Sunday, August 20, 2023

Old School Army Ants Thinking

As I mentioned yesterday, James V. West reached out recently, and he ended up with a copy of the first edition of my Army Ants RPG (my first 'published' RPG work - from 1996). He was kind in his appraisal of it, and I decided to pull out a copy and look it over. 

Wow, that thing is a mess.

I mean, there is a lot of ambition, and some good fundamental ideas there, but the execution is all over the place. It's very, very messy in parts. It has some extremely detailed rules for some things, but hand waves other things. It knows the game it wants to be, but is struggling to find its way. It would be a fantasy heartbreaker if it was a fantasy game. So, my brain started working on ways to help it.

I have mentioned that I like game design challenges. I've disovered it's not about making the 'best' RPG, but in setting a design challenge, and making a game that accomplishes that specific goal. So, what if I was to create the Army Ants RPG I had in mind in 1996, but done correctly?

Three hours later, I had a working draft going. Here are some thoughts about the thing...

It relies on three core traits: Body, Mind, and Reflex (I have learned that I like Reflex better than 'Speed', even though Reflex doesn't 'sound' like it fits as well with the other two. I don't hate 'spirit', but I'm really looking for eye-hand coordination, and reflex is the closest I'm like to get). These are the foundational pieces of your character, and everything builds from there. 

In the original rules, there was a secondary set of attributes (an 'active' and 'resistant' attribute) that built on the primary one. This is overly complex, doesn't add much to the game, and so doesn't make my draft. Buh Bye.

As a 'class-based' system, you have a specialty, which sets up a few things about your character. I like this. I'm keeping, streamlining, and clarifying the specialties. I'm linking these directly to your three traits: All infantry specialists have Body 2, Mind 2, Reflex 2. As an infantryman, you are a generalist by nature. Since all characters have six trait points, and traits cap at 3 for ants (with 1 required), there are only 7 possible combinations of traits (222, 321, 312, 231, 213, 123, 132). Hence, there will only be seven specialties using these combinations. The original game had 9, with some redundancies. I think I can clean that up without losing anything.

The 96 game used a dice pool system, where you total results and compare that to a random difficulty target, which the GM determined by rolling a separate pool. If this wall is 5D to climb, the GM roll 5d6 and added it up to get the difficulty. You would then roll your Body dice (2D for instance) and add the companion trait and skill level, to see if you beat that target. It was a lot of number crunching on each roll, and the random targets make little sense in retrospect. Why is this wall difficulty 7, while the wall right next to it is difficulty 26? 

The game relies on D6 dice pools, so I'm keeping that. However, I'm simplifying it to your trait + your skill, giving you from 1 (a trait of 1 and no skill) to 6 (a trait of 3 + mastery of a skill at +3) in your dice pool. A botch happens if you roll all 1s (so a single 1 doesn't hurt you, unless you only roll 1d6), success is 4-5, and 2 successes at 6. A roll of 1/4/6 is 3 successes, then. The Mission Master then sets difficulties that range from 1 (simple) to 5 (nigh impossible). 2 is challenging, 3 is difficult, 4 is very difficult. I think that MMs can get the hang of setting difficulties, realizing that 3 is going to be the 'default' for many tasks, and then modifying from there (is it a bit easier than 3? It's 2 then. Is it quite a bit harder than 3? Let's go with 4 then). 

Combat is pretty simple (which it tried to be in the core rules from '96, but failed). As a for instance, to attack with an AM-16, you roll your Reflex (we'll say 2 because you are in the infantry) +1 (from being trained in small arms) for 3D. If your foe has Reflex 2, you need 2 successes to hit; a result of 1 success, no successes, or a botch misses. Things get complicated if you have 1D in Reflex, no skill, and are fighting a foe with Reflex 3... you cannot possibly hit then. I'm going to port over the one-roll concepts I've recently been refining; your weapon has a set damage rating from 1 to 5. You deal the number of successes beyond the DT + the weapon's damage rating. An AM-16 is damage 3; so if you roll 3 successes against a target of 2, you deal 4 hits with your AM-16. Your foe reduces damage by their Body, so with Body 2, that foe suffers 2 hits. High Reflex foes are hard to hit, and high Body foes are hard to kill. Everyone has a least a 2 in one of those, so nobody gets 1-shotted by 1 point of damage. Your hits are relatively low (Body + Level), so a starting character with low Body might only have 2 hits, but their reflex of at least 2 is going to mitigate that to some degree.  I'm interested to see how that actually play tests, since there are several concepts here I've never tried out with live dice.

One thing to consider is using a result of 6 as a 'wild' die that explodes; you get the +1 from a success, but you also roll another die, and this can continue infinitely. This accounts for the inevitable 'you only get to roll 1D but the situation is DT 3' that will come up. Your 1D could explode, but you need a 6, followed by a 6, followed by a 4+ in order to succeed on your 1D. Furthermore, I'm thinking that ants get some grit or moxy (because I have used that sort of idea in every version of the Army Ants games I've written since '96) that grants bonus dice to apply as needed. It's easy to just say you have your level in bonus dice (levels range from 1-10 I think - still working on that). The problem I see is that once you start rolling lots of dice, the explosions can get a little crazy; you rolled 4d6, getting 4/6/6/6. This is 4 successes, with 3 explosions; you roll again, getting 4/5/6. This is 3 more successes, with one more explosion. You roll 6 again. 1 more successes, one more explosion. You roll 4. 1 more success. That is a total of 9 successes (CRAZY) and four rounds of dice rolling. It's a bit much. I think going with the 6 representing two successes and giving some discretionary dice to use as needed can largely mitigate things. Plus, if you get to level 3 and never at least picked up 1 die in a skill so you can attack with a light rifle, that's kind of on you at that point. 

One possibility is that 6s work like 1s do; that makes a lot of sense. 6s are 2 successes, but if you roll ALL 6s, your entire pool explodes and you roll again. This means that 1D has a 1 in 6 chance of exploding (so that poor 1D dude still gets a decent result 1 in 6 times), but the odds of explosion go down dramatically once you have a lot of dice in your pool (2D explodes 1 in 36 times, 3D only explodes 1 in 216 times). This reflects the difference between low skill (you rely on luck a lot) and high skill (you are precise, so luck factors into the equation less and less over time - high skill brings with it high consistency). I think this solves all of my problems intuitively and cleanly, and parallels the way that 1s work! That's nifty. 

I also had a complex system of hits and damage and such. I like the idea that your character gets wounded and therefore less effective. I'm thinking I can pull this back (but keep the core concept alive) - you are 'wounded' (suffering -1 success with all rolls) once you are at below half of your hits; you are  
'critical' at 0 hits (suffering -2 successes with all rolls). You are then unconscious at -1 hits, and dead at -3. Any bug that starts with only 1 hit never goes to wounded; they go directly to critical when they sustain 1 hit. I keep the complexity I wanted with the various conditions of injury, but do this in a cleaner and more intuitive way. My modern game design sensibilities don't really want this in there at all, but the original game invested pretty heavily into putting this in, so it's something that the spirit of the game requires. It's in.

The original 96 rules were in 32 pages, but with 3 full-page illustrations. I want to get this entire game into 16 pages and put it up for sale as a pay-what-you-want release. Let's see how I do :)

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