Category Archives: Design Journal

Magical Burst 5 Update

Over the past couple weeks I got inspired to start working on the next revision of Magical Burst, and I’m really liking how it’s coming along so far. It seems somehow appropriate that the 5th iteration could be the one that actually works how I want it to. I think working on smaller games has been doing me a huge amount of good as a game designer, forcing me to finish and polish things, and maybe giving me a better eye for what does and doesn’t work. My designs in general have been leaning kind of heavily on Apocalypse World for inspiration, but that’s a pretty sound foundation at least, especially since I seem to be getting a bit less clumsy about using that framework. I also made a point to start a new document from scratch rather than revising from the 4th draft, particularly since my RPG prose has gotten leaner of late.

A lot of the changes I’ve been making have been in the way of simplifying things. That’s partly due to the influence of Jim McGarva’s Strike!, a game that started as a hack of D&D4e, but has since transformed into its own thing, with downright radical levels of simplicity that expose how much of the math in other RPGs is potentially just busywork. Having more detailed rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given that you can role-play with no formal rules at all, it’s worthwhile and even necessary to take a hard look at what effect each rule actually has.

Although I find the idea of relationship rules appealing, they seem to be hard to make flow well in play. The system I came up with for Magical Burst in previous versions was cumbersome, especially during character creation. In the new version I replaced all of the relationship rules with the question, “What two things connect you to the world?” I realized that what I really wanted was for players to decide on how their characters fit into the world and what things in the world they care about. Madoka cares about her family and friends, Sayaka has her crush that defines her, Homura is obsessed with Madoka, and so on. It’s more open-ended (you could answer “My best friend,” or you could say something like “My music”), it serves the purpose of developing the character’s connections to the world around them, and it does so with a minimum of rules.

Overcharge, attributes, and the action resolution rules are simpler too. I pared the list of stats down to four (Heart, Fury, Magic, and Real), with ratings from 1 to 4, and made it so there’s only one kind of Overcharge, which works more like the Magic points in Magical Fury. The “Real” stat is a character’s ability to handle herself in the real world, and for example it’s what you’d roll with if you want to convince your mom that nothing weird is going on and you’re just going out at night to study. The other three stats become a bit more for what they sound like they’re for instead of being flavor text for Fallout. I’m also sticking a bit closer to the AW paradigm of having fixed target numbers and no opposed rolls (7 or less is a miss, 8-10 is a weak hit, and 11+ is a strong hit), the idea being that it should speed up every roll. Although magical actions still have the exploding dice, they only generate a point of Fallout if you roll a 15+ (a “critical hit,” which can also have additional effects for specific moves), which significantly cuts down the amount of bookkeeping you do when you roll dice.

A common theme in this is that I had a lot of game procedures that were more complicated than they needed to be, which would variously get in the way of pursuing story stuff or (as in the case of Fallout) jam the game with too much story stuff.

The combat rules are getting a pretty substantial overhaul, and I’m really happy with where they’re going so far. (It’s also where the game most emphatically parts ways with Apocalypse World.) The big thing is a split between “skirmishes” and “full battles.” Skirmishes work basically like in Magical Fury, and come down to more or less one die roll per PC and an evaluation of the overall outcome, so that you can resolve one in a matter of minutes. (And you could run a whole campaign using nothing but skirmishes if you wanted.) Full battles are going to use a simpler version of the tactical combat from 4th Draft. I’m drawing on Strike! in that it uses small numbers of non-random damage points, and dispenses with defense rolls per se. Characters will still potentially be able to make themselves harder to hit and/or reduce damage, but without the time involved in defense rolls. (Which is practical to do with the change to how Overcharge works.) Removing two steps from every single attack should definitely make tactical combat go considerably faster.

This also led to a significant change to how I write up Talents, since they need to be functional enough to be worthwhile even if the GM decides to only use one type of combat. Where 4th Draft had a lot of Talents that were only useful in combat, in the new version most Talents have at least some use outside of combat. I’m also cutting down on the sheer number of talents, which should make them easier to manage all around. (Likewise, not having 3 flavors of Fallout effects makes it easier to fill out a d66 table without stretching myself too far and running out of good ideas.)

I’ve been playing Persona 3 lately, and the distinctions between the two types of battles parallels (but doesn’t exactly match) the distinction between random encounters and boss battles in a JRPG video game. Although both types of battles use the same systems, a minor dungeon encounter has a substantially different place in overall gameplay, to the point where it largely becomes a matter of tapping the X button and watching your overall resources instead of a careful all-out battle. For Magical Burst there is also a distinction in simple speed, but I think this kind of division and prioritization of different types of battles is one of the more fascinating things I’m playing with in RPGs.

Starting and Advancement
Another change I’ve mentioned before is explicitly setting the game up to start out with the PCs as normal girls who become magical girls during the early stages of the game. Not every magical girl anime works that way, but the vast majority do. Even when they do become magical girls, they’re defined a bit more simply now, and gain their optimum abilities over time. In particular, they start with only one Talent, and can obtain a Specialization and other abilities over time. (Though a GM who’s so inclined could easily give PCs one or two Advances over the course of the first session to introduce those elements faster.)

Setting and Themes
I also made some tweaks to the game’s (loose) setting. Although previous versions allowed youma to have minions, this version names them “imps” and makes them an explicit part of the setting, as they are proto-youma that can eventually grow into full youma. Dark magical girls (which I’m calling “witches,” sidestepping the kind of icky “dark = evil” thing) are also a more explicit setting element, taking inspiration from how they’re presented in various magical girl anime.

One thing that I’ve been trying to do more is to explore themes of femininity in the game. It’s an important part of the genre (if perhaps a bit less so in Madoka Magica than in other series), and something that I’ve struggled with a bit for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here. One kind of ham-fisted but seemingly effecting thing is to add the “What does being a girl mean to you?” question from Magical Fury. The answers that playtesters (men and women alike) gave to that question have been really fascinating, ranging from statements of feminine power to lamenting the expectations society forces on women. I also made the small but important distinction that magical girls’ powers are not inherently flawed, but rather it’s the nature of the world around them that twists their magic in the unfortunate ways that are so central to the game.

I’m also trying to address transgender and non-binary characters in the game, with some help from some trans women who were very patient and supportive with my questions. Writing about transgender issues in an RPG in a non-terrible way is not easy, partly because the language itself works against you, but hopefully I’ve arrived at something that will work, by leaving the question open-ended while suggesting some possibilities. Magical Burst is about magical girls–issues of femininity do in fact play a role–but in real life there are lots of kinds of girls. On a practical level, since the tsukaima who recruit magical girls are alien beings, they generally don’t fully understand human notions of gender anyway.

Anyway, that’s where I am right now. There’s still quite a bit of work to do–and a ton of other projects I’m working on–but I’m pretty happy with the foundation I’m laying down here.

Magical Burst Design Journal June 2014

Last week I ran the third session of my Magical Burst playtest campaign. Even more so than I’d intended, the 4th draft has wound up being a nailing down of the overall structure with a lot of details needing more work. Combat is important to the game of course, and I’ve made it in such a way that it needs some careful balancing to really work. One of the key steps is going to be sitting down to really iron out the math and the design structures around it. A lot of things are working about how I want, but a few key things aren’t, though I’m starting to better understand why they aren’t. Here’s an update on where I’m at, which should give a general idea on what I’m going to be trying to do for version 4.1.

Specializations and Talents
Some things simply needing clarifications or rejiggering to work properly, but there’s also issues with game balance and making these crunchy bits actually be fun to engage. It comes back to the thing that the perspectives of a designer and a player are really different, and it can be difficult to look at it from the other side and make sure that the choices presented to the player are compelling and appropriate. Ideally I want the lists of Magical Talents to be a collection of good choices that are all more or less equally compelling.

The Witch’s Hex ability is one of the big things that is proving to be a problem all around. In an earlier version of the game I took a cue from Magical Burst ReWrite and gave Witch magical girls a flat +1 to damage, but we wanted to try something more interesting, hence the Hex ability that lets a witch put a cumulative point of continuing damage on an enemy. There are a few different potential issues with this, one of the big ones being the potential for abuse. I did take the precaution of making it so that each witch can only use it once per turn, but with multiple witches (or even a team of ALL witches) it’s easy to imagine killing an enemy with nothing but Hexes, which is definitely not what I was going for. It also has issues with both the opportunity cost and the way it’s used. Since it uses your Minor Action, it’s really easy to get through a turn without getting a chance to use it, and it’s also just not as interesting as it could be because you simply declare it and it happens. Our present working concept for a revised version is a thing where the Hexes a witch places on youma are by themselves inert, and another witch ability “detonates” them to do a base amount of damage or add additional effects for multiple hexes. Multiple witches could thus build up to the special effects faster, but wouldn’t be able to dominate a youma without touching the dice.

Link meanwhile is one of those things that’s a really nifty idea that’s hard to limit in the right ways to keep it from being overly powerful or overly weak. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with that.

Probably the biggest flaw with the relationship rules I’m seeing right now is in how they’re set up. Relationship with other magical girls are harder to damage and easier to figure out creatively (since you don’t have to invent any new characters whole cloth), so players end up emphasizing those and neglecting the intended emphasis of relationships with normal people, potentially for game reasons but also simply because it’s easier. The part about assigning points is also a bit more time-consuming than I’d like. Between the two factors, I’m thinking of changing the setup process a bit. Maybe something along the lines of relationships starting at a rank of 2, and players getting 3-4 relationships they can create in addition to those with the magical girls.

Non-Combat Moves
So far I haven’t given the non-combat moves as much testing as I’d actually like, and that’s partly due to simply needing to run the game in such a way that they come up more often. Investigating is potentially a major element of the game, and it’s something that RPGs have never been great at in general. On top of that, it’s proving hard to give players a basis on which to investigate nonsensical magic stuff and still have it be compelling.

On the other hand I was really happy with the effect that invoking the Stay Calm move had in last week’s session. It brought home the impact of that week’s Shocking Revelations, and totally changed the mood of the scene.

Someone on 4chan pointed out that Fury fallout is often much more disruptive than other kinds, which is definitely something I need to work on more. It’s true that a glitch in reality or a weird hug are potentially easier for a friend to overlook than if you suddenly punch them, and also in play I find that sometimes there’s not a huge difference between Distortions and certain Temporary Changes. I’m still trying to figure out how to approach it, but another reworking of Fallout is definitely a possibility.

The other issue that’s come up is just figuring out how and when to make fallout happen. I think I need to do more to encourage players to call my attention to it as the GM, especially since in my playtest campaign I’ve got 5 players, which is pushing the upper limit of what I can really handle in general. I try to integrate the fallout stuff into natural situations and such, but it takes a decent amount of effort on my part.

The Battlefield Map
One of the big challenges of using the Battlefield Map has been making it necessary and interesting. In playtests characters tended to move into the right range to attack and stay there unless something forced them to do otherwise. The concept of Nightmare Features was partly meant to add things to make movement more necessary. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the whole “Disengage” concept, because while it makes getting in close to an enemy a more interesting prospect, it also makes the battlefield more static.

What I’m currently thinking is to bump the map up to 6 positions, and to have the linear map be the default but not the thing used for every battle. In Last Stand the map system has maps of around 6 areas, arranged however the GM sees fit, whether a 2×3 grid for a section of city, a single line for a long corridor, a tower for a skyscraper, and so on. Moreover, I need to think about ways to have the youma move around in interesting ways.

Youma Design
My experience with previous drafts was that I’d made the youma too weak. I tried to power them up in this version, and I’m finding that they’re still too weak, though they do at least work well in terms of serving the purpose of saddling the magical girls with Overcharge.

Probably the single biggest issue is making them into viable “boss” monsters. Creating one enemy that can be a viable threat to multiple foes without the difference in numbers work against them runs against the grain of how RPG design typically works in general. Culling through the D&D4e monster books provided me with a lot of ideas for individual elements to make a good boss/solo enemy, but assembling a complete picture out of those is a good deal harder. One thing that emerged is that it’s easy for a boss to get layered with status effects, and hard to know how much a boss should be able to counter that. The current system where the youma’s Power Level and Spread set up certain stats and give the youma two kinds of ability selections isn’t really working, and I’m thinking I need to develop something a little more detailed, and something that covers the basics that a youma needs automatically. Right now my general thinking on that is to make a small selection of youma classes/specializations, which in turn have certain abilities that scale up according to PL and Spread, and then allow for some additional stuff on top of that. That will make it easier to create stuff to scale number of attacks, status resistance, etc. according to what the youma actually needs to have.

Story Stuff
A thing that’s emerging in a big way in both my campaigns and the novels I’ve been writing and brainstorming for is that magical girl antagonists are just incredibly useful. They make great foils to the heroines of the story, and they can bring full human intelligence to bear and cause problems in everyday life. I had been thinking about, for example, having the eventual “Magical Burst Companion” book have rules for magical girls falling to the Dark Side (inspired by the manga Planet Guardian, where that’s a fairly important plot element), but with or without explicit rules, I’m thinking “dark magical girls” are a trope that deserves more of a place in the core implied setting.

Faerie Skies: Design Journal

The pre-release of the Golden Sky Stories PDF is off to backers, which means that people are getting their first taste of the full version of the game. (Also, Channel A has reached most backers, and is now available in the Asmadi Games web store.) We have a ton of stuff to do yet (a good portion of which is in other people’s hands besides mine just now), but I wanted to take some time to talk about what I’ve been doing with Faerie Skies, the first of the two alternate settings I’m developing for GSS.

For Faerie Skies I’m sticking very close to the basic rules of Golden Sky Stories, essentially adding fae as a new group of character types and providing supporting material to go with them. The challenges then are more aesthetic than mechanical, since I’m setting myself the task of creating a suitable take on fairies out of the great mass of folk tales and their many reinterpretations. There are certain major archetypes of fairies, but once you include all the regional variations (even just within the British Isles) there are literally hundreds of different types, often with oddly-spelled Celtic/Gaelic names.[1] With some help from a friend who’s well-read on the subject I’ve settled on a set of six character types: brownies, elves, gnomes, nymphs, pixies, and pucas. The aim is to put together a set of archetypes that cover a reasonably wide range of types of fairies while avoiding a lot of the decidedly non-GSS elements of the folklore. The original folk takes are largely a series of warnings; “stay the hell away for faeries” is the most common moral. I don’t want to wholly go into Disney Fairies territory, but I also need to make something heartwarming for GSS.


In Faerie Skies, elves are specifically the faerie nobility, the Tuatha de Danaan and such, beautiful, magical, and melancholy. Gnomes are workers and creatures of the earth, nymphs are nature spirits (which can be water spirits, wind spirits, dryads, etc. depending on how you flavor them), brownies are helpful household fae, and pucas are shapeshifters with animal traits. On top of that there will be guidelines for using henge and mononoke to create other faerie characters. A cait sith can simply be a cat henge, the Black Dog can be a dog henge or a michinoke (or a bit of both) depending on how you flavor it, a will-‘o-the-wisp is hands-down a michinoke (and basically a Western equivalent of a hitodama), and so on.

Teasing out enough material to come up with 12 powers and 6 weaknesses for each character type is one of the more difficult parts, since creatures from folk takes tend to alternately be totally vague or flagrant deus ex machina in terms of the special powers they display. Elves and pixies[2] have been fairly easy to come up with traits for, while brownies have been a lot harder. On the other hand the sum of fairy lore has more potential ideas for powers and weaknesses than even the 108 slots I get from 6 character types, and I may end up making some optional powers and weaknesses players can slot in to further customize characters. (Which is actually the approach they took for the Touhou Yuuyake Koyake book.)

Faerie Skies is also going to include a selection of NPCs, similar to the archetypes included in the GSS rulebook, where they’re not so much character writeups as a delivery system for plot hooks. Some of these are simply more Western/British character types (like the Vicar), while others are people with distinct relationships to the world of the fairies (like the Sighted, who is touched with the ability to see through fae illusions). Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s series of children’s books The Spiderwick Chronicles is turning out to be an excellent source of inspiration for how it shows different ways human characters can interact with fairies.[3] Along with the people I’m putting in some animals (like sheep) and faerie creatures (gryphons, unicorns, the White Stag) that might play a role in stories. I’d like to do a writeup of an English town too, though being an American city kid makes that quite a challenge.

Digging into fairy lore and works of fiction for ideas has been a pretty interesting experience. RPGs instilled in me an interest in mythology,[4] and while I wasn’t more interested in fairies than other kinds of mythical creatures (and maybe less so than the likes of the tengu), I always found them interesting, enough so to inspire a flirtation with Changeling: The Dreaming. I’ve also been rediscovering things like the movie Labyrinth that I haven’t been near in ages. All in all this is proving to be a really fun project, though there’s still quite a bit of work to do all around.

[1]Having been a victim of an oddly-spelled Gaelic name my entire life, the likes of the Cait Sith and Gwragedd Annwn have my sympathy.

[2]I’m using the word “pixie” in the modern sense here. In the actual folk tales a pixie is a kind of brownie, and to the extent that the little people with fluttering wings are a thing, they’re more typically called sprites.

[3]It also doesn’t hurt that Mark Hamil did the voices for the audiobook.

[4]Thinking about it now I’m feeling a little nostalgic for trips to the Sunnyvale library, which had among other things a bunch of AD&D books and stuff like Folk Legends of Japan.

Magical Burst 2013

Needing to step away from Beyond Otaku Dreams, I ended up getting back into Magical Burst. (Also, making some notes for the alternate settings for Golden Sky Stories.) Getting away from Magical Burst (I was last seriously trying to work on it in October of last year) was apparently the right thing to do, because I feel like I’m coming at it with fresh eyes, and making some important changes that feel just plain refreshing.


One thing that’s been on my mind lately, something that I think not very many people would be in a position to notice, is how different designing and translating games are. As a translator I get very intimate with the actual text of the game. While I don’t remember every word of Golden Sky Stories, I’m exceedingly familiar with the contours of the text, with what goes in what sections. In contrast, when I have my game designer hat on I have an image of the rules in my head, and it’s a struggle to update the text to fit that image as it changes over time. Last month I had a bunch of ideas for Magical Burst (while I was at an anime convention as it happened), and coming back to the actual text is weird because the game in my head has changed so much from what’s in the Word doc. It feels weird that I come across references to relationships taking Strain when in my head I have the much more straightforward system of them having levels that can be gained or lost.[1]

The single biggest thing is that I’m significantly reworking certain key aspects of combat. I decided to implement a “Battlefield” system inspired by Nechronica and Meikyuu Kingdom, basically because it’s something I really, really like. I was never quite happy with the combat system in Magical Burst before, and this gives me a place to implement one of my favorite new game mechanics to come along in a while. I had been thinking of trying an Engagement system like in Arianrhod and 13th Age, but I find the Battlefield map approach far more interesting, and easier and more fun to hang mechanics off of. (It’ll also be a bit of a trial run for implementing a similar system in Slime Quest, which is going to be an altogether more involved project.) I’ve talked about it at great length before, but the core concept is that combat takes place on a semi-abstract map with a small number of positions/areas arranged in a line, and stuff like range and movement is in terms of this set of positions. This provides a potentially fun element of tactical combat while vastly reducing the overhead of having map-based combat at the table.[2]

I also decided to make Magical Attribute assignments semi-permanent. I never really liked the concept of swapping them around on the fly, and it was really an attempt to solve a problem (how to go about tying Heart, Fury, and Magic stats to something meaningful) rather than something I like on its own merits. I’m changing it so that you can rearrange them only when you take certain advancement options. This in turn reverberated through a bunch of other elements of the system, so that it was no longer necessary to have the rule that no two Magical Attributes could have the same value, and didn’t make sense to have relationships follow those types. (And the concept of Fury relationships was throwing people off anyway.)


That’s in addition to the other stuff I was talking about previously with specializations (which give characters more special abilities to emphasize Attack, Defense, or Support), and making Magical Effects into Magical Talents, of which there are a lot more available. One of the things I really like about Magical Burst overall is that it puts my diverse RPG inspirations on full display all at once. It’s traditional, hippie, and Japanese all at once, combining elements of games like D&D, Don’t Rest Your Head, Nechronica, Smallville, and Apocalypse World. The tactical combat aspect might seem a weird approach to the game, but it’s making me a lot more excited to play it.

At this point I’m thinking I’d like to make it a goal to finally publish Magical Burst in about a year or so, though of course I don’t expect life to be so straightforward. The part about how I want the tie-in novel to be ready is going to be a big deal, since that thing is still a first draft and needs a ton of work. On the other hand a new draft of the rules shouldn’t be *too* far off, and I intend to keep a free version available regardless.

[1]The main inspiration for this was the fan-made “Magical Burst ReWrite,” which I’m trying to borrow ideas from (there are several that are too good to pass up!) without plagiarizing.

[2]One of the issues with the 3rd and 4th Editions of D&D is that while doing stuff with a grid can be a lot of fun, you have to put a lot of effort into what is normally a single-use set piece to make it that way. A Battlefield map is both totally reusable and relatively easy to customize (just attach special effects to certain positions).

Beyond Otaku Dreams Alpha

I finished up a first draft of Beyond Otaku Dreams, and just has a rather messy, abortive playtest.[1] Right now I’m kind of lost as to what to do with it, so I’m tossing it on the internet to see what people make of it.

Beyond Otaku Dreams Alpha 001 PDF

The core game is definitely a branch of the Fiasco family tree. I’m really liking the idea of RPGs whose rules don’t particularly concern themselves with success and failure, because it seems to open up a huge number of types of genres and stories that wouldn’t work nearly as well in a traditional RPG (as evidenced by games like Fiasco, GxB/BxB, Hot Guys Making Out, etc.). I especially like the idea of handling an epic “final battle” that way, though I didn’t get as far as trying those rules out in the playtest. I think the big issue with the game right now is that it leaves a bit too much blank canvas for players to fill it, but I’m not sure how to go about fixing that.

[1]We were a bit tired and hot and in mixed moods, so I don’t know how much was problems with the game and how much was from other stuff.

More on Beyond Otaku Dreams

I have a ton of different things I need to work on, including getting more done with the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter (though at this point a lot of that is waiting for people to get back to me), making progress on Magical Burst, and I’ll stop there because I could easily do a whole post just on neglected projects. One that’s been on my mind a lot lately, that keeps popping up in my thoughts even when I don’t intend it to, is Beyond Otaku Dreams. I talked a bit about the idea in a previous post, but recent experiences have helped me solidify the concept a bit more, and really zero in on the heart of what I want it to be about.

For a long time I’ve wanted to make something about anime fans who see into another reality, a “dream layer” superimposed on the world, where they interact with beloved characters and fight spectacular battles while the rest of the world assumes they must be insane. I had a lot of ideas for a novel, and later for an RPG, but neither ever quite came together. Then last year I went to FanimeCon, and I saw the most amazing scene. The Jesus freaks with signs were protesting the terrible circumstance of people having fun, and a bunch of fans were counter-protesting and generally jeering the shouty Christian guys. One guy was playing Final Fantasy music on a saxophone. And while all that was going on, there was an ambulance, and they were loading a girl in full costume, in a powder blue wig, on a stretcher. My FanimeCon 2012 story was mainly about how I bought some stuff in the dealers room, hung out with my friends Jono and Sushu, and wound up playing Jenga with some random people in the gaming area. Someone else’s story was about how a friend who’d worked very hard on a costume had left the con in an ambulance. It reminded me of all the things I’ve seen at cons over the years, covering every hue in the spectrum of human emotions. I’ve seen raucous joy, but also deep anguish, paralyzing shame, perfect religious serenity, and a million other things. Anime fandom has its good and bad points, but it is above all very human. I realized that my game needed to be about that above all else.


More recently I went to Anime Conji, a small anime con in San Diego. It was kind of a shock to be so suddenly and thoroughly immersed in the anime con culture, and it reminded me of the sheer intensity of the experience. I can’t speak with authority on how anime fans behave in real life (I remember how my friends and I were in high school…), but it always feels like people are letting out things they have to keep in most of the time. There’s also a sort of ritualistic aspect of anime cons, and people create new patterns of group behavior that you don’t really see anywhere else. One really striking example is that if someone is wearing a costume, it’s apparently perfectly acceptable to just sort of yell the name of the character at them. Chatting with my friend Guy Shalev about the ritual nature of anime fandom made me realize how important, how immediate the convention experience could be. I realized that I should frame my game around characters going to a convention. The sheer intensity, the amplitude of hope, the collision of reality and delusion, make it the perfect setting for stories about both the humanity of anime fans and about the line between dreams and reality getting blurry.

(The other thing at Anime Conji was that I saw a panel put on by Chocolate Covered Cosplay about taking your fandom passions and making a living off of them. It would not have occurred to me that cosplay could also lead to a career in modeling–cosplay isn’t something I’ve ever been seriously involved with–but they’re apparently way ahead of me when it comes to being anime fans boldly realizing their potential.)

Narratives about and discussions of anime fandom tend to be either highly idealized or treat fans as human garbage. There are academic articles that go on about how amazing and post-modern otaku are, and blog posts griping about how obnoxious they are. Beyond Otaku Dreams is in part me planting a flag in the neglected middle ground, the place where anime fans are human beings with both problems and potential. It’s become a rather personal work (insofar as an RPG can be personal), based much more on my own experiences than references to works of fiction. I have a hard time thinking of many RPGs that quite have that kind of origin (maybe some Jeepform or Norwegian Style games?). I don’t think that makes it better, but it definitely makes it that much more something I want to bring to fruition. It also means that there’s almost zero inspirational material to look at (Akibaranger and Dramacon are probably the closest), which is liberating in a way.


The game that’s just starting to form in my head has some bits of Don’t Rest Your Head, Fiasco, and Polaris (plus a tiny bit of Maid RPG and a few other things). It’s definitely leaning towards the GM-less shared storytelling activity side of things. Like Fiasco it’ll be aimed more at one-shots, but since the characters will tend to survive and become better people, it’ll lend itself to doing “sequel” sessions where you revisit them at the con the following year (or maybe have them going to an even bigger con, or even an event in Japan), learning what new challenges they’re facing. It’s not going to be a game with a lot of numbers–I’m thinking the main thing will be a dynamic of Hope, Trauma, and Delusion[1]–and the more important part of character creation will be a series of DRYH-like questions, including things like “What is your obsession?” and “What do you hate about yourself?” The game would play out in a series of acts and scenes. Acts get random events from tables to shake things up, and scenes will involve stuff based on a character’s answers to the questions. Over the course of the game the situation with dreams intruding into waking hours explodes and climaxes, and then each character gets an epilogue partly based on their numerical scores. Or something like that.

One thing I’ve decided about the end product is that I want the visuals in the book to be mostly or entirely actual photos of cosplayers and convention stuff (kinda like what I put in this post but, you know, all-around better). I love artwork, and I love working with artists, but a lot of the most important parts of this game are about reality, and I want to reflect that visually. I know there are some stock photos I can use–there are a good number of cosplay photos available that way–but it’ll be interesting figuring out how to do the rest, to capture the feel of Artists Alley and a the masquerade and such. The decision to use photos may in turn lead me to have the book be in color (and maybe formatted more like a convention program guide?[2]), though of course that’s getting way ahead of things.

Update (4/30/2013): A conversation with a friend about the game led to kind of an interesting idea. One of the challenges with Beyond Otaku Dreams is helping create something of an anime convention feel even when the players are potentially in a plain, quiet room at someone’s house. Some of the things you can do go a bit outside the scope of the RPG. The Ambiance app provides sound loops for things like a convention hall or manga cafe for example, there’s stuff like having props around (I want to make convention badges, and I’d love to play with someone in full costume), and of course you could just play the game at an anime con. My main idea for helping with that on the game design end is a step just before character creation called “the buzz,” where the group puts together a list of anime titles[3] that everyone in the play group is reasonably familiar with, with the option to put in some made-up ones (say if you just had a memorable game of Channel A?). I think part of the appeal of going to an anime con is entering a special space where your arcane knowledge temporarily becomes shared knowledge, but in my experience even good friends don’t necessarily have quite the same canon of anime series, so I think establishing a baseline for the game will go a long way towards helping players emphasize what they do share. The Buzz should then influence (but not dictate) some elements of characters; if you want your character to be obsessed with a specific anime character, it’ll potentially be more effective to go for one from a series listed in the Buzz. The Buzz will probably also include some elements of the convention itself, like notable guests or events. It would be pretty natural to have a character obsessed with the new anime series Kaiser Bunny Legend[4] and then have the creator of KBL as a guest at the con who plays a role in the story as an NPC.

[1]Specifically “delusion” as a translation of the Japanese word mousou (妄想) as used by otaku, referring to a kind of deliberate, flagrant rejection of reality in favor of self-indulgent fantasies.

[2]Except it would show up on time instead of halfway through the thing. :rimshot:

[3]And other works that fit into the general zeitgeist; putting Idol Master or Homestuck into this list would be fine.

[4]Which is straight from a Channel A playtest, though some day I want to write that story. A group of doujin artists find themselves in a colorful world of magic where imagination has power, so as creative types they find they have all sorts of magical powers. One guy finds his mascot character, a fanservice bunny girl, comes to life. She in turn accidentally takes up the Kaiser Gauntlet, and thus must become the hero who saves the world. With that as a backdrop, the story is really about their relationship and how it changes as she gradually transforms from a fairly shallow character into a complex human being. But anyway.

More on Channel A

As I write this the Channel A Kickstarter is nearing the halfway point funding-wise. It’s still achievable, but things will need to pick up a bit. On the plus side, Asmadi is fully committed to making the game happen regardless. Either way, I’m really grateful for all the support we’ve gotten.

One thing that’s been on my mind lately with Channel A is how it’s in some ways a result of my involvement with Maid RPG. I’ve become increasingly interested in “interpreted chaos,” where random elements form a picture and it’s up to you to complete it. Rolling up a Maid RPG character gives you a lot of information, but it leaves a lot open too. If (as is becoming my cliche example) you roll a chainsaw-wielding cyborg mermaid who became a maid for bridal training, you still have an awful lot to work out yourself in terms of personality, history, and so on. What makes it so interesting is just how much of a boost that kind of randomness can give. Creative constraints make creating easier, whereas a blank page can be pretty amazingly hard to turn into something. Without all the Title and Premise Cards, all of Channel A could fit onto an index card, but instead of the amazing results it does produce, even from people who aren’t usually given over to creativity, you’d probably end up with a lot more of people staring at each other.

I’ve posted up some photos of my Game Crafter prototype (the “OAV Edition,”) before, and now I can show off some of the designs for the final version with Clay Gardner’s fantastic graphic design work. While my own work is at least non-terrible, I’m still really happy to have Clay on the project. Collaborating with people can have difficulties no matter how well-meaning you are, and Clay has a certain knack for not only getting what I want, but doing the stuff I didn’t know I wanted. Below are some of the revamped Title Cards he did:

channel a cards

The Future!
Needless to say I’ve been prematurely thinking about possible expansions, because that’s how I roll. The ridiculously easy thing (on my end at least) is adding new Title Cards. (It’s quite a bit harder to come up with new Premise Cards though.) Looking at my files and doing some math, I literally have about 350 extra Title Card ideas. Some people are inevitably going to want some more (and suggest title words I haven’t included), and I don’t mind giving it to them. On the other hand I don’t want to just go crazy making new Title Cards; I’d like to try some things that mix up the gameplay a bit.

  • Chaos Blitz would be a set of “Chaos Cards” that mess around with the rules each round, ranging from funny accents to instituting rules variants. It’s kind of like what I was doing with the special actions on cards in i.hate.everyone.
  • I have a few different ideas for themes for expansions that are mostly Title Cards. The one I especially want to do would be called something like “Japanimation Fever,” and purposely be a collection of stuff aimed at bad Western imitations of anime. The mascot/chibi character for that would be a catgirl with cyan hair, with the most overdone, busy design possible.
  • I had the idea for “Star Cards,” Title Cards that let you drop in anything from a given category (fruits, planets, numbers, etc), but in play they fell a bit flat. The notable exception was the “Duplicate” Star Card, which put in another of the word before it (so you could change “Love Revolution” to “Love Love Revolution,” say), and I’m interested in playing around with similar elements.
  • Another of my experiments that still needs work is A-Soft, which rewords the game to be about pitching video games, and comes with a deck of 40 “Genre Cards” that list different kind of video games (dating sim, FPS, RPG, etc.). It seems to work okay so far, but I definitely need to refine it and nail down the rules more.
  • A few times people have suggested some kind of bidding/business type mechanic. That’s a strong candidate for an expansion, though with the game as it is now you could pretty much take a Channel A set and use it with the rules for the old Cheapass Games edition of The Big Idea with no particular changes. Making something similar that’s reasonably easy to manufacture (instead of asking players to provide play money, chips in six different colors, and a d6 themselves), fun to play, and distinct from TBI will be a major challenge.
  • Another random idea I had was a “Q&A” expansion where you can play something more in the vein of Cards Against Humanity, using Channel A cards to answer questions/fill in the blanks.
  • Since Asmadi Games is publishing Channel A, I’d like to try making some kind of crossover thing with We Didn’t Playtest This At All (though Chris already has “We Didn’t Playtest This Channel At All” among the Channel A stretch goals). I’m not sure how to approach that myself, and I think I need to start getting more into WDPTAA to really figure it out.
  • Blank cards are a definite possibility too. It’s not the kind of thing I would readily think of (being the guy who gets to decide what goes on the professionally made cards), but Chris has told me that people have asked for it. Hell, last year at APE some friends of mine who had a booth got a bunch of index cards and markers and improvised their own deck. Not unlike with my RPG stuff, I’d like to see what people could come up with.

Another random thing is that I’d like to do something with the chibi art from the game. There are the 8 characters I commissioned Dawn to do, and if the Kickstarter goes through there’s be several more for people who pledged at the $65 level (16 so far!), which could make for a really awesome poster or T-shirt.

D&D Next and Slime Quest

For some reason I started paying attention to D&D Next again, and every time that happens I end up getting inspired to work on Slime Quest, my fantasy heartbreaker project. The big thing is that the status of the warlord class in Next is iffy at best, and I consider the warlord to be easily one of the very best new things in 4e, one of the few new things it added that was missing all along. If I find D&D Next palatable and if it has an open license I might see about making a warlord class (and I doubt I’d be anywhere close to the only one making the attempt), but right now I’m finding Slime Quest much more exciting.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that D&D4e was a good start, but needed some considerable refinement to get where it needed to go. It has a lot of vociferous critics who have an uncanny ability to totally miss its actual flaws, things that never got addressed, or that got addressed in a questionable way (Weapon Expertise feats as a fix to PCs attack values being insufficient for example). A true 4.5 Edition could have refined 4e into the game they’d been groping towards, though I’m not confident that Wizards of the Coast circa 2012 was actually equipped to do so. (I’m still struck by how much better the 13th Age playtest doc was compared to Next’s.) In my current push on Slime Quest I’m trying to pay close attention to those kinds of things and find solutions. I feel like for every good new idea (like advantage and disadvantage) Next has ten things where they’re feeling in terror from the progress that 4e made, all while ignoring its real mistakes. Of course, with Slime Quest I don’t have to worry about keeping D&D fans happy. If anything I need to do something different to differentiate the game from a zillion other fantasy RPGs, even when I’m specifically aiming to do something evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Continue reading D&D Next and Slime Quest

Retail Magic Design Journal 2

Last night I ran my first Retail Magic playtest, and it went really well. Granted at this stage it’s basically a reskinned Maid RPG, but as my attempt at using those rules for a new version of Mascot-tan demonstrated, that wouldn’t have been a guarantee of success. For the game I rolled up a store I named Vanderveldt Bros., originally under the control of two archmages, but since they died (most likely at each other’s hands) their nephew Eric Vanderveldt (a talented young mage but largely clueless about business) inherited the store. Over the course of the game Axebeard (a female dwarf) held an interview that led to Red Maj (a little girl) being hired, while Wyrmsbane (a shiftless loser dressed as a wizard) slacked off. There was a bit of flailing around dealing with customers, missionaries, and so on before it turned out an ancient dragon was coming to burninate the city, and they had to gather the ingredients for a ritual in order to weaken the dragon enough to defeat it. It was fun, and very silly. It also felt a whole lot like Maid RPG at a magic shop, but then that was kind of the idea.

One thing I’m thinking about is writing a bit about how to approach playing the game. I have enough experience with running Maid RPG that I think I could put together some useful advice. I just discovered Craig Judd’s blog The Game Mechanic, where he just put up three posts about his experiences with Maid RPG as the first of his experiments with expanding his RPG horizons. It’s really interesting to read about someone else struggling to figure out how to play the game and ultimately finding their own style, which is apparently considerably more serious than mine. It’s going to be a challenge to find the right midpoint between offering advice while making it clear that people can do what they want, but I think very worthwhile. It’s probably going to end up looking a lot like the advice I wrote for Dragon World.

I came up with a small innovation, albeit one that gives me a lot of work to do. The idea is to have a d666 table that is in essence a set of six d66 tables with different themes. I’m doing this with the item table, which has different general types of items so that you can just make a d666 roll for any old kind of item, or make a d66 roll specifically for a cursed item or an outworld artifact. I’m also thinking of doing this with the random event tables, which will both give the game enough random events to hold up to more play, and provide event tables for more themes.


I finally started playing Recettear, which I’m enjoying a lot so far, plus it helped me figure out a general approach for putting together the “commerce rules” for Retail Magic. Assuming I can put together something workable, I think “store management” is going to be its own style of play, distinct from random event-driven, favor race, etc. Recettear, like a lot of Japanese simulation video games, uses a concept of “turns,” during which the player has a budget of actions they can take to try to pursue their goals. The system I’m thinking of will be a bit more abstract, without manually doing the haggling of every sale like in Recettear. I’m still in the earliest stages of designing it, and we’ll have to see how it works out.

A while ago I stumbled across Norm Feuti’s book Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook. He’s the creator of a comic strip called Retail, about the staff of a department store and the shit they have to deal with. It draws on his 15 years of experience working at various stores, and Pretending You Care is a more direct distillation of that experience, full of stuff that I wish I’d known during the one retail job I’ve had. It’s kind of depressing to read–and retail has if anything gotten a bit worse since the book came out in 2007–but it’s giving me plenty of ideas as I re-read it.

Anyway, that’s about where I am with the project. My next step is to basically write more material–items, events, etc.–and try them out. Although it’s getting way ahead of myself, I’m also thinking a bit about possible supplements. I don’t want to get quite as out of control as Maid RPG did, but producing stuff like, say, a collection of scenarios with some accompanying rules material could be interesting. For that matter a friend of mine had an idea for a hack that would basically be a zany fantasy version of Community.

Retail Magic Design Journal 1

I’ve been making good progress on the aforementioned Retail Magic RPG (though the Yaruki Zero book is still eating up a lot of my free time). Kamiya was amenable to the idea and and even impressed with the draft of the character creation rules I showed him, so it looks like I don’t have to worry about whether the project is feasible on that front.

The PC (employee) creation rules are done, though I need to take some time to refine the selection of Special Qualities. There are a few things I copied over from my draft of Mascot-tan that I should probably revise or remove, and possibly a few things I need to add. I also finished the boss and store creation rules, though that went faster because I decided not to write up a separate Special Qualities table for bosses. I had fun making the store creation tables a bit more expansive than the mansion creation tables in Maid RPG, so you roll for the store’s appearance, location, specialty, and special features. Let’s give those a try:

Alyssa Foxtail
Attributes: Athletics 2, Cunning 0, Guts 3, Luck 2, Presence 0, Skill 3
Boss Type: Obsessed Artisan
Boss Assets: Magical Power, Property
Favorite Employee Type: Weirdo
Boss Special Qualities: Fox Ears, Overactive Imagination
Stress Explosion: Making Corny Jokes/Punning
Colors: Hair: Gold, Eyes: Silver, Outfit: Red and Yellow
Stress Limit: 30

Alyssa is one of the fox people of the eastern forests. She started Fox Hunt Specialties because the only thing she could do to earn a living was to harness her innate magical talent. Although she looks fairly attractive, in a disheveled kind of way, she’s actually kind of annoying and unsocial, and tends to neglect her employees.

Fox Hunt Specialties
Store Appearance: Eccentric Construction
Store Colors: Teal and Violet
Store Location: Magical Mobility
Store Specialty: Material Components
Store Special Features: Arcade Game, Dimensional Interior

Alyssa’s store is the result of building a hut out of discarded glass bottles and then attaching a pocket dimension to the entrance. The store’s exterior is about the size of a small phone booth, but the interior is a full-sized store, with countless racks of merchandise, including an impressive collection of spell components in mason jars behind the counter. The dimensional enchantments on it are a little bit unstable though, and the store has a way of jumping around the city at random. A brief trip to Earth resulted in a Simpsons arcade game machine being delivered to the store by accident, and Alyssa was able to bind an electricity elemental to power it.

I’m also working on a d666 item table, though writing up 216 items is going to take quite a while. There are only so many zany D&D items to borrow from. I’m planning to take after the original Japanese Maid RPG rulebook and include two scenarios and a replay, though I need to get a bit further along before I can make those. I’m also contemplating hiring Sue-chan to do the artwork, since I think her style would mesh pretty well with the overall feel of the game.

Since so many of the people interested in the game have expressed interest, I’m also putting together a chapter for putting Retail Magic into a modern/urban fantasy setting, which is turning out to be roughly the same setting as Magic School Diaries. I’m still working out what actual new material it’ll require, but right now the “Memos from Corporate” table is shaping up to be my favorite part of it.

The big thing that has me stumped is how to approach doing commerce rules. It makes perfect sense to have optional rules for handling running the store’s business, but I don’t even know where to begin. Also, owing to the choice of rules systems, this will be one of my rare non-open designs, but I will be looking for people to do outside playtesting rather than posting it online.