Category Archives: Experimental Mechanics

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics, News

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics, News

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics, News

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics


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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics


I’ve been waiting on moving into a new house and I’ve been away from the internet. In the meantime I’ve been thinking about 4e. The problem I’m running into with the writing is while everything is intended to be modular, everything is so integrated that it’s hard to explain one concept without having to explain all the rules for five other concepts just for it to make some sense.

I realized that the central metaphor for how to explain the game is broken. Often the mechanics of a game are called an engine and that’s what was tripping me up.

An engine has a reoccurring cycle and that makes sense up to a point. In general, play occurs in a cycle of turns, with players carrying out their own cyclic input.

Except not everything is cyclic. Not everything is used on every turn. There are plenty of optional rules that can be employed. So there’s an engine, but a lot of the rules aren’t always needed. The better metaphor for these are tools. You have to know why you might need a tool and where it works or doesn’t.

I used to call that an optional rule but that implies that you could ignore it without impacting the game. It’s intuitive that a tool has a specific effect.

The surprising part is that nearly everything that I started out being part of the game “engine” really turns out to be a tool, useful only in certain situations. Even something normally considered a “core part” of an engine like initiative is really only a tool, useful in specific situations. Even something as basic as an attribute is a tool. They’re a very useful tool but there are plenty of times they aren’t needed.

So now I’m going to have to re-write the rules section and create a new chapter in the book… Tools.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

In Progress

What am I working on right now? Well…

How tunnels look in 4e

So what is this? These are the tunnels in the floor of a hex. There are three layers. The top is blue, the middle is grey and the bottom is red. What each layer does in each hex is different. There are tunnels in the ceilings of a hex also and they would be this but in reverse order. The red layer is the main transport distribution of the hex. This is where the anti-grav trains run and in the center is where the hex mainframe sits.

Just figuring this out has been a lot of fun. The big trick is if the whole thing is comprehensible or not. There were rather boring tunnels in earlier editions of the game but player tended to be unimpressed with my attempt at functionality and simplicity.

I started to think that maybe the planet’s designers wouldn’t be limited to “simplicity” and might think of the mechanical needs of the hexes much differently than I would. It’s also possible that the design could be influenced by earlier designs that followed different requirements.

This zigzag configuration adds a lot of possible hide and seek options for characters. I wonder if anyone could make heads of tails of what’s going on here or if that matters. A facilitator could just consider the tunnel arrangement “random” and narrate that way if they didn’t want to study the tunnels given here in microscopic detail. The scales are still enormous in between the twists and turns, I haven’t figured out the math yet but each “node” might be 300+ meters from the next.

I’ve also started on the general maps and figured out some details that I hope to work into the maps.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

Ideas For Bursts and Collapsing Several Rules Into One

Two separate ideas here. First, a problem that I’ve been trying to crack since first edition. Burst weapons, high fire rate weapons like some plasma and projectile weapons ought to convey some improved chance of hitting since they’re in theory filling a volume of space with their fire. I haven’t found a mechanism to model that properly maybe up until now. There was always an exception that made any simple solutions not work.

Thanks to my son for offering a suggestion that I just simplified, The idea is as follows. The player chooses a number of shots that will be used to hone in on a target. This part is a little artificial for my liking. Someone that’s aiming a weapon doesn’t consciously do that but in a way they do by how willing they are to fire and then track their rounds until they hit the target.

Because of that these sacrificed shots are “Tracking Shots.” Each shot sacrificed increases a Boost by one up until 9. So if the character uses one tracking shot, they get a Boost 1. If they use five tracking shots they get a Boost 5. They can’t go over 9 however. I feel like the utility of using tracking shots shouldn’t be infinite, so it’s capped at one Boost.

The variability of such a Boost seems a little unprecedented so far so I’m sure it will cause some confusion. As with everything, playtesting is needed.


Next is an idea that may or may not work. It may require a lot of changes to existing damage stats so we’ll see.

Right now there are rules for avoiding hitting shields and avoiding hitting hard points in armor. There are also individual rules that can double the damage done like getting a head shot and vehicles have critical hits that can disable a vehicle completely. These offer dramatic and descriptive elements to the game. They allow a weaker weapon to overcome powerful defenses by being used skillfully.

They also cause a lot of confusion and complexity.

What if we re-used a single tool to get the same results? Sounds like a win, right? Well, mostly.

In 4e I decided to move away from range brackets. What resulted to keep some of the same flavor of action is that weapons have a stated range but you can add to that range by spending a success. However the other half of that is that the damage of a weapon dropped as it hit further out. For that, I introduced “Damage Drop” to the stats. Each time the range of a weapon is extended, the Damage Drop was subtracted from the weapon damage.

Back to the problem at hand, what if we renamed Damage Drop and made it multipurpose? What if it was called Damage Shift and it was still subtracted when range was extended but instead of avoiding shields, armor and special condition damage doubling, the damage shift could be added with a success?

This has some issues, the effect is significantly weaker than the effects that predate it in most instances. With simplicity comes a loss of surprising results. It also does not inherently explain why damage is being increased. With each use, the player doesn’t inherently know why the damage just went up. Narratively I could justify it, but theres no scaffold there to guide the players.

I like the simplicity. I don’t like the simplicity. I’ve been debating a starter set of rules and an advanced set. Maybe this is a good candidate for a split?

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics


The Artifact RPG is big. It’s really really big. That scares a lot of people that might like the setting or the theme. In the old days, a lot of games had a basic version of the game to get players started. It might be useful to use that strategy to help players get on board with The Artifact.

That’s why I’m putting out this draft Mini version of The Artifact. It’s not finished by any stretch of the imagination. It’ll definitely need more tuning. It does most of what you can do in the 4th edition rules that are being worked on with a lot of the details chopped out. It all fits on 7 pages including a character sheet.

I think that in the end, the basic game will include more standard equipment and character occupations but this is a decent conceptual start.

The one thing this doesn’t do is explain the setting very much. If a GM wanted to use the maps in the main book or any of the other setting elements, they shouldn’t run into much trouble.

Here’s the rough draft.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics, News