What’s in a name?

I’m very lucky. Somehow I’ve managed to write, publish* and sell three half decent game systems – Golden Heroes**, Squadron UK and The Comics Code (et al).

That should be enough for anyone and I really should settle down to refining what I’ve already got and producing supplemental material for it.

But, no, I’ve got a yearning to write something else. A game halfway between by full-trad stuff (SqUK) and my lightweight “Code” games. Something truly multi-genre.

I’ve written and published enough sets of rules now to know that you need three things ASAP:

1) A reason for writing it.***
2) A name
3) A superb front cover. As soon as you start promoting the game, you need something for people to lock onto. It doesn’t matter how good your game is inside the book, the first impression people get is the Cover. It has to tell readers about your game in a single glance and convince them to read the blurb. I’ve been blessed with the two artists who have done my covers (Dave Eadie and Shane Mitchell).

I’ve got several reasons for putting myself through the games design process one more time. And I don’t need to promote the game yet, so I don’t need a cover. (I’m not sure what the final game will look like exactly, yet, so I can’t give an artist a steer towards the feel of the game.)

But I’m about to go around play-testing it and conventions want a NAME to put on their web-sites. Also casual players will be more likely to sign up for a game of “Unbounded” as opposed to “Simon Burley’s new RPG”.

So, yes, I came up with the name “Unbounded” just as a placeholder on websites etc. only to be contacted by a fellow designer who has been working on a game with a similar title. Not being wedded to the title, I’m now going to change it but coming up a new one is proving hard. I came up with a new one but a quick web search has shown it’s already been used. This is the first time in over thirty years of writing RPGs that I’ve found it this hard.

To be honest, I never liked the title “Golden Heroes” anyway!


* I self published Golden Heroes in 1982 – possibly the first self-published RPG in the UK? It was later published professionally by Games Workshop
** GH was co-authored by Pete Haines, a design genius who came up with many of the original ideas. In fact, he also came up with the Squadron UK tag for one of his Superpowered teams for GH – which I later appropriated for my second game.
*** Reasons for writing games:
Golden Heroes: because the first two Superhero RPGs (Superhero 2044 and 1st Ed. Villains and Vigilantes) didn’t simulate the comics.
Squadron UK: anger when Games Workshop sent me a “cease and desist” letter when I tried to resurrect GH.
The Comics Code: So I didn’t have to carry loads of kit to Conventions in Scotland and Dorset. I can now take everything I need in a single piece of hand luggage, meaning I can fly up to Scotland. Also to fit in the shorter game slots favoured by many conventions.

The PODfather part two.

As an update to my “PODfather” article, I have some information I want to draw to your attention.   One of the POD companies I referred to in the article was Amazon’s own “Createspace” Print on demand company. I found them easy to use and your books go straight onto Amazon.

At the time I pointed out an irritating anomaly where – though they have the facility to print books overnight in this country – PROOF copies have to be ordered from America resulting in months of delay or prohibitive express delivery charges.  It turns out that this isn’t their only anglophobic practice.

Firstly, in line with Amazon policy, if you want to talk to their customer services directly, you leave a number and they ring you back. This is free to customers in America and Canada but chargeable to anyone outside the US. The level of charging is unspecified. So if you have an issue to raise with them directly – it’ll cost you.

Also, they require you to give your tax details to them so they can pass them on to the American IRS or they refuse to pay you your royalties. They demand this information even if you only sell your books through Amazon UK and choose not to use any US distribution.

Because of these three things – and their rather dismissive attitude when they are raised with customer services – I’ve severed my relationship with Createspace and would no longer recommend that anyone outside the United States and Canada makes use of this service.

My books are not currently available on Amazon. When I get time, I’ll recreate them using Lulu.

Young adults, Mentors and Scenarios – some observations

This is a basically about a single scenario I’m running again and again at conventions and the layers that are unfolding from it. The more I play, the more I learn.

The game is my new lite SciFi rules – The Code of the Spacelanes. The scenario is PLAGUE SHIP.

It’s based, closely, upon a novel (really a short novel/novella) by the Young Adult Author Andre Norton. It was written in 1956. I loved Norton when I was in my teens and Plague Ship was one of my favourites. It was the middle novel in her “Solar Queen” series and was by far the best. The protagonists are a small group of apprentices aboard an “independent trade ship”.

When I wrote The Code of the Spacelanes I thought of Andre Norton and my favourite book. As an experiment I rewrote it as a scenario for World Sci Fi convention and it worked – perfectly. Okay so the resolutions players find to the plot is never the same as the one in the book but they’re always equally valid. It plays within a four hour slot – often shorter – and is great fun.

Having rerun it several times I now know why it works so well and realise how clever Norton – and her successors, such a J K Rowling – are.

in the first part of the scenario, the ships crew are on the planet Sargol trading with the feline Salariki. The senior crew are in charge and the chief cargo master is doing the actual trading – often off camera.  There are things to do and puzzles to solve for the apprentices which carry real risks – the protagonist in the actual book manages to screw things up right royally – but they are secondary characters. In this part I’m introducing the characters to the world, the situation and the setting. However, it is quite railroaded. Sometimes players get a bit antsy and start to make sarcastic comments. This culminates in  a duel where someone has to fight for the honour of the ship and the Captain takes the responsibility himself, sidelining the characters completely. Just as the duel is about to start, with the characters and players as mere spectators, I have the characters pass out.

When they recover we’re in the second phase. One by one their crewmates fall to a mysterious plague until only the characters are left standing. All alone, drifting in a ship in space, which is patrol-posted and should be blown out of space by any ship that sights them. No railroading now, I just sit back and watch what the players come up with – buffered by my knowledge of the universe gleaned from the original book.

Then I realised this was exactly the trick Norton pulled in the book. Starting off with the mentors as safety blanket and then pulling them away to leave the protagonists isolated and alone. Then I realised that she pulls the same stunt in all three books. In the Sargasso of Space the characters return from exploring to. Find their ship under siege by the evil Thieves Guild.

Then I realised she wasn’t the only one. Aslan dies. Dumbledore goes missing, is sacked or dies. Something bad happens to Professor X in all three of the first three X Men films.

its a standard trick which really works in an RPG scenario. Start the characters off with a mentor figure to get them settled in your world and then find an excuse to rip that mentor away leaving them to cope on their  own.

Works every time!

The importance of Image

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your game is, if you don’t have a good cover image people won’t tend to pick it up at conventions or when browsing in their friendly local games shop.

For many years I’ve been taking advantage of a great guy I met on line called DAVE EADIE. He’s spent many years sketching Superhero pictures for his own amusement and – when I was putting Squadron UK together – he had a ready made portfolio of stuff for me to use. I had no money at first so, initially, I gave him a percentage of profits. (He would’ve let me use his stuff for nothing but even I’m not that exploitative.) 

I now have a more professional approach to things, paying for front cover images and using stock art inside my books. 

When I wrote my lightweight Superhero RPG – THE COMICS CODE – I had some artwork Dave had done for the relaunch of Golden Heroes which had never been used and for which he’d never been paid. So I came to an agreement with him and stuck it on the cover:


 During playtests of THE COMICS CODE it became clear that this particular ruleset could easily be adapted to other genres. So I conceived a range of “code” books for different genres – the first of which was to be THE CODE OF THE SPACELANES, a SciFi game. Unfortunately Dave wasn’t available to do the cover! For the first time I had to shop around.

I prepared a general spec and sent it to various artists – first from the Artists thread on UK roleplayers and then shopping around on the ‘net. The responses from professional artists were professional but arrogant and the quotes they gave for a cover were frightening!

Then I got a reply from Shane Mitchell of UK Roleplayers. He was extremely modest, pointing out that it wasn’t the sort of thing that he usually did and that he didn’t think his style matched my spec. However, he was interested and gave me a quote which, whilst slightly above my budget, was well below that of the other professional guys. The kicker, however, was the fact that he included a “quick sketch” to see if he had the right idea:


WOW! No-one else had bothered to do this. Suddenly my project became tangible to me. And, I don’t know about you, but I love this sketch. It’ll probably appear on a t-shirt at some point. We swapped a couple of emails to finalise details and then I got this “concept sketch”:



WOW! If this was the final version of the artwork, I’d’ve happily used it. What it DID do was allow me to give Shane some “notes” (though as a non-artist I felt cheeky doing it). Even better though, with the first draft of the rules being finished I was able to mock-up a rulebook to take to conventions with me.

Then, a week before the agreed deadline, I got this:


WOW! (Spot the differences……?)

The playtests have gone well. The rules are now finished. The book will be ready to go within days – but I’ll still delay its release until Dragonmeet where I know THIS cover is going to attract loads of attention.



Less is more (work)?

As you know, I’m known for writing traditional Superhero RPGs.

For about a year, however, I’ve considered another approach. There have been several reasons for this:

1) I’ve gotten a bit tired of humping all the kit – you know, the figures and maps etc – to conventions.
2) Despite my best efforts, Superhero combat still forms a major part of any Roleplaying session – rightly some might say. Just watch any Superhero movie.
3) There is a trend towards smaller rulebooks – without a great reduction in price. (Fiasco sells for £16.99. Really?)
4) My ” big books” tend to swamp the UKRPDC trade stands.
5) There’s a trend in the source material – especially on TV – away from the costumes and action and towards characterisation (Smallville, Arrow etc.)
6) I reread my comics and realised that there wasn’t as much fighting in them as I recalled.
7) I nearly walked out of “Man of Steel” during that long interminable final fight – bored to tears.
8) At a games convention a player summed up Squadron UK as “That Superhero game with buckets of dice!”
9) At the same convention I did a “rules swap” with another designer. We aimed to run each others’ rules. Now there’s nothing wrong with his ruleset but it made me realise how hard it is to read and run big book rules. He struggled with my rules as much as I did with his.
10) Many conventions have games slots of less than 4 hours. Fitting Squadron UK into 3 hours is extremely difficult.

So I envisaged a smaller, lighter game where the combats didn’t dominate. Not to replace my extant games but as alternative. The analogy I use is that – if Squadron UK is my FIFA ’14 football game, I wanted to write my FIFA Manager ’14.

I also wanted to just use 2d6. This was problematical because you’d think just about every permutation of 2d6 has been used. (Wrong! Check out Tim Grey’s ROCKET AMOEBA for a really nifty mechanic.)

The muse struck when two things came together:

1) I decided to roll 2d6 and multiply the results. This gives a wildly uneven spread from 1 to 36 – perfect for my vision of the Superhero genre.
2) On the Storygames forum I came across a quote from “The Dark Knight” – “You either die a hero or live to see yourself become the villain”. So as well as physical hit points, you could have morality hit points. Too many moral missteps and you’re out of the game.

So I dashed off a set of rules and began playtesting.

Several things happened:

1) I found myself very nervous prior to refereeing games because the rules were so light. I was worried players might complain at the lack of specifics. There’s no actual difference between superpowers in the rules, for example. Power blast, super strength, illusions all the same – roll 2 dice to hit. I also missed the safety net of having loads of rules to back me up.
2) Light as the rules were, the playtest process actually ended up throwing out half of them. With big books you tend to write patches – extra rules which pad out the page count and give the illusion of value for money. What’s left of my new rules is so gossamer thin, to me, that I worry punters will expect more. And every single rule that’s left had to be an essential element – no woffle. Trimming something down to the absolute essentials is hard.
3) Players actually wanted more in their combats so now itv takes 10 minutes instead of 5.
4) A play tester kindly pointed out that I’ve accidentally created a generic rule system. What I’ve got would work in almost ANY genre.

So I’ve ended up with a set of rules which are lighter than I – as referee – am happy with. However, players seem to like them and they fulfil my original objectives. I’m just waiting for the reviews and feedback.

If the response to THE COMICS CODE is positive, I’m considering going for a cashl grab and churning out loads of genre books. The Code of the West. The Warrior’s Code. The Code of the Spaceways. Even, The Political Code. But somehow that’d feel like betraying my principles……..


Quick Starts, Demonstration Games and Lite Rules.

I’ve just had (another) epiphany.

This is where I was before:

1) My sets of rules have AMAZING character creation rules. They are one of the USPs of my work and I want to showcase them. I always try to build in character creation as part of the games at conventions and the like.

2) I don’t like games with pregenerated characters.

3) Up until I wrote “The Comics Code” recently, I believed a convention slot needed to be 4 hours long and used to moan if conventions only gave me a 3 hour slot.

4) For various reasons, I wasn’t a big fan of the whole Pathfinder thing.

5) Because of what I got from GURPS LITE all those years ago, the “loss leader” I chose to put out for my game was a complete “basic” set of of the rules ie, the full rules without any padding.

I was recently asked to go to a convention, to demonstrate RPGs to non-RPG players (video gamers to be precise). Realising we needed a range of genres I prepared my two current games – including some pregens for Squadron UK – and downloaded some (free) Quick starts from RPGNOW.

I’ll admit I was impressed by these. A quick summary of the basic rules, a set of pregens and and introductory adventure. All of these were proper adventures which, with rushing, would easily fill and evening’s play or convention slot and – with laid back skilful Refereeing – would last much longer.

Though I’ve been running my own systems for years, I could have easily run any one of these at the convention. In fact, I did rush through one – the classic Call of Cthulu quick start – for couple of computer Geeks. They seemed to like it and I enjoyed it.

I’m now a quick start convert. You could download a load of these freebies and play them all one after the other for months of adventuring before settling down and choosing the system you wanted to buy.

There’s something else I’ve realised. If you want to explain your rules quickly, where are most of them summarised? What’s the best prop to use? The character sheet! Pregens are actually a very quick way for people to access the rule system.

So I could probably do with creating a Quick Start for Squadron UK. My free basic rules might allow an experienced roleplayer to run my game, but it’s not going to suck any newbies in. There’s an awful lot of reading to do before you can play SqUK.

That wasn’t all I learnt at the convention, though. You see, none of the games I or the other GM at the convention had brought along were actually on sale at the convention. The only thing there was the Pathfinder starter set so we were asked to run the demonstration adventures out of that.

Pathfinder! Urgh!

Despite our lack of recent experience, and lack of rules – we were loaned pregens, figures and the scenarios but no rulebooks – we felt able to busk it. It’s only d20 after all and all the players were newbies.

But there was something else….

These demonstration scenarios are designed to last 45mins to an hour. ONE hour! Basically they were a bit of background followed by one room/encounter. A puzzle and a clutch of monsters. Upon reading them I was pretty dismissive, I’ll admit.

But then we ran them. For the most part players totally new to the game (with an average age of below 20 I’d estimate) with, it must be said, two pretty bloody good, experienced, referees determined to wring the best out of the scenarios. The way we ran them they were closer to an hour to 75 mins but everyone enjoyed them and they were great fun!

Hats off to Paizo. They’ve got this really nicely judged. The Pathfinder starter set is a very superior product at a very reasonable price. If I was recommending people into the Pathfinder hobby (which I won’t) I’d have no hesitation in suggesting they start by buying it.

But now I think of conventions where you’ve got a trade stand and people want a quick demo of the game. I’m almost certainly going to have to have a one hour Quick Start for both my games ready for Dragonmeet.

So my attitudes have changed. If you’re writing a game for publication and sale, I’d now recommend:

1) DON’T give away your whole game. I never bought a single GURPS product after picking up GURPS LITE for free.

2) DO give away a Quick Start. Download some free ones from RPGNOW to see how it’s done. (I found Dragon Age to be particularly accessible.)

3) DO prepare a one hour (or less) quick demo for when you’re selling the game at conventions. I don’t know if you can download the Pathfinder ones from their web-site. If not, I don’t know where to point you for an example. When I write mine, I’ll post it here.

All feedback is good?

So I publish Squadron UK and happily sit back and bask in my five star reviews on Amazon:

I have been role-playing for 25+ years and i have played a host of Superhero games and can honestly say this is the best……….with its fast character creation, it makes for truly addictive play.


The British RPG has been revitalised. Character creation is straight forward. Rules are easy to understand. It’s fun to run and play. Best of all it has the comic book feel.

Then I think – “I wonder if they use the same reviews in the US?”

So I log on the the American Amazon site….

The writing has a british flavor to it but it is quite an enjoyable read……..the adventure/campaign in this book is quite good…….If you want a game that is fast to start and you are flexible then this may be your cup of tea.

Only THREE stars! How DARE he!

Then comes the coup de grace:

I have a hard time believing the writer’s native language is English, much less that he is from England. The poor writing is so extreme that this game is nearly unreadable. Barely made it through. The artwork is very bad. I was hoping to enjoy this game but the system is very clunky…..Awful.

What am I supposed to do with THAT!?

If you think about it, the first two reviews serve one purpose. People see the five stars and stop to take a look. So they make me money. But they don’t help me improve.

The last one – even if I vehemently disapprove of it – makes me stop and think.

It was too late to rewrite (save) Squadron: X but for my next project I’m constantly thinking about how easy it is to read, use, access the book as I put it together. To be honest it made me so mad, a lot of what I do now is with an “I’ll show HIM” attitude that is probably making me use a bit more thought and care and turning me into a better writer.

So all feedback IS good.

(Bloody hurts to read it though…..)

The PODfather

The recent post about the story of Intrepid to print made me think. I sometimes assume that as we’re all designers and publishers we all know all we need about the subject. I’ve self published stuff but I still learnt from John’s experiences.

So here are some of mine:

Continue reading

How long is a piece of string?

I’ve had a couple of experiences recently that a tie into the same theme. Just when is the writing of a game or supplement “finished” and ready for release?

1) I have a collaborator who’s working on tying ALL the old Golden Heroes scenarios into one magnum opus for Squadron UK. Brilliant work so far. He recently asked me when I stop writing and start preparing a product for printing. I didn’t have an answer for him.
2) I’ve been struggling to finish a product for years. Squadron: X, my X files to Avengers campaign pack. (I actually wrote the first draft years before the Avengers movie came out but now if feels like my product is a rip off. Superheroes vs. alien invasion? At least I’ve got zombies in mine.)


It’s a debate for another day but I presume we all know why we’re WRITING our games.

The related question is – why would anyone want to BUY our games?
A key aspect to this is – do you know your game’s unique selling point?
I do.
Another related question – with the plethora of RPGs out there, how do you know it’s unique? How do you know someone hasn’t done it before?
(Engage smug mode) I don’t have to worry about this because I’m lucky enough to have created and (co) authored a seminal game.
However, in general I’d say it doesn’t matter. You can’t buy and read every available rule set just to check your unique idea hasn’t already been used. Reasonableness comes in.