Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas

I've definitely heard that the RPG industry doesn't have a Christmas rush. Sales at Indie Press Revolution this year definitely put the lie to that collective wisdom, however. In the first three weeks of December, sales were two to three times greater than usual. In the last week, it's dropped back down to a more typical level. I think Christmas has a lot to do with that.

I wonder if this isn't because of the longer print cycle of indie games. It's tougher to plan for Christmas wish-lists on products that have a three-month shelf life, but indie games are around for a long time, and many people plan to buy games for months or even years before they get around to doing it. Much easier to put a product like this on a Christmas list. No matter the reason, that's good news for both IPR and small publishers!

Monday, December 19, 2005

[Mortal Coil] Old Gods Get Mean

So we got together again last Friday for another playtest session of Mortal Coil. This was a follow-up session to the one I wrote about last month, and we preserved the characters and the theme document from that first session. This session gave the rules a much more vigorous workout, and I felt that as the GM I was able to introduce a far more compelling conflict. The first session was a basically a quest story, where the characters tracked down and recovered some purloined beer from their favorite bar. While everyone enjoyed it, and I felt the rules had been very successful in the session, it was a bit lame. I had chosen to play off of a conflict in everyone’s character. They all had written Passions related to this bar, and a threat to it was the easiest one to come up with on the fly in the first session.

One of the ways this session was more successful is that I applied better stakes to the conflicts, and the thread at the Forge about this issue was invaluable. When I finish writing up the rules, I plan on tightening up the instructions on how to do this considerably.

Here’s what happened in play. We had only two PCs this time. The player of Loki didn’t show, and my wife had let me know beforehand that she wasn’t up to playing that night, so we had Pluto (Russ) and the leprechaun (Bill) as our player characters. I had prepared a few NPCs for the evening that tied directly into the character’s Passions (surprisingly easy to come up with, actually—it took me about half an hour to put nearly a dozen together).

So, Pluto and the leprechaun are having a drink at the bar. They notice a newcomer, and Pluto learns this fellow is Coyote. He mostly seems to be there to mess with the other gods. He is defined as a trickster god, and this actually gives this NPC access to the facts that were created by Loki’s character in the last session since both are the same type of god. Soon after, Jupiter arrives, accompanied by Proserpine, Pluto’s old flame. It becomes clear that Jupiter is here to rub Pluto’s face in the fact that Jupiter has picked up someone his brother lost. Juno also happens to be in the bar, and attracts Pluto’s attention. They decide to try to humiliate Jupiter and peel Proserpine away from him. The leprechaun is happy to assist, and so, it turns out, is Coyote, after the leprechaun lures away the ladies he had been wooing. The only new fact in the game is established at this point: that leprechauns can charm and distract people with song and dance making their victims lose track of time, but that if the victim can outperform the leprechaun, the tables are turned and the leprechaun is charmed instead. Coyote then turns his attention to Proserpine under Jupiter’s nose.

Pluto tries to distract Jupiter to allow Coyote the chance to move in, using one of his Passions (a hatred of more successful gods) twice in the same conflict. This causes the Passion to increase and another to fall. Pluto fails this conflict, the consequence being that Jupiter now knows what Pluto is up to. They come up with a new scheme, Pluto conferring with Coyote in the bathroom and getting his tacit approval. They will try to lure Jupiter into a drinking contest with the leprechaun, a contest that the leprechaun is sure to win. Russ wanted to add a new fact about Jupiter, that he was proud and easy to lure into contests, but I countered that this was not a folkloric fact about Jupiter. None of us could come up with a good example when this had happened in myth, and referring to the rule on our theme document that the facts must be based in real folklore, this got dropped.

Coyote managed to lure Jupiter into the contest, and while the leprechaun packed away considerable quantities, Coyote used his Magician aptitude to fake drinking. Jupiter lost miserably, and passed out. Coyote then scooped up Proserpine and left the bar.

The next morning, Jupiter awoke, and went hunting Pluto seeking revenge. The leprechaun trailed along behind, in case he was needed. Jupiter confronted Pluto in his office, and Jupiter decides to get physical with Pluto. Russ decided that he wanted Pluto to resist with his will rather than try to get in a physical conflict with the far stronger Jupiter. Not wanting to call on his hate a third time, Russ decided that all of this had created a new Passion for him, a Hate for Jupiter, and dropped another Passion he had never used. With the help of this new Passion, Pluto managed to face his brother down with willpower alone. Humiliated, Jupiter stormed out (greatly weakened by both this and the drinking contest, in which he had fatigued himself).

The final conflict took place that night, when Pluto returned to the bar and found Jupiter trying to scam on the bar owner’s wife. Both the leprechaun and Pluto joined in to force Jupiter to leave, and he had little choice at this point, slinking away three times denied.

All in all, it was a satisfying session. Pluto was definitely the spotlight character this time out, although it Loki’s player had made it, things would have been a lot more complicated. I plan on focusing on the leprechaun next time I run this.

Several rules were invoked this time that worked very well.

  1. An appeal to add a fact was vetoed based on a previously established rule in the theme document.
  2. Pluto’s Passions changed a great deal during the game; once because he called on the same Passion more than once, and another time because he felt that a new Passion would be more appropriate. Russ’ comment was that the Passions really reflected a dynamic and evolving picture of what was important to the character, which is the purpose of this mechanic.
  3. Fatigue gained from going “all-in” really had a telling effect this time out. Basically, characters have a pool of action tokens they can use in a conflict to perform different acts. If the player decides to commit all of the tokens for a single action, one of them is spent (temporarily, they do regenerate). Jupiter ended up having to do this three times, and by the last conflict he was seriously weakened, so much so that he had to retire and come back later if he wanted to win anything.

I see several things I want to clarify and tighten up in the rules as written to better reflect how we were actually playing, but the rules were humming this time and everything worked together the way it was meant to. We even remembered to throw around bonus tokens for any of the cool actions people took during play.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Legend of Yore: A Fantasy Heartbreaker Story

Our tale begins long ago, in 1986. Our hero, a young lad of 16, begins his long journey into game design innocently enough, on a family car trip. Bored, the boy decides to design his own role-playing game. Thus begins a journey that is not to end until the next century, a story full of reverses, disappointments, and the cold clutch of reality.

In 1986 our hero’s experiences with role-playing are quite limited. He has played Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Middle Earth Role-Playing from Iron Crown Enterprises. This is the extent of his experience. Still, he has been exposed to a number of different and innovative sets of rules, and has found them lacking in some respects. As he designs his own game, he comes up with several ways to streamline and simplify rules that he has found in these other games. His game, at this stage called “Archers & Alchemists,” contains a couple of innovations: a basic life path system that leads to career-based rather than class-based characters, and a table that reduces combat actions to a single simple roll. The game is fun, and he and his friends enjoy playing it. He continues to run it for his friends through 1992, by which time it has acquired a new name, “The Legend of Yore.”

At this stage, it is suggested to him that perhaps he try to publish this game. Up to this point, the thought had not crossed his mind, but now, the seed has been planted. Why shouldn’t he get his game into print? It is as good as, or better than, many other games out there. He begins to research what would be required to do this. He talks to hobby store owners, he talks to his gaming friends, and his relatives. He learns of the distributors who buy games and sell them to hobby stores. From one hobby store owner, he hears some words of discouragement: “My advice—play this game with your friends, don’t try to print it.” Our hero dismisses this advice, and decides to print his game.

Now resolved, our hero gathers money, setting up a company and selling shares to family and friends. With this capital in hand, he seeks out artists willing to work for free or for a small fee. His friend offers to edit the book for him, free of charge, and buys desktop publishing software to do so. Our hero spends nearly a year getting his book ready for publication, and finds a local printer. Once all of the work is complete, he prints 1000 copies of The Legend of Yore. The year is 1996. He sells the first few to his circle of friends, and begins trying to promote his game.

Two distributors show interest, and place orders for his game. Our hero goes to local hobby stores and runs demos. He attends local conventions and runs the game. One of the distributors even writes a full-page article about his game in their quarterly circular, praising The Legend of Yore as a great new fantasy RPG. He buys a booth at GenCon to promote the game. Then, disaster strikes. A flood damages much of his stock, and several hundred books must be destroyed. He has a lot of lightly damaged stock as well, some of which he takes to GenCon with him. Cutting the price of the flood-damaged books to $5, he sells out of his stock at GenCon. Flush with success, he returns home hopeful and excited.

It turns out that the low price was the main driver of sales at GenCon, and the word-of-mouth he hoped for never materializes. Not deterred, he begins a supplement for The Legend of Yore, consisting of a GM’s screen and four adventures. He continues to promote it locally and at local conventions, getting a few sales in this area. Troubling news begins to surface, as two hobby stores contact him, letting him know that their distributor has informed them that he is out of business and The Legend of Yore is out of print. He tries to interest hobby stores outside his area by sending them a free sample. This does not result in any orders.

This turns out to be the beginning of the end. Our hero returns to GenCon the next year, and sales are meager. Those few who drop by indicate they hoped for a supplement or something at this point. Sales, never stellar to begin with, continue to decline gradually over the next few years. In an effort to kindle more interest, our hero sinks another few grand into a printed supplement, ordering 900 copies. Sales do not improve, and no distributors will take the supplement.

This is how it continues, until sales finally trail off to nothing in 2005. The remaining stock of The Legend of Yore, about 300 copies now dried out and falling apart, along with the majority of the supplement printing, is pulped.


I hope you found this story interesting. This tale of woe is not a tragedy, however. Although The Legend of Yore was a waste of money from a business standpoint, I do not regret publishing it. It got me started on the game design train, and I am really happy where that train has taken me now. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way which led directly to my current POD printing philosophy, and to the creation of IPR as a way to help other folks avoid the problems of the three-tier (really four-tier, these days) distribution system.

The Legend of Yore is in many ways an archetypal fantasy heartbreaker, and I find it so problematic these days that I would only republish it with a complete rules revision. I find many aspects of the game world embarrassing, and would only be satisfied with a complete rewrite there as well. Someday I may do these things, but I have a lot of new projects I am interested in now. I think somebody said that everyone should write a fantasy heartbreaker, and this is mine. I learned a lot about game design on the way, as well. Doing something is the best way to learn it, and I learned a lot the hard way.

One thing I absolutely do not regret, however, was ignoring the advice not to publish it at all and just play it with my friends.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Recess: This Is How We Roll

Check it out: Recess VII is taking place January 14th, hosted by NerdNYC. This is an awesome game day, well worth your time if you can make it.

I'm going to run two sessions of Mortal Coil there, it's beta debut! Come and see.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Forge Forum Focus

Just a quick note for those interested. Clinton has established a forum on The Forge for Galileo Games. Feel free to visit and to post.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Forge

OK, so Ron Edwards is closing the RPG Theory forum and the GNS forum over at the Forge. This is a bit significant, since these fora were spots where some really fruitful discussion took place (albeit two or three years ago). A lot of criticism gets laid on the Forge (just look at the thread this spawned on, but my personal opinion is that what has happened in the last two or three years represents a Renaissance in RPG design, and most of the credit for that can be laid quite firmly at the feet of the Forge in general and Ron Edwards in particular.

Exciting stuff has come from here, and gaming will never be the same because of it. A huge crop of new designers have been tutored by the Forge, and these ideas continue to seep outward. Who knows if the big mainstream games will ever fully be on board with new theoretical ideas, but the Forge has functioned like a salon or some new art movement in the overall moribund world of RPG design, and this will ultimately change things in very fundamental ways. It might be years, but treating game design as an art that deserves to be studied and discussed is a great accomplishment. My design has improved incredibly, and I am now able to get what I want out of a game when I finish it.

This has been a fairly rambling post, but I can't emphasize the importance of the Forge enough. All in all, these changes there are for the better, and I continue to be excited about what is going on in our little game design community.