A cover can make or break a project, or it can bring it to the attention of those who would otherwise keep their head turned in the other direction. So when I contacted digital artist, Jeff Brown, in regards to creating a cover for our next project, ScreenPlay, there was a serious question to consider: what one image can turn heads for this upcoming story RPG? It didn’t take long to learn the answer: we needed to show many possibilities.
Roleplaying game covers tend to share common visual similarities and that’s especially true with universal systems like ScreenPlay. When your game can provide for a variety of genres, settings, time periods, and more, you tend to see things like individual images in thought bubbles or separated ideas brought together around a group of highly charged player characters… these were all things I wanted to avoid, yet also wanted to invoke. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, right? Jeff’s specialty is environmental/landscape art and the reason why I chose him was because this cover needed to showcase where these future stories could take place, not theorize who was going to feature in them. What we devised, I think, mashes all those ideas and possibilities together into a cover that I’m damn proud to slap a BRG logo on. A endless universe of danger, intrigue, and excitement existing in one place at one time as a group of Writers and their Director decide which story to tell. It’s a cover that’s already started turning heads, based on the result I’ve seen on my personal G+ account too. If it does the same for you, click here or on the cover image to the right and proceed to see what this upcoming mindblower is all about.
I’m happy to say the alpha-phase playtesting for both ScreenPlay and High Plains Samurai is well underway and so far banging out all the kinks in the mechanics and smoothing out the presentation. At this phase, we’re really testing out ScreenPlay and using HPS as an excuse to dive into this setting my Development Team and I created two years ago – it doesn’t take much arm twisting to get us diving into the dusty plains of the One Land. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.
With playtesting underway, it’s time to start shooting some holes in the walls keeping this game shrouded in darkness and expose it to some sunlight. In other words, it’s time for you to start learning more about what makes ScreenPlay… well, ScreenPlay. I put it that way because this game is unlike other roleplaying games. It’s built on a foundation of everything that is an RPG, but there is one major facet turned on its head for a dynamic and refreshing change of pace. Maybe I’m a bit biased (that happens when you design a game – it’s always the greatest achievement in game design as far as you’re concerned), but let’s allow the features of the game to speak for itself.
Here are the 4 key features of ScreenPlay and why you should be chomping at the bit to play. It’s also why you should be eager to discover more about High Plains Samurai too, seeing as the ScreenPlay engine will be powering this post-apocalyptic/western/wushu/super-powered mash-up. Whenever you see anything written in blue italics, that means it’s an important term in the game.
#1) It’s A Story Game Where The Players Are The Storytellers
If you’re familiar with the concept of story games, you already know what I’m talking about. If not, there’s a fine line between these and your traditional roleplaying games. While differences of opinion exist on the exact definition, a story game allows greater control to the players using loose fitting mechanics and provides a more co-operative creative experience. If your traditional RPG has the Gamemaster dictating all the events in the story with players simply reacting through their characters, story games break from this aspect and allow the players to invest their own ideas into the story. Perhaps one of the best known story games on the market is Fate and I encourage you to check it out if you’ve never heard of it before.
ScreenPlay takes this a step further and places equal creative duties on both the players and the Director (AKA the Gamemaster, or GM). Each player is assigned the role of a Writer and creates a variety of characters (starting with at least one lead character with room to create as many supporting characters as they can handle) to tell a story. On their turns, each Writer provides a description for one character, an active account of how that particular individual propels the story forward. This is followed by an outcome from the Director, reacting to the description and rewarding the Writer with surrounding details, events, and reactions from other characters involved in the scene. The key difference between this and other games is that there are no point exchanges required for a Writer to insert their own ideas into the story – if she decides this story needs a fight scene, she can simply describe her character witnessing four shadow-cloaked ninjas leaping down from the rooftops with swords drawn. It’s now up to the Director to make this fight go down.
#2) The Director Keeps The Plot Moving Without Taking Control
There’s more to being a Director in ScreenPlay than simply reacting to anything the Writers want, oh no. Each story – whether it’s conceived by everyone in the group or using a pre-purchased treatment (AKA adventure) – has a basic plot for the Director to use as a guideline. As an example, High Plains Samurai is a large scale treatment providing a setting (the One Land), history, a cast of supporting characters and extras, and a series of markers (key story moments) all designed to provide a working platform for the Writers to remain on track. While the Writers are telling the story, the Director uses his tools to integrate the treatment, facilitate the story and package it all together to reveal what wonderful outcomes the Writers are creating. During our playtests, I’ve been inclined to use camera angles and moviemaking terminology as a means of detailing our particular version of High Plains Samurai as if you were watching it on the big screen or as part of an awesome ongoing HBO drama.
One of the Director’s key tools for keeping it all together are triggers, pre-determined or instant reactions to descriptions. For example, the lead characters ride up towards the main gates of the City of Rust in the hopes of entering this rancid metropolis. What the Writers do not know and the Director does is that snipers line the walls looking for this posse with orders to shoot. As a Writer describes her character riding along the main road, the Director applies the trigger and cuts into the description by rolling dice as the crack of a rifle cuts through the dusty plains. A trigger can be avoided, even without the Writers knowing there was a trigger, if their characters learned about these snipers in advance and snuck into the city under cover of night. A Director can also devise triggers on the fly as a means of helping to keep the story moving along, like having the barkeep intervene when the lead characters become preoccupied with them surly buggers giving them the dirty eye from the back of the bar.
Think of it as improvised storytelling and the Director is there to make sure no one falls off stage. Just like directors of stage and cinema, the Director helps keep the story exciting and engaging through the outcomes they provide and the triggers they set to keep the Writers on their toes. What results is a fresh and exciting storytelling experience where the Director gets to experience the same thrill of discovery as your typical RPG player does every game.
#3) Conflict Is As Easy As Knowing Odds vs. Evens
Are there dice rolls in ScreenPlay? You betcha – I wouldn’t design a game without them. I’m a sucker for dice rolls and the goal with creating ScreenPlay was to allow a simple, fast-paced resolution system where the dice did not blow up in your face. Here’s how it works: certain moments in the story, as told by the Writers, will trigger a conflict roll. That means whoever wants to achieve an action with a risk of consequences must roll against a Difficulty and that target number can be based on the opponent or the task at hand. Each character has a list of Potentials ranging from a d4 to a d12 (along with other modifiers and provisions to increase their odds, but we’ll save that for another day). Choosing an appropriate Potential, the dice are rolled and if the result is equal to or higher than the Difficulty, it’s a success.
But there’s more! You can use that roll to determine how much damage you cause or what effects occur as as result of your conflict roll. These effects are known as complications and range from minor (your gun is out of ammo, being knocked prone) to major (intimidated, acidic sand kicked in your face). Knowing the type of complication is simply a matter of whether or not you rolled an even number (major complications) or an odd number (minor complication). Failure works on the same principle: if you fail with an even number, nothing bad happens to the character, but an odd number results in the character suffering a minor complication of their own. Basically, even numbers are good, odd numbers not so much. Damage works on the same principle with a successful conflict roll: an even number yields major damage (the difference between your roll and the Difficulty plus any damage modifiers) or minor damage (only the damage modifier).
#4) Stamina Is The Ultimate Dealbreaker
All characters in ScreenPlay are assigned an amount of Stamina based on their character type (leads, supporting, extras). When a character runs out of Stamina, they’re removed from the story for the scene or permanently. More than just hit points, they also allow characters to break the rules and do things otherwise impossible to your average individual.
For example, most of our lead characters in the High Plains Samurai playtest have unlocked qi (pronounced chi) powers, such as the Jade Palm’s supernatural sense or Ronin’s incredible speed. Each qi power is clearly defined and faces normal limitations, but those can be broken by spending 1 Stamina. Characters can also spend Stamina to interrupt an outcome, retaliate against an opponent, increase/decrease the die roll by 1 (even if it’s not theirs), and so forth. While these applications create a variety of possible outcomes, you must judge your Stamina wisely because too many uses followed by a katana chop to the kidneys will result in 0 Stamina.
Just The Beginning…
Of course, all I’m doing right now is teasing you and that’s the entire point of this. As the Development Team and myself continues to work on banging out the kinks, we get closer and closer to revealing more about how this exciting game can come to life at your next session. And while I’ve been a big tease about it, I’d like to take things a little further. Think of it as spending 1 Stamina to break the rules.