Jun 15 2012

Decoupling character features

I was reviewing some of my Soft Horizon notes this morning and discovered an interesting accidental feature of the system I’m currently testing. This system borrows from ORE, from Hollowpoint and from FATE and so it has a lot of recognizable key words, but it’s really none of the three.

FATE has this great internal symmetry and consistency. There are very close relationships (to the point, if you wanted to criticise, of identity) between many features — for example, an Aspect is equal to two points on the dice. A stress box is equal to one point on the dice. Depending on variants, Consequences are worth some number of points on the dice (when you have fixed values for Consequences the relationship is tighter). Skill values are points on the dice.

So the dice, the skills, the aspects, and the consequences are all intimately related to the stress track. This means that any bonuses in one place can be seen as (roughly) equivalent bonuses or penalties some place else. A skill of 3 is the same as a skill of 1 with an aspect. Or the same as a skill of 5 against a lower stress track.

Obviously it’s more complicated than that and depends on variants, but these relationships are close no matter how you slice it. This is often a good thing — it makes it easy to manipulate the system and understand the ramifications of changes. A free taggable aspect is +2 on the dice with an attendant demand for extra narration. Easiest effect system ever. And very hard to unbalance accidentally. Awesome features.

I find myself sometimes annoyed at this. Sometimes it feels like a lack of differentiation. I think this is part of what drives people to pare the system down to a page of essentials — there’s a suspicion that there’s less to the system than it seems. Not in a bad way, mind you, but just this sense that it could be re-factored to reveal some very simple truth about it. That’s probably true and probably why almost every version has all kinds of fairly deep changes to the core.

Soft Horizon has disconnected a lot of these things. Your skill rank has no direct relationship to your opponent’s stress. The links that exist are complex and multivariate (without being difficult in play — in play it’s a breeze). A higher skill has a variable effect on capability; generally better but with surprising negative possibilities that derive from being awesome. By that I mean that your chance of fumbling does not increase, but the chance of a move that might be read as over-confident or over-eager can easily result (Hollowpoint fans know what I’m talking about here).

The bit that struck me this morning was stress. Stress and skill are so decoupled that additional stress boxes are not the same as being more skilled at defense. That’s really cool — that’s something I want. Now you are never trading off a defensive skill against another stress box when creating characters or monsters — stress is something else again. They’re not quite hit points either — they aren’t equivalent to a fixed damage system either. This lack of equivalence means that a power or artifact that gives you an extra stress box (or takes one away) is very different from a bonus to a skill. That’s great because that gives you another way to reward characters or distinguish foes. And it turns out there are a bunch of those now.

Better, and this is the risk one usually faces with this kind of design, it is decoupled without increasing complexity, so there are limited ways in which the system can feed back on itself and run away. That means there are (probably) no defects that create super-characters through unforseen feedback loops. That’s got to a good thing, right? Well, I admit, having a super-character show up can be pretty good for publicity, but still, not so good for the game. Sure you can rule them away, but as a designer I would be embarrassed as it reveals a failure even if the end user can fix it.


Aug 12 2011


Well, Hollowpoint is looking like a success! It’s been about 4 weeks so far and we’ve moved 150 or so physical units and we released the PDF yesterday to substantial overnight sales. Hurray for us!

However, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about here. What I noticed in this past four weeks is a very interesting qualitative difference in the sales. Now, before I get into what that is, I’ll outline what I see as critical differences between Hollowpoint and our other data point, Diaspora. There are many.

The biggest one is that this is not a FATE game. This is a system we developed for the express purpose of making fast, highly decorative action scenes that do not rely on simulating combat at the level of focus that many role-playing games do. This is not a guy-vs-guy combat system (I attack Larry, I roll to hit, I kill Larry). This game is more about describing your success and failure to meet your intentions with a chosen tactic. Anyway, in the context of this discussion the interesting thing is that it is not a FATE game and therefore there is no pre-existing fan base to draw on. When we built Diaspora I don’t think we realized quite how much default attention that would get us.

Another difference is that Google+ arrived at almost the same time as our release and so we were able to leverage it to spread the word as well as talking with fans at RPG Geek and RPG.net. This forum has a very different structure from regular discussion forums and has a different pattern of repetition — while a forum reaches a large number of people you don’t know, that number is largely fixed. With Google+ (and this is similar to Twitter but frankly has far deeper reach) we were able to reach a lot of friends of friends of friends while talking to a smaller set of people initially. I think this got us attention in places that we wouldn’t normally get to at all and may be the sort of breakthrough that starts to undermine the “browsing” exposure advantage that physical game stores have.

We also adopted Fred Hicks’ Bits and Mortar strategy, offering the PDF for free to owners of the hard copy book. I think this changes purchasing on several axes and so is a very hard effect to measure. It seems likely that it drives up hard copy purchase while driving down digital purchases. I can’t prove that, though. I know we still have a lot of digital-only sales going on.

So anyway, what’s different that warrants a thousand words? Well, the reaction.

The reaction is slower and smaller, but then so was our marketing and our target audience. So that’s not unexpected. But the reaction is also far more active. By that I mean that early reactions to the game are mostly examples of immediate play! This is really exciting to me. I mean, I am cool with selling people a book to read, and I certainly write with the intention of pleasing a reader, but the fact that the very first reports on the quality of the book were actual play reports is an awesome fact.

Certainly a major factor here is that we built a game that sets up and plays out in a few hours. That facilitates this kind of quick reaction. But there’s also usually a couple of sessions to any game where people are feeling out the rules and play is not all that satisfying yet. We have seen less of this with Hollowpoint. The majority of play reports are in the “holy crap this was awesome” category, and that’s pretty exhilarating.

Another factor is that I think we reached people who were very open to trying something new in this genre and honestly I think that’s a bit of a breakthrough. I suspect it happened in part because of the depth of the Google+ impact but I can’t prove it. The reason I say that this is a kind of breakthrough is that modern action almost always emphasizes guy-vs-guy detail. It gets grittiness by tracking ammunition and graphic wound calculation and accurate weapons simulation. Hit locations. Blood loss rules. One-shot sniper rifle kills. I think that kind of thing is boring and was hoping someone else would so I could sell a copy of the game to that person and call this a success.

Instead I found a lot of people totally open to this concept, to this level of abstraction, and, frankly, to this orthogonal1 approach to the whole problem of role-playing action scenes. As with Diaspora, the core concept of the game design seems to be a kind of in joke: wouldn’t it be hilarious if we used this hippy concept to do that extremely traditional genre.

Anyway, it looks like the joke has been well received. Certainly this is a game that I love running and playing and I am relieved to once again find I am not alone in my bizarre tastes. Thank heavens for the internet, where there is always someone to share your perversity.


  1. Not claiming originality here; there are plenty of games that do not do guy-vs-guy conflict resolution. Just claiming it’s especially novel in the context of this genre.

Jan 11 2011

Compels that might work better for me

Some compels work for me. Most often they feel contrived and that might be because we lack a certain skill at the table, but whatever the root cause, they kind of suck (for me, IMHO, YMMV, &c.)  The always smart Ryan Macklin recently posted an article about a Mutant Healing Power aspect that made something go click in my brain, though.

You should read that so I don’t have to summarize before I get to the point.

The bit that clicked for me is the indirect and non-manipulative way that a compel is suggested. This is something that we will want to make clear in any future version of FATE. Like really really clear. The guy has the aspect Mutant Healing Power and so the compels relate to the way the outside world reacts to that and not so much about the actions and decisions of the character. Suddenly it’s not an imposition any more!

You get into a fight, say, with people who were expecting you. They know you have Mutant Healing Power and so they brought bazookas instead of crossbows. That’s the compel right there!

“Okay the bad guys have bazookas and you get a fate point.”

“What the fuck?!”

“They know about your healing power and so they came prepared.”

“Holy crap. Okay, I think I want to buy that one off.”

See, suddenly the buy off for a compel you don’t want to deal with makes sense too. You don’t feel cheated (it’s not like they brought nuclear weapons, which you would have to buy off) and with that extra fate point maybe you can take them anyway. This is an awesome compel but the key to it is that no one is asking the player to do anything with her character. Instead the outside world is behaving extraordinarily in response to your character’s stated features and you get paid.

Here’s the other one. Some people think that they can learn how to use your power for Science. Now there is a whole sub-plot related to your aspect — the people that want to vivisect you and make medicine for the good of mankind. Or maybe just make super soldiers to dominate the world. Whatever. And every time this sub-plot based one your character comes to the fore, you get paid or can pay to make it go away. This one is trickier and will be less satisfying to some but it’s still pretty good. At some point it might become a more direct part of the plot and then maybe be less about the aspect and more about regular play, in which case it would no longer be a compel. Unless they bring bazookas, of course.

All this requires a little more prep from the ref side, but it’s better spent than the compel prep I’ve been doing until now because there’s a real payoff and no discomfort. I think this will make all the difference in compels. You don’t behave weirdly because of your power — the rest of the world does. And you get paid for that.

Thanks Ryan!


Jan 5 2011

Lessons Learned 2010

Last year we spent a lot of time imagining, writing, and testing new games. We expected to get two titles out of this at least and maybe three or four. We didn’t get any. Well, we got one (Hollowpoint), but it’s still not in publication because I am a lazy bastard and am still laying it out. I will spend a little energy thinking out loud about what this year taught me and why that translates into so few new games.

There’s a great book you should probably read called The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. It’s about software engineering in the 60s and it’s not strictly true any more with respect to software engineering, largely because of critical changes in communication technologies which change the cost of interaction, possibly below some critical threshold. Anyway, whether or not the core premises are obsolete, the book still contains powerful insights about system projects, and games are system projects.

A system project is a project that builds some relatively complicated machine that can be broken down into sub-components that are also machines. Machines are things that take an input, crunch some process over it, and create an output that is more useful. A lever is a machine. It takes force in one side, uses some basic physics relating to length and mass, and produces different forces on the other side that might be more useful in some contexts. Games are machines too. Complicated games are systems of machines (a randomization machine — dice, a narrative effect machine — modifiers, a spotlight-management machine — taking turns, etc.).

Making a system is complicated because you care about the interaction between sub-system as well as the specific function of each sub-system. And you can get effect loops, which is where the real monsters hide, where a sub-system affects the operation of a seemingly unrelated sub-system because you didn’t do a complete feedback analysis. Anyway, a game is sufficiently like a software project that there might be something interesting in this book if you’re interested in games.

A lot of what’s in that book is no longer strictly relevant, but one thing I think certainly is: the second system syndrome. This is when you finish one system and it works and is well-received and so you start work on your next one and you imagine all the things you did wrong on the first one. Or find new enthusiasm in focus on some particular element of the previous one. Whatever your passion relating to the first system, you over-focus and produce a plan for a second system that is broken because you’ve lost sight of the explicit requirements of your project and instead see only the passion from the first project. Projects can progress for a very long time down this fruitless path before aborting or reigning in the process.

We kind of went there. Reading The Mythical Man Month does not make you immune to it. We floundered around with several ideas which looked good to me because am designing-as-art a lot of the time and having a great time doing it. But in play it was not coming together and it took a long time to figure out that I had to start over rather than keep pushing at something that was very pretty as a machine but did not function as intended.

The eye-opener was playing other games. Note to self: play other games.

Partly this was playing games that did not work for us. Some failed because they had exactly the same pretensions I had. Some failed because they were quite the opposite of what I want to do (whether in play or in design). Some failed because character creation was not fun and I need it to be fun. Most of these failures revealed errors in my own work. Some gave me clues to new features because I didn’t know I didn’t like some things. It pays to analyze failure.

The other part was playing games that did work. Gamma World was a hoot and yet it is very far afield from my own design interests. We played some Wings of War and the elegance of that card-controlled simulation struck all kinds of chords for me. And we played several sessions of Diaspora, which reminded me what parts we did right — and that we should at a minimum not throw those bits out when designing something new with the FATE engine.

So last year we built a few second systems but, to our credit, we didn’t pursue them too far. Well, barring one, but I will reconstruct Soft Horizon this year so that it’s more fun than clever and see if we can’t rescue it. It was a fun year with lots of creative frustration but also lots of great gaming with very smart, witty, and above all, patient friends.

Oh yeah, the lesson learned? It’s not really how to avoid second system syndrome, because having read the book I didn’t really discover a way to avoid it in the first place. I only discovered that it happens. And the book doesn’t teach you how to avoid it because in a way it’s not avoidable. Rather it’s something that you can recover from once it happens.

So here are some lessons. FATE is pretty bloody good at what it does so don’t dick with it too much. The cluster generation system in Diaspora is awesome but it’s not automatically awesome — getting the stats right is critical (yay Chimaera, nay Soft Horizon). Phased character generation is a reliable way to get shared character generation sessions to work — start there. A cool new system isn’t automatically cool for every new game idea. If Tim’s not having fun then something is actually wrong. Ignore the advice of anyone who does not actually play games.

And derived from that last: play games.


Oct 6 2010

Boss design patterns

Warning, this is another World of Warcraft post. I think it informs tabletop games, though, so bear with me.

I haven’t done a lot of dungeons recently as I mentioned in my last post. Last night, though, my awesome guildies took me through a dungeon that I had missed but that’s on a quest chain I want to complete — The Pit of Saron. The Pit has a number of cool events and features in it but what struck me was something that strikes me every time I enter a new dungeon with fun, smart, patient people: explaining even the most complicated boss fight is actually pretty simple because they all follow some basic design patterns. Here are a few that I noticed last night.

1. When the boss runs away/shouts something/does some other big, time-consuming emote go hide behind something until he’s done. This was one we all learned that hard way with that bloody bird-guy boss in Auchinondon where you have to hide behind the pillars and no one gets it right.

2. If an amusing pattern appears on the ground beneath you, move. Something bad is about to happen there.

3. If amusing dinguses appear and start moving towards the boss, kill them because they will do good things for the boss which is bad for you.

4. If the boss points at you specifically and shouts, run away. This one, unfortunately, has a few variants. One is “run towards”. Another is “stop attacking”. And another is “everyone stop attacking”. This one will betray your reflexes and needs to get spelled out clearly.

5. Stay out of the goo. Sadly, one variant is “get in the goo”. If your reflex is to stay out of the goo, though, you’ll be good for 99% of all bosses.

For example, the first major bad guy in the Pit is a frost giant who throws huge boulders of saronite ore at you. That hurts, but there’s a shadow where it will land. That’s design pattern 2 above. Now when that boulder lands, it stays there. Occasionally the giant will yell and run towards his forge and, once there, will spray nasty death rays all over. You can hide behind the boulders he threw, though, keeping you out of danger! That’s pattern 1. So my guild mate can summarize this fight with “get out of the shadows and when he heads for the forge hide behind a rock”. A somewhat complicated fight is simplified by our shared experiences (design patterns).

All three major boss fights in there follow the pattern. The second guy is a little more complicated (stay out of the goo, stay out of the goo, when he shouts at you run away). The third guy is simple too (stay out of the goo, avoid the patterns on the ground, when he shouts at you stop fighting). And so I finished this difficult dungeon with a minimum of fuss and only a single wipe that was for embarrassing reasons anyway. And we didn’t need Ventrilo or other voice communications to get the message across!

Okay but this all becomes a little formulaic. One way they tried to break up the formulae was by adding vehicles to some dungeons, and the vehicle behaviour can be quite different from character behaviour, so there can be different patterns in play. Not very different, as it turns out, but occasionally completely out of left field, like having to climb into a cannon and be launched at the enemy tank where you will melee the shit out of his turrets and then jump off and hope you get picked up before you get run over. That’s pretty new.

But having design patterns that are fun are at least as much a power as a crutch. Sure, you can imagine the designers sitting around dreaming up new kinds of goo and new things to shout, and think that’s pretty weak (and it is). If they lean on that too hard you will get bored. But on the other hand, the communicability of tactics is pretty powerful, even if you have to start stacking exceptions to account for new nuances — stand in the goo if you have this debuff otherwise stay out of the goo!

All of this is interesting because it first came to me when the current expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, came out and we were doing a whole bunch of dungeons for the very first time ever. Having never seen these bosses before, we needed some heuristics to succeed and the ones that work are patterns. Here’s the core heuristic for a new boss no one has seen: stay out of the goo and run when he yells. Kill the adds.

So obviously I’m wondering if these sorts of tactical design patterns have a place in tabletop games. And then I immediately start wondering if they are emergent: any design with any serious attempt at modularity and focus might well have tactical patterns as a necessary side-effect. If you design cleanly and clearly, that design might create tactical response patterns. And this is true.

Take FATE for example. One tactical response pattern (that we often have to learn over and over but that almost always works) is: get a bunch of free-taggable aspects down from maneuvers and then make a big hit. This is a feature of the rules and it’s almost always a good idea (assuming unlimited free tags). Because degree of success is also damage inflicted, and because a single unassisted person can almost always get one success if she really tries, this means every maneuver is +2 to the harm inflicted, guaranteed.

You almost have to go to “bad” design to avoid this, by giving opposition rule-breaking capabilities that explicitly deny a pattern. In FATE we call these “stunts” but we don’t often use them for this. Maybe we should think about that. Maybe the tactical patterns that work so well are exactly the things we want to (occasionally!) undermine with a stunt on an arch-villain. Think about that.


Aug 24 2010

Getting lucky, looking smart

I’ve talked (ad nauseuam1, I’m sure) about what we did to get Diaspora out there. I’ve talked about why we did that and how it worked out. In light of this piece from an actual vendor about “indie” games and IPR, I’ll talk now about what the effects were in retrospect and why small scale game developers should consider our model when producing their work-of-love-for-small-but-real-profit.

We hooked our cart to FATE. There’s no way to deny that the opportunity to grab the same brand as Spirit of the Century presented to us by the OGL was a big deal. I don’t think we realized what a big deal it was (or more correctly, what a big deal it would become) but there’s no question that we instantly penetrated an existing and forgiving crowd of buyers while at the same time staying on the periphery of it — we changed enough and on our own terms that it was an outsider’s FATE game. In real terms that meant that we actually attracted interest from both folks that knew they already liked FATE and from folks who loved the sort of ideas we had but were leery of FATE for some reason. This was discovered, not intentional. But the bottom line here is that being part of an existing success is an opportunity, and the OGL is an invitation. That boom may already be subsiding, but that’s for history to declare. I know we still have at least one FATE-like game in the pipe.

The more important thing, though, is risk. I read a lot of game design forums. I don’t participate much because frankly I feel like an outsider. They are all really interested in aspects of game design that I’m not all that interested in — for me, design emerges from frank discussion between a small number of smart people who are iterating their ideas over constant play. All those adjectives are important. Some forums try to do this and for people that feel “inside” them, I am certain they work. Anyway, the only reason I brought it up is because inside these forums folks talk about how they intend to publish and, despite their cutting edge ideas in game design, I see constant conservatism regarding methods. And the article above hints at why this conservatism is a kind of doom.

The conservative method I am thinking of is the traditional print publishing method: make a book, print a bunch up, and sell them. The costs involved in this are many: making it includes art, editing, writing, software, yadda yadda yadda. Printing it means short run print jobs (which have very high costs), warehousing, shipping, and, inevitably, third parties (IPR). Selling it means being visible, and a lot of folks take that to mean going to cons. This last works well if you are already going to a con, which is cool for those folks that do that. It feels, however, mandatory when you talk to people that do this. That is, “I go to cons” is sort of an assumption rather than a method. In some ways indie games mostly finance going to cons. At least that’s how my math on it worked out. We bought scotch instead. I am not going to claim that was a better choice.

Here’s the thing, though: working in very small numbers (by publishing standards — say 1000 units in a year as a goal) means that you are necessarily going to operate with high costs. That thins your margin and means you pretty much have to do all your marketing yourself. Now you have a bunch of choices to make this work, but they seem to boil down to: cut your costs or cut your risk.

The vast majority seem keen to select either the former or no choice at all.

There is a popular notion that risk-takers are the big successes in a capitalist system. Actually what happens is that risk-takers succeed big when they succeed and fail big when they fail. Long term success is created by carefully managing and deferring risk in such a way as to still capitalize on it (Nassim Tales tries to tell us about this in The Black Swan but the message is buried under some dreadful writing — he’s still right, though). You want to be attached to that risk taker, but with a good knife for cutting loose if he plummets. That means you won’t see as much profit when he succeeds, but you might get away with small losses along the way. Anyway, we don’t here a lot of talk about risk in the indie design community, which strikes me as bizarre.

Cutting costs, see (sorry, channeling Edward G. there), is the reflex choice. Holy crap, this costs too much, what can I do? I know! Cut costs! Duh! But we rarely think about the choice of cutting costs to zero (or close to it) with the expectation of lower maximum profits. This is risk-cutting, a conservative course that has much higher expected (in the mathematical sense) rewards but much lower maximum rewards. I guess sometimes one can be too focused on the prize and loose track of ones footing in the process.

Again I will stress, what we did was fortuitous, not planned. We didn’t plan to sell 1,500 books in a year. If we were clairvoyant, we’d have done a 1,000 book print run and fronted the cash for it. But (and here’s the kicker) we’re not clairvoyant. We (and you) have zero magical powers. Thinking wistfully about what might have been is bullshit. It’s a waste of energy that could be spent yelling on the interweb.

What we did was adopt no risk. The Lulu model encapsulates all of the bits of publishing that entail risk, from store-front web presence to printing to customer payment, through shipping. They handle it all. And they take a fat chunk of cash for it — they take a very fat printing fee and then they take a kind of commission off your final sale price. And they deserve it! Whatever failings they have, they are eating all the risk on your product. And you still wind up with a pretty good profit margin at the end of the day.

In fact, if you decide to go all trad on the publishing end and print and warehouse and sell everything yourself, you can make twice as much money per unit. But your accessibility is weak — your units sold is low and you are doing all the dumbwork (I’m thinking of fulfillment here mostly). If you’re not doing a lot of it then you aren’t selling a lot of books. If you are doing a lot of it, you suddenly realize why it’s worth paying someone else. And so, pretty fast, you are looking for a third party like IPR to handle that. As soon as you do that you have cut your profit per unit down to about where it would have been with Lulu. Lower, as it turns out. But you’ll get more copy out!

Maybe. Your vendor sales will go up, but the unit profit on them will be very bleak indeed at your printing volumes. Your direct sales will go up over your home shop, but no one will tell you by how much (though they will tell you how much of your profit they will take — this is not a bad thing but it better be part of your decision calculus). No one will promise you anything particular about promotion (where will you be on the web site front page? for how long? will your game be in the IPR boot at Origins? will someone try to sell it? what are you buying here? It’s mostly a secret). But it’s pretty much the only game in town if you’re tired of handling payment and shipping yourself.

So when vendors are seeing the IPR move as a potential problem for indie titles, this better strike you to your heart, because IPR was already something of a problem for indie titles. I think somewhere people got it in their heads that this was a huge opportunity, but it was almost instantly eclipsed (in fact though not in mindshare) by what Lulu did: print + storefront + shipping. All your costs folded into a per-unit cost rather than an up-front risk or a workload. As soon as that happened it becomes tenuous indeed to pay a third party to do part of that work while you continue to sustain the bulk of the risk. It’s disproportionate. It’s a bad deal.

Now PDF sales are another ball of wax because they are intrinsically risk-free. So here’s where you can really make up some slack because there is a real (though small, by my count, but probably growing) market for them. Sadly, Lulu won’t let you bundle products or anything interesting like that, so your hands are tied there, but you have tons of other options for selling PDFs. Scattering them around is kind of crap, and the fees taken are pretty thick, but it’s all gravy, right? Yeah. In the end it’s a no-brainer though I’m glad we held on to it for as long as we did — it let the physical book get traction and seeing the hardcover was a big deal for a lot of people, judging by my mail. Anyway, I’ve said before that if DriveThruRPG gets their POD act together they have a serious winner in the bag for indie games: zero risk + great publisher account/sales tools will be the Golden Egg for a little guy with a game in his head. If we can wrap our head around dodging the trad publishing risk bullet. Big publishers amortize this risk with diverse titles and tons of market penetration. You won’t do that, but will take the same proportional risk per title (greater actually). That is a crappy deal.

So for the first year we sold directly, using POD exactly as it was intended (print on the demand of the customer, not the publisher — the way it’s often used is as a cheap printer, which misses the whole point). We had good buzz, thanks in no small part to an outrageous review by Fred Hicks which basically told the whole FATE community that it had his stamp of approval and they should go buy it right now. And that was the “hitch your wagon” part. We didn’t intend to be on a bandwagon (as I said before, we’re kind of outsiders — we didn’t know there was a bandwagon) but we wound up there. That’s lucky. We had an existing voice at RPG.Net and we sent reviewer copies to folks like C.W. Richeson, where we were confident the result would be respected, read, and (net) positive. That’s deliberate.

Now, a year on, we’re publishing in a more traditional model in partnership with Evil Hat. But we’re still operating a risk-averse shop, letting Fred and the gang take a chunk of the profits in exchange for taking on the risk. And he’s smart — he knows the risk is low and the profit margin high, and our end of the risk is that if it goes south we don’t get paid. But zero return on zero down is mighty low risk in my books. Most importantly, taking that kind of risk is his business. He’s got a stable of titles, a smart business advisor, connections in the industry…oh my goodness, he’s a publisher.

So, in response to that post from a vendor about IPR, I offer this to the so-called indie community. Ask yourself first if you’re a publisher. If you’re not, watch the POD space closely for opportunities, because they are there. But if you’re not, think hard about printing, warehousing, and shipping books. Because that’s publisher stuff — so why are you doing it?


  1. Thanks, M. Boulet.

Aug 12 2010

When it rains it pours

Okay two things feed this. First is last week’s playtest of Soft Horizon, in which we experimented with a zero refresh for fate points and a central pool that you draw from when you narrate with a scope reference. So basically, when you play to the points you said were interesting about your character, you take a point. This unburdens the ref a bit — your character being your character is no longer my problem. When you do what you said you wanted to do, you pay yourself. I’ll make sure there are times to do that. If you are a HEARTLESS SON OF A BITCH then you can pay yourself when you act that way. I can concentrate on making the universe react amusingly (negatively perhaps) and you can take your chances by playing your character. That strikes me as a more interesting framing (at our table anyway) than the standing Fate compel system, which is unreliable in action (some tables report awesome, some report fizzle, and the causes are not well understood).

The second thing pouring in is Toph’s great actual plays from Hollowpoint with kids. Kids really dig playing the bad guys, and that shines through these crisp little reports. Anyway, what is doing the feeding here is the difficulty with the teamwork pool. And the difficulty is such that I’m thinking of throwing it away altogether. And so I sketched up an alternative.

Okay back to the first. During that Soft Horizon playtest someone produced an awesome little bit of narration and, in total violation of the rules, Bob (who shall not otherwise be named lest his true identity be revealed, which embarrasses him despite the fact that he plays games with AWARD WINNING AUTHORS AND PUBLISHERS) reached into the pool and handed the awesome guy a fate point.

That’s now a rule.

You could do this in Hollowpoint.

I re-invented fan mail. Prime Time Adventures is the most famous for this sort of mechanism and I’ve known about it for ages. But I had to see it happen spontaneously to really get it: players like rewarding each other. I think that as I prefer games with a referee there is a lot of residual baggage I have about who gets to do what, and rewards are traditionally bound to the ref. But there is really no good reason to avoid letting the players do this for each other (assuming you manage this mechanically somehow, and I’ll go there, but you could rely on trust, too, and that is a big deal for us — the Table is Trust).

So in Soft Horizon you can do what Bob did. If someone is awesome, anyone can pay them from the pool. This is self-regulating on a couple of points: there are only so many chips in the pool, and no one wants to look foolish at the table by offering rewards for stupid shit. There is too much trust and respect and naked fear of humiliation.

So maybe in Hollowpoint, teamwork isn’t nearly as important as being awesome. So instead of a convoluted system of ask and accept or reject and stuff, a fixed pool of dice goes in the middle of the table, and whenever someone narrates something awesome, any player can give that awesome player a die. You could get a die from everyone if you are truly amazing. And you can hoard those or spend them as you like (save your awesome for the final scene). Because of the way the dice stats in Hollowpoint work, this even has a nice richochet effect — if you roll a lot of dice, you increase the chance that you will get badly burned by your cockiness (hubris if you are using a serious tone): you will likely get a big fate set and go first, and then have nothing left to follow up with. This is the mechanism behind leaping out from behind cover, guns blazing, only to discover you are out of ammunition and standing alone by the pool, looking at a dozen bad guys with Uzis.

This all wanders around the fact that players get lazy and stop narrating their dice and their use of resources. Or the actual narration slacks a little. The ref can prod for it, but that gets old too, and often the dice game is still fun so it’s not really an issue. But those moments of great narration are the stories we tell about the game after, and the stories we tell after are how we generate enthusiasm in others and keep wanting to play. And get more players. So this fan mail, in two new forms, should serve to encourage sustained narrative input. When you burn a trait (shot in the Thin Black Jeans), if it’s awesome you get paid. And so, in theory, you have a little more motivation to be awesome, a motivation that balances against the inherent laziness we all bring to the table to some extent or another.

Some people say you shouldn’t bribe people to do what they already want to do. I disagree. A lot. Just because someone wants to do something doesn’t mean that they have sufficient motivation to actually do it. Adding further incentive can push them over the edge and turn “okay” to “awesome”. If all that costs is a nifty little player-managed resource juggling, fuck yes, count me in.


Aug 9 2010


I had a bit of a revelation on the weekend. It was one of those sustained flash-bulb moments that you’re sure are profound — even prophetic — but that immediately afterwards you realize that almost everyone already knows about this “new” insight. In fact, when done correctly, you realize that you already knew it too. Maybe you forgot it along the way or something.

Over the past year, with the increasing success of Diaspora (such as that success is — I don’t want anyone, especially the Canadian government, to get the idea that we bought yachts with our proceeds or anything), I have been thinking more and more about game design. We’ve had at least five ideas cross the table for new games and perhaps three of them are getting serious attention in alternation. New stuff is getting written every week. Some weeks, every day.

Amidst all this activity is a sense of confidence. Because we did it once, we (by which I mean I) have the strange idea that we know what we’re doing. With this notion comes a desire to cleverly mechanise everything — if there’s something I want the game to do, then there ought to be a mechanism that does that. Not a hand-wavy “hey if this happens then think about it and maybe do this” but a concrete “if you have seven points then this thing happens which changes your character this way”.

My revelation was this: not every important thing needs a mechanism.

See, I told you it was pedestrian in the light of day. Everyone knows this. But I had been following a path that pointed my head away from this fact, and so when I looked around it was startling.

Oddly, as I apply this new wisdom, I find new mechanism asserts itself. Good mechanism, too, but of a different kind. In particular, we re-discover the stress track. I agree this begs for concrete discussion.

So here’s the issue I was working on when I woke up. In Soft Horizon, there are Duties. Among the Duties a character might have are several that require the player character to change a specific basic statistic of a plane. For example, the Mystic duty requires that the character decrease the Arcana stat of a plane, making magic more occult, mystical, and inaccessible. The problem is that in play there is no mechanism for doing it and, worse, it’s really hard. My hope was that the player with that Duty would exercise a significant effort in driving the narrative towards his interest, but what I discovered is that this is an unfair burden to place on a player in a game with a referee.

There are several reasons for this. First is that there is a referee and so there is an implicit structure to the game that suggests that players ought to follow the ref’s lead if he presents one. That is, when I create a huge visual event with lots of howling and hair-pulling, the players expect me to expect them to investigate it further. And not only is this understandable, it’s also desirable. That’s exactly what you want!

Second, players don’t want to compete against each other in this sort of game. They want to act as a team in a concerted effort to solve problems and make stories about the team. Sure, each wants spotlight time and glory and success, but it’s just plain embarrassing as a player to wind up leading the narration into your guy’s success. When that’s also away from the ref’s preparation, that’s even less comfortable. And so it generally doesn’t happen and when it does it’s less than satisfying.

So I attacked this problem by imaging different mechanisms that would support the Duties without infringing on anyones’ interests. And then the light went on.

This conflict in interests is actually the tool.

Instead of mechanism, I wrote some concrete referee’s advice. It’s basically this: here are a bunch of ways to set up a session so that a specific Duty can be resolved eventually. This has the advantage of being a shortcut for preparing a session (having a simple list of things to prepare beforehand) as well as facilitating the resolution of Duties (the preparation feeds directly into creating scenes that will be about what the Duty-bound character needs). And it’s unmechanized and so it remains free and loose and role-play-ey. And that’s what I want because the game has been stilted so far — the burden of mechanism has created unnatural moments in narration and frustration over meeting goals.

Now that there is a way to resolve a Duty every session, we do need to think about how to keep that from making the plane stats juggle willy-nilly all the time, which feels like it would make players disinvest in them. And so here, as millions have discovered before me, is where the mechanism actually goes: it is inserted to change the pace, to mitigate the results of role-play rather than supplant it. The solution is at least as obvious as my revelation: give each stat a track, and reward the player for changing the track rather than the stat. When the track is exceeded, the stat changes.

And now we know what to do with leftover fate points to (amplify an effect on a track).

Changing a track value (a Trend — Divine Trend, Arcane Trend, Civil Trend) happens by table agreement. When a Trial ends and everyone says “oh yeah, this is a less Arcane place” that’s when the track is altered. It’s tempting to put a mechanism in there — roll some dice — but it is counter-productive. We already know. We don’t need no stinking dice here. Better, because the referee has followed the soft advice, he already knows whether this Trial is a candidate because it’s part of the plan to allow change. Better still, failure may indicate the opposite motion on the Trend and that’s hair-pulling time.

So the key to fixing this whole mechanical issue seems to be stripping out some gears, putting in a gauge, and adding a few thousand words of advice. And even better, this advice is basically to add in the bit that’s been missing in play: cool NPCs that are fun to talk to.


Aug 4 2010

Where we ignore our Fate

I’ve talked before about compels and how they don’t quite work as described for me. And apparently for a lot of people, actually, judging by fan feedback for Diaspora and other sources. Fact is, at my table they just don’t drive the fate point economy like they are supposed to and I’m not comfortable relying on a mechanism that isn’t actually mechanical — that is, that is really a paint job over the statement “you ought to play this way or it kinda doesn’t work”. I want mechanism to function, every time, or I want no mechanism and a clear statement of intent. I think.

Anyway this all gelled in my head (what a mess) on the way to work this morning as I surfed Story Games and my own notes trying to dream up ways to really ignite my playtest session on Thursday night. It has to do with the way people don’t “get” compels, the resistance to paying players to do what they said they wanted to do, and the way the fate point economy stalls unless everyone is in the same headspace as the designer. And sometimes even that’s no solution.

First, playing with people you know are awesome only demonstrates your game will work with awesome people.1 So will just chatting up a good story over whiskey. A good game needs to deliver that, not just make it possible. It’s always possible with any game, given the perfect people. We need to at least facilitate it and at best generate it. Which is interesting, because in the last session of Soft Horizon we learned that there is “a machine that makes kings” and that’s what I want in my game.

My instinct is that the solution can’t be complicated. Or at least it can’t be revealed by complication. Once we get its head above ground, we may have to construct a more elaborate trap, but here’s my plan to flush it out.

Eliminate the refresh. You heard me, and thanks Paul Beakley for the revelation (though now I can’t find his post). Characters all start with zero fate points. There are no compels in the game.

The refresh at the beginning of a session starts with the referee putting a big stack of fate points in the middle of the table. All players should be looking at this stack and licking their chops.

Whenever a player makes a decision to act based on one of her Scopes (not Aspects directly!) she mentions or points to or otherwise indicates the Scope (I’m kind of partial to a little ritual here, say starting the decision narration with the Scope text) and takes a fate point from the stack. If anyone thinks it’s dumb we expect them to speak up, just like any time narration generates mechanical effect.

That’s it.

Part of what led me to this is the stuff I already pointed at, but also while I was looking over character sheets for cool stuff to compel, I realized first that I didn’t really want to do the compelling and second that the Scopes are really great decision drivers. And loading up Scopes with more power seems like a good idea to make the number of them a relevant trade-off against the number of Aspects (keeping the zero-sum construction we use now). I mean look at these Scopes:

The Hag (the crazy oracle that allows the party to hop planes)
My Faith
The Lost One (the crazy oracle that allows the party to hop planes)
Asandalos (the god of Death)
Form of a Machine
The Madwoman (the crazy oracle that allows the party to hop planes)
Death Shaman
The Broken Blade
My Reputation
My Ceremonies

As a player, if you were faced with a hard decision and looked down at your character sheet for inspiration, these all pretty much sing to you. And they are containers for Aspects that have a different mechanical use, but also elaborate the context of the Scope. The character sheet becomes a rich place for narrative inspiration for the player and less of a cheat sheet for the referee. And it should be — we spent time and energy and laughter and good liquor in writing those. They should pay us back in play.

So with the compel gone, Aspects are polished to an elegant and glimmering razor’s edge: tag one and get a bonus. That’s it. No whiffling about what you can or can’t demand/request/suggest and no implication that you need to play at a certain minimum correspondence to the authors’ style. Whatever you narrate (though you will want to check out the Hollowpoint section on “Adult Diapers” for a discussion that transcends this) it nets the same benefit, which is the “Can I have a bazooka” effect I talked about earlier. Yes you can.

The only remaining question regarding tagging Aspects (and now there’s only one word for using an Aspect, too, which makes so much more sense to me and will facilitate teaching the game) is who gets paid? So try this on for size: tag yourself and pay the pool; tag any non-agent and pay the pool; tag an agent and pay them.

Tagging an enemy’s Consequence? Pay him.

Tagging a friend’s Aspect? Pay him.

Tagging your own? Pay the pool.

Tagging the zone? Pay the pool.

Now we have a mechanism by which fate points should organically zoom around the table. When you’re low you know how to get more. When you see your friend is low, you know how to recharge him (make him awesome!). When you are rich with them, you spend easily.

I think that this isn’t really Fate any more. We should probably rename Aspects, though I expect we will still say “Aspects” around the table. So I don’t know what to do about that, though our culture will have more momentum than the culture of a table new to the game and playing from scratch. So maybe that’s a non-issue.

Fate sure polishes up nice, don’t it?


  1. I feel compelled (lol) to note a couple of things here. First, this is not a dig at a particular designer or a particular game. We all probably do this too much and the obvious target, Evil Hat’s “Dresden Files” game, is likely the least viable target given its broad playtest base. So back off! Second, this is a necessary part of playing and designing at the same time — if you weren’t playing with awesome people you probably would not have the inspiration to design based on their play.

Jul 31 2010

The god of flowers is dead

Soft Horizon

So the last time I posted I laid down a kind of formula for getting back into the swing of things after a campaign has lain dormant a while and the enthusiasm for it has eroded. As evidence that my method works, I offer the actual play report from the session that followed.

We certainly hit all the targets we have for the game, Soft Horizon. We got big, big heroic ideas — regicide, becoming king, death magic, and the death of a god’s avatar. We have criticisms (this is playtest after all) but all good ones. None are of the form “this game sucks” but rather of the form “if we did THIS the tension would be better”. Most notably there are practically zero rule revisions but rather only clarifications, so this game is certainly on track. I mean, it’s derived from FATE, so it kind of starts out on track, but I think the changes in Soft Horizon make a better game than “just” FATE for this kind of epic fantasy.

Certainly the dice curve I talked about before is cool and functional, but dice games are really secondary to this design because, I think, part of what made epic fantasy gaming epic when I was younger was the free-form role-playing and single-roll checks and not the big dice-heavy fights. So we’re concentrating on that and even in a big detailed conflict, the emphasis is on making sense of each step in a big dramatic way. That seems to be working.

One insight we had during play that we didn’t expect, however, is that really big heroes need an assistance mechanism that is outside of the causal chain at the table. That’s opaque, I know. What I mean is that we really need to be careful to avoid what I called “chess douchebaggery” in one context — that temptation to say “you already acted, you can’t go back and change that”.

Because heroes are vastly more awesome than I am or you are, we need a way for them to make fewer mistakes. By this I don’t mean just “they should succeed more”, because actually good heroic stories are mostly about failure. But they are about making bad decisions and grieving over impossible moral and ethical choices, and not about missing your skill check because you forgot to prepare before-hand. I mean unless acting without preparation is one of your fatal heroic flaws of course.

So the mechanism, if you can really call it one, is to demand that players narrate their heroes with a flexible attitude towards the flow of time. I think we often do this anyway in role-playing games, but in Soft Horizon it’s necessary and so we call it out: when facing a bad roll and looking around for Aspects to tag, it is perfectly reasonable to tag a friend’s Aspect with the narration that she would have helped you prepare before-hand in some fashion. As a side-effect of this news flash, we also get the corollary rule (don’t know if it’s obvious to you, but the chain links are clear in my head): it’s also reasonable to ask the player who is assisting to pay for that tag. Ta dah! Now we have an assistance rule that doesn’t require a whole lot of planning before every skill check.

This is important because simple skill checks (you know where during narration it becomes obvious that we should roll for success — just one roll, it’s not a fight or anything) emerge organically. They aren’t usually planned into play and so you just sort of suddenly know you need one. But you are playing characters that are ready for the shit to go down — they don’t forget they have the powers that define them, but players sometimes do. And, further, even though the need for the skill check is immediate from the table perspective, inside the fiction it may still represent a large chunk of time, in which there is space for preparation and execution. Essentially, the time-flow inside the fiction and at the table are totally different, and it’s just kind of cheap to penalize heroic characters for being in the table’s urgent time space.

So here’s permission to play in what I call “around the heroic now”. You don’t need to play in the now. You can play a little before it and a little after it. It’s perfectly acceptable to say (after a failed roll), “Thankfully, this morning Winsome prepared all of the rites including a script for me to read here. I’m tagging his Ceremonies Aspect, ‘I know the right things to do’. And, being as I’m resurrecting him and so he has little choice here, I’d like him to pay the fate point for the tag.”

We are weak and prone to error but our heroes are rather less so. And so cheap little failings of ours should not be reflexively translated up to our heroes. They should NOT fail because we forgot to prepare. They should fail for far more engaging reasons. And they will, so don’t sweat these little things.

I was going to end there but I realized that there’s something else in here and it might be a sacred cow (well, calf, anyway, because it’s a new idol) and I am killing it. Or at least threatening it with a knife. There’s this excellent idea that you shouldn’t roll if failure is boring or stupid. This is a great heuristic, but like all heuristics it is badly applied as a rule sans inspection. And here’s why: when you fail in a FATE game, you have the opportunity to make it succeed by adding narrative based on circumstances and issues and abilities that you have previously declared are important to you. Things you want to be in the story. And so a roll even for something that is uninteresting in failure can become elaborated through forcing success with tagging. And this elaboration can be marvelous — it’s not really a failure avoided, but rather encouragement to elaborate. You’re not being told, “ahah, you are going to fail at this dumb thing so fix it”, but rather “tell more about how you being awesome makes this suddenly difficult situation resolve”. And this can be fun even if it’s just a locked door you have to get through. And the loss of resources is valuable new tension.