Category Archives: Bloggery

My general blog entries.

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.

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.

March Update

February has been one of those months where a lot of awesome things happened, but there’s not much I can share. But still, I’ll update what I can!

Pugsteady

One truism about the freelance lifestyle is that things are rarely steady. Granted, I got spoiled for close to a year, but last month I was hitting a bit of a drought. Now I’m back on top of things, and some of the upcoming opportunities might even turn into actual working-as-an-employee-to-another-company work! It helps that I have some really great friends with the means and opportunity to get me involved in some amazing projects. On top of it all, I’m going through a life change that’s exciting and scary. It’s all hush-hush at the moment, and there’s certainly still a lot of Pugmire stuff on my plate, but potentially some very cool things are happening!

Pugmire

The Kickstarter backer PDF went out, and I got some great errata. It turns out I was nervous for nothing — everyone seems to be really enjoying it, and the errata were relatively minor.

Monarchies of Mau Early Access manuscript went to layout and art direction, so we’re in the midst of discussing cat art and look. Now that the text of the book is locked down, we’re also moving on ancillary products, like dice, Guide screens, and cards. It’s great to see progress!

What Do You Want To Hear About?

That’s honestly all I can talk about at the moment, but hopefully I can discuss more next month, since some things are on the cusp of being out there to discuss! Is there something in particular you want to hear about? Leave a comment or use my contact form, and I’ll consider it for my next post!

Red Shoelaces

I was born in 1974 in a poor city in northern Ohio. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with my whole life story. But circumstance and environment shape perspective, so I ask for your indulgence). My developmental years fall in the 1980s and early 1990s. It featured concerns (and the eventual decline) of nuclear fear, the Cold War, and the twin god-emperors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I was angry and attracted to rebellion, but I was a hearing impaired, socially awkward nerd without access to nightclubs or musical friends. As a result, I wasn’t shaped by one musical movement, so I sampled from anything I could find. I listened to heavy metal and hardcore hip-hop before finding inspiration from bootleg punk cassettes. The rough lyrics and basic chords tunneled through my thick hearing and seared my heart.

When I went to college and got access to real subcultures, I dyed my hair sea-foam green in time for punk to evolve away from me. All my friends wore black, Victorian clothes, which appealed to my secret love of the literature but made me feel awkward and ugly. I grew to love Vampire: The Masquerade and became part of a massive live-action game on the campus of the University of Akron. But even then, the Brujah and the Anarchs spoke to me, the last gasp of old-school punk in a growing crowd of pale and sexy people.

As I embraced my outdated aesthetic, I clung to Vampire‘s self-applied model of Gothic-Punk, and saw punk all around me. Again, I lived in Ohio, which did not have a thriving underground scene (or at least, not one I was invited to), but the media I consumed filled the void. Judge Dredd comics and Doctor Who episodes smuggled from friends in the UK. Hellblazer comics bought when I could afford them. Games of Cyberpunk and Kult played when we could find time. I sought out anything that felt punk to me.

And that’s when I met my first neo-Nazi, around 1994. And he terrified me. I remember swastikas tattooed all over his head, and the red shoelaces on his boots. In fact, he’s the one who explained the red shoelaces to me. It was a badge of pride, which became a warning as I refused to speak out against my friends of the “mongrel races.” If I ever saw anyone with red shoelaces, he explained, that person would hurt me as a traitor to my race. He told me to reconsider.

I was scared and angry, and in my head, I wanted to punch him back, punch him first, do something to get him to stop saying such horrible things. What I did was shake my head, refusing his bile, and then I hurried away. My whole body shook uncontrollably as I called the police and babbled incoherently before hanging up. I stayed to clubs and houses that firmly excluded neo-Nazis, and a few times I was the person who acted as lookout while my friends threw the punches I never had the nerve to throw.

After that, I had bigger concerns: I flunked out of college and looked for a job to pay for rent in a barely furnished house. But I let my hair grow out, ditched my leather jacket, and steered clear of people with red shoelaces in their boots. All my punk trappings became a costume for my character, not a part of me anymore, because I betrayed them. I had my first chance to throw a punch against tyranny, and I had failed.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Over the years I’ve reincorporated bits of my old punk persona back into my life. As I gain more experience and access things on the Internet I never saw before, I’ve come to understand what I was actually chasing. I became an archaeologist of my youth, uncovering the connections and threads that got lost in fear and awkward Midwestern understanding. I discovered that while I had used the word “punk” as a hammer for every nail of “thing that spoke to me,” I wasn’t entirely off-base. If I had closer contacts to groups like the straight edge movement or antifa punks, I probably would have had a clearer path, and a better outlet for the anger and terror of my youth. When I got a chance to work on Vampire, I channeled that old-school punk voice because I felt it was lost under the polished, darkly erotic surface. I dropped “punk” as an exclusive term in describing myself, and instead made it part of my personal gestalt.

In recent months, I’ve been reminded of those formative years again. It felt like a second chance for me to reclaim discarded punk mantle and vindicate my past self-treachery. Neo-nazis weren’t something from World War II; they were a terror from my past, an evil I could slay now that I was older and wiser. Surely, I could finally punch a Nazi.

I learned that an alt-right rally was scheduled to take place less than an hour from my house, and I was filled with an old, familiar terror. I found myself glancing at a stranger’s boots once, checking his shoelaces.  I didn’t know what to do, and social media shouted about punching Nazis and not punching Nazis. I never had much of a punk scene in my life, so I went back to the scene I had constructed for myself: the TV shows and comics and books that influenced me.

I started from first principles, and I discovered all the things I ham-fistededly collated as part of the same movement had two things in common. They all had a sense of humor and a lingering sense that everything would work out in the end. The anger and violence (both physical and social) was there, but they could be directed to a purpose. The Doctor didn’t use violence, but he still stood up against fascists, angrily pointing out how ludicrous they were. John Constantine was an asshole, but he was an asshole that used his brain. As I move outside the punk sphere, most of my heroes used intelligence and conversation as much or more than violence: Sherlock Holmes, the Fantastic Four, Captain Kirk, Ford Prefect, and so on. While I had obsessed over the trappings, I had missed the result that not everyone who fought racists and fascism used a fist and a broken bottle. Some people rebelled through a loud scream, an angry satire, or a damning put-down, and not all conversation is about conciliation. In the end, I would never be Sid Vicious, but I could be Tom Baker’s Doctor. (Or, to steal the language of Vampire, I wasn’t a Potence Brujah, but I could be a Presence Brujah.)

My life is now based around words. They’re my weapons, my shield, my livelihood, and my obsession. Sometimes I tell my own stories, and sometimes I help others tell stories to each other, but this is who I am and what I do. Just because my hands shake from fear and adrenaline doesn’t mean I won’t stand up against what I think is wrong. Some days my words are careful and considered, and others they’re a jumbled mess of passion and anger. I know now that I didn’t fail when I refused to punch that neo-Nazi; I had succeeded when I refused to bow to his hateful rhetoric. I didn’t punch someone in the face, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t stand and fight. And now I know that not everyone with red shoelaces is going to hurt me.

Two Years of Pugsteady!

2016-05-03-12-36-27Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! It’s the end of Pugsteady’s second financial year, and it’s been very different from the previous one! Last year, at the 2015 Pugsteady Corporate Retreat (i.e., sitting on the couch with Murray), I came up with three goals:

1) Financial: Increase the amount of work in which I own the rights, while still doing projects that are work-for-hire.

This was very successful! In January I worked with Onyx Path on the Pugmire Kickstarter, and it wildly exceeded my expectations, at well over 1000% funded! That led to not only several stretch goals, but has since led to some interesting conversations about potential future projects in the world of Pugmire. And while I’m happy to collaborate with a wide variety of folks, I’m happy to say that the core rights to Pugmire stay with me, and should revert to me in any negative circumstances. So, this is completely successful!

2) Professional: Work with at least three new clients, while maintaining relationships with the current ones.

This was successful, but in a weird way.

One client I’m working with is the new White Wolf, which was formed after the original White Wolf assets were purchased from CCP. This might seem like a bit of a cheat, but I don’t think so — the new White Wolf has some very ambitious ideas, and the variety of work I’m doing with this is quite different than what I used to do for CCP.

The second client is Wooga and Fox, as I’ve been a writer on Futurama: Game of Drones for nearly a year now! In fact, at the moment they’re one of my main clients (along with Onyx Path Publishing and Earplay, although those are ongoing assignments), and I couldn’t be happier. I love working with this team and on Futurama, and they seem to be happy with me as well.

The third is actually Pugsteady. One of the things I’ve learned after the Pugmire Kickstarter is that working for myself literally means that sometimes I have to be okay with carving out time to work on my projects. Now that there’s an investment in the success of Pugmire, I feel more comfortable spending several hours a week in getting my own projects moving forward. I don’t get directly paid for that time, but it’s a time investment that (I hope) will pay off in royalties down the road!

3) Personal: Learn one skill I don’t currently possess.

I admit I had forgotten about this goal, but it turns out I did learn a new skill — namely, voice acting. I’ve done some minor voice work on a couple of projects now, including one where I got to work with an experience voice director. It’s hard work, but a lot of fun, and I certainly feel like I understand what voice actors go through a lot better now.

Now that I’ve had my secret summit with COO Murray, I have three new goals for the coming year:

  • Financial: Balance travel and work expenditures better. This past year I’ve done a lot of travelling, and more often than not I lose money and work time with not a lot to show for it. I’ll have to more carefully consider my travel plans in future, to make sure that each trip is beneficial to Pugsteady or me personally.
  • Professional: Land another long-term contract. Working on Futurama has helped me to realize that there’s some stability in contract work. I’m so used to lots of short-term contracts, which gives me a lot of churn but isn’t income I can rely upon. As I continue to work on Pugmire, I’ll need to know that there’s some ready cash there when I invest time into those projects.
  • Personal: Focus on daily goals over weekly and monthly goals. One bad habit I’ve run into time and again is constantly thinking about my work over the course of a week or a month, instead of what’s in front of me. I can put in a full day’s work and still feel guilty because I haven’t done enough. In order to find a better work/life balance, I need to plan my day’s workload, and then just make sure I get that done, instead of worrying too much about what’s coming later.
That’s all for this year’s report!

Reflections and Predictions

As some of my readers know, I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions. If I need to make a change in my life, I’d rather do it right away, instead of waiting for an arbitrary date. However, people are drawn to ritual, and the end of one year before the start of another is a good time for reflection, as well as assessing the path forward.

The best way to describe the past year would probably be “evolution.” 2014 was really a year based on reorienting myself after a life-changing layoff for me and my wife, so success was very binary: can I continue to earn money in my chosen career? Having established that the answer is “yes,” 2015 pushed me in new directions, beyond my comfort zones and established networks.

Some of it has been amazing: if you had told me in 2014 that I would be writing for Futurama and working with the lead writer of that show, I would have laughed. Some of it has been painful: a handful of friends and peers have tried to undermine me and my efforts. I’ve found areas where I can be a better friend, professional, and mentor, but I’ve also learned that sometimes the only answer is to walk away and move on to the next project.

I’ve embraced more of my production skills without sacrificing the creative side of my life, and I’ve reached a point where I need to turn down interesting work so I can focus on what’s best for me and my family. I’ve learned to cook, I’ve written software, I’ve taken proactive steps to help with my allergies, and I’ve become interested in the politics of freelancing, self-employment, and small businesses.

I can’t point to a specific thing I’ll do more of in 2016. Due to the nature of schedules and planning, some projects and initiatives that started in 2015 will see light next year, showing a continued evolution. I’ll make a few more enemies, most likely, but I’ll make a lot more friends. I’ll make some cool stuff, and I’ll make some colossal mistakes. I’ll keep celebrating the victories of my friends as much as I celebrate my own. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll finally get good at reading contracts before I sign them.

In the end, I’m taking bigger, more calculated risks in the coming year. Parts of it will suck, and parts of it will be amazing. I hope that all of it will make me a better person.

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.