Not Dead Yet!

not-dead-yetYes, things have been quiet around this corner of the web the past week or so. But it’s not, I assure you, because I’m moldering away in the back corner of my hoarder-style basement, surrounded by boxes of books and games such that the only ones who can find me are the cats who see me as good for one last meal.


So no, I’m not dead, just busy. But this seems as good a time as any for a Darrellian update.



  • Animation Celebration: As promised, I attended this show outside Dallas last weekend. The place was packed with bronies, gamers, and that delicious combination of the two, bramers. I was privileged to meet some hard-core fans of the My Little Pony CCG, and to introduce a bunch more to the game through endless demos.

  • Canterlot Nights: Speaking of the MLP CCG, the publisher Enterplay has announced a release date (May 16) for the first expansion for the game. The design team and I are proud of how this set turned out, and I can’t wait for players to discover it for themselves.

  • Karthador.com: Not every waking moment of my life is dedicated to pastel ponies. Some of those moments are dedicated to Karthador, the swashbuckling sci-fi storyworld I’ve been quietly working on for a couple years now. In anticipation of the wide release of the Karthador roleplaying game from Reality Blurs, I’m putting together a website detailing the world’s people, conflicts, and adventures. I can’t promise when, exactly, it’ll be ready for prime time, but I’ll say “soon” keep you posted as things move ahead.


Hey there! Want to get updates on my projects, opinions, and what I had for lunch? Follow me on Twitter. You’ll be glad you did.*


*Gladness not guaranteed.

Come Celebrate!

animation_cel_logoThis weekend, I’ll be a guest at the Animation Celebration convention in Lewisville, Texas. While I’m there, I’ll be wearing my My Little Pony CCG lead designer hat, answering questions, teaching people how to play the game, and maybe handing out some special prizes.


Looking at my schedule, I’ll technically only be there for one day. So if you’re in the neighborhood and want to see for yourself if I found a chance to get my hair cut this week, you’d best do it on Saturday. (If I spend any longer than that in Texas, and I start unconsciously adopting an accent that sounds Texan to me, but is actually German.)


See you there!

Ghost Punchers: Grave Dealings – Part 2

gp_logo12Here’s the second part of a story I’ve been working on set in the Ghost Punchers world. Today’s piece introduces Todd and Mayhew, the rest of the team. (If you haven’t read the first part, you can catch up here.)


It was almost noon when Mayhew rolled up in the van outside Carly’s apartment. Todd leaned out the passenger-side window and gestured to the side door. He grinned.


“I got shotgun,” he said.


Carly sighed and slid the side door open. The smell of motor oil and incense drilled into her nose. She hated riding in the back with the tools, but it beat taking the bus. Besides, she thought, the old white van added to the team’s blue-collar spirtualist mystique — even if it meant she had to sit on the cooler all the way to Doug Hawkins’ place.


Todd turned in his seat to offer Carly a bottle of water. He was wearing his trademark white t-shirt — two sizes too small to emphasize his biceps — and his customary smirk.


“You get us the best gigs, man,” he said. “Blurbl!”


Carly shrugged and cracked open the water. “Yeah. Blurbl… I guess.”


“You don’t know Blurbl?” He gave her a look comprised of equal parts pity and surprise.


Carly shrugged again. “What is it? Some internet thing?”


“Nah, it’s an app. For your phone, man. It’s like Twitter, but every hour or so, an alarm goes off. When it does, you got to post an update — where you are, what you’re doing, whatever — in 30 seconds. Do it faster, you get more points.”


“And if you don’t?”


“You start losing points. That’s bad.”


“And the points are good for…?”


Leaderboards, man! It’s all about the leaderboards.”


“So it’s… Twitter with a timer? And points?”


Todd grinned. “Yeah. Pretty cool, huh?”


“No,” said Carly. “It’s dumb.”


“Nah, it only seems dumb ’cause you’re old.”


“I’m 28. I’m not old.”


“Not compared to Mayhew,” admitted Todd.


At 46, Carl Mayhew was the oldest member of the team. He had been Carly’s psychology professor, and the one who introduced her to the world of paranormal investigation and phantasmal violence. His round glasses, greying temples, and black tie made him the most respectable-looking of the three. Also, he owned the van.


“Professor?” said Carly. “Help me out here?”


“You’re not old,” said Mayhew. “And though it’s apparently somehow quite profitable, the app does sound rather pointless.”


“Pointless?” Todd made an inarticulate, exasperated sound in the back of his throat.


“Whatever, man. You’re both old.”


Carly swallowed her water and pointed at Todd with the bottle.


“You know Blurbl. What can you tell us about Doug Hawkins?”


Todd grinned and pulled out his phone. “I’m glad you asked,” he said, and started reading.


“The dude’s rich. Not Bill Gates rich, but rich enough. He got his start making Super Farm Bubble Crush — my mom’s still playing that — then went on to make the Kansr and Plopp apps. He’s sort of retired now, but totally rich.”


“Rich businessmen often have enemies,” said Mayhew.


“Yeah. Are we looking at a Marley situation?” asked Carly.


“Nah,” said Todd. “Dude’s got enemies, but none of ‘em are dead.”


“So it’s most likely the house,” said Mayhew.


“Hang on,” said Carly, digging a scratched-up tablet out of her bag. “The client sent me a file on the house. Let’s see…


“Built in 1923 by Hugo Kincaid, an investment banker who lost everything in the crash and hanged himself in the front room in 1929. His widow shut herself up in the mansion for the next 20 years and went a little crazy.”


“Cat lady crazy?” asked Mayhew. “Or cannibal crazy?”


“Um… looks like cat lady crazy. Hoarded things — including cats, dogs, and even a horse.”


“Oh, I want to see a ghost horse,” said Todd. “Are there ghost horses, Mayhew?”


“Still reading back here!” said Carly.


“Anyway, she died in 1949 but wasn’t found for several weeks. She didn’t have any heirs, and the place was pretty trashed, so it went on the market and stayed there until 1958. Conrad Hart, a surgeon, move in with his wife and family… nothing of note… His son got the place in ’72…. sold it to a musician in ’85. Anyone know Bill Toggs? No? I guess he was big in Australia.


“Bill died upstairs — overdose of course — in 1987. The house sat empty in the 90s, had a string of tenants in the aughts, then got bought out and renovated by a development firm in 2010. They totally remodeled the place, then sold it to our boy Doug for twice what they paid for it.”


“I have a question,” said Todd.


“Yeah?”


“Who says ‘aughts’?”


Carly opened her mouth to answer, but forgot what she was about to say when Mayhew leaned on the van’s brakes, sending the contents of the van — including Carly — lurching dangerously forward. She bounced off the back of Todd’s seat. Her water bottle bounced off the dashboard, spraying an arc of liquid as it flew.


“Um,” said Mayhew.


He gestured weakly out the windshield, where his passengers could see a tastefully classic mansion, an immaculate lawn, a winding driveway, and a withered zombie in a suit standing between the van and the front door.


“We’re here.”

Driving the Roles

It's a hacker/assassin!Yesterday on Twitter, I shared a random tip for world-builders: “Create setting-specific roles for characters – psychic fighter pilots, oracles of flame, NSA hacker/assassins.”


I’ll admit I was specifically thinking about roleplaying games when I wrote this. I’d argue that one of the biggest appeals of playing RPGs is trying out new roles and exploring new ways to interact with the fictional world. Different settings give you different roles to play, such as an Elf Thief in D&D, a Dwarf Rigger in Shadowrun, or a Wookiee freighter captain in Star Wars.


If my new world doesn’t provide new roles to play, I’m not giving you much incentive to come play in my sandbox. “Yes the world has magical flying cities and zombie clown hordes, but the heroes are all the standard fantasy races and classes.” Yawn!


If the characters aren’t that different from other games, how different can the world really be?


(“Different,” by the way, is good because “different” is the reason you invest money and brain space on my world — it offers something that other products don’t.)


While I was thinking about RPGs when I tweeted, this mini-maxim applies to (genre) fiction as well. We’ve got countless books about cops, detectives, doctors, lawyers, and spies. To read something different, about different characters, those characters need to have different roles – boy wizards, perhaps, or psychic waitresses in world like our own but stuffed with sexy vampires.


Could we have a story about a London police detective in the world of Harry Potter? Or an ambulance-chasing lawyer in the True Blood setting? Sure — but if those characters are indistinguishable are from their more mundane counterparts, their stories may not be sufficiently different, and that would be a waste.


Don’t waste the exciting new world you’ve created. Finish the job by creating exciting new roles for its characters to play and your audience to enjoy.

The 20 Percent Solution

8020Here’s a game design thought for the day: The 80-20 rule applies to game rules the same as it does anything else.


For the uninitiated, the 80-20 rule says that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the cause. In business, for example (thanks, Wikipedia!), 80% of your profit comes from 20% of your customers.


What’s this have to do with game rules?



Hardy’s 80-20 Rule of Game Design: In any game, 80% of the rules confusion comes from 20% of the rules.


Take, for example, your standard trading card game. Most of the rules are dedicated to generating income, playing cards, and the basic conflict resolution/point scoring mechanism. No one’s confused by this stuff. It’s not until you get into the intricacies of the timing system that things start to furrow the players’ brows. (“My card says that when you play a card, I get a cookie, but your card says that when you play it, my card gets blown up. Do I get a cookie first?”)


Of course, this means that 80% of our rules-writing efforts should be focused on the most confusing 20% of the rules – patching the cracks, filling the holes, and plastering the whole thing with enough examples and diagrams to make it clear.


Which raises the question: Why not just cut that 20%? If it’s such a hassle for both the designers and the players, why not do away with it all and save ourselves some pain?


Because that would make for dull games.


The same complexities that make 20% of the rules confusing also make the game dynamic and given to emergent play. These are the rules that let players come up with clever moves and surprise their opponents with tactics they never saw coming. These are the rules that separate your game from other games like it. These are the rules that make your game exciting.


And people like playing exciting games.

Ghost Punchers: Grave Dealings

gp_logo12Here’s the first part of a story I’ve been working on set in the Ghost Punchers world. Not a whole lot of punching in these first 600 words, but you can smell the impending spectral violence from here.


Carly had picked the diner because she’d heard the apple pie was a fat slice of awesome. She offered a bite to the woman sitting across from her in the corner booth.


“Really. It’s amazing. Here — you can use your own fork.”


“No. Thank you, but… no.”


The woman whose card identified her as “Gabrielle Deyes, Security Consultant” didn’t look like the type to stop into Charlie’s All-Niter a little past midnight for a slice of apple pie. Her black pantsuit was stylish but severe. Her hair was locked down into a no-nonsense bun. Even her smooth ebony nails spoke of cold, corporate efficiency.


The two men in suits failing to look casual as they sipped their Cokes weren’t helping her fit in either.


Carly shrugged. She popped another forkful of pie into her mouth and motioned for Gabrielle to continue.


“He’d been complaining of nightmares for weeks, but thought nothing of it — none of us did. It’s a high-stress industry. Nightmares, insomnia, panic attacks? They come with the territory.


“But then he reported things moving in the house. Furniture wasn’t where he’d left it. Lights turning on and off by themselves. Doors opening the middle of the night. And then he felt –”


“A presence?” asked Carly.


“Yes.”


“And cold spots? So cold they took his breath away?”


“Yes. You know this… type of phenomenon?”


Carly put down her fork and clasped the oversized crystal pendant that hung from her neck. She stroked it with the index finger of her other hand. She sighed deeply and nodded.


“Such things — such hauntings — cast ripples throughout the spirit world. People like me, we hear things. About strong men brought to exhaustion and tears, trembling at shadows in their own homes. Has he suffered the physical wounds yet?”


What? No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “No, nothing like that.”


“Not yet,” said Carly. “They come later. When he’s too tired to fight, too exhausted to put up any real resistance, that’s when his haunter moves in for the kill.”


“Kill?”


“Oh yes. It’s a slow process. And your client might actually go mad before it’s over, but this sort of thing only ends one of two ways.”


Carly took another bite of pie. It really was a slice of awesome, she decided. She’d have to get another piece to bring home with her.


“What? What are the two ways?”


Carly swallowed.


“One: Your client succumbs to the ghost. Maybe physically, maybe mentally, but either way, he loses his life.


“Or two: We sever the link between your client and whatever’s haunting him.


“If it were early in the process — like when he started having nightmares — maybe your client could have just moved away from the house and left the ghost behind. But at this point it wouldn’t do any good. He’s been marked. Now we need to eliminate the angry spirit before…”


Carly grimaced sympathetically.


“Before you lose your client.”


Carly saw Gabrielle’s eyes flicker over her, taking in the crystal necklace, its matching earrings, the thrift store jacket that might have been worth something once, and the baggy white blouse that gave off a distinct “Earth mother hippie spiritualist” vibe that Carly specifically cultivated. She let Gabrielle take her time.


“Brian Harrison speaks highly of you and your team,” Gabrielle said.


“We did some good work together,” said Carly. They’d also sworn to never again mention what happened in the attic of the old mansion on Elmore Street, but she wasn’t about to bring that up.


Gabrielle sighed. Carly tried not to smile.


“All right,” said Gabrielle. It sounded like surrender. “You’re hired. I’ll transfer the deposit to your account in the morning, and e-mail you the client’s information tonight. I need you and your team on this ASAP — no later than tomorrow, okay?”


“Okay. I do have one question, though.”


“Oh?”


“The client. Who is he?”


“Doug Hawkins, senior vice president of Blurbl dot com.”


“Ah,” said Carly with a slow, knowing nod.


“So you know how serious this is.”


“Absolutely,” said Carly, who had no idea. “Seriously serious.”

Meet the Ghosts

gp_logo11The last part of the Ghost Punchers setting I want to explore is its unique creatures — that is, the ghosts themselves.


Ghosts are as widely varied as humanity. It’s not like you can look up a given ghost in the Official Ghost Puncher Monster Manual (“It’s a medium-sized polterspectre that casts spells as a 3rd-level wizard!”). Oh, you can deduce certain things based on what the ghost does, and there are certain patterns of haunting you’ll discover but learning about one ghost doesn’t necessarily help you in your quest to punch the next one.


Ghosts are broadly defined by three traits: awareness, power, and affinity.

  • A ghost’s awareness is a measure of how much it remembers of its past life and knows its current situation. A ghost with low awareness may not realize it’s dead, and repeat the actions of its last minutes of life. Those with very low awareness are inhuman shadows of what they once were, driven by alien hungers and striving for nothing but self-preservation.

  • A ghost’s power is exactly what you think it is: how much it can directly influence the world around it. It’s always easier to affect the spiritual world than the physical one, but those with lots of power can more effectively “break through” into the realm of flesh.

  • A ghost’s affinity is its most nebulous trait. It’s essentially what the ghost is about — or its schtick, if you will. This can be tied to who it was before dying, the manner of its death, or times and places it found important in life. The ghost has an easier time affecting people, places, and objects tied to its affinity. For example, the ghost of a firefighter might have pyrokinetic abilities; the ghost of an axe murderer can levitate and throw sharp heavy things; the ghost of a man who choked to death on a chicken sandwich can possess and animate cooked poultry. Ghosts can still do things outside their affinity, but it’s harder for them to do so. Not every ghost has an affinity, but most of them do.


With this in mind, let’s look at a couple example ghosts.

Jackson Holm

(Low Awareness, High Power, Affinity: Toys and Toy Stores)
Jackson grew up poor down the street from a high-end toy store. He loved the toy store, but could never afford any its products. As a young teenager, he landed a job working in the store and had grand plans for building a toy collection. His first day on the job, however, he got locked in the store’s sub-basement; he wasn’t found for three weeks. Now his ghost haunts the store he once loved, throwing toys at customers and trying to lure employees into the abandoned sub-basement.

Serena Steinman

(High Awareness, Low Power, Affinity: Eyes)
In the 1930s, Serena was a gangster’s moll; it was her job to look good and keep her mouth shut. But she kept her eyes and ears open, and knew more about the criminal organizations than her beau. She knew so much, in fact, the boss had her killed as a liability. Today, Serena runs a network of ghosts and takes a cut of the essence they bring in with their haunting. She has the ability to see any place that has eyes or pictures of eyes; her “territory” is often marked with eyeball-shaped graffiti.

Dr. Coyle

(Medium Awareness, Medium Power, Affinity: Scalpel)
Dr. Anthony Coyle killed his first patient by accident. A slip of a scalpel during a delicate operation was all it took, and then he was hooked. He killed dozens on his operating table, but it wasn’t enough. When he started searching back alleys for new surgical victims, he was arrested but took his own life before he could see trial. Now Dr. Coyle stalks the hospital halls, nudging scalpels and the minds of those who use them, continuing his grand design from beyond the grave.

Going on a Ghost Tour

gp_logo10A good landmark in a storyworld is more than just a place. It’s a place that helps tells stories. As I’ve noted before, landmarks can help a storyworld by establishing mood, conflict, and character. Of course, in the world of Ghost Punchers, the stories landmarks help tell are mostly ghost stories, and the places are usually haunted.


For example, here are a handful of landmarks found in Ghost Punchers storyworld:

Grayhearst Penitentiary

For over a hundred years, this crumbling prison housed the most vile and vicious criminals in the state. Many of them died behind its blood- and moss-stained walls, and their bodies are buried in the cemetery out back. The prison is one of the most haunted sites in America. It was a tourist destination for a few years when it was first shut down in 2001, but lack of funds led to it being shuttered and signed over to a non-profit preservation society.

The preservation society is actually a group of forward-thinking ghost punchers. They run the prison as a training round for ghost punchers looking to hone their skills in a target-rich environment. It’s not safe — the inmates have only grown nastier after death — but running the Grayhearst gauntlet is a mark of pride to the professional ghost puncher. Oddly enough, while countless ghosts have been punched here over the years, its population of spirits seems as high as it ever was.

The Phantom Pugilists’ Club

In 1873, a group of Englishmen with a mutual interest in the investigation and subjugation of the spirit world founded a gentlemen’s club in the West End of London. The club has changed over the years, but its second-story rooms remain largely as they were a century and a half ago — though it now has wi-fi, its records are all computerized, and the library of occult tomes has grown from several dozen to several hundred volumes. Current members are largely descendants of the club’s founders. They are quite proud of this fact, and are reluctant to let outsiders — even other ghost punchers — access the site’s resources. Those wishing to make use of the club’s amenities must wait for weeks or jump through arbitrary hoops. Many are annoyed by this, but others consider it a small price for a chance to study rare tomes while sipping brandy in a luxurious leather chair.

Downtown Dojo

Over the past 20 years, the Downtown Dojo in Detroit has turned out hundreds of black-belts — and dozens of ghost punchers. The building itself was once a tire store on the edge of a residential neighborhood. When the neighborhood collapsed into poverty and crime, the store moved out and ghost puncher Danny Trask bought the place for a song. Since then, Danny’s turned the dojo into a beacon of safety, courage, and hope for the neighborhood. It’s also a training center for would-be ghost punchers. Along with martial arts, Danny teaches meditation techniques that allow his students to see into the spirit world. He doesn’t offer this training to everyone, but only to those recommended by other ghost punchers, or those he himself recruits from his martial arts classes.


I could walk through each entry and point out the mood, conflict, and character each is helping establish, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader. (Besides, I’m running a bit of a sleep deficit with a newborn in the house, so such a thing would probably degenerate into half-formed, typo-ridden gibberish in two sentences anyway.)

Putting a Finer Point on It

gp_logo09I have two more entries on my list of Ghost Punchers posts I want to write before labeling that storyworld “done for now” and moving on. One covers the world’s creatures — the ghosts themselves — and the other its trademark landmarks. But while I’ve carved time out of my baby-filled haze to work on these posts, I’ve found them harder to write than any previous entries… and I think I’ve figured out why.


Up until this point, I’ve been very light on specifics. Rather than saying “The storyworld is like this,” I’ve said “It can be like this. Or this. Or something else along these lines.” That’s mostly on purpose, since part of the point of a storyworld is to leave it as open as possible. It’s not until we start actually telling stories (i.e., creating products) in the world that these nebulous things are nailed down and forced into concrete shapes.


I guess what’s been holding me back on these posts is the fear that whatever specifics I lock down right now might not work for whatever stories people want to tell in the future. If I say “There are three types of ghosts: X, Y, and Z,” I risk someone (probably me) in the future crying out, “Why is there no W?”


That’s a risk I just have to take. After all, I tell myself sternly, they’re just blog posts. This isn’t a story bible going out to a team of Hollywood execs or transmedia consultants.* So what if you get it wrong? You can always go back and change it. You need a “W” ghost? Make it up and pretend it’s always been there!


I give myself some good advice sometimes.


And it’s advice worth sharing: Creating a storyworld is like any other creative endeavor; if you get caught up on making it perfect in the first draft, you’ll never finish the thing. Finish it first, then tweak it as necessary.


* And even if it were a Hollywood story bible, I’m pretty pretty sure those internal docs get edited all the time based on what the story needs, so long as it doesn’t contradict what’s been publically released.