Hacking, Game Design, and Gatekeeping

There was some chatter online a little while ago from certain folks in the industry who posited the idea that hacking an existing game isn’t real game design.

Fuck that noise right into the ground. Here’s why:

1. No game design happens in a vacuum. If you design games, it’s probably because you also play games. If you play games, then those games will inform your design choices. Game designers steal from each other all the time. It’s the nature of the beast. There’s no such thing anymore as game design that isn’t derivative of something. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

2. There’s no good reason to draw a line between hacking and game design, or between house rules and hacking, or whatever. If  you’re fiddling with or making rules for games, whether they’re your games or someone else’s, you’re designing. Maybe you’re not being paid for it, but the only real reason to draw that distinction is gatekeeping. And fuck that noise too.

In short, if somebody is telling you that what you’re doing isn’t “real” game design, that’s an indicator that that person’s opinion isn’t one you should be listening to. That sort of negativity helps nobody.

Don’t Turn Your Back: My Impressions

Disclosure first: I do a lot of work for Evil Hat. I didn’t work on this game nor did I work on Don’t Rest Your Head, the game it’s based on. Fred Hicks sent me a print-and-play version of the game so I could give it a try and share my impressions. Those impressions are what follow.

First, let me tell you up front: I think this is a great game. I played a four-player game with some friends (at least one of them a fellow Hatter), it lasted about an hour, and we all loved it.

While playing it, the thing that struck me is that Don’t Turn Your Back is not primarily a deck-building game, as I’d thought it was. There is a deck-building mechanic in the game, but the primary action is actually worker placement. There’s a board in the center of the table that represents the Mad City, and you take turns playing cards to spaces on the board to achieve a variety of effects. The tension (and competition) comes from the fact that the spaces on the board are quite limited, and you’ll wind up fighting over them.

It took us a few turns to really figure out how this game wants to be played, so let me give you a few pointers, for your first game.

1. Don’t generalize. There’s a temptation to try and do stuff all over the Mad City, because all of the spaces do cool things. Resist that temptation. Focus your card-buying on one or two areas of the Mad City, and dominate those areas. Each card has specific areas in which it can be played, so when you buy cards, keep that in mind.

2. Having the an expensive, powerful card is good. Having the right expensive, powerful card is better. One player in my game decided early on that he was going to try to dominate the High School. To enact this strategy, he bought a card that represents a favor from Mother When, the Nightmare who runs the High School. It’s a powerful card but, more importantly, it’s a powerful card that makes it easier to control the High School. That choice ultimately won the game for him.

3. Don’t buy cards just to buy cards. If you’re buying a card that doesn’t support your strategy, you’re buying cruft. Don’t do it.

4. Cull your starting cards as soon as you can. You can play cards to the Wax Kingdom, which takes them out of your deck permanently and helps you compete for an end-game benefit. Every card in your deck at the end of the game contributes to victory, except for your starting cards. However, if you send your starting cards off to the Wax King, they can contribute to victory in an indirect way. Also, it thins your deck, which is generally good.

Bottom line: I like this game quite a bit. I like the marriage of deck-building and worker placement that it uses. I like the creepiness of the card art. And it’s even more fun when you play with Don’t Rest Your Head fans, though that’s not a requirement for enjoyment.

Go back it.

WTF Is My D&D?

There’s a con game I want to run. It starts off pretty simply.

First, I direct everyone to this site. The first hit they get, that’s the character they have to make. So that it isn’t too overwhelming to do, I’ll hand them a character sheet a lot like this one.

The Barbarian
The Barbarian

Then, as they make their characters based on the crazy horseshit that the web page came up with for them, I make the adventure. Randomly.

First, I go here. I jot down some notes about the quest I’m about to send them on, but I keep it pretty loose. If there are monsters, I grab them from the Monster Manual or I make them up on the fly. Probably the latter more often than the former. I’ll get into how I do that in a later post.

If I need a dungeon, I use these. If I need treasure, there are random tables for that. I probably also use some of my time putting together a random encounter table. Or maybe I just use this.

We play to see what happens.

Getting Your Start in Freelancing

Christopher Rice asked me the following question on Twitter today, so I thought I’d answer it.

As a freelancer looking to branch to FATE later on this year, I’d really like to know what sort of things might make it easier.

Let me start by saying: your path is your path. There are some things that can hedge your bet, habits you can cultivate that will increase your odds of success in RPG freelancing, but the route you take into the industry will be different from the one I took.

That disclaimer aside, here are some things that helped me get my start.

1. Be patient.

It took me ten years to break into the industry. From the point I started writing freelance RPG products to the point I started becoming known for doing so was about a decade, maybe a little more.

Does that scare or dismay you? It would have done so to me, had I known back then. But these things take time, and the only sure way into the industry is to keep plugging away at it. Try not to let it discourage you if things don’t seem to be working. Don’t compare your path to someone else’s.

2. Be communicative.

True story: one of the big reasons I got the opportunity to work on Bulldogs! with Brennan Taylor is because I responded to his emails quickly. Communication skills are valued in RPG freelancers because they’re not as common as you’d think. If you respond quickly to emails, communicate potential delays, and ask questions to ensure that you’re delivering what the client wants, it can do a lot to set you apart.

3. Be a professional.

Treat it like a job, because it is. You’re being paid by your client, so make sure you’re giving them what they want.

Part of this is following directions. If the client tells you to write 10k words on robot gorillas, don’t give them 15k on robot gorillas and their relationships to cyber-chimpanzees unless you’re sure that’s okay with the client (because you’ve been communicating; see above). It’s frustrating for a client when you deliver something other than what they asked for, and they have to either kick it back to you (which creates a delay) or cut it down themselves (which may create a delay, and is certainly a hassle).

Another part is being respectful toward your fellow freelancers and other folks in the industry. Twitter is like a big water cooler, and there’s a strong temptation to talk about nightmare stories you’ve experienced or heard about, or to badmouth games you don’t like. Curb that impulse. You never know who you might be working with in the future, and if you get a reputation for badmouthing other folks, people will start to avoid you.

4. Be fun.

At the end of the day, you’re making games, and games  should be fun. If you’re not having fun making the thing, the odds that end user will have fun reading it are pretty low. Your enthusiasm is an asset; let it show in your work.

Freelancing, Triggers, and Diversity

I do a lot of freelance writing, and sometimes people want to hire me to write for a game they’re working on. This is great! I love getting more work, and I love getting to work on new and exciting projects! That said, if you’re planning on hiring me, there are some things you need to know about my views on triggers and diversity.

1. Triggers are a real thing, and they can be very painful. Slavery, rape, misogyny, violence toward children, anti-Semitism, racism, and so forth are all trigger-laden topics that are bound up within the settings of many games. To the extent that they are included at all, they should be included tactfully, with restraint and sensitivity, and with ample warning that they are coming. They should also come with explicit permission to dial back their presence in individual players’ games, and with advice on how to discuss such sensitive subjects.

 2. I have a number of gamer friends who are women, transgendered, homosexual, of various different ethnicities, Jewish, Muslim, and/or disabled. These people want to be represented in the games they play; moreover, they deserve it. That’s an agenda I’m comfortable pushing, because I see it as the right thing to do. A lot of this representation is the kind of thing that comes through in art rather than text, but it’s important in both media. Moreover, they deserve to be represented within games they play in the roles they want to play. That is, if a particular group is represented in the game as slaves or villains, that’s simply not good enough.

3. Historical accuracy is, for me, a non-argument against these first two points. Given the choice between representing history accurately and providing a game that is fun for the largest number of people and not harmful to people, I will always choose the latter option. Ultimately people are buying a game, not a history lesson.



My Storium Games

I like Storium. You may or may not know that. Chances are, if you read this blog, you like my writing. That being the case, here’s a rundown of all the Storium games I’m currently writing in, along with links. If you’re already on Storium and want to read any of them, just click the links and follow the games.

I’m Narrating…

Snark and Sorcery. Have you read Rat Queens? It’s a little like that. Snark and Sorcery is a comedic fantasy game about an all-woman adventuring party getting into all sorts of shenanigans.

The Bureau. This one’s a big ensemble game, sort of a procedural cop show about a supernatural investigation team. It’s based on BPRD.

Orlesian Dusk. Another big ensemble game, this one’s a Dragon Age story set in Orlais during the Ferelden Blight. It revolves around a revolution that’s brewing in that kingdom.

Wild Blue. Based on my Fate setting of the same name, it’s a weird west supers fantasy story about nefarious things happening in the small town of Tom’s Crossing.

Gargantuan. Kaiju and demonic pacts in a fantasy setting. This one’s going to eventually be an official Storium world.

Carriers. It’s a zombie apocalypse story in what’s left of a cyberpunk world. Lots of cyberpunk trappings still there, but a virulent nanoplague has turned most people into zeds. Based on a setting I wrote for Jason Pitre’s Spark.

Venture City Stories. Another game based on a setting I wrote for FateVCS is a superpunk story about three unlikely allies dealing with the machinations of corporate oligarchs.

Dauntless Reloaded. A buddy cop comedy set in the far future aboard a spaceship, Dauntless follows the exploits of hapless but charming ship captain Nightingale and his killer robot best friend Cordite.

Games I’m Playing In…

The Irregular Reunion: Game 2A story about Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars getting pulled back together for a new job from the Man Himself. I play Harry Quick, rogue, street baron, and all-around ne’er-do-well.

Dark Strangers. A weird west superpowered teen drama in which I play Clara Mason, a young woman from a good family in Loredo, TX who has recently discovered love with another young woman from Nuevo Loredo.

A Mark on the Empire. A grim fantasy game set in the Warhammer universe, I play Violet Hargrave, a boisterous, ass-kicking woman caught up in a sedition scheme.

…The Spoils. In this Diablobased dark fantasy game, I play the demon hunter Edvard, whose powers come at a steep cost.

A Land of Ice and Peril. Ryan Macklin’s Mythender setting, taken down to a more mortal power level. I play Bjalfi, a boy with jotun blood who is just learning to control his powers.

Noir World 1: Dinner Parties and Dames. It’s classic film noir style detective drama, in which I play Hank Meechum, a thug with a keen eye for detail and a tendency to piss people off.

I’m playing in two other games, but they’re both private so I can’t link to them here.

Explaining Storium

Storium is like the Matrix: nobody can be told what it is, you have to see it for yourself. If you’re aware of the Kickstarter but on the fence about backing because you have no worldly idea what it is, I’d like to help you.

What follows are a series of screen grabs that comprise the first scene of my Venture City Stories Storium game. I used screen grabs because I want you to be able to see Storium; the UI, the way it presents information, and so forth.

First, these are the characters in my game:

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A Storium scene starts with a move from the narrator. In that move, the narrator can play obstacles, goals, assets, people, or places in any combination. Here’s the first move:

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Those cards under Challenges are obstacle cards. The little pips are challenge points; each challenge (obstacle or person) has a number of challenge points assigned by the narrator.

Once the scene has started, the players can start posting their own moves to respond to the narrator and to each other.

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In this move, you’ll see that Ghalib has played three cards: two strengths and a subplot. Each card a player plays to a challenge marks off one of that challenges points; when all the points are marked off, the challenge is considered resolved. Which cards you play matter though. Strengths push a challenge toward a strong outcome, while weaknesses point a challenge toward a weak outcome. Other cards mark off points, but don’t push the challenge in either direction; they maintain the current status quo in that challenge.

Players are limited in the number of cards they can play in a scene: three per scene. You can still make moves without playing cards, but you won’t be affecting the direction of the fiction in any mechanical way. So, on Ghalib’s first move, he played all three cards on that challenge, winning control of it with a strong outcome. That means he gets to narrate what happens, given the constraints of the challenge. These were the constraints of that challenge:

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And here are the next several moves in this scene:

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Here you can see players going back and forth, playing cards and shifting the direction in which the challenge is headed. You can also see that, as the narrator, you can continue to make moves. You don’t have to play challenges to make a move. Also, you can play other cards like assets or goals, or you can give them directly to individual players.

Here’s the rest of the scene:

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One more thing: there’s a commentary channel where you can have out-of-character chatter. Here’s what that looks like:

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And them’s the basics! If you like what you saw, if you think it sounds like your cup of tea, go back the Kickstarter!

Crits and Flubs

This is an idea that’s bouncing around my head, free of the context of any particular game. The idea is thus.

Any time you get to roll the dice, you can choose to flub. When you flub, you fail in such a way that you complicate your life in an unexpected and interesting manner. You get to describe how you flub, and the GM (if there is one) probably gets some input. The important thing is that you do not get what you wanted from the roll. If you were trying to hit a guy with a sword, you do not hit the guy with the sword and you place yourself at his mercy. If you were trying to jump from one precarious ledge to another safely, you are not safe and have cut off that means of navigating your environment.

You always choose to flub; nobody can ever force it upon you, and it never happens because of a die roll. In fact, when you flub, you don’t even roll the dice. When you flub, you also get a crit token.

Any time you get to roll the dice, you can spend a crit token to crit. When you crit, you succeed in a spectacular and surprising fashion. You get what you wanted from the roll, and probably something more. If you were trying to hit a guy with the sword, you do so and you also knock him from his feet, and the whole thing looks very impressive. If you were trying to jump from one precarious ledge to another safely, you do so, it looks stylish and effortless, and maybe you spot a safer way that your allies can cross the gap.

As with flubs, critting is always a choice, and never involves a dice roll. It also always costs a crit token.

Tell Me a Story: A Game Idea

So a game idea hit me in the brain yesterday, and I noodled on it throughout the night. It’s not yet complete, but this is how Becoming started, so I have a feeling I’ll see it through. The name I’m using for this proto-game in my conversations with myself is Tell Me a Story, and the idea is thus:

  • You’ve got two players: the Storyteller and the Interloper. I’m not happy with either of these names, but they’re convenient monikers for now.
  • The job of both players is to tell a collaborative story in about two hours, using a deck of cards containing elements of the story.
  • The Storyteller makes statements about what happens in the story, and plays the cards to the story.
  • The Interloper asks questions about the story, changing things and moving the cards around on the table.
  • The story is divided into three acts, and I’m thinking that the position or pattern of the cards on the table acts as an oracle for how and when each act ends. Not sure about the specifics yet.

Anyway, that’s what I’m noodling on.

Subplot Aspects

This is another idea that had, and this idea might actually make it into a published product that I shall not name but which may or may not have something to do with Kurt Russell. This idea also shamelessly lifts some ideas from Storium, because Storium is the hotness.

Each player character has a subplot aspect; it’s one of the five aspects that they come up with when they make their characters. A subplot aspect is an aspect that isn’t directly related to the main conflict of the game (though it can be tangentially related), and serves to humanize the character and mechanize part of that character’s backstory. Examples might include Prove to Dad I’m Worth It, Last Scion of a Dead Empire, or Frenemies With Benefits.

You can invoke a subplot aspect like you can any other aspect, and you better believe the GM is going to compel that thing from time to time. But here’s what makes a subplot aspect different: check boxes. That’s right, check boxes. Each subplot aspect has five check boxes next to it. You can check a box off once per scene in order to invoke your subplot aspect for free; when you do so, your subplot has to factor into the scene in a significant way, and move toward resolution.

When you check off the last check box next to your subplot, you’re indicating that you’re resolving your subplot. The issue it represents might still exist, but it’s no longer a key part of the game’s story. At the end of the session, erase your subplot aspect, come up with a new one, and clear out those check boxes.