Set phasers to boring: Starship combat and RPGs

During the most recent edition of the newsletter I ruminated on the issue of starship combat and why most systems fail. I’m currently preparing for a mini-campaign using the Tachyon Squadron system, one of the few which I think works but for this post, I want to take a deeper look at the most common approach to starship combat, which I’m going to call bridge combat.

The best example of bridge combat is on Star Trek. Each character has a specific and narrow role to play – Worf at tactical, Sulu at the helm or Janeway in the Captain’s chair. With the exception of those episodes when a character is forced to work at a different station for the sake of the narrative (such as Picard taking the helm), they have a single, clearly defined role.

In a TV show this makes sense but in a tabletop game it leads to boring combats. Why? Because each character is static.

Let’s take a hypothetical scene from TNG and break it down into the standard turns of an RPG. Worf, standing at tactical because Starfleet doesn’t believe in providing seatbelts, fires the phasers. Next turn he… fires the phasers. There may be some minor variation to the roll when he switches to photon torpedoes but ultimately his choice of actions are limited. This plays out for each and every character – they make the same type of roll turn after turn. In some situations they may not even be able to make a roll, for example if there isn’t a ship for Worf to shoot at.

And that’s boring.

Worf did not sign up for boring

It works for a TV show for a few reasons. The tension and dynamic nature of a scene is built into it as a whole and that’s where the audience’s attention is. It’s rarely focused solely on an individual character and all the time they spend standing around waiting.

The second reason is that it plays out in real-time – we don’t have to wait for Worf to remember which button to press or to pause as we calculate the damage. We can even have overlapping actions, with Worf taking his shot at the same time that Picard is giving orders or Geordi is falling in love with a hologram. That adds to the drama and the tension.

And all of that is absent from bridge combat in an RPG.

In a game, we focus on one character at a time and a second long action may take a number of minutes to resolve. The passage of time drags out so by the time it gets around to a player’s turn they want to be able to contribute and to have a choice in how they contribute.

To use a personal example a number of years ago I played in a high-level campaign of the Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader RPG from FFG. We had a group of six players and each of us had a specific role during bridge combat. As the Missionary, mine was to minimise the crew losses when the ship took damage. One action, rolling the same skill every turn of the combat… except on turns where we hadn’t taken damage and I did nothing. Because of how the system was designed that was almost the only way I could contribute to the combat. Many of the fights took multiple hours and I’d often leave a session having rolled only two or three times. Not the best of ways to maintain player engagement.

Yet mediocre (at best) bridge combat seems to be the default for sci-fi games and I don’t know why we’ve come to accept it as the norm. Tachyon Squadron gets around the issue by shifting the focus to starfighters and I’m going to do a deep dive of it once the upcoming campaign is underway.

But how to improve bridge combat?

Personally, I think the solution is to shift the focus back a little, away from individuals and onto the ship as a whole. A player should be able to take any action, regardless of which character it is technically associated with. Get round to the person playing the medic when the ship is on the tail of their target? Well, they might end up as the one to take the shot.

The trick though will be to design the system in a way that they are balancing resources/harm. Sure they could take the shot but should they be trying to repair the shields or perform first aid on the crew instead? They might be better at the first aid roll but is the shot a more urgent action? Are the shields at 20%, 10% or out entirely? It requires the sort of balancing act more often seen in board games than RPGs but I think it would make for more dynamic bridge combats that would keep players engaged. It’s certainly one I’ll be looking to explore when I get around to introducing bridge combat to the Dyson Eclipse.

Quick Review: Paris Gondo – The Life Saving Magic of Inventorying

What is it: A story game about getting to the end of your adventures and having to decide the age-old question: does the loot I have acquired spark joy?

Who is it by: Kalum of the Rolistes podcast (the game also has its own twitter account)

What’s it about? Paris Gondo tongue in cheek take on decluttering your life, inspired by Marie Kondo and her approach of asking ‘does this spark joy?’ During the course of the game, you will create adventurers and the loot that they have acquired during the course of battling the big bad. You’ll then have to ask yourself – does this loot spark joy, will it aid me in escaping the dungeon or is it merely an encumbrance I can live without?

By the end of the game, you’ll have made your decision, escaped the crumbling lair of your defeated foe and determined whether your adventurer lives a fulfilled, happy life or whether they chose poorly and are destined to forever question the choices they made.

Why should you try it? On it’s own Paris Gondo is a fun, light-hearted game that can easily fill a couple of hours. The rules are easy to learn and include a variety of both digital and physical play aids. Kalum has also been inspired by the Japanese TTRPG scene to include a ‘replay’ that walks the reader through an entire session of play!

While I’ve yet to use it this way the game would also be a fantastic add on to a regular campaign, providing a lighter session of play following the intensity of a big fight against a boss and their minions. Imagine getting back to your favourite watering hole to find that the bard has not only started the round without you but is waving the great axe you discarded and telling tales of how they used it to vanquish foes left and right, conveniently omitting your own contributions.

Where can you get it? Paris Gondo is available digitally from and drivethruRPG. Print copies are available direct from The Rolistes store (UK) and Ratti Incantati (US).

ZiMo Retrospective – Signal to Noise

The campaign for Signal to Noise has come to an end over on Game on Tabletop so I wanted to do a quick post focusing on my first thoughts about how the campaign went. I did this for Project Cassandra last year and found it really useful – both as a reminder for myself and as a way to share my thoughts with others. This post is likely to be a little rambling and only lightly organised so reader beware! Also, while I will report on various numbers I’m going to avoid any formal analysis, so any conclusions I do reach should be interpreted in that context.

First up, some raw data. The campaign ran from the 8th of February until the 26th of February on Game on Tabletop. I had an initial goal of £300, no formal stretch goals and money was collected at the time of pledging rather than at the end of the campaign. The available tiers were PDF only (£5), Print+PDF (£10+p&p), Itch upgrade (£5+p&p) and private game (£50+p&p). I also offered copies of Project Cassandra as an add on, in both PDF (£6) and Print+PDF (£8+p&p) formats.

The campaign raised a total of £817 from 61 backers. By comparison Project Cassandra, my 2021 ZineQuest project, raised £1830 from 175 backers. Both totals include shipping. It’s common to collect shipping when the project approaches fulfilment but I chose to include it upfront for two reasons – I expect the turnaround time on this project to be relatively short and while global shipping is still a mess the rates for small zines shipping out of the UK is relatively stable.

This campaign was all about funding art for the game. I had already commissioned 1 piece using existing funds. Thanks to the campaign I’ll be able to add a further 4 pieces of art to the game, all by Val Sannais, who did the fantastic piece below.

So how do I feel about it all?

The answer to that is mixed. I moved off of Kickstarter due to their general disregard for creators, both in terms of non-existent commitment to ZineQuest and the proposed move to the Blockchain. That decision almost certainly cost me backers and money. It was, therefore, frustrating to see just how many people stuck with KS. I appreciate that some creators rely on the platform to make a living but most don’t and after all the outrage that had been flying around I’d hoped more would move to alternative platforms. If we want to make a shift to a more diverse funding environment then the community is going to have to step up and take those early hits.

As an alternative to Kickstarter I chose to use Game on Tabletop (GoTT), a European crowdfunding site that predominantly cater to the non-English speaking market. They offer a mix of crowdfunding, pledge manager and marketplace options with a robust toolset and more options for customisation than Kickstarter. It’s honestly a little embarrassing how much KS have fallen behind in terms of features given their overall dominance of the space.

For Signal to Noise I chose to use the basic crowdfunding approach, collecting pledges as they were made rather than at the end of the campaign. This may have put some people off but in the event we didn’t reach the £300 goal I planned to release a print version of the game anyway, just without art. The trajectory of the campaign funding looked like this:

There’s the initial early push and the usual flat middle that I’ve come to expect from KS but what I didn’t see was a final 48-hour boost that I’d hoped for. While GoTT let you sign up to be notified when a project goes live or enters the final 48 hours they are separate. If you sign up for the first you don’t automatically receive the second, which some users may not have realised. It’s a point I’m going to feedback to the GoTT team. I also didn’t have the benefit of being able to draw in previous backers – if I’d stuck with KS then everyone that backed Project Cassandra would have received an email letting them know I’d launched a new campaign, so again that was an audience I had a limited ability to tap into (I did let them know via a project update but avoided spamming them with messages using that approach).

Game on TableTop

Using GoTT was, for the most part, relatively easy. The interface is pretty clear and the main project page tools give you plenty of options. The site does appear to rely on some older code based on the visual appearance and option to embed flash animations but overall that’s not really an issue. Obviously, more customisation does make it a little more complicated if you’re not familiar with this sort of interface so it’s worth taking your time in building the page.

One thing that I really appreciated about GoTT was the level of support that I received. When I signed up for a creator account I was emailed directly by a member of staff and offered a one to one video call to walk me through using the site. While I didn’t go down this route I did email them a number of times and always got a quick response. There were a few language issues, possibly related to the use of online translators, but given English will be a second language for most if not all of their staff it wasn’t a major issue. I will have earned the site all of about £25 (they take a 5% cut of pledges but not shipping) so this is a phenomenal level of support. Contrast it to KS where I’m not sure whether a human ever looked over my details or campaign page and the difference is massive. I hope the site is able to maintain that level of customer service as it grows.

Promoting Signal to Noise

Promotion wise everything felt much harder this time around. I think I can attribute that to multiple factors. For Project Cassandra, I had been talking about the game for years so people had heard of the game. We were also approaching a year into the pandemic and riding what I think was a bit of a peak. That lead to a very active ZineQuest and loads of engagement, all boosted by the broader KS ecosystem. This year things were very different. Signal to Noise was a smaller, less traditional game that was harder to pitch. It also felt like the bubble had burst a little on zines. I was still seeing engagement with tweets and posts but they weren’t leading to pledges in the same way that I had seen in 2021. I’d be curious whether others got the same impression. Obviously being off of KS didn’t help in that regard.

The final factor was me – I didn’t go into the campaign with the same energy levels as I had last year and crashed faster, something I need to keep in mind when I run the next campaign.

Thankfully I had help in getting around the challenges. Firstly, I have to say hats off to the other zine month creators who were a constant source of energy and helped spread the word by sharing tweets or mentions in newsletters etc. Secondly, I was fortunate to do two interviews, the first with the Effekt podcast and the second as part of the Yesindie’d chain reaction series. Both were great fun and definitely brought in backers – they ended up releasing on the same day and I saw an increase in pledges over the following 48 hours. They were also just really enjoyable experiences, as a solo publisher it’s rare that I just get to sit and chat about my games, especially with the limited number of face to face gaming over the last few years.

Alongside the interviews, I used a few other tools to promote the campaign. I ran two adverts on Yes Indie’d, one before the campaign launched and one during. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a clear boost that I could link back to them so it’s difficult to say how effective they were. The new to me approach was a press kit that I was sent out to various sites. This resulted in the game receiving coverage on sites such as Cannibal Halfling Games and Dicebreaker as well as being featured in a number of newsletters. Again, difficult to say how many backers that brought in but I feel like it was a worthwhile endeavour and one I’ll use again in the future.

In Conclusion

With all that said the campaign was worth it. I’m personally going to make virtually nothing from it but after all is said and done this turned into a very personal campaign. Signal to Noise is very much a game that only exists because of the pandemic. The emotions that the game touches on are raw and personal. Making it was cathartic and getting it to print is part of that process. As with Project Cassandra, I am going to approach a few retail outlets to see if they are interested in stocking the game. It would be a nice bonus but not essential. I’m still working out what I want to get back from the publishing space so right now earning something is a bonus but not a requirement.

2021 Retrospective: Gaming

Note: This is part 3 of 3. Part 1 covered my sales numbers for the year, while part 2 discussed my achievements this year as a designer/publisher.

My goal for 2021 was, after almost a year of pandemic life, to game more. Have I achieved that? Not really. I’ve continued to find getting into online games a challenge, primarily with regards the mental effort involved in arranging and setting up games. I miss the ease of a regular group that meets week in, week out.

That said I did manage to get in more games than I’d originally thought I had, though most of them were one-shots. What did that include?

  • Paris Gondo (player, one shot) – as part of GenCon online
  • Project Cassandra (GM, one shots) – in person at Dragonmeet
  • The Cthulhu Hack (GM, one shot) – as part of BurritoCon online
  • Alien (player, one shot) – as part of BurritoCon online
  • Alien: The Colony (player, campaign) – A drop in/out West Marches style campaign run by The Effekt podcast
  • Aftermath Tenerife (player, ongoing campaign) – A new mini-campaign in GURPS spread that will be continuing into 2022
  • Folk, Form, Phenomenon (player, one shot) – in person at Dragonmeet, probably my only “miss” of the year.

It may not be the hundreds of hours that many people have posted about but having felt like I struggled most of the year with engaging in actual gaming I am, in retrospect, relatively happy with that list. It also doesn’t cover the sheer number of games that I read during the course of 2021. That is certainly something I want to continue doing this year. While I know a lot of people don’t get much from it I really enjoy just sitting down with a rule book and going through it, learning the system or engaging with the world-building. It also means that even if I don’t bring a game to the table I can say I have gotten something out of it that makes the purchase worthwhile.

So what about 2022? Any goals? Well first off more in-person gaming, which of course is highly dependent on Covid. I was fortunate enough to get to Dragonmeet at the start of December, just prior to Omicron beginning its sweep, and it was really invigorating. While it was a risk to travel to London it felt like an acceptable one, especially as I work almost exclusively from home and could minimise contact prior and post-convention. Getting to actually engage with people again was an extremely positive experience and fingers crossed I’ll be able to do it again this year, ideally with Expo and Dragonmeet. There was also the announcement that the Tabletop Gaming Live convention was relocating from London to Manchester so I expect to make the trip to that as well if possible.

As for other plans at the moment I’m going to keep it to a vague “game more” as I know that anything more specific is lining myself up for failure. I’ve got a number of games that I would like to try running or playing, top of the current list are Tachyon Squadron, Scum & Villainy, and L5R 5e. That’s just off the top of my head though and there are plenty of others that I could add to the list.

2021 Retrospective: Publishing

This is part 2 of my 2021 retrospective, you can find part 1 here: Sales.

By almost every metric 2021 was a positive step in the right direction for me as an indie designer/publisher. I ran my first Kickstarter, finally published Project Cassandra and designed, wrote and published Signal to Noise.

If you’ve read the blog before you’ll know that Project Cassandra was in development for far too long. I started it in 2013, initially as a hack of Lady Blackbird. It quickly drifted into its own thing and then went to development hell after a bad playtest right before I was hoping to release it. I know, however, that it is a better game because of all that. I’m a better designer and a far better layout artist. That long development time, coupled with the release of the Affinity suite of programs I was able to release a game that I’m proud of and that has made its way to close to 200 people. If I had released the game when I originally hoped to it would have disappeared into the void and gotten little to no traction.

A lot of that is down to funding it through ZineQuest but I know that the extra time improved both the rules and presentation of the game. Is it perfect? No, but it’s a damn good game. I also learned a lot about the behind the scenes aspects that I hadn’t encountered that go into crowdfunding. All in all it was an enjoyable experience and one I’m keen to repeat in 2022.

My second major release of 2021 was Signal to Noise. As a remote, epistolary game it’s a significant departure from my usual style and in some ways, I am prouder of it than I am of Project Cassandra. Once I had the concept the design came together fairly quickly and I’m keen to continue exploring the design space around both duet and epistolary games.

Sales of the game have been modest but did well enough to pay for editing and my hope for 2022 is to produce an expanded print version. My aim had been to run a ZineQuest Kickstarter but with the whole blockchain kerfuffle, I don’t know how I’m going to proceed. In a weird twist Signal to Noise also has the honour of being not only my first game to be pirated but also to have been translated (without my permission) into another language. On top of all that they’ve produced print copies, something I haven’t even done yet!

While those two games took most of my focus I managed to release a few smaller products. The Duskbringers is an ongoing series of adventure pamphlets, with versions for both Brighthammer and D&D 5e. They’re inspired by an adventure I ran a few years ago but I’ve primarily created them to exercise the creative process. Near Carbon Blades was a similar ‘what can I quickly do with this idea’ and came together in a burst of creativity one evening. Both of those, produced under no pressure ensure that I don’t get to caught up in trying to make big, perfect products that will ultimately fizzle.

Of course, not everything went to plan this year and there are a number of projects that have languished on the sidelines. For the most part that’s down to a combination of aiming to do too much, the ongoing pandemic and losing a lot of momentum after shipping the print copies of Project Cassandra. What’s the unfinished list look like?

  • The Ajax Stratagem – The stretch goal supplement for Project Cassandra. It’s close to being complete and should (fingers crossed) be released to backers within the next week or two.
  • Say Aargh! – An adventure for Demon Hunters to complement Dr Ahoudi’s Mutant Menagerie. That this remains unfinished is particularly frustrating as it’s inspired by an adventure I first ran over a decade ago. I just can’t get it down on paper.
  • The Cyclic Void – A hack of Stealing the Throne, designed to act as the closing bookend to The Dyson Eclipse, the space opera setting I am slowly developing.
  • Red Roots of the Rose – A short adventure for mythos games, primarily the Cthulhu Hack. I’ve run it twice now but it needs tweaking to fix some issues.
  • Rockhoppers – A Wretched & Alone game for the Dyson Eclipse, partially drafted but still missing close to half of the prompts.

My primary publishing goal for 2022 is to finish those 5 products. On top of those releases I’d also like to do another crowdfunding campaign to get Signal to Noise into print. My aim had been to do so as part of ZineQuest until Kickstarter decided to go down the blockchain route. I’m looking at alternative options right now and am considering going with GameFound but that’s very much dependent on completing The Ajax Stratagem ASAP so I can start working on the new campaign.

So that’s a quick list of thoughts on publishing in 2021, all that’s left is for one more post talking about the actual gaming I’ve managed this year.

2021 in review: Sales

2021 is coming to a close and somehow I’ve failed to post a blog since August so I figured that a year in review would be a good way to get back to it. As with last year, I’m going to break this down into three separate posts; sales numbers, publishing, general thoughts. (For 2020 you can find the three posts via these links: Earnings, Publishing and Gaming)


As always I’m going to preface this post by highlighting that as far as publishing goes I am a tiny publisher. I am neither super prolific nor followed by a lot of people, which is why I feel it’s important to highlight these numbers. Many of the indie publishers that talk numbers are pulling in substantially more than I do, having built a following or gone viral in some way. That takes a lot of work and more than a bit of luck. Right now I’m doing this as a hobby – sure I’d like to grow my numbers or appear on a ‘games you should check out’ list but that’s not my real goal and earning something off of it is a bonus. So what do those numbers look like:


My big push this year was to finally publish Project Cassandra as part of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest event in February. The campaign raised £1830 thanks to the support of 175 backers. The fulfilment of the main game was complete by the start of July and as I write this I am in the final stages of layout for the stretch goal missions. For a full breakdown of the Kickstarter numbers see these two posts: Kickstarter Thoughts 1, Kickstarter Thoughts 2.

After posting the game to backers I made it available online through Ko-fi and Etsy. I’ve made 6 print and 2 digital sales via Ko-fi and a single sale via Etsy. I also made a single in-person sale while attending Dragonmeet. Those numbers, while small, are about what I expected – I just don’t have enough of a reach to be gaining regular sales and haven’t done as much as I could to promote it.

I was, however, fortunate enough to sell 20 copies of the game into retail and it is now stocked by IglooTree, Rook’s Press and Leisure Games. I have no idea how many of those have been sold but just having the support of retailers means a lot and significantly increases the chance of people spotting it and buying it.


I made 248 sales on drivethruRPG this year, with my missions for The Sprawl being the biggest sellers. My total earnings after drivethruRPG took their cut was $400.11.

The Synth Convergence sold 91 copies while Mission Packets 1 & 2 sold 48 and 51 copies respectively. Sales of The Synth Convergence were largely driven by the trilogy being featured as Deal of the Day earlier this year (see this post for more details) while the mission packets primarily sold as part of a bundle I have collecting all three together. The Synth Divergence transmission for Technoir sold 9 copies, which was a surprise given how little I promoted it.

My two main releases this year were Project Cassandra, which sold 14 copies and Signal to Noise which sold 11 copies. Everything else I have released over the years sold less than 10 copies each, not really surprising given the fairly niche market (missions for Demon Hunters) and fact that most were listed as PWYW.

ProductPaid copies soldGross sales ($)Earnings ($)
Missionary Opposition21.50.90
Talentless Hacks21.50.90
Trick of the Light21.50.90
What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]?26.03.90
Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco31.510.98
Channel Surfing44.952.97
The Tannhauser Investment77.805.07
The Synth Divergence: A Technoir Transmission925.3516.48
Signal to Noise1152.0033.80
Project Cassandra: Psychics of the Cold War14112.6073.19
Mission Packet 1: N.E.O.4867.2340.34
Mission Packet 2: Subversion5173.2343.94
The Synth Convergence91292.87175.85
DrivethruRPG sales stats for all titles that made at least 1 paid sale during 2021

I made a total of 63 sales during 2020, 19 of which were from the Epimas Christmas bundle. During 2021 that number increased to 89 but 51 of those were from the Cyber Week bundle I participated in at the end of November so my total number of independent sales was down. That, however, is only half the story as my revenue (after itch had taken its cut) increased from $114.83 to $204.65 inclusive of bundle sales. Excluding sales made as part of the Cyber Week bundle I earned $159.78, up from $91.89 in 2020 after I exclude externally organised bundles.

The Cyber Week bundle included two of my products, The Synth Convergence for The Sprawl and The Synth Divergence for Technoir, neither of which sold much outside of the bundle. The majority of my non-bundle itch income came from Project Cassandra (9 sales, $60.16) and Signal to Noise (14 sales, $69.84), the latter of which was aided by a generous tip from one contributor.

ProductPaid copies soldGross sales ($)Earnings ($)
Dr Ahoudi’s Mutant Menagerie13.52.7
What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]?37.135.28
Channel Surfing11.50.81
The Synth Divergence: A Technoir Transmission*
Signal to Noise148969.84
Project Cassandra: Psychics of the Cold War97260.16
Mission Packet 1: N.E.O.*
Mission Packet 2: Subversion*
The Synth Convergence*
Home Amongst the Stars28.56.75
The Stars Will Carry You Home110.57
Near Carbon Blades49.56.39
The Duskbringers242.65
Sprawl Mission Bundle165.44
Cyber Week bundle5150.7944.87 sales stats for all titles that made at least 1 paid sale during 2021. *item was only sold as part of a bundle

Sales round up

This year has, without a doubt, been a big step up in terms of sales. I’ve not only earned more on both drivethruRPG and itch but made the big step of running my first Kickstarter. DrivethruRPG continues to be my biggest ongoing source of revenue with The Synth Convergence making a small number of regular sales. That’s not unexpected, the missions are for one of the more popular PbtA games and benefit from its brand recognition. It helps that I’ve included mention of The Sprawl in their metadata – if you search for the game the missions come up as well. They’re discoverable. That and the amount of traffic drivethruRPG makes a massive difference to sales numbers and is a large reason why I’ll a) keep using the site and b) continue to publish material for popular games going forward.

Itch on the other hand – I like the site and their ethos but it falls down in so many ways and sales there are close to zero unless I push a game. I just don’t have the name recognition nor the desire to be constantly marketing myself in the way that the site requires. I will continue using it as I think it is a benefit to be on both but I would be surprised if it ever becomes my main source of revenue.

The big shift this year was, obviously, Kickstarter which brought in a massive earnings boost. Sales since have been modest but I expected that – just getting the support of 175 backers was phenomenal and every sale since is the icing on the cake. Getting it into retail was something I hadn’t expected and was really one of those “won’t know unless you try” things that thankfully paid off.

So that’s sales, in the next post I want to talk about publishing, both with regards to what I achieved this year and plans for 2022. That article can be found here: Publishing.

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)?


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.