Anyone who’s played D&D has seen a min-maxed character; the 18-Strength Half-Orc Barbarian with the intellect of an amoeba; the master of the arcane and occult who’s to weak to lace his own boots (“That’s what prestidigitation is for!”). Any system with a point-buy method of determining character abilities is prone to min-maxing, and why wouldn’t the players make such characters? They’re the most optimized for their specialized roles, after all; no one wants to be in danger of death, or worse, being overshadowed at their core character concept, simply because they’re not as good as they can be. But min-maxed characters tend towards shallowness and often lack realism. One wonders how such lopsided persons could possibly have survived or payed their way before the start of the campaign. So while min-maxing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s often better, for the sake of less shallow roleplaying and better player-character identification/attachment, for players to feel they can make more ‘organic’ and realistically-rounded characters without losing out on the possibilities offered by strict optimization.

Now my focus is on the design aspect of RPGs, so I’ll examine ways in which games can be designed, or tweaked, to provide such an experience. In particular, I’ll offer a ready-to-play ‘plug-in’ modification for any point-buy-using edition of D&D character creation.

To get players to choose alternatives to min-maxing, we first have to understand why players min-max in the first place:

  • Players are afraid that if they don’t make their character as good as possible at their chosen field of focus, whether that be swordplay, magic, diplomacy, or something else entirely, their character will be overshadowed, either by other party members or by NPCs.
  • Players are afraid that if they don’t make their character as good as possible, they’ll be defeated and their character will be for nothing, either dead or disgraced. (This mindset is often the result of a strict, vicious GM who makes a habit of killing off PCs.)
  • Players enjoy, at a visceral level, gaining power. It’s what makes them clamor for XP, ask constantly if they’ve leveled up, and cheat, lie, and steal to get that awesome magic item. If they don’t get their abilities as high as possible from the start, they may feel that they’ve lost something by way of missed opportunity.

Knowing these things, we can define several potential goals in our design process that address these concerns:

  • Prevent or reduce the extent to which min-maxing is possible. This allows players to still make their characters “as good as possible” without eliminating all other character strengths. For instance, divide character abilities into two or three groups (Body, Mind, and sometimes Social are the common categories) and split the character’s build points equally between each category, ensuring that each character has some type of strength, or is at lease average, in each category.
  • Discourage min-maxing by making organic builds more attractive to players. For instance, allow players to “buy” non-essential abilities (that are not core to their class) at a cheaper rate.
  • Introduce randomization. For instance, allow the player to choose one or two abilities to lock in at a relatively high level (thus ensuring their character stays viable), then randomly roll the rest.

The newest version of my Zombie Survival RPG uses a per-category point-buy system, and I think it’s a system I will use in the first release of the Kydaria RPG as well.

Dungeons and Dragons DMs and players can take advantage of any of the three systems listed above, as codified here:

  • ALTERNATE RULE: Seperate Body/Mind Point-Buy: Ability scores are separated into two categories, Body (Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution) and Mind (Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). Each category gets a number of buy-points equal to whatever point-buy total you would normally use divided by two (rounded up). Points in one category cannot be spent on the other.
  • ALTERNATE RULE: Point-Buy Non-Essential Cost Reduction: Except for the two ability scores most important to the character’s class (as determined by the DM if not specified by the rulebooks), the cost to increase an ability score is reduced by 1. When this would reduce the cost to 0, instead allow two points of ability increase to be bought for 1.
  • ALTERNATE RULE: Semi-Random Ability Generation: Choose two ability scores, one of which is set at 18, the other at 16 (DMs feel free to adjust these numbers completely.) For all other scores, roll randomly (with whatever combination of die you usually use) and do not rearrange the rolled scores.
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Just something I happened to type up; a list of the primary means of propulsion used by Kydarian spacecraft, along with a short explanation of the Universe’s dimensional cosmology and how Kydaria exploits it for power and transportation.

PROPULSION

Explosive Chemical Propellant Afterburners
While no Kydarian ship still uses chemical propellant for its primary propulsion system, compact explosive fuels still provide short, powerful bursts of speed for small fighter-sized craft. These afterburners last for a few seconds at most, and must be refueled after each use.

Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters (“Arcjets”)
The primary propulsion system of all but the most advanced Kydarian craft, Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters, commonly referred to as “Arcjets”, are a form of electric propulsion involving the interaction of magnetic fields and electric currents. While more efficient and possessing a higher output potential than most other electric propulsion methods, Arcjets have very high energy requirements, a hurdle easily surpassed by Kydarian reactor technology (antimatter or fusion in smaller craft, Sub-Etheral in larger capital ships).

Warp Field Projectors
Two of the most powerful and advanced Kydarian flagships, the New Zaranoch and the Atropos, are equipped with a state-of-the-art propulsion system that also serves as a cloaking and shielding system. Massive banks of highly-charged Kydarian crystals use unfathomable levels of psionic energy to manipulate local spacetime directly, “warping” it to whatever shape needed. Besides allowing for rapid propulsion without the time-dilation problems of relativistic speed, the warp field is configured to create a gravitation effect on the ship similar to that of a planet, contained within the decks of the ship. In addition, by warping spacetime in a shell around the ship, the craft can effectively dissapear, immune to detection or interaction, though it is blind to the “outside” universe while cloaked thusly.

Sub-Etheral Gates
While not technically a means of propulsion, the dimensional portals created by SE Gates are one of the most important methods of travel, communication, and power-generation for Kydarian civilization. The known cosmology of the Kydarian universe is a four-dimensional space that can be demonstrated as a three-dimensional sphere, the two-dimensional surface of which represents our three-dimensional normal space. The outside of this hypersphere is an empty space known as the Void, while the inside is an infinitely small area containing, paradoxically, an infinitely large volume of chaotic matter and energy, known as the Sub-Etheral Realm. While inside the SE Realm, one can move an infinite distance in any direction without encountering any “edge”, but moving fourth-dimensionally in a specific direction can exit the traveller at any point in “normal” space, a dangerous and damaging process without a stabalizing gate at both ends. Though this “sub-space”, travel and communication can occur instantaneously, bypassing any distance factors. The immense and theoretically infinite fields of energy and matter in the SE Realm allow any gate to power itself, and many gigawatts of equipment around it, though a significant amount of power is required to “cold-start” a gate.

Kydaria: An Introduction

August 28, 2008

Zair, a Kydarian

Zair, a Kydarian

One of my primary, ongoing projects is a Campaign Universe and RPG System called Kydaria (in addition to Project Warchild, an in-concept 2D-sidescrolling action adventure exploration game set in the same universe). The Kydarian universe is a multi-millennium-spanning timeline of events surrounding an ancient and immortal civilization of the same name and its actions and influences regarding Earth, human kind, and the progression of humanity from infant race to full-fledged spacefaring species.

I’ve been developing the concepts and universe of Kydaria for many years now, and in many ways it’s a way for me to explore my own philosophies and ideas. I do try to keep as much of the science fiction as possible realistic and explainable, if not through the normal rules of physics, then through the added elements (like psionics), which I also try to keep consistant within their own internal rules. Whenever I can, I provide an explaination of how technology or psionic effects work, within reason.

The world of Earth in the Kydarian universe, at present day, to the average human, is indistinguishable from our own real world; the actions of Kydaria and the other significant civilizations have been kept from the fledgling human society, even as Kydaria acts as humanity’s silent protector and overseer.

These are the fundamental differences between our universe and Kydaria:

  • The presence of Kydarian civilization, the Zaranochian underworld, and Kydaria’s “offspring” species.
  • The existance of the fundamental, nonatomic particle known as the Psiron, which gains potential and kinetic energy, as well as the ability to “connect” with baryonic matter, only in the presence of sentient will, allowing those skilled enough to manipulate matter in various ways, all of which fall under the umbrella term “Psionics”. Note that this fundamental will-matter interaction is unique in that it appears to bypass the laws of matter-energy conservation.

Character Sheet As Game

August 12, 2008

For all of my homebrew prototypes after ZSRPG, I used a spreadsheet program to make my character sheets. I found this to be quite enjoyable, often more so than the dictating of the rules into “book” form, and I often found myself adding in small notations for the various elements of the character sheets, to better help both those that had never played before, and experienced players that hadn’t memorized every formula.

By the time I got to the rough concept of my Pulp-Action RPG, I decided to try something new: I wouldn’t write a rulebook – I would make a completely playable character sheet. The idea of a game freeform and simple enough to never need a rulebook intrigued me, and I set about creating the sheet below – not the best design, but interesting for what it is.

Concept: Perfect Recall

August 12, 2008

PERFECT RECALL

You are a Memory Diver. At some point in your life, you willingly locked away all self-knowledge, the memories of your life becoming lost to the deepest reaches of your mind. The reasons you did this are unknown to you – some take the Wipe to get a fresh start, some to escape the past. Others seek power, and yet more seek enlightenment in the rediscovery of their selves. For those who have been Wiped gain a wondrous power – the ability to delve into their own lost memories, and, more impressively, to bring back physical objects and even people from those memories. The most experienced Divers quest eternally for the ability to access all of their memories as one, a spiritual and quantum-mechanical nirvana called “Perfect Recall”.

To access their lost memories, Divers must experience a similar “Key Event” in their current lives, driving many memory delvers to grand adventures, as the most powerful memories (if they exist) can only be accessed through the most monumental and dangerous of deeds.

Once inside a memory (which the player and GM have outlined beforehand), the remembering PC takes control of his past self, while the other players take control of other characters, creatures, or even environmental elements cruicial to the memory. Each memory, unless it is a Crucial Memory, is a single encounter of some sort that the PC must overcome. Overcoming the memory not only reveals in the doing some important event in the character’s past life, it unlocks some new ability (directly related to how the PC succeeded or failed in the memory) for the current-time PC.

Crucial Memories are particularly important recall sessions that span the length of a short adventure or dungeon, and culminate in the retrieval of an important item, talisman, secret, or even a person, from the memory and into the real world.

When it makes sense, players should plan their memories so that they include other PCs, thus leading to two PCs recalling to the same memory simultaneously – this increases participation and can forge strong roleplaying relationships between the characters involved.

While the gains for the remembering PC are obvious, some mechanical incentive should be given to the other PCs that play parts in the memories of others. PCs that participate in a non-game-disruptive way in another PC’s recall each recieve 1 character build point (or something equivalent in whatever system you use). PCs that are especially awesome or in-character recieve 2. Bringing the other players into each memory in this way is essential, lest the non-participating members become rapidly and repeatedly bored out of their minds. This also has the benefit of each player knowing, intimately, the other PC’s backstories. Indeed, this is a game that revolves around backstories.

The memories of each character should be accessed, in general, from least important and informative, to most cruicial and revealing, moving toward some point (whether backwards or forwards or all over the timeline) that defines the core of that character and reveals all his/her mysteries (which should be built up and foreshadowed by previous recalls). Players can either plan out their character’s backstory themselves, knowing it without their PC knowing it, or let the GM, with their consent, design their character’s story secretly, leaving it a true mystery to be revealed.

This game could theoretically be run on any system, from D&D to Shadowrun, and in any setting, from sci-fi to fantasy.

Welcome & Introduction

August 12, 2008

Welcome, to what I hope will be a prodigious simmering pot of experimental ideas, ideas mostly centered around the mad and myriad sparks of inspiration I get regarding gaming. When I say gaming, I generally refer to tabletop roleplaying games, but I will also occasionally stray into the realms of the electronic, and maybe a little into some of the more “mundane” table, card, or board games.

I suppose my first post should introduce not only this blog, but myself. I’m a 19-year old college student, currently attending Hofstra University on Long Island, NY, where I persue a degree in Computer Science. As far back as I can remember, I have been deeply interested in and affected by an eclectic admixture of science-fiction, fantasy, and mythology.

I was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games (specifically 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons) in high school, and have been hooked ever since, progressing in my interests from computer-game-spawned powergaming to a more healthy blend of plot, combat, and roleplaying. The last few years, however, my attention has turned not just to playing and running games, but towards understanding the inner workings of the mechanics, settings, and themes of these games, and to the creation of prototype systems of my own.

In the last year or so, I designed the skeletal structures of several fledgeling systems, spanning a number of different genres and playstyles, even going so far as to run a test campaign with a Zombie Survival RPG of my own creation. Wanting a place to document and showcase these ideas (and more importantly, get valuable feedback from the online RPG community), I turned to WordPress, and here we are.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy my ramblings.

-Derek Strong

While I had prototyped Kydaria beforehand, the first homebrew roleplaying game I ever actually ran was my unimaginitively-titled Zombie Survival RPG. You can download the PDF my players used for the first campaign here: (zombiesurvivalrpg). I’m afraid the PDF uses images obtained from google image search, and none of said images are mine or used with permission, as I originally intended this document only for use by my group and friends.

My design here was based around these concepts:

  1. Simulate the feel of a classic zombie apocalypse, including the protagonist archetypes.
  2. Have inherent ability, trained skill, and acquired equipment be the cores of any character’s capabilities.
  3. Allow for the system to be set in my real-life setting of Hofstra University, and for the players to play alternate-reality versions of themselves.

The first game went a little choppily, mostly due to my inexperience, but my players showed great interest and the second game went far smoother. A great advantage for me as the GM was that the game was set in our current real-world location, 15-minutes into the future – this combined with the almost entirely player-driven nature of the game that ensued relieved me from any intensive bookwork or long pre-game preperations; I simply explained the current situation, resolved the player’s actions, and inserted occasional twists in the action (though in hindsight, more challenges and action on my part would have improved the game, especially towards the end).

I started with two players, who first encountered the zombie outbreak in the student center cafeteria area. They took to their roles quickly, and after a few questions regarding the mechanics of the game, killed a couple zombies, aquired basic weapons, and fled towards the dorms, knowing the area intimately (having lived here, after all).

The next session started with the introduction of my two other players, who started out on the other side of campus. One player started taking charge of a group of students and using his science skill, made a number of highly volatile compounds from supplies in a science center, and scavenged food, before meeting up with the other three. I actually used an official campus map as our campaign map. This session showed me that I needed to better define the difficulty target numbers for different tasks.

The game eventually ended simply because everyone left for summer break – by this point, the survivors had made a veritable fortress by walling off between four dorm towers, and had rescued most of the survivors on campus, and were beginning to focus on long-term survival strategies. The test run showed me a number of flaws in the system – for instance, player damage-output versus player survivability (any player-vs-player combat at higher levels would be instantly fatal). Also, I found that the zombies quickly lost their “Scare Factor” as the players grew in power. In fact, the most fearful I ever saw them (even more so than when faced with an auditorium packed wall-to-wall with undead) was when they were attacked by a swarm of zombified birds; The birds, as a swarm, did damage automatically when they were in a target’s square, and all PCs/NPCs have, with no exception, exactly 10 hp.

I’ve since started a revision to the ZRPG rules that move away (I hope) from the first release’s faults, but that’s for a future post.