Earlier this year, I published Lords of Westmoor, an RPG sourcebook detailing the rulers of the fantasy realm of Westmoor. Today, I’d like to announce a follow-up sourcebook, Masters of the Endless Flame. Like Westmoor, Endless Flame describes a community of characters with their own goals, secrets, and conflicts. Unlike the previous book, this one focuses not on a geographic region, but on a wide-spread cult dedicated to an ancient god of fire and destruction.
I’ll be posting more about the book as it nears publication, but for now, here’s a bit of the introductory fiction.
On the morning before Baron Chayce died, he was wearing the heavy, pine-green woolen riding cloak his son had given him for his forty-second birthday. He pulled the cloak tighter against the chill mists as he trotted up to where Lady Mora surveyed the ruined keep from atop her own horse.
“It’s still not for sale,” he said. He smiled, but there was nothing friendly in his tone.
“I was afraid you would say that,” said Mora. “Even though it’s –”
“Nothing more than a crumbling tower and wall in the middle of the forest,” said Chayce. “You’re right. It’s worthless to me from a tactical standpoint. But as I keep pointing out, it’s still well within my fiefdom, and letting another take possession of it would be poor tactics indeed.”
Lady Mora sighed.
“I guess we shall have to do this the hard way, then.”
The baron grinned.
“I know of your ways, m’lady. I assure you, I have no secrets you can use against me, and riches enough to ignore any crude attempts at bribery.”
“Yes, ‘tis true,” said Mora. She sighed again. Her voice was full of regret. “Since you won’t accept gold, you’ll have to pay in blood. I’m afraid only one of us shall be returning from our morning ride.”
Despite himself, Chayce glanced around them. The mist now seemed thick and ominous, as if hiding a hundred daggers. He forced himself to laugh.
“You would threaten me? On my own lands? If you return without me, my family will know what you’ve done, and they–”
“They will be grateful. At least your son will be. When I spoke with him last night, he seemed eager for you to have a riding accident. He’s quite hungry for your throne, it seems.”
Chayce’s face reddened. He glowered at Mora, and his hand twitched toward his sword.
“So you’re willing to kill me over a piece of useless land. Is this part of another game you’re playing at court? Or is it a scheme for… the Endless Flame?”
It was Mora’s turn to glance at the mist.
“Where did you hear that name?” she snapped.
“A mutual friend,” said Chayce. “A friend with many shining blades.”
At the word “blades,” the baron lifted his hand and whistled. Lady Mora heard movement from behind the trees and slipped her hand towards the dagger on her waist. She would not go down without a fight.
What’s in the woods? What’s with the “shining blades?” And why is the cult so interested in questionable real estate transations? All these answers and more can be found in Masters of the Endless Flame, coming soon from Hardy Tales.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be showing off the various ghost-punching organizations you’ll find in the Ghost Punchers RPG. Today, I’m kicking off the series with the Order of the Sacred Shield.
The Order of the Sacred Shield is a secret society within the Roman Catholic Church sworn to combat the “forces of spiritual darkness” such as ghosts.
The Order has existed in various forms for centuries. It’s been part of a dozen different major clerical orders, and was even shut down altogether for about 60 years in the 1800s. (“Wait. Are we still funding these guys? We don’t have room in the budget for this madness. Cut it!”) Today, it’s a small but independent organization operating out of a basement office inside the Vatican.
Traditionally, only priests and nuns could join the Sacred Shield. But since the number of mediums in the ministry has dropped, the Order has opened up membership to lay Catholics. Furthermore, the Order is willing to work with mediums from outside the church if necessary, but assigns them Order “shepherds” to help with theology and report back to the Vatican. These contract punchers are both sworn to secrecy and paid well enough to ensure they keep these oaths.
The Order doesn’t have the resources to investigate every ghostly rumor. Instead, its leaders rely on local clergy to pass along verifiable hauntings. Once they’re sure there’s actually something to investigate, they dispatch a team to uncover the truth and, if necessary, punch that truth right in its undead face.
A friend recently asked about the Doomed Colony board game.
“What ever happened with that thing? I liked where you were going with it. It looked to be shaping up nicely, but we haven’t seen anything about it on your blog in a while.”
The answer, which I’m sharing you with you now, is that the game is lying fallow.
In other words, I’ve put the game on the shelf for now, but intend to come back to it later. By stepping away for a while, I can come back to the game with fresh eyes, and have a better perspective on what’s working and what’s actually a hideous tumor of a mechanic clinging to the game like a malignant leech.
Sometimes a game design goes fallow because I need to turn my attention to more pressing matters, like making money so my family doesn’t starve.
Other times, I let it go fallow because I’ve hit a wall: the game isn’t quite working well enough (or at all) and I see no clear path to improvement. Rather than bang my head against that wall, I set the project aside so I can take another run at the wall after I’ve had a chance to think of its weak spots and build up my skull.
With Doomed Colony, it’s a bit of both. The game is pretty good right now, which isn’t good enough. And while it’s fun to work on, it’s not paying the bills (yet) so it needs to go to the back burner to make room for projects with dollars attached.
Not every game design needs a “fallow” stage. Not even all of mine go through this. But if you find yourself bored, frustrated, or distracted with your game design, I’d encourage you to consider walking away for a bit. You never know what fresh inspiration you’ll find when you come back to it.
It’s been a crazy week, and the craziness shows no sign of letting up, so I don’t have time for an in-depth discussion of, say, ghost-punching as a political metaphor, or the role of awkward 1980s teen comedies in today’s transmedia world-building. All the same, after a great playtesting session last night, I do want to take a moment to give a shout-out to everyone who’s helped playtest my tabletop games over the years.
It’s a strange feeling to put a game in front of players for the first time. The game is new, raw, and vulnerable. I feel kind of new, raw, and vulnerable myself. It’s a weird mix of flattering and terrifying: “They’re here to judge MY game” but also “They’re here to JUDGE my game.” And no matter which way I look at it, I don’t want the game (and by extension, ME) to let them down… but know it probably will.
That’s the thing. Playtesting shows how the game can be better, which leads to changes, which need playtesting, which shows how the game can be better… You get the idea. It’s a virtuous circle, spiraling the quality upward with each iteration. Improvements can be incremental, and sometimes aren’t improvements at all (“Wow. That change fixed the problem, but caused the rest of the game to catch fire. Sorry about your eyebrows, folks”). Playtesting the same game over and over requires patience, dedication, and an endless supply of snacks.
So here’s to you, playtesters! Without you, our games would stink! And there would be far fewer of them to play!
As I recently promised, I’ll be sharing slime-covered snippets of some new Ghost Punchers material over the next few weeks. Specifically, I’ll be examining how some punchers come together to pursue their crusade. After all, while we’ve looked at the types of people most likely to embrace the higher calling of spectral violence,we’ve never discussed how they get along together.
Not all who punch ghosts do so alone. Over the years, ghost-punching organizations have arisen to support the safety and effectiveness of their members. These shadowy groups have never been populous or influential in the world at large, but play an important part in defending humanity from the horrors of the spirit world.
While there are dozens of such groups operating at any given time, here are four of the most well-known in ghost-punching circles:
- Order of the Sacred Shield: A religious secret society of exorcists and pugilists operating from out of the Vatican.
- Singular Security: An exclusive security firm whose agents punch ghosts on behalf of its rich and corporate clients.
- Circle of the Ebon Star: An ancient order of occultists dedicated to exploring the spirit realms–and punching them into submission.
- Ghost Spotters Network: A loose community of amateur, part-time ghost-hunters who hang out on the Internet exchanging insults, memes, and reports of paranormal activity.
Intrigued? Great! Come back next time when I poke the Sacred Shield with a sharp stick and see what comes out!
One of the things I love about tabletop gaming is how it fosters a community. It’s especially awesome when that community can give back to the local community around it.
Gamers Giving is a non-profit organization dedicated to exactly this sort of thing. One of its largest events each year is ThanksGaming, a sort of mini-convention that raises money for various local charities. In the past, the event has raised money for food shelves, veterans’ support groups, and other programs. In October, ThanksGaming is back — and this time, it’s personal.
Earlier this year, the seven year-old daughter of a member of our local gamer family was diagnosed with type-ALL leukemia. While Taylor fights the good fight against her cancer, lengthy hospital stays and necessary work absences have taken their toll on her family’s finances. That’s where Gamers Giving can help.
ThanksGaming 2016 will be a 24-hour gaming event held on October 8-9 at Total Escape Games in Broomfield, Colorado. In addition to a crazy amount of RPG gaming going on, there will also be door prizes, a silent auction, and the usual madness that seeps through the cracks around hour 19 of non-stop games.
If you’d like see what games are being run – or, you know, sign up to play something – you can do so here. (Note that you can browse games, but won’t be able to sign up for anything until you register for the event on the website.) If you’d like to help out Taylor and her family, but won’t be able to make it to the event (because you live in Japan or Minnesota or something), you can still contribute to their fundraiser directly here.
Please share the links and spread the word. With your help, we can make this year’s ThanksGaming the best one yet!
You’d be wrong.
While I haven’t showcased Ghost Punchers here for the past few months, I have been quietly toiling away at this RPG of Supernatural Investigation and Violence. I’ve even been playtesting. And starting next week, I’ll be sharing some of the fruits of those quiet labors with you, my patient and lovely ghost-punching enthusiasts.
Until then… Stay punchy, my friend!
When my laptop’s battery dies, it doesn’t give a polite, C-3PO-like, “Pardon me, sir, but I seem to be out of power and will be shutting down now.” Instead, it commits sudden, silent suicide. “Screw you, meatbag! I’m out of here!” More than once, I’ve dived towards the computer, power cable in hand, only to have the screen go black just as I reach it.
Fine. These things happen. I plug it in, power it up, ignore its whiny “Windows wasn’t shut down properly” message (“And who’s fault is that, you stupid computer?”) and get on with my life.
But Friday morning, it didn’t come back.
Oh, the computer said it was starting Windows. But what it actually started was a black screen with a mouse cursor on it. Not so much “Windows” as a single window open to the infinite void.
I spent the weekend trying to fix the problem, but eventually realized my worst fear: I’d have to nuke the hard drive entirely and reinstall everything from scratch. It was at this point that I realized what a debt I owed my buddy and ace game designer Kevin Wilson. For it was at his insistence, some two years ago, that I signed up for the Carbonite remote back-up service.
“This is your livelihood,” he’d said. “Your files are your business. Without them, you’ve got nothing. You don’t want to screw around with this.”
He was right, of course. He’s still right. And it was because I followed his advice that, while this ordeal has been frustrating, it hasn’t led to gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments, or the desperate act of taking the laptop to a repair shop.
Back up your data, folks! The life you save may be your own!
The scene opens on a middle-aged man in a lab coat and glasses, surrounded by blackboards, whiteboards, and those whiteboards that think they’re so special because they’re transparent. He glances up, does a fake double-take, and smiles.
“Oh, hello there! I didn’t hear you come in. I guess you made your stealth check, eh?”
He pauses for non-existent laughter.
“I’m a game designer, and I’d like to talk you today about murder.”
He crosses over to a table littered with game components. It’s unclear if this is supposed to represent a single in-progress game, or a sampling of cards, player sheets, boards, and counters from a dozen different games. Either way, it’s clearly a mess.
“Oh, I don’t mean murdering your players–no matter how much you may want to–I mean murdering bits of your game that are just too much. I mean, look at this!”
He gestures to the cluttered table. The camera zooms in and pans over the various components.
“Games are complex systems. Over time, their complexity grows as you add more elements. When you play more cards, reveal more tiles, or unlock more amazing special abilities, you’re increasing the game’s complexity. That’s great, to a point.
“After a while, the game becomes so complex, it’s more work than fun to try and process it all. This can lead to lengthy downtimes between turns, which leads to boredom and frustration.”
Cut to a black and white video of several people gathered around a complicated board game. One player is poring over the cards in his hand, the cards in front of him, and the numerous boards scattered around the table. He’s sweating. The other players are yelling and shaking their fists. “It’s been twenty minutes, Carl! Take your turn already!”
Cut back to the game designer, who is now spinning a revolver around on his finger like a television cowboy.
“As a designer, you have several tools in your toolbox for reducing complexity. One of my favorite tools is actually a weapon.”
The camera zooms in on the table of game components. Gun shots ring out, and holes appear in several cards.
“Now I’m not saying you should remove these things from the game design itself. That’s called ‘killing your darlings’ and is something else entirely.
“No, I’m talking about removal mechanics. That is, including some way in the game for players to murder the components that are amping up the complexity a bit too high.
“In a traditional game, this could mean that players kill off each others’ units or in-game assets. In a more abstract game or…” (he whispers the word, “Eurogame”), “It could be the game itself culling extra pieces automatically, or under the passive-aggressive direction of the players.”
We pull back to see that the game designer is now wearing a cowboy hat and gunbelt to go with his revolver.
“As a player, you might be annoyed when your assets get destroyed. But just remember, like I told the judge…”
The camera zooms in on the designer and tilts at a dramatic angle.
“The game was getting too complex, your honor. Those pieces needed killing.”
Cut to the table of game components. The components are now on fire. The game designer leans into the frame and giggles.
“Oops,” he says.
Cut to the designer standing in a smoke-filled room. He waves.
“Thanks for joining us! Be sure to catch our next episode, when we discuss ways to address the classic king-maker problem using shanks made from household objects!”
Smoke obscures the game designer.
The screen goes black.
As I left the grocery store, a mousey woman stopped me. Her three children wriggled around and climbed her legs like kittens. She ignored their antics as she fixed her gaze on me.
“What’s new with the game?” she asked. “You know. The one with the robots? Dropping?”
“Ah,” I said. “I see what’s happening here. You’re a rhetorical construct inserted into this blog post in order to add some narrative spice.”
She shrugged. The kids giggled and called each other names.
“Maybe. Maybe not. But that doesn’t answer the question. What’s up with Robot Drop?”
Seeing that she was committed to the bit, I shifted the groceries I was holding to the other hand and stared thoughtfully into space.
“I did some more playtesting,” I said. “Found a couple things in the latest session — nothing Earth-shattering, but they’re worth noting — I mean, since you asked.”
I started talking in bullet points:
- While the game doesn’t allow for friendly fire (attacks pass through your own bots to hit your opponent’s), this lets you set up “chains” of robots shooting through each other at a single target, which feels weird. Also, the ability to “shove” an enemy robot so that its shot hits its own ally would be pretty fun. So I’m considering reconsidering friendly fire.
- It’s sort of implied in the rules, but I made it explicit that attacks don’t “blow through” by default. That is, if I do 5 damage to a bot with 1 Health, the “excess” 4 damage is just wasted.
- Homes block movement and line of sight on the board.
- The game’s still feeling a little slow. I might try combining the “move” and “rotate” actions, which should speed things up considerably.
The woman nodded, satisfied. She gestured at my grocery bag.
“You should get going. Your ice cream is starting to melt.”
Oops. She was right. Rhetorical rocky road was dripping onto my rhetorical jeans.
It was time to wrap this up and head home.