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.
A blog post I came across recently got me thinking about the reception Maid RPG has gotten, the ways in which different sorts of people have reacted to it. I want to stress that I’m not mad about what Mike wrote there, but I definitely do disagree with him on some major points.
I got into anime in the late 90s, when it was just starting to become available in the US in a not-totally-bastardized form. Back then there were relatively few people around who knew much about it, and even us hardcore anime fans were struggling to get all the scraps we could. Now you can get simultaneous releases on CrunchyRoll, and you can get anime and manga stuff at every Hot Topic and Barnes & Noble. That means there are now three or so different generations of Western anime fans, and for the younger generation there’s much less of a sense of separation between anime and other media. That’s vitally important, because that artificial separation made it harder for everyone concerned to properly evaluate it. The distinctly Japanese aspects of anime are still important, but even more basic things like narrative and visual design are equally important. Moreover, there’s enough diversity within anime (and the many related media) that lumping them all together is decidedly counterproductive. That flawed view is part of what led to the problems with Big Eyes Small Mouth, and generally stunted anime-inspired RPGs in the West for a while. (Basically, we should’ve been paying more attention to what Mike Pondsmith was doing with games like Mekton and Teenagers From Outer Space.)
One somewhat reductive way to look at Maid RPG is as a big wad of tropes that you access through random tables. That means that you have to understand a bunch of anime tropes in order for it to really produce a coherent experience. This becomes a big deal for an RPG because there’s a significant and vocal contingent that doesn’t get anime tropes. That’s not a bad thing in itself–no one even has time for every kind of media–but I think tabletop RPG folks can sometimes have an inaccurate picture of the cultural landscape. It’s in the basic nature of the medium that participating in an RPG requires having a certain amount of shared cultural background. RPGs variously create that background in the text and lean on established tropes the audience is already aware of. The selection of tropes you have to know to properly enjoy D&D is largely invisible to people who’re sufficiently involved in gaming, but they’re actually highly specific and more than a little quirky, a result of Gygax’s eclecticism and 40 years of contributions and refinements from a rotating cast of TSR and WotC staff and freelancers. Even a lot of people who are hardcore into D&D aren’t aware that works like Three Hearts and Three Lions, Moorcock’s Elric stores, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, and so on were major influences on the game, even more so than Lord of the Rings. Similarly, the works of H.P. Lovecraft are well-known and even overused in tabletop gaming, but relatively obscure if you’re not hardcore into either horror literature or tabletop.
Maid RPG is a weird game, with some skeevy content and grounded in anime tropes (with some truly obscure stuff even in our localized English version), but it’s absolutely found its audience, and we really don’t have to go out of our way to sell it at anime conventions. It’s sold thousands of copies around the world, and it outsells Golden Sky Stories disturbingly often. A surprisingly large portion of its fanbase it women too, and I want to serve that audience better in anything I do with the game in the future. It was in many ways not a rational choice to publish it, but by the standards of independent tabletop RPGs it’s a runaway success. I put it up for sale on DriveThruRPG relatively recently, after the game had been out for several years, and if you look at its listing now, you’ll see that it’s a Platinum Bestseller, in the top 0.51% of products on the site, which puts it in some heady company. I’ve never really promoted Maid RPG on DTRPG apart from a few social media posts pointing out that it’s there and a few more gawking at how high it’s gotten in the rankings. It’s also a cornerstone of a good relationship with Indie Press Revolution, which regularly takes it to sell at conventions. Moreover, it’s just a really good game, and cultural issues aside, the simple fact that it’s a blast to play was the major thing behind my desire to publish an English version. It also was an intensely educational project for me and Andy, and the English versions of Golden Sky Stories, Tenra Bansho Zero, and Ryuutama are all vastly better for that experience.
When Mike says “But there’s no saving MAID in the Western market,” I have to disagree. It was never going to get much traction with the old guard of RPG players (including indie RPG folks), many of whom don’t get or even are actively hostile to anime, but people who enjoy and understand anime enough to appreciate Maid RPG are a lot more common than any of us expected. It’s been my experience that gamers who aren’t into anime tend to greatly underestimate how much reach it’s gained, even though the kids who grew up watching Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokemon are adults now. Maybe there are people who heard about Maid RPG and jumped to conclusions about Japanese TRPGs as a whole, but I suspect anyone who didn’t get Maid RPG would also be lost with Alshard or Shinibigami or any number of others.
Way back at my first ever job at a shitty electronics store, Tamagotchis were all the rage and some guy asked if we had any of “those tama-hoochie-goochie things,” a phrase he repeated even after I told him they were called “Tamagotchis.” I feel like some people have a similar resistance to even trying to understand anime, and while there’s nothing wrong with having preferences that don’t include anime, it’s weird to project that onto everyone else, especially in an era when you can watch anime on Netflix and Hulu and buy manga at every major bookseller. Anime has won over to such an extent that there’s a younger generation of fans for whom it blurs into other similar media, hence there’s been so much Homestuck, Steven Universe, and Undertale cosplay and fan art at anime conventions. There’s newer stuff that I don’t even get myself (like how I don’t really get the appeal of LP videos or YouTube celebrities in general), but I remember what it was like to be young and excited about something new.
In general I think it’s useful for game designers to stop and ask themselves what assumptions a game is carrying, what bits of culture players need to make it really work as intended. D&D is one of those things that’s become a cultural touchstone in itself, but the rest of us aren’t so lucky. You’re never going to have a play group whose particular pop culture gumbo is going to exactly match yours, but if you make a game grounded in something you’re genuinely enthusiastic about, it’ll show through to the people who share that enthusiasm. Certainly the bigger RPG publishers have stumbled a bit when trying to appeal to anime fans (GURPS Mecha and White Wolf’s Year of the Lotus books come to mind), whereas games like Breakfast Cult can appeal to that audience without missing a beat. The audience for anime-inspired RPGs may never approach that of D&D, but for better or for worse that’s likely more to do with the commercial limitations of tabletop RPGs than of the ones with anime stuff in them.
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.
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.