Dark Heart: Wicked, Invisible Cities

July 14, 2012

There are many ways to generate random planes and parishes for your game; this is merely one possible method.

The city of Dis always invades planes through urban areas, due to its sympathetic resonances with created spaces. These can be currently inhabited or long-since abandoned, such as vast ruins or tomb complexes. Consequently, it’s possible to generate both the parishes of Dis (the planes it’s already completely consumed) and the planes it is currently invading using the same method: they both involve fantastical urban locales.

Writing and then playtesting a set of tables for generating planes and parishes is an immense task, but luckily we can stand on the shoulders of giants. When you visit a new plane or parish, pick one of the themes on the following chart or roll-1 (with the result being a number 1-11, matching with the themes on the left side). Start with the first city with that theme, looking up the appropriate entry in Italo Calvino’s classic book, Invisible Cities, and using the entry to inspire your own vision of the locale. Color in the numbered circle to the left of the city’s name, to mark that it’s been used. The next time you pick the same theme, look up the next unused city.

Then, if you are visiting a parish, imagine how the place has been overrun and remade into a borough of Dis. What has persisted, in an altered form? What has been turned into something unrecognizable? What remains of the original inhabitants and how have they adapted? What people and institutions from other parts of the city have moved in?

Alternately, if you are visiting a plane, roll+0 to see how well it has resisted Dis’s advance. On a 12+, the city’s invasion has just begun and most of the residents of the plane have no idea. On a 10+, Dis has established a solid outpost in a single location; some natives are growing concerned. On a 7-9, the invasion has spread across the plane and its inhabitants faces dire choices about whether to attempt some dangerous plan or resistance or take action to preserve as much as they can before the inevitable end. On a failure, the plane is all but consumed and everyone there is struggling to deal with the fallout.

If Calvino’s description doesn’t provide enough sense of dynamism, suitably pro-active NPCs, or interesting situations for the PCs to become involved in, consult the “oracles” from D. Vincent Baker’s sword and sorcery game, In a Wicked Age, available online at http://www.lumpley.com/oracle/4oracles.php. The oracles named The Unquiet Past and A Nest of Vipers are probably the most appropriate for this game, but draw inspiration from Blood & Sex and God-Kings of War as you like.

For an alternate method of plane generation, you might try using the planet-generation rules in Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number, which is also available for free online.


[GoPlayNW] Korra Playtest: Episodes 1 & 2

June 30, 2012

Oh man, so I got off work and came straight to GoPlayNW without any real prep or plans. Lukas texted me while I was on the bus asking if I could run the very sketchy Korra hack that I put together Sunday morning at Gamestorm after only seeing the first pirated episode online. Sure, but I needed copies of the character sheets. Luckily David lived nearby and agreed to go print us some sheets if he could play. Crisis averted!

Turned out that, almost as soon as the game started, it became clear that I’d written the core moves for fighting and bending (which are like half the show) totally wrong. Oh well. The character creation and setting-prep guidelines worked nearly perfectly and we fell back on just rolling the core elements and having our collective sense of the TV show carry us through. It was totally awesome! Furthermore, having actually played it now, I have a much better sense of what the moves need to look like, so the next version will be much better.

The Premise (minor show spoilers, but Jamie and David had just seen Avatar, not Korra, and we made an effort not to ruin things for them):

The pro-bending circuit has been shut down due to recent events, leaving only the triad-run underground “bare-knuckles” circuits where anything goes. I pitched to the 4 players that we should be an underground pro-bending squad (of 3) and then either their manager or an undercover cop or something like that.

The Characters

Leslie played Victoria Lee, the fire- and lightning-bending black sheep daughter of a wealthy industrialist family from Republic City. She started the pro-bending team (“The Spider-Rats!”) with two classmates from the academies (we said school was in the style of the Fire Nation, like in Avatar season 3), and they were planning on competing in the official circuit until it was shut down. She had a car and a swank apartment in a nice part of town, where she lives with her two pet fire-ferrets, Kiki and Rika. She also had a secret crush on Lyri.

David played Lyri, the water- and (secretly) blood-bending scion of a couple of first-generation Water Tribe immigrants who’d become triad accountants mostly out of desperation. Lyri was drawn into criminal activity from a relatively early age and lived in a community of houseboats in the middle of the bay, away from police eyes. When the pro-bending circuit was shutdown, it was Lyri who used his triad connections to work their way into the underground matches.

Jamie played Taka, a sand- and earth-bending immigrant from Kyoshi Island. All the girls there were trained to be Kyoshi Warriors, including his sister, while he and the other boys were left more directionless, so he became a beach bum, traveling the earth kingdom in search of adventure and good surf. He’d run into some triad smuggling activities while hanging out in the beach town on the ocean side of Republic City and eventually become the equivalent of a “session musician” for underground pro-bending, being assigned to other teams as needed if one of their players couldn’t compete (usually do to injury). We decided that the Spider-Rats’s normal earthbender — Victoria and Lyri’s classmate — broke both his legs in their first underground match, so Taka was assigned to their team at the last minute.

Lukas played Lo Shang, an older metal- and earth-bender from a prominent police family. Raised by his mother, a cop, he was expected to go to the police academy but decided to try the life of a pro-bender instead. But after suffering some injuries (the extent of which was unclear), he retired to coach younger athletes for the arena, partially as a way to get out of a massive debt to the Triple Threat triad, one he never seemed to be able to work off. Lo Shang lived in an old sparring gym next to the (now closed) stadium, under the pretense of training late into the night, though it seemed like the gym owner knew that he didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Episode 1

The first episode started with the Spider-Rats’ match against the Sun Cats, their first match since their original earthbender broke both his legs and they forfeited by refusing to continue. Taka has just been assigned to them and Lo Shang gives a very Gladiator-style speech about winning the crowd. As they head out, the winners of the previous match, the notorious Ice Goblins, sneer at them and even ice the floor as they enter the cage where the match will take place. Victoria firebends the ice away, humiliating and slightly singeing the lead Goblin.

The match takes place in a rusty cage in a warehouse basement, filled with mounds of dirt and rocks, but also partially flooded. Before the match begins, Lukas hilariously uses his phone to read off the official rules of pro-bending from an Avatar fan wiki, including all the things you’re normally not allowed to do. None of that will apply here. In the underground circuit, fights are done in “capture the flag” style, with each team having a small statue representing their name (in our team’s case, a Spider-Rat). Capturing the other team’s statue means you win the round, and best 2 out of 3 rounds prevails.

They lower a bell from above the cage and, off to the side, a mysterious figure wearing sunglasses in the style of aviator goggles tosses a few pebbles at the bell with amazing accuracy, hitting the bell and signaling the start of the fight.

Round One: Victoria botches her initial fight roll, so the Sun Cats’ waterbender freezes her hands — still holding their statue — in a pillar of ice. Next, Taka uses earthbending to create a bridge from one mound of earth to another, staying out of the water. The opposing earthbender grabs his bridge and pulls it upwards, turning it into a wall that divides the arena in half diagonally. Lyri uses the flooded pool to make a wave of water that slams the third Sun Cat into the corner now made by the cage and the earthen wall, but part of the wall crumbles and collapses on the Sun Cat, pinning him underwater and also hiding him from the view of the “referee” who’s supposedly overseeing the match. Victoria firebends her way out of the ice, Lyri saves the Sun Cat from drowning, and Taka does a wall-run on the stone wall and handily swipes the Sun Cats’ statue to win the round.

Round Two: The Sun Cats are down to two members, since the half-drowned kid is carted away. The teams switch sides of the arena, giving the Sun Cats the high ground and leaving the Spider-Rats in the now muddy bottom of the pool, since most of the water is now splashed on the crowd. Victoria gets off to a better start, fireblasting the Sun Cat holding the statue off the top of the wall and sending him falling into the mud. The earthbending Sun Cat gets really angry and first uses some advanced sandbending to create a glass dagger that he sends flying at Taka. When Take easily blocks it with an earthen wall, the Cat uses his powers to lift the entire arena off the ground, causing it to shudder about and send people flying everywhere. Lyri pulls all the water and sweat off the crowd and uses it to knock the Sun Cats’ statue into his hands, winning the round and the match. The earthbending Sun Cat lets out a sigh of, “Oh, man,” and drops the entire arena, causing everyone to end up covered in mud and dirt.

Later, in the showers, there’s some great in-character banter where Victoria is frustrated about not being badass enough in the match, but offers to let Taka stay in her apartment instead of forcing him to sleep on the beach. Lyri mostly seems concerned about their money, as he’s trying to raise enough to leave Republic City and his family’s triad dealings far behind. Victoria is shocked that he (her secret crush) really doesn’t want to be here.

Lo Shang goes to talk with Jad, the Triple Threat bookie who runs the fights, about their money. Jad is counting up the take and whispering with the mysterious dude in sunglasses. Jad says that the Spider-Rats’ winnings from this fight just barely covers buying back into the circuit after they forfeited the last time (due to refusing to continue after their teammate’s injury), so they won’t earn any money until after the next fight. Lo Shang complains about the cost of food and training and the sunglasses dude interrupts him and says, “It’s okay, I’ll cover them,” pushing forward some money out of the triad funds. “I’m sure you’re good for it.” Lo Shang goes back and splits the money with the rest of the team, with a great line about “Don’t look a gift wolf-horse in the mouth!” when people complain about how meager it is.

Victoria wants to go out for noodles, but Lyri says that he can’t waste money on frivolous stuff like that. Victoria offers to treat him and then Lo Shang says, “That’s a great idea; let’s all go out for some team bonding,” which was not Victoria’s idea at all. They all go to a noodle shop, part of a regional chain founded decades ago by Uncle Iroh, and are slurping noodles when Taka’s crush, Mona — a perky Equalist rally-goer — walks by with another guy. She says, “Hi Taka, is this your… girlfriend?” pointing at Victoria, who is sitting next to him. Lo Shang pipes up with, “No, you’re looking at the Spider-Rats: Republic City’s next great pro-bending team!” Taka tries to play this off — since Mona doesn’t know he’s a bender — by saying, “Haha, Lo Shang, you’re such a joker!” and quickly walking down the road with Mona and her friend Khan, away from the noodle house. Mona says that she and Khan are headed to an Equalist rally later in the week, the same day as the Spider-Rats’ next match, and invites Taka to come. He agrees and it’s clear that Khan is a jerk and is suspicious of Taka. Back at the noodle shop, Victoria tries to flirt with Lyri, but Lo Shang’s boisterous enthusiasm keeps getting in the way.

Eventually Victoria and Taka head back to Victoria’s apartment, and Taka marvels at how nice it is and meets her pet fire-ferrets. They collapse into bed and fall asleep.

Lyri heads down to the harbor, stalked by some mysterious figures who include the Sun Cat that he saved from nearly drowning, and takes his personal kayak back out to the houseboat that he shares with his large family. When he gets home, a minor Triple Treat boss is going over some accounting details with his father and saying terrible things about rustics from the Water Tribe. His mother is restraining herself from punching the boss in the face, but is concerned about Lyri when he appears and has obviously been fighting. Lyri brushes off her concern and goes off to hide in his own “room”, which is just separated by curtains from the rest of the boat. However, before he nods off to sleep, a Triple Threat gangster comes in and says they have a job for him that pays decent money, but doesn’t let him ask any questions about it. Dreaming of getting the money to get away from all of this, Lyri agrees.

Finally, the episode closes with Lo Shang heading back to his sparring gym to sleep on the floor, when he gets jumped in an alley by a bunch of thugs who seem to have some ties with the Sun Cats. They kick out his bad knee and loom over him as he lies on the ground. Lo Shang begins to use metal-bending on his cane to take some of them out, but the leader makes it clear that any violence will not end well for him. The thugs say that this is retaliation for one of the Sun Cats almost drowning under that rubble during the match, but Lo Shang asserts that pro-bending is dangerous and sometimes people get hurt. The lead thug threatens ominously: “You’re right, people DO get hurt.” And they all walk away.

Roll credits.

Episode 2

The second episode of the night launched with Lyri rolling a “gig”-style move to see how his errand for the Triple Threats went. Mixed result. Turns out the triad had a old hearse that they used to smuggle things, so the job involved picking up some coffins from various parts of the city and then loading them out onto a ship out near the beach shantys beyond the inner harbor, the ones that Taka used to hang out and surf near. But the triad smugglers on the boat needed an extra pair of hands to unload the coffins at their destination and Lyri, as the new kid, got picked. He gritted his teeth and agreed.

We flashed over to see what the other characters were doing. Victoria was just waking up from nightmares about her anxieties of failing in the ring, screaming Lyri’s name as he was burnt to a crisp. Taka is there and reassures her by offering totally inappropriate advice based on his own experiences: i.e. she should just run away from everything that upsets her.

Lo Shang goes to visit his mom, the semi-retired police sergeant, who cooks him a ridiculous meal and then teases him about not being married. Lo’s mom says she told an ambitious female police officer that Lo Shang teaches combatives and indicates that the officer might stop by his gym for a practice session, suggesting pretty blatantly that Lo Shang should ask her on a date. Lo objects that he can’t have cops involved in his activities, but his mom sweeps his protests aside.

Back in the harbor, Lyri helps the triad smugglers unload the coffins behind Aang’s giant statue in the middle of the bay, which they claim is prime smuggling real estate because “Nobody ever comes here anymore, except for during festivals.” As the smugglers begun to ready the ship for departure, Lyri hears a tapping sound coming from one of the coffins and a voice says: “Is anybody there? You have to help me!” Lyri, alarmed, tells the speaker to be quiet and quickly walks over to leave with the smugglers… only to come back later in the day, in his own kayak, bringing a hatchet which he uses to break open the coffin. Inside, he finds a recent arrival from the Northern Water Tribe, a young noblewoman named Taeda Tanaka who was kidnapped by the Triple Threats and is being ransomed to her family. Lyri knows he’s likely to be in serious trouble with the triads for helping her escape, but he kayaks her across the harbor and plans to hide her in the sparring gym that Lo Shang lives in.

Meanwhile, at morning practice, Victoria is the only one who has arrived on time, so Lo Shang tries to teach her some snappy repertoire to use during matches (like “If you mess with fire, you’re gonna get burned!”). At that moment, Alisha the policewoman walks in the front door, inspects the very obvious and illegal pro-bending training equipment in the room, takes off her metal armor, and begins practicing earthbending. She’s good, but her control is not what it once was, as she’s gotten used to the precision of metalbending, and she takes out one of the gym windows with a practice stone. At that point, Taka walks in and Lo Shang tries to turn attention away from Alisha’s awkward presence by encouraging him to try that glassbending trick the Sun Cats’ sandbender did during the last match, maybe even to fix the broken window. Taka gives it a fair shot (I warned that he could only succeed on a 12+), but the sand he pulled from a old punching bag simply explodes all over the room, getting in everyone’s hair and clothes.

And that’s when Lyri and Taeda arrived, just in time to get a face full of sand. Alisha says: “Wait, you’re Taeda Takana, aren’t you? We’ve been looking for you all week! Where have you been?” But Lyri nails a manipulation roll to half-convince the cop that Taeda is “my cousin, Mika, visiting from the Southern Water Tribe.” Alisha looks at him squinty but doesn’t make a move. She does however tell Lo Shang that she wants to polish up her earthbending and that, if he’ll help her improve back to her formal level of mastery, that she won’t report any of his illicit doings here in the gym and in the illegal pro-bending circuit. Lo Shang agrees, not really having much choice (plus a little bit smitten). Feeling jealous and wanting to keep Taeda away from Lyri, Victoria offers to let her live in her apartment as well, so she doesn’t have to live in the gym with Lo Shang.

On the day of their next match, Taka goes to the Equalist rally to meet up with Mona, who is there with Khan. Mona gives Taka an earful of Equalist rhetoric and Khan asks awkward questions like “So when did you first feel that something had to be done about benders?” Then Amon appears to give a speech, but they’re too far away to properly hear him, so Mona grabs both the boys and tries to push her way to the front of the crowd. Taka actually uses earthbending to try to subtly clear their path to Amon (!!!), and nails his role, so no one else is the wiser. They catch the last of Amon’s speech and then Khan goes backstage to meet Amon personally. Taka and Mona talk a bit about their ideals and then Taka tries to impress her by dragging her backstage to meet Amon as well. However, just as they get there, they see Khan getting into an Equalist van with Amon and driving away. Mona looks heartbroken that Khan’s left to be a “real Equalist” without her.

Then it was time for the second match, which took place on an old houseboat floating out beyond the harbor, where the police could only track them down after it was too late. Of course, Taka was missing because he was at the Equalist rally and the triads were starting to pressure Lo Shang about finding an alternate. It looked for a moment like Lo Shang himself might be forced to step in, but then Alisha appeared out of nowhere, wearing the trademark Spider-Rat headband around her eyes as a mask, and said that she was Taka’s replacement. Ding! The bell sounded.

Round One: This match was against the Ice Goblins, who they’d encountered just before the match with the Sun Cats. The Ice Goblins were all waterbenders (since underground bending doesn’t require a proper distribution of benders) and began by freezing the water beneath the boat into an iceberg and tipping it up on one end. Alisha slid down the deck and grabbed the side, just before sliding into the water. Lyri turned the iceberg into a thousand shards, sending it flying towards the Goblins, and then Victoria finally decided she would do something awesome, firing off bolts of lighting through the iceshards making a massive cloud of thundersnow that electrocuted the Ice Goblins and sent their statue tumbling into the ocean below. Lyri jumped in the water after it but saw that Taeda had secretly come to the match and had actually dove in after the statue as well, trying to be helpful. Meanwhile, Alisha, missing the absence of her armor, used metalbending to extract a bunch of nails from the boat and mold them into a metal gauntlet around her fist. She then launched herself at the remaining Ice Goblins and started pummeling them with the help of Victoria, who was blasting flame and lightning everywhere. Lyri made it to Taeda, who in turn had the statue, but the water above them was frozen over and they were trapped beneath it. Lyri used her bending to separate out a disk of ice above them and turn it over, flipping them up onto the surface. The bell sounded: they had won the round.

Round Two: There was only one Ice Goblin left standing, and he gripped the statue looking very intimidated. Alisha, who was holding the Spider-Rats’ statute, strode menacingly across the sinking remains of the boat towards their only opponent and threatened to brain him with her statue. Giving up, the Goblin passed his statue over to her and she raised them both over her head in triumph. Ding! They were victorious.

Afterward, walking back home soaking wet and shivering, Victoria confronts Taka, as he had arrived late wearing an Equalist badge he picked up at the rally. He responds: “Well, the Equalists have a point! Maybe there should be a governing council of six members, three benders and three non-benders! Or, since there are so many more non-benders, maybe it should be by population, with 5 non-benders and only 1 bender!” Victoria was about to say something but then admitted that the Equalists did have a point. She asserted, however, that she wasn’t objecting to their goals, necessarily, just the way they went about achieving them.

Finally, the episode ended with the mysterious guy in sunglasses sneaking into Victoria’s apartment while everyone is off at the match, slipping his way past the easily distracted fire-ferrets. Tip-toeing from room to room, he manages to stumble across Taeda’s embroidered Water Tribe parka lying on one of the beds. He picks it up and examines it. “Interesting…”

Roll credits.


Dungeon World: Dark Heart of the Dreamer

June 5, 2012

Sage and Adam’s already immensely successful Kickstarter campaign for Dungeon World just announced the first stretch goal, my Planescape / Eberron / Everway / Exalted / Earthdawn / Shadowrun-inspired planar adventure/supplement, Dark Heart of the Dreamer, which is zooming in from the outer voids to melt faces.

“Dark Heart of the Dreamer” is a sandbox-style adventure and setting toolkit torn from the pages of the Planarch Codex, the lost gazetteer of the planes. The monstrous city of Dis is gradually consuming the entire cosmos and now hosts refugees from dozens of destroyed worlds. Can a motley posse of destitute freelancers brave the Ocean of Fire and seize the enormous living treasure their slumbers have revealed? And what will their efforts mean for Dis, its inhabitants, and the city’s newest victims? “Dark Heart” points a finger in the direction of epic dangers and then hands you the reins.

Writing and layout by Jonathan Walton with a cover image by the great Jenn Rodgers. Special thanks to Hans Chung-Otterson and Simon Carryer.

While I’m most interested in making an exciting product that people can’t stop themselves from using at the table, my subversive not-so-secret goal with this adventure/supplement (which is about 65-75% done right now, drawing on notes I made for Gamestorm) is to completely change the way people approach writing adventures for RPGs. Because, let’s face it, adventure writing has pretty much sucked since 1985. So whether you just like crazy planar adventures, are interested in presenting a diverse and multicultural world in your games, or want to see my latest attempt to subvert our hobby, I think you might enjoy “Dark Heart.”


Korra Hack: Playtest Version

March 26, 2012

So last Thursday I watched a Youtube stream of the unreleased first episode of The Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender. And, since we were at Gamestorm and all excited, I wrote a little one-page Apocalypse World hack for running it. There’s a lot about this playtest draft that won’t be clear at all from just looking at it (it’s just a character sheet and most of the game only exists in my head), but I wanted to share anyway. I didn’t end up getting to playtest it or try some of the ideas out in practice, but hopefully soon.

In any event, you can download the game here: The Legend of You.


Planarch Codex: Human Heritage

March 21, 2012

The new heritage rules in the Planarch Codex (“when you invoke your rights of blood and tradition”) means that humans need some monster moves. Here’s my initial shot at those.

Humans are short-lived creatures of passion and destiny. They may be weak and petty from the perspectives of most other species, but they feel more deeply, love more strongly, and recklessly attempt the most dangerous and impossible things, for their timelines are measured in years, not centuries. And, for that, the gods and demons favor them above nearly all others. Want to get things done or shake things up? Throw some humans at a situation.

Monster Moves

  • make someone fascinated by you
  • escape from restraint, bondage, or captivity
  • earn the attention of one or more powerful forces
  • persevere
  • any other monster move that doesn’t require special powers or abilities (reflecting the incredible diversity of human ethnicity and culture)

Planarch Codex: Posse Creation

March 19, 2012

Cleric! You have fallen in with a band of planejumping sell-swords, cut-purses, and diabolists!

  • Yes, for I have been defrocked for the crime of ________ and sent into exile, though the god ________ still heeds my prayers and must have some plan for me.
  • Yes, for I am the last surviving keeper of the ancient and noble faith of ________, now lost to (violence, time, cataclysm, fissure, or conversion).
  • Yes, for I am a dark templar of my faith, charged to seek out lost secrets, sources of power, and ________, all for the greater glory of ________.

Fighter! You have fallen in with a band of planejumping apostates, cut-purses, and diabolists!

  • Yes, for I was born and raised among the wretched and outcast in ________, living hand to mouth, dreaming of future riches and ________.
  • Yes, for I am the black sheep (or exiled scion) of the noble house of ________, and this is the ignoble company I keep, obscuring and protecting me from ________, who has “great plans” for me.
  • Yes, for I am through with the wars and battles of ________, and will live out the rest of my days as a servant to my own interests, seeking ________.

Rogue! You have fallen in with a band of planejumping sell-swords, apostates, and diabolists!

  • Yes, and what else is new? I used to ________ with ________, and they were no better than this lot, that’s for certain.
  • Yes, but it’s only a temporary situation. You see, I have grand plans for ________, if only ________ would stop blocking my path to true greatness.
  • Yes, but how else would these idiots know where to find big piles of loot? They’re the unfortunate cost of doing business and I have this great job in mind where we can get ________ from ________.

Wizard! You have fallen in with a band of planejumping sell-swords, apostates, and cut-purses!

  • Yes, and such is the lot of a wizard, to be shunned and feared by pleasant society. Luckily these unsavory types don’t ask too many questions about my strange and unsavory practices, such as ________ and ________.
  • Yes, but once the wizards of ________ acknowledge the true earth-shattering potential of my new line of research into ________, they will beg me to teach them my methods.
  • Yes, but I’m not your average hide-behind-the-armored-dude hedge-mage who crawls head-first into a hole in the ground wearing fancy robes. I like to get my hands dirty. How else do you learn the real stuff like ________ and ________?

Lafferty vs. Buddha: The Source of All Harm

March 15, 2012

Lafferty met the Buddha of the Waste on the side of the blasted highway. Lafferty reached for his holster.

“Wait,” said the Buddha. “Tell me: what is the source of all harm?”

“Me,” Lafferty chuckled. “Well, me and Charlene here,” he gestured to his signature shotgun (3-harm close loud).

“Alas, but it is not so,” the Buddha replied. “The seething masses may claim that harm is caused by weapons, but the first noble truth is that life is suffering. For us, that means that harm is always caused — in the end — by the fiction.”

“Goodbye,” said Lafferty, pulling the trigger. But there was just a dull click; Charlene had jammed. Or else the bullets had gotten soaked through when he crossed that river of sewage a couple days back.

“An excellent example!” the Buddha exclaimed. “Where’s your 3-harm now, Laffer-”

Then the operator was on him, wrapping his cold hands around the Buddha’s throat and squeezing.

But when it was over, Lafferty knelt next to the Buddha’s lifeless body, starring down at his own calloused, trembling fingers (1-harm hand), and he knew that the Buddha was correct.


The Afterborn: YA-AW

March 12, 2012

So I got inspired and made a thing:

You Carry the Burden of the Future

Apocalypse World is no place to raise children. Sometimes, though, a hardholder or scavenger brood makes a pact—with the blasted heath, with the poisoned ground, with the Psychic Maelstrom itself—and the pact is this: OBEY THE LAW AND YOU WILL SURVIVE.

And so a haven is created amidst all the want and suffering, a hardhold of sorts but something more, something almost civilized. Children are born and raised within its limits, taught to fear the world beyond and to obey the law, taught the means of survival. Generations go by, and yet the people remain.

But humanity is curious and heedless; they do not obey the law but break it—in part or in full—every day. And thus every day the broken world chips away at this mote of security and stability, awaiting the day when it will be consumed in desperation and darkness.

The ones known as the Angel, the Battlebabe, and so on… maybe they were born and raised in a place such as this, a place long ago and far away, a place without the constant fear of death and want, a place long since consumed. If so, these are the stories they tell no one, the stories of what they used to be before the broken world made them hard, cool, hot, and weird, the stories of growing up.

Bibliography: Thanks for These Dark Dreams

– The White Mountains (1967) by John Christopher
– Clay’s Ark (1984) by Octavia E. Butler
– Invitation to the Game (1990) by Monica Hughes
– The Giver (1993) by Lowis Lowry
– Reign of Fire (2002), directed by Rob Bowman
– City of Ember (2003) by Jeanne DuPrau
– The Village (2004), directed by M. Night Shyamalan
– The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins
– The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009) by Carrie Ryan
– The Passage (2010), parts III-VI, by Justin Cronin
– After the Apocalypse (2011) by Maureen McHugh
– “The Villager” for Dungeon World (2012) by Jason Morningstar

You can download it here. I haven’t playtested it yet (so take it for what it is) but I plan to do so at Gamestorm later this month, assuming I don’t get a chance earlier. It’ll definitely always be a hack that’s 2-4 playbooks long, at most, and will never turn into a big commercial hack (I just don’t see the need for it, honestly).


The Anti-Economics of Anti-Publishing

February 25, 2012

Often, it seems that the prevailing wisdom about indie game publishing is:

  • every game designer should strive to get their games published (how else can you call yourself a game designer?) and to sell a whole bunch of copies (validating their abilities)
  • any game that’s fun should be somewhere in the process of getting published (preferably in print and preferably launched at one of the big conventions)
  • indie game publishing should be run like a small business (minimizing costs and maximizing profits), not like a “vanity” project (the horror!)
  • nobody expects to quit their day job, but wouldn’t that be nice?

To which, I would like to say, very clearly: fuck that.

Publishing is a means to an end, and that end is delivering an experience of play. Anything that you do in publishing that does not focus on delivering a solid play experience to other folks is a distraction from the task at hand. Sometimes you might weight your options and decide, sure, I guess I have to do that in order to achieve the goals I want, but remember why you are publishing a game, which isn’t necessarily to sell more copies if that doesn’t end up creating solid play experiences. Sales != play. Sales != success (financial success maybe, but not a successful game; Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made a lot of money, remember). Sales are just sales.

To rant a little bit:

  • you and your game do not need to be formally published or sell any copies to be validated as being awesome; you just have to be awesome in the first place, which is hard enough; most games — even most decent games — are not particularly viable as commercial products: enjoy them for what they are; as Elizabeth said so eloquently just recently, you become a game designer by making games, whether you formally publish them or not, no matter how many you sell
  • rushing your game to publication (because you want to be a “published designer” or to launch at a big convention) does harm to your game; as folks like to say: it’s only late once, but it’s bad forever (and as an indie designer you get to set the deadlines, so it’s only late in your own mind); sure, you can release a “revised” version in a year or two, but you can’t update the copies and experiences of the early adopters who picked up your game when it wasn’t finished
  • small business publishing is a minefield and includes lot of un-fun tasks and responsibilities (tracking expenses, filing taxes, registering business licenses); you should not feel required to run a small business just because you wrote a game that’s kinda cool (do you feel required to run a small business because you wrote a couple songs and started a band? hell no!)
  • the amount of money that you can make publishing a game as a small business can be substantial, but — in the vast majority of cases, for the vast majority of games — may not be worth the amount of time and effort you’re going to have to put into your small business; most games aren’t going to sell as many copies as Fiasco or Burning Wheel, even if you’re aiming for a large audience (which you might not be! maybe you’re nailing a niche interest, like a game that builds awareness about human trafficking)
  • the vast majority of indie games are essentially “vanity” projects, even if their publisher is attempting to act like a small business, because the money made is not super significant and the main purpose of publishing is to disseminate the material, not to run a profitable enterprise; this actually opens your options substantially, because you don’t have to worry about maximizing profits, just getting your game out there without losing too much (or any) money
  • if you don’t like your job, that sucks; but game design and publishing is not really a viable employment alternative for most people, so maintaining the pipe dream of eventually becoming a full-time game designer and publisher can actually be counterproductive, getting in the way of developing more rational and achievable goals or figuring out what you really want to get out of this
  • additionally, game design (in my experience) is much less fun and much more limited when it’s your job rather than something you do on the side; as a professional, you are significantly less free to pursue any project you might want, because you’re limited to just the projects that have strong commercial potential and are forced to work around relatively strict deadlines in order to maintain cash flow, releasing products that may or may not be ready or working ridiculous hours to make sure the game is finished in time for you to pay rent

In fact, everything gets turned on its head (or, really, turned right-way-up, rather than the default upside-down viewpoint) when you decide that making money is not necessarily one of the core goals of indie game publishing. I have a blog category that’s called Anti-Publishing for specifically this reason, because publishing practices that aren’t wealth-maximizing sometimes look a bit strange from the perspective of a commercial endeavor. But, coming from the other direction, trying to maximize the meager profits of indie publishing often seems downright ludicrous to me, especially because I’m lucky enough to really like my job and can’t really imagine trying to make a living in tabletop games. Why run a small business if it’s not necessarily the most efficient or enjoyable way to disseminate your game? It’s super restrictive and not much fun besides.

To illustrate how pervasive wealth-maximizing behavior is in indie publishing, let me offer a specific example. Lately I’ve been really into this all-organic, all-recycled print shop in Portland called Pinball Publishing. They run both Scoutbooks.com, which prints little booklets with chipboard covers, and a new service called Print Pinball which produces a variety of chipboard cards that are full-color only on one side. Because Pinball is a small print shop that uses super-high quality materials (organic and recycled stuff isn’t cheap) and prints the old fashioned way, rather than on a photocopier, their prices are obviously higher than the POD and short-run print services commonly used by the post-Forge indie games crowd. In my mind, higher print costs are not a problem at all; they just mean you have to target an audience that is willing to pay for a better or more involved product (say one with a bunch of components). Especially with Kickstarter and other crowdfunding options nowadays, people have shown that they will pay whatever it costs to get something that they desire, and you don’t even have to pay the cost upfront and hope to recoup (like you used to).

But when I talk to other indie games folks about how excited I am about the cool new product formats that Pinball makes possible, I get responses like:

  • Jason Morningstar: “…250 business cards cost $85?”
  • Joe Mcdaldno: “I’ve really wanted to figure out a way to work with them on printing a book… But after visiting and revisiting the idea, it just seems so unfeasible. I’d need to print 500-1000 copies of the game in order to have it come even reasonably close to being as cheap as other POD options.”

Which, fair enough, they’re certainly entitled to their own opinions, but come on, guys; you’re not publishing games to feed and clothe your children, are you? (if so, that’s nuts; publishing is no way to make steady, predictable income). Sometimes you have to pay more to get more. Just price the game higher, if it really bothers you. Or deal with making slimmer profits. Or Kickstart the whole thing and don’t worry about the extra cost at all. I mean, is this indie publishing or what? Deciding that we have to stick with super-cheap POD products produced on a photocopier is just as nuts as thinking that indie games have to all be full-color hardcovers or hand-stitched booklets. Wealth-maximizing seems logical but it is ultimately just as much of a trap as any other unquestioned behavior, placing strict artificial limits on what you can do. After all, the money and the commercial endeavor is not the point, right? It’s just the means.

Another Way

Indie publishing looks really different when you start from the assumption that you’re not in this to make money, but to product a quality game and get it in the hands of your target audience.

First off, you can take all the time you need, weeks, months, years, decades, however long it takes for the game to do what you want it to do. What’s the rush? Whoever dies having written the most games still dies. Ideally you want to leave this planet having created games that delivered memorable play experiences, which doesn’t necessarily happen if you try to publish one game a year or stick to some other artificial schedule. Sometimes you can write a great game in 2 hours. Sometimes it takes 2 decades. Besides, there are so many great games out there to play; it’s not like you or anyone else is deprived because they don’t have your game to play. You shouldn’t feel the need to commercially publish a game just because you can, but because you’ve crafted a worthwhile experience (or range of experiences) and want to share them with others. My approach (shared by a few other designers) is to publish informally early and often, never promising that there will necessarily be a future version, but hoping that—out of that iterative design process—a “finished” game may eventually emerge. In the meantime, though, people can enjoy the games for what they are, while I still have all the time in the world to finish them.

Second, you don’t have to think about publishing in terms of a small business, though legally you might have to register yourself as a small business or publish through someone else who is running a small business, so you can pay taxes and keep expenses straight. This allows you to focus more on delivering the experience to your audience and less on profit-maximizing or logistics. For example, I can create a product that costs $34 to put together and sell it for $35. Sure, I don’t want to loose a whole ton of money unnecessarily, but I don’t need to make money either. Heck, I could decide that instead of buying a new Playstation, or whatever else, I’m going to put that $250 into making a few copies of a game that I give away to my friends. That’s not publishing in any traditional sense, but it’s creating a game and disseminating it to an audience. And there’s no reason to think it necessarily has to cost money, either; it can just cost time and energy. How many people has John reached with Ghost/Echo, Lady Blackbird, and Danger Patrol (all free)? That’s a huge example of the power of “anti-publishing,” and also of the same iterative “release early and often” design process that I mentioned above.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly at all, you can make games that would be lousy commercial products, without feeling like you have to justify them somehow. I talked about this a bit earlier in a post on limited-edition games. If you don’t have to sell N copies of your game in order to feel successful or make back your investment, you’re really free to design anything that you can conceive of, sharing it with whatever audience you feel you can reach, even if it’s just a few other people. A lot of game designers seem to be torn between what they want to design and what some imaginary audience wants. This way, there’s no need to compromise if you aren’t inclined to. Make whatever game you want to make, regardless of whether you imagine it has broad appeal. (Honestly, I would be shocked if a well-designed game, no matter how strange, didn’t find some audience, but that’s neither here nor there.) However, this also means that you can’t have strong expectations or a sense of entitlement about how large the audience will be, since your audience is whatever it is, based on the choices you’ve made for your game.

To me, this approach to indie game publishing is not strange or weird, but the way things should be. There’s no reason for indie games to follow the bizarre and not-especially-viable practices that commercial games “industry” does. Why do we have to print hundreds of copies, loose a bunch of money trying to get ourselves into distribution and game stores, have booths at conventions, and the like? We can choose to do those things, no doubt, and probably do them more effectively than larger game companies, but there’s no need to necessary play by the same rules, when we didn’t choose these practices in the first place. We can choose to do whatever we want, and choosing to act as non-commercial entities, as hobby endeavors rather than small businesses, gives us a lot more flexibility and freedom, in my mind.

At PAX Dev last year, Vincent described indie game publishing as being able to decide, at any moment, that you’re going to stop selling your game. Instead, I’d describe indie publishing as being able to decide, from the very beginning, that you’re not necessarily going to sell your game at all. And hopefully we’ll see more exploration of non-commercial “anti-publishing” means of dissemination in the coming years.


Notes from the Pub

January 18, 2012

This is a smattering of thoughts drawn from recent design discussions, so I can have them for future reference.

Fingers on the Firmament

  • Emily’s game Caravan Solitaire is amazing and does many of the things I want this game to do.
  • I should finish the short game based on Journey first, since it’ll get me part of the way there.
  • The game should probably be 1-on-1 as default, with the GM playing the landscape of space and the ruins. When you meet other people, the game stops and you have to invite other people into the game to play them. They can decide to hang around for later stuff or not. I’m not sure the GM ever plays NPCs, though they might play ghosts or memories. Every person you meet is a distinct PC and that person can then take that character with them, find another GM, and continue their story.
  • Convention or meetup play would involve a bunch of characters gathering together to attempt a major feat, like exploring an unfamiliar region or deciphering a complex ancient mystery.
  • Play creates a record of new places and ruins and creations that you put up on the internet, creating a “living campaign” that others can participate in.
  • I’ve been worried about the moves for traveling between the stars, but that should be one of the fruitful voids, perhaps, with moves that — when taken together — allow you to do that, but without a single travel move that’s too on-the-nose. Players should be encouraged to seek out the fictional positioning that makes traveling possible or safer.
  • Playing out certain portions of the games “unlocks” moves for both the PC who does it and later folks who play through that same series of locations in the “living campaign.” In order to be able to do certain things, then, you may have to play with characters of a certain type/level or find someone who’s unlocked certain achievements and get them to send you their campaign notes.

Geiger Counter

  • In the new version, there are cards for specific characters (“Choi”), setting types (“Deep Freeze,” “The Facility”), menace types (“Hunter,” “Horde”), and locations (“Generator Room,” “Alien Ruins”). All of these have conditions that the menace player can choose to apply when they are in play in a given scene.
  • Location cards give a brief description of how to draw the location on the map and, on the back, have scene framing suggestions for what you might do in that space, in the event that you don’t have strong feelings about what you want to do. They may even involve other locations, such as “someone shows up in a different room with news from this location.”
  • There’s some way to encourage folks to frame really short scenes? Or vary the length of scenes instead of having them all roughly the same length?

Limited Edition Games

January 15, 2012

Archived here from a discussion on SG.

I’ve been thinking a lot about limited edition games because some of my most interesting game concepts probably have a rather limited audience, due to both interest and the necessity of certain physical components.

Examples!

I bought a copy of Cunningham & Venezky’s Diaspora playing cards a few years back, which describe humans abandoning civilization and animals slowly taking over the cities. There are only 300 decks in existence and maybe only a few owned by members of the indie games community (because a link to it was posted on SG a while back). So if I design a game that uses the deck, it would be a very limited-edition thing, only playable with people who owned a copy of the deck. Could be a big hit at conventions, since it might be your only chance to play it! But not very effective as a commercial product for the masses.

Another thought: my game Metrofinal is really crazy and weird, but the components are really difficult to produce in a way that makes them reusable. Players have to be able to draw on the game board and write on the components, but — unlike Risk Legacy or something — it’s a single session game, not a campaign-length experience. So either I produce components as pads of sheets in a boxed set — sorta like Luke and Jared did with Freemarket — or I produce the game in packets of printed products that you dispose of afterwards: you’d effectively purchase the material for playing the game once and would have to buy a new set to play again. Maybe you destroy the components in a ritual fashion afterwards? Still pondering that. Maybe it just shouldn’t be turned into a commercial product at all.

Lastly, I own two copies of Hodge & Wright’s landmark photographs of the Small Magellanic Cloud, which are 11×11″ cardboard prints in a box of 200+ sheets. These will eventually be crucial components for playing Fingers on the Firmament, where players will draw on the star photos to make maps of space. There’s probably a limit to how many copies of the game I can hand-assemble from used copies of Hodge & Wright’s prints. Plus, the 11×11″ dimensions are going to make them really hard to ship or do much else with. So maybe I’ll make 20-50 copies and that’s all the copies that will ever exist.

I realize that many designers feel a natural desire for their games to be played by as many people as possible, but sometimes an experience can be more special, intimate, and valuable if it is extremely limited and special. And, as indie designers, we’re not dependent on selling a bunch of games for our livelihood, like the folks at WOTC or even Green Ronin. Nobody’s going to lose their job if you just sell 10 copies to the folks who really believe in and desire your game.


Explicit Procedures and the Permission to Decide

January 13, 2012

One of the projects that I’ve been doing volunteer consulting on lately, as part of the new plan for Corvid Sun, is actually a previously planned collaboration with two old friends: They Became Flesh with Elizabeth and Shreyas. These thoughts came out of our discussion today—pretty basic and I’m surely not the first to say this kind of thing, but it’s still important.

If there are sections of your game that can be effectively captured with really explicit procedures, then, by all means, write them out that way. There are enough emergent properties inherent in play — from the other players, the fictional situation, etc. — that you don’t need folks to have to make up large swaths of “how to play your game.” Tell them WHEN to do WHAT and HOW, step by step, with just the contextual info they need to make it happen.

However, there are plenty of really important and meaningful aspects of play that can’t be effectively captured that way, especially if your game is intended to have a meaningful emotional impact on those playing. And sometimes the mechanical feel of the game demands more judgment calls than strict procedures.

But even in those cases, I think it works best if the text explicitly empowers the players to make those judgment calls instead of abandoning them to decide things for themselves, if that makes sense. When texts disclaim responsibility or say “just wing it!”, they feel incomplete, like the designers have copped-out or doesn’t really have any clue what the players should do. But when texts say, “examine the situation from this perspective and make a reasonable decision,” they feel empowering and liberating. Then the players know that they have some leeway in this area and can safely decide things to the best of their ability without being too worried about making the wrong decision.

Practically, from the perspective of what the players do at the table, it can be nearly the same thing, but games in the latter mode feel more supportive, like they’re on the side of the players (and thus, in my experience, get played more often).

These two styles work really well when combined together. When the things that need to be done in an exact way are explained very explicitly, the players can do them (surprise!) and know that it’s more or less what the designer intended. And then they feel more confident when the designer says, “there’s some leeway here, make a judgment call,” because they’re operating within a bounded space between explicit procedures.

But if everything is somewhat muddy, if it’s not clear when you should follow procedures exactly (or if there even are standard procedures) and when you should decide for yourself (and how to do that), then you’ve left the players to assemble their own game out of content you’ve haphazardly thrown at them. Some of them will still have a ton of fun, probably, since I’m sure many of your ideas are cool and they’re smart, creative people. But that’s really more to their credit than to yours, as a designer, since there’s no way for their fun experience to be consistently replicated by other folks.