- 2017 Behind, 2018 Ahead December 30, 2017
In 2017, Room 209 Gaming finally (after 5 years of development!) published Forthright Open Roleplay. Only our second product after Wear & Tear, we think it turned out pretty damned well and serves as the culmination of everything we’ve learned about game design since we started. But! We’ve got a long way to go.
With Forthright finally in the wild, we examined our business strategy and determined that it was untenable. So we reorganized internally – Ray and Bryan are now content creators, and Sarah now serves as Producer. The Producer role in Room 209 Gaming is something like a Scrum Master and Project Manager rolled into one. Sarah’s now keeps us organized and on schedule, making sure Ray and I have what we need to create content, and making sure we don’t blow out our budget creating products that’ll never make us our money back.
We created Forthright without using a Kickstarter. We’re proud of that. The core ruleset was released in both paid and Creative Commons editions. We’re proud of that, too! But when we look at almost 7x the downloads of the Creative Commons version as purchases, we see that giving away our product is not a great way to stay in business. So, while the core rules will remain free, we likely will not be releasing any further Creative Commons content.
What we are planning on trying to release in 2018 are:
- Home by the Sea, a short adventure hub in which the Protagonists encounter a bizarre haunted house and the damned spirits within. Based in part on the Genesis song of the same name.
- The Guidebook, an expansion to the Core Rulebook containing additional tips, tricks and techniques for using the Forthright ruleset to its fullest extent.
- The Undying War, a multiple-adventure campaign in which the Protagonists must fight a desperate series of battles against an implacable enemy and dangerously shortsighted allies.
- The Powers of Everos, a mini-Gamescape / mega-Adventure Hub expanding on the example Gamescape presented in the Core Rulebook.
Additionally, we’ll be attending more conventions in 2018 to demo Forthright and our new products. The first will be Illogicon VII, where we will be playing Home by the Sea and scenarios from The Undying War and The Powers of Everos. Come out and visit!
We hope everyone has a wonderful and safe New Year, and we’ll see you on the other side!
- Truth, Lies, and Believability January 20, 2018
Something that is guaranteed to come up every session in some form of the question, “Is the NPC lying?” Many game systems provide some way of identifying truth versus lie, fact versus fiction when NPCs are talking. Forthright does not, for one very specific reason: you can never be certain if someone is lying to you or telling you a half-truth in reality, and putting that in the fiction of the game perpetuates the dangerous notion that such certainty is possible.
I’m a gun for hire, I’m a saint, I’m a liar
Because there are no facts, there is no truth
Just data to be manipulated
I can get you any result you like
What’s it worth to you?
“The Garden of Allah”, Don Henley
One of the talking points of the last year is that we live in a “post-truth world,” where facts no longer seem salient. Racism is back in vogue, politicians routinely deny saying things they’re on record saying, and social media has taken the place of careful journalism. But the sad fact is that the world has always existed in this state, the only thing that’s changed is that people are more largely aware of it, in no small part due to the rapid proliferation of nonsense allowed by the Internet.
George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. The unsinkable Titanic. Everyone used to think the Earth was flat. Einstein failed math. The moon landings were faked. Gypsies (or Jews) steal babies. 9/11 was an inside job. Nobility has a divine right to rule.
The fact of the matter is, fact and fiction has always been fluid throughout the entirety of human history. What has always mattered is whether the speaker is saying something the listener can believe or wants to believe. And we decided to reflect that in the rules of Forthright because it is a game that rewards critical thinking and character development. The solutions are not always on the Protagonist Sheet and what a Protagonist is willing to believe speaks volumes about that Protagonist.
When the villain says he wants to help, and he’s believed, the Protagonists suddenly seem very naive or gullible. But if the villain actually does want to help (as can happen when another, more dangerous villain appears on the scene), then if the Protagonists dismiss him they suddenly seem intractable or short-sighted. This is storytelling. The game wants that to happen, it wants characters to develop in unexpected ways based on the players’ reactions and the Gamescape’s counter-reactions.
But sometimes players aren’t certain how their Protagonists will react. When that situation arises, there is no roll the player can make to help them decide (or determine if they are being told the truth). Instead, they can ask the Guide for the NPC to make a Talk Check (the same way the Guide requests Talk Checks to see how believable the Protagonists are). The Guide will then roll a Talk Check for the NPC and the result of the Talk Check is the same as it would be for a Protagonist:
- Win: The statement seems reasonable / rational / believable.
- Exchange: The statement might be reasonable / rational / believable, but more proof is needed or the speaker will need to make some type of concession.
- Setback: The statement doesn’t seem reasonable / rational / believable.
But never true. Never false. Because you only find that out much later, and there’s a story in the learning.
- LESSONS LEARNED: NDAs Aren’t Worth It December 9, 2017
When we first started Room 209 Gaming, we tried to do everything by-the-book by following accountant and attorney advice. One of the things we were advised to establish was a Non-Disclosure Agreement for playtesters. This NDA was intended to protect our intellectual property and reputation, and would also ensure that if we discussed game rules or the like with playtesters, they could not come back later and claim they owned IP that was discussed during a playtest or retrospective. At the time, it made a lot of sense.
After the first session of public playtesting, way back in 2012, we had a playtester attempt to vacate the NDA. Ultimately the NDA stood, but it hit us directly in the wallet. Afterwards, we largely withdrew from public playtesting and went invite-only. Frankly, we couldn’t afford to have that happen again. I was personally so angry and disgusted that Room 209 Gaming almost ended before we’d published a single word.
It was all very frustrating and very dramatic, but it taught us one very important lesson that we maintain to this day: For a tabletop designer, unless you are working on a licensed property, an NDA is not worth the hassle.
Why do I say this? After all, I have an experience with an NDA situation in which Room 209 Gaming came out on top. Why would I advise anyone else to avoid them? Well:
- Copyright law only protects the specific expression of game rules, not the game rules themselves. So, for instance, if I have a mechanic I call the Midgard System that uses the middle of 3d10 to determine the value of a die roll, there is nothing in law that prevents anyone else from using the same mechanic and calling it the Mediocre Triad or something else. Your exact words are copyrightable, your engine isn’t.
- Even if someone takes your mechanics, they haven’t taken your game. First, the game-buying public in general frowns on design-thieving to that degree, and whoever does it will in short order find their reputation ruined. Second, the thing that makes your game unique is your specific expression of the rules. Even if someone else takes your mechanic, they can’t take the fundamental way of looking at it that only you possess.
- It takes work and money to transform any mechanic or idea into a functional, published game. The chances that someone will steal your idea, then also have the work ethic and cash to beat you to the punch in publishing that idea as a game, are virtually nil.
- It takes work and money to enforce an NDA. And that work and money are better spent on your part making your game rather than worrying after what other people are saying and doing. In our case, we could have bought 3-10 more pieces of art with the amount of money we spent on attorney’s fees.
- You’re specifically spending money and effort to get people to not talk about your game. Word-of-mouth is absolutely essential for building hype and community involvement. By trying to protect what’s virtually un-stealable, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by preventing your audience from growing.
Licensed properties are their own special thing. These usually have a brand or franchise manager, and they’re very careful about what gets out and about because they want to ensure the franchise grows and isn’t damaged by incomplete information. In these situations, it’s my understanding the brand owner will cover at least some if not all of the legal costs of the NDA (they are, after all, the ones demanding it). And when they’re handling the NDA, they can do whatever they want with it without expending the designer’s time and effort.
In the end, having the NDA did us no favors. It cost us extra money (four figures, for creating and enforcing it), it damaged goodwill between us and others, and the kicker is: nothing of that initial playtest session’s ruleset made it to the final game. It was entirely pointless.
So please, learn from our expensive lesson. If you’re considering an NDA, if you’re thinking someone might steal your game … let those anxieties go. They can’t steal the fundamental you-ness that will make your game what you imagine it to be, and there are way more cons than pros in creating an NDA. Save your money. Save your hairline. Design your game.
- Metatopia 2017 November 9, 2017
Hello and welcome! It’s been a few weeks since my last non-announcement post because we’ve been terrifically busy. Not only is Forthright Open Roleplay now available (and a silver seller!), but Sarah and I moved to a new house (and corporate office, I suppose) and I headed to New Jersey for the one-of-a-kind Metatopia. I didn’t bring anything of my own, because my goal this time was to give back to the community that made Forthright possible by playtesting as many other games as I could.
It’s taken me a while to sit down and write this because, alas, my flight back to RDU from Newark was cancelled due to clouds. Like, apparently, seriously terrifying clouds that shut down almost all traffic out of Newark this past Sunday night. So I had to cancel my flight and drive home…an 8-hour drive…starting at 8pm. I am not a young man anymore, that was hard.
Anyway, my brain seems to be fully-functioning again, so let’s talk Metatopia!
Metatopia is in a big way a networking convention, and this year I think I met and had wonderful conversations with more people than the previous two times I’d been to Metatopia. I think that’s mostly on me, as my previous visits were with Sarah and Ray and if I’ve got somebody I know I tend not to branch out to meet people I don’t. But I was also previously burdened with a severe case of impostor syndrome, like I didn’t really deserve to be there, and that anything I had to say was pointless and dumb compared to the gaming greats around me. Combined with a compulsion to stay entirely focused on the then-unfinished Forthright, I don’t think I was in a mind space to fully appreciate what Metatopia had to offer in this regard.
This time, I arrived with confidence – we had developed Forthright and gotten it to publication, and people in general liked it. That pushed impostor syndrome right out of my head – I had done something. And I got to hang out with a lot of great people and really enjoy myself as a result – and I thought about listing them all here, but that feels strangely like name-dropping oh look who I got to hang out with. So…next!
I only attended two panels this year, one of which I was on. From Idea to Product: Your First Game was a panel I was on with John Adamus and Laura Simpson. It was a really interesting experience to share advice with a room full of people, and hopefully the mistakes we’ve made will help some of those fine folks avoid making the same ones. And I got to meet Laura Simpson, who developed Companion’s Tale, a game I’d not heard of but am now dying to play!
Generic But Indie was a panel I attended at the urging of Jason Pitre and boy, am I glad I did! This panel had Jason, Brennan Taylor, and Hannah Shaffer talking about the difficulties of creating, marketing and sustaining a generic product with supplements. I’m really glad I went to this panel, because that was very much the original business plan for Room 209 Gaming: create Forthright, then do a bunch of game-setting products. We wanted to avoid the pushback Fantasy Flight experienced by repackaging the same rules over and over for Star Wars.
But, as it turns out, indie games tend not to suffer that pushback because they’re small enough that they offer additional growth opportunities rather than a burden. So that’s led to a shift in how we’ll be developing Gamescape products in the future.
The last time I attended Metatopia (2015), the con had grown to a point where there was friction between developers and players. Designers were expecting more robust feedback than they were getting, while players were expecting a more traditional con experience. I’m happy to say that this year, that did not seem to be the case – Double Exposure printed up packets for all the game tables that explained the roles and responsibilities of the devs and the players, and provided handouts with some great tools for structured feedback. I was pretty impressed.
And I got to play some really interesting games. “Take two stats and add numbers into a single die pool to roll” was a favorite mechanic this year, at least at the tables I gamed at. Some of the highlights (in alphabetical order):
- BLOCKBUSTER! was the last game I got to play, from Duffy Austin, and it was an absolute blast. You take on the roles of egomaniacal actors who are swinging a directionless movie production back and forth to give themselves spotlight. It only needed a couple of tweaks, and I can’t wait to play this game again.
- Harnessed by Ian Jarrard is ostensibly a sci-fi game where players powers stolen from an ancient cosmic evil to fight that same evil when it returns. In the state it was when I played it, it was still a fairly traditional game, with lots of things that it didn’t need because they weren’t what it was about. But Ian was very receptive to feedback, and this is the one game I can say I wrote that a mechanic was too damn fun, so why wasn’t the whole game revolving around that? Fortunately, Ian is going to be reworking it more into “Doctor Strange in Space,” which is kind of what it was, and I’m looking forward to the next iteration of the game.
- ISSUES! The Comic Book Continuity Building Game, from 9th Level Games, was a surprise for me because, while it was kind of a roleplaying game, it was also kind of a storytelling card game. The players got to take on different roles in a comic book company, building comics together based on card prompts. I think this is going to be a great party game when it’s done.
- Pasion de las Pasiones, from Stop, Hack and Roll, was not a playtest I participated in. But damn do I wish I had! This was in a lot of ways the star of the con – everyone I encountered who played it was talking about it, talking about it passionately, and talking about it positively. In it, you play both the characters in a telenovela and the family at home watching the show. It is designed to be raucous and hilarious, and the volume from the playtesting tables certainly attested that it’s doing its job!
- Project Violacea from Wrong Brothers Gaming (I love that name) is an interesting one. It’s marketed as a biopunk dystopic future about underrepresented demographics fighting against the controlling elites. I was fairly nervous about the quality of feedback I could give on this one, but overall the playtest turned out pretty well. It uses an interesting d100 mechanic with Fate-like aspects. This was an alpha test, but the mechanics are sound and I’m looking forward to seeing how they approach the world.
- Retrievers, from Saddle Shaped Games, had a very interesting tension mechanic that built and released tension over the course of a heist-style game. I’m interested to see where James Dagg goes with it.
- Save The Universe by Don Bisdorf is a PbtA-style game where the players are Guardians of the Galaxy-style heroes who are facing off against a galactic menace. This game was very polished and tremendous fun, but what really stood out for me was the rearranged die mechanic. Rather than 2d6+Bonus, higher better, Don has rearranged the difficulty curve, adding more entropy by making the face of the die matter based on your character’s strengths and what you’re attempting to do. Very impressive, I’m looking forward to playing more.
- Space Ice Hauler Heartbreak, from James Malloy, is about two lovers – the Lighthouse who stays behind and the Hauler who heads into space – changed by their long-distance relationship and the ravages of time dilation. While emotion-games aren’t usually a thing I go for, the potential in this game is tremendous. This was another alpha test, and even in this rough state I could see how beautiful it could be when it’s finished. Rob Donoghue as my Lighthouse telling me I need to stay away from caramel apple empanadas because the doctor says so was a highlight of the convention 🙂
Overall, Metatopia 2017 was another successful convention from Double Exposure and a great opportunity to play some great new games in their infancy. I hope I was helpful! And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go get a caramel apple empanada XD