Near Death

Here is a charming game I was working on a year ago. I ran a single play test, and it turned out I needed to do so much work on it (and it was not an immediate hit with my players) that I shelved it. Maybe I’ll return to it later, maybe not. In the meantime, I have decided to share the draft with you.

The idea is that your character is near death; in the moments or years between being incapacitated and full final death, the soul has gotten loose and is wandering beyond the world. Here are the basic rules.

Near Death 3.1.13

So, with those rules in place, there are lots of places that a soul could go. I envisioned working up some kind of post-apocalyptic setting, a hellscape, something  based on a Hindu reincarnational cycle, and so on. Basically any subverted trope of the afterlife would do, and for one-shots or campaigns you would have lots of flexibility.

The setting I developed for the play test is Garden City, which gradually reveals itself as a Shadow of Eden. Humans control access to the Tree of Life, while the shattered remains of a demonic and an angelic army fight a cold war through the noir streets.

Garden City 3.1.13

If the playtest had gone better, I probably would have pursued this further. As it is, the project remains on the shelf a year later and will likely remain there for a good while. So I thought I’d show you my work so far. Enjoy the flavors!

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False Machine, Good Input

So Patrick at False Machine has put out a free book collecting some of his blog posts. As I have started digging into this book, I have found him to be very insightful, rocking me back on my heels several times with spot-on insights and ideas.

Consider the essay “Monsters of Incompetence and Atomic Bread” starting on page 13.

Patrick suggests that RPGs draw people who like the idea of a simulation containing life’s complexities with rules. These people are least socially-capable, but they are more directed and focused on the game because they have “no where else to go” socially. They are more invested in the game because they lack other social options; it is not one choice among many for recreation.

So, RPGs may attract many personality types, but they will be dominated by those who need the organization the most, even if those people are not the ones the organization needs most.

I never thought about my gaming in those terms. It is true that my game can attract a broad spectrum of personality types. I think that most if not all of the people who come to my table for gaming have other equally interesting social options. Except me.

Do I need the organization RPGs represent, rendering the complexities of life down into simple game systems? If not, why do I choose to sink ridiculous amounts of free time into modeling fictional systems?

I don’t think one other person at my game table needs role playing games. Sure, they are a pleasant diversion. But if they vanished, life would go on and the biggest consequence might be the occasional itch to play something.

For me, the loss would be greater. I would re-channel my creative energies back into writing, but I would be diminished. There is something about the interplay of chance and design, the energy of push and pull, the moment of breathlessness when a secret is revealed or a tragedy unfolds…

I can write stories and novels. Writing a story is a lonely series of closings; of all the things that could have happened, these are the events I chose. When I game, my design focus is on creating openings. I outline intersections. When my players come to the table, then it is a collective process to go through a series of closings as the many possibilities fall and the one event replaces them. That is then an experience we shared together. It is not superior to writing–but it is less lonely.

I have lots of reasons role playing has been central to my social life. Relative to other hobbies, it is inexpensive fun. People actively participate instead of passively receiving their entertainment (compare to going to movies or watching tv.) These are good justifications.

Another layer down is more honest. Stuart’s article talks about the least capable people socially, and while I can be high-functioning, I am not intuitively social. I prefer a few strong friendships to many weak ones. People exhaust me. I have little patience for the social niceties, hand in hand with little skill in them. I feel vulnerable at social events, even simple family events.

I am mostly disinterested in job anecdotes, sagas of health issues, enthusiasm over politics, gushing about sports, and endless references to entertainment I have not consumed. I would like to be more curious than I am; disinterest is an intellectual and social weakness. When you are interested in people, they become interesting.

It is fair to say I am not sought out socially. So ever since high school, I have used RPGs as a social lure. Come play my game. You will get an experience unlike what you can experience any other way. Because I offer you this experience, you will keep coming back, and you will admire me.

I have no other way to keep you coming back and admiring me.

So we get together, and I assume dozens of personas, and they assume personas, and we interact. Sure, there’s chatter before and after, and jokes and good times at the table. But I am in a role, and so are they, and it is structured play. I am insulated from personal rejection. I can give people what they want–something I am unable to do as a human being outside a fictional construction.

Anyway, these were some deeper reflections sparked by reading through False Machine, a useful reformatted blog summary. There is a lot of great stuff in there! When I am reading things from blogs, I am less interested in whether they are polished and tidy, and more interested in whether they inspire me. Whether they haunt me and I find myself thinking about them when I’m not thinking about anything in particular. False Machine has just the kind of madness and perspective that stays with you. Go check it out!

I’m already mulling over a response to his wonderful perspective on what game art should do…

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Which Star War is More Interesting?

Clone War, hands down.

To clarify–we are not talking about movies here. We are saying, regardless of how their story is told, which war (rebellion in the Imperial Era or civil war in the Republic era) is more interesting. Here is why.

Badass elite clones that learn to be individuals as they are spent for war is interesting. Nameless and faceless cannon fodder in blank white uniforms is less interesting. A purchased alien army led by jedi generals is interesting. A rag-tag collection of aliens whose only common ground is hate for the Empire is less interesting.

Droid armies with different units who have different functions, but overall act like an expendable multi-environmental customizable military is interesting. An army of clumsy cannon-fodder led by scowling Brits is less interesting. An army led by a Force user who puts aside the cherished moral codes of both Jedi and Sith, backed up by a cyborg, answering to a shadowy figure, is more interesting than a withered old man and Darth Friendly Fire.

Armies using smaller ships that can actually breach atmosphere and fight in formations is more interesting than vast ships with poor fields of fire. West End Games rehabilitated the Star Destroyers with much more utility than you see in the movies, but that’s not how they appear. And a handful of really massive ships seems less able to maintain galactic order than a larger number of smaller ships of the line.

Every side of the conflict has more interesting technology and equipment and vehicles in the Clone War. (Digression: even if the Empire decided to evolve those designs to be bigger and less effective, all that gear should not have disappeared overnight; the rebels [in the Rebellion and more garden variety local objectors] would be well equipped with the walkers, speeders, starships, and the like left over from a war that blazed on mere decades before.)

I do not like the prequels. But I do enjoy the Clone Wars animated show; it tempers the arrogance of the jedi some, and gives greater exposure to second and third tier characters. The show also walks the fine line of trying to make the primary characters the same and capture their essence from the movies, but also try to make them sympathetic.

A civil war feels different than a rebellion. An elusive and dark figure pulling strings to manipulate the galaxy into rendering itself unable to prevent him from taking over is very interesting. An elusive and dark figure sitting on the throne sending his lap dog jedi-killer and spies all through the galaxy is less interesting. The Clone War deals with how a hard-pressed government run by politicians struggles to keep its promises and protect its people during war. The Rebellion focuses on punching The Man and his servants in the crotch until they give up control of territory. (The Rebellion tries not to pay too much attention to how dangerous sudden freedom is to the liberated, until you get to extended universe material.)

Don’t get me wrong. The prequels angered me, and they degraded my ability to enjoy 4-6 because of how they portray events and characters who reappear in the later (original) movies. Even so, I have to admit… the Clone War is a lot more interesting than the Rebellion.

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I am a practicing game designer.

Like a doctor, I figure I will “practice” my whole career designing games. So, I thought this might be a good time to share with you some games I have put out on the blog since it started.

This post is not about add-on bits, or drafty drafts that are not finished at all, or art, or reviews, or any of that. This is about games I’ve put on my blog. They are not perfect, but you could sit down and play any of them as-is.

My blog will be three years old in July.

Crumbling Epoch. This playable version was released so I could have a milestone, a snapshot. Work on the game continues, and I will release the next version in July to celebrate the third anniversary of the blog. Still, it will always have that energy of something new, you know?

World Between for Fictive Hack. Perfect? No. Amazing? Yes! This massive book is packed with play options, world description, historical texture, magic systems, monsters (and monster generators, and warband summaries), customizable player backgrounds… and the only playable race is human! Check out the page to see reviews and added content. Jack Shear designed the world, I riffed on my version of it, and this was the first break-away adaptation of Kirin Robinson’s Old School Hack system into an “inspired by” system instead of “adapted from” so much. Filled with public domain art and some from Kirin, and graciously set up with introductions from Kirin and Jack both, I am proud of this book. (Even if I do want to go through and fix it someday, with what I’ve learned about the system from extended play.) Still! If I waited for perfection, would I ever put out anything? This book is fantastic for what it is–capturing the early work of designing the rules and setting around each other.

Thief: The Roleplaying Game. This was in some ways a test run for The World Between for Fictive Hack. It too could benefit from another run through it. But you know… it could be just fine as is, too. I am especially pleased with the flavor in the book.

Fictive Hack: Matt’s Rule Edition. I’ll continue to revisit this with improvements as time goes on, this is the core that other system customization builds around. But it is ready to play RIGHT NOW.

Avengers for Fictive Hack. A sweet little superhero game.

You know, as we talk about the iterative process of game design… we could go back to Talents and Templates, my first book inspired by Old School Hack. It serves as a supplement to that book. It was followed by Portable Pantheon, another Old School Hack supplement, requiring some rules modification. The pantheon is still in use in my Breathing World game, and continues to experience facelifts as my grasp on what I want the rules to do improves, and my experience deepens. But these are major efforts that deserve recognition in the list of games I’ve put out here.

Monsters vs. Mecha. I made this tiny tribute to Pacific Rim. Give the kaiju +2 frame, and it’s pretty balanced and fun (I think.)

2d6 System. I took something someone else put out and tweaked it around to my sensibilities, answering questions I had about its limits. If you look at the “Cool Stuff” tab there are some supporting documents for it too. Not playtested to my satisfaction, but I think it has neat bones.

Crawl d6. A modest board game that I am currently working on turning into a more polished package. I think it is entertaining and flavorful, and when I’m done it will be a downloadable .pdf DIY packet. Still, this version is available for free. Enjoy.

Dwarves of Death. Released to celebrate the 1 year anniversary of my blog, this is a modest offering of horrific evil necromancer dwarves, their pets, their foes, their history, and a deep pile of adventure seeds. After years of engaging with the OSR I see it is more fiddly than OSR sensibilities prefer, but it’s still damn solid and a hilarious work.

I guess the point I’m making, both to myself and to you, is that I’ve got a lot of experience in making these things. Here is work that does not languish in a folder, but actually got finished and shared with the internet and my game table. I have my slumps and my flaming inspirations, I have my good times and my bad times, but through it all… I have done some great things. I want to share them with you.

Post-Script: Scenarios! No, these are not games. But they are part of the game designer’s skill set. Maybe you’ll like some of these as dessert.

Chambers of Persuasion. Death Slaver’s Crypt. The Scaled Lord’s Swamp Domain. Alanar Valley mini-setting. Tomb of the Trog Mummies. The Darkest Drip. The Progressive Underport is a prepared location needing only monsters and loot. Necrodwarf Oracle. Rarefied Blood.

Post-Post Script: Arkham Horror Custom Sets! They show increasing sophistication in presentation. I really like the Wedding Party, Batman, and Arkham Villains in an easily downloaded and printable .pdf. The older sets of Buffy, Supernatural, and the Weird West are still cool. I think in looking at the sets you can see improvement as they go.

Post-Post-Post Script: Dragonslayer Pantheon! I used the random religion generator in the Portable Pantheon to make some system-neutral religious organizations that could be dropped into games. I released them through Matt Jackson’s online store. I did six before I stopped (and I stopped because they didn’t sell.) The first one is free, and they are all worth checking out. As a fun side note, I got back into doing digital art to support these projects. That’s pretty cool.

  1. Order of the Sacred Deep
  2. The Stitching Church
  3. The Brass Horseshoe
  4. The Silent Bite
  5. Cult of Summation
  6. Temple of Celestial Revolution

Post-Post-Post-Post Script: Commissions! I have done a modest number of art commissions in the last few months, and that makes me very happy. I also worked extensively on the text descriptions for the system neutral Creature Card Decks for Inkwell Ideas. These opportunities are humbling and uplifting at the same time, and they give me a broader scope to continue practicing.

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Sauce Packet

I have not posted much on the blog lately, mainly because I have an assumption about the investment of my readers. I assume my readers want to drop in, get something useful for a game, or fun to look at, or thoughtful, then flit on to another flower. Like butterflies.

I have been working on Crumbling Epoch. I will not post draft after draft here. Dropping in chunks of what I’m working on that require the rest of the game to make sense does not seem like it would appeal to my readers.

I have also been tinkering with my Gothic Trek setup. Again; I do not think that would be interesting to you, especially since I want to try it out and knock some of the rough edges off before sharing. Who knows when I will choose to thrust aside my other games to insert a new one?

And, I’ve been fooling around with my Masks system, which I KNOW is not going to be interesting to the casual visitor. (No matter how cool it actually is–it requires a period of buy-in and some investment of learning curve.)

As for actual game reporting, I have been faithfully posting game reports on that tab, but that doesn’t go in the posting stream (and I don’t think many if any of my visitors care about the adventure reports.)

I have ingredients, and bottles, and dishes of sauce, but nothing distilled down to a packet to share with you.

It has been pleasant, in the past, to overestimate the interest my readers have in various forms of my projects. Now I begin to understand how stuff I think is SO COOL can be “meh” at best with many readers.

I believe it is okay to have a bunch of unfinished stuff dangling on a blog, but I also get how it may be frustrating that there are so few things on here I consider finished. Even the most finished things, I tend to look at them and try to suppress my embarrassment, deciding I’ll feel better about it when I revise and re-release it. Of course, my process is always in motion, so that embarrassment tends to creep back in.

Hm. Maybe I should have a separate track of “stuff development” for things on the blog, instead of reflecting what I’m working on.

It would make my day if someone wanted to read the massive superpower fiction project I have posted here. For a good starting point, check out this one. (I figure you’ll be hooked in 25 pages or less of a digest size file; try it out!) If my blog does nothing else, an online home for this project is WORTH IT. If you like super-violent fight scenes, complex emotional relationships, and vivid description, all sprinkled with witty banter, this may be the read for you.

Still. I am doing neat game stuff, and more of it will be forthcoming.

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Monster commission: Grim

Description: Grims are two-headed relatives of ghouls, more intelligent than the ghouls, they often command them.

I got a copy of Blood and Treasure, so I could actually see the kind of art that was in the project already. Man! Great stuff! It’s humbling. I also saw a lot more use of white space around the pictures, and saw how some other artists had done it. So, I took a crack at doing so myself. It’s an attempt at a different style. I think it turned out alright.

grim ff

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Finishing one of Dyson’s Maps

Dyson’s got a great contest; he started a map, and if you finish it, you are in the running as he picks random entries to win prizes. Here is mine!

andrew-shields-coppersDyson says: “This one by Andrew Shields is distinctly one of his. I like the descriptive text of the various areas as well as the use of grey for water.”

(Here is the original map:)


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