Years ago I had an idea that has stuck with me since. This is a story about inspiration, creativity and game design. Even though I’m talking about my own experiences here, I think this is a good generic example of how ideas can arise at any moment, but their realization might take years.
It is your Destiny
Using special resources to improve a character’s performance is not a new concept in role-playing games. Different kinds of Hero, Story, Destiny, Luck or Fate points have been around for a while now. These points do not usually represent the characters own inner resources. Instead they are mostly about luck or destiny or other abstract factors that allow the players to manipulate the outcomes of a character’s actions.
There are some games with character resources that more clearly represent a character’s inner assets. The first that comes to my mind is the Willpower attribute from World of Darkness games where using Willpower allowed to push a character’s abilities a little further. This mechanic worked nicely together with the personality traits chosen for the character. It was possible to regain used or lost Willpower points by Role-playing your character according to the chosen personality traits. But still, this mechanic is very close to the more classic destiny and luck points. It was a single pool of points that allowed the player to sway the events in the game fiction in his or her favour at a tight spot.
I was fine with these systems until I started practising parkour around 2002.
I had practised parkour for maybe a year when I found myself in a situation, which I imagined would be a challenging physical task in a role-playing game.
I was standing on a concrete fence, maybe a feet wide, and there was a gap about two meters wide in front of me before the fence continued again on the other side of the gap. I had measured the distance by jumping it a few times on the ground and I knew that I could make the jump. But it the distance was so long that if I held back even a bit, I would not make it. The fence was not too wide either. The landing had to be precise to maintain balance and avoid falling.
To make the jump I had to push my abilities to their limits. I concentrated on the explosive jump and focused on the small landing spot closing up on me fast. I would barely fit my feet. I landed right on the spot. I stabilized my body and stood up.
I made the jump, but even greater experience than the successful jump, was the inspiration I had in my geek mind. I succeeded, but I was not sure if I could make it again. I felt I had pushed my abilities to their limits and strained myself in the process.
For me that was a moment of enlightenment in regards of how I related to different ability or skill checks in RPGs from there on. The mechanics were the same as before, but for me they often started to feel lacking in some way I could not point out. A strong character would be always strong. He could lift gates and bend bars indefinitely. Same goes with other characteristics.
The Learning Curve
At that time I was working on my first RPG book and tried to fit in something that could emulate the feelings I experienced when making the jump. Heimot RPG used a quite ordinary core mechanic: d10 + modifiers versus a target number pretty much summarizes the system. The thing that was added to the rules was a stress die. When a character was in a risky or dangerous situation you would roll a risk die in addition to the regular check die. If these came up as doubles, it would mean a special result. I think this managed to capture a feel of emergency and risk, but did not really demand the character to put anything at stake, nor did it cause any strain on the character.
It was not until 2006 when The Esoterrorists RPG by Robin Laws was published by Pelgrane Press. The GUMSHOE System that The Esoterrorists used resonated with me. I liked the idea that you could spend ability points to find clues or boost your rolls, but still the points felt a bit too much like a complex luck point system. Don’t get me wrong, I personally liked the system and actually it was a big inspiration when we designed the Ready-To-Play system with Samuli Ahokas for Extra-Normal Operations and Control (E.N.O.C.) and Generian Legendat.
When Astraterra was designed between 2013 and 2014, it was time for a new try. A way for the players to push their characters’ rolls in an emergency was added into the rules. There was an idea about using attributes as resources for pushing, but we had to keep the game kid and beginner friendly, so a decision was made to simplify the idea into using just one stat, Sisu (Grit or Vigor), for pushing. Sisu worked also as hit points, so pushing had a cost that the player had to consider before using it.
Raise of the Push Mechanics
After Astraterra’s release I started working on a tabletop RPG rules system, called the Ironcore Engine. It would be a generic and open rules system for action and adventure genre. The system was based on game mechanics from my previous designs and it was clear from the beginning that this system would include some kind of push mechanics.
First I needed to get familiar with all the RPGs people were talking about at that time. Busy family life and career had kept me away from new releases and I had mostly concentrated on my own creations and old games. Last fall I bought a bunch of games. Dungeon World, Savage Worlds, D&D 5th edition books, Apocalypse World and Diaspora to name a few of the rulebooks I got. But in this context Fate, Numenera and Mutant: Year Zero are the most interesting ones. All of them included game mechanics that were very close to what I had been designing and what I was looking for.
Both Numenera and Mutant use Abilities as a push resource, but also as a measure of characters’ health and well-being. And the Aspects in Fate were very close to Traits that had been tested with Ironcore Engine already. Reading through these mechanics in Numenera and Mutant was exciting and frustrating at the same time. Exciting because I really like how these systems work, but it’s always frustrating to find out that the ideas you have been gestating and polishing are not so unique after all 🙂
But this was not a reason to scrap the plans for Ironcore Engine. On the contrary, it proved that the aspects and push mechanics work and people seem to have widely accepted them.
Why Push Mechanics work in the Ironcore Engine
While parkour gave me the inspiration for the push concept, the real innovation of the push mechanics is its ability to combine good game narrative with believable world building. If the player states that his character is really going to push his abilities to the limit, it’s not just flavour and hoping for a good roll, but you actually invest some of your character’s endurance or willpower to the pushed action and the player narrative leads directly to results in the game fiction.
The same works for vehicles and certain equipment as well. Cars, armoured exoskeletons and remote controlled drones work just fine with the same push mechanic. By pushing your car’s Engine stat, you can increase the car’s acceleration and speed. At the same time you can imagine how the engine heats and its pistons pound wildly as the driver pushes the engine to its limits.
Pushing has also an interesting gambling aspect, because pushing is often necessary when facing more threatening foes or challenges, pushing puts the character in even greater danger. So it’s a gamble that needs to be considered carefully. Draining your resources before they are really needed can have fateful consequences. On the other hand, if you play too careful, you might get badly injured and then it’s too late to do heroic stunts. This balancing between risk and reward results in constant meaningful decisions. And when the risks are greater, the feeling of accomplishment is much more tangible.
And finally the concept of Flow was added to the system to escalate the outcomes of the rolls and control the feel of drama and escalating tension. Flow is generated from pushin the abilities, but also from complications or character’s intrinsic motivations. Even if the character was not able to push anymore, Flow allows the character to still do great feats and stunts. Flow also allows the player to have more narrative control in form of added quality, equipment effects, re-rolls, faster recovery and special maneuvers.
Getting into High Gear
In the winter 2015 I started working together with Hans Zenjuga on Hyperstorm RPG and a bit later Jukka Sorsa and Ville Takanen from Myrrysmiehet joined in the development of Ironcore Engine. At that time we had a framework that had been tested for years and a vision of how to include the push mechanics without being just an “auto-win resource” and contributing to the narrative at the same time.
We had old rules system derived from Heimot and RTP games, but the pieces were still a bit rough on the edges and there was a lot of new ideas too. At first we put everything in pieces and started fitting them together and a bit by bit the different pieces of the puzzle started to lock in their places and one final adjustment was to upgrade the previously used d10 to d20. This did not change the system as such, but changed how different values were perceived and of course added some granularity into the results.
In the beginning of our collaboration it took awhile to sync our views and objectives with the system, but after a few bumps on the road, our cooperation paid off – with interest. We all share a little different approaches and tastes to RPG game design and that actually proved as a valuable asset. Vili is really math-savvy and Jukka likes to keep the design clean of clutter and redundant mechanics. Together with Hans we bring in some “old school” thinking – believe it or not, there was some good ideas in role-playing game design back in the 80’s and 90’s! 😉 Coincidentally each of us represent the primary aspects of Ironcore Engine: mathematical integrity, simplicity and old school adventure RPG feel.
We have polished the system for a few months now and tested it with a home-brewn Star Wars hack – yes, Flow works quite well as the Force 😉 – modern supernatural action, cyberpunk action with exo-armors and post-apocalyptic demolition derby with monsters.
The system had its first contact with people outside the development team just yesterday and the unsuspecting congoers at Tracon seemed to really like the system. Some of them were quite new to tabletop role-playing games, but they did not have any trouble grasping the idea of the Push-Strain-Flow mechanics. Instead, one of the players said that the system really made sense and it added to the immersion. One said that the basic system is clear and simple, but there is still enough options and choices in form of Special Effects, Complications and Flow for example.
Chthonian Highways Available in September 2015
Chthonian Highways is set in a world where nightmarish creatures have ravaged the world and otherworldly landscapes have merged with ours. Strange and dreadful beings prowl in the shadows and dangerous alien flora is taking over the green forests and grasslands. The few remnants of civilization are held together by the chthonian highways – a webbing of roads that are still traversable by ground vehicles. The characters are dauntless road warriors who roam the cursed highways with their rigged cars and motorcycles – for as long as there is gasoline to keep the engines roaring.
We have been working on the Ironcore Engine for sometime now and based on the experiences and feedback we got from testing the system with Chthonian Highways, the system seems to be quite ready for broader audience. We still need to do some tweaking and balancing for the rules, have it proofread and the layout needs to be done too. So, there is still work to do, but the plan to release Chthonian highways during September 2015 as a free pdf is still holding. This mini-RPG will work as an introduction to the world of Chthonian Highways and the Ironcore Engine.