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

Circa 2013

Empty_book

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.

Nevins_Library_First_Librarians
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.

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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.

Castlevania_Boss_Frankenstein
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

Kyonin

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.

Rubik's_Cube_variants
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.

gonzo
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.

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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.

Chairman_Dies_of_House_Committee_investigating_Un-American_activities
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.

Henrik_Ibsen_by_Gustav_Borgen_NFB-19778_restored
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.

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.

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.

Good News Everyone! I’m Published!

goodnews

So I finally have my name in print! … again. Well, you see, I’ve been published before, and though that almost doesn’t even count, I’m glad to be back in the game. So what did I write?

Have a look here.

It’s a short but awesome product about occult rituals in 5th edition. I’m quite fascinated with the spell category that encompasses rituals, because it opens up utilitarian spells to any class, provided you use the optional feat rules. But I took it one step further! Sidebar #1, Occult Ritual Magic gives you dangerous magic that anyone can try, including a nifty table that encompasses any ritual spell miscasting.

dtmwfi

Wednesday World Building: The Devil in the Details

snow horse 01

As I am working on a homebrew setting* for my home campaign with my kids, I am brought to think what it is that I am doing to make this world unique. This is my first serious attempt at a setting that comes from me, rather than being some commissioned work or contributing my talent towards building another person’s setting. My intent is to create something that I can share from the heart with my children/players.

In reflecting on the first 8 or so sessions, and thinking of the tiny segment of my setting that the player’s have traversed, I find it important to evoke the details. They are currently in a forest that is ruled at large by mythical forces. Fey creatures vie for supremacy with other strange beings as they all try to live in civilized throngs that dot the forest.

The fey are the most prominent force within the forest. They have organized under various factions that comprise an entity called the Court of Seasons. While other fey affiliations exist, the pull of the seasonal courts is very likely the most noticeable. Whenever a seasonal faction gains control of the court, that seasonal weather takes hold of the entire forest. Regions that are far from the forest have weather that largely lasts year round**.

But back to the point… though my players have yet to deeply involve themselves in fey politics, they are already starting to see the signs of it evident in the world. Right now, they are chasing a bad guy across the forest for crimes against nature, but in time they will realize what this bad guy’s past has to do with them and the story of the forest. But for now, they are enjoying the snow… except when a mysterious Rime Knight appears to chase them to their next destination.

Although I may just be nebulously teasing the details of my campaign, that is exactly the point that I am trying to make. You readers may already know more than my players do about these aspects of my game, but to them and you the details are the trees that make up the forest. I could tell my players the sweeping history of the Two Oaks that rise above the clouds, or what the courts themselves mean, but then I would simply be narrating my story. The story is about them, and the discovery is what makes it special. They define the experience just as much as it defines them.

So how does that help you to world build? Consider that you can simply pepper details about your setting into your games (or fiction, or what have you) and evoke a larger sense of wonder and curiosity than if you were simply to read a page out of a history book***.

* Not Diem Mundi.
** As is the case in the real world.
***We can’t all be history buffs.