I originally wrote this post for reddit, It’s a chaotic collection of N23’s design notes and the joy and horror of writing my first game.
Grab some coffee, it’s long. Here it is:
Hey! this is my first work and I want to share with you few things and thoughts I had while working on it during the past year. Some people here might find it interesting, it’s about how I mixed and matched systems and influences according to an intention. Any feedback is very much appreciated! I never wrote an RPG before so I’m not experienced, mostly I retro-engineered games I like as a point of departure for something else. For all others, already tired of ZQ self-promo: I’m sorry, I can’t take it anymore either! That’s why even if I feel compelled to self-promote I also think I should give back something a bit more high effort than just an advert.
I will focus on mechanics, so expect a long nerdy post about game design. This is another thing which makes N23 a weird beast to market: its influences are not really RPG household names, namely William S Burroughs, Mark Fisher, Transmetropolitan, Gunnm, cyber counterculture rather than orientalist cyber. Also it’s techno and psych rather than metal. Tech is not always that high but plenty of Low-life to compensate. I will leave the setting for another place and time.
I’m presenting it on the third week of zinequest, when pockets are already tired of new interesting concepts, let alone entire systems and settings: for the money side I guess it’s safer to write an adventure for an established system or do something smaller and possibly lower effort with an original concept (especially as a new author). As I found out, creating and polishing a system takes a long time (and I’m still not fully done with it) which will never be fully repaid. And most importantly, who the hell NEED a new system? Maybe somebody here can answer that.
But who writes indie stuff for money anyway? I wrote a game because what I wanted was not available. And anyway, I lost my job as apprentice electrician at the beginning of the first lockdown so I had time to spare.
First of all I wanted simple chase rules (cause I like 80s action movies), interconnected entropy and sanity mechanics, a progression system based on thoughts instead of classes good for long campaigns. I like the campaigns where characters come and go, die and retire but the overall structure keeps standing. Personal reasons for adventuring such as fame, greed and redemption are not enough. For that I needed some kind of IDEALS or party agendas.. As much as I love personal arcs, I wanted social arcs as well. When the party as a whole has its own agenda, even TPKs are not much of a problem.
Let’s say they are electricians working for the districts to recommission power plants and bring the grid back in the wild lands. Rogue gonzo reporters for the Network 23. Or partisans from local communes fighting against the invaders. Or scouts who need to find a new place for their new town to be built, go back and lead the convoy to the promised land.
Let’s take it out of the way: here’s the link and here’s the pitch: Zinequest3, best game ever, cyberpulp, low-life lo-fi high on everything else, get it now! so over-excited (that’s true, so F true), bots are loving it, funded in 1 sec (not true). By now you know the thing I guess.
As I wrote in the intro, I will focus on mechanics rather than cultural references and setting. This is another thing which makes N23 a weird beast to market: its influences are not really RPG household names, namely William S Burroughs, Mark Fisher, Transmetropolitan, Gunnm, cyber counterculture rather than orientalist cyber. Tech is not always High but there’s plenty of Low-life to compensate. Tekno and psych rather than metal. Photography instead of illustration. Text is legible more than eye-candy. Yes some of the above tick the boxes of an indie RPG in reverse.
So, **MECHANICS!**WALL of snippets incoming.
BREW: It takes 5 to 7 card draws to create a character. First 4 are stats, 5th card is the starting thought.Good thing if you want to be deadly is to have a quick character creation. In N23 it is almost instant.
Body, Reflexes, Empathy, Will. BREW! Each of them has 3 abilities which apply to certain specific tests: Resistance, Melee, Interface, Manipulation and so on. You don’t need any ability to try a test.
The characters have no intelligence/wisdom stat: players are meant to use their own.
No perception either: secret doors are tangentially hinted at within room descriptions, traps and ambushes are always telegraphed.The accent is not on information gathering but rather on what to do with the intel and problem solving. Players need to think outside of their sheet.
Some players might be surprised/against the fact of not using hidden traps and out of the blue encounters (ok, sometimes, but more often then not I telegraph even dangerous random encounters)
I give you an example: during one session, there was a vehicle minefield they had to cross. It was meant to be a hidden feature. Then I told them there was a broken street sign. They stopped. Minefield, it said, no vehicles beyond this point. Ok, we look for any tracks. They follow car tracks until they get to a crater. The car is destroyed and all the stuff from the car has been removed. So they backtrack to a house they’ve seen before the no man’s land and they propose to exchange their van for few motorcycles.
SPOILER: It didn’t end well and not at all how I thought it would. it was a bloodbath, one of the Players got pissed off and immoled himself a van full of nitroglycerine against the house to teach the unfriendly hyena guys a lesson, the other Players arrived later and got the motorbikes from the backyards. Never under estimate your Players.
The point is that the whole planning to overcome the obstacle and the role play and drama involved in finding a way through was funnier then rolling the dice to see if they explode in the minefield.
SYSTEM: Very much OSR inspired (Mothership adjacent, for some basic mechanics but mostly for attitude. You did not read MS yet? it’s free, go get it!).
Rules light, implied setting, Draw lower, ADV/DIS ruling-friendly framework.
I departed pretty soon from the idea of using a D&D retroclone skeleton, I found the Mothership/WFRP format of roll lower more enticing. I also knew I wanted to use cards instead of dice, so a D10 system was clearly the way to go.
I stripped down the Panic Engine of Mothership to its fundamental part, got rid of much of the chassis. Tied Saving Throws directly to Stats. No panic, cause as much as I love it I think it’s the signature mechanic of MS and I didn’t want to steal that. It’s so good that I could not improve it either. Instead I added entropy and mental equilibrium. Got rid of the skill tree. I mean, the characters are mostly losers and boozers, nobody studied chemistry! You need an algorithm expert? A sociologist? Make some friends and ask around if there’s any NPC who know this stuff. Even if I ended up using only non-original parts of the Mothership system (Roll-lower, , it proved to be immensely inspiring in terms of information organisation, conciseness and fun.
I think the advantages/disadvantages system of “roll twice, keep best/worse” is not entirely satisfying. Instead, the N23 system count Figure cards as +1 in normal circumstances. ADV and DIS change the value of the Figures: JQK can count up to a -1000 malus or a +1000 bonus (the ADV one thousand), depending on the circumstances. ADV and DIS stacks and cancel each other.
The ADV/DIS system is a solid framework to figure out consistent rulings on the fly when players think outside of the box (and they should).
A deck of cards is a D2, D4, D10, D13, D52 and D% at the same time. I Use all of them.
Jokers are either the best success (red) either utter catastrophic failure (the black one). A Black Joker is rarer than a NAT 1 and sometimes I see Players counting how many cards they have left before the Black Joker. You can reshuffle the cards only when you get a Joker or after a long rest.
DRAW, DON’T ROLL: No worries, I added a die hack for all dice junkies. At the beginning my players were complaining A LOT about drawing cards VS rolling dice. But nowadays we are playing mostly virtual on Discord and Skype, on virtual tables cards have an edge: you can draw them and flaunt them directly to the camera. It’s good suspense, everybody is seeing the result at the same time and as a Game Master they can be sure you’re not fudging rolls.
COMBAT: Draw low against YOUR stats but higher than your opponent armour. If you hit armour, armour lose one point and block the attack. Armors get ruined and must be repaired often. Opposed tests (contests) for manoeuvres. Weapons have different abilities: Piercing, poisoning, reach, explosive, automatic etc. Combat is survivable. Not super deadly, not trivial either. HP don’t scale with character progression (they do but very slowly).
DUELS: Blackjack cause why not !? I realised it while reading about opposed skill rolls in the Mothership manual. You need to roll lower than your stat but higher than the antagonist.That’s Black Jack right there. Duels are high stakes contest, who wins decide the outcome.They are deadly affairs. The two sides double the skill they are opposing and this is their target number. The first card is drawn at the same time. Who has the lower card keep drawing. Until one of the two sides does get bust by exceeding the target number. You have a winner!
CHASES: This was a tricky part but I’m happy about how it turned out. I stripped CoC chase rules from 17 pages down to 2 digest-size facing pages (+a nice photograph). The chase runs for 10 “slots”. opposed skill rolls, obstacles, manoeuvres, rules for collisions and ramming, destroying obstacles. If the prey manage to get through the 10 slots without getting caught, it’s free.It works, and it’s a good excuse to bring some tiny cars on the table.
THAUMATURGY and psychic powers They didn’t make it. The system was somehow similar to CoC/Symbaroum: everybody can cast known spells at an Entropy/Sanity cost which can be mitigated if the caster is trained in a certain Tradition. Sorry Inorganic demons and viral conspiracies, blood mages and Megapolisomancers, you did not make the cut this time, I love you, see you later.
DRAW, DON’T ROLL No worries, I added a die hack for all dice junkies out there. At the beginning my players were complaining A LOT about drawing. But nowadays we’re playing mostly virtual on discord, cards have an edge: you can draw them and flaunt it to the camera directly. It makes for good suspense, every
MOVES: but … there are Moves, what it has to do with OSR?
I did not know about Pbta and when I came up with the Moves I thought I was a genius. The feeling didn’t last for long.Moves are special talents tied to a certain thought that you can pull off once per session. I like to think of my sessions as episode of a TV serie, and in old fashioned TV series, every character does his own thing … ONCE. The first time you use a move it’s always a success, sometimes a mixed success.
Think of A-team, Hannibal plan things out, Templeton is the con and does con things, Murdock gets crazy and fly, Baracus prepares the vehicles and he’s badass. I don’t want a character spamming the same skill to overcome situation like in some grindy Korean MMORPG. Mechanically, Moves are single use situational spells to be used as a creative tool. You can love them too.
N23 employ a classless system. Instead, PCs can find, learn and develop THOUGHTS. Each of them unlock unique moves and abilities advancements. When the party find a safe place and wind down before a long rest, they exchange anecdotes sitting around the fire. If they used a particular thought during the session, they can throw XPs at it to develop it, otherwise XP remain on the sheets (the main sources of XPs are survival and objectives).
“But hey, I’m just a simple player, I don’t want stupid narrative role-play”. RP is not needed, it’s entirely possible to use just the mechanical side of thoughts, it counts as they were interested. A radical mycologist does not need to talk mushroom all the time. If he used the Move to gather food for a starving village, that’s enough.
There are 52 thoughts organised in the Rave New World Noosphere table. It can be used for both character creation or as a Master’s tool to create NPCs on the fly, complete with personal agenda and world view.
LORE: Mostly implied. I wrote an introduction about the game world (which is an alt history version of our own. Capitalism and mass production fell in 1989. World is now rebuilt under different premises and on the verge of a civil war between pirate anarchist utopias and evil vertical techno-Molochs).No lore to learn and teach. Most of the setting is explained through equipment and the thought system.
A NOTE ON OSR: I’ve been into RPG for as long as I can remember, even before knowing it. Like creating rules to fight with plastic monsters and dice on the tiles of the kitchen with my brother. Still, I never thought it was possible to write one. Heavy manuals fully illustrated and written by a team are the mainstream thing. I learnt about the OSR movement just few years ago (somebody would say I was late to the party and apparently OSR is dead, but so it’s punk) and that’s what got me back into RPG and buying manuals. Small and somehow adult-oriented publications (sorry WotC) exploding with one idea after the other, often straight from the brain of just one author (I like that), no over-explanation, right to the heart, chocked full of weird and quirky encounters, right to the heart, often presented in spreads and formatted for use rather than to take shelf space, attention to the book as an object rather than to build a hard-cover capable of injuries. Also I’m too old/lazy nowadays to read endless lore before playing. I did it for Symbaroum and I don’t regret but never got to play the adventures, it’s too much hassle to get somebody else complex world right.
ANYWAY all these small/medium publication made me think that one person is enough to do it solo. So I tried. Spent months writing un-organized coffee/wine stained illegible notes, at a certain point I thought I went insane and really there was no end in sight, just me refusing to live in the real world, trying to avoid real stuff to spend my time in a world of my invention. I know it sounds beautiful but I got family too. I had hundreds of pages and adventure ideas. I don’t want to sound like I’m pushing the story arc of the underdog who went through rough times but at the end gets it right, I still don’t know, most probably it’s not right and just an excuse to postpone finding a proper job. The game started to take shape when I reduced the number of pages and put a limit. OK, i got no money and I’m liking how accessible zines are, and MAYBE i can cut out some tables and make it around 50 pages. This is the one single thing which helped me the most: clear defined boundaries to understand what really I want to be part of the CORE experience.
LAYOUT, DiGEST FORMAT, ZINE: easy to read, 2 columns. Printer friendly. Not over designed. Hopefully legible and clear. Full page photographs to break chapters. Digest format because Traveller and Lotfp and because it fits well in my favourite OSR shelf. The zine is organised in spreads rather than single pages. Combat takes a spread, like character creation, chases and so on.
Zine format because it’s cheap, I’m eternally grateful to the 60 pages limit of the format because otherwise I’d be still drowning in notes and notebooks, asking myself if i will ever finish the damn thing and when exactly I started to descend into madness.
ADVENTURES: N23 has been playtested for around 20 sessions so far, an engaging campaign is taking shape. One TPK and few character rotations happened already and it’s going very well. Consider my players were mostly D&Ders until I started mastering N23.
I wrote 1 entire module and I’m working on a condo-crawl, think Garden of Ynn meets Salute of the Jugger. For the kickstarter I decided to complicate my life and offer a one page cyberdungeon funnel as a stretch goal. Because funnels are good and that’s how everybody should start a campaign. At present the adventure is a foldable double-sided A4 which become an 8 pages A7 booklet. Let’s see if it works once it’s printed. (UPDATE: I printed the funnel adventure the ziney works and it’s tough but survivable, unbelievable!) It’s a televised deadly chase through a brutalist mega structure hosting a food processing facility, you know würstel, slices, protein bars and so on). There’s a rave party, a hidden terminal, a huge grinder and a blast freezer room. There’s a big “you’re terminated, fucker” button. If you want, you can have a Terminator chasing the party instead of the hunters. Enough said.
PROMOTION: While writing the system, I was out of social media, so no contacts, no community, mostly lurking. When you have finished writing a book, the real work begins: production and then pushing it out there. When I knew about Zinequest, I postponed the launch of the KS to make it coincide. Luckily it was already in zine format. If you start from scratch it’s great to have a small extra push! Right now, promotion is where I am, so I have no particular wise words to give away about it. I am trying to produce some content which might be useful and hope it will draw some attention.