Your Game = Your Franchise

So after a vacation, a bout of the creeping crud, and a few harrowing work weeks, I’m back. I’ve finished The E-Myth Revisited and would recommend it to other publishers out there for an exploration of the business growth and development.

At a certain point in the book, the focus shifts from diagnosing the problems of small businesses to the author’s solution—creating a franchise model out of your business. I was disheartened; an indie game designer and publisher can’t exactly step back and let his business run itself like a McDonalds. But then it hit me—each game we write can itself be a franchise.

The author notes six traits of a successful franchise that I see as equally applicable to successful games. First, a game has to provide consistent value to everyone who encounters it beyond what they expect. What that value is will vary from game to game, but a game must provide something that others do not and deliver on that promise consistently to find success.

Second, a game must be able to be operated by people with the lowest possible level of skill (i.e., the lowest skill level necessary to fulfill the functions of the game). So a game needs to be designed so anyone (or any roleplayer) can use its system and have a great time every time they open the book. If a game requires master roleplayers to shine, then it’s the people, not the game, that’s delivering the fun. And inevitably a game will produce inconsistent results if it is relying on exceptional people instead of an exceptional system.

Third, a game has to stand out as impeccably organized. Order (e.g., a table of contents, index, rules summaries, play aids, whatever) inspires confidence in your customer that you know what you’re doing and to trust in your system.

Fourth, all parts of the game have to be documented in the game text. Just like McDonalds has manuals detailing every aspect of restaurant operation, your text needs to detail every aspect of play. This provides clarity and structure so your customer isn’t flailing about but knows exactly what to do at each point.

Fifth, your game has to provide a predictable experience to your customer. Your system has to work in a unified and consistent manner so that gameplay delivers the fun that your customer expects from prior experience. A game system that generates wildly varying play experiences can leave customers confused and ultimately uninterested in further play.

Finally, your game should utilize uniform terminology, graphics, and organization. Discover what works best and stick to it so that your game forms a cohesive whole that leaves a particular impression on your customers.

While not everything is perfect fit for indie RPGs, the franchise model does hit pretty close to the mark. Many of the more successful games indeed seem to embody most of these principles. So, BS or useful insights—you make the call.

  • Current Mood

Being a Technician Instead of a Businessman

As I toil away on my second game, House of Cards, and work on revising the text for my first, The Committee, I’ve also been thinking about my game design as a business. To be frank, I’ve sucked at being a businessman in these first two years of Eric J. Boyd Designs. Yes, I’ve sold 290 copies of The Committee, but that’s mostly in spite of, not because of, my business efforts.

I’m reading a business book, The E-Myth Revisited, whose basic premise is that there are three aspects to a business and your own relation to your business—the Entrepreneur (the visionary and dreaming aspect), the Manager (the organizer), and the Technician (the doer and tinkerer). The author opines that a major cause of the high probability of a small business failing is that someone who likes doing Technician work strikes out on their own in a small business where all they do is loads of Technician work, neglecting the other necessary aspects of a business. The end result is that they fail.

This explanation for why restaurants, bakeries, etc. fail in huge numbers makes good sense. And I find it just as applicable to indie publishing. Game design is a lot of fun, but it is the Technician work. Loads of folks tinker with homebrews and all manner of projects and there’s nothing wrong with that. But becoming a game publisher is a business, so as publisher I can’t sit around just doing design and neglecting the Entrepreneur and Manager aspects. Luke Crane and Fred Hicks, to name two prominent examples, clearly have embraced all three roles, and their great success should come as no surprise.

Now the indie movement lets you define “success” however you like, and I applaud that. But whatever metric you choose, it seems to make sense to embrace all three aspects of what being a business means and using them to pursue it. Needless to say, I’ve resolved to do better at cultivating my business, not just designing my games.

Next up, another insight from E-Myth, or why your game is a like a business franchise. Stay tuned.

  • Current Mood
    with fingers steepled

Old Games Teaching New Tricks?

So I recently picked up the old TSR Adventures of Indiana Jones role-playing game boxed set at the Goodwill for the value price for 49 cents. I simply couldn't bear to leave it behind to the predations of the typical thrift store (unsupervised, destructive children, crushing under loads of other stuff, eventual culling to the dumpster, etc.). Since then, I've read the game, and it's left me wondering if we haven't been missing something in our licensed property games.

First off, there is no character creation. You can play Indiana Jones and his companions from the first two films. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, though Indy likely is more uniformly strong. That's because play by a GM and one player (Indy) is an intended, if not the primary, mode of play. This is cool. After all, what young player wants to spend a lot of time creating Idaho Brown or bullshit like that - they want to be Indy and get right into the action. Why don't other games for licensed properties simply cut to the chase and focus play on the primary characters in this fashion? Such an approach seems like it would be more likely to entice fans of a show or movie into playing a game than the typical RPG approach of creating side characters who start out way too weak to be the movers and shakers of a setting.

Second, while there's definitely some wonky mechanics here and there, it seems damn hard to actually die in this game. You need multiple serious wounds, each attack only creates a single wound, and you're more likely to simply pass out before you get enough to kill you. There's even some advice in the GM's section on fudging if someone does manage to accrue that many serious wounds so that they're only left for dead, not actually dead. This makes good sense since it's no fun killing Indy. Again, why do licensed games (at least those based on properties where the main characters don't die) feel the need to put death on the table at all? It's gamer BS that we need the risk of death to enjoy the game - we know Indy isn't going to die, but we still love his movies. It's putting him in pickles and seeing how he gets out because we know he will get out that's the center of fun.   

Third, the game book is divided into sections with a solo mini-adventure after each one where you get to take good ol' Indy and use the rules you just read. Yes, these mini-adventures are railroaded like crazy, but the concept is quite ingenious. Why doesn't Burning Wheel, for example, sit you down after each block of rules and have you play out a conflict with pre-gen characters to see everything in motion? Seems like a damn effective tool we could put to use in our texts.

Oh, did I mention that the game also has a slick chase system consisting primarily of a flow chart that presents the player with various navigational options, special hazards, etc.? Everything is kept abstract so it can be tailored to your paritcular chase, and your starting point on the flow chart is randomly determined by a die roll so you can get a different chase almost every time. Definitely some nice innovation here given its time.

I've got some other old games sitting on my shelves and in boxes that may need a re-read after my experience with Indy - who knows what manner of inspiration is buried within? Old-skewl renaissance I'm not, but clealry these designers had some great insights. Anything you've learned recently or been inspired by from an old game?

A Belated Report of GPNW and House of Cards Playtesting

So I had a blast at GPNW – great people, great games, and a great city to experience both in. I got to crash with the generous and awesome Tony Dowler, whose Principia I am even more eagerly looking forward to after playing it during the con.

My playtest of House of Cards was both a highlight and a lowlight for me. A highlight because Dawn, Jason, Jeremy, and Jim are great players with bountiful patience and keen insight. A lowlight because the game blew up much worse than I was expecting. So here’s the post-mortem:

-I made partially-completed pre-gens to cut down on the prep time since my time slot was only three hours. The rest of recruiting the crew and devising the obstacles for the heist went very smoothly. Things were high energy and the ties between the characters looked to be primed for some hot play.

-After a promising start, though, the game totally began to crater. My v2.0 conflict resolution engine was simply too heavy and time-consuming to get the job done. Players seemed to get lost in the choices to be made, and the handling time was way too high for the quick and less formal social space I want this game to inhabit. So as much as my first conflict resolution system had no tactical depth, this one has swung too far the other way – epic fail.

-We accelerated the progression of play to have the getaway. This part of the game seemed to work much better – high energy again, cards flying around the table, and the Drives being revealed as part of bloody betrayals and double crosses. This exactly the kind of ending I want to see!

So basically the beginning and the end of the playtest were rocky, but showed promise, while the middle was a vast chasm of suck. The consensus is that there’s no need to have differing rules for the getaway; instead, take the getaway rules and make them work for the rest of the game. Also, to speed things up, make this a three act structure – planning, the heist, and the getaway. Previously, I had five acts, then four, so it doesn’t surprise me that this number keeps dropping. Since I want to enrich the content of each act by having an economy of different scene types (major conflict, minor conflict, address a rumor, and downtime), this three act business seems right on.

Other things I’m mulling on in the wake of the playtest:

-A couple conflict scenes devolved into uninteresting negotiations with NPCs over minor aspects of the heist plan. I need to loosen up my structure to permit quick one-card conflicts to get through such things quickly – leaving the major conflicts for the dramatic stuff (where it belongs).

-The time pressure and perhaps my own inadequate explanation resulted in rumors getting short shrift. Rumors and the underlying revelations about the characters need to be a focal point of play. My procedures need to change to make that happen.

-We also ended up without any downtime scenes. Again, these are supposed have a vital function – showing informal interactions between the characters and/or key NPCs. These scenes are key places to hint at your character’s Drive, as well as having the mechanical effect of refreshing resources. Without these, the fiction ended up feeling hollow. Hopefully, fixing conflict resolution will give these scenes space to be used to their full potential.

-Advantages generated from the early scenes to be used later aren’t really working. Maybe the focus should be on “attacking” the complications presented by the heist instead.

-As I mentioned, I removed failure as an option before the getaway. So coming up short let the GM go after your resources and such instead. I’m thinking of formalizing that with a list of “conditions” that characters get stuck with instead of failing. The fact that I played a rocking game of Jonathan Walton’s Geiger Counter during GPNW is not coincidental.

Since GPNW, I’ve been awash in work and family stuff that has kept me from the heavy lifting of revisions. Hopefully the next couple of weeks will have me back on the horse for House of Cards v.3.0.


pbeakley has been helping me poke at the game again as well. He’s put some very interesting thoughts on the table (e.g., resolution as actually building and collapsing houses of cards), which I'm filing away for the moment. I think I’m going to see if holding to my basic skeleton can get me where I want to be, but if 3.0 is still blowing up it may be time to kill some more sacred cows.


Thanks again to all of my GPNW playtesters and to the organizers - I plan to be back at GPNW next year.

The Committee is sold out - any suggested revisions?

(Cross-posted from the indie gaming forums in case anyone would rather discuss this here)

The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries, my game of pulp/Victorian adventure storytelling, has sold out its third printing. It's also been two years now since it was released.

So I ask you, the wonderful folks who have purchased and/or played the game - do you have suggestions for revisions to the text or rules?

Did you spot any errors or editing mistakes when reading the book? Did you not understand a particular passage when you read it? Is there something you wish the book discussed or explained that it doesn't?

Did you ever play the game? If not, did the text or rules create a barrier to play? Anything I could do to better help you sell the game to your group?

If you did play, was the text a useful reference during the game? Did things go smoothly? What problems did you encounter? Did any rules or elements of the game not deliver? Any other questions or concerns from your actual play?

I've already got some revisions in mind that you're welcome to weigh in on:

-Add a discussion on dice strategy and tips to make the learning curve easier.

-Add a more detailed discussion of timed narration, its pitfalls, and adaptations to better ease you into the game

-Make all group hazards untimed to focus on jockeying among the players

-Streamline the difficulty of group hazards to make the math easier

-Simplify and streamline use of the expedition log

-Simplify and streamline use of the beverages in play

-Call attention to the key rules in the text and revise the rules summaries to make them more user-friendly during play

That's my list - any other suggestions?

P.S. Anyone who currently owns the game in any form can get a free PDF of the revision once it's out. I'll also have a free PDF to summarize any rules changes.

Farewell to Failure, Except at the End of the Line

So I'm laboring away on streamlining House of Cards in preparation for my next local playtest, as well as Go Play Northwest at the end of June. Another sacred cow of sorts was slaughtered over the weekend - failure during conflict scenes. Let me explain.

House of Cards is broken into five main parts. First, there's gathering up the crew and establishing the broad outlines of the heist. Next, there are three rounds of play - Casing the Joint, Making Preparations, and Getting the Goods. During each of these rounds of play, each character will have a conflict scene where they are in the spotlight accomplishing tasks related to the heist. There are also downtime scenes where the characters can interact with each other or with NPCs (criminal contacts and otherwise) to refresh their resources or plan betrayals of the other team members. Finally, there's the getaway, answering the question of what happens when the item is in hand.

So conflicts are centered on the card play I discussed last time - with the GM tossing down runs and sets of cards to be matched or beat by the player, with currency shifting around as things progress. At the beginning of a scene, the player declares what their character is looking to accomplish - no stakes or anything complicated, just what you're setting out to do. If the GM and player push or if the GM runs out of cards first, then character prevails in the task they set out for themselves, perhaps with some other complications arising. But what if the player runs out of cards first?

Well, my earlier drafts gave the GM a choice - have the character fail in a way that doesn't completely derail the heist, or let them barely succeed but at a steep cost (creating additional complications, losing character resources, etc.). Reflecting on past playtests has me thinking that the first option doesn't work well - it's less interesting in the fiction and it potentially derails the heist even if the GM thinks it doesn't. And, frankly, after watching several more heist movies over the last few weeks, it doesn't fit the genre I'm looking to emulate here. Sure, complications mount and the tension ratchets up, but the crew always gets its mitts on the loot for a moment, even if everything later gets shot all to hell (and it usually does).

The getaway kicks off immediately after the crew first grabs the loot - before anyone has a chance to get it to a safe place or catch their breath. And during the getaway the gloves come off - the GM plays the adversity to hunt, capture, and kill the thieves, and the crew can turn on each other with bloody betrayals driven by revenge or simple greed. Failure is writ large in the getaway - its the part of the game where everything is at stake, it's the part of a heist movie that we usually savor most of all.

The getaway and its nasty, inevitable, game-ending failures are intended to be a powerful part of play. So maybe I don't need failure at all during the prior three rounds. After all, any such early failure would really only be a complication lacking the finality of failures during the getaway. So why not just make them complications and painful resource penalties in the first place?

I guess I will.

  • Current Mood

House of Cards - Playtesting = More Better Game

So my local crew helped me take the latest version of House of Cards out for a spin. It was something of a shakedown cruise since my resolution mechanics have been completely redone. Initially, you simply played cards from your preferred suit, which varied depending on your character's role in the crew. Rank of cards was irrelevant - it came down to who had the most cards of that suit, you or the GM. This was simple but ultimately pretty boring.

The new resolution system has you playing runs and sets of cards using your preferred suit and some wild cards. There's also a central "river" of cards in the middle of the table that both the players and GM get to take cards from as they call upon various resources. Add in some narration tricks and the result is both more tactical and capable of generating tension and risk-taking. Our playtest showed that the basic concepts here are solid, though, as always, there are tweaks to be made around the edges.

Role assignment and character creation as the recruitment of the crew also worked well. The flow was effective and the pace was much improved. There's still room for improvement, though. Since the playtest, I've integrated the initial facts known about the heist into this process. So now the leader and each other role in turn names an obstacle they know will have to be overcome to carry off the heist (e.g., crack a vault, hack a secured network, lay out elite guards, etc.). From this obstacle flows their designation of the next role needed on the crew to help handle that obstacle (e.g., an infiltration expert, a tech guy, a muscle guy, etc.) and how they know just the person for that role. By the end of the recruitment sequence you now have the entire crew assembled, the characters made, and the broad outlines of the obstacles to be overcome (hopefully in no more than 30 minutes).

Some of the best feedback came a day or two after the playtest. As pbeakley and I discussed his scenes and how they seemed to pop and crackle with awesome, we found the main distinguishing factor to be his use of cinematic transitions and camera work as part of his descriptions. Something just clicked between the genre exploration and the explict use of cinematography techniques as a means to establish the SIS. This has had me reading up on this stuff so I can more fully integrate it into gameplay, even if only on the fictional level. I was already working to structure play to produce an experience like a collaboratively generated heist movie, so it's not a stretch to fully embrace emulation of heist movies in description and color as a part of the game.

So I've been working on a new draft that brings all this together, and I look forward to playtesting it again soon with these new bits in place. I'll be at Randomcon this weekend in Phoenix running a couple games of The Committee and a playtest of House of Cards. Of course, this is a brand new con in the city where the RPGA rules role-playing, but I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope for a couple of my games to go off. After that, it's back to pestering my stalwart band of locals to hammer at the game again to see what parts fall off.

  • Current Mood

Best Laid Plans

You know what they say about plans, and it is always true with game design. I'm getting ready for my next playtest of House of Cards and I had a long discussion with pbeakley about the game's overall structure, target and character creation in particular. He talked about how cool it would be to start the role-playing right out of the gate with the recruitment of the members of the crew, with the leader picking the first necessary role and assigning it to another player, with everyone creating that character on the spot, and then that new character deciding on the next necessary role and choosing a player for it, and so on. Jason Morningstar proposed a very similar procedure when he looked over an earlier version of the game.

Now, I weigh every piece of feedback I receive very carefully, but I do reject some ideas along the way when they don't fit my vision for a game, either in terms of concept or mechanics. But a rule I used when developing The Committee is that when I hear the same piece of feedback twice, well, then it is time to stop everything and go back to first principles. I put aside thoughts of how to tweak this or that piece and go back to making every piece justify its existence in light of that feedback. And every time I did this with The Committee I ended up discovering that  feedback was touching on something vital that would improve the game once I shot some of my personal sacred cows and incorporated that feedback into the design.

So here I am with House of Cards, and Paul and Jason are absolutely right. As much as I like my use of questions grounded in the real world to assign the fictional character roles, making the recruitment of the crew part of the role-playing is much more powerful. And the great part is that since the game's character creation doesn't involve assigning points, balancing attributes, etc., it can be fully incorporated into the role-playing as well.

So, um, that last post I wrote about clever questions, assigning the leader last, and such . . . scratch that, toss it out, put it out of mind. Ah, the humility of game design.

They've Been Saying WHAT About My Guy?

House of Cards is intended to get out of the blocks fast like a racehorse and with no preparation beforehand. You've got a GM and 3 to 5 other players. I keep things simple with roles--the key people that usually show up as part of a crew in a heist movie. Each player has a character who fills one of these roles during the game. There's always a leader of the crew, and then the players collectively decide which of the other roles will be used during that game from among the wheelman/muscle, the tech guy, the face man, the infiltration expert, and the inside man.

But you don't just choose a role for yourself, oh no. The roles are assigned to the players in the following order (omitting any role you're not using) based on answering a set of questions:
  • Which player bought or sold a car most recently? Your character will be the wheelman and muscle, dynamic and powerful whether peeling out or thrashing foes.
  • Of the unassigned players remaining, who most recently downloaded something? Your character will be the tech guy, able to jury rig gear or hack a system.
  • Of the unassigned players remaining, who most recently spent a night alone? Your character will be the face man, a social chameleon and manipulator.
  • Of the unassigned players remaining, who's wearing the most jewelry? Your character will be the infiltration expert, skilled in the hands-on breaching of security systems and breaking and entering.
  • Of the unassigned players remaining, who last changed jobs? Your character will be the inside man, someone in a position of trust close to the target.
  • There should be one remaining player. Your character will be the leader of the crew of thieves, well connected and broadly skilled.
Yes, the leader is determined last - I was inpsired by vague memories of an old Paranoia services test that left team leader for last. The point of this process is two fold. First, every member of the team is awesome, so you'll have fun no matter who you play. Second, we've got to keep the game moving quickly if we're gonna play out a heist in one short session, so grab a character and go!

Each role comes with a preferred suit of cards that count toward success when played, a set of wild cards to increase your ability to play sets and runs of cards in your preferred suit, and a special ability that lets you manipulate the cards held by you and others. The aim is to give each role a slightly different feel in keeping with the genre.

Role in hand, you give your character a name and say who he or she would be played by in a movie (thanks macklinr !), maybe with a twist if you want to (e.g., Steve Buscemi but Asian). You also give your character one noteworthy behavioral characteristic to help everyone at the table visualize their appearance and mannerisms.

Then, it's time to subject your guy to his peers--the criminal underworld in which he or she has found a home. What kind of reputation does your character have? What do other criminals think about them? Hmm, let's ask the other members of your crew!

That's right, each other player, including the GM, gets to spread a rumor about your character by completing the phrase "Rumor has it that [character's name] . . ." This rumor can be any one of the following:
  • A past action
  • A past or present affiliation
  • A weakness or character flaw
  • A present problem related to an NPC
  • A renowned prowess unrelated to their criminal specialty
You're encouraged to aim these rumors at the other characters in the crew to complicate relationships before things even begin. During play, you'll have the opportunity to confirm or deny these rumors by introducing story elements, NPCs, flashbacks, etc. related to them and reaping the resulting mechanical bennies for doing so. So, yes, your guy has had everyone else's grubby mitts all over their background, but it is still entrely up to you how much of this is true and what actually happened.

The playtests have produced some great rumors, which I fully intend on including in the final text to provide examplesand provide fodder for anyone who gets stuck. Some of my favorites:

Rumor has it she's pregnant.
Rumor has it he's really a snitch for the Feds.
Rumor has it his father is a Columbian drug kingpin.
Rumor has it he's being cuckolded by his wife.
Rumor has it that he doesn't have the stones to kill anyone.
Rumor has it that she was the only survivor on her last two jobs.

That's character creation. Done. Over. No traits or attributes, no hit points or equipment purchases. Just your role, a quick snapshot of your character, and some sense of their history and potential capacities with the real story meat to be actively revealed in play.

So we're gaining momentum now - characters done - and now it's time to establish some situation and create the outlines of our heist.

Thoughts, comments, objections - what do you think? Could you create your favorite character from a heist movie or TV show?

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