I’ve been a fan of the weird west genre since I watched The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. in high school, and at least half of the (admittedly few) Boot Hill games I’ve run have featured something supernatural, or at least seemingly supernatural. I’ve done vampires, The Hound of the Baskervilles (which is really just Victorian Scooby Doo) in a mine, and assorted other horror stories in the Old West. Running these kinds of games with something like Boot Hill is especially fun since the players aren’t expecting the supernatural, so their characters aren’t as credulous as they are in Deadlands or Call of Cthulhu where everyone knows the horror is real but have to go through the often-tedious formality of pretending otherwise for a while.
I was working at a game distributor when Deadlands came out, and the first copy I pulled out of the box went into the “mine” pile as soon as I skimmed a few pages. While the game didn’t quite live up to my expectations in actual play (mostly because the system had so many moving parts that it slowed the story to a crawl), I was just happy to see I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed Joe Lansdale and Tim Truman’s take on Jonah Hex way too much. I even read through the preview copy of Werewolf: Wild West that White Wolf sent us at a time when White Wolf players annoyed me almost as much as they annoy...well, pretty much everyone I’ve ever met who worked for White Wolf.
Side note: at the time, I thought that maybe the hole in the book was there to mark it as a “not for sale” copy or something, but when the shipment arrived we discovered that they not only meant to do that, but probably paid the printer extra to drill a goddamn hole in the book. I think it was supposed to be a bullet hole, but some kind of art around the hole (maybe scorch marks or “edge of a bullet hole” art or something) probably would have made it clearer that the books hadn’t been part of a bizarre drill press accident.
Anyway, the point is that Clanbook: Tzimiisce’s back cover art wasn’t the only really stupid idea White Wolf had in the 90s. Wait....that’s not the point. That can’t be the point. If I start making fun of White Wolf, we’ll be here all night making “Oh, such hair!” jokes. The point is I like the weird west genre enough to read most of a World of Darkness book with a dumbass hole drilled through it when I didn’t have anything better to do at work. I like the Cowboys & Dead Things genre, so it was really inevitable that eventually I’d decide to do my own thing with it. That thing was the Six-Gun Seven.
I don’t remember the exact origin of the Six-Gun Seven, but the modern-day version of them made its first appearance in the “other monster hunters” section of M-Force and the Old West version was a Qik Start game in QAGS 2E, where their fearless leader Jake “Six-Gun” Sawyer appeared as a sample character. Since then they’ve been mentioned in a handful of Hex products and I’ve run a few con games featuring them, but that’s about it.
In terms of Idea Debt, The Six-Gun Seven is kind of like a credit card that’s had a $1 balance for the last 20 years. There’s probably an outline and a few notes somewhere on my hard drive, but most of the “work” I’ve put into it outside of entries for other books has been idle speculation. For example, to get around the fact that most people don’t want to play pre-gens, the game will be set up with an ever-shifting membership with the only constants being that Jake Sawyer is the leader (though he can be more of an M/Old Man With An Eyepatch type of character if nobody wants to play him) and there are seven members. I’ve also got ideas for (way more than seven) sample members, some sample adventures, settings, and all that good stuff, but nothing’s down on paper. It’s an idea I want to do something with, but haven’t really put much work into.
So why haven’t I? Part of it is the “old idea” thing where it’s been around so long that the initial excitement is long gone until I watch a Western and start thinking about it again. Unfortunately, that usually happens when I’m knee-deep in some other project that I need to get done. Another reason it’s never really made it to even the Books of Lore stage is that there’s an element of the “it’s D&D, ONLY BETTER!” problem. While the idea isn’t a Deadlands clone (I've been doing Old West horror since before Deadlands existed, and there a lot of things I’d do differently in terms of tone and world design), it fills the same niche as Deadlands, and Deadlands has been the standard for 20 years or so. That means the potential audience isn’t so much “gamers who like the weird west” as “gamers who like the weird west and aren’t already playing Deadlands.” So I’d basically be writing it for me, a few of the other Hex folks, and a handful of QAGS fans. While anyone familiar with the Hex product line already knows that we have no qualms about writing games that exist mostly for our own amusement (it's not like Fratboys, magical hobos, and the comics of Fletcher Hanks are wildly popular among gamers), we tend to stick to ideas that fit a niche that isn’t already filled with an 800-pound gorilla.
The Six Gun Seven would fit in nicely with Hobomancer, American Artifacts, and a few other pieces of Idea Debt I’ve got floating around, but since the basic concept has already been done well by someone else, it’s at the end of the line. The ideas that haven’t been done as RPGs will come first because they’re more exciting to work on and more likely to sell. Since a couple of those are Hobomancer-size projects, my weird west game idea isn’t going to become an Actual Product any time soon (but I still hope to do it one of these days).
The next chunk of idea debt in my Binders of Lore is technically titled The Groovin’ Zed and the Roller Kings Intergalactic Tour Guide or some such nonsense, but I’m going to stick with “Groovin’ Zed” because I don’t have all day. To properly appreciate Groovin’ Zed, you have to understand that Leighton Connor and I have an unhealthy fascination with writing about musicians that don’t exist. For example, you can still visit the shitty website for ANkST & ANkHS, a band that we made up for a Dragon*Con mock flyer contest in 1996 (we won) and later created a geocities-o-licious website and elaborate backstory for. My first publication as Brainfart Press was a book called Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed), a catalog of fictional blues greats. The point is, Leighton and I waste a whole lot of time making up information about bands that don’t actually exist.
Groovin’ Zed, like many Hex releases, was spawned from the super-hero game Leighton ran in college, which over the course of a few years turned into a big shared universe of interconnected games about whatever weird shit a player wanted to run a game about. There’s a lot of material and game ideas scattered throughout Hex products that originated in the game we called “The Ficton.” In fact, you can think of the Hex Ficton (the world where Hobomancer, M-Force, Fort High, Colin Thomas Presents Rasslin’, and many other Hex products are set) as kind of a reboot of the original shared universe from Leighton’s game.
Anyway, one of the newer players, Eddie, decided one day that he wanted to run a game in the Ficton. I think he intended it to be a sort of X-Filesy conspiracy game (this was the 90s), but Eddie was young and new to GMing and made the serious error of telling us that the game was set in the 70s and that we should make characters who would know each other from the same bar. As soon as someone said, “we could play the band!,” any chance of Eddie running a game that required the PCs to be anything but a bunch of stoned morons went up in smoke faster than a bag of weed at Tommy Chong's house. Eddie either didn’t fully realize this or decided to bravely persevere. We only played a few times, and I don’t remember if the PCs ever actually got abducted by aliens or not, but that was the ending that eventually stuck. Later in the various games set in the universe there would be an occasional reference to the shitty band that disappeared in the 70s or their “hit” song “Peyote” (which we usually assumed sounded like “Berserker” from Clerks).
At some point, we decided to make a Groovin’ Zed game where they became wildly popular in outer space despite their lack of talent and toured the galaxy getting into wacky adventures with their loyal hound Reefer. So pretty much Josie and the Pussycats in space, but with more drugs. Groovin’ Zed made its first appearance in QAGS Second Edition, which even featured an awesome drawing of the band by one of our favorite artists, Gary Bedell. We even included ads for it at the back of a book or two in the post-QAGS era. Unfortunately, the actual game turned out to be vaporware.
Everything started out great. We decided to go with the tour guide conceit, which meant we got to write a bunch of dumb background information about the band. We wrote about the band’s history, we wrote an interview with Groovin’ Zed himself (“we're bigger than Elvis! You, uh, don't know what that means, do you?”), we even wrote a little bit about the famous Love Ship, where the Jefferies Tubes double as the galaxy’s biggest bong. And of course we created the Groovin’ Zed discography, because Leighton and I love creating discographies for bands that don’t exist, complete with critical commentary. I’m going to include the whole “Albums” section in its entirety, because it's my blog and I love our dumbass discographies.
Though many only know Groovin’ Zed and the Roller Kings from their hit singles, the albums are where the band unleashes its full creative genius. Shortly after the Roller Kings signed their contract they released their first album, Those Are Some Really Fucked Up Tentacle-Things on Your Head. It shot to the top of the charts, and deservedly so – the Roller Kings’ trademark sound was there from the beginning, and no one had ever heard anything like it before. But in retrospect, Tentacle Things sounds confused, as though the band still didn’t know what to make of their new life.
With You May Call It Ssnoorupool, But I Call it Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Roller Kings released their first masterpiece. The songs reveal a band finally coming to terms with their change in locale, a band reflecting on their newfound status as intergalactic superstars. In “Look at Me Now” Groovin’ Zed mocks his friends, parents, high school English teacher, and various others who criticized him earlier in life. When Zed bellows out, “You said I’d amount to nothing/But look at me now!” you can hear the triumph in his voice. But there are other emotions on display in Ssnoorupool. Zed shows his range with the touching “It Ain’t Easy to Rock,” a song that explores the difficulties of superstardom.
Groovin’ Zed and the Roller Kings have continued to release albums, and the level of quality has remained the same. One particularly notable work is Zed’s solo project Grllxxgaloelslfffly. Unbelievably, Zed recorded the entire album over the course of three hours. Even more amazing, rumor has it he composed the songs there in the recording studio. Though not Zed’s most polished work, Grllxxgaloelslfffly gives a unique insight into his creative process.
Another of the band’s most ambitious efforts is the rock opera Groovin’ Zed and the Roller Kings Save Christmas. Christmas is, apparently, some sort of winter festival on the Roller Kings’ home planet. While we don’t understand exactly what Christmas is, we’re certainly thankful that Groovin’ Zed and the Roller Kings have saved it.
Those Are Some Really Fucked Up Tentacle-Things on Your Head
“Damn! We're in Space!”
“Those Are Some Really Fucked Up Tentacle-Things on Your Head”
“Cheetos and Coors”
You May Call it Ssnoorupool, But I Call it Rock 'n' Roll
“Look at Me Now”
“I Don’t Need a Universal Translator (to Say I Love You)”
“It Ain’t Easy to Rock”
“Come On Baby”
“You May Call it Ssnoorupool, But I Call it Rock 'n' Roll”
“Is This On?”
“All Kindsa Colors”
“Everything is Love”
“Nobody Appreciates Me”
“Seriously, I Think I’m Going to Throw Up”
Groovin' Zed and The Roller Kings Save Christmas
“Groovin' Zed and the Roller Kings Save Christmas (main theme)”
“They've Never Even Heard of Christmas”
“Gimpy the Sad Little Elf”
“Santa Needs Some Action”
“Nuclear Christmas Nightmare”
“Roller Kings to the Rescue”
“Ebeneezer Scrooge vs. Frosty the Snowman”
“Groovin' Zed and the Roller Kings Save Christmas (reprise)”
The largest (complete) section of the book is a mostly-complete catalog of the planets that Groovin’ Zed and the Roller Kings will be visiting on their upcoming “Good Shit” tour. Here’s a sample entry:
World Overview: A thousand years ago Frngl Splb ran a hugely profitable casino on his home planet Bzzkll, until the moralistic rulers of Bzzkll shut the casino down. Frngl barely escaped with his life. He made his way to Quartank-Zeta, an unoccupied desert planet conveniently located between the borders of Bzzkll and Qlarisia’s empires. Free to do what he wanted, Frngl rebuilt his casino. Over the years he expanded, making his establishment more and more elaborate. After he died his descendants continued the expansion. Eventually the casino covered the whole world and Quartank-Zeta became a thriving planet.
Despite its origins, there’s more to Quartank-Zeta than the casino. There are also hotels, bars, restaurants, brothels, and spaceports. Quartank-Zeta has more spaceports, per capita, than any other planet in the known galaxies. This is partly because the economy is based on tourism, but mostly because the people of Quartank-Zeta produce no food or goods and are entirely dependent on imports.
Notable People: Hrgl Splb is the planet’s current manager. If you find yourself in Mr. Splb’s office, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
The Show: Groovin’ Zed and the Roller Kings will be playing in the eastern wing of the Quasar Center, taking the stage after Crimson Carella LaCronk and her Cosmic Carnal Contortionists.
Accommodations: Quartank-Zeta boasts a staggering array of hotels, from tiny hovels with dirty sheets to extravagant palaces of pure luxury. Depending on your luck at games of chance, you may have the opportunity to visit both extremes.
Charming Local Customs: If you see a knife fight break out in a parking lot, it is customary to bet on the outcome.
Don’t Forget: Money, and lots of it.
Make Sure You Visit: The brothel district. Wanting to check out some of those famous establishments, but you’re stuck with the kids? Not to worry! Most of Quartank-Zeta’s brothels provide licensed childcare services. Drop off the kids and have a good time. You can pay by the hour, by the day, or (best value) by the week.
Make Sure To Try: Plrngno, a game of skill and chance that seems to involve cards, dice, precipitation, body modification, and animal wrestling. The rulebook runs over 700,00 pages and experts estimate that, at any given time, only 4% of the players have any idea what they’re doing. Who knows–you might get lucky!
Remember when I mentioned that projects often turn into Idea Debt when they start feeling like Real Work? Looking at what we’ve got written, it’s obvious that’s what happened with this. Once we finished making up dumb shit about an imaginary band and making up stupid planets, we lost steam. The “game” section (theoretically the point of the whole thing) is kind of an outline with a few lists and a couple of sketchy ideas. Leighton and I* occasionally added to the document over the years, but it was usually to add more nonsense about the band or another planet entry. The game section hasn’t grown much. The file I’ve got (which never even made it to Google Docs with most of our dead projects) was last modified in April of 2009, so it’s pretty far off the radar.
Looking over the file (which is just under 9,000 words), I could see how we could easily use the “plug and play” adventure format we used for things like Fratboys Vs. and Sharktoberfest to turn Groovin’ Zed into a releasable product without a lot of work. The problem is that it’s such an old idea that it’s hard to get excited enough about to look at more than once every 8 years, much less actually work on, especially when there are so many other, newer projects that we want to work on. I’d love to see it finished, but time is limited and there are other things I’d rather work on. Maybe we can just skip the game part and publish all the stupid nonsense as a Brainfart book instead of a game.
*Mostly Leighton. There are a lot of sections I couldn’t tell you which of us wrote (or if we wrote them together), but the recognizable ones are mostly Leighton.
The last few months on the blog I’ve been rambling about creative projects, but most of my actual project time has been spent on re-working a game system, which (at least late in the project) is more about structure and math than creativity. So this week I’m going to take a break and give the creative part of my brain some exercise with a random one-shot. Usually I give the script one spin and make myself do one of the two random ideas it comes up with, but this time I cheated and kept reloading until something caught my interest. It’s been a while since I’ve played with a new idea, so I figured I should ease into it. The one that finally stuck was “A Western Version of The Princess Bride as directed by Robert Rodriguez.” Let’s do it.
The Bad Guy
Humperdink Prince is the richest cattle baron in Florin, Texas, but a big herd needs a lot of land to really flourish. Prince has bought up what land he could get for a price he deemed reasonable (it rarely was) and, with the help of his brute squad, has managed to scare off most of those who wouldn’t sell or wanted too much. There’s just one hold-out: The Gilder clan. Jacob Gilder won’t sell for any reasonable price and every time Humperdink’s thugs have tried to intimidate the Gilders, they’ve come back bloody.
Humperdink has recently convinced the local school teacher, Miss Bonita Flores, to be his bride. In addition to teaching the town’s youth, Bonita works tirelessly to help the less fortunate, which has won her the love and respect of the people of Florin. She’s been selected Cattle Drive Queen for the last three years running. Bonita’s popularity is exactly why Humperdink has decided she’s of more use to him dead than alive. If she were to die and the hands of the Gilders, the whole clan would be strung up as soon as the posse caught up with them, leaving their land up for grabs. Luckily, Humperdink knows just the man for the job.
We’re going to have to depart from the original story structure a bit, if only to avoid a situation where genre and style demand that one of the protagonists be reduced to a fine gooey pulp. Fezzik and Inigo can’t be part of the plot to capture and kill Bonita. They’re either working with Westley at the beginning of the story or, if you prefer to do the “getting the band back together” (maybe with the sword fight and wrestling match from the original as flashbacks or part of the convincing) thing, they’re old friends who Westley turns to when he finds out about Buttercup.The guys working for Vizzini are a future fine mist.
Since the whole gang is there from the beginning and we don’t want to lock into the plot of the movie, we’re also going to get rid of the part where Westley and Buttercup get captured. If you really want to work in Count Rugen’s torture machine and the abino, start the game with Westley as the Count’s prisoner. Maybe overhearing Humperdink’s plan is what forces him to make a daring escape and track down his old friends to save his love.
For our purposes, the plot is broken down into two main segments: rescue and revenge. The first part of the story is about rescuing the princess from Vizzini. The assault on the castle is about taking Humpedink down, not rescuing Buttercup again. In fact, Buttercup may be the one who’s leading the charge. In fact, if you don’t mind playing the first half with a split party, she should probably be a PC.
I’m going to give the hero’s stats in Cinemechanix rules (which you can get your hands on by joining the playtest group).
The Man In Black aka The Dread Bandito Roberto aka Farm Boy*
Role: Dashing Man of Action
Backstory: Ranch hand kidnapped by The Dread Bandito Roberto and trained as his replacement.
Fatal Flaw: Overconfidence: The Man In Black has never been bested, and assumes he never will. He rushes headlong into danger, never considering the odds.
Trademarks: Gunfighting 2, Highly Intelligent 2, Brawling 2
Special Effects: Immune to Rattlesnake Venom
Hero Factor: 6
Tag Line: “Como tu desees.”
WWPHITM? Wilmer Valderrama
Plot Devices: True Love, Fearsome Reputation (Dread Bandito Roberto)
Trivia: Not Left-Handed
*Not Westley. Giving him an actual name seems genre-inappropriate.
Role: Flamboyant Gunfighter
Backstory: Gunsmith’s son who’s spent his whole life preparing for his revenge
Fatal Flaw: Vengeance: Diego is consumed by his need for revenge and will stop at nothing to even the score when someone has wronged him.
Trademarks: Gunfighting 3, Drinking 2
Hero Factor: 5
Tag Line: “Hello. My name is Diego Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
WWPHITM? Benicio Del Toro
Trivia: Also Not Left-Handed
Role: Reluctant Hired Muscle
Backstory: Gifted with enormous physical ability, found a way to earn a living from it.
Fatal Flaw: Conflicted: Fuerto doesn’t really want to hurt people, it’s just his job. Fuerto doesn’t have a problem thrashing faceless hordes, but even the slightest display of humanity from an opponent will make Fuerto feel bad about hurting them and possibly even hold back.
Trademarks: Strongman 3, Brawling 2
Special Effects: Used to fighting groups. Fuerto never suffers a penalty to defense rolls no matter how many times he’s attacked in a round. However he suffers 1 Drop when fighting against a single opponent.
Hero Factor: 5
Tag Line: “I just want you to feel you’re doing well”
WWPHTIM? Danny Trejo
Trivia: Enjoys Rhyming
The Princess is kind of bland, so we’re going to have to punch her up a little to make her worthy of a Rodriguez heroine.
Role: Dedicated Community Activist
Backstory: Grew up on a farm.
Fatal Flaw: Too Much Empathy: Bonita feels everyone’s pain and feels obligated to help them in any way possible.
Trademarks: Resourceful 2, Charm 1, Well-Educated 1, Can Take Care of Herself 1
Hero Factor: 5
Tag Line: “When I say you are a coward it is only because you are one of the slimiest weaklings to ever walk the earth!” WWPHTIM? Jessica Alba
Plot Devices: True Love, Beloved By Everyone (except that one old lady) Trivia: Only agreed to marry Prince in hopes of convincing him to use some of his wealth and power for good.
The Bad Guys
Role: Rich Jerk
Trademarks: Dirty Tricks 2, Throw Money At It 2
Hero Factor: 4
Tag Line: “Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got the Cattle Drive Hoe-Down to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and the Gilders to frame for it. I’m swamped!”
WWPHITM? Josh Brolin
Plot Devices: Rich & Powerful
Role: Weaselly Criminal Mastermind
Trademarks: Dizzying Intellect 3, Crime 2, Strategy 1
Hero Factor: 6
Tag Line: "Inconceivable!"
WWPHITM? John Turturro
Sheriff Tyrone Rugan
Role: Dirty Cop
Trademarks: Tracking 2, Gunfighting 2, Torture 2
Hero Factor: 6
Tag Line: “How Marvelous.”
WWPHITM? Don Johnson
Trivia: Has 6 fingers on his right hand.
- If a character winds up Mostly Dead (“Broken” in game terms), they PC’s may decide to look up Professor Maximillian, a travelling snake-oil salesman and purveyor of Maximillian’s Miracle Elixir, which he claims can do anything from cure baldness to raise the mostly dead. They’ll have to find him in his nearby farmstead. He avoids Florin ever since the stinking sheriff had him ridden out of town on a rail. (WWPHITM? Cheech)
- Should the characters venture into Hell’s Canyon during the adventure, they’ll have to deal with rock slides, dust devils, and B.O.U.S.es (Buzzards of Unusual Size)
- Vicente will probably have more men than Vizzini did in the movie, and they should all have a Hero Factor of 5. You should make them distinctive and interesting.
- The king’s brutes are mooks.
- If the party finds out Prince’s motivation, they might decide to get the Gilder clan involved. This would probably be a good spot for a Michael Madsen or Harvey Keitel cameo.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.
When Hex first started going to conventions, we often ran a game called “Project G.” The blurb hinted at something dark and mysterious, maybe an espionage or conspiracy game. The actual game was anything but, frequently turned into a LARP, and never played out the same way twice no matter how many times we ran it. People seemed to enjoy it, and it was rare that we didn’t fill up all (exactly) seven player slots, especially for cons we’d run it at in previous years. We didn’t have a lot of repeat players (once you know what’s really going on it’s not easy to replay as if you don’t), but a lot of people told their friends about it and encouraged them to give it a try.
Since there’s a chance (however slim) of Project G eventually moving from the “Idea Debt” to “Actual Product” category, I should probably provide a spoiler warning for anyone who doesn’t want the possible future surprised ruined. This post will reveal many of the secrets of the mysterious Project G. If you want to enjoy the magic yourself if and when Project G gets published, you should stop reading now. You can always come back to this post in a few years once you’ve given up on my getting the damn thing done.
Project G was one of those game ideas that just came out of a random conversation. Me, Leighton, and several people we went to college with were sitting around my apartment talking about whatever random bits of pop culture floated through our heads. At some point, we started talking about a certain classic American television program about a group of people stranded on an island. You’ve probably seen it. Someone raised the possibility that the reason these people never managed to escape the island was because there was a traitor in their midst who was sabotaging their plans to return to civilization. It was really the only logical explanation.
As people started suggesting likely suspects, we realized the truth: every single person on the island was secretly trying to sabotage the castaways’ attempts to leave the island.
The Girl Next Door (born Dorothy, but now living under an assumed name) wanted to return to Oz, and had spent years tracking down the exact island where a storm strong enough to open a gateway there would occur.
The Movie Star (born Norma Jean, and now living under her second assumed identity) was running from the CIA because she Knew Too Much.
The Millionaire had lost his fortune in a bad stock gamble the morning of their three-hour tour. On the island, he’s still treated like a king. Back on the mainland, he’d have to face life as a poor man.
The Millionaire’s Wife just wants to spend some time with her abandoned love child from the affair she had with a beautiful glowing man from the sky (the child grew up to be a mighty sailing man).
The Professor set the whole thing up to see what kind of society would develop when seven people from different walks of life were thrown together on an uncharted island. Most of his inventions are just standard appliances covered in bamboo coconuts supplied by the headhunters (actually research assistants) on the other side of the island. They also supply the “recharged” batteries for the radio and manufacture many of the news reports as part of the experiment.
Or so he thinks. The Professor is just a puppet. The real architect of the whole thing is Little Buddy, who hides his superior intellect and superhuman traits behind an act of incompetence. He planted the idea in the Professor’s head so he could use the island as the incubator for a new master race. Even the “guest list” was carefully created by our would-be superman: the most desirable woman in the world as a concubine; a girl-next-door type to actually raise the children and provide some variety in the gene pool; his mother and the man he assumes is his father so he can finally get to know them; and of course the scientist to do all the work required to keep the “experiment” running. The Skipper was an afterthought, and is merely a mildly competent sailor.
Or so he thinks. The Skipper may not look like much, but he’s a highly-trained intelligence operative who knows exactly who his Little Buddy is. The Skipper had enough of master races during the war, and he’s not about to let the would-be-patriarch breed (or leave the island) without a fight.
As we figured out why each person wanted to stay on the island, even if it meant sabotaging the others’ attempts to leave, someone suggested that this would make a great game. So we started running it at cons. A lot of what made it work was presentation: players who read the mysterious blurb and signed up were greeted by two very serious GMs (we rarely tried it with one because even though there were only 7 players, it always got insane) who administered a “personality test” to determine which character they would play. As we handed out the character sheets, we warned them not to open the coded folders they were in until we gave the signal. When everyone had a folder, we’d tell them to open it, give them just enough time to process the character names, and cue the music (a familiar theme song). Then we’d watch the expressions go from amusement to something else (depending on the player) once they got to “the truth” section of the character sheet that told the secret backstory.
One of the most fun aspects of the game was that most players (unless their backstory revealed otherwise, of course) assumed that they were the (only) saboteur with a secret and everyone else was more or less the character they knew from the show. When all the other characters’ secrets started coming out, the fun really started. After the game, which sometimes had munchkins and sometimes had aliens and sometimes had coconut power armor, we’d have everyone read their secret history. The order of the first four didn’t matter much, but the last 3 had to be Professor, Little Buddy, Skipper.
Since the original game used the real character names, we filed it away as something we could never actually publish, though we did do a half-assed Project G demo kit for our Knomes to use. At some point later, I had a change of heart that was partly inspired by Tom Carson’s book, Gilligan’s Wake, which oddly made some of the same (we thought) weirdly specific connections we’d made. Even though Carson used the names from the show, the book made me realize that these characters were archetypal enough that we could easily use “code names” like the ones above and everyone would know exactly what we were talking about. The whole thing also falls firmly into the “parody and satire” category, which would theoretically protect us (though in reality “they can afford more lawyers” would probably be our downfall). Banking that the IP owners would either never find out about Project G or send us a C&D before suing me for everything the student loan people haven’t already taken, I started updating the old demo kit into something publishable. Then I got distracted by magical hobos and sharks and a whole new game system and never got back to it.
So where does Project G stand? Since we got so much mileage out of the concept back around the turn of the century, it’s hard to consider it bad idea debt, but it does technically fit the definition since I occasionally go back to it when I should be doing more productive work but rarely do much that will turn it into an eventual product. It could become A Thing relatively quickly since all I need to do is change the names to protect the guilty, turn some terrible old writing into something readable, and add some GM advice and fluff. The main thing holding it back is that it’s such an old idea (I think we ran the first game in 1999) that it’s hard to get excited enough about it to actually put work into it. I’ll occasionally remember it, read through what we’ve got, and remember how much I love the concept and how much fun we had with it, but something shiny and new always distracts me before I get any Grunt Work done. If it does get done, it’ll probably be either because I’m looking for a reason to put off a new Big Project that kind of intimidates me at a time when I’m not excited about any new ideas at the moment. If it doesn’t get done, at least I’ll always have the memory of The Skipper and Little Buddy in a Frank Miller-style brawl to the death aboard a helicopter made out of bamboo and coconuts.
Once you’ve finished all the Grunt Work, you’ll have a product suitable for publication. This will lead you to a whole new round of Grunt Work to actually publish the thing, and it’s even less fun that the final rounds of editing and layout you just finished. If this is your first product, there will be a lot of it. If you’ve published similar things before, most of the groundwork (like signing contracts and setting up accounts and building web pages) will already be done so it might not be too bad. Write up your ad copy, get the cover images sized correctly, upload everything to the sites you’re selling it on (assuming you’re just doing PDF/ebook initially--print is a whole extra layer of tedium), and maybe send out some press releases and announcements on your social media sites. At this point, if I start the “release” phase of a new Hex product when the Simpsons come on, I can have it uploaded to all the sites we sell to and be announcing that it’s on sale by the time John Oliver’s show starts. Since most of our print sales happen at cons, I usually hold off until we’ve got a convention coming up before I do that part.
The good news is that now you’ve got the thing released, so in no time you’ll be hearing praise from your adoring new fans, right? Well, not so much. A few people might mention your product or blog about it or maybe even review it, but mostly you’ll hear crickets, at least if you’re not a big company with a huge fan base and/or didn’t just release the latest “next big thing.” For the most part, people will buy your product without giving any indication of whether they loved it, hated it, or were completely meh. Your friends might say something nice about it, but even they are probably more excited by the latest version of D&D, which in recent years seem to have started to happen nearly as often as Spider-Man reboots. For some reason I’ve never understood, gamers seem to get more excited by games put out by total strangers than people they know personally. Or maybe I’ve just got shitty gamer friends. It’s hard to say for sure. You won’t really get a lot of feedback until much later when you run into people at cons or on message boards or wherever who downloaded/read your game.
The fact that you’ve released this thing you’ve been working on for months or years and most people didn’t seem to notice makes it hard to get excited about telling people about it. That’s made even harder by the fact that you’re probably tired of the damned thing. As much as I love nearly everything Hex has done, Hobomancer was the only one I actually wanted to talk about, much less play, right after it was released. With most of the rest, I’ve needed some time away from it before I could appreciate it again. Unfortunately, the initial release is exactly when you have to pretend to still be excited about the thing, which means the thing that was so much fun back at the start--talking about your great idea--suddenly becomes its own kind of Grunt Work. It’s a cruel irony.
As time passes, especially if you keep releasing new stuff, there’s a weird disconnect where the thing goes from being this idea you had and turned into a Real Thing through tons of hard work and dedication to being...inventory. All that magic and excitement goes away and it becomes an item in your backstock and a game you run at conventions in hopes of selling some books. Last week I joked that you’d only kind of hate your finished product, but that’s not really true. It’s more ambivalence. Unless something really missed the mark or was poorly done, you’re not going to actually hate it. In fact, you’re probably not going to think about it too much because you’ve got brand new things to create so you can be ambivalent about them in the future.
When you do think about it, and especially if you re-read it, run a game of it, or whatever, it’s definitely more of a love-hate situation. Once the initial excitement of the idea, exhaustion with the idea, and “just glad the damned thing is done” stages have passed and you can look at the product objectively, there are going to be things you absolutely love and think turned out just right. There are also going to be a bunch of things that you realize didn’t work, weren’t as clever as you thought at the time, and wish you’d done differently. The second list will grow as time passes, and might even come to include things that started out on the first list. For example, 14 years later, I still love and am very proud of QAGS 2E, but there are a few jokes that I loved at the time and cringe at now. If Leighton and I had known we’d still be selling the book when we were in our 40s, I think we would have made more sober editorial decisions.
The best part about actually releasing your product is that no matter how much you love the thing, hate the thing, or just don’t want to think about the thing ever again, it’s now a Thing, which means it’s not Idea Debt. It’s been released out into the wild and is no longer sitting there on your hard drive begging you to give it your time, effort, and attention. That’s a good thing, because in the time it took to release the thing, you probably took on at least a couple more projects’ worth of Idea Debt that you need to start working to pay off.