Thursday, November 30, 2017

Back Soon

Sorry for the lack of updates lately! I am backed up on RPG writing gigs and trying to catch up. I'll tell you all about them as soon as I can. Meanwhile, enjoy this shot of my assistant.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Product Release: Gongfarmer's Almanac 2017

At Gen Con this year, another product with my name in it came out. I have a piece in volume 1 of the 2017 Gongfarmer's Almanac for Dungeon Crawl Classics. In addition to general articles and adventures like those in last year's Almanac, the 2017 edition provided a multi-author hex-crawl. This hex crawl is a campaignable landscape made of individual small adventure areas bound together only by one theme: they exist on the plane of Pandemonium, the source of chaos magic.

My contribution is "Abyss of Automatons," which is my take on a robot underworld. Harley Stroh, the amazingly prolific DCC writer who created Peril on the Purple Planet, drew the map for mine!

You can download all volumes of Gongfarmer’s Almanac 2017 from the Google Plus community’s Google Drive links below. If you want to order the Almanac in print, you can get the whole thing in one volume from Lulu (pricing is at-cost, simply covering materials and shipping).

Gongfarmer's Almanac 2017
Volume 1: Welcome to Pandemonium
Volume 2: Pandemonium Locations, Part 1
Volume 3: Pandemonium Locations, Part 2
Volume 4: Pandemonium Setting: Dark Seas
Volume 5: Monsters and Patrons of Pandemonium
Volume 6: Men and Magic
Volume 7: Adventures and Settings
Volume 8: 2017 Master Zine Index

Editions From Previous Years
2016 Print
2016 PDF
2015 Print
2015 PDF (Volumes 1-5, Volume 6)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Numenera 2: Defending Ellomyr

Monte Cook Games has launched their Kickstarter for Numenera 2, the revision to Numenera that they announced at Gen Con last month. I think it looks great, and I'm a backer.

One fun thing that they're doing with this Kickstarter is asking the community of backers to contribute bits of fiction. Because part of Numenera 2 is the new Destiny book, MCG is using their Kickstarter updates to describe the town of Ellomyr, a place in danger of being attacked by bestial enemies. MCG encourages fans to describe how the town works to prepare its defense, and a high enough number of such descriptions on social media will give the town a bonus to its chances of survival.

Here's mine!

Oddity's father had told her to stay out of the way while the grown-ups prepare for the coming margr attack, but dangit, she had ideas that were bubbling up inside her and she had to let them out!

Oddity tromped up to Auzenne the Builder, who had built the schoolhouse, and told her she should build a new village down the road, just as big as Ellomyr, that the bad guys can have fun attacking instead! “Then they’ll leave us alone!” Oddity said, smiling and nodding to indicate that she'd settled the matter. Auzenne patted her on the head like adults do and said she’d play with her later.

Then Oddity tracked down Purple Golan the clothier, who had sewn her festival dress for her, and told him he should make margr clothes for everyone in town so the bad guys will think we’re just like them when they arrive. “Then they’ll leave us alone!” Oddity looked up at Golan hopefully, but all he did was act like her idea was a good solution and send her on her way.

Oddity was just arriving at the town square to seek out Elder Fron when her father caught up with her. “Time for lunch, Oddity.”

Oddity stamped her foot on the dusty ground. “But I have to tell Elder Fron my idea!”

Gurner Fron stepped out of his house. Oddity’s father began to apologize for the interruption, but Gurner waved him off. “What’s this about an idea, young lady?”

Oddity looked between Gurner and her father, and back again, then burst out with, “If we all play a super-mega game of 'hide from the Wind,’ the bad guys won’t be able to find us. Then they’ll leave us alone!"

Gurner looked into Oddity’s mismatched eyes and considered what she’d said. “Oddity, I don’t think the margr will leave even if they think the town is empty. I think some of us will have to fight to defend it. However, your idea sounds like a good way to protect the people in town who won’t be fighting. It might help if you were to start training the other children in ‘hide from the Wind.’ If your father thinks this is a good plan, that is.”

Oddity’s father picked her up. “I think it’s a great plan. Come on, Oddity. Lunch will give you the strength you need to start your training."

Oddity’s father took her home, just as the Trilling Stone began to sing.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Gen Con 2017: Writer's Life: Develop Your Writing Process

This is the second seminar I attended at Gen Con 50. The panelists were stellar and offered a lot of sound advice. Let's go!

The panelists were (from left to right) Mercedes Lackey, Larry Dixon, Matt Forbeck, Karen Bovenmyer, and John Helfers. Karen was the moderator, and did a superb job at organizing and introducing the topics.

Matt Forbeck mentioned that this is his 36th Gen Con; his first was Gen Con 15. He got started writing in the game industry, and is now a full-time freelancer. Matt is currently contracted for four D&D-branded choose-your-own-adventure style books. (This excited Larry Dixon greatly, as did most of the other work Matt mentioned he'd done, such as the Marvel Encyclopedia.)

Larry Dixon said that he used to do 28 conventions per year. He has been a falconer and a race car driver, in addition to working on 60+ RPGs. Larry also worked on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. He said he loves teaching writers.

Mercedes Lackey: "I do this for a living--my mortgage is my muse." Also, "I don't have time to fart around."

Larry backed her up, saying that full-time writers have to work quickly and efficiently. He said his process is "laziness," because "I wanna go screw around. Fallout HAS to be played." (He mentioned that Mercedes--who he calls Misty--is currently playing Fallout: New Vegas.)

Matt said that he can't play or read anything anymore without having to "pull it apart" and analyze it critically.

Matt writes outlines for everything, writing 2-3 sentences per chapter. Matt takes 1-3 days to write an outline. He says he can write 5,000-8,000 words per day if he has a plan. However, he stresses the need to leave room for discovery, because that's the fun of writing. And says that if you write too much in your outline, it's hard to throw it away when you feel the need to change the plan. Matt likes to re-outline after a bit of writing, updating the outline with changes that have emerged.

Mercedes writes a skeleton outline:

  1. Premise
  2. Expand to a one-paragraph synopsis
  3. Expand to a five-page skinny outline
  4. Expand to a 40-page outline

Lately Mercedes just does the skinny outline. When she starts work for the day, she first revises yesterday, then writes new words. After she makes changes, she checks for continuity, from the start of the manuscript.

Mercedes added, "I always miss my deadline."

John Helfers writes in 1-hour bursts, achieving about 1,500 words. When John starts the writing day, he spends about 15 minutes for revision, and then 60 minutes of ONLY writing new material.

Mercedes's maximum word count for a day was 25,000 words in one 20-hour day. She also works on three different books at a time, each in a different point of the process, such as one she's outlining, another she's writing, and another in galleys. One benefit of this is when she's getting tired of one she can switch to another.

Matt talked about having to juggle projects. He said you don't know when one you've been hoping to work on will suddenly become available. Another struggle for meeting deadlines: "Life happens."

Larry stressed that you have a system in place for communicating with everyone you're working with. He said that "editors are there to help," so writers should use them to do so rather than avoid contact with them when things are running behind. Editors want a good result too, he said. If you're an inexperienced writer, they'll already know that, so don't think you have to hide it. Indeed, Larry said that editors talk to each other, and what's most important to them isn't who's new but who's an asshole!

Karen Bovenmyer quoted Neil Gaiman's saying that you can make it in writing by having two of the following three:
* Great writing
* Meeting deadlines
* Being easy to work with
Matt says that only #2 and #3 are in your control.

Tricks the panelists use to get the job done:

  • Coffee (Matt)
  • Remember that what you do affects other people's salary. People depend on you. (Larry)
  • Listen to soundtracks. (Karen)
  • ...without lyrics. "I can't fucking write to Hamilton." (Matt)
  • Use a zero-gravity chair (Mercedes)
  • No windows (Mercedes)
  • Comfy chair (Larry)

Matt says that when writing becomes a job, you should take care to find a new hobby, something else that you do for fun.

Karen talked of the value of "thresholding." She has specified a room where she does her writing, music that she uses for writing, and a time for writing. She also meditates for a set period before she writes.

A panelist (I forget which) mentioned that days off in nature can help recharge your writing batteries.

Larry says to trust your intuition. Matt also mentioned intuition, saying that you'll learn to trust it more and more, and that following your intuition will help with your speed.

Larry advises considering, "How do I make this awesome?"

Karen reminds us that "Fear is the mind-killer."

The panelists concur that over time, efficiency improves.

Larry and Mercedes like to outline on road trips.

Larry pointed out that readers don't care about the writer's problems. All they see is the finished work.

On Editing Your Work:

  • Matt revises as he writes. He says to not be afraid to lean on the editor for some grammar and content issues. It's what they're there for! Don't turn in a sloppy manuscript, of course, but you don't have to make it perfect.
  • A panelist mentioned that writer David Brin will write a novel, lock it away, and then write it again. None of the panelists are willing to use this method.
  • Matt: "Until you show it to someone, it can suck." He encourages us to play around with it.
  • Karen: "Do as well as you can, then send it out."
  • Larry: If you like what you're writing, others will too.

On Story Ideas, and Saving Abandoned Work

  • Mercedes doesn't write down ideas. "If it's a good idea, it'll come back to me."
  • Larry does, and says that some old notes are a good way to rediscover ideas that he wasn't ready to execute at the time.
  • Karen: "I've sold short stories based on novels I wrote." And, "I've sold homework!"
  • Larry advises that when you abandon something you're writing, don't throw it away. It just wasn't ready. Karen says to keep sending it out.
  • Larry suggests you make notes, maps, and sketches of your projects, and save them. This can help when you write the sequel!
Recommended Resources:

  • Larry recommends Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.
  • Karen recommends a YouTube series of videos by Dan Wells called "7 Point Story Structure." (Sadly, it's unavailable right now.)
  • Larry: Studying comedy teaches structure, and economy of words.

I'll end this summary with my favorite line from Larry:

"Sometimes you have to take a jump. Life is an adventure. Don't be a spectator."

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Gen Con 2017: What's New With Monte Cook Games

Gen Con 50 was amazing! I wanted to share my notes on the seminars I attended. Here's the first, the main Monte Cook Games seminar. You can also watch the seminar yourself!

Invisible Sun is expected to ship in March 2018. MCG had a separate seminar for this game. The game will include lots of handouts, such as business cards, letterhead, and other tactile stuff. A mockup of the game box and some of its contents (including a map, some of the cards, and the creepy hand that holds them) was available for viewing and caressing at the MCG booth in the Exhibit Hall.

"Cypher Play" is the MCG demo program. For more info, talk to Darcy Ross. The program will feature three seasons per year, and they'll be short ones. The first is a Cypher System fantasy campaign by Bruce Cordell. Players are encouraged to tell their local game stores that they want to see this, because this program is driven by store participation. The adventures are free, and a copy is provided for each player (not just each GM).

Shanna Germain talked about the "Cypher Guide," an upcoming online encyclopedia containing comprehensive info about Cypher System games. It will include page references and rules information for the games. It will be searchable and feature character creation, creatures, foci, types, etc. The Cypher Guide should be live soon. Will it feature 3rd party content? Shanna hadn't considered this, but said maybe.

Monte talked about the latest Numenera book, "Jade Colossus." It's his suggestion about what single book to buy after the corebook. The book contains step by step campaign creation and a Numenera ruin mapping engine.

Unmasked by Dennis Detwiller will finish the Worlds of the Cypher System trilogy, and is due in November 2017. It is a game of psychological horror and superheroes, featuring teens in the 1980s. Masks impart powers, but can also alter one's personality.

A Cypher System quickstart is coming in September, and will be free online.

Numenera 2: This was the big announcement! This will come in the form of two books: Discovery and Destiny, and will Kickstart in September (for probably $120 for both books in a slipcase). MCG has just started development on it. (Here's their announcement on the MCG website.)

Discovery will replace the current Numenera core book. (Monte says they are "retiring" that book, which is now selling out from its 4th printing.) It's not an overhaul to the system; old books will still be usable. It will revise the character creation material, aiming to provide more and better character options. These options will provide more choices when tier-ing up. Monte says this kind of backward compatibility is possible because in the Cypher System PC rules are distinct from NPC rules. He promises a seamless use of old sourcebooks (such as the bestiaries) with the new rules (and vice versa--new bestiaries with the old corebook). He notes that old character options books will be "less useful" with Numenera 2, but the rest will remain useful. Also, the setting chapter might expand on locations that have been added to Numenera over time, such as the city featured in "The Poison Eater" novel.

Destiny will let PCs take discoveries and use them to do things such as build a new base, or vehicle, or help their community in some other way. It will include a crafting system, detailing materials and components with dozens of plans for building things. Destiny will let players be proactive and shepherd a community through long-term campaigns. Monte promises that you can "make your mark on the 9th world." Destiny will come with three new Types, plus new foci and descriptors. The game will also feature new community-related organizations. (FYI, Monte's favorite Numenera organization is The Convergence, from Numenera.)

Season 2 of Cypher Play--by Sean Reynolds--will serve as a sort of preview to Numenera 2. Numenera 2 will keep some of the iconic art from the original, but will mostly feature new artwork. The Kickstarter will have a narrative element, involving a community under threat; more backers means more defenses and resources for the community, and this community will become a part of the 9th World. Monte noted that Numenera 2 won't push any "story" forward in time, because the game doesn't involve a meta-plot. Monte also asserts that Numenera 2 represents growth for the game.

Selected Q&A:

  • What's Amp's favorite game? (Ampersand is Shanna & Monte's dog) Their answers were "Chase me," "No Thank You Evil," and "Anything involving food."
  • What was your first RPG?
    • Monte: D&D, from the little booklets, when he was 11.
    • Bear: Same as Monte, during boy/cub scouts.
    • Shanna: Bunnies & Burrows, which her babysitter played with her.
    • Bruce: D&D, in boy scouts, playing at a lantern-lit table at night.
    • Darcy: D&D 3rd Edition. (Monte winced at this answer.) Her group played from the Player's Handbook only, not having the Dungeon Master's Guide.
    • Zoa: D&D with her brothers (at their demand), when she was 13 and they were 11. They didn't have a rulebook at all, and she had to make up the rules.
    • Sean: Red box Moldvay D&D. Keep on the Borderlands.
    • Tammie: Ars Magica and D&D
    • Charles: Blue box D&D starting at Christmas '79. After the newer edition had come out, so he could get his at $12 for the Player's Handbook, $12 for the Dungeon Master's Guide, and $15 for the Monster Manual.
  • Will Numenera 2 be open for the Cypher System Creator program? Maybe. Shanna reminded folks that Predation is open for this program.
  • Will there be more Gods of the Fall content? No current plans, but they pointed out that the Creator program has GOTF content now.
  • When will Monte & Shanna's Numenera novel come out? Possibly November.
  • The Tides of Numenera PC game is how Darcy found out about Numenera.
  • A Cypher System creature deck is coming in November.
  • Will we see a new box for storing cards, since the current one is overflowing? Monte says, "Very likely." And, "Seems like something we would do."

That's it! Tell me what you think about MCG's plans in the comments!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Product Release: The Gods Have Spoken

Hey, I contributed to another RPG book, and now that it's out I figured I should tell you about it.

Dread Unicorn Games (led by the invincible John WS Marvin) just released the digital edition of a 5E sourcebook called The Gods Have Spoken. It's a book of gods and divine-related content for D&D, written by John WS Marvin, Vanessa Rose Phin, Connor Marvin, Matt Evert, Sean Clark, and me!

Here's the product description:
Twenty-eight new fantasy gods arranged in three new Pantheons for your 5E game. Gods with passions, backstories, and agendas. So much more than a list of names and domains. 
The people who followed the Old Gods was conquered by the those that followed the Thirsty Gods, who in turn were displaced by those following the Bright Gods. Yet all three pantheons still have followers, and coexist in an uneasy peace. 
New domains and other character options that work with these new gods, some for everyone, and others focusing on clerics, druids, paladins, and rangers. And new magic items, new creatures, and more! 
Plus, an exciting new faction system that gives players a voice as to which factions take a hand in your campaign.
A print edition is coming soon, in hardcover and softcover. You can read more about the book at its Kickstarter page.

(Thanks John!)

The Gods Have Spoken [DriveThruRPG]

Saturday, July 29, 2017

First Star Trek Adventures Session

This is how we read in the 24th Century: on a PADD.

On our last game night, a few friends and I started a new Star Trek campaign, and I'm excited enough about it that I wanted to chat about it here.

Some of us took part in the playtest for the new game--Star Trek Adventures--but this was our first trial of the just-released PDF of the core rulebook. (For more information about the game's background, read the interview with Modiphius's Chris Birch that I wrote for Gnome Stew.)

Playtest aside, this is the first Star Trek campaign I've kicked off since around 2000, late in the Last Unicorn Games years. For this campaign, things went a bit differently than I had planned. Let me tell you why I think that’s a good thing.

The official Challenge Dice haven't shipped
yet, so we customized some blank dice.

My Traditional Campaign Setup

One of my favorite things about starting a Star Trek campaign is all the fun decisions I get to make. Things like…

  • Which era? Original series? Next Generation? During one of the shows? Before/after the televised episodes?
  • Where are we? Alpha Quadrant, like in most TV series? Gamma or Delta Quadrants, like Voyager or parts of DS9? Non-Federation territory? A single planet or starbase?
  • Who are the PCs? Standard Starfleet senior officers? Up-and-coming cadets? Academy students? Klingons/Romulans/Cardassians/other non-Federation folk?
  • Which ship class? If the setting is a ship (which it usually is), we need to know what kind. A familiar one like the Galaxy-class that’s been extensively featured in a show? A more minor class that hasn’t had the spotlight? Something old and storied, or something new and shiny but untested?
  • What's the ship's name? After we’ve picked a fun ship (if we're doing that), we've got to name her. Something to honor a part of the real world (like USS Darwin)? A more universal name that would apply across worlds (like USS Discovery)? A name borrowed from a previous series (like USS Reliant-B)?
  • Who are the people in your neighborhood? I love filling out the crew roster with non-player characters, the ones who fill the roles not occupied by players.

I usually get input from the players on some of these details, but not all of them. This time, for example, I asked them their preference of era (and the choice was Next Generation), but that's it. I knew I wanted a ship-based game in the Alpha Quadrant featuring Starfleet senior officers, because I figured that would give us the best chance of using published adventures without a lot of modification.

So, I was just about to start picking out what ship I wanted to set the campaign on when a glance through the new rulebook changed my mind.

Collaborative Campaign Setup: The Ship

One of the things that the Starships chapter in the Star Trek Adventures rulebook covers is a ship’s “mission profile,” a way to specialize any ship class by adding points to this or that system in a pre-set way depending on its assignment. Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

“The players choose a single Mission Profile for their starship.”

The players? Then I flipped back earlier in the chapter, at the discussion of ship classes.

“The Players choose a single class for their starship."

YES. I realized I hadn’t even considered putting the keys to the starship in the players’ hands. This should absolutely be a joint decision, because the players who are Star Trek fans will have favorite ship classes (and some will likely have ships they strongly dislike!), while even the players who aren’t such fans will still feel more of a sense of ownership if they have a say in which beautiful space boat they get to live in.

Time for me to put on my Old GM’s Hat.

Back when I started running games, in the 80s, a GM was expected to do all the work of setting up a campaign. I loved doing it, but also love the fact that more games now are encouraging us to share that work—and that fun—with the players. I just hadn’t had the chance to do that in a Star Trek game yet!

(I’m not even saying that previous Star Trek RPG publishers didn’t address this, just that if they did, I didn’t notice it and carried along with the way I’d always done it.)

So I took the game’s advice and let the players choose and name their ship. They chose the Intrepid-class, the same one used on Star Trek: Voyager.

Image: Memory Alpha

Collaborative Campaign Setup: The Crew

Although I had decided not to define anything about the players’ ship, I did prepare some notes on a few crew members before the game. My thinking was that I would have an NPC captain prepared in case no players chose that role, and also have one co-worker for each PC to work with during the introductory adventure.

I like having lists of crew members for a Star Trek game. For one thing, when I improvise some action on the ship with a new crew member, it’s less obvious that I’m winging things if I already have a name and species ready to go for Ensign Extra. My other reason for liking these lists is that the players themselves can select an NPC from it whenever they need one. Instead of asking me if there’s a science officer they can summon to the bridge, they can just look under the list of science officers and pick, say, Lieutenant Meeshay.

Crew rosters from previous campaigns.

Star Trek Adventures suggests handling this differently. This game uses the concept of Supporting Characters, which are ones that any player can create on the fly for immediate use. Creating supporting characters involves a simplified version of the game’s character rules (which makes them really improv-friendly), and better yet, players are encouraged to take control of such a character when their main PC would be otherwise away from the action.

And, as with the player decisions being invested in the ship, there’s the hope that they will connect better with crew members they helped create.

As it happens, I DID end up scrapping my NPC plans for the first session and asking the players for ideas. One reason for this is that my three “co-worker” NPCs didn’t feel like a great fit for the PCs after seeing how those characters emerged from the character creation process. (For example, one NPC was a Betazoid and one was a Vulcan—and so were two of the PCs. I wanted the players to feel unique, so I shelved those NPCs.) The other reason…well, we’ll get to the captain shortly.

The He-Man Connection

While the players were creating their characters, one ended up with a Vulcan Chief Medical Officer. When trying to think of a name for the character, this player figured he’d have a nickname along the lines of “Bones.” He went with “Skeletor.” (From a colony planet called Eternia.)

The nickname stuck, a little too well. Because later, when we were brainstorming ideas for the name of the PCs’ ship, I joked that if Skeletor is involved, maybe the ship should be called USS Grayskull. To my surprise, everyone immediately agreed.

It was a good test of my commitment to roll with whatever ship name my players decided on.

The players also immediately rejected my idea for their NPC captain (a Vulcan), eventually deciding that the captain’s name is Adam Randor.

What’s really funny about all this to me is that none of us are He-Man fans.

Custom ship sheet by Matt.Ceb

Final Notes

The players ended up making a Trill command officer, Betazoid/Human science officer, and (as already mentioned) Vulcan doctor. The game’s Lifepath character creation system was fun, and gave each character a home environment (e.g. homeward vs colony), upbringing (e.g. artistic or agricultural), Academy specialty, and a few career events. For example, we learned that our science officer had to take command once in the past to save the day, and that our Vulcan doctor was involved in a transporter accident that cost him a leg.

After making characters, I ran a short adventure I’d written for the purpose of taking the PCs on a test drive. I’ll probably talk more about that in a later post. And I had the opportunity to learn one more lesson that day, after I tried to embrace the game’s philosophy of collaborative creation by asking the players to describe their ship’s transporter chief. The lesson was: don’t expect more creativity right after the players have spent two hours creating their characters.

"Live long and..."
"...rule Eternia!"