5 Lessons Down, 25 to go

My original intent had been to post every lesson’s drawings here. But I quickly realised that I’m terrible enough at drawing that knowing I’ll have to actually show it to people makes me far less likely to put pencil to paper. So, I’ll only be showing the occasional drawing as I work through the 30 lessons. Also, I’ll not be doing it in 30 days because really who can find both the time and the energy every day of the week…

Anyway, here’s a pic of my work for lesson 5 – hollow cubes.

Nawww, the treasure chest is empty :(

Lesson 5: Hollow Cubes.

Best Book Ever

On many an occasion, I’ve compared my ability to draw to that of a particularly untalented preschooler. Normally claiming that the preschooler is vastly better than I am.

I decided that it’s high time I did something about that. There are so many cool ideas I want to do in the various worlds that I build and so many of them would be much easier to convey in a visual medium. I’m not expecting to be a fantastic, or even decent, artist. I simply don’t have that sort of time to invest. But there’s no reason why I can’t get to a point where my work is at least a vaguely recognisable version of whatever it is I was drawing.

And I love drawing maps. I’ve scribbled more than a few over the years, but the ugliness of everything after the coast line turns me off from putting more effort in. I’m hoping that by learning some basic techniques that I can get to a point where I can produce the occasional decent map for whatever game I’m currently running.

To that end, I picked up a copy of You Can Draw In 30 Days by Mark Kistler, which was recommended to me by just about every site I looked at and every person I spoke too. I started the first 20-minute lesson today. I wasn’t going to say anything about learning to draw until I’d finished the 30 lessons, but I’m so excited by the fact that I drew an apple that actually kinda looks like an apple, that I’ve decided to merge my drawing goal with my desire to post here more often. I’ll be posting my efforts here as I go.

I guess the house kinda looks like a house...

So you’ve got something to see how far you’ve come over the 30 lessons, you start by drawing without any aid or tips a house, a plane, and a bagel.

Sunglasses are cool now.

It’s a sphere! And a slightly square apple!

Amethyst Update

A few weeks ago I ran a group of players through the first part of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, the intro campaign for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It was a ridiculous amount of fun. In the couple of years since I last ran a game, I’d forgotten just how thoroughly enjoyable it is to role-play. It got me even more excited about the system development work I was doing for Amethyst and about building a fantasy world. It also helped me realise what wasn’t sitting right about Amethyst.

I want to use Amethyst to tell stories. I want it to be an RPG, but where you control a handful of characters or even a few thousand. And the wargame style doesn’t allow for that. It’s hard to consistently tell good stories when your goal is to beat your opponent senseless. Between playing Phandelver and trying to resolve my difficulties with getting story out of a wargame it occurred to me that the solution was simple. Don’t make Amethyst a wargame. Make it an RPG, complete with GM. Doing so makes it easier to focus on the story and makes it possible for players to do more things in the game – you don’t have to have all the rules fully detailed prior to play, you have a referee whose job it is to handle situations that the rules don’t perfectly cover.

I also realised that you can’t make the sort of telescoping system I want from the middle out – that starting at the skirmish scale was a mistake. I need to either start at the grand strategy end or the individual end. I’m going with the individual end for the simple reason that I have a story to tell with that at the moment and I’m more familiar with writing traditional rpg rules than I am with writing grand strategy rules.

Which brings me to announcing Whitecliff, a fantasy RPG I’ll be running through Google Hangouts. At the moment it’s slated to start sometime in the middle of next year, but at the current rate of progress I may start telling some stories there as early as the new year break. Though that’ll depend on people’s availability and interest.

The rules development for Amethyst are on hold until the RPG rules (codenamed Citrine) are somewhat stable, but you can expect to see some of Amethyst’s history written up here in the coming weeks. And an early version of character creation for Citrine will be up before long too.

Amethyst, Burning

Finally! I’ve been working on a couple of secret projects for the past couple of months and I’m now at the point where I can reveal one of them.

It all started because of a conversation with Tom in late August when Reaper started the CAV:SO Kickstarter. We got talking about the CAV2 ruleset and I was inspired with an idea for a mechanic and started scribbling down a new system for a tabletop skirmish wargame. I assumed it’d go the way of most systems I design – discarded and forgotten within the week.

Almost two months later, I’m still working on it most days. Today I’m making pre-release 1 available for those who want it (drop me an email and I’ll send you the pdf). It’s not actually the most up to date version and it doesn’t quite represent a playable version – but more about that later.

What is Amethyst Burning?

Amethyst Burning is a narrative campaign driven tabletop skirmish game. It takes place just over a hundred years in the future in a version of our world where climate change happened harder and faster than anyone imagined possible. Nations fractured and fell – the United States, China, Russia, and Brazil are no longer recognisable. India and Pakistan had a nuclear war with each other. From the darkness emerged a few corporations with new, clean energy sources. They ushered in a new era of peace and stability. But it only lasted a few decades. Humans are nothing if not greedy and foolish. World War 3 broke out and the world suffered yet more losses.

During this Amethyst, one of the energy corporations, created a tri-city on the no longer sub-antarctic Kerguelen Islands. In October of 2127, the Core Reactor that powered one of the tri-cities exploded, setting off a chain reaction that destroyed the other two. Most of the city’s 12 million inhabitants died in the blasts or in the chaotic few days that follow.

You take control of a force trying to recover technology and information from the ruins of Amethyst Isle barely a week later. Your force consists of combatants and non-combatants and you battle it out at a campaign level with squads of 4 to 20 models fighting on the tabletop.

A key focus here is on the narrative elements of gameplay. There will be a relatively open campaign system, but I expect the best campaigns will be ones that are adjudicated by a game master or by the players trying to tell a story together rather than being solely in competition with one another. I also intend to write (and, indeed, have started scribbling notes for) a number of heavily narrative campaigns with a lot of branches and twists.

The game is also being written in such a way that it can form part of a telescoping game system – where you’ll be able to jump around from playing it as a one-player-one-character role playing game all the way up to commanding divisions in an entire operational area in a war.

What’s in Prerelease 1?

A two-page synopsis of the history of the world. I have a lot more written up, but as I edited and edited it for this first release I realised it was too patchy and too much a list of disconnected events for anyone to want to read. So, I put it aside and wrote a brand new two page synopsis of some of the key points.

The rest of the 23-page document is the rules for tabletop play, minus a few key things – there’s no equipment list, no character creation or force selection rules, and no scenario rules. The list of actions, stances, proficiencies, and traits are also very bare bones.

I do have a small equipment list and parts of an introductory campaign sorted out, but playtests today showed that these weren’t nearly ready to be shown to the world. Also, I’m finding Scribus to be… lacking… and have decided to switch to In Design and it seemed somewhat pointless to learn how to wrestle with tables for the equipment in Scribus and then again in In Design.

Character creation and force selection are in constant flux at the moment, though I’m narrowing in on a set of rules that will allow people to take any size force up to around 10,000 people and only need to actually create some of it. The ultimate goal is to have several levels of play – from the skirmish that I’m starting with up to clashes where the basic units are entire battalions or even divisions. Some of these rules are already working – and quite well – but others are a giant mess. So, I’ll be holding off on releasing that until I’m ready.

Another important thing that’s missing is a write-up on the four key power sources and an explanation of what a NeuRec is. See below for the extremely abridged versions of both of these.

Prerelease 1 is also very poorly balanced. Think of this as a very early pre-alpha build that’s more about seeing the broad concepts that I’m aiming for rather than actual gameplay. For those who are interested in seeing it and are okay with clearly work-in-progress stuff, drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy. Feedback is most welcome, but please limit yourself to feedback about general concepts and approaches – I don’t need to know about typos, grammatical errors, or that some gun is way over-powered at the moment.

What’s Coming Next?

First things first – I’m making no promises about the order in which I do things from here on out. When I decided a few weeks ago to do the first release so soon, I wrote a list of what I needed to include in it. That list has been the bane of my life these past couple of weeks. I don’t want that again. I want to be able to work on things in the order that makes sense to me and not have to try to do character profiles for the intro campaign before I have a character creation system that’s remotely stable :D

Having said that, here’s what I’m working on at the moment:

  • A 4-scenario campaign that starts with two 4-person patrols trying to recover intel from a downed UAV and turns into a race to a cache of advanced tech. At the moment it pits one of the Green Consortium’s Hostile Acquisitions forces (with their enstar weapons) against marines from the True American States (with their traditional gunpowder weapons). However, I’m thinking of changing that as some other changes in the setting make it less reasonable that TAS would have forces here this early. Regardless, this campaign is intended to be a bit of a tutorial and is much, much more rail-roady than the actual campaign rules will be.
  • Character creation rules that force you to make characters – for those familiar with the life paths used by MechWarrior, it’s very loosely based on that system.
    • These rules are being written in such a way that the system could also be used as an rpg, so you get traits that aren’t necessarily directly helpful in the tabletop game.
  • Force selection rules that let you detail a sizable force without having to actually provide the details until you need them. These are actually coming along really nicely and I’m surprised at how easy it was to come up with a system that requires very little detail up front but still creates a sense of character and imposes useful restrictions when you do get around to detailing it.
  • A list of common equipment, including enstar and traditional weapons but not plasma or core weapons.
  • A detailed write-up of the history of the world – the one I’m not showing to people yet is currently around 10,000 words long and doesn’t really touch on unimportant things like world war 3 :D
  • Artwork – I’m in the process of talking to a couple of artists about doing some concept art for me. I’m hoping the next release will include a few pictures.

My current vague intention is to do the next release in mid-November as I’ve got the first couple of weeks off from work.

Power Sources

There are four main sources of power in the Amethyst world. Well, actually, some places still use coal, oil, gas, and the like. Classic green energy like wind and solar are also used a little, but the massive climate instability throughout much of the 21st Century made their use difficult at best. The four main sources are enstar, plasma, fusion, and core. With the exception of fusion, they’re also used as power sources for personal weapons. Enstar is the most flexible of the power sources. Plasma is harder to control but more powerful. Fusion strikes a balance between enstar and plasma. Core takes a long time to get started, but once it does it’s very powerful. Also, people are a little scared of it, what with it having just destroyed three cities.


NeuRecs are a technology in the game that I added so that it was a bit harder to lose your favourite character and to add some cool tactical decisions to gameplay. Many characters have NeuRec implants, which is short for neural recorder. A NeuRec can be implanted into a clone and transfers all the memories, knowledge, and skills of the person it was harvested from. Removal of a NeuRec is guaranteed to be fatal, so generally it’s only retrieved after a person has died. There’s also a time limit – the most recent versions are only usable for up to 72 hours after death and only have a good chance of full recovery of memories within the first 24 hours. Earlier models have even shorter windows.

Obviously, a lot of the in game specifics of this are still being worked out. But basically, the idea is to make it so that death isn’t always permanent for your favourite characters and to give you a reason to make sure you retrieve that NeuRec rather than leaving your downed comrade where he fell.

Is This All Just Vapourware?

Probably. I mean, what are the odds that I keep working on this like I have been the last couple of weeks? But, I’m pretty determined to actually finish one of my projects for a change and I’ve already survived a couple of demotivational moments.

If you like the idea of the game, get involved in playtesting (when it’s ready) or provide me feedback on my ideas and approaches (I’m especially bad at not realising when things are unnecessarily complex) or if you’re super keen, come talk to me about working on some parts together. I’m definitely looking for artists (and have a small budget for that purpose), but I’d also love to work with some people on game design, writing the setting, and the seven thousand other things that go into creating a project like this – and I’ll find the budget to do so if the right people come along with the right ideas.

But here’s the cool thing. I’m not making this game for other people like I have most of my past ones. I’m making this game ‘cos it’s the one I want to play. So, I’m not too worried about my motivation waning. If anything the problem will be its ever-increasing scope :D

Sunday Assembly

To badly paraphrase what Sunday Assembly is about, it’s a way to get the community of a church without the religion. They have three precepts that they follow – Live Better, Help Often, and Wonder More. The Adelaide assembly meets on the third Sunday of every month and I thought I’d go along today and see what it was like. You can read more about Sunday Assembly in general here and about the Adelaide one here.

I’ve written this piece a half dozen times now and I can’t really convey what I want to. The Adelaide Sunday Assembly is fantastic and I will most definitely be attending again. There’s a definite sense of community there and whilst I don’t feel a part of it yet, it’s fastest I’ve gotten close to feeling it since some of my friends and I founded a university social club (QUAC was awesome. Oh if only we hadn’t had to grow up).

I could tell you about the mechanical activities we went through – singing songs, a presentation about secular Buddhism’s approach to the everyday sublime and ensuing discussion, listening to a philosophical reading, a period of quiet reflection, and chatting over scones and tea (the scones were fantastic just in case you were wondering). But that’s not what I found surprising and amazing about this group. It was the sense of safe openness. People revealed things about themselves that I wouldn’t expect to hear as a stranger and it was met with simple, matter-of-fact acceptance when they did. People made an effort to come and talk to me and the other newcomers and not just a quick exchange of pleasantries. They made an obvious effort to have a conversation and to make us feel relaxed and welcome. I’m not exactly a people person. But I met half-a-dozen people today I’d actively like to catch up with again and I’m considering that damn near miraculous. It reminds me of the very early days of uni – the first week or two of first year. When no one knew  anyone (or anything) and yet somehow we all had a new circle of friends before the month was out. I’ve been to a bunch of things where supposedly everyone is there  to meet new people and find a sense of community. This is the first place that actually follows through on that concept.

Also, before anyone goes thinking because of the secular Buddhism discussion that it’s just new-age baloney or quasi-spirital crap, the presentations differ widely from month-to-month. Next month is about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and delivered by a practicing psychiatrist. The following month is on the topic of labels, and the month after on belief, confirmation bias and scepticism.

TL;DR – It was a welcoming and open community and I look forward to becoming a part of it. You should all go and check out your local Sunday Assembly, I’d love to hear how other groups compare.

Run, er, Walking

Sadly, I have been banned from running for the next little while by my physio, so I’ll be bowing out of my running challenge. No steak dinners for anyone on account of medical injuries are a get-out-of-bet-free card. I have acquired an exercise bike which I’m allowed to use if my knee doesn’t hurt, so hopefully I can still get some of my old fitness back.

In other news, ninjas are cool.

Also, I finished moving my blog over to wordpress.com a few weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to ask if my friends who use rss to read my ramblings can still see my posts. If one of you happens to see this, could you let me know?

And because I’m lazy and couldn’t be bothered finding a wordpress.com theme that closely matched the one I used to use, we have this new bright white thing. So far I actually kind of like it, so I think I’ll keep it.

Keep your eyes peeled for some updates in the not impossibly distant future. I have a few posts in the works that I’m hopeful will get published in the next couple of weeks.

Writing About Writing

The Writing Challenge

Everything was to be finished no later than Monday the 7th of July. I woke up at 0800 on Sunday the 6th. About 6000 words still to post, though many of them already written. I was on-call that weekend and expected to spend half the day doing my job. Between calls, I scribbled furiously. My time divided, roughly equally, between working on the challenge and getting some coding done for a separate deadline. The end of my shift came and went and I was still writing and coding. Dinner was inhaled over the course of a 25 minute break. Midnight came and went. At 0430 I decided I was done for the moment. The coding was complete enough and the writing was, more or less, done. Though rough and unedited.

It was too late (well, early) to go to bed. So I relaxed a little and then headed off to work for the day. I spent my train rides napping and my lunch break editing. Got home and quickly edited some more whilst scoffing down a meal before my weekly gaming night (two rounds of DotA 2. We lost both. By a lot). We played from 1900 through to about 2100. I dove straight back into editing after that and ended up re-writing a considerable portion of the terribly named and woefully written “A Breakfast Lecture”. It got to 2330 and I realised that there was no chance I was both out of time and just making things worse in my sleep-deprived state. So, I hit publish and passed out on my bed.

I’ll call that a victory.

Learning About Writing

I learnt a lot about my writing in the past few months. Much of it came from writing, editing, getting feedback, and writing some more. Even more came from reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s a fantastic book, with personal anecdotes and stories woven around device. It’s more conversation than instruction manual and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I didn’t agree with every piece of advice he gave – and he basically tells you not to, the book is full of “this worked for me, but it might not be your style. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” – but it sure as hell got me thinking a lot more about writing and in ways that I’d never really considered before. Also, some of his stories are sufficiently poignant and well-written that it’s worth the read even if you aren’t a budding writing.

One of his major pieces of advice is:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.

I’d started to come to realise this myself as a result of the writing challenge, but his section on this topic helped me put what I was thinking into words that made sense. I did a lot of things whilst writing the parts of the Longest Eulogy that you see here that I didn’t really want to do. Worse, I didn’t do a bunch of things that I wanted to do. I was always aware that the piece I was working on had to be posted in more-or-less the form it was currently in. I took less risks, I forced things to happen faster than they should’ve. The shooting probably should’ve been on the second or third date at least, but I didn’t have the time (or skill) to write a few dates and keep people’s interests. Ideally, I’d just have written those dates and then fixed any boring parts during editing. But after discounting major social functions, I basically needed to post a piece a week and so I always felt compelled to just write something that can be posted straight away. Which is why Dedorak’s Lands ended up on the list, even though from a world-building perspective it would’ve been much better to leave for quite some time. But it was a standalone piece and thus both easier to write and less of a hassle if I fucked it up.

I think having the challenge also sucked a lot of the fun out of writing. It became like a uni assignment and I procrastinated a lot more than I had been when writing for myself – and a lot more than I have been now that the challenge is over.

Having learnt this valuable lesson, I will not be posting any more of the Longest Eulogy on here until the first draft is done. I’ve not decided yet if I’ll edit it piece-by-piece, posting as I go, or if I’ll edit and re-write the entire thing and then post a draft e-book version for those who are interested.

Winner, winner, steak dinner!

A number of people were helpful. Sewnerd mentioned on more than one occasion that she enjoyed reading my stories (and I do always like my ego being boosted). My main drinking buddy served as a sounding board one Friday night when I was pre-occupied with some plot points when we were supposed to be getting drunk. My sister had some insight into romance stories (though I’m less and less convinced that that’s what I’m writing) – as well as a list of books she thinks I should read. My frequent running partner listened to my world building ideas and asked insightful questions. My oldest friend, and frequent world building collaborator, also listened to me ramble a lot, provided some great insight, and helped winnow down lists of names.

The most helpful person though was the one person who consistently read my work – even being crazy enough to apologise for not getting to it fast enough. She provided feedback on a number of occasions and, at times, in great detail. She gave me lists of books to read that could show me how to or how not to do some of the things I wanted to do – and brought some of them over from interstate for me. She was always encouraging but never pulled her punches when criticising or, at least, it never seemed she did – maybe I’m actually even more terrible than I imagine :P

For all her troubles, she gets a steak dinner from me. Which should go rather nicely with the one she got from helping me with my first challenge. Many, many thanks Hannah.