Black Armada Games is run by Joshua Fox and Becky Annison. We create roleplaying games that unlock the creativity of your group, bring your favourite genres to life and give you feelings in your heart. We lovingly craft our games to provide memorable experiences, and work with awesome artists and printers to create beautiful physical books. You can find all our games in our store or, if you really love our stuff, back our Patreon to get regular games from us.
Over the last couple of years I have been keeping a regular record of the time I spend on RPG design projects – especially the larger ones. During this time I’ve taken two big projects to conclusion: Flotsam – Adrift Amongst the Stars and Last Fleet.
I’ve combined the data from these two to make a rough chart of how I spend time on a big RPG project. Specifically, most of the post-Kickstarter campaign data (layout, art management, printing, shipping) comes from Flotsam while the rest comes from Last Fleet. This is because I only started keeping records partway through Flotsam’s lifecycle, while one impact of the current pandemic has been that my Last Fleet record keeping fell apart post-Kickstarter – though anecdotally it looks pretty similar to Flotsam so I feel comfortable combining the two.
The data isn’t perfect. Realistically I sometimes lost track of time and wrote down a best guess on how long I’d spent working on a given occasion. I also likely failed to catch some smaller bits of working time.
With the above caveats in mind, I estimate that one of these projects takes about 300 hours from start to finish. That’s just my time – not the wider project contributors (stretch goal writers, editors, artists etc). That’s how long it takes me; I would think every designer is different. Others may do more or less playtesting, take more or less time iterating their design ideas, or do more or less marketing work. So this is just one example, but hopefully it gives some sense of how long it might take you, dear reader.
As you can see from the chart (blue segments), I spend about half of my time on design (34.5%) and playtesting (17.2%) combined. That encompasses all the thinking and writing that goes into creating the draft game text, all the planning for the playtests and the actual time spent in playtest sessions. It’s likely more of an underestimate than the other segments, because who can really quantify time spent thinking – I do a good chunk of that in between formal design sessions.
The next biggest chunk, in red, is publicity (13.8%). That includes time spent on interviews and the like, but excludes time spent refreshing Twitter during the Kickstarter campaign. This is because I figure the latter is something I would have done anyway. I find Kickstarter campaigns very stressful. Perhaps in theory I should attempt to account for that stress and the time it eats up, I don’t know. However part of the reason for doing this accounting is to consider how much I might reasonably charge someone else to run their campaign, so it’s useful to know the actual hours spent working as opposed to time wasted because of the psychological impact of crowdfunding.
I’ve separately accounted for time spent setting up the Kickstarter page (in purple), doing Kickstarter updates and suchlike, which you could consider publicity but are often actually taken up with more admin type tasks. At any rate – quite a small category (5.2%), probably because it’s mostly writing down stuff I’ve already worked out elsewhere and communicating it to backers.
After that, in orange, you have editing (10.3%) and layout (3.4%). The editing time is huge! To some extent the figure is arbitrary, because design work itself includes a great deal of editing. I have counted the time I spent re-reading the text after I had notionally settled on a final ruleset, polishing it, and also time I spent reading my copy editor’s comments and implementing them. (Aside: that’s how long it took me as someone very close to the text: imagine how long it takes a copy editor who has never even read your text before. Pay your copy editors well, folks!) Layout was mostly done by my layout artist but there was a bit of review, comment and editing to make stuff fit within a particular page template.
Art (grey) also took up a surprisingly large amount of time (8.6%). This covers generating the ideas for the illustrations, liaising with the artist(s), and reviewing their work and providing comments. Given that Flotsam has about 25 pieces of art in it, that’s over an hour per piece, which seems like a lot – I guess quite a bit of it just thinking.
In the “surprisingly low” category, in green, is printing (1.7%) , shipping (1.7%) and admin (3.4%). This covers tasks like setting up all my products on Backerkit, liaising with the printer and warehouse, fixing errors, dealing with customs, etc. I think this excludes post-Backerkit admin, such as setting up the new product on itch, Drivethru and our website, and handling orders. So in that sense, it’s probably an underestimate over and above the caveats mentioned further up. And since neither project was my first rodeo, there’s an element of familiarity with the admin systems that might take a newbie publisher longer to get to grips with (not least because you can copy data over from previous projects in Backerkit).
One bit of “lessons learned” from this is that I need to create “how to” guides for some of the things that I do as part of a Kickstarter project. For example, I wasted a small but nonzero amount of time figuring out how to complete customs forms for Last Fleet that I had done for previous projects but forgotten. Now I have a customs template of my own to make the process easier. It’s well worth your time to systematise this stuff if you’re planning to do multiple projects, as there are all sorts of fiddly details that can be hard to remember (and indeed, if you forget them, can cause problems).
Anyway, I did this analysis for my own benefit but hopefully someone somewhere might find it helpful.
Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You play through their everyday lives, interpersonal relationships and small-scale drama in the Below, a dangerous world where poverty, social strife and gang conflict sit side-by-side with alien technology and supernatural weirdness.
Imagine the Belters of the Expanse watching as Earth and Mars shape their lives, the civilians in Battlestar Galactica living with the decisions made by the military and the folk of Downbelow in Babylon 5, abandoned to destitution and squalor by those who built the station. This game is about characters like that.
The game is GMless and diceless, with rules that point your characters at each other and bring their relationships into sharp focus. They help you create a rich setting, flawed characters, and charged relationships which develop over time. You’ll watch your characters evolve and change before your eyes. It’s really cool.
“Josh has put together something really interesting here – there’s glimpses of a larger setting through the world, but it only comes out through the lenses of the characters. Very clever stuff.”
– Grant Howitt, co-designer of The Spire RPG
I’ve been working hard to get Flotsam ready for kickstarter, and it looks like it’ll be ready to launch some time in July.
Flotsam is a game for 3-5 people about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You focus on their everyday lives, their relationships and small-scale, interpersonal drama.
You could play:
The cast-off, an ordinary person fallen on bad times;
The Thunder, a tough ganger who makes the rules down here;
The Voice, the charismatic leader of a cult or community;
The Spider, a ruthless trader or spymaster;
The Sybyl, a prophetess with uncanny powers; or
The Hybrid, part human and part something else (alien, AI, god… there are lots of options).
The game is GMless: Each player gets one Primary character to play, as well as one Situation that they help to develop and push forward when not playing their Primary. That can be a lot to juggle, so the game has a simple, streamlined system that’s geared towards giving each player maximum control over the pacing of their own scenes, so you can have quiet, tense emotional scenes when you want them, or high-energy, threatening scenes when you feel like hitting the gas.
The game’s system pushes you to focus on your relationships and personal flaws, to move your character out of their comfort zone and develop them. Over time you’ll see those relationships and flaws change, and your characters grow. As such, it’s designed to work best in campaign mode. Over a handful of sessions, you’ll get to see real evolution of your character and their relationships.
Nonetheless, I wanted the game to be playable as a one-shot, so the game will include rules for quick-start play, using simple scenarios with pre-generated characters and situations. These will be designed to kickstart play with relationships that are already on the point of change, and problems at the point of exploding. It’ll mean you can play the game in 3-4 hours.
I’m excited to share the game with you! If you’re interested in this project you might want to follow the Black Armada kickstarter account here, so you’ll get a notification when the campaign launches. If you have questions or would like to talk to me about the project, you can comment here or contact me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.
Finally, I couldn’t end this article without sharing the work-in-progress cover art by Anna Landin. It’s only a sketch and it’s already looking great! Honestly, commissioning art is one of my favourite things about being a game designer.
I’ve just completed a full version of Flotsam for external playtesting!
Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, misfits and renegades living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. The focus of the game is on interpersonal relationships and the day-to-day lives and struggles of a community that lacks the basic structures of civilisation.
System-wise, it was originally a Dream Askew hack, but has wandered a great deal from those roots. It owes quite a bit to Hillfolk and Archipelago, too. Everyone gets to act like a GM some of the time, controlling one aspect of the game setting and the threats it contains, and everyone gets to play a Primary character some of the time, exploring their life and relationships.
If you like the sound of that, and you think you might like to give the game a try, please get in touch by commenting here or emailling me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.
I’m a big fan of what is sometimes called GMless gaming. I get things from it that I don’t get from GM’d gaming (whether I’m GMing or not). But there are also problems I or others in my group have experienced with GMless games, sometimes bad enough that it makes the experience unenjoyable. I’m going to use this post to talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and some things I like to do in my GMless design to mitigate the bad stuff.
This is the good shit
So why do I like GMless gaming? The main reason is simply that I love focusing in on one character, creating and developing them, advocating for them and pushing them along whatever journey they turn out to be on; but I also love getting my hands dirty creating and developing a world and situations, using those situations to create problems and opportunities for others and portraying more than one character. Some GM’d games allow me a bit of both, but it’s unusual for a GM’d game to scratch both itches at once. By contrast my best GMless experiences have given me both in spades. It’s a particular issue for campaign play, where I’m effectively committing to stay in one role for a long time – this nearly always leads to frustration that I can’t switch roles.
There’s more, though! A big part of the fun of roleplaying, for me, is when I create something or do something and then others input to that in unexpected ways, and my own creation ends up going somewhere I couldn’t have planned or better yet boomeranging back and hitting me in the face. And while this does happen in GM’d games – everything the GM says or does can prompt unexpected action by a player, and vice versa – with GMless games I can literally create something and have someone else run off with it and make it part of something I had nothing to do with. A character I created could end up played by someone else, could literally hit my character in the face. The potential for creative interaction in a GMless game is particularly rich.
Issues with GM’d play
There’s also an issue that can arise with GM’d play where the fact of one person having a superior position in terms of information and mechanical power leads to the rest of the players becoming kind of passive. At the extreme, it can lead to a sort of spoon feeding, where the GM is responsible for all the fun, and the players are only there to react to what they create. Many GM’d games have tried to break out of this in various ways (see footnote 3 below for examples) but it is devilishly difficult to create the mindset of active contribution once it sets in. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to get a group into GMless gaming, once they’ve got into this mindset – something I’ll discuss later.
Indeed, GM’d play can create a lot of pressure for the Chosen One who must turn up every week with ideas and energy. There’s no rest for them. A player can sit back and be a bit passive on a given session (or even over a whole campaign, if they’re so inclined). As long as they haven’t ended up in the role of group leader (which has some similar issues), they can engage or coast and the game mostly copes. This can be a plus for the individual and for the group, since the game doesn’t fall over if one person is wiped out. But by contrast if the GM is exhausted or not in the mood (or worse, burned out), the game cannot proceed. It dies. So many games have met this fate – I can’t imagine anyone who has played a GM’d game hasn’t experienced it. GMless play carries risks of its own in this regard (see below) but it doesn’t rely on one person to be awesome all the time.
Problems with GMless play
Alright, that’s my two big positives for GMless gaming, and my two big negatives for GM’d gaming. But I’ve said that I have had problems with GMless too – let’s talk about those. Let me say right now that some of these issues aren’t exactly new blinding insights, and there’s lots of tools out there for dealing with them, which I’ll talk about as we go.
Direction, energy and structure
There’s a big one around direction, energy and structure. Sometimes in the absence of a GM there’s nothing to stop the game kind of meandering or stalling. There’s several ways this can happen. One is on a scene-by-scene basis, where nobody really has an idea for what a scene should be “about” or where it’s going, and so it just fizzles. But then, on a story level, a bunch of energetic scenes may not really add up to much, and the overall arc of the game becomes frustrating or boring. This is I think a particular problem if a group includes players who aren’t used to being in a GM-like role, who tend to play passively and not want to push things in any given direction.
On the other hand, the opposite can happen. One person might be so pushy or definite in their ideas that they take over every scene and become de facto GM. Or two or more people may be trying to do stuff at the same time, creating a different type of lack of direction. And one way that this can spill over in the opposite direction is where people feel the only way to effectively contribute to the game is to fire exciting things at each other, in an escalating pattern that is sometimes called Going Gonzo.
Direction, energy and structure problems generally come from two things: a lack of common creative ideas, and a lack of structure in the game design itself. This can easily lead to meandering or chaotic play, and if players aren’t listening to each other and simply pushing their own ideas, it can also lead down the path of Gonzo. Fortunately there’s lots of approaches to help deal with this:
- For the group, discussing and agreeing what the game might be about before the game, and perhaps during as well. Things like Microscope’s palette are simple tools to get yourselves on the same page. Caerllion introduces the neat idea of a Lodestone which tells everyone broadly what the story is going to focus on.
- For the individual, actively listening to others’ contributions and responding to them, as opposed to waiting for them to guide the scene to wherever they might be headed or trying to jump in and provide some impetus of your own.
- For the designer, avoiding an entirely freeform approach to the game’s design, but helping to provide nudges towards the particular kind of play you want to see in your game. This can take many forms: you can create specific types of scene which help the players to focus on a particular kind of action; you can structure the overall arc of the game; you can provide prompt lists so people don’t draw a blank; you can mechanise the way that players contribute, constraining what they can do; and more besides. What you’re trying to do here is make sure that nobody comes to a scene without a clear focus, and perhaps give them a menu of approaches to reduce the risk of drawing a blank and reinforce the tone of the game.
- (When it comes to introducing structure you have to be careful, of course, that you don’t remove all the interest from the game. There has to be player input to the action, else why play at all? The best structured games exert a light touch and leave a lot of undefined space where player creativity steps in.)
- A particular approach I’m fond of is to explicitly call out who is responsible for the direction of a particular scene. I’m not saying someone has an idea and then railroads everyone else into following it (though you could do that). But in every scene someone – mandated by the rules – is responsible for framing a difficult situation, or introducing adversity, or preceding the scene with a question which everyone is trying to answer, or similar. This avoids diffusion of responsibility and reduces the risk of meandering; and as long as this responsibility rotates, it can help prevent one person taking over.
Mysteries, secrecy and black boxes
By the way, a particular subset of direction issues arises from the Black Hole problem, where someone creates a mystery or black box of some sort and then neglects to resolve it. For example, I introduce a character who is clearly up to something, but I refuse to make it clear what that something is and seem to be hoping someone else will make the decision for me. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t do this, and not doing it needs to be a part of every GMless game’s guidance. It can be ok to introduce something and ask someone else to define it for you, but this does generally require you to explicitly ask them to do so, not simply expect them to guess that you’re hoping they’ll do it. So, it’s ok to have a mysterious stranger carrying a black box – but then you either need to decide what’s in it and make that true, or ask someone else what’s in it and be guided by what they say.
Related to the above is the general problem of secrecy. If I want to play a game with a mystery in it, one that is genuinely mysterious, it necessary to have a person who owns that mystery and secretly knows what’s really going on? You might think so, because otherwise two people with conflicting ideas might unknowingly undermine each other, and anyway how can something be really mysterious unless I have no part in defining that mystery? Having ownership of mysteries is not a bad idea – and it doesn’t necessarily require a GM, you could just make it clear when you introduce your black box that it’s yours, you know what’s in it, and everyone else should defer to you in matters black box-related. But it is possible to have a mystery that nobody owns without it not being mysterious. Lovecraftesque does this – at the end of every scene, the players individually and secretly “leap to conclusions” about what happened in the scene, so that everyone has their own pet theory about what’s in any black boxes that may have been introduced. And because only one person is Narrator at one time in Lovecraftesque, there will always be moment-to-moment consistency about what the black box seems to be. This does require you to pay attention in every scene, so that your pet theory remains consistent with everything that has happened! But I would argue that’s a good thing.
Another problem which seems to be more major for some people than for others is the issue of hopping between roles, so that you feel a lack of connection or commitment to any one of them. A particularly important subset of this is a feeling of not being able to “immerse” in a character, because you’re too busy trying to think about things outside of them. It seems as though there can be a conflict of interest – and a difference of mental attitude – between advocating for one character and guiding the “story” or the broader elements of the game world, which can prevent people from really getting into either one.
This, it seems to me, is a challenge that hasn’t quite been answered by any one game as yet. However the approach we took with Lovecraftesque, and which I’m taking with my game Flotsam, is to avoid it by making role changes much more structured and well delineated. In other words, I don’t ask you to play your character and be the GM at the same time – I ask you to do both roles, but at different times. In this way you can dedicate yourself to one job at a time. Flotsam attempts to make this flexible, by giving you permission to step outside your character and make GM-like contributions, but also making sure there’s nearly always at least one person who is on point as GM, who will deal with any GM-like contributions when they’re needed, so that you have permission not to do it when you’re focusing on your character. Flotsam is being playtested at the moment, so it remains to be seen how successful I’ve been there. Another possible approach to mitigate the problem is to make parts of the game off-limits to GMly intervention, safe spaces for “pure” in character interaction where you can focus on being your character. Indeed, When the Dark is Gone applies such an approach to an entire game (I suspect it may also be a common approach in LARP, where GM interventions pose other problems).
Too much like hard work
A final problem to mention is the “everyone awesome, all the time” problem. The problem with everyone being GM is that the issue I identified earlier on, of constant pressure on the GM, applies to everyone. I’m expected to contribute to every scene, I have to be always creatively ready to pick up what others create and build on it. This can be exhilarating! It can also be exhausting. And it means if anyone comes to the game not really ready to contribute, then the game may stall. If a lot of the group are tired or feeling passive, then it can start to feel like a GM’d game where one person ends up taking the reins. It also can be off-putting for many groups who aren’t used to the pressure of being switched on for a whole session, or simply don’t want to have to be. This may explain why a lot of GMless games are designed for one-shot play: short, intense, and over before you get too tired.
I think this last is chiefly a problem for us game designers. We need to find ways to design our games that allow people to step back and take a break. Don’t create a setup where everyone is always on. (Or maybe do, but then make it a one-shot and/or encourage breaks.) You can do this by not having a fixed requirement on who is involved in a scene, so that those with the energy pick it up and get involved, while those who are tired spectate; or you can do it by having a fixed requirement by making sure that it rotates around, leaving everyone with quiet periods they can just watch and listen. Again, in Flotsam I’m trying to design a system that lets people switch in and out in a fairly flexible way, choosing how actively they want to be involved – we’ll see how well it works in practice.
I’ll just finish off by saying that a lot of these problems can be solved on a group-by-group basis through a culture of listening, give and take, common ideas about what’s fun and so forth. Some groups may be so good at this that these problems don’t even arise. That’s great – but not every group has this, and it can be challenging to develop such a culture. As a game designer I want to help everyone to get a good experience from my games by providing tools which reduce these problems regardless of what group they’re in.
Ok! That was long. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences or approaches to cracking some of these problems. Please do give your views in comments.
 “GMless” is sometimes replaced by the word “GMful”, which I believe to be interchangeable with “GMless”, and merely a way of emphasising that in a GMless game, everyone gets to be GM. I have also seen “GMful” used to mean a game where the GM role exists but different people occupy it at different times.
 As far as I’m concerned, any game that doesn’t have a single person who has primary responsibility for describing the world, playing the bulk of the characters (except for the “player characters”) and generating any adversity required for the game, is at least partly GMless. Sometimes that’s because the role exists but rotates, sometimes it’s broken down or structured and handed out amongst the group, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.
 Games like FATE have mechanics that give me temporary ability to narrate stuff outside my character, PBTA games usually include a bit of co-authorship for the world in the form of question-asking, and arguably most GM’d games at least give you some creative input on stuff outside your character such as key NPCs connected to them.
 GM burnout being a good example – though that is also caused by the pressure that a highly GM-led gaming approach tends to heap on the GM.
 There’s a whole set of ways in GM’d gaming where you can create stuff that literally never interacts with anyone else. The secret backstory nobody ever finds out about. The mega-plot that nobody knew was happening. Even the notorious cases where the plot is a railroad, with the players forming a passive audience to it. I’m not going to say this can’t happen in GMless gaming, but the whole setup makes it pretty obvious to all concerned that if you didn’t say it out loud, it hasn’t happened yet, so secret plot and backstories could get nixed by someone else any time; and railroading is essentially impossible. Good!
 These same tools are useful for ensuring a consistent genre and tone as well – which can potentially be a problem, but in my experience much easier to solve.
 I put “story” in quotes there because I don’t buy into the often-promulgated idea that GMless games mean everyone just focuses on the story and everything else is secondary. This is not how I play GMless games at all! It is true that I sometimes take individual decisions differently “for the good of the story” but it’s very much not the main approach. I dedicate myself to the fictional situation and push it forward, while actively trying to get my contributions to engage with what others are doing, and I don’t particularly worry about “is this making a good story”. For me, story is something that doesn’t happen in any given decision or moment, and it’s something that one only really needs to pay attention to when things are going wrong.
I’ve long had an interest in designing a Dream Askew hack, thanks to very positive experiences playing the game tempered by some issues that I wanted to address. I’ve been tinkering around with this concept for quite a while, and finally managed to get a working prototype to a playtest this weekend.
The game is currently a fairly thinly reskinned version of the original, since I want to concentrate on streamlining and reworking the design framework. But I didn’t want to just copy Avery’s game, so I’ve changed the setting. Space Askew is set in the belly of a space station, where outcasts and misfits live in the shadows below a more prosperous settlement.
- I felt that DA would benefit from some more in the way of relationship-building in setup. I’ve added a set of Hx-style relationship seeds to choose from, and some Hillfolk-style unrequited desires. In both cases the process involves choosing something yourself, then asking another player a question, the answer to which provides a completed background element.
- I wanted a clearer and more intuitive set of MCing guidelines for running the Situations. I’ve brought the MCing system a bit more back towards the way Apocalypse World works, supplementing each Situation’s Principles and Moves with a set of general Principles and Moves, and giving clear guidance for when an MC makes Moves. The Principles are a bit different from AW’s, focused more on small-scale interpersonal drama than constantly shifting external threats.
- I’ve placed question-asking at the heart of the system. When you want to create a bit of content for the world (a character, a location, a piece of technology, a rumour…) you don’t create it yourself; you ask someone else about it. This is true in setup and during play.
- I’ve created a more developed process for deciding what scenes should focus on, and for deciding who is MCing at any given time.
- I added a very simple harm system. Whenever someone tries to inflict harm on another character, they say what they’re doing in the fiction, then ask someone else what the outcome is. I want harm to be kept simple and fiction-based, and I want the decision to inflict harm to recognise that, once the bullets start to fly, you can’t entirely control the resulting pain and injury.
- I’ve switched the psychic maelstrom to a Battlestar Galactica-esque set of gods who you make sacrifices to and petition for aid.
- I’ve added a new skin called The Foundling, who was once part of a networked hive mind connected to a parent AI and has somehow become separated from the parent. They’re a bit like the Hollow in Monsterhearts, lacking a clear identity and anxious to understand humanity.
How did the playtest go?
- Character gen was fantastic. Beyond my wildest dreams, really. It took 45 minutes and yielded well-realised characters with charged relationships but plenty of undefined space to explore in play.
- The play itself went well, but I think that was more a testament to the quality of my players than the system I wrote. I suspect people were relying on their own habits of running fairly systemless games rather than my rules. (The excellent setup will have helped, of course.)
- This was partly the result of my failure to effectively teach the rules, and I’m clear that the game needs a Lovecraftesque-style teaching guide that guides you through the rules systematically.
- It was also partly the result of information overload. I should have realised this would be a problem, because I think DA was already pretty hard work and Space Askew added a bunch of extra stuff.
- I hadn’t fully appreciated how Play to find out and Ask questions aren’t particularly obvious or intuitive ways to play. As the only person who had read the rules outside the playsheets, I needed to do more to explain this (and the teacing guide would need to include this).
So what am I doing next?
- I’ve already begun work to streamline the amount of information in the game, reducing the number of Principles and Moves to a manageable level, and focusing on what is really core to the game.
- I’m going to write a teaching guide which ensures certain rules that aren’t on the playsheets gets mentioned, that key principles are explained in more detail, and that character gen is more structured.
- I’m going to turn the Situation sheets into something a bit more resembling a character sheet, complete with setup questions.
Watch this space!