December 2009

My Work in 2009

I’m not going to fib: 2009 was a rough year, work-wise. Catalyst experienced turnovers and hardships and growing pains, and we also did a lot of awesome things, but we also didn’t get all of the awesome things finished that we wanted to. That leaves us with plenty of things to do in 2010, of course!

One particular thing I found troubling about 2009 was developing the design and layout for Eclipse Phase and the 20th Anniversary Edition of Shadowrun at the same time: it was a lot of work, and I would have liked to have seen how one book [either one!] fared in the eyes of gamers before I turned my attention to another book. I used my gut a lot when designing both books; in the end, I think my gut was right more often than not.

My highlights of 2009 are easy:

Eclipse Phase

Not only am I very pleased with how Eclipse Phase ended up looking and working as a book and game artifact, but our gang at Posthuman Studios pushed Catalyst hard for things we wanted: Creative Commons licensing & inexpensive PDF pricing being the prime two. Those decisions have so far turned out to be wise, and Catalyst will be be publishing at least one more game—Leviathans—using a Creative Commons license. The development team’s work on Eclipse Phase—game, setting, book—fills me with pride.

Shadowrun, 4th Ed. 20th Anniversary Core Rulebook

What can I say? It was a thrill to work on this book, and aside from minor nitpicks it’s been enthusiastically received by new and returning Shadowrun fans alike. Highlights: the huge color-coded master index, the streamlining of character generation, and the revised skills chapter. Each time I pick up this book to use is better than any time picking up the previous Fourth Edition book.

Seattle 2072

Through weird twists of fate, I actually ended up being the developer on this project. My goal was simple: meld the best of Seattle Sourcebook’s “bite-sized” design with the best of New Seattle’s, throw in a major shakeup, and set up some future plots so people can keep ‘running in the Sixth World’s signature city. Steve Kenson rocked the main writing tasks and we pulled in a bunch of others to write short fiction pieces.

Being a Better Friend on Social Networks

On social networks such as Facebook, your friends and colleagues typically provide you with a vast amount of information about what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. You should use this information to be a better friend.

When a friend makes some sort of comment or status update that makes you wonder “What’s wrong?”, “What happened?” or similar questions—don’t ask them that generic question. Take a quick look at their profile and check what they’ve been doing lately: have they been to a wedding? Did a relative fall ill or die? Did they just break up with someone? Did they just get laid off, or get a new job? Spend just a few minutes—literally!—checking in on your friend, use the resources that they have made available to you, and then use what you’ve learned to help your friend. If they’ve just broken up with someone, what’s better for them to hear: “What happened?” or “Hey, I heard you got laid off. Let me know if you want to talk or hang out anytime, my schedule is clear for you and dinner is on me.”? React to the event that happened; don’t just react because an event happened.

Look at this sort of research as the same way you would handle an in-person situation with a friend or co-worker: if one of your co-workers comes into the office and they seem excessively frustrated or angry, do you immediately confront them or ask them what’s wrong? Likely not; you’re more likely to talk to another co-worker first to see if you can find out what’s up. Sometimes, it’s better to learn things indirectly so you can approach a situation more delicately or give someone additional time and space. This works the same online as it does off.

If they didn’t say anything recently that makes it obvious why they’re in such a mood, then go ahead and ask them. But bear in mind that if they haven’t broadcasted the reason before, they might not want to broadcast the reason now, so a private message or email (not an instant message) is probably the best way to ask.

If you care about your friends, it’s worth spending a few more minutes to make sure that they are actually cared for, and not just bombarded with already-answered questions.

How to Ask Smart Questions about Games

Eric S. Raymond of The Cathedral and the Bazaar fame also maintains a FAQ/guide on How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. I find it a useful document and have read it several times over the years, but it’s steeped in Open Source and code-hacking culture. Even though it’s aimed at non-technical users seeking answers for technical questions, it isn’t a document I would point people to regularly, if for nothing but the length.

Questions about roleplaying, board, or card games are often very technical and deep, whether they are about mechanics or an elaborate setting. Good questions get good answers—but recently I’ve been seeing more and more questions that are either ill-formed or lacking necessary information. Dare I say it, I’ve been seeing questions that are “twitter length” when they don’t need to be.

Before I move forward, I am going to issue two standard disclaimers:

  1. Don’t interrupt a game to look up a rule online, phone a friend, etc. Make a ruling that is satisfactory to all players and agree to play by that ruling until the end of the game, then work on a solution for future games or play sessions. Take some quick notes or a photograph of the game state so you can remember the exact problem. I almost always have my laptop nearby, so I just record an audio explanation of the issue so I can fully remember it later—any easy recording device will do!
  2. In a non-competitive game like most roleplaying games, what “the company” or “other gaming groups” think or do is not relevant to your gaming group. Any solution that pleases everyone in your gaming group is the correct solution [if not the most correct solution] to a rules or setting problem. This is true in competitive games within your group, as well.

Now, onto asking questions!

Before You Ask

  • Do your research: first, re-read the relevant sections of the rules. Memory or oral renditions of the rules may not be accurate. The first person I played Magic: The Gathering with told me that if you had zero cards in your hand when it was your draw, you drew seven cards instead of the normal single card!
  • If the rules don’t answer your questions, do a web search, check for an official FAQ or errata, discuss the question with your gaming group, and ask a local expert in the game.

Ask the Question

  • Start by listing the edition/version of the game you are playing, and then ask your question in the simplest and most compact terms. You want readers to quickly figure out if they can help you and move on if they can’t.

Explain What You Know

  • List out the rules/books you have so far used to research the problem, and the other books/expansions to which you have access.
  • List out any other things that may be relevant, such as house rules you are using that may interact with the canon rules.
  • List the page references for what is confusing you: if you have looked for specific rules on p. 191 and there are additional rules on p. 256 that you have not found, a reference to p. 191 only will give someone a good clue where to lead you next. If you’re talking about a board or card game, explain the relevant things that are on the playing field. Remember that in some board or card games, the rules change slightly depending on the number of players, so list that, also.

Provide an Example

  • If it’s a rules question, a specific implementation example from your game will help the readers understand your question and will give an answer more context when it comes to back to you. If it’s a board or card game giving you trouble, take a digital picture of the playfield if you think that will help.

Provide Options

  • If you have researched the question to the point where you have multiple possible answers, present the options and your logic behind them as if they were answers to a multiple-choice test.


  • Go back and proofread your question; make sure that any numbers are correct and that you start with the basics and work to the more complicated parts of the problem. If your question is broken, getting an accurate answer will be even more difficult!
  • Use the standard terms that the game uses—even if your local gaming group has its own slang, the more your question hews to the game-as-published, the easier it will be for people to answer.

Thank Yous

  • Thank people in advance for reading and thinking about your post, and after you receive answers, thank them.
  • Point out the answer that you plan on using.
  • Include any additional notes you may have from other research or reading you’ve done.

Similarly, many of these hints can help you when answering questions, too: include book and page references, quick examples as necessary, and don’t devolve into too much slang, shorthand, or netspeak.

Dating Advice

This is a subject not normally broached on this blog, for sure!

David A. Hill Jr. busts out some “geek” dating advice, linking to one of the most widely-known articles about “Nice Guys”—No More Mr. Nice Guy. One of my friends wrote another great Why nice guys come last article a few years ago, and I’m going to chime in with a bit of dating—hell, life!—advice that applies whether you are a “geek” or not:

You don’t get to choose what disrespects someone else.

This flows in both directions: If you care enough about someone, don’t do or say things that they tell you is disrespectful to them; and if they tell you that something isn’t disrespectful to them, don’t try and insist that it is.

Yes, some things are stereotypically and generally offensive. There are things I won’t say or do because I consider them offensive—or at least, offensive in certain situations. But don’t ever hide behind “X is offensive to women” or “X is offensive to men” if a specific woman or man directly tells you that it’s not offensive to them—their personal opinion overrides the stereotype about their gender when you are dealing with them.

Similarly, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” does not mean “pretend the same event would happen to you”—unless that someone else is a clone of you, they are unlikely to react the exact same way! When you think about someone else, actually think about them and not about you!

Treat people like they want to be treated; treat people better than they deserve to be treated; don’t treat people like you want to be treated. They aren’t you.

Interviewed at Dicecast

I was interviewed for Polymancer’s DiceCast at FanExpo this year, and that episode just went live.

The audio quality isn’t great—we were recording inside the convention hall after it closed for the day—but it’s still totally listenable. I talk about my role at Catalyst, Eclipse Phase, and offer some advice on breaking into the game industry as a freelancer.

Thanks to the Polymancer folks for having me!

Facebook and Privacy and Passwords and Deactivating Accounts

As usual, when a social media network makes change in how it handles privacy settings, there’s been a kafuffle over Facebook’s recent privacy changes. I was nosing around the new privacy settings, and noticed something that I consider obnoxious: even though I was already logged into my account, I had to enter my password again to modify my Privacy settings:

“Your privacy settings are secured for your protection.”

This is an obvious deterrent to users modifying their own privacy settings, but I can buy the argument that it’s good to have that extra layer of protection, as people are likely to leave their Facebook account logged into public computers, and someone modifying their privacy settings would obviously be ugly. Of course, Facebook and their advertisers and other partners all serve to gain the less people know about and modify their privacy preferences.

Beyond that, I was curious, so I went back to the preferences and clicked on Deactivate Account, and sure enough — you can deactivate your account without inputting your password. Just fill in a CAPTCHA and bam, you are dead to Facebook! Like a zombie you can shamble back through Facebook simply by logging in again—but shouldn’t deleting accounts also require you to prove via password that you are who you’re deleting?