Except for last week’s blog about running con games, I’ve been doing a lot of shameless self-promotion here recently. I’m going to continue the trend again this week, but at least this time I’m using it as a sloppy segue into the main topic of the column. But first, the whoring: Brainfart Press (which is basically what I call myself when I publish incredibly unmarketable books, like Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed)) has just released its second publication, The Callypigian Grimoire: A Discordian Activity & Spell Book. It’s completely full of stupid shit. You can download it for free from the Brainfart Press page or order a print copy through CreateSpace or Amazon. I recommend a print copy, but since I actually make a buck or two off those, the recommendation is based on an ulterior motive.
And speaking of Discordianism, some of you may know that the entire world of Qerth is based on the idea that Eris want some good cheese! See, I told you it was a sloppy segue. As you can probably guess from the cover, Qerth is a D&D parody. It’s not one of our best-known books, but I do get semi-regular questions about it through the web site, most of them asking when we’re going to come out with the next set of rules (like the original D&D rules, the first Qerth book only gives rules for the first few levels (or Ranks, as we call them)). My answer usually sounds like an evangelical Christian’s answer when someone asks them when Jesus is coming back. Something along the lines of “It’s going to happen, but nobody can know when.” The real answer is complicated and requires understanding the history of Qerth, which is what I’m going to focus on this week. The background involves some behind the scenes details about how things work at an incredibly small game company and ties into the changes in the game publishing industry over the last decade or so, so hopefully even non-Qerth fans will find some of this interesting. Next week I’ll get into the current status of future Qerth products.
Qerth was actually the very first QAGS supplement that Leighton and I started. In fact, I think we wrote the very first pieces of Qerth (the introduction and some of the Job tables) when we were still working on QAGS. We kind of lost momentum and started working on other things, but returned to it periodically when inspiration struck. It was pretty low priority though, for a couple of reasons. There was a concern about whether it was “marketable,” although since our distribution network at that point consisted of the store where I worked, our website (the URL of which at the time was “www..mindspring.com/~sejohnson; this was the late 90s and domain names were still kind of pricey), and teh occasional con, marketability was kind of a moot point. The bigger problem was that at that point we were doing digest-sized, staple-bound books printed by a company that was one step up from Kinko’s (you can download most of those old books in PDF format for free on our website if you want to see our incredibly humble beginnings for yourself), and there was just no way a book the size of Qerth was going to work in that format.
Eventually, we graduated to producing grown-up books, which got rid of the format limitations. Unfortunately, it also made marketability an actual concern. This was still back in the days of traditional printing, so printing a book meant printing at least 2,000 copies, so we had to worry about whether or not we could sell the things. Since we were selling our books through traditional distribution channels, that was at least theoretically possible, but since we were printing each book with the proceeds from the previous book, we couldn’t take the risk on something as iffy as Qerth. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of calling Qerth “iffy” when most of our profits were from a 64-page digest-sized black and white rules system written mostly as a joke. I’m not completely disconnected from reality. When Hackmaster came out, we discovered that a D&D parody was a marketable idea (at least if you had an incredibly popular comic behind it), but the niche was now filled and we realized it would be hard to market Qerth as anything but a Hackmaster clone. We still worked on Qerth occasionally, and even ran it at conventions (one of my favorite con games ever was a high level Qerth game at DragonCon where the players got attacked by a living mountain and then had their henchmen fight the dragon off-screen while they raided the treasure hoard), but its publication seemed farther away than ever.
When Print on Demand came along, we were freed from spectre of huge printing costs, but traditional distributors (especially the 800 pound gorilla) had something called “returnability,” which meant they still ordered huge quantities (which we had to pay to print), then returned whatever didn’t sell after a year or so. Since even our “marketable” products were very niche, we eventually realized that traditional distribution wasn’t for us. By the time we’d printed all the books that the distributors ordered, paid them back for the books that didn’t sell, and paid for shipping both ways, it added up to more than we made from the books that did sell. This called for some serious re-thinking of our business plan.
There were really two reasonable options. One was to just call it quits. The other was to produce stuff that would actually sell (like maybe getting in on the d20 glut) but that we had absolutely no interest in creating. We decided to go with the third option. Since we could now literally print a single copy of a book if we wanted to, we decided that we’d write what we want and just print what we need to sell on our website (which by this time had a real URL), any stores that would deal with us personally outside of the distribution channel, and at conventions. It meant resigning ourselves to working day jobs and doing games as a hobby, but it also meant that we wouldn’t be hemorrhaging money to print books for the distributors to store for a year and then ship back.
Thanks to the rise of the PDF game market, this plan eventually kind of worked out for us, but at the time we were just happy that we could keep making games for ourselves and that we’d found a few people who also enjoyed the games we made. It was oddly freeing, because it meant we could do anything we wanted or, as we sometimes put it we could “embrace the stupid.” There was nothing stopping us doing Qerth, so we started working on it.
Even though at this point Qerth was basically being written for our personal gratification, we wanted to differentiate it from Hackmaster. By that point, we’d learned enough about Hackmaster to realize there was a pretty significant difference. Hackmaster is a parody of D&D, just like “White & Nerdy” is a parody of “Ridin’ Dirty.” It’s basically the same thing as old D&D, just with funny “lyrics.” Even at that point, Qerth was a satire of D&D; to continue the Weird Al analogy, the relationship is closer to the one between “Everything You Know Is Wrong” and songs of They Might Be Giants. The satire of Qerth was a nastier than Weird Al’s satire, but it kind of became our hook for writing the rest of the game.
Based on the satire hook, we decided that we wanted to make a game where all the dumb shit in D&D actually made sense in the context of the world. We’d already done some of that with the idea that the Knomes were secretly setting up the dungeons as training grounds to fulfill the “And Lo, There Shall Come A Cheese Maker” prophesy--the inclusion of Cheese Makers was to fulfill Leighton’s long-time dream, based on a single non-weapon proficiency in the Complete Humanoid Handbook, of running a campaign that prominently featured cheese making--but hadn’t really figured out the end game. I think it was when we were trying to come up with a context for the weird-ass D&D style magic system that we first introduced Eris, and that’s when everything clicked. Qerth was a fake world built on the Golden Apple (you can actually see part of the word “Kallisti” on the map if you look closely) because Eris wanted some cheese. Which brings us back to where we started and gives me a chance to once again remind you to buy my stupid Discordian magic and puzzle book.
Next week: Exciting Qerth News!
Since it’s con season, this week I’m going to talk about running convention games. For the most part, the tricks to running a good convention game are the same as for any other game: make sure everyone has fun, give each character a chance to shine, and give the characters a stake in what’s going on and the players the illusion of free will. There are, however, a few special considerations to take into account when you’re running a convention game.
What’s The Purpose of the Game?
Before you start thinking about the details, take a minute to decide what you want the players to get out of the game. This is especially important if you’re running a game in some official or semi-official capacity (for example, as a representative of the publisher or a member of an organized demo team). The ultimate goal is usually to convince people to buy the publisher’s products, but some demos may are more tightly focused than others. Are you trying to show off a particular strength of the system? Introduce players to a new setting? Showcase a particular adventure or supplement? Knowing what you’re trying to do with the game can be helpful when you design your adventure.
Should You Use Pre-Gens?
Most players prefer making their own characters if they have a choice, but for convention games that’s not always practical. Pre-gens are a good choice if character creation is time-consuming (I’ve honestly seen a few convention games where players spent the entire session creating characters and never got to play); the adventure you’re running requires a specific mix of character types, skill sets, or pre-existing relationships; you’re running a game with pre-existing characters (for example, a Firefly game starring the Serenity crew); or the basic character archetypes for the game aren’t immediately obvious from either the setting or the rules system. If none of those restrictions apply to your game, it’s a matter of personal preference and GMing style. If character creation is simple and quick and you’re skilled enough at improvisation to adapt to whatever characters you end up with, let the players make their own characters.
Don’t Assume Familiarity
Players often use conventions as a chance to try out new games, so it’s best to assume that most of the people who sign up for your game will be first-time players. When preparing for your game, be sure to allow time for explaining the basic game premise and rules system. When plotting your adventure, assume that everything will take longer than it does with your normal group. Even if all your players have experience with the game and the setting, the fact that the players probably don’t know one another will make things take a little longer than they do with a group that’s been playing together for a while.
The assumption of unfamiliarity extends to the game setting as well. If the plot hinges on the PCs knowing that Doom Corn only grows in Zarakech, make sure they can get that information during the course of the adventure. Don't assume that someone will have read The Complete Book of Dark Agriculture. Remember this is a one-shot, so concentrate more on presenting the flavor of the setting than getting all the details accurate. If you can't remember something, make it up. Since there's no continuity to worry about, it doesn't matter if the PCs meet Bob the Thief in Swampville or Rob the Thief in Marshtown. Along the same lines, if the players do something that's not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the game but still fun, go with fun--you can always point out afterwards that their actions probably wouldn't fly in a typical campaign.
Go With The Flow
Unless you’re trying to show off a game setting where mood and atmosphere are vital (some horror games, for example), it’s usually best to follow the players’ lead when it comes to the tone of the game. Since convention games are one-shots, players often prefer them to have a lighter, more comedic tone than campaign play. Hobomancer is a great example: the setting described in the rulebook is kind of dark, but our convention demos always feature lots of humor and slapstick. That’s fine with us, because players are much more likely to remember a demo (and buy the game) if they enjoyed themselves, and it’s hard not to enjoy yourself when you can’t stop laughing. If players decide to run their own Hobomancer game, they can decide whether they want to play the more serious game described in the book or something more in line with the convention demos.
Other Helpful Hints
- Prepare cheat sheets with basic rules, bullet lists with important world information, and other things the players might need to reference.
- If you use pre-gens, include all the rules the players will need on the character sheet (or on additional sheets if the character sheet doesn’t have room for things like special ability rules or spell descriptions). That way the players don’t have to flip through rulebooks to find out what their character can do.
- Bring extra dice, pencils, and other accessories in case the players don't have their own. Extra rulebooks are also good if you've got them.
- At the beginning of the session, let the players know that there will be scheduled breaks and ask them to stay at the table until a break is called unless there’s an emergency. Having players constantly leaving and coming back can slow down the game.
- The players paid to be at the convention (and may have paid an additional fee to play the game) and the con is expecting you to entertain these people for at least most of the scheduled time slot. They might have even given you a free or discounted badge based on that expectation. That being the case, it's generally bad form to kill characters off early in the game without giving the player a chance to continue playing (either a new character or a resurrected/cloned version of the original character).
- There are exceptions to the "no kill” rule: (1) For some tournament games, the event rules supercede player enjoyment and good storytelling; (2) If a player needs to leave before the game is set to end, it doesn’t hurt to give him a meaningful or heroic death; (3) If a player is ruining everyone else's enjoyment of the game, it’s completely acceptable to get rid of him, though it’s best to give the problem player at least one warning before you declare that his character just dropped dead from a brain aneurysm .
I've been wanting to submit something to Game Chef for a while, but always end up missing it. This year's event kicked off on June 12th, the day I left for OMGCon, but I found the announcement yesterday as I was trying to make my way through my once-again out-of-control newsfeed. The deadline for this year is the 21st, which is the last day of DieCon, which gives me until Friday morning if I want to get something submitting. Despite only having something like 3 of the 9 days allotted for the competition, I decided to give it a try and started writing last night. I'm already up to about 1500 words and there's a 4K word limit, so I think I should be able to pull it off.
Since this year's theme is "a different audience," I'm writing a game for players who don't put in consideration into the lives of their characters beyond the central activity or "mission" of the game, which is a major departure from the more sandbox-ready kinds of games I tend to write. While I did include a paragraph about how a group might go about running a game that contextualizes the PCs' actions within a larger setting (I'm not a monster, after all), the game itself deals only with what happens when the characters are adventuring.
The game is called "Law & Otherworld" and is based on a blurb I wrote up for one of the weekly challenges on the reddit /rpg sub a few years ago (though I can't use the blurb as written since it would violate the rules of the competition):
"In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by three separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime, the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders, and the psychopomps who travel into the Land of the Dead to retrieve the souls of deceased witnesses and victims. These are their stories."
The ingredients for this year's event are abandon, dragonfly, stillness, and dream and you're supposed to use 2-3 of them. The "dream" ingredient is easy enough, since I can just make the Otherwold where the dead people are the same place where dreams happen (which means in this world Inception and What Dreams May Come are even closer to being the exact same movie). "Dragonfly" is the name of the group assigned to act as bail bondsmen for the dead, and one of the symbolic associations of the insect provides me with a justification for the name as well as an in-game way to use dragonflies. "Stillness" and "abandon" are less central, but do make an appearance in the form of "The In-Between," the Otherworld wasteland between the individual dream realms of the dead and sleeping. The different (for me personally) audience theme is met by making the game take place entirely in the Otherworld except for perhaps framing sequences at the beginning and end of adventures (and even those can happen in dreams if the GM prefers). Except for a couple of paragraphs to provide the set-up, the waking world is left completely unexplored.
If you've pledged at least $3 to my Patreon campaign, you can read the game as I'm working on it (and $5 patrons can comment). If not, you'll have to wait until I release the game into the wild either Friday morning or when I get back from DieCon.
It's a busy week, so I'm steeling the You Are Dumb Dot Net "manic topic" thing for this week's blog.
New HubPages Article
The HubPages article that I mentioned last week where I used Goblin Holler as a running example is now live. The topic of the article is campaign brainstorming. You can read it here.
Cons, Cons, Cons
Con season has officially begun. Ian just got back from Origins. Carter and I are leaving for OMGCon in Owensboro later tonight, where we'll be running Hobomancer, M-Force, an homage to Mad Max: Fury Road, and my Sin City/Disney Princesses mash-up (for full descriptions check the QAGS Facebook page). Next weekend Ian and I will be at DieCon in Collinsville, IL. The schedule should be on their site somewhere, but I'll post it to the Facebook page when I get back from non-quite-Indiana.
FuQit Games Presents: Miniature Adventurers
So, I've finally accepted that I'm never going to use a lot of the old junk (including a lot of gaming stuff) in my attic and started listing it on ebay. As I was going through boxes, I found a bunch of lose miniatures that I'm never going to paint. I tried to sort them into some sort of logical lots, but then decided it would be more fun to sort them into adventuring parties, and Miniature Adventures was born. Basically, buy some random miniatures and you get a one-of-a-kind micro-supplement that describes who they are and what they're doing together. Because just selling random minis would be boring. I just listed the first set and will put more up next week. (I've also got some other random gaming stuff and a few comics listed if you want to buy them).
“The novel is a challenge to vulgarization: write something that looks new to you: someone will point out that the thrice-accursed Greeks said it long ago.”--Charles Fort
As Fort observes, there really aren’t any new ideas. The best you can really hope for is to mix old story elements in a new and interesting way that people will like. Most people are reluctant to admit that when they first start doing creative stuff, often to the point of denying obvious and unavoidable influences. “Oh, it’s nothing like Lord of the Rings,” they’ll say. “That was all about a magical ring. My trilogy is all about a magical necklace.” I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that kind of nonsense before myself, but the more I’ve done the more I’ve begun to wear my influences on my sleeve. In fact, I’ve found that understanding how all the different influences fit together can be an incredibly useful, at least when it comes to designing games.
You’ve probably stumbled across an Influence Map on an artist’s or writer’s blog (you can see mine here) at some point. Basically, it’s a grid of images of different sizes showing what people and things influence the creative process of the person who made the graphic. The bigger the image, the bigger the influence. While I’m sure the idea’s been around since long before the internet, as far as I can tell the meme template most people use is from DeviantArt user fox-orian. You can get a copy of it here. For some reason I woke up a couple of days ago with an idea in my head about using an Influence Map when designing a new campaign or game setting.
Actually, the mental image floating in my head as I woke up was of an image map for a specific game. It’s a game about Appalachian moonshiners in the 1920s world of Hobomancer that’s been floating around in my head for a few years now. The working title at the moment is “Outlaws of Goblin Horror.” I used it as the basis for some examples in my latest Hubpages article (which I’ll be posting early next week). I’d just finished writing the article before I went to bed the night before, which is probably why it was scratching at my brain. I’ve got several projects I need to finish before I can even start to work on Goblin Holler, but I decided to try making an Influence Map anyway, partly to see if the idea works and partly to kickstart my brain again whenever I do get around to writing the game. Here’s what I came up with:
- Hobomancer and American Artifacts get a big chunk of space because Goblin Holler is set in the same world a few years before and slightly overlapping the default time period of Hobomancer and these two books set the tone I’m going for.
- This is a collection of Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories called Who Fears the Devil?. Leighton discovered it while we were working on Hobomancer and sent copies to several of us for Christmas. When we read them, the general reaction was “that’s almost exactly what we’re going for.” The only major difference is that Silver John (sometimes called John the Balladeer) is more of a drifter than a hobo. Since the Silver John stories are set in Appalachia and draw on a lot of real folklore from the region, they’re likely to be an even bigger influence on Goblin Holler.
- Nick Cave and John Hillcoat's movie Lawless is what mainly inspired the Goblin Holler Idea in the first place. I was particularly intrigued by the almost legendary qualities attributed to the family, and Tom Hardy’s character in particular (even to the point where he bought into his own legend). For the game, I’m thinking that the default assumption is that the PCs are all part of the same family and have to come up with a family myth that almost works like a magical power. Sort of a group Hobo Power.
- One of the early roadblocks I hit was the old “so what do the players actually do during a game?” question. Car chases and shootouts need context and moonshine wars are a long-term story arc, so the mid-level “adventure” story set-ups weren’t immediately obvious. As I talked it out with Richard (Smith, author of IMP) one day, we came up with the idea of individual adventures being mostly about helping out neighbors who were in some kind of trouble. We almost immediately realized that, sure as a one-legged duck swims in a circle (actual Waylon Jennings line from the show), “moonshiners helping neighbors in trouble” is exactly the plot of The Dukes of Hazzard.
- Thunder Road’s mainly here for the car chases. This game might actually give me a chance to do something with the “car magic” idea that’s been floating around in my head for a long time.
- This is the J.D. Wilkes block. It was originally just going to be Seven Signs, a documentary by Wilkes about fascinating but disappearing pieces of southern culture and folklore. Since the pic didn’t quite fill the grid, I threw in his Grim Hymns comic as a reminder of the supernatural element of the game and a Shack Shakers album for soundtrack purposes. The Shack Shakers album stands proxy for several other current bands that have the right vibe for Goblin Holler, including Wilkes’ other band, The Dirt Daubers, Split Lip Rayfield, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, The Hooten’ Hallers, Uncle Skunkle and the Scarecrow Family Band, and Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three.
- This block, which includes a stack of Foxfire books, Botkin's Treasury of American Folklore, a random album of Appalachian music, and a Hatfield-McCoy historical marker is a reminder that there’s a lot of great stuff in real history and folklore that I need to steal.
- Despite the writers’ terribly flawed understanding of Kentucky geography, the Appalachian setting is a big part of Justified and there’s definitely some stuff in the three or four seasons I’ve seen that might serve as inspiration for Goblin Holler. I specifically chose an image where Boyd is in the foreground since Goblin Holler isn’t about the lawmen.
- If you’ve read any game I’ve ever done, it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m a big fan of quirkiness, and there’s no better example of Appalachian quirkiness than the White Family of Boone County, West Virginia. I chose the Dancing Outlaw over The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia out of personal preference for the more Jesco-centric version and because the original is a real documentary. The Johnny Knoxville update feels a little too much like a reality show pilot for my tastes.
- Joe R. Lansdale is probably best known as the author of Bubba Ho-Tep, which was made into a movie starring Bruce Campbell. He also wrote (and Tim Truman drew) three great Jonah Hex mini-series that were published by DC’s Vertigo line in the 90s. A lot of his fiction is set in Texas, not Appalachia, but it has a tone that’s sort of like To Kill A Mockingbird if To Kill A Mockingbird was spooky as hell, so he definitely fits here.
After doing the Influence Map, I don’t really know much more about the Goblin Holler game than I did when I started, but I feel like I have a better grasp of what I want the game to be. I’ve also got a handy reminder of things to (re-)read and (re-)watch between now and whenever I sit down to start writing. The Influence Map (and this article, if I draw any blanks when I look at the graphic) also gives me a handy reference tool to get my head back into the right space when I start working. The images are much more evocative and inspiring than a list would be and the different sizes remind me how important I think (at least right now) each influence is to the core concept. All in all, I think it was definitely worth the time and effort and encourage you to give it a try. If you do, feel free to share a link to your Influence Map either in the comments here or through the Hex social networking page of your choice. I’d love to see how easy it is to “read” one I didn’t make myself.
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