itchiness

nanite-borg-gold-detail logoTime for a little experiment. While there is not a lot of choice for hardcopy publishing, there are choices for digital. And, better, some give much better margins than the Big Place For Game PDFs You Already Know About.

So I’m adding the non-Fate VSCA offerings to a storefront at itch.io. If it seems useful and if the operators there seem responsive to the special needs of role-playing game sales, I’ll add more.

For the month of February, have 50% off there. I’ll post the Soft Horizon SRD there when the latest rev goes public.

Thanks as always for your support. Patreon is paying off, keeping the game-related bills paid and that’s a huge relief. The King Machine is selling, slowly, but increasingly, and I think when Sand Dogs comes out (which is a more mainstream setting) we’ll get even more traction.

Love to you all!

2018 in review

2018, despite being a shit year for pretty much the entire planet, was a good year for the VSCA. For me.

On the home front, though Jackie’s mobility and other functions continue to decline thanks to Multiple Sclerosis (you want to help cure something horrible? Send your Christmas money to the MS Society of Canada) other issues are largely under control. My place is still a mess, my time soaked by pretty much everything and Jackie unable to assist, but that’s really a minor issue. There were no major hospitalization incidents and mania and psychosis are under control. That’s pretty good. That lightens my load a little and is a big factor in the rest of this review.

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This project also got me drawing again. That’s a Really Big Deal.

Elysium Flare got released! And it’s my first full-colour project. We even managed to bring in some art from Colombian art-genius, Juan Ochoa. It’s a really lovely book and a tidy little Fate-based science fiction game. It features a lot of loose setting material out of my own head and represents my best effort at grabbing some enthusiasm for space opera as a genre. Now look, I had fun making it and I think it’s a great little game. And it’s beautiful, especially in hardcopy. But I’m not likely to do space opera again unless it’s pretty psychedelic and I’m not likely to do another Fate game.

This project also got me to figure out the Drive Thru RPG POD system. It’s convoluted and frustrating but it works. As a publisher experience, Lulu is much nicer but you can’t beat the integration and the storefront of DTRPG. Both make nice books.

We started and then abandoned a Diaspora second edition. That’s probably not ever going to happen.

I started the Patreon to keep this new effort running and it’s been very powerful for me: feeling like I owe people regular product makes me make it. I can’t emphasize enough how well this works for me. Thank you to all my patrons: you have made this a great year.

lazer-owl smallI almost secretly released a little zine-sized product called anomaly digest. It’s for sale in hardcopy only and it’s at cost — there’s no profit in it. Add it to your cart when you buy everything else! It contains a number of little adventure hooks and mini-dungeons created as part of the RPG Talk (that’s a Discord invite link) regular content contests. I don’t participate in these any more since it kicked me into making games and that’s where the energy goes now. This went our as a physical reward to some patrons.

bonobo anthropologistAnd finally the Soft Horizon gelled and I got out the first issue, The King Machine. A game I’m really proud of, but I’ve talked about it elsewhere.

And now the second issue is out for playtest (really a textual playtest — the game itself is already heavily tested but now I need to see if the text works). So Sand Dogs could be out in January.

And then there was the impending for real death of G+ which forced me to make some plans about where to communicate and get communicated at. That bore this blog, a remake of my old one (and I’ll repost some stuff from there occasionally), and some exploration of other spaces. So far I can be found at:

marketing

Somewhere along the way marketing an independent game got way harder for me.

With Diaspora we had a lot of community contact during development through RPG.net and many of the readers and posters there bought the game, wrote about their experiences, and voted in the ENnies. We won a gold for Best Rules. We sold (and still sell) a lot of Diaspora.

Three years later we released Hollowpoint. There was some engagement at RPG.net but a lot of the contact was through the blue collar space blog (now defunct): existing VSCA customers looking forward to the next game. Hollowpoint sold well (not as well as Diaspora) and still sells. It’s a great game. We didn’t win an ENnie but we were nominated for best game. Given the sales (and therefore the voting body for the game) that’s not surprising. And I am very proud of that nomination.

0-Dark-30-cover-test
Zero Dark Thirty was a casualty. I think I’m just still pissed that they stole my title for a movie.

Then there was a long break. I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, lost my gaming group. my wife got very sick, and generally I was unable to create. During this period Kickstarter emerged as a way to get enough pre-sales money to do big production books. Lots of colour, pretty product, and most importantly connection to a lot of people who seem very eager to put money down on product that won’t show up for a year or two. Also during that period RPG.net started banishing any post that smelled like shilling your game to a subforum that no one reads. A new community emerged that made no sense to me and a valuable community for an independent community designer got shut down.

I tried a few little things in the interim, not trying very hard. Elysium Flare was baking in the back of my head. Soft Horizon was just being troublesome.

Well perhaps I waited too long. The original audience, the VSCA fans, had become dispersed. Some of them just grew out of role-playing games (not sure how that happens). They forgot who we are. The locations of the communities changed. There are more and they are stranger, full of young people (get off my lawn). There’s a lot of video and audio (which I really can’t use in my home). Kickstarter became sort of the only way to sell games.

So for me, mostly interested in making a book about a game, selling it to you, and then moving on to the next game, my market disappeared. Or went into hiding. My old home, RPG.net, makes the pretense of being non-commercial by ghettoizing independent game announcements (though strangely there’s a whole thread just for Kickstarters pinned to the front page of tabletop-open — I am not sure I understand what privileges Kickstarter). And Kickstarter dominates — it’s kind of the only game in town. And I just don’t like it (for me, in my opinion, your mileage may vary, and all that good shit).

Worse for me, I think I pissed off some people with the power to generate buzz and thanks to the way the Internet works, when someone pisses you off you can kind of shut them off forever, meaning any miscommunication can become banishment with no chance of reconciliation — there’s no accidental meeting at a dinner party where you get drunk and in a maudlin fit explain each other to each other and bury the hatchet. Now you just get disappeared. Or maybe everyone grew up but me. I know at least one grew up and I miss him a lot.

That doesn’t mean there’s no way to do this any more. It just means that the ways changed (and in ways that are mostly social, not technological) and the audience got harder to find. And my tastes have changed as well and since I sell what I love to play, when my tastes change I have to actively try to find the audience that changed with me. That turns out to be very hard. Exhausting, even.

So I am at peak creativity — two releases this year and maybe a third (though more likely Sand Dogs will be coming out in 2019). More planned for next year. But at a low point in my reach, which is very demoralizing.

The games, however, are still going out since the zero-risk model is still in effect. This mess is not stopping me, just disappointing me.

sand dogs v0 doc

45624599-1ccb-4ed6-82a9-ea431cc4e7c8
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.

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.

Shamayan FINAL.png
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.

vsca catalogue

diaspora cover lulu 441 thumbnailDiaspora

Me, Toph Marshall, Tim Dyke, and Byron Kerr wrote this together over a couple of years in an attempt to bring a Traveller aesthetic to Fate back when it was FATE. Derived from Spirit of the Century but with efforts to deconstruct and modularize. Gold ENnie winner for best rules. It’s about keeping your spaceship running while dealing with the political and trade frictions between a small number of very different star systems. Collaborative world design. You may have first experienced it as Spirit of the Far Future. Print and PDF.

This is a game we still play, though I think that the character and system generation stuff is better by far than the rest of the game. I mean it’s a good game, but the collaborative stuff really sings.

Deluge - Brad MurrayDeluge

I had a bug in my head about post-apocalyptic play and so wrote this little system-agnostic adventure generator that starts from the submergence of your home town. Lots of table-based oracles for creating desperate communities. Simple, fun, and crazy cheap (PWYW). PDF only.

I haven’t played with this in a while. Have you? I keep coming back to the idea of releasing a new edition with better tools and art.

hollowpoint cover frontHollowpoint

Written together with Toph Marshall before my move to Toronto and then laid out and finished amongst the boxes of my move. This is a custom designed system built up from a deconstruction of ORE and built to make face-paced action movie games. It probably first percolated up into my head after reading the graphic novel series 100 Bullets. It’s about being super competent at being bad. Your only options are different flavours of violence. An ENnie nominee for best game. Print and PDF.

This game is huge fun and always has been but suffers from a fatal flaw for my own use: the whole iteration-over-a-dice-pool concept just isn’t fun for online play. It kicks ass at a table with real dice, but the tactile allocation and manipulation of dice is necessary.

callisto-cover-900.pngCallisto

Now living in Toronto and isolated from my gaming groups, I built a game designed to be played by email. While the provided scenario is a sort of fantasy 17th century Europe and Africa, it’s been easily ported to space stations, colonies, and other settings. The idea is simple: you play a personality by writing letters to other personalities you know using email. The ref gets a CC: of all these and periodically publishes a newspaper that synthesizes these letters as current events. I think this game is a gas and it doesn’t require constant attention. I think there’s more to do with this concept. First time I’d use a cover from Juan Ochoa and he’s awesome to work with. PWYW in PDF form.

Haven’t played in a while but I see a game crop up online every now and again.

coverElysium Flare

It took a while to get this one out of my head. I’ve never much liked space opera as a genre but felt like one way to get an understanding of what’s to love would be to write one. This is another Fate rebuild, with a lot of simplifications and an amusing first-person space combat system. This gave me a chance to exercise some suddenly improving artistic skills as well as hire Juan again for some work. It plays lighthearted and galaxy-spanning with adventure cues ranging from stopping a galactic Horror to dealing with a paperwork nightmare on a world dedicated entirely to galactic bureaucracy. Huge fun to make and to run. First time I would use DriveThruRPG for both print and PDF.

I don’t play this as much as I should, but I can’t get into Fate that much any more, especially for online play. The mechanical back and forth places more burden than I want on my time and resources when I’m limited (as I am) to a couple hours a week and entirely playing by text chat. Still, I wish I could play more. The playtesting was great fun and very funny.

Soft Horizon cover minaretSoft Horizon

The Soft Horizon had been brewing in my head since shortly after we released Diaspora. The idea was to build a plane-hopping game that would weave bizarre characters through Heavy Metal style psychedelia, evoking Moebius and Bilal and Voss and all those great artists who were clearly out of their heads. It didn’t turn out to be one game. Instead I’ve been reconstructing the playtest sessions as individual games using the same simple Powered by the Apocalypse inspired engine. Fast and failure driven, the games reliably take the narrative places no one intended. Each game is self-contained, having the setting and the complete system (tuned for the setting) all in less than a hundred pages.

king-machine-cover-alternateThe King Machine

This probably shouldn’t have been the first Soft Horizon game. It doesn’t derive from a known property but instead from an early playtest session brought into being by some random oracles and our own brains. It was initially conceived as a warning about democracy but took so long to make that now it’s just thinly veiled allegory for today’s world. You play intelligent non-human primates in a world of Roger Dean album covers coping with a utopia that suddenly lost its utopic engine: the machine that makes perfect kings. Print and PDF at DTRPG. I think this is one of the best games I’ve ever made.

I’d be playing this now if I wasn’t playtesting…

cover.pngSand Dogs

Coming soon! A dieselpunk tale in a world that’s all desert and studded with tombs full of sleeping gods. A mash-up of Indiana Jones, Roadside Picnic, and the Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius. You can’t buy this yet. I’m playing it. If you’re a patron you can get a laid out playtest package sometime in December.

Patreon

And of course our Patreon is what keeps this stuff coming. It’s been an enormous influence on my productivity — we’ve never had a three-title year ever. We’ve never had a two-title year before. Even just a buck is awesome: it’s one more person I feel beholden to and therefore one more little push to get some more work out the door.