Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Formatting Your RPG Manuscript

So you've done the hards yards and designed a roleplaying game that works, and now you're in the process of writing up the manuscript with an eye towards self-publishing?

It can take a fair bit of extra work to whip a manuscript into shape, ready for the layout process. As a layout artist, I expect to do a certain amount of reformatting when I receive a manuscript, but if you compose your manuscript with the following tips in mind you'll likely make your layout artist's job a bit smoother and they'll thank you for it! You might even be able to negotiate a lower rate for the job.

Please note, these are general tips based on my experience doing freelance layout work. This is the way I like to get manuscripts, and while many tips may be generally applicable, I can only guarantee that I find them useful for importing manuscripts into InDesign CS6. If in doubt, my best advice is to check with your layout artist to find out how they would prefer to get stuff.

This is a pretty long post, and I'll add to it if I think of any new advice or hear any tips from other designers. Hit me up in the comments if you have any feedback.

TL;DR Summary

  • Finish editing before layout, and supply the whole manuscript at once if you can.
  • Don't use blank lines between paragraphs, or use tabs to create indents.
  • Use paragraph styles, especially for headings. Also use them to flag other types of text if you like.
  • Avoid using ALL CAPS.
  • Use [[tags]] to flag special text areas such as sidebars and tables.
  • Optionally, use character styles for bold and italic words in otherwise normal paragraphs.
  • Use your word processor's tables, or just use plain text with line breaks between rows and tabs between columns.


Your layout artist may spot a few typos here and there and clean up a bit of messy formatting, but generally speaking, layout comes after editing. It's OK to provide a bit of unedited sample text in order to help the design process along when you're getting the book design set up, but when it comes down to the actual book layout, you really want to have the text as polished as possible.

Layout artists spend a lot of time and effort juggling and balancing text with images, tables, and sidebars, while making sure page breaks are in good spots. This sometimes involves a little "massaging" to make it so everything will fit perfectly on a page.

In some cases, even adding, removing, or changing a single word at this stage can throw off the whole design and cause problems to cascade through the rest of the chapter.

How to Help

  • As much as possible, finalise your manuscript before proceeding with layout.
If you want your game to be an evolving digital document, this can be tricky. In this case, let your layout artist know that you want to be able to modify the document in the future. There's always a tension between solidly filling every page or trying to ensure that important concepts aren't split across pages. If your artist knows you need flexibility, they won't have to be quite so determined to nail everything down perfectly.
If you can't afford an editor, wait a few weeks from when you finish the writing and then read through the entire thing yourself from front to back. Try to persuade some of your friends and gaming buddies to look over it as well, although I know that can be a hard ask. If you're running a Kickstarter, you might find some of your more enthusiastic backers are keen to go over the early manuscript with a fine-tooth comb.
  • Try to provide the entire manuscript at once.
It's easier to import a single large document into InDesign than several separate chapter documents, because the settings need to be checked for each import. Often once it's imported, the text will need to be processed to format it correctly; if it comes in as several documents, possibly at separate times, then that processing will have to be repeated.

Paragraph Formatting

Paragraphs basically come in two flavours: those with a blank line between each paragraph, and those with an indented first line (sometimes also without an indent for the first paragraph after a heading).

In InDesign, indents and the space between paragraphs are built into the paragraph style. In other words, the white-space is added automatically.

How to Help

  • Don't add blank lines between your paragraphs, because your layout artist will likely have to go through and manually delete them all.
I know it's a bit strange at first, since you have to manually add a blank line for most writing on the web (like I'm doing with this blog post).
Instead, try editing the Default or Normal Text paragraph style in your word processor so it adds 3mm/0.1" after each paragraph. In Google Docs, click on a normal paragraph, select the Line Spacing button and choose "Add space after paragraph". Then click on Styles, then the arrow to the right of "Normal text", and choose "Update 'Normal text' to match".
  •  Likewise, don't use tabs to create first-line indents, because they'll have to be manually deleted.
You can modify the default paragraph style in most word processors to automatically add a first-line indent (look for an "Indents and Spacing" option), although I can't see a way to do it in Google Docs. In any case, you can always use the above paragraph spacing option when composing, and just tell your layout artist that you want to use first-line indents.

Paragraph Styles

To make a manuscript easy to import into InDesign, nothing beats paragraph styles. InDesign relies on paragraph styles to make sure the formatting is consistent throughout the document.

In addition, say you decide to change a heading font. Without paragraph styles, you'd have to trawl through the document and manually update each heading (or perhaps use a "find-and-replace style" function, although that may cause its own issues). With paragraph styles consistently applied, you can simply edit the style settings and the whole document will automatically update.

Here's the cool part for layout: When you import a document into InDesign, you can map any paragraph styles in the source document to styles you've established in InDesign. Assuming the layout artist has set up the basic layout design ahead of time, this means a lot of the basic styling is applied automatically.

Without this, the layout artist either has to go through the book alongside the original manuscript and manually apply the right styles, or else they have to go through the original manuscript and pre-format it before importing. Both options are time-consuming and risks missing things. This is something I expect to encounter, and you may consider it part of the layout artist's job. Just don't be surprised if they want to charge a bit extra to cover the pre-formatting work.

How to Help

  • Use paragraph styles, and use them consistently! 

You can create custom ones, but most word processors will likely have some set up that you can select from a drop-down menu.

  • At the very least, you should apply paragraph styles to your headings. 

Generally you'll have chapter headings, section headings, sub-headings, and maybe even minor headings. Use Heading 1 for your chapter headings, Heading 2 for your section headings, and so on. This is good advice even apart from the layout potential, because you can often use heading styles to automatically generate tables of contents, which may aid your development process.
  • You can create custom paragraph styles to flag other special text.
This tip can be a bit tricky to get your head around. Think of paragraph styles as different colours of paint. When your layout artist imports the document into InDesign, the program basically looks for the different colours. Anything blue becomes a chapter heading, anything green becomes a section heading, and so on.
The thing is, anything that hasn't been painted effectively becomes plain text when it's imported. The main culprit here is bullet lists and numbered lists. They look like they have a style applied in your word processor, right? — it's a bullet list, after all! But import it, and more often than not InDesign will treat it as plain text. Same for numbered lists. This means your layout artist may need to go through and manually apply bulleted and numbered list styles.
Again, applying paragraph styles is the solution, and prevents your special formatting from getting dropped when it's imported.
You create a new paragraph style in your word processor called "bullet list" or "list" or whatever. You can probably select a line from such a list and select "create new style from current selection". If you have different levels of bullets, I highly recommend creating a separate style for each level. Then, go through and apply those styles to all your bullet lists. They won't look any different, but if you click on them you should see the custom list style in the menu bar, rather than "Default" or "Plain text" or whatever your normal text style is called.
You can use this trick for all the other special text you have too, such as examples, quotes, sidebars, and more — even for table text, but see below for more table tips. An indented italic paragraph in your word processor will just look like plain text to InDesign unless you "paint" it with a paragraph style.
This tip is a bit more difficult in Google Docs since, apart from normal text, all of the paragraph styles are called "Headings".
Pro Tip: You can set up your different paragraph styles so they appear as different colours (black for normal text, blue for examples, orange for sidebars, or something). This acts as a handy visual aid so you can easily see where formats have been applied and where they may have been missed.

Use of Capitals

Quite often I encounter manuscripts that use ALL-CAPS for the headings. It's understandable: even in a plain text file, it's a quick and easy way to make a line stand out as different from the surrounding text.

Here's the thing. InDesign references headings when generating the Table of Contents, PDF bookmarks, running headers and whatnot. If the source text is literally typed in as all-caps, then you'll end up with contents and bookmarks that are SHOUTING AT YOU.

If you actually want all-caps headings in the book, your layout artist can set up heading styles that automatically turn the headings into all-caps. This preserves the standard "Title Case" formatting in the background, which then gets pulled for the ToC and such.

Using all-caps isn't normally a huge hassle, but it can become a bigger issue when it needs fixing in very long manuscripts. There's a workaround, but you may end up with "A Capital At The Start Of Every Word" instead of "A Capital at the Start of Important Words".

How to Help

  • Use Title Case for your headings (and elsewhere).
If you want the headings to be all-caps in the finished product, just let your layout artist know. And if you'd prefer to compose your document with all-caps headers for the look and feel of it, I suggest seeing if your paragraph style settings will allow you to make headings all-caps automatically.


Another way to mark out special text and make sure it's not missed is to use tags — for example, calling out an example by putting [[EXAMPLE]] before the example text, and [[/EXAMPLE]] at the end. This is particularly useful for calling out "floating" sidebars and tables that will exist outside the normal text flow.

The layout artist will search for these tags and extract the text, turning it into a sidebar or whatever and deleting the tags.

How to Help

  • Choose a distinctive way to call out tags, and use it consistently
Unusual combinations of punctuation are usually best, because they're easy to search for and won't appear in general text. [[Double square brackets]] are a common choice. Use the same bracketing for all your tags, regardless of whether it's a [[SIDEBAR]] or an [[EXAMPLE]].
If you use tags for stuff like examples, and maybe even bullet lists and such, then you don't need to worry about using custom paragraph styles for them. Using tags is better than just using word-processor formatting to distinguish different sections (such as indents and italics), but it's not as good as paragraph styles. 
Paragraph styles rock, and you should definitely learn how to use them if you don't already know.

Character Styles

You can think of character styles an exceptions to the basic paragraph formatting. So this is a basic paragraph, but this bit has an italic character style applied.

When you import a document into InDesign, character styles sometimes come through and sometimes fall off, much like bullet lists. Even when they do come through, if they aren't attached to a character style, they can easily fall off during general text processing. There are work-arounds for the layout artist, but they can be a bit fiddly and may cause other issues.

How to Help

  • This is really an optional step, but if you use a lot of bold, italic, or bold-italic text for emphasis, you might consider setting up character styles and applying them to your bold, italic, or other unique text when it appears in otherwise ordinary paragraphs.
There's no need to apply "bold" to all your headings, though. Just apply character styles whenever they are an exception to the surrounding text.


If it's not supplied in the right format, information in tables can be fiddly and require close attention to detail. But when information is supplied correctly, tables are a breeze.

How to Help

  • There are two options for tables. You can just use your word processor's tables to format your information. Don't worry about making them look pretty; the main thing is that everything's in the right place. When they're imported into InDesign, the designer can just change the table and cell style settings to format everything nicely.
  • The other option is to use plain text: put a carriage return at the end of each row, and separate columns with tabs (you don't need a tab before the start of the first column). It doesn't matter if the columns don't appear to line up visually; they will do once the text is converted to a table.
If you go with the plain text option, I strongly recommend flagging the tables with tags as discussed above. 
  •  Very optionally for both options, you can also use custom paragraph styles to flag table text. I use five styles for most games: Table Body Left/Centre (sometimes also Right), Table Heading Left/Centre (for the column labels), and Table Title. Doing this at the manuscript stage is going the extra mile for your layout artist, and it's not something I would expect a client to provide unless they were tremendously keen on pre-formatting.

That's everything for now! Did I miss something? Any questions, comments, corrections, or suggestions? Let me know in the comments and I'll see what I can do.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Work Work Work!

I love my job! As an RPG freelancer, I get to work behind the scenes on a lot of great new products. At the moment, the jobs are coming thick and fast, which is great — but the flip-side is, the more work I have the less time I have to work on my own projects. Hence the lack of blog posts for the past month or so; I simply don't have anything new to say about Ark Frontier at the moment.

So, to the extent that I'm able, I thought I'd talk a bit about my current freelancing projects. The main one that's taking up my time is a very large art job. I've signed on to create about a hundred images over the next three or four months, so I'm having to make sure I keep to a production schedule in order to get it all delivered on time.

I'm also still working on the cover illustration for a spin-off of Evan Paliatseas' MASS RPG. There's a lot going on in the picture, so it's taken me a while, but I finished rendering all the characters today. Now I just need to complete the background.

I'm working on a couple of projects for Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips. One book is now in the final stages after a few months of prep-work including editing, collating, and formatting. I'm currently proof-reading some adventure-building course content, so I'm paying attention to any tips I can glean from that, that I might be able to apply to Ark Frontier or any other scenario products I create. There may also be some additional layout work on the horizon from Johnn, which would be great!

Speaking of layout, I've been in negotiations to do the layout for several games. Most of them are probably a bit early to announce, but one of them is the new Spellbound Kingdoms: Arcana supplement, which is currently on Kickstarter! It's going great guns, so if you're a fan of the game, you should go check it out. I set up the preliminary layout design about a year ago, and it's finally coming to fruition.

I've also recently done a bunch of little jobs: character sheets for WRAITH (where you play the members of a COBRA-like bad guy organisation) and Finding Haven (a solar system sci-fi game I did a map for a little while ago), and a map for Rebirth. I've also started work on a small one-off art commission, but that's not urgent.

As you can see, I'm keeping very busy! Hopefully I'll manage to knock a few of these projects down and free up some more time to muse and tinker on my own stuff too.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Raxene

I've recently created a design I'm happy with for the raxene (singular raxin), one of the two playable nonhuman species in Ark Frontier.


This has evolved through a few rounds of sketches. My initial concept was of humanoids covered in short fur. I was tossing up between human-like plantigrade legs or more animal-like digitigrade legs; in the end, I went with digitigrade legs ending in hoof-like pads. This feature, and their species name, is inspired by the real-world hyrax.

As you can see from the first sketches below, I was originally experimenting with a muzzled face, but the image I really had in mind was closer to the flatter human-like face shown in the bottom centre. However, I wasn't entirely happy with the look of that sort of face and head entirely covered in uniformly short fur.

There's a fine line to walk when coming up with an "alien" species, between creating something that readers can relate to, and avoiding just making a funny-looking human. To that end, I've given the raxene a combination of unusual features. They appear mammalian, being furry with rabbit-like ears, but also whisker-like antennae and hoofs. In addition, the females lay eggs which hatch well-developed young, so they don't breastfeed.

In this next round of sketches, I worked out the proportions of the legs (I'm not an expert at digitigrade legs on humanoids) and other body features, and experimented with motion and body-types. They have a fairly rotund egg-shaped torso. I got around the uniform face-stubble problem by introducing a short tufty fringe.

I've made sure there's a wide range of possibilities for individuality — different ear shapes and positions (floppy, raised, swept back...) and different fringe styles are the obvious ways to distinguish individuals, aside from face-shape and build.

Species Modifiers

In the PowerFrame RPG, raxene have the following "racial" modifiers:

Ability Modifiers

  • Avoid +1 (because of their size and agility)
  • Move +1 (because their legs are adapted to run)
  • Hunting -1 (because they evolved from herbivores)
  • Stealth -1 (because of their hoofs)
  • Strength -1 (because of their stature)
  • Dark Vision (reduce all Darkness Penalties by 2)
I have considered giving them Acrobatics +1 instead of or as well as the Avoid bonus, since Acrobatics would increase their utility as explorers, but the Avoid bonus gives them an edge in combat that makes up for their reduced Strength. If I want to include Acrobatics as well, I'll need to come up with some other penalty.


Apart from the features already described, raxene are notably swift and agile. They evolved from herbivores whose main defence was outrunning their predators. They are slightly smaller than humans on average. There's very little distinction between the sexes, except that mature females have wider hips.

They lay largish eggs only when fertilised, which take a few months (probably three?) to hatch. The young can eat soft foods straight away, and grow rapidly. They are soon able to move about on their own.


Before the Phantom Storm, the raxene and vaion formed Aratene society together. Due to physiological differences there are roughly twice as many raxene as vaion, and this often leads to the raxene being viewed as the "default" in Aratene society. Raxene are traditionally seen as builders, farmers, warriors, and other physical occupations, although stereotypes are frequently broken.

Raxene have an ingrained respect for eggs and nesting sites. Nests themselves are sacrosanct and can only be entered with permission. There's an order of egg-priests who visit nests to check on the eggs and advise families, and indeed the egg is a sacred symbol in Aratene culture — a symbol recognised by the vaion too, even though they don't lay eggs. A small group of egg-priests have begun preaching that the Ark itself is an egg, from which the children of Arat are about to hatch.

Arat isn't a monoculture, although the Phantom Storm means that mostly members of the local egalitarian culture were rescued by the Ark. Given the relative similarity between the sexes, and the sacred role of the egg, it's likely that several nearby societies were matriarchal in nature and perhaps held eggs in even higher regard. Unless pockets of refugees have somehow survived for the past 18 years, though, it's also likely that most such cultures have been wiped out.

*   *   *

I'm still working on the design for the vaion. I know I want them to be a unisex species, but I've yet to figure out how they reproduce. They also have a connection to Arat's magical field, meaning they are at once skilled in manipulating magic but also vulnerable to it.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Revisiting Size in PowerFrame

Way back in 2015 I posted about the way Size would be handled in the PowerFrame Core Rulebook. While the numbers work, I've never been totally satisfied with the "floating modifier" solution. I had tried several ideas, and the one I settled on had the least amount of weird stuff being juggled on the character sheet. An earlier version had you track "weapon level" and "total level" for five or six specific Abilities, which was a bit of a pain, and difficult to explain.

While the current implementation of Size does work, it tends to be fiddly because you have to constantly consider Size Differential and remember to apply it in the right situations.

Unfortunately it’s not possible in the current system to just incorporate Size into the affected Abilities directly, because of the way weapons use different Abilities — you end up with large characters being super-accurate with axes, and tiny characters doing huge damage with flails.

Recently I reapproached the idea of recording extra values on the character sheet.

Derived Attributes

Rather than incorporating Size directly into Abilities, or having it act as a floating Modifier that needs to be applied when relevant, we instead create derived Attributes that can be written on the character sheet and used consistently.

Each character has these regardless of Size, although for Size 0 characters they will be the same as the basic Ability.

Attack = Ability + Weapon Modifier − Size
  • Always subtract Size from Attack. 
  • This value can be recorded in the Weapon section.

Damage = Ability + Weapon Modifier + Size or Weapon’s Damage Value
  • Only add Size if Damage is based on an Ability. 
  • This value can be recorded in the Weapon section.

Dodge = Avoid − Size
  • Avoiding Attacks.

Durability = Toughness (or other Ability) + Size
  • Always add Size when resisting Damage or other Physical Effects (forced movement, flashblindness).
  • May sometimes be based on Strength, Wits, or some other Ability.

Might = Strength + Size
  • Performing feats of strength.
  • Resisting forced movement.

Notice = Wits − Size
  • Spotting hidden objects and characters.
  • Use unmodified Wits for Initiative.

Sneak = Stealth − Size
  • Hiding or trying to move stealthily.

  • Each point of Size adds half a Hex of Movement to all Movement Types as normal.

The Derived Attributes replace the listed basic Abilities for the noted functions. The basic Ability Levels are used for basic Attack and Damage values, and to determine minimum and maximum values.
For example, a Size 2 character can buy Wits like any other Ability, and puts 3 points into it. They then have a modified value on hand for rolling to Notice things (3-2=1), while keeping the basic value for rolling Initiative (3). We can also use the basic value to work out the correct values for Attack (3-2=1) or Damage (3+2=5) rolls that use Wits, or to calculate Durability (3+2=5) against flashblindness.

I also created a revised character sheet — here's a preview, but I'll likely upload a PDF version to the product on DriveThruRPG once I get some feedback. The extra stats ate up a bit of the Equipment list, but I was also able to remove the footnote from under the Weapon list.

Ark Frontier's Exo-Suits

The reason I've been thinking about Size lately, is because I've been designing the power armour for Ark Frontier. The colony has a few dozen suits, across three different models. All the exo-suits are under the control of The Line, charged with maintaining colony defence.
  • Pioneer class are light person-sized (Size 0) hardsuits, designed for reconnaissance and combat support.
  • Vanguard class are nearly 3 metres tall (Size 1), designed for front-line combat.
  • Destiny class are nearly 5 metres tall (Size 2), designed for defence and heavy assault.

I think that using pre-totalled Derived Attributes will make it a little easier and more intuitive to handle power armour. Also, many of the Phantoms in Ark Frontier will be smaller or much larger than people, and it would be nice to be able to supply the final total stats in the creature write-ups.

If you've read or played PowerFrame, especially if you've had to deal with Size, I'd love to hear your thoughts! I don't think there's many better ways of handling it without stripping back the whole system and starting again from scratch.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Anime Blast Bundle of Holding

Blade Bind is part of the current Anime Blast Bundle of Holding, which runs until June 26th. This is a great opportunity if you haven't picked up a copy yet, and a percentage of the profits even go to Reading Is Fundamental!

Even if you already own Blade Bind, this Bundle is a treasure trove of anime-inspired roleplaying. For just $8.95, you can round out your collection with:

  • The Starlit Kingdom — Anna Kreider's game of tragic stories about the war between Earth and Moon.
  • Mystical: Kingdom of Monsters a Pathfinder supplement featuring the Monster Trainer class.
  • Sparks Magical girls fighting the forces of Darkness!
  • Teenagers From Outer Space — R.Talsorian Games' classic tribute to Urusei Yatsura!
And if you contribute above the Threshold (currently at $19.25 as I type), you also get all of the following:
  •  Tenra Bansho Zero — the legendary game of techno-Sengoku drama, and well worth the price of admission on its own!
  • OVA Revised — the go-to game for customisable anime roleplaying (despite my efforts, PowerFrame has not been able to claim that title!).
  • The Ruined Empire — Anna Kreider returns with a saga of warring nations originally written for Tenra Bansho Zero.
  • Kagegami High — Ewen Cluney's game of bizarre high-school occurrences.
Since launch, a bonus game has also been added to the line-up:
  • Classroom Deathmatch — a brutal Battle Royale simulator where, let's face it, the odds are never in your favour.
Keep an eye out for future news and developments!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Price of Money

I'm really not much of an economics guy. Seriously. But a few days ago I started thinking about money in Ark Frontier, a society with thousands of refugees stuck on board a sealed ark-ship for nearly two decades. Here's what I came up with.

Oh, by the way, I've come up with a name for the world: Arat. The two native intelligent species, the vaion and the raxene, are collectively referred to as the Aratene.

The Ark was designed to become a self-sufficient arcology city, able to indefinitely support nearly 50,000 people. So the day-to-day needs of everyone on board can be met with only a little effort in production, maintenance, and distribution. Even with the population growing since the doors closed, there's little danger of exceeding the Ark's capacity for quite some time.

Everyone on-board receives a basic ration of essentials, has quarters assigned, and receives a small basic income of credits, the currency used by the human colonists. Those who perform additional services (maintenance, making and selling goods, policing, government, and so on) receive extra credits.

Of course, the reason credits are the basic currency is because the Ark turned up and saved people from the teeth of a worldwide apocalypse. When the Aratene came onboard, most of them had only the clothes on their backs, and only a few had decided to grab their life-savings in the face of imminent death. This means that the supply of gold pieces on the Ark is severely limited, which has inflated their value considerably. In addition, it's an unofficial currency mostly used by the underworld and the black market.

Now, all of that is about to change, as the Ark's doors are finally opened.

While the Ark will continue to subsidise and support  the colonists as settlements are established and life returns to normal, as the settlers become self-sufficient that support will be rolled back, allowing the Ark's resources to be saved for emergencies or used where they are most needed for the overall benefit of the colony.

Perhaps more importantly, as gold pieces are recovered from the ruined settlements and cities now devoid of life, the shadow economy will be rocked as the market is flooded with gold coins. I can see this having several effects.

The relative value of gold will begin to drop. By the time gold returns as a standard currency, it'll likely be worth a tenth of its former value.

Crime bosses, whose wealth currently comes from gold and a captive population, will need to react quickly if they want to maintain their hold on power. They'll need to send teams out to secure gold before someone else finds it, meaning some of the first registered Blazer teams may actually represent criminal syndicates. This will likely result in the frontier becoming treacherous and lawless, and bandits who can look after themselves in the Phantom-infested wilderness may become a real problem.

What do decent folks think about recovering gold from ruined cities — cities occupied by their kin only eighteen years earlier? Is it pragmatic, or grave-robbing? I can see strong opinions forming here, although the naysayers are likely to be powerless in the face of economic reality. Some people are going to be driven to collect the coins, and once they enter circulation there's not much you can do.

It also gives Blazer teams the chance to amass a lot of wealth, if they're willing to overlook the moral concerns. Will adventurers become the nouveau riche?

The more I dig around, the more details I uncover. I can feel Arat coming into focus... although it's still a land in flux. I'm actually planning to detail several potential points in the colony's timeline, to plot a sort of road-map for the colony's likely development and also provide additional game launch-points. But that's a topic for another post.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Discovering Imaginary Worlds

I've been working on a couple of world map projects this week, which has me thinking about mapping as literal world-building.

I've been commissioned to create the world map for +Nathaniel Robinson's Kung Foo City based on his rough draft, and I've also started putting together the map for Ark Frontier.

I've always enjoyed drawing world maps. It becomes a sort of meditative exercise, where I virtually wander the world, thinking about the landscape and putting myself on the ground as I carve out coastlines, raise up mountains, plot the courses of rivers, cast swathes of desert and forest. As I go, I'll discover hidden places, little nooks and secluded vales, remote islands, and long-forgotten cities. I find out who lives in these places, and what they're like, or what they used to be like. The ideas I already have in mind not only take form, but expand and suggest new possibilities.

Mapping is a form of storytelling. This is particularly true with Ark Frontier, where the default campaign will start with a tiny known area at the centre of the map. As the players (and the rest of the settlers) uncover more of the world, they also encounter new challenges and learn about the disaster that almost destroyed civilisation. By taking that into consideration, the map I design will influence how those developments and discoveries play out.

To some extent, it's a bit like a game of Final Fantasy, where you're initially funnelled through a linear experience, then gain access to the world map but are still limited by mountains and coastlines, then finally unlock an airship that lets you go anywhere you want. Ark Frontier starts you at the world map stage (and you can climb the mountains if you're dedicated enough), but it's no surprise that the Final Fantasy series is one of my inspirations for the setting. I'm dedicated to nonlinear exploration though, so there aren't any literal restrictions on where the characters can go, but some areas will naturally be more difficult than others. Creature design also plays a part in that, as there are a lot of different monsters that require a range of tactics to overcome, but that's a subject for another post.

The Kung Foo City map is a bit of a different beast, since I didn't have to design the layout. However I still find myself walking the mountain-ranges as I draw them, and I've been trying to impart a unique character to different areas. The mountains of the north are lofty and jagged, while those of the fertile southeast rise in sugarloafs from the flat plains. To the west, the desert wastes are dotted with mesas and steep-sided plateaus. I'm pursuing a similar technique with the major cities, drawing unique and flavourful icons for each.

Here's the map the players will start with in Ark Frontier. Can you feel the pull of distant horizons?

Monday, 15 May 2017

Ark Frontier Progress

I've decided on the final elements for Ark Frontier, and with those choices nailed down I've been able to move forward on the world-building. I also started setting up a layout design for it, where I may or may not be starting to compose some of the document rather than writing it in a Google Doc like sane people do. I figured it would avoid double-handling if I just started entering creature stats directly into stat-blocks, and I may or may not decide to use InDesign like a word processor. I've done it before for PowerFrame supplements, and it does lend itself pretty well to blocking out a manuscript and then filling in the bits until it's done.

Anyway, elements! I was a little worried that ten might be too many, but they are organised into five pairs: Light and Shadow, Fire and Cold, Life and Death, Sink and Float, Spark and Null.

Some of those are pretty obvious, and some... not so much. Sink is basically gravity or an attractive force, while Float is antigravity and repulsion. Spark is electricity, and Null is sort of non-conductivity, but also encompasses stuff like anti-magic, negation, and void.

The pairs create some interesting dynamics from an in-game philosophical standpoint. Before the Phantom Storm, the indigenous people knew and utilised the five elements of Light, Fire, Life, Sink, and Spark, which they consider positive or natural forces.

The others — Shadow, Cold, Death, Float, and Null — are considered negative or unnatural; whereas normal darkness or cold is simply the absence of light or heat, the elemental forces of Shadow and Cold can actually generate darkness and cold directly. Death as a force encompasses undeath in its various forms, from animated corpses to spectres. The five unnatural forces were forbidden to mages, and even knowledge of them was suppressed. It may be that tinkering with the forbidden elements was somehow responsible for the Phantom Storm, but that's an unanswered question.

With the appearance of Phantoms (initially Shadow, Cold, and Death), knowledge of the negative elements has become widespread. Some think that they should remain forbidden territory, while others believe it is best to "know thy enemy" by researching and mastering these new fields. This has created a split between white and black mages. There are some who prefer to be called grey mages, who dabble in both sides, but most white mages would classify any use of unnatural elements as black magic.

There are also summoners, who feel that the best way to defeat the Phantoms (or to gain personal power) is to gain mastery over them and use them as tools, but this is an outlawed and persecuted pursuit.

Interestingly, this approach to the positive and negative elements also creates some conflict with the human colonists — in particular, their use of anti-gravity technology, which is seen as taboo. I suspect that the Council has placed an official ban on the use of antigrav out of respect for the indigenous beliefs, but that may not stop people from using it on occasion. The cryogenic storage system was also viewed with suspicion, but it relies on the removal of heat rather than the literal generation of "cold energy" and so it has the official seal of approval. This doesn't stop some element of prejudice against the recently-thawed Sleepers, however.

World-building is interesting because each piece you add sends ripples across the setting, interacting with already-established elements and suggesting new things to add and directions to explore. Add sufficient details and follow the consequences to their logical conclusions, and eventually a complete picture of the world emerges like a tapestry.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Endless Hexagons

This week I've decided to start work on a series of infinitely tile-able hex maps I've been thinking about for a while. I may be avoiding the fiddly-work required to finish off the Blade Bind Sparring Partner, but at least I'm procrastinating productively!

The maps are designed to print comfortably on both A4 and Letter size paper, and feature 1-inch (25mm) hexes. I did get a bit worried that they might be a bit small, but totally scientific polling on G+ points to a majority preferring more hexes per page than the larger alternative.

The first set I'm working on is Winding Canyons, with arid rocks and sand. Tonight I finished off the third of six planned maps. Here's a preview where I've tiled two copies of all three together.

I've made an effort to make sure the rock edges tone together pretty well, but the sand shading is a little less well blended. I'll make some cacti for a couple of the other tiles to provide a bit of variety from the dry grass and loose stones.

One of the cool things about this particular design is that you can not only rotate and tile the sheets as shown, you can "brick-tile" them by slipping every second column down by half an edge-length, which results in even more potential layouts.

Other sets I have planned include Forest, Swamp, Ruins, City, and maybe more. I'm planning on making six map tiles for each, and putting them up on DriveThruRPG for $3 a pop.

Sparring Partner

I managed to program how to deal with someone playing a Joker on an Engage (including the edge-cases of someone playing two Jokers in succession, or both players simultaneously playing a Joker), but it was pretty challenging to keep track of and debug everything. 

I needed a bit of a break before I tackle the same basic programming for Winds, and then hunt down all the other places where the AI might play a Joker and fill in a few other functions. After that, I'll see if I can get someone to help with external testing, and work on enhancing the interface.


I'm still editing Altais: Age of Ruin, and have also done some short scenario edits for Arcana Games. Last week I finished off the M.A.S.S. art, and I've now been engaged to illustrate a spin-off book. I should be pretty busy until the end of June, but I always have room to take on extra jobs!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Freelancing, Fighting, and Falling!

This week I've been pretty busy with freelance work, so I haven't made much progress on personal projects. So I figured I'd talk about the various things I've been up to.


I've been editing the manuscript for Altais: Age of Ruin, a far-future fantasy that looks pretty unique. As a bonus, it's by a fellow Australian! It's one of the largest editing jobs I've worked on to date, and making sure I get enough done each day to ensure I hit the deadline is going to be keeping me pretty busy until the end of May or so.

I just finished up he last art piece for the Motive Agency Storytelling System, or M.A.S.S., which is also by an Australian author! I think it may also go by the name Plot Device, but I'm not sure what the final published title will be. It's a generic system that seems pretty flexible; I've done illustrations for a weird mashup of pulp/modern/noir but with human/puppet/cartoon characters, as well as superheroes and fantasy adventurers. I'll let you know when it comes out, or if there's a Kickstarter or anything.

Last year I did a heap of layout work for Johnn Four's Roleplaying Tips. This year he's given me the task of managing the production of a second edition of his book NPC Essentials. I'm pulling material from his archives to expand the content, editing and formatting it, and then getting it ready for digital and print. It's an interesting challenge, dealing with a project of this scope! Apart from my own stuff, I mostly just deal with things after the final manuscript's already been assembled.

I've also been doing a couple of short edits on scenarios for Arcana Games, namely sprucing up their Trouble in Waterdeep scenario for the DMs Guild, as well as a new adventure for their original game, Blood & Bone.

As you can see, I've had a lot on my plate, which is why I haven't managed to finish any of the following things:

Blade Bind: Sparring Partner

I've made good progress getting this automated duelling tutor for Blade Bind programmed, but there are still a couple of hurdles to jump before it's ready for external testing.

I managed to sort out how to handle Jokers in most situations, where you get to draw a new card and then play one from your hand with a wild suit. However there are a couple of situations (on an Engage and Wind) when it needs to be handled differently because both players reveal their cards simultaneously. That means I need to reveal both cards before you draw and replace, and I also need to allow for the edge-case where both players reveal a Joker!

Hopefully I'll get a chance to nut that out over the next week, now I've finished up the art job.

Fallen Princess

I've recently started playing a new app game called Fallen Princess. It's a fun little JRPG-style fantasy battler where you follow the exploits of Princess Aki and her army of monsters as she scours the countryside in search of gold and dark magic. It puts me in mind of the little I've seen of Disgaea, and the writing is pretty amusing.

Anyway, the real reason I bring it up is, it's got me thinking about grid-based mini battles and elemental systems.

I'm tempted to try writing a JRPG-themed RPG with a system for building your own tactical battlefield manoeuvres. I'm trying to figure out if I can do something with the stats to keep them inflating so that you kind of enter a new sphere of power at every factor of 10 while keeping the system fairly simple. So characters might start out with stats from 10-100, but then they can "limit break" to get stats in the hundreds, then the thousands, and so on with no theoretical limit. It's a nice pipe-dream, but I haven't actually worked out any specifics yet. I just want to use my Super Dungeon Explore minis for something other than SDE

Part of me wants to make a brand-new system, and part of me wants to come up with a revised edition of PowerFrame. I dunno; in some ways it might be easier to start again from scratch!

The elemental system in Fallen Princess is fairly straightforward: Fire > Earth > Lightning > Water all go around in a circle, each dealing extra damage to and resisting damage from one element (so Fire both damages and resists Earth). There's also Light and Dark, which both deal extra damage to each other and don't get extra resistance against anything. It's nice to see that alternative approach, as a reminder that not everything has to fit neatly onto a magic circle. That isn't going to stop me trying to fit my elemental systems into a neat circle, though.

Incidentally, Altais has an unusual magic system that relies on parallel dimensions that let mages manipulate the forces of reality, so it has "elements" like light/heat, gravity, electromagnetism, time, and space. It puts me somewhat in mind of the list I've been working on for Ark Frontier.

~ ~ ~

Hopefully I'll have some more progress to report next week!

Monday, 17 April 2017

Blade Bind: Sparring

A few days ago I had a brainwave, and started working on a Blade Bind side-project — an automated duelling tutorial.

Teaching the nuances of the duelling system has been a concern of mine ever since I wrote it all down. While it makes perfect sense to me because I know it inside-out, it's important to get everyone in the group up to speed fairly quickly so they can get the most out of the game. I've considered making a tutorial video — and I still might, but I'm working with a sub-par setup for filming.

Then I thought about creating a "Choose Your Own Adventure" type tutorial, with text and graphics in a PDF, and using hyperlinks to jump from one passage to another. But in some ways that's quite limited (the player would only ever have the same "starting hand"), and in other ways it's massive (each possible card play creates a branching network of possible future plays that quickly becomes unmanageable).

Then I remembered Twine!

I've been noodling away in Twine for a few months now, trying to turn one of my old scenarios into a complex CYOA story. If you haven't heard of it, Twine is an app that lets you write branching interactive stories, but it also has the capability to handle variables and perform various functions. It's missing a few things I'd like (such as for-next or while-wend loops), but I'm learning to work around those.

Most excitingly, it actually has arrays and structures called datamaps, and functions to manipulate them, that actually make building and handling a deck of cards quite simple.

I'm writing the tutorial like a sparring match between you and Siân. She cajoles and encourages you, as well as explaining why things are happening and what your choices are. I'm hoping a few games will help people really get a feel for the duelling system.

I've made good progress in the last couple of days. At the moment I have all the basic functionality in place, and the main thing I still need to do is deal with all the places where you might play a Joker. Since you can play a Joker any time you could play a card, and a Joker lets you draw a new card, then play one from your hand to replace the Joker, and change its suit if you want, it requires a bit of extra handling. I'm trying to figure out if I can put all the Joker code into one passage and then just call it from wherever, but I need to make sure it won't cause problems with the way I keep track of which cards are in play.

Twine outputs the whole game as a single HTML file, so I can either find somewhere to host it online, or provide the files for download. Hopefully I'll have all the bugs ironed out in a couple more weeks!

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Frontier Elements

Looks like I forgot to write a post last Sunday. I've always been a terrible diarist. Anyway, for those of you left in suspense by my last post, I'm here to talk a bit about the "elemental" setup I have in mind for Ark Frontier.

I put "elemental" in scare-quotes because they aren't elements in the sense of being fundamental building blocks, even in a mystical sense. I'm trying to avoid starting with the typical earth/water/air/fire setup, and instead go with something unusual. My list is still in flux at the moment, but the basic concept revolves around different forms of energy (or lack thereof). In that sense, they are more like "properties" than elements.

The Elements

Initially I was thinking of Light, Dark, Fire, Cold, Spirit, Spark, and Gravity. I want Light and Dark because I have some cool ideas for thematic Phantoms, and I want Spark so it can do extra damage to tech devices like Lightning does in Final Fantasy.

There are a couple of obvious opposites in the list: Light/Dark and Fire/Cold. I am considering splitting Spirit into Life and Death, which would provide separate classifications for both healing magic and undead-type Phantoms.

What's holding me back, though, is that I can't think of an "opposite" for Spark... apart from something like insulation/inertness, which isn't particularly exciting as an "element" in its own right. Then again, perhaps it could work if I define it as negation. Call it Silence perhaps? It could cover counterspells and warding, and maybe de-power magical crystals. I'll have to think about it.

I guess if I go with all pairs, then Gravity and Antigravity are the obvious other split. Gravity (Sink?) gets to do crushing, heaviness, high pressure, and attraction, while Antigravity (Float?) covers lift, lightness, low pressure, and repulsion.


Phantoms are magical creatures, most of which are strongly aligned to a single element and express some of its properties. A few may combine aspects of more than one element. Their elemental nature also defines the things they are resistant or vulnerable to; each will have a custom list of resistances. I don't just want to have a standard set of reliable resistances, although they will fall along thematic lines for the most part (Dark resists Dark and is vulnerable to Light).

The area around the Ark will be plagued by a few Phantom varieties, with new and unusual types encountered when the explorers reach new territories. In this way, the composition of the world itself will help maintain the sense of discovery and uncertainty as the players learn how best to handle different Phantom elements and types.

Elemental Crystals

Normally Phantoms dissolve and blow away when they are killed, but it's possible to use a spell to harvest elemental crystals off them. You get different grades of crystal depending on the Threat of the creature (although I've yet to define the effects of the different grades), and there's another new spell that lets you fuse smaller crystals together to make larger ones.

Elemental crystals will have a variety of uses, including mana sources, ammunition, and changing the elemental properties of armour and weapons. I'm thinking one of the native species can also absorb the crystals to change their personal elemental alignment.


That's about as far as I've got with elements so far. I'm not sure what the subject will be next week (assuming I remember to write an article). I've been working on a card game too, so I might report on how that's going.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Ark Frontier Organisations

This week I'd like to talk a bit about the organisations and factions in Ark Frontier.


Last time, I discussed the different groups that have emerged due to different life-experiences. I really like generating complexity by combining several basic options. In Ark Frontier, your species, group, organisation, and occupation form the basis of your social identity.

So far I have the following major organisations, no doubt with more to follow.

The Council

This is the group that's officially in charge of the Ark and all its inhabitants. It's made up of representatives from all three species, although I've yet to determine its exact nature. How many members are there? Are members elected or nominated — perhaps it's different for different species? Are representatives from different factions, regardless of species divisions?

In any case, this is the organisation that makes the hard decisions in the best interests of the colony. Many no doubt find it slow, inefficient, and painfully cautious.

Colony Defence (The Line, Liners)

The equivalent of the military, this group is charged with keeping the new settlements safe from Phantom incursions as people start to slowly spread out from the Ark. Liners patrol the expanding borders and check in on settlements regularly, but they are responsible for holding the line rather than pushing it forward; that job falls to the Blazers.

Colony Defence also controls the Ark's entire supply of exo-suits. They have three different models: the Pioneer hardsuits, Vanguard powered armour, and Destiny mecha. These pull double-duty as construction machinery and armoured combat vehicles. Some would like to use them for expeditionary missions, but the Council feels they are too valuable and few in number to risk losing them somewhere inaccessible.

Blazers (Trailblazers, Adventurers)

This is more a collection of loose groups than a coherent organisation, though there is a shared sense of camaraderie and an informal guild that helps coordinate teams. Blazers venture into the wilderness to explore, fight back Phantoms, and extend the colony's safe-zone. They uncover ruins from the fallen civilisation, and seek to uncover the cause of the Phantom Storm. In essence, they are classic fantasy adventurers.

It's a dangerous yet thrilling life, and many Arkborn are drawn to it with a blazing passion.


Brave souls who have chosen to leave the cramped safety of the Ark to build new homes under the sky. It's a hard life, but one eagerly welcomed by many of the native population as they resettle and rebuild. Some feel a little resentment towards the human settlers, but for the most part there is plenty of space and enough of a shared history of cooperation that nothing has come of it yet.

Exodians (Breakers, Pioneers, Outsiders)

When the Ark first opened its doors, some of the older native folk ignored the Council's warnings, leaving with their families to reclaim their ancestral land. They are outside the Ark's jurisdiction and protection. No doubt many of them fell to roving Phantoms, but some well-equipped and canny groups have established strongholds and carve out a life on their own terms. What happens when the Ark's settlers build far enough out to encounter an Exodian settlement remains to be seen...


Shortly after the Ark re-opened its doors, a small number of sorcerers learned how to summon and control Phantoms. This practice has been outlawed by the Council because of the obvious dangers it poses, and so Summoners must operate in secret. There is a secret society of Summoners who see their skills as a way to neutralise the threat posed by Phantoms, and perhaps even put them to good use battling their wild kin.

Other Organisations

I haven't fleshed them out yet, but there will also be a number of gangs; a criminal organisation that built a black market during the years on the Ark and are now looking to expand their influence throughout the new colony; possibly some sort of magic college, though I've yet to properly define the available magic; and presumably a general school system to train people towards useful professions. And no doubt others.

I was going to also talk about the elemental nature of the Phantoms, but it's getting late so I'll have to save that until next time!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

New Frontiers

I'm going to see if I can get into a routine of posting on Sundays to talk about what I've been working on for the past week. On top of my current freelancing jobs, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about Ark Frontier.

Ark Frontier will be a setting and campaign supplement for PowerFrame. I want to play to the system's strengths, so in short, it's a technofantasy hexcrawl inspired by JRPGs such as Final FantasyWild Arms, and Star Ocean, and also by an obscure old anime called Genesis Surviver Gaiarth.

The Premise

Civilisation on [WORLD] is on the brink of being wiped out by monsters in an event called the Phantom Storm, when a generation ship from Earth — the Ark in the title — lands. While the humans can't save the world, they are able to use their advanced technology to fight back the Phantoms long enough to get a sizeable number of refugees on board. Thankfully the Ark was designed to turn into a self-sustaining arcology city on arrival, and so tens of thousands of people are able to weather out the Storm.

Eighteen years later...

Although many thought it would never end, the Phantom Storm has finally abated. Phantoms still roam a land that is now unrecognisable, but they are no longer a constant threat. Refugees from the Ark — some of whom have never seen the sky of their home-world — emerge to explore and reclaim this new frontier.

Fusion Culture

One thing I wanted to do was come up with a frontier exploration setting that didn't either re-cast native people as "savages" to be wiped out (orcs, inscrutable aliens), or erase them altogether. Instead, the uninvited colonists from Earth (who were perhaps fleeing some desperate calamity of their own) opened their arms to the local peoples; recognising the value in saving a civilisation on the brink of extinction (and one that could help them understand the nature of their new world), and uniting in the face of overwhelming adversity.

That's not to say there aren't tensions within the new culture that has been forged in the heart of the Ark. Traditionalists hold onto their old ways, while the youth of three species have grown up together and look to the future. There are feelings of resentment, but also gratitude and reliance.

On top of the humans and two native species (that I haven't completely figured out, so I'll talk about them later), the events since the landing have split people into several demographic groups.

Natives lived through the Phantom Storm and boarded the Ark as refugees. Some are grateful to the humans for coming to their aid, while others resent the interlopers coming uninvited. These are the last survivors of the old civilisation, and keep its traditions alive as best they can.

Landers are humans who crewed the Ark when it arrived. Most of them are part of a "generation crew" contingent who stayed awake for the hundred-year voyage, but a few were woken from cryosleep shortly after arrival. Most were happy to help the Natives (whether out of humanitarian ideals or pragmatic considerations), but some have grown to resent their presence and their drain on resources as the years wore on.

Arkborn are children who were born on the Ark once the doors were closed against the Phantom Storm. The very oldest of this generation may be those carried onboard as infants, too young to remember a life outside. This group is the most culturally united, with members of all three species mingling freely. Many chafe against traditions, and want to explore the outside world.

Sleepers are humans who have only recently been awoken from cryosleep. Due to the influx of refugees, the Ark could not support all the humans being awoken, and so thousands have remained in stasis until the colony could begin expanding. They still remember Earth, and many now suffer from culture shock as they are dropped into the new society that formed while they were sleeping.

While the focus will be on exploration and trying to figure out the mystery behind the Phantoms, I'm hoping that a well-thought-out culture and differing points of view will create dramatic tension and provide opportunities for intelligent antagonists.

That's all for this week! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or ideas regarding Ark Frontier.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Blade Bind is available!

Hey, so it's been a while since I posted here! Once the Blade Bind Kickstarter concluded successfully, I was head-down finishing the work and keeping the Backers up-to-date on Kickstarter. I'm pleased to report that I delivered the project on-time, and the Blade Bind PDF, book, and cards are now available to the public on DriveThruRPG!

Available in softcover or glorious hardcover!

A lot of people have been downloading the free cards PDF, but I'd like to point out that the print-and-play PDF is just a courtesy product; it only includes the Blade Reference Cards, and you also get that print-and-play file when you download the rulebook PDF. It's useful if you buy the book without also getting the PDF I suppose, although the PDF is included free with physical copies.

Plus, you can get a cool tuck-box for the physical cards!
A big thank-you to all my Backers for making Blade Bind a success!

What's Next?

I'm working on several freelance projects at the moment, as well as some supplements for PowerFrame (including a setting book). I also have some ideas for a Blade Bind supplement, and I pulled the Thunder Hunters document out of storage to take a fresh look. So there's plenty of stuff keeping me busy! I'll try to post about what I'm working on soon.