What is the Project
Fuel Priest is a game about the road to sainthood, and being a kickass pilot. It looks to provide a framework to tell stories focused on themes of loneliness, divinity, discovery, and notoriety and the interplay between them all. The character is split between a pilot and their aircraft, each part informing the other, and neither working alone.
Why this Project
Here’s a little bit of background on me before I explain why I chose this project. I was born into a loving family of engineers, pilots and mechanics. Growing up, my brother immediately took to the discussions of various engineering ideas and raving about the next cool car that came around, while I was excited about the most recent book or game that I found. My family and I didn’t really have a whole lot to talk about, leading to many a reunion with a book in my hand.
During my senior year of highschool I started playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. I started staying over at a friends house every friday, playing D&D until the small hours of the morning, and finding my way back home around dinner time on Saturday. I wasn’t very good at explain why things caught my interest when I was younger, so when I was asked what the appeal of D&D was I stumbled my way through a garbled explanation.
Eventually I started to host our game nights at parents house to try and show them what all the hype was about. Where I saw high action fantasy adventures, they saw five nerds throwing dice at the nice mahogany table. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to finally convince my family to sit down and play an RPG with me, and once they did it all started to click. This project is my way of showing and not telling my family why RPGs are special, and why they had such an impact on my life.
The first iteration of this idea came about three years ago when I first started playing D&D. We had a fifteen person group split between both game masters. During lunch at school that day both Gm’s declared that they were tired of Gming and wanted a day off. I got volunteered and quickly roped a friend of mine who had never Gmed before to help me out. After school we went over to her room and started to brainstorm a campaign. We settled on making the players pair off, so that instead of dealing with fifteen turns we only had to plan around eight. The result was a d20 based game about two people working together to fly their steampunk fighter jets through the sky.
After I ran that session, the idea sat on the shelf for a few years. Not because I didn’t want to touch it again, but because I didn’t know how to.
Before my third year of college, my parents bought me a 2011 Mini Countryman. It was a manual transmission, which I had never driven before, but I was ready to learn. My mom’s boyfriend Allen took me out and we drove around the neighborhood, trying to get a feel for the car. He off handedly mentioned that each car was different, and if I got into another stick shift car I would need to relearn its personality. That stuck with me, and as I drove my new car more and more I started to find its personality.
Really meeting this car for the first time came about one a dimly lit massachusetts backroad at three in the morning around ninety miles an hour. There was a moment where I felt like the car and I were working together to make it home, and acting as one. I wanted to take this feeling and capture it in the context of a tabletop rpg. I had an image in my head of a group of people sitting down to play this game and moving things around their character sheet to simulate working different parts of aircraft. This eventually turned into the Overdrive mechanic, where players could enhance their aircraft with their ego.
Research of other games
The first step in development was to look at RPGs that embodied the qualities I was looking for. I was looking for games that treated the players as something special in the world, in depth mechanics on player controlled machines, and mechanics that enforce the narrative.
Warbirds – Outrider Studios
Warbirds was the first place I looked for inspiration. This game deals with the consequences of juggling notoriety with life. The players are all celebrity pilots, whether they want to be or not. The mechanics of the game make it favorable for players to stay in good standing with their fans through a fame score that will help or hinder them. Combat is laid out on a line, where every party in the combat rolled to be at the back of the line. Players could target everybody in front of them, but nobody behind.
The question of how the players interacted with their status of celebrities colors every other choice they make during character creation, and encourages players to not only think about their character, but also the ramifications of how their character moved through the world. I wanted to apply that feeling to Fuel Priest, and I did so through the mechanics around gaining and losing Favor.
Apocalypse world – D. Vincent Baker
The few mechanics in Apocalypse world is designed to shape a gritty, pulpy feel. This game isolates what the players and Gm’s should be doing into what the game calls moves, which trigger as roleplay happens. This facilitates roleplaying as a conversation rather than a call and response between the Gm and the players.
This game encourages the Gm to take a back seat, and act more as an audience to the players, and doing so creates an amazing feeling of immersion in the world.
Shadowrun 4e & 5e – Catalyst Game Labs
There is a lot to talk about when it comes to Shadowrun, but I was specifically looking at how operating all of the vehicles worked. Once you boiled it down to the basics, each vehicle had a speed, armor, maneuverability, and toughness. These were the four things that my system eventually turned into the four basic part groups.
Iron Kingdoms – Privateer Press
The setting of Iron Kingdoms is a mix of steam and arcane punk, with gunslingers battling side by side with sorcerers. The thing that caught my eye about this game though were the steamjacks. Steamjacks are large mechanical war machines controlled by specially trained magic users. After enough time, these machines develop personalities, and bonds with their controllers, recognizing them and even showing joy when they approach. It got me thinking of ways to create bonds between players and machines.
Creating these machines is modular to a point. You decide on a chassis, arms, weapons and additional attachments. I wanted to take that one step further and have the choices you made when making your aircraft affect who the player is.
Fate Core – Evil Hat Productions
Everything about Fate is designed to create characters that are driven, engaged and competent. The diced are weighted so that if a character is the best at something, the worst they can do is average. The way the dice are scored start at a baseline of performing a task mediocrely, and failure only happens if the task is performed in a way that is sub par. I took that idea and turned it into the success metrics Fuel Priest uses.
Evolution into a Game engine
After an entirely unproductive month of development, I began to feel like making an entire TTRPG wasn’t possible in my given time frame. I started looking to other games and seeing what I could do to try and salvage my idea. I came upon games like Jadepunk, Dungeon World, and Victoriana. They all played very different from each other, but the one thing that they had in common is that the mechanics they used weren’t unique. Jadepunk used the rules from a Fate, Dungeon world lifted the framework from its rules from Apocalypse world, and the developers of Victoriana created the Heresy engine as a way to keep all of there game consistent. Instead of making an entire TTRPG, I was going to create the framework for multiple.
The things that needed to stay consistent between all of the games we as follows:
- The player character and their machine representing two halves of one whole.
- A way to mechanically show that the players were special in this world.
- A metric for tracking a player character’s emotions.
When I was building the mechanics for all of these, I focused on how they would all work in combat, and didn’t worry about how they would function outside of it.
I started thinking of what system I was going to be laying the framework for. These took the shape of High Flyers, Iron Sentry, and RoadKill. The largest change between the different systems was the vehicles involved, being Airplanes, Mechs, and Cars respectively. I first laid out the framework for how each machine would perform in a vacuum, leaving the interactions between them for later. What I didn’t realize was the inherent imbalance between the different machines. A fight between an Aircraft and a Car became a cat and mouse game where the car would rush for a piece of cover to delay being destroyed. Fights where mechs were involved became immobile and felt like what I imagine putting your finger to a grindstone would feel like. The game was the most interesting when each section was in a vacuum.
Back to the RPG
I was on the phone with my partner one evening when they asked how my game was coming along, I responded that I had scrapped most of it and was back to the drawing board. Over the break I had been thinking hard on what I enjoyed most about RPGs. I thought back to a class I took with Rob Daviau where he had explained GNS theory to the class. GNS theory being the idea that you could plot any game ever made on a triangle shaped graph where each point represented a different focus, being simulation, gamification, or narrative.
Up until that point, when I had thought about RPG design, I had assumed that every action that was possible needed a rule on how to accomplish it. In reading more games that focused on narrative I began to think about how an RPG could guide a player’s actions through limitation, and in doing so, tell a narrower, more compelling story.
Focus on narrative
I reverted back to my original of creating a tabletop RPG, but this time I went in with a narrative first mind set. While writing my rules I focused what the implications of each action would be on the game world, and what stories could be explored through limiting player action. Divinity, notoriety, loneliness, and discovery will be prevalent themes in any game told through this story, but the way they interact will change from story to story.
What has changed from the original goal.
Alot has changed since the first iteration of this game. My first vision was fast paced, I wanted to capture that feeling of hurtling down massachusetts back roads. As I played more and more I found that the stories getting told weren’t personal, and instead revolved around high octane adventures. I do love high octane adventures, but it felt not genuine and I didn’t enjoy working on that. I slowed down the game significantly, and encouraged every story beat to have weight, so even the smallest moments are powerful. What was originally going to be a system encouraging multiple ways to play has been narrowed down and limited in the interest of storytelling.
What became my design goals, and did I succeed?
My largest design goal was to have the game feel different depending on whether or not players were in their aircraft. Outside of their aircraft, I wanted them to feel famous, like they mattered and were big players in this world, but also overwhelmed by how much was going on around them, and rarely being able to make a solid connection outside of the other players. I tried to accomplish this by including the faithful in the world. I hoped that they’re constant presence would end up being tiring for the players. In the long run, having the faithful act in the way I had originally intended quickly turned into a negative play experience for the Gm and players. It became way more satisfying to use the faithful as a way to always put the players first. By always having the faithful around, they could act as an echo chamber and constantly reassure the players of their own greatness, even to the point where it felt disingenuous. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to have the interactions with the faithful be something that would stay consistent across Gms. They were often times not addressed when I handed the game to other Gms. I think the place where I went wrong there was believing that through the world building alone they would stay consistent. If you want something to stay consistent in an RPG, create mechanics for it, a lesson I’m going to use moving forward.
My focus on Divinity backs up the above concept. I wanted the characters to be able to feel when the Maiden was watching them. I included a favor meter on the player’s character sheet. I turned the Maidens love into a resource that players could spend to increase stats, or perform miracles. It had the additional benefit of making characters question who they are as people. During a playtest we had one player who was about to ascend, but the character was in a bad spot, and didn’t think they deserved to ascend, so they kept spending favor whenever they could. The only thing I’m disappointed about when it comes to favor is the rate that favor is lost. Currently favor poses the question of whether or not a priest is ready to ascend, and not if they will ascend.
I have mixed feelings on how well I achieved making players feel connected to their aircraft. Building your aircraft also creates the characters personality. When selecting a part to put on your aircraft, you select a personality trait from the part and it applies to both the aircraft and the priest. If a part breaks, so does that part of the priests personality. This links the priests and their aircraft mechanically, and I hoped that the emotional connection would follow. Instead of a bond between the pilot and their aircraft, it played out more like the aircraft were being taken for granted, until something went wrong with them. I think crafting the emotional attachment to each aircraft has to be something that the players and the Gm craft together when they sit down.
How did Fuel Priest do?
Overall, I am happy with how the game turned out. I am going to keep working on it to to iron out that parts I’m not satisfied with, but overall I think I did a good job. There are a few things that I feel make the game feel messing in execution. Following GNS theory, I think the game leans a little bit too close to simulation in how it handles fuel efficiency. You calculate your aircraft’s fuel efficiency by adding the engine’s fuel efficiency with the drag value on each part. This tells you how many units of fuel it takes to fly for one day. The fuselage then has a cargo value, which is used to carry fuel. This provides a way to track many days a priest can travel before needing to refuel. This can create interesting story beats, and narrative opportunities, but I can’t help feel there is a more elegant solution to tracking how far players can travel.
Playtest challenges of RPGs
Playtesting this game was a challenge by itself. I wasn’t sure how to tackle it at first, so I broke it down into a few chunks.
I started with the mechanics for combat. I wanted to make sure that those worked before I went on to anything else. I thought that combat was going to be the most complex part of the system, which lead to me over designing it. After extensive playtesting I found that while the combat worked, and was fun, it didn’t fit the game. I shelved the combat for a while, and focused on how I wanted the dice to work. My logic being that if I could nail down the dice in a way to encourage the narrative, then everything else would build from there.
I focused my core gameplay loop to using moxie to run parts better to gain more moxie. Moxie being used to increase your chances of success.
After I had most of my mechanics in a place I liked them, I started to think about what options players should be given in character creation. The first round of playtesting was entirely open ended. At first, my goal was to allow for almost any type of character to be possible, and to have each character able to perform one miracle, which they could choose. This proved to be two open ended, and miracles ranged from opening doors, to the sun never setting.
After that I started thinking about what types of characters would capture the emotions I was hoping to evoke. This is one of the things that lead to personality tags being associated with aircraft parts. Having the types of personality tags limited to aircraft parts meant I could limit the types of characters that were in this game.
Once both of those were nailed down I started long form testing. I ran two three session games with different groups, with iterations happening between each game. The first thing that changed was combat. It originally didn’t follow the same success values that every other action in the game did, and was instead a collection of opposed rolls. This made combat feel more random than it needed to be, and didn’t reinforce the narrative that the players were powerful.
After that I realized that there was no special travelling mechanic. As it was, players just got from point A to point B with the Gm describing how they got there. To enhance the feeling of exploration focus on the characters I created a new travel rule.
Travel takes time, no matter where you are going, you are going to be spending a brief stint of time in the air. During these times, when a group is flying, and there are no interruptions, travel ends after the group has had a conversation. If the group is not in the space to have a conversation, then they can give an insight into their personal monologue, or create something about the world.
Within ten minutes into the first playtest of having this new rule in, we had a moment in game where one player let the party know about the characters dead partner, and their son. The rest of the game was a tear jerking saga about helping the son balance training as a Fuel Priest, joy at the Maiden choosing a priest to ascend, and grief at losing his mother. This mechanic was here to stay. It drives the plot in a way that is hyper focused on the players and their motivations.
Feedback was gathered from the players directly after, I took notes and iterated based on their feedback. In the most recent bout of feedback, the radar can now also be used to track where locations are in the world, as well as where aircraft are in combat.
I’d say that the one thing that this project was missing from the outset was a clear understanding of the different forms a TTRPG could take. My experience with those games had been limited to games that had a focus on complex mechanics and the interactions between all of the contained systems. It wasn’t until halfway through development that I began to seriously read through games that put the narrative before anything else. If I were to go back and start all over, which I may still do after graduation, I would start by analyzing the way the same stories are told with different mechanics through RPGs, instead of attempting to build it all up from scratch.
An interesting thing to think about when making TTRPGs is how fluid the game is going to turn out. No matter how many rules get written or how explicit you are in the rule book, once the game is given to another person, it becomes their game to do with as they please. I think TTRPG design walks this weird line of needing to be explicit in its ruleset to communicate how things are done and how the world works, and needing to convey advice that is easily accessible for players and game masters to get the experience the design was shooting for. In my mind, the goal of any RPG is to tell a story and any rules are there to create a framework for the kinds of stories that the designer wants to tell. After that, it is in the hands of players to do with what they want.
I think the rubric for determining if an RPG is successful is in the acronym itself. Players sit down to play a tabletop roleplaying game because they want to see what goes into doing something that they are more than likely never going to experience. A successful RPG is designed to show players what that’s like, whether it be diving into a dungeon and hurling fireballs at goblins, exploring forgotten landmarks in a ruined world, or flying through a world coated in oil.