Principles of Planet Mercenary’s Design

I want to talk about some of our design principles, how we arrived at them, and what they mean for players and game chiefs.

1) Story Comes First

This might not be immediately obvious, but this design principle grows straight out of the First Law of the Schlockiverse: “There Will Be A Punchline.” We won’t let complex calculations drown the story. Players should be able to very quickly see that the thing they want to do has an associated bonus or penalty, and that their success or failure will be determined just as quickly with a single throw of the dice. By scooting those mechanics aside, we free players up to get into the heads of their characters, and to embrace the shared storytelling aspect of good role play.

2) Abstract Everything Up

Every game is a physics simulation of a sort. We can’t do away with physics altogether, and we don’t want to. Our goal however, is to treat the physics as abstractly as possible without violating the laws of nature.

A good example of this is your party’s grunts. You may have a hundred NPCs in your employ, and in combat this company of sophonts will all be fighting with you. But we won’t be rolling for them individually, because that way lies madness.

Murtaugh-blogversionYour character’s combat rolls will be handled individually, of course, but the fire team alongside you will be handled en masse, with a single roll determining how they fare during this turn. That group of six grunts will be treated, in a sense, as if they’re a single character, with bonuses and penalties that stem from how you’ve been treating them, and how effectively you’re issuing orders.

“Abstract everything up” means that you can shout “suppressing fire!” during your heroic leap. A throw of the dice will then determine whether or not your crew is covering you while you dive for the airlock controls armed only with a logic probe and a bowl of chili.

3) Failure is Fun

This principle has been the hardest to get across. Many role-players want to game the system so that they can’t die, and can’t even really get hurt. Many games are designed around “balanced” encounters which ensure that the party only loses a fight when that loss has been scripted.

That is not this game. You will fail. You will die. You will lose teammates and gear and reputation, and the whole time it’s happening you will be enjoying it because it’s going to put you in the middle of the best story you’ve ever told. And it’s going to make the end of that story the sweetest, most awesome thing you’ve ever heard.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But we built this game with that end in mind.

If your character dies, you immediately head-hop into a member of your fire team, who has just received a battlefield promotion. Will she swear vengeance upon your killers? Perhaps not. She might say “it took that jackwagon way too long to catch a bullet. I’m done taking orders. I’m giving them now.” Your first character’s failure to survive the cascade of hot, jacketed metal becomes your second character’s opportunity to become the Heroine of the Resistance.

4) Role Play is Learning

Many role playing games have a learning curve that is built around figuring out the “builds.” Once you know how to build a tank, or a healer, or a suicide ranger, the probability curves bend in your favor, and you win. All the time.

Planet Mercenary has a learning curve that wraps around the other players. The timed initiative system (“Spoke first? Goes first”) may seem at to be an invitation for the loudmouth to dominate the game. And it is. And then it is a thrown gauntlet, an open challenge for the rest of the players to take the game back, and to turn the loudmouth back into a party member.

Your game group will grow and change. You will learn to react to one another, and with practice you will become a well-oiled machine in combat. You may need the guidance of a wise Game Chief to make this transition, but when it happens you will be amazed by each other. And that? Oh, that’s so much more fulfilling than having an ironclad DPS build on a sheet of paper.

5) No Backsies

Did you state an action and then realize it was dumb? The fastest way to derail a game forever is to allow phrases like “no, wait, that’s not what I do” or “no, you didn’t do that” to affect previous events. See those sections above on “failure is fun” and “role play is learning?” Yeah… no backsies is how that happens.

And by the same token, we’re not backing down from this. Our design principles are bold ones, and they differentiate Planet Mercenary from every other game we’ve played. Yes, we risk losing a few players by saying this, but if what you want is to always succeed and to have exact numerical values to describe every aspect of your character’s physical form, equipment, and training, Planet Mercenary is not the game you’re looking for.

We think it’s a lot better than the game you’re looking for, and that, too, is a position from which we’re not allowing ourselves any backsies.

(If we fail, it’s going to make a *great* story.)


18 thoughts on “Principles of Planet Mercenary’s Design”

    1. Over the Edge takes physics abstraction quite a bit further than Planet Mercenary does. It uses a dice pool rather than skill or ability scores. This alters the success/failure dynamic quite a bit by creating a different probability curve for each of the character’s key abilities. It’s not a bad model, but it’s not the one we wanted to use. WaRP (the Over the Edge game engine) is under open game license, so I suppose we could have, but the Mayhem deck and D6³ mechanics require tracking a number of permutations, and with a variable dice pool that would be nightmarish. Or at least very slow.

      That said, the design principles of Story First, Abstraction, and Failure fit pretty well in an Over the Edge game.

  1. I like everything listed here. My players will hate me and love me for it. When I finally have the game, Gen Con will never be the same.

  2. Definitely a new and varied approach. looking forward to seeing how it all works out..

  3. How does the beign replaced by a grunt upon death rule work with things like cryo kits and red-reo nannies?

  4. So between this website, the Kickstarter comments, and comments on Howard’s blog posts, I’m noticing a lot of skeptical people regarding the Speak First Go First and No Backsies methodologies. My D&D group has been using these both as house rules for 2 years now, and we’re loving it.

    Our adoption of these two rules came about because the players, being relatively new to D&D at the time, did not enjoy how slow the combat was. They kept telling me (DM) that if they wanted to play a turn based game, they’d just play a video game instead. So I came up with the Speak First Go First rule and implemented it, but it caused another issue; one of the players would blurt things out such as “I BLOW HIM UP!” upon meeting new characters, simply because he found doing such things funny. This aggravated the group and myself, so we brainstormed and laid this No Backsies egg.

    And what an egg it is. It’s solved the issue, and the group has done just what Howard claims; they’ve learned. That player who would shout murderous actions learned that there are consequences to doing so. The group has learned to back him up if he does shout stupid things out, even if they are less stupid than blowing a new acquaintance up. The group has also learned to work together, and combat has become more lifelike, with players sharing ideas and strategies on the fly, executing said ideas and strategies, and suffering the consequences, good or bad. It’s made the game WAY more enjoyable, and creates WAY better stories to share with others.

    When I saw that PM:RPG was implementing those rules, my thoughts were, “Finally, someone gets it!” Though I was already planning on doing my part in funding the project, the inclusion of those rules made me all the more excited. I’m considering trying the Ablative Meat concept in my next campaign, but my players aren’t totally convinced into being okay with their PC’s dying.

    Anyways, thank you so much for executing this amazing idea of a Schlockiverse RPG, and for sticking to your guns (i.e. focused on not over promising and giving us what we’ve paid for and not bending your rules to people opposed to change). I am ECSTATIC to give PM:RPG a try!

      1. I don’t have quite as much experience as Blaze, but I’d still like to add a hearty “Me too”.

        I’ve been enjoying a lot of the mechanics discussions the last few weeks and even got inspired to get a kindle copy of XDM (note to self: get physical copy for loaning around). If I hadn’t been primed I don’t know if I would have noticed, but with that background the following really made an impression:

        Last week one of my role-play groups had a combat in which the surprise round basically went by the say-it-do-it rules, and it blasted right through in maybe a minute. However, then there was the drag of: Roll initiative, organize the board, step through it, of course everybody has to ponder for a minute what they want to do, and then everybody else gets bored and start side conversations and even wander off, and then you have to recap everything for everyone on their turn. Bottom line, it made a marked difference to the drag that combat usually is. I’m definitely going to start campaigning for that to be a house rule in future games I’m in.

        On a side note, I would love to hear more about the mercenary charter and how it works. Just the idea that there’s an in-story reason for all the PCs to actually get together, rather than just “A fighter a monk and a wizard walk into a tavern…” sounds really interesting to me. I think you’ve got more to it than that though and I’d love to know what some of that is.

        (Now, should I get my copy of XDM from Amazon or the Schlock store, hmm?)

    1. Some questions that I still have and that I haven’t seen mentioned with the ‘Speak First Go First and No Backsies ‘ rule is what about the GM? Does he also have to Speak First and fast to make his goons take action? Since he’s usually in control of a multitude of characters compared to the players, it doesn’t seem far fetched that he would need a bit more time to keep them all in mind, which seems like it would result in the players usually going first.

      And I’m guessing the one who go’s first his action is resolved (roll the dice) before the next ‘speak first’ match go’s? or does everyone just say what they are gone do and then that round is resolved in the speaking order, after which the next ‘speak first’ match happens?

      1. There’s two ways.

        Rule one, is the Game Chief rolls a d6. He goes after the player with that number on the dice. It’s easy, fast and random.

        Rule two (and the one I use), is to go when it’s thematically appropriate. I just say, “And I go, now.” Players then have to wait. But that mindset does require a Game Chief to remember his job is to tell a great story, not to “win”.

        As for who goes where, I resolve the actions that are spoken, and I describe the scene until someone interrupts me and says they do something, then we start over. Sometimes that ends with me describing the scene where the bad guys go before the players, and sometimes a player jumps in.

        It’s a very natural order/flow of things when you’re playing, but on paper, it does sound scattered at times. When we upload the gameplay video, you’ll see.

        1. Ah, a video would be great, as I’ll have to convince my group who several years ago switched to rule heavier systems because one of them tends to dominate when it comes to explaining his way and bending the explanation’s to get his way. And they’ll probably be afraid he’ll dominate again.
          And while I understand that letting the part handle that is part of this system, seeing it in action will probably help :p

      2. You have to realize that it does not so much apply to the GM (or in PM:RPG terms the GC) because the GM controls the flow of the battle. With SFGF in effect, if five players all shout out actions, it is the GM’s responsibility to sort out who acts first or simultaneously, and throw in the actions of the opponents as well. Sometimes this involves the GM “pausing” the game to get clarifications. Naturally, the opponents react to the PCs’ actions.

        What tends to happen in my group is what I call “cinematic battling.” This evolved naturally as the players learned that I have but a single brain to process everything, and only one mouth to speak with. Essentially, SFGF occurs, and the “camera” focuses on their actions and the person they’re battling. As others chime in, the “camera” moves around, getting “shots” of the characters doing their things. Likewise, the opponents react “on camera” as well, and often as direct reactions. For example:

        P1: “I shoot him, aiming for the torso”
        P2: “I pop out of hiding to shoot him in the chest”
        GM: “P1 spoke first. Roll”
        P1: 18 [using D20 mechanics, not D6^3]
        GM: “You hit him in the left arm. Unluckily for you he’s right handed, and returns fire. Roll Reflex”
        P1: “22”
        GM: “He misses”
        P2: “I pop out of hiding to shoot him in the chest”
        P1: “I roll to take cover behind some cargo”
        GM: “P2, roll DEX. P1 Roll acrobatics”

        One way I describe “cinematic battling” to other groups I’ve played with is to watch Lord of the Rings. Any of the battles in those three movies. The camera will be on Aragorn and his foe, then jumps to Legolas killing 12, then jumps to Gimli, then back to Aragorn, then to Gandalf, then to Gimli and Legolas teaming up for a mement, etc. It makes the battles far more enjoyable for the players, and as GM I like them better too. It keeps the game moving, keeps the players at the table on the edge of their seats, and works really well at keeping distractions from occuring.

        As the GM, it doesn’t really take any time to get used to the system. You can still track health just the same as before, and most of the mechanics remain the same in that sense. If a battle begins and you want the opponents to go first, simply say so as you end the narrative:

        (this is what I imagine PM:RPG might be like)
        GM: “You guys successfully hack the ship’s security, and brute force it to open the door for you. Walking into the cargo bay, you’re greeted by five human men, guns aimed at you, smiling. ‘Nice of you to join us’ one of them says before opening fire.”

        At that point the battle begins, and SFGF comes into effect. P1 could decide to activate a shield, while P2 goes diving behind a box and P3 gets shot in the head, uses a RiPP, and as a result a grunt dies but he gets the chance to return fire.

        Another thing you should note is you might need to throw away the concept of “rounds.” My group’s version of SFGF and No Backsies tends to not devolve into rounds. If, as a player, you want your character to do something, say so. If you don’t then your PC is going to sit and watch P3’s character channel Bruce Lee as she takes out 5 guys. It’s the nature of the system, and FAR more resembles real life.

        Hopefully that answered your questions without creating too many new ones. I tend to be very bad at explaining things over a text medium. What I can say for sure is that SFGF and No Backsies revolutionized the game for my group. We love it.

      3. My current gaming group uses a similar rule to “SFGF.” For reference, we’re playing a game in the Shadowrun setting, but not using the Shadowrun rules because they’re too system-heavy for this gaming group (we’re using a modified version of Mavels Heroic instead).

        The way we do it, the character who makes the most sense to go first (the street-samurai with reaction enhancers if it’s a combat scene, the technomancer if it’s a Matrix scene, etc) gets the choice to go first if they are ready with an action. But, if they aren’t but someone else is, the first person to speak first goes first. Once someone has acted, they can pass it off to whomever they want to, which can be another party member or the GM. When it’s the GM’s turn, all of the NPCs act in whatever order the GM wants. Once everyone has gone, we start from the top. The majority of the time, everyone knows what they want to do and setting up a roll is really fast in our system. So, by letting the player who last went officially have the say on who goes next, it prevents the quieter players from being overlooked. This organically turns into basically the same thing as “SFGF” since we just don’t pick people who aren’t ready with an action since that would be silly.

        Our method both allows the players to have control over what order things play out in and allows the players to choose when the GM goes. By letting the GM go before all the players have gone, the remaining players can react to what the GM did sooner. They effectively get to take two turns between GM turns if desired. So, when someone has no idea what to do, rather than bogging the game down by trying to figure out what they can do that’s helpful, they just pass to the GMs and react to the fallout.

        Also, at any time, the GMs can interrupt whatever we’re doing and take their turn immediately without us passing to them. To do so, they have to spend some points from their pool and it isn’t cheap, but it lets the GM say stuff like, “Her successful hacking opens the service entrance to the facility allowing you to sneak past the security at the front door, but before any of you can react, the guards who knew you were coming all along open fire.”

        In the PM system, if I was GCing a game (which I will be, because I had to promise my wife I would before she would let me back the project), I think I would say the GC goes after all of the players who were ready with actions. If there are people left who are unsure of what they want to do, it’s unlikely that will still be true after all of the NPCs take their turn. So, I think I’ll say that the first time each round that there’s a ~15 second pause between actions, that signals it’s the GCs turn. I feel that will encourage players to not let there be such a pause if they can help it and make the game run smoother. And, I think if the GC wants to go sooner, they can interrupt whomever is starting to take an action, give them an RiPP, and go instead.

  5. There’s one game mechanic that I’ve seen in another game, that I think would be great for this, that I have not seen any reference to yet.

    Psychological Limitations. Straight out of Champions.

    In other words, every character has some personality quirk. Possibly multiple.

    From the first blog post on lots of questions, with people running into this “speak first, and ask questions later”, there was this little half-paragraph:

    “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!,”

    Reading that reminds me of Darths and Droids, the early episodes, where the GM has to deal with players that go wildly off the rails, away from the planned script, away from the detailed maps, away from any sort of prepared actions — and the GM that has to learn to roll with (instead of against) the players. … And, one player that keeps having to make new characters as they keep dying one after another.

    The whole “I shoot him” spoken first? It’s like Leia saying, “Han, stop shooting first!”.

    One of the “standard” psychological limitations in Champions for super heroes is “Code against killing”. Much, much less often, you’ll see dark heroes with “Code against not killing”, and having to have the rest of the party keep a lid on them (See Belkor from Order of the Stick for an example).

    Nothing keeps you from making that “Shoots first, and asks questions later” character. Heck, make that _PART_ of the character, and let it add to the party roleplaying. What if, for example, the only thing keeping Schlock from killing and eating anything he thought was tasty was his captain’s orders, or the thought of losing diplomatic immunity and being sent to jail? Would he find a way to sneak in through the pipes when no one was looking and sneak out down the drain?

    You say:
    1. Story comes first

    May I suggest this:
    0. Roleplaying before all, even before story.

    1. It really is the height of arrogance for you to suggest a design principle that comes before our other ones. Additionally suggesting that we should add a mechanic that comes straight out of somebody else’s game is the worst possible form. I scowl at you for not recognizing the terrible faux-pas you’ve committed. Fall on your sword quickly.

      Besides, it’s already in there. You just don’t understand what me mean when we say “story” because you’re looking for somebody else’s mechanic in our system.

      Role play is how the story is told. It’s not the Game Chief’s story. It’s not the player’s story. It’s the group’s story, and unless they role play, their story is not unfolding. If they role play well, faults and all (these come during character creation, and can be acquired with Mayhem cards during game play), they earn RiPPs to spend in crises. If they role play poorly, the poorly-played character dies.

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