RPGaDay 2021: 14-18th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

14th August: Momentum

Momentum – When it comes to one shots, convention games and even shorter sessions during a campaign I think it’s vital that a scenario has the momentum required to get through to the end of the session and reach a satisfying conclusion. A 3-4 hour window isn’t long, especially online where there are the inevitable connection issues and slower pace of play necessitated by the inability to have more than one person talking at a time. My advice to GMs is pretty simple – have a clear objective and get right into it. A clear objective tells the players what they should be seeking to achieve and sets out the focus of the game. Take the following setup:

“You’re a group of paranormal investigators and you’re here to investigate some recent sightings.”

It’s not a terrible opener, it tells the players who the characters are, why they’re present and gives some idea of what they’re here to do. But “investigate some recent sightings” is rather weak, it’s vague and lacks any specifics. As a result the players might dither or spend ages just trying to work out what the sightings were.

“You’re a group of paranormal investigators and you’re here to deal with a civil war ghost that has been attacking people at the mall.”

Is a much better opener. It provides far more in the way of details and makes it clear what the problem is (a ghost), where it is (at the mall) and that they aren’t just here to investigate but to deal with it. Combine that with a strong opening scene:

“It’s nearing midnight, you’ve been wandering the halls of the mall for over an hour without any signs of activity when a scream rings out. It’s coming from the security office…

Bam. Now you’ve got a problem and action. It starts you off from the get go and if you can do that then it’s far easier to maintain the momentum. Start a session by spending an hour picking gear and chasing vague rumours before you even stumble into the mall and you put yourself in the position of needing to overcome that initial inertia which is a far harder problem.

15th August: Supplement

Supplement – I don’t ever expect game design and publishing to become my primary income but it is a very nice way to supplement it and provides earnings that I am able to reinvest in the hobby. My hope going forward is that it will provide enough going forward to cover not only the money I spend on games but convention travel and accommodation. Right now, for the past 2 years my profit margin is about £500/year and if it stays at that then I’d be quite happy. A substantial portion of that was from ZineQuest, take out the income and costs I can directly associate to it and it drops to ~£130/year (though obviously this tax year still has a while to go). It’s a big difference and while I know a lot of people have issues with Kickstarter I’d have had a fraction of the success on other platforms. As an example Signal to Noise, which I’ve been trying to itchfund has sold a total of 9 copies right now whereas I’m pretty confident that had I launched it during ZineQuest it would have easily done 10-20x that.

16th August: Move

The emergence of Moves as a mechanic is, I think one of the defining features of the last decade of game development. They’re an elegant way to move past the very naturalistic idea of actions as defined by older RPGs and to incorporate the impact of the narrative on what you’re doing. Take, for example, jumping from one building to another. In an action orientated RPG you’d probably resort to something like rolling dexterity or acrobatics. The thing is that action would be the same regardless of the situation – jumping a chasm full of lava? Acrobatics. Jumping it to try and impress your crush? Still an acrobatics check.

Switch it to PbtA though and the move you use could be wildly different depending on the combination of what you’re doing, your motivation and what you want the narrative impact to be. Jumping out of danger vs showing off would be two completely different moves despite your action being exactly the same. It’s one of the things that I like about PbtA style games.

That said I also regularly find myself struggling with moves. Because of that need to incorporate the fictional positioning moves generally need to be wordy and describe the situations where they apply. They’re also typically paired with a name that while evocative isn’t always clear. Even faced with a PbtA game I’m familiar with I find that I have difficulty recalling exactly what each move does or when it applies. I can learn it with time but most of my PbtA experience is with oneshots so the lack of clarity is frustrating at times.

17th August: Crime

Given its popularity across wider media I am very surprised that crime solving games are not a bigger part of the gaming scene. Off the top of my head I can think of a few but very few that I would say are police procedurals or crime dramas. That being said investigative mystery is a fairly big category, especially as you could potentially say that games such as Call of Cthulhu fall into it.

The emergence of the GMless, clue driven Brindlewood Bay games is an interesting development and I’m keen to see how they develop in the future. It’s a system that would be ideal for a police or detective game, though I appreciate that many people would be reluctant to explicitly play as cops right now.

18th August: Write

I find the switch from development to writing hard. I always have and I say that with the experience of having written a 70k word doctoral thesis. Going from the ideas in my head to word on the page is just a difficult process and I often find myself self editing as I write which is NOT a great way to do things. For one it means that it takes forever just to write each section but it also doesn’t save me any time. I still need to go back to do edits/rewrites once everything is in place just to ensure that what I wrote at the start works with what I wrote at the end. When it comes to games I’ve actually found that working directly in layout helps me immensely. One of those weird tricks you won’t believe things. I think it helps being able to see how everything will work on the page and where I need to consider page breaks, art etc. It’s obviously not really that suitable for larger projects but for items under <10 pages it is my preferred option.

So what am I in the process of actually writing rather than designing right now? The first is the next in my fantasy adventure pamphlets. These are really small double sided releases that are designed to be printed and folded into a small pamphlet. I’ve released two so far for both Brighthammer and for D&D 5e via the DMs Guild. They’re built around a central map so the word count is really low and they make for an enjoyable creative distraction. Alongside that I have adventures for The Cthulhu Hack and Demon Hunters that need finished. Both of these have already been sketched out and I just need to get the words onto the page so I can release them. I’ve spoken before about Red Roots of the Rose and I’m really keen to get it out into the wild as I think it is an interesting adventure. I’m also really proud of the cover image that I’ve made – I’m not an artist so to be able to create artwork rather than just photoshop together existing pieces is something that represents a big step up for me.

RPGaDay 2021: 13th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

13th August: Improvise

I learned the hard way how to improvise by diving in at the deep end with a creative group of players that often latched on to elements that I, as a rookie GM, hadn’t expected them to. Some of those situations I handled well, others not so well. Those early experiences have had a massive impact on how I approach games as a player, GM and designer. I lean in to lightweight adventure design that focuses on the situation, the driving forces behind the plot and the goals of those involved. I’ll sometimes plan out key locations knowing I expect to drop a clue that will lead the players there but just as often I end up throwing something together just because they took a left turn.

That all comes from experience though. I once had a new player, during a game of Honey Heist, ask how I was able to come up with all the details on the fly and my response was simple – practice and experience. I’ve been gaming for well over a decade and the majority of the time I’m a GM. What I can do now without thinking would astound the me that first tried to GM and started out with a session of Serenity that was so comically disastrous that we shelved the campaign after that single session. We did eventually come back to it and treated that session like an unaired pilot to be reworked as the plot of the true session 1. While that campaign went on to be a nightmare for scheduling it eventually produced some of the best RP I’ve ever come across.

Improvisation was also at the heart of Project Cassandra, where I wanted to mix the traditional GM role with the player input that many indie games favour. The ability for characters to add details that can drastically shift the plot or tone of the game was key to making it feel like they really had prophetic abilities but that does mean a GM can end up running an adventure that is totally different from what they’d expected. I’ve heard from a few people that have since run it that they found that one of the harder aspects of the game to handle, to flip things in an instant and rework a scene to fit the new truths that had been revealed. I wish I knew how to bottle that, or present the skills I’ve picked up for others to learn as I think being able to improvise is a key skill for GMs. All I can really say is play more indie games, get the practice in. You can learn the skills if you want to.

I did.

RPGaDay 2021: 12th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

12th August: Think

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about publishing, what I want to get out of it and the intersection between hobby and business. Over the last year or so I’ve shifted towards releasing things that have a price tag affixed to them. The result of that is that very few people actually end up seeing my games – Signal to Noise released a week and a half ago and so far has racked up all of 8 sales. I’d obviously like that number to be higher but on the other hand I put a lot of work into the game and would like to see some earnings back from it.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the point of this and what I’ve been thinking about recently. This is a hobby for me, so should I even be bothered about price and earnings? You could make the argument that no, I don’t need to and I should consider just putting everything out for free or PWYW. The counter to that is that this risks devaluing the work that people doing it for a job do. How do you fairly price something when a hobbyist working in their spare time for fun can produce material close to or at the level that a professional working in the industry can do? It’s a conundrum and not an easy one to answer. I firmly believe that an individual should be able to make a living from making RPGs and actively want a wider more diverse selection of people who are able to do so. That can only make the industry stronger. I don’t think it will ever be an easy task, there are so few companies that hire people that the majority of designers are always going to be freelancers/self-employed while selling enough to make a living off of games requires an investment of either time or money – both of which I realise are privileges many people don’t have access to.

On the other hand how do you balance that when there are people like me who can do it for fun, don’t need to make an earning from it but can? As a hobbyist should I be expected to price my material at the same level as a professional working full time? Should I give it away for free? Is there a middle ground that doesn’t undercut the industry as a whole but reflects the intersection of the two? I just don’t know and I think the short form discussion that platforms such as twitter encourage really prevents us from having a proper, nuanced discussion about it.

The other issue that I think doesn’t help is the move towards digital. On one hand I think it’s great, as it opens up the door for people that just can’t afford a print run and games that don’t suit traditional formats. As a society though I think we still don’t appreciate the value of digital goods. The time and work that goes into a game is rarely focused on what it takes to get it printed and from what I’ve learned the actual cost to print most games reflects only 10% or less of the cover price. The rest goes into the art, the writing, the time it took to design and playtest. All factors that play into PDFs as much as print yet we value that printed book far more than the file sat on our computers and until we get past that I don’t think we’re ever going to value small games by indie designers properly.

RPGaDay 2021: 11th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

11th August: Wilderness

As a general rule I’m not a fan of wilderness exploration games. I just find them boring and I think that’s down to a few bad experiences with West Marches style games. The big one: A lack of plot. I’ve encountered too many people that think a West Marches game means the exploration takes over from the plot, even sometimes down to the level of individual sessions. They view the approach to the game as being little more than “you go here, explore, kill stuff, go home” which doesn’t excite me. I get that the characters are meant to be explorers and the GM in a traditional West Marches game has to expect different players each time but that doesn’t mean you can’t have plot.

I’d actually say that you need more plot – you need a reason for people to want to keep heading out into the unknown beyond a love of gold and XP. You need something more than a grind.

At the campaign level a West Marches style game is the ideal opportunity to have a large, emergent plot that is slowly revealed by the players as they realise that individual events and clues are all being driven by larger events that will require them to work together and plan their future expeditions. Give me the awakening evil and search for ancient relics that are foretold to herald a new age. That’s exciting. The procedurally generated quests that have zero impact on the wider world (yes, I’m calling out you out Skyrim)?

Boring.

As for individual sessions, well anyone that can’t fit a decent plot into a 3-4 hour session needs to sit down at some convention tables and learn from the GMs there who regularly do the impossible and not only teach the mechanics of the game but include a full plot arc with highs, lows and a satisfying conclusion.

Do all that and maybe then you’ll get me interested in the wilderness beyond the keep.

RPGaDay 2021: 10th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

10th August: Advantage

While it wasn’t particularly revolutionary if you consider RPGs as a whole I think the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanics in D&D 5E was an inspired move by the WOTC design team (unlike Inspiration, which never felt like it was anything more than a tacked on idea). With one fell swoop it drastically simplified the +/- modifier system that had become excessively overcomplicated in 3.5/4 just because of how many factors could come impact a roll.

Situation works in your favour? You have advantage. Situation works against you? Disadvantage.

It’s simple and elegant and I really wish that they’d come up with it for 4E as that was a game that could have really benefited from it. While there has been some resurgent interest in that edition I’ve not heard of anyone tweaking it to include the advantage mechanic and I’d be interested to hear how it impacts play.

RPGaDay 2021: 9th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

9th August: Percentage

Like a lot of gamers I’ve only run or played a small percentage of the games that I own. Just looking at my shelves I’ve probably brought around 70% of the systems to the table in one form or another but that’s a little deceptive. It doesn’t account for the various sourcebooks I’ve not had a chance to use or that I’ve slimmed down my collection over the past couple of years, which filtered out a lot of games I’d owned for years but never run/played. It also doesn’t account for the elephant in the room: PDFs. Thanks to various bundles and impulse purchases my PDF collection dwarfs that of my physical collection. Just using ZineQuest as an example I backed a single zine in print but around a dozen digitally. The number of those that I’ve run or played? Well I’d be astounded if it even approaches 20% and wouldn’t be surprised if was actually below 10%.

Oops.

All that said I am getting pretty good at reading through games. While the number is lower than I’d like I would say that I have read a significant chunk of everything I own, probably in the 60-70% range (though not necessarily cover to cover). Part of that is because I’ve been increasingly focused on design and want to get a feel for how other creators approach a challenge but the larger motivation is that I enjoy reading them. I always have. Is it as good as playing them? No, not even remotely but I enjoy the process of diving into a new world and set of mechanics, to see how it all comes together and the story the creator was trying to tell through it.

RPGaDay 2021: 8th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

8th August: Stream

I’m not sure that I will ever fully embrace streaming. It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal but they just don’t sit right with how I tend to connect to media. I’ve never really gotten into watching things on my phone, it’s just not something that I enjoy doing. Similarly I’ve never really made the jump to regularly watching things via a computer and I’ve no idea why. Part of it is probably that if I’m sat at a computer I’m doing something and I struggle to do that and watch a stream. I’m one of these people that when it comes to watching something I need to give it my full attention or I lose track of what’s going on. I think that’s why I like podcasts so much – I typically listen to them during commuting to work on the train or when I’m doing tasks I can zone out such as the washing up. Maybe that will change in the future, I’m probably going to need a new tablet soon and I might try again then especially if I can find some more UK/Europe friendly streams to watch.

It’s also interesting how a large part of the growth of the hobby seems to have come off of the celebrity culture that has built around the big streams. I think it would be really interesting to examine the average stream engagement, watchers, returns etc as I suspect the vast majority are really low and only a handful are actually getting enough to convert it into something that pays. Not that that should be surprising and I don’t doubt many people are doing it just for the fun but I wish people appreciated just how much work and luck goes into being a successful streamer, I’ve seen plenty of comments about not getting viewers or being able to build an audience and it’s hard knowing that you can produce amazing material and just not have the right connections or reach to turn that into noticeable numbers.

RPGaDay 2021: 7th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

7th August: Small

While I’ve been able to build a little momentum over the past year I am still operating on the small scale compared to a lot of people and other than the slow grind of releasing material I’m not sure what to do. Running my first ZineQuest kickstarter resulted in a significant boost to my sales but I need to translate that to a continued interest in my games, which so far has been difficult. I think the biggest part of the problem is me, I struggle to connect with people and put myself out there in the sort of way that is necessary to really make it. I don’t do hot takes, make giant sweeping statements or call out other games (ok, occasionally I call out 5E). It’s not uncommon for me to just avoid social media altogether for a few days which isn’t the way to draw attention to myself or my games. Of course adding the ongoing pandemic on top of all that hasn’t helped and I’ve struggled with engaging with online events for a host of reasons I won’t go into.

It’s also frustrating to not be getting eyes on my work when I see some people getting engagement from constant hot takes or just throwing half baked ideas out into the void but never actually finishing anything. If this sounds like I’m venting a little then it’s because I am. Maybe I need to do that a little more and just throw things up on the blog as they come to me. I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusion about the fact that the market is flooded with creators right now and that you need the right combination of luck, connections and just being out there to really make it. It’s just frustrating to release stuff into the wild that I think is good and see little to no response. I think it’s also annoying that I’ve let me put myself into the position of being bothered by it all. While I’m treating designing and publishing games as a micro-business it is, ultimately, a hobby and I’m in the privileged position of not being reliant on earnings from this stuff.

Anyway rant over. It’s Saturday so rather than dwell on this I’m going to go and check out the #selfpromosaturday tag over on twitter and see what others have been up to this week.

RPGaDay 2021: 6th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

6th August: Chase

I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a chase mechanic that really feels like it works in play and I think part of the problem is the way that mechanics typically take an overly literal approach of how far away from the target are you. Tracking how close you are is, on one hand, a fairly reasonable assumption. If you are chasing a person you either need to catch them or fall behind so much that they get away but in reality it never feels interesting during play as you end up rolling the same thing over and over. It’s also all too possible to get into an endless loop where you never catch up to them but they never get away, something that doesn’t make for much fun at the table.

Because it’s boring.

The games that do it best tend to be the ones that use a challenge based approach, so you need to overcome 3 out of 5 challenges to catch them. Why do I think that works best? Simple, it’s more cinematic. Think about how chases are presented on screen – it’s rarely about the actual distances involved but overcoming challenges such as dodging other traffic, finding shortcuts or knocking things into the path of the chasers. Ultimately though it all comes down to the final total where the chaser either catches up or loses their prey but only after all the hijinks involved in chasing them. A good GM using that sort of approach will think about 3-5 thematically interesting challenges that might get in your way and allow for a wider range of approaches than repeatedly rolling whatever skill you use for running.

RPGaDay 2021: 5th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

5th August: Throne

When I saw that the prompt for the day was Throne the first and only thing that came to mind was Stealing the Throne by Nick Bate. It’s a heist game where the player set out to steal a 1,000 year old mech from one of the ruling families. As one of the few remaining examples of these artefacts it represents power and wealth beyond belief and merely possessing one is enough to elevate even a ragtag group of thieves to positions of power.

With a setup like that it’s no surprise that the game grabbed me from the get go so I jumped at the chance to back it when it kickstarted earlier this year and was lucky enough to bag one of the annotated copies on offer. I could reel off a list of the mechanics and how the play style appeals to me but what really hooked me was the premise – it’s evocative and has a level of implied depth that brings you along for the ride. If you pull the text apart and examine it in detail there’s actually not all that much there beyond a framework but the design and writing makes it easy for your brain to just fill in the gaps and imagine a much larger world. The last time I found a game that had that effect on me was Lady Blackbird, which is a masterclass in design and presentation that sparked the initial ideas for Project Cassandra and I hope Stealing the Throne will do the same (Ok spoiler: It has and I’m planning a hack/supplement for the Dyson Eclipse that builds off of the game).