So someone suggested I do a little devlog about how I ultimately came up with DEAD INSIDE. I immediately thought “wait why would anyone want that? It’s just a tiny little one-pager and I don’t even think it’s all that good.” But honestly I haven’t ever really seen the process behind a one-pager; typically, you can follow a project for months bit by bit on a blog, but never really all in one place.
So. In seeing that, thought some folks might be interested in it. If even one person reads and gets something from my process I think it’d be worth it. I plan to mostly go behind some of my thoughts on design and the ‘how/why’ before I go into the exact ‘what’s. In doing this, I’m hopefully going to reveal ALL of my thoughts surrounding this game.
Remember: you can find DEAD INSIDE on my itch.io here: https://dicequeen.itch.io/dead-inside
It’s 100% free, but I’ll always appreciate a donation.
Alright let’s do this.
What makes a Microtransaction TRPG?
So I’ve been playing Genshin Impact. Like a lot. If you don’t know of it, it’s like anime waifu Breath of the Wild set in a world very similar to Avatar the last Airbender. GI is what folks call a ‘gacha’ game, or a game where you can trade in-game resources for the chance to roll(or pull) up new characters. Every 10 pulls you get an assured pull which may be either a character or a weapon.
The in-game resource of primogems eventually slows to a crawl. You need those gems to make pulls to maybe get what you want, but it’s unreliable. You can also use another resource ‘gems'(bought with real money) to get primogems to get pulls to maybe get a character you want(you won’t).
People tend to believe microtransactions are all about just paying real money for in-game currencies. However, I think that’s just a surface level observation. The basis behind of ‘microtransactions’ is the concept of resources paying for other resources which pay for other resources.
What you have in microtransactions are minimum of 3 layers, kinda like branching trees.
1. The thing you want
2. A resource to get the thing you want.
3. ANOTHER resource to get those resources you want.
So for example.
1. Items (often with random stats)
2. Lootboxes to get chances to get those items
3. Gems to buy those lootboxes
4. $$$ to buy those gems.
Note: It doesn’t have to eventually lead to real life money. If the game really just wants you to keep buying resources with higher level resources, it can absolutely do that.
Wait, why does this matter? What makes it different from just buying resources with other resources 1:1?
Because at each individual layer, you can alter the trade rate or value. This can be by chance rates, or by deals, or by all sorts of other things. It makes the payment/use of a resource ‘unreliable’ but necessary. You can also give the players ‘deals’ or really punish them at different times by making the use of certain options more or less appealing. Each level of resource can be manipulated by both player and GM.
What makes a microtransaction is that a resource’s value gets altered and tampered on purchase, trade, or use. If done in favor of the player, can be really fun and rewarding to find situations to get ‘good deals’; if done against, can add an incredible amount of tension to a situation.
So how’d I come up with the mechanics?
Honestly, 20 minutes in the shower. It feels like a cop-out but pretty much that. When you have the idea and basis of what would ‘make’ a microtransaction, then you can translate it to a game.
The first thing I started off was “I know I need two layers of resources at first, what’s a resource players typically have?” The answer that came to mind: experience. Typically experience is used for advancement and changing your character in the long term. I was only aiming to make something that worked, not necessarily something that would be massive and long term. When considering design, you can’t go in thinking “I’m going to make something innovative and COMPLETELY different!”
You first need something that works.
So I redefined EXP as “something you get during the session which can be used to buy a secondary resource.” I didn’t know what this secondary resource was just yet so I called it “GEMS.” EXP gets used to buy GEMS, then GEMS can be used for something important.
Conflict Resolution Mechanics (CRM)
I needed to find a CRM that I could work with. You have a lot of options from dice, cards, points/resources like in GUMSHOE(this was heavily considered), jenga blocks, etc. Dice is easy to come by for TRPG players so I chose dice.
Since I was trying to just make something that worked, I needed difficulty levels: Easy / Medium / Hard. Done. They had different values attached to them for difficulty. I didn’t know what just yet.
I ultimately chose to assign dice-size to stats because
1. I love Savage Worlds / Kids on Bikes
2. For a one-pager, you have small real-estate for character creation. Stats are important for people to feel different as well. I remember how memorable Honey Heist was with its two stats. I needed only 2-4 stats to work with TOPS.
I chose d4-d6-d8 literally because I dislike d10s. If it’s not a platonic solid, it’s NOT FOR ME. I have a whole rant of how much I dislike d10s and how unfair they are. EITHER WAY. So it meant I was just going to work with 3 stats, and these dice would be assigned to them.
So since I had my dice sizes, I felt I also immediately had my difficulty levels. Easy: 3, Medium: 4, Hard: 5. Hard would be outright impossible for a character with d4 (meaning specialization/player decision is important. Each die size also keyed in with each difficulty for at least a 50% pass rate. It seemed a little unfair right now but I put a pin and was going to come back to that.
So what stats? [Physical, mental, social] came to mind immediately. These are typically what get thought about as the basis of a character’s being. However, social wasn’t going to be as important, but I still needed a third stat. I figured that back in Savage Worlds I really liked the ‘Guts’ skill. Sometimes you had to be brave and you couldn’t always pass. This was about mettle. So perhaps something like bravery? I went with the word ‘resolve.’ Because I wanted something a bit more concrete than just ‘physical,’ I made them more nouns.
Physique. Knowledge. Resolve. I later on would change Knowledge to knowhow as I also wanted it to involve perception and seeing things. Essentially knowhow is about applying what you know (both wisdom/intelligence) in a practical manner.
Since I was going to handle things PRACTICALLY, using stats like Knowhow and Resolve, it means there was going to be some kinda practical grit to this. This is where I randomly chose “zombies I guess?” for a setting. Some people thought I made this in time for Halloween but that 100% wasn’t the case. It was completely happenstance.
Literally just randomly. Nothing more or less. I have a rant where I feel setting/genre is cheap and how you can choose pretty much whatever you want as long as it works.
So I had resources (EXP/GEMS), stats (Physique/Knowhow/Resolve), a CRM (roll dice size over numbers), and a setting (zombies, I guess?). Time to make them all work together.
So as is, the CRM was honestly kinda dicey. At its best (a d8 vs a 3) it was 75%. At its worst (d4 vs 5), it was 0%. At the moment the dice vs difficulty %’s looked like this.
One of the best thing about having stepped dice (dice that are in order of size) is that the easiest thing to do is to make it so you can change your dice size. Secondly: rolling more dice is fun; players eat that up. So I decided to make GEMS do both of these things, arbitrarily assigning their GEM value. At this point I’m thinking “if this is zombies, then the one thing that keeps adventurers up is Hope. So lets rename GEMS into Hope.”
Hope is tangible. It goes up and down, and you can get random bursts of it and lose lots of it at once. Suddenly this is where things really started coming together.
If I chose Hope, I could instead have that be a measure not only of your ability to pass, but it could be resources that dwindle either from failure or from getting hurt.
Also, this is where I realied I can’t have a real HP stat and it would be easier if the players rolled everything. So the GM doesn’t have to beat or roll over the PCs. The PCs roll to hit or defend themselves (much like Morg Borg, which I’ve been recently playing).
So you can now spend Hope to manipulate dice rolls. At this point, I stuck with “Hope = mess with dice.” So when I had to think “what happens when they’re out of Hope?” the easy answer is think “kill em.” But death isn’t really all that fun especially in one shots. Sure it’s easy enough to bring in new characters in a zombie apocalypse, but it’s often juicier to have characters drag out their suffering (we know why you like the Walking Dead ‘ v ‘). So since “Hope = dice” why not just Hope exhaust you so much, you can barely succeed at anything? So, 0 Hope made all of your dice d4s, simply by association.
Players no longer fully died, but things just SUCKED.
This where EXP came and reared its beautiful head. I’d already decided that EXP gave more of the resource Hope. Meaning that EXP could make Hope go up and down easily. As long as you had EXP you possibly had Hope. The key word? Possibly.
Remember when I said earlier that the key element of a microtransaction TRPG is messing with the value? Hope is variable and fickle, and so EXP would only give 1d6+1 Hope. Originally it was 1d6, but I wanted players to AT LEAST have 2 in order to not fully screw them over.
So. I had everything. EXP gets spent on Hope, which gets spent on dice rolls, which determines your success. The absolute bare minimum of a Microtransaction TRPG.
You can’t just run a game entirely on a CRM. Otherwise we’d just roll a flat d20 and call it a day. Players like feeling specialized, clever, and to make meaningful decisions. Plus, I wasn’t done messing with microtransaction elements.
There’s 2 tweaky numbers I can mess with right now: the value of Hope on the Hope level, and the difficulty of checks.
So first: I wanted to alter the value of Hope again. This is where I came up with Good/Bad situations. Much like advantage/disadvantage of D&D 5e, there can be cases where things get easier or harder. Note that Good/Bad could’ve just altered the difficulty check instead, but I explicitly wanted to work with Hope values. So simply: good situations made Hope less expensive, while bad situations made you push yourself. Increase/decrease the cost of Hope to dice mods by 1 in either direction. Simple.
This is also where I roughly decided to have a Reroll option. However I needed it small enough it was going to be the key thing to rely on.
Next, since I already applied Good/Bad situations to Hope, i couldn’t do the same to difficulty checks. Instead I simply went with “uh, I guess if you have a certain item, it makes things easier?” and went with that. It worked. It rapidly made certain dice rolls REALLY easy, but that’s fine.
One thing I found interesting was that a lot of the game was tied to Hope, but Hope was tied to EXP, a resource the GM had as a valve. The GM decided when a task was BIG enough/accomplished enough to get EXP. It means they could make particular situations daring with no promises of EXP. EXP could come from beating back zombies, escaping, finding new resources, making new friends. It was all under the ‘big’ tag. Microtransaction RPGs can use this to control the tension and pacing exceptionally well(something I care about a lot).
Surprisingly what I figured would be like 500 words TOPS turned into a 2k essay. I feel I had fairly cheap answers most of the way through, with decisions primarily being “i liked this” or “this just worked” or “just chose it at random.” However, if you’re making a tabletop, the game is ultimately going to be a reflection of YOU: your likes, interests, experiences, games, WHO YOU ARE as a person. Letting things work just based on preferences ‘just because’ is a fine answer! So long as you’re happy with your work, that’s what matters.
Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for my next game using this same system: 2nd Gear!
PS. in case you nerds wanted stats, here’s what the dice probabilities for this game look like
Notations: vs(versus), rr(reroll), wd6(with d6), wd6rr(with d6+reroll)
vs 3:50% rr:75% wd6:83% wd6rr:97%
vs 4:25% rr:44% wd6:62.5% wd6rr:86%
vs 5:00% rr:00% wd6:33% wd6rr:55%
vs 3:66% rr:88% wd6:88% wd6rr:99%
vs 4:50% rr:75% wd6:75% wd6rr:94%
vs 5:33% rr:55% wd6:55% wd6rr:80%
vs 3:75% rr:94% wd6:91.5% wd6rr:99%
vs 4:62.5% rr:86% wd6:81% wd6rr:96%
vs 5:50% rr:75% wd6:66.5% wd6rr:89%
What I find particularly fascinating is that rerolling is almost always exclusively better than buying a d6. Having 3 Hope for a d6 feels like a trap. EXCEPT for when it’s a Good situation, and it turns into 2 Hope. Essentially in a Good situation, by expending 2 Hope for a d6 and doing a free reroll, you’ve effectively assured a success. It feels like a trap until you realize that capitalizing on it when it becomes a reasonable purchase means you can do PRETTY MUCH WHATEVER YOU WANT. This rewards players for choosing to invest that Hope anyways and can recognize the benefits in cashing in on ‘deals/sales.’ Much like any game with microtransations. :3c