Category Archives: Uncategorized

Hey there!

If you’re reading this, you probably found a truly ancient (5+ years old!) link or URL. In the fullness of time, I should probably re-frame this page entirely, so that it just redirects you where you’ll want to go.

But for now, I’m just going to drop a link to my more recent web site, at

In my younger days, I went through brand identities a lot, but I’m trying to get over this. should work for the foreseeable future.



We are moving hosts! If you could kindly re-direct your eyes and bookmarks here, you’ll see all the new stuff.

This site is in the process of transferring to a new host. It may take a little while; I am but one person and I know very little about in internal mechanisms of this whole Internet thing. If things are flaky, rest assured, they will unflake in time.

Synanthropes, simplification, and emotional beats.

Hey there folks; it seems like it’s been a dog’s age since I last mentioned Synanthropes. Let’s me fix that.


It’s been a while, but I finally started working on the game again; you’ll note that the versions in the sidebar have been UPDATED.

With Synanthropes Lite, I didn’t have too much to do; I changed some of the wording, I altered the Roach’s attitude toward the Artifact to encourage a bit more fussing, and I dropped the timer down to ten minutes, which is a bit more reasonable than fifteen for pure arguing. There’s a semblance of mechanics there as well; indeed, I’m pretty sure I’ve created the world’s simplest game engine: you can do anything that you say you can do, unless someone says you can’t do that, in which case… you can’t.

(I’m sure I’m not the originator of this game engine, which owes a lot to the third grade “Nuh uh, ’cause I have a laser shield” brand of narrative construction).

As far as Synanthropes proper, there have been a few more changes, one of which is a baby-killer: no more career dice.

I think one of the advantages of not looking at this game at all for almost two months is that it allowed be to clear away some of the assumptions that I had been making, and instead throw a fresh pair of eyes into the problems. Before, players had a Career; it gave them a bonus which they could use once per floor, allowing them to either re-roll a failed roll OR allow another player to re-roll a failed roll, if that roll had some sort of relationship to their career. It’s… it’s fine enough, I guess. It’s really useful, at times! It does some of what it needs to do: gives players a meaningful way to work together AND to have a sense of self-identity not tied solely into their species. Plus, it seemed like a great idea when I made it, which was at a time when characters were nothing more than their species.

Also, it was a fiddly thing to track. It wasn’t commonly used. It was often unhelpful. In playtests, I would make an effort to use it every floor, and other players would… not often remember it existed. Sometimes they would take advantage of it, usually because I prodded them. It may have been useful, but it wasn’t memorable and it wasn’t FUN, so it wasn’t used. I had to have a bit of a think about why that was, and that think happened subconsciously over the course of October, springing forth the instant I clapped eyes on it this week.

“If I am a soldier,” I thought to myself, “I can use this re-roll when I fail when I’m fighting. But, if I’m fighting, shouldn’t I… not fail? Shouldn’t being a ‘soldier’ be something that helps me do well, not something that fixes it when I don’t do well?”

Consider it an issue of emotional beats. If you haven’t read Ryan Macklin’s commentary on this, well, you should, but the hyper-brief summary is this: every action you take produces an emotion, and you should ensure that the emotions created by the mechanics are able to work with the emotions created by the fiction. Career dice were producing a toxic situation here.

In the fiction, I set up to do a difficult task, attempt it, and (hopefully) succeed because I had the skills and resources. Call that the narrative progression. Mechanically, I gather my pool (which re-enforces the idea of marshaling my resources, a positive or at least appropriate emotional beat). I roll the dice and count the successes (it’s an analysis moment, so it disrupts the emotion but only very briefly… call it almost neutral). I see I have sufficient successes, and accomplished the thing (hooray, I did well) or I do not, and I failed (oh no, what goes wrong?), either way my reaction as a player to the roll of the dice matches and re-enforces my reaction as a character to the situation.

But with career dice in play, there’s an extra step: I fail, and I have to ask myself if I can use my career here, if I have already used it, if the situation is important enough TO use it, so on and so forth. Emotionally, I am already disappointed by my failure, and the flow of the narrative is even more disrupted by another round of the “what resources do I have” game, with a resource that is more rare and finite than Artifacts, allies or even hoard points. Even if I do re-roll and succeed, I succeed having already been irked by my failure earlier; emotionally, it becomes a toxic moment, destroys the flow of the game, makes me dislike thinking about my career, and does not bring the fun.

Damn! No wonder everyone ignored their career dice! If anything, being a soldier and trying to do soldier-ish things is actively DETRIMENTAL to feeling like you’re good at stuff. Not only are your odds of success only slightly improved, but often those successes don’t FEEL good.

So what do I do? I get rid of it. Oh, there’s still a career die, but now it gets put in your pool like everything else; simplicity, consistancy, and now the awareness that “hey, this is the sort of action I’m trained for” is a part of that marshaling of resources which is where I want it to be!

As for giving someone else a boost with your career, that’s been folded into Hoard points. Again, one less thing to track (now, the only mechanically-limited resources you have are your hoard points, which you can track easily). You can’t re-roll for yourself (which means that for the actual roller of the dice, there isn’t an additional hiccup), but you CAN offer your career-based boost to other players; this is a different emotional response. For one thing, it means that, in a situation in which you are otherwise outside of the roll, you can still be invested in it and participatory in it. For another, the emotional journey of “Oh no, I failed! Wait, Seneca is here to help me? Huzzah!” MAKES SENSE; it’s a case in which the mechanics track with the fiction, instead of fighting against them, while simultaneously re-enforcing the theme of working together (or attempting to work together) which flows through the piece. At the same time, if it’s tied to Hoard points, it still remains a relatively valuable commodity (which means I might need to consider awarding Hoard points more often, in light of their increased value and necessity).

The question is whether this will make careers more useful; my gut says that it will mean players can have a greater investment in their careers, which will translate into an increased tendency to show them off. Whether that is true or not, time will tell.

Game Chef: Synanthropes.

Right here: Synanthropes

(Edited to add: Some longer discussion is available here, and the second, slightly improved version is here,)


Anyone planning on attending 2013’s Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Associations conference? Just me, then?

Well if you DO attend, be sure to look for me, because I’ll be presenting “‘War…War Can Change’: The Developing Role of Idealism in the Fallout Series” at some point. Exciting!

Spring cleaning.

It’s not spring at all, is it?

Feh, regardless, we’ve done a little touching up here and there. It might not be visible. On the whole, we’d like to spend a bit more time blogging than we have been… other things have proven a distraction (including, most distractingly, a novel that we’re working on). Perhaps a light dusting will encourage us to swing by more often, and maybe talk about why we enjoy Dominion.

Well. [Shifty glances]. I guess nothing’s stopping us from doing that right now, eh?

Dominion is a deck-building game. It’s THE deck-building game. If you haven’t played it, then you should. It’s excellent. The basic deal is that you start with a deck of seven coins and three victory points, and a table covered in additional coins, victory points, and action cards which let you (among other things) acquire new action cards, coins, and victory points. The conceit is that you are a lord expanding your territory; you spend gold, silver, and copper to but provinces, duchies, and estates (the VP cards) as well as useful allies and additions to your territory (a village, which lets you play more cards in a turn, or a woodcutter, which brings you some money and buying power). In a turn, you can generally take one action, buy one card (which involves playing money in your hand, not losing it… think of it as investing in a new card for increased returns), and then drop your hand on the discard pile and draw a new one. Over a game, a hand of ten cards shoots up to fifty or more surprisingly quickly, and as it does, it does something really great thematically, and really fun mechanically.

Thematically, it makes you feel like a lordling over a growing spread of land. That is to say, you are less and less able to accomplish what you want, because you are concerned with the petty affairs of state; when you draw a hand with a province card in it, you can’t play it, or benefit from it at this point. It’s worth VPs in the end, but at the moment, it’s clutter. Owning vast swathes of property takes your time and attention, and some days the issues of your estates prevent you from being able to go out and invest in more estates!  Dominion isn’t an RPG, but it can have a coherent fiction to it (and is more fun if you treat is as a pseudo RPG, if only because you can shout “Ah, but you didn’t count on my SPY!” every couple turns), and the clutter of victory points helps maintain that fiction. Successful lords are a distracted bunch, don’t you know?

Mechanically, it’s all about a concept which I’m going to call “Benevolent Dross.” When you get a victory point card, you are beating a path towards winning, yes, but you’re also weakening your entire deck, by cluttering it up with something useless. Or, at the very least, conditionally valuable. Money in Monopoly is always good to have, but trading it for resources is never a bad idea because you need houses, which are always good to have. There’s nothing conditional there. Every resource in Settlers of Catan is necessary, more-or-less equally useful, and good to have on hand; likewise VP-generating structures. Oh, victory points from development cards have no use, but they aren’t dross–they don’t clutter your hand or weaken your position, they are only ever beneficial, even if that benefit only comes when it’s time to win. But not so in Dominion… these things hurt you, or at best weaken you, until such a point as they become essential. I like this. I like the balance it adds to play: the better you are doing, the weaker the hands you are likely to get (to a certain point, of course, as a clever player is probably also stocking up on gold and fancy actions to offset the VP problem). The decision to pursue victory must be a Decision, not a mere background noise of the game… I don’t buy an estate because I had some spare coppers, I buy it because, dammit, the trade-off is worth it right now. Neat!

Of course, deck-building games are the New Hotness right now, so I’m not the only one who’s excited about this, but I’d be interested to see its use outside of that particular genre… a Catan where cities reduced how much resources a tile produced, weakening your position while shuttling you to victory, for instance.

Evidently, Epi…

Evidently, Epistolary has made it to the finals of this year’s Game Chef. Which is nuts. 

The awesome kind of nuts, to be sure. We’d have more to say about it, but we’d need to pick our jaws off the floor to do so.

Review: Spirit Quest

Spirit Quest by David Miessler-Kubanek
A RGP of adversity and enlightenment among spirits over the fate of your tribe.

By chance, I’m reviewing another game by the same author as Coyote Pass, using the same ingredients. It’s an exercise in seeing one group of ideas spread in completely different directions (of course, that makes it a microcosm of Game Chef on the whole, I suppose).

“You may spend as many Courage tokens on dice or to make rerolls as you wish.” That’s the line that sold me on the mechanics, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the most important sentence in the entire document. It encompasses the simplicity of the rules, the efficiency of the narrative system, the power of the Totem and the risk which they have to undergo in order to wield that power, the threat of the Coyote, and the very, very frightening tightness of the economy, for which success now can so easily translate into the death of the tribe down the road. It’s a good line. It’s a game in and of itself.

Okay, I’ll complain a little… calling the tokens “Courage” feels like an arbitrary way to make them fit the ingredients. Though Totems are, by nature, being courageous by making this journey, I don’t feel it defines them the way it does, say, the coyotes of Coyote Pass. Something like Faith or Followers might make more sense here… but such is the nature of writing to fulfill ingredient lists.

I like being a spirit representing an entire tribe, but I’m uncertain the world these totems exist in. Are we entirely spiritual entities, existing in a metaphysical world, or are we, in some way, bound to the real land… which is to say, could we follow the totem’s progress on a map? I like to think of it as being a bit American Gods, in that the Totems are as much people as they are spirit animals, walking both worlds at once… and I suppose I’m free to think of it that way, but I’m curious how you intended it.

Beyond that I don’t have much to say… it seems like this could be an extremely entertaining narrative experience, and of the games I’ve read, it feels the most complete. Oh, some polishing, some examples of play, and a fair amount of testing could all be used I’m sure, but the crux is very strong and, at the end of the day, that’s what makes a game shine.

Review: Coyote Pass

Coyote Pass by David Miessler-Kubanek
A RPG about smugglers searching for identity and life beyond the Edge.

Interesting. Veeeery interesting.

I’m digging a lot about the setting here; offhand, it’s reminding me of Dogs in the Vinyard; the story of folks on their own in a harsh environment, where the mundane and the mystical are somehow merging together. I like it. Indeed, I really think, if you’re going to be pursuing this idea at length, that that’s where you should head first… into the setting, making in shine. I say this because it took me several readings to really understand what’s going on… there are so many mythological elements at play here; even if we’re going with the mundane setting, the natures of the Coyotes, their Debts and their Innocents are heavily mythologized and heavily stylized. I think that’s great, but it’s also something I really, really need to see in action in order to get at the sort of gut level which would make this game shine.

I’m down with the traits and debts and duties, but I’d also like to see how they operate in game. The impression I get is that, by and large, what is or is not possible for a character is determined as narratively as possible, with consideration given to the coyote’s duties and debts (and traits as well? I’m not sure whether those are meant to apply or if they are mechanically decorative). It’s vaguer than I like… here’s another place where showing me some examples could clarify what you mean. Are traits like FATE’s aspects, able to be tagged at will? Are they gussied-up hit points?

And unfortunately, when we get into the mechanics of conflict resolution, I only grow more confused. I’m going to put this plainly: I do not understand, after reading several times, how conflict resolution works. Rolling 2d6 doesn’t seem to relate to the chart, presented, and deciding success v. failure as evens v. odds is undermined by the ability to spend courage to increase or decrease a die roll by one, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to account for varied skills, aiding one another, having the higher ground morally or physically, etc. If success really is meant to be truly random, that’s fine (though a choice I disagree with), but regardless it’s unclear.

You know, I think the comparison to DitV is apt enough that, if I wanted to run this tomorrow, I would do so as a hack of that game. Traits would work normally, but for their being written on index cards and traded around… debts would operate like relationships, stats would be ignored or, perhaps, one’s duty would operate in place of stats. I think that the ideologies of the games are close enough that it could create an interesting situation, and it’s worth perusing for some inspiration. Because while I love the setting you’re throwing us in to, something must be done to make it playable. And indeed, I hope something is, because I could see myself having a fantastic time battling through Coyote Pass.