11 Years and Counting


Kinda hard to believe this was 11 years ago, or in some ways that it was only 11 years ago. It was my first self-published card game, Invasion of the Saucer People. A Kickstarter paid to replace this retro stock art with new illustrations by an old friend and GDW colleague, Bradley K. McDevitt.

In the 11 years since, a lot of very kind people have encouraged and supported that one-man publishing hobby, resulting in …

  • 8 more card games and 2 booster packs;
  • 3 roleplaying games with 45 supplements;
  • a bunch of fanged smiley doubledice;
  • 7 Halloween anthologies:
  • 22 books of poetry and fiction by other writers; and
  • a novel in sonnets by yours truly.

With that support, 20 of the RPG titles are DriveThruRPG Best Sellers at one level or another, as are 2 of the card games on DriveThruCards.

I suck at business, so it mainly just pays for art. But I love to write and design, to see other people enjoy it, and to maybe help them publish something of their own. It’s been a good 11 years so far, with no sign of stopping. Thank you for your part in making it happen.

Bookmark Dragon Dice: Shirrah’s 1st Adventure!

Young Shirrah’s Dragon Dice types

For a couple of decades now, I’ve been telling SFR, Inc. that a Dragon Dice role-playing game was in the offing. I dipped my toe in the water back in 2014, with a setting chapter in the D6xD6 RPG launch, but I was hoping to expand that further. But too many other projects have gotten in the way, from the bucket-list publication of the D13 RPG, to the accidental creation of the Bookmark HP RPG, which has been outselling its siblings and spontaneously spawning new settings.

BNHP is my first polyhedral RPG design. Dragon Dice was my first polyhedral tabletop game design. The thought occurred that marrying Dragon Dice polyhedrals with BNHP rules could be an exciting project! For the past couple of months now, I’ve been writing drafts, ruminating, getting feedback from a few individual play-testers, and revising. It’s starting to feel cohesive.

Late last night I took an opportunity to solo role-play-test the rules, using the GameMaster’s Apprentice oracle deck with the HandiQuest one-handed story system.

My character concept was “Shirrah,” a young Lava Elf raised by Amazons, and who now set out on the life of a duelist. For the d10 I chose a Centaur, d8 a highland Knoll, d6 a Lava Elf Fusilier, and d4 the only Item I owned,  yellow Speed Slippers. The Knoll I chose because Lava Elves in the Dragon Dice battlefield game are native to mountains, and the Knoll has more ranged weapon faces than melee, which seemed in keeping with my character’s nature. In BNHP fashion, I assigned Brawn d4, Grace d8, Will d6, and Wits d10.

Keep in mind that the only thing that matters in terms of rules mechanics is number of sides and the ID symbol. All the rest of that is purely narrative, as much as a “magic missile” spell in D&D is mechanically just 3 rolls of d4+1 damage.

Onward to the adventure…

GMA and HandiQuest gave a final destination of “Tournament,” so I figured Shirrah was on his way there to make his name as a fencer and pistolier.

The first part of his journey was to a travelers’ inn, and along the way he encountered a wounded traveler and took him along. (In card deck terms, he succeeded at the inn location’s Difficulty rating and had an encounter instead of a combat scene.)

The next day, he traveled to a shipyard, which suggested to me that the tournament was overseas. Someone started following him, ranting that this “wicked lava elf” had come to do evil. Shirrah managed to ditch him in the crowds (i.e. succeeded at his travel roll), but came face to face with a blacksmith wielding an iron bar (i.e. a combat instead of encounter). Shirrah took a blow to the head in the first turn, exhausting his d10 Wits, then switched to his d8 Grace and put paid to the blacksmith over the next two turns. In my mind, he failed to draw on his centaur training (the d10), and fell back on the fencing he’d practiced while alone on that knoll.

The next day, aboard ship, a dense fog settled in. Shirrah had hoped to rest his d10, but the cards said combat, which I took to mean battling a storm that required all hands on deck. A roll of Maximum Success improved his d8 to a major terrain, so I swapped out the minor terrain Knoll die for a major terrain Standing Stones!

After the storm cleared, the ship docked at a land renowned for its vineyards. Shirrah set out for a peaceful stroll, again hoping the restfulness would heal his head, but the cards dealt him a confrontation with “students.” I reasoned that they were fencing students, saw his rapier, and challenged him. Again, he won out after a few turns, but not before wounding his Grace, now reduced to the minor terrain again.

The cards dealt next a volcano. And I reasoned that this would be a site of veneration for a lava elf, perhaps a place of rejuvenation through fire magic. No such luck. I failed the roll, he was burned—the Difficulty was low, so I had rolled that d4 Brawn and exhausted it—but he managed to avoid damage in the resulting stampede of forest creatures fleeing the eruption (the interpretation I put to a combat encounter, based on a few suggested details from a GMA card).

The GMA now dealt “Inn.” Returning to town, he took a room again hoping to rest. The next card was an encounter instead of combat—so far, so good—but a “NO!” result on the card forbade it. I was handed an “ominous warning,” which I took to mean a note slipped under his door, letting him know that a mob was on its way to lynch this unwanted lava elf. Out the window we went.

To get out of town, he would need to slip unnoticed past city guard (GMA “Guard Station”) which he did through grim determination (Will), and finally had an encounter, an “Oasis,” where he managed to recover his d10 Wits.

The next location on his journey was a “Ship,” He bargained his way aboard with a Max Success roll of Wits, swapping that centaur d10 for a d12 dragon! I chose a fire drake die. But once out on the open sea, the ship’s captain tried to chain him to an oar (a “Captive” card)! Three rounds of combat later, with both sides rolling Fails, the captain was defeated, with Shirrah still barely on his feet with two Attributes and his good name exhausted. All that remained to him was his Will and Grace.

A now more experienced Shirrah

Shirrah jumped ship near a cave, hoping to avoid pursuit, with a Maximum Success, raising that d6 from the small Fusilier die to the medium Dead Shot die! Further, he was able to rest near a subterranean waterfall, which given his people’s nature of Fire and Earth, I translated as hot springs, and restored his Wits d10.

Next up, “Asylum,” which suggested to me an underground city of Lava Elves, but the card’s Difficulty was 8! Shirrah failed, was wounded back to the Fusilier die, and failed as well to hide out at court. “No rest for the wicked,” apparently in this case meaning his race’s evil reputation dogging him.

His penultimate location read “Farm,” where he was again refused succor, i.e. failed the travel roll and wounded his d12 Wits back to d10. But the resulting encounter took him to a mausoleum and blissful rest, perhaps drawing upon the death magic side of his Lava Elf nature. I chose to recover that Wits d12.

And at last his journey’s goal, the arena! Shirrah was still pretty banged up: Brawn exhausted, Grace small d8, Will small d6, Wits d12, good name exhausted.

I won’t go through the resulting combat turn-by-turn, but here are the salient details. (a) The GMA dealt me an “unknown creature,” so I figured Shirrah had no insights into its weakness, and I assigned it a defense of 5 to start, and a d10 combat ability; (b) I rolled poorly a few times before scoring a success, at which point I dropped its defense to 4—purely a role-play judgment call; (c ) Shirrah’s defense was the 4 that BNHP suggests for humans; and (d) In the end he failed to best it, while the creature was a full 3 fails away from defeat itself.

Concluding thoughts:

  • The game plays significantly differently from its parent, the Bookmark HP RPG. The main difference being that once you’ve assigned dice to a character’s Attribute, they stay that way, changing only in size, which means the same odds but added resiliency.
  • Dragon Dice icons add a lot of role-playing flavor even though they have no mechanical difference. Same with the die types: Choice of Item, Unit, Terrain, and Monster suggest much of a character’s backstory and personality.
  • The foe ranking system needs some adjustment. Right now it’s a bit too difficult. I have two different approaches to try out before locking that down.
  • The d6 and d10 each add a different mechanical touch to the game, with the d6 affecting defense Difficulty, and the d10’s ability to raise to d12.
  • I’m adding something special for the d4 and d8, so there’s a significant reason for using them all from time to time.

And I think it’s evident that I had a blast playing this character. GMA always does a great job as an oracle, and HandiQuest adds a great system for stringing locations and events into a unified story. And most importantly in this case, I think the Dragon Dice themselves prove to suit Bookmark HP role-play very nicely.

I look forward to playing Shirrah again, once he’s out of the arena’s infirmary!

Tectonic Shifts of D&D

“The original impetus for the open licensing of the d20 System involved the economics of producing role-playing games (RPGs). Game supplements suffered far more diminished sales over time than the core books required to play the game.” Wikipedia, “d20 System

One of many d20 books by Jim Ward, Tim Brown, & me

I think I sorta pissed someone off years ago by making this exact point. My opinion was based on the experience of watching GDW struggle to fund RPG supplements during my time there, and then TSR suffer the same.

The catch-22 is that (a) without supplements, customers lose interest in an RPG, and distributors don’t help by telling retailers your game is dead, but (b) only GM’s buy most supplements, whereas most everybody in the game group buys the game itself, so you’re doing the same effort (with, for example, the same cover painting expense), for a fraction of the market.

By handing off supplement publishing to an ever-refreshing pool of small companies (many just gamers with a one-book dream), WotC dodged that expense and enjoyed the unencumbered sales of core product.

Things like the “Community Content” section of DriveThruRPG are a more recent example of that farmed-out support.

I ain’t sayin’ this is a bad thing. It allows for a lot of diverse creativity. But it also explains why every new edition of a core game sets off tectonic waves among the small publishers putting out sourcebooks and adventures.

From DC, to D13, D6xD6, and BNHP

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

What with Halloween just 13 days away, I’d like to share a tiny bit of Dark Conspiracy RPG history and of personal pitch.

My goal with DC was, as you may know, to create a setting into which any horror story could be fit. Details I needed to achieve that goal—cyberpunkish urban sprawl, anachronistic rural regions, areas of bleedthrough from hellish dimension, and a rationale for beneficent aliens becoming inimical, for example—slowly amalgamated into a distinct personality of DC’s own.

But not everyone likes the DC mechanics, the inhouse system ported over from Twilight: 2000. Note that the T2K rules did play their own role in shaping DC’s character as a combat-heavy game of meet the monster; get your asses kicked; learn its weakness; come back better armed and kill it.

For GDW it made sense to have a shared system for all of its RPGs. (Well, until Space: 1889 broke ranks.) And the other reason is I wasn’t yet a mechanics guy. My two contributions to the inhouse system were to add experience rules (in Traveller: 2300, which got me hired in the first place) and to push for a change from d10 to d20. Adding an Empathy stat and trimming the T2K weapons list to suit DC were more a matter of developmental editing.

But since that time, my design skills for game mechanics have grown. Even earning an Origins Award! In RPGs, I’ve developed a passion for minimalist precision. For universal mechanics that dependably but unobtrusively support play. Even, say, hmm, I don’t know, maybe Dark Conspiracy adventures?

So here’s the pitch. If you love DC as a setting, but not the mechanics, I have three options to sub in for them. First, D13 is specifically designed for horror, any type, a bit more brutally than DC, but with push-your-luck paranormal abilities rules suitable for DC’s Empathy stat. Second, there’s D6xD6 (d6xd6.com is the core rules), and come to think of it, Chuck McGrew’s use of it in Don’t Look Back 3e could handle the DC setting right out of the gate. Lastly, there’s the Bookmark HP RPG, a deceptively simple system that has been called “an epiphany in game design.”

Each game system has its own unique take on dice mechanics; all three with dependable math under the hood. So, if you love the world of Dark Conspiracy, but aren’t a fan of its mechanics, why not give one of these three a try? Links in the sidebar.