#WithGreatProduction: 2 August 2015

Project management is a skill that I’ve picked up through bits and pieces, successes and failures, trial and error. You need to realistically assess what a project requires: How many resources? What skills? How many hours? You need to make a plan that will get all those ingredients together in the right order and on the right schedule. You need to keep that plan moving on pace, and you need to be able to adapt when that plan proves unworkable. When parts of the plan require more work than initially estimated, you need to be able to keep the whole thing moving, and still moving toward the same goal.

As both the game designer and the project manager, it’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of what I need to be working on right now while planning the bigger picture. One thing I use to keep myself focused is an array of lists. Within a few days of a playtest, I make a list of all feedback, and categorize each item as something to change, or something to consider. I don’t make the changes at that point, but my list is all ready for me when I come back to it. Likewise, ass I’m writing, if I change the way a rule works, I don’t open up InDesign and change it on the rules summary sheet. I put it on the list of changes to that sheet. Or if an idea for a sidebar pops into my head while I’m writing a rule, I’ll add it to my list of sidebars, with a few words to remind myself later what I’m thinking about. It allows me to keep focused on the task at hand. Likewise, I have a list of potential topics for this blog.

The other way my lists help me is that, realistically, I don’t have the same skills available all the time. I find game text very taxing to write, so I need to prioritize it on early weekend mornings, or very early weekday evenings, when my brain is freshest. Entering simple changes or laying out sheets or cards is easier for me, so I can work on those tasks at off-peak hours when I have less energy. My lists make that possible.

Status
I wrote the troublesome “overview of phases” section three different ways. I don’t particularly like any of them, but I’m certain I’ll be able to edit together their strongest points into a single overview.

Goals for Next Week
Edit the single overview and write out two of the specific phases.

#WithGreatProduction: 26 July 2015

I had forgotten how much of a different beast writing game text is compared to designing procedures and character sheets, and simply explaining things verbally.

Writing is so slow, at least for me. It gives me too much time to think. I’ll write a sentence, consider how it meshes with the tone of the section and the overall shape of the instructional text I’m writing. Is it too long? Could it be simpler, more straightforward? Does it move the idea forward after the last sentence? Does it setup the next sentence? Is this even the best way to present these ideas? Should I switch to a top-down / bottom-up / metaphorical / “just the facts” / evocative approach? Do I need to give the players more tools to spark to their imaginations? Do I need to back off and let them play the game their way, rather than mine?

It wasn’t so bad in the Hero Creation section, as I’ve verbally explained Hero Creation again and again during playtests. But I don’t really explain gameplay at the table as much as outline it and demonstrate it. Because of this, the writing of this “How To Play The Game” section is going even slower than usual. (This is also the reason why the GM portion of my games are always the hardest for me to design, because I never explain them, I just do them. If I take WGP back to Metatopia this year, I’ll be testing the ability to have a player be the villain player with no prior prep or experience.)

To break this impasse, this week I intend to speed-write the section I’m stuck on several different ways, knowing beforehand that most or all of that writing is going to get thrown out. If nothing else, surrounding the problem and attacking it from different angles will at least allow me to fail faster, and rule out ways not to explain the game.

Status
Finally finished the Villain Creation and Villain Plan section! It somehow metamorphosed into a thicket of oracles and sub-oracles right before my eyes!

Unexpected projects at work and illness of family members joined forces like a pair of supervillains to rob me of most of my writing time this week. I wrote a few paragraphs of the Phases summary, but didn’t make much headway. Luckily, my schedule included allowances for these sort of delays.

Goals for Next Week
Finish the summary of the Phases (Which now that I look at it, may end up longer than I anticipated) and the description of at least one Phase.

#WithGreatProduction 19 July 2015

So, at DEXCON, I mentioned to Clark Valentine that I had been designing With Great Power in character sheets and quick-starts, and therefore had effectively no “real game text” written yet. He asked for more details, so here it goes.

More than a year ago, the always-insightful John Stavropoulos wrote about how vital character sheets and quick-start rules summaries are for RPGs. They are the user interface of your game. Most likely, only one or two people at the table is ever going to read your game’s rulebook, but every single player is going have a character sheet. That is going to be their portal into the game world—the piece of paper they will be looking at all session long, every session. John’s point was that character sheets and quick-starts should not be treated as an afterthought to game text, but should take a central role in game design.

John is absolutely right. I’ve been trying to design With Great Power to work with dice for more than three years now. I’ve gone through ten major “restart from scratch” revisions. And all of that design work was carried out on character sheets, quick-starts, and notes to myself. I play and playtest games almost entirely at conventions. Getting simple, clear, quick-to-understand information into the hands of the players is vital. I need the players to know their options, have reminders at hand, and maybe even be a tiny bit inspired by the source material. Writing rules text gives me _none_ of that.

At least in the style of role-playing games that I design, when you’re at the stage of testing when you need to know if a set of rules actually does what you hope it will, precisely how those rules are phrased is irrelevant. Put a reminder of the rule on the character sheet. Summarize it in a bullet point in a rules summary. Jot yourself a note with any clarifications. If the rule helps players say interesting things during the actual playtest, then you can take the time to write it up, seeking out the right words to teach it through text. If the rule doesn’t achieve your goals, changing it is just a bullet point away.

Status:
Finished Hero Creation section. The Villain Creation section expanded considerably while I was writing it (I was going to put section on Villain Plans later in the text, but decided they should really be with Villain Creation), so I’m not quite done with Villain Creation, but I’m happy with the progress. Wrote a few sidebars as I went. Started on the playtester survey form, which I’ll fill in as I go.

Goal for Next Week:
Finish Villain Plans. Write the introduction to Phases (what they are, how they work, general guidelines), and the description of at least one of the four types of Phase. And more sidebars. I can’t write a game about superheroes without sidebars!

See ya in seven!

#WithGreatProduction: 12 July 2015

No, it is not 1999 all over again. I am, however, doing a production blog for the next phase in creating the With Great Power, reimagined edition.

Why a production blog?
Because I have a busy life and have no project manager to nag me about getting stuff done. Also, it is months until my next game convention. Conventions always light a fire under me and I cannot afford to let this project languish that long. Being responsible to report to all of you good folks on the Internet will keep me moving forward. There are some other reasons, which we’ll get to in future weeks.

What’s the current state of the game?
The sessions I ran at DEXCON were great fun, and very productive. The process of play itself is largely working the way I want it to. The next step is external playtesting.

However, I have no text to send external playtesters. I have been designing through iterations of character sheets and rules summaries. I need to write the text of the game to get the information on how to use those character sheets and rules summaries out of my head and into other people’s heads.

What’s the projected timeline?
I am not the world’s fastest writer of game text. I’d like to have an external playtest edition of the game ready by August 31. That’s eight of these blog posts between now and then.

Won’t a production blog siphon off time you’d be using to write the game itself?
Not likely. I just put in several hours and am starting to lose focus. It’s time for a break, so I bang this entry out, as the first part of the break.

Okay, so what did you do this week?
As I said, I ran the game twice last week at DEXCON. I got lots of great feedback from players, and my own observations. However, it was scattered on character sheets, rules summaries, origin cards, and my trusty notebook. I reviewed all of that, fixed the things like typos that were quick to fix, and compiled the more involved changes into a worklog.

I also reviewed the textual outline that I had been neglecting, brought it up to speed, and started to write the text for the Hero Creation section. I also made a list of sidebars I need to write. Oh, and a list of topics for this #WithGreatProduction blog.

What are your goals for next week?
I’d like to be able to finish the text for hero creation and villain creation. Anything extra would be bonus.

See ya in seven, True Believers!

DEXCON 2015

DEXCON is one of my favorite conventions, I think it’s fair to say that this DEXCON was the best yet! Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure staff always put on a great show and go above and beyond to be welcoming.

Unfortunately, I came home with a bit of a cold, so my thoughts are a bit more scattered than usual. Also, apologies to anyone I hugged yesterday. Here’s what I played.

THURSDAY
9AM: Companions Tale with Adrian, Bruce, Kirk and Daniel.
–This is the game I’m editing for Laura. It’s at the point where we’re testing that the text actually says what it needs to say. I simply explained the premise of the game, laid out the materials, and sat back taking notes while my awesome players taught themselves the game. It was very insightful, as well as fun and entertaining. There were definite problems identified and the game will be stronger for it! Plus, we told a story of the red-haired hero who founded a new citadel and faced armies of zombies and diverted rivers of hallucinigenic joy-juice.

2PM: Lady Blackbird with Adrian, Rich, Lilith, and Candace, with Markus GMing.
–Lady Blackbird delivered fun character play, as always. I’ve GMed for Markus before, so I knew we were in good hands there. Plus, Rich, Lilith and Adrian are some of my absolute favorite people to play with! Plus, Candance hadn’t played a tabletop RPG in the better part of a decade, but really brought the fun! Adrian had never played LB before, but he is one of the funniest people I know. I handed him Snargle and said “This character was written for you.” I was not wrong.
–I pushed the boundaries of bad playerhood in that game, but I think it worked out okay. I was playing Lady Blackbird, and I tried to play her as a slightly more arrogant Princess Leia from A New Hope. I tried to make her a take-no-crap, if somewhat shrill, entitled woman throughout. Near the end, I revealed that she was running to Uriah Flint because she thought he would use his pirate fleet to fight her oppressive father, the slave-lord. Markus was playing up the angle of Uriah Flint being a terrible womanizer who didn’t even remember me. In the scene where she finally meets Flint, I turned her into a spineless, simpering, lovesick moron who offered her father’s fortune and implied sexual favors for a moment alone with Flint. The reaction of disgust on the faces of everyone at the table was extreme, and rightly so. I was nervous. I pushed on quickly to assert that in the next scene “All that lovesick mooning is just cover so I can get close enough to magically mind-control him so I can use his pirate fleets to fight to free the slaves.” Everyone was cheered, but I’m not sure if I should have tipped my hand earlier.

8PM: Dictionary of Mu with Rebecca, Ben, Jeff, Sweeney and Jim Crocker.
–I posted about this earlier, the game was as metal as anything. It had dismemberment, disembowlment, patricide, soul-sacrifice, and even the conception of a new life. I’m glad I got to run Sorcerer for so many who hadn’t played it before. Plus, Sorcerer had never quite clicked for me before. I think that I never quite understood how large a part Color and Situation played in the game, since I was overly focused on System at the time. But I’ve learned a lot more about how to “read the fiction” in the intervening decade. Perhaps there’s a role for me a revivalist of older games.
–My players were awesome! They gave me a round of applause afterward, but they really should have (and were) applauding each other. They really brought to life the characters and their grand, eloquent desires.

FRIDAY
9AM: With Great Power with Mel, Bill, and Bruce.
–A dream table, and a great session. My latest round of tweaks were fruitful and the game is singing now! It draws on the creative wells of players’ internalized superheroic narratives and helps them spew forth in four-color glory. I love it.
–They made a psychic, Doctor Id, and two magical characters: Mister Mystic who could manifest “solid thought” and worked for an other-dimensional arcane Library; and Argent who had been imbued with the powers of the Light Fantastic to battle evil. They faced off against Duke Diablo, who wanted to purge the world of its regrets, permanently. We had earthquakes, demolished buildings, tenure review boards, the battle of paired ancient amulets of power, the clearing of steam over where the heroes should have died but stood to face the villain. Gobs of fun!

2PM: Kagematsu with Blair, Kirk, Jim, Kat and Melissa GMing.
–The regency romance angle was awesome. Kat’s been working on a Jane Austen-esque game for a while, so I’m really glad she got to play this. The mix of desperation and desire seemed a perfect fit for the Kagematsu framework. And Melissa made it look so easy.
–I found myself in an authority figure role, again. Our house had no male heir, and also needed to woo a faerie lord to shore up the bloodline. I was the eldest sister, who had been married for a day before her lying husband had shipped out with the Royal Navy and been promptly killed by the French, taking my reputation and hope for the future with him to a watery grave.
–Learning from my last game, I min/maxed the stats 6/1, probably should have gone all the way to 7/1. My character, Honora, was all charm. She ended up marrying Lord Weymouth, even though it was Blair’s innocent Helena who secured the promise on my behalf.
–I managed “a roll in the hay” Even though it was explicitly set up as a regency romance—and I’ve typeset enough of them to know what that entails—I was still uncomfortable introducing sexual content, concerned that I would step across the line of good taste. The table was very supportive and I really, really enjoyed the game.

8PM: Dictionary of Mu with Daniel, Mel, Jurgen, and Neal.
–This session (also posted earlier) was just as metal, a bit more time for development of the characters, as there were only four players rather than five. This one had ritual combat, intentional disfigurement, flying ark powered by blood, and the killing of the concept of kingship itself and binding it as a new demon.
–Sorcerer works best when the Color and Situation are first and foremost, with System supporting and giving them teeth. I never fully understood that until after MCing Monsterhearts.

SATURDAY
9AM: Companions Tale folded for lack of players. There was an embarassment of riches on Saturday. Instead, I played Fiasco with Phredd, John, and Jon.
–Fiasco has always been a mediocre game for me, but this session was thoroughly fun, as I got to play “off-kilter” but not “crazy.”
–The playset was “Shovelbums,” which is slang for “archeologists” and based on Phredd’s real-life experiences as an archeologist. It was a great setup, with petty people focused on pride, greed, lust, ambition—basically everything but the preservation of the artifacts of the past.

2PM: Five Kingdoms with Bill, Nina, Xander and Dave GMing
–Dave Petroski is working on this “Kingdom versus kingdom FATE game” for a little while now. I admit that I’m stalking this game for selfish purpose, as I have an idea in a similar space.
–The version I played at Dreamation version was interesting. This version was fun, but it could be much moreso. Dave’s on a good path. The role of the fiction and the cultural character of kingdoms is a sticky point. It can very easily be overwhelmed by the currency-driven light board-wargame that the map portion teeters on the edge of. Maybe something can be done so that certain milestones are easier for different cultures to acheive, or give them extra benefits, or something? I don’t know quite how to fix it, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the state of this at Metatopia.

8PM: Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine with Ami, Karin, Brian and MP O’Sullivan HGing.
–Anecdote: I come to the room, and Mike has already put out tea and cookies. The character sheets are sitting friendly and welcoming on the table. Mike asks me how my Sorceror game had gone. I refused to even mention the events of Mu in the room, lest I pop the bubble of “feel-good” that Mike had crafted.
–I didn’ know what to expect other than “Jenna Moran does Studio Ghibli.” I was plesantly surprised! It was a thoroughly enjoyable, fascinating game with no conflict, just exploration. Definitely looking forward to picking it up.
–We had a pick-up soccer game with monster children; the friendly spirits of rain clouds and too-long, too-thin cat-like beings; the wish-granting engine dropping a plastic egg; an excellently-handled flashforward/flashback use of the wish itself; the perfect memory of our high-school friendship that we would treasure in our hearts forever; the one night in all the year when the stars were visible, with the lights dimming all across the city and everyone gazing up at the sky, with my character looking down, seeing the stars reflected in the puddles of spirit world; and an end-credits montage of our friendship persevering throughout our lives.

SUNDAY
10AM: With Great Power with Brian, Russell, Sarah, Rachel and Kat.
–Interesting test with having two people at the table who “didn’t really like superheroes.” The game took longer to pop, but pop it did, which was gratifying. I actually lay the blame for that more on having _five_ players (even though they were five excellent players), and the meat locker-like conditions of the gaming rooms.
–We had a much more diverse team, with the Timekeeper being able to freeze time in limited spaces, but at the cost of time from his own life; Lady Facsination who had glasses that could see the future, so she could avoid trouble; The Amazing Abra, a teenage wizard who had a dead, evil wizard trapped in his closet; Mindseye, a runaway space princess who could read and manipulate thoughts; and Purple Haze, who could absorb and expel different types of energy. They faced off against Temper, a blind efficiency expert who had been empowered by the far-future descendents of humanity to cut out the weakness from human civilization. She was trying to trigger a meltdown in a nuclear power plant so that the crisis would prompt greater safety and efficiency standards.
–We saw a burglary stopped before it started; the key that connects all doors; the most clever use of an Internet fanbase of a fictional time-travel TV show; the worst examples of over-sharing while having a round of drinks with the coworkers; twenty-something love triangles!; evacuating a speeding car in the last half-second before it crashes and explodes; power station safety hardware flipped so that every procedure produced the wrong result; the heat and radiation of a nuclear meltdown safely absorbed; the day saved!

What a great con. Thanks to everyone with whom I shared a game, a meal, or a chat!

#WithGreatPlay

Camp Nerdly 2015

Camp Nerdly always holds a special place in my heart. The scenery is great. There are plenty of people I only get to see there. It has more opportunity for me to display my pitiful Frisbee skills than all other game conventions put together.

This was our fourth Nerdly, and certainly the best one yet. We stayed in a nearby hotel, because after being in the hospital last year, I was not about to risk my old man back on a camp cot. Kat had the brilliant idea to go down Thursday night after work and avoid all that wretched Friday traffic. And we did exactly that and it worked out great. I got to learn how to play the card game slash with a host of people, like Keith, Bill, Tim, Josh, Whitney, and Sean. I scored points for introducing She-Hulk to her prefect press secretary, CJ Cregg from the West Wing.

Friday evening, I got to play Brendan’s latest iteration of Masks, his game of the angst-filled lives of teenage superheroes. We had a great table of Rebecca, Jared, Kat, and Frank and really sunk our teeth into the tribulations of Zap and the Young Heroez: Quarry, the genetically engineered escapee from a evil corporation; Pandora, possessor of an ancient Greek magical box that could produce all manner of horrors; Xyrax, the most attractive insectoid alien from a parallel dimension; Shatter Dancer, hacker and stone shaker; and, of course, Zap, the electric-powered protege of the world-famous hero The Shield. We faced down a bizarrely amped-up version of The Kelpinator, and found ourselves embroiled in the machinations of the evil Friendly Chemical company. The game was so enjoyable that we continued it on Saturday night.

Saturday morning, I ran the latest version of With Great Power for Kat, Joe, Brendan, Rich, and Matt. They created a slew of really cool characters. Kat portrayed an adult version her Pandora hero from the Masks game. Brendan created an heir to the muse of memory who could revise peoples’ memories at the risk of losing her own. Rich played a speedster who was paraplegic when he wasn’t using his powers, and knew his time with them was limited. Matt played Professor Rewind, who could speed and slow the passage fo time, but was trapped in a time loop himself. And Joe played Cataclysm, imbued with so much cosmic power over the elements that he could scarcely contain the power in his wake. They faced off against the schemes of Ianus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings who wanted to put an end to technological progress, and also the rage of Heraklea, an ancient foe of Pandora. A very fun session.

Saturday afternoon, Kat ran a FATE game she had picked up a few cons ago: The Secret of Cats. The PCs are cats who can see the true magic of the world and must protect their Burdens—y’know, their people. We had a great table of Scott, Andy, Jule and me who played as the cats of the Buffy, Giles, Willow and Xander. We unraveled the mystery of a cat who had gone mad when its burden had been turned into a vampire. It was a fun game featuring a dog pack called the West Side Wags, dreams of human sacrifice, and an animated zombie mouse!

After washing a few dishes on Saturday night, Brendan, Kat, Rebecca and I continued our game of Masks from Friday. It was my first LongCon! We got deeper into the group relationships and questioned what it meant to be a hero. The game—like many PbtA games—is definitely written with long-term play in mind, so it really shone in the second session. I loved Pandora posing as Shatter Dance’s little sister for a meetup with a mysterious hacker, various team members telling off Nimue the Sorceress Supreme, and Zap nearly drowning saving the world but being rescued by Pandora. A really great game that we could have easily continued.

Sunday morning we got there plenty early and squeezed in a quick board game of Lost Cities with Sam and Kat. Then I ran a rushed session of With Great Power. This time, Ira, Ben, Noah, E.T. and Kat created: a berserker with a tortured past; The Creep, who could trap people in their own nightmares; the Insomniac, who could put people to sleep even though he never could; Thunderclap who had the power of a thunderstorm bursting inside him; and the Puppeteer who had been raised to secretly rule the world, but was rebelling by turning those resources to good ends. Opposing them was Update, a woman who had been empowered by aliens to enhance the human race and bring it up to galactic minimum standards by any means necessary. The session was truncated by the need for chores, but it was still quite a fun time.

This was definitely my best Camp Nerdly experience. Thanks to all the Owlbears who made it possible.

Philly Games Con 2015

Philly Games Con was a good con, and both well-attended and well-run. Neither are to be taken for granted at a first year event.  I was impressed and would return again. Kudos to Dave and the Philly Games Con crew for a great debut.

 

Friday night, I got to play in a game of Itras By with Keith, Clarissa, Yael, Howard, and Brennan. We made a suitably surreal series of events for our racehorse jockey given to over-eating, encyclopedia salesman searching for the perfect sentence, birthright mime with a habit of nervous talking, organ-grinder’s monkey longing to learn how to dance, and truthful fortune-teller looking for someone to tell his fortune. It was an enjoyable session with a lot of laughter. Beware monkeys passing out counterfeit mime money.

 

Saturday morning, I ran InSpectres for Brendan, Tim, Kat, Joe, and Neil. They set up their franchise in a self-storage locker. We got through two missions: a wine cellar infested by alcoholic mole man, and an apartment building that was haunted by the spirits of every animal that that had died on that spot in the last four billion years of life on earth, particularly a smart-assed 10-year-old girl murdered in the mid-80s calling herself Zaxxon4ever. It was a fun time.

 

Saturday afternoon, I ran With Great Power for Mike, Brian, Matt, Dan, and Fran. They came up with some incredible heroes: Warpo, who could warp matter with his mind. Nudge who could hear thoughts and nudge people into making certain decisions. Thinktank, a quadriplegic with telekinetic power armor. Meltdown, given radioactive powers in a reactor accident. And finally, Starsigil, a farm girl who—when an alien crash-landed on her farm—was imbued with a tattoo of cosmic might. They faced the heedless fury of the Rampaging Shade, an energy manifestation of an everyday man’s darkest impulses. In the end, Omnidelphia was saved once more.

 

Kat wasn’t feeling well Sunday evening, so I bowed out of games. But after she went to bed I got to listen to the tail end of a game of Masks with Brendan, Mike, Daniele, and Rich. The game is in a much better shape than it was when I played it at DEXCON. I’m looking forward to this tale of super teen angst.

 

Kat’s Serial Homicide Unit game today at 8:00AM did not have any players. Morning slots on Sunday are always a hard sell, but *really* early slots are even more difficult. We had a nice, leisurely trip home, and reflected on a con well-spent.

Maelstrom 2015

So, Maelstrom 2015 was a very good time. It’s a small convention, emphasizing quality over quantity. As always, Avie and Vinny and the Double Exposure crew do a great job making everyone feel welcome. And this is the con where they just let the magic spontaneously happen.

We didn’t arrive until later than I wanted, and until we checked in and had dinner, we had missed the 8 o’clock launch window, and many folks we knew were already involved in games. The secret to Maelstrom, though, is to simply wait by the launchpad area and magic will occur. Indeed, it did. After a few hands of Spades, people drifted by with talk of a game of Monsterhearts. Well, you can’t say “Monsterhearts” without gamers flocking like cats to tuna, and soon it looked like Daniele Popelsky was going to have to MC a game with nine players. I had my Monsterhearts stuff in my bag, so I started a second table with Tim, Jim, Misha and Neil. We had a good session, with mysterious murders, tornados, car crashes, and teenagers handcuffed to boilers rigged to explode. We could have gone longer (as is usually the case with MH), but the hour grew late and I was fighting a cold.

The next morning I was lucky to grab a seat in Dave Petroski’s FATE Accelerated hack called “Civilizations”, where each player takes the role of a civilization. This is an idea I’ve been interested in since I first read about Aria nearly twenty years ago. This was actually the first time I ever played any version of FATE. The game was kind of like two sub-games: The creation of the cultures and a hex-map game of expansion, discovery, and conquest. They didn’t fit together quite as well as I would have liked. I think Dave needs to decide which one is the thing he’s going for and make the other component support that. But it was an enjoyable and interesting introduction to FATE and I hope I get a chance to play this again as it develops. The players in this game were Michael, Mel, xander and Neil. We created a cool pseudo-Bronze Age world around an inland sea, which had recently drained away due to a cataclysmic accident in one of the civilizations. I was pretty happy with my culture: The Majesteria, an ancient matriarch which had seen better days, but was not yet on its last legs.

After lunch, I got to playtest With Great Power. We had an amazing table of Rowan, Jesse, Joe, Neil, and Jim. The character cards worked their magic once more, prompting the creation of Harrier (a super-intelligent inventor with power armor), Reactor (longshoreman with a tragic past who could absorb and discharge energy), Pris (a cybernetically-upgraded martial artist indebited to shady figures), Divebomb (invulnerability and somewhat-controlled flight with a poor record of causing collatoral injuries), and the White Scarab (undead Egyptologist who could phase and teleport from corpse-to-corpse). They faced off against the Engineer, a woman who could talk to and command machines, whose son was killed by a rogue superhuman (She didn’t know it was Divebomb) devoted to ridding the world of superpowers. We had stunning fights in Chinatown, bots cruising the darknet listening for criminal chatter, a hero’s powers amped up beyond his control until he drained the entire city’s power, the building mystery of ancient Egyptian magics, and a collapsing building for good measure. Particularly noteworthy was Divebomb, in his secret identity, being pressured by his coworkers to sign a petition that would force Divebomb to reveal his identity and face justice for injured bystanders. I really enjoyed the game and got some great feedback. I think everyone had a good time.

Saturday evening I ran With Great Power again. This time Melissa, Daniel, Seth and Sharon created what was clearly a Vertigo comic. And a weird one, at that. Our heroes were The Ressurectionist, a doctor who could bring people back from the dead, but only by psychically traveling to hell and leaving something else in their place. We had The Good Son, the son of Satan whose fit of teenage rebellion brought him to Earth to battle his cousin-demons. There was the Caretaker of the Necronomicon who produced television shows that debunked actual magic so others would know find out things they Were Not Meant To Know. And the Sculptor, a troubled teenager who could reshape matter with a whim, but had trouble thinking through the ramifications. They were opposed by the Accountant, a man who had stolen power from heaven and was hunted for it. He knew if they found him, it would trigger the end of the world. But the only way to hide was to exploit the fact that angels prefer not to look upon human suffering. He had to keep a level of misery around him as cover, but not too much, lest he attract attention from the other side. After character creation, things got _really_ weird, including teleporting most of a scumbag father away, a glimpse into the Scientological beliefs of Tom Cruise (stunningly portrayed by Daniel), and a portal to heaven opening above a city torn apart by looting and violence. Oh, and naked Benjamin Franklin. Because, of course, right?

This morning, I was on a bit of compressed time table, so I neede to run something short. Baron Munchausen is one of my favorite games that I rarely get to play, and it only takes about 10 minutes per player. So Kat, Meredith, Ally, Anon and I told tales of deuling with the king of cats on the moon; luring the moon out of a stalled eclipse by wearing a dress made of mirrors crafted by blind, handless tailors; drinking all the congac brewed in the year 1700; earning the ire of Freemasons by bottling the sweat of Polish laborers and selling it as French perfume; and the terrible fate of the arms of the Venus di Milo and how it related the dimished fecundity of coconuts. There was some awkwardness as one of the players seemed to be playing a different game than the rest of us. Every few years I trot Munchausen out again, and often unpleasant things happen around the table. I’ll need to think long and hard before I pull it out again. At least with strangers and slight acquaintances. Perhaps I really do need a category for “games to play with friends only.”

Regardless, I’m very glad I went. I wish I might have been healthier, but am glad it was just my voice and not my mind that wheezed and sputtered. Definitely looking forward to DEXCON! And Philly Games Con next week!

Some history of the Indie Games eXplosion: The early years!

Over on Google Plus, James Stuart asked about the history of the IGX. I started typing, and I wanted to preserve it somewhere that I wouldn’t lose it. https://plus.google.com/u/0/112165300112510479765/posts/GDDVGX2GPqw

Holy smokes, how much detail do you want? Most importantly, how much detail do I want to write?

*Prehistory*
The IGE did not leap fully formed from the head of Zeus. There were a number of things that had gone before that provided ideas of what worked and what didn’t.

~The Forge Booth at GenCon had run at GenCon 2002, 2003, and 2004. Luke Crane, Vincent Baker, and I participated in 2003 and 2004. Luke had been promoting Burning Wheel heavily at NYC-area conventions since early 2003. By 2005, he had an inventory of other people’s indie games that he’d offer for sale at his booth. This was the kernel of what became “the booth” at Dreamation.

~My wife and I had been attending local gaming conventions in the Pennsylvania-New Jersey area since 1998 and GMing games. We ran games that we liked and hoped that people would show up. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. We learned to streamline our pitches, how to liven up our event descriptions, and how to fold a game with insufficient players.

~Personally, I was interested and excited by these weird little games coming out of the Forge and wanted more people to play them. I thought that being able to offer a whole slate of games as a single, related entity would draw more players for everybody, just like the Forge booth did for sales. I even tried to put such a thing together a year earlier at another series of conventions run by Wild Gazebo Productions. Unfortunately, the Wild Gazebo conventions folded up in late 2004.

*Dreamation 2005*
This con is where it all started. I think there were many factors that formed the fertile soil that has grown this particular community. I’ll try to break them down as best I can.

I’m going to show my dyed-in-Forge colors by posting you to links. One of the foundational bits, the incredibly generous and welcoming invitation the Double Exposure made to a bunch of no-name, enthusiastic game designers on their home turf: http://indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=13124.0 That continuously helpful, welcoming attitude of Double Exposure has been the bedrock that makes everything else possible. Some convention organizers (particularly circa 2005) treated publishers primarily as an additional revenue source, and Double Exposure has never been like that. They always regarded our success as their success and that is priceless!

And another foundational bit was that fact that, as was kinda common on the Forge in those days, we organized our participation in public: http://indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=13281.0 This allowed people (even if it was mostly one another) see what we were planning, get excited about it, and plan to attend the show.

Another bit is that IGE 2005 had an incredible concentration of talent: Vincent Baker running the five-months-old Dogs in the Vineyard. Time Kleinart, Tony Lower-Bausch, Bill White, Keith Senkowski, and myself running our still-in-playtest games The Mountain Witch, Capes, Ganakagok, Conspiracy of Shadows, and With Great Power. In those days when it seemed like d20 could do anything, Tav Behemoth was there with his Masters and Minions series of modules. Some dude in fancy sneakers called Jared Sorensen showed up to chat and actually play some games. Great players (and online posters) like Judd Karlman, Joshua A.C. Newman, Andrew Morris, and Rob Bohl were there.

Because of the concentration of talent and the flurry of convention-fueled posting that followed, the online reputation that Dreamation earned was HUGE. I messed up the rules of My Life with Master and that session still became a thing that people who weren’t even there would talk about about. The Forge has been called an echo chamber, but an echo chamber is what you need when you’re trying to make something loud enough to be heard.

*Trends post-2005*
The importance of consistency cannot be over-stated. The fact that we do this every year meant that not only people who had heard about the indie presence online knew to come to Dreamation to look for good games, but also the convention staff and regular convention attendees who weren’t active online. A lot of people would sign up for one game, enjoy it, and then come back for others, or tell their friends that they had a good experience. Having a group identity made it possible for players to not just follow a single “good GM” from game-to-game, but have faith that every IGE game was going to be new and interesting and like nothing they’d seen before.

Also, the fact that Vinny and Double Exposure was so accommodating to provide booth space as close to the gaming space as possible was HUGE. It gave the event a focal point, a place to check in, to chat with fellow designers and newly-made friends, to hang banners and to show off games that looked as little like traditional RPGs as their game mechanics played like them. Every time we had to move hotels, I was scared that events and booth were going to need to be separated, allowing the energy to dissipate. These days, Dreamation is so big that it has multiple focus points at Jim’s booth, around the bar, the open tables near the waterfall, wherever the LARPers decompress, etc. But having a focal point is very important.

In the early years, we would do parties and try to feed everybody, but we quickly outgrew the capacity to do that.

One of the great things is that there were a number of years (2007-2009, maybe? I don’t recall) that Kat and I couldn’t organize anything, because of life circumstances we were lucky to be able to show up and play. And the community had grown to the point that other people (Emily Care Boss, Joshua A.C. Newman, Jenn “Jennisodes” Steen) stepped up and kept the torch moving and growing.

I’m going to end this ramble here for now. Ask questions! Old, balding guys like me need our memories prodded in order to cough up anything useful.

Dreamation 2015

Dreamation is always phenomenal, and this year was no exception. The work that Vinny and Avie and the whole Double Exposure staff do to make the convention seamless is a wonder in its effectiveness and its invisibility. Thanks to each and every one. Now, here’s the fun I had:

Thursday 8pm
Event: *Kagematsu* “The Grand Seduction”
Colleagues: Jackson, Mikael, John, Sarah, Natalie, Arnold (facilitating only)
In a Canadian rust belt setting, I played Agnes, a 55 year old school teacher and mother of Karen, Mikael’s character. I tried sweetness. I tried flattery. I tried cookies. All ended in disaster. Finally, with thirty minutes left in the session, I went for broke, pulled out all the stops. I offered the doctor a good salary, and end to the financial woes that may have driven him here, and—when that didn’t work—threatened to drown him if he tried to leave. All utter failure. And Agnes was hauled away to a padded room, never to be seen or spoken of again.

Friday 9am
Event: *With Great Power* (playtest)
Colleagues: Josh, Mel, George
We took the latest revision of With Great Power (adapted from Swords Without Master) for a test drive and the game went really, really well. I was worried that my new hero creation system wouldn’t measure up to the task, but it came through with flying colors. Within moments of handing out the cards, I heard “These cards obviously go together” when there was nothing obvious about them, which is _exactly_ what I wanted. My players came up with Eve-8—an data-manipulating android who had created a flawed “child” called “Eve-L”. Also, Chevron—a government-sanctioned super-suit-wearing leader of Super Team Six. Also, Red Shift—a speedster who had to be careful of her speed, lest she approach relativistic speeds and destroy everything in her wake. They faced off against The Monolith—a scientist who had been transformed to living rock and wanted to evict humankind from Earth so it could return to the glory of its geological past. We had nice pacing with some great character development. I’m very happy with the direction of the game.

Friday 2pm
Event: *The Long Orbit*
Colleagues: William, Amber, John, Rachel (MC)
This was the first time I played TLO and it had a nice, slow burn of creepiness. I played the Journalist and spent much of the early game turning nearly everyone on, because I could. In the later game, I clung to the resolve that my sister was alive again and did all I could to protect her. The climax was a bit muddy due to time and my roll to rob the AI of the desire to oppose us. I liked the early scenes laying groundwork for later scenes, and our freedom to make our own decisions within the somewhat structured framework. It was a good game with a great table of players.

Friday 8pm
Event: *The Clay That Woke*
Colleagues: Aaron, Matt, Dev, Paul (GM)
I played a nameless minotaur who worked for a street performer who sucked and blamed his rivals, particularly a fortune teller who made her predictions by allowing insects to crawl over her body. I came up with a better act about selling the audience leaves for them to write their sins on. I would then consume the leaves as “the Devourer of Sins”. Evidently my cleverness bypassed the Krater of Lots completely. I didn’t make a single draw. The other players’ stories were also interesting with memory stones, and proxy duels, and demigods being reborn through polluted fish. Afterward, we had a good discussion of the game’s roots. I’m not sure that it clicks in my head, but Clay is definitely an interesting game.

Saturday 9am
Event: *With Great Power* (playtest)
Colleagues: Danielle, Adam, Paul, Buddha
This time, the cards worked just as well, with the players creating the Red Avenger—given energy projecting powers through an unethical experiment, the Red Avenger had caused some damage when she didn’t know what her powers were and was trying to claim a reputation as a superhero. Also, Rapid Racer—a super-speedy bicycle messenger that needed a hard-to-come-by chemical to survive. He had robbed his parents to get a supply of the chemical and was trying to make up for it. Also, The Heir—a jewel theif who stole a cursed diamond which allowed him to manipulate energy, but also held the consciousness of its previous owners. Also, Hellfire—a fiery being who had made a deal with the devil. He was constantly burning and wore an asbestos suit, while followed by his gang of groupies called “The Hellfire Club.” They faced off against Groupthink—a blind woman who had the power to infect others with her thoughts through touch. With repeated exposure, her powers would completely overwrite the personality of her victims, and she had already unintentionally turned her husband into an unthinking yes-man.
The story we played was really, really great. I’m going to go into it in a little more depth in another post, as I want to pull apart some of the great things that this version of WGP is doing. _This was my favorite game of the convention._ It’s rare for me to say that about my own games.

After this session, I was so happy with my little superhero origins cards that I started pestering people in conversation with my “Wanna make a superhero” schtick. Thanks to all who played.

Saturday 2pm
Event: *Everway* “Saved by Zero”
Colleagues: Grant, Joshua, Sarah, Kat (GM)
Although Kat was using aspects of the Everway system, this was a cyberpunk game with some elements inspired by the RPG _Zero_ from Archangel Entertainment. Due to some elevator issues the session was short and didn’t have quite enough time to develop, but what we did was fun. Being desperate and on the run from a powerful corporation is always great. And we got to use the word “exfitrate” which was awesome. And my fellow players brought a lot to the table.

Between slots, Vinny and JR slaughtered Kat and I in Tichu. It was pitiful. Kat and I were rusty, plus I never had a hand with more than three face cards the whole game. It was 600 to nothing after two hands. We managed to get on the board, but it was a bloodbath.

Saturday 8pm
Event: *Power Play: Schemes and Skullduggery*
Colleagues: Howard, Jeff, Paul
Going in, I didn’t know what to expect from this. It was game of narrative control with some board-gamey elements. The idea is that we each are a criminal with a secret goal and we spend time doing actions and adding traits to things to achieve our goal. The game is trying to find a middle ground between the limited menu of options in a board game and the infinite possiblity of an RPG. I wouldn’t say that the game failed, but it got very legalistic very quickly. The rules weren’t as clear as they could be, and it feels very much like there is a missing piece. I imagine that when the game designers run it, they do certain things without thinking that they never wrote down. I might look at it again if someone were running it who had played it successfully, but I’m certainly not buying it myself.

Sunday 10am
Event: *Serial Homicide Unit*
Colleagues: Michele, Liz, Ephraim, Kat
SHU is just so very heartbreakingly tragic. I love it. We played civilians who were hunted because of our association with the Morristown diner. My character had been eating there every day since his wife kicked him out. He was still paying the mortgage and shoveling the snow and had no idea why she wouldn’t talk to him. When he found out that his best friend was now staying at the house to “help out”, he thanked him and even gave him some money for gas for the snow blower. And then the poor slob was killed by a serial killer. We also had a poor waitress who only wanted to go to Ireland to see her mom, but couldn’t afford it. A waitress who wanted her son to graduate high school, but he already had a shady job on the side. A cook who wanted to open her own restaurant but was blocked at every turn. And a busboy who wanted to land a scholarship and shake the dust of Morristown, NJ from his feet. And all of them but one were cruelly murdered by the serial killer before he skipped town. Man, I love that game.

Can’t wait to do it all over again!