Friday, December 13, 2013

Free DINO-PIRATES Adventure!

Okay, now it's time for an example. Here's how you put all the pieces from my "3-List" method together.


FREE THE FLAME GOD is a free adventure for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. It's ready to run, and you'll note it doesn't require all that much reading. Let's go through the document page by page and make sure we understand it.

First up is the cover, which hopefully provides enough explanation that you can use the adventure (even without reading this blog post). Every DINO-PIRATES adventure will have this info. You don't need to print this page.

The second page is for the players. There's a quick description of the Concept -- the problem the heroes will have to solve, as well as a sketch map of the adventure locale. It's not a very detailed map, and there aren't any further detailed maps, since the whole idea in Old School Hack is that you draw the maps yourself at the table. This is just to give the players a bit of a mental model they can hang the encounters off.

Then comes a page of tables: Adventuring Goals and Random Events. These are two of the lists that I use to create a DINO-PIRATES adventure. Print this page off and lay it out for the players to look at. If they want to choose an Adventuring Goal, that's great, but it's also okay if they don't. You'll use the Random Events table whenever you feel like shaking things up for the players. It's a great way to pull in a player who's been a little sidelined lately; just point at them and say, "Roll on 'The God Awakes'!" Suddenly they're at the center of attention.

That's it for player material. The rest of the document is for the GM.

Next there's a page that outlines the adventure -- this is the list of Locations. It's followed by three pages of Location Sheets detailing each one. Have the Location Sheets at the table and you can use them to keep track of the situation as the battle proceeds, and make sure you don't forget any important clues or bits of knowledge you meant to give the heroes.

Finally there's a page of NPC sheets with more details on a couple of the key bad guys in this adventure. These characters might show up in more than one location, so you can have their details at hand without flipping through pages.

And that's it! Eight pages of thrilling adventure, totally free! I hope this enables hours of fun for you and your friends. Let me know how it works for you in the comments!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Prepare an Awesome DINO-PIRATES Game

Prepping for a DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is actually really easy, but the key elements are not at all obvious. Here's my system for ensuring game sessions full of crazy adventure.

Having run probably more than a hundred of these sorts of sessions, I have a pretty tight system now for developing them. It really isn't that much work, but it's very different than the sort of prep work I do for other games.

Instead of describing a location in detail, or setting up an elaborate plot, this system starts from a high-level idea -- the Concept -- that's quite simple to come up with. Then I create three lists of loosely-related and not-very-detailed items, which work together at the table to produce a fun and satisfying adventure story.

Here's How It Works

I always start with a Concept. It doesn't have to be very fancy. Once I have that, I build three lists: one of Locations, one of Goals and one of Randomness. Those three lists will form the basis of the adventure. How they get combined is up to the players and myself as we play the game.


Why do you THINK they
call me "Heart-Eater"?
So the first thing is a simple, obvious Concept for an adventure -- like "Stop the evil sorcerer from enslaving the volcano god!" or "Destroy the SLAVE QUEEN'S mind-controlled army!"

A good adventure concept describes an ACTION to be taken by the heroes. This action needs to be about opposing some evil scheme (like mind-controlled armies, or whatever).

I can come up with this sort of evil scheme just by playing around in the setting, and generating "what if" sorts of questions to myself. "What if an Imperial Sorcerer decided to go undercover and take over a ninja clan?" Even the simplest idea can work.

Once I have the evil scheme in mind, I think about how the heroes would get involved to stop it. I don't mean "They meet an old wizard in a tavern who tells them where to go". That's way too much detail, and who cares about all that crap? This is about choosing a VERB. Do they STOP the scheme, or DESTROY the hidden base, or RESCUE the prince? That's it. One word does the job.

So that's my Concept -- an evil scheme undone by a verb.

Now I've got three lists to create. The order in which they get created isn't important -- actually I always build them in bits and pieces, letting ideas for one inspire entries in the other.

Add the Random

I learned this trick from Kirin, the designer of the original Old School Hack, and it always works great.

It's surprisingly powerful to supply a random factor that might interrupt heroes bent on saving the day. For the volcano god adventure, obviously I decided geologic activity would be the thing, so the random list includes lava, earthquakes and so on. For an adventure in which a bunch of heroes have to get a little baby to a distant fortress, the baby itself became the random trouble-making element.

I make a little table for a d12. 1 - 6 is always "no result," so that not every roll causes trouble, and then I come up with six other possible results for 7 - 12. Here's an example I used for the volcano god adventure.

So there's six possible results -- each with a different in-game consequence. I always make 12 the biggest, craziest one, just because, well, it's 12. The players have the table in front of them and every so often I'll just say, "Okay, somebody roll on the volcano god table." Then there's a tense moment while they await the result, and then the game carries on.

Provide Some Motives

Another table I create is one full of Adventuring Goals. I try to come up with 12 of these. This is a great way to seed the adventure with possibilities. Keeping in mind the Concept, I dream up reasons why somebody would want to do the ACTION described there. When creativity flags, revisiting the Concept often helps to get me going again. I'll let my mind wander and go a little goofy, allowing unrelated names to suddenly emerge, like in this goal from the volcano god adventure:

"Master Nobitsuna of the Dragon’s Eye Clan has disappeared, leaving only the word “Tuloanga” carved on his cell wall."
Who is Master Nobitsuna? Who are the Dragon's Eye Clan? It doesn't really matter at this stage. These details might inspire entries in one of the other lists, or they might not get referenced anywhere else. If a player picks this goal, we'll figure out how it fits into the adventure together.

It might seem like a strange thing to focus on, since in any given session, most of the supplied adventure goals won't even be used. But I've always found it a great way to generate ideas that can feed into the story, even if nobody picks the goals. Thinking about the adventure from the point of view of the heroes, and why they might get involved, is a powerful way to sort of trick yourself into creating a really hero-centered adventure.

And that ends up being more fun for everyone!


Meanwhile, I grab some location sheets and jot down whatever notes come to mind about scenes I might have. I try to think of fun locations for a fight, or crazy bad guys, or some clue that needs to be given to the players. I can play off ideas that came up on the other two lists, and as I flesh those out (or come up with all-new possibilities), I can develop all the different pieces together. And again, I can always go back to my simple Concept to renew my creativity.

For an adventure meant to last a few hours, I usually find four to six scenes is about right. What I normally do is come up with four "required" scenes and then a couple more "extras" -- sidelines or flavorful moments that aren't essential to getting the heroes to the big bad guy.

Structuring Scenes
I know my first scene is always going to be a fight -- an immediate threat the players need to deal with in order to survive. But it must do two other things: it must lead the heroes into the adventure -- there must be some clue or threat that draws or pushes them along. The first scene cannot be self-contained. It must present a mystery ("Why are these flying lava monsters attacking us?") or force them into immediate action ("Well, the ship is sinking and there's an island over there."). Or both!

I used to spend a lot of time setting up the adventure, providing the heroes with "hooks" to draw them in, but in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, that's really pointless. I'll just start right in the middle of the action, and can just tell the players, "Well, you decided to check out Captain Red-Eyes' secret warehouse, and you got in okay, but now these pistol-packing lizard people are attacking you." 

Other details can (if anyone cares) get fleshed out in later scenes.

And I know my final scene will be a big set-piece battle, preferably involving lava, dinosaurs and maybe some shotguns. My other two key scenes might be more sneaky-around scenes, or get-someone-to-tell-us-whats-going-on scenes, although often they're just more fight scenes.

I use the location sheets not only because they allow me to note down all the necessary details on a scene, but their small size prevents me from putting down too many details. This is a LIST of locations I'm creating, not a guide book.

Putting It Together

Locations, Goals and Random -- three very different lists, each contributing something unique to the Concept upon which the story of the game will be built. Because they're so different, when I get stuck on one I can easily jump to another, and usually my brain lights up again. And because they each need players to bring them to life, I know the game session is going to be spontaneous and creative for everyone.

One of the real joys of running games, for me, is seeing a story emerge from something that wasn't a story before. It's really magical, especially when it happens from something like this -- with just a basic concept and three lists of disconnected items. I have time and time again seen how a group's imagination will take off and make a story happen right in front of us all.

I'll be publishing a sample adventure using just this format very soon -- stay tuned! In the meantime, please share your adventure prep ideas in the comments!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Location and NPC Sheets for DINO-PIRATES!

So many bad guys
Here at Scratch Factory we're big fans of making the DM's job easier; that's one of the key reasons we picked Old School Hack as the foundation for the new DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND role-playing game. You really can't beat Old School Hack for super-easy game mastering.

But we also really kind of sneakily LOVE filling out forms. We're addicted to character sheets, and have spent many long hours poring over how to fill out every field in our Campaign Planning Guide, and other such treasures. It's one of the things we've always cherished about tabletop role-playing games, and we wanted to make sure that the new DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND provided some of that love for the DM, not just the players.

So check out these fantastic Location and NPC sheets!

Easy-to-print, half-page forms that help you keep your notes organized, even if you're making them up during play! Keep track of minions and bad guys, potential treasure or secrets to be discovered. Have your bad guys easily statted up before the big combat, or make them up on the fly and keep track so they're consistent for next time.

You never know, your players MIGHT notice.

Anyway, you'll have fun filling them in, and hopefully the process of doing so helps you think through your next encounter so you're better-prepared than ever!

Download now!

In upcoming weeks we'll show you some complete DINO-PIRATES adventures using these forms and a few other key ideas that make a DINO-PIRATES adventure special. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Okay, this has been in the works for quite some time, and now here it is.

An all-NEW version of the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND roleplaying game! And it's free!

This game is based on (well, actually, just kind of copied almost wholesale from) the tremendous Old School Hack game by Kirin Robinson. It's super-simple, and designed for running off the top of your head, with very little prep required. The full rules are posted on the DINO-PIRATES website, and are available for you to copy and reproduce any way you like, under a Creative Commons license. We've created a great downloadable PDF that turns into a bunch of handy-at-the-table miniature rulebooks, as well as the class and character sheets needed for Old School Hack.

A complete RPG! Free!
There's nothing else you need, except a few friends and a lot of imagination! Well, and dice, and paper, and all that sort of stuff. In the days to come we'll be posting more materials, tips for getting the most out of a DPoNI campaign, and other great stuff.

The sharp-eyed among you will note that this is subtitled "Basic Game" -- that's not random. We are working on a more detailed sort of game, but it's a ways out yet. In the meantime, enjoy the new Basic Game!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Panel Discussion: Stories Out of Games

So back in August I led a panel at GenCon called "Table to Page: Making Stories Out of Games".

My panelists were

Emily Care-Boss
Robin D Laws
Gareth Michael-Skarka

And we were joined early on by our moderator, Kirin Robinson.

The discussion was wide-ranging, going from fairy tales to modern blockbusters, from screenwriting to pulp heroes, with plenty of notes and references as we went along.

You can listen to the one-hour conversation here:

Table to Page: Making Stories Out of Games

Thanks so much to my fellow panelists and the audience who joined in with plenty of interesting questions and comments as we went along.

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Few Hurdles

This past weekend, Anime North served as the launch of full-on marketing for my upcoming comic book, REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS. But I had a few hurdles to overcome:
  1. I know nothing about marketing comic books.
  2. I have no budget.
  3. Nobody has ever heard of me or my comic book.
The best thing about being in a situation like this is that no matter what I do, I'm probably going to make things better. So here's what I did.

Know Nothing: So Give

Like I said, I know nothing about marketing comic books. But I do know that everyone appreciates something valuable, something fun and entertaining.

Just printing up an ad or a flyer and trying to get people excited about that seemed to run counter to that idea, though. Whatever we did, we wanted it to be something that people would actually appreciate getting. Something they might take home, read a couple of times and share with their friends.

So we didn't know anything about marketing comic books, but that seemed like a winner of an idea.

No Budget: Work With What We Have

Anime North is clearly our target market, but we were super-tight on two resources: money and time. Every second Dave (the artist) spends doing a "special Anime North thing" is another second our backers don't get their books, and we've taken up plenty of time already.

But we do have some great material already on the website and otherwise kicking around -- the stories I've written about the girls, and of course the eight-page prologue we did last year while raising our funding. The latter seemed like it could hold some real potential.

"New Girl" has been available online for just about a year now, but only people who have been to the site will have seen it. What if we did a print run of that?

Sure, anyone can read it online, but a nice print version is always welcome, and it made for a cute little self-contained comic book. We didn't put any real advertising in it. Anyone keen to learn more, we figured, could find REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS easily enough.

I felt particularly vindicated when the very first person to look through it exclaimed, "I'm so glad there's not a big ad in the middle of this!"

Nobody Knows Me: I Know Some People

A free comic book for anyone who wanted it, no strings attached, seemed like a solid offering. But how to get it into people's hands? We didn't know anybody at the show.

But I've got friends. So I asked everyone I knew if THEY knew anyone who would be working at a table at the show. And it turned out, a few did. One of my co-workers was even working a table at the show himself. Man, I'll tell you, learning to ask my friends for help has been one of the most life-changing lessons ever.

So we got ourselves passes to Anime North and schlepped in a few hundred copies of New Girl, and they got handed out with every purchase at a couple of big tables there. Right into the waiting hands of the very people we're hoping will buy this book.

So What?

Without any knowledge of marketing, with a minimal budget and just by exploring our network, we were able to get about two hundred copies handed out over the course of the weekend, which means (if each one got passed to at least one other person) we reached around 400 people -- people who maybe had never heard of REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS before, but who we know are interested in non-mainstream, Japan-themed comics.

Not bad for a couple of guys who don't know anything about marketing comic books.

Wanna Help?

We've still got more than a hundred copies of this little mini-comic -- if you think you could do some good for the cause with them, let me know and I'll send you a bunch!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Death to Q&A

Here's a simple way to incorporate high-quality audience questions without disrupting your talk or presentation. I wish every panel and presentation did this.

Index cards for audience questions.

See, I hate Question and Answer sessions. I mean, I really HATE them. Whenever an event or a presentation or something wraps up, and the host or the presenter says, "Are there any questions from the audience?" -- that's my cue to make a break for the exit.

I know what's coming, and so do you.

The same five or six questions every presenter gets: How did you get your start doing this thing I totally wish I was doing only I haven't worked up the guts to do it myself? Will you listen to me pitch my idea to you right here in front of all these people, because I don't believe in my idea enough to pursue it myself without your approval? Let me tell you a story that will prove I belong up there with you, and not down here with these other people.

I'd rather pour bleach into both my eyes.

So when I was asked to host a panel at this year's Mesh conference, I knew I had to find a solution. Of course, there ARE great audience questions (man, I had a KILLER question for Jackie Chan when he did a talk at last year's TIFF, but they shut down the mics before I got a turn. Mostly because everyone before me was trying to pitch their ideas to Jackie. Not that I'm bitter), but how could I get those into the discussion without subjecting everyone to the dreaded "open microphone" that kills a presentation stone dead?

A handy trick from the GM's toolkit came to the rescue -- the humble index card.

What I wanted for this panel was a free-flowing, smooth conversation that felt more like a thoughtful salon conversation than a structured panel. I had some questions for the panelists prepared ahead of time, of course, but the last thing I wanted to do was to cut off the conversation in mid-stride, turn to the audience and say, "Okay, now who has some questions?"

So I brandished my index cards at the crowd. Whenever someone wanted to add a question to the discussion, they just caught my eye and I rushed over to give them a card for them to write their question on. When the card was returned, I added it to my stack of questions, and then whenever there was a break in the discussion, I could jump in with a "Here's a question from one of our audience members..."

Often the questions seemed to flow naturally from the ongoing conversation. We never had to interrupt the entire discussion just to surface one person's idea, but anyone who wanted to contribute could.

We got through every single one of the audience questions, and many people commented on how they appreciated the way it was all handled. The questions were (perhaps because people had to really think their question through before handing it in to me) very high-quality -- interesting and taking the conversation in new and thoughtful ways.

I really enjoy hosting panels and facilitating discussions, and this one went really well. And I'll be using my index cards at every one I do from now on.