22 April, 2018

A Game of Variable Pocketmods

Here's my current thoughts on Apocalypse Diaries.

Pocketmod 1... the basic rules.
Pocketmod 2... the specific variations to the rules for the character you've chosen (including character sheet on the back page)
Pocketmod 3... the specific apocalypse for this character's story.

To play the game, a player will need:

  1. three pocketmods
  2. a diary (with plenty of space to write in... probably a page per day)
  3. a pen
  4. a standard deck of cards

(I envision players purchasing diaries that embody the lives of the character's before the apocalypse hits... girl character's being written in the cutest diaries that can be found, jocks writing their entries into diaries depicting their favourite sporting teams, business people writing into formal planners, etc.)

Basic play procedure follows the Texas Hold 'Am procedure.

Before you write anything, draw three cards. The highest of the three cards will describe either the person involved in the incident you are describing, or the location where it occurs; the lowest will give a thematic prompt, for the diary entry.

Each day you should write a minimum of 3 sentences. Included in these sentences must be a person you either observed or interacted with, the place where this occurred, at least something alluding to the events around this incident. You may choose to include more than one person in the incident, but only one person will be the focus of the activities described. You may choose to write about two or more events during the day if you feel it appropriate, but try to write at least two sentences to set up each incident.

After writing the first two sentences describing the incident setup, underline the focal person of the incident and the location where the incident occurred. Draw a fourth card for the day to see how this event is twisted.

A fifth card determines the potential risks and rewards inherent in the incident.

The player draws 1 to 4 cards based on what their character can bring to bear in the situation, the opposition draws 1 to 4 cards based on what difficulties are faced by the character. The best hand from the cards available to the player, or the opposition, determines the outcome.

I suspect this might end up being a bit too complicated, but we'll just have to try it in a series of playtests.

21 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 21: How many playtests?

The answer to this is always "one more"... but if I waited until enough playtests were completed, I'd never get things done. Perfect is the enemy of good.

I usually try to test my games at least three times. Write, initial private testing (either running through the mechanisms myself, or spitballing with one or two others), then rewrite or refine. Second test is usually done in a more formal game set up, among friends or perhaps online. With the feedback from that wider community, a second revision is done. If I had the resources, here's where I'd add in more tests and refinements. Instead the final test is usually done at a convention, with random strangers playing the game... I'd love to get blind playtesting happening with strangers both running and playing things, but if anyone has a reliable way to get that happening I really want to hear it.

Usually, by this stage, I either put the game aside, letting it sit and mature for a while, or start working on layout.

20 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 20: Favourite design tools

Lots of people seem to be saying "pencil and paper", "pencil and notebook", or "word processor", as a response to this question. While it may be a valid response, or even a good answer to a question about the most commonly used design tool, I don't think I could really call any of these my "favourite".

I think my favourite design tool is the ad-lib. When I say this, I mean modifying a situation on the fly, getting players to do something on the edge of their comfort zone and using rulings that twist the existing rules to fit a situation they haven't specifically been designed to handle. The process of archiving that situation and  modifying the rules to accomodate things in future comes later... it's the moment of critical thought, reaction, and design by instinct that is my favorite moment, and it's  subconscious design tools from studying numerous games and just grokking the situation with modifications that just feel right, where my favourite design occurs. 

#AprilTTRPGMaker 19: Game that's most essential to your design

No one game is essential to my design. I've voiced my disdain for hacks time and again, and I certainly don't make my game design life focused on redesigning the one game over and over. Anything I make might be a blend of components from three or four games, with an idea or two of my own thrown in for good measure.

Yet, despite this, I do admit that there are a few games that contribute their components more often than not.

Mage: the Ascension
Completely divorced from the clunky core mechanisms of the Storyteller system, the magic system of Mage is brilliant, but then again the game is called Mage, so it would want to be. Actually, there are a few great game ideas that set the tone for the various games in the World of Darkness once you strip them away from the core system. Those are the elements that give me inspiration.

Warhammer Fantasy Role-playing
The career system in WFRP has been a strong influence in many of my designs. The low magic grim fantasy has also been a strong aesthetic when I've produced non-modern settings.

The lifepath system in CP2020 has been a strong design inspiration in much of my work.

For most of the rest of my design practice, I believe it's important to experience and understand as many different designs as possible, see what they're trying to do, see what they actually manage to do, where they work, where they fail, where unexpected serendipity brings alternative effects to the table.

19 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 18: Current Inspirations

So many...in no particular order.

Mad Max
Judge Dredd
The assorted folklore of various local Indigenous groups
The ferrets we share our house with (Red Sonja, Agent Brodie, Agent Ellie Bartowski, Machete, Monroe, Rosalie, Lucifer, Mazikeen, and Chloe)
The other animals in our house (Okami, Inari, Rhubarb, and Peking)
My wife, Leah.
The animations of Ralph Bakshi
Getting magic "right" by way of John Constantine, Newt Scamander, Dr. Stephen Strange, Aleister Crowley, Taoist alchemy, and assorted indigenous folklore.

...that'll do for now.

The Czege Principle

It's killing me.

If I had to put into words the barrier that's always in my way when I start working on Apocalypse Diaries, I don't think I could put it more succinctly than Paul Czege did over a decade ago.

"When one person is the author of both the character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun."

Apocalypse Diaries has always been designed as solo play, which has meant that a player weaves their own narrative, but it's not designed to tell the story of a "Mary Sue" or a "Marty Stu".

...well that's not entirely true. I don't care if the character's in Apocalypse Diaries start their lives without major problems, and with everyone desiring them and fawning over them. But this should only game make the apocalyptic fracture in the game more dramatic when all hell breaks loose.

I want players to be able to introduce things, but not know if those things will be beneficial or detrimental to them until they've been in the story for a while. I want the randomness of cards (or other effects) to shape the character's destiny as much as the written words...and mostly I want a systemic feedback loop where words and rules interconnect in a coherent way, but still leave scope for surprises.

Is it possible to circumvent the Czege Principle for an evocative solo play structure?

I must look at that RPG I downloaded a couple of weeks ago which people claimed to have an excellent "solo mode" option to it... now what was it called again?

18 April, 2018

Best Seller

I've been so busy focusing on why people haven't been noticing or buying my games, that I hadn't noticed one of my little games actually reaching a sales threshold.

Tooth and Claw has gained "Copper" best seller status on DrivethruRPG.

I hadn't noticed this because I usually look at my products through the RPGNow shopfront rather than the DrivethruRPG shopfront. It takes 50 paid sales on a single shopfront to gain one of these little badges, and I've got a few other products slowly crawling their way towards a similar status... quite a few of my games have sold 60 or more copies, but those sales are scattered between the various shopfronts of the OneBookShelf network, so no others have the mark yet... despite their regular turnover trickle of sales. Then there are the free-release and pay-what-you-want products, which have hundreds if not thousands of downloads, but only a tiny percentage of paid sales.

Still, it's nice to see a slow but steady growth in my stuff.

17 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 17: Favourite form of feedback

Heavy guitar distortion and fuzz...

Oh. You still mean regarding game making...

Most beneficial form of feedback, and favourite feedback are different. My favourite feedback would be hallowed praise and words claiming my genius, along with numerous sales and seeing word-of-mouth spreading across the internet.

My most beneficial feedback is constructive criticism, where it really shows that someone has read the work, possibly even put it into play. I don't expect people to know what was in my head when I've put together a cluster of mechanisms to create a game, I don't often try to expose those processes in the final product, but when someone gets it, I'm happy. Conversely, when someone offers a "suggestion" which returns one of the problems I've been avoiding in the ecosystem of play, that bugs me... bit at least it makes me think.

Feedback that makes me think is good.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 16: Any Design Partners

I've tried it once or twice, it wasn't for me.

Or maybe it was just the wrong design partners, or the wrong time in one of our lives for a partnership.

Every time I've tried to partner with someone on a project, they've flaked on me, I've flaked on them, or we've just had creative differences on the project and walked our separate ways.

It was probably about 20 years ago when I had my most successful game design partnership with Dave Chandraratnam. We wrote freewheeling chaotic games for the local convention scene. Pushing boundaries in both narrative, and the way games were played. We lost contact when work and varied social commitments pulled us apart, but occasionally I wonder what happened to Dave.

After that, I've had a few attempts to collaborate on comics or games with a dedicated partner, but my only successful attempt at partnership has been the 15 years with my wife... and every time I've tried to game design with her has been tense to say the least. 

16 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 15: Do you design in public or private?

Actually, a bit of both.

The most public I get is through this blog (which just passed 750-thousand views), but the feedback I get from the blog isn't necessarily huge, except from my few regulars... thanks team.

As I said in the previous response, and as I often repeat, I often feel like I'm riding a zeitgeist... drawing on the same influences as many of the designers around me, which often leads to similar outputs. If I were to design completely privately until things were ready to show, I'm just a single person working to a goal, so design teams will inevitably beat me to the punch...and specialists in those teams will ensure good production values, and good exposure. So my work, even if I start earlier will often appear too late and might look like an inferior copy.

I'd rather design publicly so at least I can point to the progress before someone else's product comes out. I have no fear of people "stealing my work", in fact I'm basically resigned to that after having "freelance artists" claim credit for my illustrations, and numerous game ideas spontaneously appearing in other designs as I'm similarly working on my own.

It's frustrating...but it's a hobby, and I love doing it. I'm just glad my life doesn't depend on it.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 14: What are you hopes and plans?

Honestly, I've just spent five years retraining at University because my previous career was filled with psychopaths, sociopaths, and pressure to succeed at the expense of the wider community. RPG and game design was always my outlet and pressure valve. I hoped it could be a long term career, but I didn't win the fame lottery and I don't have bucketloads of cash to promote a lacklustre product, so that never got anywhere.

At the moment, my gaming endeavours are spread between LARP, miniatures, boardgaming, and traditional RPGs. I've tried fusing two or three of these elements together, but every time I'm working on a combo, some other more prominent designer or company does something similar and releases it to wide acclaim as an "innovation in the industry"...and I get demoralised and start something else.

I guess that's where a cluster of my hopes and dreams lie. I'd like to ride the zeitgeist and actually get something out there which inspires other people without being completely overshadowed by someone else.

My other big dream is currently to finish my degree, move to a rural community as a teacher and buy a property which can be semi-dedicated to LARP and gaming... with onsite accommodation designed to look like a fantasy village (or two). This would be a Mecca for the regional LARP groups capable of handling overnight and weekend events, it would also be a site for other gaming groups to come to, or even a regular convention site. We'll see how that one goes in the next few years.

15 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 13: Biggest Influences?

I'm coming to this one a bit late after having the flu for a few days.

Reading through a lot of people's responses, there are the same regular names that keep popping up. A lot of those names have influenced me too, probably mostly because they won the fame lottery and happened to be in the right place at the right time. Whether they're actually better designers than others who are struggling away at the hobby, that's a matter of much debate. Whether they deserve to be as renowned as they are... well seriously, do the Kardashian's deserve to be famous? What do they actually do for society?

I'm going to try and keep the cult of personality out of this response, instead focusing on games, mechanisms or movements in the hobby. Also, most of the influences I've seen have been positive things to aspire to... there are also negative influences which indicate things to be avoided.

Early Influences
Positive: TMNT
I played a few games before this, but TMNT was the first game to show me how much fun an RPG could be. It was also eye opening to see a game which wasn't set in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world, so this really opened my eyes to the potential of gaming.
Positive: Darksun and Planescape
Just as TMNT had shown that not all gaming had to be fantasy oriented, Dark Sun and Planescape showed me that not all fantasy gaming had to look like traditional fantasy. That blew me away, and became something I've tried to emulate ever since. 
Negative: The Satanic Panic
Watching friends have their RPGs burnt, and having my own RPGs destroyed and thrown out as rubbish was a big influence. I never saw gaming as evil or satanic, just as a way of opening up the imagination and mind to new ideas. That's where I realised that organised religion is just a cult, fearful of new ideas and highly reactionary when they show. Roleplaying was my escape, my sticking it to the man, my punk.

Later Influences
Positive: Mage the Ascension
A perfect storm of philosophy, rebellion, postmodernism, and zen. Mage was the game that pushed my experiences to heights I've tried to reach again, but it always felt hamstrung by the Storyteller system. It's the game I've always wanted to perfect, but never managed to achieve.
Positive: the Big Model
Like all sociological theory, the Big Model was filled with words that didn't quite mean what they appeared to, and we all took something slightly different away from it. But the work at The Forge set a seismic shift across gaming, leaving some amazing stuff in its wake.
Positive: The Stockade
All the big stuff in gaming happened overseas. In the UK, or North America, or quirky stuff from Europe. Any time something started in Australia, it lasted a few months then faded away. The Stockade was the first attempt I was aware of for multiple Aussie designers to work together, on their projects but feeding back to one another and sharing resources. Then it collapsed...
Negative: Hacks
I always thought that writing and "publishing" a hack was sheer laziness. If you're gping to write something, make it truly visionary, make it your own. Don't just tweak someone else's work and claim credit for it. As a result, I've generally avoided the Hack scene.

Current Influences
Positive: G+
Since I joined in the platform's beta phase, the communities on G+ have been an amazing source of inspiration and influence. I've met so many people here a d have seen so many great projects develop.
Negative: Powered by the Apocalypse
I appreciate it in some ways, I hate it in others. I suspect that if it weren't for the cult of personality centred around it's founder, the whole thing would gave imploded by now. I think too many people are claiming too much from the Apocalypse engine, and most of it is just hype... I'll just stand over here doing my own thing.
Negative: The OSR
Another one of those perfect storms but this one works in reverse. We didn't have our roleplaying games destroyed in the 80s just so wanna-bes could write hacks that ramped up the trappings of satanism, occult nonsense, and in-yer-face controversy, expletives or other rudeness on the cover. This is the kind of bullshit that gives the hobby a bad name. Get over it, grow up, don't take us down again.

Ideas for writing things in Diaries

Here's a few of my scattered accumulated thoughts for this project...

Draw three cards.
If you drew more red cards than black, use this list to prompt today's response.
(The lowest card determines the rank question.)
A - What do you want most?
2 - What is stopping you getting it?
3 - What else do you want?
4 - What is stopping you getting it?
5 - What won't you sacrifice to reach your goals?
6 - What might you sacrifice to reach your goals?
7 - What will you sacrifice to reach your goals?
8 - What have you sacrificed already?
9 - What do you want people to know about you?
10 - What don't you want people to know about you?
Face - What dream did you have last night? (Add the red joker, if not already present in the deck)

If you drew more black cards than red, use this list to prompt today's response.
(The lowest card determines the rank question.)
A - Who do you like most?
2 - Who do you like least?
3 - Who do you respect?
4 - Who do you owe a favour to?
5 - Who owes you a favour?
6 - What do most people know you for?
7 - What do your friends know you for?
8 - What does your family know you for?
9 - ?
10 - ?
Face - What strangeness did you see today? (Add the black joker, if not already present in the deck).

(Note that the red card question list is more internalized, while the black card question list is more external.)

Have you previously answered this question?
  No. Then include the answer to this question in today's entry.
  Yes. Then consider the suit...
    ♥️ - What emotion does this make you feel?
    ♠️ - What disadvantage has come into your life today as a result of this?
    ♦️ - What advantage has come into your life today as a result of this?
    ♣️ - How has this come into conflict with what you discussed yesterday?

Other Questions in mind...
 How can the most recent person you wrote about help with the most recent goal you wrote about?
What have you done today to gain an edge over the most significant person in your life?
What is the greatest advantage you have over the people around you?
What other advantage do you have over people?
What disadvantage do you face compared to the people around you?
What other disadvantage do you have compared to other people?

Pick a template (where certain templates will provide ideas for the following categories,  or may provide restrictions on how high or low certain values must be).

  1  three full days or six half days of commitments/obligations
  2  two full days or four half days of commitments/obligations
  3  one day or two half days of commitments/obligations
  4  no restrictions on time
(Examples of commitments/obligations: college classes, job shift, parole officer meeting, sports training, religious observance, regular date night, etc. Consider what might go wrong if you are unable to attend this event. Once will cause a minor issue, more times missing the event will cause major issue.)   

  1  adequate
  2  comfortable
  3  wealthy
  4  rich
(Resources might be spent temporarily to overcome minor issues, to acquire a stockpile of certain possessions as a quirk, buy up your status, or other storyline effects).

  1  2 friends / 4 enemies
  2  3 friends / 3 enemies
  3  4 friends / 2 enemies
  4  5 friends / 1 enemy
(Everyone starts with 6 people in their lives, these may be people in their circle of friends, classmates, family members, neighbours, sporting team mates, work colleagues, old friends from school, or something else, they will be described over the course of play and will often have their own goals and abilities)

  1 Outsider / Accepted by a specific subculture
  2 Generally Accepted / Well known in a specific subculture
  3 Known / A prominent member of a specific subculture
  4 Famous or Infamous / Considered a leader in specific subculture
(This is generally how accepted you are in the wider community, and your level of prestige within a more specific subculture. It allows you access to favours you might not be able to accomplish on your own, but calling on them may reduce your status)

  1  2 useful abilities
  2  3 useful abilities
  3  4 useful abilities
  4  5 useful abilities
(These are abilities you can perform on your own, but if you use them too often, people will learn your tricks and learn to work around them, or might start seeing you as odd for doing things on your own and not being sociable).

The sixth category
I think I need a sixth defining category, mostly for symmetry, where characters will be created by distributing a 1, two 2s, two 3s, and a 4 between the six options.

14 April, 2018

Revisiting an Old Nemesis

One of my white whale projects is called Apocalypse Diaries. The concept has generally revolved around a single player game, where the players literally buys a diary and writes entries in it day by day from the perspective of a fictional character. The entries they write form the basis of a story, where an iterative system provides writing prompts based on the previous things written while adding plot twists, benefits, complications, gradually developing the character and sometimes changing them as they respond to the events in the world.

It was always intended to play out in two phases... pre-apocalypse and apocalypse... surviving in a Machiavellian world where the highest stakes are loss of reputation, friends, wealth, or possessions, followed by surviving in a world going to hell, where literal life and death are on the line.

After the Catacomb Quest project, I'm thinking of revisiting the concept, perhaps running each phase of the game as a procedural engine in it's own Pocketmod.

The first part of the game would still revolve around a life balance of maintaining social status versus maintaining personal integrity. For this I'm thinking of a incorporating a sliding scale of independence, where a character may choose to identify themselves as one of the in-crowd, or may have quirks that mark them as different. Such quirks provide useful abilities when working independently, but make it harder to be accepted by the vapid and superficial inner circle who determine who has social prestige.

The second part of the game would still revolve around using the resources and friendships built up during the first part of the game. Watching them get used up, and hopefully surviving long enough to find sanctuary. The dominant sliding scale at this stage of the game would be more about he character maintaining their humanity, or conscience, or something like that. The less humanity they have, the more dirty tricks they are willing to take to survive, the darker their story becomes, and the less people will be willing to trust them.

I still need the fundamental core mechanism that ties the whole thing together. Probably a deck of cards...maybe the iterative writing prompts could be generated Texas Hold 'Em style, thete's plenty of scope for interpreting elements of the card draw, ranks, suits and combinations thereof. But the more complicated I make it, the more difficult it will be to fit the rules into a pocketmod, especially if I'm going to hand draw the thing again.

13 April, 2018

Catacomb Quest is Live

Go there... get it now.
Here's the link.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 12: How do you get your work out there?

Why write my own, when this post by Dan Maruschak already says almost everything I would want to say on the topic?

Why get frustrated that my work generally doesn't get out there, when a number of people have commented that their own work wouldn't have gotten out there if it weren't for face-to-face networking at conventions in North America or the UK? Or just lucky breaks?

For the last 10 years, I've been involved in several initiatives to get Australian game designers recognised. In most cases, one or two designers have been raised above the rabble, while everyone else either continues to struggle along in obscurity, or has their profile marginally lifted.

In the past six years, I've been studying and my game design has been a backburner project. I'm not actively getting my stuff out there, instead I'm just refining what I do, and getting the rest of my life on track.

Most of my stuff can be found on RPGNow/DrivethruRPG, print stuff on Lulu, and a few free games still lingering on 1km1kt

I also try to do things like this, or participate in design competitions when I can.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 11: What's yer brand?

In one way, this question is a reframing of day four's "Describe your work", in another it's all about your presence as a designer and how your stuff gets presented to the outside world. The second option leads into tomorrow's question, so that's how I'll go with answering this one.

I think I was about 12 when I first came up with a fox-like creature that I called a Vulpinoid. I knew that dogs were "canines", cats were "felines", wolves were "lupines", but I was curious about foxes and found out that they were "vulpines"... I figured that if something resembled a human, it was humanoid, and therefore if something resembled a fox it must therefore be "vulpinoid".

I came up with a little symbol on the flag the creature was holding, and for the past 30 years the symbol and the name "vulpinoid" have kind of stuck.

Refinements have been made to the symbol, but the essence has remained with a triangular head and distinctly pointed ears circumscribed in a framing circle.

The aim of products bearing this imprint are to make people think, to reward cunning over brute force, and to look at things with fresh perspectives or twists in them.

I'm not sure how successful that's been. 

11 April, 2018

Catacomb Quest (H/S/R version 3)

We're getting closer with this thing, I might put it up for sale tomorrow (PWYW, or maybe a dollar, then turn it into PWYW when it reaches $20 in sales, or something like that).

Basically, it could be a pocketmod, or you could cut the sheet into quarters (with each quarter being... character sheet, Player's rules, advanced rules, and GM rules). 

#AprilTTRPGMaker 10: Favourite Game to relax with

I think this is a trick question. It seems that if I want a game, I have to run the game. I've got a crowd of players who irregularly are willing to show up to games when I run them, but rounding them up can be like herding stray cats... and there's never the opportunity to just sit back and let someone else do the heavy lifting. 

The only real time I get to relax with a game is when I go to a convention, and even then it's more a case of knowing who is on the table more than knowing what game we're playing.

I can honestly say that I don't have an answer to this one.

10 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 9: Describe Your Process

It's a bit complicated for words, I think in a more visual manner.

09 April, 2018

H/S/R version 2

Marginally upgraded

One point each in the classes of "Hunter", "Scholar", and "Raider". Allocate 6 more points, but no more than 3 points in each.

Hunter - Use for fighting, tracking enemies, performing physical feats, etc.
Scholar - Use for knowing things, discerning clues, fixing items, etc.
Raider - Use for sneaking, picking locks, disarming traps, etc.
Indicate two skills, relating to two separate classes. 
Indicate a single piece of equipment. 

For any task, choose the most relevant class, then roll 2d6. +d6 for a useful skill, and +d6 for a piece of suitable equipment, -d6 if a disadvantage applies. Each die higher than the action's class counts as a success, each 1 counts as a botch. A success may be used to cancel a botch, or accomplish the task at hand (easy tasks = 1 success, typical tasks = 2, hard tasks = 3+), additional successes provide a one-off strategic advantage on a future roll for yourself or an ally, or a disadvantage for an enemy [pencil this in]...you may also erase any pencilled text/line/dot, or ink it in to make it permanent. Each uncancelled botch causes a piece of equipment to be damaged or confidence to be lost in a skill [pencil a line through it]; otherwise gain an injury [write injury in pencil], or add a point to the class used in the action [pencil it in].

At the end of any adventure, erase any pencilled marks, and gain either a new piece of equipment or new skill.

This would need another quick guide for GMs to run the thing, and a mini character sheet. Certainly the whole thing, Player's Guide, GMs Guide, and character sheet, would all fit in a single pocketmod, or with a small font, three separate cards... 
  1. Character creation and character sheet
  2. Action mechanisms and character development
  3. GM Guide


Allocate six points between the classes of "Hunter", "Scholar", and "Raider" (no more than 3 points in each).
Hunter - Use for fighting, tracking enemies, performing physical feats, etc.
Scholar - Use for knowing things, discerning clues, reading books, etc.
Raider - Use for sneaking, picking locks, disarming traps, etc.
Indicate a two skills, relating to two separate classes.

For all tasks choose a class suitable for the action, then roll 2d6. Add d6 if you have a skill, and another d6 if you have a piece of suitable equipment. Each die that is higher than the action's class counts as a success. Each roll of a 1 counts as a botch. A success may be used to cancel a botch, or accomplish the task at hand (east tasks take 1 success, typical tasks take 2 successes, hard tasks may take 3 or more), additional successes provide a strategic advantage on a future roll for yourself or an ally (an extra d6 to roll), a disadvantage for an enemy [pencil this in]...you may also erase any pencilled text/line, or ink it in to make it permanent. Each uncancelled botch causes a piece of equipment to be damaged [pencil a line through it], an injury to be gained [write injury in pencil], or add 1 point to "Hunter/Scholar/Raider" [pencil it in].

At the end of any adventure, erase any pencilled marks, and gain either a new piece of equipment or new skill.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 8: Describe your Routine

3 sets of 10 Push-ups. 3 sets of 10 Barbell Bench-press. 3 sets of 10 Standing Dumbbell press. 3 sets of 10 Leg Curls. 3 sets of 10 Crunches. 2km run around the block. 4km walk to the shops and back, with the return trip weighted down with 10-15kg of household groceries.

...oh, you mean for game design.

I don't really have one. I like to keep it fun, keep it interesting, and keep it varied. Game design isn't my full time job or my only source of income, because if it was I'd have starved a long time ago. I get in what design work I can while looking after a sick wife, a mengerie of animals for a rescue organisation, and my university studies.

There are no regular routines in this house.

07 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 7: Your workspace

One end of my house is my dedicated art studio and design space. It wasn't necessarily intended to be that way, but it's just how things worked out.

Of course, since this is a dedicated space for art and design, it means I invariably do more art and design work in other locations such as...

...on the train...

...while I'm walking...

...down at the creek where the platypus can sometime be seen...

...or just about anywhere. It's not the kind of thing you can just switch off.

Cover Illustration

I've  been toying with photographs I took earlier this week. Tweaking colours, adding subtle (and not to subtle) details, and trying to get them right for a university project.

But now I've decided that they need to be used in a game project... possibly a part of the dark places, or maybe something spinning out of the urban sprawl in The Law. We'll see.

06 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 6: Favourite Game Mechanic

I've mentioned it many times over the years, but I love the concept of Vincent Baker's "Otherkind Dice", I think it was a regressive step back to the mechanisms of the Apocalypse engine. The concept of having multiple outcomes associated with a task, all determined simultaneously by the rolling of multiple dice, then allowing the player to decide which results are allocated where to direct the narrative... that's an amazing concept. Pulling it back to a linear scale of degree of success, that feels like a cop-out from someone who saw the brilliance of the sun then decided to hide back in their cave... maybe not regressing to the shadow-puppetry by firelight of Plato's cave of D&D/OSR flat linear pass-fail, but certainly not working out a way to shine that brilliance into the troglodytes.

Yes, I'm that passionate about the concept. 

Trying to tie that core mechanic into a coherent system has been an ongoing quest for several years now. 

#AprilTTRPGMaker 5: Favourite Game you've worked on

Of course my favourite completed game at the moment is The Law. It feels like the best possible evolution and convergence of the systems I've been developing and publishing for years. A few of my other games will always have a special place in my heart, and in the future I might create another game that becomes my new favourite.

My favourite uncompleted game would be my Walkabout project. But it demands a degree of attention that I just can't afford to give it at the moment. 

Sometimes I wish that I had worked on one of those big tentpole games that everyone knows, but just because I'm a white male designer it doesn't mean I automatically get in on those prestigious titles. Being on the opposite side of the world to those conventions where everyone gets to meet each other face to face doesn't help. 

05 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 4: Describe your work

My work mostly consists of free, pay-what-you-want, or nominally charged products. It's often in pdf form, typically available from DrivethruRPG, usually on the lower side of page counts, and lighter in rules than most "mainstream" RPGs (while heavier in rules than many of the popular "indie" games). When I dabbled in comic book artistry a while ago, I was told by some people that my work was too formal for their company, while other people told me my work was too loose...my game design work seems to exist in a similar niche that's hard for people to pigeonhole.

The rule sets I try to produce have enough flexibility that the core system can be minimally adapted (on the fly if necessary) to fit a variety of situations in the story being told, while having enough sturdiness to keep going without major issues if something unexpected does come up (without needing to create ad hoc new rulings). While I believe the overall system does impact the ongoing narrative, I don't believe that you need a completely new set of rules for every specific story that you want to tell.

Visually, I'm trying to push the boundaries of layout... games and rule sets presented in the form of comic books... pocketmods... games with rules printed on playing cards... encumbrance systems that work like the equipment grids in computer RPGs. I don't think there has been enoigh innovation in this area, and I think that can be one of the biggest hurdles to outsiders approaching the hobby.

04 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 3: How did you start creating TTRPGs?

In high school I was running games for everyone and thought to myself...

"Hey, I'm picking and choosing the bits I like from different games anyway... why not just write down my favpurite bits from different games, stick them together and then I'll have the perfect system for my style of play"

It wasn't that easy.

I keep most of my design notebooks, and this post is running late because I wanted to take a photo of some of my earliest ones... these have got to be 25+ years old. The very first game design I came up with, I no longer have. A friend in high school borrowed it, ran his own campaigns with it, then we lost contact with one another as our post-high-school lives moved in different directions.

The basics involved rolling 2d6 (plus attribute+skill) compared to a difficulty (6 easy, 9 average, 12 hard, 15 extremely hard). Attributes were rated from 0 to 3 (0 bad, 1 average, 2 good, 3 awesome!!), skills were rated the same way. I remember there being 10 attributes: 5 were internal (charisma, intelligence, luck, memory, wisdom), 5 were external (beauty, endurance, reflexes, speed, strength). Skills were all sorts of things with hundreds of them, but they were linked to specific occupations. Occupations were divided into groups such as adventurer, warrior, religious, psionic, and magical. Hit points were based on endurance score and a multiplier determined by the character's race. Races also provided a base number of free skills that a character could choose at generation, a range of attribute modifiers, a couple of quirky abilities, and possibly some kind of limitation on starting occupation.

I remember playing once or twice with this system, but my friend ran it far more. We were going to work together to make it awesome...but we didn't see each other for over a decade (I actually ran into him on my third buck's night, on the evening before my wedding...but that's another much longer story). 

03 April, 2018

Tenth Anniversary Post

This is the 10th anniversary of the blog. I wouldn't have even noticed that I'd started the blog on the 3rd of April 2008, and that exactly a decade has elapsed except for the fact that I was digging back thrpugh some archives, trying to work out how my current thoughts on game design have changed since I started this whole thing.

It looks like I started the blog as a means to vent frustrations over work, I had left a toxic workplace amd had started studying web design at TAFE (A government operated vocational college, for those who aren't in Australia). I guess I was either bored in the class, or we were doing a unit of work about blogs and online journals.

Statistics show that the first few years didn't see a lot of action. That's probably due to the meandering subjects, the lack of focus, and the fact I didn't have the blog linked to any particular social media... numbersicked up for a while when there was a Facebook app directly feeding my posts here to my profile there. But it was only when I connected the account to my G+, and when I was picked up by the RPGBloggers aggregator, that people actually started noticing the stuff I'm doing.

The other two big hits of readers came through my mapmaking series in late 2013, and the time when I tried to offer a review of every GameChef entrant in 2015.

...and I've almost accumulated three quarter of a million views.

In the time I've been working away at this blog, D&D has seen the release of 4th and 5th edition, and Pathfinder has spun off from it...also seeing an imminent new edition. The Forge has gone. The OSR has gone from a niche thing with a few practitioners to a driving force in independent gaming, while story games have fragmented, and generally died off to be replaced by a thousand clones of Apocalypse World... yes, there are still indie games and "story games", but they're all overshadowed by the OSR and the PbtA stuff from what I can see. Give it another 5 years and something else will take a stranglehold over the hobby, maybe Blades in the Dark variants.

I've released both FUBAR and The Law in that time, as well a numerous other games, made a bit of money, enough to keep my game buying habits alive... and I've also finished a Diploma, a Bachelors degree, and almost completed a Masters. 

02 April, 2018

#AprilTTRPGMaker 2: Where ya at?

(Apparently there is a hashtag for this thing, I didn't realise that yesterday)

I live just over 100km southwest of the city of Sydney, Australia... on the edge of a region called the Southern Highlands.

 Here's a map of where I am.

And here's a few pictures of the typical environment I see every day...

The time I have to wake up to catch the only morning bus that will get me into the city at a reasonable hour...

The train line that was closed down in the early 80s, because it wasn't profitable to keep it running regular services, but now sees steam trains from the local railway museum every Sunday.

I will probably move house during the second half of this year as I'm finishing off my teaching degree. I have no idea where I'll be moving to, I'm willing to go anywhere in the state where a woodwork/metalwork/visual-arts/photography teacher is needed.

01 April, 2018

April Question 1: Who are you?

Hi, I'm Michael.

I'm a freelance illustrator, cartographer, game designer, and LARP organiser.
I'm in my early 40s, and have been running games for 30 years, running games at conventions and designing my own games for 25 years, selling my own games for 20 years, and offering my services to other companies and designers for 10 years. 

My most downloaded game is FUBAR (which has seen about 8000 downloads from various locations), my most recent game is The Law.

When I'm not designing games, I've been a product designer, back-end database developer, retail buyer, offset printer, logistics coordinator, roller-coaster technician, and tech troubleshooter. I've been married to the same lady for almost 15 years.

31 March, 2018

April's Questions

I've barely skimmed the questions, but I like a good 30 questions in 30 days listing. And I'm going to need something to break up my concentration between the work on the Cookbook.

So, I'll be doing this list from Kira Magrann over the course of April.

30 March, 2018

SNAFU Cookbook (Part 1) Ingredients (b)

The remainder of the ingredients for the cookbook.

What kind of story is going to be told? You might say that you want a tale of social struggle, but that's where narrative crosses into demographics. Maybe you're thinking of a noir tale of intrigue, but that's crossing into mood. Instead, what is being discussed is the absolute basics. Is it an investigation or problem with a specific resolution or end goal? Is it a meandering and reactionary tale more like a soap opera that builds organically from the actions of the characters? Is it a journey with a specific beginning, a specific ending, and one or more paths between them? Is it one of the many stories that can be shoehorned into the structure of 'The Hero's Journey'?

Basically, this is asking what the characters do, not necessarily how they feel when they do it, or whether they do it with a certain style. Are there any specific actions that might determine success or failure in the narrative? The characters might have lost their memories, or their sanity, and it might only be when their reach a stable mental state that the story is resolved.

At the simplest level, work out the typical starting point(s), and work out the typical ending point(s) (or even if there are any).

The mood of the game is generally synonymous with the intended tone and feeling. Is the game intended to be high fantasy, low fantasy, or no fantasy? Is it gritty, where anything that goes wrong might have the potential to be lethal, or is it more lighthearted, where multiple things could go wrong but in the form of a survivable comedy of errors? The characters might be low ranked in the setting, perhaps in beyond their depth, and this will have a very different feeling to games where characters might be empowered heroes with advantages and edges that put them above the citizens around them.

A few key words can be used to provide an instant idea of where the mood for the game is focused. One word is probably too monotonous, but too many words just muddies the clarity of the intended mood. Two or three is probably good.


This listing is just a range of sample ideas. You could easily come up with dozens of other mood words, just try to keep those words understandable and palatable to everyone on the table... if we're continuing the cookbook analogy these might be akin to the spices being added to the recipe. Too many, and the flavours end up competing  with one another and leaving wierd aftertastes, too few and the output ends up a bit bland. 

Core Rules
You could use any set of core rules, which would be equivalent to looking at someone else's recipe and taking the most fundamental elements, then reverse engineer the basic die rolls to do what you need them to. It's a delicate artform, but it's the kind of thing that most gamers do instinctively. Every time a GM creates a random table, every time a player asks if they can make a die roll or apply a peripherally related skill to get a bonus on the main action underway, every time someone decides whether or not to open the rule book, or whether to make an ad-hoc ruling that will keep the action flowing while maintaining the feeling established so far in the game. Some games make it easy to manipulate the rules, with a simple coherent mechanism that is highly adaptable. Some have numerous systems and subsystems each handling a different element of narrative or game world simulation. Others have tightly wound systems that link so delicately and carefully into a specific ecosystem of play that trying to unravel them is such a feat that you might as well just create a new system from scratch.

But this guide is about adapting the SNAFU system, which is an evolution of FUBAR and the "System 4" project I've been developing over the last few years. For a while the system was a generic set of rules designed to handle stories where things have consequences and rarely go smoothly. The outcomes of die rolls are read on two independent axes, one determining how well the outcome was achieved, the other determining what was given up in the attempt. This dual-axis system is deliberately different to other games on the market which follow a linear "success/success-with-complications/failure" structure, it offers the chance of varying degrees of success or failure, and varying degrees of complications (or no complications at all).

There will be more in the series about how to connect the underlying SNAFU system into the other ingredients described.

27 March, 2018

SNAFU Cookbook (Part 1) Ingredients (a)

I'm going to work through the elements of the SNAFU Cookbook publicly, because I don't think I have all the answers, and I'd be interested to see other people's input on the project. Once the series of posts has reached it's conclusion, I'll revise my ideas in light of those suggestions, and compile the final cookbook from those revisions. If there's enough interest, I might even throw a few commissions out to people willing to write short pieces (200-500 words) that can be added to the book so that there are more voices than just my own within it.

First a look at the ingredients. Note that these ingredients aren't discrete and separate things, they overlap, they exist in relation to one another. There are probably other ingredients to consider as well, and I'm certainly open to hearing ideas about additional concepts that contribute to a game.

An oeuvre is a body of work, it typically has themes running through it or elements where one piece in the wider collection connects to other pieces creating a continuous whole that transcends the sum of the individual pieces.

Orchestrally, we might look to the works of a single composer, where similar musical motifs are embedded into different compositions, or where the composer explores particular themes from different perspectives, or even a propensity for using a specific type of instrument.

Cinematically, the term oeuvre is most commonly associated with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Kevin Smith, or Quentin Tarantino. Hitchcock's oeuvre is linked by thematic elements, methods of lighting, camera angles. Smith's oeuvre is linked by locations (New Jersey playing a prominent role), characters (notably Jay and Silent Bob in his early works), and again by exploration of themes. Tarantino's oeuvre involves hyper violence, pushing the boundaries of language, evocative soundtracks, and a stable of regular character actors. The individual works within a director's oeuvre will be different, but by virtue of a singular artistic vision there will be something that links them. You generally know what you're going to get when you go to a movie theatre to watch a film by one of the three directors mentioned. It can be enough to get a certain crowd to buy tickets, and can similarly drive off other segments of the population who have shown a dislike for films from that film-maker.

I'm certainly thinking of the term oeuvre cinematically here. The players are the regular stable of actors; where some may be character actors who exhibit the same range of traits regardless of who they portray, others may be method actors who really immerse themselves in a role. Themes are common elements and types of scene encountered by the characters; there might be regular violence in the game and the game might say something about this (or might actively remain silent...both are just as important as artistic choices), perhaps the game plays with the concept of relationships,  or transhumanism, or struggles of race or class. Another element of the oeuvre might be the simple way responsibilities in the narrative are assigned; does everything come down to a GM's adjudication of the dice, do different players on the table take responsibility for different elements of the world, is there a GM at all?

Every session is like a new movie, or a new episode of a TV series. The tighter the oeuvre, the more similarities there will be between one session and the next, the more elements will be common across the collective works. The looser the oeuvre, the more free-ranging the individual sessions are, there might be vague linking concepts like a recurring NPC, a monstrous entity or hideous situation that appears in a few sessions, a focus on groups and politics rather than individuals... a few things might define the oeuvre, but this doesn't mean that every session requores mandatory appearance of every element.

Often an oeuvre is not predefined. Like an artistic movement, it's only in retrospect that the common themes and elements start to become apparent. That can make it difficult as a tool to guide future elements of gameplay when a campaign is first begun, but after a few sessions the ideas that work can be retained, while the ideas that don't can be discarded as a part of the play environment.

A traditional fantasy game is divided into races and classes. Races are things like "humans", "elves", "dwarves", "halflings", and "gnomes" on the side of good, while "goblins", "orcs", and "trolls" are on the side of evil. Classes are things like "warrior", "wizard", "thief", "cleric", and "everyday peasant who isn't important". But why is this the case?

A science fiction game might simiarly divide it's population into races and classes (but might instead call them occupations). The races of such a setting would still tend to include "humans", but might add a range of "aliens" with unique powers and weaknesses, "mutants" who have deviated from their parent race in some way, or "AIs" created for some purpose but now transcending it. The classes/occupations might be more refined in such a setting, with "marines", "mercenaries", "bounty hunters", "pilots", "smugglers", "psychics", "scientists", "engineers", "technicians", and others.

Wider demographic categories tend to be fewer in number but allow for a variety of options within them, while narrower categories tend to be more plentiful but very specific. Sometimes there is an option between two defined demographics, "half-elves" are a common racial example of this in a fantasy setting, while a "marine/pilot" might be a science fiction example of a multi-classed person who can fight reasonably well, and pilot long haul ships reasonably well, but when it comes to flying a starfighter they are truly accomplished.

Consider the types of stories you want to tell, consider the types of characters who would take on major roles in those stories, make them options for player characters. Then consider those who would play supporting parts (or potential antagonists), make them into a list of retainers, allies, and contacts; possibly allow them as player characters but make the players aware of what they are getting in for. In a story about samurai, the main characters would probably want a swordsmith around, but unless the swordsmith has other abilities, it could be a very deadly or very boring story for them. Finally, make a list of things you definitely don't want in the story. The elements which aren't present in an environment can be just as defining as the elements which are. A fantasy setting might be expected to have elves in it, but if your story doesn't revolve around elements where they are a natural fit, why have them? If they might add something unusual to the setting, include them but change them from the stereotype in some way. Science fiction can still be science fiction without aliens present... stories can also work without humans.

When defining the races, classes, and other groupings in the setting, consider what you want to be commonly available to everyone, what might be generally available, what might be restricted, and what might be exclusive to one particular group. If you expect lots of physical violence, then make combat abilities available in different ways to different groups, if ypu want a grittier world where violence will get you quickly injured or killed, then maybe restrict who gains access to these abilities. The same applies to magic, technological know-how, political intrigue, or anything else the story might be intended to revolve around (or have the potential to revolve around).

Different groups (regardless of race, class, or other method to define them) should have different agendas and motivations, different tools and techniques are their disposal to achieve those ends, and different obstacles that are preventing them from achieving them. It's often at the intersection of these that stories come alive. Consider who needs what, why they need it, who could help them and what might be necessary to get that help. The characters will be at the centre of all this. Who are the "bad guys" unable to be portrayed by the characters, and what is their motivation? Remember also that the demographic divisions don't need to be defined by race and class/occupation, they could just as easily be divisions between noble houses or guilds, geographical distinctions, socio-economic, religious, anything that you think might make a good story.