Dec 012014
 

The difference between good game and good product is something we’ve been focusing on at Evil Hat over the past couple years. This is a tricky space, and some folks make the (faulty) assumption that they’re one and the same. A game can be excellent in its design but still fall down as a product, a thing to be sold, bought, and consumed.

Putting a finger on what fills the gap between game and product is tricky stuff, so I asked the folks of the Head (those who help me run the Hat) to quantify it as much as they could. That’s what follows, below. The lion’s share of this comes from Chris Hanrahan, no shock.

The product should solve a problem for the market without creating new ones.

The product should be at a good (competitive vs. its peers) price while still paying people decent wages to produce them.

The product should have good shelf appeal (clear identity, attention-grabbing, aesthetically pleasing) from all sides and all angles (top-down, edge-on, full-front, backside, etc) as much as possible.

The product should explain itself, and it should help you explain it to others. (Imagine the product as a person, meeting the reader for the first time, and it’s love at first sight. How would our product-person explain itself to that reader?)

Good UI throughout the experience (presentation/layout/reading-experience of rules set, board, cards, etc)

Attractive hand-feel (size, weight, finish) where appropriate.

There may well be more to it, but that’s the list we’re “starting” with. What’s on your list?

cross-posted with Google Plus! https://plus.google.com/+FredHicks/posts/RyW5kU5kzzU

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Nov 052014
 

The gaps are where we’ll talk! Or I’ll catch as catch can. Or eat empanadas. Or, I dunno, get some much-needed rest. Forget about it, Jake — it’s Metatopia!

(If you’re attending and want a chunk of my time, let me know!)

Every Day

Rob is a strong believer in breakfast each morning as a time for hanging out with folks and having all the needed conversations. I am a strong believer in following his lead. You should be too!

Thursday

Rob and I probably arrive midday/mid-afternoon, and hang out and talk extensively with whoever’s available for it. The whole con is, on purpose, open/schedule free this day, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Great time to network, meet folks, talk about the weekend ahead, maybe play some pick-up stuff.

Friday

  • 9AM-11AM: R093 – [BETA TEST] “Terra Incognita” presented by Vivian Abraham. (Going into this knowing nothing, which is a great way to start Metatopia.)
  • 11AM-1PM: Open! I eat!
  • 1PM-2PM: *D015 – “Self-Publishing 101″ presented by Joseph Bloch & Fred Hicks.
  • 3PM-4PM: *D019 – “Planning Your Crowdfunding Campaign” presented by Joseph Bloch, Fred Hicks, Kevin W. Kulp & Joshua A. C. Newman.
  • 4PM-6PM: Open! I eat!
  • 6PM-8PM: R190 – [BETA TEST] “HYPERREALITY” by Brooklyn Indie Games; presented by Tim Rodriguez. (Last time I played this completely mental/gonzo near-future reality TV game, I had a blast. Rock the Boat! *guitar riff*)
  • 8PM-10PM: R225 – [BETA TEST] “Noir World” by The Writer Next Door; presented by John Adamus. (Salivating. Mainly for John’s delicious brainmeats, but sure, the game too.)
  • 10PM-midnight: R247 – R247: [BETA TEST] “Fate Divergent” by Magpie Games; presented by Mark Diaz Truman. (Super interested to see this Fate hack in action!)

Saturday

  • 9AM-10AM: [FOCUS GROUP] “Medias Res” presented by Vivian Abraham. (Storytelling card game. Yes please!)
  • 10AM-11AM: “Worldbuilding Mechanics” presented by Cam Banks, Fred Hicks & Jason Pitre.
  • 11AM-1PM: [BETA TEST] “Dreamfall” by Sweet Potato Press; presented by Laura Simpson. (Apocalypse Engine dreamworld stuff. Sounds great! And thrilled to see another female designer on my beta testing docket for Metatopia.)
  • 1PM-3PM: Open! I eat!
  • 3PM-4PM: “Executing a Smart Crowdfunding Campaign” presented by Fred Hicks, Joshua A. C. Newman & Hannah Shaffer.
  • 4PM-6PM: Open! I probably don’t eat until after…
  • 6PM-7PM: “Coming Up in the Indies: From Newcomer to Company Owner” presented by Fred Hicks, Shoshana Kessock & Tim Rodriguez.
  • 7PM-9PM: Open! Probably when I eat!
  • 9PM-10PM: [FOCUS GROUP] “Fate of the Galaxy” by Genesis of Legend Publishing; presented by Jason Pitre & Mark Richardson. (Hell yes.)
  • 10PM onward: Maybe I discover I’m old and need sleep! Or I stay up for whole minutes! Open-ish.

Sunday

  • 10AM-noon: [BETA TEST] “Forthright” by Room 209 Gaming; presented by Ray Watters & Bryan Shipp. (I know very little about this!)
  • noon-2PM: [ALPHA TEST] “Interstellar Interventions” by Wrecking Ball Game Labs; presented by Henry Ulrich. (An ALPHA TEST. Awesome. Maybe it will be gloriously broken. Maybe not! A great way to end Metatopia.)
  • 2PM onward: Rob and I have small kids and I may be at Metatopia long enough by this point that I’ll want to see them again. ;) So we’ll probably depart not too long after 2PM, if I don’t miss my guess. Gotta get home in time for bedtime. If we’re slow out the door, I’ll try to give y’all a wave!
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Oct 292014
 

Idea Explorer

I am interested in publishing an rpg setting, but I am having trouble finding information on how much it will cost, and how it is done. I would be extremely grateful if you could give me some information on publishing, and point me in the right direction for when our setting is finally ready.

Whoof! Okay, the “how it is done” part is kind of involved, as that’s sort of the everything of publishing. But, let’s talk costs, and I’ll try to touch on the hows along the way.

I’m also going to split each of these into “Deep End” and “Shallow End” thoughts.

  • The Deep End is going to talk about publishing at the scale I currently operate at, with Evil Hat.
  • The Shallow End is going to talk about how to do things as a newcomer without a lot of cash to risk.

Writing

Know your wordcount budget! Something like Fate Core runs around 80k-90k words. Something like Fate Accelerated runs around 10k-15k words.

Deep End: Professional rates for writing (including system design, tho some gearheads may want to price this differently) right now starts at 5 cents/word. Certain folks will cost you more, especially if they’re a “name” of some sort or another.

Shallow End: Some folks will work for less. Sometimes you’re doing the work yourself, and you’re willing to do work for yourself for no money. Beware the quality reduction traps that can lay in wait for you when you cut corners on paying your writers. That’s not to say you can’t find some folks of quality who are willing to work for less than the pro rate (above), but in general you should figure out how high you can make the rate, and make that the rate you pay, until you can start paying more.

Prior to the influx of cash that the Dresden Files RPG got us, when we weren’t writing words for ourselves for free, we paid around 3 cents/word. After we got that big increase in our company’s revenue, we went to the Deep End.

Editing

Deep End: Right now Evil Hat pays about 2 cents/word for editing.

Shallow End: Before Dresden (BD from here on forward) we paid 1 cent/word. Some folks can get away with paying even less. I don’t recommend underpaying for editing, because it’s completely crucial for a good product and you’ll get what you pay for.

Art

Deep End: We pay what has emerged as roughly the industry standard on art.

  • Color: $200 per full page; $100 per half; $50 per quarter; $25 for a spot illustration.
  • Black & White: $100 per full page; $50 per half; $25 per quarter; $20 for a spot.
  • Cover Art: Depends on the complexity, the artist, and the size of the piece (front cover only? wrap-around?), among other factors. Could run you anywhere from $500 to a few thousand bucks depending on who you get.

It’s worth noting that some of the smaller-size rates may be a little low; some artists want to see the rate on smaller pieces go higher because a reduction in size is not necessarily a reduction in complexity, and it’s complexity that’s the real driver of the amount of effort. So keep that in mind, and use the above numbers only to figure out what you should offer an artist for the set of pieces you want them to do, and be ready to boost that by as much as 25% if you’re primarily sticking with smaller pieces. Also, be very clear in your communications about what the actual physical dimensions are that constitute a half page or quarter page piece, and in general, size those proportionate to the size of page you intend to print on.

Shallow End: You may be able to find some stock art and public domain/royalty free sources that can fill your needs. You may find artists willing to work for less (but beware quality). You can also reduce your ambitions as to the amount of art used in your game. You can get away with fewer pieces than you think!

Layout

Pricing this out can be a bit of a dark art.

Deep End: I tend to see flat rate payouts in the $1500-2500 range depending on the size of the book, the complexity of the layout required, and the use of color or black and white, etc. Particularly small projects may be able to go as low as $500. You may also encounter hourly rates, maybe $25/hour, maybe higher; I’m not as able to comment on hourly rates as I almost never operate with them.

Shallow End: You can try to learn this yourself. There’s a lot of ways to go wrong with this! But learning the ropes on a product that’s not particularly important to you can end up building skills that end up serving you well in your efforts to become a publisher. If you do consider doing layout yourself, please take the time to read and absorb the lessons in Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book as it’s probably the single best resource out there for a layperson to learn layout principles that can be applied to nearly any situation where you’re formatting text (emails, Word, etc).

Printing

Deep End: I can’t quote you specific prices, but at the Deep End, you’re requesting quotes from book printers to price out offset printing jobs for you. Ask for a range of quantities so you can see where the economies of scale kick in. In my experience the economies of scale don’t really start kicking in until the 2000-3000 quantity range, but really it’s something of a curve that plays out throughout.

I prefer to print domestically in the USA and I tend to give repeat business to folks who respond quickly via email and who give consistently strong customer service throughout the process. So my list of who I work with here is pretty short, because I find a good outfit and I tend to stick with them. You might be more inclined to shop around, and that’s fine.

  • Recommended for softcover, black and white interior printing: Bang.
  • Recommended for hardcover and/or color interior printing: Taylor Specialty Books.

If you end up using either of those guys, tell them Fred Hicks from Evil Hat sent you. They like to know when I’ve sent someone their way.

Shallow End: Consider pubishing digital-only on DriveThruRPG.com to start. DriveThru also has a solid print on demand program, too, which would let you print small quantities and on-demand-when-a-customer-orders-a-copy pretty affordably. In the RPG space I absolutely recommend you focus on them; DriveThru easily owns 70% or more of the eyeballs in the RPG PDF market, and their print on demand program gives you access to that same market with your print goods. It’s a lot more targeted than other POD options like Lulu or CreateSpace, tho those might work for you too.

With all POD, in general, I tend to recommend avoiding color interiors; if you do go for color, please consider paying for the “premium” version instead of the “standard” version, as the standard version, to me, usually looks a little muddy and kind of inkjet quality. And color printing is just plain lots more expensive in POD than black and white books are.

Shipping

Deep End: It’s gonna suck. If you are not already schooled in and capable of running a top quality shipping and fulfillment operation, shipping out daily and promptly, find someone else to do this for you, and find out how much they charge you per package and per item, and tack that on to what you charge your customers for shipping. That’s the “handling” part of shipping & handling right there. See Distribution, below, for more; Indie Press Revolution may be a good fit for you as a fulfiller interested in working with small press RPG publishers.

Shallow End: If you followed my Shallow End advice for printing, above, this isn’t really going to be a concern for you. If you’re all digital to start, there’s no cost to ship. If you’re using print on demand that’s consumer-accessible, then they’re paying the shipping cost themselves at the time they place the order.

Distribution

Distribution! It’s how you get your games out onto game retailer shelves everywhere, or at least somewhere, without a lot of very hard work hand-selling and trying to find the small percentage of retailers who are willing to buy product direct from a publisher.

Deep End: Diversify. Exclusives only really serve the distributor you get into an exclusive with; sure, you might get a few extra percentage points, but the loss of market access gotten from using other distributors too is probably not equaled by that. So diversify.

Distributors Evil Hat currently works with include but aren’t limited to:

  • USA: ACD; Indie press Revolution (IPR); Alliance; Peachstate Hobby Distribution (PHD); GTS Distribution; Golden Distribution.
  • International: Esdevium; Lion Rampant; Ulisses Spiele; Pegasus Spiele; Bergsala Enigma.

If you’re getting into bed with distribution, you need to manage your costs pretty tightly. Distribution is going to buy stuff from you at 60% off of your cover price, typically: meaning that your $20 book will get you only $8, gross, for the distribution sale.

(The reason the discounts here are so steep is because a very big discount, close to or at 50%, is given to retailers; because when a retailer buys your book, they aren’t buying a sold book, they’re buying a book they’re hoping will sell. You give a big fat discount to retailers because they’re taking a gamble and assuming a ton of risk on a book that may tie up capital and never turn into that cash coming back to them. But you want retailers in your world, man. They’re the best kind of advertising & marketing for your stuff, at the end of the day, when things go right.)

Shallow End: If you’ve got physical goods, and you want a partner who can do direct sale orders and fulfillment for you as well as sell to a retail market that’s friendly to small press publishers, you really should look at Indie Press Revolution as your first step. They were created specifically for your kind of situation; warehousing with them is super cheap (possibly free last I checked), and on consignment, and Jason Walters (who runs it day to day) is a pleasure to work with.

Once you’ve found your feet, you can start diversifying your way towards a full Big End implementation of product distribution. But IPR? They’re where I’d recommend starting.

Keep in mind, my biases lean heavily against directly doing sales and fulfillment yourself. If you, in an honest and sober self-assessment, think you can do a great job and do right by your customers consistently, then, sure, think about doing your sales & fulfillment for customers & retailers yourself. For me, at every step of the way, that’s always felt like too much work, and has very clearly been the thing I should not be doing vs. all the other jobs that a publisher has to do.

If you don’t have physical goods or are in a strictly print on demand footing for physical goods, distribution isn’t really in the picture. Print on demand often won’t produce a low enough unit cost to make selling your product into retail make any sense.

Pricing Your Book

Deep End: Remember that distribution scenario: bank on getting 40% of your cover price on a sale. What should a sale do for you, exactly? In my opinion, it should pay for at least the unit sold plus one unit more. So if you have a $20 book, that sells into distribution at $8, that $8 should be enough to cover the unit cost of 2 of your books. So flip that around: if your printing cost is $4 per unit, you can price your book with a cover price of $20. 5x unit cost is your multiplier — and if you can make it higher than 5x, you’re in good shape. If you can’t produce a competitive cover price with your printing (see Printing above) method’s unit cost times five, you’re probably not using a printing method that’s friendly for getting into distribution in the first place. Over to the shallow end with you, for now.

Shallow End: Make sure you at least make a few bucks of profit. Ideally, make sure you make at least as much profit as an individual unit costs you to produce. But really, think about the distribution math from the Deep End, above.

Advertising & Marketing

Don’t look at me, man. It’s also a dark art. I have people for that sort of thing!

… Okay, that’s only mostly true. Advertising is kind of dying/changing/dying again/changing again right now. The Internet has exploded everything that everyone used to know about how it’s done. Yields are low and problematic. No matter which End of the pool you’re at, I just don’t recommend putting much money into advertising unless the yield is very likely to be pretty high. (And it almost never is.)

So instead you should focus on building audience. That only happens healthily, in my opinion, through an investment of a lot of years of work, being as transparent as you can be so folks never have to guess at what’s going on, interacting with fans, getting out to conventions and running games, providing good customer service, and so forth. There is no overnight solution; it’s all by increments, each fan hard-won.

This ties over into some of my thoughts about crowdfunding, at the end of the day. Folks ask me how we’ve found the scale of success we have when we use things like Kickstarter. They ask me what the secret is. My answer is: first, take ten years building an audience.

It’s all about the audience.

A Final Note On Paying People

Pay them. Pay them promptly. Establish a contract with them at the start of work that makes it clear what they’re supposed to make for you and how much you’ll pay them and when. Stick to it. And in general please avoid “pay on publication” contracts. Pay folks when they complete the work for you, not when you finally get off your ass and get around to publishing what they made for you. Their work is done, already.


Photo credit: Stephen Poff via photopin cc

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Jul 222014
 

I ran this nearly two weeks ago, so it’s gonna be a bit fuzzy and rushed here, folks. Apologies. Kids health and workload just haven’t permitted the time for it.

It’s the fourth session of my ongoing Monster of the Week game! You can find the last session’s notes here.

We started our second mystery this session (our sessions run 2-3 hours and my mysteries can be complex in the unraveling), which meant the group took a short bit of downtime, healed their wounds, and researched Devonsville, Ohio, a modest sized city with a big artists’ community. MI-13 had indicated that Stuart should go to coordinates found somewhere in the city and try to hail a cab.

Beatrice researched this and found that … well, there’s no evidence of there being any cab companies in Devonsville whatsoever. (She also sent some mail: one to Bruce, pretending to be Leon, to try to clear up for him what had gone on in the last session; the other to the Order, arranging a contact.) Her research also indicated that the city was recently dealing with overtaxed public transportation systems, starting about two weeks ago… maybe when all the taxicabs disappeared?

Primed by the events of the first mystery, the team immediately started theorizing about how the cabs might have been “subtracted”, and that maybe this was another audition for the Editors. Maps of the area around the coordinates showed there was a building there which didn’t appear to be occupied or owned by anybody.

Arriving in Devonsville they headed straight to the coordinates, tried to hail a cab. Nothing showed up. The building in question had multiple garage doors, but no vehicles inside it. The door to the office area was closed. The office area also appeared to have papers and signs visible through the windows, but the text was missing from all of them.

Scanning the area, Galvan noticed there was a noise, a skittering, coming from the roof. Galvan and Stuart headed up while Beatrice continued to look around; she’d catch up shortly. Galvan and Stuart got up to the roof by way of exterior fire escapes, and found … well, a trio of “handspiders” — creatures made out of a pair of human hands, the fingertips carved free of flesh to expose sharpened bone, stitched or melded together at the middle. Galvan tried to “speak” with them, as they weren’t immediately aggressive, but that didn’t last long; two of the handspiders fled across the other buildings, too fast to follow, while a third leapt at Galvan, but was quickly destroyed.

Beatrice headed around to the alleyway to get onto the fire-escape, but she found a man there, with a sword and ancient armor under his coat. Looks like her contact from the Order showed up. He asked to meet and talk elsewhere, indicating that Stuart and Galvan were going to be fine, and Beatrice texted Stuart a “going to get coffee” excuse.

The swordsman was in fact from Beatrice’s order and went by the name of Gianni. They talked, he retrieved the phial of Galvan’s blood, and said that he’d need some of Beatrice’s as well, giving her another empty one to collect the sample. She said she’d get it while working the case. They exchanged a few other pieces of information (two weeks later, I’m hazy on what exactly) mildly deepening Beatrice’s understanding of the Order (they’re very secretive) and establishing that Gianni would be keeping an eye on things, from afar.

(Following sequence of events may have the timing wrong, but here’s the gist.)

Galvan and Stuart meanwhile make their way down into the building from a roof entrance. Inside Stuart finds more evidence of the erased text effect. In fact, trying to write the word “taxi” or “cab” tends to result in pen failure, words vanishing, all that stuff. Galvan checks out the garage.

Where there’s a smooth-featured grey man walking on the ceiling, coming out of an opened doorway to… somewhere… on said ceiling. The grey man notices him… and pounces. Galvan swings his sword and slices the man in half; the halves evaporate. Stuart notices the ruckus, and comes looking — when another grey man opens a nonexistent door on the ceiling and walks out. Lather, rinse, repeat, but this time Galvan punches the guy, knocking him HARD into one of the garage doors, denting it. Beatrice on the opposite side sees that damage happen and comes running.

This grey man is dispatched quickly too. Anyone touched by the grey men starts to go a little grey themselves, in the part touched. Similarly Galvan’s sword ends up looking a bit more “simplified” and lighter weight after it’s used to attack the grey men.

Beatrice works up a spell to lock down the gateways, at least for a short moment. It nearly goes very badly (she botches the roll, then spends a luck point to make it a 12) and multiple big garage-door sized gates open up on the ceiling, showing rotated rooms with several grey men in them, but she manages to push herself and get them sealed shut.

Then Beatrice does another spell, to figure out what the name of the erased cab company is — Central Cab. A grey-ified dispatcher appears in a nearby chair, wordlessly going through the motions of her former job, as a part of this. Stuart works through his side of a “phone call” to Central Cab (one-sidedly, though the dispatcher seems to nod and otherwise respond to what he says) and, wouldn’t you know it, arranges for a cab to come pick them up. He ends the call and the figure vanishes.

They go outside to wait for the cab. Since they have no key they can’t lock the door from the outside, so Galvan stays inside, locks it (mashes the lock permanently shut, really) and then heads back up the stairs towards the roof. Problem is, when he gets to the top of the stairs, there’s a different door there. Looks sort of old and… fleshy. He punches the door open, and the door makes a sound like a man getting punched in the gut. Beyond the door is the interior of, presumably, an old slaughterhouse. “Galvan, is that you?” calls out a slightly cultured-sounding female voice.

Meanwhile, Galvan is late for the cab. Beatrice and Stuart aren’t, tho, and when a Central Cab taxi “ghosts” into view in front of them, the driver wide-eyed and staring at them, they don’t want to lose the opportunity, so they get in. Stuart asks for a ride to the best coffee place in town, and they get going. The driver is really tense, even white-knuckled, but he’s trying to go through the standard motions; it’s clear though that he’s been living in his cab for the past two weeks — he has mostly-empty trays of energy bars and water bottles on the passenger side.

Outside, the city around them goes grey and simplified. They’re somewhere else! The driver focuses hard, trying to figure out the way, but the streets keep changing around on him.

Eventually they get the driver, Yusuf, to talk. He has been in his cab for the past two weeks; he won’t get out because he’s seen other drivers get out of their cabs and their features slough off and they become grey men. Apparently there are a lot of them back at the location that was the Central Cab office building. He asks them to check in on his wife, Ianna, if they make it back, themselves.

At the slaughterhouse, Galvan works his way in, towards the voice. He finds a woman in a lab coat working on a big hanging carcass of some kind (there are several around, some looking like remnants of human bodies, others clearly bestial, a few … indeterminate), making cuts with a scalpel like a sculptor. A couple dozen hand-spiders skitter around her lab area. She turns to him, her eyes deep and dark and the irises overlarge.

She implies that she is Galvan’s maker; that she’s going to cure him of his condition. Galvan has questions. What’s his condition, exactly? Free will. Yikes. Others have called him a harbinger, is that what he is? That’s a pedestrian, oversimplified name. Will he bring about an apocalypse? Also an oversimplification.

Galvan says he’s going to go, and as her arms lengthen inside her labcoat, she says his true name (a sign of the apocalypse), which goes off like an explosion in Galvan’s mind. He staggers back as she shouts, “Is that any way to treat your mother?!” and swings her fists at him. He dodges and runs; her fists crater the concrete floor. Galvan rushes towards the flesh-door, and hears it grunt as it tenses for the impact; he shoulders through (“UNFFGH!”), then slams the door back closed behind him (“UNNHH?”) and threatens it to stay closed or he’ll beat on it again (“HUH-MUHH”, it agrees).

Back in the cab, eventually they get to the location of the coffee shop, The Lightness of Bean, and there’s a sort of shimmering that looks like a way back to our world. Stuart gets out — outside the cab, he’s a sort of blurry version of himself, but that resolves as he walks towards the coffee shop. Beatrice debates whether to stay with the cab or get out, herself, and after a few moments of indecision she decides to get out, just as Stuart reaches the coffee shop…

… and that’s where we left it. Tomorrow night we’ll find out if her path to the shop is as easy as Stuart’s.

For the same reasons it took me so long to write this up, I also didn’t get time to write up a “continuity list” from this session. Argh! The thing is, this session was fantastic — lots of interesting character discoveries and a chance to see how the team functions after the resolution of their first big mystery. Plus a number of character-driven secrets are starting to crash into the main storyline, which is making it particularly juicy. I’m not sure my writeup here does any of that justice! But I want to try to keep the play report discipline going on this one. So there you are. :)

I certainly invite my players to correct my mistakes and expand upon the stuff I didn’t cover in enough detail!

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Jul 082014
 

It’s the third session of my Monster of the Week campaign! Last session found here.

We pick up right where we left off: behind the Gas’n’Sip, with a “Subtractor” monster bearing down on the hunters.

Stuart has out his cell phone already and tries to snap pictures of this thing in action. Beatrice is backing away, trying to get a read on the situation. Galvan ain’t got no time for that. He grabs one of the car-husks sitting around out back — yes, grabs the whole damn thing — and uses it as a battering ram against the monster. A car’s heavy, tho, and has a lot of momentum, tearing free of Galvan’s grasp in the process. It passes partially through the creature — the thing’s semi-solid — and brings down big chunks of wall and doorway onto it, pinning it into place temporarily.

The unmanned car-husk swerves and tumbles into the garage beyond, touching off sparks and starting a fire.

Stuart puts away his phone having gotten what he could, and scans the area, looking for what might be going on besides a reality-destroying shadow-thing. And he spots it: someone’s making a break for it from the garage. Stuart draws his sidearm and fires, pop pop pop! The third shot hits his target in the shoulder, and with a yelp the man drops.

The group starts to beat a retreat as the shadow begins boiling back out of the rubble, Galvan in the lead, Stuart bringing up the rear. As Galvan and Beatrice confront the man out front, they see he has a hole in his hand and a silver sphere rests on the ground before. “Get the big one,” the man says, and the sphere zips towards Galvan, ripping into him as Galvan charges forward.

Beatrice uses some sort of arcane “whammy” ability and shoots a beam of white not-light at the orb, momentarily blasting it into a torus shape before it recovers. “On the other hand, go after her,” says Leon — yep, it’s the mechanic — and Beatrice recognizes his voice as the “auditioning” man who threatened her with a knife not too long ago.

After a few test-shots with text-laden ammo prove ineffective, Stuart comes round to join the other two. He sees Galvan bearing down on Leon as Leon makes a break for a nearby car. Stuart brings up his gun and fires, at least trying to delay Leon. Leon gets to the car as Galvan catches up with him; the interior of the car floods with flat inky blackness the moment Leon touches the handle; and Galvan brings his hammer-fist down, audibly breaking Leon’s back. Leon rolls to the side, moaning, but seems less affected by the broken back than you’d expect.

At the same time, Beatrice has tussled with the silver orb a bit, and is unaware that the shadow creature has surged up behind her. It’s looking grim, but Galvan threatens Leon with further pain if he doesn’t call his creatures off. “Skedaddle!” says Leon, and the creatures fold up and wink out of existence.

The group starts talking with broken-backed Leon, trying to get him to give them details about the “audition” he mentioned. He plays it cagey, talking about how most people aren’t real, not really real, as if that excuses the deaths that have cropped up recently, and treating Beatrice like she’s the one in charge, given that (as he puts it) she’s “able to toss around primal negation like it’s easy”. He can see that she’s pretty ignorant about these matters, though, and will answer her questions if she’ll just step into his office (indicating the blackness-filled car).

Stuart meanwhile quietly uses his phone to send some information to his contacts at MI-13 and has a brief conversation with them; they keep the channel open and install some apps to analyze the situation as it presents itself. They’re not entirely sure what’s up with the car, but they’re pretty sure it’s a portal and if Stuart’s willing to let Beatrice go in there it could provide some valuable intel.

Beatrice uneasily agrees to Leon’s terms and has him enter first because she doesn’t want him at her back. She opens a phone call to Stuart before she steps in, but it cuts out the moment she’s inside, unseen by her friends as it just takes a couple steps to be completely enveloped by the car’s blackness. While she’s away, Galvan and Stuart take a few measures to make sure the garage doesn’t go up in flames behind them (it had started to), and grabs some of the records from the office with an eye on continuing their investigation, modulo whatever comes from Beatrice’s conversation with Leon.

Inside the void, Leon is already a good ten feet away from Beatrice, and she’s not able to close the gap with him. Distance works funny in here. There’s a car-door-shaped white shape behind Beatrice; it doesn’t get any further away from her as she walks forward. They talk.

Leon reveals that he’s doing the audition to join with the Editors — spellcrafters, seemingly, who specialize in editing reality to produce one better suited to their goals. The “Cutting Orbs” are something Leon’s brought in as a “tool” for what he’s doing. He also refers to the “Hungry Shadow” as a tool, though he seems to admit he doesn’t entirely control or own it: “Let’s just say I’ve got it on a lay-away plan.” As far as the people who’ve been killed as part of this audition process go, Leon is glowery and tight-lipped: “They brought that upon themselves.” Oh, and Galvan is a harbinger of an apocalypse. There are many potential apocalypses, though.

All the while, Leon’s back seems to be straightening out. He’s healing as part of being in this void. Beatrice accuses him of this, and he shrugs and smiles, owning up to it. Finally, he says, “Look. You’ve screwed up my audition hard. I’m willing to reinstate our truce so I can salvage it, or I need six hours to take care of final matters and get out of town.” Beatrice isn’t quite sure how to respond to that and starts feeling out her options, when Leon opens up a white rectangle behind him, hand behind his back. “Six hours,” he says, and steps through. Beatrice quickly works out that if she dives through after him, she’ll be stranded who-knows-where and without her support — or she can turn around and go back the way she came. Safety wins out as a concern, and she takes the second option, rejoining her friends.

They talk about what she’s learned and go over what they’ve gathered from the shop. Also they get pizza, which this time doesn’t end up catastrophically burned by a stray magic spell.

Looking at the record of repairs they see that Bruce Gallow has brought his car in a lot. Like maybe it’s a lemon but more likely he’s been visiting Leon at the shop using car troubles as a cover. Cross referencing a few bits they get his home address and head on over. It’s afternoon, not end-of-work time, and there’s a mini-van in the driveway. Donning some of the trappings of a cover identity, Stuart goes to check on the house, ringing the doorbell. Nobody answers. Looking around he sees that something black is covering one of the upstairs windows. He heads back to the car, briefs the team, and repositions the car away from the house they’re about to break into.

They manage to time things such that nobody in the neighborhood catches on as they vault the back fence and approach the house from behind. There’s movement inside, which draws them closer, carefully. Sliding open the patio door is done easily enough — it wasn’t locked. They see the source of the movement: a shirtless man in his underwear — not Bruce — opening the fridge and getting out a beer. He calls out, “Honey, you want anything from here?” and doesn’t get an answer. Then he says, “Cool!” and closes the fridge, walking over to the bottom of the stairwell. A pile of leaking, opened beer bottles lies at the base of the stairs. He goes sort of blank-faced for a moment, drops the bottle he’s currently holding, and walks back over to the fridge, only to repeat the same process.

Looks like he got “eaten” by the Hungry Shadow, and he’s operating with a holographic brain stuck on a loop.

The team decides not to confront him just yet, and they head upstairs while he’s busy at the fridge end of his loop. Upstairs, they approach the master bedroom. The door’s closed. Half-ecstasy/half-discomfort moaning comes from behind the door. Stuart tries opening the door, carefully, quietly. The black, writhing silhouette of a woman lies on the bed, making the sounds. After a couple moments she breaks her inarticulate noises to say, “For fuck’s sake, ignore the damn doorbell!” and then resumes her writhing.

Ugh.

Stuart ponders what to do next — that’s a Hungry Shadow on the bed with what’s left of Janet Gallow — when he notices that it seems like someone’s in the bedroom closet. The Hungry Shadow gets wise to his presence right then, tho, so he can’t do much about it right away. It surges off the bed with a kind of shriek and races right at the doorway. Stuart slams the door! There’s a SPLUT sound, and the Shadow starts to seep through the solid mass of the door, slow and inexorable.

The team takes a side jaunt into one of the kids’ bedrooms that shares a wall with the master bedroom. Stuart points about where he thinks he saw someone in the closet, and Galvan… well, Galvan goes right through the wall, doing incredible structural damage, and dragging Leon back through it all. Turns out it was a load-bearing wall Galvan went through, and the ceiling in the master bedroom caves in as what’s left of Janet says, “For fuck’s sake, ignore the damn doorbell!” one more time.

Leon’s screaming now, too: “No, no, no! Not now, not yet!” He howls in pain and/or rage, and his arms begin to bulge with spherical growths. Hell no, that’s a ton of cutting orbs he’s trying to bring into the world! Galvan grabs Leon by the head and lifts him, squeezing… squeezing… Leon keeps screaming back, and even when his head gives way and goes soft, he’s still screaming, still very much alive. Eventually the head is too soft and he slides out of Galvan’s hands, a broken flesh-mess on the floor, and the spheres are waking up inside of that flesh, roaming around, causing Leon’s body to ripple. Stuart throws his coat on top of Leon, since it has text printed all over the interior lining, in hopes that it’ll work as a barrier to the orbs.

Beatrice does some quick thinking and consults her lore. Leon is probably remaining alive because of his link to the Shadow; if the Shadow can be destroyed, so can Leon. But how to destroy the Shadow? Well, theoretically, it could be destroyed by burning the inscriptions — Leon’s magic seems to be very text-driven — but it’d need to be all the inscriptions and it’s pretty likely Leon created more than one. But if Beatrice could get ahold of one of them, she might be able to work a spell that reached out to the others and burned them all at once…

Quickly, she rummages through the screaming Leon-corpse-thing’s pockets and pulls out a wallet. In the wallet there’s a picture of Bruce Gallow; on the back of it is scrawled something that hurts her eyes to look at, in a language she can’t read. Must be the thing. Now for the spell, as the Hungry Shadow pushes at the doorway to the kid’s room. Seems that there’s some kind of metaphysical barrier preventing it from coming in right away… but Beatrice has to act fast all the same. She crumples the photo, lights the picture on fire, and swallows the burning inscription. It hurts! And burns! And travels down her throat, where it begins to transmute from physical pain into metaphysical pain, settling right into her heart chakra, connecting out into the world, out to other parts of Grant Falls where Leon has stashed the other inscriptions, and they all go up in flames…

[EDIT: Left this paragraph out! Can’t believe it! Adding it now!] … and in so doing, a little part of Leon settles into her own being. She feels as he felt. So very much in love with Bruce, and Bruce with him. Bruce unable to leave his wife and family because the family means so much to him. Bruce wanting his relationship with Leon kept secret. Leon’s dabbling in magic intertwining with that relationship. Bringing him to destroy those who would jeopardize what Bruce wants. The woman from work who figured out their secret and threatened to expose them. The men — first Orson, then another — tempting Janet to stray, to seek a divorce, which would wreck Bruce and separate him from the kids. And ultimately Janet herself had to go, of course. But all born out of love, all of it, love that Beatrice now feels for Bruce, a gay man she has never and probably will never meet, a love twisted by magic and darkness and the appetites of the creature …

… The Shadow seems to recognize that this has happened, and breaks into the room, expanding outwards, scream-shrieking. Tendrils weave towards Stuart and Galvan; Stuart is forced to jump out the window to evade it, and tumbles down through an awning onto the patio. Galvan pumps shotgun blasts into the thing as it closes on him; he then grabs the entire bunk bed and slams it into the creature. It wraps around his arm and leaves it feeling a little… unreal… but then crumples under Galvan’s assault and withers away.

Leon stops screaming.

It’s clean-up time: Janet’s looping lover appears to have vanished during all the commotion upstairs, but this mess needs to be covered up. Stuart goes downstairs and rigs the furnace to blow in a few minutes’ time, and they clear out. When the house does go up, though, it’s HUGE, way out of proportion with what should have happened, and a rain of fire (see, Galvan spent a point of Luck, and that’s bad news when you’re playing the Summoned playbook) pelts the neighborhood for a good half hour afterwards. The group gets the heck out of dodge, but not until after they break into the police HQ that night and retrieve the evidence being held as part of the investigation into the missing bodies.

They destroy it (or at least don’t return it) after viewing it: Double Tee is working the night shift, and someone walks in under some kind of concealment magic; TT never notices that he’s there, and the magic makes it look like this person’s back is always to the camera, even when he’s moving in a way that it’s clear his back isn’t actually pointed that way. The bodies get moved out of the field of view, and that’s that.

As they head out of town, Beatrice contemplates what to do with the vial of harbinger-of-an-apocalypse blood she’s collected under assignment for the Order, and Stuart gets a contact from MI-13: “Job well done. We have a new assignment for you. We need you to hail a cab.”

Credits roll.

This session wrapped our first mystery and debuted the use of an alteration to the Use Magic move that you can read about here. Tho Use Magic only happened once, I’m really happy with how it better fit the flavor of the game I’m trying to run. (Yay player feedback that it wasn’t doing that previously!)

Here’s the continuity list given as we roll forward to the next mystery:

  • There’s at least one audition going on, for a group called the Editors.
  • The Editors are near as you can tell some sort of supernatural edit-the-world/reality faction, and you have to audition to get into their ranks.
  • Leon at least didn’t believe that people counted as real, given what folks like him and the Editors can do.
  • Beatrice is maybe a potential candidate for being one if she wanted to commit to it. This seems tied to the “primal negation” she can hurl around (her big whammy).
  • Galvin seems to be a Harbinger of AN apocalypse.
  • MI-13 aka Stuart’s ex girlfriend wants the group to “hail a cab” as their next assignment.

 

 

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