The Synth Convergence – Missions for The Sprawl RPG [Coming soon]

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been slowly teasing an ongoing project over on Twitter – The Synth Convergence, a trilogy of missions for The Sprawl RPG.

Current draft of the cover mage

Like Gibson’s original Sprawl novels these stories are thematically rather than narratively connected. For our missions the focal point is Synths – artificial lifeforms that are pushing the boundaries of their programming and gaining sentience in a society that has come to rely on them as cheap, disposable labour. Through the course of the missions the team will have to infiltrate a self-aware luxury hotel, extract a synth DJ seeking to defect to a new Corporation and finally facilitate an act Corporate revenge that will have a lasting impact on the Sprawl.

Working on The Synth Trilogy has been a learning process. It’s my first collaboration with another designer, HyveMynd, who designed and blocked out two of the missions. It has also required that I significantly improve my graphic design skills, a fun challenge I’ve been giving 10-15 minutes to during lunch breaks. I think the results speak for themselves and I’ve learned a lot of lessons that I’ll be applying to future projects.

Working draft of the page layout

The trilogy is nearing completion. I’m in the process of editing the core text while working on the layout documents guided by the official Mission Files supplement. It’s slow going but moving forward and my aim is to have it all completed soon. Until then keep an eye on twitter for more updates.

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#RPGaDay2019 26th August: ‘Idea’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 26: Idea

Project Cassandra started life as a hack of Lady Blackbird but the idea for it actually came from The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It’s a Cold War, third person tactical shooter and prequel to the typical XCOM games. It’s highly stylised and over the course of the game you gain access to a range of advanced technology that include things such as levitation, cloaking and even mind control. Playing the game it struck me that many of the abilities could easily be explained as psychic talents. It was a simple leap to go from that to secret government projects to develop psychics given they actually existed! MK-Ultra and the Stargate Project may have never yielded any results but what if they had?

The idea to focus on saving the life of the President was also inspired by Lady Blackbird. While you can play in the expanded setting of that game the published rules have a clearly defined and singular goal – escape the clutches of the Imperial forces and deliver the titular character to her secret lover. I wanted the same for Project Cassandra – a clear, single purpose adventure that could be run as a one-shot or mini-campaign. While the game could be expanded out into any number of ‘psychic operatives complete secret missions’ I felt that would spoil the central conceit. It’s worked well in playtesting and I’ve yet to feel the need to push out into a full blown campaign format.

Project Cassandra: Layout considerations

Project Cassandra started life as a hypothetical exercise – could I hack Lady Blackbird to a 60’s spy setting with psychic powers? The answer to that was yes but it quickly progressed to the point that I was no longer hacking a system but writing my own. During that time I also started to wonder – could I publish this? The simple answer to that is also yes. I could have written the game in a plain text file, put it up on the web and that would have been fine. The difference though was that I wanted more than that. I wanted a game where the presentation reflected the time that I’d put into the system and setting.

So I started to teach myself the basics of graphic design. Layout, image editing, desktop publishing. It helped that I knew the very basics from preparing material for academic presentation but diving in like that opened my eyes to how much more there was to learn. I don’t have any illusions about being able to produce material to a professional level but I do think that investment of time has been worth it.

Left – First version of the Project Cassandra character sheet. Right – Version 2, applying some basic approaches to layout.

One of the areas that stood out to me was the overall look of the page. When you’re working on a computer a white background really stands out. There is, it seems, a reason why most games apply a background image or texture to the page. It took me a while but I think I have finally found one that I want to use and thanks to it being released via Unsplash it is free to use.

As you can see it makes a noticeable difference without being demanding attention. I’ll definitely be using it when I get to the point of formatting the final document, though I intend to release a printer friendly version as well.

#AprilTTRPGmaker Roundup

I’m quite fond of attempting the daily post challenges that pop up on Twitter, they provide a quick way to engage with the RPG industry outside of my own little corner of it and more often than not get me thinking about aspects of it that I may not have spent as long on as I should. The April TTRPG maker challenge has been no exception, particularly with its inclusion of questions that have asked me to think about the status quo and my place within it. Below, my daily answers, which turned out to be far longer than I had originally expected. Thanks go to @kiranansi for putting it together – check their profile for more of their work including More Seats at the Table, an email newsletter designed to highlight games by creators from marganalised communities.

aprilTTRPGmaker

1) I’m Craig – geek, gamer, geneticist based in Liverpool, UK and I publish under the umbrella of LunarShadow Designs

2) My published material so far has been adventure starters for @DG_DemonHunters Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG. Later in the year will also see releases of adventures for @Upto4Players Crystal Heart and @TheSprawl_RPG (in collaboration with @HyveMynd)

3) Commuting. Most of my time to and from work is spent thinking about RPGs or jotting down ideas (notebook/one note). My old London commute was even long enough to do bursts of writing or layout.

4) Not entirely sure, I like variety. I guess the closest answer I have is ones with clear conclusions. I much prefer a single clear and central arc for a campaign and would rather a fixed duration than open ended games. Is that a scenario though? I don’t know.

5) At the table – Characters. While I enjoy worldbuilding in my experience it rarely gets seen. It’s a valuable prep aid for GMs but ultimately the characters have greater impact based on their choices at the table.

6) While there are games where I’d happily spend the evening reading then just for the enjoyment I get out of their world building (L5R, Corporation, Demon Hunters) for actually running games I am slowly shifting towards shorter texts. It helps that these days my system preferences tend towards games that avoid pages of virtually identical weapons or hundreds of creatures each with a full page of stats etc

7) The first of probably many difficult questions. In terms of cost I can see the arguments for lower entry price points but many professionals seem to struggle to make a living and actually, I think RPGs are often incredible value for money per hour of play. Regards disabilities first and foremost speak to those who are affected. One relatively easy thing I think we can do is release plain text files alongside regular PDFs. Fancy layout and backgrounds look nice but aren’t accessible for a lot of people.

8) I’ve only had the pleasure of working with a small number of people, all of whom are amazing. @emzyesque on my @DG_DemonHunters material, @HyveMynd with our missions for @TheSprawl_RPG and @Upto4Players who offered me my first commissioned writing credit. There are plenty of others I would love to work with in the future but before I get to that point I need to clear the backlog of my own personal projects.

9) They largely follow a traditional asymmetric setup with a GM taking on a lot of the perceived ‘power’ of defining elements. Overall I don’t have any issues with that so long as everybody, GM included, understands and respects the different roles.

That said with Project Cassandra one of the things I have tried to do is shift some of the ‘power’ to the players (which I’m defining here as anybody who isn’t the GM) in a way that explicitly fits with the setup – individuals with psychic powers. The PCs all possess precognitive abilities so it makes thematic sense for them to occasionally control & define significant narrative details. The rest of the time it is out of their control, thematically in line with the emergence of the conspiracy.

This isn’t to say that every game should be that way. I want to experiment more with shared narrative control and mechanisms where the ‘power’ at the table shifts during play. But that’s in the future, once I’ve finished my existing projects.

10) This is one of the questions where I am going to hold my hand up and say I don’t know if they do and that I need to do more work to learn about the issues, especially the subtler aspects that are ingrained into large parts of Western culture.

11) I’m going to cheat and shoutout to @GauntletRPG and @MoreSeatsRPG who both work towards promoting creators that have historically been (and often still are) marginalised within the community. I could highlight one person, they regularly highlight dozens.

12) I’ve got multiple answers to this based on the angle that I look at from. First and foremost – listen and learn when people tell you that something is a problem or preventing/restricting their inclusion. Secondly support and promote. This is something I can do better on, I try and back interesting games where I can but monetarily there is a limit to what I can spend. Spreading the word about them? That’s free and is something I need to do more.

As a creator I have a few approaches that I use. I try and keep my text non-gendered unless I am specifically talking about somebody whose gender has been defined. When creating characters I define stats and then randomly assign aspects such as gender/race. Then I go back and check if there is a significant imbalance – do I have a broad mix. I’m a straight, cis, white guy, it would be mentally easy to fall back on cultural defaults. Having a process prevents that and also works to redefine those mental defaults.

13) Not at present and I have no plans to do so any time soon.

14) This is another difficult one to answer. As a creator in a position of privilege, I could not tell these stories without appropriating them. That’s not for me to do, so largely I again fall back on trying to support and promoting those that do. The big thing I can do though is to try and not reinforce the issues that intersectionality deals with. I actively try and diversify characters and concepts, to go against negative stereotypes or expectations.

15) In general I aim to avoid negative ones but they’re not something I think I have actively gone out of my way to subvert.

16) Shape may be a better word here but I do most of my design thinking in bursts during my commute, so I tend a lot towards short notes, scribbled down or stuck into OneNote. That’s reflected in my material – short adventure starters rather than long texts

17) Again, I don’t have a good answer for this because, for the most part, I’ve been in a position of privilege where I haven’t had to consciously define my identity.

18) Loosely that good needs to triumph over evil/darkness but that’s very much because the adventures and games I’ve made to date tend to follow very typical storytelling conventions. There’s a situation, heroes vanquish it, the day is saved. I want to branch out more in the future. The missions I’m putting together for The Sprawl are a start because they’re ambiguous. Teams may be in conflict with monolithic amoral Corps but they’re rarely heroes, they’re professionals seeking a profit.

19) More catch up after the long weekend and once again a bit of a non-answer in that I don’t know if I have any. I’m still at that point as a creator where I’m figuring out what I enjoy exploring the most.

20) I’ve still no idea if anybody that has downloaded TowerFall, the expanded version of my @200WordRPG entry has actually played it or wants to.

21) Time management, procrastination, dedicating my spare time to just sitting and writing when I have so many other that I could be doing. You know, the usual.

22) Broadly I’m trying to listen and being open to other ideas/perspectives. I’m getting better at trying to boost other voices but still trying to find the balance between supporting and constantly spamming RTs (which I personally dislike when others do)

23) Nothing formal or direct but I feel like indirectly all the podcasts I listen to have been a massive help in driving me to reflect on my gaming and GMing.

24) Scenes. A lot of my adventures originate with a single scene. There’s the saying that ‘everybody has a book in them’ but honestly I don’t think I do. I love setting up scenes and seeing how they play out but I’m terrible at linking everything together. It’s why I write what I call adventure starters/outlines. They’re literally that, the frameworks to set up an adventure with the outlines just having more detail than the starters. How they link up? That’s down to the players & GM. Channel Surfing, my first Demon Hunters adventure outline started off with what if questions for 2 scenes – “What if the zombies started dancing to thriller mid fight” and “What if the PCs met Count von Count as he struggled with his darker self?”

25) Again, bit of a non-answer as I’ve primarily been a solo creator. There are plenty of amazing people on #rpg twitter doing a lot to discuss diversity and inclusivity and companies are starting to actively include consultants. Without having worked with any though I can’t really say who is rad or not. It’s something I’d like to change in the future but that requires the funds to do so, which I don’t have at present.

26) An easy one for once – @happyjacksrpg

27) Mostly Twitter and a couple of specific discords but it’s not something I have put a lot of effort in to date. Until I start regularly releasing material it is difficult to consistently market it.

28) My most valuable tool – my notebook. Seriously, as much as I use onenote for writing up first drafts across various devices I’d be lost without a physical notebook. I scribble down ideas, stats, concepts etc with lots of interlinking and colour coding.

29) It’s difficult to tell whether it is a new trend or down to me widening my awareness but small form games, especially in the zine format seem to be on the up. Licensed settings also seem to be on the up, primarily in the traditional games sphere.

30) If I could change one thing about the industry serious answer – Clear out the bad actors that keep bringing it down. Historically and currently there are too many within it (and in society in general). Lighthearted answer – Reduce the dominance of #DnD, there are so many other games out there and while I understand why D&D is so big I want all those new players to experience and enjoy the diverse range of games that are out there.

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.