What’s on my shelf 2: Cortex

Collection of RPG books using the Cortex system including Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Leverage, Smallville, Firefly, Marvel Heroic and Cortex Prime

Following on from the overview post of what’s on the shelves of my new bookcase I want to focus in on a few individual groups of books. First up – Cortex RPG.

While Torg may have been the system that got me into tabletop RPGs it was Cortex that became the first I picked up independently, without being introduced to it by somebody else. The game that drew me in was the original Serenity system. As a massive fan of the show (which is unfortunately tainted by the actions of Joss Whedon) I picked it up as soon as I was aware of its existence and with the giddy excitement of being a brand new GM proceeded to run an absolute clusterfuck of a session. We had PCs turning on one another, half drunk players falling asleep (we were playing during a uni society overnight event following a club night) and a ‘quick’ combat that stretched into multiple hours.

Somehow that failed to put me off GMing and after gaining a little more experience we returned to the system to play the most cursed campaign I’ve ever run. Thankfully the curse here was scheduling rather than the game. Every session we did manage was great, they were just few and far between. The more we played the more I fell in love with the mechanics and naturally, being a collector, I picked up subsequent releases. One of those was Demon Hunters, a game which I have talked about at length on this blog.

As the system progressed from Classic to Plus I continued to pick up the books, focusing on the core rulebooks rather than supplements. Of the core rulebooks the only one I’m missing is Supernatural. I’m really excited about the new Prime edition and the opportunities it offers and have vague ideas of putting together a game using it. Right now I’m waiting to see what the rules for the Creators Workshop look like but if all goes to plan at least one game in my Dyson Eclipse setting will make use of the system. As far as the future of the line goes I’ve no plans to pick up the currently announced games, primarily as I’ve never been big on fantasy settings. I have mixed feelings about the focus on the digital platform, but what I’ve seen so far looks promising and it’ll be interesting to see if they can finally fulfil the potential of digital approaches.

I’m not sure I can fully articulate why the system resonates with me so much. That it was the first game I found on my own is certainly a part of it but I think the interlocking of traditional and narrative approaches is also a significant factor. It achieves a lot of what I enjoy about Fate but in a way that is slightly more intuitive and feels less meta. It’s also remarkably easy to teach, people latch onto the ‘when this applies grab the associated die’ and as a result I’ve run it repeatedly at numerous conventions.

Combining it all together I expect Cortex, in one form or another, is going to be one of those forever systems for me and I’m glad to see that it’s in good hands going forward.

2020 in Review: Publishing

While I may not have gamed as much as I’d have liked this year it has turned into a bumper year for releases with 9 new products hitting the market. Coming off of the successful launch of The Synth Convergence at the very end of 2019 I had a long list of ideas to work on but surprisingly some of the most enjoyable work I did this year was on projects I didn’t see coming at the start of the year.

I started the year with the final Demon Hunters: Slice of Life inspired adventure starter. Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco (also available on itch.io) took a very different approach from the prior entries in the collection, not least because it was written for use with Fiasco rather than Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. While it took longer than I’d hoped to finished of it came together and made for an extremely fun playset. This was also my first try published material prepared with Affinity Publisher and the difference in what I was able to produce compared to Scribus was striking. This was probably most notable from the production side, elements that took me a long time to prepare previously were far simpler to lay out with the new software. One of my aims for 2021 is to compile all of the Slice of Life material together with a new, updated layout based on the one that I developed for this.

I had always envisaged The Synth Convergence (also available on itch.io) as my only real release for The Sprawl but it seems that I wasn’t finished with cyberpunk dystopias. Building on material I had explored for the original trilogy I released two Mission Packets with condensed outlines for a series of missions. The first, Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. (also available on itch.io) explored the realm of Near Earth Orbit while the second, Mission Packet 2: Subversion (also available on itch.io) turned the focus towards undermining the Corporations with the inclusion of new faction rules and a custom move. Having already laid the groundwork with The Synth Convergence these two releases were far easier to construct but just as enjoyable to write. I don’t know when I’ll next return to The Sprawl but it’s definitely a game that will stay on my radar should inspiration strike again in the future.

Even that wasn’t enough to quench my interest in cyberpunk. One of the first Kickstarters that I ever backed was for Technoir, a game of hard-boiled roleplaying that sadly never got the level of recognition or support that it deserved. It’s a great take on the genre, focusing on investigations and the back and forth story beats of noir novels. Having reread it during a week off I set myself the challenge of reworking elements from my Sprawl material into a Transmission – the format the game uses for adventures. Unlike a traditional adventure rely on the group weaving together plot threads by connecting nodes from a series of themed tables. An investigation that starts with an anonymous shipping container and a local celebrity overdosing at an exclusive nightclub may end up revealing Corporate corruption fuelled by an esoteric religious order. All built organically during play.

The end result of this reimagining is The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority (also available on itch.io). While it draws from the same material the reversed focus, from structured mercenary missions to emergent investigations drives a radically different tone and style of play. Having put in an significant amount of work on the layout front I’ll definitely be returning to Technoir in the future, if only to recoup some of the time investment!

2020 was also the year where I experimented with formats, starting with To Travel far from Home and The Stars will Carry you Home, two business card microgames that came together in a burst of creativity while I was watching a rocket launch. I knew that I wanted to round them off with a third game but it wasn’t until the Bookmark Game Jam that I worked out how to approach it, which included updated versions of the first two to form a trilogy of journal writing games that include messages being passed back and forth through the vast expanse that is deep space. They’re not perfect but the constraints of the formats made for an intriguing challenge and I’ll definitely be looking to produce further microgames in the future.

My other game jam submission this year was What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? (also on drivethruRPG) as part of the What is so cool about Jam. Based on What’s so Cool about Outer Space I used this opportunity to rework the psychic spies theme of Project Cassandra into the WSCA framework. It’s a fun little game and served as a good exercise in adapting ideas to a new rules set. I’d like to expand on it at some point in the future (maybe the ‘Declassified edition’) but right now my focus is very much on its progenitor, Project Cassandra.

2020 was the year where I finally started making proper progress on the game. I released an updated Playtest Packet, containing the core rules, introductory mission and full layout test. The first draft of the current version is nearing completion and I’m gearing up for kickstarting the game as part of ZineQuest 3 in February 2021. In preparation for that I’ve been doing a lot of researching into costing everything out. I’m aiming to keep the total as low as possible while still ensuring that it breaks even. I’m not expecting to make any real money on this, that’s not why I’m doing it and realistically if I wanted to pay myself a fair rate it would never fund. Of course the Brexit shenanigans means I’m going to be tweaking the budget throughout January as new rules come into force and shipping prices are updated. My aim is to launch at the end of the window – Tuesday 23rd for a 2 week span and a goal in the £350-500 range. Expect to hear more about it throughout January and February.

2020 in review: Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

System Building: Transformations (The Pressure Cooker)

After partaking in a Demon Hunters roundtable discussion last month (or was it the month before? Time is weird right now) one of the points that I’ve been pondering is how to model transformations more deeply in the system. Part of the complexity is that transformation covers a wide range of possibilities. From an at-will shapeshifter like DS9s Odo to a traditional, only at the full moon werewolf.

Rather than try and cover all of the options in a single post (or with a single rule) I’ve focused initially on what one of the attendees termed the Pressure Cooker, a transformation type where you have to build up a meter before you can transform into a powerful but focused alternate form. The Hulk would be a clear example, with Bruce Banner having a Rage track that must fill to a certain point before he can transform into the Hulk. Once transformed his ability to do anything more than smash things is severely curtailed.

I had initially intended to present these rules with an associated, rotating character sheet but that is taking longer to put together than I had anticipated (I decided to use it as a challenge to learn how to use Affinity Designer) so instead here is the current rules draft:

When you take harm you may redirect up to 5 hits to your Rage track – tick off 1 box per hit. If the track crosses the first boundary marker you may transform with a successful roll of Forceful + Fringe (werecreature), difficulty 10. If it crosses the secondary boundary marker you transform automatically and against your will.

After transforming rotate your character sheet 180 degrees.

While transformed you may only take actions actions that align with your reduced Approach + Discipline list. All other rolls are at 2d4 or impossible. While transformed you have 3 approaches rated at d10, d8 and d8 and 2 disciplines rated at d10 and d8. You may raise 2 of these by +d6 to represent the supernatural enhancements of your alternate form.

While in your Rage form you clear 2 boxes per turn (DM discretion out of combat). You may extend your rage by passing Demon Dice to the DM – tick off 1 rage box per die, up to a maximum of 3 per turn. Allies and antagonists may extend/shorten your Rage by invoking relative aspects – for each Faith/Demon die spent fill or clear a Rage box. Example aspects which could be invoked may include Scathing insult or Tranquiliser serum.

You may attempt to return to human form only after your Rage drops below the willing transformation boundary. Roll Forceful + Fringe from your human form, with a transformation difficulty equal to the number of filled Rage boxes. If the number of filled Rage boxes ever drops to 0 you automatically transform back.

New Release – Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco

Gods. Demons. Magic. The supernatural. It’s all real and the only thing that stands between it and the end of the world is the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch. That and paperwork, because do you know how difficult it is to get a permit for the end of the world? #@&%ing difficult and more than one apocalypse has been averted because the resurrected avatar of Death failed to file the forms in triplicate before commencing their rampage.

So while the lawyers file another round of injunctions against infernal interference we need you! We need you out there on the front line, protecting the mortal realm from more mundane evils. Horny teenage werewolves, vampires with questionable personal hygiene, lactomancers. Jims.

Fight the good fight. Who knows, you might even survive the day.

Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco is a playset for the Fiasco RPG inspired by the Demon Hunters: Slice of Life episode Clean Up Crew. This playset requires a copy of the Fiasco RPG by Bully Pulpit Games. Knowledge of the Demon Hunters franchise by Dead Gentlemen Productions is recommended.

Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco is available now as a Pay What You Want download from Itch.io or DriveThruRPG (link includes the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID).

Design diary: Going backwards to go forwards

Getting into RPG publishing has involved quite a steep learning curve – from the basics of how to write a game (you just write a game) through to the intricacies of publishing that final product. Taking the dive right in approach I decided early on that I wanted to aim for a better layout than I could reasonably achieve with just a text document so I started to teach myself. Thanks to training in how to format academic posters I already had an understanding of the basics but dug deeper into the theory, guided by the The Non‑Designer’s Design Book.

Simultaneously I also dived into the software side in the form of Scribus, a free and open source desktop publishing program. While not as powerful or as intuitive (or as functional) as InDesign as a newbie doing this as a hobby it provided everything I needed and more. The difference between Channel Surfing, my first release using Scribus through to The Synth Convergence are a testament to the value of incremental improvements.

Last month though I made the switch from Scribus to Affinity Publisher, a vastly more powerful program and decided to go back to basics from the get go – everything from templates and style guides to page organisation and image assets. The difference was, once again, rather immediate even though I had yet to add anything beyond placeholder content.

This week though, after spending a number of hours just on setup and planning I made a rather hard decision. To start again. Why? Not because the template wasn’t working or because I’d abandoned the project but because of the slim possibility that I might want to submit these files for Print on Demand at some point in the future. It’s not the only thing I’ve thrown out this week – I’ve restarted a Sprawl mission draft three times because it wasn’t working. It’s only a small amount of text but it simply wasn’t working.

That willingness to throw material away, or even admit something wasn’t working has been a hard lesson to learn. A little over month into 2020 and happily going backwards. It’s not the position I’d planned to be in at this point but hopefully the extra work will pay off in the long run.

2020: Initial Projects

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.

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

New Release: Talentless Hacks Adventure Starter for Demon Hunters RPG

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.

Disclaimer: Links to driveThruRPG include the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID. If you chose to purchase anything using these links I will earn a small commission from driveThruRPG at no cost to you.

Revising the Badness Table

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.

Download the alternative badness table.