Stick With the Familiar?

As I approach putting together a new version of The Artifact, I’m continually asking what needs to change. One of those things that probably should change is the software being used to lay out the book.

In the past I’ve used Apples Pages 4.0 to put together the books. If you were unaware, the current version of Pages is 7. The reason I use an old version is because Apple significantly nerfed the product at version 5 and you just don’t have the level of control there was in 4.

I’ve worried that an update in the OS would make Pages 4 stop working someday. That hasn’t happened yet thankfully.

The last game I put together was with the free beta for Affinity Publisher. It seems very capable, although The Artifact is by far bigger than that project.

Something that gives me pause using Affinity Publisher is that it’s not easy to import tables and The Artifact has a lot of tables. That would end up a hard slog. It would give me a chance to catch errors but would also introduce the chance of me introducing errors.

What AP (Affinity Publisher) does afford is better control over layout and the opportunity to go to introduce a new style for 4th edition. I don’t know what that style should be, though.

I could try bringing the book into a 6×9 format. That would ballon the page count and would require a lot more art assuming 1 piece of art per 4 pages as I tried to get for 3e. There are a number of people that strongly prefer 6×9 but I’m not sure it would suit The Artifact. For one, the maps would have to be reduced in size and that would make details less noticeable.

I could bring in a new set of fonts but I hate picking fonts. Georgia, while nothing exciting is a solid and respectable font.

The other big concern is that AP is an unproven solution. Sure it works and is stable, but will it last as a platform? I think the answer is yes. The Affinity suite is taking on Adobe’s unattainable prices and I think that’s going to win them a lot of small publishers. Still, the original versions of The Artifact were layed out on a program called MacPublisher that went belly up. While that gives me pause, I know my current solution is also going away.

Looking at the big picture, moving to AP is going to be a slog and it raises a lot of questions but I know I should probably do it.


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AI E-Suits and Hacking

Yup, I’m thinking about computers and hacking again. I’ve been wrestling with some technology trends that are on the horizon. One is AI. Another is quantum cryptography. I have tried to avoid these technologies or explain them away as “like what we have but amplified” but I think I’m going to change tactics for fourth edition.

When asked about why there are no fully autonomous robots on The Artifact, my answer has been that autonomous systems are dangerous because they could be turned against you by the Chezbah. I think that’s still the right answer but I’m thinking of making some changes.

For one, it’s important to recognize that E-Suits are semi-autonomous AI. I haven’t delved into that much in the past but I’ve had some thoughts that might make that come front and center and make hacking a more comprehensible process.

I’m thinking that Artifact computers operate under a different security paradigm than ones developed on Earth. Since these are advanced computers, their software might appear intelligent to us. Not a human level general intelligence but something on par with a dog, horse or cat, sculpted to a purpose. They recognize their owners for access control and can carry out some tasks on their own.

These AI only respond to other AIs they recognize for security. They can be tricked however. I’m thinking that Comm Officers might have an AI that can make itself appear like a recognized AI, an AI doppelgänger if you will.

From there a hacker can deploy viruses, but the AIs all have their own immune system. They can overcome the effect of a virus in time (possibly in a few turns for example) and then become immune to it. This fixes the problem I was having with a virus taking over all the Rall4s in the fight. It enables limited use hacks in a short amounts of time (combat turns) but makes them temporary effects.

Another change I think I want to make is making hex mainframes and Hosent follow this kind of logic also and that you’d have to convince them to work for you. The other thing hex mainframes have to do is to have a sense of what is going on inside their hex. There’s a technology called conduction mapping in the players handbook that would fit this bill nicely. This would make talking to a hex mainframe very useful and also might make destroying the mainframes very important when you want to hide.

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The Artifact has always been a heavy game there’s no reason to shy away from that. Because of that though, I have to be careful to not let it get worse.

For 4th edition, I’m trying to tie a lot of individual rules into a single set of rules called stunts. They tie the results of successes into sets. That allows me to put them on the character sheets for players to easily reference.

I’m contemplating a slightly different system though. My thought is that each success can cut a number in half. Any number the player wants. That simple rule would handle most of the things stunts do. The down side is that it could lead to some analysis paralysis. It’s so open that a player might not be sure what option to pick, especially if they’re not familiar with how the mechanics of the game works.

There might be another effect or two that I need to include to do everything that stunts do so it might not be exactly that simple in the end.

It’s an interesting choice. What’s easier to handle? A list of specific mechanical options? Or a few flexible rules that don’t by themselves offer any guidance.

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The Artifact is a very cyberpunk inspired game. As such, there are hackers that can be played in the guise of Comm Officers. Opposing them is the Chezbah Priest with their ability to connect to any computer they want to.

Sadly, I followed a model of hackers that is realistic but a failed model for RPG play. In my defense, many games followed the model of the hacker acting at a different time than the rest of the players.

So that needs to change. The question is how? I have several ideas but I want a clear concept of what the actual mechanics of the computer infiltration is and how the game mechanics support the action. Some of them might work together.

The first method is a stored virus method. The Comm Officer equips themselves with software tools that only work on a specific system. For example, a Rall 4 and Hunter E-suits would be good bets. I could even justify the fact that the character has the viruses with the idea that they’re part of their standard kit, supplied by the military. The question is, if the characters have this kind of software, why not just infect all the vehicles they run into? It would come down to the ability to deliver the virus.

In that situation each virus has it’s own pre-defined target and action. Something like “Rall 4 target change” would work. It would require a lot of writing out what each virus does.

Another option is to allow the character to steal actions from a vehicle. It’s an interesting option but it doesn’t say how the character is performing the hack. I’m sure that a lot of players wouldn’t really care how this happens but it’s something I want to know because it can change how the players use the ability.

Then there’s the idea of giving them an even more powerful tool than they currently have. The idea being the long range communicators have some kind of data teleporter in them. They would have an ability similar to the Chezbah Priest’s. Maybe there would be a kind of targeting skill check to start with to make things interesting.

It might be a good approach to switch from a denial of access model to simply gaining access. I mention this in the Comm Officer’s Guide but it hasn’t collected any attention. Moving it front and center might be the better model with denial of access being the coup de gras.

I would be okay with the Comm Officer being able to disrupt the function of one or two combat vehicles. What I don’t want is for all the vehicles to be disrupted because of a few good rolls.

It comes down to the idea that hacking has to happen in combat turns. I’m a little uncomfortable with that because it’s not usually how hacking really happens. Realism is not on the player’s minds though. They want to all jump into action and pull off a plan. Making hacking follow a longer time frame requires planning and forethought which most players aren’t super excited about.

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When playing The Artifact, there is a overriding need to find a place to live. This is the perpetual question that natives like the Scimrahn face. Although that is really important to the game, maybe for the 4th edition, players should think about home a little differently.

In the past I’ve thought about adding background details to characters, like what conditions they lived in and what kind of family they have back on Earth. For the most part I resisted that because it was largely irrelevant to the play of the game. There were hints in some of the optional tables, but they didn’t consistently or completely fill in a character’s backstory.

The process of making a campaign is becoming more formalized and it’s centering on the concept of finding a place for the characters to live in. But is the place they find home.

I’m thinking of that a little differently now. Instead of wondering what the physical place should be, maybe the better question is what home means to the character.

For one character, home might mean children playing. For another it could be the solitude of a book. Another could think of home as a safe place where there’s warmth. Esoteric things might include the sound of your grandmother’s voice or a place where you’re in charge. I’m aiming for simple concepts that could inform a player as to what their character ultimately wants.

This might change what a character ends up doing and probably why they act.

The Artifact is a game about leaving a home that’s falling apart to find a place that will last. Ultimately where the characters find it could be in very different places.

Very simply, this is going to be a random table just like the personality tables. This might be a good way to introduce principals and priorities in character generation. Those formal rules might not get used often, but they would easily inform role play.

With that addition, I think mentioning a character’s previous life experience would help new players to imagine where the characters are coming from but would also play off their concept of home. Are they leaving what they though of as home to recreate something or did they never have what they wanted and are looking to find it?

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Things I’ve Learned About The Artifact

You’d think I’d just say what is true and not true about a game I wrote. It is the game I wanted it to be but it’s also something else. Sure I set certain things down in writing twenty two years ago but in the mean time, those things have informed me of their implications. That has been the biggest adventure of all in playing the game, listening to what the game wanted to be.

So what is The Artifact? I wrote it so that players would not just tell a story of characters, rather that they would experience what life would be like in this world through the experiences of the characters. It was written to be encompassing of what a person could encounter. For a very long time, it seemed like it couldn’t be defined in an elevator pitch.

After playing the game for so long with many different people, I think the experience of the game has told me what it’s theme is. My official version is this.

The Artifact is a game about adventurous lives on an alien world as earth slowly loses it’s grip on you.

In a way, The Artifact very similar to growing up. You start out dependent, for good or bad make relationships with the people that foster you and slowly become more and more independent. You eventually make your own way, maybe chasing after goals, maybe making your own community.

Thinking about that, we’ve had plenty of aborted campaigns that never felt right and I think it’s because they didn’t fit that theme. That tells me that there is a “right” kind of campaign for The Artifact and it goes like this.

A successful campaign starts out with the players very dependent on their community. Maybe this is a military unit, maybe it’s a Scimrahn tribe. The players should get to know their “family.”

It’s very important at this stage of the game to emphasize that the players are defending their family. They may serve a major or minor role in this but it’s the bedrock of The Artifact experience.

At some point the characters have to become independent. Here, there are options. Maybe they strike out on their own willingly after a goal like seeking treasure. More often than not, they are shaken from their family by tragedy. The community they’ve fought to protect is torn away from them by powerful forces.

After stabilizing themselves with no one to help them, they carve out a niche for themselves, maybe mixing with new communities but not really setting down roots.

Now the players set out after their goals through the characters. Maybe they seek revenge on the forces that tore them away from their community. Maybe they establish their own place, fortified from detection or attack.

These stages don’t have to be very long but they tend to become longer as the games go on. For example, losing the character’s family is often quite short, only lasting 2-5 games. The wandering phase can be much longer where the characters become more competent and capable.

The end phase tends to be brief, by this time the players feel like they’ve accomplished what the characters are reasonably going to do.

Our longest running campaign was a mash up of characters leapfrogging over each other so it didn’t quite follow this pattern but some of the characters did. It’s important to know that even in the fist phase the characters can go out on their own and return to their community again and again before they’re finally forced to leave. There are plenty of distracting side paths that the players can explore that won’t relate to this theme either and that’s fine.

I’m going to try more or less following this pattern and see how it effects our games.

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New Ideas For 4e

We have been discussing moving 4e from a d100 scale to a d10 scale but it came up that a d20 would give all the benefits of a d10 and mitigate the problems with the lack of granularity. This fixes a large number of problems and would only slightly make math in the system harder. This math most frequently includes adding a skill value to an attribute value.

Only then it became apparent that even that math could be eliminated if skills became an Advantage roll. Currently in 3e an advantage is a percentile value. You roll against your attribute and if you have an advantage, you roll to get under it’s percentage. If you make it, you get an extra success.

Skills have always had the problem that they don’t really integrate well with the success columns. Making them an advantage roll means they’d dovetail in nicely.

But isn’t that too many rolls? (It’s not like there are any shortage of rolls here) Yes, that’s going to slow things down too much. Unless…

Rolling looks like it’s going to change a lot here. This is where I think it’s going to be. We already talked about rolling a d20 for your attribute. You’d then collect anything that gives you an Advantage while your opposition collects anything that would give you an Impairment. For each Advantage you pick up a d10. For each Impairment your opposition picks up a d10. All the dice are then thrown.

Here’s were it gets a little weird, but a good weird. You know what Advantages you’re using. They’re simply values of 1-10. For example, a TF E-Suit pilot scanning with their sensors, they’d have one Advantage at 2 for their skill (1d10) one for the TF’s sensor array 4 (2d10). The player rolls a d20 and 2d10. On the d20 they get a 19 and fail that roll. On the 2d10 they get a 7 and a 3. The seven doesn’t do them any good, but they assign the 3 to their sensor advantage of 4 and get one success!

At the same time the opposition (The GM or maybe another player) rolls for any Impairments and gets to assign the dice values just like the player got to assign the Advantage rolls.

I like how that looks at the table. The difference in dice sizes indicates which die goes to the attribute roll and stacking a bunch of Advantages just makes them more and more valuable. In one toss, the values are compared and the task is resolved.

Then there’s the talk about guaranteeing an Advantage by spending an action. I was debating if you could do that with the main attribute check but with skills being an Advantage, an action can guarantee that as a success. It’s elegant and fits.

The other thing I’m working on is possibly making stunts and consequences universal across different situations (personal combat, vehicle combat, social interaction, tech challenges, hacking etc). It would reduce the need to memorize different lists but it would generalize a lot of the descriptive and prescriptive value of the stunts though. Right now, harmonizing personal and vehicle combat is something I definitely want, the others may have to remain separate but I think they can follow along similar lines of each other. I don’t know if that makes things any easier though.

In all Stunts will require some look up (which would be on the back of the character sheet) or memorization but they’re intended to remove the need to roll on charts or tables while in play.

I have the feeling that I want to move hacking to something more immediate and have it follow something like the social interaction conditions that I’ve talked about before. I haven’t done any real work on that yet though. It just seems promising.

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Spraying Shots 4e

Something I haven’t figured out yet for weapons is the effect that firing a lot of shots ought to increase your chances of hitting a target. I tried to figure this out in previous editions but never found an effect that I thought was proper.

The things you can buy with a successful roll, I’m starting to call stunts. I may change that up later but at the moment we’ve been debating the half damage stunt and it’s effect. I’ve been going back and fourth on if it applies to burst firing weapons. If it does, can you use it to count a target hit? I’m starting to think it should after all even with a beam weapon, it should mean that it’s at least possible to use a reduced dwell time to find the target. Why would that not be the case with a burst weapon?

So I’m thinking I need to re-write the stunt again to add this as a possibility.


Filed under Experimental Mechanics

Spending actions for successes

A little bit ago I wrote about spending an action to get a success. The biggest problem I have with that is it circumvents the stress system for getting successes. In theory that’s could be ok but design wise, having multiple paths to get the same effect causes confusion.

I still think we should play test that but I have an alternative that might be ideologically more pure. It wouldn’t interfere with anything to say that spending an action could ensure a success from an Advantage. In theory an opponent could spend an action to remove a success if you have an Impairment. That second one might be a more rare circumstance but it’s still interesting.

I’m getting ready to run our first game with all these tweaks. This will be interesting!

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4e Hacking

Hacking in the current edition has a problem. Although it works, not many players use it. In short, it requires patience. The time scale for hacking is much longer than combat and that means it’s ineffective in a crisis. Because of that, it’s not a skill players fall back on.

I don’t have a good idea of what I want to do yet. I have the intuition that I want to do something like where I’m going with social conflict where the hacker picks conditions to put on the hacked system. Instead of trying to take control of the system, the player uses their skill to either gain from the system or limit it’s use.

I don’t have a full idea of what that’s going to look like yet but I have some ideas. The two conditions I’m thinking of are as follows.

Information – The hacker can get information on what is happening on the system or what happened in the past. I’m almost thinking that I’d like two separate conditions, one for current monitoring and another for reading what happened in the past just to make them distinct but that may not be needed.

Complication – This takes a lot of forms but the thought is that the hacker does something to make the system harder to use. This could include making it harder to use sensors or aim weapons. The hacker would put an impairment on using a skill that would be used on that system. Again, I’m trying to figure out if this should be multiple different conditions or just one.

I would like to have more so I’ll keep working on this and try to expand it. There’s still the problem of time scales. I might have to relent on that, maybe changing the framework of hacking. I’m not sure about that. Playtesting might illuminate that.

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