Miscellaneous geekery

ALL HAIL WHITE DOT: MST3K season 13 premiere

Tonight I got to do something really fun: I attended the livestream of MST3K’s season 13 premiere, Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, as part of their soft launch of the new Gizmoplex. This screening for Kickstarter backers was the first time I’ve ever watched an MST3K livestream, and it was a hoot.

I rarely get to watch MST3K with anyone else. My wife and kiddo aren’t into MST3K, and outside of a few episodes during college — when I was introduced to the show — I’ve mainly watched it as a solo experience. Being “there” with thousands of other MSTies and feeling that connection was awesome.

We’ve got movie sign!

The episode was superb (as was the movie itself; here’s my Letterboxd review), and after some technical difficulties the rest of the stream went great.

My other favorite onscreen message was “We really did test this”

But the breakout star of this whole launch experience was the white dot. (Or egg. Or ellipse. But dot really does sound best.)

Nothing NSFW in the livestream chat, it’s just pixelated to placate my inner privacy fetishist

While they were fixing the projector, several thousand MSTies spent a lot of time looking at the white dot. The livestream chat — already about as legible as a page from a novel taped to a whirring drill bit — was on fire with dot references, and that stayed true throughout the episode and on into the post-episode chat.

The most-voted viewer question was about whether the dot would be returning in future episodes. I sincerely hope it will.


Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
Miscellaneous geekery RPG community Tabletop RPGs

11 years, 175 projects: Kickstarter noodling

Back in 2016, after 5 years of backing Kickstarter projects, I wrote one of my favorite Yore posts — a personal sniff test for what I back and why (or why not). I missed the golden opportunity to do a 10-year version of that post, but today I’m writing the 11-year version instead.

Kickstarter projects I’ve backed from 2011 to 2021 (look at that correlation between the pandemic and backing stuff that works well from home)

Kickstarter has changed a lot in the past six years. I still primarily use it for preordering RPG stuff, so that’s generally the lens through which I view it — and the RPG community and industry has also changed a lot in the past six years. Those changes have affected how, whether, and when I back stuff on Kickstarter. (Here’s my Kickstarter profile.)

Notes on data neepery

The chart above doesn’t quite match my full list of backed projects (184), since I don’t count projects I backed for $1 unless I later upped my pledge, and there are a couple other uncounted oddballs. It’s also a bit fuzzy in some places; for example, I count most dice projects as “RPG,” because I tend to buy dice to use during play, but not all dice projects. “Other” also isn’t a super-useful category, but it reflects my approach to Kickstarter: I rarely go there planning to back anything but RPGs or board games, but comics and movies/TV have a small but significant throughline so they get their own buckets. But for getting a big-picture view, this chart is more than accurate enough.

It was also a pain to create, because at some point Kickstarter stopped foregrounding when a project funded. It used to be on the main page for each project; now you have to scroll through updates until the funding date appears. In my cynical view, this is because seeing projects which funded years ago but still haven’t delivered could scare potential backers — and revenue — away from other projects.

By the numbers

Of the 175 projects that made the cut to be included in my chart, 62 are things I wish I hadn’t backed for one reason or another. That includes a few projects that never panned out (though I don’t believe their creators intended them to be scams), and a few campaigns that were run quite poorly — but the bulk of those 62 are projects I wasn’t excited about anymore once they arrived.

With success defined as 1) the project delivers and 2) I’m excited when it does, my success rate is about 65%. That’s quite a bit lower than my success rate for purchasing RPG products at retail, which is probably closer to 90%, but it’s about the same as my success rate with board games. I’m generally an enthusiastic person when it comes to RPG stuff; I want to be excited about new games. But this tells me I should back 2/3 as many RPG projects in 2022. Of course, picking the right 2/3 is the real trick!

Revisiting my 2016 sniff test

The star of my 2016 list is the maxim that still applies with the most force in 2022: Have your shit mostly done. I stand by everything I said about this one in 2016:

This mainly applies to gaming books, and comes back to skin in the game. If all you have is an idea, whoopdedoo. I have lots of ideas, everyone has lots of ideas, fuck your idea. Write the damned book. If you can’t invest capital, invest time and energy and then start the KS. I make rare exceptions to this rule for people/companies whose work already lines my shelves; I know they’ll deliver.

Past Martin, 2016

Here are the maxims from my full 2016 list, with 2022 notes:

  • No board/card games: This remains my initial position when I run into a board game project that looks like fun. I consider an unplayed board game a failure on my part (unlike unplayed RPGs), but my track record has improved — and these days, so many major publishers use Kickstarter that I’m generally just preordering a game I would have preordered somewhere else in the past.
  • No FC0B: I’ve softened on this one for zines, since the investment is usually ~$10 and it’s a great way for new creators to get into publishing. But outside of that, this one holds up.
  • No at-cost fulfillment: No longer a factor. Shipping is such a fuckfest, especially during the pandemic, that I don’t care how a project plans to do fulfillment (unless they appear to have no plan for it at all). By all means, farm out your shipping and/or production and charge me for it later.
  • No spreadsheets: The only exception I can recall making is for Car Wars 6th Edition, because that project was understandably massive (and worth it). So this one has held up well for me.
  • No paid autographs: I can’t remember the last time I even saw a paid autograph option in a project, so this is largely irrelevant these days.
  • There must be a print option: It’s complicated. In 2016 I barely used RPG PDFs, but in 2022 I use them almost exclusively (and have for several years). If I’m going to preorder something, though, it’s almost always because I’m excited about it enough to give it shelf space, and/or the use case for it benefits from print (RPG modules, for example). I don’t get excited about preordering PDFs. And just to finish muddying the waters, I can’t remember the last time I saw a PDF-only RPG project.
  • Have your shit mostly done: 100%. I’ve taken chances on this front a couple times in the past five years, and they were mistakes. “Fuck your idea” is still a useful maxim.
  • Have actual risks and challenges: Kickstarter is such a known quantity now that I never even read this section anymore. I can generally tell whether a project is risky just from reading the rest of the project page.
  • Limited clutter: This is part of my holistic risk assessment, so it still holds true. Like some of my other 2016 guidelines, though, it seems to also be a lesson most creators have learned; I rarely see cruft in projects anymore.
  • Some sort of sample: Still true, but these days it’s basically universal for any project I’d even consider backing — so it’s kind of a non-issue.

2022 sniff test additions

As Kickstarter and the RPG and board game industries have changed, I’ve added to my sniff test.

Back sure things, unless they’re inexpensive

This is a corollary to “No FC0B,” I guess? I don’t need your game, so unless it’s inexpensive (e.g., zines) I’m not taking a flyer on your ability to produce it. So why not just wait for eventual publication, since I’m mainly backing sure things? Because I enjoy contributing to a project’s success and supporting creators, I like Kickstarter exclusives, and preordering is a convenience for me. Which brings me to…

Kickstarter is 100% a store for preordering stuff

Kickstarter itself has stepped further and further back from this over the years, insisting that it’s not a store, but it’s more of a store for preorders now than ever before. These days, I bet the list of established publishers who don’t use Kickstarter to sell preorders and generate hype for projects they’re already planning to publish is shorter than the list who of those who do.

Almost nothing is urgent

I can’t possibly play all the RPGs I already own in my lifetime, and I have enough board games. This means I don’t worry too much about how soon a project will deliver — although I do care if your timeline sounds reasonable, and isn’t more than about 12-18 months out. It also means that if I’m on the fence about backing something, I just won’t back it.

Follow people, don’t browse

I follow folks on Kickstarter who have similar tastes, make cool stuff, and/or consistently back projects I like, and by default I “follow” creators I’ve backed before. That’s where 85% of my backed projects originate. (The remaining 15% is 5% Twitter, 5% BoardGameGeek, and 5% occasional browsing/random emails from Kickstarter.) In 2016, Google+ was my filter, but I’ve never successfully replaced G+ in my life, so now I use Kickstarter’s own tools to accomplish something similar.

I don’t know if Kickstarter’s heyday is behind us, but nowadays it just feels like infrastructure: useful, but rarely exciting. My crystal ball says Kickstarter’s recent stumbles, including their response to unionization and the whole weak-ass blockchain thing, and the rise of and Gamefound (and probably other sites I’m not even aware of), certainly haven’t helped. And despite Kickstarter being — in my experience — a more solid source of projects I actually like when they arrive than it used to be, the bloom is off the rose. Kickstarter isn’t a cool new thing anymore. Instead, it’s just a part of the process; it’s one more store I visit.

And that’s not a bad thing. As a store, it’s generally worked out pretty well for me over the past few years. But will I care enough about Kickstarter as A Thing in five years to write a version of this post in 2027? I wouldn’t take that bet.

But hey, what the hell do I know — I’m the guy who gets 1/3 of his RPG Kickstarter purchases wrong despite 30+ years of figuring out what I like as a gamer.

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
D&D Tabletop RPGs

The sky is now purple

The Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter, which will surely crack a million dollars and more likely wind up passing 2-3 million,[1] has convinced me that I no longer understand the RPG industry, am an old fuddy-duddy, and should immediately walk up the nearest mountain and become a hermit.

For the past decade, my wife has been encouraging me to make Engine Publishing (or some sort of RPG venture) a full-time thing — because gaming brings me joy, and she loves me — and for a decade I’ve been saying that there’s no money in gaming. That the most respected authors and designers had to claw their way through years of low income and financial instability just to get where they are, and it’s even less financially viable for everyone else who makes a go of it.

But along comes a Kickstarter for one book, from a designer who isn’t a major name in the industry, and the book is going to make a million bucks. (I know there are caveats, shipping and streaming and stretch goals and all that; they’re not germane to my point.)

And more power to Matt Colville for it! This is in no way sour grapes on my part: The book sounds cool (I love domain-level stuff in games), and he’s obviously onto something here. I wish him the best, and I hope the project does even better than I think it will.

But streaming, and for the most part YouTube, have just passed me by. I’m constitutionally unsuited to appearing on camera, and I’m terrible at marketing. This is not a world I understand even remotely.

I anchored my understanding of what a career in gaming might be like to a fundamentally flawed view of the world. The sky is now purple, and my hands are waffles. There is a giant gorilla blotting out the sun. He is, for some reason, drinking a lobster.

I can’t think of anything in the past decade that has made me feel as old and out of touch as the Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter.

[1] Final tally: $2.1 million.

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
Miscellaneous geekery Tabletop RPGs

5 years, 82 projects: My Kickstarter sniff test

Yesterday I was thinking about Kickstarter and how happy I am with some of the stuff that’s come in the mail this year, and I realized I should revisit a post I made on Google+ back in January — one that prompted some great discussion — and see if it still applied. It does, so I’m reprising it here on Yore.

I’ve been backing stuff on Kickstarter since 2011, and over the past five years my engagement with the site — and the “culture” of Kickstarting stuff, particularly tabletop RPGs — has changed. I’ve backed 82 projects as of this writing, mainly tabletop RPGs but also a couple of movies, some comics, several board games, and a few one-offs in other areas

These are my personal guidelines (not rules!) — a sort of informal sniff test that helps me decide whether to back a project. Some are weird, some may not apply to anyone else, and some I consider best practices.

No board/card games

I’ve kept just one board game I backed on KS, Swords & Strongholds — and I haven’t played that one yet. I have enough board games, and my track record in this area is terrible.


“First created, zero backed” is one of the biggest canaries in the Kickstarter coal mine, a big ol’ red flag that the project creator has no fucking clue what they’re doing. Granted, most gaming projects I’d consider backing don’t fall into this trap, and most gaming FC0Bs suck in all sorts of other obvious ways. I mind the 0B a lot more than the FC; everyone has to have an FC, after all.

No at-cost fulfillment

I totally get why offering backers an at-cost copy on DTRPG or Lulu, rather than handling fulfillment directly, is great for creators. But if I have to take the risk of giving you my money up front, I expect you to keep that skin in the game. It’s also inconvenient for me to have to essentially preorder, then order again; I’ll just order once, if the project succeeds, at zero risk to my wallet.

No spreadsheets

If I need a spreadsheet to figure out which reward level to choose, I’ll pass. I don’t feel like investing that much time in what’s essentially a preorder, and it can be a sign of excessive complexity in the project itself, leading to delays and other problems.

No paid autographs

It’s cool if you want to charge for signatures, but paying extra for one has zero appeal for me. I won’t avoid a project for having this option, I’ll just back it at a different level.

There must be a print option

I don’t read PDFs unless I have to, and I don’t back projects without a print book available.

Have your shit mostly done

This mainly applies to gaming books, and comes back to skin in the game. If all you have is an idea, whoopdedoo. I have lots of ideas, everyone has lots of ideas, fuck your idea. Write the damned book. If you can’t invest capital, invest time and energy and then start the KS. I make rare exceptions to this rule for people/companies whose work already lines my shelves; I know they’ll deliver.

Have actual risks and challenges

Don’t be cutesy (“The only risk is if I get hit by lightning!”), don’t boast about how many years you’ve been gaming (which has fuck-all to do with your ability to shepherd a project to completion), don’t say there are no risks. Do mention past projects, realistic hurdles, third party involvement (e.g., printers), and things like impending parenthood. Disclosure is good.

Limited clutter

The best stretch goals make the product better for everyone, and reward backers for taking a risk on your thing. Doodads, which generally involve additional parties and workflows and production hassles, can die in a fire. Make the thing better, and have a plan for wild success (i.e., some stretch goals in mind).

Some sort of sample

If I’m on the fence, being able to see part of the thing for free will help me get off the fence. If I don’t know you or your work, I probably won’t back without a pretty robust sample — a chapter, a draft, some excerpts, whatever.

My stats

Here are my Kickstarter backing stats by year, including 2016 to date:

Projecting a simple trend (average of 1.2 projects backed/month in 2016 so far) through the end of the year, it looks a bit different:

Those charts look like me mostly eating my own dog food[1] — there’s a board game project on my 2016 list, for example (one with a previous KS and a great track record, and I like the first set) — but it also looks like I’m headed for an uptick in backing stuff this year.

My guidelines have helped me choose KS projects better-suited to me, and that’s upped my confidence in backing things this year. I’ve passed up some fantastic-looking games because they only offered at-cost POD fulfillment, and I’m okay with that; I can always buy them later. I’ve ignored a host of gorgeous board and card games, and I’m okay with that, too.

I also tend to star instead of backing right away. I star, come back when the reminder lands in my inbox, and wind up backing maybe 10% of projects I’ve starred at that point.

There’s so much out there on KS now, especially in the RPG world, that I don’t even visit the site to browse anymore. Instead, I let my G+ stream be my filter, and generally only check out stuff I see other folks mention. That keeps the volume fairly manageable, and so far it seems to work.

[1] Guidelines, not rules!

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.

Paradox Girl is a hoot

I don’t usually buy single issues of comics (I much prefer TPBs), but I backed Paradox Girl on Kickstarter because it looked like a lot of fun, and I wanted to support its creators. It delivered on time, and I finished reading all three issues over the weekend. It’s every bit as fun as I’d hoped it’d be.

Written by Cayti Elle Bourquin and illustrated by Yishan Li, Paradox Girl is a time travel comic about the titular Paradox Girl, whose superpower is instantaneous, at-will time travel which doesn’t violate causality. That means that she’s essentially an “infinite being”, because copies of her are all over space and time, doing stuff — often stuff that helps her sleep in, acquire her favorite snacks, or fix problems other version of her have caused.

The 1987 Waffos loop

One of my favorite bits in Paradox Girl is the kickoff to the first issue: PG’s endless loop to ensure that she always has a box of Waffos, a toaster waffle product that hasn’t been made since 1987.

As they put it on the PG website:

You’re infinite, so while there might be 4 of you somewhere saving children from a burning school, there’s probably 800 more of you arguing about why you set the school on fire in the first place.

There are no temporal consequences for PG’s time travel, so versions of her do all sorts of things on a whim, constantly. It’s gloriously chaotic.

Binkiesaurus vs. laser-emu

The first three issues are self-contained stories, each built around a core of problems caused — usually unintentionally — by PG herself, or by PG reacting to a problem someone else caused.

When PG wants to get rid of an angry wolverine in issue #2, she pops into points on the timeline where increasingly improbably creatures can be found, and sics them on the wolverine — and each other.

On this page, she’s “summoned” a binkie-sucking dinosaur to battle the cyborg emu she summoned to . . . you get the idea.

I’ve been jamming on time travel lately, and Paradox Girl scratches an itch unlike any of the other stuff I’ve been reading.

It takes nothing seriously, especially PG herself, but it also delivers solid time travel stories that have me flipping back and forth to see where loops began, to suss things out, and to smile at how everything comes together. It’s a light-hearted delight.

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
Tabletop RPGs

The beast that broke Chaosium shambles forth: Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s tremulus retrospective, in which I said “All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first,” my Kickstarted copy of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition arrived last night.

This feels weird!

Estimated Kickstarter delivery: November 2013. So there’s that.

One of two straws which apparently nearly bankrupted Chaosium, one of the oldest and most storied companies in the RPG industry. So there’s that, too.

But there’s also this: It’s the 7th edition of one of my most-loved RPGs of all time — the one that gave me my first horizon-expanding “Whoa, what?!” realization about RPGs in general.[1] That was back in 1992 or so, and I’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu (and reading Lovecraft) ever since.

Lo, these many years

I started collecting US editions of Call of Cthulhu (paid link) in high school. Back in 2014, I rounded them all up for a photo:

(Right to left, top to bottom: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, UK 3rd; 4th, 5th, 5.1; 5.5, 5.6, 20th anniversary, 6th softcover; 6th hardcover, 25th anniversary, 30th anniversary.)

That’s also when I learned that I was missing more editions than I thought, and just how out of reach the missing ones really were.[2] I stopped collecting them then — or at least made peace with the fact that my collection would never be complete.

Part of what I enjoy about collecting copies of CoC is the irony: For six editions spanning 30 years, CoC has been a game that really doesn’t change much from edition to edition. You can play any 1st through 6th edition scenario with any edition.

7th Edition is the first one that promised more of an overhaul — maybe not as dramatic as the shifts between major editions of D&D, but more dramatic than any non-cosmetic edition changes Chaosium has made in the past three decades.[3]

It sure is pretty

I can see where a lot of the budget went: into the artwork. Here are two of my favorite full-color pieces.

The spot-color pieces are great, too.

As is the layout. Production values are top-notch across the board.

That extends to the non-core books, too — here’s one of my favorite creatures, and illustrations, from the new Field Guide.

A lot of the creatures are like that: more artistic, interpretive takes on classic Lovecraftian entities. I like this mi-go, and I like many of the others, too.

Mas gordo

I went in for the leatherbound edition (as well as the softcovers — I was still collecting editions when I pledged for this), and man are they gorgeous.

As pretty as the books are, though, I’m not sure I love the quantity as much as I love the quality.

My favorite edition, 4th, comes in at 192 pages. The most recent edition I have on my shelf, the 30th Anniversary Edition, is 320 pages.

7th Edition is two books, rather than one: a 448-page Keeper Rulebook and a 288-page Investigator Handbook. At 736 total pages, that’s a 544-page increase over 4th, and 416 pages more than the 30th Anniversary rules.

2016 Martin isn’t nearly as excited about huge rulebooks as 2013 Martin was, and even 2013 Martin was cooling on them. The amount of pure, unfiltered joy I get out of, say, Psi-Run, which is a whopping 60 digest-size pages, sets a pretty high bar in terms of reading/work/rules:fun ratios.


I spent some time last night documenting damage and contacting Chaosium about it (not a problem unique to my shipment, unfortunately, but they seem to be on top of it), and I’ve got an — unrelated — splitting headache as I type this, so that’s where I’m going to stop for now.

It’s a lot to take in. A heady brew, long overdue, and, unexpectedly, I’m less confident that Call of Cthulhu is my go-to game for Lovecraftian horror than I was when I backed it three years ago. I need to spend some more time with these books.

[1] As a kid, I mostly played D&D and similar games. CoC flipped those on their heads by encouraging players to embrace the frailty of their characters and have fun descending into madness and death, fighting against impossible foes, rather than cunningly evading the grim reaper at every turn. It blew my mind.

[2] The last time I saw one of the convention editions for sale, it went for $600. And the 7th Edition Kickstarter offered a $1,000 pledge level that included a hand-bound Temple Edition copy of the rulebooks.

[3] The cosmetic differences are fun, though, and the presentation has gotten slicker and more polished over the years. It’s the rules that basically stay the same.

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

tremulus after two campaigns

I wrapped up a second campaign of tremulus (paid link), a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG of Lovecraftian horror by Sean Preston, this past Tuesday night. I’ve been meaning to write about tremulus for some time, because it’s a great game, it’s underrated, and I initially underrated it myself.

It’s basically “Call of Cthulhu (paid link) by way of Apocalypse World,” which sounded like chocolate meets peanut butter to me when it popped up on Kickstarter back in 2012. After 19 sessions across two campaigns (one playing, one GMing), I’m ready to talk about it here on Yore.

First impression

My initial impression wasn’t favorable.

One of the things I love about being an avid RPGGeek[1] user is that when I want to know what I thought about a game four years ago, it’s easy to find out. Here’s what I said about it after one session:

I’ve played one session of tremulus, character creation plus an hour or so of play that was purely introductory. I can’t shake the sense that this isn’t a great implementation of Apocalypse World, but I’ll give it a more thorough shakedown as the campaign progresses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! My initial rating was a 7 out of 10, which was giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(Quoting myself seems insufferably pretentious, but I want to show how my thinking on tremulus changed over time, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to do that.)

Second impression

I stuck to my guns and gave it more thought as that campaign progressed, and things changed:

Several sessions in, I’m enjoying the game largely despite the system. It’s just not a particularly deft or interesting AW hack. There are some good bits, to be sure, but not as many as I’d like. The playbooks are mostly pretty boring and same-y, and I’d likely be having just as much fun with the same good group and a different system.

I enjoy PbtA games enough to like the core of what I’m getting here despite the fact that it’s surrounded with a fair amount of blah. The non-blah, for me, remains the Ebon Eaves playset aspect — that’s quite cool.

When I wrote that, I revised my rating downwards from a 7 to a 6.

It kept gnawing at me

But I couldn’t get that campaign out of my head, and it started to become clear to me that there was more there than I’d thought.

Months later, looking back on one of my favorite campaigns, I see that I’m conflicted about this game. Humdrum rules, but it’s fun to play. Do I wish the rules were more interesting? Yep. But Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World is pretty awesome.

New rating: 8.

Running tremulus

My online group enjoyed our first campaign, and I was itching to run an extended PbtA game, so we circled back to it with me in the GM’s chair. This showed me a whole different side of the game.

Yeah, there’s more in here that I love — the framework/thread/hazard tech is EXCELLENT. Doesn’t take long to pull together, dovetails beautifully with the playsets, and balances inspiration with prescriptive elements beautifully.

There are a lot more playbooks now, too, including many more with interesting features/rules — which were lacking in the core rules. The “tremulus ecosystem” has expanded into something very cool.

I love the “structured takeoff” provided by a playset + framework + playbooks. Lots of guidance, but no railroading or plotting things out. I see how the rules connect with that now, too, and overall I like the game a lot.

New rating: 9 out of 10. I’ve played 104 different RPGs as of this writing, and I rate 19 of them a 9 (and zero of them a 10).[2]

For me, this is a good example of how hard it is to assess an RPG without playing it. Which, you know, duh — but short of buying every book you ever see, you have to assess games you haven’t played.

My initial assessment of tremulus might have kept me from playing it, and I’d have missed out on a great game.

What I love about tremulus

The main thing I love is how it plays. I don’t do session prep, and when I GM I love sitting down at every session just like I was a player: not knowing what’s going to happen, and not having done any work between sessions. tremulus is fantastic for that.

It also delivers on what it promises: Lovecraftian horror with the trappings you expect from Call of Cthulhu, but all of the player agency, surprises, and not-plotting-things-out-in-advance you expect from a PbtA game.

tremulus also makes the clever choice to leave the amount of Lovecraft in your game up to you. By default, it assumes your group will be creating its own entities, cults, mysteries, and other setting elements in a Lovecraftian vein, rather than using deep ones, Yog-Sothoth, and all the rest. But if you’d prefer to play “straight CoC,” it supports that option as well.

The fourth biggie is the tremulus ecosystem (paid link). If you got into the game now, you’d have access to a wealth of playbooks, playsets, and other content that didn’t exist back when I first picked up the core book. The supplemental playbooks in particular are more interesting than the initial ones.

My group has played two playsets: Ebon Eaves, the peculiar town featured in the core book, and Frozen Wasteland (paid link), which is in the vein of At the Mountains of Madness (paid link). Both are excellent, and playsets are a huge part of what I love about tremulus.

Before you start in-character play, the players choose three options from the “What you think to be real” list and three from the “What weirdness you’ve heard” list about Ebon Eaves (or about whatever playset you’re using). Here’s the second list:

Those six choices (three from each list) produce two letter codes, like “ACG” or “BDE,” and those codes all have brief write-ups in the book. Every combination is unique, and quite different — two groups playing a tremulus game set in Ebon Eaves won’t play the same game unless they choose the exact same codes.

As a player, this approach produced the seeds of a town with several mysteries that were all spooky and creepy and interesting to poke at. As a GM, it gave me more than enough to chew on when setting up the game — which ties into another thing I love about tremulus.

To create the default setup (e.g., Ebon Eaves, an antarctic expedition), you prep only the questions that pop out at you — the starting point for the mysteries and weirdness, but no further. For example, in our Frozen Wastes game, one question was “Why is Professor Crawford so desperate to rediscover Hyperborea?” I didn’t know the answer until, through actual play, my players’ choices combined with my improvisation produced one.

All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first.

Ia! Ia! tremulus fhtagn!

tremulus (paid link) is a superb game.

It’s underrated, and it doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves. If “Call of Cthulhu + Apocalypse World” sounds appealing, I suspect you’ll like it.

[1] AKA the most useful RPG tool you’re not using.

[2] It’s also one of an even smaller number of games of which I own multiple copies. It’s got enough moving parts that I found it helpful to have two books on hand when running it.

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.
Board games Tabletop RPGs

My 2014 in games

After making my support payment to BoardGameGeek/RPGGeek, my 1/1 (or sometimes 1/2) tradition, I decided to write the post I meant to write last night — I was too tired to do it last night. So here’s my 2014 in games, by the numbers, and with more personal reflection than I was planning when I started writing


I logged 31 gaming sessions in 2014 with my two gaming groups, one face-to-face and one virtual (Hangouts), and probably played another 5-10 that I forgot to log. The number of distinct RPGs I’ve played climbed to 93, which I’m happy about.

2014 was mostly the year of Fate Mass Effect, but we also wrapped up a great Hunter: The Reckoning campaign and a mediocre-to-bad Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign (run by me), and I played one-shots and short campaigns across a handful of indie RPGs, including Primetime Adventures and Dungeon World. That feels about the same as 2013 to me. I used to play more sessions, but summer is now mostly taken up by camping and hiking, and everyone in my groups has more obligations than they used to, so the numbers are down compared to a few years ago.

In hindsight, I spent too much time not feeling engaged at the gaming table. That’s happened before, and it usually teaches me some good lessons about my taste in games and gaming. I homed in more closely on what I like (player-driven stories, lighter mechanics, player agency) and don’t like (railroaded stories, filler sessions, lack of player agency, close-mindedness about games) in my gaming.

I didn’t do much GMing in 2014, and the GMing I did was almost uniformly pretty bad. I’m not sure why that is, but my GMing confidence has taken a big hit as a result. I did figure out that I don’t want to run the kinds of game my face-to-face group usually plays at the moment, though, and taking myself out of the GMing rotation for a while has reduced my stress level.

I also got some feedback about my default play style that surprised me. The whole thing was handled badly, but after a few months I’m feeling positive about the situation overall. I’ve created two PCs for 2015 that are strongly against type for me, and I’m excited to play both of them. I wish this had gone down differently, but it gave me a richer perspective on gaming as a whole and my strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots as a player, both socially and RPG-wise.

One notable high point was Google+, which has offered up a steady stream of gaming goodness and been a great outlet for me to blather about gaming stuff. I checked in several times a day most days, and enjoyed virtually all of the time I spent there.

On balance, 2014 was a mixed bag of a year unlike any other year I can remember, with higher highs and deeper lows than usual. I’m hoping 2015 has a more even and more positive vibe.

My predictions for 2015

2015 will be a lot like 2014, numbers-wise. My face-to-face group has two campaigns going, Dragon Age and Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, and my Hangouts group is playing tremulus. My Hangouts group will likely cycle through another half-dozen or so indie RPGs in 2015, and my number of sessions overall will be about the same. I won’t GM much in 2015, but I’ll try to hit 100 RPGs played.

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo

I backed 14 projects on Kickstarter (11 RPG products and 3 board games) and two on IndieGoGo (both RPG products). Compared to the combined 58 projects I backed from 2011-2013, that actually makes it a pretty average crowdfunding year for me. Which is a surprise, because I thought I’d cut way back; apparently there’s still room to trim!

Two of the board games have arrived, and I wish I hadn’t backed either of them. My track record in Kickstarted board games is 100% bad: I’ve never liked or held onto a board game I’ve backed on KS. I’m crossing my fingers that Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds will break that streak in 2015.

But man was it a good year for RPG stuff. The highlights were The Clay That Woke, Dwimmermount, The Chained Coffin, and a pile of fantastic stuff from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And there’s more stuff I think I’ll greatly enjoy on the horizon.

I spent zero time browsing on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for stuff to back, relying entirely on Google+ posts to point me to interesting projects. I backed less than half of the projects I looked at overall. I saw KS and IGG becoming a problem for me in 2013 and turned them into non-problems in 2014, which feels pretty good. (I also posted less about stuff on KS, which makes sense.)

My predictions for 2015

I’ll continue using Kickstarter and IndieGoGo in 2015, but I doubt I’ll back any board games and I suspect I’ll back fewer gaming products than I did in 2014. Crowdfunding won’t quite fall off my radar, but it will come close. Most things I might back on KS/IGG I’ll just order when they come out, or not order at all.

Board games

I played 58 distinct games, with a total of 181 plays logged in 2014. The majority of games got played once or twice; the highest play count was 20. I started logging plays in 2008, and in 2014 I crossed the 1,000-play mark, making 2014 an average year in terms of plays.

My top five most-played games were Don Quixote (solo), Connect 4 (kids), Disney Dazzling Princess (kids), Ascension: Storm of Souls, and Blokus Duo. That’s a decent snapshot of my year in board gaming, which was a good one for games with my daughter, with visitors, and solo, but a light one for gaming with my wife and gaming group.

I purged 28 games from my collection in February, and another 23 yesterday, for a total of 51 sold off in 2014. I acquired about 17 games (my best guess; I don’t track this), which is light compared to the past few years — and intentionally so. That puts my core collection — the games I want to consider when I ask myself, “What do I want to play?” — at 144, which is still bigger than it needs to be.

My board gaming h-index climbed from 12 to 13, which is a bit of a bummer as I worked on that number throughout the year. But it’s only a few plays (of the “right” games) from hitting 14, and 15 isn’t terribly far off. More games saw repeat plays in 2014, though, which was my goal.

The highlight of the year for me was getting closer to my sweet spot board game-wise. I spent more of my time playing games that I deeply enjoy and rate highly, and less of my time playing new games just for the sake of it or games I wasn’t wild about, and my collection got leaner and better overall. My favorite games in 2014 included Kingdom Builder, Hanabi, K2, Ascension: Storm of Souls, Don Quixote (solo), FlowerFall, and Lords of Waterdeep.

My predictions for 2015

I think I’ll rack up fewer solo plays (that time has been taken up by bodybuilding and other stuff), more plays with my wife, and about the same number of plays with my daughter, my gaming group, and visitors. I’ll acquire fewer new games in 2015, and will do another purge. Past purges have culled everything rated 6 or lower, but dipped into 7s; now I’m eyeing the 7s. Why aren’t they 8s? More of those can probably go too. Finally, I might just make it to 500 distinct games played in 2015.

That went from a short exercise in stats to a long, reflective post. Before writing it, I’d have generically described 2014 as “good” for games, but looking at it all broken out like this I have a more nuanced picture of the year. If you made it this far, hopefully you got some mileage out of my navel-gazing.

Happy new year!

Out now: The Unlucky Isles

The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.