Always/Never/Now and Upcoming Conventions!

I’ve just returned from a trip to LA, where I tested Phoenix out on a group of friends. Most of the survived the experience. I’m going to write more about Phoenix later in the week, but I thought I’d tell you where I’m going to be in the next few weeks so you have a chance to see it for yourself. Let me know if you’ll be at any of these!

Friday, October 4th – Sunday, October 6th I’ll be at GENRECON in Guelph, Ontario. Friday night I’ll be playing Gloom & showing off the new expansion, Unquiet Dead. Saturday I’ll be running Eberron, playtesting Phoenix, and taking part in a few panels & a QA session.

Friday, October 11th – Sunday, October 13th I’ll be at G.A.M.E. in Springfield, Missouri. Friday evening I’m doing two hours of Q&A, and then I’m running Eberron and testing Phoenix on Saturday. There’s a theme here!

Saturday, October 19th – Sunday, October 20th I’ll be at GEEKGIRLCON in Seattle, Washington. Jennifer Ellis, Phoenix co-designer Dan Garrison, and I will have a demo table where we’ll be playingPhoenix, Gloom, and whatever else we feel like.

But wait! There’s more! Saturday, October 26th I’ll be playing Doom and Gloom at GUARDIAN GAMES in Portland, Oregon. Come by and try out Unquiet Dead and The Doom That Came To Atlantic City!

In addition to playtesting Phoenix last weekend, I had an opportunity to play IN a game… Will Hindmarch’s Always/Never/Now. I’ll let Will describe the game himself…

You were the best. Underground, cyberpunk street samurai, burglars and breakers, agents of a mysterious spymaster with half a name, zero history, and a plan. He made the missions and you carried them out. You were the go-to crew for high-stakes break-ins, dangerous ops, and impossible escapes. You fought the megacorps, the tyrants, the killers—all for the sake of making a better future, of beating the Technocrats at their own game of shaping tomorrow. You always won, never quit, lived in the now. 

Until, eleven years ago, he disappeared…

Now he’s back—back in trouble—and it’s up to you to save him and maybe, along the way, change the world.

Always/Never/Now is a self-contained campaign, a cyberpunk saga that plays out in thirteen scenes. It is built around six characters that are provided with the campaign, and derives much of its mechanics from John Harper’s excellent Lady Blackbird. A few of the things I love about the system:

  • Every character has its own path to success. If I’m playing the comic-relief con artist, I get XP when I tell people a lie and they believe me; when I make players laugh; and when I escape from a bad situation. Unlike many games, where the best way for a blacksmith to become a better blacksmith is to kill a goblin, here I get better by doing the things that define my character.
  • Often, one or more of these keys apply to the players, not just the characters. The “leader” character gets XP if other players follow a plan he comes up with. So it’s not just arbitrarily stated that he’s the leader; it’s up to him to BE such a good leader that everyone chooses to follow his plans (and actually, there’s two characters with this key, so there’s competition for the role!). The first time I played A/N/N was just after playing a bard in another game. In that game it didn’t really make any difference if I was entertaining. As the con artist in A/N/N, I got experience when I got the PLAYERS to laugh – which meant being entertaining wasn’t just a color choice, it was something worth working at. Essentially, it helped blur the lines between character and player, and made me really feel like I WAS the character.
  • The system has many elements that encourage players to develop the story behind their actions. As con artist Alex, if I wanted to bluff someone, I could just roll a single die. But I also had a list of tags, and for each tag I worked into the description of my action, I got an extra die. So how could “cash” play into the scene? What about “That Smile”, or “Something Like Sincerity”? Determining which tags applied made a challenge more than just a roll; it got me thinking about the scene.

Some people might balk at the fact that the adventure uses pregenerated characters. There’s a lot of reasons for this. The six characters are a well-balanced, versatile team. Will’s put a lot of thought into their capabilities and tags. More than that, they each have a role in the story – and as the saga unfolds, you really get to know them. One fun twist is that each character has a number of flashback scenes that can be sprinkled through the story – glimpses of the characters’ lives before the spymaster disappeared (and a technique Will and I wrote about in 2004 in Friends of the Dragon for Feng Shui). There’s lots of room to make these characters your own. For example, Alex the con man is described as having tried to launch a “failed street food business.” When I played Alex, I decided this was Faux Pho – a diet vegan Vietnamese option for “when you want a taste that’s almost like food.” In this last session, John Rogers decided Alex was backing Happy FunCo Space Pizza And Sushi, and invented an elaborate story about people’s nostalgia for a failed moon colony that he hoped would drive business his way.

It’s a different sort of experience from creating your own story from scratch. But it’s like reading a good book or watching a movie. The characters help DEFINE the world and draw you into it. Combined with the keys (which encouraged you to act like the character) and the way that your abilities also encourage you to think about the character, it’s easy to get attached to this crew. After playing for just four hours, one of the players in the last session said that it was “one of those incredible moments in an RPG where you feel like you’re going to cry, because you’re so invested in the story.”

Anyhow, I could rave on for a few more hours about how awesome this game is, but why don’t you see for yourself? The PDF is available right now, for the amazing price of WHATEVER YOU WANT TO PAY FOR IT. If you enjoy cyberpunk, it’s worth reading just for the ideas. And if you have a chance to play it, well, it’s the most fun I’ve had in years. Of course, I had the advantage of having a Will Hindmarch in the box to run it – but Will or not, it’s definitely worth a look.

12/12: Books I’m Reading, Games I’m Playing

Clothes make the SpaceTeam.

I’m working on my post about my Next Big Thing, but in the meantime I thought I’d throw out a quick note about the things I’ve been enjoying over the past month. This isn’t a best of the year post; these are just the things I’m listening to, watching and reading RIGHT NOW, and my thoughts about them.


Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

I’ve been enjoying Locke & Key for years now, but I had the good fortune to receive the special edition of Welcome to Lovecraft as a gift, and that’s got me reading the series through again. Locke & Key is certainly my favorite comic of recent years, and on the list with Sandman, Hellboy, and Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol for lifelong favorites. It’s best to discover it on your own, but I’ll describe it as a blend of Narnia and a good ghost story. A group of children return to an old family estate and stumble across its ancient and magical secrets… but the doors opened by the magical keys can lead to more gruesome dangers than Lucy or Edmund ever faced in Narnia. I like keys, and as such I’ll also give a nod to Skelton Crew, a studio that has produced replicas of the magical keys from the series. As comic collectibles go, these are fantastic. The keys are the critical visual element and tool from the stories, and Skelton’s replicas are a good size and weight; they’re fun things to carry around even without the story connection. So far they haven’t opened any doors for me, but who knows.

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

In The Hobbit, the people of the Shire know relatively little about the world beyond their fields. Luckily, Gandalf shows up and provides us with detailed exposition about the history of the dwarves and that the dragon. Moving on to the Lord of the Rings, through Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel we are kept well-informed about the history of the conflict and its major players.

The Kingkiller Chronicles have some common threads with Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. There’s an ancient evil lord. He’s got a cabal of powerful minions, much like the Nazgul or the Forsaken. They’re all up to something. But unlike LOTR or Wheel of Time, we don’t know what it is. Imagine Lord of the Rings without Gandalf. Frodo has the ring. He actually knows that it’s bad and should be destroyed in Mount Doom. But he doesn’t know where Mount Doom IS. The stories about Sauron are full of conflicting details, and while some legends say that he lived in Mordor, there are no current maps that show the location of this long-forgotten kingdom. In The Kingkiller Chronicles, Kvothe has much the same problem. He’s had a disastrous encounter with the ancient evil, but he has trouble finding out exactly what it IS. As he learns magic and hones his other skills, he—and we, through his eyes—gets glimpses of the truth through folktales, songs, rumors, and religion. But there are conflicts in all of these, and the truth remains to be revealed. Rather than the story being about the goal—IE, the destruction of the Ring or the defeat of the Dark One—it’s more about the journey. For me, much of what I enjoy is the way that the mysteries of the world are slowly unfolded instead of being laid out from the start.

I’m still only partway through WMF. In some ways, it’s a blend of Harry Potter and Ender’s Game—a brilliant boy learning the secrets of magic, using his wits to deal with rivals at school and the other challenges of life. Yet there are constant patches of crabgrass foreshadowing great deeds and tragedies that lie ahead. It’s a very different sort of tale from the warring kings of A Song of Ice and Fire. But it’s certainly managed to hold my interest; I want to know more about the world, perhaps more than I want to know about Kvothe.



I play a lot of games. In the last week I’ve played Cards Again Humanity, Ticket to Ride, Lost Cities, Love Letters, Quirks, Cthulhu Fluxx and a few different flavors of Gloom. I’m very happy with Unpleasant Dreams, the first expansion for Cthulhu Gloom… if you have any questions about Unpleasant Dreams (or for that matter anything I’ve made), please ask here! Here’s some thoughts on a few of my favorite games I’ve played in the last month.


You’re flying a ship through a galaxy crowded with wormholes and asteroids. Your ship is barely holding together. Panels are falling off. Slime is leaking out from the cracks. There are an endless assortment of adjustments that need to be made. Punch the orbvalve! Set the microfluxer to 5! Deactivate the quantum valve! Consider purchasing upgrades! It’s more than one person can handle. Fortunately, you’re not alone. You’re part of a SpaceTeam.

SpaceTeam is a cooperative game for 2-4 people, played on iPads and iPhones. Each player has a piece of the ship’s control panel, covered with an assortment of bizarre and often hilarious controls. As the game unfolds, you receive instructions and have a limited time to complete them. But many of your instructions apply to the controls on the panels of other players. The result? A lot of panicked shouting, as you watch the timer counting down and hope that the command you’re shouting makes sense to one of your comrades. “Tighten the Ubercronk! Set the Hypermodulator to six! Tip the Waiter! Wormhole – EVERYONE FLIP!” Any given action is quite simple: push a button or turn a dial. However, the combination of time pressure, communication within your team, and console malfunctions that have to be fixed or simply ignored make it an extremely entertaining experience. I’m sad that they didn’t create a holiday version; I can imagine sitting around the living room with my family shouting “Deck the halls! Parum the Pum-Pum! Mistletoe – everybody kiss!”

In short, it’s a fun, quick cooperative experience, and a perfect way to pass time while standing in line or waiting for something to start. And it’s free. So what are you waiting for?


Geistes Blitz

A simple game that combines speed and pattern recognition. Five objects are placed in the center of the table. A card is drawn from the deck. Each card has four elements: two objects and two colors. If a color/object combination matches one of the objects on the table—for example, there is a picture of a white ghost—the first person to grab that object off the table gets the card and the point. However, in many cards, neither of the two objects shown are the proper color. In this case, you look for the object that isn’t represented on the card in any way. So if a card has a green rat and a red ghost, you are looking for an object that’s not a ghost or a rat, and isn’t red or green… which only leaves one possibility, the blue book. Grab the book and you get the point. If you grab the wrong object, you lose a point—so while speed is important, you don’t want to grab until you’re sure.

This basic game is a great deal of fun, and it’s good for people of all ages; I admit that I played about five rounds with an eight year old and lost every time. However, there are lots of ways to increase the complexity once your group is familiar with it. You can say that if there’s a ghost on the card, you need to shout the name of the proper object instead of grabbing it… or that if there’s a book, the correct answer is the object that’s the color of the book on the card, not whatever the normal answer would be. It’s fast and easily portable. The only problem is that it’s somewhat hard to find. I got my copy off the internet, and I’ve been recommending it to every brick & mortar store I’ve been to.


Always/Never/Now is a cyberpunk adventure cycle created by brilliant designer Will Hindmarch, and I’d say that it’s something like a mash-up of Mission Impossible and The Usual Suspects as written by William Gibson. You’re a brilliant operative who’s been called out of retirement for one last job… a job that will span the course of many adventures and delve into a host of mysteries. The system is inspired by Lady Blackbird; it’s easy to use and encourages players to get into the mind of the character. As the group’s strategist, you don’t get experience for killing things; rather, you get experience when other people follow a plan that you’ve devised. As such, you are rewarded for being a leader. Pregenerated characters are provided, which means that you have a well-balanced team with a lot of interesting backstory built into the characters themselves. One element I found particularly engaging was the use of environmental tags. When our group was engaged in a tense car chase, Will provided us with a list of specific objects in the scene – high tension wires, a hapless motorcyclist, a tanker truck, a news helicopter, an overpass. Over the course of the scene, we could use each of these elements once in the description of an action in order to get a bonus to the roll. Now, nothing was stopping us from introducing these or other elements on our own; but by providing us with a list, Will really got me thinking about what we COULD do with those things. I might have simply tried to outrun the enemy; instead, I starting thinking about how the hapless motorcyclist could flip over their hood, causing them to crash into the tanker truck. It’s an idea I could easily see transporting to other settings and systems, such as Eberron. If you want someone to swing on a chandelier, let them know that the chandelier is right there waiting to be used!

Always/Never/Now was funded on Kickstarter early this year. At the moment, the only way to play it is to corner Will Hindmarch at a convention (and I suggest you do). However, it will soon be available as a PDF for download. I’ll be sure to mention it here when it is; it’s definitely worth a roll of the dice!

And finally, for those who missed my earlier post, here again is Gloomy Santa…

Six Questions: Will Hindmarch

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 guest this week is designer WILL HINDMARCH. He does an excellent job of covering his career at his website. In short, he is a writer, gamer designer, and extremely clever person. Over the years we have collaborated on a number of things. We worked together on the Feng Shui sourcebook Friends of the Dragon, which may (absolutely no guarantees) be one of the first places where flashbacks are suggested as an RPG story mechanic. Years later Will invited me to take part in his anthology The Bones: Us and Our Dice. Later still I had a chance to play in his cyberpunk adventure Always/Never/Now, which was one of the most entertaining roleplaying experiences I can recall. This doesn’t begin to touch on the scope of his work… like I said, check his bio. And now, let’s get to the questions!

Who are you? Please answer in exactly five words. 

Writer, designer, gamer, mooncalf? Word.

What have you done over the last decade?

Not enough. Since 2002, either on staff or as a freelancer, I’ve put a fingerprint on something like 100+ publications, mostly in the game sector, and it still feels like I’m lagging behind prized contemporaries and luminaries.

In the past decade, I’ve gotten married, moved from city to city a few times, and learned a lot about writing, design, development, and production from some of the gaming hobby’s most-skilled people. I’ve achieved a few long-term goals from my past but I have a lot more still waiting to be realized. I’ve sailed on the surface and I’ve scraped the bottom of the sea, but at least I’m still here, chasing new goals. Advance, setback, pirouette, onward.

The big thing that I’ve done in the past ten years and get to know some of my favorite game designers, writers, and other creative folk in a way that goes beyond fan mail or a handshake. I count myself incredibly lucky for the company I’m allowed to keep. I’m surrounded by intimidating talents and wonderful hearts and cunning minds and while I haven’t yet made the mark (or all the games and books) that I so desperately wanted to make by this point, I am better primed to do those things now than I was before. I remain hopeful, most days.

Always, Never, or Now?

I wish the answer was “always.” I fear the answer is “never.” I know it isn’t “now.”

What’s your favorite game you didn’t create?

Tricky, this one. I have created a number of games close to zero. Most of my work has been on other people’s games, expansions, and supplements. Vexing.

Truth is, I am near-sighted when it comes to favorites—my favorite game is often the one that I am obsessed with in the moment, so not only does my favoritism juke and weave, it often doubles back and leads me through the woods to familiar groves after years away. Which is to say, I don’t know. I’ve singled out Castle Falkenstein as an answer to this question a few times, but there have been times when my favorite game was Wraith: The Oblivion, the Saga system (whether it’s powering fantastical or super-heroic roleplaying), and I’m plainly a sucker for the confluence of mechanics that make up Lady Blackbird. I’ve been playing a whole lot of 7 Wonders for the last year or so, too; I admire that game rather a lot.

But my favorite game? It’s probably Thief: The Dark Project. That’s the most engaged and captivated I have ever been in actual play, and I was engaged and captivated something close to my maximum amount by that game. It builds a terrific world, tells a great tale, features wonderful characterization and mechanics, and is probably the most frightening game I have ever played.

If you were trapped on a desert island, what three dice would you take?

Probably 2d6 and 1d10. I can play a whole lot of my favorite RPGs with the sweet curve of 2d6 and the nice simple determination of a single ten-sider. Plus, if I can tally in the sand or make tick-marks on the tree(s), I can track successes and play all manner of great games calling for more dice. The sand will become a record of adventure, grooved all over with the scrap measurements of play, maybe even gridded out with a simple board for tracking coconut goblins and sea-smoothed stones standing in for bold adventurers.

When the sailors finally row up to rescue us, I’ll hold up my finger and be like, “Let’s just finish this round to see if we can save the lost treasure.”

What’s one of your favorite ways to set the mood when you’re running an RPG?

Music. I use a lot of tricks and techniques, from small talk to cadence to lighting, but music is one of my favorites because it’s like getting a whole secondary channel of mood and information into the play space. I can say one thing and let the music support or confound those words and create a situation or atmosphere that much more nuanced than I could do with just words alone. I’ve written a fair bit about this and hope to write more. A lot of what I do with music at the game table is intuitive but I’m eager to externalize it as actionable advice one day.

PAX Report and future plans!

There’s a lot of things in the oven here at the Bakery. While I was at PAX, I did an interview with the Penny Arcade Report, and it just got posted here, so check that out. Expect to see an Eberron Q&A later in the week, along with an expanded discussion of some of the questions left hanging at the PAX panels… including “Did you announce your next big thing?”

But before it all slips through my mind, I want to take a moment to write about some of the fun things I saw and did at PAX Prime.


Who has it worse… Imperial stormtroopers or redshirted ensigns? There’s books devoted to comparing Star Wars, Star Trek, and the other giants of science fiction, but I decided to approach the question in my own way – by designing a set of sci-fi Gloom and seeing who can survive the worst indignities. Can Wesley escape when he’s Targeted by Terminators? What happens when Han Solo Marries Troi’s Mother? While Matt Forbeck’s book shows that it’s technically possible to get something like this published, it’s just something I put together for fun. So if you want to help Data Hook Up on the Holodeck, you’ll have to catch me at a convention to play a round!


Sunday afternoon I was lucky enough to play a session of Always/Never/Now with creator Will Hindmarch. While I’d heard of Lady Blackbird, I’d never played any game using these mechanics, and I really enjoyed it. For those who don’t know it, this is a simple RPG system which a few key features. Characters have four traits that describe their major abilities; for example, mine were Escapist, Businessman, Burglar, and “Stand-Up Guy.” Each trait has a number of tags – elements that may or may not apply to a particular task associated with that trait. So for “Stand-Up Guy” I had the tags Honest Face, Wit, Guile, Charm, and That Smile. When performing an action with that trait, I’d get an additional die for each tag that applied – so I could be charming in most situations, but I’d have to work to explain how my honest face or That Smile worked over a radio.

Experience is gained through keys. Each character has a set of circumstances that provide experience each time they are met. So one character got an experience point every time other people carried out a plan he’d devised – giving him a concrete, in-game reason to try to be a strong leader. For my part, I got experience every time I made people laugh and when I convinced them of something that wasn’t true.

I had a fantastic time with the system. The keys really drew me into wanting to embrace the character concept as fully as possible… how can I turn this scene into something that will get a laugh? Meanwhile, the trait-tag system helped with the common issue of “I just want to roll Diplomacy – I don’t really want to explain how I’m doing it.” With the tags, the more detail I could add, the more tags I could justify… and it was an intriguing challenge to say “OK, how exactly can I be ‘charming’ here?”

Anyhow, if you’ve never tried the system, I suggest you check it out! A/N/N isn’t out at the moment, but will ultimately be available as a free download. Until then, check out John Harper’s Lady Blackbird!


Early in 2011, I had the opportunity to work with Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, doing some early concepting work on what has now become 13th Age. I’ve been a fan of Tweet’s work ever since Over The Edge, and I had a great time brainstorming icons and oddities with Rob and Jonathan; my favorite contribution are the Koru Behemoths, and I swear it’s a coincidence that they share my name. I was only involved in the initial concepting, and lost touch with the project when I moved to Texas, so PAX was my first opportunity to sit down and play a session with Rob.

The game bears the fingerprints of its designers. Rob calls it his “love letter to D&D”, and there’s certainly a lot of elements that will feel familiar both to D&D players in general and 4E players specifically. I played a gnome bard, and I had the familiar six stats, hit points, a form of healing surge & second wind. At the same time, there are a number of elements that are more flexible and story driven than is typical for D&D. The skill system reminded me of Over The Edge. Rather than having a specific set of twenty skills that all characters choose from, players come up with a certain amount of points to invest in backgrounds for their character. So I might say that as a child I was a Calendrian Pickpocket (and invest 3 points in it), turned that into a career as an Inquisitive (for 4 points), and that I’d always had a knack for Getting Out Of Trouble (3 points). Like the tags in A/N/N, if I can explain how my background applies to a situation, I can use the bonus. So “Inquisitive” fills the role of Search/Perception, but could also be used to justify research, knowledge of local laws, contacts in law enforcement, and so on. Obviously it’s up to the DM to approve backgrounds, so I can’t take 10 points in “Alien Supergod”… but it’s a system that helps me define my character beyond the basic combat abilities of my class.

Backgrounds fill the roles of skills, but if 13th Age has one unique thing, it’s well, one unique thing. One of the most important steps of creating a character is to come up with something truly unique that makes your character one of the most remarkable people in the world. The DM works to weave this into the world and the campaign. For example, the drow sorceress decided that her “mother” actually created her from a dragon’s tooth; as there are four very important dragons in the game, the question of which dragon would be an interesting long-term issue… and in the short term, the sorceress had the chance to exert her influence over a group of lizardfolk we encountered (despite having no concrete mechanical ability to do so). I decided my character was a figment of the imagination of a young boy given power by the nefarious Diabolist… essentially a blend of Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” and Written By A Kid. Part of my idea was that long term, my backgrounds would actually change; this time around, I had three points of “Pirate King”, but by the next adventure the kid would have changed the story and I’d have some entirely different over the top background, with no memory that it had changed.

I’m not trying to cover every single point of 13th Age here. There’s lots of other interesting things. Google it and you can find out more about the Escalation Die, the Icons, and other elements of the game. And if it sounds like your thing, you might want to take a look at the Kickstarter they’ve got running for the first expansion… back it now and you can get a PDF of the basic rules!


I’ve got a big backlog of questions, related both to Eberron and gaming in general. Over the next few days I’ll get to some of those. I’ve got a few more ideas for ongoing features for the site, but I doubt you’ll see any of those until next week. In any case, check back soon… and as always, ask questions below!