An RPG system I failed to sell myself

A ways back, sometime before August of last year, Technical Difficulties had the opportunity to play test Upwind (by Biohazard Games) before it went to Kickstarter. I found Upwind to be an example of a really good, well put together system that just. was. not. for. me. 

The thing about Upwind for me was, that as different and innovative as the mechanics were, and they are very inventive, the thing that made the system itself was the setting. The world building was involved, complex,  and well-done. I'm just not terribly interested in an epic, adventure fantasy right now.

The tagline for Upwind is "A roleplaying fable of lost science, elemental magic and uncharted skies." It's set in a floating world, with sunlight above and The Dark below. Player characters are Explorer Knights on their airships, fighting pirates, keeping sailing lanes open, exploring, mapping, trouble-shooting, and dungeon crawling.

I honestly think my issues with the system have less to do with the system and more with Technical Difficulties's play test session. So I got a bit behind the week we were going to play and by the time I did sit down to read the rules I was trying to read just the rules. Well, the setting section and the rules section were not clearly labeled, and I started reading the setting section. So I'm reading, one chapter, two chapters, five chapters before I start skimming, looking for the rules, getting more and more frustrated, before finally figuring out that there's more than one file and try the other file. Oh look, there's all the rules. Which were kind of short... Which once I read the resolution mechanics made sense:

The resolution mechanic discards dice in favor of a deck of cards: player and GM negotiate two possible outcomes (both of which must allow the story to continue), determine the stakes involved, and then bid on the outcomes using a hand of playing cards. So it's a scene level resolution mechanic, rather than an action level mechanic, which is narratively based.

Once the Technical Difficulties crew gets the game rolling, it turns out that I'm the only player who had perused the setting information at all really. Which, let me tell you, is not a great way to try and use the resolution mechanic. For a narrative negotiation based mechanic to work, everyone involved really needs to be well-versed on what's going on in the world. Otherwise you don't have a great idea of what to ask for, what works as penalties, or even really the type of story to tell or feel to give it.

Also, online game.

The whole deck of cards thing does not work well over the internet. In my experience, you really want the tactile and visual feed back of cards in your own hands, seeing other folks' cards, and being able to look at the multiple decks that make up your various sources of cards. If only to help each other know where to draw from. So the four of us were constantly stopping to figure out our deck situation. That was partially an issue of needing more practice with the system and partially an issue with our set-up. It'd be a better mechanic for people who play together in person.

So yeah, a game I can recognize has interesting stuff going on. But isn't for me personally.

Go give RPPR's episodes of Upwind a listen through though, because they love the game and have a great time playing. Maybe it's a system for you and either way, it's a great series of episodes to listen to they have so much fun.

State of Gaming and Other Projects

It's the last blog post of 2016, so I'm going to do a look back all my stuff for the year. At a minimum, it'll help me fix in my memory the fun stuff that I did.

Seeing as this is a Thursday post and therefore technically a gaming blog post, I'll start off with the gaming podcast I'm on: Technical Difficulties. We launched at the end of March 2016 and as of Dec. 29th (knock on wood), have yet to miss an update! We've completed two campaigns and are in the middle of both playing and releasing a third, as well as 17 episodes of one shot scenarios. Lots of multi-part one shots... Had an interview with Caleb of Hebanon Games, a couple bonus post-mortem episodes on our campaigns, and talked about Gen Con for an episode too. Played in eleven different RPG systems (good grief), three of which were play-tests: Red Markets, Upwind, and The Veil (which, honestly, I don't think we're going to release those two episodes; system was not our speed). All in all, we've released 52 episodes in roughly nine months and have 9 episodes in the backlog. Pretty good for our first year!

Speaking of Red Markets, I've just totaled the word count of what I've edited on this project so far: 235,108. Wow. I just... It doesn't seem like quite as much when you work with it in sections (with each section under its own contract). And the sections get shorter and shorter as Caleb realizes just how many pages its going to take to print everything. There's still a fourth section being written that I'll get to edit. I did my best to trim down the first two sections — pulled 4k and 2k out them. But this third one, I finally asked point blank for a word count Caleb needs to keep the entire book under the planned page count.

He needs me to trim a 64K word section down to 50K, or the fourth section is going to have to be severely cut down. I'm doing my best: pulled out 4K so far. But we'll have to see how close I can get to 50K. It's good to have ambitious goals, right?

I also got to do some writing for Red Markets! When y'all get the finished product, check out the d100 encounters table. I wrote 33 of those. :)

Also in 2016 Red Markets work, the con packet has gone out for play testing.  Tom, Partner, and I did meet our goals of having something runnable for Gen Con and WashinCon. We all ran at least one game at both of those conventions, for a reasonable mix of people who already knew of the system and folks who'd never heard of it before. We got some good feedback, refined some of the text, wrote the text we'd previously skipped (because we knew the information in our heads) in favor of time, and generally expanded actual explanations and GM tools. Thanks to Caleb's monthly updates to the Red Markets Kickstarter backers, we opened up a play test to run this packet for folks who hadn't written the packet. So far, we've handed the packet out to 123 people and already gotten 14 responses. Which is just amazing to me. Did have to turn one dude down — he wanted to get the packet so he could read up on the game before a friend of his ran it at a convention. I think the line was 'so I can mess with [GM] when they run it.' Not cool dude, not cool. Told him we preferred clean runs of the game and looked forward to hearing from [GM] with feedback. We are cutting off handing out the packet on Dec. 31st and asking for all feedback to be in by the end of Feb. 2017. So there's my project time in March planned out.

Speaking of project time, I have finally started making time for my personal writing again! I've started doing drabbles for my Monday posts and I'm finding them to be a) really fun and b) good exercise in letting go and writing without a plan. Now to work on consistently writing more than three or four hundred words. And describing things, instead of relying on the visual I'm using for inspiration to do it for me. Also, the fourth draft of my novel project is in the works. I'm excited for this draft — it should close up a couple plot loopholes and add depth to a couple characters. Hurray useful critiques!

Speaking of critiquing, I was part of a critiquing circle through Scribophile this year. I guess it was like a writing circle? Any rate, there were four of us and we all gave each other beta reads. Scheduling was interesting since we had folks from three different US time zones and one lady in France. Any rate, that was helpful in that I got some specific feedback (although Caleb's is playing a bigger part in this fourth draft of the novella) and worked on my critiquing skills more. Also my ability to express "uh... this is a problem," tactfully. Explaining that someone had accidentally written colonialism and racism into their epic fantasy aiming for anti-racism was tricky.

Finally, I also signed a contract to edit a second RPG project! They approached me! I'm so excited. I haven't actually gotten clearance from them to talk about it in public, so I'm not going to say the name. But I hope I'll be able to talk about it more in 2017.

Oh, yeah, I also kept up a posting schedule here and on my Tumblr :D 

On the personal front, it's been a reasonably good year. For everything else Fuck 2016.

Happy New Year everybody. May the next year be better than the last.

We've started to get feedback

I'm finding getting feedback on the Red Markets Quickstart guide is just as exciting as any time I've gotten a critique on Scribophile. We're already at eight responses, just two weeks after sending out the first wave of packets, so I thought I'd walk through some of the feedback and my thoughts on it.

My impression, looking through the responses, is that this feedback comes from five different gaming groups. Of the eight responses, the first four

  • came in at different times
  • all played the Papers, Please job
  • three said they were playing with their regular groups in person (in different locations than each other)
  • the fourth was playing with their regular group remotely

The second set of four responses are all from the same group, I think, because:

  • they all played the same job (The Same Old Grind)
  • they all played remotely
  • NOT with their regular group
  • and oh yeah, they all filled out the survey at the same time

So far, 75% of the players have been from the US which isn't notable except that I'm slightly surprised it wasn't 100%. Hello Norwegian and Filipino Red Markets players!! 
5 out of 8 played in their sessions and three folks GMed which is a decent ratio from my perspective. Nobody had ever played (or GMed) before which meant we are reaching our intended audience. I'm slightly sad that the job I wrote (The Same Old Grind) has been used by fewer groups (assuming my assumptions are correct) than the Papers, Please job. But it's hard to argue with a mall job in a zombie apocalypse. Either way, everyone has seemed to enjoy their gaming sessions. Well, except for one person.

One person did not like Negotiations at all. Which, to be fair, can be it's own little mini-game. And is the section we're getting the most feedback of "please clarify this." But they didn't feel like it builds the setting, enhances the play experience, or ties in with the survival/resource management style or zombie genre of the rest of the game. But, you know, the genre is Economic Horror so either we did a bad job of selling the game to this person or this isn't the game for them. Which is going to happen! I'm sad they either didn't enjoy or didn't understand how to flesh out the home base through scams in Negotiations. But. It's one person out of eight. And we absolutely do need to clarify the Negotiations section. It's been the trickiest part of Red Markets to explain and to learn. For Caleb too, not just us. 

On the other side of things, we did ask folks for their favorite part of their session. We're gamers guys, of course we want to hear about that crazy thing that happened during the game. So, before the play test, everyone we'd played a session with was already familiar with the setting. This meant that one of the Legs we'd put in to illustrate a particular danger in setting (fast zombies essentially), every player had gone 'oh shit, Vector' and shot them before they could get up and be scary. It made for some tense times at the table if players missed their shot, but. Slightly disappointing for us as GMs.

The first GM to give us feedback managed to get the Vector up and running at their players. :D Based on their feedback, that part of game play does work as intended on new players: "the stress shown by the players was palpable and made for a very tense, frantic fight." And then of course two of their players rolled complications of zombie bites.

Life is good. 

So, generally happy players, direction for us on specific things we mentioned but didn't explain, and a whole bunch of people going 'Negotiations are confusing and this didn't really explain it!' Plenty of direction for us to work with, even if we never get another survey response.

RIP My Inbox... Or: What happens when you volunteer to give people stuff

So a while back Partner and I teamed up with a gentleman by the name of Tom on the RPPR forums who was looking to write a quickstart packet for Red Markets. The idea being that we'd put together a short version of the rules, for players and GMs, add in two jobs they could choose from, and have a good product for introducing new players to the system, either at conventions or home games. We've been working on it for five or six months now. 

And now it's ready for play testing.

We're at the point where we need fresh eyes on what we've done to tell us where we missed a bit. What's unclear. What works and what didn't.

To that end, we asked Caleb to mention something in one of his updates to the Red Markets Kickstarter backers.

He wrote an entire update just on the fact that a) we did this and b) we're looking for people to play test this packet. So go email Laura if you're interested.

My poor, poor inbox. 

As of writing this post, I've gotten 70 emails from interested parties. I have never had 70 unread emails in my inbox before. If only 10% of them actually return the questionnaire, that's seven sets of feedback which is amazing. So Partner is busy compiling a list of all the emails, and in a day or two we'll do a big old mail merge into the bcc field with a link to the packet.

I'm so excited.

Getting ready to run a game

We’re going to be recording some play tests of new RPG systems for the next couple of sessions over at Technical Difficulties and I’m on tap as the GM next session. New, successfully kickstarted, Powered-by-the-Apocalypse cyberpunk system - the cyberpunk is why I’m the GM, this being more my wheelhouse than anyone else’s. So we finalized our recording schedule last session, namely last Saturday. Which gives me one week to read a new system and come up with a scenario... Okay. I got this. I swear.

First thought: Gibson. Shamelessly steal plot from Gibson. Try Burning Chrome. Short stories will be faster to reread and it’s only going to be a 2 or 3 hour session. Novel plot will take longer.

Second thought: Does this system have a quickstart guide? Yes, they do? Glory be, that should make life easier.

::starts reading::

Third thought: ... SHUT UP EDITOR BRAIN!

So yeah, apparently I can’t read this system without wanting to edit all the things. To do both developmental and copy editing. I'm gonna claim that since I sat down to read it as part of a play test, my mind was already in editing/critique mode about the rules. Yes, I know editing is not the same thing as looking at rules with a critical eye. I know this. Really. But… yeah, sticking with my story here.

I'm not saying I think this is a bad system. I know the fundamentals of how the rules work are going to be solid, I've used this engine before (Monster Hearts uses the Powered by the Apocalypse engine too). The experience mechanics look interesting and certainly focus the game in a particular direction. It's just...

Cyberpunk systems are crunchy systems, you know? The tech is important to creating the feel of cyberpunk and maybe it's that I've just never tried a more narrative cyberpunk system before, but I'm having trouble seeing how a collection of tags to describe equipment is going to create that lived-in technology feel.

Rather my job as the GM isn't it?

Wish me luck folks. This is going to be the first scenario I've come up with from start to finish, run in a new system, created in less than a week. Deadlines impose creativity!

I'll just keep telling myself that...