A while back I took advantage of an Amazon Lightning Deal to get a PlayStation TV, which in case you don’t know is basically the guts of a Vita in a little box that plugs into your TV. The selection of games for it is relatively limited, but includes a fair amount of JRPGs, including Persona 3 Portable (by way of getting the PSP version through PSN) and Persona 4 Golden. They wound up being among the more compelling video game experiences I’ve had ever, and I can definitely see why a Persona-inspired tabletop RPG is kind of a holy grail for a lot of gamers.
Category Archives: musings
Randomness in RPGs
I’ve been reading Steward Woods’ Eurogames, a book that aims to lay out an overview of the origins, design trends, and culture around German-style board games. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there, but one thing in particular that stands out is the discussion of how different types of games use randomness.
In board games in general, randomness is optional, but people view it as having a certain kind of value, in that it prevents pure skill from being too dominant (so a wider range of people can enjoy the game) and it can add replay value through random variety. There’s a spectrum of randomness, with games of pure skill like chess on one end, and games of pure chance like Chutes & Ladders on the other, and most games living somewhere in the middle. That alone is a stark contrast to RPGs, where with a few exceptions, people tend to regard randomness as simply non-optional.
There are several different things that divide eurogames from tabletop games of other design traditions, but one of the big ones is not the presence of randomness, but rather the ways in which games use randomness. Wargames seek to simulate war, and war is unpredictable. Competent generals do what they can to improve their chances of success, to tilt the die roll in their favor, but the realities are such that it makes sense that there’s a random component to the success or failure of whatever you attempt to do. D&D took up this approach to randomness, where you choose a course of action and then see if it succeeds, presumably from its wargame antecedents, and (partly but not entirely due to D&D’s massive influence), it’s become deeply ingrained in hobby games in the English-speaking world in general, including RPGs, and that in turn has greatly influenced video games. In contrast, by and large eurogames use randomness to determine what options you have in front of you, but don’t leave you to roll the dice to determine if they succeed. In Catan (to pick a well-known example) you roll dice to see what materials the players accrue, but there’s no roll to see if you can successfully build a city. Once you meet the requirements, you can get a city, and that’s that.
The other day I finished the 36th and (for the time being) final installment of Ewen’s Tables, my series of little PDFs of d66 tables. Some turned out better than others, but the best ones can produce things that are hilarious or fascinating. In some cases I adapted stuff from card games and such I’ve been working on, and I repurposed most of the 36 tables I’d written up to go in Most of My Friends Are Potential Supervillains (which will be the sequel to I Want to be an Awesome Robot), but most of the tables were original work. Or rather, they were things I newly created, though it’s in the nature of the endeavor that a certain amount of derivativeness is required. A lot of the tables were basically a matter of finding the right breaking points in names and phrases to make mixing and matching them a workable thing to do, not for the first time making Wikipedia an indispensable tool. The ones that required more original content took a lot more time and effort.
The topics of the PDFs were all over the place, ranging from fantasy stuff targeted at gamers to everyday things (“Places to Eat”) to stuff of interest to me personally (like a table for generating names of tea blends). It also wound up being a medium for humor, which is a lot of what the three “Odds and Ends” PDFs were about. It hasn’t sold gangbusters, but it has sold reasonably well. The ones that sell the most have tended to be the ones based around a particular genre, and to a lesser extent the obvious humor ones. The low price point also has people going in and buying like 4-6 of them at once.
I decided fairly early on to do 36 of them and then do a free PDF with a table to make a d66 roll to select an Ewen’s Tables PDF. I did that, and it was exhausting in various ways, but it happened.
11 Animals, 12 Anime Stuff, 13 Anime Stuff 2, 14 Book Titles, 15 Cute Names, 16 Cyberpunk Stuff, 21 Fantasy Characters, 22 Fantasy Creatures, 23 Fantasy Names, 24 Fantasy Names 2, 25 Fantasy Places, 26 Fantasy Religion, 31 Fantasy Silliness, 32 Fighting Stuff, 33 Game Stuff, 34 Horror Stuff, 35 Magic Stuff, 36 Modern Weirdness, 41 Music Stuff, 42 Odds and Ends, 43 Odds and Ends 2, 44 Odds and Ends 3: Odd Harder, 45 Oracles, 46 Pirate Names, 51 Places to Eat, 52 Post-Apocalyptic Stuff, 53 Pulp Stuff, 54 Sci-Fi Stuff, 55 Steampunk Stuff, 56 Super Names, 61 Technology Stuff, 62 Titles, 63 TV Stuff, 64 Vehicles, 65 War Stars, and 66 Wrestling Stuff
I also made a “d66 Deck” as sort of an accessory to the whole endeavor. It’s a deck of 72 cards that has the probability spread of 2d6 twice over, and lists the results of 2d6 and d66 rolls, as well as showing dice icons and an inspirational icon on each card. Among other things it’s pretty excellent for generating results from multi-column d66 tables.
To put a capstone on the whole endeavor, I compiled all 36 installments (plus some bonus stuff) into a print on demand book, the Ewen’s Tables Collection. It weighs in at 255 pages, 35,000 words, and 170 tables, and is available through both DriveThruRPG and Amazon. I’d had the idea to do a book of generator tables quite a while ago, and I’d been needling my friend Steven Savage, of Seventh Sanctum fame, to collaborate on such a project (which we may still do some day, though we’re both pretty busy these days), but this came together a bit more organically and with less planning. The selection of tables is a bit eccentric as a result, but when all is said and done I’m pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I have a fairly hefty book to show for it. It’s kind of surreal to look at the finished product, a book about the same size as Maid RPG, and the result of six months of making these silly d66 tables.
Anyway, the book is now available in print from Amazon and in print and PDF from DriveThruRPG. The printed book costs $20, and the PDF is a mere $12. (Whereas if you were to for some reason buy all 36 Ewen’s Tables PDFs separately it would cost $53.64.)
From here I’m thinking I’m going to give the Ewen’s Tables thing a bit of a break, and whenever I do some back to it I’ll open it up to submissions (since DTRPG’s automatic royalty sharing is actually pretty simple) and do some more myself, with the aim of eventually getting enough to do a second book. I already have way too many ideas for other tables to make.
Thoughts on Board Games
Today I bought a card game about farming beans. Specifically, Uwe Rosenberg’s Bohnanza. My interest in board games has increased quite a bit lately, and although I don’t have a lot of money to throw around, I’m nonetheless ending up buying things like the bean-farming card game.
I also got a copy of Sid Sackson’s book “A Gamut of Games,” a collection of 38 games, spanning board games, card games, and pencil-and-paper games, ranging from new works by himself and other designers to games found in publications from centuries ago. He was a prolific game designer, and from what I gather, he was an important figure in the development of board games. He pushed for more recognition for game inventors, and he was apparently part of the movement that led to eurogames. The games in A Gamut of Games mostly use traditional materials–a couple packs of cards, a checkers set, and a pencil and paper would be enough to play more of the games than not–but those games were by and large unconventional. Where I’ve found Hoyle books to get rather repetitive after the 20th trick-taking game (not that trick-taking games are bad, but there are enough that they blur together after a while), his book of card games (Card Games Around the World) has a baseball game played with cards.
Looking back, I think the major thing that’s changed for me is that I’ve just been exposed to board games that are variously more to my tastes or just plain better. With the exception of fond memories of playing Scrabble with my grandma, the board games I played when I was young just weren’t that fun for me. I don’t think I really have the right kind of mind for chess, and I found Monopoly just plain unfun and boring. Although my enthusiasm for it has waned lately, Cards Against Humanity was the first card game that really and truly clicked for me, and it led me to other games like The Big Idea, Dixit, Love Letter, and Dominion that I greatly enjoyed. There are still some games that do nothing for me (notably, games like Resistance or Avalon that are heavily based on bluffing), and although I seem to have a knack for picking up game rules quickly, I don’t have a lot of patience for complex games these days (though that’s definitely true of RPGs as well). I do kind of wish I had gotten into board games sooner, but on the other hand a lot of the games that really work for me are relatively recent. In essence the divide between the kinds of board games I played as a kid and disliked and the kinds I played as an adult and liked is the distance that designers like Sid Sackson advanced the medium.
Although I’m interested in board games for their own sake, I’m also doing all of this with an eye towards how it can apply to RPGs. RPGs have their own merits, but I think there are certain things that RPGs could stand to learn from them:
- Compactness: Although there are a few board games that you can play as a massive campaign, for the most part they have evolved towards being more efficient and compact. Where a typical D&D session can be 4-6 hours, 2-3 hours is on the high end for the play time of board games. The pure role-playing has value and shouldn’t be eliminated or rushed, but the mechanical parts of RPGs include a lot of trends that make things less efficient, usually in the name of simulation or tradition, even if they don’t particularly add anything to the experience at the game table.
- Teaching: There are exceptions (like pretty much every Fantasy Flight game I’ve tried so far), but by and large board games do a very good job of teaching people how to play. Some of that comes naturally from the rules being simpler, but RPG rulebooks often don’t seem to have a lot of thought put into the order in which you’d need to learn concepts. D&D (which I’m mentioning because it’s a well-known example, not because it’s exceptionally good or bad in this respect) has a lot of player options in the book well before the parts that would let you really understand the game well enough to make an informed decision about them. Mouse Guard is one of the few RPGs I know of where you can pretty much read the book front to back with no page-flipping and emerge with a decent understanding of the game. But even rarer is something like the rulebooks for Krosmaster Arena or Space Alert, which include simplified tutorial scenarios as well as the game rules.
- Presentation: One of the major things that helps many board games achieve their efficiency is in how they efficiently provide information to players. I’ve written before about how D&D seems to have little to no thought given to how players are supposed to keep track of things at the game table, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of time wasted sifting through the PHB to figure out which thing from the character sheet to use. Apocalypse World‘s playbooks are one of the best solutions to this in RPGs so far, but that level of efficient reference seems to be pretty routine in board games.
One thing that’s emerging in my flailing attempts to begin designing card and board games is a series of games themed around cute witches going to witch school, sort of like AEG’s many games set in the fictional nation of Tempest or Level 99 Games’ recurring World of Indines setting.
The first that I started on, but the one that’s proving the hardest to design is Magical Rail. I had the idea while visiting my sister in Washington D.C. She and her husband are huge into board games–my brother in law’s collection literally has over 700 different games–but since we got around D.C. on the train a lot it seemed like we had a lot of dead time, hence I had the idea of a game you could play on the train. The players would hold the (small number of) cards in their hands between them throughout the game, and gameplay involves a series of manipulations of those cards. It’s different enough from other card games (much less the relatively small subset of card games I’ve been exposed to) that it’s hard to figure out how exactly to proceed, but hitting on ideas like having players unable to rearrange the order of their cards (hence checking out Bohnanza for ideas) and 180-degree rotation of cards is slowly getting me to where I want to be.
The second is Magical Midterm, which started as an attempt at a light but still more strategic roll-and-move game, which I think grew out of playing Mario Party for the first time. In Magical Midterm instead of rolling dice you have a hand of movement cards, which include both basic movement and spells, which cost Mana Tokens. It’s still very early in development, and I’m planning to look deeper into race games in general for ideas, possibly going as far as to make it a game where each player has multiple pieces to move as in games like Pachisi.
Little Witches Duel is one I started on yesterday, and it’s basically a variant of the game Mate that appeared in A Gamut of Games, with a dedicated 20-card deck, a magical theme, and an attempt at adding in some Seiji Kanai style card effects. The result is (hopefully) a simple yet relatively deep 2-player card game.
Also on my list of possible games to do some day is a Slime Story deck-building game, though that would be quite a ways off.
I’ve heard that Monopoly is a much better game if you include the auction rules, which seem to have largely been omitted from the oral tradition version of the game. My experiences with it were negative enough that I’m not really willing to go back and try again though.
The idea popped into my head today to have reskinned versions aimed at boys with grimdark warlocks, but if I were to make something like that it would probably wind up being unspeakably sarcastic.
Updates on Assorted Projects
The game is coming along nicely. I did some important revisions based on the first playtest and some feedback, and I’m going to be doing some more playtesting soon. I also included a d66 table of offices in order of presidential succession, which got interesting because there are only about 18 positions in the real-life line of succession. Also we hit on the idea of presidential pets being a possible PC, hence for the upcoming playtest one of my friends sent me his writeup for the White House Dog as a Fullmetal President character:
Office: White House Dog
Name: Dogg McCool (named by the First Daughters)
Race: Shih-Tzu/Greyhound mix
Home State: Oregon
Policies: Sniff as many butts and crotches as possible. Eat anything on the ground or floor. Catch a car. (Not a cat, he likes cats. A Car.)
Name: AKC K9-99 Devourer
Main Weapon: CN-45 “SuperFang” Hydraulic Multi-shears
Mobility Pack: Google I-80N Automotive Follower Mode
Special Hardware: HH Amplified Ultrasonic Scanner
The new Restless-inspired card-based version of Raspberry Heaven worked really well in the first playtest, but it definitely needs some more playtesting, plus I’m waiting on artwork of the characters. It’s kind of a quirky, artsy game, so it’s going to mainly be a Patreon and POD release (since it was made for the oddball 6″x6″ format that DriveThru offers), though I already have some notes for a “Holiday Special” expansion, and an idea for a “Teacher’s Side” version inspired by the (obscure but kind awesome) manga S.S. Astro.
A while ago I started on a new version of Mascot-tan that ran on the rules of Maid RPG. The major issue I found is that random chargen doesn’t work well with gijinka characters, so I went back and reworked the character creation rules to be non-random, which makes them a bit more like the old version of Mascot-tan. The text is just about done, so the game will probably be going out once the colored versions of the artwork are ready.
Fighting Fighters Coliseum
This is an idea I had a while ago, which I got inspired to work on again due to getting a copy of 7-Card Slugfest. FFC is a descendant of Channel A, where you use words on card to put together names of finishing moves. The game also has a set of 30 (so far) character cards. Each player has one, in which case it provides them with a small special ability, and they double as boss characters, in which case they have something that triggers when the group is fighting them. There’s also “Priority Tokens,” which you can grab once your move is put together to get a bonus for finishing quickly. Votes come in the form of “Hits,” and special abilities and Priority Tokens modify the number of Hits you get, giving the game a bit more of a mechanical side. I have the first prototype made, so we’ll see how (if) these things actually work in playtesting.
The major new development with Magical Fury is that I finished and released the Magical Fury Companion, a 15-page PDF of new game material, including new moves, character options, and foes. It includes some of the stuff I’ve been developing for Magical Burst, reimagined for Magical Fury’s alternate take on things.
The fairly ridiculous Ewen’s Tables project is nearing the end of its first chapter. The plan is to put together a total of 36 PDFs of d66 tables, and then make a compilation book available in POD and PDF (probably a bit over 200 pages), with some bonus tables and such thrown in for the heck of it.
To go with it I made the “d66 Deck,” a 72-card deck that gives the probability spread of 2d6 twice over, with 2d6 and d66 results, plus dice icons and “glyphs” to provide inspiration. They’re really nice for generating results from d66 tables, and I’m hoping to design some card games to play with them as well.
I’ve been busy with other stuff, so not a lot has changed since I last posted about Magical Burst. I’m liking how it’s coming along in any case, and the core rules are coming together nicely, at least on paper.
I’ve been playing Persona 3 quite a bit lately, and I’m thinking that the rules of Magical Burst would be a great starting point for building a serial numbers filed off Persona RPG, though I need to finish MB and Persona 4 before I seriously think about that.
For those of you who might not be familiar, Patreon is a newer crowdfunding platform that’s been growing quickly. Where Kickstarter lets creators realize a single project in a month-long funding drive, Patreon is about ongoing patronage. As a patron, you still pick a pledge level, but this is typically a smaller amount, and it’s paid each time the creator launches something new. (And note that you can put limits on how much you’re willing to pay.) From the creator’s POV, it means that instead of taking a bunch of money and then having to figure out how to deliver with it, you make something and then get paid for it. It’s still something of a niche for RPGs, but the likes of Evil Hat, Epidiah Ravachol, Ben Lehman, Avery Mcdaldno, and Quinn Murphy have been putting it to good use.
I’ve been thinking about trying it out for a while, but I finally decided to take the plunge when I realized that I had gotten into making smaller games, and that I had a lot of them I wanted to do. So, I’ve got my Patreon page set up!
I have a ton of things I’m working on and want to work on, so here’s an overview of the things I’ve got cooking:
- Fullmetal President: Heavily inspired by a Japanese Xbox game called Metal Wolf Chaos, in this game you play the role of the President of the United States (and some cabinet members), donning power suits to restore Freedom to America! The rules are derived from Otherkind Dice, with the twist that you can get extra dice and assign them to either Freedom or Explosions. This will likely be my first Patreon release!
- Angel Project: Based on a modified version of the rules of Magical Fury (which is a super-simple Powered by the Apocalypse game), this is a much lighter game about cute girls with special suits that let the fight the forces of darkness, inspired by anime like Galaxy Fraulein Yuna and Symphogear.
- AnimeCon: A freeform RPG (drawing on Admist Endless Quiet and Remodel in terms of its game functions) for serious stories about people going to an anime convention full of hopes.
- Raspberry Heaven: Drawing on the form of J. Walton’s game Restless and the content of 4-panel manga like Azumanga Daioh and Hidamari Sketch, Raspberry Heaven is a game for heartwarming slice of life stories about high school girls.
- Assassin’s Kittens: A small Powered by the Apocalypse game about adorable kittens trained as deadly assassins to fight the Knights of the Cross for the fate of mankind.
- Melancholy Kaiju: An idea I’m still in the process of formulating, but it concerns giant monsters dealing with everyday life. Inspired by weird indie vinyl toys and such.
Magical Fury and Magical Burst
On Sunday I launched Magical Fury as a PDF product on DriveThruRPG (also, an updated version of Entanglements as a Pay What You Want product). As I mentioned earlier, it’s a much simpler dark magical girl RPG, which uses a very simple AW engine variant (inspired by The Sundered Land). It’s the product of a particular circumstance and emotions, but on the whole I like it a lot. It has a distinct simplicity and plays with lightning speed even for a rules-light game. The final product wound up being 35 pages, though nearly half of that is a set of 17 d66 tables covering character creation and other aspects of gameplay.
I based it on the Star Princess Astraia story that I really need to get around to writing some day (which gave me an excuse to get art of her done for the cover). It thus has some elements that stem directly from things I’m planning for that, notably the reincarnation aspect and the “change the world” move (inspired by a part where Astraia decides to patrol the streets and winds up in the middle of a confrontation with a police officer).
One of my goals with Magical Fury was to break through things that were blocking me with Magical Burst. I’ve been working on Magical Burst long enough that it’s accrued a lot of inertia, and coming at a similar concept from a different direction let me come up with some new approaches to handling things. They’re still two different games (and will continue to be so), but quite a few of the things I did with Magical Fury point to simpler, more elegant ways to approach some of the things Magical Burst is meant to do. There’s a lot I like about the Fallout system in Magical Burst, but in play it’s clunky and produces too many instances of Fallout that become hard to work into play. The Shift rules in Magical Fury accomplish a very similar goal in a much simpler way, and provide a clear blueprint for how I’m going to approach revising them.
One really important thing is that Magical Fury wound up being a proof of concept for a system that “summarizes” battles, reducing something that is quite involved in most games down to a few die rolls to find out how things go. As with Slime Story, I want Magical Burst to have both quick battles and more involved ones, though even for the more involved ones I want to avoid the hour-long combats of Magical Burst 4th Draft.
Making the moment of awakening as a magical girl a core, default part of gameplay was also a really effective aspect of Magical Fury in play, and helped bring to life the strangeness of it all. It’s definitely something I want to do with Magical Burst, and I’m leaning towards generally having the game set up to ramp character complexity gradually over time, another concept I’ve been wanting to play with in RPGs in general.
I also wanted to mention a newer magical girl series I saw recently, Yuki Yuna wa Yusha de Aru. If I had to rank them I would put Madoka Magica above it, but it’s nonetheless and enjoyable series with its own sensibilities and themes. It’s difficult to properly explain without spoilers, but sacrifice is a major theme, and the details of what the magical girls (“heroes”) are and how they work are interesting. One fan went as far as to write up Magical Burst rules for the blooming/mankai element from Yuki Yuna.
Although Magical Burst stemmed directly from the inspiration that I got from watching Madoka Magica, it’s never been as much of a Madoka Magica RPG as people seem to think it is. Even so, watching other magical girl anime has definitely been a good thing, and helped the game be that much more its own thing rather than a slavish imitator. While watching more of Sailor Moon, Precure, Lyrical Nanoha, etc. has had its benefits, Yuki Yuna feels more like a Magical Burst game than basically any other series besides Madoka Magica itself.
2014 in Review
2014 was a really weird year for me, and insofar as arbitrary numbers on years have any significance I can’t say I’ll miss this particular one. I got a lot of stuff done (including finally publishing I Want to Be an Awesome Robot), but I also hit a lot of roadblocks elsewhere, and there’s also the thing about losing my day job out of the blue a little before Thanksgiving.
One of my goals for 2014 was to finish and release a new draft of Magical Burst. I pulled that off, and went on to do some playtesting. I had made a host of refinements to the game, but when all is said and done I found myself deeply unsatisfied with result. There are a lot of reasons why, but I think that the big issue was a failure on my part to really think through some of the fundamentals of gameplay, of the experience I wanted the game to create. Despite this, it’s still basically my most popular game, and continues to get the most hits and downloads of basically anything I’ve done, so to some degree I’ve been feeling a bit obligated to find a way to finish it. At this point I have some ideas on where to go with it next, but I’m not really feeling up into getting into it right now.
In October I vented my frustrations into a game called Magical Fury, a vastly simpler game with similar themes that I wrote over the course of a weekend. I’m still working on revising it, but if it continues to do well in play testing, I’m thinking about doing a small commercial release in PDF form.
Star Line Publishing
2014 wound up being sort of an “in between” year for SLP, mostly about trying to finish up leftover stuff from the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter. We’re gearing up to publish the first GSS supplement and looking at a couple of other games to possibly license, but it’s taking quite a bit of time to get through all of the stretch goal material that came with the Kickstarter. (We’re definitely going to be a bit more conservative about how much we promise in the future.) On the plus side, Faerie Skies and Fantasy Friends are basically just waiting on art and then layout, so while we’ll be slipping past my initial goal of having them done by the end of the year, it shouldn’t be by too much.
Mike, my business partner, has been pretty busy going to conventions to run demos and such. (To the point where as much as he likes GSS, he wants to find time to play other RPGs.) My contributions have mostly been in terms of writing, arranging business stuff, and so forth. I haven’t run the numbers, but SLP has been modestly profitable so far, and it’s going to be a while before we start making a living from it. In January of this year we moved Maid RPG over to being an SLP product, and set up shop with some venues that Andy hadn’t tried, including selling PDFs through DriveThruRPG and POD books through Amazon (via CreateSpace), The game has been pretty insanely evergreen, and it’s outsold GSS some months. Amazon and DTRPG (along with Indie Press Revolution) have worked really well for us, and basically given the company a steady source of passive income.
This was a big year for me doing stuff with card games, albeit nothing that has enjoyed huge amount of commercial success. This year I launched i.hate.everyone as a POD product on DriveThruCards ( though the realities of POD card pricing make it a bit expensive), plus a “deluxe version” of The Bird Game and four volumes of Five-Card Fictions. I have some ideas percolating for some card games with a strong Seiji Kanai influence, with actual substantive rules rather than being fluffy party games, but these are still in very early stages, and haven’t gotten even as far as a prototype. The most exciting of these so far is a game I’m calling “Magical Rail,” which is meant to be played on public transit, hence it’s set up so that as you play the players have all of the cards in their hands between them. (With the theme being cute witches competing to find a special gem as they ride a magical train to witch school.)
People involved in RPGs in general have a strange relationship with D&D, and I can’t say I’m an exception. This year saw the release of 5th Edition, after the lengthy open playtest and any number of other issues. For me it caused all kinds of stress for reasons I won’t get into here. I did read the actual game (the Starter Set and the Basic Rules) when it came out, and while it’s hard to say how much my emotions about the matter played into it, I found the game really underwhelming. 4E has its good and bad points, but 5E mostly seems to be a deliberately generic D&D, and in more ways than not a retread of stuff that’s already been around for decades. If I decide I really want a dungeon fantasy RPG, it’s at best an average entry in an overcrowded genre. I may still end up playing it (because I have some friends who want to), but nothing about it has made me inclined to spend any more money on it.
Being Human Together
The mess around D&D, combined with how the Magical Burst playtest went, had me trying to work my way through something of a crisis of faith with my relationship with RPGs. I realized that the real core of what makes RPGs worthwhile for me is something that I have taken to calling “being human together.” I’ve been most interested in games that have something to say about the human condition, or otherwise help people come together in interesting ways. I have less of an appetite for complex rules than I used to, and I’ve been a great deal more interested in freeform style games, both for their own sake and as a source of inspiration. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to position D&D as the opposite of “being human together,” but certainly it’s responsible for some of the games I’ve been in that were the most wanting for that.
This whole thing got me inspired to mess around with some games that better fit that general emotion. I did some more work on Beyond Otaku Dreams, and I started on a Powered by the Apocalypse take on Slime Story that looks really promising so far. I also got inspired to work more on Dragon World (also partly because it takes the piss out of D&D cliches) and try to bring it to fruition, hence I’ve been running more playtests. It’s still a work in progress, and the starburst of the original epiphany has worn off a bit, but it’s still going to inform what I do with RPGs in the future.
In mid-November I got laid off from my job in the video game industry. I got severance pay, but also basically zero warning; I came in for a normal day, and wound up leaving early with cardboard boxes loaded into my car. For the record, if you really have to lay people off, mid-November is one of the worst times to do that to a person. Aside from it being the worst Christmas present ever, companies don’t do all that much hiring around the holidays, so doing a job search becomes even more aggravating than normal. As I write this, I’ve got a couple of leads, but nothing solid as far as the job search goes, and I pretty much expect to make no real progress until after New Year’s. On the plus side, my contacts in tabletop gaming resulted in me getting a fairly large freelance translation job for some card games. Adjusting to not having a daily routine at the office has been significantly more difficult than I expected though.
Reeling from all of this led me to take a game I had started on called Schoolgirl RPG, finish it up, and put up for sale on DriveThruRPG for $2.49, in the hopes of making a little extra money to help make ends meet. It’s basically an attempt to take the rules of Maid RPG and compact them down as far as they’ll go, resulting in a game that’s 7 pages including the cover. I put out a supplement for it, and right now I’m working on two more supplements, and planning to compile all of that stuff into a POD book. The core rules have since become a silver bestseller on DTRPG (also, there’s a Polish version of it in the works),. Along with Schoolgirl RPG, I added the “Ewen’s Tables” series of PDFs of various kinds of d66 tables for use in gaming, a special pre-release version of Retail Magic, and a maid class for Dungeon World.
It’s been a very different mode of publishing compared to what I’m doing for Star Line Publishing. I’ve mostly been making small PDFs, with layouts in Microsoft Word and minimal art, most notably Creative Commons stuff from The Noun Project. The level of freedom and spontaneity it allows me is rather refreshing, especially with the added validation of people giving me money for stuff. I’m not going to be making a living from it any time soon, but the extra income has been really nice all the same.
A few weeks ago I did a playtest of J. Walton’s game Restless. He originally created it for the Golden Cobra contest (you can see an older version of it in the Golden Cobra anthology), and I found it to be a really fascinating game, one that I think will influence me for a long time to come in the manner of things like Maid RPG and Fiasco. The core of the game is in how you play through one or more “verse cards.” Each of these as a series of paragraphs, and you go through a paragraph at a time, following the instructions to basically improvise a vignette for the game’s post-apocalyptic setting. It’s poised to make good use of the unusual 6″x6″ card format that DriveThruCards offers.
What will actually come of it remains to be seen, but I pretty promptly got inspired to basically attempt not one but three of my old game projects as hacks of Restless. Setting up and playing through pre-made vignettes like that seems to have the potential to be a very powerful tool for telling certain kinds of stories. I’ve already got a new version of Raspberry Heaven nearly ready to playtest, and I’m thinking about seeing if this approach is what I need to be able to pull off Beyond Otaku Dreams and Moonsick, two more games that I’ve been trying to figure out how to design for years.
Odds and Ends
- I’m working on material for the magical girl piece for Breakfast Cult. Having read a draft of the game, it looks seriously cool, and I’m pretty happy to be able to contribute to it.
- I’ve been neglecting it, but I started on a project called Magic School Diary, which is basically a diary that you write in-character as a student at a magic school, following the various prompts and activities it gives you.
- I wrote a mini gamebook thing for my friend’s Madoka Magica doujinshi/fanbook called “Choose Your Own Homura,” which is very silly. It was the first time I finished writing a gamebook, and I definitely want to play around with the medium some more. (Though I really want something that can take a Twine game and spit out a numbered gamebook.)
2013 was a year of hitting critical mass, when I started getting things published and getting noticed in some parts of the industry. 2014 wound up being kind of a weird in-between year, largely spent dealing with stuff stemming from what happened the year before and preparing to make things happen in the future. On the plus side, I’m feeling more empowered than ever to just make stuff and sell it, and I’ve been fortunate to have something of an audience for the stuff I’m doing.
2014 had entirely too many reminders that the RPG scene has some pretty serious problems. For one or two people who I really admire, it became enough to convince them to leave RPGs behind entirely. For my part I still want to stick around; there’s still some really cool stuff going on, and I like being able to do my part to make RPGs weird. More importantly, I want to strive to be some small part of the solution.
It sounds a bit melodramatic, but I’m going into 2015 with high hopes for the future. I don’t have any specific resolutions or goals, just a bunch of things I need to do and even more things I want to try.
On Friday, November 14th, I got laid off from my day job. I don’t want to get into that too much here, but suffice to say I should’ve started looking for a new job before events forced the issue. (Though if anyone out there has any job leads by all means please get in touch with me!) Aside from the job search, to stay sane I’ve been making things, like a lot.
“Schoolgirl RPG” is the result of compacting the Maid RPG rules down about as far as they’ll go, resulting in a 7-page comedy RPG about Japanese schoolgirls. Apart from that it’s very open-ended, and largely an excuse to throw around random events and such. I’m in the process of working on a couple of small supplements for it too, namely “Extra Credit” (which adds a bunch more tables for various purposes) and “Otoko no Michi” (which adds rules for schoolboys, heavily inspired by Cromartie High). Retail Magic: Golden Friday Edition
Also a Maid RPG derivative, Retail Magic is a game about employees at a magic item shop in a fantasy world, and a weird blend of Slayers-style fantasy anime and cynical Western comedy about retail. The “Golden Friday Edition” is a fully playable basic version, without the bells and whistles I’m hoping to put into the final version. I’m hoping that it will succeed enough to get people interested in the game and thereby clearly justify full-on publishing a final version in print with art and everything. I had originally planned to release it on Black Friday, but my artist friend took an extra day making the cover art be amazing. (And by the way, although they’re a bit rough, here are the Employee Sheet and Boss Sheet.) Five-Card Fictions
I also finished three new Five-Card Fictions decks, in addition to the original Miyuki Days deck. I was originally planning to stop at three decks total, but I hit on the idea of doing a “Karin Days” deck about Miyuki’s rival and sometimes girlfriend, which resulted in one of my best-written decks so far. I’ve started offering print-and-play PDFs for $1.99, and since the proofing process is done they’re also available in print on demand.
- Thralls of the Red God: A sword and sorcery story, drawing on authors like R.E. Howard and Michael Moorcock, as well as RPGs like Swords Without Master and In a Wicked Age. The Champion heads into the wastes to find his destiny, but the Red God has other plans.
- Strange Geometries: Inspired by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Strange Geometries concerns an Argentinian man reading a strange book, with a knife fight possibly looming in his future. Owing to the wealth of suitable public domain images, it’s probably the best-looking deck so far.
- Karin Days: A sequel of sorts to Miyuki Days, starring the rich girl who is Miyuki’s rival. This one gets even more surreal and also has some fairly cutting satire.
The Maid (for Dungeon World)
Probably the weirdest (in a cool way) thing to come out of this is that I made a Maid class for Dungeon World. It is very deliberately inspired by Maid RPG, and in fact has a move that involves random events, as well as stuff using Favor points. It was pretty fun to do, and got a decent response. The art, in case you’re wondering, is stock art (絵素材) that I bought from DLSite.com, one of the major Japanese doujinshi e-book type sites.
Inspired by a certain guy’s lists, I started a small side thing of making PDFs of d66 tables useful for generating various things for RPGs or other purposes. The first one was for Fantasy Names, providing names for human, elven, dwarven, and halfling characters suitable for D&D, Pathfinder, and other dungeon fantasy type games. I followed that with Super Names, Anime Stuff, Odds and Ends, Anime Stuff 2, Odds and Ends 2, and Titles. They haven’t been super-successful or anything, but they’ve sold a few here and there, and they were fun to do, and I’ve made enough that I wound up making my own product category for them. If this silliness goes on long enough I’ll probably make a book out of them.
Anyway, that’s all for now. There’s all sorts of exciting stuff on the horizon, but I haven’t yet figured out a real path forward.
Choose Your Own
The notion of a book where the reader makes choices as they progress through a story seems to have first appeared (being described but not executed) in a Jorge Luis Borges story. The early branching path books were more educational tools (I remember one I had when I was young about the structure of atoms), but the best-known series is easily the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I’d always been interested in the idea of Choose Your Own Adventure books and other kinds of gamebooks, but at the same time I often wasn’t a fan of the subject matter they chose. The actual CYOA books, as well as things like Lone Wolf, can come off as a caricature of deadly old-school D&D, games that just hate the idea of your character being alive. The first gamebook I really and truly enjoyed was Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be, a tongue in cheek take on the story of Hamlet. There are still plenty of ways for your character to die, but you can also do things like wind up with Hamlet’s father joining forces with other ghosts to fight an invasion of alien ghosts, so finding the many, many different endings is a major part of the fun rather than a source of frustration. Not unlike with playing party card games, it’s a lot easier to lose horribly and still have a great time. I’m still in the process of exploring what’s out there, but gamebooks have become a thing on Kindle and other ebook platforms, not to mention the success of Twine, which has helped a ton of people get their first taste of game design and become a major part of the Interactive Fiction scene. (There’s also the thing that Japanese visual novels are often basically COYA games with voice samples and character art.)
I’ve made one or two attempts at writing gamebooks in the past, but I completed one for the first time with Choose Your Own Homura, a very silly Madoka Magica mini-gamebook that will be a part of my friend C. Ellis‘ Madoka fanbook project. It is full of goofy references, including Charles Barkley and a couple of Wizard People Dear Reader nods. I wrote CYOH in Twine, and then converted it to a format suitable for dead tree printing afterwards. I haven’t explored other options too much, but Twine is pretty excellent, and it outputs an HTML file that you can play on virtually any device with a browser. Making the version for printing was kind of a pain, despite my having a decent command of Excel Sorcery (by which I mean VLOOKUP and a couple other useful formulas), so I’m hoping I can find some kind of automated solution for that before I launch into more ambitious gamebook projects.
I suspect it will get easier with practice, but to me the single biggest challenge of writing a gamebook is that (for me at least) it creates a particularly high degree of separation between the writer/designer’s point of view and that of the reader/player. The reader necessarily experiences a small fraction of the gamebook’s content on each playthrough, while the writer has to take a big-picture view of the overall decision tree’s many branches. I think it’s easier for me to get a sense of the way game mechanics will work because they’re something you have to apply in a variety of situations, whereas as a gamebook author you have already lost the feeling of making a choice for the first time and not knowing where it will take you. I haven’t yet tried working with anything besides simple branching choices, but with Twine and even with gamebooks there’s some really interesting possibilities with those kinds of things.
Tentatively my plan is that once the fanbook is sold out I’ll see about putting CYOH up for sale on Gumroad (I Want to be an Awesome Robot is available through there now too BTW), and to explore doing more gamebook thinks in the future, high on the list being “Octaviadventure,” which will probably be a part of Most of My Friends Are Potential Supervillains (the sequel to Awesome Robot). I certainly have no shortage of concepts/games that could make for a fun gamebook, and on top of that they could make interesting companion or promotional pieces for other games. A friend even suggested setting up a Choosatron at a convention booth to give people both a taste of your game’s general feel and a personalized souvenir to take home.
With this, Magic School Diary, and Five-Card Fictions I’m generally enjoying working with stuff that allows for solo play. It’s a very different kind of writing/design to be sure, but it also has the massive advantage of being able to test stuff (to some degree) by myself whenever I have time to spare.