Character Collection: The Esoterrorists

March 28th, 2010character collection, rpg

This new feature is getting a late start as I’ve been sidelined by illness these past few days.

For this almost-inaugural edition of Character Collection, I’ve chose a game I recently acquired (and spoke about some previously): The Esoterrorists. Let’s get to it.

Game: The Esoterrorists
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Books Needed: Just the main book.

The Esoterrorists is a game about normal people with regular jobs who also fight back against the machinations of the titular network of reality-hating ne’er-do-wells. The Esoterrorists get their name from being terrorists, yes, but they’re esoteric. Estoeric terrorists. Eso-terrorists. Esoterrorists. See? Huh? HUH? C’mon, it’s clever.

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Hear Me on Chronic Rift

March 23rd, 2010video games

John S. Drew and the other good folks at the Chronic Rift podcast invited me to appear on their podcast as a member of a roundtable discussion on “Science Fiction and Fantasy in Video Games.” Geek Radio Daily‘s Billy Flynn was the other guest, and I had a blast talking about everything from the world’s best version of Pac-Man (it’s Assassin’s Creed) to how games are made, why they sell, and whether games without dialogue are bona fide hits.

Hear me babble about digital fun in Episode 76 of the Chronic Rift podcast.

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Too Many Games, Too Few Characters

March 22nd, 2010character collection

A couple weeks ago, I finally catalogued my pen and paper game collection. I’ve been into RPGs for almost two decades, and I’ve worked in the industry for almost half that, so I’ve accumulated a fair amount of books. Nowhere near the collections some folks have, sure, but still a fair amount.

The problem is that my game schedule has been pathetic these past *grumble*mumble* years what with work and family and trying to coordinate with other people’s schedules and all the other stuff that marginalizes fun time. This has left almost all of them unplayed and most of them unread beyond a cursory skim.

I’d like to change all that.

While I highly doubt I’ll be able to play all the games on my shelf, I can make characters for them. Inspired by Matt McFarland’s efforts over at his LiveJournal, I’ve decided that I will go through my entire game collection and make a character for each game I can.

I will try to post one new character every week under the “character collection” tag. I don’t foresee an order to it. I’ll probably just pick a game that suits my fancy and go with it.

I’m doing this to scratch the itch that not playing has left. I’m also hoping to open up discussion about these games as a lot of them are older titles that maybe haven’t gotten much love as of late. For some, it might be interesting to see how these games have changed from an older edition to a newer one or simply be reminded of an old favorite.

I like having the excuse to crack open some of these books again.

Anyway, the first character will be up this week. I hope you enjoy it!

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Gimme Something to Do

March 18th, 2010essays, rpg

Yesterday, on my Twitter account, I posted:

I prefer games that are more focused on stuff I can do than on stuff I need to know.

This is something I’ve been turning over in my head for a while. I have shelves full of games, including a lot of big lines, but I keep coming back to the same handful over and over again. While I rarely get buyer’s remorse over a game purchase, I do look at some and wonder what it would take to get me play the game. Or, perhaps more telling, to run the game for friends. For playing, all I’d really need is time and an interested party. But in order for me to run a game, I need it to really speak to me, to compel me to heave the conch shell of game moderator and all that entails.

Now, part of this is the game’s premise. I’m not that into standard fantasy. Of the broad genres, it’s my least favorite by far. I’m more easily drawn into urban fantasy, modern horror, and dark future games.

Some of it is design. I don’t care for systems that bend over backwards to simulate the real world. Back when I was more active in the game publishing scene, first with Key 20 Publishing and then at Human Head Studios, I didn’t go long without being pitched “the most realistic game system ever designed!” I didn’t bother looking at a single one. These types of simulations bore me. I want systems that have something to say or that emulate interesting source material, such as crime fiction or the beats of a television series. If I want a realistic game system, I’ll plagiarize a physics book.

But some of it, I daresay a fair chunk of it, is presentation. Not artwork and font styles, though they don’t hurt, but ratio of useful player material to game fiction and setup.

I have to be very smart about how I spend my free time; I don’t have a lot of it. Frankly, I have zero interest in reading 100,000 words on stuff that will never come into play. I don’t want supplements that expand upon this or advance an in-game timeline. I want premise, ideas, setting, and enough fuel to light my own fire. Some folks thrive on this stuff. They eat it up. They want to exist in a shared world that folks are participating in all over the world. I make no bones that this is a preference. I want to tell my own stories. I want tools to do that, not a bunch of fiction that’s just trivia to memorize.

I prefer games that are more focused on stuff I can do than on stuff I need to know.

This is probably what makes me such a bad freelancer. I want to create or expand game function more than I care to add to a game’s fiction. I don’t mind writing about someone else’s world (I can imagine a few game lines for which I’d like to write stories) but I want it to be whole fiction, not backstory, not continuation of metaplot. If I do add to another game line, I want to build a new facet, explore a new idea, add substance to what’s already there and give players more to do. By this I mean new organizations, new character types, new systems (magic, hacking, stunt driving, whatever fits the game or new idea presented for the game).

That said, I am currently available to novelize any major film or video game releases, thank you.

In my own games, that’s something I struggle with. I want to give players plenty of stuff to claw into without dictating a strict canon which will invalidate their own games as I continue to build on it with supplements. It removes power from the players, and games are nothing if not power tools. The supplements I’m currently designing for Little Fears Nightmare Edition are idea-focused.

I’m currently reading Robin D. Laws’ The Esoterrorists RPG. It’s a slim book, 96 letter-sized pages, with big margins and fair-sized type. It’s a quick read and a light system. It’s also not written for the new gamer so the text can be pretty assuming and doesn’t hold anyone’s hand. As a gamer with nearly two decades of RPG experience under his belt, I can ride its wave. If this were retooled for the newcomer, it’d probably be a signature thicker at 112 pages.

And I’m loving it.

The thing I like best about it: It’s all ideas. It’s stuff to do. There are two sections totaling five pages that I’d consider backstory. I’ll sum it up: “You are a normal person who is part of a secret society. You protect humanity from supernatural bad things.” That’s the hook. And it’s enough.

The rest of the book gives systems which provide the tools you need to go forth and create. The Esoterrorists is heavily biased toward premise. Anyone with exposure to The X-Files, Supernatural, and even straight-up procedurals like CSI can see how to use the premise and these pieces to great effect.

This isn’t to say I don’t like supplements. I do. I like supplements that give me new toys, new systems, and most importantly new ideas for stuff to use in my own games. One of my favorite things about Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten is that it’s a simple idea (“Zombies are on the loose. You have to fight them to survive.”) that is iterated again and again and again. The corebook focuses on the game systems you’ll need, based on the UniSystem (and, in the Revised corebook, d20 as well). The back is all different premises, brief histories behind the zombies, and samples of zombies built specifically for that setting.

Of all Eden’s lines, AFMBE is its most supplemented. And these supplements do what I love for supplements to do: They give me ideas. Character books, new types of undead, new (blissfully brief) backgrounds for zombie invasions, using zombies inside other genre settings (Westerns, pulp, sci-fi, etc). There’s no metaplot, no exhaustive breakdowns of thirteen core zombie infections and the five common mutations, or 3,000 years of history for the mass conspiracies behind the infestations and outbreaks. It’s all meat, no filler. Human meat, sure, but as my Aunt Zombilena once said, “Anything that can no longer press charges counts as food.”

Now, there are some major game lines I like to play. White Wolf/CCP’s World of Darkness line is one. But I don’t read the fiction, memorize the faction histories and current rivalries, keep up with the moving and shaking of the official game organizations. I don’t want to play in their game. I want to use their game rules to create my own game with my own group. I’ve been chastised before by fans of certain games who think I should not play a particular game unless I’m current with official canon.

I don’t mean for that to be indicative of my counter. I don’t think folks either fall into my camp or are slaves to canon. But I do know a fair amount of gamers who love to dig their hands into setting, who anxiously await the book that will tell them the history of their favorite player class or fantasy race. When I look forward to a release focused on a favored class or fantasy race, I’m looking for new bits, new ideas. I usually have to skim through the fluff to get to the parts I’ll use.

I realize mine is a preference, and possibly a minority one within the hobby, but I’m certainly not alone in it. I’m sure I might find my own exceptions—especially if a favored show was ever adapted into a full game line*—but the big book game lines rarely fit the mold. I have great respect for the folks who build those elaborate, incredibly detailed game worlds. Some of the designers are good friends of mine. As a whole, as writ, as law, those big books don’t appeal to me. As toolkits wrapped in six inches of padding, I’m much more comfortable.

Because above all, I’m not looking for something to know about a game world; I’m looking for something to do within a game world.





*For which I am also available, thank you.


Article up at GamePlayWright

March 10th, 2010essays, video games

I had been anticipating the PS3 title Heavy Rain for years. When Sony released the game on February 23rd, I tore through it, posting reactions to the experience on my Twitter account. These ravings caught Jeff Tidball’s attention and he asked if I’d my impressions up for GamePlayWright, the site that he and Will Hindmarch run.

I agreed without hesitation.

Even if you’ve no interest in video games particularly, if you’re a fan of story and wonder how we can grow it as storytellers and game designers, I urge you check out the article, which just went live:

“Dancing in the Puddles of Heavy Rain”


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Character Collection: Maschine Zeit

March 8th, 2010character collection, rpg

Maschine Zeit is a new horror RPG currently being developed by David A. Hill Jr for publication by Machine Age Productions. David put the call out a few days ago for folks to playtest the character creation rules and, intrigued as I was by the concept, I quickly volunteered.

The basic premise of Maschine Zeit is pretty cool. In the future, the larger nations launch a bunch of space stations into orbit. The program takes off quickly, despite some major setbacks, and is touted as a way off the Earth—which is good because the old blue lady is kinda circling the drain at this point.

About 10% of Future Earth’s population ends up on these stations—about a billion people, says the game, which sounds good to me given the timeline—and it’s all pretty idyllic until they all die horribly in a radioactive pulse.

Luckily, you don’t play those people.

Not so luckily, you play the people who are sent to these hulks, each with his or her own agenda and thanks to the funding of a party that brings its own agenda on top of that one. Also, these stations are haunted by stuff that really, really wants to kill you.

If you’re imagining a pen-and-paper Dead Space, we’re sharing a mindlink here. If you’re now thinking that sounds like awesome-hella fun, allow me to send you a digital high-five.


(I make a character after the jump.)

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Hard Hat Required

March 8th, 2010Uncategorized

Thanks for stopping by my new site. I’m still building out the basic construction so the look and arrangement may change drastically and without warning while I work out the design.

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Hey, everyone

March 8th, 2010Uncategorized

Welcome to, a domain so great that I named myself after it.

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© 2010-2013 Jason L Blair except, y'know, stuff that belongs to other folks.