Magpie Lords & Magpie Ladies

11pm last Monday, I really shouldn’t have been thinking of designs. But I’d been reading a review of My Life With Master and thinking about Scavenger Lords in Exalted. Probably my favorite bit of Exalted, even though they’re minor, derivative and unexplored.

Scavenger Lords are one part gang boss, one part vain academic, and one part Indiana Jones. They breeze into town, assistants in tow, and explore the ancient ruins nearby as mercenary archaologists. Best of all, this is considered a perfectly reasonable, even enviable career. But what would it like to be an apprentice to one of the Lords?

One thought led to another, and I backtracked from MLWM to Contenders, and have written most of a hack for that game. And it’s going well. The core traits like Pain and Hope are going to reskin to Cruelty and Trust. Rather than fights, we of course have dungeon exploration. And the in-ring traits map to the qualities of the gang the lords take with them.

There’s a couple of areas of spotlight time I’d like to sort out. Hopefully, if I can get over a nasty cold by the weekend, I’ll have the leedly grey cells ready to focus on those issues.


Modern Things / Slip

Back in 2002 on The Forge I discussed a Sorcerer one-sheet called Modern Things. So Sorcerer’s demons became all technology everywhere, and the humanity scale was defined as how alienated the character was from reality. I wanted to tap into the folklore about computers that need a hug and/or blood sacrifice. Plus all those carnivorous taxis in The Wiz. about  It got a little design on my LJ at the time, but I didn’t have a group to play with, so the premise never got tested.

Then a design competition popped up on Story Games and I wrote Slip (PDF).

In Slip, characters drop down through sublevels of reality. The next closest level adds coincidence and gentle surrealism and feels like a Hollywood romcom. The one below that adds some threats as technology starts to wake up. Below that, the cars have an appetite. And then below that, technology is properly feral. Influences included Nightwatch, Amelie, and Vamp.

One gimmick was that the character sheet was triangular, and information was distributed over the sheets. During play, you rotated GMing and playing duties and rotated the character sheet similarly.

What the game doesn’t give is a chance for the characters to interact. It’s ‘pocket play’ – everyone gets their own story. So at some point I’ve got to write a game about getting lost on the wrong side of the city together.

Gutscrape Infestation?

Lost your lucky rabbit’s foot?

Sure you put that Hand of Glory on the shelf?

Are eyes of newt missing when you’re sure you’ve stocked up?

You might have a GUTSCRAPE!

Gutscrapes can be an expensive problem for hard-working thaumaturgists like YOU.

Don’t fear – we at Catchett & Sons can help.

Hatched from the lingering aura of humilation and extended exposure to occult energies on a gobbet of blood or phlegm, gutscrapes are commonly found in the laboratories of necromancers and demonologists. Be warned, they CAN crop up in almost ANY willworkers’ sacred space. Both individuals and swarms have been recorded at shamanic lodges, mechanist workshops, occultech labs and clerical retreats. Agile shapechangers, larval gutscrapes squeeze under doors and through keyholes, sniffing out and then devouring YOUR expensive alchemical ingredients.

The first sign of a gutscrape infestation is missing talismans, tokens and other ingredients. Catch them that early and they’re no more a problem than stinkrats or dire lice. Wait and before you know it, the vermin has grown fat on YOUR property. Adults quickly gain an appetite for more powerful and unique artifacts. YOUR artifacts.

Gutscrapes can not only deplete your lab’s resources. Fully grown, their toxic aura can spread peevishness, ignominy and misery throughout your cabal.

How can we help? Our expert operatives will:

  • LOCATE and STERILISE gutscrape nests.
  • INNOCULATE your lab against further infestations.
  • SECURE your space.

Write, visit or etherwave us at our premises on Fell Street.

Catchett & Sons are specialists in occult vermin, rogue devils, SSSBs (SemiSentient Spellcasting Byproducts) and occult security. Registered as such with local authorities.

The fine folks at Nevermeet Press do a lot of crowdsourcing for D&D products. I’d completely forgotten how much fun it was to write up gonzo monsters. Unfortunately, my entry didn’t place, but the ones that did were deserving. There’s some juicy writing there.

Gaming Advocates

Last weekend, I was interviewed by the lovely Rich Rogers of the Canon Puncture podcast, as a Gaming Advocate for Contenders.

It was tough. Not because I hadn’t prepared, or hadn’t thought about the game (one of my favorites), or because Rich really grilled me. I think he just asked about seven questions, and they’re the questions every advocate gets.

But because it’s not easy to sell a game. (It’s also not easy to unsell a game). What’s the good bit? Does your audience like how the mechanics produce play, or are analogies helpful, or do they tune out at specific actual play?

Hopefully the edit will make me seem a little less… breathless.


“Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.”

– Hugh McLeod

A developer’s manifesto

It’s bloody difficult critqueing a game.

It’s difficult being someone a writer trusts enough that they’ll share their first hesitant ideas and then having the responsibility to say ‘It doesn’t work’. Or ‘What you want it to do? It does the opposite’. How do you do that directly and clearly, without losing trust? If you beat around the bush, will that glaring error creep into the game and pop out in a review three months down the line?

And how do you ever know where it’s just your opinion, or an incompatible playstyle? A clear-eyed perception of a mechanical assumption, or something not present in the text but present at the table? Who’s at fault then? The participants? The manual’s missing words?

So perhaps I need a manifesto. This is what I want. This is what you’ll get. This is what we’ll have when we’re done.

Design til it hurts.

I’m corresponding with Steve Hickey about Left Coast, a game about sci fi authors in 1960s California, and how they deal with paranoia, hallucinations, alien incursions and bills to pay. Superb premise, but the system isn’t quite there yet.

Last year, I did an online course called Game Design Concepts. Most of the course was angled towards videogames, but lots applied to RPGs. My favorite topic was iterative design. Design something good, then test it to see what’s bad, then feed that back into design changes. Cycle that a lot. Weekly. Daily.

After all, you shouldn’t aim to write a a finished game. You can’t do that, so don’t worry about it. Just produce something that works enough that your band of intrepid and generous playtesters can poke at it at the table and see where the system skips.

As an example, I’m developing The Hammer Falls with the creator, Pooka . He was terrified he’d produce something that wouldn’t work… so we got a playtest about 6 weeks after he started designing. If he lost 6 weeks investment that’s no big deal. Lots worked, lots was confusing. Pooka was too necessary an ingredient for it to be a finished game. So the design gets tweaked.

(It helps hugely that the mechanic allows for lots of changes. We’re using playing cards for resolution, and one of the mechanics ramps up the difficulty by adding cards together. Initially, you added the values together. Now, it looks like you’ll add the number of cards to the first card drawn as it took too long to add more than two cards. Glad we chose cards where it’s easy to do that).

Hell for Leather is another one. The designer, Sebastian Hickey, playtested the game about 3 weeks after he first put pen to paper. Lots sucked. Lots worked. But because the premise of the game was enjoyably nihilistic, you could at least paper over the system cracks with fun roleplaying.

Left Coast seems to be in a similar boat. It’s got such a strong premise that I’ve no doubt charitable groups would give it a shot and paper over in a similar way. Then, when you look back and see that you motivated your character to do something, but that perhaps the system should be doing that instead, you can design towards a system that matters.