Wednesday, 19 April 2017

200 Word RPG Challenge 2017: Doomsday Cult and the Goblin Warrens

In April 2000, I participated in a competition to design a tiny online game. It was great fun and gave me a lot of new ideas, it also helped me network with other game designers, and I even expanded my entry afterwards, using it as a prototype for a much bigger game. Overall it was a very positive experience.

A couple of weeks ago, David Schirduan announced the annual 200 Word RPG Challenge on Google+, and it brought back fond memories, so I decided to give it a go! Each participant is allowed to submit two entries, so I threw together a couple of mini RPGs that I felt captured the flavor of the two settings I've been working on lately - Primordial Horrors, and Saga of the Goblin Horde.

About the Settings

Back in November 2015 I wrote a post about Primordial Horrors, a Lovecraftian horror setting I was designing for Savage Worlds. Although Primordial Horrors has a number of unusual elements (such as the fact that the PCs are the insane cultists and eldritch abominations), Savage Worlds already has a lot of horror settings, and even a few Lovecraftian ones. In short, I felt it would be a difficult sell; one of the criteria for new applicants is that their submission should not be too close to any existing settings.

So I decided to temporarily shelve Primordial Horrors, and work on a setting that would fill a new niche. Savage Worlds already had a few settings with playable goblin races, but (at the time) none where the goblins were the main focus of the entire setting, so I started designing Saga of the Goblin Horde - initially just as mini setting to get my foot in the door, but later the project took on a life of its own, and evolved into something much bigger.

Although some of my plans have changed since then, I still intend to get back to Primordial Horrors once I've published Saga of the Goblin Horde. I've continued collecting ideas for it over the last year and a half, and I think it will make a really fun setting once it's finished. I've even started doing some early playtests for it!

But it's always useful to get a new perspective, and I felt the 200 Word RPG Challenge would be a good way to take a step back and take another look at my settings, not to mention the wonderful opportunity to network with other RPG designers.

My Challenge Entries

I wanted my two entries to be quite different to each other, but I still wanted both to offer tactical gameplay. Primordial Horrors is a more freeform and narrative-driven setting, while Saga of the Goblin Horde's adventures are much more structured, so I also wanted to try and capture that in my mini RPGs. Not easy when there's a 200 word limit, but I'm quite pleased with the way they turned out.

Doomsday Cult
This game uses a standard 52-card playing deck. Each player starts with seven cards, and can keep them secret, or selectively reveal them at any time.
Gameplay
The players are members of a doomsday cult, attempting to bring about the apocalypse. The GM narrates the story and describes the challenges the cult faces, drawing a card to represent each challenge, and placing it face down on the table.
Players must reveal a card from their hand to resolve each challenge, using its suit to help narrate their solution:
·         Clubs: Zealous cultists.
·         Spades: Arcane knowledge.
·         Hearts: Influence within society.
·         Diamonds: Funds and assets.
Show everyone the challenge card. Players who revealed a higher rank card of a different suit draw another card, discarding down to seven. Players who revealed a lower rank card (regardless of suit) must discard it, unless it’s their last.
Endgame
When the deck runs out of cards, the apocalypse begins! Everyone calculates their score, as if their cards were a poker hand. The GM does the same using the challenge cards.
If the GM wins, describe how the cult is thwarted. Otherwise, the player with the highest-ranking hand summons an Eldritch Abomination, and narrates the resulting apocalypse.
My goal was to have a challenge resolution mechanic with three possible outcomes (failure, basic success, and exceptional success) that supports both competitive and cooperative play. While the players' primary goal is simply to bring about the apocalypse, they're also competing against each other to be the "lucky" one who summons the Eldritch Abomination at the end.

The card-based approach facilitates the design goal by allowing players to selectively reveal their hand to each other. Knowing which cards the other players are holding gives you a better chance of predicting which cards might be drawn for the challenges, so this allows players to work together when they're doing badly, or keep their knowledge secret when they're doing well.

The resolution system also pays homage to the card-based campaign-building mechanic I've designed for Primordial Horrors.

The Goblin Warrens
A band of goblins must defend their lair against bloodthirsty adventurers.
Setup 
Each player chooses five d6s, representing their five goblins. Specialties are based on die color: Blue for brawn (strength and endurance), green for guile (cunning and alertness), and anything else for agility (speed and stealth).
Trait Checks
Trait checks involve a trait (brawn, guile or agility), and a difficulty number that players must equal or exceed. Each player rolls 1-3 of their surviving goblin dice, using the highest roll to determine success. Failure means their lowest rolling goblin dies. One goblin also dies on a double, or two on a triple.
If the trait matches a goblin’s specialty, the player may reroll that die, keeping the new result.
Combat
Adventurers are represented as colored d8s, and classified as fighters (brawn), wizards (guile) or rogues (agility). Combat is a standard trait check, except an adventurer die is rolled with the goblin dice to determine the trait and difficulty (1-8). The adventurers must be fought until defeated.
Adventure
An adventure has five scenes, narrated by the GM. The first four require a trait check with a random trait and difficulty. The final scene involves fighting the adventurers (one per player).
One of the defining features of Saga of the Goblin Horde is that each player controls an entire gang of goblins, and that's a concept I wanted to carry over to the Goblin Warrens. I also wanted some tactical differentiation between goblin types, although this proved difficult with the 200 word limit. I toyed with the idea of blue=brawn=bugbear and green=guile=gremlin, but in the end I felt it was better to give the RPG a more narrow thematic focus, so I stuck to goblins.

The mechanics allow players to roll additional dice (throwing extra goblins at a problem) to increase their chance of success, but this also increases the number of potential losses; if a challenge is particularly difficult, it may even be worth sacrificing a goblin and accepting failure. However the risk can be mitigated by using goblins with the appropriate specialty, not only does this give you a second chance at rerolling a failure, it can also be used to reroll out of a double or triple result.

Keen observers may also notice that my entry retains the same five-scene adventure structure as Saga of the Goblin Horde. The Goblin Warrens follows a band of borderland goblins rather than the tribes, but I still wanted it to have a similar feel.