Starship Tyche Release Date

TYCHE LOGOStarship Tyche: Frontiers+Fate is penciled on my calendar for a June release. For the moment, I’ll commit to “before the end of the month”; I’ll nail down an exact date as the time approaches. I’m being overly cautious because this is the largest project Asparagus Jumpsuit will release to date. I want it to do nothing less than knock your socks off. The variables in release date have to do with our upcoming move from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Jyväskylä, Finland. If things go awry there, it may shift things around a little.

 

Another Great Review for Fate+Fiction: Semper Fidelis

FF-SEMPERFIDELIS“To sum up, this is a good, first, free sample. You can’t go wrong for nothin’. I’d like to see future products have longer fiction. I’d like them to ask more questions with bite. I’d like them to offer more tie-ins with potential PCs. But if this is a preview of what’s to come, I’ll gladly get on board. I could use more of this. And I think other people could as well. ” – Thanks, Seth Clayton!

P.S. This one as short because it’s a freebie. All future F&F stories are longer, as will the analysis and commentary.

5 Star Review for Fate+Fiction: Semper Fidelis

FF-SEMPERFIDELIS“This is extremely thought provoking… and what really makes you think is not the overt concept of a piece of fiction and the role-playing snippets you can extract from it, but the underlying thought-processes of how to look at something you read and glean it clean for role-playing ideas.

“I’d recommend you to buy this, but it’s free! No reason at all not to pick it up and read it through. ” – Thanks, Megan R.!

Revised Character Workbooks (PFRPG)

CW FIGHTERThe first four revised Character Workbooks, for Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard, are now available at Paizo. I’ve released them there first because they’ve never been available there before, so I can roll them out in waves. Once the other 7 core classes are done, I will release them to other sales venues individually and as bundles. I think releasing them to existing stores in waves would create confusion over some classes being in the old version and some in the new. Everyone who has previously purchased a Character Workbook will be pushed a link where they can download the new version for free from the store where they purchased it, when it becomes available at that store.

Shuffle the File Cards

campaign design logoIn my last column I discussed the 4 Noble Truths of Storytelling as applied to outlining  roleplaying game adventures. To recap:

  1. There’s a problem to be solved,
  2. The reason the problem exists can be discovered,
  3. A solution to the problem can be found, and
  4. The characters can solve it.

This is admittedly simplistic and linear, but it gets the job done. From this basic framework you can add layers of complexity and tweak things to make each story feel less formulaic. Today I want to talk about one technique that can be used to build out from the four-act structure.

Anyone who has ever read a mystery knows that answers don’t automatically follow questions. Anyone who has lived any sort of a life knows that things don’t unfold in the order you’d like them to. Clues are found and information presents itself, but make no sense until a context is discovered. The challenge is determine what information has meaning, what’s a piece of the puzzle and what’s a read herring, and then solve that puzzle.

Look at the movie The Hangover. I’m going to use that as an example specifically because it’s not a traditional mystery or a “genre” work. After establishing the characters and setting up the context for the upcoming problem in the first minutes of the film, the movie flows according to the 4 Noble Truths. The characters wake up and discover that things have happened but, most importantly that their friend has gone missing. They set out to discover what happened to him, using the context-less clues they have. They reassemble the information they gain in the following scenes into an order that makes sense and answers questions. Then they fix the various other problems that arise and eventually rescue their friend.

None of this happens in linear order. If it did, it would be quite boring. Most of the humor in the movie arises from the fact that the characters are as lost as the audience; it allows us to share in their discomfort, join in their surprise, and revel in their victories. The confusion creates the emotional connection. Like the relationship btween players characters and players, the guys in The Hangover are the audience.

So how do you plot this out in a roleplaying game? It’s easy, actually. Figure out the timeline of events, both before the characters become involved and parallel to what they’re doing in-game. Write each chronological event on an index card. Then shuffle the cards. The new order of the cards is the order in which the characters will discover the information. Now write scenes and encounters to support that story flow.

In The Hangover, the cards would contain encounters like “Where did the tiger come from”, “How did we end up with a police car”, “Why is my tooth missing”, and “The crazy Chinese man shows up looking for his money”. There are clues without context for some of these, and the players can pursue those clues sandbox-style, in any order and in any fashion they see fit. Some encounters, like the Chinese guy’s first appearance or discovering the tiger, can show up pretty much randomly at any point. As player characters, they have room to wander about and set their own agenda.

There’s a railroad element in there too, as per The Middle Path. There is a deadline, They have to find their friend and get him to the church on time for the wedding. So they can wander in the sandbox, but they have to move quickly and not waste time because the main plot is firmly on rails and moves on without them. If they fai to stick to the timeline, there are unpleasant consequences that they will have to face.

In the next installment, I’ll talk more about how timelines are a matter of perspective. 

Fate+Fiction Premieres

FF-SEMPERFIDELISThe first Fate+Fiction release is out now! It’s a freebie, containing a short story, Aspects drawn from the story, and other gameable ideas based on the story. It is exactly the same format and type of content that you can expect from future Fate+Fiction releases, with the sole difference being that this story is very short. Other releases that you’ll see in the coming weeks will be a bit meatier, with a longer page length.

We’d really like your feedback on this, and I personally would appreciate it if you help spread the work of its existence.

Download Fate+Fiction: Semper Fidelis FREE at DriveThruRPG and RPGNow!

4 Noble Truths of Storytelling

campaign design logoIn my previous campaign design column (”The Middle Path”) I discussed general campaign structure, using a loose plot format that strikes a balance between rigid railroading and the open sandbox. Today I want to talk about how I structure individual adventures, or episodes.

My preference is to use a four-act structure. It may sound strange, but the formula that I use is based on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. My adaptation has nothing to do with religion, though; it’s simply a good structure for telling a story simply and cleanly.

The first “noble truth” is that a problem exists. There’s unease. There’s suffering. A dragon kidnapped a princess. A merchant trader needs people to guard his caravan. The supervillain stole the Macguffin. This is the general plot, and the motivation for the character to go adventuring.

As a first act, this is the setup. You can do it with exposition, but I have a soft spot for beginning in media res and jumping right to the action. Show, don’t tell. Have the characters witness the kidnapping of the pricess. Demonstrate why the caravan needs guards by having brazen bandits try to steal something right there in the village. Have the villain steal the gadget from the characters. Make it personal, if possible. In a worst-case scenario, I’ll present an unrelated encounter, akin to the before-the-credits action sequences that open most James Bond movies.

The second noble truth is that the cause of the problem can be known. There is an answer to the question “why?”. There’s a reason for what happened in the first act. The dragon kidnapped the reason for a purpose. The bandits are after something specific in the caravan. The villain needs the Macguffin for some nefarious end. The bad guy craves something. Sometimes, one or more characters crave something as well. If the first act was a call to action, the second act creates an itch that the players will want to scratch.

In the second act, the characters learn a little bit about why. This adds some texture to the plot, and keeps things from being a one-dimensional hack-and-slash fest. This is where a callback to a larger plot can be tied in, by showing how this story fits into the bigger picture of the campaign.

The third noble truth affirms that there is a solution to the problem. The princess can be rescued. The dragon can be slain. The bandits and the villains can be defeated. This act is about the “how”. Whether the players decide on a course of action themselves, or they’re given additional information, clues, or special equipment from a supporting character, this is where the plan comes together.

The third act is a good place to vent some steam, especially if the second act ends on a down note like The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a good place to pull in an NPC from a previous adventure, who has what the players need; they don’t have to be friendly, so players get to settle some old scores from past adventures. It’s also where I like to slip in new NPCs, who seem minor now but will develop in importance over the length of the campaign.

The fourth noble truth is just following the path laid out in the third act. Go save the princess. Ambush the bandits at their camp. Have that dramatic confrontation with the villain and foil his plan (but not his master plan, if this story is helping to build a larger campaign plot).

The fourth act should wrap up all of the loose ends for this story, and move the ball forward on the overall campaign storyline. It can introduce new problems, though, that will lead directly into the first act of the next adventure. It doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger, but it should drive the players to want to keep going, and to come back next week to see what happens next.

One of the benefits of this structure is that it restrict the amount of time between set up and payoff. Like a TV show, the problem introduced in the first scene is resolved by the last scene. There has to be a sense of accomplishment, an emotional payoff. This is especially true if there is a larger goal to the campaign, and the players are delayed the gratification of defeating the big bad, fulfilling the larger quest, saving the whole wide world.

This structure also allows for the incorporation of long-term plotlines, as I hinted at above. It lets the gamemaster work in some “fluid developments”, like ramifications of players’ actions in previous games. Past plots, past relationships with NPCs, will influence this one. Bad guys’ relationships to previously encountered bad guys will influence what they do and how they deal with the player characters. It can make the difference between this feeling like a stand-alone adventure and an episode of a larger campaign.

With four players being more or less the standard for groups I’ve played in, this structure also allows each character to be the focus on one scene. This can be a personal subplot focus, working elements of their own back story, romance, or other life complications into the scene. It can also be as simple as showcasing that character’s abilities, with a combat encounter specially made for the fighter’s style, feats, or magic weapon, the thief’s ability to evade traps, or the wizard’s thirst for knowledge and power.

Of course this basic formula can be played with, with each act broken into multiple parts, acts combined, and elements rearranged to suit the needs of the individual story. But the essence of it has served me well for many years, has made preparation for a game much easier, and have made the stories I tell for richer and more detailed.

Fate+Fiction: Am I Crazy?

DTRPG FATE FICTION FILMAs I’ve been working toward the launch of our Fate+Fiction line, I’ve begun to wonder if I’m crazy. Or, rather, if other people will think I’m crazy. I mean, moreso than they already think that I’m crazy.

Fate+Fiction takes short stories, both original and classic, and pulls out the Aspects hidden within. You can read and enjoy each story on its own, and then take various elements — characters, situations, events, and so on — and drop them into your own Fate game. They’re meant to be unusual resources. They’re not prepackaged adventures or setting books. They’re not simply lists of Aspects. They’re abstract inspiration tools. If you don’t use anything about the story, or any of the Aspects provided, hopefully each Fate+Fiction release will still spark your creativity, show ways that Aspects can be used, and demonstrate how fiction can be mined for ideas.

My worry is that it is different, and a lot of tabletop roleplayers don’t seem to respond well to different. They tend to be literal-minded. They want a book of new monsters, new feats, new spells. I think short stories with abstract game mechanics will confuse and enrage some people, because they won’t know what to do with them, and I’m not spelling it out in black and white. Fate+Fiction releases will require the reader to come to the table with an open mind and an active imagination.

I worry that people will come to the product with expectations, even if they’re not expectations that we’re setting. I’ve experienced it before. I released a (now unavailable) Pathfinder PDF that presented spellbooks as treasure items. I formatted them as magic items. Each “book” had a list of the spells contained therein, along with other information, various benefits to the reader, and other magical properties. The people that “got it” enjoyed it and gave it good reviews. The people who didn’t understand it were brutal. I got bad reviews and hate mail, all because it didn’t meet and expectation that I had never set. One guy wanted it to be scans of an actual spellbook, which I take to mean that rather than stats and flavor text for magic items that happened to be spellbooks, he expected that I’d written the text of what a fictional spellbook would look like. I never said the product was anything like that, but that’s what he wanted, and he was pissed when I didn’t deliver.

Expectations and literal-mindedness give me agita when I look at stories like “Semper Fidelis” by Gary E. Weller. It’s short, exactly 100 words, and it’s a great character piece. It’s tense, and emotional. You could drop the Aspects that I mined from it into any setting at any point in history. Change the military organization, and it would work for everything from fantasy to horror to science fiction. It makes me think of the relationship between a character’s background and his or her motivations. I love it. Yet I expect, no matter how I explain it or what kind of blurb I put on it, someone will send me hate mail because they thought it was going to be a 300-page sourcebook on the United States Marine Corp for the Fate RPG. That’s not what it’s advertised to be, but someone will feel that I somehow cheated them.

Most of the stories I’ve chosen for the first round of releases aren’t even genre stories. Many have genre overtones, but if I had to classify them I would put most in the realm of literary fiction, or just plain fiction. Personally, I don’t think it matters. I think that makes the stories, and the Aspects, more universal and more accessible. You can use the plot hooks and the characters anywhere, from the bridge of a starship to the cobblestone streets of Victorian London, with equal ease. You’ll get different results, different types of stories, with different tropes, but that’s the point. You get ideas that are reusable. Still, someone’s not going to get it, and post ridiculous, hateful comments on forums.

That’s not going to stop me from releasing the Fate+Fiction titles, though. I think most Fate RPG players will get it. They’re used to the abstractions of Aspects and setting design that the system has, and most consider it a strength. I also want to be a publisher that raises that bar a bit. I don’t want to just crank out more of the same-old same-old lowest common denominator sourcebooks for the masses. The Asparagus Jumpsuit Mission Statement says “We believe in literacy, curiosity, and creativity. Through these things individuals, societies, and the entire world are enriched and transformed.” The Fate + Fiction line was created to help uphold and promote these values.

Campaign Design: The Middle Path

campaign design logoWhen I’m going to gamemaster a new campaign, I lay out a roadmap in the form of an overall plot. I figure out a beginning, points in the middle, and the end. While I’d love to believe that any given game will run for years, I think reports of those groups that have been playing the same campaign for decades are the exception rather than the rule. I look at a campaign as a season of the television series, one with interconnected episodes and a solid story arc. If it does well, I can keep the campaign going with another “season”.

I refer to my method of campaign planning as The Middle Path, and I’ll show you how I do it. It isn’t difficult, deep, or even particularly groundbreaking or original. It’s just simple and effective. I call it the middle path as a reference to other campaign styles that I see as being on opposite extremes, with the method I use striking a balance between the two. Let’s begin by looking at those.

Railroading

As the name implies, this sort of campaign is on rails, and the gamemaster alone laid the track. The players might be able to control the speed and what happens on the train, but it only goes in one direction and cannot turn. It makes it easier for the gamemaster to prepare, because no matter what the players do events will progress from A to B to C, in order. It’s very deterministic, and doesn’t allow for much (or any) input from players. Most people denounce railroading as a bad thing for that reason, but gamemasters continue to do it because once you’re prepped the game runs on autopilot.

The Sandbox

In a sandbox campaign, the gamemaster puts together some plot hooks or a map, but the players decide where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do. It highly values player input, and is praised for this. While most MMO popular MMO games are designed this way, in a tabletop game it requires a highly skilled, highly prepared gamemaster. The GM basically has to be ready for anything, and able to cater to the players’ whims. It can be fun, but it can also be put a lot of pressure on inexperienced gamemasters and turn into a frustrating and tedious chore.

The Middle Path

The Middle Path combines some of the structure of the railroading model with much of the freedom of the sandbox model. Rather than a solid storyline, the gamemaster comes up with a goal or objective. This has to be specific — throw the Ring into the volcano, stop the Elder God from rising, defeat the supervillain. The ramifications of failing to achieve the goal should be clear. The means of achieving the goal, however, are vague and left open to intepretation by the players; they get to work out how they’re going to do it.

So you have a beginning, which is how and where the player characters learn about the problem and agree to take on the mission. You have an end, which is the final encounter where the players hopefully achieve the goal. In the middle you have things that either have to happen, or will be interesting to happen, but they don’t necessarily have to happen in order.

Think of The Lord of the Rings as an example. We start with the Fellowship assembling. We know that we’re going to end at Mount Doom. In between there are challenges and obstacles, but most of those don’t have to take place in order. Yes, some are location-dependant — you’ll meet specific people in specific locations. But leave it to players to decide where they’re going to go, and when, and then alter your subplots and subtle points based on what the players and how those things work out. Fight orcs. Get stalked by Gollum. Make some alliances, break some alliances, let players do what they think will help them, sandbox-style. They still ultimately have to end up at Mount Doom. They can wander, but the clock is running on that goal. Occasional reminders, either in-game from orcs marching in what were once lovely places to bad guys trying to kill the PCs and get the ring, or directly from the gamemaster, will be enough to keep things moving.

The Middle Path works because it balances player contribution with gamemaster prep. It takes more on the art of the gamemaster than railroading, but far less than an open sandbox. It allows players to make decisions and affect the world, but it also provides a context for doing so.

 

Character Workbooks, Revised

CW FIGHTERWe’re currently working on revised editions of the Character Workbook line for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. We’ve made some changes based on requests and feedback from customers, greatly improving the clarity and usability of the documents. The new versions also have embedded links to Paizo’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Reference Document (PRD), so you can look up relevant feats, skills, spells, and special abilities with ease.