Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Five or So Questions with Ryan Macklin on Backstory Cards

Backstory Cards are currently Kickstarting!

Tell me a little about Backstory Cards. What excites you about them?

Backstory Cards is a tool I made to create surprising, dynamic backstory between characters in an RPG. The cards have prompts on them and methods for randomly tying together PCs, events, NPCs, and locations in the world. Some are cooperative in nature ("When push came to shove at event, PC displayed something you weren’t expecting. What was it, and how did you react?"), dramatic ("You, PC, and individual were caught up in a love triangle or other complicated romantic entanglement. Who came out the better? At what cost?"), or even adversarial ("Place is important to [you/PC], and the other one harmed or threatened to harm it. What happened, and how did [you/they] get away with it?") Everyone answers around two prompts each, and you have some interwoven history with immediately usable hooks.

You know those moments of surprise in games, when someone comes up with something that seems out of the blue, but also seems like exactly the right thing to say at that time? I live for those moments in RPGs, as a GM and as a player. And I love character setups that ask pointed questions, which I've been doing at convention games for years (after learning how to do it from Paul Tevis and Brian Isikoff). But the two never quite meshed together for me, because either I was asking the leading questions myself or the game was providing a host of questions to choose from. Don't get me wrong, I love that stuff! But there's something special about being asked a pointed question you weren't expecting, and then coming up with an inspired answer that makes everyone else at the table excited to play.

I love asking good questions! How did you come up with these questions for the cards?
I've been using this technique for years at convention games with partially pre-generated characters. When I would make the pregens, I would have some likely relationships between the characters in mind, but leave the question of "why" out of it. I did that with heroic moments, with love triangles, with complicated pasts. I would create interesting NPCs and ask them all questions to pump up that NPC, and then start the game at the NPC's funeral; I called this technique "the Xavier method" because for a year I kept naming that character Xavier.

Years of doing that, and then becoming more improvisational about it, gave me the basis for the first couple dozen questions. I've also played in a lot of convention games with amazing question-asking GMs like Paul Tevis and Brian Isikoff, who are significant influences in Backstory Cards. All of those experiences have worked out my improvisational Socratic muscles into lean fighting form.

What sort of games do you think these cards would be most effective for?
I tell people that Backstory Cards are good for pretty much any RPG where characters are interconnected at the start of the game. Obvious systems would be for Fate, Cortex+ Drama, and Dungeon World, where relationships can or are put on the character sheet in some form. But I've also used this method (or seen this used) in GURPS, Heroquest, GUMSHOE, Don't Rest Your Head, various dungeon crawl games, and so on.

But it's particularly effective when what you as a group emphatically want to riff on character history as part of the game, whether it's a plot motivator or just as banter. If you need something superficial, it might be a waste of time (but might also create player buy-in). I'm also super-curious to try it as a Fiasco hack, but I'm betting more likely than not that it'll result in a weaker Fiasco game.

How do you think we can, as gamers, use good questions more in games?
My take on questions in games, whether in character creation or in play, is to take to heart one strong idea: answers are agency. Whether that's asking you about minor scene elements, character backstory, or major plot points, by asking questions you're promising agency. Respecting that promise at the table is important. You know those moments when you are specifically offered input, and after you answers someone response with "You know what would be even cooler?" That's not respecting the promise of agency. (That doesn't mean every answer is equally valid -- agency comes with it responsibility. But that gets into answers as negotiation rather than wholesale negation.)

The *World games show how to use questions in play in a brilliant manner -- I have always appreciated how Vincent crafted questions as currency.

There's a tendency to eschew the yes/no question because it can frequently lead to nowhere, in favor of open questions. Most of the time, that's true, but there can be power in the yes/no questions. I recall one time when Josh Roby ran Full Light, Full Steam at a Nerdly Beach Party. The party was on a giant gondola and I wanted to shoot at some people below us who were looking to do the same thing. Josh ask me if I thought the windows slid or otherwise easily opened, and my gut was to say "of course" because saying no felt like a stop. Then I thought about it and say "Of course they're solid glass! That makes it more awesome because I have to shoot through it."

A lot of time, the yes/no question is too simplistic, but look for opportunities to turn that on its ear.

What's up next for you?
I always have games and other projects cooking. The biggest one that I'm slowly chipping at is called the Emerging Threats Unit -- an action-investigation horror game that asks "What if the secret agency fighting supernatural threats wasn't in the FBI, but in the CDC?" I'm slowly creating it in the open, writing about pieces here and there on my blog. (Here's a detailed bit about the premise.)

More importantly, I have a wedding coming up with Lillian Cohen-Moore. That's my big upcoming project, and I have three conventions between now to also eat my time and mental bandwidth. Perhaps when that's behind me, I'll make a worker placement game that's about getting ready for a wedding -- a cooperative game where you play the couple, the best human, human of honor, wedding planner, and officiant. After all, They say write what you know, and right now this is my life.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Random Thoughts on Freelancing

Random thoughts about freelancing:

Freelancing is not super easy. Like, growing up I was given the impression that writers and such got paid well and lived a life of ease, just creating. How cool did that sound, right? Well, turns out it's mostly bullshit.

I say mostly because you do get to create, and that part is awesome. The pay is, depending on where you go, anywhere from abysmal to decent, unless you have a Name and Reputation and GET LUCKY. From what I've seen so far, anyway.

I've been suuuuper lucky to find a place with a few different companies and people. The first one didn't really go as I'd hoped, so I moved on. Luckily, there were people who supported me, and I found a place to do my first paid, published work through The Fate Codex. This was super cool. It also led to my current work with MWP, and eventually to work with Onyx Path and Evil Hat.

One thing I didn't expect was the impact my health would have on freelancing. I thought that working from home and freelancing was something you could always do, no matter how sick you were. I was totally freaking wrong, like, get out of here, so wrong. Not only did I lose a lot of time when I had a mental break (for lack of a better term), but I've also lost a lot of time due to an injury.

I have learned that while deadlines are important, people can be SUPER understanding when it comes to injury and illness, and I'm incredibly grateful for it. I don't know how else I would still have the work I do. I owe a lot to the people who took a leap of faith on me, and I owe the same or more to those who haven't given up on me. 

It's been exciting. The work I'm doing for MWP is small but something I've enjoyed, and I discovered through it that I really do enjoy designing mechanics - maybe even more than I enjoy writing. Totally blows my mind, to be honest. Soon, I'll be on a project with Evil Hat, which I'm not sure the secrecy level of so I'll leave it up to Fred &co. to announce it if they see fit. I finished up all but final edits on my Onyx Path work, so that'll be on its way soon.

I just feel like I'm doing a lot in a very short period of time, which is kind of good because I probably will have to cut back when I start back to school, which means picking and carefully choosing what work I can do - and I think that I have a chance at actually having choices to pick from. 

I've also met some other great freelancers along the way, and there's something I want to talk about. Soapbox time.

There are so many guys. Like SO many. And they are, from what I have seen, mostly great. But, I want to be one of many women working on a project - not one of two, or one of three, on a team of 9 or more. I know that there weren't enough women applicants in the Evil Hat Writer's Search (Fred said so on the Twitter), and that bums me out (I should note, though, that the Evil Hat project I'm on has the greatest number and proportion of women of any of the teams I've been on thus far - not for lack of other people trying, though!). I know loads of women out there totally capable of doing what I do and probably even more! I know that there are things to consider like second-shift problems, impostor syndrome, and many other things, but I'm here to say I will fight with you! I will try my best to have time to read over your applications and I will try to advocate for you when I can take the opportunity to put in a good word. 

There is an awesome list of indie gaming women going around on Twitter today, and I want to see THAT. I want to see women being awesome and creative and that's so possible, I can almost taste it. Next time there is a writer all-call, I hope to hear "We had an overwhelming number of women respond!" and I want to keep hearing it

Love y'all!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Discoveries About Clash from Origins 2014

Hello Internet!

This will hopefully be brief.

I wanted to talk a little about some stuff I found out about
Clash this weekend. I promised you all video blogs, vlogs, whatever you want to
call them and I wanted to try this out! I am not using my fancy cam setup or
anything, so you get raw, uncut Brie.

That sounds kind of gross.

One of the biggest things I noticed at Origins was that
players had trouble focusing on each other, and that we resolved the conflicts.
Resolving the conflicts! WHAT! That is not supposed to happen!

I talked with John a bit and what I think is happening is
that I am really shit at explaining things. Like, really shit. Because, here’s
the thing.

Clash is a game about conflict.

It’s not necessarily about THE CONFLICT.

I want players to focus on themselves and each other. Avoidance
is there for a reason. If you want to fuck off and do your own thing and let it
screw up life for everyone, go you, dude! The conflict is important but only in
the way that it’s keeping you from your goals and keeping you from what you
want even if it’s not really what is keeping you from what you want.

Plus, the World hates compromise. After all, it punishes
everyone when you compromise, just like it punishes everyone for avoiding conflict.
The World doesn’t want peace.

So what I’ve discovered is that I really need to take time
explaining the way the game works to people when we sit down to play, and write
up a script to prep the players when they start play. It’s not about the big C
conflict all of the time, but it’s always about the little C conflicts,
including internal conflict.

What is something you have discovered in a playtest that
changed how you want to present the game?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Five or So Questions with Meg McGinley on Pack the Pack

I interviewed Meg McGinley of Games By Playdate about her award-winning game, Pack the Pack! The game is Kickstarting currently - Check it out!

Tell me a little bit about Pack the Pack. What has you excited about it?
Pack the Pack is a real-time tile laying game that is about what happens AFTER the adventurers slay the dragon. They are standing around the loot pile and have to figure out how to shove all of that beautiful booty into their packs and get back to town before the rest of the party to be crowed the true victor... the hero that the town tells stories about. It has me excited because it's exactly the type of game that I like to play- a quick game that you can play multiple times so you can build strategy over the course of an evening, not the course of a year, and has you laughing with and yelling at the people you are playing with. The mechanics are completely generic in that I could play this with my mom, but nerdy enough that it's the perfect game to play before (or after) a night of role playing. When I first started designing it, I thought it would be a super small, super niche game but the more and more I really worked on it, the more I saw that it really could have a broad appeal and that's pretty exciting.

I'm also excited that it was chosen out of 500 entries to be one of Cards Against Humanity's Tabletop Deathmatch finalists. That's crazy to be pulled out of a pool like that. This was the first game that I really put myself into and it's a really odd feeling to have that sort of public scrutiny but also that validation too. Games, almost by definition, are a hobby, and to have it be a "professional" thing is a really weird and exhilarating feeling. It's also probably the most vulnerable I've ever felt. Games are such a passion, such a part of ME that to get critiqued is much more personal than feedback at work. So that feeling, as weird feeling as it is, also has me feeling alive and that's pretty damn exciting.

What inspired Pack the Pack?
I was inspired to make a game in general. That nugget was floating around in my brain for a long time. I really just wanted to make a game that my group of friends could play because I think we're a pretty typical group of nerds, I mean gamers. We need a game that will get us ready for a night of game play- space wise, brain wise and just overall physically pumped and so I started to look for that game. At the same time, I've always just been one for the underdog. That idea of inventory tetris, which so many people roll their eyes at, I KNOW can be fun and I want to show people it CAN be fun, dammit!

What was it like to compete in Tabletop Deathmatch?
Stressful. And I don't really get stressed. I speak in front of people a lot. I do trainings as part of my day job. I just had a full film crew in my crappy, tiny house judging me as a parent for a video that is going to be put up for all to see and that was NOTHING compared to this. I really think it goes back to that idea that the judges were people who I really, actually cared what they think. So many times I don't let myself get stressed about a situation because I recite the whole idea of "sticks and stones" to myself... well, these judges know their shit inside and out and know it way better than I do, so that was almost intimidating to go up in front of them, raw and vulnerable and open myself up.

And then to have it put on youtube for all to watch? I'll take the film crew judging me as a mom any day.

Tell me more about your mechanics of Pack the Pack. How do they work?
Pack the Pack is a real time, tile laying inventory management game. What that means is that 3-6 players have tiles in a big pile in the middle of the table. They each draw five tiles, face down and when everyone is ready, someone yells, "PACK!" and everyone flips and starts packing their pack- the playmat in front of them. You pack by matching the gems (circles) on the tiles that you've flipped to make complete circles of a matching color. Everyone is drawing new tiles to fit as much loot (represented by the tiles) into their pack as efficiently as they can. If you draw something you don't like, you can declare that it's "Junk!" and toss it back, but it goes back in face up so everyone else can see it and get the advantage from it and now you have to take two tiles. When you think your pack is packed, yell, "To Town!" and you are done. Everyone else keeps on packing and stuffing. The game is over when it's down to two players and one of them yells, "To Town!".

In the basic version, you count how many complete circles of a single color you have made, extra points for three or four tiles (using quarter circle pieces). In the advanced version, you instead are scoring the loot items on the tile but they only count if the tile was part of a complete circle. This version, on the back side of the playmat, is much more strategic and for the more serious gamer. In both versions, you get extra points for going to town first because you got the best prices at the market and more time to schmooze with the townsfolk.

What do you hope to see happen with Pack the Pack in the future?
Well, of course I want to see the kickstarter super successful and the game take off and be on every game store shelf in America with expansions and a spin off Role-Playing game! But that's dreaming big. I'd settle for it just to have a wildly successful kickstarter ;)

Five or So Questions with Jürgen Mayer on Shinobi Clans

I interviewed Jürgen Mayer about Shinobi Clans and he provided me with some images from the game, including some exclusive pieces that you'll see later in the article!
The Shinobi Clans box.
Tell me a little about Shinobi Clans. What's exciting about it?

You're the master of a ninja clan! You recruit the most skilled ninjas, arm them with the deadliest weapons and send them on secret missions! Will you try to assassinate the shogun? Will you allow the daimyo to hire your clan to protect him? But most importantly, will you manage to keep your plans hidden from the other ninja masters and see through theirs?

This is the ninja game I've always wanted. A couple of years ago, when I started designing the game, the ninja-themed board gaming landscape looked rather bleak, and that's what made me develop my own game. I wanted a strong theme with integrated game mechanics, not just an abstract game with a ninja theme tacked on. I wanted lots of secret moves and uncovering hidden agendas and thrilling assassinations, because that's what ninjas are all about. And epic ninja battles, of course.
The Poison Maker card. Exclusive!
In addition, the game looks fucking gorgeous! With over fifty illustrations by NEN, in a beautiful watercolor style, and a full bleed on the cards to make the artwork really stand out. I'm very excited about her work and collaboration. The game is a real eyecatcher. It also plays well. *ahem*

What kind of mechanics do you use to emulate the ninjas actions?

There's a lot of hidden information in the game. In addition to the secret missions mentioned before, which each player selects at the beginning of a round and doesn't reveal until the final battles, there is secret unit deployment. That's a fancy way to say you play your ninja cards face down. ^^ These cards form stacks on the various targets, and the physical position of a card in a stack determines its tactical position in battle.

The only information you get from your rival clans is to which targets the ninjas are assigned. But you can use spies to reveal ninjas or scouts to force other players to play cards face up, and that can help you to figure out their plans.
Silent Killer card.

Besides these spying abilities happening during deployment and the combat stuff that comes into play in the battle phase at the end of the round, there are more specialized ninja occupations, like for example poison makers. These specialists manipulate the card stacks themselves. The poison maker kills the card on top of it before that ninja is able to enter combat. Remember that ninjas are played face down, so you won't be able to tell a poisoner apart from a standard ninja - if you don't use your spies effectively.

How do epic ninja battles work in your game?

Once everyone has played all of their cards or passed, the stacks of ninjas on the various targets are resolved, by turning them over and placing them into battle slots to the left and right of the target (guardians go left, assassins right); the first card on each side gets the innermost slot, and subsequent cards get the next slots going outwards.

If the ninjas are lucky, they'll find a weapon waiting for them in their battle slot. Unlike ninjas, weapon cards can be used for both assassination and guarding, and are played into the respective battle slots on the side the player chooses.

Fukiya card.

When all ninjas are in place, all their special abilities and those of their weapons are resolved, which often affect the ninjas in the same battle slot on the other side. So the Jutte might disarm the opposing ninja or the Silent Killer might outright kill her opponent on the other side.

Finally, simply count up all power symbols on both sides and compare them. If the assassins have more power than the guardians, the target is killed, otherwise it survives. Players then get rewards for their successful contracts.

What kind of art guidance did you give to NEN to help find the designs you wanted?

I gave her my basic ideas of the quasi-historic Japanese setting I had in mind. Also, the color schemes for the various card types, which she worked directly into the background of all illustrations. And then a short description of each card, including suggestions for appropriate weapons that a ninja of that type should be carrying.

Here's an example, for the Old Ninja Master card: "Basically an old Japanese guy that doesn't look like it but could kill you in a heartbeat. His expression is probably nonchalant, because he fears nobody. He should not wear a ninja outfit, just simple feudal era clothes of common folk. If he carries a weapon, it is most likely hidden (maybe a kusari-fundo hidden in a fist) or a not very dangerous looking thing like a bokuto (katana shaped wooden training sword) or even a cane."

Old Ninja Master card. Exclusive!
NEN would then send me a sketch and then often make some changes after getting my feedback. If you ask her, I'm sure she will tell you that I pestered her a lot with requests to make changes to the weapons and how the ninjas should wield them ("a real fighter would never angle the wrist like that and here's why").

You know, that's a bit of a pet peeve of mine, artwork or photos of supposed expert fighters that don't know how to properly hold their weapons. I've been doing traditional Japanese martial arts for some time, and have had at least basic training with almost all weapons depicted in the game (I think with the exception of the fukiya), and I was very picky in that regard (sometimes even taking reference photos of myself with the weapon to get my point across). I'm sorry, NEN!

That said, NEN brought a lot of her own concepts into the illustrations, and came up with a lot of great ideas. For example, for one of the cards, a more powerful version of the poison maker, she had the idea to draw two sisters, and I eventually changed the card name to Poison Twins to reflect that. It became one of my favorite cards.

What's up next for you after Shinobi Clans?

I currently have ideas for four different board and card games, all in very early stages (some pages of notes here, a sketch of a board there), and non of them even in a playable prototype stage. I don't know if I will ever develop them to a publishable state. I guess that also depends on how well Shinobi Clans is received and if any gamers want more stuff from me. Until then, I'm happy to assassinate some hapless Ronin whenever someone challenges me at my debut game.

Grandmaster card.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Five or So Questions with Andrew Medieros on Urban Shadows

Tell me a little about Urban Shadows. What excites you about it?
Urban Shadows is an urban fantasy roleplaying game in the vein of The Dresden Files novels and the television series' Angel and Supernatural. Players take on the roles of serious power players in their city's political structure and play classic archetypes like vampires, ghosts, half-demons and much more. It's powered by the Apocalypse World engine which allows us to cram in as much drama, action and tension as we can with minimal rules that still pack a punch.

The two most exciting things about Urban Shadows are our new Corruption mechanic and our choice to address and challenge race and gender in an urban setting.

Corruption is gained when your protagonists crosses a line they shouldn't (such as taking a life) and rewards you for these choices with new and very potent powers. But this new power comes at a cost, keep it up and you'll find yourself becoming more and more a slave to your inner darkness.

When you create a character in Urban Shadows you choose your Look: how the city sees you. Ambiguous, female, male or transgressing? Asian, black, caucasian, hispanic, mixed, or other? These choices are purely descriptive and inform the kind of stories you wish to tell in the game.

Tell me more about the Corruption mechanic. Is it just a toggle on-off to monstrousness?
Corruption is the dark mirror to our experience system, except instead of gaining standard advances, you gain access to some really powerful and potent Moves. You mark a point of corruption whenever your character takes a life, breaks a rule set by their archetype, or when they MC offers it to them and you accept: Gain corruption five times and you get a new Corruption Move.

These moves give your character access to some game breaking abilities, but there’s a couple catches: Firstly, each of them generate further corruption when used and secondly, you can only select a maximum of four of them. If you reach the point where you need to select a fifth, you lose your character to the MC, who can choose bring them back into the story as a Threat (which is usually really bad news for the city).

You can buy off corruption moves through advances but that’s an expensive path, it’s far easier to just avoid it altogether. However, temptation calls on us all, and it’s a hard thing to resist.

Tell me a little about Debts. How do they work?
Debts are how we track favours in Urban Shadows. When you do something worthy of note for someone, or vice versa, a Debt is given (unless of course that action was to pay off a previous debt). They let you influence both player characters and non-player characters with no risk, just the cost of the Debt. Non-player characters can just as easily gain Debts on player characters, which lets the MC use those Debts to make hard moves against them. Owing favours to powerful people is a dangerous prospect.

What made you decide to put race front and center?
This was something we feel really passionate about: we wanted stories told within cities to be representative of the cultures and races in that city, so we made it part of character creation. By asking players to choose their character’s race, we ended up seeing casts of really diverse protagonists and that was exactly what we wanted. It’s been great to see how it’s changed the game and it’s now become a central theme for our project. It’s important to note that your choice of race has no mechanical implications for your character but it is an important part of who they are.

Tell me how factions work. What do they influence in the game?
Factions are how we divide the city’s populace into not-so-neat categories. They are arenas of conflict that represent rough communities of mortal and supernatural creatures: The Factions are Mortality, Power, Night and Wild. Mortality are the vanilla mortals, Power are humans with supernatural gifts, Night are people who have been turned into monsters, and Wild are beings who originate from outside our world.

Protagonists have a stat that correlates to each of the four factions: the higher the stat, the better understanding they have of that world and their members. For example, the Night faction includes vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. Having a low Night score means you don’t really understand how these people operate and don’t know many of them personally. A higher score in Night means you have a solid grasp of how they work and you know many of them fairly well. So it’s one part understanding and one part relationship.

Factions power a lot of the moves in the game: when you seek info from your contacts, look for resources to help you get things done, or when messing around in other players’ business in the hopes of influencing their dice rolls, you roll Faction to see how that plays out. The scores change through play, they’re not static by any means.

What's up next for you after Urban Shadows?
I think maybe I’ll go outside and take a long walk. Then I have plans for a couple of other games, one of which is also powered by the apocalypse. I can’t say too much here but it includes fighter pilots and drama! Lots and lots of drama!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Con Bags with Rob Donoghue and Monica Speca

I don't normally do multiple posts in a day, but I am so hyped about Origins next week that I couldn't wait to post this interview with Rob Donoghue and Monica Speca about their favorite con bags and accessories!


Tell me about your favorite bags. What do you like about them?
I travel with a Samsonite Tectonic Large Laptop backpack. It is the best damn thing I have ever purchased for travel. The bag is big enough for up to 4 days' worth of clothes, (maybe even more if you're good at packing efficiently) has well-cushioned pockets for your laptop and tablet, and a number of sizable pockets good for stashing all your stuff. It fits nicely into overhead compartments, so is good for a carry-on, but is also small enough that you can cram it under the seat in front of you. When I get to the con, the backpack then doubles as a vehicle for, say, gaming supplies, or carrying a spare pair of shoes along if I'm in costume.
When I cosplay, the backpack is usually for my street clothes, my computer, entertainment for the plane (if I'm flying) and anything I don't need to check.

What about bag accessories - water bottles, detachable pockets, organizers?
I don't use many of these, but maybe I should! Usually I carry any personal effects (wallet, keys, phone) on my person in my pockets as much as possible.

When I cosplay, it's not uncommon for me to carry a small purse or to bring along the aforementioned backpack... and foist it off on a friend of mine who isn't in costume. This is often the Significant Other's job. I also keep all my makeup in a little bag that goes in my checked suitcase if I'm flying. There's nothing particularly special about it. It has a zipper and enough space for me to cram all the cosmetics I'll need for the weekend in there. Note to self, though: look into getting a water bottle - staying hydrated is incredibly important when cosplaying.

Any must-have con tools of the trade?
For a gaming or general con-going, I highly recommend a solid backpack (you don't say!) or a messenger bag - depending on what you find most comfortable. I have a bad habit of losing purses or wallets, but I've never left something like a backpack or messenger bag behind.

For a cosplaying, I must say that the most valuable thing you can bring with you is a buddy! It's a good idea to have a partner around to help carry your stuff, touch up your wig and makeup and make sure that nobody walks off with your personal belongings while you're posing for pictures - especially if your costume is popular. Having a friend along can also help you to feel safer and more relaxed in really crowded spaces.


Tell me about your favorite bags. What do you like about them?

I currently have two favorites. For a sling bag, I love my Redoxx Gator. It's blocky and smallish, but it holds a ton with a lot of protection. It's designed to carry a very flexible kit, including a big camera, which makes it very versatile. My backpack of choice is the Timbuk2 Q-Laptop bag. In addition to one of the best laptop sleeve designs I've ever seen, it's the perfect balance between storage capacity and staying slim. Honorable mention goes to the Timbuk2 Slate backpack, which is amazing, but it can actually hold too much stuff, which is a problem.

The biggest danger you'll run into with a con bag is that you *will* fill it to capacity, and if that capacity is huge, then you will *kill* yourself walking around. So whatever bag you like, try to go as small as you think you can manage.

(And if you're uncertain, get a backpack. Your back will thank you. There are a million great brands these days, but don't buy based on reputation or what works for other peoples. A good backpack is like a pair of shoes - you need to try it on and choose for comfort. Bring your kit to a sporting goods store and load up whatever bag you're looking at, load it up, and walk around. The folks at the store will understand what you're doing, and you'll find something that actually suits you.)

What about bag accessories - water bottles, detachable pockets, organizers?

I have a few bags that use the MOLLE system of tactical loops, but I mostly just use them to hold pens. I know some people swear by them, but I am very nervous about having things clipped on the outside of my bag in any crowded venue. There is simply too much jostling and bumping for me to feel comfortable.

Instead, I am a huge proponent of using smaller bags and containers *inside* my bag. Exactly what kind doesn't matter - get what you like and what you can afford, and the distribution depends on your needs but, for example, I have in my bag:

* A very durable pencil box with all my writing utensils
* A zipper pouch with all my cables
* A dice bag
* A zipper pouch for index cards and tokens

This means that it's easy for me to change bags if I need to, and also makes it easy to find things, since the only things knocking around loose in my bag are books, notebooks and other easily grabbable things.

If you have a water bottle pocket in your bag, then use it, but do so carefully. Make sure that the size of the bottle matches the size of the pocket well enough that it won't EVER fall out, even if upside down. If it's not that snug, then don't carry it full - just use it to drink from when you find a water source. Similarly, use something that can take abuse. A leak is a real problem at a con.

Any must-have con tools of the trade?

* At a big convention, check the convention swag and see if they're selling branded badge holders. if so, take a good look. Sometimes they're cheap and decorative, and you can ignore those, but sometimes they've got enough storage to serve as extra pockets. If you can find one of those, BUY IT. You can often run an entire con out of one of those things.

* Bring a travel power strip. Your hotel room is not going to have enough outlets for all the nerd to charge all their toys, to plan for this.

* Poo-Pourri works. I will not delve into the details of this, but if you are sharing a room, your roommates will thank you.

* Bring quarters. A lot of randomly useful things, like lockers and carts and vending machines can be real lifesavers, but only if you have quarters to use them

* Inexpensive business cards are trivial to make these days, so feel free to bring some, but if you do, think about how you want to use them. There is a difference between "Find out more about me and my brand!" and "You are awesome, we should be friends". That doesn't necessarily mean you need 2 cards, but it does mean you need to think about how you USE your cards.

* Bring handi-wipes. If you don't need them, great. But if you do, then you will *NEED* them. Little pump bottle of hand sanitzer is less dramatic, but equally useful

* If you pack anything liquid (like hand sanitizer) put it in a ziploc. As noted above: Leaking is for the birds.

Thanks to both Rob and Monica for their answers and info! Super cool!

Five or So Questions with Joel Sparks on Call of Catthulhu

Check out Call of Catthulhu at and Book 1 available here.

Tell me a little about Call of Catthulhu. What excites you about it?

I never play RPGs any more. That's a big deal for me, because I've been in this hobby for ages. Yet when it comes time to crack open a big thick book, fill out a lot of fiddly bits and math on a character sheet, and spend several hours arguing about rules with my closest friends, somehow I can't muster the energy. With "Call of Catthulhu," I set out to make a game that honestly appeals to the most lazy, fun-loving, commitment-averse part of my mind. To my cat brain, if you will. It takes about five minutes to make a “catventurer,” and it doesn’t use any numbers, because cats don’t do math. You just describe your cat according to a few guidelines, and then you get to fight the secret plots of Lovecraftian Chaos cults led by other animals. The Cat Herder sets up a series of Challenges, and the players meet them by acting like cats. Everything depends on player cleverness and a bit of luck. You never know what will happen, and a session wraps up in a just a couple of hours. That’s the game I get excited to play.

How do Challenges work in Call of Catthulhu?

Very simply! Most of the time, cats can do what they like without any rolling. They’re cats: They jump up on things or dodge out of sight or walk on a fence, no problem. But bouncing dice is fun too, so we have special Cat Dice. Each one has four Happy Cat faces and two Sad Cats; you could use regular six-siders instead. When the Cat Herder wants to randomize a little, she calls for a roll of two Cat Dice. They can only come up three ways: Two Sad Cats, two Happy Cats, or one of each, and the odds are weighted toward the positive outcomes. The Herder declares results based on the dice roll and play moves on. She could also declare a Difficult Challenge, which requires both dice to come up Happy Cats to succeed. The game offers a few optional wrinkles, like what happens on Snake Eyes, but that’s basically it. Oh, and each cat has a Treat or two; you can trade in one of those to try again if you don’t like the roll. In the Boxed Set we provide little wooden fish tokens for the Treats.

Tell me a little about the ashcan model you used at Gen Con, and the subsequent Kickstarter. What experience did you have with those?

First of all, I would warn anyone against going from game designer to game manufacturer in a few short months without a lot of good help. I had experience in publishing before, yet I had no idea how complicated the logistics would get! But I learned a ton and my next Kickstarter will run a lot more smoothly.

The ashcan was a way to kind of test the waters. I had this crazy idea about ordinary cats in a world of cosmic conspiracies, where all the animals except humans understood that civilization was the cats’ idea and that it’s incredibly fragile and vulnerable to disruption. I wanted to combine that with my ideas about game design, finding a new sweet spot between purely narrative storytelling games and the logistical farragoes of the big-book systems. But would anyone else want to play it? So in about a month I wrote the first version of “Call of Catthulhu” and had a real short run printed up for Gencon 2013. I knew that I’d want to do a lot more with it if people were interested, so I sold the 24-pager for five bucks and collected email addresses. Well, the thing took off, totally out of my control. I was running the con around getting photocopies just to be able to hand people something. For the next printing, I put the Kickstarter address in the back of the book. I took those to a couple of local conventions around DC and then to Spiel Essen in Germany, the world’s biggest game convention. I was fortunate to get some press and video interviews there and collected a lot of names. Still, the response to the Kickstarter staggered me, with far more backers than I had anticipated. Since then it’s been non-stop, ordering game pieces from all over the world, getting custom sketches and painted minis done, staying in touch with hundreds of backers, and trying to find time to actually write the game!

What kind of cats can you play in Call of Catthulhu? How did you make sure there was enough variety to keep people interested?

This is trickier than it sounds, because cats shouldn’t be all the same, yet I did not want to create a whole mess of character classes or skill trees or spell lists. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but people who want to play a game that complex have plenty of choices already. And not everyone wants to. So I came up with a different solution. First off, everything about your cat is descriptive. It’s all words; it’s against the rules to even use any numbers on the character sheet. But the description isn’t totally freeform. That would make game mastering either purely arbitrary or else impossible. Instead, the book walks you through a few choices. You pick one of five archetypal Roles for the cat, like the Scrapper or the Two-Footologist. You decide whether the cat is a Mixed Breed or a Purebred—doesn’t matter what breed—and then whether her background is Feral, Housecat, or Show Cat. Cross those five Roles with the two types of breed and the three backgrounds, and you get 30 different Stories to use as the jumping-off place for describing the cat’s life so far. Start there, customize the details, and add as much physical description as desired, and you’ve got a unique cat, described in just a few sentences, ready to play.

The complementary part is the simple mechanic called Right Cat for the Job. Whenever a Challenge comes along, the player can use anything in the cat’s background and description to claim that she’s got what it takes to handle this particular task. If the Cat Herder agrees, then the cat gets better results on the Challenge roll, including counting one of the dice as an automatic success. The RCFTJ can also attempt Dire Challenges, the really scary stuff that a less appropriate cat just shouldn’t even try.

What's up next for Call of Catthulhu and you?

I’m still in the middle of it! I’ve got the two new books to bring to Origins, and the super-fancy Boxed Set with Cat Dice and mini figures and lots of bonus bits, and some special Rewards still shipping to some very patient Kickstarter folks. It’s been crazy. But there’s definitely more in the works. One of our great stretch goals was to get a bunch of the best indie RPG authors to write their own take on a setting for Catthulhu, and those will be compiled into a third volume called “Whirls of Catthulhu.” You should be able to get your paws on that, and maybe some other secret stuff, no later than Gencon 2014, which brings the whole game full circle. Quite a year.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Five or So Questions with Moyra Turkington on Fastaval

Tell me a little about Fastaval. What's got you excited about it?
Fastival is a roleplay and boardgame festival that takes place yearly on the Easter weekend in Denmark (since 1987). New scenarios and board game designs are premiered there, and it is also a friendly competition. This year there were about 700 participants in attendance, playing 34 scenarios and 13 board games that were making their debut.

It was very exciting to have our own game on the program, and to travel there to see it live. They have a phenomenal culture of service and feedback happening in the Fastaval community – I’ve never seen anything like it. Every single person who lays eyes on a game – from the players to the GMs to the Jury who select the nominations for the Otto (Fastaval’s golden penguin equivalent of the Oscar) take the time to provide plentiful, constructive and really remarkably articulated feedback to the designers. They have whole subcultures of support staff that work tirelessly to make the venue happen: maintenance crews, Food and logistics volunteers. informational squads, and a fleet of translators for us international folks.

And the games were phenomenal!

What did you find most valuable about Fastaval's feedback process?
So many things! Because it is a place where giving feedback is an integrated part of the process, a lot of the feedback was extremely articulate and thoughtful. Because there was so much of it at once we could easily identify trends that would indicate a systemic issue vs. a place where one individual play style didn’t work with the game. Most importantly because there were so many runs happening in so short of a time, it really allow you to measure the breadth of the game and understand how many different stories it could tell, and how reliably. It’s definitely a design process that gets me excited and that I would like to explore again.

What game did you take to Fastaval? Tell me all about it!
Run Them Again is a scenario for five players and a GM. It’s a science fiction space drama about the indifference of the systems we live under, and the cold equations of life within their grasp. Essentially, it is a labour drama; It came out of a conversation Brand and I had when driving through rural Newfoundland, a place that was devastated in economic collapse once in the 70’s and again in the 90’s when the Atlantic northwest cod fisheries bottomed out.

We talked about fishers and farmers and miners and labourers. We talked about my dad working high steel and his dad having to pick up work as a janitor for a while. We discovered we both had mining in our blood: one of his great granduncles died in a cave in. My grandfather went into coma after three tons of rock ruptured his spleen and stayed there for three days till he was dug out. My grandfather’s cave-in resulted in safety reviews, Brand’s granduncle’s death resulted in union strikes and a resulting massacre. We talked about how random that felt. And we made this game.

The characters are long haul space miners, working much like deep sea crab fishers do... going on long dangerous runs to mine valuable minerals from asteroids on ships that have seen too many runs for wages that are shit but the best they can hope for. They wake from cryosleep to find something has gone wrong with the ship, and they have four hours to help right the course and save their lives as the universe gives not one fuck about them.

I was very nervous about designing a new style of game (Danish freeform) for an audience that I had never met before. It was also the first fully co-operatively designed game together. I was worried with all those unknowns that the Fastafolk might look at us like crazy North Americans (that we are), but the game was a hit! The players really enjoyed it, we scored two nominations (Best Storytelling and Jury’s Selection), and took home an Otto (Fastaval’s answer to the Oscar)!

I’m still blown away.

What did you find useful about the logistics at Fastaval?
It was a well run machine – there was always an answer in support of a game or event... and it seemed that no one minded pitching in on the work. Some came just to be part of the work! A side note on our logistics is that the Østerskov Efterskole made itself available for people to stay and we got to take a tour. This is a high school who’sentire curriculum is based on roleplaying! They play everything from steampunk to historical re-enactment to crime dramas and learn all of their math, natural sciences, languages, ethics, history... all of it through larps. They have a full medieval town on the school grounds! It was phenomenal. I can’t imagine what life would be like now had I been able to attend a school like that.

Are you planning to go back? What are you looking forward to doing next time you're there?
Yes! I hope so. It was amazing fun and full of creative energy and I met so many amazing people doing so many amazing things. I’d look forward to seeing them again, and having the chance to be part of that community for another glimpse in time. I didn’t feel like I had enough time to talk to anyone!