Award Nominations 2017

This past year was a huge one productively for me. Being part of (several!) teams of creatives & game producers has borne amazing fruit: 9 award nominations for games I designed, published or contributed to. 

Romance Trilogy (published by Black & Green Games)

Award Nomination: Diana Jones Award - Excellence in Gaming

From the DJA Committee: Though a staple element of the stories we base our narratives on, romantic interaction was neglected in roleplaying practice—until Emily Care Boss trained her sights on this longstanding gap. Starting in 2005, her indie-format games Breaking the Ice,Shooting the Moon and Under the Skin earned acclaim, built a dedicated play community and blazed a trail for other designers. 2016’s publication of the gorgeous, much expanded valedictory collection, The Romance Trilogy, acts as both a mission statement and a platform to further explore the implications of the original three games. Its publication gives the committee the opportunity to recognize Emily’s enormous contribution to tabletop roleplaying.

Completed in summer of 2016, the Romance Trilogy, this is a compendium of my three romance themed analog role playing games along with commentary, indices and over 30 hacks and modifications of the games (including several stand-alone "Companion Games" inspired the original trio). Producing the Romance Trilogy was made possible supporters of my Patreon campaign. So many thanks to them! 

The first game Breaking the Ice debuted at GenCon in 2005. I was just a wee nub of a game designer then, this was my first game. This 2-person dating rom-com game was received well, 1st runner up to Polaris as the Indie RPG Most Innovative Game of the Year. The 2- or 3-player love triangle game  Shooting the Moon came out in 2006. Then the final game in the trio: my first larp, the Jeepform inspired Under My Skin in 2008. Under my Skin received the audience choice Otto award at the Danish convention, Fastaval.

Bubblegumshoe (published by Evil Hat Productions)


Award Nominations:

ENnie Awards: Best Family Game, Best Game, Best Rules, Product of the Year

Getting to work on Bubblegumshoe with Kenneth Hite and Lisa Steele was a dream team. With layout by Tiara Lynn Agreste, art direction by Jessica Banks and Tiara, Editing by Ken and Amanda Valentine, production management by Sean Nittner, Fred Hicks and many more talented contributors. In addition we were able to tap the fantastic writing talents of James Mendez Hodes, Kat Jones, Shoshana Kessock, Kevin Kulp, Kira Magrann, and Brie Sheldon. 

This game, using Robin D. Laws' GUMSHOE SYSTEM, has teen sleuths work together to solve mysteries confronting their peers with a little help from their friends (and mentors!). Since the game was meant to lean on social interactions and relationship--reducing the need and emphasis on violence in this teen milieu--that was a reason I was invited on the team. It was a pleasure to be part of making this sweet, thoughtful game come into being, and I'm proud of the work we did on making it include broad representation in terms of gender, race and class. 

The Book of Changing Years (Published by Pelgrane Press)

Award Nominations:

ENnie Awards: Best Writing

This supplement to Timewatch by Kevin Kulp is an intertwined timeline of crimes, misdemeanors and mysteries that intrepid time travelers (and their GMs) can use to unwind the tracks of what has been changed for (most likely) nefarious reasons.  

I was one of a team of 11 contributors who created these timeline jumpstarts for campaigns. It was fun to hear about the other periods & perils, and to interlace our works with pieces from each others' works. A delight and a pleasure to have been part of as with everything Pelgrane.

And last but far from least, a work that really broke ground and reduced barriers. This collection, hopefully the first of many such that bring together a diverse team to create games that address and highlight issues in such an entertaining and at times hard-hitting way: 

#Feminism: A Nano-Game Anthology (originally published by Fëa Livia and now to be published by Pelgrane Press)

Indie Groundbreaker Awards: Best Art, Most Innovative, Game of the Year

This work was lead by Lizzie Stark, Anna Westerling, Misha Bushyager, and Shuo Meng. They edited the anthology, which included 34 short role playing games that address, play with, poke fun at and cry over issues of inequalities, social roles, gender and all that feminism implies. The games have been played in classes, by gamers and non-gamers. The anthology was showcased at IndieCade 2016. Read more about it at the #Feminism entry on the Nordic Larp Wiki.

Thank you to all the judges, committee members and community members who supported these works. Even being classed with these fellow games, creators and events is absolutely amazing.

I wish all the nominees bon chance! 

Interview with Andrea Phillips

Andrea, you’ve done tremendous work in the cross-disciplinary field of transmedia, crossing the lines between writing, game design, involving the many and changing platforms of communication. In fact, you’ve written the definitive book on the topic: A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling! How did you become interested in transmedia development? Is there one key skill or experience you would recommend to others seeking a similar career? 

A: I fell into transmedia through a series of coincidences and social connections you’d never be able to replicate. I was really just in the right place at the right time. But if you’re looking to forge such a career on purpose, I’d recommend becoming a habitual dabbler. Try new technologies as they arise. Try all different kinds of writing and interaction. Make lots of little weekend projects to see how they work and how they don’t. Learn everything you can about games and media, about social psychology, about history, about science. Ideally you’ll be just about competent at a lot of different things, enough to visualize how things can and should work; and then you can recruit a team of specialists to build out the places where your vision exceeds your skill. But first you need to develop that vision of what a story might be like or feel like.

What games do you play for fun? What kinds of stories do you enjoy?

A: I try to game pretty widely; it’s important to see how the field is changing around you as conventions and technologies evolve. I’m a fan of the fantasy RPG, games like Dragon Age or even Fable. But I also love Phoenix Wright, Katamari Damacy, Candy Crush. And even board games like Blokus, or 3-D tic-tac-toe. And I try to read widely, too. Lots of science fiction and fantasy across many subgenres, of course, but also romance, mysteries, nonfiction about the history of salt or Victorian-era inventions.

It’s all about putting a lot of different kinds of things into your brain. The media you consume are inevitably the primordial soup from which your new ideas will emerge. So the more weird and different things you put into your brain, the more interesting your own ideas will be.

You’ve worked on large scale commercial Alternate Reality Games like Perplex City to interactive adventure fiction like the Lucy Smokeheart ebooks.  What are the greatest changes you've seen take place in game design and media? Are there new technologies that you are itching to take advantage of?

A: When I started making ARGs, social media as we know it today hadn’t been invented yet. The smartphone as a category barely existed, and the iPad and iPhone weren’t out yet, either. So the entire category of mobile games and social games as we know them today have sprang into existence and eaten the world in that  time. And here’s the kicker: it’s only been ten years. Ten. That’s it.

If you squint you can see the shape of the future to come, too. Apple Watch and similar wearables are going to change things, even if we’re not yet sure how. And eventually augmented reality and mixed reality will hit its stride. (I’m still not sold on virtual reality as such, though.) I desperately want to make a whole series of mixed-reality games -- I wrote a white paper on the subject several years ago, but at the time the technology didn’t really support my wild imaginings. But I think we’re getting there. I just need to persuade some nice AR company to give me a call, I guess...

Congratulations on the release of your book, Revision! You recently tweeted about how much more vulnerable writing from the heart can make you feel in comparison with game design. I find writing daunting since you must present the full narrative by yourself, instead co-creating a story with your players as you do with a game. What are your challenges with writing fiction, and what makes it worth the struggle?

A: Thank you! It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve been astonished at how well the book has been received!

So -- there are some profound differences in what you can do in various media. There are some kinds of emotional textures you can’t provide except through interactive forms. You don’t feel pride or guilt over your own complicity when you watch a movie. But there are also some kinds of artistry you can’t pursue in a game, and it’s a rare game that lets you reach the same levels of depth and abstraction as a novel does. There’s not much place for elegant metaphor in a game, you know? So I go to fiction to fulfill a different set of creative needs in myself.

But writing straight and serious fiction -- not the silly stuff like Lucy Smokeheart, not children’s media like Circus of Mirrors, but the projects where I’m trying to say something true and important to me -- it’s terrifying. And so far, nobody is counting on me or keeping a deadline over my head, so it’s more difficult to get started. And to keep started. I like deadline pressure.

And then when you finally send that kind of work into the world, it’s like stripping all your clothes off and standing in the middle of town square, where people can see who you are with no pretense or artifice. But that same vulnerability gives you an opportunity to connect with other people under starkly honest conditions. And that’s amazing and powerful, for someone to see what you normally keep locked away in your heart and have them tell you, “Hey, I like what I’ve found here.”

Your podcast The Cultures with Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman is a great listen, rich in observation and you grapple with serious and challenging topics in popular culture as well as design.  What podcasts, online communities, conventions or festivals do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of writing and design?

A: Oh, I’m so glad you like The Cultures! It’s tremendous fun to do, and I always come away from it feeling a little wiser than I started. 

My #1 favorite venue for discussion about writing and design is Twitter. It’s not deep, but it’s always there, and just knowing you’re not all alone in this game is morale-lifting. I feel sorry for writers in decades past who didn’t have that persistent social connection. Once you find a community of other writers like you on Twitter (or the social media of your choice), the gatherings they go to will present themselves. That might be something like ARGfest, a Worldcon, WisCon, a local comicon. But the important thing, to me, isn’t the programming at any given convention, it’s finding a convenient time and place to connect with your community. A lot of the programming is still 101-level stuff you can get more information on faster by Googling, but there’s no replacement for having coffee face-to-face with your peer group.

I should also say I learned a lot about writing from Absolute Write, particularly the threads run by novelist Jim MacDonald (Learn Writing with Uncle Jim.) It starts out a little bit opaque -- or it did for me -- and I had to grow into it. Looking back, it was a tremendous help to me in learning how to think about structure, pacing, and tension. Not how to write, but how to think about writing. Understanding that every word and sentence is doing a specific piece of work in your story.

I’m also a huge fan of the Ditch Diggers podcast done by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace. There’s a lot of myth swirling around the processes and business elements of writing, and Ditch Diggers talks about writing as a job, with a clear-eyed and unromantic perspective a lot of writers can benefit from. Mur’s other podcast I Should Be Writing is also great for addressing the emotional landscape of creative work.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to break away from talking and reading about writing so that you actually do the writing. All the theory in the world doesn’t help you when the page remains blank.

You’ve mentioned that in reviewing or discussing games, people rarely address the narrative aspects--such as pacing, characterization, plot. If you don’t mind, pick a game you enjoy and give us an example of how that kind of discussion could look. 

A: Right now my favorite game to deconstruct is Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s a fun game, with a lot of beautifully written moments -- there’s a mission that closes the first act called In Your Heart Shall Burn that is an incredibly powerful scene, one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in a game or a film. It comes when the heroes seem at the edge of total victory, but find that instead they lose everything that they’ve built for so far and have to start over again. You find yourself stumbling alone from the ashes of your home through deep snow, trying to find the other survivors. When you finally find them, they’re arguing among themselves about what to do and where to go. And then a religious leader raises her voice in song: a religious hymn that cements you as a symbol of hope for the Inquisition to rally around. You survived, and that means all is not lost. Better: that hymn is the theme music for the game, so you get a shiver of that moment again every time you boot up the game from that day on. 

But afterward, the pacing takes a turn for the worse; the hero enjoys a slow, steady slide to victory, and there really aren’t any major setbacks after that. There’s a point very close to the end of the game where it seem briefly that you’ve come under the power of an old and tremendously powerful figure from prior games with ambiguous motivations -- someone who might be outright evil, or at least inhuman. But that twist isn’t given any time to settle in; it’s resolved in practically the next moment. So you don’t feel like the jaws of defeat are closing around you. And as a result, the latter parts of the game feel less tense. There’s no real sense that losing is possible, nor that anything is really at stake.

Some of this is down to the nature of an open world game, because pacing is always a hard problem if you don’t know what may happen next. But big-picture story missions happen in a particular order, and I kept waiting for the discovery of the Horrible Truth that it’s too late and you’ve already lost. But it never came, and so the eventual victory didn’t feel as powerful as it should have.

What’s next for you? Any dream projects you’d love to do some day?

A: Right now I’m writing a fairly straightforward YA novel about the luckiest girl in the world (literally), and a secret society of luck-eating magicians. The working title is Felicity, but you can be sure somebody will change that before it hits.

I have a Lucy Smokeheart-style Choice of Games game coming out later this year, too; it’s called Mermaid Hunter, and you play as an aspiring scholar of the Royal German Marinological Society, trying to prove the existence of mermaids. 

After that, I have a transmedia project I’d like to build named The Attachment Study. It’ll play out through emails and text messages that arrive in your inbox over the course of the story. Among other things, I want to explore the space of having a character in a story fall in love with the reader; it’s a very rich territory, and I want to see what I can find there. 

Thank you for sharing your time and experience with us, Andrea!

Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. She has worked on projects such as iOS fitness games Zombies, Run! and The Walk, The Maester's Path for HBO's Game of Thrones, human rights game America 2049, and the independent commercial ARG Perplex City. Her projects have variously won the Prix Jeunesse Interactivity Prize, a Broadband Digital award, a Canadian Screen Award, a BIMA, the Origins Vanguard Innovation Award, and others. Her book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is used to teach digital storytelling at universities around the world. 

Her independent work includes the Kickstarted serial The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart and The McKinnon Account, a short story that unfolds in your email inbox.  Her debut novel Revision is out on May 5 from Fireside Fiction Co. and her short fiction has been published in Escape Pod and the Jews vs. Aliens anthology.

You can find Andrea on Twitter at @andrhia. I mean, if you like that sort of thing. 



A Dirty World & Noir - Interview with Greg Stolze

Hi Greg! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?

G: Mm, that’s kind of a tough question… I like Sherlock Holmes quite a bit, just for the whole iconic stalwart “Yes I’m smarter than everyone else and we’re all just going to have to bear that burden together” vibe. Modern day “smarter than y’all” sleuths all seem to be a bit of a xerox off Holmes, unless they have some interesting diminishment.

On the other hand, I like TV’s Columbo a lot too, for the exact opposite reasons. He just trudges and trundles and grinds away doggedly and humbly until he succeeds, after being methodically underestimated throughout. Plus, he’s compassionate, which isn’t something you see much in sleuths.

In developing A Dirty World, what was your approach to creating a mystery?

G: The model of a mystery novel is extremely mechanical, I find. You need to have everything placed where the reader can see it (because otherwise it’s a cheat) but it has to be occluded and shuffled in with red herrings so that when the detective puts it together, the readers slap themselves on the head and say “I COULD have figured it out, if only I’d been a bit more clever!” 

Now that I think about it, it’s a bit like poetry. The poems I like the best always provoke this contradictory reaction in me, where I think “I’ve never thought of that before but I’ve always felt exactly the same way.” With a good mystery, you get to the end and think “Oh, it’s obvious but I never would have figured it out in a million years.”

Doing that in a book where you can meticulously plan your advance and the deployment of characters and clues--that’s hard enough. Doing it in a game where you have unpredictable players in the mix? Nah. I don’t even try to replicate the mystery structure. I just have an unsolved and unstable situation, then spam the PCs with clues until something busts loose. 

With the new version of DELTA GREEN that’s coming, I’ve tried to approach the adventures I wrote for it from the perspective of “The PCs are entirely predestined to have an encounter with the awfulness of the world, and their rolls and decisions only determine if they encounter it with some hope of surviving or prevailing, or whether they just get one horrid revelation before rolling up new agents.” With ADW, the mystery is always THERE, but it’s really just a framework--a jungle gym upon which the contortions of morality and ethics can be performed.

Noir often has a jaded view of society, how is this a part of A Dirty World? 

G: The mechanics in ADW are a series of sliders between contrary capacities, like “Honesty vs. Deceit” or “Courage vs. Wrath.” It’s possible to be bad at both, but you can’t be GREAT at both. If you’re really brave (and therefore really good at fair fights or those where you’re overmatched) you can’t also be really vicious with those who are weaker than you. If you’re essentially deceptive, that always comes through a bit.

There are no hit points in ADW. You take damage directly on your ability to do things, but direct losses are less common than shifts. When your courage gets injured, it often makes it EASIER for you to be cruel to others. When your honesty is diminished, lying becomes more reliable. 

Of course, in lengthy conflicts, you inevitably lose some ability, so every scene has an opportunity to increase one trait. But you can only do it if you’ve acted appropriately. You can only improve your Purity if, in the previous scene, you righted a wrong at cost, without duress. That’s a pretty high bar, right? To improve Corruption (the opposite of Purity) you have to deliberately make someone miserable, with no personal gain. One of those is clearly a lot easier to engineer, and the positive, upright abilities are generally harder to raise up than the dark, malevolent abilities. Being bad is easier and more powerful, which makes people behave in Noir-appropriate ways pretty quickly.

What parts of your rules and overall system capture what drew you to write a noir game in the first place? How do you communicate those elements of the genre to your GMs and players?

G: ADW is pretty short because I figure anyone who wants a Noir game has their own opinions about what Noir is and how to evoke it. To me, Noir copes with doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing. But at the same time, it’s about pragmatism, taking a long hard look at the ugliness of life and saying “Yep, that’s ugly and hard.” I don’t want to impose moral judgments on players (because they rarely work) but I do want to evoke a lot of questions about right and wrong, and their impact on personality.

ADW, for better or worse, is tightly focussed on the internal states of its characters, and they’re constantly in flux. You can start out the game as an honest, courageous and certain individual, but between the choices you make and the things that get done to you, you can end up doubting, dishonest and mean as the rattler that bit its own daddy. Solving the mystery is less important than what the detectives do while chasing it, how they change others and how they are changed in turn. 

Thanks for chatting with me about your game!

Happy to.

Greg Stolze was born way back in 1970, when phones were shackled to walls like prisoners in a dungeon and wide ties ruled the Earth. He designed the rules systems for Unknown Armies and Wild Talents, and contributed heavily to a couple Worlds of Darkness as well as Delta Green and the early days of Legends of the Five Rings. You can find tons of his work on and follow him on Twitter as @gregstolze if you want to read about his writing, gaming and assorted physical injuries. A Dirty World is part of the Bundle of Holding deal at until June 23, 2015.


Interview with John H. Kim

An interview with John H. Kim, host of the Indie RPG Awards and Role-Playing website

John, you've been involved in role playing games by writing, running and documenting the industry since the early 1990s. Your encyclopedic website is a great resource for people who want to learn about the successive waves of game design, and spotlighted women designers.You've written for the Knudepunkt (the Nordic larp convention) companion books and published other essays on how role playing games really work. And, for many years have been the steward of the Indie RPG Awards site. Thank you for all that work. Can you tell us how you got interested in role playing games? You play both tabletop and larp, did you start with one or the other?

J: I started with tabletop RPGs from an early age.  Back in the 1970s, my best friend in preschool had an older brother who was into Dungeons & Dragons (TM) , which at the time was cool and new, and I have been fascinated with RPGs since then.  I played a number of RPGs through grade school, including D&D as well as the superhero game Champions and the science-fiction game Traveller - which kindled a continuing interest in science for me.

 What games have you played recently, or want to play soon?

J: I have three tabletop campaigns that I'm playing in - a weekly D&D game, a monthly GURPS game, and a bi-weekly Call of Cthulhu campaign. I also go to a weekly group that does a mix of story games - our most recent games were The Quiet Year, Universalis, and The Play's The Thing. I also do a various larps - mostly at the four Bay Area local conventions I go to, as well as AmberCon NorthWest in Portland. I'm currently preparing to run a voodoo and noir themed larp for KublaCon in May.

You've been part of several generations (so to speak) of game discussion and theory. In particular you were instrumental in recording discussion on the UseNet group, which fed into discussion at the Forge forums and in Nordic game communities. What are the greatest changes you've seen take place? Are there conversations going on now that you are engaged by? 

J: I think the biggest shift has been what transformed in the mid-nineties, which is moving away from advocating for a particular style of role-playing, and moving toward accepting that there are differing creative goals. This is still going on, but (for example) I think there are fewer people who tout story as the only legitimate intent of role-playing, and more people who accept that as an alternative to their own style. The boom of online publishing has brought together a lot of previously disparate groups. Also, the cross-polination of larp - and especially Nordic larp - with tabletop design is an intriguing new direction.

The main ongoing conversation that I'm engaged by is discussion of educational games. I was fascinated by the glimpses I'd seen of material out of Osterkov Efterskol, the larp-based high school in Denmark. I hear about a number of U.S. based educational larps, and I would like to see more discussion of design principles among these.

What do you think are some of the most important ideas that have come out of rpg theory discussion?

J: I do think that the Threefold Model was an important early step in discussion, and another key development from rgfa was the concept of group contract - which the first step into many analyses of the real-world social structure and interactions of games.

 Among a lot of furor in tabletop RPG theory of the 2000's, two that stick with me are Troy Costisick's "Power 19" design questions and Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void". The "Power 19" questions are a compact version of designing with specific intent, which is a good summary of the trend of narrow/coherent game design where each choice is in service to a chosen creative agenda. However, this can lead to literal, reductionist design - where to make the game about love, you have a "Love" stat, mechanics to resolve love affairs, and characters with lots of loving relationships. Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void" is an expression of the vital counter-trend, that points out how the game's focus isn't always the literal meaning.

 An important recent idea is characters as psychological (especially Jungian) archetypes, as advanced by Sarah Bowman and Whitney Beltrán, among others. This is only starting to touch the surface of psychological process. Previous psychological theory tend to regard story and serious themes as goals unto themselves. The more interesting question is what the game accomplishes. 

What's your favorite social medium to talk about games today? Any of them? Why? 

J: My favorite social medium to talk about games is unquestionably to play games with people in person. There are innumerable subtleties and details of play that just can't be communicated without shared experience. This is particularly true of role-playing, which is an improvisational form whose analytic language is still in its infancy.

What conventions have your favorite gaming? Your favorite talks on games and game design? 

J: My favorite convention for play is AmberCon NorthWest, held outside Portland in early November. It has a strong, close-knit community and lots of innovative concepts for tabletop play. The theme of Amber fiction and diceless play gives a common culture without being limiting.

My favorite for discussion of games and game design is the Knutepunkt conventions held in spring in the Nordic countries. It also has some great example games run in the week prior to it, and during the convention, but mostly it is a whirlwind of impassioned people talking about the games that they are dedicated to. Living Games is a plan for a U.S. larp discussion conference similar to Knutepunkt - it will be starting in Austin in May 2016. [NB: The first Living Games conference was run in New York City, March 2014]

Other excellent conventions include local California conventions - particularly Big Bad Con in Oakland in November for innovative tabletop and larp play; and the larp convention WyrdCon in L.A. in September. The Bay Area also has four (!) other major gaming conventions: DunDraCon in February, KublaCon in may, and PacifiCon and CelestiCon in September.

I understand that the website to the Indie RPG Awards has changed to. The awards have been going on since 2002, and the indie rpg movement is going strong. Have you thought about adding a live action component? Do you have any other new plans for the site?

J: Thanks. I think the new website has actually a better name than the old one of "", but unfortunately the old URL is no longer available to redirect, so there may be some confusion. 

Live action games have always been included in the Indie RPG Awards, but there is not a separate live-action-only award category. Notably, the "Nordic Larp" book was on the slate in 2010, and the "Blood on the Snow" with your own larp rules was in 2013. There still are not that many English-language larp designs published each year, certainly not compared to the many dozens of tabletop designs published. At the current rate of publishing and nomination, I don't think it's ready for its own category. 

I will be on the lookout for how to include more larps among nominations, and larp designers among voters, for them to potentially get their own category in a future year. 

If people are interested in discussion of rpg play or design, what do you recommend they read or listen to?

J: I think it depends a lot on what they're looking for. Some people like fast-moving trends such as Google+, Facebook, or Twitter. I think those can be good for getting alerts from time to time, but for in-depth I prefer books and permanent websites on the topic. For larp, both Knutepunkt and Wyrd Con publish books of articles each year. 

Are you working on any games? Are there any projects you'd like to work on? 

J: As I mentioned earlier, I am working on a voodoo and noir themed larp, called "Dark Ridings", where the characters are all practitioners on a fictional Carribean island come to a summit meeting. In terms of game design, I am explicitly experimenting with archetypes and possession - where each character has the option to at some point be ridden by a loa. It's written for a convention audience, which makes it touchy - since I have to simplify and work with American's view of the real-world religious beliefs of Haiti and elsewhere. However, I don't want to stick to only Western culture just because I can't portray other cultures to an equal standard. At least with voodoo, it's easy to do better than the horribly negative pop culture depictions. 

On the longer term, I have been considering a major update to my venerable website, which started way back in 1994. I have been learning a lot more about modern website design in the past year, and I am considering an overhaul that would majorly improve the functionality, making information easily at people's fingertips. 

Spione and the Power of Tabletop Freeform Design

This Spring I helped curate and participated in a charity Bundle of Holding called the Indie Spring Festival. Spione is one of the earliest written of the games in the bundle and in many ways was a precursor of the others and the movement in game design they represent. This game is a capstone to the collection and embodies recurring themes seen in the whole group. All together, these games exemplify the structures that can make tabletop freeform a powerful and elegant form of design. 

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Why Noir

Role playing games give us a way to escape the world. But if we look at it from a different angle, they can give us tools to deal with the stresses we endure, and try to struggle with them. The world is a terrible place for many of us. With the transformations that our world hurtles through every year, a focus that can encompass these things is welcome. Discussion of noir fiction is ripe for this.

This may need to be proven, though. Noir, particularly film noir is often a very male-focused, white, hetero-normative affair. But, the reasons it packed a punch to the post-WWII French film critics who coined the term are the reasons it is still relevant today: it speaks of the massive trauma to the world and human psyches brought about by modernization of warfare, commerce and technology. What is often swept under the rug are the voices who spoke of oppression and loss of belief in the powers-that-be from long before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of the lives lost in the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, and the massive enslavement and forced migration of Africans. 

Noir narrative, also, in its structure broke conventions that bound us to one linear path to knowing a tale. The films were characterized by the flash-back, fourth-wall-breaking voiceover narrations, dream sequences, unreliable narrators, expressionistic and emotion heightening lighting, and the use of real locations over sounds-stages. Film noir creators produced a visual vocabulary which allowed their stories to break the frame of modern, conventional tales and explore contrasts and contradictions of stories from the twilit parts of our lives and minds. These techniques crossed over from literature and psychology, and map readily onto role playing games. Using the strengths and dimensions unique to each form.

Noir can't change the facts of history, but it can allow us to see history differently. It's a mode of communication that points to the gaps and breaks in what we often think of as the closed and healthy system of 20th (and now 21st) century human societies. In fiction, film and in games it is an avenue for criticism and exploration--though one which is as vulnerable to becoming watered down and repetitive as any other genre, mode or form.

Let's approach noir with fresh eyes, then. Looking at the spaces it creates in narrative for critiquing the failings of society and the individual. And as a narrative form that is meant to embrace narratives counter to the mainstream. 

Theory Roundup

From "The Hidden Art: Slouching Toward a Critical Framework for RPGs", by Robin D. Laws, in Interactive Fantasy #1 (Inter*Action).

Role-playing games have existed for many years as an art form without a body of criticism. Reviews of RPGs have been common for nearly as long as the games themselves. Criticism, however, remains an unploughed field.

RPG Theory has moved forward on many fronts since 1995, when Robin Laws put forward this call.  But where, and by whom? And most importantly, how can we find archives, glossaries and records of past work? I offer this summary of some theory discussions and communities*, as a point of reference for research and discussion. And links to timelines or overviews, such as Brian Gleichman's "Timeline of RPG Theory" or Lowell Francis’ Age of Ravens rpg history lists.  At a later date, I'll do a separate post, with a reading list of notable books and key articles on contemporary game analysis. And links to others' recommended reading lists. No one view can see it all.

Early Days of Paper and Page

Back in the dark ages, the conversations began in print. RPG magazines provided new game from materials, hacks and tips on running and playing the games. Letters pages and columns formed opinion and hosted raging controversies.  Paul Mason, in "In Search of the Self: A Survey of the First 25 Years of Anglo-American Role-Playing Game Theory" (in Beyond Role and Play), charts the progression of ideas regarding rpgs developing at this time. 

Four long-running magazines of note are Lee Gold's Alarums & Excursions, TSR's Dragon magazine, Games Workshop's White Dwarf, Steve Jackson Games' Pyramid magazine. The first three began between 1975 and 1977, at  the very inception of the hobby as we know it. DragonDex, an online searchable archive provides listings of Dragon issues. White Dwarf was switched to a weekly digital format in 2014, with the monthly slot being taken by Warhammer Visions. RPG.Net hosts a searchable online index of White Dwarf and Dragonas well as Dragon's sister magazine Dungeon. Alarums and Excursions deserves special note as an amateur press association (or compilation fanzine), rather than a game company publication, as well as for embracing the idea of rpgs as art. Lee Gold talks about the publishing the magazine in this Grognardia interview with her from 2009.

Pyramid began in 1993, during a later wave, and continues on today.  Pyramid back issues are available (Tables of Contents listed online and sortable by theme). Many shorter-lived but influential magazines made their mark, such as James Wallis and Andrew Rilstone's Inter*Action: The Journal of Role Playing and Storytelling Systems (later changed to Interactive Fantasy recently made available by James Wallis again Issues one, two, three and four) hosted such articles as Robin Laws' "The Hidden Art" and Phil Masters' "On the Vocabulary of Role Playing: Notes Towards Critical Consistency?"; and Aslan, a publication by Rilstone in the 1980s. Aslan emphasized theory and is said to have helped popularize UK Freeform rpgs,  spearheaded by Rilstone. 

Invaluable histories of the early (and contemporary) decades of rpg play and discussion are Jon Peterson's Playing at the World and Shannon Appelcline's series of volumes Designers & Dragons, soon to be re-printed by Evil Hat Productions. The Old School Renaissance design movement (exemplified by the 2010 Dragons at Dawn re-creation of rules used by Dave Arneson that preceded the original Dungeons & Dragons and by OSRIC™ a 2011 system used to create contemporary game materials compatible with Advanced D&D™, and broadly documented at the RPG.Net OSR wiki and Rob Conley's Bat in the Attic's list of OSR Sites)  recalls the aesthetics of the earliest days of gaming. Recent magazines presenting new games and taking up the mantle are The Escapist (online magazine covering video games, technology and fandom as well) and Gygax magazine, brought to us by sons of Gary Gygax who continue on the legacy of this founder of the hobby.

The Information Quiet Country Road

In 1992, the Usenet group (accessed at the time with glacial alacrity by dial-up modems) started as a space to advocate for games people loved, but developed into a conversation about how games worked. Participants by far and large wrote from the perspective of running and playing games, with some designers participating. Notable theory concepts and shared understandings about terminology that came from this include the concept of the Group Contract (spoken or unspoken agreements that players and the GM operate under while playing an rpg), Metagame (dealing with player, rather than character, concerns) and I'm not sure if they coined the term, but they had early discussions of Immersion (defined there as cutting out all metagame information possible during play and "immersing" in the character).

From the FAQ:

"GROUP CONTRACT": The set of conventions the players and GM agree on:including rule system, but also issues like "The GM will fudge things so PCs won't die pointless deaths", or "Pulp genre conventions take precedence over common sense", or even "Don't let the cat in while we play: she bites legs."

The early discussions of Rgfa.Advocacy were collated in a FAQ mainted by John H. Kim. His archive " info" provides an overall record.

These were not the only conversations going on about gaming at the time. For example, a systemless design movement emerged in Australia and New Zealand, some of which focused on atmospheric play and looking at the player emotional response to play as an important part of design. In the late 90s/early aughts I became aware of this movement as the former "New Wave", possibly with parallels being drawn to the larger Australian New Wave movement in film and art (which brought us The Road Warrior et al.), but I can find no references to it in those terms today. "New Directions in Australian Role Playing" by John Hughes, from 1991, preserves the history of this movement and provides an overview of techniques and approaches used, in "Systemless Game Design: Design and Presentation" by Hughes. These techniques pre-figure later developments in freeform and rules-lite design in Sweden, Denmark the US, Canada and elsewhere. 

Online Sources: Late 90s, early Aughts

The legacy of rpg periodicals continued online in the late 90s. Places to Go, People to Be, published online from 1998 through 2008 hosted discussions of theory, play and an extended History of Roleplaying in 10 parts. The full decade of PtG,PtB is available online indexed by issue and thematically. Online venues such as Ogre Cave and Treasure Tables hosted news, reviews and interviews and the applied science of GMing well. A searchable archive of Treasure Tables at Gnome Stew provide access to this accumulated wisdom, and many more blogs offer insights into technique for running a good game. While forums and resource aggregators such as ENworld and RPGGeek provide information on games, discussion and breaking news. RPGGeek includes extensive indexes of rpg related periodicals, drilling down to issues (with table of contents listed) and by individual article. Over 77,000 articles have been listed this way, through the efforts of RPGGeek board users.

John Kim's RPG Theory site is a perennial reference point: along with his documentation of the Advocacy discussions, during the 2000s he compiled a list of role playing games, sorted by year and company. Also, free rpgs, many of which links are history, sadly--though that reinforces the importance of this list to record that they ever existed. Kim amassed a list of Notable Women RPG Authors and curates collections of reviews, convention reports and copyright information on his site. Of particular note is the RPG Theory page with a tremendous number of links to articles and discussion of games and how they work, as well as Kim's own overview: "What is an RPG?", which lists other such pages, like Emily Short's overview of Interactive Fiction,  and Epidiah Ravachol's game called "What is a Role Playing Game?" 

Kim summarized an influential part of Advocacy rpg theory called the Threefold Model (a viewpoint that there are three main rpg play styles--Gamism, Dramatism and Simulationism--formulated by Mary Kuhner) and published it in another bastion of rpg theory: the Knutepunkt (translated as "meeting point" or "nodal point") Conference books.  

Nordic Conversations

Knutepunkt, begun in 1997 in Oslo, Norway, and since held annualy, rotates among four Nordic European countries: Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway--this conference began with a focus on Nordic Larp, particularly experimental or "art larp" forms, but has broadened to include discussion of and participants from other larp, tabletop and freeform traditions from the Nordic countries, elsewhere in Europe and world-wide. Essential readings are collected in the recent Foundation Stone of Nordic Larpreproducing key works identified by Eleanor Saitta at the Nordic Larp Discourse site (which also includes related video presentations).  The Nordic Larp book published in 2011 provides descriptions, essays and photo-documentation for 30 representative games. Theoretical terms coming from these intertwined traditions include Transparency (having all in-game and system information available to all participants), 360º Illusion (fully realized props, costumes and settings for live play, simulating as close to possible the in-game world for the players) and Bleed (players experiencing emotions based on their experiences in-character, or informing character play based on player mental state). 

From the Nordic Larp Wiki:

The 360º illusion is a design ideal where the aim is to make the physical immersive experience as complete as possible, i.e. 360 degrees around you. In its most basic form this means that everything you can see is ingame, but can reach much farther than that; also meaning that every interaction must be as real as possible and that anything that can be made to function for real should be done, instead of using symbolics.

Other collections of games and discussion from the Nordic Larp, as well as the Nordic Freeform (a related, but differentiated form of mostly-live rpg play) offshoot are Norwegian Style, Vi åker jeep, the Larpwriter summer school with its Mixing Desk of Larp, and the Nordic Larp Wiki. Techniques used in Jeepform play are listed in the Jeepform Dictionary and Play with Intent includes techniques inspired by Jeepform as well as larp, tabletop, drama therapy and improv theatre.  The history of the Danish scenario tradition is recorded in "The best one-shots in the world" by Kristoffer Apollo, and their role playing boarding school is called Østerkov Efterskole, located in Hobro, Denmark. And influences of Nordic Freeform on some North American designers are discussed in Lizzie Stark's "Introducing American Freeform" article which is part of a larger US, Canadian and beyond Structured Freeform movement.  

For some firey reading and a snapshot of early controversies and issues in Nordic rpg theory, look at the various manifestos from the turn of the 20th century: The Manifesto of the Turku School, Dogma 99, and the Meihlahti School. Also the non-manifesto, Jeep Truths, from 2005. But don't stop there, a lot of ground has been covered since.

Connections and Corrections

Tracing back the history of these theory communities, it's easier to see how interconnected and co-influential each is on the others. Rgfa.Advocacy writers contributed to the Knutpunkt books. The larp theory of the Nordic countries influenced thinkers who came from Advocacy. And another large part of the conversation spun off from Advocacy, and later became a central arena for discussion about tabletop game design and independent publishing: the Forge forums. In his "Evolution of the Threefold Model", and more recently in "Revisiting the Threefold Model" (in Wyrdcon Companion 2012), Kim documents the path of this discussion.  

From "The Evolution of the Threefold Model" by John H. Kim

Ron Edwards and Ed Healy created the original site for "Hephaestus' Forge" in 1999 as a site devoted to independent role-playing publishing. However, Gaming Outpost and the Sorcerer mailing list remained the forums for discussion. In early 2001, Clinton R. Nixon and Ron redesigned the site as "The Forge", including a set of web-based discussion boards.

In "Key Concepts of Forge Theory" published in Playground Worlds, please note that I mis-attribute the founding of these two forms of the Forge: Ron Edwards worked with Ed Healy to create Haephestus' Forge in 1999, and then with Clinton R. Nixon to make the Forge into the form it continued on in through 2012. This information is included in a footnote on page 1, but the first paragraph of the article is misleading. 

Forging On

RPG theory found a home at the Forge. Conversation here focused on analysis of tabletop rpgs, aimed at supporting their independent publication by designers.  In 1998, Ron Edwards wrote the essay "The Nuked Apple Cart" which critiqued past models of rpg publishing and called for designers to go independent. At this time, print on demand and websites made it possible for designers to market their games directly with low overhead and reduced risks. Technological innovations such as hand-held touch screen devices, and market tools such as Paypal, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Square, Google+ and various social media make this more approachable as time goes on. 

Another essay by Edwards, "System Does Matter", was fundamental to design and game analysis discussion at the Forge. 

From "System Does Matter" by Ron Edwards, 1999.

"Oh, okay," one might then say. "But it's still just a matter of opinion what games are good. No one can say for sure which RPG is better than another, that's just a matter of taste." Again, I flatly, entirely disagree.

Some definitions would be good. First, I'm talking about traditional roleplaying games, in which the GM is a human, and the players are physically present with one another during play. Second, by "system" I mean a method to resolve what happens during play. It has to "work" in two ways: in terms of real people playing the game and of the characters experiencing fictional events.

In this essay, Edwards spells out what would be come to be known as three different Creative Agendas for play, which he elaborated on later in "GNS and Other Matters of Role Playing Theory". GNS (Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism), are distinct concepts from the Gamism, Dramatism and Simulationism of Advocacy's Threefold Way, despite two of the names remaining the same. GNS itself changed over time (as documented by Kim's "Evolution" article, and came to be replaced by the Big Model. A market segmentation study commissioned in 1999 by Wizards of the Coast (publisher of Dungeons & Dragons at that time), is cited to refute the ideas of both GDS and GNS. Despite similarity, GDS is reported to have developed unrelated to Glenn Bacow's 1980 article "Aspects of Adventure Gaming" on four elements of play he saw in adventure games of that day: "Roleplaying", "Storytelling", "Powergaming", and "Wargaming". Other typologies include the Threefold Model and Bartle's Taxonomy of Player Type ("Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs," 1996). Bacow's article was a source for Robin Laws' Player Types. GNS was discussed on the Forge in parallel with the publication of Robin Laws' in Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering published by Steve Jackson Games in 2001, where Laws outlines the types. 

The central tenet of Edward's essay that "system matters" spurred on discussion at the Forge about how rules and mechanics of rpgs guide the interactions of players, and generate a shared fictional set of events. Some concepts worked out here include Scene Framing (formally beginning and ending an interval of play, determining cast present, location, inciting events, etc.) Task Resolution vs Conflict Resolution systems (mechanics that focus on determining success or failure at a given action vs. resolution systems that elicit varying potential fictional outcomes on a larger scale and adjudicate which one is agreed to happen), Stakes (first thought of in terms of winning the game, later refers to vying over fictional outcomes), Currency (quantified interactions between various mechanics), and IIEE (Intent-Initiation-Execution-Effect: stages of the process of resolving contested fictional events into the flow of the story; player stating and clarifying intent for character actions, decision is made about action and mechanics or procedure of resultion come into play, the resolution process occurs and the actions are said to take effect, the consequences of the fictional actions are determined either through discussion, narration or further mechanics). Essays by Edwards are hosted at the Forge Articles page, as well as pieces by Emily Dresner-Thornber, M.J. Young and the late, lamented Erick Wujcik.

The Forge RPG Theory and GNS Model Discussions forums were closed in December 2005. Older discussion was moved to the Forge Forums Archive in 2010 and forums were shut down in 2012. During it's run, there was substantial backlash to and critique of Forge theory, summarized by Brian Gleichman in his "Why RPG Theory has a Bad Rap" five part series. Jargon and elitist feel of the conversation caused many potential readers to move on, as discussed in this UK Roleplayers' forum "Where were you during the Forge?" However, discussion and elaboration by participants and other engage parties continued on sites such as Vincent Baker's anyway. and Moyra Turkington's Sin Aesthetics. Brian Hollenback published "The AGE (Art, Game, Emulation) Model of Game Play and Design". Mendel Schmiedekamp published weekly and annual abstracts of rpg theory discussion at RPG Theory Review. Essays were published by Jonathan Walton in Push: Bleeding Play. Overviews of the Forge body of theory were collated by Chris Chinn ("Theory: The Big Model") Ben Lehman (Ben Lehman's "Introduction to Forge Theory"), M.J. Young at Places to Go, People to Be (Theory 101-Part 1: System and Shared Imagined Space, Part 2: The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast and Part 3: Creative Agenda), and my article "Key Concepts in Forge Theory" which is available in the Solmukohta book Playground WorldsDoyce Testerman's RandomWiki RPG Theory Glossary (with many entries provided by John H. Kim) and the Forge Provisional Glossary

Some game companies whose designers participated in the Forge forums or booth at GenCon include: Night Sky Games, Stone Baby GamesPeach Pants Press, Willow Palecek, Cream Alien Games, Black & Green GamesAdept Press, CRN GamesIncarnadine PressBurning Wheel, Memento Mori, Contested Ground StudiosOne Seven Design Studio, Arkenstone PressBox Ninja, Half Meme Press, the glyphpressEvil Hat ProductionsNDP Design, Muse of Fire GamesRobert BohlKevin Allen Jr.Lumpley GamesDog-Eared Designs, Bully Pulpit Games and many others. I was a participant on the Forge beginning in 2001. 

Over the years, there was overlap of discussion and participants with the ongoing forum, RPG.Net, a discussion site with game reviews and columns. And many people who took part in the Forge joined the Story Games forum, founded by Andy Kitkowski. Story Games was in part inspired by the annual Forge Birthday Party forum, which was oriented toward fun and unstructured general discussion. Differentiation is still needed even years later, as reflected by threads like "Story Games has never been, is not currently, and will never be The Forge".  Discussion of enjoyment of rpgs continues to go beyond any 3 or four pursuits, as exemplified by Levi Kornelsen's Manyfold Glossary.

Academic Pursuit of the Hidden Art

Since 1995, rpg theory has graduated from non-existence to being varied and sundry. With the rise of seeing games as tools for change, as in Jane McGonigal's work, to viewing them as powerful psychological mechanisms ripe for corporate and institutional application (i.e. Gamification) and funding for craft and analysis of that billion dollar industry offshoot of rpgs: the video game. In addition, RPG Theory has been forwarded by the general study of games as in Zimmerman and Salen's Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals or Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin's Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, and academic cross-disciplinary studies, such as Gary Alan Fines' 1983 ethnography, Shared Fantasy. A longer reading list will be the topic of a future post here. Events such as Maelstrom and AlterConf are created to shift social imbalances in the field.  And forums such as bring together practitioners and players of tabletop board and role play games, live action role playing games, alternate reality, augmented reality and transmedia. 

However, venues that focus primarily on analog rpgs in the minority. But it has found a home in certain journals and proceedings papers. The International Journal of Role Playing Games was founded in 2008 and offers rigorously peer-reviewed articles. And the recently formed Analog Game Studies aims at promoting academic and popular study of games. Two role playing game conventions publish proceedings annually: the Knutpunkt books which were already mentioned, as well as the WyrdCon Companion Books. These provide discussion of play and design as well as providing a record of game communities, such as "Over Time: Intercon and the evolution of theatre-style larp in the Northeast" by Nat Budin, in the 2012 WyrdCon companion book. Also, don't miss Nat Budin's description of Alleged Entertainment's "Styles of larp".  


A multitude of blogs and feeds now host these conversations, as shown by the list on the site RPG Blogroll. A proliferation of discussion on podcasts have arisen, many listed at RPG Podcasts. Some forums still prosper, such as RPG.Net, Story Games, ENworld and others. Individual blogs such are too numerous and ephemeral to list here. Twitter, Google+ and Facebook connect and create communities, as did Livejournal before, and many social media to come. The field of theory continues to be ploughed, and we'll see what new crops the season brings. 


*Please contact me with corrections or additional sources for information about these and other concurrent discussions of rpg theory at I look forward to expanding these references over time.


[last substantively edited 14 October 2014, link added 7 December 2018]