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!

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.)

Modular

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..

Optional

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.

Short

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.

Attested

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

Independent

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.

Coreless

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?

Scenarios

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.


Caveats:
  • 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!