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A personal update

Agamemnon here. I'd like to apologize for things losing some steam here. I haven't been updating and maintaining things like I should have, and it is unprofessional. 

I've been dealing with some difficult stuff lately. For the last six months or so, a family member has been in steady decline. In the last month or so, it became clear she would not be returning home. Things have been tough in general, financially and emotionally, and I haven't been able to devote the time I needed to our current projects.

Higgins has been  toiling away as best he could in my absence, which is more than commendable. I have a pile of things from him sitting on my desk that I need to go over, edit, and put together for human consumption. So if anything, send him some applause for being awesome. I'd also like to thank Barbarossa for keeping the lights on for us while I sort everything else out. 

That said we've got a lot of things coming up in the near-future. Band of Bastards is nearly complete for beta release. I'm just going to need to sit down and frantically edit everything. Likewise, we'll have another dev blog show up here before long. I just have to sit down with it. 

Thanks for bearing with us. We'll be back in action shortly. 

-Agamemnon

obligatory forum link here

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Teaser #7: Codex of Arms

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Teaser #7: Codex of Arms

Title Image by Tijs Zwinkels

In some of our announcements, we've mentioned that we have included a system for “dynamic weapons.” Since I've gotten some questions on it (and honestly, we’re kind of excited) it seemed a fitting topic for our next Teaser. More importantly, the first teaser under the name Band of Bastards. 

What's the deal with "Dynamic Weapons?"

In any conversation about historical weapons, you have three primary troubles when the goal is modeling them with accuracy. 

The first comes from terminology. The fact is that in most period sources, regardless of its characteristics a sword was called (you guessed it) a sword. This shows up in many cases whether we’re talking about shorter swords, fatter swords, longer swords, one-handed swords, two-handed swords -- very few swords were called something other than “sword” in their period, and most often when they were it was usually something that translated to “Big sword” “large sword” “two-handed sword.” Very distinctive. The interest in precise categorization of different kinds of weapons is a relatively modern phenomenon, and this makes classification quite difficult with any kind of authenticity. Even the venerable longsword goes by a myriad of names, and the term longsword itself has even been applied to single-handed rapier-like blades in certain manuals. 

The second problem you will encounter is that even if one can come up with definable categories for these individual weapons (agreeing exactly on what constitutes a side sword compared to an arming sword blade retrofitted with an elaborate guard, as was often historically done) you are then stuck with the unenviable task of trying to work out what an “average” item of this type actually is, how it performs, and so on. This itself is kind of a frustrating exercise, as even two swords which look identical may be vastly different based on how they are weighted. Slight changes in balance make one a nimble thrusting weapon and the other a dirty great chopper.

This gets even less fun when you get away from swords. Oakeshott typology and some serious scholarly work give us a pretty decent information about swords. But then you have to deal with axes, and maces, and crossbows, and guns. If there was an absurd amount of variation in types of swords and their characteristics, the amount of variation in even less standardized weapons borders on the infinite. We won’t even discuss the problems encountered if one wants to research early firearms and start defining terms. Arquebus, Spanish musket, late musket, caliver, petronel.. it was difficult enough to reach a consensus on which term means what to whom, but then getting common figures on calibers? 

"What the hell caliber is this?"  image by  Kathy

"What the hell caliber is this?" image by Kathy

The final trouble you encounter is, as Mike Loades said "ultimately, a sword is an iron bar with a sharp edge and a point." In most cases, the actual difference in performance between different types of swords that were actually meant to be used is surprisingly small, save for preferences in how they have been weighted and the trade offs they may have made in specialization. Weapons are meant to be an answer to a question. While swords represent an exceptionally wide variety of attempts to find answers, the answers they arrive at are very similar.  

So. What have we taken away from this?

Weapons are very fluid in their “types” and except in situations in which a standard was imposed (such as the mass-produced sabers for the British army), the handling characteristics of a given weapon usually had more to do with the preferences of the person having it made than anything intrinsic to a “type” of sword. Rather than take up a quarter of the book with spread-sheets on 150 types of sword, we decided that we wanted to model that fluid, dynamic quality.  

In ‘Bastards, weapons are handled through what we call Codices, which are systems we use to help you generate content for your game. In the Arms Codex, weapons are broken down by type: One-handed sword, two-handed sword, mass weapons, pole-arms, daggers, bows, crossbows, pistols and long guns. Each weapon type has its own base stats, and then a series of options you can take that alter the characteristics of the weapon you are having made. 

image by  Hans Splinter

image by Hans Splinter

Bow (4p, short/medium, instant, draw: St3)

- Ambushes at d6 Sequence
- Reaches up to Long range in a formation
- Damage becomes 2p if Draw Weight requirement is not met

Choose Bow Type:
- Self-bow (+1TN, in a pinch, can be crafted in a day with basic skills and limited tools)
- Recurve (-2DR when wet, composite*, crafting takes often weeks, requiring special tools and glues)

Optional: Change Draw Weight
- Child’s (-2 Damage, requires Strength 1)
- Target (-1 Damage, requires Strength 2)
- War (+1 Damage, requires Strength 4)
- Epic (+2 Damage, requires Strength 5)

Features: Increase Cost for Each
- Long (reaches up to Extended range in a formation; can’t be used on horseback)
- Heavy Draw (+1 Damage, one shot per round, always uses d10 Sequence)
- Whiskers (adds string silencers, subduing the twang)

Examples
Shortbow (4p, short/medium, instant, St3) Recurve
Poaching Bow (5p, short/medium, d10, St3) Self-bow, Whiskers, Heavy Draw
English Longbow (6p, short/medium, d10, St4) Self-bow, War, Long, Heavy Draw
Daikyū** (4p, short/medium, instant, St3) Recurve, Long

* composite and recurve are not separate traits -- the only way to get a recurve bow is to build it out of composite materials. this is contrasted by crafting a bow out of a single piece of wood, which makes a self-bow.

** this asymmetrical Japanese bow made out of bamboo strips is the only historical recurve longbow that we’re aware of

Like in the above example, each weapon section will give examples on how the parts can work together, and some very common “forms” of those weapons. To make life easy on the GM, a back appendix will feature the fairly complete kind of arms catalog you would expect for easy reference. So far, we haven’t come across any period weapons that we haven’t been able to easily replicate within our setup, and that makes us ridiculously excited. 

The real strength of this system is two-fold: 

First, it allows a far more subtle variation and characterization as you see in fiction. Even in a knightly setting with little variation where the default assumption is that everyone would have carried an arming sword, your hulking brute of a character may be carrying one that’s deliberately hefty and blade-heavy, meant to brutally hack his way through an enemy. By contrast, the guy at your table whose character is a pampered noble may decide that his character would have preferred a lighter, more nimble weapon. There is a sense of ownership when designing your character’s weapon, rather than just picking one off the rack. 

Second, it avoids long debates over the relative merits of different swords and keeps the focus where it should be: on the people who use them. 

Got something to say? Let us know on our Forums!

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Winds of Change

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Winds of Change

It's been a while, and I feel the need to apologize for the lack of word on our part. As you can tell, we've been undergoing a lot of restructuring up to and including the new website! We've been in a state of flux for a while now, but I'm pleased to announce that everything has finally started to settle down and we can go full steam ahead towards our project work. 

So what's changed?

The biggest difference is that the Song of Steel project has been redirected into a new project that we're pleased to announce:

Band of Bastards: A Game of Passion, Violence, and General Skulduggery. 

We'll be updating the main pages shortly to contain all of the relevant information, and leaving the Song of Steel site as a redirect back here, where more up-to-date information will be stored. 

We have much of the rewrite done, and some exciting new mechanics to introduce as well. For those of you who subscribe to our Newsletter, or took part in our forums at Songofsteel.net, much of this information has already been made available to you. For everyone else, keep your eyes peeled for future posts! 

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Teaser #6: The Chaos of Combat

Posted by higgins

Combat is a whirlwind of chaos. Marksmen pop in and out of cover, warriors clash blades faster than the eye can follow, civilians run frantically in every direction and others lie patiently to ambush and murder them. While this sense of chaos makes for excellent cinema, it is nearly impossible to actually run a game this way. On the other hand, a lot of games go far in the other direction, making combat a nice and orderly, predictable affair with each character going in their predetermined order and having a set number of movement actions and attacks. Unfortunately, this isn’t nearly as interesting to watch or play and ranged combat often gets a distant back seat to the up-close and personal confrontation in melee.

In Song of Steel, we thought we’d try something a little different. While there’s no way to directly simulate the chaos of combat, we thought we could get a little closer. The fact is, everyone acts when they think it will suit them the best and that makes the combat sequence chaotic and unpredictable.

To model this, we’ve divided the ranged combat timeline into individual sections called Rounds. During a Round, each player and NPC gets a single Action and they act in Sequence. These Actions are fairly significant ones, such as shooting at someone, dashing across the battlefield or initiating melee combat. Minor activities such as calling out a few words or taking a couple of steps aren’t considered Actions.

 

     image by   Dennis Jarvis

     image by Dennis Jarvis

Sequence is determined randomly each Round, so, that nobody will know beforehand whether their action will be first, last, or somewhere in between.

This is done by deciding whether you’d like your character to perform a fast action, a move action, or a slow action. These actions are denoted by a red d6, a white d6 and a d10 die respectively.

In a nutshell, the character’s speed isn’t determined by some intrinsic trait, but by the type of action they want to take.

So, you choose the respective die and hide it in your palm. At the cue from the Narrator, everyone drops their die to the table.

Red d6 allows you to engage someone in melee, take a shot, lean out from cover to take a shot, or drive forward — to move while being exposed, but ready to take out anyone that stands in your path.

White d6 allows you to haul ass. Weapon cannot be levelled, but the character counts as a moving target and covers distances quickly.

d10 allows you to take a carefully aimed shot, lay an ambush, assess the situation, rummage or drag weight. d10 also allows access to various reload actions.

But why not always roll a d10 and take carefully aimed shots? The short answer is “Sequence”.

What this means is that the actual numbers on the dice are important. The lower your result, the faster your character will act.

So, after the dice have been rolled, the Narrator calls out „One”, and if anyone has a „1” showing on his die, they should raise their hand, as it is their character’s turn to go. Then the Narrator calls out „Two” and so on.

Due this randomness, slow (d10) actions can at times beat fast (d6) and move (d6) actions and this is okay. Sometimes people get lucky. And sometimes they get killed.

Image by Rob Eaglesfield

Image by Rob Eaglesfield

 

Rolling equal numbers with two or more characters means that their actions occur simultaneously. That said, double kills are extremely rare in ranged combat. So, in case of tied offensive actions against one another, the character with highest Cunning acts first, then the next highest, etc. In case of Cunning draw, double kill becomes an option, but if you really-really have to know which one is faster, throw a coin to see which character happens to act first.

To keep running things simpler, assume that everyone exposes themselves at the beginning of the Round (unless their chosen action says otherwise) and then resolve actions by the Sequence order.

Playtesting this, we’ve found that the actions play out really fast, while keeping the players guessing.

“The enemy will probably try to dash over the bridge. Will I make a more difficult, hurried shot with a d6, or will I attempt an easier d10 one, with a possibility that the target reaches behind the cart before I’m ready to loose?”

The answer to this isn’t mechanical, it’s one part tactics and one part luck. As always, the actions in Song of Steel are about the player’s decisions, rather than the mechanics. Your choices will directly shape the stories that will unfold.

Let us know what you think on the Forums!

 

Posted in Design journal | Leave a comment

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Teaser #5: Edges

Posted by higgins


Having been reworking the Edges & Flaws lately, we’ve discovered that the section is ever-expanding. With every rewrite, we keep coming up with new entries that broaden the character customization options for the prospective Song of Steel players.


One of the core design principles that we adhere to, is that no Edge can exist for the primary purpose of providing benefits in combat. There are a few Edges that grant combat benefits, but the mechanical advantages are far outweighed by the character defining traits that those Edges bring. Sure, a Giant of a character receives a couple of extra dice in combat, but it’s their massive size that defines their character. Similarly, a Southpaw Slayer will most likely beat any left-handed opponent in the game, but it’s their lefty skill-honing sparring partner that that really impacts the story. Even being Ambidextrous lacks any direct combat benefits — that trait mainly allows a character to retain their fighting ability with an injured dominant arm.

In addition, we decided that with the exception of a few Combat Pool adjustments, no Edge would modify the number of dice to be rolled by the player. No +2 or -2 type of traits whatsoever. Having a Perception pool 4 with the Sharp-Eyed Edge just had to be fundamentally different than simply having a Perception pool of 6. And now it is.

Needless to say, such self-imposed restrictions severely limited our options. We could no longer draw inspiration from other games, as “special combat moves” and “boosting success chances” tend to be the main type of benefits that most RPGs offer. In the long run however, we believe that it was a beneficial move, as we were forced to completely change our angle of approach and draw inspiration both from fiction and history itself.

We hope that taking such a route will further drive home the historical focus of Song of Steel.

battle-of-bosworth-1485-640x423.jpg

Battle of Bosworth by JayT47

Here’s one of our latest write-ups:

Claim (Major or Minor)
Your character is legally recognized as born into the reigning dynasty or having descended from a previous sovereign. Having a claim is almost like being a wildcard Heir from another branch of the family, but you’d need an army behind you when the time comes to assert that. We hope you have an army, or means to raise one. It’ll be fun. We promise.

The minor version of this Edge means that your character has a claim over a title that is equal to, or below their current station. The major version of this Edge represents a claim over a title that is above their current station.

The main benefit of picking Claim over the Heir Edge is that with a Major Claim, your character can aim to inherit above their station. In addition, Claim is a great Edge to pick when you want a bloody battle over the kingdom. The Edge also is useful in case your character isn’t entitled to the position due customary laws — picking a Minor Claim would make a viable heir from a female character even under the male primogeniture. Or you can simply choose Claim because for whatever the reason, you don’t want your potential king of a character being a part of the current royal family.

Note that in a feudal society, having a claim is the most crucial prerequisite for waging war over land. Declaring war on someone without possessing a claim over the disputed property first would be considered “unjustifiable”. Basically, it would be seen as an act of rebellion and no noble stands for undermining their own authority. Declaring an unjustifiable war would gain the defendant a huge number of allies, no matter their previous track record and reputation. As such, forging documents to conjure up legal grounds for a claim was extremely common in medieval times. And of course, there’s no need for a Claim if you want to wage war against pagans or infidels — those kind of wars are always “justifiable”.

Keep in mind that while the Edge writeup focuses on kings and royalty, the Edge can also represent claims over lesser titles.

As you can see, we don’t balk at giving out powerful tools even for the starting characters. It is quite possible to build a greater noble with a stronghold, an army and a claim to the throne right off the bat. And we can’t wait for the players to start combining all that — having them create powder-keg situations such as a male character with an Heir Edge, and adding an elder sister with a Minor Claim, trying to supersede him. Or combining Claim with the Outlaw Flaw. Or with Young. Or Naive. Or having a sick and depraved prince define their own sister as an Asset and trying to barter her for an army, as witnessed in A Game of Thrones.

Now add multiple player characters with similar, but opposing goals and the stage will be set for the goriest ascension war in RPG history!

This is but one of the Edges in Song of Steel.

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Teaser #4: Flaws

Posted by higgins

Most games have some kind of mechanic that allows for customizing characters beyond their core characteristics. You’ll have a great big list of different quirks to choose from, and the vast majority of them will either have a mechanical benefit to your character’s rolls, or impact the rolls in a negative way. Song of Steel calls these kind of traits Edges & Flaws.

In our original write-up, we had Flaws impose mechanical penalties just like any other game, but such solution turned out to be problematic during testing. First off, just dishing out one type of penalty for every ailment felt wrong, so, we had different ailments impose different penalties depending on their severity, but that made the effects hard to remember. Secondly, the dice pool penalties were pretty easy to overcome with the Story Aspect bonus dice. On top of that, combining those two issues made up a really awkward mechanic — first you needed to subtract some dice, then you needed to add some. So, our solution was to do away with the mechanical modifiers completely. Now Flaws are simply “the art of making the characters soil themselves”.

Let’s take a sample Flaw.

Phobia (Major or Minor)

Your character has a powerful fear and aversion to some common thing and has trouble functioning in its presence.

Pick something simple and relatively common (spiders, snakes, open water, heights) for your character’s phobia. They may attempt to justify it any way they please, but the object of their fear unmans them.

The minor version of this flaw indicates a general discomfort and unease in the presence of the phobia, while the major version represents a fear that borders on blind, crippling terror.

The minor version means that when your character acts in a way that the irrational fear incurs a personal or financial cost, the player will receive an Story Aspect point that can be freely distributed.

The major version means that in addition to the minor effect, the Narrator may suggest that in exchange for an Story Aspect point, your character would act in a certain fearful manner. If you do so, you can allocate the point as you wish. However, if you want to refuse such a temptation without your character’s Story Aspect supporting a compromise, you must burn an SA point to do so. Burning a point in such manner still counts towards Karma.

So, let’s explore one of our playtesting scenes to show you how Flaws work in Song of Steel.

prison_cell.jpg

image by decade_null

The player characters have been captured and put into a damp dungeon cell. It’s dark in there and they are monitored by a single guard. One of the PCs, Drake, forms a brilliant plan — he’s going to pick a fight with a fellow prisoner, Ray, in an attempt to get the guard’s attention. He’s hoping for the guard to come closer, as such a situation might create a window for an escape. The plan has two major pitfalls:

  1. Drake chooses not to share it with anyone
  2. Ray has (minor) Claustrophobia

So, Drake starts browbeating his mark. He blames Ray for everything from not spotting the ambush, to being a pussy in a fight. Ray thinks Drake is being unfair and tries to calm his companion down. Everyone else is just watching the conflict dumbfounded, trying to figure out what’s going on.

Drake isn’t getting the fight he is looking for, so, he decides to get physical. He drags Ray up and slams him against the bars, not really to hurt him, but hard enough to make it look real.

At this point, I interfere:

“Okay, Drake has pushed Ray into the grates face first. But Ray has claustrophobia, right?”

“Right,” says Ray’s player.

“So, this is a pretty scary situation here. Drake is a mean guy. You’ve seen how ruthless he is and he’s a former raider, too. Having been slammed against the bars, the cell seems much tighter and more confining now. So… I’ll award you an Story Aspect point if Ray collapses on the floor, starts sobbing uncontrollably and soils himself.”

The player is taken aback at first, but then tilts his head and stares off into the distance. He’s clearly tempted.

“But which Story Aspect?” he says.

“Any one you choose.”

The player glances at his sheet, then smiles. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

Drake feels Ray go limp in his hands and sees him gliding down the grate. Ray sobs something about things not being his fault and a dark, warm stain appears on the cement floor. Drake wrinkles his nose and walks away in disgust.

* * *

There are probably several ways this scene could have gone down, but frankly, I’d have never thought that I’d see a player willingly soil his character. Sure, the claustrophobia was “minor” and the player could have easily refused the offer with no ill effects, but the temptation of an Story Aspect point will always be there. Now, if it had been a “major” flaw, such refusal would have cost him an Story Aspect point, instead of gaining one.

With this setup, it is not only possible to play imperfect characters but it is actually encouraged. Rather than having Flaws represent mechanical penalties to be ignored or avoided whenever possible, they now create opportunities for characterization and role play that benefit both the player and the story itself. Once temptation enters the equation, the focus of Flaws shifts from “What’s going to bother me the least?” to “What can I play with the most?” and we think that is a fantastic step in the right direction.

This is how Flaws work in Song of Steel.

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Teaser #2: Levers

 

Posted by higgins

It’s not a secret that most RPGs will be house ruled, but that fact is rarely addressed in the actual system design. Song of Steel fully embraces player tinkering and provides tools for communicating those modifications through “levers”.

A “lever” is basically a house rule with two important aspects:

a) it is written down
b) it is named appropriately

Some examples:

Vanilla: Standard rules; no levers or modifications whatsoever.

Baby Steps: Advanced melee maneuvers are not available. Great for beginner groups.
Brittle Weapons: Occasionally, your bronze swords will bend and stone axes will shatter; {additional rules for this}
Down to Earth: Only the most relevant Story Aspect fires for the bonus dice. This downgrades the SA impact on all dice pools.
Pack Mules: Ignore all bulk rules, except the armour penalty to Combat Pool.
Talhoffer Graduates: Half-swording and queue grip transitions have no Combat Pool activation costs.
Valhalla: Your Karma points are doubled if your character is killed in combat. The amputations have their normal one-and-a-half times effect.
Vietnam: Bleeding is very, very bad; {alternate BL rules}
Walking Pace: Only the most relevant Story Aspect grows after firing. Players gain Story Aspect points at a slower rate, but the rewards for engaging multi-faceted conflicts are also lessened.

The purpose of these levers is to allow players easily communicate their personal game setups when asking advice on the forums. For example:

“Hi, I’m running vanilla SoS, and I have this problem…”
“We started off our new group with Baby Steps and Down to Earth levers turned on, and it worked out great!”
etc.

Our current list of levers isn’t too long, but then again, we believe our game is solid as it is. This list surely grows as the development goes on and will probably explode as the game itself is released.

At the game’s release, we will paste all our mods into “The Big Book of Levers” sticky thread, that will be updated as fans create new levers of their own. We’ll also include links to the relevant development threads or websites, so, that any new player can get a comprehensive overview of the levers used in Song of Steel.

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Teaser #1: Wound Wheels


Posted by higgins

This is a quick preview of how attack locations work in Song of Steel.

wheels_full.jpg


First, you choose a wheel to attack. Then, if the blow connects, a d6 is rolled and the result is used to determine the actual wound location. Outer wheel is used for swings and inner wheel is used for thrusts. Start counting from top and go clockwise. That’s it. If armour deflects the blow completely, there’s no need to consult the wound tables.

Also notice that the number of the wheels allows easy d6 randomisation on ranged attacks. Or 1d3 randomisation, if you’re close enough to aim “high” or “low”. We’ve also added an armpit location to simulate the weak point in many ancient armour.

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