Under the Hood – Pulling Back the Curtain

Pulling Back the Curtain
By The Warden

Welcome to the 100th edition of Under the Hood. That’s right, there have been 99 previous instalments of this column and this is a day filled with a mixture of sentiments and disbelief. You know, the standard drill stuff. I can’t believe this has gone on to a hundred, never would have known it would have gone this far when I first started it, can’t wait until the next 100. All of that is clouded under a bigger banner I’ve been holding onto for a while and if you’ve been diligently keeping up on this column, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. 

When the Hood first began in December 2011, it was an opportunity to internally delve deeper into the practices and standards of tabletop game design. Not from an insider’s POV, but from my own perspective, be they way off base, common knowledge, or unique insights. For over two-and-a-half years, with a few hiccups and breaks along the way, I’d like to feel I’ve done exactly that and enhance my own understanding of my work and how it affects others. There have been some supportive comments and some of my regular readers have expressed appreciation for the work with some mentioning how it’s altered their view on certain components and approaches to their designs. Awesome!

Over the past few months, the scope of this column has changed a little while remaining the same. What began as a topical editorial on game design and publishing has progressed into a step-by-step example of the art itself. The Phoenix Project has been my codename for a new system and what I love about it thus far is how vastly different it is from my previous body of work. In this way, using this 100th post to unveil my plans for the Phoenix Project is not just attention grabbing, it’s a fitting tribute to what this column has brought to my work. It’s been my privilege to write this for you and I hope you continue to find it useful.

So enough of this mushy nostalgia and let’s get on to the unveiling, shall we?


Last week, I talked about breaking up the Phoenix Project into two initial phases (assuming there’s room for more down the road): a free edition capable of reaching a wider audience with the goal of establishing an appreciation for the system plus stress testing it in a simultaneous playtest/release capacity; and a full paid version for which this project was originally intended, complete with a setting, adventure, and everything you need in one handy package. Let’s start with Phase 1.

Ever since I was a teenager, I dreamed about making movies. As a boy growing up in the 80s, I wanted to make action movies. While the moviemaking career didn’t pan out, my love for the work behind the films has remained and just like every other geek out there, writing my own screenplay and becoming the next Tarantino (in the sense that he never completed film school either) has been my version of winning the lottery. Working on tabletop RPGs has been a means to fill that void without being fully aware of it and now I’m looking to actively connect my two passions together.

I call it ScreenPlay, a free-to-download tabletop roleplaying game in which players gather together to act out the Director’s script by casting their own actors into predetermined roles. For example, the Director approaches the players with a script about an undercover officer infiltrating a notorious biker gang. The undercover officer is suddenly whisked into a van, handed a shotgun, and told they’re going to rob a bank. Alerting back-up (a SWAT team), the undercover officer must find a way to work with the police and thwart the robbery without blowing his/her cover. Each of these characters – including members of the biker gang – are some of the many roles players can fill by developing their own actors. Perhaps one of the players chooses to play the undercover officer as a coked out, beaten down Vietnam vet who takes too many chances while another decides to play the gang’s leader as a loving father who fell into crime as a child and cannot back out without facing the retribution of the other members. Right there, you’ve got a ScreenPlay. The Director creates the roles, the players create the actors to play them. Once the game begins, players can play the game however they want working with the material (background, setting, supporting characters) provided as the Director fills in the remaining roles and establishes connections between these revised roles.

The Plan: What I have right now is a first draft of the rules for ScreenPlay, which you can download for yourself and have a peak. (I’d like to take this moment to thank Fraser Ronald, Aaron T. Huss, and Jacob Wood for their valuable input and for being the reason this is version 1.01.) Rather than simply pony it all up in a standard RPG format with rules, directing advice and some suggested scripts, my goal is to provide free scripts (each one referred to a ScreenPlay) complete with background, setting, roles, and all the rules you need to play this mofo right on the spot. For example, the undercover/bank robbing script mentioned above would be a ScreenPlay complete with everything needed to play, no additional downloads or purchase required. Each ScreenPlay will stretch out the mechanics further and further every time as I experiment with different options, alternate rules, powers, and more. One can be a superhero ScreenPlay, another a western ScreenPlay, yet another a serious drama ScreenPlay. There’s literally no end to the possibilities.

The Road Ahead: Pulling that off will face its standard challenges, particularly when it comes to getting the attention I need to reach my long-term goals with this system. Aside from the usual tactic of solid design and promoting ScreenPlay, I need to find a way to force my potential audience to take it seriously from moment one before they read anything about it. One of the options I’m considering is the use of additional authors/designers to draft their own ScreenPlays and release under my banner or use the Creative Commons licence and let them go off on their own with it. (I’m using the Creative Commons license for now as it is an open work-in-progress and it would be nice if it does inspire someone to do their own thing with it.) All of this, of course, assumes the system works like a charm and speaks to a crowd of gamers to such a degree that they’re tweeting about it and building up the best form of marketing: word of mouth. Because without the success of Phase 1, the next one could easily crash and burn. That’s why I’m willing to let Phase 1 take as long as a year before moving onto the next phase.

Which brings us to…


A working version of the logo for High Plains Samurai, because I like to start big ideas with a logo first. I know. Weird.

A working version of the logo for High Plains Samurai, because I like to start big ideas with a logo first. I know. Weird.

When I first started writing about the Phoenix Project (so named because I saw it as a reincarnation of my career), this was exactly what I had in mind. Originally started as a homebrew campaign to playtest a revised edition of my previous Optional System, it quickly imploded as the mechanics were not able to keep up with this level of insane action. Yet the setting and concept really struck a chord with the group and I wanted to make something for them to play, not playtest. Ok, maybe a little playtesting, but not as a main objective. I wanted to make a campaign for them using a new system that could handle the madness we created.

What is High Plains Samurai? A mash-up of gunfighters, gangsters, pirates, monks, wushu cinema action, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and magic, that’s what. Inspired by films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, logic was thrown out the window for style and wild, unbridled action. Set in an unnamed land, the Five Cities exist independently along the outskirts of the Wastes, a harsh desert that would sear the flesh from your bones in mere hours. Each city is ruled by a warlord and operates uniquely from the others, tapping into different vibes and visuals so as to mix things up with every session. One city, for example, is your typical rundown Wild West town riddled with gunfighters, drunks and whores while their wealthy warlord relishes over their suffering. Yet another is run by gangster akin to the 1920s with Tommy guns and automobiles racing down the street. In this place, the heroes are rogue guns/swords-for-hire charged with bringing down a man known only as the High Plains Samurai. What starts as a simple bounty elevates into a world-shattering event of betrayal, mass slaughter, vengeance and redemption where the fate of Innocence and Chaos hang in the balance.

HPS will use the ScreenPlay system but without the slimmed down scope of Phase 1. For example, players are encouraged to create their own characters/roles and HPS will be a sandbox style campaign with each chapter presenting one of the Five Cities or the Wastes in detail followed by a chain of events, supporting characters and anything else needed for Directors running it. As an added incentive, each chapter will be divided into two possibilities: one where the Samurai remains alive and another where he has been killed by the heroes. Why does this make a difference? Well, that would just spoil the surprise, wouldn’t it?

The Plan: Unlike ScreenPlay, High Plains Samurai will be an epic saga that could run up to 200 pages (though it’s truly too early to say right now). In many ways, it will be a traditional setting/adventure combo save for the presentation of the rules and mechanics themselves. With a brief rules summary and campaign introduction at the beginning of the book, everything else will be presented in an easy-to-learn format so that everyone can simply get down to playing and adapt to unique situations through the use of sidebars introducing unique add-ons (i.e. pulling yourself out of quicksand, running a chase sequence, etc.) instead of bulking everything altogether. I’ll be honest, there’s still a lot of work ahead and my plans at this point are very rudimentary at best so expect revisions and additions along the way.

The Road Ahead: How this all comes together will depend on the success of ScreenPlay’s testing and feedback. My goal is to power HPS with the ScreenPlay engine and have the two work seamlessly together so that players of any regular ScreenPlay game will know exactly how to run and play HPS. Regardless of Phase 1’s outcome (other than complete and total annihilation and humiliation – hey, I’m a firm believer that if you don’t let pessimism into your heart, the worst will kick you in the nuts), the plan is to spend some serious cash on artwork. Even before I consider a crowdfunding option. I want this book to look as awesome as I want it to play and am willing to do something I’ve never done before – spend my own money to get it there.


Yeah, exactly. Announcement aside, there’s a lot more to do to make these ends meet and finish off with a final presentation that meets the expectations I’ve just set down today. Everything’s going to need a step-by-step list and it all begins with Phase 1. Until then, please take the time to download the current rules draft for ScreenPlay and let me know what you think. With total honesty. Did I meet my five goals? Do you have any concerns this system will not work or suffer terrifying hiccups? Is this something you’d consider playing? A desperate game designer wants to know…

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