[English] RPG Design #2 – Heist in October Rust

In this „RPG Design” part, I’ll discuss how adventure structure for „October Rust” had been designed and changed throughout the project. It was due to playtest, over and over again, until I’ve found a one-shot model with worked kinda OK. I’ve mentioned couple bits of this topic in my previous article, about „Rust” in October Rust.

In short: current game framework is actually the third!

Premise of the heist

Since the conception, I wanted to make October Rust about those assumptions and premises:

  • It’s a one-shot.
  • The game needs some „buy-in” from the players in the beginning.
  • The game itself has to lead into the conclusion (ending).
  • Three-act structure (building up tension, the final/the culmination, the playable epilogue)
  • Player character needs to spend all or at least more than a half of their resources. They need to sacrifice things or themselves. They need to „rust themselves”.
  • The adventure has to put players right into the action.

Now, I can say that I had been interested about intense, short (2-3 hours) and paced action, like a heist. But the truth was, I wasn’t so awared that it needs to be a heist

Beginnings of „October Rust”.

The first draft of a framework worked like this: a gamemaster prepares the scenario before the session, according to the written instructions. This included dividing the scenario into three acts (Development, Final, Epilogue). It affected almost every mechanics and solutions, including:

  • A different math model for rolls. Each act has it’s own guidance about setting the difficulty of tests (Development – easiest, Final – hardest, Epilogue – „hard but easier than Final”).
    • Different diceology: „match Theme vs Obstacle” had been present since the beginning, but you stacked bonuses to it and if „fixed Theme was lower than Obstacle”, you checked the table, picked d12 and rolled under certain number (1/2/4/6/9).
    • The Background of the character enabled a „shift” (that number from the table, raised up) for certain actions.
    • Yes, the game had Actions like Blades in the Dark: each Theme had their three Actions working as descriptors!
  • The gameplay itself was quite railroady except the Act III.
  • Obviously, you couldn’t just pick the PDF like 20-30 minutes before the session and improvise the heist on fly (as you can do it now).

This framework had one significant advantage: just at first playtest it drained players’ resources hard and good. Also, the sole idea of making 3-5 pages long premade scenarios (for free) was a sound idea for publishing and marketing strategy.

So, why „October Rust” isn’t quite like that?

Short answer: October Rust turned out to be a parody of it’s original counterpart, Jesienna Gawęda. Most important, it was a parody of itself.

Long answer: Some math oddities and problems (like impact of „self-sacrifice” option) could be fixed. But first of all, the game did something, but not exactly what I wanted. This framework make the player characters incompetent, like turning it into grimdank Warhammer Fantasy parody. Less on paper, more how playtesters felt it…

Secondly, this framework had a lot of stuff, which existed just for the sake of being there. Like that „shift” for the sake of banter with Neuroshima Polish TTRPG. It worked better than Neuroshima’s shift, but who cared? And it wasn’t an accomplishmentall, because you could just insert nothing and it would work better than Neuroshima. That „table of checking the target number” screamed like 1990s or worse. I chose d12 only because using d20 or d100 for a percentage model – while for more precision – would unintentionally scare off many folks…

All above, plus more complex simulationist approach how The Storm works, was the hitting point. I decided to throw out this framework and had turned back into drawing board.

I also changed the one assumption: October Rust needed to have as low entry threshold as possible. A gamemaster shouldn’t need to do more than to read the book. Players too.

The second framework

It got like three versions.

The second framework has the same „engine” as a current version of October Rust. You played improvised one-shot and the prep is made in the beginning of the session. It introduced Storm Clock and Rust Clock.

How the adventure worked? First of all, all players needed to have a brainstorm about what about they want to play (making Final Question). Then, they create as many Adventure Questions to play out before FQ as players, plus a game master adds the last one in the end. In short: you played 3-6 Adventure Questions, then Final Question, and in the end: two Epilogue Question (created after answering FQ).

So, the first playtest were… it’s easier to say, what worked out well. The game itself stopped being a parody of itself. The concept of improvising the adventure was sound, I had more enjoyable experience as a game master while testing October Rust. Indeed, the game demanded much less prep to start…

But this new structure had a problem with resources consumption tempo: it was too slow! I’ve made some small fixes and it had positive results, but still the tempo was too slow. The framework was very fragile to how the scenes are played, how many/small rolls happened. More players, higher fragility! Plus, ticking Rust Clock was quite random (tied to die results), so experiencing the „Sin of the Past” of PCs happened accidentally…

There weren’t hard restrictions on Adventure Questions either. One of the playtest sessions accidentally went as a investigation. October Rust turned out as a really bad game of investigation, because – fiction-wise – the answer for AQ could emerge accidentally without rolls (due to fiction) or you could roll endlessly in attempt to finally win a stake in order to find the AQ answer.

In another words, October Rust worked only as a tight heist. I needed to make rules, clarifications and procedures to constrict the adventure to: scores, stunts & deeds, intense actions. Meanwhile, October Rust also poorly communicated about it’s desirable setting and atmosphere („low, gothic, early modern fantasy” – or to be honest – „neo-romantic postmodern tragedy based on Early Modern Era”). This was the most frequent feedback from playtesters…

How it looks today?

I threw off Adventure Questions concept. I replaced it with Adventure List with five questions to answer, with constricted options, which lead to setting hooks and adventure parts. In order to meet the Final Question, you need to overcome Forces of Evil (belligerent groups) first.

It solved problems such as:

  • Resource’s consuption started to work roughly as intended. This also was due to changes in months accumulation (every dice taken = +1 month!). Two sessions, the game started to work as intended.
  • Thanks to constricting the adventure to heist, it avoided decision paralysis. Now, players knows what to do: they need to overcome incoming obstacles and enemies in order to attempt to change the course of the story (by reaching, then answering to FQ).
  • The game is more accessible. Instead of trying to invent several questions from a vacuum, players just pick the options. A gamemaster gets adventure’s and setting parts (Landscape, Grave, 3-4 Forces of Evil), ready to use.
  • Also, this game at least partially solved the problem of communicating the intented setting (early modern era with postmodern gothic touch)

Still we have three-acts structure (Forces of Evil -> Final Question -> Epilogue Questions). I could say that it has been better flashed out than original idea for „Development”. October Rust started to work like intended, without juggling with strange „difficulty for rolls” or „instructions, how do you need to create the scenario one day before”…

OK, I admit, that current OR’s framework isn’t flawless. Still Early Modern Era setting is more like a mutual agreement than something strict. No simulations about flying 17,8 mm lead bullet from Brown Bess musket Lack of tons of descriptions about the world from the past.

This game is for 2+4 players and a gamemaster, once again. I abamdoned the concept for „fifth player” due to reasons:

  • More the players, the game is kind of easier to their characters. For 5 players, October Rust could be too easy, even with fifth Force of Evil added…
  • I think, that meeting the five Forces of Evil would be felt like grinding or „let’s pass that boring part of the one-shot”. The latter is a big no-no for me.

As you may guess for supplements (Vials of Mercury, Suffering from Success), I feel like 12 choices for Forces of Evil are far from exhaustive…

Afterwords

I set the bar high, when I had attempted to make game with both high-paced resources consumption and a quite strict structure. There are two „velocities” which I needed to bring together and make even in order to the game meeting it’s premise. Both „velocities” needed to be quite high, due to one-shot play.

This whole article shows the power of playtests. First of all, playtests told me that my original idea about the game would embarrass me as a dabbling TTRPG author. Then, playtests informed me that throught the Summer 2021 the game shouldn’t be further published due to working „too soft and too loose”. I needed my own 6 playtest sessions plus 2 external playtests (outside of my presence and influence) to design the game correctly…

I’ve lost my conficence in the project (as you may read about it here), but at least I feel like I did enough work to save October Rust project. At least game design wise.

Ten tekst powstał dzięki wsparciu: Jędrzej Śmietański, Aleksandra Sontowska, Jakub KucharzewskiErpegowe Piekiełko, Sebastian Żarnowski, Michał LaskowskiPrzemysław Wasilewski i Marcin Zaród. Dziękuję!

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