The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Designer Blog

A blog about the various design elements in JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game along with the process of how we got there.

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I thought the game was all about the bag, so what’s up with the dice?

Luke Peterschmidt
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Early on the dev process we decided to focus on the heroes bags whenever we could, but that didn’t mean we put our dice out to pasture. Here’s why there are dice in JRPGTAG.

Dice randomness is categorized as; defined, known, and fixed. This is that type of randomness where there are a relatively limited number of outcomes (defined), every possible outcome is known by the players before the randomness happens (known), and the randomness is more or less consistent over time (fixed). Standard dice fit this category as they have a relatively limited number of outcomes, those outcomes are known to the players, and no matter when you roll the die, the randomness of the result is the same (there may be different modifiers, but rolling a particular face on a d6 is always 1-6).

When very complex rolls happen, this type of randomness can move from known to unknown. For example, ask a player to roll a 3d4, 1d6, 2d8, 6d10, and 3d20, then drop the highest 3 dice and the players likely won’t have any idea what the odds are of rolling a 53 or better. The designers hopefully know, but it’s pretty opaque to the players.

When using a deck of cards, if players do not know the cards in the deck, then the randomness is defined, fixed, and UNKNOWN. Once players get to know the deck and perfect their card counting, that changes to defined, fixed, and known.

Known randomness makes the drama of extreme events more exciting. If there is exactly one card in a deck that lets me win this turn and I draw it, that’s super exciting. But it’s a lot less exciting if I didn’t know there was only one of those cards in the deck.

The bags in JRPGTAG are their own kind of randomness; Defined, known (mostly), and heuristically modifiable (which is a fancy way of saying “players can change the randomness with decisions they make”). This is great for increasing player agency, but there are some times in JRPG where we actually wanted dice style randomness. Randomness the players could not effect. That’s why we still use dice in JRPGTAG for things like randomizing damage to heroes or monsters and doling out rewards during grinds.

Game designers always consider what types of randomness they want to introduce, and thankfully JRPGTAG is a big enough game that we could include both of the types the game called for.

-Luke

(BTW “undefined” randomness is when the rules don’t directly cover how the randomness result comes about. Often this involves physics. How a football bounces when it hits the field is random, but it’s undefined as it’s effected by a million variables as to be impossible to define in the human brain. Mathematicians will tell you it’s definable, but our brains don’t work in that way, so that random presents as undefinable.)

The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game
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Mon Aug 12, 2019 6:52 pm
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Big AND Elegant!?

Luke Peterschmidt
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We wanted to pack a LOT of JRPG goodness into JRPGTAG, so we knew right away that it was going to be a big box game. But we also knew that our audience wasn’t going to be just the typical “big box game” audience. We figured we had 4 audiences;
1) Big Box tabletop game fans.
2) Fans of JRPGs with little tabletop experience
3) Families (mixed age groups) as our art style is very family friendly.
4) Mixed experience groups (novice to experienced) as co-op games are more welcoming to this group.

Designing for these 4 audiences at once is tough. Importantly, it meant I couldn’t make one of those games where the first play has fuzzy heuristics, i.e. “a let’s-play-again-now-that-I-know-what-I’m-doing” game. A LOT of games do this right now, and those games are very popular with the more die-hard tabletop gamers because repeat play and discovery is a feature to those folks. But that is a bug, not a feature, for 3 out of 4 of my target markets.

The key to making this work was elegance. The short definition of an elegant game is one in which the rules create more depth than complexity. I adjusted that definition for this game to also mean I wanted rules that created more FUN than complexity. I wanted all players to understand the drama of the game as it was happening and that meant creating a game that tells the players what types of information matters and makes it clear how that information will effect their actions.

Important to note that elegant does NOT mean “simple.” It just means that every rule adds more fun and depth than complexity.

To make JRPGTAG more elegant we did a lots of things. One key thing we when we decided to focus on the heroes’ tokens bags whenever possible. That way, we could teach how the bag works once and then lean on that knowledge to help teach other concepts. For example, bags are used during grinding, encounters, leveling-up, buffing, corruption, and even some monster abilities! Those uses are all different, but because they all deal with the bag, players have a leg-up in their decision making.

Another way we increased elegance was through graphic design. For example, in JRPGTAG we’ve got lots of unique loot that does interesting things. We put the equipped items at the top of the hero board so that other members of the party can see them easily. This assists in the co-op element of the game so players aren’t constantly asking each other what other players can do.

One external factor that really helped us was that we know that most players will come to the table with some knowledge of JRPGs. We leaned into that existing knowledge whenever we could. For example, the rules for battle are super intuitive as is the mini-map in large parts to the fact that our play testers came with knowledge of how those things are supposed to function. In design we often asked “how does the player expect this to feel” and then we designed to that goal. In the end we came up with some pretty original tabletop mechanics that create decisions that just feel right for a JRPG themed game.

These are just a few examples of how much time and effort we spent to reduce complexity while making the player decisions understandable, thematic and important. Should you attack the healer or the area of effect monster? That choice is up to you, but you’ll understand the consequences of both and your chances of success before you make that decision.

The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game
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Fri Aug 9, 2019 7:35 pm
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Grinding

Luke Peterschmidt
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In a classic JRPG, players often wander around fighting easy encounters to gain XP, money, and items. This is called grinding and it’s a key part of JRPGs. Often players will find themselves at a fixed encounter that they can’t beat, and the ONLY way to get past it is to grind until they get enough power to pass the encounter.

These fixed encounters act like gates where “you must be X tall to continue” – just that the “X” is a power level the player must achieve. Grinding is the way to get to that power.

Grinding is not hard, it’s a task. At it’s core it is the exchange of real-world time for in-game power and it is featured in the classic JRPGs that our game is all about. We knew we needed to include it, but there were some obvious problems taking this computer game concepts to tabletop games.

The biggest issue stems from the fact that computer JRPGs are single player affairs. The decision to grind or not is in many ways a personal decision on the value of the players time and how much fun they find grinding to be. But JRPGTAG is a 4-player tabletop game, and people don’t play co-op games to do mundane tasks for hours until they are ready to take on the next big encounter. They play co-op games for story, drama, comradery, and fun. Just imagining a group of friends around a table grinding meaningless encounters for an hour so they can take on a fixed encounters gives me a headache. It would be a terrible experience.

What to do? On one hand, any game that takes its inspiration from classic JRPGs must have some sort of grinding or it’s not true to its source material. On the other, a direct port of the grinding concept would be terrible. In this case we decided to lean more towards emulation than simulation. This meant another round of exploring while looking for a tabletop-style translation of the grinding concept. Whatever we ended up with needed to;

1) Resolve quickly.
2) Be rewarding, but not too predictable
3) Interact in some way with the heroes bag (we wanted as many elements of the game to use the bag as possible).
4) Have a lever to discourage too much of it.

About that last one, tabletop games tend to feature “levers” where if you do too much X, you’ll suffer from lack of Y. Build too many infantry and you’ll be wiped out by planes, put too many high mana-cost creatures in your deck and you’ll lose before you get the first one out, etc… These give-and-takes form the basis of most tabletop game strategies. \

Here is what we ended up with.

Certain map tiles in the game are labeled “Grind” and have a level from 1-3. When players reach a grind tile, they will draw a card from the grind deck. Matching the level to the appropriate part of the grind card, the party will roll a certain number of blue, red and yellow d6 (the “grind dice”).



All 5’s and 6’s are put away with no effect. The 1, 2, 3, and 4s are given to the hero with that player number. For each red and/or blue die, the hero draws a token from their bag. For each resistance rune drawn, the hero puts back one blue or red die with no effect.



Each die they still have left will deal them HP damage (red die) and/or Mana damage (blue die). In act 1, this is 1 damage per die and it goes up in future acts. Then for each yellow die the player has, they draw a card from the treasure deck.



All dice are returned and the party moves on. If the party goes back to this space, they will roll the same number of blue and red dice, but fewer yellow dice - discouraging repeat visits, but not eliminating the benefits entirely.

This system hit all our goals. It resolves quickly, gives rewards from the treasure deck, uses the bag, and has a lever. The lever is players trade HP and Mana damage for treasure. If you do too much of it you’ll be putting yourself at a disadvantage at the next big set-piece encounter. By controlling the map, we’ve also limited the number of times players can revisit some spaces.

In the end though, probably the most important part of this mechanic is that we just went and called it “grinding.” By doing that, players instantly know what we are representing – a lot of little encounters that deal damage and give power to the players. The mechanic then goes on to support that name with thematic tabletop mechanics. Mission accomplished.

The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game
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Tue Aug 6, 2019 7:19 pm
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The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game part 2: No Rulebook

Luke Peterschmidt
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Pennsylvania
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JRPGTAG: The Game With No Rulebook.

When I worked at WotC in the 1990's we spent a good bit of money studying how people learn how to play games. At times it was hugely frustrating – like when we realized that most kids didn’t know what a “hand” of cards was. Often, those of us on the other side of the mirror would be pounding our heads on a table while what was obvious to us simply flew over the heads of the kids trying to learn our games on the other side of the mirror. But man was it enlightening.

Things have changed a lot since then. Tabletop gaming is bigger than ever, and learning a game for many people means watching a YouTube video. But for most people games are learned the same way they were back then – either you’re the one who reads the rulebook, or you learn the game from someone who has read the rulebook or previously played the game.

For JRPGTAG, I wanted to make a game with no rulebook. JPRGs don’t have rulebooks and I wanted to reflect the source material whenever possible, plus I thought it would create an awesome and unique experience. Based on those studies at WotC, I knew that reading rules gets in the way of fun, and I wanted a game where players “get to the fun” as fast as possible.

This “fast to the fun” desire is a thing with me. My time to play games purely for fun is pretty limited. If I have a free night for gaming, I don’t want to spend the first 30 minutes of my night waiting while one player reads a rulebook. In addition to wasting time, I often find that in these situations, whoever is reading the rules will often skim quickly so we can get started, only to have us later find out that we played a critical part of the game incorrectly. Soooo frustrating.

The no rulebook design goal was meant to fix that. It is also the primary reason why this game took so long to get to Kickstarter. It is hard to do this for a big box game like JRPGTAG. Crazy hard. You have to test not only the game, but also your rules delivery right from the beginning. This means I had to bring on outside playtesters much earlier in the process than I would normally do, and I had to keep bringing in new testers whenever possible as the old testers had been tainted by their exposure. We had more than 700 people play JRPGTAG.

The no rulebook design goal had some other effects as well. Some game mechanic options were not available to us, and others needed to change to work in a no rulebook system. On the flip side, some exciting ideas were added to the game that originated from the fact that we knew we could deliver new rules at any point in this multi-session experience.

In the end, I’m very happy with where we ended up. Players can play an entire 3 act story over several nights and the only rules they will be exposed to are the ones they absolutely needed to know. But I think my favorite part is that unlike many long adventure games that start to feel a little “same-ee” over time, JRPGTAG does not. The game is full of surprises from creatures who do things you didn’t know could be done to side quests that use brand new mechanics to character/NPC friendships that go from fun to critical. So many of those surprises are due to the no rulebook concept.

I hope you enjoy JRPGTAG – it should be live on Kickstarter August 2019.

The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game
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Mon Aug 5, 2019 6:10 pm
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The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game part 1: From Idea to First Play Test.

Luke Peterschmidt
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The JRPG Tabletop Adventure Game

Most of my game designs have come from a thematic place more than a mechanical one. I didn’t set out to make a “dice drafting game” with Castle Dice, I wanted to make a “Minecraft Game” (but we lost out on the license…).

For JPRG:TAG I wanted to make a game that was to JRPGs what the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game was to Pathfinder. I didn’t want to use any PACG mechanics or limit myself to cards, I just wanted to create a tabletop game that was a full on emulation of a classic JRPG in the way that the PACG tried to emulate a Pathfinder RPG experience.

So many challenges in doing that.

Classic JRPGs are really unique experiences, far removed from tabletop games. They are one player games. They feature sprawling stories with fixed characters. They are full of tropes and really specific moments. Players have specific types of decisions to make, and many don’t translate easily to a tabletop dynamic. They don’t even have rulebooks!

Step one was to make a list of all the features that make a classic JRPG feel like a classic JRPG. We sorted them into a few buckets. Bucket 1 contained “must have” elements like turned-based battles, fixed characters, lazer focus on story, key tropes, and more. These were 100% requirements because without them, we wouldn’t have succeeded at creating a tabletop version of a JRPG. Bucket 2 was all the things we would love to have but we would only include if it made the overall game better. This list contained lesser-known tropes, callbacks to specific classic games, cut scenes, and more. These things that would excite JRPG fans, but we didn’t consider requirements. Bucket 3 contained things we thought wouldn’t translate to tabletop games well. JRPG fans wouldn’t miss them because they wouldn’t be expected in a big box tabletop game. Things like making the game a single player experience, a bit tunes soundtrack, and not having a rulebook were on this list.

With the buckets defined it was time to take on the mechanic that most directly affects winning and losing, and for a JRPG this had to be combat. If I couldn’t make a battle system that felt like a classic JRPG, I was going to stop right then.

While some modern JRPGs have moved away from turn-based combat, the vast majority of the classics that motivated us to do the project used “heroes on one side, monsters on the other” turn-based fighting. I needed to make a system that felt like that, and ideally looked like it as well. This meant no movement – a staple of most big box adventure games. My first system used a random monster deck and dice to resolve combat. I was actually surprised at how well it worked! But mostly, I was relieved that I could make a classic JRPG feeling co-op battle system that had fun player decisions and dramatic moments while discouraged quarterbacking.

With that big check mark I was confident we could make this game. Eventually, every feature from bucket 1 and most features from bucket 2 made it into the game. We even snuck in a few from bucket 3 like “no rulebook.”

It’s been a crazy ride, one of the longest development cycles of my 25 years as a professional game designer, but also one of the most rewarding. We hope you check it out when it launches on Kickstarter soon.

Luke Peterschmidt

Note: After 4 years of development, the combat system is quite different now than that early version. Dice turned out to be way too swingy and were replaced with a token-and-bag system. Random monsters left for fixed encounters to make decision making more interesting. But the system never lost it’s ability to give players that classic JRPG experience on the tabletop.
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Fri Aug 2, 2019 7:29 pm
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