Monday, July 20, 2020

The Besswox Design Notes which will not be in Beeswox

I've reached the point in assembling Beeswox (a flippintly-launched project I envisioned as taking a couple weeks which is now in its sixth month) of cutting things out to fit in my self-imposed limit of 64 pages (the traditional max size for saddle-stitch binding).

One of the bigger cuts is the last-page design notes. Normally I'm a big proponent of the writer taking a moment to explicitly explain how they approached the design and what they want it to do. But under my tight limits, that just was a reiteration things said elsewhere (PbtA games are nothing if not direct) and with some indulgent proselytizing on top, and that was a page of space better spent elsewise.

But still, I sweated over it enough that I hate to just dump it unseen, so here it is for future posterity (or embarrassment).

Design Notes

Beeswox was more or less begat by Offworlders, a space-adventure WoX-based game with some clever ideas for handling wealth and equipment. It offered a nimble and versatile system that, with just a little work, was easily turned to all sorts of genres and settings. In pursuing that expansion I incorporated bits from other WoX games and useful elaborations from the main Powered by the Apocalypse school. Putting all that together turned into this unified generic WoX rules-set I hadn’t realized I wanted.

But why World of Xat all? Why the ultra-lite fringe offshoot instead of the more prestigious main PbtA family it spawned from? As much as I respect the excellent work that has gone into many PbtA games, in practice I’ve found moving through their various formalized processes is a bit too esoteric for me. However, approaching those same excellent design principles through traditional elements like Hit Points, Experience Points and damage-rolls comes very easily.

Also, I’m all about minimal rules systems. Role-playing games for me are, before anything else, social gatherings for sharing imagination. The play I enjoy the most is filled with surprises and improvisation and joy sparked by communal creativity. And ever since I first put aside my D&D books in favor of Tunnels & Trolls, I’ve felt that using the fewest rules necessary encourages a focus on the natural conversation where all that great stuff happens. I prefer a sparse toolbox: some guidelines to structure the session, prompts to help the participants imagine the hell out of things, consequences to give a thrill of danger, and spurs to keep the pace up. Anything beyond that drags on momentum.

A significant secondary influence on Beeswox is the “Old School Renaissance.” Of course, given that the first WoX game, World of Dungeons, is a direct evocation of original D&D, and Offworlders is a near-emulation of original Traveller, not much more fine-tuning was needed in that direction, besides making allowances for open-table campaigning.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Beeswox Thickens

I'm still chugging along at Beeswox, in fact writing (re-writing, and re-re-writing...) the text has become my primary quarantine pastime. I'm hopeful I'll be able to release it by the end of May.

I'd like to make a couple updates on previous posts about Beeswox.

 First, I've modified Verve a bit. To review, it's a pool of points a player spends to activate their character's special abilities. I referred to them as a fixed allowance for "doing an awesome" a number of times per session. But while that mostly worked, it still felt a little abrupt. I don't entirely agree with Dissociated Mechanics criticisms, but Verve was feeling like it suffered from that a bit. Eventually I realized that, if the problem was the artificiality of the hard terminus, then I could just make that line much softer. So now, after a player runs out of Verve, they can still use their abilities, but the referee can optionally impose side effects, call for rolls of the dice, or whatever. I'm much more comfortable with the mechanic now.

Second, I've redone the cover ... twice. While I liked the last design, the dice images on it increasingly struck me as sloppy, and I couldn't verify their copyright permissions. So I stacked every ivory or yellow-toned d6 I had, took a picture with my cheap phone and made a new arrangement on top of the image. I admit it's a little goofy, but that just makes me like it more:


Then, while digging up graphic resources, I found a great color photo in the Flickr Commons. But I didn't have a place for it, until I took it as a prompt to make an alternate minimalist cover:

The stark "all-business" contrast to the original cover amuses me, so when it comes time to offer POD, I'll post both versions.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Subtle Verve

In putting together Beeswox, I ended up adding a couple rules without precedent from the original sources, but I feel they tighten up the system as a whole.

In full PbtA games nearly all character actions and resources are expressed as Moves, little distinct resolution packets that broadly define an action and its potential outcomes. A typical Move is structured more or less like this:

In situation X, roll the dice and add Attribute Y to see if Z1, Z2 or Z3 happens.

In contrast, WoX doesn't use Moves. Instead, for broad actions that any character can attempt it uses simplified general-purpose attribute rolls, results interpreted on the spot based on context. Unique PC resources are expressed by Abilities, which are structured tersely:

Your character can do Z.

As I thought about it, that seemed too broad. Without the "in situation X" limit, there's really nothing to urge a player to consider if an ability is appropriate or not. Some implementations account for this by saying "you can attempt to do Y," but that implies anyone without the ability can't attempt it all, which is a headache of permissions to track.

Other Abilities do add an "in situation X" limit, but on consideration I decided against expanding that to all Abilities because it would have been more text to track in play.

My solution is to give PC's a pool of points, called Verve. New characters start with three, they regenerate to full at the start of each session (one of the things you can get when you advance is an improved Verve pool). To use most Abilities, the player has to spend a Verve point (Abilities of more limited scope are just always on). Basically, each session a player can buy a limited number of pre-defined "I do an awesome" moments, enough for their character to shine but not so many as to bury the developing fiction under spam-attacks.

Pretty simple as a pacing mechanic, and I think it does what I want. However, I was concerned that there really isn't a precedent for this in either PbtA or WoX (that I know of), so I asked around for input. Most replies I got felt it seemed workable, but were concerned it might make play feel like Fate.

That may be true from a very broad perspective, but I don't think it will come close in the details. One of the things I find off-putting about Fate is that keeping on top of the flow of Fate Points and all the Aspects producing and consuming them in a scene can lead to disconnection from the fiction. Players can end up intent on making things happen, but without actually experiencing it viscerally. Big moments become just an exercise in cultivating and deploying Fate Points efficiently. I deliberately set up Verve to have no economy flow to avoid that.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Keeping Under Cover

I've been working on a new project:

It's a compilation and weaving together of rules and guidelines from the many rules-light "Powered by the Apocalypse" games which followed John Harper's World of Dungeons (a three page take on what Dungeon World would have looked like in it's "original" 1974 version).

I'll have more to say about the game's rules and my goals for the book, but for now I feel like musing on the synergy between rules design and graphic design. Y'see, originally I designed a cover like this:

I almost always get sidelined into layout and art long before I finish a text. Common wisdom says this is a sloppy way to work, but increasingly I'm seeing it as a productive expression of my mindset. I'm pretty good with words, but I'm at least as visually oriented, and organizing things graphically helps me understand things I don't catch when they're just text.

In this case, the name "Pocket Wox" at first sounded dashingly clever, with allusions to being a useful tool that's also conveniently portable. But as I fussed trying to figure out how to arrange those watch faces, looking at those precise gearworks prompted me to wonder if that was really what I was going for. Am I really making something meticulous and metal-hard? No, it's subjective and pleasingly malleable. With that insight I took another look at the text and spotted areas where I had gotten overly technical and started rewriting with better understanding of where I was going.

And then I changed the name and started browsing the Flickr Commons for pictures of bees.

Friday, May 10, 2019

A Long Held Pause

It's about a month since G-Plus shutdown and, at least from my perspective, the online tabletop RPG community still hasn't recovered.

Most of the OSR has emigrated to MeWe, which sadly has bolstered the worst elements in that community, and disinclined more moderate voices from participating. At the same time, The OSR blogosphere took a blow with the sudden passing of James A. Smith Jr., whose OSR News on his Dreams of Mythic Fantasy blog had been a valiant service keeping fans informed.

Elsewhere, small gatherings have taken to Pluspora,,, and various other instances on Mastodon and Diaspora. In conglomeration I can find most of the people I followed on Plus by searching through those places, but the fracturing doesn't permit the widely interlinked conversations of old, and unsurprisingly that means people are steadily defaulting to mere blog announcements and vanity posts.

Speaking of blogs, I've finally set up an RSS reader (Feedbro) to keep abreast, but frustratingly it has no mobile counterpart, so catching up on blogs needs to be a deliberate choice of desktop time. I'm definitely looking for a more integrated reader, but until then I've fallen quite behind. Even if I get the perfect reader up and running, blogs still have the same dispersion problem of the multiple independent networks (moreso really).

It's all had a chilling effect on my motivation to participate online, this blog included. Posting in any one place reaches a few dozen eyes at most, trying to get over that by posting the same thing multiple places is a chore and frankly feels like it comes off as obnoxious. And though it may be a vain thing to admit, I crave the satisfaction of knowing what I put time into writing is read by someone.

None of the above is meant to say the situation is hopeless. This community has always been damn good at finding the tools it needs to build itself up, and eventually we'll find what we need to get pat this. But I really hope it happens soon.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Brush with Zak-ness

It'd be a surprise to me if anyone reading this hasn't already seen the damning revelations Mandy Morbid has shared about her ex, self-styled bad boy of the OSR Zak Smith. If you haven't, here's Mandy's statement, and a corroborating one from Vivka Grey. Obviously, I believe Mandy, and firmly accept that it's impossible to deny any longer that Z.S. is utter garbage. Any continued tolerance or support for an abuser like him is unacceptable.

This post is mainly just sorting my emotions on the matter, and unburdening myself of some stuff. I will not try to address issues covered much more deftly by others, because I frankly do not have the depth or words to deal with them properly (go to Cavegirl's Game Stuff and Trilemma Adventures for people who do).

I feel compelled to confess there's one instance where my name sits on a credit page with Z.S.'s, the Expanded Petty Gods Companion. Not to oversell the significance, as there are hundreds of names on that project; just about everyone even tangentially part of the OSR over the span of that book's long development contributed to it, and we weren't collaborators be any stretch. Still, it's added a sour after-taste when I look at it now.

Other than that, outside of a few reddit exchanges, my encounters with Z.S. have almost exclusively been second and third hand. I didn't much care for his art style, his blog was too long-winded to keep my interest, and his books were too eccentric to suit my play style, so overall I didn't have much use for the guy. My own work wasn't nearly prolific enough to garner his comments, get me recruited into his camp or be marked as an enemy of it. Not that I was bothered by that; my casual read was he was best avoided, a typical self-declared iconoclastic artisté, more brand than substance, with an exploitative attitude towards those around him, as typical of those types. If I'd only known how bad it really was.

Over time his infamy grew, mainly due to the people he pushed out of the OSR, people whose work I liked much more than his, and was sad to see go. But I regretfully admit I didn't take it all that seriously. This is a hobby where petty drama is common, where edition wars are bloody affairs and people have formed bitter enmities over different ideas of how Magic Missile works. It's not easily apparent when, this time, "this guy's a monster," isn't just hyperbole. So as the pro-Zak and anti-Zak camps got louder and more entrenched, I just shrugged and let my attention drift elsewhere. All of which, I realize now, came from a position of unquestioned privilege. I didn't feel personally threatened by Z.S., so I had the luxury of ignoring him. And I didn't understand that for vulnerable people that wasn't an option. To everyone for whom my support would have helped even just a little, I sincerely apologize, and promise to do better.

I did have one nearly-direct interaction with Z.S., late last year. One of the consequences of the controversy that erupted when Stuart Robertson declared he'd prefer his popular OSR logo no longer be used by people known for foul moral stances (loud and ugly were the answering protestations of "muh free speech!") was me throwing together the Honourable OSR community on G+. It was a slap-dash and impulsive project, but with the bulk of the loudest voices in the (now defunct) existing G+ OSR community taking positions somewhere between "no politics" and "you ain't no boss of me," I wanted to make a firm statement that the OSR should actively disapprove of petty fascists, and promote those who felt likewise to act on that belief. It's still around and so far it's been a modest success.

Anyway, one of the first precepts of the Hon. OSR was that applicants for membership would be reviewed. And of course one of the first in line was Z.S., who tries to force an ear into any channel that might be talking about him. "I was expecting and dreading his application," I confided with the moderators. As said earlier, I didn't understand how truly vile Z.S. is, to me he was just a loud and needy personality who rubbed lots of folks the wrong way. It was doubtless that if he came in, lots of other members would immediately bale out ... yet he was a name, tempting to let in as a influencer. Ridiculously and shamefully, I almost convinced myself to let him in under the justification that it'd be a way to keep an eye on him. Fortunately, one of the first subjects raised by the members of this new community was how terrible it would be if Z.S. was part of it, so it was obvious he had to be rejected.

 And immediately after that rejection, this showed up:

Meet "Zarzonia."

Odds are that's not actually Z.S. in the picture, but that is definitely a very silly wig. And it's a damn weak attempt at a sock-puppet. "Zarzonia" was a brand new G+ account with no history, whose only activity was applying to the Hon. OSR. Even the name is a disdainful act of cartoonish deception, "hello I'm Za ... uh, I mean ... Za-rzonia, yeah Zarzonia." The mod who received this request didn't even need half-a-moment to reject it.

Ironically, this clumsy attempt at gate-crashing was the experience that really convinced me to start taking the accusations against Z.S. seriously. Seeing him be so openly petty made it a lot easier to pay attention to the testimonies of harassment and vendetta against him.

Regarding the re-asessment (and hopeful reformation) of the OSR in the wake of Mandy's statements, I'm hopeful but reserved. Mandy turning Z.S.'s own narratives against him has been particularly powerful. Further, demolishing Z.S.'s reputation removes a big justification for the complacency that has plagued the OSR community; "you could have done something about Zak, If you believed women" is going to be a cutting rebuke for a long time. But as mentioned above this is still a field that, when pushed not long ago, largely stuck with a deeply flawed idea of what "free speech" means.  it's encouraging that condemnation of Zak has been so swift and universal. There's practically been a stampede of people trying to distance themselves from the shitpile. But on the other hand, that's an easy path to choose when everyone around you is already on it. What matters is who and how many learn to to be more personally discerning, and to listen and believe much sooner when victims start speaking up.   

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Veterans of the Rusty Blade

Every now and then, I'm compelled to circle back to the early 2000's, to the vast open deposit of D20 material and start poking through it once more for salvage. "There's so much here," I think as I pry apart compacted layers of feats with a geology hammer, "so much meticulously crafted work, all free for the taking. There just has to be something I can make from it." 

As is usually the case, the affair begins with The Core Elements Toolbox, an obscure 2005 work by James D. Hargrove and Butch Curry that tried to distill the d20 SRD down into an intense liquor of fast easy role-playing. It doesn't quite work at that goal, for reasons I can't fully articulate, but that may be why I keep coming back to it, trying to figure where the fix needs to go. Which leads me to searching for material in the standard SRD's (core D20, D20 Modern, D20 Future and the "true romantic" SRD derived from original Blue Rose). And it's usually around True Romantic that the fatigue starts, since even that lightened version of the system is a lumbering mechanical behemoth compared to the systems I generally prefer, and I start to doubt if anything D20 can be redeemed.

So then I bounce out to Mocrolite20 to get some breathing room. Which is refreshing at first, but by laying bare the core bones of D20, Microlite rather starkly forces me to (again) realize the central problems with that whole school of design. Mechanical character optimization and min-maxing as a primary mode of play, lunk-headedly linear resolution and modelling, and constant roadblocks and speed-bumps to player initiative built in to the system by deliberate choice. Somehow, the whole manages to be both burdensome yet insubstantial, a expansive act of running in place to look busy.

Unsurprisingly, I always end my latest D20 tangent frustrated and jumping to some other project to clear my head of the affair. What I'm saying is, this is why I re-wrote Searchers of the Unknown over the weekend. So here's Rusty-Bladed Veterans.

Click the image to download the PDF

There's a lot to like about SotU, but I perceived issues with it. The language was overly casual, and thus at points unclear. And while the stated goal was B/X style play, it introduced several eccentric elements leading to a much more combat-focused experience. Because I'd just been trudging through D20, it was clear that the original writer of SotU had carried over a few D20 assumptions upon creating it. All of which were things I wanted to change. Additionally, I aimed to make the rules thoroughly compatible with B/X resources without conversion; I wanted to be able to send a party generated with the rules through B2 The Lost City using every line of the adventure's text as written. Also, I wanted to be able to run standard B/X classes alongside those characters, if it so happened old-hand players showed up for such a session.

On top of that, I threw in some elements from other SotU hacks I liked, the clever spell-casting system from Microlite20 and a means for characters to learn spells from scrolls (which weirdly I had assumed was already part of the original SotU; wonder where I picked that notion up).

I'm really pleased with how Rusty-Bladed Veterans came out. I dare even say I'd prefer using it over full B/X, since by putting all characters on the same starting foot it eliminates a lot of the disorienting disparities players have traditionally had to deal with (thief skills in particular come to mind, and demi-human abilities), doubly so for new players. Plus I prefer magical abilities earned as a consequence of play rather than as preordained advancements. I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out at the table.