Devblog: the logic behind creatures in Bliaron

Nature is often a big thing in fantasy, all sorts of strange creatures and plants with magical properties are important in setting the tone in a fantasy world. Bliaron is no exception to this, and having the majority of the world sparsely inhabited wilderness it is perhaps even more pronounced than average. What is then the main design goal and idea behind it? This is something reaching back to the Finnish edition, Bliaron – Kalthanien Perintö, but it’s not very pronounced or underlined in the original release, it’s rather something like a hidden design principle. This is something I’m looking forward to expanding in the English edition, it’s a detail that I wanted to develop in the past, but it simply couldn’t fit into the scope of original release.

Compare Danak (in the picture) with images of Therapsids, which extinct creatures do you think are the closest?

The Fauna of Bliaron is fantasy based on certain phase of earth’s evolution, something that happened before the age of mammals, but not as far back as dinosaurs. The majority of creatures of Bliaron therefore have either mammalian features or are direct ancestors of mammalian creatures. Danak is the prime example of the type of creature, but also beasts belonging to the Ide Jem -classification can fit this description. This is not to say that there couldn’t be any mammals, but especially for the Great Steppe, it’s worth trying to imagine what kind of lizard-mammalian hybrids could possibly live there.

Another thing is that Bliaron’s people probably would only have experience-based knowledge of animals, and actual biological studies would be extremely rare, some Sahen scholars going trying to describe what they can alike early scientists of Ancient Greece and Rome, but their texts would likely contain errors and brave assumptions. In Finnish edition, Ide Jem, were described as synonyms to “monster” or “beast”, like something not properly known or defined, but rather something big to be feared. Great, powerful, possibly magically capable animals, with somewhat divine origins, being the children of Uentan Jem, even more godlike and less defined legendary creatures. Ide Jem can be derived either from dinosaurs, therapsids or creatures of weird alien-like fantasy. There are currently seven different examples of Ide Jem creatures written for 2nd edition, but the base idea will remain the same, these are creatures that can be anything you make them, we recommend that GM’s invent themselves.

Devblog: Generating content!

I’ve had a writing schedule of one page per day for Bliaron 2nd ed.. I felt I needed a clear goal, something to lean on, a deadline to push for. When I began to write, I had a fairly broad vision, but there were countless details that I hadn’t thought through. Surely someone might have told me that I need a clear project plan, when I’m going to do and what, and I probably would have believed that too. But I had no such plan, just this 1-good-page-per-day, and that’s it. And I stand by it, it’s a good method. I counted that I had something like 150 days, so if I’d keep up with the pace, I’d have 150 pages written by the end of 2018.  I knew I should strive to quality material straight from the beginning, but on the other hand, doubt hit me, could I really push 1 page of quality material, fit for the book, every single day? It was actually quite unreasonable, I’m not that consistent of a writer, nor do I have enough game testing time to actually make sure that everything works straight from the beginning. And I also guessed that there would be days of no writing, and then I could compensate by writing more on better days. And then I’d probably use some days to edit, not just creating new material all the time… So I was bending the rules a bit. Quickly the 1-qood-page-per-day rule became just 1-page-per-day, on average. And even so, I fell far short of that. But the thing is, pdf for play-testing stands 88 pages today. But that’s 88 pages that I can actually be proud of.

Surely there are still missing chapters, and paragraphs that feel a bit fuzzy or unedited, but all over, I’ve been able to drop out non-relevant details from the Finnish edition, and came up with tons of new material. Somehow all of the text feels like it’s bringing something new and interesting. The one-page-per-day has focused writing into manageable times, but I’ve never had so long pauses in development that I’d forget what I was doing. So, the final question is, is the end goal actually amount of content or quality of content, and how can this be judged? It seems some games have different takes on this subject. Some people prefer thick books with hundreds of pages just to get the feeling that the designers have actually put some work into it, but others like lean and simply written books, as getting familiar with less content is easier. Bliaron 2nd edition therefore seeks the midpoint here, with as simple and summarized rules as possible, yet having enough content to answer to most questions arising on how to play this game. Just word by word analyzing, many commercial bigger rpg books tend to be somewhere between 100k to 200k words, some being leaner at 60-80k words, while few reaching as much as 400k words. Bliaron 2nd ed. will definitely be on the leaner side of this comparison (playtest book stands currently around 40k words, the final will be likely 60-100k words).

An interesting aspect of content generation is actually the one that makes it relevant to the players, the content that the players generate themselves. The core experience of role-playing revolves on what happens around the table. Prewritten content does have it’s say on what goes on at the table, but finally what makes role-playing different from reading a book is the living nature of the game. Role-playing thrives on the moment, experience, being creative and getting sucked into one’s imagination. The game aims to facilitate that by giving players tools and methods for improvisation. Text tries to answer to not only question “What kind of adventures are played in Bliaron RPG”, but also “What should we play RIGHT NOW?”. Looking at the content right now, this, improvised content generation, is one of the main focuses of game development and game testing going on right now.

Improvised theater (and acting in general) has plenty of good methods for this, but they are obviously directed more towards stage acting rather than tabletop play. The whole mindset of tabletop role-playing seems to be different, depending of course on the adopted style-of-play, whether you strive to tell an open-ended story together or try to play through GM’s pre-generated adventure. I try not to value which gaming style is better, as it’s just a matter of preference, and I can enjoy both styles of play, and it is possible to employ pieces of both styles in a single game, but when thinking about game design, Bliaron 2nd ed. hopes to explore the moment, when players sit together, get inspired of each other, and the story kind of generates itself. And this, I believe, can be helped by a certain kind of system design, and mentality that comes with it. There is a common way to react that is practiced in improvised theater – “Say yes, and” – and while it’s not always necessarily about saying it aloud, the principle is to accept what others are telling and build on top of it. While in theater scenes this can be understood as giving power on your character to co-actors, it feels counterintuitive in role-playing where players tend to like having the full ownership of their characters. But how about suggesting things? How about npc’s? How about generating content together about npc’s or locations? What amount of surprises, secrets and plot twists have to be only known by the GM?

It’s definitely game testing time!

Devblog: The Secrets of the Outlands

Bliaron – Kalthanien Perintö is not just getting translated to English, but more like getting completely overhauled and improved in the process. The Outlands is a broad term covering all sparsely inhabited areas of Bliaron, including the Great Steppe (Suuri Aro) and tropical rainforests of Molem and Zeles. All of these areas will have a distinguished feeling, and specific theme of gameplay associated with them. The Outland cultures have hidden knowledge, myths of ancient past of humankind and connections to otherworldly powers.

Wilderness areas also greatly differ from civilized areas like Republic of Bliwon and Kingdom of Horuc, by concentrating more on the connection with nature, spirits of the world, and relationships in the traveling troupe. Something similar to what’s seen in the Cast Away movie is seen in various wilds areas, when the main character Chuck Noland starts to talk to a tennis ball, and names it Wilson, to fill his need for social interaction. Similar reactions are expected to happen in Bliaron, when players wander into the wilds, they slowly get “more in touch” with the true nature and the spirits surrounding them. Suddenly, all trees, rocks, rivers will feel alive, like they all have souls. In Bliaron, all this will become true, spirits DO exists and if there were tennis balls to intervene with, they surely would have souls.

Pondering one’s connection with the nature will facilitate questions like – where do we come from, do we belong here, and what’s our place in the universe? And not only that, there will also be some answers, although there probably is no ultimate final truth to be found. The past, the Kalthan origins, can be revealed and understood through myths of the Steppe clans. One’s place in the universe is obviously a personal decision, but the structure of the world – how the magical forces intervene and connect, and build what’s known as the universe, can be understood in various ways, giving birth to several different worldviews seen in Bliaron’s world. Shamans see the world strongly though interaction of natural spirits, whereas Sahen mages think of magic as a moving force. There are groups who see it differently too, through symbolic connections between mundane concepts (e.g. “all animals connected” or “all mountains are connected”) or some see the world via necromantic worldviews like “world is filled with souls of the dead”, not actually that far from the world view of our oncoming Grim Noir RPG. And then, there are other questions to ask when otherwordly interdimensional powers are encountered, e.g. strange spirits rising from the Well of Life in Serito will make one ask: what’s further than that, what is there we don’t really know or understand? The great ocean beyond the islands of Zeles will hint of another set of epic questions: Where are we going to? What’s beyond the ocean?

It’s not like these ideas weren’t present in Finnish edition, but as for game development, it’s now a task to bring these ideas easily approachable, and really polish the intent, and write everything out as clearly as possible. There will be boxes with extra information, example clans, npc characters, clearly written out adventure rewards and special myths to investigate. And hopefully, all this will come out as an adventure with interesting content. And we really do our best to summarize this, leaving out non-important detail as we write. For Finnish edition players though, the changes brought on by English edition can be integrated in all campaigns, and all the detail and places written out in Finnish edition and “Bliaronin reittiopas” should be still more or less valid background material for use in English edition.

Devblog: Ramblings on the essence of magic

How to make magic feel alive in a game system? How to make gameplay decisions with magic interesting? What’s the great mystery in magic? What’s the essence of a myth, why do we tell these stories? Why are mythic stories so alike? Is it our “genetic memory”, Jungian archetypes, or are they actual historical stories of the past? Are they mundane explanations of what was once thought as supernatural? Or are myths deeply philosophical stories that try to to answer to the questions like “What is being human really about?”, “What’s valuable in life?”, “What’s the meaning of life?”. Or perhaps, are mythical stories like Kalevala or Gilgamesh just very old forms of entertainment?

These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking of while working on the magic system for Bliaron English edition. I believe that greatest thing about magic is really the mythical unknown aspect. The one that keeps you asking what’s hidden behind the next layer. Most games tend to handle magic as a measurable force, a gameplay tool of sorts, that allows doing things not mundanely possible. It can be balanced to the extent that it’s no more than one another way for doing damage in combat, or a peculiar way of lockpicking. Fundamental idea behind magic being based on spirits is to give magic some character. It’s a whole lot more to work on theft with telekinesis, when you are “asking a favor” from a spirit rather than pressing a button that simply does the trick. It’s also much more interesting to work on a force that reacts to environment, and perhaps sometimes, behaves unexpectedly.

In Finnish release, Bliaron – Kalthanien Perintö, we focused on bringing about a basic system that would have strong “magical theory” behind it. We encouraged people (and still do!) to use magic in creative ways, thinking more on how the magic behaves, rather than always looking for an answer in complex rules. Therefore, rules were left as light as possible, to enhance the message of “Play the game, not the rules!”. We left many explanations on the origins and inner workings of the magic open too, partly to leave that part up to the gaming groups to decide, but also because we simply didn’t have the resources and time to thoroughly analyze the different combinations and possibilities available.

In English edition though, this magical theory has been expanded, and our game design skills have got better, to the point where we can give concrete guidelines on how magical interactions should be gamemastered. The fundamental idea behind “Play the game, not the rules!” is still valid though, and magic will still remain as a living force that may still surprise at any time. On the other hand, magical meta theory will also explain some of that unexpectedness with the ability of spell and spirit merging (the ability of two or more spirits to merge into one). It turns out also that our revised system based on Effects and Modifiers also works on spell interaction. This means that all spells will affect each other, kinetic spells can toss other spirits around, destruction spirits will most of the time destroy and nullify other magic, and some spells might simply merge, and form an intelligent spirit that will not take orders so easily.

Some other gameplay-related additions are related to reaction spells, instinctive casting, noticing a spell, hiding magical activity and affecting ongoing spells directly. Compared to Finnish edition, many of these are more or less just clarified definitions, but some of them are new additions, and clear rules (although simple and light) should make them open new gameplay choices for players. For those magic-nerds who want to dig deep into essence of magic, there will also be options for more philosophical meta-level play, accessing and understanding symbolic connections in world composition as a whole, essentially diving deep into.. ahem.. DEEP questions.. but while fun to play for some, let’s face it, it’s not the main emphasis of the game. The important bit though, is to keep layers hidden and unexpected, to keep players active and facilitate creative use of magic.

Everything is possible. And.. remember to play the game (not the rules).

Devblog: the Kalthan King

In addition to our big project, Grim Noir, we’ve recently been working on several different projects based on the world of Bliaron. Upcoming Bliaron Card Game, Bliaron English edition and Bliaron Spellbuilder to mention a few. There’s however still one Bliaron project we haven’t been loud about, and it’s called Sonatan Kuningas (the King of Sonata). It’s an adventure add-on to original Bliaron – Kalthanien Perintö, focusing on the mystery of Sonata stone found in previous adventure add-on Sonatan Hehku. The history goes back to early 2010’s, the last time the writeup was touched was back in 2013, as we struggled in finding the proper development directions regarding Sonatan Kuningas. We couldn’t find satisfying decisions, so personal lives and other projects slowly took over, and Sonatan Kuningas was forgotten in the rearmost bytes of some old hard drives.

Recently though, I ended up browsing through old files and cleaning everything that had ended up on my hard drives. As I organized the files into proper folders, I stumbled upon folder called Sonata Part II – The King of Sonata. I just had to stop and read it once again. Bunch of ideas, improperly written, somewhat badly organized and hard to read. The main design goals and ideas were valid though, it only needed some fleshing out, extending the poorly detailed parts, and organizing incoherent textual structures. Somehow there was no question what needed to be done. Development goals felt obvious and easy. I stayed up late for few nights, and ended up doing something surprising.

Today I’m reading a full fresh writeup of Sonatan Kuningas, an epic story delving deep into history of great Kalthan King Artan. There’s stuff about time travel, great deal of playable information about Kalthanese ruins and Kalthan culture. So far, we are only thinking of release in Finnish, yet who knows what will happen after English edition has been properly released. The timetable and format for the release is unclear, as illustrations and doing the layout for the book will most certainly take a while. It’s however been fun to realize how inspiring and envigoring it has been breathing this old project back to life…

Bliaron spellbuilder (Alpha testing)

Ropecon 2017 is just starting in Helsinki, so it should be a good time to have a sneak peek on Bliaron 2nd ed. spellbuilder, a webapp for quickly constructing spells out of magical effects and modifiers. Features include 14 different effects from seven fundamental magical qualities, and 9 modifiers to change the flavors of each combination of effects. Spellbuilder will then calculate everything you need to know from that spell. Please note, that the app is still very much in alpha stage, and some oddities still exist, mostly concerning the spell descriptions. Feedback is greatly appreciated, either in person to NR representatives at Ropecon who are btw running playtests of Bliaron Card Game there, or by email to northernrealms(at)northernrealms.net.

Quick directions for proper use of Spellbuilder alpha

1) Click either “Spellcasting” for spells, “Alchemy” for potions or “Runes” for creation of magical items.
2) Choose one effect to start with, add up to the level of the governing attribute (increase/decrease attribute by clicking + / -)
3) Add modifiers, to a maximum of the governing skill (increase/decrease skill by clicking + / -)
4) See the results
5) Go back to 2 and 3 (add/remove effects and modifiers, experiment with the results)

To resolve success of the spell, cast the dice as described in “Dice Pool”, pick the highest number and add the governing skill (e.g. spellcasting). If the result is equal to or higher than the difficulty, the spell will be cast successfully.

https://frozen.northernrealms.net/Bliaron/spellbuilder/

Devblog: Learning javascript

Magic system of Bliaron RPG just got a quite big and fundamental overhaul, although it still isn’t ripe enough for a release. The main goal has been to develop a deep atmospheric shamanistic magic system with as little mechanical complexity as possible. The system has to be quick, easy and intuitive, but still deeply detailed, facilitating interesting, creative and complex use of magic. This system has went through several development phases without a release, but it’s now starting to look like it’s ready for some real testing.

The magic system is based on combining one or more magical effects and modifiers. All effects belong to magical categories of senses, heat, kinetic, matter, destruction, life or intelligence. Choosing an effect sets what the spell actually does, e.g. whether the spell cools objects down or is used for supernatural sensing. It’s possible to combine several effects in a single spell. The modifiers are then used to change details of a spell, like the spell size, duration, detectability or, as all magic and spells are spirits, even the intelligence level of a spell.

Counting quickly, I realized there are more than dozen trillion possible spell combinations, and although limiting combinations to something like “no more than 6-7 levels of effects and modifiers” greatly reduces this number, there is still a huge number of possible and potentially useful spells to test. Some of the balancing can be done mathematically, but obviously storytelling-like magic is quite a bit more than just damage numbers and mathematical tricks. Therefore, we needed a way to quickly test the system. We’ve thought of cards, but to actually do it quickly and test it online with developers, I felt like a computer application would be probably better. We needed a good tool for testing, and, just for the sake of it, I started to dabble with javascript – if only I could make a crude developer tool for Bliaron testing. Line after line it got better, and the code that turned variables into human-understandable spell descriptions also got more streamlined and intelligent. And why not, I added runes magic and alchemy in it too. At some point, I added some visuals to make using it more pleasing and fun. As of spellbuilder v. 010 I feel like we are soon ready for some closed alpha testing.

As for the spells, some of our current favourites are:
– Spell of invisible nothing-ball
– Spell of ultra-hidden triggered dual empowered ranged nothing-formation (Umm.. what?)
– Spell of thought-state altering magic-portal ball
– Spell of flaming heavy force wave (nothing wrong with the casual damage spells either)
– Spell of far-cast gas/liquid/material/metal/gem/body -changer ball. (human-understandable? not.. basically something like changing body parts to gas-form or diamonds)
– Spell of empowered nullify magic ball (the ultimate spellshield)
– Spell of triggered healing ball (well, basically anything triggered by an event can be quite much fun!)

Devblog: Bliaron in English

We’ve been planning for quite a while for getting Bliaron rpg released in English, but various challenges on game design have kept us thinking on how we should tackle this. We don’t want to release a game that would just disappear among thousands of generic fantasy rpg’s. We don’t want to release a game that’s hard to get into. And most certainly, we don’t want to release anything that resembles Dungeons and Dragons. On the other hand, we DO want to release a novel fantasy rpg about shamanistic magic, a game with simple and easy mechanics, and a world that greatly facilitates storytelling.

Fairly big and known issue with Finnish edition is that Bliaron gets bogged among thousands of general fantasy rpgs, OSR games and D&D clones. Art is certainly good, but just browsing through, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that Bliaron, the Finnish edition, is still a mixture of a bit unripe homebrewed ideas. Now, I have never played Dungeons & Dragons in my life, at least not the tabletop rpg. When people refer to Bliaron as one-of-these-games, meaning the various D&D clones that people have created, I feel deeply saddened, as I’ve intentionally designed Bliaron as game that steers as far off from D&D as possible. When I look at Bliaron now, I see that it’s a big, complex and deeply designed game world, with tons of ideas, but the user manual is just too long and boring to read. The best core ideas, the greatest points, are hidden among hundreds of pages of somewhat average fluff. All of which was surely important for the design of the game, but not necessarily so interesting for an average rpg enthusiastic.

So it’s clear that we have a game that’s kind of ready for translating, but then, if done strictly without editing, we would also translate all the unimportant fluff, and from the customers point of view, we’d end up with yet another average fantasy rpg. As the development of Bliaron Card Game pushes on with full speed, it’s now a good time to start seriously getting into Bliaron rpg redevelopment. Instead of translating we ended up with making a 2nd edition as a whole. Some of the text has been translated, as well as heavily edited, and we’ve been making good progress on this. The text in 2nd edition is a lot more streamlined and clear, it aims to point out the best things of the game in simplest way possible.

Some of the important changes that will follow, are changes to spell building, and how spellcasting works in general. The biggest change is probably that all people in Bliaron can potentially become mages. That’s not to say that everybody will ever cast, but the core system will feature the magical soul, binding all magical potential to core stats like Strength and Senses. The Finnish version’s stat for Magic (Finn. magiavoima) will be removed, and therefore all core stats will instead be connected to different magical abilities. In addition, the surrounding spiritual energy will always be tracked in the 2nd ed, making the spells of certain type work better in different situations. Jungles for example will be full of energies of life, enabling powerful healing spells, and deserts will gather spirits of heat, granting power to spells of fire, and strangely, ice. As of now, we are designing and testing how mages could spend points from their core stats, temporarily lowering their abilities for creating more powerful spells. Very likely there will be a way to use Bliaron Cards for tracking these stat pools, possibly even a system to use cards to build and resolve actual spells (oh well, might not happen, depends on some design decisions). And while we do all these changes, we also streamline the system, making actual gameplay flow easily. By the way, all the fluff changes presented in 2nd edition are actually hinted in the Finnish edition too, that is to say that Finnish game and 2nd edition will be somewhat compatible, but the rules of the original release don’t really support this, and the fluff is so vague that it needs a skilled and very dedicated Bliaron GM to pull out.

Now the release then? That’s not going to be this month, or the next one. We’re still far away from a finished product. The main point is however that we are, slowly, getting there.

Traveler’s guide to Bliaron (finn. Bliaronin reittiopas!)

Traveler’s guide to Bliaron is a tool for Game Masters that can be used for drawing ideas for adventures! Adventures can be looked through map either by location or symbols that represent various themes of the game. The main bulk of ideas presented in Traveler’s guide is based on original release of Bliaron – Kalthanien Perintö rpg, but various ideas have been developed much further. Some of the material is completely new, based on yet unreleased material.

Unfortunately for English readers though, the material in this release is only available in Finnish.

Finnish translation:
Bliaronin reittiopas on erityisesti pelinjohtajille suunnattu työkalu, josta voi ammentaa ideoita seikkailuihin! Kartasta voi etsiä seikkailuja joko alueen perusteella tai tutkia symboleilla merkittyjä erilaisia teemoja. Merkittävä osa seikkailuideoista pohjautuu alkuperäiseen Bliaron – Kalthanien perintö -roolipeliin, mutta ideoita on kehitetty tätä työkalua varten huomattavasti pidemmälle. Osa materiaalista on täysin uutta, ja pohjautuu julkaisemattomaan materiaaliin.

Bliaronin reittiopas

Devblog: Traveler’s guide to Bliaron (finn. Bliaronin reittiopas)

Last week me and Julius were talking of Bliaron, NR’s fantasy RPG released in Finnish language back in 2011. We were going through some development decisions, game reviews, player experiences and ended up realising that we had created tons of material that simply isn’t used at all. More importantly, we created a world with insane amounts of unique creative content, but we didn’t really do that good of a job in making all that content accessible. We had strived for a game that’s easy and accessible, but admittedly, 200 pages of Bliaron core book can hardly be labelled “easy” or “beginner friendly”. The world had tons of story hooks that we had planned, and we had deliberately left them open for game masters to use how they wanted, but the openness had resulted in blandness and we realised that many of the story hooks were actually invisible for an average user.

Still, being there, free to download, Creative Commons -licensed, and full of creative material, we feel obligated to push this game forward. We really want to reach the status of easy, accessible and beginner friendly RPG. Question remained – how are we going to do this?

At some point, like pokemon, a simple, but clever idea appeared. How about we created an interactive Traveller’s Guide to Bliaron, a map that presents the world, but where all of the original ideas would be developed further into mature story hooks. As a media type, interactive map is really not a novel idea, but isn’t that familiarity to public more of an advantage than a flaw? So, we got quickly really exited, and in less than a week we had a developer sketch online. At the time of writing, we’ve had our own team working hard, and got some few individuals, including of course some friends and family, involved in proofreading and getting feedback from people who aren’t as familiar with Bliaron lore as we are.

Below I’ll share some developer screenshots of the map. Simple, yet seems quite effective. Note to visual-savvy readers, the icons and colours are still placeholders as we are waiting for our graphic artists to create something.. well.. better.

1st sketch screenshot
2nd sketch screenshot