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!

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!

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!


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!

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.

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!

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.

Testing Thrillbent!

John Rogers (creator of a lot of Really Fun Stuff, like the Leverage TV show, the latest Dungeons and Dragons comic, for example) and Mark Waid (BOOM! Studios, that's all you need to know) are experimenting with a new way to deliver comics. Like, for example, embedding them in other people's pages. This is pretty slick:

PAXEast 2013: DINO-PIRATES Sells Out!

Well, the Scratch Factory team (that's me, in case you haven't been keeping score) joined a bunch of other indie game designers at the massive PAXEast convention in Boston last weekend. I was there to sell copies of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND.

I was a little trepidatious going in, since my model predicted I would only barely break even, and I wasn't sure my model was very reliable.

But away I went. And am I ever glad I did. I had a near-perfect result -- a complete sellout of my game on Sunday afternoon.

How did I do it?

The Number

Remember that I'd chosen to watch a number I called Revenue Per Attendee. At tiny (but fun) little Hammercon, I'd made nearly 50 cents per attendee. At Game Summit, a con ten times the size of Hammercon, my R/A dropped by more than 80% to just 7 cents per attendee. Disappointing, but I don't argue with actual data.

Using that model, and assuming another 80% drop to PAXEast (ten times again the size of Game Summit), it looked like I would see a R/A at PAXEast of less than ONE cent per attendee -- 0.6 cents, actually. That predicted I would sell 15 copies, earning just enough to cover the cost of the trip (with maybe $50 left over). It was a risk, but I figured I'd take it. I also figured I'd take a few more copies of the game than the model predicted. Live in hope and all that.

So I threw 21 copies (I don't count so well is why the funny number) in a box, jumped into a Honda Civic and rode down to Boston.

The Selling

First of all, if you don't know, PAXEast is an AMAZING event. And I say this as someone who neither plays video games nor reads Penny Arcade. People are incredibly friendly, the staff are knowledgeable and there to make your time fantastic. The tabletop area, which is really a sideshow at this thing, is HUGE and utterly packed from morning till night, full of people having a blast.

Second of all, the gang I was part of, the Indie Bazaar, included some of the coolest game designers and people I will ever meet. Epidiah Ravachol, designer of Dread and Vast & Starlight, Emily Boss, designer of Breaking the Ice, Vincent Baker of Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World, Joshua Newman of Shock and Mobile Frame Zero, Meguay Baker of 1001 Nights, Rob Bohl of Misspent Youth and of course Jason Anarchy of Drinking Quest all had their crazy fantastic games on display, and virtually everything sold like the proverbial hotcakes.

Frankly, if we'd offered FREE HOTCAKES I doubt we could have done better.

The Result

I sold the last copy I had of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND on Sunday afternoon -- a perfect result. Selling 21 copies instead of 15 produced a Revenue per Attendee of 0.9 cents, which means my predicted number was off by 0.3 cents. I think that's a very respectable margin of error (even if it is nearly 50% of the actuals).

Having my expectations set ahead of time really helped to reduce my anxiety, especially on the first day when Drinking Quest and Mobile Frame Zero were flying off the shelves but it seemed like everyone was turning their noses up at my pulpy baby. But I hung in there and Saturday was much better, just like my model had predicted.

And I learned new things. Games like Drinking Quest and Mobile Frame Zero are so easy to sell: their unique offering is easy to grasp immediately. While people invariably laugh when they hear DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, they can't so easily engage with the concept, and not everyone is going to sit still and listen while I explain it.

I doubt I could do much better with this game, no matter how I marketed or sold it. I have a few copies left which I'll take with me to the Calgary Entertainment Expo in April and sell, and then that will be it for the print version of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. It's been a great learning experience, and the lessons I've acquired here I'm going to put to good use when the time comes to start selling REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS.


PAX East will be the unveiling of the first all-new DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND adventure in two years!

CURSE OF THE SNAKE GOD will be a wild adventure through and under the streets of Chang Lao, the biggest metropolis in the islands. Our heroes run afoul of a sinister ninja clan known as the VENOM, and must race to discover this clan's secret agenda, and hopefully save the whole city from ophidian doom!

I'll be running two sessions of this adventure:

Saturday Morning (10am - 2pm) FULL


Sunday Afternoon (12 noon - 3pm)

There are still slots open for the Sunday game, so let me know if you'd like in!

These sessions will use the standard DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND rules, as found at our website, or available for sale if you'd like to give me money.

Finding an Artist: Auditions

REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS, the comic book I'm writing, started life as a set of conversations with my old friend, Claudio Pozas, who's a fantastic fantasy artist. Claudio and I tossed ideas back and forth and came up with a set of final character designs we loved. They were strong, bold and easily distinguished one from the other.

The original designs
But in the end, Claudio didn't want to do a comic book. So, character designs in hand, I needed to find an artist to take on the project. That meant finding some candidate artists, and then choosing the best of the bunch.

I had no idea how to do either.

Finding Some Artists

The first problem was relatively easy to solve. I know that if I tell everyone I know what I'm trying to do, SOMEBODY will have better ideas than me. So that's what I did; I told everyone I knew that I was looking for an artist. And sure enough, a couple of folks referred people THEY knew to me, and so I was building a list of candidates.

They all had sites where I could look at their work (if you're an artist and you don't have some sort of online portfolio, well, good luck with that), and it was easy to set up quick coffee-shop meetings with them, just to make sure they weren't obviously crazy people that I was going to hate.

They weren't. So now I had to solve my second problem: how to choose among the bunch.

Choosing One Among Many: A Paid Audition

The artists' portfolios weren't going to be sufficient for me to make a decision. It's impossible to tell from pre-existing art if an artist can deliver images to my own specifications, my own scripts, and I have no way of knowing how long it took them to do the work, if it was delivered on time or six months after the due date.

So I wanted to audition them, but I knew from working with Claudio and other artist friends that a professional artist doesn't exactly have a lot of free time. I wanted to be respectful of that time.

I decided to pay for an audition.

At that first meeting, I pitched each candidate my audition idea: I would give them two pages of script and they would deliver inked pages, at a date of their choosing, and I'd pay them $100.

$100 seemed like a sufficient sum for that level of work. I wanted the artist to know how much time they could spend on the audition pieces. And it was worth it to me to pay a few hundred dollars if I ended up with a great artist who could meet a timeline.

So the process was in place. Next I had to decide how I was going to judge the entries.

Choosing Part Two: Judging

Pole-vaulting is, well, about as hard as it looks.
I chose the two pages for the audition carefully. One was the "pole-vault" scene from the online prologue -- a very tricky bit of physical business. The other was a dialogue scene from a later issue -- where a couple of characters get into a tense debate about what to do right before the big finale. It needed comic timing, the ability to handle a bunch of characters in a room, and a quick transition to a new locale.

They were both challenging pages (in very different ways), and I expected artists to struggle with them. I also made it clear that I wanted them to follow the existing character designs, and I expected them to keep my up-to-date on their progress.

So now I had some good criteria for judging candidates:

  • could they draw what was in the script, and keep to the guidelines?
  • if they couldn't, would they reach out and ask for my help?
  • could they meet their own timelines and keep me posted on their progress?

Having those simple questions to answer made me feel like I could judge the candidates with some sort of confidence.

And I got fantastic stuff back. Not everyone got their stuff in on time, however, and that was a good lesson to learn early on. Not everyone was able to exactly picture what I'd asked for in the script -- some people asked for help in solving what were admittedly tough illustration challenges. Some folks didn't ask for help, and then didn't do what was asked, so that was interesting to learn, too.

It Worked!

And in the end the choice was clear: Dave Knox, who's now the artist for REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS. His style was very different from what I'd originally pictured, but we had so much fun talking about the book, and he hit his timelines, talked with me all through the process, and followed the guidelines perfectly.

He also watched dozens of pole-vaulting videos so he could nail the five-panel sequence of Masayo's awesome triumph over Shima. You can see the final version of that in the online prologue: New Girl.

So in the end, despite not knowing really anything about art or artists, I was able to come up with a reasonable process for finding a good artist, just using basic networking and some simple criteria up front. It was actually kind of fun! And sure, it cost a few hundred dollars, but given that I intend to sell this comic book to make money, I ought to believe that it's worth investing a little money in it up front.

Who Owns the Owners?

This Audrey Hepburn chocolate bar commercial freaks me out. Not because of the ghastly-but-honestly-impressive effects work. Well done, you hideous ghouls.

No, what freaks me out is the whole idea of owning oneself. I can see where this is going, and it's kind of terrifying.

Owning stuff is a pretty basic idea. A 2-year-old readily divides the world into stuff that is "his" and stuff that isn't and woe betide you should you cross that divide. But the definition of "stuff" is steadily getting less clear.

Who owns a book? The person holding it, presumably -- oh wait, that's just the owner of that copy of that book. The right to make those copies -- the copyright -- is owned by, uh, whoever owns it. Most likely an enormous corporation (hang on to that idea, it's going to go somewhere).

Owning a copyright is a little abstract, to be sure, but it's a defensible idea. This commercial takes the question of what can be owned to an even stranger level.

It is said the ad was created with the approval of her sons, which begs the question of whether or not such approval was or even should be required, and what the implications on either side of that question are.

I know it's Audrey, but it doesn't
LOOK like Audrey
To the left, if approval is required, that implies that a person's appearance -- their face, their style, their presence -- is a thing that like the right to make copies, like a book, can be owned. This is a very strange idea. Your presence -- do you own it? And if you do, then, can you sell it? Can someone buy it? Can someone take it away from you? What do we do with identical twins, or two people who just happen to look very much alike? How alike will be considered "too alike"? What if I create a recognizable caricature of Audrey Hepburn -- does that require permission, too? Can I sue someone for looking too much like me (poor devil)?

When does this sort of ownership expire? Or can I pass the rights to my likeness along to my heirs and let them profit from it for all eternity? And what are the chances that these rights (whatever they are) will end up in the hands of an enormous, soulless corporation that will ruthlessly exploit them until they're worthless?

See, I told you that idea would come back. The answer to that last question is very close to "100%", by the way.

To the right, if approval is not required, then does that mean that anyone can create a photorealistic version of YOU and have it do whatever they desire? What recourse do you have, if they never use your name and the entire scene is completely fictional? How will you prove you DIDN'T do the things you are shown to be doing?

This isn't quite like slander or libel -- perhaps it is if I am made to look like I've done something impugning my reputation, but even showing me do innocuous things that I didn't do seems to tread on my rights, and it's not like tracking down the producers of random YouTube videos is necessarily going to be straightforward.

Both sides appear deeply flawed to me. Both lead to bizarre and unsettling worlds. Either we enter a marketplace of identities, where the battle to maintain ownership over my own appearance is going to be a very lopsided one in favour of massive inhuman entities (those corporations, in case you aren't keeping up), or I abandon any hope of being able to preserve my own reputation.

I'm not trying to say that my appearance is ever going to be as valuable as a movie star's -- that's not the point. But just as the notion of copyright ownership has now become an everyday problem for ordinary people everywhere, this sort of idea of "self" ownership may do likewise.

Who owns me? How is that ownership structured, and what rights to myself do I have within that structure?

Giving Up the Initiative!

For a while now I've been poking at a new idea for a role-playing game I had that I called Initiative!

I like the concept of the game, and the single play-test session revealed the concept will probably work, but for now I am suspending any further development on the game.

I need to stay focused, and for the foreseeable future that means staying focused on the development of REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS. Since the girls are set in the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND universe, that means developing the universe further is worthwhile, but building a brand-new set of rules for running games here is just not a good use of my time. I've already got three entirely separate rule sets for games in this world, so maybe a fourth just isn't super necessary.

That said, I believe Initiative! is a unique game concept and captures a really fun model for conflict and story-telling. So I'm releasing it under a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution license, which means you can copy it and do whatever you want with it.

Have fun! And please let me know if you end up using it for anything; I'd love to hear about it.

Hard Things Are Easier

So I've always wanted to be good at drawing.

I am not THIS good
at drawing.
Since I was a kid, it's something I've wanted. Not so much that I ever picked up a pencil and put in the time to get good at it, but still. I certainly did spend a fair amount of time sitting around feeling sorry for myself because I couldn't draw, so that counts for something, right?

I've been picking up the pencil somewhat over the last few months, just trying to get some skills, and yesterday, something amazing happened: I had an idea for a drawing during the day, and when I got home, I drew something that sort of looked like what I'd pictured in my head.

That has never really happened before.

Most of my drawing efforts began with little or no clear picture of what I was going to produce, and then a lot of pathetic, incomprehensible scribbling. And then of course, frustration, humiliation and self-reproach.

None of which, strangely, ever improved my drawing ability one whit. Drawing remained a mystery to me.

Until recently, and I think I know what's changed: I have started to get a sense of how HARD drawing is.

Strangely, this seems to be encouraging me to work more on my drawing ability, until I've gotten to the point where I can imagine a scene in my head, and produce something that looks like I imagined. It still looks terrible, don't get me wrong. But it's recognizable as what I was TRYING to draw.

Over the past couple of years, I've worked very closely with a couple of very hard-working artists: Claudio Pozas and Dave Knox. Claudio has been the lead artist for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, detailing characters and cover images for all the DPoNI products thus far. Dave is the artist for the REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS comic book, and he and I have collaborated very closely throughout the whole process of putting that book together.

As I've watched them put together amazing illustrations, I've seen first-hand the amount of work involved. Seeing early thumbnails as we figure out composition, and then how those get turned into full-size sketches and finally, after hours and hours of painstaking effort, a fully-rendered image is finished, has been profoundly eye-opening. And strangely comforting.

Maybe it was just getting a more realistic notion of what an early-stage drawing ought to look like. Or improving my ability to visualize what an early-stage drawing is likely to look like. Or maybe my standards for "looks like" have just dropped so far I get excited about anything.

Motivation is a funny thing. You'd think seeing that something is really hard would DIScourage me, but it's the opposite. There's probably some deep and profound truth buried in there.

Anyway, I'm going to go draw something.


The biggest project before me is REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS, my comic book about five awesome ninja girls sent to the Ninja Island Correctional Academy. I'll be printing this book and selling it at conventions sometime later this year.

I had never done that before, so I decided to run a smaller project and see what I could learn about selling printed stuff at conventions.

For my test project I choose DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND – it is probably the thing for which I am best known (besides being really tall and Canadian). The game (and the setting) has existed for years, getting steadily refined through one playtest after another. It stabilized in its current form a few years back, and ever since I posted the rules online, I've been getting regular requests to provide it in a print format. So I had 60 copies printed (a minuscule print run, to be sure).

My plan is to learn as much as I can about selling something like this in a few targetted efforts before the comic book lands. The cost of printing DINO-PIRATES was about $400. Since the objective here is to learn about selling, I'm not too worried about making a big profit here, but I figure I'll know I learned well if I at least break even.

I wanted to start small, limit my risk, and learn as much as I could at each stage. I decided on three conventions within a few months: Hammercon, a tiny (200-people) con in Hamilton, Game Summit, a much bigger (2000 or so attendees) con in Ottawa, and PAX East, a big famous con that draws as many as 30,000 attendees to Boston. I just wrapped up Game Summit this past weekend, and thought checking in and sharing my discoveries with people would be interesting.

Lesson One: Watch a Number

I'm kind of a nut for metrics, so I spent some time thinking about useful metrics for this experiment. I wanted something I could use predictively, that would help me set expectations on revenue so I knew how much I could spend. It does me no good to make $1,000 at a show if it costs me $1,500 to attend.

I settled on "Revenue per Attendee" as my metric. R/A, for short.

It's simple to calculate: divide the amount of money I collect by the number of attendees at the con. Once I have a notion of what's a reasonable sort of value here, I can look at other cons and at least have a ballpark sense of how much I could expect to earn.


I started at Hammercon, a fantastic tiny con in Hamilton, where I had hopes of selling maybe 10 copies. I figured that was a high number, but best to shoot high, I thought.

By the end of the show I'd sold five copies, two to friends who happened to be there, but three to TOTAL strangers (that was exciting). Five copies means $100 in revenue. Compare that with 200 attendees and my R/A was 50 cents.

A fantastic number, I thought, casting my eyes forward to Game Summit's 2,000 people and PAX East's 30,000. Could I really make thousands of dollars doing this? Should I do another print run?

I know well enough that a line requires two points, so I held off on any changes to my plan until the next show.

Game Summit

While Game Summit would be ten times as many people as Hammercon, I didn't really believe my Revenue per Attendee number would hold. I scaled my expectations way back, and set a target of 15 cents. With 2,000 attendees that would mean selling at least fifteen copies, a modest increase it seemed given the size of the new event.

Sadly, my expectations were insufficiently modest. My R/A collapsed to just 7 cents, a drop of 86%. Ouch.

If I imagine another 86% drop to PAX East, I'm looking at a R/A of not even ONE cent. Taking into account the costs of attending an event like that, coming back with any money is looking unlikely.

Of course there's so little data here that any predictions are fraught with peril, but it's great to be able to have SOME idea of where things are at.

Lesson Two: Say Hello

When I'm walking around on a convention floor, I don't stop at EVERYTHING that catches my attention. If I did, I'd never get through even a tiny percentage of what's there. I see all sorts of things that look interesting, but don't grab me for whatever reason. I need an "entry point" of some sort -- a quick thingamabob I can pick up, or even better a personal contact with someone at the table. And sometimes it seems like the people at the table are busy, or don't want to chat, and so sometimes I'll walk right on by something I'm interested in because I don't think I'll be welcome.

I smiled at people at Hammercon, which helps. But at Game Summit I stood up and made a point of saying "Hi," to just about everyone who walked by. Not in (I hope) a phony sort of way. I'm not a phoney sort of guy and I like just about everyone, so if some total stranger stops to chat, I'll probably have fun even if they don't want to buy anything.

But reaching out to connect to people seemed really powerful. At Game Summit, which was admittedly not a very RPG-focused event, I'm pretty confident I sold at least 50% of the total possible sales. That is, of everyone who was there who MIGHT have bought my book (in that they were an RPG player with sufficient cash and an interest in indie pulp games), I bet I landed half. I sold a LOT more copies than anyone else at my table, I know that.

Lesson Three: Work My Pitch

I'm what you call kind of noisy. I'm not extroverted, but I do talk an awful lot. This is not always a blessing. And I'm not always the best listener ever. So learning how to pitch something doesn't come naturally to me, since sales is all about understanding what the customer wants and finding it for them.

I mostly rely on sheer enthusiasm. I love DINO-PIRATES more than just about anything, and it takes very little to get me gushing about it. At Hammercon I just sort of babbled; I didn't have any plan and I stumbled over myself many times. Sometimes people had to ask me to repeat myself because they couldn't understand what I was telling them.

I was always really awkward about trying to close -- trying to bring the conversation around to "Here, pay the $20 and take the book."

For Game Summit I paid a lot more attention to what I was saying to people, and what seemed to resonate most with them. I came away from the weekend with the realisation that I need multiple pitches for a product like this, that I can choose from to grab and direct someone's attention.

Pitch One: The Rules

Some people immediately start browsing the rules, looking at tables and asking "How does it work?" For those people I started talking about the lineage of DINO-PIRATES, from True20 from Mutants and Masterminds from d20. I mentioned streamlined action and easy DM prep, showed them the character sheets and in general focused on the mechanical attributes of the game that make it fun and unique.

Pitch Two: The Setting

Other people studied the cover and asked about how dinosaurs, pirates and ninjas could all fit together. I told them to imagine a fantasy archipelago, islands with prehistoric monsters and volcano gods, ninja clans and scheming sorcerers. I talked about my love of kung-fu movies, pirate tales and King Kong.

Pitch Three: The Story

And then some people could accept the setting at face value, and were unconcerned with the rules, but wanted to know what happened in the game. I told them about the evil Empire to the north with its eunuch sorcerers always trying to take over, gave a little detail about them trying to chain a volcano god, and how the pirates and the ninjas are always fighting to preserve the independence of the islands.

Of course any given conversation included material from all of these. The pitches that evolved (and they are still not very clearly defined) became sort of standard openings I could choose from depending on how I read the customer's interest. They were a powerful collective tool for me as they made it easy for me to launch a conversation with just about anyone.

Once I've said "Hi," and they've stopped and checked out the game, having options as to how to guide the conversation was a huge advantage.

What's Next?

Well, that 86% drop is ugly. If that continues to PAX, it will be a struggle to ever break even on this operation.

But I'm sure learning a lot, not only about the selling side but the logistics of being a retailer at a convention. I'm doing this super-cheap right now, staying at friends' places and car-pooling, but I'm still just barely squeaking by. I took a loss on Hammercon, and only managed to make about $25 at Game Summit. If my Revenue per Attendee falls as far as my current project suggests, then I'll only make about $50 at PAX East.

A third data point will really help solidify my R/A, but as I mentioned before, a lot of this is completely up in the air. Different cons even at the same size will have different R/A numbers, and it'll take a lot of study to learn which ones are most cost-effective. And R/A doesn't tell me if I'm actually making any money. I made more money on Game Summit than Hammercon, even though my R/A was so much lower, because costs were less and the total sales were higher.

So I need to learn more about cost-cutting on these ventures, and then how to maximise my sales at the event. I especially need to get better at closing sales. I know at least one potential customer at Game Summit walked away without buying because I just couldn't bring the conversation to the right wrap-up.

What have you learned about this subject? I'm an utter beginner at this, so anyone with more experience, please share your lessons!

Initiative! Play-Test the First!

We ran the first-ever Initiative! playtest last night -- a game of giant robots fighting monsters in our hometown of Toronto. Learned a lot, laughed a lot, ready to do it again!

The goal in this first playtest was just to see if this wacky engine would actually work at all -- would the concept of gaining and losing the initiative bring a fresh sense to the table?

The answer is definitely a YES.

People cottoned on to the concept immediately. If you don't have the initiative, you can only react via Cool or Aware, and if you have the initiative you can try to win via Deadly and Compelling. It took a while, though for people to internalize the idea and start working WITH it in order to achieve their goals.

One player whose character was heavily invested in being Deadly lost the initiative in the first round, and never tried to get it back (didn't know that she could, to be fair), and got beaten right out of the fight in a couple of rounds.

So on the one hand, good that things can swing that wildly -- but it wasn't a great time for the player!

As they started to figure it out, however, you could see people trying to set themselves up. Players would deliberately give up the initiative so they could use a Trait that had a higher chance of success. It seemed like the decision-making at each moment offered lots of options, with pretty clear risk levels. So people could think, "Well, if I try to use Deadly here and I fail, I could be in a lot of trouble. But my Reactive Traits aren't very good, and if fail, I'm really going to get pounded. What to do?"

So I'm encouraged that way. It feels like this core mechanic is going to work. But of course there's some real issues to be resolved. The game as it stands is basically unplayable.

Real Issues

Nowhere is Safe

For example, there's no way to "lay low" -- people would try to use their Reactive Traits in order to step back and get a sense of the battle, like someone might play a rogue or a wizard trying for a vantage point, but in the current system, being Reactive is much riskier than being Active, since a failure in Reactive turns straight into damage. So there's no way to model that sort of "pulling back" from the fray to recollect oneself.

Which is kind of part of the design -- in Initiative!, if you're not pressing forward, then you're giving ground to your opponent. But at the least a lot of people are going to come in with an assumption that this system will have to fight against. And perhaps that assumption -- that there's safety in holding back -- is a reasonable one that I have to consider.

What Are We Doing?

Another problem is even more fundamental -- it was really hard in our "social" scene to establish what damage really meant. In my head, dealing damage is associated with advancing towards your objective, but when the "field of battle" is a social situation with a number of characters each of whom may have their own objectives, trying to understand what dealing damage to an NPC actually MEANS is complex.

There may need to be some structure around establishing goals for each scene, or maybe players will choose which NPCs in particular they wish to engage with. Not sure, and more testing is required, but I'm pretty sure something will have to be created around handling objectives.

One thing I really liked about Apocalypse World was the way in which characters could establish true things about the situation through strictly-constrained lists of questions. So you could use whatever the ability was called to learn something, but you had to choose your question from a predefined list. It's possible something of that nature might work here.

Next Steps

I'm not going to make too many changes right away. There were a few outright holes in the rules I have to sort out, but I want to try and run this again just as it is before I start making a lot of changes. There were a few quirks about the way I ran last night's session that definitely threw the results, so mixing things up and seeing how that influences play will be very important.

Not much reference to the rules was required, which was great. And it was definitely a free-wheeling sort of game, which is exactly what I'm hoping for. Onwards!

Best Comics of 2012 -- UPDATED

Update: I forgot CURSED PIRATE GIRL!

I read some tremendous comics last year. I wanted to take a few moments and call out some of the best, comics that really stuck with me.

Delilah Dirk: The Seeds of Good Fortune

One of the best webcomics going, Tony Cliff's "Delilah Dirk" is beautiful, with a rich and engaging historical world. The title character is a swashbuckling lady who's not QUITE as smart as she thinks she is, but is lucky enough that she gets away with it.

Cliff's art is simple yet gorgeous, and he fills in beautiful details on every page.

One of the real delights of this little side story is a two-page spread in which Delilah runs away from a passel of bad guys -- Cliff does this out as a single image with a dotted line showing Delilah's path through a tangle of alleys and rooftops. It's like one of those Family Circus panels where the little kid goes wandering around and by following the path you get the story of what happens. It's very cleverly done and perfectly fits the light-hearted feel of the story.

The story itself finds a little more depth than you might expect, for what is basically just an extended chase sequence. It's got a tight structure to it and some good character moments. I'm really looking forward to a print version of the main story before too long.


J. Torres and Elbert Or teamed up for this spooky-sweet story about a young lad uncomfortable with his heritage and what it means for his day-to-day life. Set at a Philipino family gathering, this book is a perfect balance of art and words; Torres' tight, understated script is brought to perfect life by Or's clean lines and striking compositions.

Anyone who's had to deal with uncomfortable family moments will identify with our young protagonist, who finds his memories of his grandmother and his deceased cousin are still shaping his life years later. Frightened by much of what he can remember, and dismissive of the traditional tales that his Philipino family tell and re-tell, Jesse (our hero) manages to gather his courage and ultimately decide on what his relationship with his own spooky background will be.

Until you get to the end, and the story sticks you with a nasty twist that left me both chuckling and aghast. It DOES say "A Ghost Story" on the front cover, and these gentlemen aren't kidding around about that.

A beautiful book, and a joy to read and re-read.

Bamboo Blade

I was not familiar with the work of Totsuka Masahiro before reading this, which was recommended to me by a friend who knows very well what I like. And teenage girls beating people with sticks is high on my list. I'm certainly looking for more work by this masterful writer.

If you don't think that's funny,
I don't know what you are.
Bamboo Blade is a 14-part manga about a high school girls' kendo team. If you're thinking, "manga about high school girls, uh-oh," rest easy -- this book has nothing in it of a salacious or titillating nature. No panty shots or ridonkulously enormous bosoms. Just charming young folks trying their hardest to do well.

What this book is is really really funny. I mean, hella hilarious. Every volume left me gasping in laughter at some point or other. Totsuka's sense of timing is impeccable, and his characters are so finely delineated, and yet so over-the-top and ridiculous, that hilarity erupts in every situation. And the artist, Aguri Igarashi, supplies those situations with tone and style changes that move so fast you're left scrambling to catch up. Even apparently dramatic moments (don't worry, nobody dies) like the one at left are given a buzz through the ridiculous filter -- the whole book is full of quick tone transitions like this. This stuff, where the style and tone change so dramatically so quickly, gives the book a spontaneous, "anything can happen" feel, and keeps the mood light and frothy throughout.

At the same time, the emotional beats are varied and often mature. The putative protagonist, the kendo club teacher, is a young man whose personal life is a disaster, and his selfish efforts to get out of trouble have a real impact on the students under his charge.

14 volumes is a pretty big investment, but Bamboo Blade is maybe my favourite book of all I read in 2012. The writing and the art are both top-notch, and it's just so damn funny.

Morning Glories

Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma are obviously having a lot of fun with this book, and it's infectious. If you don't know, Morning Glories is a crazy over-the-top "what's going on" story about a high school run by sinister, ruthless administrators who appear willing to murder innocent kids in order to accomplish whatever strange objective they're pursuing.

Weirdness, terror and of course good old-fashioned high school angst all feature prominently. The main characters are the latest group of six kids brought to the school -- they don't know each other, they largely don't like each other, and they soon discover there is no one else they can trust. Although trusting each other proves no less fraught with peril.

Now published in three trade paperbacks, with more story to come, it's easy to get started on this book, and so far it's been plenty of fun.


Fumi Yoshinaga's Ooku, now into its seventh volume, is astonishing. An alt-history in which Tokugawa Japan is led by a series of female shoguns, Ooku dissects male-female relationships, assumptions and prejudices, while telling not only a mind-blowing story of an empire based on a massive shortage of males, but truly heart-breaking tales of people caught up in an impersonal system, and how tiny decisions balloon out into disastrous consequences.

The seventh volume came out in 2012, and at this point it appears the flash-back history that has explained how Japan ended up ruled by women and sealed off from the rest of the world has been wrapped up. The current shogun, Yoshimune, has gotten the full story at last. But now she faces a tremendous dilemma; does she perpetuate the system that has brought her to power, or can she find a way to reverse the mysterious ailment that has robbed her nation of most of its men?

Full of sex, torture and sweetly gentle romance, Ooku is a real gem amongst comics nowadays. Smarter than any other book I'm currently reading, and more consistently engrossing.

Easily winning The Most Insane Comic Book Of The Year award, Jeremy Bastian's Cursed Pirate Girl oozes madness from every page.

Lewis Carroll is the only possible comparison, but Bastian's wild baroque art exceeds Tenniel's classic illustrations of Wonderland in detail, bravura and sheer whack-a-doodle craziness. Sword-fighting fish, submersible parrots, giant octopuses, and more pirates than any book really needs fill (and frankly step out beyond) the pages to create a story and a world so overwhelming that the plot hardly matters at all.

Our heroine (she's a girl, cursed, pirate -- you get the picture) is searching for her father, who is (according to her) one of the legendary pirates of the Omertà Seas. With a few loyal companions she takes to the waves to find him, and in doing so runs afoul of monsters above and below the waves. 

There's a map. There's a poster. There's fan art. It's completely insane, and completely brilliant. Read it.