Sunday, 6 August 2017

Work Work Work!

I love my job! As an RPG freelancer, I get to work behind the scenes on a lot of great new products. At the moment, the jobs are coming thick and fast, which is great — but the flip-side is, the more work I have the less time I have to work on my own projects. Hence the lack of blog posts for the past month or so; I simply don't have anything new to say about Ark Frontier at the moment.

So, to the extent that I'm able, I thought I'd talk a bit about my current freelancing projects. The main one that's taking up my time is a very large art job. I've signed on to create about a hundred images over the next three or four months, so I'm having to make sure I keep to a production schedule in order to get it all delivered on time.

I'm also still working on the cover illustration for a spin-off of Evan Paliatseas' MASS RPG. There's a lot going on in the picture, so it's taken me a while, but I finished rendering all the characters today. Now I just need to complete the background.

I'm working on a couple of projects for Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips. One book is now in the final stages after a few months of prep-work including editing, collating, and formatting. I'm currently proof-reading some adventure-building course content, so I'm paying attention to any tips I can glean from that, that I might be able to apply to Ark Frontier or any other scenario products I create. There may also be some additional layout work on the horizon from Johnn, which would be great!

Speaking of layout, I've been in negotiations to do the layout for several games. Most of them are probably a bit early to announce, but one of them is the new Spellbound Kingdoms: Arcana supplement, which is currently on Kickstarter! It's going great guns, so if you're a fan of the game, you should go check it out. I set up the preliminary layout design about a year ago, and it's finally coming to fruition.

I've also recently done a bunch of little jobs: character sheets for WRAITH (where you play the members of a COBRA-like bad guy organisation) and Finding Haven (a solar system sci-fi game I did a map for a little while ago), and a map for Rebirth. I've also started work on a small one-off art commission, but that's not urgent.

As you can see, I'm keeping very busy! Hopefully I'll manage to knock a few of these projects down and free up some more time to muse and tinker on my own stuff too.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Raxene

I've recently created a design I'm happy with for the raxene (singular raxin), one of the two playable nonhuman species in Ark Frontier.


This has evolved through a few rounds of sketches. My initial concept was of humanoids covered in short fur. I was tossing up between human-like plantigrade legs or more animal-like digitigrade legs; in the end, I went with digitigrade legs ending in hoof-like pads. This feature, and their species name, is inspired by the real-world hyrax.

As you can see from the first sketches below, I was originally experimenting with a muzzled face, but the image I really had in mind was closer to the flatter human-like face shown in the bottom centre. However, I wasn't entirely happy with the look of that sort of face and head entirely covered in uniformly short fur.

There's a fine line to walk when coming up with an "alien" species, between creating something that readers can relate to, and avoiding just making a funny-looking human. To that end, I've given the raxene a combination of unusual features. They appear mammalian, being furry with rabbit-like ears, but also whisker-like antennae and hoofs. In addition, the females lay eggs which hatch well-developed young, so they don't breastfeed.

In this next round of sketches, I worked out the proportions of the legs (I'm not an expert at digitigrade legs on humanoids) and other body features, and experimented with motion and body-types. They have a fairly rotund egg-shaped torso. I got around the uniform face-stubble problem by introducing a short tufty fringe.

I've made sure there's a wide range of possibilities for individuality — different ear shapes and positions (floppy, raised, swept back...) and different fringe styles are the obvious ways to distinguish individuals, aside from face-shape and build.

Species Modifiers

In the PowerFrame RPG, raxene have the following "racial" modifiers:

Ability Modifiers

  • Avoid +1 (because of their size and agility)
  • Move +1 (because their legs are adapted to run)
  • Hunting -1 (because they evolved from herbivores)
  • Stealth -1 (because of their hoofs)
  • Strength -1 (because of their stature)
  • Dark Vision (reduce all Darkness Penalties by 2)
I have considered giving them Acrobatics +1 instead of or as well as the Avoid bonus, since Acrobatics would increase their utility as explorers, but the Avoid bonus gives them an edge in combat that makes up for their reduced Strength. If I want to include Acrobatics as well, I'll need to come up with some other penalty.


Apart from the features already described, raxene are notably swift and agile. They evolved from herbivores whose main defence was outrunning their predators. They are slightly smaller than humans on average. There's very little distinction between the sexes, except that mature females have wider hips.

They lay largish eggs only when fertilised, which take a few months (probably three?) to hatch. The young can eat soft foods straight away, and grow rapidly. They are soon able to move about on their own.


Before the Phantom Storm, the raxene and vaion formed Aratene society together. Due to physiological differences there are roughly twice as many raxene as vaion, and this often leads to the raxene being viewed as the "default" in Aratene society. Raxene are traditionally seen as builders, farmers, warriors, and other physical occupations, although stereotypes are frequently broken.

Raxene have an ingrained respect for eggs and nesting sites. Nests themselves are sacrosanct and can only be entered with permission. There's an order of egg-priests who visit nests to check on the eggs and advise families, and indeed the egg is a sacred symbol in Aratene culture — a symbol recognised by the vaion too, even though they don't lay eggs. A small group of egg-priests have begun preaching that the Ark itself is an egg, from which the children of Arat are about to hatch.

Arat isn't a monoculture, although the Phantom Storm means that mostly members of the local egalitarian culture were rescued by the Ark. Given the relative similarity between the sexes, and the sacred role of the egg, it's likely that several nearby societies were matriarchal in nature and perhaps held eggs in even higher regard. Unless pockets of refugees have somehow survived for the past 18 years, though, it's also likely that most such cultures have been wiped out.

*   *   *

I'm still working on the design for the vaion. I know I want them to be a unisex species, but I've yet to figure out how they reproduce. They also have a connection to Arat's magical field, meaning they are at once skilled in manipulating magic but also vulnerable to it.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Revisiting Size in PowerFrame

Way back in 2015 I posted about the way Size would be handled in the PowerFrame Core Rulebook. While the numbers work, I've never been totally satisfied with the "floating modifier" solution. I had tried several ideas, and the one I settled on had the least amount of weird stuff being juggled on the character sheet. An earlier version had you track "weapon level" and "total level" for five or six specific Abilities, which was a bit of a pain, and difficult to explain.

While the current implementation of Size does work, it tends to be fiddly because you have to constantly consider Size Differential and remember to apply it in the right situations.

Unfortunately it’s not possible in the current system to just incorporate Size into the affected Abilities directly, because of the way weapons use different Abilities — you end up with large characters being super-accurate with axes, and tiny characters doing huge damage with flails.

Recently I reapproached the idea of recording extra values on the character sheet.

Derived Attributes

Rather than incorporating Size directly into Abilities, or having it act as a floating Modifier that needs to be applied when relevant, we instead create derived Attributes that can be written on the character sheet and used consistently.

Each character has these regardless of Size, although for Size 0 characters they will be the same as the basic Ability.

Attack = Ability + Weapon Modifier − Size
  • Always subtract Size from Attack. 
  • This value can be recorded in the Weapon section.

Damage = Ability + Weapon Modifier + Size or Weapon’s Damage Value
  • Only add Size if Damage is based on an Ability. 
  • This value can be recorded in the Weapon section.

Dodge = Avoid − Size
  • Avoiding Attacks.

Durability = Toughness (or other Ability) + Size
  • Always add Size when resisting Damage or other Physical Effects (forced movement, flashblindness).
  • May sometimes be based on Strength, Wits, or some other Ability.

Might = Strength + Size
  • Performing feats of strength.
  • Resisting forced movement.

Notice = Wits − Size
  • Spotting hidden objects and characters.
  • Use unmodified Wits for Initiative.

Sneak = Stealth − Size
  • Hiding or trying to move stealthily.

  • Each point of Size adds half a Hex of Movement to all Movement Types as normal.

The Derived Attributes replace the listed basic Abilities for the noted functions. The basic Ability Levels are used for basic Attack and Damage values, and to determine minimum and maximum values.
For example, a Size 2 character can buy Wits like any other Ability, and puts 3 points into it. They then have a modified value on hand for rolling to Notice things (3-2=1), while keeping the basic value for rolling Initiative (3). We can also use the basic value to work out the correct values for Attack (3-2=1) or Damage (3+2=5) rolls that use Wits, or to calculate Durability (3+2=5) against flashblindness.

I also created a revised character sheet — here's a preview, but I'll likely upload a PDF version to the product on DriveThruRPG once I get some feedback. The extra stats ate up a bit of the Equipment list, but I was also able to remove the footnote from under the Weapon list.

Ark Frontier's Exo-Suits

The reason I've been thinking about Size lately, is because I've been designing the power armour for Ark Frontier. The colony has a few dozen suits, across three different models. All the exo-suits are under the control of The Line, charged with maintaining colony defence.
  • Pioneer class are light person-sized (Size 0) hardsuits, designed for reconnaissance and combat support.
  • Vanguard class are nearly 3 metres tall (Size 1), designed for front-line combat.
  • Destiny class are nearly 5 metres tall (Size 2), designed for defence and heavy assault.

I think that using pre-totalled Derived Attributes will make it a little easier and more intuitive to handle power armour. Also, many of the Phantoms in Ark Frontier will be smaller or much larger than people, and it would be nice to be able to supply the final total stats in the creature write-ups.

If you've read or played PowerFrame, especially if you've had to deal with Size, I'd love to hear your thoughts! I don't think there's many better ways of handling it without stripping back the whole system and starting again from scratch.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Anime Blast Bundle of Holding

Blade Bind is part of the current Anime Blast Bundle of Holding, which runs until June 26th. This is a great opportunity if you haven't picked up a copy yet, and a percentage of the profits even go to Reading Is Fundamental!

Even if you already own Blade Bind, this Bundle is a treasure trove of anime-inspired roleplaying. For just $8.95, you can round out your collection with:

  • The Starlit Kingdom — Anna Kreider's game of tragic stories about the war between Earth and Moon.
  • Mystical: Kingdom of Monsters a Pathfinder supplement featuring the Monster Trainer class.
  • Sparks Magical girls fighting the forces of Darkness!
  • Teenagers From Outer Space — R.Talsorian Games' classic tribute to Urusei Yatsura!
And if you contribute above the Threshold (currently at $19.25 as I type), you also get all of the following:
  •  Tenra Bansho Zero — the legendary game of techno-Sengoku drama, and well worth the price of admission on its own!
  • OVA Revised — the go-to game for customisable anime roleplaying (despite my efforts, PowerFrame has not been able to claim that title!).
  • The Ruined Empire — Anna Kreider returns with a saga of warring nations originally written for Tenra Bansho Zero.
  • Kagegami High — Ewen Cluney's game of bizarre high-school occurrences.
Since launch, a bonus game has also been added to the line-up:
  • Classroom Deathmatch — a brutal Battle Royale simulator where, let's face it, the odds are never in your favour.
Keep an eye out for future news and developments!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Price of Money

I'm really not much of an economics guy. Seriously. But a few days ago I started thinking about money in Ark Frontier, a society with thousands of refugees stuck on board a sealed ark-ship for nearly two decades. Here's what I came up with.

Oh, by the way, I've come up with a name for the world: Arat. The two native intelligent species, the vaion and the raxene, are collectively referred to as the Aratene.

The Ark was designed to become a self-sufficient arcology city, able to indefinitely support nearly 50,000 people. So the day-to-day needs of everyone on board can be met with only a little effort in production, maintenance, and distribution. Even with the population growing since the doors closed, there's little danger of exceeding the Ark's capacity for quite some time.

Everyone on-board receives a basic ration of essentials, has quarters assigned, and receives a small basic income of credits, the currency used by the human colonists. Those who perform additional services (maintenance, making and selling goods, policing, government, and so on) receive extra credits.

Of course, the reason credits are the basic currency is because the Ark turned up and saved people from the teeth of a worldwide apocalypse. When the Aratene came onboard, most of them had only the clothes on their backs, and only a few had decided to grab their life-savings in the face of imminent death. This means that the supply of gold pieces on the Ark is severely limited, which has inflated their value considerably. In addition, it's an unofficial currency mostly used by the underworld and the black market.

Now, all of that is about to change, as the Ark's doors are finally opened.

While the Ark will continue to subsidise and support  the colonists as settlements are established and life returns to normal, as the settlers become self-sufficient that support will be rolled back, allowing the Ark's resources to be saved for emergencies or used where they are most needed for the overall benefit of the colony.

Perhaps more importantly, as gold pieces are recovered from the ruined settlements and cities now devoid of life, the shadow economy will be rocked as the market is flooded with gold coins. I can see this having several effects.

The relative value of gold will begin to drop. By the time gold returns as a standard currency, it'll likely be worth a tenth of its former value.

Crime bosses, whose wealth currently comes from gold and a captive population, will need to react quickly if they want to maintain their hold on power. They'll need to send teams out to secure gold before someone else finds it, meaning some of the first registered Blazer teams may actually represent criminal syndicates. This will likely result in the frontier becoming treacherous and lawless, and bandits who can look after themselves in the Phantom-infested wilderness may become a real problem.

What do decent folks think about recovering gold from ruined cities — cities occupied by their kin only eighteen years earlier? Is it pragmatic, or grave-robbing? I can see strong opinions forming here, although the naysayers are likely to be powerless in the face of economic reality. Some people are going to be driven to collect the coins, and once they enter circulation there's not much you can do.

It also gives Blazer teams the chance to amass a lot of wealth, if they're willing to overlook the moral concerns. Will adventurers become the nouveau riche?

The more I dig around, the more details I uncover. I can feel Arat coming into focus... although it's still a land in flux. I'm actually planning to detail several potential points in the colony's timeline, to plot a sort of road-map for the colony's likely development and also provide additional game launch-points. But that's a topic for another post.

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.