Category Archives: musings

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.

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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.
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Conventions

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[1] 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.
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Magical Burst Update

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.

Thematic Stuff
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.[1] 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.

Her name is literally "Love." Not "ai," but the word "Love" in English.
Her name is literally “Love.” Not “ai,” but the word “Love” in English.

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.

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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.[2] 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.

Rules Stuff
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.


[1]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.

[2]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.

Roles

I’ve been saying for a while now that I’m really looking forward to the games that draw on D&D4e for inspiration but improve on its ideas in various ways. (And I really need to get around to playing Last Stand some time soon.) One thing that I find especially fascinating is the use of roles (and the myriad things that flow from them). 4e’s roles show distinct inspiration from video games, but they’re also carefully tailored to the tabletop experience. They reinforce the notion of D&D as a team effort incredibly well, though they have certain drawbacks, like making non-standard party configurations potentially more difficult. (Early on we tried playing 4e without a Leader character. It was rough.)

In the typical MMO the three main roles are tank, DPS, and healer. Tanks are durable and can draw aggro (i.e., get the enemy AI to concentrate on them), DPS (damage per second) characters dish out lots of damage to take enemies down, and healers, you know, heal, and in particular keep the tank standing so the rest of the group can do their thing. “Crowd control” exists as a fourth role, though usually rolled into DPS or healing. Most of what I know about the finer points of MMORPG play I know from osmosis by having several friends who like to blather about it, but one thing people are really clear about is that relatively few players enjoy playing tanks, and good tank players are kind of hard to come by.

D&D4e’s four roles of Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller roughly correspond to tank, DPS, healer, and crowd control, but there are some very important key changes to make them function in a tabletop RPG. RPGs don’t generally have aggro mechanics, so rather than directly inducing enemies to attack them, defenders punish enemies for attacking anyone else. A monster that the fighter has marked can either attack the fighter, or take a -2 penalty to its attack on someone else and risk taking an opportunity attack. Defenders are still reactive (enough so that I didn’t enjoy playing them personally), but they’re definitely not as unpopular to play as tanks are in MMOs. Leaders meanwhile have a much stronger emphasis on buffing allies (or debuffing enemies in certain cases, notably the bard) with healing as an important but secondary function, thus avoiding the problem of “cleric as healbot.” Strikers meanwhile are pretty straightforward, whereas controllers were the one role that took some time for WotC to really figure out how to implement (much to the chagrin of many a wizard player), but could be a very useful support role once they hit stride with the design.

To a degree 4e’s roles are an extension of things that already existed in D&D. The meatshield fighter is an old cliche, and the cleric was pretty much the quintessential leader class well before 4e came along. There’s a degree of rigidity to the roles though, which makes them easier to use but harder to customize. For some people it went against expectations for particular, though it is a little silly to complain that to make a swashbuckler means writing “rogue” instead of “fighter” on your character sheet. On the other hand Sacred BBQ took the step of actually decoupling roles from classes, so that what in 4e would be Fighter/Warlord/Slayer as separate classes could become Defender-Fighter/Leader-Fighter/Striker-Fighter. (Plus it adds a “Blaster” role.)

This has been on my mind in part because I’ve been working more on Magical Burst, the new version of which adds three “Specializations” of Witch, Knight, and Priestess that emphasize Attack, Defense, and Support (and would roughly correspond to Striker, Defender, and Leader). These are deliberately “softer” roles, and the game lets you build a character that gets into the stuff other roles do (and more advanced characters have the option to outright take on a second role). Also, while a group with all three specializations could potentially synergize better, a group without the complete set ought to still be effective. On the other hand they’re still derivatives of the 4e formula, and what I’m most curious about is an implementation of roles that is substantially different from that.

MOBA games (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena; games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends) are the other major video game genre that has a concept of roles, though they’re also a genre I find totally inaccessible.[1] Consequently I’m not going to try to dissect and explain MOBA roles, since I’m pretty sure I’ll inevitably get stuff wrong, plus they’re fuzzy and vary between games anyway. I will note that the roles in MOBA games seem to be very strongly shaped by the way the game functions, in particular being so heavily team-based that solo play isn’t a thing that even makes sense, and having characters level up over the course of a match as a major gameplay element. Thus one of the major roles in MOBA games is the “Carry,” which starts weak but eventually gains a lot of power, so that it needs other players to “carry” it to that point. The arenas, which have a neutral area with “creeps” (NPC monsters) not allied to either team, allow for a “Jungler” role that earns XP by killing those creatures, and represents a potential threat to enemies that have to venture through the jungle.

The big takeaway here is that there are lots of possible ways to apportion roles. The trick is to come up with a set of specialties that fit together into an overall approach to the activities that the game involves. MOBAs have roles that are pretty different from MMOs I think because they have so many key gameplay elements that are so different. Having a character with an uneven power progression would pretty much be a screwup in an MMO, but since the basic unit of MOBA play is one match, it’s an avenue for differentiating the heroes. Roles for tabletop RPGs are a largely unexplored technique, and there are a lot of areas where it could go in new and interesting places. To me the big thing there is the possibility of roles that effectively address non-combat stuff. D&D4e has a lot more support for non-combat stuff than an MMO, but skills are one of the most haphazard parts of the game, and other non-combat abilities are all over the place. Fighters are arbitrarily screwed over for skills,[2] while bards could be utter monsters in terms of using skills. To some extent there’s already a notion of having characters that specialize in being the Face, the Nature Guy, the Techie, etc. (The Risus Companion has pretty good writeups of that kind of thing.) The difference there is that that kind of specialization lends itself more to particular characters being the one guy in the group who can handle a particular obstacle, whereas the advantage of combat roles is that everyone can more or less always contribute to the group’s success without being relegated to the sidelines. How to go about crafting roles is still above my head, but it’s something I’m really interested in exploring in the future.

[1]I’m not good at tactics, and I’m not good at keeping track of lots of things at once, least of all in small amounts of time. MOBAs are derived from RTS games, which are already pretty much the perfect storm of a Game Not For Ewen in basically every way, and add a need for extremely tight teamwork.
[2]Even Rob Heinsoo, the guy who is responsible for keeping wizards in D&D4e from being just plain better “because magic,” initially had fighters and paladins have crap for skill (background) ranks in 13th Age.

Yaruki Zero Podcast #21: Today in Geek History Part 2

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This special episode is a compilation of the second half of the “Today in Geek History” daily podcast I posted on Tumblr. (Here’s Part 1) This is a part of I’ve been working on a humor book titled “I Want to be an Awesome Robot,” and one of my many goals for 2014 is to finally finish up the book. One of my other goals is to get back into proper podcasting, starting with a review of 2013, which I’m hoping to record and post over this weekend.

Yaruki Zero Podcast #21 (1 hour, 30 minutes, 5 seconds)

Caricature of Ewen courtesy of C. Ellis.

Maid: The Role-Playing Game and Star Line Publishing

coverBeginning in 2014, Star Line Publishing will be taking over handling Maid: The Role-Playing Game in English. Maid RPG is a slapstick anime comedy RPG, and an earlier work by Golden Sky Stories designer Ryo Kamiya. Andy K originally took the lead role in the business of publishing the game, while I handled most of the translation and otherwise took a back seat. With Andy moving to Japan and my own publishing venture getting up and running, it made sense to switch the game over to SLP. For the time being we’ll be treating Maid as a “long tail” product, making it available primarily through PDF and print on demand venues, though we’ll still be able to offer printed books at conventions and to interested retailers. We’ll be expanding to a few new POD/PDF sales channels as well, notably DriveThruRPG and Amazon’s CreateSpace (which will in turn make it available for order through Amazon), though given that Maid RPG has gotten and stayed disturbingly high on their sales charts, we’ll definitely continue the partnership with Indie Press Revolution that Andy started.

Whether there will be anything new for Maid RPG depends a lot on what we have the resources to accomplish and what people express interest in. I do plan to eventually complete and publish my Retail Magic game (a comedy RPG based on the Maid RPG rules, but about employees at a magic item shop), and I might go as far as to look into finally putting together a book of original Maid RPG material, and possibly a cheaper and slimmer introductory Maid RPG core rulebook similar to products like the Explorer’s Edition of Savage Worlds. If there’s something you’d like to see, let us know!

A General Update

I had started writing a design journal post about Fantasy Friends, and then I realized I had made such a post before and I was mostly rehashing stuff I’d already written about. In a way that kind of typifies a lot of what’s been going on with me in terms of game design: there are a lot of things I have more or less figured out in my head but still need to finish doing the actual writing and such. I think that has a lot to do with the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter eating up so much of my time, but the good news is that for the purposes of the actual shipping of physical goods part my own work is very nearly done. All of the many physical items are variously already at the warehouse, on their way to the warehouse, or will be going to the warehouse once printing is done. All that’s left for me is to post some updates and handle letting backers update their mailing addresses when the time comes. After that we still want to get the remaining PDF stuff done in a reasonable amount of time, but it’s not going to be nearly as much pressure. Anyway, I decided to write a blog post about what I’ve been generally working on.

Friday Knights
One of my major projects right now is Friday Knights, a playset for the currently-Kickstarting Costume Fairy Adventures RPG, the inaugural product from David J. Prokopetz’s Penguin King Games. The game is about cute fairies who wear costumes that give them magical powers (there’s a deck of costume cards) and how they generally get into trouble. I’m writing a scenario/playset where your fairies wind up in a house where there’s a D&D game going on. I’ve made a good start on it, but there’s plenty of writing left to do.

Adventures of the Space Patrol
The other day while googling to see what people were saying about Golden Sky Stories I came across something that gave me pause. Someone had pointed out that in describing the Space Agents I had portrayed the male characters in a variety of ways, but managed to talk about pretty much all of the female characters in terms of being young and pretty. I’ve generally been trying to be better about inclusiveness and diversity, both to better serve my audience and to challenge myself to break dumb cliches, so it caught me off guard that I’d managed to do such a thing without even realizing it. On the plus side, that promptly gave me the idea to make Billy Smith’s mother a playable character, which is a dynamic that you pretty much never see in RPGs. Generally tweaking and playing around with the other characters is also going on my to-do list for the next revision of the game, whenever I can make time for it.

I’m also planning to include more robust rules for creating original characters. While I like having premade ones in many different ways, it seems pretty clear that a big chunk of the RPG audience wants the ability to make solid original characters. I also picked up the Fate System Toolkit. It’s packed with all sorts of ideas, but the one that interests me most is Conditions, though I’m not at all sure whether they’re really the way to go. Something to experiment with in playtesting.

Magical Burst
A few people have been asking about Magical Burst. It’s another one of those projects where I’ve pretty much figured out what I want to do, but need to find the time to actually do it. That puts it pretty much at the top of my list of things to do when GSS isn’t eating up quite so much of my life. I also need to find time to sit down and watch more of the magical girl anime that’s come out (the Madoka movies, Day Break Illusion, Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya, and I’m sure I’m missing something). Of my many neglected projects Magical Burst is easily the one I most want to make happen, and a Kickstarter is a very distinct possibility once I get the rules nailed down. (Though after my experiences with GSS, I’m definitely going to keep extras and stretch goals on a tight leash next time around.) As I mentioned before I want to continue having a free version of Magical Burst available, something along the lines of how Anima Prime has a no-frills free version and a fancy book with illustrations and such.

Other Stuff

  • I haven’t gotten around to posting it, but I did a revision of America’s Next Top Reality Show, making it so that each card has two title words, plus a demographic listed between. That way the game has 144 title words out of a 72-card deck, and doesn’t need for the players to have dice on hand. The game is working pretty well, though it has a very different energy from Channel A, plus we tend to feel kinda dirty after playing it, in a way that doesn’t happen even with Cards Against Humanity. ANTRS parodies something really prevalent in our culture right now, and potentially in a pretty cutting way, since sometimes it does feel like reality shows use some kind of randomizer.
  • Fighting Fighters Coliseum is the title I’m tentatively giving to a game that’s going to be a kind of successor to Channel A, still a party game, but with a little bit more in the way of rules. The idea is that instead of titles, you assemble your final attack name from words on cards. The game would also have a set of character cards, which double as both player avatars and opponents, with different special abilities for both. There’s still some details to work out, but putting together a list of words from special attacks was pretty much just a matter of culling through lists of such.
  • Something’s going to be happening with Maid RPG soon. Nothing earth-shattering, but something. I should be revealing it in about a month or so.

Tsugihagi Honpo: An Innovator

Ryo Kamiya, the designer of Maid RPG and Golden Sky Stories (and a few other games) is one of the major people behind an independent game publishing company called Tsugihagi Honpo.[1] I wanted to take a little time to talk about what they’ve been up to, because they’ve been doing some pretty amazing things that could help expand, improve, and enliven the TRPG scene in Japan.

E-Books
Japan is far behind the West in terms of the adoption of e-books. The patterns of tech adoption by the Japanese tend to be different in really fascinating ways, sometimes cultural and sometimes pragmatic. They can be way ahead of the U.S. (as was the case with cell phones) or oddly far behind (I’ve heard that many Japanese companies still make extensive use of fax machines instead of email). While devices like tablets are hugely popular and the Amazon Kindle is indeed available in Japan, the selection of e-books available for purchase is relatively small. There may be a cultural tendency to prefer physical artifacts over digital downloads, but the real issue is with the publishing industry. Japan is one of the more literate societies on the planet, but traditional publishers are incredibly set in their ways, and have largely refused to seriously consider releasing their properties as e-books. There’s an attitude that piracy isn’t merely a concern, but something to be absolutely avoided at all costs. This is largely true of tabletop RPGs as much as novels, partly I suppose because it’s simply not the standard overall, and partly because a surprising number of TRPG publishers are actually small subsets of large, traditional publishing houses.

On the other hand there is a flourishing doujinshi scene that produces a massive volume of fan works. TRPGs are only a small part of that, but given that the heart of the doujin scene is a convention that attracts about half a million people, that small part still produces a lot of interesting material. There’s even some electronic publishing going on, through sites like DLSite and Melon Books, which is where you’ll find the very few Japanese TRPGs available in PDF form. Tsugihagi has a few available (including the English version of Maid RPG), and there are some other games like Giant Allege and Machine Makers, plus replays and some other material for existing games. More recently, Ken Akamatsu’s site J-Comi started offering some older TRPG material for free.

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Tsugihagi went so far as to make their own PDF reader app for iPad, Narabete Reader, which allows you to view two different PDFs simultaneously. Of course, in their Narabete Reader FAQ they resort to mentioning that PDFs are common for American RPGs, because Japanese RPG PDFs are so hard to come by. Needless to say I’m hoping that TRPG PDFs take off, though that’s partly just because even with the added hoops of buying through a Japanese site, getting files from DLSite is a heck of a lot easier and cheaper than special ordering a book from Japan.

Nechronica Miniatures
3D printing is a technology that has some major implications for tabletop gaming, as it has the potential to massively boost the variety of physical artifacts that people can affordably produce in small numbers. Right now making miniatures is getting more attainable–there have been countless very successful Kickstarters for miniatures games–but it’s still something that involves tens of thousands of dollars. 3D printing has the potential to let projects be on as small a scale as you want. Shapeways is already providing a Lulu-style POD service for 3D-printed objects, but I was rather excited when I found out that Tsugihagi is offering a set of Nechronica miniatures. They’re not cheap, and they have the “fuzzy” look of the current generation of color 3D printing, but it’s also the first instance I know of of a game publisher doing an official 3D printed accessory.

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TRPG Publishing Workshop
Another pretty amazing thing they’re doing is the “Tsugihagi School” workshop. They charge 2800 yen for an all-day program of seminars on desktop publishing and game design. In the U.S. we’ve done plenty of convention panels and podcasts about this kind of thing, and there have been a few convention workshops here and there, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything quite like this. That it’s something viable in a paid workshop format is I suspect in part a result of Japan being much smaller than the U.S. It’s taking place in Saitama, which is part of the Tokyo metropolitan area, and while it’s hardly in everyone’s back yard, a larger portion of the potential audience can get there on the train than would be the case for a similar event in any given U.S. city.

Online Play
Also of interest is how the workshop includes a session solely dedicated to talking about online role-playing. From what I can gather, this is becoming a major trend in Japanese TRPGs. The term オンラインセッション/online session gets shortened to オンセ/onse, and there are dedicated platforms for it, like Dodontof. This is of particular interest for Tsugihagi since one of their games is extremely adult in nature and probably not something a lot of people would want to play face-to-face. Online RPG play isn’t at all unusual in the U.S., but with rare exceptions (like Code of Unaris) it’s very rare for publishers to address it in any meaningful way.[2] Dedicating time and energy to looking at ways to design games that are better for online play is genuinely a really cool thing, and something I hope we’ll see more of.


[1]Which literally translates to something like “Patchwork Book Shop,” but in English they call themselves “PatchWorks.”

[2]I don’t have a lot of experience with playing RPGs online, but it’s definitely something I want to address in my own games.

D&D 4E’s Influences and Problems

WOC2173672_500Strap in, it’s another meandering post about D&D!

When people talk about what influenced 4E, the first thing most people bring up is MMORPGs, especially World of Warcraft. It got turned into a catch phrase by 4E’s haters, and was routinely used without supplying any context that would give you a clue as to why it was a bad thing (or even a thing that mattered one way or the other). That it draws some ideas from MMOs is undeniable, though it’s also pretty clear that they carefully adapted those ideas to the medium at hand, which is why (for example) 4E’s Defenders are very different from a typical MMO Tank role. (They have to be in a game that doesn’t have any kind of aggro mechanic.) Although hardly anyone noticed, another thing that the designers have explicitly said they looked at was European board games, which is where for example a lot of the razor-sharp turn-handling mechanics came from. Mike Mearls and some of the other designers are also sports fans, and a lot of elements of 4E, especially with martial characters, make vastly more sense when you explain them in terms of basketball. Some people will rail about fighter marks being “mind control,” but sports fans seem to instantly grasp what defender marks represent if you explain it in terms of how defense works in basketball. A few times people have also tried to bring GNS theory into the list of influences, good or bad, and while Mearls and company were definitely aware of Forge theory and such, the rigor and focus of the design had so many other sources that I think it could have easily come about if the same team had never once heard of the Forge.

The one huge, glaring thing that routinely gets left out of discussions of 4E’s influences is D&D 3.5. Late in 3.5′s life people were exploring the limits of the system in ways they hadn’t quite done before. This was when terms like CoDzilla and Pun-Pun became widely known, and the D&D team, being the foremost group of people who were working on D&D as their actual profession full time, had to be listening to what the fanbase was saying. Not listening was one of 90s TSR’s biggest mistakes after all, and WotC launched their D&D venture with the aim of paying attention to what their fans wanted. 4E’s downright obsessive focus on game balance is clearly a reaction to the massive imbalances that character optimizers were able to unearth in 3.5. Charop still exists in 4E, but it’s nowhere close to the same level, and more importantly outside of extreme charop the difference in performance between a suboptimal and optimal character isn’t so massive as to totally obviate the suboptimal character. As someone with limited experience with 3.x and very extensive experience with 4E, whenever I looked through 3.5 books I was always struck by just how much wound up being familiar. The differences are considerable and important, but 4E is nonetheless a game that could only have come from people totally submerged in D&D 3.5 and the fandom around it. 4E is the game for which the Tome of Battle and Star Wars Saga Edition were intermediate steps, and which compared to any non-D&D game is pretty obviously an offshoot of the lineage that 3rd Edition started. To me it’s a reminder of the level of myopia that focusing too much on D&D alone can cause us.
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