Scorchers for Really Wild West (in Starfinder)

In the real-world 1890s, “scorchers”–bicycle riders (male and female) who sat-forward on the diamond-frame bikes or “safety bicycles” that were coming out for the first time at about that time–were considered a social menace. They were considered to be too aggressive, and moving too fast. Editorials held them up as examples of the decline of society. Special anti-scorcher police units were established.

In the Really Wild West, scorchers hold a different place in society, because they were crucial in many efforts to scout out and track Martian tripods during the invasion, operating initially within large towns and cities, but soon finding ways to use stellar metals and gearing scavenge from fallen walkers to make A-frame bikes that worked well in rougher terrain such as prairies. Scorchers are still seen as too aggressive and willing to go too fast, but it’s accepted that while scorchers aren’t fit for polite society, they do serve a useful function for military and police units.

Below we present a typical Really Wild West safety bicycle, and a feat that turns a rider from merely someone who can ride a 2-wheeler into a true Scorcher.

Safety Bicycle
Item Level 2; Price 30; Bulk 4
A safety bicycle grants you a +10 enhancement bonus to your land speed, and has an armor check penalty of -4 and max Dexterity bonus to AC of +4 (treating it like armor for these purposes—if actually wearing armor use the worse value of the bicycle or armor, then make it 1 worse). The bulk of a bicycle (and up to 1 bulk of material placed on it) does not count against your encumbrance limit when you are riding it or pushing it, only if you are carrying it.
Mounting or dismounting takes a move action or a DC 15 Pilot check. You must make a Ride check to stay mounted whenever you take damage (DC 10 + the item level or spell level of the attack, or 10 + level for natural and unarmed attacks), and automatically fail to stay mounted if someone successfully performs a trip combat maneuver against you or a sunder combat maneuver against your bicycle.
You must succeed at a DC 15 Pilot check to use a bicycle with just 1 hand, and a DC 20 pilot check to do so with no hands. You must also succeed at a DC 15 Pilot check to use a bicycle in difficult terrain. If you fail a Pilot check to use or stay mounted on a bicycle, you fall prone and take 1d4 bludgeoning damage.

You are a master with the new A-frame style of safety bicycle, doing things with it no one expected.
Prerequisite: Pilot 1 rank.
Benefit: When in terrain that does not require Athletics checks to move through, having a bicycle simply grants you +15 feet of land speed. You take no penalties to any other checks, don’t need to make Pilot checks to remain mounted when damaged, don’t need to keep a hand free, and don’t need to take extra time to mount or dismount. Additionally you may make Pilot checks in place of Acrobatics checks while mounted. No one can attack your bicycle while you are riding it.
If you take a double move or run, and you have at least one hand free to help control your bicycle, you double its bonus to your move rate.
If forced to carry your bike, you treat its bulk as half its actual bulk value and take no other penalties (even if climbing or swimming). You may use your Pilot skill check in place of your Engineering check (and your ranks of Pilot in place of your ranks in Engineering), in regards to bicycles.
If you select this feat at first level, you gain a safety bicycle for free. Regardless of when you gain it, if you have access to your equipment and tools and the basics requires to build or maintain a bicycle, you are assumed to have a safety bicycle after 24 hours of work.

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Really Wild West Technology and Equipment (for Starfinder)

In many ways, the Really Wild West setting of an 1890 where dwarves, elves, and kasatha have always been around, Martians attacked and died of plague, theosophy was right and magic and psychic powers are extant (if not commonplace), is the continuation of the Industrial Revolution into what may someday be known as the Age of Invention. We touched on some of the technologies at play in the original post for this setting hack, but some of those ideas call for expansion.

Technology has rocketed forward (in some cases literally) over the page 50 years, and society is permanently changed as a result. In 1856, Henry Bessemer found a way to turn molten iron into steel, and that created the material needed to build far more powerful forges and steam engines. The discovery of adamantine and other stellar alloys among the Martian machines made otherwise impossible creations possible, though at a high cost given Earth still has no way to mine those extraplanetary metals for itself. But anywhere a Martian expedition collapsed (often, though not always, self-destructing) or an old destroyed cigar-shaped transportation cylinder is found to have crashed, a “Mars Rush” of scavengers seeking working machines if possible, and just the rare stellar allows if not, make the old gold rushes look calm by comparison.

The telegraph made the world smaller and brought communication to a new speed, but it is the creation of the Babbage-Bell Grid, a series of wired analog computers and difference engines in the largest cities connected by Bell’s new data transmitter technology (though it is Elisha Gray who invented the switches to allow this communication to move quickly, and Bell stole the idea and patented it first). With the Babbage-Bell Grid, a small city or major town can afford just a Babbage node, no bigger than a church organ, allowing them to send complex data requests to a full-sized Babbage buildings hundreds of miles away, connected by the Grid.

Automotons, invented separately in Bohemia, Switzerland, and Japan (where they grew from the tradition of Karakuri puppets), continue to grow in complexity and utility. The use of difference engines, stellar alloys, and heat ray capacitors for power allows the creation of automotons that seem nearly self-aware, though the most advanced are generally capricious and require a single genius (normally a character with the mechanic class) to keep it operational.

Medicine has leaped forward. Germ theory, much studied after the fall of the Martian tripods, has gained nearly universal acceptance. Theosophic studies combining western theories with eastern techniques and psychic infusions allow miraculous serums and healing ampules that actually follow through on the promises of the previous century’s snake oil. Similarly the dedicated study and experimentation on theosophic abilities has allowed some practitioners to master high levels of psychic mastery and to develop specific mental exercises to produce and reproduce dependable, measurable effects common folk often call ‘spells’ (as ‘metatative ectoplasmic invocation techniques” doesn’t have the same snappy ring to it). Emotions and paranatural phenomenon can even be fused into weapons, equipment, and even crystals (allowing for the normal Starfinder Roleplaying Game rules for weapon fusions, magic and hybrid items, spell gems, and spell ampules).

Weapon technology has similarly seen vast improvements. Brass cartridge weapons are commonplace, though older percussion cap and some pinfire and needlefire weapons still see extensive use. Revolves are common, as are lever-action and even pump-action firearms. The first few automatic pistols have appeared, and the water-cooled Maxim machine guns are changing the face of war. Tesla and Tom Swift have advanced lightning guns, among other weapons, the German flammenwerfer and Chinese Pen Huo Qi both proved their worth against Martian tripods and have been much copied, and the Martian heat ray technology itself has been successfully mass-produced in Mexico.

Most equipment options are just normal Starfinder Roleplaying Game gear, modified as noted in the original post of the setting hack. But there are a few particularly Western kinds of gear, or logical extrapolations of the 1890s and weird science, which should be added to the setting.

Ammo belt 1 5 L
Ammo belt, masterwork 1 100 L
Battery belt 2 300 1
Block and tackle 1 5 4
Candle, wax, set of 5 1 1
Canteen 1 2 L
Compass 1 3
Lantern, oil, bullseye 1 2 L
Lantern, oil, hooded 1 2 L
Matches, box of 100 0 1
Rations, canned, 1 day 1 4 2L
Rations, fresh, 1 day 0 1 L
Rations, trail, 1 day 0 2 L
Sack, large 1 2 L
Sack, small 1 1
Steam engine, small 2 850 80
Tent, 2-man 1 5 4
Tent. 4-man 1 10 6
Tool, manual 1 5 1
Torch, set of 10 1 2 L
Watch, pocket 1 15

Rules for new equipment is presented below.

Ammo Belt
An ammo belt can be designed for bullets, hand-bombs, or dry cell batteries. It carries up to 3 L worth of such items (though their weight still applies to encumbrance normally). A character with a masterwork ammo belt with the necessary ammo can also reload a weapon as part of the same standard action as firing it once. If the character has Quick Draw, one a round they can reload a weapon without taking an action.

Battery Belt
While firearms remain more common than weapons powered through electricity drawn from dry cell batteries, the rapid increase in cell-powered devices in recent years (especially in Mexico) has resulted in a desire to be able to carry multiple batteries of various capacities connected together, with a single feed cable and adapter that allows different devices to be powered from the connected batteries.

A battery belt is similar to an ammo belt, but is designed to carry, and connect, multiple batteries. It can carry up to 9 batteries of L bulk or less without increasing its own bulk. Linking a battery to the belt is a move action. The belt has a single output cable designed to plug in to any electric-charge driven device. This takes the same action as to reload a weapon (normally a move action). Any device plugged into the battery belt can use charges from any of the batteries in the belt, even if the device normally uses a different capacity of battery.

Block and Tackle
A block and tackle allows you to pull a rope 10 feet to move a secondary rope 5 feet with twice as much fore. A successful DC 10 Engineering check and one minute allows you to rig a block and tackle to you can use it to life twice as much bulk, or gain a +5 circumstance bonus to a Strength check, but performing such tasks take twice as long as usual.

A candle is as easy to light as a torch, and burns as well as a match. It increases the light level by 1 step in a 5 foot radius, but is easily blown out by wind, rain, or being dropped. It burns for 6 hours.

A canteen is a water bottle made of cured leather or steel, generally with a cloth covering both to pad it for protection and so the cloth can be soaked with water, which then evaporates and cools the canteen. It carries two quarts, the minimum most people need to drink each day.

A comas points north. A character with a compnas trained in Survival gains a +2 bonus to Survival checks to orienteer.

Lantern, oil, bullseye
A bullseye lantern increases the light level by 1 step in a 60-foot-cone. It burns for 1 hour on 1 pint of oil.

Lantern, oil, hooded
A hooded lantern increases the light level by 1 step in a 30-foot-radius. It burns for 1 hour on 1 pint of oil.

Matches, box of 100
A match can set easily flammable materials on fire as a standard action.

Oil, pint
One pint of oil, normally in a flask or leather bladder. As a standard action you can coat an adjacent object, which then if exposed to flames must make a Fortitude save (DC 20 + item level or caster level of flame source) or gain the burning condition. You can also throw oil at targets as improvised thrown weapons, which do 1 point of damage and coat them in oil.

Rations, Canned
Canned rations include canned meats, fruits, and vegetables, pickled items including eggs and fish, jams, jellies, canned cheeses, honey, foil-wrapped chocolate (in small quantities along with other canned goods), condensed or evaporated milk, bottled cooking oil, and even entire canned hams or turkeys. Canned rations last 1-4 years as long as they are undamaged, and have a 50% change of spoiling each year thereafter.

Rations, Fresh
Fresh rations can include both cooked foods and raw ingredients to make food, such as butchered meats or entire small game, breads, flour, butter, medium or soft cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and so on. Food hunted or foraged with the Survival skill counts as fresh rations. Fresh rations last for 1d4 days, and have a 50% chance of spoiling each day thereafter. Fresh food can count toward have the UPB cost of making canned or trail rations (with the other half being preserving agents or canning supplies).

Rations, Trail
Rail rations include such things as hardtack, crackers, hard cheese, dried soups, dried beans, dried pasta, grains, coffee grounds, tea, jerky, dried fruits and vegetables, fruitcakes, salt pork, and smoked fish. Trail rations last for 30 days, and have a 50% chance of spoiling every 30 days thereafter. Trail rations cannot be consumed for more than a day without water, which are not included in this weight or cost.

A small sack can carry roughly 2 bulk of materials, and a large sack 10 bulk. Bulk in a sack counts against the bulk total of a character carrying it.

Steam Engine, Small
A small steam engine is often used to run other machines, such as pumps, drills, power hammers, mills, and lathes. Weighing more than 800 pounds, these devices must be moved by wagon or train, and are generally only available to large, well-funded expeditions or companies in towns and cities. A successful DC 15 Engineering check can rig a steam engine to perform a simple, repetitive task, allowing it to apply a 24 Strength to that task. It consumed 10 pounds of coal per hour of operation, or double that weight in fuel if burning wood.

Tents are made of waterproof canvas, and include the ropes, poles, and pitons needed to set the up.

A tinderbox contains flint, firesteel, and tinder (generally hemp fiber, but other materials are possible). Equipped with a tinderbox, a character can create fire in 1 round with a DC 15 Survival check (or, in most cases, automatically by taking 20, but that takes 2 minutes).

Tool, Manual
A manual tool is a crowbar, pickaxe, shovel, hoe, or other sturdy device designed to aid in manual labor. A manual tool grants a +2 circumstance bonus to ability checks and skill checks it is well-suited to perform and (at the GM’s discretion) may cut the time required for such tasks by 50%. Manual tools can also be used as clubs (though some may do piercing or slashing damage, at the GM’s discretion).

A torch increases the light level by one step within 20 feet. It burns for 1 hour. A torch can be used as a club, but half the damage it does when lit is fire damage. As an open flame, a lit torch allows an Intimidate check as a standard action to demoralize one animal no larger than Large within 10 feet. A demoralized animal generally does not attack unless it has some primal drive to do so (such as great hunger, protecting its young, a need to flee, or combat training).

Watch, pocket
A character with a pocket watch is assumed to know what time it is, and if they keep it in hand need not make any checks to determine when an exact number of seconds, minutes, or hours have passed. If they are trained in Survival, it gives them a +1 circumstance bonus to Survival checks made to orienteer or predict weather.


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Really Wild West Index

Since it looks like I’m going to be working on Really Wild West campaign and setting hack for Starfinder on and off for the foreseeable future, in order to keep it usable I’m creating (and will maintain as new articles are written) an Index that lists and organizes the existing articles.

These are descriptive of the setting, though they may include rules elements.

Really Wild West
>Read This First. 🙂
The year is 1891. The place is somewhere in North or South America, generally far from established law. In 1890, the War of the Worlds happened. That’s over, but wow has tech taken a leap forward.
This is a Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, with theosophy (magic), fantasy and sci-fi races, guns, and strangely advanced technology. Includes tips on how to hack the Starfinder Roleplaying Game rules to better suit the Weird West genre, as well as some feats unique to the setting.

Putting the “Steam” and “Punk” in Really Wild West
>I don’t describe RWW as a :steampunk” setting, but is it one? What is steampunk, anyway? A think piece about a popular genre and this setting’s place in it… or outside of it.

Badlands City
>A city built by Hell and ruled by devils… and one of the safest places in the West.
Badlands Resident Theme
>A theme for people from Badlands City
Dread Templar Archetype
>Badlands City produces devil-trained officers of the law who focus on punishment and vengeance.

Easterner Theme
>Is your character from back East? Then this is your theme.

The Mexican Porfiriate and the Technopolitan Theme
>Mexico is a rising technological superpower, governed by war heroes and scientists. Includes the Technopolitan theme.
Science Agents
>Short fiction and an archetype for Mexico’s famed peacekeepers of rationality.

Plot Hooks and Inspirational Media
> Want to know what kinds of adventures Really Weird West characters may have? Here’s a list of 20 plot hooks and a list of inspiration media that helped set the tone for the setting.

These are primarily about rules, though they are designed specifically for Really Weird West.

Key Ability Scores and Resolve
Really Wild West is a cruel setting with pulpy characters. That takes a tweak of some core rules to support properly.

Renown and Gear
> Rules for using character renown to buy higher-level gear, allowing money rewards to remain the same regardless of character level.

Dragon Guns
>Weapons that throw fire onto your foes have their origins in China and are 1,000 years old.

Lightning Guns
>One of the more common energy weapons available in the Really Wild West.

>Shotguns in Really Wild West work a little different than the big blast weapons of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Mounted Combat
>Horses are more common than self-powered vehicles in the Really Wild West.

Technology and Equipment
>What is there, what’s the background for advanced tech in the 1890s, and some more Wild West themed gear.

>In the real-world 1890s, “scorchers”–bicycle riders (male and female) who sat-forward on the diamond-frame bikes–were considered a social menace.
In the Really Wild West, scorchers hold a different place in society.

If you are enjoying any of these, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!

On Dan Harmon; What Next?

Dan Harmon has confessed to harassing Megan Ganz when she worked on Community. He has detailed the circumstances, apologized, and she has accepted and public stated she forgives him.

I think seeing this handled to Megan Ganz’s apparent satisfaction is important. We do need to think about, since all these terrible things happened, once we accept that…. then what?

I’m not claiming anyone gets a pass, or that even that a harsh, honest accounting and confession fixes everything. And clearly in the broader context we need to look at what needs to happen for men to stop harassing women.

But we also need to look at what are the correct steps to take for harassers, both in acknowledging their wrongdoing, and what is appropriate from there. 

And to be clear, there’s no room on this post for discussions of due process or innocent before proven guilty. None of that is relevant here. Dan Harmon acknowledges his guilt.

He has apologized for it. Megan Ganz has accepted his apology and forgiven him.

Now what?

I’d be entirely understanding if a production company said “Given your self-confessed track record, we’re not willing to allow you to have hiring and firing power over women anymore.” Should a company Dan works with do more than that?

What’s next?

Top Ten Signs You’ve Woken Up in a MMORPG

The idea you might wake up and find yourself living in a MMORPG for no conceivable reason, generally as a powerful hero, seems increasingly common these days. (Especially in anime.) For those of you worried you might not immediately grasp what has happened to you if this should occur, we present:

Top Ten Signs You’ve Woken Up in a MMORPG

10. Smashing random people’s wardrobes, chests, flower-pots, and vases is a reliable and reasonable way to make money. Also, no one ever complains about it. Even if they’re standing right there when you smash their stuff.
9. You have one job. It’s healing people, drawing the attention of the enemy, or killing things. That’s it. As a hobby, you may make multidimensional bags and sell them in the only auction house in the universe to have perfect security.
8. You can picture the most important lore of the world as clearly as if you had watched it on a screen, but rarely know the names of the townspeople you meet or have any idea why they are paying you to kill 60 wolves.
7. There’s no refrigeration that you can see, but your food never spoils. Or goes stale. Or leaves stains on your gloves, even when you are eating Hero Quest Stew without benefit of a bowl or spoon.
6. It takes you hours or even days to gather the materials needed to make something (no matter how simple it is), but only 7 seconds to actually make it (no matter how complex it is).
5. While the exact range varies by foe, as long as you stand far enough away from someone they don’t react at all when you kill their friends and countrymen. You can see them, so they can see you, but it’s like the Batlovian guards don’t care how many Batlovian wolf-trainers you slaughter.
4. When you check the body of the wolf you killed, you find a rusty dagger, some magic pants, and a well-worn book.
You have NO idea where the wolf was keeping these things, or what use it had for them.
3. The absolute limit of what you can carry is not based on total weight or size of your gear, but just how many individual things you have. Fifty greatswords? Fine. Fifty horses? Sure. Fifty-one pebbles? Impossible.
2. Aside from a few close friends, everyone else in the world seems to either only say the same three things, or constantly cuss, insult each other, and talk about stupid political ideas.
1. After 10 months of quests and battles you finally grasp the Artifact of Unlimited Power, which is the most effective magic augmentation you can even conceive of. Then, 12 months later, you begin picking up random loot that is far more powerful. But NOW you are on a mission to acquire the Relic of Incomparable Potency. … Which will also turn out to be eclipsed by random things you find in wolf pelts a year or so later.

I has it.

Advanced Item Mastery Training Feats (Pathfinder)

I am very fond of Item Mastery Feats for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. I think there are lots of interesting places those feats can take characters, especially fighters. I am also a big fan of the Advanced Weapon Training rules that allow fighters to make weapon training do more than just grant flat attack and damage bonuses. The two already combine somewhat (with the item mastery advanced weapon training option), but I think there are yet more interesting ways they can be mixed for fighters, and some other classes.

Arcane Fighter (Combat)
You know magic is a potent weapon, and you study how to fight with magic items.
Prerequisite: Fighter level 1.
Benefit: You are considered trained with Use Magic Device, and can make special UMD checks with a bonus equal to your fighter level + your Constitution bonus +3, rather than your normal skill bonus.

Draught Mastery
When you drink a magic potion, you gain additional benefits.
Prerequisites: One of the following class features: armor training, brew potion, weapon training.
Benefit: Select three item mastery feats for which you meet the prerequisites. Each time you gain a new level, you can change this selection.
Once per day when you drink a potion, you may use the benefit of one of those item mastery feats if the potion would qualify to grant you if it were a permanent magic item. You may use this feat a second time per day when your base attack bonus, caster level, or alchemist level reaches +5 or 5th, and every +5 or 5 levels thereafter.

Extra Weapon Training (Combat)
You are a master of many weapons and weapon fighting techniques.
Prerequisites: Weapon training class feature.
Benefit: You can select another weapon group your weapon training class feature applies its benefits to. Alternatively, you may select another advanced weapon training option for which you meet the prerequisites.

Patreon Exclusive!
The point of the Advanced Item Mastery Training Feats article was to create new ways to use existing Item Mastery Feats and find synergy with advanced weapon training, rather than to present new Item Mastery Feats. However while writing it I thought of one new Item Mastery Feat which fills a gap in what those feats can allow a character to do: Buff Mastery. It is presented at my Patreon, exclusively (for now) for my Patrons!

Looking Back On Twenty Years of Professional Tabletop Game Work

This is a retrospective, and it’s not one I wrote with any great point or theme. I try to not be that self-indulgent with my writing, but I have decided to give myself some leeway when marking two decades in the business. I may have more thoughts tied into the length of my career as 2018 progresses… or I may not.

It’s 1997. I get a letter from Dave Gross, editor of Dragon Magazine. A physical piece of paper, that I swear to myself I will keep forever, but that is gone by the very next time I move, to a new house.

“I really like your dwarven name generator but can’t use it, as we just published our dwarf-themed issue last month.”
I curse myself for not even realizing Dragon did themed issues. I am an idiot.

“But,” the letter continues in tones of glowing hope, “if you could do the same idea but for elven names, and get it to me quickly, that would be very useful.”
It’s my very first chance to prove I can take notes. I promise myself I will never let ego get in the way of doing good work.

That promise ends up with the letter, lost between moves. Unlike the letter, I find it again from time to time.

It’s very difficult for some tabletop game professionals to pin down exactly when their career “began.” Was it when they wrote their first houserule, or designed their first new game—even if neither rule nor game ever went anywhere? Was it the first time they got paid for work in the industry? Does it matter how much they got paid? Does it matter how long the gap was before they next got paid? Is there an amateur level of pay we should consider before someone is considered a “professional”? And if so, where’s the line?

A few years ago I realized I could no longer lay my hands on documents that decisively tell me when I got my first payment for RPG design work, which was an advance for a WII Hero e-book which was never published. I don’t even know if anyone has the manuscript, anymore. But that rules out using “when I first got paid” as a start point for my career, because that day is lost to the mists of time.

So, my next major benchmark is the publication of my first paid magazine article to appear, which happened some months (or maybe even a couple of years) later, with the elven name generator called “By Any Other Name” in Dragon 251, which came out in 1998. I know that I had to write that well before it came out, and I had submitted other articles and drafts to people before that came around. I also haven’t had a year pass since then when at least some professional project was released that I was involved with the creation of. So now that it’s January 2018, I feel very comfortable saying my professional tabletop career began (at least) 20 years ago.

It’s 1999. I have flown out to Seattle, or so I think. Really, I’m in SeaTac, and I’m headed to Renton, but I don’t know the geography. Eric Cagle picks me up in one of the new VW Beetles. I have an interview at Wizards of the Coast in a few hours. I would have been interviewed a year earlier, I am told, but my resume had fallen behind a filing cabinet. I’m wearing a suit. I hate the suit.

I love SeaTac and Renton, despite having no idea where I am.

Normally, I neither think about nor feel much impact from this extended timeline. I am fortunate to count among my friends, coworkers, and colleagues people who have been in the industry much longer than I have, so I don’t feel particularly older than what I consider the “norm” for RPG professionals. While my work has shifted the steps have often been small ones, often with long settling-in periods, so I didn’t even notice the major milestones as they went by.

Going from 2nd edition to 3rd edition D&D came with a staff position at WotC, so the change in the game I was working on was the least of my big shifts. When I had a more-than-decade-long run as a full-time freelancer, I was scrambling for any work I could get, so I didn’t really notice growing from 3e to 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder, and Star Wars d20 to the Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook. I DID notice working on Saga Edition Star Wars, but at that point I had EverQuest (the pen-and-paper version), Wheel of Time, Gamma World, Black Company, and Thieves World games under my belt, so the enormity of it was less shocking that it might have been otherwise.

It’s 2003. Many of my major lines of freelance work have dried up. I can make the rent for a couple of months on savings, but I need a big project soon or things will get uncomfortable. My AOL account has a message from Chris Pramas. Didn’t I say once, he asks in sentences that manage to be professional and casual all at once, that I was a huge fan of the Black Company series?

I had said so once. At my interview at Wizards of the Coast, when asked if I could adapt any one property to D&D, what would it be?

Well, do I actually want to do that now? It’s a big job, and I’d be working for Dr. Evil…

I DID notice Freeport, City of Adventure, which I believe to be the biggest book I was the primary development force for, but at that point I was on contract with Green Ronin, and their support and assistance made it much easier than it might have been and seemed to define my career at the moment more than working on the book did. I kinda celebrated to a product a week, every week, without fail for a number of years for Super Genius Games and then Rogue Genius Games… but that ended when bigger jobs were happening, so it was almost observed more in the ending than the success.

It’s 2007. Stan! calls. I’m surprised, because I had no idea he even knew my phone number, Would I, he asks, like to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure?

I’ve never written anything for Call of Cthulhu. I haven’t played it in a decade or more, and I never played it more than 2-3 times. I don’t know the rules, and I am not an expert on the mythos. I don’t particularly LIKE Call of Cthulhu.

I enthusiastically state I’d love to write a CoC adventure. It’s probably true. And like many dealings with the elder unknowable beings I am planning to wrangle into a compact booklet of fun, that decision has consequences that alter the course of my life.  

I certainly noticed Starfinder, though the transition from full-time freelancer to paid on-staff developer and designer at Paizo was well and fully made at that point, which made the benchmark seem less momentous somehow. I’ve been at Paizo for almost four years now, and that makes it hard to feel like anything I’ve done in my relatively short time on staff as anything more than getting used to being there, and trying to do enough to make hiring me seem like a good idea.

It’s 2013. I check my phone message machine, a physical device hooked to my landline with dinosaur sinew. To my surprise, I hear Wes Schneider’s voice. He wants to know if I was serious when I had last applied to Paizo. Would I really move back out to Seattle? Because if so…

A loud click tells me my answering machine cut of Wes mid-sentence. I panic. Obviously I have to call him back… and unlike most of his freelancers, I have kept track of his phone number at work.

He later jokes he hired me so I would stop calling him when working on projects for him, and use emails and texts like a normal person. He’s kidding.


It was only recently I realized I was still thinking like a full-time freelancer, despite having a steady contract job with Green Ronin for more than four years, and the Paizo job for almost four. Sometimes it’s less that I resist change, and more just I don’t actually know how to adapt to it.

In these twenty years there have been some major changes to how business gets done. I used to send proposals in print, with a Self-Address Stamped Envelope for feedback or rejection to be sent back to me my physical mail. The three-tier system of distribution was strong and broadly spread when I started, and there was nothing like Kickstarter (though patron driven projects existed… often advertised in physical print magazines). PDF products, and companies, did not (and could not) exist, though there were small scale and 1-man productions in the days of print, they just had less reach.

I remember when terms like munchkin and splatbook were fairly rare, and there were very few unmoderated places, be that forums of letters pages of magazines, for fans to gather and discuss what they loved… and hated… or blamed on the politics, incompetence, or greed of the people trying to make a living creating the games they wanted.

It’s 2014. We’re throwing a farewell for a Paizo employee who’s moving on to new opportunities. I tell a story about my first day of Wizards of the Coast, when I had to playtest the brand-new edition of D&D without having actually seen a final rulebook yet.

“Oh,” he says smiling. “Fourth edition?”
“Ah…” I stammer, a tad awkward. “No. Third edition. In 2000.”
His smile broadens. “I was in grade school then.”

But an equal number of things are about the same. The terms core rulebook, adventure, campaign, and miniature all mean roughly what they did 20 years ago. Game creators often still struggle for stability while pouring heart and soul into a complex mix of creative technical writing back by a hybrid of psychological theories and math.

Dungeons & Dragons is still the most commonly known brand. Most fans still don’t have a very accurate idea of what working in the RPG industry is like, even for people who manage full time salaried jobs.

Somehow along the way some people came to think I might have insight into what makes a good game, or what makes a good gamer, which are crucially different. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I have always enjoyed spouting my opinions. I used to be limited to doing it at friends or occasionally to whoever gathered at a convention seminar. Now I can track how many people in Australia clicked on a blog link. (And can ask fans to support me directly, through things like my Patreon… )

Design trends in games have proven to be a pendulum, but I also think genuinely good ideas continue to be created, recognized, and adapted. I doubt any game I write now will be completely forgotten in another 20 years, but I also doubt any of them will be the most current version of the niches they fill. My career only goes as far back as 2nd edition AD&D, but I certainly played several versions of the game before that. I expect to play many more, under many different names, if I make it two more decades.

It’s 2016. Starfinder is meeting the public for the first time, at the 50th anniversary of Gen Con. I don’t want to fight the crowds, so I give it a couple of hours, then go to where it’s being sold at a satellite both, outside the main organized play venue.

They’re sold out, and shutting down. But we brought more of that book than Paizo had ever brought of anything, so I go ahead and brave the main hall despite it being the first day.

By the time I get there, all copies of Starfinder are sold out. Instead of lasting a weekend, it lasted 5 hours.

I’m delighted that I continue to learn and, I think, get better at my craft. At the same time, I strongly suspect that I AM more than halfway through my tabletop game career. I can’t pull all the physical and mental stunts I used to use to keep up in this industry, and I have no idea if I have 6 more years in me, or 16. I suspect I’ll fade away rather than just stop, but one of the things I HAVE learned is that there’s very little point trying to predict what I’ll be working on in three years. I’m always wrong. Even if I am right about the broad strokes (three years ago I was pretty sure I’d still be at Paizo), I also miss major details (three years ago I had no clue Starfinder was even going to happen, much less that I’d play a major part in it).

I still play games with some of the same people I did 20 years ago, my wife included, but lots of other friends I knew and gamed with even a decade or more before that I don’t get to see much anymore.

But games are still my favorite social activity, and RPGs are still my favorite subset of games.

And writing, developing, consulting for, and designing games is still the only job I can imagine having.

RPGs: The Map is Not the Territory

RPGs are not, in general, trying to create a pure simulation of reality in the form of entirely consistent and all-encompassing rules (and acting as if they are, or even should, leads to unhappiness, silliness, or both). The rules of the Game part of an RPG can be distinctly different from a description of the objective rules that define a universe. People who want to take things ‘allowed” by RPG rules and dive down to what a world is “really” like if those rules are equally and evenly available to even citizen of the world are not playing the game as intended.

(And if they have fun doing that, that’s fine. But if they don’t, the flaw isn’t necessarily with the game rules.)

For example, it’s perfect acceptable to say “This ability can be selected by any player for their character. There are no limitations or restriction on a player doing so.” and a GM or campaign setting saying (or even being built so it is true without saying it) “This ability represents a very rare ability, and only a very few people in the universe have it.”

One early step in beginning a new RPG campaign or adventure that almost no RPGs ever mention is, everyone involved should be interested in engaging in that activity in a way that causes everyone to have fun. If someone actively doesn’t want to play, or their motivating for playing is to make other people unhappy and sadly yes, this happens), most RPGs are going to collapse under the weight of neutral or bad intentions. (This is, by the way, one reason why formal organized play groups often have some significant additional rules about player and character behavior, or collapse under their own weight. I remain in awe of people able not only to run such organizations, but write for them, build them,\and create environments where clearly most participants are having fun.)

If everyone wants to play the game for mutual fun, the fact the rules are often focused on what player characters can do (rather than what is unavailable to the majority of the population because not everyone is a Caped Knight Wizard of Justice) is rarely an issue.

Some people claim such a focus on PC abilities automatically mans the player characters are somehow “chosen ones” because they have access to options common NPCs don’t. Now, sometimes that’s the case, and that’s fine. I have often run games where player characters were, explicitly, somehow gifted in ways the vast majority of the population was not. Sometimes that’s a built-in rarity explained by the game. (“Only 1 in 10,000 people can learn the Rite of Heroism… and in this rare case, all four of you have that ability despite being from a village of 700.”)

But in other cases, the PCs have no special fate or inherent superior power. They are just the people who, at the start of the game, have ended up somewhere interesting. Maybe they have options other people can’t take due to genetics, but that doesn’t make them “chosen” despite the rarity, any more than having one blue and one green eye does. Or maybe they have just had unusual circumstances since birth—a lot of people feel anyone CAN become a professional artist if they spend the time and have the drive to do so, but not everyone does.

Put another way, if you were reading a piece of fiction about an interesting time and place where 25% of children die at birth, you wouldn’t want to focus on the people who died at birth at point of view characters. There’s nothing that “protected” the other 75% of the people born, they’re just the characters who are still alive to do things, so of course the story follows them instead.

So just because a game says “A character may select ‘Ouch’ as a power, which removes 1% of a foe’s health once per day with no chance of failure” doesn’t automatically mean the world is ruled by roving gangs of 100 11-year-old commoners who all have Ouch and thus can, as a group, kill absolutely anyone they want to. It just means some people have this and, if the campaign setting, GM, or adventure doesn’t call out Ouch Battallions, chances are they don’t exist.

Now it IS useful for an RPG to give a GM and players some idea of what NPCs and common folk in the game are likely to be like. This might be as complex as the kind of distinction between PC and NPC character classes in d20 games—no player character is going to select the strictly-inferior “warrior” if “fighter” is an option, but tons of NPCs do, and at the same time some important NPCs instead tale PC classes which lets you know (generally without explicitly saying so) that those NPCs are more important to the adventure or campaign.

Or it might be much more simple and subtle, like providing lists of NPCs game rules, or even just lists of inspirational media. If an RPG tells you it takes inspiration from the X-Men comics, Gifted television show, and movies Carrier, Firestarter, and Push, and the game gives you options to take extraordinary superhuman powers, it doesn’t also have to explicitly tell you that not every person in the world has those powers. That’s clear, in the types of stories it outlines as inspiration. You can BUILD a campaign world with that paradigm if you want to, but you should already know you are system-hacking.

I love system hacks, as Really Wild West might make clear. But once you go that route, it’s unfair to expect the rules to not force you to make some decisions to make the hack logical.

No RPG can fully, accurately, and deeply represent all the factors that determine who ends up with what abilities in a realistic world setting. We can’t even do that in the real world, even if we just limit ourselves to who will be successful out of a single class of kids. We can make educated guesses, based on experience and statistics, but some kid will buck those trends.

That kid, by the way, is the one many people want as their player character.


If you got this far, maybe you like these essays enough to help fund them? That’s easy and cheap to do, with my Patreon.

The Mexican Porfiriate and the Technopolitan Theme for Really Wild West (in Starfinder)

The Mexico of the Really Wild West isn’t quite the Mexico of real-world 1891, but it is grounded in the history and beliefs of the real-world Mexico of the time. This is a fantasy write-up, which focuses on simplified and gamified elements of the true historic Porfiriate and makes adjustments for purposes of making a fun game setting. The true history of the era is fascinating, and I strongly recommend anyone who finds any of this Really Wild West version interesting spend time learning about the actual events, philosophies, and individuals important to this time in Mexican history.

Porfiriate Mexico

While much of the rest of the world considered Mexico a lawless land with constantly-changing governments and corrupt officials from the War of Independence in the early 1800s through the Mexican Empire, the First Mexican Republic, the Mexican-American War, the War of Reform, the French Invasion, the Second Mexican Empire, and the early years of the restoration of the Republic, that has changed since Porfirio Díaz rose to power in 1876. While the sheer list of major events, wars, forced colonialism, and upheaval that wracked Mexico for the first three-quarters of the 1800s might suggest most of the problems in the country have roots in socio-economic causes rather than any inherent laziness or moral lack of Mexican citizens, but common opinion worldwide, all too often, blamed the latter rather than the former.

However, most people in other countries also happily state the “new Mexico” seems to have found cures for the “failings of character” they once assigned to the people of the country. While bias and bigotry against Mexicans has not ended overnight, there is increasingly a sense that the new government, and its citizens and agents, are both better equipped to deal with the rest of the world on equal terms, and to insist the world treat them with respect.

The “Porfiriate” government of Mexico is ruled by military hero Porfirio Díaz with the aid of the Científicos (“scientists”), a group of appointed technocrats who believe strongly in positivism. Put (very) simply, positivism states that knowledge gained by direct observation, interpreted by reason and logic, is the only knowledge that can be proven and conclusively trusted. Positivism was developed by French philosopher Auguste Comte, who taught several of the Científicos, and who called on a new social doctrine based on the sciences and who founded the Religion of Humanity, a secular religion designed to fill the social functions of churches without dependence on theology. It reveres humanity itself, and promotes the three pillars of altruism, order, and progress, with its own priests, liturgies, and sacraments. It has been described as “Catholicism without the Christianity.”

The Porfiriate has run Mexico since 1876, and has focused on modernization, rationality, trade, and safety. The Rurales (“Rural Guard”), a national police force that is in part a counterpoint to the Federal army, have significantly reduced banditry throughout the country, though areas furthest from major cities remain dangerous. The powerful Superior Health Council has successfully improved health conditions overall and run successful campaigns against many tropical diseases, but infant mortality remains extremely high. Financial stability has been maintained on the macroeconomic scale, and rising wages and tax revenues are well on their way to creating a national budget surplus, but food costs continue to rise faster than the lowest wages making life difficult for the urban poor.

While the Profiriate has turned Mexico into a major and respected world player in less than two decades, the new government is not without its flaws. As wealth pours into the country and does improve the lives of the average citizen, it is the most powerful and well-connected families, as well as foreign investors, who see the greatest benefit. The focus on modernization often dismisses or even outlaws traditional beliefs and rituals, both damaging some cultural identities and leaving many poorer or rural families insecure about the nature of the future. Schools demand standardized modern teaching methods which do increase overall education, but also reduce the flexibility to each things important to life in specific areas, especially far from big cities. So far Porfirio Díaz largely has the trust and support of the majority of the population, and is easily able to win public elections when they are held, but he also clearly seems willing to use his vast power to suppress dissent and political rivals in the name of maintain a vision of a modern, rational Mexico.

Further, while much of the rest of the world was driving to the brink of defeat just last year by the invasion of Martian tripods, Mexico has left relatively unscathed. Fewer tripods landed in Mexican territory than most stretches of land the same size and none in the high plateaus at the center of Mexico, which include Mexico City.

Even more importantly, most Tripods in Mexico succumbed to disease within days rather than after the months required in most regions. While other nations were losing vast swathes of major cities and national infrastructure, and later rebuilding the ravaged areas, Mexican engineers were taking tripods apart and learning the secrets of heat rays, compression gears, and extraplanetary metals. The result was that Mexico’s growing industrial base and scientific academies had a huge head start revising their entire manufacturing and educational sectors to adapt to the new technology. Heater guns are more common in Mexico than anywhere else, and their Academia de Ciencias Marcianas in Mexico City creates new gizmos nearly every week.

As Mexico’s government and its people grow in power and confidence, they have also begun to extend their influence beyond their countries borders. The focus on science and rationalism in Mexico has led to significant advanced technologies being created, and experts from around the world study there to stay current on Martian studies, and Mexican experts are often invited to investigate any strange phenomenon anywhere else in the world. This exchange has rapidly caused many foreigners to see Mexicans as likely experts in any science, and they have developed a reputation for being rational, well-educated, and quick-witted. While the Mexican moves to include increasing numbers of women in every job and rank (a trend brought on by a mix of the result of focusing on rationality over traditional roles or instinctive reactions and the need for as many engineers, analysts, and scientists as possible in the rapidly growing major cities) is seen as “odd,” it is generally accepted as part of the “Mexican method” for creating a new, technological society.

The Mexican government’s Science Agents, who serve as the elite troubleshooter and law-enforcement arm of the government both within and outside of the nation’s borders, are revered and respected as among the best detectives and law-enforcers in the world. They are sometimes invited into neighboring countries to deal with particularly complex cases and, though the legality of this is questions, claim limited jurisdiction outside their national borders when an investigation’s trail takes them outside of their nation.

While all the races of the Really Wild West can be found in Mexico, the largest populations are human, lashunta, half-orc, and halfling.

Technopolitan Theme [+1 Int]
Although many Mexicans still lead primarily rural lives, the combination of a government focused on modernization and the influx of alien technology and foreign investment has lead to the rise of technology-focused societies in the major cities and universities. These are people whose entire lives revolve around science and technology, and they have come to be known as “the new citizens” or “technopolitans.” While this social movement is most common in Mexico city, any major industrialized area or large university or similar academic and advanced facility may generate some number of technopolitans. If you were raised in a region with access to modern science and technology, and have come to believe technology can be used to improve most aspects of life, this theme is for you.

The technopolitan theme is specifically designed for the Really Wild West setting hack, though it can be used with any Starfinder Roleplaying Game campaign.

Theme Knowledge (1st)
You can use your Physical Science skill for any Engineering or Life Science check. Additionally, Physical Science is a class skill for you. If it is a class skill from the skill you take at 1st level, you instead gain a +1 bonus to all Physical Science skill checks. In addition, you gain an ability adjustment of +1 to Intelligence at character creation.

Calm Analysis (6th)
Your study of and confidence in the results of the scientific method give you additional rigor and assurance when you are able to calmly consider a question. When you take 10 or take 20 on any Int- or Wis-based skill or ability check, you gain a +2 bonus. Additionally when you take 10 on any other skill, you can gain a +1 circumstance bonus by doubling the amount of time normally required to perform the skill check.

Applied Principles (12th)
Even when you don’t know how to do something, you can often work it out by breaking it down into logic problems and analyzing each step for the basic principles that apply. You can make skill checks untrained, and if you are in circumstances that would normally allow you to take 10 with a skill, you may substitute a roll using half your total Physical Science bonus in place of any other skill check (though you may not, then, take 10).

Check Your References (18th)
You know that for nearly any question, some of the work toward an answer has already been done. Up to twice a day, you can take 10 minutes to check any information repository (from an encyclopedia to a pocket reference book to the Babbage-Bell Grid) to check assumptions, theorems, and research into questions you are considering. This allows you to regain 1 Resolve Point.

Heya folks…  how about a tiny pledge in my equivalent to a tip jar? 🙂

On Being a Full-Time Tabletop Game Freelancer

This grew out of a response I wrote to someone considering full-time freelancing on Facebook. It comes with some provisos.

I haven’t been a full-time freelancer for nearly 4 years now. Things change fast, and no one still freelancing is going to bother to keep me in the loops, so while I stand by the generalities and warnings, the specifics may well be different nowadays.

I had a spectacular set of advantages when my freelance career really took off. While I went to full-time freelance sometime in 1997, at the time my wife made enough money, and got enough insurance, that my miserable first few years didn’t need to be self-sufficient. It’s when I restarted full-time freelance in 2001, after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast, that I had to cover my share of buying houses, paying all the bills, cover insurance, and paying college expenses based purely on what I could earn as a freelancer. And at that point, I was a d20-proficient writer during the d20 boom, multiple people who left WotC to start their own businesses or work as editors and developers for bigger companies knew and liked me, and I already had some major game titles under my belt thanks to 14 months as a WotC designer.

That made things much, much easier.

I was a full-time freelance RPG content provider from 2001 to 2014. So it can be done. But it’s hard.

I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, one of the cheapest places in the US to live and, thanks to being a college town, one that still had a fair number of modern amenities. I recommend finding cheap living options, whatever that can mean for you.

I discovered being a full-time freelancer was actually three jobs.
>First, you have to get work. That means promoting yourself online, contacting potential clients, and going to conventions or similar events to make contacts and network.
>Second, you have to do the work. This is the only part anyone pays you for.
>Third, you had to get paid for the work. Most of my clients were great, but I *still* have a $2000 outstanding bill for a project that got published, and numerous pay-upon-publication projects that were never published, despite me doing my part, and thus never came due.

I strongly recommend spreading yourself around to as many kinds of writing as you can. I once traded writing copy for a repair shop’s website for $600 in repairs. which is good, because I did not have $600. In bad periods I worked for trade for food, yard work, clothes, and even editing or similar favors for other work of mine. Much of that work was not game-related. 

I joined Super Genius Games, and when I left it began Rogue Genius Games, so I would always have a place to write, when other companies weren’t hiring. Of course that meant I only made money on those projects if people bought them, since it was all on royalties. Before that I wrote for d20 Weekly and later Pyramid magazine because they would publish whatever I wrote, without fail, every week. And they paid on time.

It isn’t always smart to start your own game company, but it is always smart to look for a place that will publish you regularly. They may pay less or pay only royalties. You DO need to get paid, but I found a mix of high-paying but rare work and lower-paying or royalty work that was always of often available was the way to make ends meet.

Magazine columns were great. Lines with regular releases and developers who liked me were great. One advantage of smaller projects is that you often do less work before you get paid. A 30,000 word project sounds great… but it’s 3-6 weeks of work you have to do before the clock even starts on getting paid.

Similarly, ongoing contract work is great. Especially if it pays by the month. This is rare, but there are companies who need a single developer or editor, or project manager (or, much less often, has a whole contract staff) that will pay you for a certain amount of time or a certain cut of what gets done, every month. This is a huge help, as it cuts down time spent getting work and tracking down payment for work. Even a small monthly amount can help balance the budget (and see Patreon thoughts, below.)

Don’t work without a contract. Look at the terms. An advance is best, but almost nonexistent nowadays. Pay-upon-acceptance, especially if it talks about when you’ll be accepted by and what happens if you’re not, is great. Pay upon publication kinda sucks, but is fairly standard. Flat rates are often better than royalties, but royalties are a legitimate business plan. I’ve made more money on freelance projects that paid royalties than I ever have on flat rates. of course, I’ve also had such projects end up paying nothing or nearly nothing. And, full disclosure, my own company (Rogue Genius Games) mostly pays royalties, so my opinion on this may be biased.

Your budget may be feast-or-famine. My wife and I were very cautious about spending money when a big check came it, because we literally did not know how long it had to last. We tried very hard to do nothing on credit, because credit can pile up and kill you, but even so after 13 years of freelancing I had tens of thousands of dollars of medical and educational debt that we still haven’t fully paid off.

The 80 hour work week because my norm. The 100 hour work week happened way too often. I pulled more than one 30-hour “all-nighter” shift, a feat I am physically no longer capable of pulling off.

I can’t recommend full-time freelance writing tabletop games as a career choice. In my case, because I had cared about games more than a career or education, I ended up with no other marketable skills.

But if you feel you must try it, I hope you get advice from lots of different people first, and I wish you well.


Things like Kickstarter and Patreon have change the potnetial freelance landscape. I recommend everyone have a Patreon-like subscription service and a blog or similar ongoing outlet you can ask people to pay you to continue.

And, of course, I’d appreciate it if you consider supporting mine. 🙂

Addendum the First: Always see if you can use anything you have written to either make money, or promote yourself. Or both. That’s why I blew up what was originally a Facebook response into full blog post.
Addendum the Second: Friends, and colleagues and fans that like and respect you, are more likely to help you find work and promote you and the work you have done.
Act accordingly.
Addendum the Third: There is no shame in being a part-time freelancer. You can do it as a second job, or as a hobby. You can also do it mostly, then with some little extra thing on the side to make sure you survive. I’ve known awesome freelancers who were fast food dishwashers, Uber drivers, substitute teachers, and temp workers. If that’s what you need to have a safety margin, or to live at least part of the life you want to live, do it with your head held high. If, someday, you feel secure in leaving the non-freelance part of your life, great. If not, your work is no less ‘real” or “professional.”