Failure Tolerated.

Game design, publishing, and making something from nothing.

Author: Sean

Survive, Solve, or Save: Pick Two

Last night, I was reviewing Mothership with some close friends while complaining about Alien:Covenant and my friend Nick said something that’s stuck with me while I think of how best to write scenarios for horror RPGs.

He said that horror games should put to you a choice in any given situation, which is that you can either survive the terror, solve the mystery, or save the day.

But you should only be able to do 1 to 1.5 of those things (I said pick two because its catchier, but he’s right, 1.5 is much much better).

The idea is that you can absolutely survive a given scenario, if that’s all you focus on doing. But if survival is your number one priority, you won’t be able to solve the whole mystery, or save the day. In fact, you’ll only be able to figure out some of the mystery, or save some of the victims. Why? Because you put survival above everything else, and that’s okay. That’s your choice.

Or maybe you wanted to save the day, you wanted to save the ship, or stop the cultists, or defeat the monster. Awesome, no problem. If you put all your resources towards that, you can do that. But you’ll do so at a cost, maybe you barely make it out alive and you never learn why you were attacked in the first place.

Or if you want the golden ending, you want to save the day and you want to learn the deep dark mysteries of whatever? Well, that’ll cost you your life.

And that brings me to what I think is so great about this survive, solve, or save mindset: it focuses on dilemma.

In some old screenwriting book I have lying around somewhere it says that good movies are about dilemma, not choice. A dilemma is a question of the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils. A choice between good and evil isn’t an interesting choice for most audiences most of the time. What really gets audiences invested in a character is when they have to choose between two things that no one should have to choose between.

I would argue that in most D&D games this is a choice between the greater of two goods. From a meta game perspective, the PCs are choosing between a variety of adventure hooks that they find awesome. Should we go to that sunken ship where the Grasscutter sword is supposed to be or should we go to that castle, kill the vampire and take his stuff? They know that there’s danger involved, but they are motivated by which of the potential rewards will be greater (you could probably frame this again into all choices made by PCs are a greater of two goods because they are choosing what they think is going to be most fun, but that’s not what I’m interested in).

If you’re a good DM you’re probably varying up your dilemmas and throwing things at your PCs like “oh a dragon is going to burn down the town on the left and orcs are going to raid the town on the right, which do you want to save?” And that’s awesome. You should be doing that.

But in a horror game they should always be choices like that. They should always be choices between losing your loved one or losing the orphanage to the ghost. Between saving the ship or saving yourself. Between destroying the keepers of Bamophet’s sabbath or touching that tiny glimpse of immortality. Between your mind or what your mind hungers to learn. The greatest rewards should always come at a the greatest costs.

Now, what I’m not suggesting is that if your PCs have solved the mystery and saved the day you amp up the difficulty and kill them because that fits into the genre tropes. I’m saying that you design your scenarios where that shouldn’t even be possible. If there’s any genre where it’s appropriate to go hard the whole time, it’s this one.

Oh, you want to know what that cultist was doing with that book? Well, you’ll need to read that book. And that book’s in some obscure protolanguage, which you’ll need to learn. Meanwhile the ritual murders continue, unabated. But you had to keep reading that book. And congrats, you read it, and now you’re teleported into the dreams of a comatose serial killer whose psychic energy has infected all of his cultist servants. As you make your way through the dream, you find a way to kill the beasts that are terrifying, even to this despicable specimen of humanity, but in doing so, you find out that there’s no way out of the dream. You’re trapped inside the nightmares of a dying murder god. But hey, the cultists will stop murdering, so that’s good. Do you feel better now that you know why they were doing it?

This leads me back to Zak S’s wonderful Hunter/Hunted model, which was the first thing I ever read about Horror RPG structure that got me thinking about this. And they fold really well into each other, because in H/H, if you’re not making progress on the solving aspect, then the surviving and saving aspects start to come knocking.

When I was growing up the joke about Call of Cthulhu was always “Why would I want to play a game I can’t win?” And its taken me until now to realize: You can only not win Call of Cthulhu if you define winning as getting all three: solving, saving, and surviving. You can win CoC, it just might cost you your life.

Mothership: A Sci-Fi Horror RPG (Beta)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Saving Throws in RPGs. Essentially, they are the opposite mechanic from a lot of things we’re used to as PCs. Most mechanics in non-storygame RPGs detail things the player can do. This is list of spells you can cast. This is how good you are at hitting stuff. This is how much damage you do. The character sheet is a litany of the player’s abilities, powers, skills, and other useful things.

Except for saving throws.

Saving throws are a mechanic that details how good the PCs are at having things not happen to them. Now, this is easy to re-frame into an active ability. From 3E: The Reflex Save is a measure of how good a character is at dodging, for instance. The Fortitude Save is a measure of how good a character’s body is at withstanding certain effects (poison, disease, what have you). So in a sense these are still ability’s of the PC’s. Obviously.

The big difference is that the player doesn’t have control over deciding to roll these saves. They are not things they choose to do. They are rolled as a result of something the PC already chose to do, and now a thing has happened that is bad,
and we want to see if by luck, instinct, or grace of God, the PC can withstand it.

Now, I’m not saying the player didn’t have agency here. I’m personally of the school that thinks the DM should give the PC a heads up when a saving throw might be incoming (“It looks trapped, if there’s poison, you’ll have to save against it. Do you want to touch it still?”), but whether you run your game that way or you just want to surprise your players with saves, the save is still a roll to avoid something bad happening, not a roll to make something good happen. It is a reactive roll, not a proactive one.

Proactive abilities are about a PC’s control over the world around them. Reactive abilities are about reminding the PCs of their lack of control.

Which brings me to Mothership.

No thanks bro I’m fine here

I’ve been wanting to play an RPG that takes the good parts of, say, Alien, Space Hulk, Gormenghast, Brian Evenson’s The Dust, and Event Horizon, and combines those with the good parts of Traveller, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Call of Cthulhu. Essentially, I wanted to create a toolkit for a few kinds of experiences:

  • A one-shot horror short: You can play one session, TPK or not, have fun for a night and move on.
  • A spacecrawl scare-kit: You can travel the galaxy and run into different weird things along the way.
  • A megaship crawl: You find the titular mothership and the game becomes about survival, exploration, and finding a way to exist in the strange new world.

Right now, all I’ve got is enough for a one-shot. In fact, that’s what I’ve made. A little pocketmod RPG that has just enough bones on it to start playtesting. You can fit this RPG and mini-adventure into your pocket and play it whenever you want. As I develop this, hopefully, I’ll be able to get more out of the spacecrawl and megaship aspects, but for now, I just want to see whether the base mechanics work.


The base mechanics in Mothership have a lot to do with saving throws. You play a Marine, a Teamster, a Scientist, or an Android. And primarily you’re differentiated by how resistant you are to damage, emotional affects (like fear, or loneliness), health effects (like hunger, or infection), and insanity (you know what this is). You have some basic stats, but fewer than in most games. And you have a bare-bones skill system. There’s a percentile system that may be trying to do too much heavy lifting at once, but we’ll see.

You can download the beta rules here: Mothership-Pocketmod

Shoot me any thoughts you have at

I hope you enjoy it!


Pixel & Pieces: Production and Logistics Talk

I had the pleasure of giving a short talk on Production and Logistics with UNT’s Pixels and Pieces class. This is the third time I’ve done this, but only the first time I’ve gotten to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned in manufacturing.

Most of my notes for this talk came right out of my Master Production Checklist, which I am consistently grateful that I have been working on. Essentially, every time that I do a task, I’ll check the checklist and see if there’s any notes about it that I may have forgotten. If I haven’t done the task before, once I’m finished with it, I’ll write up a quick “how to” on how it’s done. The hope is that as time goes on and we start hiring people, it’ll be easy to teach and train people.

TKG Master Production Checklist

A lot of founders can get this sort of “founders syndrome” where they can’t let go of anything because only they can do it right. The truth is just that they’re usually so busy that they don’t have the time to teach someone how to do it it, or they haven’t really considered themselves how it might be done in the abstract.

By working on this checklist like it was my job (and in many ways it is), I can divorce myself from the notion that I am my own company, and rather that the company is something akin to a product in and of itself. It needs to be worked on and tweaked every day, and we have to strive to make it as perfect as we can. This, hopefully, should add to our ability to grow in a stable manner, and to reproduce our successes without repeating (too many) mistakes.

UNT has been really gracious in inviting me back to give talks year after year, and for me its a real opportunity to look back at what I’ve learned and what itself is worth sharing. I often skew to problems that were particularly hard for me to solve on my own, or things I wish I would have known when I got started, and I’m always amazed that the questions veer so far off of my own experiences. Which makes sense, those people aren’t me and I’m not them, we don’t have the same questions.

In the end, what’s most interesting to me about manufacturing is how it informs game design. There are so many problems to solve in game design, from the rules, to the pieces, to (the often overlooked concept of) information design. The more you understand how your game will be made, of what materials, and using what processes, the better you can design a game.

Buc-ee’s Bathrooms

I’d never stopped at Buc-ee’s before, which my girlfriend thought was insane. We were heading to east Texas to see her family around Thanksgiving when she brought it up. I didn’t see what the big deal was. She said wait and see.

If you don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a convenience store chain setup around the gulf coast in Texas. I hadn’t heard of it and I’ve lived my whole life here, so there you go.

My girlfriend was right though, Buc-ee’s is insane. They’re not convenience stores, they’re like convenience malls. Each one of them is like a like a roadside cathedral. They sell everything you want from a convenience store (beer, condoms, gas, Monster Energy drink, what have you), but they also sell toys, t-shirts… patio furniture. When we headed down around Christmas time we picked up wrapping paper and gift bags for the kiddos on our way and then wrapped presents in the car.

All that’s fine and dandy. It’s a huge shop, they sell Buc-ee’s branded “Beaver Nuggets,” which are delicious, and they sell Buc-ee’s branded Cherry Sours, which are my hands down bullet to the bone, balls to the wall, favorite candy of all time. They sell Buc-ee’s branded everything.

None of that is super impressive though, since pretty much anyone can slap a logo on a thing Made In China and call it theirs. I mean, their inventory is impressive in that they’ve essentially turned a string of gas stations into mini-Wal-Marts.

What’s impressive to me are the bathrooms.

Look at that cute little fucker

Buc-ee’s has the best, hands down, bullet-to-the-bone, balls-to-the-wall best bathrooms you’ll ever see in a convenience store. They’re not pretty good. In fact, they’re not just good for a convenience store. These would be good for Barnes & Noble on a quiet day. These are the fucking best.

Why are they the best? First off, they’re huge. A few dozen urinals huge (83 in the New Braunfels location). All of them have walls that go up to your shoulder and out past your ass. They’re all clean. In fact, there’s an attendant in the bathroom 24/7 to make sure they’re clean. They have hand sanitizer dispensers along the wall like fucking sconces in a medieval chapel. They even won the coveted “America’s Best Bathroom” award in 2012. What did your bathroom do in 2012? Fucking nothing, that’s what.

Please stop talking about bathrooms.

No, see here’s the thing. When you’re building a business, especially in a crowded industry (and it doesn’t get more crowded than convenience stores in Texas), you have to find a way to differentiate yourself from everyone else around you.

Joel Spolsky, creator of Trello, talks about this in an excellent article about the difference between having an Amazon business model and a Ben & Jerry’s business model.

If you’re going into an established market, getting big fast is a fabulous way of wasting tons of money, as did Your best hope is to do something sustainable and profitable, so that you have years to slowly take over your competition.

– Joel Spolsky, Strategy Letter I: Ben and Jerry’s vs. Amazon

His main point is basically that you need to understand the market that you’re in. If you’re in an Amazon market, one where you have no established competitors, where you have a technology that no one else has, you need to grow as big as possible as fast as possible and damn the cost. This makes sense, because if you don’t grow big fast, someone else will get there and they will overtake you. You can make mistakes, you can have a shitty work environment, because a new round of funding is just around the corner if you stay ahead of the pack and you can just hire better people later. He’s not making an argument that this is a fun place to work, just that this is how you should do it if you’re in that market.

The other side of the argument is where you get your Ben & Jerry’s business. These are small companies heading into an already crowded marketplace (like board games). Spending a ton of money is a waste of time, because there are already people at the top doing more than you and they already have the customers. It’s a huge waste of your money. Like Spolsky says, your best hope is to do something sustainable and profitable, so that you have time to take over the competition.

The big mistake is not knowing which of those you are.

I see you’ve stopped talking about the bathrooms. Thank you.

Ah! That’s right, back to the point. The point is, Buc-ee’s knows which market they are in. They are as Ben & Jerry’s as it gets. The Texas landscape is literally littered with closed-down gas stations and convenience stores. And how does Buc-ee’s survive?

The bathrooms.

You’d think, well isn’t their business the gas? Or maybe the candy and snacks? And you’d be right. That is their core business. But they can’t do their core business better than the giants in their field. They can’t compete on price, because they don’t have the volume yet. Well, they didn’t, they sure as hell do now.

What they could compete on was the bathrooms.

“No one starts at the top. You must start at the bottom to build a great company, then a great brand.”

– Arch “Beaver” Aplin, Founder of Buc-ee’s

Gas station bathrooms are shitty because they pay one person minimum wage to man an entire store and its not a great job. Also, you’d have to lock up to really give the bathrooms the kind of attention they deserve as family after family and trucker after trucker stop in and bomb the place out like a DMZ every hour on the hour, not caring to clean up after themselves, because they’ll be across state lines like Bonnie and Clyde by the time you get around to finding what they left you in there.

And that’s where Buc-ee’s pulls away from the pack. If you know, for a fact, that the bathrooms at Buc-ee’s are cleaner than any other. That you can pop a squat and finish a chapter of a book in there without fear that someone is going to come knocking (because there are 83 other stalls in there and no one has to knock ever and some campers went missing in the bathrooms once in ’92 and were never seen again, sorry I digress). If you know for a fact that it’s not going to be some SAW 3-esque experience, getting a key and having your shit directed by Eli Roth, you’re more likely to stop there. Every time.

And people choosing to stop at your convenience store over the other convenience stores is the entire game in that business. That’s why they’re called convenience stores.

Apply this to a thing I care about.

You’d think the most important thing about publishing board games is making great board games. And that’s not true. That’s the more important thing about designing board games. But the most important thing about publishing board games is to make enough money to be in business next year and the year after that. “The bidness of bidness is bidness” as my middle school social studies teacher Dr. Scott liked to say. And he was right.

But today we’re not talking about the money. We’re talking about what your business offers to customers outside of its product. The board game is the product. Obviously if every time you go to Buc-ee’s and take a shit in peace for the first time in a month, if you went outside to your car and found out they’d put sugar in your tank, you’d never go back there again. So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that your board game is essentially a commodity, that one is as good as the next, and that in this super crowded Kickstarter market, if someone has any reason to not like your game they can just get another one (they can). That there’s always another hot game coming down the pipeline to displace yours (there is).

How do you distinguish yourself in that crowded kickstarter marketplace, other than by your products?

Jamey Stegmaier does it by making it a moral imperative to run the best goddamn kickstarters on the planet. Absolute amazing communication. Pitch perfect shipping and logistics. And then communicating about the whole thing. Michael Mindes did it by reporting on every part of the process in a series of blogs, teaching and bringing up a whole generation of new publishers with his ascendent rise to the top. C’MON does it by putting out absolutely drop dead miniatures. I heard a story that Cards Against Humanity ran a panel at the GAMA Tradeshow entitled “Why You Should Use Traditional Distribution.” Their panel was a powerpoint presentation with one slide: “You shouldn’t.” Tim Fowers eschews even having a brand name other than his own, and ships all the product out himself.

At TKG we’ve been focusing on getting good games out, reliably, and on time (which has been a challenge) and learning the ropes of how to grow a small business. I think we’re distinct as a company in our personality, in our games, in our approach to design (both game and graphic). But, I don’t know that we have a distinguishing factor in how we do business. Something that sets the experience of buying from us apart from all the others.

But it’s something we’re working on.

Failure Tolerated

I’ve been reading a book called The E-Myth Revisited recently. It’s thesis is largely that there’s a myth in America about what makes a good entrepreneur.

“…The Entrepreneurial Model has less to do with what’s done in a business and more to do with how it’s done.”
– Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited

The old story goes something like this: I’m a technician of some level at a job, I’ve got a manager who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, and I think I can do it better. So I throw caution to the wind, quit my job, and start my own business. The business grows, and now I have bills to pay, people to manage, and a whole lot of other stuff to do that it turns out, I never wanted to do in the first place. I have to actually run a business.

Gerber argues that at this point three distinct personas emerge: the Technician, who does all the work, the Manager, who makes sure it gets done, and the Entrepreneur who moves the vision forward. These three personas are generally in conflict.

  • The Entrepreneur wants to blue-sky and vision cast and run the business at the speed of thought, but is hamstrung by the manager who pushes back, saying that the company doesn’t have the time, money, or resources to move forward before the technician completes the work that’s already overdue.
  • The Manager wants to keep everything organized and on schedule, but can’t because their only technician is overworked and their boss, the Entrepreneur is constantly shifting priorities and moving the goal post.
  • The Technician wants to do the actual work (after all, they were good enough at this to quit their job, ostensibly) but is burned out, because they are constantly interrupted by the needs of the other two.

Gerber’s bottom line is that with all these roles tied together, the actual Entrepreneur, the one who jumped off the cliff and started the business, can’t get any actual work done.

If you’ve started up you own business, this might sound familiar. On Two Rooms and a Boom, we had similar problems. Once our Kickstarter funded, my business partner, Alan Gerding, and I were responsible for producing, publishing, and fulfilling a massively successful game, which we, as Entrepreneurs, were excited to do. Our flagship game raised over $100k, and we had thousands of backers. You couldn’t ask for a better start to a brand new game company.

However, the Technicians inside us struggled with the success. We had jumped into the publishing world with the same “Fuck it YOLO” attitude I imagine attracts many creators to Kickstarter every year. I had experience in graphic design and had seen the manufacturing process up close when I worked on Mage Wars. Alan had been designing and pitching games for the last couple of years and knew reviewers and had made friends with other publishers. I told Alan that I thought I should do all the graphics and illustrations (over 70 unique cards, two rulebooks, a couple game aides, and a box) for the game. Alan, feeling his Manager-sense tingle, pushed back, thinking that for a semi-journeyman designer, but beginner-level illustrator, I would be biting off more than I could chew. My Entrepreneur-sense thought this would be a good way to save money and not have to worry about relying on a contractor. We funded in November 2013 with a projected delivery date of June 2014. I didn’t finish illustrating the cards and doing the graphic design until late June / early July 2014. The Technician in me had failed. The Managers in both of us had failed. The Entrepreneurs were terrified of what this meant for the company.

Had we finished before we’d even started?

“Tolerance for failure is a very specific part of the excellent company culture—and that lesson comes directly from the top.”
– Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited

I’m good friends with P.L. Winn, co-founder of and author of the new Tillie Madison series of urban fantasy books. Winn travelled to China shortly after we delivered our Kickstarter for *Two Rooms and a Boom* in July 2015 (over a year past our initial deadline), inspired by my journey there a few months before to sort out some manufacturing trouble. Walking around Shenzhen, he noticed this phrase on signs, posters, bus stop advertisements, everywhere. It said: Innovation Encouraged Failure Tolerated.

While Winn burst out laughing from the strange English translation, his guide explained that there had been a concerted effort in China recently to encourage creativity from workers. China’s economy had risen to power through mass production. But production requires creators. China had spent so long producing everything for every other economy in the world, they hadn’t developed anyone capable of making things worth mass producing in the first place. Fear of failure had stifled innovation. To evolve and grow, they’d need more creators. They had to de-stigmatize failure.

In a lot of ways The E-Myth Revisited is like a lot of other business self help books in that most of it could be distilled in a one-page outline and the rest is a lot of hand-holding, anecdotes, and an obsession with selling you the book you’ve already bought. But one of the many things I’ve gotten from it is the ability to tolerate failure in pursuit of innovation.

At TKG, we’ve been working hard to separating our three personas: the Entrepreneur, Manager, and Technician. On our second game, World Championship Russian Roulette, we brought in a world class illustrator, Weberson Santiago, and the boardgame industry’s premier graphic designer, Adam McIver to take on the roles I had bungled so ineptly before. We’ve drawn better lines in the sand for who is acting in what role on what project (Alan acts as the Entrepreneur for our Podcast, for instance). We continue to fail at a lot of things, we continue to make mistakes. But we keep building.

This blog is about that.

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