Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Five or So Questions with Slade Stolar on Dust, Fog, and Glowing Embers

Today Slade Stolar is back for an interview about this new project, Dust, Fog, and Glowing Embers! It's currently on Kickstarter and Slade and I nearly crossed emails contacting each other about it! It sounds like a fantastic adventure, and I'm excited to share Slade's responses with you.


Tell me a little about Dust, Fog, and Glowing Embers. What excites you about it?

It would be weird to say "everything", right? -- I've had the core image of the game in my head for a long while. There are three thieves in ragged, dirt-smeared clothes running through smog-filled alleyways in a late-medieval city. They arrive at junction where there are government officers (some kind of police patrol) with lanterns and barking dogs cutting off their escape. The thieves get noticed. They grin slightly, and activate a device that turns them as immaterial as the smog. They drift away, making their escape.

After publishing The Indie Hack, and seeing how the core rules resonated with certain people, I wanted to write a game that could make that scene happen. I think I've done that.

The main components of the game that excite me are the relationship system, which revolves around the classical four humours (sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, and choleric), and the proto-industrial setting, which revolves around all kinds of pseudo-science or non-science (trepanning, feng shui, astrology, numerology, etc.), and all of which are very real within the setting.

What kind of action can we see in the game - fast fights, stealth? How do the mechanics support it?

One of the great things about this game is that you tailor your experience based on the Patron of the characters. If you are looking for a stealthy game, perhaps your Patron wants valuable artwork stolen to complete her collection. If you're itching for a fight, perhaps your Patron is a gang boss, who wants to muscle out rival gangs. Maybe you've got a Patron who wants notoriety and influence, and you end up doing a lot of socially focussed missions. The core mechanic is the same for all of these: with good dice rolls, you collect little chunks of narrative control called "details", just as in our previous game, The Indie Hack. Once you've got a certain number in your favour, you succeed. But, if, along the way, you get some bad rolls and collect a certain number of details against you, you're out of commission. The game ends up being quick and intense, as an extreme roll can grant up to two or three details out of a total of three to five. Because rolls are so important and dangerous, players will want to role-play up until a point of crisis before grabbing the dice. I would say, you can't play this game slowly: it's a crisis machine.

I'd like to hear more about the relationship system! How does it function, and what was the inspiration?

I think the inspiration was a few random mentions of this in Shakespeare. It was interesting to research this strange classical interpretation of psychology based on the liquids that flow in the body (and fits well with this setting based on pseudo-science and non-science). You have a primary humour that is your outward facade (maybe you're melancholic, meaning reclusive and depressive, but cautious and prudent). As you interact more intimately with people, you show them other aspects of your personality, i.e., your secondary humours (maybe, in front of your fellow player characters you act sanguine, meaning smothering and judgemental, but joyful and optimistic); you make a list of these characters. Once you've written four people under a secondary humour, you have a bit of a crisis of personality (who am I, really?) and shift your primary humour over. It encourages you to think a bit about how we're always performing our personality. I think it's more dynamic and engaging than nature/demeanor (of Vampire) or alignment (of general fantasy games).

What are some setting elements you really love and how do they interact?

In terms of world-building, I really like the hierarchy I've set up (as a player, I'll hate it and want to see it destroyed). In contrast to the typical fantasy setting, which has lots of monarchies, Dust, Fog, and Glowing Embers is a mixed oligarchy, where a highly corrupt technocratic class rules the masses and the aristocracy has its own power system outside (often above) the law. The players are at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder, and that's why the accept the help of a Patron. The Patron helps them to feel powerful, by giving them alchemical powers, but only while performing these (often illegal) missions. The setting really feeds into the character motivations and the types of adventures that the players will go on. I want characters to take on the bureaucracy and lose. I want them to try to mingle with the high-society types and be humiliated. Other times, I want them to win.

In terms of mechanical moving parts, I like the "looking for trouble" tables; each district has random interesting happenings that can draw the players into larger conflicts or expose hidden parts of the setting.

You talked about the thieves and their adventures - what other types of characters and experiences would people often find in Dust, Fog, and Glowing Embers?

I don't know that I can answer this one, at least, any more than I could predict what a given group will do with a given game. Just to be clear, I'm okay with thieves of the Robin Hood type, but I'm guessing that your Patron doesn't have that many scruples. A big part of this game is navigating a difficult moral path, although that sounds a bit dull. Basically, I want characters to experience hard decisions, pride, pain, shame, confusion, and split loyalties. I want them to do things that they wouldn't do if it were their choice, and have to deal with the consequences just the same. At the end, as in much of Shakespeare, nearly everyone is dead. I want the characters to lead intense, dangerous, tragic lives.


Thanks so much to Slade for the interview! I hope you've all liked what you've read, and that you'll give the Dust, Fog, and Glowing Embers Kickstarter a gander!

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Five or So Questions with Fraser Ronald on Swords Edge

Today I have an interview with Fraser Ronald on his current project, Sword's Edge, which is on Kickstarter now! Fraser answered some of my questions about the updated, refined Sword's Edge game below! 


Tell me a little about Sword's Edge. What excites you about it?

What I love about Sword’s Edge is how it allows for evocative and strong characters while trying to lower the amount of work required by GMs so that they can focus on facilitating the story. The characters are built out of ideas and descriptions, so it’s as easy as “tell me about the character you want to play,” write down the response, take a bunch of descriptions out of that and you have your character. For the GM, it’s very easy to run improvisational games – which is my preferred method – by boiling down most mechanical obstacles to a few choices guided by a couple of tables. There’s no dice rolling for the GM, and the mechanics are simple enough that one can spend one’s time helping to keep the story moving.

Players get invested in characters that work mechanically pretty much how they described them narratively, and the GM gets to spend their time helping those characters be awesome, sometimes by creating really challenging obstacles, and other times creating scenes where they get to show their uber competence.

What are the origins of Sword's Edge mechanically? What got the game going at the start, and what are important elements of the game in it's final form?

Sword’s Edge is really an amalgam of ideas from a bunch of different games. Its nearest relation is PDQ by Chad Underkoffler by way of Jaws of the Six Serpents by Tim Gray. This was the game that led me to design Sword Noir, which was the direct ancestor of Sword’s Edge. Along with PDQ, I would say that important influences came from the Shadow of Yesterday by Clinton R. Nixon; Fate 3.0 by Rob Donoghue, Fred Hicks, and Leonard Balsera; Lady Blackbird by John Harper, and Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson. These all had impact on the designs of Sword Noir and Kiss My Axe, which had Sword’s Edge at their core and through which Sword’s Edge developed.

There are a few keys in my mind to Sword’s Edge. The use of descriptive Qualities to create characters allows players to pretty much play whatever they can imagine. That only players roll dice helps remove one task from the GM and a very abstract action system further allows all activities to run through the same mechanics – there are no sub-systems in Sword’s Edge. Finally, the Initiative system really changes how one approaches actions as once a character has Initiative, it is necessary to take a risk to seize that Initiative. Only as an active character can one affect change, so Initiative is super important and can lead to some risky actions as PCs try to seize it from tough opponents.

What are the fictional inspirations for Sword's Edge

Because Sword’s Edge is a generic RPG, it’s not really rooted in fiction, however the stretch goal is for “Lawless Heaven,” my homage to Korean action cinema. I’ve been enamoured of Korean action movies since I saw Nowhere to Hide in 1999. Since then, Korean movies have continued to improve and are now some of the best on the planet. Recent years have seen some insanely great action and crime movies, like Man from Nowhere and A Bittersweet Life. Then there are the neo-noirs, like Oldboy and The Yellow Sea. These are absolutely riveting movies. So “Lawless Heaven” tries to boil down the experience of a Korean actioner into a one-shot, specifically built to be run at conventions. It includes a discussion of using it as either then beginning or part of an ongoing campaign, but the scenes presented are for a single adventure arc.

Some of the example characters appear to be Asian (1). How did you prepare to write about non-Canadian characters, fictions, and backgrounds? Did you find it challenging?

The characters on the Kickstarter page are from “Lawless Heaven,” so they are Korean. The action is set in the industrial city of Ulsan, which is home to a Hyundai Motors car factory and the largest shipyard in the world, owned by Hyundai Heavy Industries. In the adventure, I try to introduce some interesting aspects of Korean culture – like the lack of firearms in general and the prevalence in certain areas of drinking tents or pojangmacha – but the story is designed so that it would be easy to set it elsewhere.

On a more Kickstarter-level question, how have you worked to integrate your past products into the release of this product, while still ensuring Sword's Edge gets priority in attention?

Having two successful Kickstarters under my belt allowed me to approach the whole process with a little less concern and stress. Also, for backers, I have a record of meeting my commitments and delivering promises product, so I think that improves the chance people will be willing to put their money down.

Thank you Fraser for answering my questions! I hope you all enjoyed reading and that you'll check out Sword's Edge on Kickstarter!

[(1 - Brie here!) This originally said Chinese in this question because I wasn't sure based on the pictures and Googled last names. I try really hard to be better at this judgment, but the images aren't very clear - I have no better excuse. I changed it so that it is clearer to my readers, but wanted to let you know that I did fuck up, and I'll try to do better next time.]

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Five or So Questions with John Adamus on Noir World

Today I have an interview with designer and well-known editor John Adamus on his new RPG product, Noir World, which is on Kickstarter right now! Having known John on Twitter & face to face for a fair amount of time now, I know that an incredible amount of work has gone into this game, and I wanted to talk about his final product. See his responses below!


Tell me a little about Noir World. What excites you about it?

Noir World is a collaborative Apocalypse World hack where everyone gets together to create a Movie using film noir archetypes, dealing with the terrible outcomes of their emotional decisions. The game uses a variety of film and television techniques to express film noir and character development to give people a chance to be both player and GM, ideally letting people tell whatever kind of story they want. 

What excites me most about this is that people are going to get to tell these stories using a framework that prizes agency and decisions. You get to make whatever character you want in whatever way you want, and there's enough modular elements (you pick the time period, you build the City) so that everyone gets to help this Movie happen. This is a game built on collaboration and empowerment.

What were your inspirations, and guidance in development, for the themes and fiction of Noir World

I divide my inspirations into 2 camps: films noir like The Big SleepThe Third ManNight of the Hunter and TV shows with detectives like the Nero Wolfe mysteries; Murder, She WroteMagnum PIRemington Steele. I make the distinction because they're two ends of a range from serious (the films) to far less so (television), though they all have a lot of the same DNA when it comes to storytelling components and methods. While the material covers completely different subjects, that all becomes somewhat superficial when you look past the crime-of-the-week or the good-guy-bad-guy-binary and look at how characters relate to each other and how what happens in the story affects those relationships. Taking any of the source material and finding that emotional mechanism informed a lot how the game got onto the page.

Especially early on, this meant I could sift through material not because it featured the same actors or the same plot, but because it represented certain emotional choices or consequences - X amount of shows and movies involve betraying a lover or revealing at least one person's intimate secrets, for instance, and it kept the design process very rooted in how I wanted the game and ultimately the players to feel when playing. Everything from the art to the example text spawned from locking down the idea that feelings and relationships are at the heart of the game. 

What are the archetypes in Noir World, and what are some aspects you like about them?

There are 20 Roles a player can choose from in Noir World, from the expected ones like The Good Cop or The Dirty Cop or The Fatale to ones that maybe don't come up a lot like The Disgraced Doctor or The Musician. What excited me about fleshing them out and making them available for play was that I got to put my own spin on these tropes, which was often giving them small touches of pop culture or referencing something that's slightly anachronistic or unexpected so that no Role feels "stuck" being played a certain way. For The Career Criminal, I got a chance to make references to Leverage, and The Gambler has quite a few mentions of the Kenny Rogers song. At first I was worried these small nods to non-noir would pull people out of the play experience, but I've found the opposite to be true: it makes them laugh while keeping them connected to what's going on.

I love how open and adaptable the Roles turned out to be. One of the big issues for me with the source material is that it's very phobic and bigoted, there's sexism and racism overt and otherwise, and that's not something I wanted to mechanize or condone in play, so I'm really proud that the Roles can be played by any person in any way they way want even if it wouldn't be "true to film noir". I want it to be more true to the player's wants and interests than condoning 70-year-old social conventions. We can do better.

How did you take Apocalypse World/Powered by the Apocalypse mechanics and make them work with the cinematic, somewhat gritty world of noir stories?

I took it all apart. I had to. I seldom play a game without houserules, mainly because a lot of games have a lot of moving parts, and I don't want to stop to consult a book when an idea pops in my head. This led to a lot of deconstructing and questioning how and why the rules are what they are, then going backwards to the games one generation removed and continuing to question mechanics like "why do we roll dice when X happens?" "why do we always look at the GM at that moment?" and then asking myself if I wanted to make a game that kept doing stuff like that. When I found out that I didn't want to do the same thing, or just file off all the serial numbers with a re-skin of what was already there, I realized I didn't have to come at this like a game designer first and a film/TV/story nerd second, I could reverse that.

So I put the focus on the story elements: how plot gets made, how characters take actions, how characters interact and then I put game design on top. It was both easier (because I kept the focus on the story structure) and harder (because game mechanics are popular and re-used because they're familiar and easy) but I think I struck a balance where the game is about telling stories that feel very baked in genre and give players enormous creative freedom and permission while having mechanics that don't get in the way because they're neither particularly complex or numerous. The focus stays on the story, which lets the story go in whatever direction the group feels it needs to.

In what way do you think Noir World really captures your favorite things about the noir genre, and puts them in the hands of players and Directors to make a good film?

Film noir is about being faced with terrible choices that you know will have some awful consequences, making the choice and then finding out there are consequences worse than what you thought. You didn't just lose your job and your marriage, you've been convicted of murder because your mistress gave you up to the cops. The severity of consequences and the natural downward evolution of consequences, in a worsening spiral make for really interesting and tragic characters. I don't think it would be as much fun to have a terrible character that just kept having worse and worse things happen to them if they had limited or no agency in those events. In Noir World, a Role gets themselves into that position and then has to deal with things, it's the very emotional version of "Make your bed, now lie in it." People are invested in and have a hand in their own emotional rollercoaster, which I think is what makes the experience connect with people in an active way - it's their choices and what happens because they were pro-active, rather than just reacting to a GM saying something like "since you rolled a 12, this happens."

I don't like games where the players can't get creative except in some non-meaningful way. The game where we're all knights and the only thing that could distinguish us might be our weapons or whether or not someone speaks in a funny voice does not have long term appeal to me. The characters don't feel like anything more than plot-tools for the GM to use, and that's not how I want to spend my gaming nights, especially if the GM had a bad day at work and the adventure gets boring or long-winded. Noir is about choice and consequence, so to me that screams "agency" and "empowering players to be creative." A lot of the best games I've seen have players who are normally very hesitant to take a leadership role or a very decisive position, because this game is a permission slip to say what happens and people will help each other to get where they need to be, because everyone should have a voice at the table, and everyone should have the opportunity to develop and use their agency in non-selfish ways to work together to tell a great story.


Awesome! Thanks so much, John, for giving us some info about Noir World! I hope you all will check it out on Kickstarter, and share the interview for others to read!

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Five or So Questions on Meet Diana Danko

Today's interview is with Jakob Schindler-Scholz about the Kickstarter project Meet Diana Danko, a live-stream interactive vampire tale. When Jakob emailed me with the Kickstarter link, I was immediately intrigued - interactive performances are fascinating to me and I wanted to hear more! Check out the interview below and see more at their press page and Kickstarter.


Tell me a little about Meet Diana Danko. What excites you about it?

The aspect I'm most passionate about is that we are creating a truly open experience, while still maintaining a strong narrative. The project is heavily inspired by "choice and consequence" games like the Walking Dead Series by Telltale or Life is Strange, but with limitless possibilities.

We achieve this by having four amazing actresses perform live and reacting to the input of the audience, who is watching via live stream. They can type anything they want at any time while they watch. It has elements of tabletop RPG, LARP, theater and FMV video games, but I don't think there is anything like it currently out there.

Example of the process of the show.

How did you come up with the idea for Meet Diana Danko?

The setting, characters and basic concept were created for a local short theater festival in Vienna. The audience found themselves trapped in a room with a vampire trying to get in, discussing different strategies to get out. The inspiration for this was the classic horror movie trope "heroes have to fight their way to freedom", and I thought it would be a fun way to engage the audience - which it was. There were lots of intense discussions and great interactions with the audience, sometimes resulting in totally unexpected outcomes, for example people occupying the vampire's coffin - which was exactly what we hoped for.
We then discussed how to take the concept even further, and came up with the idea of turning it into an online performance, but without losing the direct connection with the audience - which is an immense challenge because people are not physically present. So the story, setting and mode of interaction will change, but the heart of it all - the characters - will stay the same.

How does the event work technically, from receiving input from viewers to making it happen?

You watch the show through the eyes of the protagonist (wearing a head mounted camera), who sort of stumbles into the whole thing, and bit by bit learns about the characters and the backstory. In the interface, you can also type anything that comes to your mind, at any time. The idea is that you provide us with the thoughts of the protagonist - and as is the nature of thoughts, some are only brief flashes, some are more present, some are concrete and some obscure. We employ a sorting algorithm to visualise all thoughts at once, sort of like multiple word clouds put together. This visualisation will be available for all to see.

So the visualisation is handled by a program, but the crucial part - incorporating these thoughts into the story - is not. We have a person dedicated to that who watches the visualisation constantly and has a voice link to the protagonist. So this person gets an impression of how the audience feels, what ideas are there, and uses that information to give commands or suggestions to the protagonist. So it is kind of an inner voice, but one she takes really seriously.

The important thing is: With this procedure, most of the actresses have to worry about anything going on outside the performance. The protagonist gets input from outside, but all other actresses can concentrate on their characters and react authentically to what is happening. This is why we came up with this quite complex process: To ensure that the improvisation can be really focused, because we believe that's what it takes to create a fascinating experience.

Word clouds!

What do all of the people involved bring to the table to make the show happen?

First I have to say, I am really honored to have a team where everyone is extremely invested in the idea and not just focusing on their respective area. Denise, who does the design and communications is excellent in finding the right way to get across what we're all about, which is especially important because there are so many aspects to this. Adam and Gregor are very passionate developers who will not be satisfied until the algorithm and UI are so well-defined that you'll forget about them while being drawn into the story, and Philipp has the intuition and experience to get what the audience is looking for and translating it into actionable hints for our protagonist.

That being said, I have to highlight Julia, Stella and Paula, the actresses (we will cast the fourth actress, the protagonist, with the help of our backers). Because their contribution is what makes the show: Usually, when you have a piece of fiction, there is a writer or a writing team, they create the characters and tell the story. But this way, it is extremely likely that some characters will be extremely well written and others will be weak - and there is only so much even a talented actress can do with a bland character.

When you talk about the performance, what do you really think makes this format help the fiction to really shine?

I think we have extremely well-developed characters. Because we don't know what will happen, it's not enought to know how they react in a handful of specific situations. We already spent a lot of time getting to know the characters for "Diana Danko in Concert", and we will do a lot more development for this piece. It's a very collaborative process: We discuss the fears, secrets, and desires of the characters together, explore them in improvisations and make sure we create characters who are complex, with nuances and little quirks and secrets that may not come to pass every time we perform, but they are there, ready to be discovered and adding to the experience.


Thanks so much to Jakob for the interview! Meet Diana Danko sounds really interesting and definitely worth learning more about. Check out the Kickstarter if it tickles your fancy and share this post with anyone you think might like it!

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Patreon Spotlight - James E. Shields

Today I’m trying something new, and not sure if it’ll recur, so let me know your thoughts.

James Shields has a cool Patreon through which he creates custom RPG Stock Illustrations. It’s been around for a couple of years, and involves his patrons giving feedback and input into what art is created. I interviewed James as well as asking him to provide information on his process. Check it out!

When I asked about James’ process, he responded:

So here is my ideal process. 
Somewhere there is an incredible independent creator with awesome RPG ideas but
without the budget to commission some of the illustrations they want. 
Somehow they learn about one of my Stock Art Patreon projects and jumps on board.
Every month I post and ask for ideas. 

Patrons are encouraged to comment on each others ideas to make the artwork more versatile. (Example: If the idea is for a Wild Elf with antlers, another patron may ask for moose antlers. If that's good with the original patron, I roll with the adjusted idea.) They then vote on each other's submissions by liking them on the post.
At the end of the month, I tally up all the submissions and votes. I then release a list of the upcoming art and the process starts all over again. On the 1st of month, patrons are charged their pledge level for each pack I released. After pledges clear, I send them links to the files for them to download at their convenience.

James also provided a FAQ:
What can I do if I can't afford X amount 3 or 4 times a month?
Patreon allows you to set a cap, or maximum number of creations you want to support each month. You will receive the packs that your pledge covered. 
What if my submitted idea was in a pack that my pledge cap kept me from supporting? I give my patrons the illustration from their idea anyways.
How many ideas may I submit?
As many as you want. In the future I may set a limit, but only if submissions get unruly. 
Can't I just get your art when you release it via Drivethru, RPGNow, TabletopLibrary, etc?
Yes. Yes, you can. The dilemma is -when-. Uploading stock art is time consuming, so
I don't release very often. As of this writing, I am somewhere over a year and a half behind.My patrons get the artwork first. Long before anybody else.
What are the license restrictions?
Ohhh... these are fun. Actually, I'm pretty liberal as far as this is concerned.
You can use the artwork forever. You just can't sell it as stock, posters, printable miniatures, or anything else where the artwork is the main product. You also can't use it in offensive projects. Other than that, just create something awesome.
You should also let me have a copy. Well, that part's not required, but I'm a gamer and
love to see where my art is used. 
Are there any restrictions to what ideas I may submit? 
Yes, but they aren't a lot. I don't illustrate nudity nor will I create provocative poses/images. I won't draw images of intellectual property, though I will do images inspired by them.
Also, a question that hasn't been asked that is totally viable- I'm not an independent game developer. Can I still support the project? 
Totally. There is nothing to stop people from submitting their RPG character for me to draw and them to see in printed RPG products. Totally cool. 
As of this writing I do have only one remaining Top Tier slot where I guarantee to draw one of their submissions every month. At $25, you can't get my art at a better deal.
Last thing I can think of. You are completely welcome to pledge to support my project just to see it from a patron's point of view and cancel your pledge as soon as you've seen as much as you'd like. Feel free to take and post any screenshots as a patron if you choose this route. I won't be posting any artwork for another two weeks so there won't be any charges during that time. 

Finally I asked James a few questions!

What is your background in creating art both for and not for RPGs?

My first intro to drawing RPG art was in my first roleplaying group as a teen. My parents convinced me to go to school beyond high school instead of trying to dive into drawing comics. After I graduated from the Art Institute of Dallas, I worked for a game company for a year and a half before they went bankrupt. Except for a few drawings here and there, that was the last I would create artwork for about 10 years. After my second deployment with the Marine Corps, my wife convinced me to use my artistic abilities for something, so I dove into freelancing. I didn't really know what I was doing but I did know that I loved to create artwork like the ones I had been introduced to in my teens, and as I developed as a freelancer I began focusing more and more on roleplaying because they were the projects I loved. I know it's not the smartest financial decision but these are the things I get excited about. Another artist pointed me towards Patreon and that's where I got the idea to provide something for independent game developers that would be in between pure stock and fully commissioned. I've been freelancing for over 3 years now and I love it.

What mediums do you use for your art?
Hard lead pencil on cardstock for sketching, followed by Faber-Castell inks.
I then scan and color in Photoshop. Occasionally, I'll paint digitally in Photoshop.
How do you respond when there isn't a lot of patron engagement?
I'll have to let you know when I get to that. The Patreon has always had patrons submitting ideas, but I recently moved the discussion away from a Google doc submission form to discussions and votes via posts on the Patreon website and interaction has exploded. Patreon sent me a message at the end of the year to let me know that my Patreon was more engaged than 95% of any other Patreon project. To answer your question more directly, all it takes is one patron to submit an idea for each category and I have content for the next pack. Occasionally I draw my own ideas, but that is rare and now if I have an idea I'd like to illustrate myself, I include it in the votes. I think it was in December, my youngest child (age 6) was talking about alligators, except it kept coming out as 'owl-igators' and I knew I just HAD to draw it, so I posted it as a submission for patrons to vote on. If it wasn't popular I wouldn't draw it, but they loved the idea enough that I got to include it.

Cool! Thanks James! You can find James' Patreon at If his work sounds interesting to you, go ahead and give it a look!

James also has genre specific Patreon projects:

Purely black and white fantasy art -
Purely black and white sci-fi art -

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Emotion Maps as Design Tools

Hi all!

I wanted to write a bit today about a technique I've been using for a long time now to design games and conceptualize sessions and campaigns (even if I'm not running, I know how I want my character to feel, or how to advise people who are running). The technique is what I call an "emotion map."

Emotion maps use word clouds to establish what emotions are the most important to put into a game, and what ones you want to avoid. I have a few different ones I've used - one for designing a game itself, one for session planning (for one-shots), and one for campaigns. I've put together some examples of them to walk you through!

The first thing I do is grab a piece of paper and pen (you could do this digitally, though!) and title whatever it is I'm working on. Here's the starting page for Turn.

Look at all that beautiful blank space.

A title is important because it reminds you of what you're looking for when you're stumped. You want to have a relatively big space to write on, because it gives some room to breathe or scratch stuff out if you need to.


Emotion maps are kind of like our solar system, where the words all have different sizes and go around a point just beside what we consider the center (our system circles a spot right off center of the sun). You can choose to put them closer or farther away based on importance as well as based on desired impact, or you can scatter them. I generally use the mapped out on importance with bigger things.

The words are intermixed to show that they can conflict and interfere with each other. You could list them or order them otherwise, but this visual representation works best for me and provides an organic representation of the emotions I want present in the game. (/ETA)

From here, I'll write in a few words in larger text. Let's start with four!

Companionship, conflicted, desire, hopeful.
The words here are the most prominent emotions. I want the characters in Turn to feel these things during the game the most. The words don't have to be consistent (verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, whatever), they just have to mean something and relate to emotions.

The words I chose are companionship, conflicted, desire, and hopeful. You can see how these things would tie into a game like Turn, which is about shapeshifters in small towns struggling between their two identities, wanting to satisfy the needs of both, in need of support from their fellow shapeshifters, and looking forward to finding balance. Right?

More words! In smaller text! Use one more than the prominent emotions, to create some interference.

Hunger, wonder, rejection, isolation, trust.
These are secondary emotions. These leap off of other emotions or are in deeper and less often found, but are still vital to the story. They're smaller than the prominent emotions in size to show their lessened influence, but big enough to start interfering with the others. The words are hunger, wonder, rejection, isolation, and trust. For Turn, PCs might experience love or greed, or just actual human or animal needs. They could also marvel at the abilities they use and gain, but be denied from the societies they live within - leaving them alone. That's why they need to rely on their fellow shifters.

Final words! Smallest! Now use two more than the first (so six!), to make the sheet like a minefield.

Satisfaction, confidence, powerlessness, fear, pain, loneliness.
These are avoided emotions. They are the emotions that can come from the experiences in the game that I want to have happen less, or not at all! They are the smallest because they can't be forgotten but you don't want to be reminded of what they really are until you look, because you don't want to seek them out. The words are satisfaction, confidence, powerlessness, fear, pain, and loneliness.

Turn is about shapeshifters with significant power, so they shouldn't ever feel like there's nothing they can do. But, they shouldn't ever feel like everything is done, or feel secure that they have everything under control. I don't want players to struggle and feel like they're in a bad state, and as much as there will be times when they are alone, I don't want them without companionship (callback to the prominent emotions!) or someone to turn to (hey, trust!), components (from my translation) that when lacking produce loneliness.

Here are the notes I made on the sheet to give some context to the map:

Notes! I made them!
These notes are for a full game (obvs), but the point is that they'll grow over time. You can expand the emotion map, adjust it as time goes on, and so on. You can also use the avoided emotions as reference for threats in the game - how do you have something bad happen without making someone afraid? These also will influence the core elements of my design.

The number of words is important because of where it places emphasis. You only have a few core emotions to focus on as the big ones, or else you'll get exhausted trying to fill in every experience from just a top-level build. You have more of the secondary emotions so that there's room to grow into them as the game develops. And you have even more avoided emotions to really highlight this is what I want to avoid, this is what will go away from the point of my game - when you know what you don't want to do, it helps show what you do want to do.

You'll notice in the final sheet that there are not just good emotions as prominent, nor are there only bad emotions as avoided.

Not all bad, not all good.
It's important to know that in long term games, you'll have good stuff and bad stuff, and when designing a game, you have to factor in all of those possibilities and figure out the big thing: if your players are going to have a negative experience - and they will! - what kind do you want it to be?

I also have in the following gifs the pages of the one-shot session of Shadowrun: Anarchy I conceptualized, and a three-session long-play of Monsterhearts.

Shadowrun: Anarchy Session - Prominent: Excitement, pressured, powerful, motivation.
Secondary: Vindication, amusement, failure, anxiety (should have had 5).
Avoided: Frustrated, anger, disappointment, boredom, lost, vengeful.
Giphy Link
As noted in the gif and caption, I missed one in the secondary emotions, but I think the point still sits! This has a similar structure of fewer prominent emotions to more avoided emotions. The reasoning for this is that in a shorter game like a one-shot, you only have time to hit a few emotional peaks on purpose, but the secondary emotions might come in along with them or be good to throw in as additional bites. But you really want to avoid the emotions you focus on avoiding.

Here are my notes on the one-shot:

One-shot notes!
I noted here that this kind of structure is for one shots or single sessions, if you don't plan out full campaigns or play an episodic game. It also has notes about having fewer positive emotions on it - if you look at the list, almost all of the avoided emotions are negative. This is totally okay! There are still some negative emotions in the secondary and prominent ones, but the point here is that hey, it's a one shot of a bombastic game, and I super don't want my players to get bummed out or bored.

The final Shadowrun: Anarchy one-shot emotion map:

Next, I did one of my more complicated emotion maps that I've used for both plotting game stuff, but also fiction! It's for a three-session Monsterhearts game.

This one is very complicated! giphy link

I'll summarize each one of these real quick -

Session 1:
Prominent - mistrust, curiosity, panic.
Secondary - suspicion, frustration.
Avoided - safety.

Session 2:
Prominent - comfort, pain, wonder.
Secondary - confidence, understanding.
Avoided - happiness.

Session 3:
Prominent - resolve, assurance, trust.
Secondary - gratitude, obsession.
Avoided - hopeful.

I feel terrible for the players in this game, honestly. Anyway, as you can see, there are some varying emotions all through the sessions, some that reflect off of each other, and some that conflict. This is good! You don't want the same emotions every session, though you can have them evolve (no safety to finding comfort to building trust and having gratitude, suspicion to understanding to obsession).

My notes on the Monsterhearts emotion map:

In the Monsterhearts sessions, you have more prominent emotions and fewer avoided ones! Why change this? First off, you're working with a full arc of story - this isn't encompassing a potential of many stories or a single run in a one-shot, it's a story told to complete emotional arcs for PCs. You could do something like this for a single session of Monsterhearts or similar games if you intend to go through a full experience, but if it's a piece of time instead of a range, it's not as useful.

I also think that it depends on the type of game. Shadowrun, for example, can have emotion in it, but it typically has fewer, focused emotions. Monsterhearts is a game about teenagers and sex and horror, so it runs the whole range of complicated emotions, especially in long play. And you want to welcome all sorts of emotions - it is less common to say "Oh, I don't want the ghoul to feel that right now" because you really want to see what happens when a ghoul feels, say, absolution, or joy!

The final Monsterhearts long-play emotion map:

I am really bad at sizes of words. I'll work on it. :)
You can go inside out, or outside in, with how many words you use. Just be super cognizant of what you're saying with that construction!


  • Too many prominent emotions can wear people out in shorter games.
  • Fewer overarching prominent emotions for designing full games is better because you can't predict every session.
  • If the game is super emotionally intense, go wild with the desired emotions, but make sure to avoid emotions that really spoil the essence of the game.

I hope you find the emotion map technique useful! It's been really valuable for me as a designer, as a creator in general, and as a player. I think it looks at games from the perspective that matters to me as a designer and player, where things feel. I might not be super great at math or anything, but I know feelings pretty damn well.

Have fun!

giphy link

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Five or So Questions on Tales of the Warrior Princesses

Today I have an interview with Brennan Taylor and John Carimando from Galileo Games on the new setting and adventures, Tales of the Warrior Princesses, which is currently on Kickstarter! Brennan and John are on top of the project, so I've asked them about the game and what they're bringing together to make it happen.


Tell me a little about Tales of the Warrior Princesses. What excites you about it?

Brennan: Tales of the Warrior Princesses is a Kickstarter for a setting and adventures taking fairy tale princesses and turning them into the active heroes of their own stories. We're funding two books, Warrior Princesses in the Realm of Everafter, a setting book that includes character sheets for all the princesses and details their world, and Tales of the Warrior Princesses, a book of 11 adventures, each focusing on one of the princesses as the star of an adventure going up against the enemies in her realm.

What excites me about this project is taking these characters and turning them into role-playing game heroes. The person who conceived the project, John Carimando, is really passionate and excited about this, and he is committed to making sure that the Tales and any future projects are written by women. He's been very generous with his concept, putting it out there for other writers to take and really make their own. I love seeing these new stories come in and the great creativity that's being applied. I think this project is going to create something great for parents with kids looking to get them into role-playing, and because we are using 5th edition, it's got a broad appeal to people in the hobby that I usually don't reach with my very indie-focused games.

Sorry to ramble a bit, but there are a lot of things I'm excited about on this project.

Where did Tales of the Warrior Princesses come from? What are the inspirations and motivations for the adventures and settings?

John Carimando: I drew a picture of the Little Mermaid as a ranger. That inspired me to run a set of adventures for Nerdnyc's Gotham Gaming Group using some of the Disney's versions of Snow White, Cinderella, and Ariel. The players liked the idea and playing the characters. I want to make beautiful things, this gave me an opportunity to draw, paint, and design great artwork. Also, I like the idea of flipping the gender paradigm for protagonists and who they rescue. The majority of heroes of legend are women, they are sought out for their insight, and save a prince or two.

How does Tales... interact with the 5th ed. mechanics and structure?
John: Each Warrior Princess is a different D&D class. When you combine popular media (cartoons and movies), their original stories (Grimm, myth, etc.), and their archetypal depiction in the game, the class and character choice makes more sense. Mechanically, playing with the different WPs keeps from too much ability overlap. We also created new backgrounds, class archetypes, and feats to add to a DM's collection. I am also trying to design a little outside the established norms for D&D.

Who have you brought on for the project, and what kind of themes and fun bits of story do you think they're really bringing to the forefront?

John: The overarching themes are sorority, friendship, and adventure. The Warrior Princesses are depicted more as freedom-fighters than royalty (even though, some have noble backgrounds). The island they live on is called Avalon, and hold council at a round table under a silver dome, obvious references to Knights of the Round Table.

The writers get to expand the game universe and get to showcase their style of adventure. The consistent structural each Tale is different content wise and in presentation.

We have a team of really talented writers working on all the new material for the Kickstarter. It's a real dream-team for this project. We brought in an author for each princess so that each one has a special perspective and feel. As we continue to develop adventures and other material for the world we want to keep working with these same creators.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Snow White
Jacqueline Bryk: Scheherazade
Elsa S. Henry: Moira
James Mendez Hodes: Hua Mulan
Betsy Isaacson: Cinderella
Kira Magrann: Briar Rose
Darcy Ross & Rebekah McFarland: Josephine
Willow Palecek: Rapunzel
Ishki Ricard: Yokopa
Beth Rimmels: Belle
Monica Speca: Thalassa

D&D Fifth ed. has some complexity, and it can be difficult to keep kids on rails. How are you making the game appealing for kids?

Brennan: The themes and language in the writing is not just for adults. The appeal of Warrior Princesses pretty well crosses age ranges. Setting up the stories so that the princesses are active and engaged heroes in their stories, fighting storybook monsters, captures a timeless feeling for the books. For parents who want to play with their kids, we recommend ages twelve and up, but parents running games for younger kids could easily scale back imagery that they feel could be troublesome, like undead.


Thanks so much to Brennan and John for answering my questions! Since I only found out about the Kickstarter right before it ends (go back  now if you're excited!), I didn't get to talk to all of the creators. Here's to hoping we can hear from them soon! Check out Tales of the Warrior Princesses on Kickstarter here!

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