Ratings War: A Personal Milestone

In case you missed it, my interactive novel, Ratings War, went live yesterday. It’s only $1.99 for the next few days, so check it out on iOS, Android, Kindle, or Steam. And watch the cool promotional video! Implant cameras in your eyes to win the news wars of 2061.

I’ve been working on this game for over a year now, and it’s a big milestone for me. It’s my first shipped video game title where my name is front-and-center. I’ve worked on a couple of other shipped projects that I’m very happy with (and a couple that haven’t seen the light of day), but this one was primarily mine. I pitched it, I outlined it, I wrote it, and I coded it. I still worked with a team (namely the great folks at Choice of Games), but there’s a lot of me in Ratings War.

Second, this is my first novel. For years I’ve had a mental block on writing them. I’m not entirely sure why that was, but in my head I couldn’t write a full novel, even though I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words for role-playing games. Ratings War clocks in at 80,000 words, even if you don’t read every word in each playthrough. It might not be something you can put on a shelf, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a novel (and luckily, SFWA agrees). Now whenever I get that mental block, I can tell myself that I’ve written a damned novel, so I can write more.

Third, it’s the first project I coded from start to finish. The scripting language I used, ChoiceScript, is pretty friendly compared to Python, but I was definitely writing code. I wrote the entire thing in SublimeText, and I regularly had to debug it, recompile it, run automated testing, and figure out what the hell I was thinking when I wrote that code six months before. So while it’s my first novel, it’s also the first computer game that I built primarily by myself.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, it’s a game that is inclusive, in the way I feel games should be inclusive. This was something I wanted to do from the beginning, and not only did Choice of Games support that, but they pushed me to go further. I wrote this game (which has one obvious and one hidden romance option) so that people of any sexuality and gender identity could be the protagonist. I reached out to non-binary people as well to make sure I handled that correctly. I switched things up where I could. I used lots of pronoun variables. I wanted this to be a game where all of my friends could have fun, and I hope I accomplished that.

Ratings War is not something I could do a few years ago. There’s a lot of post-2011 me in that game, and I can see how much I’ve grown, and how much I can still improve. I hope other people will see that as well, and have some fun being a cyberpunk journalist to boot.

The Case of the Cloned Game

This is a rare moment when I get to talk about two things I’m passionate about: game design and Sherlock Holmes!

One of the oddities of game design is the confusion around what parts of a game are protected by law, and what parts aren’t.1 For many years, it has been asserted that the rules and mechanics of a game cannot be protected, but the presentation can. This is why, for example, there are probably hundreds of platforming games where the character runs to the right and uses jump as a primary means of movement and attack, but very few of them (legally) feature a character named Mario.2 Similarly, any card game can turn a card sideways to express that it can no longer be used, but only games made by Hasbro (such as Magic: The Gathering) can use the term “tap” for this action.

In reality, the line between “rules” and “presentation” isn’t that simple. There has been a long history of video game cloning. It’s happened in the tabletop RPG space as well, and made even muddier by the d20 Open Game License and a number of successful “retroclones” that emulate previous game designs to various degrees of fidelity. Further, where public domain begins and ends is even more complex. And thus we get to the Great Detective himself.

Continue reading The Case of the Cloned Game

  1. I’m a citizen of the United States, so all my references to legality are US-centric, only because that’s the legal system I’m most familiar with.
  2. Digression: I’ve noticed over the years a certain “linga franca” in game design. For board games, references are usually to Chess or Monopoly. For role-playing games, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. And for video games, it’s Super Mario Brothers. At some point I should compile a list of “games every other game designer will assume you’ve played.”

Pugmire: Being a Good Dog, One Year Later

Spike Mutt (Poster 6)
Spike Mutt (Poster 6)

I’m at Gen Con! Today I’m cross-posting a blog about Pugmire here on my site that’s also up on the Onyx Path website. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG, or pick it up from our booth (#1103) if you’re at the show!

Around this time last year, I was finishing up a pitch to Rich for what was then called “The Fall of Pugmire.” I figured he’d be interested in my doggie fantasy world as an RPG, but in my mind it was a fun side project, something that I would enjoy making, and that might also interest a few people.

Since then, just about everyone who hears about it tells me that Pugmire is so much more than that. As you’re reading this, I’m at Gen Con. I have Pugmire promo cards, posters, and shirts in hand, all based on gorgeous art from some highly talented artists. I’ll be showing a slice of the game off for short 5-10 minute demos at the booth, while the Wrecking Crew will run full sessions of the game at the Gen Con tables. It’s still early, but signs point to Pugmire being something much bigger than I expected.

The point where it really hit me (and Rich, although he always thought the game would connect with people) was during the very first game of Pugmire I ran at Midwinter, six months ago. I had introduced the idea of the Code of Man, and the tenet “Be A Good Dog.” The players were having fun roleplaying after I gave them a small amount of world detail, as they explored an abandoned necromancer’s lair in search of an ancient relic — all typical adventure fantasy stuff. The fact that the rules were based on a familiar fantasy RPG structure helped them dive into rolling dice and casting spells like old pros. As they were in the middle of the final, climactic battle with the spirits of the dead, the battle-hardened guardian (Sgt. Leo Bulldog) fell. The shepherd quickly ran to heal him, and when Leo got back up, his player cried out “I am a good dog!”

In that moment, I got tingles. What had been a half-serious religious code had turned into a battle cry, and soon into a guiding statement for the game. The players sincerely wanted to be good dogs (and many of them were experienced Vampire LARPers, so they were quite used to playing “morally flexible” characters). The rough edges in the system, the lack of setting detail, the cobbled-together nature of the playtest — none of it mattered in that moment. Something magical had happened.

Here at Gen Con, I hope it happens again. If even one player walks away thinking that they want to explore the world of Pugmire, that they want to proactively work with other characters, that they want to be a good dog, then I will feel like I’m doing what I set out to do.

Pugmire: Is This A Joke?

Until Gen Con, I’ll be blogging about Pugmire here on my site. These posts are slightly updated from the ones I’ve made on the Onyx Path website over the past year, containing more accurate and new information. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG!

One question I get regularly is whether Pugmire is a joke. Given that I’ve been responsible for some pranks in the past when I worked with White Wolf, it’s somewhat of a fair question. The short answer is obviously “it isn’t,” but there are nuances to the question that are more complex beyond the obvious “this is a real game that is being made.”

For example, it isn’t a typical Onyx Path game on the surface. It’s not using pools of d10s, it isn’t gritty and dark, and it’s not geared to an adult audience. Over the past nine years I’ve gotten pretty good at working on those kinds of games, and I’m happy to keep doing so, but part of the reason for developing Pugmire is that I wanted to try something different. (That’s one of the great points of working with Onyx Path over White Wolf for me — Rich is able and willing to try new ideas that wouldn’t fit in the original company’s structure or business plan, and I have ownership over this thing I created to boot.) Given that this game doesn’t fit that established mold, I can see why some folks would assume it’s a joke.

Similarly, the game does have humor in it, but I maintain that it isn’t a funny game. We as players laugh at the idea that there’s a religious tenet of “Be A Good Dog,” but the characters in the world take it very seriously. It’s somewhat like the humor in Paranoia.1 Again, if some folks see funny bits, it’s easy to mistake that the game is a joke.

One of the trickiest parts as I work on the game is allowing humor without making the game “funny.” So far I’ve used the term “light-hearted” to explain the nuance, but it’s something that you really only get once you dive in. Some of the playtest groups were nice enough to post quotes or anecdotes on social media so I can read them, and most of those posts are gags. I take that as encouraging — people are excited and having fun with the game, even at this early stage. When I’ve run the game myself the level of humor changes depending on the group, but there’s always at least some laughs.

The reason it isn’t a joke, and why I’m adamant on that point, is because a “funny game” can really only be funny. A light-hearted game, however, can include more depth and options. One of the images I keep in my mind is something Rich mentioned during one of our many chats about the game: the dog who mourns the passing of their owner by lying down outside their room or their bed. That’s the overall tone of how dogs feel about the loss of Man. In fact, the very first version of the game was much darker. It was closer to the so-called “normal Onyx Path game” in ethos, and that elegiac tone was a central focus (as an example, the original title was “The Fall of Pugmire”). In one of my first playtests, some of the players at the end remarked at how the game can be “dark as shit.” So, paradoxically, I feel it’s very important to keep that so-called “Onyx Path flavor,” even though the surface of the game obscures it. But if I wrote Pugmire to be nothing but gags and jokes, it would be hard to get to that spectrum of emotion.

Is it a “serious” game? Hell no: it’s a game where you play dogs wielding magic and swords to rescue iPads from ancient ruins. I not only accept that, but I want to make that a feature. I don’t know about other people’s gaming groups, but mine generally tend to joke around during the session anyhow, so it’s nice to write a game that leans into that. But it’s also a game that addresses dealing with loss, ethics and religious dogma, casual racism, and nationalism. None of that is necessary to play and enjoy the game, but it’s there if you want to dig into it.

Is Pugmire a joke? No. Because it can be so much more.

  1. Although over the years its parody meta-humor has bled into the game itself.

I’ll Be At Gen Con!

I’ll be at Gen Con this year! Most of my time will be working the Onyx Path Publishing booth (#1103) or having various business meetings. However, if you’re interested in coming to see me talk on a variety of topics, here’s where I’ll be!


Thursday, July 30th

1pm – 2pm: Freelancing for Onyx Path (Crowne Plaza Hotel Indianapolis-Dwtn-Union Stn)

5pm-6pm: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)


Friday, July 31st

10am-11am: What’s Up With the Classic World of Darkness? (Crowne Plaza Hotel Indianapolis-Dwtn-Union Stn)

2pm-3pm: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)

5pm-6pm: Autograph Signing (Booth #1103)


Saturday, August 1st

2pm-3pm: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)

3pm-4pm: Dive into Pugmire & Cavaliers of Mars (Embassy Suites Indianapolis Downtown)


Sunday, August 2nd

10am-11am: Short Pugmire demos (Booth #1103)

1pm-2pm: Autograph Signing (Booth #1103)


Pugmire: The Rules of Being A Dog

Jack Rat-Terrier (Poster 4)
Jack Rat-Terrier (Poster 4)

Until Gen Con, I’ll be blogging about Pugmire here on my site. These posts are slightly updated from the ones I’ve made on the Onyx Path website over the past year, containing more accurate and new information. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG!

I recently passed another milestone on Pugmire. I took the material I sent during my closed alpha playtest and started rewriting it all, based on the feedback I got. From that, I’m planning to have an early access document at some point later this year, because I definitely want people who are interested in Pugmire to be able to give it a whirl.

Which leads me to answer one of the most commonly asked questions since we announced the game: what system will the game use? After a lot of debate, exploration, and testing, I’ve decided to base the game on the d20 OGL. It’s inspired by the design of 5th edition D&D, as well as the recent wave of “old school” retroclones, with a dash of Onyx Path/White Wolf design ideology.

So what about using pools of d10s? In chatting with some of the team making the upcoming  Onyx Path house system (codenamed “Sardonyx”), I’m convinced that it also could be a good fit for the game, and for a while it was my Plan B. Rich and I have seriously talked about the possibility of putting out a parallel version of the core game in the Onyx Path system, if things go well. I’m also considering doing a translation guide that allows conversions to other open systems such as Fate Core, Savage Worlds, Pathfinder, and the like. But in the end, a lot of the language I and others have used to talk about the game is heavily based in old-school fantasy gaming, and my playtests reinforced to me that this is the best way to go with the game.

But it’s not just filing off the serial numbers of an existing system. I’ve spent a lot of time challenging core assumptions, adapting new ideas, and seeing how each piece impacts the others. For example, rather than having a pre-constructed set of abilities, I want to present a series of options so players can pick the “tricks” that make sense to them. I also needed to find ways of mechanically representing some of the concepts unique to Pugmire, such as the artisans. Here’s a quote from my current draft to illustrate:

Last year, I discovered how I could use my focus to create fire! Unfortunately, I accidentally burned down the trees in front of Mr. Hound’s house, but I apologized for that. I know I have it under control now! — Lady Yosha Pug

Artisans are social dogs that love to study masterwork relics and the magic they create. Because it requires a lot of time to master such relics, many such dogs come from the middle and upper class: the puppies of merchants, shop owners, nobility, and the like. As such, many of them also love culture and society, and they find that working with other dogs helps them in their understanding of magic.

Artisans are something between a wizard, a sorcerer, and a bard. I redesigned and moved a lot of pieces around until I got the right feel from the mechanics. Similarly, guardians are more than just “fighters,” but also have some leadership abilities as well — more like warlords or fighting generals.

Another piece are breeds. There are far more dog breeds than fantasy races, and I knew very early on that there was no way I could give mechanics for all the dog breeds that people were excited about — covering them all would take a whole book (and that may be a book I make someday). So I had to find a way to allow people to create their own breeds, but still give them some differentiation. I think the current system (bundling them into distinct groups) works pretty well, but I need to hammer on it a bit more.

So that’s where I’m at, seeing if the dozens of small tweaks and changes make sense. Does a Corgi barbarian work? Do games end up feeling like the fiction bits I’ve put together? Is it the right balance of “classic fantasy RPG” and “lightweight adventure game”? I think we’re getting to the point that people who are early fans can bring their own hammers, or at least play around in the world while the full game continues developing.

Pugmire: Not Just Pugs

Sgt. Leo Bulldog (Poster 3)
Sgt. Leo Bulldog (Poster 3)

Until Gen Con, I’ll be blogging about Pugmire here on my site. These posts are slightly updated from the ones I’ve made on the Onyx Path website over the past year, containing more accurate and new information. If you like the attached image, you can get a poster of it from DriveThruRPG!

Since Pugmire is a project I own, I don’t have to worry about NDAs, and I’ve chatted about it on social media because that’s a thing I can do. In general people have been very excited, particularly when I was talking about it during the release party of “Winter of Man” in Sojourn, Volume 2, a story set in Pugmire (and actually the story that inspired the creation of the RPG). Since the name of the game has “Pug” in it and I talk about pugs a lot, a few people have assumed that the game is all about Pugs.

That’s not true. It’s a game about dogs, not just about Pugs. Pugs are one of the noble families, but they are not the center of the universe. In fact, there weren’t any Pugs in the pre-generated characters for my first playtest slice, specifically because I want to make sure the setting and the game holds up outside of one particular breed. The breeds live, work, and exist together. To give an example of this cosmopolitan mix, here’s a short excerpt from “Winter of Man”:

“It’s been snowing for more than a year,” Yosha Pug said. “I have a manuscript here that explains what we need to do.” She shuffled the books in her paws to get a particular one, and nearly dropped them all onto the keep’s stone floor.

Sister Picassa Collie adjusted her shepherd’s robes to free her paws, and plucked the errant tome from the middle of the young pug’s burden. “Is it this one with the glass screen, my lady?” she asked.

Yosha nodded, her ears bouncing on the side of her head. “Yes, thank you. In there is a legend about the Weather Tower. I think we’ll find something there that will end this long winter.”

Pan Daschund tried to snatch the book out of Picassa’s hand, but she raised it out of the hunter’s reach, touching the glass front of the book with her paw to advance the text. He huffed in annoyance and went back to adjusting his shortbow. “It’s weather, Yosha. You can’t…”

Rex Pyrenees crossed his arms across his massive chest as he stood behind the diminutive hunter. “It’s Lady Yosha to you, old hunter.”

Here you’re introduced to four characters. Their breeds act as surnames, their families and social units inside the kingdom (and indeed, inside their society as a whole). Lady Yosha Pug is a noble, and she’s certainly one of the key protagonists in that story, but she is just one dog, and part of just one noble family (albeit the noble family now on the throne). In my playtest notes, I had another noble named Kingston Hound, part of the prolific Hound family. The Hounds have a number of branch families (such as Blood-Hound and Fox-Hound), making them a significant political power in the game.

The society is feudal, so the various families have bits of land that they control at the leisure of King Puckington Pug, although over time a couple have broken off to form their own kingdoms — something I haven’t quite figured out the details of yet, but I know I do want more dog kingdoms that aren’t necessarily run by Pugs.

Can the game be just about Pugs? Sure, if you wanted to run it that way. In the same way that Vampire can be run to focus on just one clan or covenant, Pugmire could focus on a single breed or collection of breeds. But the default assumption is that the players will play a mix of breeds, including mutts.

Writer. Gamer. Sherlockian. Usually Not Dead.

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