Kickstart Narosia: Sea of Tears, one of my upcoming projects!

One of my projects this fall is the HERO System fantasy game, Narosia: Sea of Tears. The Kickstarter launched on August 1st and closes on August 31st!

Narosia is a gritty fantasy RPG, designed by Shane Harsch of Legendsmiths and Marc Tassin, with artwork from Universe M, and contributions from Kenneth Hite. I'm especially excited because this is actually the first project where I'll get to work with Ken!

I'm also excited about seeing what sort of new graphical takes I can do on a HERO System game, without alienating the diehard HERO fan base … I do suspect some samples will end up hitting this blog over the next couple months!

Narosia: Sea of Tears will be published by Silverback Press, the new publishing company run by ex-HERO Darren Watts. The core rulebook will be complete with HERO System rules and setting information, not requiring a distinct HERO System core rulebook to use!

Creating Playtest Kits for Card Games

I started this article a long time ago and it's sat in my drafts folder for months. I'm working on the same task today and figured I would finish what I had written about the subject and get it out there, instead of waiting until I could finish everything I want to write on the subject.

I'm working on playtest kits for some card games right now. It's not my first time doing so, but I think it's my smartest time. Here's some notes on how to build playtest kits more easily.

What are the goal of playtest kits? Playtesting the game, of course! You want to spend as much time as possible playing and analyzing that play, and less time building and rebuilding kits.Here's some priorities when breaking that down:

Playtest kits should be:

  1. As easy to make as possible.
  2. Quick to modify on the fly.
  3. An accurate representation of the current state of the game rules and all card text.
  4. A factual representation of the physical game item (correct colors, rough icons, etc.)

Here's the game-specific stuff you need to build a playtest kit:

  1. A spreadsheet or database that contains all the necessary information for each card.
  2. A list of how many of each card you need to print.
  3. Printable cards, 9 per page. There are a million ways to turn your spreadsheet/database into a printable page like this. As you can probably guess, I use InDesign for this. Data merge is hot!
  4. A copy of the rules to be printed. These rules should be in a state where a group of people who have never played the game can lean the game from them.

Here's the stuff you'll need from your Game Designer's Toolkit:

A whole bunch of excess cards from dead CCGs. Go to your local game store and say "Hey, I need a 800-count box of the absolute worst, dead, totally terrible CCG cards you can get me, from a variety of terrible CCGs." Your game store clerk will say "Are you serious?" and you say "Yup! What do you want for them?" You should be able to get this box of cards for 10 bucks or less—many game stores have boxes of these cards that haven't sold in years. If the store offers to sell you more and you have the storage space, go for it. You want the games from a variety of CCGs to make your different playtest sets easier to tell apart if you use clear sleeves.

A smaller bunch of CCG sleeves. There are two routes to take with this: the cheap clear sleeves that Ultra Pro sells for a penny each, or the nicer colored/opaque/textured sleeves that typically run about 5 cents each, retail. Advantages to the penny sleeves: they are cheap and you can use different CCG cards in them to easily distinguish between different types of cards in your game. Advantages to the more expensive sleeves: they typically shuffle better, slide around less, and can take more wear and tear. I prefer the Ultra Pro matte sleeves, as they're quite durable and don't get marked very easily. You'll need a few different colored types of sleeves to distinguish between different types of cards (or different games, or different versions of games.) If you want the nicer sleeves but are on a budget, ask your local game store to sell you all the sleeves that, for whatever reason, have not sold well to the local player community. If you're willing to take those slow-moving sleeves off their hands, they may well cut you a bargain. They might also have a bunch of used sleeves that they'll sell to you cheaply—many people who sell off their CCG collections leave the cards sleeved, and so stores end up with boxes of these used sleeves (if they don't just throw them away.)

Cheap printer paper. This paper will be going inside a sleeve and against a card, so it doesn't need to be sturdy. I think I paid $16 for 2500 sheets last time I bought paper: if each of those sheets turned into 9 playtest cards, that's 22,500 playtest cards you can build before you need more paper.

A printer. I have a HP 2605dn color laserjet. Being able to do color is very useful in playtesting, and the cost savings over time for a laserjet printer are very clear over an inkjet.

A paper cutter or scissors. You're going to be cutting a bunch of paper, and a proper paper cutter will make your life better. A paper shredder for all those scraps is great too, if you're not a recycler.

A bunch of counters. Most games require counters of some sort, for life or other resources. During playtests, poker chips usually do a great job of this. If you're getting fancy, print out graphics and glue them to both sides of a poker chip.

Sharpies in a couple different colors for annotating cards during play or between sessions. Reprint them when the annotations become more confusing than the lack of them!

Print all the cards, cut them out, fill every sleeve with a CCG card, and then add the paper cards. Double-check the proxies with your list of cards, and you're good to go!

One final word on organizing this stuff: make sure all of your playtest files have dates on them, and keep all the physical components in a single bag/box/container, with a list of everything that should be in it and the playtest kit date/revision number. There are some large deck storage boxes designed for Magic: The Gathering that are big enough to fit 100+ cards and some other components, or you can simply use the smaller white 400-count card storage boxes.

This may seem like a lot of stuff to buy and have kicking around, but you can get it all for under $50, and most of it is reusable!

Thousand Suns Rulebook Cover

James Maliszewski posted up the cover of the new Thousand Suns Rulebook today, and it's already received some nice praise. We've been working on this project for a long time, and I'm super-pleased to help take Thousand Suns to the next level, and to help launch James' new company Grognardia Games with it.

James describes Thousand Suns thus: Thousand Suns is basically Poul Anderson and H. Beam Piper the Roleplaying Game, but with 21st century special effects.

The PDF and POD editions (hardcover and softcover) of Thousand Suns will be rocking out soon, and when more preview material is available I'll be sure to let you know!

TS Softcover Softcover Final

Bite-Sized Fate

Over on, there's a thread discussing TheMouse's "bite-sized" explanation of Fate. Several people have made 1-page (front and back) pamphlet-style versions of his condensed rules. My rough take on the idea is here:

(if I update this file, I'll just update that link and post a note. For now, I'm asking that people don't distribute/mirror the file—please link back to here, and people can grab the most up-to-date version.)

DriveThruRPG Updating PDFs for iPad Compatability

As many people with an iPad know, the PDF libraries included with it are written by Apple, not Adobe, and they don't support all PDF feature perfectly. They've been working with freelance designers, myself included, to rid these PDFs of glitches (as much as you can when not always having access to the files used to create the book.)

I'm going to keep a running tally of which books I've updated using Tumblr:

Not All Gamers are Plugged In

One of the common misconceptions about gamers is that they're all plugged in—they're all on the internet, they all read forums and keep up with publisher's blogs, they subscribe to podcasts and know what's being released when.

This is hogwash. There are many gamers that don't get news from anyplace except their local gaming store, and are largely or entirely insulated from trends in the gaming industry. Their hobby is one or two games that they buy and/or play. They come into the store once every few months, pick up anything new for their game of choice, and go home. They may see other games on the shelf, but they don't know what's in them and they don't have the time or inclination to learn. They don't participate in public/organized games at the store, they don't go to conventions -- they have friends that they game with, and that's that.

Last fall I was in my FLGS and another customer saw me picking up a wide variety of new releases. He asked if I was a "game collector" and I said no, I just try to keep up-to-date on what other companies are doing, as I work in the game industry. He then asked me what superhero games were good these days, and I pointed him to Mutants and Masterminds on the shelf (I also mentioned HERO, but said local store doesn't stock it). He asked how you make characters, and I said "Well, it's a point-based system" -- his reply was "What's a point-based system?"

I briefly explained what a point-based system was, and he found it incredibly difficult to understand that you could make a character in this game without picking some sort of archetype/class/template first: "So how do I make a speedster?" "Well, you build up the right stats and buy powers to make him faster." "But how do you know he's a speedster?!"

So, three things that a five minute conversation with this guy revealed:

  1. Even though he likes supers, he's never read or even flipped through Mutants & Masterminds, one of the two most popular superhero RPGs of the last decade, despite the title being in regular stock at the local store we both shop at.
  2. He didn't know what a point-based system was and had never (knowingly) played a game that used them.
  3. He had never (knowingly) played a game that didn't involve archetypes/classes/templates of some sort.

None of those things are bad -- if he's having fun gaming, that's great. But it does show that until someone actually stepped in and directly gave him that information, he had never learned or experienced three things that I suspect the average "tabletop gamer on the internet" would consider common knowledge.

2D6 Feet in a Random Direction

2D6 Feet in a Random Direction is one of my favorite gaming podcasts. It delivers gaming news from well-connected and knowledgeable hosts [Chris Hanrahan and Brian Isikoff] and guests, reviews, actual play reports, and California and USA west-coast gaming scene news.

The show's producers recently had some issues with their web hosting, and so I offered to and have taken over hosting the site—leaving Chris and Brian free to work on the show itself.

If you're a gamer, the perspectives from the 2D6 cast are well-worth listening to. If you're regularly buying and trying new games, I'd classify it as a must-listen!

The latest Gen Con LLC updates

Trask over at Living Dice has posted the most recent news about Gen Con LLC's Chapter 11 Bankruptcy filing, including a nice summary and some of the documents themselves.

In short, Gen Con LLC has come up with a plan to pay back their debts, and the creditors have until the end of December to decide on whether to accept those terms. So, it's likely that everyone will have to wait a few more months for further news.

For my previous posts on Lucasfilm's lawsuit against Gen Con LLC and the Chapter 11 filing, please check the posts under the gencon tag.

Review: Things We Think About Games

Things We Think About Games is the first book published by Gameplaywright Press, a joint effort between game industry veterans Will Hindmarch [who I consider a good friend] and Jeff Tidball [who I have met once, a few years back ... in the middle of a discussion about television cooking shows, not a subject that I have exhaustive knowledge on.] Both guys have written and designed all around the gaming industry, and the book has dozens of other contributors.


About the Book

I expected this book to be a series of essays. I don't think any of the promotions for the books misled me -- they just didn't really specify what was in the book, so I just assumed it was essays. It isn't; the majority of the book are short "proverbs" about game design, game playing, game teaching, and more. It's introduced by Wil Wheaton, and closes with am modified version of John August's Seven Lessons I learned from World of Warcraft and an essay from S. John Ross.

So while a quick flip-through of the book showed me that it wasn't what I anticipated, that flip-through sold me on the book, as I was able to instantly absorb, agree, and disagree with several of the entries. It sparked instant conversation with the people I was hanging out with, and Rob Donoghue made great use of the book's format, having various friends and industry people sign his copy of the book ... on a page they strongly agreed or disagreed with.

About the Contents

Will Hindmarch was inebriated a few nights ago, and via Twitter gave me permission to quote a few entries for purposes of this review.

001 - The player of any game has, at most, two hands

If your game requires a player to hold, handle, or move more than two things, you should know where the player sets one item while she is manipulating another. You should have a good reason for not including some indication of that place on your game board, in the rulebook, or in the money shot of your game on the box.

In poker, for example, the placement of cards and chips is customary. Even still, a nice poker tabletop has a chip rack and maybe a designated place for hole cards. A board game should provide a designated place for a draw deck, discard pile, and scoring if at all possible.

Hell yeah! I'd pay for an expansion to Ticket to Ride that contained the following:

  • A number of racks suitable for stacking destination tickets again (much like tile holders in Scrabble).
  • A cool board for setting the 5 face-up cards, the draw pile, and the destination tickets draw pile.

That's it! I'd put down my money for that product right away. It would be great to replace the handmade racks I currently have to stack destination tickets against, and the board for placing the various draw piles would be a nice bonus.

The game is by no means defective without them, but it could be that much better with. I'm actually relatively new to Ticket To Ride [been playing less than a year, have probably played 50-75 times], but each time when I teach it to someone, they find it confusing that they have two different types of cards, and no place to easily put and refer to the destination tickets.

030 - Dollar for dollar, a roleplaying game is very nearly the most efficient entertainment you can buy.

I want to agree with this, but I think for the majority of groups, the majority of the monetary cost and the majority of prep-time/organizational work is placed on the gamemaster. It's efficient entertainment for players, but not necessarily for the GM.

023 - In a tabletop roleplaying games, the characters are all wearing pants.

This is true even though none of the players informed the gamemaster that their characters were putting their pants on.

Issues such as these--things that any person would do without comment--are collectively "pants issues," and players in any sane game may always assert that they have done such things if it ever becomes important.

This is one of those issues that makes me stress that all roleplaying groups should talk in advance of the campaign about expectations and defaults. It shouldn't be necessary to say "I grab my cel phone when I leave the apartment." each and every time your character prepares to go out, nor "I load my gun." before going out on a shadowrun. If your character is going to be a goofball unless you "babysit" him during the entire game session, is that really fun?

078 - If a rule is optional, give it a name.

Players should be able to quickly describe their house game to other players by casually citing rule names.

Jargon is good. It creates a culture of player and is just more fun than quoting a rulebook. Part of what makes poker excellent is the swollen insider vocabulary that comes with it. For example, "We're playing Chicago, Follow the Queen, so high spade in the hole splits the pot."

If you can get players talking like your game talks, then you've got them.

I heavily agree with this, especially as it pertains to RPGS and properly calling out rules that are truly optional. However, this doesn't pertain to inventing new slang for common terms--this is covered elsewhere in the book, and it's viewed as a bad thing.

There you go -- that's a quick sampling of the type of material that makes up the majority of the book.


While many of the entries in the book are numbered [as the examples show], the pages aren't. This bugs me. Rationally, I know I don't really need page numbers in this book, but it still bugs me.

Most of the pages have tags -- just like a blog -- in the corner. Samples are "all games", "play", "poker", "history", "teaching games", etc. Sadly, there is no "tag cloud" in the book; no reference to tell you which pages talk about game design vs. game teaching vs. poker.

Both of these problems could be fixed relatively quickly in a future print run ...

Buy It

Bite-sized and approachable, Things We Think About Games is well worth reading for both casual and hardcore gamers, and especially for game designers. You won't agree with all of it, and that's part of its charm: one page may make you smile and nod, the next will have you curling your lip in a bitter sneer. Hopefully, it will help you avoid that sneer during the next game you play.

D&D Fourth Edition

One of the nice things about being friends with someone who works part-time at my friendly local gaming store: the D&D Fourth Edition books were delivered to my door yesterday, and I got to support my FLGS with the purchase.

I haven't had time to do more than flip through the books yet, but I'm looking forward to taking a few evenings over the next week to give them a good reading.