The Art of Being Seen

For my sins, as they say, I’m an artist. I write things. I design games. God, it’s hard to say that, and to say it and mean it, and to say it without flinching. Without rushing to qualify it.

Way back in 2006 (on the first of June) I graduated to the world of ARTING FOR MONEY, when I got my first paid gig with the wonderful wonderful amazing people at Green Ronin on WFRP 2nd ed. But while I knew a great deal about WFRP, I had to learn a lot about writing for money. I made mistakes, like trying to take every job I was offered, no matter how much (unpaid) research I’d need to do and how little I cared about the project. I was poor, and I desperately needed the cash but that was still a bad move. For me, that is. It could be the right move for someone else. But I had to figure out what kind of freelancer I wanted to be, and how to be that kind of freelancer.

Arting is hard. In so many ways. It takes years to master any particular craft, and you discover you can never stop learning even if you wanted to. You have to constantly reinvent yourself and reeducate yourself because you want and need to do different things and tell different stories because you’re a different person. And that’s just art. That’s just getting a thing in your brain into the physical world. It’s an agonizingly difficult process that is not safe nor comforting nor particularly satisfying and doing it all is hell and doing it well is confusing.

And then there’s literally everything else. The art of moving your art to an audience. And the art of getting some kind of return for that. Both of those things are tremendously difficult, and rife with there own bottomless pits of despair and hidden reefs of agony.

The internet in a weird way doesn’t help. It’s democratized creativity but that also means it democratized access. Yes, you can get a stall at the market but the market now serves every human being on earth. And Kickstarter doesn’t help much either. Yes, it helps immensely to get the money upfront – as long as you can sell people an idea, which they can’t play with first. It does help, but it also requires new skills to learn.

It took me half my life – forty years – to be okay with making something creative and going “there, it’s finished, it’s good enough”. I hung it on my wall and said “yes, that is art”. Or chucked it on a website and one or two people even looked at it. I call this the “Art Bucket” solution. I put things in the Art Bucket and if anyone cares, they can pick through the bucket until it gets thrown away when I die. But just last week I ran into a desperate need for money so I had to try to sell something things from my Art Bucket. And oh god, the uphill curve.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen my games for sale. That’s the problem. I’ve reached the end of my market with thirty people. I have now hit the limit of my current abilities in the arcane art of Moving Art To Audience.

I’m not saying this to discourage anyone, it’s just to bring it up. We often forget to even talk about it. It’s usually chapter nine of a ten chapter book on How To Be A Writer. When it should be part two of a three part series, at the very least.

Propitiously, I’ve just met the folks at Invincible Ink who have learned much in the art of getting games to those who want to play them, but Talen has tweeted often about the non-trivial nature of this struggle. These guys work their butts off going to cons to be visible, which must cost a fortune. That’s one step. But still, the face an uphill battle. Still learning by experimentation and trying to unlock a black box that few have mastered and fewer talk about. The getting the game to the person who wants to play it. It used to be that the publisher would do those kinds of things for you, and that CAN happen. If you live in America or the UK and can get to pitch sessions (although at last those have started in Australia now). But those companies don’t publish many small games and usually not RPGs. As much as indie RPGs are a thing, the days of the Forge are past now, and good luck being seen among the herd.

Now I’m trying to figure out if I go to cons with hard copies, will that get copies into hands. How much do I run demos. How much do I WANT to run demos or go to cons. How much does that “cost” in all the ways things can cost? And how much return do I need based on that cost? How do I balance that against just throwing it in the Art Bucket and setting up a Patreon for those who scoop things out? Do I advertise? How? When? Where? How much does it cost? The moment I put my work up on that Go Fund Me, I had to face these questions. And looking at Invincible Ink’s successes (especially with cardgames as fluffy and light as mine, like the hilarious CrowdFund This which is close to my game about insane movie pitches), do I print my own card game ideas? Do I take them to cons? Do I throw them onto DriveThruCards and hope and pray just one person buys them? Or do I hope a hundred people buy it and try Kickstarter? (Heck, Crowdfund This is a satire of this whole question, just to come full circle.)

I also had to realise that getting money was a skill. I was lost for a few days when that started happening. Then I was much more lost when it STOPPED happening. I had to learn not to check my total every few days. And then I had to also learn that tracking it was important. But not to let important things drive me insane.

And in all of this I’ve actually skipped over the whole aspect of publishing. Again, there are wonderful tools to help these days – you can get free or cheap stock art, you can kickstart to get more, GIMP is free to download, Officeworks or Kinkos can print and bind things for you, but boy do I suck suck suck at any kind of desktop publishing and are my word documents okay? Are they worth the price of entry? Or do I cost out trying to learn these things? I can’t find anyone to help me (the lesson of art seems to be “you’re on your f*cking own, son”).

And RPGs are at the simple end of this pool since they don’t need much artifice. My friends at SmithSoft designed this awesome phone game recently called Pandora’s Books. It’s great, you should go download it. I saw it when it was just a working game with a mechanic (figure out what the scrambled word) and a goal (before the monsters shoot you). Then they spent another year or so adding art and a cool character design to identify with and levels and achievements and social media networking and in-game advertising to make money and now it’s so much more than a GAME…it’s all the things a game needs to be just to get people to play it. And they have as much of a social media presence as they can get while doing all that.

And it’s free. It’s goddamn fricking free. But getting people to play it?

The old saw goes that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. But it’s a lie. Mousetrap still sells by the truckload, and nobody will beat a path to anywhere without being led by the nose and offered free samples, and even then, well, there are free samples next door too. Fame is a lottery, and all the internet has done is increased the ticket sales to everyone on earth. And fame isn’t a shallow thing – at its heart it is connection: it’s getting the people whose souls most need your art to get access to your art.

Luckily, connecting people to what may enrich them is something I’m passionate about and skilled at. It’s why I’m a critic and why I’m a teacher and why I’m what I like to call a nerd dragoman. And there are many like me. Social media is full of people saying “hey, this is good, connect to this, people I know, you may like it.” But still it’s not always enough.

So my point, or points I suppose are these:
1 – respect the impossibility of the task, and be ready to learn as much as you can and deal with how tricky and frustrating it is
2 – do everything you can to be a good dragoman and link people to content, we need that more than ever. Understand that this isn’t advertising, it’s about connecting art to audience which matters so very much.
3 – be okay with it mattering, because of course it matters that you have an audience. Of course it sucks to not get one. Also money is food and shelter and you deserve them and capitalism ripped away your chance to get them any other way.
4 – never ever forget that the task is hard and is ZERO reflection on the quality of your work itself. In the howling tornado of everything on the internet, even the greatest things of all can be completely missed. Art isn’t Sleepless in Seattle, it’s Brief Encounter. Things get missed. Van Gogh knew more about painting than maybe anyone who ever lived and he painted over his work over and over again just to try to stay alive.

It’s a tragedy, but it’s also okay.

(5 – buy my games, and buy Invincible Ink games, and download Pandora’s Books)

Crowdfund My Heart

So I was planning on doing something funky with my new patreon account and the two RPGs I finished this year, but then I hit an unexpected bill that I have no chance of paying in the time frame that keeps it from being even more ludicrous. So while the patreoning continues, we’ve now moved to crowdfunding.

After just two days we’re over 20% which is great. So I’m going to up the ante: after the crowdfunding, the only way to get IT IS FORBIDDEN will be through physical copies directly from me. That’s right: you have exactly one month to get this game and then it’s gone. AFRAID OF THE DARK will be made available to patreon backers and buyers as normal. So what are these games?

IT IS FORBIDDEN is a setting-building game that owes much to similar works like Microscope and Kingdom, but instead of building a timeline or a world, the game builds a culture by creating taboos. The game can provide interesting races for your fantasy game, or be used as an educational resource in understanding cultural clashes in history or modern day. It can be played with anything from two to twenty players, so it’s excellent for educational purposes.

Players take the roles of powerful figures in clashing societies where everything they do is countermanded by invisible rules they don’t realise they’re breaking. This is because the players don’t know what they are, but also because that’s how culture works – the real rules are invisible. Until they are broken. And that’s when the trouble starts.

AFRAID OF THE DARK is a horror RPG about young children. Ever wondered, parents, why they won’t go to sleep? Why they need to get a glass of water? And then go to the toilet? And then get something they forgot? And then they sit up talking? And then complain they can’t sleep? They’re stalling. Because in the darkness of their bedrooms, a war is going on, for your souls and theirs. The Shadows are in there – and everywhere. And they want your heart crunched between their impossibly sharp teeth. And all you have is a onesie with a kangaroo on it, a stuffed banana and a geode you got when you went camping.

Good luck surviving the night.

The game is designed for one-off sessions with two to five players and one GM. It’s dark, violent and scary and full of little kids being eaten. You’re playing those kids. You might NOT get eaten. It’s not guaranteed. It is possible to survive. I’m just saying, it’s unlikely. Reader caution is advised.

Both are 30 pages long and will be coming to you in fancy shmancy PDFs. Hard copies may be available via POD at a later date.

 

Old Characters Don’t Die…

They just get used in other campaigns.

I made this guy for an Emerald City game using Mutants and Masterminds but the game never happened. Maybe someone else can use him?

THE SWORDSMAN

Created back in the Golden Age by Gil Kane, his full name was The Stellar Swordsman and he was a kind of space-Zorro figure with a dash of Conan, allowing stories to blend fantasy and space tropes. Untrademarked, the name was later used by Stan Lee and Don Heck for a Hawkeye villain, but there is no relationship between the two characters. In the early 1980s, the character was rebooted by Len Wein and Brian Bolland. Most of his backstory remained unchanged apart from establishing he was not the first to carry the Ultima Blade. He appeared briefly in Freedom Galaxy, a selection of stories about the heroes of Freedom City establishing a space exploration and defence platform after Chronicle revealed to them how little they knew of the galactic threats surrounding them. His fate following Freedom Galaxy was not covered; it is assumed he returned to his home planet once again.

The Swordsman is a Titon, an alien from the planet Titona. The Titons resemble humans for the most part, but their higher gravity and the harsh solar winds have made them faster, stronger and more alert. Aeons ago, they were contacted by mysterious higher beings whom they worshipped as something akin to gods. They had detected or perhaps made themselves objects of pure power, which somehow collapsed the higher dimensional existence of a concept into our three dimensional universe. The most dangerous of these (and so far the only seen) is the Ultima Blade, the sword of all swords, a weapon that encapsulates the very archetype of the perfect blade and which is said to be able to cut through anything that exists, even time and space itself. Unable to interact with our universe easily, the higher beings charged their faithful servants of Titona to be the guardians of the blade. Since then, every generation of Titons has competed for the honour of being the Swordsman, with only the wisest, bravest and greatest warriors being worthy.

In the current age, the bearer is a Titon called Kellan Tarn. As a general, Titon was an Alexandrian figure who felt the Titons should be expansionistic in their search for justice and safety. He admitted feeling denied what he thought was his destiny when he was chosen to wield the Sword, as it is a weapon he feels deserves nothing but the utmost caution, to be drawn only in great need. However, before he could ponder this new destiny, some power in the sword cast him across dimensions, to Earth, arriving in Emerald City in the wash of the Silver Storm. As yet, he has no idea why.

Complications: Mystical Destiny, Can Be Yanked Around By Higher Beings, Relatively Useless Without His Sword, Alien Who Doesn’t Always Get Earth, Code of Behaviour About Not Throwing Around Violence For No Reason And Also Representing The Highest Honour Of His Entire Race So Can’t Just Goof Off, Also Keen On Pacifying The Whole Galaxy If He Has Time.

Powers: The Ultima Blade can cut everything. Even the fabric of reality, allowing travel between dimensions, and space, allowing teleportation. It can also cut everything short of itself/Plotimmunium. It has a built-in connection to the “higher reality”, which gives it a few mystical powers like precognition. Unlike Thor’s Hammer, anyone can wield it although it is heavy as hell (semi-literally); only a superhero would have the required strength or training. As a Titon he has Thor-ish levels of strength and resilience, can ride his horse through space without a helmet and a few other doo-dads.

Visual Reference: Gil Kane’s Black Mark. This is probably what Tarn looked like back on Titona. On earth he is less bare-chest barbarian, wearing one of those usual body-stocking unitards, but keeping the boots, cape and bad-ass belt over the top.
Gil Kane - Blackmark Pin-Up Original Art.jpg

 Attributes:

Strength 8
Stamina 9
Agility 3
Dexterity 0
Fight 4
Intelligence 1
Awareness 2
Presence 3

30 levels = 60 points

Defences:
Dodge: 3
Fortitude: 9
Parry: 9 (5 levels)
Toughness: 9
Will: 6 (5 levels)

10 levels = 10 points

Skills:

Acrobatics 6
Athletics 12
Close Combat 15
Deception 2
Expertise: Strategy and Tactics 13
Expertise: Cosmic Knowledge 10
Insight 4
Intimidation 6
Persuasion 2

70 ranks = 35 points

Feats:

Accurate Attack
Agile Feint
All Out Attack
Assessment
Benefit: High General of the Titonic Armies 2 (He’s a long way from home)
Benefit: Bearer of the Ultimate Blade 1
Daze
Defensive Attack
Extraordinary Effort
Great Endurance
Improved Defence
Improved Disarm
Improved Smash
Improved Trip
Language (Titonic) 1
Leadership
Quickdraw
Power Attack
Weapon Break

Feats: 20 points

Powers:

Immunity (to being in space, to hunger and thirst) 2

Ultima Blade Item, Easily Removable. 30 ranks in powers, cost: 18 pts. (

Damage 10
Penetrating 10
– Impervious, Dimensional, Feature (Cosmically Heavy)

Alternate Powers
– Senses 4 (Precognition, Uncontrolled)
– Movement 3 (Dimensional Travel)
– Teleport 5 (Solar System)
– Movement 3 (Time Travel, Limited)
– Transform 10 (anything whole into anything cut)
– Telepathy (Close, Limited, Dimensional)
– Deflect/Interpose something like that
… that feels about 30 points.

Powers: 20 points.

Iron Game Designer At Berkacon

For the second time in a month (and third time in three months) we ran Iron Game Designer, this time at Bezerkacon (which was enjoyed by all). We almost didn’t get it played because numbers were low but Tony and Petr were so keen (and liked my talk) so we moved mountains to make it happen no matter how few we had. At the last moment it was five people, so I roped in two judges (who were WONDERFUL at short notice) and I decided to do Iron Game Design MYSELF for the first time. Scary scary. But it was very in keeping with the spirit of Iron Game Design that we threw the competition together at such short notice with limited resources.

After time and time again seeing AMAZING achievements come out, I think I was a little cocky going in. It is incredibly hard to use your brain at that pace for two hours straight, in terms of strong communication, problem solving and brain storming. We did the brainstorming really well, and within twenty minutes came up with a basic idea we loved. The theme was The First Day and our idea was gods working semi-collaboratively to create continents on an ocean by playing cards from four suits (Forests, Mountains, Basins and Deserts), and the end of the game would produce not just a winner but also a pretty world you could imagine using as a game or fiction setting. That gave us conflicting goals, and although we were in the ballpark quickly of what we wanted, finding a way to make a kind of two-dimensional UNO crossed with The Game – then we spent about ninety minutes straight failing to make that work. I was terribly disappointed we had no time for any artwork or any flavour (the stuff I’m good at), but looking back I’m happy with how close we came and how quickly we got clear goals to aim for. Four Corners of the Earth was a decent achievement (shown here with Charlie, who was also at the con and whom I want to come up in social media summaries of this post).

One table over may have gone slightly outside the rules by scrounging cardboard from an outside source but I allowed it for the dazzling physical spectacle. Battlepillars was a game about catterpillars eating the entire earth and then fighting to the death. Like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, on the first day the caterpillars ate one thing, then two, then three, the four, then five of the 30 available facedown cards, with peeks allowed to find the good cards and avoid or switch out the bad ones. After five days each battlepillar has fifteen cards, some of which helped him with the eating phase but the rest designed to help him in the final battle, where you rolled 15 dice, assigned hits, and triggered the powers you gathered in the eating. This was not greatly balanced but it was solid as all hell and the two phase fun of getting to build an arsenal then set it off was extremely engaging, plus the theme was adorbs. A masterful work.

Perhaps the only thing letting it down was use of theme, but victory in Iron Game Designer is always arbitrary and always splitting the tiniest of hairs and by one point it went to Pencil Pushers, a game about being a working schlub. A hand of cards contained achievements that gave you brownie points with the boss (like doing work or sucking up) and things that did not (staring out window, playing pokemon) and each turn you could do your job (put a card in your outbox), pass the buck (give a random card away) or take the credit (take the top card out of someone’s outbox). There were eight rounds, each with special rules temporarily altering play (eg if a Pointless Meeting was called, you cannot Do Your Job), for the eight hours of the day. Those with the best work in their outbox and least left in their hands win! The hidden and random elements made game play random but it worked and the choices were meaningful and the humour on the cards was great. I am so so jealous and am going back to just running these things you goddamn talented BASTARDS.