Artistic Freedom: A Manifesto

It has long been the goal of the artist, regardless of the chosen form, to make a full-time living as an artist. Authors want to write; painters want to paint; musicians want to sing…and none of them want to do anything else.

When they begin, artists have a love of their art that rivals the deepest of romances, but as they confront the realities of selling their work –– of needing to impress an audience –– they begin to sacrifice their true artistic sensibilities in favor of what consumers will purchase. This is as terrible for the artist as it is for their art.

While there is something to be said for maintaining ownership of a creation, in case anyone else wants to use it for their work and thus compensate the original creator for their contribution, the original artist should not be concerned with selling that original work to the marketplace –– not if they want to express their true self in the process. It is my belief that self-expression takes a back seat to consumer interest when the goal is remuneration.

So what is an aspiring artist to do?

In older times, an artist would gain the interest of a wealthy patron to fund their work in exchange for the artist doing something of benefit for the patron –– build a cathedral, paint a mural, name a newly discovered moon after the patron’s children, etc. While lucrative for many artists, such relationships were also toxic, as the patron could make demands on the artist and their work.

That said, I still believe that the patron method is the strongest way for an artist to make a living while practicing their art. There is a compromise made between the desires of the artist and their patron, but with the right patron the artist has the freedom to express themselves fully –– some patrons just want to be “patrons of the arts” –– and modern technology provides a vehicle that can find numerous such patrons.

Crowdfunding business models allow for consumers of art and story to fund the projects they believe in and become patrons of artists and storytellers they admire en masse. On the surface, this looks like it establishes another patron-artist relationship, but I maintain that it doesn’t.

In ancient times, if an artist or their work offended their patron enough to sever the relationship, the artist was left without funding. Crowdfunding, however, creates an environment that favors the artist: they have multiple patrons, sometimes numbering in the thousands. If a work or an artist offends a patron, there are others to shore up the loss. Even if a large number of patrons leave, there are always going to be those who still admire the artist, if for no other reason than their courage to truthfully express themselves.

Previously, even if the masses enjoyed the work of an artist, without a rich patron the artist could not produce their works any longer. But with the low cost of becoming a patron of modern artists (sometimes as low as a dollar), the masses can easily support an artist they admire.

I so fervently believe in this concept that I will no longer charge for my creative works. I will open up a vehicle for those who are interested in my work to help me pay my bills so that I can have more time to create, but my work will no longer be for sale, which means it will no longer be controlled by what I perceive others may think –– I’m often wrong about that anyway.

My art is now for the masses to enjoy. I will trust in the ever-improving quality of my work to maintain a minimum number of patrons, or average amount per patron, to support me while I provide the world with the truest stories and shared storytelling experiences that I can.

Regarding my previous work: Because of pre-existing crowdfunding campaigns, and my agreements to backers and collaborators alike, JadepunkShadowcraft, and Age of Anarchy will remain for sale on DriveThruRPG.com.

How Fantasy Fails to Represent Magic

Magic is not meant to be realistic, it’s a force that is unquantifiable, unknowable, and above all: powerful and mysterious. But is it, really? Too often, magic is simply an excuse to apply modern science to a medieval setting, and often in such a way as to seem completely unreasonable.

In the last fifteen years, The Force has been shred apart by the same roleplaying games that made magic into an understandable science. It makes sense –– you have to understand a trait you’re putting on your character sheet. The problem is that, when coupled with the prequel movies and their exploration of what The Jedi Order is and was, The Force loses its appeal as a form of mysticism or magic and become something more akin to X-Men psionics. But none of that is why Star Wars did magic better than fantasy (to be sure, fantasy mages –– with their fireballs and Wish spells –– are more powerful than Jedi). Star Wars did it better because, within the setting, The Force means something.

In the Eberron setting for Dungeons and Dragons, magic is akin to science in that it is understood, quantifiable (to some degree), and everywhere. They have airships powered by trapped elementals, cities powered by magic…it’s little wonder why such a society hasn’t become modernized: they don’t need to!

But in a setting where any old Joe can learn magic, it loses its meaning as something mystical and on the edge of perception, unquantifiable and unknowable.

Now, Eberron, and settings like it, are incredible fun to roleplay in. Don’t get things mixed: I love fantasy roleplaying in most of its forms (and Eberron is definitely one of those that I’m fascinated by). But they miss the mark on magic for one important reason:

No One Cashes In!

When the internet hit, every Tom, Dick, and Harry threw themselves into the endeavor of figuring out how to make money with it. Storefronts that can blow away department stores went up, search engines were created to help consumers navigate to the most relevant storefronts, and companies like GoDaddy learned to capitalize on your very access to such commerce: by charging money for domain names and hosting.

A reality changing tool was created, and entrepreneurs found ways to make money off of, and limit access to, all of it.

Where are the fantasy entrepreneurs? Why isn’t someone buying up all of the material components of the most powerful spells and selling their wares or services to the highest bidder (especially compelling when the entrepreneur isn’t a magic-user)? This is more inexplicable when the setting has thousands of years of magic traditions –– someone would have capitalized on this by now. Someone would have limited access to it.

In recent years, D&D and others have tried to explain this away by suggesting that most people in the world know of magic but don’t touch it in any meaningful way. Then, in the very same section, they describe how adventurers use magic for everything! And this concept seems to completely ignore settings like Eberron, where streetlights are powered by magic.

How Star Wars Got it Right

While magic isn’t capitalized on in Star Wars (we don’t see any “Force Healer” shops set up to treat the super rich), the “magic” means something: you’re special. If you have access to The Force, then a group funded by the Galactic Republic will come and legally kidnap your children and force them into labor as keepers of the peace.

The Force (magic) is valuable, rare, and has consequences for the entire world: the galaxy-shattering Sith/Jedi wars that spring up every generation.

Not All Fantasy Got it Wrong

Dune has an economy built around a magical resource. Mistborn has guilds and an oppressive government that makes laws concerning the use of magic. My own Jadepunk limits magic by making the material components the most valuable commodities in the world.

Again, I’m not bashing on settings that have ubiquitous magic. Such settings are fun to play in. But there becomes a point where disbelief is no longer suspended because someone would have figured out a way to monetize nexus points and the ley lines that connect them (and why are cities so rarely built on such nexuses?).

Consider the economy and the reaction of enterprising entrepreneurs the next time you sit down to do some worldbuilding. Your readers and players will thank you for it.

What is Your Jadepunk Tale?

I call a Jadepunk campaign a Jadepunk Tale. As anyone who roleplays can tell you, a campaign can be a single game session or a twenty-year adventure. Since Jadepunk has been out for awhile, I’d like to get a sense of how other people are playing the game.

What tales are you telling? Who are the archnemeses of your players? What’s your Jianghu society’s name?

Even if you aren’t running a game of Jadepunk currently, what would your Jadepunk game be about?

Leave your answer in the comments below (and link the community to any campaign materials you may have online). I’ll start with a description of my favorite Jadepunk Tale –– the one that I have yet to play but that started the idea of Jadepunk, and that I hope to write a novella about very soon.

The Age of Anarchy

My latest Kickstarter just went live!

Those of you who follow me on social media know that I’ve been working with Paul Mitchener to create the Perpetual Motion Engine gaming system. And The Age of Anarchy is the setting we’ve chosen to release the game.

What is The Perpetual Motion Engine?

PME is a labor of love that has been underway for several years now. If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know I love to tinker with gaming systems. That’s because what I want to play (what I really want to play) isn’t out there.

I didn’t make a game that was like the games I enjoy playing. I created the game I want to play because it doesn’t exist yet.

Here are the high points:

  • Consequence-based: Winning or losing ignites the story by forcing a relevant consequence (win and get what you want, lose and something bad happens).
  • GM Rolling is Optional: You can play it like Numenera or Apocalypse World, or you can have the GM roll. The rules for each are baked right into the system.
  • Rolling is Simple: 2d6 or 1d6 + your modifier. That’s it. That’s all you need.
  • Damage is Numerical: Consequences are not aspects, as they are in Fate Core. They are story occurrences, which could mean a dishing out of numerical damage.
  • The PCs are Heroes, but Not The Heroes: This one is big, so I’ll delve into it a bit further in the next section.

Patron-Based Roleplaying

If the PCs are not the heroes, then who is? The Patron, that’s who.

In PME, a Patron can be a cause, a person, an organization…pretty much anything a group of player characters can devote themselves to. And that’s the goal: to see your Patron’s goal realized. So the PCs are the heroes, the Patron’s heroes.

A business can’t build itself. A city can’t save itself from supervillains. A cause needs activists to spread the word. And an impoverished noble can’t rise to greater power without loyal followers.

The Patron-based part of PME is truly my favorite. It opens up so many options for gameplay.

  • GM’s don’t have to convince players to get involved in an adventure; the Patron has a need, and the PCs were created to help.
  • When a player character “dies,” the GM can decide that the Patron takes a hit to their status instead (or the player can choose to martyr their character for the Patron’s good).

And, best of all, the entire table creates the Patron and decides their Issues. And when it’s time to take on a new mission for the Patron, the players decide which Issue they want to solve for their Patron (usually, it’s the one that’s about to become a consequence for the Patron, but it doesn’t have to be).

PME is truly a shared storytelling experience, but with rules (though not a lot of them).

Enter the Age of Anarchy

So why Norman England? Because when I brought the idea of a Patron mechanic to Paul Mitchener, he said that historical RPGs are not as prevalent as they should be and that The Anarchy is uniquely set for us to explore building a noble lord or lady with the Patron mechanic.

If you want to know more about The Age of Anarchy game specifically, check out our Kickstarter. Supporting that will allow me to create a wider variety of games with PME (I can’t wait to bring it to a superhero setting).

Have you already read the draft of Age of Anarchy? What did you think?

Second Letter From Kausao City

For those of you who aren’t caught up, I recently received a letter from Kausao City’s governor’s office describing how the Kausao City Post Office is being used to contact rebel sympathizers outside of the hegemony. After more than a week of searching for information regarding the seized letters mentioned in that correspondence, I received another letter.

Here it is:

 


Jianghu Sympathizer,

I’ll refrain from using names for mutual protection. In fact, it may be too dangerous to contact you at all. I hope our desperation has not compromised you.

Jonica…A contact in the Four Winds Trading Company has alerted us to a plot to kill the Kaiyumi crown princess during her first visit to Kausao City, and frame a prominent Jianghu society in the process. We already have a tough time convincing recruits that we’re a legitimate rebellion – we’re losing the propaganda war. If the princess, a known critic of the Council of Nine, were to fall, seemingly by our hand, the Jianghu may be too discredited to carry on.

One of our number – again, no names – has informed us that you have contacts within the Empire. It is our hope that you can impress upon them how dangerous it is to allow the FWTC to remain sovereign outside of the Empire. The treaty that created the Kausao City hegemony dictates the corporation can only be regulated by the Aerish government.

We have already sent word to the princess, and are praying to Ehal that it arrives before her retinue departs. If you can lean on your government and keep the FWTC too busy to become embroiled in such distant plots, you could save a lot of lives.

With gratitude,

The Swift Songbird Society


 

I’m not sure who they think I know, or how one voice could make a difference, but I’ll do my best. Though picket signs outside the Capitol might be too much.

Then again, I do know someone who applied for a government job last year, an assistant to some middle manager somewhere. I wonder if he got the job. I’ll check.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to post here and keep a record of my findings. And, again, here’s the original letter – for your files.

The Jianghu rebellion is the centerpiece of the Jadepunk roleplaying game.

A Smarter Way to Publish RPG Settings

Most of the game design articles this week have centered around making games more accessible for new audiences. In this article, I’d like to touch on a method for 3rd party publishers to attract some of the extant RPG audience that’s out there.

Go All-In with Setting

Let’s face it; most 3rd party published supplements are new settings to be played with a particular system. This was the way I went with Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City and Shadowcraft: The Glamour War. And I’m here to tell you, I wish I hadn’t. It’s not that designing for Fate Core wasn’t incredible fun, nor lucrative (the Fate audience is great to its creators, in my experience). The problem lies in narrow distribution.

Just like how no one outside of the Mutants and Masterminds community is going to know what Emerald City is, and most people who don’t play Savage Worlds will have anything but a passing awareness of Deadlands, few people outside of the Fate community know what Jadepunk is. And that’s sad because Jadepunk is awesome (seriously, everybody says so).

“What?! Jadepunk is AWESOME!”

So unless you have the clout, and extreme patience, to build a single system from the ground up, I suggest you…

Distribute Widely

There are more systems than players in today’s market, and most players already have their favorite 2-3 systems that see 99% of the play at their tables. That’s a huge barrier to entry right there.

So what’s a fledgling game designer who wants to sell their shiny new game to do?

I suggest you write up your core setting document, sans system and put that out as a sort of “RPG travelogue.” Most RPG players are pretty smart, able to figure out how to make their favorite system play for film or comic book franchises that are out there, so there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same for your setting.

See where I’m going here?

The unique thing that you have to offer in this instance is your setting, so this approach makes sense. By only releasing the setting (at first, see the next section), you are giving your setting mass market access – anyone can try it out, without having to learn new mechanics. (And what if someone’s table loves your setting, but hates the mechanics you attached it to; they won’t give it the time of day.)

Once your setting is released…

Add SOME Systems

“But I want to play with mechanics,” I hear you saying. Well, this is where you get your chance. Once you release your setting, you can poll your buyers (or Kickstarter backers) and ask what systems they like. Then you can get to work on conversion documents targeted at your audience like a smart missile zeroing in on exactly who is most likely to buy it.

Personally, I wouldn’t make these conversion documents very long; 10-40 pages are probably enough for most systems, but it’s really up to you at this point. And the most beautiful part: by making conversion documents for your setting, you’ve opened the door for others to make them for their tables, increasing the value of your setting to the wider market.

After a few years of applying this method, you would hit the most popular systems out there, and your setting (if it’s good) and it’s conversion documents will sell better than if it were attached to a single system.

What Do You Think?

Does this sound like it would work? I’ll tell you, Jadepunk has been out since 2014, and I know many people who would love to give it a try, because of the setting, but who have a distaste for Fate rules. (Even some of the people who have worked on Jadepunk have said they want to convert it to their preferred systems).

To me, if setting is your thing, this is a no-brainer.

Back to Basics: RPG Mechanics in 20 Words

There are a lot of cool gaming mechanics out there. I mean, a lot! But many games (like Jadepunk, admittedly) were built on the complicated rubrics of other games. This overcomplication, I believe, has resulted in the kind of mechanical bloat that we see in some big name games that require 500 pages, or multiple books, to cover it all. I think it’s time to get back to basics.

In my anecdotal experience, I’ve seen games spring from two places: tabletop wargaming and group storytelling. I’m not going to go into the “story vs. simulation” argument because I think nothing could be more pointless than to argue over how we define fun.

My Perfect Game

Subjective as hell, I know.

As I grow older, and find that I enjoy differentiating between spinning a good yarn and playing some HeroClix, my RPG tendencies lean toward any game that doesn’t require a grid or other tabletop implement – give me character sheets and dice, and I’m good to go. Going “back to basics” means (to me) to head back to a bunch of people getting together to tell a story; but when I (Captain America) decides that a fellow player (Iron Man) needs to have his armor knocked off his face, the other player may not like that, and we need to figure out who gets what. Enter mechanics.

The absolute basic mechanic (and I would argue that this is true even in wargaming) is this 20 word game design:

Player tells the table what they want. GM tells the table what they want. Highest roller gets what they want.

Imagine we’re telling a story and I, as Cap’s player, say that I punch Iron Man’s, your character, lights out. You’d be like No! My armor…is crap compared to my vibranium shield, I retort. Who’s right? Roll your armor against my shield and let’s settle this once and for all.

But that means the armor and the shield need stats; I hear you saying. I answer with am emphatic YES. Give them stats.

And my fighting ability? Sure. Throw that in there. Oh, but now we have two stats, how do they stack? See how this complication thing works? From dice to item stats to skills…next we’ll be talking Cap’s enhanced attributes vs. Iron Man’s toughness and strength. It can be never-ending with this crap. And that’s so damn cool and so damn annoying.

Where Should the Complication End?

That’s as subjective as the kind of games you like to play. And I know that sounds sort of anti-climactic for someone who usually approaches this sort of thing with a voice of authority (which is totally fake, by the way), but that’s how it is.

Think of this as a manifesto of how I intend to approach my future designs: getting back to basics, which I define as the above 20 word game mechanic.