Monday, November 26, 2012

Arclight Revelation Tianmar: Free RPG

DOOM CLOCKS
So voting for the 24-Hour RPG Geek contest is over and the results are in. We had 38 entries, all of them offering interesting ideas. I can honestly point to a half dozen of the games and say I’d back a Kickstarter for an expanded version of them. In particular Moe Tousignant’s The Diminiutive RPG and Rhiannon Davis' Men of Romance . Despite the incredible competition, I managed to pull out a win. I’m a little stunned- I had at least two games I expected to beat me. I was also surprised in places at the results. Several games I ranked highly didn’t make the top then. A couple I wasn’t as taken with did very well. But I’m really happy I won- I worked intensely and hard on this game in the twenty-four hours. And then my wife dragged me out to eat and I almost passed out. I believe I turned out a respectable product. Now I want to go back and actually develop the idea and system; I think it is worth revising. The ideas interest me, it has plenty of room to play in, and it offers a new twist on some classic ideas. I’m going to look at some of the process and what I might do differently.

The pdf can be downloaded here. 

The game is called Arclight Revelation Tianmar, which is a play on Neon Genesis Evangelion. From the introduction:
FAREWELL THUNDERCHILDREN
In 1898 the Martian Invasion came, struck down terrestrial armies, overwhelmed all of mankind, and then collapsed - destroyed apparently by the tiniest defenders. The Earth had won and had beaten back the alien menace. From the ruins, the great centers of industry and life shattered, humanity declared that victory had come. But perhaps it had not. Just as our own biosphere had offered a poison to the Martians in time, what they had brought to Earth offered an equally deadly toxin. The Red Weed did not simply vanish with the passing of the Invaders. It seemed briefly to pause and then it returned with a vengeance. What should have been a time of rebuilding became a brief respite before a longer and more insidious war began. 
No one knows exactly when the Weed Swarm mutated, when it became some different. Rumors had come from the life-choked countryside, of small animals, insects, birds which had been changed - infected by tendrils from the plants. These crimson animals seemed crazed, rushing towards settlements only to be put down. It drips and drabs it began with a few, then a handful, then a pack off maddened animals. And then after seasons the Weed Swarms became smart - intelligently striking at targets. But even more dangerous were the hybrids and the fusions. Greater beats and monsters - grafted together out of red weed, animal flesh, scrap, and metal. The people of Earth fight a war against this roving menace - utilizing all of the industrial technology they can bring to bear. 
And... some say... that is the problem. 
There are rumors, dark rumors that the red Weed did not simply awaken itself. They say that experiments, delvings, researches by scientists and engineers across the planet created this threat. The Martians had died but left behind their technology, their organic science, their bodies, and their war machines. How could mankind resist the siren lure? How could they not adapt those techniques to make transports, steam conveyors, high-temperature furnaces, medical advancements, and, of course, weapons? 
LONDON 1916
Great Britain still stands, overseen by her Majesty Queen Victoria. She has lost many of her colonies, but remains stronger and more intact than other besieged nations such as Austro-Hungary, The Ottoman Empire, and Czarist Russia. The British have led the way in the adaptation of Martian technologies, using those to fight back against the Weed Swarm and its many and varied minions. The newest secret weapon in the crown's arsenal are the mechanized armored suits or mecha, code-named Steamlarks. Many hope that these will be the salvation of the Empire and the means for hunting down and destroying the Swarm's dens. 
PREMISE
In Arclight Revelation Tianmar players take the role of teens recruited by The Crystal Palace to pilot Steamlarks. They will protect human civilization against the predations of the mutated remnants of the Martian Invasion of 1898. The Red Weed, once a simple symptom of the alien encroachment, has gained sentience, polluting and corrupting native flora and fauna. Weed Swarm now comes in many forms and monstrous shapes. To secretly raise and train pilots for the Steamlarks, The Crystal Palace has co-opted the Spencer House Academy. Those who possess the mental talent necessary to pilot the Steamlarks are brought to South London - one of several splintered enclaves made up from the once great city. The Divided by walls, the eleven London subdistricts are a mix of bordering holdings and towns separated by Weedlands. 
The Crystal Palace operates in secret from the hidden Crystal Palace Development Fortress (CPDF). They need pilots with discipline, but also balance in their lives. Military-like living conditions and training resulted in catastrophe. Instead the staff have taken a more psychological approach - splitting pilot's lives between a public face of school-children as a secret existence of training and field operations. But even this is a strain on these young men and women - who must face the awful horror of the Weedswarm and still hope for normal lives. Can they survive?
THE PROCESS
1. When I’d done the 24-Hour Competition last time, I was disappointed in my results (and to a certain extent my performance). I thought Witless Minions was a decent idea and that I’d managed to put together some playable rules. I still think WM has some legs on it, and I adapted some of the key concepts for my DramaSystem sample pitch. One problem I had in assembling WM was getting interesting public domain artwork. I even drew the awful cover image (thus demonstrating that I shouldn’t be allowed to do that). I don’t think the game failed on the basis of artwork (but more likely on other details). But I wanted to make sure this time I didn’t feel under the gun.  

So when I sat down to work on this, I actually started from the art. I looked around at what materials were available in the public domain. I decided that if I could find something interesting, I would build the game off of that. Right away on Wikipedia’s list of public domain artwork resources, I saw the links to images from the Great War and Child Labour Images from around the same time. That stuck with me, and I began to think about some kind of alt history steampunk. I stumbled on an image in a search from Wells’ original War of the Worlds and at that point things fell into place. I’d always found the idea of the Red Weed the creepiest image in that story. Jeff Wayne’s rock opera of the book only confirmed that for me. I started to think about what the early 20th Century might look like following a global and devastating Martian invasion.  

2. After I decided that and the ideas began to fall together, I built a fairly detailed outline: if this were are fully-fleshed rpg, what would it actually look like? I drafted a table of contents. And then I just jumped in and started writing. If I got stuck on one part, I jumped to another and kept writing. The Distinctions section took shape over the course of the whole project, beginning with just a few items on each list and eventually becoming twenty. Then I’d keep switching back to those lists to fill in the mechanics for a term- even as I was coming up with the mechanics. There was a reciprocal relationship between the two.  

3. I made sure that I took the last quarter of the time limit to do some minor fixing up and then did the layout in Scribus. I did fixes and additions as they occurred to me there. But primarily I laid it out as much as I could with a couple of hours to spare. Then I grabbed the various images and started working on those. I figured around six or seven would be good. I put everything into a folder and started working. I knew the images wouldn’t look great c&p’d together which is how I hit on the “silhouette” approach. That ended up being harder than I thought it would be- playing around with area selection and painting to do fills. I’m sure if I knew the programs better I could have done some kind of edge trace. My technique had an interesting side effect though. Because I didn’t have the opacity turned up, the shadow effect wasn’t solid black, which actually looked creepier to me. I put together all of the art in a two-hour session, staying on task rather than switching around. Then I dropped the images in and did layout and proofing tweaks. The latter was more of a scan for terrible problems, because by this point 23 hours in, I hated the thing. I just wanted to be done with it. So there’s a good deal of real proofing and editing needed on the game.  

4. There’s a double-edged sword to creating such a specific genre and setting. Some people don’t care for steampunk, mecha, and/or school-based games. That’s a tough call for something like this. I know when I read through the games I tried to put aside those concerns in favor of design and ideas, however genres I do like certainly did better when I went to finally check and figure out my voting.  

5. I like some of the systems I used in the game quite a bit. I’m especially fond of the idea of choosing three words from the lists to create a descriptive phrase for your character. I’ll probably use that mechanic for one-shots from now on, perhaps with cards. I was happy with the way I approached the campaign frames at the back of the book. The secrets section is one of my favorite bits from the whole thing. The rules for Steamlarks are a good start, but could be developed. I like keeping the same mechanics functioning at different scales.  

What I wanted to do was echo some of the themes from Evangelion, RahZephon, and other like series- the weird grinder they put the characters through. I’ve only watched the original series of NGE and it was pretty dark. I wanted the game to have at its heart real difficulties- and nasty ongoing problems arising from damage taken physically, mentally, and socially. At the same time, I wanted to incentivize play where characters would work together and sacrifice for one another. So the mechanics for Bonds and taking damage to give other PC’s bonuses came from. I want to see how that actually plays out over time. Several people around here have asked about doing some playtests with the rules.  

FINALLY
I plan to go back and do a major edit pass on these rules first. Then I really want to walk through a see what I think works. I went with a number of mechanics because I didn’t want to use systems I’d developed before. Some of those concepts have legs, but now that I’m not under the 24-Hour gun I want to make the game stronger. One suggestion I received was to look more broadly at parallel fantastic fiction of the period (especially the French) to see if there might be other useful ideas. Could I expand and offer a broader world to play in? Perhaps I could present a more vivid alternate history that treats Europe in more depth. My plan is to eventually create an publishable pdf for RPGNow or a like outlet.