Fred Hicks

Oct 312013

If you’re looking for the panels I will be on at Metatopia, that’s in this other post.

Outside of the panels, what I have scheduled is:

Friday, 2pm-4pm: Iron Edda playtest.

Saturday, 6pm-8pm: Boneyard playtest.

Sunday, 10am-1pm: Timewatch playtest.

That’s it! Together with my panels it still means I have plenty to do, but I’m going to have a lot of big gaps in my schedule too. I expect to use these to hit panels of interest (there’s a ton of them), grab meals, have conversations with folks, and do some off-book demoing (both of Evil Hat things like our upcoming Don’t Rest Your Head themed board game Don’t Turn Your Back, and other folks’ stuff).

Importantly, Rob Donoghue invites anyone who gets up at that hour to join him for breakfast each morning at Metatopia. So if you’re not planning on sleeping in, make sure this is on your radar.

If you are hoping to get a few minutes of my time, make sure I know it! You can either comment on this post or use the “contact” form here on the site.

Oct 292013

James Dawsey asked me to distill some of my comments from this Google+ conversation into a linkable blog post, so here goes!

International shipping for a Kickstarter is a problem from a bunch of different directions. The way I see it, you’ve basically got three options:

  • You can not offer international shipping, and get complaints about it;
  • You can offer it at a high but fairly honest cost and get complaints about it;
  • You can offer it at a cost that the international backers think is fair, but which pretty much eats up all the actual revenue value of their pledge, rendering their contribution effectively moot and potentially undermining your financial goals for the campaign.

These are not good choices, but they’re the choices.

Before you pop on down to the comments to tell me how I’m wrong here, let me say this: I’m happy to see options like facilities that can offer bulk international shipping start to open up for the international market. That said, such options open up a number of additional logistic hurdles which aren’t always worth the effort, especially if you’re a) going to be selling the game after the KS through distributors (or other internationally accessible channels) anyway, and b) your game is going to be distributed to the target market in question through one of those distributors.

Bottom line on that: When I’m running a KS, I have to budget both the money I’m getting and the impact on my time. So while some of the expense can be moved from the money column to the time column, that’s not always the best of exchange rates. :)

But what’s the deep core issue here, aside from, y’know, the fact that the United States postal system is underfunded and legally constrained from increasing domestic postage rates to the point where their costs would actually be covered, so they’re doing what they can by making regular-ish, big increases in their international shipping charges?

Comes down to the algebra of reward tiers.

With Kickstarter, because shipping gets wrapped up in the pledge, you have to watch your percentages. You could have a $25 tier that ships domestically, and a $50 tier that ships internationally, and that’s great — to an extent — if the international folks are willing to pay it.

But suppose that the $25 domestic tier represents $5 shipping + $20 contribution to the goal, and the $50 international tier represents $30 shipping + $20 contribution to the goal. When an international backer pledges that $50, they’re putting the project $50 closer to its funding mark… while only ACTUALLY contributing $20. Compare this to two domestic backers pledging $25 each and actually contributing $40 towards the goal. So in this example scenario the international backer’s pledge is only “worth” half a domestic pledge in terms of actual revenue contribution after shipping. This can be super problematic if the budgeting on the project, and its ultimate funding goal, is built around the scenario of a pledge that’s 80% meat, 20% shipping.

The two strategies (aside from “don’t offer international shipping”) for dealing with this are not all that satisfying.

First is “well, why not bill for shipping as a separate thing after the KS is over?” — And the answer to that seems to be a pretty consistent “because international backers don’t realize exactly how high a charge that will be, and the sticker shock will produce a lot of anger, especially amongst those who didn’t bother to read the pledge tier text closely”. That’s a huge emotional and cognitive load for a projectrunner to parse through when the shit starts hitting the fan, and it inevitably will.

Second is what we did with the Fate Dice kickstarter: if the budget’s ratio holds that 80% of a pledge should go towards the actual goal, with a max of 20% for shipping, then you should take the expected average cost of international shipping, and solve the equation for that. This is algebra in action! If X is the reward tier, and 20% of it needs to go towards shipping, and your international shipping charge is going to be about $30, then your equation to solve is .2x = $30. This tells us that the international shipping pledge tier needs to be $150: that way $30 goes towards shipping (20%) and $120 goes towards the actual non-shipping project costs. Voilla! Except, ohhh, the complaints you’ll get for only offering a $150 tier as your entry-point for an international backer.

At the end of the day project runners take the blame for factors beyond their control. They can’t control the fact that out-of-the-US shipping costs are spiraling out of control, and are highly unpredictable 6-12 months in advance, which is often the (minimum) hang time on many KSers; they can’t get KS to adopt a more sensible mode of splitting the shipping charges off from the project tally (at least not so far); and they can’t adopt an international-friendly shipping package that would ultimately bankrupt the project if it got popular. Congratulations! The math says every option is bad.

And so, that has me pursuing the least expensive, still disappointing, first option from that list up top. “Please order from an FLGS supplied by one of the following distributors” is fast becoming my go-to strategy for international stuff. Pair that with a cheap all-digital buy-in, and I don’t feel like I’m forcing the international folks to miss out on much. The only thing they’re potentially missing out on is a little bit of a speed-win for the delivery of the product, and that is something I’m comfortable asking them to take and like. If someone’s truly interested in being a supporter of what a Kickstarter campaign is about, and not just in it for the what-are-you-gonna-do-for-me of it, they can wait, and optionally, buy in for a buck to stay abreast of backer-only updates and developments. That’s lowest risk for everyone and doesn’t come with an implicit demand that the projectrunner choose insolvency in order to serve a few additional customers.

One possibly unnecessary footnote: There’s no judgment here. If you’re an international potential-backer, I’m not saying you have no value to me. I’m saying present circumstances are making it very hard to serve you and at some point I have to focus on the things I can do, cheaply, in bulk, and set aside anything that requires a lot more time, slow and close attention to detail, and so on. Business realities are what have put the squeeze on your role in a Kickstarter. Yes, these things could be worked around, at least marginally, but I think the best, strongest workarounds come through selling the results of a Kickstarter to you outside of the Kickstarter itself. As part of my acknowledgement of that, I avoid designing Kickstarters that have exclusive content — or if they do have it, they’re designed such that you can get at them digitally. I don’t get to choose my ideal results here, and I’m sad about it. But I also have to be smart about what I do and don’t do, for the health of my company.

Oct 282013

I’ll be at Metatopia this weekend! Here are the panels where you can catch me running my damn mouth.

D025: “Planning Your Crowdfunding Campaign” presented by Fred Hicks & Joshua A.C. Newman. Everything from soup to nuts you need to know before even considering crowdfunding your game. Our panel of experts will make sure you’re ready to face the world and ask for cash. Friday, 5:00PM – 6:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D038: “Book Design 101: First Principles” presented by Fred Hicks, Hal Mangold & Brennan Taylor. The panelists look at the book as an object of design. Whether it’s conveying rules or setting, the look and feel of the book itself is crucial to the experience of play. Our experts will draw on their own experiences to explain why books look the way they do. Saturday, 10:00AM – 11:00AM; Serious, All Ages.

D040: “Legalese: How To Create And Negotiate Contracts” presented by Fred Hicks, Justin Jacobson & John Stavropoulos. Join our panelists for an in-depth look at the art and science of contracts, from freelancers to manufacturers and from both sides of the table. Saturday, 11:00AM – 12:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D058: “Using Social Media To Market Your Game” presented by Fred Hicks, Josh Harrison & Angela Craft. Whether its Facebook, G+, Twitter or any other format, social media are crucial for marketing and publicizing your game. Saturday, 8:00PM – 9:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D064: “Open Licenses: Why, Why Not, and How” presented by Fred Hicks, Cam Banks, Rob Donoghue & Justin Jacobson. What are the various options available for licensing your game to others (or from others), and what are the creative reasons and financial imperatives for choosing between them? Saturday, 10:00PM – 11:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D079: “Graphic Tips for Non-Designers” presented by Fred Hicks, Hal Mangold & Christian N. St. Pierre. Color, space, type – the secrets of good graphic design sometimes seem impenetrable to the non-initiated. Never fear, our panel is here to help! Sunday, 1:00PM – 2:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D081: “Criticism And Community: How To Handle Your Public” presented by Fred Hicks, Daren Watts & John Stavropoulos. Once your game(s) have found an audience, the next step is keeping it. How do you build a community of fans? And how do you deal with the inevitable public scrutiny and criticism that comes with that exposure? Sunday, 2:00PM – 3:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

I can see from how these got scheduled that my request to the schedule-fairies to keep my evenings open was somewhat ignored as far as Saturday goes, but given the huge number of panels on offer at Metatopia, I’m not sure how feasible my request was in the first place!

Given the drive back to DC afterwards, I expect to leave not too long after that last panel wraps up on Sunday.

Oct 232013

As I discussed earlier, the Twenty Palaces/Voidcallers setting is likely to feature a pretty lethal magic environment. It’s dangerous out there, people. While Peers might have a better chance to withstand a showdown with a Predator or rogue practitioner, it’s not a given by far. Investigators are smart to stay away from conflict hotspots; they do their recon and then get away because shit’s so dangerous. And Wooden Men… man, Wooden Men. They’re recruited and designed to be expendable. Walking targets.

Point being, however we choose to implement the lethality of the setting, it’s gonna be lethal and that means that the risk—and actuality—of character death has gotta be on the table. Yes, PCs are probably going to have a certain small amount of plot immunity at the least, but if the PCs aren’t at actual risk of death[1] as often as not, it’s just not going to feel right, and the setting will not be served.

This, then, is a concern that’s actually separate from the lethality of the setting: expendability. When you know there’s a real chance that the player characters will get dead[2], your design goals should probably address that.

Earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons addressed this with fairly simple character designs, easily put together, with the activity of creating a new character being a kind of solo fun of its own and thus something a recently killed player could go and do off on the side while the survivors continue the fight.[3]

In Fate Core, fights should—hopefully—run a fair bit shorter than that, and character creation shines best when it’s done in the context of and by interacting with the playgroup, so sending Bob off to do some solo character creation when his prior PC starts pushing daisies doesn’t necessarily provide the same fun.

To solve this, we might do well to look to the upcoming Atomic Robo RPG[4]. In that game there’s a kind of expendability at work, too, but it’s not because the game is particularly lethal. It’s because the game may well jump to other time periods or scenarios where your prior character doesn’t yet exist, or is too old to go adventuring, or what-have-you. As a result, it’s important for the game to make it very fast to create new characters when the situation demands it.[5]

As a result, in the Atomic Robo RPG, character creation is done in a matter of a couple minutes[6], with pretty much everything else being something you can decide as you’re playing. About to do something where a specific skill or stunt would be useful? Buy it right then, revealing the capability on your character sheet with the same timing as it would be revealed in a story or movie or what-have-you. Establish something new about your character’s backstory? Now’s the time to write down an aspect about that on your sheet — not before.

This kind of “stat your character as you need to” approach works wonders for keeping the set-up time of a game short, and so long as your options and rules for adding more detail to a character sheet are simple and clearly understood, making in-the-moment edits and additions to your character is hardly any more of a speed bump than taking a turn in a round of combat.

With Twenty Palaces, spells are contraband. They are not many in number. So, for example, adding a new tattoo[7][8] to your character will involve choosing an option from a fairly short list of what’s out there and known to you (and/or your Peer, if you’re working for one as a Wooden Man or other operative would).

Adding a new aspect is as always super easy, especially when it’s sourced from what’s already been established in play. Taking a quick stunt to represent how you’re specialized in a particular skill, also nice and fast, so long as there’s clear and strong templating available and a relevant task in front of you that needs doing. And if we keep the skill list fairly compact, there won’t be too many options to trip over there, either.[9]

So, strategically, our best move here is to address expendability not with plot immunity, but with an ease of character creation that makes it possible to get back in the game quickly, behind a new face. Knowing this should make our goals in designing the character creation process a lot more clear and, importantly, a lot more specific.

But that’s for another post.

  1. This will present some big challenges and is most certainly a blogpost of its own. At the very least, high actual lethality in a game carries some risk of deprotagonization for the players, which may be the largest actual hurdle here, especially in Fate Core, a game system that’s designed to feature highly proactive, effective protagonists.  ↩
  2. or at least permanently removed from play!  ↩
  3. And with fights running as long as they do in D&D, the ways in which creating a new character isn’t quick aren’t much of a concern: the same fight that killed you might still be going by the time you’re done.  ↩
  4. Among others, of course. There are other games out there that support or focus on character creation on the fly — it’s been a secondary character creation option for a number of Fate games in the past, and it’s not exclusive to Fate either. For our purposes, tho, and with the game coming on the nearish horizon next year, we’ll focus on Robo.  ↩
  5. a.k.a., “Okay, we’re going to do a flashback session set in the 1970s. Brian, you’re Robo as usual. The rest of you are too young to play your modern-day action scientists. Who wants to play Carl Sagan?”  ↩
  6. e.g., pick a high concept and three things you’re good at from a short list, then rank those three good things from best to least best. Congratulations, you’re ready to play.  ↩
  7. A tattoo that, thanks to the principle of dramatic revelation, was there all along, it just wasn’t seen by the audience nor relevant to the story right up until you happened to need it to be there.  ↩
  8. A lot of the “street-ready” magic in the Twenty Palaces setting takes the form of glyphs inscribed on a surface. You don’t want it to be something that washes away easy, and on a body, that surface is skin. So there’s a lot of fixed-effect power that gets carried around by operatives and Peers by way of tats.  ↩
  9. Super-true particularly if we use a skill modes implementation as was invented for the Atomic Robo RPG and introduced in the Fate System Toolkit.  ↩
Oct 232013

Suppose that all power in a game is come by through making a bargain with the source of the power.

This current runs through the Dresden Files RPG and setting to an extent, most overtly with things like Sponsored Power and the Lawbreaker stuff, but really in general through the whole refresh-reduction thing with powers. One assumes that if you have a ton of power, to the point where you no longer generate Fate Points and are thus beholden to take compels with no option to resist them, that those compels and their associated aspects are in some way tied to that bargain you’ve made: to follow the dictates of your nature utterly, because that is what your power wishes you to be.

Honing the cutting edge of compels was important for us with the Dresden Files RPG. The mechanics of compels lined up strongly with the themes and truths of the Dresden Files setting. That said, refresh reduction is not the only path to achieving this sort of thing.

Let’s look at the bargain itself. Thanks to the Bronze Rule[1] of Fate Core, we know that anything can be a character, or be character-like, when treated as an Extra. Therefore, a bargain for power can be a character.

Imagine that instead of spending refresh for your magical powers, you’re crafting a bargain, which creates an Extra. The bargain’s job is to work against you whenever you’re trying to subvert the intentions and restrictions of the bargain. Every “point” of the power that you get[2] gives the bargain a little extra juice: two skill points, or maybe even a stunt of its own.

The bargain probably has aspects: these aspects would define the rules of the bargain. Compels possible for you at the least. Invocations possible for the bargain itself.

The bargain might have a stress track if there’s some way to put it off for a lasting amount of time: paying off your debt’s interest, so to speak. Or it might have a stress track if there are means (rituals, etc) that let you suppress or sunder the thing.

Those skill points, tho: they’d go into buying one or more skills representing how the bargain can interject itself into your life to enforce the goals of the bargain. No skill cap, here; and maybe there’s just one skill, so each point of power gives it a +2. You want a 4-point power (or 4 points of power under the same bargain), you’re giving this thing Enforce Bargain +8 — a Legendary bargain indeed.

Regardless of whether there’s one enforcement skill or several[3], the aspects of the bargain would serve to justify rolling an enforcement skill to oppose actions that run counter to the bargain’s intent. While this could be done via a compel, it might be more interesting to your game to make this a case of whether or not the character’s skill can overcome the ability of the bargain to resist its use in an unapproved fashion. Especially if you start to bring in the potential to succeed at a cost.

Anyway. This is not a fully formed idea, but I thought I’d put it out there as a starting-point. Where might you take it?

  1. a.k.a., The Fate Fractal  ↩
  2. A “point” for a power here would be analagous to a point of refresh in a refresh-spending paradigm  ↩
  3. The consequence of going for a multi-skill approach is that you’re essentially making the bargain “cost” the bargainer less. Thing is, with several skills you’re implying that each skill the bargain has is narrower in scope; and with more options to spend those points on, it’s harder to create a strong bargain that covers all its bases with a very high rating. If I have 8 skill points and they all go into making a Enforce +8, that’s one thing. If I have 8 skill points and I decide to make two skills representing the bargain’s ability to affect the character mentally (“You want to enter that church, huh? Face some overwhelming fear!”) vs physically (“The bargain thinks your legs shouldn’t work; running away isn’t part of the deal!”), then I may end up with Enforce (Physical) +5, Enforce (Mental) +3, which as targets to be overcome are gonna be a lot more surmountable than that +8. So keep in mind what you’re getting yourself into here when you split things up and adjust accordingly. Skill caps (for the bargain) may play into this as well, starting as PC-equivalent, but something the bargain could burn a few extra skill points on going above.  ↩