This is probably the most important chapter of Tools for Dreaming, as it delves directly into the core structures of RPGs and role-play. Particularly in some of the later parts it still feels underdeveloped, but I feel like I’m definitely on the right track in terms of what ideas it is that I’m grappling with.
Role-playing is an activity that you can do without rules. A group of people can decide what characters they’re going to play and in what situation, and just start role-playing. There are a lot of areas where people do just that. In terms of the sizes of their followings, freeform fandom RP, therapeutic role-playing, educational role-playing, and improv each dwarf tabletop RPGs. Saying that these activities lack rules is misleading, but what “rules” they do have are structures and parameters rather than the kind that involve numbers or dice. We’re now seeing a flowering of a niche of RPGs that are closer to these other forms of RP, but these forms are also a useful tool for better understanding how things work even in traditional RPGs.
One non-definitive way to look at RPG rules is as a labor-saving device, a means to shape role-playing to achieve a specific type of play more easily. Freeform role-play forms a baseline, and an RPG is in a sense a set of modifications to that. From that point of view, the question of RPG design then becomes “What modifications do I need to make to help achieve the kind of experience I want?” You might be surprised just how minimal an RPG’s rules can be and still foster compelling and flavorful play, though of course more complex rules have their own merits, provided the complexity is purposeful. While the die rolls are important to how an RPG works, the broader structures of play are vital.
This chapter isn’t really done, but I’m pretty happy with the parts that are finished. It’s sort of a catch-all for different things about what being a game designer entails.
Walking the Path
Playing RPGs is already a niche hobby that requires effort and creativity, and while making them doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might sound, it’s a strange and wonderful niche within a niche. I’ve tried my hand at several other creative pursuits, and while RPG design has some distinct quirks, it’s still fundamentally a creative outlet. That means that there are distinct parallels between the emotional life of an RPG designer and a novelist or graphic artist. It requires constant striving, always working to improve your craft. This chapter has some thoughts on the creative life of an RPG designer.
This chapter of Tools for Dreaming is an attempt at pushing a philosophy I call “conscious design,” in contrast to what I see as the problem of unthinking repetition of RPG design cliches. This is so, so not me lording over other people. There are so many design cliches that I struggle with all the time. The influence of Apocalypse World has helped me get better at realizing my RPG ideas, but I’m well aware that that comes with a set of deign cliches too.
“Engage in conscious design.” That’s my most important bit of design advice, not only for RPGs, but for anything. I put it on a T-shirt even.
When you design a game, you can do just about anything, but you need to do it consciously, and be aware of the effects things have on play. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s something that RPGs need to get better at. There are patterns that RPG design falls into, and while there’s merit in using methods you and your audience are familiar with, the unthinking repetition of well-worn conventions may have stunted the medium’s growth. That’s to be expected when such a large portion of this hobby is dedicated to relatively minor variations of D&D, but unless Wizards of the Coast or Paizo are seriously looking at your resume, you shouldn’t be beholden to Gary Gygax’s highly specific vision.
The first proper chapter after the introduction to Tools for Dreaming delves into the question of what the heck an RPG actually is. There were a few unfinished sections I cut out of this blog post version, most notable a piece about how whatever the designers might try to sell their games as, RPG play is often silly and violent.
What is an RPG?
No, seriously, what exactly is a role-playing game? If you’re reading this, chances are you already have your own answer, but I guarantee there are people out there who disagree with you. Luckily (sort of), there’s no single right answer to that question.
Having a clear definition of something is generally useful. If I use the word “ostensibly” in a sentence, it’s better for you to know that it basically means “apparently” or “outwardly.” On the other hand, there are cases where trying to come up with a definition becomes counterproductive. That’s especially true when the thing we’re trying to define has a lot of fuzzy edge cases, and even more so when the people writing definitions have an agenda. People who argue over the definition of “RPG” tend to be pushing for one that emphasizes their preferred kinds, and sometimes one that excludes other kinds. Ultimately, “RPGs” are “the sorts of things that people call RPGs,” but whether a work is compelling is much more important than whether it technically fits into a box.
A couple years ago I started writing a book on RPG design called “Tools for Dreaming.” It’s wound up being kind of a massive project–the manuscript is already 73,000 words and feels incomplete–and I’m trying to figure out what exactly to do with it. Finishing it the way I started it will require kind of a lot of research and work. I’m considering taking the various parts and turning them into one or more smaller, more focused books, but that’ll also take some time and thought. In the meantime, I’ve decided to start posting the more developed parts of it as a series of blog posts, in the hopes that it will be of use to someone, help me figure out where I’m going with this, and perhaps provoke some discussion and feedback.
So let’s get this whole thing started with the introduction, which is kind of a long, flailing attempt to lay out a bunch of preliminaries and disclaimers.
Role-playing games are in an odd place today. There’s no denying that the entire medium isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. On a purely commercial level, the entire industry has shrunk since the heyday of the 80s and 90s, and game stores make more money from other types of tabletop games. On the other hand, in terms of the variety and quality of games that are coming out, the medium is the best it’s ever been. It may not be a great time to start an RPG publishing business, but it’s a great time to be a fan of new and interesting games, and a fascinating time to be a game designer.
I first encountered d66 tables in Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, but I first started taking them seriously because of Maid: The Role-Playing Game. While working on The Dungeon Zone, I started writing a section on creating new moves, which naturally led to a section on creating d66 tables, which didn’t quite fit in TDZ and could be helpful to people working on other sorts of projects anyway. So, these are some tips for assembling good tables, drawing on my fairly unique experience of making literally hundreds of them across various games and even just making tables for their own sake.
“d66” is the term used in the Japanese TRPG scene for a tens-and-ones roll with two six-sided dice. It’s very much like how you can do a percentile roll with two d10s, and each roll gives you one of 36 possible results numbered 11 to 66. I kinda hope that the d66 terminology catches on so that it becomes easier to explain to people, but anyway.
I mainly work in Microsoft Word (I really need to learn InDesign one of these days), and in Word I typically write things up as a numbered list (so that I know when I’ve gotten to 36), and then apply the Normal style to it, and then copy and paste it into a table. (I also like to use the Sort function to alphabetize them, but I’m weird that way.) Word has table styles (in the Design tab of the Table Tools that come up when you’re editing a table), and I like to make them with alternating shaded rows and no borders, but of course you can do what you like. Once you type up 11 to 66 once, you can copy it to future tables you make.
To get started, you basically just have to sit down and pick a topic for your table, then start typing up a list of things to populate it with until you have enough. Chances are you don’t have enough things for the table just off the top of your head, so it helps to look at relevant books, Wikipedia articles, or other websites. If you want to make a random spell table, a Players Handbook or a wiki of spells would be a good place to turn for ideas.
I find it’s not unlike other creative endeavors in that sometimes I need to step away from a project for a bit, or look for sources of inspiration, or just get out a notebook and jot things down as they come to me. Sometimes–especially for stuff like random events–I’ll end up just plain sitting down and watching a TV series with a notebook on hand.
The Right Size
The amount of elements available within the table’s topic will determine the actual size of the table. A basic d66 table has 36 entries, which I find to be just right for most things, but you can vary it a bit:
x2 Numbering: By numbering the table index 11-12, 13-14, and so on, you can make a table with 18 entries instead of 36. For some topics I’ve found that a full 36 entries is just too many.
x3 Numbering: You can go one further by numbering the table index in increments of 3 (11-13, 14-16, etc.) to make a table with only 12 entries. You can do it with other multiples (like 4, giving you a table of 9 possible results) or stagger the numbers by uneven amounts, but doing so tends to make the table less readable.
d6 Table: The very simplest thing you can do is just make a table based on rolling a single die. For some things there are so few possibilities that it makes sense to have a table of only 6 results, or possible even fewer.
Sub-Tables: The Special Qualities table in Maid RPG makes use of “sub-tables.” If you roll any of the SQs numbered 41 or higher, you then make a 1d6 roll on a secondary table to get a more specific SQ. That gives that particular table 126 possible results, with several being six times more likely to come up. They can be a handy way to drill down and explore a branch of your table in more depth without having to go for a full-on d666 table.
d666 Table: Adding a hundreds digit to your d66 roll gives you a d666 roll, affording you a grand total of 216 possibilities. This mainly works for topics where you have a fairly large number of small things. You can get more ambitious and have a d666 table with longer individual entries (check out the Morning Announcements table in Kagegami High pp. 136-150), but it’s going to be time-consuming and painful, even if you do end up satisfied with the result.
Number of Columns
One important consideration is the number of columns. Here I’m not talking about how you lay out the table on the page, but the number of things you roll for to use the table in its entirety. Multi-column tables are harder to make, but the random combinations mean literally exponentially more possibilities. A single-column d66 table has 36 possible results, but a double-column one has 1,296 possible results, and if you manage a three-column one it jumps up to 46,646.
Things That Fit
Especially for multi-column tables, you need to look at each entry and think about whether it really fits together with the rest of the table. In the case of a single-column table, that’s just a matter of making sure every entry is an appropriate example of what the table is supposed to be about. For the Pole Arm table in TDZ, I just had to come up with a suitable list of 36 pole arms, and while I nearly exhausted what Wikipedia had to offer on the subject, it was pretty straightforward. The Gamer Additional Languages table was a little trickier, because I had to actually think about and research what kinds of other languages nerds might know. I’m inordinately pleased with myself for having “High School Spanish” be an entry distinct from “Spanish,” and looking over lists of constructed languages yielded Klingon and Dothraki. But given that RPG players are primarily white guys (though I count some very good friends among the exceptions), other real-life languages are trickier. Still, given the range of nerds I’ve met here in California, it felt reasonable to include languages like Vietnamese and Tagalog. The creative challenge of figuring out enough suitable things to reach the right number of elements can force you to come up with some interesting stuff, but sometimes it turns out that you need to make a smaller table or just abandon that particular table altogether.
Things get significantly more complicated when you have multiple columns, because you have to think about how they fit together. That was something I first started to encounter when I decided to try my hand at making my own Cards Against Humanity cards. I haven’t been able to figure out the proper grammatical term, but the white cards in CAH are normally either a noun or an -ing verb, either of which can have various adjectives, adverbs, etc. attached. When I tried to make a black card playing off of that one song from Macross, having it be “My boyfriend’s a _____________ now.” didn’t work with a lot of the white cards because the “a” screwed up the grammar. When you make a multi-column table, even if you don’t have the formal grammatical terminology, you need to figure out what things fit and what don’t.
This is at its easiest when each column has a very simple and clear grammatical form you can follow. Personal names are one of the simplest in this regard, since you can just have columns for first and last names (and possibly split the first names into male and female). I once made a table of monster names, where the first column was all adjectives (Dire, Three-Eyed, Water, Lesser, etc.) and the second was all nouns for monster types (Beast, Golem, Slime, Spawn, etc.). One setup that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of for fantasy/pulp sounding names is “The X of Y,” which worked nicely for things like grimoires (“The Codex of Ineffable Magics”) or pulp titles (“The Tomb of the Golden Masks”).
One little workaround that I’ve developed is to include parentheticals that make let a given element click together with multiple types of elements. For example, my Martial Arts Movie Titles table has “Fist of (the)” in the first column, so that it can fit with other entries in the second column to form titles like “Fist of Blood” as well as “Fist of the White Lotus.” Of course, in that respect titles of things like anime and Japanese video games are especially fun to work with, since they largely ignore rules of grammar in both English and Japanese, so that most anything can go with most anything else. (On the other hand, I found it basically impossible to make tables for light novel titles, which are known for being long, baroque, and ridiculous, with no two quite the same.)
Proofing and Testing
Once you have things written up, you need to of course proofread and test the resulting table. Making these tables is partly a writing exercise, so of course you need to do proofing more or less like you would with any other piece of writing.
The single most common issue I run into is simply having duplicate entries. Particularly when I’m having trouble coming up with elements to go into a table, I can end up putting the same thing in twice. Aside from how it satisfies my desire to organize things, one of the benefits of sorting table entries is that it makes duplicate entries much easier to catch. (It also has the benefit of putting the table entries into a new order and forcing you to look at them from a different perspective.)
While the aforementioned exponential nature of multi-column tables makes it totally unreasonable to expect anyone to look at every single possible combination, you should play with the table a bit to see if it’s really producing the right kinds of results (whatever that means for the purpose you have in mind). Eyeball some different possible combinations and do some rolling as well to see if you’re getting results that are sufficiently cool/funny/whatever for your purpose, and try to look at each individual element and see if it generally works. You may need to weed some out and figure out replacements, which may be difficult if you were already straining to get up to the requisite number of elements.
Anyway, that’s what I have to say about making d66 tables, though you can apply these general techniques to other things, like text that goes on cards or other configurations of tables (like I made tables for use with playing card draws in Melancholy Kaiju)–basically anything with discrete elements that you assemble randomly and let people recontextualize and reinterpret.
I’ve found d66 tables to be an incredibly useful tool in RPG design, and through my Ewen’s Tables stuff I’ve ended up turning using them as a sort of metafictional poetic form, most often for humor, and occasionally for satire as well (as in the case of the “Workshop Games” table I made that lampoons the goofy names of units in Games Workshop’s wargames). The major thing I’ve developed that keeps me coming back to using them in so many of my games is marrying various “soft” character traits similar to the questions in Don’t Rest Your Head with optional random tables similar to the ones in Maid RPG. It’s a useful way to package those kinds of things with a set of examples as well as to give players the (very popular!) option to just generate a character randomly. They’re also just a great way to give GMs tools to turn to when they need ideas for basically anything, which is a concept I took to its furthest extreme in Kagegami High, where the majority of the 168-page book has d66 numbering so that you can use a ton of things in a randomized fashion.
Palladium’s Robotech RPG was the first RPG I ever played, and one I played extensively through middle school and high school. That’s probably why I feel the need to write about it in the wake of the news that, presumably because of the fiasco of the Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarters, Harmony Gold decided not to renew Palladium’s license.
Hindsight being 20/20, Palladium’s “Megaversal” ruleset was a very poor fit for Robotech (less so for stuff like TMNT and Rifts). On the one hand the ruleset was pretty average for 1986, but on the other hand Mike Pondsmith had published Mekton in 1984, and West End Games put out the brilliant Ghostbusters RPG in 1986, so a better Robotech RPG design clearly wasn’t impossible. The Macross Saga part of Robotech (which was a relatively straight localization of The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross) was about the power of love and music during a desperate war against an unknown enemy. Palladium essentially used a mutant D&D variant to create a sci-fi military RPG with giant robots, and didn’t make any effort to address even the basic conceit of confusing the enemy’s emotions with pop music. I don’t know that we would’ve appreciated a system that did Macross justice back in high school, but I do know that in our games Palladium’s rules didn’t contribute all that much to the experience compared to the effort that the GM and players put in.
Of course, the Robotech RPG line was nonetheless successful, and put out a series of books with pictures of giant robots and such over the course of 30 years. I distinctly remember going to a convention panel about Robotech: Shadow Chronicles, and hearing the Harmony Gold people present saying that they were very happy with Palladium. Of course, that would’ve been in 2005 or so, and in the intervening 13 years Robotech RPG Tactics happened.
Despite a pretty profound obsession with all things Palladium overtaking our group in high school, we tried several other games (Toon, various World of Darkness games, GURPS, etc.), and moreover once out of high school everyone who stuck with RPGs found (and in my case designed) other, better games. Of course, making games that aren’t exactly top-notch design-wise isn’t a crime, and isn’t nearly as much of a liability in the industry as you might think, but even setting aside their lackluster game design chops, Palladium seems to be pretty dysfunctional as a company. They always seemed weirdly litigious and technologically backwards, and while some of the things they did to go against the prevailing trends turned out well (like doing softcover books at a time when RPG rulebooks were mostly hardcover and boxed sets), based on what Bill Coffin said about Kevin Siembieda’s approach to publishing books, it’s just not a good process creatively, business-wise, or on a basic interpersonal level. Even for weird little indie stuff, a certain amount of delegation is essential to get anything done, and a basic level of respect for your contributors is a must.
A miniatures game based on Robotech isn’t for me personally, but it’s kind of a no-brainer overall, and the Kickstarter for Robotech RPG Tactics raised $1.4 million. Of course, if you mainly produce products in the form of books, miniatures represent a massively complex undertaking that requires a great deal of expertise. That would explain why Palladium partnered with Ninja Division, which has successful games like Super Dungeon Explore and Relic Knights, but the whole thing has been a giant mess, which reached a new low with the loss of the license and a suicide attempt by the designer. Along the way there were major manufacturing issues that a company like Ninja Division with multiple miniatures games under their belt should’ve been able to avoid, which made getting manufacturing in China set up more expensive and time-consuming, and resulted in poor quality miniatures. All of this news comes to us with Kevin Siembieda’s writing, which never misses an opportunity to include a trademark symbol, and has things bolded at random. Watching from the sidelines I’m not going to try to untangle all of the blame, but it’s a pretty huge mess, and a lot of people aren’t going to get the game they paid for.
There are apparently people talking about a class-action lawsuit against Palladium, and I have to wonder if that will be the thing that finally tanks the company. I have a hard time applauding the demise of yet another RPG publisher–and one that defined my early years in this hobby no less–but then given everything we know about Palladium, it’s surprising that they’ve managed to keep shambling along this long. The Savage Worlds version of Rifts is a great illustration of how the company has a lot of wonderfully zany ideas with potential, but apparently lacks the ability to really compellingly implement them for anyone not impressed with lists of increasingly more powerful guns and robots. Savage Rifts got me excited about the story possibilities of Rifts North America in a way that Palladium’s own Rifts books never did. Their attempts to branch out beyond RPGs haven’t gone that well either, most notably when a Rifts video game got made, for the widely mocked failure that was the Nokia N-Gage.
Regardless, I hope that the talented people who’ve worked for Palladium like C.J. Carella (who created Nightbane and made some great contributions to Rifts), Kevin Long (whose art defined a lot of the look of Rifts and Palladium’s Robotech), Vince Martin (who among other things did all kinds of unique designs for the Naruni and Rifts Underseas), and Newton Ewell (who did phenomenal work for Rifts Atlantis and Pantheons of the Megaverse) have all found more and better employment. Likewise I hope that people remember Erick Wujcik’s legacy.
Of course, Harmony Gold is another company that has a pretty bad reputation, on account of being so litigious about their tenuously-held Robotech rights that they’ve gone as far as to block the sale of Macross toys manufactured in Japan, not to mention going after anyone who uses designs even vaguely similar to those seen in Robotech. HG turned the licensing issues with BattleTech into a protracted mess, and now there’s a whole thing with the “Unseen” BattleMechs. All of that probably makes Harmony Gold a worse company than Palladium, and while they too made something that defined my early years, the fact that their rights to the anime that make up Robotech expire in 2021 (and given that Tatsunoko sued Harmony Gold, they probably won’t opt to renew it) means that if nothing else we’ll go from a litigious American company to the benign neglect of the odd combination of multiple Japanese companies that hold the rights.
Anyway, that’s our dose of industry drama for today. I outgrew being angry about Palladium a while ago, but every now and then I end up seeing posts online and thinking, “What’s Kevin Siembieda done this time?” You have to be passionate and not too concerned with making money to get into RPG publishing, but then I have to wonder if the fact that I haven’t heard about similar fiascoes with, say, independent comics is just because I’m not as plugged in or what.
The other day I went to California Extreme, which is an arcade gaming convention held in Santa Clara, CA. It doesn’t hurt that my brother-in-law is one of the organizers, but it’s a really nifty event that I try to get to every year if I can. The core of it is just a huge room full of free-play arcade machines that people have set up, ranging from analog pinball machines to brand new independent arcade games (like Cosmotrons). Although arcade games are overwhelmingly the core of what CAX is about, it also features a single panel room, which has had some really interesting speakers over the years. I’ve seen panels from Atari veterans and the creator of Crazy Otto (the unauthorized Pac-Man enhancement kit that became the basis of Ms. Pac-Man), and this year, aside from a talk by Al Alcorn (who built the original Pong machine and worked on several other major Atari projects), I saw a panel by UCSC professor Nathan Altice about board game adaptations of video games, something he’s been studying in depth for a little while now.
I actually own a copy of Milton-Bradley’s 1982 Pac-Man board game, which is kind of a strange beast. You set up a maze in the vein of one from Pac-Man, with two ghosts and 2-4 Pac-Man player pieces in different colors. The player pieces are molded plastic and for some reason the plastic is molded to give them rows of pointed teeth. On your turn you roll two dice and assign them to moving your Pac-Man and/or the ghosts, so that instead of an AI enemy, the ghosts are a shared weapon. Your can push your Pac-Man piece down on a marble and if it works properly it picks the marble up. You keep playing until you clear out all of the marbles, and whoever has the most marbles is the winner. The result plays fast but takes a little time to set up, and while there is skill involved, it has a level of randomness that pushes it more into simple kids’ game territory, especially in the eyes of Board Game Geek users. Of course, Milton-Bradley was marketing it towards ages 7-14, and selling in big department stores, so that’s not too surprising.
In the U.S., Milton-Bradley, Parker Brothers, and a few others published several board games based on video games in the 1980s, while in Japan, Bandai put out quite a few, and Namco made three. In the U.S., licensed games based on TV shows had helped revitalize board games in the 1950s, so it was pretty natural for the major board game manufacturers to pick up video game licenses during the video game boom of the 80s. Today there are some sophisticated adaptations of video games from hobby game publishers like Fantasy Flight, but Milton-Bradley was selling to families through department stores, so their games tended to be simple and perhaps more “literal” in their adaptations than a hobby game designer today would create. While the number of components in the Pac-Man board game isn’t especially large compared to some of the games out there, it’s not too hard to imagine a Pac-Man tabletop game that captures some of the feel of moving around a maze, trying to grab all the pellets and avoid the ghosts, without the need for a physical object to represent every single pellet. From Altice’s discussion, Pole Position was one of the more interesting video game-based board games, because it was essentially a bluffing game disguised as a racing game.
From what he said in the panel, Mr. Altice found the major parallels in these games were:
These games often tried to mimic enemy “AI” in various ways, whether through player choice, randomness, or “programming” by way of simple game mechanics.
Boards are an effective way of representing physical space. Single-screen video games (e.g. Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, etc.) translate well to a single board. When faced with scrolling video games, board game designers often used some form of map tiles.
Board game adaptations of video games were often translating a single-player experience into a multiplayer one, and it often proved difficult for the designers.
Manufacturers often marketed these as a way to bring the fun of the arcade home.
A significant portion of the effectiveness of an adaptation comes from aesthetics.
Exposure to a bunch of arcade games, combined with the panel, got me thinking a lot about adaptations and abstractions. Because of the way the human mind works, we live in a sea of symbols as much as a physical world, and game designers frequently take advantage of that. Video games used to use very simple symbols out of necessity due to hardware limitations. Some games would have epic cover art inviting us to imagine a bigger world based on very simple symbols (check out the Missile Command box art below, as opposed to the very simple lines and blocks of the actual game), while games like Pac-Man and Q*bert had their actual on-screen content and what you were meant to imagine looking very similar. They naturally took advantage of the newer symbols that these games created too. The Atari 2600 has limited graphics capabilities compared to the Pac-Man arcade machines, so the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man famously had kind of mediocre-looking graphics, but anyone who’d played Pac-Man would at least have no doubt that the lines were the dots and the white squares were the power pellets.
Newer video games can show us basically any image they can fit onto a screen, so the use of symbols is more a matter of good UI design, and no longer just the only means available to communicate anything to the player. Board games have to provide a set of physical components, which gives them a very different physicality from video games. Board game components can include actual artwork, and didn’t have to conform to the limitations of early pixel graphics. Of course, they did have to deal with the limitations of mass-market board game manufacturing, which is why there were a lot of punchboards and stickers and not many detailed plastic figures. With current video games the amount of media assets a single game can include is massive, and tabletop adaptations have an even greater need to find the portions of the source material that they can represent effectively. On the other hand, a hobby game can have a higher price point and higher production values, so that you can in fact have a board game with a collection of detailed plastic figures if enough people back the Kickstarter.
Current pop culture is perhaps excessively about adaptations, remakes, sequels, and reboots. Some of these are bringing wholly new notions to different media (American Gods), while others trade on nostalgia and familiar signifiers (Ready Player One). While there’s no denying that Hollywood has gone overboard with the regular stream of remakes and sequels, part of why these things keep coming out is that people pay money for them. If you look at the lists of top-grossing films in recent years, stand-alone movies not directly derived from prior movies in some way are the exception to the rule, making up only one or two of the top ten. While originality is important to the long-term health of any creative medium, people enjoy seeing something familiar brought to them in a new way.
Any time you adapt a work to a new medium, you have to figure out what parts of the original to represent. That’s especially important when the two media involved are radically different. It’s striking when we compare board games to other media, because good board games comprise a set of rules interactions that are fun to engage, and don’t produce a narrative per se. They make invoke story elements in interesting ways (such as how Star Trek Expeditions has a card that creates a setback stemming from Kirk making a pass at the ambassador’s wife) and draw on a narrative for inspiration, but they need to be able to function as a construct of pure rules, even if the final product is making good use of aesthetics to add more flavor than that. The process of teasing out a game from source material can produce wildly different results, which is why Star Trek Expeditions and Star Trek Panic both have a distinct Star Trek feel, even though they’re really different games.
All of this is interesting to me as an RPG guy because RPGs are so dependent on a group of people having a consensus about a fictional world. The relative expense of licensing means that there aren’t so many licensed RPGs out there, but I feel like the medium and the culture around it naturally lend themselves to adaptation. RPGs are recontextualization engines, naturally serving as a framework for taking bits of culture and repurposing them in different ways. D&D is a mashup of pieces from practically everything in fantasy literature and mythology, given a unique spin. When people sit down to play it, they naturally use pieces of culture they’re familiar with, describing their original characters in terms of other characters from pop culture, using elements of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones to help build a story, and so on.
Even when we step outside of D&D, a lot of the most popular RPGs relate to works in some other media, whether with the directness of the Star Wars or Call of Cthulhu RPGs, or less overtly as in Vampire: The Masquerade or Fiasco. A lot of my own RPG design efforts have been about bringing different elements of anime into the realm of tabletop RPGs. I gave up on the idea of a “universal anime RPG” ages ago, but even the original anime creators can have different takes on the same source material, as shown by the different versions of Ghost in the Shell. I think part of why anime (and other Japanese pop culture stuff) interests me so much as an RPG designer is that despite its popularity, it’s underrepresented in RPGs. If I decide to make a superhero RPG (I do have an idea for one, because of course I do), there are already dozens out there, whereas if I decide to make a magical girl RPG, I can count the number currently available on one hand. Moreover, anime is even more a part of my group’s pop culture stew than stuff like H.P. Lovecraft or Lord of the Rings, and that’s stuff we want to explore and celebrate through RPG play.
There are some great RPGs that don’t owe allegiance to any specific source material (Dogs in the Vineyard comes to mind), and while I think the medium absolutely needs those for its creative health, RPG play all but demands tapping into other media as reference points, and from a design perspective, taking inspiration from other media can often lead us to try new things we might not have thought to do in an RPG before. Anyway, I’m not sure I ever quite reached a thesis with these ramblings, but I think there’s some interesting stuff here.
The last push took a lot of energy, and I’m still kind of marveling at having written a 168-page book that’s so dense with references and setting info. I haven’t done all that much with setting in my games (though Dragon World is going to have the setting of Easteros in it), but this book is bursting with details about the school, and has 72 NPCs. My only regret is that I didn’t put more Utena-inspired stuff in.
Golden Sky Stories: Twilight Tales is the title we finally settled on for Mononoke Koyake, the first Japanese GSS supplement. We’re going to be properly publishing it in English and getting a print run of physical books, plus doing some nifty stretch goal stuff, albeit not nearly as much as last time (three books’ worth and then some was a bit much, not to mention the battle to get all the physical stuff printed and shipped). I was originally planning to do the Dragon World KS first, but Twilight Tales is closer to being ready, but really we’ll see how it all shakes out.
Dragon World is also going to be Kickstarting. I need to nail down some final planning stuff, and I’m waiting on the finished cover art (which is going to be elaborate, pretty, and very anime) before I launch. We also have quite a few stretch goals lined up, including some pretty cool stuff I’m looking forward to.
For both we’re going to be including wall scrolls from CustomWallScrolls.com among the rewards. We did that for GSS, and we were generally really happy with the quality and service.
DTRPG has a thing where you get awarded a certain amount of Publisher Promotion Points, and I noticed that both the Yaruki Zero and Star Line accounts had accumulated kind of a lot, so I decided to make an effort to try using them. In addition to getting featured product impressions, I’ve tried having Golden Sky Stories, Kagegami High, and Maid RPG as Deals of the Day. The amount of sales that resulted wasn’t world-shattering, but it was substantially more than those games got without that extra promotion behind them, especially for Kagegami High (which hasn’t already gotten into the hands of quite so much of its potential audience).
Combined with the GM’s Day Sale, this is already one of the best months for RPG sales I’ve had in a while, so I’m thinking more about how to promote my stuff and reach more people, even though it’s potentially kind of a lot of work.
I got inspired to check out the Savage Worlds version of Rifts. While I’m not really a fan of Savage Worlds, I was nonetheless really impressed and ended up buying all three books. (Though if I play an actual game with them I’ll probably use FAE or Strike! or something.) They managed to create a take on the world of Rifts that’s oriented towards having exciting adventures in that setting, where Palladium’s own books too often felt like an assortment of random stuff, which was cool but didn’t really cohere into a basis for stories. Each archetype is super-enthusiastic, and sells you on it being awesome to play, and in many cases makes changes that make it way more interesting.
A while back I designed Duel Questers, a mini-RPG thing for Millennium Blades, and it’s now available in the MB artbook. MB has a wonderfully bonkers setting, and it was a lot of fun to play around with it.
Nekomimi Land, a messed-up dystopian novel I’ve been working on for way too long, is nearly ready for publication, once my editor finishes with it. It’s raw and weird and imperfect, but I want to finally get it out into the world. It’ll also be my first self-published work of fiction, and I want to do more, albeit something a bit lighter next time.
2016 was weird for me and everyone else, in so many ways. Beloved celebrities left us, we endured easily the worst election of my lifetime, and seemingly just to mess with us there were a bunch of sightings of creepy clowns. (But hey, there were a bunch of geeky movies with superheroes and stuff.) Granted years are an arbitrary, man-made unit of measurement, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that 2016 in particular has been messing with us. The future feels uncertain, but I know that as these things go I’m pretty damn fortunate. I’ve gotten into doing contract work for tech companies, and while I could really use a permanent position with health insurance, I’m doing the best I ever have financially. I just landed a job that has the added benefit of letting me work from home most of the time. Still, as I finish up this post on December 31st, I’m glad this year is done.
I wasn’t able to get anything like the amount of gaming in this year that I would’ve liked, basically just scattered one-shots and playtests, and one major thing I want to do in 2017 is start a new regular gaming group. I did get to try some interesting new board games like Codenames, Splendor, Smash Up, and Castle Panic, which were a lot of fun overall.
In terms of RPG design, over the course of 2016 I transitioned to working on more ambitious projects, and while I’ve been really happy with the results, it takes quite a bit more time and work to make them happen. I got Melancholy Kaiju and Saving Throw out through Patreon (and then DriveThruRPG), self-published a mini-RPG anthology (Weird Little Games, on DriveThruRPG and Amazon), and got a bunch of work done on Pix, Kagegami High, and Spooktacular without finishing any of them. I feel like I have a much better handle on a methodology for designing RPGs, and when I start on a game it’s far more likely to come to fruition. 3 of the 6 games in the Weird Little Games book are ones that I’ve been wanted to design for years, that came together because of this recent change in my design techniques and skills.
Spooktacular is my sorta-retroclone of the West End Games Ghostbusters RPG, a generally brilliant game, way ahead of its time, that faded into obscurity on account of being a quirky licensed RPG. I’m really happy with how Spooktactular has turned out and my own tweaks to the original game, and I’m now just waiting on the artwork. It’s going to be a slim book, around 60 pages or so, though I’m already thinking about doing a supplement, to be titled “Spookstravaganza.”
Pix is a heartwarming slice of life game that takes place in a world that’s sort of a weird hybrid of real and video game, with Undertale as a major influence. The rules of the game are sort of a blend of Golden Sky Stories and Apocalypse World. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I have at least the first draft of the basic rules pretty much worked out. On the other hand Shantae gave me a bunch of ideas, so I’ll have to see where that takes me when I get back into working on Pix.
Kagegami High is like a Japanese anime high school version of Welcome to Night Vale, by way of a variant of the Maid RPG rules (with some bits of Ghostbusters, Apocalypse World, and Fate mixed in). I set myself kind of a monstrous number of tables to write up for it, so that the final rulebook should be around 120 to 150 pages, and pretty dense with references.
I also started writing a book about RPG design, Tools for Dreaming. There’s still a lot left to write even with the manuscript already pushing 60,000 words, but I’m pleased with how it’s turning out. It very much fits in with my general push to encourage people to expand the horizons of role-playing games, not to discard what came before but to consider all the different possibilities. To that end it breaks down several different aspects of RPGs, from the mechanics to the cultural contexts the operate in to the simple act of role-playing (and the many varieties it comes in).
For Star Line Publishing, 2016 was the year we finally finished up everything we owed for the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter, which included finishing up the two original setting books. I’m incredibly happy with the results, but getting artwork and then layout done wound up being pretty time-consuming. I also started working towards doing a Kickstarter to finally publish Dragon World, though it wound up being another thing that’s taking longer than I’d like. Once that’s out of the way we can move on to Kickstarting Mononoke Koyake, and then whatever comes next for SLP.
I’m also still doing freelance work for Japanime Games, primarily translation but also editing and helping with other aspects of production. This year they Kickstarted Heart of Crown and Dynamite Nurse, and since they’ve been ramping up licensed Japanese games, I’ve worked on about half a dozen other games besides (and not just deck-building games with pictures of sexy anime girls). There’s some really interesting stuff in the pipeline, from some interesting independent Japanese game publishers.
Asmadi Games is holding a pre-order drive to reprint Channel A, but it’s going slowly. I’m currently working on Channel A: Chaos Edition, a standalone expansion that we can hopefully Kickstart and generally get people interested in the game again. I also put in some more work on Fighting Fighters Colosseum, which is a descendant of Channel A, but about making up crazy finishing moves, and has a bit more mechanics to it.
A while ago I got a CardMate business card cutter, and more recently I got a basic color laser printer, and (along with the Data Merge feature in InDesign), making card game prototypes is now vastly easier.
I’m going into 2017 with an unusually intense mix of exciting and worrying things. I get to work on all kinds of neat games, and as day jobs go the one I have is pretty great. On the other hand my general optimism about the world has suffered some pretty serious blows, and I’m still grappling with how to confront that personally and creatively. Whatever 2017 (which is a Year of the Rooster) has in store, I wish you all the best.