Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Why I'm Creating an Open Engine

My upcoming games Deathtrap Lite and Midnight Zone are both built on an engine I developed inspired bysome house rules created by Stephen Smith. I call it the Over Six Engine. An SRD and generic version will follow by completion of the two games I am working on. I have a stripped-down sample on DTRPG at the moment.

I intend to make Over Six an open source engine. I won't write a complex license, either. Instead, I will offer it with a CC-BY license, similar to Knave. I will provide a "Powered by Over Six" graphic that can be included on covers and promotional material, but it will be voluntary. This will let creators better get the attention of fans of the system.

Why Make a New Engine?

Honestly? Because I can. When I started the project, it was a proposed overhaul for Stephen's custom skill system. As I worked on the skill system, I saw how it could easily replace saving tbrows, magic, and exploration mechanics. I almost immediately saw how it could also replace combat and create a unified system.

I just couldn't help myself. It was almost a compulsion. I wrote the game in my spare time in a week, wrote a spin-off over a month, and now I am on a final editing pass. It has been a joy to work on.

But there is a good logical reason as well: If I write things with my own system in mind, I don't have to rely on the OGL, even if the game can use OST monster stat blocks in a pinch. It frees me from having to have a bulky, space consuming, and IP-compromising legal agreement with a third-party. How can I complain about that?

My Publishing Plan 

I'm not in a big rush. My intention is to finish my initial Player's Handbook in December. I will continue to publish articles, and hopefully have my holiday module out in the next few weeks. Once that's done I can get Deathtrap Lite Basic out.

Then I will work on Midnight Zone ultimately with a starting adventure module and GM's Guide for Deathtrap Lite. Mostly, that will be additional content and advice, and not critical to play. My Hope Is that I will get enough playtesting from the community to create a better version, and kickstart a finalized edition of Deathtrap Lite in early 2022. Quality is important to me.

I will offer anyone who bought the demo or the Basic Corebook a discount on the finalized version. 

Why Offer the Engine Openly? 

Honestly, the most useful answer to that is that I want to share. I think my system is clever, and I'd love to see what other creative minds do with it. I also want to make creating content for the system as easy as possible. A simple license that gets rid of all the guess work will make that possible.

By letting people to remix it to the genres and playstyles they like, I can curate a library of rules and content that will help make the game more flexible, adaptable, and elegant than I could have ever made it myself. 

Friday, November 26, 2021

Game Review: Grave

Grave does not have a cover; I chose this image
By 07imamwahyudin from Pixabay to seve
as a result of thumbnail; I think it suits.
Author: Jason Tocci
Publisher: Self-published
Marketplace: Itch.io
Engine: Knave

Grave is a TTRPG built on the Knave engine designed to emulate "soulslike" Genre of video games.

If you aren't familiar, "Soulslike" games are games that borrow much of their design and game play from Demon's Souls and its sequels Dark Souls. It has become a genre unto itself. Games in the genre include:

  • Demon's Souls
  • Dark Souls 1 & 2
  • Blood Bourne
  • Hollow Knight
  • Darksiders
  • Nioh
  • Star Wars: Fallen Order

The hallmarks of a soulslike game are gothic, often post-apocalyptic settings, heroes who are dead, dying, or somehow infected. Characters are often vampiric in some way, deriving their power from stolen souls or blood. Souls, blood, etc, also serve as currency in the game. Villains are often heroes who have been driven mad by their experiences. Friendly NPCs are often morally ambiguous or insane. The player characters in souls like games often die early in the game or begin the game dead. Death, however, is a temporary state. A character can continue to come back from the dead, or adventure while they are dead, but at a reduced ability until they can return themselves to life. Resurrection takes a toll on characters, they're often corrupted or scarred in some way. NPCs the heroes are often twisted into monsters to illustrate this. Body horror is a common element.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Engine Overview: Knave


Outside of Mark of the Odd, the OSR hasn't got too many open engines of its own. It relies quite heavily on using rules borrowed from various editions of Dungeons & Dragons mixed with a massive array of house rules that have been shared by the community over the years, arranged in different remixes. Other, older rulesets like Advanced Fighting Fantasy and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay also make appearances as remixes (Troika! and Zweihander, respectively.)

The OSR hobby hasn't needed too many alternative game engines. Using pre-existing and familiar rules was part of the original notion, after all. As the OSR has become more alienated from Wizards of the Coast, many OSR creators are looking for options that allow them to distance themselves from the company and reliance on licenses that they control. There have been a few open engines coming from the OSR in the past five years.

One engine that is picking up steam at the moment is Knave. Created by the YouTuber Ben Milton of Questing Beast fame. I reviewed it last year here. Knave has recognizable elements of Dungeons and Dragons, but each and every one of the modified to the point there it is not quite like any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it is still close enough to D&D that you can use old school modules like Keep on the Borderlands with it. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Open Licenses: Engine, Content, Content Creation

When talking about resources for developing role playing games, it is important to distinguish between a content creation license and an engine license, and this is a distinction I do not see commonly discussed. When we call a game open, we are often fail to discuss what exactly is open about it. What is being offered to you to make use of makes a big difference when considering whether or not to make use of a game license.

Open Engines

OGL joke hidden in
Goblin Slayer (Manga vers.)
Isdue #26
When the game's engine has been made open, most of the game's mechanics are available. You can build a game that uses the same dice rolls, terminology, and gameplay loops as the original game for which the engine was devised. The game you build might have different setting character type of genre, and it might have particular rule hacks and modifications to make it play more the way you want it to play, but you have effectively used the game itself.

An open game engine may or may not include access to the game's content. By content, I mean things like specific names places, creatures, etc. For example, in Blades in the Dark, you have the city of Doskvol with its Leviathan blood trade creating electroplasm make lamps for light and heat; you have enchanted crows, and a masked corpse taker cult, and the death bells to destroy the dead before they rise; and there well as the specific neighborhoods with strange trades. None of these are in actual the engine of the game. They are not its engine but rather its content. If one were to license Blades in the Dark as an intellectual property for adoption into novels or television programs, it is that content, not the engine that would be of primary interest.

Content Usage License

Very few games hand out their content openly. The major exception I can think of is Dungeons & Dragons. The Open Game License grants access to a lot of signature Dungeons & Dragons characters, spells, and monsters. The owlbear, for example, was unique to Dungeons & Dragons until Wizards of the Coast gave tacit permission to anyone who cared to use it by way of the OGL. But, in the case of D&D  they keep an odd mix of open and closed content. While I might be able to make use of a Norker or Half-Orc, Mind Flayers and Beholders are strictly protected. As is Greyhawk and its various Deities, or any of the other setting worlds.

With the DM's Guild license, it is possible even to make use of material for some of the established settings and the monsters that are otherwise designated product identity. The downside of which is that you have very limited ownership over your own creation.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Engine Overview: Forged in the Dark

Blades in the Dark cover
Art by John Harper 
©2017 One Seven Design
The Basics 

The Forged the Dark system is one of two engines to come from the mind of John Harper.  Harper made his initially name by developing the very popular Lasers and Feelings engine. He has a Knack for elegant mechanics and sophisticated, compact settings. 

Forged in the Dark was originally engineered for Blades in the Dark which I have reviewed here. It is an engine very strongly rooted in Forge philosophy, and most definitely sits on the story game end of the design spectrum. 

The Engine

The game operates on multiple levels of play with different loops and subsystems. At its most granular level, engine works has an excellent heist simulator. And about three-quarters of the games using the engine simulate some kind of criminal enterprise for shady dealings. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Open Game Engines: Advantages & Disadvantages

In this article I want to give a brief and incomplete history of open game engines, and then talk about the pros and cons of using them. 


Open tabletop role-playing game engines I didn't start with the Open Game License, but the OLG certainly sparked off the wildfire of open game engines created in the last 15 years.

When the OGL was created, it was hoped that it would create a lingua franca for tabletop role-playing games. That because anyone could create something compatible with the system setup for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, also known as the d20 System, it would spark a huge upsurge in creativity in the industry while also boosting the sales of (the then-struggling) D&D 3E products by turning them into developer resources.

It worked, too! For the first seven years, we both saw Wizards of the Coast licensing products such as Call of Cthulhu and releasing them as d20 System games, other companies releasing licensed d20 products, such as Green Ronin's Stargate SG-1 RPG, and a profusion of companies releasing adventures and player resources such as Necromancer Games and Goodman Games which produced a huge number of products built on the d20 System.

It became apparent very early on that system does matter, and the d20 System didn't  necessarily do a good job at some things. For example, Call of Cthulhu d20 was not nearly as fun to play as the original Chaosium system, as characters were far tougher than CoC characters, and levelling is antithetical to the slow decay of a CoC hero. Anumber of alternative systems very quickly cropped up. 

Older Online Community Projects

And, of course, there were already community projects to develop play game engine as a shared project. Thrash comes to mind immediately. Originally a game built to simulate the Final Fantasy games, and derived from the engine that ran underneath Final Fantasies 1 - 7 and 9. Anyone who is a participant in the thrash for him was welcome to contribute their own rule modules, etc. That it was not an officially licensed project eventually LED some members of the Thrash community to build a game based on the engine divorced from Final Fantasy as an IP, and to rebrand Thrash as an anime action game.

A more modern example of this that I will be looking at is the GLOG (Goblins Laws of Gaming)  which is a highly modular crowdsourced RPG. 

The Proliferation of Engines

Actually openly releasing a games engine, with a license similar to the OGL, however was essentially a new innovation. Many of the early open engines released didn't stand the test of time. However a few, especially ones grounded in communities of designers have and endured for quite some time. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Game Review: Super Blood Harvest 1-3

Scenario introduction, Super Blood Harvest 2
Art and text by Dirk Detweiler Leichty 
©2019 Dirk Leichty
: Dirk Detweiler Leichty
Publisher: Self-published / Swordfish Islands
Marketplace: Swordfish IslandsDrivethruRPG
Engine: Dirk! / Mark of the Odd 

The Super Blood Harvest books are a trio of short role playing games with integrated scenarios that run on a pared-down version of the Mark of the Odd engine specifically called Dirk! Created by the artist and developer Dirk Detweiler Leichty. An omnibus in hardcopy is available through Swordfish Islands.  (I have the PDFs separately from the Swordfish Islands bundle they released at the beginning of the Lockdowns i  2020)

Each of these three scenarios involves player characters as escaping prisoners of-,veterans of a war against,- or people living in the ruins of an empire ofv ampires from outer space, or dealing with the aftermath of - a vampire invasion. It draws a fair amount of its inspiration from Gothic science fiction like Lifeforce, Vampire Hunter D, and Invaders from Space, as well as from the art and comics Mobius.

These games embrace strong video game aesthetic. The pre-generated characters are offered in a page meant to mock up a character selection screen. The final page of Super Blood Harvest reads "game over". And most of the adventure is presented as a dense isometric map drawing in marker and coloured pencil that strongly evokes classic NES era isometric games like Solstice, Snake Rattle and Roll, and Marble Madness.

Cover spread, Super Blood Harvest
Art and text by Dirk Detweiler Leichty 
©2019 Dirk Leichty

Extremely tight versions of the rules are explained on a single page in each super blood harvest book. In addition, a separate Dirk! four page rule book is available with more detailed explanation if one is needed.

These adventures are designed to be fast and lethal, and make me think of the "Nintendo-hard" games I grew up on in the 80s. Players will likely go through several characters before either having to start the scenario over again after a TPK. It will likely take most groups multiple tries to escape the dungeon particular to Super Blood Harvest and Super Blood Harvest 2. I expect that Super Blood Harvest III would have a high PC turnover rate as well.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Engine Overview: The Mark of the Odd

The Basics

Mark of the Odd compatibility 
Logog, ©2020 Lost Pages
The Mark of the Odd was developed by Chris McDowell for the Into the Odd role playing game that has become a popular OSR game engine thanks to its fairly open license and simple design. Some of its best-known examples include Electric Bastionland, Death is the New Pink, and Mausritter. Super Blood Harvest one, two, & three are other goid examples.

The game clearly comes from Dungeons & Dragons DNA , but has been significantly evolved away from it.

The Engine

Characters possess hit points and three attributes that stars rated 3 to 18. The statistics are usually Strength , Dexterity, and Willpower. Although the specific names vary from game to game. All tasks are handled by rolling a d20 under one of these three stats.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Open Engine Month

 This month I'm going to be studying and talking about open game engines. I want to discuss some of the resources out there for someone who would like to design a game, but doesn't quite know where to start and I will be talking about the two role playing games I'm currently developing.

Along the way I will try my best to discuss intellectual property and why it's murky water when it comes to open game design.

Obviously, I can't cover every engine. But, I will be covering the d20 and OSR engines, talking a little more about Powered by the Apocalypse, discussing Mark of the Odd, as well as Forged in the Dark, Fate Core, Open d6, Open Legend, and the GLOG.

I hope to introduce my own open engine by the end of year.

Also, I will try to review some games that serve as examples of those various engines.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

My Top 5 OSR and Non-OSR Indie RPG Roundup

 Friday night while chatting with my wife (who's has avid a gamer as I am,) I ended up discussing what I like about my favorite OSR systems, and my favorite NON-OSR Indie and small developer systems. It turned into kind of a "round up," and I thought I would share it here in a slightly more polished form.

This article isn't as objective as the reviews I usually offer. It's very much subject to my own taste. But, I hope it might help you find games you enjoy if you're anything like me.