Section A: Gaming, Game-Design and Writing

General RPG Stuff

What's the "Sjohn Five-Star Scale?"

When discussing my opinion of games online, I used to frequently refer to the "Sjohn Five-Star Scale" (formerly "System") for rating games and gaming material. I still occasionally do. Some folks assume I just mean a generic "five is good, one is bad" kind of thing, and some folks ask what I really mean. As it happens, each "star" has a very specific meaning, viz:

  • Five-Star Game: A five-star game is one that I'm eager to GM or play whenever possible. If I read a new gaming supplement and I feel that I have no choice but to immediately either run a game with it or work it into my current campaign somehow, that's a five-star game or gaming resource. Examples: Call of Cthulhu (any edition through 6), Ghostbusters (1st Ed), Thrilling Locations.
  • Four-Star Game: A four-star game is one that I'm willing to GM (and probably eager to play). For supplements, the same principle applies: if I've actually used the material as a GM, or if I'm pretty certain I will, someday, it's probably a four-star book. Examples: Teenagers From Outer Space (1st Ed), BESM (1st or 2nd Ed), GURPS Space.
  • Three-Star Game: This is a game that I like and that I'm happy to play (given a good GM and group) but not keen on GMing myself (GMing takes a much bigger investment of my time and energy, natch, and I've only got so much to go around). A three-star game is still officially a "good game" as far as I'm concerned. It just doesn't inspire in me the particular desire to invest lots of personal energy. Examples: Cyberpunk, Hero System, AD&D (TSR Editions 1 & 2, and WotC's 5th Edition), D&D (2nd Revised or 3rd Revised/Cyclopedia), Traveller.
  • Two-Star Game: This is a game I don't want to play, but may have nothing much against, either (and I can probably be talked into playing under special circumstances). Maybe it's a design I respect but have no personal interest in. Maybe it's a game that covers the same ground as another game I prefer. Maybe I really do consider it mediocre ... Since I don't want to play it, though, the abstract bits are moot. Examples: World of Darkness, Unknown Armies, Tri-Stat dX, WotC's version of [A]D&D, 3.0 and 3.5.
  • One-Star Game: This is a game I dislike or consider very poor. If somebody asked me to play it, I might be mildly put off by the notion that they'd think I'd want to. Examples: There are a few, but it wouldn't do anyone any good to see the list!

So, simply put: it goes Eager to GM, Willing to GM, Want to Play, Don't Really Want to Play, Definitely Don't Want to Play. This is controversial in some circles, since it gives little in the way of "consolation points" for games that read well or express interesting ideas without actually inspiring me to play with them. But for me, games are all about gathering with friends and playing, not about abstract appreciation followed by the gathering of dust. Since I make no effort toward objectivity on this subject (and have no interest in attempts at objective measurement of questions of taste), the scale serves me well.

What's your answer to the age-old question: What is a roleplaying game?

That's a doozie, isn't it? A lot of people love RPGs, but none of them really agree on a perfect definition. My explanation for this confusion is simpler than my explanation of what an RPG is, so we'll start with that: some things are best defined by their boundaries, and some things are best defined by their centers.

Gamers often prefer boundary-based definitions (game rules usually depend on them), but RPGs are a center-oriented topic, hence the interminable debate. I propose that RPGs have no set boundaries, but rather a series of gradations toward other forms of entertainment, and that any attempt to draw borders between them is doomed to failure. Our only hope of defining RPGs is to define the center of the thing, to establish the distance and relationship between RPGs and other forms of fiction, other kinds of games, and other uses for social roleplaying:

  • The core of the RPG is the adoption of role. Each player adopts the identity and persona of a fictional character, and experiences the game's events from that character's perspective. The game is about how the characters deal with the goals, questions and challenges that arise in play.
  • RPGs are gameplay. RPGs don't have "winners" and "losers," but they do have degrees of success and failure in the context of the challenges presented to the fictional characters, and success is determined by the choices made at the table (both character-level choices based on the situation the PCs find themselves in, and player-level choices focused on the game rules).
  • RPGs are a live ensemble. A roleplaying game is a live, shared, cooperative experience at both the player and character level. The game's central goals, questions and challenges are those which concern the entire group of characters, while the game itself played by gathering socially as a group and interacting personally to make and implement choices.
  • RPGs have a Game Master. In a roleplaying game, every player is a "player" except one, generically referred to as the Game Master. The rules can determine the results of some choices, but roleplaying games are designed with the understanding that those rules can never be absolute nor cover every possible action that the characters may attempt. The "ensemble" and "character-oriented" nature of RPGs insure that each situation is unique, and typically requires an interpretation of the rules (and of sitautions entirely outside them) to determine the actual outcome. The Game Master is the player responsible for making those interpretations, and for concocting and presenting the challenges that require them in the first place. The Game Master is the only player without a single character of his own. Instead, the Game Master portrays the rest of the universe the characters exist in, including all the other people, creatures, places, weather and so on (which means he gets to do even more funny voices than the other players). With no GM to shoulder these responsibilities, it would be impossible for the players maintain the kind of subjectivity (or enjoy the broad freedom to invent new solutions to challenges) that provides the most unusual thrill of an RPG (what I like to refer to as "tactical infinity"). Being a GM is a lot of work and responsibility, which is the #1 reason RPGs are a hobby as well as an entertainment form.

These four features define the center, as I perceive it, rather than setting boundaries. Lots of games discard (or at least play very loosely) with the concepts above, and there are spectra within them as well as beyond them. Even a game entirely lacking some of the core features I describe doesn't necessarily become "not a roleplaying game" - it's just somewhere on the map away from the center and closer to the center of another game form, fictional medium, or roleplaying exercise.

Examples of "neighboring" forms include computer games and solitaire gamebooks (which partially or entirely discard ideas 1, 3 and 4), story-telling games (which discard or dilute ideas 1 and 4), chatroom, post, and email RPGs (which soften idea 3 to varying degrees), improvisational theater (which discards ideas 2 and 4 and adds physical performance before spectators) and LARPS (which dramatically dilute ideas 2 and 4 while adding physical performance within the context of the game).

Isn't that waffling? Aren't there at least a few absolute concepts that define a roleplaying game?

If I'm in a mood for dictating absolutes, any of the above could be treated as hard-and-fast, especially the "character-oriented" and "game" parts. It's sensible, after all, to say that if you're not playing a role, or if you're not playing a game, you're not playing a roleplaying game. Or is it? And even if it is, we then become responsible for providing a perfect definition of "playing a role" and "playing a game." The minute we try to apply boundaries, however sensible, we run into problems. If we require a roleplaying game to be about characters as I define it, for example (where characters must have both personality and identity), we probably exclude original Dungeons & Dragons! In original D&D, character details like name and gender were optional (and implicitly a kind of frilly add-on); players made a unit: a Fighting Man, a Dwarf, a Cleric, etc. The game acknowledged that some gamers might enjoy regarding their unit as a character (and used the term "role" in the rules), but it left roleplaying as an unexplored option because it wasn't central to gameplay in any way (Co-designer Gary Gygax subtly and not-so-subtly mocked "amateur thespian" approaches to the game, even years later). On the other hand, original D&D was definitely "group-oriented," with its recommendation that 4-50 players per campaign is just about right (with 20 players per GM being ideal). It's easy to see how, with 50 players and 2-3 DMs, a bunch of in-character dialogue would just slow things down! Clearly, during the rapid growth of the hobby in the early years, the center shifted rapidly.

So I prefer to stick to my assertion that RPGs can be defined only from the middle outwards. With any other approach, you end up with the gaming equivalent of claiming that urban graffiti murals aren't "really" paintings or, for that matter, that game writers aren't "really" writers! Like any other form of art and entertainment, RPGs bleed into several others, with no clear division between them, and that's as it must be.

Fair enough, but are there boundaries on how you, personally, use the term?

Yeah, okay, there are at least some semi-rigid ones. I use the term "roleplaying game" to describe any game where I, as a player, can take on the role of a character, interact freely and creatively with other characters, and tackle the character's challenges with meaninfgul choices and creative approaches made from that character's perspective. This stricter definition excludes games that don't allow for "tactical infinity," games where characters' fates are driven more by out-of-character choice (to tell a story, for example, rather than play a role) than in-character choice, and games without live character interaction portrayed personally by the players. That's an RPG as I play it, and that's the kind of RPG I write books for. My ideal RPG experience includes the following.

  • Problems to Solve: I like it when there's a specific problem for the PCs to solve or (better still) a tangled knot/unruly pile of them.
  • Challenges Unmoored From Presumptive Solutions: I enjoy solving problems socially, spontaneously, contextually, and creatively.
  • Gameplay Focused At the Character Level: The sure knowledge that the majority of crucial decisions will be made by the players as their characters, fusing "roleplaying" and "game" into a single entity: the roleplaying game.
  • The illusion of exploring and interacting with a living world and feeling my character's place in it.
  • A clear understanding of, and "belief" in the nature of the party's reason for being (whether we're Starfleet Officers or untrustworthy mercs or just a bunch of prisoners chained to the same oars)
  • The certainty that most of the core challenges will be ripe for characterization (problems where the solutions will come as much from our natures and the limitations of our perspective as it will from our resources)
  • Exploring not just short-term challenges and choices, but long-term choices and consequences as well.
  • I like it when we do the voices.

These ideals are, collectively, the star I steer my game-design ship by. That means it's a guide, not a destination ... but if you ever wonder at the wiggle of my rudder (saw you lookin'!) that's why it's doing that thing. But other RPGs still aren't "not RPGs." They're just RPGs I'm less likely to want to play, read, or write for.

I've heard you make apparently sharp distinctions between originality, novelty, and innovation as regards game-writing and other creative work. How is something original different from something novel? New is new, isn't it?

Here's a breakdown on how I use the terms, and it's the real deal. How quickly the dictionaries catch up with me is another matter entirely:

  • Novelty is the easiest to achieve; just do something nobody's done before. Novelty is so common that it has lost its novelty (ha!), because absolutely anyone can throw random things in a pot and make something new. Beginning writers often fixate on novelty as their goal, mistaking it for originality (or being too afraid of real originality to attempt anything but novelty). Novelty as a by-product is fun, but novelty for its own sake is superficial.
  • Originality isn't as easy as novelty, but it's not too hard if you're comfortable with yourself and willing to get personal. While it's true that all the basic plots and themes have "been done," they haven't been done by you yet, and that's what originality is. A work becomes original when a writer invests himself in it, personally. The only truly, really, genuinely unique thing any writer has to offer is himself, and when his treatment of a topic reflects his own experiences, his own insights, his own passions, his own limits, his own strengths, then that work will read and play like nothing else (reflecting their originator). This is true even if the work is entirely lacking in novelty (that is to say, a formula sword-and-sorcery game can be 100% original, while a "breakthrough" game about playing patches of bathroom mold struggling with existential angst can be utterly lacking in originality).
  • Innovation isn't easy and it isn't hard; it's something above those concepts, floating in the realms between genius and dumb luck. Something is an innovation if it changes the way people do things and see things from then on. Chainmail wasn't the first place where anyone introduced the idea of one miniature = one soldier. But Chainmail is what brought that concept to the gaming table in a concrete and lasting way, laying the foundation for Dungeons & Dragons. Chainmail was, in that sense (and in a couple of others) innovative. Innovation isn't about doing something first in isolation; it's about awakening a change: doing something that brings newness into a world larger than the personal one occupied by the innovator.

And of course, it's worth mentioning that none of the above will guarantee quality. Originality is the surest path to quality (along with lots of playtest and an editor with a whip and a chair), but if you're a boring person, even your original work will be dull. As a rule, boring people shouldn't attempt creative work until they develop themselves a bit more as people.

Working as a Game Writer/Designer

How did you get started in game writing?

I built my freelance career (roughly 1991-2001) on a three-part foundation:

  • As far as GURPS goes, I started out writing articles for Roleplayer, the old GURPS magazine/newsletter. That caught the attention of C. Lee Graham, the (then) Central Mailer of All of the Above, and he invited me to join. My AotA work made me known to Loyd Blankenship, and he invited me to do development work on GURPS Grimoire, and got me my contract for GURPS Russia (and also hired me to write lots of Hot Lead material that will probably never see the light of day). My AotA work was also the reason I got invited to be an editor at Interactive Entertainment magazine, who's (then) chief was Tim Keating, also an AotA'er.
  • But by then, I was already working professionally elsewhere, working on adventure books for Avalon Hill in the Tales from the Floating Vagabond line. I got those contracts by networking at conventions, where I met Avalon Hill editor Nick Atlas and got him drunk.
  • On a third track, I was one of the early contributors to the (pre-WoD) White Wolf Magazine, both as an article-writer and Line Reviewer.

Everything else worked from those bases . . . Then, after a long cycle of development (eventually leading to the "turning down more jobs than I take" stage) I finally discarded freelance writing almost entirely in favor of electronic self-publishing, which allows me to continue to own the copyrights on my work, and insure things like a readable layout, a professional index (where needed) and a substantive process of playtest and blindtest. I still do small-project freelance work (the occasional article or adventure, that kind of thing), but most of my focus, now, is on doing my own thing.

How do I get started in game writing?

Here's the bare-bones primer on how to be a professional freelance writer in the RPG industry. If you think any part of what follows is a joke, you are in serious trouble. Pay attention. Just because it's funny and unpleasant doesn't mean it's not true.

  • Bend over and hand out Crisco. If you moan properly, they'll give you a nickel.
  • Moan like you mean it. If you don't really, really mean it, you don't have any business writing RPGs. There are lots of easier ways to make (more) money as a writer. Lots. Most of us have done plenty of better-paying work in other sectors of publishing, and prefer this stuff because we're junkies, or because a few of us believe (as I do) that RPGs are simply the best kind of gaming, and the best fictional medium, in the history of the species. The only reason to write RPGs is if you're going to moan like you mean it. If you'd really rather write novels, please go do that. Don't be a fool.
  • Be good at housework. There will be months where you contribute nothing worthwhile towards the bills, so you might as well do some laundry. You'll feel better when the checks show up. The money often comes in irregular lumps. Sometimes those lumps will cover the rent for a while, and that's good.
  • Get it in on deadline and 99% of the most horrendous writing sins you can imagine will be forgiven with tears and a hug. This doesn't mean you should be lazy and keep sinning. It means you'll have room to learn while you work, since most publishers honestly can't tell the difference anyway, as long as you fill the pages on time.
  • Follow instructions to the letter if you suspect they're paying attention.
  • Good writing is about clarity, energy, honesty, and personal investment. Put yourself on paper and make it lean and tough. Learn to write by reading, writing, reading, and writing some more. Don't obsess over the rules of grammar; they'll distract you from your work. Worse, they'll give you an excuse to sit around massaging your text insted of making more of it. Your writing will be correct if you develop a good ear, and you do that by reading, writing, reading, and writing some more. Better still, it'll be good. Many editors you meet will contradict this advice. Nod politely. They'd rather be writing novels.
  • Understand that most editors in this industry are both very bad at what they do and terrified that you'll notice. It's your job to convince them you haven't. Bend over, hand out the Crisco, and afterwards, tell them they were the best you've ever had. Thank them profusely for their tutelage and their patience. Gasp when you see the size of the check, pretend you've never seen one bigger.
  • Your high school English teacher was wrong about everything. Paragraph structure, especially, but also the praise of your papers. Don't show old English homework to an editor to prove you're a writer. Please. I mention it because it's happened.
  • On that subject: prepare for the fact that fans and would-be writers will sometimes be scary. Most are not, fortunately. Most are just folks.
  • Speaking of preparedness: If you truly care about quality, be prepared for sadness. Those who can thrive long-term as freelancers have a comforting layer of either mediocrity or apathy (or a jumble of each) which serves them well. If your passions are exposed to the gaming industry without such a cushion, you will find the experience a constant, heartbreaking frustration. They can't help it. They're not evil, they're just distracted by those novels/comics/computer games they'd rather be writing.
  • So, take comfort in this: No matter how badly you write, most of your colleagues are worse. Good writing isn't widely valued (or even sought) in the industry because it doesn't affect short-term sales ... but many gamers do care about it, and if you write well, they will find you. A few editors and publishers care about it too; seek them out.
  • It helps to meet other pros at conventions and buy them drinks and game with them. People are more comfortable hiring people, and recommending people, that they've met. If a drunk RPG writer asks you to critique his draft of a novel, buy him another drink. He will eventually forget that he asked.

I'm writing a full-on RPG writer's manual even now; it'll be for sale on the Cumberland Games page at some point. It'll be the information above, padded out to book length and decorated with inspirational quotes. Buy it anyway; I'm poor. I've also written a couple of articles of interest to new freelancers (excerpted from the Secret Library):

  • Slush was an editorial I wrote for Pyramid magazine, on how to improve your chances of selling an article.
  • Creative Choices is an article about varying the presentation of ideas.

How much will I get paid? What's this about a nickel?

The gaming industry rate scale is much lower - insultingly so - than in just about any other sector of the publishing biz, for reasons of scale. Do it because you love it, or don't do it at all. Anyone who can write for RPGs can very easily get more lucrative work in other creative sectors. But if you love RPGs enough to write material for them, let this be your guide to to the cold financial part of it:

  • One-Half to 2 cents per word is a standard range of pay-rates for a campus typist, someone who transcribes a term paper, for example. Given that this is the cost of typing, it is not at all appropriate for writing. However, if you'll be working at the amateur "zine" level, this may actually be what you're offered. Rates in this range (or even gratis + a copy of the published 'zine) are typical for ventures which are done just for fun and affection, and some of these are awesome ventures indeed; enjoy, embrace and support them if they are honest folk. If someone operating as a commercial publisher offers these rates, however: beware. No matter what they tell you, real game writers are not paid as if they were just typists.
  • 3-4 cents per word are rates generally reserved for (professional, non-'zine) game-magazine writing. However, some publishers start new, untried writers at these rates, as a safety-hedge against the need for excessive editing (untried writers are "cheap" in a way that's often expensive). During the years of the micro-press d20 explosion and related phenomena, there arose a new breed of publisher offering these rates as standard, but such publishers work almost exclusively with inexperienced writers and are sometimes a bit shady, promising "exposure" in lieu of fair pay - something no professional writer would take seriously, but which can be attractive to hopeful newcomers swayed by the romance of "being in print." Be very careful with such publishers, and doubly so when contemplating long projects. Companies that pay this little might be too small to actually pay you (even those who have only the best intentions) and they might collapse before your book sees print. Always make inquiries to other freelancers who've worked for them. In this age of ready networking, there's never a reason to fly blind.
  • 5 cents per word is the "grunts in the trenches" scale for mid-tier established professionals (for projects at any scale). The majority of RPG pros will be willing to work for this rate provided other conditions are good: a professional relationship with the editors, a high percentage in advance or on acceptance, promises of a decent pile of comp copies, and a good track record of company honesty, solvency, and publication on time. More expensive writers may work for this rate if there are compensatory perks, or as a "friend rate" when called on by old chums.
  • 6-20 cents per word are "professional premium" rates. These are typically reserved for established writers with a solid track-record of quality and/or speed, or as "bonus rates" for emergency, last-minute projects or other demanding "Hey, I really need a favor and can pay for it" kind of work. If you ever want to hire me and you're not an old friend dangling a particularly attractive project, these are the rates you'll need to afford (with a chunk up front, and a few special contract clauses to boot).

The rules break down for very very small projects. As a rule of thumb, any work under 1,000 words should pay as if it were 1,000 words, or it isn't even worth the mental energy of thinking about it, or the physical act of booting up the computer.

What You're Selling: All of the above assumes flat-rate pay on an "All Rights" (sometimes "Work for Hire") contract (except magazine work, which is presumed to be First Serial rights unless your contract indicates otherwise). All Rights is standard for book-length work. When at all possible, you should insist on All Rights rather than Work For Hire. If you aren't getting a full-time salary and benefits (and creating the work on company time using company resources), a publisher has no moral right to insist on a Work For Hire contract (though it's still legal to do so). Publishers that include Work for Hire in their boilerplates fall into three categories: (1) dishonest, (2) well-meaning-but-ignorant, or (3) well-meaning-but-would-rather-just-mimic-terms-they're-familiar-with. Groups (2) and (3) can be helped; group (1) is a genuine and common danger.

Royalties versus Flat-Rate: Not all projects are flat-rate. Royalties are usually expressed as a percentage of retail, and designed to match the above rates in either one or two print runs.

So, let's assume you're hiring Writer Alpha to write the Frombotz Sourcebook. The book will be 80,000 words long, and he's the sole author. The final book will weigh in at 128 pages and retail for $20, and each print run will be 2,000 copies.

Since Writer Alpha is a Generic Freelancer, he'd get 5 cents a word All-Rights, or $4,000, for writing the book. Typically, he might get 25% on signing the contract, 25% on reciept of the first draft, and the remaining 50% within 30 days of the book's release to stores (this varies a lot, though).

Alternately, he could be paid royalties. As print runs become smaller, this is becoming less and less acceptable if you're trying to write to pay the bills. With the book described above, the low (safe for the publisher) royalty rate would be 5% of retail. This would earn Writer Alpha the equivalent of 5 cents per word after two complete printings had sold out. This low rate is only fair if the writer can be certain that the book will have a second printing (and that the second printing will be as large as the first). This generally means a rules supplement for a popular game (a book of weapons or spells, for example, is always a good risk). Settings, adventures, and other low-volume products are much riskier, so most writers will want a "single printing" royalty of 10% or so or (more likely) enough of an advance against royalties to make it worth his time even if sales suck. No writer should sign a royalty-based contract without some assurance (preferably in writing) of the size of the initial print run, and an understanding of the company's history (if any) with multiple printings.

The truth is, though, that pretty much no game publisher on earth will offer 10% of retail for a dead-tree project, and even 5% would be a titanic challenge with some. Again, the problem is shrinking print runs. Several years ago, when print runs of 5,000 or more were commonplace for game supplements, royalties made more sense. With print runs of 5,000 copies on the same book, a safe rate on the Frombotz Sourcebook would be a mere 2%, with 4% a good "low confidence" rate. When in doubt, insist on flat-rate. If you want a piece of your own action, self-publish or write for a professional electronic publisher (where unit sales are lower, but royalties are much higher, and the long-term payoff is more consistently long-term, since there's no need to warehouse follow-up printings).

How much do you get paid?

I no longer post a specific rate, and I rarely take freelance contracts anymore. Most of my work energies are now reserved for Cumberland Games, where I can keep the quality up to my highest standards.

But if you want to hire me ... I'm not completely inaccessible, and I might even be affordable if the project sounds fun. Drop me a line if you like; can't hurt to ask! The cardinal rule, though, is this: hire S. John Ross if you need S. John Ross. If you just need "a writer" to fill some pages, save us both the trouble and go find a cheaper one; they're lined up waiting for you. I'm not.


What does the name "Risus" mean? Is it an acronym?

Risus is Latin for "laughter." Since Risus is designed primarily as a "universal comedy system," it seemed to suit, since it's short and simple and easy to remember. Very early versions of the game (circa 1988-89) had working titles like "GUCS" (Generic Universal Comedy System)! Eek. I pronounce "Risus" with an "ee" and a short "u," with emphasis on the first syllable ("REE-sus"). This suits me best because it sounds sort of like "recess," the time in elementary school when work stopped for a while and play took over. If it's also proper Latin, that would be an amusing coincidence.

Followup: After reading the above, Kelly E. Cook dropped me a line from George Washington University:

The proper (classical, i.e., pre-catholic) Latin pronunciation is REE-Soos The 'R' is rolled, Scot fashion, the i is a long E like "deep," the S is like in "sing," the u is like "fool" and the final s is again like in "sing." (From the 'Pronunciation' section of Jones & Sidwell 'Reading Latin' © 1986)

Therefore your favored pronunciation is very close. But I will also add the cav eat a professor once told me. "Latin was in use for millennia in most of the Western World-if there is a way to pronounce a word, it was almost certainly used somewhere, sometime." So by that logic your coincidence is accurate. Okay, I feel way too scholarly! Thought you'd like to know...

I've written a new Risus thing and I want to put it on the web. What are the rules for this?

This question is important enough to get it's very own page over on the Cumberland site.

Where did you come up with Clichés, and that combat system, and so on? What are the origins of the game's systems?

The concept of Clichés was born when I read the DC Heroes roleplaying game, designed by Greg Gorden and published by Mayfair in 1985. DC Heroes introduced me to the concept of an entire profession being represented by a single "skill" (Batman had "Detective" skill, for example, which included all the things a detective might ever do). This struck me as the Way to Go for my Generic Universal Comedy System project that I started kicking around, a project that would later morph into Risus. So, in GUCS, characters could be Doctor(3) or Wizard(2) or Burglar(5), just like in Risus (I used hyphens, then, though, instead of parentheses; see below). Nobody was ever "Sinister Necromancer(4)," though, or "Nosy Blue-Haired Busybody(6)." Not yet. In those days, Clichés were just called "Professions." The basic task resolution system was adapted from my favorite RPG of all time, West End/Chaosium's classic Ghostbusters game - each player had a few six-sided dice, and rolled to beat assigned target numbers or another person's roll. Ghostbusters influenced Risus in many profound ways ... the entire attitude of the game was inspired by, of all things, the Ghostbusters rules for time and movement. You'll have to read Ghostbusters to see what I mean!

After the first version of GUCS was finished, a colleague of mine - John Nowak - wrote me a letter describing Over the Edge, published by Atlas Games, which had just been published. OTE also had super-broad skills ("traits"), including both DC Heroes-style professions and more focused things representing specific skills and perks. You could have a "strong" trait, for example. John's letter about the niftiness of OTE got me thinking about rules for literal traits and traditional skills, but the thoughts ended up pushing me in another direction, where Professions would be defined loosely enough to suggest everything at once: physique, skills, possessions, qualities, lifestyle, and even personality. I decided that calling somebody "Rich" wasn't nearly as informative as calling them a Billionaire Playboy or Eccentric Oil Baron. I started making up characters with Professions like "Backstabbing Little Grifter" and "Stock Margaret DuMont Character." At that point, I realized that I wasn't talking about professions anymore, I was talking about Clichés. An amusing irony: One thing that really appealed to me from John Nowak's description of OTE was the "parenthetical" notation, which prevented hyphenated Traits from reading like they had a minus sign in front of them. So I adopted it for Clichés, and from that point on, a Backstabbing Little Grifter-5 would be a Backstabbing Little Grifter(5), in Risus terms. The irony is that when I finally got my hands on a copy of OTE some years later, I discovered that the notation I was so grateful for didn't come from OTE at all; I had just inferred it from John's letter!

The most unusual concepts in Risus are in the combat rules: The "winner decides the fate of the loser" mechanic was my way of sidestepping the problems of comedy games like Tales From the Floating Vagabond, where characters die far too often for it to be funny, without losing the potential of comedy games like Paranoia, where dying often is all part of the fun. There is a rumor that I wrote Risus as an alternate system for playtesting the Vagabond adventures I was writing for Avalon Hill ... that rumor is basically true. Leaving it entirely up to the winner solved each problem handily, and turned out to add a very nice channel for player creativity. It's more satisfying, in a western (for example), to be able to horsewhip the bad guy through the middle of town with tar and feathers on him . . . but in a "serious" western RPG, that's hard to achieve, since, realistically, gunfights end in crippling injury, coma, or death. Realism wasn't a concern, so the result was a good one for Risus. The other unusual (perhaps even entirely original) part of Risus combat: the concept of "inappropriate Clichés" giving a combat bonus - was just a result of staying up too late and thinking too hard and giggling. But it really does reflect the way a lot of fiction (even serious fiction) works, and again, it's an avenue for player creativity that directly affects gameplay.

The combat mechanic itself comes from what is possibly the most influential RPG design of all time, Ken St. Andre's moldy-oldie, Tunnels & Trolls. But while half the other roleplaying games on earth adopted T&T's ideas like quantified Luck, spells that drain points of energy, and armor that reduces damage (before T&T, all we had was the D&D method where armor made you hard to hit!), Risus adopts a less-influential system: T&T combat, where piles of dice reduce one another until a victor emerges. My piles of dice are smaller (and the combat system was broadened to include all kinds of non-physical conflicts), but T&T still simmers warmly at the core of it. This allowed me to avoid the bookkeeping of "hit points" while still retaining the tight-in-the-gut feeling of losing them, another feature I'm happy with.


Who is the most "Badass" character in fiction?

I think the character that most exemplifies the Truly Badass advantage is probably one of the tougher versions of Batman. Depending on who's writing Bats at the time, he shows off every single facet of the advantage regularly, and I can't think of too many other characters that do, even in films. This is understandable, since the advantage was pieced together from many different cinematic characters, and not just one. The comics are the only place they're typically all jammed together (you could make a fair argument for many other 4-color heroes having it).

Which parts of GURPS Black Ops did you write?

Essentially, the second half. Almost everything up to page 55 is Jeff's (a few snippets are mine, or Gene's, etc). Almost everything from then on is me (a few snippets are Jeff's, or Gene's, etc). Jeff wrote his portion of the book and then found out his wife was pregnant, and needed to step back from the book to take family time. He asked me to step up to the plate for him on emergency-time, and I did so happily, 'cause Jeff's a groovy guy.

Why the 700-point Black Ops characters? Why the huge, huge, scary lists of skills that make every Op seem too similar? After making characters, how do I find the strength to actually lift the dice?

Eeek! Scary topic. While I did the writing and number-crunching in the character creation section, the direction taken by the rules was handed down by editorial decree. A simpler method (more than one) was developed in playtest and played well, but we were denied permission to include them in the book. Jeff's original idea (that Black Ops would be a standalone RPG with its own simple cinematic system, rather than a GURPS worldbook) was better still! Similarly, versions of "Truly Badass" and many other cinematic options were concieved for the book, but Steve rejected them. Dr. Kromm did what he could to slip T.B. in by implication, though, 'cause he's a groovy sneaky Kromm!

What happened to the material you already wrote for GURPS Low-Tech and GURPS Black Magic? Does SJ Games own it?

As per the contracts, the rights for that material reverted to me; it may resurface in other (non-GURPS) projects someday. I elected not to have most of the material "bought out" by SJ Games to be rewritten by later authors. The only SJ Games part of me left of Low-Tech is my contracted outline and adcopy draft (which may not have had any impact on the book of that title that later appeared); the only SJ Games part of me left in Black Magic is my outline and the set of "Black Magic" rules originally written for GURPS Warehouse 23. SJ Games purchased these, and I recently discovered (a couple of years after their publication!) that they were included, nearly verbatim, in Kenneth Hite's GURPS Cabal worldbook, with just enough additional text to weave them into the setting. The rules have also been included (sans my writing, this time) in the new GURPS Magic. (If it sounds unusual that my work would be published entirely without my knowledge ... it isn't really all that strange. GURPS Books often include material culled from prior books, and half the time the writers couldn't even be tracked down by email anymore if anyone wanted to. Since SJ Games owns the material anyway, there's usually no need to try).

[Assorted Questions re my involvement with GURPS Grimoire and the 4th-Ed GURPS Magic]

I was hired originally to develop GURPS Grimoire from Thibault's draft; I wasn't contracted as a coauthor, specifically, and Thibault and I didn't work on the book together. SJ Games provided me with two things: A floppy of Thibault's book, and another few floppies filled with commentary from the Illuminati BBS discussions about it. Along with this came a very short deadline and the freedom to do whatever I felt was necessary to get the book ready for publication.

I felt it was necessary to burn the entire manuscript to the ground and rewrite it from word one, but I only had a few weeks, so instead I (A) re-wrote virtually every paragraph for clarity, rhythm, and GURPS compatibility (B) re-designed the rules that I felt were the most dangerously misguided or insufficiently playtested, and (C) wrote a bunch of new spells to fill the resulting wordcount gap.

The version SJ Games published is, almost letter for letter, the draft I submitted (with the exception of a few last-minute nudges from Susan, the book's editor, including the quasi-infamous Rain of Nuts thing I've written about elsewhere). The result really is a kind of 50/50 split between Thibault and I ... The majority of the spells are his, but the vast majority of the writing and rules choices are either mine, or my thrashing and mangling of Thibault's. That said, I didn't realize they were going to put my name on the cover! Kinda groovy to see the depth of my contribution acknowledged in that manner.

A funny thing happened a few years later, though. SJ Games lost (or found irretrievably corrupted; I'm not sure) the digital masters of GURPS Grimoire. They had no version whatsoever (there had been no backups, or the backups were also lost and/or corrupted), and it was time to do a new printing. They came to me.

Turns out I didn't have much left, either, but the timing was extraordinary: I had just, hours before, tossed the last GURPS Grimoire floppies I had into the trash, in a general housecleaning of the dusty corner-piles of my computer-rubbish. I retrieved those floppies from the kitchen bin and mailed them to Austin.

They did not, unfortunately, contain much of my work ... They were intermediate backups from three or four weeks before I handed the book over, so many of the chapters were still pure Thibault. A new printing appeared, so I figured they had - one way or another - rebuilt the digital masters with a lot of elbow grease around the fragmentary old files (which I still keep copies of, now, having learned a lesson about tossing them in the trash).

I thought that was pretty much that, but it has recently come to my attention that, during the construction of the new (4th Ed Compatible) GURPS Magic, they went searching for the GURPS Grimoire files and ... seem, at least, to have found only those fragmentary files from my kitchen trashbin! Discussions with GURPS Magic's new author (a very groovy guy, by the way, even if I'm too much of a dope to remember how to spell his name) have implied that no revised digital master got made in the late 90s. I can only guess about what happened. I can imagine two likely scenarios:

  • SJ Games opened up the envelope, popped in the floppies I sent, and realized that these files would require as much work - if not more - than proofreading a crude OCR. So they bit the bullet, OCR'ed the book instead to create the new master, and filed the floppies away, where they were later discovered and mistaken for the proper Grimoire files.
  • Same as above, but instead of OCRing it, they photographically reproduced the pages of Grimoire for the later printings (fixing errata by hand), rather than doing a full-on new printing.

In response to the general question of whether I "returned to working" with SJ Games on Magic: Nope, with the exception of Rain of Nuts, and that's a cute story I've related elsewhere :)

Do you still have a good relationship with Steve Jackson Games?

We keep it polite and distant. So many years have passed, now, that I haven't even met most of the key staffers. SJG contacts me occasionally when they need something (like the contract revisions necessary for the new Magic) and vicey-versa (comp requests, that kind of thing) but that's about all. It wouldn't really be possible or desireable for us to work together again. I maintain a healthy respect and admiration for the company's classic games, and I still eagerly play a bit of Ogre, Illuminati, Car Wars and others as the opportunity arises (Sandra and I played some Dino Hunt recently, too - you can't go wrong with dinosaur toys).

I do keep good ties with many of the people I worked with and got to know in my SJG days. David Pulver and I worked together on Uresia and the BESM3 player-companion-multiverse thingy, for example; Dan Smith and I continue to work together and maintain a high level of mutual regard; Scott Haring and I gamed together for a bit after I left and became friends (friends that don't really keep in touch very well, but that's my fault as much as anyone's); Spike Y. Jones and I still correspond occasionally (though I saw him more back when I lived in his neck of the nation, of course); Susan Pinsonneault and I trade emails on occasion; I maintain a very affectionate Mutual Admiration Society with Bob & Peggy Schroeck; Loyd Blankenship and I sometimes met in South Austin for taco lunches and chats, and I'm still friends with (though agan, terrible at keeping in touch with) Reese Harrell, Melissa Brunson, Derek Pearcy, Tim Keating, Cecilia Bonvillain, Steffan O'Sullivan and several others. In fact, thanks to a lot of those folks, I've become acquainted with former SJG folks who I never knew in the old days: childhood heroes like C. Mara Lee, for example (her Yrth map will always be the Yrth map) and Denis Loubet and Warren Spector. Good stuff. I'll probably work with many of these folks again for as long as I'm writing game-stuff.

The Star Trek RPG

If Andorians have cobalt blood, are they dangerously radioactive?

No. The cobalt blood detail (first mentioned in the Star Trek: The Next Generation core book) is meant to be a cute joke, not unlike the reference to "Andorian Blues" in an episode of Deep Space Nine. It's not meant to be serious biology.

If you can't rest easy without a pseudo-scientific response, though, try this: Andorians have Cobalt-59 content comparable to the iron content in humans. Which is to say, you'd need to kill five or six adult male Andorians and distill them down to get a whole ounce of Cobalt-59 out of them. Also, Cobalt-59, in its natural form, is not very radioactive at all. The cobalt used to treat cancer, irradiate foods and so on is cobalt that has spent a year in a nuclear plant, being bombarded until about 10% of the cobalt gains an extra neutron.

Is there really a "Ghalev" novel? Is Bell a real author? Are the excerpts from a personal fanfic, or a Trek novel you're trying to sell?

While I don't actually have a Ghalev manuscript, I do have a copy of the paperback; a scan is at

Seriously: Since the idea is that Ghalev is a bad book, I wouldn't admit to writing it even if I had! I did outline the plot of Ghalev to make sure my "excerpts" were consistent, and there were several other passages written which may appear at some point. There's enough in Among the Clans already to make it possible to work out the basic premise, at least. The author's name, Douglas Bell, marks him as the descendant of Howard Bell, a fictional author who's work is described in The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, by Douglas Adams. The whole thing served two purposes: I wanted to highlight human misconceptions and exaggerations of Andorians by providing a concrete example, and I wanted to lampoon of the trend of including poorly-written "vignettes" to set atmosphere in RPG books.

Is it true that in the original draft of Among the Clans, the Andorians were "the crime lords of the Federation?"

Well, I never intended them to be "the crime lords of the Federation," but rather a culture where organized crime was a major factor in their society's structure and history. An early design concept was that Andorian society resembled the legendary history of the Cosa Nostra and the Triads, both of whom (allegedly, in the case of the Mafia, and very certainly, in the case of the Triads) began as freedom-fighting good guys who were later corrupted when their fight was over. The power structure remained, and corrupt elements kept it going as organized crime. The idea was that this had happened on a global scale to the Andorians.

The plan was to justify the obvious martial trappings of the Andorians by making the weapons and the armor the traditional tools of crime lords rather than warlords, thus neatly avoiding the "Yet Another Military Culture" trap (one race of Klingons is enough). But the plan was to have the worst aspects of the criminal side of things be in the past: By the time the Andorians helped found the Federation, they had defeated their darker impulses, and now only renegade factions of Andorians were still criminals, absorbed, mostly, into the larger Orion Syndicate structure.

This early concept was morphed, however, in light of revelations included in Lou Prosperi's writeup of the Andorians in Planets of the UFP. Now, the Andorian Mafia (the Vola Vrinia) is something much darker and distinctly "criminal" in the modern sense, and my original plan for a more "noble" Vola Vrinia was absorbed into the history of the Am Tal. If you read carefully between the lines in Among the Clans, you'll find that Am Tal is very much the original "Heroic Mafia" that I had envisioned, with its history transplanted to the colony on Cimera III instead of Andoria itself. Meanwhile, the Vola Vrinia is the "bad guy" version, the ones dealing in racketeering and sports gambling and drugs and whatnot.

Is it true that you wrote an Andorian "Broadway" musical?

Not a whole musical, but I did write a few lyrics and outline a plot.

The Andorians love learning and absorbing the art and history of other worlds, and (sometime in the early 2260s) an Andorian composer named Phanev became fascinated with the old "Broadway Style" musical plays of Earth, and composed a few, ushering in a brief and regrettable fad. It overlapped with one of many pro-Vulcan trends, and the most (in)famous play was "It Is Logical To Sing," a story of a young Vulcan struggling between the attainment of Kolinahr and his desire to be a song-and-dance man. Due to Phanev's overly-literal zeal to re-create the original Earth art form, all of the Vulcans in the play (played by Andorians with rubber ears), sported cockney accents.

This is, mercifully, not in the book. However, a very brief reference to the trend is. The fragments I wrote were never intended for publication; they were passed around to the Line Developers, becoming (apparently) popular points of lunchtime conversation for a short while at LUG.

Is it true that the producers of "Enterprise" ripped off stuff from your Andorian book?

Not at all (a lot of fans seriously phrase it that way!) but it is true that the producers of Enterprise made some very nice little references to the book, including putting one of my Andorian words - ushaan - into the Star Trek canon. I have a whole page devoted to my Blue Desk post on the matter.

White Wolf / World of Darkness

My involvement with White Wolf has been minimal, so questions are rare. These are the only topics of occasional fan-interest that I'm aware of, but if you've got more questions, drop me a line.

What parts of Digital Web 2.0 did you write?

I did some locations (New World Virtual High School Expo Center, and The Seer, but not the two paragraphs at the end of The Seer that hint at other locations), characters (Dante and Captain Feedback, minus the game-rules notes added in by the editors) and the entirety of Site 4: Administration (the GMing chapter). Site 4 is is a good bit; I like doing GMing advice. It was also fun doing a Dante writeup, though ... I think it's my sole involvement with Mary Sues/Iconics in gaming. The New World Expo got some nice fan-reaction, so that was cool.

Weren't you slated to do more for White Wolf?

Yeah, I was originally one of the principals on Jerusalem By Night and I was also on board for some Trinity work and others ... I was slated to be a very busy wolfie indeed. I had to bail on those contracts, though, when offered the staff position at SJ Games (not as a requirement of either company; it would have just been impossible to do the freelance projects justice while doing full-time at the SJG offices).

How did you get to design the NWoD's "Clan Nosferatu" headers?

The WW graphics folks chose my "Arvigo" font to be the Clan Nosferatu typeface because they liked it as a font; they had no idea I designed it (or the name didn't ring any bells). They also used it unlicensed for a while, but that was an honest mistake and they corrected it quickly. I like seeing it in the NWoD books, and enjoying the irony that Arvigo (the character the font is named for) was an albino, subterranean-dwelling Elf crime lord with disfigured features ... Not quite a "nosferatu," but he could hang with them. I guess he does, now.

Hero System (FRED)

As with White Wolf, my involvement hasn't been very deep, but Pulp Hero has been popular enough (and I've pimped it enough) that there has been the occasional question about which parts of it were mine. I hope that, at some point (a) my schedule/the right project allows me to work with the Hero crew again and (b) Hero Games/DoJ survives this rough patch in the gaming industry long enough to be around for it. Steve Long rocks, and Pulp Hero was a good time.

Which parts of Pulp Hero are yours?

While I contributed in a general sort of way to other parts of the book (in terms of inspiring/suggesting little bits here and there), my actual writing contributions are all in Chapter Six (just a mote of dust on the gorgeous mountain that is Pulp Hero). I wrote the parts with the following headings (using the headings from the book's own Table of Contents to define where parts begin and end):

  • Peculiarities of Pulpishness
  • Capturing the Feel of the Times
  • Principles of Pulp Adventure Design
  • Worthy Adversaries: Designing the Pulp Villain
    • Villain Nature, Villain Motive
    • Roleplaying the Villainous Persona
    • Recurring Villains

Steve and I have different authorial voices and GMing styles, but our notions seems to mesh pretty nicely despite the differences (just as they did in Among the Clans). Sometimes the differences stand out more than others, though! In particular, I think my "Principles of Pulp Adventure Design" almost duels with Steve's "Adventure Structure: Plotting" section, since I'm very clearly advocating the old-school, non-linear, un-plotted "trouble spot" technique as foolproof and advantageous, while he's advocating a more literary, linear three-act structure in its place. I think having both approaches presented with equally sincere enthusiasm is a real benefit to the chapter (and the introductory parts of "Adventure Structure" provide a go-either-way bridge of sorts) ... But I do wonder if any readers out there got confused by what some folks could misread as a mixed message (instead of what it really is: two veteran GMs each sharing a pet technique).

Section B: Blue Room Articles

[CLOSED Topic] Medieval Demographics Made Easy [CLOSED Topic]

Years ago, when the article first went public, the helpful thanks and critique of readers resulted in a series of subtle revisions, and the gem was polished to its current gleam. I'm very grateful to everyone who sent thanks and/or helpful advice on the article. What follows here are answers to some common questions from the old days, a few bonus topics for fun, and then one final composite question to put all others to rest.

Isn't the formula for hex-area wrong? Shouldn't you multiply the width of the hex by 0.80 or so instead of 0.93 or so?

In gamer-ese, a hex's "width" is equal to the distance between the center of a hex to the center of an adjacent hex (which is to say, the distance between the middle of two opposite flat edges), making it a useful number for calculating the approximate travel-distance between the City of Splendid Spires and the Dank Dismal Dungeons of Deadly Dreary Despair, and so on. If you measure the width the other way - the distance between two opposite pointy bits - you get a different value (and one that doesn't do any good on a map). You can derive a hexagon's area from the alternate "width," but not with the numbers I provide. If you want to recreate my simplified method, just remember that a hex is six equilateral triangles jammed together, and that the distance traveled from the center of a hex to the center of the next hex is equal to twice the height (not the base) of one of those triangles.

Will your formulae re-create the real medieval [Country] in [Year]?

Only by blind luck when using the random die-rolls. The numbers in MDME are generalized, simplified, and drawn from several countries across multiple centuries. While the ranges possible with the recommended die-rolls will always include something plausible in a general kind of way, it's not meant to model any particular real-world locale or specific medieval period (though it leans toward the latter days of the Middle Ages just prior to the Renaissance, since that's where trad-fantasy gaming often dwells). You don't need a formula to describe real history; you can look it up! Just visit your local library and check out some of the books I mention in the Bibliography. You can also find a wealth of information on (non-gaming) history websites; do a search at Google or another good search engine.

If a Kingdom is Spread Over Several Small Islands, Do I Calculate Each Island Separately, or Total the Area of the Whole Kingdom and Work From That?

Total it. The article deals only with whole kingdoms, whole economies. A tiny, solitary island may not support a city, but several tiny islands that share a common rule, a common language and common currency, could. It's an arbitrary distinction in many ways ("countries" are a slippery concept in a quasimedieval context; the idea of a nation-state is pretty modern, really), but such is the nature of the beast (and why this article shouldn't be use for any other beast than the beast it's designed for; this is for fireball-and-monster fantasy gaming, not for doing your homework).

If I'm Mapping a Town, How Many Households Are There?

Typically from 15-25 dwellings per acre (50 per hectare) with an average population of around 3 per dwelling, resulting in approximately 60 population per acre or 150 per hectare. Obviously, you can vary these numbers considerably to account for the nature of the town's industries, climate, social structures and culture. In theory, very sparse or densely-constructed cities might average as few as 10 or as many as 40 dwellings per acre (25-100 per hectare), and extremely under- or over-populated cities might average anywhere from 2 to 5 population per dwelling. Bearing in mind that we're looking at whole-city averages rather than the excesses of individual dwellings or neighborhoods, a range of 75 to 300 population per hectare represents the likely range of extremes at the whole-city level, reserving figures beyond for exceptional neighborhoods: an extremely crowded, poverty-stricken quarter might have a density approaching 500/hectare if the poor are crammed into tiny one-room dwellings in some medievaloid equivalent of tenement blocks, while a very rich and luxurious quarter might have a density as scant as 20/hectare if the gentry are lounging in oversized manors on manicured garden plots.

How Many Buildings Is That, Then?

In a medievaloid fantasy city, craftsmen often live and work in the same building (often a shop facing the street with housing behind and/or above it). So, the relationship between "number of households" and "number of buildings" is often much closer than in modern times, though there will still be many structures without any residential function (warehouses and other storage buildings, shrines, guild offices, abandoned buildings, stables, carriage-houses and much more - including shops where the craftsman's house is a separate structure behind it on the same plot). In most fantasy towns evoking late-medieval Europe, there will be somewhere from 1 to 2 times the total number of buildings as there are dwellings, but again, it's easy to imagine extremes beyond these numbers, especially in a world where those "fantasy tenement blocks" exist (which could reduce the number of buildings to something below the number of dwellings, even on the whole-city-average level) or in a world where urban structures have as many outbuildings as rural ones (which could balloon the number of buildings considerably). The extreme ranges (approach them with caution) would be from 0.4 to 3.0 (as a multiple of dwellings).

How Big Are They?

In broadest terms, much smaller than their modern counterparts. When in doubt, draw it smaller than you think.

In terms of shops, medieval Europeans frequently assigned burgage plots divided into street-frontage units measured in perches, rods or poles, which in earlier days ranged from 10 to 24 feet wide but by the late-medieval/early-modern period had settled (in most places) into a standard of just over 16 feet (close to the modern-day rod of 16.5). A plot's rent would be based in large part on how many perches of street-frontage it had (often just one, leading some writers to conflate perches with whole burgages). Shops would frequently be a single perch wide but very deep into the lot (and/or feature one or more buildings behind it, belonging to the same burgess). More extravagant buildings would span multiple perches. Your fantasy cities might have a similar system, or somethng much looser, but it's worth keeping the aesthetic of the narrow frontage (with a deep plot behind it) in mind if you imagine your streeets looking specifically European.

As far as the scale of residential space goes: modern views of acceptable living space can skewer our notions of what's "reasonable" pretty intensely. The average newly-built 21st-century American home averages something like 900 square feet per person, which is triple the 300/person average we had in the 19th century, which is double the 150/person average that seems to represent a lot of pre-industrial Europe. Again, though, this value of 150 square feet per person is a baseline that will vary by culture, by economic class, and by current conditions of over- and under-crowding. In those poverty-wracked fantasy tenements, averages as low as 15-20 square feet per person (barely enough room to sleep next to a bunch of people who know exactly what you smell like) might well be the norm ... and in the manors of the gentry and wealthy merchants, even a 21st-century American might be impressed. When estimating total floor space from overhead city maps, bear in mind that wood and half-timber structures will typically be from 1-3 stories tall.

Why doesn't Medieval Demographics Made Easy have detailed info on the size of armies, the composition of the church, the average income of the peasants, the difference in village density between open country and forested lands, the details of medieval overland trade and commerce, the methods used to tax the populace, factors of population growth like mortality rates and different nonhuman species, the effects of plagues and war, the interaction of different types of magic systems with a realistic economy, the occupation of EVERY person in a city, and the percentage of the population that has a given skill level or number of hit points? And why is it focused on Europe in the late middle ages when I don't want it to be? In short, why isn't it about [some other topic I wish it were about, or possibly dozens of them or possibly thousands of them]? ANSWER ME. YOU'VE MADE THE TRAGIC ERROR OF POSTING SOMETHING USEFUL FOR FREE, SO NOW YOU OWE ME YOUR FREE TIME AS WELL.

For the record: the question above is a much shorter version of the kind of emails I get every week or so, often with a "reply ASAP; I need this for my game tomorrow night" or "my book depends on it!" at the end!

Such questions are simply beyond the scope of MDME, which is a simple introduction to demographics that serves the needs of trad-fantasy GMs interested in getting past the boring math and on with the tales of adventure, with just enough confidence in the size of his cities that he can relax and run the zombie hordes with appropriate zeal. It does all of what it sets out to do, but of course many GMs would rather it set out to do more ...

For GMs with more advanced interests, I included the Bibliography. Time for a fun trip to the local library! For GMs with more advanced interests and a Visa card, I'm publishing Lisa Steele's Fief and Town sourcebooks (which aren't about demographics, but which contain tons of crunchy and often fascinating "close up" detail on the middle ages for those interested in making a more "medieval" feeling fantasy game).

For GMs happy with their basic interests but eager to read more anyway, your best bet is probably some of the other game-industry treatments of the subject. Chivalry & Sorcery has always had a good dose of solid worldbuilding material, for example. Many fantasy games also include step-by-step kingdom-building instructions. I've heard some good things about the simplicity of TSR's old The Complete Kingdom (I think that's the title), though I haven't read it, yet. I have used and enjoyed the worldbuilding material in the (also old, also TSR ) Wilderness Survival Guide ... Not much on demographics there, but a nice approach to putting the rivers and mountains in a reasonable place. Remember, though, that any step-by-step approach will presume a good deal about how you like to design, so try your hand at making your own "steps," and you'll probably enjoy it more. A fantasy world can begin with a continental outline, or it can begin with a single NPC or a country tavern or a small city or even a rune alphabet sketched on a napkin. There's no one path that makes more sense than any other; it all depends on your needs and interests.

For GMs who want to chat about this kind of thing: While MDME is now mostly finalized (I tweak it in tiny ways, but it's an old soldier and has earned its rest), it's still nice to hear from folks who understand where it's coming from and who've found a use for it, so feel free to drop me a line provided you don't have a question and aren't going to ask me for free work (you'd be amazed [maybe! I hope ...] at how many lazy GMs/novelists/designers/etc email me assuming I'll be happy to do their research and world design for them). Listen, for real: I'm glad you found my article a pleasant beginning, but a beginning is all it's there for. If you have more you want to learn; great. Go learn it. Remember my article fondly as Square One when you've found Square Ten Thousand. Remember, too, that I write gaming material to put food on the table; see the relevant section for my rates. If you're polite and respectful of my time, and don't have a question, you'll find I'm an agreeable fellow who enjoys comparing notes with colleagues and fellow gamers. If you're selfish or presumptous, on the other hand ... you'll find iron spikes at the bitter end of my patience.

Flickering Lights

For now, the "FAQ Entry" for this article is a separate webpage. I'll suck it over to this page one of these days now that the article has settled in and gotten all comfy.

Section C: Cumberland Games

Does Cumberland Have Submissions Guidelines?

Yes; they're right here. Dive right in, and good luck! Keep in mind, though, that part of Cumberland's unwritten "mission statement" is to publish things that highlight and explore what I personally love about gaming, and according to a single watermark of quality: it must be my work, or it must be better than my work. Hence, Dan Smith does those cool Sparks drawings because he draws better than I do. I did a Cumberland edition of Lisa Steele's Fief because she's a more obsessive medieval researcher than I am. Anything published by Cumberland must therefore appeal (nay, pander) to my personal needs as a Game Master, and (if it's by someone else) be something that I'm entirely convinced that I could never have achieved on my own. Mostly, the idea is that Cumberland is for my work, and for collaborations with respected colleagues. That said, though, I'm eager to give advice to fellow electronic publishers ... So if you have something cool that you think would look good as a Cumberland eBook, it'd probably look just as good published by you - and I'll be happy to give advice on how to make that happen.

What are the advantages of PDF publishing over traditional paper publishing?

The old stigma attached to eBooks is fading fast, along with the notion that eBooks are limited to "bargain basement" fan products. There are so many advantages to e-publishing that it's hard to sum them up without getting long-winded! Here are a few of my favorites:

Advantages to the Customer

  • Entire books exist that never would otherwise. Niche genres can receive full support, and RPGs needn't be victim to the many ugly compromises required in print publishing.
  • You can print unlimited copies. For paper toys, that means you can color-code things, write on the maps, mark hit points on the grunt miniatures, and not worry about spilled cokes. For books, that means you can print out the parts you need, when you need them, and write in the margins, or use extra copies as player handouts.
  • Customers outside the United States don't have to pay the additional costs of international shipping.
  • Books don't fall out of print. Barring wierdness, they'll always be available and (like any other form of software) will tend to be cheaper as years go on. This means that if you get a nostalgia attack in twenty years, you'll be able to buy Fly From Evil in a $5 discount bundle of a dozen products, instead of spending $75 on eBay for a used one.
  • If your copy is lost or destroyed, you just email me and ask for a free replacement, since I keep a database of all licensed users.

Advantages to the Publisher

  • The existence of each of the Customer advantages, plus:
  • If you're used to industry freelancing, the creative freedom is breathtakingly excellent.
  • No printing, shipping, or warehousing costs - just distribution and/or bandwidth fees on top of the normal expenses of work and time.
  • It's much easier to fix errata and provide updates.
  • You can always publish or license hardcopy editions at a later time. Softcopy doesn't seem to undercut hardcopy sales.
  • It's easy to provide "variant" versions of products that would be impossible in print form, such as the 1:72 alternate versions of the Points in Space maps.


What software do you use to make fonts?

It's changed a bit over the years. I built the first version of HexPaper (and the original Sparks sets) with an evaluation copy of Softy Fontmaker. You can find Softy on the web in any good search engine; it's primitive but fun (and sadly unsupported, since its creator passed away some time ago). In the days since, I've used FCP from High Logic Software (and dabbled with others), but do most of my latest work in FontLab Studio, combined with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

I've got this cool alien alphabet/set of runes/group of pictures I'd like to have in TrueType form. Will you make a custom font for me?

Yes. If I'm not too swamped with other work, I'm open to fontmaking commissions. See contact info at the end of the FAQ.

Section D: Food and Cooking

I'll add more cooking questions as time permits! For now, it's all about the sourdough:

[CLOSED Topic] Sourdough [CLOSED Topic]

I've had hundreds of emails about sourdough since I posted my article on the subject. Most of them have just been "thank you" notes from bakers enjoying their new edible pets, but there have also been a ton of questions over the years. Here are those most frequently asked:

Important Note: This is a closed topic. I no longer answer sourdough questions.

I am sensitive/allergic to yeast and wheat. Can your sourdough help?

No. My sourdough has plenty of yeast and wheat in it, it's just that the yeast isn't purchased separately. If you have those kinds of food sensitivities, consult a physician or dietician for advice on what you can eat safely. One reader has reported that the method works well for Spelt-based sourdough (and another uses rice flour), but while that would help with the wheat it wouldn't remove any yeast. My personal experiences with sourdough baking are limited to ordinary white, whole-wheat and rye flours. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Your article mentions covering the starter in the fridge but doesn't mention covering it before that. Do you?

Not always. Sometimes I do; sometimes I just lay a clean dish towel or paper towel over the container. Loose covering won't hurt it, to be sure, but it isn't necessary unless your starter appears to be drying out. I recommend covering it in the refrigerator mainly to help protect it from absorbing smells and/or encountering drips from other items, which isn't usually a hazard on the counter. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Is it okay if the starter gets runny? What if it smells bad? What if the color changes?

Runny is just fine; you can always adjust the ratio of water to flour if you need to in order to get a nice workable batter. Starter should smell good, in a strongly yeasty, beery kind of way. Not necessarily yummy-good, but never unpleasant. If there's a rancid or bitter smell, discard the starter and make a new one. The same thing goes for dramatic color changes. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

I've read that hooch is a bad sign; what do you think?

I've personally never had problems I could attribute to it. If you don't like it, just pour it off. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

What should the froth look like?

As frothy as can be! It should also be frothy all the way through - a healthy starter will also have lots of visible bubbles along the side of the glass (an excellent reason to use a clear container instead of, for example, opaque pottery). A starter with bubbles only at the top isn't doing so well and may require an Old Yellering. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Can I use potato flakes in my starter?

Lots of folks do. Potato flakes are a nice, easily soluble starch, so they're popular in many starters. I've personally never experimented with them (and now that I'm diabetic, I probably won't, since potato is murder on the blood sugar - ouch). Potato flakes are also a great last-minute rescue if you make a gravy or stew that's a little too thin! A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Can I keep my starter as a lump of dough instead of as a batter?

Yeah. Lots of bakers prefer that. I find the batter pretty easy to manage and easy to adjust the amount of, so that's why I recommend keeping it as batter. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

My starter became frothy and beery MUCH faster than your article predicted. Is something wrong?

No; you're in luck, is all. Sometimes they just zoom to life. Sometimes they take their sweet time. They're fey and unpredictable. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

When you feed the starter later in its life do you still discard part of it?

Sometimes I do. As long as the ratio of flour to water is constant (or approximately so) just adjust the amount you're keeping to fit your container and your needs. If you know you'll need a lot of starter soon, bulk it up with extra flour and water a couple of days in advance to give it a chance to "catch up" with its new increased volume. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Does it hurt the starter if I stir it a lot?

Not at all. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Do I have to do X or Y before doing X or Y? Do I have to do X or Y after doing X or Y? Do I have to do X or Y during X or Y? The recipe doesn't mention it it at all! Help!

The original article includes all the steps I consider necessary. If I didn't mention something, it's because I don't do it. Feel free to add any steps or techniques from other sourdough methods, if you think they'll help. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Can I make sourdough in my bread machine?

Probably not, since most bread machines depend on the more predictable rising schedule of commercial yeast. However, your bread machine is an excellent way to mix and knead the dough. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

The starter works just great, but my bread is coming out too [moist/dry/chewy/soft/hard/is infested by purple insects from Pluto]; what should I do differently? Also, how can I give it a more golden crust?

These are general baking issues rather than issues with sourdough, specifically; consult your favorite book on bread-bakery (or consult a baker friend who can visit your kitchen and see what you're doing and recommend changes). Keep in mind, especially, that you must always adjust your dough's moisture level by feel; flour varies in absorbency and your sponge can vary in wetness. All the usual principles of good bread-bakery apply. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

My starter made some beautiful loaves at first, but it seems to have weakened. Did I get it too hot? Did some bacteria harm it? What did I do wrong?

There are lots of factors that can lead to a starter sort of "petering out," including heat damage, changes in the flour used (some brands of flour seem "hostile" to sourdough due to chemical treatments in their processing), etc. Many causes are just environmental, though, and beyond your reasonable control. The best remedy is to keep two or three going at one time, discarding the weakest, splitting the strongest into multiple batches, and so on until you end up with a kind of Super-Starter. Then you can preserve flakes of that by spreading some on wax paper with a rubber spatula, letting it dry, flaking it into a baggie, and then freezing it. If your other starters ever wimp out, you can restart your super-starter with those flakes. Handy! A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

What's your recipe for sourdough pancakes/pretzels/biscuits/waffles etc.?

I only use my starter for bread loaves, so I don't have other recipes that I can recommend from experience. Give Google a whirl, though, and it should be easy to find some that others have enjoyed. Several readers have let me know that their "pet" works excellently in their favorite recipes of that sort. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

Many years ago I had some sourdough bread that I really loved, but I think it was made differently from yours. I have only vague memories to go on and I'm not sure what it was called or what was in it. I do remember, however, that it had an excellent flavor. Please give me the recipe for that as soon as possible.

I think people would be shocked to know just how often I get that sort of question. I know I am! A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

[Assorted Other Questions]

Always remember that the fun thing about homemade starter is that it's easy to make more. If your current starter isn't performing as you'd like, just slosh some flour and water together and give it some competition! Try, try again. Have fun and good baking. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic.

But Sjohn, it's just ONE QUESTION, and since your article answered so many other questions I had, aren't you now morally obligated to put aside work to answer any others that may occur to me? I've read your FAQ and I know for sure that MY question is one you'll just love to answer, and I know that I don't sound at ALL like those people who rudely bother you with THEIR lame questions. PLEASE PLEASE PRETTY PLEASE??? AND IF YOU DON'T YOU'RE JUST SO MEAN! BIG MEANIE!

Aieeee! [runs away as fast as he can go]. A friendly reminder: Sourdough is a closed email topic. Your question isn't an exception.

Are all these friendly reminders really necessary?

I wish they weren't. The really tragic thing is how - for a certain kind of person - they still won't make any difference. I used to have just one notice (here on the FAQ), then two (one on the FAQ, one on the contact page) then three and four (adding a note to the article istelf, adding another note to the FAQ) ... and people kept right on feeling like those notices didn't apply to them, that their question was more important than my health or my time. Since I have already given an article, the reasoning goes, I am required to give more, forever. No. It's an article about sourdough, not the be-all-end-all encyclopedia of sourdough, and if you have a question I wish you good luck in finding the answer elsewhere. Or just learn by doing; I have given you more than enough to start on.

For those of you who aren't like that: Thanks for visiting, and thanks for respecting that the topic is closed. I really wish just one notice would do the trick, I really really do.

Section Z: Miscellaneous Questions

There are a lot of things people ask me about that have little or nothing to do with my websites or my work. This suits me fine, since I'm an opinionated so-and-so who likes to share.

Social Media

Hey, didn't you used to be on Facebook?


Google Plus? Twitter? LinkedIn?

Yep. Yep. Sorta.

Well, what happened to all that?

Social media cost me more energy than it gave me, cost me more connectivity than it brought me. Made me unhappy. Nothing big happened, no flame-out, no specific event. Nibbled to death by ducks, as the nice Centauri man once said.

I'm not preaching the evils of social media; I'm not That Guy. It just isn't for me, overall. I'm still on DeviantArt, and I still broadcast occasionally on Mixer, and I've got a Blog thingy. My inbox remains open, and Cumberland Games continues to be my outlet of choice. I'm also still very open to online (chat-program) tabletop gaming, so feel free to hit me up. I don't bite unless asked.


[Virtually any political question]

Okay, I am an opinionatd so-and-so ... but I don't really like to discuss politics on the 'Net. So, here's this instead.

Building a Gaming Community

I love gaming but I don't have enough gamers! How can I meet other gamers in my area?

  • Find the local comic book shops, game shops, bookstores specializing in SF/Fantasy, and even flaky new-age bookshops. All good sources. Some of these places (mostly comic and game shops, natch) will have bulletin boards where you can post notices. Some may also have gamer registries. If you find one without gamer registries, print out this PDF sheet: <> and show it to them. They will See The Light.
  • Consider starting a mailing list like the one I started for Austin. Before it was taken down by a kind of electronic vandalism, it had well over 300 gamers on it and provided a tremendous resource (I'll be resurrecting it someday soon, once I figure out how to do a proper listserv).
  • Carry gamer totems. Carry an obvious gaming book, or wear an obvious gaming T-Shirt, and the gamers who aren't terminally shy will come to you. Of course, a good many gamers ARE terminally shy, so that's why a combination of methods work best. Note that many (most!) gamer totems are unrecognizeable as such to the non-gaming world, so if you choose well you won't even get a raised eyebrow from those who aren't in your immediate target audience. Which brings us to the very best method:
  • Make new non-gamer friends and then make new gamers out of them. This is my favorite, because fresh gamers bring new methods and attitudes to the table (on the other hand, it's amazing how instantly some non-gamers fall into gaming habits that make them seem like old hands ... fun to watch, at any rate).

S. John Loves Sandra

You don't make much money, but you always seem to be out enjoying the city. What sort of things can you do in Austin when times are lean? [Now out-of-date since we moved to Colorado, But The Spirit of the Question, and the Answer, Still Applies]

Well, part of the fun of being a couple in Austin is just walking around, exploring neighborhoods and poking into new places! But there's plenty more; here's a partial list of cool things that two people can do here in Austin if they have as little as $5 each in their pockets: Have fun at Zilker Park (including kite-flying, swimming, free musical hillside theater, or a ride on the Zilker Zephyr); spend quality time reading, chatting, or snuggling at one of the city's many fine coffeehouses (Spider House and the Green Muse are probably our two favorites, but there are many excellent ones); Eat out on the cheap (You can have a great Vietnamese meal at any of several Pho places, a big bowl of Triple Delight Soup at Hunan, or something resembling a Tex-Mex feast at a good many of Austin's cool Mexican establishments in this price range); Watch a movie at a matinee or at the cheap theater on the north side of town; Wander a cool store (Central Market can amuse for hours, as can a trip to a good bookstore), Attend one of the city's constant free concerts, festivals, or literary events (the Austin Chronicle always has a detailed calendar of new things to do, many of them free); Do some gaming (one of my favorites! From roleplaying sessions up on the UT campus to card-games at the coffeehouses); make arts and crafts (a cheap box of watercolors can make a trip to the riverside that much more interesting); and of course, the tourist classic: watch the bats at the Congress Avenue Bridge!

Additional queries and comments on this FAQ should be directed to me via email at - and remember: no sourdough questions, please.

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