Category Archives: Musings

Contemplations and idle musings.

Writing for Sine Nomine games

Every now and then someone inquires as to the prospect of writing material for my games and supplements. Since it’s a question that crops up regularly, it seems worthwhile to put things down here where all the interested parties can see them. While I can’t represent the following as a properly particular legal contract, I can say that if you stay within these lines I won’t object a bit to whatever you might care to do.

First, all non-commercial writing of any kind is welcome. Feel free to reference my settings or reproduce any of my free material. If you’re not charging money for it, you should feel free to do what you like.

Second, whether commercial or non-commercial, you should feel free to copy any and all of the mechanical elements of my games provided you use your own wording and setting content. If some questionably-rational soul wanted to clone Stars Without Number and redid the entire book in his own words and with his own setting, well, I’d applaud his dedication. If you like concepts or ideas in the book, feel free to reproduce them in your own idiom. If you think the end result is reasonably compatible with Stars Without Number or one of my other games, you can feel free to plainly say as much as well, provided you don’t represent the work as being “official” content.

Third, if you have some project that doesn’t fit the above, you can always ask me. Not everything fits my plans for my game lines, but it can’t hurt to ask.

Hopefully the points above will be of some use to designers who want to do something with the games and supplements I’ve written. I welcome any interest in my games, and it’s always a pleasure to see people getting some profitable use out of them.

Why Do It Old-School?

More than once, people have asked me, “Why are you using old-school mechanics? Wouldn’t it be better to use a gaming system specifically built for your purposes? I love your GM tools, but the system leaves me cold.” Let me take a few moments to explain why it is that Sine Nomine uses old-school gaming mechanics as the backbone of my games, and why it’s a good choice for what I do.

First off, let me say that new-school gaming is something beautiful. I’ve played and DM’d 4e and had a great time. I haven’t had a chance to do much indie storygaming, but a lot of the stuff they’re doing over there looks fascinating. I’m a CO in the edition wars, and I do not want anyone to imagine that my allegiance to the old school is some kind of commentary on absolute gaming values. So those people who don’t go in for Stars Without Number‘s old-school mechanics, they’re saying something I can appreciate and understand. But for what Sine Nomine does, old-school is the best choice, and here’s why:

First, almost everyone understands how to play. You may not even like its ancestral games, but odds are that you know exactly what hit points are, know how to roll your attributes on 3d6, and are completely comfortable with rolling 1d20 to hit. You are not confused by the concept of levels and the idea of armor class. You know this stuff and it takes you only minutes to process differences or tweaks to the rules. Sure, not everybody started out playing this way, but enough of these ideas have percolated through our hobby that it’s a rare gamer who has to stretch to understand Stars Without Number‘s rules. Innovation is great, but not a lot of us are teenagers any more and every hour spent mastering a new set of rules is an hour less for us to be playing with our friends.

Second, Sine Nomine’s games are about a playstyle, not a mechanic. The games I make are about supporting a particular playstyle- sandbox gaming. The entire idea is to help the GM support and sustain a long-running sandbox campaign in a way that’s both fun for the GM and exciting for the players. The goal is to accomplish that in the least stressful way possible, while helping the GM have fun with their own creativity and inventiveness. This means that the core system needs to be so intuitive, so familiar to the GM that all their mental focus and energy can be put toward the game and not toward wrestling with the mechanics. Familiarity is vital to that. The GM needs to be confident that he can just whip up an enemy or set up a challenge without worrying over whether or not he’s “doing it right”. Old-school mechanics have that kind of familiarity for him. Sadly, I lack the necessary genius to develop a new mechanic that’s so powerful, so perfect for sandboxing that its value outweighs that of plain, time-worn familiarity.

Third, old-school mechanics work. They have their pitfalls and edge cases, but everyone’s used them so long and hammered on them so hard that all the real problems are clearly marked. As a designer, I don’t need to lie awake wondering if my combat system is going to collapse at the first clever shove from the forums. I don’t need to wonder if hit points will prove unworkable over long-term play, or if levels and experience points are going to break after the first eight sessions of a campaign. I can afford to focus my testing and my attention on the new elements I’m adding, making for a better, more tightly-tested design overall.

Fourth, I like it this way. And given that there are many, many parts of producing and publishing RPG books that have nothing to do with fun, I prefer to maximize the entertaining parts of this business. When I’m sitting down and writing 1,400 clever tag elements for the upcoming Other Dust, I don’t want to add any more aggravation to the job than already exists. Old-school mechanics are just easy, simple, and robust. I can have fun with them, because I know what they can do and I can foresee the effects of changes I make.

I don’t know that I’ll be sticking with old-school mechanics forever. I might take it into my head to try something different, if I find a mechanic that’s worth the sacrifice of familiarity. One of the nice things about being an indie RPG producer is that the money involved is so small that there’s no overwhelming pressure to stick with a particular line. But for now, for my current products and for upcoming items like Other Dust, the old school is exactly where I want to be.

Theory and Practice

I’ve been working on An Echo,  Resounding lately. It’s a supplementary book for Labyrinth Lord focused on creating sandbox adventure regions, managing domains and political polities that PCs or locals might have there, and running mass combat in a way that integrates with the whole. While I’ve been sweating over the specific mechanics and resource tables of the book, it’s left me thinking about theories.

Theories are beautiful things. I’ve got lots of them about game design and building optimal sandboxes, and in many ways Sine Nomine itself is just a convenient rubric for me to use in expressing these theories. I think sandbox gaming provides a remarkable set of possibilities to a GM and players, and I think the design space hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves over the past ten or twenty years. Given the opportunity, I’d talk your ear off about all the things that sandboxes can give to a group that other gaming styles can’t provide so easily. Those other styles each have their own strong points and advantages, certainly, but the special virtues of a sandbox are experienced all too rarely these days. I have my theories about why that’s the case.

But GMs and players don’t need theories in a published product. They need tools. One of my pet peeves about a lot of RPG books aimed at GMs and worldbuilders is the studied vagueness of the contents, the preference for giving sweeping advice and broad generalities over specific guidelines. The author will explain why a particular technique or goal is a good one and leave it to the reader to actually implement the directive. I’m not sure whether the authors honestly believe this is the best way to go about things or whether they’re perhaps paralyzed by the sheer scope of material they’re dealing with. Perhaps they fear to put down anything specific because they can easily imagine a case where any particular offering would be wrong or useless. I don’t think they’re doing their readers any favors this way. Why? Well, here’s a theory:

Continue reading Theory and Practice

Clippings: Do Espionage Games and Sandboxes Mix?

Espionage isn’t usually a genre that leaps to mind when considering sandbox games. The baseline espionage adventure is built around a complicated plot, multiple NPCs with their own motivations, the obfuscation of truths, and the misdirection of PCs. Even the most adventurously athletic spy stories require a context, and that context is usually something complex and only partly-visible to the players. Compounding this, most PCs in an espionage-based campaign are either government agents or somehow affiliated with a controlling organization. How do government operatives tasked with specific missions fit into a sandbox gaming style? On the face of it, they’ve got no influence over the jobs they’re given to handle and no practical ability to bow out of the organization without defeating the entire point of running an espionage campaign.

Continue reading Clippings: Do Espionage Games and Sandboxes Mix?

25% Off Everything

Until 10 AM on August 1st, it’s Christmas in July at DriveThruRPG. Every Sine Nomine product is 25% off, including POD print items. For those of you who don’t care to wait for the Mongoose edition and its bonus content coming out in September, you can swoop in and grab yourself a shiny Stars Without Number hardback for all of twenty dollars. Is there some other place you can get 210 pages of sci-fi RPG goodness in a lustrous hardcover format for twenty dollars? Perhaps, but they have not left their address with me, so I am forced to forge ahead on that path without assistance.

Also keep in mind the chance to snatch up such items as Red Tide for your fantasy gaming and Labyrinth Lord exertions, also ringing in at twenty dollars for a hardback with included PDF. Or grab yourself some tools for computer hacking and new cyberware in Polychrome. Whatever you choose, now’s the time to grab it, because you won’t see another sale like this for a long time to come.