On Friday, November 14th, I got laid off from my day job. I don’t want to get into that too much here, but suffice to say I should’ve started looking for a new job before events forced the issue. (Though if anyone out there has any job leads by all means please get in touch with me!) Aside from the job search, to stay sane I’ve been making things, like a lot.
“Schoolgirl RPG” is the result of compacting the Maid RPG rules down about as far as they’ll go, resulting in a 7-page comedy RPG about Japanese schoolgirls. Apart from that it’s very open-ended, and largely an excuse to throw around random events and such. I’m in the process of working on a couple of small supplements for it too, namely “Extra Credit” (which adds a bunch more tables for various purposes) and “Otoko no Michi” (which adds rules for schoolboys, heavily inspired by Cromartie High). Retail Magic: Golden Friday Edition
Also a Maid RPG derivative, Retail Magic is a game about employees at a magic item shop in a fantasy world, and a weird blend of Slayers-style fantasy anime and cynical Western comedy about retail. The “Golden Friday Edition” is a fully playable basic version, without the bells and whistles I’m hoping to put into the final version. I’m hoping that it will succeed enough to get people interested in the game and thereby clearly justify full-on publishing a final version in print with art and everything. I had originally planned to release it on Black Friday, but my artist friend took an extra day making the cover art be amazing. (And by the way, although they’re a bit rough, here are the Employee Sheet and Boss Sheet.) Five-Card Fictions
I also finished three new Five-Card Fictions decks, in addition to the original Miyuki Days deck. I was originally planning to stop at three decks total, but I hit on the idea of doing a “Karin Days” deck about Miyuki’s rival and sometimes girlfriend, which resulted in one of my best-written decks so far. I’ve started offering print-and-play PDFs for $1.99, and since the proofing process is done they’re also available in print on demand.
Thralls of the Red God: A sword and sorcery story, drawing on authors like R.E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, as well as RPGs like Swords Without Master and In a Wicked Age. The Champion heads into the wastes to find his destiny, but the Red God has other plans.
Strange Geometries: Inspired by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Strange Geometries concerns an Argentinian man reading a strange book, with a knife fight possibly looming in his future. Owing to the wealth of suitable public domain images, it’s probably the best-looking deck so far.
Karin Days: A sequel of sorts to Miyuki Days, starring the rich girl who is Miyuki’s rival. This one gets even more surreal and also has some fairly cutting satire.
The Maid (for Dungeon World)
Probably the weirdest (in a cool way) thing to come out of this is that I made a Maid class for Dungeon World. It is very deliberately inspired by Maid RPG, and in fact has a move that involves random events, as well as stuff using Favor points. It was pretty fun to do, and got a decent response. The art, in case you’re wondering, is stock art (絵素材) that I bought from DLSite.com, one of the major Japanese doujinshi e-book type sites.
Inspired by a certain guy’s lists, I started a small side thing of making PDFs of d66 tables useful for generating various things for RPGs or other purposes. The first one was for Fantasy Names, providing names for human, elven, dwarven, and halfling characters suitable for D&D, Pathfinder, and other dungeon fantasy type games. I followed that with Super Names, Anime Stuff, Odds and Ends, Anime Stuff 2, Odds and Ends 2, and Titles. They haven’t been super-successful or anything, but they’ve sold a few here and there, and they were fun to do, and I’ve made enough that I wound up making my own product category for them. If this silliness goes on long enough I’ll probably make a book out of them.
Anyway, that’s all for now. There’s all sorts of exciting stuff on the horizon, but I haven’t yet figured out a real path forward.
The notion of a book where the reader makes choices as they progress through a story seems to have first appeared (being described but not executed) in a Jorge Luis Borges story. The early branching path books were more educational tools (I remember one I had when I was young about the structure of atoms), but the best-known series is easily the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I’d always been interested in the idea of Choose Your Own Adventure books and other kinds of gamebooks, but at the same time I often wasn’t a fan of the subject matter they chose. The actual CYOA books, as well as things like Lone Wolf, can come off as a caricature of deadly old-school D&D, games that just hate the idea of your character being alive. The first gamebook I really and truly enjoyed was Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be, a tongue in cheek take on the story of Hamlet. There are still plenty of ways for your character to die, but you can also do things like wind up with Hamlet’s father joining forces with other ghosts to fight an invasion of alien ghosts, so finding the many, many different endings is a major part of the fun rather than a source of frustration. Not unlike with playing party card games, it’s a lot easier to lose horribly and still have a great time. I’m still in the process of exploring what’s out there, but gamebooks have become a thing on Kindle and other ebook platforms, not to mention the success of Twine, which has helped a ton of people get their first taste of game design and become a major part of the Interactive Fiction scene. (There’s also the thing that Japanese visual novels are often basically COYA games with voice samples and character art.)
I’ve made one or two attempts at writing gamebooks in the past, but I completed one for the first time with Choose Your Own Homura, a very silly Madoka Magica mini-gamebook that will be a part of my friend C. Ellis‘ Madoka fanbook project. It is full of goofy references, including Charles Barkley and a couple of Wizard People Dear Reader nods. I wrote CYOH in Twine, and then converted it to a format suitable for dead tree printing afterwards. I haven’t explored other options too much, but Twine is pretty excellent, and it outputs an HTML file that you can play on virtually any device with a browser. Making the version for printing was kind of a pain, despite my having a decent command of Excel Sorcery (by which I mean VLOOKUP and a couple other useful formulas), so I’m hoping I can find some kind of automated solution for that before I launch into more ambitious gamebook projects.
I suspect it will get easier with practice, but to me the single biggest challenge of writing a gamebook is that (for me at least) it creates a particularly high degree of separation between the writer/designer’s point of view and that of the reader/player. The reader necessarily experiences a small fraction of the gamebook’s content on each playthrough, while the writer has to take a big-picture view of the overall decision tree’s many branches. I think it’s easier for me to get a sense of the way game mechanics will work because they’re something you have to apply in a variety of situations, whereas as a gamebook author you have already lost the feeling of making a choice for the first time and not knowing where it will take you. I haven’t yet tried working with anything besides simple branching choices, but with Twine and even with gamebooks there’s some really interesting possibilities with those kinds of things.
Tentatively my plan is that once the fanbook is sold out I’ll see about putting CYOH up for sale on Gumroad (I Want to be an Awesome Robot is available through there now too BTW), and to explore doing more gamebook thinks in the future, high on the list being “Octaviadventure,” which will probably be a part of Most of My Friends Are Potential Supervillains (the sequel to Awesome Robot). I certainly have no shortage of concepts/games that could make for a fun gamebook, and on top of that they could make interesting companion or promotional pieces for other games. A friend even suggested setting up a Choosatron at a convention booth to give people both a taste of your game’s general feel and a personalized souvenir to take home.
With this, Magic School Diary, and Five-Card Fictions I’m generally enjoying working with stuff that allows for solo play. It’s a very different kind of writing/design to be sure, but it also has the massive advantage of being able to test stuff (to some degree) by myself whenever I have time to spare.
For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity, about identity politics, and about my role as a creative person. I feel like I’m in the middle of a slow and at times painful process of coming into my own as a game designer, and I’m at a point in my life where “game designer” is about the only label I kinda’ sorta’ feel like making a part of my identity. I am big on gaming and anime, but there are a plethora of reasons why I have a hard time thinking of myself as a “gamer” or “otaku.” Some of it is that there are elements in those fandoms that don’t make them feel like the most complimentary labels to wear, but there’s also the fact that in the areas where I have respect for gamerdom and otakudom, I feel a bit inadequate, as I watch anime sporadically and with odd preferences in recent years, and my gaming habits are pretty out there. (The last video game I played really seriously was Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 2, which for those keeping score at home was originally released for PC Engine in 1995.) My creative works express who I am a lot better than my media consumption, so you can see a lot more of who I am as a person from I Want to be an Awesome Robot or even Channel A than from looking at my DVD shelf.
That in turn means that for issues like diversity, there are arenas where I have very direct control and the responsibility falls primarily on me. Although I’m finding I love when artists I hire for game art surprise me (as James Workman and Clove have done many times working on art for Fantasy Friends and Faerie Skies), whether there is, say, a brown-skinned character on the cover of one of my books is something I determine when I write up art specs for the cover illustration. That isn’t to say that people who don’t create games don’t have a voice–far from it, and I’m very grateful for those who have spoken up–but simply that these are decisions that are getting up in my face, and they’re doing so for something that defines me, so I want to get it right.
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. 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.” 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.
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.
Art is a term that has a way of becoming useless any time you so much as glance at an edge case anyway.
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 D&D 5E First Impressions→
It was in May of 2013 that I mostly swore off going to conventions. Not permanently or absolutely, but indefinitely, and for health reasons. I have problems with anxiety. In scientific terms anxiety is a sustained activation of the body’s fear response, caused by sustained stress. In my everyday life some days I’m perfectly fine, and other days it becomes a constant thing. Large crowds are a pretty reliable trigger though. I’m also in poor shape physically, which is partly a result of other medical issues I won’t get into here, but partly my own fault too. Between the two, even relatively brief visits to a convention can leave me feeling mentally and physically drained. It was after spending all of six hours at FanimeCon—and subsequently going home, turning my phone off, and climbing into bed—that I finally decided that, for the time being, I’d had enough. Where the fact that I’m alcohol intolerant almost never even comes up, conventions are woven into the fandoms I’m involved in enough that it’s something I feel I legitimately need to make known. Well-meaning friends and coworkers and such assume that as a geek, conventions are a thing I would naturally want to do, and as my role in game publishing has grown I’ve gotten a few fans and business connections proactively asking me to come to cons. I don’t like that things have gone this way, but at this point in my life asking me to go to a place with big crowds of people is rather like inviting a guy with a sprained ankle to Staircase Land. I do need to do something about it, but it’s going to take some time. Continue reading Conventions→
I’m getting fairly close to finishing the 4th draft of Magical Burst, which as I said will hopefully be the last major revision before publication. Naturally when I could’ve been working on it I instead blathered for 1600 or so words about working on it.
One thing that’s been on my mind a bit lately is the thematic underpinnings of magical girl anime. Anime is a weirdly skewed window into a particular culture, and magical girl anime straddles at least two distinct segments of that culture. There’s magical girl stuff aimed at little girls, which is more likely to have women in creative roles, but at the same time is extremely mainstream. Sailor Moon was the queen (and in some ways the originator) of this phenomenon, though Precure pretty clearly holds the crown right now (at least until Sailor Moon Crystal starts up). There’s also magical girl stuff aimed at adult male otaku, and while Madoka Magica is unusually restrained in a lot of ways (nary a panty shot to be seen for one thing), it’s still mainly a show very much by and for men. Where the show displays a lot of restraint, the merchandise and the fandom certainly don’t, and if for some reason you decide you want plastic figures of the characters in swimsuits, there’s official merchandise for you.
The shows aimed at girls are hard for me to fully take in. They present a lot of ideas about femininity, and those are grounded in a foreign culture and put through the filter of a show for little girls to watch in the morning. The actual style of storytelling is in my experience pretty similar to sentai shows, with the bad guys doing stuff that twists a characters’ desires in order to do evil. In magical girl anime stereotypically girly stuff like clothes and jewelry and dancing can be the focus a lot of the time, but they’ll also feature things like chess tournaments and martial arts where it fits the characters. Sailor Moon has the brainy Sailor Mercury and the tomboy Sailor Jupiter among the heroines, for example. As Lauren Faust put it, “There’s more than one way to be a girl.” Magical girl anime for girls tends to treat femininity as a virtue, but it presents many different kinds of femininity. It also has an aspirational streak, showing the characters striving for various notions of happiness and success. Sometimes this comes off as shallow and materialistic, and other times it can be pleasantly altruistic or otherwise noble. I’m reminded of the thing that being girly isn’t anti-feminist, only the notion that all girls must be that way rather than being free to choose.
The issues with male-oriented magical girl shows are more apparent in titles like Lyrical Nanoha and Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Ilya, which although not without substance, have some pretty gross male-oriented fanservice at times, compounded by rather young characters. The stories tend to have very little to do with femininity, and instead play out a lot more like other genres of anime. Nanoha has a female protagonist and most of the major characters are also female, but in a lot of ways it’s more like an unusually succinct shounen fighting series. There’s a greater than usual emphasis on themes of friendship in Nanoha, but then that’s true of, say, One Piece as well. Friendship and striving to accomplish things and so on are really important values in Japanese culture, and very popular among boys.
Magical Burst belongs to the Madoka camp more than the Precure camp. For starters, the game is by an adult male designer, and if I were going to make a game aimed at anything like the girl-oriented magical girl anime and its original target audience, it’d look very different. I’m certainly not going to put deliberate fanservice into the game, but I have no illusions about what gender the majority of the audience is going to be. It’s also an RPG, which means that a certain portion of the thematic content comes from how the particular gaming group comes at it.
I also took some influence from Superflat. Superflat is an art movement from Japan that’s a bit pretentious and hard to explain, but the core of it is exposing the absurdity of certain aspects of Japanese culture, in particular expressions of powerlessness and the lack of distinction between product art and fine art. As a result, Superflat art shows include a lot of outright bizarre stuff that uses imagery from anime and such. Magical Burst’s use of a zillion d66 tables that put a kaleidoscope of weird images and tropes in front of you is very much from Maid RPG, and even more so Magical Burst asks you to take a disparate mass of images and try to make some sense out of it. Although it doesn’t perfectly line up with Madoka Magica (on purpose), I want it to help foster some of the feeling of strangeness I and doubtless many others felt in the first episode when Madoka and Sayka find themselves inside a witch’s barrier. Looking at my introduction to the setting I see a lot of stuff about alienation, about lacking answers, which I think has a bit to do with how I feel about real life. So there’s that.
The world is a vast place, but although mankind as always told stories of magic, to their tribes, to themselves, to the night sky, men have never held it in their grasp. Magic is real even so. Magic is dangerous and terrible and beautiful. Magic is our only weapon against magic. Perhaps someday the world will forgive you for using it, but for now it hates you for it, hates your good intentions as well as your base desires. That is the world you will live in, a magical world.
On the design front, I wound up doing some major streamlining of the Fallout rules. Naturally this involved making a bunch more tables, since among other things I decided to make d66 tables for the two levels of Distortion type fallout. (My favorite particular entry being “Small candies rain down from the sky.”) A big part of the point of having tables is to provide inspiration so that you’re less likely to get stuck trying to think of something on the fly, so it made sense to have tables rather than just giving a handful of examples. It was really fun to come up with Magic distortions, and very difficult to come up with ones for Heart and Fury that would be impactful but not too out there. That also means that so far the game is up to about thirty d66 tables in it. So yeah. I also revamped the Change tables, trying to keep them from being overt fetish fuel, overly contextual, or any number of other problems. They’re still really out there, but hopefully better overall. I’m definitely liking how the Fallout rules are looking in general.
The three Specializations and the related Magical Talents are now done, albeit in a first draft kind of way. The Witch, which specializes in Attack, was probably the easiest to design, since “does more damage” is a pretty simple thing to accomplish. For the Knight (Defense) I really want to make sure such characters can be active enough to be fun to play, and absolutely not MMO tanks. For the Priestess (Support), D&D4e’s leader classes provide a lot of inspiration, though there’s also potential for doing some interesting things that are specific to this game, like playing around with Overcharge. I want the roles to be relatively flexible, with the ability to do some stuff outside your specialization’s role. The Priestess has a better healing talent, but anyone can get a healing talent, for example.
The big thing I’m trying to figure out right now is how to work the Sorcery rules, which essentially means coming up with an improvised magic system (or a stunting system if you prefer). The core idea at the moment is simply that you make a Support challenge with a target number depending on the effect you want, plus some stuff to make your life interesting if you fail or don’t succeed quite enough. Threading the needle of making something that can cover a huge variety of possible magic effects without being too complicated is proving a really interesting challenge.
It’s hard to say how soon I’ll get it done–I certainly don’t have any shortage of other things I need to get done, not to mention my day job having some tumult–but assuming I can untangle the remaining knots there’s not too much left to do. From there I’m hoping to launch into some pretty intensive playtesting, because I feel like I need to really learn the ins and outs of the system I’ve made, make some important refinements, and collect and communicate knowledge of how to play. Also, it’ll motivate me to get back into role-playing proper, which I haven’t been doing anywhere near as much as I’d like due to scheduling issues.
Sentai shows are very similar to magical girl anime in this respect, which makes sense since they’re the early morning show for boys. Some day I really need to finish my Tokyo Heroes RPG, which covers both sentai and Sailor Moon style magical girls.
My friend Aaron Smith is in fact working on a game aimed at more traditional magical girls, and it’s looking quite good and totally different from Magical Burst.