May 30, 2012

Shortlist For 2012 Diana Jones Award Announced

RPGs, LARPs, a board-game and crowdsourced funding vie for hobby-gaming’s most eclectic and exclusive trophy.

The committee of the Diana Jones Award has announced the shortlist for its 2012 award. The list contains five candidates that in the opinion of the committee exemplify the very best that hobby-gaming produced in 2011. In alphabetical order, they are:

BURNING WHEEL GOLD, an RPG system by Luke Crane, published by Burning Wheel.

CROWDFUNDING, with particular acknowledgment to Kickstarter.

NORDIC LARP, a book by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, published by Fëa Livia.

RISK LEGACY, a board game by Rob Daviau, published by Hasbro Inc.

VORNHEIM, an RPG supplement by Zak S, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

The winner of the 2012 Award will be announced on Wednesday 15th August, at the annual Diana Jones Award and Freelancer Party in Indianapolis, the unofficial start of the Gen Con Indy convention.


The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming was founded and first awarded in 2001. It is presented annually to the person, product, company, event or any other thing that has, in the opinion of its mostly anonymous committee of games industry luminaries, best demonstrated the quality of excellence in the world of hobby-gaming in the previous year. The winner of the Award receives the Diana Jones trophy.

The short-list and eventual winner are chosen by the Diana Jones Committee, a mostly anonymous group of games-industry alumni and illuminati, known to include designers, publishers, cartoonists, and those content to rest on their laurels.

Past winners include industry figures such as Peter Adkison and Jordan Weisman, the role-playing games Nobilis, Sorcerer, and My Life with Master, the board-games Dominion and Ticket to Ride, the website BoardGameGeek; and the charity fundraising work of Irish games conventions. Last year’s winner was Fiasco by Jason Morningstar. This is the twelfth year of the Award.

More information is available at or at the Award’s Wikipedia page at


For more information or an invitation to the announcement of the 2012 Diana Jones Award you can contact a representative of the DJA committee:

May 29, 2012

The Warehouse of Dorian Gray

Insurers specializing in high-end art have become increasingly worried by the proportion of their clients’ art collections stored in a small handful of warehouses, mostly in Switzerland. By stashing their art at a so-called free port, the hyper-rich avoid taxes and customs fees.

To rip this story from the headlines, we can see an obvious plot for a heist flick, in which the PCs plot a single score allowing them to scoop up enough masterpieces to stock a world-class museum.

Let’s bend it a little into a premise for a Night’s Black Agents scenario. A venerable vampire, who perhaps once shared absinthe with Oscar Wilde, has transmitted his soul essence into a painting. You know the drill—it ages, he doesn’t. The only way to destroy him is to burn the canvas. He’s stashed it in a free port, confident that its experts will give it all the security they’d provide to a Rembrandt or Picasso.

The mission: under the guise of an ordinary heist, get in there and grab the painting—either to end him, or gain leverage to squeeze favors out of him, in furtherance of your broader war against the international bloodsucker hegemony.

May 23, 2012

Gaming on Google+ Hangout: After Action Report

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to gather a great group of players to test Hillfolk via the Google+ multi-webcam Hangout feature. Here’s how it went.

Like any poorly designed experiment, I was trying out three things at once:

        1. a new, simpler set of procedural action rules

        2. one-shot play

        3. the webcam game experience

First of all, we had a fun time, leaving group members hoping for a follow-up—which my schedule unfortunately doesn’t quite permit. Maybe we can get the band back together in the event of a quorum failure for my in-person Thursday night playtest.

#1 went fine. The rules felt simpler and easier to explain even given the complication of displaying tokens and playing for online play.

In the case of item 2, I stripped the rules back even further than for the one-shot I ran for the Pelgrane gang in December. My conclusion is that the game still works without key elements, which is nice to know, but doesn’t offer quite as broad an experience. The written section on one-shots will recommend a suite of features closer to the previous run.

Similarities between the two runs suggest that by default a single-session game develops into a power struggle to destroy and replace the clan chieftain. This offers a clear narrative everyone can take part in, and a definitely shaped conclusion. It works and it’s fun. But I’ll need to add some text showing the GM how to direct the storyline in other directions, so you can play in multiple one-shots without having them all follow the same dynamic.

Thoughts on #3: the Tabletop Forge app, which I used to present the flow of tokens and cards, and create a simple graphic allowing us to remember who was playing who, proved invaluable. At present its interface hearkens back to the clarion days of chat, with command lines and all. The creators of the app are planning a crowdfunding campaign enabling them to add the needed UI interface and other features. As this tool becomes more robust, so will Hangouts as an RPG platform.

One remains at the mercy of each participant’s computer and peripherals, especially where sound quality is concerned. A couple of the players fought with choppy audio streams and had to repeat themselves a lot, which impeded the flow.

Because it consists almost entirely of dialogue between characters, DramaSystem felt like an ideal match for the platform. Despite the kinks, I’m happy to be able to mention this in the rules as a viable way of getting a group together, for one-shots or the longer-term play the game is tuned for.

On the Isle of the Cyclopes, the One-Eyed Man Wants To Kill and Eat You

Raiders of the Fever Sea, part two of Paizo’s Skull and Shackles Adventure Path, is now raiding its way to your purveyor of fine game products. Included among its high-grade swashbucklery is part two of my serialized novella, “The Treasure of Far Thallai.” In “Butcher’s Rock,” captain Challys Argent and her unwilling sidekicks journey to Butcher’s Rock, so named due to its shape, and its population of ravening cyclopes. Furious battle and grim prophecy ensues. For more info, sail your galleon to Paizo’s product page.

May 22, 2012

Characters of the Greasepaint Series

In response to playtest comments, I’ve simplified one of the core systems of the DramaSystem engine, which powers the Hillfolk game. To test this, I’ve started up a non-Hillfolk game with the Thursday night group, because we already laid that epic series to its fitting conclusion. This time I threw the choice of setting open to the group, enabling us to collectively create something that isn’t intended for publication. The gang arrived at Carnivale with the serial numbers filed off, and thus are portraying members of a traveling show in dustbowl-era Texas. I’ve dubbed this series Greasepaint. Here’s who they’re playing.






Dramatic Poles


Jo-Jo the Wildman


Dr F is his father

B is his rival


Human or freak?



Snake Charmer

C is her childhood friend

J is object of pity


Independence vs Neediness


Dr. Fritz


Sees B as a daughter

C is rival for status

Protect the show the way it is

Arrogance vs. Wonder




Owes J a debt

lionizes F

People to trust

Honor vs. Suspicion

Scott Foster Aerialist

Wants power from Dr. F

alliance from J

Dr. F’s job

Short-Term vs. Long-Term

May 18, 2012

Wu Xia

Forensics meet fu in Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s Wu Xia, my favorite martial arts film of the last year. In a premise that somewhat recalls History of Violence, modest paper maker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) tangles with and dispatches a pair of dangerous thugs who descend on his rural village. Detective Xu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a hyper-rationalist laden with the emotional and physical damage of a mistaken act of clemency performed early in his career, realizes that Jinxi’s story doesn't hold up. Applying his knowledge of physics and Chinese medicine to the crime scene, he comes to suspect that Jinxi is a powerful master of qi energy. And if he is that, the Imperial law enforcement system isn’t the only an organization who might want to know about him and his new family...

Set in 1917 but with nary a firearm in sight, Wu Xia executes a gorgeously-shot slow burn before escalating into a satisfyingly emotional fu epic. CGI effects appear, but only to add grace notes to physically performed stunt sequences. The CSI-style forensic recreations, based on Eastern instead of Western anatomic principles, show us what Xu Baiju is thinking as he peels the deceptions away from Jinxi’s story. Yen delivers a career highlight performance, as a man who has discovered his real identity but still has vestiges of another one moving below the surface. Kaneshiro undercuts his matinee idol status as a man with a brilliant mind trapped in a weakened body. Jimmy Wang Yu, classic star of the Shaw Brothers era (One-Armed Swordsman), makes his first film appearance in eighteen years as a climactic heavy as rife with pathos as he is with menace. And he can still fight!

Two equally generic English titles, Dragon and Swordsman, have attached themselves to the film, suggesting that someone at some point was hoping for a North American release. Snag it wherever you stock up on Hong Kong home video imports.

May 17, 2012

Consider That Stolen, Music Fan

As one would hope and expect at an establishment where all the sandwiches are named after Wilco songs, the chat between counter guys and customers at Sky Blue Sky usually revolves around music.

(Come to think of it, they may actually pay the guys who hang around passing the word on cool new bands. Like the performers who wander amusement parks dressed as cartoon animals.)

The other day, as I was waiting for my Kingpin, I overheard the following revelatory exchange.

Counter guy: You’ve never heard of Jack White?

Music fan: (shaking his head, but smiling) Nah, that’s not my real flavor.

“That’s not my real flavor.” It’s what you say when you want to indicate your lack affinity for something without dissing it. A friendly acknowledgment of taste’s essential subjectivity.

The complicated die mechanic in that story game? Not my real flavor.

I tried to watch that adaptation of the classic ghost story last night, but it was not my real flavor.

It carries the same meaning as “not my cup of tea” but without the aging pedigree, and the unspoken connotation of withheld condemnation.

Now, that saying, music fan, that is my real flavor. Thank you. And consider it stolen.

May 16, 2012

A WaRPed Character

To celebrate-slash-publicize Atlas Games’ release of WaRP, the underlying rules system for the Over the Edge game, under an open license, here’s a character in the WaRP stats. If you sense the presence of the Cut-Ups Method in the concept, you just might be onto something... While the WaRP license doesn’t grant the right to publish material based on the Al Amarja setting, hey, this is a blog entry and I’m a friend of the family, as it were.

Jewel Broussard

Weirdly Normal Person

Ever since she first saw the cartoon character Tiffany Trilobite on television as a young child and sensed weird depths in her, Kipton, OH native Jewel Broussard has instinctively pursued the random and offbeat. Now twenty-nine years of age, working as a substitute teacher, she has lived her entire life in this small village, never suspecting that the mundane events of her workaday existence play out in exaggerated parallel on the mysterious island nation of Al Amarja. When she spoke up at a village meeting for an increase in the firefighting levy, a new crew of violent, privatized emergency workers, the Broussard Clarions, sprang up on the island. When she caught a fellow teacher stealing money from her school’s prom fund, the dean of D’Aubainne University was arrested and executed by the government.

A few days ago, a plane ticket to Al Amarja arrived in the mail. Though usually cautious, Jewel has chosen to go to this place she’s never heard of, in hopes of discovering why someone would have sent it to her.

Mirrored Existence Events of her dull but happy life in Ohio reflect or create dramatic outcomes on the island. What happens when she gets there? 2

Substitute Teacher Knows a little about everything, but mostly how to earn the cooperation of unruly groups. 3

Inspiring Speaker Confidence and innate goodness make those who listen to her want to do as she suggests. 3

Sweetly naïve (flaw)

Hit Points 14

May 14, 2012

I Have Combat Advantage, Therefore I Am

Earlier I argued that an RPG resolution system can—and should—help convey the game’s emotional message.

This raises a question: can we look at existing systems and ascribe an emotional message to their various interactions of arithmetic and die rolls?

We have no reason to believe that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were thinking about this stuff when they codified the “to hit” rolls. Nor was it an issue when designers of later editions expanded it into D&D’s unified core resolution mechanic. But what does a d20 roll do, emotionally?

A d20 is very swingy, offering the biggest range of results possible in the standard polyhedral toolkit. Its raw result introduces a high degree of randomness. You use the rules, in which a +2 bonus is consider mathematically significant, to try to shape its fundamental unpredictability. Stacking up bonuses from magic, items, feats, skills and situational modifiers, you try to move the needle from succeeding about half the time to instead about a 66% chance of success.

In other words, you are incrementally assembling small advantages into one big advantage, in an attempt to impose order on chaos. Through a kitbag of step-by-step accumulation you strive to dampen life’s fundamental arbitrariness. Roll well, and rationality prevails. Roll poorly, and you are reminded that disorder can never be conquered, only forestalled.

Years ago I argued that D&D is a celebration of naked capitalism, red in tooth and glaive-guisarme. Can it at the same time be our foremost existentialist roleplaying game?

May 11, 2012

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

Tsui Hark’s latest wuxia flick, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, is now available wherever you buy your Hong Kong video imports. (Remember, co-continentals: Asia and America share the same Blue Ray region.)

This sequel to the 1992 classic Dragon Inn serves up a study in contrasting eras of flying-people. The original is fast, energetic and sometimes technically crude. Flying Swords drips with mammoth production values, is Hark’s first foray into 3D, and relies as heavily on CGI-animated fu fighting as on wirework.

In plot embracing full convolution of its literary sources, Jet Li plays a eunuch-busting guerrilla who, after destroying the evil East Bureau, is hunted by the bad-ass prince of the even more evil West Bureau. Their paths take them to Dragon Inn, where the white meat in the noodles is people. Add a woman warrior disguised as him as an expression of unrequited love, a pregnant girl escaping the prince, and an assorted complement of treasure-hunting bandits, and you’ve got more story than you can shake a throwing dart at. And oh yes, there’s a gigantic sandstorm headed their way.

I wish this was as complete a return to form as Hark’s previous Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. But here early reels that ought to be investing you in the characters instead spent time throwing computer-animated objects at the 3D camera. Would I sooner see Jet Li in his athletic prime, fighting a dude in widescreen with a locked-off camera? Yes, but that was nearly twenty years ago now. If you’re a fan, lesser Hark and Li are still Hark and Li.

The trailer prominently features the opening cameo from a corrupt eunuch Gordon Liu.

May 10, 2012

My Favorite Sendak Quote

The late Maurice Sendak, who along with Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel elevated the children’s book to high art, was often referred to as charmingly irascible. When people call you irascible with no further adjective, that’s usually a nice way of saying that you’re extraordinarily difficult but have somehow earned it. Charmingly irascible comes into play when your crankiness becomes entertaining—when you say the what we wish we had the cojones to say. Sendak wasn’t so much irascible as dead honest, and bracingly unconcerned with what you thought about that.

I’ve pointed it to again, but as we celebrate his life and work, here again is my all-time top statement of the governing ethos behind such classics as Where the Wild Things Are:

“I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

We should all be so irascible.

May 08, 2012

Core Resolution and Emotional Dynamics

How To Design Games the Robin Laws Way

(Part Six of Several; see part one for introduction and disclaimer)

With the core book outlined, it’s time to tackle the question of the game’s core resolution system.

(The reality isn’t so linear; thoughts about the book’s structure generally arise in parallel to ideas about the resolution system.)

If you’re designing a new game based on an existing core rules set, the choice is simple—let’s use that one. It might be dictated to you by the publisher, or a decision that you make as a designer. In the latter case, you'll obviously be constrained to the core rules sets available to you. Most likely, you’re working with a rules set by the same publisher. Or you might be using one available through a license, open or limited. We’ve already talked about the process of fitting a new game to an existing rules set; you’re presumably doing the Game X take on Y genre/setting.

If, however, I’m working from scratch, I want to design a core resolution system that creates the emotional dynamic implied by the core goal. Dying Earth, with its rolls and rerolls, evokes the comical back-and-forth of the source material. DramaSystem emulates the basic construction of dramatic scenes and otherwise gets out of the way. HeroQuest zooms out to a broader emulation of story construction, including the pass/fail cycle I later refined in Hamlet's Hit Points. GUMSHOE asks why it feels cool when heroes gather information in a mystery story, and brings that to the gaming table.

I never start out with a novel or abstractly intriguing mechanical idea and then try to build a game around that chassis. It starts with feeling. The mathematical construct is secondary; what the players are feeling when they use it is everything.

Recently I had the experience of switching from one core system owned by my publisher to the other. Before digging into the research for The Gaean Reach, I figured it would be Skulduggery-based, with bits of GUMSHOE sorted in. After reacquainting myself with Jack Vance’s delightful source material, I saw how the structure of its stories differed from the superficially similar Dying Earth tales the core rules were originally designed for. The SF novels played were more about investigation with the occasional setback than the constant picaresque reversals undergone by the likes of Cugel and Rhialto. So I shifted gears, to a GUMSHOE core with appropriate Skulduggery elements grafted on. Again this was a matter of creating the right feel, whether or not the crossover between the two systems introduces brand confusion.

May 07, 2012

Toronto-Area RPGer Sought For Thursday Night Playtest Group

As happens from time to time, a slot has opened in up in my weekly Thursday night game group. We meet from 7-10 pm in the Annex area of downtown Toronto. The game of choice shifts depending on what I’m playtesting or familiarizing myself with at any given moment.

At present I’m running a follow-up playtest of my new DramaSystem game. This will not use the standard Hillfolk setting, but will instead follow the conflicts and desires of a traveling circus troupe in Depression-era America. The players have asked that their carnies have supernatural powers. (I asked the group what setting they wanted to play and they settled on an homage to Carnivale. This blatant act of premise appropriation is for in-house purposes only and not for publication, so rest easy, HBO legal department.)

Once I’ve given the post-playtest rules draft enough of a spin, we’ll move on to Dreamhounds of Paris, a Trail of Cthulhu campaign in which you portray the major figures of the surrealist movement, after they discover the capability of consciously reconfiguring Lovecraft’s dreamlands. Goodbye Dunsany pastiche, hello melting clocks.

If interested, please shoot me a message on whatever platform you’re seeing this on. Give me a quick sense of your RPG tastes and experience. We’ve had a ton of fun over the years and look forward to bringing in an enthusiastic new player whose time commitments allow for reliable attendance.

May 04, 2012

Extreme Zombies

I’m pleased to announce that “Susan”, my story of undead unwholesomeness set during a queasy recovery from the zombie apocalypse, will be reprinted in Extreme Zombies, an anthology from Prime Books. Editor Paula Guran has packed its pages with impressive names, meaning that I’ll be sharing a masthead with such worthies as George R. R. Martin, Nancy A. Collins, and Joe R. Lansdale. Lest you conclude that only the middle initial users need apply, the book also makes gore-spattered room for Stone Skin Press contributors Jesse Bullington and Monica Valentinelli. Check out the full roster on the Prime Press site.

May 02, 2012

The Treasure of Far Thallai

The Wormwood Mutiny, part one of Pathfinder’s latest adventure path series, “Skull and Shackles,” has now dropped piratical anchor. With it comes the first installment of my new serialized novella, “The Treasure of Far Thallai.”

Challys Argent was once a cloistered scholar, pledged by family tradition to the pursuit of knowledge. But when her order’s seaside eyrie was razed and looted by pirates, her fellow pedants put to the sword, she swore to avenge her brethren and recover the precious artifacts the ravagers stole.

Now, years later, hardened, implacable, calculating, she plies the seas, pirate captain and venture-captain. She sails a captured galleon, the Aspidochelone. At her side fight four unwillingly champions—Golarion’s  notorious pirates all, bound to serve her by the magic of a mighty named weapon, the cutlass Siren Call. They are:

  • the cannibal ogre Otondo

  • the depraved noble Adalbert Aspodell

  • the rum-guzzling, mutton-chomping, avaricious Seagrave

  • and the vindictive, deposed pirate queen Rira, her face permanently hidden by a metal mask

In Chapter One, “Hell Come Ashore”, Challys and crew land in the village of Moonplum, as it is plundered by a rival pirate band. There they seek her latest quarry—the sadistic captain Kered Firsk.

May 01, 2012

See P. XX

In my promotional flurry for The Birds: There Goes My Dream Job I have been remiss in directing you to the April edition of Pelgrane Press’ webzine, See P. XX.

My eponymous column previews The Gaean Reach design process, explaining how a game I thought was going to be Skulduggery with a dash of GUMSHOE asserted itself the other way around.

But that’s just for starters! Also included:

  • an inquiry into the love life of the doomed Augustus Darcy, from Book of the Smoke
  • an introduction to the gorgeous artwork of new Pelgrane illustrator Phil Reeves
  • tradecraft and character dossiers for Night’s Black Agents
  • playtesting opportunities, including The Gaean Reach
  • tantalizing first looks for the 13th Age, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet’s upcoming love letter to dungeon-crawling fantasy adventure
  • and as always, Simon’s update on what’s new and in the works at Pelgrane