Stories You Play

Home of RPGs by Matt Snyder, including Dust Devils, Nine Worlds, 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, and The Ladykillers

Dust Devils rides again!

Dust Devils “Revenged” edition is once again available for sale in PDF format!

You can get it for just $10.

Dust Devils Revenged

Things are moving

I’ve been extremely busy lately, mostly wrapped up in trying to get my house sold, move my family in with my parents, and then buy a new house.

Somewhere in there I snuck off to GenCon and had a fine time helping Jared Sorenson sell his wares and see old friends. Managed to play a game or two, as well.

And — me and my big mouth — I did an interview with Clyde Rhoer of Theory From the Closet podcast. Keith Senkowski talked about business, marketing, sales, and the indie RPG cottage industry.

Let me make that a bit clearer. Keith and I did our usual, and will probably piss everyone off with our talk, especially when it’s coming from two guys who haven’t done much selling and work in the scene in the last two years (we’ve both been going to school while working full time!).

I look forward to that podcast when Clyde posts it. I expect it to produce at least some sturm and drang, but I’m really interested in actually discussing it with folks substantively.

In the podcast, I didn’t even mention Indigo, although that project stems from all the stuff Keith and I talk (and sometimes argue) about there.

Speaking of Indigo, I’ll be posting in the Google group soon about the motivation mechanics and resolution mechanics. Hopefully, that will pick up some lost steam!

Open game design project underway

The Open Game Design project is underway. I’ve set up a new Google group to organize discussion and design. If you’re interested in participating, contact me with your email address. Mine is matt ~at~ storiesyouplay ~dot~ com.

http://groups.google.com/group/open-game-design-project

A partial road map to RPG structure

When I decided to create an open game design (see the previous two posts here), I started sketching out a basic framework for the concept. I’ve been working on it in greater detail this week, and I offer it up here for review and discussion.

Click the image to download a 11×17″ PDF of this chart.

This chart outlines a “roadmap” of how characters and conflicts interact in games. It is not a comprehensive structure of an entire game, nor an attempt to model all RPGs. Rather, it’s just a model to show one common shape I’ve observed in games, especially the kinds of games that I think inform this project I have planned.

I intend the chart to be a reference point for design. It outlines “components” shown as boxes and arrow flows here. Each box could be swapped out with alternative mechanics, allowing individual designers to tailor their creations while still staying “on the map.”

Speaking of designers, I’m still eagerly looking for a small design team to design the core system using this chart as one of our guides.

Open game design project, Part 2

[ Read Part 1 ]

So, make your case! Why should a designer get involved with this open system idea?

The most important thing is that this can expand the reach of your designs, with less effort on your part. You will have a target audience who turn to this game system to meet their needs. You’re a part of that, and it improves as more designers participate. If it works, it’s a virtuous cycle for stuff you create, which also means you get more time to design new stuff and need to do less in marketing to reach a larger audience.

Obviously, there is a trade off. You have less freedom in design if you’re going from an existing frame work like this open design would be. I think the trade off is worth the benefit of a wider audience.

But, I want to know more about what kind of game system this will be.

Without a finished game system, it’s hard to completely answer. And, the explanations below could easily evolve or change.

I see two options for this game system.

First, it may be possible to begin with an already existing game system. I’m open to that possibility, but I want the system to meet goals I have in mind (I’ll get to those below). I’d prefer an existing game by a published designer. And, I suspect it would be modified for this. That would be up to the designer, of course.

Second — and this option seems more likely — we have a team of designers create the game system following agreed upon guidelines. I have guidelines in mind, as well as a target audience in mind.

Interesting. Let’s hear about the guidelines.

Fair enough. Let me start with a few quick examples that I think are in the ballpark, so to speak.

Keep in mind, these are just shorthand for the kind and scope of game I have in mind. I’m sure there are many other relevant examples.

Now, on to more specific guidelines. My assessment is that the game needs:

  • Modular design — designers (and players) can add and subtract components.
  • Easy session preparation.
  • Quick, but compelling and rich, character creation.
  • Versatility – suitable for one-shot and campaign play (say, 12-20 sessions).
  • Simple learning curve – easily explained in minutes, including a dice/resolution mechanic.
  • Enough complexity (e.g., exceptions-based rules) to keep game compelling.

These guidelines will develop and shift through initial phases, then again in design and playtesting. But, it’s a start.

What if those guidelines aren’t my thing?

I guess that leaves three options.

  1. Don’t participate. Do your own thing. And, you can always use the open system later if you change your mind.
  2. Just modify the game system (once it’s ready) to do what you want. Of course, the more you stray from the core concepts, the less benefit you get from the audience. But, the idea here is to allow for variations upon the core game.
  3. Get involved right away, and help design or advise the actual game system core.

What about that target audience thing? Do you think a target audience is really worth considering in this small niche?

I do. If I’m wrong, I doubt the downside is any disaster.

The idea I have in mind for this audience will shift as this develops, no doubt. But, it’s still worth examining. Here’s a “persona” I have in mind (who is male here, but could be female, of course):

  • He’s as an existing gamer. He’s around 30+ years old, and has been playing different RPGs for a while. He’s not a hard core, D&D only person.
  • He works full time, and maybe has a family or active social life with a significant other. He’s busy! He needs a game that fits those constraints in his life.
  • His game group is also busy, and they have similar needs!
  • He’s either the frequent game master, or an early adopter of new games — the guy who has a ton of games on his shelf.
  • His group isn’t as interested in early adoption and new games. He has to convince them to try new games, sometimes unsuccessfully. They may even voice reluctance for “those indie games.”
  • He’s interested in character driven play. But, he still wants enough “fiddly bits” to make play interesting, too.
  • He’s creative! He’s has lots of cool ideas, and needs a good solution for those ideas.
  • He has a fondness, even nostalgia, for a few particular RPGs. And, he’s a bit disappointed that he now realizes so many of those games have disappointing rules, but exceptionally cool ideas. Or, maybe someone in his groups hates the game he loves. These games he loves have great settings or back stories or other components. He wants to run the settings “in another system,” but he can’t find the right one.
  • He’s not interested in distinctions between “indie” games and “traditional” games. They are just RPGs. He just wants to enjoy games.

Ok, that’s a lot of information. What now?

I want to assemble a small design team. I’m particularly looking for 2-3 comrades who’ve designed and published, and who are willing to help design the core. It’s no small feat, and will require serious effort.

Following that, we’ll need more design work from other designers following that. And, the project requires plenty of playtesting as well.

Consider this the announcement the project is underway. Contact me via replies here or by email if you wish to be involved.

I’ll add more blog posts here with additional next steps, including how the open license will work, who’s participating, and more guidelines and frameworks for the game system.

Open game design project, Part 1

Last winter, I posted about my ideas surrounding marketing co-operatives by teams of creator-owned RPG publishers. This new post is the evolution of that idea — my solution to the puzzle of shared resources vs. creator ownership. Indulge my self-interview:

Hi, Matt. What’s up with you lately?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how successful some indie RPG publishers have been because they have an identifiable audience. I just heard that Brad Murray, co-creator of Diaspora, sold 1,200 copies in about 1 year. He was quick to point out the boost he got from the FATE community. So, he had an identifiable market that really helped. (Congrats, Brad & crew!)

Let me guess, you want to make FATE games now so you can sell 1,000 copies of your next game?

No. I don’t prefer FATE as the way to go. But, the model is compelling. What I’d like to do is a get a bunch of designers together to create something FATE-like, and then turn it loose so anyone can design on that framework, while simultaneously building a market. Oh, and I mean FATE-like in the sense that it’s an open game, not that it uses Fudge dice and uses Aspects and all that.

Wait, back up. So, this is just like D20/OGL then? That’s so last decade!

To some degree, it’s similar. But, no, I’m not advocating D20 games here. I suppose it could use the OGL itself, just like FATE does. But, again, D20 isn’t what I’m after.

So, more like a universal system? That sounds even more lame.

I agree that so-called universal systems are not very good ideas.

So, rather than universal, let’s call it modular. What I envision is an open, modular game system. Designers can take the core bits, but then tack on parts as needed to create their game systems really have some cool, tailored components.

Overall, my vision for this thing would be a system for indie folks in the way that Savage Worlds is for traditional RPG lovers. That is, a lean, mean machine for running a variety of character-driven games. So, think of it as Savage Worlds for people who like lots of character development and story in their games. Fast, furious drama, so to speak.

So, what are you after, exactly? This doesn’t sound very new or worthwhile.

The open design concept is not new. That’s true.

But, if it goes anything like I envision, it would be worthwhile. It would do two things

First, it would give gamers a great go-to game that they can customize for their play style.

Second, it would give publishers who use it an identifiable market, rather than having to create a market for each game, every time. This saves them time and effort. Players see the “core” of the system, and can easily pick up published variations. They play without a learning curve, and discuss it, expanding the community and word of mouth.

Hey, whatever happened to System Does Matter. I thought that was you guys’ mantra?

That’s fair. This idea does fly in the face of System Does Matter some.

The System Does Matter philosophy informed a lot of innovation and great games, including my own designs. I think it has considerable merit. What I’m talking about here isn’t meant as a direct challenge of that philosophy.

That said, there are many things that System Does Matter just does not address for obvious reasons. It doesn’t speak on distribution, creator ownership, marketing and so on, despite all these things being part of the conversation surrounding System Does Matter over the years.

Think of this as a new philosophy: Marketing Matters, Too. I’m not trying to polarize stances between design and marketing. They are not opposites, as some people in indie RPG publishing seem to suggest. In fact, what I’m suggesting is that the two merge as much as possible.

That means making design considerations based on what the market wants rather than on what the designer wants in some cases. I suspect there are at least a few designers – people who are friends of mine — who view that as blasphemy. That’s ok. I still think they’re great designers and great friends. And, of course, they need not participate.

So, what now?

Good question. I see this happening in phases. The first is making the case to fellow designers in particular. I’ll do that in a follow-up blog entry.

Then, assuming I can get a crew of designers together, we begin setting goals and expectations for the project, then on to design, playtesting, community support, and ultimately creator-owned publishing takes care of the rest.

[ Read Part 2 ]

Hi, Matt. What’s up with you lately?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how successful some indie RPG publishers have been because they have an identifiable audience. I just heard that Brad Murray, creator of Diaspora, sold 1,200 copies in about 1 year. He was quick to point out the boost he got from the FATE community. So, he had an identifiable market that really helped. (Congrats, Brad!)

Let me guess, you want to make FATE games now so you can sell 1,000 copies of your next game?

No. I don’t prefer FATE as the way to go. But, the model is compelling. What I’d like to do is a get a bunch of designers together to create something FATE-like, and then turn it loose so anyone can design on that framework, while simultaneously building a market. Oh, and I mean FATE-like in the sense that it’s an open game, not that it uses Fudge dice and uses Aspects and all that.

Wait, back up. So, this is just like D20/OGL then? That’s so last decade!

To some degree, it’s similar. But, no, I’m not advocating D20 games here. I suppose it could use the OGL itself, just like FATE does. But, again, D20 isn’t what I’m after.

So, more like a universal system? That sounds even more lame.

I agree that so-called universal systems are not very good ideas.

So, rather than universal, let’s call it modular. What I envision is an open, modular game system. Designers can take the core bits, but then tack on parts as needed to create their game systems really have some cool, tailored components.

Overall, my vision for this thing would be a system for indie folks in the way that Savage Worlds is for traditional RPG lovers. That is, a lean, mean machine for running a variety of character-driven games. So, think of it as Savage Worlds for people who like lots of character development and story in their games. Fast, furious drama, so to speak.

So, what are you after, exactly? This doesn’t sound very new or worthwhile.

The open design concept is not new. That’s true.

But, if it goes anything like I envision, it would be worthwhile. It would do two things

First, it would give gamers a great go-to game that they can customize for their play style.

Second, it would give publishers who use it an identifiable market, rather than having to create a market for each game, every time. This saves them time and effort. Players see the “core” of the system, and can easily pick up published variations. They play without a learning curve, and discuss it, expanding the community and word of mouth.

Hey, whatever happened to System Does Matter. I thought that was you guys’ mantra?

That’s fair. This idea does fly in the face of System Does Matter some.

The System Does Matter philosophy informed a lot of innovation and great games, including my own designs. I think it has considerable merit. What I’m talking about here isn’t meant as a direct challenge of that philosophy.

That said, there are many things that System Does Matter just does not address for obvious reasons. It doesn’t speak on distribution, creator ownership, marketing and so on, despite all these things being part of the conversation surrounding System Does Matter over the years.

Think of this as a new philosophy: Marketing Matters, Too. I’m not trying to polarize stances between design and marketing. They are not opposites, as some people in indie RPG publishing seem to suggest. In fact, what I’m suggesting is that the two merge as much as possible.

That means making design considerations based on what the market wants rather than on what the designer wants in some cases. I suspect there are at least a few designers – people who are friends of mine — who view that as blasphemy. That’s ok. I still think they’re great designers and great friends. And, of course, they need not participate.

So, what now?

Good question. I see this happening in phases. The first is making the case to fellow designers in particular. I’ll do that in a follow-up blog entry.

Then, assuming I can get a crew of designers together, we begin setting goals and expectations for the project, then on to design, playtesting, community support, and ultimately creator-owned publishing takes care of the rest.

Playing Pathfinder

I’ve spent the last nine years of my hobby discussing, designing and playing independent role-playing games. I published three stand-alone games in that span, and who knows how many hours jabbering away — mostly online — about RPGs. In fact, I got started on that road after playing D&D 3E and becoming frustrated with playing, and especially running, that game.

But, lately, I’ve spent my game time playing Pathfinder. I had two separate requests from pals, whom I met because of my involvement in indie RPGs, to explain why I play Pathfinder. Here’s a long overdue post to answer Keith and Judd.

A bit of my gaming history

For starters, I’ve got to explain a bit about my own RPG history. If you want to get right to the specifics of Pathfinder, skip this post and wait for my next update.

Mercifully, I’ll keep this brief. I basically have two gaming groups with a bit of overlap between. Each has its quirks, which is to say it’s a pain trying to get everyone together these days.

One of the groups is a bunch of guy friends from my home town, where I still live. While the fellas and I have dabbled in other games over more than 15 years, we’re basically still a bunch of guys who really like fantasy RPGs, especially D&D. This is the crew I’m playing Pathfinder with now. We’ve dabbled in Burning Wheel and a one-shot of 3:16. But, D&D play still tops the charts.

My other group’s interests in RPGs are more varied. We’ve played some indie RPGs, including some steady playtesting for my game 44: A Game of Automatic Fear. But, I don’t consider the group devoted to indie RPGs or anything.

The Nostalgia Factor

Over the last year or so, busy real lives, crazy job schedules, and parenting resulted in basically no actual play. Despite repeated attempts, game sessions rarely materialized. When they did, they quickly disintegrated into distractions. But, last fall I managed to get several of my guy pals together for a day off from work to play some board games and hang out. We spent the morning eating and talking about how we never get to play RPGs anymore. A couple of us had, independently, picked up the Pathfinder book, and we all chatted about it.

The enthusiasm for Pathfinder was obvious. So much so, I found it a little surprising. They were not only pawing over the books, their interest was vocal. My friends said things about gaming I never expected to hear from them. Things like how much they missed it, how much they loved all the bits and pieces of the D&D experiece. These were things I took for granted, or even a handful of things I had dismissed for various reasons.

I’m often the organizer of our game sessions, and I had tried to stoke this kind of enthusiasm for years, in many ways. I tried different games, including D&D 4E. The responses were mostly quiet.

Somehow, Pathfinder struck a nerve. I think it had two main causes. First, it was reaction against D&D 4E, which I discovered my friends unanimously found disappointing. Second, they saw in Pathfinder an appealing mix. It combined their comfort zone of 3rd edition with enough new, exciting twists to try it out again.

Good times

So, a few phone calls later and we had organized a monthly game night, literally in ink on the wives’ calendars. That was at the end of December, and attendance has incrementally grown each month since. The old group is excited again.

And, the game sessions are the most fun I’ve had in a long time, precisely because everyone’s enthused. We had a bunch of 2nd level characters fighting 4 tieflings. As GM, I figured this would be a quick and dirty warm up for the brief adventure I had planned. I’m still scratching my head on why exactly it turned out to be the most dramatic, fun, and tactical combat span we’ve played in years. Maybe it was just a drought of play. But, everyone was talking how much they had that session, and the fight was by far the most memorable.

Oh, the sessions are brief, which I find a bit challenging as a GM. How do I create just enough material for these relatively brief session (3 hours, maybe 4)? Pathfinder provides a couple useful tools for that, actually. But, still, it’s a thick and complicated game. I worry our short sessions won’t let us get to the real meat of the game as the players progress.

Pathfinder and trailblazing

So, we’re learing as we go. The current “campaign” is doomed. We’ve already agreed to reboot with a new campaign setting of our own making. Players are coming up with mind-blowing ideas for that already, and I’m having fun designing both setting and new game concepts for it. We’re aiming to kick it all off this summer. Meanwhile, no one’s feeling odd about their current characters, destined for mid-level greatness at best. The group’s enjoying the sessions as they come, and looking forward to a steady game group back in action.

I’m not sure I’ve answered any of Judd or Keith’s questions. Or, my own for that matter. For now, this will have to do. I’ll share more about the game sessions and our new ideas as they come. I have to at least post the new “Name levels” bit of nostalgia we came up with! That’s too much fun to pass up.

Nine Worlds RPG now available for free

Nine Worlds RPGI’m pleased to announce that Nine Worlds: A Game of Cosmic Drama is now available for free on this website.

Nine Worlds RPGYou can download the PDF here, but it does require registration at this web site. IMPORTANT: Registering means you agree to receive occasional emails from me about  my games. I won’t send emails more than monthly, and likely much less than that given my busy schedule. If you ever want me to stop sending such emails, just contact me here on the blog or at my email: matt -at- storiesyouplay -dot- com.

About Nine Worlds

Nine Worlds is a story-driven game with a very unique system. It uses playing cards and a powerful mechanic called Muses that, I’m proud to say, still does one of the best jobs I’ve experienced in helping groups create dramatic stories during play.

The setting is also unique — it is a modern day fantasy where the gods and creatures of Greek myth are locked in a cold war among an astrological universe. Earth is at the center, cloaked in the illusion of modernity, but all around it are other worlds ruled by the gods and titans in a covert and sometimes overt battle for control of reality.

The game has its roots in games like Mage: The Ascension, Nobilis, and Amber. And, there’s a lot of influence there from The Riddle of Steel, among others. Heap on some literary influence from Michael Moorcock, and of course Homer and other Greek myths. Oh, and that Art Nouveau influence, as well as a lesser known D20 supplement for Spelljammer: Shadow of the Spider Moon  that appeared in Polyhedron #151.

I’m extremely fond of Nine Worlds. It’s by far my favorite of my creations to date. That’s part of why I released it for free. The game is unique, and because of that, its success in reaching game players over the years has been challenging. It seemed a shame to me to keep it locked up in Tartarus for eternity. While I doubt it will ever become a blockbuster seller, I do think I can reach out to fans this way. I’m especially eager to see what people new to the game think.

Eric Mona talks RPGs, marketing and more

“You are not going to have much success in any side of this business unless you’ve got a network of customers who are interseted in buying what you want. You might have the most brilliant one-shot game that has ever been invented, but if nobody knows about it and you don’t have a way for people to try it out or to know about it, you’re going to sell probably in the hundreds of copies.”

“There are a number of strategies that I think companies can take to figure out how to sell their product ot a large number of people.”

— Eric Mona, speaking at Neoncon in February, 2010

His strategies summarized:

1) Use the open game license — essentially, tap in to the Dungeons & Dragons market. Sell to people who exist and have existing habits.

It may not be what you as a publisher want to do, he says. (Mona mentioned his own company’s Pathfinder license.)

2) Have an organized play strategy — a regular groups of people who have an ongoing connection to your game. He mentions Living Greyhawk. Also important for demo type exposure — e.g. a 4 hour game.

3) You really have to spend at least as much time working on marketing and getting word out as you do on creating, writing and designing the game.

Barriers and perceptions of the Forge

So, here my friend Kevin Weiser interviewed my friend Ron Edwards. They talked about the Forge, and the notorious “Forge cult” thing came up. That then had a small echo effect on Twitter, including this post by Josh of the Brilliant Gameologists (whose last name I don’t know — sorry Josh).

On Twitter, I remarked to Vincent Baker (also a friend!) that the cult label is a distraction, but there is something going on with the label. He basically agreed. Now, keep in mind, Vincent and Ron operate the Forge! And, that I have long been a Forge proponent and all that. But, in last couple years, I haven’t participated there much at all.

So, the “Forge is a cult” thing. What’s going on here?

Well, one thing that’s not going on is idenity politics and posturing. That has gone on (and probably will continue), but that’s not the issue here and now.

The “cult” thing is really about barriers. There are different kinds here.

First, there’s the barrier of entry — someone who observes the Forge, appreciates it’s mission, but can’t penetrate the language or the social rules or whatever thing. Despite wanting to participate, they bounce off the surface instead.

Next, there’s the barrier of ideas. This probably comes in two forms, and these two overlap some. There are people who see the philosophies of the Forge as single-minded or wrong or just not very useful to them. And, there are folks who see the business model (i.e. creator owned publishing) as not right for their purposes. So, at best they see the Forge (and to some degree the Forge sees them) at best as tangential, and at worst as contrary. Perhaps even to the point of challenging their very profession and livelihood. I’ve seen people describe themselves and their games as attractive in part because they are not associated with the Forge. In essence, leveraging their idenity and marketing as contrarian in effort to appeal to others who confront the barrier of ideas.

And, there’s the barrier of play. This is more true of players rather than of publishers or would-be publishers. There is a sense out there, I think, that if you interact with the Forge, “they” will critique your group’s play as wrong or awful or something. That you’ll be shamed. That you have to go through some kind of odd purification before you’re accepted. This is profoundly not the case. It’s an unfortunate misconception that contributes to the “cult” thing. But, still, it’s out there in people’s thoughts.

Finally, I think there’s an emerging barrier — the barrier of obscurity. I think we can confidently point to a declining trend in the Forge’s reach and relevance. It’s presence at GenCon is smaller. It’s influence online is lesser. Now, the Forge is still purring along as it always has. It’s still doing the same thing in its forums. But, there’s growing perception that it’s become quieter and less important. And, people and designers wander elsewhere as a result.

All of these barriers add up. People think, “Hey, there’s this thing over there called the Forge. And, you know what, it has some weird qualities to me. It sort of seems like a cult.”

And, then we’re all ships passing in the ether.

Now, so what? Right?

The Forge has a perception problem, whether or not the barriers have factual merit. Ron knows this, and he doesn’t wish to remedy it for various reasons. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do with the Forge as a thing in the hobby, as is his right, of course.

I still support the Forge with that. But, my activity there remains scant. I’ve just recently started to move in other directions that are, in their small way for just me and my games, confronting the perceptions described above.

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