My Life with Games (part 11)–Emerging designer (1997-2002)

It was during this same stretch that I was beginning to flex my design muscles in public, by which I mean the Internet. This was the stretch that the Internet was beginning to emerge into the public awareness, which meant that I was suddenly connected to a number of game enthusiasts in ways I would not have known were possible just a couple years before. I discovered a discussion group on the Warhammer 40K games, started signing myself as “Great Wolf”, and entered the fray of Internet discussion.

At this point, the major controversy was around the release of a new edition of the Epic microarmor rules. To put in bluntly, the new rules sucked, and they required the repurchasing of a number of models. This was simply unacceptable to much of the fanbase at that time. But then, somewhere along the line, someone made the suggestion, “Why don’t we make our own edition of Epic?” After all, while we hated the changes that were being made for the new edition, we all admitted that the current rules could use some improvement. Along the way, someone dubbed the project “Net Epic“, and the world changed forever.

Or something like that.

If you’re familiar with the recent history of Dungeons & Dragons, Net Epic is the Pathfinder equivalent in this space. Also: yes, I was involved in an edition war. I admit it! Shut up, okay?

Now that we’ve settled that….

I loved being a part of this project. I loved fiddling with the rules to work through weak areas and create a better experience. We upgraded super-tanks to be more durable. We wrote brand new flyer rules that were based on strafing runs and dogfights instead of models on flight stands moving around on the board. We improved fog-of-war by keeping orders hidden until resolved. And I loved playing the resulting game.

I also helped promote Net Epic with a worldwide campaign, which was an idea that we adapted from some of what Games Workshop was doing at the time. I put together a broad narrative framework around the Chaos emergence on the planet of Chorazin IV, fought the first battle, and then started tracking battle reports from around the globe. The victory point outcomes of those battles affected the starting conditions of future battles, leading up to a final finish.

Apparently Chorazin IV was the resting place of a star spawn, and the Chaos invasion was all about awakening it. Yes, there was Cthulhu Mythos in my Net Epic. The climactic battle was fought between a Titan Legion task force and my plaid Cthulhu stuffed doll. The total VPs from the previous game set the star spawn’s durability. He stomped around the board but was barely stopped by plasma fire from my Imperator Titan.

During the epilogue, the Inquisition arrived, evacuated and mindwiped the Marines, and virus-bombed the rest of the planet, eradicating every trace of life. Yeah, that includes vast quantities of Imperial military forces. But that’s how Exterminatus works.

One of my favorite parts of Net Epic was the Titans, which were building-size mechs. Now, you need to understand, I love mechs. There’s something that is so ridiculously cool about giant walking war machines. I know that any real mech will really be more like power armor, because a thirty-foot tall war machine on the modern battlefield is a giant walking bullseye. But you can sell me on just about anything if you put mechs in it.

So it’ll make sense when I tell you that, somewhere in here, a friend and I started working through the design of a silly mecha wargame. The core concept was his, as I recall, and the eventual rules constructs were mine. I bought him out during design, and the game went on to press as Junk.

So, here’s your overarching concept: mechs, made of scrap metal, piloted by rednecks, powered by engines that run on beer.

This was the first game that Dark Omen Games published.

When I look back at it, it’s a bit embarrassing. I see all the flaws in the game design. Crystal sees all the layout gaffes. We both remember working with Microsoft Word to lay out the book, which is a tack that exactly no one should take when laying out anything. And I begin to have some sympathy for George Lucas’s inability to stop tinkering with Star Wars.

But still, it was our first game. I still look at it and think, “There’s a solid game concept in there. Maybe I should make a second edition of that and clean it up….”

It might still happen.

For better or worse, Junk launched us into the world of the Internet. Somehow a guy by the name of Graveyard Greg got wind of Junk and posted about it on the Gaming Outpost, leading me to discover that forum. I tripped over RPGnet as I explored the nascent roleplaying space online. At the time, RPGnet had its own IRC channel, and I’d occasionally hang out there, talking with people.

That’s how I stumbled into the middle of a conversation with a new designer who was defending his game concept to some people in the channel. At first, I was put off by the concept. Why would anyone want to roleplaying children, even if they were fighting monsters? And what kind of sick individual would design a game that was really about child abuse? I think I was polite as I posed these questions. (I hope I was polite, at any rate.)

But Jason answered me. He wasn’t wanting to trivialize child abuse. He wanted to highlight it in the gaming experience, hoping that it was impact players to turn around and reach out in compassion to the abused around them.

I was sold.

So I told him that he should include some sort of dedication and disclaimer, to insure that the audience understood his intent. I dashed off something in chat as an example of what I was talking about. Jason included it wholesale in the first edition. I ended up writing an introductory story for the game, as well as an adventure that was released later.

And I was at Origins in 2001, rooming with Jason Blair, when his game Little Fears was nominated for the Origins Award.

Here’s the dedication from Happy Birthday, Little Fears, the tenth anniversary edition:

the characters and events contained within are imaginary, yet every day real children experience horrors as terrible as what is presented in this game.
we dedicate this work to those children.
may they know peace and find strength within.
When I look back at my work on Little Fears, I still feel a sense of being able to do so much better now. I know Jason feels the same. Happy Birthday, Little Fears includes his commentary on his design, including pointing out bits that simply don’t work.

At the same time, I’m really proud of my contributions to Little Fears, and I’m grateful for Jason’s willingness to be open to critism and to allow me to contribute to his work.

Little Fears also taught me that games could be about more than just diversion. Games could be about addressing serious topics.

Games could change the world.

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