Some games start life as sets of rules; get the thing in the thing and you will receive a thing and get enough of those things and you win the thing. Other games germinate from narrative and setting ideas; there’s a dragon and some ninjas and it’s all cyberpunk AF and cuties make out. Crow Hill Kids was a project very much in the latter category. The ‘setting’ came from a time between around 2007-2012 when I was working in a local academy school (for non-UK readers, “academy” sounds fancy but it’s sort of UK code for “failing school which has been privatized so that the government are no longer as responsible for its failings”.) I had some ideas about what it would be like if some of the kids I was working with had superpowers, and what sort of wish-fulfillment those powers would involve. These ideas came out in various short comic scripts (that was my thing at the time) and were then forgotten for a while after the series Misfits came along with a very similar premise.
I haven’t really done enough game-making to give out much solid advice but I would say the number one tip for new folks is to work out whether your game is a ‘pure’ game (urgh @ this phrasing) or whether it is an interactive story. It is very unlikely that you’ll be able to produce a set of mechanics and write a whole narrative/setting and produce visual assets. This is why programs like RPG Maker are so great. Sure, lots of games of low quality get made, but I think it’s a given that commercial-quality, original-art RPG Maker projects are the minority. The same is true of any tool that makes a difficult process more accessible. I’d used one iteration of RPG maker during my teens and bought it again at the end of 2014 with the intention of messing with it some more. I returned to my previous setting of Crow Hill; a fictional council estate somewhere in urban Britain (again, for American pals, a council estate is social housing like the projects). What follows is a garbled, illegible account of the world I was building; somewhere between X-Men, the original UK version of Shameless and Earthbound/Mother
Crow Hill is a suburban area; a small council estate outside of any major urban center. It has one large towerblock called Curwen House. The local high-school; Crow Hill High, was knocked down in 2006 and rebuilt as the Huxley Academy with the backing of private funders. It turns out that Paragon – the academy’s financial benefactors – are particularly interested in rooting out kids with any unusual abilities. The player is given control of a group of 5-8 teenagers and pressed with the task of uncovering local legends and global conspiracies, with the help of the odd cybernetic augmentation or injection of power-granting sludge. The protagonists are generally aged 14-17 and from a diverse array of backgrounds, and part of the writing ethos was to give each one of them at least one major flaw that would bring them into conflict with their peers in ways which might jeopardize the player’s overall mission (stories like X-men are, after all, about working out differences in order to overcome a common enemy).
Elijah was initially the protagonist; the new kid who has just moved to town with his father. I initially toyed with making him a shapeshifter for this reason. The idea was that his driving desire was to ‘fit in’ and that manifested as the power to take on any other person’s form, without really making much of an impression on people as himself. This turned out to be a little tricky to implement and also, given RPGmaker games’ emphasis on turn-based combat, not very good for fighting. So in latter versions, Elijah’s power involved becoming a mass of liquid shadow, similar to Venom or something from The Darkness. He’s torn between wanting to make friends and just wanting to disappear into nothing, and the form he takes during combat is an approximation of a creature that began to visit him in nightmares around about the same time as his mother died.
Miriam is a British Nigerian girl and is, in terms of the role she plays and her relationship to other characters, very much like the “racebent” Hermione Granger described here. She comes from the most affluent household among the group, is very studious, and sees some of her peers as somewhat beneath her, both culturally and academically. Miriam’s moveset revolves around psychic blasts, confusion attacks and mental domination. For all her skill at controlling the minds of others, Miriam does not know how to read them.
Jasmine is the popular, fashion-conscious prom-queen character. She works as a subversion of the vamp/femme fatal trope: rather than having powers geared toward seducing boys, she repels them with an arsenal of disgusting bio-chemical weaponry. (Her power revolves around a desire to deterr unwanted sexual advances). Jasmine’s moveset thus revolves around poison or acid elements, administered through clawing and projectile vomiting.
Owen is the muscular sports ‘lad’ of the group, with super strength and speed. He is also a wheelchair user, despite his superpowers. Owen is desperate to be seen by his peers as the alpha male, and sometimes this can manifest itself in crude misogynistic or homophobic talk.
Florence is the hacker of the group, with the ability to influence digital technology with the power of her mind. She controls an up-gradable drone, can deal bonus damage to mechanical enemies, and also modify the powers of comrades’ cybernetic augments. Her father runs the local PC Repair shop. Florence is a self-confessed emo/scene girl and wouldn’t normally mix with the other members of the group.
Crow Hill Kids‘ story follows two intertwining quest-lines which can be completed one after the other or simultaneously. Each carries its own set of rewards as well as a particular flavor of enemies.
Quest Thread A: Paragon
As the kids explore the estate, they will be set upon various times by hooded youths in Academy uniforms. These turn out to be androids, not unlike the Foot Clan in the TMNT cartoons. On further investigation, the gang find that these droids; the Prefects, are being produced at a secret facility underneath their school. Throughout this questline, players will come to learn about the history of the Paragon initiative and the ulterior motives behind the schools’ reconstruction, as well as acquiring numerous cybernetic upgrades which they may equip on any character of their choosing (I worked on the premise that traditional RPG weapon systems were an ill-fit with a superhero world, so instead cybernetics are permanent equipment which augment existing powers in similar ways to Spiderman’s web-shooters or Wolverine’s claws).
Quest Thread B: Rift
In various dark recesses of the estate lurk large, sluglike creatures which drool acid. As players explore, they will encounter more and more of these creatures, and hear stories about other strange happenings. During this questline, players will meet an elderly resident of the estate; a retired comic-book writer who was among the first generation of locals to obtain powers. He explains to the gang that their powers are the source of an inter-dimensional rift, and posits several theories as to the cause of such a disturbance. His power was to open gateways from this world into that one (something he exploited for inspiration and financial gain to great success during the 1980s). He offers the use of his power to allow the gang to traverse dimensions and stop the alien menace. Enemies in this thread have an emphasis on poison and mind-control, and there is a bias toward harvesting XP mutagen items here.
Quest Thread C: Oracle (optional)
At the top floor of Curwen House lives a single mother with the power to show individuals their future. Visiting her will trigger an interactive account of one possible future where, according to the player’s actions thus-far, different members of the gang will be placed on different sides of a conflict in a middle-eastern country.
Additional Notes on Design
1. I really don’t like grinding. It’s an abuse of players’ time. Have a little bit of grinding but make the main source of XP these mutagen jar injections (later turns out the mysterious slime in these comes from the Riftslugs described earlier). Making the player root out a limited number of upgrade items (as in the Deus Ex series) just feels more interesting to me, and makes for a smaller, less bloated game.
2. Mutagens are supposed to be gross. It’s 15 year old kids injecting themselves with slugslime. Maybe they have a tradeoff like lowering HP (interesting way of ramping difficulty without scaling enemies) or they give a woozy effect of some sort until the end of the day?
3. Having a massive inventory of swords and guns feels somewhat off-brand. Equipments are replaced with semi-permanent cybernetic augments which charge via a “rage meter” (e.g. they can be used more later in a battle). Chloe’s hacker skills can be used to fast-charge someone’s Energy. Cybernetics can include passive advantages (like making a character immune to a dangerous status effect like Confuse) or active skills like arm-mounted machine-guns or flamethrowers. The idea would be to have these be generally quite powerful, but only allow each character to have, for example, on “attack” aug and one “defence” aug, or some similar limitation.
4. toward the end of my time with the project I was still struggling with standardized RPG terminology. Do I really want the energy that supes use to deploy their powers referred to as “MP”? Or would it be better to do away with it entirely and have cooldowns? Or a universal fatigue system that’s used for physical attacks too?
Closing Point: my love/hate relationship with RPG Maker
I really don’t like JRPG combat much. And even if you use a script for sideview animated battlers, it takes a lot of hacking away at Ruby to get the player characters on the left and moving correctly to enemies on the right. To me, the direction of most games is left-to-right, ergo player characters should be attacking from the left. But the RPGm community at large seems happy enough to stick with the Japanese convention of player-characters on the right. This infuriates me a disproportionate amount.GubiD’s 2.5d-looking Tactical Battle is pretty impressive, allowing RPGm folks to make games similar to FF Tactics or Vandal Hearts.
If I had the time and the effort, the ideal sort of engine for something like this would be more similar to the Infinite Engine. It’s not that I dislike jRPGs entirely, it’s just that they tend to abstract everything happening on the battlefield out into numbers; big obnoxious numbers. They can often feel a bit more like playing a board/card game and although some tactical battle systems exist – allowing you to make an RPG-maker game where battles occur on a tactical grid – these tend to be more difficult to implement, and not necessarily compatible with my 32×96 sprites.