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.

The Spark Kickstarter is complete!

The first part of the Kickstarter campaign has closed. In some ways, this was the most exciting part of the process, seeing tangible support for my “little” game. It’s also been a little tiring, as if I was attending a very subdued month-long game convention. Overall, it’s been a blast thanks to all of the backers.

Now to business. We raised a total of $11,668, which means that I will be producing a number of things for all 475 of you.

  • PDF’s of the final version of the Game, both in “display” and “print” formats.
  • Epub and Mobi versions
  • Physical printed copies of the game, delivered to backers and chosen libraries/schools. d. Halfling Burrow Dice Bags
  • Human Keep Die Bags
  • Dragon’s Hoard Dice Bags
  • Extra payments for my editors and artists (Partially complete)
  • New cover art
  • A Quickstart Bundle for each of the three settings
  • The Digital Campfire MP3
  • A Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (CC BY)
  • An expanded, revised and potentially art-filled version of the “Spark in Fate Core” article of collaborative World Building.

That is a lot of stuff and I want to deliver as quickly as I can possibly manage without allowing the quality to suffer. It will apparently take about 2 weeks before all of the payments clear and before I am able to send the surveys out. At the end of the month, I will begin sending out the surveys to collect information, and I plan to prepare the final revision to the text so I can start the layout process at the beginning of May.

Exciting times!

Step Die System Probabilities

During one of my recent playtests, one of the testers with extensive scientific credentials expressed some misgivings about the statistical underpinnings of the resolution system of Spark RPG.  In appreciation for his concerns, I decided to spend a few hours and produce a comprehensive probability chart so this would be out in the open.

The basic system is that two different people will roll dice and add a static bonus to their result.   The size of die can be D4, D6, D8, D10, D12 or D20.  The bonuses scale from +0 to +6.  This leads to a total of 1764 potential permutations on the chart I have below. For reference, the X axis is the actor and the Y axis is the reactor; with the probability in each cell equal to the chance that X will succeed in the conflict.  I hope this will be of some use to someone.  If you find any errors, please don’t hesistate to notify me so I can make the appropriate corrections.

Spark Probability Tables



Spark RPG Open Beta – Version 3.5

Hello everyone,

I have definitely learned a great deal during this open beta process so far.  I want to explain the evolution of the game before I point you at the last version of the open beta text.


Version 1

The extensive feedback and the original AP from The Walking Eye podcast led me to restructure the text, to provide extensive example text and generally refine the game. Version 1 showed me that the world-building component of the game is one of its strengths. It also pointed out that some of the mechanics encouraged the wrong kinds of adversarial behaviours in players. This led to some major revisions to the text, which I managed to get out a few days before GenCon.


Version 2

Version 2 was a more solid version of the game. I reorganized the text and integrated much of the advice directly into the procedures of play. I also wrote a running example of play in the the setting creation, character creation and gameplay chapters. This version had slightly cleaner formatting, but time pressures kept me from tinkering with it too much.

My GenCon 2012 experience was a real eye-opener. I was able to get 3-4 playtests of version 2 at Games on Demand rules with mixed results. All of the tests of the Setting creation process went amazingly well, even with players who had little exposure to story games.  I ran into some challenges with the gameplay sections though. The mechanics _worked_, but there were far too many moving parts for me to effectively teach the game in that context. I realized that in a 2-hour time-slot, I spent a major portion of that time teaching the rules rather than actually playing the game.

In the last of these game sessions, I was fortunate enough to have Timo of the Jankcast  playing in my game on the Saturday afternoon. His excellent comments forced me to give an honest and critical look at the game.  The core mechanics, which I originally designed several years ago, were showing their age. While playtesting helped me refine the system and I had many excellent mechanics in there, the overall structure wasn’t serving my design goal for Spark. That is when I came to the decision to rip out the core resolution system and restart it from first principles.

Version 3

Saturday night I sat down with my text, crossed out the Collaboration and Conflict sections of the text, and got to work. The new system that I wrote up is much more elegant and does actually reinforce the desired behaviour of challenging your Beliefs.  I chatted at length with Timo, where he looked over my proposed version of the text and gave me his thoughts.

I brought this version of the rules with me the next day when I ran a 4-hour playtest of the game for the crew of The Walking Eye. That game session, which you can find as a bonus episode of The Walking Eye , was a blast. It gave me much needed confidence that I was on the right path.  You can find that episode here!


Version 3.5

Over the last month, I have used all of the GenCon feedback to create a new revision of the open beta of the game.  Version 3.5 is now freely available right Here.   This will be the last version of the text that I will post as part of the Open Beta, but I will extend the beta until November 1st 2012.

I would really appreciate any feedback and playtesting that you can provide on this last version. I want to make sure that this revamped version of the game is as solid as possible.

Thank you all.

Narrative Oracles

I know it’s taken a while, but I am back to the discussion of inspiring creativity in games. My last post on this topic dealt with Creative Constraints, where people built off the restrictions in a game system to create something new. This time, I would like to discuss Oracles.

Oracles are nuggets of information without context, that you can interpret for your game. As a group, you interpret the oracles use them to build some kind of cohesive context. The astounding work, “In a Wicked Age” by Vincent Baker is likely the earliest and best known work using this little technique. That game includes oracles like;
*A hermit priestess, practicing obscure deprivations.
*A fallen-in mansion, where by night ghosts and devils meet.

The group gets to use these evocative descriptions to build a cohesive setting. Our monkey-brains are remarkably good at pattern recognition and quickly build webs of associations. It turns out that with a few seeds of inspiration, we can quickly build a narrative. So long as the descriptions are open to interpretation, they can be very helpful.

Be sure to check out Houses of the Blooded for another interesting use of Oracles.

Edit: And of course, the playsets in Fiasco are full of Oracles which lead to such inspired play.  Thanks to @Linneaus for reminding me.