Flourishing in a Cage

Boundaries make better characters.

I figured I should start with the premise right up front after a somewhat poetic title. But it’s true. In my experience, setting limits makes for richer explorations of a setting’s themes or a campaign’s promise. If you’re someone who suffers from fear of the blank page but pours out a thousand words off a specific writing prompt, you’ve already experienced this phenomenon, but everyone else can buckle in as we explore how limits lead to better-developed characters in games.

Diversity In Conformity

When you imagine a character described as a “knight” or a “detective” or a “cyborg”, there’s a solid chance you summoned up the platonic ideal of that thing first, the picture that goes at the top of the Wikipedia article. A dude (almost always a dude) in armor with a sword, maybe a shield, probably a helmet. Trenchcoat, fedora, maybe a little notebook, probably a tragic backstory, and a hip flask. A human-esque robot, probably with unusual eyes or skin color, and a curiosity/animosity about the humanity it can never achieve. Decent images, but not exactly ground-breaking. And when push comes to shove in your anything-goes blank-page multiverse world-making, what does this surface-level character DO? If there’s not a plot pushing them, what’s their deal? None of these stock types come packaged with a lot of momentum. They’re just the label on the tin.

But if your campaign is set up to explore these types exclusively, suddenly there’s a burst of creativity as we begin to set our characters apart from each other. If we’re a questing order of knights, is one of us faithful but inflexible? Is another a reluctant pacifist born to their station? Is one a brutish bully who loves lording their power over others? By trying to figure out what niche our character fills among a roster of their peers, we have to break new ground.

Think about shows or books that have a homogenous group of heroes. Each spacer is different, each fantasy adventurer, each cop. These characters shine in situations where we can contrast their specific responses compared to their reputations, our expectations, and the actions of their peers.

The Power of AND

Sure, your base type is defined for you when we know everyone’s a robot in this campaign. But what else are you? A navigational unit AND a poet? A protocol droid handy with a blaster? An android built for medicine but disgusted by organics?

By combining what we know (android) with something less typical (military officer), we now have a character who still fits the pattern of “everyone’s a _____” but surprises us with the specific addition. Be cautious about how many “and” end up in your main type or you might find yourself spread too thin with “actor AND boxer AND detective AND bad roommate.” But mixing up the standard template is great way to fill in the margins and defy expectations. Plus, it gives you a unique angle to explore when the main plotline doesn’t fully engage with your base type: your noblewoman may have a different approach to getting through a fancy party to steal the governor’s treasures than her ragged cutthroat peers.

The Dangerous Allure of BUT

Coming from an improv background, I’ll caution you about relying on denying parts of the base template when you’re exploring your character’s type. In the improv world, “blocking” is when someone gives you new info in the scene and you reject it: “That’s not my toothbrush.” “No, you aren’t the Pope.” “I’m not late for work because I’m unemployed.” Someone tried to pass you the baton and you dropped it because, ew, baton.

When you know where the campaign is supposed to go (“We’re all cyberpunk spies on Mars!”) and you decide to set yourself apart by rejecting the premise, that complicates the premise in ways that you and your GM need to acknowledge upfront. If everyone else has a spy security clearance and you are a maintenance android, it means some part of every mission now needs to address how you keep tagging along. And if your programming won’t let you fight or lie, you’re going to be a weight around the neck of this particular plot arc constantly dragging things to a halt as everyone has to shift your spotlight again to get you into the scene.

Drawing the next example from real life, I was running 50 Fathoms and everyone was going to be a pirate. When we finished character creation, each of them had decided to be the odd one out who was not a full member of the crew: a travelling acrobat in the brig, a nobleman’s ten-year-old daughter stowing away, a disgraced doctor with a drinking problem, and a tween powder monkey the rest of the crew barely tolerated. When it came to sailing the vessel or crewing the weapons, they couldn’t do it. NPCs had to run all shipboard events including navigation and major decisions about their cargo. Yes, I could’ve assigned some backup pirates as Extras in those scenes and let them run the ship by proxy, but we ended up in a tight spot because each player heard “You’re all pirates!” and said “No, I don’t think I will.”

Beyond the Themed Campaign

This is all well and good for fleshing out a party in a tightly-defined setting. We know our individual Nice Marines need to stand out from each other. But even outside of games where everyone’s the same kind of thing, this approach will yield a more-rounded core concept that gives you a couple of elements to explore in play. There are games that push this sort of Column A/Column B character design (looking at you, City of Mist), but even then consider how you can flip the script on what defines Medusa or a space wizard. When you stop with your first instinct on a character or type, that’s where everyone else has already been.

Heist: Masterminds is Funded!

We Did It!

More specifically, you did. The call came in, a number you hadn’t heard from in years, and asked if you were ready for One. Last. Job. So buckle in, brush off your skills, and remember what it was like when you could take anything you wanted and disappear back into the crowd, a legend whispered about in both criminal and Interpol circles.

And the crowdfunding. Definitely the crowdfunding. We made it over the finish line and squeezed in a victory lap in those last few days, unlocking the deluxe box printing, upgraded token shapes, and deluxe How-To Video. There’s some work ahead of us to finish up the last of the art (just a couple of Gear cards, honestly) and sort out some questions regarding box art dimensions, rulebook pages, etc. but the game is ready. You can check it out on our Tabletopia page and play the most up-to-date version of the game and rules. As we finish new cards, it’ll end up there before we can get the physical games into your hands. There’s going to be the usual brief delay between the end of the campaign and when we get the funds from Gamefound, but once we’ve got everything in hand we’ll start checking off boxes with our printer and begin bringing Heist to life in its final, physical form.

This is an incredibly exciting moment for me. I imagine it’s also something you’re jazzed about or you wouldn’t have helped make it happen (but I don’t want to speak for you). So all I will say to close out this End of Campaign update is Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, and that you’re going to love it when we hand it to you.

Talk to you soon.

Heist Crowdfunding Preparations

You’re never completely prepared for something like your first crowdfunding effort. I’ve spent years reading blog posts and guides about how to do this, and felt like I’d been investing an appropriate amount of time and effort into making things happen, but staring down the seeming immensity of what comes next, and knowing just how much I don’t know about the reality of it… It’s daunting y’all. Not going to lie.

Which is not to say that there isn’t something really fun about the possibilities that lie ahead. If nothing else, I’ll have learned a lot and been forced to grow as a creative and as an entrepreneur. I’m thankful for the support that has gotten me this far and I’m excited to build a community around our shared love of daring raids against well-secured, extremely valuable items.

Among the promo shots for this new cover style.

The Heist: Masterminds page has been added to the site, and will be the main hub for the game once the crowdfunding effort has passed. I’m eager to share the campaign preview with you, but there’s still some odds and ends to sort out when it comes to that side of things. The game, not forgotten in the midst of all this, continues to be a project that I am very, very proud of and look forward to sharing with all of you when I have more than six of them to loan around.

You Reap What You Sow

I’m so glad to bring you You Reap What You Sow, a new narrative one-shot RPG that explores the uneasy alliance of three undead beings all descended from one human life. How did you die, why did you get separated, and how can you come to some kind of closure before the Reapers put you back in your grave(s)? Grab a deck of cards and 2 friends to find out!

This premise started off as a bit of a joke: if your soul got reincarnated but your body was raised by a necromancer, which one is the real you? And if your mind was harvested into a Frankenstein’s-Creature-type promethean, do we trust the soul, the body, or the brain? A real Corpse of Theseus situation. The longer I thought about it, the less it was a joke. I was already developing what would become Boneyard, a domino-based game about Reapers & Omens guarding the line between life and death and guiding lost souls into a final rest they do not fully understand, and thought that a game exploring this undead life-triangle trying to solve their potential murder before the Reapers get them could be a great way to explore that world. Marry it to a Descended from the Queen framework of cards and prompts with enough additional game added on with the Demise, Connection, and Reaper countdown clocks and voila! You Reap What You Sow came down from the ceiling slab while I shouted “It’s (technically) alive!”

This version is still in development but is 100% playable. I’ve run it with some of my people and incorporated their feedback, and we’re looking at the final game perhaps being a hybrid of book and custom card deck or exclusively custom-card-based. I always like to include the option of playing with poker cards whenever possible, as I understand both international shipping and keeping track of yet another custom deck can be a pain, but let me know if you have strong feelings one way or another regarding the future format of the game. Thanks for taking a look and may you have as many days as you want between now and when you meet the Reapers.

Black Friday & Monster Damage

This weekend, I’ll be hosting my first sale on the itch store. All weekend, all the pdfs will be 50% off, with community copies added for every purchase. Any bundle purchases will add community copies to every game in the bundle. It’s only running from Black Friday through Monday, but come down and grab any games you’re missing. itch is also waiving their cut, so more of your hard-earned gaming dollar is going to the creators you know and love. A lot of like-minded creatives are joining in this weekend so take a look around and grab some new titles for yourself.

The concept of community copies should probably be unpacked a bit here. Pioneered by some great folks in the community, community copies are free or reduced price copies of pdfs available for folks who can’t afford to pay full price for what you have available. I’ve been making use of them to keep copies out for review, available for whoever needs them. It’s something I would love to see more creators embrace as we invite more people to have a seat at the table.

The other announcement worth making right now is that there is an extremely limited run of BITE games that are available right now for a significant discount. They are literally Monster damaged, but come with a pair of Nerdhaus buttons and a hand-written thank you note if you buy them off the BITE page. If you don’t already have a copy, this is the cheapest you’ll find it. I’ll even waive the shipping and hand deliver if you’re close to the Kansas City metro, just send me a message any way you can and we can work out the details.

A new game is underway and projects are starting to get moving. I’ll have more of that development process as well as some new game reviews up between now and the end of the year. It’s been a weird time for everyone lately, but let’s try and make the rest of 2020 something we can appreciate. Let’s all help each other do that.

The Long Way Home

Our newest game just hit digital shelves. Swing by the itch store or buy it right here and check out our newest rpg. The Long Way Home is a 2-player asynchronous journaling rpg about a post-apocalyptic couple separated by circumstance struggling through the badlands and the dangers of their unexplored Habitat to find a way back together. Take on the role of one of the two figures and see if you can beat the odds and find your way back to each other.

Crisis RPG

Crisis is a roleplaying game of escalating stakes racing against disaster to tell a story. Players define the margins and color in the major points at the beginning of the session, and explore those plots, people, and places in detail during the scenes themselves. Each scene features a player character designated the Protagonist whose story is told for that scene. Another player is their Foil, putting obstacles in their way to test them and show all of us what they are capable of. In this way, every player is both a character and a game master.

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The Good That Zoos Do

Another is a game we spun up in a month for the #cryptidjam last year at itch, where participants built a game in a month’s time on the theme of cryptids. The Good That Zoos Do creates agents of a supernatural zoo as well as the monster they are hunting. The cryptid is revealed during a flashback scene where it interacts with a group of disposable NPCs and its traits are defined through the process of eliminating them. The rest of the session, play is between the players as agents and the GM as both setting and the cryptid itself with a playing card mechanic resolving all the actions. It is based largely on the Zoo Podcast and their ongoing series about monster hunters and occasionally empathetic intelligent cryptids.


As the harvest approaches, the villagers gather and ponder the coming winter. Among them, darkness lurks, corrupting the town and its inhabitants. Unlikely allies will rise either to save this village or condemn it. 

Can you make it through the lengthening nights and save the town? Or is something creeping up on you, disguised as a neighbor, waiting for its chance to BITE?

BITE is a social game to be played during a gathering, like a party or convention. Players receive roles and pair up for a few minutes of conversation at a time, at the end of which each reveals an action card to the other player. They resolve these cards and move on to the next discussion, their motives changing throughout the game based upon which side they find themselves: Good or Evil. By the final night, either darkness will have been rooted out of the town, or it will have triumphed.

Officially released in October 2019, Discover the Monster Within!

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BITE Cover Art

BITE is a social deduction game for 6 to 17 players, playable in under an hour. Rules are quick to learn and laid out across two books, a rulebook for running play and a reference manual that details role strategy, action cards uses, and more. 10 roles (5 Good and 5 Evil) have access to 13 actions ranging from the fact-finding Talk card to specialties like Haunt, Stake, and Devour. Vampires have Bite cards they share with other players, spreading their malign influence and claiming their victims for an Evil victory. BITE retails for $27.99.

Planned support includes rule videos, expansion options, an RPG tie-in, and the Mayoral Decrees script that provides word-for-word choices on how to run your first few games of BITE. (It’s the next best thing to having the designer in your living room) If you are running the Crisis RPG scenario that calls for BITE cards and you don’t have them (or can’t get a copy yet), then this download will provide the flavor text for the roles, prompts for their actions, and printable slips to use as cards until you snap up a copy for yourself.

Available at local conventions, and in game stores in the Kansas City, MO region at TableTop Game & Hobby in Overland Park, KS and Pawn & Pint in Kansas City, MO. You can also buy directly from us and we ship anywhere in the US:

Grin RPG (or How Do I Play Jenga Online)

Last week, I had the treat of sharing an rpg table with my college roommate for the first time. We have games together in other formats (our dining room table was never used for meals but permanently set for Necromunda), but this was the first time we played together. Normally I introduce first-time roleplayers with something straightforward (like Dread) or ridiculous (like Crash Pandas). I opted for straightforward and planned to run something out of the Harrop Collection but there’s the issue of how to do social distance right now within arm’s reach of a Jenga tower…

There are lots of options for running a game online. You have Discord servers, various video chat options, digital tables, and play-by-post. You could even dust off your typewriter and get started on a De Profundis campaign, but I’ve never had one make it more than two letters in, despite our best efforts [link]. But none of those do Jenga, and networked BoomBlox as a resolution mechanic feels cumbersome. Enter Grin.

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