Welcome to the latest post in our weekly design series, 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 to have a frank discussion on game design, both what works and what doesn't.
In this specific post I want to take a look back at our latest roleplaying game, Dime Adventures. It describes itself as a pulp alternate history game of strangeness and high adventure.
Unlike the previous two retrospectives I've written, this one doesn't have the advantage of multiple years to reflect on the design. (Dime Adventures was published in 2017.) But I'll try to offer what insight I can.
Let me begin with my biggest criticism (of my own writing) in Dime Adventures: It's less thematically focused than our other RPGs. While this is not itself a bad fit for pulp - after all, the pulp genre tends to be pretty all over the place - it nevertheless makes it difficult to explain what the game's about and convey this to players in a meaningful way.
If I were to rewrite the game, I think I would try to make (at least the core book) more focused on delivering a particular play experience, and then expand the focus in the supplements. As it is, the game tries to cram all of that into the core and leaves it up to the GM to provide the necessary focus. This works, but why make things harder on the GM? This would also free up room in the core to provide more advice on employing pulp tropes in the campaign.
In many ways, mechanically, Dime Adventures is a mashup of our previous two roleplaying games. From Against the Dark Yogi is has inherited combat zones, popcorn initiative and its health & damage system. From Shadows Over Sol is has inherited its skill & experience system, as well as its systems for wealth & lifestyle.
None of these systems are used verbatim. All of them have been tweaked to fit the pulp genre, but the evolution is fairly conservative. There are also lots of small improvements to all of the systems to make them smoother in play. For example, the extended action rules have been tweaked to provide better pacing, rules for parrying and taking cover have been split off from the dodge rules, etc. I remain happy with pretty much all of these tweaks.
Combat in Dime Adventures uses a variant of "popcorn initiative." That is, each person takes a turn and picks who acts after them. The restrictions are that each character only gets one turn per round, and characters on the same side cannot act more than twice in a row, if possible.
This system allows for some tactical choices of who acts when and it is fast in play once players get used to it. Unfortunately, it's got some weird edge cases. For example, what happens when there are hidden enemies that the players don't know about yet? Do they affect the restrictions on who goes next? What happens if there are three or more sides in a fight, or if whose side a character is on is ambiguous?
Edge cases aside, the system works, but I think it could be made even easier by simply having players pick whether they want to act before the NPCs or act after the NPCs. I would them liberally throw in the ability for some monsters or villains to preempt everyone and take an action at the start of the round.
Finally, I want to note that I think the health system in Dime Adventures is particularly fitting for pulp. In it, damage can threaten heroes very quickly, but at the same time it's slow to actually take heroes down. In this way, it gives a dramatic sense of danger without actually being that deadly (to anyone who's not a minion).
If I were to make a change to the health system, though, it would be to how heroes recover after a fight. I think I'd take a page out of Over the Edge and say simply that heroes recover half the damage they took after a battle (that half representing pain and shock, rather than literal injury).
The character creation system in Dime Adventures is a conservative evolution of the one we used in our earlier games. Players will pick a background, assign stats and then skills from an array. Finally they'll add a couple numbers together to generate a few secondary scores. This system is quick and allows for a good amount of character differentiation.
The one part of the system where I still question my design choices is in the selection of backgrounds. These each represent a pulp archetype. They provide a character with a couple traits (special abilities that can also be purchased later), some starting equipment and a suggested Lifestyle rating.
This makes for quick character creation. But "pulp archetypes" is a much more open ended list than in many genres, and in the end we included something like 20 backgrounds in the game. The sheer number makes me suspect that I might have been better off including a "build a background" system and a handful of examples than can be chosen from if in a hurry.
Last but not least, I am particularly proud of how traits tie into the experiences system. That is, experiences must be assigned to a specific skill or stat, representing what the character did that session. Experiences assigned to stats can later be used to purchase any of the traits associated with that particular stat. This results in characters that reflect what they've been doing in game and who are more well-rounded than they might otherwise be!
Finally, Dime Adventures includes several small, new subsystems intended to handle common situations in play. These include a chase system, mad science invention system, social encounter system, a system for duels and an alternative system for handling minor combats very quickly.
I've played through all of these systems numerous times, but not enough to look back on all of them with years of experience and suggest concrete ways in which they might be improved. But I do have a few comments.
First I want to note that Quick Combat is great! This is a fast alternative to the normal combat system, heavily stacked in favor of the PCs and geared towards handling minor fights without taking a lot of time in the session. It's perfect for the "two mooks with guns kick in the door and start shooting" style of fight that's common in pulp.
In this system, the enemies are represented by a single target number, representing how difficult they are to dispatch. Play then goes around the table and each player can describe what their character is doing in the fight. They then make an appropriate flip. On a success, the character helped take down the foes and escaped unscathed. On a failure, the character still helped take down the foes, but was injured. So long as at least one character succeeded the heroes are victorious. The enemies only win if all characters failed (in which case the minions tie the heroes up and prepare to take them back to their boss, or whatever).
Dime Adventures inherited its Wealth and Lifestyle system from our earlier games, tweaked to fit the pulp genre. I think Wealth ratings made the transition well, but I am beginning to question the necessity of having a separate Lifestyle rating. This rating is more applicable to a stationary game, where characters have access to their estate or other large possessions. This works for some pulp campaign concepts, but for others it's fairly irrelevant.
If I were to rewrite the system, I'd probably just wrap Lifestyle into Wealth and note that large estates (or whatever a high lifestyle represents) don't just go away if the character suffers a temporary setback in Wealth. Use common sense.
That's it for the Dime Adventures retrospective! I hope its been useful 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!