A Very Playful Dreamation

Dreamation 2011 was my most playful convention ever. Literally, full of great play. Whether playing a stern warrior nun in Jenn Wong's Golden Panda Fiasco playset, expanding farms in an intense Carcassonne tournament, or hosting an epic SageFight event, I was playing all the time.

As usual, Jason Morningstar compiled a great overview of the convention in the "One Cool Thing I Saw" video above. There, you'll see snippets of SageFight in the background and mentions of Utara and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. At 7:25 you'll also see yours truly in a post-SageFight stupor, forgetting which convention he's attending. (For which I am deeply embarrassed and apologetic to the Dreamation staff.)

Here are some pics I took from throughout the weekend and many, many more from the industrious Rob Bohl. I shot a lot of video, too. I'll post some of the raw clips on youtube, but most of the footage will be used in promo stuff for Do, Utara and SageFight.

Here are my personal highlights, composed in the form of oblique non sequitors and out-of-context inside-jokes.

» Discussion of the Mans, Bat
» A fantastic pitch for The Blob 2
» Cookie tree growing from a whale's blowhole
» "Chi-Ping... dear husband"
» "West Clan! Who is your master?"
» The tile with a field surrounded by city walls
» Carcassonne: Godzilla

And here are games played at Dreamation

» Fiasco
» Dungeon World
» Carcassonne
» Pandemic
» Space Hulk: Death Angel
» Zombie Dice
» Tayu
» Utara
» Happy Birthday, Robot!
» Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

Once again, many thanks to the kind and hard-working staff of Double Exposure for putting together a great convention.

The Leftovers in "The Hall of Really Bad Dead Things"

Join the Leftovers as they journey deep into the heart of darkness. Well, actually, it's a skull. A skull of darkness. Right.

This map is based on suggestions by Richard DiTullio. Thanks, Rich!

On Hitting

Rob Donoghue mentioned that his favorite RPG design technology of 2010 was Success-with-Complication." He and Fred Hicks draw an analogy to video games: "Missing is very rare in video games. Question is not 'do you hit' but 'What happens when you hit'" This doesn't only refer to a combat scenario. It applies to any scenario where there is a question where it's more important to see the consequences of the answer than the answer itself. "Hitting" is just more impactful, if you pardon the pun.

Let's assume for the benefit of the doubt that you have a game where the question really is "Do I hit?" What are the real possible answers? If "no," then often the only recourse is to try to hit again until you get a "yes." Alternatively, you keep getting a "no," until some endgame scenario, at which point you're not playing anymore. So, really, any functional answer is going to be "yes." This is the slim spine on which you build meaningful, forward-moving narratives.

This is a tiny fraction of the branches, obviously. There are many more specific consequences that can come out of your particular game. For example, this was such a central concept in Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple that I just took "Success" as a given. I wanted my heroes to always succeed at whatever they do. Instead, I focused the question on how the world reacts to that event. In the game's terms, the question is simply "Do I get in trouble for succeeding?"

You can add some branching paths leading to the hit, too. This tends to produce more analytical play, where you weigh the risks and benefits of hitting. This also works well in a "heist" scenario where the protagonists are planning how the job is going to proceed. You could even use it in a courtroom scenario or investigation scenario, as your hero builds up evidence against a defendant. Combining this with other post-hit branching paths creates a dense web of causes and effects, all based on the assumption that you're going to hit.

And bear in mind, this doesn't even touch on the potential for games and stories where the "hit" is a failure. Imagine a game where you plan for an epic heist, knowing full well it will go down in flames. Consider an out-numbered army of Spartans standing against the entire Persian empire. What kind of story is that? Who are the heroes in that scenario? What makes that story fun to play?

So, in other words, "hit" is an event in the story that can be taken for granted. Furthermore, it's such a pivotal event that you can view the whole story as pre-hit and post-hit. A hit can't be taken back, it can only be planned-for and reacted-to.


Utara is a dice game that makes a game board from any surface on earth. The game's theme calls to mind constellations and stellar navigation. I imagine it being played by wanderers and sailors with uncanny senses of direction.

» Development Status: Open Beta.
» Inspired by Jorinapeka by Tony Pa.
» Developed from this prototype.
» Special thanks to Joe Mucchiello for suggesting use of cardinal directions.
» Image: "Fishing Boat" CC-BY-NC-SA by Austin King
» Utara (उत्तर) is Malay for "North."
» Russian Translation: Утара — настольная игра

Stuff You Need
Two or more players. This is a great game for a group of friends sitting on the living room floor.

Special dice. Each face says either North, East, South, or West. The fifth face has a Sun and the sixth face is Moon. You can use any number of dice to play, but you should use at least ten dice per player. More dice will allow higher scores, possibly longer games and require more space to play. (See prototype dice right.)

An uncluttered flat floor or table as "the sky." A rug can be handy to keep the noise down when you roll the dice and to note the boundaries of the sky. If you need help being able to move game pieces in straight lines, you may need to put down a gridded board or sheet of paper.

Cardinal directions. If you need a compass, put it down in the center of the sky so all players can see which way is North, East, South and West.

Each player takes ten dice. All players roll their dice on the floor at the same time. This creates the opening positions of the game. Pick a player at random to go first. Turns continue clockwise around the group.

How to Play the Basic Game
On your turn: You are "sailing a path" through the sky, collecting dice along the way. To begin a path, choose any North, East, South or West die on the sky. You may not choose a Moon or Sun to begin a path.

Move your chosen die in a straight line in the direction noted on its top face. So, if you choose a die that says "North," then move that die in a straight line Northward. Continue moving that die in a straight line until it is obvious it wouldn't hit any other dice. Then, collect this die. Your turn is over for now.

A path can change direction if your chosen die (Die 1) hits another die (Die 2). If there is a hit, put Die 1 into your collection and move Die 2 in the direction noted on its top face. So, if you first chose an East die, moved it eastward until it hit a North die, you'd collect the East die and continue your turn by moving the North die. If the North die hit another die, the chain reaction would continue. A path may meander through the sky. As it does so, collect each die along the path. Continue a path until it is obvious the last die wouldn't hit any other dice.

Moons: When you hit a Moon, collect it and continue your path, as if you hadn't hit anything at all.

Suns: When you hit a Sun, collect it and continue your path, as if you hadn't hit anything at all.

Example of Play: The example above shows a full game. (A) Player 1 starts a path with North, which immediately hits an East, then hits another East, and passes through two moons. (B) Next, Player 2 starts a path East, passes through a Sun, hits a South, and passes through another Sun. (C) Player 1 starts a path West and hits another West. (D) Player 2 moves a West. (E) Player 1 moves a South. (F) Player 2 starts a path East and passes through two moons. (G) Player 1 moves a West and passes through one moon. After this point, there are no more dice that can start a path.

Endgame and Scoring: The game ends when no more North, East, South or West dice remain. Each player scores one point for every die in their collection. In the example above, Player 1 collected ten dice and so earned ten points. Player 2 collected eight dice and so earned eight points.

It is best to play a few rounds of Utara, once for each participating player. The player who had the fewest points in the previous round should take the first turn in the next round, so they have an opportunity to catch up. Points are tallied over a series of rounds to determine the winner.

How to Play the Advanced Game
Suns and Moons: When playing the advanced game, there are different styles of how Moons and Suns behave when they are a part of a path. Before rolling, a player or spectator will declare the style of Suns and Moons used in this round. Here are some common styles:

The Moon is Full: Moons behave as described in the basic game.

The Moon is Dark: When you hit a Moon, your path ends and so does your turn. This can create shorter paths and more opportunities for other players to score.

The Moon is Half Full: When you hit a Moon, your path ends, but your turn does not. You may then choose another directional die and begin a new path. This also may create shorter paths, but also allows players to get an early lead.

The Sun is Rising: When you hit a sun, treat it as an East.

The Sun Setting: When you hit a sun, treat it as a West.

The Sun is High: When you hit a sun, treat it as either an East or West.

So when beginning a game, you might say "The Moon is Dark and the Sun is High." That tells the other players that the moons act as blocks and the Suns may direct a path east or west.

Blocks: Each player may bring a small wooden block and place it on the sky before rolling. (I recommend using the blocks from a certain popular tower game.) If your path hits a block, the path ends and so does your turn.

Advanced Scoring: In advanced Utara, you can score bonus points if you collect special sets of dice called Days and Tides.

A Day is a full set of N, S, W and E. Score five points for every Day in your collection. A Sun can be used as a placeholder to complete a Day, but doesn't count towards a Tide. Arrange your Days horizontally.

A Tide is a set of three-of-a-kind of N, S, W or E. Score five points for every Tide in your collection. A Moon can be used to complete a Tide, but it doesn't count towards a Day. Arrange your Tides vertically.

Let's return to the example of scoring above. Player 1 collected ten dice, putting him at 10 points. Player 2 collected eight dice, putting her at 8 points.

First, let's look at the Days. These are easy to see in the horizontal rows. Player 1 has one Day. Player 2 uses a Sun as a North to create one Day for herself, too. Each player collects 5 more points. The current total is Player 1 with 15 points, Player 2 with 13 points.

Now, let's look at the Tides. These are easy to see in the vertical columns. Player 1 has three Tides. The first has one North and two moons acting as Norths. The second has two Easts with a Moon used in place of a third East. Lastly, his third Tide is comprised of three Wests. Player 2 has only one Tide, comprised of two Easts and a Moon. That leaves Player 1 with 30 points and Player 2 with 18 points. Player 1 wins!

There is a distinct first player advantage, since they will likely get the longest path in the whole game. Possible solution may simply be to play once for each player in the group, letting each player take turns being first, then tally the points from both games.

[UPDATE 3/1/11] The endgame now occurs when there are no more directional dice remaining. This greatly reduces the need for a mulligan roll. Also, the rules now assume you'll play several rounds, once for each participating player. The lowest scorer of the previous round taking the first turn in the next round. Also, I added an instruction in advanced scoring to arrange your dice horizontally or vertically, to help you see your Days and Tides better.

Dreamation 2011 Schedule

Fred Hicks told me a while back, "Go to Origins to launch your game, GenCon to sell your game, Dreamation to just play." I've followed his latter advice for the past two years. Dreamation's a consistently fun experience for games of all kinds. Small enough to not be overwhelmed, but big enough to always have something cool to see. (Hear about the cool stuff from 2010 in the video above.)

Dreamation begins next Thursday and I'm running three events:

Thursday 8pm
Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple
Play the epic meddle storytelling game! Do good deeds. Get in trouble. Run away! (R137)

Friday 2pm
Happy Birthday, Robot!
Tell the story of Robot's birthday! This block will have four sessions in a row, an hour each, up to five players each. Come to watch or play. (R165)

Saturday Midnight
The main event! Do your best martial arts poses. Learn the secrets of SageFight! Have fun in the audience or join in the mayhem! (L027)

» Register for Dreamation and come play!

Game Theories as Movie Posters

Cam Banks said, ""Step on Up," "Story Now," and "Right to Dream" sound less like game theories than they do tween-friendly movies on Nick or Disney." So I made these posters.

And I admit, I cheated on the "tween-friendly" parameters after this point because I couldn't resist the "dream" pun for Inception.

Hope you lol'd. :)

GeekList: The Go-Ban as Game System

A while back, Gerald Cameron created a great list of games that use the traditional board and stones to play the ancient game Go. It's hard to beat the alluring minimalism of a traditional go set. Go's components are the proverbial blank slate for a game designer, so it's no wonder there are quite a few Go variants and original games available.

Go is a great example of a thousand-year game. This list is how it shows a long-lasting classic game often inspires derivations. Those offshoots help keep the parent game alive by using the same components. They also often introduce individual elements of the parent game, thus becoming a teaching tool for strategy and tactics.

What could you design within the constraints of a 19x19 grid, 181 black stones, 180 white stones, and a couple bowls?

» BoardGameGeek: The Go-Ban as Game System
» Image: go CC BY 2.0 Luis de Bethencourt

Midnight SageFight at Dreamation - Tournament?

I'm facilitating a SageFight event on Saturday at midnight at Dreamation. What does that mean, exactly? Well, there are a number of options. I'll definitely be spending the early part just breaking the ice and teaching new people. Midnight sessions can extend for an organic length of time, so there's not much constraint in there.

The number of participants is the real variable. I requested enough room for about thirty people, but there's no telling if that many will show up. Those that do show up may be late, so I'd love to have ready-made entry points for new participants.

That being the case, the first fifteen minutes will probably be an open group melee where anyone can join. After that, I dunno. What do you think about a tournament? A series of one-on-one duels. Winner gets a SageFight shirt. I need your ideas, people!

[In the Lab] Jorinapeka Board Game Adaptation Prototype

I've been playing a lot of Tony Pa's elegant flash game Jorinapeka. It's a clever, emergently complex game that tickles my brain in pleasant ways. As a game design experiment, I tried to adapt that experience into an analog, tabletop board game. You can watch the video above for a demonstration of the prototype or read on.

» Status: Alpha. Solid mechanics, but requires more prototyping.
» These experiments led to Utara, the compass dice game. Check it out! :)

First, I created a clamshell box for storage and play space. (Click here for blueprints.) Then I put a sticker on one side of a blank die and drew an arrow on it. Repeat for sixteen dice total. These dice are the game pawns. For the sake of easy prototyping, I made this box smaller and used fewer pawns than would be in a full-sized game.

To prepare for play, place the pawns arrow-down in the smaller compartment of the box. Close it, flip it over, then open it up again. Now you have a randomized play area.

On your turn, pick a pawn and move it in the direction its arrow is facing. If it hits another pawn, remove it from the board. Next, move the hit pawn the direction its arrow is facing. Continue this chain reaction until your pawn moves off the board. Keep any pawns you've hit during this chain reaction. That is the end of your turn.

The next player takes their turn. She chooses a pawn and moves it along the chain reaction until a pawn moves off the board. As play proceeds, gaps will form. Pawns pass through these gaps without interruption until they hit another pawn or they move out of the box. Continue taking turns until there are no more pawns on the board.

Possible Victory Conditions
I want to come up with some juicy victory conditions. The most obvious condition is "the player with the most pawns wins." Anything else will require a second level of data on the pawns.

For example, the game might come with an extra set of pawns with stars on them. These are analogous to the colored circles in the original flash game. When you prepare the board, you remove some of the standard pawns and replace them with the star pawns. All pawns are identical on the back side, so you don't know where the star pawns will appear when you open the box. The victory condition is to capture as many stars as you can.

For a more complex game, I might add suits to the pawns, like Earth, Air, Water, and Fire for a generic example. The goal of play may be to score points, based on getting a certain combination of suits in a chain reaction.

For example, a "straight flush." Two-in-a-row, three-in-a-row, or four-in-a-row reward you with increasingly higher point values. You may also score points if you get one of each suit in a single chain reaction.

Next Steps
The next prototype will be larger to accommodate more pawns. I also want to add dividers between the pawns so there is more room for fingers. Constructing a box to those specs while keeping within 8.5x11 dimensions will be a challenge, but I think it's feasible. Alternatives could be something like an egg carton, perhaps.

I also want to find the inherent metaphor in the game. So far, it's simply "breaking out" of the field of pawns, but taking as meandering a path as possible. Megan suggests the theme should be worms in an apple, chewing their way through the best bits. Perhaps ants digging tunnels through sand, hunting for delicious morsels for the queen.

Needless to say, Jorinapeka has inspired a lot of ideas. Many thanks to Tony Pa for letting me explore these concepts in an analog medium. I look forward to bringing these ideas to fruition.

» Jorinapeka by Tony Pa

[Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple] Layout Process Timelapse Video

Here's a new timelapse video (and quasi-tutorial) of how I laid out the first part of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. It includes plenty of notes on my decision-making process and rules of thumb I follow when I start a project. This video is condensed from a four-hour session, so things move fast and the changes can sometimes be hard to detect.

Watch in HD to see every text style setting and dialog window. I hope you find this information useful as you lay out your own games.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Otherwise, just enjoy watching the layout process.

» Original illustrations by Liz Radtke
» More about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple
» Music Playlist:

by Matt S Wilson

"Over the Northern Mountains"
"Legends of the North"
"Traveling Minstrels"
by Mattias Westlund, distributed under a CC-BY license.

Free Shirt Offer

My favorite game console is a table and chairs. My favorite game console is a table and chairs. My favorite game console is a table and chairs.

Have a "My favorite game console" shirt? If so, take a pic of yourself wearing it proudly and post it in a comment! One commenter will be randomly drawn to win my next shirt free. It's got a "doctor" theme. Hint hint.

Deadline for comments is midnight February 28th. Make that March 13th, so you have a chance to take a pic at PAX East.

Game Ideas from September - December 2010

If you follow my Twitter feed, you're subjected to a lot of random game ideas. Ranging from simple pitches to little mechanical ideas. Here's a collection from the end of last year.

Game Idea: Chargen+Worldgen in 5x5: How did you change the World / People / Yourself? Only answer one. Other questions left open for play.

Game Idea: Retheme Dixit with works of art. You BS art theory critique, other players guess which art you're talking about.

Game Idea: Actually, just a mechanic. Roll 3d6, each a different color. Choose lowest/middle/highest: short-term effects. Colors: long-term.

Why does this idea sound so familiar? Roll dice. Choose odds/evens as successes. Get the opposite in XP. (Ex: Evens = Successes, Odds = XP.)

Idea: Turn-based strat game. No board/pieces. Hands in diff positions. Open with wave? Looks like handshake, pattycake, Mridangam? *Not* RPS

Idea: Chess. You do not control your own pieces. You tell your opponent to move a piece. Hm.

Idea: Key Words. Another iteration of HBR's free words, Leftovers' power words, Do's goal words. Players use key words to unlock, um, stuff.

Ambitious Idea: Supplement for Do. Letters are real geopolitical scenarios. Post-play stories submitted as data from naïve experts.

Idea for framing a failed action in RPG: Pick one: Wrong Thing, Wrong Time, Wrong Place. Extend to more vectors? Buddhist eightfold path?

Idea: Adapt Werewolf/ShadowsOverCamelot. Replace secret traitor w/ disguised emperor. Players do good deeds for each other. May get reward.

Idea: Water glasses arranged in a grid. Gameplay involves pouring water from glass to glass.

Animal Story Game Idea: Revive "I want to learn X from Y" http://bit.ly/guBynd Each player is an animal. Goal: Teach another animal a moral.

Here are a few rapid thoughts that lead to what is now called Rulers.

Game Idea 1/2: Rulers. UA+Mortal Coil. Mod fantasy RPG setting. Based on "rule" based fantasy, like Highlander, Lost, Deathnote, Inception.

Game Idea 2/2: Game design=underground psionics. Protagonists ("Rulers") impose rules on reality for profit, etc. Opponents find loopholes.

System idea for Rulers: ORE for res+Happy Birthday Robot for Ruling: Unmatched die=1pt. Spend X pts to create a Rule X words long.

Idea for Rulers: When protagonists can on-the-spot create rules for human behavior, the Doctor Who RPG's Talk/Move/Do/Fight is juicy.

Idea for Rulers: Much X-Men fic hinges on heroes being unique in their power. I'm curious about lots of people having the same power.

Idea for Rulers: Possible endpoint of a game: Depose the GM to become GM in next game.

This one became Name Tag:

Game Idea: Each player has something written on their back. Each tries to be the first to read another player's back out loud.

This loosely inspired the Thousand Year Game Design Challenge:

Ficly idea to write later: Board game played by two groups. One move per generation. Story spans centuries.

» Follow my Twitter at @danielsolis

Chipboard off the old block.

My friend Kathleen printed her business cards on chipboard. You've probably seen chipboard on the back of notepads or inside hardcovers. Naturally, I got to thinking about using it for games. So, I got in touch Julie, the print rep who helped Kathleen get her cards printed. I talked to Julie about chipboard and its potential as a medium for printing game components.

First, an explanation of the stuff: To make chipboard, paper scraps are swept up from a print house's various projects. The scraps are processed into a rough sheet of stiff stock. Because it is reclaimed paper stock, it is more eco-friendly way to make card than using virgin wood pulp. Plus, it keeps serviceable paper stock out of landfills. To top it all off, it's more affordable than glossy white paper.

This is all good to know as I pursue self-publishing a board game. Throughout the process, I'm trying to find options that are environmentally sound and economically sustainable. As far as print media goes, I think chipboard is for me. Before you go out and start printing your game on chipboard. There are some things to keep in mind.

First, chipboard is not archival and definitely not acid-free. If you're concerned about your game components looking exactly as they did twenty years ago, you're out of luck. But you're probably not choosing chipboard based on its pristine austerity. Your components are going to look and feel more "earthy" than a standard glossy game. They'll be rugged when they're first printed and keep that appearance for a long, long time.

The surface has a bit of "tooth" to it. When printed, the ink might not get into every nook and cranny of your board, so there may be the occasional gap in printing quality. Also, when the paper gets cut into small components, small particles might remain on the surface before printing, thus creating more blank spots in the print area. All of this is something to keep in mind if you intend to have small print type on your game components. Otherwise, it'll add an authentic grittiness to your print quality.

Chipboard ranges from a light gray to a tan, speckled throughout with lighter and darker particles. Based on Kathleen's example, I'd recommend printing two-colors. One of them will probably be a black or very dark ink, paired with a slightly lighter ink for fills and accents. Note that anything lighter than black will effectively be semi-translucent, revealing the chipboard's texture from beneath. Design your components accordingly and use this as a feature. If you want a color to pop more, you'll have to do a pass of white ink first, then print on top of that. (Also, see Kathleen's note in the comments.)

Lastly, most chipboard isn't as thick as you think it will be. (For print nerds, it's usually somewhere around 22pts, or 0.024") They're more like a card stock than a plank of wood. You'll probably have to glue two sheets together to get an adequately stiff weight. Also, if you plan to score and fold chipboard, get some advice from your print rep before doing so. They'll be able to tell you whether your particular stock is durable enough for that kind of wear.

I would love to see more game companies considering eco-friendly printing processes like chipboard. While physical distribution is probably a bigger environmental impact, you gotta do what you can where you can. In this case, making ecologically sound choices about production is a step towards keeping games (and players) around for the next thousand years.

» Many thanks to Julie from Heritage for her advice.
» Check out Kathleen's Business Cards
» And these chipboard wedding invitations
» Previously: Sustainable Games: Arimaa, New Forest and Elephant Poo
» Previously: Anillos del Tiempo (Time Rings Puzzle) from Designo Patagonia

Happy Birthday, Robot! - Actual Play with a Third Grade class

Cassie Krause just played Happy Birthday, Robot! with her third grade class, a group aged 8-9 years old. As she's done in the past, she organized it as a three-player game. A team of boys acted as one player, a team of girls acted as another, and she played the third, to help keep the class organized. Here's the story!

Happy Birthday Robot!

Robot really loves dogs and tasty oil hamburgers.

Robot also loves school recess and making new friends, but his favorite is math.

Robot has to figure out division and multiplication before his birthday party, but he’s stuck.

Robot calls Freddy Unicorn for help and he quickly comes over to the rescue, but he forgot his calculator.

Robot remembered his shiny new multiplication chart so he grabbed it from his backpack and they blew through the homework quickly.

Just then, all of Robot’s friends started to arrive with big and huge presents that made Robot extremely happy.

Robot and all of his friends partied like there was no tomorrow.

Even though it was a school night.

It was the best birthday!

Cassie's also working with a local journalist on gaming in the classroom. Definitely looking forward to that story.

» Happy Birthday, Robot! 20% through February! Get it while it's hot!

Productivity and Creativity

It's my birthday on the 8th, so permit me to be a little introspective. I felt a distinct difference between my creativity and productivity, to the point where they're mutually exclusive. Now, this is just for me, your personality may steer in a totally opposite direction. It's a semantic distinction at that, to the point where I wonder if it's peculiar to the English language to have two words for what some cultures might consider the same concept. In any case, you might recognize some of these habits and attitudes in your daily life, too.

Rock Out

My creative state is info-absorbent, constantly synthesizing all inputs into varied combination. It's a fun, exhilarating way to be, which is why I tend to view this as my "normal." My daily access to content just encourages this aimlessness. The convenience is also what makes the state so unproductive. I check refresh my email, twitter feed, RSS reader, forums eagerly waiting for a new morsel that I'll barely savor anyway. I flit from one subject to the next without anything to show for it.

Peace Out

If I want to channel those random ephemeral ideas into something more substantial, I must unplug. I pour a cup of hot green tea, disconnect my ethernet cable and focus on the task at hand. It takes a good ten to twenty minutes for me just to settle into enough a flow that I can get properly productive. Even then, it is a tenuous state, easily broken by a phone call or some house work that needs to be done. Temporal real estate is hard to come by, so my productivity is usually limited to early mornings or when I'm alone in the house.

Of course, I need both states to do anything worthwhile. I can't produce something from nothing, so I need the inspiration of the world around me. Just the same, I need to disconnect for a while so I can pay attention to my work. This is just a little observation of my own work habits lately.

Now if you excuse me, I have to check my email. :P

» Illo: Sivartha CC BY - Jhayne
» Photo: blur CC BY NC ND - Matthew Vandenbossche
» Photo: the " ∞ " creativity CC BY - Nasir Nasrallah

[In the Lab] Belle of the Ball - Beta v.1 - Feedback Part 1

Last week, I sent the beta test PDF to ten playtesters who expressed interest in putting the current draft of Belle of the Ball through its paces. Feedback is coming in already, and very thorough feedback at that! For the sake of transparency (and to give proper credit to each playtester) I'll post excerpts from their emails so far. These playtesters mentioned here are Thomas, Mike and Tim. Thomas played three 2-player games with his wife and had these findings.

"We probably would only play with [Lady Lara Lately] when teaching the game to new players.

"We really didn't like [Ruby Rosen's] dance/dance combination – it didn't make any difference to play a dancer or hoard them in hand. [...] The random factor of drawing a dancer is what decided the game, not the placement on the board.

"However, the third [...] was the Alexandra Avendale game, and with the snub/eat combination, it felt like at this party, we were gaining points for inviting certain people (playing them on the grid) and gaining points for keeping the boors out (hoarding the eater tiles).

"[...] This third game, where there was a bit more strategy, was our longest. Although even if we took more time, I don't think playtime would be more than 15 minutes for a two-player game."

I get a feeling that Lady Lara is a fine way to learn the basic game, but isn't a good introduction to the potential fun. Right now I'm 50/50 on whether I want to revise her. Anyhoo, Thomas wraps up with a few of his own suggestions:

"Don't have the bonus points be the same for in-game scoring and endgame scoring. You have two groupings: flirt/snub and dance/drink/eat. I would go with the Belles having one from one group for in-game scoring opportunities and one from the other group for end-game scoring opportunities. We also saw the in-game scoring as the people that you want to invite and endgame scoring as the people you want to keep out of the party. It's just text on the Belle cards, but a Belle like Felicia Fawsley's Felicitous Feast could have endgame scoring for people with Drink or Dance icons. Felicia is throwing a party for people that like to eat, right?"

Quite right. As a matter of fact, I failed to notice this "invite/exclude" element of the theme, but it's something I should tap into as a strong mechaphor. All the Belles could have a bit more story behind their preferences and whims, which in turn would help explain their unique scoring structure. Meanwhile, Mike also gave it a go with his wife and came back with these observations.

"Ruby Rosen's Riot seems silly since dancing guests are worth a point no matter if you play them or keep them in your hand effectively making them "whoever draws the most dancers get extra points""

Okay, with two playtesters specifically calling out Ruby as a bug, I'm revising her in the next draft.

"I wonder if there is some sort of end game process that could be added in to reduce randomness in the final few rounds. [...] Have you tried the game with different tiles in hands? We played it with 5 tiles in hand (accident). I get that part of what makes the game operate is you have to balance playing tiles to make things big and keeping enough to still score points, but with only 4 tiles in hand, it would seem that the closer that you get to the end game the less control you have."

The randomness of the endgame has been characteristic of Belle from its inception. I'll look into some revisions to hand management to make sure it's more feature than bug. Simply expanding the hand limit to five tiles might do the trick, but also risks increasing the chance for ties.

Lastly, Tim played a game with Lady Lara Lately, so he wants to be clear that he didn't tap into some of the more complex scoring mechanics that might add more depth to the game. That in mind, he offers some options for more mid-game scoring opportunities.

"[M]aybe have some intermediate scoring opportunities for honored guests with the hangers-on (not unlike completing a castle in carcasonne)... example: start with the attached belle-sample diagram. Once the orthogonal positions to the Richminsters are filled, the HG token scores for everyone who has that in their hands. It could introduce a neat element of tactics and hand management to the honored guests. Then perhaps the HG token moves to the smallest group that is not surrounded - or a player has the option of placing it when they play a valid tile (grouping of 2+ that has orthogonal access)."

"Grid could be more complex and even optionally function as the "belle", e.g. A ballroom layout with a dance floor, banquet table, bar, and private couches as board elements could score bonus points for tiles with the relevant icons (see attached image)."

And now, here's a potpourri of ideas from Thomas, Mike and the inestimable Fred Hicks.

» Place the bonus point icons on the Belles.
» Link up two dancing people (regardless of family) and get a point.
» Place a pawn mid-game. +1 pt for that family for each tile you have.
» Set aside a tile face down. That tile will score 2x pts in endgame.
» Score bonus points from longest rows/columns of same family.
» Hopeless romantic: Place a Flirt for X points. X = Snubs around that tile.
» Emphasize that diagonal guests still form a group.
» Have the family tokens be substantial pawn-like objects.
» Scoring track consisting of spaces with dance steps.

Phew! Some very interesting ideas here. Fortunately, some rules changes can be modular, thanks to the Belles. I look forward to seeing more feedback from the playtesters. :D

» Download the beta v.1 PDF


noun. A game mechanic or ritual acting as a metaphor for a concept in your game's setting, philosophy or general theme.

In Castle Falkenstein, the system uses cards instead of dice because cards are a sign of more civilized culture than the thuggish brutes who roll dice in alleys. This is a mechaphor for the aloof Victorian attitude.

In Agon, you roll attack dice in your right hand and defense dice in your left hand, just as you would a sword and shield. This is a visceral mechaphor for brutal ancient combat.

In Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, a bag with black and white stones allows each player's decisions in the short-term to have long-term consequences for the whole group. This is a mechaphor for karma.

This is a term I use with some regularity and just realized hasn't been given a proper post on the blog. This is now corrected.

» Image: Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike license by sAeroZar
» Discussion on Story-Games

[Do] Sunday Afternoon Group - Episode 3

Actual Play of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple
This is a story created by playing Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

» Previously: Episode 1, Episode 2

The Pilgrims

Pilgrim Reaching Satchel gets in trouble by overestimating his abilities and helps people by having something useful with him. (Anders)
World Destiny: 6
Temple Destiny: 7

Pilgrim Twisting Voice gets in trouble by being misunderstood and helps people by talking. (Nolan)
World Destiny: 9
Temple Destiny: 4

Pilgrim Strong Lens gets in trouble by rushing into tasks and helps people by telling the truth. (Shane)
World Destiny: 0
Temple Destiny: 7

Pilgrim Clumsy Decoy gets into trouble by being clumsy and helps people by drawing attention to himself. (Daniel)
World Destiny: 7
Temple Destiny: 6

Pilgrim Friendly Card gets into trouble by talking to people he shouldn't and helps people by taking chances. (Marc - Absent [2])
World Destiny: 4
Temple Destiny: 3

The Letter

"Is it Safe to Allow Cabbages on Rollercoasters?" by Peter Aronson

The Story

Reaching Satchel confronts the Coleslaw Front about their anti-cabbage beliefs, but the Coleslaws have no patience for it and start throwing rocks and yelling "Cabbage Lover! Cabbage Lover!"

Menaced by the barrage of stones, the young pilgrim decides discretion is the better part of valor and uses a smoke bomb to get away.

Pilgrim Clumsy Decoy rushes forward (meaning to open an honest discourse) he trips over the smoking bomb, falls into the talking Sky Cabbages and somehow ends up with a mouthful of delicious sentient vegetable.

Pilgrim Twisting Voice opens his mouth, drawing attention away from Clumsy Decoy and saying "She meant no harm, your immense size just gave her no where else to fall to, you see, normally, she's a rather polite faller, but this time... I mean, you are six-feet-wide..."

Unfortunately, the talking Sky Cabbages take this as an insult, and surround Twisting Voice, the better to berate him for his cultural insensitivity!

By Hazel's request, Pilgrim Strong Lens gets the door of the executive bathroom open and rushes in to rescue George, but the door closes behind him, locking them both inside.

Strong Lens starts to panic - but succeeds in demonstrating how silly it is to be locked in the bathroom (even if you have Gin) and George shows Strong Lens how to unlock the door.

Pilgrim Reaching Satchel overestimated his resistance to smoke and flew way coughing and teary eyed, which is why he didn't see the Ferris Wheel ride before running right into it.

Pilgrim Clumsy Decoy shouts to the cabbages, "You're six-foot-tall, too, so you're just the right size for the rides!"

Seeing Reaching Satchel about to be crushed in the gears of the Ferris Wheel, Twisting Voice shouts out "Stop that ride!" and Hazel Harrington rushes to the controls to shut it down.

Hearing this, the sky cabbages begin pounding at the gates demanding to be let in, and the Coleslaw Front begins pounding on the cabbages telling them to get lost, and it all turns into a massive mob of a thousand thugs, with Twisting Voice caught in the middle!

Pilgrim Strong Lens unsnares Reaching Satchel from the ride, but accidentally unscrews the enormous wheel from its axle, sending it careening down the park with Strong Lens still hooked on to it.

Getting dizzy, bumped and bruised from the massive wheel rolling through the park Strong Lens can't help but yell "Aren't these rides supposed to have safety features?" just as the emergency stop mechanism engages.

Looking around, Reaching Satchel sees a handy maintainance scaffold, and flying up to it, tosses a rope down to Twisting Voice, pulling him to safety.

The scaffolding gives way under the weight of the two Pilgrim causing it to smack into the modified carts which spills Reaching Satchel insidethe cart and the whole things rolls atop the Head Cabbage, trapping the vegeitble's leader and the overreaching Pilgrim inside.

Clumsy Decoy tries to get the mob to listen to her, but her gesticulations accidentally open the gates, sending the massive mob of a thousand thugs pouring into Popsicore Park!

Pilgrim Clumsy Decoy draws the attention of the mob and lures them into the narrow serpentine queues in front of the roller coasters.

The cart is too heavy for three people (well, two people and a cabbage) to lift, so Twisting Voice convinces George and Hazel to help get Reaching Satchel and the Head Cabbage free.

Upon witnessing this act of flagrant vegetarianism and cabbage collaboration, the Coleslaw Front breaks from their orderly queue and threatens to hack up Twisting Voice into their slaw.

Stepping between Twisting Voice and the Coleslaw Front, Strong Lens tells the crowd of the many days in the temple that Twisting Voice spent refusing to work in the kitchen and cursing the endless bowls of cabbage soup served in the mess hall.

Pilgrim Strong Lens stepped on the last load-bearing bit of rubble, sending the last standing ride, The Salad Spinner, collapsing around him.

Reaching Satchel has a handy collapsible pole in his bag, but he knows he'll need help to extricate Strong Lens, so he calls Hazel over to give him a hand.

Reaching Satchel and Hazel use the collapsable pole to lever the wreckage of the salad spinner off of Strong Lens and onto the case of Gin, shattering the remaining bottles and sending George into a rage!

Clumsy Decoy trips on the spilled gin with a particualrly wild flailing disabling the safety device and sends the ferris wheel with Hazel and the pilgrim rolling dangerously back into motion!

Clumsy Decoy calls for help, drawing attention from the cabbages who, in a moment of sympathy, bowl over the wheel, knocking it to one side, and freeing him and Hazel Harrington.

Upon hearing how much Twisting Voice disliked cabbage-based foods at the temple, they now believe he is a cabbage hater and sentence him to an extreme bowling.

Twisting Voice opens his mouth just in time to avoiding the bowling, convincing the Space Cabbages that he always refused to eat cabbage because he loved them too much to ever do something so cruel as to bite into one.

Pilgrim Strong Lens points out to George that the destruction of his case of gin really pales in comparison to the smoking ruin that is left from the pilgrims 'helpful assistance'.

Epilogue: Parades!

The Coleslaw Front, awed and a little terrified by the damage done by the pilgrims' 'assistance', retreat before the pilgrims can try and help them out.

Hazel quits her job, finding a new career raising a garden cabbage patch.

The Cabbages believing Twisting Voice to be a true friend, take his advice that there are better worlds for them, and fly off the planet to find a more perfect home.

George looks back at the last remaining standing thing in Popsico Park, his 'executive bathroom' he picks himself up, grabs a box of candy corn and locks himself back in the bathroom praying that no further 'help' is on the way.


World Destiny: 5
Temple Destiny: 13
Temple Destiny Wins: Children preparing for their pilgrimage remember the advice the wise monk Reaching Satchel gives, of the importance of reaching for the stars.

World Destiny: 11
Temple Destiny: 10
World Destiny Wins: Looking back at all of his smashing success dealing with people Pilgrim Twisting Voice decides to leave the temple and to enter politics.

World Destiny: 7
Temple Destiny: 7
Transcendent Destiny! [1]: Marketing Lens begins a new life - building a new temple on the site of the Popsico Park combining not only the austere life of temple but incorporating dangerous rides, fattening foods and well appointed bathrooms.

World Destiny: 8
Temple Destiny: 10
Temple Destiny Wins: Clumsy Decoy finds life in the worlds far too dangerous for someone so clumsy, instead spends the rest of her life making sure all pilgrims wear suitable padding, too.

World Destiny: 4
Temple Destiny: 3
World Destiny Wins: Pilgrim Friendly Card listened to the stories told by the
whalers after they joined the Temple, and decided that he would rather be helping people by going out and sailing the skies, instead of waiting for letters to arrive.


[1] Holy cow! This is an extremely rare occurrence. I can't recall if Shane made an explicit effort to keep his stones perfectly balanced, but kudos regardless.

[2] So it turned out that Marc could only make it to the first episode. Based on his Destiny Points at the end of that ep, he came up with the destiny you see above. The whalers he's referring to are from the first episode of the pilgrimage. The protocol for a player leaving a Pilgrimage early is to assume their character found their destiny sooner than her peers. In Marc's case, it only took a visit to one world for Pilgrim Friendly Card to figure out what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Case Study: Houses of the Blooded Layout

Case Study At a Glance
» Project: Lay out a John Wick's new role-playing game.
» Released in limited edition hardcover with dustjacket.
» Later released as an unlimited softcover.
» Worked with artist Storn A. Cook.
» Also produced a set of icons for FATE aspects.

I met John Wick through Jared Sorensen back when that dynamic duo were founding the Wicked Dead Brewing Company. John has a long and storied connection to the gaming industry, starting as the big brain behind the Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea game settings. Thereafter, he independently produced a string of smaller books that experimented with mature themes and new game mechanics. John hired me to lay out Play Dirty, an anthology of game advice articles; No Loyal Knight, a supernatural noir detective novel; and Wilderness of Mirrors, a spy-themed role-playing game. Based on those good experiences, he tapped me for his next major project Houses of the Blooded would be John's first "big" game in a few years, so he wanted it to launch with a splash.

The game is written from the perspective of John Wick, anthropologist and explorer of the unknown. He describes the remnants of the Ven, an ancient lost civilization pre-dating Atlantis. Houses of the Blooded is meant to be both an account of their culture and a role-playing game allowing the players to tell stories in the style and tone of Ven opera. Because the book straddles the line between a work of fiction and an artifact from that fiction, I spent a fair amount of time planning my creative direction. I sketched out the title first, trying to create an ambigram of the words "Houses of the Blooded." Reason being that this is a culture that admires mystery and puzzles. This wasn't as successful as I'd hoped, but it still created an enigmatic, hand-drawn look to the typography.

House Crests
I also created a set of icons for each House of the Ven. Each house is named for a particular animal. These animals also doubled as game stats, so your character might be Wolf 3, Elk 2, and so on. John requested each House have a crest and that the crests also be on the character sheet.

He admired the faux inkbrush animal drawings I did for Greg Stolze's REIGN and wanted something like that for Houses. I felt like the Ven came from a much more ornamented source of inspiration, so I made these crests look as if they were drawn with a proper pen than an brush. These were based partially on letterforms from a calligraphic font, heavily augmented to form the contours of a bear, wolf and the other animals.

The small dots you see on each animal's forehead were a way to keep track of your character's stats. If your character has Elk 3, you'd fill in three dots.

Storn A. Cook's Illustrations
John hired Storn A. Cook to do illustrations for the opening page spreads of each chapter. Each illo also had handwritten notes detailing some additional information about the world of the Ven. I added a light watercolor grayscale beneath Storn's black and white art, to integrate it into the book's aesthetic.

Stock Art
For all the ambitions for this project, it was still on a tight budget. I've become quite experienced with using stock vector art for these situations. However, any professional will tell you it's not enough to just slap some clip art on the page and call it a day. I found some Arabesque decorative vectors, combined them, manipulated them point-by-point, added textures, shadows, and anything else that would be necessary to make them work for this book.

Limited and Unlimited Edition Covers
John planned to release the book as a limited edition hardcover to pre-orderers and VIPs, with a general unlimited edition for long-term sales. The limited edition was a hardcover with a dust jacket, an unusually formal touch for even the most high-end RPG books. That being the case, I designed the limited edition cover to look as if it were the cover of an HBO DVD boxed set, like Rome. Solid gold, with blood splattered across the front. The unlimited edition was designed to look as if it were bound in leather, with raised gold leaf type. It, too, had blood splattered across the front. Both editions continued that motif in their interiors, with splatters strewn across the pages.

Romance and Revenge
The prevailing theme of the setting is "Romance and Revenge." I thought it would be good if there were a single image that could represent those polar extremes, integrated into each other. So the covers bear a dagger stabbed through a rose. This image proved so popular, Rob Justice of the Bear Swarm even had it tattooed on his calf! I've seen it. It is awesome.

Case In Point: Sidebars

John had limited art assets for this project, aside from Storn A. Cook provided illustrations. That being the case, John wrote a bunch of quotes that added a bit of color to the setting. I'd distribute them throughout the book in places where there would normally be a spot illustration. For an added flourish, the quotes would be set against another blood splatter.

In the rest of the book, John wrote sidebars that fell into three categories. The first category were Aspects. These are characteristics that can be "tagged," "compelled," or "invoked" in play. To help distinguish each of these actions, I made a family of icons for use as in-line visual aids.

Setting FAQs
John also wrote little FAQs detailing bits of the Ven culture, their history and other matters most relevant to the in-world fiction. These are called out with a stylized rose icon.

Rules FAQs
When a question pertained to the rules of the game itself, I used a proper question mark as the wayfinding icon. The text was also set in a sans serif to further distinguish it from setting material.

John didn't have many random tables in the book, but when they occurred, I called them out with a dice icon. Page space was limited, so I didn't add any special borders to tables and charts.

» More about Houses of the Blooded
» More about Storn A. Cook
» Previously: Case Study: Freemarket Icons
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.