Play-by-Post/Chat Tips

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As basically all gaming becomes online gaming during the pandemic, it’s important to know all of your options.

While video-conference-based gaming is the current default, I haven’t had much luck with it: if people don’t have great computers, cameras, and internet connections it can cause problems, especially if you game with couples who are trying to share an internet connection and suffering audio bleed from being in the same room. Dropping down to voice loses some of the video complications, but also loses all the body language feedback from your players. Both can have issues with slight audio latency that leads to talking conflicts that you don’t get as much when face-to-face: spotlight time goes to whoever is willing to just bull through someone else trying to talk at the same time.

Many have forgotten the grandparent of both of these styles, from the ancient days of IRC and AOL chats, before ubiquitous webcams and headsets: text-based gaming. This can be playing by post or email or everyone live in a chat room. The main difference is just the synchronicity. Text-based gaming has a few very interesting perks:

  • It self-documents, so you can always have the log to read back later. This can be for entertainment or to review information.
  • GMs that, at the table, feel too pressed for time to give good descriptions, or just forget to do so in the rush of talking, can enjoy license to go very purple with prose.
  • It’s leisurely. Even with live chat games, you often have time waiting for others to type to multi-task. My players, in particular, have expressed gratitude that it lets them game while also cooking, wrangling children, or doing other projects.
  • From the GM’s side, this leisure means it’s often possible to run on-the-fly in a way that would be madness face-to-face. There’s plenty of time to improvise, even for those that aren’t used to doing so, and the players have a much harder time telling when everything is by the seat of your pants.

It, of course, also has downsides:

  • Leisurely is code for slow. Depending on your players’ typing speed and distraction level, it can take two hours to knock out a scene that might have only taken 15 minutes at the table.
  • The format is not always intuitive to those that haven’t tried it before, especially people that are not comfortable writers. It can take a while for people to get into a groove.
  • Despite having the record right there, when you’re typing you’re not reading. People tend to miss what’s already been posted way more than you would expect.
  • All of this can be much worse if you don’t adapt to the format. A tactical-map-heavy, rules-dense, initiative-based play style is very challenging to do well in this format.

If you’re interested in how the medium works, my logs for years of Fading Suns are available. Currently, rather than the action formatting that was popular in the days of yore (double colons around actions), I’m trying a more prose-style notation, but the procedure holds up. The session times in that were usually 2-3 hours, for context of how much you can get done in one sitting. That was also mostly with players very comfortable with the format. Currently, with several players learning it as they go, I get maybe half as much done in the same session period.

I also have several specific tips for the format:


My number one piece of advice is to use a narrative-heavy system, or just eyeball the system you have for purposes of narration. You do not have time to request rolls for everything, particularly if the system requires multiple rolls to resolve a single result. When a player tries to do something, then you tell them what to roll, then they roll and calculate success, then you resolve the results, you’ve at least doubled the number of text exchanges you need, and that can take a long time in text.

Instead, consider the Technoir mindset: the PCs always succeed unless acted upon by a serious, opposing force. And when so acted upon, you can just eyeball relative competency, and suggest that a mechanically superior opponent means that the PC needs to come up with a winning strategy, not just get a lucky roll.

By all means, throw in narrated drawbacks if you think that success against the environment shouldn’t be easy given the PC’s skill level. And if they’re awful at something, you can just narrate that it’s not possible (or that they fail in an amusing way). This isn’t about making the players unstoppable, just removing the obstacles that slow down play.

In general, you’re looking to see if it makes sense to remove the randomizers in order to speed play. You can still use them when you want tension (but be prepared for things to slow way down). And if you’re really unsure about what should happen, you can roll physical dice “behind the screen” to resolve it. But it’s still almost always faster for you to do that than to wait for the player to realize you’ve called for a roll and to make it. Get straight from the player wanting to do something to you describing the result.

Have the Sheets Handy

As an aside, relevant to narrating and rolling behind the screen, keep the PC sheets handy. Just have them open in another browser tab. Unlike at the table when you’ve got a billion books and opponent stat blocks taking up your visual space, it’s much easier to keep the PC stats handy when you’re playing on a computer. It saves so much time for you to just look up what skills the PC has that are relevant to what you’re trying than to ask them to tell you their total in chat.

No Initiative

Largely related to the narrative aspect, but distinct, is that you should do your damnedest to avoid initiative order. You think people check out when you go around the table for initiative? It’s so much worse when you’re not sure if the person everyone else is waiting for has wandered off to do something else, totally unaware they’re holding up the game.

Try to set things up as parallel as possible, where everyone can do something if someone doesn’t respond for a minute. This can be legitimately running separate scenes that aren’t clearly linked in time to everything else going on (so the fast typists can do as much as they want while the slower ones are off on their own scene). Generally, though, it’s just that everything is very open and that you assume that people that are posting less frequently are doing something useful that just isn’t being clearly described. “Botting” idle PCs by incorporating the actions you assume they take in your GM posts is much more acceptable than face-to-face.

Mostly, just do everything in your power to avoid situations where you’re waiting on one player to say something before anyone else can advance the scene.

Always Have a Ninja

Corollary to keeping one player from hanging the scene: be prepared to prevent all the players from hanging the scene. This can be especially prevalent when the PCs have gotten off to a safe location where they’re planning or trying to investigate something at their own pace. If you don’t have an active participant in the scene (whether that be an NPC or just a dynamic situation), you can get stuck where the players are stumped as to what to do next, but there aren’t any obvious things that you can add in-play to unstick them from the problem or at least convince them to move on if they’re stumped.

The obvious solution is the Raymond Chandler standby: have a guy with a gun kick in the door (or a bunch of ninjas). This can feel punitive, but maybe the players will keep things moving if they know all you have is a hammer to try to unstick them.

While GMPCs are generally not the best idea, they can be really useful in this format to give you a mouthpiece in any scene. As always with important NPCs, you should avoid having them just take charge or have the players assume they will always have the answers. Instead, the character can usually have middling to bad ideas, but just having someone to pipe up and go, “So it seems like what you’re saying is…” can be enough to break the deadlock, or at least get them to continue talking rather than sitting, sullenly waiting for someone else to post.

Finally, you can aggressively scene frame. If a scene peters out, just describe the next one. This is hard if the players are stuck on how to resolve something and wouldn’t move on without it being resolved, so it’s not my favorite option. But if you can just move them on, do it.

Consider Artifice Exposure

Sometimes, you just have to explain, out of character, what you’re doing. Text loses the nuance you would get from body language and tone of voice. Often you think you’ve described something perfectly, and if the players successfully tag your prose with their own, you’re going to wind up with just the most beautiful piece of writing for posterity.

But while you’re sitting there, unwilling to type anything else because you ended your post on what you think is the perfect feeder line for the player to say something awesome, the players might be sitting there completely baffled by what they’re supposed to be doing. You may need to just throw up an OOC line where you’re like, “Okay, in case this is not clear, the options I see here are X, Y, and Z; you can do one of those, or do something creative I didn’t think of.”

I’m guilty of this a lot.

Examine Your Clarity

As part an parcel of exposing the artifice, consider your clarity in general. As noted, even with the text record indelibly floating above the chat, people can miss an awful lot. It’s very hard to keep track of several posts that come in at once from other players, particularly when you’re typing up your own masterful piece of dialogue. I pretty regularly see players repeating actions or asking questions that were covered only a line or two above. You can even miss things for quite a while, before someone finally notices a discrepancy (in this log, two PCs executed the same villain in two very different manners).

This can be very challenging if you’re trying to run split scenes. In this session, even very clearly noting in chat which characters I was focusing on, players were still getting confused whether I was describing something that they could interact with or something happening on the other side of the zone. Be explicit and repetitive in your descriptions about who can interact with something when the party is split. You can always rearrange the logs later to make the soup of player responses make a little more sense.

Ultimately, always consider that you can basically have a similar problem to peer-to-peer multiplayer video game disagreements. In P2P shooters, one player is the host computer that has the “real” record of all the actions that happened, and if the other computers lag, they can think they’re accomplishing something only to suddenly be confused when it didn’t happen (e.g., shooting a guy that their computer said was in line of fire but the host computer thought had moved). As the GM of a text game, you’re the “host computer” and your vision of what’s going on is the authoritative one. But through various issues with clarity or noticing what’s going on, you can “desync” from the players’ vision of what’s going on.

If the players are doing something that doesn’t make sense for your view of what’s going on (even if it just seems like it’s suboptimal, like they’re ignoring an obvious thing they can interact with) it falls to you to make sure they’re not punished due to the disconnect. If you think they’re missing something, ask them OOC if it’s deliberate before you narrate them failing. You’re never as clear as you hope, and it’s important to make sure everyone has a good time.

Summer Updates

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It’s been a minute since I posted, huh? It turns out that running three tabletop campaigns is the tipping point from, “running games gives me lots of ideas to post on the blog,” to, “I no longer have brainpower to actually write up ideas for the blog.” Also, some pretty large-scale woodworking projects and the return of City of Heroes has been eating a lot of writing hours. I have some ideas for content in the future, but it may be another minute before they get written up.

In the meantime:

  • I converted all of my old Fading Suns campaign logs to a new wordpress site for easier reading. If you haven’t read them, they’re new to you!
  • With the return of City of Heroes (at least in the tentative, please, NCSoft, don’t obliterate the rogue servers way), this old series is relevant again.

GM Tricks: Short Session vs. Long Session

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A friend who’d primarily played in and run long-session games found herself about to run a weekly game on work nights, and asked for my advice on how short sessions differ from long. Here it is, repackaged and with advice from the other side (for those who’ve done short games but are intimidated by the longer form).


As a meta-consideration, how often you’re going to run the game can make a big difference. In general, the less often you can play, the longer you’ll want to play when you do get to play. The longer you go between sessions, the more your players will forget, and the less inertia you’ll have at the start of a session (which lets you get even less done, as your players try to rediscover their characters and remember their goals).

  • If you’re playing monthly or less frequently, you generally want to get enough done in a session to reach a solid stopping point, where time can pass in play as well as out of play; if you leave your players in the middle of a mission or dungeon and they don’t play for a month, it’s going to take forever to get them back up to speed.
  • Conversely, if you’re playing weekly (or more frequently!?), you can often leave off at the closest break that makes sense as soon as you’re ready to quit for the night, and trust your players to remember what’s going on when you resume.
  • When you’re playing every other week, you’re in a weird spot where you don’t really want to leave too many irons in the fire, but you also don’t have to end on too much of a solid note. Your players will forget minor things, but probably not major things.

All of these issues can be mitigated by having someone at the table that takes copious notes and can recap the events of the last session at the start of the new one. It’s a really big help to have someone like that, and if one of your players is a natural game journalist, encourage it.

Short Sessions

For a short session, I’m generally assuming that this is a weeknight at or after dinner for 3-4 hours. Some of this might not apply if you’re squeezing in gaming at an odd time, and your session length restriction is not because you’re playing after work/school. Some of this may apply even more seriously if you’re only playing for an hour or two during a mealtime. The three big limitations of a short session are side chatter, spotlight time, and combat time.

If possible, establish a set schedule of when you’re focusing on the game and how much table chatter is too much, and make sure everyone sticks to it. Nothing kills your time worse than people gabbing about what they’ve been up to all week and otherwise chatting about meaningful but non-game things. Your biggest issues are how long it takes to actually get started and how often people get sidetracked once you start playing.

The first is a function largely of when people show up and when they’ve eaten. I tend to not even try to get people in game until everyone’s there and done eating; if you try to start and someone shows up later and/or someone’s still eating, it can be really hard to make the game go because they’re a distraction. Conversely, you want to make sure people aren’t showing up super late or taking forever to eat. It also really helps if your players see each other more often than game night, particularly if they’re good friends: if your game time is the only time good friends are going to see each other face-to-face this week, it becomes much harder to get them to focus on the game instead of catching up.

The second you have more control over, but you may have to be more draconian than you’d like. Small jokes are fine if they don’t derail focus on the game: it’s when someone tells a joke and someone else uses that as a “that reminds me…” to talk about something else that causes a problem. You basically have to yank those back to the game if they go on for more than a few seconds, and start to determine which people can safely quip without breaking focus, and which people can’t even be trusted with one-liners. If you’ve got a cut-up that’s causing problems, you have to school yourself and the other players to not reward the behavior; people that are constantly trying for a laugh to the detriment of the focus on the game will (generally) eventually pick up that people aren’t that amused at the distraction and pull back, as long as they’re getting tolerant annoyance off the others rather than laughs.

Player spotlight time is best kept small in short sessions. If a player is off doing something that takes a while and is doing it solo, that can potentially eat up a huge chunk of your playtime so the rest of the players don’t get similar focus for the evening. If a player wants to go off and accomplish something alone, try to narrate it down and err on the side of just letting her accomplish it (particularly if it doesn’t have a major impact on the main plot). If you want there to be a chance of failure, try to sum everything up to a few quick dice rolls, with varying degrees of accomplishment depending on how many rolls are a success.

In general, try to just err on the side of giving players what they want if it won’t make a big impact on the story. Time spent on them convincing you that they can do something and then having to improvise challenges for it, when you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a success, can be wasted time. You can just as easily offer them a devil’s bargain of something like, “Okay, you can do that, but it’ll result in the town guard being pissed at you.” The caveat is that you can absolutely play out unplanned side-excursions if everyone at the table seems super into it. It’s not about using narration to gloss over everything outside of the main plot, so much as not wasting time that could be more productively spent.

Combat time can be a huge pain for shorter games, particularly in D&D and other heavily tactical games with mapping and miniatures for fights. Particularly for games with slower combat, but possibly for any game where fights can eat up too much time: try to figure out if there’s a reasonable game resource you can use as a “narrated success” tax. For example, in D&D 4e and 5e, if there’s a fight that the PCs will get to take a short rest after, you can just ask them to use up a couple of healing surges/hit dice and maybe a daily resource. Then just describe the gist of the fight with a total success. Essentially, if you think there’s no chance of anyone getting seriously injured, using permanent resources, or being that engaged in the fight, it’s perfectly fine to just describe how flawlessly they party wiped out the minor threat and move on so there’s more table time for more interesting fights.

This is possibly more relevant to running modules (where there are often a bunch of filler encounters that don’t affect the plot or really challenge the players), but even when you’re planning your own stuff, be ready to throw out your babies if you realize you’ve put in a combat encounter that won’t actually raise the tension much but will eat up a lot of time to play out. You could even do this on purpose: plan out fights where all you have is a description of what’s in the room but you haven’t bothered to organize the stats, and they’re essentially just opportunities to make the players feel awesome and to let you burn off some of their daily resources before a real fight. Conversely, if players are clever enough to get around them or roleplay through, then they save the resources, but if they totally mess something up you can add a couple of speedbump fights together into a real threat.

Long Sessions

I consider a long session to be over four hours (often six or more hours). You’ll generally get to have these on weekends and holidays unless you’re still young enough to manage an after-dinner-until-after-midnight session without everyone falling asleep before the end. They often overlap at least one mealtime (unless you have an early lunch and a late dinner with a session in between), so the biggest considerations for long sessions are blood-sugar and attention-span related.

For short sessions, particularly those that start with or right after dinner, table snacks are fun but rarely required. For long sessions, they’re more or less essential. You should absolutely get in the habit of either rotating snack duty or getting everyone used to bringing a little something to the table such that there’s a bounty of available foods. You should also work out the healthiest assortment of foods that the group will eat and can afford: cheesy poofs and candy are fine when you’re still in college, but nuts, veggies, and fine cheeses are better for the over-thirties to not wreck their increasingly delicate internal mechanisms. All of these things are to keep hunger from being a distraction.

Unless you truly bring copious snacks or lay out a buffet, a mealtime is probably going to hit mid-session and will require a pause (to consume the food, even if you can get it to the table quickly, but usually to make, order, or go get the food as well). But that’s fine, because one of the problems with long sessions anyway is the mid-session lull. After three or four hours, it’s hard to maintain tension and attention spans start to wander. So even if you don’t have a meal break, plan your game as if you did. Try to have a major story beat, cliffhanger, accomplishment, or other stopping point happen close to the middle of your session time. Then break for food (or just take a general purpose stretch, conversation, and smoke break if you aren’t breaking for food). Ramp back up slowly after the break so you can end the session on another high point (i.e., it’s very much like stapling two short sessions together around a meal break). The break and ability to ramp up again gradually helps with fraying attention spans in the middle of the session.

(Hopefully) Short Hiatus


I hate to break my nearly four year string of at-least-weekly posts, but between my new job eating my primary creative cycles, the Vampire game taking up what’s left, and prepping for a big move, I’m dangerously close to feeling like I’m phoning the blog in just to keep it updated every week. Hell, I haven’t really even seen very many new movies for SNFO. So I’m going to start pushing any ideas I have ahead a couple of months to try to build up a good pad for when I start back up again, hopefully including actually getting time to work on my (Kickstarter-addiction-fueled) backlog of systems to review.

In the meantime, you can keep track of what I’m doing on the Vampire game directly at Obsidian Portal (though, that too will slow down until next year once we’re out of character creation).

Auteurship and RPGs

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If you don’t pay much attention to the video game world, or are just aggressively avoiding spoilers while you finish the game, you may not have heard much about the controversy surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending. To try to put it in a way that gets you up to speed without creating a spoiler: the point of view of a lot of angry players is that it was not just unsatisfying, but actively dissonant to the themes and tone of the entire trilogy up to that point. That is, it wasn’t good and, more importantly, it didn’t make sense. This video explains the controversy in extensive (and spoilery) detail.

Players on the internet are livid. Massive petitions have been made to try to get Bioware to change the ending, some to the point of rage-donating to charity. The blowback was sufficient to get the company president to issue a press release indicating that they’re considering acquiescing to the fan demands and changing the ending via DLC.

Whether or not the entire situation is overblown, the results are inarguable: we’ve reached a point in video game development where we have to seriously ask the question of whether interactive media are in some way democratic. Do consumers of a game have the right to, as a bloc, demand a portion of the artistic control of that game? Will major game franchises have to begin extensively focus testing their products not just for engagement, but for satisfaction? Does the principle of director as auteur in film translate to the lead designer as auteur in a video game?

And what does this have to do with tabletop RPGs?

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the first video game to create this controversy is an RPG. There has been more than one AAA game franchise where players were largely unsatisfied by the ending and didn’t petition for a change, but they were typically less customizable experiences. The problem for ME3 is that it succeeded too well at making the player feel invested and in control of the actions of a fully customized Commander Shepard, such that any ending that wasn’t note perfect would generate this problem on a lesser or greater scale.

It’s pretty similar to the potential fallout from a poor ending to a long-running tabletop campaign.

There are, to oversimplify, three major beliefs about the role of the GM in a tabletop game:

  • The Old School Renaissance (OSR) tends to think of the GM’s role as setting up a sandbox and then impartially arbitrating it in play according to player intentions and actions. The goal of the GM is not to tell a story, but to simply create an environment in which story can emerge naturally from player activities. The players have complete control of the progression of the game from the beginning of the first session, but must exercise this control via the medium of their character skills, clever play, and lucky dice rolls.
  • The Story Games movement tends to think of GMing as fundamentally democratic. A number of games like Capes, Fiasco, and Shock have no GM whatsoever: the power of the GM is distributed among the players based on various rules to govern narrative control. Even when there is a GM, his or her control of the flow of the game is often constrained by various mechanics, and the players have systems to seize narrative control outside of the in-world skills and actions of their characters.
  • The Storyteller mindset (which is not a movement) seems to make up most of the mass market, and is exemplified in nearly every module released (for any system) that is not a true sandbox. The GM is expected to not just set the stage, but provide a basic script for the direction the plot is meant to go. Player cleverness can greatly drift the story, depending on the creativity and improvisational ability of the GM, but there is expected to be serious GM (and mostly GM-only) effort to mold the game to feel like a story.

Presumably, an OSR campaign ending that felt completely out of tune with the rest of the game would result in players demanding to see the GM’s notes to prove that they’d missed something that was added fairly. A story games ending almost couldn’t be something that the majority of players hadn’t bought into, as democracy is assumed by the rules. But what happens if a long-running game in the standard storyteller mode ends on a complete misfire? Keep in mind that this is a style of play where “it says right here in the module that I have to…” isn’t necessarily encouraged, but is accepted. And I strongly suspect that the majority, possibly even the vast majority, of gamers still play this way, free of the game theory of the internet until it makes its way into a mass-market publication. It’s accepted fact that the GM models not just a world, but a world with an intended narrative.

Further, the motivation behind this is why the OSR and story games movements are ends of a spectrum rather than just two ways of limiting GM power. My sense is that a lot of gamers crave both a story and a sense of a world simulated in someone else’s head. They’d be unsatisfied with the pure sandbox method of play exalted by the OSR, desiring a much more thorough amount of story instead of the responsibility of driving the game’s agenda. But they’d be equally unsatisfied with a true division of GM authority among the group, as there’s a definite allure to having a single arbiter of reality to make victories feel earned. While I expect the middle to continue to absorb innovations from both OSR and story games camps, I also expect story-driven games with a single GM to be the norm for the foreseeable future.

So had Mass Effect been an epic series of tabletop modules instead of video games, how would the ending play out at tables around the world? Would players suck it up and quietly resolve to try to get someone else to GM next time? Would they be open about disliking it, but accept that it stayed happened? Or would they proceed to order their GM to tell the ending right, and they’re not leaving until he does? And would the last option come dangerously close to shattering the illusion of a world independent of the players’ own imaginations?

Someday, though probably not soon, we’ll achieve some reasonable approximation of the holodeck: a video gaming engine that can interpret a wide variety of player input and react to it with an AI sophisticated enough to respond more like a human GM than a rigidly programmed tree of options. The ME3 controversy may mean that, by the time we get there, it would be unthinkable to not have its core behavior skew much more toward the sandbox of the OSR or the player authority of story games. We could be on the verge of strictly limiting the power of the video game designer in a way similar to those espoused by tabletop theories, eliminating the ability to tell a story that takes away agency from the player. We could be on the verge of losing the core elements that give video games a chance of being acknowledged as art by the mainstream (in the same way movies are art) anytime in the foreseeable future.

But, given that a lot of tricks taken from movies tend to remove the fun of actually playing the game, maybe it’s just a good time to deeply rethink our principles of video game design, in the same way the OSR and story games movements are deeply rethinking the tabletop RPG.

Top ’10

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It’s been somewhat of a transitional year for both video and tabletop RPGs.

On the video game side, there were only a handful of AAA single-player RPGs (all published by Bioware, Obsidian, and CDProjekt) of any note, and almost nothing in the way of non-expansion MMO releases (save Star Trek at the very beginning of the year). I may be missing a few that flew under my radar. Meanwhile, more companies seemed to have extensive layoffs than in any other year in recent memory save perhaps the wash of Austin layoffs a few years ago. Ultimately, 2010 proved that the video game industry is far from recession-proof, as investors began getting serious cold feet about anything that wasn’t a Facebook app. 2011 looks promising, particularly due to some 2010 games that were held off for more polish, so maybe we’ll see some fun and innovative stuff in the next few months.

On the tabletop RPG side, the interesting thing about 2010 on the major publishing side was Paizo becoming a major player pretty much entirely on the back of Pathfinder. I seem to recall hearing that they’re now the second largest tabletop RPG publisher. Part of this also likely has to do with White Wolf increasingly treating the tabletop market as a distraction from the development of the World of Darkness MMO, moving to completely transition to a video game studio instead of a tabletop one. Meanwhile, potentially under the radar of most, some second-tier tabletop publishers with high production values started doing some very interesting things: Margaret Weis Productions’ Smallville and Leverage are both licensed mainstream properties that nonetheless do some very experimental things with their game design, and Fantasy Flight Games’ take on Warhammer Fantasy is an interesting hybrid of D&D 4th, indie ideas, and their own board game sensibilities. As usual, lots of indie RPGs came out over the year, many of which mostly flew under my radar but were well-received by RPGnet, but the biggest was probably the long-awaited release of the Dresden Files RPG. With the production values involved, it may mark Evil Hat’s transition from an indie publisher to a mainstream one (if that distinction even really makes a difference any more in the diverse land of small print runs that is the tabletop RPG industry).

Meanwhile, on this blog, 2010 has been an amazing year of growth in my readership, with each recent month seeing more pageviews than the entire year of 2009. I’m hoping that, if I keep up the content, you’ll all keep coming back.

And because everyone likes top 10 lists, here are the top and bottom 10 posts from this blog, as of the first of 2011, ranked by pageviews (and weighted by number of days active). They don’t include syndicated views or people viewing the post directly via the home page, just the number of times the post was directly viewed (so it’s, at best, an approximation of interest).

Top 10

  1. D&D 3.5/Pathfinder Overpowered Spells
  2. Sandbox D&D and E6/8
  3. D&D: Level by Wealth
  4. Pathfinder, RotR: House Rules
  5. Pathfinder, Kingmaker: House Rules
  6. Dungeon Inertia
  7. From Radioactive to Riches, Part 1
  8. D&D: Modified Buff Spells
  9. System Review: Fading Suns, Part 1
  10. D&D: Cooldown Casting

Bottom 10

  1. The Karma Contract
  2. MGI: Diminishing Returns Cooldowns
  3. Ultimate Star Wars – Force Powers
  4. SNFO 2: Mazes and Monsters
  5. The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 5
  6. SNFO 3: the Pit
  7. The Sims: With Great Power
  8. Bartle’s Four and Fantasy Fiction Styles
  9. Consciousness Twinning
  10. The Transliteration Problem

From Radioactive to Riches: the Jenny Gamma Story, part 3

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This is the required picture for the Market forum to show you're an Ebil Marketeer. Seriously.Even with frequently played characters in the late levels, I’d never had access to more than 100 million influence at a time. Seeing all the high-level build suggestions on the forums relying on literally billions of influence worth of enhancements introduced a disconnect. How did all of these people think money was so easy to come by? All of my friends had long been impressed by a lucky drop that could sell for 10 million. How were we ever going to possibly have enough game currency to make use of the inventions system the way everyone expected (i.e., by buying lots of rare sets to stack awesome bonuses until one’s character defies game balance entirely).

Turns out, though, that there’s a lot of money floating free in the economy. High-level characters farm missions, turning on the money faucet until it screams, happy to blow all of that money on their own character upgrades. Even if you don’t want to farm, you can get money off of those that do. Here’s what I wound up paying:

Components Number Purchased Average Price Paid
Alchemical Silver 2 107,586
Ancient Bone 4 4,381
Bleeding Stone 4 3,421
Carnival of Shadows Mask 1 20,171
Ceramic Armor Plate 76 5,605
Chaos Theorum 50 3,451
Chronal Skip 42 1,419,215
Circuit Board 60 12,331
Commercial Cybernetic 2 22,551
Demonic Blood Sample 5 9,123
Demonic Threat Report 12 1,088
Destiny 19 8,750
Diamond 2 2,000,171
Enchanted Impervium 1 1,500,171
Energy Weapon 55 5,226
Ensorcelled Weapon 1 10,001
Fortune 87 3,160
Gold 32 3,546
Hamidon Goo 3 1,500,171
Hydraulic Piston 120 1,071
Improvised Cybernetic 1 250
Inert Gas 1 20,100
Kinetic Weapon 123 36
Magical Conspiracy 59 1,334,069
Mathematic Proof 19 329
Military Cybernetic 2 1,800,136
Mu Vestment 3 2,000,171
Mutant DNA Strand 3 1,171
Nevermelting Ice 72 2,587
Pangean Soil 59 1,395,086
Penumatic Piston 3 13,171
Photonic Weapon 49 1,040,987
Platinum 14 1,150,171
Pneumatic Piston 56 16,171
Positronic Matrix 98 1,000,171
Prophecy 28 1,257,314
Psionic Threat Report 3 10,171
Regenerating Flesh 48 1,157
Rikti Alloy 10 1,710,171
Ruby 59 3,849
Sapphire 39 9,581
Scientific Law 4 1,381
Scientific Theory 4 3,379
Silver 55 316
Soul Trapped Gem 13 1,115,556
Spell Ink 55 25,819
Spirit Thorn 59 1,154
Synthetic Intelligence Unit 1 1,000,171
Temporal Analyzer 59 171
Temporal Tracer 21 1,266
Titanium Shard 6 726
Unquenchable Flame 9 12,838
Essence of the Furies 8 1,912,671
Recipes Number Purchased Average Price Paid
Recipe: Blessing of the Zephyr -KB L50 25 8,040,185
Recipe: Decimation Acc/Dam L40 1 3,000,010
Recipe: Decimation Acc/Dam/Rech L40 1 1,000,001
Recipe: Doctored Wounds End/Heal 3 100,171
Recipe: Doctored Wounds End/Heal L50 37 308,549
Recipe: Doctored Wounds End/Rech L50 16 113,296
Recipe: Efficacy Adaptor End Mod/Acc, L50 18 50,171
Recipe: Efficacy Adaptor Rech/Acc, L50 43 135,055
Recipe: Gift of the Ancients Defense L40 3 4,500,000
Recipe: Interrupt, L20 9 100
Recipe: Luck of the Gambler +Recharge L50 7 100,000,171
Recipe: Luck of the Gambler Def L50 3 30,000,000
Recipe: Luck of the Gambler Def/End/Rech L50 1 4,000,171
Recipe: Luck of the Gambler Def/Rech L50 1 400,171
Recipe: Luck of the Gambler End/Rech L50 4 78,921
Recipe: Luck of the Gambler: Def, L50 1 25,000,171
Recipe: Miracle End/Heal/Rech L40 3 100,171
Recipe: Numina’s Convalescence +Rech/Rec, L40 1 50,000,171
Recipe: Numina’s Convalescence End/Rech, L50 2 100
Recipe: Performance Shifter Chance L50 52 6,105,937
Recipe: Performance Shifter End Mod/Rech L50 3 1,500,171
Recipe: Positron’s Blast Acc/Dam L50 3 500,171
Recipe: Range, L20 30 150
Recipe: Range, L30 9 150
Recipe: Range, L35 15 150
Recipe: Red Fortune Def 3 300,171
Recipe: Red Fortune Def/End/Rech L50 12 333,504
Recipe: Red Fortune Def/Rech 3 100,000
Recipe: Sleep, L25 5 100
Recipe: Titanium Coating End 3 10,171
Recipe: Titanium Coating End/Rech 3 10,171
Recipe: Titanium Coating Rech/Res 3 50,000
Recipe: Touch of the Nictus Acc/End/Rech L50 9 10,000,171
Recipe: Touch of the Nictus Chance L50 1 100,171


Sold Item Number Sold Average Price Received Profit
Blessing of the Zephyr -KB 25 26,990,667 93%
Decimation 2 5,000,000
Doctored Wounds 56 3,935,708 228%
Efficacy Adaptor (End Mod/Acc) 18 3,885,803 313%
Efficacy Adaptor (Rech/Acc) 37 3,853,454 272%
Gift of the Ancients Def 3 15,000,000
Kinetic Weapon 115 250 312%
LotG (Def/End/Rech) 1 15,000,000
LotG (Def/Rech) 1 7,000,000
Luck of the Gambler +Recharge 7 132,857,143 13%
Luck of the Gambler Def L50 4 42,527,778
Luck of the Gambler End/Rech 4 8,525,253
Magical Conspiracy 10 2,010,000
Miracle 3 11,000,000
Numina’s Convalescence End/Rech 2 4,950,000
Numina’s Convalescence Healing 1 30,000,000
Numina’s Convalescence Reg/Rec 1 121,000,000
Performance Shifter Chance 52 17,963,462 83%
Performance Shifter End Mod 2 10,000,000
Performance Shifter End Mod 2 10,000,000
Performance Shifter End Mod/Rech 3 15,000,000
Photonic Weapon 28 2,010,714
Platinum 10 2,000,000
Positronic Matrix 98 1,998,529 67%
Positron’s Blast Acc/Dam 3 8,000,000
Prophecy 10 2,000,000
Red Fortune 7 4,000,000
Red Fortune Def/End/Rech L50 10 3,060,004
Red Fortune Def/Rech 1 3,000,000
Smashing Haymaker 2 3,350,555
Titanium Coating End 3 3,666,667
Titanium Coating End/Rech 3 5,000,000
Titanium Coating Res/Rech 3 4,296,296
Titanium Coating, Res L50 8 5,387,500
Touch of the Nictus Acc/End/Rech 9 27,444,444 83%
Touch of the Nictus Chance L50 1 5,000,000



I like to think these charts bear out what I’ve said in the previous two installments: there’s fabulous amounts of money to be had, but your number of auction slots become the driving force of value very quickly. Items that make a 200-300% profit net at most 3 million per sale. Meanwhile, items that turn less that 100% profit turn over around 10 million each sale. In general, high-profit items that turn over quickly are an easy way for anyone to make money, especially if you can check in multiple times a day, but the higher-value items will bring in more money to the patient (and those not able to check a lot).

Ultimately, it’s very easy to make money on the City of Heroes market. All it takes is identifying an enhancement that sells frequently (all Last 5 transactions from today) and for more than how much you’ll pay to get the recipe and components (and don’t forget the 10% market fee). With the number of players with high level characters flooding the market, and the ease at which the CoH market allows you to set up buy orders that gradually rake in components at reasonable prices, there’s really no reason not to avail oneself of the opportunity to have enough cash to buy all the cool things in game that make your character more competent.

From Radioactive to Riches: the Jenny Gamma Story, part 2

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Week 2

100 million is nothing to sneeze atIn case you forgot from last week, Jenny Gamma, my alt that found herself dedicated to playing the market for fun and profit, ended the first week with over 100 million influence. This is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s still only 1/20 of the influence cap and barely enough to buy a single really good enhancement. I have a lot of alts in the later levels that would really benefit from some nice enhancement sets, so I’m going to need to bring in the big money.

Day 1

It’s still Sunday on free reactivation weekend, and I’m determined to make some good money before another slow spate of weekdays.

Maybe I didn’t learn my lesson, because I start it off with buying another Luck of the Gambler: Defense.

By the end of the day I’m down again, waiting on some expensive enhancements to sell.

Day 2-5

This took way longer than it should haveMonday through Thursday crawls by before I once again have as much liquid influence as I had on the first day of the week. I flip more orange salvage to while away the time and have something turning over each day. Finally, the Numina’s Convalescence that I speculated on on Tuesday turns over, and I have just over 200 million liquid to take into the weekend.

Day 6

It’s Friday and a lot of the slow-moving, high-value anchors around my auction slots finally find homes with loving (and wealthy) parents. I’m up to 271 million by the end of the night!

Day 7

It’s another beautiful Saturday, although this time without the joy of tons of reactivated players scrambling to consume, and I end the day with over 300 million.

Week 3

Day 1

Wealthy is as wealthy doesSunday is another great day. By the middle of the day, I pass 500 million as my Luck of the Gambler: Defense recipes finally clear out. They’re good profit, but they’ve been very slow to turn over, and I begin to really internalize the advice of the market forum about fast turnover on slots being more important than huge margins.

Day 2-3

AnotherĀ  middle of the week. I’ve suddenly got so much liquid influence that it’s hard to invest it all if I’m only pursuing low-value stuff. I go whole-hog and begin to invest in the Luck of the Gambler: Global Recharge bonus enhancement that is every high-level character’s favorite accessory (it goes well with any build!). I also make a lot of Efficacy Adaptors to round out my slots.

Luck of the Gambler is expensiveWhen the Luck enhancements sell, it’s very impressive: they go for 130 million each! However, I paid 100 million for the recipes, and the 10% market commission eats an awful lot at those high values. Ultimately, I probably make way more profit on the parade of yellow enhancements than I do on the big ticket ones.

Ultimately, getting a Luck of the Gambler recipe from normal play is a fabulous windfall, but it’s not really worth it when speculating.

Day 5-6

Thursday and Friday are all about the guaranteed, safe, yellow enhancement sales. I end with 637 million to roll into Saturday.

Day 7

With the greater capacity to sell and buy on the weekend, I decide to experiment with a variety of items, buying large swaths of recipes with theoretically good margins. I’m getting the hang of this, and I end the day with 672 million liquid and a bunch of recipes on hand to pad out the rest of the week.

Week 4

1 BILLION dollarsI’m beginning to focus more on big stacks of the same item. It’s faster for me to buy in bulk, and I have enough money to sink into waiting for conservative offers for recipes and salvage to fill. Consequently, I stop bothering to take so many screenshots at this point, because it’s mostly huge lists of exactly the same thing. This week’s big sellers are more Efficacy Adaptors, Performance Shifter: Chance for Endurance, and Gaussian’s Synchronized Fire Control: To-Hit Buff and To-Hit/End (complements to another decent and in-demand proc).

By the end of the week, I’ve crossed the 1 billion threshold. Technically, this qualifies for “Ebil Marketeer” status on the forums, but I’m not done yet.

Week 5

It's starting to get very impressiveAt this point, if I had it to do all over again, I could do it faster. Having the ready cash to just buy big stacks that are slow to fill but quick to sell becomes a huge benefit. At this level, there’s almost no way for me to invest all my liquid cash save on the 100 million+ enhancements. I’m tempted to try, but market volatility when I check shows that the margin on them is razor thin this week. I opt to invest in a lot more reliable and frequent sellers. The heroes this week are more Performance Shifter: Chance for Endurance and Blessing of the Zephyr: Knockback Reduction. I fill in with all enhancements in the Celerity set (a running set that can turn Super Speed into full invisibility with its +Stealth enhancement).

I'm rich, bitch!By the middle of the week, I’ve been at this for a month and haven’t quite made it to the cap, but I’m very close. 500 million influence becomes something I expect to be able to earn in a couple of days. Despite the bottom falling out of the Efficacy Adaptor market, and the remaining high-cost of common salvage inflated from the Halloween event (where everyone leveled a lot without generating much salvage), by early Saturday, it is done…

This is the required picture for the Market forum to show you're an Ebil Marketeer. Seriously.Next week, a detailed breakdown of what I did, then back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Part 3

From Radioactive to Riches: the Jenny Gamma Story, part 1

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Last month, I began exploring the ramifications of the City of Heroes consignment system. The common wisdom on the forums was that it was incredibly easy to make money (well, influence) in the game via the market, so I decided to see how long it would take me to reach the influence cap based on doing nothing but playing said market. Stipulations:

  • I would use one character (no help from alts); very quickly, limitation on personal storage slots on the auction house and in inventory becomes a limiting factor on this, so I didn’t want to “cheat” by having other characters help with their own slots.
  • I would start with almost nothing; I began with roughly 500 influence (via selling a low level enhancement) vs. a currency cap of 2 billion, and, given the ease at which common salvage can be bought for next to nothing and vendored for 250, I could have started with literally 1 influence and it wouldn’t have slowed me noticeably.
  • I would not actually play the character during the time; all currency would come directly from playing the market, rather than by getting and selling drops from game opponents.
  • I wouldn’t spend a ton of time working on this; on weekdays, I planned to check in after work and before bed, with more times checking in on the weekends. Since most of the time spent is just waiting for listed items to turn into sales, it’s not really necessary to micromanage your auctions unless you’ve identified a product that’s turning over very rapidly.

Completely Broke in Steel CanyonEnter Jenny Gamma, one of my alts. She’s a Force Field/Radiation Defender, which means she’s somewhat painful to solo even if I wanted to try to farm influence. But she does have most of the crafting badges, which gave her above-normal storage capacity for her level, the ability to make generic enhancements cheaply (which made a small difference early on, but not much towards the real money), and can summon a portable invention station (which I wound up using not at all, because it’s perfectly easy to jump over to the regular crafting stations).

Let’s say she had a rough weekend in Atlantic City and came home broke.

Week 1

Day 1

Day 1 is the biggest example of how quick even a low level character can work the market to get money quickly. The game tends to give out lots of “junk” salvage and recipes in the course of play: because of the variety of powers in the game, there are a lot of enhancement types that are in low demand. For example, pretty much anyone has at least one power that can make use of improved defense, but almost no one has use for improved intangibility (it’s like a hold, only you can’t hurt the target and have to wait a fixed time for it to wear off; almost no one takes intangibility powers). However, the less-in-demand items still sell to NPC vendors at a standard rate. However, either because they want the badges for selling lots of stuff at auction, or they just don’t want to bother finding a vendor, a lot of people will throw low-demand stuff on the consignment house for far less than it will sell for at a vendor.

So you can make a killing buying items off the auction house just to turn around and sell them to NPCs.

I buy over a hundred Kinetic Weapons for 10-20 influence each and sells them for 250 influence each. After this, I have enough money to start speculating on recipes. Generic Ranged recipes turn out to be listed cheap, and I wind up getting over 50 for 150 influence each and turn around and vendor them for a average of about 5,000 each. At this point, my time invested is mostly in how long it takes to jump over to the vendor from the market. Jenny has 351,638 influence. That’s enough to begin part 2 of the plan.

Becoming a millionaire is fun and easyDue to her crafting badges, Jenny has “memorized” a lot of generic enhancement recipes, so doesn’t have to pay to buy them from the crafting station. The crafting itself is half cost. So she can craft, for example, level 35 Recharge generics for about 30,000 influence each. These enhancements also require Spell Ink and Circuit Board components, which are, at the time, going for 40,000 and 10,000 each. So, for roughly 80,000 influence, I can make level 35 Recharge generics. They sell for 300,000-500,000.

So, after three of them, Jenny is a millionaire. It’s taken a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.

I spend the rest of the day stocking up on further Spell Inks and Circuit Boards, and crafting enough to fill my auction slots with Recharge generics, and I’m done for the day.

Day 2

When I log back in, all of the recharge enhancements have sold, and Jenny has 6,608,414 influence. I craft some more of them, and also begin speculating on yellow set enhancements. Set enhancements are where the real money in the market comes from: some of the better commonly available sets provide very significant bonuses, and each enhancement in the set will sell, crafted, for at least 10 million influence. Some enhancements are so good that each one of them sells for over 100 million influence (and this is before getting into the ultra-rare level 50-only purple enhancements or PvP-drop enhancements, that sell for even more).

Interestingly, there’s a lot of difference between the price of a recipe and the price of the crafted enhancement. Even though there’s no barrier to crafting in this game, many people will sell off recipes on the market rather than assembling the components and selling the finished enhancement. Meanwhile, even with all these recipes on the market, many players seem to be impatient enough to just buy finished enhancements; even a 50% or more savings is not enough to make it worth it to them to buy a recipe and make the enhancement themselves. So there’s tremendous money to be made from buying recipes and salvage and crafting them into enhancements for sale.

Tremendous money.

At this point, I’m mostly looking at yellow (uncommon) recipes. While the orange (rare) recipes tend to have better sale prices (few yellow enhancements sell for more than 10 million), they also tend to require rare salvage for at least one of their components. Nearly every rare component in the game auctions for 1-2 million influence, so it’s a bit early for Jenny to start speculating on those. Yellows, though, tend to use much more cheaply available salvage. I get a couple from a melee damage set (Smashing Haymaker) and craft both for under 300,000 including all costs. By the end of the evening they’ve both sold for over 3 million each. With the sale of these plus the generics, Jenny has 16,991,103 influence.

I grab a couple more yellow recipes (Decimation, a ranged damage set) that seem to sell for a decent bit, craft them and put them up with some more recharges, and go to bed.

Day 3

I return to everything having sold, and Jenny’s up to 22,181,440 influence.

Today brings full on experimentation with yellow recipes, and I’m moving away from generics. They have a consistent 400% profit margin, but my 18-auction-at-a-time limit is already becoming a problem. Essentially, limiting to generics means I will turn over around 5 million influence a day unless I constantly log in to turn over sales. It’s good money, but it would take over a year to reach the influence cap at 2 billion that way.

I put nearly all of Jenny’s ready cash into a variety of Luck of the Gambler (defense) recipes and Numina’s Convalescence (healing) recipes; these are from the same set as a couple of the enhancements that sell for over 100 million each, and my hope is that someone dropping 100 million will not worry about more dropped on the rest of the set. Nonetheless, I’m probably dipping into orange recipes a little sooner than make sense. I also grab some yellow Efficacy Adaptors (endurance). All of it gets crafted and posted.

Day 4

It's starting to get labor intensive to get richThe profit margin wasn’t as good as I hoped, and all of the previous day’s work only increase Jenny’s liquid funds by 50% to 36 million. My rate of increase is slowing down as I begin to make huge amounts of influence; but it’s still better than selling generics.

Another mistake I make today is continuing to speculate too early on orange recipes. I hope for a big payday and invest most of my money in a more expensive Luck of the Gambler enhancement. It won’t sell for several days. I begin to learn that big money sales are for the weekend, when lots of people are playing; it’s a better idea to stick to cheap and reliable sales to the weekday crowd.

Day 5

It’s another very slow day. Jenny’s now poorer than she was on day 2. I start trying to flip orange salvage.

Flipping is the process of putting in lowball bids for items with the intention of immediately listing them for enough to make a profit. The CoH forums tend to explode about flipping in a way they don’t for buying and crafting cheap recipes, as there’s the intuition that people flipping are adding nothing to the game, merely making money by making things more expensive for everyone.

The counter argument is that flippers stabilize the market and maintain supply of necessary components: since flippers are buying things people are listing 1-2 per auction slot and re-listing them 10 to a slot, there’s more space for stuff on the market. Additionally, anyone is guaranteed a quick (if small) return on listing components that they might otherwise vendor as worthless.

Nonetheless, I feel a little dirty as I begin buying orange salvage at around 1 million to sell at 2 million. I’ll have to assuage my feelings with the sweet, sweet profit.

Day 6

Hey, it’s Friday, it’s free reactivation weekend, and things are picking up.

My flipped salvage has come through nicely, and I’ve sold a couple of yellow recipes. I begin to realize that yellow recipes are the safe bet. I buy a bunch of them and post them.

Day 7

Saturday is pretty much the busiest day of the week. My stuff sells, I pick up some more items to flip for cheap, and the lead weight around my neck that was the expensive Luck of the Gambler I made earlier in the week finally goes. By the middle of the day Jenny has nearly 56 million.

Feeling a bit saucy, and more confident of a sale on the weekend, I jump back into orange recipes, picking up a Numina’s Convalescence: Heal, a Performance Shifter: Endurance Mod/Recharge, a Performance Shifter: Chance for extra endurance (a big favorite to slot into Stamina, which everyone has), and a Blessing of the Zephyr: Knockback Reduction (an enhancement that goes into any travel power and makes your character resistant to being knocked back by attacks; another big favorite).

100 million is nothing to sneeze atAll these sell overnight, and I’m happily sitting at over 100 million influence.

But, things slow down a lot from here…

Part 2

Selected Game Design Blogroll

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I’m working on a new feature to run on Wednesdays now that my actual play from Rise of the Runelords has completed. Dragon*Con has resulted in a delay getting that implemented, so, instead, here is a list of game design blogs to which I am subscribed:

Video Game-Focused

Each of these primarily focus on video games.



Tabletop Game-Focused

Each of these primarily deal with tabletop game related topics.


Old Schoolers

GM Advice and General Commentary

Older Entries