Design Diary: Feedback Fun Times!
What's happenin', hepcats? (dear god man you really can't pull that off never do it again)
I saw a post on the Hellboy Fanatics Facebook group earlier today, asking about development of the game, and I realised that I've been completely schtum for way too long. People are rather understandably starting to wonder if I've dropped off the face of the earth, or burrowed under my desk to hide from the deadlines or something.
The hideous truth is that no, I haven't fallen off a cliff somewhere - I've actually been writing the game! Polishing it up, sanding down the rough edges, trawling through the reams of lovely lovely feedback that various lovely lovely people have been sending in - all of that takes a considerable amount of time, and of course Hellboy isn't the only thing I'm working on, because only a sensible person would take on a sensible number of projects at once! That's why I'm here in the office at 10pm, for maybe the third time in the past couple of weeks. Honestly I can't quite remember.
The joys of self-employment, eh? Nobody to blame but myself! The good news is that things are starting to level out at least, as I'm getting my head around how much I can sensibly do each week.
Anyway, enough about me. What's going on with the game, you cry.
So the Hellboy Kickstarter went live with the Beta version of the rules - that was version 3.0 of the mechanical draft, meaning it had already had a couple of serious overhauls. I've always said that the real meat of game design - the bit that people tend not to think about when dreaming of being a designer - is the utter slog of testing and iteration. It takes a lot of effort to write a game, sure, but that's only your first draft. The hard work really begins when you start playing, and taking notes, and tweaking, and playing, and taking notes, and tweaking...
It's the part that takes the longest, and it's the part that's the least immediately rewarding, but it's also the most essential part. You can immediately spot when a game's not had enough of it.
Beta 3.0 was iterated through 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4, with little changes to wordings here and there and tweaks to power levels, difficulty and so forth. I also reworked a few things based on feedback - 3.3 had some interesting changes to how Minions work - which I'll go into in a bit. Now I'm working on 4.0, which is the first stab at the full draft. That means it's the all-singing, all-dancing manuscript, the final text that's going to be put into the printed rulebook. The full draft is an interesting part in the process, because I always rewrite everything from scratch - no copying and pasting, I literally sit there with a printout of the most recent mechanical draft, establish a sensible order for things and sketch out a flatplan, then start writing the rulebook again, from the ground up.
(This, to me, is the dividing line between designing a game and writing a rulebook, which are two very different skill sets. I definitely think I'm better at the former than the latter!)
While I'm doing this rewrite, I take the opportunity to start nailing down terminology. Quite a few people who gave feedback on the beta rules pointed out inconsistent use of terminology, and that's great - but I wasn't too concerned, as it's not something I tend to think about until the full draft. By the time I start this part of the process, I've usually played the game enough that I know how people most comfortably refer to things, what sort of terminology fits best, which terms are a mouthful and need to be shortened, and so on.
It's interesting what pops out when I do this. There will be relics hidden in the mechanical draft, leftovers from several versions ago that got dropped but never deleted. References to old rules that got taken out, or terms that haven't seen the light of day in months. I'll also spot glaring omissions, things that I just assumed were in there but got lost in the shuffle somewhere along the way.
Uh... sorry, I'm rambling on a bit. It's late, I've been working for about thirteen hours, my brain's a bit fatigued. Ahem. Anyone still here?
So... what's new in this shiny update? Let's try some headers, shall we? Break it down a bit.
More Varied Minions
One of the big points of feedback we got during the Kickstarter was that the Minions were a bit samey. I'll take the bullet on this one - it was totally my bad, due to a slight mixup when I was writing the beta rules. Long story short, I thought it would be easier from a gameplay point of view if all the minions of a single broad type had the same rules, regardless of what the exact pose was like - after all, a Frog Monster with his tongue out can't be that different from one with his mouth closed, can it? But! This was one of those snap decisions that came in at the eleventh hour, and I didn't think ahead, because it raised all sorts of questions about other minion sets. The biggest sign that it was a bad call was when you looked at the Nazi troopers, where each pose has a different weapon.
Then I looked back at the Frog Monsters, and yeah, they were actually all kinda different.
And the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to give each variant its own rules. So for the core game, we now have - working titles ahead! - the Frog Monster (generic grunt), the Venomous Frog Monster (dodge his paralysing tongue or else!), the Armed Frog Monster (he'll hit you hard, but you can spend a BPRD icon on an attack roll to disarm him and turn him into a regular Frog Monster) and the Transforming Frog Monster (weak, cowardly, tries to run away, can turn into a fully-fledged Frog Monster). Instantly, there's four times the Minion variety.
To make this work, each of the Minion types has its own card. Here's my early draft of the boxout in the rulebook that describes the card layout - obviously this is subject to review, and everything will be laid out properly and prettified by a professional, but it'll give you an idea.
Compare it to what enemy cards looked like in the beta rules, and you'll see there's a heck of a difference...
There are three big changes here:
- The old cards - all the old components actually, and the rules themselves - were overly reliant on icons rather than words. There's a lot of stuff written online about murdering your darlings, and I realised during the rewrite that this was one of those situations. I'd got caught up on the idea of using iconography to make the game translation-friendly, but it got in the way of ease of comprehension, and it needed to die. So it did! The new rules are a lot easier to understand.
- The cards no longer "upgrade" during a Case File - in the demo case, for example, Cowardly Frog Monsters were replaced with Territorial Frog Monsters then Enraged Frog Monsters. The quadrupling of the number of Minion Cards has precluded this, but something similar is going to happen through the Case File / Deck of Doom cards, so the effect's still in the game.
- Here's the big change. In fact, it's so big that I'm going to give it its own heading...
A Fairer Dice System
One of the recurring pieces of feedback was that enemy attacks were too complex to resolve. This got me thinking about the whole dice system - the idea of having a target number, and each multiple you roll is a success (so on a target number of 3, a score of 3 would be one success, 6 would be two, 9 would be three...). Problem was, this was having an unintended effect. The difference between low skill and high skill was too vast. And again, people were really struggling with working out damage when they got attacked - the target number varied by enemy type, then no successes meant three damage, one success meant two, two meant one and three or more meant no damage. The whole thing was, honestly, a bit messy.
One significant retooling later, and the system's a heck of a lot easier. When an enemy attacks you, it deals the amount of damage shown by its Melee / Ranged Attack Value, minus the result of your defence test. If it's got an attack value of 5 and you roll a 4, you just take one damage. Simple, elegant, so much easier to resolve on the fly! I've then rolled this out across the game; when you attack an enemy, the number you roll is the amount of damage you cause, minus their Resilience (Frog Monsters have Resilience 2, so if you rolled 6 on an attack roll you'd cause 4 damage.)
Another thing that helps keep the dice system fair is a small change that allows agents to use their own action cubes to buff their rolls. Even Johann (who's naff in a fight) can take out a Frog Monster one-on-one, but it's going to cost him his entire turn's actions. All of this works together to make for more interesting decisions, and to cut down the times when a player says "well, I can't really do anything". In our most recent playthrough, everyone was engaged from start to finish and I couldn't be happier.
One of my key design aims, from the start, was to make each Agent feel unique - and more than just a bunch of stats on a card. This is why they've all got unique actions and special rules, as well as their skill icons. (Fun fact - at one stage, no one had any skill icons. All you had was your special rules. This was a bit too weird, though.)
One thing we found during testing, though, was that some agents were a bit one-note. Hellboy was a big culprit - obviously, some people won't have a problem with this, but he generally just jumped forward and hit things. Thing is, that's not quite true to his character in the comics. I always wanted to get something in there to represent his decades of experience as an investigator, so he's gained the following special rule:
Also, note the updated skill icons, and the new colour palette. Following an online poll, it was decided that the traffic light-style "red, yellow, green" colour pattern for dice didn't feel right. Red is now the best, orange in the middle and yellow the worst, with red upgrading to black, and the effect die a fetching shade of blue.
The other agents had a bit of an overhaul as well - Johann's Ectoplasmic Stability (formerly Coherence) was simplified, Liz had some numbers tweaked and Abe's skills and abilities got switched around a bit to balance them out. Just need to get the rest of the Agents figured out now!
Another recurring point of feedback was that the Confrontation felt a bit dull. Obviously that was just one example of the sort of thing that would come up, and there are several very different situations in the full Case Files, but people had a point.
The Confrontation now feels like a significant change in pace - it's had some interesting complexity added to make up for the fact that you're no longer using the Rest or Doom phases, and the HQ board has been cunningly redesigned to really mark a shift in gameplay. I shan't say any more than that for now, but watch this space for more details down the line!
Right, I reckon I've rambled long enough. Hopefully that was a nice selection of information crumbs for you to nibble on - hopefully, I'll be posting more stuff as soon as I find the time! For now, it's back to the drawing board to slave away at rules for demonic turkeys, alien observers and spectral pulp heroes...