Archive for July, 2008

Push the Red Button

2008 Jul 28

In the actual text, this is going to be much more elegant, but here’s the basic points I want to make.

All competition in Geiger Counter is fake. This includes both the competition between the menace and the characters (both of which are played by the players), and the competition between characters to acquire resources, achieve goals, avoid conditions, and survive. These competitions are like the ‘competition’ of a coin-toss or the card game War, an illusion that can create suspense and interest but, if taken too far, becomes ridiculous (do you get bragging rights after winning a coin flip?) or just not very fun.

The only reason we roll dice, instead of just arbitrarily deciding which side loses a confrontation is because the audience doesn’t always know what will happen next, though the result is strongly predetermined or biased by the needs of pacing and other concerns (how many dice the menace has and what advantages the characters have acquired). Preserving the fun of being the audience of a survival horror movie is one of the main goals of Geiger Counter. It is not particularly interested, however, in replicating the experience of being the characters in a survival horror story. It would be hard to enjoy the game, I would expect, if you really felt terrified for your life, instead of amused at the horrific, dangerous situation your character found themselves in. Also, dying would totally suck.

Basically, Geiger Counter is at odds with both inter-player competition and really playing your character hard, sharing their goals and desires. If, while playing Geiger Counter, the characters come across a big red button that says “Don’t push, dangerous!” by all means, before the end of the game, make sure someone, preferably your own character, PUSHES THAT BUTTON! You don’t win if your character escapes unscathed, whether your motivation is winning or just siding strongly with your character; you lose and so does everyone else in the group, due to the lost opportunities for entertainment.

Promises You Can’t Keep

2008 Jul 27

Something’s bothering me, so I thought I’d lay it out. This is something that hit me square between the eyes in my early forays into game publishing, but I see many other folks facing similar challenges. The basic principle I’ve come to, through trial and error, is this: Don’t promise people anything before you have it in your hands to give to them. Here’s some ways in which it manifests in roleplaying publishing…

Pre-Publication Buildup: Once upon a time, there was a guy named Jonathan who got so excited about this project he was working on, called Argonauts, that he published a huge description of it in Matt Snyder’s online indie gaming zine, Daedalus. He also paid this awesome artist named Antti to do eight illustrations for the game. And then… the game never came together. A year or two later, John Harper published Agon, which semi-wittingly carried some of the spirit of Argonauts, but the original game idea will probably never materialize. By this point, I’ve stopped getting emails asking when it’s coming out, but that was a semi-regular occurrence for a while.

More recently, in Ken Hite’s article in the GenCon 2007 convention book, he told people that they should all stop by the Forge Booth to pick up a copy of Push 2, because I’d expected the volume to be out by then. Now, a year later… still no Push 2 (it’ll happen when it happens). I hope I’ve learned my lesson in this regard.

I’ve also paid money for artwork and then never finished the game the artwork is for. This has happened… four times, if you count Bethany’s cover for Push 2. Definitely a mistake that I hope I’ve learned from.

Pre-Orders: This can be, in all sorts of ways, much worse for a new publishers (or even an old hand publisher) than jumping the gun on promotional efforts. For example, it was just recently announced that West End Games is apparently shutting down, partially because they took all these pre-orders for a product that never ended up materializing and kept be badgered by folks who wanted their money back and were angry at the lack of a product on schedule. Other companies have also gotten a lot of bad press by taking fans’ money long before a product appeared, such as Aetherco over Chi-Chian or EOS over a number of their announced products.

This even affects indie games, as exemplified by the Bliss Stage pre-order, which promised a full-color, 200p version of the game by Dec 2007. Currently, it looks like Ben will be lucky to have it out by Dec 2008. Ben’s unlikely to get the kind of flack that West End got, becaue the culture surrounding indie games is pretty different, but, still, pre-orders hardly ever take into account that the situation can change drastically.

I was just talking to Elizabeth, whose upcoming game, It’s Complicated is facing the little road-to-publication obstacles that nearly every product faces, exacerbated by the fact that she was pressured into the “pre-order + GenCon” publishing model/schedule at the last minute by a bunch of other indie game designers who I’m sure had the best intentions. But trying to deliver on her original pre-order promise amidst changing circumstances has become incredibly stressful for her. Likewise, Shreyas has also done the same thing, but I’m doing layout for Mist-Robed Gate and if the book is ready for GenCon, it’ll only be by the skin of our teeth.

In general, this is not good for us, for the indie game community, for our stress levels, and for the satisfaction of people who play our games and rightly expect to hold us to our promises. Sure, if you want to run a pre-order for a game that will be out “eventually,” then hopefully folks will have flexible expectations, but, in general, I think, it would be better for us to refrain from making promises we may not be able to keep, period.

Geiger Appendix

2008 Jul 26

The Director’s Commentary Or, Things I Learned from Playing a Lot of Geiger Counter

Points to be expanded later:

1. The game isn’t a perfecty balanced mathematical system and can be busted up pretty good if you try to subvert it. However, it’s a tool for creating fun experiences, so it’s up to you and the other players to figure out how to use it to best create the kinds of experiences your group enjoys.

2. Play often proceeds in the following general stages: 1) “These readings don’t make any sense,” 2) “Something is very wrong here,” 3) “Oh my god, it’s found us!” 4) “There’s only one way out of here… *chu-chuck*” and 5) epilogue or false epilogue.

3. Optional final confrontation rules. Declare a final confrontation and keep rolling against the menace until one side is dead. Consider allowing the menace to escape when it only has one or two dice left and no longer seems to pose a big threat in this scene. That allows them to come back, in a false epilogue or sequel.

4. Optional “overrun” rules for horde-style menaces (credit Ben for the name). When losing to the menace in a conflict, you can declare a location is “overrun” and flee, though Overrun still counts as one of your conditions. Mark that location. Afterwards, the menace gets a +2 bonus when attacking characters in that location. If multiple characters declare “overrun” after losing to the menace in a single scene, mark multiple adjacent locations. The Buyoff for Overrun is winning a conflict against the menace in that location (it removes the bonus).

5. Looting the bodies. Like many things, only do it if it would make sense in the movie, if you’ve majorly played up the importance of an item. Even then, consider letting the items be lost with the death of their owner, as a way of building tragedy and resolve, even if the item is critical to someone’s goal. Failing goals is okay and expected!

6. If the menace seems too easy, push harder on goals and inter-character conflict. That’s a major part of hitting the right level of lethality. Characters should die due to the direct or indirect consequences of other characters actions.

7. If the menace seems too hard, the characters should either team up against it or try to gather the remaining advantage dice. However, losing completely to the menace can also be cool, but you may have to find a way to spin it to make the tragedy palatable for everyone.

8. Traitors and villains. Sometimes a character decides that they are the villain of the movie and sides completely with the menace. That is okay, but that doesn’t mean the menace doesn’t also want to kill them. Just because they’re on the menace’s side doesn’t mean that the menace is on their side. They’re welcome to roll their dice against the other characters in a conflict… but they also have to use that roll to defend themselves from the menace, if the menace decides to attack them in this confrontation. Sometimes the menace will choose to recognize an ally and not attack traitors and villains at every opportunity. However, if the menace no longer sees a use from such an ally, they become food.

9. Take your time in the planning stage, especially when discussing the general location, what the menace is like, and the characters. These things don’t have to be detailed and in fact should be able to be summarized in a sentence or two, but make sure those sentences really pop. “Arctic research station” is okay, but it doesn’t vibrate with energy and opportunity. If you can make it an “arctic research station examining the frozen remnants of an ancient meteorite impact…” now you’re playing with power. This can be the difference between a great game and a mediocre game.

10. You know those games where the characters are central and every decision a character makes is an opportunity for the player to say something about who that character is? This isn’t usually one of those games. Sure, you can be surprised when your scumbag character decides to sacrifice himself for someone else, but, as an audience, what we’re most interested in is the group and whether anyone makes it out alive. Individual characters just aren’t that important, especially since, unless they survive for a sequel, we’ll never encounter them again. The characters are simply cogs in a much larger machine and are not necessarily even the most important cogs. The most important cogs are “what happened?” and “how awesome was it?” Questions like “how did they feel about it? what did it mean to them?” are much further down the list of priorities. By default, Geiger Counter isn’t really “about” anything. There’s no inherent theme or premise here, just action, messy demises, and a lot of running around.

Mike Sands on Geiger

2008 Jul 25

Mike Sands organized a game of Geiger Counter recently and had some good things to say about it. He sent me an email linking to his post and also said:

“I must say, there wasn’t much of the usual playtest kinks, it seemed pretty solid overall. Your new character sheet design looks like it serves to deal with our biggest issue (i.e. deciding what condition to pick).”

Rock. That makes me feel really good, that the text already seems to be working for people, even if it’s not nearly as good as I want it to be. Listening to the recent Theory from the Closet podcast with Thor has made me want to throw out my current draft and re-write it from scratch, but we’ll see what I have time for before GenCon.

I think Mike’s comparison to Eric Provost’s The Infected is spot-on. Geiger is not about creating really great or memorable characters, necessarily. It’s about the movies we love despite the fact that the characters don’t necessarily have a lot of depth. Even Ripley is ultimately not that complicated, but the movies succeed anyway. It’s very much just about structuring “what happens” to be really fun and exciting.

The Dancer and the Dawn

2008 Jul 25

Continuing an outline of the early play of Transantiago. This text is all ugly, but it gets at what I’m ultimately aiming for.


The Assassin has strangled this world of suffering, garroting it with the crimson thread called Desire. As this world dies, the parts worth saving depart along the Night Road which pours from the fatal wound, towards the World To Come. Engulfed in the Night Road, the Assassin is lost amidst the hustle and bustle of those departing, trapped amidst a station that we will name after him: Assassination Station. I will now place this station on one of the Stars Amid The Darkest Night, to show where the Assassin may be found.


It is my duty, the duty of the Dancer, to bring the dawn. The sun rises on the last day this world will ever know, before all the goodness departs along the Road of Night and all the excess is lost in the ashes. It rises on the Songbird, who is departing Assassination Station, leaving the depths of the previous night, to begin searching for Those Who Come In The Night.


Where shall the Songbird fly, as she sings a final welcome to the sun?


And then the Songbird takes the first turn, leaving from the first station.

When the Corsair takes the second turn, as befitting a pirate, he begins at whichever station he chooses, forcibly seizing it and placing it on the map, before departing from there. This ensures that there are two disconnected subway lines in the beginning. Perhaps the Traveler does this as well, starting from some station he’s wandered into? Do I need to start with some flavorful unique thing for all 8 initial bodhisattvas?

The Gardener’s Introduction

2008 Jul 25

Play of Transantiago begins with a passage something like this, read by the Gardener.


When the Buddha was on his deathbed, a group of children came to him and asked: “Teacher, why is there a ‘Santiago’ in Chile, a ‘Santiago’ in Cuba, yet another ‘Santiago’ in the Philippines, a ‘Santiago’ in the Cape Verde Islands, a ‘Santiago’ in California (though that one’s called ‘San Diego’), at least thirty ‘Santiagos’ in Portugal, five in Spain, one in the Galapagos…?” But by the time the children finished their question, the Buddha had died.

Ānanda took the children aside and said: “Brave Ones, the Beloved Teacher has traded in his fleshy prison for a body made of rainbows. Lucky for you, I too once asked him your question, so I can share the answer with you. In truth, the mirrored city, Transantiago, is a perfect jewel carried within the mind of Lokeśvara, the Lord of the Earth, who scatters reflections of it as he pleases amidst the grime of this world. But, I would advise you: if in the future you meet a bodhisattva on the road, pray render your speech more succinct, else he escape like the wind in your hands.”

Following Ānanda’s advice, it is my duty, the duty of the Gardener, to sheer away excessive blabber with a snip of the fingers, tending the conversation by keeping it well pruned.


Transan Board at Lulu

2008 Jul 25

Just ordered a test print of the Transantiago playtest board from Lulu, to see how their poster prints work. Unfortunately, it was $9 for shipping, which I guess has to do with the cardboard tube they mail it in. Weird. It’ll be strange if people have to pay $30 for board + booklet on a ‘free’ game that I’m making zero profit off of. I might have to check out other options.

In any case, I’m excited about getting to playtest the new version, either in Boston or at GenCon. Here’s the final playtest version of the board.

Draft of Poster-Sized Transan

2008 Jul 23

My new plan is to print Transantiago on two sides of a poster, at least 11×14″ or so. The rules would go on the reverse of this, which illustrates how the structural elements from When The Forms Exhaust Their Variety are going to be worked into this draft. I may roll up the laminated poster and attach a little bag to it with dry erase pens and tokens to mark subway stations and bodhisattvas, so you can play it right off the bat.

Only bringing one copy to GenCon, though. Still needs to be playtested more than once, before I start distributing copies :)

Prepping the Geiger Ashcan

2008 Jul 22

POD has spoiled us for ashcans. I mean, POD printers are basically high-quality photocopiers, and yet many indie games folks still send their ashcans off to be printed elsewhere. Mine’s being done at Kinkos. I would do it by hand at the office, binding them saddle stitch with our heavy-duty stapler, but I actually really like my workplace and don’t want to abuse my access to supplies.

Avatar Wraps Up with Style (No Spoilers)

2008 Jul 21

So, I finally watched the last 6 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender yesterday night. They were a fitting end to one of the best series on television and put the astonishingly mediocre Season 2 finale to shame.

Interestingly, the writers totally faked me out. I was like, “Wait, after how progressive Avatar has been, they’re going to make the final battles be all about the male characters saving the world while the female characters wait on the sidelines? Plus they’re going to say that, in the end, sometimes murder is justified?” But then it wouldn’t be Avatar if they had done that, would it? It’s still a bit male-slanted, perhaps, but they do try to invert things, as they always have. And they really stayed true to their moral center, the thing that makes Avatar the best kid show ever, the thing that makes it a cartoon version of Dogs in the Vineyard.

The great thing too is that they ended the show after three seasons, when it was clearly a major success and they must have been pressured to do more. They may milk this cow for a bit longer in other forms, but that doesn’t change the fact that they came in, told the story they wanted to tell, and wrapped it up with a bow. They have given us a gift that can’t be taken away and I will always be thankful: for having a kids show where none of the characters are white, where the female characters are badass, where real moral choices are made, where consequences are dealt with, where there are no easy answers, where you don’t talk down to your audience, where culture is dealt with respectfully, where the martial arts are real, where you fall in love with all the characters, and where the story is one for the ages.

Very, very good stuff.