Five Years at Pugsteady

Five years ago, I got the official paperwork making Pugsteady an official LLC in the state of Georgia. Five years ago, I dedicated myself to being a full-time, self-employed freelancer.

And man oh man, what a trip it’s been! Just some high points:

  • Created my own world (Realms of Pugmire) which has since been made into two role-playing games, a card game, an interactive audio drama, an anthology, and a continuing inspiration to many.
  • Worked with a large number of clients, including Wooga, Earplay, Hasbro, NBC, Extra Credits, Next Games, MetaArcade, Choice of Games, CCP, Paradox, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Magpie Games, Evil Beagle Games, iThrive, and (of course) Onyx Path Publishing. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, and there are a couple of others I can’t talk about yet!
  • Acted as Executive Producer and Creative Director for a company (Earplay).
  • Consulted on a number of projects, both from a game design perspective and as a person with hearing loss.
  • Traveled to several countries, and spoke at a number of conferences.
  • And, most importantly, paid my bills!

I’ll be honest: I really expected that it would last for a year or two, and then I’d find some kind of “real” job. It took be about a year to realize that this could be a “real” job. And maybe a couple more years to realize that Pugsteady is what I really want to do.

What’s in the future? I’m not entirely sure. Every year on July 1st I spend a little time thinking about what I want to do in the upcoming 12 months. That’s really how I plan: take every year as it comes. But here’s how things look for me right now, and where I see them going in another five years.

  • Continue to push the Realms of Pugmire. I have a lot of exciting plans happening backstage right now. It’s entirely possible some of them will fall apart —- these things happen —- but if they don’t… oh man, will there be some cool stuff on the horizon. But really, Pugmire is a huge chunk of my work these days.
  • Keep moving ahead with long-term contract work. Onyx Path Publishing has been a non-stop client of mine since Pugsteady was formed, and I personally don’t see that relationship changing anytime soon. Plus, it’s comfortable having a steady stream of work.
  • Explore more ad-hoc consulting and design work. While I’m not aggressively looking for project work like I once was, I still pick up new work-for-hire projects on a regular basis. Sometimes I’ll pick up a bigger project that takes more of my time, while other times I’ll snag something I can bang out in a day or two. But continuing to expand my client pool is something I’m regularly working on.
  • Build a new world. Frankly, I love building worlds, and while I will continue to work on Pugmire until I can’t anymore, I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. Plus, there are some stories I just can’t tell in that world. I’ve got tons of ideas, but I’m slowly picking at them to see which I can build out into something bigger.

The fact that I can do this for five years with little interruption is because of all of you. Thank you so much for supporting me emotionally, personally, financially, and in so many other ways. Sure, once in a while I run into a jerk, and some days are hard or rough, but knowing that there is an audience for my work, that people like what I do and want more of it, keeps me going. So thank you all for keeping me here.

First Days With My BAHA

A couple months ago I had my surgery for a bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA for short). Here’s my post-op photo.

Soon after I got my healing pouch thing removed, revealing the titanium stud (on medical paperwork it’s called an “abutment”). You can see it here with my old hearing aid.

I had to wait six more weeks to let that heal, but earlier this week I finally got my BAHA!

A few people have already been asking me how things are with it. I wanted to wear it for a few days before I wrote up my thoughts comparing it to my old over-the-ear (OTE) hearing aids. If you’re curious, the device is the Ponto 3 SuperPower.

The BAHA and Streamer

First, I want to talk about the BAHA itself. Like my old hearing aids, this comes with a “streamer” that hangs around my neck (although I can get a belt clip for it, should I desire). This allows me to sync Bluetooth devices like my phone to my hearing aid — my OTE aids could do this, too. The streamer also has a mic in the top, so I can take phone calls without putting the phone to my ear, as long as the streamer is visible.

The first big new thing is that I now have an aux jack in my streamer, which means I can connect directly to devices with the right port (with the cord, which was included). I was able to plug into my headphone port on my laptop and take a Skype call, and I can also plug into my recording microphone, and it all goes right to my BAHA. So I can pack up my huge, chunky headset I needed for video conferences!

A change from my old streamer is that I have to intentionally push an input button to get audio from my phone that isn’t a phone call (calls go right through automatically, which is a nice touch). It does mean that I have to intentionally switch to listen to podcasts or audiobooks on my BAHA, but it also means I don’t have all the random beeps and notifications from my phone going to my hearing aids. With my old hearing aids, it was really fucking annoying when I’m trying to have a conversation with someone and I keep hearing beeps in my ears because someone decided to send me a barrage of Facebook or Skype IMs.

What the BAHA, phone calls will always go through, which is the use case I need, but everything else only goes through if I tell it to. As such, it’s the best of both possible worlds. (Also, because it’s not sending me literally every noise, my streamer doesn’t need to be charged nearly as often — moderate use all day only dropped my battery to 60%.)

Finally, the BAHA uses different (larger) batteries, but I only have one hearing aid instead of two. So I suspect I’ll be buying batteries much less often.

Daily Use

So what does all that mean to my day-to-day life so far? Things are definitely louder, particularly background noise (which I didn’t pick up previously). I can now hear things like people’s conversations nearby me, fans, and even people yelling outside our house. I was worried that it would be harder to hear in restaurants as a result, but we went out to eat last night and it was actually slightly easier to understand people. Further, my family pointed out that I wasn’t speaking as loudly as I usually do in such environments.

One of the big things I’m getting used to is that I don’t have something in my ears, so I’m hearing with my ears and my BAHA. That means that most everything has a slight echo to it, particularly in small, quiet spaces. Luckily, it’s something I’m already getting used to.

Everything right now sounds very flat, like a monotone track. Originally I suspected this might happen, because… well, one device instead of two, so all my audio is going in only one way. But during my hearing test I was able to “hear” sounds on the left and the right, and apparently that’s an intentional design. The BAHA actually vibrates my skulls in different ways to give some left/right differentiation. So, I think it’s more that I have to get used to getting sound this way. That said, now that I don’t have anything in my ears, I can actually use headphones if I want to hear stereo audio — I just have to turn them up really loud. And since it’s not going through my device, I still hear everything around me (or I can mute my BAHA if I want).

There are some downsides, but they’re minor. For one, the BAHA doesn’t just snap on, but rather you have to put one side of the abutment into the BAHA, and then rock it over — think of it like the button on button-fly jeans, but backwards (the “button” is stable while the “fly” is mobile). This means it has some flex on the stud, which isn’t necessarily bad. But I’ve discovered if I bump it in a certain way, the BAHA will pop right off. It came with a little clip I can thread through it and attach to my shirt, so if I’m in an environment where I can anticipate that, I’m covered. I’ll probably do that when I go on bike rides, for example.

The other problem is more specific to me. In the pictures, you can see I have long, thick hair. And the hair covers the BAHA, without any loss in sound quality. But my hair brushes across the mics, so I hear rustling every time I move my head, which I got irritated with after a day.

On a lark I booked an appointment with a local hair salon, and the stylist I got has a boyfriend who is a barber, and his client has a BAHA, so she had the chance to talk things over with him and come up with some solutions! I just got home from there, and right now I have an undercut, but my hair is still long — we’re hoping that the hair will fall just over the BAHA and stop the rustling. But if that doesn’t work (and already I suspect it won’t), she’ll give me a shorter haircut so my hair doesn’t go anywhere near the BAHA. If nothing else, putting my hair in a ponytail right now keeps it well wait from the BAHA, which is certainly a start. But I may have to make more friends with hair stylists.

A lot of that is just adapting to live with a BAHA, though. Already I’m really happy and excited that I got this. It was a long wait and lot of arguing with insurance, but in the end it was definitely worth it.

Disability and cyberpunk

Earlier this week I got a hole in my head. And I couldn’t be happier.

Taken in the recovery room of the hospital, hence the lovely iodine tan I have here.

See, for a year I’ve been fighting with my insurance to sort out coverage to get a bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA). I get chronic ear infections due to my current over-the-ear hearing aids, so this is the best solution. I finally got the green light earlier this month, and Monday the procedure was done. I spent a couple of days resting and napping, and now I’m active but still healing. I should get to use the actual device in a few weeks.

Naturally, most of my friends have been making Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. jokes, because seriously, putting a titanium stud in your skull so you can stick a Bluetooth-enabled computer to your head is just about the most cyberpunk thing ever. However, by chance, I got back from my surgery to a question from someone asking about disability erasure in cyberpunk fiction. The argument from the asker was that cyberware erases disability, and they want to avoid that. I disagreed. Here’s what I wrote back:

Cyberware is essentially another form of medical aid, like hearing aids, glasses, and prosthetic limbs. But no matter how advanced the prosthetic is, it’s not the same as being abled. For example, [once my BAHA abutment is] healed, I’ll be able to do cool stuff like stream audio to my head so I can listen to podcasts and take phone calls without using headphones! But I also need to keep it clean, keep it out of the rain, and avoid hairdryers. And even with the improvements I’ll get, I won’t have the same abilities as abled people, like being able to tell where a sound is located — the best I can usually sort out is “nothing is obviously causing that sound in front of me, so it must be behind me.” So even though I can hear again, my disability isn’t removed.

So, as long as characters recognize that prosthetics do not create ability (and thus erase disability) but rather create the approximation of ability while bringing new features and challenges, I think you’ll be able to present disabled folks authentically without erasure.

2018 In Review

2018 was… a complicated year.

Pro: Pugmire definitely kicked into high gear this year. The core game launched in late 2017, but this year saw the release of Pan’s Guide, The Secret of Vinsen’s Tomb, Thank You Darcy Cat, and Monarchies of Mau. I also Kickstarted Fetch Quest, licensed a Pugmire comic, kicked off a community content program, built partnerships with RPG streamers, and more. I even set up realmsofpugmire.com just so everything could be compiled into one space.

Con: This was definitely the year of reassessing my online presence. Social media has generally become more hostile to creators, both by the platforms themselves and the people who inhabit them. I’ve lost track of the people I’ve had to help through some form of online attack, and I’ve weathered a few myself. I’m lucky in that generally folks who know me see the bullshit for what it is, but it does mean I’m pulling back a lot more on personal social media, in favor of more professional output.

Pro: The move back from Ireland disrupted things, but now I’m back into the groove. I have one steady client, and I’m putting the finishing touches on a second. I had a few great short-term clients to work with as well. Sadly, one client still hasn’t paid me my final invoice in nearly a year, but that’s one relatively small roadbump. All in all, I’ve changed course and I’m in a good place professionally.

Con: However, recent changes to the healthcare system in the US have made life… difficult for me. I was expected to get a bone-anchored hearing aid earlier in 2018, but struggles with health insurance have made that impossible. I’m lucky that I can use my wife’s insurance, because getting it myself is challenging. I also struggled with another minor medical problem throughout the year that isn’t related to my ears. All in all, none of it stopped me from doing what I needed to do, but I have been low-key meh all year.

Pro: I am (slowly) getting back into being real-world social again. I haven’t been very social for most of 2017 and all of 2018, and that’s for a lot of reasons both personal and logistical. But we’ve moved into Atlanta proper (the Edgewood area, for those that know), I have better access to more things, and a lot of challenges have been either removed or I can get around. Once we get our dining room sorted out, I can be even more social as I start inviting folks over to game.

Con: I still miss Murray. I miss having a dog, honestly. There wasn’t a time in 2018 where that made sense, but 2019 might be the time to get a new fur friend.

Pro: Convention season has been pretty good to me this year. I can’t go to nearly as many shows as people would like, but I continue to be pretty good at choosing which shows will offer me personal or professional value. I already have a few shows targeted for 2019, but I am considering skipping some lynchpin shows and trying new (to me) conventions to try and shake up my network.

So, for 2019, I’m going to try and continue to be more social with people, build on my successes with Pugmire, grow into some new clients while continuing to find others, and maybe get a new dog. What are your plans for 2019?

Learning From The Past: 70s RPG Design

Earlier this year I read the first three volumes of the wonderful Designers and Dragons. The book about the 1980s and 1990s was more nostalgic than anything for me, as that was the time in which I was a fan of RPGs, rather than professionally engaged (my first freelance project was in 2002). But the 1970s was just before my time, so a lot of that era was relatively new to me. Thanks to DriveThruRPG.com, I was able to look up some of the games mentioned in the volume, and learned a bit about the 70s-era landscape. There were two products in particular that still sit in my brain as I mull things over.

Tunnels & Trolls

A reprint of the very first edition of Tunnels & Trolls.

In a lot of ways, Flying Buffalo is a time capsule. They comfortably have claim to being the longest-running RPG company, and they continue to sell (and preserve) books they made decades ago. And Tunnels & Trolls is the second-ever fantasy RPG, still running strong today. It’s a labor of love that I deeply respect. I learned to respect the game more when I worked on the mobile game port, using a modified version of the fifth edition.

What’s fascinating about T&T is that it presaged a lot of trends that came much later. In particular:

  • Solo play/choose-your-path adventures: Long before Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting FantasyT&T was selling solo adventures for people to play on their own. You could theoretically play in a regular T&T game with other players, and then bring that character into a solo adventure. And they’re still a popular form of support product for T&T even today.
  • Fast combat: Many gamers think of 70s-era design as having slow, clunky combat. Looking at games like T&T, however, that’s clearly not the case. Each side adds up some numbers as a combat factor, rolls dice, adds everything together, and subtracts the difference from the other person’s Constitution. It’s not too far off from modern “abstracted combat” systems today.
  • Humor: A lot of modern gamers and fantasy enthusiasts don’t realize that there was a rich vein of humor running through fantasy prose and gaming in this time. Dungeons & Dragons hid a lot of it, but other products of the era show it better, including T&T. Spells are an area where this humor has persisted even to modern editions.
A small sample of spells from Version 5 of Tunnels & Trolls.

Empire of the Petal Throne

A reprint of the first edition of Empire of the Petal Throne, originally published by TSR

Coming out in the same year as Tunnels & Trolls (1975), Empire of the Petal Throne was another fantasy game put out by TSR. When the focus shifted to Dungeons & Dragons, the author (Professor M.A.R. Barker) kept control of the game and the world.

Over the years a number of companies have all made attempts to recreate the world of Tékumel, and the Tékumel Foundation has done a great job preserving much of the material from the past 40+ years, but the first edition has a number of eye-opening design decisions that seem at odds with received wisdom of 70s-era design. In many ways, it’s the opposite of Tunnels & Trolls:

  • A detailed science-fantasy world: Not only is Petal Throne different in presented a detailed and complex world compared to T&T’s sparse offering, but it’s also not a “traditional” fantasy world. The early history of the world talks about space explorers landing there and terraforming it, but over at least 25,000 years all that science-fiction technology is mutated into a unique fantasy form. (Surprisingly, I knew very little about Tékumel before I started working on Pugmire!)
  • Removal of good/evil binary: Alignment as presented by D&D as a divide between good and evil and/or law and chaos was a mainstay of many designs to follow, including Tunnels & Trolls. It wasn’t until much later that the idea that characters contain multitudes really started to penetrate into fantasy RPG design (you can find games that don’t involve it, but most of the big fantasy games of the time had some aspect of it). Petal Throne does have “alignment,” but mostly in the sense of which races are friendly, neutral, or hostile to humanity. There’s no mechanic that forces characters or races to be of a particular moral bent.
  • Non-European influence: In the introduction, Professor Barker mentions inspirations from his travels to “India, Pakistan, the Middle and Far East, and to Central America.” Those cultures clearly had an influence, making this a fantasy game not steeped in European inspiration — a recent trend in RPG design today.
An example of Toslyani script, one of the languages of 
Tékumel. Note the hand-written accent marks in the manuscript.

What’s Old Is New Again

Certainly, both of these games have flaws, and elements of them haven’t aged well. Tunnels & Trolls first edition has some strangely fiddly design elements, but is almost too simple. Empire of the Petal Throne first edition retains many of the design flaws of the original Dungeons & Dragons. Both, it can be argued, are not so much “flaws” as an indication that player tastes have changed over the decades. But I was pleasantly surprised that I could still learn some design tricks from some of the original games that inspired and shaped our medium.

What I’ve Been Up To

It’s been a while since I updated, so let me dump some Eddy News(tm) on you!

Free Stuff

  • Heel Heat,” a short story I wrote for Fate Codex, has been incorporated into the Fate SRD, which means you can now read it for free! It’s a story about the intersection of professional wrestling and drug abuse, so if you’re into gritty crime drama, you may enjoy this!
  • I’ve started a new podcast! Along with Matthew Dawkins and Dixie Cochran, I’m a host for the Onyx Pathcast. We talk about all sorts of things related to both Onyx Path games and general topics of working as a freelancer in the game industry, and we also have on a wide variety of guests. Check it out every Friday at noon EST!

Promotional Stuff

  • In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve moved all the Pugmire-specific content to a separate website. Now you can find all your Pugmire goodies at realmsofpugmire.com!
  • We recently released Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers, a Pugmire adventure and tutorial to the game system. And we’re getting great reviews! Here’s one from Reviews from R’lyeah.
  • I’ve been increasing my disability advocacy over the past year or so. Recently I was interviewed by Bitch Media, and they included a link to my presentation at ECGC in 2017.

Travel Stuff

  • I’ll be at Gen Con again this year, representing Onyx Path and Pugsteady. I’ll be there to talk about PugmireMonarchies of Mau, the new Pugmire card game Fetch Quest, and the upcoming Dystopia Rising tabletop game. I’ll be running demos at our booth (#501), so stop on by!
  • In September I’ll be at the Broadleaf Writer’s Conference, spreading my tips and tricks for working in interactive media. It’s a great conference, and everyone learns a ton from it!
  • And in October I’ll be at Save Against Fear, the Bodhana Group’s gaming convention celebrating therapeutic use of games! I’ll be running two Pugmire games and sitting on a panel about game design, so it should be a lot of fun!

Personal Stuff

As I’ve mentioned before, I moved back from Ireland in December of last year. There were a lot of reasons, but they ultimately boil down to us not being able to make it work financially. Ireland is a lovely country, and I hope I can go back and visit someday, but living there just wasn’t in the cards as I had hoped.

So now I’m back in the Atlanta area (Alpharetta specifically) and settling back in. My long-term contract with Onyx Path Publishing is still going well, and I’ve picked up some additional work from companies such as Next Games, MetaArcade, and CRC Press (as well as some I can’t announce yet!) Pugsteady still trundles on as a going concern.

To be honest, it’s a bit of a scary time to be a creative professional, particularly in the United States. Healthcare cuts make it harder to get medical attention, and putting anything remotely controversial online can get you targeted by a hate mob, let go from a contract, or even fired. As I increase my visibility as a disabled person, I risk being ostracized by people who don’t think I’m “good enough” as abled-bodied folks.

But I have a lot of supportive friends and peers, and I’ve had a lot of luck finding great and supportive clients to work for. I have fans who sincerely appreciate the projects I work on, and they’re happy to spread the word to other people who might appreciate them. For every rough day where I wonder why I do this, I get a nice “thank you” in my Facebook or a kind email gushing over something I worked on. And that helps. It helps to know that there are people who appreciate what I do. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re one of those people. So I’ll keep doing it, for you. Thank you for being there!

Shuffled Art

I’ve thought a lot about reader-ordered interpretation. I just finished “Building Stories” by Chris Ware, primarily because it’s clear that Aja intentionally emulated Ware in his run of Hawkeye. But something else came from it.
 
See, “Building Stories” isn’t really a book. It’s a box with 14 different elements inside it, like a poster, a broadsheet, a newspaper, a couple of hardbound volumes, and so on. Even a board as if from a board game. The title is a play on words, as the reader is building the stories from the disparate parts, but also each story revolves around various buildings, in many ways.
 
Which brings be back to Hawkeye, and comics. Because comic issues can (and, increasingly often, are) be shuffled around to present a different story. The official Hawkeye Omnibus, which I’m reading now, shuffles the order quite substantially from the monthly run. What once was a reference in issue #17 becomes foreshadowing when it’s read after issue #6. Even inside the issues Fraction plays with time that evokes Ware.
 
Comic books/graphic novels aren’t the only form of this, however. It’s almost a rite of passage as a fan of “The Prisoner” to develop a preferred viewing order. Many Star Wars fans found some redemption of the prequels by watching them in “Machete Order.” There’s even a card game called “Joking Hazard” which is based around literally shuffling comic panels and making a sensible strip out of the results. And video games like “Guardians of the Galaxy – The Telltale Series” get some value out of playing scenes over again to give new context to them.
I find it fascinating — the ultimate result of democratizing art. Over time art has moved out of the hands of an elite few (or the elite patrons of those artists), to the point where an artist can find an audience just about anywhere. And now, more art is coming out where the audience has control over the experience. It’s easy to talk about interactivity when it comes to games, but even “static” art like graphic novels and television shows can be interactive, in the right circumstances.
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