Reflecting on 2019 – Part 2: Publishing

Alongside actually playing games one of my aims for this year was to step up my efforts as a publisher. It sounds weird to be calling myself a publisher but it is true. I’m a small scale, indie, party of one publisher but still a publisher.

Going into 2019 I had multiple projects on my radar. First off was completing the release of the Demon Hunters Slice of Life mission starters. It took me until July to release Trick of the Light while I only released Talentless Hacks this month, right before the end of the year. With those two starters out in the wild I have one left to complete – Clean-Up Crew, which I thought would be simpler because I had decided to turn that into a Fiasco playset, which is essentially just a collection of tables.

Well it turns out that writing 144 entries that mesh together into a cohesive and compelling whole is harder than it looks so that has sort of stalled for now. Before I push on with it I to spend a bit more time reading through existing playsets, as clearly there is an art to writing them.

Once the Slice of Life releases are complete I can focus on some of the other adventure drafts I have for Demon Hunters. I’ve got a number that are based on old adventures I ran with the original edition of the game, plus I am hoping to run a campaign of it during 2020 to playtest some new ideas. The big one there is Rocket Demons of Antiquity, my dual modern/Victorian adventure featuring Mina Harker and her team. I doubt I’ll write that up by the end of the year but it would be good to get all the bits into place for it.

My second major focus was Ghosts of Iron, a stretch goal commission piece for the Crystal Heart kickstarter. Writing that was a really valuable experience and one that I learned a lot from. First off was designing an adventure that would fit the world. My pitch had originally been inspired by a stock image, drawn by J. E. Shields.

From there I had to craft an adventure that would fit with the Crystal Heart setting, showcase both setting and system and then fit it all into a limited word count using the established ‘One Sheet’ format of Savage Worlds. It was a challenge, but an enjoyable one, helped along by the thrill of getting to run playtests in an amazing (and at the time unpublished) world. One of my big takeaways from writing for Crystal Heart was the value of editing, while I was happy with my initial submission the final release is polished in a way that isn’t really possible without the input of a second person. Sadly, as a one man operation hiring an editor for my future projects isn’t really an option but it’s definitely something I will be more aware of going forward.

The final project was The Synth Convergence, a trilogy of missions for The Sprawl RPG that launched right at the end of November. Initially a collaboration with Chris / @HyveMynd I ended up taking it on largely solo after they had to step back from it. By the end the manuscript had grown to over 10,000 words which needed formatting, edited and laid out – primarily during lunch breaks at work.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t immensely proud of the final product. It looks great and I really feel like the trilogy came together as a whole that groups will enjoy. This product required learning a lot of new skills, especially in terms of layout and graphic design so I’ve spent large parts of the last year just trying to get to grips with new techniques in Inkscape, Gimp and Scribus. It helped immensely that there was an established mission structure for The Sprawl, as I could focus on the content of the missions rather than how to structure them.

In terms of sales The Synth Convergence has already beat my modest target of 10 sales (currently sitting at 15 direct sales) and (not surprisingly) is also my highest earner to date. I handed out a number of business cards with free download links during Dragonmeet but so far only one of those has been redeemed. I could look at that as a negative, but just having the cards to hand out provided a confidence boost when it came to talking to people. Also they look just awesome.

Alongside these three projects there are a host of others that have yet to reach completion or even get off the ground.

After shelving it for far too long Project Cassandra returned to active development, with two playtests and a series of rule revisions. The last playtest highlighted a big issue that needs to be resolved (what is it with Dragonmeet throwing spanners into the works?) but I already have a plan for dealing with that. The big focus going forward is writing – I’ll probably start from scratch using the existing material as a guide rather than a draft so it will be interesting to see how much changes in the process.

I’d also hoped to dip my toes into the DMs Guild this year, but the ideas I had for that have yet to move past initial notes. Part of the reason for that was burnout – running D&D 5e blunted my interest in developing for it far more than I’ve experienced with any other system. With the Immortals campaign now complete I’m hoping that I can revitalise my interest in those ideas as I think they each have merit, especially Tales from the Campfire.

Finally there’s The Dyson Eclipse, a vague idea for a space opera game using an adaptation of the Faith Corps system that powers Demon Hunters. Right now that project is little more than a collection of scribbled thoughts. I’m going to work on it over the coming year but with no expectation that it will be complete any time soon. The first hurdle is likely to be the biggest – what do you do? I’d rather avoid producing yet another scoundrels in space game, there are enough of those out there already. Similarly I don’t want dungeon crawling in space, which I realised I was leaning towards during my first crack at outlining the game.

So what does the big list for 2020 look like right now?

Demon Hunters

  • Clean-Up Crew
  • Dr Ahoudi’s Mutant Menagerie / Say Aaargh
  • Knights of the Dawn
  • Eat In or Stake Out
  • Motion in the Ocean
  • Rocket Demons of Antiquity
  • Rules hacks

D&D

  • Tales from the Campfire
  • The Dawnbreakers
  • Untitled Eberron adventure

Other systems

  • Project Cassandra
  • The Dyson Eclipse
  • The Sprawl mission starters
  • 7I/2034 V1 incursion for Trophy Dark
  • Plus a couple of unannounced hacks/adventures where I need to contact a few people first

Dragonmeet: The Loot Report

I’m going to put out a separate con report later this week but wanted to quickly talk about my purchases from the convention first.

Goblin Quest by Grant Howitt

Did I intend to purchase this: Yes

I first came across this delightfully silly game of incompetent Goblins only recently at BurritoCon. Inspired by how much fun I’d had, and working completely from memory, I then hacked it to run a slasher inspired Halloween game that was just as much fun. Based on all that and plans to run a Christmas themed Elf Quest I knew I needed to pick this up and had purchased it less than half an hour after arriving. Skimming over the various hacks included with the game and its clear that this is one I’ll be coming back to on a regular basis.

Scum and Villainy from Evil Hat

Did I intend to purchase this: Yes

I’ve been looking to pick up a copy of this for quite a while. I love sci-fi games but own relatively few of them while the Happy Jacks mini-campaign earlier this year piqued my interest in the system, especially given I’d yet to pick up any other Forged in the Dark games. I’ve not opened it yet and don’t know when I’ll play it but suspect this game will be a great reference during development of The Dyson Eclipse.

The Sprawl by Ardens Ludere

Did I intend to purchase this: No

Given I’d released The Synth Convergence only the day before Dragonmeet you might be surprised that I didn’t already own a physical copy of this book. The simple reason behind this is that I’d never seen it in print in the UK before this weekend so I jumped at the chance when I spotted it. Great game and one that I really need to introduce more players to.

Alien RPG corebook by Free League

Did I intend to purchase this: No

Ok, confession time. I have never watched Alien. Or Aliens. Or any other entry in the wider franchise. Despite that I ended up regretting not buying this during the pre-order period. Why? Firstly, Fria Ligan have put out consistently great products since exploding onto the gaming scene. Secondly, I listened to the Idle Red Hands actual play and really enjoyed what I saw. Finally, I saw the book which is absolutely stunning. The artwork alone would have made it a worthwhile (but expensive) purchase even if the game hadn’t looked so awesome. I can’t wait to run this next year and to see how the line develops.

Crystal Heart Action & Adventure Deck by Up to Four Players

Did I intend to purchase this: Sort of

I’d ummed and ahhed about picking this up during the Crystal Heart Kickstarter but decided against it for some reason. Then I saw the final artwork in the PDF and knew I wanted it so dropped by the stall to pick it up. The material put out by Eran and Aviv has been consistently awesome and I can see myself acquiring quite the collection as they release more material for the setting.

First look: Crystal Heart setting book for Savage Worlds (print edition)

Disclaimer: I wrote one of the stretch goal adventures for the Crystal Heart Kickstarter and had access to the draft material for the main book prior to publication. I purchased the print edition as a regular backer to the Kickstarter using my own money.

While the Kickstarter for Crystal Heart by Up to Four Players has already completed delivery of the PDF of the setting book and most of the stretch goals (as I write this I’ve just received an email with yet another PDF – printable character minis!) I’ve been eagerly awaiting delivery of the physical book. I got home from work yesterday to find it waiting for me and I have to say that it is absolutely gorgeous. 216 pages, full colour, amazingness that cover everything you’d need to run a game in the world. How to create Agents of Syn, using Crystals, the five lands that comprise the known world. This is a seriously impressive and detailed book at every level.

I’m going to hold off on a review until I get a chance to run a few sessions with my current group so for now here’s just a few pictures to whet your appetite. If you missed out on the Kickstarter you can buy the PDF on drivethruRPG while physical copies should (I believe) be coming to retail soon. Eran and Aviv will also be at Dragonmeet next week (30th November 2019) and will have the book on show there (Edit: Looks like they will have it for sale at the convention).

2019 Progress: Halfway there?

As ever time marches on and all too soon the first six months of the year have passed. Given my hope of this year being the one where I move a host of projects forward I thought it would be worthwhile to do an update on my goals for 2019.

Have dones

  • Written and playtested Ghosts of Iron for the Crystal Heart RPG. I’m in the process of revising the text before I submit it. Should be released to Kickstarter backers later this year.
  • Completed the draft for Trick of the Light, my next Demon Hunters adventure starter inspired by the Slice of Life web series. Currently editing and moving it to layout so should hopefully be released soon (ideally before GenCon).
  • Drafted three missions for The Sprawl and handed them over to @HyveMynd for editing / layout. Aiming for a release later this year.

Ongoing

  • Attending conventions – I made a 1 day trip to UK Games Expo 2019 and will be attending BurritoCon 3 in Manchester later this month. I’m also aiming to attend DragonMeet later in the year, if I do I’ll be running games as part of Games on Demand.
  • Progress on Project Cassandra! I posted up the current characters and a rules summary (which is now itself out of date) and am in the process of putting together a playtest packet for BurritoCon. First public playtest since the disaster of Dragonmeet.
  • I have notes for the remaining two Slice of Life adventures and have decided that the Clean-up Crew scenario will be a Fiasco playset given how well the episode meshes with that system. These will be my next focus after Ghosts of Iron and Trick of the Light.
  • The D&D Immortals campaign continues and has passed the tipping point, with the characters ensnared by Destiny and heading towards some epic showdowns with the previous generation of Immortals.

Will I evers

  • Patreon. With the change in how Patreon were going to charge creators I decided to sign up for one with the thought of actually starting it later in the year. Right now I’m sitting on it for the simple reason that it won’t work until I manage to build some interest in what I produce and the first step in that is to actually produce some material. I haven’t released anything since last year and right now I don’t have a core focus for any Patreon project. I don’t know if there is enough interest in material focusing solely on Demon Hunters while most of my other projects have been standalone. Regardless of whether I ever do use it my first goal has to be building up a catalogue of material I can point to.
  • The Kingsport Tribune one-page Cthulhu idea looks like it is going nowhere, just didn’t come together though it did give me some practice with a newspaper style layout.
  • Rocket Demons of Antiquity is on the backburner for now. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a scenario that will require an ongoing campaign to delve into as opposed to my typical one-shot playtests. Plus I’ve got at least three other adventures inspired by previous campaigns where I already know the story-beats to write up first.
  • DMs Guild material – While I have notes for a few products I’ve yet to make any move or progress towards writing them up. Although I expect they would be far bigger sellers than anything I’ve produced to date I’m fortunate enough to be in the position where that isn’t a priority so I can focus on the material that most interests me.

Forward Planning: Playtesting

It’s hard to understate the value of playtesting a game or adventure. The human brain excels at filling in the gaps and seeing what it expects to see, so when you’ve been immersed a piece of work it’s all too easy to overlook simple errors or conflicting information. You know that the map to the dungeon can be found in the secret archives of the thieves guild but then forget to mention that the thieves guild even exists. Or maybe you alter the adventure hook and now a merchant is not only the big bad antagonist but is also found dead during the opening scene. Suddenly the players are paranoid about shape-shifting doppelgangers and you’re left with either retconning everything or trying to adjust the plot on the fly.

In a home game, GMs are expected to adapt as they go but when it comes to publishing an adventure those little (and sometimes large) errors just cause headaches. Another GM reading what you have written doesn’t know all the little details that you omitted due to space limitations or that your players always break into the wizard’s tower on the first floor, hence why there is no description of the ground floor. It’s up to interpretation, which is why published material should always be playtested and read over by an editor. Trust me on this, it’s a lesson I have learned the hard way.

With that in mind last week I ran a playtest for Ghosts of Iron, the first step in identifying any potential issues that I had overlooked or details that I had omitted. As the writer I went in with a few clear questions I wanted to answer:

  1. Does the adventure work as written? Not ‘does the version floating around in the head work’ but does the one-sheet writeup provide enough detail at the correct points for the players to know what they need to do and be able to do it.
  2. Is the adventure fun? I’m serious here, as an experienced GM it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming you will always write a daring tale of thrilling heroics but that is never the case. I’ve written and run adventures that just fell flat before so I couldn’t assume that this one would automatically be enjoyable.
  3. Are the difficulties appropriate to the task at hand? It’s all too easy to write a challenge that is impossibly difficult or, conversely, absurdly easy. This is especially true when you assume a particular party composition with the associated skill sets.
  4. Can it be broken? There is truth in the statement that two heads are better than one. It’s especially true in gaming if there is a challenge that the GM has set then at least one player will think of an unexpected way around it. This is good, and isn’t something to be avoided. The issues you want to avoid are those that completely break the scenario, that turns 4 hours of fun into a 30-minute tale of there and back again.

Thankfully, the playtest worked pretty well. I was careful to keep to the details as they were written and from my perspective, it easily passed the first two hurdles. On the third, we identified a few points where the difficulties as written assumed the PCs possessed a less frequently used skill (which they didn’t) while the combat encounters were appropriately balanced given the action-orientated nature of the mission. As for the final question, can it be broken? Almost. The players did identify a possible way to bypass the first third of the mission due to a missing detail during the mission briefing. It’s an easy fix and one that I’m glad we spotted.

Beyond those core questions, the playtest also picked up on smaller, non-critical issues, such as elements that needed to be clarified or highlighted better. So while a major rewrite isn’t going to be required (this time) I have plenty to work with before passing it on for the next critical step – external editing.

Forward Planning: Sections overviews

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks dividing my time between a couple of projects, including the research for Ghosts of Iron. While I hadn’t originally planned to pick it up just yet this included purchasing Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition and getting up to speed on the changes to the system. This was made possible thanks to an unexpected conflux of events – the book being released in a near final format and the unexpected surprise that I had made enough from sales of my Demon Hunters adventures to purchase the pdf outright. So to everybody that has made a purchase – thank you.

My second focus has been pouring over the One Sheet adventures released by Pinnacle. When writing my Adventure Starters I have found breaking the text down into sections from the start is invaluable. It provides a clear focus and when faced with a limited word count helps me to judge the respective weight to assign to each part of the adventure. So how do One Sheets break down?

First, the obvious – They’re limited to one double-sided sheet. On average that breaks down into ~1500 words of pure text, including heading the many one/two character words such as d6 that are used for character or monster attributes. In the grand scheme of things that is officially Not Much.

From there, adventures tend to break down as follows:

Introduction & background – A quarter to half page setup for the adventure that details what has already happened and why the PCs would become involved.

The plot – A brief walk-through of the plot covering half to three quarters of a page. Due to the inherent limitations of the format this is usually presented in a simplified linear fashion based on the assumed progression of the PCs. Those same limitations often prevent railroading as the job of providing depth and details is left to the GM.

The twist/set piece – More often than not this involves a climatic combat against the major antagonist followed by a brief conclusion. Typically half a page long. For Ghosts of Iron my intention is to slot this into the middle of the adventure, to provide a transition scene between locations and to showcase a mechanic that is often underused (in my opinion).

One major antagonist and an Extra – A half page, condensed entry detailing the major antagonist, their stats. If space allows for it this may also include the stats for an Extra, although many rely on references to associated setting books to save space. Unless the adventure is combat oriented this is usually a quarter to half page in length.

So now that I have an a breakdown of the format how do I proceed? My first step, unusually, is to just ignore all of the above. Instead I concentrate on fleshing out the adventure via bullet points and notes. For this I mostly rely upon a design notebook that I carry in my work bag and I just jot down any and all thoughts that come to mind, connecting and cross-connecting them as the adventure comes together. The process is as much a way to stimulate my mind as it is to produce any actual output.

From there is the first bash at writing, the stage I am currently at. Using my section breakdown as a guide I start to put the adventure together. At this point word count isn’t important. While writing my PhD thesis I learned the hard way that I tend to overthink my writing and try to edit as I go. It’s not a process that works, I go round in circles trying to perfect a single paragraph before I even know what the rest of the page will look like. Part of why I maintain this blog is to work on this, I try and keep my editing on posts here to a minimum. They may not be as polished as I’d like but it forces me to just write and get my thoughts down on paper.

So that’s where I am – Working on the first draft, mostly during my commute to and from work and then slowly pulling it all together.

Forward Planning: Practice makes perfect

Alongside the research angle, my second starting point for writing Ghosts of Iron is one of practice, by which I mean immersing myself in Savage Worlds. It’s a system that I have both run and played but that I haven’t given as much screen time as others such as Cortex. As a GM I know that I can run it but I also know that, at present, when it comes to the intricate rules details I’d be reaching for the rulebook to double check edge cases.

Fortunately, I’ve got an easy solution to this – run it. My ongoing series of Monthly OneShots is a perfect way to both dive back into the fast, furious, fun of Savage Worlds and to introduce more players to the Crystal Heart setting. There are already a number of short adventures available, released to promote the Kickstarter while the fact that I am comfortable running one-off games will allow me to playtest individual elements from Ghosts of Iron before I bring them all together into the complete adventure.

The final step will be updating everything to Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, which was only kickstartered last year and which is still in production. While a pre-release is already available the finalised rules aren’t due out until later this year. For consistency, I’ll work from the Deluxe edition and then update to the latest edition that has been properly released.

So if you’re in the Liverpool area and want to get your game on keep an eye on the Sugar & Dice RPG group for my Monthly OneShot announcements.