Thursday, May 31, 2018

Turn Grows, So Do I

a gif of Chris Evans breaking a log in half
Chris Evans is a representation for me, the log is my fear of running games.
I recently updated the biggest games document I've ever worked on myself, the Turn playtest document. It's like almost 80 pages now. Like, that's a lot. The updates included:
  • minor changes to Human role abilities for clarity
  • minor changes to Beast archetype powers for clarity
  • adjustment to refresh for exposure
  • integrated essay content
  • more Storyteller content
    • how to on session 0
    • session checklist
    • explanation of rules
    • character creation
  • an entire player's guide to all of the roles and archetypes
  • elaboration on some mechanics
  • rewritten elaboration on mechanics 
  • complete step-by-step on how to start a game of Turn
I don't know if that sounds like a lot, but it was a lot of work!

I'm hoping to talk about a variety of these things over time, but the biggest one I wanted to talk about is the Storyteller's Guide and how that came to be.

Storyteller Purposes Make everything personal (to the characters) Always put the characters at risk of exposure Keep the characters connected Love the characters and all of their flaws Give everyone a secret Use status as leverage Give every wrong a reason Don’t let deviance go unnoticed Keep in mind that everything takes time Offer every player and character moments of comfort and of success
The Storyteller Purposes were actually written by dictation to John while we were driving across the state last year.

I am not a particularly gifted facilitator, especially not in an actual "game master" type of role. I avoid it like the plague because it stresses me out, I don't feel like I do a good job, and I don't have experience in it. However, for Turn, I have very clear ideas on how the game should work. It's the only game I've run 4 sessions of, ever. But I didn't write any of these ideas down.

So, when John and I went to the lake cabin (my parents'), he asked me a ton of questions. I answered as best I could, and realized I kind of had to write all of it down. Since then I've been adding text to the Turn document like wild! I have a lot of ideas for how to solve the little issues people have come up with before I made the changes, but I have no idea if they'll work for people other than me.

To some kind of credit, I did try out the first draft of the "how to set up Turn" the other night and it went awesomely. I even did the new Session 0! And it worked great. I've added some detail since then, so I hope it'll work. Here's some things I wrote about, which are in addition to the materials I'd already written:

Character Creation
This has guidance on helping the players answer questions about their characters, how to handle animal groups, a note on NPCs, and special rules for some of the roles. It's stuff that I know will come up, but didn't write down. Some of this is just hard to figure out how to word, or I hadn't had time to put on paper. Some things I just didn't know needed written guidance, but it did - like the special rules for the Late Bloomer or the NPCs. But, now it's written down!

Two sheets of paper, one titled "The Beastborn" and the other "A Wolf," with various details of the characters on it
The Beastborn and Wolf character sheets for John's character in my new game, created by John W. Sheldon.
Session 0
This is how to actually get the game going. It directs the Storyteller to the Beginning Your Game section and then walks them through a structured first couple scenes. I'm really pleased with it and when I tested it out it went amazingly well, for someone like me to run, so I'm glad it's on paper. I had to really separate out what was important in a first session, and I think that this meets it - connecting the characters, placing them within the town, and establishing the personality of the characters.

Running an Average Session
This covers the typical things a Storyteller will encounter in a session of Turn. Some people had expressed they weren't sure how to engage stress or how to run beast scenes, so I wrote up some details on that to get people really on the same page. This involved writing up how you should pepper each session with mundanity - everyday tasks that will stress out shifters - and beast issues like territory and habitat struggles.

I also included a Storyteller Session Checklist that makes sure that there are NPC to PC connections, PC to PC connections, gossip, mundane vignettes, and beast scenes alongside the human scenes everyone leans to. I'm pleased with it!

Tracking Goals
This section was to make more concrete guidance on how to handle players trying to achieve goals. It includes guidance on using progress bars based on difficulty, and how that comes across for each goal. I needed to give a more solid way to mark and record this so that there wouldn't be unfair imbalance in how quickly some goals were achieved. Plus, this way the Storyteller can have visual representation of the progress.

The top of two pieces of paper titled "The Beastborn" and "A Wolf," with text describing the character following.
A closeup of the character sheets - wolves have packs in the game, did you know? by John W. Sheldon.
Reintegrating into Animal Groups After Exposure
After I'd made a small change to the refresh rate for exposure, I realized I'd never noted that animal group stress doesn't refresh. I fixed that, and then wrote up some rules on how Storytellers will use a progress bar to help shifters reintegrate with their own group or find a new group, based on difficulty. I think that this, the explanation of exposure, and my new guidance on beast scenes will help Storytellers more actively engage that material.

Overall this has been a heck of a lot of work. This is only the ONE section, out of all of the ones in my bulleted list up top. The thing is, I'm not really changing rules for 90% of this - I'm just explaining stuff. More of this whole project is explaining things than I ever thought it'd be, and I'll tell you, I'm hoping that this makes a difference when people get into the text!

One of the hardest things I've had to do is make guidance for Storytellers. It's not something I do a lot, and honestly, a lot of people in that role are people I don't actually enjoy working with (just a personality thing, maybe?). I don't necessarily want Storytellers in Turn to work the same way a D&D GM would, or even a Fate GM. I want them to care a lot more. It's a heavy workload to run the game, by many people's counts, especially for a "story game" sort of game - but I wouldn't have it any other way.

I started a game on Friday as Storyteller, and we have a fantastic group of a Late Bloomer otter, a Showoff raven, and a Beastborn wolf in a town full of intrigue because the shifters know who each other are and there's formal shifter culture, and it's incredibly exciting to think of the places it could go. I know I'm gonna have a lot of little progress bars and it's gonna be exciting to mark each one off. I can't wait!

A map with circles and lines showing a town, three cards showing a fast forward, a pause, and a rewind, and the Human Form struggles sheet.
Our town, Script Change, and the Human Form struggles - just the stuff I was reviewing while I was taking a break.
And that's the thing, right? I'm excited about running a game. Me! I have literally pretended to be sick to avoid doing it, and here I am, enthusiastically planning NPCs and secrets, anxiously bugging my friends about playing the next session. I actually did an okay job, and it's me saying that!

There's so many things I love about game design, and as hard as it can be to do it on spare dollars, I can't ever stop being amazed by how much it teaches me. It is a constant learning experience, and I'm very glad that my time spent digging into Turn's mechanics and text has encouraged me to do something I find terrifying - and made it exhilarating instead!

It's awesome, and so is Turn. Check it out if you want to see the hard work I've been putting in! Thanks for reading <3

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Friday, May 25, 2018

approachable theory: Types of Fun

The approachable theory logo, with the text "approachable theory" and an image of two six-sided dice with one pip showing, with a curved line below it to make a smile. The dice are black with cyan for the pip and yellow with black for the pip.
The approachable theory logo.
Hi all! Today I have a post by Selene Tan on Types of Fun! Selene is a game designer who is always up for a design competition, and writes about games and GMing. This post is about types of fun - the ways we enjoy games - using a variety of existing theory and talking about how we can understand those things in our own experiences. Selene said she loves "interacting with dynamic systems that produce unexpected and inspiring outcomes, and it's even better with friends!" So let's see what she has to say!

I ask that you remember the requests I put forth about treating my writers with respect and understand that a lot of game design theory is still growing, so definitions can be a little fluid. 


A table with assorted playing components, dice and playing cards, and play sheets and mats.
A collection of materials for a game of Roar of Alliance (Game and photo by John Sheldon.) during play. 

Whether you call it “fun,” “enjoyment,” or “involvement”: when you’re playing the right game, there’s something that makes you want to play it, and keep playing. But not all games are fun in the same way.

The fun of tactical miniatures combat in D&D 4th edition is different than the fun of a collaborative story/map-making game like The Quiet Year. There are many types of fun, and while people have preferences, none is intrinsically better than any other.

We can sort these different types of fun into categories. Sorting and labeling experiences is a good way to analyze them, and analyzing game experiences is a key skill for game design. There are schemes that classify games or players, and schemes that classify fun directly. I find schemes that classify players reductive. As a player, I enjoy many kinds of games, depending on my mood and situation. Classifying games is more useful, but again, most games combine different types of fun. I prefer to classify fun because as a designer, those are my building blocks. The types of fun I want to focus on are a key part of my design vision.

It's worth comparing several schemes to learn what works for you. The main factors that I consider when deciding on a scheme to use are:
  1. how applicable it is to the kinds of games I want to classify. If there are a lot of experiences not covered by the scheme, some of the types are unused, or most experiences go under one type, the scheme is a bad fit.
  2. how easy it is to remember. If there are too many categories, or the names are confusing, it's hard to remember the scheme.
  3. how easy it is to apply. The categories should clearly describe what experiences belong to them, and most experiences should clearly belong to one or two categories, without confusion.
I’m including links to several others, but here are three schemes with different approaches that I find
useful for analyzing RPGs.

Schemes of Fun

8 Kinds of Fun

My personal favorite scheme, and the one that started me on categorizing fun, is 8 Kinds of Fun, originally described by Marc LeBlanc as part of the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics framework (overview).

Chris Sniezak at Gnome Stew has written in more detail about the 8 Kinds of Fun for RPGs. Here’s a quick summary of the types:
  • Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure. e.g. playing with miniatures and detailed terrain, background music, or props; drawing; manipulating dice.
  • Fantasy: Game as make-believe. e.g. exploring a world from the point of view of a character. This is the most “RPG-y” kind of fun.
  • Narrative: Game as unfolding story. e.g. playing through a story with cool set-piece encounters, crafting a story together with other players.
  • Challenge: Game as obstacle course. e.g. dungeon crawls or combat-focused games, any encounter where the point is for players to overcome it with skill.
  • Fellowship: Game as social framework. Playing as an excuse to hang out with friends. e.g. Kaleidoscope, where you "remember" (invent) a movie with friends and discuss it.
  • Discovery: Game as uncharted territory. e.g. sandbox games, hex crawls, and dungeon crawls.
  • Expression: Game as soap box or self-discovery. e.g. drawing your character or other game elements, creating detailed characters.
  • Submission: Game as mindless pastime. In RPGs, this is usually combined with Fellowship. e.g. Kick-in-the-door play where the goal is to defeat baddies without thinking too hard.

Classifies types of fun, not games or players

Flexible enough to apply to RPGs, board games, and video games

The eight categories cover a wide range while being easy to remember


The categories have a video game bias

Some of the word choices seem awkward (submission, soap box)

A table with assorted playing components, dice and playing cards, and play sheets and mats.
I used Roar of Alliance because it has a variety of materials and two parts of play, with strategic combat and "downtime" roleplaying making up the game - both could be very different kinds of fun. (Photo by John Sheldon.)

Quantic Foundry Gamer Motivations

Another scheme is Quantic Foundry’s Gamer Motivations. It classifies reasons that people play games, where each reason is a type of fun. There are two schemes, one for video games and one for board games. The video games scheme has 12 motivations in 6 groups, while the board games scheme has 11 motivations in 4 groups.

These are the video game groupings:
  • Action, containing excitement and destruction, e.g. fast-paced combat like Savage Worlds, or causing mayhem in towns.
  • Social, containing competition and community, e.g. combat in Agon, where whoever deals the killing blow gets more Glory; most D&D play where the party works together; or D&D Adventurer's League play, where you're part of a larger community.
  • Mastery, containing challenge and strategy, e.g. dungeons, combat, and character build optimization.
  • Achievement, containing completion and power, e.g leveling up, stomping enemies, and completing quests.
  • Creativity, containing discovery and design, e.g. hexcrawls and sandboxes, creating characters, or coming up with unusual uses for items and spells.
  • Immersion, containing fantasy and story, e.g. speaking and playing in character, following elaborate pre-planned plots, or playing dynamic characters that create emergent plots.

Data-driven. Quantic Foundry used a combination of survey questions about preferences and favorite games to create clusters of users, then labeled those clusters to get the 11-12 motivations.

Comprehensive. It's hard to think of anything not covered.


Since the schemes are for video and board games, some categories are barely used while others are heavily used for RPGs.

It's hard to remember all 11-12 motivations.

The category "Immersion" has a different meaning than its usual meaning in RPGs

Threefold Model and GNS

The third scheme is the Threefold Model (Drama, Simulation, and Game), including its descendant, Gamism/Narrativism/Simulationism (GNS). The Threefold Model and related models classify play styles or modes by what aspect of RPGs is their highest priority.

Gamism is a play style where the highest priorities are challenge and competition. One example is the Dungeon Crawl Classics “character funnel,” where each player starts with multiple Level 0 characters and tries to keep at least one of them alive to Level 1.

Narrativism/Drama is a play style where the highest priority is exploring theme through character. Different characters address the theme in different ways, and highlight it through decisions. For example, every playbook (character class) in Apocalypse World has a unique take on surviving in the wilderness, from solving everything with guns to building a community.

Simulationism/Explorative is a play style where the highest priority is to experience a world or characters that have deep, consistent internal logic. Investigating crimes in Mutant City Blues, where the Quade Diagram describes how mutant powers relate to each other and therefore what kind of mutant criminal you're looking for, is an example of simulationism/explorative play.


Created for RPGs

Only three categories to remember


Lots of arguments and confusion about the definitions of each category

Ignores some common types of fun, e.g. Sensation or Creativity: Design

Other Schemes

Using Schemes

One way to use a classification scheme is to analyze play. I’ve adapted Nathan Paoletta's Two List Method for this.

Make a list of all the things you like and dislike when playing RPGs.

Then play an RPG session with that list in mind. Afterwards, write down a new list of things you liked and disliked from that session. If you won’t get to play for a while, make a list from your most recent session, but it’s best to do this while it’s fresh in your mind.

Pick a scheme and classify your list items. For each like, write down the type of fun. For each dislike, write down the type of fun it interferes with, and if applicable, the type of fun it promotes. Don’t worry about forcing things to fit: it’s okay to have some lone items. But if there are a lot, you might want to pick a different classification scheme!

For example:

I like to play characters that help people. (Fantasy, Expression)

I dislike games where everyone plays backstabbing schemers who are out to get each other. (Inteferes with: Fellowship, Submission. Promotes: Challenge, Expression.)

You’ll see trends arise from the lists. Some categories will have more items than others, and some reasons will keep showing up.

The categories that keep showing up in your likes are the types of fun you enjoy the most. You have the most experience playing and creating that type of fun, and the strongest intuition for them. You'll also find complements: groups of types that keep showing up together, or types that show up occasionally on your list of likes but not in your dislikes. The types that show up on your dislikes list interfere with or detract from the types you enjoy.

When you’re designing a game or wrestling with a mechanic, ask yourself what types of fun you’re aiming for. If the mechanic doesn’t seem to be working, is it encouraging a different type of fun than the one you’re aiming for? Is it related to a fun that interferes with your goal? If you have a design that feels like it’s missing something, try adding one of the complementary fun types.

If you want to read more about classifying and analyzing fun, here are some resources:
A table with assorted playing components, dice and playing cards, and play sheets and mats.
Roar of Alliance is a fun game to play, and now after reading Selene's article, I can't stop wondering how someone would evaluate the game in regards to the type of fun - what type of fun is your favorite game?


Thank you so much to Selene for the excellent article and for making the theories of fun a little more approachable! I learned from reading this article, so I hope you did, too! Please share and keep checking back for more approachable theory!

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Five or So Questions on BFF!

Hi all, today I have an interview with Terri Cohlene and her son, Ross Cowman, designers of BFF! BFF! is currently on Kickstarter and is a game about girlhood, friendship, and adventure - it looks like such a fantastic time, and I hope you love hearing what Terri and Ross have to say about it! 

FYI: This game is nearing the end of its Kickstarter and could super use some support - please share and consider backing an interesting new project that has a diverse cast of characters to play!


The Kickstarter video is so good! So much happy!

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

Terri: Finally! After all this time, it's getting out into the world! BFF! is a role playing game about friendship, girlhood, and adventure. Originally I wanted to create a game about friendship that girls would love. Turns out, lots of people (young, old and of different genders) are having fun getting into that mindset.

The art is fantastic and provides a backdrop for all kinds of great adventures, from school to sleepovers to summer camp to road trips to just hanging out at the mall.

Ross: Yes, all of those things. And it is really cool to be be working with my Mom, and all of the other folks on the team. BFF has so many people's wonderful ideas in it!

As a design nerd: I'm excited to be using boardgame techniques to make a role playing game. I think this design space has a ton of potential to bring story gaming to a new audience that maybe didn't feel like they had access before.

A board game box and board, along with stand up character tokens, "charm" tokens, some cards, and character cards.
BFF! really does look like a combination of a board game and a roleplaying game, and I think that's awesome!
BFF! seems to be almost a board game + story game hybrid. How did this design come about?

T: Maybe that happened because I didn't know what I was doing. I started the ball rolling and, because my expertise is "story," that's where I began. I was thinking about what was important to 'tween girls, and, Bingo! Friendship, of course. Then I shared my idea with Ross and he fine-tuned the game design, plus we brainstormed A LOT to get the results we have now. The landscapes were kind of obvious, except the fabulous details we ended up with were totally inspired by the artists and everyone else on the team.

R: When my mom brought me her idea my first thought was to hack Fall of Magic somehow to make this work. We eventually added some unique mechanics like charm bracelets and friendship cards to specifically support the friendship theme.

A series of character tokens representing girls of all backgrounds and types, including disabled characters, girls of color, athletes, musicians, and more! Very colorful!
Speaking of friends, look at all these awesome friends!
Where are the character concepts and fictional structure being drawn from? Have have you come up with mechanics that connect those characters? 

T: The brains of Cowman/Cohlene! Then we added the creativity of the rest of Team Deernicorn. Welcome to our world!!

R: Terri and I came up with initial ideas, then bounced them off everyone else in the team who added their own stuff to the mix. We wanted to have a balance of urban and rural, of indoor and outdoor, of crowded and spacious...

The characters are connected explicitly at the start of the game through the charm mechanics. Everyone trades charms which represent things our characters like about eachother.

A person with dark hair bent over paintng.
The art for BFF! is really adorable, done by artist Veta Bahktina.

The charms sound so cool! What is their function mechanically, and what makes them important narratively?

T: The charms sound cool because they are cool! I initially had the idea of actual charm bracelets that best friend players could even wear between play sessions. While a nifty idea, it wasn't practical. At all. (Ross wisely pointed this out!) Then we briefly considered having charm necklaces that the friend tokens could wear. Again, not practical. So we ended up with bracelet templates and custom charms brilliantly designed by Taylor Dow. They represent traits or memories that the friends like about themselves or each other. Throughout the game, there are opportunities to add charms, gift them or get rid of them, each time explaining why you are taking this action. They add to the depth of understanding, growth, and bonding (& fun!) that happens during play.

R: The charms are the biggest mechanical deviation from Fall of Magic and really crucial to getting players into the friendship mentality at the start of the game. At the start of the game we each take turns selecting a charm for ourselves and talking about how that charm represents something we like about our character. Then we go around a second time and each give a charm to another character and say something we like about them. Between each hangout each do another charm scene which functions as a kind of mini-debrief in the middle of the game.
The box for BFF! and the heart of the deernicorn logo. The box is colored orange, green, yellow, and blue and has a cast of diverse characters on the cover.
The BFF! box art is so pretty and colorful. I love seeing all of the characters on the cover!
You've had some awesome sounding playtests. Were there any unique challenges in playtest with the broad age demographics or with keeping tone? What was some of your favorite feedback?

T: Not really. It's been pretty easy to get into the middle grade mindset, whether that means imagining an older or younger (or same age) alternate self. Once that's set, the playing field seems to be pretty equal. Favorite feedback? "I love it! It's my new favorite game!" Or maybe, "You want to be an eggplant? Be an eggplant!"

R: We've had consistently awesome playtests, people grinning, laughing, and just having a really fun relaxing time roleplaying these friendships together. Some of the kids from the YWCA playtest group told us after they were really inspired to make their own characters and hangouts for the game. For me, inspiring some of these young women and gender-queer youth to become future game designers, is the best possible feedback I could ask for.

A visual map of a town, including a local mountain, various buildings, a river, a seaside, and a lighthouse.
The gorgeous map/game board in BFF! is colorful and compelling!

Wow! Thank you so much to Terri and Ross for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading and that you'll skip on over to the BFF! Kickstarter page to check it out, and share this article with your friends! There's a few days left to make BFF a reality, and I think it's totally worth it.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Five or So Questions on Yarnia

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Tania Richter about Yarnia - A Yarn Quest Knitting RPG, Tania's roleplaying game using knitting that's currently on Kickstarter!


a person facing a snow covered scene, spreading their arms out to show a green and black shawl patterned like a dragonfly.
A lovely dragonfly patterned shawl.
Tell me a little about Yarnia. What excites you about it?

Yarnia is a quiet little land that has a habit of being invaded by monsters. Eons ago the rulers of Yarnia set up a summoning system to bring in heroes from different worlds to aid them in their constant quest to repel the wool-thieving monsters. Part of what makes this so fun is that it's a system that allows players to bring their RPG characters into Yarnia or roll an entirely new character for the quest.
A person with dark hair and glasses facing the camera wearing a black shirt and an orange and pink patterned black shawl.
A lovely cowl & a creative designer!
How did you come up with the idea for Welcome to Yarnia and start integrating the knitting aspect into play?

Yarn Quest - Heroes to Yarnia is an RPG knitting pattern that I designed to make a randomly generated pattern. We've done quite a few Yarn Quests now, and I wanted a pattern that would allow me to teach people how to double knit, along with introduce new gamers to RPG-style gaming. Welcome to Yarnia is designed as a sort of Introduction to the world of Yarnia. It also offers a gateway between the knitting and gaming communities, allowing members to cross over and bring new ideas to both communities.

What are some of the types of patterns players will encounter during their Yarn Quest?

There is a combination of geometric patterns and pixel monsters. I try and model my art after a lot of the classic RPGs like Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Warrior while putting my own spin on it.

A fabric piece with a detailed black and white wing pattern.
Gorgeous wings pattern.
How do the roleplaying and storytelling mechanics function in the game?

The game is heavily based on storytelling as there's no way to shift the full story on the fly like a traditional RPG. Your role as the player character is to make choices as you progress through the story, and the dice are the main tool you'll use to determine what charts you'll knit. As the quests are designed to be played solo or in a group they are often set up as almost a choose your own adventure. At the base of it I believe that RPG's are a very extensive form of a choose your own adventure.

What makes knitting work with the roleplaying so well, and provide a rich framework for storytelling?

There is a large community of geeks who are also knitters, and knitterly folks love to try out new things. There are so many different stories to tell through the RPG format, and each person's adventure is going to be different. Overall, it's fun to experience new things, and Yarn Quest is different from any knitting pattern. The ability to record your character's journey through a project that is almost a tapestry is a fun and unique method of knitting a pattern.

a person facing trees and grass, spreading their arms out to show a white and black shawl patterned like a bird with outspread wings
This black and white shawl with the bird pattern is so beautiful.

Thank you so much Tania for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading and that you'll check out the Yarnia Kickstarter today! Make sure to share the post with all of your friends, knitters and gamers alike!

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

approachable theory: Tabletop RPG Dice Math

The approachable theory logo, with the text "approachable theory" and an image of two six-sided dice with one pip showing, with a curved line below it to make a smile. The dice are black with cyan for the pip and yellow with black for the pip.
approachable theory logo. (By Brie Sheldon)
Hi all! I have a post today from Michael "Karrius" Mazur (email) about tabletop RPG dice math. Michael is a tabletop RPG player, more often a GM than not, and in his own words, he's "always had an interest in tinkering with and designing game systems." I asked him his favorite part about roleplaying games and he said it was that roleplaying games are a creative hobby with a low barrier to entry - and I like that too! 

This post is definitely a lot of information, but I think Michael explains it simply and approachably. Please enjoy!


Mathematical balancing can be an intimidating subject for RPG designers, but crucial for making a game that works like the designer intends is the solid foundation of having the correct dice rolling method. While familiarity with some methods of rolling are usually understood by designers, what questions to ask when deciding on a dice rolling system, the differences between said systems, and how to pick what’s most suited to the game can be a tough subject. The first question to tackle is often one of how many dice are appropriate.

The most familiar method of rolling dice in RPGs is the simple “roll a 1d20, add a number to it, and compare to a target number,” due to its use in Dungeons and Dragons and related spin-offs. One common modifier to that is instead of rolling 1d20, use the sum of 3d6. These two methods make for useful comparisons of the difference between rolling a single die vs rolling multiple dice and adding them. Both average out to the same result (10.5), and have similar maximums (20 vs 18) and minimums (1 vs 3). The following graph shows the probability curve of rolling each result on a 1d20 and 3d6, comparatively.

A graph showing the probability of rolling an individual result on 1d20 or 3d6. The 1d20 odds are a flat line, with 5% chance of rolling any number. The 3d6 results are a bell curve, as high as 12.5% for 10 and 11, and as low as 0.5% for 3 and 18.
This chart shows the probability of rolling a specific result, visual by Michael. Full details in alt text.
The probability of getting any specific result on a 1d20 is equal - each number is equally represented by once face of the die, giving a 5% chance of rolling any number in its range. The flat nature makes it easy to do calculations with - if you have something that activates on certain numbers being rolled (like critical hits on 20, or special moves on even rolls), it’s easy to just add up those 5%s, even in your head at the table. On the graph “Probability of Rolling a Specific Result,” the line for the 3d6 is a “bell curve” shape - the most common results are in the middle of the dice range, due to an “averaging out” effect, where there’s multiple different sums that can achieve them.

Rolling the maximum or minimum are far less likely due to having fewer combinations of dice that can achieve them. While a 1d20 can be expected to roll within a half point of the average result (10-11) one time in ten, and roll the maximum result one time in twenty, a 3d6 rolls within a half point of the average an expected one time in four, and roll the maximum result one roll out of every 216. Rolling multiple dice causes the “typical” results to be far more likely, and the extremes to be far less so.

click through for more!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Leading with Class

Hello all,

For the past several months I've been gearing up to start a new project called Leading with Class. Leading with Class is a web series I'm doing to teach leadership theory and practice using roleplaying games! It's so exciting to have it together!

There's a Patreon for the project and I have a Twitter set up that I'll be trying to use for the project as well. It's a dream of mine to teach important skills and make knowledge more approachable using games, and this is a great opportunity to use my experience and my education to put some good into the world. I hope you'll join me!

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Five or So Questions on Archives of the Sky

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Aaron Reed on Archives of the Sky, which is currently on Kickstarter! Archives of the Sky is a GMless game with collaborative story telling, set in the broader reaches of the universe where characters seek purpose in the epic galaxy. It seems pretty nifty, so please check out the interview below! You can also peek at at a play example here.


Kickstarter video for Archives of the Sky.

Tell me a little about Archives of the Sky. What excites you about it?

Archives of the Sky is a tabletop storytelling game that uses epic science fiction as a stage for stories about very human conflicts and values. I love sci-fi and roleplaying, but most of the existing games I know of in the genre focus more on its external trappings: spaceships, laser guns, and so on. There are a few rare exceptions that focus on the more human, philosophical side of sci-fi-- "Shock" by Joshua A.C. Newman is one of my favorites-- but I wanted a system that also took inspiration from GM-less improvisational games like Microscope, Fiasco, and Downfall. After a lot of iteration and playtesting, Archives is the result.

What excites me about it is that it really evolved into a great vehicle for supporting a group of people to collaboratively create an amazing story together. The mechanics of the game really work to provide a structure for a plot, and to ensure that plot is based around a conflict between beliefs. The characters are then forced to resolve this dilemma somehow, which means they need to get down to the heart of why the believe the things they do and why they're worth defending-- and that tends to lead to some great roleplaying.

four people in a semi-circle around a table filled with index cards, paper, and writing instruments.
A group of people playing Archives of the Sky. Index card tents! yay!
How do you set up a game of Archives of the Sky - who has input into the story, the characters? - and how do plot hooks happen?

Everyone's involved with setting up the world and telling the story-- there's a role called the Archivist to help facilitate, but everyone has equal creative authority. The first thing you do when you sit down to play is create a House together, a group of near-immortal wanderers who have been exploring the galaxy for thousands and thousands of years. You start by coming up with their core purpose, which becomes the game's first value. This might be something like "We preserve life," or "We learn truths," or even something simpler like "We hunt" or "We sing." It's something this House has sworn to pursue as their highest calling.

The rules walk you through fleshing out the House a bit more, giving them a few more Values and figuring out their place in the galaxy, and then each player makes their own character, someone within the House. Characters each have their own personal Values, which may or may not line up with the House's Values, or with each others'. These are the seeds of stories-- think of Captain Kirk in the early Star Trek movies, who has sworn to uphold the Federation's mission of peace, but will also "never forgive" the Klingons for the death of his son. Clearly, he's going to have to face this conflict sooner or later. (Sentences starting "I always" or "I never" make great Values, by the way.)

Once the game begins, players take turns staging Scenes that advance the plot. Each scene is based around a Question which that player has about where the story is going. So if a mysterious transmission was detected in the previous scene, the next player might ask "Who sent the transmission?" as their Question-- or might introduce a new complication by asking something like "Why can't we find the source of the transmission?" Everyone then collaboratively plays a scene around answering the Question, both playing their character as well as making things happen in the story world (like a GM).

Some "trove" cards, created by the players to support storytelling - the words are machines, magnitude, nightfall, prisoners, absorbtion, decaying, and disturbance.
Some "trove" cards, created by the players to support storytelling.
What are the basic mechanics like for social and other conflicts, and how do they engage players emotionally?

Players have the option of resolving conflicts through roleplay, but there's a mechanic that provides a bit of randomness and an uncertain outcome that can be used by any player who wants it. Another thing you do at the start of play is create a deck of index cards called the Trove, each one with a single word on it. (The rules encourage you to pull these words from your favorite sci-fi novels.) When you want to resolve an uncertain outcome, you can draw from the Trove and let the word inspire the outcome. What's great about this is the interpretation can be anything you want: literal, metaphorical, even tangential. So the word "fire" might inspire one person to narrate a catastrophic explosion, while another might read it as the fire in someone's eyes as they pull off a wild maneuver.

Where emotions come in is when the story gets to a Dilemma, a conflict between two Values. This is a situation where the characters need to decide on a course of action, but either decision would threaten one of the Values in play. Say the players have created a House with a core Value of staying hidden; but one of the characters has a personal value to protect the helpless, and the House has a chance to save a lot of lives by coming out of the shadows. Can that character convince the others to change their minds and go against their House's highest value? Or will she find a way to live with betraying what she believes for a greater good? It's not an easy decision, because any character who acts against a Value they believe in might have to Adapt at the end of the session, making a permanent change to their character.

An example of a Value, "We Always Show the Truth" with one in the background reading "We Record Tragedies."
An example of a Value, "We Always Show the Truth."
What was your playtesting process like? Tell me about any realizations you had, and how you dealt with necessary changes.

I've been making digital games for a long time, but this is my first fully finished and released tabletop roleplaying game, and one of the things that surprised me was how much more playtesting and iteration tabletop takes. With digital games, you spend some amount of time thinking of ideas, a hellishly long amount of time programming them, and then some amount of time playtesting: ideally throughout the process, but often closer to the end. With tabletop, almost all of your iteration time is spent actually playing the game and seeing how it works, with a few hours here and there to think through problems people are having and revise the rules.

Archives morphed a lot as it went through close to twenty fairly significant revisions (i.e. not just tweaking wording) over about two years. It accumulated more and more rules as I tried to get all the parts to work the way I wanted them to. The downside was this is as you went through a game, you kept bumping into new rules, and needing to stop to explain them. Finally I sat down and counted up the number of individual rules and mechanics in the game, and there were something like 27 of them. I challenged myself to try to make a version of the game that had only 10 concepts that needed to be explained. I think the simpler version that came out of that was when I really cracked the code of how the game worked, and from then on everything was just refinement.

The biggest two realizations I had were A) the game was really about Values, not the plot events (in the original version, you did a lot of writing down plot points on cards, moving them around the table, taking special moves to revise them, etc.-- in the final version, all that focus is placed on the Values in play instead). And B) A bunch of separate mechanics in older versions could be combined into the simple rule "Ask a question to begin a scene." So at certain times of the game that's a fixed question; at some times there are some questions that make more sense than others; but it's only one rule to explain, and everything else follows naturally from that framing, which simplified things a lot.

How do you put the "epic" into the game, with mechanics, narrative, and structure?

I wanted all players to get involved in telling the story: contributing details to scenes, helping build the world, and so on, but in practice people were often afraid to contribute when it wasn't their "turn" to stage a scene. So I added the concept of two meta-roles, called the Epic and the Intimate, that people take turns playing. Your job when you're the Epic is to look for opportunities to make the story huge and awe-inspiring in scope... so if someone mentions a spaceship, you might jump in with "It's three miles long and made from some incredibly black material that totally swallows up the starlight." By contrast, the Intimate looks for moments to keep the focus on emotions and small human details: they can ask a player what their character is feeling at any time during a scene, or add small touches of detail, like a texture or a significant glance between two characters. This system works really well to give players "permission" to tweak the story, and having those two things to focus on help make the stories feel like the kind of sci-fi I want to emulate.

The Archives of the Sky cover, reading "Archives of the Sky, a tabletop storygame of galactic scope and human ideals, by Aaron A. Reed."
The Archives of the Sky cover.

Thanks so much to Aaron for the interview! This was a real cool game to learn about. I hope you all enjoyed the interview and will check out the Archives of the Sky Kickstarter today!

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Thursday, May 3, 2018

"Wrong" Turn

So someone is playing Turn and I'm very excited about this, but they and a fellow player have both stated clearly that they don't think they're playing the game the way I want it to be played.

And like.

Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta strumming a guitar and screaming.
This is my favorite and most often used gif.
Okay, I would like people to play quiet dramas, and slice-of-life style stuff. That'd be cool. But quiet drama means different things to different people, and part of why I need playtests is to see what it means in people's interpretations of different types of towns and stuff. Not every play of a game is going to be the same, and I accept that.

So like, I'm struggling because I don't know exactly how they're playing, and I don't think it is "wrong" or anything, but I do think that the way they did setup and what themes they chose influenced the play, and that matters. But how do I even say that? Like, even if you're playing the game slightly differently than I expected does not mean it's not playing the way that is appropriate based on the way you've set up the town?

Like, here are the ways you can play Turn "wrong":
  • play it in a city or suburb, or a place with a large population
  • don't have shifters in it
  • appropriate culture to play it
  • violate the "don't do this in Turn" section of the essays (re: content)
  • pretend it's just a standard PbtA game and don't engage the mechanics
  • ignore identity and community as aspects of the game
  • don't emotionally engage with the narrative or subject matter
Lego Batman saying "no" over and over while flopping around Wayne Manor.
Yeah, I know, don't tell people not to do what they want with your game. *eyeroll*
All of the other stuff is interpretations of my design, which I can't control. Tempo, subject matter, etc. are all stuff that are different in a lot of games, like Fiasco can go anywhere from "wow, this is exciting!" to "wow, this is depressing!" to "wow, I am super confused" in one freaking session. Monsterhearts can go from dark and filled with examination of abuse and sexuality to a few kind-of-friends Scoobying around town trying to protect everyone. This is to say little of trad games like D&D and Shadowrun, which can run the tonal rollercoaster AND still let you explore the subjects the games promote. 

There are tons of types of small towns, all with their individual leanings and themes and politics. Small towns can have microcultures that make surrounding towns look at them like they're upsidedown in a teakettle, and that includes the way people deal with things there. It's complex, and that's why there are different themes and elements of the towns you create in Turn. The thing is, I haven't played all of the combinations! 

There are many ways you could combine all of the elements in Turn, and frankly, I don't have 4 hours every day for the next mumblemumble years to test it out fully. That's why I'm excited to see other people play it! Yes! Show me your thing you did with my thing! That sounds really weird but I don't care!

Queen singing "I want it all, I want it all"
Tell meeeeeeeeee
Now, I'll be real. There are a few things that bug me, and this is not a thing that this person did really because they highlighted at one point how my game was not doing this thing, but man, everyone calls it a Powered by the Apocalypse game. 

I freaking. Okay. PbtA is a great system and has a purpose. Vincent and Meguey made a really amazing thing, and a lot of people have done amazing things with it. Turn is not a PbtA game. It's inspired by it - and yes, I realize a lot of people think it's the same thing to be inspired by a thing and actually a thing, but it is not - and I designed the game purposefully to go against PbtA principles I have seen reflected in related design. First, there's no category of PbtA games. And second, here are commonalities between Turn and some games that are PbtA, and then some stuff that's just Turn or not in Turn:

1) 2d6 (also you have a third die sometimes)
2) Move-like structure (you are rolling to resist rather than to take action)
3) Character sheets with personal information on them (you have two, one of which is sometimes swappable)
4) Stats with smaller numbers (you have 8, one for each sheet, and they're absolute values)
5) Scaled results (you never fail in Turn, the results are to determine the consequences related to success)
6) No sex/intimacy move
7) No Hx, strings, etc.
8) Goals for Human and Beast that control advancement
9) Exposure tracked on relationships
10) Stress to measure turning from Human to Beast & etc.

This is not me saying "my game has nothing to do with PbtA," this is me saying there are differences, they matter, and we need to stop saying everything is one kind of game because it happens to use a specific dice roll or has moves (which could be like feats), small stat numbers (like a ton of games), and scaled results (which I think was actually a thing in Shadowrun too, just not framed specifically this way?). Things are different! One thing is not necessarily the other thing! Like! Friends! We need to be a little more forgiving with definitions, or make some freakin' new ones!

Tahani from The Good Place saying "and silently scream for the rest of time."
Turn was originally conceived because I came home from playing my first session I can remember of Monsterhearts (this one*) and felt off about it. Something wasn't right. It wasn't hitting the right tone. I spent the next... really fucking long time... trying to figure out what that was, and meanwhile flipped numbers around, took out entire things, mentally threw out tons of material, and settled on what Turn is when John made me finally write it down because one of my greatest fears is that people will look at it and go "huh, oh, just another PbtA hack" and my fucking opus will be washed away into nothingness because some dingus can't tell the difference between two different games that are wildly. fucking. different.


I'm a little...passionate today about this, and I think I always am, and always will be. But there's reason for it. We use categories, especially manufactured ones, to scoop quality things into the trash all the time. Oh, it's just another fantasy game. Oh, it's just another PbtA hack. Oh, it's just another Fate hack. Oh, I've seen so many games about zombies. Like come on. And the thing is, I rejected some of what I saw in PbtA work on purpose, and while some parts of mechanical structure remain, there are a lot of things I pulled from elsewhere conceptually. 

I would never dare to call myself original, but when you don't have your own ideas, storebought is fine, so long as you mix them up in a new way and it still fucking tastes good.

I want to share my game with people without having the ever-burning comparison to "oh but you're not as good as Monsterhearts and AW and and and" screaming in my face every time. I know you don't mean to do it, most of you, but it sure burns my biscuits that you think it's fun to tell me how much what I have labored so extensively over is Just Like That Other Thing. That's what this is. This isn't categorical. My game is different enough that it is reminiscent of PbtA work, but in part because of how many other games you could find similarities to, it is not the same. 

And that's what I mean about people getting Turn wrong genuinely.

A shot from Big Hero 6 of the Aunt saying "I had a point."
I think.
It's possible that I wouldn't play Turn in the way you're playing it, if you're playing it and think you're playing it differently than I intend. That's like, good though? Because I am not every player. I am not able to imagine all possible ways my game could be played and executed beautifully, still exploring the concepts of identity and community while doing things with more passion and intensity, because the town they built makes more sense for that. 

So basically, I want to hear about the ways people explore Turn. I might be surprised, or unsure, or need to think about how something goes. But if the game works? If it is telling those stories, asking those questions, and it's enjoyable? Then you're probably doing okay. 


*Shit, Turn is a year older than I thought.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Patreon Spotlight: Kira Magrann

Hi all! I have a Patreon spotlight today and it's on the designer and creator Kira Magrann, who makes some queer, experimental games that explore intimacy and cyberpunk themes, among other things. 

kira, a dark haired femme person in a bomber style jacket with tigers on the chest
Kira Magrann
Bio via Kira:
Kira is a tabletop roleplaying game designer, queer NB cyborg, and snake mom living in Columbus, Ohio. She currently has a Patreon where she designs experimental games, a YouTube channel where she talks about game design, and she blogs a few times a month at Gnome Stew. With the support of her patrons she recently released a game about Lesbisnakes in wintertime titled A Cozy Den.

You can find Kira on Twitter: @kiranansi


Kira, a femme person in a black and white flannel and jeans, kneeling not far from a large snake baring its fangs.
Kira and a big snake!
Tell me about yourself and your work. Who are you, and what does your work do?

I'm a queer cyborg game designer living in Columbus, Ohio. I'm a horror movie lover, snake mom, and I'm working on making my hair look like Major Kusanagi's. My work, my game design work anyway, aims to educate, titillate, and inspire. When people play my games I want them to feel things and have learned something they didn't know before. Hopefully the designs and concepts are also accessible enough to reach a diverse audience which is something I work hard at doing.

a series of images depicting different colored snakes with captions for high femme to stone butch, descriptors to identify characters, detailed with stats in the image text.
The identification stats for lesbisnakes in A Cozy Den, featuring a range from High Femme to Stone Butch.

details of the identification stats including presentation like lipstick, butch and femme aesthetics, and some details of how the scales of the lesbisnake impacts the presentation of the character.
Descriptions of the various stats in A Cozy Den, including presentation.
You're a known activist and queer designer. How does your perspective regarding these things affect your design work and the work you do for your Patreon?

Gosh, well, being an activist and a queer designer means that basically all my work will have some aspects of those two parts of me in them. Everything I make is queer, or cyberpunk (emphasis on the punk), or related to queer or feminine monster metaphors. It's a huge pool of inspiration to pull from, which means I can make games that are kind of like, combinations of these things, and maybe not like, 100% just one of them. So A Cozy Den, my game about lesbisnakes, is about half snake half lesbian mythical monster creatures who are trying to live together during the winter. It's also a non-violent game and focuses on cozy stories and mechanics. It also uses lesbian terminology, your stats being derived from a scale of High Femme to Stone Butch. So that's easily like, all three of my main interests in one game. This is how all my games go! I basically draw from what's important to me in my personal life, and also the genres I'm inspired by and care a lot about.

three lesbisnakes - femme heads and torsos on snake bodies - communing.
Three lesbisnakes from A Cozy Den.
Tell me a little about A Cozy Den. What inspired you to write the game? What about it speaks to your design and you as a person?

A Cozy Den came about because I've been obsessed with snakes since I adopted my 8 year old corn snake Sol about a year and a half ago now. I basically read about them daily and am in all these FB groups in the snake community and just love them so much. I've actually loved snakes since I was a child but never really owned any until now (I'm 37!). I had recently learned that snakes den together, and it really humanized them, painted them in a more communal and cozy way.

I like finding ways that make snakes less scary for people, because I think that removing fear even in a small way toward an animal can make huge changes in a person's life and in removing fear in the world in all kinds of ways. I'd also been really into lesbian lifestyle history at the time and watched this short documentary on lesbian communes, and suddenly it clicked... snake dens and lesbian communes are so similar in all these ways like, culturally. They're outsiders, American culture is kind of afraid of them, and the communes in the 70s and 80s in particular were very purposeful outsider ways for lesbians to live outside of the norm in America.

"What's a Den?" section of the A Cozy Den text.

So I basically just combined the two and was like, I can make a game that can teach simultaneously about two things I love: snakes and queer history. That is so typical of my design style. I'll basically find all these connecting points with the many genres and things in the world I love, combine them into an interesting genre game setting, and somehow teach about them in the game. I'm queer and a snake lover too, so this game is very personal, very much about me and the things I love. I also wanted to experiment with mechanics, to see if I could make a pbta game without physical conflict as the main driver. I'm more and more interested in games that don't have violence, and instead create different types of feelings or situations. So in A Cozy Den all the conflict is inter personal... can the characters get along with each other during the winter in a closed space? What does cozy look like in a tabletop game vs a video game? There's a lot going on in this tiny weird game, and its very much how my design brain and personal brain work. I could talk about it for awhile lol.

The Healing section of A Cozy Den describes using social comforting to help heal "feelings" in the game.
The "Healing" section of A Cozy Den.

Your new videos have been well-received! How do you decide what to do videos about? What is your process for creating the videos?

So, my videos, basically I recently got obsessed with YouTube (you're probably seeing a pattern here with my creative obsessions) and I was like, shit, I could do this. I've always wanted to learn more about video making and a lot of my personal media on my insta has been drifting toward video too. Whenever I want to get better at something, I get obsessed with it and do it until I get better. It's worked ok so far although I wish I could stick with one thing it'd be easier lol.

My videos are about my design process and thoughts, so while I'm working on things throughout the week I try to note particular issues I'm having while writing or designing, or thoughts another youtube video or article made me have, and then I write those down. Then I pick one, and make a word document with a bunch of bullet points stream of conciousness style what I might like to talk about in that video topic. Then I'll step away for a few hours or a day, come back to it and clean it up.

I've cleaned up my extra bedroom office so that the space behind me looks decent and I have windows in front of me for natural light, and I just use a very cheap tripod from amazon and my iphone for recording. Then I'll record in about 50 second pieces (I've found smaller ones are easier to upload to dropbox for whatever reason), upload them to dropbox, download them to my computer (this usually takes hours) then edit them in a free editing program I have on my ubuntu computer called kdenlive. I don't do anything fancy with the editing, just add music and text. Once that's done I'll upload to youtube!

A video from Kira's YouTube on Playtest Process and Design Iteration.

There's lots of tricks on youtube to get more traffic and stuff in like, the way you tag things and name stuff and put ending credits in... all those I learned from watching videos on youtube about how to do it. I want to get a little more vloggy with my videos in the future, play with cinematography more, but for right now I'm trying to get a rhythm and skill set to just make them regularly. I think of my youtube channel like a blog basically, like, what would I write about to the community on g+ or gnome stew, then instead of writing I just film it. I'm getting better! It's still mostly an experiment.

What are some goals you have for your Patreon and your design practice in general?

My Patreon is helping me become a better designer while simultaneously putting out content that I can't make anywhere else. It's a really unique opportunity to be able to explore whatever kinds of games my heart desires and not worry to terribly about the "sellability" of it, y'know? I think a lot of creators know what types of content really sells, something with fantasy fighters, something grimdark, something with skullduggery... basically new takes on the typical rpg stuff.

In order to create something truly new and different, it means that you're taking a huge chance as a creator that no one in the rpg community will be interested in playing your weird stuff. So having this patreon to support me even a little monetarily helps me make those unique and innovative games. Also it is paying my bills! I'd love to get it up to 1500 a month, cause then it'd legit be like a part time job! But until then I'm scrambling to fill the extra money in with freelance work which to be honest is kind of overwhelming. It's a dream to be able to live off my patreon. I think it'll get there. 

a sheet of paper titled Actions with various actions described for characters to take in A Cozy Den.
The Actions from A Cozy Den with some handwritten markup.
When do you experience the most joy, and the most satisfaction, while creating?

Wow this is a spectacular question and I'm not sure 100% how to answer it lol! The whole process for me is very joy inducing. I'm a hyper creative person and my imagination is always on overdrive, so coming up with the ideas is really fun. I also love to be critical, and I think editing is a critical skill, so basically the part where you're taking the ideas and narrowing them and sculpting them into something more specific is also really satisfying. The act of writing is sometimes a little tedious, but when I get a flow going I disappear into the document for hours at a time and that flow feels really good, creatively.

I do really love collaborating, especially when I'm in charge of a project and can choose who else is on my team. I'm very proud to work with other marginalized creators and hire them to create art or other work like in A Cozy Den or RESISTOR. Sharing creative work is definitely scary, but I love creating artwork that people use or wear, so when people are getting the game and playing it I feel very accomplished and get this feeling of sympathetic joy. So I guess those are my favorite parts of creating, and the things that give me the most satisfaction in the process. 

A sheet of paper titled Copperhead Lesbisnakes that includes various stats and details on the character in A Cozy Den.
A character sheet from A Cozy Den.

Patterns and colors for the various lesbisnakes in A Cozy Den based on their stats including garter, rattle, water, ring necked, and copperhead lesbisnakes.
Patterns and colors for the various lesbisnakes in A Cozy Den based on their stats.

Thank you so much to Kira for stopping in to talk about her Patreon, A Cozy Den, and her design! Please check out Kira's work and share around this spotlight to show off the cool work she is doing. 

You can find Kira on Twitter as @kiranansi and on YouTube, as well as through Patreon where she designs experimental games, and sometimes at Gnome Stew. Make sure to check out A Cozy Den, too! 

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