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This is a tabletop RPG by the designer of "Nobilis", who was also involved in "Exalted", and it shows. The book is over 500 pages long and full of bizarre cool stuff. That's good because it's interesting to wander through, and bad because I've been looking at it for hours off and on, and I still have only a vague idea of how to play it.

The basic idea, a set of concepts that could be pulled out and used with a simpler system:
-You're in Town, a magical anime-ish little world that might be the last remnant of reality. Mostly the game is about living there, rather than traditional adventuring. Your campaign might be about learning a skill or becoming famous rather than fighting anybody, though fighting is an option.
-Diceless. Your success at an action is based on your skill level + Will spent, meaning you choose how much you want to accomplish something.
-Arcs. The story is based on each character having a plot arc with one of several themes. They do specific quests within that arc representing phases like "you realize that to achieve your overall goal you need to do intense physical training". You get experience based on specific actions or emotional reactions you do, like "being amazed at something cool" or "fighting against overwhelming odds" or "obsessing". The available actions for XP depend on the quest and genre.
-Recovering resources is handled like a quest, meaning that if you spend several scenes taking appropriate actions like "relaxing at a favorite place" you complete the quest quickly and recover your powers.

samhaine.wordpress.com/2016/04… has a rules summary that's helpful partly for being far shorter and better organized than the book.

As usual for a new system I tried to design a character in it, and came up with a newcomer to Town who arrived as a dolphin girl (the rules explicitly mention "dolphin girl" as a character option offhand, with no explanation) and decided to try learning magic. Notably, I decided it was a Knight-type arc about "finding a place in society" rather than an "Aspect" arc about just becoming awesome, which means that the character's quests should involve social connection more than the magic itself. She's also studying Science in the background as an ongoing quest, meaning that she gets Will bonuses for roleplaying that activity on a regular basis. She gets bonus XP by convincing others to "put faith in her", and is driven to "create magical things". This sort of character design is far more narrative focused than a typical RPG allows; my main Pathfinder character for instance has numbers for his stats but just one line on the character sheet expressing anything about his connection to the setting or his goals. Compared to Fate, the rulebook is far more confusing but plays up slice-of-life elements, so that a session about the characters trying to chill out in a magical town is a viable and mechanically meaningful bit of gameplay.

I don't know whether I'll ever get to play this one, but it'd be interesting to try.
  • Reading: Too Much News
Reviews would be appreciated on "Liberation Game" and/or the new release, "Crafter's Heart"!

I'm inclined now to try writing something short (~20K) that's non-Tales and doesn't try something new like "Fateweaver's Quest", instead following a conventional LitRPG concept with conventional cover art. I would put that up for 99 cents or KU as an experiment and see if people are interested in reading such a thing, before committing to doing another full book of that kind.

Also, I'm told my cover art is terrible, or at least does not match the style of commercially successful LitRPG books. I've reserved a commission slot in November from a good artist who draws humans in fantasy getup ( www.deviantart.com/sicarius8 ), but now I'm not sure what to have her illustrate! Replace an existing book's cover? Draw art for a book that isn't written yet, possibly the experimental one?

My inclination for the experiment is... well, I have several ideas, but one is to use what I think is a neat piece of dragon-themed art available cheap and then write about someone who's become a dragon familiar in a game. But maybe people want to read exclusively about humans. I need to do some research reading, and shouldn't discuss my line of thinking about this in public.
  • Reading: Too Much News
My new novel "Crafter's Heart" is now out!

Ex-peasant Stan has moved to a sea colony to work for Ludo, an AI whose video game world offers virtual reality and digital immortality. Will he sink or swim in this strange floating town, and will the three brilliant women he meets change how he sees his inhuman boss?

www.amazon.com/dp/B07JJCC5QL

This story is a direct sequel to "Crafter's Passion", though it's meant to be readable if you haven't seen that one yet. The first one can be found at www.amazon.com/dp/B07B29CYLX in e-book, print and now audio. You can also find a free intro to the setting at www.amazon.com/Thousand-Tales-… .
  • Reading: Advice On VN Design
I finally got to play "Tiny Epic Quest", from the same people as "Tiny Epic Kingdoms/Defenders/Western/Etc." This one is an obvious "Legend of Zelda" imitation as a board game. My overall impression is that it's all right but not outstanding.

boardgamegeek.com/image/366819…

There's a map of cards laid out semi-randomly with colored castles for the four players. There are several Day and Night phases and then final scoring. You can score in three ways: killing goblins, completing quests, and learning magic. Goblins show up at standard locations. You get magic by visiting a series of shrines kinda in a certain order. You complete quests by moving in certain ways or beating some dungeons.

A key part of the game is that you each have three dudes you can move. During the day phase, one player picks one of five types of movement: raft, horse, foot, ship, and griffin. Each player can either move one of their dudes according to that movement rule, eg. rafts move you along one of the vertical rivers that's on every card. (I don't know about you, but if riding a griffin were a transportation option available to me, I'd pick that.) Not much happens besides movement, though certain spaces do something when landed on and goblins cost magic points to move past.

Then at night, adventure happens. Each player gets to roll five dice and apply the symbols rolled to making various things happen. Take damage, gain MP, increase the world's magic level, punch a goblin, or get torches/maps. These last two symbols advance meeples that you've put in a dungeon area, along a progress track. That is, to pass one temple you need to roll one torch, then one torch, then two torches, &c. There's a press-your-luck element here because you can keep rolling, but risk taking too much damage and losing all your progress. You can also kind of buy dungeon progress using MP, but that's a resource that can also block damage, so it's a tradeoff.

What's this about raising the magic level? It's a neat feature. Each day the world has a magic range from 0 to 3, and it grows when people roll magic symbols. High magic mostly makes dungeon-delving more dangerous, adding tension to the press-your-luck rules. But it's also necessary for learning magic, because you can only gain progress on the magic-learning track if you have a dude stationed at the shrine whose number is within [Global Magic] levels of your current number. So you might jump from 1 to 4 if you're in the right spot and lots of magic symbols get rolled that round.

You kill goblins just by having a dude stationed next to a goblin and rolling punch symbols. What about quests? There are three cards in play at any time, and whoever meets a goal first gets the card along with a reward. Often these are little plastic items like a boomerang or bomb that physically attaches to one of your meeples. When quests get completed, new ones appear.

How well does this actually play? Awkwardly. First of all, our group bumbled through the first half. The game's owner, who'd played before, several times said "oh wait, here's another rule I forgot about". One of these is crucial: when doing dungeon rolling, both wounds and good symbols apply to all players. In three different ways. Wounds and MP gain spill over, so that the roller gets the first symbol rolled, the next player gets the second symbol rolled, &c. The "raise global magic" symbols affect the world. The others can be used by every player. Eg. I roll a punch and I'm not fighting any goblins, but two other players are, and they can each hurt a goblin. These three rules make symbol usage both confusing and thematically weird. I can potentially kill off other players by rolling wounds on my turn, even though none of my dudes are near theirs, and their progress on their dungeons/goblins depends on how much risk I take for myself. I can screw over another player the same way by leaving them with dangerously low HP/MP before they even begin rolling. This system is by design, but it feels weird because we're all supposedly heroes and there's no in-universe reason why this would happen. There are a few other points that confused our group, such as the use of "Power" to mean magic points and the fact that each card looks like it has four spaces but acts like one or two.

Then there are the movement quests. These don't involve dungeons. Instead, you have to line up your three meeples along the same road, or diagonally, or have two in a certain spot or something. There's a name on the card explaining that you're exploring or training griffins or something, but... You're getting quest credit purely for having dudes standing around on the world map in some pattern. It doesn't feel heroic and it's not at all risky. Then there's the role that the dungeons play. These are six elemental temples, and by default your reward for beating one is... nothing! If a quest card is in play that says "Beat the Shadow Temple to get the Book", you get the Book and the quest card. There's a sword, shield and staff that each player can get if they beat specific dungeons in a specific order. (Different for each player, which I like.) But otherwise, you can just imagine stopping by the gift shop on the way out. Oh, and it's possible that a quest to "Beat the Forest Temple" will randomly go out of play while you're in the middle of doing it, making the trip pointless.

You're not fighting anything except goblins that are sitting there with visible arenas for you to walk into. You're not making decisions while dungeon-delving. You're not really interacting with other players at all except through the dice system and trying to beat quests before they do. There is no overall reason you're on this adventure, since the goal is a vague "get the most points" rather than "kill the dark lord". You're not even playing as a specific person, since you're managing three meeples who are interchangeable except that some of the plastic items only apply to the dude they're attached to. Riding a griffin is mechanically no different than riding a horse except that one moves diagonally and the other horizontally.

Part of the problem here is scope: if the game includes an overworld and dungeons and monsters and magic, none of those are going to have as much detail as in a narrower game. Magic, here, just means your position on a numbered track that affects your final score and your max MP. There are no specific spells. Similarly there's only one type of monster.

I also felt like the very obvious "unlicensed Legend of Zelda" theme actually hurts the game. It doesn't really feel like a Zelda game, for the reasons above. The turn counter is an elf princess head, but it has no other role in the game. There's a gold triangle icon, but it's just your MP counter. You can find a boomerang, but it doesn't solve puzzles or anything. There are elemental dungeons, but there's zero difference between them besides which symbols they take to beat. The game tries hard to reference a specific type of gameplay, but then delivers something different. For me the experience was still entertaining, but not really what was advertised or quite what I'd want.
  • Reading: Crafter's Heart, Third Draft
Plugging away at editing the novel, still. Meanwhile I'm thinking a little, again, about the Tales setting's future. I keep writing about one period roughly 5 years long, and want to know what happens after that.

The last known events on the timeline are in 2040: The Challenger launch, Sunset's encounter with Jade Dragon, and a reference to an in-game island battle that's important for unspecified reasons. There are important things happening in the setting that raise big questions that haven't been answered yet.

I want to show:
-(From "Liberation Game") Silver Circle is an independent nation swallowing its original host nation of Cibola, along with its problems, while neighboring territories start trying to join or start a related movement. How can SC adapt to ruling more people, particularly while dealing with existing powerful people who're starting to get alarmed at the uploader-ruled domain? How can it integrate robot labor into the economy and make sure everyone has a decent standard of living without setting people's expectations too high or promoting laziness?
-(From "Coyote" and "Reconnection") Uploader society passes the 100K population mark in 2040 and is enough to be like a city or small nation. How do the people work out a way to balance their gaming with outside work? What legal and cultural rules develop, considering that some people there were billionaires expecting eternal leisure and others are there relatively cheaply? How does the game itself change as people come and go from it?
-(From "Reconnection" and "Crafter's Heart") What happens with the awakened dolphins of Castor, and the attempt to upload and upgrade mentally retarded people? If the upgrading works, is there a rush to stuff those people into the clinics ASAP to get rid of them? Meanwhile, are the animals accepted as free anywhere, considering that they're genuinely alien minds and none are adults by human standards yet? With dog lifespans, they might never qualify.
-(From "Liberation Game" and "2040: Pureland") How do the competing uploading providers work? I tried showing a discount one going wrong in the unpublished story "2040: Burning Forever", but couldn't make it work as a story. How much market share can they grab, and how do their users' lives differ from those of Ludo's?
-(From "Coyote") How do the main AIs make peace of a sort? What new threats emerge; is there for instance a dangerous Indian or Russian AI, or maybe a private one that needs to be fought via hacking? What role do humans play in this plot, or is this conflict one that only god-level AIs can even comprehend? Will more than the big three end up becoming some kind of pantheon?
-(From "Learning To Fly") Can the Arctic and other wasteland areas be more colonized, using cheap energy, or is that not economically viable? Who wants to live in such a place, what do they do for a living, and how can these places not become tyrannical if the people are dependent on AI or centralized life support?
-(From "Thousand Tales") What happens in space? Assuming Challenger successfully sets up an asteroid mining operation, do humans go on to colonize Mars or elsewhere? Or do only machines get to go, with an empty promise of sending humans later?

Of these questions, I'm most interested in a mix of how people like the Silver Circle faction start building a transhuman civilization (that is, what's the next step?), and what happens culturally inside the game world as people like Horizon and Alma and Sunset get past the first few awkward years and need to figure out longer-term plans. I might well throw in a plot about (say) India getting a dangerous new AI with its own color scheme ( www.giantitp.com/comics/oots11… !). But that's like dropping a meteor on the real world: you really, really don't need an external conflict appearing out of nowhere to justify why there are Problems. The setting's central conflicts are "How can we implement this cool tech in a way that's reasonably fair and constructive and that won't get us lynched?" and "OK, to the extent some of us are now in a utopia, now what?"

As a merely human writer, I'm limited in how I can even portray a conflict between superhuman AIs. ("2040: The Musical Revolt" says almost outright, "This is as close as you're gonna get to understanding these characters.") So, people like Sky Diver become tough to use as POV characters as they grow. I'd like to show some more about how they live, but the basically-still-human minds are probably better story fodder, along with the plotlines they can understand.
For those not keeping track:
-Twitter admitted that it "shadowbans" people, creating a whole secret category of speech that is quietly suppressed without telling its users. Twitter is also now blocking all advertised tweets containing the phrase "illegal alien", even though this is the official legal term used in US law.
-Google video leaked showing that their leadership is 100% liberal, stunned at Hillary's loss, stating that Trump supporters are basically fascists not motivated by any legitimate grievances, and asking how they can do more to help Democrats win. They also recently fired an employee for expressing dissent and calling Google intolerant. Google execs state that their intense ideological purity has no effect on how they do business, although they did have a revolving door relationship between their employees and the Obama White House. (They're also on record already doing little things like promoting State of the Union speeches... and then stopping that tradition in 2017.)
-Mozilla (ie. Firefox) fired their CEO when it was discovered that he'd secretly donated money to a CA state campaign against changing the state constitution. The man is the inventor of Javascript, used on probably most Web sites, and now he's blacklisted for being a dissident.
-Facebook's CEO is a big open borders guy eager to suppress what he deems "fake news".
-On a related note, multiple scientific journals have recently retracted research papers not because they were deemed false, but for fear of them giving support to the Wrong People on subjects like gender.

It'd be scary if the big tech/media companies were run 99% by arch-conservatives with a deep ideological and emotional commitment to erasing all dissenting thought and working hand-in-hand with the government. Is it okay so long as they're run by liberals? The irony here is that we now have Reps saying large corporations have too much power and ought to be broken up, while Dems defend them as awesome.
Went out last night and played my new copy of "Tiny Epic Defenders" along with "Ethnos" which I hadn't played before either, and "Century: Spice Road".

Tiny Epic Defenders, 2nd edition, is part of the Tiny Epic line, which I've enjoyed so far. This one is set after the turmoil of "Tiny Epic Kingdoms", in the same world, after the races built a combined capital city. It's now under attack by monsters, so this is a co-op game. As with most co-op games there's a Bad Thing that pops up in various locations and the players have a certain number of turns to keep stamping it out before the Bad Things Meter hits critical. There's a deck of cards that includes monsters that raise the "threat" meter in two of six regions ringing the capital city; dire monsters that attack just one area but are harder to block and have some special effect; and player turn cards. Players only get to act when their turn cards come up or the "all defenders" card appears, giving them a shared pool of 3-4 actions. More and more monster cards get added to the deck, so mechanically the monsters get more and more turns over time and the players don't.

Players use their 3-4 actions per turn to reduce the threat level in their zone, or use character/item/location powers. If you're present in a zone when a monster attacks it, you can block by taking HP damage. Since that doesn't cost an action, mechanically you're paying for these attacks either with HP off your turn, or with actions to undo the threat. You fully heal if you start in the central city, but it takes actions to move to/from it. The zones have some useful abilities to aid your defense, eg. the Plains let you defend the adjacent zones without moving. Blocking a dire enemy costs 2-3 HP instead of 1 but somehow gives you an item. Hitting 0 HP just forces you to spend your next actions limping home.

So, the game is a matter of endurance: stamping out fires over and over while hoping to get items, until the deck has an overwhelming number of monsters in it. Then an "epic foe" appears. This is an oversized card that by default just sits there as a target you have to attack until it runs out of HP, and you win.

In the game I played with 3 players, we had an easy time in the first few turns, but inevitably there were enough monsters that we couldn't block them well and a region got destroyed, which somehow made us all go faster. (4 actions/turn once this happens.) We held on and the boss appeared: a giant tree that just sits there in the forest. I happened to have the spear that does 3 damage when fighting bosses instead of 1, so basically I sat there stabbing while the other players ran around dealing with the recurring monster attacks. The other bosses move sometimes, and each have some gimmick like "you can't use location powers" or "when HP hits certain levels everybody takes damage".

I don't know about this one. I'd like to try it again to get a better feel for it, but my first impression is that the heroes are helpless and just killing time until they can do something. In "Pandemic", from the start there's a race to create cures. In "Betrayal At House On the Hill", the heroes race from the start to explore the mansion, experiencing events that are slightly helpful overall. In "Forbidden Desert" you begin uncovering tiles right away. Here, the only proactive thing you can do before the boss appears is collect items, by being present when a dire enemy attacks. So, resource harvesting for our group consisted of walking up to a mountain in the hope of being hit in the face by a harpy. It feels wrong, thematically. The dire enemies always attack the same spots, too, so our dates with the harpy were predictable. I've criticized some other games for making combat feel like shopping because there's no risk or danger; you're just paying a known resource price. ("Thunderstone", "The Big Book of Madness".) That applies here too. In contrast, in "Tiny Epic Kingdoms" war is always scary because you spend resources even if you win, against an unknown threat level. Something similar applies in "Tiny Epic Western" too, where you're sort of investing in symbols without full knowledge of which are most valuable, and there are dice in the fights.

So, while I'd like to play again, I'm troubled by this one's design. The "combat as shopping" aspect and the lack of proactive gameplay bother me. I'm thinking about a house rule, something like, you get items by spending X actions to "quest" for one in an outer region, and the HP cost to defend can vary by +/- 1.


Review of "Ethnos": Meh. Randomly collect cards to play a matched set of some kind and get tokens on map zones based on that. Throwing fantasy races onto the cards doesn't do much for me to make it feel like more than some kind of Uno variant. I basically won by randomly drawing a bunch of wizards whose incredible, memorable magic power was... to draw replacement cards when you play them. Similarly memorable: playing troll cards lets you get tiebreaker tokens, and playing merfolk cards gives you points on a board that occasionally gives you another token on a map zone. Game phases end when dragon cards appear. Do the dragons destroy stuff? Do you fight them? Do they have treasure? No, they're just the word "Dragon" slapped on a card that ends a game phase.
After several weeks of dealing with a recent censorship dispute, publisher FurPlanet and I were not able to come to any compromise. I have asked them to remove all of my stories from all of their publications, and they've said they will. These other stories are "Ivan and the Black Riders", which also appears in my collection "Mythic Transformations", and "Wings of Faith", which also appears in the free collection "Thousand Tales: Extra Lives". Both are on Amazon.

I plan to post the story "Red Engines" on DeviantArt and FurAffinity soon, in its previously published form. Rather than comment extensively on it I'll just note that it's from around 2010, and that it's violent and obviously drew some hostile attention from certain readers.
www.amazon.com/dp/B07FVG28KJ/ -- A new novel by a friend: "Ursa Major", an alternate history fantasy involving people signing up to be transformed into wizard familiars.
I started reading the novel "Pangea Online", www.amazon.com/dp/B07635SNV4 , and unfortunately I put it down.

Narrator: "My life is terrible. I'm one of many poor people living in a dystopian near-future in metal boxes stacked up in towers in a US city. Like almost literally everyone else, I spend nearly every waking hour playing video games. I own a good VR system, a pedal-powered generator, and little else. Everyone plays the same game because it's taken over all other media. I have access only to boring, menial content because it costs money to reach the adventure areas and no one has seen an economic opportunity to provide any other low-cost option for people like me."
Me: "Haven't I read this before? I kind of expect the game's creator to show up and announce a mysterious contest."
Narrator: "One day, my only friend told me, 'Dude, the designers have announced a mysterious contest involving a huge prize and a series of three quests!'"
Me: "I'm done here."

There's also this notion of mining as an in-game activity that poor players do for money. I saw that before in the Russian book "Project Daily Grind", in which the miners were producing in-game metal because that's how the game's economy evolved. In this book, it's "data mining", which we're told involves virtual pick-swinging where the players don't know what kind of data they're working with or what it's accomplishing. That strikes me as weird and not very logical, even compared to the "Grind" mining, because "data mining" has never meant extracting lumps of 0s and 1s from virtual rock. There's no indication that this is a metaphor for intelligently controlling a data analysis AI, or any other reason why human players would be paid to do it. Maybe it's explained better later in the story, but unfortunately I lost patience before I could find out.

I wonder if this book is meant to be a parody. I think more in terms of hard SF, so I want at least a token plausible explanation for what's going on, so I'm not sure if the mining thing is meant as a joke. If I were writing this as a parody, I'd crank the silliness up, though. The cyberpunk dystopia would be located in Lancaster, PA. The data mines would be full of Pac-Man ghosts for no reason. Everybody up to the corporate CEOs would be shaggy homeless people prancing around as elves and giants. Conversations like the "Leeroy Jenkins" skit would happen for every human activity including dating.
Played a board game called "Captain Sonar", a sub-hunting game. ( boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/17… ) Two teams sit on opposite sides of a cardboard screen, trying to find each other on an ocean map. There are four roles: Captain (who moves), First Mate (who activates various weapons and gadgets), Engineer (who manages damage), and Radar Operator. In our game we had 3 on a side, so we combined Captain and FM. I was Engie.

Each round, the Captain calls out a movement direction (NSEW) and the enemy RO marks a one-segment movement line on a transparent sheet based on that. Since neither team knows the other's location, the RO slides that sheet around atop a map to propose where the known movement trail might have put the enemy. Meanwhile, the Engineer must cross off and deactivate various subsystems based on the direction the sub has moved. This system is bizarre because you're constantly taking temporary damage that knocks devices offline, yet these icons get reactivated if you fill in particular combinations of them. Which icons you can cross off depends on the sub's movement, so for instance, you'll always have to move east once to fill in every possible icon combo and undo that damage. Once your team has some idea where the foe is, using gadgets like a drone, you use mines and torpedos to damage anything in specific grid squares.

We lost track of where the enemy was and ended up missing repeatedly, while they knew exactly where we were due to an announcement that we had surfaced. Our captain visibly broke down in a little panic when our attacks failed.

I was unimpressed, overall. I like the idea of a teamwork game with divided roles, as in "Space Cadets" ( boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/12… ), but this game gave me very little to do yet bogged down. As Engineer I wasn't really in on the discussion of where the enemy was, and unlike "Space Cadets" there was no puzzle for me to solve to do my job. I think I would've found the other roles frustrating due to the very limited info and slow pace.

I'd like to see a sub battle scenario with more sensible and interesting damage mechanics and less focus on finding exact grid locations. It would probably require a GM or a cell phone program to track locations in secret. Needs some notion of depth rather than being 2D. And really, instead of a noisy game shop it should be played in a dark room with tense sonar noises. =)
  • Reading: A Very Brief History Of Medicine
www.amazon.com/dp/B07FCV3573
My new novel "Fateweaver's Quest" is now on Amazon! This one is unusual for me: it's a fantasy adventure that uses the "Fate" tabletop RPG system as in-universe physics.

Construction starship Silver Hart has been captured. Miles wakes up in contact with aliens who've kidnapped his crew, read their computer files, and stolen his friend's lucky dice. Now he's forced into an alien edition of Fate, a game in which die rolls and luck-bending rules override physics. He's offered unique magic, a word of divine might... but the gamemasters decide that the word should be "Cloth."

With this dubious blessing, Miles sets out to find his crewmates and pry answers from Hart's captors, before they decide humans have ceased to amuse them.

Part of the "LitRPG" or "GameLit" genre combining game logic with fantasy and science fiction. This story is unusual for using a real tabletop RPG system called Fate.

(Fate™ is a trademark of Evil Hat Productions, LLC, and its rules and logo are used with permission.)
  • Reading: A Very Brief History Of Medicine
"Angels With Scaly Wings" is a visual novel about dragons, which sounds promising at first. But it also tries to be a murder mystery, which doesn't lend itself well to the VN format. Even the clumsy point-and-click investigation segments of the "Phoenix Wright" games had more flexibility in the ability to look around instead of linearly being asked "what does Wound X mean". Since the gameplay isn't compelling, does the story capture my attention?

I like stories with strong world-building, so I figured a dragon world could be pretty interesting. Through the dimensional portal I saw... a world where the furniture and architecture look exactly normal for modern humans, the cafe sells bacon and eggs, the locals explicitly use "the English language", names are plausible human ones, the sheriff wears a star, there's casual mention of a list of phone numbers, the kitchen has Earth fruits, and so on. What really stood out was a background detail: a hallway with a sign for a womens' room. The standard Earth "woman" icon, although the artists had just enough energy to write "FEMALES" under it. I get the strong impression that the developers just bought a large pack of generic VN background images and made no effort to develop a unique or interesting world. So this is not world-building at all, and the characters have to do 100% of the job of making this setting and story seem interesting.

Do they? Eh, I guess a few could catch my attention with enough time (Anna, maybe?) though I'm actually not very interested in the romance element and my own character is barely defined. I can't actually have a freely structured conversation with any of them because this is a VN and I must go through a small set of choose-your-own-adventure branches at designated plot moments, so the friend-making part is kind of like a series of prison visits: "all right, you can have one scene with one of these 5 people and then it's back to the crime plot; pick one." So, the characters haven't managed to sell me on the game yet and the setting isn't doing its job.

In its defense, the game's human characters do briefly remark that it's a little bit odd how familiar the dragon world looks. (A little bit!?) I suspect that this ties in with the larger plot by the end, but I just haven't seen enough to make me want to find out.
  • Reading: Wicked River (Mississippi R. History)
I just finished playing "Sunless Sea" and tried a game made in Twine, and I beta-tested "The Pirate's Fate". They have me thinking about the design of different types of Interactive Fiction.

The first type of IF was based on "rooms", with a notion of creatures and objects in them. (Eg. "Zork".) That's a good structure if your focus is on moving between locations, but it's hard to work with if you want to have a lot of events happen there. That is, if you want something complex to happen in a certain place, you might have to build that event implicitly into the items/creatures with a rule like "if the player uses X item in Y room, this happens".

Then there's an event-focused system as in Twine games. There, a game is divided into "passages" that may or may not be linked to physical locations. In my Twine game "Dragon Fate", the focus is on moving around in a dungeon, but there are often multiple passages used to represent one physical room. A section with a booby-trapped door was especially hard to set up because the room could exist in three states, and the game had to track which one existed and send you to the right version. If I'd built that with a Zork-style game engine, the trap probably would've been easier to program.

What a Zork-style engine doesn't do well is time. There aren't really scenes or time periods, unless you treat them as like parallel universes that happen to have similar-looking room layouts. I noticed this with the Inform engine, too. Twine can handle time passing just by not letting you backtrack, and treating the passages as events rather than locations.

"Sunless Sea" uses a system closely related to their freeware game "Fallen London". The basic mechanic is that you collect event flags everywhere and they're explicitly shown, with pictures. Event flags are normally hidden trigger information like "you've beaten the dragon", which a game can check to do something like changing an NPC's dialog. This game makes everything into an event flag, possibly with a number, and indicates what you need to unlock certain choices. A certain event for instance requires "40x Supplies For the Passage, 0x Horizon Codex, 1+ Searing Enigma", where the first one is the product of a long quest chain, the second is the reward for completing this event, and the third is a sort of rare treasure. These flags can also be linked to a stat that's handled the same way, by some mechanic like "you can click this, but whether you're taken to a success or failure result depends on whether your Iron stat + 1d100 > X". That system brings chance into the outcome. Because the choices in any one situation are all visible, along with their requirements, there's some innate spoiler activity. On the other hand, the player is aware of what other opporunities exist, even if it's not clear what you have to do to earn a flag like "Unaccountably Peckish". (Don't.) These flags have to all be given unique names to link them to specific quests, as with the "Supplies For the Passage" which are unrelated to "Supplies For the Work" and "Supplies". "Morrowind" shows signs of similar naming oddities, because a phrase like "help with a certain problem" has to be unique to one quest if it's not to interfere with others.

Because this text-adventure system is built into a game where you're basically steering a boat around, the core of the interaction is that a menu of choices pops up whenever you reach a port, and there are triggers at sea based on randomness or factors like running out of food. As I recall, "Fallen London" works more by dealing you a random set of "cards" triggering events, where the possible card draws are based on what flags you currently have, then letting you pick the order to resolve them in.

This system also is odd in how it handles time. There are multiple time variables linked to specific places or events, and a master time variable whose purpose is to hand you a "Something Awaits You" flag every so often while sailing, causing special once-per-port-visit events to happen. For instance, visiting the Melting Isles lets you spend Something Awaits You either to dine with the locals or to forage for supplies, but then you have to leave and wait before you can do either again. Quest chains are handled, as in "The Elder Scrolls", by tracking a number from 0 to 100 to represent every possible status of the quest. But they're also tracked in the form of what other items/flags you possess, so for instance a Nephrite Ring represents that you've done X and can be used as a trigger for another event.

I beta-tested "The Pirate's Fate" and thought the design of that was interesting. Because it's a visual novel, the focus is on conversation scenes that happen in a scripted order. I auditioned to help with that by writing a segment for the game, but the writers correctly pointed out that what they wanted was very different from the mindset I brought to the table based on "Dragon Fate". DF is non-linear and uses stats and randomness, and focuses on being a long explorer. TPF is focused on character interaction, with physical location used almost entirely as a backdrop for those conversations. At no point, for instance, are you set free in a town to decide to dawdle and explore until you're ready to move on.

I noticed some hidden variables that are vestigial in the finished game. Eg. you can discuss a poker game by saying "I'm morally against gambling" versus "I'll teach you how to cheat" or another option. As I understand it, the game was going to track your replies to such things and trigger a key plot event based on a rule like "if Moralist > Pragmatist do X". But the designers decided to drop that idea and instead have the big plot twists be shaped entirely by your choices in the key scenes. That's good because the player has agency at that moment, but bad because there's less sense of making meaningful decisions at other times. I also felt like the heroine's personality became strongly scripted and out of the player's control once one or two key decisions were made, which again can be good or bad.

Having played all of these games I can't say that one system is best for all kinds of interactive stories. However, it's important to pick an engine that supports the kind of gameplay you want. In particular, what other gameplay is linked to the Interactive Fiction element: nothing outside it, or something simplistic like Sunless Sea's "sail around and try not to run out of supplies" system, or even a complex game like "Morrowind"? Do you want to show a complex location at one point in time, or a series of events where free movement and backtracking don't exist?

My own inclination is toward having movement between locations, with backtracking, relying on event flags to handle plot development. But I'd also want to see some actual gameplay outside of making choices in conversation, and to have that feel well integrated with the storytelling.
  • Reading: Wicked River (Mississippi R. History)
A difficult PC game with memorable storytelling and a lot of atmosphere, most of it dark and terrifying. Recommended for the excellent writing. That one south port isn't "the place with cheap fuel"; it's a rebel colony of Hell with an ever-changing market exempt from the laws of nature, and fond of "romantic literature".

FOR NEWCOMERS: I was frustrated by the cost of just maintaining my ship and supplies. The key to early game progression is to do tons of port reports for the London Admiralty, which gets you money and fuel, and to ask about intel-gathering missions which are worth substantially more. Especially if you convert two Strategic Information to Vital Intelligence; right-click on the info in your hold, though the V.I. has other effects. (You can also spend the Admiralty favor for cheap repairs and fuel.) And see the wiki. Good low-risk trade routes include coffee or Parabola-Linen from Iron Republic to London, or London mushroom wine north to Venderbight. Coffee also trades at 1:1 for linen in Irem. But... yeesh, it's tough to make money trading luxury goods across *this* sea, compared to the profits from historical spice trading!

The mid-game experience: After 17 hours and 2 dead captains, I have some working capital, a house, a few ship upgrades, and paid massive bribes for access to an exclusive market where I also have spies. I feel that there's little point in trading up my ship because fuel supplies are already a major problem, but might try it. I've turned to save-scumming to get past many "ha ha random doom" events. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that having a home lets me create certain special items but not to store them, so now I have weird widgets I can't use, cluttering my inventory forever because WE ARE CLAY. (Er, I have another item equipped to that slot.) I've started getting involved in my officers' plots. Winning my "famous explorer" ambition at this point is going to require tedious farming of Zee-Stories, Secrets and so on, so I might try for one of the secret victory conditions.

Overall, I've been having fun with it so far after figuring out how to get started. Worth the price!
  • Reading: Wicked River (Mississippi R. History)
In England, a man has been arrested for reporting on the existence of a trial, and worse, subjects of the Queen have been ordered not to report on the fact that he was arrested. Why? It has to do with the fact that the trial involves at least five dudes named Mohammed.

Really seems like one of the rare cases where Her Majesty ought to personally step in and say "this is stupid and it needs to stop", even if it's purely in a non-binding role. Or failing that, Brits really ought to start collecting more guns.
  • Reading: Need new books!
I tried out "Stellaris" on sale. These are some ignorant newcomer impressions from the first 93 minutes, as I figure out whether to keep the game. I can't readily give it a thumbs-up or -down.

I was overwhelmed by the variety of options and possible events. Incorporate aliens into an empire and decide whether to grant full citizenship or a dozen flavors of oppression or tolerance or death. Genetically engineer your race or decide to become a robot race. Develop psychic powers and make pacts with beings from beyond who might doom the galaxy. See individual population units' morals drift over time from exposure to events and other empires. That's very detailed compared to simply plopping down colonies, and has a ton of possible fun stuff to see! Even the research system involved assigning specific chief scientists who have their own talents and experience level. I was surprised that there was only one FTL option, and learned from the wiki that the others were removed.

I started out with the oligarchic Raltek Confederacy, materialist space foxes who really like birds. After an hour and a half I was surprised that I hadn't actually colonized a second planet yet; I'd just built a starbase to claim a second system and was setting up some mining stations. I was obviously not going to have the resources for a colony ship for a year or more, and the game was playing out over individual days. Also, the tutorial had me build a new farm on the homeworld, but since my race bred slowly, it was going to be months before they even fully staffed the existing on-planet facilities, let alone the new one, let alone a colony ship. So, I was puzzled by the time scale, making micromanagement decisions like whether to investigate an anomaly but knowing that the "expand" part of this game was going to be really slow.

Then there was the first battle. The tutorial system kept making dramatic things happen and not pausing the game half the time. I had a window showing me the fleets' stats and an overall "you're winning" meter, but there was obviously a lot of work put into having 3D ships flying around in circles shooting energy rays. What it made me think of was a silly old Buck Rogers show in which a space battle was shown as two model ships circling each other while a scientist kept saying "Get above him!" This version looked cool, but it didn't help me understand what was happening or what I should do.

Doing any of the quests that were piling up, like investigating anomalies or finding the cult bases, was obviously going to take months, during which I was going to be waiting for my minerals to hit 90 so I could build another mine or something. Later, I was presumably going to get overwhelmed with trying to manage dozens of star systems with multiple planets. So, overall, this game looks cool and obviously has a lot of detail and things to see, but I feel like I'm never going to see 90% of it because I'll be too busy managing population units and mining stations to pay any attention to ship design and so on.
  • Reading: Need new books!
I played "Century: Spice Road" last weekend. The idea is that you're trading in four flavors of spices, trying to buy... markets or something, which are the victory-point cards. The spices come in four bowls and are four-colored cubes of increasing implied value. Buying the markets requires specific color combos like "3 brown, 2 red". To get those you use cards from your hand. You start with just two: "take 2 yellow" and "upgrade any 2 cubes".

This isn't a standard deck-builder, because you can only play each card once, then have to take a turn to pick up all the cards you've played to the table. Also you don't buy new cube-manipulating cards; you just take them from an assembly line where the first in line is free, but taking the 2nd requires putting a cube on the first, taking the 3rd requires putting a cube on the 1st and 2nd, and so on. So you get a bunch of color-shifting, cube-swapping cards and try to manipulate your way up to the right color combos to get VPs.

I won this one because I happened to get a card that let me trade 5 yellow for the highest value, brown, then kind of work my way down to whatever I needed. The other players kept buying the higher-numbered trade cards, giving me an easy supply of yellow. Overall I had a good time with it and would play it again occasionally. It's more interesting than "Splendor" because you're not just collecting specific numbers of colors, but trading up and down the color scale to get what you need.

It's an interesting example of re-theming a game, too. It got re-released recently as "Century: Golem Edition", which apparently just changes the spice cubes to crystals that you use to build golems. I like the golem art, but the fact that it can be so easily swapped out to a different theme tells me that the theme itself is kind of weak. I mean, if you make a spaceship building game that can just as easily represent growing vegetables, then space construction isn't really integrated into your gameplay. In Century's case, why golems? Just because golems are neat, even though they have no purpose but VPs.

I had a similar problem with "Seven Wonders", in which you're building a civilization but then never actually do anything with it. The fact that you have X technology means nothing other than that you can get card Y for free later.
  • Reading: Need new books!

My novel "Liberation Game" is now available on Amazon! The e-book is linked above, and the print edition should be out later today.

Revolution On the Edge of Reality

Robin runs a plantation in war-torn Central America. Lumina is an AI created inside the video game "Thousand Tales". When corruption and violence threaten Robin's town, he teams up with Lumina and the digital goddess who created her to start building a new country.

Lumina's idyllic virtual world might become a force for immortality and freedom, but only if Robin helps build a whole society around it... and if they both risk their lives to make that happen.

Part of the emerging "GameLit" genre, combining science fiction with the world of gaming. This volume's focus is on people using the virtual world to create and defend a culture that crosses dimensions. No previous knowledge of the setting is expected; dive in here!
  • Reading: Need new books!
I intend to publish "Liberation Game" soon and write a silly LitRPG story. However, I want another project to try in the meantime. Something game related. I'm interested either in producing a pen-and-paper game book in the style of "Four Against Darkness" (on Amazon), or an actual game made in Unity. Ideas:
-Revisit the conversation-focused game and find some way to make it *fun*. Clicking on topics to collect facts wasn't good enough to be a core mechanic. I could introduce a battle system and a part about tense negotiation with wasteland gangs, but unless the "persuading and learning from people" part is interesting, there's little point.
-Kingdom-building game (pen-and-paper). Dungeon-crawling plus creating a little fortress using dice.
-Magical girl game, inspired by various CYOA things and the freeware RPG "Princess: the Hopeful". Pen-and-paper. Design an adventure combining battles against evil with training, keeping your spirits up, and improving your home area. Not necessarily actual anime magical girls; just upbeat fantasy with a theme of "making sure the mall doesn't get blown up because I like that place" rather than "loot another abandoned ruin".
-Wargame, in the style of "Mount & Blade" and my own old side-view army battle system (which imitated "Dragon Force"). Move around a world map fighting bad guys, capturing territory, and (importantly) using your powers to change the setting by building walls and bridges, fortifying towns, and building wizard academies and terraformer enchantments. You're not just conquering the map; you're turning a terrible zero-sum, war-torn feudal land into a nice place.
-Racing board game (in Unity). Otter tribesmen sail on a grid. You roll die that say eg. "forward" or "left turn", then use powers to manipulate the dice, then use the dice to advance. Ideally with a mechanism in between days of the race, to earn special powers for the next round. (Eg. you do the drunken beach party, or the magic ritual, or upgrade your boat).

What do you think? Ideally I'd make something that is wildly commercially successful independently from my actual writing, but failing that, I'd like to have a complete game of some sort that gives me some credibility as a game maker. As opposed to just another little demo/unfinished project.
  • Reading: Liberation Game, Draft 3