Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 4: Education in Indi Games and Podcasts

Circa 2013


While I had taken a hiatus that lasted roughly one year off of gaming in general, I had a lot to consider. My life had changed, I had a new job, and I had a new group of friends. Ultimately, so much was fundamentally different about my life that gaming simply took a back seat.

And it wasn’t that I didn’t still like it or want to prioritize it, but I had always imagined that life would take precedent over anything gaming related; that I would stop being so obsessed with role playing if my life ever careened away from the bachelor path. That simple fact seemed to keep me sane through the wild abandon that I had shown in my youth.

As wild as reading books can be, that is.

Ultimately, I had slowed down, and taken stock of my life. I had no uncontrolled urge to  pad my ego or revisit the spring of my youth; rather, it was a time for reflection and re-calibration. I was a new person, sloughing off many of my old ways like so much dead skin. While role playing was marginalized in this yearlong period, I had ultimately yearned to return to it.

While this had ultimately manifested in a fungus like growth that urged me to continue writing. Part of this apotheosis was manifested by my heavy reading of Pathfinder books due to my mistaken hope that the elven royalty campaign in which I had been playing might resume. My research of the Pathfinder setting had me fall in love with the way that Paizo produces material, and gave me inspiration to do the same.

At the same time, I had still been stinging from being done with Exalted, and sought to create a system that facilitated the telling of a story. That ongoing attempt is a pet project of mine that falls squarely into the indie gaming zone, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a lot to learn about the methodology behind such an undertaking.

What I had done was to start listening to podcasts.

The irony here is that I hate the words “blog” and “podcast”, as they are a blight on the English language, but that’s another topic altogether.

I have been happy to find a number of podcasts that continue to give me an insight into the industry. RPG Design Panel Cast is a very impressive podcast for those of you that are interested, but others such as Gamers Tavern or The Tome Show are great for presenting the voice of the industry in a relatively personal and digestible level.

The interesting element to all of this is that I had, until that point, been insulated from games that didn’t come to me from friends or that I liked on sight. These podcasts started to introduce me to such games as Fiasco, Savage Worlds, Apocalypse World et al., and Dogs in the Vineyard.

I had always cast a critical eye to the very foundation of a game’s design. Why do orcs drop gold? Why should a failed skill check ruin the fun? What does epic even mean? But what I had now was a much needed dose of wisdom that came from people who were experts at what I was merely grasping. I had a framework that compelled me to stand on the shoulders of those giants to reach for something greater than myself.

Like a literary 8-bit boss.

These instructional podcasts helped me adjust my thinking, especially as I enter a new phase in my life. I find myself introducing my children to role playing with some care and attention, thanks to what I’ve learned. I design games not as an acerbic bachelor that growls on message boards, but as a father and an educator that wants to see what games can do for the mind.

At the same time, I find myself finally receiving an education in game writing that isn’t insular. Best of all, they are being published legitimately. I am lucky to have a bevy of people and a community that is supportive that may actually help me see my hopes to fruition, but I will talk more about that in the weeks to come.

Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 3- Elven Wizard Prince


What had drawn me to Pathfinder was my wish to start a new game with my favorite GM, whom decided to give the relatively new Pathfinder system a try. In our game, the Obsidian Portal entry of which I may link to later, we all played as the children of elven royalty. I was initially hoping that we would get to play a World of Darkness game, but I was willing to try, as I had not stretched my wizard muscle in quite a while.

Houdini Showing How To Escape Handcuffs
I’m pretty sure that a pulled wizard muscle was Houdini’s downfall.

I retook to wizardry quickly, creating a character that, while not optimized per se*, was prominent in both personality and potence. My Elven Wizard, Lorathorn, had saved the group from a few tight spots, and at times with only his wits and planning. He would go on to be king of an elven nation (thus the name of the blog), and make hard decisions that rankled his many siblings. I loved this game, and it resparked my hitherto latent interest in a system that I had largely turned my back on for its “lack of storytelling potential” ** Ultimately, what I had come to crave were these complexities that I had long spurned. The difference now was that there was a system that was more adequately geared to accommodate such complexities without the pretense of being “realistic” or what have you***.

Now, I had heard virtually nothing of Pathfinder outside of my tangential brush with Paizo through Dragon Magazine, thanks to a miniature promotion that appealed to my  interest in collectible figurines. Through that portal, I knew that Dragon and Dungeon were soon ending, and that the company would roll out a new magazine. I would refer you specifically to their blog entries beginning here.

While I had my fill of D&D some time in 09, thanks to a somewhat turbulent and unwelcoming campaign, I had been away long enough to yearn for the complications and puzzle-like mechanisms that could link to form potent rule combinations. Pathfinder, as it happened, was even more fiddly in terms of complex interlocking rules, but with a somewhat more unified approach than Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition (et al.) had been able to offer. This unity is what line developers do, and in Pathfinder it was done well.

I like how intricate Pathfinder system is. I can’t say that the experience is for everyone, given how popular 4th edition D&D ultimately was (feel free to challenge me on this), but Paizo and it’s Pathfinder game occupy a space in the role playing panoply that caters to this need for intricacy.

Like a rubik’s cube of violence and adventure.

I say this because here I find myself, waist deep into my renewed interest in writing in a (somewhat) more professional capacity, and coming to terms with my strengths and weaknesses. I love the crunch and interlocking methodology of D20 and it’s component offshoots, but my passion has (and ever shall be) with prose writing, as I prove here. Wherever my strengths may lie, I would have to use the mirror of community, both for self reflection and to understand an audience with whom I had not yet been acquainted.

It bears mentioning that Pathfinder has been very kind to me. The only thing stopping me from involvement with the community at large was my frictious time spent delving into the other groups, which had left me trepidatious to the prospect of trying again.  From the time I started playing as Lorathorn in 2010, it took me nearly 5 years to finally get the nerve to initiate contact, which I did by entering the 2015 RPG Superstar contest at Paizo.

And while my entry was not stellar****, it did help me take a step in the right direction. I have since initiated contact with a number of great people that have dispensed invaluable advice and wisdom regarding topics from proper formatting of statistical blocks to the philosophy on rules balancing. While all of this contains my experiences with Pathfinder, I have also been listening to a steady stream of podcasts that have filled my head with ideas from independent role playing games, a subject about which I will discuss next week.

* I rather dislike optimization as a rule. I don’t mind maximizing your potential as one would, but following rote templates takes the fun of discovery and adventure from developing a character. It’d be like playing a game of Magic: the Gathering with a deck made by someone else, thus robbing you of the pride of architecture. [Achievement unlocked: paragraph footnote]
** Powerful storytelling can be done with any role playing system, but a system can tend to pick a GM, as it were.
*** See part 2.
**** I seem to do poorly at contests, it seems

Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 2

Circa 2004- 

So, now I had learned about Exalted. It was a slow boiling love that would one day culminate  into a pitched fever, though it started out lukewarm. My favorite GM introduced out group to  it, and we were all reluctant. Our first game might have lasted about 3 sessions, not including  the tedious first time character creation. We were all new to it, and we hadn’t jelled to the thematic just yet, but all the same, it took us that first bit of stumbling to see what the  game could be, and to shake off the dust of standard fantasy gaming and realize the potential  of a gonzo mythical setting.

Much as with all things, I threw myself into Exalted headlong once I saw that it was more than  just a repainted fantasy setting. It was a dynamic, exciting and organic world that was still  growing out of the heads of people who had inherited it from the original authors. Those  initial authors had at first seen it as a prequel of sorts to the World of Darkness at large, and thought to treat it as a Hyborian Age style survival conflict epic; a more bare and honest treatment of their current lines. Similar to Systems Failure*, the premise  was changed for the better, and the result was phenomenal.

What could not be predicted was the way in which Exalted evolved from a primitive survival  drama into a fantastic animistic epic of mythic proportions. And neither could they have  controlled the colossal scope that sprung from a fertile concept that begged to grow into  absurd proportions. Every encouragement was there to simply cause the setting to burst into a  myriad of wonderful directions. This did not always happen**, but Exalted did its best to  self-correct towards its disastrously gonzo path.

As gonzo is given to do.

This having been said, I was at the margins of the community for quite a while. I had done some  time at the first iteration of the Exalted Compendium, which did a good job of attracting some  of the more corrosive personalities attached to Exalted at large. There were also side projects  and contests in which I participated, but a lump sum of my involvement saw fruit in the official White Wolf forums. From here I made friends and enemies through the naturally socio-anthropological discussions that were (and likely still are) inseparable from the zeitgeist of  the Exalted community.

That having been said, I was a fairly polarizing individual within the community, as I had been  in the Palladium Books forums as well. However, while I held a position of infamy within the  Palladium forums, the actual creative minds behind the books were less involved with the fan  base. Through the development of Exalted into its current iteration, the fan base and the creative teams were so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.

And perhaps I am wrong, but I will state my opinion without hesitation; I believe that the  creative team behind Exalted suffered for being so close to its fan base. I was too close to  see it then, but I can look back clearly to several events that intensified the metamorphosis  of Exalted. The game switched subtly from being a very vibrant setting about greatness and  tragedy, to being an abstracted thought exercise about trans-humanist philosophy and moral  relativism.

I’m not going to name names, but…

Where once you could expect to play an analogue of Alexander the Great or Hercules, the  expectation shifted into a navel gazing exercise that favored ambiguity over excitement. This  is not at all a bad space to explore in role-playing games, but the fundamental alteration had  forced the game to surrender its identity.

Worse still, there was a surging and eminently vocal portion of the fan-base that espoused the  need for the rules to be “realistic”, a term that I maintain was not understood at all by this  subset. I’ll humor the concept for sake of fairness.

In brief: if there was a way to win the game through a combination of abilities and powers, it  was unrealistic for anyone NOT to immediately secure these combinations, even if that skewed  the balance of the game towards a resource-grubbing tedium.

It was perhaps one of the most  baffling instances of meta-gaming I had ever seen, at once favoring the realism over meta-game,  but also wielding the meta-game unfairly against the game itself.

This poisonous perspective wrought much havoc throughout the community. On the one hand, some  aspects of the realism stance were valid. For instance, characters could accrue so much  experience that optimization was inevitable. Higher level play tended towards insurmountable  defenses that could last until one side was exhausted of energy points. This was not ok, but it  represented only a segment of play. What this “faction” accomplished was to take the problems  on the back-end, and convinced people to apply them universally.

Here a committee is hard at work to ruin it for everyone.

In short, a game that was at least functional 70% of the time now became non-functioning 100%  of the time. There was a great call for the game to be fixed, but each successive fix was  informed by the same group that cleaved to some twisted sense of realism in a game about  glowing godlings. For that reason, the fixes were flawed in the extreme, as the collective  community fragmented further.

The game’s philosophy and underlying mechanics were so warped that it undermined the very  experience of playing the game. The change came late for the poor majority that was not plugged  in to the strange commune-like atmosphere that decided what was best for those who didn’t speak  or know to be informed, in an almost eerie Orwellian way. And while I might have been initially  fooled by some of these changes, I soon began to do what I could to counter the worst of the  assertions, only to be challenged or ignored by the actual staff in charge of the game line. I  quickly realized that the fight was neither winnable, nor legitimately mine. The game that I  loved was lost in a procession of egos.

I could still play MY Exalted, even if it was considered “wrong” (a concept that rankles me to  this day). No one could take from me the vision of the game to which I held. Conversely, the  true tragedy was that organic nature that initially propelled Exalted was now its undoing. Some  could blame the merger between White Wolf and CCP, but the writing on the wall was evident that  Exalted was being upended by its fanbase.

I shall appropriate Ibsen for my indignation.

Even though I had written for Exalted in an extremely limited capacity***, nothing came of it. As a freelance writer, this would be a time of dearth and unrealized potential. Though I  painfully learned many valuable lessons, my writing was stunted. I had written campaign notes, but I  wrote very little that I could consider professional or polished. Crushed as I was by my prior  freelancing experience, Exalted was at once the balm and bane to my creativity.

I’m aware that there is a new edition. I’m not interested in the slightest. The  new architects are the very people who had, in some way or another, sent Exalted careening into a direction from which it can hardly be recovered.

Though the game had really consumed nearly 8 years of my attention, it was not the only game  that I read or played. In the between times, I played an ample amount of Rifts, Heavy Gear  (Dream Pod 9), Dungeons and Dragons, and even Pathfinder. And from the otherwise badly apportioned time taken by Exalted, a number of events would change my perspective for the better.

I was starting to fall in love with Pathfinder, and more importantly, I met and married the  love of my life. Both of these events would spur my muse to consider two important decisions.  First, I needed to write, and be published, even if it was primarily to sharpen my skill.  In the next post, I will discuss the details of these endeavors.

* See part 1

** see Exalted: the Lunars, first edition

*** I never got credited, and I probably can’t give details as such, but I did.

Across the Screen #5 Party Building

Not a lot of cohesion going on in this picture.

One of the most neglected issues within the process of starting a campaign, it seems, is the formation of the group. While some groups appear to have a penchant for creating each character in a relative vacuum, this can very easily lead to problems down the line.

As I mentioned in Across the Screen #0, having a “session 0” is very important, and that session can and should include character creation for everyone. In terms of a D&D type game (settings and systems may vary), there is very little reason to be duplicitous about your character and their abilities.

I have seen numerous characters seek to hide aspects of their characters. This occurs with varying alignments, but tending towards the rogue class. Players often do this to “steal from others” with impunity, or at least with less scrutiny than if they were known to be sneaky types. This kind of approach is difficult at best, as it forces all players to maintain an anonymity about their characters and capabilities.

Here is the brass tacks: You are playing a game that hinges on creativity, cooperation, and more than a little luck to carry you through dangerous encounters. You don’t need to kneecap you or your party by trying to be greedy about loot distribution, nor should you impose an unnecessary inter-party conflict because you want to be able to dupe the other characters, and, by extension, other players.

And listen, there is a time and a place for that. Play Fiasco. Play Wraith: the Oblivion. Play a board game. Or be on board with everyone and play a fantastic campaign that relies on storytelling more than rules. Better yet, play some hack and slash computer game that will probably satisfy your need to loot and plunder. But don’t set out to cheat people in D&D. There is absolutely no reason to do that in the default game of D&D.

But I digress. There are other reasons to build your characters together, though. There is more synergy and enjoyment when you can riff off of and work alongside your fellow players, as well as the GM to create a group that isn’t just a bundle of strangers that are at a tavern at the same time. I can guarantee you that you will have a better time, work more cohesively, and better understand what your group can collectively do.

I defy anyone who approaches the game from a “I am going to hide a trick up my sleeve by creating my character in secret” to give me one good reason that it benefits anyone within the scope of the game, including yourself. Ask yourself, what do you gain by trying to keep a trick to use against your fellow adventurers, or sillier yet, the effective god of the shared reality. Really think about what you stand to gain by doing that, and consider the benefits of sharing and growing together, as the game tends to encourage.

Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but ask yourself how cohesive your group is before coming to any conclusions.

Adventures in RPG Freelancing Part 1

When I started writing role playing material circa 1999, it was on a lark. Really, I had already been compiling my own gaming notes for a lame web page that I had assembled hastily so that I could share my equally lame ideas with the internet.

The important part of the equation is that I was part of a community. I felt the need to share, just as I do today. As important as a release schedule is to the lifespan of a game line, so too must the collaboration among its actors work to infuse it with both new members and creative energy.

So as goofy as my attempts were, they were welcomed and lauded. I was heartily engrossed with the little known game of Systems Failure, and I had decided to detail the exploits of the game that I had been running. Those exploits were seen fit for publication in Rifter issue 12. I even own the original art prints from the article, graciously offered to me by the article’s artist.

While I still cringe a bit as I read the article with more than 15 years of wisdom as a filter, I can still appreciate my own diligence. Here was a complete portion of supplementary information, and perhaps a blueprint of what a post-apocalyptic bug fighting chronicle could be. In my idealism I had created an alternative to the default of gritty survival and abject conflict. It did not invalidate the default, but rather appended to its thematic in a way not unlike the suggestions near the back of the book for blending the setting with other genres.

And while the Systems Failure game line is sadly as dead as “Street Fighter: The Storyteller Game”*, it remains near and dear to my heart. If my work was appreciated in only small measures, I still pride myself in having been a part of it. It taught me that I could become a part of the gaming zeitgeist if I really tried, something that I’ve done on and off for the last 15 years.

Ultimately, it is my desire to internalize a game and its component parts, to really understand and appreciate the product as a whole that drives me to demonstrate that understanding. Systems Failure went from being a survival nut/millennial crisis pastiche of jokes to instead explore a deeper subtext of freedom and existential survival. This was what excited me, and this is what I wanted to be a part of.

So as I moved on from Palladium Books** in 2001, I hitched my wagon to the next most interesting thing, and became ensconced in the world of anime role playing. The sadly defunct Guardians of the Order was just starting to produce licensed anime products, precipitating a meteoric rise, and really espousing the then burgeoning world of blended nerdiness. It took two things that I loved and put them together, even if it didn’t come out exactly right***.

Somewhere along the way I ran into Seraphim Guard and their flagship book, Heart Quest,and was conscripted to write for said book. Seraphim guard was, at the time, looking to fulfill a still unrequited need for anime role playing that wasn’t just hi-jinks and explosions. Guardians of the Order themselves sort of beat them to the punch with their own book, though neither really got any attention. For a very long time, my most prominent writing credits were for Heart Quest. I wrote their “Magical Girl”, “Historical Romance” sections.

Sadly, they used an earlier draft that was still full of errors, but I was still proud of my work, by which I stand even today. Though I am not sure, I believe that the same bungled draft was reprinted in the 2nd edition (or a diceless edition, it’s hard to say) without any further input from me, which brings me to the next event. Seraphim Guard had sadly been some sort of weird ponzi scheme that was divided and sold into three separate entities. Seraphim Guard still exists, in a sense, but the rights to publish Heart Quest were then sold down a river to another company, and yet another game that was to be part of the line was sold to a third company.

At the time, I was in talks to develop an entire setting for Heart Quest, which I had been doing with aplomb until I came to understand that my new bosses (spread across three companies) were ambivalent and hard at work scattering the hard work of myself and other authors to the wind.

I had tried in vain to understand the new delineation, and to present the work I had done to that point. I had hoped to salvage some semblance of interest in my projects, but it was to no avail.**** Suffice to say, I had poured my heart into a whole lot of nothing, and it was a hard pill to swallow. Connections that I had built had nearly vanished overnight, and I was unsure of what to do. So I did what I do when a setback occurs; I ruminated. I may have been defeated, but I also learned from the experience.

Eventually, my attentions turned to a new source of interest. I had been introduced to Exalted. I will continue on with my musings as a middling freelancer next week for part 2 of my series.

*I always predicted that there could have been a Darkstalkers supplement that begged to be part of the World of Darkness. Alas…
** A long story.
*** Part of the problem for Guardians of the Order is that there was not enough role playing design experience to provide a solid foundation for the decidedly fun books they had published. This is likely to be a topic for a future blog post.
**** This was in the early days of self-publishing, at a time when I hadn’t conceived of doing it all myself. Had this event occurred today, I might have taken those lemons and turned them into lemonade as I am doing now.

Apathy Virus

This cartoon is not about apathy, but it can cause apathy.

I had considered making a monster entry for today, but I thought that I would instead go for something a little more frightening. Like a zombie menace, there are some existential threats that can’t just be cut down by a sword.

Apathy Virus

The apathy virus is an insidious diseases that is spread subtly, laying low entire populations. What it does not do, however, is directly kill the infected, but instead causes them to lack the will to live or thrive. The virus may originate from many sources, up to and including sadistic death cults, apocalyptic horsemen, and aggressive biological weapons engineers.

The worst part of this virus is that it can spread quickly due to it not being immediately lethal, and having a very long incubation time. Worse yet, many of the symptoms are not readily recognized as being signs of infection. Within one week of infection, victims suffer from a mild depression and lack of energy. After approximately two weeks of being infected, victims begin having a lack of appetite, and sink deeper into depression.

In the final stages of the disease, victims merely lay about waiting to starve to death, and are not easily roused or woken. Approximately 10% of the victims simply fall into a coma, while 85% simply die of starvation. This process will destroy a given population center within a handful of months, bringing the collective society to a halt.

A mere 5% of infected are able to function in an almost zombie-like state, attempting to survive with as little exertion as possible. These “survivors” will often die due to predation, accidents, or simply not being able to feed or care for themselves, sometimes contracting other diseases due to lack of hygiene. So called survivors are also likely to continue spreading the disease, often living long enough for ill-fated rescuers to discover them and become infected.

If caught soon enough, the disease can be quarantined and controlled. The cure, interestingly enough, is overwhelming happiness. Some magics are effective at creating positive emotions, and thus remove the infection. More mundane attempts to combat the virus have sometimes relied on opiates and liquor heavy festivals.

Given time, the disease will die out with its infected victims. When properly treated, victims can recover within a day.

5e Statistics: The apathy virus is airborn, and spread by exposure to an infected individual. Exposed individuals must make a DC 11 Constitution saving throw, becoming infected on a failure.

Once infected, symptoms develop within 4+1d4 days. Symptoms manifest as levels of exhaustion; when the symptoms have manifested, the creature must make a Charisma saving throw after each long rest. On a failure, the creature gains a level of exhaustion. This exhaustion is not physical, but has the same penalties tied to it.

These exhaustion levels can only be removed by magic, or by experiencing great joy. This joy can be reuniting with a loved one, or hearing a beautiful song. Not all joy is created equal; some joy can remove all levels of exhaustion, while some are small enough to remove only one or none at all. Once all levels of exhaustion have been removed, or if joy is felt during the incubation period, then the disease is expelled, and the creature is inoculated to the disease.

It should be noted that this disease may affect only a certain race, may or may not include animals, and can vary in its intensity or length of incubation. Some creatures may or may not have a natural immunity to this virus, perhaps as many as 10% of the population. If the creators of the virus are especially cruel, these immune may or may not function as carriers.

Adventure Seed: The adventurers come upon a city of dying city. The few functioning survivors are at a loss for what to do, and ask the players to help while also warning them to stay away. The city stands as a bulwark against a great danger (perhaps an orc tribe), and its loss would devastate the region. The players must first research the nature of the disease, keep it from spreading outside of the city, and discover a functional cure for the abundance of infected people, all while trying not to contract it themselves.

Across the Screen #4: Communication

Telegraph your GM today!

I have been around the role playing community long enough to know that one of the primary obstacles to a good cohesive campaign is a lack of communication. Time, of course, is the real death of countless campaigns, but I can’t change time, so we’ll focus on communication.

What problems can come from lack of communication? Plenty. Are you feeling left out as a player? Are you feeling overwhelmed as a GM? Is something about the campaign not meshing? Like in any group setting, small problems grow in the dark. Feeling slighted or stressed doesn’t always go away on its own, and a simple misunderstanding can be exacerbated substantially by time and silence.

Surely as role players, you have all had times where you have felt marginalized, unappreciated, or at the very least frustrated by the action of inaction of others; that feeling is completely natural. For many introverts that flock to the hobby (and perhaps some socially conscious extroverts), our instinctual reactions are also natural, though not especially helpful. We insulate ourselves, and stew on perceived slights.

So how do we fix this? Is the GM being fair with combats? Why can’t the group go west when the GM wants them to go East? What is wrong with stealing that paladin’s magic sword if he is just a figure head?

These are all examples of issues that I can and will discuss in future editions of Across the Screen, but for now know that they don’t have to result in a ruined campaign or even a bad session. Make sure that you speak frankly with each other about issues or misconceptions that might arise during play.

Now, this isn’t always easy, but the more you can work on keeping an open discussion (especially after or between sessions), the more harmonious things can be. Remember, no one knows you have an issue until you bring it up. Finally, if you aren’t comfortable or even confident that discussion can solve your problem, it might be time to rethink the group dynamics. Sadly, this is a harder issue to solve, but sometimes it is necessary to address. More on that further down the road.

For now, I leave you with the following advice. The game is meant to be played and enjoyed. If you are a GM, you have a duty to be inclusive and fair. If you are a player, you have a less realized duty to bolster the GM with good character choices and participation. Both of these things are easier when you communicate with your GM. Talk between sessions, ask for information and advice, and make sure that all participants are having fun. It only takes a bit of discussion to dispel most misunderstandings.

Next week, we will discuss the very important decisions that are made at character creation, and why it is probably better to make your character at the same time as everyone else, if able.