Alan Answers: Lots of Questions

Recently, we recieved the following question about the Planet Mercenary RPG. With the permission of the questioner, I’m going to be answering this in a public forum. It’s a big post, so feel free to take your time.

Hi. I love the idea of a Schlock Mercenary-verse RPG, and am scrounging up cash to kickstart it.

However, I do have some concerns. The gameplay rules summary indicated that you’d be borrowing from the XDM book and making first action in combat reliant on who pipes up first.

I do wonder if and hope that you will be implementing some alternative initiative rules than this. In my experience, many of the kind of people who play RPGs are highly introverted, and have an almost impossible time piping up decisively and swiftly, especially if it means talking over another player. This gameplay mechanic would permanently lock the “fast and alert” character archetypes away from those players, because it would tie in-character performance to an out-of-character trait. An analogy to this would be requiring a player to make an impassioned, moving speech when they wish to have their characters convince someone of something, or demonstrate their skill at marksmanship when they want to roll to have their characters take a difficult shot.

Furthermore, I exclusively GM via online, text-based mediums. Even discounting internet lag and the lag for when Roll20 updates everyone, this rule would be highly unsuitable for a text based medium, because speaking is much quicker and fluid than writing, even for those who are very swift at writing. It would lock the first action of combat into being some form of “I dive for cover,” or a copy-pasted boilerplate action like instinctively hitting the deck and laying down suppressing fire.

So, while I sort of understand the idea behind the decision, I hope there is an alternative, possibly more traditional, initiative system enshrined in the rulebook for groups which find it unsuitable to them.

I, for one, prefer that player attributes – an eloquent person giving an example of an eloquent character’s speech, for instance, or a descriptive player writing a short paragraph’s description of exactly how their character eats dirt, scrambles behind a burning, fallen section of bulkhead, and opens fire, as opposed to just saying “I take cover and open fire,” – provided bonuses to the character’s roll, rather than the character’s actions being penalized by them not having those skills.

I am rather concerned with the figure of only “28 pages of rules” in the core book, but I’ll see how it goes. I tend to prefer rules-heavier games, like Eclipse Phase, or the Saga Edition of the Star Wars RPG, or Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, or Shadowrun 4/20th Anneversary, but, well… It’s a Schlock Mercenary-based RPG, something I’ve been hankering for literally for the last decade. So I’m hoping it will go very well. The ablative meat rules particularly interested me, although they also implied that character lethality could be very high by extension as well.

Wow.  There is a lot there, and all of it is very good questions that any experienced RPGer would have. Let’s break it down and I’ll answer ’em.


1) Initiative

Part of the goal of the PM:RPG is to tell a fun story, but in a new way. Because, let’s be honest, that’s the goal of any RPG.  However, a lot of RPGs become a game of “who can learn the depth of the rules best”, and that can stop being fun.

So while we were designing and building PM:RPG, a big focus in the game was to avoid burn out or one player gaining an advantage for being a more hardcore gamer.

Really, the ruleset itself doesn’t have a lot of unnecessary complexity, so we found our solution in the Initiative rolls. Namely, there aren’t any.

A regular RPG goes like this.

Jane: That scumbag betrayed us. I shoot him in the head.

Derek: NO! Don’t do that.

Jane: Why not?

Derek: *Reasons*

Jane: Oh, uh ok. Nevermind. I don’t shoot.

I mean, c’mon. How fun is that? For Jane? Or the Game Chief? Probably not very. The PM: RPG doesn’t allow take backs, changes or backsies. You say it? It’s going down. This is how the PM:RPG goes.

Jane: That scumbag betrayed us. I shoot him in the head.

Derek: No! Don’t do that.

Game Chief: Jane, roll atack. Derek, your first action is screaming no. If you RP it well, I’ll give you a RiPP.

Jane: *rolls* Uh, LOTS of damage.

Derek: *stares*

Game Chief: Great! His head explodes in a fine mist of weird green goo! Android goo! (I just watched Alien).

Wow. Doesn’t that sound more fun? This form of play leads to one VERY important thing. Players learn to play the gamenot the rules. They learn to work as a group, they learn to anticipate each other and respond. A few sessions later, here’s what you see.

Game Chief: The employer has clearly double crossed you.

Derek: I pull out my gun and leap to the side, because I know Jane is going to open fire and I better cover her.

Jane: *satisfied they’ll get paid twice, begins unloading her Shurikannon into all meatbaggy targets*.

It’s a pretty great feeling to watch players grow as players and a group as opposed to growing in knowing the rules.

However, as our questioner above has pointed out, at times, what we wrote won’t fit. We made some very deliberate design choices that will not work for every group or situation. So throughout the PM:RPG, you’ll find sidebars that explain alternate rules, solutions to the problem, or methods that might work better for your plans. We have 3 different initiative rules (aside from the main ones) and I can promise a few will show in the book for Game Chiefs to use if they’d rather.

A big goal of the game is growing as a group, as a team. We made rule choices to encourage that.

2) Rule Length

Our questioner is right. 28 pages of rules isn’t a lot. Let me clarify that a bit: Yes, there are 28 pages of rules. But throughout the book, there will be littered adventure hooks, places for alternate rules.

And frankly, 28, is probably a little low. As long as Howard keeps writing fluff that needs rules, the rules will keep expanding.

However, I can attest that ALL the rules regarding rolling you need to do? Those fit on two pages. The game should be fast, fun, and humorous. Not a complicated mess that requires constant rule checking.

3) Too lethal?

I posted about the Ablative Meat Shield rules previously, and some people brought up the lethal nature of the game.

The PM:RPG is certainly more lethal than many other RPGs. Your character will probably die if he’s shot more than twice in a combat (on a bad roll maybe even once).

There’s armor that protects you, and you’ve got RiPPs and Grunts for when the armor doesn’t work. Both are great, but the real focus of the game is your characters, as extensions of the main character, the Mercenary Charter. Characters (especially grunts) will die. They can retire, seriously maimed for life. You may need to make new characters throughout the campaign. You can promote your grunts if they’ve survived (for a bonus even! See the link above). The story that PM:RPG wants to tell is the story of an entire group of mercenaries. The ones who start, who retire, who die, who leave, who come back, who get promoted, and who get hired.

It might challenge some expectations, but we’re betting you’ll come to love it. We did.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. Post them here, on the Kickstarter, through the Contact Us Button, and you’ll get an answer.




26 thoughts on “Alan Answers: Lots of Questions”

  1. In my experience, different media do need different rules. (And I imagine that different players do as well*.) I know when writing interactive fiction over the Internet, usually small groups use initiative order, but I’ve seen large battles work by having all PCs act at once, then the game-runner weaves that into a coherent narrative**, NPCs respond, then the NPCs act, then all PCs react and then act. (Often with fixed times rather than waiting to see if everyone is done.)

    I also think the idea of a game where you have an ensemble cast of PCs playing, if everyone knows what they are getting into. Like, if you expect a heroic setting where Our Heroes can shrug off wounds the way grunts can’t, then reality seems Not Fun. But once your expectations align with reality, that’s more fun. It’s interesting and different.

    * Like if you do have different levels of player introversion, the Game Chief is going to make sure that Jane doesn’t dominate the combat by being loud.

    ** A bit like how the Game Chief took Jane and Derek’s separate inputs and said ‘okay, so this is what happened’. If Jane and Derek had tried mutually contradictory things (and had tried to say it over one another), the Game Chief could then say ‘okay, so how about this?’

  2. Question on the “28 pages” of rules. Where does equipment fall in the rules vs fluff split?

    1. It falls in the “28 pages was a low estimate, and Im gonna revise that to about double because Howard wrote a lot” section.

      Basically equipment rules will account for 14 or more pages, plus the rules for creating custom equipment (that we’re pretty proud of).

      1. Cool! Looking forward to it, and to the future blog posts talking about the project I backed.

  3. I’ve found that a ‘no takebacks’ approach to announced actions in RPGs can often sour the mood unless everyone is on the same page about it. On the other hand, it sounds like a perfect fit for a high-lethality environment, so I’ll be excited to see how it plays out for my group.
    Also, could I look forward to a post about the custom weapons rules? They sound right up my alley.

    1. The trick is indeed to get everyone on the same page. The rulebook clearly states why.

      But there are alternate options as always.

  4. Wow. That’s a big post, to answer a lot of questions. You even italicized the names of the other role-playing games that were mentioned to you by name!

    Your answers are, well, pretty damn good. I don’t think a lot of them will work for me and the groups I tend to run, but they are pretty well thought out and I can see the reasoning behind them – and I’m glad you’re writing sidebars of optional alternatives for those who can see that certain things won’t work for all groups.

    Especially the initiative-order-by-order-of-voicing-up thing. The way you worded it re: Jane and Derek sounds, in my experience, not like it’s going to lead to Derek knowing that Jane (or Jane’s characters, but come on, it’s Jane,) is going to shoot first and thus covering her, but is going to lead to Derek getting really upset about the fact that Jane constantly shoots people that he doesn’t want shot, but that she keeps piping up before he does and there is nothing he can do to stop it since Jane is faster on the draw – IRL – than he is.

    In the end, I foresee that situation ending with Derek’s chracter arming himself with an AP-220, and passing the GM (GC, sorry,) a note telling him that he’s been taking reaction-enhancing drugs so the next time Jane tries that, he can quickdraw first and incinerate her. (Or just shoot the gun out of her hands, and the hands off of her arms.)

    My experiences lead me to believe that letting things like that simmer will not lead to OOC growth so much as OOC conflict, which very quickly leads to Jane or Derek quitting, or more probably Bill and Marty the two players who weren’t mentioned, telling the GM (GC… Not thinking I’m gonna get used to “Game Chief,” if I’m honest,) they don’t want to keep playing with those two constantly at each other’s throats, and just leaving, or worse, just not coming to games and becoming unreachable.

    For an in-person group of people who know each other, it might work better. It might not, I don’t know. (It might tear real, in-person friendships apart, which would be an even worse-case scenario.) On the other hand, using an initiative-based order doesn’t necessarily prevent the actions of the first player to pipe up from hosing the group, nor does allowing take-backs, but they may well reduce it significantly.

    Let me give you an example of allowing one player’s actions to nearly hose the entire group: In the Eclipse Phase game I’m running, the players started on Mars. (They are no longer on Mars, which should give you an idea of just how big a screw-up this kind of thing can be.) In the setting, there’s a big thing where re-instantiated refugees of the Fall – basically people who escaped from the robot apocalypse on Earth as literally nothing more than their memories and senses of self, as data, collectively called their “Ego,” being turned into indentured labor on Mars and other places. There’s also a lot of people who object to that, specifically most everyone who is an Anarchist.

    One of my players’ characters is an Anarchist (Actually by now they’re almost all Anarchists, barring the group Technosocialist, but the character in question has always been the loudest and the most prone to shooting without thinking,) a particular breed of Anarchist known as the Scum, who was on Mars thanks to the Scum Swarm she flies in swinging by Mars at the time, and was with the group. The group were investigating to find a missing agent for the giant conspiracy they all work for, and their lead led them to a Chinese noodle-house with an indentured waitress. She was a contact of the missing agent, and the agent had last been seen confirmably as herself (they had earlier found her body, but with some Triad punk in it,) in the noodle-house. They were supposed to just ask the waitress about what she had seen.

    Unfortunately, that Scum member of the group was the only member who was culturally (and ethnically,) Chinese, and so they sent her in alone. She’s also a radical anti-indenture, anti-hypercorporate Anarchist. After she spoke with the waitress, she decided to liberate her. At gunpoint. Specifically by threatening her contract owner, then marching the waitress herself into the car at gunpoint in a reasonably three-fifths-assed attempt to make it look like she was being kidnapped for some reason, instead of liberated.

    Either way, it really jammed the group up and nearly blew their entire operation to find the missing agent, because it got both the cops and the Triads that the noodle shop guy was paying for protection looking for them, and they had to scramble to jam the woman’s tracking beacons and pull all kinds of favors to get her undercover and the beacons disabled, etc.

    Things went downhill from there when their encore, which was supposed to be rescuing their agent from the Triad ego-banks in a second-story job turned into burning the entire hotel containing said ego banks to the ground as a cover for liberating every indentured ego there. (There’s a reason they’re not on Mars anymore. The only three directives their Firewall handler gave them about that mission were: 1: Don’t make the news; 2: don’t burn down Chinatown, and 3: Don’t start any gunfights on the streets of Chinatown. They’d already broken all three directives literally before they got in the front door.)

    Anyway, my point is that in my experience, if you let one hot-headed player who doesn’t have a problem speaking up first and making their decisions decisive (in the “make an enemy for the whole group” decisive way,) control the game like that, it doesn’t lead to good outcomes.

    “In-character” solutions are not good solutions, because they tend to involve intraparty violence, which in my experience is the death knell of a group, as unlike Sgt. Schlock, the compliance of a character run by a player cannot be easily and simply bought with a giant tub of Ovalkwik and maybe a shiny new weapon, and if the immediate “problem” is solved by simply killing one player, then any of that player’s future characters are liable to be vehicles for out-of-character revenge upon the characters of the players whom that player feels wronged them. (Which in turn leads to their next characters being out for revenge… And the cycle escalates badly.)

    All in all, I really do prefer to just allow takebacks, rather than let this kind of thing escalate to the points where players are ready to kill each other’s characters. That’s a campaign-ender in my experience.

    Now, of course, my experiences are not universal. But frankly, I cannot comprehend people who say they’ve played very fulfilling and long-lasting campaigns which were a revolving-door fest of daggers in the backs of the other PCs, to the point where it astounds me they managed to find any time to kill any NPCs.

    Anyway, regarding rule length: I am glad to learn that the rule pages are expanding as Howard writes more weapon fluff. I do love me some gear porn RPGs, like… Well, literally every single RPG listed in the email that prompted this blog post. It might as well be a list of my favorites. Especially if it includes beautifully-illustrated images of said gear. Or even cartoonishly-illustrated images of said gear. I’m not picky.

    Regarding lethality:

    I dunno about this one. I mean, consider the story that this game was based off. Characters routinely shrug off amounts of fire that would kill most mortals. Granted this is because they tend to be wearing low-profile powered armor (or high-profiled power armor) and heavily soldier-boosted, or else are a Carbosilicate Amorph, but still, they don’t die very often, even when people fire armor-piercing rounds at them.

    Thinking about it, there haven’t even been that many permanent deaths in the company: the first Doc, Hob, Shu’vu, Pronto and Brad. Technically Schlock also suffered permanent death, but they resurrected him from backup, so it doesn’t count.

    Which brings me to my next point: Medical technology in Schlock Mercenary started out at “if you can nanny-bag the head intact, we can rebuild them,” and has escalated to levels that Eclipse Phase would envy, in that not only can you build someone a new body in a matter of days, you can restore them from the backup in their skin if they’ve been drinking Retroexocephalderm (or if they have an implanted cortical stack EP style, or if they have a backup on file, again, EP style.)

    Really, I don’t see lethality being a problem if the player characters are part of a group which has access to these technologies, which as of Schlock’s current date, should be spreading like wildfire thanks to the Neoafans having broadwaved the requisite base technology the way Kevyn broadwaved the Terraport. Sure, you might be put out of action by a couple of good hits that breach your armor and/or burn you (if you happen to be an Amorph,) but if any bits of you survive, or you have records on file, or even if your head just survives and gets into a nanny-bag, old-school style, you should be good to go.

    1. It sounds to me as though the problem may be in the player rather than the rules. If one player is going to force the others to play along with their actions, either because they want to stay in character or because they just aren’t thinking about the consequences of their in game actions, and they aren’t responding to in or out of game requests to stop there isn’t much any form of rules can do to prevent that.

      If it’s simply a matter of one person always being the first to react, it’s fairly easy to ask them to try to keep options open for other players- and this can be fairly easily represented in game with the mercenary company command structure and the next people to speak up offering an alternative viewpoint until the players have hashed out their plan through an in game discussion.

      The game is supposed to more or less be an improv session- the goal is to play along with each other’s stories and laugh at the inevitably hilarious result. If arguments are erupting over courses of action to take the game is being taken a tad too seriously.

      1. The individual above me really covered my response.

        I expect everyone to realize it’s a game and to behave as adults. In 6 different playtest groups with 4 different GCs, we haven’t had what you’re describing. If it does happen, I trust that the individual Game Chief will know how to address it within the emotional minefield of their group.

      2., Howard, Alan, re: players forcing other players to go along with their ideas:

        It’s not that my game groups are hostile jerks to one another.

        It’s just that, very often, I find that players will speak up the first thing on their mind. Often this is going to be along the lines of “Oh god kill it with fire!”

        Sometimes, this is the correct action. Often, it bears some deliberation, if there is time. If the rules are directing the GM to make every player’s character do the first things out of their mouths, then those players will either have to clam up about everything, or catch a lot of heat from the other players for impulsively doing something without the other players giving them a chance to cool them down and get them to reconsider.

        And sure, while that may be something that’s realistic, it’s not much fun over the table when one of the players, say, headshots General Xinchub on sight, when the rest of the players would prefer to strap him to a chair and perform some Unioc-style lead-pipe cryptanalysis on him. It gets especially un-fun if Xinchub had backup they didn’t know about and suddenly the whole company is massacred.

        @Alan: Re: Additional rounds of combat:
        Yeah, your preferred solution would never work over roll20, I’m afraid, between internet lag and the system lag of Roll20. Although people would have time to type before hitting enter…

        I much prefer a more structured initiative system, with character stats determining the speed at which they act.

        In the alternative initiative system, how does it work?

        Is it similar to D&D, where a turn is a discrete thing, and everybody gets to go once in a turn in an order determined by their stats and a random roll, and then a new turn begins?

        Is it similar to Exalted 2nd Edition, where all actions have a “Speed,” measured in Ticks, and after taking an action, they only get to act again after the number of Ticks that their last action took to conclude/recover from have passed?

        Is it similar to Shadowrun or Eclipse Phase, where combat takes place in discrete Turns, but characters may sometimes get more than one full action in a Turn, thanks to, say, being augmented with wired reflexes, or being an AI who is processing and acting very quickly?

        We’ve seen in Schlock Mercenary that combat AIs think, act, and react much, much faster than meat glaciers, but we’ve also seen organics who are arguably heavily augmented from their species baseline standard (from whichever source of augmentation, be it genetic, chemical, nanological, or mechanical, or simply from being a practiced quickdraw,) act and react far faster than other combatants, let alone civilians. So, I don’t think it’s going to go the D&D way, but it could go either of the other ways.

        1. The main alternate systems are similar to D&D in that one is a static roll/action, highest to lowest.

          AIs aren’t playable and to keep the focus on the players we leave them in the background of the game (outside of Starship Combat).

          As a game designer, I expect GCs to be able to adapt to player decisions and adjust accordingly. No play survives contact with players, and the PM:RPG lives up to that, by making that a mechanic.

          1. Eh… Well, the D&D initiative system does have the virtue of being simple and easy to comprehend, at least. That’s not a bad thing, all told, especially if you’re getting newer players into RPGs.

        2. Yeah, forcing people to retrain reflexes that aren’t appreciated isn’t fun no matter how realistic. Still, if the group gets into the spirit of improv (no naysaying, addition on to the previous point) then an alternate realistic solution presents itself. That character with an itchy trigger finger whose first reaction is to fill the room with automatic weapons fire- have the other players take away their weapons, so their first reaction turns from shooting something full of holes to grasping uselessly for a weapon. It may not be as fun for the player who can’t blow everything up anymore, but it’s easy to work with. Also, it seems more like the kind of thing mercenaries would do, if the comic is anything to go by.

    2. It sounds like your group needs to learn to play *with* each other rather than *against* each other. PM:RPG, run correctly, is a great tool to teach that. Whether or not your players learn that is the deciding factor on whether or not they enjoy the game.

      We’re not going to burn development cycles to fit the play style of a group of people who are determined to be hostile jerks to each other. Game Chiefs who can manage play groups like that are welcome to introduce whatever measures are required, and the system is easily flexible enough to incorporate that.

    3. I guess it really does depend on the group of players – your description of the SNAFU on Mars sounds fantastic to me, almost the perfect game session. It has pitched out of control, not even the GM/GC is sure where things are going, and the party are going to have to cover each other’s backs, squabbling despite covering as a team, if they are going to make it out of here.

      That said, I tend towards groups that enjoy the spiraling chaos as situations slide out of control, and in character frustration is extremely enjoyable only as long as it remains in-character. I get that your group may have a different expectations of a good game, but from that description of the ex-Mars trip? Darn, I want in! That sounds fun!!!!

  5. One thing I don’t get about the initiative system: how does it handle multiple rounds of combat? Does everyone need to act once before “whoever pipes up first” determines who acts in the next round? Or could someone go twice if another player isn’t paying enough attention (or is too indecisive) to say what they’re doing?

    1. There are two options. Everyone goes and then you do it over again or you just leave it chaotic and make them work for it.

      I prefer the second. You say something, we resolve it and I make you count to (Stat number) before you can say something else. It keeps it fun and engaging, and it’s been well received.

  6. On the subject of answering questions: I asked a question with the Kickstarter “ask a question” button about international shipping that you guys haven’t answered yet, and I can’t back the project until I know how it’s going to work, because I live in Australia and I don’t want to get stuck with “surprise” shipping costs after the Kickstarter’s over.

    So, how is international shipping going to work for this Kickstarter?

    1. @nick012000: A question about international shipping from Nicholas Scott was answered on April 17th in the Kickstarter interface. Check your Kickstarter messages?

      1. Oh, right, okay, I see. Thanks. I was expecting it to be added to the FAQ at the bottom of the page, since I didn’t think I’d be the only one asking that.

  7. @Shadowdragon. You gave us a great example of how a single player can derail the group’s plans. But you also gave us a great story that resulted from that derailment. While the story might not have gone as smoothly as the players (or GM) would have hoped, it sounds like it’s alot more interesting the way it turned out. And it seems to me that that is the point of this game– telling really interesting stories (that may or may not end with “And that’s why we can’t go back to that planet anymore.”)

    1. What makes a good story isn’t always what makes a good game.

      “Schlock incinerated Xinchub on sight, so we had to abandon our contract and run for neutral space, and now everybody’s angry at Schlock but they also have to kind of admit he only what they all wanted to do” would make a good story arc in Schlock Mercenary, the webcomic.

      “Bill, why the f*** did you do that, now we all have to use backup characters we left on the ship, we’ve lost the contract, we’re being hunted, and the GM has twenty pages of setting and plot that are now useless because we shot the guy who hired us!,” on the other hand, makes for a lot of inter-player anger, not to mention gives GMs a massive headache because their entire story has been derailed into the company’s flight from what is arguably justice.

      1. @SD: You’re being a broken record, which makes our answers sound the same way.

        If your group can’t turn failure into fun, this isn’t the game system for you.

        If the only way for your players to enjoy themselves is to always be awesome and never experience any in-game risks of consequence, then this isn’t the game system for you.

        The Planet Mercenary RPG centers around earning the awesome by learning to play together, and play well.

        That’s the end of the discussion.

      2. The solution to this problem is to stop inviting Leeroy Jenkins to game with you.

        If your ‘friend’ cannot learn to play in a way that doesn’t perpetually screw their ‘friends’ over, or will not do so because they are unable to enjoy themselves without screwing their ‘friends’ over, the initiative rules are not the problem.

        The problem is insisting on including a resolute egotist in a cooperative activity.

        The solution is to tell them to go away until they’ve figured out what ‘play’ means.

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