Category Archives: musings

Patreon

For those of you who might not be familiar, Patreon is a newer crowdfunding platform that’s been growing quickly. Where Kickstarter lets creators realize a single project in a month-long funding drive, Patreon is about ongoing patronage. As a patron, you still pick a pledge level, but this is typically a smaller amount, and it’s paid each time the creator launches something new. (And note that you can put limits on how much you’re willing to pay.) From the creator’s POV, it means that instead of taking a bunch of money and then having to figure out how to deliver with it, you make something and then get paid for it. It’s still something of a niche for RPGs, but the likes of Evil Hat, Epidiah Ravachol, Ben Lehman, Avery Mcdaldno, and Quinn Murphy have been putting it to good use.

I’ve been thinking about trying it out for a while, but I finally decided to take the plunge when I realized that I had gotten into making smaller games, and that I had a lot of them I wanted to do. So, I’ve got my Patreon page set up!

ewen_patreon

I have a ton of things I’m working on and want to work on, so here’s an overview of the things I’ve got cooking:

  • Fullmetal President: Heavily inspired by a Japanese Xbox game called Metal Wolf Chaos, in this game you play the role of the President of the United States (and some cabinet members), donning power suits to restore Freedom to America! The rules are derived from Otherkind Dice, with the twist that you can get extra dice and assign them to either Freedom or Explosions. This will likely be my first Patreon release!
  • Angel Project: Based on a modified version of the rules of Magical Fury (which is a super-simple Powered by the Apocalypse game), this is a much lighter game about cute girls with special suits that let the fight the forces of darkness, inspired by anime like Galaxy Fraulein Yuna and Symphogear.
  • AnimeCon: A freeform RPG (drawing on Admist Endless Quiet and Remodel in terms of its game functions) for serious stories about people going to an anime convention full of hopes.
  • Raspberry Heaven: Drawing on the form of J. Walton’s game Restless and the content of 4-panel manga like Azumanga Daioh and Hidamari Sketch, Raspberry Heaven is a game for heartwarming slice of life stories about high school girls.
  • Assassin’s Kittens: A small Powered by the Apocalypse game about adorable kittens trained as deadly assassins to fight the Knights of the Cross for the fate of mankind.
  • Melancholy Kaiju: An idea I’m still in the process of formulating, but it concerns giant monsters dealing with everyday life. Inspired by weird indie vinyl toys and such.

Magical Fury and Magical Burst

Magical-Fury-CoverOn Sunday I launched Magical Fury as a PDF product on DriveThruRPG (also, an updated version of Entanglements as a Pay What You Want product). As I mentioned earlier, it’s a much simpler dark magical girl RPG, which uses a very simple AW engine variant (inspired by The Sundered Land). It’s the product of a particular circumstance and emotions, but on the whole I like it a lot. It has a distinct simplicity and plays with lightning speed even for a rules-light game. The final product wound up being 35 pages, though nearly half of that is a set of 17 d66 tables covering character creation and other aspects of gameplay.

I based it on the Star Princess Astraia story that I really need to get around to writing some day (which gave me an excuse to get art of her done for the cover). It thus has some elements that stem directly from things I’m planning for that, notably the reincarnation aspect and the “change the world” move (inspired by a part where Astraia decides to patrol the streets and winds up in the middle of a confrontation with a police officer).

Magical Burst

One of my goals with Magical Fury was to break through things that were blocking me with Magical Burst. I’ve been working on Magical Burst long enough that it’s accrued a lot of inertia, and coming at a similar concept from a different direction let me come up with some new approaches to handling things. They’re still two different games (and will continue to be so), but quite a few of the things I did with Magical Fury point to simpler, more elegant ways to approach some of the things Magical Burst is meant to do. There’s a lot I like about the Fallout system in Magical Burst, but in play it’s clunky and produces too many instances of Fallout that become hard to work into play. The Shift rules in Magical Fury accomplish a very similar goal in a much simpler way, and provide a clear blueprint for how I’m going to approach revising them.

One really important thing is that Magical Fury wound up being a proof of concept for a system that “summarizes” battles, reducing something that is quite involved in most games down to a few die rolls to find out how things go. As with Slime Story, I want Magical Burst to have both quick battles and more involved ones, though even for the more involved ones I want to avoid the hour-long combats of Magical Burst 4th Draft.

Making the moment of awakening as a magical girl a core, default part of gameplay was also a really effective aspect of Magical Fury in play, and helped bring to life the strangeness of it all. It’s definitely something I want to do with Magical Burst, and I’m leaning towards generally having the game set up to ramp character complexity gradually over time, another concept I’ve been wanting to play with in RPGs in general.

I also wanted to mention a newer magical girl series I saw recently, Yuki Yuna wa Yusha de Aru. If I had to rank them I would put Madoka Magica above it, but it’s nonetheless and enjoyable series with its own sensibilities and themes. It’s difficult to properly explain without spoilers, but sacrifice is a major theme, and the details of what the magical girls (“heroes”) are and how they work are interesting. One fan went as far as to write up Magical Burst rules for the blooming/mankai element from Yuki Yuna.

Although Magical Burst stemmed directly from the inspiration that I got from watching Madoka Magica, it’s never been as much of a Madoka Magica RPG as people seem to think it is. Even so, watching other magical girl anime has definitely been a good thing, and helped the game be that much more its own thing rather than a slavish imitator. While watching more of Sailor Moon, Precure, Lyrical Nanoha, etc. has had its benefits, Yuki Yuna feels more like a Magical Burst game than basically any other series besides Madoka Magica itself.

2014 in Review

2014 was a really weird year for me, and insofar as arbitrary numbers on years have any significance I can’t say I’ll miss this particular one. I got a lot of stuff done (including finally publishing I Want to Be an Awesome Robot), but I also hit a lot of roadblocks elsewhere, and there’s also the thing about losing my day job out of the blue a little before Thanksgiving.

Magical Burst
One of my goals for 2014 was to finish and release a new draft of Magical Burst. I pulled that off, and went on to do some playtesting. I had made a host of refinements to the game, but when all is said and done I found myself deeply unsatisfied with result. There are a lot of reasons why, but I think that the big issue was a failure on my part to really think through some of the fundamentals of gameplay, of the experience I wanted the game to create. Despite this, it’s still basically my most popular game, and continues to get the most hits and downloads of basically anything I’ve done, so to some degree I’ve been feeling a bit obligated to find a way to finish it. At this point I have some ideas on where to go with it next, but I’m not really feeling up into getting into it right now.

In October I vented my frustrations into a game called Magical Fury, a vastly simpler game with similar themes that I wrote over the course of a weekend. I’m still working on revising it, but if it continues to do well in play testing, I’m thinking about doing a small commercial release in PDF form.

Star Line Publishing
2014 wound up being sort of an “in between” year for SLP, mostly about trying to finish up leftover stuff from the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter. We’re gearing up to publish the first GSS supplement and looking at a couple of other games to possibly license, but it’s taking quite a bit of time to get through all of the stretch goal material that came with the Kickstarter. (We’re definitely going to be a bit more conservative about how much we promise in the future.) On the plus side, Faerie Skies and Fantasy Friends are basically just waiting on art and then layout, so while we’ll be slipping past my initial goal of having them done by the end of the year, it shouldn’t be by too much.

Mike, my business partner, has been pretty busy going to conventions to run demos and such. (To the point where as much as he likes GSS, he wants to find time to play other RPGs.) My contributions have mostly been in terms of writing, arranging business stuff, and so forth.  I haven’t run the numbers, but SLP has been modestly profitable so far, and it’s going to be a while before we start making a living from it. In January of this year we moved Maid RPG over to being an SLP product, and set up shop with some venues that Andy hadn’t tried, including selling PDFs through DriveThruRPG and POD books through Amazon (via CreateSpace), The game has been pretty insanely evergreen, and it’s outsold GSS some months. Amazon and DTRPG (along with Indie Press Revolution) have worked really well for us, and basically given the company a steady source of passive income.

Card Games
This was a big year for me doing stuff with card games, albeit nothing that has enjoyed huge amount of commercial success. This year I launched i.hate.everyone as a POD product on DriveThruCards ( though the realities of POD card pricing make it a bit expensive), plus a “deluxe version” of The Bird Game and four volumes of Five-Card Fictions. I have some ideas percolating for some card games with a strong Seiji Kanai influence, with actual substantive rules rather than being fluffy party games, but these are still in very early stages, and haven’t gotten even as far as a prototype. The most exciting of these so far is a game I’m calling “Magical Rail,” which is meant to be played on public transit, hence it’s set up so that as you play the players have all of the cards in their hands between them. (With the theme being cute witches competing to find a special gem as they ride a magical train to witch school.)

D&D
People involved in RPGs in general have a strange relationship with D&D, and I can’t say I’m an exception. This year saw the release of 5th Edition, after the lengthy open playtest and any number of other issues. For me it caused all kinds of stress for reasons I won’t get into here. I did read the actual game (the Starter Set and the Basic Rules) when it came out, and while it’s hard to say how much my emotions about the matter played into it, I found the game really underwhelming. 4E has its good and bad points, but 5E mostly seems to be a deliberately generic D&D, and in more ways than not a retread of stuff that’s already been around for decades. If I decide I really want a dungeon fantasy RPG, it’s at best an average entry in an overcrowded genre. I may still end up playing it (because I have some friends who want to), but nothing about it has made me inclined to spend any more money on it.

Being Human Together
The mess around D&D, combined with how the Magical Burst playtest went, had me trying to work my way through something of a crisis of faith with my relationship with RPGs. I realized that the real core of what makes RPGs worthwhile for me is something that I have taken to calling “being human together.” I’ve been most interested in games that have something to say about the human condition, or otherwise help people come together in interesting ways. I have less of an appetite for complex rules than I used to, and I’ve been a great deal more interested in freeform style games, both for their own sake and as a source of inspiration. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to position D&D as the opposite of “being human together,” but certainly it’s responsible for some of the games I’ve been in that were the most wanting for that.

This whole thing got me inspired to mess around with some games that better fit that general emotion. I did some more work on Beyond Otaku Dreams, and I started on a Powered by the Apocalypse take on Slime Story that looks really promising so far. I also got inspired to work more on Dragon World (also partly because it takes the piss out of D&D cliches) and try to bring it to fruition, hence I’ve been running more playtests. It’s still a work in progress, and the starburst of the original epiphany has worn off a bit, but it’s still going to inform what I do with RPGs in the future.

DriveThruRPG
In mid-November I got laid off from my job in the video game industry. I got severance pay, but also basically zero warning; I came in for a normal day, and wound up leaving early with cardboard boxes loaded into my car. For the record, if you really have to lay people off, mid-November is one of the worst times to do that to a person. Aside from it being the worst Christmas present ever, companies don’t do all that much hiring around the holidays, so doing a job search becomes even more aggravating than normal. As I write this, I’ve got a couple of leads, but nothing solid as far as the job search goes, and I pretty much expect to make no real progress until after New Year’s. On the plus side, my contacts in tabletop gaming resulted in me getting a fairly large freelance translation job for some card games. Adjusting to not having a daily routine at the office has been significantly more difficult than I expected though.

Reeling from all of this led me to take a game I had started on called Schoolgirl RPG, finish it up, and put up for sale on DriveThruRPG for $2.49, in the hopes of making a little extra money to help make ends meet. It’s basically an attempt to take the rules of Maid RPG and compact them down as far as they’ll go, resulting in a game that’s 7 pages including the cover. I put out a supplement for it, and right now I’m working on two more supplements, and planning to compile all of that stuff into a POD book. The core rules have since become a silver bestseller on DTRPG (also, there’s a Polish version of it in the works),. Along with Schoolgirl RPG, I added the “Ewen’s Tables” series of PDFs of various kinds of d66 tables for use in gaming, a special pre-release version of Retail Magic, and a maid class for Dungeon World.

It’s been a very different mode of publishing compared to what I’m doing for Star Line Publishing. I’ve mostly been making small PDFs, with layouts in Microsoft Word and minimal art, most notably Creative Commons stuff from The Noun Project. The level of freedom and spontaneity it allows me is rather refreshing, especially with the added validation of people giving me money for stuff. I’m not going to be making a living from it any time soon, but the extra income has been really nice all the same.

Restless
A few weeks ago I did a playtest of J. Walton’s game Restless. He originally created it for the Golden Cobra contest (you can see an older version of it in the Golden Cobra anthology), and I found it to be a really fascinating game, one that I think will influence me for a long time to come in the manner of things like Maid RPG and Fiasco. The core of the game is in how you play through one or more “verse cards.” Each of these as a series of paragraphs, and you go through a paragraph at a time, following the instructions to basically improvise a vignette for the game’s post-apocalyptic setting. It’s poised to make good use of the unusual 6″x6″ card format that DriveThruCards offers.

What will actually come of it remains to be seen, but I pretty promptly got inspired to basically attempt not one but three of my old game projects as hacks of Restless. Setting up and playing through pre-made vignettes like that seems to have the potential to be a very powerful tool for telling certain kinds of stories. I’ve already got a new version of Raspberry Heaven nearly ready to playtest, and I’m thinking about seeing if this approach is what I need to be able to pull off Beyond Otaku Dreams and Moonsick, two more games that I’ve been trying to figure out how to design for years.

Odds and Ends

  • I’m working on material for the magical girl piece for Breakfast Cult. Having read a draft of the game, it looks seriously cool, and I’m pretty happy to be able to contribute to it.
  • I’ve been neglecting it, but I started on a project called Magic School Diary, which is basically a diary that you write in-character as a student at a magic school, following the various prompts and activities it gives you.
  • I wrote a mini gamebook thing for my friend’s Madoka Magica doujinshi/fanbook called “Choose Your Own Homura,” which is very silly. It was the first time I finished writing a gamebook, and I definitely want to play around with the medium some more. (Though I really want something that can take a Twine game and spit out a numbered gamebook.)

Conclusions
2013 was a year of hitting critical mass, when I started getting things published and getting noticed in some parts of the industry. 2014 wound up being kind of a weird in-between year, largely spent dealing with stuff stemming from what happened the year before and preparing to make things happen in the future. On the plus side, I’m feeling more empowered than ever to just make stuff and sell it, and I’ve been fortunate to have something of an audience for the stuff I’m doing.

2014 had entirely too many reminders that the RPG scene has some pretty serious problems. For one or two people who I really admire, it became enough to convince them to leave RPGs behind entirely. For my part I still want to stick around; there’s still some really cool stuff going on, and I like being able to do my part to make RPGs weird. More importantly, I want to strive to be some small part of the solution.

It sounds a bit melodramatic, but I’m going into 2015 with high hopes for the future. I don’t have any specific resolutions or goals, just a bunch of things I need to do and even more things I want to try.

Making Stuff

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

“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). Schoolgirl-RPG-Cover 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.) Retail-Magic-Cover 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.

Miyuki-Cover-FrontRed-God-Cover-Front-FrontSG-Front-FontKarin-Front-Front

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.

Cover

Ewen’s Tables

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.

Ewen's-Tables---Odds-and-Ends-1

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.

Choose Your Own

To Be Or Not To BeThe 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.

Inclusivity Stuff

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.

I would not have imagined that my air nymph character would've wound up looking like this, but I love it.
I would not have imagined that my air nymph character would’ve wound up looking like this, but I love it.

Continue reading Inclusivity Stuff

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.