Evolution Through Play

I’ve been working on Ganymede Outriders for a while. The rules have been through many iterations, but none so dramatic and ironically circular as the changes implemented due to playtesting.

Playtesting is a vital component of game design. Of course it’s handy to see how the math behind the mechanical design holds up, and how all the cogs you carefully fit together actually turn when people are trying to do things with your system – these things are important. Perhaps more importantly it helps give you, the designer, a gauge on the feel of the game. It’s one thing to design a system that works, it’s another to see whether the experience of the players sits close to what you intended.

Ganymede Outriders was designed to be a high action game, a game where players feel like their characters are capable of success, and capable of beating the odds. It was designed as a game where the resolution of a test was quick, and the players had systems to mitigate bad luck, and take agency in the telling of the story. Playtests revealed that it did all of that, but not brilliantly. One of the players was beset by bad luck, and I mean a run of really bad luck over multiple sessions. The systems I had created to help lift a character out of that situation just weren’t pulling their weight, and the systems I had created to add complications and consequences were compounding it.

Now, sometimes bad luck is just that. A system shouldn’t be designed around outliers necessarily, and any game system that uses randomisers can feel like it’s blocking you if you happen to be consistently unlucky. But what the playtests showed, and what was half hidden behind the averages, was that there were a number of cogs that just weren’t fitting well together. The system designed to lift a character out of a bad fix wasn’t effective enough, whereas the system designed to implement consequences on the characters was quite effective.

These outcomes were the result of system creep – the addition and slight modification of the game rules over time, to add in this, insert that cool concept, and adjust the other thing. The math stacked up – on average – but if you happened to get behind it could become a vicious cycle.

Ironically the changes required to fix these issues pushed the game closer to the original rules, and as is so often the case, good changes came from pulling things out rather than adding things in.

In Ganymede Outriders players can spend their character’s Stress (a resource) to roll extra dice – why did I think that stipulating that this choice had to be made before the dice were rolled was a good idea? Well, I thought it added a fun push your luck element. The real result was that a player might try and push their luck, and just roll badly, lose Stress, which can lead to negative consequences, and things would only get worse from there. Not a fun element after all – and one that forced players to make a choice based on limited information. Removing that stipulation – that you have to decide before you roll the dice – was a small and simple change, but one that fed the push your luck feel rather than limited it. A player can roll, get close to a success, and decide to push their luck based on known information, rather than just gamble that they’ll need the extra dice. A small change, but one that had a profound effect on the feel of the game. Players were much more willing to spend their Stress to gain those extra dice because they could see that they were only a small step away from the outcome they wanted. The cogs I had hoped would work well but felt like they were grinding were suddenly spinning together smoothly.

It’s just one small example picked from many possible examples, one example of a rule that might have been easy to overlook, but which was having a negative impact on the very system it was designed to compliment. The adjustment – a simple enough change – is easy to write off as inconsequential on paper, but in fact has a significant impact on how the system feels in play.

Playtesting is important.

Ganymede Outriders is, I think, a pretty fun game system, and a pretty fun setting. When it releases it will be a small pocket-sized book jam-packed with game. When it’s released it will come with digital files that include a rules overview of the system, and a playthrough example. The rules themselves – the Drift System – and the setting of course – will all be available under the Caradoc Games Third Party License – so if you’re a creative and want to create adventures, new settings, or whole new games using the Drift System – you absolutely can, and you don’t have to pay a tithe to do so.

The year that was…

2022 was an interesting year, for myself personally it has meant some significant change, for Caradoc Games it’s been a year of overcoming complications and trying out some new things.

Looking back over 2022 from a ‘games and writing perspective’, I have achieved a number of things this year. I finalised, printed, and fulfilled Foundlings. I ran a Kickstarter for Owlbear Omelette. I designed and wrote Prisoners of the Elf King. And I have almost fully developed the next game, slated for the second quarter of 2023: Ganymede Outriders.

It sounds like a lot, and I suppose it is, but I also felt like I did a lot more than I actually did. On reflection, the key reason I didn’t get as much ‘game related’ stuff done as I had planned or thought I might was because of how busy my own life was outside of Caradoc Games. In 2022 I worked full time as a teacher, I also worked some 20 hours a week coaching gymnastics, and then worked on Caradoc Games related stuff outside of that. I have three very active kids, and family life is important. If I got less done on games than I had intended I think I can give myself a break – this year was busy!

One other significant change that happened this year was that I stepped away from the classroom after nearly 20 years as a teacher, and took over the management of a gymnastics center. All of this happened at the same time the little country town I call home flooded. The gym was forced to move locations and the weeks from the floods to the recovery were massive. While this chaotic start to a new career was interesting, to say the least, I really am hoping for a more stable year to come. I loved coaching throughout 2022, and am looking forward to what the new year brings.

So back to game related stuff. The year started with Foundlings, and it was a rocky start. Originally I had intended to fulfill Foundlings through my own webstore, but an error I couldn’t work out in the coupon system was taking time to resolve. In the end I opted to run a pledge manager through Gamefound, which was… interesting. While it took more time than I had planned for, I am thrilled to say that Foundlings was successfully fulfilled, if a little late. This game seems to have done well post-kickstarter, and I ended up having to order a second printing not long after the first. I hope it continues to do well, I really like this little game, and I think it uses some really fun rules. If you’re after a post-apocalyptic fantasy game, with strong environmental themes and a focus on the slow degradation any post-apocalypse brings – this game might just be for you!

The second quarter was spent getting my game Freedom or Toaster finished and laid out for the Tiny Tome – a Kickstarter run by Long Tail Games. I really like this little micro-rpg of mine, and was thrilled it got a chance to be a part of such an awesome anthology of games. As a one-shot I think Freedom or Toaster works great – it has simple resolution mechanics, a fun and funny theme (human-like robots trying to escape a busy mall to live their best lives, while human robot police hunt them down). It also has one of the best rules I have added to a game (imo): every time a robot speaks they have a noise they have to include in their speech – maybe it’s ‘beep’, maybe it’s ‘woo!’ – every time I have played Freedom or Toaster this element has been a lot of fun.

Around the same time I started work on Ganymede Outriders, a game I originally hoped I would release as a perfect bound book of something like 100 A5 pages. But…

When fulfilling Foundlings I had a number of messages from backers complaining about the high cost of shipping. Believe me, I get it. As an Aussie, shipping is a nightmare. Having the cost of shipping be about the same as the game itself – for a game which is a staple bound booklet no-less… yeah. For Foundlings I actually charged less than what it cost me to put those games in the post, and at $14 for shipping per copy – no, it was not cheap. I looking at working with a shipping partner, I looked at localised printing, and while these offered some solutions, the cost in currency conversion between AUD and USD meant that any savings I could pass on were negligible or non-existent.

My plans to make bigger books with Ganymede Outriders and Heralds was only going to mean bigger shipping costs, but what if I went smaller instead? What if I could send something in a DL envelope? That would cost about $4 AUD for international shipping.

The plan for Owlbear Omelette was hatched.

Owlbear Omelette was a game I had originally released in 2019. I chose to revamp the game for this little experiment, and converted it into a 36 page staple bound A6 booklet. I reworked the rules, added some fun new options, redesigned and added a bunch of random tables for generating a dungeon or palace, and let it loose on Kickstarter. It didn’t explode, in fact, it barely scrapped over the line, but it funded. It funded and it let me trial how much cheaper and easier it could be to send stuff via DL. Owlbear Omelette wasn’t even on my radar for a re-release at the start of the year, but here we are: a successful Kickstarter fulfilled, and copies already available in retail at places like Indie Press Revolution, and soon to be at Exalted Funeral.

The experiment was a success, and this led me to work on my next game. It wasn’t that I abandoned Ganymede Outriders – that one was still percolating in the background, but I wanted to make something that was spiritually like Owlbear Omelette, something that was hopefully amusing to read and play, and that poked a bit of fun at itself and it’s genre. Prisoners of the Elf King was born.

In Prisoners of the Elf King you play as Dwarves, captured by the eponymous Elf King, and released from your cells by your burglar. Rather than climbing into barrels and getting dashed to pieces in a river, you have collectively decided to find your own way out.

Like Owlbear Omelette, this game is both the adventure and the rules system, with the rules specifically designed to engage with the themes. In Prisoners of the Elf King Dwarves can ‘Dig Deep’ to score extra successes, but if they do it to much they can release their bane. The characters all have passions – which play off the characteristics of the Dwarves in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and if they are fulfilled the player can advance their characters. The party also has a sheet with three tracks – Fly You Fools measures how close the Dwarves are to escape. Diplomatic Incident is rolled after the game, and can mean the antics of the Dwarves lead to a massive war (Battle of the Five Armies style), and Drums in the Deep is the track that gets filled up if the Dwarves dig too deep too often.

I think the system is fun, and I got a lot of pleasure out of designing a set of rules that play with the material that inspired it. Like Owlbear Omelette this is a strongly focused game – it sets out to tell a story, and has all the rules you need to play that story. I’m thinking of calling this little line of games ‘Episodes’ – because that’s very much what it feels like. They are a different design experience to something like Corsairs, Rascals, Foundlings, or Ganymede Outriders – all of which are game systems and settings.

Prisoners of the Elf King will be hitting Kickstarter in February this year, as a part of the ZineQuest and ZiMo promotions.

Of course, with the rules for Prisoners of the Elf King done and dusted, I turned back to Ganymede Outriders. This is a game and setting, includes vehicle rules, and a travel system. I am going to try and squeeze all of that into an A6 book. Will it work? We shall see…

Toward the end of last year Thunderworks Games ran a Kickstarter for their Roll Player Adventures game. This was hugely exciting for me, as a part of this Kickstarter included the Tales of Ulos graphic novel. I wrote one of the comics in this novel: Blackjacked Buccaneers, and it was one of the most enjoyable pieces of freelance writing I have ever undertaken. You can read some thoughts about it all here. I was very pleased to see Roll Player Adventures do so well, not least for the selfish reason that I get to see a comic book I wrote go to print. And who knows, maybe we’ll see more of Kaemon and Pitlin in the future…

Well, that about wraps up the year that was. 2022 was a busy year, but I am pleased with everything I got done. It wasn’t the biggest year for Caradoc Games in terms of money made, and one of the reasons for this is because I had made the decision to move away from freelance work to focus on my own games (Blackjacked Buccaneers was the exception – I mean who could say no to writing a comic!).

The Owlbear Omelette Kickstarter raised about $1600 AUD, of that about $100 was profit, but I also sold copies into distribution, and that, for me at least, has been where my games have made the most. Online sales through my website were almost non-existent, sales on itch.io came to about $40, and DriveThruRPG sales totaled about $140 (after DTRPG took their 30% cut). Royalties from Long Tail, and sales through distribution (both Indie Press Revolution and Exalted Funeral) came to a bit over $3000. None of this includes royalties for the comic book – I expect those will start next year some time. Not a huge amount to show for the work it has taken, but all building. I now have four games in print, the experiment with cheaper shipping options was a success and has created the model for Caradoc Games moving forward, and I have two games ready for 2023. With a back catalog starting to make some money, and at least two games lined up for release next year, I hope the building I have put into this year will start to grow in 2023.

I have rambled long enough, I’ll write about my plans for 2023 in another post.

Announcing Prisoners of the Elf King

So, you’ve managed to escape the dungeons of the Elf King… But what next? While your burglar helped you slip your cages, the next steps they proposed could be generously described as ‘sketchy’, at best. So, while the burglar heads off to prepare, you and your fellow dwarves are going to find your own way out!

Yes! You’ll all be damned if you let some button-less burglar drown you in barrels, there has to be a fitter way out of this foresty fastness! 

Prisoners of the Elf King is a madcap escape from the palace of the Elf King… can you and your fellow dwarves get away?

Temporary cover (art is currently being completed by Juan Ochoa)

Inside Prisoners of the Elf King you will find:

  • Rules for the doing of deeds.
  • Rules for Digging Deep, for when a dwarf needs to push for extra successes (but be wary of digging too deep)!
  • Rules for Fortune and Misfortune, Hurts, and Helping.
  • Rules for Dwarf Creation
  • A table of secret Dwarvish Passions
  • Party rules, including three tracks that can affect all the characters: Fly You Fools, Diplomatic Incident, and Drums in the Deep.
  • Fly You Fools measures how close the Dwarves are to escape.
  • Diplomatic Incident: Do your antics lead to a massive war some months after your escape, and do you survive it?
  • Drums in the Deep: Did the Dwarves Dig too Deeply and release their bane?
  • A table of magic items.
  • A table of Elvish curses.
  • A selection of NPCs to face down.
  • 8 tables for randomly generating an Elf King’s Palace, and the sorts of encounters a Dwarf might stumble across while escaping.
The party sheet and character sheet…

Prisoners of the Elf King is the next game coming from Caradoc Games. Like Owlbear Omelette, Prisoners of the Elf King is an adventure and a unique game system all wrapped up in one A6 zine. Designed for 1 Dwarf Master (DM), and between 1 and 4 other Dwarves, Prisoners of the Elf King is ideal for a one-shot, a mini-campaign of 2-4 sessions, or for convention play.

Prisoners of the Elf King will be going live on Kickstarter in February, just in time for ZineQuest and ZiMo! And if you’re curious about what either of these things are, or are keen to create your own game, then check out my Zine Resources page here.

Early Reflections – Owlbear Omelette

Owlbear Omelette, our first A6 sized pocket-book style game, funded successfully on Kickstarter, has been printed and fulfilled, and is available now from the Caradoc Games webstore. Very soon, you’ll also be able to find it at Indie Press Revolution and Exalted Funeral as well! While it didn’t reach astronomical levels of funding, it funded enough.

A while ago I wrote about Owlbear Omelette as an experiment. I like making zines, and I have loved making games like Corsairs, Rascals, and Foundlings. But the increasing cost of shipping has become a problem. My last A5 zine, Foundlings, costs as much in shipping as it does for the game. This isn’t me price gouging on shipping, it’s literally what it costs. For me to post a bubble mailer just big enough for a game like Foundlings to the US costs me nearly $14 AUD. Paying as much in shipping as for a game is something people in Australia are accustomed to, but it also means we (well I certainly am) are more picky about what games we choose to buy and when. I got some kickback from some Foundlings backers about the cost of shipping, and while I completely sympathize, I charged less than what it actually cost. Owlbear Omelette was an experiment in how I could do better by my international customers, could I make a game I was happy with, and make sure it was sized in such a way as to drastically reduce the cost of shipping it?

Moving to A6 has meant I was able to keep shipping costs to a minimum, and while this format has presented some limitations and challenges, it has also provided opportunities. Owlbear Omelette was a proof of concept – I wanted to see what I could do with an A6 format, something that I could comfortably get away with sending in a DL envelope. How much game could fit into 36 A6 pages? How much did I need to sacrifice from the sort of games I have enjoyed making (like Corsairs, Rascals, and Foundlings)? How much would shipping actually end up costing?

Shipping from Australia to the US costs me about $4 AUD, a full $10 cheaper than an A5 booklet. Yes, there are sacrifices in terms of how much detail I can cram into the space available, but I feel that Owlbear Omelette is a lot of game content in a small package, and it doesn’t cost too much to put in the post. I am happy with the results so far, and it will mean (for a little while at least), that you’ll be seeing more A6 formatted games coming from Caradoc Games.

While all my other games have been a full RPG, albeit in an A5 zine style booklet, Owlbear Omelette took a slightly different approach. It hyper-focused on a story, and everything was designed to lean into that story. It was, in essence, an adventure and a rules system bundled together – with the rules designed to make the most of the story. I wasn’t sure whether it would fund, I wasn’t sure if it would work, and I especially wasn’t sure if it would end up being cheaper for backers in terms of production and shipping. I am happy to say it succeeded on all the metrics I had hoped it would. Sure it didn’t over fund to a great extent, but it funded enough. Enough means I didn’t lose money. Enough is hopefully a good start to building an audience for this sort of game from Caradoc Games.

Owlbear Omelette is out in the world, available from the Caradoc Games store, and soon to be available from indie RPG powerhouses: Indie Press Revolution and Exalted Funeral. Hopefully those who pick it up will have a laugh, and if they play it, I hope they have a blast. Lastly I hope that Owlbear Omelette has done it’s job – proving a proof of concept, and will be the first of many little games from Caradoc Games, where the cost of shipping isn’t going to sour the deal.

What’s the next A6 game from Caradoc Games?

Prisoners of the Elf King

In Prisoners of the Elf King you play a group of dwarves who have just managed to break free of the cells you were unfairly placed in under the orders of the Elf King. While your burglar helped you slip your cages, the next steps they proposed could be generously described as ‘sketchy’, at best. So, while the burglar heads off to prepare, you and your fellow dwarves are going to find your own way out!

Yes! You’ll all be damned if you let some button-less burglar drown you in barrels, there has to be a fitter way out of this foresty fastness! 

Prisoners of the Elf King, like Owlbear Omelette, is a self contained adventure and rules system. The rules have been especially designed to play on the story and themes of the game. You are Dwarves, and naturally, when needed, you can dig deep to get the successes you might desire. But be wary of digging too deep! There are a bunch of fun rules in this game, some for the individual Dwarves to have fun with, some that impact the entire group. I am proud of this little game, and can’t wait to share more about it!

Prisoners of the Elf King is fully written and laid out, I’m waiting only on the art. With Christmas around the corner, I think any attempt to launch this game will be better held for next year. So… Prisoners of the Elf King will be coming to Kickstarter in February next year, just in time for the 2023 ZineQuest promotion.

Blackjacked Buccaneers…

Last year, around June, I wrote a comic book for Guf Studios and Thunderworks Games. It was the most enjoyable piece of freelance writing I have undertaken, and so very different from anything else I have worked on.

This year it is being published alongside the expansion for the hugely successful boardgame, Roll Player Adventures. You can check out the Kickstarter here.

The comic I wrote is the story of Kaemon and Pitlin, characters you can meet in the Roll Player Adventures game. When you meet them there is some tension in the air (I won’t get into spoilers), and I thought it would be fun to wind back the clock on these two characters, and find out how they ended up in a life on the high seas.

The comic takes place about 20 years before the events in Roll Player Adventures, and begins with Kaemon and Pitlin as vagabonds on the streets of Cutty’s Landing.

Writing a comic book was a challenge. Having 28 pages across which to spread the story, being mindful of when and where the story sits on the pages, what story beats take place across a two page spread, what to leave to the turn of a page, how to flow the action visually from left to right, all of it was such a fun way to visualise and write a story.

It was amazing to work with Juan Ochoa, the artist for the Kaemon and Pitlin comic. I’ve worked with Juan before on my games: Rascals, Owlbear Omelette, and soon on Prisoners of the Elf King, but this was a magnitude more involved. Juan did an outstanding job of bringing the story and world to life, and his art is stunning throughout.

My favourite piece of art in the comic, amazing work from Juan!

The above piece is a single cell that spreads across the top of the page. Just prior to this (on the previous page) the characters experience a pretty rough wake up call, this page starts with a storm breaking – a visual metaphor for the characters hitting a moment of stark realisation. Kaemon and Pitlin develop something on this page: resolve, and the page ends with calmer skies. Probably no-one in the world will notice or care about this transition as a visual expression of the characters’ state – but it’s little things like this throughout the story that I absolutely loved thinking about.

I realised when writing this story what a visual thinker I am. When working on it I had a large whiteboard behind me with numbered bullets in two columns – 1 through to 28, arrows to show which pages were double spreads, and next to each of the bullets a quick note about how the characters enter and leave the page – all mapped against my outline. In front of me, while writing, I had an A4 sized whiteboard – I imagined how the characters and story moved through the page and drew out the empty cells, then on the computer I wrote the script that flowed from this process. I have no idea how other people work on comics, but this method worked for me, and I absolutely loved every minute of it.

As an aside, here is the script for the cell above:

Panel 1 – full page width, ¼ page down, extreme long shot

The Dagger is being rolled in heavy swells and pelted with rain. Lighting dances around the masts. Raging storm clouds blot the sky. The ship is visible in varying levels of detail, lit by the lightning around it. Figures are still at work in the rigging, scuttling up and down the ratlines, and on deck tied together with ropes.

Blackjacked Buccaneers is one of four comics in the World of Ulos graphic novel. I had a huge amount of fun writing the script, and thoroughly enjoyed working with Juan, as well as the wonderful teams at Guf Studios and Thunderworks games.

You can find The World of Ulos graphic novel, and the Roll Player Adventures expansion, on Kickstarter here.

Owlbears and Omelettes…

Hitting Kickstarter soon is Owlbear Omelette, the souffle sized edition of an older game, now updated and with all new art from the always spectacular Juan Ochoa.

Owlbear Omelette is a game designed specifically for one-shots, or mini-campaigns. It is a palace crawl (or dungeon crawl, depending on you tastes), in which a team of erstwhile goblins seeks to find some Owlbear eggs for omelette making purposes. Why? Maybe this video can help explain it…

Inside this A6 sized zine you’ll find all the rules you need to play, from deed doing, to goblin creation. There are also a bunch of tables – from the Oh No! table – to find out what happens if you do something silly while carrying an Owlbear egg. To a magic item complication chart.

The rear of the book is dominated by random encounter charts, which can be used to generate corridors, palace and dungeon rooms, encounters, what those encounters are up to, names and more.

To give an idea of how this system works, let’s run through a sample room and encounter, using the Dungeon charts… every number in brackets represents a D6 die roll.

Our goblins make their way down a (5) large corridor. Through the door at the end they find themselves moving into a (4) barracks. Yikes! That’s an extra encounter. Inside the barracks there is (1) a challenge to be faced, and (3) some heroes…

The challenge is (6) that ‘there is something difficult to cross’. Let’s say this difficult to cross thing is a good old chasm, replete with rickety and narrow bridge. On the far side is our extra encounter: heroes, they are (2) rogues and paladins.

A paladin…
A rogue…

What are the heroes up to you ask? (6) Double yikes! They are looking for an easy source of XP to grind! Would that be our erstwhile goblins? But what is the vibe of the room? According to the Vibe table (2), things are about to get wild!

So, after a few dice rolls we have an encounter laid out: Our erstwhile goblins left a large corridor and entered a barracks. Separating our goblins from the rest of the room is a chasm, stretching across which is a rickety narrow bridge. On the far side are some rogues and paladins looking for XP to grind. As the eyes of one (called (5) ‘Zalabar’) notes the entrance of our goblins, their face lights up. Things are about to get wild!

What will our goblins do in the face of this new encounter?


Owlbear Omelette is designed to a be a quick paced and enjoyable game, perfect for those nights when you are looking for something light and fun to play, a palate cleanser, a convention game, can’t decide what to play, or can’t get the usual group all together.

The new edition updates the rules and adds in a bunch of new elements, including the random encounter charts we used to create the sample encounter above. All the art, from cover to cover, is brand new and the product of the magic hands of esteemed RPG artist Juan Ochoa, who has done a stunning job (as always).

I think Owlbear Omelette is a lot of fun. It will be hitting Kickstarter later next month, and you can check out the Kickstarter Notification page here.