Category Archives: Games

Synanthropes: Big changes, big changes.

I have made a huge, huge, mega-huge update to Synanthropes; I have stripped out and completely replaced the central dice mechanic. Once it was all about collecting a dice pool, now it’s about rolling 2d6 and adding bonuses; for every +1 die in the earlier system, it’s now simply a +1. Other than that, it’s operating on what might be recognized as the Apocalypse World standard, where results of 10 or more accomplish the task, 7-9 accomplishes partially or at some sort of cost, and 6 or less means that not only do you not get what you want, but something bad happens besides.

Admittedly, I’m a LOT less codified than the Apocalypse system, as I have no such things as Moves, but the core remains the same.

Okay, why would I do such a crazy thing? It was not an easy decision! And yet, I am confident that it was the right one.

Why? Well, let’s consider some things.

Probability curves:

I spent some long nights on AnyDice, rolling and rolling and looking at curves, and trying to come up with ways to ensure that success when you didn’t have any bonuses wasn’t nigh-impossible, while success when you stacked the deck in your favor wasn’t as sure thing, and eventually I came up with something that looked perfect:

On a d6, 4 or 5 counts as a success, 6 counts as 2 successes, and 1 is a botch which removes one success from your total. You need a total of 2 or more successes to fully resolve the task, but a single success will let you partially accomplish your task, or accomplish it at a cost.

Oh lord, I didn’t need to playtest that. Just look at it! For criminy’s sake, it’s ridiculous! It’s so far divorced from the world of numbers that I might as well ask folks to buy a damn spinner or other truly esoteric randomizer.

(Note to self: what sort of interesting things can I do with a spinner? Makes it really easy to create an “I succeed IF I’m using an Artifact” or “I succeed IF being helped” option. Interesting and useful… the more bonuses you have, the more slices which count as successes. Interesting… but not for right now. Save that for next Game Chef maybe.)

Anyway, a standard 2d6 makes a familiar probability curve. I lose that “no math needed” thing, which is unfortunate because I really like not having to rely on even basic calculation, but adding 2 dice and a few random +1s isn’t much of a hardship… you can do that on your fingers (and if you run out of fingers, it means you have succeeded, so, that’s a tangible bonus).


Finding Clues is a central part of Synanthropes. It’s something I really want to be unexpected… a random occurrence, indicative of an interesting thing stumbled across. First edition: Clues came when you rolled to find them, which I didn’t much care for. Second edition: if you rolled extra successes, you turned them into clues, which was a little better, but still frustrated and didn’t work so well. Third edition: Any doubles turned into Clues, which was better (in that it meant you could fail your way into finding Clues) but still troublesome (in that the odds of finding Clues were still tied, very closely, into how many dice you were rolling and therefore your likelihood to succeed; I instituted a “one Clue per floor” policy to help mitigate that, but it honestly felt like a little more trouble than it was worth).

Now, it’s still doubles… but it’s doubles on 2d6. Odds of that? 1 in 6. Period. If there are six rolls on a given floor, one of them is guaranteed to dredge up a Clue. (Note: Edward does not understand statistics). Clues are equally likely when you’re flinging around wildly, as when you’re rocking a basically sure thing.

It also means I get a little more freedom to play around with species-specific bonuses and Hoard points… Roaches can roll an extra die, for instance, and count only the two highest, when going into situations when they might get hurt. Raccoons working with technology don’t change the dice they roll, but the “partial success” range is dramatically increased. This gives the different species unique mechanical attributes, which is something I always wanted (but since they’re Hoard-point activated, they’re still minor enough to keep things reasonably balanced.

Initial tests look promising.  Which is important, because the Wheels of Publication are starting to turn.

(They’re self-publishing wheels, to be sure. but they ARE turning all the same.)


The 5 best video games of 2013

The following is a list of video games; indeed, one could make the argument that they are the Five Best Games of 2013.

In fact, I will be making this argument. This is my year-end games list! Now, a note beforehand… my game budget is not large, which means that the games I buy I choose carefully, and most brand-new AAA titles are outside of my grasp. That is to say that the set of games I’ve played that actually came out in 2013 is small, and doesn’t include, say, GTA V or certain other industry notables. Whether that means they would make it onto my top 5 is something we can never know.

Shall we begin?

5: Antichamber


3: Gunpoint

2: The Stanley Parable

1: Gone Home.

Very good. The decision has been made, and there can be no debate, these are the games of the year.

What’s that? You want more elaboration? Ugh. FINE. Continue reading

The Quiet Century

Hey you lot; it’s been an EXCITING week. Just found employment at the local community college, teaching English composition, rocking out. Escaping from the Halls of Retail. It’s a sweet gig, so I spent yesterday celebrating, but that’s no excuse to not come out with a Game Mechanic of the Week, now is it?

Today, it’s from a little game called The Quiet Year by Joe Mcdaldno. I know, I know, I did one about the Quiet Year before, in which I lauded the game’s economy of contempt tokens and the way it reflected the difficulty for a community to come to a collective decision. Now I’m going to talk about a different clever mechanic, but I’m really only using it as a springboard into a hack I’d like to try out.

Quiet year. Chapter 3, the mechanic holding my interest today:

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Year is the week.

Every turn one player draws a card, and it reflects the events of that week. Then they decide what else happens that week, whether it’s discovery, discussion, or the beginning of a project. Point it, it’s a game about the passage of time as reflected through weeks.

Pacing is a difficult thing indeed; it’s something I have been struggling with while working on Synanthropes, but it’s something that the Quiet Year does a fine job with, because it’s able to make that pacing absolute. Every turn, one card, one week. There’s only so much you are able to do in a turn, there’s only so long it can last, and the arrival of the Frost Shepherds is on the horizon, and time is moving implacably forward. Sometimes it seems too long, sometimes it seems too short, but it never actually changes pace. It’s really effective, and works, well, just like actual time in that fashion, ticking along at one second per second but never quite seeming like it is.

But tell me then, because I like to think about these things… imagine if we changed nothing else about the Quiet Year, but altered that basic unit of play.

The basic unit of play in The Quiet Century is the year.

(Well, the Quiet Half-Century, but who’s counting cards, right?)

A minor change, which makes the game last fifty times longer in terms of narrative, while covering the same time in the real world. Suddenly, change happens quickly, society rises and falls in a blink, and people can be children at the beginning of the game and dead at the end without it being a tragedy. True, the Quiet Year doesn’t really do characters, per se, but it is common to have a list of figures who become relevant and recurring, names that keep popping up, often attached to specific modes of thought. It’s useful to keep track of, for instance, that charismatic young girl who causes so much fuss, because she may be related to other causes of fuss later on.

The Quiet Century? Well, the next time you see her, she might be thirty years older. Or the matriarch of an entire clan or rebel group. That’s interesting. That’s one way in which we fit in a LOT of change in the same two- to three-minute turns (because remember, we’re changing nothing else. Yeah, that means seasons last thirteen years wherever we are. I don’t know, it works for Game of Thrones, so deal. Or just call them metaphorical seasons, that works too).

Of course, filling in the blanks is what The Quiet Year is about, metaphorically AND literally, but these year-long gaps will mean the blanks are MUCH larger, so filling them in becomes really, really important. Every event has to be notable… it’s not just some guy who goes missing, it’s that fellow who everybody knows for some reason, maybe he’s the richest man in town, or the mayor. He’s all everyone seems to talk about that year. Every discovery must be huge, because that was the only thing worth discovering for an entire year! Every discussion is going to be of massive import, because it signifies a year in which nothing happened except argument (imagine the horror of spending all year to talk about what to do about those folks in the next town over, only to realize that we were all in agreement the entire time!). And every project, well, instead of being something that takes weeks to occur, it’s something that takes years. Every project is, thus, an Undertaking. We’re not talking about repairing the old truck, we’re talking about erecting viaducts, constructing entire villages, inventing new technologies from scratch.

Scarcities too take on more power, because if we’ve been scarce on food for a few turns, we’ve been hungry for years! That’s not just a lack of food as a physical thing on our plates, it means there is a huge logistical problem in supplying our people with what they need. The longer it goes unaddressed, the more people are suffering, for YEARS.

At the same time, you lose a lot of the little interactions. It’s really easy for discoveries to get lost in the shuffle. The other community on the map? In a turn’s time they could be extinct, they could be indoctrinated, they could be the first leg of the empire. The world becomes divided into the extremely short-lived and the extremely long-lasting, because of the scale of the thing. And of course, though you might be suffering from scarcities, you would lose that sense of life on the edge… no matter how much things suck right now, we know society is stable enough to keep trucking for a few more years at least.

(That said, you can put in a lot of civil unrest, coups, instability on the personal level. We’ll just know that SOMETHING will continue, even if it is much changed over the course of a decade.)

If I were to play the Quiet Century, I’d probably be tempted to give folks an extra activity every turn… I know, I know, this is violating my “only change the basic unit of play” rule but… well. I’m spitballing. Roll with me. It would be “Check in on a situation.” Checking in is like discovering something new, except instead of putting an actual new thing on the map, you alter something that is already there to reflect the passage of time. It keeps the world from being too darn static, it happens after the card is drawn but before the action for that year.

The money question is this: Will this function as a game? Will it be FUN?

Answer: I don’t know. I’d like to try it. I don’t think it would take any real manipulation of the standard Quiet Year cards to be a viable game, either… a little creative interpretation as necessary, but even then, only a little, mostly come winter when events start feeling a bit immediate. Even then, only a bit.

I think if nothing else, it would be nice to give it a try.

(Those of you who follow me on the Twitter, @EddlyT, will likely know that hacking Quiet Year has been on my mind of late. Keep your eyes peeled for more on this topic in the near future.)

Synanthropes: How much difference can one word make?

So, here I am, working my way from Synanthropes v. 3.1 to 3.2. It’s a bit of a slog. But there’s one change, at least, I’m very excited about: DANGERS are gone. Stricken from the game. OBSTACLES are in.

Oh, there are other tweaks going on… Dice are different, in that you start with more of them but only succeed on sixes. In theory, this will increase the odds of doubles being rolled, and increase the imperative to seek out every opportunity to net an extra die possible, because seeking out every little advantage is very much in character for these little explorers. Will it work, or will it just make you feel too weak, too helpless against this big, scary world? We’ll see.

Clues are being tweaked as well, to keep the game pace rapid. I’m decreasing the number of clues required by two, and doing that by making the answer to one question a clue for the next. Other advantage: this means that the answers to questions will be by necessity spread out a bit… it’s a bit less freedom in the clues you get, but should make the overall flow of the game better. Will it work, or will it make the whole affair seem a bit too stagnant? Time will tell.

There are a few more nips and tucks in the works, but honestly, I think the most important change I’m making from one version to the next is replacing that one word, turning Dangers into Obstacles.

Because I believe in the power of words. A game lives and dies on its terminology. The difference between a successful run of any given game and an unsuccessful one (or even a great run and a merely good run) is in the attitudes that the players bring to the table, and those attitudes are shaped by a million different units of context, making them brave or timid or prone to explore or vindictive or argumentative or straightforward or whatever. The only means I have at my disposal of manipulating the attitudes of players (especially when I’m not at the table, facilitating) is through the appropriate use of words, to tick the right little boxes in that contextual supercomputer that is the brain which activates the subroutines for, in the case of Synanthropes, “I want to explore!” “I want all the stuff!” “I want to argue!” and so on.

For instance, “Artifacts” is a good word for making folks want something. It sounds important! That’s why each floor contains a Human Artifact. If it were called “Human Trash” or “Human Detritus,” then why would anyone care? It’s valuable, because I SAY it’s valuable, but if you keep referring to a thing as trash, over and over, then you begin to think of it as trash, or at least, begin to underestimate its value because it’s being associated with trash. But Artifact? Well, that’s a dead sexy word. Sounds like it belongs in a museum. There’s a hint of magic to it. It conveys in inherent mystery. Human Artifact.

So why are Dangers now called Obstacles?

Simple. A Danger is something you avoid. It’s there to be evaded, worked around, worried about, and, if necessary, faced–but not faced willingly.

An Obstacle is something you OVERCOME. It’s there to be pushed through, to be dealt with, to be faced as a matter of course… you want what’s on the other side of the obstacle, because it’s important! If it weren’t important, why would there be an obstacle in front of it, eh? Eh?

As a player, dangers are scary, obstacles are inviting. As a Narrator, Dangers are vague… they could be put anywhere, be anything, wiggle around uncertainly. Obstacles are concrete: they are between the players and the door, or between the players and the Artifact, or both. Sure, a clever Narrator can and should play around with placement, but when in doubt, “this thing is in front of the door to the stairs” is a never-fail proposition.

Certainly, there are other implications, one of which being that everything on the list of obstacles must be something that stands between the players and the conclusion of their mission. I’ll drop a few of the more argument-based dangers, and add a few more creatures and constructs to stand in everyone’s way. That’s minor. That’s just… busywork, at this stage. The shift in tone and presentation is going to be more relevant, I think, to keeping the game moving the way I want it to.

Will it work? Well… I’ll find out Tuesday, I suppose.

GMotW: Gone Home. Look Closer.

Game Mechanic of the… week?

Man, did I really do this every week, back in the day? I really did. What happened?

Oh right, I missed a day, and then collapsed under the pressure of having to create a GMotW that was epic enough in scope to justify having missed a day. This is the same reason my brother’s birthday gift is about two months late at this point (but coming, Bert, I swear!).

But if I actually start posting on the regular again, some of the pressure will come off. And THAT, I can get behind. So speaking of taking the pressure off, let’s talk not about Synanthropes and those pressures, but about the best game I’ve played this year. It’s a video game, an it’s called Gone Home.

And if you haven’t played Gone Home, well… do? I guess, I mean, I could sit here recommending it all day but I’m not going to do that, I’ll just politely point out that it’s the only video game I’ve purchased on launch week in the last… five years, I think, and I have absolutely no regrets about it. Maybe you’ll disagree! I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to wait for the price to drop to $10 or so. But it’s not one to miss altogether.

ANYWAY. For those unaware, Gone Home puts you in the shoes of a young woman who has returned from a year abroad to the house her family moved into while she was away, finding it mysteriously vacated. No parents, no sister, just the detritus they have left behind and the stories you piece together from it.

(Fans of Synanthropes may surmise that “piecing together stories from trash” has a particular resonance for me).

In terms of mechanics, it plays things pretty simple: you can walk, you can crouch, you have an “interact” button which opens doors and picks things up, and that about covers everything except the metaludic stuff… maps and journals and inventory and game menu.

And you can look closer. Indeed, at the beginning of the game, a tooltip pops up to inform you:

“Hold right mouse or left shift to look closer.”

I love this. I love this for a lot of reasons.

Gone Home is, at its core, a game about looking. Obviously, the list of video games that aren’t, to some degree, about looking at things is small indeed, but most of the games that feature looking are really games about A) moving to the goal or B) killing the dudes in your way, where the ability to visually conceive of the world around you is simply a way to ensure that you are moving in the right direction and killing the right sorts of dudes. But Gone Home doesn’t have dudes to kill, and while it does have motion, that is the secondary concern; there is, yes, an end point, beyond which the house is deemed to be “Explored” and the game ends, but the player is not meant to jump straight to that point. The player is meant to LOOK.

This is a fact missed by many, like the folks on this page, who are proving that the game can be beaten in less than a minute. Spoilers, obviously, if you wander over there, but the bigger concern is folks missing the point. Yeah, you can get to the end point in a minute if you feel like it, but you know what that doesn’t afford time for? Looking closer.

It’s a theme that pops up over and over and over; you look closer, zooming in on the screen to see it more clearly. Pick up an object and you can look closer, seeing it from all angles. You are presented with a house that seems empty, but you can look closer, discovering all the secrets it contains. You think you know about your family, but you know what? You have to look closer. At some point we’ve left the realm of what you can do with the right mouse button, but the transition was so smooth you didn’t even notice.

What makes this so mechanically interesting for me isn’t just the zooming, which is useful, but the presentation of the mechanic: we’re not zooming in. You zoom in with your sniper scope or what the flip ever. You look closer when you’re on an exploration.

But most importantly this: the player is informed about how to use WASD and the mouse before the game actually begins. That’s all well and good and essential.

The first tool tip to actually pop up while you’re playing? Before checking your inventory, before crouching, before the map: how to look closer.

It’s almost like “Look Closer” is the fundamental action underlying the protagonist’s journey through the house both on a strictly literal and deeply metaphorical level, or something. Or something!


Oh man, PAX. Oh daaaaaaang you guuuuuuuuys, I did a lot of PAXing in the past few days. I ran through four quiet years, each less quiet than the last. I wandered around an expo hall, frightened by all the loud noises and blinking lights. I saw a really cool Tom Servo puppet, and other cosplay that didn’t include puppets so whatever. I met some interesting folks, I ate a delicious salad, I hung out with a friend, and I Networked like a business-minded mercenary.

(On the other hand, what with all the preparations and stuff, I completely fell off track with regard to editing the novel. That’s okay, I only have like twenty manuscript pages left on this particular draft, and I will get to them tomorrow. It’s my Big Plan for tomorrow.)

Perhaps most importantly, though I wasn’t able to run through the full version of Synanthropes (due, mostly, to folks being more interested in Quiet Year, and that being a game which is playable by only two), I did get four runs of Synanthropes Lite in, teaching me a few important lessons:

  1. Synanthropes Lite works! It is fun and interesting and folks had a good time. VICTORY.
  2. Synanthropes Lite drags, just a bit. Just a bit. Maybe instead of fifteen solid minutes of argument, I make it ten minutes, which means that the entire game (including the brief introductions and wrap-up questions) becomes a fifteen-minute affair. And of course, that time is as adjustable as you want to make it. Also, I should make a note that if the conversation about the Artifact ebbs on its own, that’s as good a call as any to fade to black a minute early, just to keep us from needing to harp when we’ve discussed something to death.
  3. A fifteen-minute con game is a great idea. Like, totally. There were several situations when my game ended with an hour or so before the next sets of games began, There were lots of people who thought an idea was good but didn’t want to spend two hours when there’s so much PAX to do. There were people who I wanted to do stuff with who had other commitments but a few hangout minutes to spare. There were people waiting for games to start, or waiting for another person to sign up for a game, with a little time to kill. There were people who had never played story games before, and would balk at a two hour commitment. ALL of these were events which occurred, and ALL of them were treated with a direct application of Synanthropes Lite, and (at least from my end) all of those games went really well and ended with happy people leaving the table having enjoyed themselves. And of course, happy people leaving the table having enjoyed themselves is basically what gaming is all about for me. (Maybe you disagree. Maybe you’re all about messages and learning and feeling and growing as a person and whatever. That’s fine too. That’s not how I tend to play, though).
  4. Synanthropes Lite works! Worth mentioning again, because it was a last-second sort of project but managed to hang together into something interesting, so… yes. Super happy.


I’m going to be at PAX this weekend!

On Saturday from 6-10, and Sunday from 10-2 and 6-10, I’ll be hanging out in with the tabletop Games on Demand folks, in room 305, where I’ll be running such classics as The Quiet Year, Fiasco, and (If I can drum up some interest), the most recent iteration of Synanthropes.

Oh heck yes. Drop by if you get a chance.

Additionally, I’ll be passing out business cards, both because I am a ruthless self-branding machine, and because my most recent clutch of business cards is, in fact, Synanthropes Lite. That’s right, the Synanthropes experience, condensed into a single card. Or, uh, six cards, if you’re going to get technical, and why not get technical, because there’s one for every species.

Anyway. I’ll be doing other things as well, to be sure, but those are the times when I can be tracked down for sure, if you want to, I don’t know, slay me, because there’s a 1% chance I’ll drop an enchanted bow or whatever.

Synanthropes cover design

I’m not much of a visual arts guy, but when the mood takes me I can make things I’m pretty happy about. Today I made a cover suitable for putting on the front of a nice printed booklet for Synanthropes, if I were in the habit of printing out nice booklets.

Synanthropes cover

(Am I in the habit of printing out nice booklets? Well… not as such, but I am going to PAX next weekend, and I will be running indie RPGs for two days, and, well, who knows?)


Synanthropes, v. III

Synanthropes Version 3.0!

Another ruleset, this time complete with the sixth and final synanthropic species: the Gecko. Based on the house gecko which infests urban areas throughout Asia, they’re built to be the “rogue” class, in that they’re a society built on asocial paranoia, because they’re tiny lizards. Hopefully, they’re fun. I’ve also tweaked the Clue rules, enabling characters to stumble upon Clues even when they fail at tasks, which makes a lot of sense. Also, as previously discussed, the Hoard dice have given way to Hoard points.

I suspect (though I won’t know this for sure until after the next few playtests) that I have the rules where I want them to be. That doesn’t mean that the process of testing is over and done… rather, it’s the big issues that are dealt with: the central mechanical interactions should be functional and entertaining, and the remaining changes are going to be relatively minor: tweaking the composition of the Danger Oracle, for instance, and the specific skills of the different Synanthropes (for purposes of balance) and the precise cutoff for delineating success and failure. These are important, but these are going to be alterations to what is present on the page already. Tweaks. Revisions, rather than full resets. To put it another way, the next time I throw up a copy of Synanthropes, it’s proooooobably going to be version 3.1, and the changelog won’t mention anything being added, just being altered.

That’s of course assuming that I don’t see something completely fall apart in the next couple of playtests, requiring me to go back to the drawing board on a major concept. That’s a pretty major assumption, but it’s one I’m happily making.

Anyway, here it is! ENJOY!


In which Ed talks about his projects, and considers, abstractly, whether he should update the “Projects” page of this website.

…he should not.

What’s up then? WELL.

This week, This is How You Die came out. Today, I was finally able to pick up a copy for myself, and check out Tony Cliff’s AMAZING illustration to my story. It is… it is a perfect thing. The sort of image that makes me want to either get a big signed print or upper arm tattoo of Grun, lookin’ as introspective as an orc physcially can look. So man, that’s a thing.

Also, other comics and illustrations and stories, so all that’s well and good. Have you picked it up yet? No? Not even an e-book edition? Okay, well, I ain’t gonna tell you to do so, but I am going to think it pretty hard.


The Guild of Steamfitters was, for a long time, lying totally fallow as I was uncertain how to deal with a specific bit of mechanics. Eventually I opted to just wait until inspiration struck, and when it did, I jumped back in. Only, it’s not the Guild of Steamfitters anymore… it’s something new.

The working title is the Style System, and the goal is to be… sigh… a universal system. I know, I’ve asked myself the obvious question a thousand times… in a world where GURPS and d20 and FATE and Risus all exist, what makes me think that there’s room for another unversal at all? Huh?

Well. Short answer: I think that mechanically it hits a lot of what FATE does well (high narrative, pulp-heroics, etc.) while being a little more crunchy and not dependent on Aspects. Your mileage may vary on that one, but some folks aren’t super into Aspects. I like them okay, but… well, I’m often happier without them.

Longer answer: I have an idea about what I want to do with settings. You see… A lot of what makes an individual setting interesting, to me, is its mechanical interaction with the narrative… that is to say, with that the rules allow and encourage you to do (and by that token, what they forbid and discourage you from doing). To put it another way, the difference between a good cowboy game and a great cowboy game is whether the horses are treated as extensions of the character which can be ignored or entire mechanical subsystems which must be navigated. Being complex makes horses important, you see… but when they aren’t important, they shouldn’t be complex. That’s why the core of the Style system is modular rules additions. Guild of Steamfitters needs “Crafting (Inventions and Wonders of Science)” and “Factions and Reputation”. Anywhere else, those can be fudged. The Kaerlud City Guard needs “Magic” or a form specific to that city, and “Investigation and Clues” which, again, can be fudged anywhere else. Oh, you can slip in extra modules as needed, but on the whole, two should cover the important bits.

Anyway, it’s the very beginning of a huge undertaking. And if it gets to be too huge… I pull back into what I know, run it as Steamfitters, and push the base system and modularity to another time.

Book Binding. It’s my novel. It’s… I need to go over it again. I do, I always do. But it’s done, and I have a query letter, and I’m working on a synopsis and my wife made a list of agents to consider and we’re dreadfully, scarily close to the “WE DOIN’ THIS” point. Oh yah. We doin’ this.

Synanthropes. I’ve made a few changes, some big (Geckos have become the final species available for play) some small (all Rats can play music now) and some widespread (Hoard dice have become Hoard POINTS, as discussed some time ago). I’ve learned a lot from a couple playtests, and am super eager to do some more, because I’m very close to the point where the game is, like, done enough that I’ll want to spread it around. To the point where I won’t change a lot anymore. Where the oracle will be altered considerably and the legends and mysteries will be perfected and the layout will see a lot of action but the GAME will be ready to go. I might be at that point, but I haven’t been able to test the last iteration due to illness. So hey… we’ll find out soon.

And that’s where we stand on ED’S PROJECTS.