Designers' Notes: Creatures of the Night, Volumes 1 and 2
by Scott Maykrantz & Jason Levine
In September 2007, Jason Levine and Scott Maykrantz were interviewed on CBC for "The Farley Bloom Conversation." The theme for the week was "Fantasy Design: Artist and writers working in the field of computer games, board games, and roleplaying games."
Levine: No, I've bounced ideas off of other people, but this is my first time working directly with another author.
Maykranz: I have before, but this is a step forward--
Bloom: An evolution.
Maykranz: You could say that, yeah.
Bloom: And how does it work? I'm interested to know [thoughtful pause] I'm fascinated by the "division of labor," as I call it. Who does which part?
Levine: The concept stuff is all Scott. He comes up with the basic idea behind each critter, and then I come home from work to find a demonic midwife in my email. [laughs] Usually it's a solid treatment -- what the creature is, what it does, and how you'd use it -- along with artwork. In fact, if I can reveal your trade secret, Scott? [Maykrantz nods] He often just draws a creature with no preconceptions, then looks at the drawing later on and figures out what it will be.
Maykranz: Yeah, that's true. I draw a lot of monsters--
Bloom: Every day?
Maykranz: Yes. I have a backlog of pictures to choose from. I brainstorm names, I link names with pictures, and then I start writing ideas for traits, habitat, and adventures. The other day I drew a picture of a humanoid made of rocks. I looked at my list of names and chose "Clatternorn." Then I wrote what the creature does, what it wants, weaknesses, and that sort of thing.
Levine: And once I get the first draft of a critter, it's usually obvious where it's going. If I'm not sure, I interrogate Scott until we're both on the same page -- which occasionally involves changing the concept, or at least part of it. After that, I start "GURPS-ifying" it by statting the beast up and turning references into rules.
Maykranz: When Jason sends the creature back to me, it has a different feel. My version has minor references to game mechanics and a few numbers that don't mean much.
Bloom: So Jason nails it down. He makes it more specific.
Maykranz: Yeah. With his input, I can see flaws that aren't apparent when I'm sitting at home, typing at the computer. I see the stats, the advantages, the disadvantages -- and I get right back into the creature, adding --
Bloom: Now be honest, Scott. Have you ever sent a creature to Jason that needed a serious overhaul?
Maykranz: Yeah, I've sent a few that I needed help with completing the concept. I think the slake hounds fit that description. [Turing to Levine.] They weren't finished when I sent them to you, were they?
Levine: Well, the rough concept was there. Originally, they were these undead things that drank body fluids. You wanted them to have a "black heart" --
Maykranz: Right, but I wasn't sure what that meant. I just wrote "black heart" and said, "Jason, what does that mean?" [Laughs]
Levine: Yeah, so we brainstormed on it. We already had a few undead things in the book, so it seemed more fun to make them living creatures -- part of the ecology, so adventurers might wander into a pack of them in a forest. And then we hit on the "bile organ," which is what I feel makes them interesting. It gives them an Achilles' heel, a potent defense, and a reason to be hunted by the PCs, all in one package. So they turned out quite different from the initial concept . . . and definitely for the better.
Maykranz: And then we spent a lot of time on the miser troll. That one was hard to write. I struggled with the idea of a creature that instigates a series of political adventures. It sits at the center of a geopolitical conflict. It was hard to get a grasp on.
Levine: He's a slippery little guy, pun intended, especially because we wanted to make him more of a plot hook than an opponent you'd go toe-to-toe with. The conflict that springs up around him is the real adventure, with the troll existing more to surprise the players with a supernatural twist. In fact, we originally had more rules for running a war of influence than we did for the troll itself. But we ended up cutting it, for various reasons.
Bloom: I understand you're going to share that "lost footage" with us tonight. I think we have the clip. [Looks past the cameraman to the producer.] Hal, can we see that clip now?
The Groups and Their Assets
Rival groups come in many forms. The GM should define each with three characteristics called assets, each with a strength from one to six. The GM can set appropriate values or just roll 1d for each asset.
Just starting out; loose organization; pathetic, rag-tag charm
Real potential; resourceful; weak, early stages
Significant; hard core but weak along the edges; bright future
Almost a major player, but with a fatal weakness or two; former world power a generation later
Major player; rival for the top; deep roots; flexible and strong
World-class; setting new standards; awe-inspiring
Firepower: This is hardware, people, and money. It is a combination of weapons, soldiers, reserve troops, supply lines, vehicles, money, allies, fortifications, and intelligence-gathering systems. When thinking of a major political or military power, Firepower is the "raw strength" that first comes to mind.
Strategic Skill: The ability to use firepower effectively, the wisdom of retreat, when to make and break alliances, controlling the group's public image, and taking advantage of opponents' weaknesses. A group that lacks Firepower can make up for it with Strategic Skill.
Tenacity: The resolve of the group, its dedication, the ability to recover from setbacks, and to change with new conditions. To have a high Tenacity, it helps to have a unifying ideology, a deep need for revenge, and homogeneity within the group. Tenacious groups have a strong internal culture, memorization of history, and see themselves as righteous soldiers.
Example: The Mondragon Army (MA) is fighting for control of the poppy fields of Central Asia. They're a medium-sized guerrilla force, well-equipped, with no allies, lots of cash, and enough vehicles to move troops and supplies. They rely on locals for food, water, and medicine. They're a versatile group, with excellent diplomatic skills. However, their leader is too megalomaniacal to pay attention to the realities of the world. Their commitment to control the poppies is impressive, but they do not have a coherent ideology. Their Firepower is 3. Their Strategic Skill could be 4, but the leader's eccentricity lowers it to 3. Their Tenacity is 2.
Using Asset Numbers
The group with the highest sum of assets controls the resource. If two groups are tied for the highest total, the group that currently controls the resource maintains control. Events in the adventure alter these numbers, reflecting a gain or loss of strength for each group in the conflict.
If a new group takes over, they will announce their victory. The transfer takes time and should be worked into the plot by the GM. The new group will employ key figures of the old regime, purge traitors, and rebuild their organization for permanent rule.
Example: The People's Revolutionary Vanguard (PRV) controls the poppy fields. They have Firepower 4, Strategic Skill 2, and Tenacity 2 (asset total: 8). The MA assassinates the PRV's leader. The GM decides that this will reduce their Strategic Skill to 1 and an asset total of 7. This gives the MA (asset total: 8) control of the fields. The takeover by the MA is not instant, but once the assassination takes place, everyone can see that the PRV is defeated.
Asset numbers bring player characters into the heart of the conflict. The players should be encouraged to make decisions using the asset numbers as targets. For example, they could carry out a mission to destroy the key weapons depot of an enemy group. The GM informs them that this will lower the group's Firepower by two levels. If they complete the mission, they can easily see how they affect the conflict for the resource.
For the players to know the asset numbers, their characters will need access to reliable intelligence. This requires data gathering and use of the Intelligence Analysis skill -- see page 201 of the Basic Set for details on both. (If no one in the party has Intelligence Analysis, they can rely on an expert NPC to keep them informed.) Success on the analysis roll reveals the relative ranking of the major groups, from strongest to weakest, without knowing any real numbers. Success by 3 or more reveals the asset total for all major groups, while success by 6 or more will reveal the individual asset strengths for each group.
Bloom: Interesting. Mmmm. Tell me, how was Volume 2 different from Volume 1?
Maykranz: As I worked on the new volume, I asked for opinions on the Steve Jackson Games forums. I wrote "Tell me how you've used Creatures of the Night." Kevin Munoz mentioned that the creatures had traits without explanations.
It was a useful criticism. I thought, "I should explain why this creature has these particular abilities." I didn't want the creatures to be arbitrary collections of strengths and weaknesses. When I was coming up with ideas for Volume 2, I tried to tie all of the traits for a particular creature into a coherent concept. I thought about real-world animals, and used their natural traits as a template for my ideas.
Bloom: Right. Now, Volume 2 has a theme: Territories. Did Volume 1 have a theme?
Maykranz: No. It was scattered. I wanted variety -- smart humanoids, big dumb combat monsters, something that looks normal but is really a creature --
Bloom: Like the guardian owls?
Maykranz: Yeah. The guardian owls are passive, in a way. They are doing their own thing, and don't need to interact with the player characters.
Levine: Most creatures aren't out to bother the PCs. It's more realistic for them to be left alone. We did that with the tellanodes. The psychic eavesdroppers they create would be perfectly happy to sit in their house all day, stealing secrets. Of course, this creates a weird, Twilight-Zone atmosphere that will inspire the players to figure out what's really going on. But they're not obvious monsters or bad guys in any way -- just opportunists.
Bloom: Where do you see this series going? Are you going to continue using themes?
Maykranz: The theme for Volume 2 was really just a way of saying "I know that you can find similarities among these creatures." It's like listening to your favorite album and you notice that every song has something in common. I looked at the Volume 2 creatures, re-read them a few times, and then realized that they had a theme, a unifying idea.
Levine: My only concern with consciously pursuing a theme is that you tend to force your ideas into that one mold, whether or not that's the best thing for them. I'd prefer keeping all possibilities open.
Maykranz: Yeah. The theme was an afterthought. It's best to keep it scattered, with a lot of variety, during the first draft.
For the next volume, we'll use feedback from the gamers. They can tell us what they like most. We'll do more of the good stuff. They'll let us know what's missing, too.
Bloom: Well, I look forward to continued installments of the series. I'd love to have you back to talk again.
Maykranz: It's been great, Farley. Thanks for having us here.
Levine: Yes, thanks for the opportunity. I'm a big fan.
Article publication date: November 16, 2007
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