Category Archives: 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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Take Ten

If you’re a player familiar to the D20 system, you probably know about a (as far as I’ve heard) rule that allows you to skip a roll and take a 10 for a skill check or attack roll. I’m only just realizing that the same thing could work for 4e. You could do the same thing in 3e by taking a 50.

The effect is a little different because The Artifact has a roll under system. The target numbers never change. That means that a player that takes a 10 will get consistent results every time… mostly.

The reason why I’m comfortable with this idea is most attributes that you’d roll against are under 10. If you have an attribute over 10, you can consistently get a single success on that attribute but you’re never going to get more successes until you get to an attribute of 20. If you have an attribute that high, you can’t easily fail anyway. In all respects you’re essentially taking a mediocre result.

I do want to take the concept further though. You can take a 10 and then take stress to reduce the roll. So if this was an important roll and you had an attribute of 8, you could take 10 and two stress to guarantee the roll. You’re still taking a consequence and that seems fine to me.

Let’s keep pushing though. 4e is all about economies and one of the biggest economies I’ve been messing with is the action economy. I think it wouldn’t break much if 4e let you spend two actions (total) and take a 5. You could also take stress with that to bring the value down further.


Boosts and Drains still apply. A Drain could eliminate a success you got from taking a ten and a Boost can still help.

Taking a 10 or a 5 when you have Boosts and Drains means you’d just skip the d20 and roll your d10s.

I’m curious how often this option would be used. I think it’s going to be welcome to some players that constantly roll poorly but even then it would have limited utility. In high attribute characters it would become routine to take a 10 when a task has minor requirements to complete. That’s okay though.

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Focus Rounds

This is one of those rules that is going to get shuffled into the “advanced” rule pile. It adds an interesting option for certain situations and characters but could be ignored most of the time.

Right now the Reflex attribute is vitally important for a lot of conflict because it not only ranks you in who goes first in the initiative order, but also determines how much you can accomplish in a round.

However sometimes you only want to accomplish one vital thing in a round. Working on generating Boosts by spending actions is cool but it might not be the only way to do things. Yes I want the players to be able to spend an action to generate boosts that the group can share and that will be the default but from the beginning I was thinking of generating larger Boosts just for your character.

How currently I think that should work is to opt out of the regular Reflex initiative and take a Focus Round. What that would mean is rolling against Psyche instead and taking one powerful action that turn. Instead of getting a number of actions in that turn, the character would get one action but with a Boost of 3 per success. If the Psyche roll yielded four successes the character would get a Boost of 9 (an automatic success if there are no Drains) and a Boost of 3 to the action roll. These Boosts only last for that turn but could be very powerful.

To see why that’s significant, let’s talk about generating Boosts in a normal Reflex round.

Generating a Boost by spending an action is a weaker effect but potentially longer lasting. If you spend an action you’d get a Boost of 1 to start but by default it only lasts a turn. If you succeed in your roll, you can spend successes on several things. Spending a success can make the Boost 1 higher. Spending a success can make the boost persistent (until removed or it expires). Spending a success can also be used to share the boost with another character.

That’s a lot of effects. I think in playtests, it will result in a lot of persistent Boost 1s which might need some kind of management, we’ll have to test.

The best part is these effects can be use together without issue. Another character could create a low level boost for your character to use and then you could enter a focus round.

So when would a character taking a focus round fall in the initiative order? Simply put, they will place according to their successes just like they had rolled for Reflex. The justification for this is their extreme focus helps them to act quickly as they notice an opportunity.

As if The Artifact needed more options… but there you are. One more option for your character’s in 4th Edition.

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Vehicle Actions

When The Artifact was first being written, the idea for vehicles was to have a system for tracking their power for things like shield generators and movement. That proved too cumbersome in early playtests and it had to be abandoned.

Now in 4th Edition that concept is making a come back but in a much more manageable way. We were calling these Vehicle Actions for a while but we think Performance Rating is a bit more descriptive of what’s being modeled here.

Vehicles like the TF and Delta are getting a Performance Rating of 4. Something like the Rall 4 could (terrifyingly) get a Performance Rating of 8. Large vehicles like the Chezbah Cruiser would have dozens of points to spend.

Here’s the current text for describing this concept.

What is Performance Rating?

To take actions, vehicles need their pilot to spend successes from rolls or spend a Performance Rating (PR). The PR of a vehicle is a measure of how easy it is to manage the vehicle’s systems. This can be from the vehicle having plenty of power available for it’s systems, it can come from having extra pilots to help manage systems or from sophisticated software controls. The difference to the player is not important but looking at the stats of the vehicle can give some clues.

If the vehicle has multiple crew, it will often get a PR from each additional crew as long as the vehicle isn’t especially large or difficult to control.

When a power guzzling system like a shield generator or laser is fully powered by the vehicle, it will often get a PR for it’s operation.

Some vehicles like E-Suits and Anti-Gravs are inherently difficult to control and require extensive computer guidance. When the computers are powerful enough and their software is well designed, they may gain PR from them.

Performance Rating can be used move without having to roll for piloting, to keep shields up each turn, keep a sensor lock going, Add a Boost 2 to the performance of a system or link the fire of several weapons together on the same target.

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Vehicle Critical Hits

Something that’s been stumping me for a while is how to get away from looking up critical hit charts for 4e. The thing is, I love the critical hits in The Artifact, they add a lot of flavor to larger scale combat and I don’t want to lose that.

At the same time, critical hits can really slow down a game. I want this to be fast and easy.

Critical hits for people got hung up by having to roll for a hit location. That’s changing to a negotiation. The attacker says what part of the body they were aiming at and the defender gets to move that attack one position if they want. That only works because all humans have the same body layout.

Vehicles are all over the place though. If you hit a TF in the leg, what did it damage? It could slow the vehicle or it could make it harder to pilot. Without the critical hit charts you wouldn’t know that.

Here’s the idea, there are six basic types of critical hits. They are Control, Drive, Protection, Sensors, Weapons and Cargo. They’re going to be presented in a 3×3 grid that looks like this.

Drive Weapon Protection
Protection Control Drive
Sensors Drive Cargo

It used to be that you’d roll to see if you got a critical but you could guarantee it with a success. Now you have to spend a success to get a critical. This collapses the randomness into the initial roll and speeds things up.

If attacked from the front the defender selects one vertical column. If attacked from the side they select a horizontal row. If this is a medium or heavy vehicle (with 8 fire arcs) and are attacked from a corner, the defender selects one of the closest horizontal row, vertical column or the diagonal across the chart.

Now one of the three hit locations is picked by the attacker. All the stats eligible for a critical hit will be listed under these headings but they should already be partly self evident. The attacker can either cut a stat in half or introduce a Drain to use a system like a weapon, shield or move the vehicle.

If the attacker spends a number of additional successes they get a catastrophic critical and can reduce a stat to zero. The number depends on the armor and size of the vehicle. One for most vehicles but Rall4s and things like Tanks would cost two. Something like a Kelrath Freighter might be four successes to get a catastrophic critical.

There are some fiddly rules to add. For example, what happens if you reduce the crew of a vehicle by half? In that case the crew takes half the damage the vehicle did. If you hit the cargo of a vehicle, it takes half the damage that the vehicle took.

Time to playtest. I think this will be simpler, I hope it will be easily picked up by players, time will tell.

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Boosts and Drains

We’ve play tested this and it works really well. Now I have to figure out how to explain it. If you’ve been reading along I’ve covered some of these concepts in the past but there’s been some significant refinements.

As the last post outlined there were some issues on how boosts and drains cancel each other out. We have a way of resolving that now.

4e uses a d20 scale instead of a D100 so the main attribute is rolled d20. All skills, modifiers or anything else that would modify a roll is either a Boost or a Drain are given a rating from 1-9 rolled on d10s. I don’t want to have big piles of dice being rolled so here’s the trick. Boosts and Drains are rolled using the same dice. Here’s how that works.

If you have a Boost, like a skill for instance and no drains, you roll for your attribute on a d20 and for the Boost on a d10. If you roll equal or under the Boost’s rating, you get a success. If you have multiple Boosts, you add more d10s and apply them to your Boosts in the order you like.

If you have a Drain, like a the difficulty of piloting a damaged vehicle, you roll for your attribute on a d20 and the Drain on a d10. If you roll equal or under the Drain’s rating, you lose a success from any you may have gotten from the d20. If you have multiple Drains, you add d10 for each and apply them to your Drains in the order you like.

But what happens if you have a Boost and Drain? What if you have two Boosts and three Drains? Instead of adding a d10 for every Boost and Drain, pair the highest Boosts with the highest Drains. If the Drain is equal or higher than the Boost, eliminate the die from the roll. If the Boost is higher, roll 1d10 for both the Boost and the Drain. If you roll equal or lower than the Boost, add a success. If you also roll equal or under the Drain, negate the success.

You still get to arrange the dice with whatever Boost and Drain you want, but the window for getting a success gets smaller when they are paired.

For example a character has a skill of 3 and a Drain due to fog of 2. If these are paired together, and the player rolls a 1, there is no success gained by the roll. In that case, only a 3 would give a success.

Hopefully that makes sense. We made a character using the 4e rules and tested all that out. It handled multiple modifiers both positive and negative with very little effort. It was suggested that players could use playing cards to arrange and track their Boosts and Drains and pair them up. That might be more of a hassle than it’s worth in some situations but I’m willing to give it a try.

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4th Edition Writing Underway

I’ve started a Google Docs document for writing the next version of The Artifact. I’m trying for now to only occasionally reference 3rd edition. My writing is more casual now and I hope that makes it better to read. I don’t want the old text to change my current expression of ideas.

A lot has fallen into place but I still have unresolved questions in some basic procedures. In 3rd, Advantages and Impairments got rid of some roll modifiers. In 4th theres very little addition and subtraction going on because Boosts and Drains are taking center stage.

The question I have is, if a character has a Boost and a Drain, how do they interact? My intention at the moment is one Drain cancels out a Boost. Only if you have more Drains than Boosts do you roll for Drains.

For some people that’s going to seem a little unfair. You could have a Skill of 9 (the highest possible) and a Drain of 1 (the lowest possible) and they’d cancel each other out.

This kind of thing is going to take some new thinking on the players part because a character can create Boost with an action. Because you can have multiple Boosts in each roll, creating a low level Boost will negate that low level Drain and you get your skill back.

Something I’m having the hardest time conveying is the idea that the players choose how to apply these negations and the rolls of their dice to match their Boosts. I don’t know if this is a natural concept or a difficult one. I also don’t know if some people would pick up on it and others wouldn’t.

When I started brainstorming this version, I had a lot of ideas for special conditions and their mechanical effects but I recently realized that they could be Boosts. Since I had the idea for players creating Boosts then these effects might as well fall under that concept. The challenge now is to lay out those conditions as created Boosts without making it seem like those are the only options. The tool is multipurpose but it’s also vauge so I want the examples to spur creativity but not limit it.

I’m going to the Queen City Conquest this weekend and running a game of The Artifact. The hard part for me is going to be playing 3rd Edition and not slipping into new tools that we’ve been testing.

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