Creating A Phoenix: Elegy

 

EPSON MFP imageI stared down the character sheet in front of me. There were no numbers, no dice rolls and modifiers. There were a list of traits, a name, a class… and questions. Weighty questions. – Playtester Morgan Hillsman

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game in which you play a champion who’s returned from death to try to save your world from a host of nightmares. When you play long-term, you build a character from the ground up, selecting your School and your Traits and then answering questions about this process. Rich Malena has created an excellent video that walks you through character creation, and you can see how that works here. However, when you’re playing your first session or playing a one-shot you may not have time to go through this process, or you may feel that you don’t know enough about the world to create your own story. To help with this, we provide a set of pregenerated characters so you can jump right into the game. However, one of the most important elements of Phoenix is having a personal stake in the conflict… so even with our pregens, we want you to answer a few questions. Let’s take a look at Elegy, our iconic Shrouded Phoenix.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.03.38 AMLessons and Traits are the things that differentiate Elegy from every other Shrouded Phoenix. Each Trait provides her with a special ability, and the Traits she possesses make her an excellent investigator and assassin. Sneaky enhances her natural stealth, Killer Instincts helps her find weaknesses in an opponent’s defenses, Brilliant Deduction reveals clues, while Seen This Before lets her assist an ally’s action. Psychometry is her unique Shrouded trait, and lets her burn her mystical energy to learn secrets about anything she touches. In addition to these powers, Traits can also enhance any action if you can explain how they are relevant to what you want to do. If the players are trying to understand a mysterious plague that’s overtaken a village, it would help if Elegy had Seen This Before. But assuming that she hasn’t actually seen it during gameplay, it’s up to Elegy’s player to come up with a story about WHERE she’s seen it before. Was it in her first life? Was it during her time in the Crucible, the limbo where she became a Phoenix? You don’t have to tell a story to use a Trait… but if you do, you can get more out of it.

Traits are cards that are in your Action deck, and you can only use them when you draw them. Lessons are ongoing abilities that you can use at any time. Elegy has a base set of Lessons that are common to every Shrouded Phoenix, but not every Shrouded knows Shadow Dancer. This makes Elegy an expert at stealth and lets her play more cards when she attacks from hiding… enhancing her talents as an assassin.

The paragraph that follows is a brief glimpse into the character’s past. When you make a character in Phoenix, the first question is always who you were in your first life – before you died and became a Phoenix. The Empire provides a number of cultures to choose from. Elegy is one of the Shadovar, a traveling people long distrusted because of their tradition of necromancy.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.04.10 AMWho were you in your first life? How did you die? Why did you come back? These are the critical questions of Phoenix. You don’t become a Phoenix by chance. If you live a remarkable life and die a meaningful death you have the chance to gain the powers of a Phoenix and return, but it is a long, harsh series of trial. What gives you the strength to make it through those tests? And why is it so important to come back? Returning as a Phoenix means you’ll spend the rest of your lives fighting the Dread; what made this bargain worthwhile for you?

Beyond this, how did you die is important because it is also a question of why are you a Shrouded Phoenix? Your choice of School is based on the reasons for your death and the lessons you take away from it. Shrouded Phoenixes die due to secrets, either in pursuit of secret knowledge of because a secret was revealed. Thus, Elegy’s options all deal with a quest for knowledge. As a Shrouded Phoenix, her investigative powers are dramatically increased.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.04.36 AMAs a Phoenix you are part of a Wing – a squad of up to six Phoenixes with a supernatural connection. Once you’re in a Wing you will serve together through all your lives. From the start, we want you to think about your connection to the other members of your Wing. Beyond that, we also want you to think about your fears. Your world is being consumed by horrors. No matter how brave you may be, no one is completely immune to fear. We want you to think about why you fight and who you care about… but we also want to know what gets under your skin.

The goal of these and all of the other questions is to help the GM develop details that will make a story feel personal to you. You aren’t just fighting the Dread because, hey, monsters; this is personal. This is a game where you may have to lay down your life to protect the things you care about, and we want to know from the start what some of those things are.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.05.23 AMWhen you are reborn as a Phoenix, your appearance is essentially about your image of yourself. You might appear exactly as you did when you died, but any aspect of your appearance could change. Age, gender, race, build… anything could change. If you were an old man, do you still think of yourself that way or do you imagine yourself in your prime? If you were a child when you died, are you now the world’s scariest ten-year-old or do you re-imagine yourself in the image of one of your favorite legendary heroes? Aside from your overall appearance, there are two specific things you need to define: your Talon and your uniform.

Phoenix isn’t a game about acquiring loot, because sooner or later you will die and you can’t take it with you. But there are two things that do stay with you, things you carry through the Crucible and on into your next life. Your uniform is the basic clothing and tools you always have with you, the things you need to perform your basic skills; as a Shrouded, Elegy’s uniform can be assumed to include lockpicks and the equipment she uses to investigate. The question here calls on the player to think of something that particularly stands out… a defining element of her uniform.

Your Talon is a unique weapon – a tool you acquired in the Crucible and that you will carry throughout your lives. It is a relic that was used by all of the Phoenixes that have been tied to your particular Flame, but over the course of your lives it will evolve along with you. Thus, rather than finding a more powerful weapon, you will instead invest your Talon with greater power over the course of a campaign.

Phoenixes can use any equipment they can get their hands on. Between supernatural strength and speed a Phoenix can turn almost anything into a weapon, and part of combat is finding ways to use your environment to your advantage. But your uniform and Talon are always with you, and defining them is a way to help visualize your character.

At this point, you’ve got an Action Deck full of cards, a blend of your unique Traits and general actions such as “Strength 3.” You know how you died and what you’re fighting for, and you know the tools you use in that struggle. It’s time to get the story started.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is on Kickstarter right now. In future updates I’ll talk more about both the world and the mechanics of the game. If you have any questions, ask below!

 

 

 

 

Dragonmarks: Phoenix In Eberron?

I’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund my new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. I don’t have any news at this point about Eberron for 5E, though I still believe that progress is being made on that front. Which means it’s a good time to answer the following question…

How would you adapt Phoenix to work in the Eberron setting? I want to try Phoenix, but I can’t let go of the setting. Is there space in there for Phoenixes?

In Phoenix: Dawn Command you take on the roles of Phoenixes – champions imbued with supernatural power and the ability to return from death up to seven times. Death is actually how a character becomes more powerful; each time you die you learn lessons from your previous life.

The trick is that there’s more to Phoenix than playing a hero with seven lives. The game is set in a fantasy world facing a existential threat: a plague of supernatural horrors that mortal forces cannot overcome, and that have slowly but surely been consuming the known world. Part of creating a character in Phoenix is determining why you fight – what you’ve lost to the Dread, what you still care about – but Phoenix is a game about facing an enigmatic force that could destroy your world. This is part of what makes the seven lives structure work. In Phoenix, you regularly face unknown threats with terrible odds… and quite often it is more important to find a way to accomplish your mission than it is to survive. It is a setting that calls for heroic sacrifice.

So: it’s a trivial matter to insert Phoenixes into Eberron. The question is how you would provide that same sense of urgency that makes Phoenixes feel necessary – and where choosing to sacrifice your life to accomplish a task feels worthwhile.

One possibility would be to amp up the threat posed by the Mourning – to say that the Mourning is expanding, and that terrors are emerging to threaten people on its borders. Meanwhile, Phoenixes are something that first appear after the Day of Mourning; the first Phoenixes could be Cyrans who died in the Mourning, only to return with the power to face this threat. This would reflect the other aspect of Phoenix, which is that the threat is a mystery. As I mention in this post, it’s not just about whether you can fight the Dread, it’s whether you can unlock its secrets.

I could also see a high-tension game set around the Dragonmarked houses. Perhaps the Phoenixes are a creation of the Twelve – a joint project of Vadalis and Jorasco – who have escaped from their creators with knowledge of some sinister plan. Now they are fighting a shadow war against the houses while being constantly hounded by their other secret forces – sort of Dark Angel meets Shadowrun.

The main point of this: there’s more to Phoenix than the death mechanic. I love the Phoenix setting as well. It’s something I’ll reveal more about in the days ahead, and it’s something that is tied around the idea of Phoenixes. So you certainly COULD run Phoenix in Eberron, but I’d check out the new setting first!

And with that in mind, I’ll leave you with some of the threats you might encounter in Phoenix!

Challenge Trio

Phoenix Dawn Command: The Story

EPSON MFP imageOur world is under siege. You are among the few who can turn the tide. You have passed through death and returned stronger than before. You are a Phoenix, and you are our last and only hope.

The Dread began three years ago with the rise of the bone legions in the south. Since then it has spread across the known world, a waking nightmare that takes hundreds of horrible forms. Ghosts howl in the night. Skinchangers lurk in the wilds. Fallen soldiers rise to slaughter the living. Entire cities fall to a Chant that turns all who hear it into mindless killers. We don’t know why this is happening. We don’t know how to stop it. All that we know with certainty is that we are fighting a war and we are losing. Over a third of the Empire has been lost to the Dread, and each day brings new horrors.

In this dark time we have one hope: Phoenixes are returning. Every citizen knows tales of the Phoenixes, champions who can face death and return stronger than before. In the centuries following our brutal civil war the Phoenixes have become legends… and now you are one of them. Whoever you were in your first life, you have overcome the challenges of the Crucible and returned to the daylit world with the power to face the forces of the Dread. Go forth. Complete your mission, discover what you can of the enemy, and don’t place too high a value on your own life. Die well and you’ll return stronger than before. Just make certain that you make each death – and each life – count.

This is the basic story behind Phoenix: Dawn Command. The original Phoenixes founded the Empire, and put an end to the dangerous magical practices of the First Age. Following the civil war, the Phoenixes relinquished control of the Empire, and over the generations their numbers dwindled and they became legends. For centuries the world was at peace… and then that came to a sudden and terrible end. No one understands the Dread. No one knows if the undead army advancing inexorably from the south has anything to do with the Chant that has destroyed cities or the vicious beasts ravaging the Fens. As a Phoenix you have the power to face threats no mortal could hope to defeat. But a single victory is worth little if you can’t discover why this is happening.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is driven by this core story. Every character has been touched by the Dread. In character creation you will determine how you died and what gave you the strength to return. What have you lost, and what do you have left to fight for? It’s not a story about searching for treasure; it’s about having seven lives to try and stop the horror that is destroying your world.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is on Kickstarter right now! To get the latest news, follow us at @Twogetherstudio on Twitter or go to Twogetherstudios.com to get on our mailing list. In my next post I’ll talk more about the card-driven mechanics of Phoenix; in previous posts I’ve explained What’s a Phoenix? and looked at the central element of Death and Rebirth.

Also: Dan Garrison and I were on the most recent episode of the Going Last Podcast talking about Phoenix. Take a listen!

 

 

Things I’m Backing: Games

For some reason, January 2014 was the Month Of Kickstarters. Ever day seemed to bring a new project I had to back. There’s too many projects for me to discuss in a single post, but if I don’t write something soon time will run out, so let’s get started!

Hero Forge White BackHERO FORGE: CUSTOMIZABLE 3D PRINTED MINIATURES

I’ve always been a sucker for miniatures. Like many others, I backed Reaper Miniatures’ Bones campaign, and was thrilled when the huge box of minis finally arrived. Hero Forge is a different sort of animal. Rather than offering quantity, Hero Forge offers the chance to create a miniature tailored specifically to your needs. More often then not, I ended up using a miniature that is close to my character, but not quite right… wrong weapon, wrong armor, SOMETHING I’d like to change. Hero Forge aspires to solve that problem. Using an online tool, you select from different poses, equipment, race, gender… hopefully finding the perfect match. The miniature you design is then printed in plastic (or other materials) and sent your way. Obviously there are limitations; you can only choose from the poses, equipment and races they provide, so my dreams of the warforged fighter wielding a Talenta tangat are off the table… at least for now. But there’s a wealth of options, and an opportunity to create a miniature that truly feels like a personal representation of your character. And as time goes on, they will be continuing to expand the library of parts, both expanding the existing lineup and adding new genres. They’ve already committed to Wild West and Sci-Fi lineups; Pulp/Noir, Steampunk, and other genres are just around the corner.

Hero Forge - Dramatic Lineup UnpaintedHero Forge isn’t a cheap way to get a figure; depending on the material and number of figures you select, you’re putting anywhere from $15 – $30 into a single miniature. With that said, I’ve had a chance to examine Hero Forge miniatures directly, and I’m impressed with the quality and variety of the figures. Hero Forge isn’t about quantity. I wouldn’t use Hero Forge if I needed thirty goblins that will likely be wiped out in a single fireball. But when it comes to representing a specific individual, it’s a fantastic opportunity. I have to be honest: I never end up using most of the miniatures I purchase. Quite often I’m chasing one specific figure, and it comes with others that I simply never need. A Hero Forge figure may cost as much as a half dozen premade-minis… but it’s exactly the figure I want it to be, and I know I’m going to use it.

As of today, Hero Forge has been funded and already reached numerous stretch goals. I’ve seen their products and have no doubt that they will follow through with it. Time is running out, so if it interests you, check it out today!

 

PDarkPROJECT: DARK

As a professional designer, there’s a handful of people whose work consistently amazes me… people who inspire me and make me want to do more with my own designs. Will Hindmarch is one of those people. His cyberpunk epic Always/Never/Now is one of my all-time favorite roleplaying experiences. Now he’s launching a new game, Project: Dark. Personally, I think there’s an abundance of good systems out in the world, from the many flavors of D&D to Fate, Cortex, WaRP, Savage Worlds, GURPS, and on and on. As a result, it takes a lot to get me interested in an entirely new system. I want a reason for new mechanics… for the system to create a play experience that I simply couldn’t replicate with a difference system. And that’s what Dark does. It’s not a general-purpose system. It’s designed to tell a very specific sort of story – a story focused around stealth and exploration, about devising the perfect plan and creeping through the shadows to carry it out. While it’s designed for a certain style of adventure, it’s not tied to a single setting; currently it will include three distinct settings, each well-suited to the sort of stories the system does best.

I’ll be talking with Will Hindmarch about Dark in more detail in the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for that. The project is already fully funded with a few weeks to go, and it’s not Will’s first foray into Kickstarter. This is a project that’s going to happen, and a game worth checking out. So do it already!

 

BoxMockZEPPELDROME

From the minds of Anthony Gallela and Jeff Wilcox comes Zeppeldrome, The Hazardous Dirigible Rally. If you’re like me, you’ve been bemoaning the horrifying dearth of dirigible-based board games on the market today (though there’s a surprising surge in dirigible games on Kickstarter!). Zeppeldrome doubles down on this concept, as it’s a dirigible race in which the racecourse is itself in an even larger dirigible. This isn’t just a load of hot air, folks. Well, it is, but it’s also an intriguing game involving a modular board, pre-planned movement, and the ability to interfere with your opponent’s preplanned movement, while remaining casual and fun. So if you’ve been hankering for a quality game about humorously awkward airships, take a look!

CW_airships_color_final_72dpi

Timewatch-Cover-MockupTIMEWATCH

I’ve always loved time travel. As a kid I ran into it through Peabody & Sherman’s Wayback Machine and Ray Bradbury’s “The Fox and the Forest”, and made my way to The Anubis Gates, TimeWars, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and so much more… I love it all. At the same time, I’ve never actually run a roleplaying game based around the concept. And more often than not, I’ve been frustrated by stories that feature time travel without truly considering the consequences of the technology. Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch tackles both of these; it’s a brilliant time travel RPG that dives into all the issues that I find intriguing about the concept. TimeWatch is based on Robin D. Laws’ GUMSHOE system, tuned in various ways to fit the concept. As a TimeWatch agent, it’s your job to protect history from a myriad host of threats. Greedy Humans? Check. Radioactive cockroaches from the future trying to engineer nuclear war? Check. In any given mission, it’s up to you to figure out how history has been altered and what you need to do to resolve the problem. Like Project: Dark, TimeWatch has already been funded and already blown through multiple stretch goals, and it’s still got a week to go. If you like time travel, this is definitely worth a look!

Phew! That’s all for today, but that’s just the GAMES I’ve backed this month. I’ll be back later this week with a few more projects to check out. In the meantime, let me know what YOU’RE backing!

Doom News & Things I’m Backing

The Doom That Came To Atlantic City is one step closer to reality. These resin models were used to create the molds for the playing pieces. Cryptozoic has proof copies of the miniatures and is showing them at Board Game Geek Con, going on in Dallas right now! This is the first time anyone’s been able to play the game with the miniatures, and it’s great to finally be closing in on the end of this particular road. Thanks again to everyone who put their faith in this project, and especially to Cryptozoic for their kindness and generosity.If you get a chance to see the minis at BGGC, let me know what you think!

While my experience with The Forking Path was painful and disappointing, I still believe in crowdfunding. I’m planning to kickstart Phoenix next year. The game is coming along and we’re continuing to playtest and hone, but we aren’t going to launch a campaign until we are entirely confident in our production budget and timeline. Having seen what happened with Doom, I have no intention of making those mistakes in my own campaign… and as a result, it’s still going to be a few months before we launch Phoenix. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to back a host of other projects. Some have just wrapped up, like Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s Middleman Crowd-Funded Franchise Resurrection and James Ernest’s card game Get Lucky; I’m looking forward to both of those. But there’s a few others that are still going on, and I thought I’d share.

THE STRANGE

An RPG project from Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell, this is a setting that crosses multiple worlds, each with its own unique laws and structures… and your character changes to adapt to each world. I played around with a similar idea a few years back, and I’m keen to see what Monte and Bruce have come up with. The Strange only has 24 hours left, and they’ve already unlocked a host of new material through stretch goals, so check it out quick!

ODYSSEY: A Game of Journeys

Odyssey is a story-driven RPG from Will Hindmarch. I’ve been a fan of Will’s work since we collaborated on Friends of the Dragon many years ago. His pay-what-you-want cyberpunk campaign Always/Never/Now is one of my favorite roleplaying experiences of the last decade. In my opinion, anything Will is involved in is worth a look, and Odyssey is no exception.

ZEPPELDROME

From the minds of Anthony Gallela and Jeff Wilcox comes Zeppeldrome, The Hazardous Dirigible Rally. If you’re like me, you’ve been bemoaning the horrifying dearth of dirigible-based board games on the market today. Zeppeldrome doubles down on this concept, as it’s a dirigible race in which the racecourse is itself in an even larger dirigible. This isn’t just a load of hot air, folks. Well, it is, but it’s also an intriguing game involving a modular board, pre-planned movement, and the ability to interfere with your opponent’s preplanned movement. I haven’t had an opportunity to check it out, but Jenn has, and it gets her seal of approval. So if you’ve been hankering for a quality game about humorously awkward airships, take a look!

 

 

 

Six Questions: Jonathan Liu

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

I met JONATHAN LIU while working on The Doom That Came To Atlantic City. Jonathan writes for Wired’s GeekDad blog,which examines everything from games to stellar phenomena – after all, when is the best time to tell your children about the inevitable heat death of the universe? Recently Jonathan put up a Kickstarter for a game of his own… a Kickstarter that’s slightly unusual in that he warns you to think twice about supporting it.

So Jonathan… What’s your secret origin? How did you get to be the geek… and dad… you are today?

Well, I read a lot as a kid. That’s probably the biggest contribution to my geekiness; that and ’80s cartoons. I didn’t grow up playing D&D because it wasn’t allowed, but I did make up my own “mazes” on graph paper and led my friends through them. They were based entirely on my own very limited knowledge of what RPGs actually involved. Fast forward to a few years ago, and a friend introduced me to Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, and I was hooked. I dove into the world of modern board games and haven’t looked back.

As for the “dad” part: I’ve been a dad for just over nine years now. When we first moved to Portland for my wife’s residency, I quit my job(s) and had about six months to prepare to be a full-time dad and house-husband. I’ve been doing it ever since, and it’s a great gig. We’ve got two daughters now and a third one on the way.

Tell me about GeekDad. What does “Geek” mean to you? What are your goals with the blog?

For me, being a geek means being really passionate about things. Sometimes that means taking things a little too far or a little too seriously, but a geek loves to dig into things and explore the world. I personally tend to have broad interests rather than deep interests, which may be less “typically” geeky. I like a little taste of everything, but it means that on any given topic I may not be as informed as others. It’s that whole Jack-of-all-trades thing.

GeekDad has been a really fun way to share my passions, particularly books and board games. I could talk about those two topics forever, it seems. When I joined the GeekDad team I hadn’t seen a lot of board game coverage on the site already, and I’m very pleased to have added board game coverage as a pretty regular part of the site now. What I love about GeekDad is that, beyond being a blog, it’s a community of geeky parents that I’ve gotten to know both online and in real life. I love being able to share with both them and our readers things that I think are really cool. While I do cover releases from major publishers, I also love having a platform to highlight lesser-known projects by people who don’t have a huge marketing budget and name recognition.

 

As a reviewer for GeekDad, you’ve played more games than I can shake a stick at. You introduced me to Geistes Blitz and Flowerfall. What are a few of your favorite games?

I’m always hesitant to pick favorites, because there are SO many that I enjoy. But for the past few years I’ve tried to compile lists (with the help of my fellow GeekDad writers) of our favorites reviewed on the site. A few of my favorites from the past few years are Catacombs, which combines a dungeon crawl with a disc-flicking dexterity game; and Escape, a real-time cooperative game about getting out of a cursed temple before it collapses. For thematic “Ameritrash” games, my favorite is the Last Night on Earth series, and for multi-hour Eurostyle, I’d probably go with Agricola. And Carcassonne, one of the games that re-ignited my interest in board games, is still one that I play the most, albeit on the iPad usually.

Here’s a few of GeekDad’s best of lists…

The Best Board Games of 2010

The Best Board Games of 2011

The Best Board Games of 2012

 

As a Geek DAD, what do you look for in a game? What are some games that you like as a Geek, but fail the test as a dad?

Well, my kids are 9 and 6 now, and that three years can make a big difference in the sorts of games they can play. For instance, the 6 year old is still working on reading but the 9 year old has no trouble with it. On the other hand, we’ve found that my younger daughter is pretty good at basic arithmetic and can keep up with her sister there. For my kids I’m usually looking for games that have a shorter rulebook, something that I can explain quickly so we can get down to playing, rather than a long list of details—they love playing games, but they’ll lose interest in a long explanation.

I also love cooperative games with kids—it teaches a different type of gameplay. I do think it’s important for kids to learn not to take competition personally, but with younger kids it’s harder to separate the gameplay from the non-game relationship. (Heck, it’s hard for some adults, too.) Cooperative games let everyone play to win without bashing the other players, which can be really refreshing for family games.

I think playing games can be educational in itself, so I don’t feel that a game has to be overtly “educational” to have value. Certainly I don’t mind if there’s a bit of math and reading involved, but games that are marketed as educational are often more like flash cards or trivia questions with a thin veneer of game. I’d rather play things that are fun, and then figure out what lessons arise from the gameplay.

As for things that I like that don’t pass the dad test … honestly I think for the most part it’s just a matter of waiting until the kids are old enough to appreciate the game or when I feel they can handle a particular theme. For instance, I’m not going to play as many games that have a lot of backstabbing and “take that” because they’re not quite mature enough for that yet. But when I see that they can be good sports about it, then I’ll break those out. Likewise, they don’t mind games with some monsters (like Castle Panic, for instance) but the more realistically-depicted they are the less they enjoy them. While they don’t mind a zombie-themed game like Zombie Dice, Last Night on Earth would freak them out because of all the photos in the game.

 

You don’t just play games, you’re making one. You’re running a Kickstarter for a game called Emperor’s New Clothes. What’s the game about? Why should I lay my money down? 

The game is based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, about a vain Emperor who gets fooled by a couple of swindlers. Eventually the entire town is roped into the hoax, pretending to see something that isn’t there, until a child points out that the Emperor, in fact, has no clothes. I wanted to create a game that paralleled the story, one that incorporates a scam that works because other players agree to play along. Although it’s not exactly a role-playing game, it does rely heavily on storytelling and imagination rather than being simply a matter of rolling dice and playing cards. Our gimmick is our special printing process, Regulated Optical Operator Screenprinting (ROOS), which makes the game appear invisible to those who probably won’t enjoy the game. Thus, the game is sort of self-selecting: players who can see the ROOS to play the game will enjoy it; players who can’t see the ROOS can ignore it.

For that reason, my Kickstarter campaign is rare in that I’m not encouraging everyone to pledge for it. I want everyone to check it out, and then see for themselves if the game is right for them. If it looks blank to you in the photos, then it will most likely look blank to you when it arrives, so you should probably hold off. However, if you enjoy the photos of the game and gameplay video, then you’ll probably have a very good time playing the game.

What are you looking forward to in 2013?

I’m looking forward to the end of the emotional roller coaster that is a Kickstarter campaign! I’m also excited about (in no particular order): the upcoming birth of our third child, my first trip to Gen Con, and finding time to actually play all of these Kickstarter-funded board games that are starting to show up on my doorstep.

Six Questions: John Kovalic

Today I’m talking with JOHN KOVALIC. If you don’t know who John is, you are clearly a Cylon spy; please report to the nearest airlock. John has illustrated over a hundred games, including hits like Apples to Apples and Munchkin. His comics include Dork Tower and Doctor Blink: Superhero Shrink. He’s even appeared in The National Enquirer. He is a living legend, at least if it’s a legend about a cartoonist accidentally ending up in an embarrassing story in the Enquirer. But I’ll let him speak for himself.

You’ve been producing Dork Tower for over fifteen years. In addition to chronicling the experiences of a community of gamers, Dork Tower has introduced the world to the milliwheaton and revealed the horrifying truth behind Dinosaur Train. How did Dork Tower get started, and how has it changed over the years?

Dork Tower began in 1996, when I was talking with Shadis magazine editor DJ Trindle at GenCon. I’ve been a gamer since the mid-1970s. By the mid-90s, I was working for the Wisconsin State Journal, sneaking in games reviews when I could. I even talked my way into going to GenCon on their dime.

Knights of the Dinner Table had just left Shadis, and DJ said they needed a new comic strip. A geeky gamer comic strip. Needed skill sets don’t come more gift-wrapped than that.

Over the years, Dork Tower changed in about the same way that gaming itself has changed. The characters still represent the same basic Gaming Types that they always have. But their fandoms have grown. Along with mine. I suppose it’s a bit harder, these days, as the basic “Oh my god! GAMERS!” trope has been done to death. But the challenge is enjoyable.

A close friend is moving to McMurdo Station, and the only thing he can take to keep his spirits up are three Dork Tower strips. Which three do you recommend?

Oh, lord. “You have thousands of children. Which is your favorite?” OK. You get the first three off the top of my head, then.

ONE: The “Hey, Marcia! Come and see the Satanist” strip from the early days is one people love, but I always considered the “Are Dark Elves into Leather” strip more of a personal favorite because it defined Igor’s character early on and set the tone for Dork Tower.

TWO: “Matt and Gilly’s Big Date,” from the “Dork Covenant” collection. This won an Origins award, and I’ve always thought it was sort of a sweet little story.

THREE: I’ve been trying different formats out with the online comic strip, recently. And it’s been a lot of fun. If you know what Dinosaur Train is, I’d go with this one. If not, here’s one with “Gilly the Perky Goth on Fake Geek Girls” I was really happy with.

Confession: I know that wasn’t, technically, three.

Carson the Muskrat first appeared in Wild Life, the comic you created for the Daily Cardinal. What was the story behind Wild Life, and what’s your personal affinity for muskrats?

Wild Life actually didn’t start in the Cardinal. By the time I got to the UW-Madison, it had already appeared in the Millfield Newspaper, the Queen Mary College- London newspaper and the UW-Parkside Ranger. After I graduated from the UW, it went on to run in the Wisconsin State Journal in the late 80s, and was picked up for national syndication by Chronicle Features in the early 90s.

My mom had written a comic strip for a kids’ paper back in the States called My Weekly Reader. I’d grown up on comics and learned to read with comic books. I was always sketching, and writing comics in the back of my school notebooks. When we moved back to England, I just decided to show these to the school newspaper, as it seemed the sort of thing a cartoonist should do. School newspapers are seldom picky, and the rest is history.

Little-known fact: “Wild Life” was named after the old Wings album of the same name. I’ve no idea why I did this: it’s not a favorite album by any means. The 1970s were odd.

As to why a muskrat, I also have no idea. In the early days, Carson looked more like a badly-drawn sheep. “Muskrat” sounded funny, though. I finally saw a muskrat when I moved to Wisconsin. It is hugely inconvenient of them not to look like Carson at all.

Another little-known fact: Carson is named after Johnny Carson. Nobody ever asks that, anymore, as “Carson” seems to have become a common first name, possibly after entire generations named their kids after the Tonight Show host. But there you have it.

You’ve created the art for dozens of games, from Apples to Apples and Munchkin to Kobolds Ate My Baby! What was the first game you ever played? What do you enjoy playing today?

My first real gaming love was when I was in England. School friends played World War II wargames with 1/72nd scale Airfix kits and figures, and I was hooked. At a model shop in Bristol, I stumbled across a copy of SPI’s Panzer 44. That called to me immediately and I was soon seeking out all sorts of wargames. It was on a trip to Games Workshop – then a small general gaming store in London – that I discovered the fabled Little White Box set of Dungeons and Dragons.

I try and play as much as I can, but the traditional wargames get the shortest shrift anymore: I simply don’t have time for them. As far as roleplaying goes, I think Pathfinder is magnificent (thus the upcoming Munchkin Pathfinder fills me with fanboy glee). But, if I have to be honest, Call of Cthulhu’s still my main love. I should also mention I’m finding Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu brilliant, though! I’m hoping Marc Miller’s Traveller Kickstarter returns that RPG to its former glory. In all of gaming, the Traveller Imperium is my hands-down favorite.

I play a lot of Euro-style games and party games, too.

Castle Panic, Forbidden Island, and X-Wing were three games I played a lot last year. As far as miniatures gaming is concerned, it’s Flames of War, Bolt Action, Man-O-War and Warhammer Fantasy are my mainstays this year.

Of course, I still love playing Munchkin. I’ve only ever won one game of it, though. The latest Out of the Box games, like FAUXcabulary and Snake Oil, are terrific returns to form.

Speaking of Kobolds Ate My Baby!, you’re currently involved in the Kickstarter campaign for the new color edition of KAMB. What’s your favorite thing about working with kobolds? Can you give us any hints as to what Kovalicness may lurk behind the secret doors KAMB’s stretch goals?

By far and away, my favorite thing about the Kobolds is that they’re just so darned fun to draw. I was very happy with how they turned out: I don’t often get to redesign characters from the ground up. Chris and Dan, of 9th Level Games, are terrific to work with, as well.

As far as hints go, we have tremendous secret guests lined up, and some stretch goals that will take the Kobolds into 3-D deliciousness. Posibly pewter. Possibly plushie.

The first huge stretch goal – the “More Things to Kill and Eat” supplement – was unlocked after only a few days. Jim Zub (of the Skullkickers and Pathfinder comics fame) was also announced as a guest writer for another stretch-goal that was met.

There’s a hugely cool collaboration with another company we may be able to announce, soon. It’s all very exciting. There’s so much fun stuff happening, it’s breathtaking. But hard to keep track of. We were just thrilled to see the new edition fund in the first day: everything else is gravy. Incredibly, mind-blowingly cool gravy.

What are you looking forward to in 2013?

Time off?

Other than that…everything! I’m working on four big projects that take me well away from my comfort zone. The first has already been announced and is being released in May: ROFL!, my new party game, is being published by Cryptozoic. I think it’s the best I’ve ever designed. Plus, the folks at Cryptozoic just fab. If you ever get a chance to work with them, I’d highly recommend it.

I can’t really talk about the other big projects yet, though I may have dropped a hint or two on my Twitter feed. Puppets may be involved in one of them.

Then, of course, there’s the regular stuff: the new Dork Tower trade paperback, Munchkin Pathfinder, Out of the Box new releases, a graphic redesign for a game I love from a Dutch company, and other things I’m certainly forgetting.

 Hum. 2013 seems busier than it did five minutes ago…

Six Questions: Matt Forbeck

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

Today my guest is MATT FORBECK. I turned to Matt for advice when I was just getting started out as a freelancer, and his words of wisdom helped me get to where I am today. You might know Matt from his work with TSR, Pinnacle, AEG, Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, Games Workshop, White Wolf, Human Head, Reaper Miniatures, or an appalling number of other companies. Prior to 2012, Matt had written over a dozen novels, including The Lost Mark trilogy of Eberron novels. In 2012 he decided to up the ante and get Kickstarter support to write twelve novels in the course of the year. But let me speak for himself…

Hi Matt! So… what’s your story?

Which one? I got lots of ’em.

Oh, you mean this crazy project I’m working on in which I’m writing a dozen novels this year? I call it 12 for ’12 (a dozen books in 2012, see?), and it’s a way for me to get a whole lot of self-published books out fast. I’m a fast writer, and I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but I didn’t know how I could take the time out of my schedule of writing books for regular publishers to do it. Then Kickstarter came along.

Kickstarter’s a crowdfunding platform on which you can post an idea for a project and ask people to back it with pledges of cash. If you hit your minimum goal for the project, you’re off and running. I decided to break 12 for ’12 up into four trilogies to make it a bit more manageable, and I ran a Kickstarter drive for each of them. They all went way past their goals, and I’m writing the books now as fast as I can.

How do you top it in 2013? Or do you just keep going with 24 for 24?

I think I’m going to top it with something entirely different. In addition to writing novels, I also design tabletop games, create toys, work on video games, and write comics. After a year of mostly focusing on novels, I may just go back to mixing it all up again.

Or I’ll do 13 for ’13 and work my way up to 24 to ’24. That gives me a dozen years, right?

What was the inspiration for the different trilogies? Did you sit down and brainstorm them all at once, or does each one have its own history?

Each has their own history. Like most writers, I have more ideas than I can possibly tackle. I always find it funny when people ask me where I get my ideas? I wonder how come they don’t have them, or what did they do to make them stop?

Let me run through the trilogies in order.

Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World. I created a tabletop roleplaying game back in 1999 called Brave New World, which has been out of print for a while, although you can now get PDFs and even the core rulebook in print through DriveThruRPG.com. I hadn’t worked much in that world — a dystopian USA In which superheroes have been outlawed unless the works for the government — for years, with the exception of a script for a feature film that’s currently searching for funding. I wanted to get back to it and tell the stories it demanded.

Shotguns & Sorcery. This was originally a setting for the d20 RPG that I’d licensed to Mongoose Publishing back in 2001. My wife got pregnant with quadruplets in 2002, and that threw the plans for that out the window. I decided I want to return to it in novels and explore this fantasy noir setting in which the Dragon Emperor has set up a walled city that he protects from the hordes of zombies that scratch at its walls, all in exchange for his subjects’ fealty. It’s been a load of fun.

Dangerous Games. I made my living as a freelance game designer for many years, and I still go to Gen Con — the largest tabletop gaming convention in America — every August. As writers often do, I’d often wondered what would happen if things went horribly, terribly wrong there. That’s what Dangerous Games is: a trilogy of thrillers set at Gen Con, my favorite event of the year.

Monster Academy. I created the first YA series of novels for Dungeons & Dragons back in 2004 or so. As that wound down Wizards asked me to pitch them some ideas for new series. I came up with this one about a reform school for young monsters based in the center of a kingdom in which good has triumphed over evil. I decided to keep it for myself and pitch it around to other publishers, but I never got around to actually writing any of the books. Now I finally get to do that.

You’ve written in many, many shared universes. Which one was the greatest challenge for you?

The Guild Wars universe, I think. I had a wonderful time working on Guild Wars: Ghosts of Ascalon, but when I was writing it, the game wasn’t even close to finished. Things seemed to change on a daily basis. I’ve often said it wasn’t like trying to hit a moving target so much as an exploding target.

Fortunately, my pal Jeff Grubb was one of the main lore creators at ArenaNet, which develops the Guild Wars games. They brought him in as a co-author to help with the details I didn’t have a prayer of getting right, and it’s a much better book for all his efforts.

You’ve managed multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns. What challenges have you faced? Do you have any advice for people who want to dive into the Kickstarter pond?

The real trick is guessing how much you can line up in the way of pledges before you start. This helps define everything about the drive, from the kinds of rewards you can offer to your stretch goals to the length of the drive. It’s almost impossible to get exactly right, but some basic research and comparisons with other projects in the same category that are similar to yours can shed a lot of light.

As for advice, I have metric tons of it, and I get asked to share it all the time. I’m happy to do so, but I could hold forth about it for several chapters of a book. In fact, the final stretch goal for my last 12 for ’12 drive was to get me to write such a book about writing those books and running the Kickstarter, so look for that in 2013, after I’m done with the novels.

Finally, given the season… what are you thankful for?

I have a lot to be thankful for, not least of which is the fact I get to entertain people for a living, but in the end I always come back to my wife and kids. Ann and I struggled for years to have kids at all, and when they came, they were a bit more challenging than we could have expected — especially since four of them arrived at the same time as quadruplets.

Even in the hardest moments, though, I focused on the fact of how lucky we were to have them at all. While raising them has been the greatest challenge in my life, it’s also been by far the most rewarding and has given me a sense of purpose that nothing else ever has. I’m more thankful for that than I could ever express in words, so I spend a good part of my day trying to show them that instead.

Now look. I’ve gone and got something in my eye.

Kickstarter Round-Up!

I’ll write about some of these in more detail in the future, but I wanted to take a moment to let you know about a few Kickstarter projects that are worth a look!

BOSS MONSTER

BOSS MONSTER casts you as the beast at the end of an 8-bit side-scrolling dungeon. Your goal? To build a dungeon appealing enough to lure foolish adventurers and deadly enough to destroy them. Of course, all of the other players are monsters with dungeons of their own! As someone who played a lot of Ghosts & Goblins as a kid and who likes games about unhappy endings, I’ve been having a lot of fun with my review copy of Boss Monster, and I look forward to playing the final game. Check it out!

SENTINELS OF THE MULTIVERSE: SHATTERED TIMELINES

Sentinels of the Multiverse is an excellent cooperative game in which players take on the roles of superheroes teaming up to foil the plans of a nefarious villain. The game’s a lot of fun, and as a comic geek I love the degree to which the designers have developed the universe behind the game; cards include quotes from different issues of fictional comics, and if you lay them all out you can piece together the long-term arcs behind them. Shattered Timelines is the latest expansion for the game, but the Kickstarter also offers you an opportunity to pick up the basic game and various promo cards.

HILLFOLK: DRAMASYSTEM ROLEPLAYING

Hillfolk: DramaSystem Roleplaying is a must for anyone who enjoys compound words. Having said that, this is the latest project from RPG legend Robin D. Laws. You can hear a little more about the project from Robin himself in his Six Questions from last week. Thanks to the miracle of stretch goals, the main book will include a DramaSystem series pitch from me: Dreamspace, which I’ll describe as Stargate meets “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” There’s only three days left in the Kickstarter, so if you’re interested get on board now!

CARNIVALE: THE MORGRAUR-RASHAAR

With only twelves hours left as of this writing, you may be too late to catch this one. However, if you enjoy miniatures wargaming, definitely check this out. Les Miserables meets Lovecraft in the canals of Venice! Mad scientists pit brain-transplanted rhinos against arrogant Patricians and the ancient Rashaar! For more information, check out the website here!  

 

 

Six Questions: Robin D. Laws

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My next guest is ROBIN D. LAWS. One of the great RPG designers of our time, Robin has been an inspiration to me throughout my career. You may know him from Feng Shui, the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, Heroquest, the Dying Earth RPG, or one of the other systems he’s designed. You may be familiar with his fiction or his podcast. You may have heard of his Kickstarter, Hillfolk. Or you may say “Robin Laws? Who’s that?” Let’s find out!

Your favorite director knocks on your door and says that he’s got a multi-million dollar budget to create a movie based on one of your games. Which would you want to see? Why?

I would recoil in dismay to see Howard Hawks, supposedly dead since 1977, standing before me in what would surely have to be undead glory. After returning the beloved director to the eternal rest some wretched nosferatu cruelly wrenched him from, with a jaunty, “I love your work, here’s a wooden stake to the heart,” I would retire, shaken, and perhaps drink a quantity of port.

To further reframe your question, because it would take me the next two weeks to pick a single favorite living director, I’ll instead up its grandiosity several notches and imagine than an entire gaggle of auteurs shows up at my door demanding to immortalize my games on celluloid. I would assign them as follows:

Feng Shui: John Woo (duh)

The Dying Earth: Michael Winterbottom

Rune: Michel Gondry

HeroQuest: Steven Soderbergh

The Esoterrorists: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse)

Fear Itself: David Cronenberg

Mutant City Blues: Juan J. Campanella (an Argentinean who made a great movie called The Secret in Their Eyes plus many episodes of Law & Order)

Ashen Stars: Duncan Jones

Hillfolk: Nicolas Winding Refn

You’re currently running a Kickstarter for Hillfolk, a game using the DramaSystem rules engine. What’s the story of Hillfolk, and what inspired you to create it?

Hillfolk was inspired by an observation that arose while creating the beat analysis system for understanding narrative rhythm, as seen in Hamlet’s Hit Points. The basic building blocks of story mostly divide into two main types of scene: the procedural, in which the characters face external, practical obstacles, and the dramatic, in which they seek emotional responses from others they care about. In roleplaying we’ve always done the first really well—knocking down doors, fighting monsters, piloting starships. The second, not so much. And when we have, we haven’t gone back to look at the simple basic structure underlying all such scenes and applied it to our form. So that’s what DramaSystem does—as it says on the tin, it keeps the spotlight squarely on drama, using a simple yet powerful dynamic to ensure story flow.

Tell me about the DramaSystem engine itself. What are its strengths? What’s your favorite aspect of the system? And are you a wolf or a lion?

The core of the game is a simple token economy that encourages you, in an emotional confrontation, to give in about half the time and to stand your ground the other half of the time. In a dramatic scene, you have a petitioner and a granter—someone who wants something from the other, and the other, who either grants the petition or refuses it. If you grant me what I want emotionally, you get a drama token as a reward. If you refuse me, I get a drama token as a consolation. Tokens grant additional narrative power—I can use them to force a concession from you, to block you when you try to force a concession from me, to jump or evade a scene, and so on.

This like not only drama, but life, which drama is based on. We have to accommodate the people we love and care about some of the time, because we are emotionally compelled to do so by our ties to them, for good or ill. This dynamic contrasts with the usual roleplaying tendency to see a character as extreme but one-dimensional, never giving in to any proposal that might conceivably contradict that portrayal. DramaSystem PCs are created as contradictions, torn between two Dramatic Poles, so that you can always plausibly pivot from one stance to another without feeling that you’re breaking character.

My favorite element of the system lies in the play it engenders—longform group storymaking with characters you remember and care about long after the series has ended. I care much more about the people populating my in-house Hillfolk playtest, or the later Greasepaint series, than any other group of characters the same group of characters have ever generated.

As for the clan question, I would never take sides in a… who am I kidding? Lion.

What’s the story behind The Birds?

 I was looking for a staple feature for my blog, and started doodling with a green marker, and before I knew it, these queasy verdant avians flew, guns in hand, into bleakly funny comic strip form. It’s a pure personal expression, and I’m as delighted to have those two collections in print as anything else I’ve done.

You’ve provided a wealth of advice to gamemasters over the years, which has been collected in places like Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. If you were stranded on a desert island with only three pieces of system-neutral gaming advice, what would they be?

One, observe your players and gauge their reactions. (This principle would warn me against marauding pirates.)

Two, react to those observations to find the sweet spot of mutual creative gratification. (This would help me in negotiating with the pirates if I failed to evade them.)

Three, always be ready to jettison what you thought would happen in favor of what the players are making happen. (This would aid me in suddenly betraying the pirates and emerging as their new savage warlord.)

What’s next?

The Gaean Reach is a GUMSHOE/Skulduggery hybrid based on Jack Vance’s classic SF setting, as seen in the Demon Princes series and many other novels. The players seek interstellar vengeance against Quandos Vorn—a galactic supervillain whose abilities and crimes they collectively design themselves at the outset of play.

That’s in layout.

In the writing stage is Dreamhounds of Paris, a Trail of Cthulhu campaign sourcebook in collaboration with Kenneth Hite and Steve Dempsey. It is both our Paris book and our dreamlands book. You play the major figures of the surrealist movement after they discover that their dream-haunted, subversive art allows them to directly manipulate the people, places, and landscape of the dreamlands. Goodbye crystal cities, hello melting watches.

Also check out my recently-released fiction projects: the short horror story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign, and my Pathfinder Tales novel, Blood of the City.

 

That’s all for this week! However, since Robin and I talked, I’ve jumped on board to write a series pitch for the DramaSystem engine. If the stretch goal is met, I’ll be contributing a scenario I’m calling Dreamspace to the book. “In the future, the only way to reach other worlds is through the underspace of the collective unconscious. You and your fellow oneironauts are the best of the best, but what will you find in the dreams of alien worlds?” Want to see more? Then check out the kickstarter!