Iron Game Designer 2016: How Did We Get Here?

Iron (Chef) Game Designer lay dormant from 2009 to 2015; this was the first year we’ve had it run with such momentum from the last. And it worked again, and worked better – we had 50% more people, bigger teams, bigger games and bigger enthusiasm. We’re now looking at doing it again in Sydney in July and also talking to some teachers about running IGD in schools.

EDIT: Video now up here!

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Chairman Kaga welcomes everyone to Boardgame Stadium

But IGD would be nothing without its participants, the brave people who create the amazing work in so brief a time. I’m now cutting together the video we shot on the day (last year’s video is here) and this time I have a tripod to stop some of the shaking (although we had a much smaller, louder venue so the sound may be worse). In the meantime here’s a quick wrap up of the excellent work we saw. Last year’s games explored “Home is Not Safe”; this year’s theme was “How Did I Get Here?” and seven teams explored that in seven different ways…

What Went Wrong was a story-telling card game not unlike Once Upon A Time, where gangsters have to explain to the boss why the heist they just ran went wrong. Like OUaT cards represented ideas (and the teams , but unlike OUaT having a boss adjudicating things, rating responses and throwing out the heist components provide a different kind of concrete basis. That plus the crime theme and the frame of an argument shifting blame made it stand alone and be quite fun. It needed a bit more robustness but this was probably the most playable game of the day, and produced a lot of laughs in all its playtesting.

Journey was the opposite, probably the least developed and complete of the day because I think the boys on this team changed horses with under an hour left when their first idea collapsed. Their quick alternative was a card game about colour matching – each card had a colour of its own and one or two colours it could match to, and the idea was to play along those lines while trying to build up sets of matching locations and matching emotions. It might not have been more than the sum of its parts but the experienced folks in this team made the parts very good: each card had a power as well as a set, so you had to choose the best power, best set-match and make sure you could keep playing cards onwards with the matching. Plus the emotional aspect added something very new to storytelling. Why is the ocean serene or the desert sad? Suddenly things had power. I think this has legs.

The Hero’s Journey shared a name with the former but nothing else because the theme was just the right level of strength. And although the name and Joseph Campbell are very familiar, the angle of this game was like nothing else. Here the players took the roles of mentors guiding the hero through nine life challenges, hoping that he recalls their lessons they raised him with, not those of others. By playing cards to challenges they could direct the hero towards good, evil, chaos and law and hope he ended up in the quadrant that matched their hidden identity. This was still clunky at its core but the storytelling potential and the unique approach of character position made this my favourite game of the day and I hope it goes further.

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Hard at work figuring out how they got here

“I’ll Never Drink Again, Officer” was not unlike Journey in that it was about colour matching, only here your pattern was hidden and you were playing cards to your tableau from a shared deck being passed around, as you struggled to sort out your memories from everyone else’s after a bad night out. What sold this game was the outstanding quality of the cards in question, grouped into suits of meeting celebrities, eating food and breaking laws. The juxtoposition of the cards helped create stories; having “Let the Lions Out of the Zoo” next to “Ate Roadkill On A Dare” made you wonder about the fate of the lions. While the writing was first class, the flaw in this game came in the mechanics – there was no choice in what to play. The crew had spotted this and brainstormed on how to fix it, but never found it. How do you get past blocks like that? I think in 150 minutes, there may not be a way…

Voices in the Forest was hands down the strongest idea mechanically, providing a new twist on the hottest new genre, communication games. You’re lost in the forest with only a few items and three voices on your radio. One you can trust, but the other two want you to stay in the forest and die. Borrowing a bit from Codenames the speakers have a hidden diagram of safe spots and not-safe ones, and a start and an exit, but the 5×5 grid is full of information not for the wanderer but for the clue-givers, forcing them to limit what they can say or how they say it, like the rounds in Monickers. A bluffing hidden-role communication game is a perfect storm of hot new trends. These guys finished earlier, again stuck on how to really develop it to perfection, but also because they really nailed something strong.

Space? was the name and space was the subject, in the sense of travelling through it in tiny vehicles which had random levels of propulsion, trying to avoid crashing into randomly moving wormholes (or make them crash into others). The randomness of this was both a weakness and a strength; it was part of what made the game fun and I think would also help it appeal to younger gamers who like just having the experience. They also wouldn’t mind drifting randomly until a leader emerges to attack; for older players though the first act was a bit empty. This was also the game that would have the longest play time and the prettiest, most exploratory world, and so suffered most from a short pitch with low tech in this format. And super props for using the Trivial Pursuit pieces, turning a bad game into a good one!

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For a blue piece of pie, which bit of space holds my next artifact?

Lastly we had The Walk of Shame which returned to the theme of recovering after a hell of a night out and trying to piece together what you did. Unlike I’ll Never Drink Again, this was an old-school board game with roll and move, tracking back through Brisbane, complete with familiar landmarks on spaces. To balance out the luck of (the these days much-reviled) roll and move you could choose long or short paths, with longer paths allowing you to pick up (but in character spend) extra cash. The winner being the person who spent the most cash the night before and retracing their steps through vomit-stained gutters and prison fines. The reversal of players getting money to represent what their character spent made it nice and kinesthetic, and the Brisbane locations made it wonderfully atmospheric. It was simple but the kind of people keen to re-enact a pubcrawl LIKE simple. Thus I believe this was most marketable game on the day. You could sell it at pubs.

I say it at the start of every competition: I organize this event because participating would be too scary for me. But every year we see bright, enthusiastic faces, excited by the prospect and fearless to the core. Somewhere around the middle they get a bit weary and a bit worried but by the end I see those same smiles, that same enthusiasm and excitement, filled with awe at what they have created and eager to take it further. Is it crazy? Yes. Is it all a bit silly? Yes. Does it make people do things they never thought they could and create excited gamers dreaming amazing new dreams? Oh yes indeed.




Queen For A Day: A DramaSystem Session

“The difference between you and me is I want to be the guy, and you want to be the guy the guy counts on” – The West Wing

Despite contributing to the immense Hillfolk kickstarter (by setting appears in Blood on the Snow, the companion volume), I have never had a chance to play the Drama System contained within – until last weekend. Even better, it was with five amazing players and a brilliant, unexpected set up: instead of a setting, we were given the lyrics of all the songs off Queen II, an amazing concept album of fairies, ogres, white and black queens and the seven seas of Rhye. With that as our palette, we painted.

I took the role of The Master Marathon, and decided that I wanted to be a character who had what everyone wanted – or wished he did. I decided he was the keeper of the power of Endurance, that all who wished to Suffer And Go On owed homage to him. Another player crafted Mother Mercury, also an elemental power, but in charge of hot and cold, now lost in an endless winter from which she seemed unable – or unwilling – to awaken, despite her need to be rekindled. We soon learned she was the ex-lover of the Fairy King, ruler of all the lands of fairy, but weary of his throne and eager for his son to replace thim. That sond was Sir Tristram, a young prince called the Killer of Queens. He was cursed to love the White Queen while the prophecy spoke that if he married her, she would die. Last was General Grimtooth, the King’s trusted long-serving general, also keen to retire so he can spend time with his grandchildren. King and General and Mother and Son, all waiting, all wanting things to finish forever, or start at last, but stuck in time until then, and Master Marathon keen to sell them suffering so they needed him more…

Convention Rules for DramaSystem involves setting up each character via introductory scenes where they ask another character for what they want from them. We began with General Grimtooth asking the King if Grimtooth could train his successor. Grimtooth’s player asked if the King had a name, and someone – doing that fantastic ingame improv worldbuilding that works so well – said “If you knew his name, you wouldn’t have to ask for freedom”. Boom, world creation. The King, by the way, said, in his usual wishy-washyness that it was okay but there had to be contest first to make sure Longfang was the best choice.

On the verandah of the King’s hut, styled not unlike a viking longhouse – Master Marathon begged Mother Mercury to make winter go on forever, for cold men need endurance. She said maybe, if there were other ways to awaken her senses – and what she meant was a rekindled love from her once-husband, the King, but though she begged by the frozen stream’s side, he could not give it. Meanwhile the King begged his son to either marry his love or cut her loose, so he could take the throne unhampered, but Sir Tristram refused, not while the curse hung over him and the Black Queen was still at large, plotting. He went to Grimtooth’s cave to ask the ogre for an army to crush the Black Queen, but Grimtooth refused.

Generally, as is the way of DramaSystem, everyone was being a dick.


Master Marathon, a god who just wants you to want him and needs you to need him

The GM lit the fuse by announcing the Black Queen was coming to seek alliance and continue the ongoing peace, and in the King’s ear she whispered that this would be best sealed by her marrying Sir Tristram his son. Looking down on the two royals meeting in the throne room, Master Marathon whispered to Sir Tristram that what instead was being said was the words of lovers, and Sir Tristram should urge his father to love the Black Queen freely. On the other balcony, knowing the King would visit the Black Queen to cement the peace, Grimtooth demanded Mother Mercury – for her own safety – be his spy within the Queen’s Obsidian Castle. She agreed, fearing too that the Queen would steal her King. To guard against that, she begged the King to let her accompany him in his private pegasus-drawn carriage on the journey, but he said propriety would be violated. And since he was now committed to affairs of state, seeing in their settlement a way out of his eternal agony, he summoned Sir Tristam and told him once and for all to choose the Black Queen or the White Queen, or no longer be his son. Tristam promised to choose by sundown tomorrow.

Huffy and annoyed, Mother Mercury and Sir Tristram made plans to ally against the Black Queen. Mother Mercury then found herself summoned by the White Queen, who begged Mercury for her Winter Touch to end the love Sir Tristram has for her. She had already asked Master Marathon for a gift of strength to lend Sir Tristram which he gleefully gave (for Master Marathon wished Sir Tristram to be slain by the Black Queen, causing his father to be heirless and be forced to go on forever enduring). Sir Tristram, having pledged to choose Black or White needed to ensure he would, if he wed his White Queen, not take her life, so the next morn as the procession of pegasi flew to the Obsidian Castle, he ordered Grimtooth to promise one act of total obedience when called upon. Grimtooth promised his obedience, but bristled at the order.

Seeing his bristling, I (Marathon) suggests that to protect a king’s life, it is no treason to kill a prince. Grimtooth is not at all happy about that, either. Scurrying for protection I decide to ride by the King, who orders me that, when instructed, I pass his Immortal Heart to his son. Pretty sure that the prince will be dead soon I promise to do so. Grimtooth leaves the travelling party and seeks out Longclaw, his best soldier, and orders her, if he moves to strike his masters, to stop him any way she can.  Longclaw knows the only way to stop Grimtooth is with the Sea of Winter, one of the Seven Seas of Rhye, held deep beneath Two-Way Mirror Mountain, and he sends out the Blue Powder Monkeys to find it.

Having reached the Obsidian Castle, Sir Tristram walks the gardens in his grief for his terrible choice – marry the queen he loves and be sure to kill her with his hand, or marry the queen he does not and kill his love with a broken heart. But the White Queen appears and tells him his pain will end if he kisses her. He refuses, even though she says he does not love her if he denies her. Then Mother Mercury joins the party and tells her step-son to kiss for his stepmother, if not for his love.  Forced to it, he kisses his love and Mercury’s spell cools his ardour. Cut to him in his father’s guest chambers in the Obsidian Castle: “I will marry Black” he swears.

Night falls and the silver moon makes the Obsidian Castle shine with black light. I find Longclaw on the parapets awaiting word of her Blue Powder Monkeys but the truth is, I tell her, that I possess the Sea of Winter. Marathon launches into a big thing about how Longclaw will dance for him but Longclaw is a soldier and just beats up Marathon and takes the chalice. Marathon however is not without back up plans, and in the Throne Room that evening he demands either Fairy King or Black Queen deliver justice against uppity ogres who dare assault his regnant person. Sir Tristram gives his Black Queen a proposal gift of Longclaw’s head, after taking it from Longclaw’s shoulders. The Black Queen accepts. Grimtooth grimaces in agony for Longclaw was his daughter

Grimtooth now begs his King for release so he can turn on Sir Tristram. I point out that Grimtooth has no successor now and her soldiers are unruly savages who attack their betters, so the King cannot let his servant free. Grimtooth loses his shit at the traitor Marathon and begins beating the living hell out of him. The King begs us to stop and I see my moment and tell Sir Tristram that Grimtooth will never be his obedient servant when he is so wild and urge Sir Tristram to establish his new kingly reign with proper justice. Sir Tristram challenges Grimtooth to a duel – and uses his promised favour from earlier to force Grimtooth to comply.

But Sir Tristram wonders if the bloodshed is too much and hesitates in battle. Grimtooth smashes the young prince’s sword and mortally wounds him. Seeing his son dying, the King orders me to transfer his Immortal Heart into his son, and I must obey. I lose the chance for the King to go on enduring, but perhaps the now scarred, dark, immortal Prince Tristram will need aid in his endurance. Determined never to harm a Queen with his hand, and shocked at his murderous ways, Prince Tristram adds to his stigmata by ordering Grimtooth take his victory prize by severing Prince Tristrams hands. Grimtooth obeys, but having harmed his prince, ignored his king and lost his daughter, Grimtooth then cuts off his own head.

In a lake of blood, the lack-handed but immortal Sir Tristram marries the smiling Black Queen, free of his curse but shrouded in blood and darkness, and with Master Marathon as his mentor.

But not all is sadness. Freed of his Immortal Heart, the King’s heart of flesh beats anew. And he leaves the Obsidian Castle arm in arm with his old love Mother Mercury, leaving the responsibilities of immortality and reigning behind to love her again. Mother Mercury is reborn, the snows break, and winter ends. What then, of the summer to come?

Perhaps that tale will be told elsewhere.



Niche product producers will not find much joy selling their webspace to internet advertisers. Numbers from a Secret Squirrel RPG Industry Mailing List. Approximates of course.


To give you a rough sense of the math:

1) 40-60% of your audience will use Ad Blocker. They cannot be meaningfully monetized.
2) 30-50% of your audience will be international. They cannot be meaningfully monetized.
3) At less than 1 million ComScore uniques, you are too small for direct representation or notice by ad agencies. You can, at best, get remnant advertising or small direct deals.
4) A typical remnant ad will pay $0.50 CPM for an above-the-fold placement. A typical direct deal for a niche property will be $2.00 CPM for an above-the fold placement. You will get half this for below the fold, or worse. (CPM means cost-per-thousand).
5) You can probably have 2 above the fold ads and 2 below the fold ads per page.
6) You will probably sell only half your inventory directly, at best.
Therefore, imagine you have 200,000 page views, 40% ad blocker and 30% international. You have (200,000 x .6 x .7) 84,000 page views to sell. You will have 84,000 x 2 = 168,000 above the fold ads, of which 84,000 will sell at $2 CPM ($168) and 84,000 will sell at 0.50CPM ($42). You will then have 168,000 below the fold ads, half at $1 CPM ($84) and half at 0.25 CPM ($21), for a total of $315.
If you increase your traffic by tenfold and reach two million page views per month, you are still too small for the economics to change, and can make about $3,150 per month at best – enough to pay one editor a working-class wage. But very few blogs ever approach that level of traffic.
And this does not even take into account the possibility that fans may access your account via mobile or Facebook, where the economics are even *worse*. It is, simply put, impossible to make money from free content at anything short of titanic scale.
You are far better off availing yourself of Patreon and similar services to directly monetize your fans. They will appreciate you not annoying them with ads and you’ll make more money.

A is for Apocalypse

The 200 Word RPG Challenge is crazy. And silly. But all these kinds of contests are crazy and silly. That’s the whole point. By doing something crazy and silly, you shut off the safety-brain that slows you down, and learn how to do that for bigger projects.

Anyway, here’s my entry!


A is for Apocalypse is a roleplaying game for one or more players. It is a simple game of letters.


One player begins by saying “A is for Apocalypse”,and then they describe the nature of the apocalypse. It could be a world-spanning catastrophe, a small domestic one or even an internal one. Use no more than one sentence. Talk for no more than one breath.


The second player (or the first, if playing alone), responds with “B is for But” and explains how they have, at least at first, survived the onslaught.


Players then proceed like this through the alphabet, starting each new sentence with a subsequent letter. Each odd letter introduces a new fact about the apocalypse or a situation within it, an outside effect applying pressure upon the protagonist. The even letters describe how the protagonist resists or overcomes this struggle.


The purpose of the game is to tell the story; the odd sentences should never be so fearsome as to obliterate all hope. Likewise, the protagonist should never become so powerful as to obliterate all doubt.


When you get to Z, the game is over and the story finished.
Advanced Rules: Make each couplet rhyme.

The Sword of Stone

So last year I submitted a story for the Swords Against Cthulhu anthology from Stoneskin Press. It did not make the cut, although they said it came close. I’ve since shopped it around a bit to try and sell it but after a few rejections I’m done with that. I don’t need the money but I do need people having emotional reactions to my work. And also, it’s not my BEST work, which makes it harder to keep selling. And I’m not going to try to fix it because I’ve moved on. So now it’s yours. It’s about 4000 words so I’ve put it in this Read More thang  I tried to but I couldn’t get it to work so just scroll, babies, scroll.

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