Friday, 9 December 2016

Saga of the Goblin Horde: Publication Status

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost.
I've talked openly in the past about my goals for Saga of the Goblin Horde, and how I was standing at a crossroads, unsure which road I would take. Now I keep getting asked privately what the current status is, so I decided I might as well just explain the situation on my blog.

Savage Worlds

Back in July I submitted an application to Pinnacle, as I was hoping to release Saga of the Goblin Horde as a licensed product. In September they replied, and explained that there are strict limitations on what official licensees are allowed to do, and my fan products go beyond those limitations. More specifically, I was told that if I wanted to go ahead with the application process, I would first have to delete my fan toolkits along with anything else that modified the core rules (which is almost everything I've released over the last five years, as even most of my adventures include variations to certain rules, like Dramatic Tasks and Chases).

I wasn't willing to delete my work, for several reasons. Many people enjoy my products, quite a few people (including several licensees) rely on them to design their own creations, and deleting that content would be a kick in the teeth to the very audience I'd been hoping to market my products to - plus it wouldn't even guarantee me a license, it's perfectly possible that I'd still get rejected based on other criteria, leaving me with nothing. Those fan products represent half a decade of work, they're the portfolio upon which I've built my reputation, and it was on the merits of my fan creations that I got my foot in the freelancing door.

But there's another issue as well. While I've put a lot of effort into developing new skills over the last year, such as layout and presentation, setting design, writing adventures, etc, my specialty has always been game mechanics. The license wouldn't allow me to play to my strengths, and most of the products I'd been hoping to release in the future would very likely not be allowed.

However I've invested a lot of time and money into Saga of the Goblin Horde, and I really wanted to at least try and recoup my expenses. In theory I could have partnered up with a licensee, but Pinnacle warned that this could lead to them risking their own license. Besides, this is my pet project, and I've already come so far on my own that I'd really like to finish it myself.

So although I still plan to complete Saga of the Goblin Horde and release it under the Savage Worlds fan license, I also started looking ahead to the future, seeing what other roleplaying systems I could branch into next.

Other Systems

I initially considered using an established system, and that's still an avenue I may pursue in the future, but it's not quite as simple as it sounds. The last playtest I ran involved 6 PCs and their goblin gangs, which was a total of 30 characters under player control - most RPG systems cannot comfortably handle tactical combat on that sort of scale.

Many licensees seem to come up with their setting concept first, and then later choose to pair it with Savage Worlds. In some cases their setting was originally designed for a different system, and the licensee now just wants to convert it over (an exercise which can have mixed results). However the sad irony is that Saga of the Goblin Horde was specifically designed from the ground up to showcase the strengths of Savage Worlds, taking advantage of the things it handles well (such as chases, crazy stunts, tactical combat, fast gameplay, large numbers of combatants, etc).

I could have tried overhauling another system, but that would require first becoming intimately familiar with its rules, and I figured that if I was going to invest that amount of time I might as well create my own system from scratch to work exactly the way I wanted. An added bonus of this approach is that I'll be able to release a standalone version of Saga of the Goblin Horde, with both the system and setting in a single book.

Design Process

I wanted a system that was fairly light, with streamlined mechanics and fast action resolution, but which also supported tactical gameplay, and could handle large numbers of combatants without slowing down. I also wanted a system that would be easy to GM, with low prep time and minimal bookkeeping, where it would be quick and easy to create characters on the fly.

But I'd like to reuse the content I've already written (not just for Saga of the Goblin Horde, but also my fan supplements), so I wanted a system that could also be easily converted to and from Savage Worlds. This would allow me to offer conversion guides for my products in the future.

However I didn't want to copy any of the mechanics from Savage Worlds, so instead I looked to D&D. In "The Making of Savage Worlds", they talked about running D&D 3rd edition when it first came out, which was a few years before Savage Worlds was published. If you compare the two systems, not just superficially but really looking at the underlying design, the source of inspiration is very clear. So I decided to try following the same path.

Class abilities were merged into Feats (and renamed Edges), the levels were renamed Advances, combat bonuses were turned into combat skills, while the powers and trappings drew ideas from the psionics system. Ability scores were dropped so that only the ability modifiers were used, and those modifiers were replaced with die types - i.e., instead of -1, +0, +1, +2 and +3, there was d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12.

Some of the changes were primarily cosmetic (such as replacing "5 feet" with "1 inch" as the standard unit of in-game measurement), which helped give the system less of a D&D look and feel. But other changes were more significant (such as the wound system), and those necessitated further changes (such as a Wild Die to help address oddities in the probability curve introduced by die-step attributes, Bennies to make the Shaken/wound system more playable, etc).

However there are still many residual similaries which help give the system a familiar feel, for example the Alertness Feat in D&D gives +2 to Listen and Spot checks, while the Alertness Edge in SW gives +2 to Notice rolls. The free stat increase every 4 levels became the option to raise an attribute every 4 Advances, the Fatigued and Exhausted conditions in D&D became the Fatigued and Exhausted levels in SW, the Diplomacy skill with its five NPC attitudes (Hostile, Unfriendly, Indifferent, Friendly and Helpful) became Persuasion with its five NPC attitudes (Hostile, Uncooperative, Neutral, Friendly and Helpful), and so on. There are lots of little similarities like that scattered throughout the system, if you know what to look for, and it makes it very easy to convert content from D&D to Savage Worlds.

I think this is a very clever way to design a game (after all, no game is designed in a vacuum), so I decided to approach my initial design from the same perspective. I felt this would make it easier to maintain some distance from Savage Worlds, something I think is important considering all my SW fan and freelance creations, which are bound to influence my design ideas.

SWIFT-d12

My design went through a few iterations before I settled on an approach that felt right, but the general gist of my system (which is called SWIFT-d12) is as follows.

The class abilities were merged into Feats, although I didn't rename either the Feats or levels. The combat bonuses were turned into a combat ability and set of skills (and the same was done for magic). The ability scores were dropped so that only the ability modifiers were used, however I didn't convert them into die types. Similarly, I didn't bother with things like replacing "5 feet" with "1 inch" measurements, or renaming "Speed" to "Pace", etc.

The skills underwent a more radical change. One of the issues I ran into with running SotGH in SW is that my adventures make extensive use of a wide range of common skills, like climbing and swimming, so the characters all tended to end up fairly competent across the board. I figured if I was going that route anyway, perhaps I should just base skill on the normal stats. Characters in Savage Worlds are primarily defined by their Edges anyway, and most monsters have little more than Fighting and Notice skills, so why not just move all the specialty stuff into Edges? So that's the route I took - I do have skills, but they are just a small modifier (added directly to their associated stat when making an ability check), and most characters don't have any skills at all. This speeds up character creation quite a bit, as I only have to worry about skill levels that differ significant from their parent stat, and most NPCs can ignore skills entirely.

I also added Flaws, which work a bit like the Flaws in D&D (variant rule) and WoD, or Hindrances in SW. My only concession to SW was the Minor/Major division, as this makes it far easier to convert my existing material. However I also separate Flaws into Quirks (RP fluff) and Handicaps (crunch), where the latter grant a free skill bonus as compensation. Unlike Hindrances in SW, my Flaws are not optional, everyone has to pick 2-4 of them during character creation.

Initially I used hit points for the main characters, with redshirts working more like D&D 4th edition "mooks" or SW "Extras". One advantage of this solution is that it allowed me to have viable solo opponents, while still keeping combat nice and fast with weaker minions. However it also introduced bookkeeping (writing down hit points), which is something I hate, so I started looking into a less granular alternative. The obvious choice was the WoD solution of wound levels and Soak rolls, as those work rather well, however when I tried to streamline them I ended up with pretty much exactly the same solution as SW (and I didn't want that). So in the end I settled for a sort of hybrid of wound levels and M&M-inspired saving throws, which gives wounds a rather dynamic feel that I like quite a lot.

Many systems have some sort of metagame currency, whether they're called fate points, action points, bennies, hero points, story points, or whatever else. In my system they are called karma points, representing the fact that you usually earn them when something bad happens, and spend them to make something good happen.

My Stunt rules draw inspiration from numerous sources, including the SW Tricks and Tests of Will, Dirty Tricks from Pathfinder, Stunts from Exalted, and so on. My Chase rules also draw inspiration from multiple sources, particularly the James Bond RPG. My magic system is mainly inspired by my freeform magic rules in Savage Abilities. In short, I've drawn ideas and inspirations from a wide range of different sources.

Of course I also introduced many of my own ideas. The system only uses d12 for actions and d6 for damage, it has unified mechanics to reduce the learning curve, ability checks are symmetrical (meaning they innately support player-facing), and so on.

I will go into more detail about SWIFT-d12 in future blog posts. The rules are currently around 12K words, and I plan to start playtesting soon, but they're still a bit rough around the edges (and I still need to flesh out the Feat list).

Future Plans

I plan to release two versions of Saga of the Goblin Horde. The Savage Worlds edition will be a full setting under the fan license (which sadly means it'll never be available in print), while the SWIFT-d12 edition will be a standalone product (both system and setting in a single book, possibly with a print-on-demand version at a later date).

This does mean some changes to the Savage Worlds edition. For example I've removed all references to the Fantasy Companion, as I can no longer justify the added entry barrier (people don't take fan products as seriously as officially licensed products, so the main thing I have going for me is that the setting book will be free - and therefore the last thing I want to do is force people to go out and buy more books before they can even play). I also removed the adventure generator (it will be built into the Campaign Deck) and trimmed the adventures down to the essentials (additional adventures will be turned into separate products). However it will still be a good sized book, with enough content to run a campaign.

Other releases for Saga of the Goblin Horde will either be system-agnostic (like the deck of cards) or written for SWIFT-d12, however I also plan to release a free "SWIFT-d12 to SW" conversion guide under the fan license, so it should be easy enough to use the material with Savage Worlds as well. Offering Saga of the Goblin Horde for multiple systems also avoids potential arguments about the legality of the Campaign Deck (if the setting was only available for SW, some might claim that the deck of cards was being used to profit from the fan license, because the cards contain an adventure generator that's specific to the Saga of the Goblin Horde setting, but now the deck will be just as useful for the SWIFT-d12 version as well).

If things work out, I hope to apply the same strategy to other settings, perhaps even releasing SWIFT-d12 as a generic system for other publishers to use as well, if there's interest. This will hopefully allow me to continue contributing to the Savage Worlds community, albeit indirectly, without leaving me out of pocket for artwork and other expenses; in effect, I'll be selling SWIFT-d12 products, and releasing free SW fan conversion guides for those products.

Of course this has also forced me to shift my deadlines, as I've spent a lot of my free time over the last three months designing SWIFT-d12, rather than working on the setting book. However I think it will be worth the effort, and I must admit it's rather fun having the freedom to create my own system again!