Roleplayer
Roleplayer #22, November 1990

Zen and the Art of Game Design

Martial Arts Designer's Article

by C.J. Carella

The long road toward Martial Arts began on a Saturday night, while my players were creating characters for a super-spy campaign I was running. "My character is a trained Thai Kickboxer," said one player. "Fine, get the Karate skill," was my reply. "I don't want Karate, I want Thai Kickboxing!" quoth he.

My player ended up buying the Karate skill and writing it in as Kickboxing. This event, however, inspired me to work on ways to expand the martial arts in GURPS. The system was already well ahead of other systems (the ones that dump all Asian techniques in the Martial Arts box) by separating Brawling, Judo and Karate; I figured it would not be too hard to add some more detail.

At the same time, I had developed a set of cinematic martial arts for my home-brewed Supers campaign. When I heard that SJ Games was having problems with the Supers book, I sent in my rules, and appended the Cinematic Martial Arts rules as a proposal for a Roleplayer article. Some time later Loyd called me; my Supers proposal was out, but he wanted to include the Cinematic Martial Arts rules in the Supers book. He also wanted to know if I was interested in developing a whole Martial Arts worldbook. Would I be interested? Do flies fly? Do Trekkies beam up?

Research and Realism

SJ Games wanted both historical and realistic martial arts material as well as the combat rules I had been working on. Fortunately, I live only a blow away from one of the largest library systems of the country. Soon I was swimming in martial arts and Asian history books. I now had a perfect excuse for renting every kung fu flick at the local movie rental place, but I cut them with a healthy dose of serious movies like Kurosawa's great samurai films. At the end of my research, I had a list of some 25 styles, several dozen new maneuvers and skills, and many rules and optional rules.

The first obstacle in designing the book was style differentiation. Like anybody who has practiced more than one martial art, I knew that each style has its own characteristic stance, moves and techniques. Describing those differences in game terms was difficult. I wanted to add as few new rules as possible; wherever I could I would extrapolate from existing GURPS rules. My first system involved giving each style a different set of maneuver bonuses (they worked like the Alertness advantage). I drew a long list of martial arts maneuvers, from Jump Kicks to Head Butts, assigned point costs to each style based on maneuver bonuses, beefed up the cinematic skills that appeared in Supers with several others, and tried to beat my deadline.

Playtest and Point Costs

Some time after sending in the first draft, I traded in my Mac for a PC-clone and a modem. I contacted the Illuminati BBS; in the midst of my bliss (nothing like connecting to a gamers network) I began receiving feedback on the book through the bulletin board. At first, I was oversensitive to criticism, but have since become more thick-skinned. Somebody said once that a writer must "murder their darlings." I realized that some of my be-loved rules needed tinkering.

Then the playtester comments landed on my living room – several pounds of typewritten, laser-printed, handwritten and scrawled comments. After reading them and consulting with Loyd, I changed the maneuver bonuses system (it was too linear) and replaced it with a similar skill-based system that should be more balanced. Some rules, like maneuver penalties, were judged to be point crocks, and executed summarily. I got more information on new styles and weapons (I particularly thank John Arruda for sending reams of material on the martial arts; he definitely qualifies as having gone "above and beyond").

Another problem was the point costs I initially suggested for beginning characters. In the first draft, I had discouraged 100-point characters for martial artists, suggesting a campaign with 200+ points. Several playtesters reacted negatively to this. When designing the second system for martial arts abilities, I set a new goal: the new system should allow me to create a 100-point ninja character (Ninjutsu being the most expensive style found in the book). When I could do this, I was satisfied. I still hold that higher-point characters work best in Martial Arts, particularly in a cinematic campaign, but now nobody has to use them.

After making all changes, running the manuscript through my brand-new spell-checker and fixing any protruding springs or loose bolts, I electronically wrapped up the manuscript and sent it on its way. I could finally stop reading, thinking and breathing martial arts material. Now if only those darn ninja nightmares would stop . . .

GURPS Martial Arts will be released in late October.

(Back to Roleplayer #22 Table of Contents)


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