May 28, 2017

The Summoners RPG

The Summoners RPG is something I started earnest work in relatively recently. Inspiration for it struck just this past March, with the first playtest being this last week. Since then, my leisure time has been spent on this, Shin Megami Tensei IV (Finally playing it like four years after release. Not that odd for me.) and then Persona 5 (Like two weeks after release. Very odd for me.). Of both, I would say that SMT IV is the bigger influence and the one that sparked my interest in going ahead with this project the most, but don't get me started on them or we'll be here all day talking about Summoner Videogames instead of Summoner Tablegames.

First, in case you're not familiar with Shin Megami Tensei, or SMT, it's a JRPG franchise in which every game is full of monsters, deities and legendary humans from pretty much every mythological stripe and a suspicious favoritism for Japanese history. The main appeal is that you're often negotiating with these enemies to make them join your party. The stories are often post apocalyptic cyberpunk(...ish? there's magic along with technology, so it's more like magipunk) or begin when the apocalypse is right about to begin, offering multiple endings to let you rebuild society and create the dystopia of your dreams find the least sucky option from a bunch of terrible, awful aftermath scenarios.

I've spoken about making a Summoners RPG in the past, but never really got around to it. Back then I wasn't really sure how much it would take from SMT. That was mostly because there were a couple of system puzzles to solve before I could really begin. Now that they're in place, I can make the game. Let's start with said puzzles and how I solved them.

Puzzle 1: The "managing stats for multiple units" problem.

Numbers and math are one of those things that RPGs make use of a lot, whether you like it or not. You have your stats, the enemy has theirs, HP totals go up and down in the course of the fight while buffs and debuffs modify these stats and a lot of the games' tactical elements involves doing some mental math to figure out whether something is a good idea or not. In BCG there are two separate sets of stats (for the character and mecha) and a plethora of ways to buff them, debuff them, use one in place of the other and even ignore dice rolls entirely when using a specific stat. I like working with numbers even if I'm not the biggest fan of math, because they make tactical combat more fun.

So my first instinct was to try for a similar approach, giving PCs and all their Summons their own stats for story and combat scenes. It... Well, it was such a mess that I scrapped it halfway through writing it up.

The worst part isn't that it is complex, because complexity is part of the charm when each PC is its own mini-army. The worst part is that most of the mechanics are useless and won't ever be relevant. How often is a Minotaur going to use a Charm or Intellect skill? How often is a Succubus going to roll Vehicles or Electronics? How often is a Zombie's... ANYTHING going to be relevant? Writing all that stuff down is a waste of time and effort.

After this I transformed all the Summons into a pile of combat stats with some story scene abilities. The Minotaur can use its raw strength, tracking and and maze-navigation skills out of combat. The Succubus is a master of diplomacy and deception. The Zombie... Well, I still had no idea what to do with the Zombie but I figured that I'd solve the problem later. This approach alleviated the issue somewhat but it had the problem of inflexibility. What happens when a Summon is hit with a debuff meant for PCs that they don't have the stats to handle? Should they be immune to those things? Then why are your Summons immune to, say, fear and sickness outside of combat but still susceptible to it in the middle of combat? Should they just use your stats? Then why on earth is the nerdy wizard's Minotaur passing its Intellect Tests and the Succubus terribly incompetent at anything that doesn't involve Charm or Intellect? WHAT DO I EVEN DO WITH THE STUPID ZOMBIE IN A SITUATION LIKE THIS!? It looked like there was no elegant solution to what I was calling the "Stats with multiple units" problem.

What alternative was there to using stats? Well, stats can be replaced by tiered skills (instead of having stats, you just have a list of things you're good at with different bonuses for each) if we want to use a point-buy system of some kind. We could also go class-based and ignore stats entirely, making the things you're good at part of your class. I don't have anything against the former method and I think some games use it fairly well (FATE in particular) but it misses what makes point-buy exciting for me (the number-juggling and potential modeling or simulating of nearly anything you can think of), so I decided I'd try to make the idea work with a class-based system.

I knew that I wanted four or five distinct types of character builds represented: A pure "Tamer" type who lets the Summons do most of the work, a "Cavalier" who rides them around in combat, a "Solo" type who at most uses a familiar and does most of the fighting themselves and lastly a "Fusion" type that has fused with a Monster permanently and become something greater than human. Summons could, likewise, be distributed into categories very easily: The tanky melee type, the long range blasty type, the sneaky status condition type, etc. I divided those ideas into classes and things seemed to work okay this time. Sure, there weren't any stats to play around with, but in lieu of that I introduced all sorts of status conditions to compensate. The Minotaur can stun you, knock you down and push you all over the place. The Succubus can charm but also cause fear and incite rage. The zombie can poison you and... Uh, maybe grapple you or something. At least the example Zombie can do THINGS in this scenario.

The big draw of classes is that they're flavorful. As long as there's enough of them, they can be a bit narrow in what they represent yet pack enough cool flavorful stuff to compensate. One kind of Cavalier specializes in riding flying units like Dragons, Chimera or Pegasi focusing on physical skills with some area-of-effect magic. Another Cavalier is a more Reaper-like class that rides undead steeds throwing curses and plagues at enemies. One of the Fusion classes is a monstrous cannibal like if Eva 01 met Venom from Spiderman, using shapeshifting abilities to strike down enemies and heal from their remains. Another of the Fusion classes has combined with a self-appointed divine being that can use the power of song to heal allies and pacify enemies. The Solo and Tamer classes took a bit more effort. Riding Dragons and playing a Symbiont are some of the most obvious "I want to do this" choices for a fantasy game where you control the monsters or become them. Solo and Tamer classes don't have that luxury, as one minimizes the monster aspect while the other minimizes itself to focus on the monsters. Eventually the Solo classes ended up disregarding the monsters entirely becoming alchemists, psychics and power armor users. Who needs Summons when you've got THE POWER OF HUMANITY? FUCK YEAH! And the Tamers? Those didn't solidify for me until partway through solving the next problem. Which is...

Puzzle 2: The Action Economy.

If you're not familiar with the term, "Action Economy" refers to how the most precious resource in turn-based games is not your HP or your money or whatever else you've got but your own Turns. Turns can be transformed into anything, usually more HP for you or a reduction in HP for the enemy. It is why gaining extra Turns, or Actions as they're most often called in Tabletop RPGs, is one of the most powerful things you can do and is usually what enables the most broken and degenerate overpowered builds in these games. Most well-thought out games give everybody one or two Actions per Turn and make it very rare or very costly to cheat around this. BCG gives everybody one Action and it costs a lot of energy, GP, or your future Turns to grant yourself free Actions to use Support Upgrades or follow up to your own attack with your Funnels. Most tabletop RPGs acknowledge the issue and tell you to make rare the 4v1 encounters against a single Boss Monster because even the most overpowered and stat-inflated Big Bad struggles to keep up against people who act 4x as much as they do, or 2x in the games that just give the Bosses additional Turns.

The Problem for the Summoners RPG is that having multiple units per PC necessitates some tweaking of the model. If you have three units on the battlefield, they all need to do things when it is your turn. How do we balance that with someone who has two units? And with someone who has only one? If the classes with more units on the field had more actions, but they were very limited in what those actions could be used for, it could work. Say, the Tamer classes get 3 Actions instead of 1 per Turn, but those two additional Actions can only be used to move into position. The problem there is that it limits the design of the Summons themselves way too much. A fire elemental that does damage to enemies near it is balanced when it is a single unit that has to move and attack to maximize its usefulness every turn. It's not balanced when a Tamer has two of them and doesn't really care about attacking because it is spreading passive damage auras all over the battlefield without even making an attack.

One thing became clear after the first few tries: There's no balancing having three units with having one. Two? Yeah, two is easier to manage, but three is just too wide a gap. If I balance for one then having three ends up feeling like half your team does nothing. if I balance for three then having one unit makes you feel like you're playing 33% of the game that other people are playing. If I balance for two then it pisses off both of those teams while being slightly closer to a sweet spot but not being quite there.

This problem took quite a long while to solve and I don't remember all the things I tried along the way, but at one point I looked at the classes and so many of them looked like they wanted to have one unit (Solo, Fusion) or at most two units (Cavalier) that I discarded the idea of having two Summons on the field. Tamers would have to be satisfied with just one of them. This way I could balance the Action Economy around having one unit, I could just treat the classes that ride their Summons as if they're just one and tweak some numbers for the Tamers to make their Action Economy deficiency worth it.

What I ended up going with is giving everyone a Simple Action, a Utility Action and a Primary Action for their Turns. Primary Actions are used for attacking, healing or other big effects. Utility Actions are used for moving, guarding or other important but not-quite-primary abilities. Simple Actions are, mostly, for class abilities like tanks taunting enemies to come at them and healers removing status conditions from one or more units. Tamers instead have abilities that let them 'upgrade' actions for their Summons. For example, a Tamer can use a Simple Action to let its Summon move around using its regular walking speed. It is still a little bit tight, but the rest of the Tamer package seems strong enough to compensate for it.

The big problem for Tamers now was that they lost the one thing that made them stand out conceptually. Without having a whole menagerie accompanying them, they're like more boring cavaliers. They're fine, I guess, but they're closer to being D&D archetypes than I'd like. I thought long and hard about how to make having one powered-up Summon feel special enough to sacrifice the much conceptually cooler idea of riding them to battle or fusing with them. Then I realised that one of my favorite videogame franchises had the solution to my problem. That franchise was Drakengard.

The main characters of the Drakengard series have made a pact with a magical creature, like a Dragon or Fairy or Golem or whatever else is around. A pact is a magical bond which links their souls (if one of them dies, they both die) and powers up the human at a great cost. For the protagonist of Drakengard 1 the pact cost was his ability to speak (therefore playing into the 'mute main character' trope), this produces a lot of dramatic ironies like a bard losing his ability to sing or a glutton losing his ability to taste food. The more powerful the entity, the greater the price, with one notable tremendous loser from the first game having made a deal with a petrified dragon and losing his... Hair. No, really. It's as ridiculous as it sounds. The pact beast often makes this deal to feed from the humans' emotions, though often they both make the pact because they're in a pinch and need the power boost to survive. The games focus a lot on the relationship between the character and the monster they're bonded to, often showing a surprising amount of chemistry. Watching a mass murderer  bond with a condescending and aloof dragon is strangely heartwarming. This, in addition to giving me a few sinister ideas for the character creation process, became the key to giving the Tamers something unique to base the classes around: Their relationship and the circumstances under which they entered a pact.

A Necromancer uses forbidden magic to bring back a lost loved one, only to find their personality... Different afterwards. They're helpful and even seem glad to be back, but there's something extremely offputting about them and you can't shake off the feeling that it might just be a different being using the body and memories of the person you knew. For the Demon Hunter class, a spirit descended from the heavens one day and promised an angry human wishing for revenge the ability to enact justice on their mutual enemies. They are partners rather than friends, and at some point their buddy movie is going to hit a bump in the road when they disagree vehemently on whether to spare the demonic child or kill it to be on the safe side.

This was a very recent discovery, so recent that these new and more interesting tamer classes weren't finished in time for the test that happened this week. I plan to finish writing them down later today, actually. If you were wondering why "The Summoners RPG" doesn't have a more fancy title, it's because I'm showing you my working process so early in the project that I have no idea what the final title is going to be yet.

Puzzle 3: Actually, this post is getting a bit long.

I've got a neat new core mechanic and game setting/general tone and feel to talk about, but the former needs a lot of words while the latter could use some more time to refine the idea. So we'll set them aside for the next post.

Until then, Gimmick Out.