Adaptation and Symbols

The other day I went to California Extreme, which is an arcade gaming convention held in Santa Clara, CA. It doesn’t hurt that my brother-in-law is one of the organizers, but it’s a really nifty event that I try to get to every year if I can. The core of it is just a huge room full of free-play arcade machines that people have set up, ranging from analog pinball machines to brand new independent arcade games (like Cosmotrons). Although arcade games are overwhelmingly the core of what CAX is about, it also features a single panel room, which has had some really interesting speakers over the years. I’ve seen panels from Atari veterans and the creator of Crazy Otto (the unauthorized Pac-Man enhancement kit that became the basis of Ms. Pac-Man), and this year, aside from a talk by Al Alcorn (who built the original Pong machine and worked on several other major Atari projects), I saw a panel by UCSC professor Nathan Altice about board game adaptations of video games, something he’s been studying in depth for a little while now.

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I actually own a copy of Milton-Bradley’s 1982 Pac-Man board game, which is kind of a strange beast. You set up a maze in the vein of one from Pac-Man, with two ghosts and 2-4 Pac-Man player pieces in different colors. The player pieces are molded plastic and for some reason the plastic is molded to give them rows of pointed teeth. On your turn you roll two dice and assign them to moving your Pac-Man and/or the ghosts, so that instead of an AI enemy, the ghosts are a shared weapon. Your can push your Pac-Man piece down on a marble and if it works properly it picks the marble up. You keep playing until you clear out all of the marbles, and whoever has the most marbles is the winner. The result plays fast but takes a little time to set up, and while there is skill involved, it has a level of randomness that pushes it more into simple kids’ game territory, especially in the eyes of Board Game Geek users. Of course, Milton-Bradley was marketing it towards ages 7-14, and selling in big department stores, so that’s not too surprising.

In the U.S., Milton-Bradley, Parker Brothers, and a few others published several board games based on video games in the 1980s, while in Japan, Bandai put out quite a few, and Namco made three. In the U.S., licensed games based on TV shows had helped revitalize board games in the 1950s, so it was pretty natural for the major board game manufacturers to pick up video game licenses during the video game boom of the 80s. Today there are some sophisticated adaptations of video games from hobby game publishers like Fantasy Flight, but Milton-Bradley was selling to families through department stores, so their games tended to be simple and perhaps more “literal” in their adaptations than a hobby game designer today would create. While the number of components in the Pac-Man board game isn’t especially large compared to some of the games out there, it’s not too hard to imagine a Pac-Man tabletop game that captures some of the feel of moving around a maze, trying to grab all the pellets and avoid the ghosts, without the need for a physical object to represent every single pellet. From Altice’s discussion, Pole Position was one of the more interesting video game-based board games, because it was essentially a bluffing game disguised as a racing game.

From what he said in the panel, Mr. Altice found the major parallels in these games were:

  • These games often tried to mimic enemy “AI” in various ways, whether through player choice, randomness, or “programming” by way of simple game mechanics.
  • Boards are an effective way of representing physical space. Single-screen video games (e.g. Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, etc.) translate well to a single board. When faced with scrolling video games, board game designers often used some form of map tiles.
  • Board game adaptations of video games were often translating a single-player experience into a multiplayer one, and it often proved difficult for the designers.
  • Manufacturers often marketed these as a way to bring the fun of the arcade home.
  • A significant portion of the effectiveness of an adaptation comes from aesthetics.

Exposure to a bunch of arcade games, combined with the panel, got me thinking a lot about adaptations and abstractions. Because of the way the human mind works, we live in a sea of symbols as much as a physical world, and game designers frequently take advantage of that. Video games used to use very simple symbols out of necessity due to hardware limitations. Some games would have epic cover art inviting us to imagine a bigger world based on very simple symbols (check out the Missile Command box art below, as opposed to the very simple lines and blocks of the actual game), while games like Pac-Man and Q*bert had their actual on-screen content and what you were meant to imagine looking very similar. They naturally took advantage of the newer symbols that these games created too. The Atari 2600 has limited graphics capabilities compared to the Pac-Man arcade machines, so the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man famously had kind of mediocre-looking graphics, but anyone who’d played Pac-Man would at least have no doubt that the lines were the dots and the white squares were the power pellets.

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Newer video games can show us basically any image they can fit onto a screen, so the use of symbols is more a matter of good UI design, and no longer just the only means available to communicate anything to the player. Board games have to provide a set of physical components, which gives them a very different physicality from video games. Board game components can include actual artwork, and didn’t have to conform to the limitations of early pixel graphics. Of course, they did have to deal with the limitations of mass-market board game manufacturing, which is why there were a lot of punchboards and stickers and not many detailed plastic figures. With current video games the amount of media assets a single game can include is massive, and tabletop adaptations have an even greater need to find the portions of the source material that they can represent effectively. On the other hand, a hobby game can have a higher price point and higher production values, so that you can in fact have a board game with a collection of detailed plastic figures if enough people back the Kickstarter.

Current pop culture is perhaps excessively about adaptations, remakes, sequels, and reboots. Some of these are bringing wholly new notions to different media (American Gods), while others trade on nostalgia and familiar signifiers (Ready Player One). While there’s no denying that Hollywood has gone overboard with the regular stream of remakes and sequels, part of why these things keep coming out is that people pay money for them. If you look at the lists of top-grossing films in recent years, stand-alone movies not directly derived from prior movies in some way are the exception to the rule, making up only one or two of the top ten. While originality is important to the long-term health of any creative medium, people enjoy seeing something familiar brought to them in a new way.

Any time you adapt a work to a new medium, you have to figure out what parts of the original to represent. That’s especially important when the two media involved are radically different. It’s striking when we compare board games to other media, because good board games comprise a set of rules interactions that are fun to engage, and don’t produce a narrative per se. They make invoke story elements in interesting ways (such as how Star Trek Expeditions has a card that creates a setback stemming from Kirk making a pass at the ambassador’s wife) and draw on a narrative for inspiration, but they need to be able to function as a construct of pure rules, even if the final product is making good use of aesthetics to add more flavor than that. The process of teasing out a game from source material can produce wildly different results, which is why Star Trek Expeditions and Star Trek Panic both have a distinct Star Trek feel, even though they’re really different games.

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The Fate Accelerated campaign I’m playing in is in a fantasy setting, but has a lot more to do with KonoSuba (the GM really wanted to do an isekai game) than D&D or Tolkien.

All of this is interesting to me as an RPG guy because RPGs are so dependent on a group of people having a consensus about a fictional world. The relative expense of licensing means that there aren’t so many licensed RPGs out there, but I feel like the medium and the culture around it naturally lend themselves to adaptation. RPGs are recontextualization engines, naturally serving as a framework for taking bits of culture and repurposing them in different ways. D&D is a mashup of pieces from practically everything in fantasy literature and mythology, given a unique spin. When people sit down to play it, they naturally use pieces of culture they’re familiar with, describing their original characters in terms of other characters from pop culture, using elements of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones to help build a story, and so on.

Even when we step outside of D&D, a lot of the most popular RPGs relate to works in some other media, whether with the directness of the Star Wars or Call of Cthulhu RPGs, or less overtly as in Vampire: The Masquerade or Fiasco. A lot of my own RPG design efforts have been about bringing different elements of anime into the realm of tabletop RPGs. I gave up on the idea of a “universal anime RPG” ages ago, but even the original anime creators can have different takes on the same source material, as shown by the different versions of Ghost in the Shell. I think part of why anime (and other Japanese pop culture stuff) interests me so much as an RPG designer is that despite its popularity, it’s underrepresented in RPGs. If I decide to make a superhero RPG (I do have an idea for one, because of course I do), there are already dozens out there, whereas if I decide to make a magical girl RPG, I can count the number currently available on one hand. Moreover, anime is even more a part of my group’s pop culture stew than stuff like H.P. Lovecraft or Lord of the Rings, and that’s stuff we want to explore and celebrate through RPG play.

There are some great RPGs that don’t owe allegiance to any specific source material (Dogs in the Vineyard comes to mind), and while I think the medium absolutely needs those for its creative health, RPG play all but demands tapping into other media as reference points, and from a design perspective, taking inspiration from other media can often lead us to try new things we might not have thought to do in an RPG before. Anyway, I’m not sure I ever quite reached a thesis with these ramblings, but I think there’s some interesting stuff here.

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This is Not a Card Game

I finished yet another game! It’s called This is Not a Card Game, because it’s kind of a creativity exercise pack with a sort of card game as a framing device. It’s currently available on DriveThruCards for $14.99!

A while back I got around to ordering a copy of A Book of Surrealist Games, which had been on my Amazon wishlist for a while. It’s a collection of various creativity games as practiced by the surrealist artists of the 1920s, including familiar things like exquisite corpse and less well-known ones like automatism, where you engage in writing or drawing with such speed that you let some of your subconscious out onto the page. I’ve always found surrealism interesting, and it was one of the many places I’d looked for inspiration for Kagegami High. The strangeness of surrealism often has a very deliberate message, and the movement seems to come from an attempt to make sense of the chaos of a post-WW1 world. While we have a different set of challenges facing us today, it certainly feels like we need whatever we can get to help cope with the way our reality seems to be fraying. Also I am nothing if not prone to falling into patterns. I have literally had people come up to me on the street and tell me they can tell if they’re on time by my presence.

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I’ve also outgrown Cards Against Humanity. Encountering the game was a vital turning point for me, since it wound up being my gateway into board games, but the limitations of its “humor legos” and the questionable conceit of using a card game as an excuse to be “edgy” made it lose it luster for me. I made my own CAH-like game in i.hate.everyone, and although I think it’s better overall, it still suffers from much the same issues. The content is too much stuff from the cards, and if you play the game much it needs a regular influx of new cards to stay fresh (which the CAH folks are happy to sell you in the form of expansions, as are the people behind Crabs Adjust Humidity and entirely too many others). Of course, the limitations of that design space haven’t stopped a ridiculous number of shitty imitators from popping up, even though games like Snake Oil, Joking Hazard, Codenames, Slash, and Dixit (also my own Channel A maybe?) have shown that the genre can do vastly better. But CAH has become one of those things that’s kind of an institution. It’s made millions, and I suspect a lot of its fans are people who aren’t otherwise much into board games. The CAH company does some laudable things like donating some of the absurd quantities of money it rakes in to charity, but there’s a lot about it that deserves criticism and mockery. This is a company that sold literal bullshit for one Black Friday, which is sort of funny, but also a little too stupid for any amount of irony to fully cover up.

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There’s also the thing that DriveThruCards now has POD tuck boxes, which aren’t quite on the level of what you’d get from full-on professional printing, but still pretty good. Party card games are hard to mix with POD, because with POD printing the base cost for cards is around 8 cents (9 or 9½ cents for premium cardstock), making it very hard to give a card game a reasonable price if it has much more than 100-some cards. The largest size of tuck boxes DTC is offering holds 120, so I figured I’d try to make a game around that size.

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This is Not a Card Game is what came from those three things coming together. It uses the CAH/Apples to Apples type of party game format, but the cards regularly divert you into odd creative exercises. You might play a card to answer the question, “What is the worst kind of art?” one turn, use a card as the start of a 2-minute automatic writing frenzy the next, and do a weird drawing exercise after that. That lets the game have quite a bit more variety in 120 cards than the format would normally allow, and in taking that approach it’s more or less the opposite of CAH on a creative level. It has a lot of references to surrealism and fine art in general (starting with the game’s title being a reference to Magritte’s The Treachery of Images), and while knowing some of those references wouldn’t hurt, mostly it serves to take the piss out of highbrow art, something I think the surrealists would’ve approved of.

Once I had the game text completed and polished and did some playtesting, it was pretty easy to put together the files for POD printing. Where CAH uses Helvetica Neue, I went with Futura for TINACG. Futura descends from Bauhaus rather than surrealism, but it’s both contemporaneous with surrealism and not as extensively used as Helvetica. Helvetica is an amazing font that I’ve been using a lot lately, but it’s also what Target uses for every scrap of their signage. (That’s probably not why Target is the only brick and mortar retailer that CAH officially sells through, but still.) Futura is readable but more geometric, and has odd flourishes with things like its squiggle of a question mark. It’s also the font they used for most of the interior text of AD&D1e, though I couldn’t tell you why they went that route. I also went with CAH’s black and white color scheme, partly to highlight how TINACG is a CAH piss take, and partly because it’s genuinely an elegant graphic design conceit.

TINACG also has two cards that involve modifying/damaging those cards, and I kind of want to play around with that sort of thing. I hit on the idea of a sequel of sorts to TINACG, called “Wreck This Game” (maybe a little too close to Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, though that’s an obvious source of inspiration) or some such. It wouldn’t really work to have it cost $14.99, and a PNP version is a distinct possibility, though I’d also like to look into getting it printed on basic cardstock, making a cheap and disposable card game.

Anyway, TINACG was generally fun to make (apart from some frustrations in the production process), and I hope you enjoy it.

Angel Project

The other day I finally finished Persona 5 (play time: 99 hours 38 minutes), and since I was still jonesing for some JRPG nonsense I decided to play through Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 3 for the first time in years. That in turn inspired me to start seriously working on Angel Project, the Yuna-inspired RPG I’ve been wanting to do, while some other projects are waiting on other people.

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I can’t even tell you just how 90s anime the contents of this CD-ROM are.

Galaxy Fraulein Yuna is a franchise that spans three games and two OAV series, running from about 1992 to 1998. Designer Mika Akitaka did a series of “MS Girls” illustrations, making cute girl versions of different Gundam robots, and Red Company and Hudson asked him to create a game for the then fairly PC-Engine Super CD-ROM^2. (NEC branded the PC-Engine as the Turbografx-16 in the US.) Akitaka’s concepts evolved into a visual novel with a series of simple one-on-one battles scattered throughout. In the story, Yuna Kagurazaka wins a beauty contest, and then finds out that she is now the Savior of Light, tasked with protecting the galaxy. Over the course of the two PC-Engine games, two OVA series, and the final Saturn/PS1 game,[1] she fights a bunch of enemies who are mostly cute girls, and winds up befriending the majority of them. The English-speakers who know the franchise mainly know it through the anime, and unfortunately the five anime episodes only represent parts three and four out of a five-part story. It has its own distinct aesthetic and sensibility, but it’s a lot like a sillier version of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha or Symphogear, blending epic battles with lessons in friendship.

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Punching in the name of friendship!

I came up with the idea for Angel Project when I was considering doing some alternate settings for Magical Burst (the other two being a Persona-ish thing called “Zero Hour” and a thing with teenagers with special powers in the vein of A Certain Scientific Railgun called “Helix Academy”). Later I ended up designing and publishing Magical Fury (which has been surprisingly popular), and a reworking of the Magical Fury rules felt like the right way to realize Angel Project. Although it has a lot of sci-fi trappings, Galaxy Fraulein Yuna is essentially a magical girl story (Yuna even has a mascot/mentor that grants her powers and advises her, but it’s a little robot thing named Elner), and although Magical Fury is a darker take on it, it’s very much a magical girl RPG. There are a lot of things I’m reworking for Angel Project, a lot of things that need to strike a different tone, but there weren’t too many rules that I had to entirely cut out. The single biggest change was that I replaced Magic/Trauma/Hope with Friendship/Silly/Despair, which should do a lot to change the overall feel and flow.

One kind of unusual and oddly fun thing in the Yuna games is that you travel to various implausibly themed planets, like the Wind Planet and the Beach Planet, so Angel Project has both rules for traveling places and a setting section that outlines places like the Machine Planet, the Fancy Planet, and the Fandom Planet. It also has more clearly defined enemies, in the form of Dark Angels, robots, Shadows (kinda like the Noise from Symphogear), Machine Generals, and so on. It’s generally going to be a bit more fleshed out than Magical Fury, and I’m enjoying doing more with that framework.

While I’m not opposed to doing darker stuff in RPGs, I definitely feel there’s a greater need for more uplifting, positive games. I want Angel Project to be a game that celebrates friendship and redemption, a game where befriending foes is not only a possible outcome, but a common one.


[1]There are a few other Yuna titles, but they’re various remakes, ports, and retellings of the stories of those five entries in the franchise.

On Fair Process and D&D

Ages ago I read the book Blue Ocean Strategy, and while I’ve never found any practical use for its core message, it contains a section on what’s called “fair process” that I’ve found incredibly useful. Fair process is basically the idea that when you make changes, even clearly beneficial ones, people are more likely to accept them when you clearly explain why you’re making them and what the benefits will be. The book talks about fair process in terms of convincing factory workers to give a new manufacturing system a chance, but I’ve also found it to be a useful way to approach things like pitching an RPG campaign to your friends. I mention it because the D&D team at Wizards of the Coast provides some examples of failures of fair process.

For fans of D&D 4th Edition, the Character Builder was a downright essential tool, which made it vastly easier to navigate the game’s ever-growing array of options when making and updating a character, and for that matter (thanks to the ability to print character sheets with pre-filled power cards) in play. It had a bit of a rocky start–which isn’t a big surprise considering that we’re talking about a tabletop company producing and maintaining a fairly sophisticated software tool–but it grew into a cornerstone of their D&D Insider online service. Then at some point, probably because it cannibalized books sales and was pirated a fair amount, they decided to switch to from an offline tool with online updates to a purely online service. We have no way to know whether or not it was a good idea in terms of getting more D&D Insider subscription dollars, but it’s pretty clear that they handled the launch of the new tool pretty badly.

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From a fan’s perspective, what happened was WotC stopped updating the Character Builder without any explanation, even as they were hyping up the release of the new 4E version of Dark Sun. They went completely silent for a while, and for my part I initially only heard about the new CB version through rumors on forums. It turned out that it was going to use Silverlight, an application framework from Microsoft similar to Flash, but which most people either didn’t use, or used only for Netflix. Silverlight doesn’t enjoy a great reputation, and Microsoft themselves started phasing it out after a final update in 2011. On launch day, the new CB was buggy and barely functional, and while it had the new Dark Sun character options, it was missing the Inherent Bonuses option that the setting book strongly encouraged using.

Switching to a Silverlight-based online-only service, especially mid-stream with an impressive subscriber base, was not a great idea, but months of radio silence followed by a buggy launch was about the worst approach possible to selling it. While some people would’ve undoubtedly been unhappy regardless, WotC needlessly burned a ton of goodwill with the abrupt and forced change. It’s incredibly easy to plot out a better strategy for the exact same piece of software, where you let people know in advance, and let the old CB continue updating until the new one is definitely ready so that users can make a smooth transition.

More recently, with the launch of 5th Edition, WotC had been totally silent on the matter of foreign language editions of D&D. It varies a great deal by country of course, but a lot of publishers all over the world have put in a lot of hard work to bring D&D to other markets. Where in the U.S. D&D can be the dominant RPG in part by virtue of saying “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover, in many other markets it takes a lot of work to make it a success. In Japan it has to compete on an even playing field (possibly even at a disadvantage) with Japanese games like Arianrhod and Double Cross, but Hobby Japan made both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition a success there. Hobby Japan eventually received word that there would be no foreign language licenses for the foreseeable future. Japanese fans made fan translations of 5e, and HJ eventually decided to license and publish Pathfinder instead. Similarly, the Brazilian publisher that had put out previous editions of D&D in Portuguese picked up the licenses for Pathfinder and The One Ring to fill their fantasy niche.

Wizards of the Coast has been licensing Gale Force Nine to produce various D&D accessories, and more recently they announced that GF9 would be handling licensing foreign language versions of D&D. Licensing different aspects of D&D to other companies has a long tradition dating back to the early days of TSR (when they gave Judges Guild a handshake license to make various D&D play aids), but from what I can tell this arrangement meant that the previous licensees that WotC had build up relationships with got left in the dark for something like 2-3 years, and then a new partner came with the offer to let any publisher apply to negotiate a contract from scratch. The press release from Gale Force Nine states that “The first translations will be French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese, with more to follow,” and from what Andy K has told me, the Japanese publishers he knows are all scratching their heads wondering who exactly is supposedly doing the Japanese version.

So again, even if you’re dead set on the plan to let a partner set up totally new foreign language licenses, going totally silent on business partners who’ve invested a massive amount into making your game a success in their market (and by extension, ignoring the fans in those countries) is a pretty blatant failure of fair process. The D&D team has an unfortunate tendency towards opacity, and while there’s the distinct possibility that at least some of it is what the corporate culture of Wizards of the Coast and/or Hasbro forces on them, it’s nonetheless a detrimental way of handling things.

I wound up thinking about all of this because of the current situation with the Brazilian version, which has created a bunch of industry drama that you can read about in this Medium post. But basically, three Brazilian companies formed a partnership to publish a Brazilian Portuguese version of 5th Edition, and one of them broke ranks to get an exclusive contract with Gale Force Nine, screwing over their partners.

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With a lot of Brazilian fans declaring a boycott and generally raising a stink about it, yesterday Gale Force Nine put out an announcement saying:

Currently, we are speaking with all parties involved in Brazil to sort out the situation. Our goal is to ensure fans can enjoy the products in their local language of choice and we are committed to supporting those fans and their community. As such our product release plans for this market are on hold until we fully investigate and hopefully resolve this issue. We apologize to D&D fans in Brazil for any delay this may cause but we’ll do our best to have a solution in place soon.

Going by the dates, the Medium post came out on March 23 and GF9 responded on March 24, which would make significantly them more responsive than the D&D team.

Personally, I kind of feel like after more than a decade I’ve just done enough with D&D, and don’t particularly feel the need for more when the medium offers such tremendous variety. But I’d rather the people who want it are able to enjoy it, so I hope that the international versions get sorted out before too long.

Catching Up

There’s been a bunch of stuff going on that I haven’t quite gotten around to posting about here, so here goes.

Kagegami High

The game is finally out! Well, the PDF is up for sale on DriveThruRPG. Getting the POD versions set up has been unusually difficult, since there have been some weird file conversion issues with CreateSpace, and DTRPG’s system for setting up POD titles is apparently messed up at the moment. Update: But it’s now up on Amazon at least!

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The last push took a lot of energy, and I’m still kind of marveling at having written a 168-page book that’s so dense with references and setting info. I haven’t done all that much with setting in my games (though Dragon World is going to have the setting of Easteros in it), but this book is bursting with details about the school, and has 72 NPCs. My only regret is that I didn’t put more Utena-inspired stuff in.

Also the custom Weird Dice (and Spooky Dice for Spooktacular) are now available from IPR. Getting custom dice made through Chessex was pretty fun and easy, and definitely something I’ll do more in the future when I can find good excuses for it.

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Kickstarters

I have not one but two Kickstarters in the works.

Golden Sky Stories: Twilight Tales is the title we finally settled on for Mononoke Koyake, the first Japanese GSS supplement. We’re going to be properly publishing it in English and getting a print run of physical books, plus doing some nifty stretch goal stuff, albeit not nearly as much as last time (three books’ worth and then some was a bit much, not to mention the battle to get all the physical stuff printed and shipped). I was originally planning to do the Dragon World KS first, but Twilight Tales is closer to being ready, but really we’ll see how it all shakes out.

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Dragon World is also going to be Kickstarting. I need to nail down some final planning stuff, and I’m waiting on the finished cover art (which is going to be elaborate, pretty, and very anime) before I launch. We also have quite a few stretch goals lined up, including some pretty cool stuff I’m looking forward to.

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For both we’re going to be including wall scrolls from CustomWallScrolls.com among the rewards. We did that for GSS, and we were generally really happy with the quality and service.

DriveThruRPG Stuff

DTRPG has a thing where you get awarded a certain amount of Publisher Promotion Points, and I noticed that both the Yaruki Zero and Star Line accounts had accumulated kind of a lot, so I decided to make an effort to try using them. In addition to getting featured product impressions, I’ve tried having Golden Sky Stories, Kagegami High, and Maid RPG as Deals of the Day. The amount of sales that resulted wasn’t world-shattering, but it was substantially more than those games got without that extra promotion behind them, especially for Kagegami High (which hasn’t already gotten into the hands of quite so much of its potential audience).

Combined with the GM’s Day Sale, this is already one of the best months for RPG sales I’ve had in a while, so I’m thinking more about how to promote my stuff and reach more people, even though it’s potentially kind of a lot of work.

Other Randomness

  • I got inspired to check out the Savage Worlds version of Rifts. While I’m not really a fan of Savage Worlds, I was nonetheless really impressed and ended up buying all three books. (Though if I play an actual game with them I’ll probably use FAE or Strike! or something.) They managed to create a take on the world of Rifts that’s oriented towards having exciting adventures in that setting, where Palladium’s own books too often felt like an assortment of random stuff, which was cool but didn’t really cohere into a basis for stories. Each archetype is super-enthusiastic, and sells you on it being awesome to play, and in many cases makes changes that make it way more interesting.
  • A while back I designed Duel Questers, a mini-RPG thing for Millennium Blades, and it’s now available in the MB artbook. MB has a wonderfully bonkers setting, and it was a lot of fun to play around with it.
  • Jessica Price (PM at Paizo) has been posting some fascinating and insightful stuff about geek culture on her Twitter. Here’s a storify, and here’s another thread of note.
  • Nekomimi Land, a messed-up dystopian novel I’ve been working on for way too long, is nearly ready for publication, once my editor finishes with it. It’s raw and weird and imperfect, but I want to finally get it out into the world. It’ll also be my first self-published work of fiction, and I want to do more, albeit something a bit lighter next time.

Kagegami High Underpinnings

pain-girlIt still needs a little more work, but I finished the first draft of Kagegami High and did some playtesting. Along the way I’ve wound up thinking a lot about the thematic and artistic underpinnings of it. I didn’t set out to create Kagegami High with a specific set of themes in mind, but I think I’ve figured out what themes I want it to have over the course of writing it.

The world at large is weird about Japanese schoolgirls. Japanese schoolgirls are, you know, human beings (of a particular age, gender, and nationality) with their own individual thoughts and agency, and they have perhaps unusually fertile and creative subcultures. (Though there are others that are less celebrated, like the wonderfully gonzo fashion subcultures of Africa.) Japanese schoolgirls are a pretty major market demographic in Japan too, and a lot of companies are trying to reach them as trendsetters and consumers. On the other hand they’re the subject of a mystique and a worrisome bundle of fetishes, and they get used as a motif as well. There’s a lot of anime and related media that deals with schoolgirls in various ways, and while there are women who create anime and manga about schoolgirls and draw on their own experiences (Naoko Takeuchi and Aoki Ume come to mind), a lot of it is by and for men. Fine art that touches on Japanese schoolgirl subject matter is often like surrealism’s treatment of women in that it’s often more about the idea of women from a male perspective.

antler-girlAlthough I’m necessarily coming at this from the perspective of a white guy, I think an important (if somewhat subtle) part of Kagegami High is looking at the dissonance between Japanese high school girls as human beings and Japanese high school girls as an artistic concept and motif. The cartoonish surveillance state of the school isn’t just a reflection of the intrusive surveillance of society, but a metaphor for the eyes directed at Japanese schoolgirls, in both reality and fantasies. Or as one entry in the school announcements table puts it:

You are being watched, curiously, intently, lazily, lustily. You can feel the eyes on you, the alien eyes from another reality, the eyes that belong to those for whom your existence is an ideal beyond reach, but never out of mind. There’s something disgusting about them, something disturbing.

I think a lot of the game’s content is about living in a world with massive forces that make the individual feel small. That’s something we all experience, but as a group that’s fetishized and commodified and so on, Japanese schoolgirls seem like an ideal lens to explore those themes. Conspiracy theorists deal with that feeling by adopting the belief that they’re unusually capable people who’ve managed to see through to the truths that evade the great mass of sheeple. Kagegami High students deal with these things in a variety of different ways, but especially by way of joining clubs like the Illuminati Club, Conspiracy Club, Genetically Modified Organisms Club, or the Kagegami High Troubleshooting Protagonists Club. There’s also the part about how the game makes players engage this fictional world through a female character, albeit a pretty weird one more often than not.

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David Dees is a fascinating artist, albeit a worrisome one.

Kagegami High is also decidedly surreal. A lot of that is a result of simply going where the inspiration of Maid RPG, Sayounara Zetsubou-sensei, and Welcome to Night Vale took me, but I have been consciously exploring surreal art, both in terms of the specific art movement of the 1920s and in general. Surrealism makes statements about the human experience through absurd, impossible, yet realistically-rendered imagery that carries a certain dreamlike quality. As in the game’s source material, Kagegami High’s ridiculous microcosm of society reflects reality through a funhouse mirror to highlight just how strange the world we live in really is. Some of the content of Kagegami High is inevitably going to be random for the sake of randomness (and thus maybe a bit Dadaist), but a lot of it makes statements about the world in various ways. Students have to navigate all kinds of nonsensical rules, are expected to treat the rich girls among them as though they were inherently better even if they’re in the middle of proving otherwise, and have civics classes where they learn all about bribery and intimidation.

I also tried to give it a core of kindness and compassion. The students of Kagegami High are in a strange, paranoid world, but they form friendships and find a kind of belonging. Much like in Night Vale, there are those parts when that one melancholy Disparition song plays, and everyone reflects on what they’ve made it through together. Along with the power-hungry maniacs, your Kagegami High classmates include the cloyingly sincere, good-natured friends who, despite being weirdos themselves, try to help you all make it through things together.

Anyway. Kagegami High clocks in at 168 pages, 63,000 words, and over 200 graphical elements, and it’s going to be my most ambitious original game thing so far. I’m not even sure what it is that I’ve made, but I hope you all enjoy it.

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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