Writing Adventures vs. Writing Stories

It’s been a while since I posted here. Mostly I don’t find this website the best tool for communication. But, I would probably find it more useful if I made it more useful.

Insert infinity symbol.

Today’s post started based off a Facebook remark by a friend of mine. His adventure idea for Call of Cthulhu struck me as an example of how old guard game writers… write.

Here’s the synopsis:

Cast against the backdrop of Cold War espionage, the story focuses on a spy who’s been corrupted by Mythos forces and is now returning home, intending to spread chaos and madness when he does.

Without any additional information, this is a great plot to start a story from. But, without a lot of work from the game writer, this will inevitably turn into another Scooby Doo Cthulhu session.

First of all, the best part of the story has already been told. The spy has been corrupted and is bringing his bag of mythos tricks back to the “real world.” I sense this character is complex, with multiple dimensions and a tragic past that is only going to get worse. A true horror story is about what we lose and — in the case of the Cthulhu Mythos — how small and insignificant that loss is.

Following this train of thought, the PCs are now in the middle of a story they must thwart. The story isn’t about them and without a good gamemaster (or plotline by the author), the PCs are thrust into stopping a great storyline from continuing. Who is this spy? What happened to him? What happens next?

Because of the nature of horror (with the exception of the Last Girl trope in slasher films), the villain is often the protagonist of the tale and the PCs are the antagonists. Their role is to stop the villain from getting what it wants.

Where does the story of the PCs start?

Now. One can easily kajigger this story to make the PCs important to solving it. But that’s not easy for the author to do. After all, she doesn’t know who the PCs are. Where in their campaign is this adventure taking place? Are they investigators, scientists, or soldiers? Why are they invested in the strange first clues inhabiting every Cthulhu story?

This plot is more akin to a novel than a gaming adventure. But that doesn’t stop game writers from conjuring up these plots time and time again. This is an earmark of the old guard who grew up on genre novels and whose background is infected with conflict-laden plots, devoid of resolution.

Fact: Game writers do not get to write the endings to their stories. As such, they aren’t good at it.

There’s hundreds of examples of pull-you-by-the nose adventures out there I could use to illustrate how these adventures start with strong plots and crumble apart once the gamemaster must apply the material — and this is just a plot idea from one friend of mine as an exercise (i.e. it is by no means the only example I could use). I trust that if she really wanted to explore the story from tips to tails, we’d see a much better adventure than I’m projecting. But this loose explanation is perfect for my point.

Gamemasters (generally) learn their trade through application and use. Few go to film school, or learn critical literary theory. Dissecting a story to find the character nodes and story hooks is not something a hobbyist is expected to do. Which is why adventures like this become Scooby Doo.

Let’s presume the adventure is written as a series of clues the PCs must track down, which leads them to some infected people who must be dealt with, then more clues, and then a final confrontation with the Mythos-warped spy.

That example isn’t ridiculous. We all know the format.

The PCs are doing two things. Firstly, they are following breadcrumbs. You already know this. But, secondly, and more importantly, they are living someone else’s story. This is a detail that is often forgotten in the hobby. Unless the gamemaster stops for moment and says, “Abe, you’re sensing something wrong here. There’s a memory in your head that isn’t right. You are having trouble reconciling it. Tell me what that memory is.” then the PC is just a bystander in the story.

Typically, Call of Cthulhu stories involve characters going mad. But madness that manifests is determined by an absolute gamemaster who writes the story for the PCs. “Abe goes mad, his brain tormented by the memory of his mother leaving him.” Unless Abe worked this out with the gamemaster ahead of time, the gamemaster is telling the PC who he is and what he was. And while hopelessness is a theme in Cthulhu, this is not a novel. This is a roleplaying game.

If this were a fantasy adventure about stopping a plague, the good part of the story still precedes the PCs. Their task is the same. In fact, move this story to any genre or veneer and the conclusion is the same. This story is about someone else.


Now. This doesn’t mean the original plot can’t be written well by the original author. But it does mean that years and years of poor training for gamemasters means the adventure is going to play out the way it always plays out. Clue. Clue. Fight. Club. Fight. Go insane. Finale.

I’ve talked numerous times about the game systems bad gamemasters gravitate to and how they bring all their bad habits to those systems. So regardless of intent, this plot is just a placeholder for the gamemaster to write three clues and two fight scenes. And while that sounds like a grim critique of the hobby, there are ways to correct this thinking.

One. The PCs come first. Even if the story is about the Beyonder™ eating the Earth and everyone dying, the PCs still come first. Their stories are at the heart of any adventure they go on. The things they see and do and feel are the point. If it’s not, then it’s a pulpy adventure like Indiana Jones stopping the bad guys from getting the mcguffin. Replace Indy with any other hero and the mcguffin still gets got. Some game systems are built around this with advantages, disadvantages, aspects, traits, talents, skills, and what have you.

Which leads to point two… spotlighting. If you’re writing a story and there’s a PC who is a forensic scientist, there better be a dead body to examine. Otherwise, where is the spotlight? The list of examples goes on, but the forementioned forensic scientist is drawn from an actual published module.

Everyone needs a moment to be a “hero” in the story. But that hero moment need not, in and of itself, be heroic. It could be a chance to spotlight who you are, even if that moment adds nothing to the “solution of the plot.” A character who visits her mother’s grave is writing as much of her story as someone who shoots Cthluhu in the face with a panther cannon. The key is to let characters define their spotlights.

But, adjudicating spotlight time isn’t easy. The gamemaster has to be fair in how time is divided up. A character need not be useful in combat, but if combat is 75% of the session, it’s hard to give non-combat characters a chance to shine. I make specifically “socialist” games for this reason, so people always get a chance to tell part of the story, even if their character isn’t particularly interesting or effective. Games with gamemasters can benefit from “spotlight points” which give PCs five-minutes of uninterrupted story, or the like.

These are just examples. I’m not trying to solve your gaming issues for you. This post is merely to illustrate how we get stuck in rhythms that perpetuate the same kind of gaming. Over and over again.

I hope this article helped. I was interrupted half-way through writing it. There might be a logic gap in there somewhere.

art directing ccgs

In CCG art, there’s a school of thought that since it’s going to printed on a postage stamp the colors must contrast so the focal point of the card pops off the ‘page.’ I agree (mostly) with this school of thought.

And here’s why.

CCG art serves many functions and I don’t think most art directors get this. So I’m going to break it down for people who can’t afford an art director who went to school.

  1. The art must look as different as possible to the point of being unique. This will make more sense when you read #3. But even if you don’t agree with #3, the entire point of the game is that the cards are collectible. Why would I want to collect 200 cards that all look the same?
  2. The composition must stand out on it’s own. This is vital. A muddy composition is hard to distinguish from other muddy compositions. This took me a long time to learn as an ad, because i didn’t go to school for this. I learned through trial and error (and some screaming from William O’Connor) that art composition is the soul of the image.
  3. The image must be recognizable from a distance. This is so important. A good CCG may have upwards of 2000 (or more) cards in it over its lifetime. Players intimately familiar with the game, know all the cards. And while the title is right there, at an event, players need their brains to relay to them as fast as possible what has just been played. And recognizing the art is done faster than reading the name. These are timed events and people need to process what’s going on quickly. An expert player has probably memorized all the card text in the game. Seeing a green mox (jewel) at 10 feet away means he knows what that card does just from the art, faster than if you said the words “emerald mox”
  4. Most game company ADs don’t play the games they are in charge of. And certainly not at a tournament level. Trust me when I say, I’ve played most of the games I worked on at a semi-competitive level (not Anachronism). I don’t want to wait around for my opponent to think. I want to get in there and play.
  5. Character cards need to look like character cards. Buildings like buildings. Actions like actions. Items like items. Etc. All of them should follow inherent logic, so that the art is instantly recognizable as one of those card types. Magic is the exception because all of the cards are essentially either: land, creatures, or magic. And those will never be mistaken for one another. But some CCGs have 8 to 12 different card types. Maybe more. A spell card in a game about singing tacos needs to look nothing like a ‘taco follower’ card.
  6. Art is not representational. Art is evocative and declarative. It must adhere to function and form and so many rules that no single writer’s description should ever trump them. People who force the art to mimic the text exactly need to be clubbed. If the art is doing exactly what the text is doing, then you’re completely missing the value of a second footprint on the card.

    Ever watch a music video and the images on the screen are identical to the lyrics? That’s boring. I know the song is about falling in love. Don’t bore me with an echo chamber of visuals that do the same thing. I can imagine people kissing just fine.

  7. Don’t believe me? Check out my art for Black Monk. None of the text has anything to do with the art. The art speaks for itself and stands alone, even if my writing is bad.
  8. When you’re looking at a sketch, you as the art director need to visualize (as quickly as possible), all of this information. The least important thing is “does this match the art description,” because the art description in and of itself is just a launching off point. Who fucking cares what the original intention was. The consumer isn’t going to see the original intention. They are going to see the final piece.

That’s all for now. I’ll post more when I think of it.

What’s Been Going On?

Running a game studio by yourself is no easy task. If I get worn down by the work, there’s no one else here to pick up the slack. And I’ve been running at a break-neck pace for four years now.

The last six months have been especially tiring and my productivity has waned as a result.

For those who watch my projects and know what I’m behind on, let me elucidate you with some updates, while talking about what I’m excited for…

First, Toolcards 2 is finally nearing its end. It is so late, I can’t even sleep. The anxiety of letting people down on a project like this wears me down. But I’m finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to Alan Bahr for kicking my ass on this one.

The Carcass: Exodus is also late and I have a new schedule for myself to get this done by mid-May. I seriously need to get this game off my plate. It’s not fun to have it hanging over me.

I still owe people four praxis games (1 bonus and 3 customs). The customs are coming slowly, but the bonus one is 99% done. Whew. Something is nearly finished.

All the while, I’ve been working on new material for many other projects. I know. It’s insane. I overbooked myself as usual, which is just a stupid trend for me, but Aaron and Sara Hubrich are releasing a D&D5 book about gods and goddesses. I couldn’t say no when they asked for help (even if the research nearly killed me).

I’ve also started writing four more Black Monk Praxis games AND a Black Monk stand alone game. This character and world have really captivated me. The ideas that are coming out for it won’t stop. It’s like I’m bleeding stories. Much thanks to Juan Ochoa’s art…

22_5_Grave Digger.jpg

This guy is the grave digger. A tough job in a world where no one dies.

Ben Woerner and I have plans for a fantasy game that’s underway. And would you believe me if I said Anthony Moro and I have FOUR nearly finished game worlds that have been in the pipe for more years that I care to think about?

There’s also some notes for TWO large dungeon projects, and two more game systems that should make for their own series. Honest, they play nothing like Protocol or Praxis. Rob Vaux is finishing one of them up, now.

As you can see, I’m not slacking, I’m just not focusing.

And I have no idea how I’ll have time to release ALL of these games soon. Even if they were done right now, there’s just not enough months in the year.

Okay. This is getting exhausting just thinking about (let alone writing).

Ugh. I didn’t even mention City of Masks, which is coming soon, too. Alyssa promised me a map.

We have a special guest coming on the podcast soon, too. Blimey! The time?

Gamex 2017

I’ve already bought my ticket for Gamex 2017 in Los Angeles. I’ll be running games all weekend. In fact, as soon as I post this, I’m heading over there to enter my game events. Praxis. Carcass. A game called Fairview. More?

Feel free to find me on Facebook is there’s something you want to know about. Or if you think I’m slacking.

State of the (Post World) Union 2016/2017

I usually write these up at the end of the year, but things have been chaotic around here for two months and I just haven’t gotten back into my groove. Today is January 6, and I am spending the better part of the day just writing everything that needs to be done.


In no short order, here is a bullet point list of everything that happened in 2016, followed by what is going to happen in the first quarter of 2017.

  • Productivity-wise 2016 was the worst year yet (less than 30 games were released this year)
  • Sales-wise, it was the best year yet (go figure)
  • Praxis is probably the single-best thing I’ve ever produced in such a short time and there are still 10 more ideas for this game mechanic in the queue.
  • Carcass and City of Masks are very late
  • Toolcards 2 is even later
  • Wendy Reischl has been helping here and there and her input has been invaluable
  • Which indicates to me that this company needs one helper-monkey (“You’re supposed to be a helper monkey. This isn’t helping!”

Moving forward, the next 3 months will be focused on finishing old business. I can’t and won’t do another kickstarter until everything on my plate is done. That said:

  • Carcass is 75% complete
  • City of Masks is 33% complete
  • Toolcards is nearly there (I really am just crippled creatively by these Archetype cards)
  • After that, this year will see the release of new protocols, praxis games, a new game system called Providence, and some new RPGs by myself and some freelance writers.
  • No spoilers at this moment

This is really the crappiest update I’ve ever done, but I need to buckle down and finish work. For those of you who’ve been patient, I promise the future of Post World Games is to revamp the release process so these backups in production never happen again.

2016 Contest


I just had an idea for a contest that you can all enter. In fact, you can enter as many times as you like. Here’s how it will work.

  • Play a post world games game.
  • Write up a report about it.
  • Post the report on your blog, as a review on drive thru rpg, or on facebook.
  • Send the link to me twitter (postworldgames).
  • On Dec 31, the contest closes and I select the best story from the lot.

Winner receives a limited edition, King for a Day Hardcover. Only 50 were ever printed and only 8 remain.

That was easy.

I look forward to hearing what you’ve done with the games.

Final Days of the King of Storms Kickstarter…

praxis_lambs.jpgWe all know I hate spam. I hate marketing. I hate talking about what I’m doing.


I love making games.

So. Of course, in the middle of my 2016 schedule, I decided to spend three months making five more games.

Five more GMless games that use a new system, very different from Protocol. Sure. You can see some Protocol in there. But not really. I’ve borrowed the language of scene-framing and scene-types, but that’s where the similarities end.

In fact, my upcoming game Last 12 Hours, will be borrowing from Protocol as well.

But that’s tangential. You want to know about this project. Right?

There are five games in this series. The first is called King of Storms. That sounds suitably over the top and masculine. Right?

(Maybe Blooddrinking King of Storms of Doom would have been a better title)

And then there’s Lambs, which is only available until the end of the Kickstarter. After that… it’s gone forever.

I feel as though that should convince you to at least go check it out.

Collector edition games. I mean, really?


Dice Crawl Game Rules and Variants

Board Game Geek has a series of draconian rules about what and WHAT NOT can be posted on their website, so I’m making the rules to dice crawl available here. For free.

If you don’t know what dice crawl is, it’s a board game I designed about dungeon-crawling with a fistful of dice. And yes. It actually has a strategy element. If you’re interested in learning more, you can look it up on Board Game Geek.

dicecrawl rules

dicecrawl rules solo

dicecrawl rules iron man

New Look, New Game System

So. I was told the old site didn’t look user friendly. And now I’m trying out this new look. I might tinker until I land on something stunning, but I think this is a better way to go to make the site look ‘happier.’

In other news, I’m developing a new GMless story-game system.

The first game will be book only and available ONLY in kickstarter format, once it’s done. That means if you don’t buy game 0 from the kickstarter, you’ll never get a copy. This will be a test of the new system. Players will be encouraged to provide feedback on the game and help shape games 1 through 10.

Here’s a look at the cover.


That’s it for now. Remember. I’m on facebook, twitter, and e-mail. If you’re not seeing it here, you can always ask me questions there.