After months of hemming, hawing, and other assorted mouth-noises, I’ve finally done it. I’ve launched a Patreon campaign to support the creation of new stories and storyworlds here on the website.
If you’re a regular visitor here, you know I love creating new worlds. I love filling them with interesting characters and exciting conflicts, and bringing them to life through stories, games, and other media. I’ve done a bit of that world-building here on the website, but not as much as I’d like. With this Patreon campaign, I plan to expand the amount of actual world-building I do on the site and – if there’s enough interest – turn those new worlds into books or other products.
You may be asking, “What’s Patreon?”
Patreon is a website where you can support your favorite creators with a few bucks every month and, in return, not only do they get to keep creating, but you get to go behind the scenes and be part of the process.
“Sounds neat,” you might say. “So why are you using Patreon?”
While I occasionally do small, personal world-building projects on my website (see those links above), the Patreon will allow me to turn these projects into regular features. For example, I did a series of posts on the “Empire of Venom & Silk” fantasy world a few months back. I’d love to go back to it, flesh it out, and maybe write some fiction set in that world. But the reality of being a freelancer is that I don’t have much time for non-paying projects, no matter how much I’d enjoy them. With Patreon’s help, I’ll finally have that time.
If you’re still reading this, you’re probably curious to see what the Patreon campaign looks like. Here’s the link. Check it out. Watch the video. Share it with your friends.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end, and thank you for your support!
Long-time readers may remember way back at the dawn of 2016, when the year still had so much hope and potential, that I mentioned working with Threshold School on a world-building day camp for kids in grades 5-7. The camp (as I may have neglected to mention) was a blast, and we may do it again someday.
Well, I’ve got good news for parents of bright kids looking for a challenge in the Boulder / Denver area. Threshold School is now accepting applications not for a day camp, but for the 2017-18 school year. The school focuses on hands-on learning, in which students learn by doing–producing films, for example, or restoring wildlife habitats, or engineering steam-powered robots. The students will use real tools and real materials in authentic conditions. In the words of the school, “The children will have the freedom to fail, the time to persevere, and space to imagine. Through their work, they will gain the audacity to think big and the tenacity to carry through.”
(And yes, the school will offer classes in game design and world-building. That’s where I come in.)
The Ghost Punchers machine is just getting started!
I also promised sourcebooks detailing the various ghost-punching organizations. I’m pleased to say that the first of these is well underway. Here’s a peak at how the cover is shaping up.
Whether you’re a player looking for more character options, a GM looking for new adventure ideas, or anyone looking for more information on the Vatican’s own league of two-fisted exorcists, this book is guaranteed to have something for you.
After taking the holidays off to
desperately put out year-end fires relax and spend time with my family, I’m back on the blog to talk world-building, tone, and the value of very large storyworlds.
Over the break, I finally got a chance to see Rogue One. (Just in time, too: another day and they would have taken away my geek card.) I had a couple issues with the movie, but overall loved it. It was great to see a big-screen Star Wars adventure that didn’t focus on a Skywalker or a Solo.
One thing that struck me about the movie was that its tone was very different from the previous films. Whereas they were very Flash Gordon, Rogue One is much more The Dirty Dozen — it’s war movie, not a pulp space opera.
I’ve written a little about tone before. In that post (go on, read it, it’s short) I postulate that tone (along with characters, setting, and conflict) is a key element in a storyworld. A consistent tone leads to a more consistent world.
I still believe that. And yet. And yet…
Rogue One is the exception that proves the rule. Or perhaps it proves a new rule. As writer Greg Stolze pointed out when we were discussing this topic, if a storyworld is big enough, it can encompass multiple tones. He noted how the Marvel cinematic universe, for example, is big enough to include not only standard superhero fare, but spy thrillers, noir-style mysteries, and heist movies — each of which has its own tone.
And yeah, now that I think of it, Star Wars has tried different tones before. I’d argue that the prequels have a far more political tone than Episodes 4-6, which have a rather black-and-white view of the galactic power struggle. I’d also argue that the prequels suffered for this change in tone because it wasn’t handled very well. (That has as much to do with marketing as with the story itself, but that’s a post for another day.)
So what’s the lesson to be learned here? I’d say that it’s while tone is a key part of a storyworld, it’s something you can adjust from one story to the next, so long as you’re (a) aware of what you’re doing, and (b) very careful while doing so.
Over the weekend, I had the fun and unusual opportunity to run Ghost Punchers for a pack of seventh-graders at our Friendly Local Game Store. It started with a message from one of my local gaming buddies when Ghost Punchers first came out.
“Hey, would you be willing to run Ghost Punchers for my kids and their friends? I think they’d get a kick out of playing a game with the guy who wrote it.”
I hesitated for a moment. While I’ve run various games for my own kids since they were small (most recently while playtesting the Adventurers RPG), I haven’t run a table full of young’uns since… (does a quick search on the blog) this crazy event several years ago.
But only a moment. I love running RPGs, and I needed to do a test-run of my Ghost Punchers adventure for Genghis Con anyway (sign up here!), so I agreed.
We had five players. Most had played the Savage Worlds system (which fuels Ghost Punchers) at least a couple times before, but we had one raw recruit: this was his first RPG experience of any kind. I handed them each a pre-made character (complete with a backstory they largely ignored), made sure we had enough dice at the table, and jumped into the game.
It went really well.
Whenever you’re asking a squad of adolescent boys to focus on one thing while sitting at one table in one room for more than four hours… You’re asking for trouble. And yes, there were some focus issues (for some reason, they were obsessed with the cans of spray paint I let their characters buy before the game started), but once the dice hit the table, they were totally engaged.
At one point, they were trying to rescue a woman who had been possessed by an angry ghost. If they didn’t exorcise her quickly, she was going to harm herself and probably take out a bunch of civilians. Realizing they didn’t have time for a full exorcism ritual (the power called “Eviction Notice” in Ghost Punchers), they frantically tried to pull the woman into their “circle of ghostly protection,” which would essentially “strain” the ghost right out of her.
They tried, but failed. Driven by the spirit inside her, the woman held onto a post and couldn’t be budged.
“Spend a benny!” they shouted at the player making the roll.
He did, which gave him a re-roll, but he failed again.
“I’m spending another one!” he declared. The table cheered.
Another roll. Another failure. He was running out of bennies.
“One more,” he said, and rolled his six-sided Strength die. It came up “6” which, in Savage Worlds rules, meant that he got to roll again and add the second result to the first.
His second roll came up “6” as well. The kids went nuts. He rolled one more time and got a “5” — for a total of 17, a fantastic success!
“You yank her through the spirit force field!” I said. “And you can see the ghost squeeeezing out of her like toothpaste out of a tube.”
The other people in the store turned to see why a table of kids was alternately cheering and crying “Eew!”
It was a great session. Fun was had. Ghosts were punched. And we must have done something right, because the one kid who’d never played before vanished when the game ended, only to reappear minutes later proudly brandishing his brand-new Savage Worlds rulebook and dice set. The store got a sale. And his friends got a new player to join their ranks. Who says RPGs have no winners?
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Heck, I’m thinking about offering it as service — you know, like a birthday clown — “Hire a GM to come run a game for your kids for an afternoon.” It’s a niche market, but who knows? It’s probably not the craziest idea I’ve ever had.
What do you mean, it’s almost time for Genghis Con again? Didn’t we just have one of those, like, a month ago? I mean, I’m glad it’s around the corner. I always have a great time, but sheesh, give me some time to catch my breath, eh?
Or maybe it’s just the illusion of time speeding up as I hurtle ever faster towards my inevitable demise. Either way, I’m running some games at the con, and if you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there!
Here’s what’s on the docket:
Ghost Punchers at Camp Blood
Everyone knows that Camp Winimac is haunted, but the ghosts haven’t caused any trouble until this summer. Now the walls are dripping blood, campers are missing, and the place is full of ghost in need of a good punching!
Sky Pirates of Karthador
Welcome to Karthador, the planet of swashbuckling science-fiction! Airships loaded with energy crystals have been disappearing over the jungles of Ferazonn, and sky pirates are suspected to be the culprits. Can the heroes shoot down the pirates and discover the secrets of the Sky Fortress before it’s too late?
Ack! How is it December already? How is December half-gone already? How is next year right around the corner? WHO AUTHORIZED THIS?!
No time for deep thoughts on conflict and word-building today (though I’m not quite done beating that particular dead horse). Instead, here are some quick tips for all you tabletop game masters out there. (Old pros will probably nod and say to themselves, “Obviously that it how it should be done,” but new GMs will hopefully find some value here.)
GMs need to be able to adapt quickly. When the players zig when you expect them to follow the trail you’ve painstakingly laid out before them, you need to be able to just go with it, rolling their detour into your game story like you’d planned for it all along.
Here are three ways to do just that:
Check the List: I love to have a list of random names sitting in front of me when I run a game. This way, when a player asks “What’s the cop’s name?” or “Who owns this building?” I can give them a name without much hesitation. (I then make a note next to the name, like “cop” or “building owner” for my own reference so I don’t forget.) You could also have a list of spells, items, business names… whatever you think you might need to whip up on the fly. And yes, it could be a list that you roll on, but I prefer to randomize the entries ahead of time, and simply work my way down the list.
Ask the Dice: When I do roll, it’s when I need answers that aren’t on any list or directly relevant to the plot — in other words, I don’t know the answer and I don’t really care. These are things like “Does this random elf I just met in the bar know anything about the hermit in the forest?” or “How strong is this Martian ale?” For yes/no questions, I just check if the die roll is even (“Yes!”) or odd (“No!”). For “how much” questions, I check the relative value. (“Oh, high roll. Better not drink too much of this stuff.”) You can even use the same technique to see positive or negative values. (“How does he feel about the queen? Um… on a 1, he hates her, on a 6 he loves her, and anything in between is varying levels of like or dislike.”)
Ask the Players: Finally, you can straight-up ask the players what they expect to happen, or want to accomplish with their unplanned course of action. (“It’s the governor’s private quarters, which you were never supposed to enter. What are you hoping to find here before the guards show up?”) If it’s not game-breaking, you can give them what they want (“Sure, the wax seal is here on his desk…”), but never make it exactly what they want (“But it’s apparently enchanted, because it starts singing as soon as you pick it up”).
Like I said, these may be moldy old ideas to the experienced GM, but I hope you find it inspirational all the same. If you grizzled old GMs have your own tips for faking it, please share them — so we can all be that much better at our art.
Earlier this week, I wrote about gradients of conflict in storyworlds, and how just because two entities are on the same side of a conflict, it doesn’t mean they’re both in agreement, or equally invested in the conflict.
Before declaring this horse dead and moving on, I wanted to give some concrete examples of what I’m talking about. And because I’m lazy, I’m turning once more to the lovable terrorists and authoritarians of Star Wars to do so.
Leia: At one end of the rebel spectrum is the extremist, the one who will abandon her comfort zone to put her life on the line in support of the cause. (Yes, she had wealth and power to work with, but do you really think she would have let a little thing like being a moisture farmer on the far side of the galaxy stop her from joining the Rebellion?)
Luke: In the middle of the spectrum is the guy who’s generally opposed to the opposition, but won’t turn those words into deeds unless give no choice, or a fantastic opportunity to do so.
Han: At the other end of the spectrum is the one who’s only in the conflict for external reasons. In Han’s case, it’s his personal need for money, but it could just as easily be family commitments, a personal vendetta, or a lost bet. (These folks are interesting from a storyworld point of view because they give us a glimpse into the world beyond the core conflict.)
Boba Fett: Boba is pretty much in the same spot as Han: supporting the Empire, but only so long as there’s a paycheck in it for him. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the Han and Boba actually worked together at some point, working for neither side of the conflict. (No, I won’t look it up. You look it up and let me know in the comments what you find.)
Darth Vader: Like father, like son. (Oh, sorry. SPOILERS.) Vader’s committed to his side of the conflict as long as it’s easy. But when faced with the right opposition, he becomes conflicted and slides down the conflict spectrum.
Emperor Palpatine: And then you have the one who is so invested in his side of the conflict, he’s pretty much an embodiment of it.
As you can see, different gradients of conflict let us tell different stories. While Han and Leia are on the same side, you can tell Han stories that would never work for Leia, and vice versa. And in the end, that’s the point of this exercise: to help us tell more stories with our storyworlds.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a world-building contract (that’s right, you can hire me to build storyworlds for you!) that’s led me to think a bit more deeply on the subject of conflict.
Conflict is what happens when two or more entities (people, nations, cows, whatever) have goals that are in opposition to each other. We typically think of this as being on two different sides of the conflict.
For example, think about Star Wars. (Yes, I know I over-rely on it for these examples, but it’s easy so please bear with me.) The conflict is the Galactic Civil War. On one side is the Rebellion, on the other is the Empire, and their goals are in opposition.
Visually, it looks like this:
But it doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtly. Black-and-white distinctions are great, but gradients are good too. They create room for more stories.
What if our conflict was actually on a spectrum? It might look like this:
Now, while entities are still on different sides of a conflict, there is variation between those who casually agree with their side (“I’m generally opposed to tyranny”) and the extremists (“Death to all tyrants!”).
Variation is good. It lets us create more nuanced characters and entities. After all, if all rebels are extreme, then none of them are extreme, and extremism becomes a gray bit of background.
Hmm. I think I might have more to say on this subject. Check back on Wednesday and we’ll see what else I can do to over-extend the Star Wars examples.