The 4 Games Essential to My Own Design

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I’ll talk about the games that are most essential to my own design.

Day 19: Game That’s Most Essential to Your Design?

It would be disingenuous for me to not put Advanced, 1st Edition, at the top of this list. It’s the game I started with and it’s become a template, both for what it does and what it doesn’t do. While (to me) it’s not the be-all end-all of RPGs, it’s the foundation for everything.

I could list a lot of games that influenced me in various ways, whose ideas I have borrowed, expended on, and incorporated into my own designs. My own Appendix N of RPGS, as it were. Instead I’ll keep it to a dull roar and talk about three essential games, and how they’ve affected my own work. In no particular order:

Primetime Adventures allows the group to collaboratively create their own campaign setting. The premise is that you’re playing a television series. It’s not even limited to the usual genres of fantasy, science fiction, or horror. I’m played in a drama about paramedics in a small town in the Midwest, an animated version of a cooking show where famous cartoon characters compete to be the best chef, and a sitcom about a group of friends trying to create a sitcom. Everyone takes turn narrating scenes, and there’s even a way for people just watching the game to participate.

Fiasco allows you to play out a movie. There’s a premise to the film you’re creating, a rough genre and setting, but it really comes down to the relationships between the characters. In fact, instead of filling out a character sheet, you focus on establishing the details of those relationships. Where the plot goes depends on what the characters do. It’s another game with shared narration, and the game is structured like a film with a fixed beginning, middle, and end.

Fate lets you come up with your own abilities. The bulk of the system is essentially a rough guideline on task resolution. Players create characters that fit the outline of the world and the story. Sometimes it’s a little too squishy and free-form for me, but I love that it opens things up to player creativity rather than picking abilities from closed, canonical lists. Imagine if all games allowed you to make up your own skills, powers, spells, and such, and give them equal weight as goals, motivations, and other issues.

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Current Inspiration: Joy and Creativity in Game Design

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I’ll talk about my current inspiration.

Day 18: Current Inspiration?

At the moment my main source of inspiration is prestige-format television. Well-written, well-acted ensemble shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Sons of Anarchy. They give me a different perspective on story structure and character interactions.

The notion that characters have lives separate from their “adventures” is something I want more of in roleplaying. Investment in the characters is one of the big draws for these shows. For the tabletop roleplaying hobby to keep spreading into the mainstream, it needs to incorporate the elements that appeal to people in other media. To grow, it needs to look outside the usual corners of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and video games.

Yes, there are games that do these things to varying degrees. I’m interested in seeing more, and developing them. The system design I’m working on, and the settings that I want to create, are intended to support a style of play that’s reminiscent of these types of television shows. Longer character arcs, rich inner lives, emotional growth, in addition to killing monsters, taking their treasure, and leveling up to gain new powers. Or instead of. It’s about having options.

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Feedback: Strengthening Your Game Design

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I’ll talk about my favorite forms of feedback.

Day 17: Favorite Form of Feedback?

While I recognize the value of blind playtesting, my preference is to get feedback from people that I know and trust. I have no doubt that they know what they’re talking about. Knowing their experiences and biases provides context for what they have to say.

Having gone to art school and participated in numerous writer’s groups, I know that most people don’t know how to give critique. They think that the idea is to be harsh, or nit-picky, as if it’s meant to toughen up the creator rather than improve the work. Sometimes they’re not comfortable saying what needs to be said, especially to a stranger, so they do nothing but heap undeserved praise on mediocre work. That’s not helpful.

Other times blind feedback reads like an Amazon review or something inane you’d find on Yelp. “1 star, I do not like Chinese food” — then why were you eating in a Chinese restaurant? “1 star, I don’t like games with dice pools” isn’t going to help streamline a system built on a die pool mechanic. There’s nothing there that’s useful. It’s just an expression of that person’s personal tastes.

A trusted circle can say what’s needed. I will listen and take it to heart, but not take it personally. They understand me, and what I’m trying to accomplish with the project. They know how to communicate clearly and get their point across. At the same time, they’re not so invested that they’ll be hurt if I don’t take a specific suggestion.

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If you have any other questions, stay tuned for the rest of the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or contact me using the form on this site!

Design Partners: RPG Design Considerations

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I’ll talk about working with design partners.

Day 16: Any Design Partners?

There are game designers and writers that I bounce ideas off of, but no, I don’t have any formal design partners. Some of the reasons for this are grounded in my business model, and some have to do with my own issues. I want to explain this without sounding like a pretentious jerk.

I have a very clear vision of what I want my design to be, and what sort of company I want to grow Dancing Lights Press into. At the moment I’m still laying the foundation for that. One of the reasons I gave up being a third party publisher was that I didn’t want the limitations that come with playing with someone else’s intellectual property. I’m developing my own system because it needs to fit both my long-term creative vision and specific needs of the business.

There are some personal quirks and biases at play as well. At university, I was always the guy who got stuck doing all of the work on group projects. In past creative collaborations, I’ve usually (not always) been the person having to kick my creative partner in the butt to get them to do the bare minimum of their share. That’s frustrating enough when you’re doing something for a grade, or just for fun. With game design we’re talking about my livelihood. I can’t risk my ability to pay the rent on a creative partner who’s not as invested I the project as I am.

This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like a creative partner, or a business partner for that matter. It just means that at the moment I haven’t found the right person or the right circumstances to do so. Someday, maybe, but if it doesn’t happen that’s okay too.

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If you have any other questions, stay tuned for the rest of the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or contact me using the form on this site!

Public or Private? Game Design and Your Audience

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I’ll talk about designing in public or private.

Day 15: Do You Design in Public or Private?

I design in private. While I’d love to design in public, live-tweeting my work or dropping regular blog posts about my process, time is a finite resource for me. On top of that, I’ve got anxiety disorders. I’m also a high-functioning depressive and an introvert, so public design would be draining.

The benefits of designing in public are many, and I recognize that. As a one-person operation, however, I need to manage my schedule. Time spent blogging and interacting on social media is time not spent developing, writing, and editing my work. I already spread myself too thin as it is, but I need to focus on the tasks that get the bills paid. I’ve been trying to strike a better balance, communicating more with fans, fellow designers, and the community in general while still guarding my office hours and protecting writing time.

With anxiety and depression, things that I can deal with intellectually aren’t necessarily things that I can always handle emotionally. There are tons of helpful people in the community who offer up great feedback, advice, and support. There are also trolls who know exactly which raw nerve to poke. People sometimes mistake my being guarded for being aloof, or overly defensive, or needlessly sensitive. They was they often express those feelings only serves to make me withdraw even more.

Navigating the internet is like taking a Sunday drive through the countryside. The sun is shining, and scenery is beautiful. But there are also pothole in the road that can break your axle, and critters waiting to run out in from of your car. The anxiety of having to watch out for the hazards can suck all of the joy out of the experience.

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If you have any other questions, stay tuned for the rest of the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or contact me using the form on this site!

Tabletop RPG Design: My Dreams and Plans

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I’ll talk about my dreams and plans.

Day 14: What Are My Dreams and Plans?

I would like to grow the company beyond me. I want to eventually expand into publishing fiction based on the settings that I develop. Ultimately, I’d like to see those settings represented in other media like film, television, animation, and comics.

Currently I am a sole practitioner. Dancing Lights Press is a company of one. It pays the bills, but it’s a lot of work. Growing the company would take a lot off my plate, so that I could get out of the grind and spend more time developing larger, long-term projects. I would also like to be able to throw work to other creators — game designers, writers, artists, editors, layout people, the whole gamut.

At some point I would like to simply be the publisher and creative director. I don’t want this to sound like “idea guy” nonsense. I’d like to see some ideas that I have come to fruition in the hands of people more talented than I am. There are things I’d like to develop that I feel are beyond my capabilities to do, or at least to do alone.

Developing things for other media is a tough row to hoe, and I understand that. I have no experience there. It’s something I’d like to do because I feel it could open up new audiences to the concept of tabletop roleplaying. It could also give creators greater opportunities, in media that pays better and has more prestige among the general public.

My Tabletop Roleplaying Design: Biggest Influences

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I’ll answer the question: biggest influences?

Day 13: Biggest influences?

Most people will likely answer this question by citing specific games or designers. I’d like to go in another direction. The biggest influences on my game design are literary fiction, prestige television, and independent film. I’ll explain more in the extended answer.

Tabletop roleplaying has always been inspired by fiction. Going back to the First Edition we had Appendix N, which laid out the game’s influences for all to see. Most roleplayers steal freely from their own favorite fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels. I happen to be fond of authors like Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and David Mitchell. Why can’t I swipe from them, instead or (or as well as) Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and Jack Vance? It requires some different assumptions, and a few changes in structure, but stories are stories.

Television dramas like The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, and Mad Men have more of an impact on my games than any fantasy. The episodic structure is not unlike the finite nature of game sessions. They rely on ensembles casts. While there are story goals, the most interesting beats come from individual character arcs. The worldbuilding is a joy to unfold. That’s why Primetime Adventures was a revelation for me. Create a TV series! Not only did it acknowledge that campaigns have a finite lifespan, it build it into the game. It was collaborative, so the players all created their show together. The game blurred the lines between player and gamemaster, and even allowed for spectators! It opened up possibilities for what tabletop roleplaying could be.

Similarly, Fiasco offered up the means to collaboratively create a movie scenario, then play it out. There’s enough of a random factor to make things interesting, but at it’s core it’s about interactions between the characters. It’s very much like independent movies, and by that I mean everything from highbrow art films to low-budget exploitation flicks. What you get out of it is dependent upon how much you put into it. Everyone else wants to adapt Conan the Barbarian or The Dark Crystal or The Princess Bride. I want to play out a Wes Anderson movie, or a Tarantino crime drama, or a character study along the lines of a Richard Linklater film.

If you have any other questions, stay tuned for the rest of the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or contact me using the form on this site!

Get Your Work Out There: Promoting My Tabletop RPG Work

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I answer the question: How do you get your work out there?

Day 12: How Do You Get Your Work Out There?

DriveThruRPG allows me to send an email to past customers when I release a new product. I also have a separate weekly newsletter where I talk about works-in-progress and game development. You can sign up for that newsletter at the Dancing Lights Press website.

In the past I have had Facebook groups, which never fostered either useful discussion or sales. The same goes with things that I have posted on Twitter, regardless of the hashtags used. Social media doesn’t work for me. I’ve gone back to trying to just have pleasant chats with other creators. Forums, well, I’ll say they’re not for me and leave it at that.

I really desire to be part of a stable, supporting community again. The best way to get my work out there is by good word of mouth. To get that word of mouth, I need to spend more time building relationships and fostering the sort of community I want to be a part of. In supporting that community, hopefully, the community will in turn help to support me.

If you have any other questions, stay tuned for the rest of the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or contact me using the form on this site!

My Brand: Story-Driven, Collaborative Tabletop Roleplaying

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things. Today I answer the question: what’s my brand?

Day 11: What’s My Brand?

My personal brand is story-driven gaming. The characters, the worldbuilding, and the plot all support one another, influence one another, and are inseparable elements. They need to be developed together from the start, and expanded upon through play.

In most systems, you can build a generic character based on a class, archetype, or template. They are meant to be dropped into any adventure, in an genre-appropriate setting. If the player knows some of the specifics of the setting, they will tailor their character to fit. Otherwise, they’ll have to backfill as they discover things about the world. When they know something about the story arc the adventure or campaign will follow, they can create a character that fits. This doesn’t mean they get heavy spoilers, or that they’ll tactically optimize their character build. It means that they can be craft a protagonist that makes sense in context, because their background, whether they’re from, and the ties and relationships they have would naturally pull them into the plot.

Worldbuilding is often undertaken as an activity unto itself. It should be centered around the elements necessary to support the character’s background, and set up the things that will affect the story. Some color for the sake of color is good, but not to the point that everyone is overwhelmed with irrelevant details. The principal of Chekhov’s Gun should be applied — if it appears, it should be necessary and relevant. The choices that players make for their characters should affect the elements added into the worldbuilding as much as the existing details of the world should be incorporated into the characters’ back stories. Major details of world that provide context for the story should be common knowledge up front. Small details can be revealed and explored during play.

The story, too, should be dependent upon the character elements. A lot of roleplaying game adventures are written for characters of a certain level, regardless of their personalities, backgrounds, and personal goals. These adventures can be dropped wholesale into nearly any genre-appropriate world. The gamemaster should be tweaking adventures to take full advantage of the unique elements that the characters and setting offer. Tie elements of the plot to the protagonists’ personal histories and motivations. Allow the characters’ needs and desires to warp the plot a bit. Ensure that encounters make sense in the context of the world, and have the events make an impact upon the cultural, political, and religious elements. Make the story matter, rather than being akin to old style episodic television, where no matter what happens things are reset to a baseline normal the following episode.

If you have any other questions, stay tuned for the rest of the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or contact me using the form on this site!

Mini-Games and Solo Creative Activities: Relaxing with Tabletop RPGs

April 2018 is the tabletop roleplaying game maker challenge. Each day, game creators will answer one question on Twitter. I’m participating, but I’ll be expanding upon my answers here as well. One of my goals has been to reconnect with the greater RPG community, as well as build a community specifically for Dancing Lights Press fans. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity that this challenge provides to do those very things.Today I’ll answer the question: favorite game to relax with.

Day 10 Favorite Game to Relax With

My honest answer to what game I like to relax with is “anything that I just get to play and don’t have to run.” Beyond that, any game where character generation is essentially a mini-game that can be “played” as a solo activity.

As much as I love tabletop roleplaying, being a gamemaster isn’t what I consider to be a low-key, mellow good time. I enjoy it, but it’s work and it can be stressful. Because I’m the gamemaster about 70% of the time, I relish the times when I can just be a player. I need to show up prepared, but beyond character creation and advancement there’s not much I need to do.

When I had more free time, I enjoyed creating characters. Even if I had no plans to play or run a game, it was the way I’d become familiar with a system. It was a way to test the possibilities. Whether it’d life path generation, picking options from lists, or creating my own abilities, I had fun seeing what I could come up with.

These two things influence my own designs. I want GM prep to be as easy as character generation and advancement. That’s a lofty goal, but a lot of story games have shown that it’s possible. I’d also like character creation to be fun, so players and gamemasters can sit at home and generate characters just for fun. Both of those will be features of my next big system revision.

If you have any other questions, stay tuned for the rest of the #AprilTTRPGMaker questions. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or contact me using the form on this site!