Author Archives: okcstephens

Anniversary of Upheaval

Lj and I arrived in the Great Northwest three years ago, today.

We are on our second apartment, our second vehicle, our second AFK, but still the same core jobs and circle of friends, which in many ways are the important bits. I saw core jobs because Lj lost her full-time gig 6 or so months after we moved, and switched to doing RGG bookkeeping and freelance layout full time, and I  have become the project manager at Rite since then. We have had two dear friends move nearby, lost another dear friend, and in many ways I still feel like we are finding our feet.

The only things I miss from our lives in Norman, Oklahoma are a few people, a few restaurants… and certainty.

We knew, in broad terms, what every week, every holiday, and every season would bring. We had strong, long-established social systems that had gone on without major change for decades. Progress was difficult, but so was confusion. Our lives were a known factor, though it was kept at a set level we didn’t seem to be able to rise above.

There are many ways in which we have adjusted. We know more people, have local connections, and get invited to many more things. There are ways in which we haven’t. It turns out 20 years of freelance game writing habits don’t die easily, and I still get grumpy when I can’t take a nap in the middle of a workday at the office. But I AM adjusting.

When we first arrived out here, we also both started getting sick a lot. In 2016 alone I had two trips to the ER and nearly a dozen to urgent care, on top of regular doctor visits. But the last of those was last August, and I haven’t had a major illness since.

This move was a huge step outside of our comfort zone. We sold our house, the majority of our possessions,  and moved away from our most solid core of close family and friends. I’d lived in Norman for 43 or 44 years before I left. That one year exception was 2000-2001, when I was hired by WotC to work on the Star Wars game and that was still what I  was doing when they laid me off 14 months later.

Now I’ve been working for Paizo for 36 months. I began as the developer in charge of the module line, then transitioned over to the Player Companions, and then got to be one of the Design Leads for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. I have grown quite a bit as a game developer and designer in three years, and these are opportunities I would not have had back in Oklahoma.  We have also made some awesome new friends, strengthened existing friendships, and just barely begun to build some social momentum again.

I mentioned to my wife just yesterday that I haven’t adjusted yet. she snorted and pointed out it’s been three years. She’s right… but so am I. Not quickly do I become comfortable in a new environment.

Despite that, and seeing the financial and psychological havoc it’s played with our long-term plans, I am a bit amazed we took this huge leap. In many ways that’s not our style. But I continue to be convinced that this was a good move for me and my wife.

Being me, I also worry about it a lot. 🙂

Huge thanks to everyone who has pitched in, invited us over, helped out, and just shared a smile now and then to the transplants from OK.

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Dystopian Factions: The Prags

These aren’t “for” anything yet, though I might incorporate them into some kind of Starfinder product at some point.

Prags

The Prags, or Pragmatics, believe that whatever produces the best end result, as defined by the self, is morally good. They consider ethics, philosophy, and religion to be flawed, though not useless, methods to measure how a given action will be viewed by individuals other than the self, which can be useful when determining if an otherwise-useful act carries too great a risk of backlash by those it does not benefit, reducing its value to the self.

Prags often support public governments and policies that support the poor and disabled, on the theory that it is impossible to know if the self will suffer some loss, and creating a safety net gives the Prags the opportunities to take greater risks to improve their own situation, knowing that failure will be mitigates by social programs. They rarely support anything designed only to benefit a specific ethnic group or class, because that either doesn’t apply to them if they are not part of the group, or it risks resentment to the entire class if the Prags are part of the group.

In personal interactions Prags strive to develop loyal friends and trustworthy reputations, as these things have proven long-term benefits. However Prags also openly admit they have an eye out for the U-B, or Ultimate Benefit, a thing that grants the self such an advantage that betrayal of ally and reputation is an acceptable cost to pay for it.

While it is clear that Prag belief in the potential of a U-B makes their allies slightly nervous, Prags see this as a benefit as well. An ally you are entirely loyal to is of more value if that ally is also aware that if the alliance proves to have much less value than expected, it may be suddenly and mercilessly jettisoned. This encourages allies to also keep a watchful eye on how much they consider a Prag’s benefits and needs. Many Prags also claim the the U-B is a theoretical construct — since it is impossible to know the total benefit gained by a complete betrayal until the betrayal is irreversible, some Prags claim no U-B could ever be so obviously worthwhile as to justify such a betrayal as pragmatic.

Such Prags often then wink.

Prags near the end of their lifespan, or stricken with an incurable disease, often arrange for a single final enjoyable event, which culminates in their suicide, to ensure their quality of life does not decline any further.

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House Rules; Initiative By Spelllessness

Initiative By Spelllessness

“Exactly!  It’s real and I can touch it.”
Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China:

A simple house rule designed to alter the inherent power level of various classes and sets up a cosmology where knowing magic always and automatically means you aren’t as alert to the events of the entirely material world around you. Also, this is nothing more than a minor tweak on the same basic idea from yesterday, but with a different variable as the lynchpin.

Each combat round is broken into 10 phases, though in most combats you can skip many of them. Within each phase, all characters acting in that phase act in order of their initiative modifier (calculated normally).

In phase one, only characters and monsters with no spellcasting or spell-like abilities, and those with only o-level spells or spell-like abilities act.

In phase two, all characters and monsters with spellcasting limited to 1st and lower level spells and 1st or lower level spell-like abilities act.

In phase three, those with up to 3rd level spells and 3rd level spell-like abilities, in phase 4 up to 4th level, and so on.

No other rules need change, and all three phases are still part of a single round. You can hold or ready an action to go in later phases, just as you could hold or ready and act at a lower initiative.

As compared to yesterday, which focused on your level of dedication to combat ability as the thing that lets you go first, in this system the more magic you know the later you go. This means you no longer have rogues going after fighters, or clerics going before wizards. It also mans the bigger an eldritch badass you are, the more you pay for it by other people going before you in the potential games of rocket-tag.

Being a wizard just got tougher.

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House Rules: Initiative by BAB

Initiative By Base Attack Bonus

A simple house rule designed to alter the inherent power level of various classes.

Each combat round is broken into three phases.

In phase one, all characters and monsters with a bab equal to their HD go, in initiative order.

In phase two, all characters and monsters with a bab equal to more than half their HD (but less that their full HD) go, in initiative order.

In phase three, all characters and monsters with a bab equal to or less than half their HD go, in initiative order.

No other rules need change, and all three phases are still part of a single round. You can hold or ready an action to go in later phases, just as you could hold or ready and act at a lower initiative. As long as you aren’t using any 3pp rules that use initiative values to determine anything other than the order characters go in a round, you can just treat this as everyone going on phase one having a +100 bonus to their Initiative check, and every going on phase two having a +50 bonus.

Being a wizard just got tougher.

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Thematic Cheese Feat: High Priest

Sometimes what the GM and players both want is not some carefully balanced, playtested, and theorycrafted expansion of the rules usable by a broad range of characters.

Sometimes you just want some cheese of the right flavor.

High Priest

Regardless of your level or base of operations, you are an acknowledged leader within your religion, able to command vast resources and use pure presence to bring others to your cause.

Prerequisites: Cha 13, member of a church.

Benefit: You gain the benefits of the Leadership feat, except your followers and cohort don’t arrive (and aren’t replaced) automatically, Instead, when you drop a foe to 0 or fewer hit points, if you have a cohort or follower slot open that foe could fill (it is the appropriate level or level-equivalent) you can force the foe to make a Will save (DC 10 +1/2 your level + your Wisdom or Charisma modifier — whichever is higher). If it fails the save, rather that die or fall unconscious, it’s alignment changes to match your deity’s and it becomes a loyal cohort or follower (depending on what slot it took). The foe gains a +4 bonus to this saving throw for each of the things that is true; the foe is a priest or divine agent of another deity or philosophy; the foe has an alignment subtype that does not mach the alignment of your deity; the foe is already a follower or cohort.

Additionally, when in a settlement with a church to your deity, you can command any service that does not have a significant cost to your church. This normally includes feeding and housing a modest number of people and having local priests cast any spell with no costly material components or inherent risks. However, any service with a cost as high as a single gold piece costs the full amount, and you can never use this ability to turn a profit.

Additionally, you can cast atonement, as the spell, once per character level as a spell-like ability.

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Thematic Cheese Feats: Elven Curvedance

Okay, let’s get back to some game ideas!

Sometimes what the GM and players both want is not some carefully balanced, playtested, and theorycrafted expansion of the rules usable by a broad range of characters.

Sometimes you just want some cheese of the right flavor.

Elven Curvedance

You know the ancient, and nearly-lost, art of the wardance of the elven curveblade, which strongly encourages (though it does not require) mobility in combat.

Prerequisites: Str 13, Dex 13, proficiency with the elven curveblade.

Benefit: You can use your Dexterity modifier in place of your Strength modifier when making attack rolls with the elven curveblade, as if you had the Weapon Finesse feat for just that weapon. When you choose to do this, and you make only a single melee attack on your turn, you may also use your Dexterity modifier in place of your Strength modifier when calculating your damage bonus with the elven curveblade (including adding 1.5x your strength modifier when using the weapon two-handed).

If you have an option that you can normally add to a melee attack only when making a standard action or attack action for a single attack, you made add that to melee attacks with your elven curveblade anytime you only make a single melee attack on your turn. for example, if you have Vital Strike, you could use it with your elven curveblade on a charge (a single attack), even though Vital Strike does not normally allow that.

Special: This feat counts as Weapon Finesse for any feat or ability that has Weapon Finesse as a prerequisite or modifies how Weapon Finesse works, but you can only use such feats and abilities with an elven curveblade unless you actually have the weapons Finesse feat.

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Privilege: The Dice Game. An Allegory

I’ve been desperately trying not to write this allegory through game rules, because I’m not convinced either that it is particularly clever, or that any good will come out of its existence. But it also won’t get out of my head, so here it is.

In Privilege: The Dice Game, each person gets to roll one die. You get a number of points equal to your roll. Highest point total wins.

One of three different levels of player privilege is assigned based to each player based on factors outside they players control or merit.

Most Privileged each get to roll a d20.

Less Privileged get to roll 1d12.

UnPrivileged get to roll 1d6.

Now obviously this means that sometimes an UnPrivileged player will score more points than a Most Privileged or Less Privileged player. To the various Privileged players, this will often feel like they had no advantage, or that their advantage didn’t matter. They did have an advantage, of course. A massive one, in *circumstance*. If you offer to play another game with them, and ask what role they want in order to score the most points, none of them will decide to be UnPrivileged just because one once got more points.

Less Privileged players may focus more on the fact that Most Privileged players have a bigger advantage than they do, rather than the fact UnPrivileged players have a huge drawback compared to the Less Privileged.

The UnPrivileged are likely to complain the game sucks. And fir them it objectively does. And if they roll a 6, they will not feel the game is fair just because lots of Most Privileged and Less Privileged players roll a 5 or less.

Even if we adjust the game and say the UnPrivileged win ties, they are at a disadvantage. AND, at this point, any Most Privileged or Less Privileged player who ties with a UnPrivileged player may feel it’s “unfair” that they lose ties, claiming that the UnPrivileged have an advantage they don’t. This ignores that the UnPrivileged are still likely to score the fewest points, through no fault of their own.

We could even let the UnPrivileged roll 2d6 and take the better of the two results AND win ties, AND say if they roll two 6s they can roll a d20 and take THAT result if it’s better. And since that feel unfair to the Less privileged, we say that if THEY roll a 12 on their d12, they can roll a d6, and if it comes up a 6 they can roll a d20 and take that result if it is better.

And it’s still not a fair game, not because the UnPrivileged get two special rules and the Less Privileged get one, but because they are still systematically less likely to win than the Most Privileged.

Now, with these expanded rules there is no outcome that is impossible for any players. So, with this rule set, it is impossible to identify if a single player is Most Privileged, Less Privileged, or UnPrivileged just by being told their final score. Absolutely any player could, theoretically, get a point score from 1 to 20.

But if you are told the scores of 100 players all at the same level of Privilege, you are going to pretty easily identify which Privilege rank they all had.

End of Line

Considerations For Game Industry Work

So, assume for a moment that you have to pick from a range of projects available to you, and you can’t do them all. This isn’t necessarily a matter of being blessed with 7 companies all offering you too much freelance. You might be offered one or two simultaneous jobs by a long-time source of work. Or you might be asked to outline which of several lines you want to work on during an interview. Or you might have no work coming in from other sources, so you need to pick a project of your own to develop.

However it happened, you need to pit project outlines against each other, and decide which one you are going to do. So, how do your compare apples to cthulhupunk airship murder mysteries?

Here are some factors to consider.

MONEY

How much are you getting paid, and WHEN are you getting paid. This is not the end-all be-all of these consideration, but you have to include it. How much, under what circumstances, starting when, and ending when, if the money? I have taking pay rates that were 20% of my normal take, because the publisher promised (and delivered) “Payment by PayPal within an hour of turning it over.” I’ve also had times where 10 cents/word in 13 months sounded better than 8 cents/word in 6 months. I’ve taken royalties for the life of a product over flat rates, and vice versa, based on my needs and hopes. (I almost never accept royalties for the first 1 or 2 years of sales, because that discounts things like compilations and rereleases, which have made me tens of thousands of dollars over my career, but even then the right terms would make me do it.)

Know what money you have, what money you are getting, how much you TRUST that you’ll get that money when you are supposed to, and what money you need. If you have regular payments coming in or a “day job” that means your writing/game industry money is all gravy, you can take bigger risks and wait longer periods than if you need $50 to make a care payment next month.

FUN

The less you need the money, the more you can worry about fun. I have honestly considered defining “professional game designers not as people who make enough money to cover their expenses with industry work, or people who get paid for anything game-related, but as people who get paid to do game work they don’t find interesting. (I then decided I’m not the fucking high poo-bah of who is a game industry professional and gave up on the idea of defining squat, but I DO think people who can and do make money on game projects that don’t excite them have a useful and rarer professional skill.)

Not every project needs to be fun, but learn what you like and what you don’t, AND how it impacts your speed, satisfaction, burn-out potential, and so forth. If I love a project, I can do it faster and be happier, and that absolutely gets considered in my choice of projects.

GROWTH

Do you want to be better at what you do? Then value those opportunities that will help you grow. I have taken jobs, and even worked at companies, specifically because of the quality of designer, editor, and producer that lets me interact with. Working with great creative in different task and different kinds of projects very much helps me grow my skills. While I have never worked with anyone without learning SOMETHING from them, there are certainly people I learn more from than others.

Where possible, convince these people to be part of your own game company and pay them a cut of all the money you make, so they feel encourages to just sit around and say smart things. J (This is an advanced technique… )

CAREER PATH

This is harder to define, and not everyone is going to have the same career goals, but it’s worth looking at what projects will position you to do the things you want to do later in life. This can include taking types of projects you don’t have a track record with. For example when I had developed a strong reputation as a specialized game mechanics “crunch’ guy, I began looking for more adventures and worldbuilding projects to work on. And then right after those got published, I find myself in a game company interview being asked if I had done any adventures recently. (Phew.)

You may also find it useful to work with new people. A small project that doesn’t much interest you may be entirely worth taking if it gets your foot in the door with a company, property, or person you want to work with more. DON’T let yourself get taken advantage of (and if they want to, reconsider if you want to work with them), but do consider the value of taking on things outside your normal schedule or preferences to prove you can do a good job for them. I have, for example, taken more than one assignment on a Friday that was an emergency that needed to be done by Monday. Those never paid extra, but they did still pay well, and they let me prove I was reliable, useful, and able to work under crunch-time conditions.

Visibility can also be important. I did, in fact, “work for exposure” early in my career, writing reviews for TSR’s AOL content for no pay, and contributing to pro-am netbooks that were sold for money, without receiving anything but a credit. Those were both useful and paid off for me. Nowadays I’d recommend you NEVER do what I did, but it can totally be worth it to write for a blog or Patreon or social media without a guaranteed paycheck, assuming you own the material and that when money comes in you get your cut. I’m also fine with doing free work for projects that no one makes money on, like fan sites and charity projects, but beware. Those rarely boost your visibility any more than a good blog of your own material that you can control and own the rights to.

THE SCALES OF CONSIDERATION

No one but you can decide which of these factors are most important to you, and there are lots of other things that might influence your thinking. If you find something morally or ethically objectionable, don’t do it. If a friend did you a favor and needs one in return, feel free to cut them the same kind of slack you would if they needed someone to watch their pet for a vacation or pick up soup when they were sick… as long as it isn’t an ongoing thing.

And always check your assumptions in the middle, and at the end of each project. If it turns out you find satisfaction more important than money, it’s worth knowing. If you love doing something as a hobby but hate doing it as a job, it’s good to know. If you find it easier to make money writing games you hate than your existing corporate job, it’s good to know.

Contemplate, weight, balance, reconsider, and be ready to do the whole dance again for your next project.

SELF PROMOTE

And always, always find a way to turn every job into an ad for other ways for you to make money.

For example: “If you actually found that worth reading, why not become a patron, and support my efforts to blog on various topics?”

(Seriously, if this was helpful to you, why not throw a few bucks my way?)

A Fat Man’s Fashion Concerns

There’s no moral or point to this post, just my thoughts and experiences on what it’s like to worry about clothes as a fat man. It’s not really career, gaming, or geek-related, so feel free to skip it.

In many ways, I think it would make sense for me to ignore fashion entirely. I’m a 430 lb. man, plus or minus 2-3% of that depending on when you catch me. I am regularly mocked, and rarely even assaulted, based entirely on my obese appearance. Wearing a custom fit 3-piece suit doesn’t change that (I happen to know), and thus there’s a part of me that would like to paraphrase She-Hulk’s line “I’m six foot seven and bright green! People are gonna stare no matter how I dress!”

Sadly, I lack that level of self-confidence.

So, I strive for a level of comfortable casual 99.5% of the time, and dress up (as uncomfortable physically, psychologically, and sartorially as that always is) as needed for funerals, weddings, formal parties (which I mostly just avoid), and job interviews. Over the years that comfortable casual has evolved into jeans/khakis/dockers, an undershirt and a Henley (though with the occasional polo) and sneakers. Colors stick to a pretty narrow palate of grays, browns, blacks, darker blues, purples, reds, and greens, and rarely white.

I own a few things that fall outside of this. A mustard yellow Henley, for example. (The colors for fat men’s clothes are often described in food terms – I have much more mustard, chocolate, eggplant, and mint clothing than I do yellow, brown, purple, or green.) But that’s fraught with peril. I once wore the mustard Henley with khaki pants, and up[on entering a room literally silenced ongoing conversation as everyone stared at me in shocked silence at so much tan-to-yellow in one place. I counted to five before anyone managed to speak or look away.

I neither desire, nor manage, such attention well.

I like white, but it attracts too much attention. A white shirt on me can look like a spotlight trying to flag down passing planes. I do own some white undershirts, but they attract stains… and while dressing well doesn’t cut down on abuse, a fat man with a food stain does invite it.

I keep a Tide stick in my desk at work, so that a careless bite of lunch doesn’t send me into such a panic I have to flee home fighting tears.

Darker shirts are much more forgiving of a drop of food, and less likely to have an old stain I don’t notice become obvious in juuuust the right light. Light gray is about as bold as I get for outer shirts at this point.

I also prefer dark undershirts, because I can’t afford to replace my shirts often. At my size even t-shirts are often quite expensive, and sales are less common and more likely to only include things like bright orange camo patterns with a big red bear on the back… which I simply cannot wear. Cheap stores don’t go to my size. So I tend to wear my shirts until they are worn threadbare, and don’t have the luxury of giving them up with they develop tiny wholes. But a black undershirt generally conceals a tiny hole in a navy blue Henley. A white undershirt highlights such imperfections, limiting them to be matched with as-yet pristine shirts or my few light gray choices.

Owen3

Wearing a shirt with obvious flaws and holes is at least as embarrassing as wearing one with a food stain. I tend to check them every day, so see if this is when I need to retire one, and spend a few hours online trying to buy a replacement I can afford. Stores are a disaster for me, and I have almost entirely given up on them.

I have noticed that no one seems to care about the color of my socks. Even the most offensive of fat-shamer doesn’t care if my socks are white, black, purple, or have little brown bears all over them.

Often my geek choices are limited. There are t-shirts I would wear… that don’t come in my size. This is also often true of company shirts, vest, and jackets, though a work-around can generally be found.

At conventions and other geek-heavy events, I suffer a lot less harassment at the event itself… and a lot more just outside its borders. So that’s a wash.

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Turning Down Work is Part of the Job

I turned down an offer of work today. On a cool project I’d love to do, too.

Now, this is unquestionably the right decision for me. I am behind on a lot of projects, and booked out for months and months on Starfinder opportunities and other things. I can’t, responsibly, take on anything else right now. When I had a thin wedge of availability, I filled it with high-priority items I think will pay a lot of career dividends, and even that was as much excitement as smart planning (though it did get my Business managers approval).

But my Freelancer Reflexes remain strong. The idea of someone offering to pay me to make games, and declining, rubs me the wrong way and often sets of waves of near-panic. I mean, if I turn down work, people will stop offering to me, right? And then I’ll have huge gaps in my production, and everyone will forget who I am, and I won’t be able to get any work, and I’ll go broke and starve.

Yes, it’s not rational. But it is part of what drove me for so many years.

But being a GOOD freelancer, even a good creative employee, means giving the people paying you their money’s worth. And that means you can’t take on so much work that you either rush any of it, or end up not being able to complete it on time, or maybe at all.

Those are hard lessons to learn. Most freelancers I know, myself definitely included, make the mistake of agreeing to too much early on, and then re-make that mistake from time to time.

You can’t do everything. You need some down time. More work will come. And, in my experience, telling someone that you’d love to do a project, but right now you are overbooked, never causes them to write you off forever. Frequently, producers appreciate that you know your limits, and make notes to contact you for other projects later on.

So yes sometimes turning down work is part of the job.

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