Bill Heron: Gaming in Edinburgh and other RPG stuff
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Creating RPGs

Creating an RPG.

GM accessories – a wish list
It is GM’s Day today at DrivethruRPG: as a GM I’m often looking for cool stuff to give to players, and to make my life as a GM easier (I’m lazy that way!). I recently picked up a number of old boxed adventures for AD&D on eBay recently, like the Dragon Mountain set. I’d forgotten how much material was included in them. I thought it might be an idea to put together my wishlist of GM accessories that I’d like to see in RPG adventures/supplements. If an adventure is being crowd-funded like Kickstarter for example then these could easily be stretch goals i.e. the GM accessories are added when a certain level of funding is reached. I’m not even sure why I’m doing this, but here goes. It’s what I would like to see in the ways of GM accessories for adventures – who knows? Perhaps some module/adventure designer may take this advice to heart when they produce their product.

Stuff for the players

GM accessories like handouts are always a winner. They provide a quick and immersive way of engaging the players, as well as providing visual clues – be they maps or letters. They also need to be readable if there’s any text, unless that’s the actual point. If the handout needs to be printed then it should work on a standard black-and-white printer without looking muddy. Colour is all very well, but can be expensive in ink/toner to print! Call of Cthulhu games may benefit from handouts, like authentic period tickets or menus (like in Horror on the Orient Express). I created the dossier for eBranch by using the Courier font (resembling typing), then carefully stained the paper with a mixture of lemon juice and teabags to give an authentic looking appearance of an old document. Although they can be tricky to produce, props and items requiring assembly provide a great deal of enjoyment –  some games have items that require assembly as part of the gameplay (like the Rod of Seven Parts artifact, or the amulet in Dragon Mountain).

Dragon Mountain has some stand-up card counters of the many monsters. These sort of things are very handy in games like D&D 4e, where miniatures are often needed and maybe too large to transport to a game. Having miniatures isn’t always easy on the table, so the counters can help. They don’t even need to be heavy duty card, just something simple. Likewise, model buildings that can be assembled (like Cities of Mystery), although they are of limited use unless you are also a wargamer.

If there are new rules for players to use, I’d like to see them in the same format as the rulebook, ideally in the same layout and typeface. I’d like them to be separate from the main adventure too (e.g. in loose-leaf form or in their own book), so players can refer to them without stalling the game.

If there are maps, they should be scalable to allow GMs to position miniatures, or there are floorplans that can be used  (or used with a Battlemat). A few years back I ran the AD&D Ravenloft adventure Feast of Goblyns using some generic room templates that I’d created. They worked really well – but they were fairly crudely drawn, but at least were laid out in grids (or hexes). Again, these are probably necessary for D&D 4e.

GM Accessories

Maps are great GM accessories, but I’d prefer maps to be in their own booklet to make it easier to refer to, preferably numbered sections in the main adventure. The Temple of Elemental Evil did this well – a separate A5 pamphlet within the adventure made it easy to refer to, rather than flicking back and forth through the text. I hate having to refer back to particular pages in an adventure. Player maps are great to include so long as they aren’t printed on the reverse of a GMs map! If the map is A3 or larger it should withstand continued unfolding!

As regards fluff and descriptive text – I’m never a big fan of background fluff in adventures, especially when it relates to stuff the PCs have no way of knowing or are just there to fill out the page count. The GM shouldn’t really have read more than a quarter page of text to the players for each room. It should also be easy to read! I like being able to find the rules I want in the correct area, indexed and with clear section/chapter headings – not scattered amidst the background fluff (the wh40k RPGs are especially guilty of this). An index is a must (perhaps also listing the page numbers where items/monsters can be found in the adventure or main rulebook). Content pages with subheadings are also good. The text should also be readable without being tiny and at the very least it should have been proofread (not just spell-checked). If its a boxed set, the box should be sturdy enough to be carried in a rucksack! Layout isn’t a black art, but more than two or three columns and it becomes a nightmare – please keep it simple.

Artwork. I like being able to show my players the artwork. To use the old cliché, a picture is worth a  thousand words. When the Dark Sun setting for AD&D first came out they used flipbooks which also various images from the adventure,and I’d like to see something similar as it really evoked the setting. I know artwork is re-used a lot but I’d like to see some new art in an adventure. The Babylon 5 RPG (and supplements) is very text-heavy with stills from the show, but it would have been nice to see some actual artwork in the product. For my D6 Star Wars game, I put the artwork from the adventures into a collage – this gave players a sort of visual history too, when I affixed it to the GM screen (the part without any charts obviously). Its not difficult to get good quality artwork, and is less expensive than people think. Cthulhu Invictus has terrible artwork and production values – so much so that I actually regret getting the game.

Playtest the adventure. Seriously, I sometime wonder if the designers have playtested some of their adventures. Some adventures seem to have a requirement for GMs leading the PCs around by the nose from plot point to plot point – others seem flawed from the outset, or fail to deal with such simple aspects as player choice. I’d like a page from the designer(s) on how to run/stage the adventure, or how the game went during playtesting, as well as possible adventure hooks.
A mind-map or timeline of plot points of the adventure – not as complicated as it sounds really.

Rules errata – I’d like adventures to include rule errata from the main rulebook as standard. I really don’t know why they don’t.

Re-usability – I love being able to reuse adventures or their materials, especially items such as floorplans or background info. The book or box should be fairly robust to handle repeated handling – the wh40k Chapter Approved book fell apart within a year of me getting  it ( and it was brand new!).

Give us gamers free stuff! Whether its a unique download of a character class or a font (like my Mandragora Glyphs Font) or even a discount off another products, give us a reason to purchase the full version of  a module. I suspect that a huge proportion of the RPG community use illegal PDFs, so give us a reason to go for the full products (rather than locking them down with DRM).

More by the same author. There’s usually some blurb about how the designer came up with the ideas for the adventure. Why not list some of the other products if it is a series (together with the product code and ISBN)?

The GPA (Game Publishers Association)

Game Publishers Association LogoFrom my time in Nova Games, I became (and continue to be) an associate member of the Game Publishers Association, or the GPA as it is known. This organisation has been around for quite a few years and the GPA-L mailing list is a hugely useful resource, allowing GPA members to draw upon the experiences and opinions of others on the list.

The organisation is extremely useful if you’re serious about self-publishing – for advice and also if you’re looking for help with distributors or looking to acquire space at conventions. It also provides a press-exploder for releasing information, and discounts for GPA members. However its usefulness has degraded a little in recent years: it’s undergoing something of a hiatus in the current economic climate, and they’re looking for some ideas as to the future of the organisation. The GPA ( is one of the best ways of getting expert advice from industry “insiders” right now.

I had a few ideas for what could be done, based upon my own experiences and ideas I’ve had. Here’s what I posted to the GPA-L list.

As a relatively “minor” associate member of the GPA, having only just started out on my own, freelancing and self-publishing part-time, I thought I’d throw in my tuppence worth.

The GPA has a wealth of experience in the form of its members and for me the mailing list has always been the biggest draw for me. For example, a few months back I was keen to know what the going rates were for artwork: a few hours and emails later, and I had a much clearer picture and even an offer after an email to the list. The ability to draw upon the experiences and knowledge of those here has always been the biggest attraction for me.

However, there are a few things that I think could change for the better.

  1. There isn’t much incentive for new members to join the GPA outside the USA. Europe has a huge game-playing population, especially in the UK and Germany. Perhaps some form of local advisor volunteer or helper: for example, in my case I live in Edinburgh in Scotland – I’d bet there aren’t many other GPA members nearby. Whilst it may not be a huge commitment time-wise for these volunteers, it may help forge some local links (even if they are just playtest groups). Finding out local info when you don’t live there is pretty difficult (for example, currently driving through Edinburgh is almost impossible due to the Tram works debacle) – and although it is only 40 miles from Glasgow, the difference between the cities is considerable.
  2. Advice for micro-presses or first-time publishers. The “e-Publisher’s guide” by Minion Dev corp was very useful to me initially, and I reckon that others would benefit from the same sort of product. However its probably a little out of date to some extent. Perhaps the GPA could recreate the starter pack or FAQ (the current link doesn’t work)?
  3. Useful resources like links to companies that do dice, custom counters, battlemats, box printing etc. Perhaps there could also be a “members only” rating system for these, and for printers or distributors?
  4. The web page looks out-of-date and a bit “clunky”, with a few links not working – hopefully it is getting patched for security updates and the like – but could probably use an overhaul? Most CMS allow FAQ, Links and similar; perhaps these could be used for some of the ideas above?
  5. A free-lancer or artists database. Obviously this would be subject to a individuals preferences.
  6. A move toward a more web 2.0 interface – possibly Twitter and Facebook (as Aldo mentioned) pages and feeds or even member Blogs, feeding in though RSS (like the RPG Blog Alliance – – which parses RSS feeds).
  7. Does the press exploder still work and is it regularly updated?
  8. Perhaps, and this is a bit of reach here, but perhaps the GPA could be used for some form of branding e.g. quality assurance – perhaps some form of peer review group? E.g. if your product has the GPA logo it has been proof-read, spell checked, or something similar. Even if its something as straightforward as a book not falling apart after two weeks of use, or that it has been checked by an editor! :).

Anyway, just a few thoughts. Although I don’t know how much time I could devote to the GPA, I’d be happy to help in some respect.

The Secret Fire RPG: The Demons Shall Arise!

Last year I did some work on The Secret Fire RPG for Secret Fire Games – much of the flavour text in that book is from my own twisted mind as it were – mainly the monsters, a lot of the spells, and the setting descriptions. One thing I’ve learned from the game’s release is to develop a thick skin, especially online. Any product will come under scrutiny and the anonymity of the internet allows people to be far nastier than they would be in a face-to-face conversation.

The RPG.NET forums are especially unpleasant these days. I’ve never liked them as there seems to be a a fairly nasty undercurrent to a lot of the posters there – often it seems its little more than a thinly veiled ego trip for a lot of the posters there. Coleslaw on the Cthulhutech forum (on Cthulhutech’s own site) sums it up thus:

My brief stint at can be likened to having to use a porta-potty in August.

The other thing I’ve learnt is not to build expectations – The Secret Fire RPG had a number of problems during its creation, and I think there’s a lot that could have been done differently. I don’t think it was the game itself that raised people’s hackles, more the way it was built up and marketed. However, I’m unlikely to visit RPG.NET again – I’m a member of many other online forums and it’s no loss to me. The signal to BS ratio has pretty much made me give up on it.

Although I’ve a few misgivings about how I’m going to find the time or if indeed I can stick to the deadline, it looks increasingly likely that I’ll be responsible for a chapter on the Demon/Druid war in the first supplement. I’ll also be including some information on the Soul Reapers, TSF RPGs equivalent of Supernatural‘s Crossroad Demons. I’ve got a number of ideas for them, as well as their origin and how demons are really are the Big Bad in the world of the The Secret Fire RPG. Hell, or Infernus, as it is named by the Soul Reapers, isn’t actually the home of Demons. It’s a crossing-over point.

I’ll examine why Demons are fascinated with humans and souls – and why the  Druids hate them so much. As well as the more Faustian ones I’ll also be looking at how the Soul Reaper bargains are designed so that there’s what I’ll call The Catch: it’s not just your soul they want: chaos, misery, pain, and discord will give it a far more seasoned flavour…  For example, a character that wants to live forever? “No problem,” says the Soul Reaper,”of course, I’ll give you the ritual”. The Catch: the ritual requires the death of a mortal every month – and the ritual sends the soul straight to Infernus. Failure to complete the ritual, and the Soul Reaper comes to collect the forfeit…

The Paths of Damnation

If there’s space, I’ll also look at something called the Paths of Damnation: how a mortal can become a Demon Marquis and the powers they wield. I suspect that a few players would love to take this route through a campaign. Its nothing new: it was done in both Realms of Chaos volumes for WFRP and the Book of Vile Darkness for D&D (I recently read that filming of the D&D movie of the same name is currently under way in Bulgaria!). In the past supplement that have dealt with demons or their powers are often held up as examples as “proof” of the corrupting nature of RPGs.

Hopefully we’ve outgrown this. Ascension toward Demonhood (or should that be descent?) wouldn’t be an option for any PCs, but it could make for a fun campaign. The PCs are duped into procuring items for the Demon-Wannabe NPC or are running around trying to prevent their Ascension in the first place. Remember the Mayor in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer?

RPG Piracy

YAAR! Or not. In the last week the SOPA and PIPA legislations were pretty much sunk. As is usual for such things there’s two perspectives you can have on this: one is that it a victory for civil liberties and privacy, and that such things are pretty much unworkable. The other perspective is that again heavy-handed  actions by legislators that don’t understand the technology involved have again missed an opportunity to protect people’s intellectual property.

File share sites aren’t going to go away overnight. As soon as a product is released in digital format, it will be pirated. Unfortunately, there’s no way to stop this happening. When the Secret Fire RPG came out, a pirated copy surfaced on the Internet within 24 hours: unfortunately for the dopey git concerned, he’d left his email on the PDF, so I suspect his account with DriveThruRPG was shut down as a result.

I’ve said it before: I don’t condone piracy. Downloading a PDF with a view to buying the hard copy book is very different to knowingly downloading a pirated PDF. The obvious truth is, without product sales, many of the small press games will simply stop producing games or go out of business. Only a handful of companies can afford the legal fees to get sites shut down, and even then, they’re not in the same league as record companies. Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done to stop people ripping you off.

One of the creators of Cthulhutech, Matthew Grau, summed up the current situation for small-press games last October on the Cthulhutech website.

I remember a day when a mediocre release of a game book sold 3000-5000 copies, with healthy restock orders. Now, a successful release might sell 1000, if you are lucky, selling through the rest of your 3000 unit print run in three years – many companies print far less. Not only is the industry shrinking, but people don’t have to pay for their gaming books any more if they don’t want to. Unfortunately, unlike the music industry, we are not made of money. It costs a surprisingly large amount of money to develop a well-written and attractive gaming book and the return is not so hot. Without those extra sales, the traditional model of core plus regular supplementation isn’t really viable.

– Matthew Grau, Wildfire LLC

Now, here’s the thing: D&D, Eclipse Phase, Pathfinder and FATE have all released their rules on the internet, either OGL (Open Gaming License) or through a SRD (System Reference Document). These systems largely make RPG piracy minor as everything can be found online, although it does still take place. When you buy the book, you’re usually buying background information, the “fluff”, from these companies. Also, many folks resort to illegal PDFs when they’re unable to source old material – which is why Wizards have likely re-released their 1st edition publications. Although I wonder if any of the artists and contributors to those works will receive any royalties?

As such, I ‘d considered the best way to prevent piracy of the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG. In short, I’m not: instead, I’ll make use of it. As I’ll be using FATE, which is already OGL, there’s very little that won’t already be out there, either as part of the OGL for FATE or material that I’ll make available on the site. Copies of the rules may crop up on the ‘net, but this could help as a sort of viral marketing, especially if they are quick-start rules.

At one point Wizards of the Coast had their old adventures in PDF form, free to download. Then they dropped it and sold them online. Then they stopped making them available, citing piracy, which only made their products pirated more. Unfortunately the business model of having one form of product for sale just doesn’t work any more: when Wizards dropped their PDF sales, they made a serious mistake in my view.

Simply put: if there’s no reason to pirate your work, why bother? Although I have a few rulebooks in PDF, they’re no substitute for a hard copy version during play! With that in mind, the solution to RPG piracy is pretty clear: make your rules, or any antiquated or dead product, available online. Anyone that then pirates your work is clearly doing something illegal – so you can rain down whatever kind of legal hell if you want.

Unfortunately, RPG Piracy is here to stay, legislation or not. Until the internet becomes a police state – hopefully never – piracy will exist. If you’re a publisher, use it to your advantage.