May 26 2010

Everyone else is asking so I am answering

What is the FATE system?

This is getting asked all over the place, though most vocally over at and on the FATE mailing list. It’s interesting because the current incarnation of FATE is basically a list of exemplar works that declare themselves to be FATE. This is not actually all that helpful because each tries to bring some new ideas to bear (it’s not fun just applying paint to an old game and calling it new — you want to improve it) and file off stuff from other exemplars that doesn’t work for you. And so the resulting definition of FATE is the intersection of all these exemplars and the intersection is both small and shrinking.

So my declaration is this (and it’s typical B.Murray vaguery): until there’s an official document declaring what FATE v3 is, no one knows what FATE v3 is.

Okay, so now I can tell you what I think it is.

First, FATE v3 is a core resolution mechanism that is not unique to it: fixed measure of competence + fortune + narrative benefit versus target value or opposed roll. The common expression of this, or rather the canonical one as in Spirit of the Century, is Skill + Fudge dice + Aspect invoke/tag. I think it’s fair to say that a game that doesn’t do some variation of this is probably not FATE v3. But lots of games do pretty much this and are certainly not FATE games.

So FATE v3 is also characters with Aspects. And so we need to define Aspects. Characters have Aspects if they have one or more descriptive phrases that can confer mechanical benefit (see “narrative benefit” above) at the cost of a narrative currency: the fate point. And so here I will say that the fate point and therefore the existence of a fate point economy (which at a minimum is used for mechanical benefit) is a FATE v3 requirement. I think that we also need to include the Compel as essential: there has to be a way to get as well as spend fate points.

I think that’s it. Everything else can come and go. Consequences are special Aspects. Stress tracks are completely detachable. Stunts are wildly malleable (as we’ve seen) and don’t need to exist at all. But a game where you roll dice and add skills, then narrate in your features and pay for the result is FATE. A game where you are shilling around for more of these points is also FATE.

Well that means that a good canonical statement of what is necessary to be FATE v3 shouldn’t take more than a half-dozen pages or so. And then six hundred pages of stuff you can glue onto it.

The end result of this is that I don’t know if any of the upcoming VSCA games are going to be FATE games now. Let’s look.

Hollowpoint. Dice pools that owe more to ORE than anything else and no points economy at all. Aspects are their own economy, burned when used. Certainly not FATE.

Soft Horizon. Tricky one because we’re just now thinking hard about changes. Certainly it’s FATE-like — the resolution is skill + dice + aspects, but the dice are in flux (could be |d6 – d6| — see the skunkworks). So far it retains a fate point economy as well, so I’ll call this one FATE on my own terms, but it could be debated.

Soulscape. I don’t know. We need to revisit this design before we know what it is. It is imagined as a pretty straightforward FATE v3 game but that was a long time ago and I think it could benefit from something more deliberately addressing its premises.

Chimaera. This game is, unsurprisingly, the most chimaeric. It uses a cool dice pool mechanism that’s distinctly unFATElike, and uses an Aspects-as-economy system not unlike Hollowpoint rather than a strict fate point economy. It also has some very cool dice-as-record-keeping tools that are fun to manipulate and also very much not FATE. I think we’ll call this “partially inspired by” but to be honest it’s more inspired by the play we got from FATE games than by the games themselves.

I guess that as players and designers we are continuously evolving our games and we don’t feel any particular attachment to whatever the core of FATE is, partially because it hasn’t been clearly stated. And I think that, even if it was, now we’d be as happy to say “it’s not FATE really” as “it’s another FATE game!” I mean, I get that there is a kind of built-in audience for FATE games just as with any other generic identity because there’s a community associated with it even though the definition is nebulous.

Maybe that’s at the heart of it — I would like for FATE to remain poorly defined exactly so that the community remains diverse and open to experiments and hacks. Hacking on it is what got me into design in the first place. It made the VSCA exist. I’d hate to lose that spirit in that community and a rich and rigid definition would risk killing it.

So here’s to FATE: skill + dice + aspects to resolve, and a fate point economy in action all through play. Hah, six pages indeed.


May 5 2010

Not dead yet

Okay, first an explanation.

Yes, there’s not been much here over the past couple of weeks but that’s not because I’ve stopped writing. I had a bout of sinusitis a couple of weeks ago that was crippling. In fact it was painful enough that I started researching the nature of Purgatory through the testimony of Saints. Anyway, this post isn’t going to be about pain or Purgatory or religion. In fact I just started writing so I’m not entirely sure what it’s about yet.

Last week I finally registered VSCA Publishing as a real company. I’d been dreading that almost as much as I was dreading doing taxes (which I left until the eve of April 30th) because I am really not interested in business. It’s a fun kind of game, but I’m just not a business guy. I don’t care if I make money and that seems to offend a lot of people, especially the government. Well maybe not especially the government, but especially the Chamber of Commerce and other similar entities where I might go for help. It’s like explaining calculus to a dog — I just want to make cool stuff and sell it for some money. I want lots of people to see it and I don’t want it to be a burden on the rest of my life to do it. If the net at the end of the day is zero (after buying all the cool tools I need to do the deed), I am so very happy. What you get is a look like a fish watching a shiny thing. Buh? Sha-wuh?

Anyway, what I finally did was go to a web site that does business registration in BC (recommend recommend recommend) and did the whole thing with a very friendly click-click-click process that led me through a questionnaire that hooked me up with all the forms I needed to fill out, guided me regarding the contents, charged me a reasonable fee, and spat out all the registration numbers I need. Done. Holy crap that was easy and I didn’t have to justify my choices to anyone.

So now VSCA Publishing is the real deal — a sole proprietorship owned by me and licensed for import and export and all that good stuff. Most of the acronyms on my new tax forms make sense to me now, so next year I won’t have to guess what numbers to put in them. I may even hire someone to guess for me.

With VSCA Publishing now an honest-to-God registered capitalist Entity, a de jure cog in the great engine, I will disclose the status of current projects.

Chimaera is front and center right now. JB Bell is the primary author on it and it needs some authoring done, but it’s had some great iterative play tests and the rules are coming together solidly. I’ve been doing cover art experiments and layout tests and am confident we have a path to tread here that will be exciting and fun and worth your money. I don’t know how long it will take because the real work is still ahead and while everyone loves to wonder out loud about game design and to test shit, real work is hard. We’ll see.

Soft Horizon is on the back burner because it needs a lot of play to get it to a place where I can confidently talk about producing it. It has a cover and a solid layout design ready, and there’s a lot of text in place. It could go to press in a month or two if not for the fact that it just hasn’t been played enough for me to be confident of its quality. And because Chimaera is our current focus, we won’t see a lot of play time for this for a while. That’s okay — I know from experience that taking a break from a project is a tool.

Hollowpoint is kind of ready and kind of not. It’s a weird game because it’s a major departure from more traditional structures — it’s more akin to Gregor Hutton’s 3:16 than Evil Hat’s Spirit of the Century. It’s a great energetic one-shot and it has good linkages for campaigns and I kind of adore it, but something nags me about it. I’m thinking I should just write it and get it out there for other people to judge. It’s weird and so I don’t want to show it, like a baby with a tail. But having a tail would be really cool. It has a cover and a layout design. I should sit down, gate it, and write it.

Soulscape is in a weird place. It’s Toph Marshall’s baby and I don’t know what I think about it. It’s like one of those cool looking toy puzzles that you just can’t figure out how to play with. It’s cool. It’s elegantly crafted. But what does it do? Is it fun? Is it art? Can I explain it to someone else? I’m not excited about this project but I am intrigued by it. It’s a game you might tag on to another game — you might play it to make sense of a D&D TPK. That’s a mighty narrow niche, but also kind of awesome. In fact, I may have to engineer a TPK in an upcoming game in order to playtest Soulscape. So I can’t say where this game is on the timeline yet because I don’t really know what it is yet. It is something though.

Finally, I am sad because my telescope is rotting in storage. Living in the city is great for so very many things, but not for being an amateur astronomer. The beast is a headache to get outside and I don’t drive so I’m not taking it further than the building courtyard and the light pollution is just too severe. I’ve seen all I can see with it in this space and so it’s in storage. My experience with storage is that it’s just a step en route to the garbage and that makes me unhappy. I can recover my costs by reselling the optics — that’s not an issue. I just wish I could live the life I want in a place where I can see the night sky.


Mar 31 2010

VSCA Q1 2010

Here’s the VSCA sales as of Q1 2010.

Lulu revenue sales

Deluge (digital): 44

Diaspora (digital): 11

Diaspora (hardcover): 541

Diaspora (softcover): 29

RPG Now revenue sales

Deluge (digital): 21 23

Diaspora (digital): 93 98 101

Vendor sales

Diaspora (both bindings): 230


Deluge (digital): 65 67

Diaspora (digital): 104 109 112

Diaspora (physical): 800

Diaspora (all formats): 904 909 912

Deluge was an experiment and not really marketed at all, so its sales are mostly hardcore fans of VSCA and people picking it up because it’s cheap and near Diaspora I expect. Score one for the browsing audiences at RPG Now! Its sales are much higher than I anticipated.

For Diaspora, after the initial surge in August of 2009 at release, we had hoped to see 1000 sales during its first year. That’s a magic number of no particular significance, but it looked like a challenging goal. We figured if we hit that then we could say nice things about ourselves to ourselves. With over 900 revenue sales of Diaspora after only 8 months, this goal looks like it will be handily achieved. When we hit that mark I’ll think about the next goal.

Up next for us I think will be a concerted effort to get Diaspora into IPR affordably (for us), which means printing somewhere else. Along with that will be work on Hollowpoint, Soft Horizon, Chimaera, and Soulscape — and part of that will be prioritizing these to make sure effort goes where there’s the best chance of success. Right now Hollowpoint is closest to done and it’s a little thing, so it will probably get some focus right away and maybe release before summer. The rest I can’t speak to.

Thanks to everyone who has helped us out, and even the criticism from non-fans has been helpful. This industry-cum-hobby has been great fun for me so far as a neophyte.


Dec 7 2009

VSCA in 2010

VSCA has several projects in the R&D cooker right now and it’s not clear which will actually become games for sale, but damned if they don’t all look promising. Now, we got a lot of experience doing Diaspora that can be brought to bear and we really only started taking the project really seriously in the last half-year or so of three, so I think it’s possible for us to produce at least two and maybe four of the projects. Some things we are thinking about as we head towards the new year:

Electronic versions. Because this has been a hot topic over the past couple of weeks and because our position is still undetermined, I won’t belabour this one. I will say, though, that our commitment is as it always has been: we intend to build something we are proud of, tell our customers exactly what it is and what it costs, and deliver what we said we would once the price is paid. That seems to me to be the absolute core of ethical business, and so that’s where we start from. In 2010 we will decide how (and if) we want to proceed with electronic delivery.

Open Gaming License. I really like the OGL. I like the way it makes us make enough content free to be useful as a reference and a guide for further development. I like being obligated to do this. As almost all of our new projects vary enough from the core FATE material that a case could be made that we no longer require the OGL, we’ll be considering whether or not we want to do it anyway. My feeling is that we do — I think customers are well served by it and it lowers the barrier to deriving new work based on ours, which drives us to innovate. That’s good pressure.

Risk-free models. Starting into this endeavour with a risk-free model was very powerful, though leveraged by the fact that our product was very well received — had it been otherwise we would not be in a position to question it. Going forward we will (and already are in very small measure) be considering risks for our new material as we can now risk profits from the sale of Diaspora. For our first quarter sales I decided (even though several authors offered that it was not necessary) to disburse profits rather than hang onto them in anticipation of future expenses. Going forward, we may not do that or we might spend a little more eagerly on risk items — maybe even some real artwork, say. We are happy to be in a position to have something to risk that doesn’t include our finances external to publishing proper.

This also opens up the possibility of pre-print models, which we want to head towards partially anyway because it opens up the capacity to work effectively with IPR and similar distribution channels. It also lets me shop around for printers that can do exactly what I want rather than close enough — little things like choosing endpaper colour in hardcover and selecting a textured matte material for a perfect-bound book are important to me and Lulu will not do them. I also have one project that might benefit from printing in exactly two colours, and I need to pay for the other 16 million if I do that at Lulu. That one might mean a real offset print run.

Less tangentially, we are looking at the following R&D projects right now. None or all might come to fruition. Also for 2010 will be a corrected version of Diaspora. Below I’ve only linked the design pages for Soft Horizon because I don’t know if the primaries for the other two want their design pages announced at this time. Mine’s public reading material though.

Soulscape. Led by C.W. Marshall, this is another game that (like Diaspora) arose from dubious origins and became more concrete over time.

The answers of the philosophers have all been wrong. If the theologians are right, it doesn’t apply to you. Your soul is real, it’s there, and if you want to save it, that’s now your job. You, and those who died with you.

Liberated from your body, liberated from your life, who you are is what you choose. Do you help others, martyr yourself, or seek personal salvation just for yourself?

Soulscape is a role-playing game, designed for short-term play over four or five sessions. It’s not a campaign game – if you can’t get yourself out of purgatory in that time, well, you’re just out of luck. It might be a way to examine the afterlife after a TPK in some other games; guidelines are given for adapting other characters to this system. But Soulscape is different from other RPGs in other ways too. We all like to say it’s about the story, that you can’t win or lose an RPG. Well, Soulscape is about winning and losing. This is your soul we are talking about. It’s about story too, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just about having a good time.

Soft Horizon. Led by me, Brad Murray, this game arose from a comic book I bought, a book I borrowed, and a teenage life that involved a lot of Heavy Metal magazines.

Soft Horizon is a fantasy game, one in which characters cross dimensions, battle gods, earn worlds, and then destroy them. The scale assumes that you start as figures of Epic: somewhere, somewhen, people sing a song about your deeds. Unlike other games, you don’t need to work towards that: character generation starts you there, with everything extraneous stripped away. You are the legend you’ve always wanted to be. Nothing is denied you. You have becomes the incarnation of excellence at something truly extraoridnary. Soft Horizon proceeds to ask what happens next.

As players, you have also made the worlds. Fantasy is not constrained by wizards, dwarves, elves, and Eurocentric knights: the worlds you create can be truly fantastical, where imagination need not make rational sense to find purchase.

And even with all this power, both as payers and as characters, you will find there are obligations: to yourself, to each other, and to the worlds you have created. It’s not easy to be this awesome, but somehow you will manage. Your duty controls your adventure, bringing you across the universe to discover who you are, and why you choose to cross the soft horizon.

Chimaera. Led by J.B. Bell, this is our most divergent project. It’s been busy in J.B.’s brain for a long time now and has already seen many incarnations. Lately it’s been starting to gel, though, into something with both direction and novelty.

In Chimaera, you play people struggling against the tyranny of the Daemons and the chaos of the wild and its ferocious, constant mutation. The human past is remembered in fragments, scattered in caches across the globe and in fragile threads of human memory. Can you rebuild what once was? Or will you make something new? Is the past what it seems, and are you?

All those titles are working titles — this is all a window on R&D and not production — and so anything could change over the next while. 2010 looks, if nothing else, busy. We are going to have to play a lot of games in order to bring even one of those out, but we are committed to doing exactly that kind of work: play.