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.

masson_automatic_drawing

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.

IHF-preview

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.

2017-06-10 15.50.27

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.

Galaxy-Fraulein-Yuna-Manual-Front
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.

hibiki
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.

what-is-microsoft-silverlight

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.

1-QPwOgFIjPs_kQ3I57efkVQ

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!

Kagegami-High-Cover

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.

dice

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.

MK Cover.png

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.

dragon world art sample

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.

sheeple-24
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).

t4d

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.

jun_you_and_puchiko_kantai_collection_drawn_by_yuureidoushi_yuurei6214__16acd6d97454d07fbda2c0bbf442906b

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.