sand dogs v0 doc

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Time for a break then back to the digging.

The first draft of the playtest doc for Sand Dogs is now publicly available! If you give it a spin or even just a read, please reach out. And share as far and wide as you like.

This doc is obviously incomplete but it’s also certainly enough to run a game — it’s all we’ve been using for the past six weeks or so. Much more is coming, including ways to develop tomb artifacts, gods, and stuff like that.

If you dig it, consider grabbing a copy of The King Machine (same system), which is on sale for less than 5 bucks in PDF until next year. You can have a very monkey Christmas with that.

wormholes and waystations

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My art, but it feels thematically consistent.

Today I’m going to look at Joshua Kubli’s magnum opus, Wormholes and Waystations. Joshua keeps a current set of links in its own doc, including contact info. This is an enormous tome, nearly 400 pages of material, that delivers a space-opera OSR experience. It cleaves close to type, not providing rules that guarantee the theme but rather providing extensive rules for making characters, vehicles, and equipment that are consistent with the theme. That is, we build all the things that live in this universe and get a data dump of the state and history of the universe and then go. We don’t get rules for how to push the narrative to deliver the theme but rather trust the simulation to provide it as an emergent property.

Except in one little section you could almost miss, a gem: the type of ship the characters fly determines the mission type, and the mission is ultimately the driver, or at  least the kick-off, for the emergent narrative.

I usually have a problem with these kinds of games because they lack the focus to deliver what they claim they will deliver — they claim to generate a certain kind of story but in reality they set up the precursors for that story and then mostly hope that’s what happens. Fortunately, whatever happens is usually fun — it’s the claim that the game makes a particular thing happen when the game doesn’t actually have rules to do it that I find irksome.

However, in this game that one page of information out of nearly 400 does what it says on the box. Some examples:

Noble: Luxury vessels are manned by the wealthy, so the crew might be guards and servants for a pampered dilettante, or an idealistic and meddlesome
diplomat.

Odd Jobs: Give the PCs a Multi-Purpose ship if the plan is for them to travel from one world to another, taking any sort of job they can get. Multi-Purpose ships are also
good for piracy and smuggling; they’re fast, well-armed, fairly tough, and can still carry a fair amount of cargo.

Patrol: Patrol ships are good for a lighter-duty military campaign, or for law enforcement and bounty hunter vessels.

Scout: A new planet every week to explore and exploit! Give them an Exploration ship if they’re going to boldly go seek out new beings and new societies every few sessions.

Right there is the heart of the game: this is what you’re going to do and the system will provide all the pieces needed to deliver it. And most of the game is those pieces.

Character generation is enormous and detailed an a lot of fun. I’d compare it to Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera except this is more fun and less tedious. I’m a sucker for the bits of games where you make things and this game has tons of that.

This is a complete game but could benefit from your eyes on the text: does it do what it claims to do? Is it clear what you should do during character generation? From moment to moment in play? Is there more here than there needs to be? Not enough?

I’m certain it plays just fine: the basic model of play is time-tested. Does the text deliver it?

My personal observation is that it would be a better game if that mission section had more detail, even if just some oracles, some charts that triggered ideas in the ref’s brain. Develop each into a genuine inspiration for jumping into the action rather than the tantalizing but tiny offering that’s there now. If it had the same energy applied to it as other sections of the game have I’d be very enthusiastic about giving it a spin.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

too good to be true

2g2bt-titleThe first game in progress I’d like to highlight is Michael Prescott’s intriguing Too Good To Be True. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game but very interestingly it centers its focus on the battlefield: it’s a kind of narrative wargame! I wish I’d thought of that. You can grab the 0.14 beta of it if you want to give it a read or, better, a spin. Judging by the blog posts I’d guess that it’s progressed since that document having collided with a bunch of actual play through The Gauntlet.

Players are members of a mercenary company that has a randomly generated history (my favourite kind of history, obviously) and hopefully some built-in problems to solve.

Players get both a character and a mecha playbook to start with — so you are both the person and the machine — and each has very distinct features and functions. Mecha, for example, have armament, armour, and auxiliary equipment categories that carry over to the battlefield rules. Mercenaries have a lighter set of stats since the set of moves are essentially common to all. But they are distinctive, having a list of “specials” that they can choose from as they advance.

I find the idea of taking PbtA to the wargame environment downright delicious.

This material is certainly in a playable state and I think that’s what Michael needs now: play to test both the material and the text. If you dig the idea of tromping around a battlefield in a giant machine, I’m going to ask you to grab this and read it and, if you can, take it to your table. Even if you just read it, report back here–the author has said that there is some concern that it’s too terse. Is it? What needs padding out? Let’s make sure Michael gets some visibility and maybe even some concrete input to work on.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

making stuff

5848ec39-2cf8-4f8f-80a7-1c2fde24ddc4I’d like to try a little experiment. Please comment or send me mail and tell me about what game you’re making. How far along is it and what can we see right now? I would like to start talking about games that are getting made rather than abstract design questions and theory posting.

So what are you making?

I’ll try and write a post about each one, getting you some (what little I can do) visibility and maybe start discussion about the obstacles you have yet to hurdle and how we can help get around or over them.

So what are you making? Let’s all celebrate it and examine it. Stay positive, but usefully critical. I’ll moderate comments.

less indie more coöp?

The hardcore independent scene, where one person is doing everything from concept to delivery, is great fun for me. But it’s not in any way lucrative because I’m not good at everything. I really don’t want to get involved in conventional methods, though, with all the middlemen I don’t know taking a piece of the profits. And I don’t like the distance that comes with paying someone to do spec work.

I want to collaborate. I really want to be able to lean on a coöperative.

Consider a community (shared goals: real community) of people with various skills that can gang up to produce games. Maybe the organization sets the profit percentages to some standard so that everyone gets paid. But basically you’d have a pool of people you can collaborate with.

A user named tropical depression brought this up on the dice.camp Mastodon instance and I would love to develop it. Well, I would love for someone else to develop it: I am not a brilliant organizer of humans. But imagine a place where you could find that person who kicks ass at getting kickstarters out the door? Imagine a place where many of the people had a vested interest in your success and consequently helped hype your work? And all with keeping the risk down by avoiding pre-publication payments, instead sharing profits in a fair way? This would break down the whole publisher role and concentrate on creation and selling product.

Is anyone doing this already? Sign me up. I find the recent re-focus on traditional print-warehouse-sell very disheartening, moving us backwards from the power creators have with POD. It re-introduces risk that doesn’t need to be there and it reinforces boss-minion power structures, paying “staff” instead of collaborating with other creators and sharing the fruits of that work. The new old way makes me a marketer and I’m not a marketer. I want to leverage grass-roots enthusiasm, not develop a Twitter brand. I want to share and get shared.

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Juan Ochoa is so much better at this bit than I am. Why not let him flex?

I also don’t want to work for free. I don’t want anyone to work for free. But I want an artist I work with to come to the table with creative input, not just fill a spec. Artists, it turns out, are really good at art. They excel at colour balance, composition, and all that good stuff that they often set aside to meet a specification. Usually from someone who’s not as good as they are. What if, instead, that cover art was the best art a real artist could make based on their reading of the material? What if we worked together, not just on the same schedule, but to share the creative process in its entirety?

Similarly with writers and developers: what if we genuinely brought our creative energy together to write that text? I always talk about letting the players bring their creative vision to the narrative of a role-playing game — isn’t the logical extension of that belief in others’ creativity allowing others to share the conceptualization of a new game?

What technology would be necessary (I hate to burden actual work with picking technologies since technology is sexier than working) to collaborate effectively? Would a coöp need to standardize or just cope with everyone’s favourite workflow? Could it at least provide advice based on expert knowledge? It could.

And distribution: it seems like working with the existing sales and fulfilment experts would be valuable for everyone. DriveThruRPG and Indie Press Revolution could both benefit from some kind of relationship with an organization that consistently produces in a fair and diverse way. And that relationship could streamline the rough parts of working with those marketplaces. I’m sure there are others as well.

Could I relinquish enough of my own vision to let that happen? I’d love to give it a try.

But I don’t know where to start and I’m the wrong person to start it. I’d be a very enthusiastic member, though. Vocal, opinionated, and producing work at a regular rate.

sand dogs playtest

I released the first playtest draft of Sand Dogs the other day, though for a while it’s available only to patrons. But what exactly do I expect from a playtest?

Well this is pretty late in the metaphorical game. The mechanical aspects are largely already complete and delivered in The King Machine, released in September. So for the core mechanisms of the game I’m not looking for input. And really, for a public playtest I wouldn’t be looking for that anyway. I split playtest into two distinct categories and the mechanical tinkering I do with people I know and love and trust completely. Now you, dear reader, I love as well, but I don’t really know you and so I can’t really trust you. I think you’re wonderful but I don’t know who you are.

What you can do, however, is even more important because I cannot trust people I know and love and trust to do it because they already know how the game works. I need other people to tell me if the text works.

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This could be you!

This is impossible for me to do because as I read I fill in gaps with stuff in my head. If something’s missing I may never spot it. If things are not in a useful order, hell how would I know, I only see one page at a time and I’ve seen them all a thousand times already. For me the text is a giant amorphous mass and not a sequence of instructions. For this step we need fresh eyes.

 

That’s you. Really that’s nearly everyone that’s not me.

So if you grab a copy of Sand Dogs here’s what you can do that’s valuable to me:

Read it. I mean, obviously, right? I need it read. If you read it, take a moment to tell me whether it made sense, whether you had unanswered questions. Often at this time I get a lot of lists of typos — that’s super valuable as well, but not exactly what I need. I need to know if the text delivers a game and if so which game (so I can compare with my intentions). Step one is, does it make enough sense to sit down and try to play?

Play it. Well, we call it playtesting for a reason I guess. If you play it I want to know things like, did you have to go back to the text? What for? And most importantly, were you able to find what you needed? Easily? These things really come out in play because when you’re confused about a game in play it’s urgent and that’s when the text’s organization needs to lead you in the right direction. People talk about “rules getting out of the way” and this is not what they mean but this is more important: do the physical representation of the rules (the book) get out of the way and let you find the information you need and know is hidden in there somewhere? The text is a teaching tool first, but forever afterwards it’s a reference and it needs to succeed in both roles. Does it?

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Or this. When it’s done.

Talk about it. Genuinely independent games (by which I mean a one or two dedicated losers like myself doing everything to get the game to print by themselves) need word of mouth to survive. If you love it, please in the name of all that’s holy, talk about it. If you only just like it, talk about it and talk about what you would improve. If you don’t like it, talk about it and especially talk about what you like and don’t like. No matter how you feel, talk about it: it will make it better and it will get it heard about. Visibility (I know I mixed a metaphor: sue me) is so very hard to get. You are how it happens.

Tell me about it. I need to know. I put it out there for my own nefarious purposes and not just as a patronage perq.

Thanks fiends. I genuinely think the Soft Horizon series is the best work I’ve ever done. It’s for grown ups. It’s fun. It’s sandboxish. It’s weird. It’s easy and fast. And it works online.

And I love you. I wouldn’t steer you wrong.

soft horizon status

The Soft Horizon project is in full swing, of course. I’ll recap the concept: I want to make a game that echoed my experiences reading Heavy Metal when I was younger — I want games that produced a similar kind of psychedelic anything goes (but not gonzo) experience. And I want there to be many places, many “issues” to play through. I want both Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius and The Immortal’s Fête and these are very different. And I want characters to ultimately move between them — visit different planes. And I want it to feel…serious. Serious in the way Heavy Metal often felt serious even though it’s not actually all that serious. Not “let’s talk about politics and relationships” serious but with real-seeming goals and real-seeming opposition and solutions that felt practical or even necessary. Not comic, maybe, is all that I can say. Yet potentially absurd.

Soft Horizon character Kar
Very early character sheet for Soft Horizon.

I experimented with a lot of ways to do this starting in 2009 or so. World generation re-using Diaspora, for example, was tested. It was cool but not quite right. Bolting the whole thing onto Fate was tested, but I kind of grew away from Fate. The feeling was too generic and the system more fiddly than I wanted. I wanted something that would cater to the same sort of creative energy I had writing my stream-of-consciousness novel, Myriad. It’s a bad novel. I’m serializing it at the Patreon page because it’s kind of fun serialized. But it’s not a good novel.

But it’s good gaming. A lot of bad media is good gaming. It almost seems as though bad media is better for good gaming than good media is. But then I have to define “good” and then the discussion goes to shit. We like to pretend things we love are “good” or even “great”. What I usually mean is that the media is not “sustaining”. Not “nourishing”. It doesn’t lead us to self discovery in any useful way. It doesn’t improve the way we tell our own stories. Anyway, feel free to dismiss that as elitist. I am elitist: I think some things are vastly better than other things, and more often than not those really great things are harder to absorb. Internalizing valuable new ideas is usually work and work-in-consumption is antithetical to a lot of perfect-for-gaming media. Conan has nothing really to teach me, but visually and energetically it spun out a lot of great gaming for me.

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Maybe not nourishing but easily as satisfying as any Snicker’s bar.

Anyway, the source material for Soft Horizon is not great media. But it is evocative (and comes with extremely good artwork) and that’s really all we need for a game: a sense of place that makes us want to elaborate for ourselves. Maybe a character that we’d like to explore (though I feel like that’s a bit of a trap, a mismatch between the “one big hero” model of most source media and the “group of equals” model of most games).

So the solution was to break Soft Horizon up into separate games, one per plane. Each one is self-contained but uses the same core rules, so there is a sort of Soft Horizon system but it’s not something you have to buy separately. Each game runs on its own power.

The King Machine is out and available.

coverCurrently I’m working on Sand Dogs. While I’m still playtesting, I’m mostly developing little specializations for this game. The core system is (largely) unaffected. So at the same time as I’m playstorming new mechanisms I’m laying out for a public playtest package. This is actually eating the most resources for me because a lot of that work is boring — re-writing extensive material from The King Machine to fit the new context. And I am not good with boring work. Oh, and re-formatting tables. I have to do that too. I’ve been publishing the playtest actual play transcripts here but I don’t know how interesting they are to others. Maybe more for posterity than for you. But I’ll try to keep that up.

One thing I’ll say about Sand Dogs so far is that everyone “gets” the aesthetic without much prompting. There’s something visceral about it. The King Machine is much weirder and much more entirely in my head and so harder to get people to engage with, but Sand Dogs has many media touchstones that give everyone a running start. It’s got desert tombs, aircraft, machine-guns, half-tracks, Webley revolvers, and everyone seems to smoke. Really, I don’t think I started that but my players are all figuratively lighting cigarettes in their narration. That’s fine, there’s no lung cancer mechanism.

One character certainly has a pencil moustache. That’s highly desirable, very Airtight Garage.

So the timeframe for a playtest release is mid-December now. And that places publication in January earliest, so I’ll miss my goal of three releases this year for the VSCA. I will soothe my internal project manager with Christmassy things.

 

movie influences

Film has certainly influenced the games I play and the games I design. Which films?

rollerball

film-1The first game I ever designed was a Rollerball simulator. Based on a single and heavily edited viewing on television I decoded the rules to the sport and built an oval track game complete with the starting gun, motorcycles, the magnetic goal, and punching.

I was 11 or 12. The game worked. So right out of the gate I knew I could make games. It would be a long time before I decided I could (and that would come mostly by being handed a way — POD) make games for other people to play.

Did my game manage to capture the theme of corporate management and violence as entertainment? No.

But it was a functional simulation of a fictional sport and it was fun to play. It is gone without a trace.

the road warrior

film-2This film fed into our love of all things apocalyptic (since we knew we were going to die in atomic fire). It added wild cars, which we hadn’t considered, and consequently drove the purchase and near-constant playing of Steve Jackson’s Car Wars.

Weirdly (though we were older now) we did get the underlying themes and did start playing games about rebuilding community and about the difference between survival and thriving. Of course the games were still combat-heavy and centered on our gear, whether vehicles or weapons, but we were also exploring how we would cope should we survive the coming nuclear disaster. In fact I spent a day with my social studies teacher driving around Vancouver taking pictures of buildings. When I got them developed (you had to do that in the Old Days) I marked them up with a technical pen, adding the necessary destruction: our games were about surviving the thermonuclear holocaust in our home town. And my idea of post-apocalypse would always center about my home town.

This wasn’t fantasy for us. This was planning. We really thought this could happen. And yet it still didn’t influence me enough to make me learn how to drive: in an emergency I could perhaps be the gyrocopter pilot but not Mad Max.

reservoir dogs

filme-3This film is primarily about being cool above all else. Above intelligence, above compassion, above common sense. Everyone in this film is obsessed with how cool they are and, most importantly, that they are cooler than everyone else. The big surrender at the end is a surrender of cool, the agony of compassion betrayed, an actual uncool warm masculine feeling undermined and soaked in blood.

Of course this was part of what would be Hollowpoint — a game in which you can only be violent. There is no mechanism for anything else and so any compassion you bring to the game is all you. It is constantly undermined by the mechanism. Eventually your character is taken out, and while that is prosaically death, most players have their characters leave in disgust at who they’ve become–and then roll up a character who is worse and start play by giving the rest of the group shit for screwing up and losing a partner. That is, the scene starts by establishing your cool dominance.

2001: a space odyssey

film-4Finally a space ship that might actually work. A space station with spin gravity. Weightlessness on the transit from Earth to the Moon. And the quiet coldness of hard science fiction.

I was a big reader of classic science fiction as a kid and when I read science fiction now it is more often older classics than newer material. Sure, I dig The Expanse of course, but it’s an outlier. Now 2001 didn’t really influence in a sense — it more epitomizes what I wanted out of science fiction gaming and consequently what I wanted from an sf game. It didn’t make me play Traveller, but it acted as visual and thematic touchstones for it. We spent a lot of time seeking ancient incomprehensible artifacts. We constantly made ourselves feel that the immediate drama of being human was in fact tiny and pointless compared to what the universe was really about. And it wasn’t about us.

Of course this aesthetic would carry on to Diaspora.

the duellists

film-5The Duellists is a Napoleonic period piece about obsession. One character (Harvey Keitel) is obsessed with his honour and duelling the other character (Keith Carradine) to the death. Feraud (Harvey) is single-minded and uncomplicated but not above fear. d’Hubert (Keith) has a full rich story for his life and is continuously nagged, tormented by Harvey’s pursuit and their periodic inconclusive duels.

The two characters are opposing views of (in an extreme way) what it means to be male. The senseless pursuit of honour as an excuse for violence destroys every other aspect of Feraud’s life and he doesn’t care. He has defined himself by this pursuit of violence. And on the other side is a man who tries to live a full, thoughtful, and compassionate life but is constantly forced to address the obsession of another man.

I’m pleased that I can see this stress in most of my games. That there is always an acknowledgement of the compassion that humans (and men, from my own perspective) must fight to preserve in the face of a world that sometimes only offers us violence and stupidity as an option. If the game is going to have violence in it, it’s going to be an interruption and not the focus. My hope is that we will pick up the game and play d’Hubert and not Feraud.

Except in Hollowpoint. In Hollowpoint you more likely play Feraud through to his logical end. See the film. It’s not what you think.

Also, check out the design on that poster. You can’t really think I wasn’t influenced by that.