Archive for September, 2010


I can relate to be unrelatable

September 30, 2010

Neo-Prodigy’s Plight of the POC Storyteller is something I can relate to.

I remember one time Ben asked me why I enjoy the problematic “Legend of the 5 Rings”, and I explained that it was one of the few games where if I played an asian character, no one looked at me funny.

No one thought it was an insert, it wasn’t a weird out-of-place kind character, etc. That is, if I wanted to play an asian character, they could be heroic, villainous, sympathetic, whatever- they were a character > “asian” as the predominant qualifier.

The recent drama around Steal Away Jordan also hits the topic, in that the drama basically revolved around the assumption that the game was produced primarily with white people in mind… And, that the backlash, sadly, was all about centering white people’s reactions as well.

A lot of folks seem unable to tell comprehend that when I talk about making media “about us”, I don’t mean “us” as individuals, I mean, “us” as culturally, as a diversity, as a people having broader experiences.

Of course, I guess the same folks who can’t see people as the complexity of people, there’d be no way they’d be able to imagine stories of the same.


So you want to make an RPG?

September 26, 2010

So, I’m going to summarize nine years of lessons that have come out of the Forge and indie rpg publishing, since they seem to be forgotten so easily.

How Not to Start

Funny, huh? Starting with how not to start, right? No seriously, don’t do these things:

Don’t ask people “what kind of game you should make?”

The unspoken part of this question, is always the person looking to find out “what’s marketable” in the hopes of having success. Two problems: by the time you finish making the game, most of those people’s answers to that question might have changed, and second, “the market” is really too small for that to be a useful metric.

Make the game you want, because you want it. If you have passion for your game, at least SOME other people will buy into it. Who expected a game about Mormon gunslingers delivering mail to fit a market and become a best seller?

Don’t ask questions about marketing, publishing, or printing before you have a game

Seriously, seriously, seriously. It’s definitely good to plan ahead, but it’s like designing the packaging for your product before you have a product.

More importantly, nearly everyone who STARTS with these questions usually have no idea about actual monetary numbers and realistic sales to expect back- if you find yourself starting here, STOP.

Most of the people who “research” this end up either using numbers for literary fiction or for RPG sales in the 80’s or the 90’s and almost always ask stuff like, “Should I print 6,000 or 12,000 copies?” when really, you need to be thinking small, repeat print runs.

Stop, make a working game first. Ask people who have published already when your game is done or near done, but don’t waste time on it before-hand.

Don’t expect to make a living on this

Tied into the previous two Don’ts, they almost always come out of the idea that someone is hoping to make a living on this or find the “magical hit” that will springboard a new renaissance in roleplaying.

Yeah, no.

The ok games sell a few hundred copies. The big hits sell a few thousand copies. Luke Crane, who makes Burning Wheel, has sold enough to go full time. He’s also a professional editor and layout designer and has spent YEARS promoting his game.

Seriously, make your game, and plan on breaking even and probably getting some extra money, but you will be working or finding other means of support.

There is no magic bullet, there is no great idea waiting to be found that will bring in the millions to play rpgs.

If you can accept that, then great!

What is the point of your game?

Decide for yourself, what you want your game to do. Think hard about it, and be ready to re-write that as you work on your game, not to change it, but to clarify it- for yourself and for others.

Being clear on this is going to inform everything you design, because either you’re adding stuff that supports that vision, adding stuff that detracts from that vision (bad), or adding stuff that is neutral (not always, but usually distracting and easily leads to bad).

You need to know:
– What your game is about
– What you expect people playing to DO, generally
– What kinds of stories/fiction should happen in this game
– What kinds of things shouldn’t happen in this game
– What your rules do to support ALL of the above

When you post on the Forge, or any serious design space, this is what people are going to need to know. The same rule can be good in one game, and terrible in another game- based on what the point of your game IS.

If you don’t give a point, and then ask, “Is my encumberance system good?” no one can tell you- because the point of the game determines if it would be supporting it or not.

Don’t make a game that can “do anything”!

I put this “Don’t” here, because it has to do with the focus of your game. If people ask, “What do players do?” and your answer is, “They can do anything they want!” you’ve just said, “Go play GURPs or freeform!” and said nothing about your game. It doesn’t promote freedom or flexibility- we’re all gamers with imagination- we can already do that without your rules.

You’re making a game because you’re trying to give a new play experience. What does that look like? What would a GOOD example of play look like? What -should- players do?

Play vastly different RPGs

Artists look at art, musicians listen to music, writers read books- I don’t understand why people who look at designing games get stuck on NOT trying out new games.

Even if you decide to use nothing that you’ve tried, you at least will have a better idea of what you are using works to do what you want.

I usually suggest people play Inspectres, Primetime Adventures, 1001 Nights, Breaking the Ice, and Shadow of Yesterday.

More generically, you should at least:
– Play an rpg that doesn’t have a GM but has rules
– Play an rpg that lets players narrate outcomes, taking over the “GM’s seat” for a bit
– Play an rpg that has stats for emotions or relationships
– Play an rpg that gives advancement on something other than defeating challenges
– Play an rpg that has rules for social conflicts

(The list above covers all of that, with games you can get a good feel for in a short, short run. )

Obviously, there’s a lot more stuff out there, but these are some basic things you should experience as a tabletop rpg designer, as much as a videogame programmer should probably have played a puzzle game, a platformer, a fighting game, an MMO, an RTS, and an rpg at some point – you don’t have to like everything, but it’s necessary to put you as minimally informed.


Playtest with different people. Have groups playtest without you present. You’re not just playtesting the mechanics, you’re playtesting the writing- if the group can’t figure out how to do things, if they’re misunderstanding the rules, you need to fix your writing as much as the rules themselves.

Remember how you figured out what the point of your game was? Being clear on communicating this means you’ll get more useful feedback from the playtest groups.

Being clear on it with yourself will help you sort the useful feedback from the pointless feedback – someone complaining that your soap opera love rpg doesn’t have enough weapon tables is not useful criticism for you to think about, no matter fervent or vocal they are.

If you keep in mind the point of your game, you can start reading between the lines and looking for what you really want- how well does the game support the point you’re trying to hit? Where are the snags? Are people confused about that point? Can it be made more clearly?


Do you have a game ready to go? No? Go back until you do. Do you have a game ready to go? Ok, then think about this.

Consider how much money you’re willing to lose. Yes, start with the worst assumption. That’s your budget. Consider selling PDF games, consider selling print-on-demand, consider small format, consider short print runs. Consider at what point you break even, and at what point you actually make money.

(If you give your game away for free, then all of this is pretty easy to understand. It’s kinda sad that the people who give games away for free are the ones who don’t go bankrupt, probably because they’re not counting on a gamble.)

Email people who have published. Get their info on what worked and what didn’t work. Find out what their sales were like, before you commit to printing 6,000 units. Ask about business stuff at this point, because you have a working game, and you want to put it out there.

For some bizarre reason, people who show up on rpg publishing forums often ask business questions, but don’t actually, you know, email or PM the people who have published. A lot of them are really happy to give info and details- to recommend printers, to tell you about pitfalls, to give you ideas on what kind of sales they made and what you might expect.

No seriously, don’t reinvent THIS wheel, use the resources people offer. Get help, and the more money you’re investing the more people you should talk to. Don’t expect to make a living, don’t expect to make actual part time money.

You’re not on a contract or a deadline. Take as long as you want to make the game you want. You’re not forced to churn out a game a year, or so many books a quarter.

Good games keep selling over the course of years, crappy games are bought for novelty and not played much after the excitement wears off.


Lumpley PDF Game sale

September 23, 2010

Get 6 different games on PDF for $25.

Two things about Vincent’s games:

1) They’re all really different than each other. It’s not like he takes the same system, tweaks 2 things then calls it a new game.

2) Most of his games didn’t sound that appealing to me (“Mormon Gunslingers”, “Pirates being really fucked up to each other”), then I saw and played them and realized that his games are really explorations into human issues and drama, and worth the ride.


Smallville: Avatar the Last Airbender Hack

September 17, 2010

Picked up Smallville after hearing tons of good things about the design in the game and it looks like the system would be perfect to do Avatar the Last Airbender, mostly with some minor tweaks of names/terminology for abilities and Pathways. I’ll list the renames with parentheses for the original terms.


For the Pathways, I’ve relabeled many of the the Pathway options- the new term is listed followed by the original in parentheses. The stat blocks stay the same for each, though you’ll note that some of them are shifted around on the chart. I’ve put them in order, left to right, so you can just re-do the chart accordingly.

Origin: Noble (RIch), Ordinary, Gifted, Orphaned, Destined

Orphaned are kids who not only were separated from their parents, but any adult community to raise them; ie Jet. Destined are those poor kids who get imbued with the spirit of the Moon or are the reincarnation of the Avatar, etc.

Youth: Warrior (Jock), Average, Inquisitive (Geek), Outsider, Paragon

Focus: Control (Money), Happiness (Tech), Family (Life), Freedom (Paranormal), Honor (Status)

Control can be political power, control over your life, others, etc. Happiness – drink tea, go ride the otter-penguins, etc., Family can be blood family or chosen family, Freedom is freedom to control your life free of obligations, duties, destiny, and Honor is pretty self explanatory.

Road: Treacherous (Risky), Straight and Narrow, Lofty, Underground, Ethical.

Life Changing Event: Favored (Advancement), Strange Discovery (First Contact), Rite of Passage (Destiny), Personal Breakthrough (Power Manifestation), Exiled (Tragedy)

Favored means earning favor with nobility of some type. Strange Discovery includes finding the Avatar after a century, Magical Spirit Libraries, trips to the Spirit World, etc. Rite of Passage includes a test and official recognition from your community. Personal Breakthrough is some form of epiphany or realization – possibly about oneself, the universe, a new form of bending, etc. Exiled includes being literally exiled from one’s community, but also stuff like getting frozen in an ice bubble for a 100 years.

Priority: Duty (Work), Fun (Looking Back), Mastery (Performance), Ambition (Looking Forward), Friends & Family

Duty is the obligations your family, clan, nation, or role place upon you. Fun is the opposite- escaping responsibility for self. Mastery is about the quest for perfection- bending, sword fighting, Pai-sho. Ambition is pretty self explanatory, but can also include stuff like developing new technology or freeing your land.

Modus Operandi: Responsibility/Loyalty, Secrecy (Shady Business), Against the Grain, Influence (Outside Normal Channels), Special Gifts

Secrecy includes folks like freedom fighters, White Lotus members, manipulative princesses and similar folks who are good at keeping their cards close. Influence is pretty much the same as Outside Normal Channels.

Motivation: Others, Self, The Cause, The Job, The World.

Identity: Sidekick, Foil, Rebel, Specialist, Hero

– Remove Hacker completely
– Change Extraterrestrial Knowledge to Spirit World Knowledge
– Change Military Brat to Noble Connections
– Change Soldier to Warrior

Bender Heritage Distinctions

Water Bending

D4: Earn a Plot Point when a lack of nearby water forces a Shutdown of your Bending
D8: Add a D6 to the Trouble Pool to use a special effect from a connected ability you don’t have
D12 Spend a Plot Point to reroll any die in a Water Bending Roll.

Connected Abilities: Hydrokinesis, Swimming, Cyrokinesis, Regeneration, Healing, Claws (Ice claws!), Blast, Plant Control (Swampbending), Bloodbending (Paralysis + TK, only usable on things with blood)

Limits: Nearby water, moon cannot be eclipsed, must be able to move limbs

Earth bending

D4: Earn a Plot Point when being surrounded by metal forces a Shutdown of your Earth bending
D8: Add a D6 to the Trouble Pool to use a special effect from a connected ability you don’t have
D12 Spend a Plot Point to Decrease your opponent’s Injured or Exhausted Stress Pool when you encase yourself in stone.

Connected Abilities: Earth Control, Tunneling, Super Strength, Blast, Wall Walking (limited to Earth), Magnetism (cannot affect blood), Super Senses (earth vibrations, what’s underground)

Limits: Cannot bend metal (unless Magnetism is taken), must be able to move limbs.

Air Bending

D4: Spend a Plot Point to reroll a die when you redirect an opponent’s momentum
D8: Add a D6 to the Trouble Pool to use a special effect from a connected ability you don’t have
D12 Spend a Plot Point to reroll any die in any Air Bending Roll.

Connected Abilities: Wind Control, Superspeed, Gravity Control, Blast, Flight, Gravity Control (can only make things lighter, not heavier)

Limits: Need to be able to move limbs… or blow air out your mouth

Fire Bending

D4: Earn a Plot Point when your firebending goes out of control, hurting yourself, allies, or things you didn’t want damaged.
D8: Add a D6 to the Trouble Pool to use a special effect from a connected ability you don’t have
D12 Spend a Plot Point to into increase your Injured or Afraid Stress Pool.

Connected Abilities: Pyrokinesis, Claws (firewhips, fire knives), Blast, Electrokinesis, Flight, Combustion (cannot delay explosions)

Limits: Sun cannot be eclipsed, must be able to move limbs

(common ones, I’m sure more can apply)
Sifu (Motivator), Bounty Hunter (Govt. Agent), Sage/Fortuneteller (Mage), Healer (Doctor), Scientist, Soldier, Criminal, Pirate (Ninja!)

Some common locations + Specializations. Since Avatar tends to be more of a globe-trotting story, characters aren’t as tied to locations as Smallville is. Broaden the definition from a single location to any of that type – White Lotus Branch 2D8 would be useful at -any- White Lotus Branch – the rating indicates a familiarity rather than a specific connection.

Village – Rumors, Anonymity, Socialize, Supplies, Oppressed
Cave – Safe and Dry, Hidden, Ancient Lore, Sharing Stories
Temple – Ruined, Ancient Lore, Spirit World, Flashbacks
Hideout – Hidden, Planning, Tactics, Comfort
Boat – Mobile, Cargo, Water, Armed
Tea Shop – Socialize, Rumors, Wisdom, Contacts
Laboratory – Experiment, Science!, Explosives, Inspiration
White Lotus Branch – Hidden, Pai-sho, Secret Escape, Contacts
Military Base – Prison, Defensible, Reinforcements, Armory
Dojo – Learning, Rivalry, Friendship, Duelling
Spirit World- Creepy, Dangerous Knowledge, Placating Spirits, Evil Spirits
Festival- Crowded, Anonymity, Spectacle, Delicious Foods

Characters and Pathways

Aang- Destined, Paragon, Freedom, Ethical, Exiled (trapped in ice for 100 years!) Fun, Loyalty, Others, Hero.

Katara- Gifted, Average, Happiness, Straight & Narrow, Strange Discovery (Found the Avatar!), Friends & Family, Special Gift, Others, Sidekick.

Sokka- Ordinary, Inqusitive, Family, Straight & Narrow, Strange Discovery (Found the Avatar!), Friends & Family, Loyalty, World, Sidekick.

Zuko- Noble, Warrior, Honor, Ethical, Exiled (Banished to find the Avatar), Ambition, Against the Grain, The Cause, The Foil

Iroh- Noble, Warrior, Happiness, Straight & Narrow, Exiled (Banished to watch over his nephew). Friends & Family, Loyalty, Others, Sidekick.

Toph- Noble, Paragon, Freedom, Underground, Personal Breakthrough (I can leave my family and live a life of adventure!), Mastery, Against the Grain, Self, Sidekick.

Azula- Noble, Paragon, Control, Intrigue, Favored (Given the honor of hunting down the Avatar… and her brother). Duty, Secrecy, Self, Foil.

Jet- Orphaned, Paragon, Control, Intrigue, Exiled (My freedom fighters broke up!). Ambition, Against the Grain, The Cause, Rebel.


The problem of Magic Items in D&D, part 2 million

September 16, 2010

Reading the full Mike Mearls interview on the Escapist, there’s this interesting bit that reflects what I’ve said about magic items for years:

One of the things we found is that in 4th, 4th really exacerbated it, but it was an existing problem in 3rd, if players can buy anything, it really limits the design space that you can put out there. You can come up with this really interesting design for a flaming sword and eventually every player in the group will be able to buy them. Then you get back to this thing which you first saw in 3rd, where everyone in the party can fly, everyone in the party can teleport, skill checks become irrelevant because everyone has the Climb feat, everyone has slippers of spider climbing, things like that. It turns the game into almost a superhero game. Which is fine, if that’s your style, but it’s not necessarily the default.

What we can do with magic items is we can portion them out and say Here’s a subset of magic items that players can buy, and those are the common items. The uncommon items are the ones which they need to find, and those have this basic range of power within them. And then there’s rare items, which are even more powerful, and like uncommon ones, you can’t just go out and buy them, you can only find them. The great thing about that is, it lets us do things like here are boots of flying, here’s a pair of boots, they just let you fly. Because we know that it’s not possible for everyone in the group to get those, unless the DM wants that to happen, then that’s fine. The default is that maybe one person in the group can fly places. Having played a campaign where I was a dwarf warrior who had wings of flying, if the entire party can fly, it’s much easier to dominate encounters or dungeons or adventures.


I played a game where everyone could just fly around and it puts so much pressure on the DM – you go from thinking, I am building this fantasy world, and creating these locations and this entire campaign to just thinking how do I deal with this group of five people who can fly around? It distorts the game to the extent that unless the DM wants to do that, we don’t want to force it on a DM.

The big problem about buy-able magic items is that they effectively break the issues of siloing powers and abilities and niche protection.

I hope they also look at stuff like the smaller items which can also break expectations: take alchemy- you can buy a vial that does 1D10 elemental damage, not a big deal right? Buy 10 of them, put them in a cheap satchel, swing, and throw at the next big bad you want to hurt real bad. 10D10 is not what the game expects from 1st-3rd level characters, but because items are cheap, buyable, and not limited like character powers, it’s easy to break system expectations with them.

Thing is, once gold becomes a direct effectiveness resource, instead of a tertiary one that drops off quickly as you level, you need a completely different design philosophy in terms of your game mechanics.