Monday, September 30, 2013

[Q&A] Ian Johnson (Stab City!)

[19:04] <+IanJohnson> I'm Ian Johnson, I'm running a Kickstarter for a game called Stab City!, the first Michael Baysian anime magical realism game. It's about weird assassins killing weirder targets, and uses a rule set designed around playing cards and poker chips instead of dice.
[19:06] <+IanJohnson> Oh, am I supposed to say "Out" or something when I'm done?
[19:07] <~Dan> Just (done). :)
[19:07] <+IanJohnson> Got it.
[19:07] <~Dan> Thanks, Ian! Would anyone like to start us off with a question? :)
[19:07] <+Preston> What made you go with cards (and that card battlefield) instead of dice?
[19:09] <+IanJohnson> Dice are boring. I've seen games with dice. Cards are a non-standard random number generator, are a tactile item for players to interact with, and are also small enough to be laid out in number on the table while still large enough to place an action figure/mini on top of.
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[19:11] <~Dan> Can you tell us a bit about the setting? I'm assuming it's completely gonzo, right? :)
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[19:13] <~Dan> (Howdy, BPIJonathan!)
[19:14] <+IanJohnson> It's set in the year 20XX (Twenty exty ex), a nebulous near future. Man is on the verge of achieving forms that blur the definition of human. Nano technology, chemical therapies and advanced cybernetics are beginning to reach the point where they can be put into mass production. As this technology advances mankind's ability to engage in combat, special
[19:14] <+BPIJonathan> I was curious about the game so I am hear to see what I can find out.
[19:15] <+IanJohnson> operatives have begun to appear, similarly armed and trained specifically to take out threats no normal human could. Assassins (Players) in Stab City! take the role of these operatives.
[19:16] <+IanJohnson> In an e-mail to a play testers I described it once as Hideo Kojima's No More Heroes: The Movie, directed by Michael Bay.
[19:16] <+IanJohnson> So sort of like that. (Done)
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[19:16] <~Dan> (Howdy, Brian!)
[19:16] <~Dan> Would you describe the PCs as "supers"?
[19:18] <+IanJohnson> They're probably comparable to low-rate supers. Like mercenary, emotionally unstable X-men. It isn't really a supers game, though. Players might have advanced cybernetics and weaponry, and intense training, but they're still human.
[19:18] <+IanJohnson> No, you know, gamma radiation monsters or anything. (Done)
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[19:19] <~Dan> Do you happen to have a character sheet posted?
[19:19] <~Dan> (Howdy, Ettin!)
[19:22] <+IanJohnson> Only as a Google Drive document, nothing formatted for print or anything. Here's the pre-gens that went out with the last packet, although they'll be invalidated by the changes in the next demo: (Link:
[19:24] <+IanJohnson> Which I suppose is the nature of play testing. (Done.)
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[19:24] <+IanJohnson> I keep forgetting to add that, and then "covering it up" by just adding at the end of a second sentence.
[19:24] <~Dan> Can you explain the core mechanic, maybe using examples from that character sheet?
[19:25] <~Dan> (No problem. You don't even have to use a "(done)" after every response. Just after a question pause or whenever you think you need to clarify that you're finished. :) )
[19:25] <+Drakkar> oh hey IanJohnson how's your blog?
[19:26] <+IanJohnson> Okay, sure. It's pretty simple. You're El Diablo Oro, the hulking luchadore kneebreaker. You want to, I don't know, send a message to some people you don't like by throwing a motorcycle through their window.
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[19:27] <~Dan> (Welcome to #rpgnet, thedandmom!)
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[19:28] <+IanJohnson> You've got a Menace +3. You draw two cards, and keep the higher of the two, and add your attribute (+3). So if you drew a 9 and 6, you keep the 9, for a total of 12.
[19:28] <~Dan> Menace = strength, then?
[19:29] <+IanJohnson> It uses a failure/partial/full resolution, so 2-6 is a failure, 7-10 is a success, either a weak success or a success with a cost and J+ (10+) is a full success.
[19:29] <+IanJohnson> Menace is anything violent, intimidating, tough and mean.
[19:30] <+IanJohnson> Drakkar - Oh I ran out of things to say about AD&D a while ago. I keep meaning to go back and post some pedantic thoughts on Oriental Adventure Barbarians, though.
[19:31] <+Drakkar> oh that'd be cool
[19:31] <+Preston> Is your game primarily about killing things and moving from battlefield to battlefield, or could there be bits of mystery or role playing at times?
[19:32] <+IanJohnson> It really depends on how much time your group wants to play. I wanted to make the game accessible, so it can easily be played in an hour and a half if your objective is to storm a Colombian drug lords mansion and cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, but the book contains a lot of advice on how to run a longer mission where the Assassins
[19:33] <+IanJohnson> need to actually hunt for clues, cut off supply lines, assassinate lieutenants, and infiltrate locations to take down a powerful target. (Done)
[19:33] <~Dan> What's the attribute scale?
[19:34] <+IanJohnson> At the high end is +3, while poor attributes are at -1.
[19:35] <~Dan> Is that a hard cap, or can PCs have superhuman levels of ability?
[19:35] <+IanJohnson> I'm still tweaking the math, so that might chance. There's no hard set rule for how often the average PC should succeed on the average task, so by moving those attributes around I can effect how often PCs can expect to succeed.
[19:36] <+IanJohnson> That's the hard cap, right now. Assassins are already superhuman. A -1 is still in the top 1% of humanity. They're hardened criminals with years of experience, and often with technological augmentation or chemical cocktails to boost their abilities.
[19:37] <+Preston> How do the PCs improve their characters? Are their levels or points earned or are most characters so strong already that they don't see much improvement?
[19:39] <~Dan> What would an average human's attribute score be?
[19:40] <+IanJohnson> Originally I'd envisioned SC! as a game with disposable characters- it was supposed to be a beer and pretzels one-shot game. However, a number of backers have expressed an interest in bringing their characters with them on new missions. As it stands, it's a simple 1 mission = 1 advancement system, although assassins don't increase their attributes. It's suppo
[19:41] <+IanJohnson> I believe in advancing outwards, not upwards. I want advancement to be increased versatility, not bigger numbers. Dan shouldn't have to suck just because he missed the last two games and didn't get any points.
[19:41] <~Dan> Yeah!
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[19:42] <+IanJohnson> Advancement means more edges, which are special abilities, training and gear. Something similar to the unique moves from Apocalypse World, or the class abilities from Old School Hack.
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[19:44] <+Preston> This game is reminding me a bit like Paranoia, but with more powerful troubleshooters and with less backstabbing.
[19:47] <+IanJohnson> They're similar in that they are both mission based, but Stab City! is a game about deadly killers. It's less a game of "you deal 3 damage" and more "you kill three ninja"
[19:47] <+IanJohnson> So, similarly high kill count, but in Paranoia that's usually the PCs dying
[19:47] <~Dan> Speaking of which, could you descibe how combat works?
[19:49] <+IanJohnson> Thanks for bringing that up, Dan. Yeah, combat plays out on a 7x7 map made up of playing cards. Assassins and enemy tokens move around the board in a skirmish battle, trying to race around and kill each other. You play cards from your hard - the value of the card determines the initiative order, and you can take up two actions per turn. You also use cards to
[19:50] <+IanJohnson> activate abilities and special attacks by discarding face cards.
[19:50] <+IanJohnson> It's sort of like, a simpler, faster faced Dungeons & Dragon's 4e.
[19:51] <+thedandmom> It's fun once you get the hang of it. Also, hi guys
[19:51] <+IanJohnson> Hey K
[19:51] <+IanJohnson> Didn't expect to see you here!
[19:52] <+thedandmom> was actually lurking for a bit
[19:53] <~Dan> How does damage work?
[19:53] <+IanJohnson> How's the Deck of Legends going? I'm excited to see more image!
[19:54] <+thedandmom> It's going fine, going to keep most of the remaining artwork a surprise for when people get their cards at this point though
[19:55] <+IanJohnson> Dan, it's your standard hit points, called energy. The amount of cards an assassin draws in combat is also determined by his remaining energy. Under half health - being in the Danger Zone - gives you a 5-card draw instead of the usual 3.
[19:55] <~Dan> Why do you draw more cards when you're wounded?
[19:56] <+IanJohnson> Because badass killers have hella fighting spirit, and go out in a blaze of glory.
[19:57] <~Dan> Fair enough. :)
[19:57] <~Dan> Are there skills, or just attributes?
[19:58] <+IanJohnson> It's also a mechanical consideration. The hit point totals in Stab City! are pretty low. You can only stand around 3 or 4 hits before you're out. There is a lot of access to healing, but it's still risky to be under half health, because you could easily take two hits before getting support. However, keeping under half health gives you better offensive power.
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[20:01] <+IanJohnson> Yeah, skills are in, and they're tied to edges. They're actually getting small revision in the next packet, but essentially when you take an action that involves your edge, be it GRU Spetznaz Infiltrator Training or The Best Cyber-Arm Money Can Buy, you can't fail. If you draw a failure, it is automatically converted to a marginal success. Those being a less
[20:01] <+IanJohnson> than partial success, simple the minimum possible way to succeed or a mild success with a cost associated.
[20:02] <+IanJohnson> (Done)
[20:03] <~Dan> Does level of success determine damage?
[20:03] <~Dan> Or affect damage, rather.
[20:05] <+IanJohnson> Yeah, It's not quite the traditional double damage "critical hit" but there's a bonus for drawing high. Sometimes it might be something like just more damage, but depending on the move you're using, it could be a tactical consideration. For example, of character has access to some combat moves designed to keep them safe. If they draw a full success, they migh
[20:06] <+IanJohnson> deal high damage and move one zone, while a partial success is just move 3. Characters who are in danger can use this to attack a lesser enemy or a weakened one, and know that either they will deal damage, or get a chance to escape if they fail.
[20:06] <+IanJohnson> Sort of a booby prize for missing the unusually powerful attack. (Done)
[20:06] <+Preston> Does each character get their own deck or is it a shared deck of cards?
[20:06] <~Dan> How do weapons and armor factor in?
[20:07] <+IanJohnson> Every player uses their own deck- you'll go through a lot of cards, especially in combat. The Pit Boss has two decks - one for his own draws, plus a deck to make the battle grid out of.
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[20:08] <~Dan> (Howdy, Wondy!)
[20:09] <+IanJohnson> Weapons don't effect damage, but do provide different abilities to players. A heavy weapon allows a player to discard a card to inflict forced movement and throw an enemy around. An automatic weapon is ranged, and lets you discard a card to inflict additional damage on enemies who are adjacent to your target. It's a tactical consideration, rather than just
[20:09] <+IanJohnson> damage.
[20:10] <~Dan> And armor?
[20:12] <+IanJohnson> Sorry, I missed that. It's a flat damage reduction. I always thought combat in RPGs where you miss a lot was terrible, and I didn't want to use armor to make hits happen less often. It's about action, man!
[20:12] <~Dan> Cool. :)
[20:12] <~Dan> Do the PCs have access to any wierd powers?
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[20:13] <+IanJohnson> I love playing tactical combat games, but they're typically such long endeavors. I really wanted to make one that didn't have long stretches of sitting around and waiting for your turn, or games dragging on for an hour.
[20:15] <+IanJohnson> Dan - Yeah, they're all about weird powers. I've had a burned CIA agent who stored an indeterminate amount of ops gear inside his massive beard. The archetype Deadeye character is based off of an actual PC who had echolocation on her supermodel-turned-assassin.
[20:16] <+IanJohnson> Edges are for players to make whatever kind of assassin they want. And it happens that a lot of people want weird assassins.
[20:16] <~Dan> Are these freeform, or is there a list?
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[20:17] <+IanJohnson> There's a pretty extensive list in the next packet, but it's open to players working with the pit boss to make their own. There'll be a big chunk on that in the book about how to balance them with existing powers, and what sort of things will "break" the game
[20:17] <+IanJohnson> Like jet packs. Hoo boy, that always caused trouble in the play tests.
[20:18] <~Dan> :D
[20:19] <~Dan> What can cybernetics do other than boost attributes?
[20:22] <+IanJohnson> Imagine you had a swiss army knife. That is also a computer. Now multiply it by 10 and replace your arm with it. It's whatever you want it to be when you pick your edges. The game is pretty easy to "reskin". You can have a hacker with a cyberarm, or a soldier with a cyberarm that has a built in computer security breaking AI inside, and have the same stats.
[20:23] <+IanJohnson> Who am I to tell you how your cyberarm works? The Pit Boss gets to make as many guys as he wants, and locations, and circumstances, all sorts of things. The player gets _one dude_. Just one. You do you(r cyberarm)
[20:23] <+IanJohnson> (done)
[20:25] <~Dan> You mention "surreal". How surreal does the game get?
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[20:28] <+IanJohnson> It depends on the guy running the game. You can run it as a very straight, high-octane action movie, like GI Retaliation sort of thing. I run it, and the game assumption is, that it's pretty weird. The world itself is the same as ours, just a few years later, but people still get up and go to work every day, and life hasn't really changed. Beneath that is the
[20:28] <+Delgrim> Radioactive man is always alone.
[20:29] <+IanJohnson> Shadow War, the globe spanning covert war between corporations and governments and conspiracies. There is where the weirdos are.
[20:29] <+IanJohnson> Groups like _les Orlandos_, a covert mercenary group composed entirely of the world's greatest drag queens. Who makes a better femme fatales than a man trained for decades to do so?
[20:30] <+IanJohnson> Or the pirate king Shark Week, wearing an aquatic power armor, who operates an extensive bandit gang out of the Bermuda Triangle
[20:32] <+IanJohnson> Or a private military company operating in Borneo using the All-Terrain Weapon Platform Type-11, an 80 ton mechanical ape affectionately known as the "Orangutank"
[20:32] <+AWOLJoe> (Didn't Shadowfist/Feng Shui already use that last pun?)
[20:33] <+IanJohnson> The way it's presented in the book, and the way the Michael Baysian anime magical realism guide describes, is totally straight faced. It's not played for laughs.
[20:34] <+IanJohnson> AWOLJoe - You're not the first person to tell me I need to go look into that, so I'll be checking into that.
[20:34] <+AWOLJoe> That said, I am liking the "Metal Gear on drugs" vibe I'm getting from the "mercenaries with weird powers" theme.
[20:35] <+IanJohnson> Metal Gear is definitely an inspiration. If you can't use Stab City! to recreate the Pain from MSG3, then I have not done a very good job with this game.
[20:36] <+AWOLJoe> "I'm covered in bees!"
[20:36] <+IanJohnson> I think I swooned when he turned his bee swarm into a tommy gun.
[20:40] <~Dan> Are the abilities of the PCs pretty strongly geared to combat, or are there abilities for non-combat use as well?
[20:43] <+IanJohnson> It's not necessarily, but it's all mission oriented. Infiltration, computer security, vehicles, tradecraft, stuff like that. It's probably slanted more towards straight forward skills than deeper spy skills, but I think the best games are ones where the Assassins actually have to do some infiltration or hunting to get to their target.
[20:44] <+IanJohnson> I wouldn't say it's as deep as something like Night's Black Agents, but I definitely think including investigation was important to the game.
[20:44] <+IanJohnson> (done)
[20:46] <~Dan> Is there anything supernatural in the setting?
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[20:49] <+IanJohnson> Hah, you know, I haven't entirely decided. I think I'll leave it up to individual Pit Bosses. That said, I have a note in my design journal about the "Transylvanian Monster League" an assassination company made up of Dead October, Fright Knight and Doctor Frankengrinder.
[20:49] <~Dan> That would be awesome. :)
[20:49] <+IanJohnson> Frankengrinder was a villain from one of the play tests. He was a Balkan arms dealer who was mortally wounded by an IED, and had his body rebuilt with corpses from the battlefield. He had hidden recesses built into his body to smuggle weapons in.
[20:50] <+IanJohnson> He could carry enough weapons and ammunition to outfit a dozen men, or could carry two fully armed soldiers, although he was pretty distended when smuggling.
[20:51] <+AWOLJoe> And Dead October? I assume a Russian.
[20:52] <+IanJohnson> You know, I never got farther with Dead October beyond the name. Fright Knight was some sort of robot knight, but really only exists as a doodle (In which he is chopping a cake in half with a halberd [which he probably wouldn't do in the game, but there you go])
[20:53] <~Dan> Do robots fit in the setting as written?
[20:53] <+AWOLJoe> Too bad, "The Hunt for Dead October" would be a great adventure name.
[20:55] <+IanJohnson> Oh man, absolutely. One of the archetype characters, the Mastermind, has a robot named Dixie Rebel Yell, a very anime looking humanoid antonymous combat unit. Near sentient-AIs are extremely rare, but utilized by a few of the richest countries.
[20:56] <+IanJohnson> Unarmed combat vehicle technology is extremely advanced. There are more combat robots on the field than tanks when first world countries and rich private military companies take the field.
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[20:58] <+IanJohnson> The Pit Boss is really encouraged to play the game however they want, but the Stab City! setting is pretty high tech when it comes to the weapons or war.
[20:58] <+IanJohnson> (done)
[20:59] <~Dan> You're welcome to stay and chat with us as long as you like, but is there anything you'd like to cover before the end of the "official" chat that we haven't brought up?
[21:03] <+IanJohnson> Stab City! is a fast paced, simple game of high action and weird intrigue. The playing card based combat systems gives you the depth of a tactical combat game, but at blistering speeds and without choice paralysis. It's a game about, above all else, having a really bloody, ultra-violent good time. The Kickstarter runs until Sunday. We're funded, but we've got
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[21:04] <+IanJohnson> just under a week left to hit a stretch goal with Kirin Robinson, for a hack of the eNnie award winning Old School Hack for Stab City!. You can learn more about the game at (Link:
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[21:05] <+IanJohnson> Thanks to everyone for chatting with me a little about my game, I hope you guys found it interesting.
[21:05] <+IanJohnson> And especially thanks to Dan, who managed to run an entire 2 hour interview, and also for inviting me to take part in the first place.
[21:05] <~Dan> Thanks very much for chatting with us, Ian! I'll have the log posted shortly!
[21:05] <~Dan> You're entirely welcome. :)
[21:06] <~Dan> Please come by any time to hang out with us!


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