Convention Weekend

11518597-funny-goat-sketch-symbol-of-2015-new-yearLook what followed me home from the con. Can I keep it?

I’ll be at gamestorm this weekend, in Vancouver, WA. Gamestorm is a pretty cool con. A little cliquish, but the best in Washington nonetheless. I’ll have a booth in the dealer’s room, where I’ll be demoing 100 AD, Dice Crawl, Torn Armor, some of my protocol games, maybe a few card games, and selling all of the above as well.

Jack Cull and Alyssa Faden promise to be on hand at some point, so if those are people you like expect them to be there Saturday at the very least.

The con starts on Thursday and I’m be playing games non-friggin-stop. Find me, and I’ll teach you any game that I’ve published.

And if you’re not in the area, the question remains “why not?”

New Game : Mortuary

mortI have no idea how soon I’m going to write this, but I can’t stop thinking about how cool it is. For starters, it’s a traditional roleplaying game, mixed with fantasy and post-apocalyptic elements. Secondly, it takes me back to my favorite era of gaming, that transition point when 2nd edition D&D and Vampire were vying for my attention and I didn’t know what gaming was going to become.

I don’t want to tease too much until I get to a point where something is really on the page, but imagine Carcass as a fantasy game. Instead of a mage, you’re a snakecharmer. Instead of a rogue, you’re a scrounger. You get the idea.

It’s more complicated than that, but I’m trying not to say too much.

(Then why do you keep typing?)

Ooo. Right. Good point.

My Apologies

Yesterday’s post turned out weirder than I expected. I was hoping to give a new perspective on Empire building for fantasy roleplaying games. Instead, my overtired brain rambled for 1000 words about nothing remotely useful.

I hope this picture of a fat ogre by Dave Allsop makes you feel better.Slaughter Ogre

Empires Made of Clay Targets

dna_910375I am surrounded by historical documents about the rise and falls of empires. I have books about why things fail. And collapse. My bookshelf is filled with historical reference of all kinds. I’ll throw away my dictionary before I give up my history of feudal warfare. I could bore you with a list of them, but I need to get to a point soon. All these historians and experts drone on and on and on about the political climate of the time in whatever Empire that caused everyone to slide off the barometer and into the Dark Ages.

All of them love little details about what a jerkface Emporer Bluto was or what a tyrant General Betrayus or how the nation wouldn’t last long after the death of Admiral Numnutz.

But. Not a single one of them addresses this basic fact: DNA is everything.

(what are you on about, pinto?)

Shut up. You know how this works. I open with a hammer of some obnoxious thesis statement and then I explain it in some entertaining way.

Can I get back to my point?


Arabia. Egypt. England. Greece. Macedonia. Mongolia. Turkey. Rome. Viking… landia?

Today, they are all shells of their former selves. The largest empires the world has ever known are now pitiful freakshow mirrors that reflect their faded and tarnish glory.

Well. In fairness, some have bounced back. But that doesn’t help make my point now does it?

What happened? Are all things destined to fail? Surly, that’s a conveniently easy answer. But the real reason is straight-forward-y, without being reductionist-y.

DNA (in this writer’s humble opinion) is everything. It measures a lot more success than we ever give credit for nowadays. After all, technology bridges most genetic gaps. But for the first 200,000 years of human development, DNA was everything. Strong DNA lead to strong warriors who protected weak DNA from stronger warriors from a different tribe. Etc. Etc.

Look. If you don’t know how ancient warfare worked, this isn’t going to be a fun read.

To make a clearer point, let’s take Mongolia par example. That’s an easy one. Where did all the strong Mongolian DNA go? West? Was it used to create a generation of healthy kids back in Mongolia? Or was it used to make 1/4th of all people still living in Eastern Europe today? That’s right kids. Genghis Khan did so much pillaging that his progeny are alive today in 1 of every 4 people in Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

Where should his DNA be? Mongolia. Instead, all those strong warriors with all that great DNA, they went somewhere else. And lots of them fought and died before every passing on their mitochondria. That’s kind of stupid. Not only did he weaken Mongolia, but he made Russia stronger.

Now. Apply that same logic to Rome. Legionnaires making babies everywhere but IN Rome. And show stays back and organizes the bureaucracy of Rome? Jerkfaces. Jerkfaces with bad DNA. Too weak to fight. Staying back in Rome where it’s safe and ruining the country. Caeser and his buddies are out making the Empire bigger and stronger, while back at home the Senate and the fatties who don’t want to fight are all turning Rome into a big soft gummy bear filled with gold.

Ripe for the pickings.

Vikings? Same thing. Macedonians? Same thing. Persia? Arabia? Greeks? Well. Sparta didn’t have a very good system for growing their population. But Thessaly? Troy? Athens? Those guys wasted all their good DNA on war.

And guess who is alive today?

The descendents of the people who let the empires die.

Think about that. Every living person in those great nations fading off into the sunset and leaving behind the detritus to run the show. What were they thinking? Vikings would go and explore and leave the weakest people to run the tribe? Who was having sex while the Vikings were off for months at a time? Not the Alpha Males, I’ll tell you that.

I’m not a microbiologist. And right about now, I wish I was. But this seems like a pretty simple puzzle to decode. Strong people who go off to fight and conquer, leaving behind weak people to govern.

Time and again, every great nation follows the same principles. Strong goes away to fight. Weak stays behind to… not fight.

So. The next time someone writes a book about what was going on in Byzantium in 1099 that caused a chain of events that lead up to the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Just remember… weak DNA, coupled with royal incestuous behavior = stupid people making policy.

Now. There are exceptions. Attila the Hun was the only leader of the Huns worth mentioning. Ever. But they really weren’t an empire. Without a strong leader, they went back to whatever it was they were doing BEFORE Attila. Alexander’s Empire fell apart because his generals were greedy. He still didn’t leave a strong heir behind to run the place. The paradigm is continuous. Strong leaders who don’t leave behind strong DNA leave their empire in tatters to be gobbled up by the likes of the Tutors or Emperor Zhaoxuan (who really did a number on the Tang Dynasty with his concubine fascination).

All these leaders and kings knew the importance of strong lineages, even if they’d never heard the word DNA. But none of them thought for a second that maybe one strong guy wasn’t enough to keep the empire running?

Think about that next time you’re building a new fantasy world about mighty empires.

Patreon Project

Going to try something new…

On March 15th, 2015, Jackson Trewes was found murdered (alongside two unidentified homeless men) in an abandoned house. Jackson’s death came as a shock to his family, but as of yet, the police have no reason to suspect foul play.

As of yet…

This project will explore the death of Jackson Trewes (a fictional character) and how his death impacts the city. It is an ongoing gaming story of Urban Horror. It will start innocently enough. Even if you don’t use it for gaming, you may find the way this story is told to be entertaining.

There are no game mechanics. No stats. Just story, motive, actions, reactions, and deeper mystery to explore. Ideal for Vampire or any modern supernatural game.

The Source of the Nile and the Cradle of Civilization

I’m a huge fan of Top Gear. I’ve watched every episode. Numerous times. It plays in the background while I work almost constantly. The long trips are especially entertaining for me. Vietnam. Myanmar. Botswana. Bolivia. The North Pole. All amazing.

I just watched (again) the Africa episode about searching for the source of the Nile. It is really good. You can probably find it on youtube or hulu.

48245887_bbcbus[Spoiler] At the very end, there’s this quasi-magical moment where James May puts his finger into a spring that they claim is the source of the Nile. For an anthropologist, this is awe-inspiring. For one, they claim the source of the Nile is in Tanzania, not far from Kenya, which we know is the true cradle of humanity… where hominids first started.

So? What’s the point, mr. game designer?

Take a moment to imagine what you’re role is as a game master. You’re officially ‘a god’ of sorts. You know the truth behind the metaphysics, sorcery, languages, histories, and peoples of your game worlds. (Assuming you’re not running someone else’s game world) You were there when the game world took life. You know who the first people were to step onto your world. You were there for it.

Imagine what that was like.

That first hominid stepping down from the trees to sip from the aquifer that would feed the largest, most important river int he world.

Now imagine it as a game master. Writing the stories of the first beings to step foot onto the world, drinking in the experiences that would shape the myths and realities of that world.

Don’t just write that Thor smashed the ice giants with a hammer forged by a fat-fitted dwarf. Imagine it. Retell. Examine it through a new lens. What was Thor really fighting against? And for? Why did he pick up that ROCK and smash open the head of some ugly person? Were they fighting over a woman? Food? Land? A spot of water?

How did that myth grow to be a hammer? And an ice giant? How did the history of your world change to accommodate that myth? And why was it constantly rewritten?

Imagine you are that god who steps into the well-springs and brings life to these worlds through organic means. Not just dwarves hate smelly orcs, but through the histories of two people rooted in a past YOU created.

Then imagine that every myth we live with today was born the same way. Do that and maybe you’ll understand just a little why I find that moment so magical. A man walks until a trickling stream in Tanzania, puts his finger into a spring, and touches a past he cannot possibly understand.
That’s myth.

The Why

A personal diatribe. Please indulge me.

I’ve been working since i was 15 years old. I’ve always worked. I started paying rent at the age of 17. I once owned a house, but that’s an old story.

When I entered the gaming industry, it was a fluke. I’d always done real, honest work. Lifting boxes. Sales. Customer service. Whatever. I’d never taken on a creative job before. And while I was creative, I never thought i’d do work in that manner. Call it a self-confidence thing. I don’t know.

Since 1997, i’ve been working in gaming. That’s nearly 20 years. People generally have a perception about themselves that they are hard workers. And lazy people generally don’t like to be called out on it, because they tend to believe and/or convince themselves that they work hard.

I could tell 100s of stories of seeing this in the industry, but I won’t.

In 20 years, I’ve taken maybe 6 real vacations. I’ve never been one of those people who could afford one, or thought I could take them time off.

Side note. I wrote/managed the world’s largest dungeon (840 pages, 1 million words), including doing the layout and typography for the book in 11 months. I even broke my hand half-way through the process and was down for six weeks.

And I still finished with a week to spare before my deadline.

I’m not bragging here. Just setting up a story. Bear with me.

In 2005, I thought I’d left the gaming industry for good. I went and got a job doing something else, because the stress of doing what I loved was making me not love it anymore. You’ve probably read some of my stories about the past, dealing with a particular company. Let’s try to forget that and move on.

In late 2007, I foolishly returned and by mid 2010 I was gone again. This time, however, I immediately started working on stuff I loved for myself. I started writing, planning, etc. I was in a funk for a long time, though. I really didn’t want to work. Which was weird for me. It has never happened before. I didn’t analyze it then, because I was stuck in it. Angry. Resentful. Exhausted. Resentful. Er. You get the point.

Then I finished King for a Day — probably the best thing I’ve ever written. In my opinion. My energy was back. I was working again. And I felt like I was really in love with it. By the end of 2014, I’d produced over 100 products, plus over a dozen for other companies. Not to mention graphics and so on.

But the end of 2014 was weird for me. I could feel my energy being sapped again. I knew what it was, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it or deal with it. It just didn’t feel like something I wanted to address. But something was dragging me down, the way the crap of 2005 was dragging me down.

I took two weeks off at the beginning of the year, but they really weren’t a break. I didn’t do anything with the time and in fact, I was angrier AFTERWARDS.

Work has been slow going during these first six weeks of 2015.

But something happened this weekend. I had an epiphany about all of it. And today, my energy is through the roof.

For starters, I realized I’ve probably spent thousands of hours making games, but I never really know if anyone is spending thousands of hours enjoying the games I make. I also never really took time to slow down and rest. I’ve literally allowed my health to suffer over the years, making game after game after game.

And i”m not a success story, so even with over 200 products to my name, I’m still not well-known or rich.

This past weekend, I attended a local game convention (150 people, so more like a gathering) in which I played non-stop for 3 days. I played Orleans three times, Dominare four times, Dice Crawl over a dozen times, Diamonds, Shadow Throne, Tragedy Looper. The list goes on. I cam home exhausted, but energized. I came up with ideas for making Dominare better. I got excited about the upcoming 100 A.D. that I’m making with Souljar games. I fixed a rules problem in Dice Crawl. When I got home I immediately made 105 new characters for Dominare (which only I will ever see). I made a prettier deck of cards for Diamonds (because I can). I cranked out some notes for future games and I started working on a new roleplaying game that hacks Apocalypse World.

It’s nearly 6pm on Monday and I’m still typing away with a fervor about what’s to come.

I can’t say I’ve married my personal life and game design as well as I would have hoped, but I light went off today.

Sometimes, it’s okay to take a break.

Thanks for following.

Game on.

The Death of Macro Storytelling

art by drew bakerart by drew baker

Disclaimer. I write a lot of games that are small picture stories, because they have to be completed in three hours (though there are protocol games that address large scale problems). The majority of what I’m writing here is about traditional gaming and how the inspiration we receive from other media (tv, etc.) impacts our ideas negatively. Or at least, not in a constructive manner.

George Carlin once said there are two kinds of stories, big picture and little picture. Little picture stories are 99% of what we know and read. A protagonist or group of protagonists facing a specific problem with measurable and tangible cause/effect. ‘Bob’s family is murdered and bob wants revenge.’ ‘Sally loses her job and spirals out of control.’ ‘The black company is hired to kill a dragon.’

Big picture stories are more difficult to explain, as they do many things. The Game of Thrones series or anything by Tom Clancy might be identified as big picture or macro storytelling. Characters pitted against larger than life forces with events that can impact nations, if not the world.

In micro storytelling, characters drive the plot. They are not victims of the events (once the plot is established).

But in macro storytelling, the environment is a real concern. Other people, forces of nature, dragons, and similar obstacles all work against the protagonist(s). Macro storytelling, which could be named environmental storytelling, addresses issues of nations, armies, dozens upon dozens of character and contingencies, plot struggles, and the like.

(I’ve never watch the airbender series. Apparently it is both of these styles!?!?)

Modern, micro storytelling is about personal drama, small picture problems. Anything on CW is a perfect example of this. Small picture problems and issues are at the forefront of these kinds of shows. Pettiness, relationship squabbles, and situations we as readers/viewers can easily empathize with dominate the landscape.

So. Where does roleplaying fall into all of this?

If you’re a traditional gamer, you most likely enjoy playing a single character who can affect change in the world. This means more than just fighting monsters, but saving entire villages, towns, duchies, and (eventually at 20th level) kingdoms. If you’re lucky. Using D&D as an example, the Forgotten Realms is a gameworld ripe with opportunity for this kind of gameplay.

And this is essentially MACRO storytelling.

But. The PCs don’t see it that way. And the gamemaster is probably drawing a lot more inspiration from micro stories and less from macro stories.

Essentially, the wants are at odds with the needs and the inspiration to create either wants or needs is crippling any attempt to write truly macro stories.

Allow me a short segue to explain.

Breaking Bad?

The last great show on television to thread the needle between micro and macro storytelling was Breaking Bad. When the story of Walter White started, the events were small. The stakes were small. The characters faced a few obstacles and those were all tangible. A single street corner fight comes to mind as micro, though with macro repercussions. As the story progressed, so did the stakes. The tone of the story grew to match the character’s reach. Walter had 20 guys killed in 20 different prisons within 10 minutes of one another in a single move. That’s big picture stuff.

(Btw. If you ask me the last two episodes aren’t very good, but that’s a longer post.)

So. Breaking Bad might be the best tool for us to understand how to write campaigns for gaming. Stories that start small and grow into epics have a more profound effect, than stories where characters are already bearing the weight of the heavens on them.

Japanese Roleplaying Games

The biggest offense to storytelling is the tired Japanese roleplaying game. Every single story is identical in structure. The village of a ‘chosen one’ is attacked. He or she must gather some friends and go from village to village solving tiny ‘FedEx’ missions over and over again, fighting ever stronger monsters, and buying ever stronger weapons. There are no choices. The path is linear. The characters take on tiny event after tiny event, only to face a demon the size of the moon in the final scene of the game.


Tonally and thematically, this makes no sense. If this is what video games are becoming, I’m glad I don’t make any.


I love the movie, Dredd. It is a perfect example of how to take a Macro IP and turn it into a single micro story. In fact, there’s a great line that reveals just how macro the environment is should the franchise grow.

“Judges are losing the war for the city.”

This line is normally unnecessary in a movie like this. The judges won’t be tackling the crime of the entire city. They are going to kill/arrest a lot of people, but they aren’t going to make a dent in a city where “Twelve serious crimes reported every minute. Seventeen thousand per day. We can respond to around six percent.” So, the quote about losing the fight for the city implies that there’s a city worth fighting for.

A city we might see again.

To put it into fantasy game terms, imagine you are fighting a single street gang in the alleyways of Waterdeep. Defeating them won’t make the city safer, but acknowledging that they are 1 of 100 gangs that make Waterdeep unsafe, the PCs can grow the story from micro to macro. The tone of the story might change, but the themes of it could remain the same.

And there’s the magic word again. Theme.

I intend to address theme soon in a post all its own. For now, just know that as a gamemaster, your games will always be stronger if you keep your themes tidy.


Marco storytelling is going away because of the changes in our culture and the demand for more personal stories. Multiple characters facing internal and external conflict. Etc. This is neither a good or a bad thing. But it does mean if we want roleplaying games to have big strong campaigns, we need to learn to use tools that aren’t readily available. There are much more stories in our wheelhouses that reflect micro stories. And if we turn to them for guidance, we’re going to run the same course of stories we always do. “All of a sudden the ground trembles and there’s a massive demon facing you. What do you do?”

Cookie Jar

115517Years ago, I was writing George’s Children and my first playtest with Mark Nau (and others) resulted in a few of us staring at a stack of chips. We were done playing and trying to find a way to make the tokens vital to gameplay. I eventually did, but in the process of doing this, the idea of a finger-pointing game to me. And I immediately realized I was writing rules to a game akin to “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” but with a murder mystery/criminal bent.

And a little risk/reward thrown in.

The rules are simple, covering a page. And I’ve always enjoyed it with the right people. But. To this day, I have no idea if anyone has played this game outside my group. But it requires a fistful of dice. And it’s free on drive thru.