All posts by Ewen

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.

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.

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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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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.

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

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

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

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

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

More on Kagegami High

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

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

Aesthetics

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

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

popular

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

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

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

Rules Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

Spooktacular

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

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

ecto

Themes and Stuff

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

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

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

Game Mechanics

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway

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