I want to talk about the tension between creating a fair market for TTRPG products and hobby design.
First, let's talk about the value of not-for-profit game design.
Par for the course, I want to start with the psychology side. In the 20th century (and unfortunately still now) many people believed motivation came down to rewards and punishments. In the area of production/labor, this meant if you paid people they would be more motivated. Except Industrial Organizational psychologists found something different. In experiments in the mid-20th century, people engaged in an activity and then rated their enjoyment. Later, they engaged in the activity, received money for it, and rated their enjoyment.
Their intrinsic enjoyment went down when they were paid for it.
This post is the third in a series about increasing accessibility for those with dyslexia. Today, I want to cover how people with dyslexia process information differently. I'll introduce the tasks that can be harder for people with dyslexia, then apply it to game design in a practical way.
Since information processing affects many parts of gaming, this post covers the widest range of examples and topics. Think of it as an introduction to thinking with a dyslexic brain, with just a few illustrations of how that affects gaming.
Procedural Learning: Not so natural
There is evidence that those with dyslexia have a harder time with "procedural learning", i.e. learning by doing or observing. This is also called implicit learning.
A classic experiment illustrates the process of implicit learning. Scientists let a mouse wander around a maze several times with no rewards or incentive. Then they put the mouse in the same maze with food at the exit. The mouse that had explored previously found the exit much faster than a mouse that had never been in the maze before. Even though the mouse hadn't been taught to find the exit previously, it had "implicitly learned" the layout of the maze during its previous wanderings.
As humans, we rely heavily on procedural learning. We teach through observation followed by practice. This is summed up in the medical strategy: See one, do one, teach one.
Many people with dyslexia demonstrate a limited ability to learn through practice. Watching and even practicing an activity leads to limited improvement. Instead, many people with dyslexia require explicit learning, i.e. being told, "First do this, then do this, then do this, etc." People with dyslexia often need to build up a mental map of explicit rules and processes to understand how to complete a task.
For myself, I can only survive the extensive writing in my job because I created templates for documentation that explicitly state: write this here, then this here, then this here. Any novel writing tasks outside of this explicit structure tend to overwhelm my brain and take much longer. Similarly, I have never been able to learn a foreign language through immersion. Instead, the classical method of learning languages with charts and grammar rules is much easier for me.
How does this relate to game design?
Tides of Gold was the one-weekend experiment that ended up becoming the game that shifted how I thought about Forged in the Dark (FitD) game design.
Rather than do a full post-mortum on the project I want to highlight one aspect that turned out to be really important: the role of playbook concepts.
In Blades and my previous game Karma in the Dark, playbooks were primarily about the type of professional you are, i.e. your skill set. A Whisper is about tapping the occult in Blades; a Broker is about social manipulation in Karma. The playbooks were about what you do (with some flavor of how you do it in the xp triggers).
For Tides, playbooks are more about your role in the crew. If you choose the Compass it isn’t just about doing mystical stuff, it’s about being the moral anchor and voice in the group. Think Cassie in the Animorph books or often Kayley in Firefly. If you are the Old Timer it’s not just about being skillful with surviving, it’s about being the one who has seen tragedy and wants to prevent it from reoccurring by sharing wisdom. The Firebrand, one of the new playbooks, is about being the one who pushes people to take action, to be passionate, to challenge and act fiercer in pursuit of what you care about.
All of this ties back to the central theme of the game. Tides is a game where you play as pirates, but it’s actually about the intersection of family and purpose. You have an anchor that motivates you along with some purpose for striking out into dangerous waters and trying to gain money (and perhaps respect/power). You have a crew that is more like a found family. And your playbook is a way of saying, “this is the role I want to take within this (probably dysfunctional) family.”
I have some unexpected downtime so I want to write a little bit about my method for developing Tides of Gold as a standalone game and some of the new rules. (This post will probably make more sense if you’re familiar with Blades in the Dark or other Forged in the Dark games).
I followed two design principles while creating the rules system for Tides of Gold:
The final result is something I’m calling (not really) Forged by the Apocalypse, i.e. if the Blades in the Dark rules system and the Apocalypse World System had a child:
I made several changes tone-wise to the Forged in the Dark core.
I changed harm and death:
Beyond these specific changes, I cut out any mechanics that were not absolutely necessary or simplified others. I expect to continue this “editing” approach to rules as I continue trying to find that streamlined balance.
The Trade Game
Creating a trade game probably changed the dynamics the most.
The faction/tier game has been replaced by a trade mini-game including an all new “trade phase.” This part of the game will require the most playtesting; the coin economy is based on very theoretical math scribbles I made.
Cargo is an abstract measurement of 7 different types of supplies. At any given time, each port has 1 cargo in high demand, 1 in low demand, and the rest are normal; these demand levels potentially change the worth of what you sell.
Factions stock different cargo which changes dynamically on the GM side, so you get specific loot based on the factions your raid and when. Some cargo always sells for more…but if you carry highly desirable cargo, the raids you face (replacing entanglements) could be more dangerous.
During the trade phase you can sell cargo, buy cargo, ferret out gossip about what different factions are stocking, or try to manipulate the market so a specific item stays in demand (or surplus) longer.
Trade drives crew advancement instead of rep. You invest coin in increasing your Wealth rating; with each Wealth advancement you get a new special power to control trade or influence ports. However, as your Wealth increases, you also become targeted by more powerful factions wanting to steal your profits for themselves.
If your group is all about min-maxing, you can manipulate the supply and demand of ports, locate the best factions to steal from, and increase your trade empire to the point you bribe entire cities to do what you want or actually control supply and demand. The change in markets happens on a predictable schedule, so you can actually plan your sea routes and raids around trying to score before the demand shifts.
Or you can focus on a simpler style: steal stuff, sell it for some coin, and spend it on more downtime crafting actions or personal projects.
Or just, you know, sail around the Reef Lands fighting sea monsters.
When you want to end your campaign, the group makes a roll based on their Wealth and follows the wrap-up prompt based on the roll. This can help give you a sense of conclusion, and can be used if you’ve played 1 session or 50.
Opening the World
The game system is less structured than Crossing Worlds or (I think?) Blades. There are different game phases (scores, downtime, trade, sea travel, freeplay) but there is no set order; you just can’t repeat the same phase in a row.
The world is defined but vast, with 9 detailed ports and lots of open spaces. Factions, notable NPCs, and continent histories are there to inspire stories…but the result will depend on your group and which prompts interest you.
So you could remain in the same port, raiding and selling, for multiple sessions. Or you could rob a ship, sail to a distant land, sell your loot, spend downtime at sea, sail to another location, take downtime at port, trade some more loot, etc. Or go on a focused raiding spree: sail, score, sail, score, sail, score, etc. (until your ship’s upkeep demands downtime). The goal is for the structure to provide prompts for play, not restrictions on it.
The playbooks and crew sheets in the new system only require tiny changes from the Blades compatible format.
I’ll release an updated version of those with the seafaring rules that you can still use in your traditional Forged in the Dark games. (Also…I haven’t combed thru but I think 90% of the rules can be made Blades compatible if you really want to keep to that system.)
You can support my continued game design work by purchasing a copy of Breach through itch.io.
But for the sake of accessibility, I want to keep a free copy of the game here.
You can also watch two members of Gauntlet RPG play the game on Youtube.
Many Forged in the Dark games—including the original Blades in the Dark—open their rulebook with a list of influences or touchstones. These highlight inspirations, but perhaps more concretely, clue players in on what type of media you can expect to create with this game.
The new setting in Crossing Worlds is important to me partly because I struggle to list inspirations that most gamers would understand:
But what about genre touchstones? Surely I have those?
Any mainstream touchstone I could point to is steeped in the culture that created it. Sure, let's say the game is like fantasy, but decolonize it: there are no monsters; there is no treasure or loot; you do not get xp for killing others, instead you have to inflict that damage on yourself too; there is no supernatural magic, instead there is the power that comes from relationships and interdependence and the magic of realizing nature is our equal; there is no concept of set destiny because time is not linear but moves in cycles...but unicorns? I mean, I don't care. Animals of mythical shapes and sizes and features are fun; imagination is cool.
But remember if you do have unicorns they have no special connection with virgins, because women are not owned by their male relatives or defined in relation to male sexual appetites.
There is no good vs. evil, only balance vs. imbalance.
But also there are no heroes and there are no nobles; there are people, choosing to add or to take away.
There is no success condition or happy ending; the world will fall into ruin; your job is to make sure it doesn't happen in your generation; your job is to think about the effects on the generations to come.
Okay, maybe fantasy isn't right, let's look at science fiction.
Oh wait. Western Science. There are literal textbooks and degrees deconstructing all of the tension between that genre and indigenous views.
And this is why I prefer to avoid genre touchstones. I'd rather let the mechanics and the experiences speak for themselves.
So...why am I saying anything at all?
Part of me would prefer to sidestep touchstones entirely. I would prefer to not mention the inspiration at all. That's what my grandmother did; she hid her Cherokee identity for decades. Until she went back home, and decided it was time to be honest about who she is, and started talking. It came out slowly. It wasn't until her 70s that the dam broke and she talked about it every time I saw her; it was only with a few people she talked about her traditional spiritual beliefs at all. But she talked.
So as uncomfortable as it is for me, here are my touchstones. I am Cherokee. Some of my family were on the Trail of Tears; some weren't. Some enrolled with the tribe; some didn't. Some stayed in Indian Country; many did not. Some identify as Cherokee now; some identify as white.
The game is about the tension and complexity of that question: "how do we resist when pressured from all sides to be something else?" Importantly, the game is about you defining and exploring what resistance means. Because it can look vastly different from person to person—and still be valid.
I ask my questions through the lens of the Cherokee culture, but I think the exploration is something we can all relate to on some level. Because I think we're all connected. That's part of the magic.
In July I tweeted: "When you've been working on a project for 3 years, are preparing to release the 4th version, and THAT's when your brain is like, 'Oh, THIS is what the game was about the entire time.' Thanks editor brain, glad you finally showed up to the party."
Last summer I was writing an intro to the Mission chapter of the book, and as I described what missions you would be called to do, and why the powers-that-be relied on the desperate, my brain was like, "Oh hey, this feels familiar."
Crossing Worlds is about several things, but the advancement system? The entire concept of doing missions for "more important people?" Starting with a mix of ideals and ambition, then becoming jaded and beat up in the process?
That part of the game is about the military system in the United States.
What do I mean by that? On this Martin Luther King Jr Day, I'm going to turn to his words. From his speech "Beyond Vietnam":
"I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
"Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
"My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
Full Speech transcript and audio. If you aren't familiar with this speech, it is well worth a listen (or read).
Crossing Worlds, in many way, is about the military. Join. Fulfill the agendas of those above you. Conform to the system to find success, or leave the system. Be pulled in by the promise of benefits (healthcare, stable salary, educational scholarships) but pay the price of extreme stress, potential trauma, and existing in an inherently dehumanizing system that refers to you as "bodies", i.e. "We need another body...you can't go on leave, we don't have enough bodies...ok y'all, we're going to be down some bodies over the next few weeks."
I will be the first to admit the benefits of military service can positively change a person's life. My own family has served for generations, and received financial and educational benefits, as well as developing skills of leadership, resilience, organization, discipline, and probably a dozen others from that service. But as MLK Jr highlights, you can't escape the violence inherent in the system, especially with such a disparity between who makes the laws and declares the wars, and who actually serves.
I can't play military-themed roleplaying games personally. Partly because seeing non-service members "roleplay" being in the military based on Hollywood stereotypes is grating, and partly because I don't like my hobbies to remind me too closely of real-life events.
But as it turns out, all along I was making a game about the military. Just in this version there are no ranks or uniforms, and instead we have super-sized magical pets and Inspector Gadget level cybernetics....and I'm okay with that.
I really want to get Crossing Worlds out. I have handwritten notes for everything I need to write.
I also am really sick of writing. Whenever I try to translate the notes to fully formed sentences, my brain switches into neutral and refuses to budge.
I decided to fall back on my very first writing strategy: using art to push forward. The first full story I ever finished writing (back sometime in like 3rd/4th grade, probably 20 pages total) relied on a very simple technique. I found a picture I liked in the Word Processor, pasted it into the doc, then wrote more of the story inspired by that image. It started with a unicorn, went to a pony, and finished with a jungle (with a fire, cart, cat, and parrot in between).
Turns out that strategy still somewhat works for me.
Simple as it may seem, creating that image helped me write a little more in the new chapter on magic.
I've continued to work on the setting summary. Rather than edit the first post (again) I've decided to post the next version of the setting. Since I don't currently stream my design, this is the closest you can get to design-in-real time.
I am working on making a default ready-to-play setting for Karma in the Dark. Other design projects have been put on pause while I jump fully into this revision.
This is something I've been considering for over a year but put off for various reasons. The rulebook will continue to support making your own world with the world creation chapter, but that will be optional rather than required.
I've been turning around ideas about the default setting for a long time. I want to hold onto touchstones of a dystopian, oppressive world counter balanced by fantastic magic and technology. Perhaps the biggest (and maybe divisive) choice was to leave earth for the default setting. I've felt restricted by concepts of traditional cyberpunk and want to explore similar themes in a different way. That suddenly became easier when I stepped into the broader speculative fiction space.
Below is a draft of the current concept. It is still open to significant change and reworking. (For example, this write-up has already been redone three times today).
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.