Monday, 17 August 2015

Text first: a new way to fill in campaign detail

Monday, 17 August 2015
The Deep Space campaign cover, a field of stars taken by the Hubble telescope. Work in progress My Imperial Investigation campaign came to a close. Although it was Total Party Kill, they did win in the final act - scything the best possible path through what were seemingly impossible odds. I doff my cap to them and say "Bravo"! It has been the most complex series of plots I've ever run and the players have reasoned brilliantly. I could not have asked for more thanks for all my hard work. I am now designing a Deep Space campaign, where the player team will be exploring the outer reaches of human civilisation. I've adjusted the way in which I fill in the detail of a campaign, both scratching the itch of my writing nerve and also better describing things for my players. I am running this new campaign using the online, which is not as good as face to face but means we can play more often and I appreciate that.

The old way

I design a campaign as a series of steps:
  1. Write the ending. As much as there might be dead ends and side quests, the main arcs should lead somewhere. The ending is usually "what would happen if the players did nothing". The ending gives me a benchmark.
  2. Write the premise. The premise is the philosophies that I want to explore in the campaign. The premise should be written around the question "what are the cool things that the players will do?". For example, in the last campaign was, the premises were: "What will the players do with unlimited support from the Imperium and no guidance?". The ending was "What happens if you take away the support?"
  3. Sketch out story arcs. Story arcs give the players a way to explore the premise. Story arcs are grouped into those that explore the premise and lead to the ending; and side quests, which are just for fun! The output of this are timelines and relationship diagrams.
  4. First Session Plan. The first few sessions are extremely important. Do we fill in character back stories or get stuck in? I need to make sure I have enough resources and the first story arcs planned out.
  5. Detail. Usually I start creating resources like mad at the point, character portraits, NPCs, spacecraft plans and so on. This time, I'm doing this bit a little different.

Doing detail the old way

Where this campaign preparation is different is in the detail. Before now I would jump in with pencils, paper, notebooks and draw, draw, draw. Spacecraft, NPC portraits, maps, diagrams and images that get my creative juices flowing. When in front of the players, I describe my scribblings verbally. I think that conversion process is letting me down. I hear the words come out of my mouth and cringe. The sketch on paper doesn't come across right. My games run quickly, I don't have time to stop, rethink and go back. Words said become canon, the players latch onto them and add spin, questions and so on.

Detail done differently

This time, I'm writing the text first and driving the imagery from it. For example, one NPC is described as:
A round, kind face smiling up around plump cheeks and small, twinkling eyes. White hair fussed into a bun. Skirt, cardigan and blouse in matching pastel green. Round vowels softly spoken and creaking with age. Proud, upright, short; hands clasped in front.
The spacecraft that will be their home wasn't drawn first but instead described as:
A shiny baby blue ball with large hole running through it covered by huge doors. Depressions, bumps and pock marks betray the complexity beneath. A childish, ungainly design, bulbous and bold.
From these descriptions I can then create resources - if needed at all. By being text-first, it forces me to take a more ordered view of how things are being set-up and I waste less time trying to get the 3D model looking just right. This is particularly important as the 3D models in-game are of limited use beyond the flavour.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Work in progress - the Fleet Setting front page

Monday, 22 June 2015
I have an image in my mind of a Mex city in the thick of a firefight. I want a Mark 8 droid busting its way through in the background, while Fleet Troopers and Mark 3s battle in the foreground. I want to get a Stone dropship in there, lots of streaks of lasers, smoke and a few battered buildings. In short, I want it to be a coherent mess.

I've got a lot of the 3D models ready, they just need to be composed into a nice picture. What I've never been very good at is creating depth, lighting, atmosphere and people! I find that when I try something complex, it turns into an incoherent mess with nothing for the eye to latch onto.

The image below is an early test render showing the larger, more static bits of the scene. You can see a Mark 8 moving through the buildings, which are set out in red and green for the moment (will be replaced later). I've made some cuts into the foreground buildings and these will have a few interior walls. The cut out curved section in the building on the left will hold a smoking Mark 6 (pod).

I am tempted to finish off the scene by hand (in GIMP) as it is much easier to apply grime/burn marks after the rendering has finished. I'll try the same for the laser blasts but that might need some experimentation. I'll need to work out how to do volumetric fog/smoke and atmospheric lighting. I've tried doing smoke by hand in post-rendering and it looked terrible when not on the horizon!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

New Download: NPC Character sheet

Wednesday, 3 June 2015
What is the bare minimum you need to know for an NPC? Well, it depends... it depends on how much time the characters are going to spend talking with the NPC. Sometimes a single sentence is enough, or a few adjectives. There's usually a name. There is a point where you need to start collecting more information about the NPC and that's where character cards and NPC sheets coming.

Character cards

A character card is a playing-card sized player handout with a picture of the NPC and some details. You can download the ones I use on my Free RPG Blog. The players can add notes to the inside of the character cards - they are for them.

NPC character sheet

For NPCs that become a regular fixture, you need a little more. Consistency in their abilities, initiative order and skills is vital in making the character appear real. Now you could use the normal character sheets for this task but the amount of paper you'll be carrying around might get out of hand really quickly. Instead, I have created a cut-down version of the character sheet for use with the NPCs.

The strangest thing about the character sheet is the empty deviant wheel. Pick four pairs of deviant entries that you think best apply to the character and fill just those in. Check out the example that I am including the up-and-coming Fleet Setting, a Stone (dropship) pilot called Holly Bridges (don't worry, no spoilers there).

Design note - YAGNI

In extreme (or agile) software development, there is a phrase called YAGNI: You Ain't Gunna Need It. YAGNI means that you should never develop something until you need it, keeping features in systems costs money and if you're not 100% sure they will be used, don't put it in. I treat game design the same way.

I have lots of ideas (check them out) about what to put in and not all of them make the cut. Just because it goes through my head, it doesn't mean it should go into the book (some poor ones do get through).

I didn't want to make an NPC character card as the vast majority of my NPCs are little drawings in relationship diagrams. That's usually enough to make them stick for me. I was writing the NPC description for Holly in the Fleet Setting and realised that there was a lot of structured information that was needed. It looked weird in the middle of the text. I wasn't going to be able to avoid it: I needed an NPC sheet. That was the point at which I needed it and not before.

Download it now

I will be adding it to the Core Rules on the next update but rather than wait for that, here's the PDF now (Google Drive, 1.2MB PDF).

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Quite the unexpected surprise: Droid Mk8 complete!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015
I probably shouldn't be posting this so soon but I'm really excited! I've managed to create the Droid Mk 8 - and I don't hate it! I've been sketching like crazy for what seems like an eternity and this one made it into 3D. I'm happy with it, I'm going to move on. The description from the Fleet Setting:
The Mark 8 is the final word in colony cleaning. At 150m tall and 50m wide, the the Mark 8 is designed to peel apart even the most stubborn subsurface colonies and inject Droids from inside. The hardened shell closes to form a smooth pill and using energy fields and a billion microscopic claws, it can burrow into colony and Orbital alike. Some later variant Mark 8s have also been known to burrow into the shells of Orbs but this is exceptionally rare.
I will do some more renders with it in a city so that you can gauge the size of it. Its width will allow it to scythe through Mex cities without much problem. I've rendered it in its "perfect" state, I imagine that as soon as they get anywhere near dirt, dust and gunfire the pristine outside would soon become marked.

The best bit

My main reason for celebrating is that this has been a mental block for some time. I could not relax and just enjoy building the 3D model without worrying about if the idea behind the Mk 8 is right. How do I know it is right? Because I've fallen in love with it again. It has a purpose beyond the desires of the 14-year-old me to have a giant city killer stomping about.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Fleet Setting progress report and how I stay motivated

Monday, 4 May 2015
I've been hammering away at the Fleet Setting and it's coming along very well. Most of the graphics are ready and the Droids (as you've seen from the other posts) have mostly crawled from my digital easel. I'm rushing towards getting an very rough alpha out so that I can get some feedback while I build some more assets to pretty-up the book; not to mention the front cover.

Aren't you bored of it by now?

Working on one thing is really boring. Don't let anyone tell you that there is some sort of zen nirvana you can attain, it doesn't exist. The hot rush of starting something is replaced with the cliff face. You've got to grind through it. There's all the life detritus around the edge sucks out your creative energy. My personal time is shoe-horned in around work and family, often starting at 20:30! You're tired, it is easy to fall into the trap of "just 30 minutes of Elite:Dangerous", 10pm rolls around and you've run out of evening.

Get organised to get motivated

If I have something ready to start when I sit down then I am much more productive. If I can break something up into smaller bits, then I am more likely to finish something. I use two main things to keep organised, the wonderful Trello and a Notebook.


Trello is a way to organise everything. You arrange cards into lists, each card is a "thing to do". Cards can store lots of information such as lists, images, links, text and so much more. I arrange my lists by areas of Icar that I want to work on. The Fleet Setting, being the most important thing I have, so it gets its own list. Two of the lists are a bit special: Done Since... and Just Ideas. Done Since has all the cards that are complete since a certain date (in the title); It's important for me to see that because it's a track of progress. Just Ideas is where I put things I don't want to forget but don't want cluttering up my brain. Trello also has a mobile app; I use it to organise what I do in a given week. You might find useful for capturing ideas. I prefer my notebook for that...


I always carry a notebook (Moleskines). Touching pen to paper is an immediate pleasure and I find that I write far more notes and doodles with it. Yes, my smarthphone can do all of that but I find it much easier this way. My notebooks contain everything; lyrics, new words, equations, diagrams, Christmas lists, rule ideas, quotes, scribbles, cartoon and Icar ideas. Here's a snap of the notebook page for some experiments in the Fleet Setting front page:

It's a lot less tidy looking in the flesh. At the end of a notebook (if I don't wash it), I go through an number the pages, and create and index. I don't think it's entirely necessary but I have found that useful.

How I keep organised in the rules

I prefer a top-down strategy for sorting out my rulebooks. I write out all the topic headings, then sub headings and finally work on the content itself. If there is something I get stuck on, rather than spend time mulling it over, I'll either make an entry in Trello or put a bunch of "XXXXXXX" in there. I can then move on, knowing that I will search for "XXXXXXX" before I send the document out. For example, below is the entry in for the Trooper timeline chart:

That's been in there for about 2 years! Now I am going back through the rules, I add the graphic in:

What's next?

I think the next big target for me is the Droid Mark 8. It's the city-crusher. I've talked about my relationship with the idea of the Mark 8 and now it's time to just do it. Drawings going into the notebook this week. After that, it's getting the text finished.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Droid Mk7 - a colonial factory turned destroyer

Thursday, 15 January 2015
When the Droids overran the Imperium's artificial intelligence in 91001, it raided humanity's knowledge and chose those designs that best helped wiping out all life. The Droids turned a beloved colony factory robot known as a Big Eye into the mobile Droid Mk 7 factory.

Big Eye

A Big Eye could take in raw materials delivered by Hoppers and smaller robots and then produce just about anything from buildings to robots. Eighty colonial buildings could be built in a day, housing eight hundred people. Before the Droid war, every Fleet cruiser would carry between 8 and 10 Big Eyes to help colonies stricken by a natural disaster. The brightly painted Big Eyes were adored by the colonists that they served. They were named after local personalities and decorated with murals and bunting. Once a colony had built a more permanent manufacturing plant, the redundant Big Eye would become a proud restaurant or hotel.

Mk 7

The Droid Mk 7 is an unpainted Big Eye programmed solely for the construction of Droids, which it can spew at a fearsome rate. Rather than minerals, the Mk 7 feeds on the colony buildings it was originally designed to construct. If the supply of raw materials is slick enough, the Mk 7 can create a Mk 3 Droid in a minute. This is much slower than a Droid-captured colonial manufacturing plant but is often enough to turn the tide.

How it is used

The Mk 7 is usually deployed by a Droid cruiser if the resistance on planet is stiff and the Droids haven't taken over a manufacturing plant already. It is deployed into Orbit stocked with resources and then makes its own way to the surface in a few hours, building its own fighter defence (Droid Mk 4) on the way down. Mk 7s prefer to circle the edge of the city (an echo of their original programming) and will build a workforce of Mk 1s to feed its enormous gaping mouth.

The Mk 7 is part of the up-and-coming Fleet Setting. Check my progress on the Trello board.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Droid Mk 6 (the pod) complete

Tuesday, 6 January 2015
Success! If you've been following along, you'll know that the Droid Mk6 (Pod) has been something of a saga. My first attempt to create it fell over because the Droid Mk3s that I needed to go inside were too high in polygon count and it took forever to do anything. I ended up recreating the models. Cathartic but not helping me finish the Fleet Setting.

That complete, I began diligently working on the Pod only to discover that what I was creating was far too similar to the WH40K Space Marine Drop Pod. No doubt while I was creating it, I was channelling a deep subconscious echo from my past.

This weekend I managed to squirrel myself away for just long enough to work on the model. Notebook sketches lay strewn across my desk, so it was easy to see it in my mind's eye.

As the Pod enters a planet's atmosphere, the rings eject and fly back along its path until there is just the base of the Pod with the Droids standing on it. It's important that the Droid Pods are not a perfect design; they were simply ideas in the Imperial intelligence when the Droid scourge came and the Droids are unable to evolve designs. Every time a Droid Pod lands, some of the Droids inside do not survive.

Now the Mk6 is out of the way (and not particularly exciting for me), I can take a deep breath and plough into the other remaining Droids.
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