Metatopia 2017

Metatopia was great! The entire Double Exposure staff did a great job handling a record number of events and attendees. Personally, I really enjoyed not having to playtest any games all weekend.

Instead, I got to be a tortured anime super soldier in Russell Collins’s Project Wingspan; a well-dressed angel hunter in Miguel Espinoza’s Nahuales; the backstabbing good twin of a very bad man in Brandon Leon-Gambetta’s Pasions de las Passiones; the proprietor of a storefront necromancy school in Rob Deobald’s The City Afterlife; and an aspiring YouTube star in a dysfunctional political dynasty in Justin Rogers’s Family Without Values.

More than that, I listened to some great panels and even spoke on one about the Forge. I had so many great conversations throughout the weekend, renewing old friendships and forging new ones. It was an excellent way to spend my birthday weekend and I thank everyone who was a part of it!

Metatopia 2014

I think this was the best time I’ve had at Metatopia yet, and that’s saying quite a bit. Many thanks to Avie and Vinny and our hard-working hospitable hosts from Double Exposure for making this amazing gathering possible.

*With Great Power* My first moments at the convention were the first playtest of my newly-revised kappa edition of With Great Power. I had a great table, with Lisa Padol, Joshua Kronengold, Lilith Taylor-White and Julia Elingboe. I appreciated their input and their patience as I barreled down blind corners, stumbled over words, and forgot to look at my notes. Despite all of that, and the two-hour timeslot, we managed to tell a great, exciting superhero story that I really wanted to keep playing and find out what happened next. And I valued everyone’s feedback about how the game could improve.

*With Great Power* Early Friday afternoon, I ran my second playtest session, this time with Eppy, Rich Flynn, Christian, Alden, and Dev. The Swords engine stretches right to the edge of its capacity with five players, so the play itself was less developed. But we got to kick the tires a bit harder, both because I could avoid some of the pitfalls of the first session, and knowing when to fast-forward over things to get to the parts in need of testing. The great feedback I got filled two invaluable pages in my cramped scrawl. While I cannot thank everyone enough for their help, I can say that I was glad to get my own sessions done early, and spend the rest of the time being a guinea pig for other people.

*Solar Flare* was one of two different space games that Dev was testing this weekend. This was the lesser-developed of the two, and my sparce notes have things like “‘Answer questions slowly’—what does that mean?” and “What do we do?” The setting has a cool bit of future history of humankind being driven to spread throughout the galaxy due to a solar flare that makes Earth unihabitable. It struggles with several of the same issues as games in that Universalis-space that are very much “make up what you want”. I think that several things here could be fruitfully merged back into Starjump Chronicles to make one stronger game.

*By Word and Deed* was Mel White’s embryonic game of fantasy. With a single mechanical idea of how to apportion narration, and no strong driving situation, the session became more of a focus group than a playtest. Ideas were flying thick and fast about the focus the mechanics gave to play, and whether that was in line with what Mel wanted. Even if we never got past the trolls on the bridge, it was good food for thought.

Friday night I played Keith’s *Ill Counsel* again for the second year in a row. This one went wildly differently from the last one. Partially due to the condensed timeframe, the fiction didn’t really have much time to coalesce, which is very important for this type of game. I lost badly. And the changes Keith had made to patch over some holes in the previous version didn’t quite work as intended. Which is a good thing to learn. The quest for the proper endgame remains an _intriguing_ proposition.

Even though I awoke early Saturday morning, Laura’s *Dreamfall* made it feel as if I hadn’t awoken at all. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game where the characters do amazing things in their shared dreamworld. The setting premise is powerful, and Laura excels at asking provocative questions. I played a roofer who had lost the use of his legs in an accident. He dreamed of walking, and of building the White House brick by brick. The game has a lot of promise and I could see that it would truly blossom over a longer timeframe. There’s some work to do on the daytime portion of the game, but it’s a strong start.

Saturday lunchtime I spent like an Intellect Devourer slurping up the wisdom of Epidiah Ravichol, particularly on the topic of a certain game of his that I’m using as a springboard into something else. More pages of cramped notes about game design resulted, as well as the tragic, quintessentially American tale of Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the chocolate chip cookie.

I spent some of Saturday afternoon in panels, like the *Retailer roundtable* with Jim. Also went to the *Hacking Apocalypse World* panel, perhaps better titled as “Watch Vincent squirm while Mark, Mark, Marissa, and Misha say nice things about his game.” I finished up with *Crowdfunding* tips from Fred, Hannah, and Joshua. Lots of food for thought.

Choosing a favorite session at a con like this can be like choosing a favorite child. Emily’s *Heart of the Rose* game was unique in several ways. I rarely get to play in a game with Kat where one of us isn’t facilitating it, so that was wonderful. And I had never gotten a chance to play with Avie before. And her talent was able to imbue drama and gravitas into a time-limited playtest, which was awesome. And watching Emily’s mind work is a thing of wonder. I usually pride myself on knowing which rules are doing what things in an RPG. I’ll honestly say that because we fast-forwarded to the endgame, I really didn’t get the token system. But I could see that Emily did, and it’s always kind of thrilling watching that nigh-scientific attention in action with “try it this way and see what that does.” It was quite a session and I look forward to more about this game.

*Starjump Chronicles* was Dev’s other space game. This one was more developed, lighter and looser. It wins the “most unique mechanic” award from me, for the part of character creation where you choose a song for your character. You then play 30 seconds of each song, and all the other players write an opinion about your character based on the song. It gave rise to the best phrase of the con: “Sinatra is overpowered.” I had fun with this light game, and I think that replayability is going to be a big issue that Dev will need to overcome. When everything is rolled off of lists, those lists can run dry pretty quickly.

Saturday evening was more panels. *Lovecraft WTF?* was Julia, Bill, Ken, and Darren trying to struggle with how to embrace problematic material (Lovecraft, specifically) without also perpetuating its problems. While a few techniques were discussed, they raised issues of their own, and although no one had a surefire way to quell the evil inherent in the Mythos, sometimes struggling against that which will not yeild is the best one can do.

Rob, Cam, Clark and Stephen talked about “Least System Necessary” which prompted me to scribble a line or two in my notebook. I might have personally liked the discussion to include the Lumpley-Boss principle, and games like The Pool, and Once Upon a Time. I didn’t want to be “that guy” in the audience.

*Six Guns Without Master* is Keith’s Swords Without Master hack of the haunted West. We had a great table of Kat, Michele, and Sean. Lots of good color came forth, like a rampaging gray bull, a creepy old man, and a trapper turning into a werewolf. It’s neat to see someone else working in the same design space, and making different choices to mold the same clay into a different shape. Much brainstorming followed.

I don’t know if I can bear to wait until February to see many of you again. I was surprised by the number of people who were surprised to learn that we’re in Allentown, PA. I’m within 90 minute drive of downtown Philly, and willing to come to games! Although December is always crazy, maybe we won’t have to wait until Dreamation. Which is only 102 days away!

METATOPIA 2011: Playtester’s Paradise

METATOPIA was this weekend. I was skeptical before we went. By the time we left, I was a convert. This was a great convention, and I had a lot of fun!

For us, the convention started on Saturday morning, running late as usual. Bill White’s “The New World” was also running a bit late, so Kat, Michele, Brendan, and I were all able to play out the saga of a history that never was. A group of “piney Aztecs” had built a sophisticated, urban civilization in the sub Arctic forests. They worshipped the animals around them as pure manifestations of divinity, but were also divorced from nature in their cities. Huge ceremonial hunts would wipe out every living thing in giant swaths of forest, exporting the skulls back to the city as status trophies and displays of religious piety. A group of Templar-analogs that worshipped the the Radiant Queen of the sun had found its ways to our shores and were attempting to found a colony there. The third society was the outsiders. They were a separate species of human that had evolved to live in underground tunnels, with huge eyes, pale skin, and clawed hands. They used gold for its reflective abilities, to bring light to the darkness. Of course, the Templar-analogs wanted gold for its religious significance as a sign of their Queen’s divine favor.

We played a single turn of the game, and then critiqued. The Templar leader was captured by the young matriarch of the piney Aztecs. However, while she was gone from the city, her cousin had staged a coup and placed herself as matriarch. It was going to be a fun second turn. I thought the game had a good base, and there were some procedural edges that still needed to be filed off. I look forward to seeing more of it.

Later, I played Joshua A. C. Newman’s alternate rules for Mechaton called “Mobile Frame Zero.” I lost badly, but even in Mechaton, losing badly is pretty much fun. The new rules focus on making the Spot ability much more powerful, and it certainly made the game more deadly and move more quickly. I liked it a lot. We played with four teams, and it eventually devolved into a pair of one-on-one battles, which is what I don’t think that Joshua wants. It’s possible that Mobile Frame Zero is and should be listed as a three-player wargame, and just leave it at that. I’ve got a few more ideas to throw Joshua’s way.

After a tasty dinner at the Famished Frog, I came back to the hotel to play a dice-mechanics-only playtest of Kenneth Hite’s “Casey Jones is Dead.” When the full game is done, it will be a stew of the occult secret history stuff that is Ken’s forte, and nineteenth century life on the rails. Sort of Deadlands on rails. Sounds cool.

But this playtest was just about one of the dice minigames. It was more fun than it sounded. There’s a nice mathematical tension between driving the train so fast that you can make up lots of time, and risking a derailment. As the dice minigame was designed by James Ernest, it was like getting to play a new Cheapass game, which is always a fun thing.

After that, I did a focus group on Matt Gandy’s game in development “Heartbreaker.” It’s still very nebulous at this stage, but was full of intriguing ideas about the ways that story and game mechanics mix with one another, the game design values of a deck of cards, and the priority of things to consider when designing a game. I know we dumped a lot of stuff to think about on Matt, and I’m excited to see what he makes of it.

Sunday morning, I was finally able to playtest Kat’s newest incarnation of “Tangled Fates.” It’s a great toolkit for making stories at the table. My ambitious bastard knight failed at every attempt he made to seize the throne. He ended up as a wandering caste knight that wandered the world seeking and stealing treasure for the further enrichment and glory of his religious order. I really enjoyed the tarot-derived cards. They gave just enough push to incorporate a new piece of inspiration.

All in all, even though I did not come back from METATOPIA inspired to playtest my own designs, I came back remembering the joys and tears of the playtesting process. And being reminded of how good it feels to be inspired.

And wanting that feeling again.

Closing in on the Elusive … Name

Thanks to all who suggested names. Kat and I have been suggesting several of them, plus ones of our own creation, to one another over the weekend. The current front-runner is: “Serial Homicide Unit: Hunting the Hunters”

I like it. It’s a simple, direct name for a simple, direct game. But, what do you think?

ALSO, the deadline for playtests of this game is six weeks from today: September 9. If you, or anyone you know, has not yet played the game, and would be interested in playtesting (and receiving a free electronic copy of the game for your trouble), please contact me in the comments or at my gmail account: stalwartIP


Playtest! Last call!

I sent out the material for the final playtest of Serial this morning. I’ve had several volunteers from new friends and old who have never played the game before. They’ve offered to print out the forms, listen to the audio, and let me know how well this format teaches the game. Getting help is truly a great thing!

If you wanted to playtest the game, but did not receive an e-mail this morning, let me know in the comments.

My game design process

Cross-posted at my RPGtalk blog.

Somebody’s always got to be late to the party. Oh well. In trying to catch up on the last few weeks in blog-land, I came across Troy Costisick posting about his design process on his Socratic Design blog. I’m thinking about my own design process a lot at the moment, since I stand at the beginning of a new project and can sense the path ahead of me.

One of the most striking things is how different my design process is from Troy’s. His looks like a true procedure. Step 1 flows into Step 2 flows into Step 3 … Very rational. My design process looks very little like that.

To begin with, for me, the process of creating a role-playing game is made up of two distinctly different activities: Designing the game (deciding what the rules & procedures will be) and writing the game (explaining those rules & procedures to other people through a game text). I find it best to keep those activities as separate as possible.

The first thing I do is start thinking in a broad way about the game’s genre. What makes it unique? What do I find engaging about it? What are some common themes? What sort of tension drives these types of stories? What shapes do the stories take? I’ll do a little bit of research, but this is mostly a mental review of the work I already know in the genre. I always carry a notebook with me. At this point, I jot things down like “The great superheroes are all trapped between two worlds” and “Origins include trauma and loss as well as power.”

As the genre thinking continues, I find myself making notes about what sort of behaviors to encourage in play and what sort of choices the players must face. Although game mechanics themselves don’t quite show up yet, the requirements for what the coming game mechanics must do appear here. These kind of notes say things like “Eventual victory must be caused by early defeat” and “Players must continually choose between saving what they love and saving the world.”

Having a pretty good idea of what I need the rules to do, I start looking for mechanics that will do it. I look at games on my shelf and study how they do what they do. I play with dice and cards. I tinker with some probabilities. I play out little skirmishes with myself, finding out the knobs and levers of a mechanic and what they do. Notes at this stage look like “Whenever a hero CHOOSES to lose, they check off one requirement that brings endgame closer” and “Putting your stats in danger gives you extra cards.”

Once I’ve learned all I can at the solo stage, I take it Kat and Michele, my devoted front-line playtesters. The rules are little more than reminders to myself at this point, and my post-game notes and corrections are often longer than the playtest document itself. Their patience and insight help hammer the game into something playable. My notes get very specific at this point, like “Nine rules changes to endgame is too many” and “Players don’t get enough cards in early conflicts–start with a base PLUS modifier??”

After going a few rounds with Kat & Michele, the game is ready for the convention circuit. I run it and run it and run it again. The convention format forces me to explain the game to new people over and over again. I jot down insightful questions I get from players. I pay attention to my own sense of fun, as well as the players’ excitement to tell me what parts of the game are working and which ones aren’t. I make notes like “Increasing suffering and drawing cards before a panel needs its own name.”

Of course, I’m still thinking about the genre and revising the design throughout all this activity, but the good stuff really starts to crystalize. Which is when the writing itself begins. By this point, I’ve explained the game verbally dozens of times. I know common points of misunderstanding and good ways of clearing them up. I do outlines of chapters, write a rough draft, sketching out sidebars as inspiration hits. It’s also time to contact artists.

I send the rough draft to Thor. It comes back better. Much better. Write-edit-rewrite continues until the deadline for layout arrives. Then the real craziness begins.