Category Archives: Retrospective

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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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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My Teachers: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and RPGs

Science fiction taught me that being smart and creative was valuable.
Fantasy taught me that monsters can be defeated by both champions and brave common folk.
Roleplaying games taught me I could make friends.

Gotta Catch this *One*

Lj and I ran errands today, and ended with lunch at Godfather’s Pizza in Federal Way. They are apparently a major Weekend Birthday Party stop, and it was fun to see so many very different families having fun together.

About halfway through our meal a new family came in with birthday decorations including a very large Pikachu balloon. Just as they came in, the string on that one balloon broke, and it escaped upwards to an elevated corner of the ceiling.

A few minutes later, the mom borrowed a broom and was trying to bat the balloon down to get it within reach. After she had tried for a bit, i could see she simply lacked the height and arm length to pull it off.

I went over and asked if she would like help from someone taller. I have been told I can be imposing, so I stayed out of her personal space and kept my arms to my sides as I asked. She enthusiastically agreed she’d love help, and passed me the broom.

I almost got the balloon twice, but couldn’t quite keep the balance long enough. I asked the very helpful Godfathers employee who was assisting if they happened to have a *second* broom. Lj asked if I planed to use them like forceps, and I confirmed that was the case. We got a second broom, I managed to use the two as enormous tongs, and recovered the balloon into the mother’s hands. She thanked us profusely.

This is a VERY different kind of work that I have been doing lately, and it felt really good to help out with a random child’s birthday decorations.

Also, I caught a pikachu.

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My One Gygax Story

My one and only Gygax story.

New Year. Good Luck.

There are two things I have done every Dec 31st in recent years — a retrospective about the year from my point of view, and a war-report-style description of all the fireworks I am hearing from wherever I am.
This year, I am doing neither.
My voice gets heard. A lot. Way out of proportion with its value, I suspect. And somehow, describing loud celebrations as if they were actual conflict just doesn’t seem funny or clever this year.
Instead, I open up this space for other folks. Comment about your year, if you wish.
But the universal rules of my wall remain. Keep it friendly. No insulting other people’s thoughts, no snarking about anyone who might read this. True public officials are fair game, if relevant to your whole year, but no going after other people on this thread, through either aggression of passive-aggression.
I hope you all have a better 2017 than 2016. Some of you, I hope have a MUCH better year, even while I fear it won’t be so.

Warrior Bunnies of the Dark Borough

Before today, I never wrote down the rules for the simplest RPG I ever designed.

It was when my father was in rehab for a couple of months, his last effort at getting over his alcohol addiction. While it’s not germane to the story at hand, I’ll note he got sober, and stayed sober for a year or so before he began his long, final slide. I value that time with him very much.

As I recall, the place was called Valley Hope. Families would come in for a week of therapy and counseling toward the end of a patient’s stay. I was early in my freelance career, so I could manage that, as did my mother and (IIRC) my sister.

During a group session we talked about what we did, and I mentioned I was trying to start an RPG-writing career. One of the other people there, who had obviously had a much, much rougher life than I and was early in the rehab process, approached me after group to ask what a roleplaying game was. I explained, and they said they’d love to try that, but obviously we couldn’t because I didn’t have any games with me.

But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

So I said I could run a game, it’d just be *very* simple. The interested person got another patient and we spent most afternoons playing. They both said the only thing they could imagine being other than themselves were bunnies, and felt convinced there was no way that could be in an rpg.

I mentioned not only Watership Down and Rats of Nimh, but that I had personally seen enormous rabbits in a friend’s huge yard drive off cats and dogs. They loved that idea, but knew nothing about country life.

So, I created a super-quick setting, inspired in large part by Rock N Rule, where household pets survived the death of mankind, and involved into urban societies. They both played bad-ass bunnies in the worse urban section of Pet City, known as the Dark Borough (yes, another bunny reference), who were out to take no shit from anyone.

The rules were simple. I’d establish a situation with a short narrative. Then each player would describe one response in turn, then I’d describe a complication, then we’d repeat until the scene was ended.

We had no dice, so we flipped coins. Everything had a 50% chance of success — tails your action works (they WERE bunnies), heads it doesn’t. They each had a single specialization (for one, it was combat. for the other, it was jumping). For your specialization, you got to flip twice and you succeeded if either was tails.

It’s worth noting that after the first session, a member of the staff watched a game, then asked we only play in the public lounge, which had staff in it 24/7. Given how delicate my two players were, I think that only made sense.

The rules developed a little. The simplest task needed only one success, modest tasks three, complex ones 5. We tracked them with hashmarks. A complication would remove a success (but they outnumbered me two-to-one on actions, so failure was extremely rare if they worked together), or create a weakness (forcing you to flip twice and win both times in order to succeed… but only for one round). Some equipment got found — I remember the Thumper, a grenade launcher, because of the Disney reference, but I think a magic ring and a magic mirror in a makeup compact also showed up, though I don’t remember details. I think the Thumper let one coin flip count as two successes in combat, and the mirror allowed you to open a new scene where you learned something useful if you got three successes… but those details are at best vague and I may be filling in blanks with more recent ideas.

Over seven days we played 8 or 9 times, once during each lunch break and once on some evenings. They both seemed to love roleplaying. I honestly think they needed a way to talk through victories while their own lives were fraught. I meant to stay in touch, but we only exchanged a letter or two while they were in rehab, and nothing after that.

But it was a pretty good campaign. They uncovered a spider mobster conspiracy to convince pets to live near webs, and to eat homeless pets. they beat it, making their dark, grim home just slightly safer. I hope I did more good than harm.

And it showed me that if what a group *wants* is to all work together to have a good time, with no concerns about balance or genre emulation or a lot of more advanced design concerns, nearly anything will work for the rules.

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Star Wars Spoilers… for Force Awakens

Back when I watched The Force Awakens I noted that I enjoyed it, and that I’d post more thoughts about it when I thought the statute of limitations on spoilers was up.

Now that there’s a NEWER Star Wars movie in theaters, I feel pretty free talking about The Force Awakens without feeling bad if I spoil anything.

That said… spoilers!

Overall I felt this movie had a near-impossible task. It had to get people excited about a whole new generation of Star Wars, from a whole new company. Yes, many fans were… I’ll go with “unimpressed” with the prequels… but they were nevertheless huge financial successes. And they were the definitive Star Wars films to millions of fans who saw them as their introduction to the series — and hated travesties to millions of other fans.

Many of the original actors are still around, and nostalgia creates a strong call to see Leia run a Republic, Solo try to go straight, and Luke train a new order of Jedi. But given those actor’s ages, a new set of adventures really had to introduce new characters.

And, let us not forget, the last new Star Wars film was Revenge of the Sith in 2005. It was a decade old by the time Force Awakens came out, which means the coveted 12-17-year-old crowd were 2 to 7 at the END of the prequel trilogy runs. And that’s just looking at the US market. The size of some overseas film markets grew enormously in this time. The Asia pacific went from $9 billion in 2011 to $14.1 billion just from 2011 to 2015. Many of the worldwide audience you want to draw into a new ongoing series of movies will never have seen the original on the big screen, and may not have seen it at all.

So this movie had to be better than the prequels without denigrating them, give us new characters, give us the original characters, reintroduce the entire Star wars universe to a new audience, and tell a great story. It did some of these things better than others.

For my own take, I loved the new characters. Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB8 were all interesting, great SW characters to me. I even like Kylo Ren, because he is such a winy emo Sith. He’s struggling in a different way than Anakin or Vader ever did, and if Darth maul or Palpatine ever had second thoughts they didn’t make it into the big screen. I am excited to see more of Rey and Finn and their adventures.

I mostly didn’t enjoy the return of existing characters… though the “We’re home!” line choked me up because I am a giant sap, and the love between an adventurers and an old starship is one of my sappiest sap buttons. But Han never felt quite right, Leia wasn’t given much to do, and while Chewie’s grief moved me, it was spoiled by the fact Leia didn’t go to him first when the Falcon returned after Han’s death.

The story itself was workmanlike, which isn’t a compliment when it comes to Star Wars. A lot of the things WITHIN the story I loved, dialog was snappy, combat sequences were awesome, and there was no long, boring podracing equivalent. But a reboot Super Death Star (now with 32% more Death! tm) didn’t interest me, and even lampshading it with Han noting there was always a way to do this didn’t keep it from feeling like a retread.

I FORGAVE the retread parts, because I saw what I felt were efforts to reintroduce this series to a new audience, and I accept that’s a reasonable thing for the first Star Wars movie in a decade to do. And, I loved the dialog, action, and relationships of the rest of the movie. I dislike sill giant cgi monsters getting out of the hold, but adore Rey and Finn having separate, interesting character development arcs. I don’t enjoy R2-D2 being mysteriously “asleep” apparently for years, but I love Luke as the wise but failed elder warrior and teacher.

Yes, a lot of it was watching a reboot of A new Hope. But that story still resonates with me, and I (at least at the moment) don’t think Episode VIII is going to be a reboot of Empire.

Not a perfect film, but one that gave me a lot of good stuff. When I compare that to any of the prequels, I can feel only gratitude and relief. And hope for what is to come. The foundation was laid differently than I would have laid it, but it looks to me to be a strong foundation

And I look forward to seeing what is to be built on it.

At this point, I figure I’ll discuss my thoughts on rogue One sometime in December 2017. 🙂

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Metagames and Ethics

A lot of people define the concept of the “metagame” differently, but the definition I run into most often is pretty close to “actions taken outside of normal defined gameplay that are driven by or the result of game rules, but not defined by those rules.”

So if you are deciding what cards to put in your CCG deck? Metagame. Sure which cards you CAN put in a deck are covered by rules, by actually choosing them and adding them to your deck is not defined, and you do that before you start playing the game itself with someone.

Choosing a feat to pick when you gain a character level and update between sessions? Metagame. Making props for your larp session? Metagame. Buying themed dice so your fireball looks cool because you have ten red-and-gold d6s? Still metagame.

But the definition I see most often can also cover actions that occur during the game. “Outside normal gameplay” doesn’t limit you to actions before or after the game, as long as they aren’t things controlled or referenced by game rules. And this can have expectation clashes. I have never had anyone get morally upset if I bluff in poker, but I’d expect everyone to be pissed if I used loaded dice in an rpg. But what is and isn’t acceptable isn’t always universally clear to players.

For example:

In the 1990s I played a game with some boardgame enthusiast friends that features a Bell, Book, and Candle (it was not Betrayal at House on the Hill, but I don’t recall the name). EDIT: It MAY have been Castle of Magic, though I am not certain of this.

It was the first time playing the game for all of us. Each player has a goal card, which outlines your victory conditions. You could have the candle lit or unlit, the bell rung or unrung, the book open or closed, and some other specific things could factor into it (are you out of cards, in anyone in their starting space on the board, and so on). If the exact combination of things your victory card says occurred, you won. Now many of these elements you had to just wait for, but everyone had some control over the bell, book, and candle. That meant if you moved for the book to be open, someone else could decide that meant having it open was on your victory card, and move to close it. Of course if they ALSO needed it open…

So obviously a big part of the game was figuring out other people’s victory conditions, while simultaneously concealing your own. Hoard resources to make a big state change when it’s close enough to your victory condition that no one can stop you, or make changes apparently at a whim so no one thinks you are moving toward your actual condition.

Since it was friends playing, we often wheedled each other about making or not making changes, which was part of trying to guess others’ victory condition while concealing our own.

Then when we took a break a friend took me aside, and suggested we team up. He had, he claimed, guessed my needed bell book and candle states, and he needed the same. He suggested a specific order we work together to fix those, and then whichever one of us managed to get out other needed conditions met first would win.

I like cooperative games, and it seemed reasonable, so I agreed.

So we worked together to fix the bell in one state. Then we fixed the book in another.
And then he won because the candle was already where he needed it. He didn’t need the same states I did. He lied, to convince me to help, and got me to agree to do things in a specific order so he’d win before I could.

Now, he and I talked it out, and came to understand where we were coming from. To him, this was all part of the metagame of what we were playing. No different from Diplomacy, or bluffing in poker. Lying was part of his game strategy, and only acceptable because we were playing a game that highlighted deception. To me, it was not something the game explicitly called out, and thus a lie is a lie is a lie. (Though, confession time, part of my social anxiety includes preferring a rigid adherence to rules, because that makes it easier for me to understand how I am supposed to react in a group, and when I don’t I sometimes panic.)

I took this as an example of a place where expectation conflict caused an otherwise fun game experience to end on a sour note, and have tried hard to remember what we appear to be encouraging players to do in game material I have written, developed, or consulted on ever since.

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Straight 18s

For many years, I secretly harbored the knowledge that I HAD rolled a character with straight 18s for a 1e D&D game. And that bothered me, because I know the odds against doing that were… huge. Beyond any reasonable chance of it happening. And yet, I remembered it happening.

But it hadn’t.

During one of my recent moves, I found the character in question — Buskirk, an elven rogue/fighter/magic-user (multiclassing and demi-humans were weird in 1e). And I made two startling discoveries.

First, he didn’t have all 18s. It was three 18s, and three 16s. Awesome, but not the same.

Second, those ability scores were rolled using a method from the 1e Unearthed Arcana, rolling 9d6 for your primary ability score *and keeping the best 3), then 8d6, then 7d6, and so on, down to 3d6. I know this because I wrote down the results of all the dice on the back of the character sheet when I first made the character. I haven’t done the math on this, but it obviously produces higher ability scores.

So, memory vs reality. I can see why I remembered it the way I did… but my instinct that there must be something wrong with such a spectacularly unlikely result (astronomical in scale) was accurate.

Memory has been shown to be spectacularly unreliable, and yet many of us cling to it as our most trusted information source.

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