Friday, September 9, 2011

Atelier Auzumel: Alchemical Campaign Building

CRASHING A CAMPAIGN
Many years ago I ran a one-on-one campaign for my wife. It was a modern fantasy game, drawing together a lot of elements I really enjoyed- riffing on Changeling, Over the Edge, Flicker, and Amber. It was really solid- and we played it without rules, more as a kind of storytelling activity. The game had started during a transitional time, when I’d really been screwed by some people and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career path. At the same time, a number of the ongoing campaigns had wrapped and new ones had started. That was a strange half-year or so. In any case, one of those campaigns, a fantasy GURPS one, imploded because the players didn’t mesh and seemed all stuck in a bizarre rut. I suggested that for the new campaign, we expand the one-on-one game, bring in some additional people and play that out. Long story short- that didn’t work out, the game crashed and burned, and I got to see some terrible play at the table. I felt bad that the story we’d started got mauled and never went back to it.

THE FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY IS DICE
Now we’re coming up on my fifteenth wedding anniversary, and I’ve offered Sherri her own one-on-one rpg. And I’ve told her that we won’t expand it out, ever. I let her choose the kind of game she wanted to play in. She thought about it for a few days and came back with a fairly interesting concept which surprised me. She mentioned how in Fringe (and to a lesser extent X-Files) you have these people impacted, hurt and often transformed by proximity to these incidents of the strange. Sometimes they get carted off at the end, sometimes the get picked up by an ‘agency,’ and sometimes they just get forgotten. She asked for a game in which her character would have been affected by one of these events and now she traveled around trying to rescue/rehabilitate other people like her- building a community and at the same time putting together the pieces of what was going on behind the scenes. I liked the idea- and it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. I spent a couple of hours sketching ideas on that. The trick would be to come up with something new as the framework, something I hadn’t touched on before in other campaigns.

Then a few days later as we were walking, I brought up the idea of the game again, to make sure that’s what she wanted. We ended up talking about the one thing I suggested I’d taken off the table- straight fantasy, since I have four campaigns running in that genre right now. And then I made a joke about Atelier Iris.

Sidebar: Explaining Atelier
The Atelier series is a set of video games from GUST. They include various Atelier games (Atelier Maria, Atelier Judie, Atelier Rorona) revolving around the adventures of Alchemist protagonists. The series came over to the states in the form of the Atelier Iris series of three games. These took the basic core alchemy concept and married it with a more conventional JRPG structure- focused on adventuring, with the alchemy as a supporting element. They then shifted to two games of the Mana Khemia series which focused more on the alchemy, but in an academy of magic. But the original concept of the game revolves around budding alchemist characters, trying to balance learning alchemy, running a shop, fulfilling requests, gathering materials, and adventuring. Some of the games have time limits (like Atelier Annie) while others simply have rewards which can be gained through the process of alchemy (like Atelier Iris). Sherri’s a DBA, and loves games with crunchy micromanagement. She enjoys city building games like Zeus, making things in the Sims, and completism in Morrowind. And she loves this series of games. Except for the most recent one on the PS3 Atelier Rorona, which looked great but wasn’t very much fun in play. She’s tried to play through that three separate times and give up each time, disappointed.

THE TRICK IS TO DARE ME
Which brings us to our conversation with Sherri saying she’d love to see what I could do with that alchemist concept. I dismissed it right away- I couldn’t see how you could do something like that. But then something clicked- a mechanic for handling ingredients, some ideas about the economy involved...by the time we got home I was mulling this over. I sat down and wrote out a couple thousand words on the idea. And I think I’ve got it- figured out how it will work.

I’ve talked before about the liberty building a homebrew game a specific group gives you. In this case, I knew I would have a single player, enthused about the genre, and (as a DBA) more than willing to track and organize details. Resource management, people management and those kinds of stories would need to be brought to the front. I would basically echo the set-up of the main Atelier stories: an alchemist PC who gains and shop and has to make a go of it. The challenge, at least at the start would be to make that economically viable (echoing a little of the Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale video game). I’d want a detailed system for alchemy and for managing the shop as a resource. At the same time, I wanted a system which could be easily managed from my end. With minimal input, the black box of that system would offer a lot of options and details. I also knew I wanted the actually game system to be fairly light and transparent. I opted to go with a flavor of FATE, Strands of FATE which I’ve enjoyed. I makes some pretty major splits from the other versions, but keeps things easily adaptable.

Anyway, here’s the first of two posts laying out what I came up with.

ALCHEMICAL INGREDIENTS
Any particular alchemical ingredient has set of simple factors. For purposes of this system, I'm using playing cards as the scheme for detailing these. The why of that will come later. But essentially any ingredient has a strength measured from Ace (the lowest) through King (the highest). In addition, each also has a suit. Hearts (Fire- passion, thought, emotion, destruction); Clubs (Water- life, vision, time, future, preservation), Diamonds (Earth- material, solidity, creation), and Spades (Air- distance, movement, change, transformation). So they can have a literal elemental attachment or a more figurative detail. Beyond this, ingredients may have keywords associated with them like "Sharp," "Pungent," "Potent," "Dirty," "Tiny" or the like. Basically there are two kinds of alchemical items, standard and permanents. Standard items include food, potions, powders, fragile devices, and anything with a limited lifespan. Permanent items are the magic swords, shields, etc. of the setting.

STANDARD ITEMS
The alchemist gets a recipe which is pretty broadly defined. It provides the name of the item, its basic powers, and any aspects associated with the item. The actual requirements for making the item are based on the ingredients- so a recipe might look like this

Smoking Powder
Creates a cloud of noxious powder.
Aspect "Light Choking Haze"
Potency 12
Diamonds 5
Spades 5
Maximum # of Ingredients 10

What this means is that the alchemist can assemble the Smoking Powder by putting together ingredients whose potency equals 12. At least 5 potency of that must come from Diamonds and 5 from Spades. The most ingredients the alchemist can use to put this together is 10- meaning it is fairly easy to assemble from cheap stuff.

So the alchemist looks through their collection of ingredients and picks a set of them. If they have them, that's pretty easy. They have to make a simple Alchemy roll to get the process down the first time they attempt it. Some processes for more advanced items may require rolls for each creation. If an alchemist is short of the right kind of ingredient, they may substitute one or more from a suit not mentioned in the recipe. In this case, each of these ingredients has a potency of 1. Adding in such materials increases the difficulty of the operation and also runs the chance of creating a problem with the final result.

Keywords aka Factors
Now the trick is that the alchemist would like to get ingredients with either positive keywords or no keywords at all. That's because any keywords on the ingredient carry over the item's aspect. The alchemist can try to negate a keyword carrying over by increasing the difficulty of their alchemy roll. They can also try to find pairs of ingredients where the two keywords negate each other (like "fat" and "thin"). The alchemist player can make some arguments about why X would negate Y. Keywords not negated must be worked into the existing aspect on the item or else used to create a new aspect. Spin generated by an alchemy check can be used to affect this.

PERMANENT ITEMS
The more powerful and potent items of an alchemist's trade require a more involved process. To make these items, the alchemist must create a "form." The process works like this:

*Form Crafting: depending on the kind and number of effects the alchemist wants on the item, the GM sets a Materials Rank. This determines the kind of material (Gold, Brass, Highsteel, Laen, Eog) which the item must be made from. Form Crafting requires the alchemist (or an assistant) to actually make the item: forge the sword, hammer out the necklace, carve the wand, etc. This requires a crafting check.
*Effect Mastery: This works just like standard items- with the alchemist putting those things together to create the effect they wish to lay into the item.
*Item Synthesis: The alchemist now puts together the form and the effect, using a Mana. These are rarer and costly items, and some may have their own aspects. The potency of the effect determines the rank of the mana needed- low, medium or high. Each kind of item crafting requires a different type of mana:
Weapons (Fire Mana/Heat Mana/Light Mana)
Armor & Shields (Earth Mana/Shadow Mana/Darkness Mana)
Wands & Staves (Water Mana/Ice Mana/Time Mana)
Accessories (Air Mana/Lightning Mana/Energy Mana)
Aspects may be created, changed, added and affected based on the ingredients, the form, the mana and the alchemist's control (from the skill check).

So basically, the alchemist will have a spread-sheet of these ingredients and resources. They can use that to put use recipes. Alchemists can also research and develop their craft- modifying existing recipes, increasing output, or even crafting whole new recipes. That will be an essential drive for the alchemist.

THE SHOP
But the other big drive and the major focus of the campaign will the Alchemist trying to run, maintain and even expand their alchemical shop and lab. Their shop will have its own FATE character sheet, complete with ratings, stress tracks, and aspects. The major stresses on the shop will be upkeep & maintenance; rent & expenses; and lab accidents. The numbers on the characteristics may be used for tests against the shop itself in some cases (like against the monthly upkeep and rent tests), as a bonus to the alchemist’s actions (like researching a new recipe), or as an allocated resource (like assigning the staff to different tasks). At the beginning of the game, the alchemist gets a number of points to divide among these traits (with a couple of limits). They may then chose one trait from each set to add an aspect to (so four in total). Aspects and Specialty Aspects (such as topics for the library) may be added later.

The Alchemy shop has twelve characteristics, in four areas:

Physical
Space: The actual size and space available to the shop. It provides a limit on other items. The total value of the work characteristics can only be a maximum of 3*Space. Goods may exceed Space temporarily, but may cause stress on the shop. Displays and Comfort are limited to a value of Space +1.
Displays: The quality and existing set up of displays for the shop. Helps with drawing in casual customers.
Comfort: Represents the comfort of the shop both for customers, but also the amenities the shop offers for the alchemist and the staff.

People
Staff: The quality and number of staff the alchemist has working for them. Depending on how the alchemist wishes to define this (or flesh it out with aspects) it may represent more workers of standard quality or fewer with better skills. Staff can be applied to sales, alchemical or other tasks- with the value divided among those.
Contacts: The people the alchemist knows for gaining information, obtaining a steady supply of standard ingredients, obtaining rare items, finding out about auctions, and so on.
Clients: Superior patrons which may be used to sell high-end goods or may offer particular commissions. Can be used as a factor to drum up business if the alchemist needs to make more money.

Work
Library: The books, scrolls and scraps the alchemist has access to. Used for recipe creation and for researching arcane or occult questions. Acts as a bonus for these tasks.
Laboratory: The actual crafting lab with all of the necessary equipment and tools for performing alchemical transformations. Acts as a bonus for these tasks.
Foundry: The workshop, including furnace, forge, kiln, instruments, and set ups for doing any kind of crafting work for making forms. Acts as a bonus for these tasks.

Resources

Assets: Probably the most important trait in some ways. Assets represents the alchemist’s ready cash. This starts the campaign at 0. Assets will fluctuate wildly through the month. Essentially the alchemist will work to temporarily raise this value, which can then be spent for purchasing other things. The pool of assets is used at the end of the month in tests for upkeep- spending it out to maintain operations.
Reputation: How well regarded the Alchemist is. This acts as a bonus for social interactions and may trigger the arrival of new persons or unusual events.
Goods: The actual on hand goods the alchemist has. This value is used in tests to satisfy customers and generate assets. Goods can be converted temporarily into assets in this way. It represents all of the basic stuff the alchemist has. As such, it can be easily refreshed.

Each month, costs get assessed against assets, with stress and damage there having to be balanced. Stress on those tracks can reduce certain scores or add tags. The alchemist can devote time to adding fragile positive tags during the month to help with the various challenges of running the shop. I intend to thieve heavily from Bookhounds of London and Ars Magica for these ideas. Each characteristic of the shop require some time spent in keeping them in shape- with Resources as a group being treated as a single item. If a characteristic is valued at 0 or less, it eats up no time from the Alchemist’s schedule. If it is rated 1 or 2, then it uses up one block of time. If it is rated 3+, then it uses up two blocks.

Next- actions and building the alchemist