Elevator Pitch – Not Just A Game

So two weeks ago we launched our new game Eletumblr_nab5zuqvzh1skd4ego1_400vator Pitch!  It’s a hilarious party game of film cliches and cliched films. It’s ALSO a full RPG about genre-busting cops who bust genre crimes! Two games for the low price of twenty five dollars.

And it’s so much more. The cards are a writing tool, a creative prompt for writers of any kind, be they GMs, authors, film makers or comic crafters. Whatever you write, however you write, Elevator Pitch can help. By sharpening your skills on random draws you can get better at understanding your storytelling instincts, and trusting them. Here are some fun exercises and ideas that you can play with the game:

In A, With A, While A: Draw a Character, a Scene and a Plot. Explain why the character is doing that thing in that place. Speculate on what happens next.

Unlikely Bedfellows: Draw two Characters. Describe their relationship: how do they know each other, or why are they drawn together? What will they do about it?

From Here to There: Draw two Scenes. Describe a plot point that might take characters from the first to the second. What would carry the scene forward while they travelled, if it wasn’t a jump ahead in time? 

Three Act Story: Draw two Plots and an Ending. Lay out a three-act structure with the first plot as the first act, the second as the second act and the ending as the third. This also works with Character-Plot-Ending or Scene-Plot-Ending.

Genre Shift: Think of a film, book or TV show you enjoy. Then draw a Genre and try to re-imagine that story in the drawn Genre. 

Three Important People: A great way to develop a character is to think of three people who changed their life. Draw three Characters for those three people. You can do this to develop a character already in mind, or with a blank slate and then build the character from those influences.

But Then!: Draw a Character, a Scene and a Plot. Work out a narrative that involves all three. Then draw a new Plot. Explain why this makes sense in the story (even if the audience never saw it coming). This is also fun to do in the middle of other stories. Wait for an ad break or chapter break, and draw a Plot card, and extrapolate. What if in the middle of Pride and Prejudice Lizzie and Jane became bitter rivals? Justify it, then take it forward!

The Chain: Use the rules of Then What Happens from the games section, but by yourself. Start telling a story with a random element from a random card, and keep drawing cards and going through the numbers. Generate a new element every few seconds, or whenever you take a breath. See how long you can go. See if you can turn it towards a satisfying end point, whether after five, ten or twenty cards.

Now, it’s so easy to say “but that doesn’t apply here!” when you draw a card. With the cards right in your hand, it is easy to discard an idea as being inappropriate or poorly fitting and just pull another. Resist this temptation! Sometimes the best stories come from the unpredictable and unexpected. Also, card concepts can be interpreted metaphorically and expansively, adjusted to fit other genres – and genres are more rubbery than they might appear. Don’t fight the strange – embrace it. Follow it. It goes somewhere important, powerful and wondrous.


Getting my Game Jam On

This weekend is the Adelaide Tabletop Game Jam Weekend! I’ve been super busy and am house-sitting so have none of my tools with me. BUT! We soldier on. I have made the instructions for YOU to make the game. I can’t make it or test it but you can. All you need is some markers and cardboard, some pawns and 20 six sided dice. If you get it made, play it and get feedback back to me by midnight, you get a design credit! You can jam with me! I call it CROWD JAMMING.

Bad Day at the Office is a collaborative game of causing your office to destruct so you can all go home and not have to work any more. It taps into our shared fantasy of burning down the system. It supports 2-4 players, maybe up to 6, and should take about an hour I think?

Bad Day

Pandemic Series 2: January

The truth is that as stories, there’s not much in each game in itself. The pull back and forth, the tension of each turn, you can’t write those elements down and then turn it into fiction unless you wrote down every single card. We note down the major events and I’ll see if we can turn it into some kind of story. One thing we like is that apart from our victory being pretty good, a lot of what S2 assumes is true matches our S1, like the disease originating on the east coast of the US.

I am Wren, 5th degree Mason of the Green, and I am of the blood of the Builder.

It is the 71st year since the Fading Sickness ravaged the earth.  My great-grandfather, the one who is only ever called Mr Abotu, helped stop it from destroying everything.  What is left of the known world is a tenuous network of cities arrayed around what was once called the Atlantic Ocean, held together by the Havens he helped organise and build.  My home is named after him, and Port Abotu boasts the most beautiful habitats and most elegant hydroponics, and I am personally responsible for the design of the Great Desalination Plant, by the Grace of the Auspices.
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To the north lies Angel Station, who follow the lessons of Dr Knight, and pass them on to the rest of the Grid to keep the peace and quiet.  To the east is Aegis Island, who stand watch against the Hollow Men and the raiders, mindful of the warning of the traitor Colonel Jones.  Angel Station creates, Port Abotu preserves, Aegis Island destroys.  Thus we keep the world safe.

And yet, we have had no word from our leaders, who were due back after the annual meeting.  My nephew PT has urged me to take the lead and represent Port Abotu for, while I am yet to reach the Inner Circle, none question my standing in the community.  I am to join the record-keeper Tell from Angel Station and the administrator Charlie from Aegis Island, both solid friends, to form a new Alpha Team to investigate.  Tell’s knowledge of the network and Dr Knight’s lessons will be invaluable, and Charlie has always been able to organise travel routes regardless of resources and weather, and I am truly glad to be with them.  But supplies of vaccines and food dwindle across our whole network, and the Fading Sickness is always ready to come back.  The Grid has to be kept safe, even as we risk travelling back into the ashes of the old North America to find word of our leaders.

My heart skips a beat as I wave goodbye to my husband and to my little girl.  I am of the blood of the Builder, and I am bold and ready, but where we tread is where the Fading Sickness started, and despite the ashes that fire may not be out…



They call me Tell, for that is my duty. And our Leaders are no more today, because they failed to tell us the truth. Supplies are at catastrophically low levels, and they hid this from us for too long. Our only option is to rediscover our world, whatever the cost. The Hollow Men are out there, but so is what they used to call Amrica. It is not enough to simply stop the plague from spreading; now we must explore the forgotten land.

We established a base in Washington, named for one of the old kings, and where we know the Fading Sickness did begin and end in the histories. But this month the ocean was our enemy as it so often is: as we built our base we got word that Tripoli was collapsing, and London too, as raiders stole resources and sickness spread. Our back up, Team Bravo, shored up Tripoli, while Charlie was airlifted to London. Even as we prepared to build a base in Lagos, it collapsed from disease but thankfully the people were soon resilient. The Quiet was with us.

And then it wasn’t. The ocean, demon that it is, struck again. Seeing our base, the Hollow Men struck at Washington, burned all the supplies. Disease sprung up. Facing the exposure, Mason Wren came away changed. They became anxious and deliberate, and from now they would leave no box unchecked, consider no base fixed until it was perfect. Charlie raced back to pull them out, and when we looked for escape routes, we made contact with Chicago. A new city on our map. And from there, word of others, like Los Angeles and Atlanta, cities lost without roads to reach them.

Everything is about the tyranny of distance in this world, and the Ocean that keeps us apart. While we built a base in Istanbul, preventing its fall, and finished our work in Lagos, London began collapse. That ancient city almost fell to the plague. Cairo too, we saw the dead begin to pile up, just like in the stories of the old times. We had new friends in Amrica, but so many were dying in the east. Our world is not stable. There is no future guaranteed, no secure path. We are not building a new garden but once again saving a world teetering on a brink of survival. Just as the old ones fought, we must fight. Or the world will truly vanish forever.

But we are ready. Already I have learnt to be a Supplier, mastering the networks our Leaders used. The Ocean will not beat us. We will survive.

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(I’m a bit disappointed we can’t name the cities we find. Maybe later? Everyone wants to build the setting as much as possible.)

Pandemic Series 2: Prologue

There will be spoilers. For Series 1 as well, and as we go on, for Series 2. No spoiler space, read these links knowing you’re getting every thing we experience. 


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The world before

“I woke to the smell of Montreal on fire.” These words begin the diary of Dr Angela “Quiet” Knight, the great genetic scientist who was one of the key players of the fall. She saw the rise of the megaplague C0dA, the march of the Faded and the work of the conspiracy. She headed a team that fought all of that, and brought the world back from the brink. We know their names. Professor Cassandra Crow, the Researcher. “Lagos Bob”, the Medic with the local knowledge who broke the back of Lagos Fever, the two who started the journey, Mr Abotu, the African fixer who made the operations possible, Peggy Cassimatis the virologist who found the cure, and Heronymous Soto, the criminal who helped get the cure to the people. And of course Medusa Jones who betrayed them all.

Bob disappeared during the chaos and Professor Crow we think died in the Montreal riots. Nobody ever saw Medusa after she went back to her “friends”. But Mr Abotu was a builder and with the channels Soto set up, they were heroes beyond the incident: they helped rebuild the world. Or at least the havens that would preserve it. The havens produced vaccines and supplies and kept the coasts safe. And Dr Knight, they say, spent the rest of her life flying back and forth bringing hope and medicine to the remote communities. Here in Angel Station, we remember her like a kind of angel. She came bringing peace. Bringing quiet.

They call me Tell, because I have the job of remembering. I keep the records of the old ways. We were scientists and we will be again. We didn’t just survive, we thrived, and we cured diseases and fought them back. And we will again. On the air we hear the word of Crow, who I think lives here too. To the south is Port Abotu, named for its creator, where PT and Mason Wren live. The mysterious Charlie Jones is from Aegis Island, a vast shield against the plague and chaos of Before. You can see our Haven Cards below. As you can see we did not escape January unscathed or unchanged, but that we’ll cover in our next installment. Our leaders have been gone a few months and we have held down the fort fine; January we set out to find out what happened to them, and what they might have kept from us.

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The world now


The rules very clearly and specifically say to make all five characters and give them a home, and an age, and a job before you begin play, no matter how many people are playing. We will be playing a three player game as we did with series one; as you may have guessed I will be playing Tell to begin with. Every character has a spot to mark their Place of Death. That also feels ominous as hell.

Our experience with the Prologue games has been fantastic; we are mostly winning and enjoying the twist on regular Pandemic with the lack of control arising from multiple cards being in the Infection Deck, and the ticking down rather than ticking up. We are so goddamn excited. 


If you turn a plant around perpendicular to the gravitational axes, it grows in a spiral. In other words, if you keep changing the definition of up and down, the plant just adapts, and adapts, and adapts. That’s what life does. If grass can do it, you can do it. Well, except for photosynthesis.

Let me tell you about the first card game I ever made. I was 23, it was 1999, and I had no real interest in game design before that. But Lunch Money and Chez Geek and Once Upon A Time and other such amazing new card games had just come out and the world was teetering on the edge of the golden age. So when my sister and I were watching Primary Colours and she suggested it could be some kind of game, I got out some cards and went to work. The game was called Election, and it was about building up Platform cards (like “Bomb Them Towelheads Back to the Stone Age!”) and Character cards (“I Triumphed Over Dyslexia”) before a random game card triggered the end, and avoiding attack cards that showed you to be a hypocrite. People played it an laughed at my flavour and setting (my biggest strength, already), but it became very obvious that putting down point cards was always a better strategy than attacking someone else.

I thought and thought and thought and thought and spend an entire year trying to figure out how to fix that. And I had no idea what to do next. I concluded I had no skill for game design and put it away and with it any intent of doing more.

Fast forward fifteen years. The Golden Age has raged and for me, RPGs have waned in my tastes, replaced by a love of the cardboard dream. The itch rises again. Some friends and I come up with hundreds of film tropes in an attempt to make an Apples 2 Apples type parlour game, but it’s not much of a game and we don’t know what to do next. One of those friends starts getting the bug and starts making cards. He takes them to unpubs and protospiels. I feel bewildered; surely I should be able to do this too. But there’s a block. I just can’t figure it out. It’s like I don’t speak the language.

So I go to conventions and ask questions about how to push forward. When to give up. How to get ideas. I study the process. But it’s slow. See, at every stage, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Not only do I not know what to do, I don’t know how to find out. Listening to podcasts doesn’t fit. Reading books feels off. And I couldn’t ever ask someone to playtest something for me. Not even my friends. It almost killed me asking people to play There Is No Spoon all those years ago. And I know I can make RPGs.

But I can make RPGs. So I start there. I write It Is Forbidden, but more importantly, I take it to an unpub. I stare down the barrel of hell and ask people to play a game I wrote. I get in fast and then run away shaking. I remember the first time I asked a business if they’d be interested in being interviewed in my old magazine PTGPTB. I had a car accident that day I was so nervous.

But then I get the game out again at PAX 2016 and amongst friends I run it again.

A few months later, I have an idea for a card game. And now I know enough about how to print pictures. How to sleeve things. It’s hard but I learn by doing. It’s ugly as hell but it exists. And at CanCon in January, I go to a publisher meet and play other people’s stuff. And right at the end, I bring out my baby. And it falls over and fails but a few people offer instant suggestions, and immediately it gets better.

You know the rest of this story. That was Baby Dragon Bedtime and everyone who plays it loves it. And it looks like it’s getting published. In the week leading up to PAX 2017 I saw how to coalesce one game and it may be optioned as well. I’ve made two whole card games since I’ve got home nine days ago. They’re not nearly finished of course but they exist to be tested which is what matters. And it wasn’t so hard because I can find the software now and can print and sleeve and make. My hands find the positions. Nothing screams in my head about the wrongness of it all. In fact it comes so quick I can barely stop. I listen to three podcasts while I go, and read my game dev books, and run unpubs.

IMG-2741Like I said, you know this story. It’s the story you always hear. Sucking at stuff is just the first step to be pretty good at stuff. But it’s not about skill, or not just about skill. Nature knows what is normal, and if you change anything, no matter what, the system screams. The plant realises up is no longer up and the system goes into shock. Everything it used to do is wrong.

And then, it grows upwards in the new upwards. As if nothing changed. As if it always had.

I’m cheating somewhat of course. Game design isn’t a physical skill like drawing or dancing, and I’d been studying it by osmosis my whole life. But there’s lots of skills like it. And those that aren’t like it – well, once you turn the pot, the learning comes much easier. Often in messy, ugly jerks and starts, other times in gushes, but once you know about changing your nature, the learning gets easier.


Nature does what it knows. Change feels like death. But once changed, doing it differently is life. Yes, there are skills, and that’s a barrier too. But there’s also the pain of change. Once you know it’s there, you can ride it out. And in a blur, everything is suddenly easy. Everything is suddenly just what you do. As easy as breathing. Turn the pot. You can do it.

Free Solo Storygame: Stallions of Steel!

If you were at PAX Australia this year you might have been handed a copy of THE DAY THEY CAME (my parlour game about refugees) or PUPPY DOG TALES (my parlour game of trying to guess the movie dogs want to watch). Meanwhile, Alex, Shannon, Rex and I made a board game in one hour (the amazing UN-STABLE, a game of psychic horse warfare).


I did most of the MCing and none of the designing on UNstable so it made sense for Shannon to challenge me to add a stretch goal to our game: a story game about the cyber-psychic horse apocalypse. (We kind of lost the cyber in the board game, look shut up, this was all done at high speed).

It ended up being another solo game in the tradition of The Tin Star. Here is STALLIONS OF STEEL, a game about the terrible cyber consequences of winning the war for horse freedom against human oppressors.


This is the only copy so I’m sorry it’s so blurry. I’ll write it out properly in the next few weeks if I ever get over this goddamn flu.

Anyway you too can make guerrilla one page RPGs it’s grate. It’s not just Grant Howitt and me.



The End of Exploration

Back in 2014, a game called Hyperborea came out, by Andrea Chiarvesio and Peirlucca Zizzi. It was the raving-mad-new-hotness of its year, and now is mostly forgotten, which is a brief side lesson in how fickle and fast-moving the board game industry is these days. We are like the film industry now: trends are king, but are a harsh master. Dice drafting is already on the way out. Vikings have already reached saturation point. You’re only as good as your last picture. And like films, as we tunnel into a more mainstream position in the zeitgeist, we have to be even more conscious of how we affect that zeitgeist.

Hyperborea’s backstory is that a thousand years ago the Hyperborean kingdom went kersplodo and a huge magical barrier appeared around it protecting the satellite nations from the magical radiation. But now, the magical curtain is dropped and the inner empire is a smorgasbord of riches for the six now-kingdoms rushing into fill the gap. I mention this because they at least took the time and effort to come up with a conceit which explains something we see so often in board games (and computer games): the vast empty wildnerness, waiting to be eXplored, eXpanded into and eXploited.

And it’s not just in 4X games. Look through the history of successful board games, especially the “euro” ones, look at the winners of the Spiel Der Jahre over the years and you’ll see a lot of these kinds of scenarios. Some of them are generic, like Settlers of Catan, or in a fantasy world, like Small World or Terra Mystica, or in space like Race For the Galaxy or Ad Astra. Some of them borrow from actual history which shows the problem much more clearly. Games like Imperial Settlers, Peurto Rico, San Juan, Keyflower, Endeavour, Entdecker, Indonesia, Macau, The Great Zimbabwe, and of course the infamous Archipelago all turn the real age of colonisation into a economic question of getting the most resources from areas that, if inhabited by locals at all, not by locals who get any say in what you take. In Archipelago, you lose when the natives push back. Space game Eminent Domain’s title comes from a rule used to steal native land (among other things). As yet I am unaware of a game called Terra Nullius but there is one called Manifest Destinty, because oh my god of course there is what is wrong with this goddamn hobby.

Tabletop could use a harsh lesson in better use of its historical themes, and so far basically only Spirit Island has done it. While large chunks of America is getting rid of Columbus Day, Santa Maria with its joyful Conquistadors and “migrant workers” replacing slaves comes out early next year. But as mentioned, even without actual history, we’ll still have placeholders and coded explorations. The people on the cover of Settlers of Catan look very much like European colonists in the New World, after all. And Small World has Ancient Tribes on the board that you must annihilate (don’t worry, though, they are already In Decline). In short, it’s the very concept of exploration that is mired in a European mythology that is deeply problematic. From the Portugese to the Spanish to the Dutch to the French to the English to the American empires, the assumption of colonisation has been that “out there” is empty, lacking in civilisation, and waiting to be eXplored and eXploited, waiting, waiting for the white man’s great touch.

Perhaps the way of all Empires, you might say, but it is the fall out of those european empires we are dealing with to this day. The Prime Minister of Australia in 2014 – the same year Hyperborea came out – suggested that when European colonists arrived in Australia, there was “nothing but bush”, and this colonial mindset is the foundation of the idea that keeps indigenous people oppressed and unequal around the world. It was the justification of the slave trade and it remains the justification for its descendant cruelties. It remains the justification for wars and invasions into the Middle East as well.

Now, let’s be clear: exploration is something humans love, in reality and in games. We love to reach out to the great beyond. Many of my generation have lamented that they live in an age where there is nothing quite yet to explore in space, but all the world has already been explored and hides no mysteries. But that very sense of the new hides a terribly dangerous othering. As the old joke goes, when colonists show up to discover a country, the inhabitants weren’t aware they’d been lost. When Star Trek claims to go where no-one has gone before, they of course find everyone is already there (and quite rightly see the Federation as invaders). In Star Trek VI, Kirk romantically sets his ship into the great beyond, quoting Peter Pan: “Second star to the right, and straight on until morning”. Peter Pan’s Neverland, of course, echoed the boyhood fantasies of J.M. Barrie which were tales of the golden age of piracy; where the Lost Boys are colonising an island full of native americans.

Exploration is also something that works naturally in games. Just as combat and warfare have natural elements that lend themselves to games (direct competition, resource management, the thrill of the chase), exploration is at the heart of even abstract games. The mystery of not knowing what cards are in your opponents hands, or what domino you’ll pick up, or where the tiles are in Mahjong are all about exploration, and turning over tiles and discovering hidden information is always going to be entertaining and a core game mechanic. But there are plenty of games where these worlds aren’t empty – as simplistic a model of World of Warcraft got this right, for example, even if everything there had to be punched, at least it wasn’t any different than home.

Colonisation also fits gaming because we have this innate understanding of taking something empty, and rough, and primitive, and making it established and built and bigger, and that excellent fits our desire in games to build, expand and create. Games have distinct acts and building up an engine and a place fit that tempo and give us the joy of seeing our creation come alive, our tactics pay off, and our story resolve. But again, there is a question of EMPTINESS at hand. In Chinatown, the shopping blocks are all empty to begin with because, we assume, the government has just knocked down a bunch of other buildings and rezoned an area for shops. We might wonder what was there before, but this isn’t inherently a problematic story. Whereas when we play Puerto Rico, the map is clearly empty. The island has nothing on it. Even when we play San Juan where there is no map to fill in, we start with nothing. The white man has to come and put in the mines and the factories, because, we must assume, either there was nobody there to use the resources or those who were there weren’t using them properly. 

And that’s the real danger. That’s that European narrative that gets us in trouble. Not only is the world empty, the terra nullius, where there is nothing but nature to face down and explore, but it is also undeveloped, waiting for white man (ie civilisation) to civilise it with mines and factories and houses and a church. Every civ game ever is guilty of this sin; the land starts out untamed, even though we begin in the stone age. As if at some point, we had a blank slate. And this myth is so powerful and so ingrained, we barely even notice it. We forget that the Native Americans had traveled to Europe long before the Mayflower arrived, that they had vast nations and complex governments and great merchant trade routes. We are ignorant that indigenous Australians had farms and mines and churches, which the white invaders knocked down because they didn’t recognise as being those things. We cannot imagine that indigenous peoples fought wars and made peace, and had kings and queens and parliaments, raised up gods and tore those gods down and all the things we think of empires doing; all of that was going on, all the time. They weren’t playing Civilisation and stuck on the first technology and the first social policies, they were just slightly behind on weapons.

(We also forget that the these civilising efforts were done almost exclusively not by smiling happy free settlers keen to build a new world like a bunch of clever, hardy Robinson Crusoes, but by slaves stolen from other lands on the way there, or taken upon arrival, and/or prisoners.)

But as I say, exploration is a lovely mechanic. But we can explore not like colonists, but like naturalists: with the sense that we are not finding an emptiness, but stepping into a world fully populated, and where everything we do may have enormous impact. Where we should not perhaps smash a butterfly lest we change not the future, but break a balance we cannot understand. And building is a lovely mechanic. But we can build like sharers, understanding that others have built here also, that our farms and mines and churches are strange and ill-fitting, perhaps even may fail to stand or last because they are ill-suited.

The third city founded in Australia is called Windsor and when settlers reached it they found the soil so rich and bountiful they believed it was a paradise gifted by God, and couldn’t understand why the Aboriginal inhabitants kept trying to tell them not to farm there. The soil was so moist because the valley where they founded the town goes underwater every twenty years, which they discovered soon. I mention this because it’s the kind of story we don’t see in all the countless civilising games I’ve mentioned. Or if we do, it’s as a natural disaster when of course it is about communication between people, not nature.

And I say it’s a story we don’t see because that’s what this comes down to. You can for the most part keep your Wide Blue Yonder and your 4X games. As long as you’re aware of how dangerous they can be, how insidiously they might be programming you to believe in the lie of terra nullius. But you CAN keep them. But what we need, what we always need, is new ideas. New stories. Different stories. Maybe even better stories. Instead of a thousand new 4X games which all feel the same, where somehow, against everything we’ve ever known, there’s some vast empty space waiting to be taken by whomever gets their first, and we fight over those territories, not our safe home bases. We’re supposed to be explorers: so let’s EXPLORE. Let’s go somewhere new for once. Somewhere realistic. Somewhere true.

Steve’s Travelling Timetable

I’m off to Brisbane and Melbourne at the end of October. This is a living document of all the places you can see me and things that I’m doing.

I’ll be in Brisbane from Tuesday the 17th to Sunday the 22nd. Wednesday is already spoken for, I’ll be playing some Dungeon World!

Thursday is board gaming! Woohoo!

Saturday the 21st we are playing Relics all day at Vault Games on Charlotte Street. I’m doing two long sessions during the day. After that there’s general playtesting awesome at Vault and then plans get hazy.  We might go to Netherworld but I also want more people to play Relics. Do you want to play Relics? Let me know!

Monday the 23rd I’ll be in Melbourne running the Game Design Crash Course at The Arcade where I teach you to make a board game in three hours. Tickets are still available but they are limited as we expect to sell out.

Wednesday the 25th I have plans with mein host, the delightful Ben Scerri.

Thursday the 26th from 4pm, I’ll be at DevCon, the mini convention for tabletop publishers and designers. Tickets still available for that, too.

Friday the 27th I’m running a panel at PAX where we attempt to make a board game in ONE hour. That’s at 1:30pm in the Kookaburra Theatre. It will be hilarious. And YOU get to contribute.Letsmake

RELICS GAMES will be running in the RPG Area at the following times:

Friday 11am-1pm
Friday 3pm-5pm
Saturday 3pm-5pm

Saturday 7pm-9pm
Sunday 1pm-3pm

And Friday night at 7pm I’ll be showing off all my RPGs and maybe my card game at the Meet the Designer area (we’re near the cafe).

I will also be helping out at the booth for Cravon Studios, publishers of Kiss My Ass and Troll Bridge! That’s Booth #TT310. I will maybe also be hovering at Booth #TT428 home of the Tabletop Game Designers of Australia and all their good work. There, you’ll be able to buy sample bags which include an exciting new single-page RPG by me! I have a completely different single-page RPG that I’ll be carrying around with me, and you can get one by finding me and saying “Hey, give me an RPG, you giantic wumpus!” or words to that effect. Collect the whole set! (AND if you say the secret password, you get a free PDF of one of my bigger RPGs. The password is revealed on twitter. Follow me at @tinstargames)

You need to tell me now if you want me to bring any print copies of my RPGs down to buy from me, because I’m already hauling a lot of games and demos.

I will also sign books, asses and breasts, naturally increasing their resale value.

World Building: The Feels

“I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like” says Eminem at the opening of his duet with Rihanna “Love the Way You Lie”. At a philosophical extreme this is known as solipsism: the idea that the only thing we can ever know, and be sure of, is what our mind senses. It’s also close to experientialism: that the foundation of knowledge is what we experience.

What does all this have to do with world building? It’s about understanding how people think. How people know what they know. How people construct their realities. Which is called epistemology, if you want to look that up. Epistemology is fundamental to game design and to fiction, because it ties into psychology. And everything we do is about psychology: art and games are about how we make people feel. And so one of the ways we can build better worlds – worlds that feel more interesting, more exciting, more evocative, and more real – is by understanding how the real world makes us feel. How we know where we are, and what that means.

The problem goes back to Tolkein. Although he was great at evoking some sense of place, albeit with an over-emphasis on botany, Tolkein wrote his Lord of the Rings books through the lens of being a student and professor of history. The world begins with maps and a timeline, and not the mysterious coded map of The Hobbit, something with a very clear sense of modern cartography. In the other end of the spectrum there is the appeal of Star Trek and other detailed sci-fi: written by and advised by engineers, there is the same pleasure of adding a scientific and engineering perspective to the universe. Hyperspace doesn’t just exist because of space magic, things didn’t just happen once upon a time, but rather there are solid concrete ideas about history and technology.

And these elements are part of the feel, don’t get me wrong. And the feel of the setting to the audience is part of world building. And part of Star Trek’s construction is that the characters WITHIN the world also know these things, they are smart, technologically-savvy people. But that is the heart of what can really make world building, what I’m slowly circling towards: what matters the most is what the characters in the world see, and hear and feel and think.

Too often, we apply the Tolkein approach to everything, at the cost of everything else. Ask someone about their favourite fantasy world and – if they’re a nerd – they’ll often start with the history and geography. And again, the nature of that can inform the feel of the setting – the Great A’Tuin and the four elephants helps suggest the comical, fantastic nature of Discworld – but often these are just talismans to us, signals that we are in the world that work as religious icons: that is to say they have significance only as signals. They aren’t actually part of how the world is communicated by feel. Discworld’s feel comes from its comedy and parody and its sense of what it feels like to be in it. The river Ankh smells and bubbles with pollution and effluent. The streets are filled with people like Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler. The Mended Drum was once the Broken Drum. Nobby Nobbs is on patrol, scratching his crotch. These are elements of feel, at a character level. They set the tone, not through a vast lens of geography or history, not through establishing principles of physics and magical rules, but by focusing on the personal, the intimate, and the sensual.

As much as our science-literate world allows us to see our planet as a globe in space we know where we are each morning by the smell that wafts in our windows. Our world is defined by the coffee we grab on the way to work, the crowds of rush hour, the cubicles and the social media we browse when not working. To live where I live, in Sydney, means cool breezes from the eastern sea, the glistening harbour, and the dark cut-throat shadow of money, the life centered around living on or within the view of that harbour. It’s less about how the harbour was settled by white colonialists in 1788 and more about how that inch of history makes Sydney the historical centre of Australia, the place where that founding matters the most, hence museums abound and didactic panels are everywhere you go. Being the site of where that colonialism began its slaughter of the indigenous inhabitants, it is also a centre of where reparations are being made and race issues come to the fore. Aboriginal art and statues are also common, and the tension between the two is a visible reminder of the stain on Australia’s conscience. Yet it is easy to turn away and lose yourself in the corporate world, the shiny towers of capitalism, for Sydney is also Beverly Hills and Hong Kong and the City of London; money is its blood and its oxygen and history, law and culture, will always bend to serve that hungry god.

Again, note that the history, geography and politics aren’t unimportant, but the key part is turning those things into what they feel like. Striking tone, striking feel, and striking the personal. As Dickens said in Hard Times, when describing Coketown, “let us first strike the keynote”. Pratchett’s work is heavily influenced by Dickens; both are excellent examples of how to write cities like they are characters – so familiar, so real, so characterful that you can see them right in front of you. That they feel like an old friend.

This rule is particularly important in settings that aren’t in our modern day. The people of the past didn’t view the world as something that could be mapped in a book or broken down by scientific principles and analysis. They didn’t view creatures as having ecologies or a place in the food chain; what matters is whether the wolves ate the deer because the deer were the food for winter. The same is true even if they’re spacewolves or dragondeer; people understanding things by what they mean in their lives, and the nature of their beliefs and world views. Transport matters in Sydney because in our world we are all slaves to capitalism, rushing to offices and rushing back. It’s not about what the transport IS, it’s about what it feels like.

When I tell you of a city or a community, as I did with Praag in Realm of the Ice Queen, as I did of Magritta and Bilbali in Swords of the South, as I did in Freeholds of Nar and Weight of the Underworld, I do want to tell you how it is, but much more importantly I want to tell you what it feels like. To be there, and walk it, to see it, smell it, and feel it. And most importantly, how you think about it. How you know it. How you can tell you are there. And I’ve won awards and praise for it, so I seem to be doing it well.

Go, then, and do likewise.




Fair Quick Generous Variable Unpredictable

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Which is why the more I learn about dog training, the more I transport lessons of dog training into lessons of game design, like the boring old church vicar whose sermon each Sunday can be guaranteed to be about what he saw on TV the night before. On the other hand, I’m a great believer in the world being our sourcebook, in finding the lesson or the inspiration in every single thing we do, that everything can be turned into something. Indeed, this is the best way to learn anything, to take what we are learning and link it to all the other ideas in our brain and see the wonderful universal truths that reinforce the patterns and also highlight the differences. Indeed, that also applies to game design: the best game design is about identifying the pre-existing ideas in players’ heads and making the game spark along those lines so it is so naturally intuitive you cannot help but follow them as if you’ve always known the rules, yet also evoking curiosity when the paths diverge. Yes, even my metaphors in my blog introductions are lessons in game design.

So expect more of this, just as there was before. And not just because I keep learning about dog training but because dog training is about psychology and game design is 100% about psychology. And dog training is 100% about games and game design. The more you make training fun, the more the dog wants to do it. And making it fun is what those five words in the title are about. Those are the five principles of rewarding your dog. If you follow them the dog has the most fun, engages the most, learns fastest and everybody wins. So yes, you want them in your game.

Fair is pretty obvious. We are drawn to games because they are fair. Because in the main, everyone gets equal shots at luck and everyone is on a level playing field. If a dog sits and gets a treat, you can eventually phase out the treat or ask for more complex behaviour to get the treat, but not straight away. If a sit gets a treat today and not tomorrow the dog learns that you aren’t fair – and he doesn’t want to sit quite so much. If you expect him to sit but don’t tell him to in the way you agreed upon, he gets confused and distressed. You’re not being fair. And if another dog gets a reward for the same thing while the first dog does not, the first dog may get very upset. Right down to the insects, animals understand the concept of fair. Throw fairness away and you throw away fun.

Quick is equally important. We play games again because they give us what real life cannot, and probably the most important part of that is feeling like we matter. That our actions have direct, identifiable consequences. The dog brain needs a reward in under three seconds to connect it to what it just did. Players can’t hold much out longer. An action should have return. That doesn’t mean that long term strategy isn’t a thing, but if you want engagement over that long time you want to keep people invested and we invest in what makes us feel powerful. And that sense of power comes from impact – immediate impact. Every action in a game should have a clear, palpable result. Even if it is negative, at least it is a result of what you did. One reason euro games are so successful is very little is negative it’s just less than what your opponent gets: you get a wood and a stone this turn, they got three wood and two stone. But you did an action and got a reward straight away. That is the most motivating thing you can imagine.

Generous is next. I talked about abundance in the linked post above about how dogs play games. Abundance is the sweetness that makes quick even better. Science shows that people learn fastest and adapt quickest when the reward they receive vastly exceeds their expectations. Abundance is difficult to put in games but the games we tend to come back to are the ones that have this. The problem is if you give people everything easily, it’s hard to challenge them or make the game a puzzle to be solved. But the easy solution to this is to make everything like getting blood out of a stone, where every point feels like you had to wring it out with effort. Sometimes hard work is fun, a brain burner is very rewarding but you have to be careful. And often you can get this without sacrificing abundance. A game can be a challenge and be overflowing with rewards. Seek abundance and your game will be better. Be generous to your players, because they – and your dog – deserve it.

Variable is important because animals, just like humans, have very poor tolerance for boredom. Animals will even forgo food rather than eat the same thing every day. The snacks for the dog should change. Change taste, change texture, change their value and change when and where and how they come. Variety really is the spice of life. In games this means you want there to be different kinds of rewards – different ways to win, different advantages to have, different ways to engage, different strategies to play. Even the tiniest arbitrary difference of wood and stone say, is enough to interest the simple human psyche. We don’t like too many variables, of course – we can’t juggle more than about six – but we love variety. Keep it simple is an excellent rule but don’t keep it boring.

Lastly there’s unpredictable. Like Fair, most of us know this one fairly well – it’s well established that games need to be not be solvable or just a matter of iteration. But we often boil this down to just “make it random”. Random dice rolls, random set up, random combinations. Unpredictable is more than just random: unpredictable means surprise. Surprise is the best friend of Generous – people engage more when they encounter what they do not expect. Keep things hidden. Include the unexpected. Let people explore and find things. Hide treats around your house for your dog. Give him a snack when he least expects it. He will feel like you are a wonder and try ever harder to please you. The surprised gamer, likewise, keeps digging, keeps trying. He is hungry. He wants the surprise. And that’s what you want: to not just engage but to keep them engaged, until their souls sing.

And instead of teaching them to sit and stay, you’re teaching them to keep playing your game. A place where things are fair but generous, where rewards come instantly but in ever different ways, and there are still surprises to be found. That’s what makes good games.