I’m writing another game!

It is a few months since I finished Mail Order Apocalypse, and apparently, writing games is a tiny bit addictive: I’m already about 70 pages into writing the next game. (For comparison: MOA clocks in at 106 pages, a lot of them being random tables)

So, the next game, what is it?

The working title is Raiders of Arismyth, and it is supposed to be a modern dungeon crawler. Which is slightly unusual territory for me. My gaming shelf has lots of „story“ games, with abstract mechanics, collaborative narration, player empowerment and so on.

But I also have collected a few hundred gaming miniatures over the years, and I wanted to use them again! I prefer games that are rules-light, easy to grok, and ideally have not too big character sheets. There are a few options of course, but none of them really appealed to me.

With Mail Order Apocalypse, I decided early on that I didn’t want to reinvent a whole game system, and thus chose Into the Odd for the mechanics. For Raiders of Arismyth, I wanted something that feels similarly simple, but does offer more crunchiness on two fronts: Character generation and advancement, and combat. Especially the latter — it doesn’t make sense to bring miniatures into the mix when distances and such isn’t particularly relevant.

At the same time, I didn’t want the system to be too mathematical. Choosing how to advance ones character shouldn’t require too much in-depth system knowledge. Choices made today shouldn’t completely block later choices.

In the end, I have settled on a few things:

  • There are no attributes, just skills
  • There is no vancian magic, and no mana points or similar either. You know a spell, feel free to cast it as often as you like!
  • Dice are rolled in pools. Any result on a die that is greater than half the total value (ie. 4+ on a 6‑sider, or 11+ on a 20-sider) is a success.
  • Combat should be about movement. Those miniatures want to be moved around after all!
  • The rules aren’t just there as mechanical abstractions, they are there to form the game world and its metaphysics.

Sadly, all this means that where Mail Order Apocalypse managed to cram all the rules onto one single page, the core rules of Raiders of Arismyth need about 10 pages. Let’s dive into how magic works a bit, so you can see what I meant with the last bullet point about the rules influencing the game world:

Magic spells are learned as skills. Learning a new spell skill allows you to perform the least powerful version of that spell with an uttered incantation plus necessary hand-movements using both hands. With additional advancements on that spells skill allows one to make it more powerful, extend the range, or be able to cast it without an incantation or moving the hands.

In order for this to work, the spell and the advancements are tattooed onto the skin of the magic user, anchoring the mystical energies. The positioning of these marks is important, especially if the mage still needs to touch it to perform the spell. One can learn a lot about a mage by looking what sigils are placed where. And of course, seeing someone who chose to spend their precious advancements in order to be able to perform a simple light spell without any hand movements or spoken incantations tells you something about them too…

I did a few test runs with the system already, and the results were quite promising: It played smooth and easy in turns of rules application, but also allowed for some a lot of interesting tactical choices during combat. The latter felt deadly enough to the players, but not overwhelmingly so.

A lot of things are of course still missing: The skill list needs to be finalised, I need to flesh out the example magic rituals, think about equipment, or at least rules on how to improvise weapon statistics in a coherent way, and the world wants some more fleshing out.

But overall, I am quite satisfied with this, and really think this is actually a more complete game than Mail Order Apocalypse (which is more of a setting than a game). You can buy the Ashcan preview edition for a buck at DriveThruRPG if you're curious. But please, let me know your feedback!

Management books you should read, and what to learn from them

I’ve been on a small bender on this, and this is what I learned, in short. Reading my summaries could spare you the time of reading the actual books, but I don’t recommend it — they are chock-full of useful language and terms to describe situations, which will help you apply the lessons better.

The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results

This is the book about how you best communicate goals and plans to a team, so they can start working on them without being micromanaged. The trick: Explain the Why, then When, and the What (problem), not the How nor the What (solution), then have them repeat these things back to you in their own words to check for understanding and completeness (you might have forgotten something).

Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty

You want your clients trust. In order for that to happen, you need to be honest with them, especially when it comes to your own shortcomings. Let your successful work stand on its own. Don’t grandstand, don’t pretend your better than them, but don’t be shy to be firm on the things you know to be right.

Radical Candour

Feedback is important, especially negative feedback. It needs to be on time, absolutely honest, and to come from a position of kind caring. If you give feedback in order to belittle, demean or because you’re on a power trip, you’re an asshole. But you’re also an asshole if you don’t give any negative feedback when you see flaws, because then no one can get better.

Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness

This is a slightly esoteric book. Read on despite the woo, it gets rewarding. Organisations work better when you let them live like an organism, with purpose and innate reactions instead of programmed machine-like behaviors. When you truly empower people to take ownership of their work, they’ll do better. That means everyone basically manages themselves.

Strong Product People: A Complete Guide to Developing Great Product Managers

I don’t agree with a lot of the actual people managing advice. It is well-meaning, but putting it into action would throw diverse people of all kinds under the bus, as a lot of the advice subconsciously encourages group-think and only hiring people that are like everyone else in the team.

But the idea of defining your good, meaning „figure out what a good person for $Position really needs to be able to do“, and then coming up with a metric on how to measure this ominous „good“ is brilliant management advice, as it allows you to give useful and meaningful and above all, actionable feedback.

The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying

Don’t ask leading questions. Don’t ask questions where any desire to please you could colour the answer. Ask open questions that give you useful insights regardless of the answer given.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

hah, gotcha: I haven’t actually read this yet. Come back later! :)

I’ve been…

…so many people over the past few days again, it was delicious. It was that time again, where a plethora of nerds descended upon the non-existent town of Bielefeld and gathered to eat, drink, be merry — and play games!

The food was delicious, the drinks came in just the right amounts and potency, the merriment filled the days but I guess what you really want to hear about are the games. Let me indulge you. I’ve been…

…a progressive alien species, trying to gain control of the galaxy during its second dawn. Alas, I could not make use of my extraordinary powers of research, as every attempt to expand my realm was thwarted by the vicious robotic remnants of the Ancients fleets. During most of the game I just held on to my meager three sectors, eking out some technological progress. Only once I managed to assemble a fleet and watched it get annihilated by the Ancients in a short but brutal fight. (Eclipse, Second Dawn of the Galaxy)

…a successful Unicorn Breeder, filling my stable with the most wondrous of creatures, scheming and plotting to bring misery to my fellow Unicorn enthusiasts, trying to be the first to fill all slots in my stable. A hilarious game, full of puns, innuendo, and most of all, unicorns! (Unstable Unicorns)

…a sailor, a pirate, no, a cultist, trying to direct the course of our ship to the chosen location. Covert collaborations with fellow pirates or cultists, mutinies, bluffing, and the occasional surreptitious changes to the logbooks steered our proud ship. And never did it reach the safe harbor of Bluewater Bay, but instead got fed to the Kraken or entered the dreaded pirate island… (Feed the Kraken)

…a greedy innkeeper, luring adventurers into a near-certain deathtrap. My cunning plan was to feed them to the naked-bear-thing I had chained to the dungeon below my humble establishment. But the motley crew of ne’er-do-wells and murder hobos managed to not only dispatch my minions and beasts, nay, they made off with all of my ill-gotten-riches and escape through the undersea on a magical obsidian rowboat. (The Undertavern, run with Into the Odd rules)

…Loddar, the DIY-King of YouTube, hiking through the black forest as part of a streamed challenge, with four other more or less well-known internet celebrities. Loddar, a cabinetmaker in retirement, gained internet-fame when his grandson filmed his antics testing how well the new rip-stop trousers would protect him against a chainsaw. Clueless about technology he now got thrust into a gaggle of youngsters who film themselves doing weird and (to Loddar) incomprehensible things for the sake of something called „Likes“, which he didn’t quite got. But his grandson said this was good stuff, and the likes would translate into income somehow, and Kevin knew computers after all. What followed was deliciously silly, full of drama and eventually even action, with high speed car chases and bullets flying everywhere! (a custom adventure with a d100 FATE derivative)

…an english industrial baron of the 19th century, building factories and transport links all across the Black Country, vying for domination through two distinct eras of early industrialization, seeing train tracks started to displace the narrow boat channels. A brainy but accessible game with glorious artwork and theme. (Brass Birmingham)

…Peter Rath, the holy sinner and bearer of the tome of 99 demons. A moderately famous fiction author, secretly a vampire of the White Court, Peter spent the past few years very privately, minding family and his own affairs. But the recent devastation of Berlin and the retirement of his sister from her office as head of the paranormal investigation unit drew him out of hiding once more. He joined a small task force trying to figure out what eerie things were responsible for recent oddities around the local cemeteries. Weird Pterodactydemons were fought, ancient religions uncovered and a long-term plan on keeping these forces of evil at bay became implemented. After an inspired lecture, Peter found himself the head of a new holy catholic order, secretly blessing places to protect them, and doing who-knows what else! (Dresden Files RPG)

…a middle-aged summer camp guide in the Midwest. She desperately needed a job, and found a lot more than expected, when she walked into the lone guy who squatted in one of the camp huts, hastily shoving something into a freezer. A few hours of increasingly bloody and campy fun and drama, topped by two women chainsawing a Wendigo into sausages. (Fiasko)

All in all an excellent few days, a fun NYE party and a welcome reminder of good friendships.

Organisational Purpose and the Kano model

If you work in product management, you should make yourself familiar with the Kano model.

Noriaki Kano, a Japanese researcher and consultant, published a paper in 1984 with a set of ideas and techniques that help us determine our customers’ (and prospects’) satisfaction with product features.

The resulting categories have been translated into English using various names (delighters/exciters, satisfiers, dissatisfiers, etc.), but all refer to the original articles written by Kano. You can read up more at https://foldingburritos.com/kano-model/

Using the understanding from this model, product persons classify features of a product as follows:

  • Basic/Threshold
    These are features that are indispensible. If they were not present, anyone using this feature would be immediately dissatisfied. Think of a hotel room that is lacking a bed. These are the „must-have“ features.
  • Performance
    Sometimes a feature or capability exceeds expectations. Some basic functionality turns out to be very fast or intuitive, or looks very pleasant. These are Basic/Threshold features that come with improvements. A real-world example would be an extra-comfy bed in the hotel room, or that one discovers more power outlets than expected.
  • Excitements
    Features that are completely unexpected, things that one wouldn’t normally associate with a given product or service are Excitements. Users would not think of asking for them when a product is described, but when they find them, they are delighted about it. Usually, this is a novelty factor („I would not have expected a cold brew coffeemaker in this hotel room, but I like it!“), and they will not always be the deciding argument for a purchase. But they are noteworthy and will ensure that the product or service is remembered well.

I’ve found this model quite useful when it comes to prioritizing tasks, or to figure out whether a product is „ready to ship“.

What makes teams tick?

For the past few months, I’ve been on a bender reading various books on how to best run a team or a company, how to be best manage people, or how to generally think about work. The current item in that stack of books is „Reinventing Organizations“, by Frédéric Laloux. I’ll not go into the details and my criticism of the book right now, but one thing that tickled me was the story of how a brass foundry stated that part of their purpose was to be be loved by their customers.

As a result, workers take delight in hand crafting little presents to put into the crates when shipping an order of gearbox parts.

And that brings me back to the Kano model, and that I think we should add one quality: Is it satisfying or exciting to make this Feature?

We see a lot of work in the FLOSS sector embodying this quality. Something gets made because the people working on it found it exciting. Either because they wanted to have the resulting functionality, or because building it is an interesting challenge, or because they could already envision the reaction of the users when they’ll find the hidden easter egg.

Trying to find out what features have this „exciting to make“ quality can be a tremendous boon for product people, and I will surely add this to my toolbox! Partly because you can now select for maximum team satisfaction, but also because you can recognise rabbit holes and nerdsniping before it happens and let the team know that a certain functionality might be cool to build, but isn’t helping in any of the other Kano qualities.