October 31, 2011

NeoExodus Fiction

Speaking of crowdfunding, Louis J. Porter of Louis Porter Jr. Design Inc has enlisted me to write a fiction piece for the NeoExodus setting. The outcome of a Kickstarter campaign to launch LPJ’s fiction line will determine its scope. Full details here.

See P. XX

For a look at how DramaSystem handles scene framing, check out my eponymous column in the brand-new edition of Pelgrane Press’ webzine, See P. XX.

Among other included goodies are Adrian Bott’s look at the upside of failure, Steve Dempsey’s Trail of Cthulhu demo “Ritual Pursuits”, an assortment of Ashen Stars and ToC wallpapers, and a build-it-yourself apocalypse. Check it out!

October 28, 2011

Crowdfunding and You

Usually a single person’s buying preferences mean little in the grand sweep of a product roll-out. This doesn’t stop us from ascribing our desires to large numbers of other people when we wish an item was priced differently or had some other suite of features.

Crowdfunding changes all that. It allows a single person, by financing a goodly chunk of a project’s expenses, to become a significant portion of its market. Though no one thinks of it in this way, that’s one of the movement’s primary appeals: it ushers you into a realm of statistical significance. For once, your anecdotal data about your own purchasing history is relevant!

Simon Rogers and I are currently mulling the various perks we might offer as we crowdfund Hillfolk, the first DramaSystem game. With that in mind, I thought I’d pick the brains of those of you who have contributed to crowd-funded projects.

My assumption is that most people who contribute do so because they want a copy of the product being offered, and want to feel that they’re helping to bring it into existence. According to this thoroughly uncontroversial theory, the most compelling perk would obviously be the book itself, in both a modest and a premium version. Being credited in the book and elsewhere as a funder, I am also assuming, is another key incentive.

Aside from these central pillars of crowdfunding, are there other perks you’ve found particularly enticing? Conversely, what perks arouse your indifference? Are there perks that once inspired you to pledge, but have since paled in your estimation?

I’m not going to shoot you with my comment gun if you’ve put up a project for crowdfunding and have insights to share about the process. However, I am hoping for discussion primarily led by pledgers, past and future.

October 26, 2011

Toppled Silo

King of Dragon Pass sold as many units in its first six weeks of release as the game’s desktop incarnation did over its entire lifetime. As Sarah Newton pointed out over on the Twitter:

I guess it just shows the difference in reach once you break out of the "silo" into the global app market.

I think that’s exactly right. Moreover, KoDP serves as an exemplar of a shift in marketing eras. Back in the old-timey mists of 1999, computer games were items primarily sold in brick and mortar stores, packaged in largish cardboard boxes full of nothing. These stores ran on a pay for placement basis, renting out prime endcap space to manufacturers. Glossy magazines provided the main avenue of promotion. To snag coverage, you had to fit within one of four sharply delineated categories. King of Dragon Pass, with its mixture of storytelling and resource management, is and was sui generis. In the era of silos, originality turned out not only to be a minus, but a powerful barrier to entry.

Today we have shifted from the silo era to the recommendation era. Computer games are digital files sold through portals for whom a wide assortment of categories and deep stock are competitive advantages. Through social networking, creators can alert core customers for a niche game like KoDP to the portal, and let it do the rest. The portal provides the opportunity to break out of the niche. New players who have never rolled a d20 and have no idea who Greg Stafford is are now discovering the world of Glorantha.

And not all of them are even Scandinavian.

October 25, 2011

Paparazzo Drift

Like most governments, South Korea keeps more regulations on the books than it can afford to police. Its solution: offer small bounties to private citizens who report commercial infractions. The result: a growing industry of so-called “paparazzi” who, with video cameras in hand, act as freelance inspection officers. (NYT link.)

First, this presents us with a lovely example of linguistic drift. The term paparazzi originates in a work of fiction, the iconic Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita, in which a photographer who hunts local celebrities and gossip figures with his camera is nicknamed Paparazzo—which means buzzing fly. It soon entered the English language, transmuted into a general term for celebrity-stalking photographer. And now it has mutated again, moving to Korea to describe these for-profit regulators.

South Korea’s film industry has been on a roll lately, turning out great genre flicks. How long will it be before this real-life situation, rife with cinematic promise, supplies the premise for a movie—and what genre will it tackle?

Crime drama: A budding regulator winds up over his head when he records the wrong infraction at a mob-owned factory.

Spy thriller: A paparazzi flees North Korean agents when his tape of food stall infractions accidentally captures their activities.

Comedy: The cat and mouse game between a paparazzi and his business owner target turns into an escalating series of reprisals.

Romantic Comedy: An unlikely pair of freelance regulators fall in love when they compete to expose the same dumping scam.

Horror: Terror abounds when a team of young paparazzi discover that the secret hidden of an abandoned factory is something far worse than drums of toxic waste...

October 24, 2011

The Bit.ly Info Page Is Your Friend

Here’s a plug for a tool I’ve found very useful in calibrating my net presence. If yours includes links, and constitutes an outreach effort of some kind—that is, you care how many people respond to your links by clicking on them—you may find it equally helpful.

We all know the main purpose of link shorteners. Before Twitter embedded its own URL-shrinker in its interface, bit.ly was clearly the leader in the field. I still find it the service to use, because of the metrics it gives you when you create a link while signed into their site. If you add their bookmarklet to your browser, you get a fast way to generate links from pages, which then propagate to Twitter and Facebook. One presumes that Google+ will join the list when its API goes public.

The bookmarklet gives you a handy 140-character editing window and allows you to pick thumbnails for Facebook.

The thing I’m finding really useful about bit.ly is the ability to go to a list of one’s links, in what is called your public timeline, and see how popular each item has been. For each link you can consult an info page that lists other Twitter cites, tells you when clicks occurred, and from what platform.

It was through these info pages that I first saw how effective Google+ was in driving attention, even a few weeks into its launch. Though I’m sometimes surprised by how much (or how little) mileage a given link gets, it provides an ongoing reminder of the sorts of subjects my readers are interested in—or not.

Those who link purely out of self-expression won’t find much to care about here, unless they feel irresistibly drawn to pie charts. But if you link to your own blog or other articles to maintain a profile or get a message out, your bit.ly timeline will assist in fine-tuning your choices.

October 20, 2011

How a DramaSystem Episode Plays Out

Last week I presented a series of synopses from the in-house Hillfolk playtest, to show the sort of narrative you might develop over the course of a DramaSystem series. This time I thought I’d zoom in a bit with a detailed account of the action that unfolds during a single episode.

This is from our second season. For list of main characters, pop back here. We’ve now added a new PC, the warrior Flint (played by Scott.) He’s returned to the Horsehead clan after a year's captivity at the hands of the loathed and feared neighboring people, the Tridents. Though still finding his footing in a home that has greatly changed during his absence, he’ll soon start acting on his dramatic poles: loyalty vs. ambition. Close readers will note that this is the same opposition that drove the chieftain, Thickneck, during the first season. His player is away attending classes this fall, so I’ve had to step in to play him as a recurring character. Other characters not mentioned in the above-linked post are also recurring characters, played by the GM.

The episode title is also its theme, chosen by the player who frames, or calls, its first scene.

SE02EP03: “Unity”

Skull seeks the cooperation of Staffholder, the child shaman who now serves as the clan’s spiritual advisor, in his bid for southern unity. She embraces his plan enthusiastically, thinking it will allow them to impose Horsehead-style worship on the region—by violence if necessary.

Flint dreams of the torturer who loved him, the cruelly beautiful Trident matriarch Pierces-the-Sky. He awakens in horror.

Twig seeks her husband’s plans for the coming moot, where southern clans open to unifying under the northern king will meet to mull the details. Thickneck provides slim assurance, revealing that opposed clans and rebel bandits likely intend to attack the moot or the northern procession to it.

At a meeting of the inner circle, Redaxe demands a clear long-range objective for the clan. Thickneck agrees to his scheme to unify north and south against the Tridents.

Flint confronts Farhawk, demanding to know what he must do to prove he’s not a spy. Farhawk reveals that Skull was until recently making overtures to the Tridents, and advises Flint to kill him.

Farhawk goes to his wife, Raging River, for a dose of realpolitik. She lays out a chilling vision in which all choices lead to civil war.

Skull seeks Redaxe’s aid at the moot. They hatch a plan to parley with their mightiest rivals, the Stoneforts.

Godtalker, a northern priest invited to Horsehead by Twig, petitions her for redress, after the northerner’s sacred tablets are profaned by someone throwing dung. She agrees to find the culprit.

It’s a young woman, perhaps put up to it by Staffholder. Twig goes to Godtalker seeking forgiveness for her. Godtalker compromises from his original demand that she be stoned, instead jumping at the chance to deliver an exhortation to the entire moot.

Redaxe meets Oldcrag, his opposite number among the Stoneforts, and finds him less interested in fighting Tridents than his traditional foes, the Horseheads.

Flint demands that Skull tell him the truth about his Trident dalliances. Skull placates him, minimizing the consequences of his prior meeting with the dread Trident warrior, Tall-As-A-Spear.

A religious riot pits Horseheads against Northerners. In its aftermath, Farhawk upbraids Twig for starting the whole mess, by inviting in Northern priests. She vehemently defends her actions.

Skull seeks out Thickneck, who turns out to be equally disturbed by his wife’s spiritual meddling. He appoints Skull as the man to solve the strife.

October 19, 2011

New Hero Cover Revealed

Here’s a peek at the cover for The New Hero. As you’ll recall, this is the first of the fiction anthologies I’m shepherding for Stone Skin Press, Pelgrane’s new fiction line. We were lucky enough to snag the services of comics artist and illustrator extraordinaire Gene Ha, who more than met our expectations with the fabulous image you see below.

Gene went above and beyond the call of duty by closely reading each and every one of the fourteen great stories in the collection, placing each protagonist in his composition. He pitched us the idea of a Greek vase as emblematic of the book’s theme, which combines the time-honored structure of the iconic hero tale with fresh new characters, settings, and voices. The individual elements will also appear in the interior, as part of the title treatment for each story.

The first volume of a new line carries a lot of freight. We couldn’t be more thrilled.

October 18, 2011

Link Round-Up: Dracula Notes, Sendak Quote, Lennon Tooth

Stoker great-grandson finds Dracula notebook in Isle of Wight attic.

“I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” — Maurice Sendak provides the quote of the day.

Reliquary not included: John Lennon tooth carries £10,000 auction estimate.

The Arsenic Eaters

As with other GUMSHOE games like The Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars GMs are encouraged to look to the news for episode inspiration. Like the writers of the various Treks and the nouveau Battlestar, they might use the space opera form to examine issues of the day.

Alternately, they can start with pop science articles and either work their way to political allegory, or not, as desired.

For example, a recent study indicates that drug addiction piggybacks on the same neural impulses that lead animals to crave salt.

In the episode this inspires, the crew is hired to investigate a series of attacks on Combine ships near the Bleed’s far edge. They discover that the hostile party is a heretofore unknown advanced species called the gretherin. Although at first they seem merely xenophobic and implacably hostile, a twist reveals their motivations. A gang of human and cybe drug runners has infiltrated their home world, engineering a synthetic drug by hijacking the gretherin’s necessary craving for arsenic, a trace metal they require to regulate metabolic function. The gangsters aim to addict the entire planet to a substance only they can manufacture, draining it of its wealth. The gretherin take this for an act of war waged by the entire Combine. Can the PCs avert a nasty local conflict by taking down the drug gang and destroying the technology used to create the drug?

October 14, 2011

A Look Back at Korad: II: The World

Last week I talked about the process behind Korad. Now let’s examine the content.

The risk with any creative collaboration between a large group is of a plunge into the mushy middle. If the hallmark of superlative work is individual vision, crowd-sourced creation threatens to settle on bland consensus.

Yet Korad is anything but bland. It sidesteps trad fantasy tropes: for example, by choosing as its major inhuman races discorporate “body snatchers” and a refreshingly sympathetic take on the ghoul motif. Though its general vibe is more ancient than medieval, it eschews the influence of any one identifiable earth culture. Koradi culture has the depth and internal contradictions of any historical empire, without owing too much to any one of them.

It’s certainly not a world I would have come up with on its own. The unpredictability of its creation lends it the lived-in feel, the paradoxes that lend it believability.

In any vote-based project, a pattern soon makes itself apparent. Decisions tend to fall on a sweet spot in an emergent spectrum. Where a particularly brilliant or engaging choice comes up, the vote result may fall outside the sweet spot, serving as a distinguishing exception.

For example, in the old Angels and Operators play-by-blog game, the continuum was between caution and heedlessness. Instructions for our delusional-or-is-he protagonist showed a marked preference for seeking more information over other choices. Because this was so clear and obvious a choice, I learned to write the choices to take it out of consideration. After that, voters arrived at a collective compromise between risk and inaction.

Here the ends of the continuum were the practical and the whimsical. Votes generally clustered at a compromise point between these two extremes. Anything too prosaic lost out, as did the most far-out or absurd choices. The many-headed voter preferred a fantastical world anchored in an accessible logic. But not too logical—collective wisdom wanted their magic stones fungible and poetic, rather than basing them a rigorous extrapolation.

A secondary tension arose for Koradi culture. The brief was to create a strong-seeming empire with a glass jaw, one on the verge of a centuries-long ideological collapse. Ultimately the group chose to make Koradi culture largely unsympathetic to a modern audience, in its austerity and opposition to frivolity. Yet a strong faction worked to make the crumbling empire somewhere their fictional protagonists and player characters would like to live.

Although a changing blogscape promises diminishing returns for a continuing Korad experiment, we made a pretty cool world along the way. If you contributed ideas or voted on those of others, now’s the time to give yourself a pat on the back. Or perhaps toast yourself with a fine Winecoast vintage.

October 13, 2011

Hillfolk Synopses

For a look at sort of broad-strokes narrative that might emerge over longterm DramaSystem play, I thought I’d provide you with the following synopses. These cover the first distinct chunk of episodes, analogous to a season of a serialized drama.

The system doesn’t impose a particular arc on the group; rather, it provides a framework allowing the group to improvise its own storyline.

In retrospect we can see a pretty clear arc, though: after we establish our clan of iron age raiders and its immediate neighbors, they come into contact with the richer, more sophisticated nation to the north. They start out fighting it, and wind up joining it.

These synopses leave out a lot of the individual character arcs in each episode. Considered together, though, you can see the season arcs for the various PCs.

At the beginning of each episode, one player calls the first scene, and specifies its theme. The episode titles originate in these themes.


When a harsh winter threatens the Horsehead clan with starvation, the clan chieftain, Skull, seeks a solution aided by other prominent Horsesheads (the shaman Roll-the-Bones, the mighty warrior Redaxe, the shepherd Thickneck and the hostler Twig).


The Horseheads learn the price of success when their raid against the neighboring Lavender clan wipes out their entire male fighting force, leaving them vulnerable and the Horseheads responsible for their protection. Skull faces a challenge from the intemperate warrior Treeclimber, who demands too great a share of the loot. Horsehead leaders solve two problems at once by arranging for Treeclimber’s daughter to marry Farhawk, adolescent son of the slain Lavender chieftain.

The Injustice of Randomness

Disease strikes the village, sending Skull to his sickbed. Members of a recently absorbed clan, the Greensnakes, seize on his weakness in an attempt to kill him and seize power. Skull demands the expulsion of the Greensnakes, but, in a move vehemently opposed by Roll-the-Bones, wishes to keep their three most attractive women as concubines. Skull wins the debate, alienating the wise woman, only to see the women struck dead by lightning.


A trip to Lavender reveals that the neighboring clan has fallen into violently opposed camps. After much contention, and the reluctant subordination of the Lavender firebrand Farhawk to Skull, the Horsehead leaders absorb the Lavenders into their ranks, to the apparent approval of the spirit world.

October 07, 2011

Link Round-Up: Ashen Availability, Fringe History, Sun Surrender, Ferry Wine

If you’ve been waiting for Ashen Stars to show up for sale at RPGNow or Flames Rising, wait no longer.

Nick Mamatas examines the historical provenance of Fringe’s Walter Bishop(s.) (Link good for one week only.)

The Toronto Sun is just phoning it in now.

If I learned that Bryan Ferry could drink wines with ugly labels, my faith in humanity would have been shattered.

A Look Back at Korad I: The Process

Since June 2010 this blog has hosted the Korad experiment, an exercise in group world-building. The final fact we learned about Korad concerns its nominal future. We selected the three candidates for a future ideology which will one day supersede the empire's dominant worldview. As determined by you, they are:
Candlism, a stoic blend of religion and philosophy.
Satirism: a working-class magical movement subverting official opposition to frivolity
Symbotomism: a movement determined to eradicate Aesigil influence, at the cost of also destroying written language
My original intention was to use the world creation as a prelude to another play-by-blog exercise, along the lines of Angels and Operators. As you may guess from the opening clause of the previous sentence, I’ve reconsidered and will no longer be going ahead with that.
It used to be that an ongoing feature, like Korad or Angels and Operators, offered me an acceptable trade-off on the time versus inspiration scale. They took more time to write than the average blog post, but they reliably provided a guaranteed topic for one slot a week. The Hamlet analysis proved even more fruitful, leading as it did to a gratifyingly successful book, Hamlet’s Hit Points, and acting as inspiration for my upcoming new game engine, DramaSystem.
Even more so than a year ago, a blog designed to attract an audience thrives on one-time clicks from social media platforms. Ongoing features did well back when LiveJournal was still a growing concern, and users reloaded their friends page on a habitual basis. Readership for LJ has been slowly deflating over the past year, in part prompting my exodus to the new blog. In the social-click driven environment, which I can now measure with a reasonable degree of accuracy, repeat features lose attention after a while. Those with a play-by-blog format suffer doubly, from what might be called the Babylon 5 effect. They require a high degree of investment and are hard to catch up with if you don’t jump on board from the outset. Given the challenges of LJ’s decline and timing of the move to the new blog, we still had great participation on the world-building end. However, in the new environment or paradigm or whatever it is, I don’t see a play-by-blog series as the best use of my limited outreach time in future.
What I was going to do was have commenters play, to whatever extent they wanted, influential members of the chosen ideology. I’m betting the collective would have chosen Satirism, with few participants rooting to play either stoics or destroyers of literacy. Each play session would present a turning point, where the group would have to decide how to handle a crisis affecting the movement from within and without. Each turn would jump forward in time, allowing for multi-generational play as the ideology adapted itself to changing historical circumstances.
If I had the time to do this, which I’m sure I don’t, I might attempt to do the play over on Google+. It’s new and shiny; its circle feature and discussion orientation might prove more amenable to play-by-blog than a standard comments arrangement.
I’ll do one more blog post, looking at what we’ve learned about world-building from this collective process. In the meantime, though, it’s time to throw Korad’s fate open to you. My final version of the resulting world bible, has now been uploaded to Scribd. The document and its underlying intellectual property are, as always, public domain. You are free to do what you want with it. Peruse it. Change it. Use it as a setting for fiction, your home game, or a published RPG. If you do choose to do something with it, be sure to check in with a report.

October 06, 2011

Hillfolk Characters and Their Dramatic Poles

As an example of the sorts of characters you’ll play in Hillfolk, the first DramaSystem game, here’s the roster from the in-house playtest. They are stalwarts of the Horsehead clan, highlands-dwelling raiders at the dawn of the Iron Age.

The most important element of any DramaSystem PC are her dramatic poles—the two contradictory emotional impulses she’s torn between.

Redaxe (played by Paul) is the clan’s bad-ass war champion, a confident berserker with axe in hand, but an often confused man in the confusing realms of love and politics. Poles: man of peace vs. man of war

Thickneck (Justin), Redaxe’s brother and the clan’s most accomplished shepherd. His desire for himself and the clan is tranquility; so far, events have given him little of it. For the first season, he served as self-appointed conscience and advisor to the chieftain. Now he is the chieftain. (He’s also for the moment become a GM-run recurring character, as Justin has had to bow out for the fall semester.) Poles: ambition vs. loyalty.

When we first met Twig (played by Lisa) the clan’s willowy young hostler, her lack of confidence led her to seek the approval of others. She started out as Redaxe’s girl, then realized her true feelings were for Thickneck. As last season closed, her confidence issues seemed to disappear, as she sought power for herself and Thickneck. For the first season, her poles were conformity vs. adventure. Now, as she becomes more political and materialistic, she’s shifted to selfishness vs. altruism.

Skull (Christoph) was, for the first season, the brash and maneuvering village headman, who by fits and starts negotiated the Horsehead clan into vassal status with the northern kingdom, only to be set aside by King Goldenthrone. Skull’s search for a new place after losing his authority will doubtless drive much of season two. During the first season, Christoph expressed his poles as assimilator vs. protector. As GM, I would have asked him to adjust these to something more personal and less abstract—were he not in practice playing the more gripping set of poles: arrogance vs. wisdom. In his new renegade state, his poles have shifted to vengeance vs. the people.

Farhawk (Chris) is a young firebrand, and a burr in the saddle of the other main characters. His father, headman of the defunct Lavender clan, was slain by Redaxe, who has sworn to train Farhawk in the art of combat, so they can fairly fight to the death later. Though generally distrusted and disregarded, Farhawk may have the keenest political instincts of any Horsehead. His poles: becoming a Horsehead vs. destroying the Horseheads.

Chris started out playing Roll-the-Bones, the clan’s wise woman. But after she proved dramatically inert—her sole tactic in dramatic scenes was refusal—he was dragooned into playing the powerfully double-edged Farhawk, first introduced as a recurring character (an important NPC.) Roll-the-Bones then became a recurring character, where her obstructionism suits her for the role of nemesis.

October 05, 2011

Link Round-Up: Shoggoth Remorse and the History of Keeping Calm

History of 'Keep Calm and Carry On', from non-use in WW2 to current trademark fight.

Shoggoth remorse: is it ever justified?

RPGamer Interview

Hear me interviewed by Scott “Fowl Sorcerous” Wachter over at RPGamer. I provide the lowdown on Ashen Stars, spill additional beans regarding DramaSystem, and dole out nuggets of GMing wisdom.

Put it in your ears!

October 03, 2011

Link Round-Up: Golden Geeks, Hero Researcher, Horror King, Wendig World

Thanks to Golden Geek Award nominators, who gave nods to The Armitage Files (best supplement) and Ashen Stars (best art). Bookhounds of London is up against Armitage, prompting me to wonder what the word is for a mixture of pride (that Ken got a nom as well) and vexation (that the two books will split the Trail of Cthulhu vote.) Irrichuffment?

Cancer-stricken researcher devises treatment, extends own life, dies, days later gets Nobel nod.

Laurent Bouzereau documentary covering Stephen King’s take on horror movies, first airing tonight on TCM, looks pretty promising.

As I prepare to lay down my group world-building stick, Chuck Wendig is picking his up.

Seeking Toronto-Area Gamer For Thursday Night Playtest Group

I am once again looking to augment the ranks of my Thursday night playtest group—hence this open call for one new recruit.

To join the group, you’ll need to be reliably free on Thursday nights and able to get to the Bloor-Bathurst area in downtown Toronto. We meet from 7 pm to 10 pm.

You will also need a saintly tolerance for my playtesting needs. I run games I’m either designing or need to familiarize myself in order to do freelance work for. In the early going a new game may crash and burn, mandating a return to the drawing board. Often I’ll have to suddenly abandon a successful series in midstream to go on to the next thing. We usually play RPGs but there’s always the chance you may be asked to test-drive a card or board game along the way.

At present we have just entered our second season of Hillfolk, the first game using the new DramaSystem engine. It works within the storygame tradition, focusing on narrative and character development, setting traditional butt-kicking and problem-solving by the wayside. This game will continue until at least spring. Next up will be Gaean Reach, a game of interstellar mystery and vengeance using the GUMSHOE system, with touches of Skulduggery thrown in for good measure.

Please put yourself forward only if you can realistically make a long-term commitment to showing up every Thursday night.

If you’re interested, get in touch either by leaving a comment on this blog, or via private message on Facebook or G+, or DM on Twitter.