RPG Design - Road to MVP: Game Loop

It's finished. It's a mess.

That may sound a bit more harsh than it probably is. But about halfway through I was rethinking the rules (even the core rule, but I pressed on. I promised myself to just write on, to finish this chapter. If I go back now, I might never finish, because there is always something to fix, to ponder about and to get lost in details. If you take something away from this: just press on, ignore the initial urge to go back: Move Forward.

But I struggled. I've already felt that some things may not work or it was hard to come up with rules and gameplay that seem to work initially with the rules I had. I maybe backed myself into a corner where I didn't want to be. That struggle hindered me sometimes to write, to come up with ideas and to complete my goal. But I managed, I hope, and I have a first version that I now can improve upon.

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As I said it is somewhat a mess (or at least that is my feeling). I wrote down rules from various bits and notes I've taken. Things that I thought sounded fun and interesting, regardless if they may make sense in the game. There are still a bunch of ideas and rules I didn't write down. I wanted to have the core nailed down before I add these. They handle more optional rules and improve on the core ideas. Last but not least this should be a "minimal" viable product anyway, so any additional clutter should be ignored for now.

The second chapter (Case Assignment) deals with the core game loop, what the characters do in a session. There were three major parts that I wanted to focus on:

  • Creating Conflict
  • Investigation
  • Core Game Loop

Creating Conflict

The biggest part is what I call conflict creation. In the absence of a gamemaster the system needs to create conflict for the characters. The threats that come out this system need to make sense in the situation or at least should make sense in the overall setting. But still there needs to be some sort of surprise for the player, something unexpected.

I really like the hazards from Tremulus RPG. It is an easy to understand concept. A single word that describes what is creating opposition. A INDIVIDUAL hazard is easy to understand that this is a single person or being, a GROUP hazard a bunch of people that oppose. The clue comes into giving them impulses like the character. Suddenly these single words have a purpose. They describe what they actually do and give the player a prompt on what to do next. It also fits in nicely with the rest of the system: the impulse gives it character-like aspects, that can be invoked, compelled and generally worked with. The interpretation on what the hazard actually represents is actually up to the player so it should always fit into the current narrative. Add a bunch of random tables into there and you have your unexpected surprise factor.

I've choosen to use 2d6 as a randomizer here to give more focus on the three "natural" hazards (INDIVIDUAL, GROUP and ENVIRONEMNT) and but to the extreme the more "supernatural" ones (STRANGE and DOOM).

To actually generate a need for the player to care about the hazards I had to create rules that actually make it worse for the player when there are hazards around. This is actually the part that creates some conflict. Otherwise the hazards just stick around in the background and the player doesn't know what to do with them neccessarily. He just investigates (more on that later) and thats it. So hazards now actually impact the roll. So if there are a lot of hazards around your roll get worse and you are more likely to fail. Thus before you want to do an important roll you have to get rid of the hazards. That in turn creates more rolls and with more rolls the probability raises that you fail. And failing creates story so that is a good thing. Thus I had an initial small self-propelling loop.

I think I hit my first little road block when looking at NPCs. Somehow the hazards already feel like NPCs. But you can overcome a hazard with a single roll and it seems unimpactful when the hazards represents some sort of powerful entity. So I wanted to have something that might stick around a bit longer. I think the most important thing for me was to realize to handle hazards and NPCs as two different instances of maybe the same idea. I go into this in a bit more detail in the rules, but the idea is this: A hazard represents like some sort of influence and the NPC is an instance of that influence. Both can exist without the other. I use the example of a mayor. The hazard would be the mayors political influence and power and the NPC the actual NPC you can interact with.

The rules are sometimes not clear about that distinction, because it is something I realized a bit later. But as I said in the beginning: Move Forward.


The next thing was to give the characters an actual purpose. What are they doing anyway? They need to have some sort of goal or thrive to get them going and actually face these hazards and NPCs. It should be clear that they need to find an artefact. But what does that exactly mean? Because there is no gamemaster to play the artefact in the background I had to bring the artefact to the player somehow.

The Solo Investigator's Handbook has a nice system for that, which I think fits here. It was written initially to be played with Call of Cthulhu I think but it can be adapted. And it merges rather well into the system as you will see. The idea behind it is, that you need to find an answer for 4 Big Questions: Type, Effect, Owner and Downside. You have to answer them in a specific order which I hope will fuel the story as some of the questions get answered. And it should follow loosely what you might find in an episode of Warehouse 13 anyway. The effect and maybe type are among the first things that the agents see (it is what drew them there anyway) and only after some time they recognize what the actual downside is and who is actually posessing the artefact in the first place.

But instead of providing an answer to the player, the player proposes an answer to one of these questions and then rolls dice to see if his assumptions hold true or not. The player can slip into the role of the agent that is trying to bring all the clues together into a coherent deduction. The answer should be related to what the agents have encountered so far. And the player can roleplay more because he knows what the next question is so the investigation might steer into a certain direction (and thus triggering certain hazards more than others).

The amount of dice rolled is dictated by another resource: clues. The agent can get these clues by investigating (duh) and then spends them to raise the odds of actually finding an answer to the big questions. They can also be stashed and don't have to be used all at the same time, creating a bit of management game in itself.

The beauty of this system is, that the answers to the questions are aspects. So they themselves drive the story forward as they can be invoked and compelled as well.

Core Game Loop

Now it was time to bring it all together and this was the part where I struggled the most. I had to somehow create an initial set of hazards to get the ball rolling. I didn't want the player to roll a bunch of times on some tables and end up with a sonsensical list of hazards. I had two different opposing ideas on how to introduce them - like Tremulus RPG or like Ironsworn.

Tremulus RPG uses a list of Lores (Town Lore and Local Color) - playsets in general - that give different prompts on how the story starts. The town has different features depending on certain aspects that you choose. I really liked that because it allows to give a nuance to the initial hazards you encounter and you already have a starting point. But creating a playset is a lot of work (ok I could just create a small one to test it) and look more like modules for something like D&D. Even though you have different shapes of a small town, the case is still happening in a small town. You wanted to have a different case you would need a new playset.

I wanted a system a bit more flexible and so that I didn't had to write thousands of pages. That is where the system of Ironsworn (in particular Delve) was a bit more intriguing. You have random tables that you roll upon but you can mix and match these tables (they are called Domains and Themes). The clue is that a part of the same table starts on a Domain (like a Cave) but ends at a Theme (like Icy). You always pick at least one Domain and one Theme. If you need a prompt you roll and check where on the table you fall. You can switch out a theme and the system still works but now your Cave has a much different vibe and the dangers and features you encounter are tailored to that set of Domain and Theme.

When trying to come up with such tables I found that the current system of hazards and NPCs don't neccessarily give into that. I already had a table that generated a random hazard. So when thinking about it, there wasn't really much different caves. They all said, create a hazard of that type and that's it. The same would be on a Domain like "Forest". So a cave and a forest where basically the same. Not really fun. And it didn't change the fact that you needed to roll for an initial set of hazards. The system only works if you have some hazards at the ready. In Ironsworn it was fine to generate threats on the fly.

So I ended up doing some sort of middle ground. I still created these Domains and Themes (I call them Sites and Singularities). But instead of the player rolling constantly on these tables they give the initial prompts and color to the scenario. Now a small town should feel different to a big city, or at least I hope. And the idea is that you can mix the Sites and Singularities around giving you a different play experience every time without much preparation.

To finish everything up, there are scenes. The pieces of the story that actually make this all work. You choose a bunch of hazards to create a scene, gather some clues and at the end of a scene you try to answer a big question. Rince and repeat until you have answered all the questions. And with that the core game loop was complete.

Now unto testing.

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