had a conversation with a young lady who is probably one of the most intuitive role players I’ve seen. I was surprised to find that her go to system was her favorite because she craved a less ambiguous rule set. Her favorite is a rules heavy juggernaut of a game because it provides clarity to her choices. If you want to try something, there’s a rule for it that doesn’t rely on a GM dictating how it will be handled.

This has always been my design goal for The Artifact. In other games I’ve gone with light rulesets, but the big moving gears of a fully articulated game system has always fit this game the best. I’ve tried to apply other rule sets to the world and found it didn’t sound the same. I tried at one point to port the game over to something like Savage Worlds but it never felt right.

With that, this is the lightest game I can make the game at the moment and have it still feel like it rhymes with earlier editions.

Something I’ve run into with some popular games by me and others are tools that are so modular that they seem to lose any meaning. These systems fall victim to being enticed by their philosophy into all encompassing structures. The structures are so broad that the player needs to really internalize the concepts or how they work in the story always seems hollow when applied. I might be skimming the belly of this kind of thinking with this new edition, but hopefully I’m on the side of that thin line of clarity.

This is all saying that what I’m trying to do with the new edition is to carry on the immense complexity of prior editions, build on them and use a limited palette of tools repeatedly to get a similar effect as before. It’s a complicated process. I might have something to show for it soon. I thought I was almost done before but I realized skills needed a larger overhaul than I expected. Let’s see how it goes.

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4th Edition Development Book Ordered

I recently ordered a test print of 4e. Does that mean the new version is almost done? No. I’d say the writing is about half done. I order development books to help me see the work as a “big picture” framework.

Art is not even started. I’m unsure what my direction is going to be for it. I would love to be able to pay someone to do some of the art. It’s really unlikely that I’d be able to hire out all the art. This speaks to an issue that I’m facing for the project as a whole.

The Artifact has been available on the internet for 22 years. Not many people know about it and fewer care. Thousands of game designers are putting out designs. My track record of drawing attention is poor. I have no illusions that this edition will blow up and have a place at the table.

So why do it?

A lot of the delays in working on 4e have been me giving up. Some of it has been trials and tribulations I’ve encountered, but I’ve worked through things like them before. The majority of it has been the idea “why bother?”

In the end, each edition has been a revamp that I wanted. This is one of the ways I express myself. That’s why I picked it up again and finished a bunch of things that made ordering the development copy a possibility. This is for me, I’d love to share it with people, but I’ll soldier on regardless.

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I went missing

February was my last post. What have I been doing all that time? Finishing 4e? Nah, I wrote a non-fiction book and did a lot of remodeling to an old house we moved into. I didn’t completely blow off 4e, there has been some progress.

So where are we?

There’s an introduction that captures some new ideas for how to focus the game into doing what it does well.

Character creation is structurally very similar to 3e except the numbers are smaller so that’s done.

The rules are done, the “Tools” (rules you sometimes use) are mostly done but they need some more attention to clean them up.

Vehicles and infantry rules are converted over, both are very much improved from 3e.

The Facilitator’s Guide is a hot mess of ideas. It needs work. Right now I’m working on guidance for game creation, the ideas are good but they need to be clear and simple.

I’ve converted a lot of equipment stats, I doubt I’ll substantially change the text in that section.

I really don’t think I’m going to change Maps. Maybe I’ll put more written description in them.

I haven’t touched skills yet.

What do I want for 4e? What would be great is if I could figure out how to cut down on the “this is your stuff write it all down” part of character creation. I want the Facilitator’s guide to give some really strong guidance for starting GMs. I’d like to renew/replace art. We’ll see how it goes.

What’s interesting is, this book might end up half the size of 3e without losing anything. I’m not sure yet but everything written so far is “only” 85 pages. It might be possible to finish the book in 150.

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An Alternate Resolution Tool

While I’ve been (slowly) working on 4th edition, I’ve been questioning if there was another way to handle rolling for attributes. Potential players are often frightened off by the attribute table, even though I’ve never had a player struggle with it once in play. So I’ve wondered if there was a way to make it less intimidating.

I think I figured out a way to reduce intimidation and keep a lot of the resolution flavor. I may put this in an “Alternate” tool heading in the book. It seems rather obvious after figuring it out. The problem is that it turns everything into a dice pool which some players really don’t like.

As things are now in 4e, you roll against your attribute with a d20 and then you add a few d10s in for your skills and whatever situational modifiers you might have. These are called Boosts. In this alternate, everything is a Boost.

Using a table you reference your attribute number and it gives you a series of boosts to emulate the curve of successes you get in the current system. It would look something like this. . .


This would be a pain to expand into attributes over 20 though. I did this chart by roughly entering probabilities into a spreadsheet and saying “close enough”. Things like E-Suit strengths would make this really hard to have a complete list of the attribute levels.

These probabilities are overpowered because with Boosts, you can assign your dice to the Boosts you want. I’ve been trying to figure out the math of that manually but haven’t been able to. I might have to write a little program to handle that and figure out what the actual chances are for boosts. In any event, I don’t think I can increment the Boost increases any less. The values might have to stay the same for some attribute values which would be a bit of a bummer. Why increase an attribute from 2 to 3 if it gives you no real advantage.

The other problem with this is that Boosts aren’t supposed to have a zero value. They’re supposed to be 1-9 but this ignores that to get the probabilities closer.

At best this is a rough approximation but it’s an interesting concept.

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So far, The Artifact has relied on the weight of equipment and common sense to handle encumbrance. Despite being concrete, it makes handling what a character can carry a lot of work.

In play, I rarely checked a character’s encumbrance unless they were clearly carrying way too much. I usually would let things go unless there was a overt level of overpacking going on. “How are you carrying your motorcycle in your backpack?”

Another popular way of handling what a character can carry, is to have “item slots” that allow the character to load a number of “items”. The issue with that system is that not all items are the same size. A handgun is not the same as a thud stick (or a motorcycle). You could assume some averaging going on but players will hack that and load up with the largest “items” they can and be clearly overloaded.

At times I’ve thought about having a packing skill, that allowed the character to stuff as much in their pack as they had the skill for. That could work, except it could leave the character with only a few items or if they loaded up on the skill, an absurd level of items. What you’d need is a way to gauge the size of an item and the size of all the other items they’re carrying. Which puts us right back where we were in the first place, needing a system to handle the size of “items”.

Generally what’s needed are simple rules for how to access an item’s size. In theory I could assign a size value to everything in the game and call it a day but that’s a lot of work and I doubt I’d be able to do that consistently or accurately. Weight is often used as a proxy for size but as you know, it doesn’t always follow that a light item is a small or easy to carry item.

What we need is a “good enough” system. One where the math is simple and the character’s ability is recognized. What’s our goal? I usually look at a typical soldier on a 21st century battlefield that carries 45 Kg of gear.

So let’s define an “item” size. We could say that an item is 5 Kg and that anything less than 1 Kg is essentially a free carry. Yes, the free carry could easily be abused but we can figure that out later. That would put our average soldier being able to carry 9 “items”.

As a baseline, let’s say that a character can carry as many items as their Strength attribute. The average character can then carry 6 items, with a foot soldier being able to carry 7 because of their attribute bonus. (These are 4e numbers.) Then we’ll add in the character’s skill, let’s say that a character can pack their items and get a little more out of their carrying capacity by efficient use of space. That sounds like an Intuition roll to me. So a character can roll intuition and add a number of items equal to their successes.

Given enough time, you can assume a character could eventually get a roll that would maximize their packing ability. So unless they have a 1 for Int, they would be able to get to at least 9 items and possibly 10.

So far that seems to work but I’m not sure it really reduces the mental burden of encumbrance. It more or less just explains the old system with smaller numbers. I’ll have to ponder if that’s valuable or not.

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