PDF Game Pricing

April 21, 2014

10 years ago, rpg PDF pricing was kind of a big issue.  A lot of folks wouldn’t pay more than $5-10 for anything, and there was many who argued because they weren’t getting a physical object that had printing costs, the price should be super low.

But now I’m thinking about the way in which a lot of folks use PDFs in play: one person buys it, and shares it with their group.  To be sure, publishers would prefer every member of a group to buy the PDF, but honestly, this is only a little different in function than “have a book, share it” (in the short term… I’ll talk about long term further on).

There’s some advantages PDFs have in this way – everyone can look at the rules, everyone can poke at making characters, long before the actual game session.  This lets you just get into play faster when it comes time to play.

I remember seeing a couple of people surprised that folks were willing to pay $20-30 for some PDFs.  Some of this, of course, is the fact we’re looking at E-book pricing where $10-20 is not unheard of as a norm for books that have no artwork, etc, but the other part is that price is basically divided out amongst the group.

“Yeah, I paid $20 but now we ALL have the rules and can use them”.

And I’m wondering how much it just makes sense for publishers to simply price along these lines at this point – assume it’s going to be a group price, and charge a little more (obviously, not 4-5 times the book price) and go with it.

Now, the long term issue is that the play group will probably split up or overlap into other groups, and you have folks who are taking those PDFs and sharing them again.  At that point you’re now back to “hope someone will support me and buy a PDF or a hardcopy” amongst the group.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to any of that, other than, keeping up a presence, making good games and relying on your fanbase to buy in.


Double Cross without Illusionism

April 10, 2014

So, now I’m looking through the DX book more deeply at the adventures set up.  Over the years, there’s been a few different scales of illusionist adventures, usually along one of these lines:

Checkpoint Illusionism (All Roads Lead to Rome)

Where the adventure consists of a few checkpoints which are flexible in how you get to them or get out of them.  This is the most flexible of the bunch but still problematic because often the checkpoints expect a very rpg-trope level of outcomes.  Feng Shui and HeroQuest pushed this sort of play.

Branching Path Illusionism

A set of events leads to a potential number outcomes from any scene, leading to a limited number of other scenes.  This is the most common  type seen in a lot of games, with White Wolf games being the most well known.

Step by Step Illusionism

A specific linear set of events to happen in a set fashion, scene to scene.  These are pretty rare, but Double Cross has this pretty much in spades.  There’s a minor point of branching in the adventures, but it is pretty locked in.

Where it doesn’t fit

Anyone who’s played a lot of D&D or White Wolf games can recognize the issue of trying to run an investigation game, a social game, or a “how do I get past this obstacle” game when you give people certain power options.  Once a few powers or spells fit together, a lot of problems just evaporate and you find what maybe a good portion of the adventure was built on, disappears in 10 minutes of play.

This is very true of Double Cross.   There’s a lot of “Simple Powers” that cost nothing or next to nothing and create plot-changing actions easily.  For example, just the electricity power set you can get a power to simply “read” anyone’s data being wirelessly transmitted.  Another power lets you record any data to a USB, disk drive, etc, just by touching it.   Given that the setting involves a secret war between a government organization and superpowered terrorists, you’re basically snatching cell and email data and potentially solving a lot of mysteries much easier.

So you end up with two options: a) ditch the adventure you’ve prepped, b) stop the players’ powers from actually working or mattering.  You either spent a lot of time putting together adventure material that is now useless, or you crap on the players’ choices and stomp on whatever they thought was cool about those powers.

This is a big reason of why Illusionism is shitty.

Making it work for Double Cross

Well, it’s actually not that hard.  There’s two easy levers by which you can improvise action.  (Go read GM Improvisation 101 and it’s links for basic applications – these two are the DX ways of applying that.)

Mission and Politics

With this giant secret war going on, you have your side, a bunch of other sides, and everyone wants something.  Action is basically “someone wants to get/do something” (your side to theirs, their side to yours), “Someone wants to convince someone of something”, “Someone wants to find something out/hide something”.

Set up some general motivations, set up a few Macguffins, and this is easy enough.  You can simply give players missions from their higher ups and that works well enough.

What you’ll have to adjust for is the fact that the general powers in Double Cross can make some things trivially easy to do – many of the powers give the players unparalleled ability to sneak in, get things, get info, or get out without even having to fight at all.

This means that instead of thinking of play in a single “Do X thing” as the whole adventure, you look at the consequences that comes out of the actions they take.  Did the players get ahold of a bunch of communications?  Maybe they find out someone they trust seems potentially a spy or a mole.  Did they sneak in and get the MacGuffin easily?  What if different parts of their organization are trying to get them to give it to them, but not the others?

Doing the missions isn’t the hard part, it’s what happens because of it that the real conflict comes forward.

Personal Drama

LOISes and TITANs, make the game go around.  Early in a session should be about players making LOIS connections and all you have to do is look at the positive/negative emotions and press one or other and have it show up in play.  These are effectively the Flags the players are giving you to work with.

The one problem for Double Cross is the ever growing Encroachment rate means you can only take so many scenes to deal with personal issues vs. deal with other problems.  As a group, you’ll need to figure out if this choice is simply a matter of where we focus the spotlight of action (“We spend 5 scenes dealing with emotional fallout, but it’s not like our characters missed any missions”) or if it’s an actual logistics choice (“You can go save your sister, or you can make sure the whole city is safe.  Make your choice.”).

Scene Count

A specific issue for Double Cross is that each scene adds 1D10 to a players’ Encroachment rate.

The average number of scenes a single character goes through in the 3 adventures is about 7-8 scenes.   When you look at most players having a starting Base Encroachment of near 30%, plus an average of 7D10 to 8D10 (35%-40%) over the number of scenes – you’ve got about 65-70% before you even start talking about using powers or an Impulse check.

So, keeping that in mind, you probably want to keep in mind the overall Scene count before closing up a situation or giving players a chance to Backtrack.


Looking at the core adventures, a lot of the scenes with combat don’t have any good advice about what happens if you decide to just run, or lose a fight.  Given how much of the combat powers pump up the Encroachment rate, it seems like it’s a critical skill to adapt or deal with the players potentially winning combats through non-direct tactics, convincing the opposition to give up, or avoiding a fight altogether.

If you have simple motivations applied to the NPCs, you should have no problem coming up with their responses on the fly.


Roleplaying the Struggle

March 27, 2014

A different kind of escapism

My game group has decided to try to do a steampunk game, with a critical eye about colonialism.   This comes just as wundergeek is having a conversation with Ron Edwards about the issue of rape in his new game (and in fantasy-geek shit overall).

This goes in line with some of the conversations I’ve had about Dog Eat Dog or Steal Away Jordan – that there’s a good number of games or campaign ideas I could see as being fun to play, but only with a group who can come to it with a critical eye.

To be sure, most of what I want gaming for is pure escapism (And, a lot of what I write about here is frustration that I cannot get EVEN that in the general gaming scene…) but there’s also a place for games that deal with fucked up stuff but provides you a space to punch back and win.  Or at least come out a little bit ahead.   It’s the reason most feel-good stories are about hard work and justice winning out in the end… compared to real life where that doesn’t happen all that often.

Critical vs. Non-Critical

But you’ll notice that the two points on which this hangs are:

a) is the problematic shit acknowledged as being shitty?*  (or is it being celebrated?**  Or is it being used as voyeuristic “Oh, that’s terrible… let me see more!”*** kind of bullshit? Is it paired with a jumped up strawman projection?****)

b) To what level is there protagonism and affirmation of the protagonists in the face of this?  (Notice this doesn’t even mean “victory” or full on “escape”, just protagonism.)

RPGs are conversations… not static media

If you watch a TV show, or read a book and something incredibly fucked up, racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever happens, you can simply turn it off, put down the book, walk away.

When something fucked up happens in a game group, everyone is there and SOMEONE (singular, or collective) made that happen.  There is social expectation, relationships to navigate, social credit, plus… however much time is invested on everyone’s parts in this.

It’s different when someone you don’t know insults you with their bullshit story or views (still hurtful) but even MORE when someone you know does it straight to your face, intentionally or not.

So, tabletop rpgs have the additional burden that if you’re going to make a game or run a campaign that is going to bring up this stuff – do you have any idea or advice on how to communicate with each other about it?

Hard Fun

There’s a value in being able to critically deal with messed up shit in your games – a chance to say something meaningful or to poke/punch at it.  But… as far as gaming goes, 99% of the time it’s just thrown in either as an ugly, weak, disguise for celebrating it**, or else in a way to be “edgy” as a decoration, which inevitably ends up replicating the oppressive nature by trivializing it for suffering porn.

Mostly, though, this ends up coming back to a very simple question “How does this make this fun?” … which, folks seem to forget, has to be for more people at the table than just you.  

* This would be my primary objection to how D&D typically uses language around the “savage races”.  It’s not “OMG, you’re being racist against green people who don’t exist!”, it’s… “Wow, you’re really set on being able to use the language of genocide that was used to kill NDNs and indigenous people and this is something you claim is a core point to the fun you’re having here…”

**See – most Steampunk and colonialism.  See especially Wolsung.  This also applies to the “rawrr! Misogyny is historically accurate!” arguments and the “20′s were really racist times so let’s be really racist” Call of Cthulhu gaming.

*** I think of a forum thread about Steal Away Jordan where people were asking for more horrific historically accurate types of torture used upon slaves.  You know, because what is needed to make the game more fun is to go further into detail about torture, because, torture is exciting!

**** Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ “Better than Any Man” campaign set, for example, has the evil magical feminists who want to kill all teh menz and have demon sex slaves instead.


March 25, 2014

I remember making this point at a few of the rpg forums I used to frequent:


A comic about games and social issues


The Shadow of the Jedi

March 24, 2014

The Shadow of the Jedi - a Star Wars hack for Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday.

So, I’ve been sucking down a bunch of media as I’ve been recovering from chemo and such the last few months, and got into the Clone Wars cartoons.

The quality of the show is pretty swing-y but it did get me thinking down an interesting line of thought: in this cartoon, we see the Jedi doing a bunch of morally sketchy things – almost destroying someone’s mind to rip forth information, sacrifice thousands of sentient beings created as slave soldiers… you know, problematic stuff.  Yet they’re not assumed to be Dark Side despite all of this.

It got me to wondering if the whole Light/Dark divide was mostly an artificial creation on their part – that the Force is just neutral and the constant freaking out about going to the Dark side is because even the masters aren’t sure where that dividing line actually is – so they overcompensate.   It makes all the ridiculous inconsistencies about their philosophy of detachment make more sense – if it’s just made up, with no basis in fact, it can be inconsistent.

Of the Star Wars RPGs I’ve seen, they all try to have a mechanical dividing line between Light/Dark Side and it usually turns out… flat in play.  So I started thinking of TSOY’s Keys as a useful idea – they pull you in a direction but don’t lock you in, which works a lot better in terms of the characters trying to make decisions and moral struggles in the SW universe make more sense.


Differentiation: Mechanical vs. Fictional

March 17, 2014

There’s an idea I think about a lot when it comes to RPGs – “How does THIS particular game teach you to take the in-game events and turn them into mechanics?  How does it teach you to take the mechanics and make events in play?” (see also: Vincent’s “How RPG Rules Work” or  Quinn Murphy’s “Thingification” idea)

When a game makes this easy to understand and smooth for the group playing, it’s really easy to take anything that happens in play, and figure out how it fits with the mechanics, or to take anything the mechanics kick out and make it an event in the imaginary events.   (As I tend to say, the easiest rule is “I say this happens, and then it does”).  When this is complex, challenging, or just poorly explained, you end up having lots of problems for groups – you can see a lot of this around D&D 4E’s mechanics and the complaints with it.

Anyway, that translation process either differentiates the “things” in the game by fiction, or by mechanics and it’s important because these are two very different ways to do a game.

Differentiation by Fiction

So, let’s say we’ve got a game, and it’s got dragons: ice dragons and fire dragons.

Here’s one example:

Fire Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1d6 fire damage per round

Ice Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1d6 ice damage per round

So, in this example, the dragons are basically the same, and the only difference is we’ve swapped one word for another.  The only thing that makes them different is fiction based – we can describe that ice attacks work different than fire attacks, but there’s nothing mechanically that necessarily makes them that much different.

This is differentiation by fiction.

You can see some games are built entirely on this idea – Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, HeroQuest, FATE games, Universalis, etc.  The mechanics are universally identical, you just swap descriptor words to change one to another.

It’s really useful if you want a game where the mechanics are less deep in specifics, easier to get system fluency to make good choices in play, and it’s very easy to improvise or adapt – just swap some labels for another and there you go.

Differentiation by Mechanics

Now let’s try a different version:

Fire Dragons: 25 hitpoints, 1D6 fire damage a round, and target takes 2 more fire damage until doused

Ice Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1D6 ice damage a round, and target is frozen in place for 2 rounds.

You can see here, that the dragon types work a little different and probably will require different ways to deal with in play.  Specific mechanics result in specific differences, result in specific tactics.

This is differentiation by mechanics.

Most traditional rpgs use this – specific class/race powers, feats, a power tree, spells – things that give you access to mechanics or methods of play that you can’t get using the other options.

It’s really useful if you want a game where having deeper system familiarity is more important, where tactics or strategy might be useful, or if you want to push play choices in differing directions (“Doing X feels completely different than doing Y”).

What it means for play

The reason to look at this is that these are two very different ways to come at a game, and usually gets subsumed into some vague talk about “crunch”* (which has about 3-4 other factors piled into it as well).

With Differentiation by Fiction, you don’t have to think about mechanics much, but then the only thing you have to really push play, to make one thing behave functionally different than another is judgment calls at the table and agreement of the group (“Well, I’ve got Big Sword 4, but since we’re fighting underwater, it should have a penalty or not be useable at all.”).

With Differentiation by Mechanics, different choices matter much more, but it also means players need to develop some familiarity and fluency with the system to make that happen.  It means a longer time spent learning the options, and trying to piece together why things work and what strategies work best.  It also becomes a lot harder to improvise things if you find yourself having to suddenly come up with new rules or slam together systemic differences on short notice.

The way these two design philosophies operate is so different that players who prefer one type will not find systems that do the other worth touching at all.    So this becomes important to know if you like only one type, if your group is a mix, or if you are designing a game.

(*One might think that fiction-differentiation automatically means “low crunch” but that’s not necessarily the case.  Universalis, for example, has a good amount of procedural steps, and the latest version of HeroQuest also has quite a bit of crunch options that go along with it as well.  Contrary, there’s also a few mechanical differentiation games that have relatively low crunch, such as basic D&D and many of it’s clone rpgs .)


Scarlet Heroes

February 24, 2014

Every time a POC focal rpg comes out… I WANT to like it.  I want it to not be fucked up.  Seriously.

Sadly, Scarlet Heroes takes pretty smart modern game design to “old school gaming” then pours heaps of problematic representation on top of it.

SH aims to be an asian themed pulp sword and sorcery kind of game.  There’s two ways one could go about this – take the many, many asian folklore tales and modern tales and pull from the very close parallels to modern pulp (wuxia, evil decadent governments, magic, secret societies, etc.) or…

…one could take the really problematic projections of “oriental” that came from the western pulp era.

Of the human societies presented:

- The fake Japanese (with a Chinese title) are literal demon worshippers who push their citizens to do evil to commit their souls to demons at death

- The fake Chinese run by a “Mandarinate” (um…an ethnicity might run a government but isn’t a government structure…so…) have an Emperor who is SO HOMOSEXUAL (Super caps to let you know to fear teh gheyz) he refuses to even to try to father an heir, leading to political instability…

- An evil fake Chinese country of evil wizards who engage in every vice and the picture shows the classic Yellow Peril dude sitting on a throne while attended to by many half naked women (many white women) …

- There’s two white societies – the fake Vikings and the fake Germans, because in a game about POC, you gotta have white people

- A group that sounds a goddamn lot like fake Jews

- And the rest of the human lands, we are told, is like South East Asia, but aside from pulling from some of the SEA monsters, nothing else is really explained

Then there’s a bunch of other minor by comparison but still notable red flags – there’s a woman in samurai armor but dressed up courtly hair (aka, “This is all we’ve seen of Japanese women hair” stereotype) which seems really weird.   There’s a Black woman who shows up in a couple of the pictures, but no real mention where she was supposed to come from or if she’s supposed to be one of the missing SEA groups in this setting.  All the spells have really long ornate names which is the key sign something is “oriental”.

This is the thing: when people’s idea of POC as heroes is “Wouldn’t it be awesome to play as the horrific stereotypes we threw on you as part of colonialism and war propaganda?” I’m having a real hard time seeing the fun escapism in this.


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