Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rex Does Kongai: The Groups

Alright, so let's get this started with an overview of the cards I'll be working on.

I've decided that rather than tackle them as individuals that I'll be working in groups or sets of five. It's going to be a bit faster than I normally work, hopefully, but it needs to be since I want to get this all done by the end of the month. But groups of related cards with shared themes and mechanics are what I tend to focus on anyways. So, rather than work on one card at a time I'll take them in batches of six. Or seven.

As I've said, I tend to think up more cards than are actually needed for the standard five card group. I find it helps since I can weed out the ideas that are working, setting aside the cards that have failed and stripping out their best parts to help other cards that need it. It means some extra work in the early stages but it makes for better cards when all's said and done.

I should also say that, since I've done about eight of these things by now, compared with the original game, my groups tend to be a little more tightly focused. I just don't tend to make groups like the Martial Artists where you have a low-health finicky finesse card like Amaya standing alongside a straight-forward ground pounder like Onimaru. They tend to be variations on a theme instead of a semi-connected hodgepodge. Not only does that help create a sense of unity, it also makes it much easier to balance when it comes time to fill them out with items – if the cards are more similar than there's less difference in how adding an item changes them. The trade-off is that more varied lines can contain a number of different types of card, suited to varying roles or alternative playstyles. When you make a line of physical-only close-range bangers there's not much variety. Whereas groups like the game's original ones support many different preferences.

Which isn't to say that my groups are made up of complete carbon copies of one another. Each character I've made is, I'd hope, distinctive enough to be its own card. But what I do is try to have some kind of organizing principles. An idea, a theme, a sort of definition of what every card in that group should be. An idea, in so many words, for the sort of group I'm making. Which results in characters that do similar things in different ways.

And that's how I start off; by defining the group that I want to make. I might begin with a character or two and extrapolating from them the general design of the cards to follow. I might start, instead, with a vague idea of the kinds of characters I'd like to create that lets me set down those concepts. But whether I work from the bottom up or the top down, before long I have an idea of what I want to play around with in each group and an idea for some mechanics that they can share. Shared mechanics can be as simple as saying “These cards are all going to have a lot of health and resistance” or as complicated as a new type of skill that I want them all to use. For example, one group I've worked on, the Wraiths, all had a sort of debuff that I called a “Mark”. What was different about Marks was that they'd have both an ongoing condition and an ending condition. They'd do something just sitting on a character but they'd also have something which would cause them to prematurely end or cause some effect when they were ended. A mark could, say, raise the chance that attacks would critically hit its target for, say, 10 turns, but it would end the first time they were, in fact, critically hit – but that critical hit would be for 2x damage instead of 1.5. It lets you make a powerful debuff that isn't quite as deadly as it could be as well as debuffs that have multiple reasons for being cast – sometimes you care about the ongoing effect, sometimes you want that conditional effect and the ongoing is a bonus, but for the caster they kick the opponent gong in and on the way out, too. I tried to have a skill like that appears on each and every Wraith bar. And what that does is tie those cards together. With shared mechanics, they don't just share a look or some common flavor, there are elements of the game's system relating them to one another.

So, I try to have both a concept and at least one calling card mechanic for each group. Nothing too fancy, not at first, but just something to guide the development of the cards in that group just as the theme and flavor (The aesthetic bits of a card that don't have anything to do with how it actually works but everything to do with how users approach it.) inform the creation of those cards. Just a sentence or two.

Before I get to the new groups, I'll list the old groups I've done so you can get more of an idea:

  • Elementals: Low health, low resistance, and ultra high damage. A line of Burners that can decimate their opponents but have problems staying on the field. Shared mechanic: “The Best...” - skills that are, hands down, the best version of that sort of skill that game has seen, whether it's interrupts or nukes or whatever else.
  • Undead: A group of dark-using characters with tricky mechanics. Lacking raw power but able to crack opponents open if they're played well or they get lucky. Shared mechanic: Deceptive. Undead cards might not look all that good at first but their conditional skills and effects can reveal hidden power.
  • Zealots: Defensive characters, a group of clerics, priests, and paladins able to heal and buff and protect. With their defenses they can survive but at the cost of sacrificing some offensive power – these cards can kill but it won't be quick. Shared mechanic: Debuff hate. These cards make it dangerous to debuff.
  • Beasts: Big, heavies. The ground shakes when they walk and so should their opponent – they've got tons of health and straight-forward power attacks. But they tend to be overly specialized. Shared mechanic: Combos. These cards have at least one built-in combination of skills that produce good things when used in sequence.
  • Warlocks: Poorly protected casters, they have outsized powers that throw the game's normal conventions out of the window. Whether that's ignoring turns or not caring about targets, they're a weird group that does weird things. Shared mechanic: Gamebreakers. Warlocks tend to do one thing and do it well, pushing a certain mechanic to its extremes.
  • Wrestlers: Physical attackers that excel at close-range. They've all got some way of dealing with or sidestepping the range-changing game so they can keep dishing out the pain. Shared mechanic: Holds. Conditional debuffs with effects that are triggered only by an opponent's actions.
  • Weapons: Light-based heavies that specialize in ranged combat. A deliberate counter-point to the Wrestlers, they've also got a variety of ways of dealing with shuffling ranges. Shared mechanic: Overdrive. These cards need a bit of time to get established but once they've been out on the field for a few turns, they ramp up, becoming much stronger.
  • Wraiths: Dark-based masters of buffing and debuffing. They're not as strong as other cards by themselves but their ability to enhance their own strengths and increase their opponent's weaknesses is unmatched. Shared mechanic: Claws. Most Wraiths have some version of the close-range, low damage multi-hit skill that causes a Bleed to proc.

I could do something similar for the original groups of Martial Artists (Shifty, speedy characters with a focus on changing ranges) and Amazons (straight-forward and uncomplicated, good at one range or the other but specializing in pounding in heads) and the rest although I'll leave that to the imagination. Instead, we'll press on and get to the point of this little exercise and the groups I'll be working with over the next few days.

The four groups I've decided to work with this time are the Necros, the Psychos, the Gangers, and the Rock Stars.

Now just like a group has a central concept so, too, I think, does an expansion set. The kinds of cards created and the items produced are going to shift the game, in some important way. Emphasizing some things and relegating others to the back of the metaphorical bus, as the influx of new cards changes the game's balance. I'd think that with care and attention, a good designer could influence that change and push the game into places where they might want to explore. I'd also think that I'm not exactly a good designer but I'd at least like to pretend to be one, so this third, as of yet unnamed, expansion set of mine also tries to so manipulate the game's players. Not by telling them what to do but by providing the cards that let them do what I'd want. And what I fell like exploring, what the overall theme of this set of cards would be, is the importance of deck construction.

Not that it's unimportant right now but what I want are cards that play into the idea of teamwork. Characters that care about the cards that are around them almost as much as they care about the cards across from them. Mechanics that emphasize synergy and playing as a deck instead of individual fights. Not so much for the benefit of people who've already figured out that their cards work together but to help out everyone who hasn't. To clue new players and novices into the importance of thinking about how characters interact and how that creates strategy.

As I said, I'm not a particularly good designer so I'm probably not going to be able to do that very well but that's, at least, my mindset heading into this. I want to make cards that work together. Won't be the only thing I make. Won't, probably, be most of what I make. But that's the concept that'll be there, lurking in the background, informing the decisions I make.

My first group, then, is going to really emphasize that idea. I call them the Necros and what I want from them is a bunch of team friendly cards. Which might seem a bit odd for a group of dark magic users that manipulate the dead with their Necromantic powers but I'd guess it depends on what they're helping their teammates to do. If it's to destroy their opponents then they're not really a bunch of goodie-two-shoes, now are they? Those ideas of synergy and co-operation that I want to work with are going to ground themselves here and create cards that use their teammate's abilities, somehow. What makes them Necromancers, though, will be turning that deck focus from their team and onto their opponents.

This is something I played around a bit with the Wraiths but I have a mechanic called “exploitation”. Simply put, I'll make powerful skills that require not just energy but a defeated card – a “dead” card. But these skills can only be used a few times in a given match because they'll “exploit” that defeated card, leaving a little irremovable debuff on the card meaning it can't be targeted by such a skill again. For example, say you have a Necromancer who can bring his dead opponents back to life as mindless zombies fighting on his behalf. You'd need a card that's already been killed, for starters, and to keep them from raising those cards over and over again it's turned into a one-shot: each defeated card can only be exploited once. By dealing with dead cards, opponents and allies alike, we should be able to reinforce the necromantic flavor.

In fact, I think grossly overpowered abilities are going to be the order of the day when it comes to this group. These are going to be powerful spellcasters and they should be packing some really splashy stuff. So, I'm going to try and use another limiting mechanic: cooldowns. Skills like Chi Reflect or Hypnotic Stare have a period where they can't be used again, regardless of range or energy. After activating them, their skill buttons have to cool down before they can be pressed again. For those skills already in game with cooldowns, that's only a single turn. But there's no reason it can't be more. That zombie skill, for example, might be so strong (Imagine this. It doesn't just raise that card, it turns them into a sort of uber-buff. A weakened version, but still a second character that's on the field and attacking. One that can't be targeted and one that stands there alongside another character who can attack at the same time. Creating a Zombie card might be making it so there are two opponents on the field at the same time. And if that's not scary, I don't know what is.) that even limiting it to dead cards might not be enough. Or we might not want to have it exploit those defeated cards for some reason. Instead, we could tag it with a cooldown and say it couldn't be used again for, say, 10 turns after being cast. I'll need to figure out how that interacts with other things – does being interrupted when using a cooldown skill cause it to go into cooldown or would that be too much? Still, it opens up a lot of possibilities.

So, we have this:

  • Necros: Dark spellcasters with incredibly powerful abilities, including control over life and death. They work with their teammates and defeated cards to use strong skills and create effects. They'll focus on dead cards, on both sides of the field and use them to fuel their casting. Shared mechanics: Low protection. As casters, they should have low health and resistance, in general – Low Phys, Low Light, Moderate Dark. Teamwork. Draw on their teammates to power their skills. Exploitation. Use up dead cards for one-shot skills. Cooldown. Skills are locked out for a number of turns after use.

As you can see, it's a bit more detailed than the ones above but that's alright. Those were examples while this is what I'm actually working with. It'll likely be refined and streamlined as I go along at any rate. But the point now is that there's plenty there to work with.

Next up, I've had an idea kicking around the back of my head for a group of movie monsters for a while. Cards that are based on characters like Freddy Kruger and Ghostface and the like. Horror movie villains. The stars of slasher flicks. There should be a lot of raw material to work with there and it should be a nice compliment to the more existential, Lovecraftian horror of the Necromancers.

So, that's the flavor of this group taken care of, for the actual mechanics the starting point for this group is a pair of rejects from the last set of cards - one from the Wrestlers, one from the Warlocks. As I was working along on those cards I had an idea for a type of character I called the Mimic. A card that would be able to duplicate or imitate the moves of their opponent. I sprinkled a few of them through the groups and worked them up fairly well, especially this pair. But as it came down to deciding who to keep and who to get rid of, I decided that the Mimics had to go. It's just a difficult concept to get to work well – a card that's only as good as its opponent is a problem. They're either going to tend to be worse than that opponent. In which case why bother playing them? Or they're going to tend to always be better, able to do everything that opponent does and more. In which case, why bother playing anything else? Getting them to the point where they're fair and relatively equal is difficult. And, even then, it's something of a waste of card space since you've just made a card that's a reflection of everything else. But, I've had some time to think about it and I might have worked out some of the kinks. The Wrestler and Warlock Mimics were the furthest along in development and the ones that felt the most like their own cards, so I'm going to use them as the starting point for this group. A group that'll be made up of Mimics and related concepts.

They'll be a group of cards that can imitate and duplicate and otherwise render their opponent's efforts futile. I picture a group that's heavy on interruption and reflection and other disruption. A bunch of meta cards that morph depending on what's played against them.

It's a group that's going to play into the teamwork idea by abandoning it. Playing these cards doesn't help you build your deck but it helps you to copy your opponents. It's also a bit of a joke group, since these cards are largely going to be novelties rather than seriously competitive but that's alright, I'm thinking this set is going to be much more lighthearted than the previous ones. And we can take care of the pro players with other groups.

So, let's pull that together into a set of marching orders:

  • Psychos: Killers and human-shaped monsters, these cards are their opponent's worst nightmares. They can copy skills, they can interrupt skills, they can shut down and shut up their foes in any number of ways. Based on the villains in horror films like Nightmare on Elm Street or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These cards are going to be dangerous so they'll probably be on the low side in terms of survivability. Shared Mechanics: Mimicry. Able to replicate the moves of other cards. Reflection. Able to turn the tabless and make their opponents attack themselves. Interruption. Able to stop their opponents from attacking.

Next, the Gangsters. Since the first two groups have been pretty out there, incorporating some extreme mechanics and complicated ideas, I think it's time to get back to basics and make a group that's both simple in conception and simple to use. An uncomplicated group of solid cards. That'll be good for established players looking for something new to add to their deck and new players looking to get into the game. Although these cards aren't going to be doing anything crazy – unlike the Necros and Psychos – that doesn't mean they have to be boring. Just that their effects have to be straight-forward and easy to understand.

What I'd like to build them around is the idea of ignoring resistance. That'll be their calling card, that mechanic they all share. We can have different variations – maybe for one character here it's an innate that affects all their skills, maybe it's only the special ability on one of their skills, while for others it's conditional, somehow – but they'll be able to slice through resistance somehow. The general idea being that in this world of creepy magic users and frightening psychopaths, they'll be the straight men. The normal characters stuck in a world going mad. Able, though, to slice through all the mystery and deception with their mundane reality.

But I want to continue to build that sense of a dark world of nasty (Yet cartoonish) characters battling it out. So rather than making them the game's white hats, I'm gong to make them the unscrupulous neutral group, out for nothing other than their own benefit. Criminals, in other words. I'm picturing them as a crime family that gets wrapped up in things. Like with the movie villains of the Psychos, the theme of gangsters gives me a lot to play with. You get the Godfather and the Sopranos to base characters on. Characters based on Tony Montana or Joe Pesci. They practically make themselves and that's what good flavor should be doing.

Here's the write-up:

  • Gangsters: A group of flex-range scrappers who use their firearms to ignore resistance and get around shutdown. Bullets slice through protection, knives slip past defenses, and nothing can stop their heavy punches. All gangsters from the same crime family, based – ever so loosely – on famous maffiosos from pop culture. Shared mechanics: Flex-range. Near or Far. Close or away. You can't stop the Gangsters, they're going to beat you either way. Ignores Resistance. Attacks whose damage isn't lowered by resistance. Guns. Have a template skill, a gun shot, with variations that can appear on several bars.

Now, that's where I ran out of steam initially. The Necros were the first group to come to mind, after I dreamed up a few outrageous innate abilities. The Psychos followed as I was picking up the pieces of the last batch of cards. And the Gangster flowed naturally from what came before. But I was stuck when it came to coming up with a fourth group. I knew I needed to have a good group. Some white hats to balance out all the black ones that would be around. Not necessarily a bunch of shinny, happy cards that shot out rainbows but a group of characters who could serve as the heros. Just as the Gangster were going to be serving as its anti-heroes. The side to root for, the protagonists, who could battle against the evil Necromancers, the amoral Psychopaths, and the immoral Gangsters.

I brainstormed for a while before coming up with an answer: the group I'm calling the Rockers. Or the Rock-Stars. Names are pretty much in flux at this point, in case you couldn't tell. But just as we'd be making characters based on famous horror villains and infamous gangster, I could make cards based on famous magicians. A sort of “gods of rock” who'd gathered to battle the forces of evil with their music. Or a bunch of dead superstars who'd been raised by the Necromancers but decided not to go along with their plans. Or even a band, with the five characters in the group taking up different musical instruments – you could have a singer, a drummer, a guitarist, a bassist, and so on, and pretty soon you'd have a full group.

At that point, it didn't really matter. The point was that any sort of musicians would be playing music. And that music could be a mechanic that would not only tie them together but could, in fact, tie them into the sets overall themes: teamwork and synergy. The Rockers, then, would be a group of characters who'd sing songs or play music, conceptually, but in game terms would be buffing up. They'd play rock and they'd get stronger. Not only would they get stronger but so would the rest of their team, their buffs would cover everyone in “earshot” - their whole team. Ubuntu would be the template here, or at least, the pair of buffs he can proc when he's up close, anyway, as the Rockers would be variations on that sort of thing.

Here it is, then:

  • Rockers: Musicians and rock-stars, the Rockers use the power of their hard rock to harm their opponents and boost their teammates. Team-wide buffers and light magic users – a “good” set to balance out all the evil groups in this set. Based on famous rockers like Sid Vicious or Elvis Presley or Alice Cooper. Shared mechanics: Songs. Rockers will buff themselves and their teammates by singing songs.

Well, I've got more but that took longer than I thought. Next time, we'll lay out the various characters that make up each of these groups.

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