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challenge, but an enjoyable one, helped along by the thrill of getting to run playtests in an amazing (and at the time unpublished) world.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

Con report: Dragonmeet 2019

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 Convention

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.

Closing thoughts

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.

#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.

#RPGaDay2019 4th August: ‘Share’

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 4: Share

During the initial development of Project Cassandra I was posting material fairly regularly but then took it all down after the messy Dragonmeet playtest. I’m only now rectifying that error and starting to share it again. I should have left it all up but the more I put off working the problem the less I wanted it out there. So in the spirit developing in the open here are the current character sheets, two of which are brand new and were written for the recent BurritoCon in Manchester. Included with that is a small GM pack, covering a basic rules cheat-sheet, summary of each characters skills and the all important opening questions for ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, the scenario I created specifically for the convention.

So here it is, the first playtest packet for the latest iteration of the game:

Con Report: BurritoCon 3

This weekend I had the pleasure of not only attending a new convention (to me) but getting to run the first public playtest of Project: Cassandra since reworking the system.

Held at Fanboy 3 in Manchester’s city centre the con is a small event, just over 20 attendees with 4 morning games and a further 4 in the afternoon. For the morning slot my first choice of A Code of Steam and Steel (run by creator Simon Burley, @squadronuk on twitter) sadly had too much interest so I moved to the my alternative choice of Marvel FASERIP game (run by (@ConvergenceUK1). It is a legendary system but not one I’d played before. I won’t spoil the scenario but our group of Captain America, Captain Britain, Daredevil, Spiderman and Union Jack succeeded in saving the day.

The FASERIP system is interesting but definitely a product of its time with the need to cross reference the dice roll against a chart. It works well though and flowed pretty effortlessly, thanks in part to the fact that the GM clearly knew it inside and out, I am fairly certain he could run it entirely in his head if he wanted. We unfortunately ran quite considerably past the end of the 3 hour slot, in part due to a series of bad rolls during the opening combat leading to our superheroes failing struggling to fight off mere rats. A little frustrating given I then had to rush to eat lunch before the next slot.

I’ve now played three different Marvel systems and while I’ve generally enjoyed them am coming to the conclusion that comic book style superhero games aren’t for me. They tend to jump from one action scene to another too much for my liking. It’s entirely consistent with the genre so the issue is definitely with me as opposed to the games but I find it interesting just how long it has taken for me to reach this point of understanding.

For the afternoon shot I was fortunate to be able to playtest the new and improved Project: Cassandra. I had four players who took on the roles of Tanaka, Whitford, Sarsin and Brown as they attempted to save JFK from assassination. I am really happy to say that the game not only went well but provided me with plenty of data for where to focus fine tuning. The characters worked, with their diverse skill sets forcing them to come together as a team and the changes to the skill system meant that they actually failed actions at what felt like the right frequency. They also managed to bypass the entire opening challenge (being chased through the countryside by East German patrols) after an impressive use of a Knowledge provided them with a glider for a stealth insertion. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Knowledges exist for and it was encouraging to see it work in play.

New and improved Project: Cassandra character sheets

In terms of fine tuning and changes there are certainly still tweaks that need to be made. Right now my thoughts are:

  • A set of four shared central skills, for example everybody should have observation under the mental skill set.
  • Clearer guidelines for harm, both taking and causing it. The combat we had was quick, as intended, but was over a little too quickly to build tension.
  • Ensure that the opening questions include at least one location the PCs need to reach before the President to give them a signpost for where to go.
  • One of the players actually suggested making premonitions work the way they used to (only reroll dice without successes). I do prefer this option but need to do a deep dive into the probabilities in order to make it work.
  • Guidelines for tailoring the scenarios to one-shots vs mini-campaigns.

That obviously looks like a lot of negatives but doesn’t really touch on all the things that worked and how happy I was with being able to play through a full scenario in just three hours. With a few other projects moving to completion recently Project: Cassandra is back in focus and I’m looking forward to start pulling it together again. First stop, a basic playtest packet that I can release and use in the future.

As a small and relatively local event I can say that I really enjoyed BurritoCon, everybody I spoke to was friendly, it was amazingly well organised by Neil of Old Scouser Roleplaying (@oldscouserRPing) and the games on offer were diverse with no overlapping systems. Of the eight systems played over the course of the day three were being run by their creators, a rather impressive ratio. Fanboy 3 is also a great venue, with plenty of space and one of the largest board game collections I’ve seen for sale outside of the Games Expo. Perhaps the only downside of the event was most people needing to disperse home relatively quickly afterwards, but that’s not too surprising when people have travelled on the day to be there.

There’s talk of a repeat in October and I can confidently say I’ll try and attend it given how much I enjoyed this visit.

2019 Progress: Halfway there?

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

Have dones

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

Ongoing

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

Will I evers

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