Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be a weekly series of design posts, wherein I talk about the design of one of our upcoming games or review the design of one of our past games. The goal of these posts is intended to be a frank discussion of game design, both what works and what doesn't, rather than marketing or that sort of thing.
For the first post in the series I thought I'd take a look back at the first roleplaying game we published as Tab Creations LLC, Against the Dark Yogi. It bills itself as a high-action game set in a fantasy version of mythic India, and for the most part I think it hits its mark.
The base mechanic for the game I think is solid. It uses a deck of cards: either a deck of Indian Ganjifa cards or a a standard poker deck. From this, each player draws a hand (their Good Karma). Players can also have set of cards face-down in front of them (their Bad Karma). Otherwise, the system is a simple value of card + stat vs. target number; higher is better. Suits come into play based on traits or based on the relevant stat.
If I were to redesign the game, I would try to make better use of suits. If a game is going to use cards, it should aim to take advantage of things that cards do well. (And, in fact, that is something we did with our later games.)
I'm also torn on the use of Ganjifa cards. While I think they add awesome flavor to the game, they also slow down gameplay a bit, as they are less clearly marked than standard poker cards. Either way, I'm glad that we added rules for using both in the core game.
Finally, I will never understand why some players are opposed to roleplaying games that use anything other than dice. Although, I admit, this could be an oddity of my own gaming background; a lot of my early roleplaying experiences were in systems that used cards. Either way, we did include a dice-based alternative in the Campaign Options supplement, and were I to write the game again, I would put this system in the core as an appendix.
One place where I think the game missed the mark is in its skill system. Not that the system is bad; it's just unnecessary. There are 22 skills in Against the Dark Yogi, and each provide a modifier ranging from -2 (unskilled) to +4 (world-class).
This system is serviceable, but ultimately it adds one more modifier to remember and handle. Since the game is otherwise so dominated by its mythic-inspired traits, in a redesign I would either make skills binary or just cut the skill system entirely.
I am especially proud of how past lives and reincarnation play into the character creation system. Not only is it particularly thematic for the genre, but it also gives heroes plot hooks and roleplaying fodder related to their past lives, right from the start.
I also love how this system enables scenarios that simply wouldn't be possible in most other games. For example, if the players experience a TPK, that doesn't have to be the end. Sure there are bad consequences - the villain gets run roughshod for the next generation - but ultimately the heroes reincarnate and can face the consequences of their past incarnations' actions.
I am also happy how the traits in each path build on each other, combining to produce a game experience that feels different from every other path. In fact, in my opinion, this is the central experience of Against the Dark Yogi. If anything, the game is too stingy with traits for starting characters. Were I to redesign the game, rather then giving each path starting traits, I would simply give players something like 30 sadhana (experience) and tell them to buy the traits they want from their paths.
In combat, the game has a fairly unique action economy where every turn the heroes generate points of prana (life energy) which they store in one of five chakras (places in the body that store said life energy). They can then spend points from different chakras to empower their attacks in different ways.
This adds an interesting ebb and flow to combat, where players may let energy build up in a particular chakra for several turns before unleashing it all at once. One goal of this system is to prevent combat becoming an exercise in spamming a character's most powerful move. And it does achieve this goal.
However, this system is kind of clunky is in the way it handles the fifth chakra (the "lower chakras"). This one was intended to be sort of special, since you have to spend from it to perform your base attack. The system was designed this way to prevent players from breaking the action economy.
And it does that. But in retrospect, a more elegant solution may be to drop the lower chakra entirely, and simply restrict characters to one attack per turn - the attack itself not costing any prana. This attack can then be boosted by a character's other prana in all the usual ways.
I think Against the Dark Yogi does a good job of conveying the feeling and themes Indian myth to a Western audience that may not be familiar with them. It also does a good job of explaining some of the more esoteric concepts. And while it does give an overview of the world, it doesn't overwhelm the reader with excess detail or history.
I think this is fitting for a game that is based on myth and which can take place over several reincarnations, with the world changing in between. However, there are times I wish the world was more fleshed out. Were I to rewrite game, I would like to expand on the lore, presenting additional world information in supplements - perhaps one per kingdom.
It would also be useful to give GMs more direction on how to write an adventure and make it feel like mythic India. While the book does present two example adventures (and we've since published two more), having a set of scenario generation tables or ready-made plot hooks might prove useful.
And that's it for the Against the Dark Yogi retrospective! I hope its been handy to anyone interested in game design or who might be considering running the game with house rules. Tune in next week for the next post in the design series.