Dreamation 2017

Dreamation 2017 was a great time! Thanks so much to Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure crew for putting on such a fantastic convention. Thanks also to each and every person who ran a game for the Indie Games eXplosion. You brought tons of fun to wintry Morristown. And thanks to everyone who played games, hung out, and just generally made for a great time.

Personally, my convention was defined by still recovering from a nasty illness earlier in the week. My energy level was very low, and I was grateful I was only running two games.

Thursday 8pm was the first of those games. I ran With Great Power for four great players. Matt played Sketch, whose enchanted paintbrush could animate things it drew. Sean played Figment, a long-limbed alien with light powers. John played Keystone, who could change his body into other elements. Max played Ironworks, who built himself power armor out of stuff from a junkyard. Together, they faced the Gun of Damocles, an alien cyborg cowboy who wanted to decrease chaos in the world by purging it of technology. He ended up getting pounded by a hero hitting him with his own robotic horse.

Friday 9am I got to play Kat’s game of temporal hijinks, Time Capers. I played Frank Hyperion, two-fisted scientist who traveled through time by falling from great heights and achieving not terminal velocity, but temporal velocity. Adrian’s time traveler wanted to kill his ancestors so he would never be born. Bruce’s traveler wanted to stop his grandfather’s business from failing. Kirk’s traveler wanted to save his father’s life. Amy’s traveler wanted to recover the second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics. Kat’s traveler wanted to save womankind from men, and thereby save all mankind. We ended up creating ripples like a scientific revolution in ancient Greece and aliens escaping Area 51 and living among Cold War-era America. A very fun time.

Friday 4pm I played Dev’s game Love Commander. It’s a fun game inspired by Mass Effect, where a human commander with an alien crew needs to spend their time wisely to learn more about their crew, which unlocks bonuses for the game. It is quick and clever and a lot of fun.

Friday 8pm I ran With Great Power again. Phredd played Godslayer, an ancient Sumerian hero unwilling brought back to life by a post-modern wizard. Neil played Amok, a sort of living cartoon character. Howard played the Hand of God, a teleporter torn between becoming a superhero and continuing to live in his parents’ basement. Kat played Corona, a young woman who had been chosen as a host for intergalactic space wasps. I played Singularity, who came from the cold darkness of space in a cybernetic containment suit to hunt the space wasps. His hunting technique was to make the Earth a less hospitable environment for the wasps, by killing as many humans upon it as possible.

Saturday 9am I got to have a far more gentle and heart-warming time, as Tony ran Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine for us. I played Trinket, a toy come to life. Richard played a wacky inventor. Albert played a hard-working aspiring restauranteur with a sentient ginger spirit sidekick. John played an old woman whose house was slowly sliding off the side of the city. Kirk played a ninja librarian. It was a delightful session. We hung lanterns, found lost library books, chased runaway carts, wrote advertising jingles, and went to a festival. Lovely game.

Saturday 2pm, despite being at my lowest energy of the con, I played The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze with Joshua, Aaron and Christo. It was a fast and bloody game, with two heroes facing each other, becoming fast friends, then dying. Joshua’s name-dealer was much at the center of it, and came out in a similar place to where she went it. I didn’t contribute as much as I might have liked, but enjoyed the game thoroughly.

I got a bit of rest Saturday afternoon. Then, at Saturday 8pm, I played Infinite Galaxies. Bill White ran the game, which is essentially Star Wars run through Dungeon World. I played a surly robot. Rich played a battle-hardened veteran. Greg played a literal pirate. Eric played a cryptic psychic. The game itself was okay, Dungeon World often leaves me cold. But the table was a hoot. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.

I got to chat with a handful of people Saturday night and Sunday morning at the booth, which was great. I have stepped away from designing games before. It always leaves me a bit at-ends in these sorts of conversations. But last time I stepped away, I didn’t have something to fill that space in my life, the way that writing is doing currently.

It was great to see everyone! Thanks for a great Dreamation!

“A Life Worth Dying For”, a Tale of Oshala the Hex, now available

A Life Worth Dying For cover
The next sword-and-sorcery tale of Oshala the Hex is now available.

This tale includes the fate of a past love, the fate of a dark future, otherworldly slave-drivers, feats of acrobatic skill, travel to realm of dreams, a cursed graveyard, an ancient tower of learning, a twisted prophesy, close combat on the top of a spire, a people freed of their fetters, and a broken heart.

From the blurb:
A world of dark sorcery—a time of sharpened bronze.

The pale tower of the Academy has governed the city of Lytrops with wisdom and learning for centuries. When Oshala the Hex finds the entire city forced into menial labor and her lover beset by restless spirits, what price will she pay to break their chains?

This is a 6,900-word short story in the sword-and-sorcery genre.

The story is now available for purchase at these fine retailers:

“The Mercy We Make” the first tale of Oshala the Hex, now available

The Mercy We Make Cover
My first foray into sword-and-sorcery fiction is now available!

I’ve never found the “sword” quite as compelling as the “sorcery”, so the main character of my stories, Oshala the Hex, is a sorceress who has sacrificed part of herself in exchange for magical power that few others possess.

In this first short story, “The Mercy We Make”, Oshala the Hex is a solitary figure who breaches the stoic mountain fastness of a long-forgotten emperor in search of an ancient artifact. The undying spirits within welcome a new, living soul to torment. But who will get the better of whom? Can Oshala the Hex escape where multitudes have fallen? Will her mission of mercy end in triumph, or eons of unending torment?

Check back next month for a new tale of Oshala the Hex.

The first 5,000-word tale is now available from these fine retailers:

DEXCON 19 — June 29-July 3, 2016

DEXCCON 2016

Thursday: I had to work. But was able to drop Kat off on Wednesday night. On Thursday, she was a whirlwind of activity and set up a mini-Maelstrom within DEXCON. GMs who had open slots would post the games that they were willing to run at those times. Players interested would show up or sign up. At the appointed hour, we’d seek out an unused table and BOOM!–the magic of gaming would happen. My wife is a miracle worker.

Evening: I battled through a stressful day at work and finally, finally made it to the convention. Kat ran With Great Power Classic Edition as part of mini-Maelstrom. I didn’t get to play, but I heard nothing but praise..

FRIDAY:
Morning: Another mini-Maelstrom game took off: 7th Sea Accelerated with Joe Zantek, Kat Miller, Jeff Collyer. I played a Castillian archeologist inspired by Indiana Jones. We chased down a buried pirate treasure. We had some witty repartee. Kat seduced a Naval captain of Montaigne. Jeff punched a shark. It was a fun session with fun people. The post-game discussion was particularly fruitful. Talking with Joe about the way the genre maps to FATE, how it might map to PbtA, and why it hasn’t was thought-provoking enough to start my stupid game designer brain working. Stupid brain!

Afternoon: No games came together for me. Thought more about PbtA buckling of swashes. Spent some time with Kat. We bought and played a card game called Spellcaster.

Evening: A Mini-Maelstrom Miracle. No mini-Maelstrom games coalesced for the 8pm slot. So Kat and I spent some time at the mini-Maelstrom booth chatting with our friend Joann. Around 9:30, a couple of new people wandered by, asked for details about mini-Maelstrom, and within 15 minutes the five of us were playing an amazing session of Serial Homicide Unit. I played Yousef, a Lebanese bus boy who just wanted to finish med school. He was a bit of a hypochondriac and thought he was coming down with the ailments he studied. He was savagely murdered by the serial killer. It was tragic. Probably my favorite session of the convention.

SATURDAY:
Morning: Another great mini-Maelstrom session went off as I got to run With Great Power for Dave and his two kids. I played a villain that could absorb and generate fire. When his powers emerged, he had saved a burning apartment building, and later discovered one of the people he saved was a serial killer. Now he hunted down the worst of humanity to purge by fire. Lots of fun and laughs.

Afternoon: John Farish ran a mini-Maelstrom game of Masks for me, Kat, Rich, Matt, and Brendan. It was a fun session with plenty of banter between the characters. I chose the Bull playbook, a girl called Kelsey “Kaboom” who had been given powers by an alien hive mind to be a super powered sleeper agent as part of an attempted invasion. Now that she was free and trying to be a hero, she had trouble fitting in with her fellow young heroes–one of whom was an ex-pop star turned tree. Fun times.

Evening: For my last mini-Maelstrom session, I got to run With Great Power for five players. The game is stretched to its maximum at five, so the session wasn’t as good as it could be. I actively encourage genre mixing in WGP. Often it produces amazing synergy that you’d never expect. Sometimes it produces the effect of an odd crossover where the characters seem like they belong in two different comics. This session had three players who had great interest in the physics of their superpowers and had a grand time figuring out how their powers worked, and what the repercussions would be. The other two characters were a teenager pulled from a teen drama comic, and a really interesting imp who possessed the dead that belonged in a Vertigo comic. Definitely a high note to finish off the convention.

SUNDAY:
Acknowledging the realities of age, we said our good-byes, and came home to rest up to face another day.

Thanks, as always, to Avie, Vinny, and the amazing Double Exposure staff for creating and maintaining such a great convention and community. I’m proud to be a member of such a welcoming, fun-loving community. And thanks to everyone I got a chance to chat with and to game with!

Dreamation 2016

Wow. What a #Dreamation.

As always, Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure crew made great things happen flawlessly and invisibly. They are amazing and I thank them deeply.

Jason Morningstar compared Dreamtion to a family reunion and he’s absolutely right. Except that there’s more people I’m excited to see at Dreamation.

Thursday, 8PM
For me, I started off the con with a game of Swords Without Master: Starward on Thurday night. It’s a supplement for SWoM that draws inspiration from Leigh Brackett, Flash Gordan, Akira Kurosawa, and WWII aviation films (just like a somewhat popular 1977 film you may have heard of). Andrew and Brian, neither of whom had played any SWoM before, both created fallen space knights. Patty played a translator/scientist from “not the United Federation of Planets”. They delved into a planet-sized ancient starship to find the lost panacea that would end a galaxy-wide plague. Despite the space skeletons and pirates, they got the cure and delivered it, but were cheated out of glory by the scheming space senate. How will they possibly clear their names? Find out in the next exciting episode of Starward!

Friday, 9AM
Friday morning, Bill White was running With Great Power. To keep myself from being a neurotic mother hen, I intentionally scheduled myself something else to do. I facilitated one of my favorite games: Serial Homicide Unit. Adam, Michael, Joann, Ephraim, Ian, and I told the stories of the workers and patients of the Helping Hands clinic, who just so happened to be hunted by a serial killer. The best and brightest of our characters were cut down just as their life turned around, while the worst thrived. It was sad and touching, just as SHU always is. I love this game.

Friday, 2PM
Friday afternoon, I got to play Bill White’s The New World. I played it several time over its many years of gestation, and this was the best version yet. So quick! So evocative! So fun! I think 2016 is finally the year for The New World. Just a few rough edges to polish and this one is ready to publish. We wove a tale of the last great city of learning in a fallen land, forcing the survivors of fallen cities into servitude, and the ambitious sand pirates that plagued them.

Friday, 6:55PM
Matt, Chris, and Chris had asked if I could run a demo of With Great Power for them. Asking me to run my game is my own personal Kryptonite, so run we did. In a quick 45 minutes, they made heroes and we played a couple of exciting phases.

Friday, 8PM
Finally, after years of trying, I got to play Sorcerer with Judd. It was a colonized solar system setting, with Adam portraying the secretly half-alien president of Mars, MadJay playing a xenoarcheologist, and me playing a horrible, Captain Bligh-type starship captain with xenotech fused into his head. If you’ve ever played a video game and took a while to understand the controls, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I often have trouble steering my character in Sorcerer. This game was no exception. I’d go into a scene thinking “I’ll show a bit of humanity, a bit of compassion” and then proceed to do the most evil stuff imaginable, like murdering a conscientious traitor, and trying to murder the president of Mars. I’m really, really glad I played. I’m uneasy with how the game went. And that’s exactly what Sorcerer is about.

Saturday, 9AM
I ran With Great Power for a group of three players: Jen played Noir, who could speak to ghosts; Nick played Mantis, who had instectoid alien power armor; and Adam played Blindspot, who could not be noticed, except on camera. Together, they faced down the flame-bodied Crucible who wanted to give superpowers to everyone in the entire world so that her husband could accept her as “normal”. It was a quick, fun session with green mutagenic gas at an MMA fight, quiet discussions on a park bench, a burning building, and punching a woman made of living flame in the face.

Saturday, 2PM
Joshua A.C. Newman’s The Name of Bronze is a work in progress. I like where it’s going and will be excited when it gets there. In our short session with Frank, Keith, and Matthew, I played Unlu, champion of Mard—tallest mountain and roof of the world. In Mard’s service, I crushed a rival mountain with my bare hands. It was interesting, and I could see where it will be fun once the whole game is communicated properly.

Saturday, 8PM
I finally played Torchbearer. Tony, Stephen, Carly and I did pretty well in Bret’s weird old school dungeon. Nobody died. We scored some loot. We rescued a guy from being eaten by a giant spider. I have my doubts about the “if you suggest an idea you have to be the one to roll for it” rule. I can see that the game is engineered to produce a particular type of experience and does it very, very well. It’s just not an experience I particularly enjoy. That’s an important thing to know.

Sunday, 10AM
A second game of With Great Power, this one with five players: Kat played the Scales of Justice/Dragon Princess who was rebelling against her dragon-tyrant father; Blair played the Winter Knight, born of Fey and fighting to hold onto his humanity; Karin played The Shade, who could speak the ghost of Andrew Carnegie; Ami played Feeback, an alien made of music who could take on the form of Jimi Hendrix; Kay played Refraction, a woman who lost most of her memories in the accident that turned her into a living hologram. Together they faced Upload, a robot from the future who was trying to force human society up to where future history said it ought to be, using things like nanobots to install mandatory upgrades in people. We had some great images like a dragon melting the snow off a blizzard-choked roadway to clear a path for ambulances, medical equipment exploding due to supernatural interference, living hologram destroying the evil nanotech disguised inside of charity blankets, and a fey knight cutting the tongue off a building-sized dragon.

Oh, and I also sold some actual, physical copies of With Great Power. Which made me very happy, and I hope will make all who bought it happy, too. Anyone who bought the game at Dreamation can contact my Gmail account (stalwartip) to get the electronic edition at no additional charge. The game and the origin cards will be available for order by the end of the month.

There is never enough time to see everyone I want to at Dreamation. I’m very glad for everyone I got to chat with, or game with, or even smile at in the hall. Thank you for a wonderful weekend.

#WithGreatProduction 16 August 2015

Not much time for an topical post. I’ve had my most productive week of writing since immediately after DEXCON, but I’ve still got a lot to do in the next two weeks.

I had dinner with Rob Bohl this week and that managed to knock my head into a better place than the mire it was caught in last week. No slight to Rob, but it wasn’t so much anything specific about the conversation as much at the simple act of having the conversation, and needing put my thoughts into words that helped. Writing can become a very solipicistic activity and getting lost in one’s own head is a constant danger.

I’m not a very talkative person in general, and I need to continually remind myself how important it is to talk and listen to put vaguely-defined thoughts into definite words, if nothing else.

Status
I finished the phase overviews!

Goals for Next Week
So much to do in only 15 days! I need to write up the endgame (known as “Gloating Mode”). I also need to start on the introduction and gameplay overview (Yes, I always write the introduction last. Always).

If I can keep up the rate that this week has been, I can do it. Fingers crossed. See ya in seven!

#WithGreatProduction: 9 August 2015

“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
― Stephen King

Yeah, that’s the kind of week it’s been.

I’m in the guts of the project right now and the writing is just onerous. I need to translate the living, face-to-face communication that I do at the table—where I’m looking someone in the eye, and can explain a little bit, show a little bit, answer questions, play a bit, explain a little more—into static written text.

Every approach feels wrong. But every project needs to undergo this—I hate it, but I know it to be true. If I don’t struggle to do what the project needs, then the project isn’t very ambitious. Lack of struggle means I’m resting on my laurels, getting lazy, taking shortcuts. And the result of that is a poorly-explained game.

Sometimes this work is just downright difficult and that’s all there is to it. The only way out is through.

Status
I have the phase overview and one of the phase explanations done (in a way that I hate). I started listing terms to define in a glossary.

Goals for Next Week
Finish the remaining three phase explanations.

#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!