Category Archives: musings

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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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.


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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Adventures in Self-Publishing

ykz_cover_previewThe Yaruki Zero book is both a thing I wanted to write and kind of an experiment in learning self-publishing for other, more serious projects. The plan was to put the book up on just about every POD and ebook sales service around, and this is a rather long and detailed journal of what I went through to make it happen, both for my own reference and to help anyone else who’s thinking of trying this stuff out. Later on I’ll see about putting together a follow-up post on how things are working out 6 months or so down the line. If you’re interested in the actual book, check out the Yaruki Zero: The Book page for links to all of the places I have it available for purchase.

I started on the book in mid-January, and had the first draft more or less finished after about a month. That was mixture of copying over existing work and just plain putting most of my free time into writing. I got C. Ellis to do up artwork for the cover, Clay Gardner to do graphic design for the cover, and Ellen Marlow to edit the manuscript. (Also, about half a dozen other people read it over and offered feedback.) Each of these was pretty straightforward, especially since the people I was working with really get my general sensibility. I’ve collaborated on a bunch of stuff with C. Ellis before, Clay just has a way of not only reading my mind but coming up with the stuff I didn’t know I want, and Ellen’s fandom and writing sensibilities line up with mine quite well.

For this book’s interior I decided to keep the layout pretty simple, and just did it up in Word with some use of fonts and such to make it a little fancier. I’ve never been able to figure InDesign out myself, but while Word produces reasonably okay layouts, there are certain things where it just kind of loses its mind. Thankfully I wasn’t trying to do, say, multiple columns for this project. The big thing that I managed to fall afoul of was getting the margins right. Being inexperienced with doing stuff for actual books, it hadn’t occurred to me that the inside margin would need to be wider so that the printed material wouldn’t disappear into the binding. With POD you’re much more beholden to the printer’s specifications,[1] so it pays to read those carefully (though it wouldn’t hurt for them to make those a little clearer than they are). That was how the page count of the book jumped up to 217, and I wound up doing a bunch of small tweaks to fix things.
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2012 in Review

Apparently it’s going to be a regular thing that I write a year in review blog post (with some images pulled from safebooru). Overall I’d say it was a good year for me as a writer and designer, and a so-so year in terms of actual gaming. Where last year I was in a really memorable Smallville/PTA game, this year nothing quite gelled that well. We had some fun with a retro space opera game done in FATE, played a bit of GSS, did a good amount of Dragon World, and did a heck of a lot of Channel A playtesting.


One of the biggest developments for me as a gamer was that I discovered I love talky, creative party card games. I tried Cards Against Humanity for the first time, then in short order I got my own copy and made my own expansions. By and large I’m not a big fan of board games, but I found that I really like when they have some element of socialization or creativity as a core activity. I went on to design two card games of my own, Channel A and i.hate.everyone.

Although I did a good amount of work on Magical Burst, in 2012 the big winners for me were Dragon World and Channel A. I posted up versions 0.1 and 0.2 of the Dragon World Hack, and got in a dozen or so game sessions. Although it has a ways to go before it’ll be ready for publication, I did make some considerable improvements, and Monsterhearts inspired me to do a better job of making the AW rules my own. Channel A came into being in a rush of inspiration. It was sufficiently simple and on-target that it was relatively easy to get in enough playtesting to refine it with unusual speed. I went as far as to put together a color prototype for printing through The Game Crafter, and after another round of refinements made it available for purchase. There’s some really exciting stuff cooking with Channel A, but nothing I’m quite ready to talk about publicly just yet.

During the last few months of 2012 I was unusually prolific in how much I wrote. In October I made some more progress with the next draft of Magical Burst, in November I wrote the first draft of a Magical Burst novel, and in December I started on Magic School Diaries, Retail Magic, and a new version of Peerless Food Fighters, AND wrote the first draft of the Yaruki Zero book. Magic School Diaries is a solo RPG that will work as a sort of guided writing exercise, where you play a student at a modern-day school of magic, kind of like Harry Potter with a mix of American and anime sensibilities. Retail Magic is a game where you play employees at a magic item shop in a fantasy world, and will use the Maid RPG rules. I conceived of it basically because I wanted to share the awesomeness of the Maid rules with people who can’t handle playing maids, but it’s also a game concept I’ve been wanting to do something with for many years. I posted up a first draft of the new Peerless Food Fighters the other day, but it has major design flaws that I need to address before I do anything more with it.


Of the blog posts I did this year, two were fairly large and substantial. One was a lengthy overview of the rise and fall of Guardians of Order. My interest in mixing anime and RPGs made GoO’s products and history stand out in my mind, and not for the first or last time I wrote a history, from my own point of view, of something few people have really written about. I also wrote a long post called “The Assumptions,” where I outlined what I felt were the overriding cliches and assumptions of RPGs, and discussed how and why we should be breaking those a bit more than we are. That kind of writing is what led me to start putting together a book titled Yaruki Zero: Collected Thoughts on Role-Playing Games. I had started with the idea of simply collecting some blog posts, but I very quickly found myself doing major revisions and writing a huge amount of new material (some of which I’m going to be posting up here). I’m currently in the process of finishing up the second draft before I send it to a for-reals editor (an acquaintance named Ellen Marlowe), and just yesterday my friend C. Ellis sent me a sketch of the cover I hired her to do for it. At the rate it’s going I’ll launch the book (through places like Lulu, CreateSpace, the Kindle store, etc.) in a few months.

Golden Sky Stories has been dragging on for a while now. It’s no Tenra Bansho Zero, but it’s certainly taking a lot longer than anyone concerned would prefer. A lot of that has to do with my business partner having a rough time with his employment situation, though I won’t pretend we’ve been going at full steam like maybe we should have. The good news is that the layout is about 99.9% done, we already put out a free preview replay, and we’ve got a bunch of really neat bonus material lined up. My latest e-mail exchange with Kamiya brought news that there are two more new character types we’ll be able to do in English. We’re hoping to get the Kickstarter moving in the next couple months, but it depends a lot on how Real Life decides to treat us.

Ewen’s Game Design Advice

I finished my first draft of the aforementioned Yaruki Zero book and have been working on finishing up the second before I send it to an editor. I ended up writing quite a bit of new material for the book, and I thought I’d post a few selections. The one person who commented on my post about the book was M. Joukamaa, who expressed interest in stuff on how I approach GMing and game design. This is what I wrote about the latter. I got inspired to post it because on Saturday I tried to run a playtest of Peerless Food Fighters and it didn’t work at all, in large part because of a massive failure of the stuff I talk about under “Perspectives.” (I also started working on Magical Burst again by the way, though we’ll see how that turns out.)

I don’t think of myself as being an ace game designer or anything, but I do occasionally manage to put together something that people like. I believe that RPGs can be just about anything, and that pretty much nothing should be off limits. There are considerations for good taste and common decency, but that’s about it. As discussed in my “The Assumptions” post a while back, there are an awful lot of things that people needlessly (in my opinion) assume are necessary for a proper RPG, but then the “RPG” label isn’t the important part in the first place. If people tell you that through using cards and such you’ve made a board game instead of an RPG, your response should be, “But is it a good game?”

Game design, at least the way I do it, is such an idiosyncratic, unpredictable process that there can be no step-by-step guide. Instead I’m going to lay out some of the major ideas and principles that help me make games.

Your Game Is Not a Book
I can’t take credit for the pithy phrase in the heading above—it came from a post Tyler Tinsey made in a thread on Story Games—but it’s a point that bears repeating. These days the vast majority of RPGs come to you in the form of a book, but the book is not the game per se, just the means of conveying it to people. The book can be a vitally important artifact for the process of playing the game, but the game itself is first and foremost an activity that happens between people.

I have a habit of treating an RPG as something of a writing project. I’ll fritter away hours writing up setting details or general advice, sometimes while neglecting more important aspects of the game. This can be good when it lets me keep up some momentum on the overall project, but it can result in a game that’s over-written. And besides, if the design part isn’t there I’m going to end up obviating some of that text I wrote anyway.

A certain amount of reading can be reasonable or even desirable, and there are plenty of people who engage in a sub-hobby of RPG books as reading material. However, as the designer of a game your first allegiance has to be to creating a game that plays smoothly. That means that the game information that people need in order to play needs to be easy to learn and reference. That doesn’t mean an RPG has to be simple, but it should be simple for the human being at the table to find the information they need very quickly. The playbooks in Apocalypse World are one rather brilliant solution to this, as they present the player with virtually all of the player-oriented rules in the game, including everything specific to their chosen character type, in one little pamphlet.

On Collaboration and Feedback
One time a friend asked me, “Do you even like brainstorming?” At the time I didn’t even understand the question. My idea of brainstorming is the thing where I sit down by myself with a pen and notebook and think and write stuff down until I have enough ideas to go on. My friend’s idea of brainstorming is hanging out with some friends and letting the ideas fly, and I’ve never been as avid a participant as perhaps he’d like. This is because I’m an introvert, and for the most part I’m a solitary creator. When I have a vision, I sit down and do stuff until I get to where I either finish it, can’t proceed without help, or just give up. When I do get feedback from people, I find it needs a huge amount of filtering, a process of separating the rare nuggets of gold from the rest. Feedback is an important tool, especially feedback informed by direct experience with the game, but like all tools it only has certain uses.

Other people create differently, and ultimately you need to find what works for you. Once you figure out the right way for you to create things, do that without hesitation or remorse. If you’re like me, what you need to do is buckle down and just start writing something. If you’re more like my friend, you need to find people you can talk to, and share your ideas and difficulties freely.

Know Your Limits
Sometimes I come up with this amazing idea that I just can’t seem to get anywhere with. Experience has taught me that there are times when the best thing to do is to shelve a project, play lots of games, and come back to it once I’ve grown into the person who can make it work.

Open Design
I favor a very open approach to game design. I blather about whatever project I’m working on in blog posts and tweets, and the moment I have a workable draft I usually toss it up on my blog for the world to see. Somehow or other I’ve gotten to a point where some people actually pay attention when I post something, and a lot of that is a result of years of tossing stuff out there to see what happens. Some stuff flies under the radar, and other stuff just explodes. I can never tell which will be which, though stuff that fits some frantic need for a game in the vein of a popular anime certainly seems to do the trick.

For a long time there have been people who were totally paranoid about protecting their creations, who go to the trouble of filing patents and copyrights in case someone tries to steal their ideas. There may well be something somewhere where that happens, but if you’re making an RPG, you have a lot more to gain from sharing what you do. Chances are you’re not going to make much money from an RPG in the first place, and to the extent that you can, building up goodwill through open design, receptiveness to feedback, and so on can give you a huge boost. If you just have to put it in cynical terms, it’s advance marketing and market research for when you eventually turn the game into a product.

Just Plain Role-Playing
I try to avoid concerning myself with definitions of what is and isn’t a “role-playing game,” in part because it’s rare for people to propose definitions without having a game in mind that they want to exclude. That said, I think that if you’re trying to design an RPG, that essential act of taking on the role of a character and expressing their thoughts and actions is a vital part of what distinguishes an RPG from other kinds of games. Players don’t necessarily have to be climbing deep inside their characters’ heads to play an RPG, but the element of human interaction needs to be there. It’s also an incredibly powerful, fundamental tool for the game designer.

Whether you take an immersive approach or more of a collaborative storytelling approach, novice and veteran players alike tend to catch on pretty quickly.[1] Some RPGs are free-form role-playing with some important touches of rules (like Seasons), while others are more like board games with some role-playing elements (like Peerless Food Fighters). Whatever your approach, the role-playing part should be important and consequential.

I try to avoid rules that bypass role-playing and especially rules that dictate role-playing. Players usually have a better idea how their character should react than the GM, the game designer, or the clockwork of the game rules. On the other hand, I love RPG rules that react to role-playing and give players incentives. Compelling an aspect in FATE is a perfect example of this. If the GM feels an aspect should lead a character to something disadvantageous, the player has a choice between either going with it and getting a Fate Point, or overcoming it by paying a Fate Point. There’s a strong incentive to go with the compel, but the player nonetheless has a choice.

The Negative Space Principle
There’s a school of thought that whatever an RPG is fundamentally about, you should have a stat for it. If your post-apocalyptic game is about hope, there should be a space on the character sheet that says “Hope.” I would dial that back a couple steps and said that if the game is about hope, you should ask yourself why it is you don’t have a Hope stat. Your answer might simply be, “Oh yeah, I should try that,” but there is also what I call the “negative space principle” of game design. Sometimes what isn’t in the game is as important as what is. That’s especially true when you have some element that you don’t want to be in the game too much.

Ryo Kamiya’s game Golden Sky Stories is aimed at heartwarming, non-violent play. There are a lot of reasons why it works, but one of them is the nature of the combat system, or lack thereof. In earlier drafts of the game he’d tried out an approach intended to emulate fairy tales, where having the right preparation or MacGuffin could grant a massive advantage. In the final game however, there is no actual combat system. There’s a section on “quarrelling,” which warns that fighting is something you really mustn’t do, but reluctantly says that you can have a fight a contested check. Whoever gets the higher total wins, and the fight is over. Where most RPGs put a significant amount of the page count towards detailed combat rules, GSS presents a single rule that’s rather boring to engage and doesn’t have any lasting mechanical effects. “You won. He’s kind of bruised and crying. Now what? You big meanie.”

Another important aspect of RPGs to consider is that there is a large body of conventions that are vital to how the game functions, but that we usually don’t think of as rules per se. In a traditional RPG there’s a Game Master who has final authority over making rulings, controls NPCs, and so forth. Those things are actually more important to the game than whether you roll 1d20 or 3d6, so much so that people can and do role-play with nothing but guiding conventions. These things are not off-limits to a game designer, but the more you change the base formula, the more likely you are to have to explain things in detail.

Ben Lehman’s game Polaris is an ideal example of this. You have four players, and when your protagonist is active, the other players each take up a specific slice of what would normally be the GM’s role. The overall rules of the game are fairly simple, and the setting is unusual but does not take up an undue amount of space. What brings Polaris as a book up to the scale of a typical indie RPG is that it has to explain its unconventional procedures for apportioning roles, using key phrases, and resolving conflicts.

To me one of the biggest hurdles in design is the matter of perspective. A player and a GM can have very different perspectives on a game, and the game designer has a third perspective that differs even more. To a player a list of powers is a thing where they’ll get to look through, pick a handful for their character, and then try to put those to good use during the game. For a GM the same list is something three or more other people will be picking from and using against obstacles that the GM puts together. For the game designer, the same list can become a chore where you’ve got to, say, fill up a table of 20 powers, and can we please just finish this I want to go to sleep.

It’s not easy to flip your own perspective around, but it’s important. Players vary in what they want out of the game of course, but in my experience most people want their characters to be effective at what they want to do. People will make decisions accordingly, which usually means picking out abilities that strike whatever they consider the right balance between effectiveness and achieving the desired aesthetic, and carefully shepherding whatever resources the game gives them.

This is an area where the designers of D&D 4th Edition by and large knew what they were doing. By creating At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers, they carefully channeled players’ tendencies towards the kind of combats they wanted the game to have. Encounter powers give you some tricks that you have generally no reason not to pull out during any given battle but can’t abuse the entire time, while Daily powers give you the big guns to pull out when you feel you need it. Where they fell short was with things like the ranger’s “Twin Strike” At-Will power (which is so overwhelmingly good that in the long run it outclasses a lot of Encounter powers), and rituals (for which the cost in gold pieces is often too much of a disincentive).

Where the F*** Do Ideas Come From?
It’s a cliché that writers hate it when people ask where they get their ideas. The only real answer to that question is “Everything.” Everything you experience, whether firsthand or vicariously through any number of forms of entertainment or socialization can potentially be the spark that sets off an amazing game idea. Try to pay attention to life in general, no matter how mundane.

I get a lot of ideas for games from other media, especially anime. While it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that you’re designing an RPG, I reject the notion that RPGs are so separate from other narrative forms that they have nothing to offer. I think a significant portion of the more interesting developments in RPGs of the past decade or came from a desire to figure out how to make an RPG out of a work in another medium.

Just Make Something
Don’t ask for permission before you start, don’t even ask for forgiveness after you’re done. Don’t think about where it will fit into the marketplace, or what competition you’ll have. Think about what moves you, and get to work already. A lot of people never create anything because they’re waiting for someone to give them permission. The people who get things done are the people who just make something and run with it. I didn’t ask anyone if this book would be a good idea. I just did it. And then kept doing it, in an obsessive plunge that filled up over 60,000 words in a matter of weeks.

[1]Although novice players sometimes need someone to teach them the difference between role-playing a character and helping tell a story, and veteran gamers are sometimes too set in their ways to get into games with more of a storytelling approach.