There are times when it would be easier to not see the world from the point of view of a gamer and game-designer. Why? Because once you make the language and process of narrative game design a significant part of your vocabulary, it can be difficult to see things without those "game design glasses" on.
I’ve been asked in interviews just how much of the Freedom City setting for Mutants & Masterminds is my "home" game setting. Surprising to many, the answer is "not much at all." I based fairly little of Freedom City on my own superhero games, partly because the setting started out as a project to create a specific "iconic" kind of superhero setting for publication and partially because, for me at least, "homegrown" settings have more of an organic "patchwork" feel to them, where it would be difficult to sift out the parts I created from the parts I borrowed from all over the place (or "sampled" in music parlance).
You see, my longest running superhero setting started out as a Marvel Super-Heroes game (using the old TSR-era Advanced rules) but I borrowed heavily from major superhero games at the time like Champions and Villains & Vigilantes. One of the first adventures I ran was The Coriolis Effect, and Dr. Arcane’s sacrifice became the inspiration for the player characters to form a team. They received his mansion (near Marblehead, Massachusetts, in my setting) as a bequest from his granddaughter and turned it into their headquarters.
In another early adventure, the heroes fought Armadillo from the Champions rulebook, turning him into the "Stilt-Man" joke character of the series (poor guy couldn’t catch a break). They met the Crusaders from the V&V adventure Crisis at Crusader Citadel (based out of New York City in my setting) and the Soviet characters from the crossover adventure Trouble for HAVOC (with stats for V&V, Champions, and Superworld and, yes, "Soviet," it was 1986…). Nightwraith, a background character from Aaron Allston’s The Circle organization for Champions actually became a player character, when an adventure to find the missing Golden Age hero unearthed him in suspended animation and involved a journey into his mind. One of the players really liked Nightwraith and wanted to play him. Both Nightwraith and Paladin (another PC) were former WWII comrades and members of "The Golden Agency", a name I lifted from Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme. And so on.
Maybe the best example of the "hybrid" nature of the setting was Deathstroke, the most infamous villain team of the game. They were a group of super-powered mercenaries-for-hire who plagued the heroes on a number of occasions. The name comes from the Champions adventure of the same name, but they share no members in common (I just liked the name). Their leader was Metallus, a magnetic controller and transmuter (able to turn people into metal), lifted from the adventure in the Avengers Coast-to-Coast sourcebook for Marvel. His second-in-command was Helm, a "techno-telepath" inspired by Marvel’s Mentallo, DC’s The Thinker, and the cyberpunk craze of the ’80s. There was Jammer, a power-nullifier pretty much borrowed whole-cloth from Scrambler of the Marauders (of Marvel’s "Mutant Massacre") and Temptress, a pheromone-enhanced life-drainer (looks inspired by a number of cat-suited villainesses), plus Incognito, a master of disguise and martial arts, drawing upon Mystique, Wolverine, and Deathstroke the Terminator, amongst others. Lastly, there was the classic Champions villain Ankylosaur (who got taken way more seriously than poor Armadillo, must be the spikey bits). Deathstroke frequently worked for Thomas Frost, a crooked businessman and rival of a PC’s secret identity, very much in the mold of Iron Man’s foe Justin Hammer, or the corporate mogul Lex Luthor of the late 1980s.
Now, I’m not saying no elements of my old superhero games have ever found their way into various things I’ve written. Envoy from the Golden Age Liberty League is heavily based on Paladin, for example, and Incognito wormed his way into the Villainomicon for Icons. And the player characters’ team? They were called "the Paragons", which eventually found a Mutants & Masterminds use (even if it had nothing to do with the original characters or setting).
Personally, I hope many M&M Gamemasters are treating the Freedom City and Emerald City settings, characters, and adventures, in much the same way: mixing and re-mixing elements into their own unique blends of superhero action and adventure. Indeed, I hope Mutants & Masterminds source materials go beyond the game system and find uses in settings and adventures for Champions, Icons, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Supers! and many other games; my way of "paying forward" for all of the great ideas and fun provided by the superhero RPGs and comics of my youth.
So what’s your style of setting creation: a "canon" published setting like Freedom City or something of your own making? A "remix" from different sources or something drawing primarily from one source? Tell us about your own super-settings (remixed or otherwise) on the Atomic Think Tank forums!
It’s summertime once again (even in Seattle, where the sun has finally come out) and that means that convention season is upon us. I love this time of year because after many months of toiling away under rain clouds, I get to go out, meet people, and enjoy the energy of many great conventions. This year our schedule is packed.
A recent comment over on our Atomic Think Tank forum about how the Power Profiles for Mutants & Masterminds made the commenter feel like he was part of a "living game" got me thinking about the products we put out, the ways their perceived by all of you, and how our philosophy has changed over the years.
Gamers can’t what? Not, not "gamers cannot," gamers’ cant, the unique jargon and terminology that develops amongst gamers and gaming groups. You know, the way you know somebody you’ve just met is a gamer when they slip, laugh, and say "Missed my Dex roll!"
Then there are the specific "dialects" of gamers’ cant that develop amongst game groups. Every group I’ve encountered has their own: in-jokes and references to games, some of them from years ago, which linger in their collective memory. Some have even been passed on to new members of the group, who weren’t even around for the original incident, but still "remember" it through the group’s lingo. My own gaming group (which has been together in various configurations since college) is no different. Here’s a look at some of the more popular bits of gamers’ cant in our dialect:
About this time last year I conceived the idea of A Game of Thrones Edition of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. We were running low on core rulebooks and also on the Peril at King’s Landing adventure. With a new season of the Game of Thrones TV show scheduled to debut in April 2012, I wanted to make sure we had core books ready to sell. I also wanted to get the phrase "Game of Thrones" on the cover, so people not familiar with the novels would make the connection between the show and our game. The solution seemed simple enough. Take the original core book, update it, and append Peril at King’s Landing. That’d put a full length adventure right in the rulebook, which would be useful to new GMs. I explained the plan to George and asked if we could call the new rulebook "A Game of Thrones Edition" and he said sure. Simple enough plan, right?
Coming Soon: The Night’s Watch
Happy Friday, folks.
Well, we’ve got one more episode of this season of Game of Thrones, and it’s been a heck of a ride. But don’t despair—with HBO wrapping up the current season, and Mr. Martin working steadily on the next book, we here at Green Ronin will help keep your appetite sated for All Things Westerosi.
We’ve already revealed the cover for our next presentation for the line, Night’s Watch. This sourcebook details the history of the Night’s Watch and the geography of the Wall, along with rules for creating those brothers who’ve taken the Black. It also details the wild lands north of the Wall, with a chapter on wildling tribes, cultures and characters. Finally, it includes an appendix that takes a look at the Lords of the Long Night: the Others. In fact, as a bit of an appetite-whetter, we present the Child-Taker, one of the many terrifying legends the hearthwives and storytellers among the wildlings use to frighten their children into behaving…and to warn one another.
If you’re curious, it was reading about Chris & Nicole’s ongoing at-home game night that’s got me wanting to talk about my playtest game night. I get to play a few different games on good weeks. I try to play board games like 7 Wonders or party games like Celebrity with my regular potluck group. Some nights I get to play RPGs for straight-up fun, no work attached, and sometimes I play them for a mix of entertainment and study.
In 1999 Nicole and I decided to start hosting a game night at our place to play RPGs. While we’ve moved from that apartment, cycled many friends in and out of the group, and changed the night of the week several times, game night has been going on as close to weekly as we can manage for the last 13 years. It’s a key social activity for us and one that we always try to maintain. Even last year, when I spent 10 months in Austin working on the Warhammer 40K MMO, I Skyped in for at least part of the night to keep that connection. Maintaining a game group is not without its challenges though, and we’ve faced many over the years. I know we’re not alone in this either. How many of these sound familiar to you?
Many Players, One GM
For many years, I ran nearly every RPG on game night. In the early years we played a lot of d20 games, as Green Ronin was one of the leading d20 publishers during that era. I had a long running D&D campaign, ran Freeport adventures, and playtested V for Victory, the World War 2 mini game I designed for Polyhedron Magazine. Later I ran a playtest for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd edition, and even a short-lived Lord of the Rings game when it seemed like we might get to design a LotR game for Games Workshop (not getting to design that game still makes me sad). Later there was Dragon Age, of course, but game night is not all about playtesting. I also ran stuff like a Savage Worlds Day After Ragnarok game and a weird mash-up of Feng Shui, Underground, Delta Green, and Deadlands. Once in a while, someone else would volunteer to run and I’d enjoy just playing, but those campaigns never lasted. We’d do 3 or 4 sessions and then I’d be back in the GM’s chair. I do like to GM but a certain point I started to get burned out. We got another GM when Ray Winninger joined the group, but ultimately Ray decided he preferred running longer sessions on weekends than working within the constraints of a week night that includes dinner and socializing (and hey, Ray, you can start those up again any time!).
Some groups have one glorious campaign that lasts for a decade or more but in my experience those games are the exception. Most campaigns seem to last six months or less. That is certainly true of our group. We’ve had maybe two that have lasted longer than a year. Naturally then, a common question is, “What are we playing next?” This isn’t always easy to answer. Tastes vary widely among our group and what we ended up playing was often a matter of compromise. In all our years of game night, I’ve never run one of my very favorite games, Pendragon, because I knew we had players who just wouldn’t be into it. That game requires a group of players who really buy into the setting and concepts, and I didn’t want to frustrate myself by trying to force it on them.
I look back fondly on my teenage years, when I had way more free time for gaming. Everyone in our group (with the exception of my step-daughter Kate) is a grown up and of course we have all sorts of responsibilities. Almost everyone who has ever been in our group works in either the tabletop or video game industries, so there have been many times that we lose people for months of crunch time. Convention season is another difficult time, as many of us travel for weeks in the summer to attend this con or that. Marc “Sparky” Schmalz, GR’s Director of E-Publishing, also went back to school a couple of years back, which sometimes limits his time. Mitch Gitelman, an old friend who joined the group while I was in down south, is one of the guys behind the recent Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter and we’re pretty sure that’s going to keep him busy. So while we try to meet every week, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes it has seemed like the whole thing will unravel, but we’ve always pulled it back.
The game industry can be volatile so we’ve had to watch many friends move away for new jobs, but we’ve also filled empty spots with friends who have moved to Seattle for a new gig. Sometimes the same person has done both those things. The most famous example is Bruce Harlick of the old Hero Games crew, who moved here to work on the Matrix MMO, was part of group for many years, and then moved back to California for several other video game jobs (ending with his current gig at Zynga). We still call him “Bruce the Traitor” for leaving us but he’s far from the only one. Jim Bishop left to go work at BioWare, Patrick Swift for a job at Upper Deck and now Cryptozoic, Tim Carroll for a job at Apple, Jess Lebow for a job at Ubisoft (and the distance record by moving to China!) and hell even me for a while when I lived in Austin last year. Every time we gain or lose people, the dynamic changes a little bit. This isn’t always bad, but it’s another thing that makes long term campaigns hard. GR’s webmaster Evan Sass gets bonus points for being the one person outside the household who has stayed with us through thick and thin.
For many of the reasons outlined above, we’ve found it harder and harder to maintain campaigns. While the group was originally conceived as RPG focused, a few years ago board and card games started to overtake that. Since the group often varied week to week, depending on who was traveling or crunching or what have you, it seemed better to play games we could finish in a night. And as I mentioned, I was also burning out on GMing and I wanted a break as well. So we’ve ended up playing games like Ticket to Ride, Dixit, Thurn and Taxis, Small World, Formula Dé, Dominion, and recently Miskatonic School for Girls (a Kickstarter that Nicole backed).
As you can see, we’ve had our ups and downs. Some nights we don’t even game at all. Nicole Lindroos, in addition to being Green Ronin’s General Manager, is a fabulous chef, so she always cooks and we drink, talk, and catch up. Those nights are fun too and even if we only talk about gaming (which is pretty much inevitable for us), I’d rather get together than miss a game night. It’s gaming that keeps us bonded together, keeps us coming back week after week to socialize, and keeps our friendships strong. Of course, it’s better when we actually play something but now my step-daughter Kate (who is 16) is part of the group and she’s helping to keep us honest. Last week she basically told us that game night without games was bulllshit and she wanted to play a superhero RPG please. I think we raised that girl right!
Advances in technology are always changing the process of publishing, from the advent of desktop publishing to the development of electronic publishing, print-on-demand, tablets, and fundraisers like Kickstarter. We at Green Ronin work to keep up on the latest innovations and how they can help us to bring you new products in new ways.
One of those ways was producing smaller, focused products we could deliver electronically in PDF format to provide support for our games. We started with the launch of Mutants & Masterminds, Third Edition, figuring the most useful support for that game out of the gate was villains for the heroes to fight. So we came up with what we initially called "Villain of the Week": a single bad guy, written up with game stats, background, and adventure hooks, with an "app price" of 99 cents, like buying a song on iTunes. We worked on getting at least a month’s worth of releases prepped and ready to go before we launched the series, which we eventually named "Threat Report" making it a weekly update from AEGIS, the super-agency dealing with villains in the setting.
Threat Report was well-received. It didn’t do as well, sales-wise, as a print product, but it also didn’t need to: the overhead costs for the individual issues was lower, so we could sell to a smaller audience. Some villains did better than others, but all of the issues at least broke even, and continued to do well afterwards. It proved to us that a weekly series of smaller products was viable, and a good way to provide continuing support for a game that didn’t involve producing a large book. As a plus, we could compile the smaller products and use them to produce a book eventually, as we’ve done with Threat Report.
Of course, the weekly publishing process was also a learning experience. We had to greatly compress our usual production timeline. Even getting a month or so ahead of the publishing dates, we needed to produce and develop text, art, and layout quickly. Having a standardized layout helped, something we carried over to the Power Profiles series. We needed to make sure our art orders were planned well in advance. Even then, art did not always keep pace with the text, leading to occasional hold-ups or reschedules as art came in late or in a different order. We also learned to standardize our art: in Power Profiles, each issue has the same art specs in terms of size and placement, allowing finished art to fit into the layout quickly and easily (unlike the character pieces in Threat Report, which often involved reflowing and adjusting text and layout).
On the other hand, the weekly schedule made our products more responsive: we got regular feedback from fans on our forums about what they liked and didn’t about the format and content. Threads began devoted to speculation and wish-lists on future releases as well as reviewing the current ones. So later issues in the series benefited from information we would not have gotten if they had all been chapters of the same book.
After we completed a full year’s worth of issues for Threat Report, we decided to wrap it up and launched the Power Profiles series. Fans of Threat Report were initially uncertain but Power Profiles has proven, if anything, to be more popular than Threat Report, allowing us to provide another type of regular support for M&M. The smaller electronic format has done so well that we’ve expanded it to our other games lines, offering similar (although not weekly) products for Dragon Age (and, eventually, A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying). The format has also allowed us to provide more "generic" support for the Adventure Gaming Engine, which has met with great fan approval.
As new innovations continue to change how publishing happens, you can expect to see us continue to experiment with new formats, new kinds of products, and new ways of delivering them to you for your gaming enjoyment. With the popularity of Kickstarter as a funding and marketing mechanism, who knows, there might be an offering there in the future…
Have a type of product or publishing you think we should be exploring? Hit our forums and let us know!