Sunday, 21 May 2017

Discovering Imaginary Worlds

I've been working on a couple of world map projects this week, which has me thinking about mapping as literal world-building.

I've been commissioned to create the world map for +Nathaniel Robinson's Kung Foo City based on his rough draft, and I've also started putting together the map for Ark Frontier.

I've always enjoyed drawing world maps. It becomes a sort of meditative exercise, where I virtually wander the world, thinking about the landscape and putting myself on the ground as I carve out coastlines, raise up mountains, plot the courses of rivers, cast swathes of desert and forest. As I go, I'll discover hidden places, little nooks and secluded vales, remote islands, and long-forgotten cities. I find out who lives in these places, and what they're like, or what they used to be like. The ideas I already have in mind not only take form, but expand and suggest new possibilities.

Mapping is a form of storytelling. This is particularly true with Ark Frontier, where the default campaign will start with a tiny known area at the centre of the map. As the players (and the rest of the settlers) uncover more of the world, they also encounter new challenges and learn about the disaster that almost destroyed civilisation. By taking that into consideration, the map I design will influence how those developments and discoveries play out.

To some extent, it's a bit like a game of Final Fantasy, where you're initially funnelled through a linear experience, then gain access to the world map but are still limited by mountains and coastlines, then finally unlock an airship that lets you go anywhere you want. Ark Frontier starts you at the world map stage (and you can climb the mountains if you're dedicated enough), but it's no surprise that the Final Fantasy series is one of my inspirations for the setting. I'm dedicated to nonlinear exploration though, so there aren't any literal restrictions on where the characters can go, but some areas will naturally be more difficult than others. Creature design also plays a part in that, as there are a lot of different monsters that require a range of tactics to overcome, but that's a subject for another post.

The Kung Foo City map is a bit of a different beast, since I didn't have to design the layout. However I still find myself walking the mountain-ranges as I draw them, and I've been trying to impart a unique character to different areas. The mountains of the north are lofty and jagged, while those of the fertile southeast rise in sugarloafs from the flat plains. To the west, the desert wastes are dotted with mesas and steep-sided plateaus. I'm pursuing a similar technique with the major cities, drawing unique and flavourful icons for each.

Here's the map the players will start with in Ark Frontier. Can you feel the pull of distant horizons?

Monday, 15 May 2017

Ark Frontier Progress

I've decided on the final elements for Ark Frontier, and with those choices nailed down I've been able to move forward on the world-building. I also started setting up a layout design for it, where I may or may not be starting to compose some of the document rather than writing it in a Google Doc like sane people do. I figured it would avoid double-handling if I just started entering creature stats directly into stat-blocks, and I may or may not decide to use InDesign like a word processor. I've done it before for PowerFrame supplements, and it does lend itself pretty well to blocking out a manuscript and then filling in the bits until it's done.

Anyway, elements! I was a little worried that ten might be too many, but they are organised into five pairs: Light and Shadow, Fire and Cold, Life and Death, Sink and Float, Spark and Null.

Some of those are pretty obvious, and some... not so much. Sink is basically gravity or an attractive force, while Float is antigravity and repulsion. Spark is electricity, and Null is sort of non-conductivity, but also encompasses stuff like anti-magic, negation, and void.

The pairs create some interesting dynamics from an in-game philosophical standpoint. Before the Phantom Storm, the indigenous people knew and utilised the five elements of Light, Fire, Life, Sink, and Spark, which they consider positive or natural forces.

The others — Shadow, Cold, Death, Float, and Null — are considered negative or unnatural; whereas normal darkness or cold is simply the absence of light or heat, the elemental forces of Shadow and Cold can actually generate darkness and cold directly. Death as a force encompasses undeath in its various forms, from animated corpses to spectres. The five unnatural forces were forbidden to mages, and even knowledge of them was suppressed. It may be that tinkering with the forbidden elements was somehow responsible for the Phantom Storm, but that's an unanswered question.

With the appearance of Phantoms (initially Shadow, Cold, and Death), knowledge of the negative elements has become widespread. Some think that they should remain forbidden territory, while others believe it is best to "know thy enemy" by researching and mastering these new fields. This has created a split between white and black mages. There are some who prefer to be called grey mages, who dabble in both sides, but most white mages would classify any use of unnatural elements as black magic.

There are also summoners, who feel that the best way to defeat the Phantoms (or to gain personal power) is to gain mastery over them and use them as tools, but this is an outlawed and persecuted pursuit.

Interestingly, this approach to the positive and negative elements also creates some conflict with the human colonists — in particular, their use of anti-gravity technology, which is seen as taboo. I suspect that the Council has placed an official ban on the use of antigrav out of respect for the indigenous beliefs, but that may not stop people from using it on occasion. The cryogenic storage system was also viewed with suspicion, but it relies on the removal of heat rather than the literal generation of "cold energy" and so it has the official seal of approval. This doesn't stop some element of prejudice against the recently-thawed Sleepers, however.

World-building is interesting because each piece you add sends ripples across the setting, interacting with already-established elements and suggesting new things to add and directions to explore. Add sufficient details and follow the consequences to their logical conclusions, and eventually a complete picture of the world emerges like a tapestry.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Endless Hexagons

This week I've decided to start work on a series of infinitely tile-able hex maps I've been thinking about for a while. I may be avoiding the fiddly-work required to finish off the Blade Bind Sparring Partner, but at least I'm procrastinating productively!

The maps are designed to print comfortably on both A4 and Letter size paper, and feature 1-inch (25mm) hexes. I did get a bit worried that they might be a bit small, but totally scientific polling on G+ points to a majority preferring more hexes per page than the larger alternative.

The first set I'm working on is Winding Canyons, with arid rocks and sand. Tonight I finished off the third of six planned maps. Here's a preview where I've tiled two copies of all three together.

I've made an effort to make sure the rock edges tone together pretty well, but the sand shading is a little less well blended. I'll make some cacti for a couple of the other tiles to provide a bit of variety from the dry grass and loose stones.

One of the cool things about this particular design is that you can not only rotate and tile the sheets as shown, you can "brick-tile" them by slipping every second column down by half an edge-length, which results in even more potential layouts.

Other sets I have planned include Forest, Swamp, Ruins, City, and maybe more. I'm planning on making six map tiles for each, and putting them up on DriveThruRPG for $3 a pop.

Sparring Partner

I managed to program how to deal with someone playing a Joker on an Engage (including the edge-cases of someone playing two Jokers in succession, or both players simultaneously playing a Joker), but it was pretty challenging to keep track of and debug everything. 

I needed a bit of a break before I tackle the same basic programming for Winds, and then hunt down all the other places where the AI might play a Joker and fill in a few other functions. After that, I'll see if I can get someone to help with external testing, and work on enhancing the interface.


I'm still editing Altais: Age of Ruin, and have also done some short scenario edits for Arcana Games. Last week I finished off the M.A.S.S. art, and I've now been engaged to illustrate a spin-off book. I should be pretty busy until the end of June, but I always have room to take on extra jobs!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Freelancing, Fighting, and Falling!

This week I've been pretty busy with freelance work, so I haven't made much progress on personal projects. So I figured I'd talk about the various things I've been up to.


I've been editing the manuscript for Altais: Age of Ruin, a far-future fantasy that looks pretty unique. As a bonus, it's by a fellow Australian! It's one of the largest editing jobs I've worked on to date, and making sure I get enough done each day to ensure I hit the deadline is going to be keeping me pretty busy until the end of May or so.

I just finished up he last art piece for the Motive Agency Storytelling System, or M.A.S.S., which is also by an Australian author! I think it may also go by the name Plot Device, but I'm not sure what the final published title will be. It's a generic system that seems pretty flexible; I've done illustrations for a weird mashup of pulp/modern/noir but with human/puppet/cartoon characters, as well as superheroes and fantasy adventurers. I'll let you know when it comes out, or if there's a Kickstarter or anything.

Last year I did a heap of layout work for Johnn Four's Roleplaying Tips. This year he's given me the task of managing the production of a second edition of his book NPC Essentials. I'm pulling material from his archives to expand the content, editing and formatting it, and then getting it ready for digital and print. It's an interesting challenge, dealing with a project of this scope! Apart from my own stuff, I mostly just deal with things after the final manuscript's already been assembled.

I've also been doing a couple of short edits on scenarios for Arcana Games, namely sprucing up their Trouble in Waterdeep scenario for the DMs Guild, as well as a new adventure for their original game, Blood & Bone.

As you can see, I've had a lot on my plate, which is why I haven't managed to finish any of the following things:

Blade Bind: Sparring Partner

I've made good progress getting this automated duelling tutor for Blade Bind programmed, but there are still a couple of hurdles to jump before it's ready for external testing.

I managed to sort out how to handle Jokers in most situations, where you get to draw a new card and then play one from your hand with a wild suit. However there are a couple of situations (on an Engage and Wind) when it needs to be handled differently because both players reveal their cards simultaneously. That means I need to reveal both cards before you draw and replace, and I also need to allow for the edge-case where both players reveal a Joker!

Hopefully I'll get a chance to nut that out over the next week, now I've finished up the art job.

Fallen Princess

I've recently started playing a new app game called Fallen Princess. It's a fun little JRPG-style fantasy battler where you follow the exploits of Princess Aki and her army of monsters as she scours the countryside in search of gold and dark magic. It puts me in mind of the little I've seen of Disgaea, and the writing is pretty amusing.

Anyway, the real reason I bring it up is, it's got me thinking about grid-based mini battles and elemental systems.

I'm tempted to try writing a JRPG-themed RPG with a system for building your own tactical battlefield manoeuvres. I'm trying to figure out if I can do something with the stats to keep them inflating so that you kind of enter a new sphere of power at every factor of 10 while keeping the system fairly simple. So characters might start out with stats from 10-100, but then they can "limit break" to get stats in the hundreds, then the thousands, and so on with no theoretical limit. It's a nice pipe-dream, but I haven't actually worked out any specifics yet. I just want to use my Super Dungeon Explore minis for something other than SDE

Part of me wants to make a brand-new system, and part of me wants to come up with a revised edition of PowerFrame. I dunno; in some ways it might be easier to start again from scratch!

The elemental system in Fallen Princess is fairly straightforward: Fire > Earth > Lightning > Water all go around in a circle, each dealing extra damage to and resisting damage from one element (so Fire both damages and resists Earth). There's also Light and Dark, which both deal extra damage to each other and don't get extra resistance against anything. It's nice to see that alternative approach, as a reminder that not everything has to fit neatly onto a magic circle. That isn't going to stop me trying to fit my elemental systems into a neat circle, though.

Incidentally, Altais has an unusual magic system that relies on parallel dimensions that let mages manipulate the forces of reality, so it has "elements" like light/heat, gravity, electromagnetism, time, and space. It puts me somewhat in mind of the list I've been working on for Ark Frontier.

~ ~ ~

Hopefully I'll have some more progress to report next week!

Monday, 17 April 2017

Blade Bind: Sparring

A few days ago I had a brainwave, and started working on a Blade Bind side-project — an automated duelling tutorial.

Teaching the nuances of the duelling system has been a concern of mine ever since I wrote it all down. While it makes perfect sense to me because I know it inside-out, it's important to get everyone in the group up to speed fairly quickly so they can get the most out of the game. I've considered making a tutorial video — and I still might, but I'm working with a sub-par setup for filming.

Then I thought about creating a "Choose Your Own Adventure" type tutorial, with text and graphics in a PDF, and using hyperlinks to jump from one passage to another. But in some ways that's quite limited (the player would only ever have the same "starting hand"), and in other ways it's massive (each possible card play creates a branching network of possible future plays that quickly becomes unmanageable).

Then I remembered Twine!

I've been noodling away in Twine for a few months now, trying to turn one of my old scenarios into a complex CYOA story. If you haven't heard of it, Twine is an app that lets you write branching interactive stories, but it also has the capability to handle variables and perform various functions. It's missing a few things I'd like (such as for-next or while-wend loops), but I'm learning to work around those.

Most excitingly, it actually has arrays and structures called datamaps, and functions to manipulate them, that actually make building and handling a deck of cards quite simple.

I'm writing the tutorial like a sparring match between you and Siân. She cajoles and encourages you, as well as explaining why things are happening and what your choices are. I'm hoping a few games will help people really get a feel for the duelling system.

I've made good progress in the last couple of days. At the moment I have all the basic functionality in place, and the main thing I still need to do is deal with all the places where you might play a Joker. Since you can play a Joker any time you could play a card, and a Joker lets you draw a new card, then play one from your hand to replace the Joker, and change its suit if you want, it requires a bit of extra handling. I'm trying to figure out if I can put all the Joker code into one passage and then just call it from wherever, but I need to make sure it won't cause problems with the way I keep track of which cards are in play.

Twine outputs the whole game as a single HTML file, so I can either find somewhere to host it online, or provide the files for download. Hopefully I'll have all the bugs ironed out in a couple more weeks!

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Frontier Elements

Looks like I forgot to write a post last Sunday. I've always been a terrible diarist. Anyway, for those of you left in suspense by my last post, I'm here to talk a bit about the "elemental" setup I have in mind for Ark Frontier.

I put "elemental" in scare-quotes because they aren't elements in the sense of being fundamental building blocks, even in a mystical sense. I'm trying to avoid starting with the typical earth/water/air/fire setup, and instead go with something unusual. My list is still in flux at the moment, but the basic concept revolves around different forms of energy (or lack thereof). In that sense, they are more like "properties" than elements.

The Elements

Initially I was thinking of Light, Dark, Fire, Cold, Spirit, Spark, and Gravity. I want Light and Dark because I have some cool ideas for thematic Phantoms, and I want Spark so it can do extra damage to tech devices like Lightning does in Final Fantasy.

There are a couple of obvious opposites in the list: Light/Dark and Fire/Cold. I am considering splitting Spirit into Life and Death, which would provide separate classifications for both healing magic and undead-type Phantoms.

What's holding me back, though, is that I can't think of an "opposite" for Spark... apart from something like insulation/inertness, which isn't particularly exciting as an "element" in its own right. Then again, perhaps it could work if I define it as negation. Call it Silence perhaps? It could cover counterspells and warding, and maybe de-power magical crystals. I'll have to think about it.

I guess if I go with all pairs, then Gravity and Antigravity are the obvious other split. Gravity (Sink?) gets to do crushing, heaviness, high pressure, and attraction, while Antigravity (Float?) covers lift, lightness, low pressure, and repulsion.


Phantoms are magical creatures, most of which are strongly aligned to a single element and express some of its properties. A few may combine aspects of more than one element. Their elemental nature also defines the things they are resistant or vulnerable to; each will have a custom list of resistances. I don't just want to have a standard set of reliable resistances, although they will fall along thematic lines for the most part (Dark resists Dark and is vulnerable to Light).

The area around the Ark will be plagued by a few Phantom varieties, with new and unusual types encountered when the explorers reach new territories. In this way, the composition of the world itself will help maintain the sense of discovery and uncertainty as the players learn how best to handle different Phantom elements and types.

Elemental Crystals

Normally Phantoms dissolve and blow away when they are killed, but it's possible to use a spell to harvest elemental crystals off them. You get different grades of crystal depending on the Threat of the creature (although I've yet to define the effects of the different grades), and there's another new spell that lets you fuse smaller crystals together to make larger ones.

Elemental crystals will have a variety of uses, including mana sources, ammunition, and changing the elemental properties of armour and weapons. I'm thinking one of the native species can also absorb the crystals to change their personal elemental alignment.


That's about as far as I've got with elements so far. I'm not sure what the subject will be next week (assuming I remember to write an article). I've been working on a card game too, so I might report on how that's going.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Ark Frontier Organisations

This week I'd like to talk a bit about the organisations and factions in Ark Frontier.


Last time, I discussed the different groups that have emerged due to different life-experiences. I really like generating complexity by combining several basic options. In Ark Frontier, your species, group, organisation, and occupation form the basis of your social identity.

So far I have the following major organisations, no doubt with more to follow.

The Council

This is the group that's officially in charge of the Ark and all its inhabitants. It's made up of representatives from all three species, although I've yet to determine its exact nature. How many members are there? Are members elected or nominated — perhaps it's different for different species? Are representatives from different factions, regardless of species divisions?

In any case, this is the organisation that makes the hard decisions in the best interests of the colony. Many no doubt find it slow, inefficient, and painfully cautious.

Colony Defence (The Line, Liners)

The equivalent of the military, this group is charged with keeping the new settlements safe from Phantom incursions as people start to slowly spread out from the Ark. Liners patrol the expanding borders and check in on settlements regularly, but they are responsible for holding the line rather than pushing it forward; that job falls to the Blazers.

Colony Defence also controls the Ark's entire supply of exo-suits. They have three different models: the Pioneer hardsuits, Vanguard powered armour, and Destiny mecha. These pull double-duty as construction machinery and armoured combat vehicles. Some would like to use them for expeditionary missions, but the Council feels they are too valuable and few in number to risk losing them somewhere inaccessible.

Blazers (Trailblazers, Adventurers)

This is more a collection of loose groups than a coherent organisation, though there is a shared sense of camaraderie and an informal guild that helps coordinate teams. Blazers venture into the wilderness to explore, fight back Phantoms, and extend the colony's safe-zone. They uncover ruins from the fallen civilisation, and seek to uncover the cause of the Phantom Storm. In essence, they are classic fantasy adventurers.

It's a dangerous yet thrilling life, and many Arkborn are drawn to it with a blazing passion.


Brave souls who have chosen to leave the cramped safety of the Ark to build new homes under the sky. It's a hard life, but one eagerly welcomed by many of the native population as they resettle and rebuild. Some feel a little resentment towards the human settlers, but for the most part there is plenty of space and enough of a shared history of cooperation that nothing has come of it yet.

Exodians (Breakers, Pioneers, Outsiders)

When the Ark first opened its doors, some of the older native folk ignored the Council's warnings, leaving with their families to reclaim their ancestral land. They are outside the Ark's jurisdiction and protection. No doubt many of them fell to roving Phantoms, but some well-equipped and canny groups have established strongholds and carve out a life on their own terms. What happens when the Ark's settlers build far enough out to encounter an Exodian settlement remains to be seen...


Shortly after the Ark re-opened its doors, a small number of sorcerers learned how to summon and control Phantoms. This practice has been outlawed by the Council because of the obvious dangers it poses, and so Summoners must operate in secret. There is a secret society of Summoners who see their skills as a way to neutralise the threat posed by Phantoms, and perhaps even put them to good use battling their wild kin.

Other Organisations

I haven't fleshed them out yet, but there will also be a number of gangs; a criminal organisation that built a black market during the years on the Ark and are now looking to expand their influence throughout the new colony; possibly some sort of magic college, though I've yet to properly define the available magic; and presumably a general school system to train people towards useful professions. And no doubt others.

I was going to also talk about the elemental nature of the Phantoms, but it's getting late so I'll have to save that until next time!