Ok, SFBK. This time, I want to analyse the system through the prism of some of the comments made by last week’s players during the feedback session, as well as look at how the game in general is developing. Well, I ran two games in the end, both with three players. (We solved the problem of player shortage by, at the suggestion of one of them, giving each player an additional non-core quality with three skill points). First, a brief foray into the narratives. In the first game, the party decided to convince a work crew who were digging a drainage ditch to instead dig a pool in front of Alien House, which they would later fill with pink bath foam, rubber balls and, um, dolphins, although following a bad dice roll these became killer sharks. Fortunately no students (or sharks) were injured during the making of this event, but next year, who knows…? As I recall, Kraag- the super strength guy- ended up hefting the cartons of bubble bath from the hypermarket to the vehicle. Imagine the humiliation! Somehow the players got a TV crew to shoot the event, and in the end the Final Outcome was Level 1, meaning that not only was Alien House saved- despite all their shenanigans- but in addition got to head the end-of-year parade. Quel shock!!
In the second game, which very flatteringly a group of peeps was sitting around waiting to play while the previous one was finishing, the players got stuck in even before the actual game started, suggesting and discussing ideas etc., for which I awarded them some HPs (House Points) in advance. Ah yes, HPs, what are they all about? I’ll come to that, but before I do, picture the scene: the Dean’s wife, having been shagging a student in the Dean’s bedroom while her husband was at work, hears an almighty crash coming from the bathroom and goes to investigate. When she gets there she finds a startled-looking, beefy Zarkonian in the shower, holding a field gun and with yellow paint running down his face. Two seconds later the gun goes off, blasting an enormous hole in the apartment, exposing it, and presumably the Dean’s wife and her lover, to the elements. How did this happen? Long story, but somehow Kraag, the Zarkonian, caught fire and Somog teleported him, along with the gun he was carrying- having mistakenly thought that paint guns meant real ones- into the Dean’s shower. Such is the whacky world of Sci-Fi Beta Kappa!
Ok, HPs, demerits and dice system.
“The skill point/dice pool conversion seems unnecessarily complex”.
Players buy qualities, one core and two non-core, over which they distribute ten points. They then have a further ten points to spread over two attributes, physical and mental. Those skill points get converted to a dice pool using a universal conversion table (see doc, p17). The way the system works, a given player at a given skill check will have a minimum of three skill points- if they’re using a low power- and a maximum of fourteen, although in practice the total seldom dips below five.
One or two people have said why don’t we just minus the skill points from a specified number (16 and 20 having been suggested)? The answer is two-fold. First, if 20 was specified, the dice pool would range from 17 to 6, which would mean that at the lower end of the scale (in terms of skill points) players would be rolling huge numbers of dice, and at the higher end a number a weeny bit too small for the amount of fallout (‘demerits’) for the game to work. If 16 was specified, then the pool would range from 13 to 2, ok at the lower end but unworkable at higher levels. So we developed the table we currently use. Secondly, referring to a table- which we have noticed players internalise remarkably quickly- is neurologically easier than having to make a mental calculation. A small point perhaps, but, you know, every little helps.
“Maybe have demerits at only 1 (on a d6) instead of 1 and 2?”
Once more, two answers. First, we found that realistically the only dice suitable for generating demerits were d6s and d8s. I used an online dice-roller to calculate the average rolls of 1 on d6s, 1 and 2 on d6s, and 1 and 2 on d8s. 1 on d6s generated far too few demerits, so I quickly dismissed that idea, leaving 1 and 2 on either d6s or d8s. The results were extremely interesting: given that the dice pool ranges from 8-14, I was calculating averages for all of these totals. I worked out that the average roll during the game was around 10 dice. With d6s at 1 and 2, the average demerit total was around 3.8, but with d8s it was 3.3. This meant that we had to either use the higher numbers and regulate down, or go for the smaller averages and regulate up. Our eventual decision to go high and regulate down was based on two factors: first, not wanting folks to have to buy a load of d8s just to play our game, and secondly, the fact that it’s harder to regulate up without mechanics like difficulty levels- which we have already- whereas there are a lot of ways you can regulate down, such as the mechanic we in fact use, House Points.
The second reason we went for high demerit levels was that, as we’d already come up with the idea of House Points, we figured here was a golden opportunity to use them as a kind of currency. The GM gives out a small number at the beginning of the game, and then more during the game as a reward for cool roleplaying etc., which the players can spend on re-rolls and dice pool reduction, the quid pro quo being that the GM can spend some of those themselves in order to re-roll or increase the dice pool at the Epilogue. The advantage of this mechanic (obviously similar mechanics exist in other games, and are used in similar ways) is that while the dice rolls are random, the awarding and spending of HPs is not, so you get this to-ing and fro-ing of them throughout the game. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the HPs form the cornerstone of the entire system.
“There may a problem in expanding it further.”
This is something Dan and I are currently pondering. I think the intent behind this comment was both Can it be more than a one-shot? and Can it be expanded in other ways, f’rx different characters, different kinds of scenarios etc.? As with a lot of ‘indie’ games, SFBK would seem to be one-shot type game, and I think it would be difficult to sustain over a period of several weeks/months, but not impossible. I ran a three-weeker at my and Dan’s local club recently, where in the first session we had the aliens arriving at the beginning of the academic year, then in the following session attempting to hold a traditional ‘Terran’ Xmas party, and finally the end of year blow-out. In the first week I completely sandboxed it, only doing the demerits in the last two weeks and the Epilogue in the third.
Would it be possible to run, say, a three month campaign? Yes, I think it would, if you had a mini-Epilogue at the end of each month, only do a small number of skill checks each time or only in specific sessions, have the player party choose what they wanted to do each week and plan a scenario based on that, have huge amounts of in-character role-playing to develop the inter-character relationships etc., and have the PCs undertake a number of side-missions throughout the campaign. As for expanding the range of characters, I think this is very possible, and would work best if we built in characters generated by players in blank sheet sessions, perhaps by some kind of competition mechanic, with me and Dan choosing the best x number of them to go into 2e, 3e etc. The characters could then be used as pre-gens by future players.
“The characters’ stats should be more detailed.”
I take this to mean that the various skills and specialisms available to the characters should be spelled out on the character sheets, rather than explained by the GM as ‘The skills are extremely elastic in terms of what you can do with them.’ Hm.. I’m ambivalent about this one. On the one hand, I understand the idea of wanting to know exactly what you can and can’t do, but on the other hand I like the idea of saying that the skills are to be interpreted very liberally, as this is in keeping with the game’s ‘Yes you can/Yes there is’ approach. What I might do is put a list of possible interpretations of all the qualities on the back of the character sheets; however, as I say, I’m reluctant to ‘pin down’ the characters and their abilities. So watch this space to see which way we end up jumping on that one.
Finally, how is the game developing? Fully on track and firing on all cylinders I’d say. Our playtesters all seem to like the high degree of player authority and the fact that the stories can go pretty much anywhere. The dice system is throwing up the results we want, and the HPs are proving a strong currency, although there’s still some room for tweakage prior to publication. Ah but when’s that? you ask. Good question. Dan, Jenny (our illustrator) and I are keen as mustard to see this game in print and on the shelves, the hope being that we can get it out in time for IndieCon this year (early November). That may or not be possible, but in any case we are working our socks off to get it ready, so, um, waaaatch thiiiis spaaaace!!!!
Gillette's razor: shaves you closer.
Currently promoting Sci-Fi Beta Kappa (published November 2013) and working on several other games: visit the indyhippo design lab for details.
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