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RPG Table Talk: Session 0

It’s fairly common for people in discussions of tabletop RPGs to mention the idea of “Session 0,” but not a lot has been written about what Session 0 is, what you do during it, or why it’s potentially useful. Since I think a good Session 0 is a huge help in creating a lasting and fun campaign, I thought it was worth a brief article.

For those not familiar with the term, in general “Session 0,” refers to getting the players and GM of a new ttRPG campaign together before the actual gameplay starts, to go over expectations and do some pre-planning. Generally this is something done for a group that are planning on playing a game over a multiple sessions, rather than for one-shot games at conventions, demos, or organized play events. Most people assume Session 0 occurs after a group has decided what game they are going to be playing, who is the GM, what their schedule of play is going to be, and similar other broad topics that need to come before “What characters are we each gong to play” and “Do we have a rule for determining if a die is cocked and needs to be re-rolled?” That’s not to say there can’t be value in gathering as a group to decide what game is going to happen and who is running it, but that kind of “MetaSession” is outside the normal Session 0 process (though it may be worth it’s own article sometime soon).

From my perspective, there are three related but separate kinds of topics that should be covered in a good Session 0. The first is any introductory information the GM can offer players so they know what genre and tone the campaign is going to take. Does the campaign have a theme? Is it urban and gritty, or inspired by fluffy folktales, or a massive mega-dungeon? Is it a single short adventure, a homebrewed sandbox, or a published campaign designed to take two years to play? Is there content the GM wants to warn players might be included? Are there things the players want to warn the GM they don’t want to interact with? In fact, on content and behavior, the entire group can discuss any RPG safety tools, group standards, or safe words being used.

The GM can also go over house rules. My personal preference is for a written record of house rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. And yes, sometimes a GM discovers issues on the fly, that’s part of being a GM. But I have also been in games where the GM revealed a house rule about something major that they’ve used for years, but only in the 3rd session, when it turns out to impact the primary ability of my character. Any social expectations can be discussed as well–if a GM has issues with players using laptops or smart phones as character management, or wants clear signals if a player is speaking out-of-character, this is a good time to talk about those. Even things like what to do if a player can’t make it can be hashed out in advance.

Finally, players can also discuss and workshop character concepts that will mesh well with each other, and with the campaign. Does the group want to make sure it has one mage, one warrior, and one rogue? Is this a good game to play that idea that everyone’s characters are teenagers that got on the Pirate World log flume ride, and ended up in the Pirate City of Freeport? Do any players want to have characters that know each other in advance? Are there roles the adventure is assuming someone will fill, and if so are there players interested in filling those roles? Does someone want to play a morally questionable character, and if so, is everyone enthusiastically on board with that idea?

I also personally like to establish at Session 0 that everyone agrees that all players and GM are all agreeing to try to build a game environment and tone that everyone will enjoy. I know that seems obvious, but I have had people refuse to make such and agreement, and once at a seminar had a participant declare that they always insisted on playing evil clowns (regardless of the game’s genre or rules) that never took anything seriously and actively insulted other characters, and they knew they were “doing it right” if they could get other players to quit, cry, or both.

And making sure THAT isn’t anyone’s idea of doing it right is worth taking one evening of communication before you start playing.

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Why Isn’t GAME COMPANY doing THE THING?

Gamers often wonder why a specific game company (hereafter GAME COMPANY) isn’t engaged in some specific act of licensing, marketing, broadcasting, podcasting, customer engagement, convention support, or new game production (hereafter THE THING).

And while I can’t give specific details on why GAME COMPANY isn’t doing THE THING even when I know them, there are a few generic answers that come up so often, I thought it would be useful to have this response ready to point to whenever I need it.

There are numerous possible reasons why GAME COMPANY is not doing THE THING.

First, it may be a terrible idea.

GAME COMPANY has information you do not. This includes details such as (but not limited to) historic sales of various form factors and product lines, cost to manufacture vs sell-through rates, marketing costs, debt load, budget projections, contractual obligations, warehousing cost, warehousing availability, shipping costs, unpaid obligations, work capacity, unannounced projects, scheduling, and whether or not there is anyone at GAME COMPANY who has any interest in working on the THE THING, given that is employees get too unhappy, they leave.

Even if they decide to do THE THING, it takes time. Legal agreements must be forged. Asset packages have to be put together. Clear rules on what is and isn’t allowed must be decided on internally, written up, and reviewed. Schedules have to be designed. Outlines have to be created. Budgets need to be projected. Brainstorms need to roll in for the best way to do THE THING without burning out the entire staff or making the same mistakes 1/4 of the staff knowns NOW BANKRUPT COMPANY made when they tried THE THING in the 1990s.

All of that that takes work from managers, legal departments, and marketing people. Work that comes in on top of their normal load needed to keep making books and put them out at the highest level of quality and profitability. If you try to do THE THING, and while working on it fail to keep the normal flow of products going to pay the bills, THE THING won’t do you much good even if it is a success.

Often it seems like planning for THE THING should doable in a couple of days, mayeb a week or two. But when GAME COMPANY’s staff is already generally already working 45-60 hour weeks to keep food on the table (on top of any freelance work or side gigs they have to make up for the generally low recompense within the industry), and any extra planning/meeting/organizing/budgeting/outlining can only be tackled when there’s a work lull, or people have extra energy, it can stretch out to months or literally years.

GAME COMPANY might love to do THE THING. As the very smart Mike Selinker pointed out in a response to this post, they may even be WORKING on THE THING, and just not want to announce it yet.

But even if they are fast, efficient, brilliant, and focused, they may lack the time, resources, or energy to do THE THING quickly.

#RealGameIndustry

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Design Diary: Concepts

Often game creation starts with a design concept. Your design concept need not be a jumping-off point, you might have a theme, or a licensed IP, or even just a title you like. But fairly early in a design process, you need to decide what your goals are. Having design goals is not a guarantee you’ll hit them, but the odds are much better when you know what you are aiming for.

As an example: Most ttRPGs that use character classes have the class give characters a set of tools designed to cover specific kinds of problems better than other classes. Rogues are better as sneaking. Warriors are better at fighting. Wizards are better at…. well, in some games, they’re better at everything.

But you could design them differently. You could design classes so they are all designed to be able to tackle any kind of situation, but do so differently. Different tools, different styles, different tactics, but equally useful in all kinds of encounters

So how would you pitch the abilities of classes designed like this? As a thought experiment, I came up with conceptual descriptions for 5 classes for a theoretical RPG “EDWEIRDIAN: STRANGE ADVENTURES FROM 1901 to 1910.”

Aesthlete-Style is your substance. You are never out of place, can can blend in or stand out as needed, drawing and controlling attention as you desire.

Brevet-You can punch above your weight in any circumstance… briefly. You have borrowed authority, borrowed resources, and powered influence. But if you abuse or even use them, they may be removed by their true owners.

Fieldfare-You don’t look like much. You are behind the flashy ones, and just to the right. You have a solid trade, a solid community, and a solid head and your shoulders. You’re not the person making the biggest difference… but you are also hard to get rid of. Your contribution may not be as large, but it’s nearly impossible to stop you from rolling up your sleeves and making a difference, and you make everyone else more effective.

Havelock-You need time to plan your approach. You can prepare to tackle any challenge or hazard, using your own abilities and those or your allies with precision and brilliance… if you know in advance what has to be done. You’re not useless when taken by surprise, but you can’t apply your best effort without some forewarning.

Ripper-You can tear you way through fights, social problems, and barriers, but you can’t do it quietly. You are a spectacular last resort, but you are a LAST resort.

Now, a crucial part of such design is to follow through in adventure design. So if I am writing “BELLE EPOCALYPSE: CITY OF BLINDING LIGHT” as the first adventure for EDWEIRDIAN before the RPG is even finished, I need to remember how the classes are supposed to all be useful in any circumstance and try to set up the flow or the adventure to match. And I should be ready to adjust how that is handled as the RPG rules are refined. And no matter how things go in that first adventure, when I start work on the second, more horror-themed EDWEIRDIAN adventure, GILL DEAD AGE: ATLANTIC RISING, I should refresh my memory on how the game rules are supposed to work to ensure I don’t double down on a rushed, flawed adventure design.

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I can only provide my analysis, game views, writing and industry thoughts, and overstuffed essays as long as my patrons support me taking the time to do so. So if you enjoy any of my articles, please consider signing up, even just for the cost of one cup of coffee a month!

Quick Takes: Needing a Break

Quick Takes are super-short glances into my thoughts on some game- or writing-related subject.

Sometimes, creatives run out of fuel. The ideas do not flow, the poetry won’t come, or focusing on developing the thing you are working on actually causes actual physical pain.

Sometimes, creatives just have to take a break.

I know, I know. Do as I say, not as I do.

A break doesn’t have to mean two week vacation. (And, let’s be honest, it usually can’t.) Deadlines are deadlines, and people who depend on being creative to pay the rent aren’t free to just put it all down. A break may need to means something small and quick. It may just be talking a half-hour to look out the window and watch squirrels play in the backyard. Or it may mean watching Lego videos while having a cup of coffee. Of switching gears to a different kind of project, or popping popcorn and watching a movie on your sofa instead of doomscrolling social media.

The main point is to be mindful of letting your mind (and emotions) take a breather. I can’t tell you what will work well for you.

I can tell you, chances are, you’ve earned a break.

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I can only provide my analysis, game views, writing and industry thoughts, and overstuffed essays as long as my patrons support me taking the time to do so. So if you enjoy any of my articles, please consider signing up, even just for the cost of one cup of coffee a month!

Quick Takes: Locking Fun Behind Luck

Quick takes are super-short glances into my thoughts on some game- or writing-related subject.

In many (though certainly not all) games, luck plays an important part in success.

Statistics tells us that the more people play a game, the more of them will be statistical outliers.

We can’t predict who will be extra lucky or unlucky in advance. But we can assume that there will be some outlier players who are consistently experiencing unlikely outcomes.

So if a game locks a fun rules subsystem behind statistically uncommon events, it’s holding those back from people who happen to have runs of bad luck.

Here I am talking about more than just success (though thinking about how much luck impacts the ability to succeed is a useful design activity). But if there are fun things that *only* happen when a player rolls a 20 on a d20 (such as a critical hit deck with narrative events on top of game effects), that’s locking part of the fun behind a luck-wall.

Now, maybe that’s okay. Maybe such consistent bad luck will be so rare that it’s not going to impact a large enough player base to adjust game design to mitigate the access to those rules.

But it’s also worth thinking about if there are ways to let a player interact with those rules without depending on luck. Maybe even not something that makes them more effective, but just gives them access to the tools in that toolbox in different circumstances.

Challenge your assumptions, consider your design choices.

Support My Patreon!
I can only provide my analysis, game views, writing and industry thoughts, and overstuffed essays as long as my patrons support me taking the time to do so. So if you enjoy any of my articles, please consider signing up, even just for the cost of one cup of coffee a month!

Industry Insider: The Pandemic Creativity Toll

So, I have written about the impact of the pandemic, and how to try to handle it, several times already. However, these days the main way I communicate with people is by text. So as I engage in the needful day-to-day tasks of being a freelancer, even without taking on new projects, I end up generating a lot of words on game-industry-related topics. It seems a shame to leave those in emails and direct messages, so I have taken a moment to arrange edited versions to form an update of where I see the Games Industry sitting now, nearly a year into the global pandemic.

I spoke about the State of the Industry about seven months ago, and while things have definitely changed since then, over and over in fact, I wouldn’t say they are better. And things like another major east coast blizzard, the biggest since the 2016 storm that did long-lasting damage to game sales, are going to have a magnified impact when things are already so destabilized. And while we do now have multiple vaccines, it turns out there’s a huge gap between the formulas existing, and people actually getting a shot in the arm. There are deep divisions within the industry about whether any major in-person events are going to happen, but no doubt that if they do they will be less-attended and more stressful than equivalents were in 2019.

Not only are game companies feeling the hurt in terms of sales and stress on creators (which I’ll touch on more in a bit), they have to guess when sales will pick back up. Making major game books takes time and money. A company can often bank a product or two and not send them to the printer yet… but they can’t do so for a full year. Books ready-to-be-printed aren’t making any money yet, and companies have to decide how big a backlog of resources they can possibly sit on. At some point you have to either put them out, and acknowledge that means their total sales will never match normal levels (much as sales of winter 2016 products were hurt over their whole lifespan), or stop making new product until thing have improved… which means not having work for people you are already having trouble paying salaries or freelancer contracts. But if you wait too long to begin making books again, when things do improve you’ll miss the first wave of new purchases by people getting back into in-person gaming and recreation, making it that much harder to get income asap to make good on debts and build new momentum.

There are obviously some steps mid-range game companies and creators can take now to help weather the hardship, and many companies are trying new things. Professional Patreons are more common than ever before, with some 3D print file and art Patreons bringing in thousands of dollars a month. Game industry Patreons focusing on rules and text seem to be less common and less lucrative, but the idea is young yet, and breakout successes may just not have developed yet. Certainly things like the Green Ronin Patreon Rundown (which, full disclosure, I wrote, is hosted by a company I work for, and features my own Patreon) show that there are numerous game professionals and companies putting out amazing content directly to fans.

However, even when venues of sales are open, there’s another major problem hitting the industry, and it has gotten much worse over the past many months–creator burnout. I don’t think there is a single game company which I have insider insight with that isn’t having a much, much higher level of late and even completely-dropped assignments. In some cases you can see how specific factors may have played a part–new game lines can be hard to launch, people getting sick have ample reason to miss deadlines, and tight budgets often means less leeway built into schedules for late assignments and developmental assistance to creators. However, in other cases experienced veterans are taking on things that should be right in their wheelhouse, with all the time and help they normally need, and they are just not performing as well.

It’s widespread enough, though different game lines, production models, and personnel, that I simply have to believe the pandemic and related political stress is broadly impacting creativity for large swaths of people. It’s been a major factor for me, resulting in my being months behind on high-profile projects I staked my reputation on, to my own significant embarrassment. I’ve spoken before about Being Creative During a Pandemic, and gave a view of what my own struggles in time of pandemic look like. And when I reread that last one, I see I was in lockdown for a month when I wrote it, and just think “Oh, my sweet summer child.”

A huge swath of game industry professionals are exhausted. Emotionally worn thin, creatively low and fuel, intellectually at a loss, and financially on edge. We are not unique in that, of course. My effort to shine a light on what I am seeing within every level of the game industry is meant not to claim it is rougher than for other professions, only to share the experiences as I have had them. And because the tabletop RPG industry in particular is so small and on such tight margins, there’s a real risk big sections of it could simply cease to exist. I always try to recommend being kind, but if you are interacting with gam creatives right now, I’d ask for any additional consideration you may have. Certainly if what you want is for ttRPGs to keep getting made, additional yelling at, insulting, accusing, or belittling writers and publishers isn’t likely to help under current circumstances.

Also, I totally understand you may not have any spare financial support to offer game creators, and I get that. I’ll note that sharing, liking, and commenting on things like sales, new product announcements, and links to blog posts on social media really is a huge help even without you spending a dime. Spreading the word is among the biggest things fans and friends can do for independent creatives and small companies.

If you do want to give creators, things such as Patreon and Ko-Fi are huge boons to writers and artists that have them. My own Patreon makes things such as this blog post possible, and even just a few dollars a month is enormously appreciated. And if you happen to have bigger blocks of money you want to use to stimulate the economy without getting charged every month, my Patreon now offers annual subscriptions.

But to put some of my own advice into practice, let me highlight someone else’s online presence. (And, if you’d like me to highlight your online home in a future post, drop me a line. I’ll do what I can.)

Joshua Hennington is an up-and-coming freelance writer of tabletop role-playing game content; he’s written for several accredited publishing companies, from Paizo Publishing to Rogue Genius Games, Everyman Gaming, Rite Publishing and more! Some of his most recognizable works include In the Company of Doppelgangers (PF1e), Starfarer’s Codex: Legacy Dragonrider (SF), and Tombstone Ancestries: Chupacabra (PF2e). He is always eager to write, and quickly becomes passionate on any topic – including yours!

His Ko-fi was created so you can commission custom-made RPG content from Joshua for your favorite characters as inspiration! All his content that is commissioned through that platform is also made publicly available, for anyone to use, and he strives to insure it as high-quality as a turnover would be to a major publisher.

Q & A Week, Pt 4

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: What’s an rpg mechanic you saw and wish you had come up with?
A: The Hero Point reroll mechanism in Mutants and Masterminds. It lets you reroll a failed d20 check, but it also gives you a major protection against getting another bad roll — if your d20 reroll is a 1-10, you add 10 to the result.
This is now my go-to standard for reroll rules.

Q: What’s one thing missing, in your opinion, from White Wolf’s classic World of Darkness? For example, let’s say you’re hired to do ONE book for White Wolf’s original, classic World of Darkness, and you can do this book on literally any aspect of the (sprawling) mega-setting.
What book is it, and why?

A: “Kevin Matchstick: The Pendragon.”
Because a “Mage: The Hero Discovered/Defined/Denied” RPG would rock, and work SO well with WoD.

Q: Who is your favorite game writer? Who do you think is the most underrated one?
A: I know so MANY really good ones. I’d have to say either Crystal Frasier or Steve Kenson are my favorite.
And they are both massively under-rated for their true genius, MacArthur-Fellows-Program-worthy skill, talent, and vision.
But I gotta call out Eleanor Ferron as the MOST underrated. That woman is spectacular, and no one seems to know it outside the industry and a small group of super-fans.

Q: What genre of game have you not worked on that you would like to?
A: Modern Urban Fantasy

Q: What is the very first rpg you played, and which one got you into the business?
A: 1st edition AD&D.
Also, 1st edition AD&D.

Q: I see posts about game night quotes, but have no idea who utters these gems. Is is a local group in OK? An online group? Is there anyone in it we would know?
A: I do game night quotes from any game group I am in who give permission, and I intentionally don’t attribute them so no one gets mocked or called out for saying something wrong.
So over the years they have included quotes from lots of Paizo and Green Ronin folks, some Wotc alumni, and even sometimes random brilliant designers at places like Gen Con.
But right now (since June) they are all from my social bubble, made up of close friends I have been gaming with for 30-37 years.

Q: Why do you think people are so opposed/hateful towards not only 3pp companies but the people who work for them as well?
A: Lucky, I don’t think most people are hatefully toward 3pp and the people who work at them.
But yeah, there are some loud exceptions.
For those few who are truly hateful, I personally think they don’t want to accept that there are people who are BETTER than them at game creation, without the seal of approval of 1st publisher employment.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

Q & A Week, Pt 3

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: Do you think we, as a creative force, have hit a dead end? Can we still produce New and Original material at a time when everything seems to be derived from something recent or a Reboot or Remake? Do we need a Renaissance of the Human Spirit to bring a new Age of Inspiration? Can we still make New works?

A: I think we CAN, and WILL, and ARE.
I also think 90% of everything creative is crap, and always has been, and sometimes the crap is the most popular/successful.
But it’s still worth striving to make New Art.

Q: What would you guess are the 5 best selling ttrpgs right now? What game isn’t on that list that you think more people should know about?

A: My guesses (and they are JUST guesses) are, in order:
D&D 5e
Cyberpunk (Right now, though maybe not a year ago or a year from now)
Pathfinder 2e
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Starfinder

And I think the entire AGE game system from Green Ronin is something more people should know about, but especially The Expanse.
https://greenroninstore.com/collections/the-expanse-rpg

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

Q & A Week, Pt 2

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: If you had 3 do’s, 2 don’t, and 1 always to tell an aspiring free lancer what would they be?

A: DO write every day, even if no one has given you a job yet.
DO read what your favorite writers say about how they write and work.
DO keep work/life balance.

DON’T quit your day job.
DON’T change your assignment from what is assigned or in the outline without getting the developer/editor’s approval.
DON’T forget that as you get better, you’ll see the flaws in your own work more readily, but it also means that work is improving.

And nowadays I’d add: DON’T be afraid to turn down a project. If you don’t have time, or the expertise, or the interest, turn it down, and even say why. Some of my best business relationships in the industry have grown from my being honest about not being the right person for a project, or it not being the right time for me to take it on.
Related, DON’T be afraid to ask for what you need as a condition of taking a project. Clearer outline? Setting bible? PDFs of related books from the publisher? More money? Say so, and feel free to stick to your guns. Be polite, but also treat your own needs with respect.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

Q & A Week, Pt 1

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: When you are writing lore for a new system, where do you go for inspiration?

A: Generally, the seething pool of psychic acid that is my brain.

Now, I feed my brain a lot of raw and distilled ideas. I read up on things like satrapies of the Achaemenid empire, the Trackless Tank Corporation, Mansa Musa (ruler of the Malian empire and arguable the richest man who has ever lived), quantum computing, the political history of the pocket, and whatever else catches my eye.

I read books from as many authors as I can find time for (recently The Shattered Queen, by Jaym Gates). I watch speculative fiction movies, ranging from Gojira and the black & white Spanish language Dracula (that was filmed at the same time and on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi version) to Cloud Atlas to Train to Busan to Lord of the Rings.

I watch a lot of Discovery channel, anime, procedurals, and televised contests.

All that stuff goes into the psychic acid, and becomes an idea soup that rarely lets me down.

And when an idea does slop out of the acid, I do some research on it. What are the real-world analogs? How did the idea turn out historically? What societal pressures arose from it, and how was it taxed?

Just enough to know that if I am reinventing the wheel, I’m not adding it to the Inca Empire without good cause.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy.