A Flash of Spectral Violence

Posted on August 18, 2017 By

I love writing fiction. I love the world of Ghost Punchers. So I’ve smashed these two loves together like a pair of Siamese twins joined at the fist in order to present a bit of ghost-punching flash fiction. If you enjoy it, please share it!

Pyre

“I don’t know, Rachel. I mean, look at her.”

Doug kept his voice low as he nodded at the new girl Jackson had sent over. She was small—tiny, really—and young enough that she almost looked at home here in the abandoned high school. Large glasses, a pink backpack, and a studious ponytail completed her “serious student looking for extra credit” look. It didn’t help that she was flipping through a pile of water-logged textbooks and nodding silently at whatever she was reading.

Rachel shrugged. “Jackson vouched for her.”

“Jackson vouched for Andre, and look how that turned out.”

“True. That was… unfortunate. You want to call it off?”

Doug sighed and shook his head.

“Nah. We’ve got a job to do. If they’re going to start remodeling next week, we got to take care of that thing in the basement sooner rather than later.”

“Fine. I’ll talk to her. See where she’s coming from. She if she’s… like Andre.”

Rachel turned to the girl and waved.

“Danita? Could you come here a sec?”

“Yes, Ms. Boone.”

Rachel could feel Doug rolling his eyes.

“Please. Just call me Rachel.”

“Okay, Rachel. Are we ready to do this?”

The girl’s eyes shone behind her glasses. She practically vibrated with excitement.

“Yeah. In a minute. We were just wondering… How much experience have you had in the actual… you know… punching? I mean, Jackson says you’re an expert when it comes to like, lore and rituals and stuff, but… you know. The violence…?”

Danita smiled.

“This is my third mission. On my first, I helped take down a ghost clown. I was mostly back-up, but I got a few good licks in.” The girl pantomimed swinging punches.

“Last month, I fought a dog. I mean, okay, it was a ghost dog, and probably not really a dog at all, but a ghost manifested in the form of a dog. But I punched the heck out of it.”

“Was it a big dog?” asked Doug.

“Not really. Like a small husky, maybe? But it was fast. With sharp teeth.”

Rachel looked at Doug. Doug shrugged and nodded.

“Well, we’re glad you’ve had that experience. Because the ghost in the basement here is pretty tough. We’ve already tried to root it out once. It didn’t go well.”

“I got a concussion,” said Doug.

“So you need more muscle,” said Danita. “And that’s why Jackson brought me in.”

Rachel smiled. “Exactly.”

Danita looked around. She pointed at the back of the room, where a door and its frame were blackened from fire and smoke damage.

“Is that the basement down there?” she asked. “Can I take a look?”

Rachel said “Sure” before Doug could say “That’s a bad idea and we should all go together after we make a plan.” Danita strode to the door and threw it open. She stepped onto a landing and peered down into the darkness.

“I see it,” she said as Doug and Rachel joined her by the door. “It’s a big one. Did it die in the fire?”

“We think it started the fire,” said Doug. “It’s been here a long time.”

“Then it’s time for it to go,” said Danita as she skipped down the stairs.

Doug and Rachel looked at each other, their eyes wide.

“She’s not…?” they both asked.

But she was.

Danita hit the bottom of the stairs at a run. She charged the ghost (which sort of looked like a gorilla in a human suit with stop signs for hands) and leaped onto its back with a roar.

“You don’t belong here!” she shouted as she punched her fist through where the ghost’s spine would be, if it had had a spine. She grunted, then pulled something moist and wriggling out from deep within the beast’s ectoplasmic flesh.

The ghost screamed.

And then Danita really got to work.

Doug and Rachel stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Three times they started towards Danita and the ghost, but each time they stepped back, frozen by the waves of violence, viscera, and vibrantly obscene language washing over the scene before them.

When it was over, Danita straightened her ponytail and caught her breath. She smiled sheepishly.

“Sorry about all that. I just get carried away sometimes.”

“Uh huh,” said Doug.

“I’m calling Jackson,” said Rachel. “We’re keeping her.”

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The Pillar Queen

Posted on August 16, 2017 By

Previously, I wrote about unique, individual “pillar characters” who appear in multiple stories across the storyworld and fulfill important structural roles within the world itself. Below is one such character from the Empire of Venom & Silk storyworld.

Alanna, Queen of Zira

Since the day she was born, Alanna was groomed to take the throne of the city-state of Zira. Her tutors filled her mind with history, science, and economics. The generals taught her military strategy. And her father, the king himself, taught her how to play the sometimes-cruel game of politics in Zira-Shun.

When the invaders attacked, Alanna’s father send Zira’s army into the field to try and hold them back. Alanna quickly realized that they had no chance. They would be wiped out, and Zira would fall as Ahbiz and Namzi had fallen before them. Alanna tried to convince the king to recall his troops and negotiate a truce with the spiders, but he refused to listen. So she killed him.

Upon seizing the throne, Alanna parlayed a peace with the invaders. It was more efficient for them, she pointed out, to have the rulers of Zira-Shun provide them with the food and slaves they needed, rather than to hunt for such assets themselves. Alanna swore fealty to the spiders. As proof of her loyalty, she offered her younger brother to serve as host for a telepathic “rider” spider in order to be a conduit between her and her eight-legged masters.

Today, Queen Alanna never leaves the palace grounds. She meets with nobles and mediates between them and the spiders, but has no qualms about sacrificing any number of commoners to keep the spiders satisfied. She’s done the math. She knows what she much do to keep her city and its territories from ending up like Namzi-Shun.

Alanna is a detached and dispassionate queen. While she values her subjects, she values them as resources to be cultivated, hoarded, sacrificed, and spent for the good of the realm. She is thoughtful and logical. She never rushes to judgment, or allows herself to be swayed by passions–neither her own nor others’. While those around her may quietly question her methods, none can deny that they have kept Zira-Shun alive (and its rulers in power) while the other realms have collapsed into chaos and anarchy.

Role: Queen Alanna is the “face of the conflict” between the humans and spiders of Zira-Shun. She is literally the face of the corrupted aristocracy who have betrayed the rest of humanity in order to preserve their own lives.

Quote: “Our esteemed friends have informed me that they need another hundred bodies for a project in Ahbiz. After midnight, send the collectors into the lower levels of the city and bring me whoever you find sleeping in the gutters there. If there are not enough street-sleepers, visit the hovels. Drag them from their beds if necessary. Try not to kill anyone. We may need them next month.”


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Watching the Sausage Be Made

Posted on August 14, 2017 By

I’m still hacking away at Packer’s Last Resort, but if you’ve got a stomach for games that are lumpy, uncooked messes… you can hack away at it too.

I’ve uploaded the latest iteration of the game as an ugly, crudely-done print-and-play file. The file includes a version of the rules and cards so new, I haven’t technically even played with them yet myself. But it’s an improvement over the previous iteration, which wasn’t horrible, so this one should be no worse than simply bad. Downloading it and looking it over probably won’t give you eye-cancer.

A couple notes:

  • This iteration is focused on food, and keeping it scarce enough that players are desperate enough to turn to in-game violence and cannibalism. The previous version had too much food. Does this one have too little? Still too much? Guess we’ll find out.
  • The game also includes a “stress” resource which mostly doesn’t do anything at the moment. Oh, it might make you freak out and attack another player, but that mechanic feels a bit shallow. The whole “stress” thing isn’t pulling its own weight, and I intend to fix (or cut!) it once I’ve got this “food balance” bit figured out.
  • I feel it’s worth reiterating that this is not a good game. It’s not even a done game. It’s the second of what might be dozens of iterations, the merest seed of what might some day grow up to be a good game.

So why bother sharing it, if it’s barely even playable? Partially to gain any initial feedback you fine folks may have, and partially to simply share the game-design process. Some people aren’t content to just eat the sausage; they like to see how it’s made. If you’re one of them, please feel free to download the PnP file and let me know what you think.

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Packer’s First Prototype

Posted on August 11, 2017 By

As promised earlier this week, I recently plopped the revised prototype for Packer’s Last Resort onto the table for a playtest. It was a cold, lonely playtest in which I myself played the parts of four different players, like some sort of game-designing Peter Sellers. It’s fine, though. I prefer to keep these initial playtests strictly internal. If the game metaphorically explodes and catches fire, I’m not putting anyone else at metaphorical risk.

So how did it go?

I’m glad you asked.

The Good: The game didn’t explode; that’s good. And there were moments of drama and interesting decisions (what some might call “fun”); that’s even better. So I know this isn’t a terrible design, and worth pursuing for a bit.

The Bad: As commonly happens with the first drafts of rules, I forgot to include some key instructions. Like when to draw cards, or when cards are discarded. (Turns out these things are kind of important in a card game.) I also neglected to include “give each player some food so they don’t starve on the first turn” in the set-up section of the rules. It was easy enough to just scribble the hot-fixes onto the rules (“Draw cards here you idiot!”), but that’s one more reason I prefer to test by myself at first.

The Ugly: For a game about people so desperate and starving that they’re willing to kill and eat each other, there wasn’t much desperation or starvation. There was, in fact, a surplus of food. It was like each round, the players found another food station at the local Old Country Buffet. Without food as a motivator, the rest of the game systems just sort of… sat there, bored and mostly unused. For the next iteration, the players will start with less food, and lose more over the course of the game. Trudging your way through snow-covered mountain passes is hungry work.

I’m sure there are issues in the game beyond food levels, but that’s the most glaring problem. Once I’ve turned that dial to where I want it, I can start tweaking the others in order to maximize the fun.

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Up From the Ashes

Posted on August 8, 2017 By

Last week, I wrote how my original design for the “Alfred Packer Leads a Bunch of Noobs Into The Mountains and Ends Up Eating Them” game was no good. “Burn it down!” I wrote.

And so I did.

And since then, I’ve completely revamped the game, written a new set of rules, and put together a playable prototype.

I’ve also given the thing a name: Packer’s Last Resort.

Now, as of 6:00 AM Tuesday morning, I haven’t had a chance to actually play this prototype. It looks fun on paper, but paper-fun doesn’t count for much if the real thing’s a bore. I’ll be kicking the tires on this bad boy over the next few days. If it holds up, I’ll share the results here with you fine folks. If not… Well, I’ll just have to burn it down again and go back to poking at the ashes.

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A Pillar of the Fallen City

Posted on August 2, 2017 By

Previously, I wrote about unique, individual “pillar characters” who appear in multiple stories across the storyworld and fulfill important structural roles within the world itself. Below is one such character from the Empire of Venom & Silk storyworld.

Mora Nash, Scavenger of the Fallen City

Mora grew up on the streets of Namzi, where she learned to be strong, ruthless, and utterly self-sufficient. As a young woman, she found employment as an enforcer for a crime lord. She didn’t particularly enjoy breaking the bones of those who couldn’t pay their debts, but the job paid well and her employer treated her well.

When the spiders invaded Namzi, the crime lord was one of the first to flee the city, and Mora was at his side. Their refugee band was desperate, but wealthy and well-armed. Nevertheless, when they encountered an invader hunting party, most of the refugees were wiped out–including Mora’s boss.

Mora tried to build a new life for herself in the city of Zira, but Namzi was the only home she’d ever known. She returned to Namzi, but found it virtually destroyed… and ripe for the looting.

Now Mora supports herself by digging through the ruins of Namzi in search of valuables. As a child of the city, Mora knows the best places to look for loot, and the best ways to avoid running into cultists, monsters, or other scavengers. She occasionally guides groups of outsiders who come to Namzi looking to recover specific documents or artifacts. To her surprise, Mora’s found that she’s good at leading, and even grudgingly enjoys it. In her wildest flights of fancy, she imagines heading up an effort to rebuild and resettle the city… then shakes her head and gets back to work.

Mora prefers to be alone. She is gruff and short-tempered if forced to deal with other people, and denies the rumor that she’s fiercely loyal to the few she considers friends. What Mora lacks in social skill she makes up for in physical prowess. She’s tall and muscular, and stronger and nimbler than most people her size.

Role: Mora is the archetypal “scavenger” often found in the Fallen Realms. While her story is uniquely her own, her life amongst the ruins is similar that of most people of her profession.

Quote: “Quiet, you idiot. You see those double doors? Your ‘sacred cup’ or whatever is through there, but see here? Right in front? That’s a spider cultist. Looks like he’s standing guard. What else is in there? And don’t lie to me, or I’ll gut you right here.”


This post was made possible through the support of the heroic patrons of my Patreon page, who got to read it weeks ago. If you like getting content early, and having a chance to offer your own suggestions on it, I’d encourage you to swing by the  Patreon page and see what we’re up to.

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Empire of Venom & SilkWorld Building


Burning Cannibals

Posted on July 31, 2017 By

One of the challenges of game design is knowing when to stop designing. Sad to say, some designs are just dead ends. It’s better to shove them into a well-labeled box somewhere, take a day to clear your mind, and start over from scratch.

That’s where I’m at with the “Alfred Packer Cannibal Card Game” I’ve been poking at for the past few weeks. While I like the original “auction game with a twist” concept, when I sat down to actually prototype that game, it wasn’t… good. Or fun. Worst of all, it was boring.

So I’m throwing it out, burning it down, and starting over. I’ve got a new angle on the design that seems to be working so far, but it’s too soon to say more than that. I don’t want to jinx it.

And besides… I need time to find a real title for this game. The “Alfred Packer Cannibal Card Game” is fine for a working title, but a marketing person would set himself on fire before trying to sell anything with such a crazy name.

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Who’s Who in World-Building

Posted on July 26, 2017 By

I’ve often said that, when creating a storyworld, you should focus on character archetypes rather than unique, specific characters. Don’t worry about “Doris Black, Bounty Hunter” when you can work up “the bounty hunters of House Black.” After all, one character will get you one story, but a character archetype can unleash a horde of stories.

That being said…

Storyworlds don’t exist for their own sake.
They exist for the sake of the stories they contain.
And those stories require unique, specific characters.

Archetypes are great for when you’re doing broad-stroke worldbuilding. (“The bounty hunters of House Black are respected and feared throughout the Empire of New Jersey.”) But when it’s time to actually tell a story, you need to lock in on specific characters. (“Doris Black is a wise-cracking skull-cracker from Castle Trenton with daddy issues and black belts in six different martial arts.”)

If those characters don’t exist outside the story, well… this post doesn’t really apply to them. You don’t need to worry about how they fit into the storyworld as a whole.

Pillar Characters

But some characters are pillars. They help support not only the stories they appear in, but the storyworld itself. In addition to whatever narrative role they play (hero, villain, supporting cast), they also play a structural role as part of the storyworld. As such, you might want to put some additional thought into them before dropping them into your story.

Now, a pillar character doesn’t have to be important to the storyworld, or even the stories in which he or she appears. For example, maybe there’s a bartender that everyone talks to, or a traveling salesman who shows up just when he’s needed most. Or even the High Holy Wizard of Harrowood, who isn’t the hero of any story, but is often the one issues the actual heroes their calls to adventure. (Okay, the HHWoH is important to the world, but isn’t isn’t important to the story.)

“Okay, I get it,” you say. “Pillar characters can show up in multiple stories, and serve ‘structural roles’ within the storyworld. But what are these ‘structural roles’ of which you speak?”

I’m glad you asked!

Structural Roles

Unique characters should serve at least one role, such as:

The Face of Conflict: The character represents one side of the setting’s core conflict. She could be the queen of a country at war, the leader of a political faction, or the spokesperson for a criminal organization. Or maybe she represents multiple sides of the conflict, and we get to see different perspectives as she struggles to choose which side is right.

An Archetypal Character: The character represents a unique example of one of the storyworld’s character archetypes. This could be your “Doris Black, bounty hunter” or “Sir Sebastian, knight of the Blood Thorn.”

A Representative of the Unique Setting: The character demonstrates a feature unique to your storyworld. For example, if your storyworld features houses that periodically rise up on giant legs and stride across the landscape, your pillar character might be a professional “house pilot” who walks her boss’s homes to the south for winter. Or if your storyworld features dogs who talk (but only in rhyme), then your pillar character might be a talking, rhyming dog.

A Mascot: I’ll be honest. This has more to do with marketing than world-building. But when you’re putting together a list of awesome, unique characters, think of which one you would want to be the “face” of your storyworld. It doesn’t have to be a hero: Darth Vader is an iconic “face” for Star Wars, and he’s a villain.

Would you like to see some examples of what I’m talking about? I hope so, because I’ll be sharing some in the days to come — and I think they’re pretty cool.


This post was made possible through the support of the heroic patrons of my Patreon page, who got to read it weeks ago. If you like getting content early, and having a chance to offer your own suggestions on it, I’d encourage you to swing by the  Patreon page and see what we’re up to.

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Ghosts of Christmas Present

Posted on July 24, 2017 By

Did you know that, thanks to the “Christmas in July” sale, you can buy your very own copy of Ghost Punchers for less than eight bucks? Well, now you do! If you’ve been waiting for an excuse to pick up a copy of my RPG of supernatural investigation and violence, this is it!

“But what else is happening with Ghost Punchers?” you may ask. “Didn’t you promise us some supplements?”

Um, yes. Yes I did. And the first one-sheet adventure, Cookie Monsters, is available to download for whatever price you want (including free!).

But the other things… are still coming. When my old computer started dying, I started focusing on creating backups rather than creating content. Then life happened. But now that I’ve got a new computer, I might be able to start pressing forward once more.

Let’s see what’s pending, shall we?

  • The actual, physical, hold-it-in-your-hand-and-smell-the-paper hard copy of Ghost Punchers is about where I left it several months ago. The guts of the thing are done, but the cover remains to be done. Something about ink saturation? I’ll need to dig back in and see where things are at.
  • The sourcebook for the Order of the Sacred Shield is also on my Big List of Guilt. Like the hard copy, it lost all momentum when my computer troubles brought things to a screeching halt. But looking at the files, I see it’s pretty close to being done, so maybe it will see the light day before actual Christmas gets here.
  • And yes, the next one-sheet adventure, Too Many Hitlers!, has been playtested, and just needs to be edited and laid out.

So fear not, Ghost Punchers fans! I have not abandoned you! I’ve just wandered off and put out fires for a while. Nothing personal, folks. Just trying to keep my house from burning down.

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Instant Drama – Just Add Failure – Part 2

Posted on July 21, 2017 By

Previously, I discussed how failure makes for good stories, but writing failure into games is challenging. Because while players may appreciate the drama of failure, they hate failing.

Today I’m back with some ideas for how to incorporate failure into your game story without adding failure to your game play.

First, a note on player agency. Two big things you want to avoid with any sort of “failure” are (a) taking away the players’ ability to affect the world, and (b) telling the players that their previous actions didn’t matter.

The classic example of this is when the heroes are scripted to fail at the end of the scene, no matter what they did to prepare for it, and are then captured, stripped of their equipment/powers/whatever, and left without any obvious means of escape. Yes, it’s dramatic. And yes, the heroes will eventually escape and return to their previous levels of pure awesomeness. But in the meantime, the players are resenting you for taking away their fun.

With that out of the way, let’s look at how to fail!

Winning the Battle / Losing the War: The heroes win, but the players still experience the drama of defeat. Whatever stories the heroes are part of (and winning at!) are part of a larger conflict. In that conflict, the heroes’ side is actually losing. For example:

  • The heroes captured the enemy bunker, but the rest of their battalion was ambushed and wiped out.
  • As the heroes were successfully rescued the mayor’s daughter, the terrorists blew up City Hall.
  • While they talked the wizard into giving them the Staff of Prophecy, the High Council dissolved and the world lies on the brink of war.

Paper Losses: The heroes lose, but it doesn’t really affect the players’ gameplay. Perhaps they “lose territory” but since “territory” is just spaces on a map without actual game effect, we get the drama of failure without taking away the players’ agency. Or maybe the failure just part of the script; while they have “failed” in the context of the game’s narrative, it just pushes them forward to more adventures. (“You’re a loose cannon McGunn! You’re suspended from the police force! So if you want to track down your partner’s killer according to your rules, you’ll have all the time in the world to do so! Now get out of my office!”)

Choose Failure: As players, we don’t necessarily mind bad things happening so long as we stay in control. Even failure is fine so long as we get to choose it, and know what that choice entails. The choice can’t be blind. (It’s no fair to say “You chose the door on the right, so you die.”) It’s okay to sometimes have only bad choices (“Do you save the prince? Or save the ambassador?”) so long as the player can make an informed decision and has an idea what the results of that choice may be, no matter how bad.

Incentivize Failure: You can take the idea of “choosing failure” one step further by giving the players incentive to make “bad” choices. Reward foolish risks, sub-optimal plays, and choosing short-term over long-term success. But be careful! Depending on game mechanics, this might be tricky to balance. Players are clever when it comes to eking out any possible advantage, even at the cost of their own fun. If they discover the best way to “win” is to constantly lose, their gameplay will be a series of failures that might lead to a satisfyingly tragic experience (Hamlet) or just a miserable experience (The Room).


What are some of your favorite (or most-hated) failures as a player or a writer? Share with the group, and we’ll all be smarter for it!

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