My interest in the Dark Souls video game franchise is well documented on this blog — I once even was interviewed for a leading Dutch newspaper about it. So of course I have an interest in replicating that kind of feel in a tabletop RPG. When I wrote an RPG in 24 hours, I produced Miasma, a Japanese-themed take on the concept of undead traveling through the ruins of a corrupted capital in order to fulfill their destiny.
For Miasma, my design hinged on adversaries telegraphing their attacks, and tactical grid movement. The system was diceless — just like in the videogame, not luck but planning and commitment would be the main deciding factors in a fight. Just like there is very little luck involved in the videogame: if there was, then it would be impossible to do consistent hitless runs. It works in theory, but it is slow and cumbersome.

There are more games with the express goal to emulate the video game. Jason Tocci has created a few, based on various (rules-lite) RPG systems. I GM’ed two sessions of Exhumed, but that fell flat because of a lack of narrative thrust on my part and the underlying system. Most RPG systems regard monsters as bags of hitpoints, and it becomes a series of dice rolls to see who is victorious — and that’s just not what Dark Souls feels like to me.

Now, there is an official Dark Souls tabletop RPG in preparation — whether it is an original work or a translation of the Japanese official tabletop RPG is unknown at this time. But the discussion came up on Twitter about what systems or games would be suited to run a ‘Souls-like’ game in. And someone pointed out a setting book for Dungeon World, which is a D&D-like fantasy game using the Apocalypse World Engine. Normally Dungeon World would emulate dungeon-crawling high fantasy games, but of course you can change some of the Moves and add other details to the character options to change its tone completely. Which they did.
The Cold Ruins of Lastlife is one of three ‘Chaos Worlds’, which are settings for Dungeon World to emulate certain types of media. I bought the PDF because I was curious, and all I can say is that it works really well. Perhaps not quite in the way I want a soulslike RPG to be, but there are some really inspired ideas in there.
Dungeon World does not have a combat system as such. Yes, everyone has hitpoints, but everything is left to fictional positioning. There are no rules for turn orders, and characters can try to do any crazy stunt they want to. And while it may be very obvious to everyone else, I had a bit of an epiphany: you don’t need to carefully model all the ways that monsters attack in Dark Souls and make a system out of that — you can just leave it to the GM. Make a list of common attack patterns and trust the GM to come up with an exciting fight. Add a few Moves for the characters to use to give them an edge under certain circumstances, and off you go.

Not like I needed inspiration for another RPG writing project, but it’s an interesting thought.

In the early stages of 2020, I released my scenario The Secret of Cedar Peak, a scenario for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. I had a sequel in the works throughout the year, but with everything going on, I just wasn’t in the right mindspace to write. But after playing through it with both my local group and the group of (now former) colleagues, I somehow became “unstuck” these past few weeks. I’ve done a lot of work tightening up the text, mostly based on the recommendation from two feedback readers.
On Thursday evening, while Klik was working (streaming her meditation lesson from our bedroom…) I put the final touches to the PDF, made sure it was all bookmarked correctly and created a black-and-white high contrast version that also uses the Atkins Hyper Legible font for readers with visibility issues. Today, I uploaded to Itch and released The Forest Shrine, my second scenario! I also made a bundle with the two scenarios, with the first one at 50% off. I called it the Kingshold Bundle, since that’s the name of the city that is the starting point for both scenarios.
It’s a sequel to Cedar Peak. I have some ideas for a third scenario and my two groups would be more than willing to play through that. But first, as some kind of proof-of-concept, I want to see if I can write a variant of Cedar Peak that is totally non-violent. D&D has violence as one of its core values, and I have gotten a bit bored of it. I want to see if I can take the same concept in a different direction. It wouldn’t work for D&D, but it could work really well for Ryuutama.

Exciting and scary

Publishing your RPG scenario is both exciting and scary. It’s exciting because you think you have something to add and want people to play your scenario. But it’s also scary, because you have no influence on what happens at other people’s tables. All you can do is hope the text is sufficient for others to run the story as you intended, and that they can make it their own.
Yesterday I had a short session with two of the people who were in the final playtest — that playtest was actually their first ever session of D&D, and they did want to continue. So we took some time to level their characters, and one wanted to switch to a Wizard. I then ran a short mission from ‘Defiance in Phlan’ for them, which turned out to be much more fun that I had thought it would be.

One of them had bought the PDF of ‘The Secret of Cedar Peak‘, and told me that he is going to run it for some friends and family members to see if they’d be interested in playing a campaign! So now I am feeling second-hand pressure! I offered him to answer any questions that he had, but there’s not much I can do about it…

After putzing around with layout in Affinity Publisher, I got fed up with its style management — it just didn’t work for me. I am used to the style management of word processors, and I had written the whole text in LibreOffice Writer. So I just gave up on Publisher and made an ok layout in Writer itself. I used the sketches of the art as placeholders. And then I got the actual art from Amber the illustrator, and I put that in. The PDF needed a bit more futzing before it worked nicely with a screen reader. I wanted to make sure that visually impaired gamers could use the scenario too!
Meanwhile, I found a good template for a single-page website and constructed a website for Capybarbarian, ‘my’ publishing label. And I upgraded my hosting so I did not have to buy a separate hosting solution for it, which also was a day’s worth of work…

But now it’s published, and it’s up on DriveThruRPG and!
I’m proud of the result, but marketing is not my strong point. So far, I’ve only made two sales, which is certainly not enough to recoup my costs of the illustrations. I’ve already decided to write sequels, and maybe combine those with some smaller adventures into a kind of mini-campaign and make the starting city the center of a little sandbox. And I’m ok with writing stuff because I like doing it, but I’m not going to invest anything in art if no-one is going to buy it anyway. I might do a ‘prolonged crowdfunding’ by putting up an art-less version of the product, and once enough have been sold to cover the cost of art, I’d commission that and add it in. Everyone who already bought it would get the updated version with the art automatically.

After spending many evenings putzing around with the layout in Affinity Publisher, I lamented the fact that the text style management in that program was not as good as it is in MS Word. (I work(ed) professionally with MS Word, and I’m pretty confident in my ability to maintain a strict text style system in my documents.) And then I realised that I wrote the whole scenario in LibreOffice Writer, which has the same kind of style management as MS Word…
So I scratched the layout in Affinity and went to work in LibreOffice Writer. After two evenings, I had the layout all done. Well, that will teach me, I guess.
I’ve done some adjustments to the text and had to make it shorter in a few places to ensure a new chapter would begin in a new column, but it is now in its final form. I’m waiting for the final versions of the illustrations — I’ve placed the sketch “placeholders” in the text for now in order to finish the layout.

When you register with DriveThruRPG as a publisher, you’re asked for a name. I could use my own name, but where is the fun in that? Only well-known authors do that, with possibly ‘Productions’ or ‘Games’ as a postfix. I thought long and hard, and decided on ‘Capybarbarian’. The capybara is my favourite animal, and of course the barbarian is a class in Dungeons & Dragons. The contrast between the capybara, that always look so incredibly relaxed, and the raging barbarian should be an interesting contrast.
I’ve commissioned a logo (a capybara barbarian, of course), registered the domain name and created a single-page site that will be launched to coincide with the publication of the scenario — probably in the first week of January. I need to figure out the hosting situation first…

Although today is the ‘official publishing day’ for the RPG Writer’s Workshop, I won’t be publishing today. I had planned it like this, but it does give a little pang of regret not being able to join in on the publishing frenzy!

Today, I’ve gotten a healthy respect for the job of doing the layout, now that I have to do it myself…

A friend of mine, whom I play a lot of RPGs with, went through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. He’s a professional translator, so he had a lot of grammar and spelling corrections to make — stuff that evaded me. And since he is a game master as well, he could also give some real good advice on how the information is presented. Super useful, and I have processed all his remarks.
Tonight I should get the first sketches for the artwork from the illustrator! Super excited about that too.

I haven’t posted here in a while, and that is because the RPG Writer Workshop has started, and writing my adventure scenario is taking up almost all of my time.

I tested the scenario out with a group of local Pokemon GO players who had expressed an interest in playing an RPG — I had two newbies and one veteran at the table, and a good time was had by all. And the adventure worked pretty well, but during writing I, of course, changed quite a few things. You have to take every possible semi-logical course of action in mind, instead of just going with the flow of your particular group. So I added quite a few scenes that might come up, which was fun to do but also took a lot of time.

I have the text of the scenario all written, there are just a few more tweaks I need to do. And I want to check whether the numbers work, so I want to run a group through the dungeon to see where they end up. Or I might just simulate that.
I have contracted an illustrator who is going to provide art! Really excited about that — though it does mean I need to reach a certain minimum sales volume to offset that investment. And I have to do things like providing references, which I’ve never done before. It’s a learning experience, to say the least!
I’m going to do cartography and layout myself, and I’ve started on designing the cover.

I have bought Affinity Publisher in their Black Friday sale, so I should be able to produce an attractive PDF with that. Still considering if I should create the stat blocks myself, or just make use of a site that formats them for you and just paste in the images.
I don’t think Affinity Publisher supports tagged PDF output, so I am also considering adding a black-and-white PDF for printing and accessibility which I’d make with LibreOffice, which would not have backgrounds and coloured text. The only program that seems to be able to do all three is Adobe InDesign, but I’m not going to get myself stuck in that ecosystem!
And if I’m offering two versions of the PDF in one go, I might as well go all-in and add player versions of the maps in PNG format so you can make use of them in your favourite virtual tabletop.

I signed up for the DM’s Guild track, but I have decided to publish under the OGL instead, because I want to retain full control over the end result. I’m going to go with a price of $5, which is low enough to be ‘beer money’. I hope that will lower the barrier for buying it.
Still considering what to do with marketing, too.

Almost all mecha games are stat/skill-based and have a single skill for something like mecha piloting. Which means that every pilot character will have the same stats to maximise their performance in combat. After all, if Agility is the most important stat for piloting a mech, and you play a mecha pilot, of course Agility will have to be your highest stat. I have the same beef with PbtA games. Yes, there is niche protection from the playbooks, but every playbook tends to operate on one or maybe two stats — so every character for that playbook has maximised those two stats and it’s always the same.

Perrin’s Mecha had a way to break through that: linking pilot stats with mecha ratings. It’s brilliant in its simplicity.

My theory is that there are no more than four things you do in a mech: manoevering, shooting, defending and scanning. And every type of mech has their own features that help with that, like Power, Weapons, Armour and System — a mech with more powerful engines will make it easier to manoever, a mech with more powerful telemetry systems is better at scanning, etc. So every mech will have a rating for each of these four things.
Pilots have four stats too — like Brawn, Agility, Intellect and Willpower. (Not sure that these four will be it, still need to think about that.) And when a pilot enters a type of mech for the first time, they choose which stat to link with which rating for that mech. The idea being that if the pilot links their Brawn with Power, they have a forceful mode of movement in their mech, powering through to get somewhere. Linking Intellect with Power would mean their quick analysis of the battlefield allows them to avoid obstacles and thus move around more quickly. Linking Agility with Power would mean their movement would be fluid, smoothly avoiding obstacles.
This would allow the pilot to use the mech ratings to compensate their weaknesses — but more importantly, it would allow the players to differentiate their pilots stats and skill-wise without sacrificing their performance during missions. And since the game I’ll be writing will also put emphasis on the pilots’ lives outside of the mecha cockpit, that’s important to me.

The Project

In just over one week, klik is going on a zen retreat — from Sunday afternoon until Saturday morning. I always take those weeks off work too, because I don’t fancy working all day and then coming home to a house filled with grumpy cats. And most times, I set myself a goal, or a project to work on, so that I have something to show for my week off — instead of simply vegetating behind my computer.
For some time now, I have been looking for an RPG that captures the feel and themes of the Macross anime series — and failing to find one. The recent Robotech/Macross RPG just wasn’t good overall. I have quite a few other mecha RPGs in my library, but most of those are rather one-dimensional and lack the background structure of mecha pilots being part of both the military and society.

So my Project for that week will be to write a Macross-inspired RPG. I have been doing research for a bit, and I have some design goals and ideas on how to hit those. The end goal would be to be able to playtest a skirmish on Friday.

This thread by @POCGamer really made me think about RPG adventure design.
In short, scenarios in RPGs are often geared towards a team of outsiders (the adventuring party) to resolve any problem the locals may have. This makes the locals look incompetent and also feeds into a white-saviour/colonial mindset. And it makes no sense that locals should just sit around and wait for someone to arrive to solve their problems for them — especially not if the player characters could easily have been locals themselves.

I admit that I fell for this pattern too in some of the adventures I designed. One time, a player literally asked: “Why didn’t the mayor just walk upstream to see what was going on herself?”

Now that I am aware, I need to be mindful of this pattern in order to avoid it.