2014 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odds and Ends

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

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

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

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

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4 thoughts on “2014 in Review

  1. Hey Ewen,

    I was not sure where to post this…but this is in regards to Maid. Last week during holiday break, I finally got to run Maid RPG. I ran them through the happy birthday scenario while injecting a little randomness into the game. We all had a great time with the game and I wanted to thank you for your work involved in getting this game over here.

    I had a question for you though about advancement. It seems that at the end of the game, my players had amassed a lot of favor (25-30). That is enough for 2 upgrades. I would like the game to advance much more slowly. Any advice? I was considering adding something similar to the ‘knack’ system from TFOS but I wanted to ask you first for advice.

    1. in general Maid RPG is geared more toward short-term play, so that improving attributes doesn’t have much of a long-term effect. How much Favor PCs have to work with depends a lot on how they choose to spend it, and how much pressure the GM puts on them that forces them to spend it to improve die rolls and such during the game. The Happy Birthday scenario is a bit less chaotic than your typical Maid RPG session, so the amount of Favor PCs will have at the end of it isn’t really representative.

      That said, if you’re that concerned about character advancement being too fast, you could tweak or even outright remove that option. For example, you could specifically limit players to only one upgrade per session, or simply increase the cost.

    1. I think it’s getting fairly close to release, though it’ll take a little while to finish the task I set myself of (of course) making a bunch of tables for various things in the game.

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