Friday 24 December 2021

The Gig

Week 1, not so bad. Freezing my ass off in this van, putting up microphones. Weirdest job ever, hanging microphones in suburbia, but it pays.

Week 2, fuck this job, the heater died. The prof said the mics have to go up, though, something about holes in time series data. This JOB is a hole in time.

Week 3, apparently I'm recording dog barks. People leaving their dogs out in the cold, some SPCA thing? Ugh night shift, say hi to the gang for me.

Week 4, not SPCA. So, like, dogs bark and it makes other dogs bark, and the prof thinks it's some kind of dog internet. That's why we need so many mics, they need to see the patterns.

Week 5, kids stole the mic on Dane street, now there's "a hole". I'm going to be doing this until March. No dice with the heater, but I now have a coffee card. Bought long johns.

Week 6, got to see the map. It's pretty cool, the dogs set each other off. Everyone seemed really bummed though, something about missing resonance. There were supposed to be 'ripples'. Heater is working again!

Week 7, no resonance, but there are "rays". Dogs start barking after each other, but only in long lines, then a bit later, back again. Looks neat on the map, like tree branches. Prof still bummed.

Week 8, I fucking HATE Dane St.

Week 9, Juan's in town, came with me on the run bc "No holes!" Out all night, froze our asses off. Rav has taken over at the lab, he wants more data about the "rays".

Week 10. Juan saw the map, noticed the rays all start at different parts of the ravine. Prof was PISSED. (She's back now.) Apparently dogs barking at raccoons doesn't get funding? No more map time for us, just mic dropoffs. Coffee card ran out.

Week 11. Juan said 'ray 4' ends near that house on Groen where that guy got murdered, the same night it happened. Creepy! He got a picture of the map on his phone, he's working on the others. Can we talk abt something else? Ffs

Week 12, Juan's lost it, he's obsessed. They ALL end in murders. Thinks it's not dogs barking at each other, but something going past and freaking them out. Smth they can hear, but we can't. What the hell is "something"? Wants to stake out the ravine. Idgaf, 2 weeks and I'm done.

Week 13. DO NOT go in the ravine. I'll text later. Just stay the fuck away from it

Monday 13 December 2021

Some Thoughts on Intrigue

This is me thinking out loud about intrigue in role-playing games, and a bit of scaffolding to make it happen. For the moment I'm thinking about this like a world builder, a would-be GM setting up a situation suitable for political intrigue.

What I've got is:

  • overt violence is impractical (or extremely costly)
  • several (or many) factions competing for dominance in a cooperative endeavour
  • power is divided among the factions
  • factions want more than one thing
  • strengths and weaknesses tie the factions together

Costly Violence

For intrigue to happen, you need multiple factions in a context where overt violence is impractical (disastrous, strongly discouraged, or incredibly expensive).

This could be the fact that escalation is bad for everyone. In the cold war, any direct military conflict between the superpowers could have escalated into a world-destroying nuclear exchange, so conflict had to be indirect, covert, deniable, or all three.

There may be a faction that has a monopoly on violence or overwhelming military power, but deploying it might be incredibly expensive. Crushing enemies might just make more enemies; troops must be paid; debts must be cashed in; the obligations of vassals might only be usable once. There may be no way to carry out violence without overwhelming retribution.

Another possible brake on escalation is when there are many factions that are competing for dominance over a cooperative endeavour. The realm is more prosperous when the barons are trading instead of warring. They are unequal in power and one of them will be king, but no one baron is strong enough to take the crown by force without the support of many others.

In this kind of situation, there may be rules that govern the transfer or power: heredity, etiquette, oaths, contracts, traditions, or rituals. The rules protect the factions from the disastrous costs of conflict. Even if there's no open violence, a winning coalition might decide that everyone who supported the losing side needs to be punished, stripped of its assets, or stamped out completely.

Therefore, anyone who opposes a strong coalition publicly must resist in legitimate ways. Their opposition is merely part of a system of time honoured checks and balances, challenges which are rightfully protected by tradition. Anyone who resists the eventual winner in illegitimate ways risks being branded a traitor, a rebel, a conspirator who opposes not just a contender but society itself. Anyone who does this can be legitimately stripped of their freedom, power, and wealth. Any non-legitimate actions must either be indirect, covert, or deniable.

Competition Within a Cooperative Endeavour

I mentioned this above, but the cooperative endeavour could be any context that none of the factions are willing to destroy. It could be the functioning of a city, the belief in the rule of law, a planetary ecosystem that won't support them fighting.

It needs to be constricting enough that they can't simply go their own ways. They're stuck together in the same planet, realm, city, or lifeboat and they share its fate.

Power is Divided

At the same time, no one faction can be so powerful that it dominates the others outright. Each faction's power is incomplete. Each must have only a few pieces of the puzzle, however outwardly strong they seem. If any one faction is so strong that it holds all the cards in any negotiation, this limits the options for intrigue.

Factions Want More Than One Thing

Years ago I was listening to some tips on negotiation; it made the point that once you pin down your negotiation to everything but the price, you're fucked. Now it's just a straight tug of war, and any change in terms will have a clear winner and a clear loser.

The answer was to find a meaningful trade-off, two dimensions where the parties have different preferences. In contract negotiation this could be around payment terms (a higher price is fine, but I want 90 days to pay; a lower price is fine if you pay in cash, etc.), but it could be anything.

You can run around town intimidating people, or doing covert actions to undermine another faction's power, but for there to be political negotiation (not just flexing and cowering), factions need to want more than one thing.

A nice way of illustrating this is the indivisible prize. You want the crown, so do all the other barons. There's no way you can get it without their support, but crowns can't be shared. Obviously you'll need to find something they want that isn't the crown to exchange for their support.

Splitting Up Power: Internal Cracks

I can think of a few simple ways to pull off two of these things at once, making a faction's power incomplete while making it want multiple things.

One is to make its leadership divided. Sure, the ruling family of the East Barony is all in it together, but that headstrong uncle is hoping for a martial victory, while the cruel baroness mostly cares about sticking it to the Gellish. Clever negotiators might find ways to play on the power dynamic between the two.

Similarly, you can always break a faction into multiple sub-factions. The baron wants the crown; the advisors think the baron's son has the best chance and the baron might be overplaying his hand to try for it himself. The baron's financiers want their loans repaid, and want to discourage the baron from hiring  expensive mercenaries if there are soft power approaches to be taken instead.

Divisions can be found at any scale. The baron's court has a doorman who resents the regular visitors; the kitchen staff are looking forward to cooking for a king and don't mind who knows it, and so on.

The other mine for internal cracks is how a faction maintains its material conditions. Just surviving, growing food, the clanking and sloshing of industry is a lot of work and takes numerous people with different needs and opinions. A barony that has grown rich on wool exports might be full of internal divisions between land owners, tenant farmers, bandits, wealthy and poor.

What compromises have been made to achieve the focus the leaders want? What's running out or not working well? What resentments or disagreements are starting to build up?

(EDIT: At the risk of stating the obvious, you never 'negotiate with a faction', and factions don't want things, they're made of people who want things. Personifying the faction as an NPC is much more characterful than a completely unified front of interchangeable negotiators. The point of this business about finding internal cracks is not so you wind up negotiating with ever more microscopic factions, but that there is always a way to find some leverage.)

Splitting Up Power: Different Strengths

Another way to make faction power incomplete and give yourself some surface area to invent multiple goals is to divide up different kinds of power between the factions.

  • Who has society's material wealth?
  • Who makes society's decisions?
  • Who controls society's ceremonies and proceedings?
  • Who has society's cultural biases or ideas of legitimacy in their favour?
  • Who is well regarded and influential?
  • Who knows more than the others?
  • Who is able to conspire and coordinate most freely?
  • Who is organized and able to act decisively in cohesion with their supporters?
  • Who has strong ties of loyalty?
  • Who benefits from the biases inherent in the institutions?

Each faction might have strengths in one or more of these areas, but weaknesses in others. For example, imagine a general with a reputation as a war hero, made rich by foreign spoils and plunder. Unfortunately, she is viewed as a commoner with the least legitimate claim to the crown, and by virtue of her military rank is forbidden from even entering the Rotunda.

To play to her strengths, she wants to exaggerate external threats to the capital to give herself more latitude to operate politically. Even better, forcing other houses to have to pony up money for costly troops would stretch them thin. However, she's desperate for some kind of cultural legitimacy—perhaps by marriage or false historical record. She also sorely needs eyes and ears within the Rotunda so she can stay ahead of the senators' plans.

Don't overlook the challenges and advantages involved just in communication and alignment. Some English king or other apparently tried to ban jousting tournaments, because these gave his barons opportunities to get together and plot against him. Sending one-to-one messages back and forth takes time, and in politics, an advantage over the means to coordinate is a huge advantage.

Similarly, having a responsibility for administering the ceremonies and proceedings may not give you any official power. You're just supposed to bless the marriages. But that gives you all sorts of ways to control the amount of friction everyone experiences. You can speed things along or drag things out on technicalities. You may have complete access to venues that might otherwise be secured against intrusion. Being the only faction able to find a quiet side chamber away from prying eyes during a tense summit might make all the difference.

Random Faction Strengths

To keep things surprising, let's use that strength/weakness list as a random table. Each major faction gets one strength and (to make sure their power is incomplete) two weaknesses.

Roll d10Strength/Weakness
Material wealth
Decision-making power
Control over ceremonies, proceedings, venues
Cultural biases and legitimacy
Influence and reputation
Knows more than the others
Freedom to conspire and coordinate
Organization, cohesion
Ties of loyalty
Institutional biases

Trying this out with a very small sub-faction, the court doorman I mentioned earlier. A strength and two weaknesses:

  • Strength: (2) Decision-making power. Curlis, master of the door, can choose who to admit and who is refused.
  • Weakness: (7) Freedom to conspire and coordinate. Curlis is always observed, and despite his strong opinions and his position of influence, has limited ability to benefit from this power (e.g. via bribes).
  • Weakness: (6) Knowledge. Despite directly seeing the comings and goings to the court chamber, Curlis stands outside it and has only conjecture to go on about what dealings are taking place.
(That's pretty funny, an NPC with power who is dying to abuse it but can't find an opportunity that would benefit him.)

Tying Factions Together

Each of these strengths and weaknesses can be used to tie the factions to one another. Pick one, and pick another faction, then roll to see how the power imbalance plays out in their relationship:

Roll d6Strength/weakness tie
A brutal choke hold
A coercive power imbalance
A sense of duty
A delicate alliance
Repaying a debt
Benefits shared freely out of love or loyalty

  • Curlis's decision-making power ties him to, um, the baron out of (6) love or loyalty. He's glad to serve the baron faithfully and keep out those he thinks are bad for the court.
  • Curlis's inability to conspire or coordinate ties him to the court advisors, out of (3) a sense of duty. All his communications with the outside world flow through them, and he abides by this out of a solemn duty to remain impartial.
  • Curlis's lack of knowledge of the political landscape ties him to the baron's financiers in (1) a brutal choke hold. He is completely suborned by them, and keeps out anyone that the financiers think might influence the baron to spend any further before repaying his debts.
This is just me experimenting; for a tiny "faction" like Curlis (or perhaps the entire palace guard) probably one is plenty. A more potent faction (like the baron's noble house) could have three or more.

In Play

So far I've been talking from a world building perspective, as if you were going to plan out all these factions ahead of time. I don't think that's necessary, and probably not even a good idea. Tim Groth put it aptly, "World building is a misnomer, it is really just set building."

The key thing players need in order to engage politically is to understand the landscape to be able to make informed choices. Where do they apply pressure? What asymmetry can they exploit?

To avoid the info dump problem, I'd recommend rolling all of this as late as you possibly can. If you can roll and brainstorm on the fly, great. You can also get your players to declare their goals to telegraph what they're up to, so that you can do a bit of thinking between sessions.

Achieving Political Goals

Here's a super simplistic theory of political action, just truthy enough to structure a campaign:

To achieve a political goal, you must negotiate (or conduct covert action) to achieve all ten strengths.

Everyone wants something; you want the crown. By negotiating with everyone, you help them achieve their different, disparate goals in return for their help with your singular, focused goal.

The easiest way to put this into practice is to create a patron with a political goal, and to have the PCs be fixers/ambassadors/negotiators. The patron knows the 'campaign structure', and can simply present a handful of relevant facts as the starting context.

  1. (Wealth) The baron is struggling with debt. A bid for the throne is expensive, who will fund this?
  2. (Decision-making) House Otherhouse controls the council of barons, which by tradition chooses the king in times of the line being disrupted. We have no sway with Otherhouse right now.
  3. The church conducts the coronations and must bless the transfer. Will they? 
  4. (Coordination) The barony is large, but on the periphery of the realm. Who can be trusted to host the necessary meetings to mobilize support?
  5. (Knowledge) What other schemes are afoot that might derail this? Who else is mobilizing supporters?
And so on. Every weakness is an opportunity to negotiate with a potential supporter to shore it up. Every strength is a temporary advantage that may require defending.

What Do Players Do?

If the players have an ambitious patron with a political goal, what should they tell the PCs to do? If it's a more player-directed campaign (e.g. perhaps the players are running a faction themselves), what are some constructive ways to start doing stuff?

When you're just starting:
  • Scope out the political landscape. Who wants what? What are the factions being public about?
  • Scope out a faction's strengths and weaknesses
  • Reinforce a strength. Can they take the status quo for granted, or are there new threats?
  • Figure out who might be in a position to shore up one of your weaknesses
  • Assess a rival's base of power
  • Scope out one faction's hold over another
When you're digging in a little more:
  • Scope out a faction's internal cracks, the sub-factions and what they might want.
  • Apply pressure on allies to commit
  • Negotiate, make blunt offers
  • Act to weaken, undermine, or delegitimize a rival's strength
  • Undo or undermine a relationship between your rivals
  • Take covert actions to learn or change what you can't reach openly
  • Test boundaries to learn the real limits of your influence
When it gets to the finish line:
  • Offer last chances to rivals
  • Take bold covert actions
  • Make your schemes overt, bring on the final showdown and find out who really stands with you
This is just a list of starters, and it's necessarily a bit abstract. "How to intrigue" is a big topic, this list completely ignores all the betrayals, feints, and "plans within plans" that you might get up to.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to Tim Groth and Sean Winslow for giving all this a once over and providing useful feedback.

Tim makes the great point that it matters a lot whether the PCs are the ones doing the legwork or the ones pulling the strings. My gut tells me that if you're using a game that has some supports for intrigue, it's a lot easier to put the players in charge to start with.

Burning Wheel has useful mechanics like Duel of Wits and (especially) Circles and Wises, which give the players lots of latitude in coming up with cool approaches to take without having mainlined a setting bible. Games like The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power have strong archetypal characters, and work almost like a pre-built play set so a group can just step into the roles of very powerful people.

For games that aren't using anything like that, my sense is it might be easiest to set up the PCs as key functionaries first, until the campaign has enough miles under its belt that the players have enough information to form their own goals and strategies.

Sunday 17 October 2021

A Full-Time RPG Income

What does it take to earn a full-time income from RPGs? This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation to illustrate one way of looking at this.

The RPG market is growing (rapidly, apparently!) Every year, more and more RPG gamer dollars are spent on new and classic products.

At the same time, the barrier to entry to make RPG products has never been lower. There are countless free SRDs to use as the spine of the game, the tools to produce are cheaper than ever, the publishing routes (e.g. POD) are wide open, and the knowledge to use all of this stuff is splattered all over the internet.

What was once a sheaf of hand-typed homegrown rules can now become a 'product', and tens of thousands do every year. The money brought in by the growing RPG audience is spread across more and more products all the time.

So, for a designer to go full time, they need to capture enough of that audience to support them. This brings me to the key point of this little model:

How many RPG fans does it take to support one designer?

Let's say, for you, a full-time income in RPGs means $50,000 annually. (Like all the other numbers in this model, we can tweak this to be whatever we want.)

Now, how many RPG buyers does this money come from?

Let's say the typical RPG buyers spend $100 on RPG-related products each year. This means it takes the combined purchases of 500 buyers to produce the $50,000/yr income. That's fine, except for a few assumptions that we can adjust for:

  • Those buyers don't only buy your stuff
  • You probably need help making the products, so the revenue is shared among a group of designers, illustrators, and so on
  • You certainly need help printing and shipping the products to people

Adjusting for these assumptions increases the number of RPG buyers required to make up that income. Let's assume that:

  • Each buyer buys 6 products from different indie publishers annually, dividing that $100 among six indie publishers
  • Half the retail price goes to printing, shipping, logistics, and processing fees that have nothing to do with the creative team, dividing the creative team's share in half
  • You're doing a fifth of the work of the product team (design, writing, illustration, editing, layout, marketing), so you get a fifth of the remaining proceeds
This means it actually takes 60 buyers (6 x 2 x 5) to make up each $100 that makes it into your pocket, or 30,000 buyers overall.

So, there's your target: you need to get a 20% profit share* of one or more RPG products that collectively reach 30,000 buyers every year.

* * *

For perspective, the Trilemma Compendium had 2,248 backers on Kickstarter, and is on track to become a Mithral-selling product (2501+ sales) on DriveThruRPG by the end of this year, about 1400 sales/year. In isolation, that sounds great, but it's not even remotely close to the target this model requires.

Going by this model, for a full-time income in RPGs, I'd need to:

  • Make several such books every year 
  • Vastly increase the audience that each one reaches
This still doesn't get me anywhere near the target in year 1, but in a few years, the majority of sales are actually out of the back catalog.

* * *

I don't have any special wisdom about this, but a few observations:

More buyers means higher $/hr. This might be obvious, but the more people that benefit from the time you put in, the easier it is to make some money at it. Making something for a hundred people isn't remotely as useful as making something for a thousand if they both take you the same time.

Having said that, more buyers is only better if the rest of the factors hold up. Projects that do truly vast numbers (e.g. WOTC hard covers) may be the big leagues, but they might not be the sweet spot. The product revenue is shared among a big team, and I think a lot of it is work for hire. My unsubstantiated hunch is that Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine is doing better than the typical WOTC hardcover contributor: very small team, majority profit share, substantial back catalog sales.

Getting a share of profits looks even more important now. Most of a product's sales are in years 2+. Kickstarters are flashy and great, but by year three, the compendium will have sold more on DTRPG than it did during its Kickstarter. The only way to benefit from those sales is to have a share of the ongoing profits.

Sunday 19 September 2021

Coming Apart v0.4

Without further ado, here's version 0.4 of Coming Apart. This is very much a design in motion, but some major changes are most of the way through.

Coming Apart v0.4 Rules

Coming Apart v0.4 Playbooks

Here's a partial change log of the v0.3 to v0.4 changes

  • Basic moves completely reworked
  • Weapon accuracy/damage table removed
  • Hazard damage revised
  • Mission clock ticks are coarser scale, O2/radiation every 3
  • Ship combat rewritten
  • Revised how ship quirks cause trouble
  • Added section on threats
  • Restructured the flow of the initial sections, started a GM section
  • Clarified unusual fold types
  • Catching a break is now on a 10+ not 12+

Basic Moves Reworked

The biggie is that this is no longer quite so obviously Powered by the Apocalypse. I find it quite challenging to not have an explicit measure of how difficult a task is in action genres, and that kept coming up for me.

What I do love is the move notation (if not the name), so that stays; there's now a core resolution mechanic that's very much like Blades in the Dark's three levels of difficulty (controlled, risky, desperate), and other specialized moves elaborate this.

(This relationship between the core move and the specialized moves is still in the pimply teen phase, but it will be clearer in the next revision.)

There is still an intermediate terminology problem at the seam - rolling 2d6 6-/7-9/10+ is a miss/hit/break, but then there are special names for the things that happen based on the degree of difficulty (succeed, fail, a cost, a disaster). In this design, 'hit/miss/break' is intermediate terminology that should be removed, and the specialized moves should be rewritten in terms of success, failure, costs, disasters, and so on.

Weapon Accuracy Removed

At the same time, I've pruned off one of the signature elements of The Regiment, the 'accuracy of fire' table. This makes sense in a battlefield context, but it was feeling more and more like complexity that wasn't paying for itself here.

Hazard Damage Revised

In its place is simplified weapon and hazard damage, all weapon dice just have a 50/50 chance of causing harm.

Ship Combat Rewritten

Ship weapons now use a different mechanic than the rest of the game, but I think it's simpler than fiddling with AOC. I'm going with the AD&D philosophy here that subsystems can be their own thing mechanically, and this is definitely not primarily a game about ship-to-ship combat (certainly not in the alpha/beta danger levels).

Mission Clock Ticks are Coarser

I like the mission clock, but I'm experimenting with making it coarser. Rather than tracking every few minutes, now the GM just tracks things that take a long time. This makes the bookkeeping chunkier, but I'm curious if this will lead to more GM cognitive load during play, having to decide what is or isn't worth a tick.

Section on Threats

There's now a short section that describes some of the shipboard threats. I think most people probably know what an anaconda is, but I was overdue for fuller descriptions of glass, dut-e-ful zombies, and SKULs.

What to Do With This?

Like v0.3 this is nominally playable, if you're okay with papering over a few cracks in realtime. If you do, or if you feel up for giving it a read, any comments in the PDFs in Google Drive are very welcome!

Saturday 14 August 2021

Wilderness Paths

Here are some lightweight rules for finding paths through the wilderness. There are lots of different wilderness exploration rules, focusing on all sorts of things like weather, food, or getting lost, but these rules focus on finding better paths over time.

For these rules to be useful, you need three things:

  • a wilderness map divided into regions
  • reason for the adventurers to cross through the same area many times
  • resource constraints that make shorter, safer paths worth finding

An ideal situation would a West Marches game where the party is heading out from a central point over and over again. Finding better routes through the familiar areas close to home pays off in the long run, enabling them to speed past problems they faced early on.

Divide the Map into Regions

The regions on your map could be hexes, or just named areas of a more freeform wilderness map. It doesn't really matter, as long as they're big enough that there are several paths through it.

This doesn't take a large region, even the classic six-mile hex of forest or other rough terrain is large enough that you could cross it many times and still miss points of interest.

When you blaze a trail..

When the party first crosses a region (perhaps en route to a more distant landmark), roll 4d6 in order. Each die represents a leg of the path through the region.

d6This part of your path is ..
Hazardous. Your path takes you to, over, or through a dangerous obstacle like a steep cliff, a swift river, a ravine, noxious plants, treacherous terrain (bogs, pits, sharp), and so on. Every time you come this way you must deal with it.
Circuitous. Switchbacks, curling pathways through dense forest, along the banks of a winding river. The path will take you there, but it takes extra time. Perhaps instead of only a day to cross this region, it takes two.
Occupied. Your path goes directly past a lair, through an often used hunting ground, within sight of watchful sentries, or along a regularly patrolled track. This may not be the only encounter you have in this area, but every time you come this way, you risk meeting whoever or whatever lives here.
Terrain-specific. Deserts expose you to the elements, forests confuse you or slow you, mountains force up steep climbs or across windblown glaciers. Wherever you are, this part of your path is quintessential of the terrain type.
Direct. This part of the path is straighter and easier going than usual. Save yourself some time. Perhaps instead of three days to cross the region, it takes only one.
Secluded. A sheltered gully, a disused trail, a hidden pass—whatever it is, nothing else seems to come this way and your progress is hidden from view.

Travel Time

Blazing a trail through tricky terrain takes twice as long as travelling along a previously used, known path. Depending on the scale of your regions, it might take four days to cross a region (eight while blazing the trail).

Example: Mossgrove

Two days from Fair Riot is a swampy wood the locals call Mossgrove. They had no advice on how to cross the swampy forest, and so the party must forge its own trail. The dice: 4,1,2,2. Terrain-specific, hazardous, and then a double result of circuitous.
  • The western edge of Mossgrove wood is knee-deep water over soft loam. Leeches and gnats harry you as you trudge aimlessly through the algae-streaked waters. There's absolutely nowhere to rest.
  • A half day from there, the water deepens and the bottom turns to soft, sucking mud. Everyone risks getting stuck; ponies and heavily laden adventurers risk sinking completely.
  • Beyond the quagmire is a labyrinth of dry mounds, riven by deep, muddy streams. Picking a path through here that keeps your boots dry is endlessly winding (you may even have looped a few times), taking 2 days longer than you'd expect.

There must be another way..

Each time the party cross a region, they can choose one of the paths they know, or blaze a new one. If they forge a new one, roll 4d6 again and interpret the result.

If the party just wants to detour around one part of a path roll two replacement dice to represent what they find on the detour. Maybe it's better, maybe it's worse!

Example: Avoiding Mossgrove Quagmire

On their return through Mossgrove, the party decides to see if they can find away around the quagmire. After two days of travelling through the maze (the eastern two legs of the original path), they roll two dice: 1, and 3. Hazard, Occupied!

This is even worse! On their third trip, they roll 1 and 3 again (I'm doing this as I write). It's not until their fourth trip, that their attempt to find a way around the quagmire pays off with a roll of 4 and 6. Their best path through mossgrove is now:
  • Knee-deep leechwater with nowhere to rest
  • {Detour}
    • Slow going between closely spaced, mossy trees
    • A secluded route around the edges of the quagmire (perhaps around a tar-smelling bog where few animals tend to come)
  • Two days of circuitous travel through the labyrinth of streams


If you have a guide who knows the area, randomly roll the path using 3d6 instead of 4d6. Not only is it shorter, but they will be able to warn you of any hazards or occupants ahead of time.

These rules are Mosaic Strict.

Sunday 11 July 2021

More MOSAIC Strict Sets!

It's been a few months since I posted about MOSAIC Strict, but a bunch more rule sets have appeared. Too many for me to do justice to each one, but I've returned to keeping the Mosaic Strict Rule Sets spreadsheet up to date!

Last time around, there weren't any rules for making characters; a number of people have addressed this with new systems ranging from the very generic to the highly specific!

Here they are, 22 new modular rule sets to mash together with each other, or to add to existing games:


Character Creation

Wednesday 2 June 2021

Coming Apart v0.3

For a little while now I've been working on Coming Apart, a sci-fi PbtA game about scrappers in rust-bucket starships working their way to something better by doing high-stakes salvage missions nobody else will touch.

Mechanically, it's heavily inspired by The Regiment, which was John Harper's ashcan WWII game. Lots of lead flying at you (or in this case, shrapnel and fire) as you try to get your mission accomplished.

It's set in a 'post planet' era a few centuries after "Too Good to be True". Planet killing weapons have wrecked humanity's few good homes, but instantaneous interstellar travel has opened the universe. Now, a scattered humanity stretches across incredible distances, linked by delicate webs of trust.

Play wise, I was heavily inspired by the smash 'n' grab style of the Void Bastards video game, but with a base-building component: all the ships are modular (like the modern day ISS), so one of your options is to saw something off and weld it onto your own ship.

Before long, you get a shot at targets from higher danger classes, which opens up more modules, threats, but also new advancements.

Right now the game is at a very early stage; despite its length it's still very much in the middle of refinement. (When I design I seem to go through bloating/contracting phases as I explore a bit and then distill to the core of what I want.)

If any of this sounds like your thing, have a look at the v0.3 rules and playbooks.
There's only been a tiny bit of playtesting; there are marked holes but also undiscovered ones. If you squint a bit, it's playable, but not necessarily fun yet! All the numbers are uncalibrated, so death spirals, unwinnable missions and boring cake-walks are just as likely as thrilling action.

Still, happy to have feedback if you have any!

Sunday 18 April 2021

Scorched Earth NPC Relationship Table

Integrating player-written character backgrounds into your campaign is real work. Sometimes they just write so much, who can keep all those names straight?

Why struggle? Let the dice be your friend! Every time they bring someone up from that dog-eared sheaf they keep bringing to game night, just roll d6:

d6Whatever happened to so-and-so?
Moments after you last saw them, they joined up with the enemy. Life as an entry level hobgoblin is hard, but it also has a kind of simplicity. They don't really think about the past. Cudgel, rusty helmet, raawr, you know?
They died, pretty much right away. Their surviving relatives and friends remember the PC as a bit of a dick to them in their final years.
One day, their home just fell into the earth, and they haven't been seen since. Coincidentally, the hole is the entrance to that dungeon you were planning on using next!
It was never reciprocal, and the NPC is honestly having trouble remembering the PC's name. I mean, it's great you thought we we were close or whatever, but I think you read too much into it. Please don't make it awkward.
Nobody can remember the NPC. Who? Are you sure? There's no magic at work, just an overactive imagination.
After a brief, high fever, they erupted into a brightly colored fungal mat. Nobody's been able to clean it up, the stench is unbelievable.

Friday 9 April 2021

Some Mosaic Strict Sets Appear!

Forty eight days ago, I wrote up Mosaic Strict, a somewhat light-hearted set of compliance rules for making modular parts of RPGs. It asked, what if there were no mechanical interconnections between various parts of a game at all?

Since then, several folks have actually made Mosaic Strict rule sets!

EDIT: Since this post was published, more have appeared. I'll track them in a spreadsheet.

A Lovemaking

The first was Paul Czege, who wrote A Lovemaking, rules for how characters negotiate whether to get it on. Released March 1, 2021.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things in the Dungeon

Next was Alfred Valley, with what must be the shortest Mosaic rule set so far, a two-sided business card on how to decide whether to hang up the spurs and leave the dungeon. Released March 4, 2021.

Turn Up Your Nose

Third was Dan Maruschak with a one-pager on how to empathize with the snobbish upper classes when they're forced to deal with people 'beneath them'. I imagine this could be played inverted to good effect. Released March 9, 2021.

Matthias of Liche's Libram wrote this rule set about how to interpret the significance of characters' dreams. Released March 14, 2021.

Cook Off

Matt Bohnhoff's first rule set is about cooking under pressure! Whose dish will win the day? Released March 15, 2021.

The Magic of Names

I missed this one on Twitter when it was first announced, but there's now an Ursula K LeGuin-inspired freform magic system! By Thomas Manuel, March 30, 2021.

Quick Combat

Last on my list is this quick-play combat system, also by Matthias of Liche's Libram. Lose an eye in no time! Released March 31, 2011.

Fishing Trip

Matt Bohnhoff then made this chill mini-game about stepping aside from the adventure to catch some fish. Released April 1, 2021.

I'm aware of a few more cooking.. but to my knowledge they aren't released yet. Did I miss any?

Sunday 14 March 2021

The Thwarted Course

Word has spread as far as Birevia—masons are needed, or those willing to learn, to repair an ancient bridge. The silver is flowing, but why is nobody returning?

The Thwarted Course is my take on a classic setup: the ogre-troubled bridge. Here, however, the ogre isn't an isolated hermit, but the penultimate link in a dreadful chain of exploitation.

This location has had a long, long gestation, I think I started on this map seven months ago! Here's the illustrated bridge on its own, ready for you to either print and show to your players, or to restock however you like:

If you're using this location in your own setting, the bridge fits almost anywhere you have a steep-sided river in a sparsely populated area.

If you're using this with the setting from the Trilemma Compendium, the bridge stands in the far northwest, in hex 0107, upriver from Witchknuckle in northern Claimsun. If adventurers investigate the road, it should eventually connect to a Martoi cyst of some kind—a ruin at least, possibly a fortress.

* * *

Thanks to my generous patrons for supporting this adventure-making project, long have you waited for this installment!

Saturday 20 February 2021

Nothing at the Bottom: MOSAIC Strict RPG Design

This blog post describes an experimental RPG design principle, Mosaic Strict. I'm defining this principle because I'm curious what kind of games result from applying it. (I have no idea!) I'm defining it very carefully because we live in a fallen world and shared understanding is fleeting.

MOSAIC is a set of criteria that might be true of an RPG text:

  • Modular
  • Optional
  • Short
  • Attested
  • Independent
  • Coreless

If all the criteria apply, then that text is Mosaic Strict. If only some (or none) of the criteria apply, then it's not Mosaic Strict. There are no partial points, it's all or nothing.

(If you use a hash tag for some reason, please use #MosaicStrict capitalization so screen readers handle it properly.)


Mosaic Strict RPG texts are meant to be used together with other RPG texts; each text only describes a portion of the rules that will probably be in use. One might describe an initiative system, another how combat works, another how gutter mage rituals work.

Anyone trying to have a pleasant evening of gaming will probably need to use several of them.

Modular: Any game text that explicitly claims to be
an entire, complete RPG is not Mosaic Strict.

This doesn't mean that all Mosaic Strict texts necessarily work well together! Any given pairing might be hot garbage. That's fine, because they're all..


Mosaic Strict RPG texts are all optional; you don't have to use them. Each play group will decide for itself which one(s) they are using. If a game text describes itself as mandatory, or necessary for the use of a certain gaming experience, it is not Mosaic Strict.

Optional: Any game text that describes itself
as necessary for play is not Mosaic Strict.

Please note that the modular and optional tests aren't about the rules of a text and whether they're "really" modular or optional; this rule is about how the text describes itself.


Mosaic Strict optional rules are concise enough to fit on a two-page spread, no more than 1500 words.

Short: Mosaic Strict game texts are no more than 1500 words.

This includes any and all words that are part of the publication, such as words in illustrations, the document's title, subtitle, headings, subheadings, byline, copyright notice, Mosaic Strict attestation (see below). If the text is longer than this, it's not Mosaic Strict.


If the game text doesn't explicitly say that it's Mosaic Strict, it isn't.

Attested: Mosaic Strict texts say they are Mosaic Strict.

This rule exists for three reasons:
  1. Mosaic Strict game designers, if there ever are any, have a slim chance of finding one another if their work is labelled
  2. It might help confused readers of your Mosaic Strict optional rules understand why it refuses to use the term saving throw for no good reason
  3. It makes the acronym work


Now the easy stuff is out of the way, here's a tough one, the rule that is really what Mosaic Strict is all about:

Independent: Mosaic Strict texts do not refer to the mechanics
or quantified state in any other game text.

By mechanics I mean any procedures (do this, then do this next, roll these dice, use dice at all) that tells you how to play. By quantified state, I mean any use of numbers, tags, attributes, binary or multi-state conditions (alignment, prone, not prone) to characterize what's going on in the game world.

Mosaic Strict texts don't refer to any rules whatsoever from other documents. Mosaic Strict texts do not build on one another, they don't assume you're using alignment or levels or that you have a Strength stat described in another document, none of that. There are no mechanical connections whatsoever between Mosaic Strict documents.

This means that a Mosaic Strict game text that describes a turn order for combat cannot assume that characters have Dex scores, or that the game is using 2d6. The combat turn order document could define those things

Now, game worlds have things that can be counted or quantified: money, a PC's height in inches; light switches flip on and off. A game text can refer to quantified things that exist in a setting and still be Mosaic Strict.

A two-page spread about being a wizard could say that you need $13,333 to join the magic society and that you must devour 13 white cats to be able to cast a tree-climbing cantrip up to three times a day and could still count as Mosaic Strict; these are all in-game quantities.

A game text that references any mechanical quantity from another text is not Mosaic Strict.


This isn't a separate rule, but a consequence of Independence that I need to be really clear about: There are no core rules and no character sheet at the bottom of Mosaic Strict, no standard interface of compatibility.

Coreless: assume nothing else is in use beyond free-form play

A game text could define a character sheet and still be Mosaic Strict, but any other document that requires its use is not Mosaic Strict.

A game text could define a universal resolution mechanic and still be Mosaic Strict, but any other document that references that resolution mechanic is not Mosaic Strict.

There's no central document or required rule at the heart of it all, only free-form play role-play and whatever assumptions a particular group brings with it.

A Few Clarifications

Q. Is this gatekeeping bullshit?
A. No! Or at least, I hope not. I intend this in the spirit of the 200-word RPG contest: a very specific set of rules to see what comes out of it. My first few conversations about this convinced me there's a powerful temptation to do almost what I'm describing, slithering back into much more normal game design, so I want to be really, really clear about what I'm talking about.

Q. This sounds stupid, how does this make a better game?
A. I doubt it will!

Q. Is there any Mosaic Strict actual play so I can see what the fuck you're talking about?
A. No. The Mosaic Strict criteria are meant to apply only to RPG game texts. They don't apply to play styles or culture, design aesthetics, genres, or anything else—just the text of the RPG.

This means that if a bunch of people get together, grab three Mosaic Strict documents (one for being a wizard, one for stealing things, another for driving too fast in a jalopy) but bring along their 5th edition play assumptions and experiences and use a d20 for everything, the criteria of Mosaic Strict have nothing to say about their play experience. If a group is playing Call of Cthulhu mashed up with cool take on slime infection in a Mosaic Strict two-pager, we don't say that their session was Mosaic Strict or not.

All play experiences incorporate elements from the players that are not in the rules. Mosaic Strict only applies game texts, not play experiences.

Monday 15 February 2021

Realistic Kickstarter Goals

Using your entire project budget to set your Kickstarter funding goal will make your goal too high. The financially responsible funding goal only covers your remaining costs.

With The One Ring making a big splash on Kickstarter this month, there's been renewed talk of fair funding goals. Free League set its funding goal at 100K SEK (about $12,000 USD), which is unlikely to be enough to cover the costs of producing a full-color, 300+ page book full of art.

Is this too low? Are they gaming the system?

Maybe not.

Kickstarter (or perhaps just Kickstarter culture) rewards projects that make their funding goals quickly, which encourages low goals. Funding on the first day (or hour!) is particularly celebrated. It's tempting to set a funding goal that's much lower than the project's budget in order to be able to hit this funding goal very quickly. That success can be used for marketing oomph, building more buzz and sales in a virtuous cycle.

That is.. if you get enough backers. If you don't, have you basically gambled financial disaster to buy some marketing juice?

Two Crucial Funding Levels

There are two crucial funding levels, one of which we talk about all the time: break-even point. This is the point a which your project earns enough to cover its costs, and makes its first dollar of profit.

The other funding level is one I don't hear about much, and that's the "go/no-go" funding level. How many sales do you need from your Kickstarter to make continuing to production a good idea?

Intuitively, these are the same amount. Why would you go forward with a project that's going to lose money? Unfortunately, this assumption will make you pick the wrong funding level, one that increases your risks.

Sunk Costs

The flaw in this thinking is that by the time you Kickstarter, you've already invested a lot. You've probably at least got a first draft, you've put time into play testing, you've spent time lining up the production team, working out some of your logistics, and you've bought enough art to at least give your Kickstarter a chance.

On Kickstarter launch day, there's no way to "unspend" this money.

If your project is unprofitable, you can't go back in time and not do all that pre-work. This has a huge effect on how you set a financially responsible funding level.

What you need to look at is the various scenarios going forward from that point in time, and setting a funding level that guarantees you'll be in better financial shape than you are now. That funding level only covers your remaining costs! Why is this?


To answer that, let's look at hypothetical indie RPG project. I've picked March 1st as my KS launch date, and by that time I estimate that I will have sunk $5,000 into the project. (Let's say this is three weeks of full-time work at a 'livable wage' of $30/hr, plus $1,000 in assorted freelance help such as KS banner art.)

Having carefully thought out my remaining costs in time and freelance work, I project I'll need another $5,000 to finish the project. (Art, layout, copy-editing, time spent finalizing shipping logistics, coordinating freelancers, etc.)

I've priced the book at $30 (including shipping), and it costs me $20 per book to print, package, and ship to backers. The per-book margin is therefore $10.

This means that my break-even point is 1000 sales. That raises $30,000, which covers the $10,000 in fixed costs, plus the $20,000 in variable costs of delivering 1000 books.

However, my go/no-go point is much less, only 500 sales. Why is this?

Several Disasters

Let's consider several crappy outcomes. One is that I don't get a single backer. If this happens, I won't fund, and I don't go to production. I pull the plug on the project, and (crucially), I don't spend the additional $5,000 to complete the book.

This means that my total costs are the $5,000 I already put in (and a broken heart).

Now let's imagine that I got 900 backers. That's not enough to break even, because my total costs are $28,000. However, my revenue is $27,000, which means my final position is $1,000 in the hole. That's considerably better than $5,000 in the hole, which is where I'd be if I set my target above 900 backers. I'm $4,000 better off by going to production with 900 backers.

Clearly, 1000 is not the optimal funding goal.

With a funding goal of 500, as soon as I get 500 backers, my additional fixed spend on art to complete the project ($5,000) is exactly covered by the margin of my book sales (500 x $10). I'm no better or worse off than pulling the plug. At 499 backers, I'm slightly worse off ($5010 in the hole), at 501 backers, slightly better ($4990).

This is the balance point that matters, when my per-book margin equals my remaining fixed costs.

One way to look at this is to plot my project's final profit based on various funding goals and actual backer levels.

Here is the ideal profit line.

With a funding goal of 500 backers, there is never a point where I'm more exposed than my sunk costs of $5,000. $5,000 in the hole is as bad as it gets. At the same time, as soon as I get even one extra backer past my funding goal, my position is improving.

Let's compare that with other funding goals:

With a funding goal of zero (dark blue line), I've made the choice to spend the additional $5,000 in art costs whether or not I get any sales. This exposes me to some additional downside, as much as $10,000 in the hole if I get no backers.

With a funding goal of 250 backers (red line), I have some protection against the worst, but going into production with 250 sales means my final position is $7500 in the hole, considerably worse than 500 backers.

Now look at funding goals above 500 (e.g. green, orange, teal). Those goals protect me from deepening the hole, but they make it harder to start recouping my costs: it takes many more backers before my project lifts off that -$5,000 profit line. If my funding goal is 1000 and I only get 750 backers, my project doesn't fund. If my goal had been lower, I could have recouped some of my sunk debts, even though my project wasn't profitable overall.

Unconscious Signals

What's interesting about this is that it matches my own gut feel choices while planning my own Kickstarters. I had funding levels that were considerably below the total project budget, because I knew I was going ahead regardless.

With plans to use print on demand, once the book was actually written, there was very little reason not to go ahead with production, especially since post-Kickstarter sales also become available.

Of course, if you have a series of unprofitable books, you need to look at your operation pretty carefully. The time to consider the possibility of turning a profit is before you start sinking time and money into something. When you're hovering over the Launch Kickstarter button, however, very different calculations rule the day.

Sunday 14 February 2021

Sci-Fi Where Art Thou?

Recently, I wondered to myself, "What's the 5E of sci-fi?" If one was going to create science fiction adventure content to supplement the most popular system, what would it be?

Class A Modular Ship by Galen Pejeau

Surely there's something d20-based floating around, but it took me a while to remember Stars Without Number. Why is that?

I grabbed the Q1 2020 Orr Report from Roll20's blog to see what their stats said. I did a quick classification of the top ~95% of campaigns (there's a pretty long tail), and here's what I got:

Here it's pretty clear—fantasy rules the roost by an astonishing margin. More than 60% of all campaigns were fantasy. There are plenty of campaigns that don't declare a system, but after that there's a solid chunk of Call of Chthulhu.

Sci fi is 1.9% of campaigns?!

Talking about this on Twitter, a number of people wondered:

  • It this just because of the 5E effect?
  • Is there a bunch of sci-fi gaming classified as horror? (e.g. ALIEN)
The answer to both questions is no. Here's 5E and all Uncategorized campaigns removed. Horror (as I said) is basically all various edition of Call of Cthulhu (with a homeopathic quantity of something called inSANe).

When I look across sci-fi, cyberpunk, and science fantasy (e.g. Numera), it's no surprise that the top systems are Star Wars (various), Starfinder, and Shadowrun. What's more surprising is those three heavyweights don't even account for 20 games out of 1000 on Roll20.

  • A number of definitely sci-fi systems like ALIEN and Coriolis, are lumped into system categories like "Year Zero". Other systems presumably have some sci-fi component, like FATE, Savage Worlds, and all of PbtA are lumped into system categories. Even so, that's only 2% of Roll20 campaigns in total, much of which is other genres besides sci-fi.
  • Roll20 campaign data may not be representative of overall gaming patterns. Anything that doesn't really benefit from maps and tokens may simply be using Zoom and Google Sheets, and not messing with VTTs at all.
If you're looking for sci-fi, Zine Quest 2021 is going now, and has several great-looking Mothership supplements!