Metatopia 2013 Debrief

I was among my people this weekend. The Game Design festival known as #Metatopia was a stellar success, with a robust panel schedule and some of the best playtesting I have seen to date. Beyond the practical matters, it was an opportunity to spend time with the many amazing folks in the gaming industry.



Playtesting 101, with Rob Donoghue, was in the very first time slot of the convention and was to be heard by a select few. Despite the fact that we had two people recording the seminar, neither of our equipment worked out which meant that Rob’s wisdom was regretfully lost. The general take-away from this panel is that you need to test your games with diverse groups of people, be clear about what you are looking for, and minimize contact with playtesters as much as possible so you can get unbiased opinions.

Accessibility Issues for Game Designers, with Russell Collins, was probably the only panel that wasn’t an unqualified success. Unfortunately, we didn’t get anyone attending the panel, which meant we had to record the panel and hope those recordings would be appreciated after the fact.

Ebooks 101 with Joseph Bloch, went relatively smoothly. We discussed some of the advantages and potential benefits of the various formats, including what tools each of us use to publish our ebooks. Good overall.

Legalese: Copyrights, Trademarks and Patents with Justin Jacobson was certainly an example of me being over my head. Justin explained the basic of IP law with remarkable skill, and I tried in vain to contribute small tidbits that I had heard from other law seminars. Justin handled my ignorance with remarkable grace and gave the audience some really solid information.

Dangerous Mechanics: Rules That Looked Good On The Surface with Rob Donoghue, Will Hindmarch and Ken Hite might have been the highlight of the entire convention for me. I had originally suggested this topic because I noticed more focus on publishing rather than design. There was a great deal of meat to this discussion, including nominations for most Dangerous Game and Most Dangerous Designer of recent memory.

The other panels which I was merely attending were equally excellent, but there were too many to recount.

Playtesting my Games:

My first, crude game (Tell Me About Your Game) was obliterated during this hour-long focus group. Ryan Macklin, Will Hindmarch, Ken Hite and Ryan Shapiro gave me lots of accurate advice and by the end, I got a sense of the direction I should take in redesigning the game.

My second game (Posthuman Doorways) was an unbelievable success. I was incredibly lucky to get Joe McDaldno, Ryan Macklin, Joshua A.C Newman and another two gentlemen for this 3-hour game. It was, to be quite frank, the best playtest I have had in my life. During the very first playtest of this game, it produced the exact play experience I was hoping for. Character creation worked smoothly and created rapid investment, while the resolution mechanic caused the correct emotional reaction. The fine testers identified a dozen different areas where I can or must refine the game, and it will probably take me a month just to analyze all the feedback. Overall though, it gave me hope and confidence that it could be appreciated by others.

My third game (What Came Before: Rogues Gallery) was a case study in overcompensation. James Mendez Hodges and two other fine playtesters tried it out and suffered through the experience. I had managed to move out of my own comfort zone and design a straight-up traditional dungeon crawl with relatively elegant OSR-style mechanics. I had, however, entirely neglected the fact that the game should feature rogue-themed obstacles rather than generic D&D ones. Likewise, I had done nothing to establish story-telling elements or relationships between the focus character and her mentors. It’s a good thing that I have the relevant experience to be able to design solutions to those problems.

Other Playtests:

I got dragged into playtesting a card game titled “Political Capital” by Caddywampus Games and I am very glad I was! It was delightfully designed, with themes of politicking and lobbying. My biggest criticism was that it didn’t quite replicate the feeling of political parties, but rather felt like municipal councillors duking it out. This holds a great deal of promise and I hope to buy a copy next year.’

The second game I tested, along with +Darren Watts, was titled Red Letters. It was an ambitious game that hoped to merge the strong character identity created by Apocalypse World with the bizarre, swashbuckler aspects of Lady Blackbird. The gentleman who designed this showed great promise as a designer, but I fear that he wasn’t quite using the correct tools for the job. It is far too easy to fall prey to the temptation to make “anything possible” and avoid restrictions, but those restrictions often provide the very necessary focus that keeps designs together. I hope he continues his work and we didn’t discourage him too much.

The third game was Springfield, designed by Jim Pinto and presented by Caias Ward. It was a grabby premise, but it hit all of my “comedy” triggers which interfered with the designer’s intent to present a more serious social commentary. It was a fun experience though, and I appreciated the chance to play.


It will take me a week to recover and center myself after the whirlwind of excitement created by the amazing Vincent Salzillo, Avonelle Wing and Darren Watts. Thanks to everyone who made my weekend remarkable and gave me hope.

I needed that.

Games to Make you a Better Person

One of my passions is to use games for self-improvement and understanding. In the process, and in conjunction with various folks on twitter, I put together a list of RPGs that explore the human condition and teach important lessons.  I update this list on a periodic basis to include new examples as they arrive.

The Romance Trilogy – About relationships

Monsterhearts – On queer youth

Dream Askew – On queer communties

Durance – On prison culture

Dog Eat Dog – On colonialism

Kagematsu – On gender roles

Steal Away Jordan – On strength under slavery

Mars Colony – On governance

A Flower for Mara – On death and returning to your life afterwards

Dogs in the Vineyard – On faith and overwhelming responsibility

Misspent Youth – On rebellion and revolution

Grey Ranks – On personal sacrifice

carry, a game about war – On war and it’s costs

Shock: Social Science Fiction – Critical thinking on societal issues

Microscope – On the flow of history and importance of the individual

Heads of State: Nine short games about Tyrants is pretty self-explanatory.


What games would you add to this list?


Spark RPG – The Kickstarter

I am very happy to announce that I have launched the kickstarter for the Spark RPG right over here.

It’s been more than a few years of work, and it’s taught me an incredible amount. The game evolved drastically over the years, and the hundreds of hours of playtesting really helped refine the game into what it is today. This process has taught me how to kill my darlings and accept constructive criticism, which I know will help me over the years to come. The game is finally ready, and as close to perfect as I can manage.

If you back the kickstarter at any amount, you will get full access to the nearly final version of the text. It needs some layout, additional art and extra content from the kickstarter backers, but it’s otherwise complete.

Now I just wait, and hope that enough of you fine ladies and gentlemen are willing to support me during this campaign.

Thank you very much.


Dresden Files RPG – A Magic System Hack

I am a fan of Fate and the Dresden files RPG system in specific. That said, I have noticed that there are some rough spots in the magic system from my perspective. I found that the absolute dependence on the three existing magic skills was less than idea. This post consists of my little hack to the magic system to meet my personal preferences, in hopes that it broadens the discussion. I would love your comments and thoughts!


Changes to Powers

Evocation (-2)  (Wizard Requirement)

Evocation: You’re able to use evocation in all of its forms, as described on page 249. You gain five new skills, rated at Mediocre (+0), representing the different types of evocations that you are capable of performing. These skills are typically Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and Spirit/Force, for those trained in the classical western tradition. Underline these skills on the character sheet to keep track of them.

Specialization: Gain 5 Evocation Skill-points, which can only be spent on increasing your Evocation skills.


 Thaumaturgy (-2) (Wizard Requirement)

Evocation: You’re able to use Thaumaturgy in all of its forms, as described on page 261. You gain five new skills, rated at Mediocre (+0), representing the different types of thaumaturgical spells that you are capable of performing. These skills are typically Summoning and Binding, Conjuration, Divination, Veils, and Wards. Underline these skills on the character sheet to keep track of them.

Crafting: You can craft Items and Potions, which you may possess by purchasing the Focus Item, Enchanted Item or Potion

Specialization: Gain 5 Thaumaturgy Skill-points, which can only be spent on increasing your Thaumaturgy skills.


Refinement (-1) (Wizard Requirement)

Gain 5 skill points which may only be spent to increase your Evocation or Thaumaturgy skills.


Focus Items (-1) (Wizard Requirement)

A focus is simple. Whenever you cast a spell with the appropriate focus for the appropriate skill, you gain a free aspect of “Focussed” for that spell, including a free tag.


Enchanted Items (-1)

You gain 4 Enchanted Item slots.


Potions (-1) as normal

Channeling (-2)

Pick a specific thematic specialization of Magic. You can cast Evocations with your Conviction, within the limits of that thematic specialization.


Ritual (-2)

Pick a very specific Thematic area of magic. You can cast Thaumaturgy with your Discipline, within the limits of that thematic specialization.


Sponsored Magic (-1)

Gain the Channelling and Ritual rules, at no cost but incurring 1 Sponsor Debt with each casting.


Casting Evocations:

Follow all the normal procedures for steps 1,2 and 3.

Roll your appropriate Thaumaturgy Skill to control the power. You can apply aspects to this roll, including the free invoke of the “Focussed” aspect if you have a relevant focus item.

If you fall short, you will succeed but you will have to pay a price. Count the number of shifts that you are missing. Those will strike you as backlash, unless you can mitigate enough of them by….

  • Drawing on power outside yourself, taking on Sponsor Debt from other willing creatures or things beyond reality in exchange for two shifts.
  • You can cause fallout and damage the environment for two shifts.

Anything left over deals physical stress damage to you.

Rote spells work as normal.


Casting Thaumaturgy:

Follow all the normal procedures, except that your maximum number of shifts per roll is determined by your  Discipline instead.

Roll your appropriate Thaumaturgy Skill to control the power. You can apply aspects to this roll, including the free invoke of the “Focussed” aspect if you have a relevant focus item.

If you fail any individual roll, the spell fails entirely and there is a price. Count the number of shifts that you have accumulated so far. Those will strike you as backlash, unless you can mitigate enough of them by….

  • Drawing on power outside yourself by taking on Sponsor Debt from other willing creatures or things beyond reality. In exchange, you reduce the backlash by 2.
  • Sacrificing unwilling inhuman creatures during the casting, reducing the backlash by 2. Sacrifice of a more powerful creatures may further reduce the backlash.
  • Deliberately sacrificing humans will reduce the backlash by 4. Enjoy your new title as “Lawbreaker of the First Law”.
  • Drawing from objects that store power to reduce the backlash by 2.
  • Causing fallout and damage the environment to reduce the backlash by 2.

Anything left over deals physical stress damage to you.

Sharing Choices

Art is a way to communicate experiences.  Every art form tries to convey different kinds of experiences, with a variety of different tools.

Paintings convey human perception of the world and of our own imaginations. When I saw a local Van Gogh exhibit, I was struck by his focus on the smallest gems of nature in a larger context. The individual paint strokes were used to convey a sense of motion, which is impressive in such a fixed media. This art form shares where we come from, and how we view the world.

Dance tells a story with the subtle movements of the human forms. Expressing ideas and concepts through their posture and movements is an impressive accomplishment that still boggles my mind.

Music shares emotion, from a melodious piano solo to an exciting and breathtaking full symphony. The interplay between instruments is a way to make emotions clear to the audience.

Roleplaying games hold a very special niche within the arts, in that our hobby forces the audience (players) to make choices. We create situations that are emotionally powerful and ethically challenging. We place ourselves in other people’s shoes and we make decisions that we could not or would not make in real life. Through roleplaying games, we can experience the agony of a small business owner who has to lay off his hard working staff. We can live the joy of a mother who reunites with her estranged daughter. We can destroy kingdoms, embrace a new faith, lose it all, or crawl up from the gutters. Each of these experiences helps us grow as people, and ensure that we can make better choices in the future in our own lives. That is the power of our art.

Am I wrong? Is there some aspect of RPG’s as an art for that I am missing? Let me know in the comments.