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Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 1 – Core Mechanics

A while ago I got deep into the design and testing of a heartbreaker system before feeling road blocked and leaving it for a few months. I have since moved on to other projects, and I think tearing it apart ceremoniously in public is probably not only valuable to me, but could provide some insight for other designers.

For the full system, I have posted it here, so feel free to read the whole thing for context if you wish. Hey even play it! It’s technically functional, although it takes a lot of liberties. I’d absolutely love to hear any feedback you may have. I’m simultaneously posting this on the r/RPGDesign subreddit for in-depth discussion, so join in the conversation there as well if you like. I’ll be breaking out bits of it to talk about specifically in these posts, as this is far too big a topic for one sitting.

I by no means think this is a good game, but I think it had some good ideas, admittedly a lot of them stolen and reworked from better designers than me. I think my goals were noble, I just had (and still have) such little experience and knowledge, I couldn’t follow through on my grand ideas. Maybe doing this breakdown will help me, and maybe you?

Before we start, ill pitch it:

“Myth & Malice is an OSR inspired fantasy table top role playing game designed to emphasise player creativity, and minimise GM workload.”

Let’s get into it. This week – Core Mechanics.

Mechanics


Page 3 and we kick things right of with the games core engine. I think this is good. One thing about many games that frustrated me during my research was being unable to find this kind of a page. This is integral to the game, and should be front and centre. If I’m ever confused at the table about how to resolve something, I should be able to come back here and re-calibrate my thinking.  We will talk more about layout and presentation in a later post, but the simple fact this page exists is good design IMHO.

As for its actual content… well let’s dive into that.

I wanted a roll under mechanic at the heart of the game. Once I played The Black Hack (a game from which M&M unabashedly takes a lot of inspiration) I realised how quick and simple it made checks in game. Very little on the fly maths has to be done to determine a result, and I liked that a lot. What The Black Hack lacked for me was some crunch and nuance. By this I mean, I wanted there to be some player choice/control over the roll, instead of just declaring a certain situation depends on a certain stat and asking the player to roll under a number determined (mostly randomly) at character creation. This is where the following comes in:

“The Dice and Score used depend on the context of the check.”

You read that right, not only will context change the number under which a player rolls, but also the dice used. Not to tease, but this if probably the fatal flaw of this system, and i’m not going to cover it in detail here, it’s simply too big a topic. This will become much clearer when we get down to combat, which needs its whole own post because… woo did I get lost in the weeds there!

Suffice to say, it’s not elegant. I attempted to give players some form of a choice with this mechanism, but it ends up not being an interesting one, nor one that’s really that difficult. We will leave it there for now, and move on to other parts we can talk more about.

I split checks into three categories; Base, Opposed and Group checks. In my eyes these were situations with clear distinctions, and clearly needed distinct approaches. Base checks are for Characters doing this solely dependent on themselves, Opposed are for when there is a force actively working against the Character, and Group checks are situations involving more than one Character working together. Simple, easy to distinguish, and the mechanics feel like they reflect this. This is one decision I came to early on in the design process, and even after play testing I stuck with it. I am still happy with this breakdown.

I did further breakdown Group checks, which I do also feel is a valuable distinction, one that i don’t see made in other RPGs. The way I see it, there are situations when working together, that benefit from lots of people being involved, and others where that is detrimental. There is a reason you don’t send a whole party to scout out the next room, but you do want everyone to push when the door is stuck, and this puts the benefits and consequences of this in the forefront of Player’s and GM’s mind.

This also makes working together super powerful, which I also wanted. This is a cooperative game after all, it should be encouraged. Though one thing I did find during playtesting is I often had to remind players that working together gave them a significant advantage is certain scenarios. Perhaps with more plays and experience, they would have figured it out themselves, but it is something I probably should have emphasised better in the rules.

Finally, I lifted the ever popular usage dice mechanic, also inspired from The Black Hack, as well as various other iterations. I tweaked it to my taste and I knew it would be serviceable. This is also the first of a few mechanics in the game which I would also consider optional. During my research, I found a lot of people, especially in the OSR community, who tend to treat new systems as libraries of interesting mechanics that they pilfer for their own homebrew systems. This one of those rules that if it’s not to your liking, removing it has little impact on the games overall structure.

Modularity of rules like this is one thing I tried to include where I could in Myth & Malice. While I think a game is stronger for having tight knit rules that all work together like a well oiled machine, OSR games are not played like that. They rely heavily on improvisation and the “Rulings not Rules” mantra. Therefore I was aiming more for a collection of quick reference ideas than a comprehensive ruleset.

…Or at least looking back, that’s what I should have been aiming for. My core mechanic is sort of the antithesis of that idea.

So here is kind of the first lesson from this section. One that will be no doubt repeated throughout this analysis; Define your design goals, and do it as early as possible.

I basically didn’t have any goals laid out before or even during design. I hear designers harp on about them a lot, and I figured I would establish them as I went, but I just never did!

I think part of that was I didn’t really know what I wanted from the system. Perhaps I needed to fail miserably to learn this, but the point still stands I should have tried!

Stats

Right, how do we define a Character? These do fit quite tightly with the core mechanic, so we will get onto why I chose the numbers I did in a bit but firstly I’ll run through what they are and what I was aiming for.

Myth & Malice has 9 core stats, split into 3 groups of 3. The groups are based on how they are used, and each group contains an equivalent body, speed, and mind stat.

Let’s run through the groups and why I added them first. The groups are; Attributes, Abilities and Qualities.


The Attributes; Brawn, Agility and Resolve, are basically saves from D&D. These are meant to be used in situations where the GM wants to test a character’s reaction or their raw ability. Honestly, looking back these are a bit of an afterthought. They serve a fairly minor function, and are sat front and centre in the rules, and on the character sheet.

The Abilities are Might, Dexterity and Focus. These are exclusively used for combat. I wanted to separate combat stats to avoid scores being used for multiple purposes, like the classic example in D&D 3.X of Dexterity determining initiative, AC, ranged attack and some skills.


Finally the Qualities are used to… generate more stats. Kind of janky, but the other scores only require some simple maths to be done on these numbers. We have Stock, which is used to calculate hit points, Mobility, which is used to work out movement, and Insight which is used to work out Memory, or basically skill slots.

So those are all the stats that are effectively rolled randomly, which we will talk about in more detail last, but the rest are either worked out from these or determined from other player choices such as Race. Let’s dig into those.

Derived Stats

Flesh and Mettle are my own version of Logan Knight’s Flesh and Grit. I liked the idea of a split health pool for more reasons than those outlined by Logan’s rules.

My grand idea with these split pools was two fold. On one hand, by limiting Flesh to smaller numbers, and allowing it to be hit directly by various means such as critical hits, or sneak attacks, it makes Characters susceptible to a quick death at all levels. Something which is missing time and again in D&D-a-like games. Mettle is easy to gain easy to lose, the Flesh harder to lose, but far more serious when you do.

Another advantage is it gives the GM a resource they can chip away at through means other than combat. My idea with Mettle was to have it taken away through things like strenuous activity, or hunger, or weariness, etc. However I never wrote rules for that! As it stands, it’s basically pointless. I had vague rules for how to use them written up, but during playtesting I pretty much winged it, and I guarantee it only worked because I knew what to do with them. Perhaps this could have been elaborated in a GM section, but that’s not included here, so there is little point discussing it.


Armour will be covered in the equipment discussion, but I will say here I don’t think armour as damage reduction just isn’t fun I table top games. It slows things down, and can create situations where a character is literally invincible. At least the way it’s laid out here. I’d like to revisit this topic because I feel there has to be a solution, but for now, lessons learned.

Encumbrance is pretty much lifted from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, one of its best innovations. I’ve even further simplified it because why does it need to be at all complicated? It’s abstract in any form regardless. I simply use Brawn number of items. Easy. Exactly what you fill those slots with is one of most interesting choices in D&D style games in my opinion. Though that does require some lists of interesting items. I was using various tables from different OSR blogs, but I should have written my own.

Movement. Eesh. It basically doesn’t work. The idea here (which now looking isn’t even laid out in the rules properly) was that you roll this dice when movement is contested, and you roll it under an Ability score.

What’s ridiculous is faster characters actually end up losing in tests of speed far more often than slow ones. I tried too hard to pair it up with my core mechanic, and it just didn’t work. The idea here is, the less armour you wear, the bigger dice you roll, thus the bigger potential number you get. The problem is, it’s designed to be rolled under Ability Scores, meaning a bigger dice (in most cases) means you’re more likely to fail. It never worked, and I pretty much ignored it during playtesting. This is an example of where I am too beholden to my own rules. I should have either resolved it differently, or removed it entirely.

Finally we get to Memory and Skills. I liked the idea of Memory, and in some ways it did simplify character creation. It boils down to, each character gets a number of “Things” they can be good at, and you just pick them.

For example if Dave has 3 points to spend, he might pick Swords, Thievery and Diplomacy. This is simple, and evocative. Believe it or not, I wrote all this without having read how proficiency worked in 5th Edition D&D. Perhaps I subconsciously absorbed it prior, but having only recently played 5e, I can already see many ways to improve on this system. I think have players just pick things from a list of choices is far quicker and actually more engaging than putting x number of points into a skill, which is what I had before.

I’ve added in part of the Mage mechanic here, and I think that was a bad call. Ill go over how that affects the class when I discuss those, but the idea behind this choice was to temper a Mage’s’ abilities a bit. Like how in other D&D style games where magic users can’t wear armour or use weapons. This doesn’t ban anything, it just requires more investment.

I think I’m still split, because writing this out again now, it sounds like a neat idea. I think my main problem was how I generated the numbers involved which we will get to shortly.

For now, let’s have a quick look at skills. These evolved a little from Lamentations of the Flame Princess also. I picked a set I felt covered more situations, and were a little more evocative. Players got to interpret them how they liked, and would often roleplay them how they saw them being used as opposed to requiring me to define them.

However, boiling skills down to an x in 6 chance sounds straightforward, but I actually found doing playtests that players really disliked this. They complained it felt random, and that having a 1 in 6 chance to do things by default felt too low.

What’s also an issue is scalability. You can only improve a skill so many times before is maxed out, and this leads to either infrequent improvements or players with too many maxed out skills.

One thing I think this highlights very well is that for similar mechanics, similar levels of granularity are needed for things to feel fair. The “feel” of skill rolls are markedly different to Ability rolls or Combat rolls in Myth & Malice, thus you notice it more. In most D&D-a-likes, all rolls feel roughly the same (All use d20 + numbers or d20 under a number, etc). This isn’t an issue for damage rolls, because they are so disconnected from the rest of the game, but if the system to work out if something happens or not is different in different situations, I  think it can feel unfair. At least from my limited experience.

Learning is another one of those after thoughts. I think I read something that inspired it, and decided to add it in because the game didn’t have much else in the way of progression. It’s not great, but it was serviceable. Id probably change it a bit, maybe just mark off after a “significant failure” or something. Tracking multiple failures sounds easy, but it ends up being just another thing for the GM and players to forget while playing.


My summaries of how to use skills and tools feel a little out of place here. These are essentially GM guidelines for how to use them. I don’t think they are needed for the player facing rules, or at least should be put in a “Playing the game” section or similar.

Other than that, there isn’t much else to talk about with them. They are fairly standard rules found in most other RPGs, and in my experience tend to be forgotten or ignored anyway.

Now let’s talk numbers.

Right out of the gate here, I’m going to say; I wish I’d just done point buy or arrays for character statistics. I think that alone would have solved a lot of problems I came across during playtesting. I chose to have players roll randomly for a couple of reasons, both were misguided, and I should have thought them through more thoroughly, as well as been open to other options.

My first and stupidest reason, was because it’s “Old-School”. That is to say, this is an OSR game, thus, it’s the status quo. Bad move. I think it’s probably generally accepted that good design means questioning the status quo, every step of the way. Ask yourself; why are things done this way? Will your game benefit from it in the long run? Does it go against your design goals? Well I just committed to it, and my game was worse for it as far as I can tell.

The second reason was a little more sensible. I originally designed the stats to be “die-dropable”. The idea was they sat in a 3×3 table and you could drop 9d6 on them to instantly generate a character. Perfect for GMs!

The problem is, as the game evolved I changed how the stats worked to the point where this wasn’t possible anymore. Thus, at that point I should have reconsidered my original design, but I didn’t.

The original plan was that the stats could be laid out like this:

Brawn

Might

Stock

Agility

Dexterity

Mobility

Resolve

Focus

Insight

Now, drop a d6 on each cell, and then add along rows cumulatively from right to left, that is to say, Stock would be 1d6, Might would be 1d6 + Stock, and Brawn would be 1d6 + Might + Stock. Then repeat for the other two rows.

In theory, this provides numbers within ideal ranges for my purposes, the Qualities in the right most column all have values from 1 – 6, Abilities from the center column have values from 2 – 12, and Attributes from the left have 3 – 18.

For Attributes you roll a d20 under the value, Abilities you roll anything from a d4 – d12 under the value, and Qualities are numbers for working things out, so I wanted those low.

Voila! We have a nice-ish distribution, a quick way to generate characters and everything if fine and dandy no?

Well… during playtesting, I immediately found that my Warrior class, the class that was supposed to be good in combat, was no more or less good than any other character. We will get it what changes I made to the class when we approach them all, but I foolishly decided to hamper all other characters by reducing all Abilities to a single d6.

This basically made the whole game fall apart, and I didn’t really reword anything to fix the glaring holes that appeared as a result. Due to this, Movement is even more dysfunctional as characters have even lower Ability scores to roll under, making failure even more likely. It’s a mess.

A couple other minor changes that were made here was I removed the additional d6 roll for Attributes, and instead replaced it with a flat bonus depending on what Race you are. An ok change I guess, but it kind of comes across as half-committing to both random stats, and what is effectively a point-buy system or player choice. I should really have picked one or the other, the rule doesn’t really add anything other than more complexity to character creation. Something which is actually against one of the few design goals I (kind of) had going in my head; quick and simple character creation.

That’s enough rules analysis for now, lets move on to a summary of this section.

Summary

All in all, I think a lot of the poor decisions in this system can be traced back to the core mechanic, and stat generation. And really, who’s is surprised by this? I tried to innovate with core resolution on my first game. It was unlikely to go well when I simply don’t the experience to foresee potential problems, and then stubbornly refuse to rethink my design when I come across them.

Stat generation was a big problem, because I found during the playtests that the divide between good and bad stats was just too great, and some characters were simply much better than others, and that’s not the feeling I wanted to invoke. Point buy solves this by ensuring you cant make too terrible a character, and also allows players to make the Character they want to play, which I think is important. That is certainly a change would make. I’m willing to sacrifice “instant” character generation for that, ad in theory it’s still possible.

Breaking out Stats into three separate groups depending usage worked pretty well, and committing harder to that idea I think is a good idea for future projects. With point buy, it may become a real choice. Do I want to be really good in combat, at the detriment to my skills? Or vice versa? Or a mix? That’s an interesting choice I feel. In its current state, its just sort of pot luck.

Skills are something that would need a rework. They are serviceable in this state, but were not fun during play. More tightly integrating them with a core mechanic would be a better idea. It definitely still stands though that asking players simply to pick from a list of options is a good design choice. Perhaps one that can be extended to other parts of the game? Ill leave that question open for now.

I’m done throwing all my thoughts about this section into a word document. Please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it. Regardless, I hope your able to glean any value from my ramblings. If no-body else benefits from this, I certainly am learning a lot about my own design process and decision making. I shall continue this in my next post – the Combat System I keep harping on about!

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