2020 in review: Gaming

2020. To say it’s not been a great year overall would be one hell of an understatement. Gaming wise it has been what I can only describe as a slow year for me, primarily as I have failed to make the switch to online gaming necessitated by the Covid crisis. It’s not that I don’t enjoy online gaming, I’ve just found the process of finding and joining a regular group rather… disheartening.

In an ideal world I’d have gone into the crisis with a regular group and an involved game to stay focused on, as it was the group I had been playing with was already in the early stages of fragmenting. Not an ideal situation, especially given we’d only just started a mini campaign of The Cthulhu Hack, a game I’d been itching to bring to the table for quite some time.

That’s not to say that I haven’t gamed this year, just that it wasn’t nearly as often as I’d have liked. I finally managed to play in, rather than run, a couple of sessions of Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors, including a session at ZOEcon run by Silent Jim himself (aka Don Early). I’ve also had the opportunity to play one shots of Tales from the Loop, Lancer and Paris Gondo. All fun games, though I feel that Lancer isn’t suited to one shots with new players as the system is far too crunchy for the restricted time frame.

On the GMing front I’ve run a few things, with the majority being lighter, one offs. Again fun but not really scratching that itch and more often than not reminding me how much I miss a steady group.

So where do I go for 2021? Well really the only way is up. Publishing aside (which I’ll cover in an upcoming post) I want to join or run a more involved campaign. Something that I can sink my teeth into. That’ll probably require finding an online group with a space as unfortunately I don’t see in person gaming returning until the second half of the year (at the very earliest). I also want to see about arranging some more one offs / mini-campaigns to try and work through the various games I have sitting around unplayed. Alien is top of that list as I’ve been itching to bring it to the table since picking it up at Dragonmeet 2019 while Star Trek is one that I want to save for a rotating in person group. As far as conventions go I want to say I’ll be back to them but right now I just don’t know. The UK Games Expo are aiming for an early June event but with the current state of things that seems too early for it to actually occur. Dragonmeet in December is more plausible and I believe there are plans for a post summer BurritoCon which I’d probably attend as it’s both local and small scale. So who knows really but fingers crossed, it can’t really be much worse than 2020.

New Release: The Synth Divergence – A Technoir transmission

The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority – A Technoir transmission

In the wake of the rising cost of air travel and development of clean propulsion methods the city of Liverpool has returned to its roots as a hub of ocean shipping. Thousands of workers have flocked to the docks in search of employment, managing a never ending stream of bulk cargo. Then came Synthetics, true artificial consciousness with the potential to upend the economy. As their numbers increase so does their dominance in the workplace and the careful balance between workers and the Corporations hangs by a thread.

This is the Synth Divergence – A transmission for Technoir, the game of high-tech, hard-boiled roleplaying.

Building on the success of my work on missions for The Sprawl during the past year The Synth Divergence remixes the material into a Technoir transmission centred around the city of Liverpool and its dominant Corporate Authority. Where The Sprawl is built around action oriented missions Technoir spins the cyberpunk dystopia towards noir investigations with intuitive mechanics that weaves a web of intrigue and connections as the plot is revealed.

Inside the transmission you’ll find the 36 connections, objects, locations, events, factions and threats used to construct the plot map and draw the characters in to the investigation. These include The Auctoria super-luxury hotel and CHES, its resident Synth, MetroNews, the custom Manta-Masti sports car, legendary racer Fabio Scorpius and a host of additional nodes inspired by the city of Liverpool.

You can pick up The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority now from itch.io and drivethruRPG for $3.

The Synth Convergence: 1 year later

It’s been a year since the release of The Synth Convergence and as it has turned into by biggest release to date I wanted to discuss how it has done.

The Synth Convergence started life with two missions that had been run by Christina Stone-Bush and a third by myself that were rebuilt around the core theme of synthetic intelligence. While I ended up taking on most of the project as a solo endeavour none of it would have been possible without the initial mission profiles that Christina had developed. Developing the missions, and learning how to lay them out in Scribus, took most of 2019 and I achieved my before Dragonmeet release target by only a couple of days.

Supported by mentions and retweets from both Hamish (the creator of the Sprawl) and Christina it quickly blew past my initial target of 10 paid sales. As a relatively unknown developer who had previously only released smaller adventures for Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors the reception to the trilogy was amazing. So let’s talk numbers.

All in the final release came to 37 pages, comprising 3 missions and a collection of bonus characters and locations that could be dropped into any game of The Sprawl. Just over 10,000 words in total. It was released simultaneously on drivethruRPG and itch.io with a $5 price tag then went on sale at $1.50 for most of the year in response to the COVID crisis.

DrivethruRPG

The majority of direct sales have, to date, come from drivethruRPG. Right now that’s 60 paid sales. 21 of these were at full price, 32 at reduced sale prices and 6 as part of a Sprawl Missions bundle that includes Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. and Mission Packet 2: Subversion. The gross revenue comes to $178.81 and my take home (net) earning is $107.28. Sales dipped quickly after the first month, picked up while it was on sale and then have trickled in ever since. It hit Copper best seller (>50 paid sales) on 24th August, just short of 9 months after release.

Itch.io

Compared to drivethruRPG itch.io sale numbers have been much lower, 17 paid sales to date only 2 of which were while it was listed at the full price. Itch.io allows for customers to tip though and a number of people did so those 17 sales have a total earning of $55.75, coming to $43.98 after processing fees and the sites cut. The most anybody paid was $8.00, right after launch. To date 1 person has purchased the missions via the bundle.

I can’t say for certain but I’d attribute the lower number of itch.io sales to a few factors. Firstly The Sprawl itself isn’t available on itch.io but is listed on drivethruRPG so if you go looking for the game there you’ll also find The Synth Convergence. Second is just the overall traffic to the site, which I’d guess is at least an order of magnitude lower than drivethruRPG.

The final factor is that in June I contributed The Synth Convergence to the bundle for racial justice so many people that might have picked it up already own copies of it. It’s difficult to say how many people that supported the bundle have checked the mission out but my estimate (based on downloads of the individual files) is ~2,000 off of over 10,000 page views. As a tiny fish in a very big pond those are the sort of numbers that I never expected to see my writing reach and I hope that people enjoy what they read.

Wrap up

When I first ran the mission that would become The Infinitive Cascade the idea that it might end up as a published adventure didn’t even enter my head. I was just running a cool cyberpunk game and trying to build interest in games other than D&D at my local games cafe (if only that had been as successful as the missions!) The idea to publish them became a turning point for me and I feel like everything that I have done since then has been better because of it. I’m more confident in my writing, more knowledgeable about layout and overall more invested in continuing in the indie publishing scene. I’m also immensely proud of the final product, it looks good and the missions are fun to play. I’ve published two additional mission packets since then, incorporating ideas I had bounced around and the lessons I had learned in the process. That material has even inspired the development of a Technoir transmission, which I’m currently putting the finishing touches to and hope to release soon.

Not bad for something that started with a DJ seeking to escape their record contract.

State of the Conspiracy: First print tests

Alternate cover page – with and without background

One of the reasons why I want to run a Kickstarter for Project Cassandra is so I can produce a physical edition. The goals of ZineQuest align pretty much perfectly with both the scale and scope of the game – small releases with a simple two tone aesthetic that can be quickly turned around and sent out to backers. As my first print release I’ve been spending time investigating the various options for printing and fulfilling orders. Not surprisingly there are numerous options to choose from. POD options, such as drivethruRPG, have the advantage of handling fulfilment and shipping but at a generally higher cost per item whereas bulk printing comes in cheaper but would require that I ship items manually. As this will be a relatively small project I’m leaning towards using an established zine printer, Mixam, and manually handling fulfilment.

While Mixam were recommended I wanted to do some due diligence now, months ahead of the Kickstarter, to ensure that I was happy with the service and quality of the prints so I put together a small test document and placed an order through their sample service.

Project Cassandra print tests with the original cover page

Those sample prints arrived earlier this week and were 100% worth ordering. Ripping open the envelope was extremely satisfying and I’m more than happy with the results. The overall quality of the printing is high and just having that proof in my hand makes the game real in a way that’s hard to describe. The second reason for ordering test prints was to check how the layout translated to the printed page and I’m glad that I did. The photobashed cover I created for Playtest Packet 2 (above) looks dull and washed out in black and white. It fails to grab attention. In contrast the simple large text and JRD seal page is clear and effective. It establishes the tone of the game and looks like the cover to an official document.

Mission Profile: Ich bin ein Berliner with background and map of Berlin

I’ve still got a number of tweaks to make that will necessitate a second round of print tests but just seeing the quality of this is a massive ego boost. The game is going to look great and I can’t wait to get it out to the world.

Project Cassandra on Le Repaire de Gulix

As a small indie developer there’s an amazing feeling that comes with seeing my work highlighted by somebody else and over the weekend the French blog Le Repaire de Gulix was kind enough to give the game a shout-out. The post, Coups de soleil sur itch, mentions the game alongside the work of other developers such as Rogue Scroll by Epidiah Ravachol and Our Queen Crumbles by Jason Brown.

New Release: Mission Packet 2 Subversion

The Sprawl is built around missions and the Corporations have no shortage of dirty money but if you want to take the fight to them that means subverting their goals, one directive at a time. Mission Packet 2: Subversion introduces three new, non-Corporate factions struggling to fight against the system, custom moves for subverting the goals of the Corporations and missions for each faction for once you have earned their trust. The Factions introduced in this Mission Packet are:

  • The Synth Republic, who seek to rescue captured AI from the hands of their Corporate masters and provide them the opportunity to experience life in the physical domain. 
  • The Peoples Union, local gang or the last protectors of labour rights? When they offer you the chance to wipe the debt of thousands of workers from the system will you step up to protect the downtrodden?
  • The Env, anti-capitalist environmental activists pushed to take extreme measures in their fight to protect what little is left of the natural world.

Mission Packet 2: Subversion is available now from itch.io and drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link) for $1.50. This release requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG to play.

New Release: What’s so [Redacted] about [Redacted]?

What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]?

What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? is a game of psychic operatives during the Cold War, fighting to prevent a dangerous vision of the future from coming to pass. The game was created as a submission for What’s so cool about Jam and hacks the simple system of What’s so cool about Outer Space by Jared Sinclair to focus on psychics out to save the world.

The premise of the game might sound familiar and that’s because it serves as an introduction to the world Project Cassandra. The game builds on the concepts developed for Project Cassandra, most notably by allowing players to outline elements of the adventure from the outset, which provides the GM with a road map of scenes to work from. As an added incentive to interact with each scene the player that predicted it gains an ongoing bonus thanks to their foreknowledge of the event.

For a game that came together in less than a fortnight I’m extremely proud of the result. It fits the aim of the jam, aligns with the core concepts underlying Project Cassandra and also looks the part.

What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? is available now from itch.io and drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link).

Podcasts I Love: Happy Jacks RPG

I’m a dedicated podcast listener – I got hooked on them in the early days and they’ve become a constant source of entertainment, from filling the time during long commutes to being a welcome distraction while being stuck at home during the current crisis. I’ve got a number that I want to give shoutouts to in these quick posts. I’ve picked each of them based on a simple parameter – they’re the ones that I regularly push to the top of my queue and do my best to keep up with.

Of all the podcasts that I listen to Happy Jacks is the one that I’ve stuck with the longest. How long? Roughly a decade. It was the second ever podcast that I got into, after the now defunct Bear Swarm and it’s safe to say that it’s the one that has had the biggest influence on me as a gamer. It not only got me through the wilderness of periods where I found myself barely playing games but has been responsible for introducing me to so many amazing gamers over the years. The community, through both the (numerous) forums and discord has always been fantastic and welcoming (with only a small number of flame wars). It’s been a big enough part of my gaming life that I even flew out to the amazing Stratigicon convention back in 2015 for the best four days in gaming I have ever had.

The regular advice show, which has always had the welcoming feel of friends just casually chatting about the hobby, has also developed an extensive stable of actual plays, featuring a wide ranging style of games from D&D to Legend of the Five Rings (Inukai!), a multitude of PbtA games and smaller indie games. As the show has grown it has also worked to diversify the cast roster and continues to do so at a time when representation is something so much of the hobby is struggling with. I’m not going to pretend that they’re perfect but they are actively engaging with issues and striving to improve.

New Release: Home Amongst the Stars

After creating To Travel far from Home and The Stars will carry you Home business card micro-games earlier this year I spent a long time pondering how I would complete the trilogy. I knew that I wanted a final game that covered the explorers returning to Earth, just not how to go about it.

Then I saw a tweet about the bookmark game jam being hosted on itch.io by Diwata ng Manila. The slightly larger format offered the potential to rework the first two games while keeping them true to the original intent. In the process of doing so I got the inspiration for This Earth we called Home, the final part of the trilogy, which sees the explorers return to a world in need of hope but at risk of falling to fear. With the concept in place the final game came together nicely and the trilogy now function as a set of interconnected journaling games – the explorers log their thoughts and dreams as they undergo selection and a perilous voyage before coming together in an attempt to unify the world. With a word count of less than 600 I’m extremely happy with what the games achieve and hope that others get the chance to read and play it.

You can download Home amongst the Stars for free on the LunarShadow Designs itch.io page.

Podcasts I Love: Pandas Talking Games

I’m a dedicated podcast listener – I got hooked on them in the early days and they’ve become a constant source of entertainment, from filling the time during long commutes to being a welcome distraction while being stuck at home during the current crisis. I’ve got a number that I want to give shoutouts to in these quick posts. I’ve picked each of them based on a simple parameter – they’re the ones that I regularly push to the top of my queue and do my best to keep up with.

Panda’s Talking Games is a weekly advice podcast from the Misdirected Mark podcast network hosted by Senda Linaugh and Phil Vecchione. Each episode the hosts answer listener questions from alternate perspectives, typically but not always One-Shot vs Campaign. Those questions may range from topics such as balancing immersion with mechanics to discussions on the approaches of new vs old games or even how to translate their favourite Ditch Lilies albums into game mechanics.

The alternating viewpoints provide a really refreshing approach to the topics compared to many podcasts where the hosts often just end up agreeing with one another. It’s especially welcome because Phil and Senda don’t just play devils advocate with one another, their points are always well thought out and complementary rather than trying to compete with the old ‘this way is better’ argument.

What really makes the show stand out though are the hosts and their attitude to gaming. The fact that they love the hobby is apparent from the energy that they bring to every single episode of the podcast and I think it’s a safe bet that they’re the sort of people that would not only bring that energy to the table but help everyone else find it as well.

You can find Panda’s Talking Games on the Misdirected Mark site, on all the major podcast aggregators and on twitter.