Category Archives: projects

Spooktacular

My deluge of freelance work has evened out a little, so I’ve had some time to seriously work on Spooktacular, to the point where I’m starting the first playtest. The core idea of it is simply to make an updated and streamlined serial-numbers-filed-off version of the 1986 West End Games Ghostbusters RPG, but it’s been a really fun and interesting project to work on so far. (Also, Amy Veeres is contributing some writing.) As things stand it’s most likely going to be a PDF/POD Yaruki Zero Games release. Most of my printed self-published stuff has been in 6″x9″ format so far, but I’ve been trying out and generally liking 7″x10″ lately. Part of it is just that it’s big enough that my habit of including a bunch of tables doesn’t require too much squeezing. Anyway.

I think I would sum up my overall approach as taking the core mechanics from the original RPG and more or less doing the rest by way of my own ideas and inspirations, creating a take on busting ghosts that’s uniquely mine, based on the related media and games I like and my own ideas about the whole thing. Stuff like InSpectres, Buffy, and Mob Psycho 100 (a currently airing anime series) played into the themes, and games like Apocalypse World, Maid RPG, PDQ, and Risus influenced the design.

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Themes and Stuff

Coming at this as an adult fan has let me more seriously examine the themes behind Ghostbusters and write about my own take on it. The original movie was more about running a business, while the remake is more about science and skepticism, and I find both pretty interesting. The appeal of the overall franchise I think is in that where horror movies tell us that the unknown is deadly and only barely survivable, here the paranormal is not only something people can defeat, but something that can become another job. While there are serious challenges and the possible end of the world to consider, Ghostbusters also deal with a lot of ghosts with all the nonchalance of an exterminator spraying for termites.

I’ve realized that while the characters can and probably should be a bit weird and quirky, it’s like Fiasco in terms of being something that works best with relatively normal characters rather than cartoons. A lot of the appeal and humor comes from the juxtaposition of supernatural horrors with that mundane aspect. Ghosts as a verifiable phenomenon and the busting thereof are things that the premise superimposes on an otherwise pretty ordinary world, and it’s really interesting to think about what those ripples result in. (To me that’s one place where Ghostbusters II kind of fell down, since it tried too hard to “reset” the characters back to being nobodies who had to start from square one.)

One of my favorite parts of the book so far (and the one Amy is contributing to) is the “Interesting Places to Hunt Ghosts” section, which profiles various cities in terms of what it’s like to be a paranormal investigator there. I started with places I’m familiar with–San Francisco, Albuquerque, and Washington D.C.–and Amy is adding Philadelphia, Kyoto, and London. While I have nothing against New York, I’ve never been (I’d like to some time), and for me the personalized specificity of SF or Washington is much more interesting to me personally. I can imagine busting ghosts on Capitol Hill or a Google bus plodding down Market Street much more vividly than the streets of New York, and bringing that kind of personal experience to the table helps it feel more grounded.

Game Mechanics

While I kept most of the very core conceits of the original game, I am making some changes, a mixture of personal preference and general attempts to improve it.

The biggest change I made to character creation was simply adding a bunch of optional d66 tables for the various things you have to come up with. This is a technique I first came up with for Magical Burst (inspired by Maid RPG), and it’s served me well in a bunch of other games since. It’s a way to present a bunch of examples, provide a quick out for anyone who’s stumped, and gently shape the tone of the game, so it’s something I’ve wound up using a lot in my various games. I’m also inordinately happy with adding “Ate a Telephone Once” to the table of Quirks as a nod to the GBRPG rulebook’s penchant for using eating a telephone as an example.

The second biggest change is the addition of Archetypes, which give you a broad character type (Charlatan, Parapsychologist, Esper, etc.) and a special ability that you can use by spending Awesome Points (which are Brownie Points under a different name). While I do like the addition to the game, it’s becoming clear that I need good reference materials to keep it from becoming a drag on character creation.

In 1989, WEG put out a second edition of the RPG called Ghostbusters International, but fans by and large found that it overcomplicated the game. I’ve tried to implement a handful of ideas from it while streamlining it as much as possible. One of the major things that GBI does that looks like it would pointlessly slow down play is to use margins of success a lot. While you have the option to just treat it as a binary pass/fail, the game encourages you to subtract the target number from the roll result and compare it to a chart to see how much the character succeeded by, which is kind of a lot of extra math to pack into every single roll in what it supposed to be a pretty freewheeling game. We’ll see if it survives playtesting, but I came up with the concept of Exceptional Success and Ridiculous Success for when you succeed by 10 or 20 points (respectively), which I’m hoping will make it easy to do something with crazy rolls without excessive math involved. Likewise, I added the concept of damage to stats from GBI (with a little inspiration from Risus and PDQ), but tried to simplify it as much as possible.

I did away with any semblance of initiative or movement rules (not that the original game had a whole lot of that), and instead basically wrote a couple paragraphs about doing it the way Apocalypse World does (which also happens to be more or less how Maid RPG does it).

Anyway

I’m hoping this will be a fun game, and my own unique take on something that was a defining part of my childhood. (an obsession that the new movie actually rekindled stronger than ever). It’s generally been really fun to work on, and I’ve already commissioned James Workman (who did the illustrations for Fantasy Friends) to do some artwork for it.

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Kagegami High

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

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Continue reading Kagegami High

Channel A Reprint

Asmadi Games launched the Kickstarter for Channel A in early 2013, and since then the game’s been enough of a success to sell out its entire first printing. I’ve had a lot of people say some very nice things about it, and one game designer said they played it at his wedding even. There are also multiple YouTube videos of people playing it, including one featuring ladies in bikinis that I don’t really know how to react to.

Anyway, I’ve been getting a lot of people asking where they can actually get the game. For a while there were still some copies floating around some retailers, but that’s pretty much dried up for now, leaving only the barebones PNP version for people who want to try it out. I’ve been talking to Chris at Asmadi Games about it for a while, and we finally figured out how to handle things.

Asmadi is now holding a preorder drive for the reprint. We need 500 preorders into order to launch the reprint. On the plus side, for $32 you will get not only the game, but the new A-Soft expansion (which lets you play the game as a contest to pitch weird video games, and which will probably go for $10 when sold separately) as well, with shipping included. If you’re interested, you can put your preorder at the Asmadi Games store.

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I’m still working on the Chaos Edition that I’ve discussed a bit before, which will be a standalone expansion that adds some nifty new twists to the gameplay, but those new twists mean that I have to do more playtesting. In the meantime your help getting the reprint and A-Soft off the ground would be hugely appreciated.

More On Pix

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

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A placeholder cover thing.

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

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

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

Continue reading More On Pix

Pix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Magical Fury

Back in October I participated in a “tradgames jam,” and over the course of a few days wrote a first draft of a game called “Magical Fury.” The idea was to write a short and simple dark magical girl name, to play around with some of the ideas I’d been developing for my “Star Princess Astraia” story and hopefully shake out some cobwebs on Magical Burst. Magical Fury is kind of its own animal, but also kind of a Magical Burst Lite, with some similar things handled in a much simpler and smoother way. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two games, but then Magical Fury pretty much exists because of my dissatisfaction with Magical Burst.

Compared to my attempt at a Magical Burst novel (Magical Girl Radiant Yuna), Star Princess Astraia is a bit more brutal, and more focused on conflicts between magical girls. In that respect it hews a bit closer to Madoka Magica, as well as Lyrical Nanoha. It has reincarnation of magical girls (a darker take on what happens in Sailor Moon) as a major conceit, and thus magical girls have a (potentially risky) ability to look back to past lives. (Thus the story’s inciting incident is when a magical girl shows up at the protagonist’s work, threatening to start killing people unless the reincarnation of Star Princess Astraia reveals herself.)

It’s kind of a Powered by the Apocalypse game, in the same sense as The Sundered Land, and generally a very light, story-oriented game. The dice mechanics pretty much some straight from Sundered Land, and are a lot like if you took the basic AW rules and assumed that everyone has a +1 in all stats. It doesn’t use anything like HP or Harm though. Moves give outcomes and sometimes call for magical girls to take points of Magic or Trauma, which in turn can make them have problems (kind of like fallout in Magical Burst, but much simpler). After writing moves that say things like, “When you have a moment of true desperation…” or “When you try to do something that affects the real world…” I feel like I’m definitely using the framework much better than I did in Magical Burst.

One of the major things I like about it is that it has the part about girls becoming magical girls hard-coded into the default way to start playing the game. It’s a really important moment in virtually every magical girl story, and I think the lack of such is a big weakness of Magical Burst.

It also reduces combat down to a handful of rolls. While the tactical combat system I put together for Magical Burst is fun in its own right, it’s also time-consuming enough to dominate each game session. While I don’t dislike tactical combat–I enjoyed playing D&D4e regularly for years–there are times when it isn’t what I want, and when protracted battles just get annoying. Cutting it down to a few rolls and evaluating the outcome is a really refreshing alternative. I wouldn’t want to go that route in every game, but it seems to work pretty well for this one.

The new revision I’m working on adds an element of turn-taking scene framing inspired by Shinobigami. Shinobigami is a Japanese RPG (with an English release from Kotodama Heavy Industries planned) about modern-day anime-style ninjas. It’s a bit more mechanistic than what I have in mind for Magical Fury, but the basic gameplay puts PCs in competition and has them take turns setting up scenes trying to accomplish various goals. They thus ferret out secrets, form bonds, and have the occasional skirmish as well. Magical Fury’s take on it will be a bit looser, with the option to start a scene and see where it goes, and with the GM taking turns that they use to complicate the PCs’ lives and have threats creep closer.

Overall, Magical Fury is much more a “story game,” much more a set of tools to provoke you into telling an improvised story together. At this point I really don’t know where I’ll go with it, but it’s one of the projects I’m the most excited about just now. At the very least it’s going to be a massive influence on whatever Magical Burst turns into next, but I kind of want to bring Magical Fury to fruition on its own. A thin, simple book that won’t be table-torture for whoever I get to do layout.

September Update

The other day I sat down and watched Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. While it’s hard not to lament what could’ve been–a Dune movie that involved Moebius, Chris Foss, H.R. Geiger, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and more besides–I came out of it feeling creatively energized. The Jodorowski that emerges through the film is an iconoclastic weirdo who has a vision and boldly pursues it. He’s the kind of guy who refers to the key creative people helping him as his “warriors,” and who sought to make a film that would be a “prophet” that changed mankind. Even though it didn’t come together because of the studios being unwilling to finance it, his vision still profoundly influenced science fiction, and he further went on to put as much of that vision as he could into comics. I don’t think I have the wild-eyed ambition to aspire to make a prophet or to bug Mick Jagger to be in a movie, but I can’t help but admire Jodorowski for it. For me it hasn’t been all that unusual to start on a project and then eventually discover that for one reason or another I actually needed to try doing it in a completely different medium or otherwise radically change my approach.

I kind of feel like I’ve been sliding towards being a guy who makes various kind of things that use words in interesting ways, of which RPGs are just one component. And I think I’m okay with that. The thing I like the most about where I am now is that I feel empowered to just make stuff. My self-published stuff now includes two books and three cards games (and one of the card games now spans four different products). A whole lot of people come off as though they’re waiting for someone to give them permission, but we’re at about the best time in human history (so far) for having tools to let a person make a vision happen and reach people. I’ve pursued some downright quixotic projects, but I’ve been able to make them happen without breaking the bank. I think I spent roughly $400 on I Want to be an Awesome Robot in all, which for my self-published stuff is way at the high end. For Miyuki Days I used a piece of pixel art I had commissioned for something else a while back and a bunch of public domain and creative commons art, so the monetary expenses basically amounted to getting a proof printed. All of that isn’t to say I don’t want to do more ambitious projects as well, just that I think there’s something to be said for blazing through bringing a simpler project to fruition by myself sometimes. The sense of accomplishment is certainly help me keep up some kind of creative momentum.

Magic School Diary

I’ve wanted to make something or other about a magic school for ages, and even started building up a particular one in my head: the Mage Academy. MA is a relatively new American school, and its founders wanted to create a modern institution and overcome the flaws they saw in the older schools. (So yes, it is in part a reaction to the many harmful and sometimes just plain baffling aspects of Hogwarts.) I had a few different ideas for what medium it would actually use, from an RPG to a novel to a solo RPG, and more recently I hit on the idea of presenting it in the form of a sort of journal book. There are a fair number of journals and such that give suggestions and guidance for what to write about, and in some cases, for various non-writing things to do. I have a book called 642 Things To Write About, which is a collection of writing prompts with lines to write on. There’s also Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, which is a brazenly transgressive series of tasks to deface the book in various ways. (Some of her other books seem a little calmer, more about building up something though.) The’re the Listography books too, which ask you to create a sort of autobiography in the form of various kinds of lists. And of course there’s the children’s activity books, which I wound up researching a bit for the weird Fun Activities section of I Want to be an Awesome Robot. Personally I’m the sort of person who normally doesn’t write in books at all (not a moral thing or anything like that; it’s simply something that doesn’t normally occur to me to do), but there’s something neat about books that are meant for it.

Although there’s a lot of semi-antecedents, as far as I know, I’m making the first such book to be all about guiding the reader in creating a narrative. In the book’s story, MA is trying out a “Magic School Diary Program” to help students maintain a personal timeline (in case temporal weirdness happens) and provide basic “study activities.” The activities serve as an excuse to add Fun Activities to the proceedings, including learning a (made up) runic alphabet, collecting leaves for a spell, and finding a plushie to be your familiar. A portion of the entries will call for rolling dice for ideas or to see what happens next, and while the book leaves a lot of room for the user to find their own story, there’ll also be some storylines woven into the book.

"Universal Runes," which a friend of mine designed, originally for a sci-fi/fantasy campaign I was running several years back.
“Universal Runes,” which a friend of mine designed, originally for a sci-fi/fantasy campaign I was running several years back.

As much as I liked the diary writing solo RPG concept, the Magic School Diaries solo RPG I had started working on was set to balloon to a pretty massive size, with lots of tables providing events, NPC reactions, and so forth. Not having rules for character stats and such limits certain things about the journal version, but it’s also freeing in a lot of ways. Being onto something that’s a bit sui generis is also pretty phenomenally exciting, though it also carries any number of challenges, the biggest of which being the question of figuring out the right balance of the various kinds of content and activities to sustain someone through 300 or so pages. To start with the plan is to put the book together in Word (with an Excel spreadsheet to help me plan stuff out) and get some POD books made so I can test it out. That’s going to take some time, but if it works out well I could see doing a Kickstarter to pay to hire people for artwork, graphic design, and layout to make it as pretty as I’m imagining it could be.

Card Games

On the card game front (which is a thing in my life now apparently), I got Miyuki Days and The Bird Game up for sale on DriveThruCards. The Bird Game is fun, but it was always a weird joke, so I kept the graphic design of it deliberately basic, though I didn’t go into purposely bad Comic Sans territory or anything. For Miyuki Days I also stayed fairly simple, though putting a different icon (from The Noun Project) on the back of each of 50 cards did add a fair amount of time to the process (though Data Merge made it much less painful than it could’ve been). Unlike i.hate.everyone, they have few enough cards to actually come at a reasonable price despite being POD, so they’ve actually sold a few copies. They were both fun to make and fun to play with. I’m still planning to make some more Five-Card Fictions decks to follow Miyuki Days, but they take time and I have a bunch of other things going on.

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The major new thing in the Deluxe Edition of The Bird Game is the addition of a set of pre-made prompts. To keep down the number of cards, I made 12 cards with 6 prompts each.

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Slime Story

The big thing I’m currently working on for Slime Story is working on the selection of monsters. I had some figured out already, and I bought the newest Pokemon Pokedex strategy guide to look at for inspiration. On the whole I’ve set myself a difficult task though, since Slime Story monsters are supposed to be neither humanoid nor outwardly artificial, which cuts out a bigger swath of possibilities than you might think.

Other Bits and Pieces

  • I am writing something for my friend C. EllisMadoka Magica fan book. It’s exciting, though I’m just getting started.
  • I am going to be writing something for Ettin’s Breakfast Cult game. Surprising absolutely no one, I’m going to be writing stuff about magical girls. Having just enough clout that people are asking me to write RPG stretch goal material is goddamn weird, but also kinda cool.
  • The artwork for Fantasy Friends and Faerie Skies is coming along nicely, and I’m hoping to send the manuscripts to an editor soon as well. I’m planning to share some in a Kickstarter update soon.
  • For Star Line Publishing, we’re in the early planning stages of a Kickstarter for the first official Golden Sky Stories supplement, and we’re also very seriously looking at some other possible games to license.
  • I have been working a little bit on the “Hand Maid Edition” of Maid RPG (the idea being to produce a smaller, sleeker rulebook), including reworking the steward rules a bit (since I was planning to include them in the book), with the aim of making them better able to facilitate equal-opportunity fanservice.
  • I have some ideas percolating for Magical Burst. I’m probably going to wind up doing another massive revision.
  • I am playing Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 3, because apparently the video game that interests me most right now is in Japanese and was published in 1998. It’s a mixture of visual novel stuff with grid-based tactical combat, and it’s a lot of fun.