Thursday, November 14, 2019

Simple Questions From Playtesters

It's been a while!

*brushes off the dust*

Last weekend, I went to METATOPIA, a game designers' convention in Morristown, New Jersey. The convention has a simple, and wonderful, premise: designers show up with their games-in-progress; they show these games off to players and other designers; they get feedback.

I got a lot of very, very good feedback this weekend, both for games that I have been working on for quite a while, as well as for new games that are barely alpha-stage prototypes.

Many of my playtesters, as mentioned above, are game developers themselves, and these sorts of people come to the table with innate skills and insights that make their commentary both direct and valuable. To wit: they have played and made enough games so that they can look at yours and, without too much muss or fuss, cut to the heart of rules decisions and descriptions that you, who are too close to your project, didn't even know you were having trouble with!

Here's the big example from the weekend.

I brought the mid-beta rule book for A Distant Galaxy, my new role-playing game. This game uses the Traits System (featured in Boldly Go!), although the system is tweaked a bit for more Star Wars-y play. Vehicles are smaller and rustier. There are robots instead of synthoids. You can attune to the Source and wield the powers that were once the purview of the Solar Knights. And so on.

I knew that running A Distant Galaxy at METATOPIA was going to be a little tricky. There's a bit more crunch to it than there is in Boldly Go!, mostly having to do with the acquisition of money and stuff. I spent a long time creating equipment lists, a rudimentary trading system, some quick rules for vehicle design, and so on. I knew that buying stuff was a not-insignificant part of character creation, and I knew that I wanted to have my players go through character creation so that they could get a feel for the system. The problem, as I saw it, was that METATOPIA's game slots are only two hours long.

"Right," I said to myself. "Having them design vehicles is probably the most important part of the Equipment section, so I want them to test that. The rest of it I can just handwave. I'll tell them to pick some things and then they can be on their way."

That was not exactly how I phrased it when I was describing the process at the table, however.

See, the thing is that I hate making lists. As a game designer, I've gotten pretty good at doing them in a pinch, but they are the least appealing aspect of the design process for me. Skill lists? Spell lists? Monster lists? Augh! Many of the innovations in the Traits System were created solely so that I could circumvent the dull prospect of listing things as much as possible.

Because of that, I started my explanation of how we were mostly going to skip the Equipment part of character creation with the following:

"Okay, so, since equipment lists are boring and tedious, and since too much shopping will cut into the play time, I'm going to suggest that you just skip..."

At this point one of my players looked at me and said, "hang on. If you think equipment lists are boring or tedious, then why do you have them in your game?"

Ah! Touche! 

Based on that comment, and on other comments received at the playtest, I have decided to revise the Equipment section of A Distant Galaxy (and, likely, every other iteration of the Traits System that requires the players to pick equipment). Here's what I'm doing.


  • There's a list of a lot of different items.
  • They all cost money. 
  • You get a couple of items to start, based on your background.
  • You get some money to start.
  • You buy the rest of your items with that money.

The new way is very similar to the old way, except.
  • The item lists are simplified.
  • You start with money and some items.
  • You also start with equipment picks in various categories. For instance, Pilots get 6 picks under the Transport list. 
  • Players also get Free picks, which can be used to buy equipment in the General lists.
  • Instead of spending cash, players use their picks to get items. 
    • You want a ray gun? That's 2 Weapon picks. 
    • You want a bigger ray gun? That's 3.
  • You don't actually spend your cash on your equipment. That just rattles around in your pocket until you need it during the game.
  • During the game, items cost roughly an amount of money equal to 10^X, where X is the number of picks.
    • That small ray gun is 100 credits. The bigger one is 1,000.
I know that this seems like functionally the same thing, but it feels a lot smoother and faster to me. Figuring out how to divide up your 10 picks to buy Equipment seems a lot easier than finding out you have 2,921 credits and then mathing all of your purchases. Smaller numbers and smaller lists, as well as players being sent to specific lists based on their backgrounds, means a much faster equipment loadout stage, which means everyone can start playing a lot faster.

Although, who knows, maybe it is functionally the same thing, and my writer brain is just confounded by any number larger than 20.

The important thing is that a player noticed something in the system that didn't work for me and pointed it out to me. As a result, I made a new system that I feel is more elegant and more in tune with the game system as a whole.

The moral of this story is: Listen to your playtesters!

Friday, June 29, 2018

RPG Character Library: Dungeon ADVENTURE! 2!

Quite a while ago, I began participating in an experiment during a very dry period in my creative life. The experiment was as follows: Go through the RPGs you own and make characters for each one.

This proved to be an interesting process, as it got me to painstakingly go through many of the systems that I owned. Making some of these characters revealed hidden gems, while others made me want to set things on fire. Because I am only an infrequent blogger at best (partly because "easily distracted" partly because "the writing style of my blog posts makes it seem like I have neurological processing issues") the grand majority of this blog is taken up with character portraits for games I will likely never run or play.

Early on in the process, I made characters for my trunked (to use an author term) game, Dungeon ADVENTURE! Inspired by Joe, of Monkeyden Games, I made a character with the earliest version of the rules I could find, and the same (or similar) character made using the latest iteration of the rules to that date. You can re-read the thrilling saga here.

Looking over the many, many iterations of rules for Dungeon ADVENTURE!, in preparation for making that post, caused a long dormant machine in the back of my brain to come chugging back to life. I realized that I had lost sight of the original appeal of the game--that being that it was streamlined, straightforward, and easy to make characters for. I also realized that there was nothing stopping me from going back through all the different versions of the rules, picking out the bits that actually worked, and cobbling them together into a new, better version of the game.

Which I did!

Earlier this year, I had Joe Blomquist design me a nice cover (featuring art by John Forish and Josh McGaw), formatted my Word document, inserted a bunch of appropriate clip art images, and published the current version of Dungeon ADVENTURE! thanks to the fine folks (and machines) at Lulu. Shortly thereafter, I was inspired to write more for the game, first a module, then a setting guide. If I can keep up this pace, I will have quite the line of products soon.

I'll probably be talking a lot more about the ins and outs of the Dungeon ADVENTURE! game, as well as details of its rapidly growing campaign world, in future updates. For right now, I though I'd circle back around to the beginning and make a character using the current version of the game.

Making a Character

The game has six stats, most of which should be familiar to people experienced with role-playing games. The stats, as well as what they do, are as follows.

Strength: How strong you are. Determines the types of armor and weapons you can use.
Agility: How dexterous you are. Determines the types of weapons you can use.
Mind: How smart you are. Important for wielding the eldritch powers of Sorcery.
Combat: How well you attack and evade in combat. Dump stat for the thinky characters.
Charisma: How likable you are and how commanding your presence is.
Health: How hardy you are. Double this stat to determine your Life Points (HP).

All stats are determined by a random roll of 2d6. Roll six times and place the results where you want them. I get the following results: 4, 7, 3, 8, 3, 10. Sub-par, but I feel like I can work with them. I also wonder if maybe there ought to be a new rule where players can roll 3d6 for each stat and drop the lowest.

No, no, Geoff. The game is already published. Move along, move along.

Next up, I have to determine my character's Kindred and his Class. I have decided to make this character as similar as I can to the characters that I made with the earlier versions of Dungeon ADVENTURE!, so, to that end, I decide that my character is a human sorcerer.

Each Kindred species gets bonuses to two stats and bonuses to three skills. Humans, being the most diverse, get +1 Combat, +1 to another stat, and +1 in any three skills of their choice. I put the other stat bonus in my Mind, because the Mind stat is of paramount importance to a sorcerer.

Each Class starts with some benefits, a +1 bonus to three skills, and a special ability at first level. As characters rise in level, they will gain access to additional abilities. My character gains a scene spell slot (I'll explain this in a minute), access to a school of Sorcery, and gains +1 Life Point at 3rd level and every other level thereafter. He also gets +1 to the Resist Magic, Lore (Any One), and Sorcery (Any One) skills. A sorcerer's first level ability is the gift of The Sight, which allows me to detect magic on people and objects if I make a successful Mind roll.

The next thing I must do is pick skills. I start out with the skills provided by my Kindred and Class, and also get 5 skill points to buy skills. Skills have multiple ranks, and each rank in a skill costs one skill point. I could dump all five of my points into one skill, split them evenly between five skills, or spend them however I want. Certain skills have (Any One) listed in their description, which means I have to specialize, so I also do that now. I decide that my character can cast Aquamancy spells, and that he knows the lore of Sorcery itself.

We're moving right along! The last thing I have to do before character creation is complete is buy equipment. I get (2d6+6)x10 gold to buy my starting equipment. I roll and get 120 gold, which is a nice cache of coin. I note that my character is agile but weak, which limits his weapon choices severely. I also note that heavy armor will not only impede my ability to pass Agility rolls, but it will also hamper my spell casting ability. I decide to go with the lightest possible armor, affording me nominal protection, a buckler, a sling, and a bit of basic equipment, which leaves me with 56 gold.

I could end it here, but before I do, I want to take a moment to discuss how magic works in Dungeon ADVENTURE! Is that self-aggrandizing? Yes! But so is the rest of this post. So...


The game has no spell lists. You are allowed to do just about anything--a) that you like b) within reason--with any of the spell schools you know. My character knows Aquamancy, so he can perform just about any sort of magic that he wants, so long as it involves water or ice.

He has a few limits to his powers, however. He can't do damage/restore Life Points with any spell more than 1d6 + half his skill rank. He also cannot buff or debuff stats, skills, or armor any more than half his skill rank. For my character, that means he gets 1d6+2 and + or -2 respectively.

He also has to determine the range of the spell when he casts it. He can target himself or one other person within 50' x his rank (200') at no penalty. He can attempt to cast a spell with a 10' radius AOE centered on himself at a -2 to his casting roll, or he may cast a ranged spell that has a 10' radius of effect at a -4 to his casting roll.

Lastly, and most importantly, he is limited to the number of spells that he can cast at a time. Spells have two duration in Dungeon ADVENTURE!: Instantaneous and Scene. Instantaneous spells take effect and then dissipate, having accomplished their effect. Scene spells remain in effect for the duration of the scene (or if the target breaks line of sight with the caster, goes out of the caster's range, or if the caster is rendered unconscious).

My character has one scene spell slot, which means that he can have one Scene spell active at a time, though he can also cast one Instantaneous spell each round. If he tries to cast a new Scene spell, the first one immediately stops working. Worry not, though, because my character will gain additional scene spell slots as he rises in level.

The Completed Character

With all that being said, here's my character, ready for adventures in dungeons, or elsewhere!

Navino the Blue, a Level 1 Human Sorcerer
Awareness 2
Lore (Sorcery) 1
Resist Magic 1
Sorcery (Aquamancy) 4
Stealth 2
Survival (Coastal) 1
Life Points
Benefits and Abilities
One Scene Spell Slot
The Sight (detect magic on a Mind roll)
Magic Notes
Damage and Healing: 1d6+2
Modify Stats/Skills/AP: 2
Range 200’

Leather Armor 1 AP 20 gold
Buckler +1 Combat 10 gold
Sling (150’ +1 DB) 5 gold
Bullets (20) 2 gold
Basic Adventurer’s Kit 12 gold
Writing Kit 8 gold
Parchment (5) 1 gold
Bedroll 6 gold

56 gold remaining.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Even More Boldly Go Art: The SFS Oswego

I got yet another email from the fantabulous Dave Woodward of Badgerlord Studios, and...

(Do you remember who he is? If you don't, let me remind you! He's the guy who is doing all of the art for Boldly Go. You can see all of the hard work he's already done by clicking on this self-referential bit of text right here! If you want to hire him for things, I'm sure he would be both excited and gratified to work with you! Let him know I sent you!)

Okay, now that that's out of the way, I got an email from Dave that had more art in it. Specifically, the art of the sample ship, which is referenced quite frequently throughout the text of Boldly Go. That's right, I'm talking about the dauntless ship that is currently crewed by our dauntless sample characters. Put your hands/hand analogues together and give a warm welcome to the SFS Oswego!

I have to say, I'm really happy with how this turned out, especially since I gave Dave virtually no guidance at all beyond, "yeah, so I want something iconic-looking that's not so iconic that people, and large entertainment conglomerates, can sue me for it." He sent me a half-dozen drawings or so and this is the one that I liked the best. I really do love that giant viewing window in the center!

As is right and proper for a game set in this particular genre, the Oswego is every bit as much of a character as the ones who crew her. Part of this has to do with the fact that, during character creation, players get to assign a traits to their new ship. As with character traits, ship traits can be pretty much anything the players can imagine. In many cases, players try to make a "well-balanced" ship with traits that cover a wide variety of possible adventure scenarios. In other cases, however, I've had players make experimental ships, abandoned alien ships that they've found and barely know how to drive, medical ships, science ships, and the ever-popular, 'bristling with weaponry and heavy shielding' ships.

That last sub-category of ship probably doesn't have the giant viewing window. I'd imagine they replace the window with more guns.

Since the Oswego is a character, I thought I'd run through its traits. Keep in mind that this ship was designed organically by one of my long-suffering teams of playtesters, so it is, for all intents and purposes, a "real" ship made by "real" people.


The Oswego is a part of Space Fleet's new line of deep-space exploratory vehicles. It rolls off the factory assembly line with the following customized traits and features:

  • Upgraded Canteen (Featuring Robot Chef Pierre)
  • Superior Maneuverability
  • Advanced Shuttlecraft
  • Reinforced Hull Plating
  • State-of-the-Art Xenobiology Lab
  • Upgraded Navigational Systems
  • Point-to-Point Teleport Pods
  • Enhanced Tractor Beam
  • Well-Trained Security Personnel

The Oswego, and ships like it, can be yours for the low price of zero galactic credits, because we don't use money in the future, for some reason!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Boldly Go Character Art: Part 5

In this, the last post featuring the various crew members of the Oswego, you will finally meet the captain of our dauntless ship. Unlike the other characters in the game, this one is based on a real person.

I would also, once again, like to take this opportunity crow about the artwork of Dave Woodward of Badgerlord Studios. Do you need art for a project? How about a cool drawing of your LARP or tabletop gaming character? If so, look him up!

This is Ray Sexton, the many-times decorated captain of the Oswego. He was the former helmsman of the SFS Megalodon prior to being promoted to the captaincy. He's one of those captains who always winds up becoming something of a parental figure to the people under his command. His relaxed, sometimes jokey attitude while in command has gotten him in trouble with higher-ups more often than he'd care to admit. Still, virtually everyone who has served under Captain Sexton likes and respects him, and would be more than happy to lay down their lives and professional reputations in defense of their captain.

When I was running a session of Boldly Go! at Metatopia, one of my players remarked, "Ray Sexton! That's a great pulp sci-fi name."

It is, indeed, random player. And it's made all the more fortuitous by being someone's actual, factual name.

Captain Sexton is based on Ray Sexton, a dearly-departed friend of mine. I met Ray thanks to my work with SlugFest Games. In brief: He and some of his friends, many of whom are now dear friends of mine, created an expansion for Kung Fu Fighting, discovered that I was local to them, and asked me to come hang out with them and play the game and the expansion with them.

After that fateful meeting, the group and I began meeting quite regularly. Initially, these meetings were to test new SlugFesty products (this was before Red Dragon Inn became the thing that it is now, thereby becoming all the products). Shortly thereafter, these meetings became just hanging out and playing role-playing games (mostly Marvel Super Heroes, if you're wondering).

Through all of this, I learned quite a bit about Ray. He was one of the most relaxed people I have ever known, and he was friends with just about everyone. He had several game groups (and a backpack full of stuff for each) that he gamed with regularly. As a gamer he was very intelligent, clever, and a team player who had a penchant for goofy humor and IG jokes. He never talked over anyone, he always made people feel welcome, and he always made games better with his presence.

I am sad that he passed away before I got to know him even better than I already did.

Ray was big into Star Trek. Several members of his fan group attended his funeral in full regalia. At the local con the following year, the group that he once played Star Fleet Battles and various flavors of Star Trek RPGs ran a series of commemorative convention games in his honor. 

Because of his love of Star Trek, and because of what a great friend and gaming buddy Ray became to me in the brief time I knew him, I could think of no better tribute to him than to include him in my first solo role-playing venture. I hope you're still out there, Ray, having incredible journeys among the stars and making alien species crack up with your unique brand of humor. You are missed.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Burgundar: The Musical

I play Enoch, a gravedigger, at the Mystwood LARP. Mystwood takes place at two sites: The Keep, in Jefferson, ME, and Burgundar, in Harrison, ME.

Lately, in Burgundar, the town has been beset by a vile Chaos demon named Old Grom. As Grom is wonderfully played, delightfully scene-chewy, and possessed of a somewhat generic appearance (an old man in a black cloak and an eyepatch), he has started to get blamed for things he hasn't even done.

This amused me so much that I wrote a song about it. Here it is.

NOTE: I am not a musician or a poet. I don't know the tune to this song, or if one could even be crafted for it. I doubt that it will scan. Please be gentle. Also, this will likely make sense only to about 40 people, but I hope the conceit is amusing enough that people conversant with the fantasy genre will also enjoy it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Boldly Go Character Art: Part 4

We're almost done with the roster for the Oswego. This installment features the last two members of our bridge crew. Then I'm going to follow that up with another post devoted to the dauntless captain of our heroic ship. (The captain deserves a post all his own, for personal reasons. You'll see why when we get there.)

As a constant reminder, the art in this post (and all other Boldly Go posts) is provided by the amazing Dave Woodward of Badgerlord Studios. He's not single, ladies, but he does do commissions!

Character number seven is a personal favorite of mine, and is none other than Helmsman Grummox Benthos. Grummox first came to life many years a go in a funny sci-fi novel I was writing. I may try to finish that novel someday, especially since I've learned quite a lot about writing between then and now. I'm not sure if I'd keep Grummox in that story or if I'd change him a bit...It might be too confusing. Then again, it might give the fans (he says, somewhat hopefully) something to argue about for the rest of time.

Oh, right. Grummox! He's a krakenoid, a species of squid people that originated on the oceanic planet of Yurgos. The krakenoids have a culture based around their military, and hierarchy and proper protocol. Grummox is an exemplar of his species, and is even more fussy and hidebound than the usual krakenoid. As described by someone who played him at a playtest, he's, "kind of a cross between Worf and Sam the Eagle."

High praise!

Character number eight is Ensign Vexxa Smith-Merienas. She's best friends with Janine Tarian and a member of the Oswego's security team. Vexxa is also the game's example of a Mixed-Species character; in her case, she is half human and half krakenoid. Mixed-species characters are able to mix and match benefits from both of their parent species, but also gain the I Don't Fit In trait. Many characters who are mixed-species join Space Fleet in order to "find themselves" and find a greater purpose.

Vexxa is more than a bit like that. She grew up in the Terran Embassy on Yurgos, all but unaware of the finer points of krakenoid culture. She has always felt different and like an outsider, even on her own planet, and for that reason she is often hesitant and unsure of herself. She does, however, possess a natural empathy which makes her an asset to any security detail she is assigned to. She's often teamed with Janine, and acts as the "good cop" to Janine's "bad cop."

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Boldly Go Character Art: Part 3

Four crewmembers down. Five to go. Let's talk about two more of them here, shall we?

For those of you who forgot, all of the art in Boldly Go! is being drawn and inked by the fabulous Dave Woodward of Badgerlord Studios. I am sure that Dave would be happy to take your money and draw for you, so drop him a message or something if you are so inclined.

Character number five is none other than Dr. Phinnea Del*Prinnus, the Oswego's Chief Medical Officer. She is a rittian, which are a species of sapient sloth people native to Rittia I. Like most of her kindred on Rittia, she is extremely laid back, eerily calm, and seems never to be phased by the strange phenomena the crew encounters every week. Under her care, the crew of the Oswego has never been healthier, whether physically or mentally. In her spare time, she hangs around on the cargo netting strung from the roof of her quarters, or on various bits of piping or ductwork that run throughout the ship.

She has a good working relationship with Omolara Namuyangu, the Oswego's Chief Science Officer.

We cross the hall from Medical to Engineering and encounter crewmember number six, Vistabo Roseus. His name means something in Latin, and that something is a joke that is marginally funny to, like, six people or so.

Vistabo is a gattoan from the savage, desert world of Gomeisa (which orbits Beta Canis Minoris--another terrible joke for those of you playing from home). Vistabo's species is based on our very own sand cat (seriously, check them out, they're super cute). Like other members of his species, Vistabo possesses keen reflexes, cat-like grace, and a somewhat territorial disposition. Do not touch his console, or you risk pulling back a stump.

Vistabo has personally saved the ship on numerous occasions, which has won him the respect of the crew and a certain amount of forgiveness for his personality. In addition to his territorial nature, Vistabo can be rather brutally honest, and sometimes this can border on offensive. Despite this, he has become rather close friends with Mott'trog, sharing a love of big band music and all things technical.