A Smarter Way to Publish RPG Settings

Most of the game design articles this week have centered around making games more accessible for new audiences. In this article, I’d like to touch on a method for 3rd party publishers to attract some of the extant RPG audience that’s out there.

Go All-In with Setting

Let’s face it; most 3rd party published supplements are new settings to be played with a particular system. This was the way I went with Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City and Shadowcraft: The Glamour War. And I’m here to tell you, I wish I hadn’t. It’s not that designing for Fate Core wasn’t incredible fun, nor lucrative (the Fate audience is great to its creators, in my experience). The problem lies in narrow distribution.

Just like how no one outside of the Mutants and Masterminds community is going to know what Emerald City is, and most people who don’t play Savage Worlds will have anything but a passing awareness of Deadlands, few people outside of the Fate community know what Jadepunk is. And that’s sad because Jadepunk is awesome (seriously, everybody says so).

“What?! Jadepunk is AWESOME!”

So unless you have the clout, and extreme patience, to build a single system from the ground up, I suggest you…

Distribute Widely

There are more systems than players in today’s market, and most players already have their favorite 2-3 systems that see 99% of the play at their tables. That’s a huge barrier to entry right there.

So what’s a fledgling game designer who wants to sell their shiny new game to do?

I suggest you write up your core setting document, sans system and put that out as a sort of “RPG travelogue.” Most RPG players are pretty smart, able to figure out how to make their favorite system play for film or comic book franchises that are out there, so there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same for your setting.

See where I’m going here?

The unique thing that you have to offer in this instance is your setting, so this approach makes sense. By only releasing the setting (at first, see the next section), you are giving your setting mass market access – anyone can try it out, without having to learn new mechanics. (And what if someone’s table loves your setting, but hates the mechanics you attached it to; they won’t give it the time of day.)

Once your setting is released…

Add SOME Systems

“But I want to play with mechanics,” I hear you saying. Well, this is where you get your chance. Once you release your setting, you can poll your buyers (or Kickstarter backers) and ask what systems they like. Then you can get to work on conversion documents targeted at your audience like a smart missile zeroing in on exactly who is most likely to buy it.

Personally, I wouldn’t make these conversion documents very long; 10-40 pages are probably enough for most systems, but it’s really up to you at this point. And the most beautiful part: by making conversion documents for your setting, you’ve opened the door for others to make them for their tables, increasing the value of your setting to the wider market.

After a few years of applying this method, you would hit the most popular systems out there, and your setting (if it’s good) and it’s conversion documents will sell better than if it were attached to a single system.

What Do You Think?

Does this sound like it would work? I’ll tell you, Jadepunk has been out since 2014, and I know many people who would love to give it a try, because of the setting, but who have a distaste for Fate rules. (Even some of the people who have worked on Jadepunk have said they want to convert it to their preferred systems).

To me, if setting is your thing, this is a no-brainer.

Back to Basics: RPG Mechanics in 20 Words

There are a lot of cool gaming mechanics out there. I mean, a lot! But many games (like Jadepunk, admittedly) were built on the complicated rubrics of other games. This overcomplication, I believe, has resulted in the kind of mechanical bloat that we see in some big name games that require 500 pages, or multiple books, to cover it all. I think it’s time to get back to basics.

In my anecdotal experience, I’ve seen games spring from two places: tabletop wargaming and group storytelling. I’m not going to go into the “story vs. simulation” argument because I think nothing could be more pointless than to argue over how we define fun.

My Perfect Game

Subjective as hell, I know.

As I grow older, and find that I enjoy differentiating between spinning a good yarn and playing some HeroClix, my RPG tendencies lean toward any game that doesn’t require a grid or other tabletop implement – give me character sheets and dice, and I’m good to go. Going “back to basics” means (to me) to head back to a bunch of people getting together to tell a story; but when I (Captain America) decides that a fellow player (Iron Man) needs to have his armor knocked off his face, the other player may not like that, and we need to figure out who gets what. Enter mechanics.

The absolute basic mechanic (and I would argue that this is true even in wargaming) is this 20 word game design:

Player tells the table what they want. GM tells the table what they want. Highest roller gets what they want.

Imagine we’re telling a story and I, as Cap’s player, say that I punch Iron Man’s, your character, lights out. You’d be like No! My armor…is crap compared to my vibranium shield, I retort. Who’s right? Roll your armor against my shield and let’s settle this once and for all.

But that means the armor and the shield need stats; I hear you saying. I answer with am emphatic YES. Give them stats.

And my fighting ability? Sure. Throw that in there. Oh, but now we have two stats, how do they stack? See how this complication thing works? From dice to item stats to skills…next we’ll be talking Cap’s enhanced attributes vs. Iron Man’s toughness and strength. It can be never-ending with this crap. And that’s so damn cool and so damn annoying.

Where Should the Complication End?

That’s as subjective as the kind of games you like to play. And I know that sounds sort of anti-climactic for someone who usually approaches this sort of thing with a voice of authority (which is totally fake, by the way), but that’s how it is.

Think of this as a manifesto of how I intend to approach my future designs: getting back to basics, which I define as the above 20 word game mechanic.

Tabletop RPGs as Solo Adventures

I’ve always found trying to play a roleplaying game solo to be of great interest (maybe because my best friend is my dog), but not a great exercise. Games just don’t support the format. But maybe they could? Maybe the old “choose your own adventure” stories hold a key here?

If you’ve read them, you’ve likely had a similar rush to the one you get when you the GM tells you how terrible your decision turned out for you. If that isn’t what we’re looking for in solo RPGs, I don’t know what is.

Even video games are reinvigorating the “choose your own adventure” format; just look at the success of TellTale Games’ lineup of (great) “choose your own” games.

Customization is the Key

I haven’t played a TellTale game since the first Walking Dead series they released (not for lack of want, let me tell you), but one thing I noticed in that first game, and especially the aforementioned “choose your own” books from the 80’s, is the lack of character customization. And for a tabletop roleplaying game, customization is everything!

My Pitch…

A solo game where you create a character and”play” through a series of adventures, “leveling up” certain skills along the way, as well as gaining new items to use (TellTale uses some of these concepts, but I’m going back to tabletop/fiction stuff now). And those items can have big repercussions for future decisions – “progress through <option A> only if you possess <device option B from the last chapter>.”

That could be a fun exercise for a small DTRPG release next year (Siri, put it on the To Do list), but this is a digital age, we need…multiplayer solo gaming (that’s how you all play your MMOs anyway, amiright?). So we include a posting template on a web page that lets you plug in your choices. Then out comes your personalized story, to share with all of your friends on social media.

So, who’s ready to invest?

What’s the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying Games?


My thoughts on the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying Games

I believe the future lies not in the multiple 300+ page tomes that must be consumed and memorized before play – because, historically, that has not attracted mainstream appeal – but rather in short documents that can be read and mastered in 20 minutes, and taught in 5 minutes. After that, a (short) tome of advanced rules can be released to give the full (traditional) experience of tabletop gaming.

The topic is subjective as hell, but what do you think the future of RPGs looks like?

Classcraft: Gamify Your Classroom

It’s no secret that kids learn better through stories and games (Jesus used the parable, my teachers used BINGO), but it seems that classroom gaming has come a long way from The Quiet Game. Classcraft is a free (for most features) way to turn a modern classroom into an engaging game.

What is Classcraft?

From their website:

Classcraft’s mission is to transform the learning experience by using game mechanics to engage students and provide teachers with well-designed tools to do so.

A friend of mine who teaches at a local magnet school introduced me to Classcraft. After browsing the website, it has me wishing that I was back in school again.

Classcraft uses a fantasy genre roleplaying game to provide teachers with a fun way to manage their classroom. They play the role of GM, assigning quests (tests), giving away XP (scores), and a load of other things.


Classroom Management Level: EPIC!

What About the Students?

Students have the coolest role of all: they’re the players.

Each student creates an avatar, complete with a character class (Mage, Warrior, Healer) and special abilities, called powers. They also have hit points, experience, even special items that can help them on their tasks. If my classroom had this stuff, I would have been on the honor roll every year.


Can adults take the Invisibility power?


Hunting, because every school needs a version of the Hunger Games.

I find this to be such an amazing concept, especially for the current generation, which is getting into gaming at younger ages than ever (my five-year-old can work my iPad better than I can). And it’s great for the tabletop gaming industry. The little girl who showed me her dashboard said she wanted to play D&D for real! (Is our beloved in hobby in for a revival?)

My PTA meeting is coming up, and I’m planning on printing out the materials from the Classcraft website and showing them around. I’d have fun just checking up on my daughter’s quests.


Honestly, why does this not appear in every tabletop game?

What do you think of this classroom management tool?

Classcraft from Classcraft on Vimeo.

Geek Chic: It Hurts to be Different

A Facebook friend posted this video. It speaks to geek culture and how, even though it’s become popular for “geek to be chic,” we can still feel alone in the mainstream crowd.


I have to agree with her about the X-Men comments. They’re some of my favorite comic book movies, not because they nailed the X-Men from the comics (they couldn’t be more off, in my opinion). I like the X-flicks because they’re about something that we go through every day. As much as I enjoy watching heroes fight off alien invasions, it doesn’t relate to my experience like being seen as a mutant does. (We’ve all felt that way…it’s not just me, right?)

That said, 3.5 being the best D&D…we’re going to have to agree to disagree. (*cough* 5e *cough*)

What about you? Do you feel alone in a crowd because of your geekiness?

Enjoy the video, and don’t forget to subscribe to Mayim Bialik’s channel.

D20 Jadepunk Design Journal: Skill Synergy

Last time we went over how we’re replacing abilities with professions, and why we feel that’s important. This time, we’re going over how skills interact with each other.

A Case for Synergizing Skills

During a design conversation, the ineffable Jesse Ferguson had an idea to decouple skills from professions (abilities). As a huge fan of World of Darkness games, this didn’t sound unreasonable to me, but there are design considerations – the most important of which is the extra time spent at the table adding your traits together.

We spent a lot of time trying to come up with a solution because we both liked the idea that you can use a skill or ability in a way that is relevant to the concept of the trait, but that isn’t by the letter of the rules.

If you’re familiar with superhero gaming, then I’m sure you’ve come across that moment when someone like The Hulk screams at a minion in an attempt to intimidate the poor ant but fails because his Presence/Charisma bonus is utterly deplorable. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for The Hulk to benefit from his incredible strength in that situation?

But we’re not talking superheroes (it’s just a great example of why we need to consider making exceptions in the rules), so here’s a situation we also discussed that is more relevant:

A sneaky assassin, who has a high Scoundrel rating and proficiency in Stealth, is looking for a hidden item in a magistrates office. Our assassin doesn’t have a great rating in Scholar, the profession used for discovering things, and no proficiency in Investigation, a Scholar skill used for searching. However, if you turn the tables, this assassin would roll Scoundrel (Stealth) to hide an item, so wouldn’t it make sense that such expertise would help in finding an item someone else hid? It’s a case of “what would I, a super skilled person in this regard, do in such a situation?” By the letter of the rules, the assassin would roll Scholar (Investigation).

Enter Skill Synergy

We feel that such skills should help, but we also don’t want a robust rules system to handle something that’s not likely to come up very often. (Skill synergy was a thing in past Fate games, like the first edition of Bulldogs, and I don’t think it’s ever come up at my table.)

Another consideration that we need to make is how powerful skill synergy is. If you always get a benefit because your proficient in another skill then the game becomes about pointing out and justifying skill synergies. There needs to be some resource expenditure to make this work, if for not other reason than to keep it somewhat of a rare occurrence.

Before we go any further, we need to address how Jadepunk d20 will use the Inspiration mechanic, or at least how it’s different than 5e. Coming from designing Fate games, we’re more familiar with utilization and spirit of an aspect, so Inspiration is something you can expect us to tweak. I won’t get into it here, but what you need to know is that you can’t just spend inspiration to get advantage; you need to point something out as important to get that advantage – you need to justify it. In this respect, you can think of spending inspiration as using a resource to take over for the GM so you can say “this thing grants advantage in this situation.”

How this works with skill synergies is you can point something out that would be relevant to helping you in the situation and gain advantage on the roll, if you spend a point of Inspiration to earn the right to do so.

So in the case of our assassin searching for the hidden item, the player could spend a point of Inspiration to say “my assassin is trained in how to hide things; Scoundrel (Stealth); and so should have advantage on this roll.” So long as it makes sense to the table, the assassin is going to get advantage on the roll because of their justifiable expenditure of inspiration.

There are other things to spend Inspiration on to gain advantage, and we’ll cover that in a future post. We’ve also got some ideas for how gaining Inspiration can be in the hands of the GM or the player (by accepting disadvantage on a roll because of some trait). But we’re still working on Inspiration mechanics, and they’ll require quite a bit of playtesting.

Next Time: I’ll talk hit points and dueling! (Don’t miss that one!)