Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Big Bad Con 2018 Summary

Big Bad Con is my favorite convention.

There are any number of reasons why - some are simple, like "I can always get a glass of water" or "There are easy to read pronoun flags" or "The game offerings are amazing," but some are far more complex, and today I want to talk about those more complex reasons. I'll tell you a little about what I did first!

My Big Bad Con 2018 was intense. I was busy as hell, the entire trip. Somehow, though, I still recall distinct moments of calm and chill, even though my schedule was probably the fullest of any convention I've done and I had some of the most stressful events I've ever participated in. But that's Big Bad Con, right? I'd say almost anyone who has gone there would say something similar - hell yes, I was busy! But I had a good time, and I don't feel like my soul's been ripped out at the end.

I love Big Bad Con because Big Bad Con loves me. If you go to Big Bad Con, I expect you'll enjoy it, because Big Bad Con doesn't just care about you, Big Bad Con cares for you.

I attended Big Bad Con last year and it was a remarkable experience. I talked about it in three big posts. I had never felt the way I did at Big Bad Con, not at any other con. This year, I was insistent that John attend with me - John is not huge on conventions, but this one felt so different, I just needed him to try. Plus, he had a game to promote this year. And he did the Tell Me About Your Character booth!

John, a dark haired and bearded man, standing in the Tell Me About Your Character booth at Big Bad Con

Over the course of the convention, I hosted the Soda Pop Social, was on two panels by others (Expanding Fantasy, Other Paths) and one of my own (Beyond the Binary), ran Turn, ran my Leading with Class workshop for non-GMs, and played Roar of Alliance. That's a lot for me at a con - like, GMing alone kills me, I never expect to survive it. But in spite of all of the overwhelmingness, I feel pretty good about the con.

I'm going to summarize each event here, but there may be more detailed posts about them in the future. I just want to give some framing for the core of what I want to talk about.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Five or So Questions on Return to the Stars

Today I have an interview with Mark Sabalauskas on Return to the Stars, which is currently on Kickstarter! I'm contributing a solarpunk scenario for the game, but I'm really interviewing Mark because it's a hopepunk game in a world that could really use some hope. So check it out, and see what Mark had to say below!


A group of people in varying styles and costumes, all of different genders, sizes, and races.

Tell me a little about Return to the Stars. What excites you about it?

Return to the Stars is an optimistic science fiction role playing game, powered by Fate.

I am excited to share a game with people where they can imagine having cool adventures in better future.

The direct inspiration was the sense of community that came from being surrounded by diverse, smart, and curious people at a Sci-Fi convention I attended. Hanging out with enthusiastic pop culture geeks was a real respite from much of the darkness in world. It occurred to me that the original Star Trek may have resonated because it provided a similar respite in the 60s, a very turbulent time.

So I created a game that combines the best parts of gamer and geek culture with science fiction exploration. Imagine if Chiana from Farscape was a genetically enhanced cosplayer, or Scotty was someone who loved hacking things to take to a Maker Faire.

The basic premise is that in a post-scarcity future hyperspace travel gave easy access to countless worlds, and humanity sorted itself into like-minded communities. One such society was the Convention Authority, founded to celebrate the now classical arts of science fiction, fantasy, and gaming.

One day, without warning, the stellar beacon that illuminated hyperspace went silent rendering galactic travel impossible. The systems of the Convention Authority stayed connected thanks to a replica fleet of early starships. Now, after more than a century of effort, a long-range exploration craft has been built. Its purpose: to return to the stars and reconnect the lost civilizations of humanity.

You play as one of a new generation of geeks — makers, genetically enhanced cosplayers, scientists, and pop culture enthusiasts setting out on an adventure of exploration and discovery.

What are some of the challenges of making a hopepunk type game, and how have you approached them?

Hopepunk is a subgenre centered around the idea that in the face of oppression and cynicism caring about things is an act of resistance. It is about being kind and also fighting against injustice.

One challenge was to balance hopepunk with other themes in the game. I addressed this by having a setting where long isolated civilizations are reconnecting. Around the table, this means the world being rediscovered "this week" can tell a unique story, giving you a chance to dive deeply into its themes.

Also, player characters come from a fairly utopian society. They could simply chose to stay in their post-scarcity paradise, complacent, sitting around a pool discussing seven centuries of anime and arguing if the 78th edition of D&D was the best, while robots serve them pina coladas. During character creation you have to create an aspect that explains why your character wants to leave this privilege behind. Why they are willing to put their comfort aside and risk their lives to explore and help the rest of humanity.

To encompass the full scope of hopepunk, Return's skill system had to players plenty of non-combat options--play can revolve around making and learning and sharing what you've learned, not just combat. Also, the mechanics for competitions and down-time tinkering give players ways to show off the the things their characters care about.
A dark skinned person in futuristic clothing demonstrating something on a floating touch screen to a pale-skinned person in different futuristic clothing with a metal arm.

Tell me a little more about the world. What kind of people are there? What sort of technology do they have access to?

Return to the Stars is set in the early 27th century, 600 years from now. During that time humanity spread through the Galaxy thanks to origami drives that fold hyperspace. 125 years ago, Stellar Beacon that illuminated hyperspace suddenly went silent, rendering galactic travel impossible. Now a limited form of interstellar travel has been discovered. Communication is limited to the speed of space travel, so players need to act on their own initiative, they can’t phone home for instructions.

You'll travel from world to world, encountering a diverse array of human societies. There are no intelligent aliens in the setting, and digital life can't travel through hyperspace. Stories exist to help people understand humanity, these choices are very intentional. Of course, you still have the option spinning a tale about a runaway AI on a particular planet.

Probably the most unique tech in the game is cosplay, which in the 27th century is the aptitude for self-presentation using costuming, genetic modification, posture, and movement. Because cosplay involves granular genetic control of your body it is a skill you can use to recover from physical consequences.
A pale skinned person and a dark skinned person are in a tech-heavy environment with glowing lights and other figures standing nearby. There is a glowing globe with hovering text "LOCATION SECTOR 68" and locations and pathways lit up on the globe's surface.

What's the mechanical system like in Return to the Stars? How do players interact with the world?

Return to the Stars is powered by Fate, which is a proven indie game system that has been popular over the past decade. It is great for telling stories that are centered on who your character is and what they care about as opposed to what stuff they carry.

You characters have skills and stunts that let them bend the rules. But the heart of the system are aspects, short phrases that describe who your character is. You start a session with 3 Fate points, when you need a boost, and it makes sense, you can spend a Fate point to get a skill check bonus. On the other hand, if you chose, your aspects can complicate you life, earning a Fate point, so you can be awesome later. So if your character is a very curious science officer, they might tempted to wander off to investigate a strange screech, earning a Fate point, or they might spend a Fate point to be awesomely effective at solving a scientific mystery. In this way the game emulates the up and down beats of a story.

Return to the Stars comes with an adventure specially designed to teach the core concepts of the game. In playtests at many different conventions, new players have been up and running and having a good time after ten minutes of explanation.
My goal: if you love anime or games or science fiction or cosplay, and have thought about trying roleplaying games, you can get Return to the Stars, read it, and play.

If you already love games powered by Fate, I’ve added fun new subsystems: character arcs, props, downtime tinkering, and competitions. You can learn more about them on the Kickstarter. And, of course, there is a dedicated set of sci-fi skills and over 100 new stunts to mix things up!

At the center of it, what kind of stories do players tell in the game, and what do you wish to see the most?

Return to the Stars is designed to help players tell stories of sci-fi exploration and adventure. I hope players players take advantage of a game that can be as much about making, learning, and communicating as it is about punching space fascists. 

Ultimately, of course, the great thing about a tabletop role playing game is that people can bring their own interest and passions into the game, adding theme to the themes in the game: optimism, space opera, pop culture, and hopepunk.
Two people inside a spaceship flying through an asteroid belt


Thank you so much to Mark for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading Mark's responses and that you'll check out Return to the Stars on Kickstarter today!

Thoughty is supported by the community on Tell your friends!

To leave some cash in the tip jar, go to

If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, follow the instructions on the Contact page.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Big Bad Con & Behind the Masc

Hello all,

I'll be at Big Bad Con this year - specifically this weekend! And Behind the Masc is on!

I made a big thread on Twitter of everything I'm doing and why!

I hope to see you there, and if not, look forward to my con reports! I'm taking a few days off after the con so Thoughty posts will be kicking back off after that.

In other news, I'm halfway through-ish Behind the Masc fulfillment! Hooray! The packing is going  a little slowly but soon the game will be in all of the backers' hands, and it's already in their inboxes in PDF. If you missed out and want a PDF copy, check it out here!


Thoughty is supported by the community on Tell your friends!

To leave some cash in the tip jar, go to

If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, follow the instructions on the Contact page.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Five or So Questions on Rodent Rangers

Hi all! Today I've got a great interview with Jacob Kellogg and Joseph Kellogg, creators of Rodent Rangers, a nifty roleplaying game currrently on Kickstarter! The project could really use some attention and it seems like a fun game, so please check it out, and see what they have to say about it in the responses below!


A mouse in a glasses, a sweater vest, and a button down with dark pants and a red messenger bag, holding an armful of papers and running off to chase after some that have blown away

Tell me a little about Rodent Rangers. What excites you about it?

Jacob: Rodent Rangers puts players in the role of anthropomorphic mice who go on missions under the feet of modern humans to help those in need. In addition to the nostalgia of old animated films like The Rescuers or The Great Mouse Detective, what's exciting about this game is the light-hearted, joyful purity of it. Especially with the real world being as dark as it is right now, the idea of sending your tiny persona into a big world and nonetheless making a difference—all without the constant violence or mechanical complexity that comes with other games—just feels really appealing. Be a cute mouse and go help somebody. Let everything be okay for a while.

Joseph: What excites me most is the ability to tell stories that let kids get creative and solve problems. Instead of trying to sanitize other systems that rely on violence, Rodent Rangers focuses on using wit and a pure heart to deal with villains, while allowing for daring feats and narrow escapes.

What do the players do to play the game mechanically - how do they take action and tell stories?

Jacob: Mechanically, Rodent Rangers starts with a familiar premise: shared narration, with dice to resolve uncertain or risky actions. It's a very lightweight system, with no hard rules for action types or explicitly-defined special abilities like you have in games like D&D. Instead, activities are descriptive, with the dice determining success or failure. The dice system is pretty sleek as well, with no bonuses or penalties being added to die rolls. Instead, your attributes tell you how many dice to roll and your skills tell you which size those dice should be, then you roll a batch of them and see how many "hits" (dice that show a 4 or higher) you got. If you meet a minimum threshold of hits (depending on the difficulty of the task) you succeed.

Joseph: Rodent Rangers is a skill-based RPG, with a dice system specially designed to be as math-light as possible. When players want to try something, like befriending a stranger or finding a clue, they pick a type of die based on their skill level, and get a number of them based on basic attributes (like Strong or Clever). When they roll, they just have to count the dice that came up as 4 or more.
A mouse with piercings and a choker in casual clothes and a backpack with their foot resting on a compass
What do the characters do in the narrative? Are they rescuers? What kind of adventures do they have?

Jacob: Narratively, the Rodent Rangers are an in-world organization that spans the globe, and sends teams of field agents out on missions to help their fellow critters (or even humans sometimes). You might recover a museum's stolen relic, help to evacuate mice from a flooding sewer city, or even help guide a lost human child back to their parents. There's an emphasis on being part of a team and working together, as well as being noble and wanting to help people (after all, that's why you became an agent of the Rodent Rangers).

Joseph: Characters in Rodent Rangers are agents of the titular organization, a worldwide network or do-gooders and adventurers. They get sent on missions to help other animals or people in danger, and hopefully make friends along the way. In the sample adventure, players will be asked to track down a researcher who was kidnapped by sinister treasure hunters. To rescue him, they'll need to look for clues, get past a devious snake, make new friends, and maybe even get into a high-speed car chase!
Potentially even encounter villains such as this!
What kind of character becomes a Rodent Ranger, and how do they fit into the larger world? Do these characters stand out?

Jacob: There are really only three key aspects of a person who becomes a ranger: they're part of animal society rather than human society, they have some kind of skill or ability to contribute, and they want to help. Beyond that, a character could be anyone, which I think is something I really like about this game. You don't have to be born into the right circumstance, be the chosen one, be part of the dominant forces of society, or whatever else. If you want to do good in the world in your own unique way, then there's a spot for you on the team that no one else can fill. 

Joseph: A Rodent Ranger is someone who loves adventure and helping people. Many mice are content to live peaceful lives, and shun danger. Rodent Rangers are often the best at what they do, and driven to put their talents to good use in the wider world.

How is Rodent Rangers special to you in it's design and concept?

Jacob: Aside from some of the conceptual elements that I've already talked about liking, I'm really into how straightforward and "essentials only" the mechanics are. Games can sometimes get a bit overwrought, trying too hard to make sure every element of the experience has its own mechanic instead of just giving you the tools you need and leaving room for imagination. For example, as much as I like D&D, I would probably like it even better if you dropped the entire "spells" chapter in favor of a more "here's the general idea, do what makes sense" approach. That's what Rodent Rangers does: it gives you enough to show you what the game's about and enable you to play, then gets out of the way.

Joseph: Rodent Rangers is special because it reflects many of the cartoons of my childhood, in which a pure heart and brave soul were all that were needed to save the day. 
A mouse in a green shirt and brown pants holding a notepad and pencil.

Thanks so much Jacob and Joseph for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading and that you'll check out Rodent Rangers on Kickstarter today!

Thoughty is supported by the community on Tell your friends!

To leave some cash in the tip jar, go to

If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, follow the instructions on the Contact page.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Five or So Questions on Impulse Drive

Today I've got an interview with Adrian Thoen, who is excited to tell us about Impulse Drive, a Powered by the Apocalypse space opera hack about misfits and spaceships that's currently on Kickstarter. I hope you enjoy the interview below!


The Impulse Drive banner with silver text on a blue and purple starry background, reading Impulse Drive: A roleplaying game about misfits and spaceships, Powered by the Apocalypse
Tell me a little about Impulse Drive. What excites you about it?

I'm a huge fan of all sorts of space opera books, movies, games, and shows. From the late Iain M. Banks' Culture novels & Mike Resnicks Santiago: a myth of the far future to shows like KilljoysFarscapeAndromeda, and Dark Matter, and games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. Space Opera combines commentary on society and the myths we tell ourselves with pulpy romance, melodrama, and action in delightfully weird settings.

Impulse Drive is an expression of my joy for these melodramatic, heartfelt stories about volatile but endearing misfits.
a dark-skinned person with curly hair angrily working with a piece of tech
What do players (and characters) typically do in play in Impulse Drive? What "drives" the game?

It's the players job to create and play an interesting, active character by taking risks and embracing the consequences. Players describe their character, what they think, say, and do. Players look for when Moves apply to the situation the group is describing, and when their characters Hooks affect the situation or bring fraught relationships to the fore. Players are directed to think cinematically, like the game is a pulpy space opera movie or TV show.

Characters are misfits with simple motivations, but live in a world that complicates things. The characters have tense, fraught moments with each other and take dangerous jobs or missions that lead them into conflict and adventure. Lots of flying too fast, indulging too much, pissing off the wrong people, and getting into fights & shootouts.
A robotic character sprawled on the floor, injured, in a room full of crates
What are the characters like in the game, and how do they function mechanically?

Characters are volatile and bombastic. They're competent badasses with a lot of luck on their side - until that luck runs out. They rely on their unique strengths, skills, and gear to get them out of sticky situations. But their character flaws and complicated pasts & relationships mean there's always more trouble around the corner.

Mechanically, the core function of a character revolves around their Approaches (5 modifiers ranging from a score of -1 to +2 at the start.) and their Moves, discrete chunks of rules made up of a trigger (usually fictional) a process (usually rolling 2D6 and adding a modifier) and an outcome (usually fictional). Impulse Drive is Powered by the Apocalypse, so it's mechanics are very similar to games like Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, and Masks to name a few.

The five approaches (Volatile, Calculating, Slick, Stalwart, and Alien) describe behaviors more than they describe physical or mental prowess. I wanted the names for the Approaches to be flexible and evocative. Slick means being kinda charming in an unreliable, slimy way, but it also describes pulling off a fancy maneuver. Slick is being quick, responsive, and hard to pin down. Volatile is about passion, but also unpredictability and violence. Calculating is being logical but also cold, you can't be thoughtful or empathetic with Calculating. Alien is being weird and touching forces beyond your ken. All of the Approaches have a mildly negative connotation - except Stalwart, which is for being resistant, solid, but also reliable and dependable.

Orbiting Approaches and Moves, characters are made up of the Gear they can use, the Harm & Stress they can take, and two elements that complicate their lives; Hooks and Calamities.

Hooks are an opportunity to define their character through flaws and fraught relationships. There are some default Hooks on each Playbook that players fill in mad-lib style, but they're an opportunity for players to describe the challenges and struggles us want to watch their character. Hooks give you an opportunity for interesting roleplaying but also earning more XP by increasing the chance of failure. Hooks are always activated at the Player's discretion, so they can choose when they want a higher chance for complication and XP, or a higher chance for success.

Calamities are a finite list of mechanical changes and fictional events that happen to the character if they take 5 Stress. The last Calamity in each list is an exit for the character from the main stage - they'll either retire to safety or go out in a blaze of glory. It's always fun to see which players try to manage their Stress frugally, and which players jump in and aim for certain Calamities because they think they're cool. I've never seen a Warhorse who can resist an opportunity for a great victory, at the cost of a part of their body.

The Calamity options
What's it like in the world of Impulse Drive? Where do characters live, and how does that influence the tone of play?

The "World" of Impulse Drive is an array of space stations, ships, and worlds that the PCs visit in their ship. The Galactic Community is made up of societies and civilizations with populations that count in the billions. Technology ranges in sophistication and style between these civilizations, but most are on par with the crew of PCs. The particulars of the societies that the PCs come into contact with is determined by the group, led by the Space Master. This ensures that the themes the group is interested in exploring will be embodied by the societies they are on the fringes of.

The parts of the galactic community that we generally see in Impulse Drive are the fringes, less settled areas where conflict, corruption, and crime are commonplace. Law and corporate interests encroach on these spaces and culture varies greatly from society to society, but the status quo teeters on a knife-s edge, waiting for the crew to come along and disrupt it.

The Space Master uses Strains, similar to Fronts & Threats from Apocalypse World to track and advance these volatile situations towards a climax.

Strain character sheet detail
Components of Strains
Climaxes, Fuses, and Burn details
How does being a misfit really impact one's place in this space opera world? 

Being a misfit is all about how you don't conform to the status quo for society, how you disrupt and challenge what the majority sees as 'normal'. It's about being different, and having society at large be passively or actively suspicious and hostile to you.

PCs in most RPGs do this by the very nature of the rules of the games, but also how players generally embody characters who do this by default - whether that is desirable or not. The PCs have lots of mechanical tools that irrevocably change a situation once they interact with it - for better or worse.

Along with this, the game tracks how certain important groups or NPCs relate to the crew of PCs using Disposition. There are 5 states of disposition that describe how someone is likely to react to the PCs within the fiction, but also has a modifier attached to interact with certain Moves that deal in broader social or transnational situations. While the galaxy in general may not even register this one little ship and its crew in the fiction, in terms of the game we relate to NPCs by their relationship to the crew members.

NPC Disposition

This is open information. The players know how the various interests in their corner of space feel about them and what to expect when they dock at a station in a hostile faction's territory. Even the positive dispositions Friendly and bonded come with strings attached or caveats.
The PCs being misfits is mechanically encouraged by one of the XP triggers in the end of session Move. Your PCs earn XP if the crew made a new enemy, or thwarted an existing one. This encourages the characters to find organizations and societies that deny their individuality and stand against them in a way that gains their animosity.

A group of characters with varying body types, races, species, and gender, all looking a little out of place together


Thanks so much to Adrian for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Impulse Drive on Kickstarter today!

Thoughty is supported by the community on Tell your friends!

To leave some cash in the tip jar, go to

If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, follow the instructions on the Contact page.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Five or So Questions on Americana

Hey all, today I have an interview with Liam Ginty from Sandy Pug Games about Americana, a tabletop roleplaying game coming out on Kickstarter! It sounds like some fascinating times investigating a tragic murder, so check out the answers below, and give the quick start a look, too!


An orc standing next to a blue pickup talking to some goblins as a red drag racer flies past.

Tell me a little about Americana. What excites you about it?

Americana is an idea I've had for ages - a retro-fantasy setting. The image of Orcs in letterman jackets, goblins in those awesome Pink Ladies outfits from Grease - it just came to me one day and stuck with me, but I didn't really have anything to do with it till I made a game called Mirror, which gave me a dice engine to call my own, and suddenly I had something I could build from.

The game itself is about a lot of stuff - being a kid at a time when the idea of teenagers having a time and space of their own was new and strange and pretty scary to everyone, claiming the aesthetics of a time period that's been off limits to a lot of marginalized people to create a fun, enjoyable and accepting place to play in - but the core gameplay revolves around investigating the death of your best friend while managing your time at school, social events and familial obligations and navigating a town full of weird gangs and magical places that you create during session zero. It's a really interesting gameplay loop that I don't think has been explored very much, we took that very teenage experience of trying to figure out when everyone can hang out and made it part of the game in a way that's really fun.

Besides the aesthetic (which we have a really great team of creative folx bringing it to life, tons of stories, art and even an audio drama we're planning on making), I'm mainly excited about a mechanic we're calling Your Dead Friend. Your Dead Friend is the victim of the crime at the center of all of this, and as such, we wanted to make them very important to the game. You actually make a full character for Your Dead Friend, just like you would make a normal PC (player character), and you can tap their skills for assistance with tough challenges - doing this invokes a flashback, where you roleplay out a scene where you learned this skill, or shared a moment with your friend. So throughout play you build this character, and your relationships with them, and playtesters have created some incredible stories from this mechanic, and we're really really hyped to see what people do with it.

We also have a mechanic called Ties and Connections that is just really cool visually - as you play you put together this conspiracy style board, drawing lines and connections between gangs, locations, characters and Your Dead Friend, slowly putting the mystery together.

a werewolf dressed up with earrings and fancy clothes

How do you handle creating a town with all these exciting elements in Americana?

We focus on the parts of the town that are, or would be, important to teenagers, and break the town down into Hangs, Crews, Risks and Adults. A Hang is somewhere designed for, or co-opted for the purposes of just being. The old water tower, a disused Goblin cave, the field outside of town. We encourage players to make these hangs as magical or as mundane as they like, and they're modeled much like our characters are - with Strengths, Weaknesses and a Vibe that characters can tussle with or exploit for their own purposes. Of course, what's a place without a gang to call it home. That's where the Crews come in.

Crews are cliques, like greasers, preps, mage-kids or jocks. They similarly have a Vibe and a couple of strengths and weaknesses, a catchy name that sums up their whole deal (and probably gets printed on their custom varsity jackets) and a leader. The leader gets a little extra detail so players have a face for that group right from the start. You also give the crew a hang to call home. Maybe the greasers all hangout at "Felicities Garage" or something. Again, we want people to create crews that reflect their own game, so we let people be as mundane or as magical as they like. My favourite crew in playtesting so far was a gang of gothabilly inspired proto-goths, who hung out around an abandoned necromancers tower, reading poe and casting spells.

Risks are the kind of dangerous activities that you and your peers get up to when the adults aren’t watching. Parties, deadly races, and illicit wizard duels in the woods near town. These are events set up by the various crews as a way for everyone to test their mettle against one another, and provides some really cool ways for players to challenge people, get up in a crews business or otherwise make themselves known without having to resort to straight up fisticuffs. Risks have a name, a crew associated with it, and a danger level that tells everyone just how risky this whole activity is. I was a big fan of "Electric Dance Fighting", one of our first playtests Risks, where crews would have big street dance contests on the arcing lightning from a power line.

Adults are a bit more simple, to reflect the info and perspective of a teenager - they have a name, some strengths and weaknesses, and a position that tells you where they sit in the Adult world.

This is all done during Session Zero, tho we encourage players to add or modify these as needed throughout play, and it's also done non-sequentially, so you can come up with a crew, go make up a Risk then come back to make up the hang later. You have a variable number of all of these elements depending on the scale of the town you pick. We've found this system just pops with awesome ideas when you get a few people around the table, and I wish I could just list off all the examples we've heard during playtesting so far. Really makes for some fantastic story elements with clear narrative and mechanical purpose.

A sheet with the words pronouns, strengths, and weaknesses on it with a blank polaroid next to it.
A blank Your Dead Friend sheet...maybe you should be the one to fill it in!
I'd love to hear more about the Ties and Connections. How does that work and who gets to influence it?

Ties are how we lay out the various relationships between these crews, their leaders, locations, adults and characters all with the victim. We have a sheet that has the victim in the middle, their stats and so on, and a lot of blank space around them. As players investigate the world they've built, they record connections that NPCs, crews and locations have with Your Dead Friend by writing their names on the sheet and drawing these ties between the various factions and Your Dead Friend, which in turn makes it easier to figure out the next place to investigate, the next lead to track down and so on. This evolving document creates an ongoing campaign-length record of leads and dead ends, suspects and mysteries that you spent your game following up on. Here's a WIP example of one after a couple playtest sessions. The final sheet will look a lil nicer than this, obviously, but it gives you an idea of what an in-progress set of Ties looks like.

Oh, and as for who gets to influence it - like almost everything in Americana, it's a table-wide mechanic. The Storyteller can declare a tie, the players can confer and make one if they feel it makes sense, or everyone can agree together to make one. One area we really want to build on with Americana is making the dynamic between GM and Player less of a wall. Making the story more of a collaboration between the whole table from start to finish is a part of that.

So what are player characters like in Americana? How do they develop and fit into these towns?

Characters in Americana are all one of 6 Archetypes (what we call Classes) based on high school tropes - The Jock, The Nerd, The Royal, The Outsider, The New Kid and The Artist. They're all friends of the victim, but not necessarily of each other, and we have a mechanic called The First Clue that's specifically for bringing everyone together and getting the characters invested in the mystery. One thing we were super aware of when making these archetypes is that some of them are often depicted as cruel, or mean in popular culture - Jocks are bullies, Royals (the popular kids) are often vapid, and we wanted to avoid that at all costs, highlighting instead the positive traits of someone who really loves sports, or is a social butterfly.

These characters are, generally, people who've been part of the town most of their lives, and are personally devastated by the death of their best friend, and their character growth tends to come from their collective grief and the various support mechanics we have - working together is vital in Americana. The way the game is designed really forces this Us vs Them sentiment where the player characters are alone in their investigation, and have to rely on each other as much as possible.

Finally, tell me about Your Dead Friend. Where did this plot element idea come from, and how did it grow into a mechanic?

Your Dead Friend came from me watching Brick and realizing the single most important character in that - and almost every murder mystery - is the victim, but they're so often neglected in RPGs that focus on similar themes. They're either a plot thread or an inciting event, but never really show up much in the story from there. While doing my research for the game (Watching Riverdale mainly) I noticed how useful it was to have flashbacks where you can expand on that character and make them matter so much more to the audience than if they were just a corpse. It seemed obvious that the victim should sit at the table somehow.

First of all I played with the idea of having a player literally be Your Dead Friend, it'd be another Archetype, but I couldn't really figure a way to make it work well with the other mechanics and vibe of the game. We played with the idea of having them be a summonable element, a ghost, a bunch of other things, but all of that went by the wayside when we realized how important Assists were for the game. It all kinda came at once at that point, the flashbacks, the assist skills, etc. It allows the character of the victim to grow really naturally through the players inventing that relationship they had from whole cloth and stops them just being a dice pool to draw from.

An orc in a leather jacket with great hair
I'm only mildly in love with this orc guy.

Thanks so much to Liam for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Americana on Kickstarter, so keep an eye out on the Sandy Pug Games site! While you're here, check out the Americana quick start!

Thoughty is supported by the community on Tell your friends!

To leave some cash in the tip jar, go to

If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, follow the instructions on the Contact page.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Quick Shot on The Forest Hymn & Picnic

Hey all, got a little piece with Cecil Howe on The Forest Hymn & Picnic, which is currently on Kickstarter! Check out Cecil's responses to my questions below.


A tree with a pumpkin-headed friend floating nearby, plus the text The Forest Hymn & Picnic

What is The Forest Hymn & Picnic, both as a product and as your vision?

As a product it's a tabletop adventure game where players take on the roles of oddballs that live an absurd, unending and often haunted forest. It's a mix of exploration and slice of life gameplay much closer to D&D in play than something like Apocalypse World. The game takes cues from some of my favorite things from when I was a little dude—I didn't grow up in love with The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, I didn't grow up with D&D; I even missed out on Harry Potter 'til I was 23 despite my generation growing up with those books and movies. 

I did, however, love books like The Wind in the Willows, and the Frog & Toad stories when I was a kid. Fairy tales and fables and cartoons, too, all left their mark on me in ways traditional fantasy fiction never did. So the game digs into those influences more than anything, and I guess my vision is that adventuring in The Forest Hymn invokes those memories we have of what fantasy was to us as kids, before we read The Hobbit, but in a way seen more so through the lens of being an adult. Like what if Little Bear was all grown up and needed to sell off some heirlooms to hire someone to help him get a ghost out of his closet, or what if Frog got lost in the woods and Toad got a musket-toting posse together to go find him? I am not trying to hit a nostalgia button with this game, instead I am re-imagining all those things in my own voice and outside influences like Americana folklore, old tall tales, living in the southern US, and ghost stories.

A bear in a blue plaid shirt and green cap going fishing, smoking a pipe

How have you designed the game to address tone, pacing, and mood, considering how particular the various referenced media are in that regard? 

The three biggest influences on The Forest Hymn & Picnic are The Wind in the Willows and various children's books about animals being idiots, the music of The Decemberists, and the cartoon Over the Garden Wall. They all poke their head in on things one way or another, but like I mentioned it's through my own grown-up eyes and I take license here and there to reflect my own personality and get a bit weird with it. Tonally, you'll find the game to be more adult than those children's books; the player characters have more grown-up flaws and superstitions and especially the Ghost characters tend to er on the sad side of things—when you decide to play a ghost you pick a costume that reflects however you might have died in your former life. 

The ghosts made their way into the game after I watched OtGW. I was telling a friend about this game I was making that was about animals in a haunted forest, and they recommended it to me. I instantly watched it a thousand times, and how that cartoon handled things like death and family and basic human behavior really showed me you could do more with children's stories.

You can play as Animal Folks who are animals that walk and talk and are pretending to be what they think people are like, which is kind of the entirety of Mr. Toad from Willows expressed as an entire set of player options. Animal Folk are busy bodies and gossipers, concerned with social standing and prone to commerce. You can also play as people, who like Christopher Robin are a little more grounded in reality, but they're naturally lost in the woods. So the mood and tone very much my own projections of looking back at those influences as an older person. It's real silly, but a little bit serious. 

The book and the art, too, reflects a lot of these influences. I've been painting backgrounds and backdrops in traditional, mixed mediums like watercolor and colored pencils while the other artists, Casey and Sam, will be doing the action and foreground art in their own digital styles to give it that sort of old cartoon feel. They layout is closer to a children's book than a traditional RPG textbook, and graphic novelist Gabe Soria has contributed the lyrics to songs the forest dwellers sing to open each chapter.

I'm gunna answer the part about pacing in the next question, but my good pal Dustin told me that the way The Forest Hymn & Picnic is presented is like inviting kids to eat at the adult table and I think that's a good way to sum up the tone and mood of this game.

a floating pumpkin headed friend holding a bouquet of flowers and a book labeled "Die-ary"

Tell me a little about the progression of the game in play, from inception of characters to milestones and on. What was challenging to create here, and how does it feel in play? 

The pacing of the gameplay is made to intentionally mimic the way those kid's books are read. A lot of those books are collections, two or three-page accounts of whatever mischief the characters get into; each chapter is a contained story all bound into a single book but the characters very much feel like they're up to the good times in between the pages. The Forest Hymn & Picnic does this too. Each adventure is meant to be a contained experience the players have. A single adventure, a quest, a day at the county fair, 48 hours on the road between towns, etc. The narrator can choose to craft those episodes in a way that links them all together with an overarching plot, or choose to just explore the woods and the world across several sessions.

Players start with character generation; they're given the numbery, mathy stuff like characteristic scores and whatnot up front to get it out of the way. Then you're given a set of personality generating tables to sort of build the background of their character; they can make random rolls or pick and choose from the tables to learn things about themselves. People learn how they ended up in the woods and how they were raised, Animal Folk learn what kind of animal they are and what silly quirks they have, and Ghosts put their costumes together. 

You take all of that and put it together to form a description for your adventurer. What you're left with at the end of character generation is an extremely unique adventurer who has their own fears and goals and personalities, built-in adventuring hooks like finding your long lost father or working to become mayor of some town, and a relationship with the woods itself.

After each episodic adventure players will go up in a level, and the options they take and decisions they make represent what those characters are up to between adventures. So like, a player might decide that in between level 0 and level 1 they want to get involved with the supernatural and learn some magic tricks so they become a Fortune Teller. Or maybe the player can't decide just yet what they want to do, so they take on the role of a rakehell and bum around town with not much to do. Each of those choices then give the players new options, skills, magic tricks, and cool moves, and even adventure hooks to use on their next adventure and advance their unique personal stories and lives in The Forest Hymn. Not including the different types of Animal Folk, and not including the different micro decisions players make at each level-up and their own contributions, there is over 500 different combinations of unique dweller to choose from. 

That's where the influence of The Decemberists comes in; their songs tend to be storied, melodic looks at seemingly ordinary people and the different player options work they same way: you don't choose to be Mega Sword Hero™, but you do decide to take up the quiet life of a knife sharpener or burglar, bakers, librarians and all that good stuff. In play it feels very much feel like players are a part of the world rather than heroic outsiders, which is delightful and intentional. It gives the actual adventuring narrative weight; it's odd to go adventuring in the woods, it's not normal to go traipsing around The Spookwood, making it all more interesting when you do these things as a someone who's really good at churning butter and keeping books instead of swinging a sword.

The most challenging thing about creating anything with this game is staying true to the setting and making sure it's cool. The Forest Hymn & Picnic is running on a very very simplified version of the same engine that powers a game that couldn't be further from different than it: Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert J. Schwalb. SotDL is a—fantastic!—super gritty, grim dark hack & slash RPG and what I've made from it is different by leagues of night and day. 

I've quieted the importance of fighting and weapons and replaced it with a more granular task resolution system using the same math. So the easy part, the math, was done already. But making sure the setting comes through in player options and the magic tricks, in the character generation and the songs, the art, and the brief introduction to the world has been the toughest part. It's not a genre covered heavily in RPGs or really in mainstream media very often at all; fewer of us have the concepts and tropes that define it burned into our brainholes like we do typical fantasy or sci fi ones.

Thanks for reading! Love,
The text The Forest Hymn & Picnic and an image of the book with black cover, then a stork carrying a bundle and some trees.


I don't normally include signoffs, but Cecil's was part of the answers given, and I liked it. :) Thanks to Cecil for a great interview! I hope you'll all check out The Forest Hymn and Picnic on Kickstarter today!

Thoughty is supported by the community on Tell your friends!

To leave some cash in the tip jar, go to

If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, follow the instructions on the Contact page.