Monthly Archives: July 2013

[Adventure] Wrath of the Demiurge: Introduction

[Adventure] Wrath of the Demiurge: Introduction

I had a great chat with my father-in-law yesterday about free will.  My wife and I branched out on that during the car trip home.  What happens sometimes when I have great conversation is that game mechanics or adventures pop out.  I’d like to say that this was uncommon, that part of my brain is not always grinding away at making games, but that is not the case.

I guess what is different in this case is that I’m going to share this idea with you.  I’m going to flesh it out on the blog, or at least write the scaffolding. Follow along and I hope you like this adventure!  I’m going to stay mostly system neutral, but I’ll of course go out of my way to say that 13th Age would be a fine, fine system to run this in.


Wrath of the Demiurge

They rejected her! She had broken their laws, true…but she was a god, or near enough to not suffer this fate.  Plummeting from the heavens, her body blazing gold and aflame, she seethed. Her treachery would live past her, she knew. Already the seeds of the deed were sprouting into myth and legend.  The gods and all their power could not remove the stain she had placed on the world.  The best they could do was rid the world of her…

But she would not let them do even that. Not even my death will you gain. She gathered the last of her failing power, inhaling and centering the energy in her chest. I will die now but I will be reborn.  I give my life to my children, who one day will unite and bring me back into this world. When they do, I will complete my design.  I will have my vengeance.

She exhaled, releasing her energy and her corporeal form into a cascade of  energy. As her body and consciousness crumbled, her last thoughts were of the realms that only gods knew, and how she would return to them one day.


Wrath of the Demiurge is an adventure “platform” for a fantasy game. I call it a platform because it is meant to provide a great scaffolding for games, and is also able to be run multiple times.  This adventure has stages and threats and other components to help you run it, but it does not have a storyline. You and your group bring the story and plot through your actions. Each time the Demiurge is different: what does she want? Who is she? What did she do? Each time your characters are different as well.  I think the best adventures are platforms that you can run time and time again with nothing being ruined.  I am building Wrath of the Demiurge in that tradition.

Back to the setup.  When the Demiurge “died”, she placed fragments of her will and consciousness in random mortals.  The fragments were passed on to certain descendants of these mortals, or passed on to another soul if these mortals had no children.  Each new birth caused the power of her will to grow, and now centuries later, she has enough will to “awaken” the children who hold parts of her inside of them, imprinting them with a basic knowledge of who they truly are, and who she is.  She then compels them to perform a Blasphemy in this world which will set the stage for her rebirth.  When the Demiurge can be reborn, she exacts a Price from her children and then returns.

The players are the Demiurge’s children. They’ve been living their own normal lives until one day the Demiurge awakens in them. The Demiurge is inside them, but does not control them — yet. The Demiurge can provide them with power and solutions to their problems, but each player can attempt to resist her calls. Still, the Demiurge can make her presence known.  When she exerts her will, even the strongest people cannot resist. Does your character even want to resist? Even if you do not resist, will you pay the Demiurge’s Price?

Wrath of the Demiurge is an adventure of power, temptation, and free will.

Next up: Roll your own Demiurge!

You Are Wrong: A Place to Start

You Are Wrong: A Place to Start

“But I can never right my wrongs unless I write it down for real.”

–Kendrick Lamaar, “Poetic Justice”


That perfect vision you have in your head?  It’s not perfect.  It’s filled with thousands of little imperfections that you can’t even see with you’re mind’s eye.  You’re taking what you think is perfection and trying to make reality conform to it.  Every time reality doesn’t fit your model, you want to start over, or do some more tweaks.  You have to rub out that slight blemish before you go on…

Sound familiar?  When you try to go from reality to perfect in 1 or 2 steps, you often end up lost in the woods. Let’s forget that perfect isn’t even attainable, really; you’re going to have a hard time because the mind that creates is not the mind that fixes. Your vision of your project, whatever it is, is being held and fashioned by the mind that creates.  When you try to make that mind fix stuff, it’s going to fix stuff generally by creating stuff on top of it, or changing things. It can’t see what needs to be taken out or rejected; the mind that creates cannot see easily what is stiff-sounding or hollow. The mind that creates spins and weaves, blossoms and dances. It is not surgical; do not give it knives.

Instead, acknowledge that whatever your creative mind is weaving is probably wrong.  But also acknowledge that you can’t fix the wrong until something exists. Don’t start in perfection, start in a place where something has gone wrong in your creative utopia.  To fix it, you have to write it down so you can really look at it. You can’t even really ask for help until you make it real.  Yes it will be flawed, but it will be real.  And real things can be fixed. You can’t “fix” imagination. You can only fix what imagination allows you to create.

Imagine hugging someone you care about.  Feels good, doesn’t it?  Now go and actually hug them (I’ll wait).  Which would you rather have? It’s easy to give over to the allure of endless weaving that our mind can offer, but the truth is that nothing beats reality.

Reality is the place where you can increase the fidelity of your imagination. Reality amplifies the power of your creations. More important to you as someone who is creating is that reality is the place where your fixing mind can do actual work. You don’t fix things in your head! Don’t try. Ever try to get an editor to revise a piece that exists only in your brain? Yeah, me too. Doesn’t work so well.

If this sounds like a long preamble to “embrace shitty first drafts”, well…you found me out.  But beyond shitty first drafts,I want to emphasize in a way that I couldn’t about five years ago that developing that skill to do the crappy first draft is everything.  I think about projects that I never completed, versus those that I did, and the difference was always getting ideas out of my head and unto screen/paper as soon as possible.  A commitment to anything, even crap, has helped me complete a lot of projects.  When I forget this, and try to work out of my head, projects inevitably peter out and stall.

“It was just so perfect, but I couldn’t find a way to express it!” is the phrase you can put on the tombstones of most of the world’s failed creative projects.

Don’t make tombstones.  Make art. Make games! If it’s in your head, write it down. Here’s another trick:  find people to show your work to, but don’t get hooked on feedback. Feedback is great, but it is gravy on top of the real meat: creating the feeling of “shipping” at a small level.  I talked about enthusiasm loops a few days ago, and the concept applies here.  You don’t have to make the whole thing in one shot.  Break it down into bits, create part of the thing, and then ship it to a micro-audience of folks you trust. Do whatever it takes to get your idea out of your head and into the real world, where you can then fix it and hone it into what you want it to be.


Five Fires: Always Be Rolling

Five Fires: Always Be Rolling

My mind can often be a broken record, playing a tune endlessly until I can’t stand it and have to throw the damn record out for something new.

The currently playing record for me is called accessibility.  I’ve talked some about what that means to me in terms of time that a game needs to resolve, and subject matter. The last item I’ve thought about is a common RPG question: “When do I roll?”

One of the most confusing parts of an RPG is to learn when and why you roll.  Until you sort that out, you end up taking instructions from other people at the table and feeling a little lack of agency because of it.  Play RPGs long enough and you lose touch with this feeling, only able to re-conjure somewhat by swapping systems with different expectations and when and why to roll. It’s a bit of twist to go from Dungeon World to Pathfinder, or vice versa. They have different rules, but more importantly, they have different expectations of why and when you roll the dice. That can take a bit to learn.

You can easily think of the way dice are placed in the narrative as a feature and not a bug (I tend to), but when you think of it in terms of accessibility, you can see the need for an “introductory” model.  One that provides constant answers and establishes an easy to grasp rhythm for play. I don’t want players to have to keep asking “do I roll?” or having to be walked through a sequence of three to five die rolls to accomplish a task.  This isn’t a complaint on RPGs that have this, but it is all about putting the good parts in front of the complex parts.  I want people to play first, and then explore different mechanical rhythms and patterns.

To start with, I want players to have explicit turns. Then, at a predictable point their turn, I want them to always roll unless the rules say no. Yes, it’s “roll”-playing! But not quite how you think.

What does a turn look like in Five Fires?

  • Each session, every character has four to eight “bars” to take turns with. The number of bars to start with is determined by how long you want to go, and extra bars can be earned in play.
  • Each character has several goals, each with a number of steps that must be taken in order to meet the goal (more on this in another post).  On a player’s turn, they can determine what goal they are pursuing.  Scene framing happens (Where am I?  What am I doing? How does the scene open?), some role-playing may happen to deepen the scene, then the GM introduces the Problem.
  • The Problem always requires a roll to overcome.  The character picks their approach to the problem (more on that later too!) and then rolls the dice. If the character succeeds, they complete the step and can make a progression towards their goal. If not, the character suffers a setback and some other consequences depending on what the Problem and approach were. In either event, we narrate after the roll to illustrate what happened.

Everybody plays out the session until they are out of bars!

It is definitely more rigid and constrained than your typical RPG, but that is a purposeful thing to help people get right into that space of having a character who is pursuing his or her goals.  As you can see, one advantage that we get is that the play is pretty player-directed (the GM is just there to cause trouble, really).  Another is that the player knows how to start his scene, when to roll, how to end the scene. We try to be explicit about where to go, but not how to get there, which to me is where the magic happens in RPGs.

I’ll definitely be trying this out soon to see how it works, but open to hearing your thoughts!

Gamble! Stunts in 13th Age

Gamble! Stunts in 13th Age

13th Age is almost here! We’ve been on a little bit of a break (OK, Ryven has been writing up a storm for Pelgrane and I’ve been on a break!), but with the game soon to be released, I want to share some ideas I intend to use with my next 13th Age game.

Gamble! is a small sub-system for fast and low-effort stunting. While you can always do this in your games, it usually takes a bit of adjudication and thinking to figure out what the rule should be and what, if any, side-effects there should be. What is the power level of the effect? How hard should it be? Again, any GM with experience can determine this, but what if you are GM who is not yet comfortable with the system, or simply don’t want to spend mental energy on this? The purpose of  Gamble! is to be there for you in these circumstances. It’s designed to be pretty simple and flexible and I’m sure that you can expand on it .

Once per combat, a player can make a gamble instead of her standard action. She declares this at the start of the turn, stating what in the game she is doing. She then picks an effect from the Gamble that she wants her action to cause. The GM then picks a risk. The gamble the player picks will determine the difficulty of the skill check the player needs to make. The player then makes a skill check. If the skill check succeeds, the player follows any further steps on the gamble. If the player fails, they suffer the risks determined by the GM.

Don’t spend too much time trying to determine the appropriateness of the description to an effect or risk. If someone wants to drop a chandelier to hit mulitple people (massive attack) or to gain a bonus (Gain Advantage) it doesn’t really matter. The player gets to do what they want, the GM gets to put the risk he wants, we’ve got a handy expression, let’s go to work!

Example: Susan’s ranger Nahai is being chased by an unruly mob. She’s apparently angered the wrong people with her investigations! She leads out the combat with a gamble. Nahai wants to intimidate the approaching mob with rapid fire fancy shots. She wants to knock weapons out of hands and make some intentional near misses of vital spots. She decides that will let her Gain Advantage, since the mob will be pretty intimidated by her. The GM nods and says that the risk here is that the shots will just incite the mob more and will leave Nahai Vulnerable for a turn. Nahai makes a moderate DC skill check using her Nehru Sharpshooter background. She succeeds, so she makes the mob deeply reconsider their attack. Nahai draws her twin spears and countercharges!


Massive Attack (Hard DC) You can make a basic attack against d6+1 enemies. If attacking mooks, roll additional dice equal to half your level

Change State (Hard DC) You create a zone on the board that (choose one): is impassable; deals ongoing 10 damage of an appropriate type for anyone entering the zone (save ends); causes enemies to have a -2 to hit when in the zone.

Gain Advantage ( Moderate DC) Until the combat ends, you get (choose one): You get +1 on attack rolls; you get a +2 to damage rolls; you expand your crit range by 1.

Increase Momentum (Easy DC) Raise the Escalation Die immediately by 1. It cannot be raised more than once in a turn by a gamble.


Reversal. You can make an immediate attack against the character.

Vulnerable. Until the end of combat, all enemies gain a +2 to their crit range against the character.

Lost Momentum. Lower the Escalation Die by 1. You can’t lower the Escalation Die more than once a turn in this manner.

If you use this would love to hear how it goes! This system should be pretty easy to run and is easily extensible.

Free Association on Free Speech

Free Association on Free Speech

In my corner of the gaming verse I’ve been seeing a lot of words tossed around about offensive speech versus “free” speech.

On one hand, we have people who believe that we should try to use words and imagery in games that fit a more inclusive context. I’m pretty much here. I’ll say that sometimes people have a bad day and read something uncharitably and drive too far down the wrong road, but generally I’m willing to pay this price as you can often have a conversation about it and resolve it. How to have that conversation is probably a separate post altogether.

On the other hand, we have people who believe that they need to be able to say whatever they want, whenever they want. Free speech is awesome! Except…

  • they want to say what they want to say but don’t want you to respond with your displeasure.
  • they want to come into space you own and claim censorship if you take their speech out of your space
  • they claim the right to offend you, but want you to respect them.  They expect your respect, actually!

This isn’t free speech.  Free speech means you can say what you want. It does not mean your speech is free of consequence, or that it has freedom from critique.  To expect such is to advocate an environment that is the opposite of free speech.  It is a tyranny where only one side gets to say what they want while everyone deals with the damage it causes.  That tyranny isn’t some new thing; it’s actually the old order that we as a people are trying to move away from.

If you really expect respect after displaying disrespect to a prospective audience, you are the model of entitlement, not enlightenment.

So, back to my corner of the ‘verse. I’ve been seeing people who care about diversity and inclusiveness arguing a lot with “free speech” folks. I’ve seen the former group start arguing within themselves about how much attention to give the latter!  That makes me unbelievably sad.  I think folks who are intolerant often try to hide themselves in tolerant communities. They do this because in many cases a tolerant community is the only one that will put up with their antics!  If a “free speech” person can play his/her cards right, they can get the tolerant community to tear itself apart, all while claiming some sort of moral superiority and laughing at the supposed ineffectiveness of  liberal thought.

The damage these folks can do is unbelievable.

So, here is what I want to say to my friends and those I don’t know (yet) who believe in inclusiveness in gaming: Put people over principles! Before you attack someone for violating your principles, please try to understand the person, and understand what they have done and what they might be trying to do.

When someone like Orson Scott Card asks for tolerance, I’m inclined to say ‘nope’.  When someone who I know is often on the right side of things asks for tolerance, or more importantly needs some tolerance, I’ve got to be there. I don’t believe in giving ‘passes’ –too transactional– but I can be more generous in how I read a situation.

Please folks. Take a breath and look around you.  Please see who you are allies are really likely to be. We can disagree without breaking our bonds completely.

Enthusiasm Loops

Enthusiasm Loops

As part of the break, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can proceed with my responsibilities at work and as father,son, and husband and still do RPG work.

I’ve tried a lot of productivity systems and time mangement strategies.  What I’m finding is the best way to manage that extra work is to manage your energy and enthusiasm.  When energy and enthusiasm is high, I can do anything.  I can work a 12 hour day at work, hang out with the family, and then write a few thousand words for a project.

When that enthusiasm dips, I can barely do anything. Everything is too much, and every task is a bit of a burden.

The secret I’ve found is that your enthusiasm is always going to dip. You can’t avoid it!  If you were always on a high level (relative to yourself) of enthusiasm, you’d burn out pretty fast.

Fortunately you can replenish your enthusiasm.  For me, I replenish enthusiasm by “shipping”.  By shipping I mean I get tangible pieces of a project out to an audience.  When possible, I get finished projects out there.  When I have something going with a project, I try to get the parts out to the audience.  I use my enthusiasm to elicit responses from other people.  Even if the responses are “try again!” or “I’m not sure!” the fact that people are checking it out raises my enthusiasm and gets me ready to ship the next thing.

In this way I use enthusiasm to build the next thing that will give me enthusiasm to build the next thing.

What I haven’t done until recently is build a plan for it.  It was always a pattern that manifested at random until I noticed it and started to shape it.

Some things I use for a baseline of building my enthusiasm. You’re reading one such activity right now.  Blogging is a nice loop in that the more I do it, the more I’m shipping out my thoughts and practicing game design. The more I’m doing that, the more prepped I am to design more formally.  The key for me is to frame it that way instead of “I have to blog today!”  That should/have to/gotta phrasing is a mind-killer. When I find that phrasing I know that I need to think about the activity in another way.

I will build a larger loop with Five Fires. Once every week I’ll release something about the game and take feedback.  It might be hyper small, or it might be huge.  Either way, I’ll use my love for the project to create the kindling to keep this going.  I might release on the blog or to a smaller group, but someone will see it!

The last thought I’ll share is that you can ship to a small crowd of people.  Sometimes it is not productive to send something out to strangers or everyone you know.  Sometimes it is better to make a small group of folks and release to them.  The reasons for this may be privacy or simply sensibility, but take into account that “shipping” doesn’t have to be at large scale.  It just needs to happen.


Hip-hop and RPGs: The Five Fires

Hip-hop and RPGs: The Five Fires

You may or may not know that I’ve got a project I call “The Five Fires”.  Five Fires is a roleplaying game where you play an artist in traditional hip hop culture, trying to express yourself  in a city and world that has criminalized your expression.

The “fires” in the the name refer to the five elements of hip hop:

  1. MCing
  2. B-Boying (breakdancing)
  3. DJing
  4. Graffiti Writing
  5. Knowledge, Culture, Overstanding

These are five variations of the creative “fire”, and thus where the game gets it name. You play a young artist who gets a chance to burn brightly….will you burn out or shine a light  for others to see?

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make a hip hop game.  One approach is to put a skin over some other genre of play.  At some point I’d like to do a Wu-tang inspired dungeon crawl kung fu game, or a Samurai Champloo-inspired game.  There are a lot of awesome mashups that are possible, but as I drilled into what the game is about and what I want out of the game, I realized something…

What I really wanted most of all is a game about making art.

I don’t really want to make another game of colonized violence.  I want to make a game that took that violence and put you in the position of doing something about it.  That something could be grappling with it or that something could be inspiring or teaching others. I think an interesting game is one where your tool for dealing with what the world offers you is your ability to create.  I’m not saying it’s the best or ultimate answer, I’m just saying that I think I’d like to see that.

So here I am.  I’ve been chipping away at the game, and have basic rules scaffolding and a simple structure in place. The mechanic right now that I am most proud of is the “recovery” mechanic.  As your character takes stress from the world around him, you are able to make the art your character class (there are 4 classes, 1 for each fire but the 5th) can make, and use that to recover.  I have to give props to Chris Chinn for helping me come around to this idea.  I’ve developed and tested a bit and it’s pretty fun!

The first bit about making art:  If I make it about actually rapping or breakdancing, et al.  we’re going to hit limits pretty quickly.  I don’t want that.  I want it to be accessible and I want it to be about the process of making art, not the skill and craft of making art.

So what each class has is its own group mechanic for creating something — a graffiti piece, a rhyme, a new floor routine, a track — that turns the artist into the performer and the rest of the group into a potential or actual audience.  How does that work? I’m glad you asked that!  Here is the rough draft mechanics for the MC.

whenever I want to remove some knocks or recover some abilities, I can spend one of my beats for the session to write a rhyme. When I write a rhyme, everyone at the table are my listeners. I describe where I am — maybe a cipher, or on the train, or in my apartment — and then I start.

To write a rhyme, I describe to the group the imagery I use on the song.  I pick any three images or I want, like “the post office”, nuclear holocaust”, “red mustang”, or “a shaolin priest with a staff”. Then I pick three words, like “death”, “chattering”, “beat-box”, or “shadowboxing”. After that, I ask my listeners to describe what they think the song is about.  I can pick the listener interpretation I like best, and then I come up with a title for the rhyme.  I write the rhyme title in my rhyme book along with the images and words I came up with.

When I finish a rhyme, I can choose to recover a knock or I can recover up three abilities.

If I get my hands on a Beat, I can make combine it with one of my Rhymes to make a Track.

A New Way of Quitting

A New Way of Quitting

I’ve been out of the loop for awhile, because…

I had quit freelancing for RPGs.

It sounds pretty drastic, but there was some heartache in losing access to a beloved project (Marvel R.I.P.), but also I felt like I wasn’t making the sort of headway that I wanted to make in gaming. I felt that, even if I did what I wanted, what would change?  I’d be spending this time that I could be spending to level up in my career and level up as a father and a husband working for an industry that might not want me or the the change I want to bring to it. If I’m being honest, I was feeling this:  “the last thing the industry wants is some black dude trying to do something different.”

(I feel that this is a spillover from a lot of the ugliness boiling to the surface in america lately)

I couldn’t even justify it with great pay.  RPG pay just isn’t that great, which is why there are so few professionals and why no one does it for the money.

So I quit.

And by quit, I mean I played a bunch of Magic, and a lot of time with my family. Stopped blogging for awhile but got pulled into many different RPG-related discussions.  Did I mention Magic? Because I’m playing it a lot. I’m relaxing more.

By quitting, I mean that I am going to be freelancing on the awesome Red Aegis kickstarter and a few top-secret projects.  By quit, I mean I’ve enjoyed talking with the guys at Protagonist Labs and waited with baited breath to try Storium. I’ve really quit when I get my patreon video up for my new hiphop RPG “Five Fires” this weekend.

I guess by “quit”  I really mean that I took a break.  I had gotten to such a point where I hated everything about RPGs.  To be truthful, there are many aspects of RPG culture that I don’t like still. I even made some tearful goodbyes that I now feel like a jerk for.

But quitting I guess isn’t an option. Not only do I like doing RPG design, I need to build the games I’ve always wanted to play. If no one wants to hear my voice, who cares?  I can rock my own stuff for my own small tribe.

By quitting, I’m saying I took a break.  My friend Rudy sums it up best:

“When you told me you were quitting, I knew that wasn’t going to last.”

Three years ago, I quit smoking in two phases.  Day 1, I cut to a half a pack (from my normal 3/4 to full a day).  Day 2, I quit. I have never touched a cigarette since. I can exercise pretty powerful willpower when I need to. But I don’t know if I can quit RPGs.  Not easily, at least.

So I’m back, with a provisional set of rules that will keep me out of the pits of despair that forced me to “quit”:

Small chunks over intense bursts — I would do my RPG work on certain days of the week, which lead to some long days.  I’m now doing a little bit every day so I can spend less time each day and reclaim more of my time.

More relaxation — I am a terrible relaxer.  I am now taking martial arts classes and playing Magic tournaments at least once a week to free my mind and body from the feeling of constant work and being in front of the computer too much.

Not caring so damn much — I like to have impact in anything that I do.  If I don’t, over time it makes me wonder why I’m doing it.  I don’t have much juice in RPGs, but I am officially not caring about that.  The work is the thing, and if the work brings me and a few buddies some joy, I can rock with that no problems.

Blog every day — it seems counter to the no-stress, relax philosophy I am espousing, but when I did the blog every day experiments early this year, what I found was that a) I liked it b) it actually made writing and my other work easier.  It’s a daily practice that is hard at the outset, but gets easier and pays dividends when you stick with it.

So, it appears you’re stuck with me for the time being! Buckle up.