artist highlight: juan ochoa

I am a pretty bad art director. I don’t really know what I want. It’s in my head but, you know, there are a lot of layers of translation between my brain and someone elses. My instinct, though, is to trust that part of being an artist — like a real artist, a pro — is not just translating my idea but also bringing all that creative talent to make my idea theirs. To have them develop the concept into something much better than what was in my head anyway.

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Juan and his cat Art Supplies. I believe he has another name, but also is clearly an art supply.

Juan Ochoa helps me get over that hurdle and preserve my desire to see another artist get creative: he works interactively at the concept level to get things not just right, not just as good as I wanted, but the multiple of what he wants and what I want. His method makes us both better.

I first asked Juan to collaborate with me on a project that didn’t wind up developing into anything, although we did still have some cool concept art come out of it. This was Swallowmere, a fantasy sequel to the VSCA’s Hollowpoint. It has a ghastly web page. I apologize. Here are some bandages for your eyes.

So the premise was, the world of That RPG We All Played When We Were Kids, a Tolkienesque fantasy of elves and humans and dwarves and whatnot, but a thousand years later. A modern, technological fantasy. Reservoir Dogs meets Lord of the Rings, say.

demureIt didn’t finish but it created a lot of fun text and art and that was when I first got into Juan’s process. Pictures, text chat, live video, whatever he can get his hands on to bring you into the process. Now if you don’t want that, that’s cool, he can churn out to spec and not bug you about it. But if you do want it, if you want to collaborate rather than just direct, he’s all in.

After Swallowmere I asked him to do a cover and some character art for my space opera project Elysium Flare (which did complete!) In the end I got so into making the art myself — and this was his fault, since working interactively with him let me steal some essential techniques for digital illustration — that the book wound up largely in my own style. Nonetheless, critical landmarks in the book are perfectly his.

Shamayan FINAL.pngJuan lives in Bogota, Colombia, where it is notoriously hard to get him paid, get him mail, and other things we take for granted elsewhere. But it’s also a place where he can afford to live on his art (provided we hire him a-plenty), eat great food, drink amazing coffee, and keep an adorable cat. He occasionally ships me some coffee along with a cake of panela, a kind of cake of unrefined cane sugar which you chip off into your coffee. If you chip off too big a chip you just eat it because it’s still rich with molasses and other good pre-refinement stuff.

Juan has worked for plenty of folks in the industry already — you’ll see his work everywhere once you notice his distinctive style. And yet he remains humble (to a fault), affordable, and approachable. He has portfolios all over the place but this is the only one I think is current.

I love working with Juan. I feel like I get smarter every time we interact. I have recently asked Juan to work on a mini-project with me that I’ll expose at a later date. It’s not a game, just a…thing. Promotional thing, for sure, to bring attention to Sand Dogs (which is releasing within the next week), but also just a thing. A little delight. An amuse yeux perhaps.

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weapons technology in d&d

expensive toys

My business, the VSCA, is in a very privileged space. It’s not for me to talk about whether someone elses pricing scheme is good or bad, just or unjust. It is certainly all those things. So let’s just look at some things that are certainly true and wonder how much we care. You get to decide how much you care for yourself.

Monte Cook Games pays a decent wage to their writers and artists. Far above the indie norm.

A hundred bucks in one outlay is too much money for some people to pay. They cannot afford to buy this game (Invisible Sun) even in digital only form.

A hundred bucks does not seem to me to be out of line with my personal rule for pricing: generate the same profit in print as in digital. It just tells me that MCG is making about eighty bucks per unit on the print version too.

Big price-tag games are not new. Hell I would love to own that monster box Ogre release but there’s no way I could justify the price. I still have to pay off the stair elevator chair thing my wife uses to get to the bathroom since she can’t walk. But there are lots of things I can’t afford. I usually talk myself into believing I don’t want them. Same as everyone. Pfft, Lambourghini, where would you even drive one in this city and expect to use its performance?

There are thousands of games with lower production values but better play values one could own. It is hard to find out about all of them. Even most of them. Because…

…it is very hard for a producer of low priced excellent games to get eyes on their game. They can’t afford the sort of marketing available to better capitalized endeavours, they don’t have the industry heft and consequently the social media reach that these folks have. And manufacturing that reach is very difficult (and as we have seen elsewhere in the so-called “industry”, sometimes poisonous: it might not be wise to trust people who have spent a lot of energy developing social capital like that).

Kickstarter enables almost anyone to either effectively capitalize whatever project they want (including one of the scale of Invisible Sun) or fail trying. The nice thing about this is they don’t need to eat the risk unless they succeed at the Kickstarter. That’s when the risk kicks in and sometimes eats you alive. The problem here is probably that “great game designer” and “great project planner” and “fiscal genius” don’t necessarily overlap in any given enthusiastic person starting a Kickstarter. But if you do Kickstart and you do your fiscal homework, you can pay artists and writers top dollar too. And if you can’t (Kickstarter fails) then you don’t play out that risk. This is what Kickstarter is good for.

This might not be a fact but I believe it firmly: more people buy a digital product than read it and more people read it than play it. If you want to sell a lot of copies your game can be crap as long as it’s pretty and entertaining to read.

The front page of DriveThruRPG is driven by revenue not units sold. If you sell two copies a day at a hundred bucks each you will stay on the front page for a long time. Smaller entities will last hours at best, and then fall under the radar. So even if a consumer checks the site once a day, they will never see many new titles. Never ever.

Poor people deserve a good time too. In fact I’ll say they deserve it more. A lot more. You wouldn’t believe how much the oppression of living day to day with Not Enough is lifted, however briefly, by a fun time with cool people.

To my mind then there is nothing “to do” about this hefty pricing of a PDF. It’s easy to justify. It’s easy to deride. Ultimately, a business has set a price and you can afford it or not. They don’t owe you access and you don’t owe them your money.

At the same time there is a boom in insanely cheap, deliberately low-fidelity gaming zines produced by people who are only paying themselves and barely managing that. Should we also be examining that? Is that “ethical”? There are and have always been a ton of pay-what-you-want or even just free games out there that are largely invisible because the heuristics of DTRPG guarantee it and the authors are not facile at getting visibility. Should we be concerned that they pressure indie developers to keep their prices low? They do. Should we be concerned?

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I have never paid Juan Ochoa enough.

No, not particularly. What we should care about is that people who do work get paid for it and paid adequately. That’s pretty much it. Whether a product sells enough to stay afloat is not our problem. Pricing is not our problem. Consumer goods being out of reach is old news (and is a feature of capitalism, so changing it is a substantial project). Cheap and occasionally excellent goods being available is awesome and unusual.

There are at least two ethical actions then (and I like to talk about things in terms of what to do next — criticism without some logical next steps is cathartic but less useful): supporting lines that pay their artists and supporting lines that are single-author (since these are largely the same thing). If you tell me the rates you are paying artists and writers on your Kickstarter, I’m more likely to think about backing (depending on what you actually say). If you’re a single-author publisher and especially if you’re not using Kickstarter, I will happily highlight your project here and tweet the hell out of it, lending you my (sorry but) limited reach.

If you want everyone to be able to afford games, you can’t drive down the price of Elite Games and also support adequate pay to artists. There are a lot of talented people getting paid to make that sort of thing. You can help make already affordable games more visible, though, and by side effect put more money in the hands of artists. So they can make more (affordable) games.

That is, the solution isn’t deriding luxury games. The solution is celebrating the rest of them. Inasmuch as a solution is needed.

Oh and for heaven’s sake play your games. If you read it, yell about it, good bad or mediocre. If you play it, yell with more authority.

Yell about games.

trusting the ref too much

Here’s a thing that happened in a game once (many many years ago — we may have just cracked open the box on a the freshly published Twilight:2000) that I never ever want to happen again.

IMG_0419 (1).pngThe characters were captured by some bad guys. Insert cool imagery here (I think it was a beached supertanker re-purposed as a fortress). Guards come and point to one of the characters. “You, come with me. It’s time for your execution.”

The player nods. “Okay I go with them.”

“The guards lead you down the makeshift steps — very rickety. What do you do?”

“Go with them.”

“You emerge suddenly into sunlight. It’s dazzling. Everyone covers their eyes for a moment to get used to it. What do you do?”

“I wait.”

“They tie you to a post and shoot you.”

What the fuck happened here?!

A bunch of things. As ref I thought I gave several opportunities for action to get out of this but the player never bit. Looking back on it now I see exactly why.

First, the player trusted the ref and did not believe the character would be killed so ridiculously. But the ref (me) had switched gears. This was serious business and there were ways out, but the player had to act and to take a risk. The player didn’t act because they didn’t get that this was their moment. They thought the moment to act would be later and trusted me not to kill them before their chance. To my mind, once we had poor Tim tied to the post, there was no way not to kill him. It was the stated intention, game mechanism would not longer save him (we weren’t going to roll hit and damage for a firing squad), and I felt bound to follow through.

Second, it was a system where the ref sets difficulty levels and the player assumed that at each possible action point the player decided action was riskier than inaction. They didn’t know what the difficulty would be and made an assumption. Based on prior gaming with me, for sure. But they didn’t know, they didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer. Because that’s how we played games then!

Third, the words “what do you do?” had no culture associated. It’s not a phrase that the rules command you to say to indicate you are expecting action. It’s just words in a conversation. It has no weight. I intended it to have weight but for that to happen we’d have had to have a discussion about it and agree on that. And frankly none of us were that self-aware about our gaming to realize that that was even what was happening.

Finally, everyone knew I fudged the dice. They were reasonably sure I would fake a bad roll at the critical moment and let them squeak out. But I had no more rolls to roll, in my mind.

Now there are things you can do about this without changing the rules, but they all involve changing the people and changing people is bullshit. You could say “well, players should be more proactive”. What if they aren’t? You could say “well, players should ask about difficulty levels and possible actions”. What if they don’t? Should the game just fail embarrassingly (and it did — the player was pissed, I was flustered, and we stopped early)?

How about we change the rules instead?

If difficulties are fixed then the player knows what’s what.

If the risks have to be declared then the player can make substantive choices.

If the ref never rolls dice then the ref never fudges dice.

If the culture is that the question “what do you do?” invites concrete (go to the dice) action then the cues are real cues and not just part of a conversation that might only be conversational.

So in some ways the Soft Horizon system is designed to heal this 25 year old wound.

There are no difficulties. What changes when you roll is the risk, not the difficulty. When you roll you already know the odds of success and the ref has already communicated (in a vague way) the risk of failure (or imperfect success). As player you already know you can succeed.

The ref never rolls.

“What do you do?” is codified in the text. This is what you say when you expect the players to act. Maybe not go to the dice, but certainly narrate something pro-active, something that progresses their interests. It’s a declaration that what the player says next is important.

Yeah I stole all this from smarter people. I’m not proud. It works.

sebastien mixed density region

If you build a map you pretty much have to do something with it. I was looking at maps the other day — nautical maps showing depths as contours — and thought I’d like to try a new technique or two and make a similar map for a science fiction game.

starmap labelled

So what would the contour lines be on a star map? I decided they are hydrogen densities.

When you make choices like that and you are like me and want to create, this only raises more questions. Why would you chart hydrogen densities? What does it mean when a star is in a high density region? What about a low density one? Whole games are born this way.

So I built a toy. It’s kind of part of a game that doesn’t exist. It’s a thing you could use to run whole campaigns with your favourite system. A framework for exploration. Here’s the schtick:

You are c-luggers, traders in ramscoop starships that can get very close to the speed of light but of course not past it. You trade. The secret purpose of your organization is actually to keep civilization going — to prevent the inevitable falls you’ve seen a hundred times and to uplift the fallen so they can be functioning trade partners. And to keep your ships flying. Yes, I’m absolutely calling on Vernor Vinge‘s character Pham Nguyen from A Deepness in the Sky. I am unashamed.

You can move faster through higher hydrogen densities (though not the top end — that’s fast, sure, but risky as hell). Your subjective time that passes in travel isn’t much, relativity is your friend, but lots of time passes where you stop. Your old pals on Pig’s Eye are long dead, that’s a certainty, but what else has changed? You remember they were headed for a serious panopticon problem but can you get there in time to bring the social tech you found at the Younger Sister? Maybe you could take the fast route, through the high density zone and make it in time, but what if you’re both wrong and damaged by the fast path?

Oh well, find out when you get there I guess.

So I built a little on page toy — this map and some rules for how to move in it and how to determine what you find. If it’s a new place to visit, what is it like (in the narrow terms the toy cares about — you can use your system to provide the rest of the detail)? If you’ve been there before, how has it changed? And can you get your software updated? Surely there’s a certified software archaeologist around here somewhere.

You can get this at the Patreon page. It’s free now if you’re a patron (and if you are you are free to do with it as you please, including give it to others, talk about it, or just print it and keep it under your pillow). If you’re not, it’ll be available to everyone else on March 15, 2019.

 

out of my comfort zone

I keep trying to up my art game. I’ve been playing around with improving my shading skills, trying new brushes, and generally just trying to more…gooder. When you practice at this you constantly get better, but you get better slower and slower until you suddenly get a lot better and then the curve starts over getting slower again.

You can force that reset.

IMG_0621One way to force it is to try something outside your comfort zone. Now I’m normally all about pencil and ink. When I first started drawing it was with technical pens. Straight from blank page to ink on paper. I was not very good, but I got a little better. Today I still love ink; I love line work. I love an outline for making an image concrete.

IMG_0618One day Juan Ochoa showed my a trick. At first tricks seem like cheating but tricks are not cheating. Tricks are ways that a decent artist gets better results faster. Anyway, Juan’s trick is this: do your ink. Then create a new layer under the ink and paint your values. Your grey scale. Your shading. Very cool, this lets you do some shading and looks swell. But that’s not the trick. The trick is, when you want to add colour, add another layer between the ink and the values and set the layer to multiply. What this does is add the value of the lower layer to the current layer. What that means is that you can paint flat colour and the shading layer will come through, shading your colour. This gives you the illusion of having mixed a bunch of colour shades when in fact you just did the grey scale in one pass first. It’s not perfect but it looks good and it’s fast. It’s a trick. A very valuable trick.

Anyway, I needed to force the plateau again and what I’ve been doing feels half way to, well, painting.

It’s not.

I grabbed some new software for this — I love using the Adobe Sketch app for ink and values illustration but it’s limited for painting. So on a recommendation I got Procreate. It’s solid. Good brushes and a good blender. And I started painting.

IMG_0623.pngIt’s not the same. It’s a much more interesting problem to mix shades but the side effect is that you get some hue variation as well just because you’re imperfect. And that’s actually better. It’s more real. Things reflect all kinds of different colours and your eye notices even if your brain doesn’t process it analytically. Consciously. It matters.

And there are tricks. And they are not cheating. I swear it. For example, I used a fair amount of cut and paste in this one so far. But it’s far faster to cut and paste and then correct colour, change up texture with the blending tool, and so on than to repaint identical objects identically. I can barely draw a straight line let alone the same one twice.

So now I’m on that upward slope again, learning new tricks. Even if it is, at the moment, just to go back to Elysium Flare ships.

when the system engages invisibly

When playtesting it can be frustrating to get a session where there are no rolls. After all, you’re trying to test the system and where was the system? But the system is more than the dice you roll — there are other mechanisms, usually, and there is also the negative space: when the roll doesn’t happen because of what it would mean if it did. That is, when the system engages the story by being declined. Exactly because of what it will do.

Yes, this is a true story.

Our last playtest session had no rolls. So how did the system engage?

Negative space: there was one situation where an action led to an offer of a roll but was declined.

JB: So no passages leading off? Just a fuck-you huge pit? I’ll try to commune with a vegetable machine. Like grab a less mobile appendage and see if I can somehow mind-meld or something.

Brad: You see nothing that seems sentient. Just vegetable labour. So nothing talks. But that sounds like SOCIALIZE to me with risk HARM. Only because you want to get close to what’s essentially industrial machinery.

JB: Hmm. [examining character sheet which has DENY for SOCIALIZE] Ah, fuck it.

Brad: But your scar counts.

JB: So 2d6 or just 1?

Brad: They aren’t insects, so 1d6. Very probable injury.

JB: Seeing the OSHA-violating implications, Marc beats a hasty retreat.

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A good conflict system means that sometimes you don’t go in guns blazing: it gives you measurable factors to weigh and decide. Sometimes you do, though.

So nothing happened but we have an interesting choice: Marc isn’t that confident in his new ability to communicate with alien vegetable monsters, and also reinforces his denial of SOCIALIZE as a method. It’s not what he’s good at, it makes him uncomfortable, and adding the significant risk of an industrial accident, he lets that opportunity go by. The system is doing what it’s intended to do: the player plays into the choices they made about their character (denying SOCIALIZE in this case) and the player is making risk calculations based on the risk and sometimes not taking an action. The possibility of information from the vegetable machines is abandoned and a different path must be taken through the narrative because of the system. Working as intended.

This is the same as a party in a D&D campaign deciding to rest for the night because they are wounded, branching the narrative from pressing on wounded through the wilderness to resting, telling campfire stories, and getting jumped by bugbears while asleep in their armour. Negative space is important: if every choice to engage the dice is answered with “yes please!” then there is a missed opportunity for the system to forge another path.

And then there’s instruction to the ref. In Sand Dogs there is a ref prep sheet, just a few lines, and one of the prompts is “introduce someone interesting”:

Brad: You hear a high pitched buzz of insect wings. A speck on the other side of the pit slowly resolves as a large flying insect person. What do you do?

Dune: Hail!

JB: I’ll wave at them.

Dune: Duarte waves his arms as well.

Brad: The bug thing flies over the pit to you. It is multi-segmented like a flying centipede and has dozens of arms and/or legs. As it comes close it strokes a beard of tiny eating legs thoughtfully. “I thought you were Tik but you are not!”

JB:  “Tik has asked us to help.”

Brad: “Help how? This vegetable machine thing makes no sense at all. What was she thinking?” It throws a dozen limbs upwards in exasperation. “Would it be rude for me to land?”

Dune: “Please land.” I make room.

Brad: It lands. “Kanikalakiwinazzztakila. You may call me Kan.” It waits expectantly.

Yes, sure, you can add an NPC any time you want without a rule. But I have a rule: when you’re in a lull, wondering how to push things forward, check your prep sheet. And one of the things there is to invent someone interesting to talk to. System engaged. Kan now exists and branches the narrative. Casual statements like “flying insect person” turn into story inflections — if the characters make friends can they fly with Kan? That’d be handy.

You might think of it on your own. But with this you have a recipe and you won’t flounder because you didn’t.

Another ref cue is “recall a missed hook”. Ages ago the characters met and befriended a tough sand dog named Rachael but they left her in the previous plane. She wasn’t that interesting. So I find this cue and think, “maybe she is”:

Brad: Tik says “Well don’t I look foolish. What a waste of land the vegetable machines are.”

JB: “Harrison told you it would be good?”

Brad: “Not-Harrison did. Harrison just demanded things. I thought perhaps you were all mentally ill.” [Tik was under the impression until very recently that humans were a hive mind, all the same, because they look so similar and she had named them all Harrison.]

JB: “Well, he was.”

Brad: Tik says, “Well the meet is moot. Will you do a last thing for me? I cannot bear the waste.”

JB: “Sure.”

Dune: “Of course.”

Brad: Tik says, “Find not-Harrison and bring her to here. It seemed so important. She went by Rachael.”

Hurray! I get Rachael back into play. I liked her then and now she’s way more important than previously. Now it’s implied that she’s a planewalker and maybe an enemy or rival of this Harrison villain. The story opens up wide.

The system is more than just the conflict mechanism and its side effects. It is also in how the conflict system inspires people to sometimes deny operating it. And it is in all of the bits and pieces that guide the referee. Don’t focus too hard on your conflict system — there’s a lot of other game to play.