Video games have been one of the bright spots of the coronavirus pandemic. Humans are social animals, and the shelter-in-place and quarantine orders continue to keep us at home. And in most cases, this is keeping us from playing tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire: The Masquerade.
Enter digital tabletops such as Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds. These “virtual tabletops” have tools that helps players run pen-and-paper RPGs. They have maps and player tokens. They have character sheets and die-rollers. But so far, no publisher or writer has designed a system that taps the possibilities of a digital toolset.
So designer James Introcaso decided he’s give it a go. He’s been designing RPG products since 2014 (he also works in other media and media campaigns). His RPG work started with entries on his blog and moving on to work on published products for Kobold Press and Wizards of the Coast. He also hosts the Table Top Babble podcast. His latest RPG is Burn Bryte, a blend of fantasy and sci-fi that Roll20 commissioned to take advantage of the digital environment. Yes, you can play it without Roll20, but its design is digital-first — something new for tabletop RPGs.
A couple of weeks ago, I chatted with Introcaso about how designing a pen-and-paper RPG system that’s digital-first is different from traditional tabletop games. This is an edited transcript of our interview.
Feeling the Burn
GamesBeat: Where did Burn Bryte come from? Was it a case of you wanting to design a game system, or the idea for a game setting that needed a system to go with it?
James Introcaso: Burn Bryte was actually Roll20’s idea. I had worked with them, doing a starter adventure for them for 5th Edition that’s available for free called the Master’s Vault. The idea is it teaches you how to play D&D and also teaches you how to use Roll20 at the same time. So I’ve worked with them on that, and I’ve worked with them on getting some of their 5th Edition adventures into Roll20, like Curse of Strahd and Storm King’s Thunder, the Monster Manual, and getting them in there.
I had said to Nolan Jones, who’s the CEO over there, it would be cool to see a role-playing game built from the ground-up for Roll20, specifically kind of like how Netflix started putting other people’s content on their platform — that’s how they started. And then they started to make their own content, because they had the distribution platform for it. And he said, you know, funny you should bring that up; it’s actually something we’ve kicked around. And so there were these conversations that started around it, and eventually, he said, what I’d really like to do is put out this game for a couple reasons. One, if we do, we want to put out original content. The second is that we have all these publishers who come to us all the time and ask how well will my game sell on Roll20, and we can’t give out that information because we can’t like share the sales numbers that they make on D&D or any proprietary information — that’s only between them and Wizards of the Coast. So they said if we own the game, we can tell people, well this is how many copies of Burn Bryte sold. This will be a better tool to convince other publishers to come to Roll20 as well.
GamesBeat: So Burn Bryte is one part test case, one part marketing?
Introcaso: Yeah, exactly. And he said, you know, I know you’ve kicked this idea around … that science fiction is going to be really hot. And I said, what do you think of science fantasy, because science fiction sounds like a lot of research I have to do, and science fantasy sounds like I could just say “magic did it, right.” And he said, sounds great. And then we put together a design team, and that’s where the idea for Burn Bryte came about.
We wanted it to be optimized for Roll20. We knew that we wanted it to be a science-fantasy game, and then the design team started to pitch ideas. And Jim McClure, who is the other lead designer on this with me, we sat down and started to talk about what don’t like about this game, what scares us about science fantasy. And one of the things that scared us, this idea that space is really big. You could go anywhere. That’s a lot to put on a GM. That’s a lot to put on us. As designers we said, what if you couldn’t go everywhere? What if there was this idea that the universe is actually shrinking in on itself? That solves our problem. And so it was from laziness that the idea of Burn Bryte actually came about.
GamesBeat: Was it really from laziness, or from being intimidated by the potential scope?
Introcaso: I think it’s probably more being intimidated a little bit by the scope, and honestly, then we ended up with this idea that I think excited us more, got us really excited to make the game. The Burn brings up a lot of existential questions. The Burn is this phenomenon. It’s like an orange Aurora phenomena that has surrounded Olaxis, which is the last galaxy in existence, and is closing in from it on all sides. It’s moving very slowly. And so what’s scary about that is that there’s this panic, but hey, it might be another generation or two or three before we’re totally wiped out. So we do need to keep living our lives, because we’ve got children and grandchildren who are going to inherit this earth, and they might be able to figure out this problem and stop it even though we haven’t yet. And so that’s sort of the central conceit of Burn Bryte is the universe is collapsing, there’s panic. There are a lot of displaced peoples, because as a planet disappears and falls to the Burn — every time something disappears beyond the Burn, it’s never seen or heard from again. We don’t know what’s causing it. There’s lots of suggestions in the book, but nothing that says this person’s right. That’s up to the GM to decide if it’s even necessary for the game [to know the Burn’s origin].
So there are displaced people looking for ports that will take them. There’s natural resources that are shrinking. There’s corporations that are profiting in the panic, and all that kind of thing. And then the players are the ones who come in, and the assumption of the game is the players are good people. If D&D is a game about fighting monsters, Burn Bryte is a game about saving people. And the whole idea is that like, hey you know what the world might be, I think, but that’s no reason to turn it into a selfish jerk. Kindness is still important; it’s still a value that these characters hold dear, and helping other people is still something that is important and that makes us who we are, and is fundamental to being a sapient being in this world.
Digital-first RPG design
GamesBeat: What features make this a digital tabletop role playing system, beyond being optimized for Roll20?
Introcaso: So that means you could play it at a physical table without Roll20 at all, other than using Roll20 to look at the rules. But your experience is going to be more streamlined, more efficient, and probably more fun for most groups on Roll20. And it’s a game you could even play if we ever all get together in person. Again, it’s a game you could play around the table if everybody had a laptop or a tablet, and you were using Roll20. So, what makes it this way is there’s a big reliance on maps, and Roll20 was built for 4th Edition D&D, so we wanted to you know capitalize on that that was the big edition of D&D at the time of Roll20’s launch, and that’s what the founders were playing when they built. That was a heavy tactical map combat game, so we wanted to say that maps are really important, so that means it’s central to the game. Our spaceship crawls, going through space stations and going on planets and the fantasy aspect of dungeon crawling, that comes up a lot in Burn Bryte, because that’s a big strength of Roll20. You can throw down a map and be playing very quickly. Spaceship combat takes place on a spaceship map; you build your spaceship, and you and your players build it together. And so it’s really important that you have this map; you can keep coming back to it, keep updating and changing parts of the spaceship. That would be much harder to do in-person, because you would need to keep drawing out your map. How did our spaceship change this weekend, that kind of thing.
GamesBeat: That’s especially familiar to anyone who’s played Traveler or Star Wars or even good-ol’ Spelljammer.
Introcaso: Yes! Yes, exactly. So Roll20 makes that easy. And then the mechanics of the game are made much easier by Roll20, so the first thing is that you roll a lot of dice. Burn Bryte’s a skill-based game like Fate. You have 18 different skills, and you use those to overcome obstacles. And the way it works is you have each skill has a die rating in it — D4, D6, D8, D10, and D12 — the larger the die size, the better you are with the skill. So a D12 means you’re really good with that skill. And then every task you go about doing has a complexity, and that complexity is a number between 2 and 7, usually 3 and 4.
GamesBeat: So this game has a lot of numbers.
Introcaso: Yeah, but it’s really easy because you roll the number of dice for the complexity of the check. If you have any matches, you fail. If not, you succeed. But you could be rolling 7 D12s at once, and then you got to look at all of them and say, OK, do I get any matches here. Oh wait, I have an ability that I forgot I had. Yada, yada. Roll20 automatically will say to you, you’ve succeeded or failed when you make the roll. Here are your numbers. Here’s where yours matches. Because Roll20’s character sheets are automated, you can do things like have conditions on there. There are positive and negative conditions in Burn Bryte that change the complexity of those roles, and it’s just clicking things on your sheet to make the math happen automatically.
GamesBeat: Do these conditions occur more often than other standard role playing games?
Introcaso: Yes, because when you fail in Burn Bryte, failure has consequences. And so it’s not just, hey, you did do the thing. It’s like, hey, you broke something. Hey, you injured yourself. Hey, you have now put a condition on your, your allies, because they don’t trust you anymore, that kind of thing. And so, I have found that conditions do come up, more often than they do in D&D, in which I think conditions come up fairly often. You’re always knocking somebody prone or grappling someone or something.
GamesBeat: In Burn Bryte, it sounds like it would be hard to go through and not encounter a condition.
Introcaso: Yeah, definitely. And that’s a lot of fiddling if you’re playing with paper. So there’s a lot of fiddly stuff like that, but it could all be done in a table. There are no weird dice sizes. When we got into it, we were like, oh, we could use a D13 if we want to, because Roll20 could do that. But we want people to be able to play this with physical dice if they want to, to just use Roll20 for the parts that they want to use Roll20 for.
GamesBeat: Doesn’t Roll20 also make 3D combat easier, especially when you’re in space or inside another component of your game.
Introcaso: Yes, Roll20 can make 3D combat easier. We don’t have a lot of it at this point, but we may in some future combat. With spaceship combat, you kind of have a 3D-ish idea in there, and Roll20 definitely makes that easier. We have different zones set up, and it’s kind of like which zone are you in. And that’s how we accomplish 3D space combat.
GamesBeat: Does Roll20 allow the use of effects that appear as graphics? Could you have effects for shields or tractor beams for your ships?
Introcaso: Yes. Roll20 has drawing tools, and you can upload your own images and things like that, too. So there’s that if you wanted to just draw a tractor beam. You can do it, I believe. Subscribers have access to effects that you could use to make little fiery bursts appear, laser shots and things like that appear, too, on the screen, and you can also upload and play music, which is very fun.
GamesBeat: How was designing Burn Bryte different than approaching a standard tabletop game? How does you process adapt to digital design?
Introcaso: We had more options, and we wanted to highlight those options because we knew we were making this for Roll20, and it was going to be marketed as a “optimized for Roll20” thing. We didn’t just want to go in and say we made a great game. And it’s great on Roll20. We wanted to go in and make a game and say this game really takes advantage of the features that Roll20 has. And so we took advantage of a lot of map things, a lot of the things that can be done with tokens. We have a really weird — I shouldn’t say weird — but really unconventional initiative system, where the adversaries, they declare actions, then the players get to act to do everything, and then the actions that have been declared resolve. And so you have to way to keep track of that, and Roll20 has token markers that make it really easy to say, OK, this person with the green marker is attacking you, so I’m going to put a green marker on you and that way we know what their declared action is and that sort of thing. So it was thinking about those features and thinking not just about, OK, we have this to play with, but we have this, and we should be using it and how can we use it to make it a great part of the game.
Distractions & Difficulties
GamesBeat: How does digital-first design change when it comes to the role-playing aspects of a game?
Introcaso: One thing that we have found with digital that’s a big hurdle to overcome is the distraction of the internet. Everything else on your computer is right there. Unlike a game where you and I are in person, you see me take out my phone. But if I go over to Twitter, it might take you several minutes to an hour to figure out that, oh, he’s not paying attention, he’s on Twitter, right. He’s checking the score of the game, or watching Netflix in one ear and listening to the other, whatever it is. And that can be a big problem, even with GMs that are very engaging. The temptation is right there. It’s hard. And so we wanted to make a game that kept people engaged at all times. One of the things that’s happening when you’re in combat, or when you’re in a role-playing game encounter, failure of a skill can affect you, because you have abilities that can constantly help your allies. The way initiative works is it’s sort of like popcorn initiative, you go and then I could say you go, the players can like strategize together the whole time. We wanted to make it a very group- and player driven-experience. So one of the things that we did with the game that isn’t necessarily a Roll20 feature, but is a feature for playing online because we want to keep you engaged, is that the GM does not tell you which skills to use. You tell the GM, this is the skill I would like to use to do this and here’s how I’m justifying it, and the GM is told, unless it’s a really really far-fetched idea, go with it. Go with that idea of how somebody’s going to try something very unconventional, and perhaps something that’s very difficult, the GM could say, oh, sounds like that’s gonna be really hard to do it’s so it’s got a high complexity, but the player still gets to try it.
GamesBeat: It sounds like DMing for kids.
Introcaso: It is a lot like DMing for kids, and that’s how you kind of keep kids engaged in role-playing games — you let them think big with their ideas so every moment is unexpected and wild. And that’s what we wanted to do with Burn Bryte, and I think we’ve done that. It seems like a lot of times when we play these games, people are very engaged and not drifting to the dark parts of the internet, like social media.
GamesBeat: When you first started designing with a digital-first outlook, what was the biggest hurdle you had to come across as a designer that you just had to say, oh, this is digital — I can do this. Traditional RPG design doesn’t have to restrain the ideas.
Introcaso: I think for me, for the rest of the design team, who were very used to designing in the analog space, they had to be brought forth right. I had to say, no, don’t say that’s too complicated, because we can automate some of that in Roll20, or we can make that easier in Roll20. For me I had to be pulled back. My thought about digital was you know what? We could do this, we could do that, or it can be like this, and it was like, well, OK, now let’s just make a computer game. Right? Now, I’m making a game that is fully automated on Roll20, which is No. 1 that Roll20 is going to need to do a lot of programming to actually make. They could make it happen, but that’s not the point of what we’re doing, and No. 2, we want this to still be a thing that is accessible as a tabletop game, and that people can still wrap their minds around. So I was bringing the team one way, and they were sort of bringing me back in the other direction. I was like, now is the time — we’re going to have some real interesting and wild mechanics, and they were like, OK, bring it back. And I was, like, will you come meet me halfway, and that’s how we ended up with Burn Bryte.
GamesBeat: What’s one idea you had to pull back on?
Introcaso: So, the way you generate Nova points in the game, which are these points that allow you to do really cool superpower abilities. You use one skill of each die size, and then you generate a Nova point, so that encourages people to use them. Remember I said the player gets to pick the skill? That encourages the player to pick the skills that they aren’t not so good at when they make skill rolls, because they want to earn those Nova points. And so, as the players are making checks, that’s ultimately where we landed.
I wanted to have this system where it was like each skill you used had a bar right at the top that started empty, and if you use the skills that you were really good at, each time you use the skill, that bar would fill up a little bit, and the skills you were really good at would make it fill up just a tiny bit, and the skills you were really bad with would make it fill up more. And I was like you know we’ll give each a percentage rating.
GamesBeat: That’s like the opposite of a Bethesda game!
Introcaso: It is exactly that. Everybody was, that was too much, you’re asking too much. And I was like, we’ll automate it, or we find that we find, and they said, no, no. Let’s not do that; let’s pump the brakes. There’s an easier way to get people to use these skills, to make them work.
GamesBeat: Is that an idea you’d like to try another time?
Introcaso: Oh, you know, there are a lot of things I would like to do with this system, in other genres, and I do think taking that mechanic and trying it with a superhero game could be really fun, to see that bar charge up as your hero gets more and more ready to unleash their big super-ultimate moves. So I do think about, sometimes unleashing things like that, especially now that we have this system that could introduce people to Burn Bryte.
GamesBeat: Are you looking to design another digital system like Burn Bryte, or are you right now more focused on nurturing this game?
Introcaso: So right now I would be lying if I didn’t say that I have about 1,000 ideas after working on Burn Bryte that I’m very eager to get rolling on and working on. But right now, I want to do Burn Bryte. People have been very kind, seem to really like it. People have responded well to it. I believe exceeding expectations. So I think that’s great. It came at a good time. We didn’t plan for this. But it came out when it came out, and there’s a lot of people on Roll20 right now. And so, I would love to continue nurturing Burn Bryte, and I would love to be able to not just have me continue to work on Burn Bryte but I would love to get other new design voices in there as well, and let them play in the Burn Bryte sandbox and see what adventures or species or options they came up with.
GamesBeat: Have you had anyone come to you for advice about designing digital-first RPG products?
Introcaso: I’ve had people come to me say that they want to play around with Burn Bryte, that they’d love an SRD because they want to make a Western or a medieval fantasy version of the game. I have not yet had anybody come to me and say, I have an idea for a different digital game, can you can you help me out. But I’m hopeful that someone does. I would love to chat about it, because I love talking about games, and I think this is a bold sort of new frontier, and Burn Bryte is like a tiny, tiny little drop in what could be a enormous ocean.
GamesBeat: For designers and authors, it doesn’t matter what genre, doesn’t matter what medium, have a little signature they like to sneak into everything they do. Do you have one?
Introcaso: For me, what I really, really like are swarms: swarms of bugs, and sapient swarms that have a hive mind that move as one creature. And I like them of all different sizes. Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques has a swarm of Tarrasques. So the idea I got to sneak in here, which is great, is that one of the playable species is actually a hive of 100,000 bugs that shares a hive mind. So when you play the species, you are all of the bugs, but with one mind and one personality that they all share together. And it’s great because people seem to like doing that. All of our species are pretty weird. So, I’m very happy that people like that. I guess warrants as kind of my calling card.
The D20 Beat is GamesBeat managing editor Jason Wilson’s column on role-playing games. It usually runs every other week. It covers video games, the digital components of traditional tabletop RPGs, and the rise of RPG streaming. Drop me a line if you have any RPG news, insights, or memories to share … or just want to roll a digital D20 with me.