A while back, Dave asked if I’d like to contribute some articles to New World Alchemy and I jumped at the chance. The first question I asked myself was “what should I write about?” Well, the obvious answer is RPG design. Given that most of you don’t know much about me, my inaugural blog post on New World Alchemy will cover my background and touch on the meat of what this blog column will be about.
I started playing tabletop RPGs in 1991, during the second semester of my freshman year at college. Over my college years, I fell in with a group of gamer friends and we played D&D, Shadowrun, Star Wars, and a bunch of others. After college, I delved into several of the World of Darkness games – Vampire, Mage, Changeling. I discovered Deadlands and played a crapton of that. Some Rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu, and so forth.
During all of those years, I designed. I created characters. I built worlds. I designed new rules for games I was playing and even tried designing a few games of my own, RPG, board, and card games alike. Some of this design work saw actual play, but much of it was simply a creative exercise that I enjoyed immensely.
Regardless of what I was playing and/or designing, I always came back to D&D. While D&D includes roleplaying, puzzle solving, and political intrigue, it is often about killing monsters and taking their treasure…murdering and acquiring. These two words would come back time and time again as I delved into a new challenge – freelance game design.
In 2001, I acquired my first paid freelance gig, an RPGA adventure for the then-new Living Greyhawk campaign entitled Winter Tears. Five years later, I wrote Eye of the Night, a feature article for Dragon Magazine 340. I had a few other articles in the pipe with Paizo (then the stewards of Dragon and Dungeon Magazines) when Wizards of the Coast began transitioning to D&D 4E. Sadly, those articles were dropped during this transition. One might say they were murdered by the transition. For a couple years after, I acquired new opportunities and wrote a few RPGA adventures for D&D.
Then fate intervened. In early 2009, I was laid off from my day job. With plenty of free time on my hands, I initiated a big push in my freelance work for D&D and began landing gig after gig. I wrote a handful of articles for the free side of the D&D website. In time, I started writing articles for the online versions of Dragon and Dungeon Magazines, some based on pitches, some as assignments from the folks at Wizards of the Coast. I even wrote a few things for Gamma World and Pathfinder. I’ve often remarked that getting laid off from my day job was the best thing that ever happened to my freelance game design side-career.
In the past four and a half years, I’ve written over thirty articles and adventures for tabletop RPGs, mostly for D&D 4E. They range in length from 1500 words (short, player-focused articles) to 31,000 words (a very, very long adventure). Grand total, my work as of this writing clocks in at a bit over 200,000 words – the length of two average-length novels, all done in my free time. A few of these pieces died (were murdered?) and never made it to print. But during that time, I acquired what I like to think is a strong set of RPG design skills.
In fall of 2013, I learned that my freelance work for D&D would go into a bit of a lull as the Wizards team transitioned from 4E to the next iteration of the D&D game. I found myself in new territory. What would I do to sate my design addiction? I could fall back on just designing for myself and my regular player group. OR, I could do that AND explore new avenues. In late 2013, I acquired the opportunity to write for a game I’d never written for before, something I can’t really discuss now, lest the Non-Disclosure Agreement goblins murder me in my sleep and take (acquire?) all my future freelance opportunities.
Earlier this year, a friend and I came up with an idea for a new tabletop RPG titled Murders & Acquisitions, hereafter referred to as M&A. I’ve talked a bit abut M&A on NerdBurger, a weekly, geeky podcast I co-host. You can hear me discuss M&A in two episodes. The initial pitch to Dave happens in episode 25, beginning at the 35:16 mark. Additional info comes up in episode 34, starting at the 28:08 mark.
Hopefully, you’ll check out the rest of those episodes, as well as other episodes. Blatant podcast plugging done!
In the weeks since M&A’s inception, I’ve designed the skeleton of what I hope will be a fun, little game about working in an office. I know that sound boring, but here’s the kicker. M&A is set in an alternate Earth where pretty much anything goes in terms of office dynamics. Want to move up the corporate ladder? You can sabotage your adversary’s pet project, destroy them socially, or just kill them and cover everything up.
Everything about M&A is built around the idea of working in an office, something many people can relate to, whether they actually work in an office or simply know enough about the IDEA of working in an office.
Corporate culture in the game is presented as an exaggeration of real world corporate culture. Some of your coworkers are corporate peons and drones with no ambition while others are movers and shakers seeking the same things you are. The CEO and board members are the “big bosses” that the characters ultimately seek to overthrow. HR is composed of a group of enigmatic lurkers who engage in their own personal chess game that no one else really understands. Security is HR’s strong right hand. Your character sheet looks like a resume, complete with skills like “Troubleshooting” (your ranged combat skill) and “Loss Mitigation” (the skill you use for covering up espionage and murders). Everything is tinged with hyperbole and a strong dose of tongue-in-cheek humor.
I’ve designed version one of the core mechanical system and have started playtesting. I’ve also begun designing rules add-ons that will allow players to inject magic, monsters, sci-fi elements and tech, horror elements, and cyberware into the core system to expand the world of M&A and create a game where such things are available. My hope is to design a story-driven, mechanically-simple game where a single adventure can be played out in about two hours. This makes M&A ideal for pickup games and convention play (with a simple, easily-learned system). It also allows groups to create a short campaign by stringing adventures and telling the story of a group of new hires moving up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming the leaders of the company.
So, that’s the basics on me and M&A. I hope you’re intrigued. In future installments, I’ll delve further into development of the game and lace these discussions with lessons learned as a long time RPG player, GM, and freelance designer.
And I’m sure I’ll come back to two words – murdering and acquiring. I’ll certainly have to murder some ideas in favor of better ones. And I’ll have to acquire new ideas and skills to make M&A a fun game.
It’s going to be a fun ride. I hope you’ll join me.