Diced Coffee

Ten years ago this month, my first self-published game, Invasion of the Saucer People! was crowdfunded.

Today there are 40 Lester Smith Games titles on DriveThruRPG, another 11 on DriveThruCards, and some freebies on this website/blog. (Check the menu, under “Games.)

All due to the moral support of some wonderful players, play-testers, and fans, several of whom have become my close friends and confidantes, even if only through social media, even if across oceans.

Whatever else you might say about the Internet, it keeps a guy like me connected to the world, and allows self-publishing to be more than just a local vanity press. For many of my old colleagues and public figures I follow, it’s a full-time occupation. For others like me, it’s an outlet for bucket-list projects and new inspirations, a place to discuss them, and maybe pay for coffee.

Games, like coffee, are best brewed with care. Anybody can boil some water and toss in a spoonful of instant. Literally and metaphorically. The result is its own punishment.

But to get a good cup of hot coffee, you have to start with the basics, at “ground” level, if you’ll forgive the pun.

  • Choose roasted beans that suit your taste. I prefer a dark espresso roast.
  • Grind them to the right consistency—err on the side of coarseness, to avoid silt in your cup.
  • Use fresh water, heat it to a simmer, and introduce the grounds for the right amount of time. I use a French press, so about three minutes. For a percolator, no more than five. Any longer, and you’ll extract bitters.
  • Pour it over ice, if you want it cold on a hot day.
  • Drink it fresh. Nothing’s worse than a pot that’s been sitting on the heat for hours, steaming away to harsh sludge.

To extend the metaphor to game design, I like to …

  • Start with a solid idea, something new and fresh.
  • Grind it into a first draft—whether that’s an ordered list of ideas, an actual outline, or a few paragraphs of synopsis, with details jotted below as they occur. Without grinding it too much by fixating on specifics too early.
  • Expose it to the fluidity of early play-test, generally alone at this point, to see if the dice rolls and/or card draws feel like I thought they would, and if questions arise I hadn’t thought of. Then dive deeper, examining the mathematical odds, using them to adjust details.
  • Pour it onto the page in full sentences, with headings and any graphics needed.
  • Have other people play it, and watch their reactions. It may mean I need to refine my brewing process for this game, though I seldom have to trash the original bean of an idea.

That’s not a perfect metaphor. But it suits the image I put together for this post!

That’s No Ent!

Yesterday I gave the Bookmark Cthulhu draft rules a run around the block via a Call of Cthulhu solo adventure in Protodimension Magazine issue #9 (a zine that used to cover mainly my old Dark Conspiracy RPG, but was open to horror RPGs of all stripes).

Timothy Boeser, a saxophone player driving to Arkham in driving rain, on his way to a jazz band tryout, encountered a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath blocking the road in a woods.

I rolled incredibly well, so he kept control of the car. And not only did the shocking sight not crack his sanity, he actually gained a Boon from it (which I’ll call “Intro to Monstrosities”). Escaping into the woods, he fell into a river, managed to not drown, and was eventually picked up at daybreak by an old farmer and his wife on a bridge across the torrent.

A note about using Bookmark HP RPG with published solo adventures for other games: Few RPGs have a built-in system of damage degrading abilities as BNHP does. In most you just lose Hit Points until you die.

To compensate, I recommend beginning the programmed adventure character with at least a couple of Boons, and as damage accrues, look for a rationale to treat some encounters as Rest, and to treat significant items or discoveries as free Boons if needed. Basically, give your character the same fighting chance they’d have in the original game. Don’t make it a cake walk, but don’t let the adventure punish them too severely.

In this case, I treated Timothy’s car and saxophone as starting Boons, and when he had to abandon the car, but hadn’t lost that Boon, I considered it the car keys instead. Something that might be lost in the forest or river, but if kept meant a tow truck could recover the car later, in the light of day.

All those lucky rolls meant my adventure ended quickly, with a lot of the text unexplored, so I’ll try again with a new character, while Timothy goes on to face Chaosium’s official Alone Against the Tide. And I’ll generate a new character to explore this one further. Maybe Claudie Bambeck, a singer on her way to audition for the same band. 🙂

(The character names I’m generating with the census-based randomizer you can find on the d6xd6.com site.)

On the Clock

One change I’ve never articulated in my transition from factory work to the publishing world is the difference in clock skills.

In the factory, it was about making time go faster, looking forward to clocking out. The skill needed was to avoid thinking about how many hours lay ahead, but celebrating every minute passed. To avoid actually watching the clock. Each 15 minute break, and lunchtime, were milestones reached on the path to evening freedom. Mornings were about nothing but endurance. Afternoons were as well, but the finish line was in sight.

In publishing, work was generally too engaging to even think about the clock. Only the calendar, sometimes managing the tension of a deadline’s approach, but more often the exciting anticipation of a major step toward the project going public.

I have a deeper appreciation of the second for having spent a decade in the first. And paradoxically a deeper appreciation of the first for having spent three decades in the second.

It’s why I believe the term “job creators” is an ass backward view of the world. Employers are a dime a dozen. Labor and service are critical for maintaining a civilization. We rediscovered that during the first year of COVID, gave it lip service as “essential workers,” then surreptitiously pushed it backstage again.

Trailer Park of the Nouveau Riche

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that these displays of ostentatious wealth are identical mansions packed so tightly you can stand on your tower balcony and toss Grey Poupon to your neighbor on their tower balcony? Cookie cutter commodities.

Then again, I guess one black tuxedo is pretty much the same as any other. ¯\_(?)_/¯