Writing TTRPGs – Transcript

[Listen to this episode]

Raquel: Welcome to Rite Gud, the podcast that helps you write good. I’m Raquel S Benedict, the most dangerous woman in speculative fiction. In this episode, we are taking a look at a rather different kind of writing, writing for games like GambleCity. Our guest, Caitlin Fortier, makes TT RPGs. That’s tabletop role playing games.

Thank you, Harley. Thank you for your contribution. Good boy.[00:01:00] And she’s going to tell us how it works from inception to publication. Caitlin, thanks for joining us.

Caitlin: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve, I’ve actually been a regular listener for quite a while now, so I’m really stoked to be on the air, air, internet, whatever.

Raquel: Yeah. I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know. On the interwebs, but that’s a super dorky thing to say. All right. Now for the five people in our audience who aren’t nerdy enough to already know this, what is a T T R P G?

Caitlin: So at the most basic level, uh, tabletop role playing games are a collaborative storytelling game where the players usually take on the part of a character in a setting and kind of narrate what it is their character is doing in response to a scenario presented usually by another player who’s, from D and D,

we get the term Dungeon Master, but a lot of other games use, uh, game manager, game master instead. It just does sound a little bit less dorky and also less like it’s a sex dungeon thing.

Raquel: right? Yeah. Dungeons and Dragons. When [00:02:00] people hear Dungeons, like “you’re dungeon master. Wait a minute,”

Caitlin: Yeah, not that kind. Usually there’s, there’s supplements you can buy for that. Um, but what sets RPGs apart from just kind of theater, sports or other kind of un unstructured pretend player improv, is that there’s generally a set of rules, uh, usually incorporating some element or chance or risk that help determine if whatever your character did, worked out or not, or sometimes dictate what it is that you’re supposed to be doing and kind of what the outcome is.

It’s often dice, like you have to roll over or under a certain number and see how that goes, but I’ve also seen RPGs that use decks of cards or coins or those spinny wheels with the arrows and I I’m sure all kinds of different things.

Raquel: So it’s almost like video game, but analog.

Caitlin: Yeah. Basically. Actually, uh, you’re playing, uh, Disco Elysium, right now. I remember you

Raquel: Yes, I am.

Caitlin: That game is basically the closest video game approximation I have ever played [00:03:00] to the experience of playing an RPG, uh, T T R P G, that is

Raquel: Very nice

Caitlin: even uses dice.

Raquel: Oh yeah, it does. So when you write a T T R P G, what comes first? Is it the concept, the rule system, the structure, the flavor text, history? Like where do you start?

Caitlin: You’ve actually kind of got them in the order that I usually work off of.

Raquel: Yay.

Caitlin: for me, I usually start with the basic concept and from there that’ll give me a sense of kind of what kinds of things this game needs to include. Like what kinds of actions will the players need to be able to do, and also how should it feel like, kind of the tone.

So if I can use an example, Fail Marines was the, the first one that we actually got as far as this is a physical booklet that somebody owns, that they are holding in their hands, or theoretically could, it’s probably on their bookshelf right now. And we started with, well, we want to do something with, like a 40 k parody.

But what if all [00:04:00] of the Space Marines are just absolute dumpster fires who are kind of bad at everything and just cause disasters? So from there we know, okay, well we, there needs to be like combat and there also needs to be lots and lots of chances for things to go very wrong. So once I know that, that’s where I can start making decisions about rules.

So for example, Hell Inc the RPG, that was our last Kickstarter game. It has no combat mechanics at all, since that’s not really what the game it’s about. It’s a office comedy set in hell. It’s, it’s actually an adaptation of, my husband’s web comic. Now, I mean, you could make the characters fight if you wanted to, if there’s ways to make the rules work for that.

But the fact that the rules do not explicitly have combat is going to kind of nudge you towards maybe resolving players’ problems another way. On the other hand, the one we did that before, which I just mentioned, Fail Marines, which is like I said, a War Hammer 40 K parody about factory reject space

marines, it does have compact mechanics and [00:05:00] that’s also presented as kind of a one thing your guy is actually consistently decent at. I mean, if you include also just kind of exploding all of the scenery if you roll really well sometimes as being decent at it. Uh, so that’ll be something that players seek out and expect.

And also by kind of showing from the start that there’s a lot of ways for things to go wrong. Most of things are gonna go wrong. Even when you succeed, there’s gonna be consequences. That’ll kind of give people an idea of how the game is gonna play. And then from there, when I’m writing out the flavor text, I usually do that last, cuz basically what I’m doing with that is contextualizing the gameplay and communicating the concept I was going for.

So not everybody writes in that order, but that’s kind of how I work.

Raquel: It looks like the sort of flavor text or whatever you wanna call it at the end, gives them a really good sense of the tone too, of like, here, here’s how you’re gonna play this game. [00:06:00] This is a comedy game. This is a fun game. This is a silly game. This is a serious game. This is a spooky game,

Caitlin: Exactly. It’s all about communicating the right mindset to the players so that everybody goes into it with similar expectations for how they’re going to play this. And it kind of avoids a lot of the sort of like table tensions where you’ve got the one guy who is being the total goofball and there’s like, one dude who wants to be the total power fantasy badass.

And then you’ve got usually like the party edge lord in there somewhere. And you kind of wanna get all of those people sort of on the same page. And that way everybody has a good time.

Raquel: Yeah. How do you avoid what people call Ludonarrative dissonance? Maybe that’s more for video games, but I, I can see a T T R P G having that too. How do you avoid the conflict between a game’s story and the gameplay elements?

Caitlin: Yeah. So I think I kind of got a little bit at this in the, kind of, in the previous question, [00:07:00] but basically I’ve had to stop thinking of rules as being separate from the storytelling. The first few times I tried to write a, a tabletop role playing game, I spent so much time just agonizing over the fluff in the setting and getting all of these details in there.

And then when it came time to actually come up with the rule set for it, I had so many things that, well, the way this is described wouldn’t really work mechanically with this thing. And this doesn’t quite work satisfying. And this thing has three different tables you have to go through for it to match what I’ve already written.

So that’s kind of why I’ve started working in that order. That way by the time I’m getting to writing the final setting flavor text stuff, I’ve already established, what is my concept, what is the tone I’m going for, how do I communicate that tone and concept through game mechanics?

And then I’m putting it all together at the end. So the mechanics are part of the storytelling for me. And I, I, I think kind of thinking of that all holistically keeps me kind of all [00:08:00] putting it together.

Raquel: Yeah, that makes sense. Now do you ever find the fact that a T T R P G needs this kind of functional structure to be a little restrictive of your creativity? Do you ever feel like, maybe not trapped, but, but hemmed in by the fact that you are making a game and all your storytelling has to come down to people roll a dice to, to check out the number.

Caitlin: Not really, but I was also the kid who took the family VCR apart, and put it back together a few times. It worked still afterwards, so it’s fine. So for me, like putting things together or taking them apart so I can reverse engineer them later or put them back together a little bit differently, figure out how they work, that’s kind of half the fun for me.

So it’s a bit like, a video game boss fight. It’s a bit annoying sometimes. And it’s hard and sometimes you just die repeatedly over and over and over again. But it’s kind of a fun stress where you are trying to [00:09:00] work towards solving a problem and then when it finally all comes together, it, it’s really satisfying.

I find, for other people, that’s really, really annoying and they hate doing probability distributions for, for dice and tweaking numbers. But I apparently have a broken brain that enjoys math sometimes.

Raquel: I guess you’d have to enjoy math in order to do this.

Caitlin: Yeah. And plus you have to bear in mind that what you take, whatever you put down, the players are gonna be adding layers of their own interpretations and creativity on top of that. So what you think might be a pretty straightforward mechanic, you never know what kind of wild bullshit your players are gonna manage to pull with it.

So that’s kind of half the fun is figuring out something that makes sense. And has like a reasonable kind of straightforward structure and then setting it up and just watching somebody else just take it in a completely different direction where you didn’t really think about how those rules would interact, but, [00:10:00] uh, they do.

And sometimes it’s really interesting.

Raquel: Yeah, that is half the fun of playing a game or a video game is trying to break it.

Caitlin: Mm-hmm.

Raquel: Just doing extremely weird shit to see how the game handles it.

Caitlin: That’s actually a lot of fun when you’ve wrote the whole thing and you are just kind of sitting there in the play session. And someone manages to work out a situation, or use a rule in a slightly unorthodox way. And it’s like, I didn’t really think it could do that, but All right.

Thank you for giving me credit for coming up with something you think is an innovative game mechanic. That is just me accidentally doing something cool.

Raquel: So do you have people besides you and the people making this play test it?

Caitlin: Yeah, we’ve kind of got our core group of play testers. Me and my husband, we have a regular weekly R P G group, with some old friends that we play over Zoom cuz you know, some of us have been moving around a little bit the last couple of years and it’s, it’s nice to once a week just hang out even if we’re not physically together [00:11:00] with friends and catch up. And they’re very patient about, testing janky early builds of things with me.

And then, we are very lucky that a friend of ours, Dougie, from

one of our local gaming stores, Rolling Tails Pop Culture. It’s an Edmonton. She co-runs a gaming and comic store and she’s been really helpful at helping us promote things, giving us space to run like public gaming events for like Free R P G Day and other things.

So she’s been kind of helpful for helping us recruit randos for that.

Raquel: Okay, well that’s pretty cool. Now, I’ve never written a game before. I’ve never written a TT R P G before any kind of R PG. It seems like there would be a risk of going too far in one direction or the other. Either a risk, I could see myself doing this, of trying to control the narrative too much because I’d want to tell a story that I have in mind [00:12:00] rather than relinquishing control and letting the players come up with it.

Or on the other hand, it looks like there could be a risk of writing too little and kind of leaving your players with a really sparse bare bones world that they’re not gonna get too excited about. How do you find that medium? How do you avoid going too far in one direction or the other?

Caitlin: So for me, I, I honestly have a real problem with overwriting. You should really see my first drafts of projects.

Usually by the end of something I’ve cut down the word count by about 25%.

I find what helps me avoid going over and adding too much detail and sort of just adding too many things that sort of don’t leave room for much interpretation is I set myself a maximum word count or a maximum page count, particularly for the kind of setting fluff material.

And I edit pretty ruthlessly once we’re [00:13:00] in revisions. So I usually think of the first draft as being kind of explaining it to myself. And then when I’m going it back over it, I’m trying to boil it down to what are just the essential concepts? What are the basic ideas that somebody needs to know?

And for the most part, when you’re just writing the basic game book, you’re not really telling a particular story so much as you’re just giving somebody a series of writing prompts and things that they might want to elaborate. I find with, just the base game manual, you just kind of wanna give people an idea of what kind of game it is.

So what’s the setting, what’s the genre, what’s the tone? What kind of things can you do in this game? Is it easy? Is it hard? Is it combat heavy? Is it mostly social playing type stuff? And the actual storytelling, that really comes in more in writing adventure modules and stuff where you’re telling a particular story.

So, uh, [00:14:00] for example, one of my favorite games I’ve run in the last few years is a GM is called Monster of the Week, and it actually doesn’t have a specific setting or lore in the main book at all. It’s just got a loose premise where you’re a group of characters encountering supernatural mysteries of some kind, and some fairly open-ended kind of archetype character concepts.

You got the spooky kid, you’ve got the government agent, you’ve got the conspiracy weirdo, you’ve got just a dude, stuff like that. But you can kind of take that in any direction you want. You can, I’ve seen people run like fantasy games. I’ve seen people run sci-fi with that. People basically just doing Buffy.

Uh, and then you’ve

Raquel: would definitely do an X-Files thing with that.

Caitlin: of course, and then of course you’ve got, like tie-in games. So a lot of existing IPs will have licensed role playing games that are very specifically tied to the setting. But even in those games, they’re kind of relying on you knowing a lot of [00:15:00] the details from the additional material, like the other games or the novels or whatever.

And they’re just sort of sketching out the main things you need to know about this particular setting. So you’re not really boxing the players in, you wanna give people a lot of open doors they can walk through, but you don’t want to be kind of boxing in, letting them know like what the limits are and

things they can’t do narratively so much. You kind of wanna let them give some room.

Raquel: Yeah. Yeah, it Is it ever tough seeing people play one of your games and do you ever get a feeling like, “no, you’re doing it wrong,” like “it’s supposed to be fun,” or “it’s supposed to be serious and you’re being goofy.”

Caitlin: Not really, although I feel like I might be that player for some people. But I don’t know. I just really enjoy writing a scenario and then playing it through with a few different groups and nobody ever seems to run it, even if it’s a fairly straightforward story. No one ever runs the [00:16:00] stories I’ve written exactly the same way through. It’s really fun.

Raquel: That is neat.

Caitlin: Yeah. One of our Fail Marines campaigns, I, I wrote, uh, we’ve got this recurring NPC, we just keep putting in things, Guardsman Billy. He’s died I think like 12 or so different times and mostly by accident and it’s always a different way.

Raquel: Oh, that’s fun.

Caitlin: It’s fun. I should really make a, actually I should make a bingo sheet for that game next time I run something for it. But yeah, for me half the fun is just leaving it open how people can do things. It’s a bit like, when you’re asking a small child what they want for dinner, when they’re at that really contrary stage, you don’t necessarily want ask them, do you want chicken nuggets tonight?

Cuz there’s a good chance they might just say no to everything if you ask it one at a time. But at least what my sister tells me works is you offer a fixed number [00:17:00] of choices and let them pick. Sometimes, you know, your players are gonna go off script, but usually if you give people some options for how to resolve something, they’ll usually pick one of the options that they’re being offered.

Whereas if you give them just one door to go through, they’ll actually probably just run through the wall.

You gotta be a little bit more subtle, especially

Raquel: gotta be subtle

Caitlin: a game. You don’t necessarily wanna say, okay, players, you can do this or this or that. But, you know, you just mention a number of interesting features in a location or, mention a number of people that they could be talking to, and they’ll kind of get the hint that, well, if you’ve mentioned a thing, then maybe I’m interested in that thing.

Raquel: Yeah. I can see that. Okay. I’m in a, I’m in a room. There’s a window, there’s a door, there’s a table with a vase on it? Okay, we’ll throw the vase at the monster. I don’t know,

Caitlin: Yeah, exactly. You give people options, but you don’t necessarily tell them exactly what you want them to do.

Raquel: Right, [00:18:00] right.

Caitlin: I think we got a little off the, the actual question, but

Raquel: No, that’s okay. Tangents are good. Tangents are informative. I like tangents. Tangents mean more content, which is always good.

Caitlin: Yes, hashtag always be making content. That’s not how hashtags work.

Raquel: Yeah. Alright, so it, it seems a little bit like writing a T T R P G is mostly world building without necessarily the plot structure or character development. Is that fair or am I totally misrepresenting it?

Caitlin: It’s kind of that, but there is a lot more math. Actually I did argue that the rule structures are almost more important than the world building part. I mean, the experience I’ve had with most T T R P G campaigns I’ve either GMed or played is that, people will go off script, they’ll invent new characters and locales.

They don’t necessarily use everything you’ve written or they will get it quote unquote wrong anyways. So honestly, you kind of wanna leave the world building a little bit loose. You don’t want to necessarily–[00:19:00] a ton of characters complete biographies, cuz most of it won’t matter.

Raquel: Yeah.

Caitlin: identify some major players in the setting, and identify what’s their major motivations and kind of what the relationships are between there.

But that still gives you a lot of room to improvise, just make up stories using those themes or using those characters or using those locations. But yeah, by design, you don’t really want to do too much plot structure or too much character development. Otherwise you’re sort of limiting what players can do with it.

It’s more of a sandbox than it is a, one of those very precise Lego sets.

Raquel: Right.

Caitlin: but even then, I’d almost argue again that the, the rule structure is almost more important than the world building. People will kind of make up their own stories, that’s fine. But you wanna make sure that you’re giving them a framework that gives them the tools to, make their characters do the things they want to do in a way that feels satisfying and consistent with the tone.

And, hopefully [00:20:00] keeps arguing over dice rolls to a minimum.

Raquel: Yeah. Speaking of arguing, calm down, Cat. Take it easy. You have no chill. Buddy, buddy. I’m gonna squeeze you now. I’m gonna squeeze the whines out of you. Yeah. All right.

Caitlin: Harley has some important points,

Raquel: Yeah.

Caitlin: but Yeah.

Raquel: intermission.

Caitlin: But yeah, me and, uh, Jeff, my husband, who I make most of these games with, we were talking kind of about this last night and, we kind of both agree that we’d rather pick up a game that has really solid, straightforward, easy to understand, and pretty versatile or at least versatile for the things you need it to do

rules in a kind of nothing setting, because you can always make up a setting. I mean, we’re writers, you can just do that. You can make shit up. That’s what we do. But if the rules are janky, then that’s just frustrating and annoying and you have to keep interrupting the story to look stuff up, [00:21:00] and then somebody interprets a line in the rules differently and then it takes a whole thing until you’re back on track.

Like I, I’ve, I’m guilty of this too. There’s a previous version of the full-length version of Fail Marines where I think there was a particular rules interaction where you ended up having to look at three results charts in order to actually determine what happened from a single dice roll.

Raquel: Oh

Caitlin: And, yeah, that was, that was not good.

I don’t know what I was thinking. That got scrapped in the later versions, which eventually became a very, very short, thing we gave away at free R P G day. And, eventually we are going to be releasing the full version of the game, hopefully this year. But, yeah, I, I, I, I usually prefer to just have a good rule set and I can kind of make up the rest if I need to.

Raquel: And I’m sorry, this isn’t in the outline, so I’m springing this on you. Can [00:22:00] you talk a little bit about rule sets? What goes into a rule set? What do they do? Because my idea of, okay, what are rules doing? What are you using the dice for? My most basic idea is roll the dice to see how many points of damage I’m doing, and it sounds like it’s way more complex.

Caitlin: Yeah, it really depends on what you’re doing. So there’s act, I mean, obviously that, that’s actually a really good example. So that’s how combat works in, well, I mean, most RPGs that have combat, unless it’s got set damage, but that’s definitely how it works in in uh, D and D for example. But, I’ve actually got, uh, my copy of Monster of the Week out in front of me right now.

And, for example, this one is actually a two D six rules based system. So that means you roll two cube SA shaped dice and that’s how every single rule works. So for example, I want to protect someone. So if someone is about to suffer harm and I can somehow prevent it, then I can try to [00:23:00] protect them. So I’ll roll my two D six dice and instead of it being added up and you know, I do that much of a thing, I look at the results.

So let’s say I rolled a three and a four, that’s a seven. I look at the results there. It says, seven or more is a success. So I protect them. Okay. But I’ll suffer some of the harm they were gonna get. It’s not super precise, like mathematically speaking, there’s a lot more interpretation. So what does protecting them mean?

What does suffering some or all the harm they were gonna get mean in this case? It varies. That’s definitely much more storytelling based game. There’s other games where, let me think, you’re not even doing combat. It’s just more about figuring out how many successes. You rolled on the dice.

So let’s say, I, I’m sure this is not very interesting when you’re not looking at something, but, there’s dice pool, game systems, uh, that’s where you roll like a full handful of dice and then you [00:24:00] see how many maybe exceeded a certain number. And instead of needing to get a certain total, maybe you just need to get a certain number of dice that have five up and the more dice are five up, the better you did.

But in a lot of those games, what does the better you did mean? It’s kind of up to interpretation. Some of them it’s more mathematically kind of set. I, I know that was kind of rambly, but the, the problem is, is there’s just so many different ways of setting up a rule set and they do so many different things.

There’s ones that are extremely precise. Well, you’ll get an exact number of what this did afterwards, or there is a a strict pass fail system. There’s no nothing in between. And then there’s some games where it’s almost nothing but the in between, where you’re unlikely to get a complete failure, but you’re also unlikely to get a perfect success.

There’s a lot of gray area. And those are the ones where [00:25:00] you need to be a little bit more comfortable with improv, I think.

Raquel: Yeah. Yeah. I guess that would be the Dungeon Master or whatever the equivalent is saying, okay, you got an almost, here’s what that means.

Caitlin: Yeah, exactly. So there’s a lot of games where you’re try where it’s more of a, instead of success fail, it’s various gradations of partial success in the middle. And, okay, so what does a partial success mean? If you were trying to surf on the van that’s getting away, that’s got your friend tied up in the back.

Well, uh, maybe it means you did manage to cling onto the van, but you clipped your head on a sign that was overhead or something along the way. Or, the bad guys know you’re there now and now they are shooting up through the, the roof of the van and you’re now, you’re gonna have to dodge that or something.

Raquel: I’ve seen a, a lot of aspiring fantasy writers describe their novel ideas in a way that makes it clear that they really only care about the world building aspect, and they kind of forget to tell a story and come up with characters. [00:26:00] And I’ll see that take an easy cat, he’s attacking my chair, and I’ll see that, and I’ll think to myself, I wonder if these people might be better off designing an RPG

instead. Tell me if I’m wrong, or why I’m wrong.

Caitlin: Well, you’re not necessarily wrong, but I don’t think it’s quite right either. So we’ve been talking about, the idea of designing an R P G, but also talking about writing stories in an R P G setting, but also writing rules for an R P G. And those are related writing, but I, in my head, they are kind of separate skillset sets and separate ways of thinking. So on the one hand you have writing the base game, which is again, like I said, just kind of concept, rules and sort of a general outline of the setting or kinds of settings you could write. And that gives you the, the kinds of characters you can make, how to make them, what kinds of things they’re able to do.

And setting is kind of more of a general idea. You’re just mostly focusing on establishing how everything works and what you can do with that, [00:27:00] more than telling somebody what the story is. And then on the other hand, you have adventure modules or campaigns. So the actual story that the playgroup is going through, this is where you start introducing things like specific antagonists, character motivations, locations, rewards, incentives, that kind of thing.

Basically, I, I like to think of the first kind, like writing the game as giving the players a reason to play this. What is the hook for why would you want to play this game? Is it because you really want a very precise technical combat system? Is it because you want to play something that you can write all of the rules on a post-it if you want to, and it’s kind of loose and improvy, that kind of thing?

And then the second kind is more about establishing characters and giving your characters a reason to be actually doing anything in universe. So kind of like there’s two in my head. This isn’t at all technical. This is me just sort of how I think of things. There’s different kinds of game writer.

You’ve got the more technical [00:28:00] kind and you’ve got the more setting focused kind. I think the same is kind of true of the world building aficionados. So if you’re the kind of world building where how things work is what you really focus on. Like maybe you’re a hard magic systems guy. Maybe you’re

Raquel: you’re a Redditor who reads way too much, Brando Sando.

Caitlin: Yes, yes. That guy, that guy, there are many of those guys who really enjoy writing and tinkering with role playing games, uh, and making spreadsheets for them. I’m thinking about somebody in particular, not naming names. But yeah, if you’re, if you’re one of those guys, you really want to replicate a particular feel for combat or you just really, really, really liked having different kinds of magic or you’re very horny for sci-fi weapons or whatever, you might find writing a game system that supports that to be a fun challenge where you’re not maybe as focused on the characters and the political factions in the setting.

But the, how things worked really appeals to you. Maybe you’re gonna be a rules guy. On the other [00:29:00] hand, maybe you don’t really care about, the, I dunno, the metal eating or whatever it was that worked in the, the MistBorn books. It was, I think somebody was reading that recently.

Raquel: Yeah. Someone in our, someone in our, uh, discord is currently reading it and, and dunking on it.

Caitlin: yeah. The chart someone posted, uh, to kind of show like, yeah, you, you eat this kind of metal, and then it has this kind of effect. And I guess it’s, that’s presumably linked to the amount you eat. That feels like a really T T R P G like kind of system. But on the other hand, if that’s not really something you care about, but what you, you really, really care about is the history of your imaginary world, or the major political factions or notable persons and character motivations.

Then you might want to try your hand at maybe using an existing system. Like you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, that more or less does everything you want it to. And then just writing up an adventures for the characters. The players will do the bulk of the setting for you. So even if you’ve never managed to get that whole novel written, all you need to do is [00:30:00] just set up an initial scenario, a problem or a goal.

Just let the players kind of figure out a solution. Let them try and figure out if that works. If it did work, did they cause a new problem? If so, just circle back. You just keep doing that and eventually they’ve told the whole story for you. It’s, it makes things really easy. Trust me, I’ve written dozens of R P G adventures at this point.

Some of them published, some of them are just for friends. And I still haven’t finished the novel I’ve been working on for like two and a half years now. So the, the, the R PPG adventure writing is definitely a lot quicker and easier than that

Raquel: Yeah.

Caitlin: So, yeah, I guess it depends.

Raquel: yeah, yeah, I guess so. At the moment you are working on a project called Burger Punk. Tell us about that.

Caitlin: All right, so I, I might actually need a bit of your help on this one since you are part of the origin story, and therefore all of this is, uh, at least partially your fault.

Raquel: it is at least part my fault,

Caitlin: [00:31:00] Yeah. So please correct me if I am remembering anything wrong. I, I really should have taken some notes. Uh, the oral history of Burger Punk, uh, as best I can remember it as I think maybe a year ago.


Raquel: Probably, yeah. About a year ago we were, we were goofing off and talking about the various types of blah, blah, blah, punk subgenres that kind of pop up as an aesthetic in S F F and then disappear. Like there’s solar punk. What is solar punk? Has anyone actually written a solar punk story, or is it just an aesthetic? Or what’s steam punk?

What’s this, what’s silk Punk? And

Caitlin: Yeah. Just kind of goofing on how like, sometimes it seems like this is more of a marketing attempt than trying to describe a pattern that already exists or it sometimes it seems like someone’s making up the sub genre first and then trying to fill it in with things. Don’t remember how exactly we landed on Burger Punk.

I, I

Raquel: Right.

Caitlin: something somebody said their friend made a joke about once. Uh, but [00:32:00] somehow, somehow, I, I, well, I mean, in my case it was lunch break, so I was, I was hungry, so I was very down for burger based conversations. Uh

Raquel: we were thinking like, okay, so contemporary people are trying– they, they write steampunk because it’s like, what if sci-fi was based on the conventions of Victorian era technology and Victorian era futurism? Okay, so what if someone 100 or 200 years from now wrote the equivalent of that based on America, like late nineties, early two thousands? I guess we’d call it Burger Punk, and what would that look like?

And we had a really good time just deciding, oh, actually, what would that look like? That’d be really fun.

Caitlin: Yeah. And also kind of, I, I think, I think this might have a me who started this part was like the, the way that a a lot of people who are writing steampunk is it’s, you don’t need to be historically accurate. It’s more of a vibe or aesthetic. But sometimes it’s like you’re, you’re a aiming for kind [00:33:00] of a vibe, but you’re not really recreating the fashion or the feel of the era very accurately, or, or you know, when teenagers who are really into anime write historical fiction set in Japan, but haven’t even skimmed the Wikipedia.

And I just thought it would be really funny if somebody was doing that for late 20th century USA. And it’s just like, yeah, I am just not gonna do any research. I am going to just kind of assume that the pop culture I have either watched or sort of seen secondhand, uh, or have a vague idea of is an accurate representation of the time period.

So that’s, that’s kind of where we ended up with Burger Punk, where it’s like, yeah, it’s, it’s pop culture and advertising and taken a little bit too literally by someone who doesn’t quite understand what things are literal and what things are metaphors and what order things happened in.

Raquel: [00:34:00] Yeah. Yeah. And we just had a lot of fun with it. And I, I know we’ve talked on the discord a little bit about the idea of putting together a Burger Punk anthology, because when someone brought it up, we’re all like, “well, fuck, now I wanna write this. This actually sounds really fun.”

Caitlin: Yeah, I really, I really loved your story pitch. If you don’t mind sharing that one or it’s not ready at the shareable point yet.

Raquel: well, the story pitch is that it’s about somebody who needs to get a special, uh, order off of the secret Starbucks menu with a, like a frappuccino containing pure cocaine in order to defeat Francis Fukuyama before he ends history forever. So that’s my premise.

Caitlin: Yeah. Yeah. That one’s, that one’s great. I, I, I hope I get to read that at some point.

Raquel: I did finish a rough draft and it’s very silly.

Caitlin: oh, good. That’s great. Yeah. Burger Punk should be incredibly silly. Uh, if someone is taking Burger punk seriously, I think they’re, they’re doing it wrong. I’m going to gatekeep [00:35:00] Burger Punk, the extremely legitimate subgenre we made up.

Raquel: Yeah,

Caitlin: Yes.

Raquel: Before we write anything and release anything though, we need to release a whole bunch of essays about how it’s extremely important and how this genre will save the world.

Caitlin: Oh yeah. I think we’ve written enough. I not written. Hopefully. I think we’ve read enough self-important essays. We could probably bullshit one if we wanted to.

Raquel: Yeah, absolutely.

Caitlin: but yeah, somehow I wound up with, a setting which was based on, uh, post-apocalyptic eighties sci-fi action movies and fast food and soft drink commercials.

But what if somebody also interpreted the term cola wars, like extremely literally. And somehow that wound up giving me something like if Fallout and Mad Max had a weird baby and then they abandoned it on Ronald McDonald’s Dumpster door. Sorry. Well, maybe dumpster doorstep. Maybe Ronald lives in a dumpster, I don’t know.

Uh, with a bottle [00:36:00] full of Pepsi. And I, basically, I, I needed a new game in time, for February because February is Zine Quest on Kickstarter. We did Hell Inc, as a Zine Quest thing in August, September? But then for whatever reason, instead of doing it on the anniversary of that, the next time they scheduled the next Zine Quest for February, which I, I guess is gonna be the new recurring date for that.

So I guess we’re gonna be aiming for recurring February release dates. So basically as soon as we finished, the Hell Inc. R P G I kind of immediately had to get started on this one. And it’s somehow finished and Jeff’s already started laying it out. And, yeah, apparently I just work really well with extremely tight deadlines, so,

Raquel: Yeah, no kidding. So what did it look like putting this together? Can you walk us step by step through the process of we got the, the conception of the very silly idea and then like making it, funding it, getting the [00:37:00] art, promoting it, publishing it– i, I guess it’s not published yet– and, and promoting it.

I guess this is part of the promoting it, but

Caitlin: Yes.

Raquel: what, what does it all look like coming together? How does it work?

Caitlin: Okay. Well, as I, as we just discussed, the initial concept was kind of based on a, a goofy conversation we had in the Rite Gud discord a year ago, which, somehow ended up, blossoming into an actual game idea because I needed to make a game on a deadline, and this was an idea I already had.

From there it was kind of a matter of, okay, well now that I have this, what kind of game system do I want to do? Well, uh, Monster of the Week, which I’ve mentioned before, is a game that uses a system called Powered by the Apocalypse, uh, which is based on a indie R P G made by another husband and wife team, come to think of it, called Apocalypse World.

And I really like that rule set because it’s, it’s simple. It just uses the D six dice, like the [00:38:00] normal cube shaped kind that everybody has. And, well, me and my husband play War Hammer, so we’ve got tons of those dice around. It’s easier to source than a bunch of different kinds of polyhedral dice. The rules are pretty easy to riff on.

It’s extremely hackable. Lots of people have made different kinds of games using it. So if I am throwing a game together very quickly, Powered by the Apocalypse is a good way to go because the character concept creation like classes, abilities, things your character can do, the math for it’s already been solved.

That’s already done. So that kind of decided that, funding it we’re, we’re gonna do that on Kickstarter. Which will happen. It’s gonna launch on Valentine’s Day, so February 14th.

Raquel: Oh,

Caitlin: So, funding it isn’t too hard in advance because we’re not printing anything until we actually have the campaign funds.

We did pay a bit for the cover art, from Jeff’s friend [00:39:00] Lukasz in Poland, just cuz he’s really good at doing RPG covers and, uh, we had him

Raquel: you’ve shown us some, you’ve shared some of the art in the Discord, and it’s really fun.

Caitlin: yeah, it, it super captures the vibe too, which is kind of important for the cover art. You can’t judge a book by its covered necessarily, but it does help to have a book cover that does kind of show you what the whole deal is Exactly. Uh,


Raquel: am drawn to good book cover art. I’m, I’m not too proud to admit that

Caitlin: Yeah. And Lukasz is really great. Maybe I’ll link his Twitter in the show notes or something like that so everybody can also look at his art, but he’s real good. So that was really the only upfront costs. We just kind of needed to get the thing written. I’m the lead writer on that. Uh, all of the weird, dumb things that I’ve been posting in the Discord as I’ve been going on.

Those are my weird, dumb game ideas and rules and stuff. Jeff is fortunately a very talented [00:40:00] artist as well, and he also has been doing, self-published books and comics for over a decade now, eh. So I don’t really need to worry about hiring someone to do good layouts. Jeff’s gonna make a good looking book.

So because we are doing it literally in-house, well in apartment, uh, that really cuts down the upfront cost. So, for example, uh, Hell Inc, our campaign goal to get that funded was I think just $400, which was enough to cover the initial print run plus shipping for the print run, just enough to physically make the thing exist.

And then it ended up getting like, I think 4,000 and some dollars in funding, which, for what our initial goal was, was pretty great.

Raquel: Yeah. That’s nice.

Caitlin: Yeah. So very, very diy, kind of just me and Jeff and friends that are talented basically.

From there, Kickstarter, because they’ve got that Zine Quests event that actually takes care [00:41:00] of a lot of the promo because they feature things that are part of that, event. Zine Quest,

it’s, it’s a like a yearly T T R P G thing they do, where it’s kind of geared towards very short, usually quicker playing games. There is a maximum page count on that. Promoting it, uh, I’m kind of bad at that actually. Uh,

Raquel: Oh, oh. I should ask how exactly are you publishing it? This is online? Are you like mailing copies of it to people? How is it? How’s it working?

Caitlin: Oh, right, yes. Sorry. Please let me know if I’m rambling. So there’s going to be both a digital version that will probably be putting on itch and like drive through RPG afterwards, but there is gonna be a physical run made mostly just for the Kickstarter. Unless, uh, any local game stores want to also carry it in which case will probably print some extras.

And most of the campaign funds are probably just gonna go to printing and shipping because it’s, it turns out it’s very expensive to ship things when, for some reason somebody in I think it was like Bahrain [00:42:00] and like Vietnam and Austria and like, we sent one to Chile, I think, and somebody in Greece wanted a copy.

I think we sent some to Norway. Pretty sure Norway, definitely a couple to Germany. Yeah, that’s the thing about a, a project doing better than you expected on the internet if there’s a physical version is, turns out dorks who want to read the weird things I wrote live everywhere. And some of those places are very expensive to ship to.

Uh, so for a, for a few and plus for a few months, our apartment living room was basically just a shipping station, just piles of books and envelopes everywhere. Just, uh, total chaos. But it did all get sent out, eventually. So that’s good. I’m pretty happy with the turnaround time, so that’s sort of, there’s gonna be a cheaper P D F version if you don’t want us to

charge you for shipping to Australia or whatever. And then of course there’s usually add-ons. Again, Jeff’s a professional cartoonist, so you know, he [00:43:00] does commissions as part of these two. Like, you pay a little extra and he’ll, he’ll draw you a little dude or custom character sheets, things like that.

By publishing it, we mean we’re just literally, uh, sending a, a copy of all of the stuff that needs to be printed off to a college copy shop, over by Grant MacEwan University campus. And just getting, uh, yeah, just a bunch of things printed off, not, not going, uh, really, really, really fancy with it.

But it’s fine. It’s, it’s Zine Quest, it’s, it just needs to be good

Raquel: Yeah, it’s a

Caitlin: not gonna fall apart. Right.

Raquel: yeah. The way to print a zine is you either go to Kinko’s or, or if you’re really authentic, you get your friend who has an office job to use the employee printer when they’re not supposed to.

Caitlin: Yeah, I, I, I

Raquel: way.

Caitlin: yeah, it’s, that is the, the true way. Uh, spelled with a V instead of, uh, a u. Luckily we didn’t do that cuz I [00:44:00] think there was like 200 and some backers on the last one. And if I

Raquel: not be

Caitlin: was trying to assemble that many zines, I, I would probably just light them on fire and run screaming into the night.

So, college copy shop, it is.

Raquel: Sounds good.

Caitlin: But yeah, that’s, that’s kind of pretty straightforward process. Just put it on Kickstarter, wait for people to give us money. Take the money they give us, print off a bunch of things, spend several months shipping them all over the place. And then by the time that’s done, it’s time to start working on another project.

Raquel: Nice.

Caitlin: This one is a little bit different though, because I really, really like when tabletop role playing games have little bits of fiction in the book here and there.

Raquel: Oh.

Caitlin: as one of the stretch goals, um, I, I’m sure most people listening are somewhat familiar with Kickstarter, but just in case you’re not, stretch goals are a kind of an unofficial thing.

They’re not [00:45:00] part of the platform setup, just kind of things creators started doing where if you hit a certain funding goal, like say, $400, the book will exist. But you know, if it funds at $800, okay, well the book will exist and I’ll also write an adventure for it. Okay, well, a thousand dollars we get, okay, well the book will exist,

I’ll write an adventure for it, and we’ll also, make another thing. I for the, the Hell Inc. one, I ended up writing an adventure that goes in the actual book. Uh, a separate adventure module that was a PDF that went with it. We did a bunch of digital art assets for, if you’re playing it, uh, online on like roll 20 or something, a custom character sheet.

I wrote a cookbook for some reason

Raquel: Huh?

Caitlin: I was sort of running out of stretch goal ideas and we just kind of need to make up one. So I have thoughted about it a little bit more clearly in advance this time. So one of the things we’re gonna be doing is there is [00:46:00] a stretch goal where if we hit, I’m gonna start commissioning people to write little bits of micro fiction for the book. And I’m going to try and see if I can, get some of the folks who are part of the original Burger punk conversation. Cuz I mean, this is all of their faults,

Raquel: Yes.

Caitlin: we’ll, we’ll see how that goes. But yeah, we’ve got, an upgrade to full color. We’ve got, the fiction planned, enemy and weapons guide, uh, playable adventure, another cookbook for some reason.

If you guys give me a lot of money, I’m going to write a, some tie in fiction for it and Jeff will illustrate it. Uh, and you can all judge my writing. But you’ve already paid for it, so Ha.

Raquel: Yeah, suckers.

Caitlin: Yeah. So I’m actually really looking forward to it. So we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes. It’s, it’s the kind of thing where the better it does, the more work you make for yourself, but in a good way.

Raquel: Yeah. Now, let’s start with some questions from the Discord. Which TT [00:47:00] RPGs should I be familiar with if I want to write my own?

Caitlin: Okay, well, I’m gonna get the very boring answer out of the way. So it’s not really my favorite game to run or play anymore, but. I, I do think D and D has the advantages of one, it’s at least somewhat familiar to most people, so that does make it easy to get people on board, for playing a version of it if it’s like something al they already understand.

And two, there’s a ton of guides written about how it works, how to write effective mods, rules, tweaks that people have found work for them. It’s also very easy to acquire copies of previous versions and just kind of work off of those, or, just do some internet crimes and just, you can find PDFs.

It’s fine. They’ve got lots of money already.

Raquel: Yeah, they’re fine.

Caitlin: Yeah, they’re fine. But just because it’s one, it’s kind of like a cornerstone of, of the game genre. It’s, it’s, if not literally the first, it’s always hard to say what is the first of anything, but certainly one [00:48:00] of the first and kind of established a lot of ideas for.

How these kinds of games work. How to resolve questions, things you can do in it. It, it’s a good idea to kind of have an understanding of how it works. Even if you decide that you don’t like it, at least you’ll have an idea of why you don’t like it and somewhere to go from there. From there, I would actually recommend my personal favorite that would be powered by the Apocalypse family of games.

They’re what I base most of mine up off of. It’s the basis for Monster of the Week. Also Fail Marines and Hell Inc. So it’s a 2D six base game. You roll two regular cube size dice and instead of being a strict pass fail system, it’s more like there are degrees of success or failure. Like you roll up your dice, you add the total plus a stat modifier and then consult a chart.

And the chart works the same for almost everything. Just the descriptions changes, so it makes it easier to kinda remember how things work without having to look stuff up constantly. And again, there’s a lot of material written for, how to [00:49:00] adapt that for different settings. Those would be my top two.

I think I probably round that out by also suggesting a game called Fate. Which one has the advantage of, there is a version of the basic rule book that I think costs. Yeah. Yeah. This one costs $5 Canadian, which is like nothing.

Raquel: Yeah, that’s


Caitlin: it has a lot of, of good, non-combat kind of playing through things.

There’s a ton of setting information for it, and it does have a kind of its own neat, uh, a little like unique dice. So if you want something a little bit more exotic than just a normal D six dice, but you don’t need to co want to collect 5 million different kinds of dice. That could be an option for you.

And like I said, there’s supplements for doing kind of any kind of setting with that one. The other one I will mention, although I have not personally played it very much, I think I tested it at once, is called Fiasco. And that one uses [00:50:00] cards. And it’s more about, giving you kind of prompts for a scene and improv-ing it out from there.

Uh, kind of gives you a motivation or gives you a challenge or a goal. And, uh, another card that kind of tells you like if it’s going well or not. It’s mostly for simulating doing crimes badly. But if you want to kind of experiment with games that go a little bit beyond dice, Fiasco is easy to get ahold of.

You can actually download the basic rules for free, although you’ll probably want the actual, deck. And that might be a fun kind of easy one to experiment with playing non dice based one.

Raquel: Nice

Caitlin: if I can throw in one more that’s, I don’t necessarily think is everybody’s suggestion for a, everybody must play this, but, there’s a one page R P G, like everything on a single page called, Lasers and Feelings. And it only has two [00:51:00] stats, lasers and feelings. Lasers is, lasers, is, like physical action, sci-fi stuff, intellect, logic and reason. Feelings is kind of all of the like interpersonal, friendship, charisma kind of stuff. But it’s, it’s a really good kind of set to play around with and customize because.

The rules are easy. They fit on one page. You only have two stats to work with, and it’s usually like a joke concept. I was working on one called Space Wizards, which works pretty much the same way. And you can also get the, the pdf, I believe it’s a free download on itch, so if you want to experiment with writing a set of rules, but the idea of writing a whole book off the bat is intimidating, which it is.

Starting with something like that, [00:52:00] which is not just short, but it’s specifically designed to be really easy to customize. You basically just swap out lasers and feelings with two kind of, sort of opposed concepts where you know, if you’re better at one, you’re worse at the other kind of thing, and you can kind of go from there.

I’m actually having a lot of fun coming up with, extremely silly one page RPGs based on that as a practice for laying out pages.

Raquel: Yeah, I can see that definitely.

Caitlin: Yeah, I, I think that’s about it. But really honestly, I, I think more than suggesting any particular rule set system, I’d just say just get your hands on as many as you can without spending a bunch of money and read through them, compare notes, try to play as many of them as you can. Even if you don’t like them all, at least you’ll have a fun time with your friends.

And, and just kind of as you’re playing through them, just really think about like, how do they work? How does it feel? What are the things you like, what are the things you don’t like? It’s, [00:53:00] well, I mean, I guess it’s like any kind of writing you, you want to read widely and you want to read thoughtfully, and you, you want to just keep doing that, as much as you can.

And that way you’re exposing yourself to new ways of doing things, new ways of approaching problems, and you just sort of rip them off and riff on them, and eventually you come up with something cool of your own.

Raquel: Nice. Now another question from the Discord. If someone is used to writing conventional stories, what should they be aware of when writing a TT R P G?

Caitlin: The main thing is that when you are writing a story, it, the story goes how the story goes. And there is a single path to the narrative unless you’re getting, cool and experimental with it. But even then, all that exists is what you’ve written down. When you are writing adventures for other players, you really need to make sure that there’s obvious alternate [00:54:00] ways of going through most scenarios.

and being kind of willing to improvise or go off script or, just kind of make stuff up on the fly. One common mistake I I find with a lot of newer GMs is they’ll plan too many sessions in advance, but then they find out that, oh, well, maybe my players don’t actually like doing combat all the time.

They want to figure out, weird schemes for doing bizarre heists or scams or just aggressively flirting with every single character that exists and somehow that actually solves the problems. You can’t necessarily predict how people are gonna resolve a scenario, and you can try to force them to have only a few options.

But that is usually called railroading. People don’t generally like it, at least when you’re obvious about it. They don’t like it.

Raquel: Yeah.

Caitlin: So if you give people a few options and make those [00:55:00] options obvious, they’ll usually go for at least one of them. And that way you are at least able to keep on track.

So you, you want to write a bunch of things, but you want to not put too much effort into them, in terms of figuring out the exact path that you need to go from point A to point B, because if your players don’t go along with that, then you’ll be kind of annoyed because you spent all this work doing scripting and descriptions for locations and characters that might just not come up.

So, try to keep it loose. Think of different ways that solutions could be found to problems and, and just kind of be willing to adjust. You basically, you want to know what the end, what the starting scenario is, you wanna set up that really, really well. Make sure that’s clear from the start, kind of where they are, are set, what the, the people around them are, where they are, kind of what their goal is.

Give the [00:56:00] characters a reason to be interested in the story. Don’t just assume that, well, because it’s an R P G, you know, of course they’ll wanna go fight things. You should give their characters a reason to be doing those things. And you kind of wanna have a G end goal in sight, but the, the middle, you kind of wanna be a little bit loose with.

Raquel: Yeah. Yeah. Now, another question from the discord. Is play testing viable over webcam or over chatroom, or do you need to be physically present to get useful information?

Caitlin: Oh, for sure. The bulk of my play testing has had to be done over Zoom for the last, almost three years now. Uh, yeah, with occasional in-person sessions for the in-store promo events at Rolling Tales. I mean, so long as the game you’re playing doesn’t require a lot of specialized physical components or, or you don’t need miniatures and measurements.

And even if you do want to use those, there’s virtual tabletops websites and games and software and whatnot that you can kind of use to get around that. Although, honestly, I find that kind of a pain personally. [00:57:00] Some people find that fun, but yeah, honestly, you should be fine even if you can’t meet in person.

I, I, I think the only problems I’ve run into with that is, if it’s a new game that you haven’t all played, if the character sheet is kind of complicated and, sometimes you make mistakes when you’re setting up a character. It’s nice when you’re all there in person and you kind of look over each other’s homework and make sure that everything looks right. Or, you know, if you run into a set of rules that you’re not quite sure how it works, if you’ve got the book physically in front of you, you can just show it to someone and point and be like, what, what is, what does this mean?

But that’s, that’s stuff that can certainly be worked around. So I, I really don’t think you need to be physically present.

Raquel: Hmm. Okay, cool. Well, it’s been about an hour, so I think we should probably wind down. But before we go, where can our listeners find and support your work?

Caitlin: All right, well, hopefully Kickstarter finishes reviewing it and we we’re able to give you the pre-launch page to put in the show notes. But like I mentioned earlier, we are [00:58:00] launching the Burger Punk, R P G Kickstarter on February 14th. We’ve already started kind of showing some sample art, uh, I’ve been posting it on–

i, I don’t really use Twitter very much unless I actually have something to promote, but until there’s a better alternative for yelling at people to follow things that I’m working on, you can find me on there at, @ to the slush pile. You know, where most of the things I write end up when I send them to people.

Raquel: Oh.

Caitlin: Uh, but I’ve been posting the cover art for it on there. I think Jeff posted some of the art he did for Burger Punk so far. On, on his, he’s @ Heat Comic, uh, H E A T C O M I C on Twitter as well. He’s a lot more active than I am, so, maybe just go follow him instead. He’s more likely to actually post anything.

And if you want to check out some of the games we’ve already written, look Up Hell Inc. Uh, that’s hell apostrophe, sorry, hell comma Wow. How does Punctuation work Inc. Uh, on [00:59:00] Drive Through RPG or on Itch dot io? There’s also a simplified kind of quick start version of that Fail Marines book I’ve mentioned on both of those sites.

Although I think at this point I, I might almost recommend just waiting until we release the full version, hopefully later this year. And that’ll probably be on Kickstarter too. So yeah, just search for Hell Inc on, places where you buy role playing games online and it should show up on there if it’s kind of the big indie ones.

Raquel: Nice. Well, great. Thank you so much for coming.

Caitlin: Yeah. Thank you very much for having me. I’m extremely flattered.

Raquel: Yeah. And thank you all for listening. That’s all for this episode. If you like what you heard, head to patreon.com/write. Good and subscribe. Subscribers get access to the Discord and a monthly book club bonus episode. This month we’re doing 17776. That’s probably not how you say it. In honor of the Super Bowl.

[01:00:00] Until next time, keep writing good.