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

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.

Fiendish Friday: Katsuhiko Jinnai


This might seem weird, but I’m going to dip back into my anime roots to discuss what makes a good villain. And let us not get confused; a good villain is not necessarily a successful villain or a powerful one. Rather, a good villain (by my reckoning) is one that evokes villainy, feels fully (or at least mostly) defined, and is dynamic.

But I won’t beat you with buzzwords. Rather, let me show you by example.

El Hazard was a relatively underrated show that didn’t get much traction outside of being the cousin to a much more popular Tenchi Muyo. What El Hazard had going for it was far more action and excitement*, a better setting**, and arguably a better protagonist***. What is not up for debate is that El Hazard had numerous antagonists that stole the show compared to most other anime, to say nothing of Tenchi Muyo and its relative lack of quality antagonists****.

But I digress. Katsuhiko Jinnai is basically a high school student rival to the high school student protagonist. Outside of the ability to communicate with bugs (depending on the El Hazard variant universe), Jinnai doesn’t necessarily have any special innate abilities. In a world where people can bend elements (before it was cool), control ancient and potent technology, or just be big and/or strong, Jinnai was merely smart, and ambitious.

It’s quite clear that Jinnai is a megalomaniac with a napoleon complex. There is nothing especially ground-breaking about his motivations or demeanor, but his methods are impressive. He whips an army of bugmen into shape, convinces their queen to make him a general, and takes great sweeping risks for big payoffs; all for the sake of rubbing his success in the face of the protagonist.

His carman-esque level of dedication to his villainous craft is admirable. He smacks of some kind of character from Edgar Rice Burroughs or even Robert E. Howard; larger than life, commanding, outrageously bombastic, but somehow fun and enjoyable. His trademark cackle and sneer make him almost more cartoon than cartoon, but somewhere along the line you accept him as ridiculous but necessary to the otherwise somber presentation of the fantastical fantasy setting.

But as I’m almost at 500 words, counting footnotes, I’ll let you just go and watch El Hazard. The original OVA is short (7 episodes), but the episodes are a full 30-45 minutes. It’s a fun watch if you get the chance. Just… avoid El Hazard 2. It’s just not a good sequel.*****

Warning: Extreme Anime Nerdiness Ahead!
*Seriously, more fight scenes per capita than Tenchi Muyo.
** A somewhat pulpy “transported to fantasy arabia” setting rocks compared to the “Japan and sometimes empty space” settings initially explored in Tenchi Muyo.
*** Makoto beats Tenchi hands down. He’s smarter, has more of a personality, and just DOES more things. He even seems to have will and motivation. Ack, that’s another post altogether though.
****Outside of Kagato Tenchi had very few good villains. Dr Clay? Give me Dr Clayton Forester any day! But even outside of Jinnai, there was the Bugrom Queen (who probably should have seen more play), the weird blue skinned people with an axe to grind, and the spectre of ancient and dangerous technology that made things interesting.
***** El Hazard: The Wanderers is fine. I keep meaning to watch El Hazard: Alternative World, and thus have no opinion on it.

Topical Tuesday: Who Do You Write For?

When it comes to role playing (and other games, presumably), every piece of writing is aimed at a particular audience. However, we don’t really consider who those audiences are. Writers have largely internalized the precepts of gaming to such a degree that they give nary a thought to who and why.

When you stop to consider the nature of the game at large, it is clear that there is a strata that delineates the distinct audiences of gaming. Most role playing manuals cater to two; the player and the game master*. The secret third category is for the game designer is a third that has always been a tricky target. This often folds into game master, for what is a game master but a co-designer of a very specific game?

But the interesting aspect of this dichotomy (trichotomy?) is the stratification of the categories. There are players who will never game master. All game masters are players, whether they care to admit it or not. I’m not sure that I’ve met a game developer that wasn’t also a game master, but I’d be inclined to say that it is rare. Typically, you don’t simply go from one category to the other, but rather they are cumulative.

So how do you write for each, or any combination? This has been the conundrum of the industry for awhile. What sourcebook will reach the largest audience? What gaps need to be filled? Do you want to lay out the tools for your system so that others can tweak them, or are you more interested in writing adventures that make the work easy? There are no wrong answers, since the field is so wide, but attempting to target any or all of the categories (player, GM, designer) is the more difficult task.

And while I can offer no definitive advice, I can only tell you that it is important to understand that the distinction exists, for various reasons. Players will enjoy things differently than game masters will. This is especially critical when designing monsters. A game master may enjoy a nasty baddie, while players may not necessarily like the thing that sucks levels and leaves no treasure. Again, it’s a fine line to tow.

So why have I said all of this? It’s an idle musing perhaps, until I can figure out something more definitive, but I invite you to chew on the ideas with me.

P.S. Finally! A post under 500 words! Stat blocks are wordy…

*… storyteller, referee, or what have you.

Fiendish Friday: How to Make a Villain Stand Out

Starship Troopers

So, Fridays will likely be for big bads. That is to say, rather than some monster that you might run into in droves, this segment focuses on villains, boss monsters, and motivations for said forces of evil.

Today it is about the creation of a memorable villain. No matter what, we as GM ALWAYS struggle with making a cool villain that is worthy of the party; for what defines a group’s awesomeness and heroic nature better than a villain of commensurate dastardliness?

Take for example a villain that I employed in a Rifts campaign. I was running a game that paralleled the then big plot push that went with Siege on Tolkeen.* I was running two games in tandem for both sides of the war. Today I will focus on one side, being the military based campaign of Coalition States soldiers** fighting against a wizard city-state.

But the villain here wasn’t a wizard war band nor a marauding elemental. It was racism.

The Coalition States modus operandi was largely predicated on the superiority of humans, despite a lot of contradictions***. But the players weren’t fighting racism in the traditional sense. Rather, they faced it through tough choices made in the field as they decided how to act on their orders; Orders given by a commanding officer by the name of Captain Mauler.

Mauler was the embodiment of their struggle with racism. Did they give in and follow orders to the letter, or let their decency shine through and break ranks? It made for an interesting campaign, with a lot of poignant moments and choices.

And rather than posting stats for Mauler****, I’d rather talk about how I made him stand out. He had stark white hair, and wore a chiseled scowl. He was calm in a way that was unnerving, like a stalking jungle cat. Everything about him was severe, embodying his inability to yield to a point of view, with echoes of Captain Beaty from Farenheit 451*****.

If you have a villain, sometimes it is best to have him be inaccessible but prominent. It could be a magistrate that interacts with the players early only to seek revenge for a perceived crime spree that they didn’t really commit. It could be a dragon that masquerades as a human, spurned by some social interaction and driven to follow the group closely before a fateful encounter.

But above all, the presentation needs to be definitive. A good villain needs style, motivation, and purpose. Without any one of those things, the villain falls flat as just another obstacle. But with all three of those elements, you face a villain that not only challenges your players, but the themes of the story as well.

What convictions drive a man to excel at brutality against non-humans? Can he be convinced to see a different way? If not, what do you as a soldier do to reconcile his egregious nature with your desperate grip on morality? Alternately, what might you do if you fall in line with his sensibilities?

A good villain begs questions like this.******

*If you care.
**Basically, the “federation” from the Starship Troopers, including the psychic elements.
***Such as “employing” mutant dogs and psychic mutants.
**** It would be kind of pointless.
***** Though I had yet read it.
****** On a somewhat related note: Kekfa > Sephiroth.

Monday Mayhem: Extreme Weather

Real World Extreme Weather

Weather tends to be an afterthought for most games. Usually, it is showcased as some feature of the terrain, such as a desert that has frequent sandstorms, or a polar region so cold that you have to be equipped for it. If these things are not in themselves self-evident, then weather is largely ignored.

And I’m not suddenly advocating that you become a meteorologist as part of your session prep, but rather that you SHOULD focus on the extremes. More extreme than polar cold, more dangerous than being caught in a sandstorm.

I recall Final Fantasy 10 having a segment in it in which you had to cross a region so beset with lightning that you could potentially get struck dozens of times while crossing it. While this may seem a bit odd, that is the kind of adventure design that sticks in the head of the player. Though I admit, the even stranger “dodge 100 lightning strikes in a row” mini game might also have contributed to its remarkability.

But I digress. Fantasy games have a special leeway in presenting extraordinary weather that may seem outlandish. If the link above is any indication, Earth has its own extraordinary weather patterns. Shoot for the moon with your weird weather!

Let’s try this…

Sentient Tornado-
On the eastern plains of Selna there exist a great number of oddities that dot the map, pronounced all the more against the otherwise featureless plains. Among those oddities is the Walking Wind, a legend of a sentient tornado that stalks the plains with some bizarre agenda. Though many dismiss the stories as superstitious nonsense, and cite the tornado seasons seen on other continents, many claim to have seen the tornado at all times of the year, moving to and fro as if by determination.

The legends claim that it chases after treasure hunters, and that it guards the opening to ancient crypts and vaults. The only definitive text on the matter is the journal of Andrew Hunt, an explorer and researcher that set out to verify the nature of the tornado. His accounts detail a strange and careful study of the alleged tornado, having observed it carefully for over two weeks. Hunt was never able to present his findings; his tattered journal was all that remains of him.

The Jhorrund, perhaps the only people that can speak of the tornado with any authority claim that it is an ancient nature spirit that has become angry, and would see its territory scoured of all humanoid life. Whatever the truth may be, the tornado (or tornadoes) continue to claim the lives of those foolish enough to enter the area.

The Walking Wind is a tornado, and an extreme weather effect that targets any biped traveling along a stretch of territory approximately 200 square miles. The tornado travels at roughly 50 miles per hour, or 250 ft per round. Anyone caught within 200 ft of the tornado is pulled up in the air, and thrown a great distance in a random direction. Assume 15d6 falling damage whenever they land.

The tornado will always throw its victims away from its territory, at times whipping victims as far as 10 miles away. Anyone that has the ability to fly, hover, glide, or slowfall is not subject to this damage, but is still thrown for the entire distance as determined by the game master. The Walking Wind is known to try and scare people from its territory, moving slowly to warn intruders before advancing menacingly.

The Walking Wind is considered to have a strength score of 50 for the purposes of pushing and moving creatures. Although it is a sentient weather hazard, it does not have hit points, and can only be temporarily dispelled by powerful weather control magics. A wish or miracle may dispel it permanently, but the tornado exists as a powerful runic curse, and as such may be subject to a specific condition that will finally quell the Walking Wind for good. Obscure legends tell that it’s rune is carved somewhere along the plains, and that dispelling that rune may be the key to quelling the strange tornado.

(Ok, that’s over 600 words, so sue me)