no dice

At first I just liked the idea: the ref doesn’t roll any dice. I don’t know why, but knowing myself as I do I suspect it was just the novelty of it. I frequently ref games and I am always rolling. What if I didn’t? Was there a reason I had to roll?

My first experiment with player-side rollers was in an early test of some ideas for a second edition of Diaspora. I did it in the most obvious fashion: rather than have the ref roll for non-player characters, the ref would just set a difficulty value. It bombed. It was boring as hell. I shelved the idea.

Then I played some Powered By The Apocalypse games. And it works there. Hmm. What’s the difference?

Well one difference is deeply systemic: in Fate the game works by simulating everything with the same structure. Characters are roughly the same whether they are in the hands of a player or the ref (don’t get me started: yes the ref also plays, but let’s acknowledge that they play differently and that this age old set of terms remains sufficient, however imprecise) and so it makes sense that everyone engages these characters the same way, including the ref. PbtA games don’t do this–the system is asymmetric. Opposition does not have the same systemic model that characters do. So with Fate I was expecting to have some fun as ref in the same manner as the rest of the table because that’s a thing Fate does. When I switched to player-only rolling I lost that expected fun. And there wasn’t much left for me because the system doesn’t provide any (because it’s not designed for this, not because it’s bad).

When I got player-side rolling working I found that the ref experience is fundamentally different. Mostly I realized that because I was not playing any characters (in a dice-rolling context, I mean) there was no pressure to be adversarial: there was no contest for me to try to win, whereas when I am piloting non-player characters on a combat map I am certainly playing to win. I make good tactical choices intentionally. I am trying to kill the player characters but with opposition that I have carefully crafted to be unlikely to succeed. Once I framed that in my head that way I realized I didn’t want to do that any more. It’s not something I want happening in a game, generally, as a design goal and so as a side effect it’s not desirable.

But there’s still the problem of having something to do. Absent the adversarial play in Fate, I was bored. But not in the various PbtA games. Why? I wasn’t sure and, as is my wont, I didn’t think very hard about it. I went straight to my own design. This is a deep character flaw of mine: when I play a game I like I generally start my own project and reconstruct elements of that game without thinking too hard about them. Instead I concentrate on thinking about how my new game works. My Fate games are games that I invented after a read-though and play of Fate — an imperfect read through and play. They are emulations based on my memory of what Fate is supposed to be and not literal Fate games.

And so with this Apocalypse thing.

That’s no sun! That’s a tomb!

So in Soft Horizon games I built one dominating thing for the ref to do: manage risk. The creative input of the ref is not adversarial management of threats but is instead the creative interpretation of risk. We use Rob Donohue’s risk list (because it’s brilliant) and it turns out it’s filled with creative opportunity. So, for example, let’s say (and this is a real example) characters are trying to escape from a bad military defense: the enemy is overrunning the defenses and it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. Players grab a motorcycle with sidecar, pile in their wounded, and head for the hills. Or rather, for the nearest city. We determine this will be a CHASE roll with risk DELAY. If they fail, we will interpret DELAY as getting captured. If they succeed but realise the risk, we will interpret DELAY as getting lost. That’s the first part of my creative load and it’s plenty fun but not adversarial: I’m not manipulating their chance of success, just setting the consequences of failure.

They succeed with risk: lost. And so I narrate a scene with them getting lost and we come to another check: trying to find their way. And that moves us in another new direction, again with my creative energy going into developing the risks into a coherent narrative.

One of the richer risks in this system is REVELATION. This will reveal some information that makes things worse. This is your plot twist. But you can’t plan it, because it doesn’t even come up until there’s a roll on the table and it needs to be in the context of the scene we’re rolling for. So as the ref I need to ad lib that revelation — if I had any plans, it’s a spanner in my own works. It’s as much a revelation for me as for the players!

Another example perhaps: our escaping trio reach an old Tomb dig site that seems to be abandoned. They are suffering from sunstroke and one of them is injured. They are ostensibly slave-runners: they hunt down cities that keep slaves and disrupt the institutions that make that possible and free slaves. The nearest city, Morgenstern, is a place they often bring freed slaves to be safe. So in that context, they are making a MISCHIEF roll to break into a supply shed and I set the risk as REVELATION. My creative input: if this risk gets realised then in the shed will be evidence that Morganstern keeps slaves. I didn’t have that planned. In fact it wrecks everything. Awesome.

So that was the barrier and the solution: if as ref I am not participating in the adversarial simulation, what is there for me to do? How do I get to play? And the answer in the case of Soft Horizon is that I need to continuously create, to ad lib. And there is a mechanism that forces me to do that, that constrains what I will need to ad lib about, and that provides cues for how to proceed.

Well it turns out that’s something I like doing a lot.

thinks we dislike

I don’t care what you dislike.

I mean, sure, if we’re trying to figure out together what to eat or what to play or how to fuck, then yes, I care.

But if you’re crafting a post on the internet, a broadcast to everyone, about how much you dislike something…well, I don’t care. But moreover I don’t understand why anyone would. And I don’t think they really do. I think posts about what we dislike are mostly attempts to get someone to argue about it — picking an already contentious position (and artificially so because really, just how much negative energy can we really work up about a game aside from straight-up offensiveness) in order to get some fire happening.

In other words, it’s just trolling. Usually low grade and sometimes even not self-examined. It does generate “discussion” but rarely useful discussion.

This should be read as distinct from criticism. Criticism is awesome. But “I hate GURPS” or “I despise rules-light” topics are just self-congratulatory nonsense. Hurray you have a nuanced and emotional negative response to a role-playing game or even a category of role-playing games. Now seriously, think hard about that and wonder if you really want anyone else to know it, let alone engage you on the topic.

Tell me instead what you love.

I love this fucking robot toy.

Revel instead in what you like to play, like to make, like to run, like to draw for, whatever. Because that enthusiasm, even (maybe especially) when it’s also critical is contagious and productive. It lets other people admit their enjoyment. It lets people know not just what but sometimes how to craft something that certainly gives someone joy. I get far more from knowing a single example of what you love than a single example of what you hate because I am compassionate and want to make you happy — but one negative example is just the start of a list. Do you like ham? Hate it. Do you like turkey? No. When do we get to dinner.

I like blackened chicken. One assertion and we’re off for dinner. No enumeration required.

I totally love this fish rug.

And honestly I dislike so very few things and like so many things that if you say you love something then there is a pretty good chance I am going to get in on that conversation. Help celebrate it, understand the bits the irk and the bits that work, and maybe even get around to joining you sometime to enjoy it. If you dislike something it’s almost certainly going to fail to affect me at all. Even if you hate (such a strong word to apply to a role-playing game, especially when it’s the funny dice or roll-under that you HATE) something, I’m probably not going to engage. First, having that strong a negative reaction to something so lightweight is a pretty good indicator that no interaction is going to go well. Second, it’s unlikely you hate something I care strongly about, and even if you do, well, see “first”.

Enjoying things and celebrating things, and criticizing those things, from a position of love, is productive. It builds up, it repairs, it extends, it expands.

Hating things just tears something down and makes someone, somewhere, feel bad. There’s enough feeling bad to go around these days, and it’s mostly about vastly more important things.

So tell me what you love.

getting more arts

You liked a post! That’s awesome!

I want to make clear that I’m not going to be talking just about me here. I am talking about me but I don’t want you to take away a guilt trip for inadequately supporting me. You are not obligated to do anything and you shouldn’t feel guilty about doing nothing. However, the established spaces for creatives to work have been steadily making it harder to make a buck creating things like comics, essays, games, and artwork. There are, however, things you can do to help claw back what we once had! And many of them are totally free. The only reason you’re not doing them is that you probably don’t realize the positive impact they can have.

So first, like the thing. Give it a heart, a thumbs up, whatever. That’s a minimum and it helps up front — a pat on the back is always nice — and it helps later. On it’s own it’s not much, it’s not a sale, it’s not even really a potential sale, but it’s nice. And it reinforces and amplifies later actions.

So like the thing.

Now re-share it. That’s usually one click. Painless. This is important because re-sharing is how the whole internet amplification thing works: the artist’s individual reach, the number of people their initial post gets to, is supposed to be the tip of the iceberg. The re-share, boost, whatever button is there to multiply the effect: if you really liked it and liked it enough to want more, you tell your friends (many of whom the artist has not reached yet). If they do the same, we have an exponentially growing awareness of the material. So if you like it, ask yourself if you’d like to see more. If you want to see more, re-share it.

And here’s the knock-on effect I hinted at: when people see a lot of likes on a re-share, they are predisposed to follow through on the link. So the like is not worthless, it’s just that its best effect is indirect.

So re-share the thing.

I got nothing. I just like this picture. And pictures boost posts.

Re-share buttons only operate in the context of the medium you saw the material in. Another thing you can do that’s more effort but amazingly powerful is to pull the link out and post about it in another medium! See that thing on Twitter? Tell your friends on G+. Or wherever you post. Forums are great — they are little islands that the artist has likely never heard of let alone visited. Offer the material to a new context and you amplify the artist’s voice even further. A little more work to demonstrate your enthusiasm and it pays huge dividends.

So re-post the thing.

So far these things you can do are pretty cheap and have an enormous impact. The next thing you can do at a little more effort is to talk about the material or the artist or both in your own posts, tweets, whatever instagrams are. When you post original material about someone elses work you give it credibility as well as exposure. And their work becomes linked with yours. You start to share those eyeballs.

So if you have your own platform to shout at the internet from, acknowledge, discuss, review other peoples’ material. You get a content topic for the day and they get a boost and a little more credibility as something that’s demonstrably worth talking about.

Finally, of course, there is always financial support. Buy the book, put a buck in the Patreon. These are all great and they are really the final impact the artist hopes for: we are looking to pay the bills! However, we’re playing a numbers game — payments are from a percentage of people that see the original material. If you get more eyeballs, at some point you’re guaranteeing a sale even if it’s not your buck. So by all means by the thing but don’t feel you have to. Your re-share or review might reach enough people to make ten sales! It counts. It’s important. It’s appreciated.

And let’s talk a little about reciprocity, since artists help other artists as well. You’re not going to see all the re-shares that happen but when you do see one and it’s by a fellow artist ask yourself what you’ve done to help them. They spent some effort there to promote, engage, enthuse about your art. Give them a leg up too. You don’t have to want to buy something in order to be enthusiastic about it in public. Artists boosting other artists is a genuine statement of community: we are going to help each other. But that “each other” is super important — if one doesn’t see any reciprocity eventually the re-shares will stop.

So if you like a thing, rather if you like it enough that you want to see more tomorrow, please consider taking one extra step past the like button. Consider becoming a fan by aligning yourself with the artist and speaking about your enthusiasm. Did you have fun? Did you smile? Did you feel an emotion? Want more?

Now you know how to get more.


I used to be really into the tarot.

Let me clarify though. I used to own a few tarot decks. I used to be very interested in the symbology and the methods. I used to do a lot of readings. I have never believed that they have any predictive powers, which is simply part and parcel with my lack of belief in pretty much anything supernatural. The tarot does have many great and entirely natural powers, though.Tarot_MorganGreer2_USMG78

My preferred deck was the one pictured here, a Morgan Greer. It’s colourful, well illustrated, and has fairly good symbology. The detail’s a little light in places but it has a hippie vibe that suits me fine. Anyway, super powers.

I started playing with the tarot at the age of 17 or so. About the same time as I started going to house parties. So let’s be perfectly clear: giving tarot readings at a party pretty much guarantees that you will be surrounded by women and that you will drink for free. As a teenager I really needed very little (none) more advantage from a deck of cards or anything else I might bring to a party. I had similar effect bringing sake to house parties since it was exotic and I had to warm it up in the kitchen and a man at the stove in the kitchen was, at least in the early 80s, a magnet for women. Add exotic liquor and stir vigorously. Anyway this was all fabulously successful and if the tarot had no further power it would still have a warm place in my heart forever. Pro tip, though: readings can only indicate that the supplicant dump their boyfriend so often before it wears thin. In fact once is pushing it — stick to strict readings. It works great without intervening.

Of course the 80s had pretty strong sexist subtext in everything and so this might not work today. I don’t know if you can sub in a modern, progressive human into both the tarot reader and the supplicant and get similar results. But I bet you can: doing a reading is about paying attention to another person in a very intense and emotional way. It’s super personal. There’s a lot of eye contact. Many knowing looks. Some shared surprises. I would bet it remains erotic as hell even in the most egalitarian and pan-sexual of environments. Let me know.

Later I would discover that a competent reading for oneself was a powerful way to trick yourself into genuine introspection. Having a set of oracles that do not so much say “this happened in your past and was influential” but more asked “does this grossly generalized and vague symbol when placed in the context of your past trigger any particular thoughts” is in fact an extremely good way to make you wonder honestly about yourself. It lets you ask questions you wouldn’t have thought of asking in the same way that oracles in games (see how I got us back to games?) like rolling stats randomly or generating random words to seed adventures do. When left entirely to our own devices, starting from a blank page, we tend to ask the same boring questions and tell the same boring stories. External cues kick us out of the rut and these is really, really powerful for spurring genuine introspection. If I had to speculate I would guess that this is because we never really start from a blank page but rather from a set of suppositions. And that might indicate one of the powers of meditation as kind of an anti-oracle: done right it genuinely clears the page.

In addition to those powers, as if one needed more than teenage sexual success and high quality self-inspection, learning the symbology of the tarot has been good for game design.

For example, what can you do with cards? Well obviously you have draw-with-replacement which is a novel randomizer if you’re used to dice. That has power dice cannot easily have. But tarot tells us little here. You have suits and colours and numbers and face/non-face axes to play with. Again, same thing with tarot. But the tarot informs the content of the cards. It adds imagery.

So it wasn’t until I studied the tarot that I learned that hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, mapped directly onto the tarot’s cups, rods, pentacles, and swords. And those suits have all kinds of baggage. Cups (hearts) are about emotion, love, compassion, sharing. Okay that’s an easy one. Rods (clubs) are about spirituality, duty, piety. Okay that’s new and useful. Pentacles (diamonds) are about commerce, wealth, and materialism. And swords, well that’s all kinds of obvious but tying it to spades was not. So suddenly a deck of normal cards is that much richer.

Then I learned that these suits are also tied to the traditional four western elements: water (cups, hearts), earth (pentacles, diamonds), air (rods, clubs), and fire (swords, spades). And these associations are bi-directional! If you want to go all out, your elemental plane of water can take on these features of compassion, emotion, and warmth and now you have this kind of symbological continuity and I think it’s something people can sense even if they don’t know the relationships. And even if they don’t sense it, you can fall back on this to maintain consistency. And consistency is gold currency in fantasy.

Coming full circle, the tarot also make for a great set of oracles to build a campaign from. Even the simplest reading sets up a whole story — a protagonist, a past, a present, a future, a form of conflict, a possible resolution. An adversary. Tarot are really all about story telling and so it would be daft to assume they had no value in building stories in any context. Maybe especially RPGs.

So for a variety of reasons, all of them really exceptionally good, learning and tinkering with the tarot is a good plan. Go get yourself a deck. And a couple bottles of sake.

the arting process

Lately I have been confronting my weaknesses rather than pretending my strengths. One of the things that fell out of this self-inspection is a desire to improve my artwork in concrete ways. So, if you like drawing how do you get better? In an earlier post I suggested practice and then a lot more of that, but there are more precise steps you can take as you practice!

So I’ll got through the process of the latest Sand Dogs image I’ve drawn and talk about concrete steps I take to get to a better image.


I resisted this for ages. That’s stupid. It’s fine to envy artists who can just pull amazing


stuff, technical stuff out of their heads. It’s also fine to take a stab at it yourself. But nothing beats a good reference image. In Sand Dogs I’m going for a dieselpunk feel and one of the hallmarks of that aesthetic is accurate (if modified) technologies. So I want Sand Dogs equipment to either be wildly out-of-context or very much in context. Almost every drawing has an historical easter egg, something an enthusiast can point to and name. I like doing that myself.


So since this image was inspired by a picture I saw of a Citroën P7 half-track, I figured I better get that right. So that’s my first reference image.

I wanted to draw a picture that came from play testing, and the scene I decided on had a machinegun, specifically a Chatellerault. But I’ve already drawn that it in another piece so I decided instead for the Lewis gun because its fat barrel shroud is nifty looking. And the circular magazine.


The other thing that was happening was a plane was attacking! So I grabbed an image of a plane too. I failed to identify the plane at the time but I see the wing is reinforced with wire struts and the landing gear isn’t retractable so I’m safe, I think, in guessing that it dates from the 20s or 30s.

I dunno why wordpress is messing with my vertical spacing like that. Cut it out, wordpress.


So I paste these things into my digital workspace (I’m using Adobe Sketch on my iPad)


and sketch them in blue pencil. I use blue pencil because it’s easy to remove with an old timey photocopier. Kidding. That’s why everyone uses photo-blue pencils and it’s not relevant any more. Hasn’t been since the 80s when photocopiers started picking up blue. See, you used to be able to sketch in blue, ink over it, and then take a photocopy and that copy would not capture any of your sketch! Your photocopy was your final image.

That’s not how it works. It’s blue because of tradition now.

So two things about this. No three. First, I traced some bits. That halftrack undercarriage was crazy detailed. I am not ashamed of tracing. Second, I drew some perspective lines based on the perspective cues in the image itself so that I could use those if I needed to for other elements. Otherwise they look collaged in. Finally I free-handed the leaping moustachioed gentleman. I’m pretty proud of that.


IMG_0546Next I put a layer over the pencils and start inking. Again, all digital, and for Sand Dogs I’m going for a fairly fine-lined style, similar to The King Machine. Thanks to modern technology, ink can now be erased. This is an astounding achievement. This is better than Apple Watches (by a long long shot in my opinion). I’ve seen the inkwork of some of our very greatest professionals and they are heaped with whiteout and paper patches. Again, obliterated by the photocopier, usually. I can erase.

IMG_0548I do. I erase a lot.

At this stage you can start to trick yourself. All that blue pencil acts as shading you don’t have. It gives your image depth and completeness that you don’t have. So before I’m finished inking I turn off the pencil layer to see just how crap everything is. And so there is a long process of detailing and shading to compensate for the missing pencils.


IMG_0549For the shading process I add a layer underneath the ink and completely paint the elements in view with white. That’s because the canvas colour on my software is slightly gray and I want my shading to start from a white base. Then I start adding grays with a brush tool. I do not generally try to blend my grays with this style: I want the limited palette of a comic book and so I usually stick to two or three grays.

I start with a medium light gray and just find the shadows. Decide where the light is coming from. And then I add darker elements, pushing the depth deeper and making the scene more dramatic. I usually discover that when I go too far, make things too dark, it’s pretty awesome. This process has a lot of back and forth in it.

IMG_0553Since I’m not drawing in colour, I’ll indicate colour changes with a … grey. I do this with some trickery — I create a colour layer and set it to multiply (it takes the gray underneath and uses it to darken this layer). So I can decide that, say, the guy’s pants are darker and paint them grey and they will inherit the shading choices I made. The shading will basically come through the colour layer. Juan Ochoa taught me this. Go buy all his art.

Somewhere in there I’m going back and editing the ink detail. For sure I fixed up the bogies a couple of times.

And then I crop it and call it done. It’s not done. I’ll keep tinkering right up until publication. A real pro would be done when the cheque arrived.

Notice I added some dirt? That’s a grey watercolour brush and has a nice subtle effect. It goes in or over the colour layer.