All posts by Aaron Marks

Gaming for 15 years and writing about it for nearly ten, I've always had a strong desire to find different and interesting things in the hobby. You can follow me on Twitter at @LevelOneWonk, and read my more personal ramblings at 563rdattempt.wordpress.com.

System Split: Apocalypse World and the Burned Over Hackbook

It’s tough being the first. Back in 2010, before Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition (and before Fourth Edition Essentials too), Vincent Baker released the first edition of Apocalypse World. While the praise was immediate, the snowball effect of the game had just started. By the time Baker released the second edition, now (and from this point forward) sharing the byline with his wife Meguey Baker, Powered by the Apocalypse had become a force in the indie game world. After another five years, the Baker family revisited Apocalypse World again, with Vincent and Meguey working with their children to produce Burned Over.

There are two things about Burned Over which caused me to overlook it initially. The first was a misunderstanding, though also a reflection of how many indie games are made these days. Burned Over is a hackbook, and having not heard this phrase before I confused it in intent with an ashcan. An ashcan is essentially the game equivalent of a minimum viable product or Early Access; it contains the rules to play and a first draft of the written game while being otherwise incomplete. Burned Over is not incomplete; though some of the initial rules were released on Vincent Baker’s Patreon (of which I am a subscriber, full disclosure) in ashcan form, the hackbook as it stands is complete, laid out, and 100% playable. What hackbook means is that Burned Over is a hack of Apocalypse World released as a book; Burned Over requires Apocalypse World to play though this belies the differences made somewhat.

The second element which caused me to overlook Burned Over at first came from the description of what it was. When the Baker family undertook Burned Over as a project, it was described as a version of Apocalypse World which toned down the sex and violence of the original. My initial reaction was that this would be a bowdlerized Apocalypse World, and I didn’t really like that. Needless to say I was wrong, but it meant that I didn’t actually read Burned Over until I had seen praise of it elsewhere. Burned Over strongly recenters many elements of Apocalypse World without changing the core mechanics of the game or its core gameplay loop; this recentering both revises and strengthens the rules as well as shifts the game’s relationship towards its own setting. While this is perhaps too informed by recent discourse, I think Burned Over shifts Apocalypse World from genre emulation of post-apocalyptic film and games to being a post-apocalyptic work in its own right with its own setting. 

Continue reading System Split: Apocalypse World and the Burned Over Hackbook

The Trouble with NaNoWriMo: A Filler Post

The trouble with NaNoWriMo is simply that it takes a lot of time. Although most of you know me as an RPG commentator, I have been a writer, broadly, for most of my life, both personal and professional. I enjoy writing fiction, but it’s difficult to write long-form fiction and keep up the pace long enough to produce a full story. The 2000 word articles hosted here at Cannibal Halfling Gaming are, if not easy, at least easier than a 50,000+ word novel.

This year I decided to do NaNoWriMo to give my fiction writing a kick in the pants. In 2019 I picked up a rewrite of a novel I had written a decade before, right after college, and decided to give it an honest go. I got close, though the pandemic seriously disrupted my writing habits. In 2021, amidst a whole host of life challenges and transitions, the writing ground to a halt. So here, in November of 2022, I decided to challenge myself to do NaNoWriMo in order to get back into the habit of writing and build up my self-discipline enough to also finish my in-progress novel. So far, so good: yesterday was the midpoint of NaNoWriMo and I have successfully hit the 25,000 word halfway mark.

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Twitter and the TTRPG Hobby

If you haven’t noticed, Twitter is imploding. Since Elon Musk bought the company, it’s been learning experience after learning experience, with the most important one being the public at large learning that perhaps Elon isn’t a genius after all. Unfortunately, though that lesson was a long time coming, he’s probably going to destroy Twitter in the process.

Twitter in a lot of ways represents the worst of the app-driven attention economy internet. It’s created the term ‘doomscrolling’ and one of the most common euphemisms for it is ‘hellsite’. But, as much as we hate it, we can’t peel our eyes away. This has been strongly true, among many places, in the TTRPG community.

Twitter’s relatively easy engagement algorithm means that even small creators can find eyeballs, and they can do it without much concerted strategy. Though we’ve often termed using Twitter for promotion as ‘shouting into the void’, the fact is that if you keep at it, you will build a following, and it can be really difficult to figure out how to rebuild such a following in the absence of, well, Twitter.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: November, 2022

Happy late Halloween, and welcome to the Crowdfunding Carnival! Like many of my friends, I don’t see the start of November as the end of spooky season, especially as the time of the year is still dark and creepy. On Kickstarter, it’s very much the same. Yes, there are a lot of literal horror stories (the deliberate, good kind), but overall there’s way more treats than tricks across the crowdfunding platforms this month. As it’s getting colder, and as we’re setting our clocks back soon, it’s a great time to bundle up inside with a good game, and especially a good new game from one of the many campaigners out there. There’s actually many, many good games this month, more than I could possibly cover! That said, I do think my selection is a great place to start.

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The Meaning of Heartbreaker

Ever since Dungeons and Dragons was first released, there have been designers who thought they could do better. Some of them were right, and right fairly quickly; Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, and Marc Miller are all luminaries of the hobby who made their mark before the 70s ended. Many others, though, were not. After all, game design is like many creative pursuits, and while some have the talent and skill to pull it off, others…don’t.

As the hobby developed, someone came up with a name for the less inspired clones of D&D and its ilk: the fantasy heartbreaker. There are a couple of etymologies for this phrase. The first refers to the heart of the designer. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, if you wanted to put out a game, you really had no choice other than to get it printed. Not only was there no PDF or print on demand, there was a much smaller ‘small press’ industry, and fewer printers who would take on a run of a few hundred books. No, these designers usually, if they wanted their book in print, had to order a run of at least a couple thousand. The heartbreak, then, is having a pallet of game books, unsold, in your garage or basement, serving only as a reminder of the massive bill they produced.

The second etymology refers to the heart of the critic, and due to the common use of the longer phrase ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ I believe this one is more accurate. A fantasy heartbreaker specifically is a clone of D&D, hence the genre modifier. What makes it a heartbreaker is, to put it bluntly, wasted potential. The motivation of a designer who writes a heartbreaker is to make a better version of the game they’ve been playing; generally they have somewhere between one and half a dozen interesting and often very good ideas about how to make a game they’d rather play. What they don’t have is the understanding of how to integrate those ideas into a coherent ruleset. The result, both then and now, is a game with several good ideas shoe-horned into rules which are basically D&D without any understanding of what changes were needed to make their ideas work. A critic sees the good ideas, then sees the rest of the game, and then their heart breaks.

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On Game Preparation

Games are static documents. No matter what supplements or errata are released after the fact, the text of a game is just words on a page once it leaves the designer’s head. What makes a role-playing game more than that, though, is the act of play. Role-playing games are different from board games or card games because unlike those, where there are procedures and set-up and specific things to do, role-playing games in their text form merely template the play experience. In traditional role-playing games, it’s up to the game master, or GM, to actually produce the play experience.

I haven’t discussed much in the way of procedures for running a game, and this oversight became more clear as I was attempting to write about how specifically to run a long-duration game in the conclusion of Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom. Also, and surprisingly, there’s been some discourse about game prep recently? I was under the mistaken impression that understanding how best to prep for a campaign or session was essentially a solved issue at this point, that writing about prep would mean giving advice, not taking a position.

That all said, there is better and worse prep technique, and there are better and worse games to prep for. One reason that so much of what constitutes ‘GM Advice’ in the broader RPG discussion world is merely advice on how to prep for and run a gaming session is that the monopoly game, Dungeons & Dragons, is a poor tool for GMs. When it comes to running the game D&D has been getting worse by the edition, really, and players who were raised on earlier editions, versions of the game that were much more specific about how to prep and play them, are only getting older. So if you are struggling with running your game, my first piece of advice is to stop playing Fifth Edition D&D.

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Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom part 3

From time to time, you’ll see the gaming press and sometimes even the broader ‘nerd’ press pick up a story about a years-long or decades-long RPG campaign. One thing you’ll immediately notice is the focus of these articles: “Meet the GM who keeps on using the same damn world”. “This group has been playing one single game for 35 years. See how the GM does it.” The GM is the key to any campaign, but when a campaign is both long and sustained, others take notice. Long and sustained is the key for an anti-boredom campaign, and though it may not last 35 years, putting in the work will help keep a long, complex, and rich campaign going for longer than you may have initially thought possible.

GMing a long-running game isn’t about shortcuts, but it’s not not about shortcuts either. As a campaign builds history and increases in complexity, the amount of work the GM must do just to keep everything straight is going to increase. ‘Lazy GMing’ isn’t a preference here, it’s a way to make sure you can do everything you need to do without burning out. This is also where much of the content of the other articles begins to synthesize. A system with more mechanics that support what you want to do will take less effort to run. A setting that is constrained but has depth is much easier to do bookkeeping for than a sprawling wasteland of 150 dungeons and ten nation-states. That said, once the game has started, all that’s left to do is run.

Continue reading Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom part 3

Crowdfunding Carnival: October, 2022

Welcome back to the Crowdfunding Carnival! It’s actual carnival season here in the northeast, with a lot of state fairs happening in the month of October due to the fall harvest. If you’re not into fair food, rickety rides, and farm animals, though, we still have plenty of entertainment coming out of crowdfunding sites as the days get shorter.

October is kind between GenCon and the holiday season, so we’re a little short on product announcements in the hobby as a whole. There’s definitely still action in the crowdfunding space though; last week I reviewed Rae Nedjadi’s Apocalypse Keys, which is being crowdfunded with the help of publisher Evil Hat as we speak. As of this writing there’s a little less than a week to go, so click through if you’re interested.

Beyond the games, there’s also some moves happening in the crowdfunding business. Some are large, some relatively small, but all worth examining. Let’s take a look.

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Apocalypse Keys Review

Powered by the Apocalypse, or PbtA, is one of the most popular RPG rulesets in the indie gaming sphere. After getting its start with Apocalypse World and the Bakers’ permissive license, PbtA blew up first among single designers and small groups and then in the wider gaming sphere. While Apocalypse World was modestly successful in its own right, many of the games it spawned, including Monster of the Week, Dungeon World, and Blades in the Dark, multiplied its success many times over.

Mainstream PbtA success continues to this day, fed mostly by two mid-sized publishers: Evil Hat Productions and Magpie Games. Magpie Games, arguably the largest and most successful company to design primarily PbtA games, first saw success with titles like Urban Shadows, Bluebeard’s Bride, and Masks, and has gone on to rake in millions of dollars from some of the first licensed PbtA games, Root and Avatar Legends. Evil Hat Productions, more known as the company behind Fate, doesn’t design PbtA games in house, but publishes several of significance. Evil Hat publishes Monster of the Week, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and Blades in the Dark, and they’re about to add another PbtA game to their library.

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The Trouble with RPG Prices

In the past we have discussed playing RPGs, of course. We’ve also discussed reading RPGs, and collecting RPGs. One thing we haven’t discussed much, though, is buying RPGs. A tabletop roleplaying game is a creative work that can take up to hundreds of man-hours, not to mention the intellectual and emotional investment of almost everyone involved with bringing it to fruition. Despite this, there are plenty of people on the internet who deign to call RPGs overpriced. This is in spite of the fact that most indie RPGs cost $30 or less while D&D Monopoly, a monstrosity of branding that should pay me for having to know it exists, costs about $50.

The trouble with pricing is that people not trained in economics think it’s a science. I, however, am the Level One Wonk, with over five years of real actual economics experience and actual professional industrial economics training. All economics aligns to a popular aphorism by George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. The notion of an ‘invisible hand of the market’ is wildly incorrect, even something you consume every day, electricity, only can be sold in a carefully constructed market that is watched every day by engineers (and still fails wildly from time to time anyway). Similarly, creative goods, far from the ‘widgets’ of every dismal Econ 101 textbook, don’t follow nearly any of the rules proscribed by the masters of micro. So, in order to speak more clearly about RPG pricing, we’re going to talk about some of the economics that doesn’t really work for role-playing games, and then talk through some of the psychology that does.

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