Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Present

Christmas present:
Before Ragnarok happened, James' idea for the April Fools' release (or was it the Free RPG Day release?) was a book on Bards, made by me
I agreed to do it on one condition (well two conditions, the first was lots of money) --we'd do it in the exact format of the '80s Dragon Magazines, including comics, letters, and lots of real black and white ads from real OSR companies.

It was all edited and in layout... you can see on the bottom-right, Rainville had even finished the cover.

Although the idea was originally a joke, so was Red & Pleasant Land (working title "Eat Me")--I was determined everything I wrote in there be not only playable but something I was actually planning to use.

It had a traveling troubadour class, a set of scheming entertainer NPCs, a Vornheim-style entertainer generator, an interconnected sandbox built around the circuit of taverns and festivals that an itinerant musician, juggler, etc would follow, a bunch of descriptions of plays that PCs might pull off the shelves of a random library that looked pointless at first but had hidden clues and adventure hooks worked into them, a few musical magic items including gongs and a more detailed version of Heward's Mystical Organ, an adventure that started with a poem the players had to examine for clues, another adventure featuring "The Malignant Hymnal of Occychorcys" and a guide to making music puzzles. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace

Stats tell me the same number of people read these entries as have for years, so I know this'll reach the people it needs to.

Recent bullshit aside, a lot of people in gamer land say I am unnecessarily mean on the internet to gamers. All these gamer conversations, long or short, follow this same basic form:

Zak: "Well here's the receipt"
Angry: "I DON'T HAVE TO DEBATE YOU" (leaves)

Angry (later, to the internet): "Zak is such a jerk, he said I was made of french fries!"


Ten years of this--since 2009.

Point is, even though I know lots of people always do think that I legitimately to this day do not know why they think that because none of them ever stick around and answer questions long enough to explain what their beef is or why they have it. I (and everyone in real life who sees these things) go around mystified about it--I have no idea what people expect me to do instead of point to the receipt, never have. And, to a one, gamers immediately change their tune in real-life (cons or vidchat) and never say the stupid things they say online, so talking to them's no help, either.

So, if you are reading this and

(1) You think I am...

(2) unnecessarily mean on the internet...

(3) and can point to one specific example

(4)-of a specific instance and

(5)-can answer all questions about why you thought it was bad

Leave a comment.

Talk as if you're talking in real life: No talking on behalf of other people ("I think people..."), no running away in the middle.

p.s. Edit: Dec 15. Some commenters aren't smart enough to understand the rules so I added numbers.

Monday, October 21, 2019

A Short History of Actual Change the Tabletop RPG Industry

1970s: Dungeons and Dragons is released, leading to...

-The hobby as a commercial business beginning and eclipsing wargaming
-Zillions of fanzine-level imitators

1980s: Increasing Professionalization and Popularity of D&D, leading to...

-Lots of new players
-Younger and broader audience
-Games that aren't D&D become commercially viable and professional
-Nearly every genre extant as of the '80s has a game. Every subgenre too (in sci-fi for instance we have Traveller, Cyberpunk, Robotech, Shadowrun, etc)

1990s: Video Games Or Maybe Just Industry Decadence?

-Are video games why RPGs become less popular? Or maybe it was just the fad passing

1990s: Vampire: The Masquerade

-Wayyyy more women show up

2000s: The Internet and Cheap Color Printing

-Lots of little indie games
-Acceleration of communication and production in fan-products
-Easier path from fan to designer

2010s: Crowdfunding and Communities

-Easier path from fan to publisher

Mid 2010s: 5e, Stranger Things, Critical Role, '80s Teens Having Teenage Kids

-D&D becomes incredibly popular again


There are also factors I don't know anything about (how distributors have handled games, for example). You can argue about other significant game-changers around the edges but I'm more interested in the takeaways from the information we have as a whole.

Mine so far are:

-The only things that've moved the needle so far are: big external factors like new technology and big products with new content/presentation

-Did D&D's '80s competitors--Games Workshop, FASA, Palladium, Chaosium--do something right that so far has evaded today's non-WOTC publishers? Or were they just taking advantage of the fact that there just wasn't a game for x yet?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Question For You

Online, in the RPG community, there's a conversation. In general, I mean--people talk about one thing, then another, then another.

People learn about new games and game ideas from this conversation, get GMing tips from it, find resources through it, get game design ideas from this conversation, etc. Most of the developments in mainstream RPGs since 2000 have been influenced by the conversation, almost all of the developments in independent RPGs have been and most of the new talent in the indstry comes ot of this conversation.  It has been going on for as long as there's been an internet.

Do you, personally, care if this conversation is good or bad?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What's Next?

In the '80s and '90s, D&D had a decent share of the public imagination but so did Shadowrun and Vampire and RIFTS. Now we're mostly back to just having D&D.

In five years--outside the niche that cares about these things--will there be lots of mainstream RPGs in game stores or will it still basically be D&D and Path?

All the activity around games online since 2000 has produced jillions of game design models, but only a few different models of product design--that is, design of all the things involved in the game product you sell, not just the mechanics and setting:

The D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy Flight Approach: 

-Lavish mainstream illustration
-Expensive-looking but nonfunctional mainstream graphic design 
-Lots of library content
-Relatively incremental mechanical changes from whatever was mainstream 5-10 years ago
-Setting content based on a legacy RPG property
-Supported with miniatures, online tools and as many promotional gimmicks as the company can afford

The Indie Approach:

-Stylish but minimal graphic design and illustration
-No library content (or library content created by fans after the first book)
-Rules light
-Sold as pdf or in a thin volume
-Often explicitly made for short campaigns or one-shots
-Attempts to be mechanically innovative or else based on Apocalypse World, FATE etc.
-Setting content varies: smaller ones can be anything (Shab-Al-Hiri Roach), larger ones tend toward genre emulation (Dungeon World, etc)
-Sold mostly via online network of indie enthusiasts

The Mainstream Runner-Up (Green Ronin, Pelgrane, etc) Approach:

-Looks kinda like a D&D/Path/Fantasy Flight-style hardcover on the outside
-Hardcover with lots of library content
-Often based on a popular or nerdpopular license, or else down-the-middle genre emulation
-Expensive-looking but nonfunctional mainstream graphic design
-Mainstream but cheap-looking illustration unless its based on a license that it can borrow illustrations from (Marvel Heroic, DC Adventures)
-Mechanically similar to some other mainstream game
-Promoted through the upper-tier of the RPGverse (spotlight at Gen Con, etc) or the lower tier of the wider nerdosphere (maybe a popular stream here or there)

The "Prestige OSR" (Break, Silent Titans,  LotFP etc) Approach:

-Eccentric, distinctive illustration
-Terrifyingly extreme and time-consuming graphic/information design
-Hardcover, designed as a fetishized object
-Lots of library content, though often in the form of random tables
-Hybrid of simplified '80s RPGs and new mechanics
-Setting content is D&Dish or D&D-adjacent
-Promoted by fan-content and screaming on blogs at each other

No-Frills Start-Up (Zweihander, Sin Nomine, S&W, Onyx Path etc) Approach:

-Little or genre-emulating illustration
-Simple graphic design, based on a basic template or legacy-influenced layout
-Cheaply printed or available only as pdf
-Lots of library content, or sometimes lots of it
-Content is genre-emulation of something already familiar in the RPG-o-sphere
-Slightly-updated mechanics based explicitly on some previous property
-Promoted mostly online by the 24-hour tireless sweat of a lone or small group of hardworking hustlers


So a few observations here:

-All of these approaches have proven to be able to allow at least some people somewhere to quit their day jobs and live off games. So congratulations.

-Fantasy Flight is putting out things on the D&D model and making money but still hasn't really managed to change the conversation in terms of games. It might be just because everything they do is based on something familiar.

-I think if the Indie Approach was going to catch mainstream fire it would've done so by now. Maybe it's (like many Indie authors say) the content or mechanics are just too Out-There or maybe it's that mainstream audiences like library content, production values and/or the promise of long campaigns. It's hard to know for sure, but either way: people have been making games like this for twenty years and they haven't expanded as fast as other ways of doing things.

-Likewise, the Mainstream Runner-Up Approach has hit its ceiling. These companies have been around for decades and haven't managed to move around in the market much without a license, and the licenses have proved--at that scale--to be unsustainable. 1980s-90s alternatives to D&D like Robotech and Warhammer came out of the gate both looking as good as D&D and usually offering some new mechanical twist. They felt like something new. These don't and the people who make them don't seem to be willing to risk investing more in writing or art to move up a tier.

-What'll happen with the other two approaches is an open question. The Prestige OSR model is relatively new and hasn't ever been used to produce a complete and original new game and when it does it probably still won't be on many retail shelves. The no-frills start-up will probably have to make the leap into some other way of doing things in order to move into mainstream awareness, but there's no reason, in theory, they shouldn't be able to.

-The most interesting question is whether there are any other options.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Vanessa Veselka on Selling Flowers & Dying In Grain Elevators

Some of Vanessa's contributions to Demon City--all laid out by Shawn Cheng with art by me. Click to read...

Thursday, May 23, 2019

More Demon City preview spreads...

Some (not all) of the downtime options for Demon City and some more monsters, laid out. Click to enlarge...

Monday, April 8, 2019

This is the mini she ordered

Of course the goth wants to play a vampire in D&D--now she's miniature shopping.
(this one)

(Quick vampire class: A first level vampire can do two "Vampire things" per day. Plus can only die in vampire ways but being reduced to zero hp by normal means puts you down for ten minutes--more than enough time to stake you if the enemy's dedicated. More Vampire Things per day at higher levels. Usual vulnerabilities, etc.).

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Fall Book Update

Ok, it's looking more like I can do it in 144 pages, which should make it a little cheaper for y'all.

Anyway still Fall 2019, and still stay tuned.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Coming Fall 2019

click to enlarge

Hardcover, 320 pages, full color. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Finally, A Use For Astrology

Working hard and playing hard on Demon City, I Am The Weapon, Violence in the Nympharium and The Super Secret LotFP Project.

Shawn Cheng's turning in Demon City pages, so I thought I'd share. I love what he did here...

Some other cool stuff:
There's a Blood Bowl-esque zine-format game coming out.
And the space-horror NeOSR game Mothership is ALWAYS worth what they're asking.

Oh and now that Google+ is going away, most of the action is on the DIY RPG and OSR Discords. Email me for an invite: zakzsmith AT hawtmayle.

The lightweight/newby stuff is on Twitter and reddit /osr

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Supporting NPCs In A Superhero Game

from the upcoming game I Am The Weapon...


While a fun and engaging superhero campaign won’t require you to invent a setting from scratch on the first day out,  it is absolutely vital to begin developing a cast of characters for your heroes to interact with, and to think of these characters not as just a backdrop, but as building blocks from which to assemble all the adventures to come. I would venture to say that for a superhero game to be successful, a good supporting cast is more important than any other kind of effort put into the setting—even if that cast is only two or three NPCs.  These won’t be temporary NPCs that appear once and then are gone, but rather a group of interlinked personalities that help define the campaign's scope and tone.

A good place to start is by thinking about the variety of different and special roles that recurring non-player-characters can play:

The Ordinary Ally: This is the most flexible and therefore useful kind of NPC—for both the hero and the game master. While any PC will have powerful allies controlled by the game’s other players, a loyal friend with no special abilities serves a lot of important functions in a plot—which is why nearly every superhero with their own comic has one.

In terms of plot, they can:

-Come to a hero with a problem to investigate (“While volunteering at the homeless shelter, I keep hearing strange stories of…”)

-Provide technical skills, information or advice (“When I was in the army I saw burns like this…”)

-They can be captured and need rescuing

-They can even (if Network points are spent) rescue the hero.

In terms of flavor they often:

-Give the GM opportunities to build the environment (“Remember that abandoned yacht that Hooks the Octopus climbed onto last week?”)

-Provide comic relief

-Just be someone who’s fun to talk to. 

This kind of ally in comics is usually ordinary and not too skilled in any obviously useful way because, if they also had superpowers or were a master martial-artist, then it would turn into a team book. Likewise, if—in an RPG—you make an NPC that’s both helpful and powerful, you’re essentially just adding a new host-controlled member to the team, which takes the spotlight away from the players. The Ordinary Ally—like all NPCs—is there to make the game interesting, and this means they may have to cause as many problems as they solve.

The Ordinary Ally is often not only connected to the hero but also to the hero’s secret identity—the ally may be a family member, just a friend, the hero’s boss in civilian life—or vice versa—or they may work together in some way. Whether or not the ally knows the connection between the secret identity and the hero will change the kinds of trouble they can get them into and out of. One possibility for the ally who is unaware of their friend’s secret identity is having a totally separate—even antagonistic—relationship to the hero’s civilian identity. Or vice versa: maybe Maximum Max needs to transform back into a mild-mannered librarian in order to get help finding the forgotten mystical text from Dr Howarth Morkwaite—famously skeptical of superheroics.

The Foil: A Foil is someone who offers a contrast to the main character(s). They have a personality, philosophy or point-of-view that’s wildly different from the hero.

In terms of plot, Foils can be used to create obstacles and problems for the heroes that complicate their attempts to straightforwardly deal with enemies and problems (“A fair trial for Pyromite!? He burned 30 people alive! Maybe you’re in cahoots with him, masked man…”)

In terms of flavor, Foils are great for creating dialogue and drama by offering an alternative to the heroes’ principles. If a hero makes a speech, a Foil will take the opposite tack: “Well it’s all fine and good for you to say we should stand up The Trauma Gods, but what about those of use who can’t fly or build an ice shell around ourselves? I say we give them what they want and hope they leave!” 

A Foil can be any kind of character: an irritating civilian, a character with influence and power over a PCs’ secret identity, a fellow hero (or “hero”) with questionable methods or even…

The Villain-Foil: While heroes will likely face many villains during a game, the Villain-Foil has a special role, as they also act as a long-standing philosophical challenge to the heroes’ ideas about right and wrong. If the hero is idealistic, their Villain-Foil will be cruelly pragmatic, if the hero is light-hearted, their Villain-Foil will be brutal, if the hero is grim and serious, their Villain-Foil will be smarmily whimsical, etc.

In terms of both plot and flavor, the Villain-Foil has a similar function to a regular foil—although the problems they create will be bigger.

The most important characteristic of a good Villain-Foil is they keep coming back. Genre expectations in the typical superhero story help enable this: superheroes rarely kill, meaning the Villain-Foil is likely to go to jail and then escape again over and over. Many of them even incorporate this irony in their villainous speeches “Your way doesn’t work, Cursebreaker, you are weak: even if you manage to imprison me, I’ll escape and inflict a tenfold vengeance on you and this cursed city!”

Creating a really good Villain-Foil takes some thought and careful observation—pay attention to how your players make their characters act—what they like about them—and develop villains in response to that.

Romantic Interest (Cute): Saving lives is undeniably sexy, and if you do it long enough someone is bound to notice. The “Cute” here refers to the relationship itself, not necessarily the attractiveness of the NPC—in contrast to the Scary Romantic Interest (see below), The Cute Romantic interest is basically a stable relationship between people who usually get along and see the world in a roughly similar way.

In terms of plot and flavor, a Cute Romantic Interest is nearly identical to the Ordinary Ally (see above): they can introduce or help with problems, they can rescue and need rescuing, they can be fun and funny to talk to. The dramatic ironies of having an ally who feels one way about the hero and a completely different way about their alter ego are doubled when it’s a romantic interest. Also: just like allies, if an NPC Cute Romantic Interest has powers or special abilities, you’re adding another hero Host-controlled hero to the team which somewhat dilutes the excitement of the challenges the PC heroes are meant to face alone, so I’d usually advise against it. 

Romantic Interest (Scary): In contrast to the Cute Romantic Interest, the love of the Scary Romantic Interest comes pre-packaged with some terrible conflict which pits an undeniable attraction against an equally undeniable moral or practical conundrum. The Scary Romantic Interest might be eternally pursued by demons (figuratively or literally) from their past, they might be a villain---secretly or openly--they might have a dark secret—like being blackmailed by a powerful crimelord or being a living tracking device bio-engineered by homicidal aliens, they might be prone to Jekyll-and-Hyde-like episodes of dangerous lunacy or they might just be a drug addict. In any case: the path of desire and the path of common-sense point in opposite directions.

In terms of plot and flavor, a Scary Romantic Interest can offers most of the same opportunities as a Cute Romantic Interest (or an Ordinary Ally) but also introduces some new ones:

Plotwise, a Scary Romantic Interest can…

-…function as a villain, setting up or carrying out schemes the hero must foil

-…function as the focus or adjunct to a villain’s plan: the villain may try to win the Scary Love Interest over to their own side or use them against the hero

-…create a moral dilemma where helping people or defeating enemies might require hurting the Scary Romantic Interest—or never seeing them again

-…deceive the hero in order to protect the hero or themselves from some danger they’ve gotten entangled in

Flavorwise, this kind of character, again, offers the same opportunities as a Cute Romantic Interest though they tend to get a lot more melodramatic, saying things like “There are things about me you can’t know. If you try to understand them they’ll devour you—just like they’re devouring me” also they tend to dress better than Cute Romantic Interests.

Unlike the Cute Interest, the Scary can easily have superpowers or special abilities—they’ll be using them against the hero half the time anyway. They also have a habit of disappearing for weeks on end and not texting, so if they’d be inconvenient to have around for an adventure or two it’s easy to put them on hold.

Tremendous campaign fuel can be generated by giving a PC a Cute Romantic Interest and a Scary Romantic Interest—does Cute know about Scary? Does Scary know about Cute? If the answer to both is “No” how does the hero keep them from finding out? If the answer to either is “Yes” are they scheming against each other? How can the hero prevent this?

The Major Ally: This is a more competent and therefore straightforward character than the Ordinary Ally: this person wants to help the hero and, well, can.

While the Major Ally can perform all the same functions as the Ordinary Ally, the biggest job of the Major Ally isn’t to make things more complicated, but instead to simplify adventures. If the Major Ally is a police officer, they can pick up the villain and cart them off to jail after they’ve been subdued, if the Major Ally is an engineer, they can make sure that the heroes’ battlesuit is in functioning order after a long night of being hammered with ion-distortion beams.

Although they’re good at things and usually upstanding, Major Allies are usually less about helping to invent scenarios as to fill in plot holes—Can we try to stop The Meganaut on the freeway interchange without endangering innocent lives? Yes: Lieutenant Brockwick had the roads blocked off. You don’t want to lean on them too much—they can make challenges so simple that they’re boring. If they do have superpowers, make sure they’re ones that mostly only get used in a support role—for example: a clairvoyant posing as a palm reader might be a good source of plot hooks.

The Eternal Victim: While the Major Ally represents only the upside of an Ordinary Ally, the Eternal Victim represents only the downside. Due to stupidity, terrible luck. or the fact they’re very important, the Eternal Victim is always getting kidnapped or brainwashed or shot at or trapped under collapsed buildings.

In terms of plot, the Eternal Victim’s role is pretty simple—they get captured and the hero has to rescue them.

In terms of flavor, there are a lot of different way to play an Eternal Victim—they can be bumbling comic relief, they can be characters the heroes don’t get along with but feel obliged to protect (a probably-corrupt mayor or the hero’s boyfriend’s irritating parents), they can even be minor villains constantly caught in the machinations of bigger fish. Just because their role is one-dimensional doesn’t mean they can’t be fun.

The Pathetic Monster: Pathetic Monsters combine the functions of villain and victim—they rampage, but unwillingly. A pathetic monster might be suffering from a curse like a vampire or werewolf, or might simply be seething with unwanted power and prone to outbursts of rage.

As far as plot goes, a hero’s job when dealing with a Pathetic Monster is to somehow prevent them from hurting anyone without making their plight worse—the Pathetic Monster may not be served well by the prison system, or may be too powerful to exist within it. The Pathetic Monster tests the heroes’ compassion as well as their bravery and skill.

In terms of flavor, the Pathetic Monster affords a great opportunity for tragic dialogue and imagery “The silver light of the moon burns me, burns my blackening soul, changing me from man to beast yet again…”