Category Archives: games

Being Human Together

The past few weeks have been kind of bizarre for me. D&D5E and the issues surrounding it have me feeling pretty much done with D&D for the time being. I may wind up playing it if my friends really want to, but as things stand I’m not going to spend any more money on it. When all is said and done if I decide I really want the dungeon fantasy genre there are literally dozens of options, to the point where the only unique thing D&D really has to offer is the words “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover (and if you count different editions separately, there are about a dozen games with that distinction anyway). But of late I’m also just finding D&D’s mass of overdone cliches boring and stifling. I don’t want to be so negative about it, but it’s the truth that it’s really not doing it for me. On top of that, although the playtest of Magical Burst was informative, it was also exhausting, and left me with a great deal to think about, some of it much more fundamental than whether the witch’s Hex ability is overpowered.

After poking at about half a dozen different projects over the course of a week or so, I wound up starting pretty intensively brainstorming for Beyond Otaku Dreams. Of the games I’m trying to design it’s by far the most personal, and also the one that most eagerly embraces being a “story game.” My initial inspiration to take another look at it came from Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master, featured in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master. SWM is a descendant of MonkeyDome, a simple game that’s fundamentally about rolling to see what tone the scene takes (Grim/Zany in MonkeyDome, Glum/Jovial in SWM). Traditional RPGs are highly concerned with whether PCs succeed or fail at things, sometimes to the point of not having rules for much else. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there’s a massive, mostly unexplored territory of games that don’t bother with it. Fiasco is easily the best-known such game, and the results are often exceptional. Designing such games is at once incredibly liberating and incredibly hard, and I think I didn’t respect that enough when I made the first version of Beyond Otaku Dreams that just totally faceplanted in playtesting.

I’ve been going through a slow process of trying to really break down what I want Beyond Otaku Dreams to do and how to achieve it. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. One is that I’m trying to make a more fantastical version of real life experiences, so there aren’t really any existing narratives that quite fit what I want to create. Another is that it’s in relatively unexplored territory in terms of design, for RPGs in general and me in particular. Put those together and through a lot of the process I’ve been feeling a lot like I’m trying to build a castle on air. That’s led me to reexamine some of the games I have on hand and explore others. Designing a more traditional RPG gives you a bunch of cliches and habits you can fall back on, and I think stepping away from them requires a great deal of care and originality. I like to think I can come up with nifty ideas at times, but I’m not a natural game design iconoclast, so an important part of the process has been looking at what other people have done with such games.

In particular, it got me to take a closer look at my copy of the Norwegian Style book, an anthology of short RPGs from the Norwegian Style blog. It’s a window onto a very different style of role-playing, like looking into one of the possible parallel universes where RPGs came about without D&D.[1] Some have fantastical elements and some don’t, but all speak to the human condition in some way. Very few use much in the way of numbers, but many have little cards with words on them: character roles, events, scenes, etc. D&D grew out of certain kinds of wargames, and a huge portion of RPGs show that they grew out of D&D. That doesn’t make D&D or its descendants bad games, but despite them being numerous and popular, it does mean they represent a limited part of what the medium is capable of. There are an awful lot of things that can go into an RPG where the D&D approach basically amounts to handing you a blank page. (Want your character to be something more than a human fighter with these 7 numbers and a list of gear? Write something on this blank page.) The blank page offers freedom, but it also leaves you stranded with nothing to build on. Compared to that, the Norwegian Style games with their little cards catapult you into a rich character and situation. Other games deposit you at other points on the spectrum with varying degrees of success, and that’s one of the things I’m trying to navigate.

I came across Avery Mcdaldno’s blog post on Imaginary Funerals, which I think says something pretty profound about this hobby. Just like with anime fandom, whatever else it is, this thing we do is very human. That thread of thought met another coming the other way. I’m a huge fan of John Hodgman’s “Complete World Knowledge” trilogy, enough so that I went as far as to write my own book of fake trivia. The world he weaves, what Neil Gaiman called “Earth-Hodgman,” is often hilarious, but at times beautifully melancholy too. He’s said that that phase of his life is over, and he’s on to doing other things like the Judge John Hodgman podcast. One of the things that’s stuck with me is a particular turn of phrase. Towards the end of That Is All, he says that if it turns out Ragnarok doesn’t come, maybe some day he and the reader meet, and spend a moment enjoying being human together. I think “being human together” describes a lot of what I really want out of RPGs, especially right now. I can enjoy games that are more about problem-solving and tactics (and have done so extensively in the past), but I want more games that are more directly about the human condition, with or without genre fiction metaphors. I don’t care at all about what sells more or what’s more “sophisticated,” what is or isn’t “art.”[2] I just want games that exist first and foremost to help create experiences that mean something to me, to bring me together with friends.

So, that’s about where I am right now. It’s a really weird place to be in, but also refreshing in a lot of ways.

[1]Ben Lehman is of the opinion that the Norwegian Style games are more like a conscious attempt at making RPGs that are utterly unlike D&D, and in a hypothetical D&D-free world freeform fandom RP is more likely to have been the basis for RPGs. Either way at some point I really need to sit down and explore other forms of role-playing, including not only freeform but reading up on stuff like psychodrama.

[2]Art is a term that has a way of becoming useless any time you so much as glance at an edge case anyway.

D&D 5E First Impressions

On July 3rd the free PDF of the D&D Basic Rules went up on the WotC site, and the Starter Set went on sale at local game stores (with a wider release to come on the 15th). I’ve had a rather unusual relationship with the game, as it’s something I only ever really engaged as an adult hobbyist. For me D&D doesn’t have any particular nostalgia, and it was always one of many, many possible games to play. That some people act as though it were the only RPG in the world is just plain baffling to me, and I probably would not have stuck with this hobby for 20+ years if there were only the one game to play. That’s the kind of attitude I come to this with, so this first impressions thing isn’t going to be hugely positive.


With the Starter Set and Basic Rules on hand, 5E isn’t all that bad, but the parts I actually find interesting are hiding in odd corners, more useful to me as potential stuff to try in other games. Granted these versions of the game deliberately have simple baseline versions of the classes (well, as simple as they’re willing to let the wizard and cleric get, which isn’t very simple at all), but they’re the four most cliche D&D classes, and the fighter is the staggeringly boring “I hit it with my sword” guy. If I play the game before the PHB comes out, there won’t actually be a single class I particularly want to play, and about the best compromise will be shoehorning my 4E warlord character into a cleric.
Continue reading

Magical Burst 4th Draft

“All you have to do is make a pact with me.”

Magical girls get to wield magic powers, to fight to protect the people they care about. You’ve seen it in your favorite anime shows again and again, and when a real talking bunny came to you it seemed like a great idea. But somehow those shows never mentioned the cost. They don’t talk about how keeping a secret eats you up inside. About how some magical girls get killed fighting monsters. About how magic can have consequences.

Magical Burst is a role-playing game about a different kind of magical girls.

Players: Recommended for 1 Game Master and 2-5 Players, Age 16+
Play Time: One or more sessions of 3-5 hours
Materials Required: Paper, pencils, six-sided dice, and pawns or miniatures

It took far too long, but the fourth draft of Magical Burst is here. Seriously. It’s happening. This in turn is a step towards finalizing and publishing the game, which will hopefully take a lot less than the 3 years it took to go from the 3rd draft to the 4th. In the time since I started working on Magical Burst, Madoka Magica ended and then got a trio of movies, Sailor Moon is making a major comeback, and I got Channel A and Golden Sky Stories published. Magical Burst has evolved considerably as a game, but it’s much closer to being the game I want it to be, a hybrid of my eccentric gaming and aesthetic influences, and generally something no one but me would’ve made.


The biggest change is the implementation of a tactical combat system inspired by Meikyuu Kingdom with bits of D&D4e and a few other games. It’s still serves the same fundamental purpose of generating Overcharge to fuel the story, but it’s a more detailed system, and it in turn involves a considerable number of character trait selections and such. Although the fundamental concepts are about where I want them, it’s in the nature of such things that there’s a whole lot that will need to be examined and tested. Also, a friend of mine is working on an online character generator thing, so that will be exciting and coming soon.

This version is not completely there yet, but it is a functional game that I’m going to be developing more as I playtest and get feedback and such. There will be future versions, but they’ll be 4.1 and so on rather than a “5th Draft.” I’ve done some playtesting, but there’s still a lot more to do before the game is fully ready. I want to further refine the youma rules, and I’m wondering if the rules for Fallout and for setting up relationships need some more work. Still, the things I’m happy with outnumber the things I’m unhappy with. In any case, here are the PDFs:

Magical Burst 4.0 Rules
Character Sheet
Reference Sheets
Battlefield Map

If you have something to say or share about Magical Burst, feel free to comment here or to join the Magical Burst Google+ community.

America’s Next Top Reality Show

I made another thing. Let’s back up a little. I’ve been working on a humor book called I Want to be an Awesome Robot,[1] and I decided to include an section with Fun Activities, which will (for the most part) fully functional activity book type stuff, if with kind of a weird sensibility.[2] I’m also working on a mini Choose Your Own Adventure type thing, a super stripped down Maid RPG variant (“Schoolgirl RPG”), and some other things that get a bit geekier and more involved than just coloring pages and stuff (though there will be those too). One thing I came up with but may or may not put into the book is a mini Channel A type spinoff game, intended to have a deck of a more reasonable size and play a bit quicker. A while ago NPR had an article on “The 25 Magic Words Of American Television.” When it first came out I sent the link to some friends, and one immediately declared that he’d watch a show called “Mob Pets.” Putting together a small list of title cards was a very easy thing to do.

I’m not sure what I’ll actually do with the game from here–if it works out well as a game I could totally see doing it in the form of a full card game in a reasonably sized tuck box–but for now I’m tossing out a free PNP version for the heck of it. This is very much like the ones I’ve done for Channel A and Studio B, with the little 2″x2″ cards you can print on cardstock and cut out. You’ll also need two six-sided dice.

America’s Next Top Reality Show PNP Version PDF

Here are some titles I made by messing around with the cards for a bit:

Mob Apprentice, Fear Shack, Hell’s Zookeeper, Star Swap, Amish Hot Rod, Bachelor Dynasty, The American Factor, Who Wants To Be A Cat?, So You Think You Can Catch, Sex House, Dance Kitchen, Pimp My Duck, Extreme Cake, The Deadliest Family, Party Boss, Millionaire Pets, The Doctor Whisperer, The Big Monster Project, Hell’s Hot Rod, The Amish Hunter, Love Chef, Superhero Makeover, Bachelor Island

On other Channel A type news, I recently visited my sister and brother-in-law in Washington DC, and got my new fancy prototype of Studio B (the American B-movie reskin of Channel A). We got to play a good amount of both games, and did very successful demo games at Labyrinth Games & Puzzles, an excellent game store near Capitol Hill.

[1]I already decided that the sequel is going to be called “Most of My Friends Are Potential Supervillains.” You know who you are.
[2]The answer to the crossword clue “Like a crossword without balls” is “WORDFIND.”

Kyawaii RPG #8: Saving Throw


One of the funny things about American culture is how there are certain divides that are hard to see past. There are certain figures who have millions of fans, yet are largely unknown to people at large. One such figure is Jack T. Chick. He’s the man behind Chick Publications, which publishes Chick Tracts, of which about a billion copies have been printed. Chick Tracts are tiny comics intended to help fundamentalist Christians proselytize. They can show up all kinds of places–I even have a couple I found at a bus stop here in godless[1] California–and they provide a window into a very distinct and unique worldview. For Jack Chick there is Good (the things he believes in) and there is Evil (absolutely everything else). Good is his particular flavor of fundamentalist Christianity, evil is Darwinism, Buddhism, paganism, Islam, and especially Catholicism, or at least his strange caricatures of these things.

Chick Tracts are generally incredibly easy to pick apart on a purely factual basis, and certain tracts are rather reprehensible on a moral basis (the infamous and emphatically discontinued “Lisa” tract comes to mind). Gamers mainly know of Chick Tracts because of the Dark Dungeons tract, which embodies much of the paranoia of the anti-D&D moral panic of the 80s. Whatever else Chick Tracts are, they’re a fascinating body of outsider art. Chick draws some himself, and has employed other artists as well, so the art ranges from eccentric to genuinely impressive. Aside from the inevitable parodies, there are a a few people who collect and study his work, expressing fascination and admiration even if they find his actual beliefs ridiculous and occasionally repugnant. There are a couple of books about Jack Chick, and even a documentary, God’s Cartoonist.

A friend of mine had the idea to make a Chick Tract RPG, following the same form factor as a Chick Tract (which is to say a little 2.75″x5″ booklet). When I heard the idea, a game popped into my head nearly fully formed. My friend hasn’t gotten around to putting together his take on the concept, but just as Chick Publications has put out over 250 tracts, there’s certainly room for more than one satirical RPG. Saving Throw (aside from being a dumb pun) is my satirical Chick Tract RPG. This version is a letter sized PDF, but I do aspire to get a few illustrations done and do a small print run in booklet form.

To play you will need a d20, 15 tokens of some kind, and a basic familiarity with Chick Tracts (which for better or for worse you can view for free online).

Saving Throw PDF Download

[1]Not really. This area is maybe less religious than some, but there are still churches everywhere.

Adventures of the Space Patrol Playtest Version 2

It’s been a while since I did anything new with Adventures of the Space Patrol, but I’ve always been fond of the game. It’s got some of the heartwarming fun of Golden Sky Stories, and not unlike GSS it has its own aesthetic, not quite like other entries in the same genre.

I originally designed the game as a very simple custom build of Fate. When I started working on it, Spirit of the Century was the definitive version of Fate, and Awesome Adventures was the about the only simpler version out there. I really like the core concepts of Fate, but these days I’m generally not a fan of 300-page RPG rulebooks. There are also issues like how SotC gave characters a full TEN Aspects, which to my mind is about three times too many. I saw an awesome rules-light game lurking inside of Fate, and Space Patrol was in part my best attempt at creating that. More recently, Evil Hat had their explosively popular Fate Core Kickstarter. Along with a zillion other things, it brought Fate Accelerated Edition into the world. There was suddenly a 48-page version of Fate (available in print for a mere $5), which kept the essence of Fate and included the slick refinements of Fate Core.

You can probably see where this is going, but it was pretty much a no-brainer to revise Space Patrol to take full advantage of FAE. The way it handles the four actions, the rules for challenges/contests/conflicts, and so on do a lot to address the few things about my game that I had been trying to figure out how to smooth over. With OGL and Creative Commons licensing options, readily available SRDs, and the Fate Core Glyphs font, Evil Hat has made Fate pretty awesome to use from a publishing standpoint. Otherwise I didn’t change Space Patrol all that much. I tweaked a few things here and there (like making it so the GM just gets a flat 10 Atom Points per episode), adjusted some things to fit the new rules, and added a new character to the lineup (Cosmo the Wonder Dog). I also finished up the two sample scenarios I’d been planning to write. It’s all very first draft, but it should be totally playable. I’m hoping to get in some playtesting before too long, and to more thoroughly read Fate Core with an eye for finding elements to adapt to Space Patrol.

Me being the way I am I’m thinking about possibly doing a Kickstarter for it at some point. It’d have to wait until a lot more Golden Sky Stories stuff is out of the way, and if I do it I’m definitely going to keep it a lot simpler and sleeker than what we did with GSS. Also, I’m looking forward to having the excuse to get a bunch of cute, stylish retro sci-fi art done.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the current playtest draft PDF:

Adventures of the Space Patrol Playtest Version 2 PDF

Arianrhod 2E: The Focus System

ara2e_jyoruI wound up getting a copy of the Advanced Rulebook (上級ルールブック) for Arianrhod 2nd Edition, F.E.A.R.’s dungeon fantasy RPG with an anime/JRPG style. The book includes advanced classes (that characters can take at level 10), prestige classes, new skills for the base classes, items, guild skills, monsters, traps, dungeon objects, and optional rules. The thing in it that I found the most interesting is what the designers call the Focus System (FS for short). The Focus System is something a lot like Skill Challenges in D&D4E, but better in pretty much every way. There’s even an FS Check Management Sheet, which isn’t quite as insane as it might look. It has spaces for three FS checks, and F.E.A.R. is just really big on making sheets for things.

An FS check goes in rounds, and one of the neat things about it is that you can have an FS check going at the same time as combat. Making a check for the FS uses your main action, so you have to choose between that and attacking. During the FS check a character can make Progress Checks or Assistance Checks. A Progress Check is a check[1] on the attribute (or other appropriate check) determined by the FS check’s specifications, and you gain or lose Progress Points according to your margin of success, anywhere from -2 to +4 (with a special bonus of +1d6 plus 1 per die that rolled a 6 on a Critical), and your ultimate goal is to accumulate enough Progress Points to complete the FS check. However, an FS check has a limit on how many characters can make Progress Checks per round (2-4 in the examples), so other characters can make Assistance Checks during the initiative phase, and if successful they give a +2 bonus to another character. A typical FS check needs 10 to 20 Progress Points to proceed (10 in most of the examples), but the PCs have a limited number of rounds to pull it off (in the included examples 3-5 rounds). When you design an FS check, you take the preferred number of participants times the number of rounds to determine the Progress Point objective.

Events are the other major thing that make an FS check more interesting. These trigger based on how many Progress Points the PCs have gained, usually around one event per 3 Progress Points (paced so you get one every 1-2 rounds). Events can change what stat you need to make a check with, alter the difficulty you have to beat, or also affect the FC check’s end conditions (giving you more or fewer rounds to complete it say). The book has 5 full writeups of example FC checks, and one of these is for disarming a particularly complex trap. It starts with Trap Removal checks (a special Thief skill, based on Dexterity), then the difficulty drops as you start to understand the trap, then thwarting a mechanism requires Strength checks, and finally at the end you’re left with the choice of the red wire or blue wire, and you need to make a Luck check. If the PCs get enough Progress Points at once to trigger multiple events, you take the most recent check requirements and retain things like modifiers to difficulty numbers from intermediate events.

If the PCs get enough Progress Points in time, they’ll succeed and get an XP reward at the end of the game session. The text also notes that you can have competitive FS checks basically by having two groups doing the same FS check in parallel and competing to be the first to get the required number of Progress Points.

That’s the basics in a nutshell. I find it pretty fascinating both as a game mechanic and for the simple fact that I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of thing from a Japanese TRPG before. I don’t know whether D&D4e played into its design (the Arianrhod 2E Advanced Rulebook did come out in 2011, and 4e is available in Japanese), but conflict resolution mechanics are about as nonexistent as GM-less RPGs there. Needless to say I want to use some ideas from the Focus System in Slime Quest’s Challenge system, though I think my take on it will have some elements of the Mouse Guard RPG as well. There’s a lot of interesting things in Japanese TRPG design, but sometimes there’s a certain rigidity at least in the rules as written, which shows here in how Progress Checks involve predetermined attributes and strategies. I’d much rather just ask the players how they’re tackling the problem and have that then play into the rules. On the other hand it’s substantially more developed than D&D4e’s Skill Challenges, and if I was going to run a 4e game I’d put together a houserule for improved SCs drawing from the FS check rules.

[1]In Arianrhod you make a basic check by rolling 2d6 and adding your attribute’s modifier (which is 1/3 of the base attribute number, and typically in the low single digits to start with). Snake eyes is a Fumble, and box cars is a Critical. The game doesn’t have “skills” in the Western RPG sense, but certain classes can have abilities that let them make special kinds of checks such as trap-finding or alchemy.