Sunday, September 15, 2019

Nine Assumptions in Game Design

There are a lot of unspoken and unconsidered assumptions that influence the design of role-playing games. These are the major ones I want to think about, so I'm posting this here for when I want to return to the topic:

  • Assumption #1: The people playing this game will be constituted by the same group at your table week after week as the game progresses. 

  • Assumption #2a: The game is meant to be a pleasant object to read cover-to-cover.
  • Assumption #2b: The game is a resource designed to be referenced in play. 

  • Assumption #3: There is a correct balance between the "work" of gaming and the "fun" of gaming. 

  • Assumption #4a: Everyone at the table is looking for the same kind of fun out of the game. 
  • Assumption #4b: People at the table are looking for different kinds of fun but the game itself navigates that divide.

  • Assumption #5a: Advancement systems for characters should encourage a certain kind of play.
  • Assumption #5b: Advancement systems for characters should reward simply playing the game.

  • Assumption #6a: Roleplaying is part of the game and should be included mechanically in the game's rules.
  • Assumption #6b: Roleplaying is separate from the rules of the game, whether incidental or just not in need of a connection to the game's rules.

  • Assumption #7: Any time the word "story" is used, whether for or against in gaming, there is likely an assumption about the nature of rpgs in play.

  • Assumption #8: A game's rules should be tied to setting and/or genre.

  • Assumption #9a: Ideally, a game's rules should "get out of the way" and fade into the background until needed. 
  • Assumption #9b: A game is about its rules; engagement with the rules should be a fundamental part of play.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Zero Level Characters in 5e Dungeons and Dragons

Someone asked me how I would do 0 level characters in 5e Dungeons & Dragons:

  • Assign ability scores as usual. Roll for it, use the array, point-buy, whatever it is you lot do at your table.
  • You get to pick your race as usual.
  • You get to pick your background, so you start with a couple skill proficiencies and some combination of tool proficiencies and languages.
  • All of your equipment comes from your background.
  • You start with 4 + Con mod hit points. When you acquire a class, just replace this with the class's starting hit points. (1)
  • Your proficiency bonus is +1. It becomes +2 when you acquire a class.
  • You have no saving throw, weapon, or armor proficiencies unless they came from your racial abilities. 
  • Gaining a class after one adventure, assuming your character survives, feels appropriate.
(1) - Maybe 6 + Con mod, if you're feeling generous.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Comic Books for Video Gamers

Into video games? Want to get into comics? I've got some suggestions for things you might like:

If you like Dark Souls, you should try Berserk.

If you like Persona, you should try Shutter. (Frankly, everyone should try Shutter; it's the most criminally under-read comic I can think of.)

If you like Castlevania, you should try Baltimore.

If you like The Order: 1886, you should try The New Deadwardians. (Admittedly, no one likes The Order all that much.)

If you like Control, you should try Injection.

If you like Dishonored, you should try Lady Mechanika.

If you like Alice, you should try Pandora Hearts.

If you like BioShock, you should try Monstress.

If you like Metal Gear Solid, you should try Doom Patrol.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Thinking About My Early Homebrew

Possible cover inspiration for Mystic Medieval
There comes a moment in many young roleplaying gamers' lives where they get the itch to try their hands at making their own game. Some never really lose that urge. Here are the games I remember creating as a teenager:

Mystic Medieval. Mystic Medieval was my fantasy heartbreaker. It was created because one of my friends was not allowed to play D&D, but was allowed to play any other rpg that was not named D& I made something like D&D that he could be included in. I don't remember much about the rules (I know it had class-based character creation and also some sort of skill system that used the success/failure tables from Talislanta), but what I do remember was that the rules were housed in a purple three-ring binder with a bitchin' grim reaper I drew for the cover.

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adapting media you enjoy so that you can play in its sandbox feels like a pretty natural step, and my first attempt was an rpg based on Douglas Adams's Hitch-Hiker's Guide books. This one was really rules lite; I remember the mechanic being something similar to how RISUS works. One of my friends back in middle school proclaimed that this was his "favorite rpg" at the time, and I was dead chuffed about that.

Hellbreakers. Hellbreakers wasn't quite an adaptation, but it was heavily inspired by Hellraiser. It may also have been in all caps: HELLBREAKERS. The premise was that the characters were all survivors who had fought their way back from imprisonment in hell and had emerged from the underworld with cool powers that they would use to fight against bondage gear-clad demons who were not unlike the Cenobites. It was something like a horror/superheroes hybrid in tone. Frankly, I still think that premise has legs.

The one with the monsters. Did it even have a name? I certainly can't recall. This was another game that was loosely based on Clive Barker's fiction and the movies derived from them. This time, the inspiration was Nightbreed. The player characters were monstrous creatures running amok in modern-day America. We played this one during a Halloween party at my house; I remember a liquor store being blown up as part of the climatic battle. I wonder if I made this one before or after White Wolf's World of Darkness dropped?

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Intimations of Death, Suicide Forest, Lady Snowblood, 20 Buck Spin

Things that brought me delight in August, 2019:

Felix Timmermans, Intimations of Death
Although he is better known for his humorous tales of the Flemish countryside, Felix Timmermans wrote this collection following a near-fatal illness. Poe-like fixations are on full display throughout the five stories collected here: morbid obsessions, displaced psychosexual yearnings, deathly harbingers, and nerves strained to fevered breaking points. The most outlandish of the tales, "The Cellar," was like Poe's "House of Usher" but instead of brother and sister it's a husband and wife who live in an old house to study "the secret science." The husband is obsessed with staying sexually "pure" to master the occult but the wife discovers carnal desires and it drives them both past the brink of sanity. 

Suicide Forest, self-titled
As you might guess from the project's name, Suicide Forest play depressive atmospheric black metal. (Bandcamp link)

Lady Snowblood
A sublime tale of revenge. I had been meaning to watch this for a long time, but never got around to it until a recent power outage left me with just enough laptop battery to watch it.

Filthy death metal from 20 Buck Spin
 20 Buck Spin is an independent record label specializing in extreme ends of the metal spectrum. I've had a real craving for especially filthy, abject death metal and the label has been scratching that itch. Tomb Mold's Planetary Clairvoyance, Fetid's Steeping Corporeal Mass, and Ulthar's Cosmovore albums have been my repugnant aural repast lately. (Bandcamp link.)

Richard Sala, The Bloody Cardinal
A book written by a presumed-dead murderer poses more questions than it answers as it draws people into a nefarious web. Sala's art is, as always, a rare treat.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
As a huge fan of the books, I experienced more than a little trepidation about the movie adaptation after watching the first trailer. Honestly? This is a great horror flick for a pre-teen audience and it has just enough interesting contextual grit (Vietnam, the draft, Nixon) to keep an older audience in their seats without trying their patience.

Phil Hester & Friends, The Wretch omnibus
I had been unfamiliar with The Wretch comics until Trey from Sorcerer's Skull brought this omnibus to my attention, but now that I've read it I can confidently say that Glass City is no place to settle down and raise a family. All aspects of American Weirdness seem concentrated in Glass City, and the only thing standing between its citizens and Fortean weather, monstrous toys, and demons created by playing heavy metal records backwards is a silent, oily "hero" named The Wretch (also known in his earliest incarnation as The Creep). The individual stories in the collection, which tend to be brief, veer wildly from Deadpool-esque superheroics to Kirby pastiche and Ted McKeeveresque horror, but they're all excellent, bite-sized bits of story perfect for times when you need a comic you can pick up and put down as needed.

Vesania, Deus ex Machina
Vesania's symphonic black metal has always had a carnivalesque edge to it. Deus ex Machina, in particular, feels like the soundtrack to a diabolic masquerade ball.

Kameron Hurley, Rapture
The final book of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy is a case study in how you conclude a series. One thing I appreciate about the trilogy is that it has no qualms abut presenting a war-torn world as unthinkably and unpredictably dangerous. An important character dies out of nowhere at a fairly low stakes moment because that's the brutality of war. No character arc, no final moment of heroism, just a bright candle snuffed out without warning. I also really liked the introduction of a powerful sorcerer who is basically like Gandalf if Gandalf were a woman and also basically a walking magical nuke who was just amused to be unleashed on the world again.

Rosalie Cunningham, self-titled
Rosalie Cunningham, previously the lead singer of the now-defunct band Purson, re-emerges with her first solo album. This self-titled record is similar in tone and approach to the work produced by her former band; the genre is still psychedelic rock, but here the cabaret sound really comes to the fore.

Glow, season three
Rapid fire: brutal season opener, still great character development, kinda miss the wrestling because women being physically triumphant on tv is still a rarity, Gina Davis was a great addition to the cast.

Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road
Excellent picaresque adventure tale in which two Jewish vagabonds inadvertantly fight to restore the former ruling family to Khazaria. How unfortunate that Chabon felt it was necessary to write an afterword to address the fucked-up wrongheadedness of both the "literary" and "genre" fiction camps. Literary readers have to be told that it's okay to write an adventure story; genre readers have to be told it's okay for the adventurer heroes to be Jews. In any case, beautiful language and a ripping yarn require no explanation.

 The Autopsy of Jane Doe
I have some doubts about the movie's big revelation and resolution, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe managed a real tension throughout must of its run time.

Three kids are menaced by a babysitter who isn't who she claims to be. Emelie gets away with some pretty fucked-up things happening to those kids and it's made all the more horrific by focusing on their reactions instead of showing the nastiness itself.

Stephen King, Elevation
I found Stephen King's Elevation to be oddly whimsical. Not just in that folksy New England Castle Rock way (though that's in there too), but there's something nearly twee about this guy using his newfound weightlessness to footrace against the lesbian he's trying to befriend. Interesting to see him return to an old idea (the premise isn't dissimilar to Thinner) but with a vastly different tone.

Baroness, Gold & Grey
It's hard not to welcome a new Baroness album, even the one's like this that are a little distractingly noisy and overlong. The second half, which takes a moment to breath, feels like the stronger part of the record.

Winter's Bone
Powerful film about the grinding cycle of poverty, violence, crime, and authority that has no clear vision of how it all works.

Ready or Not
Like Winter's Bone above, this is a movie about a blonde woman fighting for survival. Very different tone, of course; whereas Winter's Bone is grim and harrowing, this is a lighthearted grindhouse navigation of murderous in-laws. Rich people, it turns out, are just the god-damn worst.

False, Portent
Strangely triumphant black metal. (Bandcamp link)

Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, Jordi Benet,
American Vampire Volume Four
Exploring the mythic underpinnings and evolving anxieties of America through the lens of vampire fiction continues! There are three stories in this volume. "Beast in the Cave" is the weakest link; that said, I do appreciate the turn: Skinner Sweet is not the first American vampire; that honor goes to a Native woman whose history has, of course, been erased and replaced with the tale of a descend of white colonialism. "Death-race," which pairs vampires with drag racing, is good fun. "The Nocturnes" grapples with the changing face of America in the 1950s--we've got war veterans and doo-wop, but things aren't what they seem.

Hideyuki Kikuchi and Yoshitaka Amano,
Vampire Hunter D: Mysterious Journey to the North Sea, Part One
The first multi-part Vampire Hunter D story! D comes into possession of a strange bead that leads him to the remains of a resort town that once catered to the pleasures of vampires. Along the way he faces a coterie of strange assassins sent by a Baron Harkonnen-like crime boss to steal said pearl. We meet the only woman so far in the series immune to D's beauty; well, until he gives her a piggyback ride...after that she get's a "warm ache in her loins." As you do.

Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert, 
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
No one ever dies once; every version of them remembered by another person dies a death in multiplicity. Worth noting, the other issues collected here are top-notch. "Original Sins/When is a Door" might be the antidote to all the Gritty Batman reboots. "Pavane" was like the horror anthology segment you didn't know you feared.

Dark Sun: Dragon Kings
I find it fascinating to watch the retconning in motion. If I'm not mistaken, in some versions of Athas there is only one dragon in the setting. In Dragon Kings we learn that all of the Sorcerer-Kings were dragons in one stage of development or another. We also get rules for characters turning into dragons. And TENTH levels spells--really interesting seeing what that design space meant at the time.

Lost Laboratory of Kwalish
Plenty of science-fantasy stuff I can steal for Urazya games in this one.

Monday, September 2, 2019

It Feels Good To Have Made Something

Late last Sunday I put Dirge of Urazya, my recent rpg 'zine, up for sale. By Tuesday afternoon I was sold out of them. They went quick, which is pretty flattering.

I want to thank everybody who bought a copy. I hope yours arrives safe and sound, and I hope you enjoy it immensely. I worked hard on it, I'm very pleased with the results, and I'll work even harder on the next thing I do. That's the deal.

Note: it's sold out for now. I have some copies in reserve to take care of anyone whose copy goes missing in the mail and that sort of thing. Which means that once copies are all accounted for, I will have a handful to offer up to anyone who missed the initial announcement. Best way to make sure you don't miss the next batch is to send an email at totgad AT gmail DOT com and ask to be put on the notification list. (Also, if you bought a copy and forgot to give me your DriveThru address for a free pdf, hit me up.)

Barring that, there's always the pdf. (Here's a thing worth pointing out: making a 'zine does not mean turning your back on digital formats. I put mine out in print and as a pdf. Both. At the same time!)

I want to talk a bit about the 'zine making process and why you should definitely give it a try if you feel like that's something you are interesting in doing. The barriers to entry are low; lower than you think, actually.

I generally used the method and tools that Julia Gfrorer outlines in her 'zine publishing guide and that Jim Rugg demonstrates in this video

Note, however, that my process was not entirely analog. I created the interior pages using LibreOffice--a free word processor. Here's how I did it:

  • I set up a template that was in 8.5x11 landscape format, with with .50 margins.
  • The page is set up to have two columns. There is 1" of spacing between the columns. This space accounts for where the page will be folded once it is printed. (Half of an inch is .50, so it's consistent with our margins.)
  • Note that although you might want to type out your pages like this was any other document (I did because that's how I'm accustomed to working) you WILL need to re-order the pages when you've finalized your content so that they print in the correct order for a booklet.
  • There's a formula for your page numbers, so when you start moving pages to work as a booklet make sure you're following the numbering here.

These were the costs to make my 'zine, with some notes:
  • Printing 50 b&w duplex copies of a 24 page interior (1) - $47
  • Envelopes for mailing (2) - $8
  • Longarm stapler (3) - $10
  • Black cardstock for the cover (4) - $1
  • White acrylic craft paint for the cover - .50
  • Foam brushes for the cover - $1

(1) - You should shop around for the best deal on your copies. Kinkos and Staples were both quite a bit more expensive than the online place I went with (it's the one Jim Rugg recommends in the video above) even when accounting for having them shipped to my house. I could have gotten my pages for even cheaper, but I opted for thicker paper rather than normal weight copier paper. You don't need to do that, especially if you're just testing the waters on your first 'zine project! If you have the time and inclination, standing at a copier and doing it yourself may be the cheapest option; again, shop around.

(2) - I got 100 of these envelopes from Amazon and let me steer you the fuck away from them! The adhesive on flap sucks; I ended up having to reinforce the closure on every envelope with clear packing tape just to be sure because those fuckers were not staying closed. Find different envelopes than the ones I got.

(3) - I can, however, endorse this cheap longarm stapler I got. I made a pile of 50 'zines, two staples per book, and it didn't jam once. No crooked staples either. Even though I'm counting the stapler as something I had to buy to do this project, it's an investment that I can use every time I make a batch of 'zines. I think it's identical to this stapler, which oddly might be what I got anyway because mine says "Business Source" instead of "Sparco" on it. Weird. Anyway, buy whichever of those is cheapest at the time.

(4) - Your 'zine doesn't need to have a hand-stenciled cover like mine did; it did it that way purely because I wanted to and knew I would enjoy making it. Your 'zine doesn't really need a cover at all! The first page can be the cover; that's totally fine. 

Other materials that went into the 'zine's production that I had lying around that I haven't taken into account regarding the cost of production: 
  • I needed a palette for my acrylic paint when making the cover, so I pulled the pane of glass out of an unused picture frame and used that. A paper plate would also have worked.
  • To make the stencil for the cover I cut the shapes I wanted out of a comic book backing board with an X-Acto knife.
  • I didn't have a bone folder to make a strong crease in each booklet, but I did find a sturdy plastic knife in the cutlery drawer that did the job.
  • My point is that you probably have a lot of materials you can use already hanging out in your house. All you need to do is get creative with what you already have.

I ended up spending about $30 on shipping, so the grand total I spent making and sending Dirge of Urazya is ~$100.

My profits, after costs, were ~$230.

Now, that isn't life-changing money for me, but it's a nice chunk of change to make over the course of the two days the 'zine was on sale. The takeaway is that you are unlikely to get rich by making a 'zine.

But that's okay because it's hard to put a price on things like "Man, that was a fun project to put together and I'm really excited for people to get their copies!" And who knows, you might end up with a tidy little sum of extra income.

("But I don't have access to a way to sell them!" someone in the back cries. If you're reading this, you have the internet, so you do. I made a free Big Cartel page and would be happy to show you how too. You DO NOT need to "know people in the 'zine scene," you do not need to get a bookshop to pick up your title on consignment, and do not need to send your 'zine to Factsheet Five. Does that...even exist anymore?)

'Zines will not replace all other kinds of artistic production. My POD books remain perpetually in print because I don't have to worry about assembling them myself; they stumble along, continuing to generate a profit after my involvement in their creation is over. I can say, though, that working on each 'zine by hand was a much more fulfilling feeling that uploading my pdf to DriveThru and then...having it be out of my hands and kinda weirdly impersonal at that point.

So yeah, give making a 'zine a try if the idea at all appeals to you. I highly recommend 'zines as a first project in the rpg or comics hobby because the stakes are so low: they don't cost much, you don't need specialized equipment, and there are so few limits that even discussing them feels like blowing smoke and wasting each other's time.

Even if your 'zine doesn't pan out the way you had hoped, at least you didn't trap yourself in a Kickstarter for a big project that will hang around your neck like an albatross.

In closing, I am not an expert in making 'zines. This is the first one I have made completely on my own since the 90s. Even so, if you have questions, want advice, or anything else, drop a comment below. I will try to sort you out to the best of my ability because I would love to see you make something.