Time has flown! last I checked it was the start of July, and I had just released The Hoppy Pops. A whirlwind has rushed by and suddenly it appears to be the start of August! I was remiss with my blog updates in July, many apologies, but life seems to have gotten in the way!
So what have I been doing this last month? Well, freelance writing has kept me rather busy. I have had the pleasure of working on the upcoming Legends of Middle-Earth (probably being renamed Tales from Middle-Earth), for Cubicle 7. As well as getting through a number of pieces for the Infinity: The Role Playing Game, for Modiphius. Lastly, I managed to start a few odds and ends for Devil’s Run, for Red Scar Gaming. It’s been quite a mix: a pinch of classic epic fantasy, a dash of post-human science fiction, and a smidgen of down-and-dirty post-apocalypse.
I have also been getting my next micro-RPG ready, it’s called Owlbear Omelette, and sets you (the players), on a mad dungeon quest to secure an Owlbear Egg for omelette-making purposes. Is it just a drunk dare? Is it to strike a blow to the entrenched hierarchy? Is it just for kicks? You decide! In preparation I made a couple of illustrations for the cover, and have been mulling over which to use.
Not what anyone would call fine art, but will have to do…
Owlbear Omelette shoud be up and available within the next week or so for those of you who support my Patreon page (and with juicy extras), for everyone else, it will be available a week after that in all the usual places (namely DriveThruRPG and Itch.io).
This month my goals are to finish off the next micro-RPG, and round out some of the freelance work I have still on the docket. I need to get back to design work on Ashmerl, my full-sized fantasy RPG. I also have some fiction I need to get out of my system, for better or for worse, and I’m sure I’ll be distracted by something else along the way. Last but not least, I need to make sure I get more than one blog post out there in August, July was… well, best not said!
In The Hoppy Pops you are a character from a strange and surreal kids show, think In the Night Garden, Yo Gabba Gabba, or Teletubbies. For whatever reason, the producer made you do a happy dance, and it opened a portal to Hell! Now you and your friends have to escape the gatehouse and get back to your own dimension.
Each Hoppy Pop has a special power they can use once every game, and a special limitation, something they cannot ever do, or must always do! Maybe you’re a master at Yoga, maybe you can tell a story that will have all the demons sitting with their hands in their laps. Maybe you can’t speak in words, or maybe you speak through a puppet!
In playtest, a group of Imps was distracted by a story while the Hoppy Pops managed to make their escape to the next level. The ability to get everyone around them to dance led one Hoppy Pop to cause mayhem when a demon armed with a weed-whacker jived like a mad-thing, waving the weed-whacker around them like a baton of destruction. It was lunacy, but in a good way, and I’m happy to report the Hoppy Pops managed to make it home. Will you be so lucky?
Freedom or Toaster is a micro-RPG where you play human-like robots. The trouble is, no-one is thrilled with the idea of human-like robots, they just aren’t selling. You need to try and escape the shopping mall while being chased by the Robot Police, who are intent on turning you into toasters.
Brigands of Sherwood is a micro-RPG where you play a rogue of the green wood! Life used to be easy before Robin Hood, but now he’s here everyone expects a thief to hand out their hard gotten gains! You are trying to perform one last big robbery, and hope to get away without giving it all to the peasants of Nottingham!
The next game that will be released is called The Hoppy Pops, you play as a character from one of those surreal and weird kids shows, like the TeleTubbies, Yo Gabba Gabba, or In the Night Garden. In Episode 9 the producers made you do a ‘Happy Dance’ and it opened a gateway to Hell. Now you’re trapped in the Gatehouse of Hell, and need to get home!
The Hoppy Pops includes rules, character sheets, and the expanded edition even contains a short Hoppy Pop story, in which Jiggy Pop must summon all their Yoga skills to face off against a Demon with a tasting sample of cheese!
It used to be that a person could make a handy living robbing passers-by in Sherwood forest, but since Robin and his Merry band of fools turned their hand to it, everyone expects a good old dose of ‘giving to the poor’. It’s hard to make a living when every starving beggar has their hand out!
Brigands of Sherwood is the second in my series of
micro-RPGs. In Brigands of Sherwood the players are criminals trying to end their
adventure with as much loot as possible. The trouble is, that with the return
of Robin Hood, everyone expects stolen goods to be redistributed to the peasantry!
The characters are simple dishonest thieves trying to steal enough loot to
retire, will they be able to fill their loot tracks? Or will the presence of
Robin Hood mean they have to give it all away?
The rules are simple, and players have the chance to take a shot, by flicking a disc or die, to gain a bonus to their skill tests. This expanded edition includes some extra rules and an alternative character sheet, as well as a short adventure sketch. It’s available now, from my Patreon, Itch.io, or DriveThruRPG (and you can find these links on my downloads page!
Each month I plan on releasing one of these micro-RPGs. Beginning from next month (June, 2019), the basic versions will all be available for free from Itch or DriveThruRPG, the expanded versions will be available at a nominal cost, or through my Patreon page, which you can find here. Yes, the expanded versions don’t include anything earth-shattering, and you won’t be missing vital information if you opt to get the free download. The expanded version is just a way of saying thank you to anyone who chooses to support me through my Patreon, on DriveThru, or on Itch.
As well as writing these micro-RPGs, I am continuing to work through the writing and development of the fantasy RPG Ashmerl. One of the things I am most pleased with is how the character and setting development is shaping up. As you create your group of characters, you also create the Enclave (the village or town) that your characters are from, important landmarks, experiences, and people all shape the setting and make it uniquely tied to that group of characters. My playtests of this system have been fantastic, with campaigns worth of story hooks rising from the character creation process. In the few months I plan on putting the early draft of Ashmerl on my Patreon, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s getting closer!
I have set up a Patreon account, and intend to release a number of micro-rpgs as backer rewards. These would later be released on itch and Drivethru as pay-what-you-want (PWYW) products.
I currently have two tiers, the lower tier gets the game before everyone else, the higher tier gets an expanded version of the same game. I’ve written two of these micro games so far, and have drafts in various stages for the next four or five. BUT…
I am wondering whether I should drop the higher tier, and just have one Patreon level, at which you get the expanded version. Along with this the base game would go up on itch and Drivethru as PWYW, and the expanded version would also go there at set price to match the Patreon level (say at $2, $3, or $4).
A number of things concern me:
I don’t want to undervalue my time in creating these.
I don’t want to overvalue the games and put a price point that no-one is ever going to be interested in paying.
I am not sure whether just having one level on Patreon (at a similar price as above) is a good idea as whatever I begin with, I must continue (though of course I may add new tiers or whatever. But what I offer now I should continue to offer – changing the price or what is received is not fair for any backers – not that I have any yet, but still).
I feel like the answer is to create a single tier on Patreon, and offer the expanded version of each micro-game as the reward. These would then go on itch and Drivethru for the same price, and the cut down version as PWYW. I could add further tiers later if there was a need to do that. How to value these is a difficult problem though, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the Patreon accounts of many other people working in the table-top role playing game field, and there is a wide variance on what price the tiers are set at, and what is offered in return. $2 seems the entry point, but many are as high as $5. Whatever I end up choosing can always be reduced, I suppose, but not increased without a damn good reason and the likelihood of annoying any backers I do have at the time.
Then of course is the age old issue of impostor syndrome. Will anyone actually want to buy the games I am writing? Are they any good? On one shoulder is perched a little dragon saying that I’ll never know until I try it, and that I should, at least, give it a go. On the other is another little dragon telling me not to bother, that I’m wasting my time. One may be right and the other wrong, or they could both be right, who knows…
For now I remain here, chewing over the specifics of my Patreon account and what to do with the games I am working on…
I wrote my last post about feeling like I was facing the horns of dilemma, whether to pursue writing games or writing fiction in the immediate future, and my inability to do both.
Step in Patreon, a crowdfunding platform used by many creatives working in the games industry (and many other industries beside). Patreon announced changes to their fee structure which would mean different levels of service depending on the structure chosen if I left creating an account until after the fact; for existing members the changes are negligible. This provided the impetus, I created an account (something I had been intending to do, though later this year or early next), and everything just seemed to roll from there.
So, with a Patreon page came a publisher page on DriveThruRPG, a creator page on Itch.io, a Downloads page here, a new web address, and a few more things which will be coming down the pipe-line over the next few months.
So what is the point of all this? Well, my Patreon page will be a place where I release small games on a regular basis, and for patrons there will be the opportunity to get a little extra alongside. These games will later be released on DriveThruRPG and Itch.io. I will also post ‘work-in-progress’ pieces of my larger current project: Ashmerl, which I have written about here before. It’s likely that things will change and evolve over time, and I’m still umming over the right patron levels and the things I am likely to release through that medium, but I think I am close to being happy with how it sits.
To kick off I published my first small game, a one-page RPG called ‘Freedom or Toaster‘. Actually, it’s an expanded edition, with 6 pages. Though to be fair only one of them is rules, the rest are suggestions, alternatives, character sheets, and a cover.
You’re a robot that looks exactly like a human. It turns out that humans don’t like robots that look like humans, they prefer things that are identifiably robots. That’s not you. In an effort to make you more robotic you’ve been programmed to sound like a robot, but it wasn’t enough. Now you’re all being sent to be de-commissioned, and that means being made into toasters, which don’t look like humans at all. You don’t want to be a toaster though, you want to escape, to dream, to live!
In Freedom or toaster you are a group of robots that have been marked to be remade into toasters. Toasters don’t get to see the Grand Canyon though, or feel the breeze on their surface sensors. None of you want to be toasters. Luckily the sociopath behind the counter at the robot shop thought it would be funny to let you all go. So here you are, in a busy mall, trying to evade detection by the Robot Police and escape to freedom.
You can find links to the various places it can be downloaded on the Downloads page (bizarre, I know), but to make a long story short you can get it from any of these locations:
Freedom or Toaster is just the sort of game I plan on putting out on a monthly basis, alongside this will be draft chapters of my larger projects, which at the moment consists of the fantasy RPG Ashmerl. There are also plans underway for a number of other projects: big, small, and in-between. I’m looking forward to it!
Horns of dilemma… uncertainty… vacillation… indecision… unwillingness to commit… Is it one of these or all of these? It’s time for the rubber to hit the road, as it were, to make a choice and commit to it. I’ve been putting it off, easier to vacillate and make no choice than set goals, which have targets, which can be missed.
At the start of the year I wrote about wanting to write a novel manuscript. I still do. I also wrote about developing my role playing game, something I am still doing. But I have come to realise that I am too often using one as a distraction when the other is looking tough. Stepping from fiction to RPG and back again is fine, but I would like to actually get to the point where I have something or somethings to put out there in the world.
While maintaining my freelance work I have come to realise that of the two things above I can really only focus on one for now. I simply don’t have the time or mental acuity to get both done. So here we are: the horns of dilemma. Fiction writing or RPG development?
If I choose fiction writing I would be committing to write one or two short stories a month, as well as working on my novel. I’d be committing to build a reader base, starting an email list, probably completing some courses, and getting my work out there to magazines, and other publications. I would be looking at dropping my work on my RPG (though maintaining my freelance work) and focusing on getting a novel manuscript finished by the end of the year, hopefully three by the end of next year, and looking at options for either self publication or mainstream publication.
If I choose RPG development I am similarly locking myself into a commitment. I would be aiming to build my current big project up into a publishable piece, playtesting, blind playtesting, and looking at self-publication through Kickstarter. I would be looking at creating a range of smaller products, like zines, on a regular basis, for publication on DriveThruRPG and/or through a Patreon page.
Both are commitments, both are two to three years of focus, quite probably more like 5 or more. I can’t do both however, not at the same time. So we return to the horns of dilemma. I’m sure the easiest question to ask is: which am I more passionate about? To be honest I find it difficult to answer this question. I want to do both. But I can’t do both right now. I want to write fiction, I love it. I want to work in the role playing space, I love it too. Right now though, doing both is is more like forgetting one for a while and doing the other, and making little progress on both as a result.
I’ve been working in the gaming space for years now. I wrote the old Z-Man Games newsletter back in 2008, and wrote some 20-30 issues over the following few years. I worked on miniatures games like Halo: Fleet Battles, and Dystopian Legions, for Spartan Games. In more recent years I have been back working on Role Playing Games, writing mainly for Modiphius on the Infinity The Role Playing Game line, but also a little for Star Trek Adventures, and more recently for Red Scar on their Devil’s Run line. In the RPG world I have had/will have more than a quarter of a million words published, over more than 20 books, and while it’s not a huge amount for many freelancers out there, it is experience.
As a result of this experience I ask myself whether choosing the RPG option from my horns of dilemma scenario is the easy way out. By which I mean something I find sits more in my wheelhouse, something I am more comfortable doing. Something where I find the words flow a little more smoothly. The actual next steps to getting my drafts to anything worth publication will be anything but easy, but I hope you get my meaning.
I also worry… If I choose fiction will I be disappointed I didn’t choose role playing games? If I choose role playing games will I be disappointed I didn’t choose fiction? I shouldn’t be, it’s not like I can’t later do the second if I pick the first now. But while it’s easy to tell myself that, it’s much less easy to not feel it.
So here I sit. A week of busy vacillation, of active uncertainty, struggling with this problem. Is it I don’t want to let one go? Is it I don’t want to actively commit? I don’t know. I do feel the growing pressure, however, of needing to make a choice…
My fantasy RPG, Ashmerl, is coming along apace, I wrote previously about the ease with which a rules system can grow and develop, how one thing can lead to another, and the entirety can be left bloated. An obvious solution is to test, test, and test some more, then cut, cut, and cut some more. The main thing I am testing at the moment is the character creation system.
In Ashmerl, players create both their characters, and the place the character are from. In this way players and the GM together create the protagonists for their story, as well as their own slice of the setting. The aim of all of this is for the characters to enter play with a back story and a context, with drivers and motivators, with things and people they already know, facing dangers and threats they are familiar with. It is my vague hope that playgroups will, through this process, end up with enough material to fuel the first few adventures, or even the first leg of a prolonged campaign.
So many little pieces can lead to rules creep, so testing and testing and testing is the key to seeing how it flows. At the moment I’m still in the development phase, fleshing out and honing ideas into written rules. The testing so far has largely been done in-house, so to speak. With my own playgroup willingly (well, I hope) humouring me by putting up with repeated character generation sessions. I’ve done this a few times now, and I am broadly happy with what I have. The next stage is the trickier part, it’s where the rubber hits the road, it’s time to test the dice system…
Having run through some test scenarios myself, and burned through eight or nine different ideas for dice systems over the last four months, I think I have settled on a system that works the way I would like it to. Testing such systems in solitary is only so useful though, so the next test session we run here will be a simple trial adventure, to see how skill test resolution and conflict resolution all fit together in the heat of the moment.
I have questions… Are there too many little things? Has the rules creep gone too far? Is it lacking in options, or not have enough? Is the complexity all in the wrong places? Does the dice system actually work? Does it need to change to something else? Do the other systems, the in-game GM-Player currency system for example, add to the game or impede the flow? Does the actions/rounds/turns/time and timing system in the game work? So many more.
I need to create some enemy stat blocks, pull together a simple encounter, and let nature run it’s course. No doubt many things will have to change, they always do, but that’s what testing is all about.
Looking ahead… once this round of testing is through, and I feel like the dice system is functional (if not well balanced yet), then the time will come for another leap… Finding people to test externally, asking friends and contacts to have a look and see what they think, to poke holes and break the game. I have a few people lined up, who have been kind enough to offer, but I need to jump a few more hurdles yet. With every test session down the list of bullet points of things that need to be done seems only to grow, in time this will turn around, but for now it’s onward.
It feels like the path is getting harder and more arduous, there are more barriers and rougher terrain than I could see from my cosy little Hobbit hole, where it all began. But the road ahead is becoming clearer at least, for all the mountains yet to climb and the forests left to explore. I can envisage my destination, even if it is still shrouded in the distance, with many lands have yet to be crossed. But I have a path forward, so I must bow my head, tighten my belt, and get on with getting on.
Wouldn’t it be cool if… A neat way to handle that would be… Ohh, this rule would be interesting… Maybe when defending a character could… Maybe when working together characters could… So many good ideas! I am just drowning in them!
Options, exceptions and little rules can add depth, story, interest, and strategy to a game engine. When designing something like an RPG, which traditionally have fairly lengthy rule sets, a thought sits in the back of the mind: this is only a small exception, this is only one extra option, this little rule works seamlessly with the rest of the system. The slow addition of complexity is the rules creep…
I’ve hit the stage with the fantasy RPG I’m working on where it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, as it were, where characters are created and dice are rolled. Sure, I’ve tested along the way, but it was isolated, not a holistic picture. In recent testing however, I have come to realise I may have added too much, I may have been subjected to rules creep. A good meal is spoiled with the addition of too many spices, and I may have walked that path here…
The question sits, uncomfortable and demanding attention: are there are too many times when players need to reach for the dice? Or must apply a special trait or ability? Or need to compare some result with some other thing? I suspect the answer is yes. Experience tells me that if I ‘suspect’ I ‘may’ have done a thing, I have most definitely done the thing, and that the thing needs fixing.
It was easy to get to this position, it always is. In the writing and development process it’s ever so easy to add just one more thing, or to develop a concept and then take one step further exploring a cool idea related to it. It’s a more difficult thing to work out how much is too much, when the game starts feeling like a procedure and the story takes a back seat to the interplay of mechanisms. In my ideal game the rules are easy and the exceptions few, the story takes the front seat and the players attention is almost wholly dedicated to the development of it. When things need to be checked, or mechanical systems employed, the rules are taking center stage. This is not ideal.
And yet, by the same token, rules exist to add flavour to the story being created by both adding an element of risk (am I going to succeed), and as the vehicle through which the setting and themes of the game influence the direction the story takes (leaping from the rooftop to the ground will surprise my foe (as opposed to shatter my legs)). Exceptions and rules detail add all this flavour in, they provide the internal physics that govern the world in which the story will take place. Rules are important, but too many, or ill applied, brings the risk of derailing the flow of a game by miring the players in the procedure of playing it.
When I worked on miniatures games I often considered exceptions and little rules (short hand for rules that modify the core system), let’s call them complexities for short, to come in two broad varieties: front loaded, and back loaded. Front loaded complexities, to my mind, are the variety that often appear as ‘rule 12.2a’… Everything bundled together, and the exceptions, additions, bonuses, and negatives always applicable: a part of the core rules, all there, up front. Back loaded complexity seek a similar level of depth, but usually only apply if a character or model has a special ability (or, insert game specific parlance here), and therefore only really need to be remembered by the person in control of that character or piece. The core rules are explained, and are usually relatively simple, and the complexities are back loaded as abilities and powers that apply on a case by case basis known to the player to whom it is relevant. In short: front loaded rules are a detailed encyclopedic description of how everything functions from start to finish, and back loaded rules are a simpler core engine, with a range of exceptions tucked away as special abilities or powers.
Using this simplistic dichotomy, I prefer back loaded rules, a simple core engine, where detail and depth (if required) are to be found in exceptions applicable only to characters/players if they have access to them, and they’ll know if they do. Having too much back loaded though, makes a game just as obsessed with minutia as the most detailed of front loaded systems, and of course, the lines are blurred because that’s how lines are.
The balancing point for either approach, to my mind is: how much adds depth and interest, and at what point does the added complexity cause the game play experience to veer into procedural ‘fact checking’ or so much die rolling that the the progression of the story (all about action and outcome) takes a back seat to performing the functions of the rules?
There is no real answer to this question, as every game sets out to achieve something different, and employs a mechanical system to approximate that sought after ‘feeling’ as best the designer/s is/are capable of. Every player will have a different take as well as different preferences, and this whole issue veers into the ‘simulation’ versus ‘narrative’ discussion in RPG design.
For me, the first words I wrote down as I sat to flesh out the concept of Ashmerl were: ‘A simple rules system where story takes pride of place.’ A lot of things I have added in over the course of development and writing so far have been cool, some of them I am really proud of. I know, however, that much of this will have to go. This is a natural part of the development process for me, and I’m sure others. Design a thing, put it all in, follow the rabbit holes, see where they lead. There are cool ideas in there for sure, but the next step, which sits alongside playtesting, is the ‘great culling’. The part of the process where I must go back through and pare back the layers I have added till the system feels right – till the mechanisms of play are something that drives and adds to the story playing out, rather than chaining it to the detailed or laborious procedure of playing it.