After a rush of activity at the end of 2019 I’ve started the year a little more sedately while I work out what I want to focus on. Right now that has involved a significant amount of jumping between ideas, making a little progress and then moving to the next one. I’ve completed a draft of The Geller Protocol, the first of my Sprawl mission packets (using a minimal one page format) and made headway with Say Aaargh, an expanded version of the very first Demon Hunters adventure I ever ran. Progress on Clean-Up Crew continues to evade me – the Fiasco format is harder to get my head around than I ever imagined but I would really like to get it completed so I can wrap up the Slice of Life material.
In typical fashion it is The Dyson Eclipse where my brain is firing on all cylinders. It probably helps here that I’m still at the ideas stage, so I can just jot down options and possibilities without needing to work them into a cohesive whole. What I’m still missing though is that central conceit.
What is the core focus of the game, what do the characters do.
Until I can get that solidified any real progress is going to be at a glacial pace as I can’t lock in mechanics without that aspect. So for now I’m researching – despite being a massive sci-fi fan my collection of sci-fi RPGs is relatively small. I’ve picked a few core systems to go over, to see how they work through the problem and what options they present for gameplay beyond the typical scoundrels in space.
The final thing I’ve been working on is learning to use Affinity Publisher after buying a new desktop computer for at home. That has been a lot of fun and I’ve been going back to basics as I get to grips with it. So far, so good and I think the fact that I have a much better appreciation of layout concepts than when I first opened up Scribus has been a massive help. I’ve started to put together a series of layout templates for Demon Hunters as once Clean-Up Crew is out I’d like to do a complete revamp of my layout. There isn’t anything explicitly wrong with my existing format but it could definitely be a lot better. The alternate badness table incorporated a number of new elements and going forward I’d like to have a template that would be useable for both PDF and print formats. Yes, that’s right. Print. DrivethruRPG offer print on demand options so I think it is worth exploring. It would be great if some day in the future I could offer material at a convention and this is one of the options that would facilitate that.
After saying that I’d started off sedately putting this together actually makes me realise that I am already making progress on projects even if it isn’t automatically apparent.
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?
Dr Ahoudi’s Mutant Menagerie / Say Aaargh
Knights of the Dawn
Eat In or Stake Out
Motion in the Ocean
Rocket Demons of Antiquity
Tales from the Campfire
Untitled Eberron adventure
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
Hollywood. People go missing all the time, it’s a big place and people don’t tend to announce when they’ve decided to give up the dream and head back home. So when a 3rd rate mystic was apparently possessed live on daytime TV the Brotherhood took notice and your team got the call. Track down the mystic and find out what’s really going on. They’re probably just another run of the mill fraud but if not we need to find the spirits and this group of talentless hacks before whatever they summoned gets loose.
Talentless Hacks is an adventure starter for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG by Dead Gentlemen Productions. Inspired by the Demon Hunters Slice of Life bonus episode Feed the Beast this adventure starter provides a framework for DMs to adapt and run an adventure for their home groups.
Within it you will find a mission overview, breakdown of important locations, intel, threats and a collection of NPCs to populate the adventure. With an open ended structure it is up to you and your group to decide how the adventure will unfold
Will the Chapter save the day? Possibly.
Will they be lauded as heroes? Unlikely.
Will the chaos and destruction that follows them be captured on camera and risk exposing the entire Brotherhood? Almost certainly.
Talentless Hacks is available now from drivethruRPG and itch.io as a Pay What You Want release. Paid purchases, feedback or reviews are greatly appreciated and keep me motivated to produce more material.
At the start of November I talked about my issues with the Badness Table in Demon Hunters and how, despite it being a central DM mechanic, I consistently underused it. In that post I included some of the new options that I have started adding to the generic table and after a little bit of work I now have that table written up as a one page release. The document isn’t final and I will likely update it in future when I start a new campaign in the new year. This release also includes a test of a new layout, rotating to a more traditional portrait orientation and incorporating a new background. It still needs some tweaks but for a first draft I think it looks good.
After attending a number of excellent events earlier this year I knew that my final convention of the year had to be something special. That really meant I had only one option, Dragonmeet this past Saturday (November 30th) in London. As I’m no longer based in the South East I went with the there and back again stupidly long day option, taking a 06:45 train down from Liverpool and then rushing off to catch a 18:07 train home again. Was the 16 hour round trip worth it? Absolutely.
The last time I was at Dragonmeet (2015 I think) it had just relocated to its current venue, the Novotel West hotel near Hammersmith. In that time it has grown substantially, with the trade hall now spread over two floors and they have finally (!) replaced the game sign-up process with online booking that limits the sign-up scrum that the convention had become infamous for.
I spent the morning in the trade hall, saying hello to people and browsing the stalls and even conducting an impromptu interview for the Rolistes podcast. After working on the Crystal Heart kickstarter I also finally got the chance to say hello in person to Eran and Aviv from Up to Four Players and I can’t wait to see how that world progresses over the next year. I handed out business cards with free download links to a few people, so hopefully that will help with getting my work seen by a wider audience. (This is something that I find excruciatingly difficult so sorry to anybody that thought I was avoiding a conversation!)
Overall I was really impressed by the range of products on offer and thanks to expanding onto the second floor it never felt too busy (unlike the chaos of Expo). Dragonmeet is built around RPGs and it was good to see that while it has grown there were still dozens of independents mixed in with established small studios and some of the larger publishers such as Modiphius, Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press.
I’ve posted a separate loot post but suffice to say I had no problem in spending more than I’d initially planned to and was happily over budget by half eleven. There were a few further products I did consider picking up – Carbon 2185, which looks really nice but from my perspective is a difficult ask given my apprehension towards 5E derivatives. There was also Broken Shield 2.0, a brand new iteration of an interesting dark future-noir setting. Unfortunately I’d bought the original game many years ago and got burned by the clunky, old-school system so was reluctant to jump straight in. I have, however, downloaded the quick-start so will give that a good look through.
Indie Games on the Hour
After playing in Games on Demand at UK Games Expo back in June I volunteered my services to run games in two slots at indie Games on the Hour (iGOTH), organised (primarily) by Josh Fox from Black Armada. I offered two games – Project Cassandra and Demon Hunters, which are probably the only systems I know well enough to comfortably run in under two hours for strangers.
During my first slot I had three players for Project Cassandra and we played the Ich bin ein Berliner scenario that is included in the minimal playtest packet (which will be receiving an update soon). The players seemed to really enjoy themselves and dived in to the game, with one player liberally spending premonitions to the point that they had run out with half an hour still remaining.
From a playtest perspective this session was extremely valuable. On the positive front it demonstrated that with a proper use of difficulties the switch back to using premonitions to re-roll dice that didn’t already add a success wasn’t game breaking. The players still failed an appropriate number of times and didn’t rely on the same small set of skills. It also reinforced my belief that the game is best with three players – that provides both a wide range of skills while ensuring that they are sufficient gaps to allow for challenges to arise naturally.
The session also picked up on two trends that I’ve spotted previously and that I’d now say form a pattern of potential issues. Those centre around powers and pacing. On the powers front they are generally underused and players tend to save them for big scenes. Not an issue but definitely something to take note of, especially during one shots. The pacing is a bigger issue – after reaching Berlin the first thing the players did was head to the site of the coming assassination attempt. Which is a perfectly logical approach but somewhat breaks the tension. I’ve got some ideas on how to go forward and will incorporate them into the next playtest.
By the time of the second slot the interest in iGOTH had seemingly exploded and all of a sudden we were swamped with players. Thankfully an additional GM was able to step up, ensuring that almost everybody got a game (I think a few late comers may have been unable to). At first count I had 11 people express an interest in Demon Hunters! While I’d have loved to accommodate them all that’s just not feasible and in the end I ran for a table of 6, which included two younger players (aged 10 and 7) and their dad plus 3 other adults who all stepped up to help make it a silly, family friendly game. To say it was chaotic would be an understatement and I found myself making numerous on the fly additions to the Missionary Opposition scenario, including a magically reanimated, vampire rabbit (inspired by a memorable scene from Dorkness Rising). I played fast and loose with the rules, knowing it was necessary to keep the kids interested and I hope that didn’t impact too much on the rest of the table. In the end the day was saved, pets were rescued and Albrecht even got to walk away with a big stick. I’m considering the possibility of simplifying the system as a way to offer it in a dedicated child friendly way without losing the flavour but that’s something for future me to think about.
It’s been a few years since I last attended Dragonmeet so it was great to see that in that time it has continued to grow but without sacrificing the welcoming feel it has always had. This isn’t a giant impersonal event like Expo – it still feels like a friendly, small convention despite being perhaps the biggest UK event focused primarily on RPGs. I don’t know the final numbers and didn’t explore the spaces dedicated to organised play or pre-booked games, I would guess in the 2-3000 over the course of the day, but it shows that the hobby is vibrant and alive. It was great to see an improved gender balance and increased visibility of queer creators but there are definitely still gains to be made, especially in drawing in non-white gamers but I also think that is (unfortunately) reflective of the UK RPG scene as a whole.
I’ve already answered the question of whether the excessively long day was worth it, which is a resounding yes. Dragonmeet remains a friendly convention that I will try and attend again next year. As I progress into this little adventure that is publishing I can see it becoming increasingly important for me as an opportunity to catch up with other indie developers. Even if that wasn’t the case the combination of gaming opportunities and chance to interact directly with traders in a relaxed space would make it worth it. In an ideal world I’d be able to make a full day of it rather than rushing off in the early evening but those sort of logistics are an issue for future me, right now I have loot to enjoy.
One of the most interesting mechanics in Demon Hunters from a GM perspective is the badness table, which allows the GM to trigger special effects by spending Demon Dice. It’s modelled after the Doom pool used by the Marvel Heroic iteration of Cortex Plus and, in my opinion, is one of the hardest parts of the game to use effectively. Pretty much every time I run the system I end up with a surplus of dice left at the end.
Why is it so hard to use? Firstly because it requires a shift in how a GM runs their game. In Demon Hunters you set up scenes like any traditional game but once the action starts any changes to that scene require spending Demon Dice. Want to introduce a complicating aspect? Demon Dice. Want to have a baddie suddenly appear? Demon Dice. No GM fiat of ‘it just happens’ like in most traditional games. Making that mental switch takes practice, hampered in my case by the fact I run the game intermittently between other sessions.
The second reason that I find the badness table hard to use effectively is because I don’t like the generic table, which I’ve posted below.
Create a new situation aspect and get a free invocation on it OR add another minion
The bad guy or one of their minions clears a condition OR one of the Demon Hunters must mark off a condition
Create a new situation aspect and get two free invocations on it OR add another bad guy to play
The bad guy and their minions clear all conditions OR the Demon Hunters must all mark off a condition
Let’s take a look at those numbers in closer detail.
1+ – This is your guaranteed result entry and is the easiest to use. It allows you to introduce a complication in the scene or a minor foe. The 8+ result is essentially a more powerful version of this and overall these two work for me. Add complications, add baddies.
4+ – Clear a condition or mark off a condition. Alongside the more powerful 12+ entries these don’t sit well with me. I struggle to find compelling narrative reasons to back up these options and generally don’t like the idea of baddies clearing conditions as it feels like I am cheating the players of their success. I would be okay with a werewolf being able to rapidly heal, but for most NPCs it doesn’t make sense. Likewise, just hitting a PC with unavoidable harm doesn’t feel fair.
For those reasons I tend to under use the badness table despite the fact that it is a central mechanic of the game. I am most comfortable using it when an adventure includes a mage as an antagonist. Why? Because I always include a custom badness table that highlights their magic (more on that some other time). For example The Amazing Velma’s table in Trick of the Light included a number of ways in which she might use illusions to confuse and waylay the Chapter.
During the recent playtest of Talentless Hacks I decided I wanted to go a step further by including some new options in the base table. I removed the 4+/12+ entries and added the following new entries:
4+ Interrupt the turn order. An NPC who has yet to act this round takes their action immediately.
6+ Zone attack (mobs only). A mob makes a single attack roll that targets everybody in the zone.
8+ Second action. A single NPC (no mobs) makes a second action at the end of the round. This option may be used multiple times in a round but increase the difficulty by 2 each time.
8+ Gain a discipline. An NPC or mob gains a new discipline at d8 (useful for when I realise I’ve underpowered them part way through an adventure!)
10+ Gain a stunt. An NPC or mob gains a new stunt for the duration of the scene (Again, this is useful for when I want to change up the opponents mid-scene)
16+ Escape! A major NPC escapes the scene and the Chapter are unable to prevent it.
Adapting the badness table is going to be an ongoing process, especially as I shift from running one-shots to a new campaign later this month. I’m aiming to introduce a direct replacement for the ‘PCs mark a condition’ that gives them a chance to defend but have yet to finalise the wording. The topic is also one that Don Early has been diving into recently as part of his Patreon, so give that a look if you want some insights from one of the creators of Demon Hunters.
It feels like it was only yesterday that I was reporting on BurritoCon 3 (was it really all the way back in July?) yet I find myself back from BurritoCon 4, held once again at FanBoy 3 in Manchester. Organised by @OldScouserRPing I had another amazing day of gaming that just highlights what small events can achieve. Games were once again split into two three-hour slots with five tables a piece (though one morning game was unfortunately cancelled due to GM illness) and a host of systems on offer (none of which were D&D!).
For the morning slot I gravitated straight to Goblin Quest, a comedy, semi-narrative game of incompetent Goblins attempting to complete tasks that are beyond their feeble capabilities. It was an utter blast and I’ll be keeping an eye out for a copy of it in the future. Somehow, despite our many deaths (each player has a small contingent of goblins at their disposal) we completed our simple task of putting on a play and even avoided being fireballed by evil Wizards at the end.
For the afternoon slot I had volunteered to run a game and keeping with the comedy theme I went with Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. I’ve been working on Talentless Hacks, the latest Slice of Life adventure starter, so this provided an excellent field test of the material.
With only 3 hours I chose to cut a number of the investigative elements, to the extent that I was worried about finishing early but we came in almost exactly on time. The game was great fun and all of the players really got into the characters and setting, culminating with the fight against REDACTED. There were definitely elements that could be improved and I don’t think the PCs were ever in any real danger (it is one of my consistent weaknesses as a GM) so I’ll be upping some of the threats during editing. Overall though the adventure works so it’ll be my priority once The Synth Convergence is released.
One of the nice touches of Fanboy 3 is their approach to supporting GMs, players pay £3 per session while the GM not only gets to run for free but receives £1 store credit per player! I’ve been consuming snippets of Cthulhu inspired material recently so my credit went towards the Mother’s Love hardback for The Cthulhu Hack, an excellent lightweight take on the genre. I don’t tend to run much in the way of prewritten material but flicking through the adventures in the book they grabbed my attention so hopefully I’ll get a chance to run some players through them soon.
While there are no immediate plans for the next BurritoCon I can say for sure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one as the event and venue have been excellent each time. My next and final convention attendance of the year will be DragonMeet at the end of November, an event I’ve not been to since moving away from the South East. If you’re going to be there give me a shout.