Saturday, July 21, 2018

Five or So Questions on Delta Green: The Labyrinth

Hi all! Today I have an interview with John Scott Tynes on Delta Green: The Labyrinth, which is currently on Kickstarter! I pushed John on a few things I'm curious about with the game so I'm excited to share the answers below! 

Notes: Mental illness and its handling in horror and cosmic horror media, including Lovecraft, is discussed in this article, as well as the general topic of inclusivity in this type of horror media. 

Also, John uses the term "savages" in quotation marks in this, referring to the stereotype of "savage" people in historical media. This use does not intend to validate any racist perspective, but is used in context of the fiction being discussed. 

Tell me a little about Delta Green: The Labyrinth. What excites you about it?

I love building new worlds and new mythologies. When we took twenty years of Delta Green sourcebooks and fiction and brought them all forward into the present with Delta Green: The RPG, we wrapped up and killed off nearly all of our old enemies. Villainous groups like the Fate, the Karotechia, and Majestic-12 really defined the classic era of Delta Green, but it was time to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. The Labyrinth is where I'm rolling out a whole new set of enemies that will define a lot of Delta Green campaigns for the next decade, and that's incredibly exciting.

The new enemies I'm designing aren't just targets in a shooting gallery. They're in it for the long haul and they have their own story arcs to work through as your campaign continues. Each group has three specific stages of growth or change they go through in response to the actions of Delta Green.

Just as an example, and I'm going to avoid spoilers here by not using any names, there is a nefarious group I've designed who on the surface don't seem too terrible. They have horrible origins, and long term they're a huge problem for humanity, but they're not trying to blow up the White House or whatever. Yet as Delta Green begins to tangle with them, the group reacts. First they start securing everything they're doing to avoid detection. Then they start hiring muscle to defend themselves and even proactively try to assassinate the Agents. Finally, if Delta Green is still hitting them around the world, they launch a crash program to train large numbers of their members as sorcerers and dramatically escalate their supernatural power.

In other words: because Delta Green attacked them, they actually become more villainous and more powerful than if they'd been left alone. But if you leave them alone, then long term they're a huge problem for humanity.

That's the approach I'm taking as a game designer. When the players try to solve these problems, they will generally make the problems worse before they can make them better. I think that's a much more interesting and dynamic way to think of enemy organizations and one that really lends itself to campaign play. It also ties directly into some of DG:RPG's key mechanics, where the more time you spend as an Agent, the more your own connections to life, family, and home corrode and fall away.

And the book isn't just enemies. I'm also designing a bunch of groups who can be allies. But as with the enemies, the allies also go through three stages the more they interact with the Agents. So a character who starts out really helpful may eventually turn on you, or let their life fall apart because they buy into your crusade, or they may endanger themselves and others because you haven't actually told them the truth about the dangers they're facing. Over time, you'll see these allies rise, suffer, and fall -- or even become your worst enemies.

And finally, I'm excited that The Labyrinth is all about America. Delta Green has always resonated with the mythic American themes of sheriff and outlaw, the civilized East and the wild West, and the power of the government versus the freedom of the individual. But today we're seeing more schisms, more oppression, more prejudice in this country than I've seen in my lifetime. It feels like we're tearing at the seams. And it's those conflicts and those tensions that are driving my thinking with this book. I want to capture what this country feels like in 2018 and transmute it into inspiration for a new generation of tabletop storytellers to shape in their own directions.

When you talk about capturing this country in 2018, how are you approaching that? The US in 2018 is volatile, and hard for a lot of people.
Fundamentally, Delta Green is in the horror genre. That means that for any avenue I explore, I end up looking for a particularly horrific version of it. That doesn’t always mean monsters and cultists, however. In some cases it’s the horror of a good person who starts falling apart. In other cases it’s a completely non-supernatural situation that is nonetheless genuinely awful.

Horror is by its nature triggering. What I work to avoid is being exploitative. As much as I love the horror genre in principle, in practice I have little interest in most horror media. So much of it repeats the same tropes over and over and often in ways that feel deliberately, even leeringly exploitative. There’s a thread of horror creators who seem to take joy in the depiction of suffering or degradation, who cross a line between shining a light on the dark corners versus snuffing out that light to entrap and even victimize the audience.

I’m writing some horrific material, but I really work to come at it from a perspective of humanity. I want the reader to be not simply triggered, but moved. Fear is a powerful emotion, but at the end of the day I can do a better job of scaring you if you’re emotionally engaged by what you’re experiencing.

As for America in 2018: the news regularly outdoes my best efforts as a horror writer. I could never outdo the wretched things humans actually do to each other every day. What I want to accomplish with this book is to take some of those situations and agendas and put them into a fictional framework that challenges the players. I want to give them hard problems, even human problems, and see how they respond. I want them to question the society they live in and even the narrative structure they’re playing in: because as much as Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is presented as corrosive to those who encounter it, the same can very much be said for Delta Green itself. As a creator, my own creation has things to answer for.

The cover of Delta Green: The Labyrinth with a large, colorful mass in the background, and in the foreground, various people and esoteric figures like a baby head with glowing eyes and an arcane symbol.

What themes are you engaging with, and how are you addressing your own potential blind spots?

My work is largely intuitive rather than planned. I get the kernel of an idea, I start drafting, and I usually can see just far enough ahead to steer in the right direction. This means themes tend to emerge organically. To some degree I learn what I was writing about in the rear-view mirror and then it’s in the revision process that I flesh out what has emerged and shape it into coherency.

At this point in the project I’d say that an emerging theme is embodied in the ancient Roman question, “Who benefits?” When you look at any conflict in American society and study the actors involved, that question can illuminate their motivations. Who benefits when women are bullied? Who benefits when the right to vote is eroded? Who benefits when nascent social norms are opposed and rolled back?

The question of blind spots is a good one. I’m a middle-aged cis male caucasian and I surely have them. Life experience is part of the answer. I have made my own journey — bumpy at times — into greater understanding and awareness of how multifaceted humanity is and that happened because of many different people and moments in my life.

When I create characters for this book, I take time to think about each one: where they’re from, their family’s culture, their perceived race and gender. I’m not trying to tick boxes on a checklist but when the fictional context coincides with a particular character trait and some kind of frisson occurs, I go with it.

In college I got my degree in journalism and my first step with nearly any idea is simple: do the research. For my 1999 novel Delta Green: The Rules of Engagement I interviewed several people including a staffer at the Ft. Leavenworth military prison and a random guy I found online who’d recently taken a vacation to Vieques Island. I think the most fundamental trait any writer needs is curiosity. The more you want to know about the world, the richer and more diverse your writing can be and the likelier you are to fill in your own blind spots. And we live in a golden age for satisfying our curiosity.

In the current chapter, I have a female character whose parents moved here from India before she was born. I wanted her to grow up in a mid-sized American city and Tulsa, Oklahoma, came to mind. So then I wondered what life was like for Indian immigrants there and an internet search led me to the India Association of Greater Tulsa. My conception for her character blossomed the more I learned and curiosity is what drove me.

In what ways do the enemies and allies in The Labyrinth differ from earlier Delta Green work, narratively and in inspiration?

Delta Green’s original antagonists were great but also fairly straightforward. I mean we literally had Nazis you could go punch! Plus sinister government conspirators and evil occultists, all straight out of the villain playbook. We did great things with them and we brought a lot of historical context and creative juxtaposition to the table, but that was twenty years ago.

When I look at the world now, I have to see the Cthulhu Mythos not as an end but as a means. Why would someone start worshipping a tentacle god? “Because they went insane!” is just not a good enough answer for me anymore. Everyone wants something — who benefits? — so when I look at the supernatural in Delta Green I ask how people would exploit it, not just worship it.

Even so, those kinds of rational motivations only help you understand how people start exploiting the Mythos; on a long enough timeline, they really do go insane and howl at the moon because that’s Lovecraft’s universe. But these days I’m much more interested in that early phase, when they have one foot in the unnatural and one foot in the mundane and you can still see the terrified human behind the mask of insanity as the door of reason closes on them forever.

The concept of insanity is one I often get curious about with games, as a person with bipolar disorder and PTSD, both of which often get made into a mockery. How do you write about these kinds of cosmic "insanities" - minds overwhelmed by some supernatural force - without sounding hackneyed, and without repeating previous work you've done for the game?

Unlike a novel, in game writing we mostly deal with externalities. We don’t typically get into inner monologues or thoughts or even much dialogue, so the usual ways writers depict mental issues in fiction don’t come up. Instead we rely on actions, agendas, and backstory to communicate character and that is where, in Lovecraftian gaming, we express our ideas about the mental states caused by exposure to the supernatural.

Fundamentally, the mental issues Lovecraft described were what “normal people” experience when their rational minds encounter the supernatural and experience an existential crisis that challenges their religious faith, their sense of the natural order, their belief in humanity’s primacy, and their logic and reason. At the climax of “The Rats in the Walls,” for example, the narrator’s discovery of his family’s ancestral secrets causes him to regress to a wild, primitive, and cannibalistic state.

But it’s noteworthy that Lovecraft does not necessarily treat his cultists this way. Wilbur Whateley in "The Dunwich Horror," for example, is a half-human child of an Outer God and a human cultist mother, but he has no serious problems checking out library books or navigating human society. Herbert West, while not exactly a cultist, is a classical mad scientist but is fully functional and even rational in his extreme experiments. The unnamed cultists around the world in “Call of Cthulhu” are presented as typical “savages” — dancing around bonfires, conducting sacrifices, that sort of thing — and are probably the closest to the RPG's conception of madness in this sense. But I believe their behavior is presented more as a cultural phenomenon, the result of their secluded upbringing and indoctrination, rather than madness per se.

I think where Lovecraft was coming from was that ordinary people who experience this kind of crisis may break down, but those who have accepted the truth of reality can live their lives even if they’re unusual ones. The Whateleys are doing just fine. And even some ordinary people, such as Doctor Armitage, can challenge the supernatural and emerge intact through force of will.

When Chaosium first created the Call of Cthulhu RPG, they took Lovecraft's “Cthulhu makes you crazy” idea and applied fifty years of psychology to present a diverse array of game-able mental problems that went far beyond the general hysteria or depression Lovecraft evoked. Of course, they were generally neurotypical designers writing for a hypothetically neurotypical audience and weren’t necessarily considering the reaction of people who fall outside that range.

Our Delta Green RPG’s focus on Bonds is, I think, a more productive approach for the future. You can stay away from the cliches of diagnoses but still demonstrate the trade-offs our characters make in this fictional context between home and work, family and obsession, socializing and isolation. We didn’t jettison the old Sanity approach by any means, but Bonds are a narrative way of expressing the fundamental corrosion and I think a more frequent and meaningful tool at the table.

With The Labyrinth, I’m not concerned with specific labels or diagnoses. When I write of a character who is slipping into obsession and madness, my interest lies in how this impacts their life and what it means for the Agents who have to deal with the consequences. From a narrative perspective, that’s much more useful and interesting than declaring that a given character has Borderline Personality Disorder, for example.

I'm really interested in the stretch goal with props! How do you plan to create those props and interesting bits and pieces? How do they integrate with the sourcebook? 
The Labyrinth is a sourcebook, not a set of adventures, so it’s somewhat unusual to create handouts for it. But my hope is that for many Handlers, the Labyrinth will infect their campaign and even hijack it. The characters you meet from the book have their own agendas and arcs, and even when the Agents aren’t thinking about them, they’re thinking about the Agents. And every organization in the book has connections to several other organizations, so once you enter you can really go in all kinds of directions.

Our hope is that the handouts will transform the Labyrinth’s organizations into an organic, dynamic campaign that just goes even if the Handler isn’t using a prewritten scenario for a given session. They will provide clues and connections that can lead from one group to another, introducing more characters, opportunities, and challenges.

Ultimately, I’d love for a gaming group to have a corkboard covered in Labyrinth handouts with push pins and strings connecting them together so that their friends and family wonder: are they totally losing it?

The cover of Delta Green: Those Who Come After in which a creepy femme person lurks behind a white haired masc person while they examine a carved wall, in the background, someone is silhouetted as they come down from the opening of the cave.


Thank you so much John for such a fun and informative interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Delta Green: The Labyrinth today on Kickstarter!

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Five or So Questions on Tiny Supers

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Alan Bahr on Tiny Supers: Minimalist Superhero Roleplaying, a game currently on Kickstarter! Tiny Supers sounds like big fun in a small design space, so I asked Alan some questions. Check out Alan's responses below!


A masked black woman superhero in a leather jacket and gloves over plain clothes, deflecting bullets while protecting a frightened white man with glasses.
Bastion, one of the GallantVerse Iconics! Art by Nicolás Giacondino

Tell me a little about Tiny Supers! What excites you about it?

Oh, that's hard to answer. I grew up loving Superheroes. I've struggled with mental illness for a very large part of my life, and comics were a big part of that recovery and healing process for me. I'm a person who needs a goal and aspiration, and superheroes provide that to me. Tiny Supers and the GallantVerse are my love letter to one of the most formative parts of my life.

How do the narrative bangs and pows of Supers integrate with the mechanics of TinyD6? What have you done to create the heroic "feel"?

Well, Narratively, the powers in Tiny Supers aren't focused on "ranks" or who is stronger. It's focused on the needs of the narrative. Much like comic powers vary based on the writer, Tiny Supers has some "flex" inside it's system, due to it's nature of a minimalist game line. We've worked extensively to make sure powers are flexible, interesting, and dynamic. 

A superhero in a blue metallic armor suit, racing fast and leaving clouds of dust.
Ryker Swift, aka Velocity! One of the Iconic GallantVerse Heroes. Art by Nicolás Giacondino

What is the GallantVerse like? Who are some of the major players and what's at stake?

Well, the GallantVerse is a fledging supers universe. Most of the supers are under 5 years of tenure. A majority of the lead-in stakes revolve around heroes learning the limits of what being a hero means in the eyes of the public and their own conscience. It focuses on hope, optimisim, and being a beacon. There's a lot that can feel oppressive, cynical and bitter, and while we shouldn't avoid confronting the harsh and hard things in life, having a place to escape where it's a little easier to be a hero can be fantastic. That's the Goal of the GallantVerse. We have a slew of Iconic Heroes like Gallant (our Paragon), Velocity (a Speedster), Bastion (the leader of our teen hero team The Bulwarks), and so much more. 

What does a typical Super look like in Tiny Supers, mechanically?

TinyD6 functions on a simple system of 1, 2, or 3 six-sided dice. Heroes will roll a number indicated by their abilities/powers and if any dice results in a 5 or 6, they're successful. Power Traits often will increase chances of success, either by granting the third d6, giving a better range of success, or allowing a unique set of actions. Heroes will have an Archetype that gives them a special Trait, and then they'll select 3-6 Traits/Power Traits. That's it! It's very easy to make a character. 

What makes a Tiny Super look the most different from a character in another Tiny d6 game?

The Power Traits, and Nicolas Giacondino's fantastic art! Our book is so beautifully illustrated because Nic does such great work.

A woman superhero with a G on her chest, styled in purple and grey with shoulder-length light brown hair.
The Iconic Hero and paragon of the GallantVerse, Gallant! Art by Nicolas Giacondino


Thanks so much to Alan for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Tiny Supers on Kickstarter today!

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Five or So Questions on Nunami

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Thomassie Mangiok on Nunami, which Thomassie describes as "the first Inuit designed board game where a player can win by leading a balanced cohabitation with another player." Nunami is currently on Kickstarter and I'd love you all to check it out, so here's what Thomassie had to say!


Plastic hexagons with insets where paper triangles with designs on them are placed.
Here is an example of board layout.
Tell me a little about Nunami. What excites you about it?

Nunami is a game of probabilities where each player will set the layout at each start in order to change how they explore the land; the game will play out very differently each playthrough. The game is meant to encourage through fun people to live with others, in respect and understanding.

What excites me about the game is introduction of its concept and gameplay, it is most likely unique and new within a huge library of existing games.

Plastic hexagons with insets where paper triangles with designs on them are placed.

What inspired Nunami as a game? How did you come up with the concept?

Life in the north, our culture and Star Trek inspired me in general. When I tell people that I am going hunting, the trust is that I am actually exploring the nature, it changes each time I travel, and I love every bit of it. It has been difficult for me knowing what colonization of Inuit has caused, exchanges of cultures would eventually happen but both Inuit and Europeans weren’t ready or well equipped for the damages that would happen. So the game for me is way to encourage people to accept differences, it also intends to encourage players to work with probabilities.

I grew up having a difficult relationship with probabilities because as much as I loved it, it isn’t possible to master it since there are always factors while trying to set a path.

Our culture evolved with small groups of people, so we grew up with open and supportive practices. These are slowly being replaced with what consumerism and capitalism demand, but they are important and should continue to be practiced so we can at least moderate our capitalistic characteristics.

Star Trek series set goals and dreams for me, I just imagine how we can be in the future. So I mean to do my small part towards the future in which I’d like to live in.

Plastic hexagons with insets where paper triangles with designs on them are placed.
The designs on the game pieces are so cute!
What are your favorite mechanics in the game and why?

My favorite mechanics are the dependence of each player to be present - we absolutely need the resources provided by the other player in order to win. If my cards over populate a base, they will automatically be removed. Giving the other player more chance to control the base. The other thing I love is how we can set the start of the game; the layout of bases and the cards change our game experiences and strategies.

Has the inspiration from Star Trek influenced what players do in Nunami, and if so, how?

Star Trek has inspired me and influences me in my actions, the goals of the federation always have resonated with my values. Exploration, understanding, living with beings of different cultures, advancement guided by passion, and so on. My game isn’t directly inspired by anything else except by my person beliefs and love.

Plastic hexagons with insets where paper triangles with designs on them are placed.

Moving away from colonizing narratives is awesome! What do you hope players take away from the game about a co-existence narrative instead?

My hope is that we stop fearing, we often oppose others in fear of being less than others or of being harmed. The easiest way to stop fearing becomes to completely remove those that represent it, not the source. Racism, jealousy and anger are examples of what comes from fear and we as humans have to live beyond them. Why not through a game? I’d be happy if people are enriched by sharing the positive sides of different people, share and adopt what makes us healthier. If someone or something will make us healthier at an expense of our familiarity and comfort, make it a part of us. It is great to be able to share this view.

Plastic hexagons with insets where paper triangles with designs on them are placed.
I like the simplicity of the design and how it isn't quite like anything I've personally interacted with.

Awesome! Thanks so much to Thomassie for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Nunami on Kickstarter today!


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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Quick Shot: Harder They Fall

James Iles has a cool new game on Kickstarter right now called Harder They Fall, with a nifty mechanic: dominoes! I asked James a few questions about it - check it out!


The cover of Harder They Fall with a destroyed city and a large titan looking down at an individual person, with the text "A game of climactic combat and toppling titans."

What is Harder They Fall, both as a product and as your vision?

My pitch for HTF is that it brings the tension and melodrama of an end-of-movie blockbuster battle to your table, with zero prep and simple rules. As a group, you build up the conflict that's bought these two sides together, decide the individual strengths, oaths and doubts of each champion, and draw the battlefield on a sheet of paper. As you play you're raising the tension in a very real way by setting up dominoes to be toppled over, while the value of the domino decides what choice of questions you have to ask the other players. This last thing is crucial: you're constantly letting the other players make statements about your character and their place in the fiction, which is what lets it cross the divide from board game to story game.

As a product, it's an intentional move away from the lavish production values and long list of stretch goals my previous kickstarters have had. I still want it to be a product that's nice to look at, of course, but I'm aiming for a 20 page pamphlet with everything you need to play in it. Part of my goal for this campaign was to see if there's a space for small-scale, short-run projects that are less psychologically demanding on the creator than your traditional blockbuster RPG kickstarters!

A winged mech using a laser beam to shoot down giant dominoes.

How did you come up with the idea of using dominos, and how did you playtest them to ensure it has the impact (literally) that you'd like?

Weirdly enough, it came from a Domino’s ad - a domino with 3 pips, their name and the slogan We Did It - captioned with “That’s a 6-, no you didn’t”. I ran the numbers, and realised that drawing a domino from a pool and counting the pips is very similar to rolling 2d6 (more precisely, it’s actually 2(d7-1)). As someone who’s mainly designed in the Apocalypse World format, that was immediately exciting!

When it came to play testing, the main concern was the dimensions - it needed to possible, but not common, for your chain of dominoes to contact and knock down one of their foes’. In play testing, I needed to test how far apart you could place your dominoes to chain them together, how many dominoes in a set vs how many turns there are in a game, that sort of thing. The main point of feedback was that it all hinged upon the toppling of the dominoes - a string of bad draws when setting them up could lead to all sorts of misfortune for the player involved, but so long as knocking them over was satisfying it all worked out.

A sheet with mechanics - the success ladders for channeling power, advancing, and giving ground.

Why do you feel the story game aspects - shared narrative control, storytelling - are so important to Harder They Fall? How do they feel tied together with the mechanics?

Fundamentally, this game is intended to set up a conflict that feels like it could be the climax of a campaign that you just happen to have not played. Part of that is building the sense that this narrative is alive, that it exists between all of you, and the shared narrative control is a big part of that. The other reason the shared narrative is important is to make sure that everyone’s involved in everyone else’s turns. When you take action, you make the initial statement of what your combatant is doing, but it’s your opponents that get the final say on what impact that has on the world. 

This is all based on the setup in D. Vincent Baker’s Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands, which goes all-in with Vincent’s trademark lists of specific questions. That’s where this most strongly ties into the mechanics: when you draw a low-value domino (i.e. totalling 8 or less) you’ll be forced to ask a question with bad implications for your fighter if you play it to boost their efforts. You can escape that by playing it in one of your opponent’s chains, but that both boosts them mechanically and lets them define more of your character’s doubts, fears and conflicted loyalties. What I really love about this is that players who are mechanically minded and play to win, and players who are there to tell a good story, tend to end up engaging with the system equally and telling a great story as a result.
Two colossally sized dominoes towering over the silhouettes of a city.
The towering dominoes over this city is such a fun image :)

Thanks so much to James for the interview! I hope you'll all check out Harder They Fall in its last few days on Kickstarter!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Nonbinary Tabletop RPG Month

Hey all, check out the Twitter account @NonbinaryTTRPGM to find out more about Nonbinary Tabletop RPG Month and maybe hop on the Discord to play some games with other nonbinary people!

As a nonbinary person, it's important for me to see recognition of people like me. It's also important to me to find spaces for nonbinary people to have fun and be safe! Hopefully you'll find something like that here. :)

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Quick Shot on Ancient World: Atisi

Hello all! Today I have a Quick Shot with Marcelo Paschoalin about Ancient Worlds: Atisi, a Dungeon World campaign setting, which is currently on Indiegogo. I hope you enjoy hearing about the setting that Marcelo has developed!


What is Atisi, both as a product and as your vision?

Atisi is a work of love and research -- I've put a good effort in mixing the various cultures depicted in the book with something a game designer should never forget: playability. The best reference book would be meaningless in a gaming table if the material there is not able to make the players excited about it and eager to play. In other words, I've hit the books about sub-Saharan people, sought real life for inspiration, but I've also considered what fiction tells about all those, directly and indirectly. So, if one wants a simple answer, Atisi could be compared to Conan in Stygia, but it's (a lot) more than that.

Consider this point: people in Atisi are not the Caucasian Eurocentric types. This, for once, is a change of paradigm when compared to standard sword & sorcery. The original book (Atisi was published in Portuguese powered by Barbarians of Lemuria system) was even used as a tool for teaching children about ethnics/racial diversity, so I believe I transcended the original goal -- I wanted a fun campaign setting to play, but I've also got a kind of bridge able to bring people together.
So, as a campaign setting for Dungeon World, Atisi is a book that goals beyond describing the world: it gives the Game Master tools to create her own setting, as the multitude of questions (each point of interest on the map -- big enough to include lots of blanks to be filled later -- has its own set of questions, for example) will help the gaming table make it unique. This means the playbooks, the moves, the magic items, the monsters, the people, and the landscape add together to make this an exquisite sword & sorcery campaign setting. And as Atisi (one of the insular realms of the setting, and focus to this book) is inspired by a fantastic Egypt, you'll surely find a lot of adventure inside the mysterious pyramids that dot the place.

It's 280-pages full of wonders for the Game Master and the players, and we have 70% of the basic goal funded already (at the time of writing this). I'm pretty sure we'll fund this crowdfunding project soon and aim toward the first stretch goal.

I'd love to hear about your research. What are some of the things you've researched that you're really enjoying putting forward in the text? Did anything surprise you? 

At first it's difficult to leave the castles and crusades behind, the knights in shining armor, the dragons... As we are all the fruit of our past experiences -- and we are usually surrounded by Medievalish and Eurocentric settings -- I had to approach everything with a clean mind. A blank canvas, to be honest. I was already familiar with the writings of Robert Ervin Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jessica Amanda Salmonson (to name a few), so my sword & sorcery background was sound. What I needed was to focus on the people and their mythology.

What we call mythology, however, is another people's religion -- and I've learned a lot about Kemetism (a revival of Ancient Egyptian religion) and African religion (there's a shamanic vibe in those, but it's a lot more than that) -- and I needed to respect that. This led me to many monsters of legend particular to Sub-Saharan Africa and I've tried the best to convey their spirit (even if I used different names).

Learning about the people, the culture, was also delightful. There's such a vast amount of details that, together, creates a wonderful tapestry. There's honor. There's mutual respect. There's a constant fight for survival. And those reflect today, as those values were never lost.

Yet I'm no Historian. So I grabbed some of my research and talked to some scholars (I dare to call them such, as this makes my writing journey a little more epic, don't you agree?) to give me a better perspective of everything I was learning at the time: History and Sociology professionals were my best friends during those research phases of my work.

And I'm glad I've learned so much. It gave me a better notion of who I am, as I believe we only know about us when we learn about others.

Multiple figures of people from the text - dark skinned, wearing patterned clothing and jewelry.
Sample image by Brazilian artist Paloma Diniz.
How do you envision the material you've researched and developed will integrate with Dungeon World? How will it work together mechanically?

Not everything was "translated" into rules. After all, Ancient Worlds: Atisi is a game, not a treaty on those cultures. And another important thing: this is a fantasy world, not an exact replica of the reality (albeit real world sometimes is more fantastic than we can conceive at first, there are limits on what is "gameable"). So the heroes, the Player Characters, are larger than life, with abilities that mimic the legends, not the ordinary people (and, as a side note, I need to thank David Guyll and Melissa Fisher for the help in designing the playbooks -- they were fantastic people to work with). Monsters of ancient tales are part of the landscape, old stories are forged once again and are transformed in tidbits of the lore of the places of the kingdoms of the land...

This means magical items and monsters, while inspired by Egyptian mythology, have their own tags and moves, becoming familiar to those used to Dungeon World. Even each point of interest becomes an adventure in itself (like a proto-dungeon starter), but none are set on stone as the related questions the GM may ask are able to turn Atisi into a unique setting for each gaming table.

Of course, everything is already written and playtested: I've started this crowdfunding campaign with a set goal in mind and the backers are already receiving an "alpha" version of the book, so they can start playing right now, even before the campaign ends. This way, all mechanics are already interwoven with the setting, as one reinforces the other.


Thanks so much to Marcelo for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Ancient World: Atisi on Indiegogo!

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Five or So Questions on Flotsam

Hi y'all, I have an interview today with Joshua Fox, who you might recognize from Lovecraftesque, about Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars, which is currently on Kickstarter! It seems like an interesting new game and Joshua's track record with Lovecraftesque makes me excited to see what's there! Let's see what Joshua's excited about:


Three people standing around a small table, in front of a large porthole window looking out to space and a spaceship. The people are a of diverse backgrounds and potentially species, two looking mostly human - one lighter skinned, one dark skinned - and the third blue-grey skinned and humanoid.
The art for Flotsam is so gorgeous!
Tell me a little about Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars. What excites you about it?

Flotsam is a GMless game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. It's all about their everyday lives, interpersonal relationships and small scale drama, against a backdrop of poverty, social strife, gang conflict and supernatural weirdness. That's the basics of the game. System-wise it's kind of like a cross between Dream Askew and Hillfolk.

There's two things about the game that excite me. First, I love stories about space and space stations, and I'm excited to offer a different take on the genre. Shows like Deep Space Nine and The Expanse give me all the genre trappings that push my buttons, but the bits I'm most curious about are the ordinary people lurking in the shadows, away from the epic political drama and space battles. What's life like for a Belter union worker while grandiose plotting goes on? What does that Cardassian spy get up to when he's not worrying about being assassinated? How do all those people relate to each other, and what little dramas take place in their lives? Flotsam answers those questions. It gives you an awesome science fiction setting, but zoomed in on the part of the story that usually gets skipped over.

The second thing - and if I was honest I'd have put this first, because it's my personal quest - is that Flotsam is my take on how to do GMless gaming. It give you the best of both worlds. It lets you play one Primary character and explore their personal issues and relationships, really inhabit that character. It also lets you take the fullest possible part in building the setting and driving external threats forward, stuff I really enjoy as a GM. And of course I get the same back from my fellow players. That combination has given me some of my best gaming experiences. I'm particularly proud of how the system streamlines both sides of the game down to a level that makes it easy to juggle those two jobs.

Tell me a little about the core mechanics and how they relate to the setting. How does what players do mechanically translate to what happens in game?

Each player controls one Primary character and one Situation. A Situation is a constellation of threats and problems united by a theme, such as "the gangs" or "the spirits". The setting is mostly encoded into the character Playbooks and Situation sheets, which are stacked with thematic details and setup questions to prime the game.

In any given moment of play, you'll probably have two or more people playing their Primary character, and you'll have at least one person playing their Situation. The interaction between those is pretty free-form most of the time, very much the "roleplaying is a conversation" approach. The game rules tell you when to step outside that freeform conversation, and that's mostly mediated by decisions taken by people playing their Primary character.

If you want to inject some energy and threat into a scene that you're in, you activate one of your character's Weaknesses. Weaknesses can be external issues, like an enemy or rival, or they can be personal flaws, like the fact your character is arrogant and overconfident. When you activate a Weakness, you're inviting the other players to make trouble for your character. In exchange, you get a Token which you can spend to power your Strengths. When you want to solve problems and put your character in the driving seat, you activate one of your character's Strengths and spend a Token. Doing that gives you permission to narrate how your character competently does their thing, and blocks other characters from complicating what you do with new problems. And finally, if you keep your hands off those two mechanics, the Principles of the game encourage the other players to step back and let you have whatever interesting interaction is at the centre of the scene.

In other words, when you play your Primary character, you're in control of pacing for the scene. Do you want to be put under pressure? Do you want to kick ass and take names? Do you want an intense, undisturbed conversation? You get to decide. With that said, you can't just say and do whatever you like - if you ignore a problem in the fiction, or do something risky or challenging, that gives the other players permission to make trouble for you even though you didn't activate a Weakness. But most of the time, the pacing of the scene is in your hands, with the default being the interpersonal interactions that the game is focused on.

The final piece of the puzzle is the XP system. This rewards you for having social and emotional interactions with another character, where you show them something of who you really are, and take the relationship out of its equilibrium. Every time you do that you earn Marks against your Relationship with that character, and when you accumulate enough Marks you rewrite the Relationship and improve your character. Together with those charged setup questions I mentioned before, this mechanic drives the game towards an overall focus on developing, evolving relationships.

a horizontal banner styled like riveted metal, with a desk in the center (top down) that has a book, star charts, and a watch on it.
This is such a pretty banner :)
How are you balancing these difficult concepts like poverty and gang conflict with the supernatural and sci fi elements? How do mechanics influence this?

Oh, wow. What a question! That's a great question.

The game has a number of key themes, of which poverty is one, which are woven through the game. Each theme is threaded through the playbooks and the situations, in lots of small ways. So it's difficult to disentangle how they're handled, because it's not like there's a mechanic for poverty or something like that. But the game also brings each theme into sharper focus in individual playbooks and situations. For instance, for poverty, there's a specific situation devoted to it, which means there will be one player whose job it is to think about how deprivation and want (and conversely wealth and privilege) impact on the community, ask questions about that and push that theme into the game. And there's a particular playbook - the cast-off - that is all about what it's like to live with economic precariousness, working different jobs to pay the bills.

The science fiction and supernatural elements are essentially handled in the same way. As to how they're balanced with the more real-life serious elements - they're not exactly distinct elements, if you see what I mean? The cast-off might be an ordinary human with mundane skills, or they could be an alien who has crash-landed on the station and is trying to parlay their unique skills to make a living down here. In one playtest game, my character was a trader up to his neck in debt, trying to stay afloat, but also happened to be a member of the race who built the station - and who had been driven off by humans. So his circumstances and the science fiction bits of the game intersected fairly heavily.

Now having said all that, it's down to the players how they handle these themes. It's totally possible for one group to de-emphasise a given theme, by choosing to pick up particular characters and situations. You drive the game in the direction you want to go. You could let the weirder elements come to the fore, or you could focus on the social problems of a place that lacks basic necessities, that happens to be on a space station. Either way the game's principles push you to treat the characters like real people, to focus on their lives and relationships, and make them the centre of the story, not cool tech or weird phenomena.

Tell me about some of the Strengths and how they tie to the narrative and character development. What kind of Strengths can you have? What do they mean to the characters narratively?

Each Playbook has its own unique set of Strengths to choose from, which tie into the nature of the Playbook, and could be a skill, a resource, or a special ability. So if we take the Spider, who is a trader, criminal or spymaster, they can have straightforward abilities like "deception" which enables them to lie their way out of trouble; they can have resources like "connections (underworld)" which enable them to invent items or contacts that they need; and they can have interesting options that sort of sit between the two like "contingency plans" which allow them to invent a way out of a situation on the fly and say they planned it all along.

An example of weirder abilities are those of the Sybyl, who is a prophet with strange gifts; most of their Strengths have slightly cryptic names like "Dreamwalk" and "Thread of Fate". The game doesn't define what that means - we find out what your character can do in play, and in the process we might also find out what drawbacks or side effects those abilities come with.

Some of these Strengths link to the Playbook's Weaknesses, like the Thunder, who may have a gang at their beck and call (which is a Strength) but that gang might also be liars and schemers (a Weakness). And one fun mechanic I haven't yet mentioned is the way that Weaknesses can turn into Strengths; so perhaps your character is paranoid and vengeful, which starts out as a Weakness that can get them into trouble, but later on you might spend a character upgrade to switch that to a Strength. Maybe you rename it to "it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you", or something like that, and now you can spend it to be ready when things go south - rather like the Spider's contingency plans. So we see how a character can come to understand and master their own flaws.

I think the key thing about Strengths is that, as long as you have a Token, they're pretty much a guaranteed get-out-of-jail-free card. So that encourages and enables players to dig themselves into deep trouble, knowing that ultimately their character can get out of it. So we can tell stories about characters whose backs are against the wall, without the fear of a couple of botched dice rolls ending the story there. Similarly, your fellow players are free to push as hard as they like because they know you've got that option. It really puts the direction of the story in your hands.

What are the most important stories you've told with Flotsam so far, and what more are you hoping to see from players? How has seeing the game played influenced the design?

I'll tell you about a couple of my favourite stories so far.

In one of them, Oscar (a gang leader) and Deacon (a political activist) forged a tense and interesting relationship. Deacon was a demagogue, telling anyone who would listen that they needed to overthrow the oppressive government of the Above. Meanwhile, Oscar was worried that Deacon could light a powder keg under their community and bring the wrath of the Above down on their heads. This was complicated by a romantic relationship between Oscar's daughter and one of Deacon's followers. The story saw Oscar choosing between all these competing concerns to decide whether to throw his weight behind the resistance movement, even though it meant putting his people and his family in danger.

Another story included Barter, a trader struggling to avoid the attention of some very scary creditors, and Scarlet, a runaway who worked any job from appliance repair to stealing artifacts. Life kind of had both of them on the ropes, but they - and the other characters in that game - had each others' backs, coming through for each other when their lives seemed right on the verge of falling apart. When Scarlet's makeshift home got burned down by a gang, Barter gave her food and shelter. When Barter was running out of excuses not to pay his debts, Scarlet helped him make the trade that kept him afloat. So that was a great heartwarming story about people pulling together in the face of adversity.

I'll come to what more I'd like to see from players in a moment, but in terms of how playtesting has influenced design, it's kind of a truism but it's really reinforced the need to simplify. The original draft game had a lot more moving parts and custom moves. But when people are juggling a main character and a situation, flipping between a GM-style role and playing their character, and keeping track of all these relationships, simplicity is absolutely key, to ensure nobody is overwhelmed. So I've stripped it back to the simplest set of rules I can without losing the things that make the game tick. At the same time, I've put a lot of work into refining how the system is taught, which again comes down to the fact that everyone has to know the rules. With Lovecraftesque we created a printable teaching guide to help people grok the system without everyone needing to read the rules, and that's the same approach I've taken here.

Finally, what has amazed and delighted me about playing this game is how it seems to unlock people's creativity. It gives you just enough structure and starting prompts to make it really easy to create intriguing, flawed relationships and beautiful, evocative settings, each reflecting the whole group's ideas and input. So I guess I'm looking forward to seeing even more of that, seeing what different groups come up with. One thing I'm excited for is the stretch goals I've got lined up - these will provide some pre-written setting material and charged relationships, and each puts a very different spin on the game, so I'm eager to see how people use that at the table.

Two femme-appearing individuals at a bar, one tending bar and the other on a stool, wearing a military-style uniform and drinking.
I love the styling of the uniforms!

Awesome! Thank you so much to Joshua for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars on Kickstarter! Make sure to share the post so your friends can learn about it too!

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Behind the Masc Kickstarter

The Behind the Masc Zine Kickstarter is LIVE! This project is run by non-cis masculine creators and we’re making Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts playbooks, rich backgrounds for D&D characters, and some lovely art, too! Please check it out - we've got some awesome creators working on re-imaginings of masculinity!

Behind the Masc is a really important project for me and I hope you will all check out the Kickstarter and consider backing the project!

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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Five or So Questions on UVG

Today I have an interview with Luka Rejec on the Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG)! Luka designs and illustrates UVG both in a free, introductory RPG and in expanded content on the WizardThiefFighter Patreon! The responses from Luka were really lovely - check them out! 

(All art in this post is by Luka Rejec.)

A ziggurat style building on a green hill covered with bushes, under a purple sky. The ziggurat has neon signage in the shape of cacti, pineapples, and the word "love" with hearts on its walls.
This is my favorite of the images that Luka sent me for the post. It just punched into my heart somehow.
Tell me a little about the UVG. What excites you about it? 

It says on the tin: an rpg sandbox inspired by psychedelic heavy metal, the Dying Earth genre, and Oregon Trail games.

 But let's break that down a bit.

 You know Shelly's Ozymandias, right? That sense of awe at a deep, vast time.

 Then you've got the journeys of Odysseus or Xuanzang. That sense of wonder at an epic, vast space.

It's all captured right there, in The Hobbit. The journey there and back again, through the bones of fallen civilizations. That stuff is exciting as all get out. Put on some slow, heavy music, crack open one of those stories, and you're transported.

 When I got into D&D - this fantasy that promises infinite worlds beyond time - I wanted that. I wanted wonder and awe. Instead, I got hexcrawls. Six mile hexes. Imagine running a hexcrawl of the Santiago de Compostella, say the Camino del Norte. That's 800 km, or about 80 of those damned hexes. I tried to make something epic, but instead I got a slog.

So, I started tinkering with the format, with the goal of making these massive, awesome journeys feasible within my favorite role-playing game. At the completely mechanical level, I mixed a pointcrawl with the Oregon Trail to create tools a referee and players can use to experience of exploration and alien environments. So, you could say, it's a caravan simulator.

Rules-wise it's simple enough - I built on a stripped-down 5E D&D chassis, because that's what I like, and it can slot into pretty much any D&D adjacent game with ease.

Content-wise, it's now 80% done at a wee bit over 50k words and 25 major locations that take a caravan across six timezones on a three-month journey into a vast land of wizard cats, body-hopping spirits, multi-bodied abmortals, biomechanical monsters, mountains of bone, floating islands, crystal intelligences, and possibly the end of the world.

That was a little bit about the UVG, as for what excites me: I get to draw and paint and write and share this world of limitless possibility inspired by my favorite pastimes - and here's the best part - over a hundred people care enough that they put down actual money where their likes are. This is intensely affirming for me as an artist.

 I mean, come on - I write a world that is a literal rainbow of different colored lands, where shamans ride into the sky on chariots of fire from the tops of neon ziggurats and gunslingers possess their enemies with the bullets they shoot. It's mad, and metal, and colorful. \m/

A black, purple, and fuschia background for the cover of UVG, with the text UVG, Update 13, Ultraviolet Grasslands & The Black City, Psychedelic RPG Crawl, Luka Rejec. There appear to be two figures in bright pink and darker blue on the horizon.
The UVG cover update. I love the vivid brights against the darkness.
The setting looks truly psychedelic! When you're putting the setting, art, and mechanics together, what about that colorful vibe is most important to the stories told in UVG? 

I assume you're asking, which is the most important to the stories that come out of the game - the setting, the art, or the mechanics?

First let's clear up element zero: the players (and I always count the referee as a player unless otherwise specified) should not be assholes (is that getting beeped out?).

 The referee, especially, shouldn't be adversarial or invested in a given story or outcome. Their role isn't to defeat the heroes, or tell the story of their own world, but to facilitate a weird and wonderful trip for the whole group (and yes, the acid pun is on purpose). Of course, dice and danger should slaughter individual characters mercilessly, but the referee should be impartial and all the random tables are there to also ensure the referee is unknowing - an unreliable guide, who simply doesn't know in advance what is around the next hill.

Ok, but beyond that - it's definitely art first, setting second, mechanics third. We're human - visual monkeys - so a picture, whether painted in words or ink, is what grabs us.

Yes, you have giant walking beasts, yes, you have biomechanical horrors, yes, you have radiation ghosts. The art draws the players in and encourages them to imagine stuff that's vivid and weird.

The setting itself is a layer cake of kitchen sinks, kitsch, cultural references, and random tables. That's to drive home the high weirdness and possibilities — it's not just about 14 types of polearm, but about roleplaying a wizard polymorphed into a lettuce being attacked by a dappled bunny rabbit (true rp story).

The last part are the mechanics. Frankly, the precise numbers are never all that important in a role-playing game — yes, a certain granularity and level of detail is fun. Having a +2 bonus or a +5 bonus feels different. But at the end of the day, dice, tables, and random effects are there to remove predictability (I'm repeating myself).

So, what do the mechanics do in the UVG? They make long overland voyages reasonably playable and work to remind the players that their little caravan is alone in a vast, mind-boggling, huge realm ... and that when things go wrong, they will have to eat their pack animals and leave their loot behind.

A black and white cross-section image of a "Vome Hive" depicting characters, creatures, and environment with small text annotating details.
This is fascinating!
How did you develop the setting? Did you use media references, have you cycled through ideas? I'm curious about your process! 

For years now I've been moving away from the idea of the referee as some all-knowing 'world master' or 'game master' who controls the game world.

The UVG started life as a remote and inaccessible region in a campaign I ran and co-created with a group of players, the Golden Goats, over a couple of years. That game ran entirely in the Rainbowlands, which became the 'civilized' launching point for the journey into the UVG.

We built the Rainbowlands collaboratively, with me as referee challenging my players to build it fast and loose at our first session, and then we progressively fleshed it out as new elements became relevant.

Please, don't imagine this involved the writing of any kind of game fiction or prep outside of the session. We got together, unfurled a sheet of paper, scrawled on it with pencils, dribbled cheese and grease on it as we ate, and stuck post-its on the edges once we ran out of space. This became a living, and loose, document of the world.

After I moved away that campaign ended and I started up my patreon page to encourage myself to draw and write (that motivation and people voting with their wallets thing again). I flailed around for several months, before I figured out how to mix writing and art in a single package, and then ... I held a vote.

I presented three or four options — existing worlds or mini-settings I had ready to write. The patrons chose the UVG and so the UVG it was. Patron preference substituted for a die roll to determine which world I fleshed out.

It turned out to be the best possible choice. Obviously I enjoyed and knew the world and it reminded me of fun times, but it was an especially good challenge, because the seed of the world was not just my imagination, but the collective creativity of a group of people who became friends through role-play.

For example, the sandbox starts with the magical mind-controlling cats in the Violet City. Trust me, that was not something I would have used without improv world-building!

As to my day-to-day creative process; well, it's pretty simple. I get up in the morning, open up a word processor and write.

Of course, I slide back and forth through the text, revise and edit, but it's essentially just me and the keyboard. I don't refer to specific media or prior art (aside from what marinates in my head), but I do often refer to references on geology, biology, and other sciences, to harvest real-world, tactile details. It sounds better to say a portal is made of flaking schist, and sometimes you'll play with a geologist, and they'll take advantage of the effect of schistosity on rock masses in support columns.

The other thing that has a pretty large influence is some of the music I listen to. Genres and subgenres like psychedelia, space rock, stoner rock, and doom metal. I wrap all this up and call it "psychedelic metal", to the dismay of some heavy metal music conservatives. I rarely refer to songs or albums directly, but I try to evoke the mood and feel of these genres — summed up perfectly by that chorus line from Truckin' by the Grateful Dead
 "Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it's been." 
 As for the art, well, sometimes a scene comes before the text, sometimes after. Usually after. And yes, I'm inspired by my favorite artists: Moebius, Frazetta, Corbusier, Pratt ... well, another long story. Let's say I'll make a post on artists and music I connect with the UVG at some point. After another strange journey.

A moon obscured partially with clouds over a pale blue sky, over the horizon of bright yellow grasslands. A group of people emerge from the right, crossing in a caravan.
The bright yellow here just really grabbed my eye. I love the details and the rough edges!
How did you make UVG look so intense? What techniques did you use? 

You mean the art? I use a mix of digital and traditional media — no surprises there, since every piece has to pass through processing before going into layout.

Most of the pieces starts as a blue pencil or graphite sketch, followed by inking. For inking I use a whole series of tools, depending on my mood and the mood I'm going for with the piece. Pens, gel pens, felt nib pens, markers, brush pens, and various regular brushes.

The contrasts are key here, between white space and figure, between thin lines and thick lines, between detail and emptiness, between light and dark. That's all intensity is, really - contrast dialed up.

After I have the piece inked I 'digitize' it — which is a fancy way of saying I take a photo or a scan, bring it into Affinity Photo or Photoshop and roughly clean it up - remove vignettes, even out the lighting, drop all the colors, and ramp up the contrast to get rid of the pencils (more or less).

For the digital colors, I try to stay with the hand-drawn mood of my lines - so rough brushes, fast strokes, limited palette, stark contrasts. It's a bit different when I work with water colors, poster colors, or colored inks - since I do the coloring at the same time as the inking. But, that's about all there is to it.

 don't go for polished linework and perfect lines — I've become bored with the hyper-polished art styles that are so prevalent in fantasy and comics these days (gradient fills are something I particularly detest). I want it to keep that hand-drawn feel.

As for ... how to get the artwork looking intense? You think it's intense? I keep thinking it's not there yet - I want it starker and better, but I estimate I've another 3–4 years of practice ahead of me before I reach the precise mood and style I want these days.
A blue sky and yellow landscape with two angled, vertical sets of rocks in dark brown jutting from the ground. They are mirrored, but angled away from each other. A small blue and orange caravan travels down a straight road headed away from the viewer.
I find this exceptionally pretty because it reminds me of the desert, one of my favorite places in the world. The colors and style are very evocative!
What would you like to try on your next project, keeping in mind your experiences on UVG? What have you learned from it? 

The next project? Or projects?

Overall, I've learned I need to be more uncompromising. I need to be tighter with my writing, more minimalist with my rules, richer with my content, less restrained with my art.

I'm going to try harder to explode the idea of pre-built, whole, unbreakable, static units: the setting, the character. I see this dominant approach in rpgs of all colors that tries to overdetermine every single aspect of every character and setting.

Characters and settings are built up, layer by layer, into these lovingly crafted, optimized, perfect bundles projecting the hopes and dreams of their players. But when I look at the great stories, from the Mahabharata to the Forever War, success is followed by failure, loss is the seed of victory. The arcs are dialectical, and sustain a creative tension.

Many of the players I game with love to test both their worlds and their characters to the breaking point and beyond. That moment, when a hero dives into the gullet of a leviathan with nothing but a sword, ready to die - that is epic right there. The player should be rewarded! Instead, the whole table groans. If he dies, they're going to have to wait thirty minutes (or more!) for the player to build a new character.

 At my game table, there is no wait. The building of the new character is a game - often collective - with input from all the players, and a lot of random rolls, long odds and weird effects. I want to bring that to other tables, other referees, other players. The deaths and failures of characters, villages, kingdoms, worlds, should be opportunities for fun, weird games.

 So ... I guess that's the thread running through the Necropolis (working project title), the Voyages of the Black Obelisk (working project title), and Sixty-Six Heroes (working project title): life out of death.

Huh. That's a simpler theme than I expected when I started writing this answer.

A grey and brown landscape with two rocky mountains and a dark blue-grey sky. Between the mountains, a small circular building erupts with a full color rainbow shooting into the sky.
This is my second favorite of the images Luka shared - the calm, muted landscape with the bright, vivid rainbow is a great juxtaposition.

Thank you so much to Luka for the great interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview! Make sure to check out Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) and consider supporting Luka on Patreon!

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Five or So Questions on Spell: The RPG

I have an interview today with Taylor Smith on Spell: The RPG which is going up for purchase after a successful Kickstarter! Check out what Taylor has to say about this clever magic RPG!


The cover of Spell: The RPG with characters casting spells of varying kinds, mostly in purple, pink, and white colors.
I love the colorful cover by Nathalie Fourdraine!
Tell me a little about Spell: The RPG. What excites you about it?

Spell: The RPG is a little bit of everything I love about making games. At it's most simple, it's a tabletop roleplaying game that uses a handful of six-sided dice and letter tiles; players can resolve actions with simple rolls or they can create magic by spelling out what they want to cast with the letters. So, it has a neat gameplay gimmick—and I've loved gimmicks since Mouse Trap and the Jumanji board game's red filter reader—and it's easy to teach and learn...and its name is a pun. It was really important for me to encourage creativity in play for Spell and I think that's what I'm most proud of.

What's really been exciting about Spell: The RPG for me is its potential, both for players and myself. I'm so happy to say that Spell has been quite a few people's first ever tabletop game and has changed a few minds about the hobby. I'm also regularly very pleasantly surprised by things I've seen players do with the system, either in their interpretation of the rules or when they hack and mod it for their own play groups. And then there's the potential of what it represents for me, as a product: I'm publishing Spellbook Vol. 1 alongside Spell: The RPG, which contains five campaigns written by me and illustrated by five fantastic artists; Spellbook Vol. 2 will have another set of campaigns, but written by other creators. I'm so excited to see creators I personally admire telling stories with Spell that I never could've told.

What was the inspiration for the clever main mechanic, and how does it work when someone decides to cast a spell?
About five years ago, I was co-running a larp and only tinkering with game mechanics at the time. After a rousing game of Scrabble, I got it stuck in my head to make an RPG using Scrabble tiles. The idea percolated, incomplete, until I was working on a piece of someone else's game—a system meant to represent basic human motivations. That mechanic, which would evolve into the Impulses, wasn't used for that other game, so I recycled it as a core game engine; I remembered the letter tiles and then plugged these two orphaned mechanics together.

The way these pieces work are complementary: basic tasks are accomplished with the twelve Impulses, which are motivation-oriented stats; players roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the Impulse they'd like to act on to accomplish a goal (to get through a locked door, maybe use Daring to burst in spells blazing, Force to break the door down, Reason to think through how the door might be dismantled, Style to make the best entrance, or Calm to just knock) and the results are compared against a difficulty.

To cast a spell, the player states their goal, rolls an Impulse, sums the results, and then draws that many random letter tiles. As the player tries to spell a word with the tiles, the character is sifting through glyphs of the universal language to rearrange reality. If a word is spelled (and adequately justified) the spell is successfully cast. If the spell is in conflict with someone else, like a baddie, they get a chance to defend, so there's a fairness of rolled stats vs rolled stats with modifiers for how fitting the spell is for the situation. Players can spend Potential points in the moment to save spells they like and then reuse them later without having to spell them over again. There's no "mana" or "slots," so characters always have access to new, strange magic, as well as their own repertoire of custom spells they build over time.

A stack of wooden letter tiles.
A collection of the tiles used for "casting" in Spell!
What are the campaigns like - adventures, mysteries, etc.? How did you create unique and interesting campaigns?
Spell: The RPG is functionally "setting neutral," meaning it can be played in any world in any era, so I've also included Spellbook Vol. 1, which is a collection of five campaign supplements. I tried to represent a variety of options for how play could look and invited players to hack and modify the game as they'd like for their own games. For example, Magic Moon Warrior is a monster-fighting magic girl adventure to the moon and includes some modified rules for transformation spells; Wakeful in Reverie has rules for only being able to use spells while lucid dreaming, as the story straddles the line of waking and sleep; Godqueen, which can be played as a GM-all/any campaign, has the players in the role of a pantheon guiding a civilization throughout history. Spell can support a serious ongoing campaign with longterm character growth and story progression or provide the minimum necessary structure for an absolutely wacky one-shot.

I believe in players' ability to invent and create, so instead of providing a definitive lore, I wanted to make tools players could build their own world and stories with. Spell is written with goals of creativity and potential in mind, so even during the most daunting campaigns, there is agency in the ability for players to create their own magic. There's also always an element of physical play involved—the actual rearranging of letters—which I think helps players feel collaborative and imaginative. The name of the game is literally a pun, so humor is absolutely welcome. Maybe a player wants a powerful spell to extinguish a raging inferno and while looking at their letters, they realize they can spell "cats." The group can share a laugh, maybe a welcome reprieve from the intense situation, as they imagine a horde of kitty firefighters; they could even discuss this option in character! Maybe they go with that one or they spell something else, diving back into the action, but that moment of silliness and play still happens.

A cover of the Spellbook sectioned into parts representing the campaigns, one with a bird-cat-like creature, others with people and patterns.
The characters on this cover already gained my interest!
Tell me about Impulses. What do they mean to the characters, and how are they set up - default values, gained over time, etc.?
Impulses are goal-oriented stats that both provide the math for rolls to be made, as well as help shape the character's personality and methodology. The twelve Impulses are: Calm, Daring, Feeling, Focus, Force, Grit, Hope, Reason, Renown, Scheme, Style, and Trust. The player assigns twelve points between them at character creation; some will likely start at zero, but that doesn't mean the character doesn't experience that Impulse, they just can't rely on it to inspire action. For example, a character with zero Calm is still capable of being calm, they just can't pull on that part of themselves enough to effectively diffuse a chaotic situation, but maybe they use Grit to weather it. Characters gain Potential points, which are like experience, but you get them at the start of a session and you can spend them in the moment; these points are used to both keep spells and to increase Impulses.

Impulses are important to me, especially in trying to make them intuitive. While a player is assigning points to their character sheet, they have to think both about what the character can do, but also what the character is like, how they view the world, and how they meet their challenges. By using more common words, the idea is that a player could say something like, "My character just really hopes this is going to work out," so that means they're using Hope. Impulses also represent fields of knowledge from their past experiences related to that Impulse. For another example, if a character is Daring and skydiving is their main outlet for it, they'll have the skills and experience associated with skydiving; if their thrill is on the stage, they'd have skills and experience related to their performances. The goal is, after filling in Impulses, the player has a holistic character with a lot of potential for inferred experiences and abilities.

A diverse cast of characters posing dramatically while preparing to cast spells.
These characters in this illustration by Christina Gardner look so fun!
How do you think the narrative control players have in the game will support a healthy play environment? What sort of supportive tools for the narrative are you including or recommending to go along with Spell: The RPG, since it's such a freely flowing game?
I describe Spell: The RPG, in the book, as "light-hearted" and encourage players to use a setting that's supportive and thinks magic is neat, though there are notes about more grimdark interpretations—with disclaimers about consent for those themes ahead of time. With that setting as a backdrop, it's been my experience that the collaborative, creative, and just a bit silly process of rearranging letters, especially physical tiles, really helps the game feel like "play." The party works together, but so too do the players in a very tactile way; it creates an environment of everyone wanting everyone else to succeed, not just be the best or coolest individual.

In addition to regular comments throughout the rules and settings, like "this can be heavy, so make sure to talk about it first," the Game Moderator section (I'm using "moderator" instead of "master" because I believe a GM is a facilitator and a player, not a tyrant in a gross power dynamic) includes steps for conflict resolution, a summary of the lines and veils system, and a summary of your own Script Change system. These tools are super important to me and I've been using them in my own games. While Spell: The RPG is outwardly positive, it's perfectly capable of including many, very different themes and content. Even simply the opportunity to spell swear words or slurs from random letters can disrupt the game for players, so guidance on these elements is also included. The rules also make specific mention that characters, as adventurers, are not at all limited in their gender, ethnicity, or background. Additionally, there's a note on disabilities:
There are no mechanical “flaws” designed for Spell: The RPG. Impulses represent a character’s motivation, so no disability will make them less capable of adventure. The respectful inclusion of physical and mental disabilities as roleplaying cues or context for actions is certainly encouraged, but there are no one-size-fits-all modifiers to apply.
This intention is also reflected in the cover art (by Nathalie Fourdraine), which prominently features a variety of body types, gender and cultural representation, and the inclusion of a character with a hearing aid and a character with an athletic prosthetic leg. For the all the interior art of Spellbook Vol. 1, finding Own Voices illustrators was key and an open discussion of diversity in the characters was vital. My hope is to have Spell create a comfortable and inclusive foundation that players can play within—whatever those games may be—and feel like that foundation supports them, their identity, and their goals for play.

As a final note, I'd like to include that I love hearing from players, their experiences, and their feedback. I try to stay as open and accessible as possible myself. My contact info is included in the books, so both positive and negative comments will be heard.

Three characters - a bird person, a femme person, and a more masc person, all posing to cast spells under the text "The World of Spell."
I love the cute characters here by Leigh Luna!

Thank you so much, Taylor, for the great interview! I hope you all enjoyed learning about Spell: the RPG and will check out the newly released materials when they come out! In the meantime, check out Taylor's new work on Drip!

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