“What are you working on?”
This should be a pretty easy question, shouldn’t it? When asked last year, though, I realized my answer was absurdly long. I could name at least a dozen games I had been “working on” for weeks, months, even years in some cases—but not a single one I had actually finished and released into the world.
So I started an exercise I call inventory management: Taking an inventory of all the projects I’ve got on my mind, deciding which to shelve for the time being, which to finish ASAP, and what steps to take to get each project from point A to point B. I wrote up 12 entries on G+, compiled in a thread on Dice Camp. It has been hugely helpful in organizing my thoughts, but only marginally successful in my initial goal to get games done. So far, all I’ve got to show for it is a two-page game still marked as only “v0.5.” The version I playtested with friends was actually a bit different, and I kept telling myself I might go back and edit this one to reflect what I think might be improvements. Maybe I will at some point. For now, though, I think it’s better to stick it on my “Games” page, call it a win, and finish something else. (Edit: Okay, there are a couple other things one could actually play as written, but they’re still in beta too.)
(Jury’s still out on whether I want to keep managing my Games page as a WordPress portfolio page, which renders the URL of each game as /portfolio/title. Also feeling a bit leery of the URL pretendo.games/games. But I’m trying not to get bogged down with website details when the whole point of starting this site was to nudge me to put more time into getting work done on games. Edit: And of course I came back and spent and hour changing and customizing themes, ending up with one that wouldn’t even let me use a portfolio if I wanted. Of course I did.)
What am I working on, then? A few things, actually, which I’ll need to narrow down so I know what to focus on first:
Exhumed is an old school RPG in which our heroes awaken from their graves to find demons wandering wandering the land, souls hoarded and traded like coin, and the gates of the underworld hanging open, so none may rest. It’s got a few influences, but most of all the Dark Souls series of video games and the tabletop RPGs inspired by it, especially The Cold Ruins of Lastlife. I’ve run a few playtest sessions now using a system derived from Into the Odd, with some additional rules for quick, tactical, and creative combat. Tests so far suggest it works pretty well, but I’m starting to wonder if it would be better off shedding some more trappings from Into the Odd to do its own thing. This one is at the top of my pile, and still actively undergoing testing. I am likely to think aloud through some issues with this one here soon.
Untitled Tarot Urban Fantasy RPG
In my notes, this game goes by the (bad) codename Querent. It has gone through a lot of changes over the years, as I’ve picked it up and shelved it again periodically. The most recent version’s rules (which I ran at Metatopia 2018) could be summed up as “Lady Blackbird, but with tarot cards you can play for their numbers or for their meaning.” It has some serious issues to figure out, including how to best handle interpreting cards’ imagery (an optional rule that ended up offering an effectively endless number of “get out of jail free” cards), how to make failure possible (it never happened in any playtest), and whether it’s even worth playing at all if the card playing rules aren’t tied to a specific setting. This is a long-term project that I hope to return to periodically between now and the next time I am able to get to Metatopia; tarot-based games are a bear to test online, and I worry about driving off my local group of players by inflicting upon them a game that feels so unfinished.
Odd Luck Charms
Odd Luck Charms is a poker-card-based RPG that I ran at Metatopia 2017. I had to step away from it for a while for reasons that are hard to explain. It was very well received by playtesters, and I got some really great feedback, but some of that feedback had it blowing up in my mind from a two-page microgame into something that required a great deal more design work, including a custom deck of cards. I wanted to just focus on making some smaller games that would be quick to bang out for a little while longer. Given how few small games I’ve actually managed to complete, though, I should probably just put my energy into something I’m motivated to complete, and finish it.
Miscellaneous Into the Odd hacks
One of the seductive things about a game like Into the Odd is that it’s so pared down to its barest essentials that it looks extremely easy to hack. And, relatively speaking, it is—until you start getting inspired to do more than just re-skin it for other settings. I keep coming up with games that start as simple re-skins, and end up demanding much more attention, like for full lists of Troika-style backgrounds. I’m not sure how to prioritize these yet, if I even give them any attention right now at all.
Agents of the O.D.D. Inspired by Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. Roll up a random occultist, psychic, mutant, cryptid, or mythical being, and get thrown at the things that go bump in the night. Better to work for a shadowy quasi-governmental organization than to be hunted by it, right? Right?
Down Town. Inspired by Chuck Wendig’s Blue Blazes and Joel Priddy‘s Underground (another Into the Odd hack). Maybe you suspect you’re descended from morlocks, or you’re hooked on some drug that’s only available in the world below, or the only way you’ll repay your student loans is to strike it rich fast. Whatever the reason, you’re headed into the sewers and beyond.
Xenobioddity. I just figure I’ve hacked pretty much every other rules-light system I enjoy to run Mass Effect. Might as well do one more. I enjoyed making a random alien species/culture generator, but this is already way back on the most distant back burner.
Something with cyberpunk. I don’t even have a working title for this. I’m just eager to run a cyberpunk game with Into the Odd rules. The ones I’ve read so far (like the Slick Thames one in Odditional Materials) have some cool ideas, but I have my own stuff I want to try. In particular, I feel like Technoir‘s rules for requiring cyber-implants might be a good thing to adapt somehow—e.g., if you take critical damage, it’s gonna leave a mark, maybe bad enough that it’s worth springing for that shiny robot arm you’ve had your eye on.
Years ago, a friend and I started work on a board game/iOS game (not an RPG!) that might be described as “Scrabble for people who care more about cool words than rare letters.” Early tests provided solid proof of concept, I did some UX design work that would probably still hold up, and we figured out some good technical options for handling scoring. “Real life” responsibilities got in the way, so we had to step away from it indefinitely. I know a lot more about digital prototyping now than I did then, though, so I’m wondering if I might be able to mock something up to entice some developer to help me finish it up, maybe even scrape together some crowdfunding money to facilitate that process.
I’ve been toying with a set of house rules for Fate Core that might end up being their own game; a diceless system for a series of resource-management-focused action and survival horror games, which might just end up informing Exhumed rather than becoming its own thing; fan hacks for Fallout and Eclipse Phase; a blackjack-based heist/action game; and Youthful Secret Kung-fu Cryptids, a team-based “super family” game intended to encourage cooperative problem solving and help resolve interpersonal conflict. I think it’s safe to say these are all on the back burner until I feel so compelled to work on one that I just can’t help myself.
Pretty much everything on this list is, of course, pretty low on my actual, day-to-day to-do list, which is topped with stuff like “find a new job” (my last contract ended last week) and “make sure the baby stays alive” (she loves diving off things head-first). This makes it even more imperative that I figure out a good way to prioritize and see through “fun work.”
My most immediate next steps are to review the feedback and notes that came out of Metatopia (on Exhumed, Untitled Tarot, and Odd Luck Charms), and see where that leads me. I’ll be scheduling another Exhumed playtest soon for December, and I’m weighing whether it’s worth it to make some fairly major changes first. While prepping games for Metatopia, though, I did find it really refreshing to have more than one game going at a time (so I’d have something to fall back on when I had time and desire to do game design, but I was sick of thinking about one thing, or stuck until the next opportunity to playtest). I think I want to put Odd Luck Charms to bed before I move on to the tarot game in full force. And somewhere in there, I’ll probably make one of those Into the Odd hacks just for fun, and tool around with prototyping tools to see how viable my Verbiage pipe dreams might be.
And, of course, I’ll be blogging through all this. As you might have heard, I can’t shut up about games.