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.


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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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Tweaks to the 3.1 Player’s Handbook

Interestingly, the consequences in the equipment building section of the 3.1 Player’s Handbook worked out better than I thought. I did intensify one (the time consequence) which was a surprise to me. It was always the option chosen which means it’s too weak. I’m also looking at weakening the energy consequence because it’s always avoided, meaning it’s too strong. I’m not sure how to state the consequence eloquently yet though, I’m working on it.

The other change is that builds are starting out with a number of Challenge Points (CP). In playing with the rules, very small builds came out too small. I needed to introduce a curve to the mass and energy use in very small builds and giving a base CP does that nicely.

I’ll re-release the 3.11 ashcan when I figure out what I want to do with the Energy consequence.

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One more experimental idea

This one I’m really not sure of. It messes with the stress economy and the attribute balance but it makes some sense. I’d like to test it out and see if it makes game play better.

If a player spends an extra action (from their initiative roll) on a roll, they get a automatic success.

This does a few good things.

  • It could speed up a round by getting players to spend actions on important tasks that they’d be re-trying anyway.
  • It would simulate someone taking some time to do make sure they did it right, like aiming a shot instead of pray and spray.
  • It would help Tarnoc whom the dice hate (if he can manage to make a Ref roll).

It could also do some bad things.

  • It would make Ref the most important attribute. It may already be, but it would make it so that any task could get a success by just spending an action on it.
  • It makes taking stress less desirable. You have another method to fix a roll, one that doesn’t have an ongoing cost.

Like I said, really not sure of this, but I do want to play with it. It could be that something similar could give the desired effect, but not have the downsides. For example, could I simulate multiple rolls an the improved chances in just one roll? An “aimed shot” used to give you +15 to hit but cost two actions in second edition. This would be similar, tipping the success rate while reducing rolls.

Another option might be taking a pause. Spending an action to almost have a micro rest that would reduce a stress point. Weirdly that sounds both not useful enough and too powerful an effect at the same time. Maybe that should be tested too.

There’s a few questionable ideas that might need the dents knocked out of them.

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Driving the 4e changes

On the plus side of driving for 4 days, me and my son talked a lot about games and I’ve got a list of things to implement for 4e.

One of those thoughts is a little incongruous for The Artifact as it is now. In 4e it might become more normal. In Technical Challenges you have Consequences, basically a story prompt that carries a mechanical effect in the game. Nothing weird, it’s just that regular combat doesn’t have that… yet.

We talked about how in combat and even in social conflict you could be put in a bad position. We called it “out of position” and talked about the various ways that it could cause a problem for you. At first it was something I thought about inflicting on someone else but it would be better if it was something a player elected to take. That made sense for combat. If you’re being fired on and you maneuver into a bad position to avoid it, you’re electing to not be shot.

My thought is that taking the Consequence gives a character a defense success for that turn. In return it usually limits your ability to act, so it would reduce the character’s actions by 1 for the next turn.

Next we talked about Kerdi. They’re a little odd in their stats. They’re overly powerful for infantry but are ineffective against E-Suits. I think we may have hit a good balance for them with some changes. I’ll implement these changes in the next PDF I put out of the game book. (3.2?)

One, they have too many hit points for their size, they’ll probably be reduced to 80HP. That puts them in range of infantry while still being really tough.

Two, their weapons are all wonky. It was an improvement in 3e to have their heavy cannons but not enough. They have lasers, let them use the lasers on infantry and completely convert their plasma into an anti-vehicle role. I’m thinking of giving them four shots at triple the damage of their current guns (90 at point blank). That should give them a chance to do some damage to armored targets. I think describing them as patient and only using the plasma cannons when they think they need to is enough to keep them from blasting PCs with 90 point plasma cannons, for a little while anyway.

I’m also thinking of setting a social contract in motion mechanically at character generation. I’m thinking of having the players pick a mode of play. The Artifact is a zero to hero game as it is but that isn’t for everyone and I’ve occasionally thought about starting characters off a little higher up for some fun. Now I’m thinking, why not give that option to the players instead of leaving it up to GM whim? The players could vote at character generation and pick a mode of play. The changes don’t have to be mechanically dramatic, a +10 to two attributes and a +1 rank would put the players into a role where they’re already competent. +20 and a +3 rank would give them a lot of extra muscle early on.


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Addition to the Random Tables

I finally remembered to add a few tables that flesh out the general condition of surrounding Hexes. The neat part is that some of the options give some real flavor to traveling through a region. Things like “Ancient mummified bodies are found, particularly in residential hexes where there are millions.” Which is something that has been talked about in the history of the planet but very rarely brought into play.

When GMing I usually describe the Hexes as if they’re pristine but dark, while I’ll talk about crumbling structures. The new tables will fill in those default options and give a lot more flavor to the terrain of the underground.

Random Generation Tables

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4th Edition Range Classes

I’m thinking of going in one of two directions for ranges in 4th edition. One is just fixing some abnormalities in the Range Classes but the other completely re-works things.

The first option has to do with adjusting Range Classes A and D. Normally the Range Classes are three times the extreme distance of the class before them. A and D don’t follow this convention. To fix that, A would be adjusted so that it’s extreme range bracket would be 100m instead of 30m. D would be cut in a third and go from 10 Km to 3 Km. E would then take the place of D and so on up the letter chain.

The other option throws out Range Classes entirely. Currently there are 8 discrete bits of information for a player to remember for a ranged weapon (PB, Short, Med, Long, Ex, Range Class, Range bracket distance and bracket Impairment). I’d like to cut that down to 2 and keep most of the flavor.

The way to do that is to give the ranged weapon or device a range that roughly corresponds to it’s Medium range bracket. For each success used, the base range is added onto the effective range. In other words a weapon with a range of 600 meters hits out to that range with a single success, but can hit out to 1200 m with two. With a very good roll and some Advantages (5 success), it could hit out to 3km. Which is around the current world record shots.

This handles range and difficulty, but a big part of the range classes are the damage gradients that gives a lot of tactical flavor to the game currently. This is where the second bit of information comes into play. Each weapon would have it’s own Damage Drop value.

For something like the Projectile Rifle the Damage Drop would likely be a -2 with a Range around 250 meters. This means between 251-500 meters the damage would drop by 2 points, from 501-750 it’s damage drops by another 2 points.

For a Scimrahn Plasma Gun, the Damage drop would be a -5 with a range of 30 meters. At 31-60 meters the damage drops by 5 and so on.

The Laser Gun would have a Damage Drop of -3 and a range of 2500 meters. This is a lot flatter of a curve than it had before but we can’t have everything.

I’m not sure how to handle explosives like grenades and missiles yet.

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