Category Archives: Musings

Metatopia Wrap-Up

So yeah, Metatopia.

For those who aren’t familiar, Metatopia’s a convention geared toward game designers; you go, you get your game playtested, you talk about games, you attend panels. It’s one part game design assistance, one part kibitzing, one part professional development. It’s easily one of my favorite cons of the year.

Last Metatopia I attended as a player and knew only a few people. I hadn’t yet broken into game design in a big way and had nothing to show people at the con other than Bulldogs!, which had already been published. I had the beginnings of a name and was just starting to get on peoples’ radar.

This Metatopia was a different experience. For one thing, I’m writing all the things so a lot of people know me and know who I am. Designers came from all over the country (and from outside the country, in some cases) to attend the con, many of whom I knew. It was great to see them all and catch up.

I also had stuff to show people, stuff I’m working on that needed playtesting. I ran a session of Becoming that was very productive, and that resulted in a playtest doc that is, in all likelihood, very close to what the final text will look like. At this point I feel that the fundamentals are solid, and that the tweaks are going to revolve around specific numbers and such.

I also ran a focus group for Wetwork, a cyberpunk Apocalypse World hack I’m working on. I got feedback from my friend Russel Morrisey (he of Fortune Cookie Kung Fu fame), as well as gaming luminaries like Jason Morningstar, Brennan Taylor, and Darren Watts. They gave me a lot of good advice, pointed out the flaws (such as the fact that I haven’t actually read Apocalypse World yet), and confirmed that Wetwork is headed in the right direction and is a thing worth doing.

Oh, and I was also on a panel. I got to talk about How to Work with an Editor with John Adamus and Amanda Valentine, and it was a lot of fun. I got to spout off the same sort of stuff I spout on Twitter, except to a room full of people. There was even an audible groan of dismay when the panel ended, which was gratifying.

Aside from my own things, I sat in on a bunch of panels (all of which were excellent; seriously, the Metatopia panel track is first-rate) and got to play Tim Rodriguez’s Yellow Press (a Rummy-style game where you play reporters making the news about super-heroes and super-villains) and Quinn Murphy’s Dicefighter (a dice game that seeks to emulate fighting games like Street Fighter), both of which are shaping up to be excellent games.

This year, Metatopia continued to provide an invaluable service to the game design community that you just can’t get elsewhere. I can’t wait for next year.

On Rejection

There’s been some talk on Twitter today about rejection in freelancing, so I thought I’d talk about it. In no particular order . . .

Rejection doesn’t mean you suck

Not always at least. Sure, sometimes what you write is a real stinker and it’s not up tot he quality that people are looking for. I’ve been guilty of that at least once. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes rejection means that your idea isn’t quite right for who you’re pitching it to. Sometimes it means it’s not the right time. Sometimes it means you’re almost there, but the idea needs a little work.

Ideally, rejection isn’t a binary pass/fail. Sometimes it is, sure; when a publisher just comes back to you with a “no”, you can feel free to ignore that. They’re not giving you anything useful, so just move on. Maybe try your idea out on some other publishers. Maybe work on it a bit and try it out again on the same one. But don’t pay too much attention to this kind of rejection because doing so isn’t productive or helpful at all.

Hopefully, when you get rejected, you get some feedback along with the “no thank you” letter. If you do, that’s your cue to sit up and pay attention, because . . .

Rejection is a tool

It’s a valuable tool. Nobody’s perfect, nobody writes gold their first time, and even really good writers don’t write gold every time. When you get rejected and you get feedback along with that rejection, that’s an opportunity for you to see where you went wrong and how you can improve. Sometimes internalizing and implementing a publisher’s feedback is enough to turn a rejection into an acceptance, but even if it’s not you’re still improving the quality of your work.

Be careful though; not all feedback is created equal. Each publisher has a perspective, each looks for certain things and prizes certain things over others. Any feedback you get is going to be colored by that lense, and you should be aware of that going in. Just because a Publisher points out something “wrong” in your piece doesn’t make it true. Look at your work as objectively as you can and do the same with the feedback. Apply what makes sense, throw away the rest.

Rejection happens

Sometimes it happens a lot. If you’re in the business of creating things for other people to publish, sometimes those people aren’t going to want to publish those things. You’re going to have to get used to that if you want to keep pursuing freelancing.

This isn’t necessarily about growing a thick skin, because that implies that you’re not letting anything the criticism through. Read above to see why that’s not useful. It’s more about separating your work from yourself and realizing that a rejection of your work is not a reflection on you as a person, and is not necessarily even a reflection on the quality of your work as a whole. Again, read above.

But seriously, get used to it. Everyone who creates things for other people to consume gets rejected sometimes, or gets their stuff torn apart by critics or fans. The simple fact of the matter is that humans have differing tastes, and not everything you write will work for every publisher (or every human) out there. The important thing is to keep doing what you’re doing, to not let a few rejections discourage you from doing something you enjoy.

The Importance of Writing Things Down

This blog post will be a short one; it’s a response to a tweet I read the other day that I disagree pretty strongly with. This tweet posited that you shouldn’t write your ideas down because the ones that stick around in your head are bound to be the good ones, floating to the top like little nuggets of buoyant gold. I used to think this was true, but the more ideas I get the more I realize that this is bad, bad advice.

There are a couple of things that writing your ideas down allows (or forces) you to do. First of all, it can get a persistent thought out of your head without destroying it entirely. Writing the thoughts down helps you collect them into a cohesive whole, and gets them out of your head and onto the page. Doing this, I find, frees up mental real estate for more ideas; rather than fixating on one idea to the exclusion of other potentials, I get one out of my head so the next one can move in.

The second reason to write your ideas down is that doing so forces you to articulate them. People don’t think entirely in words; many of your thoughts are impressions or half-formed mental images and, like a dream, some of them make perfect sense until you try to write them down. Writing them down exposes the flaws in your idea and forces you to fix them, discard the idea and move on, or save it for later cultivation.

The main reason I disagree with this theory, though, is because it hinges one the notion that the idea that sticks around is the one worth developing. “Mentally sticky” does not always equal “good” or “worthwhile”; if it did, My Sharona would be considered a near-perfect song. Also, sometimes you have a fleeting thought that isn’t much to look at now, but has the potential to become something awesome. If you let it flit out of your head, you’ll never see it grow up, go to idea-college, and graduate with honors. Writing an idea down is investing in its future.

Perfection (It’s a Trap!)

Here’s a secret: I’ve never written anything perfect. Guess what? Neither will you. Does that shock you? Discourage you? Dismay you? It shouldn’t. It should encourage you.

Here’s the thing about writing: nobody ever writes something perfect on the first try. Even on subsequent tries it’s not about making it perfect, it’s about making it good or great. Writing is an iterative process and also, most of the time, a collaborative one. As the writer, you have many safety nets. If you make mistakes in your first draft, nobody’s going to drag you out into the street, strip you naked, and laugh at you. There are people in the process who are there to catch those mistakes and help you fix them (and not make them as often in the future). But you’ll always make mistakes.

When I realized this, I was relieved. It took a lot of the pressure off, freed me up to try things out and see what worked and what didn’t. I now see the editors, publishers, developers, and artists that I work with as collaborators and, if they see a flaw in my writing, I don’t get upset anymore. I fix it. I move on.

There are two bits of advice that resonated with me when I heard them and that I continue to carry with me today. The first I don’t remember whom to attribute to, but it concerns writer’s block. It’s simple: when you have writer’s block, that means you have to lower your standards. Having high standards is a good, necessary part of being a writer. When they get too high, though, they create paralysis. You think to yourself, “I’m not really feeling it right now, so this won’t be up to my standards.” Fuck your standards. They’re getting in the way when you think like that. They’re preventing you from putting words on the page. It’s another form of procrastination, disguised as striving for quality. You know what you need in order for your writing to be of good quality? Words on the page. Words come first, quality comes later.

The second piece of advice is something I heard on Paul Tevis’s old podcast, Have Games, Will Travel, though I’m not entirely sure the saying originated with him. Again, it’s simple: the Better is the enemy of the Done. It can always be better. You’re never going to be completely satisfied with something you’ve written. You’ll always come up with ways to tweak it, improve it. Guess what? That’s another form of procrastination. You think you’re making the work better, but what you’re actually doing is keeping it from seeing the light of day. It can always be better, but at some point you have to be happy enough with it to ship the thing.

These things seem obvious to me now, but they weren’t always. It took me years to internalize these ideas. I’ve been freelancing on and off for the last eleven years or so and only now am I actually starting to see some success. For a big part of the reason why, see the above. It’s hard. I know that from experience. But this is a case where “fake it ’till you make it” actually works. If you pretend to believe this stuff, act as though you do, and put the words on the page, eventually you’ll see the truth in it and you’ll worry less about perfection and mother hen your work less and you’ll start actually shipping stuff and seeing it succeed.

Remember: it puts the words on the page or it gets the hose again.

Adding Aspects to Gumshoe

John and I have been talking back and forth about what a game based on Hellboy’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense might look like. Hellboy comics usually start with an investigation, which is Gumshoe’s core strength. They also usually culminate in some over-the-top action, which Fate is quite good at. So what if we grafted some Fate onto Gumshoe? FateShoe anyone?

What I’m talking about specifically are aspects. The way I see it, in FateShoe aspects are ways to access a pool of points, something that I’m alternately calling the Fate Pool or the Action Pool. Action Pool sounds a bit more in keeping with the tone of the game, so I’m leaning toward that one. The Action Pool is a pool of points that can be spent like your ability pools in Gumshoe except that it’s a universal pool: 3 points can sub in for a point from an investigative ability, and you get general ability substitution on a 1-for-1 basis. Aspects are how you access the Action Pool.

You can invoke an aspect on a test; each aspect invoked allows you to spend up to 3 points from your Action Pool on the test. The only thing required to invoke the aspect is to explain how it’s relevant to the task at hand. The only way you refresh your Action Pool during a mission is to accept compels from the GM. Accepting a compel gets you a 2-point refresh, refusing a compel forfeits that refresh and costs you 1 point.

You’d want to keep the number of aspects pretty low. I’d stick with three: a High Concept, a Trouble, and a Background. I’m also toying with the idea of having relationship aspects that are shared by two characters that draw from a Trust Pool; either character could call upon it, but only on actions that involve both characters in some way. Going one step further, it might also be cool to have a mission aspect that everyone on the team can call upon in order to draw from a Mission pool.

Failure in RPGs

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of failure in RPGs.

Here’s the thing: I’m fine with failure. I think failure can be good for a story and I think that, in certain kinds of games, it’s a necessary component of building tension.

But.

Failure, particularly in more traditional RPGs, is often boring. Rolls act as binary responses: does something interesting happen or not? The player gets to attempt interesting things (which is good) but often botching a roll means a null result (which is boring). If failure in your game often amounts to nothing in particular happening, then you need to reexamine your game.

Failure, when it’s used, should always be interesting. It should be at least as interesting as success. Note that I’m not saying “at least as good”. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hurt your players’ feelings, or that you should insluate their characters from bad things happening. I’m saying that, if I roll to hit some bad guy and my d20 comes up a 2, something should happen. Often in games this is not the case; your turn is wasted and the game moves on to someone else. That’s boring and frustrating, especially if you’ve been wating for a while for your turn. It’s not fun. Worse, it’s a completely wasted opportunity for something interesting to happen.

Some games go to an extreme and say that players simply can’t fail at things they’re good at. I think this is fine for certain kinds of games; heck, I wrote one not too long ago (go check out Runners for a game where a botched roll never means failure). Something to keep in mind about games like this is that lack of failure does not equate to lack of consequence or lack of cost. Sometimes success at a cost is really interesting; sometimes it’s more interesting than failure. It’s often more fun (and really, it’s a game; we’re all playing it to have fun, right?).

The fact that I like games with no failure (and that I wrote one) shouldn’t be taken to mean that I dislike failure. You’ll note that, at the top of this article, I say think failure is fine and sometimes necessary. In fact, this whole line of thought brought me to design a game that takes the opposite approach: failure is the expected result in most cases. You have to fail–a lot–in order to eventually succeed. The game’s not quite done yet, but it will be soon and it’ll be free on this blog.

Failure, success; both of these things are means to an end. What we want out of a game is action, drama, tension, and fun. Null results produce none of those things. If your players are allowed to fail, make sure that failure means something. Play big or go home.

Narrative Hit Locations

Another brain ferret to exorcize. I was thinking about the mechanic of hit locations, thinking back to the various incarnations in games I’ve played in the past. Most of them were complex affairs involving hit location tables, hit points for each individual part of your body, complex rules for what happens when you lose a hand and start bleeding out, and so forth. More complex than I typically prefer these days. But does that mean that the idea of hit locations as a mechanic doesn’t have value?

On the contrary, I think it might. What I have in my head is rough and not playtested at all, but here it is. You’ve got a diagram of a body on your character sheet, a paper doll. That doll has four distinct locations: head, body, arms, and legs. Each of those four locations has three boxes that can be checked off. That’s the basic diagram. The three boxes each represent consequences of increasing severity. The first is a minor consequence, something that’s primarily narrative with maybe a little mechanical kick in certain cases (a gun being knocked out of your hand, getting the wind knocked out of you, getting your bell rung). The second box is a major consequence, which has teeth. These are injuries that stick with you: a bullet in your leg, some broken ribs, a concussion. They have more mechanical bite and they stick around longer. The last box is a severe consequence, and represents irreversible harm to that body part. Maybe your arm has been severed, maybe your leg has been shattered so badly you’ll never fully recover, maybe you’re dead.

When you take damage, it comes in the form of a hit to one or more body parts. Many hits are 1-point hits, forcing you to check off a box from only a single location. Others might force you to spread the damage out amongst different locations. Still others might require you to stick to a single location but check off multiple boxes. In any of these cases, you get to choose what parts of your body sustain the injury, and you get to decide what form that takes.

And that’s it; that’s what I have. Not sure how much merit it has, but I thought I’d put it out there and see what kind of discussion it generated. Have at it.

[Edit: for the love of Jeebus, where did all the carriage returns go?)

San Francisco Adventure

My wife was in San Francisco for work this week and I had a four day weekend for Labor Day. It seemed like the gods were telling us to make a vacation of it, so we did.

San Francisco is an awesome city. Beautiful scenery, great food, cool little shops. We started the day by going to Sweet Maple, a breakfast and lunch place that apparently starts filling up immediately upon opening. Fantastic coffee (probably the best I’ve had in the States), and their Southern Eggs Benedict (with chipotle hollandaise and chorizo) was delicious. Most astounding though was the Ur-Bacon, a dish they call “Millionaire’s Bacon”. Imagine thick slabs of bacon, thick enough to need a fork and knife to eat, covered in syrupy brown sugar and black and red pepper. The description doesn’t do it justice; it is what all other bacon aspires to be.

After that we did the touristy thing: Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building. The early part of our day was filled with kitsch, bread bowls, and outdoor fruit stands. Not a bad way to spend the morning.

In the afternoon we made the pilgrimage to Endgame in Oakland, a game store that really has no equal. Clean, elegant, spacious, filled with a wide variety of gaming products, staffed by friendly people. The entire second floor appears to be a gaming space. Chris Ruggiero (who works there and also worked on Race to Adventure) gave me the celebrity treatment, taking my picture (with Bulldogs! in hand) out in front of the store’s sign and giving me a handful of Endgame dice to take with me. I also picked up a copy of the Leverage RPG, which I’ve been wanting to pick up for quite a while. Chris suggested we make a stop at the Trappist, a local bar; we did, and the beer was excellent.

Bri at Endgame

After that we went to Borderlands, a sci-fi, fantasy, and horror bookstore with adjoining cafe. I must say, I like this store quite a bit and wish we had something like it in Pennsylvania; the shelves were covered with little recommendation cards and the selection was outstanding. I came away with a copy of the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia (for research).

We ended our day (well, I say we ended it but the day’s not really over yet) at Gracias Madre, a vegetarian Mexican restaurant in the Mission. Do yourself a favor: go there. Their food is phenomenal, the wait staff is friendly and efficient, and what their drink menu lacks in variety it makes up for in quality.

Overall, a very satisfactory first day in San Francisco. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Skill System Idea

Rob Donoghue gave me an idea for a resolution system. Here we go.

If you have a skill, you can complete a task using that skill. You’re always successful, but there are degrees of success. Some of this is cribbed directly from Rob’s post, and some of it is extrapolated.

There are four axes of success:

Stylish/Clumsy
Fast/Slow
Elegant/Obvious
Benefit/Drawback

When the GM sets a difficulty, he’s telling you what the defaults are on these axes (each is neutral by default, netting neither result). So for example, let’s say you’re tracking goblins through the woods a few days after they’ve been through. The GM tells you that this will be a Slow, Obvious roll, meaning that it’s going to take a while to find those tracks and you’re going to make kind of a ruckus doing it (so the goblins might spot you coming).

Then you decide how many Fudge dice to roll, between 1 and 4. Rolling 1 die is more predictable; you minimize your chances at mucking things up, but your chances of getting a better than default result are also smaller. More dice makes stellar success more possible, but makes a complicated success more possible too; it’s swingier.

Roll your dice and interpret your results. Each + allows you to move one of the axes into the positive column (Stylish/Fast/Elegant/Benefit), whereas each – forces you to move one into the negative column (clumsy/Slow/Obvious/Drawback). You can’t spend a – on something that’s already a negative, and you can’t spend a + on anything that’s already a positive . . . with one exception.

The Benefit/Drawback axis stacks. If you’re already getting a benefit, you can put a + there to get another benefit. If you’re already getting a drawback, you can put a – there to get another. These are important when you’ve got extra +’s or -’s that you have to use up.

Neutral results on the die are, of course, ignored.

[Edit: Tim Rodriguez sent me this nifty visual representation of the idea.]

From Hack to Game: Making Your Own Music

Back in high school, when I fancied myself a songwriter, somebody gave me a piece of advice that I still remember: write your lyrics to the tune of a song you like, then go back and change the music once you have the lyrics written.

Fast-forward hrm hrm years and I’ve lost all illusions of being good at writing words to music, but I still write and I still find that advice useful. Why? Because it applies to game design too.

Think of a game you like; that’s the music. When you’re designing a game, a good way to start is to start with that music and write your game using it. You’re writing a hack of a game you like. This is helpful because you start with familiar surroundings and fewer things you have to design yourself. The system’s already done, right? All you have to do is drift it a little bit to encompass the things you want to include in your hack and you’re done!

I find that that’s rarely the case, though. Often, after I’ve started writing a hack, I start re-writing the rules I started with, drifting them further, incorporating elements from other games, making up new stuff. I started with the music of a game I liked but, once I’d fit it around a theme or setting I was interested in, I began to make my own music.

This, incidentally, is what’s happening with Wild Blue. It’s a useful technique. You should try it.