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.

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

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.

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.

Layout and Design: Character Template for Demon Hunters

template-v1One of the things I’ve been slowly working on recently has been a single page character sheet for Demon Hunters inspired by the work of Hyvemynd with their Fate Accelerated Fantasy characters. I’ve been doing a little here and there, interspaced with having to learn more about how scribus works, mostly through trial and error. I’m never going to be a layout professional but I hope that once I’ve created a template then I’ll be able to start releasing more material on a semi-regular basis. Yes, in addition to the adventure starters I have underway. And the larger adventures. And Project Cassandra, which no, I’ve not forgotten about.

The first draft of the template is pretty much done, using only filler aspects and text for now. I’m happy with it but know there are issues. Firstly the space on the right needs to be used better, right now too much of it is comprised of text frames. Second I’ve yet to add boxes for conditions. Third, general spacing especially for stunts.

Overall though it works. This draft is designed for full characters but it should be easier to remove elements for minions and mobs than to add them back in.

RPGaDay 23rd August

23rd) Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?

My immediate thought is Technoir, it really excels at having a minimalist future vibe that is clear, concise and easy to read. Those last aspects are particularly important due to nature of the information RPG books have to convey but where Technoir excels is that it achieves this while maintaining an appearance that suits the genre. Many books will lean heavily on one aspect over the other and at the moment there does appear to be a push towards more graphically complex books that lose clarity and readability. I’m of the opinion that this is partially down to the multi-facetted role that game books have.

tn-pageAt the simplest level they have to convey the rules of the game, in a manner that is logical and clear. Fate Core is a prime example of a game that achieves this, with a heavy lean towards the technical. It clearly lays out the mechanics of the rules in an unambiguous but also rather flavourless manner. The book is also well indexed and easy to flick through when double checking individual rules / aspects/

Which leads me on to what I consider the second level of game book design, enjoyability. Regardless of whether or not it impacts on playing a game I’m of the opinion that a game book should be enjoyable to read. Fate Core is an example here of where the writing puts me off, the first time I read the game I found it a slog, to the point that it put me off the system. The interesting contrast? I’d previously read the original Dresden Files RPG and really liked it, the style of that book helped me learn Fate because I was enjoying reading it. That game sacrifices a lot at the base level of clarity due to being heavy on the visual aspects of layout so I think somewhere inbetween is best. Amongst the Fate material I’ve read Atomic Robo probably achieves the best balance of clarity and enjoyability.

The final layer for me is inspiration. How well does the game get me to want to run it. A lot of this comes down to the writing and its ability to convey setting information (generally I’m not a massive fan of setting neutral systems) but the visual presentation also plays a part. I know there may be the argument of ‘well I can already use my imagination’ but to me that doesn’t really work. Just because I can imagine it doesn’t mean I will do so in the way that the designer intended. Having those visual elements is, therefore, important to me though once again it is possible to overdo them. It’s all about the balance.

Project Cassandra: Reorganisation and example of play

​November is fast approaching and along with it my target deadline of finishing Project Cassandra by the time if the US presidential elections. That’s not likely to happen now, mostly as I want to reorder a couple of sections and expand on some others. On the plus side I think I now have all the artwork that I want to use so the new aim is for the start of December, just in time for Dragonmeet in London.

One of the sections that I’ve decided to add is a small example of play, the first draft of which is included below. I’ve tried to highlight the basics without going too long or too detailed though it still needs a bit of work.

The following gives an example of play. Dahlia Sarsin (played by Kate) and Keith Tanaka (played by Richard) are just leaving a small diner off of the highway, having convinced the Russian defector Sergi that they mean him no harm. Sam, the GM frames the scene.

Sam: You know trouble is brewing the moment you step out of the diner, there’s a man in a gray suit waiting for you by your car. He motions to you, his intent clear: Step this way. What do you do?

Richard: I’m unarmed so I nod and slowly start walking forwards, trying to get a parked car between us. 

[Tanaka, whispering] “I hope you’ve got a plan Sarsin.”

Kate: This is too simple, something’s wrong. I take a proper look around the lot to get a feel for the situation.

Sam: Think that’ll need a roll, with a difficulty of 4.

Kate: Ok, I’m using my Secret Service skill group and have surveillance, security and threat assessment which gives me a skill level of 3. [Rolls] Damn, only 2 successes. I’ll spend a  premonition to reroll it. [Rolls] Not much better, 3 successes and I think I need to save my premonitions for now. Oh, I’ll tag Angry and raise it to 4, I should have seen an ambush like this coming.

Sam: Ok. You spot her at the last moment, lying on the roof of a truck with a rifle. Her first shot whips past your shoulder, next to you Sergi freezes in panic. Tanaka – you’re almost at the car when you hear the gunshot, do you keep walking forward?

Richard: No, I’m going to dive into cover then I want to spend premonitions to make Sergi intangible before he gets himself killed. Sarsin should be able to look after herself for now.

Sam: The car just in front of you will provide cover but you’re having to react pretty quickly to all this… lets make it 3 premonitions to activate your power in time.

Richard: Ok, so as the would be assassin makes her next shot Sergi turns slightly translucent and the bullets whiz through him, shattering the glass of the door to the diner. Screams erupt from inside.

Sam: I like it. In the commotion the two men by your car duck into cover, drawing pistols as they do so. What do you want to do next?

Kate, looking at her knowledges: This is a truck stop right? I know all about weapons, including that the sort of person who drives that 18 wheeler in the corner is going to have a shotgun in the cab. I make a run for it, cover be damned.