Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why Break!! Will Probably Be Amazing

Reynaldo Madriñan is a familiar face in DIY D&D circles--he runs a campaign that's Nintendo on top but pure old-school under the hood. Every session I've ever played with him--in Kenneth Hite's Qelong or his own Bavovania setting--has been a blast.

He's currently working on publishing a project called Break!! with a fantastic anime-style artist named Grey Wizard that really shows a different side to the OSR/ DIY RPG revolution. It promises all the color and frenzy without the pointless mechanization or soap-opera knee-hugging that've plagued so many previous attempts at the genre.  So I asked them about it....

-Rey: In one sentence: What is Break!!?

Pretty much the game I’ve wanted since I was 9 years old and realized that regular D&D had no way to play robot characters.
-Grey: In one sentence: What is Break!! ?
A tabletop game but also the love-child of an instruction manual, a game guide and concept art book.
-Grey or Rey whoever feels like it: Why is it called Break!! ?
R: I took the name from an old joke my friends and I made about the Guilty Gear video games: ‘The game works because everyone is broken.’ In most fighting games, you have a couple of standard characters and one or two off-the-wall ones that change up the game. Guilty Gear is full of over-the-top, colorful, dynamic characters. There is no boring one, and that’s how I want BREAK!! to feel.
G: Rey has always called it BREAK!! I never really challenged it as I liked the powerful simplicity of it. I am also a fan of Rey’s use of double exclamation marks as a bit of textual branding. I guess it was a working title that kinda stuck. I can’t see it changing now as we’ve become very attached to it… but we should probably force ourselves to consider alternatives.

-Rey: You're doing all the rules and writing Grey's doing the art--is that right?
G: Broadly correct. Rey is the game designer, I am the art department. Although it feels less binary than that. We don’t follow a traditional waterfall process (write, layout, commission art) its more a scruffy, iterative collaboration.
R: Yeah, what Grey said. Most of the time I’ll write a thing, Grey will look over it and make suggestions (good ones, I should add) and then I’ll go back, tweak it and he’ll draw stuff from it he thinks looks cool. He’s had plenty of great suggestions too - neither of us have enough of an ego to balk at the others critique, either. Or maybe we do have big egos, just really resilient ones.

-Rey: We already have Exalted and some translations of Japanese games--how is Break!! different?
Exalted (at least the one I ran) is a wonderful, clunky mess, kind of like a Shonen Jump version of Rifts. I feel like BREAK!! is more cohesive because it’s just Grey and I, but it probably looks very similar from the outside. I feel like Exalted, though tonally and stylistically separated from Vampire and other White Wolf games, is still very structurally similar. Your character really is much of the setting there, their inner turmoil is at the forefront.
BREAK!! at its core, is a game about adventuring in a world that’s much larger than you are yet still managing to make a difference. It’s architecture comes from stuff like Stormbringer, Warhammer Fantasy and, naturally D&D. Your character is still very important, but they are designed to be your means of interacting with the game’s setting (or whatever the GM puts in front of you that day) and it makes the two games feel very different while actually playing.
Clearly both games can do both those things without much issue, but the focus is different.
As for the Japanese games that have been translated, many are very precise and granular rulesets. You play them to get a very specific kind of experience, to emulate a kind of show you like or to get battles scripted just so.  BREAK!! is a much looser, more customizable game, with a more relaxed system - I’ve taken some cues from these Japanese games (especially implementing a flexible, but clear rules procedure) but it’s still quite distant from them.
-Rey: What's "anime-influenced" mean for you in terms of the rules or background?
Seeing as many Final Fantasy tropes, for instance, were derived from D&D, are there any practical differences?
The style of Anime/Manga that influences BREAK!! has a very permissive aesthetic. If it were more realistic, a lot of the things I am trying to squeeze in there would look silly (in a bad way). I also think that while Japanese Fantasy has been clearly influenced by D&D, it’s gone in it’s own direction, enough that it’s worth mining for inspiration. 

-Grey: What are some artists or works that influenced your conception of Break!! ?
Cel shaded animation is a big influence on my art. The practical limitations of hand-drawn animation meant you got these atmospheric, painterly backgrounds with crisp, simple characters on top. There’s something about that combination that I love. I hope, that if they squint, readers might think BREAK!! is based on some obscure animated show.
The game has also clearly been influenced video games as well, but there’s other stuff mixed into the DNA too, including, of course, my early exposure to 80s fantasy artists. There will be a few affectionate references to particularly influential works scattered throughout the book.
Of course, Rey’s setting has been inspirational too. He’d matured it over several years of play in his home game but has been gracious enough to let me interpret/add to it. There was something about what he’d written that made me want to draw it!
For the books layouts I’ve gone for a minimal/modernist approach. This seems to be a fairly atypical route for the RPG market but I think it’s unobtrusive style creates clarity and lets the content (words and art) breathe.
-Rey: Will the characters have more wuxia-style powers than in traditional D&D? If so--are combats going to take longer than in a typical D&D game or does it play about the same?

R: Some will! Like one Calling is very much based around old chanbara movies and wuxia style abilities, but it’s not the primary focus. There are Sword in the Stone style wizards, fighters who are a bit too brave for their own good, She-Ra/Sailor Moon hybrids, even one type that’s basically a competent but relatively mundane character with an exceptionally well stocked backpack.
Combats are quick and comparable to D&D, but there might be a lot of variance in the length of battle depending on the circumstances. Fighting a group of well armed mooks is going to be short and ugly but fighting really, really big monsters might take more time since it’s a mini-dungeon mixed with a boss battle.
G: The combat stunt system, weapon abilities and battlefield conditions will also colour the combat experience.

Grey: So the graphic design in the manual looks light-years ahead of any RPG I've seen lately in terms of user-friendliness--are there any ideas or guidelines that you used to make this work?
Thanks, that’s nice to hear.

I’ve applied a few HCI principles to the design, which I am familiar with because of my day job. Not all are relevant to printed books, but many are: readability, know your user, be task orientated, anticipate needs, be consistent, etc. At a high level this has affected they way we have structured the book and it’s content. I’m hoping cross-fertilizing in this way will yield more interesting results than building on the perceived wisdom. As this is my foray into RPG book design I am also unacquainted with the perceived wisdom!
The BREAK!! core rules are effectively a reference book, so I see navigation as key to usability. A reader will need to jump to a specific page, and then quickly locate the desired extract. This has been the primary objective of the graphic design.
With regard to finding the right page, there are a few things I’m trying. Sections and sub sections titles will be visible in the margins (similar to a dictionary). Additionally, every section (and sub-section) will be clearly numbered for easy location and cross referencing (like a legal document). Lastly, sections will be colour coded, as a secondary cue to the numbers, so when flipping fast you will still know where you are.
Once you’ve found the right page you’ll need to find the right segment. One of the big ideas was to distill the content into three ‘types’ based on their function to the user, and then to visually distinguish them from one another. Firstly, there’s descriptive flavour to set the tone or inspire with illuminating examples. Secondly, the mechanical rules presented in simple bulleted sentences. Finally, when needed, direct interaction with the user to discuss customisation or interpretation of the rules. This way a reader can quickly identify which block of text is the relevant one. A new player that wants to get the gist of a calling can simply read the flavour text while a GM might want to refer to the crunchy section to refresh his memory or absorb the GM tip.
The art should provide visual landmarks too, to help the reader orientate themselves and provide an alternative way to recall a rule or ability (rather than having to remembering the title or section number).
Also, while good clear writing is great, information can sometimes be conveyed in more succinct ways, such as flowcharts, icons or diagrams. A simple one-page flowchart can explain a complex non-linear process much more effectively than reams of prose. I’m always trying to identify when I can employ one of these methods.
What I’m really looking forward to is a digital edition of the rules, there’s a lot more potential to make the book more usable. I want to be more ambitious than a hyperlinked PDF.

-Rey: How does magic work in the setting?
R: Well, I had this really elaborate magic system worked out that I subsequently discarded one night in a fit of pique. The system is much more simple now. At this point, every character Calling has about 16 or so elective abilities to pick from as you go up in Rank. Caster and Gestalt type characters have magic abilities built into this list - these abilities have supernatural qualities or do crazy shit, but they also affect your character’s allegiance score with cosmic forces of Light and/or Dark.
Allegiance is both bad and good - swinging too far to one side can be inconvenient, naturally.
Rey: How do Allegiance scores work? Do they change how you play you character?

Every time you pick a Magic Ability, you get a Light or Dark Allegiance point depending on which end of the spectrum the ability is associated. Player characters can accrue around 6 or so elective abilities from Rank 1 to Rank 10, this gives them a choice to either select a mix or max out one or the other. Once you have 3 on one end you gain a ‘Gift’, which is some sort of transformative blessing from cosmic things on that spectrum. Light might give you eyes in the back of your head or patches of reflective crystal on your skin that reveals all lies. Dark could grant you a second soul that lives in your hand or filaments that writhe under your skin and occasionally burst out to defend you. I’ve tried to make sure these all have a good and bad aspect to them - you’ll hand over a bit of what you are to these alien energies in order to draw power from them.
If you manage a total of 6 on either end, you change further. At some point, there should be rules about Apotheosis but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself.
Allegiance Points also have an effect on certain items and locations in game. The Sword of Aken will not unsheathe for anyone who does not have a significant Light Allegiance, the Four-Masked Asura of Jie will not speak to anyone with insufficient Dark Allegiance. The Grey Door will only open for one who has no points of Allegiance whatsoever. Naturally, Game Masters are encouraged to make up their own versions of these things.
One thing I try to stress is it’s not a good versus evil thing so much as two immense organisms of living energy drafting people into a war that they can’t really understand. The people of the game’s world tend to anthropomorphize them, but it’s just as common for them to be seen as a simple energy source. They generally don’t affect your character’s personality, but they do change how they work mechanically and how NPC’s react to them, so it’s up to each player to reflect on how that affects their character in the fiction.
Are there any other characteristics or mechanics like that which are outside what D&D players would expect?
R: Modifiers in general are much simpler and have a lower impact than they do in most forms of D&D as much of the game functions under a “roll under” mechanic.
Some Magic has different sorts of limitations on use than the standard Vancian stuff. One powerful attack spell hurts you a bit if you try to use it more than once in a battle, summoning certain creatures a repeatedly increases the chance that they might break free of your control and turn against you, that kind of thing.
I mentioned this earlier, but fighting very large monsters in BREAK!! is very different from fighting them in D&D - it’s a much rarer and more involved experience, too. You’ll need to move around the surface of the monster to get to the best strategic point.
Getting hurt and dying is very different than it is in D&D. It involves little Legend of Zelda style Hearts and an Injury Table. You have a few hearts for every dangerous situation, which refill whenever you enter a new fight or tight spot. You lose 1-3 hearts whenever you get hit, once they’re all gone you suffer a more permanent injury. These Injuries will make things more difficult for you, or may even kill you. So though the risk of death is still there, but this replenishing system means you’re not deterred from entering a battle because you got mauled early on.
It’s also much more common to recruit enemies and even monsters in BREAK!! than most other RPGs, I think. There are even a host of pets and companions listed in the Equipment section. Followers in general are more precious than the are in D&D.
There’s a ton of stuff actually. There’s plenty of familiar things in the game so people can get into it pretty quickly, but of course there will be lots to distinguish it and keep people engaged.
Grey: Is there a specific tone you're trying to hit?
There are actually a few in BREAK!! We wanted to create a unique tone for each of the specific areas of the game world. The Wistful Dark is melancholic but hopeful, the Blazing Garden is wondrous and bombastic, the Buried Kingdoms grotty but humorous, etc. However the core book has a prevailing fun, bright, energetic vibe. We will hopefully get to better exploit the individual region themes in follow-up splatbooks.
Grey and Rey: How does the collaboration work--does Rey just write stuff and then Grey draws what Rey asks for or is there a more complex back-and-forth?
G: The project started organically when I idly suggested if Rey wrote an RPG then I’d do all the drawings. Then we just both started doing stuff. The process is basically like this: We share work with each other, get feedback, then develop it until we are both happy with the end result. I think it’s fair to say we are making it all up as we go along, but the fact that we don’t have a deadline has meant the process has been fun and experimental thus far. What I think is especially interesting is that we’ve developed the art in tandem with the rules right from the start, rather than waiting to the end when all the creative decisions are resolved. Lots of good stuff has come out of our meanderings and our ability to riff off each others stuff. This is what’s so great about DIY, it allows you to be inefficient and play around. We’ve been drifting along like this for a while but now we’re entering a new phase, with a more solidified design we can be more productive and get it finished. 
R: Yeah, it’s like Grey said - we do everything from Google Docs so he would make all these suggestions that show up in bright pink and I used to joke he was dumping pepto bismol all over my hard work!
I will steadily click along at my own pace (usually 30 Mins - 2 hours of writing every day) but he is now keeping me focused on the stuff we need done, rather than what strikes my fancy at the time.

Grey and Rey: If someone already is happily playing a D&D campaign are there any rules or ideas that are in Break!! that you don't think are anywhere else that they might want to take a look at?
R: I think the Stunt and Trick rules click nicely into D&D and similar games. All the little rules for Adventurer Downtime (I.E, what your characters do between proper sessions) would fit in as well. They cover stuff like crafting items, looking for adventure hooks, investigating a particular interest, flirting with NPCs, starting crap because you’re bored or just relaxing since you messed up your arm during that last fight. Nothing too complicated of course, and it all leads to you having more to work with when you come back for the next game.
What are the classes?
We use the term ‘Callings’ because, although similar conceptually, has broader use in the game (I think it’s also slightly clearer for new kids too). There is a form of soft classification among the callings. The non-magical types are Warriors and Specialists. Casters are totally focused on Magic. Gestalts can choose from some magic and non-magic abilities. Genera are old style ‘Race as Class’ types, but reserved for things that don’t work well as regular character species.
So the callings are:
Champion - Courage/Bravado and aggressive action based fighting type.
Raider (Warrior) - Mobility and precision based fighting type.
Factotum - Knows/Has the right stuff skill type.
Sneak - Sneaky/Acrobatic/Stabby skill type.
Battle Princess - Protective/Healing Mage-Warrior type.
Murder Princess - Destructive/Berserking Mage-Warrior type.
Sage - Helpful/Hexing/Practical Wizard type.
Heretic - Bad News Summoning/Sealing Wizard type.
Fairy - Diminutive Support/Trickster Magic type.
War-Mechanoid - Hunter Killer Mecha type
Obake Mystic - Shape-Changing Magic type.
Immortal - End Boss in training type.
Some of these will be available in a play test document. The other Callings will follow in the full book, and I love making them so expect me to come up with a new one here and there for fun. Some on the blog, some in the books.

Can you tell us any more about the default setting?

R: The Sun-Machine is broken. Day and night are geographic features, rather than temporal ones. The world is broken up into four main regions.

The Wistful Dark is on the Night side of the world. It is a place filled with abandoned cities, strange old temples, luminescent fungal forests, and terrifying monsters that prey on those stuck in the Shadowed Lands. The fortunate build cities around pieces of the broken sun (Called Star Shards) and engage in unfortunate politics. Others collect in the dark places around the mournful song of the Hollow Queen.

The Blazing Garden is on the Day side of the world. The most intact and functioning piece of the Sun Machine hovers above the great City of Aeon and illuminates half the world. It is filled with immense creatures fed by the constant light, overgrown jungles, and orphaned technology. Regulus, the Emperor of Sol, moves to conquer this region and an alliance of others moves to oppose him.

The Twilight Meridian lies in the divide, and is mostly sea. Naval and Skyship are more common in this region for reasons of necessity. On the Seven Holy Isles eager warlords clash as often as philosophers trade eager barbs. The Galvanus Peninsula provides a haven for both trade and piracy. The Metal Continent holds the secrets of the world before, as well as many of its horrors.

The Buried Kingdom has never seen the Sun-Machine or the Night Sky, and feels no great loss for either. Here Old Dwarven Industry combats a New Goblin Order for control of the rails and the expansive tunnels that run through it. Forbidden ruins rest among the stone, and the Unterkin hide from those who would exploit their gifts. All speak of a place called “Promise”, which is said to be even further beneath the rock at their feet.

G: It’s worth noting that we’re not revealing too much of the history/lore in the book, as absorbing long expositions are dull (and restrictive) but the great thing about having it all figured out is that you have a solid foundation for the all the books concepts. It functions like an editorial/visual styleguide or an author’s character backstory, you don’t ‘see’ it in it’s naked form but it’s there in the background ensuring everything is internally consistent and connected. Players, if they’re inclined, might be able to piece the mythos together themselves as a meta-objective.
R: I find it much more interesting to tell the story of an RPG’s setting through adventure elements, items, and other in-game stuff. Your background info should give just give a taste, and leave the rest for the players to find out (assuming they care) or for the Game Master to invent.

How deep are the magic and advancement going to be in the first book? Is this like modern-D&D-level deep or are you starting small?
It’s a little different from D&D. Character’s core competencies get better as they grow in Rank, but the elective abilities you choose will broaden the scope of your character rather than pump up the numbers or damage you can do. I also try to make sure the abilities that you can get early on scale in some way so they are still useful even when compared to the more potent ones you acquire later on. I want people to be adding to a repertoire rather than simply replacing one method with the next big thing.
Otherwise progression is pretty similar, you go from a mostly competent greenhorn to potentially god-fighting heroic type. Ranks go from 1-10 for characters in the core book, with 11-15 being proposed as a totally different kind of epic style progression coming later. Really tough monsters and antagonists can go up to rank 20.

-Grey and Rey: Have you playtested it? Anything fun happen during that?
R: I have playtested a bunch as the game has evolved. I think my favorite parts have always been how excited people have been over their abilities or how good the art looks - or how happy they are that there is something called a Battle Princess, but there has been some fun specific stuff too.

One character who stocked up on treats managed to convince the minions of a warlord to abandon their posts for candy. We had a Chib Sage who was quiet and thoughtful throughout the whole game go on a kamikaze run against an enemy armed with explosives and through sheer luck managed to survive the resulting kaboom. One Champion lured a powerful Skeleton Knight onto a steep ledge and kicked him off it before he mauled her, saving the day. That last one was kind of hilarious in context, another player joked she had finished everything before the “Boss Music” had a chance to play.
Thank you Rey, thank you Grey, and now, a word from our sponsor:


  1. I really did appreciate the interview! I got to rattle off tons of stuff that I've not got to mention yet, on top of being even more jazzed about it all than I was before.

  2. Sounds very cool. Looking forward to it.

  3. Can't wait to check this out guys! Thanks for the interview Zak, and the awesome info Rey and Grey!

  4. ^this!!
    Excellent interview!! I am so excited to see the final product!!

  5. does grey wizard have a website or somewhere they put up art?


  6. I've been following their blogs for a while and already decided long ago that I'm buying this as soon as it's available.

    1. Me too. Also I signed up for the newsletter at so they can tell me when it's out. (protip)

  7. This looks better than any game I can recall seeing for a long time. Which is unusual for me because I never thought I would be interested in it because of the genre and tone but the layout and art is very welcoming and the game design seems seductively exuberant. It induced in me a flood of nostalgia for the Legend of Zelda watch that was the first computer gamey thing I ever got a hold of.

  8. I also thought the Battle Princess was great, but left that all behind when I read the glory of Murder Princess.

    It's unfortunate they're making this a game system instead of a setting. As your question on what a D&Der can loot from the book for their own games illustrates, I'm far more interested in expanding my 0E/1E home game by taking some cool ideas from BREAK!! than by switching to BREAK!! and abandoning the vast heaving depths of all the stuff compatible with what I do now.

    It's largely a question of effort: switch to a new system and port everything I want over, or port over the six things I like from the new system.

    Still, it's a sale, right? I mean, I haven't played Encounter Critical but loved reading it.