Category Archives: Retrospective

Storytime: The Insane 20-Person, 14-Hour, Multiple ttRPG Game System Adventure I Played In At WorldCon 1984

Over the weekend I was reminiscing about my first big convention, the 42nd WorldCon when I was 13 years old, and how I wandered around by myself in LA with hundreds of dollars for most of a week. For those curious about the whole post, it’s at the end of this blog entry.

But one of the things I have gotten the most feedback on from that story was mentioning I played in a “20-player, 14-hour game of mixed Basic/Expert D&D, 1st ed AD&D, 2nd ed Boot Hill, & Metamorphosis Alpha.” And, yeah, that was pretty crazy. Several people have asked me to talk more about that game, and it was darn near 40 years ago, but I’ll give a quick rundown to the best of my recollection.

There were lots of “Open Gaming” rooms at the 1984 WorldCon, spread over numerous hotels, which were set aside for people to just organize their own game sessions. I am sure there were organized tournaments and scheduled games as well, but I didn’t interact with that end of things at all (and still rarely do). Instead, I had a backpack with my favorite characters, a bunch of dice, some snacks, and a couple of rulebooks, and looked for people interested in striking up an ad hoc game. That was how gaming had been handled in the tiny convention that was my first taste of cons in Norman the year before, so that was what I expected to be the “standard.”

And, there was a pretty robust 24/7 gaming scene in at least one of the hotels, and I got a few games in. But the one I remember best started about 5-6pm, I think on Thursday (might have been Friday), and came together because a charismatic young man (I thought of him as “an adult” at the time, I’d guess now he was somewhere in his 20s, likely college-aged) stood on a chair in one of the biggest open-game rooms, and shouted he would run a game for any number of people, allowing any characters, from any game system, all together.

There was a lot of slack-jawed disbelief, but when he started setting up multiple fishing tackle boxes of dice, miniatures, and terrain, a bunch of us got interested and went over to see what was up. There were 20 of us players (give or take), and only 3 open round banquet tables in the room. I mentioned there were spare tables a couple of floors down and a young woman (older than me, but I thought not by much — I do not remember her name… I don’t think though it might have been Susan, but she had what I thought was an adorable Canadian accent) said we should go steel them. And she was leading the mission, because she was going to playing an Expert Thief.

So a few of went with her, rode an escalator down one level, cleared and grabbed two round tables no one seemed to be using, rolled them down the hall, had 2-person teams brace them on the escalator for a ride up, and rolled them down to the game room.

The GM had the now 5 tables arranged in a circle, stored his stuff on the floor under them, stood in the middle, and explained the game. First, he really meant any character, any game system. We each got to do one thing in a round, and he’d deal with each of us in our native game system. If there was one monster, the Metamorphasis Alpha characters would fire gyrojet rounds at it, the various D&D players swing swords and fling spells, and the Boot Hill gang (all of one table IIRC) could fan revolvers and unload shotguns. I’m pretty sure he played fast and loose with the rules, all the rules, but it never interfered with the game.

I played a high-level cleric who worshipped Saint Cuthbert of the Cudgel, and carried said saint’s cudgel as an artifact. There were several D&D characters of various editions and classes, a flying psychic telekinetic blue whale and it’s ally a white 4-armed gorilla covered in chitinous armor plates, a Boot Hill outlaw gang (maybe called the Broken Trestle Gang?), and I am absolutely forgetting several folks.

The GM got straight to the set-up, explaining that each of us had a dream where we were told by a wispy voice that only we could save everything, and the End was coming to destroy the Demiurges, destroying all of reality, and we had to stop it. And then our characters woke up on an island covered in various ship, train, and carriage wrecks, with a huge ruby tower at the center. We roleplayed introductions briefly, dealt with the fact several characters thought they were still dreaming (or had gone mad, or were high on bad moonshine, or all of the above)… and then just as we were trying to figure out who would be in charge and what we were going to do, creatures that looked like the garthim from the Dark Crystal came wading out of the water to attack us, and they had small turrets on their shells with machine guns in them.

It was quickly clear that if you didn’t have cover, the machine guns would chew you up. And if you did have cover, the guns would chew it up in a few rounds. So we tried to cover each other and fell back toward the ruby tower. But we couldn’t get in the front door. So, the flying blue whale told us all to climb on board it, and it flew up the tower… and through a big crack in the sky.

And we went reality-hopping on a psychic mutant blue whale. If someone’s character died, they ran to go grab food (we all pitched in), then usually came back to watch, at least for a few hours.

I absolutely can’t remember everything that happened. We stayed up all night, eating cold pizza and drinking warm Pepsi, and I had the time of my life. There were undead WWII battleships, living “evil eyes” that would fly into the wound of a dead person to become a “third eye” and possess them, floating islands, reality and alternate planes curling back on each other, and at least a little time was spent in fantasy, Old West, and Generation Ship in Space settings. One of the D&D rogues ended up with a sawed-off Boot Hill shotgun. One of the Boot Hill gang members got a ray gun from Metamorphasis Alpha. The psychic blue whale sacrificed itself to save us when a spiked ghost train attacked us in the Astral Plane by crashing into it head-on, while an AD&D wizard riding it broke his Staff of the Magi on its cowcatcher.

We worked out that The End wanted all our worlds to stop existing, and had discovered our worlds all existed because the Demiurges willed them to, and all the Demiurges were gathered in one place, and it was going to kill them, but we could stop it. And the flying eyes all belonged to an extradimensional creature that served as a lookout for the End. It had a weird name, like “That Which Disapproves,” though I doubt that’s exactly right.

We played all evening, all night, and well into the next morning. Character after character died, but we knew it was okay, because if we stopped the End, they would live again, and if we didn’t we’d all cease to exist.

We ended up with just 5-6 of us left, in the Modern Era, in LA, hunting the End through the halls of a hotel… and finally found it. It was a scrawny, unimpressive, short boogeyman, lurking outside a room at the hotel. And it was looking through the door at… us.

Us, the players. We were the Demiurges. The End wanted to kill us, and if our characters didn’t stop it, we, as real-world people, would be killed by it. The idea thrilled me…and freaked me out.

But the last few heroes (including my cleric) destroyed the End, ensuring that the worlds of adventure would continue forever. And we realized we could, as our characters, go into the room and meet ourselves, as players. And in that moment, having gorged myself on junk food and soda and been awake for something like 36 hours and playing for 14, I believed. But, we decided in-character that might freak out the Demiurges, so we left.

Also, there was something about a dartboard. There was a folding-cabinet bar-style dartboard in that hotel conference room for some reason, and it came into play in the story of the End, but I can’t for the life or me remember how.

And the game ended. We exchanged long-distance phone numbers and address and promised to keep in touch and I, at least, had lost all that info by the end of the weekend.

Then I went and slept in the Anime Room, because it was closer than my hotel room.

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For those of you who want some context, here’s the story I posted on Social Media about my time at the 42nd WorldCon.

I don’t have kids, and I am well aware that things were different 40 years ago. But apparently even people my own age are shocked to learn my mother was fine with me wandering around LA on my own at age 13 with $500 on me.

Though to be fair, $300 of that was traveler’s checks.

It was for the 42nd WorldCon, and I was almost 14.

My mother went with me, and we had a hotel room, but we mostly checked in on a notepad in the room. We rarely saw each other.

She was filking. I was gaming.

I went to a Elfquest #20 Howl/release party. A woman dressed as Nightfall flirted with me and gave me first-ever romantic kiss (from someone I didn’t even know the real name of).

Saw the anime Lensman movie.

Was part of a banquet table heist so we could fit more gamers in a room.

Rode to Disneyland with C.J. Cherryh.

Ate breakfast at a diner counter at 4am, discussing Return of the Jedi with some nightflyers who weren’t, AFAICT, die-hard geeks.

Played a 20-player, 14-hour game of mixed Basic/Expert D&D, 1st ed AD&D, 2nd ed Boot Hill, & Metamorphosis Alpha.

Bought my first junk metal wall-hanged sword.
Broke my first junk metal wall-hanger sword.
Bought my second junk-metal wall-hanger sword.

Got offered, and declined, my first beer from a stranger.

Ordered a delivery pizza just for me to eat watching movies, for the first time.

Saw, for the first time, ALIEN, Dawn of the Dead, Heavy Metal, Flesh Gordon, Dark Star, Sapphire & Steel, The Quatermass Experiment, Mad Max, Life of Brian, Clockwork Orange, and Zardoz. The video quality was often terrible, and some may have been taped off movie screens.

That was my 2nd or 3rd scifi convention ever, and it would be a high-point until I got to a Gen Con in the late 1990s.

I was a BIG 13-year old, in both height and weight. I’d never been unsupervised while away from my home town before. We didn’t have cell phone, or pagers.

Now as it turns out, I was fine. I can’t say if it was genius parenting, or luck, but the experience was formative for me in a lot of ways. Not the least of which was I saw how total strangers reacted when someone whipped out a big wad of $20s, and stopped doing that.

For Starfinder: Squimic the Mimic

So, I wrote Squimic for an adventure back in 2018. The idea was that in a grey experimental base, the PCs would find Squimic in a lab, the result of a project the grays did not yet considered a success. I wanted to introduce an NPC gun that would talk to characters and grow with whoever carried it. But, my idea was complex, untested, and would have required GMs running followup adventures to ad lib Squimic’s responses since the authors of those adventures were writing them at the same time I was, and had no idea Squimic existed and thus could not include any guidance on how it would react to the events they were writing about.

Ultimately the developers who did a great job polishing my raw text into a finished adventure simplified Squimic into a “Living Transmutation Matrix,” and I think they did the right thing. An idea can be fun and perfect for some groups without being the right fit for every adventure.

But, since that adventure came out years ago (and was released under the OGL), I feel comfortable presenting my original open content version of Squimic here, for anyone who thinks a little mimic gun buddy is a good match for their campaigns. I’ve included all the text that would have been in that adventure if they’d gone with my version, including background information on the project and how the PCs were to find and interact with Squimic, but not any of the plot points, proper nouns the publisher used, the adventure name, or any of the other material the publisher marked as Product Identity in their Open Game Content declaration.

Squimic was found in a lab where it had been consistently used by a robot to shoot troll polyps.

S.Q.U.I – Mimic

A search reveals a dirty and battered data-tag, marked SQUI-mic, with further information encoded in a small computer chip. A close examination shows it actually says “S. Q. U. I. – mimic,” though the periods and first “mi-“ were concealed by dirt. Anyone can use a comm unit in their armor, or any tier of computer, to read the full encoded information stored in the tag. This reveals it is for a Special Qualities Unified Initiative Mimic. It’s clear the project name is “Unified Initiative,” the branch of that project that created this project is the “Special Qualities” division, and the test subject is a mimic.

In fact, Squimic is the only even-partially successful prototype of a special project to create small, cybernetically-enhanced mimics that could switch between taking the form of tiny creatures (especially vermin, rodents, and pets), and useable technological devices. The grays hoped to be able to breed these creatures to serve as tools of their espionage agents, but were concerned about Squimic’s intellect and independent motivations. They hoped repeated exposure to threats that required assistance (in the form of the robot arm) would cause Squimic to “normalize” the concept of just doing what they are told.

(Some of Squimic’s many possible forms. Art by Hasibul)

Squimic

Though Squimic is a living, sapient creature, they lack the ability to move or take most actions. Mostly they just take the form of various small arms, and shoots at things someone wielding them aims at and pulls their trigger (though Squimic can refuse to carry out such attacks if it wishes to). As a result, squimic is much closer to an item with some special rules than a creature, and is treated as such in its description.

Squimic can become any item level 1-3 small arm or basic or advanced melee weapon of light bulk or less that it is familiar with, and which uses batteries (of any capacity), darts, flares, petrol, rounds (of any kind) or scattergun shells as ammunition. It is currently familiar only with those the grays programmed into it (including all such presented in Chapter 7 of the Starfinder Core Rulebook, along with the tactical switchblade, wire garrote, personal cryospike, red star solar brand, subzero hail pistol, frost subduer, bruiser decoupler, bombard shellgun, vapor cavatation gun, bravado handcannon, and explorer handcoil from Starfinder Armory). Regardless of what kind of weapon Squimic is, they can accept any size battery, and use the battery for all ammunition usage of the weapon they are emulating (using the energy to generate darts, round, shells, and similar physical ammo as needed). Squimic can learn another weapon if it can examine one in detail over 10 minutes, and it meets all their other requirements.

Squimic can have one “ready” form they can assume as a full action (currently a vapor cavatation gun), and it can take any other form over the course of ten minutes. Squimic’s ready form can be changed with an 8-hour period of “downtime” that functions like sleep.

Squimic is currently treated as an item level 5 weapon for purposes of hardness, HP, saves, and so on. They act as though they had a tier-2 computer with an artificial personality for purpose of what skills they have and at what bonus. They count as both a weapon and an aberration for purposes of what spells and effects can function on them, and if an effect can work on both the caster may choose how to treat Squimic.

Squimic can grow in power if someone provides enough UPBs for it to eat and makes a successful Diplomacy check (DC 15 + 1.5x Squimic’s current item level). Squimic can never be of higher level than the number of ranks in Diplomacy of the character attempting to convince them to grow, and the highest item level small arm or melee weapon of light bulk they can become is always their current item level -2. Squimic’s effective computer tier is always equal to half its current item level.

Squimic can only consume raw UPBs, or functioning and fully-repaired weapons, armor, and armor upgrades. Items must have an item level no greater than Squimic’s item level +2, and if they have an item level lower than Squimic’s -2. Squimic gains only 10% of the UPB value of the item. The total UPBs Squimic consumes determines their maximum item level.

Item Level Total UPBs Consumed

6 4,000

7 6,500

8 9,000

9 12,500

10 19,000

11 24,000

12 32,000

13 48,000

14 65,000

15 110,000

16 150,000

17 235,000

18 350,000

19 550,000

20 900,000

Characters may well have questions for Squimic, which they answer to the best of their ability. Some typical questions and answers are detailed below.

Q: Who are you? (or What are you? Where did you come from? What’s your name?)

A: “I don’t know! I woke up next to a broken tube, and everything was shaking. There was a tag on the tube marked “SQIU-mic,” so I guess my name is Squimic.”

Q: How can you become a functioning weapon?

A: “Oh, I can become all sorts of things! They just… appear. In my head. And if I think real hard, I turn into them! I… I don’t know how. Or why.”

Q: Who created you? What are your plans now? What can you tell us about this facility?

A: “I don’t know about anything outside this room. There was some sirens and explosions earlier, but I didn’t go look what made them. I have no idea where I come from, or why I was brought here, or what I am going to do next!”

Q: Why were you a plasma pistol?

A: “I kept being put in that broken case with those squirmy things, and they’d try to hit me! And there was this robot arm that would squeeze me, so I became different guns with the robot hand pulling my trigger, to see what would keep the squirmy things from hurting me, and this worked the best.”

Squimic has no hostile intent toward the PCs, though they defend themselves if attacked. They are afraid to explore beyond this room by themselves, and are unwilling to be sent anywhere on their own, but are willing to accompany the PCs, and even act as a weapon for a character as long as the PCs promise not to use them as an expendable scout or abandon them.

Squimic is happy to help, as long as the PCs treat them reasonably well (not sticking them in a bag, not using them to look around dangerous corners, and so on). Each time Squimic feels abused its attitude toward the PCs goes down one step (beginning with neutral), and it takes a Diplomacy check to improve. Squimic functions as a standard weapon for anyone they feel neutral or better towards, but refuses to function for anyone they feel unfriendly or hostile towards.

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I Am A College Dropout And Professional Writer

I do not have a college education.

I can, technically, list “some college” on forms or resumes as my highest educational level, but I got 0 credit hours from that “some college.” It wasn’t a great time for me, and I failed everything. Yes, every single class. For three semesters in a row. And, really, the impressive part of that story is that I talked my way past the admissions panels and deans of schools twice after failing every single class I took. While my close friends and colleagues know I can be a tenacious debater (I mean, I also talked my way into my High School diploma, which I was technically 1/2 credit short of earning), I have to suspect being a cis white male who was the son of two university employees (a professor and an executive secretary trusted to log information about radioactive materials) has as much to do with it as my blessing of blarney.

I was invited into a scholastic fraternity too, after three semesters of all-failing grades. So, yeah, I was treated by a nonstandard set of rules.

But I gave up, and walked away, and got jobs as a pizza delivery driver (a few times), movie theater usher (for one week, before I quit), banquet setup crew, short order fry cook, and the manager of a student union’s parking garage. All the while, what I wanted to do was write, preferably for big professional game companies.

And that left me in a bit of a pickle when I was applying for those professional jobs in the game industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As tempting as it was to write “Education: Talked my way into a High School Diploma and got enrolled in the same college three times despite failing ever class every semester — ask me how!” I’m not a big risk-taker when it comes to promoting myself. I was aware that cutesy things (sending in your resume as a character sheet or formatted as an adventure, doing it on pink paper with sketches of unicorns in the margins, literally folding it into origami that popped open as you tugged on it) were things some other applicants did, and that I just lacked the aura of whimsey to pull off.

So, for years: “Education: High School Degree, Aegis English Advanced Writing Program, Some College.

(And “Aegis English was just a special talented student program in High School, but I figured it sounded cool, and if someone asked me about it at least I was at an interview stage, where I could pile on the effort to be a strong advocate for my position.)

I picked and choose from other jobs that made me sound organized and team oriented. Being a manager of, well, anything was better than a big gap in my work history. Customer service at a bank suggested I could pass a background check. Most of the rest of it? Chucked in the proverbial bin.

Once I was actually on-staff at Wizards of the Coast for 14 months from 2000-2001, that became the crown jewel in my resume for a while. I figured a staff game industry job, followed by dozens of freelance projects for the same company, suggested I did good work. Then repeated freelance work for other companies. Then there was regular work for Super Genius Games. Then a developer gig for Green Ronin, which became the thing I built all my resume around.

And I began to wonder… was listing “High School, Some College” helping me, at all. Or, with no degree to point to, no specialty listed, no ongoing education in years, was I just highlighting one of my weaknesses? If I could get some staff jobs and tons of freelance, didn’t that matter a ton more than a sheepskin? No matter how undereducated I was, I could clearly put words together in a way that generated repeat business, which ought to be proof enough I wasn’t an idiot.

Now, to be clear, if I HAD had a degree in anything relevant, like English, Literature, History, Archeology, Film Studies (you know, just to mention some stuff there are Paizo employees with degrees in), sure, I’d include it. But there comes a point where the fact I was the manager of a parking garage, or could bread and fry cutlets, doesn’t really say anything about my ability to be a good fit for a staff job about making up worlds and rules and adventures.

It was actually my application to Paizo in 2014 when I decided “Fuck listing my education, with its high school and a few hours of college but no degree. I have more than 15 years of relevant, noteworthy, easily referenced work in this field. No one gives a shit if I don’t have a degree.” What I did do on that resume was list every single publication I had been paid for and was credited with. Every Dragon article. Every d20 Weekly byline. Every sourcebook, pdf, online adventure, and official website rules-answers article. Pages and pages of them.

Quantity, I felt, had a quality all it’s own.

(It was also, I have since been told by people who had to read it, a bit much. Nowadays I tend to lump things like Dragon articles and official advice columns into an entry that says “Various articles for Dragon Magazine, published from 1998 to 2009, list available upon request.”

And I can safely say in nearly a decade since making that decisions, whether applying at small ttRPG game companies, megacorporations, or start-ups, no one has asked me what my educational background it.

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The 40th Anniversary of My First RPG Character

I remember my first ttRPG character, who was also my first D&D character, quite well. I made him in the summer of 1982, when my sister and I were staying with our aunt, uncle, and cousins while our parents took a trip to Europe. My uncle had a copy of the 1st edition AD&D DMG in his Den of Geeky Stuff (along with an Apple computer with a flight simulator, Go and Shogi sets along with books on rules and variations on those and Chess and other classic games, model train books, model trains, a vast collection of Oz and Asterisk and Obelisk books, and I am sure some things that someone did not make a permanent impression on me). I was drawn to it, he saw me reading it, and he told me if I could figure out how the game worked, we’d play.

Since we only had the DMG, “figuring out how the game worked” turned out to be my first foray into RPG design, which thus precedes me ever actually playing an RPG. But that’s a story for a different time.

I named my first player character VanBuskirk. Now, a specific, small subset of classic scifi fans will immediately know where I got that name – it’s a secondary character from the Lensman series, which I was obsessed with at the time… and oblivious to the failings of. I still love those books, but not only do I embrace others’ criticism of them, but I also have my own critiques as well. The first Lensman story, “Galactic Patrol,” will hit the public domain in a decade or so and I may… okay, that’s also a story for a different time.

In Lensman, vanBuskirk is a Space Marine, and a heavy worlder, and a big guy, and a wielder of Space Axes, and if you happen to have played games I had a PC in, a lot of those elements may well strike you as familiar. So, you might think I’d make my PC a dwarf, or half-or, or at least a human. But, no, I decided to play an elf, I suspect largely due to the influence of the Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings movie. Of course if I’m making a character based on an axe-wielding Space Marine, I must have made him a fighter, right?

Well… fighter/magic-user/thief.

See, as best as my young self could figure it from just the 1st ed AD&D DMG, an elf could take three classes at the same time, and why wouldn’t you do that? Being a fighter meant I could have a Space Axe (yes, I wrote up special rules for space axes.) Being a magic-user meant I could “put on my screen” (a personal defensive barrier, you know, the shield spell). And being a thief meant… well, it meant my character wasn’t stuck in a dead-end career. See, elves had a level cap as fighters and magic-users (yes, I mean they literally couldn’t gain above a given level in those classes, which at the time didn’t feel weirder than Strength going from 3 to 25 but potentially having a percentile score if you had an 18, even though no other ability score than went from 3 to 25 had a set of percentile sub-scores if you had an 18). So, if I wanted my fighter/magic-user Space Marine to keep growing in power as well, he had to be a thief as well.

Is that Power Gaming? Maybe. I’ve been guilty of that from time to time, over the decades. I honestly feel a chunk of it isn’t my fault – if your character concept is Lancelot or Superman or Jedi Master Luke Skywalker or a Highlander, or even a Space Marine, you are going to want to be able to pull off the kind of badass stuff those characters do. And, especially in the 1980s, there wasn’t a lot of discussion in the game-playing space of considerations beyond following the rules, not cheating, and everyone working together. I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then, and often have fun playing someone with one or more major flaws, but that didn’t come naturally to me.

My first game with VanBuskirk was run by my uncle, and the other player was my sister. She thought the whole thing was pretty dumb, and while I rushed to go explore the “dark opening in the rocky ground, with uneven stairs descending into a lightless pit,” she could not imagine why her character (who had food, and money, and camping equipment) would think that was a good idea. My uncle was GMing for the first time and tried having her see glints of gold at the bottom (which did not impress her, she *had* gold), making it rain (her character just pitched a tent), the area begin to flood (in which case she DEFINITELY wasn’t going underground), and then, in desperation, having her hear a cat crying in distress from the bottom of the stairs.

She rushed right in.

We had a single fight (to save a golden-furred kitten), and that was the end of the game. We never picked it up again. I was hooked forever. My sister was… not.

But VanBuskirk kept popping up for several years. Since I had no one at home to play with, my mother got advised to get me Tunnels & Trolls, which had solo adventures, and I made a new version of VanBuskirk (who had a wild career, from Buffalo Castle to a dungeon run through Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon, Naked Doom, Dargon’s Dungeon, and Beyond the Silvered Pane, to eventually tromp for months through City of Terrors, the associated Arena of Khazan, and down into the Sewer of Oblivion).

He became one of my main supporting NPCs in early AD&D games I ran (along with Frost the Gadget Girl, Father Mathew Cuthwulf – Bishop of Cuthbert, Sasha the Seeress, and the Archmage of Twelve Towers – all of whom have their own stories, for another time), and was my main playing-at-conventions characters throughout my teens. Conventions were one of the main places I played ttRPGs for a while, and everyone would just pull out a pile of coke-stained paper character sheets and find something the DM would allow. To accommodate this, VanBuskirk existed at different character levels, loot totals (from “scant” to “Monty Haul” to “Mounting ion cannons on the mechanical spider he claimed after taking it from Lolth, who now works for him”), and even multiple rule systems. For a while, if I was playing a fantasy game, I was probably playing some version of VanBuskirk.

And then, sometime in late middle school or early high school, I… stopped. I don’t remember the last time I played some version of VanBuskirk. But as I had more friends, and played in more regular campaigns with continuity, and used conventions more as places to play something new, VanBuskirk stopped meeting my needs. I kept all his character skeets for a long time. Then just a few key ones. Then just his original T&T sheet and one yellow parchment-patterned D&D-compatible sheet with a vaguely demigod version of him.  

And then, one day while moving, I realized I hadn’t used him for anything for more than a decade. And I let him go.

There are characters I get the itch to replay or recreate, from time to time. Father Cuthwulf and Frost, to name two. More recently Solnira, Temple, Kilroy, Celestial, and Lord Brevic Falkavian. I don’t do it, because like ice sculpture, or performance art, part of the appeal of the memories of those characters are the time and place in which they existed. If I tried to remake them, in a new time, a new game system, or with new players, it wouldn’t feel the same. And, besides, I have hundreds of ideas for characters I have never gotten to play, so why take up rare game slots with things I have done before?

But I never have any urge to recreate VanBuskirk. He met my needs when I was first gaming, and I appreciate all he did for me and went through in the name of my entertainment, even as a fictional character, but I don’t need an elven Space Marine fighter/magic-user/thief with a giant spider mecha anymore. Even if I was in a game where that was a reasonable character concept (and, yeah, I’d play in that game in a hot second), it’s not VanBuskirk I’d be going for.

But he came into existence 40 years ago this summer, and while I don’t think of him much anymore, I thought he deserved this one memorial. And, I hope, people might enjoy hearing how insane my first few ttRPG character concepts were.

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Retrospective, The Past (Nearly) Decade

Roughly nine years ago, I began working with Green Ronin on-staff rather than as a freelancer. They very quickly became some of the people I trust most and love most fiercely in this industry. I’ve been a Ronin, on and off, ever since. I have learned more from them than I can ever explain, and if you enjoy anything I’ve made since 2013, no matter who published it, the Ronins get some of the credit.

Exactly eight years ago (to the hour), Lj and I packed up our household and moved to the Pacific Northwest, so I could work at Paizo Inc. I wanted to spend time with yet more of the greatest creatives in the world, and I have no regrets in that department. I wish I had handled some things differently, and that housing costs hadn’t grown at a rate I didn’t conceive of, but the people I got to know, friends and family-of-choice I made, and the projects I got to be part of are among my greatest joys even today.

Roughly three years ago, we left for Indiana, for a lower-stress, lower-cost-of-living career move. That didn’t go as planned, but given the friends I made, I can’t find it in me to regret it.

Roughly two years ago, during the pandemic, we moved back home to Oklahoma. That was never the plan, and in many ways it felt like total failure on my part. But it’s also where my family and the friends I’ve known for 40 years and more live, and being home as the world churns has helped keep me sane.

I don’t know what the next chapters will be. They won’t be anything I imagined 8 years ago. I’d love to find a full-time steady remote game industry job with benefits… but I’m not counting on unicorns.

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On Education, Experience, and Crowdfunding in the Game Industry

So, let me start with this: My industry opinions are based purely on my experience. I don’t have a writing degree, business degree, or any college degree. I barely passed High School. I lack any certifications or formal training. My only claim to knowing what I am doing is that I keep getting paid to do it. What I do know, I learned over 25+ years being in the industry, doing dumb stuff that taught me not to, and listening to people who were smarter, better educated, and more experienced than I am.

That’s often meant watching changes impact the tabletop game industry, and trying to figure out what they mean as they happen. A great example of that is crowdfunding. While there were forms of crowdfunding when I first got into the industry in the 1990s, it was far less common, successful, or sophisticated than it is today. This often leads people to wonder, why do companies insist on crowdfunding games now, when they didn’t used to have to? In my experience, the biggest reasons for the change toward using crowdfunding are threefold.

First, pre-orders basically do not exist anymore. In the 80s and 90s, you could solicit a game product through the three-tiered distribution channel, and get pre-orders that both paid you for a chunk of your total print run months before you had to make them (especially before you had to pay the printer’s bill), and gave you some idea what the total demand for that product might be. If you were thinking of printing 10,000 copies, and pre-orders were 500, you knew you had way overshot the level of interest. If orders were 9,5000, you knew you should print more.

This allowed you to make s big a print run as you could, driving down per-unit costs, without a serious risk of overprinting. This made products overall more profitable. The profit on selling 100,000 units is very different between one 100k print run, and five 20k print runs.

(As an important aside: Knowing how many copies of a gamebook sold doesn’t tell you how profitable it was. How many copies were in pdf or some other electronic format? How many were direct sales? How many foreign sales? How many print runs did it take to produce the volume sold, and at what economy of scale? Was it priced right to begin with? This, by the way, is one reason some things that were popular and sold out don’t get reprinted. If you needed a print run of 20k to make a reasonable profit, and it took 3 years to sell through, and 90% of your sales were in the first 90 days, you likely don’t want to reprint. Because if you print less than 20k more units, you won’t make enough profit, and if it takes 6 years to sell through another 20k at the post-first-release sale rate, your money is tied up in the print run (and warehousing costs), instead of new things that sell faster. Of course, this can be another place where crowdfunding can be helpful. I suspect it won’t be long before it’s typical for game companies to crowdfund reprints. They can set a minimum level to make a profit, and only reprint if they hit that. That’s win-win for consumers and biz.)

Second, crowdfunding a project creates an opportunity for a major marketing push. There used to be multiple tabletop game magazines. You could buy an ad in Dragon, Dungeon, White Dwarf, Pyramid, (or any of a dozen other options depending on timeframe and market) and put your product in front of tens of thousands of eyeballs. There’s no one great place, or half-dozen good places, to do that anymore. And even if there were, without strong preoders, it’s hard to create a useful call to action for a product that brings in a lot of money for the creator when they need it.

But crowdfunding sites allow you to use mailing lists from old projects to contact new people, and multiple different game sites report on new crowdfunding projects getting you much more attention at no cost. (And if you use Backerkit and similar crowdfunding support sites, you can pay for ads to be put in front of large groups of market-appropriate consumers.)

Third, there’s not much widespread evidence to suggest sales during a crowdfunding campaign reduce sales made later through normal venues. Selling 2k extra copies during a crowdfunding campaign doesn’t seem to mean fewer sales over the life of the product in stores. (There are people who disagree with this claim, and that’s fair. And for a specific store, region, or market, it might not be accurate. But my experience from publisher-side observations is enough to convince me that, as a broad trend, this is true.) And crowdfunding sometimes sells 20k copies (or even 200k rarely) of products that similar ones without crowdfunding sell 2,000.

And, of course, game prices have not kept up with inflation. The vast majority of game companies are strapped for cash. This was true even before the pandemic, and the “Extinction-Level Events” that have come with it. So, maximizing the potential for income while minimizing the risks is not just attractive or an effort to money-grab, in many cases it’s an effort to avoid bankruptcy and having games disappear off the shelves entirely.

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Letting Dead PCs Die

I have had my fair share of dead PCs get returned to life in ttRPGs. Often they are dead so briefly, and with such little consequence, it doesn’t really feel like they died at all. Brought back by spells within 6 seconds of joining the choir invisible (not even enough time to see if they are an alto or soprano among the spirits), given reprieve by a GM retcon, or just having their life restored off-screen as part of treasure division, some characters’ deaths have no more impact on their narrative than tossing out the laser pistol they carried during the nightmare invasion of Ragesh III for a more expensive model that does 1d8 instead of 1d4.

Even among characters who needed more effort put in by friends and allies to return to the mortal coil, being temporarily dead is rarely an interesting enough part of their story than any of us sit around and recount when we are telling imaginary war stories. Being temporarily dead is mostly a hiccup, a plastered-over accident we erase because we’d all rather keep telling our parts of that character’s story.

It doesn’t have to be that way. When my wife’s cleric in IFGS (live-action foam-sword fantasy D&D-style larping) died, an entire game was written and produced for her closest friends to bring her back. Her soul wasn’t responding to normal resurrection magics, and we had to travel through her most vivid memories to find it and convince it to return. This meant playing through the biggest, most memorable encounters of her previous IFGS adventures, many of which some of us had gone through with her, and recreate he greatest victories (and, in the case of getting burned by one glyph she mis-named, we thought we needed to recreate her failure as well). All that lead to finally finding her in a kind of lesser heaven, happily keeping house, and somehow convincing her she was needed to keep fighting the forces of evil away from a world where the fire was always warm and the baked bread always fresh.

THAT return to life some of us still talk about.

But for my own characters, it’s much more often the ones who stay dead who get their stories told by other players. When the rarely heroic Pallinor flew across the chasm moat to take on 5 apprentice warlocks, keeping them from casting spells at any of his allies so they could fight their way across the bridge, his success ensuring their victory but at the cost of his own magic being snuffed out and plummeting to his death. When the Monitor overloaded the reactor in his powered armor to self-destruct and blow up himself and 7 Sentry war-bots, ensuring the young mutant girl Olivia could escape, and become the leader and heroine Emerald a generation later. Those deaths were never undone, and it made the character’s sacrifices mean more to me, and be notable enough that other people who were there sometimes tell their tales.

Because the ending for most of my characters is that the one-shot game was a one-shot, or the adventure path ended when someone moved rather than when we finished it, or the campaign’s GM lost interest, or schedules changed, or personal quarrels made a group not want to get together for that game anymore.

My fictional characters who lived are rarely as memorable as those who died… and stayed dead.

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My Evolution as a Tabletop RPG Player, Part 1. The Beginning

The idea of a tabletop roleplaying game was so unbelievably powerful and alluring when I first encountered it in 1982, it did not matter how good or bad the rules were. In fact, it didn’t matter if we even had the rules–the group I first played with (myself, my sister, and my uncle Lucien) literally only had the hardback 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide available to us. But the very idea of a game where you took on the role of a heroic character and played through your own adventures was so seductive that I crafted (terrible) rules to replace the Player’s Handbook, and we managed two game sessions.

I was hooked forever. To the best of my knowledge, neither my uncle or sister ever played again.

Part of the appeal was that I was an voracious reader, and always got through series I loved faster than they were produced. And, in many cases, the pulp novels that lined the hallway to my bedroom in my childhood home stopped having new entries before I was even born. I hated getting invested in a character and having the stories about them just… stop.

But here was an opportunity to make my OWN stories. To my 11-year-old self, it had all the exciting appeal of playing cops & robbers, but with RULES and a simulated semi-objective reality attached so everything didn’t just devolve into yelling “Bang! Bang!” “You’re Dead!” “Am Not!” “Are Too!” (or, at least, that happened less often).

I was a child with a new toy, and it was better than any toy I had ever had previously. I was already dipping my hand into game design, on an ad-hoc, houserule basis, but I wasn’t really questioning the basis of the games I played, or the stories they encouraged me to tell. In the first few years I played a lot of Tunnels & Trolls solo modules, played a massive amount of D&D hybrids (blending AD&D 1st ed, OD&D, and Basic D&D however made sense at a given session),played a little Car Wars (but made a LOT of Car Wars designs), and played a surprising amount of Secret Gamma Hill World Busters Alpha (smooshing Gamma World, Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, and Metamorphosis Alpha into one reality-hopping, post-apocalypse-retro-Saturday-Afternoon-B-Movie mess, which only worked because no one questioned it much).

I had only two regular groups early on — the School Recess Crowd, and the game my mother ran for I and several friends every Sunday (in which she discovered young boys would shut up, listen to her, and tackle math, history, geography and logic puzzles if she made it needful for the solution of a dungeon room). Everything was fair game. We all borrowed from movies, books, comics, and other games. I grabbed every RPG I could, even ones I never got to play or only played 1ce or 2ce, and Traveller, Space Opera, Champions, Empire of the Pedal Throne, the Morrow Project, and Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game, all took up more and more space in my room, as action figures, brick-building sets, and plastic army men slowly lost their appeal.

But I was generally still only playing with people I knew from other walks of life in 1982 and 1983. A few school friends, family, and people my family arranged for me to meet. I wasn’t developing a circle of friends FROM gaming yet, nor expanding into all the wide and various other forms of tabletop games. I wasn’t questioning HOW to play games, or even WHY, or considering there might be good ways, bad ways, and even damaging ways.

Not yet.

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My Early Animation Fandoms

I find it fascinating when I talk to other game creators, about what they do and don’t consider strongly influential to their love of speculative fiction and their foundational fandoms. For me, fandom and animation have always gone hand-in-hand, and while there are numerous fandoms I am part of that are primarily consumed in other formats, I can trace easy throughlines from the earliest animation I consumed to a lot of my current preferences. I’m especially bemused when I mentions something I think of as iconic and core to the geek zeitgeist, and discover some of the people I am talking to have never heard of it.

Like a lot of Gen x-ers, I grew up with cartoons that were strongly tied to toy lines — G.I. Joe, Transformers, Masters of the Universe, and so on. But before those, I got exposed to a lot of content that drew from varied sources and traditions. It’s impossible to understand my creative influences and impulses without knowing where it started, which had two primary sources — pulp novels, and animated tv shows. I’ll look at pulps later, so for today it’s a quick rundown of some of my earliest animation fandoms.

Astro Boy: My first anime, in the super-early 1970s. I can’t remember any specific episode from that time, and I vaguely recall it was broadcast locally at like 6am weekday mornings.

Battle of the Planets: I encountered this before Star Blazers, and as a youth was a huge fan (though even a a child I knew there was something odd about the animation quality difference in the 7-Zark-7 sequences). As I grew, this fandom did not grow with me. I have seen the original Gatchaman and later iterations of it, and despite how much I loved many of the elements as a child, it just doesn’t speak to me anymore.

Fat Albert: This fandom did not last, and in fact became painful for me. But my conceptual love of protagonists working out of junkyards starts here. I was always obese, even as a pre-teen child, and Fat Albert was the only obese hero on TV who was shown as part of a powerful physicality rather than Nero Wolfe-like sitting genius, and was never mocked or belittled for his size, which he could use to his advantage.

The Herculoids: I think this is my earliest science-fantasy fandom — before Thundaar the Barbarian or He-Man, there were the Herculoids. I didn’t get to see them on first run, and their syndication schedule wasn’t something I ever managed to sync up with, but whenever I caught an episode, I was enrapt. This, of course, is another example of me loving pulp concepts in multiple formats.

Johnny Quest: Did I mention I love pulps?! Well, the original 1960s series is a big part of why. And while the show absolutely has flaws worthy of criticism, it was also formative in my love of action adventurers who face a weird world of hidden threats without superpowers, and while trying to make the world a better place. Also, dinosaurs and hurky robots.

Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies: Originally shorts shown before movies, these classic Bugs Bunny et al cartoons were staples on TV as I grew up… and were my introduction to classical music. The run from 1944 to 1969 still amuses me when i see them today, and I was enrapt when they came on TV in the 1970s and early 80s. I very much never had the same reaction to similar cartoons of the era, such as Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Yogi Bear, Droopy, or Mickey Mouse (though I would watch them when nothing else was on).

The Marvel Super Heroes: This was the first TV show based on Marvel comics characters, made in the 1960s. In a series of 7-minute segments, it told stories about Captain America, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, and the Sub-Mariner. My love of powered armor, which was bolstered by the Lensman and Starship Troopers novels, was absolutely influenced by the Iron Man segments of this show. At the time I also dug Thor and Hulk super-hard, but those faded as a grew to be more in keeping with my generic like of superheroes. For whatever reason, the Sub-Mariner never interested me. While I would watch the better-known SuperFriends later in life, it never held the same appeal for me.

Popeye: As a child, the B&W Popeye cartoons were something I looked forward to every afternoon, after school. Popeye felt like a modern Aladdin to me, and a pulp adventurer who could stand next to Tarzan, Thuvia, and Sherlock Holmes. I grew out of this fandom, with the 1980 live-action movie (which I did enjoy) pretty much serving as the capstone on my interest in the character, though i do still have a fondness for the squinty hero.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?: This is the original Scooby-Doo, in 1969 and 1970, and then in reruns forever. My first procedural fandom. Despite having a talking dog, there mystery in this was never, ever supernatural. This show literally taught me to be skeptical, and also got me interested in horror concepts (though it was not itself truly a horror show). It also taught me that the villain is often driven by pure greed, and evil can be pretty unimpressive, while trying to build its own reputation. these lessons have remained relevant my entire life.

Speed Racer: My first vehicle crush was the Mach 5, and I was watching this basically as soon as I could turn on the TV by myself. My love of Speed Racer lead directly to my love for the Car Wars line of games, and while I adored the US live-action movie, and have a huge nostalgia for the original anime, it’s not an active fandom for me these days.

Star Blazers: I watched this in the early 1980s, and was exposed to it just before I encountered ttRPGs. I became, and remain, a lifelong fan of nearly all versions of this. The Yamato/Argo was an obsession of mine for much of my life, and I can still be made to cry by watching some sequences from any of its iterations. More than Star Trek, more than Star Wars, equaled only by my Lensman fandom, this was my biggest early scifi mania.

Star Trek: The Animated Series: I watched these, either first-run or super-early syndication. I remember liking them better than TOS, which was in reruns, which is likely because I was stunningly young, and they were shorter–but maybe also because they could do more visually odd characters and creatures.

Thundaar the Barbarian: My first post-apocalypse fandom, and one of my earliest science-fantasy fandoms. I watched these first-run, and loved them. Yes, it’s a pretty obvious mash-up of Conan and Star Wars with nonsensical backgrounds of a ruined civilization, but what’s wrong with that? Thundarr is why I got into Gamma World, and it remains something I would love to see a good reboot of (and would hate to see a bad reboot of…). You can trace and interesting line from Thundaar to Blackstar to He-Man… and I liked each of those a bit less than the one before it. 😛

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New Video: Anniversaries and Vengeance

Today is my 3oth wedding anniversary with my lovely wife.

And it’s time to tell the story of my longest-delayed vengeance.

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