Easter Status Report

My current plan is to provide 6 chapters of content for the open beta this summer. In order to pull it off, I need to get those chapters drafted and revised by the end of the month. I am happy to report that I have already drafted two chapters this weekend (Introduction and Setting Creation). I am currently working through the Character Creation chapter and it is going well. I think I should make my targets at this rate, which is a heck of a relief.

The other thing that is taking up my attention is Game Chef 2012 – Last Chance. This week-long game design competition is great fun and an excellent testbed for new games. I have an outline of my submission ready and it seems remarkably solid, all things considered.

Dreamation 2012 In Review

Dreamation 2012 in Morristown NJ was an astounding convention for a host of reasons.  I drove down from Ottawa with break in Syracuse to meet an old friend of mine in the flesh for the first time. It was a remarkably pleasant time to drive down through upstate New York, but I was most grateful for the opportunity to stop and rest in the hotel. The lack of affordable internet did not help matters, but at least there was a wi-fi enabled greasy spoon a few blocks away.

Thursday evening: The first event, where I ran my playtest of the Spark RPG under the title “The Spark of Creation”, where we cooperatively made a setting and a group of characters from scratch, followed by 2-hours of gameplay.  This playtest will get its own dedicated post.

Friday morning: I had my second playtest, titled “Seeking Suki”, using a premade setting and pregen characters. Three noble playtesters participated in this session and we tried out using the faction/organizational subsystem. I will give the blow by blow in its own post later on.

Friday afternoon, my playtest session imploded with insufficient players, so I jumped into a playtest of Project Ninja Panda Taco, which was a ton of wacky fun. We had a few slip-ups in terms of the procedures and the emotional reaction to the game was not perfect, but it was a barrel of laughs.

Friday Evening: My astounding girlfriend threw me a surprise birthday party and invited the other game designers at the con to attend. It was a real joy to meet people in the designer community and It was probably one of the best birthdays I have had in recent memory.

Friday Midnight: Microscope was excellent, starting with the touching personal story of a father who feared to abandon his sick daughter’s bedside until the dust storms left him no option. New artificial lifeforms, the Tunan, were discovered in the underworld. The Tunan were special in that they recycled of the same 1001 souls lifetime after lifetime. It was a short session, maybe 2.5 hours long, but it was a blast and worked better them I expected.

Saturday Morning: This was the second cancellation of my Spark RPG playtest, but It gave me an excuse to jump in on a session of Shooting the Moon with Emily Care Boss. It was the most emotionally powerful game I have ever played in my life. It is rare to have a game session with enough depth that I feel that I grow as a person. Thanks to all of you who participated in this experience.

Saturday Afternoon: I played in a playtest of Brennan Taylor’s new game “The Art of Power” where I tried to portray a commoner in a noble’s world. It was lots of fun with some novel mechanics and a lovely theme. Check it out if you can.

Saturday Evening This was the penultimate playtest session of Spark, once again following the “Spark of Creation” formula with a total of five players. Three of the players had been present in the Friday Morning game, one had heard good things about it and the fifth person there was Rob Donoghue. This was certainly the most fruitful of the game sessions, partially because I made several significant illustrative errors in running the game. Rob’s frank and accurate criticism really helped me understand some of the more subtle flaws in the game as written. This will get its own post later on down the line.

Sunday Morning I say in as an observer in a game of “Becoming”; currently a rich and fairly balanced betting game with minimal storytelling elements. Brian got a number of comments from this test and I can foresee a rock solid RPG (or board game) emerging from this. I am eager to pick it up when it is available for purchase.
Sunday Afternoon I ran a 7 player session of Dungeon World, Curse of the Bloodstone Idol. I hacked it to include an ambush of caniblalistic halflings and a prince of the Quasi-demi-paraplane of snow. In hindsight, running that game was probably foolish, but the sensation of running that was incredible. Without more guidance from an initiative principle, it was a bracing and intense experience. I can’t wait to run another session of Dungeon World.

I had a lovely time and I certainly look forward to attending more Double Exposure events in the future. I look forward to meeting each of you in person once more.

Software Choices

Good software is nearly essential for producing a good roleplaying game book.  Over the years I have made a series of choices between different software packages and I thought I might explain my reasoning. Perhaps this may be useful to some of you.

Brainstorming:  I am currently undecided between using the technical solution (Freemind) or simply resorting to pen and paper for this function. I haven’t quite internalized a separate “brainstorming” step in my game designs, so I tend to use this in an ad-hoc fashion.

Writing the Draft: I started using the very nice open-source program Celtx which is a remarkably versatile media pre-production program. That one is particularly good for screenplays and movies, but I managed to get it working for my game writing. Easy to learn and freely available, it was a good choice.

That was when I found that Literature and Latte had released Scrivner for windows.  I picked up the program and fell absolutely in love. It’s a logical system for organizing and shuffling content without the fiddly bits involved in word processing software. Excellent as an organizational tool alone, it also supports the writing of content.  It comes with a a two-hour long tutorial and costs about $40 USD, but well worth the price. It’s telling that this is one of the few pieces of commercial software I currently use.

Editing: My go-to word processor is the open-source program Libreoffice at the moment. While I have access to MS Word and WordPerfect, I like to support the free program. Despite a few aesthetic disagreements, I have found the program to be robust and it fulfills my needs at the moment.  Some of the technical decisions, such as the use of frames, work quite well.  As a supporter of the open-source movement, I appreciate the use of open standards.

That said, I do fall back to MS Word on occasion.  Turns out that word 2007 has some extremely handy automated tools to point out passive phrasing and a host of similar stylistic problems. It’s also the default file format for writing, so sometimes it must be used.

Art: The open-source domain has continued to treat me well when it comes to art. I use the excellent and intuitive program Inkscape for all of my vector art.  I have replaced the proprietary Adobe Photoshop with the excellent and free program The GIMP.  Both of these are of professional quality and free

That said, I fully realize that some closed-source software can be worthwhile.  One program in particular, Corel Painter, has earned my praises.  I know that it would take me months of continuous practice to learn how to use the program effectively, but the incredible versitility has impressed me.

Layout and Publication:  I have the hardest time in choosing the best programs for layout and pdf production.  Picking an excellent closed-source PDF Editor was easy (PDF-XChange by Tracker Software). The challenge was in picking the ideal layout program for my purposes. I am torn between sticking with the open-source Scribus or invest in the proprietary Adobe InDesign.

Adobe InDesign is aboslutely the industry standard and is objectively the best program of it’s type on the market.  Everyone uses the program, printers expect it and tutorials abound.  It’s also a closed-source program with a price-tag of $699 USD.  That is certainly not a casual purchase, especially for a new publisher.

The open source competition is Scribus, a program with its own challenges.  The consensus within the Forge and Story Games appears to be, avoid the program. There is a significant learning curve and the help files/tutorials are quite poor. Adding to that, several professional graphic designers have mentioned some key deficiencies in the program. I put in days of effort learning the bloody program and the effort paid off; I am now able to do my own rudimentary layout. I used Scribus for “A Sojourn In Alexandria” in Gamechef 2010 and it worked well enough.


I hope that someone finds this information worthwhile.  I would love some discussion on the layout programs in the comments, if you kind reader(s) would like to help. Thank you.


Creative Constraints

Storytelling demands creativity.  It’s challenging to design a game system that consistently encourages inspiration.  Fortunately, some great minds have found approaches to solve this problem.  Let’s focus on the first of these approaches today; Creative Constraints.

Some games are limited in scope and these constraints can help.  In Vincent Baker’s game “Poisn’d”, players portray rapacious and violent pirates.  The rules tell you what general kinds of things a pirate will do and encourage you do to follow those conventions.  “Dogs in the Vineyard” has the players portraying naïve and faithful youth in a western setting with more power then experience.  Since much of the story is defined, these games let you focus your attention on creating interesting Situations and conflicts.

The limited scope can often show you where the interesting conflicts may be hiding. “How we Came to Live Here” presents a setting with very strict gender roles.  How many of you fine folks reading this considered playing characters which violated that cultural norm?  By telling players what is forbidden, they start to consider how that would impact a character.

Some of these constraints can force us to play outside of our comfort zones. The gender roles in How we Came to Live Here attracts our attention because it clashes with our cultural assumptions.  Other games such as “Grey Ranks” or “Steal Away Jordan” do the same thing, forcing us to consider new perspectives and triggering creativity.

I recommend you check out “Narrative Fenceposts”  by the fine folks at Transneptune Games for some related discussions.

Who are you designing for?

Universal Principles of Design, published by Rockport, has taught me dozens of excellent techniques.  One technique is referred to as “Personas”, where you try to create diverse profiles of potential users so that you can consider each of their needs & preferences.  I suspect that using a technique like that might help improve our presentation of games to a wider variety of audiences. As roleplaying game designers, I feel we have a big advantage when it comes to creating fictional users and anticipating their needs.

Here is my list of different Personas which you can feel free to use for your own designs.  These are in no particular order and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely accidental.

1) Richard:  Richard is a middle-aged Caucasian male with a classical education and a long history with the gaming hobby.  He cut his teeth on basic D&D and still considers 2nd edition to be a bad decision.  His experience focuses on the older games such as Rolemaster, Tunnels and Trolls, Runequest, Gurps and Champions.  He has a broad experience with telling good and realistic stories as a fair and benevolent dungeon master.

2) Zak: Zak is a well-off Caucasian teenager from the suburbs from a dual-income home. He just started playing Pathfinder over the summer and is having a blast killing monsters and taking their loot. He picked up D&D 4e and it looked interesting, but he considers himself is strictly as a player. His Tuesday and Friday nights are spent drafting magic cards at the local gaming store and he considers himself quite the expert in that game.

3) Gloria: Gloria is an Caucasian woman, just turning 18 and considering college.  She embraced drama class enthusiastically and has tried her hand at improvisational theatre. Unfortunately for Gloria, a genetic condition has set in of late and her eyesight has deteriorated over the last few years.  She has never been exposed to an RPG.

4) Suzanne: Suzanne is a first-nations youth in an isolated community.  She has had some difficulty in schooling due to the poverty gripping her people.  She has been trying hard to improve her reading and writing skills and has gotten into reading fantasy novels of late. She has never played a roleplaying game, though she listens to every story that her elders are willing to tell.

5) Mohammad : Mohammad is a devout Muslim gentleman of Arabic decent, currently living in the middle east.  He is passionate about designing new roleplaying games, particularly those originating from the Forge.  He thinks that his current game will have an impact on his society on a whole and help people explore themselves and their faiths during these turbulent times.

6) Lily: Lily is a mature Chinese woman with a master’s degree in psychology. On her off hours, she plays in a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess with a few other women from the university she works at. She has embraced the Old School Renaissance movement, enjoying pitting her mind against the pitiless fantasy world. Years ago she had played a number of Vampire: the Masquerade LARP’s as well and she appreciated the experience, but was weirded out by the extent people were playing in character.


I hope that some of these persona are of use when examining your own designs and your potential audiences.