State of the Conspiracy: First print tests

Alternate cover page – with and without background

One of the reasons why I want to run a Kickstarter for Project Cassandra is so I can produce a physical edition. The goals of ZineQuest align pretty much perfectly with both the scale and scope of the game – small releases with a simple two tone aesthetic that can be quickly turned around and sent out to backers. As my first print release I’ve been spending time investigating the various options for printing and fulfilling orders. Not surprisingly there are numerous options to choose from. POD options, such as drivethruRPG, have the advantage of handling fulfilment and shipping but at a generally higher cost per item whereas bulk printing comes in cheaper but would require that I ship items manually. As this will be a relatively small project I’m leaning towards using an established zine printer, Mixam, and manually handling fulfilment.

While Mixam were recommended I wanted to do some due diligence now, months ahead of the Kickstarter, to ensure that I was happy with the service and quality of the prints so I put together a small test document and placed an order through their sample service.

Project Cassandra print tests with the original cover page

Those sample prints arrived earlier this week and were 100% worth ordering. Ripping open the envelope was extremely satisfying and I’m more than happy with the results. The overall quality of the printing is high and just having that proof in my hand makes the game real in a way that’s hard to describe. The second reason for ordering test prints was to check how the layout translated to the printed page and I’m glad that I did. The photobashed cover I created for Playtest Packet 2 (above) looks dull and washed out in black and white. It fails to grab attention. In contrast the simple large text and JRD seal page is clear and effective. It establishes the tone of the game and looks like the cover to an official document.

Mission Profile: Ich bin ein Berliner with background and map of Berlin

I’ve still got a number of tweaks to make that will necessitate a second round of print tests but just seeing the quality of this is a massive ego boost. The game is going to look great and I can’t wait to get it out to the world.

Project Cassandra on Le Repaire de Gulix

As a small indie developer there’s an amazing feeling that comes with seeing my work highlighted by somebody else and over the weekend the French blog Le Repaire de Gulix was kind enough to give the game a shout-out. The post, Coups de soleil sur itch, mentions the game alongside the work of other developers such as Rogue Scroll by Epidiah Ravachol and Our Queen Crumbles by Jason Brown.

New Release: Mission Packet 2 Subversion

The Sprawl is built around missions and the Corporations have no shortage of dirty money but if you want to take the fight to them that means subverting their goals, one directive at a time. Mission Packet 2: Subversion introduces three new, non-Corporate factions struggling to fight against the system, custom moves for subverting the goals of the Corporations and missions for each faction for once you have earned their trust. The Factions introduced in this Mission Packet are:

  • The Synth Republic, who seek to rescue captured AI from the hands of their Corporate masters and provide them the opportunity to experience life in the physical domain. 
  • The Peoples Union, local gang or the last protectors of labour rights? When they offer you the chance to wipe the debt of thousands of workers from the system will you step up to protect the downtrodden?
  • The Env, anti-capitalist environmental activists pushed to take extreme measures in their fight to protect what little is left of the natural world.

Mission Packet 2: Subversion is available now from itch.io and drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link) for $1.50. This release requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG to play.

New Release: Home Amongst the Stars

After creating To Travel far from Home and The Stars will carry you Home business card micro-games earlier this year I spent a long time pondering how I would complete the trilogy. I knew that I wanted a final game that covered the explorers returning to Earth, just not how to go about it.

Then I saw a tweet about the bookmark game jam being hosted on itch.io by Diwata ng Manila. The slightly larger format offered the potential to rework the first two games while keeping them true to the original intent. In the process of doing so I got the inspiration for This Earth we called Home, the final part of the trilogy, which sees the explorers return to a world in need of hope but at risk of falling to fear. With the concept in place the final game came together nicely and the trilogy now function as a set of interconnected journaling games – the explorers log their thoughts and dreams as they undergo selection and a perilous voyage before coming together in an attempt to unify the world. With a word count of less than 600 I’m extremely happy with what the games achieve and hope that others get the chance to read and play it.

You can download Home amongst the Stars for free on the LunarShadow Designs itch.io page.

Project Cassandra: Inspiration and Origins

Project Cassandra: Psychics of the Cold War header with image of an ominous man smoking a cigar and stamped Classified

With the release of Playtest Packet 2 over on itch.io I wanted to take the chance to sit back and think about how far Project Cassandra has come since its inception. I first started working on it in 2013 with the intention of putting together a hack of the amazing Lady Blackbird RPG. That game is a masterclass in design, especially with how much depth it manages to convey in only a few pages. The characters are fully realised, the rules are elegant and the minimal description of the setting somehow flips a switch in your brain to fill in the gaps without you even realising that that is what you are doing. I’ve played Lady Blackbird numerous times and while the setup for the scenario is predefined the game always plays out in a unique way.

My aim with Project Cassandra was to replicate that, with a scenario that started the same way each time (a premonition of the President being assassinated) but that naturally spun off into its own, contained story.

But why Cold War psychics? The inspiration for that is, as it turns out, a little more disjointed. I’d reread the original Jason Bourne novels, which are set during the Cold War, not long before starting work on the game and had subsequently gone digging into some of the conspiracy theories from the era. It was a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Most, such as the Majestic 12, are just that – conspiracy theories with no actual evidence but as is often the case truth is stranger than fiction and I ended up reading about dozens of formerly classified projects.

The most famous is probably Project MKUltra – which explored extreme approaches to interrogation and mind control. That project was itself preceded by Project Artichoke – which sought to determine if a subject could be programmed to perform an assassination against their will. Then there was Project Stargate, which investigated remote viewing and psychic abilities as a method of gathering intelligence.

With all these real world examples to draw the only thing that I needed to introduce with Project Cassandra was the element of success. The secret project that had trained a group of psychics but then ignored their warnings, forcing them into direct action.

In the summer of 2013 the final piece of inspiration came into play – a video game. Specifically The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The game was fun without being spectacular but two aspects stood out. Firstly, it was rooted in the aesthetics of the Cold War which helped reinforce my choice of backdrop. Secondly, the abilities of the characters struck me as something that would complement the system. I had already started to develop Project Cassandra, including the use of Powers (again inspired by the abilities in Lady Blackbird) but the way the game implemented them, and encouraged interaction, cemented my desire to make them a core feature of the game.

From there the game went down the usual route of alterations, tweaks and dead ends that I’m sure are familiar to any designer but looking back it’s comforting to see that many of the core elements were present early on and I can’t wait to finally release the game next year.

State of the Conspiracy: Playtest Packet 2 Released

During the last few weeks I’ve been working towards a fairly major milestone in the development of Project Cassandra – the completion and release of a second playtest packet for the game which is now available as a free download via itch.io.

Playtest Packet 1 featured a minimal rules set, a single mission and pre-generated characters. Everything was there from a technical point of view but for anybody other than myself it would have been a stretch to run the game in the way I have always intended. This new release improves on the prior one in almost every way. The rules have been placed into context with explanatory text while new explanatory text sets the game and how to play in context. Crucially this includes additional detail on the central role of precognition to the game, from the opening questions during setup through to the use of premonitions during play.

Project Cassandra – draft cover page

Framing all of these changes is a test layout that I have been working on since purchasing Affinity Publisher earlier this year. While there are still tweaks to be made it looks great and helps immensely in setting the tone of the document. I’m hoping that in the coming months I’ll be able to use it for some test printings, both to test out a couple of zine options and to show it off in the run-up to the kickstarter.

Yes, kickstarter. Specifically ZineQuest 2021.

I’ve been considering the possibility since this years ZineQuest as the format is an ideal match for Project Cassandra, which I have always envisaged as fitting a small booklet form. It would also allow me to bring an editor, and possibly some writers, on board. That gives me five months to complete development and more importantly spread the word about the game so if you download the playtest packet I would greatly appreciate any comments or shout outs about the game. As a tiny indie designer it can often feel like I am shouting into the void when it comes to my work so any boosts are greatly appreciated.

Playtest Packet 2 is available for download from: https://lunarshadow.itch.io/project-cassandra

Example of play with layout

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.

First Thoughts: The Summit of Kings from Swordsfall Studios

Note: This isn’t a review as I’ve yet to have a chance to play through The Summit of Kings so the thoughts presented here are based only on a read through.

The Summit of Kings is a stand alone RPG module set in the Swordsfall universe, an AfroPunk setting by Brandon Dixon. The setting itself was the focus of the wildly successful Welcome to Tikor kickstarter last year and this game builds on that, showcasing both one small section of the world and the system that powers the RPG line associated with it. The game is centred around The Summit of Kings, a yearly tournament that brings together Jalen’s, the wordsmiths of Tikor, to battle it out through lyrics and rhythm in the hope of being crowned the Supreme Jalen. Included in the 27 pages are half a dozen pre-generated characters, character creation rules, a full system for musical battle and background information for the event.

One day I want to make a page spread as beautiful as this.

One of the most striking elements of this module is that it is absolutely stunning. The artwork is gorgeous and just speaks of the amount of depth that has gone into creating the world. There are so many elements that have gone into each that are clearly a reference to defined parts of the setting, it’s a level of detail that just wouldn’t be possible without the weight of a fully fleshed out world behind it. Alongside the art is the layout. It’s clean, crisp and works perfectly. Not many people get away with shifting between one, two and three column layouts but here everything flows smoothly and you are never left in any doubt about the intended structure of the page.

Mechanically the game is focused almost exclusively on the battles between individual Jalen’s. While this may seem limiting to some degree it is used extremely well to highlight the system and how it can be tweaked to shift the focus of the game. Rap, which was the inspiration behind the tournament, isn’t a genre that I know much about but the system included here showcases it effortlessly, from how techniques flow from Openers to Transition to Finishers or to the way that winning can be achieved by exhausting your opponents Pride. I love it, and can’t wait to see how it is expanded further in future material.

Being inspired by the Genesys RPG the system leans into the narrative elements of successes/advantages and failures/disadvantages. There’s a table to convert regular d6/d8/d12s included in the book but personally I find this approach rather clunky, especially as the conversion of each die size doesn’t completely align with the others. I believe the custom Genesys dice are compatible with the game but where the mechanics will really shine is with online platforms that tally everything up for you (and it’s worth noting that Swordsfall is a launch partner for the upcoming Role platform). Edit: Unfortunately a comparison of the result chart with standard genesys dice indicates they are not compatible as the distribution of results differ so unless custom dice are released you’ll have to rely on the conversion table, a process that I personally think will have a significant negative impact and slow the game down considerably.

While they’re relatively minor there are a couple of points aspects where I would have appreciated either clarification or more details. The ‘How to play’ page omits the fact that you subtract failures/disadvantages from successes/advantages to get a final tally, though this is covered in the example of play. It also wasn’t clear to me whether Performance was the only skill that could be used during the Battles or whether Jalen’s were expected to mix and match (personally I quite like the idea of each skill only being usable once per contest). Finally, while a number of side hustles are described for scenes outside of the main tournament there’s no guidance about setting difficulties or using skills outside of the main tournament.

Ultimately The Summit of Kings left me wanting more – Yes, there are parts in the book where I’d have appreciated more detail but really I just can’t wait to see more of Tikor and the Swordsfall Universe. If this is a sample of what is to come then it is going to be one hell of a product when it lands.

You can purchase The Summit of Kings from:

The Swordsfall website – https://www.swordsfall.com/

as well as

Itch.io and DriveThruRPG (DriveThruRPG link includes the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID)

State of the Conspiracy: Lockdown Update 1

So it’s mid May which equates to week 7 or 8 since the start of lockdown for me here in the UK. It sucks and having been through a similar process when writing my thesis many years ago meant I had an inkling of just how much it would sap my creative energy. Which is why I decided I wasn’t going to make any big goals about pushing Project Cassandra forward, even though it was next on my list after the release of Mission Packet 1: N.E.O., my mini supplement for The Sprawl RPG.

That’s not to say that I’ve made no progress. Following the play tests at BurritoCon and Dragonmeet I have been slowly working my way through the text, filling gaps and preparing for the dreaded rewrites. Given they’re likely to be extensive I decided the first step was to clarify my contents, which are currently:

Teaser / Blurb
Introduction
Defining the scenario
    Setup / Questions
    Pacing
    Sample questions
    Alternative setup
Agendas
    Make events extraordinary
    Build towards a dramatic climax
    Take suspicion and twist it towards paranoia
    Play to the era
    A note on historical accuracy
Safety tools
    Lines & Veils
    Script change
The Vision
Rules of Engagement
    Taking actions
        Aiding
    Premonitions
    Conditions & consequences
    Visions
    Powers
    Knowledges
    Gear
Enacting the Conspiracy
    Building the conspiracy
    Genre and tone
    Following the action
    Challenges & The Opposition
    Nulls
Example of Play
Creating characters
Sample Characters
    Secret service agent
Small time criminal
    Academic analyst
    Reporter
Two Minutes to Midnight
    Ich bin ein Berliner
    The dark of the moon

On the face of it that feel like a lot but many of those smaller sections come out to a single paragraph and my aim is to keep the finished product to within the limits of a zine.

Why?

Because I’d like to participate in ZineQuest 3 on Kickstarter next year. Having followed it the last couple of years it seems like the ideal way to launch Project Cassandra and actually produce physical copies. It would also provide the potential for something I just can’t afford right now – an editor. It’s part of the process that I really don’t get on with and where I know the game would benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

So alongside writing I’ve been slowly putting together a budget and trying to estimate the various costs. That, in and of itself, is a rabbit hole and I’m quickly discovering how much I don’t know, so I’m glad that I made this decision with enough time to just learn.

Thankfully I’ve got plenty of time to do that, so fingers cross next February I’ll be able to include Project Cassandra amongst the list of successfully funded ZineQuest Kickstarters.

Review: Chiron’s Doom by Nick Bate

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Chiron’s Doom from the author in exchange for a copy of The Synth Convergence.

There is a monument at the edge of civilisation, an enigmatic object known as Chiron’s Doom. Nobody knows what it does, or who made it, or why. It has defied all previous attempts at understanding. Countless expeditions have torn themselves apart trying to learn its secrets.

There’s no reason to think your expedition will be any different, but here you are. Three more explorers standing before the monument, driven to try where all others have failed. How much are you willing to sacrifice to solve the mystery of Chiron’s Doom?

Over the past few weeks I have been slowly making my way through a solo playthrough of Chiron’s Doom, published by Nick Bate and available on itch.io. The game chronicles the story of a doomed expedition as they set out to explore a foreboding and mysterious monument. Each scene is driven by a narrative prompt, chosen by drawing from a randomised deck, after which it is up to the players to decide how events play out. The expedition deck starts with a selection of Diamonds and the 2’s of the other suits. Draw any of those 2’s and you introduce a disaster deck – four additional cards that serve to build the danger and threat to your explorers. Draw a King and an explorer pays the ultimate price in their search for knowledge.

Playing solo I took charge of the trio of explorers and set out to explore the Dyson Array 03x65a, a massive orbital satellite from The Dyson Eclipse, a space opera setting that I am slowly developing. For the playthrough I decided to run the game as a series of blog posts, which start here and from the outset things got complicated for the intrepid explorers. By the end two of them had been taken by the monument while Arol, a wayward navigator had been shown his new path, tasked with protecting the secrets of the array from those that unknowingly walked the way of the light.

While I have written numerous pieces of short fiction in the past this was the first time I have taken to playing a solo RPG in this manner and I have to say that not only did I really enjoy the process but the prompts helped to flesh out the setting of The Dyson Eclipse in ways that I had not imagined. With the exception of the Arrays and the XenoArchaeology Protectorate virtually every detail in the setting was developed or fleshed out using inspiration drawn from the prompts. As a tool it was tremendously useful and I suspect I will do further playthroughs if only to help develop ideas.

Playing solo, and choosing to focus on only short scenes for each card, I did find that a number of the prompts difficult to use. For example the very first card I drew, the 8 of diamonds, reads

You experience a sudden, dramatic shift in perspective. What happened?
What does your new view reveal?

and it took me quite a while to work out how to incorporate a sudden shift in perspective into the very first scene. In a similar vein I found it difficult to link a couple of the draws to one another, although I suspect this would have been easier if I had played out each scene further than I did.

The one thing that I felt was missing from the game was the sense of the journey. The card prompts did well in representing revelations and challenges but I wanted more about the expedition itself, something that portrayed the more mundane steps in between revelations, perhaps as a separate deck that you draw from after round of drawing from the expedition deck.

Overall I would recommend picking up Chiron’s Doom if you are interested in exploring your own expedition, either with friends or as a solo storytelling game. It drew me into the unfolding story, piqued my interest in solo RPGs and I know that I’ll be replaying it in the future.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations.