Lovely Layout and Wonderful Workflow

Not Actually Me

I thought I’d talk a little about how we go about producing the Jigsaw pieces (or whatever they get renamed to, see the post from two weeks ago – while you’re here, if you haven’t already, can you tell us which names you prefer?)

[Ste Note: This article talks primarily about Loz and Ali’s Workflow – next week we’ll talk about mine and Amy’s and about how our differences help improve the pieces.]

It all starts, of course, with an idea. That idea can come from anywhere – something we’ve read, seen, eaten or written can spark an idea, but it then needs refinement. Sometimes that’s a pretty simple affair, other times it can require significantly more time in the shower. We often discuss these ideas with each other (not usually while in the shower) to get them to a point where we can do something with them. I tend to write less and have more notes, while Ali tends to write a lot more at this stage, and keep the notes in her head.

This can be a case of limiting rather than widening an idea. Death Rites started with the idea that much of what we know of ancient cultures comes from their burials (as discovered when sitting round a campfire with a bunch of archaeologists!), so it could be interesting to look at fantasy cultures from a similar viewpoint – but the question then became *which* cultures? About whom would it be most interesting to describe their death rites? Of course many adventurers are buried inside a dragon…

Comments from our backers can feed into this process too – for example the Panoply of Annem Ka took on an Egyptian flavour because someone said they wanted to see things that would fit into an Egyptian, Arabic, or Persian type milieu. It could have just as easily been Mayan or Norse in flavour – or even taken something from Shinto, if the spirits in the items were not those of once-living people.

Then we go away and write a kind of proof of concept – it’s usually the first few pages, and then notes about enough of the rest that it’s believable that it could be completed relatively easily, in the required amount of time, and to the required length. We use Google Docs for this because we can all read and edit the thing at the same time without having to worry about file locks, or working on an old version.

 

Then we wait.

 

We ask our patrons to vote on which of three pieces they would like to see – each of the three pieces will be in the state described above. Once a piece is selected it’s time to get to work. We have approximately a month to take it from ready to vote to ready to release, and whoever is the named author has the bulk of that pressure – ideally it will be expanded to full length within two weeks.

It’s at that point that the collaborative features of Google Docs come to the fore – the rest of us will read over it and add sarcastic comments, correct typos, rework sections so the grammar is clearer, and question things which aren’t clear. This can be pretty brutal, but we all know it’s going to end up with a better end result so we’re pretty thick skinned about it.

We also look for art. Sometimes pieces will come to mind when writing (most dramatically in the as yet unreleased Dream Monkeys of Antoon, which was inspired by a rather odd trend amongst 17th century Dutch artists of painting monkeys doing human jobs!), other times we will draw from stock art we have bought, or from various free sources such as Wikimedia Commons. These images can require some modification, something Ste has been doing more of recently.

We try to make sure the images (and their captions) expand on the text rather than just illustrate it – for example in the piece named Dragons, (and the freebie excerpt The Dragon and the Convent) a statue has the caption “The statue which Caron crashed into is damaged, but still stands in the main chapel as a reminder.” – this then tells you something about the decoration of the chapel and the sentimentality of the dragon Caron.

Once the first pass has been done, and we have some idea of art, I do the final layout. I have built a template, which includes the basic shape, custom fonts and whatever else. For this I use Libre Office, mostly because I know it well. I looked into other page layout tools and none of them seemed to do anything much better than a custom template on Libre Office does. (In future, Libre Office is going to have a collaborative version, so I may end up running it on a home server and working in that instead of Google Docs, but that’s not stable yet.). This usually takes a couple of passes to get right, especially if we discover at this stage that the piece is too long, too short, has too little or too much art, or the art is unhelpfully distributed – art is never finalised until this stage for that reason.

Eventually we get to the proofreading stage – Generally Ali and Ste will do this, and they don’t always spot the same errors! It’s gone through many eyes already, but typos have an infuriating way of slipping past, so inevitably there will be a few errors that creep through and need fixing after all else is done. Nowadays that’s usually less than ten, but in the early days it was far more and I used to dread having to do significant work on the layout because so many spelling or grammar oddities had changed the flow significantly!

Eventually it gets released to the backers of the Patreon via DrivethruRPG.

Now, this blog post will need to be proofread before it goes up – I wonder how many typos I’ve made…

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Changes to Patreon Fees – a response

The Changes

Patreon are changing their fee structure, as of the 18th of December – it’s simpler, but almost without fail, it’s going up. More drastically they’re moving the onus of these fees from the creators to the backers.

Currently if you back a project for a given amount you pay that much (plus VAT or similar if you’re in the EU). Patreon then take their fees out of that and pass the rest onto the creators – they take a cut, plus the card companies take a cut, and so forth, and the end result is 2-10% of the amount you pledge goes on processing fees, and Patreon take another 5% – this means 7-15% of your pledge does not go to the creators. That percentage varies depending how much you are backing in total over however many projects you back, so the precise amount a creator gets is a little bit unpredictable.

However, the new structure passes that onus onto the backers – they will now charge a flat 2.9%, plus 35¢ per pledge (plus VAT or similar in the EU). They are also keeping their 5% fee. This means the amount a creator gets is far more predictable, and that creators get the amount you say you want to pledge to them. However it also significantly raises the amount backers pay. The amount the backer pays becomes ((<pledge>+2.9%)+0.35¢)+20%, and we get <pledge>-5%.

Of course Patreon have to charge for their services – they have costs, and being a business I’m sure they would like to make a profit as well. That is in no way the issue here.

Examples

We have three backers levels, at $1, $3, and $5, so let’s use those numbers. I’ll assume VAT at 20% as it currently is in the UK (but working in US dollars because that’s what Patreon works in!). Let’s also add a theoretical $25 pledge.

Your pledge  Old system                             New system

.                       You pay        We Get             | You Pay              We Get 

$1                     $1.20            $0.85 – $0.93 |   $1.66                 $0.95

$3                    $3.60           $2.55 – $2.79   |  $4.13                 $2.85

$5                    $6.00           $4.25 – $4.65   | $6.56                 $4.75

$25                  $30             $21.25 – $23.25 | $31.29               $23.75

Now, if you back a single Patreon project for a moderate amount of money, the change is not *that* big. However if you back, say, twenty-five projects for a dollar each, you’ve just gone from spending $30 to spending $41.50 (possibly a few cents less, depending how they aggregate  and round things) – yet if it were a single pledge of $25 to one creators the increase would be $1.29, rather than $11.50!

Art – a side note

On top of this, they’re changing the way creator’s pledges work. Currently if you create a project and get money in you can spend that money on other Patreons without any processing fees – if we pledge $5 to a project for, say, art we can use in our project, the creator gets $5. They are now going to be charging creators the processing fees on those pledges too despite the fact that as it’s an internal transaction from Patreon to themselves there are no fees for them to pay!

So what do we do?

Well therein lies the problem – we don’t really know!

We are not happy about this, and do not want to reward their behaviour. Further we fear this could be the beginning of the end for Patreon and don’t want to hang around too long on a sinking ship – we have already lost some backers, and expect to lose more when people see larger bills than they are expecting come January.

There are other platforms we could use, the most important of which is Drip, which is as far as I can tell, basically Kickstarter’s answer to Patreon – if you have a Kickstarter account you can back a Drip project already, but they are only allowing creators by invite at the moment, and we don’t know when that will change. (The name is awful, but the user base makes it worth looking past that for us!).

One thing we will definitely be doing is setting up “Subscription” bundles on DrivethruRPG – essentially it works as regular bundle except that not everything in it has been released yet, and is only added when it is. We’d probably look at 3, 6 and 12 month bundles, which would be paid up front. (as a side note, these would make wonderful Christmas presents for the GM in your life!)

We have a few options:

  1. Remain on Patreon for the time being. Possibly move to Drip when it opens to the public.
  2. Set up a subscription service via Paypal. Again, look at Drip when it opens.
  3. Shut down until Drip opens. This would be more palatable if we knew when that was – a month or two would be no problem, six months would be.
  4. Move to another platform. This would likely have a far smaller user base. When we were setting up this project much of our interest came from previous Kickstarter projects, and we frequently heard “But I don’t want to set up another account on another site” or similar.
  5. Move to a donation model and releasing everything for free (with donors probably getting pieces early) – again this would be via another site, possibly Flattr.
  6. Just release pieces on DrivethruRPG and allow them to be purchased when released. Using just the bundles described above has the drawback of lumpy cash-flow, both for us and for backers – a few dollars a month is much more palatable than one lump sum and then nothing – and DrivethruRPG has fees that are comparable to Patreon’s new ones (if somewhat more honest).
  7. Something else we haven’t thought of.

We really, really need your help here, so please tell us which of the options you would like (especially when you would spend money) in the comments wherever you found this, or by following this link and filling in the form. 

In Conclusion

Patreon have made what we consider to be a grave error in this change, but we are not sure what we should do in response. We do not begrudge them taking a cut – they have costs as well – but the hike in price, especially on those who spread their generosity around the most, is probably going to do more harm than good for us, for them, and for you.

While we’ve got you…

Last week we asked about your preferred named for our coming rebranding – changing platform would appear to also be unexpectedly on the cards for that rebranding. Can we ask you to tell us which names you prefer.

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Fantastic Food

Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus by Giuseppe_Arcimboldo

Everyone’s gotta eat. Well, except the robot and the lich I guess. Most of the time food is not an interesting part of a story – it’s something that is assumed to happen, like sleeping, travelling to the next location, or repetitive practice while learning something new.

It can become interesting though if it is somehow special, or if it is not available.

If food is in short supply, starvation becomes a possibility. If lots of people are starving, there can be all sorts of repercussions – MI5 claim that Britain is only four hot meals from anarchy, and that could easily hold true in fantasy worlds, possibly an even smaller margin if people have less to lose.

If the heroes are short of food, (perhaps trapped in a desert, or a dungeon, or a… um… dreadful diner), what would happen to them? The effects of starvation are slow but potentially deadly- 8 to 12 weeks is normal, but people have survived twice that without any food. Initially fatigue and irritability set in, the the body starts to digest its own fat and muscle reserves. Before long it has to move on to internal organs, and by then even if food is made available the victim may be too weak to even try to eat, and if force fed may suffer permanent organ damage. In a heroic fantasy tale, kidney failure does not make for a good story, so under most circumstances main character will probably manage to find food before organ damage sets in.

But what about when food is available?

Usually “and the heroes eat again” is not very interesting, so much so that in D&D “Create Food and Water” is a very low level spell which solves the problem entirely so long as there’s a cleric in the party.

Sometimes, though, food matters. George R. R. Martin is famous for his descriptions of what the characters are eating, and I seem to recall David Eddings describing a meal of bacon and gruel in rather more detail than was necessary.

A special meal deserves mention, though, whether it be in The Hobbit when the dwarves all show up and eat everything in Bilbo’s larder, or the welcoming feast for the new students at Hogwarts in Harry Potter. These feasts tell us something about the characters and the situations – Bilbo is a creature of comfort who keeps plenty of food in his larder, and Hogwarts is a comfortable and welcoming place (at least on the surface).

Food can, then, tell us things. If a lord throws a banquet and everything is delicate little dishes on fine china that says something quite different to a banquet where the centrepiece is a boar the duke hunted himself, and he tears legs off geese and eats them with his bare hands. But in either case it says that this person is rich, and likes to show it off in the form of entertaining and feeding his guests. In one episode of Batman the Animated Series, the extremely fat villain is seen to always be eating, while not allowing his slaves to do the same because they should be working – unsurprisingly he gets quite satisfyingly beaten up by Batman!

Let me finish on an anecdote: I was playing in an epic level D&D game when we entered a halfling city. I decided my character wanted to buy a cake (he was a by this time recovering psychopath, and wanted to treat the party to something nice), so I went into a nearby cake shop and asked for one. The halfling baker – seeing an opportunity to fleece a rich adventurer – upped the price from about two coppers to two silvers. Not knowing anything about the value of money, I apologised and offered a rare astral diamond instead – that was about a million times more than the cake was worth, but I didn’t wait for change. Being an enterprising halfling, he invested the money in some very special equipment, and from that point on magic potions in the form of cakes have been a running joke in our games! [ED: Ginger cake is an especially good source of fire resistance]

Now, I think it’s time I went and made dinner.

p.s. If you like the way we think, take a look at our patreon

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Posted in art

Visual Art In Fantasy

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

 

When you say “Art” to most people they think of paintings, and maybe sculpture – Visual art or fine art. Wonderful though that is, it’s not the only thing to which “art” could be referring – last week’s post on nursery rhymes are looking at a more low-brow sort of artistic expression. Later posts will address music and food.

But for now let’s talk about visual art.

More often than not it is relegated to “some paintings” on the walls of the local lord’s manor or describing a palace as “richly decorated”. This tells us something about the individual, but just a little more description can tell us a lot more: Pictures of ancestors that tells us the lineage of this noble is long (ste: or if they are few in number that the lineage is short but with great hopes for the future) – if the decorations are not just rich but beautiful it shows us this person has good taste.

Or to reverse them, maybe the paintings are of someone else’s ancestors, and this person is a recent usurper trying to claim credibility and status they may not deserve, if the decorations are gaudy or clashing it tells us the lord has more money than sense or at the very least no taste. If someone’s fingers are dripping with rings, and they are wearing crowns, brooches, pendants and the like it tells us they like to display their wealth at all times, wherever they are.

If there is next to no art in a manor house it would feel very empty. Maybe the noble is broke due to bad investments, or debts come calling. Or maybe they have no care for art, they concern themselves solely with functionality – the only concession to decoration may be a suit of armour or a pair of crossed axes over the fireplace which are as functional as they are decorative.

A little more description again can tell us yet more. I’ve touched on portraiture and military regalia, but what of other things?

Delicate vases are unlikely to be on pedestals around boorish drunken lords (well not for long), and delicate princesses are unlikely to have gory battle scenes in their bedrooms, so their lack or presence would set expectations. Of course expectations can and should be reversed occasionally – maybe that boorish drunken oaf has a butler always three feet behind him to catch all the delicate vases, which he has on display because he simply loves to have fresh cut flowers around him at all times. Maybe the princess has a tragic back story and it’s the last remaining picture of her true love after the incident… Maybe she’s not really the delicate princess she appears to be, but she can’t express it in public for some reason. Or maybe she’s a psychopath.

Sometimes art is used as treasure – heroes find jewelry, gems and artworks in a dragon’s hoard – it’s more plausible than finding gold bars, I guess, but it tells us basically nothing unless it was a curated collection (in which case it’s akin to the examples above)

But what of making the art the focus of the plot rather than a roundabout way of describing a character or extra-bulky cash? That can work very well. Probably the most famous example is the One Ring from Lord of the Rings – the entire plot circles around that little band of gold. It is not treasured for its artistic value though, but rather for its power as a magical artifact.

In some settings magic and aesthetics can be tied together – a magical sword must be beautifully crafted to hold the spell in place and therefore a beautiful sword is likely magical. If a suit of armour is finely crafted yet non-magical it may even become magical simply by being used by great heroes on their quests…

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Posted in art

Using Jigsaw Fantasy 4: A Question of Rules

What we write is system and setting independent. While this means that things need to be adapted to your games, that is true of any published material – you know your games, your world, and your players better than anyone else after all. On the plus side this means what we write is applicable to a wider range of people and we are not tied to another company’s release schedule or edition changes.

There is one noteworthy issue in system-independent material, and that is the question of rules. If we were to publish rules for a gyik as, say, a level 8 monster in Pathfinder it may be useful for a few levels either side, but the range would be limited meaning that you would have to adapt it if your players are not in that range when you want to send them into the Sivatag Desert – and it would be almost completely useless to players of Savage Worlds. So how do you turn that gyik into a monster for your players to fight, or the giant sundew from Samudtratat Beach into an interesting terrain feature?

Well of course that depends on your game system. Most systems nowadays have advice on how to create the stats for something, and (unless you’re playing high level D&D 3.5) they’re generally pretty quick, if relatively basic. For something like Fate Accelerated (or even more so Risus) you can often just pull a few key lines out of the text and chuck a few numbers which feel right at the page and it’s sorted. Something like D&D or Gurps is more involved, but again between the guidance for creating monsters and NPCs in the book and the ideas it can certainly be done. If you find yourself struggling to create something within the guidelines given the simplest solution is often to look in the “Monster Manual” “Creature Compendium” “Baddy Book” or whatever else your chosen game calls its enemies section – look for creatures with similar abilities and just tweak them and change the description (and damage types if applicable).

When reading a description of a person, creature, plant, or anything else, look for the key parts of the description which would involve mechanics. For example the various characters in Red Lock Bay include descriptions of what they do best and what they are known for, as well as their history. That information should inform their key skill levels. The twins Daniel and Alan Herbert are skilled chefs, but just as much they are excellent showmen. It is fair to suggest they would be highly dexterous and charismatic (despite their appearance – many games unhelpfully conflate physical appearance and social ability) – many games have a stat called dexterity and another called charisma, but those which don’t will have analogues (such as agility, or charm). They also need high skills in cookery, butchery, fishing and whatever other related skills are in your game. As they are generally well respected it would be good to give them some degree of contacts, allies, or similar if your game uses them.

Ultimately, I believe, the rules should get out of the way and allow a good story to be told. Some things can be fudged , or things adapted into other things – for example Red Lock Bay’s Seaborne Ponies could use any regular pony stats with the addition of a swim skill (unless you were to take the suggestion of making them kelpies, in which case they are something altogether more complex). Sometimes, however, the mechanics are a good way to tell part of the story and there we have called out rules ideas – the Royal Panoply of Annem Ka is the only place I have felt a real need to do this. There I have made suggestions of what the various items and artifacts might do as they are awakened as their process of awakening and growing power is a key part of the story. Even here, though I have left the specifics to you – should the bonus to leadership skills that the Crown of Annem Ka provides be +2 or +5? Or should it grant proficiency in the skill?

These questions, and others, are ones that only you can answer because they depend on your world, your stories, what will help the players shine equally, and what you and your players will enjoy.

After all, is enjoyment not the entire reason we are here?

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Epic Environments – Deserts

Photo by Loggawiggler

Deserts

The desert is a harsh mistress… No wait, that was the moon. Anyway, deserts are harsh places. A desert is defined as anywhere that receives less than 250mm of rain a year, which means that technically parts of Antarctica are deserts. What we usually mean, though, is an area of rock and sand with very little water and even less life.

 

Death

They say you can survive 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and 3 minutes without air (so I guess the moon really is harsher than any desert on Earth!). This means water management is extremely important if you wish to travel in the desert. What life there is tends to congregate around oases, the rare water sources which do appear in many deserts, or it lies dormant until the rare rains. In the Atacama Desert, in Chile, there is a phenomenon called the Flowering Desert – generally the area receives less than 12mm of rain a year, making it one of the driest places on the planet but every so often it receives heavy rain and the seeds germinate – for a few days the entire region is covered in thousands of species of wild flowers, and teeming with life which takes advantage of them. It is said to be absolutely beautiful.

The other problem with deserts is temperature – everyone knows deserts are hot (well, except for Antarctica), but the temperature drops rapidly at night, often falling below freezing. Many a traveller has frozen to death because they were unaware of that.  

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Castle Coverage – Maiden Castle

Aerial photograph by Major George Allen

Aerial photograph by Major George Allen

 

A photograph by Andy Lamb showing the sheer scale of the mounds

A photograph by Andy Lamb showing the sheer scale of the mounds

 

There are well over a thousand known iron age hill forts in the UK, but Maiden Castle is the biggest. It may even be the biggest in Europe. If any of them deserve the title Castle, then it’s Maiden Castle in Dorset.

Hill forts consist of earthen embankments and ditches around a hill top. Maiden Castle has four sets of embankments around the highest hill in the area. When it was built, the ditches cut into the hill embankments would have revealed the chalk under the grass, making them bright white. I like to think they kept them clean to make the hill fort more impressive and obvious. People lived inside the forts and farmed the areas outside.

That’s pretty much everything we know for certain about hill forts.

The people who lived in them didn’t have a written language, and they were going into decline by the time to Romans arrived, so archaeologists have had to reconstruct things from evidence found on these sites, and the occasional written record from outsiders, plus generalising from other sites. You see these places are old!

 

The Unknown and the Ancient

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Castle Coverage – Fort George (No, not that one, the other one…)

There are several places called Fort George across the world, and two in the UK. I’m not writing about the one in Guernsey today, but rather the one in the highlands of Scotland. It’s not technically a castle because it is a military installation, and was never intended as a high-status residence, but it’s interesting enough that I thought I would bend the rules a little.

Photograph by Stephen Branley

Photograph by Stephen Branley

A New Kind of Fortress

When gunpowder weapons were first developed they had many benefits, but they lacked the power of a trebuchet. Sieges therefore remained as they pretty much always had done, only with more smoke and loud bangs – cannons were primarily an anti-infantry weapon, and thus useful in defence but not really in bringing down a castle wall. Castle designs changed somewhat to accommodate gunpowder, and where one once would have seen arrow slits castles were being built with gun loops and cannon ports.

Over time, though, cannons got more powerful, and were able to make big holes in stone walls. The mobility and relative accuracy of cannons made the old castle designs far less useful and so designs changed. Clearly the walls needed to be thicker and better able to absorb impacts, so earthen ramparts were used. The previously popular round towers were problematic for related reasons – a large bomb called a petard could be comparatively safely placed at the base because there was an area which could not be easily seen from anywhere inside (to be hoist on one’s own petard was to be blown up by one’s own bomb – they were also, more dangerously, used to blow open gate houses and portcullises). Because of this bastions were built which were angled and protruded beyond the walls in such a way that they allowed a clear field of fire across the entire area.

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