Cam Banks is one of the most talented RPG developers I know of, and have had the privilege of working with on some Cortex Plus projects — the Leverage line and parts of the Hacker’s Guide, notably us teaming up together to forge Cortex Plus Action. When he announced a few months back that he took a full-time position at Atlas Games, I was happy for both him and Atlas, since Atlas is awesome and he is fearsome.
While he is a good game designer, his greatest talent is in fostering collaboration and curating the very designs he’s working on. If you’re wondering what the hell that means, I first say that you should work with Cam. Barring that, though, what Cam does is take input from various sources and weighs them with a careful eye, which tempers more aggressive and boundary-pushing designers that may disregard some player experiences. It’s that melding that made the iterations of Cortex Plus the celebrated games that they are.
Along with that, Cam’s a great faceman for a game company. He’s personable, kind, and will listen. He takes time to explain things, even to people who don’t want explanations but just to complain. And he’s a calming force on social media, sometimes jokingly (or not so jokingly) called “Twitter’s Dad.” All in all, he’s a great person to know — as a game designer, as a project wrangler, and as a human being. He’s a person to emulate.
I should also confess that I have not always treated Cam with the respect he deserves, partly due to my mishandling of business decisions that both he was involved in and were completely out of his control. That Cam handled those moments well, and that he even worked with me afterward, is a testament to his patience and forgiveness. I, for serious, am not a quarter of the person he is — which is a further, and perhaps most significant, reason that I admire him.
P.S. Cam has asked me to make sure you all know that his wife, Jess Banks, is smarter than he is. I will (with no sarcasm or malice) agree with him. She’s also pretty fucking awesome.
 On occasion, Cam, my memory actually works.
 Which is a thing I need to remind myself of.
This is one of many ideas I wish I had back when we were working on Fate Core. Alas, it often takes publishing a game and seeing it in the wider world for such ideas to occur. Nature of the beast.
In Spirit of the Century, there were five phases — who you were before the Great War, a moment that defined you, your first adventure, and two times when you crossed paths with another’s adventure. Each had two aspects. In Dresden, there were the two core concept aspects, the high concept and the trouble, but after that there were the same five phases — rethemed for Dresden, and with one aspect apiece, but still those five.
In Fate Core, to bring the aspects down to five, we cut the first two phases, treating that, from an end result standpoint, the aspects that came from that were very high concept or trouble in their nature. And from an end result standpoint, I think the decision to do that is solid. But I also think that very decision operated under a flawed logic: that we had to pin aspects created to individual phase segments.
In watching people make characters in Fate Core since it came out, I’ve found myself wishing for a couple steps in between high concept/trouble and first adventure, because I saw out that was a useful tool for conceptualization — not because everyone goes through the same path, but because that allows for three different entry points into getting a character on paper: what they were like early on, what they did recently that was awesome, and what moment redefined them? Pick the one you want to start with, and then pick the other two. But with how we did Core, we said “just start with what they did recently that was awesome.”
What I would do now, and what I will do when I run Fate, is add those narrative beats back into character creation, for five phases, but I’ll also keep to three aspects, because that economy works well. Which means my procedure is:
- Phase one: Who you were early on
- Phase two: The moment that crystalized you
- Phase three: Your adventure
- Phases four & five: Crossing paths
- Afterward: make three cool aspects from all that stuff, _which could include how you’re involved in someone else’s questions rather than just your own_
This also allows a release valve for those moments when we say “here’s the awesome thing I want to write for this beat, but hell if I can come up with an aspect for it.” In any case, I think there’s something big to decoupling aspects from phases, something that we should look at as we’re making character creation schemes. I know I will.
(Folks who saw what I was working on at Metatopia won’t be surprised to hear that this has been on my mind for some time now.)
 This scheme could allow for ignoring the crossing paths, and say “oh, my character hasn’t met up with the others yet.” I’m not yet sure if that’s a feature of a bug, though you could half-couple to say that at least one aspect needs to come from crossing paths.
It’s been twelve months since I last did a Folks I Admire post, so let’s fix that. This month, I plan on doing a Folks I Admire post every Friday.
The two people I’m going to talk about today are two project managers in the RPG world: Sean Nittner and Jessica Price.
Man, Sean Nittner. Dude does everything, dips his toes in many different arenas. When I met him, he was one of the guys who ran the SF Bay Area GM troupe known as Good Omens (which, at one point, I was in). He ran one of the four yearly EndGame Oakland mini-cons, the July “Good Omens con.” And that’s the start of this story.
See, Sean’s dealt with logistics and planning around gamers for a long time. A few years ago, he decided to take that to the next level by planning his own regional hotel con, Big Bad Con — a fantastic Oakland-based convention that offers a nice alternative to the older and somewhat calcified conventions in the area. Sean saw something he didn’t like (that these older conventions didn’t have room for new blood and new games), and he threw his energy into making something new. However, unlike others who do the same thing, Sean is a planner. Sean calculates, plots, charts, and other verbs that can mean “plan.”
There’s a lot I admire and respect about Sean, but foremost is that very combination of zeal and calculation. Dude gets passionate about something, but doesn’t blindly throw himself into it. And that makes him able to be successful where others who have the same passion and throw themselves at the same problems fail.
Today, Sean’s the Project Manager over at Evil Hat Productions, and he’s doing a great, bang up job there, just as he does with so many things in life. I’m happy that he’s doing that, and happy that Evil Hat is thriving with him.
Happy enough that, in fact, I can share with you a story: see, I’m sort of Evil Hat’s first attempt at a project manager. Sort of. I got brought into Dresden at a moment of crisis. I handled the crisis by telling everyone what to do, and Dresden got done. But it turns out that when we’re planning for stuff that isn’t a “get it done yesterday” crisis, I have no real skill for that — especially when I’m also one of the creatives involved in making a project happen. So watching Sean succeed at the job I failed at has been humbling, but more importantly it’s been an education. I watch what he’s doing studiously.
But Sean isn’t the project manager I deal with every day. That “honor” goes to Paizo’s Project Manager, Jessica Price. You might have seen her Tumblr post on convention harassment and how to help, since friend-to-woodland-creatures Wil Wheaton reblogged it.
Part of why I have respect for Jessica’s job is because, as I mentioned with Sean, I’ve tried it and I know that I’m not good at it. I know how important it is, though, because I see a whiteboard every day that foretells the future. It tells us when a project’s going to be late, when we’re in a weird point where one part of the chain either is getting hit with everything (like everyone sending the art team files at once) or a weird slowdown (like the editors waiting on other people because there are weird hold-ups). And as much as this seems like some sort of oracular mystery, in truth, Jessica is able to predict the future simply by being able to see all the pieces — pieces the rest of us individually don’t see in the same way, because we live in our separate worlds.
But as many sci-fi stories tell us, being able to predict or see the future doesn’t mean shit if you can’t do something about it. And that’s where Jessica shines: she foresees problems and works to fix them before they become critical. And when they’re about to become critical, she gets folks involved to make bargains as to which project they’re willing to let slip or what limited resources can be tapped to make something happen. Sometimes, these bargains feel like dark blood-pacts — it’s not secret that we sometimes have to take work home in order to catch up because of some weird hiccup in the schedule, but for all I’ve been told, it was much worse, and routine, in past years.
In my time working as a government IT guy, we rarely had project managers, and when we did they had no power, so I know what work looks like without one. So to state as I have above that Jessica has some sort of mystical demonic-bargaining powers is, sure, a bit much (since I’m sure demon-binding is how she unwinds after a day of work), but it’s as close as I can come to conveying my respect for what she does.
And that’s nothing to say of her work in dealing with sexism and other bigotry in the gaming community. She’s a strong advocate, and she’s pretty awesome at it. She’s a feminist tank. Check out her tumblr for more.
 I am also not ashamed to admit I have a mancrush on him. He’s goddamn pretty.[1a]
[1a] Wait, is that creepy?[1b]
[1b] Probably. I’ll let Sean be the judge.
I talk about it off and on, and have over the years, but I don’t think it can be stated enough: the language of your rules needs to be as playtested as its mechanics. This is part of what I look at in developmental consultations, because the words we use to communicate ideas have weight, baggage, and prior meaning, whether in the wider world or within out subculture…yet none of that context is guaranteed to be shared.
But you can still hit closer or further from the mark.
Take Classic Fate’s “Maneuver” action. In every convention game of Fate I’ve run, I had to explain that “maneuver” didn’t just mean physical action, but anything could be a “maneuver.” So, when it came time for Fate Core to happen, and we were seriously reexamining all the language, we got to kill “maneuver” and turn it into part of “create an advantage” — going from explaining around a thing to naming a thing closer to what it is.
In Mythender, I used to call what Mythenders use “traits,” and frequently people would make up traits that didn’t work in the game, because they sounded awesome but were too defensive. I constantly had to explain around it, saying “how would you End Thor with that trait?” Eventually, I decided to call them “Weapons” in one playtest, and everyone nodded — I still had to explain around “feelings and emotions and talents can be Weapons,” but most people grasp that sooner and with fewer hurdles than they did “traits.”
This is something I watch the design team and the developers work over at Paizo (and, as an editor, assist with and verify execution of). Terminology was a huge consideration in, for instance, the Advanced Class Guide playtest.
Point is, language is a non-trivial problem in a game whose initial teaching and reference medium is the written word, and is primarily taught by the spoken word. So it needs to be playtested, just like mechanics, because if language gets in the way of understanding, or routinely conveys the wrong thing, that language is ill-suited for that mechanic’s job.
- Be clear and unambiguous, whenever possible
- Be dissimilar from other terms used (like having “spend” and “expend” mean two mechanically different things in a game)
- Be thematically or tonally appropriate, as to keep the players in the right frame of mind (having “hit points” in a purely political game would, for instance, be jarring)
- Be wielded with intent, especially in every case where you’re making the language harder in order to make a specific impact on the reader and player
(I’m not really fond of the latter point, but I acknowledge that it does exist and can sometimes be legit.)
That said, you’ll run into one significant problem with playtesting language: once a group understands the concept, they cannot help you test new language around that concept. That’s why I had to try “Weapon” with a different group of Mythender playtesters. But to go back to Fate, let’s look at Fate Core’s “create an advantage” rule:
Mechanically, it’s (mostly) assessments, declarations, and maneuvers from Classic Fate. And it’s collapsed because that makes for neater, tighter mechanics, so rules-wise it’s a good move. But what’s really interesting is that with all the new people coming to Fate because of Core & FAE, there are folks asking a new question: how do you find or discover things? That was highlighted in this Fate G+ post, and one thing mentioned was one guy who’s old-hat to Fate, Teo Tayobobayo, now misses the word “assess,” because that clearly showed that Fate covered this action. Now, we have “overcome,” “create and advantage,” and “attack” as actions. The language we’re using is all active, and while certainly many Fate players know that they can create advantages fictionally by observation, it’s something we have to explain.
It’s Fate Core’s “maneuver.”
Granted, I think it’s a better situation, because “create an advantage” is generic enough, but “maneuver” has implications of physical or even social positioning, so the explanation around it isn’t as cumbersome. Plus, you can still use the Classic Fate language of “assess.” But that doesn’t change the end result: that it’s after publication that the incomplete nature of that term clicked for me. Teo’s totally right.
That goes to show the value of having new people play your game, but that’s not the entire story. Unfortunately, the truth is that many people don’t realize that they should give feedback on terms — some don’t for fear of being pedantic, and others focus on parsing the rules language that they only give feedback on critical clarity problems, leaving minor clarity ones unmentioned. So when you’re talking with playtesters, try asking a few language-specific questions:
- Were their any terms that felt off or seemed weird?
- Where did you struggle with the phrasing or vocabulary?
- What language bored you?
- What parts of the text or game terms sounded the coolest? (Follow-up: were they as cool as they sounded?)
- What sort of games have you played? (This is key for understanding if they are or aren’t bringing subcultural baggage to your words, like classic fantasy gaming vocabulary.)
I wish you designers out there luck on this front. It’s super hard to playtest language! And even after publication, you’ll kick yourself for some term. (For Mythender, it’s “Blight” and “Personal Blight” and “Lasting Blight.” Mainly “Personal Blight.”)
 Which is currently running, if you’re so inclined. I am digging playing my bloodrager.
 I don’t really treat defend as an action, at least in active conversation. It’s reactive.
A couple weeks back, Jeremiah Frye, Mythender superfan, asked me if there was a way to speed up character creation for a con game, like to make pre-gens. I’ve never had a pre-gen game of Mythender feel all that great, because without making the character, there’s little investment in either abstaining from or diving into apotheosis. The time it takes to make a Mythender was one of the flaws I accepted as part of the game’s nature, and that it’s better for three players in a four-hour slot than it is for four.
But in talking, we came up with an idea. He tried it, and it seemed to work well…
To speed up character creation, we’ve collapsed some of the decisions down — namely, linking the Heart and the Past together. Here’s a set of six Heart/Fate pairings, with partially filled out playsheets. They are:
- Warrior of Love
- Crusader of Death
- Commander of Judgment
- Bearer of War
- Tempest of Life
- Loremaster of Chaos
Each has one Weapon filled in, one of the two Fates chosen, and the first Gift filled out. To use these, hand out the six choices of Hearts/Fates, and then the six Pasts (see the next section). Mix and match, more or less as normal. You don’t need a persona sheet, because there’s plenty of space to write anything you need to write down on these handouts.
To speed things up, don’t have them write down answers to the Heart & Past questions, just look them over for a moment. In play, you might get them to answer, perhaps as they’re also doing actions. And have them only choose one more Weapon for the moment, leaving the other to be revealed either during the Tutorial battle or to come up with right afterward, before going into the first Mythender turn. Likewise, just do one bond, and let the others come up in play (or ask at certain points, if you feel as the Mythmaster that the moment would benefit from brief introspective interruption).
Note: the Weapon and Fate elements are in medium gray, to help rewriting if that’s desired.
Easy-to-Print Hearts, Pasts, and Fates
The dirty secret is that I rarely use persona sheets when I’m running Mythender. Instead, I print out the Hearts, Pasts, and Fates from the book and hand them out. That’s why there’s space on the pages for answers! I decided to make it easier to print them out, and make them simple letter-sized handouts with a guide in the middle for cutting.