By The Stars — The Jump to Lightspeed — Week Thirty-Two

We did it! We playtested By The Stars for the first time yesterday. My most heartfelt thanks to Kat, Bruce, Bill, Michele, Stefan, Don, and Jo for taking a chance, helping me out, and having a fun time in the process.

Yes, that’s right. Not only did the playtest happen, and not only was it successful, it was also fun! I have pages of notes in my cramped little handwriting for mistakes that were made, ways to fix them, suggestions for improving the game overall. It was the best session I’ve played in a long time.

From a story standpoint, the resource-rich, gas giant planet Illyria was thoroughly conquered by the forces of the Singularity, killing the rebellious Prince in the process. The Singularity Admiral died in making this, her greatest victory, possible. Her son, the hotshot pilot, ran off to find his own way enlightment. The Stalwart of the Glaive (my space knights), his reputation tarnished, went his own way. The former Singularity Overlord, the Illyrian Princess, and the first Self-Aware Robot joined the crew of the fearsome Space Pirate in search of freedom, adventure, and booty!

I’ve got lots of revision to do between now and the second playtest on April 22. But the basic token-trading system has a lot of promise and the game is well on its way to something great.

By The Stars — Danger! Danger! — Week Thirty-One

My playtest is in six days and I’m not ready. It’s going to be extremely rough and my little panic-voice is screaming “Cancel the whole thing and take up something simple, like gardening or photography.” But I shall persevere. No matter how rough the game is this Sunday, WE WILL PLAYTEST.

One of the bits I did work on was a brief setting intro. Initially, I tried to mimic the setting-free approach I had done for WGP…, but science fiction (even space fantasy) is so much bigger than superheroes that I don’t feel it could work. The finished product will have details on crafting your own setting, but for starters, I have this. I hate writing setting stuff.

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By The Stars — Sickness & Health — Week Thirty

It’s Monday morning and I should be recovering from a too-full day of too-much gaming fun at NYC’s RECESS yesterday. Instead, I’m recovering from a nasty stomach flu that filched most of my weekend from me. I’m frustrated for not being able to go to RECESS, confer w/ the NYC nerds, actually play some games. But it’s times like these when it’s hardest–and most important–to remember:

Falling down isn’t important. Standing up is.

I’ve got less than two weeks to prepare for my first open playtest. I’ll be using the WGP… enrichment process for the core resolution mechanic, but I need something that will force players to take actions that betray their Oaths. But it can’t be linked to a random event or a flip of a certain card. It must be clearly caused by their early decisions. I’m thinking of a sort of “favor” exchange system, where you can avoid the consequences of a failed conflict by giving your opponent one of your favor tokens. You’ll have a number of favor tokens, and can keep on dodging repercussions, until one of the other players amasses more of your favor tokens than you have and decides to cash them in. Then, you need to do what they ask of you, or destroy part of your own character to get out of it.


By The Stars — Punch It! — Week Twenty-Nine

In the realm of concrete words-on-a-page progress, I’ve got only a handful of scribbled notes to report. I spent a decent bit of the weekend fretting, cying, bellyaching, and tearing my hair out over this latest creative drought. Just yesterday morning I was ready to hang the whole thing up again.

Then I thought, to hell with all that! It’s wasted energy I could be using for a dozen better things, particularly in shoving By The Stars into playtesting. So that’s what I’m going to do.

I’ve got no rules draft. I’ve got no scenario. I’ve got no characters. I’ve got no regular players lined up and committed. But there is one thing I do got: my spine. I’m not sure how I found it, and I’m not sure how long I’m gonna be able to hold onto it, but I’d better use it while I got it.

Therefore, I’ve just sent a bunch of local (and not-so-local) folks the following e-mail (if you didn’t get one and want one, I apologize for the oversight, let me know and I’ll put you on the list):

Hey, All!
As you may know, I’ve been working on designing a space fantasy game called By The Stars. For close to a year I’ve been struggling with it, often spinning my wheels fruitlessly. To get this game done, I need to revamp my methods. To that end, I’m going to be holding open playtesting of By The Stars. I’d appreciate if you could come and help me out.
We’ll be playing at my house. I’ll hold the playtests every other Sunday afternoon, starting at 1:00 pm. We’ll play with whomever shows up–there’s no pressure to make it to every single session. We’ll play for a few hours, discuss what works about the game, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. We’ll finish up with ordering dinner from a local restaurant, and possibly a board game or two. The first time you show up for a session, I’ll buy you dinner as a way of saying “Thank you!”
Although I want to start this RIGHT NOW, I have previous commitments. The first session will be Sunday, March 25. We’ll skip April 8 because it’s Easter and continue on April 22.

That gives me a bit over two weeks to come up with something actually playtestable. I can do that. I swear by the stars that I will!

By The Stars — Working? Working? — Week Twenty-Eight

The Good News: I finished the initial playtest draft of Serial. If you’d like a copy, e-mail me at thebard at incarnadine dot indie-rpgs dot com.

The Bad News: I only had time for one project and Serial was it. The new character sheet and Dreamation AP will have to wait until next week.

However, I did make notes on the resolution system and further clarified my design goals to focus on the kind of play that I most often do. By The Stars will be optimized for a 4-hour convention slot, but allow for other structures of play as well.

The saga of Mike and his dice…

I played the minis game Heroscape last night for the first time. It uses special attack and defense dice. Attack dice have 3 skull sides and 3 blank sides. Defense dice have 2 shield sides and 4 blank sides. Each shield counters one skull, with any skulls left becoming damage. I had 3 figs. Each got attacked once. In total for all 3, I rolled 24 defense dice. I scored 2 shields. Total. I was dead 5 minutes into the game.

Did I mention that my crappy die-rolls are infamous among my friends?

After that, I played two games of 10 Days in Africa–a rummy-like game from Out of the Box. I won both of those, with a lot of luck. Then, seven of us played Cancellation Hearts, where I succeeded in taking zero points in the three hands we were able to squeeze in.

Contrasting these two games–and just Heroscape vs. Mechaton–I find that I like, and am better at, choice-centered games. The feeling of control is a powerful thing. Even when the handful of cards are so bad that your control doesn’t help you to prevail. Choice forces you to make a decision about how to allocate your resources, no matter how scant they may be. And decisions promote engagement.

“What to play?” “What to play?”

I was thinking about the “single-game engine that you can play any number of one-shot stories with” that I’ve wanted to design for a long time. Play Right!, my Game Chef entry, was a stab at it. I have numerous notes about it over the past 5 years. But, there’s a serious marketing problem with the entire concept.

People shouldn’t have to decide what to play TWICE.

If everyone else’s groups are anything like mine, deciding what to play next is a constant negotiation of shifting interests and priorities. Designing a game that would essentially cause people to say “Alright, we’ve discussed it and we’re going to play MSM’s Game. Now, what type of story are we going to play with MSM’s Game?” seems to set the burden too high. That’s one of the problems that WGP… struggles with.

Finding the perfect amount of player empowerment is a never-ending quest.

By The Stars — Paused. — Week Twenty-Seven

Well, I had off an entire day off due to snow this week and still topped 49 hours at work. That, plus a slew of family obligations and working on the playtest draft of Serial, the game about serial killers that I’m helping Kat with (it’s about half done), have left me with no progress on By The Stars this week. By next week, I want to finish a new version of the character sheet and a write-up of the Dreamation playtest. But we will see what the future actually holds…

Ramblings on Snow

I just finished 2 hours of snowblowing. It was our first real storm of the season and work was cancelled. That means, of course, that tomorrow will be extra hellacious with a side of torture, but that’s tomorrow.

I’ve always liked the snow. I got in arguments in college because I refused to complain about it. I like all four seasons.

I cleared out our driveway, out into the street in front of our house. Then our sidewalk, and the sidewalk and 2 car driveway of the retired couple next store. Sometimes they buy us pizza to say “thanks.” I just appreciate that he mows our part of the lawn between our houses. Even when I haven’t mown for weeks and our grass is knee-high he doesn’t complain. Mowing grass sucks. It’s the same thing over and over again. Push. Flip cord out of the way. Push. Flip cord.

Blowing snow requires thinking. Which way to blow so the stream won’t cover what I just cleared? How is the wind going to figure into this? What angle will give my boots the best traction? There’s strategy involved in blowng snow.

And each storm is a new challenge. Today’s was several hours of light snow on warm ground producing a semi-slush base. That was followed by several hours of dry powder, and then turning to sleet all night long. It finished with another coating of dry powder. This wicked combination produced a snowpack that was both very heavy (the hours of sleet) and prone to blowing right back in your face (the double powder layers). I am drained.

But snow has always held good associations for me. There were the days of frolicking in the stuff in my youth, of course. We lived next door to a dentist’s office and my mom had asked the guy who plowed their parking lot to pile all the snow on the side nearest our house. I made incredible snow forts with tunnels and slides!

Then at college, the sensation of walking to class in the cool stillness with three inches of snow balanced perfectly on every branch and twig of our forested campus. I swear you could hear every flack settling to earth.

Also at college, eleven years ago tomorrow, was my best snow memory. Kat had just arrived on the train for a long weekend visit. We had gone to dinner and come back to campus. It was just starting to snow as we walked over the same paths where she had asked me out two years before. The darkening sky sparkled with starlike flakes. It was cool but not cold as I went down on one knee, held out the ring, and asked her “Will you m–”


That was the best snowy day of my life.