We’ve Got History: The Legulus, the Ven, and Earth in The Tears of a Machine SC

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I’ve spent hundreds of hours thinking about all the different aspects of the text of The Tears of a Machine SC. I’ve carefully weighed out my decisions and tinkered endlessly with my word choices (even before my editors saw anything.) I think that’s valuable work – worth sharing, so I’m going to post more of these “director’s cut” blog entries. Hopefully they’ll not only inform but inspire ideas for your own games.

Legulus and Venator

In the basic setting for The Tears of a Machine SC, Earth is first visited by benevolent beings from outer space; the Legulus. They offer to build a high-tech paradise with humanity, in exchange for the use of our brains in their neural network supercomputers. Greed, fear, and xenophobia prevent most of the world from accepting the bargain and the Legulus are driven off. Ten years later, they return but have transformed themselves into the Venator. Now motivated by their own aggression and superiority, they attack the Earth to take what they want.

Why did I write that? Why did I choose to create this backstory? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to have the Venator drop out of the sky and attack? Well, it’s complicated, but it’s the kind of complication I enjoy.

Faceless Foes Are Dull

The invaders could be implacable monsters driven only by an appetite for destruction, but that puts a limit on our stories. By giving them a backstory that includes those days of peace, when the visitors lived alongside us, it opens the door to peace again. Our pilots have room to ask those questions of “what happened to create the Ven?” and “could the Legulus return?” They can strive to be more than pilots in an endless war if they try to learn about their enemies and themselves.

Sometime, somehow, the war between the Preservation Force and the Venator must end. If the Ven are only monsters, then it only ends with an extermination. But if they are something else then the possibility exists for the world to go on once the Saints and Magnas fall silent.

The weapons of the Ven were beautiful statues… at first.

Not So Different, You and I

Robotech was my first mecha-focused anime. It’s not the massive cannons of the SDF-1 that win the first Robotech war. It is (spoiler alert) the music of an up-and-coming idol that appeals to the Zentraedi. Their commanders find a common understanding as pop songs connect them to emotions that were suppressed by their conditioning as cloned soldiers. In addition, the earthlings get their first insights into the minds of their foe when the Zentraedi ace Miriya infiltrates the SDF-1 to kill ace pilot Max Sterling. In a rather ham-fisted scene, the two recognize that they are star-crossed lovers and marry to create the first union between Earth and Zentraedi. Those character arcs made Robotech different to me. They inspired me to think beyond the immediate story of our pilots and their war in The Tears of a Machine SC.

We’re still running our campaign on Kickstarter. Join us, if you haven’t already, and you can decide how your story goes and your war ends.


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This past year I began work on the next game from Robot Claw. Afterworlds is about people trying to save the world from ghosts of the subconscious. Everything people do leaves marks on our collective minds – Echoes. Though most are passing thoughts and fading memories, especially strong feelings can hang on and negative emotions can fester. As Echoes linger they grow stronger until they’re hungry, jealous, angry ghosts that try to reach into the world of the Here and Now.
It’s the job of Pandoras to fight back. Pandoras have faced their Echoes; they have seen their negativity but accept it. They have turned their Echoes into Avatars, wells of psychic power that make them strong enough to face dangerous Echoes.
There’s more to fighting Echoes than just conjuring up psychic power and hitting them with it. Helping others with their troubles, building friendships, and bonding in close relationships can protect people or even save them from their Echoes. To be a Pandora you need to be a good friend as well as a good fighter.
The game is still early in development but I’m planning to have it ready for a 2017 kickstarter funding campaign. You can see a first play test on my YouTube page. Subscribe to the robotclaw blog or follow me on Google Plus or twitter (@robotclaw) for updates.
Afterworlds. To know thy enemy, know thyself.

Metatopia Round-Up

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Thank you, as always, to the excellent staff, organizers, and attendees of Metatopia. This is my favorite convention and I think any designer is well served by attending.
For the sake of brevity I’m going to confine this post to the development of my own designs, but know that even if I don’t mention you here, I had a terrific time meeting, talking, and gaming with you. Metatopia is always a lovely, welcoming event and my biggest disappointment is that I have to stop being there.

I had quite a table for this one, with Matt Weber, Kay Strock, Will Hindmarch, Kenneth Hite, and James Mendez Hodes. Honestly, I felt a bit intimidated by this collection of experts at my table first thing in the morning. We launched right into it and I was happy to see the game in action with these players banging on all the moving parts. The strengths of the design stayed strong and the weaknesses were, well, weak. It might seem silly but it’s the kind of confirmation that I need in order to go forward. I’ve been so immersed in the modifications to the rules over the past few weeks that I could no longer trust my own perspective.

The ORCHID team set to work chasing down The Hardline after they bombed the arcology’s traffic control center. Soon enough we were schmoozing internet celebrities, crawling through maintenance ducts, and hijacking the ID chip in a rich lady’s purse. The session, though rushed, wound up with Wally Yates escaping defenestration by jamming a hidden shock knife into his assailant’s shoulder and Elaine, Marcus, and Akshay assassinating Engineer_420 with a concealed gun in the middle of a busy plaza.

It’s on the right track; I can see it emulating the structure and content of the inspiration but the balancing of the rules and the things that drive you to take action are still flimsy. I need to overhaul the scene economy or a single session will run eight hours. That’s a bit much when I’m emulating a show with 22 minute episodes. Character motivation is still slim. I need more time set aside for character development and growth which means simplifying the strategic element or hiding it away. I expect I’ll be working on this one for a while to come.
Jim Cummings, Matt Weber, and Michael Miller helped me put this one through its paces and it’s a lot closer to done than I thought it was. The structure held up, the concepts were solid. I might need to re-adjust the number of cards in play however. It was pointed out to me that if someone’s already on board to play a game about having a melodramatic death I don’t need to force them down to zero cards to make them play the death scene.

A lunar senator fell in love with the cyborg police officer who defended her from a rioting crowd. Even though society frowned on the crudity of cybernetics and her wealthy fiance stood in the way she went with him into exile on Mars. As he sank into obscurity and depression his cyborg parts broke down and with no one to repair him the senator donated one of her own flesh-and-blood lungs. The operation cost her life however, as her own weak heart gave out and the officer disconnected himself rather than go on without her.

I’m going to set this one loose after a few more rules tweaks. Both Matt and Jim want to show it to their other musical friends and see what they think. I have some grand plans for what a final product might look like but definitely need a longer list of successful playtests before going forward with any of those schemes.
Focus Groups
I didn’t bring any of my designs before a focus group this year but I always sign up to participate in one or two of them. Focus groups discussing someone else’s game are the gentlest critique of your own work you can find. While I’m contributing to the conversation to help another designer I’m also turning over the advice I hear from those around me and comparing it to my own. Some things I overheard are going back into GET9 and might help me around the issue of balancing strategy and improv.
Thanks once again to everyone at Metatopia. I’m already looking forward to next year!

I'm Going to Metatopia

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Metatopia is an amazing game convention. The Double Exposure organizers have always been supportive of new and independent designers and Metatopia is an entire convention devoted to us. I’ll be bringing two new works-in-progress there for playtest and I’m looking forward to seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what’s next for them.
(Working title.) Cyberpunk procedural with a heavy emphasis on improvisation. In this test run an anti-cybercrimes division of the government clashes with a cell of terrorist hackers. The inspiration is obvious, especially if you know where this working title came from. It will be quicker to get going if I can say “like this but this” at the start of the session.
This one has a lot of indie-isms at work. Players belong to teams, each with its own Director, who has light GM duties, so it can be played competitively. Characters are made up of collections of Traits, most of which are defined in the moment that they are used as the players reveal their semi-secret origins. The game is diceless, using a sort of rock-paper-scissors resolution of bidding and comparing Traits to guide narration through discreet scenes.
GET9 actually grew out of the notes from Contract Work, my abandoned design about hit men. It was far too ambitious for me at the time but since then I’ve played and learned a lot more so we’ll soon see if that’s going to pay off. My biggest concern is how long this one will run. I honestly have no idea if it will be two hours or eight to complete an operation, with one team taking down the other.
This one’s even more out there. It’s a game system that provides a framework to tell stories of doomed romance patterned after the structure of Romantic era opera. Two players act as the lovers and the others are choristers. The profiles of the lovers and the world of the choristers are decided by the players collectively interpreting hands of cards that they draw at the start, so the world is semi-randomly generated. This one also leans on improvisation, using a system of bidding and comparing playing cards during a conversational “recitative” to decide the player who has narrative control over an “aria,” essentially a soliloquy in which they get to advance the story.
I’ve been thinking of this as an outline game. One that provides hooks to hang the narrative thread but leaves big spaces for the players to fill. That allows creativity to blossom, but also requires players who can think on their feet and roll with the “yes, and” of improvisation. You don’t have to sing. But that would be cool.
Not Appearing
Project Wingspan won’t be making it to this Metatopia. Wingspan is a game of secret cyborg super-soldiers, based on Tears of a Machine‘s concepts and mechanics but with a greater emphasis on the “loss of self” that goes into being the superhero on the battlefield. In order to become more capable of defending their homeland the characters have to give in to becoming more machine, and a greater threat to their own side.
The playtests that I’ve already run have shown me that there’s plenty of work to do on it and I haven’t had the time. In essence, I went too far afield from the source mechanics and need to pull it back into a more “traditional” design. It may be ready for the next round of conventions. Time will tell.
Hope to see you there!

Making the DAISY Format Book – Part 3

Here we are; the home stretch!

Step 7 Continued – Finishing Up the Editing

In the end, after editing out some errors and tightening up the timing between the paragraphs, the audio version has clocked in at 7 hours and 17 minutes. I’ve listened through word by word and made some minor tweaks to the audio and the text to help them line up a little better, especially around the page marks. It’s not perfect, there’s some stuff I’d like to rework later, but I think it’s ready to be seen and heard.

Step 8 – Export the DAISY Digital Talking Book

TOBI includes a few different options for DAISY output. The most important choice is the format for the audio files. Higher quality files mean a cleaner sound but the book takes up more space, meaning longer download times. Because the audio is just spoken word, I choose to set the sample rate a 22,500 Hz. The reasoning behind this has to do with the Nyquist frequency and physics but suffice to say that the range of the human voice sits pretty well in this frequency band. In fact it’s the sample rate used for AM radio. After setting my MP3 encoding bit rate to 128, a mid-level quality the end result is a DAISY project folder about 200 megabytes in size. Continue Reading

Making the DAISY Format Book – Part 2

Picking up where I left off in the previous post, I’ll continue to guide you through the steps I’m taking to bring Tears of a Machine to you in an accessible format.

Step 4 – The Recording Application

TOBI is a free and open-source application programmed by DAISY Consortium members. It’s a flexible application that lets you work with your text and audio in a few different ways. You can record right through the application or if you want to use other software that’s more familiar to you, then you can import the audio files into TOBI later, matching up sections of the file with sections of the text. There are other applications on the market, some of them quite expensive, but TOBI’s basic features are enough for me.
Loading the new project is pretty easy. I just point TOBI at the .xml files that I got from the Save As DAISY operation in Word. After a quick conversion it opens up the file as a TOBI project. Continue Reading

Making the DAISY Format Book – Part 1

In this series of posts I’ll be posting the step-by-step process of creating the DAISY Digital Talking Book version of Tears of a Machine. Once it’s done I’ll have DAISY compatible versions of the raw text for Text-To-Speech reader software, an ePub book, and a fully narrated audio-book for DAISY and ePub 3.0 rich media playback.
If you want to know more about the basics of DAISY formats and initiatives, visit the homepage of the DAISY Consortium: http://www.daisy.org.
For this first entry I’ll explain getting the book text from Word DOC to DAISY friendly XML. Continue Reading

Tears Progress and Metatopia

Tears is in Layout

Nathan Paoletta’s work continues and it’s really gratifying to see the text laid out. It looks like a real book!
Sample pages
There’s still work to be done in tweaking the layout and settling in some elements. I’m on another hunt for typos as I review. In the meantime, Nathan is working on translating my Excel spreadsheet character sheets from the demo package into real character sheets. Once all of the page numbers are settled, I can begin setting up the files for the accessible text versions and soon start the audio recording for the digital talking book.
Nathan recently joined the crowd-patronage support network Patreon. If you enjoy his work then consider making yourself an ongoing backer of his future projects.

CRC Cards On the Way

CRC ID cards have been ordered so I’ll have them to pack in with books for the SAInt and higher tier backers. Take a look at the digital proof: Continue Reading

Our Work Continues

Preservation Forces Patch
As editing proceeds, we’re working on getting the other rewards prepared and ordered. Thanks to the generosity of our Angel, those of you donating at the $30 and higher level will receive a patch declaring your enrollment in the future forces that will save humanity from the Mayzor scourge.
When Jennifer Rodgers asked me what the patch should look like, I sent her this:
Preservation Force Logo
She, being an actual illustrator took a few hours to tinker with it and then sent me this rough draft:
How about I distract you from that embarrassing comparison by telling you more about Preservation Force tech? Continue Reading