Monthly Archives: October 2013

My Metatopia Schedule

My Metatopia schedule is as follows. Outside of that I expect I’ll be playtesting like a fiend, and when I’m not, I’ll be sneaking into other people’s panels to ask annoying questions from the back of the room.


D002 Playtesting 101

Rob Donoghue, Curt Covert & Jason Pitre

Playtesting is an absolute requirement for any game to be successful. This panel shows how to get the most out of your playtesting efforts no matter what kind of game you’ve designed.
Friday 9:00AM – 10:00AM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D015 Role Playing Scenario Design

Kenneth Hite, Darren Watts, Rob Donoghue, John Stavropoulos & Bill White

Our panel of experts drills down into the specifics of scenario-building for publication, whether it’s showing off the game’s basics with an introductory scenario, or stringing several together for a mini-campaign book.
Friday 1:00PM – 2:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D024 New School Mechanics In Old School Games (And Vice Versa!)

Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue & Joseph Bloch

The borders between story games and traditional role playing games have never been blurrier, and many recent games have blended the two traditions to grand effect. Come hear our panel muse on what both schools have to offer, and what they can still learn from each other.
Friday 4:00PM – 5:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D061 Dangerous Mechanics: Rules That Looked Good On The Surface

Kenneth Hite, Will Hindmarch, Rob Donoghue & Jason Pitre

The panelists will deal with mechanics that look good on the surface but can have unforeseen negative consequences in play. Spending XP, no-effect rules, dice-generated currency – all have hidden dangers. Explore these and other light bulbs that didn’t quite work out.
Saturday 9:00PM – 10:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

D064 Open Licenses: Why, Why Not, and How

Fred Hicks, Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue & Justin Jacobson

What are the various options available for licensing your game to others (or from others), and what are the creative reasons and financial imperatives for choosing between them?
Saturday 10:00PM – 11:00PM
One Session; Serious, All Ages.

Fred and I will be arriving int he wee hours of the night on Thursday because we have kids who need to trick or treat. Despite this, I will be maintaining my usual tradition of breakfasting in the hotel at ~7:30 every morning, and anyone who wishes to join be is absolutely welcome.

Invulnerability and Property Damage

Last night, a friend of mine was asking about how to handle damage in supers, with the specific question being how you can really have a normal human get knocked around in super-strength context (getting smashed through stuff etc) without totally snapping suspension of disbelief. This lead to a good discussion, but it also generated a very useful tangent – It created a much simpler solution to knockback and property damage for invulnerable characters.

At it’s heart, it boils down to this – when invulnerability cancels out damage, it “grounds out” as property damage. That is, you take a hit for X damage, that damage is reduced to 0 but the action that corresponds with that mechanical even is you getting knocked through a wall or similar.

This is related to Ryan Danks’ great post on how to handle Superman’s Invulnerability but scaled down somewhat for characters who are a bit less truly invulnerable, but are still superhumanly tough. Where Superman sheds damage onto the setting, a less powerful character sheds damage onto the environment.

This is a bit of narrative sleight of hand, but it simplifies one of the great bugbears of supers design – knockback. Conceptually, it’s an essential part of superheroic fighting, but mechanically it has a habit of introducing complexity that is best compared to grappling rules.

Now, the exact implementation of this idea depends on the details of how invulnerability is implemented in a system, and there are lots of ways to do that. It might be ablative, it might be armor, it might be any number of things. For example, let’s say that in fate we treat it like a skill to roll after you get hit, with a difficulty based on damage.

  • Fail and you get hurt.
  • Succeed with style and you ignore the blow.
  • Just succeed? You take no damage, but must narrate property damage.
  • Exact success? No damage, but your attacker narrates the property damage.

Admittedly, that’s probably not how I’d handle invulnerability, but hopefully it showcases the idea well enough. Obviously, any invulnerability effect needs to have limits, and those limits may tie into how often you can get knocked around, but that is ultimately an implementation detail based on what you want to showcase.

Kickstarter Roundup

This is a pretty good time for kickstarter. Good enough that I regret I didn’t write this up last week, before Dawning Star finished up. But there are still some great outstanding options.

First, we’re down to the wire on Harry Connolly’s The Great Way. It’s funded, but you can still get in before it closes, and it’s going to be a treat. Connolly is a great writer (his 20 Palaces series is one of my favorites) and I’m really excited for this. If you’re on the fence, he’s released a lot of early chapters on the KS page, so you can always take a taste.

Next, I’m intrigued by the Chronos Larp System. I’m not a LARP guy, and it’s possible I may never even use this, but it seems like they’re doing some interesting things with the technology, and I’m always a proponent of that.

I’ve also backed Tianxia. I’m very curious about this – Kung Fu games can very easily go off the rails, but at the same time, this looks like it might be a way to do Jade Empires with Fate, and that is something I woudl dearly like to do.

Speaking of Fate, I’ve also backed Aeon Wave, a cyberpunk setup for Fate, at least in part because the creator has said nice things about me (hey, I’m human). Also because I’m a big cyberpunk nerd, and I’m OK with that.

One kickstarter I haven’t backed yet but am looking very closely at is the latest from Monte Cook Games, The Strange. It’s a new setting using the same system as Numenera (the cypher system) but rather than far future weirdness it seems to be multi-dimensional weirdness. I’m torn on this one. On the plus side, it’s a genre I love, and it’s a good enough match for the Cypher system that it was one of my first thoughts on how I would repurpose it. On the negative side, the Cypher system didn’t really grab me, and this is a pricey kickstarter[1]. MCG is doing something curious with the shipping, basically giving a $10 credit towards shipping as part of the tiers rather than folding it in. That seems like a smart (if bookkeeping intensive) way to address certain shipping concerns, but I admit it adds some uncertainty to my approach, since I don’t know if I’m signing on for extra shipping costs.

There’s no fear of this kickstarter failing – it’s at 200% at a couple days in, and is on track to bring in the same kind of hundreds of thousands of dollars that Numenera did, so I can afford to wait a few weeks and see how the stretch goals pan out to see what kind of value I get. The tiebreaker will probably be whether or not I ever get my Numenera hardcover from the previous kickstarter (which I haven’t).

One last kickstarter has nothing to do with gaming, but it just kind of neat: Set Chopin Free. This is a little nerdy, but the nature of copyright is such that even if a piece of music (like the works of Chopin) are in the public domain, that does not necessarily mean that there are any performances in the public domain. This project (and others like it) use the funding to hire a bunch of musicians and make those public recordings. This is much more of a good cause than something to buy (though, of course, there is swag) but it’s a bucket I was happy to throw a few bucks in.

Anyway, these are the things I have my eye on or my money in at the moment. If you have any other cool ones to call out, go ahead and add them to the comments!

Additions From Comments and Elsewhere

  • Baltimore:  A History, Block By Block – photographs and history of Baltimore Buildings.  I would have loved to have this for DFRPG.
  • Worlds of Magic – Video game with turn based fantasy battle and procedurally generated maps.  Sweet combination and looks fun, but I admit the pledge levels confuse me a bit.
  • Adventures in the East Mark – Honestly, I have no idea how this is as a game, but as a product, it clearly looks *gorgeous*.  And, importantly, its PDF Buy-in level os $10, which is (for me) the perfect “I’m curious but uncertain” price point.


  1. Not to say that you don’t get value for the cost, only that the cost is high. MCG has, to my mind, embraced the idea that they’re producing luxury goods and that seems to be working pretty well for them.  ↩

Atomic Adventures

Fate AtomThe atomic model of action in RPGs has implications outside of when to roll the dice. Most notably, it has a profound impact on adventure design. Skills make adventure design much easier, because they provide a pre-existing list of challenges to draw upon. Yes, there is still art in arranging them in an entertaining fashion, but if you were to break down the average published adventure, you could easily produce an itemized list suggesting that this adventure is composed of 7 lock pick rolls, 5 find trap rolls, 18 Athletics checks and so on. In this context, combats as discrete events make all the sense in the world, since they are really just microcosms of the same (a certain number of attack rolls and so on).

Consider our ever-popular locked door. We put it in an adventure because we want to give the thief something to do, not because its particularly interesting. In fact, we put in so many such things that it takes only the tiniest bit of plot and motivation to make an adventure work, so long as it just moves from atom to atom.

But if the game removes that roadmap (as more abstract games like FAE or certain Cortex Plus builds do) then that whole infrastructure goes away. With skills (and other calls to mechanics) you could add interest to things which were not intrinsically interesting by engaging them with mechanics. In the absence of that, you are forced to look long and hard at what characters are actually doing in your game.[1]

The first time you strip away this veneer, it can seem daunting. SO MUCH of what classically defines an adventure is removed that you wonder how you can fill the time. If you no longer accepts that fights are disproportionately interesting, then what are you supposed to do? But fear not, the basics of adventure design will still come to your aid.

At its most basic, and adventure revolves around the players/characters wanting something and facing opposition to attempt to get it. When crafting an atomic adventure, it was easy for those to be fluffy things like treasure and adventure, but without the atomic structure to rely on, you realize that a weak motivation opens the floor to all manner of questions, including “is there a better way to get what we need than murder and home invasion?” With that in mind, motive needs to be a bit more rigorous.

Thankfully, this one is not hard to address, because it’s a questions your players should have already answered. If there is something on their character sheet which tells you what the want (like an aspect) then you have a clear signpost. And in the absence of that, you can also just ask them.[2]

Assuming you have aspects (or similar) to draw on, then here is one key piece of advice – you do not want your characters to use their aspects in lame or uninspired ways, and you need to hold yourself to the same standard. Do not look at the sheet, see “Knight of the Red Dragon” on someone’s sheet and just say “The knighthood of the Red Dragon has asked you to investigate those mysterious ruins”. That is lazy and wasteful. If you’re going to use the knighthood as a hook, then the knighthood needs to really matter in this regard, and if that means changing the adventure to reflect that, then that is absolutely what you should do. And then make it transparent – mysterious orders from on high make for crappy motivation.

Once you have a compelling motivation, the hard part is done, because it’s a simple matter of asking “Why don’t they already have it?”. Look over the answers to that, and if they aren’t interesting enough, add some more. Do not think of them as mandatory hurdles to be cleared, but merely things which are true and which must me accounted for.

That’s all there is to it. Simple. Sort of.

Notice that there’s no reference to mechanics anywhere in this, and that’s why I would actually endorse creating adventures without a system in mind. You might go in with certain rules for how the world works (like magic) in much the same way a novelist might, but don’t stress over the specific names of things (though if you want to use an adventure design system, like 5b5 or random tables, go nuts). If you’re used to thinking about adventures in game terms, this may be a hard transition. It feels absolutely creaky when contrasted with your highly refined skills of thinking about atomic adventures, but once you have done it a few times you may find it’s very liberating. Once you can think of adventures that are interesting without the system, then adding system back in will only improve the experience.

Or such is the hope.

  1. This comes in many nuanced flavors. It is entirely possible to have no skill system to speak of but just have characters narratively move from encounter to encounter.  ↩
  2. You also can create motive, by initiating something bad which the players will want to address. This can work very well, but needs to be handled with care. The frequency, intensity and nature of the GM pushes can vary based on table taste and genre (it’s a staple for supers, for example) but if you lean too heavily on them, you risk ignoring the players interests in favor of your own.  ↩

Atomic Action and FAE

Fate AtomThere is a tendency in RPG’s to think of actions as atomic. You swing a sword, pick a lock, climb a rope or whatever. This is, of course, a convenience that helps mechanize the experience. It allows us to create a consistent fiction and crystallize out moments of uncertainty in the form of actions with uncertain outcomes, resolve those uncertainties, and proceed with the fiction.

It’s good tech, and it dovetails well with the existence of skill lists. Skills are, after all, flags for uncertainty which are agreed upon in advance. As the OSR joke goes, no one fell off a horse in D&D until the riding skill was introduced. Rolls happen when the conceptual space of skills intersect with the crystallization of a challenge.

For all that this approach is very common, it is not the only way to go. Even within atomic systems, things break down when you step back a level of abstraction – picking a lock is a very different challenge than getting past a door, which might also be smashed, circumvented, dismantled or otherwise removed from the equation. In an atomic system, each of these is a separate moment of uncertainty resolved differently. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a good GM is their ability to interpret unexpected actions within this atomic model.

In the case of games without skills, there are no clear intersections. That is, whereas pickpocketing, climbing and lockpicking provide easy cues for when an where to introduce uncertainty and challenge, “The Artful Dodger” does not. And so most game nerds will, effectively turn broader descriptors into what are effectively containers for a skill list which exists in the GM’s head. This is a reason that games like Risus or Over the Edge are often very comfortable to affirmed gearheads – they look light, but they can run on the substantial backend that the GM has in their head.

More interestingly, those sorts of games can take on a whole different character if one is not already trained in more atomic games, but that’s a rare case. But it crystallized very interestingly for me in recent discussion of FAE. See, FAE’s approaches are structurally similar to broad, descriptive skills[1], but they critically differ in that their domains overlap VERY strongly. That is to say, there is no practical way to construct a virtual skill list for each FAE approach because it contains too many skills AND it shares most of those skills with other approaches (sometimes all other approaches).

On its own, this is neither good nor bad, but it creates a very specific problem when one is used to the intersection of skills and challenges. If you are used to thinking of problems in terms of skills, and you present the players with challenges in uncertainty in those terms, then you’re going to be staring down a disconnect, because your players are already thinking at the next level up of abstraction – you may want them to pick the lock, but they want to get past the door.

And this, in turn, points to a very common concerns with FAE’s approaches – that a character will always just pick their best approach. At first blush this seems like a problem because if this were a skill, it would be. Over-broad skills and skill substitution are known problems in RPG design, best avoided or carefully controlled. FAE runs blithely past those concerns, and that looks like a problem.

And it is, if your perspective does not change. If challenges are approached atomically, then approaches get very dull, very quickly – do you quickly pick the lock? Do you carefully pick the lock? Maybe you sneakily pick the lock?

Honest to God, does anyone really care?

If you narrow your focus down to picking the lock, then approaches become virtually meaningless because the action (and by extension, the fiction) becomes muddled. If someone was watching your character pick the door, they’d just see you pick the lock – there would be no particular cues that you were being quick or clever or whatever the hell you were being.[2]

And that’s because picking the lock is solving the wrong problem. There are games where it’s the right problem, and you probably have a lot of experience with those games. It is not the wrong problem in those games, but in FAE, it is driving a screw with a hammer.

The heart of it, to my mind, is this – different approaches should inspire different actions, even if the ends are similar. If there is no obvious difference in how an approach impact the scene, then of course the player will use their highest bonus. This is not them exploiting the system, this is you asking them the wrong question (or going to dice over the wrong thing). You need to step back a level, get the bigger picture, and see what that looks like.[3]

As a FAE GM, you have a little bit less power than normal, but you still have some potent tools, and one of the most subtle and critical is that you determine when a roll is called for. In atomic systems. this does not necessarily call for much consideration – character uses a skill, player rolls the dice, character gets results. FAE does not offer you that same crutch, and if you turn to it out of habit, then you run the risk of diminishing your experience. FAE is a bad skill-based game[4], and if you run it like a skill based game, you may have a bad experience. But FAE is a pretty good approach-based game. Try treating it that way, and see what happens.

  1. For a non FAE example, consider systems with very broad stats like BESM. Similar issue.  ↩
  2. The counterexample is, of course, Sneakers, for showing us how you forcefully pick a lock.  ↩
  3. Incidentally, doing this also clears up another difficulty in FAE – setting difficulties. There is a bad habit of setting difficulties on an atomic level as well – that door is a Great difficulty, and thus you roll great whether you try to pick the lock or smash it down. That is easy, but dumb, and utterly devalues player choices (which is another reason they’ll just grab the big bonus). The door does not matter. The character’s action is what matters. Hear it, understand it, and set a difficulty based off that, not some sort of narrative physics engine model of the world.  ↩
  4. It does not help that stunts are often constructed to look like skills, but that’s a whole other topic.  ↩


anchorI make occasional reference to Anchors as a piece of technology that I use when I run Fate, but I genuinely am uncertain if the idea has ever been articulated fully anywhere, except in bits and pieces.

Anchors are a very simple idea, loosely inspired in part by an old idea from Over the Edge where each of the freeform skills of your character had to be reflected in your physical description. It was a very small thing, less notable than the requirement that you draw your character, but it stuck with me because it told a little story about your character. Better, it did it in a way that I nowadays recognize as akin to good brand building. There was no need to tell the story (though perhaps you might) because the richness came from the fact that there was a story.

There is a magic to meaningful things which make them stand out against the backdrop, and this magic is magnified by fiction. It is also magnified by play. I could probably go on about all the reasons why this is so – showing and not telling, microcues, hidden information, symbols and so on, but that would probably be its own post.

Anchors are an attempt to capture that magic.[1]

Practically, anchors are super simple. They are a person, place or thing which you declare to be associated with an aspect. How exactly this is implemented can depend, but the simplest approach is that you create one anchor for every aspect on your character sheet.

For Example, let’s say I have the aspect Always Looking For the Next Big Score. Possible anchors might include:

  • A good luck coin (Something from my Dad’s biggest score, the job I live in the shadow of)
  • The Bank of Interaad (Someday…)
  • The Lightfingered Guild (Frequent rival, sometime ally for big jobs)
  • Jimmy McKnickles (Best locksman in the empire, if you can pull him out of the bottle. Old friend, and frequent crewmember)

I pick the one which I want to see come up in play. They might all be true things in the game, especially if I spin the tale for the GM, but the key is that I’ve called out one thing in the game that carries deeper meaning for me. I then do that for each of my aspects.

Anchors represent a concrete way to leverage an aspect, especially an abstract one, into play for both the GM and the player. They provide physical things to hang compels and invokes off of. Aspects can still be used as normal, but the anchor expands that domain in a very specific way.[2]

For players, this is an obvious avenue for some setting authorship[3] but, importantly, not a mandatory one. An anchor can be as small as a piece of personal equipment or as large as a 13th Age Icon.

For a GM, it creates a host of signifiers to stand in for player’s aspects in the setting. This is incredibly handy when you sit down and start thinking about how to make adventures matter to the players – in addition to the conceptual hooks that aspects offer, you now have a host of physical hooks that you can draw into a game that you know have meaning.

Anchors are a great way to get more out of aspects in their most basic implementation, but once you grasp the core idea, the idea can be expanded in a few ways. For example:

  • There’s no reason you can’t ask for 2 anchors, especially if one is of a specific type. For an Amber implementation I wrote up, the trick was that every aspect had 2 anchors – the first was a person (specifically, a member of the Amber family) and the second was any kind of thing. As a result, every aspect had a built in relationship and a hook. And as a bonus, I could write all the anchors down on cards and deal them like a Tarot deck, knowing that every card tied to a player.
  • You can use common elements for anchors, either by GM fiat or player collaboration. That is to say, more than one player may have the same anchor, creating a nice second order connection between the characters.
  • Theoretically, you could even have players take other characters as anchors, which gets interesting if its asymmetrical.
  • Changing anchors is a kind of fun play driver that lets you advance a character’s story without changing their nature.

There’s more, but let me pull this together into a practical example. Let’s say you want to capture the idea of the 13th Age’s icons in Fate. You tell the players that they need to choose an Anchor for their aspects, and they have the option of picking a second anchor. However, the second anchor must be one of the icons of your game[4]. There might be some limit on how many times a given icon can be used by one character (say, 3) but at the end you have a full spread of icon relationships and, sneakily, a bunch of second-order relationships through the character’s aspects. That is, if your anchors for Master of the Night Wind are “Academe Mystere” and “The Stormcaller” then the GM may very reasonably ask herself “What do the Academe and the Stormcaller have in common?”[5]

This is, I will admit, a very long post for an idea that can be boiled down to “After you choose an aspect, name a person, place or thing which is connected to it”, but I consider this one of those very simple ideas that can go a long way, so I wanted to frame it out properly.

  1. it was also necessitated by the fact that my players are goddamned poetic in their aspect selection, something which alternately delights and frustrates me to no end.  ↩
  2. At first glance, this may seem like it makes aspects more powerful, but that’s sleight of hand. There is already so much leeway in invoking an aspect that the extra space an anchor provides is really not that big a deal. But what it can do is make invokes and compels more concrete and clear. If you’re Insecure, that is easy to invoke, but bland (because it’s largely internal). But if your anchor is your parent, who you always disappoint, then that gives a specific hook for what that means in a scene.  ↩
  3. Though again, that’s sleight of hand. Players already have powerful authorial abilities with their aspects, even if they don’t use them. Anchors just offer an opportunity to use that authority with aspects that are less explicitly setting elements.  ↩
  4. Extra points if you haven’t defined your icons yet. This would be a really neat exercise in collaborative setting design if you came at it from scratch. Eve moreso if you use the idea of scaled down Icons as drivers of a smaller part of a setting, like a City.  ↩
  5. And because someone will ask, here’s how you bring the “icons” into play. Before play, every player picks one aspect/icon, and the GM picks 1 aspect/icon per player. The GM can add more by paying the player in question a fate point, and the player can do the reverse. GM puts three columns on a piece of paper, labeled “Making things better (+)”, “Making things Worse(-)” and “Waiting in the Wings(0)”. A dF is rolled for each icon (more than one if the icon is brought in more than once) and the Icon’s name is recorded in the appropriate column, and the GM now has a clear sense of who is in play, how they impact the situation, and how things may be further complicated (because the GM is basically free to pull icons out of the Wings column whenever it seems appropriate). And note, the GM has also just seeded the adventure with ways to touch on player aspects, so it’s a win all around.  ↩


I have a FAE hack (Which I am calling FAE2[1]) that has been eating my brain which I will almost certainly use next time I need to run FAE because it’s very simple to implement, requires minimal changes from any existing material, and it opens a number of doors that I want to see opened.

The hack is this: When you make a roll, rather than choosing an approach and rolling that, you pick two approaches and add them together, and use that. Mechanically, this means that the potential bonus has changed from 0–3 to 1–5, so it will require a small (+2ish) bump to any passive difficulties or simply statted enemies, but otherwise you can largely play as written[2].

So why do such a thing? I have many, many answers:

  • Allows GM and player to each input into a challenge. The GM can say this is a Careful challenge, but the player can try to muscle through, and choose Forceful, and those are the two stats to use.
  • 2 approaches means two possible causes for failure. This is a subtle but important point which is key to respecting player’s schticks. If a player is super sneaky, but they blow a roll, it sucks to say the problem was with their sneakiness. This offers an obvious alternative.
  • Which approaches are chosen and how they combine offers an obvious area for mechanical hooks. Stunts which trigger a mechanical effect if two approaches are combined. Effects (fictional or mechanical) which force the choice on one side or another. Situations where you double down on a single stat. Switching up approaches to change the dynamic of a situation. Lots of possibilities.
  • This allows for the addition of an additional character- or campaign-specific approach to cover something that is important to a specific campaign. The most obvious possibility is some form of magic, but it does not take much imagination to see the possibilities of things like status, resources, alignment or very nearly anything else. In straight Fae, adding an approach for specific situations means those situations are all about that approach. This means that those situations will be tempered by other elements on the character’s sheet, which I very much like.
  • It also is an easy way to model games where there are things which not everyone can do, but which have differentiation among those who can do them (like, say, Avatar).
  • The handling of the extra approach is also a robust and profound mechanical hook, especially since nothing demands that it be consistent. Actions might charge it up or run it down.
  •  I hate to even say it, but I suppose I must. Spamming your best approach is the obvious abuse in Fae, and this mitigates it somewhat. It can outright counter it if the GM similarly just always picks the players worst approach, but that is an example of two wrongs trying to make a right but actually creating a pretty bad game for everyone else.

I fully get that for some people this might be an arbitrary or fiddly change, so I’m absolutely not suggest ing it as a blanket change. But the benefits seem so self-evident to me that there’s no way I can’t try it.

  1. Electric Boogaloo  ↩
  2. Alternately, you could reduce all approaches by 1 (so the go from –1 to +2) and leave everything else as is. I have an instinct to not do this, but I cannot fully articulate why, especially since I can intellectually think of a lot of potential benefits to it – for example, it now might now becomes an interesting compel option for the GM to compel you to use an aspect (at –2) rather than an approach, because the door has opened to negative approaches. Dunno. It’s apart I need to think about some more.  ↩

Numenera Licensing

Monte Cook Games released the not-open license for Numenera as well as fan guidelines for usage. The Fan Guidelines merit a read, but the heart of the license is that you pay $50 per product, you can’t crowdfund, and your total sales must stay under $2000. Over $2k, you must negotiate terms with Monte Cook Games (MCG).

I admit, the terms of all this don’t terribly excite me, but I suspect that they will work very well for Monte Cook.

When you craft the license for using your games, you are ultimately trying to do several things:

  1. How do I let people make stuff For my game (Without needing to worry that someone is going to do a Race War RPG with it)?
  2. How do I make sure I get my cut if something small takes off?
  3. How can I spread my game?
  4. How do I serve my existing community?

Different licenses reflect different emphases on these, and those emphases are not always obvious. As an example, both #2 and #3 are potentially motivated by a desire to maximize the bottom line. A lot of lamer licenses try to do all of these things without really prioritizing or making tradeoffs. Most notably, game studios have a bad habit of zeroing in on #2 rather than thinking about the commercial benefits of other approaches.[1]

Monte Cook is in a unique position. He doesn’t really need to give a crap about #3 – growth will be nice, yes, but he has an established audience already. And since #3 tends to correlate most strongly with openness, he has little real incentive to go for any kind of truly open license.

MC also was a very successful d20 publisher, and almost certainly felt the very worst of the ups and downs of the d20 Bubble and burst. I don’t pretend to be a mind reader, but if I had been through that wringer, I’d probably have some more priorities too, like keeping the market from being glutted by trash. Were I of a game design bent, I might conclude that the problem – especially for PDF products, which I hypothetically know intimately – is a very low barrier of entry, especially for really bad products. I might then want to engineer a license that puts in an artificial floor. Nothing too onerous – less than $100 but more than $20. ENough to make some stop before just turning a word doc with some clip art into a pdf and selling it for 99 cents.

But to hypothesize further, I don’t want to give away the farm. What if, somewhere out there, is the next me? The guy who will write the spinoff that gets huge? What would I have done to me if I was WOTC?

I’d put in a ceiling, and beyond that threshold, you need to negotiate. It’s a high enough celling that most products won’t hit it, but if they do, then I benefit. And, importantly, this also means I don’t need to bother with any discussions of licensing with enthusiastic fans with more ideas than business sense.

That last bit is proper genius, and I tip my hat to it. Monte’s fans are enthusiastic, and putting up an automated filter so the discussion doesn’t begin until you can hit a certain sales threshold is a great way to keep that enthusiasm from creating too much work. And more, it gives a polite way to say no to prospective partners. Rather than risk nerd-drama by saying no to someone’s heartbreaker, they can say “Just use this license, and come back to us if it does well”. [2]

That leads into the fan guidelines. Now, viewed in the abstract, this is kind of messed up. A lot of it is covered (or expanded) by fair use, so why even bother with these guidelines?

Because they’re not guidelines for the game, they’re guidelines for the community. They are the answer to every forum discussion and flamewar that MCG can think of, laid out an explicit set of best practices within that community. If you like Numenera enough to hack it hard but are not part of the MCG community, then I suspect the assumption is that you are an outlier. You can go ahead and do your fair use dance, but it won’t get any traction within the community because they have a very literal chapter and verse to cite regarding how you’re doing it wrong.

And that’s the rub. For all that this flies in the face of open and growth focused license fans, this is all very strongly designed to support the existing fanbase. That is not a common priority because very few games have a preexisting fanbase at the point when they’re developing a license. MCG’s combination of existing fanbase and new IP created an opportunity to change up his approach.

None of which is to say I’m terribly fond of the license. My own taste towards openness is well documented. But I appreciate it. I respect the problems it tries to solve, and I doubly respect that there is a license at all. I very much like being abel to clearly understand a creators intent for the use of their game. Not because I think that creates any obligation in me – If I wanted to make a white label Numenera, nothing would stop me – but because I prefer to respect a creators wishes rather than be forced to guess and then find out I’ve stepped in something. As much as I think openness helps us all, I’ll fully concede that clarity is almost as useful, and this has that in spades.

In the end, I doubt this license is going to set the world on fire, or even do much to grow Numenera, but I think it is going to serve that community well. And that’s a not a bad goal.

  1. This does beg the question (yes, it totally does, nerd) – Why introduce a license at all? Most practical answer is that fans are going to do stuff anyway, so it’s better to lead than follow. However, I also suspect there’s a very human component to it of wanting to support the fans.  ↩
  2. Openness offers this benefit too, but people still love an official seal of approval, which the Numenera license offers.  ↩

Pathfinder Adventures

PZO6000Had the opportunity to play Pathfinder Adventures at Escapist Expo, and it was immediately obvious why this game is going to do well, but it was equally obvious why I probably won’t be picking it up.

I won’t delve too deep into the mechanics, but the gist of it is that you have a pathfinder character represented by some core stats and a deck of cards, which includes things like spells, items, allies and so on. You go on adventures which involved exploring locations, each of which has a deck full of monsters, challenges and opportunities for loot.

This is all pretty straightforward, but what makes it such a potent idea is that it’s built around an idea of character persistence. That is, once you build your character deck, you keep it, and you end up marking up your character card as you gain experience.

This is a super powerful gimmick. The idea of a character represented by a deck of cards has been a grail of RPG design for years, and this is a strong swing at it. Yes, the game is more about the trappings of an RPG than an actual RPG, but that’s not intrinsically bad. But that idea of personal ownership (and the implicit portability) is really, really compelling as a player.

I pretty much expect it to rock out based on that. Owning your character deck and bringing it to the night’s adventure is fun and compelling.[1]

But it’s also what throws me a bit, because it suggests a very curious ownership model. See, the core box (which weighs in at a non-trivial $60) contains the cards required for the core set of a characters and enough cards for a campaign (expansions contain new campaigns). When cards go to a character, they are taken out of the box (effectively) and put into the character’s personal deck.

Now, I can totally se this working in the arrangement I had in my 20s, where one box would get bought for the group, people could take out their own decks, and we’d play with the same people out of that set. Nowadays, my playing is more erratic, and I’m uncertain that the prospect of maintaining a deck for players who only show up rarely (and removing those cards from circulation) holds much appeal. This gets weirder still in convention scenarios or cases of multiple boxes (something which makes playing from the game library a strange experience) where cards changing hands might be odd.

All of which is to say that the game intrigues me, but the $60 buy in is high for something that seems slightly awkward with my schedule and style. But I completely see the appeal for other folks.

That said, I also considered buying a box for entirely unrelated reasons – the character sheets look a lot like Cortex Plus characters, and some part of me wondered if I could use them in a more freeform way (using the monster and obstacle cards dynamically) to run something like fantasy Leverage.

Sadly, it was not to be. The cards as written really depend upon the specifics of deck manipulation for their moxie. and pulling them out of that context removes most of the advantages of doing something other than just faking it. But it has planted in my mind the idea of building those decks myself, just for my own fun, so that’s something.

  1. They also seem to be doing interesting things with the expansions. Some of the stuff is predictable (extra character decks, for example) but they’re also offering a subscription to the adventure decks. I’m fascinated by this model.  ↩