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Coming Soon: Aspyrias, the Deck Building RPG?

Posted By Don Mappin On October 4, 2012 @ 1:00 am In Gaming Trends,Specific RPGs,Spotlight | 11 Comments

Who put their card game in my RPG? It may not be a question you’re asking yourself today but it could be a question you’re asking yourself a year from now. The “deck building RPG,” Genesis Aspyrias, is currently in development and puts a new twist on the evolution of RPG mechanics.

Previously I’ve discussed the collectible card RPG and some general trends within the industry, as well as their potential impact as a GM. One of those games we’ve unboxed here, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay RPG by Fantasy Flight Games. A noteworthy game in that it brings board game counters and cards to the RPG table. Personally, I love the system (don’t much care for the setting), in particular its innovative die mechanic.

Specialized dice are all the rage these days, although Fudge really started the trend back in the day. Now you can’t walk down the aisle at Gen Con without stumbling onto an RPG with custom dice. Fantasy Flight’s new take on Star Wars, Edge of the Empire, looks to continue that trend.

But sneaking ahead of this transformation is a new game currently seeking backers on Kickstarter soon to be relaunched on Kickstarter that hopes to integrate some of the mechanics of deck building games, like Dominion, into an RPG.

Background

Originally called the Genesis Roleplaying System by Alea Publishing Group, the name has just this week been changed to the much more difficult to pronounce Aspyrias Adventuring System due to legal objections by Fable Streams Entertainment, creators of the Genesys Universal Roleplaying Game. Naming arguments aside, the decision has also been made to relaunch the Kickstarter at an undisclosed period after further development work is completed and more promotion is done. Call me cynical, but re-launching an unfinished Kickstarter — a re-Kickstarter? — seems like a dubious proposition but I can understand the reasoning.

Having done design work myself in the past, and being a big fan of innovative mechanics at the table, I was personally intrigued by the concepts shown by Joshua Raynack, creator of Aspyrias. While I did not have the benefit of seeing the entire game in its totality — only small bits in discreet packages — there are some interesting concepts to consider when running such a game.

The Fine Print

And, in case I wasn’t perfectly clear, this is not a review — I’d hesitate to even call it a full-blown preview with the small snippets I’ve been able to glean thus far. Imagine trying to describe a scenic vista while only being allowed to look at small bits for a few seconds at a time. Also, as the game is currently in development, the contents of this article could quite easily change in the future. If you’re intrigued by what you read here, by all means reach out to the Kickstarter and see if you can be involved in a future playtest of Aspyrias.

Untold Dominion

If you are unfamiliar with deck building card games, the most popular one of them all would be Dominion, having spawned several expansions and becoming something of a trendsetter in an entirely new segment of board/card games. The basic concept of a deck building game is that there is a common pool of cards that all players select from, building their own dynamic deck of cards. As they use the cards and discard them, they refresh from their self-created deck. The cards include the mechanics that have an effect when played. After each turn, your hand is (typically) discarded and you redraw from your deck. Thus, you have control over what’s in your deck and while you don’t know for certain what you’re going to draw for your next turn, you’ve a decent idea of what’s coming as you have created the deck.

Negative effects (cards) can be introduced into your deck — typically involuntarily — in an effort to “clog” your deck and make it more inefficient. Normally there is a mechanic to cull your deck as well, eliminating (destroying) cards you no longer want/need, making your deck more efficient.

In steps Aspyrias, where your character is the deck.

In truth you do have a character sheet with five attributes, scored from 0 to 4. A typical character will likely have a score of 1 or 2 in Agility, Charm, Insight, Strength, and Willpower. These numbers are used to build your starting deck. Have 2 Strength? Your deck starts with 2 Strength cards in it with random power values.

Your class — Mage, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior — also provides you with two bonus cards. A Mage would receive an additional Charm card and Insight card, for example. Being a dwarf provides you with +1 Strength and +1 Willpower cards.

So you’ve a series of attributes and a 12 card deck? Now what?

Resolution

Upfront for the entire group to see are the five stacks of cards and their discard piles (see illustration). Each of these stacks represents the five attributes. Typically players will be drawing an unknown card from the relative stack that guides the task. Doing something physical will call on you to draw from the Strength stack, for example.

The Strength card will have a power score on it. The player will add their Strength value as well. Now each card also has a set of boost icons on it, allowing the player — or allies if applicable — to discard like cards to add the relevant score. So a Strength card with a Willpower boost icon on it allows the player to discard a Willpower card from their hand to add their Willpower to the roll.

The total of the result is then compared against the difficulty. So how is that determined? The GM draws an opposing card, say Willpower based on the situation, and uses that power number. The boost icons come into play but instead of having to discard anything, the difficulty of the task is automatically raised by the face up discarded cards that match the boost icons.

The game calls this the “advanced” resolution mechanic and it looks to be the one most often seen for meaningful decisions or those that are contested.

Admittedly I’m not clear as to when or how the players refresh their hand or whether they are discarding into the common pile (unlikely) or a personal discard pile (likely). The preview material I’ve read makes mention of the GM having the ability to manipulate the discard piles, potentially putting a large obstacle in front of the players or digging out a useful card. This is pretty standard fare in Dominion as well.


Evil Pointy Hat On

From a GM-perspective there appears to be a degree of ability to manipulate the deck and have narrative control. (Again, these specific rules were not made available to me.) Conversely, it looks like the players have equally as much control over the game, in fact part of my concern is that the players may have too much control. I’d need to run the system a bit to see for certain. For example, since the opposed GM resolution mechanic relies on the face up discard pile, clever players could “pre-seed” the discard pile with low value cards, making their next actions much easier.

As it stands today, the game is designed to ship with 100 ability cards, meaning each ability will have 20 cards. I’m unsure of what the power score range will be, but I haven’t seen a non-experience card with a value higher than 4. Assuming an equal distribution, that’s five cards per 1 to 4 value. That’s not a terribly hard distribution to track in one’s head during play. In essence, Aspyrias removes one of the key cornerstones of RPGs: the randomness of the die roll.

In Aspyrias you won’t see the three critical hits in a row. Of course, you also won’t see that string of fumbles either. Instead you’ll have a predictable — daresay, a fixed — distribution curve. For every high card (success!) you know you will see a low card (failure!) just as often. Without having seen it in practice that sounds, well, boring to me. And if I can pull out a 4 from my discard pile when I want, be it through a trait or ability, then that leaves even less opportunity for drama at the table.

Now, this opens another can of worms in would you rather your game’s drama and tension come from the adventure, the play, or the dice? Why have to pick, I say? There are benefits to all three.

Experience in Aspyrias is handed out real time in a clever mechanic of giving the players experience cards. These cards are wild. What I’m not clear on is what happens when they are spent in play. I would presume they are lost (uncertain), which then puts us in a situation of short term benefit versus long term gain. Is it better to spend your experience during play or horde it for after play to raise attributes, thus increasing your deck size?

Based on my experience, most recently with Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, most players focused on the long term game will choose the latter, not the former. However, keep in mind the distribution curve I spoke of above. Is it necessarily better to have a hand larger than 12 with more, for example, Strength cards? There’s a strong case to be said for the smaller hand with the higher value cards. Again, not having seen the entire system — in particular the player hand dynamics and refresh mechanics — that may or may not be an issue.

Much of the game system is shockingly generic. With four rather uninspiring class options, and the traditional gambit of fantasy races there is a hefty burden upon the GM and players to seed the game with their own color. For some groups this is fantastic, for others — especially those with new players — a bit of a hinderance to being pulled into the game. Now, the re-Kickstarter will apparently tie Aspyrias to Alea Publishing’s house setting, Feudal Lords.

Honestly, after spending time with Aspyrias, I think it’d work better to be divorced from the fantasy heart-breaker setting — and all the baggage that comes with it — and is probably better suited to a modern or near-modern setting.

Finally, speaking of same-same potential problems, the tight distribution of ability scores (0 to 4) could also lead to characters and monsters feeling very much alike. Traits and skills would have to be the defining characteristics. As traits appear to be class-based — and there are only four classes — that doesn’t help the issue much either. And, based on an experience preview, different classes can cherry pick from other classes, meaning there’s no niche protection to boot. Issue or not? You decide!

One area I really like is the wound mechanic. There isn’t a harsh death spiral nor a binary fine/dead mechanic. Instead, your hand size represents your health. Taking damage seeds your deck with wound cards. As you draw wound cards, that “clogs” your hand, reducing your options. If you receive a number of wound cards equal to your Willpower score then you’re Injured (condition). At that point even more bad things happen, but the important bit is that the wounds have a mechanical effect that encourages players to clean our their hand. This introduces concepts like empathic healers taking your wound (cards) onto themselves and cleansing or spending your wound card to incite a berserker rage. It’s clever and I’m excited to see it in play.

Draw!

This should, hopefully, give you some insight into a new type of RPG mechanic coming to you next year. Personally, I think there are a number of interesting concepts in Aspyrias. For a segment of the gaming population I wonder if the game tries to go too far, too quickly? I’d rather see something like the aforementioned Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay where the card mechanic lives along side the die mechanic, rather than pulling the rug all out at once.

If you’re intrigued by the concepts included herein I’d encourage you to check out the Kickstarter, perhaps get involved in the soon-to-come new iteration, and share some real-world feedback on Aspyrias in the coming year.

What say you? Would you be willing to give a deck-building RPG game a shot at your table? What are your concerns?

(I’d like to thank Joshua Raynack and Alea Publishing for making available portions of Aspyrias for the purposes of this article!)

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Coming Soon: Aspyrias, the Deck Building RPG?"

#1 Comment By edige23 On October 4, 2012 @ 5:30 am

Dragon Storm was doing something quite like this back in 1996- “”Dragon Storm is a role-playing game which is also a collectible card game, published by Black Dragon Press. All required statistics and rules are printed on the cards. There are two types of cards: Gamemaster cards for adventure generation and Player cards for character generation.”
Dragon Storm

#2 Comment By shortymonster On October 4, 2012 @ 5:36 am

Really looking forward to this one. I’m a big Dominion fan, and think that a lot of board/card games already lend themselves well to a role playing experience (http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=73), so seeing someone take the next step and incorporate the card mechanics into the RPG sounds like a grand old idea.

#3 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On October 4, 2012 @ 6:26 am

It looks interesting but not like something I would enjoy much. But I’m always interested in new mechanics, so I’ll keep an eye out for it. But if they keep their steep international shipping they won’t get me to back at a level with physical rewards.

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 4, 2012 @ 7:29 am

I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of the effect of a uniform distribution using cards vs a uniform distribution using dice, but I may not understand the crux of your complaint. Long term, drawing uniformly distributed cards marked 1-4 should have exactly the same distribution as rolling a d4. True, in the short term the non-replacement has a small impact, but that to me adds an additional set of strategies that are still impacted by the random distribution of the cards. Also I’d argue that “counting cards” and waiting for an opportune time to play your high or low cards is a cool way to simulate “keeping an eye on the flow of the encounter” and picking a good time to strike. The “stacking the GMs deck with crap cards” to lower difficulty mechanic seems highly similar to me to the “aid another” mechanic in DnD et al. You’re sacrificing player actions and resources to boost the chance of a single roll. While the exact mechanics of the strategy is newish, the concept itself is old.

#5 Comment By Don Mappin On October 4, 2012 @ 8:22 am

Well, again, not having seen the full rules — and nothing around deck or how the communal pile refreshes — it’s a concern I have, potentially a non-issue I will grant you.

Conceptually I have a narrative issue with a player card counting, waiting for the zero he *knows* is going to come up, when in “reality” none of us leads a perfectly biased life, statistically.

And there’s already an Aid Another mechanic in that when an action is taken, players can use the Boost symbols on the card to discard matching cards to add in their relevant score. For example, if the action card has a Strength Boost symbol and I have a Strength card in my hand, I can discard it to add my strength ability score to the task, assisting the other player. There’s no player action involved, although it does “cost” you a card.

This is why I say that I’ve concerns that players can “game” the system from multiple angles, perhaps too easily.

#6 Comment By Don Mappin On October 4, 2012 @ 8:28 am

Thanks for that reminder! I had completely forgotten about Dragon Storm! However, it is important to point out that Dragon Storm was a CCG + RPG whereas Aspyrias, as currently designed, has no collectability or rarity. It’s a fixed distribution of card.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On October 4, 2012 @ 8:38 am

Well, all game companies these days have cottoned on to the fact that there’s money to be made in the after-market sales.

GW have the never-ending library of increasing game breakage, WoC have a similar approach, Paizo is going the same route though currently the line is young enough to be still of high quality stuff (and, moreover, entirely optional stuff) and Savage Worlds has gone overboard on Wallpapering the engine to give new games. GURPS has a small but tres expensive library of 4th ed books (though those who already invested A Small Fortune during Ed3 can use their tomes without more spend) and Chaosium are saying that what they really need is to be able to fund more scenario books and so have turned to Collector’s Edition leather-bound reprints and Kickstarting. There’s gold on them thar shelves.

Deck-building games are even better because you simply cannot fit enough cards into any sort of basic set that will suffice for a five-player game involving all yer possible options. I cite Game of Thrones as a case in point, where people I’ve seen with these old eyes are buying two basic sets *and* two of their favored “house” expansion in order to “be competitive”. Ka-ching!

And deck-building games are phenomenally popular, often *because* they are deck-building games, at my LFGS. Combine the deck-building mechanic with an enjoyable RPG and I imagine you are on your way to your first Tesla sports car.

My only experience of the deck-building RPG has been with Gamma World, and I’m under-impressed by the implementation there. There is nothing about it that could not be replaced with a standard table or two. But then, each card can be sold for $1 across the counter, which is the point.

The Aspyrias system sounds interesting, but my major thought while reading was “I’ll need a lot of room at table for each player with all these decks and displayed cards”.

Plus, my old brain no longer enjoys having twisty rules pounded into it, and I read hints of twisty in the review. I quite understand that twisty and clever is enjoyable in its own right. I was young and intelligent too, once.

I don’t think this has caught my imagination enough to cause spending, but should someone want to come and demo it at my LFGS or a Con (We have two candidates, I-Con and RetCon) I’d certainly make time to watch and/or play so they could change my mind.

#8 Comment By Don Mappin On October 4, 2012 @ 9:10 am

I’ve dropped Josh a line to let him know this article is here. Hopefully he’ll be around to answer questions and correct me! :)

#9 Comment By MuadMouse On October 4, 2012 @ 9:12 am

Gabe of Penny Arcade is also working on a deck-building RPG. Seems to be a trend!

Not that I mind. I enjoy systems that can bring on side effects along with success and failure, and deck-building mechanics can throw in just that. But then again, there are other ways, like the WFRP 3e custom dice or, better yet, the Cortex Plus trick of doing it with standard polyhedrals.

It will be interesting to see how these deck-building RPGs turn out. Personally, I’m not much for deck-building games because of their fiddliness, and I doubt similar mechanics would contribute meaningfully to my style of play. Furthermore, a deck-based system makes modifying it so much harder; to expand the game, you either have to buy published stuff and hope it works, or write up cards of your own, which risks breaking the system. I just hope Aspyrias and Thornwatch won’t be too delicately balanced to modify.

I do think there’s a market for deck-building RPGs. Mechanics-oriented players will certainly jump at this. Even if this sort of system is for everyone, I suspect we all know people we’d recommend it to most heartily!

#10 Comment By Don Mappin On October 4, 2012 @ 10:18 am

Since this article was on Aspyrias I somewhat intentionally failed to mention Thornwatch or Card Hunter (online card RPG).

Yes, deck building games do make self-modification harder. That’s a byproduct of the system I feel and less a design intent. However, I firmly believe that one reason we’re seeing customized dice and games like Warhammer by FFG is, in part, to combat piracy and to encourage/require players to buy in to the game as opposed to a single rulebook passed around the table. PnP RPGs have always had to contend with this somewhat thorny issue.

#11 Comment By Joshua Raynack On October 5, 2012 @ 7:33 am

Hey Don – first, thanks for taking the time to take a peek at the Aspyrias Adventuring System and writing a great article – I wish there was more to show, but we’re still in development. Knowing game design yourself, you can fully appreciate the task before us – I found it is quite harder writing for an undeveloped system rather than one that’s already established (d20 and 4th Edition). That is why I find articles such as these as well as other feedback surrounding our previews incredibly useful – cause we forget to clear up things that we often overlook cause we’re on the inside looking in.

I just wanted to address a few things that might clear a few of your questions and that of your readers – first, the communal stacks of Ability cards – though there is a way to “seed” the stacks by players, it doesn’t happen often and for this reason (using the d20 system for an analogy) – it is like before you are guaranteed a 20, you must first voluntarily choose to fumble – and unlike the d20 system, when you miss your target, you take damage.

But, you can also explain it as characters are making an early sacrifice to prepare for the worst later on.

Second, and this was brought up elsewhere, the power numbers rarely have an effect while they are in your hand or character deck. Their importance usually lies when making an Advanced check and only for the origin card drawn from the Ability stack. Players never discard to the communal stacks, only to their character deck discard pile – only the origin card used for the Advanced check is returned to the communal discard pile.

As for the curve of the power numbers, I don’t believe I mentioned this before (again, one of those minor things you overlook when designing a game from scratch), there is only one power number 4 in each ability stack (and one 0) – however, there are more 1s than 2s, and more 2s then 3s. So, there is not exactly an even distribution between high/low values like you would find one a die (1 side/1 value). But, overall I agree that rolling a 1 at that crucial moment adds to the drama of a scene, but we hope to make up for it in other ways.

Experience cards are simply wild cards, but instead of adding your ability score when played, you add the power number of the experience card – which is not as good at lower “levels”, but proves useful later when you gain high power number experience cards. Furthermore, you only spend experience cards when buying a trait or increasing attribute, never when using them as a wild card. This offers an unique way of using experience – you can accumulate better experience cards to use as wild cards, but will not have a variety of skills or traits as other players or you can focus more on traits and skills to pull you through a sticky situation.

As for the classes – we took note to start small, then build from there – however, though class specific, the traits allow a versatile option to broaden your character – for instance, the warrior, you can choose traits to make a barbarian, knight, archer, or ranger-like character (or a little of each). That’s why we call it a theme more than a rigid class system and also why we wanted to give you a copy of one of the classes for the article, but fell short on time).

Most notable, though, we are trying to focus more on role-playing rather than rules and rely on Game Masters to fine tune the game to their liking through suggestions – for example, don’t like having players boosting everybody all the time, then simply incite a rule that restrict the aid a players can receive from allies equal to their Charm score (a character with a Charm of 2 can only receive aid from 2 allies).

As for the setting, I agree with you – traditional fantasy is a safe bet – though we announced it to be married with our Feudal Lords setting, we do have an “outside of the box” setting we want to push for the system – but, we are still discussing it, since we do have a lot of Feudal Lords fans that want to see more of the setting. Plus, from a financial standpoint, traditional fantasy art is easier to come by and often less expensive than commissioned work.

I know this is long-winded, but I really appreciate you taking the time and energy bringing this to the attention to your readers – it is a difficult project (more so than I originally thought – since I’ve been doing this for a while) and definitely respect and enjoyed your thoughts. We hope to shed more light soon on the system.


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