I’m Not Dead Yet

I’m feeling better . . .

I am in the middle of playtesting a new game. For those who used to support my Patreon, it is based on the Quantum and GOD setting, but now called the Lost Earth. I don’t think it will ever see the light of day, simply because of the cost of bringing it out along with its setting, and the system is derived from its setting, so I don’t think I’d be happy releasing it separately.

A figure stands before broken structures looking like fallen skyscrapers beneath the title The Lost Earth: Rebirth, and the subtitle of Adventures in a Broken World

I said the same thing about League of Misfits, so who knows.

Anyway, the playtest is not only helping me with the system, but also helping me with myself.

My formative RPG experience was D&D—AD&D, 2E, and 3/3.5. Until the early 2000s, I almost exclusively played D&D—a bit of Top Secret, some Gamma World, Some WEG Star Wars and a bit of Champions was the sum total of my RPG experience.


Quantum & God: Gates of Hell

You were born into a world threatened by demons, protected by the benevolent Eternal. Now, the acolytes of the Eternal hunt you, ready to spill your blood, and you’ve found out the demons are real, and they are part of a war in the heavens. This world—your world—was built on lies, but its truths hold many more terrors.

Quantum and GOD: Gates of Hell is the sequel to Q&G: Rebirth (released through my Patreon but not generally available right now), and is an adventure for 3-6 player characters. It will be released with both mechanical information for Fifth Edition and for Sword’s Edge. Fifth Edition characters should be of levels 3-5. While the story provided does not require characters of good alignment, given that the goal is to save the world, good or at least non-evil characters are the most suitable for this adventure.

This adventure is intended mostly as a framework, but if played through with only the events and encounters related, will likely last two to four evenings, depending on the number of players and the speed with which they generally make decisions and move through mechanical encounters.

In this adventure, the PCs have been thrust into a world they don’t understand, and must come to terms with powers they’ve been raised to consider “demonic.” They’re chased by the followers of the Church of the Eternal, but have also found allies and enemies, and uncovered a threat to their world.

This provides a capstone to the adventure begun in Rebirth, but the world and the storyline begun there could wind through many other threads before arriving here.

Please note: a key component of this adventures is the questioning of a monotheistic religion followed by the populace of the setting, and revelations regarding it. While this is not intended to ridicule anyone’s beliefs, if you or someone in your group is sensitive to criticism of organized religion, you probably will want to give this adventure a pass.

Quantum and GOD: Gates of Hell is a possible project slated for a vote on my Patreon.

Sagas of the Sea Peoples: Introduction Preview

This post was original presented at My Patreon on 16 Aug 2019.

While the research for Sagas of the Sea Peoples continues, I have begun writing the game itself. I wanted to share the introduction with you, in which I try to encapsulate the aesthetic of the game.  

The stories of the Sea Peoples are heroic tales of the Bronze Age untold by the conquerors. These are chronicles of trade, raids, and migration. Your characters are destined to become great leaders of warrior cultures, but the warrior ethos to which many cling may be a hindrance to success even as it is gains one prestige among one’s people.

Welcome to the Late Bronze Age. Iron is on its way but hasn’t made its full impact on cultures, and many of the dominant polities of southwest Asia and the east Mediterranean Sea coast have collapsed or have seen their power and prestige decline. Economic turmoil and war have created a churn of disarray, leading to suffering and desperation.

In the middle of all this are the Sea Peoples. Led by Mycenaean migrants and joined by the dislocated from around the Aegean Sea and beyond, these groups are seen as pirates, raiders, and barbarian invaders by what remains of the great powers – the Hittites, the Levant city-states, and the Egyptians. There are certainly those among them who have profited from the vast ungoverned space of the Mediterranean and its shores, but there are many more pursuing a better life for their families, seeking opportunities and freedom from oppressive hierarchies.

The characters in Sagas of the Sea Peoples have been pushed to the periphery, and now they have decided it is time to push back. Better to die on your feet than on your knees. They pose a threat to the status quo because they are the other – the outsider and the barbarian. They represent something different, something that is motivating change, and the elites do not like change. While belonging to an egalitarian society which struggles with a conservative need to rebuild the structures of the past, the characters seek to overturn the status quo and avoid a return to the hierarchies that destroyed their society. They cannot escape violence – who in this world can? – but they are special because they have recognized the trap of the warrior ethos and they are seeking something else, something that will preserve their lives, their families, and their peoples.

It Came From The Sea! Crunching the Numbers

This post was original presented at my Patreon on 6 Aug 2019.

I’ve embarked on writing for Saga of the Sea Peoples, (which you can follow at my Patreon) and in doing so, I’ve started to consider the costs that would be associated with bringing it to actual fruition, meaning distributing it beyond Patreon. The costs for doing a print product – something more than 100 pages – are pretty prohibitive. A ballpark estimate puts the Kickstarter goal at about US $11,500. My biggest success for Kickstarter was Centurion: Legionaries of Rome which brought in around $5,900 USD. Nefertiti Overdrive only brought in about $4,900 CAD, which was about $3,800 USD.

It’s possible to produce a 125 page book without editing or certain sections I’d like to include – such as considering migration and integration in the context of the Sea People – and using stock art. That goal would be about $3,000 USD so a Kickstarter goal of $4,450 CAD . . . or, to be more careful, $5,000 CAD.

A PDF-only product, substantially shorter, and using stock art, would have a goal of $4,500 CAD. That means I would need 350 backers at $13.50 CAD (around $10 USD) a pop to hit that target. Were I to do the base minimum – editing, consultation, extra sections, and more art as stretch goals – I could set the goal at $2,000 USD, meaning I would need about 150 backers.

Centurion only had 180 backers, Nefertiti Overdrive had 302 backers, and Sword’s Edge had 144 backers. So far, it looks on the edge of do-able, but with definite failure potential. Failure is fine – it means the market isn’t interested and if I want to pursue it, it would be on my own dime with minimal expectation for sales.

One thing I learned from the Centurion vs. Nefertiti Overdrive Kickstarters was the value of high ticket pledge levels. Something like creating one of the iconic characters for the game or being a model for a piece of art can support a pretty heft price tag, but does it help?. For the art, I would have to actually increase the goal of the Kickstarter to compensate for the added cost – three openings for modelling for art would increase the cost by almost $600 CAD while bringing in a maximum of $750. That’s about eight extra backers, so there is some potential but it’s not significant.

In the end, I’m going to push forward with the writing, and can promise you the rules portion. There’ll be some historical discussion thrown in there, and I’m continuing to research the era and the Sea Peoples, as it has turned out to be fascinating, but I won’t have a “history” section per se unless I’m able to finance this some other way. Kickstarter looks like a possibility, but it needs more analysis and consideration.

Who Watches . . . Civil Disobedience and the Wall

This post was first presented on 23 Jun 2019 at Patreon.

The Wall is a game about being part of an occupying force and the ethical challenges the characters will face in trying to maintain their humanity – or at least their moral core. In the game, the occupying forces are explicitly stated to be from another state – the occupying power. Watching the reporting on the widespread protests in Hong Kong, it provided another example of how the “occupiers” – or at least the occupying force – do not always originate in a distant land. For the citizens of Hong Kong, they faced a group employing force against them in the interest of the ruling elite who were – ostensibly – their own government. 

This is not so unusual in history, nor is it restricted to authoritarian regimes or – in the case of Hong Kong – local representatives of an authoritarian regime. Canada has had its own moments, and not so long ago. Both the FLQ crisis and the Oka crisis saw employers of force – and in both cases, the Canadian Forces, Canada’s military – acting against Canadians in the interests of “the state.” Note: this is not to say that the state was wrong in employing these measures nor is the intent to conflate the FLQ and the Mohawk Warriors, but these were cases of military forces acting as security forces within the borders of Canada.

Many of the difficulties the kind of occupying force in the Wall would face remain for these state assets, especially since in an open and democratic society which values the rule of law, the employment of force against one’s own citizens should be an extreme last resort. However, in all of the cases I’ve mentioned – the Hong Kong extradition bill protests, the FLQ crisis, and the Oka crisis, the occupying force came/comes from a community outside of the target community or protects an outside community’s interest. In Hong Kong, the police were really acting in the interests of the Communist Party of China, which is the ultimate sovereign whom the Government of Hong Kong must propitiate. In Canada, the government and parliament’s interests are in the continued federation of the provinces and territories to the benefit of the mainly anglophone, white population. This put it at odds with the FLQ and the Mohawk Warriors, which were pursuing what they likely perceived as the interests of a minority, marginal, and/or victimized group. 

The Hong Kong protests from Business Insider

The Wall is about the tensions between the characters and the rest of the occupying force, the elites, and the dispossessed. In these cases, the elites would actually be part of the polity directing the characters and the occupying force. In the game, that polity – a distant dictator or empire – does not have a mechanical function, so it’s loss changes only the narrative and not the mechanical structure of the game. In a game which replicated an internal crisis, the elites would be the portion of the society and/or population that is in the majority or at least that part of the population that is not marginalized or victimized. This part of the population supports, accepts, or at least does not protest the government’s actions against the marginalized group – the the protestors in Hong Kong or the indigenous residents of Kanesatake and other communities who side with the Mohawk Warriors. . 

The tensions with the rest of the occupiers could narratively be described as perhaps different organizations – the PCs are police or security forces while the rest of the occupying force is military, or perhaps the reverse of that. It could even just be the tension between a team that is questioning the tactics or the entire premise of their deployment against fellow citizens and the rest of their peers, who accept and perhaps even relish in the action.

Finally, the marginalized group is the dispossessed. They have the same mechanical function, however the dispossessed may not seem removed from the general population in situations like the Hong Kong protests. Bloomberg (the news service) reported 2 million people involved in the protests on 16 June 2019. The population of Hong Kong is around 7.7 million, so that’s a pretty hefty percentage of the adult population confronting the government and police.

Protesters march at night during a rally in Hong Kong: Kyle Lam/Bloomberg

They had the numbers, but their stand against their government and confrontation with state security forces makes them the dispossessed- for the Wall.

Playing in these kinds of games might not be for everyone. This is not to say that exploring modern political protests through the Wall is political while other games aren’t – every inclusion and exclusion in the narrative of a game shapes its politics. I would expect it is plain that the Hong Kong protests are immediate in a way that the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries simply isn’t.

As always, be considerate of each other, and try to figure out a way for everyone to get the most of the game without anyone being hurt or made uncomfortable in an unwelcome manner.

It Came From The Sea! . . . or maybe the pool

This article was first posted to Patreon on 18 May 2019

Today was the first day this year that I skimmed the pool.

Bear with me!

Skimming allows me to zone out, to kind of enter a Zen space where my thoughts are divorced from my actions. The body does what it needs to do while the mind is free to wander. So it wandered to Egyptian history.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the 25th Dynasty in order to write a history supplement for Nefertiti Overdrive, and while reading about the transition from the New Kingdom to the Third Intermediate Period, I came across mentions of the Sea Peoples, a kind of boogeyman often blamed for the Late Bronze Age collapse, which seemed to affect most of the Mediterranean civilizations. The Sea Peoples were apparently a kind of maritime nomadic group that swept in, messed things up, and then moved on until Rameses III of Egypt put them in their place – that place being the Levant. This allegedly led to the creation of the Philistines, who – according to one theory – were displaced Mycenaean Greeks.

Fascinating stuff, you say. So what?

Because I think the saga of the Sea Peoples would make a great game. Here’s why:

Often the Sea Peoples – and “barbarians” in general – are depicted as the villains. Here’s a nice orderly polity, imposing law and order on a specific region, and in come these terrible barbarians who create chaos and suffering. Except those polities were run by a very small elite for their own benefit. Often – especially with Rome – the fight was about stopping immigration. The Goths just wanted to some land to farm, but they weren’t obsequious enough with the Romans. The Gauls earlier had been pretty much minding their own business, ruling polities that had already imposed order on a wide area, but they weren’t serving Rome’s – or at least Julius Caesar’s – interests. Heck, it was a “Celtic menace” that was a factor leading to the empowerment of Marius and therefore Sulla, who led pretty much directly to the fall of the Republic. Those Celts weren’t even really interested in in the Italian Peninsula, though they did attack Roman town and forts in what might be called Celtic territory.

And there are parallels today, as elite interests attempt to portray those seeking a better life inside the elite’s polity as criminals and barbarians. The elite see a threat to the status quo as a threat to their privileges and power, and so change is bad.

I think history has been very clear that change is good.

So let’s have a game with the Sea Peoples as the good guys. Yes, they are forces of chaos and yes they threaten the status quo. But that status quo protect a rapacious elite. Let’s not kid ourselves, the Sea Peoples and other barbarians generally do not come as liberators. Most of them wanted to challenge the status quo, if only to find a place within it. But changing the status quo can be seen as good, protecting a society against atrophy.

All this to say that as this game evolves, it’ll be doing so in this Patreon. I will share here my notes, my thoughts, my intents, and my design. This will not be something for which patrons will pay, but the posts will only be open to patrons.

It will all start with design goals, and maybe even a philosophy.

Wish me luck.

Note: the development of Sagas of the Sea Peoples will be conducted at my Patreon, so if you are interested, look for it there.

Mechanics Informing Spotlights

About a month ago, I wrote about sharing the spotlight among characters in RPGs, why it’s important players get a chance to have a character in the spotlight, and how you can make sure that happens. But since the spotlight is supposed to be about highlighting how special the characters are, how can you – as the DM/GM/whatever – create spotlight moments that fit the characters?

Of course, in order to fashion spotlights that sing, one needs to know and understand the characters. If one doesn’t know about the characters, one can design events that provide relatively generic spotlight moments – something to do with a good fight, something to do with a good sneak, something that needs magic, something that needs persuasion. These kinds of spotlights can be adapted on the fly to better suit the characters as the GM recognizes them or the players present them. This can be difficult to accomplish along with all the other tasks and responsibilities a GM has in many games, but doing so can really help to make the session memorable.

While how a player presents a character in play is perhaps the best guide to developing spotlights for that character, most systems will have hints for the GM. The games that I have designed all have a mechanic that can be used by players to signal the kind of scenes and spotlights they want for their characters. Pivots in Centurion, Nefertiti Overdrive, and Sword’s Edge all provides rewards in a slightly different manner, but the mechanic has another purpose which is the same across all three games – it signals to the GM the kind of spotlight the player wants. In general, this is by providing an indication of what is important to the character.

Sword’s Edge goes a step further, including a goal, a quirk, and a style to help fashion different kinds of spotlights. All three of these could even be used together to design a scene in which the character truly owns the spotlight. It might relate to the character’s goal, the character might be able to reveal or utilize their quirk, or the scene can require the kind of style which the player has noted. Of course, any one of these alone could inspire a scene in which the character can shine, but together could make it particularly notable.

Most RPGs have mechanics in their character design that can indicate to the GM the kind of spotlight that would interest the player. Of course there are classes or careers, but these can be relatively generic and spotlights built on them tend not to feel personal to a character. However, if a player builds a fighter with a non-traditional skill – perhaps some kind of musical or artistic ability – that should tell the GM that the character needs to have a scene in which they use that skill. D&D 5E has personality information used both for gaining Inspiration but which also should inform the GM in building spotlight moments. Fate has Aspects and Stunts that can reveal much about the kind of cool scenes the player wants for their character. Look at what the player has built and be especially aware of the uncommon and non-traditional.

Spotlights are important for players, and the right spotlight, highlighting how unique the character might be, can really fuel the player’s enjoyment and immersion.

The earlier post on spotlights.

Someone Else’s Great Big Wall

So I’m giving another listen to Dr. Kenneth Harl’s Barbarian Empire of the Steppes series from the Great Courses. This is maybe my fourth listen-through. Especially with Dr. Harl, I can listen to these series over and over again.

In episode three, Dr. Harl discusses early Chinese contact with the steppe nomads, and he talks about the Warring States period. He mentions how many of the northern states started building the kind of defensive structures that evolved into the Great Wall, and as is my wont, I started thinking about how cool that would be as a setting.

I can imagine a group of soldiers overseeing such a construction. The workers are peasants with whom the soldiers might have a lot in common, but the PCs saw that there was social mobility in the military. Some might be mercenaries, and some might be “auxiliary” troops, soldiers from neighbouring cultures hired into the military. The base of operations would be a fortified camp.

This could actually be something similar to the Hell on Wheels TV series which is a Western action-adventure retelling of the construction of the railroad. Like that, there would be characters conflict, cultural friction, and fights within the camp, with actual incursion by the steppe nomads a rare occurrence.

The easy over-arching plot is the rise of a leader that could unite the steppe nomads. The first hints would come from defectors, leaders from assimilated tribes unwilling to bend the knee to this new ruler. Attacks might become more coordinated and the PCs notice troops from different tribes/cultures raiding together. The PCs might be trying to get a warning up the chain of command but – as always seems to be the case – no one listens. And then the camp is overrun. The PCs are behind enemy lines, trying to link up with another military unit, possibly also trying to protect civilians.

A different narrative might see sickness spreading through the civilized lands and news keeps reaching the camp of this town or this village succumbing to the sickness. The reports are wildly exaggerated – as happens – but no one in the camp knows that. A local nomad leader comes with their shaman and warns the camp that unless they abandon the wall and come to join the nomads, the sickness will consume them to. The shaman has seen it in the oracle bones.

In both these cases, the chain of command is focused on the wall above all else. More raids? Not our problem. But you’re behind schedule on the wall. The village where you purchase supplies lost half of its population to the plague? Not our problem. You know you’re behind schedule on the wall, right?

This could also be a framework for a more traditional adventure, with ancient sites near the camp disgorging supernatural threats that the PCs are then sent to investigate. There might be a big evil rising from its slumber, attempting to bring the steppe nomads under its control so it can re-conquer its ancient empire – basically the plot of the Sword’s Edge campaign I just wrapped up.

Education, great on its own but also awesome for inspiring RPGs!

You can find out more about Barbarian Empires of the Steppes here.

I’ve discussed Hell on Wheels elsewhere.

Please support my Patreon.

Getting In the Spotlight

One of the challenges for designing an adventure is to have it both appeal to the players and insure their characters have a chance for the spotlight. Even when one know how to provide a character with a spotlight, the chances for the spotlight can become an issue.

Most of my home games run three to four hours, and to be honest, only about 3/4 of that is actual play time – on a good night. I get through maybe four scenes, sometimes up to six if the players are focused. Depending on attendance, I have three to five players at the table. If it’s a good night with a couple of players missing, there’s the chance for each character to get the spotlight. When everyone’s attending – usually the nights when the lowest percentage of time is devoted to the game – it’s unlikely each character will get the spotlight in a session.

In home games, this isn’t too much of an issue as long as characters regularly get the spotlight. Anecdotal information makes me think that players really remember spotlight moments for their characters, and if their character gets to shine once every couple of games, that keeps most players happy.

To be honest, if it doesn’t, the solution isn’t at the table, it’s away from the table. The GM and the player need to have a discussion about sharing the spotlight. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter that the player doesn’t understand the logistics. If the player isn’t really keeping track, it might feel like everyone else’s characters are regularly getting the spotlight while the player’s character is overlooked every other game. It might simply be an explanation of numbers – X scenes vs Y players means 1 spotlight every other game.

If that’s not it, if the player just thinks they deserve the spotlight regularly even if other character don’t get their turn, then that player needs to understand that sharing at the table is a part of the game, as important as any rule in any rulebook. If the player cannot accept that, I don’t believe that’s a player you want at your table. Try to explain the importance of everyone having fun, of not allowing one player to dominate in anything. In the end you’ve got to be a Vulcan about this: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

But what about at conventions, where you are running a one-shot for players you don’t know? My convention games are generally designed to run for about 3 hours and 30 minutes of a four hour block. You have to expect about 15 minutes at the outset for introductions and a quick rundown of the system. I usually have a 10 minute bio-break half-way through the four hours, and then I plan to end about 10-15 minutes before the end of the block, so that we can clean up and be away from the table to allow the next GM at least 5 minutes to prep the table.

In that 3 1/2 hours, I generally get in about six to eight scenes. These include one or two short scenes – either because they are designed for that or because the players just bull through them. All good. I never run a con game with more than six players, and four is the sweet spot, so there is no problem allowing each character a scene in which to shine.

Because I use pre-gen characters when I run con games, it’s actually super easy to design the adventure with the characters in mind so that each character has a scene designed around them. It doesn’t always work out – the player doesn’t play the character as expected or simply misses the cues that this is their scene – but because there are extra scenes, one can always alter a later scene to provide that spotlight. Not as easy on the fly, but totally do-able.

It’s also much more difficult – but super important – to control players that want their characters to constantly be in the spotlight. This is when I get heavy-handed and start pointing out that this scene with the computer that needs to be hacked should probably be focused on the hacker, and the soldier should probably be guarding the door rather than working the keyboard. I don’t like to do this because I like the players to have the freedom to adapt the character to their play style, but the point is for everyone to have fun, and I will pull someone aside to remind them of that if necessary.

Spotlight, to me, is very important because it is one of the ways to create strong memories and provide positive feedback to players. Players generally love a spotlight moment for their character, and creating spotlights for characters – in my experience – gets the players to invest more in the game and have more fun.

And please don’t forget I’ve got a Patreon, and the first adventure – “Lawless Heaven” – has been released on it. I would appreciate your support.

Angling Away from Saxon Britain

So, D&D happened last night (as I write this). We took up a lot of time getting characters ready. D&D is at its most complex with character choices, especially if you come at the game as a complete novice. Without preconceptions and assumptions, nothing is apparent and everything is mysterious. Two of the players had no exposure to D&D5E and had not had played D&D for ages – for at least one of them it was pre-3E.

But in the end, the delay in getting the game going wasn’t the biggest problem for me. The biggest problem for me were the setting assumptions hardwired into the system. I should have known this – I did know this at one time, but distance had made me forget. I had not run D&D for a decade and had not run anything even d20 adjacent since 2010 (save for a con game using D&D Next).

I knew how magic heavy D&D was. That was really the issue. The demihumans all became versions of the Fey, matters of belief to those around them, but very few actually interacting in society so figures of prejudice and suspicion. That’s cool. We could work with that. It could fit into early 6th century CE Britain. It was the flashy magic fired like bullets from an AK that gave me pause.

My intent had always been to address the system-setting clashes in the narrative. Give a narrative explanation for the spells. Address the prejudice to the Aelfar through role-playing. The latter works. The former?

And let me say that I very much believe system matters. That is to say that one’s play experience will degrade if one uses the wrong system. I knew this going in, but accepted it because – honestly – I wanted to play D&D again.

All of my games have very specific design goals. Even Sword’s Edge, a generic/genre-free system was built to deliver a specific kind of game, one in which the mechanics serve the narrative. Once again, I knew in my head the mistake I was making, but in my nostalgic heart, I thought I could paper over the cracks.

It just ain’t so. The narrative stretch to cover a cantrip like Fire Bolt in Anglo-Saxon Britain is extreme. And I don’t just mean historical Britain at that time. That kind of magic is not terribly apparent in the worldview and folklore of the time. The Ango-Saxons believed in magic, sure, but not like that. It might fit into the folklore of many places in Asia, but not Europe.

So, in the end, the setting will bend to the system. I am recompiling the setting as a second-world, a place inspired by early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but not tied to it. There will be names and places, cultures and events that are all based on early 6th century Britain, but it will not be that locale, because Fire Bolts and Flaming Strikes have no place there.

Thankfully, the other D&D game that I will be running is built specifically on the setting assumptions of the system. Let’s hope the narrative is strong.