Category Archives: musings

West End Games

The other day I stumbled across a copy of the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game at a local Goodwill, which West End Games put out in 1997 (though the WEG Star Wars RPG itself launched in 1987). I’ve also been thinking about the Ghostbusters RPG, which WEG put out in 1986. I actually have a copy available to me, but someone went as far as to put PDFs of it up online, which I feel okay about linking to for a game that’s 30 years old and decidedly out of print. (Update: Also it looks like there are some folks who’ve been doing a long-running actual play podcast and sell goodies for the game.)


Both of these come from the era when boxed sets were still a thing, before they became prohibitively expensive for most RPG publishers. Although the Star Wars box is an introductory product, it’s a far more robust introductory product than the sort that WotC has put out for D&D. The full version of the game has a lot more stuff to it, but the introductory box has the complete core rules, lets you create complete and functional characters, and includes seven different adventure scenarios. That’s in addition to dice, maps, cardstock miniatures, and reference cards. You could do a decent little campaign just using the stuff already included in the box, and having that much physical stuff with color photos and illustrations is just plain fun. The Ghostbusters box isn’t quite as extensive, but it’s similar, and comes with dice, character and equipment cards, amusing handouts, and so on.


The Ghostbusters RPG is a bit of an oddity, but also an incredible game. It seems like kind of an odd choice for making an RPG, especially given the state of RPG design in 1986, but Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, and Greg Stafford (among other things, the major designers for Chaosium, who did a ton of important work on Call of Cthulhu and Prince Valiant, two other impressively innovative games) created a game that was ahead of its time in many ways, and which became the progenitor of the D6 System that (in a more complex form) powered the Star Wars RPG and other WEG games.

  • It was probably the first RPG to use a die pool system, where your traits are rated as a number of dice that you roll together. As far as I know, up until then RPGs mostly used either D&D-style ability scores or percentiles.
  • The box also includes a Ghost Die, which has a Ghostbusters logo in place of the 6. Any time you roll, one of your dice is the Ghost Die, and if you roll the ghost side of the Ghost Die, it counts as a zero, and regardless of whether you succeed or fail, something weird happens. This is an early example of the “rich die rolls” that make help games like Cortex Plus, WFRP3e, and Don’t Rest Your Head so interesting mechanically.
  • In addition to the four attributes, each character has a Talent associated with each attribute, and they get an extra 3 dice when doing something with their Talent. The book includes lists of sample Talents for each stat (and includes things like Break Things, Breakdance, Strut, Raise Children, Soap Opera Romances, and Sports Facts), but with the GM’s permission you could make up your own, making it one of the earliest if not the first instance of “roll your own” traits as seen in games like Risus and PDQ.
  • One of the major mechanics of the game is “Brownie Points,” which are one of the first instances of a drama point type mechanic in an RPG. Among other things you can spend them to gain additional dice before you roll.
  • In the original edition, BP were also in essence your hit points, and you had to spend them to give your character coincidences that would keep them from dying or getting unduly hurt. In the second edition (“Ghostbusters International”) they added the possibility of taking damage that would temporarily reduce your stats (something that also shows up in Risus and PDQ), but kept the option to spend BP to avoid harm. Both of these are decidedly unconventional, cinematic ways to handle injury, and a great fit for the source material.
  • Each PC also has a “Goal,” something like Sex, Money, Soulless Science, etc., and achieving that goal is one of the major ways they gain Brownie Points. I don’t know if it was a direct influence, but it presages stuff like aspects in Fate.

The Ghostbusters RPG isn’t perfect or anything, but most of its imperfections pretty much come down to it being an RPG that came out in 1986. The writing style comes off as a little juvenile and not quite right for a Bill Murray comedy (and for some reason they really like using eating a telephone as an example action), and while the rules are way ahead of their time, the tendency to treat things as a physics simulation creeps in a little at times, most notably in the combat rules. Even then, for an RPG in 1986 the way that it explicitly skips over having rules for movement and such is an impressive step forward.

The new Ghostbusters movie has been controversial for kind of stupid reasons. I completely obsessed with Ghostbusters through much of my childhood, and the new movie did not ruin my childhood (bullies, poverty, and isolation messed things up way more than Paul Feig could’ve ever hoped to). It was actually a pretty fun movie, and while I don’t think it was as good as the original, I do think it was significantly better than Ghostbusters II (which I still like a lot). Even so, Holtzmann (the awesome mad scientist lady in the new one) is now my favorite single Ghostbuster, and there are a lot of nifty things in the new movie that got me thinking more about the whole thing and how easy it would be to write up in the RPG. They have a bunch of different ghostbusting toys, they do more different things with ghosts, and they have an angle of trying to get ghostbusting off the ground while facing intense skepticism and a deliberate government coverup.

Even though in theory I’m way too busy with more important stuff (and even though I have way more than enough other projects going on), I got inspired to start on a game that builds on the Ghostbusters RPG, filing the serial numbers off and taking the core framework and making a few modern additions, both mechanically and thematically (also, because this is me, several d66 tables). Although paranormal investigators with weird science gadgets for busting ghosts will still be a core conceit, you’ll be able to play, say a magician out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a ghost-fighting esper out of an anime. I’m tentatively calling this game “Spooktacular,” and I’m thinking of making it a future Patreon release. But anyway.

I only played the Ghostbusters RPG once, and while most of our ghostbusters were relatively typical (I played the mad scientist guy), one in particular stood out. A friend of mind created Clara Robison, a single mother who’d gotten into the ghostbusting business because it was a way to make ends meet. Where the characters in the original were practically cartoon characters at times–and that’s before we get into the actual cartoon version–for me Clara added a certain undercurrent of everyday humanity to the whole concept of ghostbusters. It’s not something that the RPG deliberately or explicitly encourages, but it’s something that was very easy to make a part of the game.

2016-08-02 18.40.15

One of the most human parts of the new movie is the backstory behind Abby and Erin. Erin saw a ghost when she was young, and the kids at school started calling her “Ghost Girl,” a taunt that bothered her until she and Abby became best friends, and together developed a fascination with the paranormal. While Holtzmann and Patty stand out more in terms of general awesomeness, Abby and Erin have a genuine enthusiasm for discovery that rivals Ray’s. They went as far as to make a tie-in book for the movie, which has not only Abby and Erin’s backstories, but a ton of information about supernatural hunters, ghosts, and haunted places both from real life (the book has a pretty extensive bibliography) and the Ghostbusters world. It’s generally a fun way to geek out about fictional science, and potentially a nifty resource for RPG purposes.

Anyway, I felt the need to blather about all of that stuff for a while. WEG did some amazing stuff in the 80s, and both the old and new Ghostbusters are awesome. So yeah.

Kagegami High

I haven’t written about it all that much here, but lately I’ve been working pretty intently on Kagegami High. Of my self-published games, Schoolgirl RPG is the most spontaneous and also one of the most successful. I ended up making quite a bit of material for it, put together a Complete Edition (with a POD version available), and then giving it a rest. When I decided to come back to the game, I had the idea to create a book that presents a premade setting, a high school with explanations of places, students, teachers, etc. I’d barely gotten started on brainstorming for that when the idea for Kagegami High took over.

Kagegami High Cover_

Continue reading Kagegami High

Tools for Dreaming: Role-Playing

All the way back in 2012 I published the Yaruki Zero book, and considering what it is, it’s sold surprisingly well. I’ve been working on the eventual follow-up, but I was increasingly finding that I wanted to write RPG design stuff without it being stuck in quite so personal of a format. That led me to start on a new book called Tools for Dreaming, my attempt at distilling everything I know about RPG design and publishing (so far). Right now the manuscript is about 46k words, but I feel like it could wind up being a good deal longer before it’s really complete. It has a lot to do with trying to expand the scope of what the medium is capable of (and is emphatically not about sweeping away what came before), and while it touches on a lot of the same territory as prior attempts at RPG theory, I’m mainly concerned with making fun and interesting games.

Rough of a cover design for the book

There are some parts of the book I need to figure out how to write, and some that I’m sure I’m going to need help with, but I wanted to start generally sharing it and getting the process moving, so this is the first of a series of excerpts from the work in progress that I’m going to be posting. The first chapter after a rather lengthy introduction is titled “What is an RPG?”, and it’s an attempt to break down the definition of the word and what RPGs entail, which turns out to be a lot messier than you might think. Today I’m sharing the section of that chapter on role-playing.


Role-playing is one of the most fundamental and interesting things about role-playing games, and I think it’s worth taking a little time to discuss it in depth. Role-playing is where a person takes on a specific role and acts it out on the fly, with no script. There are many different types and styles of role-playing, and while we gamers tend to think of it in terms of portraying a fictional character, there certainly are role-playing activities that ask you portray yourself or someone else in the room in a particular situation. Therapists will sometimes use psychodrama and other forms of role-play to help people work through problems, language students role-play everyday situations to practice their skills, and people role-play themselves to practice things like job interviews.

However, even if we strictly stay within the realm of tabletop games, there’s still a lot of variety. What we call “role-playing” is something of an umbrella term for a number of different mental and emotional processes. Different people role-play differently, and the same person can shift between different approaches to role-playing, even within the same game. I’m a little wary of jargon and categories, but I’m going to try to outline what I see as the major forms of role-play people employ in RPGs.

Many people role-play by immersion, and for them a character is like a second self they slip into for a while. This kind of role-play uses our human capacity for empathy. Empathy is a process by which you use your own experiences to create a mental image of someone else’s emotional state.[1] This is likely an important aspect of how people function as social animals, and is one of a number of prosocial instincts in both humans and other species. Some people are more naturally empathic than others, and a portion of other people’s differing experiences will be more of an abstraction to you. Even so, empathy is a basic part of being human. Therapeutic role-playing uses this capacity to foster a cathartic release and greater empathy with others, while RPGs use it to let us vicariously experience some of a fictional character’s emotional state. Instead of putting yourself in your significant other’s shoes to better understand their point of view, you put yourself in your character’s shoes to enjoy seeing and interacting with the world as they do. While it’s not the only way to role-play, it’s where traditional RPGs excel, and where many people find the fundamental appeal of playing an RPG. It does have some drawbacks though, most notably that it can be emotionally taxing at times.

Others use a more calculating, performative approach. This is more like improv theater, where even if you outwardly portray a consistent character, your mental state is focused on creating a particular performance. RPGs are for smaller groups of people than improv shows, so it’s a bit different from playing to an audience in a theater, and I suspect that performative role-playing in a tabletop RPG is a bit more geared toward one’s own enjoyment. Regardless, it shifts the priority from the character’s mental state and objectives to presenting a particular outward performance of the character. It’s a less emotionally engaged way to role-play, but it makes it easier to separate what you want the character to be like from your character’s own desires. People are more likely to use this form of role-playing when they’re trying to portray a well-established character.

Still others are most comfortable when acting more like an author. In this mode, you control your character from above, ready to step outside of them to steer the overall story in whatever direction you think is best. It’s another step removed from immersive role-playing, but players are free to concentrate on making the best story they can. There are a number of independent games that specifically foster this style of role-playing, particularly when they have mechanics that require players to make decisions and give creative input from a vantage point outside of the character. It’s a very different way to play an RPG, but it can create really fun, unique experiences.

Because RPGs are also games with mechanical, board game-like rules, players also sometimes role-play less as a portrayal of a character and more in terms of playing a game, even if they do so in a way that’s consistent with their character’s abilities and personality. RPGs often ask players to make decisions based on practical and mechanical matters, especially when it comes to combat. In this mode the character becomes more of a playing piece, and the mechanical distinctions that the game provides the character are more important than the character’s personality and emotional life. This is the mode that’s the most difficult to rightfully call “role-playing,”[2] but it’s also an important part of many of the most popular RPGs. Games like D&D can provide lots of interesting things for players to do in this space, and learning to skillfully wield the mechanical aspects of a character is a genuine part of the fun of playing such games. This mode doesn’t necessarily have to be about hard mechanical matters either. Players who are debating who gets what treasure or trying to formulate a plan can wind up speaking as themselves rather than their characters, even if the “game” they’re playing is made up of words and concepts instead of numbers.

All of these fall under the umbrella of role-playing to some degree. Some games work better with particular approaches, and people are often more comfortable with some approaches than others, but what people actually do at the game table is fluid. It’s good to be aware of how your game might pull people towards particular approaches, but it’s not necessary to force players to stick to one single mode of role-playing. The thing to be wary of is asking players to do too many of these things at once, especially when they have opposed motivations. RPGs that ask players to act more as storytellers tend to suffer when they also encourage players to heavily identify with their characters, because what’s good for the story can often conflict with what a character wants for themselves. Likewise, if you have rules that pull players into more of a board game mode, you can’t expect nearly as much in the way of conventional role-playing out of them while those rules are in play.

Also, it’s been my experience that as a group, beginners don’t inherently gravitate towards any one style of role-play. People who cut their teeth on traditional RPGs sometimes assume that immersive role-playing is the most natural, but I’ve found that a significant portion of first-time role-players naturally think they have power over the story around their character, such that teaching them to play a traditional RPG is a process of getting them to pull back and only control what their character is attempting to do.

[1] Not a scientific definition, just my attempt to explain the concept as I understand it.

[2] Hence the kinda dumb and overused thing of calling it “roll-playing.”

More On Pix

I’ve been working on Pix quite a bit since I last blogged about it, and while there’s plenty left to do, I’ve made some considerable progress.

A placeholder cover thing.

Pix is a lot of different things coming together, and it reflects my unique influences and style all throughout.

On a pure design level, it’s a deliberate and transparent blend of two of my most important game design influences, Golden Sky Stories and Apocalypse World. I’ve ended up writing a pretty enormous amount of GSS material, and I’ve reached a point where the vast majority of my game design efforts have a significant amount of AW’s DNA in them, particularly in terms of moves and principles. While I adore GSS overall, I’m in the odd position of having written around 150 pages of material for it, including 13 original character types. (4 more and I’ll be tied with Kamiya himself.) With Pix I have the freedom to tweak every little rule however I want, and it’s decidedly refreshing to just get in and tinker like that.

Undertale was a vitally important source of inspiration for Pix (and the selection of character options will let you make reasonable facsimiles of most of the cast), but a dozen or so other titles inform its sensibilities to varying degrees, including Homestuck, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time. There’s enough of a melange of influences and creative choices that to me at least Pix doesn’t feel like it quite mimics any one. The fact that it’s a non-violent game also separates it from most of those titles, which will happily blend in a hefty dose of violence.

Continue reading More On Pix

My 2015

2015 was a weird year for me, not that I really know what a “normal” year is supposed to look like anymore. In November of 2014 I got laid off from the job I’d had for nearly 5 years. For the 8 or so months that followed I looked for work, did freelance work for a board game publisher (some of which is going to be getting out to the public relatively soon), and worked more on self-publishing projects, including starting a Patreon. In June I got a contract job as a content moderator at a tech company, and my contract got extended so I’ll most likely be there into the middle of 2016 at least. A couple months ago I also started doing freelance work for a translation agency, which is a really nice source of supplemental income.


Playing Games
2015 wasn’t a great year for me in terms of finding time to actually play games. Thanks to changing circumstances, I basically did occasional playtests and sort of regular D&D. Since I’ve got about half a dozen games ready to playtest and a great pile of games I’d like to play (most notably World Wide Wrestling), I really should try to get a second gaming group up and running.

I ended up playing a decent amount of D&D5e, mainly because one of my groups of friends really wanted to play it. There are things I like about it, and some cases where I legitimately think it improved over 4e (and I’d take it over 3e in a heartbeat), but on the whole I still find it to be an emphatically average RPG, and very deliberately generic D&D. The more interesting things that we’ve discovered about the game in play have been in the designs of some of the various classes, the level of variety the different build options provide (something you don’t really get from the starter set or basic rules), and to a lesser extent in the specifics of certain spells. The publishing schedule on the other hand has been anemic to nonexistent, and by far the most interesting new 5e material has been in the form of the free Unearthed Arcana PDFs that have gone up on the WotC website. The advantage/disadvantage concept remains 5e’s most interesting mechanical innovation by far, and something I’ve seen pop up in a handful of other games to great effect.


On the other hand I ended up playing video games a heck of a lot more, including Persona 3 and 4, Final Fantasy X, and the first two Dragon Age games. (I started on Dragon Age: Inquisition, but the UI bugs me to no end.) I’ve had to cut down a bit since starting a full-time job, but I’m still playing a good amount.

Design and Publishing
Although I’ve calmed down quite a bit from the frantic period of late 2014, I still published a good amount of stuff in 2015.

In January I published Magical Fury, a super-light sister game to Magical Burst, which has become one of my best-selling games. Along with some other games, I set up POD printing for it, and it’s sold quite well that way too. At this point setting books up for POD on CreateSpace and DTRPG has become downright routine for me.

One of the most notable new things I did was to start a Patreon, which has exceeded $200 in pledges from 60 patrons. It’s been hard to find time to properly work on games and especially to playtest, so I’ve only released 3 games through Patreon so far (Fullmetal President, Raspberry Heaven, and America’s Next Top Reality Show), but having some money for each one has at least let me get some art for them. I don’t get a lot of actual feedback from patrons, but they’re sticking around, which counts for something.


I also started selling my own games through Indie Press Revolution. We already sell through them for Star Line Publishing, so asking for Yaruki Zero Games to get listed there was more or less a formality. They took 20 copies each of Schoolgirl RPG and Magical Fury to Gen Con, and sold out pretty quickly, so I’ve made a point to keep them stocked with my books. I’ve generally found them easy to work with, and they in turn get my stuff into game stores. The other day I was in downtown Oakland, and when I stopped by Endgame and found that they had Mascot-tan, Magical Fury, Raspberry Heaven, Golden Sky Stories, and Maid RPG in stock.

Getting Raspberry Heaven out in the world after something like 7 years was one of the more amazing things I did this year. I wrote at very great length about it when it came out, but I’m generally really happy to finally have it finished, and I want to do more with the game and with other games that use some of the same structure.


I feel like I’ve reached a new level in my understanding of RPG design, and in particular I’m finding I really like having the ability to step away from the wargame paradigm of RPG combat that D&D introduced (and relatively few games have substantially deviated from). Wargame-style RPG combat can be fun and effective, but there are any number of other approaches that can work better for other games.

I also put out a “5.0 Alpha” version of Magical Burst, where I basically slapped together a bare minimum of my current draft, just enough to play a session or two. On paper at least I’m very happy with where the game is going, though I haven’t really been able to find time to do the next set of refinements I want to make. Magical Fury was an important turning point in my thought about RPG combat, and the new version of Magical Burst has both Magical Fury style “skirmishes” and more traditional “full battles.” On the other hand I’m also working on Zero Breakers, which treats battles as an exercise in narrating a cool fight rather than a game you play to win.

I also finished and launched Faerie Skies for Golden Sky Stories, and while Fantasy Friends didn’t quite make it out before the end of the year, it’s very close to finished. I’m still in awe of how pretty the combination of Clove’s art and Clay’s layout made Faerie Skies. I’m also quite happy with how Fantasy Friends is looking.

I currently have as works in progress Saving Throw, Melancholy Kaiju, Assassin’s Kittens, Tsundere Sharks RPG, Zero Breakers, Pix, Kagegami High, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. 2016 promises to be busy and generally game-tastic.


One of the many odd things about me is that I don’t generally sort entertainment into “good” and “bad” so much as “good” and “stuff I don’t care about.” It’s relatively rare for something to viscerally bother me enough that I feel the need to complain (Cloverfield comes to mind, but let’s not go there). It does hurt my ability to critically analyze things, but it also helps me stay reasonably relaxed about entertainment. It probably helps that I’m so much into RPGs, a medium for which there isn’t really an edifice of journalism, and the inherent subjectivity of reviews is even more blatant than elsewhere. There’s also the fact that when I was young, my family was poor enough that I didn’t have all that many entertainment choices. I could decide which VHS tape to put on, but not which ones we bought.

Over the past year or so I’ve gotten back into video games in a big way, and as a result I’ve been reading more video game media than I have in years. In the process I’ve realized that I personally don’t have much use for reviews. I respect the work that critics do, and I genuinely think it’s important, especially when that criticism goes into deeper analysis, but when it comes to making buying decisions, reviews just aren’t all that useful to me. Movie trailers can be misleading, so if I’m on the fence about a movie I’ll check the Rotten Tomatoes score to see if there’s an actual good movie or just a highly polished turd (like the recent Fantastic Four movie), but I don’t generally bother with the individual reviews unless there’s some terrible movie and I want to see just how they rip into it. Continue reading Reviews


The other day I finished playing Undertale. If you’re not familiar, it’s a pretty incredible PC game that’s… hard to properly explain without spoilers. The trailer calls it “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die.” It takes place in a world where, following a war between humans and monsters, the monsters were sealed underground. You play a human child who finds themselves in the lands of the monsters, trying to find their way. You wind up in a lot of fights, but you have the option to  try to deal with them in a peaceful way (though it’s not always easy). It has a pretty distinctively quirky style to it. In some ways it reminds me of Homestuck, but then the creator of Undertale also composed music for Homestuck.

Undertale definitely seems to have struck a chord, and is a huge success in terms of both raw sales and inspiring tons of fanart and cosplay. I think that like Homestuck it speaks to subcultures and experiences that pop culture doesn’t really cover, but where Homestuck is a sprawling work of incredible scale (the creator once mentioned that if they do in fact put the whole thing out in book form it’ll be something like 40 volumes), Undertale is a relatively short experience, though certainly a memorable one. It has a lot to say about violence in video games (not unlike how The Stanley Parable is a commentary on choice and plot in video games), some interesting worldbuilding, and lots of charming and memorable characters.

Very much like how Madoka Magica helped crystallize what I wanted to do in a dark magical girl RPG and paved the way for Magical Burst, Undertale helped bring a vague soup of ideas together into the idea for a game that I’m tentatively calling “Pix.” (Or that may just be the name of the setting if I can come up with a better name for the game itself.) I’ve been wanting to do something with the inspirations that titles like Homestuck, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Cucumber Quest have been putting in front of me for several years now, and Undertale was what led me to the spark of an idea. Just as Magical Burst isn’t quite a Madoka RPG, Pix isn’t going to be an Undertale RPG per se, but its own animal, albeit with a healthy dose of Undertale inspiration.

Pix is the name of the land where the game takes place. The inhabitants are a little vague on the details, but its origins involve a tormented child finding escape in a video game, until her tormentor comes into the game world, and then some kind of cataclysm happens. Pix is a fragile mishmash of different kinds of reality, tethered to the human world by the Rainbow Spire. It has definite aspects of video games in its basic reality, but it’s rather like what happens with the NPCs when the player’s character isn’t around. The inhabitants of Pix try to live peaceful lives and help each other, partly because they know they need to in order to survive. They do receive information and artifacts from the human world, so they tend to get a bit fixated on pop culture. The aim of the game is to foster weird but gentle stories with a touch of pathos and (nonviolent) adventure.

So far the game is looking to be sort of a hybrid of Golden Sky Stories and Apocalypse World, with the twist that PCs are made by combining a Type (the general sort of creature they are) and a Job (what they do). This is kind of like what I was thinking of doing for the possible Adventure Time-inspired GSS setting, though I’m planning to change the basic structure a little more, and have AW-style stuff for naming and describing characters. I haven’t gotten too far into writing up the Jobs and Types (because I need to nail down more of what mechanics there are for Powers and Weaknesses to play with), but I do like how (for example) the Nerd job (which can variously be a super-scientist or just a huge dork) has a “Shipping” power that helps other people become friends.

Although I’ve now created two setting hacks for GSS, I haven’t done all that much tinkering with the actual engine before. Pix thusfar sticks fairly closely to GSS on several points, but parts ways in many others, and I’m trying to simplify certain parts (like connections). On the other hand I want to try for something kind of like Undertale’s Act commands, giving some degree of mechanical support for coaxing and befriending creatures you encounter.

I don’t start a project with a big manifesto in mind, but while Pix started with a burst of random inspiration, I think I want it first and foremost to be a heartwarming game that says “you belong.” The PCs are going to mostly be good-natured weirdos who are kind of broken inside, but need each other. Even when they’re lizards or sentient patches of fire, they’re people with their own feelings, hopes, and value.

Anyway, I have way, way more than enough stuff to take care of just now, but I wanted to do a bit of a brain-dump on this, since I’m finding it so exciting.