War in RPGs

Playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown has helped solidify some thoughts that have been kicking around my head since Forge Midwest in April. While I was up in Madison, I was lucky enough to playtest Souls of Steel by Dana Fried and Elle Addison, both of I Podcast Magic MissileSouls of Steel is an ace pilot military drama game that draws inspiration from Battlestar Galactica, Top Gun, and various anime. It’s a powered by the Apocalypse game with some really clever takes on what a playbook means. I enjoyed the game quite a bit and I can’t wait to see it get refined further; it also taught me some things about how I don’t GM hard enough but that’s an aside.

Souls of Steel got me thinking about the drama in conflicts and how they can be zoomed in and out for different narrative focus and punch. My thought was that a military game – where the players are sent on missions but the big emotional conflicts happen back at base – could be zoomed out to a more squad-like tactical set of moves. The drama in a mission isn’t whether my character makes a particular shot or not. The drama comes from whether we succeed in the mission and what the mission costs the squad members, the unit, and the war effort as a whole.

XCOM ties into this as a computer game that is a squad-based turn-based tactical shooter with individual actions. And I think computers do that really well! Move Kira here, fire on the Sectoid. Send Bashir to the flank and lay down covering fire. Martok goes up the middle and double taps the hoverdisk at close range. Each action I take as a player directs my squad toward the stated objectives of the mission. This is the sort of thing that narrative-heavy role playing games don’t do well. Miniatures games also work well here but they’re a very, very different sort of game from RPGs.

And I’ve been role playing the hell out of XCOM as a [Starfleet] commander. My squaddies have almost no personality – a few pre-programmed quips that trigger on actions: “Rack-tap-bang” when they reload; “X-ray neutralized” when they kill and alien; or “Negative damage” when they miss. So I’ve been thinking about what drove me into role playing in XCOM so heavily and how I could get that investment into an RPG. Role playing in XCOM comes from the investment I have in my squad – naming them, planning their advancement, and giving them call signs really creates an emotional investment for me. The other half, how do I translate this to an RPG took some more thought.
Continue reading

Posted in Game Design, Role Playing | 6 Comments

XCOM Review

I don’t play many video games anymore but once in a while I find one that’s worthwhile. My go to games are tactical RPGs, Lego games, and I’ve discovered 4x games with Civ V.

The latest to catch my fancy is XCOM: Enemy Unknown which I picked up during the Steam Summer Sale. A number of friends all recommended the game to me and I have to say it’s living up to the recommendations. I fired up the tutorial and dove in over the weekend, played until I got the hang of things, and then started a new game.

Story and Engagement

Before I dive into the mechanics of gameplay, I want to discuss what makes this game so insidiously good. Continue reading

Posted in Reviews, Role Playing | Leave a comment

Firefly RPG Released

The day has come where I am a published RPG freelancer. The Firefly RPG core book went on sale today at DriveThruRPG (http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/128012/Firefly-RolePlaying-Game-Corebook). You can buy it now. The print version is currently at the printer and should have a release date announced later this month.

This has been an incredibly exciting journey for me. I’d like to thank Mark Diaz Truman for bringing me in on the project and trusting me with the beating heart of the system. Monica Valentinelli has been wonderful as she guided the crew through the whole process. It’s been wonderful working with Dean Gilbert and Rob Wieland on the systems team.

The core book is only the beginning of the Firefly RPG. There are already some adventures on DriveThruRPG that you can buy and a number of supplements are in the works. I can’t wait for everyone to see the exciting things I’ve written in those books, too! My hat’s off to everyone who helped get the project to this point from Margaret Weis to the Browncoats who keep the Firefly fandom alive. You truly cannot take the sky from us.

Posted in Role Playing | Leave a comment

Firefly RPG

It’s been quiet around here for most of a year. There’s a good reason this time! Honestly!

Back in July I was offered an opportunity to join the systems team for the Firefly RPG from Margaret Weis Productions. Since then I’ve been hard at work writing for the game, including multiple follow up books after the core rules. As a first published credit in the RPG world, there’s hardly a more exciting property for me. Firefly has been one of my favorite shows ever since I discovered it back in college. I’ve been solidly a Browncoat for over a decade.

The Firefly RPG is the latest game to be powered by the Cortex Plus system. It is based on the Cortex Plus Action rules that first debuted in Leverage. As is always the case with a Cortex Plus game, Firefly has differentiated itself into a game of its own.

My work has been mostly centered around Distinctions. This is really exciting because Distinctions are the living, breathing heart of the system. Distinctions are what really separate characters from each other. It’s through Distinctions that we can give characters unique opportunities to affect the story and shape play at the table.

The game should be released soon, so keep an eye out for it. Things are in the final stages of approval with Fox and then the PDF will be available for purchase. As a teaser, here’s the front cover.


Posted in Game Design, Role Playing | Leave a comment

Game Day 36 – Edge of the Empire and Eternal Contenders

EnWorld Game Day

EnWorld Game Day is a local day-con held at Games Plus in Mount Prospect, IL. It’s a nearby suburb and I have friends who usually drive so I can make it out there. Mark Delsing organizes three Game Days a year and I’ve been going since late 2011, I think. Games Plus is a great store and the crowd for Game Day has always been amazing. People get together for a group breakfast before the games begin at the local diner and then there are two 5-hour game slots and an hour lunch. Yep. Ten hours of games. The games served up are incredibly varied. AD&D and retro clones get played next to the newest indie hotness and homebrewed systems. I’ve played a Dresden Files Monsterhearts setting hack while the table next to me played Harnmaster. Continue reading

Posted in Role Playing | Leave a comment

Fate Core Kickstarter or How to Make $50,000 on a Free Product

I’m a fan of Evil Hat Productions. They do good work in RPGs and have expanded into fiction and board games. Last night, around 10pm central time, they launched a third Kickstarter campaign. This is for Fate Core, the newest edition of their RPG system Fate.

Their previous Kickstarter campaigns have been successful by all measures. Fred and Rob are savvy businessmen and have designed their Kickstarters specifically to help fund the end production of things they are already bringing to market. To that end, Kickstarter serves very particular functions for Evil Hat.

First, Kickstarter is essentially a pre-order system for their products. The design work is finished. The only thing left is print and distribution. The traditional reasons for accepting pre-orders of a product are to:

  1. generate buzz,
  2. gather information about demand, and
  3. take in sales revenue ahead of production.

Kickstarter campaigns by their very nature generate buzz. Crowdfunding largely relies on word of mouth advertising to be successful. There’s an element of social media to the process. Making a Kickstarter campaign and running it correctly will generate buzz about the product. (Running a Kickstarter correctly is a whole other issue I can’t get into right now.) A successful pre-order will also give you some idea about what the demand for your product will be after it is available. This is mostly guess work but, generally speaking, a strong pre-order indicates a strong demand.

I imagine the most important part for the Evil Hat guys is generating sales revenue prior to production. I’m not saying that the first two aren’t important but Fred and Rob have a very strong community already and they know how to communicate to their fans. They can make buzz and figure out demand. Fate Core would be a success without Kickstarter. Evil Hat can do that. So what makes Kickstarter important to them, the reason they turn to Kickstarter, is that they can pay for the print run of Fate Core without dipping into the company coffers. While there are some sunk costs involved with design and editing already, the big lump cost of a print production are a more serious one-time drain. All the profits they’ve made from the Dresden Files RPG can continue paying the bills (and the designers and editors) as Fate Core pays for itself right out of the box. Evil Hat ensures that their product is 100% economically viable from the outset. That’s a winning strategy for a business.

Setting the funding goals for Dinocalypse and Fate Core intentionally low reflects this strategy. While Evil Hat could reach a higher funding goal, having a lower goal practically guarantees they will be funded (and thus collect the money) and allows them to engage their customers for more stretch goals.

Secondly, and more interestingly, Kickstarter is a way to generate discussion about the product. This isn’t just buzz, as above. Specifically with Fate Core the Evil Hat guys are engaging the backers to make sure their product is as perfect as it can be when it gets printed. In essence, Evil Hat is crowdsourcing editing and playtesting for two months prior to publication. They are working directly with their core audience to give fans what they want. All backers get the current PDF (no art, page numbers not finalized) as soon as they back the project. The top tier of backers get to work with Evil Hat directly to create a Fate Core implementation for their home campaigns. Essentially, Evil Hat will help you build the game you want to play.

Screenshot of the Fate Core Kickstarter.

So what? It’s just a gangbusters RPG Kickstarter, right? We’ve seen plenty of those before. Well, not really. See, Evil Hat has some Kickstarter experience leveraging the popularity of their existing IP for adjacent markets. Both the Dinocalypse Trilogy and Race to Adventure! were successful forays into new territory – fiction and board games. Race to Adventure! took in more money ($52,000 vs. $42,000) but Dinocalypse had more backers (1,516 vs. 884). Both of those projects ran for 30 days.

In under 18 hours, Fate Core has racked up over $50,000 in pledges with more than 1,600 backers. It’s also set to run for nearly two months. And here’s the craziest thing: they’re giving away Fate Core after the Kickstarter. The PDF version will be released on a pay-what-you-want model after the book gets printed. That model includes a free download if you don’t want to pay anything. In the course of a day, Evil Hat has collected $50,000 in payments for a free product. Who else has done that? No one I can think of.

Why is this noteworthy? Because Evil Hat is now focusing on its core product: RPGs. Specifically the Fate system that put them on the map. We’ve seen them run strong, successful Kickstarter campaigns in the past. They’ve demonstrated the ability to reach out beyond their target market to grow interest in their company and their IP. Now they’re doing the same thing and more with their best offering. I’m interested to see how far this one goes. They have a strong fan base and word will spread beyond their existing fans over the next two months. All in all, it’s exciting to watch unfold.

Posted in Blog | 2 Comments

Heroes Fall: The Beastmaster

The second splat I’m going to talk about is the Beastmaster. This has been one of the biggest challenges for me to write. Bringing the Beastmaster into the drama and tying her to the other characters has been difficult. It’s the typical problem of the ranger or druid in a D&D campaign. What reason do they have to be there? Ties [1] help with this somewhat but there were other challenges.

The Beastmaster

So many people, all alone. They don’t realize we are all one. You do. You are the Beastmaster and have found a reflection of yourself in a creature of power. Together you are whole in ways no one else will ever be.

Continue reading

Posted in Game Design, Heroes Fall, Role Playing | Leave a comment

Heroes Fall: The Barbarian

This is the first post in a series discussing the splats in Heroes Fall. Initially, the game started off as a thought experiment about the ways classic D&D classes could be expressed using the playbooks from Apocalypse World. It has since grown into its own thing. These posts will serve a dual-purpose. First, it will communicate more about Heroes Fall to the people interested in the game. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it will get me thinking about how to articulate the game and the cool things I have done.

The Barbarian

Many men are soldiers. They fight and kill and die. The Barbarian is nothing so simple as that. You are a living weapon. Death incarnate. Your weapon is a part of you. When you die, it will be with an enemy’s heart clutched in your fist as you grind your broken foes beneath you. Many men have tried to kill you. All have failed.

Continue reading

Posted in Game Design, Heroes Fall, Role Playing | Leave a comment

Heroes Fall: Advancement

Advancement in RPGs is a difficult topic to discuss and a difficult mechanic to design. Players like advancement because it gives a sense of progress and provides a clear track of the journey the character has undergone. That progress also typically provides characters with more problem solving and conflict resolution options than were initially available at character creation. There is a thin line to walk with advancement: too much and the characters will become unbelievable or cease to function in the game; too little and the characters don’t change enough to provide an interesting change in circumstances throughout the story. Much of the tone of Heroes Fall is taken from the Conan the Barbarian stories. In them we see Conan grow and change from a wary, uncouth thief and savage into a learned, cultured, and even philosophical king. That’s quite an arc!

Heroes Fall has advancement in the vein of Apocalypse World and its various other hacks. Characters mark XP on a track and after a set number of XP has been marked, the track clears and an advance is selected. At this point, before any campaign-level playtesting, advances occur after every 5 XP.


As the characters of Heroes Fall progress, they learn new moves and improve the basic moves. The splats are deliberately made so that the players can never have all of the moves on the splat at once. Choices must be made. Even with advances characters will have to leave one or more splat moves untouched. By allowing some more moves to be taken from the splat as the character advances they can see how the character grows in their niche. The Chieftain starts with tribal leader (which allows him to roll+hard instead of roll+smooth to command his tribe) and one other move. Most of the available Chieftain moves all improve the tribe. So as the Chieftain advances and selects new moves, his tribe will improve as well. All of the splats have a core focus in this way.

Each splat also has one or two advances that reads, “Get a move from another splat.” This allows the characters to branch out and explore the cool things other splats can do.


Every splat has advances that improve the character’s stats. Improving the stats makes the characters better over all, improving the chances of succeeding with various moves. This also follows the idea of Conan growing in power, wisdom, and wit as he goes on. It’s also a very common and easy way to advance a character in RPGs.


A subsystem I am adding to the engine is one of scale. Scale measures the character’s ability to influence groups of people. A character may take any action he wishes but will be bound by his scale for the effect. That is, Temair the Keeper can make an impassioned speech in front of a huge throng of people but if her scale is only personal, at best only a few people will be swayed to action by her words. Scale ranges from personal (a handful of people) all the way up to global (everyone on earth). This is somewhat modeled on a similar system in Ron Edwards’ Trollbabe. There are six degrees of scale. Characters begin at personal scale and step up in scale at every third advance (3, 6, 9, 12, and 15). This gives a slow, steady progression up the ladder to gradually more epic scales.

Fans of Apocalypse World are probably familiar with the gangs in that game. Gang size has been tied to scale in Heroes Fall. Personal scale is a bodyguard or handful of followers while national scale is an army or barbarian horde. Many splats have advances or moves that give them a gang. Most of these are tied to the scale of the character, advancing as the character advances.

My hope with scale is to model the all sizes of conflicts and give the players agency to lead armies in war or rebellion. Scale allows them to do that but also requires them to work for it over time.


Timo of the Jank Cast describes Apocalypse World as “color first gaming.” It’s an intriguing concept and certainly one of the reasons I enjoy the game. I wanted to build on the idea that the game encourages player-created fiction in a variety of ways. There are a number of moves in the game that incentivize adding color to the fiction. There are also advancement options that specifically add color to the game. Heroes Fall is pre-apocalyptic. The characters live in the last days of splendor that an ancient civilization has left to it. Throughout the game, there will be opportunities for the players to describe just what the fall of man will be. In essence, they are adding color specifically to build up tension for this apocalypse.

At the first two tiers of advancement, there is one option for the player to add color to the world. The Righteous, for example, has the option to, “Choose a virtue that will flourish after the fall.” This is a first-tier option so the Righteous could choose to take that with his first advance. What I find cool about that advance is that the Righteous gets to say something very real about the morals and virtues of society. It fits the character, as the staunch defender of the faith, and it reinforces the idea that the fall of man is coming.

In the second tier each splat has the option to, “Tell a legend that will survive the fall.” While this is generic it gives the players a moment in the game to talk about something cool. Remember that the characters are mythic figures. The legend that the player tells can be an embellished retelling of something that happened in the game – this establishes the character in the realm of myth and legend and also drives home the color of the fiction while giving the player a moment to bask in the glory of her character.

The third tier is made entirely from color-adding advances. Here it is in its entirety:

After ten advances, you can pick the top available item on the list below. Everyone checks it off; no one else can take it.

  • Tell a legend that will survive the fall.
  • Choose a place to rebuild after the fall.
  • Choose who will be blamed for the fall.
  • Give shape to the fall.
  • The fall occurs. Tell of the doom it brings.

This is a little different. The tier is shared amongst all of the players. Any one option can only be taken once in the entire game. I hope this actually creates a bit of a scramble to reach the fifth advance here, which is also the end-game trigger. Who doesn’t want to narrate how a terrible cataclysm befalls an entire civilization? Moreover, who doesn’t want to be the one to narrate that to your advantage? The scramble to the end-game may get very bloody and messy. Right now the best way to earn XP is by interfering with the other PCs.

Advancement Tiers

The tiers I discuss above have a little more to them. The first tier is the largest. It has eleven options and is focused on making the character more potent. This is where you have the options to boost stats, get more moves, and recruit followers. About half of the options are unique to each splat, with the other half consisting of improving stats, getting a new move, or getting a new move from another splat. The color adding advance is different for each splat and is phrased to encourage the fiction to be driven toward a character’s interests and abilities.

The second tier is more of the same but also very generic. This tier is unlocked once a character has taken five advances. You can advance any one stat, improve the basic moves, tell a legend, or make a second character to play. Each splat does have a unique advance in this tier that speaks to the heart of the splat. In Apocalypse World this is where the player has the option to retire a character to safety. Heroes Fall doesn’t have that option. It’s not in the cards. The fall is coming and no one is safe.

The top available option on the third tier can be taken by any character who has already taken ten or more advances. This tier is all color. Every option gives the player broad authority to declare things about the world. None of the options give mechanical weight to anything. To be honest, I don’t know if this will work. In my mind, I see players nervously circling around that pool of advances. No one is quite daring enough to take one, so they all continue building up their characters with tiers 1 and 2. Then someone, some foolhardy son of a bitch with nothing left to lose, takes the first option. The rest of the game is a series of bloody betrayals, violent upheavals and death driven by the petty hatreds the characters have for one another. Until one of them takes that last option and the fall of man comes to pass.

There you go. That’s what I’ve got. Let me know what you think!

Posted in Game Design, Heroes Fall, Role Playing | 2 Comments

Heroes Fall Progress

So I took a bit of a hit on the employment front and got a rejection letter from the company I’d spent six weeks interviewing. They don’t need my services at this time. After a day of self-pity I got my ass in gear and opened up Scrivener again for the first time since August. I decided I wasn’t going to let depression get in the way of my creativity.

Boy, is that hard to do.

Diving into the guts of the game for the first time in months really surprised me. I was excited about what I had written. For the first time ever, coming back to a project revitalized me and got me going again. The notes I made after my GenCon playtests were dug up and put on my desktop as stickies. I’m proud to say that many of those stickies have been deleted because I’ve accomplished the goals they contained. There are still plenty more but I have made a sizable dent in the “Splat Changes” and “Mechanical” columns of my notes of changes. My mechanical list is a single item: “direct the Beastmaster more directly into the drama.” That’s a big task. We’ll see how it plays in upcoming tests. Splat Changes has just two options: “the Wizard needs some NPC love” and “write up the advanced options for patrons, companies, and guilds.”

The list of procedural changes is still pretty lengthy and involves writing a lot of lists. That’s going to take some brute force but it’s necessary to have that in place before I pass it off to anyone else to play the game.

I spoke on The Jank Cast this week about Apocalypse World and its hacks. Joe and Todd talked about how the behind-the-scenes rules can be hacked, tweaked, and altered. It crystallized what I’d been thinking about with Heroes Fall for a while but hadn’t consciously realized. The dark fantasy sword & sorcery genre is very different from post-apocalyptic, even weird post-apocalyptic. One of the best ways to adjust for that is by changing the GM guidelines. Change the agenda, principles, and moves of the GM and the game will play wildly different. That’s what I’ve been working on today. I wrote nearly 4,000 words setting the agendas, principles, GM moves, and guidelines for prep. They’re different from Apocalypse World fairly significantly though still clearly inspired by the original.

The splats themselves are coming along nicely. I only have a few scattered items to fill in across all of them. Most of those items didn’t make the lists since they’re outstanding from before GenCon. The endgame and XP has come a long way in the past few days. It’s actually shaping up to be a game that can stand on its own. Which is good because I’ll be running it again at Gameday Chicago 33 next Saturday. Onward!

Posted in Game Design, Heroes Fall, Role Playing | Leave a comment