Jun 192014

It’s the second session of my Monster of the Week game! First session here.

Between sessions we realized that Galvan was totally on the wrong playbook for what his concept needed to be; we switched him over to the Summoned playbook, which offered nearly the same starting advantages/damage output/etc as Monstrous had for him but a better progression path for his concept. Good stuff, and a pretty seamless swap.

So anyway, their car was falling apart and a murderous silver orb was zipping right at their faces.

Stuart pulled the car into a hard turn, ducking, causing the orb to vector over the steering wheel and out the driver’s side window. The car’s engine was still missing of course, and they had some momentum they still needed to address. The hard turn pointed the car at a strip mall parking lot, struggling with a dying steering wheel, Stuart forced it to point at a “Do Not Enter” sign, uprooting it (but slowing the car) and smacking sideways into a parked car. Stuart hit his head as the airbags deployed, getting a nasty knock, but the others made it out of the crash pretty well.

The orb was still coming.

Galvan grabbed gear out of the back of the car, while Beatrice snagged her tome and backpack. She picked up where she left off, frantically trying to find out what could really hurt this thing. Turns out it’s… text! The printed word. Inscribed on blades or ammunition, stuffed in gun barrels, you name it. The symbolic significance of text and the binding of it in writing somehow messes with these things. Great!

The orb got on top of them. Galvan hefted the “Do Not Enter” sign and smacked the thing center-sphere with the words on the sign, knocking it for a loop and driving it under their car.

Which smelled of leaking gas.

They ran and got a safe distance before the thing went up in a big ol’ WHUMP explosion. Stuart grabbed a shotgun from Galvan and vigorously stuffed the car’s rental agreement into the barrel, and took aim as the orb rose from the flames and headed right at Beatrice. BLAM!

(The player rolled snake eyes, of course, and decided to spend a point of luck to change the roll into a 12.)

The thing shrieked, shrank, and imploded, ripping a vacuum-void-portal looking thing into the air briefly before vanishing for good. Monster killed!

A pickup truck reading “Muncie’s Gas’n’Sip” pulled up around then, with the driver, Bill Muncie, being surprisingly laconic about these guys carrying guns (and a friggin’ sword). Said his mechanic, Leon, despite being a real wizard with auto repairs probably couldn’t fix their car on account of it being exploded, but he’d be happy to tow it for them. The group felt they needed a ride more than a tow, and asked him to do both, with the ride happening right goddamn now please. Seeing as he was gonna get paid either way, Bill was happy to oblige.

Back at their hotel, the group tried to work out their next steps. Between the two orb attacks, Galvan had gotten cut up pretty badly (with unstable injuries) and needed to recuperate. Beatrice worked up a minor healing spell to help with that, which at least stabilized his wounds and afforded her the chance to collect some of Galvan’s blood as had been secretly requested by her sect.

Stuart headed to the business center to print up Ulisses or something like it to give the group a big pile of text to use if needed, and ordered up some pizzas too; Galvan recuperated; Beatrice went to get ice and drinks.

That’s when the guy with the knife showed up behind her.

He told her to get out of Grant Falls, and gave her a day. Sounded scared. Talked about how this was his “audition” and he wouldn’t take kindly to her trying to horn in on it. Then he beat a retreat — she turned then, trying to get a glimpse of him: middling height, looks like he works with his hands, face concealed with a trucker hat and dirty bandana. He ducked into a public restroom and (presumably, later confirmed) vanished.

Beatrice returned to the room, as did Stuart with 5 pizzas in tow. She filled them in, and they went to examine the bathroom. There they found signs  (a crisply bisected boot-print) that the doorway had definitely been turned into a portal, short term, and something moist on the door’s lock — the man had used some of his spit to build a link to another door, somewhere, Beatrice surmised. She grabbed a sample.

Stuart headed over to the liquor store/bar across the road to grab a bottle of scotch and see if he could talk to some of the locals. Beatrice and Galvan returned to their room. There, she tried casting a divination/location spell on the spit, but it went bad — maybe she hit some sort of arcane tripwire? — that boiled all the drinks, burned the pizza, and caught the map she was using on fire, setting off the fire alarm and sprinklers.


Stuart meanwhile rang up Double Tee, the coroner who was under review due to the missing bodies, and invited him out for a drink. TT showed up a bit later and talked about how he knew they weren’t CDC. Stuart said enough for TT to peg them as ghost hunters, and talked about a few matters related to the case. Tho an autopsy hadn’t been performed on Orson Phelps, TT recalled thinking his head felt a little “light”. Possibly pointing at a missing brain?

Stuart decided to ask the rest of the team to come over so they could pool info. Galvan declined (recovering!), but Beatrice came over after doing what clean-up she could with the room. Naturally this is when the invisible man paid Galvan a visit, calling him the “Harbinger” and asking him if he was willing to switch sides, after sussing out that Galvan worked for Stuart, not Beatrice. Galvan declined, after sussing out that this disembodied voice belonged to someone who was likely being auditioned to.

Long story slightly less long, Galvan ended up heading over to the bar too, a few minutes behind Beatrice, to tell the team that their location had been compromised. Turns out TT recognized Beatrice from her “SpookyBeats” vlogging days and given that they were going to see if they could help him clear his name, offered them crash space at his place. Plus, medical training meant they could get a little extra off-the-books medical care.

So that’s where they moved their base of operations. On the way they saw a location they recognized as the restaurant where the speed dating event that Orson Phelps had attended the night before his death, and resolved to return in the morning.

Which they did, sans TT, who had to get to work (where they continue to bury him in paperwork).

At the (empty) restaurant, things were still set up for speed-dating events. They figured out where Orson Phelps had sat the night before his death, and Beatrice cast a spell to give them a glimpse of what happened that night. The spell honed in on the most significant event at that table; Stuart sat in Orson’s seat, while Beatrice sat in the other taking the role of a woman named Janet. For Stuart and Beatrice it was like they were suddenly actors who’d memorized a script very well, and so they played out the scene. Lots of small talk, Orson sharing information they already knew with Janet, and Janet fiddling with that spot on her finger where her wedding ring decidedly wasn’t, distracted a bit by looking around as if to see if she recognized anyone. Was she speed-cheating?

Coming out of the spell, they looked at their list of speed dating attendees: this Janet was Janet Gallow. Okay… anyone with a name of Gallow at the sports club? No idea, they haven’t gotten a membership list from there yet. But they also checked the list of employees at Suzie Belter’s company (she’s the one who died of a heart attack), and found a Gallow! Bruce Gallow. Janet’s husband, perhaps? The connection that binds all this together?

Beatrice looked Bruce Gallow up on Facebook and found a picture of him and Janet and their two kids so, hmm, definitely seems to be some sort of connection here. Janet’s clearly significant to Orson’s demise in some way, or so the spell seemed to indicate by choosing her to replay. Bruce’s page shows him talking about some business trips, a big project at work, and car trouble.

Hmmm, car trouble.

Meanwhile, while Galvan wrote words on his sword (more text!), Stuart surreptitiously connected to MI-13’s knowledge base to chase down the “empty head” thing TT had mentioned the night before. If that’s what was going on, then it was likely they were looking at a “Subtractor” of some sort — a class of summoned entities that are theoretical only, having never been encountered in the field. Apparently when they consume a part of a person, they replace it with a mostly-functioning “hologram” replica that disguises the truth of what’s been done. Once the hologram is confronted in some meaningful way — put under strain, essentially — it collapses and winks out of existence.


The team discussed next steps and circled back around to the fact that the guy with the knife was in overalls and maybe had grease on that bandana across his mouth… and the fact that Bill Muncie showed up when he did after their crash seeming a little convenient… and Bruce Gallow talking about car trouble… yeah. Heading to the Gas’n’Sip seemed like the right way to go.

So they went there, but the convenience store portion was closed up with a “Back in 20 minutes!” sign, and the garage was closed and locked up too; it looked like someone might be doing something in the backroom storage area inside, but they decided not to try to get their attention just yet. They circled around back to see if they could get in the back door, and before he went to kick in the door, Galvan took a moment to assess the situation. The windows at the top of the door were blacked out, and not by paint: this darkness seemed to have some motion to it. As he kicked in the door, it whooshed and vanished into undulating darkness which seemed to be emitting regular “roiling stomach” noises, but otherwise remained covering the doorway, possibly barring passage. Looking around quickly as they collectively backed away slowly, Galvan developed a hunch that this thing wasn’t going to be too upset by him punching it with text-covered fists, and that the better way into the garage was going to be by going in through the convenience store.

That’s when Bill Muncie came around the corner. “Hey there, can I help ya?” — He looked at them blankly, like he didn’t recognize them at all. They explained they were here to see the burnt-out husk of their former vehicle, and that he’d towed them here. Galvan began proclaiming, “I challenge you!” just as Bill looked over his shoulder at the burnt-out husk, puzzlement creeping into his voice.

“What the hell?” asked Bill, before winking out of existence, entirely.

A howling hunting cry erupted from the shadow in the doorway — the Subtractor! — and it attacked.

To be continued.

Continuity list given to the players after the session:

  • Y’all have moved base of operations to Double Tee’s place; you’ll help him clear his name, he’ll get you free medical care.
  • Orson (brain victim) speed-dated with Janet Gallow. She appears to be “speed cheating” on her husband, Bruce Gallow.
  • Bruce works at Sallie’s company (heart victim), and has frequented the Gas’n’Sip with car trouble, or so he claims on facebook.
  • Text-inscribed or infused ammunition or weaponry kills the orbs for real.
  • You’ve been visited/threatened by someone who’s doing an “audition”, and an invisible guy who called Galvan “the Harbinger” and tried to get him to switch teams. Unclear if they’re the same person but it doesn’t seem quite right that they are.
  • Subtractors are a class of monster that remove parts (or, apparently, all) of their victims, replacing them with mostly functional, real-seeming “holograms” that collapse if forced to challenge their existence. So a victim can continue to be alive after its brain or heart has been consumed, but certain mental efforts or heart monitoring can cause the victim to drop dead suddenly as the challenged body part ceases to be.
  • Subtractors haven’t been encountered in the field before, but MI-13’s knowledge base has some information on them under the theoretical creature category.
  • Something’s up at the Gas’n’Sip, maybe having to do with Leon, the mechanic.
  • Bill Muncie ran the Gas’n’Sip; he was alive when he picked up the group from their car wreck that started the session, but had been completely “subtracted” by the time y’all encountered him at the Gas’n’Sip. He was forced to confront this and winked out of existence, entirely.
  • There’s a Subtractor at the Gas’n’Sip, and it’s attacking you.
  • Galvan “read a bad situation” at the Gas’n’Sip: he spotted the Subtractor before it “woke up” (danger you hadn’t noticed yet), he knows that the Subtractor isn’t the thing most vulnerable to him but the guy who summoned it likely is, and that the best way into the garage area is probably through a door in the (closed, locked) convenience store around front. Acting on this information gives him +1 ongoing.

All told between the two sessions we’ve clocked between 4 and 5 hours of actual play-time. Things seem to be going along at a solid pace, and the mechanics are doing a fine job of making sure the mystery never stalls out. Good stuff.

I’ve also interviewed my players to see where I could improve. Some love the pace and feel it’s going nice and fast, others could stand to see it be even faster! And I’d do faster if I didn’t have a reasonable certainty I’d accidentally kill the party in the process. When I kill the party, I want to mean to do it.

This was also a chance for us to realize we haven’t been using the Read a Bad Situation move as much as we probably should, so that’s something to keep an eye on. I also personally need to work on making sure the player-side magic is just as weird (by way of its requirements) as the monster-magic they’re facing. This is one place where my Twenty Palaces sensibilities for the NPC magic and creatures isn’t lining up with the more Supernatural/Buffy style spellcraft the PCs have access to. I need to think a bit about how to address that. Next session is in two weeks, so I’ve got time.

Jun 052014

I kicked off my Monster of the Week game last night. Here’s a quick and haphazard recap.


  • Stuart is a Professional who works for MI-13. MI-13 is layered deep with bureaucracy and hidden agendas, but they’re great at providing him with caches of supplies and cover identities, which is good, because he’s “disavowably” carrying out operations on American soil regularly.
  • Galvan is a Monstrous character, possibly the product of an experiment or other initiative within MI-13. Stuart has been assigned as his handler. Galvan is, in essence, a modern-day Frankenstein’s Monster, only with more question marks and mysteries surrounding his origin. He looks like a burn victim.
  • Beatrice, aka “SpookyBeat” as she was once known online, is an Initiate, but has elements of (i.e., a move each from) the Snoop and Spooky playbooks. In essence I let her take her two “pick a move from another playbook” improvements right at character creation time, replacing those improvements with “pick another Initiate move”. Easy peasy. Anyway! Beatrice used to be an amateur paranormal investigator/vlogger who stumbled onto a haunted house situation that ended up having her confront this room that didn’t exist that was nothing but a flat black void that pushed something invisible inside her and (gasps for breath) made her pass out and then she woke up with a psychic attack power (The Big Whammy) that this super-secretive monster-hunting cult somehow knew she’d acquired and they came to her and brought her into the cult so she could get trained. She’s adorkable and her life is super much more complicated than it used to be.

Nobody other than Stuart really knows that Stuart works for MI-13, and Beatrice especially doesn’t know because keeping an eye on her is Stuart’s long-term assignment. She thinks he just happens to be this fellow investigator who happened to take the same martial arts class she did only he was good at it and she wasn’t. Also she has a fragment of a prophecy that indicates that Galvan is a big deal of some kind and so she’s sticking close to him just in case whatever it is starts to happen.

The session started with Beatrice whiffing on her “start of the mystery” move with her sect, which meant they had to ask her for something bad, and of course they asked her to get about a quarter-cup of Galvan’s blood (or “blood” as the case may be) and put it in this magical chalice thingy they gave her and no, they’re not going to tell her why or what for. (Beatrice went on to fail her other three rolls of the night, rolling snake-eyes twice. Impressive! And good for her too since we’re using the Dungeon World method where you mark XP on a miss, rather than messing with the stats-highlighting. Regardless she got 80% of the night’s 6 or less results.)

Click to embiggen!

Click to embiggen!

So after the characters were all established I started them off with the hook for the mystery, seen to the right. Yes, I goofed and gave one of the victims two last names. I decided to let that stand as a printing error by the newspaper, which I figure supports the whole “make the world seem real” principle as a GM.

As the characters discussed their options, I pushed at them a few thoughts about splitting up to cover more ground (“separate them!” says my list of moves) and they went for it, with a plan for Stuart to talk to the Sheriff, Galvan to investigate the morgue, and Beatrice to talk to the folks who ran the speed dating event. Their cover story was that they were Center for Disease Control investigators, and Stuart (i.e., MI-13) had happily provided the cover identities necessary to do so.

Beatrice hit cellular wi-fi to get a few specific pieces of information, which expanded some of their information base, and also triggered the move she’d grabbed from the Snoop playbook, so bonus there. They dropped her off at the speed dating offices and continued on to the police station.

Stuart and Galvan went to talk to the Sheriff, with Stuart providing their cover story and Galvan looking stoic (“he’s our specialist”). The Sheriff was naturally a little suspicious (as a bystander, that’s her threat-motive, in fact), moreso because Stuart rolled a 7-9 result on his Manipulate Someone move, and so she asked to talk to Stuart’s superior. Stuart tried to get her to take his cell to make the call, but nope, she had the CDC’s number right here, just give her the name. Stuart crossed his fingers and gave a name, and I used that as an excuse to have him roll his “request something from the agency” move. THAT did not go so well, so I decided that as his “get in trouble”, the superior was in fact a MI-13 operative but didn’t appreciate getting called, and took it out by telling the Sheriff to keep an eye on Stuart. That’s gonna have fallout in the next session, I suspect, given how this one went. But they got access to the files and permission to visit the morgue.

Stuart stood by while one of the deputies copied the files on the missing bodies. Galvan went downstairs to the morgue to investigate the scene and talk to Double-Tee (Tyrone Tyrone, which he doesn’t like being called because fuck you Mom and Dad), the guy who was on duty when the bodies disappeared. Double-Tee is getting buried under paperwork to do while the matter is up for investigation by a board of inquiry. He has no good explanation for why the bodies disappeared from the refrigeration units where they were kept, and besides he’s busy. Galvan went to “gather samples” but made such a hash of it that Double-Tee noticed and helped him out, especially after Galvan cited “first day on the job” jitters. Double-Tee is ALL about making sure folks just trying to do their jobs don’t get in trouble right now. Galvan quickly concluded that perhaps he wasn’t the right guy for this job after all.

Beatrice talked to the lady who ran the speed dating thing, Helen Smith, who also works a real estate agent job, and started up this speed dating thing as a way to make use of (and showcase) some properties that haven’t been finding buyers. Economic downturn and broken hearts! It’s sad times out there. Beatrice of course adorkably botched trying to get the list of speed-daters from Helen, which sent Helen off on a tear about privacy and needing to see a warrant. Beatrice got Stuart on the phone and he sorted things out with Helen, thank goodness, so she made it out of there with a little more information about Orson Phelps and a list of speed-daters that they might be able to use to find some sort of connection or common factor with the other victim. She headed off to Starbucks to consider her next move and wait for the guys to wrap up at the Sheriff’s office.

During all of this very little in the way of the Investigate the Mystery move was used. Taking a cue from some discussion on line, the rulebook, and the GUMSHOE system, I was pretty clear that unless they were asking questions that were from the move’s list of questions, the move shouldn’t trigger, and instead I should treat it all as “core clues” that they should just get if they asked the right question or looked at the right piece of evidence. This is a key thing for running a relatively hitchless Monster of the Week session, for sure! 

Back at the morgue, Galvan headed back to the stairwell when a silver golfball came tink-tink-tink down the stairs towards him. It reflected light all wrong, looking like a flat disc that he was looking at straight-on, but moved and rolled around like a sphere would. He reached towards it, and it levitated and attacked, trying to burrow into his experimentally toughened flesh, cutting right down to tendon and bone in an instant (turns out this thing is made of 100% cutting edges). He bashed at it with a gurney (Galvan is supernaturally strong) and knocked it to the other end of the hallway. They squared off against each other, and the silver orb grew in size to silver basketball form.

It charged at him. Galvan brought the gurney up as a protective shield, and the thing sheared it in half. He bashed the orb with one of the pieces, overhand punching the thing too, driving it down into the floor but earning a deep cut into his shoulder for his trouble. Double-Tee called out to ask if everything was all right out there. Stuart had gotten his photocopies and was on his way down when he heard the commotion, and came quickly. He arrived and had just enough time to … well, spill his coffee on the thing, before it yanked itself free. The thing had been weakened by its tussle with Galvan, and Stuart was able to get his gun out and hit the thing point blank; it evaporated in a twisting swirl of smoke.

… yeah. It was probably going to come back soon enough. Of course, more pressing, Double Tee was at the end of the hallway saying, “Y’all aren’t CDC, are ya?” and the cops were on their way down. TT gave Stuart a piece of paper with his phone number on it and went back to his paperwork, all nonchalant. Galvan and Stuart headed up the stairs, narrowly missing the deputies coming down in the elevator but running straight into Deputy Felicia Harlan, who — still buying their CDC cover story — saw Galvan’s wounds and said she’d radio for paramedics before heading down to join the others.

Galvan and Stuart naturally didn’t hang around for the ambulance, and booked on out of there, made contact with Beatrice, and headed her way.

Speaking of Beatrice…

While she was at the Starbucks she decided to use some table sugar to sketch out a quick ritual circle to see if she could gather some premonitions and divinations to help with the mystery. This was the first snake-eyes roll of the night for her, if I recall correctly. Instead, the table shook, the space inside the circle crumbled away to reveal a whispering flat black void that looked pretty familiar to her, and a strong foreboding sense that she should flee town. And with that she was knocked back on her ass — and nobody else in the Starbucks had seen what had happened, so this looked like a lady sitting down at a table, freaking out, and bothering the customers. She was asked to leave.

The guys picked her up and headed on to another location, discussing their next moves. Beatrice got out a book of lore and tried to see if it had anything on the silver orb thing they’d fought at the station. And thus came her second snake-eyes roll of the night. It was getting late, and a miss lets me make a move, so I decided to use this as my trigger for a cliff-hanger.

The car sputtered and started to veer, slowing down a bit, when suddenly a basket-ball-sized silver orb popped out of the hood, coming up through the engine block, killing the car (but not its momentum) and rolling straight towards the three of them trapped in their seats.

To Be Continued.

When I got home, I sent them a quick  “continuity list” for making sure we know where we left off when we have the second session in two weeks:

  • You’ve got a list of employees from Suzie Belter’s place of work
  • You don’t have a list of folks who work out at “Harry’s Hamhocks” or whatever it’s actually called, but you intend to get it and cross reference.
  • You’ve looked at the list of speed-daters, no overlap with Suzie
  • You’ve encountered one or two of the orb things, but haven’t yet managed to gather up the lore on what exactly they are or what their weaknesses are. You know they’re made entirely of cutting edges, reflect light oddly, and can change size.
  • You’ve got Double-Tee’s contact information.
  • Galvan has gotten hurt pretty bad. No medical attention yet.
  • Beatrice has a tome of arcane facts that she’s used for research, but no dice (literally, snake eyes!) yet.
  • Beatrice tried a divination but it went sideways and opened up on this whispering flat black void for a moment.
  • Stuart may have some trouble with the home office when he reports in; they intercepted the call to the CDC and may have told Sheriff Bellwether that she should “keep an eye on him”.
  • One of the orbs has just fucked up your (rental) car pretty bad.
  • Your car is still in motion. (Stuart is driving. Act under pressure time!)
  • The orb is coming right for you.

I’m not too worried about the act under pressure roll that Stuart’s going to be making — he’s a BEAST with the Cool stat, starting right out the gate with a +3. But he could always roll snake-eyes…

Jun 022014

So, somewhat quietly, for the last couple weeks I’ve been running a little experiment with the Atomic Robo RPG PDF. On DriveThruRPG I’ve given it a preorder-period discount that prices it at $11.99. On the Evil Hat webstore, the promotional price is $10.

Before we get too deep into this, I want to point out that this is definite grey-area; the agreement with them talks about getting equal pricing, but (IIRC) also allows for the occasional sales promotion, so I’ve been making the most of that. Today I’ve had my first communication with them where they point out that the price difference is “worrying” so I suspect I’ll need to move the pricing into greater compliance soon. Really that just means the discount will either get less steep on Evil Hat’s site, or the discounts on both sites will just disappear. (They’re both due to reset to the $15 baseline once the physical book ships, at any rate.)

At any rate, the experiment: I’m interested in seeing how much DriveThruRPG’s market positioning and service offerings make them the sales point of preference even if the same product is available for slightly less on our store.

DriveThru’s service offerings and market dominance is nothing to sneeze at! For many it’s the one place they’ll go to shop for PDFs, and they enjoy the ability to maintain both a “bookshelf” of purchases and wishlist of intended purchases across many publishers all in one place. But what’s the value of that, exactly? Or even approximately?

DriveThru has a pretty clear notion of the value to publishers. Depending on whether you’re exclusive with them for PDF sales or not (we’re not), their cut is 30% or 35% respectively. That’s a pretty significant chunka change, you might say. I’ve done enough e-commerce to nod and say, yeah, but the cost of running that site and providing those services and maintaining their market position makes that seem reasonably correct. It does mean that for the purposes of the experiment, even tho we sell for ~$12 through them, we’re making about $2 less per sale than the $10 item on our website gets, due to the cut. Someone talked to me about this on Google Plus when I first put the PDF out there, and I nodded happily and said (paraphrased) “if it’s worth $2 more to you to get it on your DriveThru bookshelf, it’s certainly worth $2 to us to make that possible for you”.

So how well have each sold? Well, given nearly simultaneous release of the $10 PDF through Evil Hat and the $11.99 PDF through DriveThru, the last few weeks have been interesting to compare. On the Evil Hat store, we’ve sold 68 copies. DriveThru, meanwhile, has sold 227 copies. Yeah: they’ve sold over three times as many, and given their position in the market that seems about right. I’m sure they effectively own at least 75% of the RPG-PDF-purchasing eyeballs. That’s why we can’t ignore ‘em, at least not easily; within our wee niche of a hobby, as far as electronic products go, they’re the Amazon.

They deserve it, too. They’ve worked their asses off to get there.

But I do wish they’d let go of the notion of getting exact price equivalence between the publisher’s own webstore and their site. I’m completely happy to give them identical pricing with any other PDF vendor out there, but I don’t like the intrusion into my own “personal” sales space. We are no middle-man sales agent for our own shit, at the end of the day, and now and again I’d like to feel freer to translate that into an extra buck or two of savings for the big fan who wants to come and buy stuff direct from us. Because that takes extra effort on the fan’s part. We can’t provide convenience and breadth of selection and value-added services like DriveThru; buying direct from us is essentially a downgrade as far as all that goes.

We also get into the interesting space, here, that digital goods have no associated inventory. They consume a little bit of storage space while waiting to be sold, yeah, but that kind of storage is cheap and getting cheaper every day. They also consume bandwidth but largely only at the time of sale at which point one can argue the sale is more than paying for the consumption of resources.

If we sold these things like we sell physical books — on consignment, or in advance — then we’d be setting a (discounted) price that we get paid upon sale, and it’d be up to the vendor to figure out if they want to sell the product exactly at MSRP or eat up some of their margin in the interests of pricing a little more competitively. I have no illusions that moving to that sort of model would ever happen with digital sales, but I think it’d be interesting to see how it’d work (or not).

It’d also give the vendor the freedom to do a sale of our stuff without needing our permission. Right now, since the cut is applied to whatever the price of sale happens to be, so it’s shared proportionately by both vendor and publisher, DriveThru needs our explicit permission every time they want to run a sale featuring one or more of our things. (There is a policy for getting products on a “blanket permission list” so they don’t have to ask each time, but regardless, without permission given, they’re powerless to discount.)

I’m not sure I’m going anywhere in particular with this post so much as shining a light on some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about around this topic. Bottom line I find it pretty interesting that even without equivalent pricing DriveThru easily scores 75+% of the sales. And to be honest I would’ve guessed more like 80-90%; once the prices reset to their non-discounted form in what’s probably no more than a few days’ time, that may even turn out to be the longer-term trend. Maybe we “stole” those 5-15 percentage points by pricing ours $2 cheaper, but I suspect not.

At the end of the day, DriveThru is the big alpha dog on the block. Unignorable, always on the prowl, and the one you’ll always hear when they bark. Being the big dog means they get to do big things, pioneering things, and our hobby’s the better for it… even if I wish the structure of things from the publisher side was a bit more flexible now and again. :)

Apr 192014

This is a cross-post with my Google+ feed.  Comments are happening there too. :)

This project just added Fate Core support as a part of its promises, and I wish these guys all the best. There’s a “but” coming after the link.


But. :)

I became alert to this by seeing a tweet that tagged-in Evil Hat’s twitter account: “At backer request, Atlais is adding support for the Fate Core system!”

There are a couple problems with this, IMO. They’re not big problems and from several perspectives they’renice problems to have. But I want folks to spend a little time thinking about this, here.

Problem 1: At Backer Request

Up front, I’ll say this. Listening to your backers is good.It’s smart to take feedback and take responsive action to what you learn from it.

My problem here, tho, is that I’ve seen this dozens of times over the past year (or more, really, tho I think the effect was less pronounced before Fate Core’s KS). And I worry it’s poised to become a kind of “tyranny of the fans” effect.

I’m just not sure it’s healthy for the Fate community to show up to every gaming kickstarter (or setting, or product) and demand/suggest that it also manifest in a Fate incarnation. If gaming is going to continue to thrive long term, it’s going to be with diversity of system and choice, not with Fate getting tacked on to every property there is.

Fate is not one size fits all. Don’t tell people to treat it like it is.

Problem 2: Adding Support

I worry that projects diminish their quality when they serve multiple masters. Adding Fate support to something that wasn’t ground up designed as a Fate product using Fate’s specific strengths does not — for me — produce a reliably strong result.

System matters; setting matters; and system creates setting more than folks have tended to suggest it does. My favorite comparison there is D&D and Rolemaster. Apply either system to the same systemless setting and you’ll get some radically different play experiences and thereby some really different takes on the setting itself. In the worst cases, a bad system match for a setting can lead to a total disconnect, where the promise of the setting is undermined by a system that isn’t aligned to fulfill such a promise.

There’s a secondary problem here, too, part of the same soup. Conversions/extra support aren’t necessarily something you can do well if you just sit down, read Fate Core once, get no play experience in. There’s a certain amount of internalization and mastery that I think is needed — or at least smart-to-have — before you can do a really elegant, tight, clever, solid build in service to a setting.

Without taking time to build that mastery — which is time taken away from focusing on the design that uses the system the setting was originally paired with — there’s a real risk of creating a mediocre Fate implementation.

And maybe that’s all that the fans exerting Problem #1 are looking for, but I’m not sure it’s in good service to Fate, nor in good service to the end result.

Exceptions to this will abound. There are a lot of truly excellent third party Fate products out there. But I think as a community we need to be careful about encouraging it as a tack-on extra, lest we run full tilt into some of those same problems the d20 glut experienced in the wake of OGL licensing.

By all means, add Fate to your game. It’s a lot of fun. But first and foremost, do it mindfully, and in moderation.

Apr 102014

Over the years I’ve gotten asked to do a lot of interviews, text and voice. (Recently, I’ve been interviewed by the Washington Post, even, which was a bit of a head-spinner.) There’s a ton of questions that are the questions I often get.

Recently I agreed to do an interview for a student project, thinking I’d get 5 or 6 of the usual questions. Instead I got 32 questions (many of them variations on “the usual”). I’ll have to answer them briefly due to the volume. (Tip for interviewers: if you want longer answers to your questions, ask fewer questions.)

Rather than answer them just for this project, I’m gonna answer them here in public, so I’ve got something I can point people at when they come knocking. Reduce, reuse, recycle, right?

Here goes.


Name: Fred Hicks

Age: 42

Education: Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida. Did one year of grad school at Oklahoma State, but bailed when I realized I hated doing research & citations, which is pretty much the entirety of grad school.

Occupation: Tabletop game publisher


What is your history with Roleplaying Games?

I first got into them by way of a playground friend named Eamon in the 3rd grade who was tinkering with the contents of the red box in plain sight. Got fascinated by the dice. Pretty much started hacking and houseruling the games I played from the get-go, but didn’t frequently have friends to play them with until I got towards high school and college. Played a ton of Amber and Fudge over those years, along with Champions, GURPS, Beyond the Supernatural, and a few others. Playing Amber online via a MUSH (multi-user shared hallucination) server got me most of the lasting connections & friendships I took into my professional life, in one way or another. Eventually I spent enough time around one of those friends, Rob Donoghue, that our natural tendency to consume and hack RPG systems gave birth to Fate, based on the Fudge system… which was just a weird little side project we did to support our own gaming. But we wanted to share it, and so we did, online, free, and it kinda took off. Enough so that we ended up with the license for the Dresden Files RPG by way of another online friend from those MUSHing days, Jim Butcher. Which gave us the spurs to turn Evil Hat from a casual label under which we did our game projects into a “real” game company around 2006 or so.

How long have you been playing Roleplaying Games?

Let me do the math here… Looks like… 33 years or so.

Have those been mainly your own creations or others?

Most of those years? Others’ creations, with a healthy dose of house rules and hackery. So I suppose the answer is… both?

Before Evil Hat, to what extent have you written your own systems, campaigns and/or scenarios?

Eamon and I were hacking the red box D&D set from the get-go, mainly because as 3rd graders we thought that rolling 3d12 for stats was WAY cooler than 3d6. Go forward a few years, and my friend Merlin (yes, that was his name) and I would tinker with the random mutation tables from Gamma World to create our own superhero system. But usually I talk about “a hack” of an existing system rather than writing something whole cloth, until we get to the Evil Hat years. Tho Fate kinda-sorta preceded that by a few years — Rob and I first started working on that around 2000-2001. At the time, Evil Hat existed, but primarily as a label under which we ran convention scenarios for Amber Diceless at AmberCon Northwest.

What is your primary motivation in your writing processes?

Getting done so I can stop obsessing with the current project and move on to the next one.

Do you enjoy reading and playing others systems, campaigns, scenarios?

Honestly I usually don’t enjoy the reading. RPG setting-writing had a bad rap with me for a long while because so much of it was just dull to me. I don’t have a lot of patience as a reader; you’ve gotta grab me by the hair right out the gate, then do your world-building in as little space as possible so I can have a context for starting to play as soon as possible. To an extent this was part of the motivation behind creating the Fate Worlds series of supplements for Fate Core — most of the worlds in those books are 30-40 pages in length, which is about right for my taste.Playing, tho? Heck yeah. My play & others’ play is how I absorb most of my info about gaming systems and worlds.

What, is for you, the pros and cons of others and your own creations and writings respectively?

So basically in just a few words, explain the entire world or gaming? Easy peasy.

No, not really. But I’ll cover what I can as briefly as I can.

When a game fails for me it fails because it hasn’t made it easy to get into its head-space. Maybe the system is too baroque, or the system’s just fine but the writing around it is opaque, or maybe they just didn’t hit me with a hook up front that compelled me to keep investing time and attention in it.

When a game succeeds it’s usually because it fits the system (and hence, the play experience) very tightly together with what I think is cool about the setting or genre it’s matched with. Folks have talked before about system and setting being separate things, but I don’t think they are, not really. When you get them existing and acting truly separately instead of each informing the other, you have a dysfunctional whole.

I’m not going to name names but that’s the easiest, if most abstract, way I can talk about “the pros and cons of others’ creations and writings”. There’s a ton of great ideas out there that are seen as great by a great many people. I love the variety of this hobby, even if big chunks of the hobby aren’t “for me”.

As far as pros and cons of my own writing and creating goes, the cons are “I had to write it, which is hard work” and “I don’t have time for that any more now that I’m more focused on running the company”. The pros… man, you are asking the wrong guy. Other folks should tell you what’s good about my stuff, not me.

Are there any non-Evil Hat publications you regularly enjoy (or at least want to enjoy)?

Mark Diaz Truman and crew are tearing it up with the Fate Codex. But in terms of stuff I get a chance to regularly enjoy, it’s hard to come up with a list. I have young kids and a game company to look after, which leaves precious little time for other things.

Have you tried to publish your own or someone elses work before starting (at) Evil Hat?

Nope. I wasn’t a publisher before Evil Hat, save to the extent we made the earliest versions of Fate a free download before Evil Hat formally existed as a commercial entity.

What were your experiences with this?

Like I said, nope… but see below.

Is there a difference in the possibilities of publishing now and then?

When we started moving towards that commercial entity state, we approached it all much as individual, self-publishing folk would at the time (2005-2006). Don’t Rest Your Head and Spirit of the Century, our first two products as a company, were published by way of print-on-demand technology, which was pretty young at the time but just starting to get internet-accessible and affordable. Outside of PDFs, e-books weren’t really a thing. The options for print on demand have really expanded in the 8 years since, and thanks to Amazon and others there’s more interest in e-book formats than before.

Evil Hat

In your own words, how would you describe Evil Hat?

An alliance of incredible people making amazing games that they’re passionate about.

How many people are employed at any given time?

Our “regular” folks who help me run the company, including me, number five: I’m essentially the day to day operations of the company; Sean Nittner is our project manager and makes sure the calendars and schedules always make sense and that projects largely stick to their timelines; Carrie Harris focuses on our marketing and fiction efforts; Chris Hanrahan keeps his eye on the future as our business development head; and Rob Donoghue safeguards the soul of the company and comes up with strange, beautiful ideas.Past that core we’ve got at least a dozen or so freelancers working on something at any given time. During busiest times, even more.

Where are you situated and how spacious are your offices?

We don’t have offices. We’re a distributed company, everybody working from home from a variety of time zones. So my own personal office space is as spacious as my living room, because it is my living room.

How and why did Evil Hat Publishing get started?

Jim Butcher asked us to create the Dresden Files RPG for him. Our public tinkering with and subsequent sharing of Fate got some attention, got some awards, and made its way to his agent, Jennifer Jackson. She encouraged Jim to talk to his “award-winning designer friends” to make sure the RPG was something he would be proud of and comfortable with. It was exactly the kick in the ass that Rob and I needed to go from house-rule hackery to a real effort to publish things for actual dollars.

How has Evil Hat evolved since its inception?

Every time we’ve made a significant step forward it’s usually been because we looked at who we were working with already, realized we were doing too much with too few people, and then reached for new folks to help us bridge that gap. Leonard Balsera started working with us when Rob and I realized we weren’t the equal of getting Spirit of the Century done on our own. More recently, I brought on Chris Hanrahan to help me figure out how to expand what the company was doing in the wake of us finally publishing the Dresden Files RPG (June 2010). He helped me see the way to start a number of new projects in the year that lead to the launch of the Fate Core Kickstarter (December 2012-Jan 2013). And it was the profound success of that Kickstarter campaign that brought us both Sean Nittner and Carrie Harris, completing the formation of the “Head”, as it were, that runs the Hat. Thanks to all that we’re more capable today than ever of creating tons of new stuff, all at the same time, without actually blowing our schedules all to hell… which is a huge evolution for us compared to how long it’s taken us to deliver some projects in the past.

Which project/product are you most proud of having contributed to?

Don’t make me choose my favorite baby. If you put a gun to my head, tho, it’s probably a tie between Fate Core and the Dresden Files RPG.


In your own words, can you describe a normal workday at Evil Hat?

It’s gonna vary person to person, but my normal workday involves waking up, stumbling a few dozen feet to my laptop, and getting to work on my email. Most of my time is spent in my email because I use it for tracking what’s “on deck” for me to get done. Sometimes it’s a little bit of layout work or art direction. Other times I’m sorting out packaging or cover design for a new product, or talking with Sean Nittner about project priorities and timelines. It’s an aggregate of a lot of little jobs and conversations here and there.

Which positions do you have at Evil Hat and how are they staffed?

Well, I talked about this above already, I think. We’ve got the five folks running the company. For me, it’s full time, for the rest, it’s more of an evenings and weekends and free time sort of thing. Everyone on the Head gets a monthly payment, tho in most cases since the Head is pretty new and the company’s still pretty young & small it’s not much money at all. As we grow the company, so too will the payments.

Outside of that our creative, development, editing, art, etc, is all done with freelance folks who get contracted to do that work on a project by project basis, usually paid by the word or the piece.

How free are employees to pursue personal projects?

Pretty damned free given the above. In a way, Evil Hat is the personal project for most folks, who typically have a day job for actually paying the bills & getting health coverage, etc.

Which procedures does a project go through to be greenlit?

I don’t know that we have procedures that lead up to a green light. Mostly it’s about coming up with an idea, discussing it with the Head, and getting enough people (at least me + one other person, often Chris Hanrahan) convinced that it’s worth doing.

Past the green light, Sean has been defining a lot of this for us over the past year-or-so. We start with a vision document that talks about the requirements for the project and what we’d like to see in there. After that, an outline. After that, the writing of the first draft; then editing and playtesting and revisions; then production and manufacture.

Since you say that you want to “make things that don’t suck” what is your quality control process like?

A lot of it has to do with giving our creative folk the freedom to create something they’re proud of rather than just hitting the requirements. For games, playtesting is critical too. By the time we reach the production and manufacture stage we need to be confident that we’ve got something that reliably produces fun, both in play and in learning and reading.

When working on licensed products, such as Dresden Files and Atomic Robo, have you experienced any issues with conflicting policies?

Our licensing deals usually come about because the licensor wants to work with us specifically. That eliminates the lion’s share of potential priority conflicts. Our value is already known to the licensor, rather than it needing to be proven at every step of the way.

Beyond that, tho, we typically don’t start up a licensed game project without talking to the licensor somewhat extensively about what they want to see. If they’re coming to us, they’ve got to have ideas of what they’re interested in us — specifically us — doing, and how strongly they feel about those ideas. This helps form our requirements for the project. After all, the licensor is the originator of the ideas that birth the project in the first place.

We also do our best to really study the source material and make sure we’re reliably producing writing and play experiences that feel like they’re coming directly from the property. The Dresden Files RPG, in play, feels like the Dresden Files universe. Same with Robo. Super important. And also another way in which priorities don’t end up in conflict.

Working with Freelancers

How many freelancers do you usually employ at any given time?

Believe I answered this already, but: it has ranged from a handful to a couple dozen.

What are the pros and cons of using freelance work?

For a tiny company — which practically every company in the RPG field is — it’s a practical necessity. RPGs don’t generate the kind of cashflow that can fund many salaries, if any salaries, so you’ve got to do payout and team-assembly on a project by project basis.

The cons? Well. There’s no guarantee your freelancers will be available for every project you have them on. That said, we do our best at Evil Hat to make working for us a fun time, so folks want to come back and do new projects. :)

Kickstarter & Patreon

Why did you choose to use crowdfunding as a means to launch and drive your projects, as opposed to traditional financing?

Traditional financing requires more paperwork and is less fun.

But really, we spent ten years before our first Kickstarter building up an audience. Crowdfunding is an excellent method for converting audience into cash, and it doubles as a marketing/launch/buzz-build campaign while it’s doing it. It’s a LOT of work, but all of its work involves putting something out there for your fans and being available to them while you’re doing it. That’s something I love doing personally, so it’s simply a really good fit for how Evil Hat’s been doing business before crowdfunding came into the picture.

How have your experiences with crowdfunding been?

Stellar. Like I said, it’s hard work, and I think there are always some heavy frustrations to deal with, particularly during the “complaint phases” that every project seems to go through, but the direct connection with the fanbase can’t be beat.

Has crowdfunding changed Evil Hat Publishing and how?

See my comments above about how the Fate Core kickstarter changed the company. It’s a big deal! That campaign alone gave us two years of product line to work on, at the very least, and spurred us to formalize our methods more and expand the leadership team for the company. It’s a sea change, no doubt.


With the wish for high involvement of your community, what channels do you use for interacting with said community?

Primarily social media. We reach out to our fans on Twitter, Google Plus, and Facebook. We also show up occasionally on forum sites like RPG.net and Board Game Geek. We’ve also started using MailChimp for doing direct emails to folks who’ve opted in to learn about what’s going on with the company. And our website has been getting an incremental facelift over the last year-or-so as well, which acts as the hub for all of this.

Does your community play an active role in your creative processes?

Yup. We encourage our designers to “design in the open”, to take their ideas out into public and to the crowd when they’re looking for feedback. Often we also run product preorders where the early-adopter customers can get a look at the PDF of a game right away and send us feedback if they catch typos or other problems from the finishing phase.

How much time and energy do you spend managing and interacting with your community?

I don’t “manage” my communities very much at all, partly because I try to create a culture where the communities don’t need management, exactly. We orient strongly on positive interaction and collaboration and avoid tearing stuff down — that’s a fun geek sport for some folks, but I think it’s poison for a community. And I try to keep an eye out for folks who I can “deputize” to keep that culture on track and take care of any lightweight moderation duties that come about. That’s worked for the Jim Butcher forum I run, for the FateRPG Yahoo Group, and more recently for the Fate Core community on Google+, so I’m pretty comfy with it all as a method.

With that in place, my interaction with Evil Hat’s community is at a kind of constant, but pleasantly low hum. I peek in, listen to what’s being said, occasionally weigh in, for a few minutes here & there all throughout my waking day.

How do you support and interact the Friendly Local Gaming Stores and customers?

Our biggest point of support is via the Bits & Mortar Initiative, a multi-member alliance of RPG  publishers who are willing to give FLGS customers free PDFs of any eligible physical book they’ve bought through the store. This grew out of Evil Hat’s own Brick & Mortar PDF Guarantee policy (which was mirrored by/arose along with similar policies by other publishers). Customers love it, and it means they don’t have to choose between supporting a publisher vs. supporting their favorite game store. PDFs are not the enemy; we’re happy to use them to make our fans more happy with us and more happy with their local stores.

We’re also super transparent and if a game store contacts us with a problem involving one of our products we give them the same high standard of customer service and attention we give all our fans. Game stores are out there every day representing our stuff and giving it a home. They’re taking a chance on our stuff and helping us find new fans. That’s huge. They deserve all the support we can give them.