Fireside 2.1 ( On A Roll Blog Tue, 31 Dec 2019 11:30:00 -0500 On A Roll Blog en-us The White Wolf Dilemma 2 Tue, 31 Dec 2019 11:30:00 -0500 dee6e8b6-fee5-46a7-8ce3-104b9e16e07d In the last three years, White Wolf has found itself repeatedly mired in controversy. It's happened again this week. What would Ryan see done to fix it? A White Wolf property is mired in controversy. This signals that it’s time once again to change your batteries in your smoke alarms.

It wasn’t that long ago I was writing a blog called, “The White Wolf Dilemma.” Here we are once again, and much of this is going to be updated rehash of lessons still unlearned. So, let’s start the same way and have at it, then…

The World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade is one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties in recent history. Drawing influence from vampiric tales throughout history across folklore, film, literature and television. It revolutionized the role-playing game industry and, itself, became an influencer. From television's Kindred: the Embraced to the Underworld films and hundreds of popular creations in between, the World of Darkness is a pop culture juggernaut. The IP has persevered through five editions, an in-game ending, a tangental spinoff universe (Chronicles of Darkness), three different owners (the founders, CCP and Paradox), collectible card games, a highly-publicized failed MMO and four different companies currently producing rpg content (The Onyx Path, Modiphius Entertainment, Hunters Entertainment and By Night Studios). They have even managed to recently move from a developer/publisher model to a licenser model.

With so much success, how is it that every few months, this unstoppable behemoth becomes mired in controversy? The problems always seem to begin with a decision by White Wolf or their affiliates.

This time, the larp license holder By Night Studios was sold to a team of individuals that includes Shane Robinett, a guy with a history of incredibly controversial social media posts and opinions including that America should just shoot immigrants crossing the border and that the decision to cancel a White Wolf larp at a fascist nightclub a few years ago was a mistake.

The fans of White Wolf rebelled. The loudest voices were those who wanted to see Robinett gone for being a “right-wing nutjob” “racist” “white supremacist,” and those who wanted By Night Studios to ignore the “cancel culture” “social justice warriors trying to ruin my vampire” and let him stay because he “did nothing wrong.” These two groups then turned on each other, as they always do.

It’s important to note, By Night Studios is a licensee of White Wolf, they are not the same company. However, the brand is shared and ultimately, that means that By Night Studios’ mistakes reflect on White Wolf, their products and their other licensees.

Recently, White Wolf posted that they were hiring a Brand Community Developer for the World of Darkness (we’ll call it the BCD from now on because I’m too lazy to type all that again). I had a lot of people encourage and ask me to apply for the position, but I did not. I see the position as a risk for me professionally, as I would never take a position in which I was uncertain that I would have the support from leadership to succeed. It is my hope that White Wolf is prepared to trust, listen to and follow through with the decisions necessary that are made by whoever fills that position to do what needs done to begin to heal the fandom.

But what needs done?

Get the House in Order

First, White Wolf must allow the new BCD to be a part of leadership conversations and creative processes in which important decisions are being considered. A good community marketing manager understands the behaviors of people and can generally predict responses and advise on how to navigate the sea of audience opinion. Then, trust the BCD’s assessment and have the courage to change the decisions if they are problematic and empower the BCD to help manage and market the outflow of the resulting decisions. This means hiring a communications professional with brand management experience and not some vampire fan gamer that’s friends with someone who already works at White Wolf.

In fact, it means all hires should be professionals and not some vampire fan gamer that’s friends with someone already at White Wolf. The World of Darkness is a business brand, it’s not just some hobby club. If you’re listing “Studied the Darkness” or some stupid vampire joke thing under the “Occupation” entry on your Facebook page instead of your actual business title, you’re probably not professional enough to be working for an international company.

Second, White Wolf leadership needs to just stop making poor decisions. In this most recent case, the primary owner of By Night Studios was previously Jason Carl, who is currently White Wolf’s Brand Marketing Manager, and a personal friend of Robinett. This means that White Wolf’s Brand Marketing Manager sold a White Wolf licensee to a known problematic individual, resulting in another stain on the already tarnished, struggling White Wolf brand image and fracturing the fan community once again.

Choose the Target Demographic

White Wolf fandom is a messy, broken thing right now. As I said above, there are two loud, vocal fandom groups: the “edgelords” and the “extreme social justice warriors” – both are empowered by internet courage to be aggressive, mean and destructive to the fandom. White Wolf has to recognize that these two groups are contrary demographics and stop inexplicably trying to court both at the same time with the same product – a task that keeps the fanbase fractured and hinders their product, brand and ultimately, sales.

Certainly, the reality is that many fans are a silent majority in the middle. They like some darkness and some safe edginess that doesn’t go too far, while still wanting to make sure the gaming space is respectful and inclusive of others. They get lost in the fight, often tuning out or walking away from the forums because they don’t want the drama. From a marketing and communications perspective, this means the brand loses a touching point with their demographic and that means potential lost sales.

At some point, White Wolf must decide who they are targeting with V5 and W5, and clearly make that known before actively directing and marketing their product with greater focus.

Be Relatable to the Public

Having a professional and relatable image seems like a fairly common sense rule of thumb, but White Wolf hasn’t really had that. The former leader at White Wolf, Martin Ericsson, represented the company on stage, at conventions and in media appearances looking like an interpretation of Dracula who needed a shower and a hair wash. It would have worked great in the 1990s, when most Vampire players were young. The problem is, people of all ages play World of Darkness today. Grown ups just want to play the game and not feel like the people running the company might actually believe they are Tremere.

The new BCD needs to make public appearances in a professional manner that’s not off-putting to the fans. Don’t show up in a suit, but don’t show up in leather pants and puffy shirts either. The person needs to respect the company and understand they are a reflection of it. Jeans and a nice shirt can be really relatable to everyone while still being presentable on a stage.

In terms of communications, White Wolf has handled every crisis in the last few years poorly, possibly founded in their lack of a communications or public relations officer in their leadership team. Currently, the only real “face” of the company is Jason Carl, who is well known in the gaming community and hosts the V5 live play stream LA by Night. Beyond that, there is no clear communicator on behalf of the company, creating a sense of disconnect and distrust between the fans and the company.

The new BCD needs to be someone the fans can latch on to, identify with and respect. It needs to be someone with a positive history in the White Wolf community (or no history in it). It also should be someone that is new to the White Wolf team, so that there is a feeling of changing guard to help usher in the opportunity to get the fandom and the brand in order.

Most importantly, however, the fandom needs to see the company’s mission and values actually demonstrated. They’re well-written words, but just words. The BCD has to police their communications forums in a way that actually interacts with fans and addresses their behaviors in accordance with the decided-upon target demographic and these company statements.

Take Responsibility

I’ve said this previously, but it needs saying again:

Fandoms are a reflection of those in control of what they are fans of. Gaming companies bear responsibility for their gaming communities. How gamers are behaving when discussing the game, and how they actually play it, are fundamentally influenced by, and based in how, the company interacts with their fans when presenting their product.

White Wolf doesn’t seem to know which fans they want, let alone what they want from them, dooming the company to keep repeating this cycle. They will never be able to course correct anything without making these key decisions and equipping themselves with the people, wisdom and skills to then properly follow through.

The World of Darkness is still one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties. I hope changes can save it before it becomes history.

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 9: Mechanical Difficulties Mon, 21 Oct 2019 11:00:00 -0400 2e031628-c6cc-4252-bcf4-b635b05b91e9 In the latest installment of Ryan's developer diary about his independent rpg, The Gun Belt, he shares insight into how the Part and Parcel character and mechanic system was developed. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.

First Part and Parcel Sheet

Ashley is the rock star of the mechanical build for The Gun Belt. I’m fascinated by game theory and my understanding of how games, mechanics, players and game runners interact is something I’ve even published a book about, but math and statistics just aren’t my thing.

When we first began creating our own system, we each made a list of things we wanted and things we didn’t want in our game. These lists included theories, ideas and even the “feel” of some mechanics that we liked and disliked. We also made certain to include examples of the things we noted.

I love the character creation system in Magpie Games’ Masks that includes having players discuss with one another their connections with one another during session zero. I am also a fan of the old Last Unicorn Games’ Star Trek character creation process that included selecting Life Packages that encouraged players to really think about who their characters were when they were at differing stages of their lives. Drama points and Force points from the original 7th Seas and WEG Star Wars were also elements I really enjoyed because of the way they pushed the mechanics into a pool of extra possibilities that players could access simply because the moment was dramatic and right.

Things on my dislike list included the overcomplicated and confusing way that LUG Star Trek combined those Life Packages (if you’ve ever played that game, you know the seemingly algebraic complexities to which I refer). I hate character creation that takes more than about an hour – I want it fast and satisfying. I also have some negative feelings about complex die systems that use too much math and require proprietary dice (something I had struggled with as we explored using the Fate system early on).

Ashley’s list included a lot of his collaborative gaming likes. He’s a proponent of sourcing the table for information, empowering players to craft the story alongside the game runner and giving players a lot of narrative control, like in Kids on Bikes. _He also wanted something with a simple and clear core mechanic and he really wanted some sort of advantage and disadvantage system when rolling, like the system used in _D&D 5th Edition.

One of the things Ashley felt most strongly about was that he was not a fan of games that complicate their mechanics to a point that there is little to no wiggle room for game runners to make interpretations or involve players in things. He also felt that less is more with mechanics.

Something interesting we learned while researching different mechanical systems is that you can’t really copyright mechanics. This is generally a good thing, because it means that if you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, you don’t have to. You can gather all of the elements you like from all of the games you like, and then just mash them together and whittle them down until you have a system that does what you need in a way that you like. Embrace what you know works well and then mold it into your own game.

The Part and Parcel system is the core mechanical system we ended up with. At its simplest, it’s a die pool system in which players roll a few d6 and add those numbers to their character’s skill and attribute. There’s nothing groundbreaking there because it’s simple, it’s familiar and it works.

We started with six attributes, which eventually became four: Finesse, Grit, Know-how and Panache. Our skill list began as 20, then was paired down several times until we ended up with our list of ten that included standards such as Academics and Wits as well as more thematic skills like Fisticuffs, Gadgetry and Shootin’.

In addition, we have an advantage and disadvantage-inspired element in which characters get bonuses because they have an Upper Hand or are experiencing a Hurdle in attempting their action. The Gun Belt also features a narrative control element, Bullet Points – a pool of points shared by the entire group that can be spent to enhance the narrative, ignore negative affects or activate special abilities each character has.

Character creation was divided into four sections, granting skills and abilities based on a character’s youth experience and their current occupation in the world. These are supplemented by free points players can place anywhere. Finally, characters assign their Reputation based on the skills they are most proficient in and choose Faults that hinder them in the story.

At our last playtest, a table of five players created all of their characters in under 45 minutes.

Certainly, there’s a lot of playtesting that was done along the way (and that is still ongoing), but by utilizing familiar systems, theories and concepts, we’ve been able to move quickly past being bogged down in mechanics and focus on our world and how it interacts with our players.

Mechanics are part and parcel to a successful game, and we’re proud of what we’ve created. We think you’ll love it, too!

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 8: Tempting Fate Mon, 26 Aug 2019 15:00:00 -0400 8eb9cd1e-0200-4c27-b8f2-f22604f506d2 Part eight of Ryan's Developer's Diary about the creation of the independent RPG, The Gun Belt, looks at the decision to use Fate as the mechanical system for the game and why that didn't work out. Find out why The Gun Belt moved to the D6 system before finally landing in an original mechanics system. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.

Original Character Sheet

Ashley and I initially settled on using the open game licensed system Fate as the mechanics of choice for The Gun Belt. I was not familiar with it at the onset, but Ashley loves it. I trust him, so we went for it. The great thing about Fate is that it is actually available for free online from the company. They are quite giving when it comes to supplying resources to game designers for free.

The Gun Belt is a harsh world, so the first challenge with Fate that we encountered was that we would need to reign in the narrative nature of it. There’s a lot of collaborative storytelling built into the Fate toolkit that is wonderful, but also not quite the feel we were hoping for. Ashley felt like this was something we could handle, and some additional research into existing Fate games seemed to prove that was the case.

One of the things we loved about Fate was that it incorporates the character’s history and place in the world into character creation. This was an idea that I felt strongly about. I love the way character creation does this in Masks, and finding a similar relationship between creation and history in Fate was a big win for me. We were particularly attracted to using the High Concept functionality with the Troubles rules, as these work well in genres like Wild West in which tropes are prominent and important.

In Fate, the basic mechanics are centered around Aspects, Skills and Stunts. As we skinned the Fate system to work for our interstellar wild west setting, we looked at several different Fate games for inspiration, focusing on games that had very specific and nuanced worlds. These included Blood on the Trails (a wild west vampire game), Dresden Files, Atomic Robo and the Fate Worlds Volume 1 book. As we progressed, Aspects became named Backgrounds, we established the Skills we would use and we created a considerable variety of Stunts that took great advantage of the tropes of the genres we were utilizing. Ashley created a mock up character sheet and a few characters and we set to work doing some short, mock dice-rolling sessions to see how things worked.

One example of our Fate Stunt work was the Ride Skill:
The Ride skill covers the ability to break, train and climb on the back of hellbenders to use as beasts of burden for work or travel. Ride represents how well a familiar creature (your mount) will listen to you, do what you ask and come when you call, as well as your ability to stay on its back when it’s running across the plains at top speed. Frightening an animal away would be Intimidate and judging if an animal was friendly or not would be Empathy.

Overcome: Ride is the equivalent of Athletics when you’re on the back of a hellbender. Use it to do difficult things or to do normal things under difficult circumstances, like moving through rough terrain, squeezing through small spaces, jumping chasms and so forth.

**Create an Advantage: **You might use Ride to put some distance between yourself and a pursuer, get some extra speed from your hellbender or declare that you know a Convenient Shortcut or something similar.

Attack: You can use Ride to have your hellbender bite another hellbender or .

**Defend: **You’ll use Ride to defend against most attacks made against you while you’re on the back of a hellbender; you can also use it to defend when your mount is under attack.

Ride Stunts **
**Animal Ken:
You can use Ride as if it were Empathy when you’re communicating with domesticated animals; you can also use it as if it were Charm, but you can only communicate basic ideas and simple directions. If you spend a fate point, you can use this stunt on wild animals for the rest of the scene.
**Ride Like the Wind: **You have the Upper Hand when using Ride to create speed-based advantages.
**The Whistle: **You can spend a fate point and whistle for your hellbender, and she’ll show up within a few exchanges. It has to be your animal, a hellbender you’ve owned for a while and created a bond with. Your hellbender’s arrival can be improbable, but if the GM deems it impossible that she’d be there, you get your fate point back.

Special Aspect
A Little Birdie: You may only take this stunt if you are part of the Birdie culture. You may use Ride to pilot a raptor, replacing “hellbender” with “raptor” in the Ride skill and stunts. This is a trade off, as you may not use Ride to mount a hellbender, and the Animal Ken stunt may not be used on hellbenders (see Birdies).

You can see, it’s actually a lot of work to create these Skill and Stunt sets. With 21 Skills, each offering three Stunts and specific “special” Aspects, we began to feel like this was becoming a daunting task. Moreover, they have to all be somewhat balanced against one another. Concerned we were growing overwhelmed, we decided to explore another system we both were familiar with.

The old Star Wars WEG mechanics have evolved into an OGL system known as D6. The D6 system is straightforward (it’s a basic Attribute/Skill dice pool system with target numbers), and it was simple enough that we thought we could easily adapt it to our needs.

The transition to the D6 system was rather easy. The system worked fine for The Gun Belt, with very little alteration required, but it came with costs. The first is that there are six Attributes, which was more than we were wanting. The second was that the way the system is designed, your game’s Skill list needs to be quite drilled down into really specific areas. By the time we finished transitioning into the D6 system, our Skill list had went from 21 to nearly 50.

We realized that we were trading more complicated rules and simple skills for simple rules and more complicated skills. It wasn’t a trade we were interested in making.

Frustrated but also inspired, Ashley noted that we had learned a huge amount about different systems in our initial research and in our experiments with Fate and D6. We sat down and made a list of the things, rules and system quirks we had seen in games that we liked. Then we made a list of the things, rules and system quirks we didn’t like. With little hesitance, Ashley smiled and said, “Let’s just build our own thing that uses this ‘like’ list and doesn’t use this ‘dislike’ list.”

That’s when the Part and Parcel system was born.

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 7: Which Came First, The Dino or the Dice? Wed, 07 Aug 2019 13:00:00 -0400 0dea9a12-a372-499a-aeca-b18308fd7bc3 Part seven of Ryan's Developer's Diary about the creation of the independent RPG, The Gun Belt, follows the initial design decisions concerning how to balance creating the world with creating the mechanics. Which comes first? Dinos or dice? Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.


As The Gun Belt began to come together as a cohesive idea, we had to also begin thinking about the game mechanics. This led to the great question of which needs to come first: the mechanic or the genre? We thought this would be an easy one.

The genre comes first. How do I even know what rolls people will ever need to make if I don’t know what the “game” is. I can’t make decisions about mechanics, skills, dice or character sheets unless I have a clear grasp of what the universe, abilities and playable characters will be like. I can’t know I need Force dice if I don’t know that I have Jedi!

Or… The mechanics come first. We are likley going to use an open game license system, like Fate, TinyD6 or Dungeons & Dragons, so I need to be familiar enough with those mechanics to ensure that I design my world in a way that compliments and effectively utilizes those mechanics to their most exciting and most fulfilling extent.

One could easily cite reasons to justify why either should come before the other. Ultimately, as Ashley and I began thinking about _The Gun Belt, _we decided we would develop them concurrently. Doing it that way forced us to examine some game design theories and look at how they applied to our game. Our decisions about these ideas would help us to either create our own mechanic system or help us decide which existing OGL system to adopt.

First, we had to consider how much “crunch” we wanted in our game. Crunch is a word a lot of gamers use for the actual mechanics of a game. It likely comes from the phrase, “number crunching.” Crunch includes how many rules exist, what dice you use, how many modifiers exist, how conflicts are resolved and the math or chart checking that is required. Dungeons & Dragons, for example, has its origins in combat simulation, so it is a crunchier game than Fate, which is a more collaborative rules-light game.

For us, this meant making decisions about how detailed we wanted the mechanical aspect of our game to be? Do we want people to have to roll dice a lot or a little? Would we have encumbrance rules or just hand-wave that kind of thing? Do we need lots of charts with fifty different types of firearms on it, or can we just use “pistols” as the weapon? When someone rolls dice to shoot someone, does their target roll as well to dodge, or is there just a hit or miss target number?

We discussed this at length, recognizing that Ashley is a less is more designer. He is what I refer to as a Collaborative Native (he learned to play tabletop rpgs that were primarily collaborative in nature), and would likely design the game to use zero dice if he could! He enjoys games like Kids on Bikes, _where there is negotiation at the table and narrative input from players drives events in game. I like some crunch (though not TOO much). I am a Collaborative Immigrant (I learned to play tabletop rpgs in classic _Advanced D&D and Star Wars WEG environments where dice were your master and the game runner was god. In the end, we decided to embrace a middle of the road feel, talking about creating our game as a Fate toolkit – strong mechanics with an emphasis on narrative collaboration and little tolerance for extremely detailed rules-laden minutia.

Secondly, we had to consider what kind of behaviors we wanted to encourage or discourage in our players and characters. Well-designed games align their mechanics to reward characters that make choices or behave in ways that are thematic to their genre. This is an incredibly important thing to consider, because when it’s done right, it enhances a game in a way that ensures players are playing the way the designers intended. When it is done poorly, it can create a game in which players are misaligned with the game designers, fracturing game play and causing problems in that game’s gaming community (like Vampre: the Masquerade and its flawed Humanity system).

At its simplest, this really just means if your game is about characters questing to become famous, then your game better have a mechanic for earning renown.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the genre wants characters to kill the monster, so it rewards experience points out of character and gold rewards in character directly in relation to the monster that is killed. In Cthulhu-based games, the genre wants characters to experience the unexplained horror of the mythos while trying to keep their sanity, so most Call of Cthulhu games have some manner of sanity or insanity mechanics to track that. If you go insane, you die or become an NPC or some other fate.

For _The Gun Belt, _we knew we needed a system that allowed the central thematic element of riding dinosaurs like horses, which requires an element of crunch to allow mounted combat and animals that could bite enemies while characters were on their back. We also recognized we wanted the system to be a bit deadly (we wanted bullets to be lethal) and we wanted it to support the notions that the environment on our world was harsh but augmented by the mysterious mineral levitite.

We explored how we might use existing tools in Fate to represent riding animals (something that was surprisingly unrepresented in Fate toolkits). We also realized that lethality requires some crunch, because injuries need to be coded by severity and then balanced by healing rules. Finally, we looked at 7th Sea’s drama dice systems and Star Wars WEG Force point systems to explore how to create levitite with mechanical representation.

In the end, we decided to begin our mechanic development with the Fate system.

Ultimately, we came to recognize that we were far more interested in creating the world than reinventing some new dice mechanics, and that we were quite amenable with using an OGL system. The great thing about Fate specifically is that it is designed as a toolbox that each OGL product can easily build from, allowing us opportunities to develop some mechanics of our own to accomplish the things we desired that the base mechanics in Fate didn’t currently support.

Little did we know that choosing to develop our dice and our world at the same time would also open us up to shifting systems as shifting ideas came to be. We didn’t tempt Fate long…

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 6: Tables and Contents Mon, 29 Jul 2019 13:00:00 -0400 4eea8660-f907-43c4-ac34-ba7e53686e7f In the sixth edition of Ryan's Developer's Diary about the creation of his independent RPG, The Gun Belt, he shares the process of figuring out where to begin and figuring out what to put in the book. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.

Tables and Contents

The Gun Belt is the first game I’ve ever created, so figuring out exactly where to start after our concept was secured was something Ashley and I debated with for some time. We had the ideas, we had notes, we had sketches and some prose, but a game is obviously much more than that.

The internet offers a wealth of information on game development, but it tends to focus on things like fleshing out worlds, creating mechanics or playtesting for game balance and functionality. We were in this vague gray area between having an idea and having enough of a “thing” for the internet research to be helpful. After some deliberation, we devised a solution that would move us into the process but not lock us in to anything that we couldn’t alter later.

I realized that to know what to work on first, we needed to know everything that needed to be worked on. We needed some kind of outline or bullet pointed list detailing what we had to write to make the game complete. If only there was a page in roleplaying game books that listed the contents of the book in some kind of easy to read table...

It’s a little silly, but the solution was for us to create the table of contents for our book (minus page numbers).

We started by looking at games we liked and knew with some familiarity. Dungeons & Dragons, Kids on Bikes, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Fate, Powered by the Apocalypse, West End Games Star Wars, Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars, Savage Worlds and a few independent games like _Belly of the Beast. _It was a large list, but we looked at the table of contents pages of all of them.

I made copies of just the table of contents pages so that we could look at them all together and identify the patterns and commonalities. Every game needs to have a history section, character creation, dice mechanics and weapon stats, for example. I wrote a list of those things out, including anything else I saw in games that I felt would be important in The Gun Belt that didn’t necessarily appear in every game, like a bestiary.

The next step was to narrow the reference list of games. We started removing the table of contents pages of games that were nothing like ours in feel (Kids on Bikes is more collaborative than our ideas for The Gun Belt), different from ours in mechanical intent (D&D is more combat simulator/“crunchy” than our ideas for The_ Gun Belt_) or games that simply had poor book organization (World of Darkness games tend to repeat rules multiple times in multiple sections, often resulting in confusing or conflicting versions of the same ideas). We held on to games that we were discussing the possibility of using the game mechanics from – open game license products such as Tiny D6 or toolkit systems like Fate.

Finally, we looked at what was left and discussed much more plainly what we liked and didn’t like about each of the tables of contents. We compared the specific order of information, paying particular attention to things we felt more strongly about. For example, we really wanted to organize the book in such a way that a player could read just the first portion of the book and be ready to play, leaving the back portion of the book for storyteller secrets, ideas and such. We also were careful to make sure that the organization was logical, proceding in an order that would convey the game and the mechanics in measured doses that progressed in a fluid manner.

Ultimately, we ended up with a pretty thorough outline. In very simplified bullets, it was something like this:

  • Introduction (what is an rpg and what is The Gun Belt?)
  • Basics of The Gun Belt Universe
  • Characters
  • Basic Mechanics
  • Talespinning (the basics of storytelling)
  • Talespinner Secrets of the Universe (what players don’t know but the storyteller would)
  • Creatures and NPCs (bestiary and stock NPC mechanics)
  • Stuff (items, weapons, etc.)
  • Adventure (a short module to introduce the game with)

With that list in hand, we began talking about the sub-catagories of each of those “chapters,” adding notes and details along the way. There was no doubt that much of what we put up on our fake table of contents list would go away, change order or be replaced by other things. The important thing, however, was that we had a good idea of what our book’s information would look like, and that helped us find a place to begin.

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 5: The Name of the Game Mon, 22 Jul 2019 11:30:00 -0400 e476f85f-51db-4b8e-bc0e-685e7e06ca21 Ryan shares more insight into the development of his independent roleplaying game, "The Gun Belt." In this week's diary, he talks about the difficult but important process of deciding what to call your game, and about why the name of your game matters so much. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.

Things Called High Moon

Names matter. The name of your game is the most important communication tool you have to present your game to your potential customers.

A great name has to have great visual aesthetics. It needs to be able to look good on your product. Some words just look better than others, and when you use a fancy font on a word, it will amplify a word’s aesthetics, making it look even more ugly or more appealing to the eye. Short, simple words are always safe. Less common letters, such as x, q and z are often less friendly on the eyes and remove familiarity from a title’s aesthetic, making it less comfortable on the eyes.

It’s also important that the title be easy on the tongue. Every time someone talks about your game, they will be saying the name of it. Make sure that you choose a name for your game that is not difficult to say. Avoid strange, odd words (particularly made up words), tongue-twisters and words with lots of syllables.

The visual and verbal elements should also be considered together, thinking about how they interact. Look at your title on paper and read it aloud. Does it sound okay? Sometimes a title looks great on paper but is actually difficult to say out loud. Does it sound like it reads? If someone were to say it aloud to you, would you know how to spell it correctly? If you heard the name and never saw it in writing, could you go to Google and type it in correct enough to successfully find it?

There’s more to a name than how it feels, of course. It also has a purpose.

The name of your game is your brand, and it has to communicate that to your customers. It needs to be something that quickly summarizes the essence of your game, presenting the essence of your game to people in a way that helps them imagine what it must be about. The name should be easy to remember and talk about while being unique. Finally, it should be at least a little catchy or clever (but not too clever).

Another thought to keep in mind is that, should your roleplaying game be successful, you may find yourself publishing additional materials after your core book. These kinds of splat books often expand your game’s universe into other geographic, cultural, governmental or spiritual areas that the initial book doesn’t explore. Your name needs to avoid being so narrow and specific that it would limit your opportunities to grow your world. Had Star Trek been called Starfleet, it could be more challenging to market a follow-up sourcebook with a misleading name like, Starfleet: The Klingon Empire.

Early on, Ashley and I really wanted to call our game High Moon. The name was a play on the classic film, High Noon, evoking the right feelings of a cinematic western. Swapping “noon” for “moon” in the title added our science fiction element to the title. It was easy to say, it looked good on paper and it quickly evoked an image in our mind that led to a rapid development of a rough, possible logo and look.

It turns out, High Moon is a video game development company that has worked on Call of Duty. The .com for High Moon goes to their website. High Moon is also a comic book about werewolves in the wild west by David Gallaher and Steve Ellis. Guess what the next piece of advice is?

Google your title. Has it been used by anyone else for anything? If so, is it something prolific, well-known or too similar to what you’re working on? If you still feel okay about your name, then you need to purchase the .com domain right now (do it now!). Try not to use a .net, .org or other domain extension because most of your customers are going to assume the .com address. There are many places you can purchase domain names from, but if you are unfamiliar with the process, I recommend Google Domains, as it is user friendly and safe.

Since we couldn’t use High Moon, we started brainstorming. Honestly, this is the fun part. We searched the internet for everything that had anything to do with the keywords of our project: cowboys, dinosaurs, western, aliens, coyotes, deserts, trains… Nothing was off the table.

One option was Boom Space, a play off of boom town, a phrase describing western towns that popped up as a result of someone striking gold. It wasn’t really catchy, and was strange when spoken aloud. We also worked with End of the Line, but it’s a very common title for a lot of things. The Road to Hell was an option, but road wasn’t really appropriate when talking about people coming to our planet through space on a train. At one point, we went really simplistic and considered Progress. Turns out, it was so simplistic, that no one had any idea what our game might be about.

Our final option was Last Train Out. We really liked that one. It felt desolate and somber, evoking a feeling of hopelessness. It also lent itself to the wild west genre in a way that worked well for us, while not limiting us in dealing with the scifi aspect of space trains. In addition, the .com was available. We felt pretty certain this would be our title. The only problem with it was it didn’t express any thoughts of aliens or dinosaurs, and they are pretty central to our theme.

A few days after we had all but settled on Last Train Out, I was watching television. There was a show on talking about the asteroid belt in our solar system. They also mentioned the Van Allen radiation belts and the Kuipper Belt. Something clicked in my head, and The Gun Belt came to me. It was simple. It was catchy. It was easy to say and spell. It looked good when written. It had a clever pun (a belt that holds your pants and a belt of things encircling something in nature). It implied western and science fiction. A quick Google showed us that somehow, no one had ever used it as a title before. Perhaps the most unbelievable part of this was that the .com was available.

One of the great things about names being so important is that when you find the right one, it will line up with your vision and your marketing ideas perfectly. It will quickly convey an idea of what your game is, how it feels and what they can expect in a manner that's easy to remember and simple to repeat or search online.

And that's why names matter.

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 4: Four Questions About Your Game Mon, 15 Jul 2019 06:00:00 -0400 fb82b14a-6bb3-4a54-9dd3-0a6f65c68954 Ryan's developer's diary continues to probe the behind the scenes world of The Gun Belt. This week, he explores the Three (or Four) Questions about roleplaying games that every designer needs to help guide them through the weeds. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.

The Four Questions

What is my game about?

It seems like it should be such a simple question, but it really isn't. It is, however, one of the most important questions.

In screenwriting classes in college, they would ask the same question of us as student writers. What is your script about? "Oh, it's about two teenagers who stumble on a group of aliens who are secretly plotting to take over the world and have to stop it on their own." No. That's the plot. But that's not what it's about.

Maybe it's about teenagers struggling with who they are and what they are capable of. It could be about young people dealing with unwanted empowerment against an unstoppable foe. It's about teenagers understanding the importance of believing in themselves when no one else can. Perhaps it's even as simple as, "It's about faith in one's self."

Your roleplaying game has a similar answer and you need to know it.

Game designers Jared Sorensen, Luke Crane and John Wick are famous for talking about the Three Questions of Game Design (Wick believes it's Four Questions, and I agree with him). I highly encourage you to search the web for their writings and video lectures on this topic if you've never done so. The questions are simple, but also surprisingly deep, complex and unavoidably important for you as a game developer to know:

  1. What is your game about?
  2. How is your game about that?
  3. What behaviors does your game reward?
  4. Why is that fun?

Here's a quick breakdown.

Determining what your game is actually about will help you to better focus your theme and the feel of your world. It will keep your ideas always pointed to the center and will help keep you from getting too far away from your design goals. The answer is especially helpful when you have two conflicting ideas that you are undecided about because typically one of those ideas will be more suited to what your game is about than the other.

Figuring out how your game is about that will enable you to keep your mechanics on point. This will help you to be certain that your mechanics relate to what your game is about in a direct way that helps to enforce the themes you want to explore. For example, if you decide that your game is about the struggle to hold on to your humanity (I'm looking at you, vampire games), then your game better have a Humanity mechanic.

Rewarding the behaviors you want your players to have is incredibly important. If you want your players to roleplay in a way that enables them to explore what your game is about, then you have to make sure that they are rewarded when they do so. This will keep them focused on your central theme as they play. If your game is about something, then you want to do everything you can to keep your players invested in what it's about.

Finally, no one wants to play something that isn't fun. Some designers believe that if you capture the first three questions properly, the fourth question should answer itself. I think there's no harm in checking to make sure. Look at what your game is about, how it does it and what it rewards, and then simply examine if those things are all coming together in a way that is fun.

Let's be really classic in quickly explaining all this together. We'll use Dungeons & Dragons to do it. D&D is about experiencing a fantasy hero's adventure. It does this by structuring adventurous scenarios in a fantasy setting featuring dangerous encounters and combat simulation mechanics. The game rewards the behaviors it wants you to experience by (guess what!?!?) rewarding Experience – It wants you to slay the dragon and get the treasure so it gives you XP for the dragon and may even award you gold and magical items when you loot its lair. This is fun because, well, you killed a dragon in a battle simulated on a huge map on your kitchen table using strategy, cunning and the gambling sensation of dice.

The Gun Belt is about group survival on a mysterious oppressed planet. Characters are all born on Weston – second or third-generation inhabitants who exist outside the systemic treachery of LeviCorp and have mystic powers caused by the unusual mineral scattered across the world. The mechanics reward the party for working together through the shared Bullet Dice pool, as well as awarding experience points for roleplaying Faults and Reputation. It's fun because people enjoy sticking it to The Man and because cowboys on dinosaurs speaks to childhood fantasy and wonder.

What is your game about?

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 3: Play Games to Make Games Mon, 08 Jul 2019 05:00:00 -0400 5b755870-8b8d-4763-9e61-e757a9ec3715 Ryan continues his developer diary giving insight into The Gun Belt. This week, he talks about some of the research required as a developer begins to design their game. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.

Gaming Books

Stephen King is just one of many authors who have said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Working with my design partner Ashley on The Gun Belt helped me to quickly realize this was also true of game design.

Like most types of artists, game developers come from one of two places. The first are developers who have an instinctual, natural grasp and talent for understanding and crafting mechanics. It is a subconscious gift that allows them to just innately feel what works and what doesn’t. Game theory is just part of who they are – they just kind of “get it.” They aren’t really always aware of how or why things work, even as they look at it and simply know it works or doesn’t.

The second are developers who are astutely aware of the “how”s and “why”s of game theory. They know the guidelines and formulas, understanding the orders and principles by which strong game mechanics are crafted while recognizing the actual reasons why other game mechanics are broken, unfair or weak. Some even understand the science well enough to create complex charts graphing the mathematical statistics of the rules, from dice probabilities to basic power balance.

I’m the former. I just kind of sense that something works or something doesn’t. Some mechanics will just “feel right.” Other things just don’t “click.” I have incredibly reliable instincts in this area, which is good. The bad is that it can leave Ashley frustrated as he tries to identify and solve exactly what those problems are in our mechanics.

Obviously, Ashley is the latter kind of designer. Ashley is a librarian of game mechanics. He is always buying new and different roleplaying game books and reading them, constantly looking for some new mechanic or fresh perspective on old methods that he can be inspired by.

This contradiction in artistic approach is actually an incredible blessing for us. When I announce that something just doesn’t work right, he’s able to disassemble the machine and figure out exactly which part of it isn’t functioning properly. Neither of us can do what we do, however, without reading other games.

You have to read the rules of other roleplaying games because you can learn what is popular amongst players right now. You may find yourself really liking how a game approaches a similar topic to what your game addresses. Different game systems present information in different ways, and reading other books may help you decide what format is easiest for you to convey your game information to your players. Pay attention to how information is organized, the order in which things are presented and even consider the narrative styles used for non-mechanical sections (should your game feature an unreliable narrator?).

If you want to be a better game developer, you also have to play other games. Find games that have similar mechanical styles to yours and examine what you like about them (and what you don’t like). Find games that feel completely different than your game and observe what makes them fun (or not fun). Don’t limit yourself by mechanics (which dice are used), by genre, by play style (collaborative or not?) or by publisher size (indie games or Wizards of the Coast?), and ask yourself and your friends what they enjoy about them.

Spend some time looking at the books that other game developers are making – yes, not just the rules, but the actual physical book itself as well. Look at the fonts used and consider if the designers balanced readability with theme. Flip through the book and get an idea for how much art is satisfying to you as a reader. Notice that some books are hardcover, some softcover, some are the size of a regular sheet of paper and others are the size of a digest – decide what you like and what you can afford. You should even order a few RPGs from to see how you feel about their printing services and quality, as print on demand may be how you distribute your game.

Finally, do a bit of research on game theory. I recommend Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster as a simple but incredibly helpful place to start (it's written for video game design, but I promise, the theory is the same). You can also check out a number of YouTube videos of game design and game theory lectures given by roleplaying game developers at various conventions over the years. And of course, a lot of game developers have blogs where they share what they learned while creating their games.

You’re reading one now.

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 2: Creative Foundations Mon, 01 Jul 2019 05:00:00 -0400 77e6d7af-62ee-4235-9a54-840287d4c4ba Ryan continues his developer diary giving insight into The Gun Belt. This time, he shares the first thing he did when The Gun Belt came to be and how it helped establish the game's world. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time.

Short Story Sketches

I am a visual creative. My ideas are always lucid images in my mind that are born of feelings and instincts about what works and doesn’t, and those images always accompany threads of greater, larger pictures.

In the short form, without pulling any of those threads, I have a special skill for creating short, powerful bursts of phrases like headlines, slogans and postcard copy that imply there’s something more without actually “going” there.

In the long form, I have a knack for world building. I’m particularly gifted in connecting details and ideas from different thoughts and weaving them together to create a narrative that is sensical and compelling.

My imaginative process has a limitation, however. Maybe it’s better to think of it as a crutch? I have to have a foundation, some type of point of origin, to start with and construct all of these ideas upon. It might be a picture I see somewhere, a quick doodle I sketch on scrap paper or an incomplete idea from a team member.

For The Gun Belt, there were a lot of these pieces of ideas floating around. Our elevator pitch was a smorgasbord of them:

“Alien and robotic cowboys riding dinosaurs on an interstellar wild west world without wheels.”

Aliens, robots, cowboys, dinosaurs, science fiction, westerns, floating stagecoaches – it was a lot to connect in one initial concept. Where does one even begin with all of that?

I started with getting a notebook that I would use only for the project. It sounds ridiculous, but having a dedicated place to keep everything together gave the initial development a real world location to call home (and it would do wonders for keeping things organized down the road). I started to make a few quick sketches of basic technology in the notebook, and then did a drawing of a cowboy with a dinosaur I could look at to keep my head in the world.

The first major step into developing The Gun Belt, however, came in the form of a short story. In a short story, I can effectively capture the feel of the world. I can establish the tone of the environment, the attitudes of the people and a bit of surface-level insight into how the world works without being held back by things that my co-designer, Ashley, and I haven’t addressed yet, like mechanics, alien species, politics or even what technology looks like.

I wrote Miner Troubles in an evening. It’s a piece of short fiction about 2,000 words in length that details the final hour in a man’s life. It touches on many of the pieces from the elevator pitch in ways that begin placing those independent ideas into a cohesive narrative for Ashley and I to start building everything else from.

A human cowboy rides his dinosaur steed across a desolate plain of tallgrass to a one-street western town. There, he faces a robot gunslinger who intends to collect a debt owed to him from the man in money or in blood. There’s a classic high noon-style showdown in the street, ending with some wisdom of this hard world being imparted on a young observer of the event.

It’s filled with random threads waiting for us to pull to see where they might lead. It mentions a powerful mining company, which we would eventually pursue and turn into the primary antagonist of the game’s world. It established the cumbersome and proper way that the robots would talk. It dropped a mention of a pterodactyl tied to a post with a saddle covered in decorative beads that would eventually lead to the creation of the Birdies.

There were also ideas in it that didn’t go anywhere. Some of the ideas ended up having to change, such as the colloquial names of some of the dinosaurs. But the story was a fearless vomiting of an establishing glimpse into the world we were about to embark on creating, and it served as an invaluable reference point to leap from as we began our journey.

Miner Troubles is a piece of fiction about our world that we’ve continually edited and updated along the way that we can use as we develop The Gun Belt. It has been an effective tool for quickly sharing our vision with potential artists as we’ve scouted talent for the book. It has served as a quick, fun way to promote our game amongst friends and over social media.

Best of all, short stories make great chapter introductions in gaming books, quickly sharing with the readers a visual glimpse into the word that you’ve created. This means that foundation I built to layer ideas upon will even end up being used in the product – a visual thread to help everyone understand the greater, larger picture of our world.

The Gun Belt Developer's Diary 1: Vacant Ideas Mon, 24 Jun 2019 05:00:00 -0400 f8addb87-65a0-49fd-9156-4cd087e7a890 In the first of his indie game developer diaries, Ryan begins sharing the origins of The Gun Belt and how sometimes the game you set out to make isn't the one you thought it would be. Ryan has been developing a tabletop roleplaying game, The Gun Belt for over three years. The game features alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in an interstellar Wild West on a world with no wheels. It is currently in the process of playtesting. This blog explores the process he and his design partner, Ashley, have experienced during that time._

The Vacant and The Gun Belt

February marked the three-year anniversary of when I began developing my own tabletop role-playing game. If everything goes according to plans, The Gun Belt will see Kickstarter and publishing this year. It’s a game I’m incredibly proud of. It’s a game I believe is a lot of fun. It’s also completely not at all the game I set out to create.

My journey to The Gun Belt began in 2015, after I wrote On A Roll: Level Up Your RPG, a book focusing on helping gamers become better players and better storytellers. The process of writing that book had the side effect of making me fall in love with game theory. As I learned more and more about how and why games work, it quickly became clear that I wanted to make my own.

I realized early on that I needed a partner. Like most gamers, I have an ego that really made me want to make the game completely on my own, but unlike most gamers, I am aware of it and knew that having a partner created accountability. By having a partner, I was ensuring that my game would actually happen instead of being the thing I just always talk about at Denny’s after game each weekend.

My initial partner was my friend Rob. Rob and I have been creative collaborators on all kinds of projects for more than two decades. We work well together and our creative contributions compliment one another’s. Within just a few days, we had early concepts for a game called, The Vacant. It moved very quickly, inspiring concept sketches and outlines that really affirmed our ideas. The project had legs.

About three months in, we realized that we needed to slow down our creative momentum and focus instead on locking down initial mechanics. The core mechanic of a game should compliment the universe and feel of the game – FATE works wonderful for a collaborative experience but works less well for a tactical mass combat driven game, for example.

We began looking at open game license (OGL) systems because the story, genre and universe were more important to us creatively than developing our own dice system. Rob’s passion wasn’t in mechanics and, in fact, he even admitted he was out of his element. The more I researched and presented mechanics, the more he was overwhelmed and unable to help. Making matters worse, this was a decision I didn’t feel I was equipped to make on my own. Over the next few months, The Vacant slowed, stalled and then languished.

By the summer of 2016, I found myself mentioning to another friend, Ashley, about how I was struggling to get The Vacant off the ground. He laughed, and said he understood because he had always wanted to make a game as well, but never felt he had a partner to keep him going. I asked him what sort of game he wanted to make, and he answered that he always wanted to do a pulp space western with robot and alien cowboys. I laughed, and told him that I had been thinking a lot about figuring out how to do a game about cowboys riding dinosaurs instead of horses.

In that moment, The Gun Belt was born – alien and robot cowboys riding dinosaurs in the interstellar wild west. The Gun Belt is now mostly written, with mechanics and original art that I love. The Vacant is something I'll come back to one day, but for now, I'm making The Gun Belt.

It wasn’t the game I thought I was going to be making when I began. The very first step I took toward making my first game was to skip it and start make my second game. That’s the amazing thing about the creative journey – game development is often as frustrating as it is fascinating. If you’re flexible and open, you may discover wonderful new ideas and unexpected new collaborators.

I did.

Fifty Questions For Better Characters Sat, 27 Apr 2019 22:00:00 -0400 a86c4280-5849-4882-ac1d-bf2246a8f9de After talking about character histories, The Curmudgeon shares the list of 50 questions to help develop your character's history that was published in his book, On A Roll. There are countless methods to help build great characters. Some people begin by building the character sheet – skills and stats first, followed later by writing a history. Others write a history first, and then build the stats and mechanics. No method is better than the other – it’s really a personal preference.

Regardless of which you do first, you may find that using a character creation questionnaire can be incredibly helpful. There are a myriad of places on the internet that have different versions of character creation questionnaires. These questionnaires are essentially lists of a bunch of questions that are designed so that if you answer them all, you will be left with a well-thought-out and well-rounded character. Some of these questionnaires are better than others, and you may find one elsewhere that you prefer over this one. After using a questionnaire once, you may even find you don’t need one at all.

For now, here are 50 questions to help you create a fully fleshed out character with a rich history. Simply imagine you are your character, grab a pencil and give it a go!

  1. What is your name?
  2. Do you have a nickname? What is it? Why?
  3. What color are your eyes?
  4. What color is your hair?
  5. What is your skin color?
  6. What race/species are you?
  7. Do you have any scars? From what?
  8. What is unique about your looks?
  9. Are you good looking, average, ugly?
  10. How old are you?
  11. Where were you born?
  12. Where did you grow up?
  13. Who were your friends in your childhood?
  14. Did you have a “schoolyard nemesis?”
  15. What did you do for fun when you were a kid?
  16. Did you have a pet? What was it? Name?
  17. Did you have siblings? Who? What were they like?
  18. Are your parents alive? If not, why not?
  19. What were your parents’ names?
  20. What did your parents do for a living?
  21. Were you wealthy or poor when you were a kid?
  22. Did you have a crush on anyone when you were a kid?
  23. What was your education like?
  24. What was your favorite subject?
  25. What was your least favorite subject?
  26. What was the worst trouble you got in as a kid?
  27. What was your first job?
  28. Have you ever been in love? With whom?
  29. What is your current job outside of the adventure?
  30. Are you good at it?
  31. What hobbies do you have now?
  32. Are you married or in love?
  33. What makes you laugh?
  34. What makes you angry?
  35. What is your deepest fear?
  36. What is your greatest accomplishment?
  37. What is your greatest failure?
  38. What is your biggest secret?
  39. Who is your best friend? Why?
  40. What is your most treasured possession?
  41. What is your greatest regret?
  42. What is your best asset?
  43. What is your greatest weakness?
  44. Do you have a nemesis? Who? Why?
  45. Are you an honest person?
  46. Are you easy to get along with? Why or why not?
  47. Do you have a catchphrase? What is it?
  48. Do you have a horse/spaceship/pet/motorcycle/car that you are extremely attached to? What is it? Why?
  49. What is your goal in life?
  50. How far are you willing to go to achieve it?
The Broken Brilliance of "Get Woke, Go Broke" Sun, 03 Feb 2019 20:00:00 -0500 97407f5c-04f6-42e7-84d0-c2d5e7c7a851 The Curmudgeon examines the unfortunate brilliance of the "Get Woke, Go Broke" catchphrase and the vicious attacks both sides of the argument make. He even manages to find some common ground to move toward a positive solution. This week, our podcast, On A Roll, did an episode discussing the comments left on a post I saw in a Facebook group dedicated to game designers. In this group, a designer was asking for advice on how to find a sensitivity editor for his game. Instead of receiving advice, he was lectured by countless people telling him it was a waste of money and that designers shouldn’t allow special snowflake social justice warriors (SJW) to censor his creative endeavors (nevermind that choosing to edit your own work is not censorship).

READ: A game designer wanted to make sure his game didn’t offend or hurt people, and his peers told him not to worry about others’ feelings.

This designer was told that SJWs were ruining their favorite games. He was told that people who are offended should get over it and spend their money elsewhere. He was told that gaming companies should be allowed to be as offensive as they want and let game runners sort it out at their local tables. He was told that game companies that “Get Woke, Go Broke.”

When we shared our podcast advertisement linking to this episode in other Facebook groups, another interesting thing occurred. One group I shared it in refused to approve the post. The reasoning was that any posts dealing with social justice issues always devolve into shit shows in which people with axes to grind on both sides attack one another, and the admin team just didn’t have the time to properly moderate that sort of thing (The admin was incredibly kind and genial – I have only good things to say about him and how he handled it).

We did share the link to the episode in another Facebook group, and I watched as a shit show played out in the comments on the thread. It quickly degraded into yelling and personal attacks. I actually watched a white person tell a black woman that she was wrong about her experience concerning the lack of representation of people of color in the gaming industry during the 1990s.

The post played out exactly like the episode-inspiring post from the game designers’ group had played out, and it played out exactly as the other Facebook group’s admin feared it would: “Get Woke, Go Broke.”

My day job is in marketing and communications, so I am fascinated by how that phrase is such an incredible piece of communications. Get Woke, Go Broke is perfect and brilliant because:

  • It clearly conveys the argument succinctly: If you are catering to individuals who support social justice issues such as diversity, inclusivity and equality, you will find yourself unsuccessful and out of business.
  • It is short. Four words is all that message takes.
  • It’s impossible to argue against it in similar succinctness. A racist can say those four words, but to rebut it requires three- or four-hundred. People check out.
  • It rhymes. Those “-oke”s make it catchy, damnit.
  • It’s confident and conclusive. The phrase isn’t, “If you get woke, you may go broke.” The verbiage is assertive in its prognosis as if coming from a place of expertise.

That brilliance is also what makes it so dangerous and allows it to dominate without facts. The truth of the matter is that the data actually demonstrates that if you DON’T get woke, you might go broke. Here are a few thoughts from within the gaming industry and outside of it:

  • White Wolf Publishing was recently closed and Vampire 5th Edition was licensed to other developers precisely because of backlash to offensive content.
  • Harlem Unbound tackled racism and diversity in life and gaming head-on last year. It funded on Kickstarter to nearly $40,000. It’s now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Community Museum and the Newark Museum’s collections. It won three Gold Ennies and has been picked up by Chaosium for a 2nd Edition.
  • Gillette’s recent “The Best a Man Can Be” ad did not affect sales positively or negatively – being woke did not help nor harm them). Sales remained the same, but their overall media saturation numbers and sentiment measurements were so high that the marketing campaign is still considered successful.
  • Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad campaign raised 2nd quarter sales by 9%, and their stocks were up 6%. After the initial drop of the ad, online sales were up 14% year over year.
  • The entertainment industry is currently experiencing unprecedented success in socially progressive productions such as Stephen Universe, Black Panther, Get Out, Wonder Woman, Rogue One, Crazy Rich Asians and Frozen.
  • Solo didn’t fail because Star Wars: The Last Jedi was too woke. It failed because director issues caused its budget to double, making it nearly impossible to make a profit. It still earned $400 million dollars, which isn’t a small amount.
  • Ghostbusters (2016) didn’t fail because they replaced an all male cast with an all female cast. The film’s failure to recoup has more to do with its inability to secure theatrical release in China (China’s box office is larger than the US and Canada’s combined). Some would also argue it just wasn’t a great film, as well.
  • Studies are showing that young people (re: not middle aged white men) are increasingly wanting to spend their money on products and companies that are socially responsible. The Nielson Global Corporate Sustainability Report indicated that 81% of millennials expect their favorite brands to make public declarations of their corporate citizenship, expecting companies to make their charities and values part of their corporate identity.
  • The marketing industry has begun recognizing these trends and created a new measurement that is done along with ROI (return on investment) called ROR – Return on Relationship.
  • Editing for sensitivity isn’t actually a new thing. It’s been done in marketing for decades under the name of “marketing assessment.”

So what’s going on? Why is it that the two most extreme sides of the argument are screaming at one another in an endless, pointless shit show? Why is it that we only hear from two voices in these conversations?

We hear from Edgy Gamer Guy (EGG), who says: “Stop letting your special snowflake overly sensitive social agenda ruin my game! My game should be as adult as I want it to be! It’s an adult game with adult themes, it’s supposed to be offensive sometimes! It’s your job to police your sensitivity, not mine and not the gaming company’s! If you don’t want to play a game you find offensive, don’t! Get Woke, Go Broke!”

What many take this to mean is: “I want all games to include offensive things that hurt people.”

We also hear from the most extreme Social Justice Warriors: “Every book should be filled with diversity and inclusive themes! All content should be sensitive to everyone’s triggers! No compromise will be accepted! Make everything perfect or we boycott!”

What many take this to mean is: “I’m offended, and nothing anyone does will ever be enough to satisfy my personal agenda!”

I don’t believe either of these groups are, for the most part, made up of actual bad people with bad intentions who want to hurt others, even if they sometimes definitely sound like it. I don’t believe the EGGs are actually saying they want to run rape plots every week at their table any more than I believe the most draconian SJWs want to remove every single piece of dramatic conflict from every single game.

These two extremes are the most vocal, but they are not the majority. I believe that most of us are rational, sane individuals who live closer to the center of this debate. We want to choose kindness over hate. We don't want to intentionally hurt people.

But, we are silent out of fear of being attacked by these two extremes. We need to speak up and be heard, and stop being afraid of these conversations currently being dominated by toxic gamers at both extremes.

I actually believe that, when you boil it all away to it’s most simplistic, this is a battle between tradition (fearing change) and posturing (demanding change). Perhaps ironically, it is two groups of people each trying to force others to allow them to feel comfortable.

The good news is, that’s actually common ground. Maybe we can build on that?

We should agree as consumers that game companies should feel comfortable creating the game they envision without being told what topics they can and cannot broach, but in return, those companies should also have the social responsibility to broach mature topics in respectful, sensitive and representational ways. We can and should demand both in synergy.

We should also agree as gamers that if you are comfortable running an “edgy” or offensive game at your table you can, and that if you are comfortable exploring social justice issues at your table you can, and that if you are comfortable leaving both of these out of your game and want to run something else entirely at your table, you can do that, too.

The best part is, no one has to get woke OR go broke.

Running Your Best Game Mon, 03 Dec 2018 22:00:00 -0500 53b4e6ac-8641-407c-aa2e-7a944332e5b1 No one can run your game better than you. The Curmudgeon believes that still leaves room for improvement. As many of you know, our podcast actually began with my book, On A Roll: Level Up Your RPG, which I wrote and published a few years ago after a successful Kickstarter campaign. Much of the impetus of the book surrounded the idea that every player and storyteller has different, unique experiences that we can all learn from, and yet, we tend to be unreceptive to advice and input from others. As storytellers, whether it is online or in person, many of us believe that no one can run our game for our group better than we can.

I sell copies of the book in vendor halls at various conventions and shows, and several times each day, someone looks at the book and notes, "I could have written that. But, one of my friends could really use it." It's the followed by the person regaling me with tales of their greatest character moment or a summary of the best adventure they ever ran. By the time it's over and they leave the table, it's clear they believe my book is of no use to them because they are already operating at their best.

Generally speaking, I have come to recognize that the first indication a gamer could use the advice in the book is that they believe they have no need for it.

This past weekend, a young man named Clayton and his friend came by my table. Clayton was quite excited to learn about the book, and his response to learning about it was to pull me aside and share with me in excited, hushed tones, his brilliant tactic for running a great game with his friends. It doesn't matter if I thought the idea was brilliant because his players love it – that's the truest measure of whether a game is great. Hearing his story and seeing the agreeing looks of happiness on his friend's face, there was little doubt that no one could run that group's game better than Clayton. A few hours later, Clayton returned to the table with his mother and he got the book.

I have a dear friend who is a high school teacher. This morning, he sent me a text message. It was a photo of Clayton sitting at his desk with my book. My friend told me he had to tell Clayton to put the book away and pay attention in class. It was quite funny, and of course flattering, but it was also truly one of the most wonderful outcomes that I could ever hope for concerning someone acquiring my book.

There's a reason most storytellers and dungeon masters believe that no one can run their game for their group better than they can. It's because it's usually true. Game runners learn what their players want and need, and they cater to it. Mike Mearls could show up at my local game and would probably not run the game as well as I do. Mearl's is a stellar DM, one of the best, and no one would argue that – he's certainly more talented than I am. But he doesn't know my players like I do. I'm the one with the boots on the ground, in the trenches with these friends every week, and no one else can understand our game without having that same experience.

Clayton runs a great game. His friends love playing in the adventures he is running for them. And I believe that no one can run a game for that group of players better than Clayton can. The wonderful thing is that, even though that's the case, he still knows he can do better and wants to learn how he can make his game even more fun. He's not afraid to admit that others may have different experiences than he has had that he can learn from to make his own game better.

I'm proud of Clayton, and he's an example we should all consider following. He knows that no one can run his game better than he can, but he still wants to learn to run it even better. Isn't that the DM we all want to play with?
The photo of Clayton his teacher sent me.

The White Wolf Dilemma Mon, 12 Nov 2018 19:00:00 -0500 45cabf6e-3640-400e-9146-1940125e927b In the last two years, White Wolf has found itself repeatedly mired in controversy. It's happened again this week. Why does it this keep happening, and what can be done to prevent it from happening yet again? The World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade is one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties in recent history. Drawing influence from vampiric tales throughout history across folklore, film, literature and television. It revolutionized the role-playing game industry and, itself, became an influencer. From television's Kindred: the Embraced to the Underworld films and hundreds of popular creations in between, the World of Darkness is a pop culture juggernaut. The IP has persevered through five editions, an in-game ending, a tangental spinoff universe (Chronicles of Darkness), three different owners (the founders, CCP and Paradox), collectible card games, a highly-publicized failed MMO and three different companies currently producing content (White Wolf, The Onyx Path and By Night Studios).

The 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire signaled a resurgence in interest to the IP, spawning other 20th Anniversary Editions of subsequent World of Darkness lines, the launch of updated LARP rules from By Night Studios, high-production value international LARP events, community-driven content in the Storyteller’s Vault and culminating in the release of V5. A gorgeous book, V5 offered fresh mechanics and an updated, unique take on the classic IP while maintaining much of the original history, lore and fanbase, distributed by RPG giant Modiphius Entertainment.

With so much success, how is it that every few months, this unstoppable behemoth becomes mired in controversy? The problems always seem to begin with a decision by White Wolf or their affiliates – hiring alleged problematic individuals such as Zak Sabbath, booking a LARP convention at a nightclub with a fascist reputation, printing 1488 in a rules preview, using “triggered” as a Brujah Discipline, suggesting neo-Nazi character ideas in the V5 core book, fighting a heated internet feud with a blogger and now re-skinning the homosexual persecution in Chechnya as a vampiric agenda.

Why does this seem to happen over and over again?

Edginess is Passé

White Wolf’s current product is pursuing the goal of becoming a transmedia entertainment brand featuring game lines in which participants play the monster in a darker interpretation of the real world. The Christopher Nolan Batman films have secured the idea of making things dark as an accepted and popular approach to pop culture. Subdued colors, gritty characters and dimly lit violence are a quick way to declare that your work is not meant for kids. Taking that a step further – adding gratuitous sex, extreme violence, shocking behaviors and sexual crimes – is seen as a way to take dark and make it edgy.

Game developers at White Wolf are embracing a perspective they have stated is “edgy.” However, making something dark doesn’t mean it has to be edgy. They are not the same thing, but more importantly, edginess isn’t what it was in the 1990s when the World of Darkness originated.

Today, “edgy” is seen as simplistic and requiring little thought. There’s no extra energy needed to make a topic edgy, and this hollow addition just feels cheap, lazy and juvenile in ways that don’t actually add any depth to the material. It’s not dissimilar to the way a 13-year old will use a curse word because they think using adult language somehow makes them more adult but instead, it only reveals their immaturity.

Edginess is not required to take on mature themes in intelligent and thought-provoking ways. In fact, in current culture, provocative approaches to subject manner are actually most effective when avoiding edgy tactics. House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad are all fantastic examples of television’s use of dark, adult themes that deeply affect the viewer without exploiting edgy subject matter simply as a way to prove the shows are meant for adults.

Community is Fragmented

The fandom of White Wolf has become toxic and fractured. When each of these controversies happened, White Wolf’s online statements have garnered extensive responses from fans on Facebook and Twitter. A distinct pattern is seen in these conversation threads, wherein a majority of the fan responses defend the company and aggressively berate, attack and insult the fans who are expressing they have concerns or issues with White Wolf’s decisions. These defensive fans spit hateful venom at anyone who even hints that perhaps White Wolf shouldn’t have made the decisions that they made. They wage war on “social justice warriors” and ”evil snowflake liberals” who are “ruining the World of Darkness” by being offended by the edgy nature of the product. The inane defense, “it’s the World of DARKness,” rings paramount in these comments.

The remaining minority spends their time trying to forcefully explain why they are offended, or fervently attacking the fans who are in favor of edgy decisions by declaring they must be stupid, evil, fascist or even Nazis.

This fracture is a two-sided problem. Firstly, White Wolf manages these outbursts and flame wars with ineptitude, likely founded in their lack of a communications or public relations officer in their leadership team. They often ignore these battles for long periods, letting everyone attack one another. Other times, White Wolf will cut and paste a weak, canned statement about being nice to one another that includes a link to their community behavior guidelines. This canned statement and link seems to be the closest they come to actual enforcement of said guidelines, however, as no one I’ve spoken with recalls seeing someone actually banned or have their access removed. Yet other times, White Wolf’s posts simply defend their decision, obliviously deny the possibility of wrongdoing or outright ignore the problem altogether.

The other side of the issue is that there are two clear fandom groups emerging: a group that prefers the sometimes offensive “edgy” World of Darkness, and a group that prefers the dark but socially justifiable World of Darkness of the past. These two groups are contrary demographics. In the 1990s, White Wolf understood this, and developed the Black Dog Games line of product to separate the “edgy” from the dark. Today, White Wolf is inexplicably trying to court both at the same time with the same product – a task that is tearing the fanbase asunder and resulting in a product many like but few can love. At some point, White Wolf must decide who they are targeting with V5 and clearly make that announcement before actively directing and marketing their product with greater focus.

Leadership is Benighted

There are some who believe that all of this is a conspiracy by White Wolf to secretly market the new V5 to the alt-right. I don’t believe this is true. Evil individuals have found many ways to insert themselves and their views into every edition of Vampire. It is my belief these are simply poor decisions that are repeated because there is no one at White Wolf preventing them from being made in the first place.

Inserting 1488 into the playtest is an easy mistake – most people don’t know the significance of those numbers and it’s quite realistic to accept that it was a terrible coincidence. Nearly all of the other problems, however, could and should have easily been avoided.

Don’t hire someone with a negative reputation from Gamer Gate. Even if they are completely innocent, there are plenty of other writers who don’t have baggage that can damage your company. Don’t book a nightclub without doing a simple Google search to see what it’s reputation is. There are plenty of other nightclubs without baggage that can damage your company.

Don’t mock American social justice warriors by using “triggered” as the name of a Discipline. Even if you don’t like current American culture, there are plenty of other names that don’t have baggage that can damage your company. Don’t use neo-Nazi as a possible player character type in your book. There are plenty of other types of dark concepts that don’t have baggage that can damage your company.

And of course, the most recent event should have been the easiest to avoid because White Wolf knows from these previous problems that their fanbase is watching them. The homosexual genocide in Chechnya is so horrific in reality that giving it a vampiric justification actually lessens the horror and turns it into a cheap fictionalization just for shock value. It is “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” at its worst.

It seems there was no one at White Wolf who recognized that leaving this passage out would not affect the book in any meaningful way whatsoever – no one running a game at their kitchen table is having their gaming group’s characters travel to Chechnya to explore the persecution of homosexuals during their Friday night game, and if they are, they must be intelligent enough individuals to do so without White Wolf’s published words. Leaving it out affects nothing. Leaving it in affects the company’s reputation.

One of the writers/developers of V5 posted on their Facebook, “What is the whole controversy about the Camarilla book having an anti-gay section about anyway?” and “How is it the writer’s fault…?” I believe this person was honestly asking, and when people responded, he noted it was an evil NPC saying those things to demonstrate that the NPC was an evil monster – an excuse that means little in a game line whose main selling point is that EVERYONE is playing a monster, even the PCs. It is this seeming lack of awareness in pursuing “edgy” that permeates the new White Wolf staff.

While ignorance and lack of judgement is a problem, some of the issue is also caused by the cultural differences between Sweden (where White Wolf is now headquartered) and the United States (where we are all up in arms about these decisions). Either there is no one at White Wolf who is expressing these differences, or no one at White Wolf cares. Both are a problem that needs a course correction.

Aimless Resolutions

Conclusions to these incidents have nearly always been accompanied by promises that things were going to change, that greater sensitivity and responsibility were coming and that White Wolf would be refocusing on their fan communities. After most of these incidents, nothing really changed. In the few instances where changes were visible, the followthrough on these promises have proven to be unsuccessful.

Following the issues with the V5 core book, White Wolf had their V5 producer, Jason Carl, do a fantastic live Q&A online. He took questions from the fanbase on air and made no effort to avoid difficult questions. His answers were straightforward, well-spoken and in nearly all instances, quite satisfying. He offered heartfelt apologies and sincere hope for the future, including a promise to engage with their fandom in a more positive and full manor.

No meaningful changes were made, however. Carl, the very producer behind the beleaguered publications that featured these problems, was title-shuffled and named executive vice president of community development. Matthew Dawkins, a gaming writer and YouTube celebrity from England, was named senior community director, with the intention of relaunching his YouTube channel about Vampire. Neither of them are public relations or communications professionals with experience in community management or crisis communication, and Dawkins served in the position just two months.

Now these problems have happened again in the Camarilla book with the Chechnyan passage, and the cycle is beginning again.

None of us want to see White Wolf go through this again. We love the World of Darkness – if we weren’t so passionate about it, these incidents would not be reacted to with such volume. A lesser IP would be out of business and forgotten by now. But the World of Darkness is rich with history and blessed with a dedicated fandom.

Fandoms are a reflection of those in control of what they are fans of. Gaming companies bear responsibility for their gaming communities. How gamers are behaving when discussing the game, and how they actually play it, are fundamentally influenced by, and based in how, the company interacts with their fans when presenting their product.

Normally, I would express that if a company is unhappy with how their fandom is responding to other fans and to their product, the company needs to adjust their approach to their fan community to inspire the behaviors they wish to see. But White Wolf doesn’t seem to know which fans they want, let alone what they want from them, dooming the company to keep repeating this cycle. They will never be able to course correct anything without making these key decisions and equipping themselves with the people, wisdom and skills to then properly follow through.

The World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade is still one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties. I hope changes can save it before it becomes history.