RPG Creations and Musings.

Archive for September, 2013

My Writing Business (Part 3)



In this blog post I want to talk about my one self-published project, Age of Arthur. I say self-published, but for this one I had a coauthor. We both fell for the Fate system, and after a game of Diaspora we played together in (well, technically, I ran it and Graham Spearing was one of the players, but you know what I mean), we both had an urge to write a Fate-based game.

We had similar likes and dislikes for what would work, so we started working together. Then Graham had the idea for an Arthurian setting with a more dark ages feel than Pendragon (we both loved Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles trilogy), and I did lots of research, our friend Andy Sangar put together an Arthurian timeline, and we both did lots of writing. I don’t want to write about the writing and research process, interesting though it was at the time. I want to write about the extra stuff that was involved aside from just writing the thing involved in bringing the game to print.

At various stages in the draft, we each ran a few one-shots using the system, including one that became the scenario in the main book. I also ran a campaign, which let me see for the first time how other people reacted to character generation. I didn’t change the rules during play- that sort of thing tends to derail games, but I did get lots of ideas for tweaks afterwards.

When the tweaks were made, we did some serious self-editing, before contacting an artist, Jason Behnke and map maker, Steff Worthington. Steff came up with a lovely map of dark ages Britain, and, with his friend Genevieve Fournier, gave us some handy feedback on the Gazetteer, which was duly incorporated. And Jason’s art when it came was absolutely beautiful, going a long way to defining the look of the book. It was the quality of the art that led to the decision to make a full colour version available. The art consists of a covers and a full page spread in between each chapter.

We then asked for playtesters (thanks to our lead playtesters, Neil Gow of Omnihedron Games, and Ben Quant), Graham set up a website, and I started promoting by chatting about the game on forums. I started a thread on the ads/promos section of rpg.net, which I seeded with occasional updates, and UK Role Players was good enough to host a forum for the game. Graham set up a page on Google+. This all generated some initial interest which was good.

The playtest feedback was appropriate robust, with comments pointing out that some rules were just plain not working or broken. Others were unclearly written. So we made more changes- that’s what playtesting is for. In particular, Neil really helped us tighten things up.

Then we were nearly done, right? Ha ha ha ha ha. More self-editing. Then an external editor. Mitch Williams volounteered for this noble task, and he helped us clarify many more points in the text where the rules were unclear, and what I thought was a surprising number of little typos and grammatical mistakes. This surprised me- we’d self-edited, and I thought I wrote good anyway. It was embarrassing to find that there were places where I’d done things such as writing “viscous” instead of “vicious”. He’s someone else who went well beyond the call of duty in helping us out.

Oh, and layout. We’d had various ideas, but over time I came to realise I wanted to do layout myself. I knew what I wanted in terms of hyperlinks, bookmarks and index, and I knew that I didn’t trust anyone else to do the job. Lots of work in life is made with that philosophy. Incidentally, by the time I’d started the layout, the initial date I’d mentioned for release of the game had already passed. Whee! There’s a moral there.

So, more layout, which was a fiddly technical job, and more comments from the editor, with bonus layout glitches to spot. More posts on forums as we started getting the lovely finalised art pieces. I also set up a Facebook page to show a bit more off. More interest from people, with a hint of impatience. More helpful advice from Tim Gray of Silver Branch Games, and Neil Gow. Eventually, six months after the initial planned release, the PDF was ready to go. I uploaded it to Drivethrurpg to test it out, and a few hours later realised it was actually on the front page, had generated some interest and sales, and was out there in the world.

We’d done one other thing I thought was rather clever at the time, promising a discount equal to the value of the PDF to any early adopters for the print version when it came out. More on that later. Ah, print. That took another couple of months to sort out. Why? Well, the first few attempts at uploading a print file were turned down- my margins were wrong. Then we got the first proof back, and there were two problems.

The first problem was an example of my ridiculous stupidity- the covers were the wrong way round. The front cover was on the back, and the back on the front. Remember when I said I wouldn’t trust anyone else with the layout? That seemed laughable. The other, worse, problem was that we’d used the printer’s standard colour for the physical book. For what we wanted, standard colour wasn’t good enough. Pages didn’t bleed to the edges, leaving white margins, and worse, the beautiful artwork, which is rather rich and varied in colour, had all life leeched out of it. The book did not look good.

This led to the decision to bring the book out in premium colour, but premium colour is rather expensive, so we did a cheaper black and white version. After a couple of comments, we also decided to go for both hardback and softback options. I hadn’t initially planned hardback, but I’m really glad we went for it in the end.

In the first black and white proof, the tone was out on one of the pictures, but the second proof was fine. Wahey, a book for release! As for the premium colour, the first proof looked breathtaking gorgeous, with a lovely hardback cover, and high quality paper, but the margins were out, leaving white space. Fortunately, the second proof was as we wanted it- and the thicker pages made it look soooo much better than the standard colour version. I was able to wrap up the second proof and take it to Graham Spearing’s birthday party- it had arrived the day before.

So the physical books were released, and discount codes were sent to those who’d bought the PDF. Our travails were, unfortunately, still not over- not every PDF buyer had received the codes. Plenty had settings on Drivethrurpg blocking e-mails from publishers. Incidentally, logging into Drivethrurpg through Facebook sets up such a block automatically. Fortunately, that was solvable by a quick e-mail with the codes for those who got in touch.

I hope I’ll make fewer mistakes next time I self-publish something. I haven’t even catalogued every single error made. I’m glad I did the self-publishing thing. It was hard work. I wouldn’t have managed if it hadn’t been a joint endeavour with Graham, and we hadn’t had advice and help from those mentioned here.

One day I’ll self-publish another project. But not yet!

My Writing Business (Part 2)

In my last post on writing, I spoke about writing for Arc Dream, and making the leap from writing lots down for myself to getting things published. One reason I didn’t say was why I like to get things published. The answer is a not completely comfortable combination of generosity and vanity. Generosity because it’s great to be able to share what I’ve done, and others getting value out of it. Vanity, because it’s nice for me to see others appreciate my work, and to see value in it.

Someone actually giving me money for my work is the most direct way I can think of to see that there’s value in it. Maybe this is all a bit too self-analytical, and writing for publication (or self-publication) is simply another hobby that nicely exists alongside my actual gaming.

After Blood of the Gods for Arc Dream, my next bit of writing was for Newt Newport and D101 Games. Newt seems to be receptive to my ideas (ah, that vanity/appreciation thing again).  He peer-reviewed an early copy of Blood of the Gods, and the first draft was much improved by his input. I’ve done bits and pieces of editing and proof reading on a good few D101 products. Perhaps most significantly, I co-edited the marvellous game of fallen Chinese immortals doing good deeds and kung fu, Monkey.

I’m still rather pleased with Drowned Lands, the first thing I wrote for D101. What is it? Well, here’s the setting pitch (from which you can, if you want, take a good guess at when it was written):

The summer of 2011 was blisteringly hot and humid,
both in Britain and in the rest of the world.
Perhaps nothing too unusual.
Then it started to rain.
Still nothing unusual.
It started to rain everywhere in the world, even in deserts.
And it didn’t stop.

It’s a setting included in Worlds of Wordplay– a version of Graham Spearing’s Wordplay RPG including various settings that is published by D101. Drowned Lands is based in VSCA’s Deluge setting toolkit, which, like Wordplay, is creative commons. My setting a rather British post-apocalypse, based around the south coast of England, where I grew up, after a hundred years of constant rain.

While talking about D101 games, I should mention OpenQuest. From the start (before I was writing for D101), I loved OpenQuest, which is a take on fantasy gaming using an engine in the same family as Basic Roleplaying and Runequest, but to my mind more elegant than Basic Roleplaying and simpler than Runequest. I should say here that I also have a soft spot for Runequest’s crunchier take, especially when it comes to combat, but OpenQuest scratches a different itch. I should also mention that OpenQuest 2 is out soon, and the PDF I’ve seen looks great!

I’ve helped a bit with OpenQuest 2, but my big thing for it is a setting I cowrote with Simon Bray called Here Be Dragons. Now this one came into being almost by accident. Both Simon and I submitted articles to Newt on similar themes- mine being a city ruled by a Dragon, and Simon’s on creatures called Dracorians and a scenario based around them. Newt suggested combining them into a book, so we wrote more and did so.

The writing for this one was absolutely frantic, with ideas and e-mails flying back and forth. We were done with a first draft remarkably quickly. I think the result is glorious- a swords and sorcery setting with Simon’s art and maps, a lot of dark stuff, bits inspired by Greek mythology, a city that was my take on Byzantium, and parts of the style owing as much to Pratchett as to anything else. I like writing with a coauthor. It makes me efficient and the results, based on the two times I’ve done it, surprise me in a nice way.

Night’s Black Agents

At the moment I’m rather enjoying running Night’s Black Agents. The premise of the game is simple- “burned” ex-spies working against a vampire conspiracy across Europe and the Near East. The rules are based on Pelgrane Press‘s Gumshoe system for investigative games. This system is pretty straightforward. Player characters have a bunch of investigative skills and general skills. A major clue (ie: something the GM really wants the party to find) is found automatically by any character who has a relevant investigative skill. Extra information can be found through spending points in investigative skills- and more points gives more information.

General skills work simply too- roll d6, and if the result is high enough, the skill succeeds. Points can be spent from the “pool” of an investigative skill before the roll, but the skill level itself has little direct effect. Night’s Black Agents adds a number of things to this chassis. Uses of the Preparedness skill to have items available and fun things like finding hidden caches of spy type stuff, vehicles or weapons. Network and Cover skills for contacts and alternative identities. More detailed rules for combat and chases, including the use of investigative skills to give bonuses. And some extra optional things I didn’t use, such as rules for Trust and Tag Team Tactical Benefits. I thought they’d add too much complexity and not give so much benefit for our particular group.

Actually, I wasn’t initially all that certain about Gumshoe, though I loved the material on conspiracies and vampires. But after an online game of Esoterrorists, and a more detailed read of the rules (including the thing I always do when running a new system, which is writing out my own summary of the rules to use in play and hand out to the players) I wasn’t just reassured- I was positively enthusiastic.

Well, that’s enough of that- this is intended to be a quick post about our game and how the story’s gone so far rather than a review of Night’s Black Agents or Gumshoe. One thing that bothered me a bit was setting the game in the modern day, simply because I’d want to involve countries I’m familiar with to use those experiences (I’m British, and I’ve lived in Germany, France and Denmark), but there’d be something a bit “off” about involving modern politics- and to my mind a conspiracy’s very political. It would be a bit limiting without involving police corruption or even government ministers for example.

So I set the game in 1968. Not just to avoid that, but because it’s a blooming interesting year. You’ve got the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring, the Paris riots, Andreas Baader blowing up a Frankfurt department store, Swinging London, the arrest of the Krays, police corruption in London and Paris, KGB spies in MI5, the Stasi. That’s just off the top of my head (admittedly off the top of my head after running the game for a few weeks and doing initial research, but still). It’s a complex time, and a great one for spies.

Oh, and here’s my initial diagram of the Vampire Conspiracy, from which I built other things.

Another fun thing in Night’s Black Agents is designing the vampires. I avoided the book’s clever suggestions of alien monsters and mutants, and went for mostly traditional sorts. They have a fairly traditional range of vampiric powers, which mostly can’t be used during the day, though the vampires are otherwise unharmed by sunlight. They can’t be killed except by decapitation, a rowan stake through the heart, or a particular grade of meteorite iron that has been cold-forged so as not to disturb it’s crystalline structure.

A mortal who becomes a vampire (through the drinking of vampiric blood while being drained of their own) goes through a bestial phase in which their humanity is “burned off” before gaining monstrous reason and recovering most of their old memories. Only mortals who are the direct descendants of the Merovingian king actually become “true” vampires, capable of creating others. There is a downside to being a true vampire- mortal beings bleed in their presence. They need agents (whether other vampires, or Renfields- humans dosed with their blood) to do their business.

And there are two clans of vampires fighting a shadow war- the “Bathory clan” and the “Merovingian clan”. More east versus west. I don’t think I’m going to do a full actual play report of my game so far- we’re five sessions into it now- but some highlights are:

  •  Staging a heist on the Natural History Museum in London to steal their meteorite collection.
  •  Scientific experiments on captured vials of True Vampire blood.
  • A player character actually joining the vampire side when tempted. Well, they’d already fallen under the influence through drinking a couple of the aforementioned vials. Long story.
  • One of the player characters inventing mirror shades.
  • The horror hitting home when records looking for one particular missing persons pattern were searched through, and the players realised how many vampires there must be out there.
  • Covert surveillance being one of the main player character strategies.
  • A truly ridiculous husband and wife act two of the player characters put on when they discovered they’d been bugged.
  • A Preparedness check to “remember” a grenade and throw it while fleeing an assassination squad.
  • The player characters developing a healthy caution of the vampires- but being terrified at the prospect of meeting the Krays.

There you go. Not a review or an actual play report. Just a love letter to a game that combines smoke and mirrors spy stuff, quick doses of action, and good old-fashioned investigative horror.