My 2016 in Review

2016 was weird for me and everyone else, in so many ways. Beloved celebrities left us, we endured easily the worst election of my lifetime, and seemingly just to mess with us there were a bunch of sightings of creepy clowns. (But hey, there were a bunch of geeky movies with superheroes and stuff.) Granted years are an arbitrary, man-made unit of measurement, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that 2016 in particular has been messing with us. The future feels uncertain, but I know that as these things go I’m pretty damn fortunate. I’ve gotten into doing contract work for tech companies, and while I could really use a permanent position with health insurance, I’m doing the best I ever have financially. I just landed a job that has the added benefit of letting me work from home most of the time. Still, as I finish up this post on December 31st, I’m glad this year is done.

I wasn’t able to get anything like the amount of gaming in this year that I would’ve liked, basically just scattered one-shots and playtests, and one major thing I want to do in 2017 is start a new regular gaming group. I did get to try some interesting new board games like Codenames, Splendor, Smash Up, and Castle Panic, which were a lot of fun overall.

194736In terms of RPG design, over the course of 2016 I transitioned to working on more ambitious projects, and while I’ve been really happy with the results, it takes quite a bit more time and work to make them happen. I got Melancholy Kaiju and Saving Throw out through Patreon (and then DriveThruRPG), self-published a mini-RPG anthology (Weird Little Games, on DriveThruRPG and Amazon), and got a bunch of work done on Pix, Kagegami High, and Spooktacular without finishing any of them. I feel like I have a much better handle on a methodology for designing RPGs, and when I start on a game it’s far more likely to come to fruition. 3 of the 6 games in the Weird Little Games book are ones that I’ve been wanted to design for years, that came together because of this recent change in my design techniques and skills.

  • Spooktacular is my sorta-retroclone of the West End Games Ghostbusters RPG, a generally brilliant game, way ahead of its time, that faded into obscurity on account of being a quirky licensed RPG. I’m really happy with how Spooktactular has turned out and my own tweaks to the original game, and I’m now just waiting on the artwork. It’s going to be a slim book, around 60 pages or so, though I’m already thinking about doing a supplement, to be titled “Spookstravaganza.”
  • Pix is a heartwarming slice of life game that takes place in a world that’s sort of a weird hybrid of real and video game, with Undertale as a major influence. The rules of the game are sort of a blend of Golden Sky Stories and Apocalypse World. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I have at least the first draft of the basic rules pretty much worked out. On the other hand Shantae gave me a bunch of ideas, so I’ll have to see where that takes me when I get back into working on Pix.
  • Kagegami High is like a Japanese anime high school version of Welcome to Night Vale, by way of a variant of the Maid RPG rules (with some bits of Ghostbusters, Apocalypse World, and Fate mixed in). I set myself kind of a monstrous number of tables to write up for it, so that the final rulebook should be around 120 to 150 pages, and pretty dense with references.

I also started writing a book about RPG design, Tools for Dreaming. There’s still a lot left to write even with the manuscript already pushing 60,000 words, but I’m pleased with how it’s turning out. It very much fits in with my general push to encourage people to expand the horizons of role-playing games, not to discard what came before but to consider all the different possibilities. To that end it breaks down several different aspects of RPGs, from the mechanics to the cultural contexts the operate in to the simple act of role-playing (and the many varieties it comes in).

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For Star Line Publishing, 2016 was the year we finally finished up everything we owed for the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter, which included finishing up the two original setting books. I’m incredibly happy with the results, but getting artwork and then layout done wound up being pretty time-consuming. I also started working towards doing a Kickstarter to finally publish Dragon World, though it wound up being another thing that’s taking longer than I’d like. Once that’s out of the way we can move on to Kickstarting Mononoke Koyake, and then whatever comes next for SLP.

I’m also still doing freelance work for Japanime Games, primarily translation but also editing and helping with other aspects of production. This year they Kickstarted Heart of Crown and Dynamite Nurse, and since they’ve been ramping up licensed Japanese games, I’ve worked on about half a dozen other games besides (and not just deck-building games with pictures of sexy anime girls). There’s some really interesting stuff in the pipeline, from some interesting independent Japanese game publishers.

Asmadi Games is holding a pre-order drive to reprint Channel A, but it’s going slowly. I’m currently working on Channel A: Chaos Edition, a standalone expansion that we can hopefully Kickstart and generally get people interested in the game again. I also put in some more work on Fighting Fighters Colosseum, which is a descendant of Channel A, but about making up crazy finishing moves, and has a bit more mechanics to it.

A while ago I got a CardMate business card cutter, and more recently I got a basic color laser printer, and (along with the Data Merge feature in InDesign), making card game prototypes is now vastly easier.

channel-a-prototype

I’m going into 2017 with an unusually intense mix of exciting and worrying things. I get to work on all kinds of neat games, and as day jobs go the one I have is pretty great. On the other hand my general optimism about the world has suffered some pretty serious blows, and I’m still grappling with how to confront that personally and creatively. Whatever 2017 (which is a Year of the Rooster) has in store, I wish you all the best.

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Maid RPG and Cultural Contexts

A blog post I came across recently got me thinking about the reception Maid RPG has gotten, the ways in which different sorts of people have reacted to it. I want to stress that I’m not mad about what Mike wrote there, but I definitely do disagree with him on some major points.

Maid Front Cover
Maid RPG (English Version) Front Cover

I got into anime in the late 90s, when it was just starting to become available in the US in a not-totally-bastardized form. Back then there were relatively few people around who knew much about it, and even us hardcore anime fans were struggling to get all the scraps we could. Now you can get simultaneous releases on CrunchyRoll, and you can get anime and manga stuff at every Hot Topic and Barnes & Noble. That means there are now three or so different generations of Western anime fans, and for the younger generation there’s much less of a sense of separation between anime and other media. That’s vitally important, because that artificial separation made it harder for everyone concerned to properly evaluate it. The distinctly Japanese aspects of anime are still important, but even more basic things like narrative and visual design are equally important. Moreover, there’s enough diversity within anime (and the many related media) that lumping them all together is decidedly counterproductive. That flawed view is part of what led to the problems with Big Eyes Small Mouth, and generally stunted anime-inspired RPGs in the West for a while. (Basically, we should’ve been paying more attention to what Mike Pondsmith was doing with games like Mekton and Teenagers From Outer Space.)

One somewhat reductive way to look at Maid RPG is as a big wad of tropes that you access through random tables. That means that you have to understand a bunch of anime tropes in order for it to really produce a coherent experience. This becomes a big deal for an RPG because there’s a significant and vocal contingent that doesn’t get anime tropes. That’s not a bad thing in itself–no one even has time for every kind of media–but I think tabletop RPG folks can sometimes have an inaccurate picture of the cultural landscape. It’s in the basic nature of the medium that participating in an RPG requires having a certain amount of shared cultural background. RPGs variously create that background in the text and lean on established tropes the audience is already aware of. The selection of tropes you have to know to properly enjoy D&D is largely invisible to people who’re sufficiently involved in gaming, but they’re actually highly specific and more than a little quirky, a result of Gygax’s eclecticism and 40 years of contributions and refinements from a rotating cast of TSR and WotC staff and freelancers. Even a lot of people who are hardcore into D&D aren’t aware that works like Three Hearts and Three Lions, Moorcock’s Elric stores, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, and so on were major influences on the game, even more so than Lord of the Rings. Similarly, the works of H.P. Lovecraft are well-known and even overused in tabletop gaming, but relatively obscure if you’re not hardcore into either horror literature or tabletop.

maid-platinum
Seriously. Platinum Bestseller. I have no idea what to even think about it.

Maid RPG is a weird game, with some skeevy content and grounded in anime tropes (with some truly obscure stuff even in our localized English version), but it’s absolutely found its audience, and we really don’t have to go out of our way to sell it at anime conventions. It’s sold thousands of copies around the world, and it outsells Golden Sky Stories disturbingly often. A surprisingly large portion of its fanbase it women too, and I want to serve that audience better in anything I do with the game in the future. It was in many ways not a rational choice to publish it, but by the standards of independent tabletop RPGs it’s a runaway success. I put it up for sale on DriveThruRPG relatively recently, after the game had been out for several years, and if you look at its listing now, you’ll see that it’s a Platinum Bestseller, in the top 0.51% of products on the site, which puts it in some heady company. I’ve never really promoted Maid RPG on DTRPG apart from a few social media posts pointing out that it’s there and a few more gawking at how high it’s gotten in the rankings. It’s also a cornerstone of a good relationship with Indie Press Revolution, which regularly takes it to sell at conventions. Moreover, it’s just a really good game, and cultural issues aside, the simple fact that it’s a blast to play was the major thing behind my desire to publish an English version. It also was an intensely educational project for me and Andy, and the English versions of Golden Sky Stories, Tenra Bansho Zero, and Ryuutama are all vastly better for that experience.

When Mike says “But there’s no saving MAID in the Western market,” I have to disagree. It was never going to get much traction with the old guard of RPG players (including indie RPG folks), many of whom don’t get or even are actively hostile to anime, but people who enjoy and understand anime enough to appreciate Maid RPG are a lot more common than any of us expected. It’s been my experience that gamers who aren’t into anime tend to greatly underestimate how much reach it’s gained, even though the kids who grew up watching Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokemon are adults now. Maybe there are people who heard about Maid RPG and jumped to conclusions about Japanese TRPGs as a whole, but I suspect anyone who didn’t get Maid RPG would also be lost with Alshard or Shinibigami or any number of others.

Way back at my first ever job at a shitty electronics store, Tamagotchis were all the rage and some guy asked if we had any of “those tama-hoochie-goochie things,” a phrase he repeated even after I told him they were called “Tamagotchis.” I feel like some people have a similar resistance to even trying to understand anime, and while there’s nothing wrong with having preferences that don’t include anime, it’s weird to project that onto everyone else, especially in an era when you can watch anime on Netflix and Hulu and buy manga at every major bookseller. Anime has won over to such an extent that there’s a younger generation of fans for whom it blurs into other similar media, hence there’s been so much Homestuck, Steven Universe, and Undertale cosplay and fan art at anime conventions. There’s newer stuff that I don’t even get myself (like how I don’t really get the appeal of LP videos or YouTube celebrities in general), but I remember what it was like to be young and excited about something new.

In general I think it’s useful for game designers to stop and ask themselves what assumptions a game is carrying, what bits of culture players need to make it really work as intended. D&D is one of those things that’s become a cultural touchstone in itself, but the rest of us aren’t so lucky. You’re never going to have a play group whose particular pop culture gumbo is going to exactly match yours, but if you make a game grounded in something you’re genuinely enthusiastic about, it’ll show through to the people who share that enthusiasm. Certainly the bigger RPG publishers have stumbled a bit when trying to appeal to anime fans (GURPS Mecha and White Wolf’s Year of the Lotus books come to mind), whereas games like Breakfast Cult can appeal to that audience without missing a beat. The audience for anime-inspired RPGs may never approach that of D&D, but for better or for worse that’s likely more to do with the commercial limitations of tabletop RPGs than of the ones with anime stuff in them.

More on Kagegami High

Since it’s about the only thing I’ve made any real progress on lately, I might as well post a bit more about Kagegami High.

Early on I laid out a bunch of tables and other stuff to built out the setting and the game, and the lion’s share of the additional writing I need to do is simply completing the tasks I’ve set for myself, like writing up the 36 classmates and 18 faculty members, and filling out a bunch of random event tables for different general situations.

Aesthetics

I’ve ended up spending a lot of time adding visual elements to Kagegami High, and far more of them than for pretty much anything I’ve done before. Despite that, at least for now I haven’t commissioned any original artwork and probably won’t unless I decide I want to crowdfund an updated/deluxe version of the game. The game’s source material includes a lot of titles that tend to express things in ways other than illustrations, and what visuals there are for Welcome to Night Vale tend to be the sort that allude and imply things rather than showing them outright. The purple Night Vale logo with a crescent moon inside of an eye really sets the mood for the audio content, and in a way it makes sense to do something like that for a certain kind of role-playing game.

I’ve been using the Noun Project a lot in my various games and such (to the point where the $9.99 a month for a pro subscription has been well worth it for me), and the black and while symbols for things have been incredibly useful for Kagegami High, both as-is and as raw materials for creating the things I actually want. While it was a simple matter to get an icon of a soccer ball to be the symbol of the school’s soccer club, for the “Popular Girls Club” I used two existing icons to build the one I wanted:

popular

The other thing I’ve been able to do is make weird schoolgirl silhouettes to scatter throughout the book. It took me a little while to figure out the right process for this, and now I may have gone a little overboard.

  1. I start with stock art, usually from DLSite or one of the many sites offering stock art for RPG Maker. In both cases the key search term to know is 絵素材 (esozai) literally “picture materials,” but basically “stock art.” Not all of these are at print resolution, but that’s one of the benefits of making them into silhouettes and vectorizing them.
  2. In Photoshop, press Ctrl-U to get the Hue/Saturation adjustment dialog, and drag the Lightness slider all the way to the left to make the entire thing black. (Though you may need to use a paintbrush to fill in any white spots left over.)
  3. Open the image in Illustrator (or paste it in).
  4. Click on Image Trace to create a vector version. Maybe tweak the settings a little to get it how you want. Click Expand, then use the Ungroup command to separate the new vector object from the original raster image. Get rid of any extraneous stuff left over from the conversion.
  5. Once I have the vectorized silhouette, it’s pretty easy to take some Noun Project elements and turn it into something especially weird. The Noun Project’s app for macOS lets you drag and drop, making that step super easy, but it’s not too big a deal to download the SVG file instead. Regardless, the Live Paint tool is invaluable here since it lets you easily fill in parts of objects, much like the paint bucket tool in Photoshop. In the example below, I started with this eye icon, and filled the pupil with black and the white with, you know, white, so that it didn’t totally disappear when placed on top of the silhouette. Thus we have a gangly schoolgirl with one vividly visible eye, and in a form that can print smoothly at any scale.
  6. Since I’m still doing layouts in Word for some reason, I save it as an EPS file, which I can then embed into the Word doc.

untitled-1So yeah. Between icons and silhouettes and a few other things, the book will probably have a few hundred visual elements (in addition to some shenanigans with fonts and Unicode characters and such). It’s something that fits this particular game really well and wouldn’t work most of the time, but I’ve been very pleased with the results, and not just because it’s inexpensive.

Rules Stuff

The rules are another thing that I’ve given more attention that I expected to. Early on in the process I started by literally copying and pasting the rules section from Schoolgirl RPG as a starting point, which is to say I began with the lightest possible implementation of the Maid RPG rules, and from there I got inspired to make some important changes.

The biggest thing was that the Ghostbusters RPG and Spooktacular made such an impression on me that I decided to graft a variant of that dice system onto M.A.I.D. Engine chassis. Rolling a bunch of dice has smoother probabilities and is just more viscerally fun than rolling a single die, and the Ghost Die (which becomes the “Weird Die” in Kagegami High) generally adds a lot of fun. While the notion of something hilariously screwing you over doesn’t fit as well, having a die trigger something weird (which can just be a random event if all else fails) works nicely. (It also gives me an excuse to get custom Weird Dice made!) This also consequently meant that the scale for stats needed to be a little wider (1-6 instead of 0-4), and generally led to some tweaks elsewhere in the game.

I also added Principles and GM Moves, descended from the principles and MC moves of Apocalypse World. These are essentially a distillation of the techniques I’ve worked out for playing/running Maid RPG, adjusted for how I envision Kagegami High working. The GM moves are a little different from AW’s MC moves in that some of them fall into the realm of actual mechanics, presenting stuff like calling for random events and assigning Awesome Points into that clear format.

The most recent–and most experimental–addition is the concept of “invoking a trait,” which lets players spend Awesome Points to leverage a Special Quality or other trait into making something happen in the fiction. It’s tricky because unlike Fate (where the idea came from, of course) Maid RPG wasn’t designed from the ground up with that sort of thing in mind, but I definitely do like the idea of having a procedure for making Special Qualities and such come into the game in an interesting way.

There’s still plenty left to do, but I’m definitely looking forward to playtesting and eventually publishing this one.

Spooktacular

My deluge of freelance work has evened out a little, so I’ve had some time to seriously work on Spooktacular, to the point where I’m starting the first playtest. The core idea of it is simply to make an updated and streamlined serial-numbers-filed-off version of the 1986 West End Games Ghostbusters RPG, but it’s been a really fun and interesting project to work on so far. (Also, Amy Veeres is contributing some writing.) As things stand it’s most likely going to be a PDF/POD Yaruki Zero Games release. Most of my printed self-published stuff has been in 6″x9″ format so far, but I’ve been trying out and generally liking 7″x10″ lately. Part of it is just that it’s big enough that my habit of including a bunch of tables doesn’t require too much squeezing. Anyway.

I think I would sum up my overall approach as taking the core mechanics from the original RPG and more or less doing the rest by way of my own ideas and inspirations, creating a take on busting ghosts that’s uniquely mine, based on the related media and games I like and my own ideas about the whole thing. Stuff like InSpectres, Buffy, and Mob Psycho 100 (a currently airing anime series) played into the themes, and games like Apocalypse World, Maid RPG, PDQ, and Risus influenced the design.

ecto

Themes and Stuff

Coming at this as an adult fan has let me more seriously examine the themes behind Ghostbusters and write about my own take on it. The original movie was more about running a business, while the remake is more about science and skepticism, and I find both pretty interesting. The appeal of the overall franchise I think is in that where horror movies tell us that the unknown is deadly and only barely survivable, here the paranormal is not only something people can defeat, but something that can become another job. While there are serious challenges and the possible end of the world to consider, Ghostbusters also deal with a lot of ghosts with all the nonchalance of an exterminator spraying for termites.

I’ve realized that while the characters can and probably should be a bit weird and quirky, it’s like Fiasco in terms of being something that works best with relatively normal characters rather than cartoons. A lot of the appeal and humor comes from the juxtaposition of supernatural horrors with that mundane aspect. Ghosts as a verifiable phenomenon and the busting thereof are things that the premise superimposes on an otherwise pretty ordinary world, and it’s really interesting to think about what those ripples result in. (To me that’s one place where Ghostbusters II kind of fell down, since it tried too hard to “reset” the characters back to being nobodies who had to start from square one.)

One of my favorite parts of the book so far (and the one Amy is contributing to) is the “Interesting Places to Hunt Ghosts” section, which profiles various cities in terms of what it’s like to be a paranormal investigator there. I started with places I’m familiar with–San Francisco, Albuquerque, and Washington D.C.–and Amy is adding Philadelphia, Kyoto, and London. While I have nothing against New York, I’ve never been (I’d like to some time), and for me the personalized specificity of SF or Washington is much more interesting to me personally. I can imagine busting ghosts on Capitol Hill or a Google bus plodding down Market Street much more vividly than the streets of New York, and bringing that kind of personal experience to the table helps it feel more grounded.

Game Mechanics

While I kept most of the very core conceits of the original game, I am making some changes, a mixture of personal preference and general attempts to improve it.

The biggest change I made to character creation was simply adding a bunch of optional d66 tables for the various things you have to come up with. This is a technique I first came up with for Magical Burst (inspired by Maid RPG), and it’s served me well in a bunch of other games since. It’s a way to present a bunch of examples, provide a quick out for anyone who’s stumped, and gently shape the tone of the game, so it’s something I’ve wound up using a lot in my various games. I’m also inordinately happy with adding “Ate a Telephone Once” to the table of Quirks as a nod to the GBRPG rulebook’s penchant for using eating a telephone as an example.

The second biggest change is the addition of Archetypes, which give you a broad character type (Charlatan, Parapsychologist, Esper, etc.) and a special ability that you can use by spending Awesome Points (which are Brownie Points under a different name). While I do like the addition to the game, it’s becoming clear that I need good reference materials to keep it from becoming a drag on character creation.

In 1989, WEG put out a second edition of the RPG called Ghostbusters International, but fans by and large found that it overcomplicated the game. I’ve tried to implement a handful of ideas from it while streamlining it as much as possible. One of the major things that GBI does that looks like it would pointlessly slow down play is to use margins of success a lot. While you have the option to just treat it as a binary pass/fail, the game encourages you to subtract the target number from the roll result and compare it to a chart to see how much the character succeeded by, which is kind of a lot of extra math to pack into every single roll in what it supposed to be a pretty freewheeling game. We’ll see if it survives playtesting, but I came up with the concept of Exceptional Success and Ridiculous Success for when you succeed by 10 or 20 points (respectively), which I’m hoping will make it easy to do something with crazy rolls without excessive math involved. Likewise, I added the concept of damage to stats from GBI (with a little inspiration from Risus and PDQ), but tried to simplify it as much as possible.

I did away with any semblance of initiative or movement rules (not that the original game had a whole lot of that), and instead basically wrote a couple paragraphs about doing it the way Apocalypse World does (which also happens to be more or less how Maid RPG does it).

Anyway

I’m hoping this will be a fun game, and my own unique take on something that was a defining part of my childhood. (an obsession that the new movie actually rekindled stronger than ever). It’s generally been really fun to work on, and I’ve already commissioned James Workman (who did the illustrations for Fantasy Friends) to do some artwork for it.

West End Games

The other day I stumbled across a copy of the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game at a local Goodwill, which West End Games put out in 1997 (though the WEG Star Wars RPG itself launched in 1987). I’ve also been thinking about the Ghostbusters RPG, which WEG put out in 1986. I actually have a copy available to me, but someone went as far as to put PDFs of it up online, which I feel okay about linking to for a game that’s 30 years old and decidedly out of print. (Update: Also it looks like there are some folks who’ve been doing a long-running actual play podcast and sell goodies for the game.)

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Both of these come from the era when boxed sets were still a thing, before they became prohibitively expensive for most RPG publishers. Although the Star Wars box is an introductory product, it’s a far more robust introductory product than the sort that WotC has put out for D&D. The full version of the game has a lot more stuff to it, but the introductory box has the complete core rules, lets you create complete and functional characters, and includes seven different adventure scenarios. That’s in addition to dice, maps, cardstock miniatures, and reference cards. You could do a decent little campaign just using the stuff already included in the box, and having that much physical stuff with color photos and illustrations is just plain fun. The Ghostbusters box isn’t quite as extensive, but it’s similar, and comes with dice, character and equipment cards, amusing handouts, and so on.

Introductory_Adventure_Game

The Ghostbusters RPG is a bit of an oddity, but also an incredible game. It seems like kind of an odd choice for making an RPG, especially given the state of RPG design in 1986, but Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, and Greg Stafford (among other things, the major designers for Chaosium, who did a ton of important work on Call of Cthulhu and Prince Valiant, two other impressively innovative games) created a game that was ahead of its time in many ways, and which became the progenitor of the D6 System that (in a more complex form) powered the Star Wars RPG and other WEG games.

  • It was probably the first RPG to use a die pool system, where your traits are rated as a number of dice that you roll together. As far as I know, up until then RPGs mostly used either D&D-style ability scores or percentiles.
  • The box also includes a Ghost Die, which has a Ghostbusters logo in place of the 6. Any time you roll, one of your dice is the Ghost Die, and if you roll the ghost side of the Ghost Die, it counts as a zero, and regardless of whether you succeed or fail, something weird happens. This is an early example of the “rich die rolls” that make help games like Cortex Plus, WFRP3e, and Don’t Rest Your Head so interesting mechanically.
  • In addition to the four attributes, each character has a Talent associated with each attribute, and they get an extra 3 dice when doing something with their Talent. The book includes lists of sample Talents for each stat (and includes things like Break Things, Breakdance, Strut, Raise Children, Soap Opera Romances, and Sports Facts), but with the GM’s permission you could make up your own, making it one of the earliest if not the first instance of “roll your own” traits as seen in games like Risus and PDQ.
  • One of the major mechanics of the game is “Brownie Points,” which are one of the first instances of a drama point type mechanic in an RPG. Among other things you can spend them to gain additional dice before you roll.
  • In the original edition, BP were also in essence your hit points, and you had to spend them to give your character coincidences that would keep them from dying or getting unduly hurt. In the second edition (“Ghostbusters International”) they added the possibility of taking damage that would temporarily reduce your stats (something that also shows up in Risus and PDQ), but kept the option to spend BP to avoid harm. Both of these are decidedly unconventional, cinematic ways to handle injury, and a great fit for the source material.
  • Each PC also has a “Goal,” something like Sex, Money, Soulless Science, etc., and achieving that goal is one of the major ways they gain Brownie Points. I don’t know if it was a direct influence, but it presages stuff like aspects in Fate.

The Ghostbusters RPG isn’t perfect or anything, but most of its imperfections pretty much come down to it being an RPG that came out in 1986. The writing style comes off as a little juvenile and not quite right for a Bill Murray comedy (and for some reason they really like using eating a telephone as an example action), and while the rules are way ahead of their time, the tendency to treat things as a physics simulation creeps in a little at times, most notably in the combat rules. Even then, for an RPG in 1986 the way that it explicitly skips over having rules for movement and such is an impressive step forward.

The new Ghostbusters movie has been controversial for kind of stupid reasons. I completely obsessed with Ghostbusters through much of my childhood, and the new movie did not ruin my childhood (bullies, poverty, and isolation messed things up way more than Paul Feig could’ve ever hoped to). It was actually a pretty fun movie, and while I don’t think it was as good as the original, I do think it was significantly better than Ghostbusters II (which I still like a lot). Even so, Holtzmann (the awesome mad scientist lady in the new one) is now my favorite single Ghostbuster, and there are a lot of nifty things in the new movie that got me thinking more about the whole thing and how easy it would be to write up in the RPG. They have a bunch of different ghostbusting toys, they do more different things with ghosts, and they have an angle of trying to get ghostbusting off the ground while facing intense skepticism and a deliberate government coverup.

Even though in theory I’m way too busy with more important stuff (and even though I have way more than enough other projects going on), I got inspired to start on a game that builds on the Ghostbusters RPG, filing the serial numbers off and taking the core framework and making a few modern additions, both mechanically and thematically (also, because this is me, several d66 tables). Although paranormal investigators with weird science gadgets for busting ghosts will still be a core conceit, you’ll be able to play, say a magician out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a ghost-fighting esper out of an anime. I’m tentatively calling this game “Spooktacular,” and I’m thinking of making it a future Patreon release. But anyway.

I only played the Ghostbusters RPG once, and while most of our ghostbusters were relatively typical (I played the mad scientist guy), one in particular stood out. A friend of mind created Clara Robison, a single mother who’d gotten into the ghostbusting business because it was a way to make ends meet. Where the characters in the original were practically cartoon characters at times–and that’s before we get into the actual cartoon version–for me Clara added a certain undercurrent of everyday humanity to the whole concept of ghostbusters. It’s not something that the RPG deliberately or explicitly encourages, but it’s something that was very easy to make a part of the game.

2016-08-02 18.40.15

One of the most human parts of the new movie is the backstory behind Abby and Erin. Erin saw a ghost when she was young, and the kids at school started calling her “Ghost Girl,” a taunt that bothered her until she and Abby became best friends, and together developed a fascination with the paranormal. While Holtzmann and Patty stand out more in terms of general awesomeness, Abby and Erin have a genuine enthusiasm for discovery that rivals Ray’s. They went as far as to make a tie-in book for the movie, which has not only Abby and Erin’s backstories, but a ton of information about supernatural hunters, ghosts, and haunted places both from real life (the book has a pretty extensive bibliography) and the Ghostbusters world. It’s generally a fun way to geek out about fictional science, and potentially a nifty resource for RPG purposes.

Anyway, I felt the need to blather about all of that stuff for a while. WEG did some amazing stuff in the 80s, and both the old and new Ghostbusters are awesome. So yeah.

Kagegami High

I haven’t written about it all that much here, but lately I’ve been working pretty intently on Kagegami High. Of my self-published games, Schoolgirl RPG is the most spontaneous and also one of the most successful. I ended up making quite a bit of material for it, put together a Complete Edition (with a POD version available), and then giving it a rest. When I decided to come back to the game, I had the idea to create a book that presents a premade setting, a high school with explanations of places, students, teachers, etc. I’d barely gotten started on brainstorming for that when the idea for Kagegami High took over.

Kagegami High Cover_

Continue reading Kagegami High

Tools for Dreaming: Role-Playing

All the way back in 2012 I published the Yaruki Zero book, and considering what it is, it’s sold surprisingly well. I’ve been working on the eventual follow-up, but I was increasingly finding that I wanted to write RPG design stuff without it being stuck in quite so personal of a format. That led me to start on a new book called Tools for Dreaming, my attempt at distilling everything I know about RPG design and publishing (so far). Right now the manuscript is about 46k words, but I feel like it could wind up being a good deal longer before it’s really complete. It has a lot to do with trying to expand the scope of what the medium is capable of (and is emphatically not about sweeping away what came before), and while it touches on a lot of the same territory as prior attempts at RPG theory, I’m mainly concerned with making fun and interesting games.

t4d
Rough of a cover design for the book

There are some parts of the book I need to figure out how to write, and some that I’m sure I’m going to need help with, but I wanted to start generally sharing it and getting the process moving, so this is the first of a series of excerpts from the work in progress that I’m going to be posting. The first chapter after a rather lengthy introduction is titled “What is an RPG?”, and it’s an attempt to break down the definition of the word and what RPGs entail, which turns out to be a lot messier than you might think. Today I’m sharing the section of that chapter on role-playing.


Role-Playing

Role-playing is one of the most fundamental and interesting things about role-playing games, and I think it’s worth taking a little time to discuss it in depth. Role-playing is where a person takes on a specific role and acts it out on the fly, with no script. There are many different types and styles of role-playing, and while we gamers tend to think of it in terms of portraying a fictional character, there certainly are role-playing activities that ask you portray yourself or someone else in the room in a particular situation. Therapists will sometimes use psychodrama and other forms of role-play to help people work through problems, language students role-play everyday situations to practice their skills, and people role-play themselves to practice things like job interviews.

However, even if we strictly stay within the realm of tabletop games, there’s still a lot of variety. What we call “role-playing” is something of an umbrella term for a number of different mental and emotional processes. Different people role-play differently, and the same person can shift between different approaches to role-playing, even within the same game. I’m a little wary of jargon and categories, but I’m going to try to outline what I see as the major forms of role-play people employ in RPGs.

Many people role-play by immersion, and for them a character is like a second self they slip into for a while. This kind of role-play uses our human capacity for empathy. Empathy is a process by which you use your own experiences to create a mental image of someone else’s emotional state.[1] This is likely an important aspect of how people function as social animals, and is one of a number of prosocial instincts in both humans and other species. Some people are more naturally empathic than others, and a portion of other people’s differing experiences will be more of an abstraction to you. Even so, empathy is a basic part of being human. Therapeutic role-playing uses this capacity to foster a cathartic release and greater empathy with others, while RPGs use it to let us vicariously experience some of a fictional character’s emotional state. Instead of putting yourself in your significant other’s shoes to better understand their point of view, you put yourself in your character’s shoes to enjoy seeing and interacting with the world as they do. While it’s not the only way to role-play, it’s where traditional RPGs excel, and where many people find the fundamental appeal of playing an RPG. It does have some drawbacks though, most notably that it can be emotionally taxing at times.

Others use a more calculating, performative approach. This is more like improv theater, where even if you outwardly portray a consistent character, your mental state is focused on creating a particular performance. RPGs are for smaller groups of people than improv shows, so it’s a bit different from playing to an audience in a theater, and I suspect that performative role-playing in a tabletop RPG is a bit more geared toward one’s own enjoyment. Regardless, it shifts the priority from the character’s mental state and objectives to presenting a particular outward performance of the character. It’s a less emotionally engaged way to role-play, but it makes it easier to separate what you want the character to be like from your character’s own desires. People are more likely to use this form of role-playing when they’re trying to portray a well-established character.

Still others are most comfortable when acting more like an author. In this mode, you control your character from above, ready to step outside of them to steer the overall story in whatever direction you think is best. It’s another step removed from immersive role-playing, but players are free to concentrate on making the best story they can. There are a number of independent games that specifically foster this style of role-playing, particularly when they have mechanics that require players to make decisions and give creative input from a vantage point outside of the character. It’s a very different way to play an RPG, but it can create really fun, unique experiences.

Because RPGs are also games with mechanical, board game-like rules, players also sometimes role-play less as a portrayal of a character and more in terms of playing a game, even if they do so in a way that’s consistent with their character’s abilities and personality. RPGs often ask players to make decisions based on practical and mechanical matters, especially when it comes to combat. In this mode the character becomes more of a playing piece, and the mechanical distinctions that the game provides the character are more important than the character’s personality and emotional life. This is the mode that’s the most difficult to rightfully call “role-playing,”[2] but it’s also an important part of many of the most popular RPGs. Games like D&D can provide lots of interesting things for players to do in this space, and learning to skillfully wield the mechanical aspects of a character is a genuine part of the fun of playing such games. This mode doesn’t necessarily have to be about hard mechanical matters either. Players who are debating who gets what treasure or trying to formulate a plan can wind up speaking as themselves rather than their characters, even if the “game” they’re playing is made up of words and concepts instead of numbers.

All of these fall under the umbrella of role-playing to some degree. Some games work better with particular approaches, and people are often more comfortable with some approaches than others, but what people actually do at the game table is fluid. It’s good to be aware of how your game might pull people towards particular approaches, but it’s not necessary to force players to stick to one single mode of role-playing. The thing to be wary of is asking players to do too many of these things at once, especially when they have opposed motivations. RPGs that ask players to act more as storytellers tend to suffer when they also encourage players to heavily identify with their characters, because what’s good for the story can often conflict with what a character wants for themselves. Likewise, if you have rules that pull players into more of a board game mode, you can’t expect nearly as much in the way of conventional role-playing out of them while those rules are in play.

Also, it’s been my experience that as a group, beginners don’t inherently gravitate towards any one style of role-play. People who cut their teeth on traditional RPGs sometimes assume that immersive role-playing is the most natural, but I’ve found that a significant portion of first-time role-players naturally think they have power over the story around their character, such that teaching them to play a traditional RPG is a process of getting them to pull back and only control what their character is attempting to do.

[1] Not a scientific definition, just my attempt to explain the concept as I understand it.

[2] Hence the kinda dumb and overused thing of calling it “roll-playing.”