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.
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.
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. 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,” 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.
 Not a scientific definition, just my attempt to explain the concept as I understand it.
 Hence the kinda dumb and overused thing of calling it “roll-playing.”
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.
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.
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.
A lot of people have written a lot of words about what went down with DriveThruRPG recently. (Of particular note are Jessica Price and Tracy Hurley‘s pieces about it.) To recap, the publisher of the Black Tokyo line of hentai d20 supplements released a scenario called “Tournament of Rapists,” and many people quite naturally objected to it being on a site for elfgames. It didn’t help that it got released without the “Adult” tag, and with the Pathfinder tag, putting it in front of a lot of people who probably would’ve missed it otherwise. OBS took their time to work out what they wanted to do about the situation, but they finally did bring out a full blog post, outlining a new “Offensive Content Policy” that they would be implementing. Where companies like Amazon and Apple can afford to employ a staff of people who approve product submissions to their online storefronts, DTRPG is too small for that, so up until now they’ve had an approval process for publishers, but not for products per se. Their plan is to implement a reporting feature, and reports will in turn go to the senior staff for review. If they decide a product is a problem they’ll suspend it and work with the publisher, but otherwise it will not be affected by reports. Spamming a title you don’t like won’t do anything other than annoy the DTRPG guys, and won’t get anything automatically removed.
Over the past few months I’ve been working as a content moderator at a big tech company. My manager takes free speech very seriously, and we often have to stop and discuss things to figure out where the dividing line is based on our moderation policies, which themselves have gotten some revisions even in the short time I’ve been there. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m well aware that figuring this stuff out isn’t easy, and sometimes it can be agonizingly hard. On a purely legal level, OBS can allow or disallow whatever products they want, but obviously we want to talk about what’s morally right for them to do. In my view a company in their position–where they own a huge portion of a market–has an obligation to find the happy middle between permissiveness and responsibility. There’s a point at which even people who are relatively pro-censorship would find pulling products unfair and immoral (hypothetically, imagine them disallowing a product that satirized DTRPG), but also a point where something pushes boundaries to the point where we can legitimately make a case that it’s harmful and something they don’t want to be associated with.