February 17, 2011

Hanging Up

So folks, it seems as the school got rolling, I began focusing elsewhere other than gaming. It's sad for me, because I enjoyed delivering stories, theories, and ideas to you guys and I enjoyed working on my designs.

Unfortunately for us, my degree needs to come first. So for the near future, Thunderstorm Game Design is going silent. All the content will stay, and I will try to build up some new content over time so I can eventually start back up and deliver to you guys.

In the mean time, keep gaming, keep trying your hand at new designs, and have fun!

February 7, 2011

Group Divided

Do you ever get frustrated by a seeming schism in your group? Do some of your players always give you a sideways glance when they declare actions? Do others bottle up during social encounters? Do some get bored after half a round of combat?

If more than one of these applies to your group, it sounds like you have a group of mixed play styles. A mixed group can be a good thing, but more often is just a source of friction and a headache for the GM.

This topic actually cropped up during a twitter conversation on the #rpg hash tag. R.A. Whipple was commenting that his group was playing highly adversarial even though everyone agreed to a politically based campaign. This is a terrible thing to happen, but during the conversation he revealed that he was only having problems with three players, one was helping him, and the other three were newbies without direction.

I suggested something radical: split the group. Find a GM willing to play the adversarial game with the more experienced players; take the newbies and the helpful member of the group and keep running the campaign.

We need to check our groups out regularly to know if they’re healthy as a group. The more in-fighting and bickering that comes of diverse play styles the less fun the group will have. By extension, the less time the group will last.

Some great place to look for the different player styles, and some excellent ways to deal with each, see Robin Laws’ Guide to Good Mastering (If you can find it) or the 4th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide 1 and 2.

February 4, 2011

Do RPGs Suck?

I read a post today over at Mob United about ‘why RPGs are failing’ and leveled some serious criticisms at the industry in general. Some of the ideas are most definitely founded on real events, with the OSR movement and Pathfinder both retreading old territory, and many of the indie publishers doing things related to one of the above or some other system.

But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. All things are built on history, and looking at the evolution of dungeon crawlers to produce a new dungeon crawler isn’t a bad thing. Examining social engines to design a better social engine helps in the long term.

In the end, Malcolm levels the criticism that rules systems aren’t going to do anything, that you have to offer something unique that another person couldn’t give. It seems he believes that the fiction, the stories are what players can’t do for themselves.

The problem is that’s false. As human beings, we gravitate to stories, and we create them out of our own lives. No memory is a perfect recollection of events, but those events and people are categorized to make recalls more simple. Malcolm even goes so far as to say why is dungeon crawling any different from the Hero’s Journey. In reality, what is remembered by the players, and is best applied in a game system, are the archetypes that make up things like the monomyth.

My honest conclusion is this:

This decade has seen the release of some very excellent RPGs, things I wish I had the time to play. Those games have been challenging the limits of RPG design space, story space, and even challenging what we call an RPG.

RPGs aren’t necessarily failing, though they are struggling. We, as designers, need to offer unique experiences without the effort demanded of older systems. The stories people want can come from many mediums, and they will choose the easiest or best value. Video games, movies, and books all demand less effort, and less time, than RPGs, and these things tell stories that are just as good as RPGs. We can take advantage of RPGs putting the player as the protagonist in ways none of these other mediums can, and that’s the place we can ply our strength.

What about you, readers, what are the unique strengths of RPGs?

February 2, 2011

Sitting On The Shelf: Game Book Covers

I’ve recently been reading a great book from a novelist, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (Everything a Writer Needs to Know.) by J.A. Konrath.  In it, he has an article called “Rusty Nail, Street Dates, Jacket Copy & Book Covers”. Skipping the bits about his book, he makes a simple statement:

“Covers are important. Some booksellers believe they are the single most important element when it comes to book sales. I agree.”

So do I.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but, as I’m sure we all know, everyone does it. It’s not just books, though, we all judge products based on their packaging. Games are products. Yes, very blunt, ‘duh’ statement, but I want to make sure this concept comes through clear.

When I’m looking for a new game, which admittedly is not as often as I’d like, I don’t go into the store looking for a specific title, designer, or system. Sure, I know my preferences, and I hope I end up with something good, but sometimes the journey is the worthier part.

A good cover absolutely draws my eye. High contrast between title and cover helps it stand out. Professional looking images also helps. I’m sure I’ve passed on some acceptable or even good games over the years because the front cover is a mess. I also know I’ve saved myself a lot of hassle with terrible games following the same rules.

After a book has my attention, I hit the back cover (Or jacket if it’s one of the rare RPGs that has one.). I want to know, quickly:

  • What’s the conceit? What will I be playing?
  • What parts of the game does it consider important?
  • What system does it use?
  • Is it still as professional as the front cover?

The conceit, or theme, is important because in reality it’s what you’re asking your players to believe. If you’re trying to attract sci-fi gamers, discussing elves on the back isn’t likely to help you attract them. If you’re pushing fantasy, or emotional conflict, you need to make sure the players get that before buying the game.

What mechanics are you touting? What’s that thing that sets your game apart from all the other games on the shelf? You need to make a selling point on this, you need to get your prospective player to think they need your book and not have something they could do themselves. (The hobby has a history of do-it-yourselfers, don’t underestimate them.) If it’s your NPC write ups, let them know.  If it’s a new mechanical system, say so.

The system you use is important to state, depending on how you’ve designed it. Is it based on another system? If you have the license, use their marks.  If you don’t, you may want to consider some way to reference the source, but make sure to read up on trademark law so you know what’s fair and what’s trading on their mark. If you made your own system, now’s the time to brand it. Make a logo, make a name, and give people something to ask for if they want your game. It will help down the road if you ever make a new game with the same system.

Now, some of you might feel I’m being trite about professionalism, but it is absolutely critical, even for small timers, to be as professional as they know how to be. Your book should have a uniform appearance; it should be the same quality from cover to cover. This professionalism will let the purchaser know you took your time and aren’t wasting their time. It speaks well of everything you’ve done.

Now, if the inside doesn’t match that cover, you’ve got other problems, and I’ll touch on them in the future, but keeping in mind how people look at books will definitely help you sell some if you ever make it to print.

January 28, 2011

Video Inspirations

So, getting back into the swing of things at school, it’s affecting my schedule a bit. Of course, to top that off, Champions Online went Free-To-Play recently, and sucked me back in. The truth is, while a lot of the Champions formula is straight out of the standard MMO formula, it did some things I’d not seen before that I really enjoyed, and keeps me wanting to play the game.

One of the major things they did that I loved is the break down of enemies into Henchmen, Villains, Master Villains, Super Villains, and Legendary Villains. This breakdown lets players know about how many they can take on their own. For example, a group of 5 on level henchmen is a pretty fair fight in Champions. A Villain and a Henchman or two is also a fair fight. Once you get up into the super villain levels you want groups of people for a fair fight.

That is, of course, the theory and the math breaks down occasionally. The idea, though, is spectacular and was one of the changes made to 4th Edition D&D I absolutely loved with the addition of the Minion, Elite, and Solo entries in the Monster Manual. This makes it very easy to throw together mixed groups of various power levels against a group of heroes without guessing if you’re going to just obliterate them or have the group steamrolled.

The other thing I liked about Champions is the way energy works. Your energy has a point of equilibrium where you recharge to almost the moment you leave combat. You also have a base power that is your energy builder; attacking with it builds up your energy bar, which drains when you use your more powerful (and interesting) powers.

I like this system, and have seen various systems in games do something similar. Building up a resource to turn it into ‘cool shit’ is a pretty well tread territory for a reason, my only complaint about it in Champions is that the power builders are really boring. Some people have leveled the same exact complaint at At-Wills in 4th Edition, and not unfairly.
The last part of the Champions formula that I love is that (for Gold members) you can modify the color and point of origin for a number of powers which allows a creative player to make dozens of archetypes using only their basic chains of powers. My example is Necromancer, my first Champions character.

Necromancer uses the Telepathic power set, which is a series of powers using telepathy for various effects, shielding, stuns, basic crowd control effects. By modifying the colors and origins, telepathy looks a lot like dark sorcery. Basically, it openly encourages reskinning which is at the heart of great role playing in most systems.

What about you guys, what video games inspire your mechanical design?

January 26, 2011

Making It Easy

What’s the most surefire way to scare away a player base? I’m sure you’ve got ideas, but there’s one I think is much higher on the list that you’re not considering.

Barriers to entry.

RPGs in general seem to have this thought that they are for intelligent folks, and so they can get away with being a bit complex. For some games, this is true, but if you want more than the twenty people you’ve personally sold your game to interested, you will want to cut back on as much complexity as possible.

The Product
As an indie developer, I have less worry about this, as it’s pretty obvious if you’re looking at ExoSquad, there’s only going to be one rulebook, so starting point is very obvious. Those with larger games, or larger ideas, may have this issue.

Look at the latest edition of D&D. On the shelf you have two products and a product line that call newbie attention. Should a newbie grab the Player’s Handbook? What about the red box ‘Starter Set’? Or maybe it’s one of these ‘D&D Essentials’ books?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the new edition, and even like a number of the Essentials books. For someone who’s never played before, these products are instant complexity. Making a ‘first sale’ is all about making the purchase easy, and complex game lines don’t do this. (Side note: as an indie developer, you’re going to need to be a creator, developer, accountant, manager, sales person, PR agent and a number of other roles or have the money to cover people who can do these things. Sweating yet?)

The Rules
Rules complexity can create a huge barrier to entry, especially if the prospective player has no point of reference on when various rules matter. Modern games are getting better about their book layouts as experienced developers realize how the books are used. Even so, I still occasionally open an RPG and find related information in completely separate chapters! Word processors are powerful tools, people, you have no reason not to change your layout to help your customer.

Guide your new players into the game. Show them what’s important, and in what order. Convert one person, and you have the opportunity to convert their friends, and like books, RPGs spread by word-of-mouth.

Character Creation
I separate this from the rules because this one point is enough to run some players away before they even see the rules. This is less about your first sell and more about your subsequent sales. If someone is teaching your game to another player, they have the helping hand through the book, but they still need to make a character they want to play. How easy do you make it?

This is where point buy systems fall flat most of the time. Try to get a newbie to make a GURPS or HERO System character without getting frustrated in some degree. It might happen, but not quickly.

So make your system intuitive. Make it easy to grasp and easy to use. You want people sharing it, and you want those receiving it to pick it up and love it. Don’t make them wait for pay out, we live in a time where entertainment is available now so you have to deliver if you want to keep them interested.

As for me, I intend to make ExoSquad remarkably easy in regards to character creation. Pick a weapon, pick some tactics and gear, GO! Once you’re in game, the complexity should come from choice on the battlefield or in conversation, not from reading the rules. You’ve all seen FRE’s design, simplicity is one of it’s core values.

Your turn, readers:

Are barriers to entry the biggest enemy of RPGs?

Also, great article on teaching kids to play D&D on the main Wizards website. A few comments in this article sparked this blog post, I’ll let you see if you can guess which ones.

January 24, 2011


Today I want to talk about something that came up in a game a friend of mine was running. The summary is a player went up against a foe that was a magnitude or two of power above his character. In an attempt to keep failure interesting my friend had the foe beat the character back, but not deal any long term harm. The player turned around returned to the fight immediately. When he inevitably lost this time the character lost a hand.

Now, I don’t think that permanent harm is untoward in the right system, and in this case, they were playing a World of Darkness game with mortals, so permanent afflictions are a core idea of the system. The problem is, the character in question was built as a two weapon fighter. A large amount of this character’s experience was sunk into two weapon fighting merits and specialties.

This kind of thing is when I start wondering about the intent of the consequence. Yes, the player knowingly fought an enemy out of his league. He went back in after being soundly beaten. And lost. An in game consequence is entirely justified in my opinion. But the consequence chosen in this case is a bit extreme. Instead of hampering the character it has literally removed the intent of the character.

This player, without meeting him, obviously wanted to play a two-weapon fighter, and spent many of his finite resources on that goal. To take that goal from the player in a way that forces the player to continue playing the character without the abilities that obviously drew the player to the character is actually worse than just killing the character in this case.

This is the kind of event that sparks my often referenced opinion that you should be talking to your players. These kinds of consequences are the top level of drastic and can really create some bad blood between GMs and players. If the players know that a whim is all it takes for them to lose their favorite abilities, they’ll play differently than if they can feel safe in their favorite abilities, but know they can lose other things.

How about you, readers, do you think this kind of consequence is suitable, too much, too little?