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!

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. ¯\_(?)_/¯

We Are Those Townies

Photo by David Underland on Unsplash

Late one night, years ago, too sick with worry about my family to sleep, I turned on PBS, thinking, “Maybe there’s some Monte Python or something to lift my spirits.” But what fate handed me instead was historical Allied footage of GI’s discovering and opening Nazi concentration camps.

Yeah.

One thing that has stuck with me ever since is the outraged GI’s marching the townspeople of Dachau through the typhoid-infested hellhole outside their town, forcing them to confront the open pits of dead bodies, the stick-thin survivors.

The townspeople weren’t even aware! In fact, they had been donating food and clothing for the prisoners, supplies diverted by the camp staff to the Nazi cause.

Fast forward to today.

Recently, I subscribed to PushBlack on Messenger. Often the headlines are a horror to read, difficult to stomach. The events they introduce are stunningly evil.

And here you and I are, like the townsfolk of Dachau, ignorant of what’s happening. Thinking we’re helping by not being bigoted ourselves, or by donating to causes here and there.

It isn’t enough.