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Cam Banks
Ginger Kiwi Game Designer and Family Guy
Ginger Kiwi Game Designer and Family Guy

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Curse of Strahd Post-Mortem

I wrapped up my months-long 5e Curse of Strahd game this past week. I've been running it since last June, I think, most weeks, for 2-3 hours a session. My group at its largest was seven players, but usually it's around 4-5. They started as 1st level and we ended at 9th.

Overall it was a really enjoyable campaign. It felt like there was so much packed into the one adventure. With dozens of locations, "big bads," and factions, there was a real sense of it being a sandbox. I loved the self- obtained mountainous Barovian setting, the Eastern European flavors, and the gorgeous maps.

Most of all I was surprised that the PCs hardly even explored Castle Ravenloft at all. They visited twice, breaking into the Chapel at the rear on their first visit long enough to grab the Tome and the Icon of Ravenkind. Their second trip was the finale, and they found their way straight down to the finish.

Everything else was... well, all the more interesting things. Vallaki, restoring Lydia Petrovna as a priestess, visiting the Abbot, defeating Baba Lysaga. The Keepers of the Feather were a constant source of adventure. And of course Ezmerelda and the Vistani.

Curse of Strahd is an excellent model, to my mind, of solid sandbox D&D play with many many hooks and adventure seeds. It's easily the best of the 5e adventures in my opinion.

I'd love to hear suggestions for other border-defined, faction-heavy, adventure-filled sandbox campaigns like this one. It's inspiring me to make Swordbridge just like this in the sense of being just enough detail and flavor without the goofiness or over the top weirdness of, say, a Barrier Peaks or Carcosa. Having a home base the players can establish is a key element I think. 

About the Mystic and Dragonlance and Female Fantasy Authors

So I've had this bee in my bonnet for months about the new psionic class that's been appearing in D&D Unearthed Arcana, the mystic. Initially my beef with it was that it was called a mystic - this is a class or role in Dragonlance that was, basically, the stand-in for clerics when the gods were gone, during the Fifth Age and even after the gods returned in the Age of Mortals. Mystics were ambient divine spell casters, sort of like divine sorcerers. We designed the class for 3.5 D&D Dragonlance and it was mostly OK.

And then I was like, so the mystic was also a class in BECMI, first showing up in the Masters Set, then included in the Rules Cyclopedia. It was the monk, really - an unarmed combat specialist with funky powers.

I wasn't sure why Wizards seemed so hell-bent on moving away from the psionics of AD&D, with its science-fantasy feel, or the crystals from 3rd edition, or the name "psion." If you look at a lot of fantasy novels and fantasy fiction, outside of the D&D style of fantasy, you see a ton of psychic powers as magic. MZB's Darkover, Kurtz's Deryni, MacCaffrey's Pern and Crystal Singer, Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile. A lot of these books end up described as science fiction, not fantasy, even though they really weren't any different than the bulk of fantasy novels in their era (other than Tolkien.)

+Rob Donoghue pointed out how this may very well be seen by a lot of the male audience of D&D and Pathfinder and other trad fantasy games as "fantasy for girls" which is also tossed into the category of romantic fantasy or YA fantasy, but I think on closer inspection of the mystic class in Unearthed Arcana it isn't terribly out of place for the way that fiction deals with psychics. But that fiction also is unapologetic about its science fiction qualities, with crystals and neurological powers and psi-metals and mutants.

I've softened a little on this, and it was really just sour grapes to begin with (since I really want to be part of Dragonlance in the future of D&D and right now that seems like it's completely not on Wizards' radar) but I also think this raises a significant point about the D&D-ification of fantasy and the overall aversion of much of fantasy's roots. I wonder how much of the Appendix N is really embraced now by D&D and Pathfinder fans, and indeed whether that's one place (as part of the whole "weird fantasy" genre) that the OSR community is much closer to understanding.

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I'm a big fan of +Paul Stefko and have worked with him before on Feng Shui stuff. He's been creating short RPG content on his website and this is an example of it. It's all OGL or Creative Commons work. I'm looking forward to working with him again in the future.

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Hey +Greg Stolze 

No Experience Necessary

I've seen an argument thrown around recently that has been conflated with other issues but I think needs to be tossed out as no good, and that's the idea that Designer X shouldn't work on something because nobody knows who they are and nobody's really seen what they've done.

Holy crow, if that was ever the line we had to draw in the sand before we accepted creators into the tabletop gaming hobby we'd never go anywhere.

For all that you don't like somebody, or are confused why anyone else would, remember that their specific life experiences and background re: game design or publishing or writing or art shouldn't be measured on their bibliography.

I mean sure, eventually if somebody keeps writing terrible stuff you can say "well I'm not buying any of that again" but I'd hate for us to turn up our noses at somebody because we don't know who they are or we don't believe they can actually write.

(Also we all have bad projects. Some of us have worked on some real clunkers.)

Inclusivity Followup

A couple days ago I sent out a call to invite folks to write for the upcoming Cortex Prime Kickstarter, since I wanted to include more people from more diverse backgrounds and experiences than are usually included in projects like this. However, I've been rightly called out for the way I phrased the invite, and as a result of the way I worded it, many people who otherwise would have applied felt like they weren't actually invited.

So to be clear:

* If you are passionate about games and have enjoyed the Cortex and Cortex Plus games of the past, I want to hear from you so we can build on what made you so excited about the system in the first place.
* If your background, identity, or lived experiences make you feel excluded from the hiring practices of gigs like this, I want to hear from you to give Cortex Prime a more inclusive voice.
* If you want to build on, expand, and promote games through a lens or a vision that is important or unique to you, I want to hear from you so that we can make Cortex Prime even better.

I have always enjoyed collaborating with creative folks in a variety of ways on Cortex-related projects, and I'm committed to supporting and valuing their work from start to finish.

If you would like more information or clarification, please contact me: seth AT magic-vacuum DOT com. As before, this is free to reshare, and once again I'm sorry that my actions put up more barriers in a business that already had too many of them.

Aggressive Inclusivity

So I'm developing an all-new edition/version/core rules set, Cortex Prime, and while the spine and muscles of it are pretty much a solo effort I'm looking ahead to a Kickstarter that should include works by other people. Other designers.

This is that weird thing where I'm like, I would really like to hire people who do not look like me to write, design, and create settings and rules plug-ins for the game, and pay them well for it, but they also need to know the game.

So if you are or you know women, PoC, LGBTQ/NB folk, designers and writers who have loved or still love Marvel Heroic, Leverage, Smallville, or Firefly, and you think they or you can handle my laid-back Kiwi management style and produce rock-solid shit-hot awesome work for me on a not-terrible schedule, let me know.

Drop me an email at seth AT magic-vacuum DOT com with your enthusiastic vision. I want to help you help me make it happen.

(Permission granted to share this around. Originally shared it to my Circles. Sorry about that.)

Boundless Creativity Demands a Common Language

Or I should say, when one has huge amounts of creative content, it makes it much easier to get it out to an audience when you have some way to communicate it. And I think this is one of the observations I've made in the last couple years about the vigorously prolific creations of gamers in the OSR and adjacent communities.

I love D&D, as I'm sure most people who follow me know, but I don't think it's the best platform for every game idea or every setting or genre. I do, however, acknowledge that it's by far the most commonly known and familiar platform, and that it serves as a lingua franca for gamers and game designers in general. Want to publish some kind of freaky adventure set inside the head of a colossal space-orc? Make it a D&D adventure. Got a setting that has apes and lasers and space trains and dragons? Make it a D&D setting.

The fact that D&D "gets out of the way" of gamers who are intimately familiar with it and its many tropes allows indie and small press designers a significantly smaller burden when it comes to carrying their own creations. If they had to come up with a new set of rules they might not penetrate that huge common market, and people might not see it. DriveThru is filled with indie small press games that are fantasy heartbreakers or too-distant clones. Not everyone can be Palladium, for example.

For me, as a designer, and one who loves to create new systems and unlock some of the secrets of less-known ones, I am often disappointed that some of the most beautifully illustrated, magnificently written, and fiendishly designed RPGs and books coming out are only on the D&D platform. It reminds me of the d20 boom in the 00's, where phenomenal games and RPG licenses were bound to the OGL and died a horrid death of being poorly-fit. Granted, many of those were raced out the door as money making efforts. The OSR is not looking to make money.

(It's also possible that many people look at Fate worlds or Powered by the Apocalypse games and think the same thing.)

I look ahead at the future of RPGs and I see that we will eventually settle once again on a small clutch of RPG platforms upon which 99% of the new games will be built. The vast amount will be D&D-alike, with perhaps a large chunk as runner up being Fate, PbtA, and possibly a system we haven't seen yet.

What are your thoughts on the idea of RPG-system-as-platform? Is it a boon to have the dazzling array of creator content be attached to a familiar rules set? Do you instead wish the games were attached to something else?

Sentai/Squad-Level RPGs

I'm interested in creating a sort of squad-level module plug-in for Cortex, tentatively titled BRIGADE. It would be the basis for games that model everything from Power Rangers, Voltron, and Thunderbirds to Generation Kill and Team Fortress.

What RPGs exist out there right now that tackle this sort of thing? My first thought is +John Harper's The Regiment, but I'm sure there are others.

(And yes, Power Rangers and Generation Kill seem like wildly different things, but trust me there's something to it.) 


This year I encourage everyone to do the following.

1. Play an "old school" roleplaying game that you've never played before that was published before 1990.
2. Play a "new school" roleplaying game that you've never played before that was published between 1990 and 2000.

Dungeons and Dragons doesn't count - unless you never played D&D before, that is. Retroclones, new editions, etc don't count, either. I'm talking the originals.

Play the game using the rules provided, interpreting as you would the text and guidelines and instructions and procedures provided, making up new characters and playing at least one session. Don't introduce any rules that aren't in the game except those that are suggested or implied.

I will pledge to do this also. There are a lot of games on my shelves that I've never played, as I'm sure is true for many of you. Do this thing, post your play report or thoughts or feelings or realizations about the game here on G+ so we can all see it!

We are better gamers and better game designers when we play more games.
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