The art of making art for an indie RPG

You might be interested to see how art comes together for a tiny indie role playing game.

Early on, we looked at illustrating skill concepts. Here are the first sketches for Blast, before it was established that people would be shooting lasers and other cool beam weapons:

Oh, shoot!

The artist took the more interesting ones and added a little detail and color.

"Use all the colors in the crayon box" -RuPaul
“Use all the colors in the crayon box” -RuPaul

The image on the top left is intriguing, but let’s push back against using female action heroes as eye candy. Maybe it’s would be more interesting if she was researcher in lab coat, whose motto is “science advances one funeral at a time”. We can still reference and interrogate typical visual signifiers like big chunky earrings, but in the context of a protagonist who doesn’t exist for the sake of the male gaze.

straight shooting science officer
straight shooting science officer

Now let’s put her in action protecting innocents from space pirates, first taking a rough cut at the scene:

covering fire

and then adding the finishing touches:

plasma weapons are messy

I hope this was interesting!

Hope and imagining a better future

a plan

Return to the Stars is a science fiction role playing game about hope and characters working to make a better future.

The original Star Trek series debuted in the 1960s. It was created in a society struggling for civil rights, in the middle of an escalating war in Vietnam, shocked by assassinations of political leaders and activists, and threatened by global nuclear catastrophe. Its vision of a better, more inclusive future was a respite from trouble, but as it told fun tales of exploration and adventure if often explored contemporary themes and highlighted humanistic values.

Optimism and ideals resonated then, and will again today.

In our times, cynicism is sometimes celebrated as being clever or cool. But hopepunk heros know that accepting the way things are is selling out. That’s never cool and rarely clever.

Optimistic fun may sometimes seem like escapism but, as Ursula K. Le Guin noted: “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”

We are going to have some fun with this game! I can’t wait to hear about the stories you create with your friends when you play Return to the Stars!  Back it on Kickstarter today! 

Return to the Stars launches on Kickstarter

Return to the Stars is an optimistic Science Fiction roleplaying game designed to make it easy to tell stories of exploration and adventure in an optimistic space opera setting. You may have been waiting for hopeful science fiction.

Well, the wait is over, we launched the Kickstarter for Return to the Stars this morning.

People like it—we are already at 220% of our funding goal.


I’m really excited about putting a hopeful game out at the present moment.

And people seem to be excited to back a game where they can play as a new generation of geeks — makers, cosplayers, scientists, and pop culture enthusiasts setting out on an adventure of exploration and discovery, reconnecting the lost worlds of humanity.

If you’ve already had a chance to play the quickstart edition, we’ve added some fun new subsystems that you can enjoy: character arcs, competitions, downtime tinkering, props, and a large selection of space opera skills and stunts so you can create your own amazing characters.

a cosmopolitan group of space opera protagonists

Backers at any level, even $1 also get a remarkable essay on the new hopepunk genre by Alexandra Rowland whose debut novel is coming from Scribner’s next month, as well as a brand-new adventure in an updated quickstart guide.

The full game is discounted to only $15, for Kickstarter backers.

Paint a better future in bold primary colors! Get your copy of Return to the Stars!

Sable Spencer, combat artist

Sable Spencer grew up wanting to be a painter, but was often teased by her classmates. She threw herself into body building and martial arts to fend off bullies, and found that expertise can naturally.

She still paints every day, but it is her physical prowess that earned her the chance to be among the first explorers returning to the stars…


  • High concept: Combat Artist
  • Trouble: I can’t stand bullies or trolls!
  • Aspect: Iron Body, Iron Will
  • Aspect: An artist’s eye sees the soul of the sitter.
  • Aspect: Let’s get on with it!


+4 Might
+3 Combat Arts, Scan
+2 Blast, Acrobatics, Making
+1 Cosplay, Might, Self-Control, Intrusion


I Guess I’ll Tank If you succeed in attacking an
opponent in melee combat, you gain +1 to your defense
against their next attack.
Person of Steel reduce any damage you take by a stress


RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha: First Impressions

RQG Preview - Snakepipe Hollow by Andrey Fetisov_preview

RuneQuest was one of the important early RPGs that ensured roleplaying would be a hobby, not a singular game system. RuneQuest combined Steve Perrin’s innovation in game mechanics with Greg Stafford’s remarkable world of Glorantha, which deepened heroic fantasy with serious attention to a broad variety of world cultures and which took mythology seriously. Its lore is vast and deep, but approachable. In the mid-eighties, the rights to game were sold to Avalon Hill and the setting was divorced from the game, albeit with a few notable RuneQuest Glorantha titles appearing during a brief Renaissance under the stewardship of Ken Rolston.

RuneQuest’s skill-based progression was an important break from D&D Level and Class mechanics, and the combat was more detailed, deadly, swingy and simulative. As the “basic roleplaying system” it was the ancestor of many RPGs, most notably Call of Cthulhu. Glorantha is currently supported be a narrative game system called HeroQuest, and a recently released supplement for the D20 system 13th Age.

duck tower
I was introduced to the RuneQuest when I purchased this 3rd party Judges Guild pastiche of their own Dark Tower adventure

And now a third RPG supports the setting: the new RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha. RQ and the setting that made it famous have been reunited.

The game is clearly a passion project. The artwork is astonishing, it is both well executed and it is clear that a massive effort was invested in providing art direction to capture the unique aesthetic of a myth infused bronze age setting. The graphic design is as good as you’ll find in any high-end RPG—it leans in with ornamental detail while always being legible and organizing information in and clear sensible ways. It is easy to read in PDF form on tablet, but don’t expect to have a fun time consulting it on a smartphone.

2018-06-03 (2)
RuneQuest was always a skill-based RPG with a very large number of options, only a handful of which a starting player would even modestly competent in. Traditionally, this meant a lot of stumbling around trying to move the story forward while people fell off their mounts, failed to notice things essential to the plot, and were often barely capable of communicating with others. Fortunately, there are new rules that allow one to augment one’s skills often with a passion or magical runic affiliation, or potentially with another skill. This should do a lot improve the competence of characters from the very beginning of play. While new RQ hasn’t learned much of anything from the past decade of game design advances when it comes to failing forward, failing less will improve the early game significantly.

The passions and runes I mentioned are new to this RuneQuest—building in systems that tie the character in a mechanical way to things that have always been in the setting. Glorantha is integrated across the rules, there is nothing “generic” about them. This is particularly true in character creation, which begins by developing the backstory of your parents and grandparents, and how their lives were affected by the history that shaped their society.

Unfortunately, the new RuneQuest botches character creation in a fundamental and almost fatal way. Characteristics like strength and charisma are simply rolled randomly on (3D6 for 5 characteristics, and 2D6+6 for two others.) If characteristics really didn’t matter, this would simply be an arbitrary old school affectation. But they dramatically impact a character’s survivability, effectiveness and progression, and gatekeep what roles a character can play in the game. That RPGs needed alternatives to purely random chance needed was recognized in the hobby as early as AD&D and in RuneQuest with it’s third edition in the mid 80’s.

It is clear, furthermore, that the designers know that the system they have provided for character generation is garbage. They include 7 premade characters in the game—whose characteristics average 17 points higher than you would expect from ones generated randomly. Across all the premade characters there is only one who has who a single stat less than 10—they have a CON of 9. In a folksy way, the designers do note in an aside that “it’s perfectly all right” to discard weak characters or use a different method of creation at the game masters discretion. This is not good enough. The job of a designer is to create systems that work—they don’t delegate that to Gamemasters, or force players to reroll. This needs to be fixed before a print edition is issued of a book that claims it “has all the rules you need to play”.

I am glad to say this appears to be an isolated flaw. Many other systems are remarkably improved: spirit rules are vastly improved increased, fixing what had been a flavorless slow grind. Character get access to useful and fun cult magic from their gods right from the beginning of the game. Sorcery is now grounded in the magical ecology of Glorantha. It does seem much weaker than Divine Magic, at least for starting characters—but I look forward to seeing how it works in practice.

It is possible way sorcery may be more powerful than it seems at first glance—the game is organized around the assumption that adventures occur roughly once per season with “normal life” happening between them. Sorcery is set apart from other magic systems in that it allows the creation of long term effects. It is possible sorcerers may be able to come into adventures somewhat more capable even if they are less flexible and powerful during play.

The passage of time is also reflected in rules for managing a character’s household and holdings. Alongside the rules for passions, loyalties and reputations which ties characters to communities, runic affiliations which connect characters to the ineffable, ties to history in character creation and the existing integration of progression into religious and spiritual practice this is a game that has sets itself about by the number of game systems that tie into the deep world building. It should be exciting to see how this plays out in a campaign.

Finally, I’ll mention some very nice bronze age touches—there are rules for fighting from a chariot or in a phalanx!


So, should you get the new RuneQuest? Well, if you have fond memories of earlier editions and you care about Glorantha you should buy it now—this is greatly improved edition which integrates Glorantha into the game in a way that we haven’t seen since RQ2.

If you are a student of RPG design, it is well considering—the game doubles down on simulationist play, refining the ideas at it’s core. It is different than many other currently successful games, and true to its idiosyncratic pedigree.

If you are intrigued by legendary world building of  the Glorantha setting it might be worth trying the game. On the other hand HeroQuest would likely a good fit for a more narratively focused gamer, and 13th Age Glorantha is a better off ramp for someone looking to try another game after Dungeons and Dragons.

Fun Crunch for Fate: Props and Tactics

Futuristic city and ships

Here are some work in progress rules for the core edition of  Return to the Stars. I’m currently play-testing these.


Gamers like getting phat loot, but one of the strengths of Fate is the way that Character aspects keep the focus on who the PCs are, not what the stuff the they carry or the inventory they manage.

Props are my attempt to square the circle–gear that you can have fun collecting but which are only used once for a dramatic effect in a scene.  Like an intriguing prop in a well made science fiction movie it provides a moment of cool that shakes thing up and advances the story, and then you don’t see it again.

In DnD terms a prop is like finding an old school Arrow of Demon Slaying, not trudging forward on the hedonic treadmill by snagging +1 shield.

Props are one use, and discarded after players use them.  However, if a GM has an NPC use a prop, it should be available for players to loot if they defeat their foe–turning a resource against the antagonists is a staple of space opera tales.

Props are found during adventures, they are never purchased.   The Convention is a post-capitalist post-scarcity setting, after all. A PC can keep as many props as they have refresh–if they exceed that limit, they can give a surplus prop to another player or discard it.

Players always know what the props they’ve acquired do.  Most of them come with FAQs, sometimes the characters just figure it out.  Struggling to identify your cool new toy isn’t fun, so we don’t waste any time that way.

Props often work in similar to stunts, but will often have a more dramatic effect. If a prop seems really in character for a PC, you might decide to make it a more permanent part of the game by converting it into a stunt, but the player and GM should have a conversation about potentially reworking the text to bring the power in line with other stunts.

Example props:

Black Ice When you achieve a special success with Scan detecting someone using Intrusion to break into a computer system, you may inflict a moderate consequence on them. discard after use

ECCM Missile When you use this, your special success with a Blast attack in Space combat doesn’t cause damage, but all enemy defense rolls will be a -2 for the rest of the combat.  discard after use

Fresh Paint When you have a special success in a competition with Make, add +1 to your achieved target. discard after use

Self-Destruct Sequencer Concede the conflict. An opponent must take a major consequence. discard after use

Surreal Filter When you tie attempting to create an advantage with Science, you do get a free invoke on the aspect created. discard after use

Quadcorder When you achieve a special success with Scan attempting to create an advantage to solve a problem, you may immediately use scan at +2 in place of Science to overcome the problem. discard after use


After a while, some players find Fate’s combat system gets a bit samey, and feel that they miss some of the mechanical crunch of more traditional RPGs.  Generally, this is best addressed by redoubling a focus on storytelling, and remember that Conflicts are only an optional tool to zoom in on something interesting, not something pulled out simply because someone is picking a fight.

Nonetheless, mechanical crunch can be fun part of a game, so you might want to try these optional tactics rules.

During a conflict, a player can choose to employ one tactic when their turn comes up in an exchange in addition to their normal action. All tactics end at the end of a conflict.

example tactics:

Let’s Finish This You take more risks, with the aim of dealing more damage and finishing this conflict quickly.  From here on out, during your attack, or whenever anyone attacks your character, treat all blank rolls on dice as if they had the plus symbol. You can’t chose another tactic while Let’s Finish This is active. You have the option of ending this tactic after you suffer a consequence.

Mise-en-scène You can only chose this tactic if there are more than six scene aspects in play. You may remove one scene aspect that exists, but doesn’t have a free invoke.

A Moment of Truth If you succeed in combat you can give up two shifts of damage to learn one character aspect that your opponent has.

Momentum After you roll your attack, you can choose to pay a Fate point to keep your roll to be used again in the next exchange. For example, if your unmodified roll is +3, you can pay a Fate point so that you simply receive +3 in you roll on the next exchange, rather the roll the dice. Of course, you have to live to the next exchange, and carrying this much momentum may make you a target. You cannot use momentum twice in a row.

This Will Get Ugly You have to chose this tactic before you roll.  Even if you fail in attacking you still cause one shift of damage to you target, at the cost of taking a shift of damage yourself. If the defender succeeds with style you take two shifts of damage instead.

Well, That’s Random This could get interesting. Roll 8 Fate Dice instead of 4 for your Attack or attempt to Create an Advantage. You cannot use well that’s random twice in a row.

Do you want more crunch in you Fate game?  What are your thoughts on these options?










The Convention Authority


Before the loss of the Mars Beacon, which ended galaxy spanning travel for over a century, the Convention Authority was an association of societies that celebrated and preserved speculative popular culture of the 20th and 21st centuries: fantasy, science fiction, and gaming. In the first age of galactic travel, it was a popular tourist destination, and it boasted some of the most skilled terraforming engineers in the galaxy.

During the Great Silence, the Convention Authority was able to maintain local interstellar travel, due in to a large and varied fleet of replica early interstellar craft.

In the modern era, the Convention Authority is the most significant political actor in the revealed galaxy both because it has the only shipyard capable of creating new vessels with origami drives, and because of the curious and cosmopolitan nature of its people who have been steeped in stories of exploration and discovery for generations.

Now available: free quickstart edition of Return to the Stars!

The quickstart edition of Return to the Stars is now available for free at RPGnow!

Return to the Stars is a tabletop science fiction role playing game which helps players create their own stories in an optimistic space opera setting.

Return to the Stars is designed to allow the creation of characters that evoke the best elements of geek culture. In the far future hyperspace travel gave easy access to countless worlds, and humanity sorted itself into like-minded communities.  One such society was the Convention Authority, founded to celebrate the now classical arts of science fiction, fantasy, and gaming.

One day, without warning, the stellar beacon that illuminated hyperspace went silent rendering galactic travel impossible. The systems of the Convention Authority stayed connected thanks to a replica fleet of early starships. Now, after more than a century of effort, a long-range exploration craft has been built. Its purpose: to return to the stars and reconnect with lost civilizations of humanity!

We’re lucky enough to have some great illustrations in the game from artists such as Amy King (of the web comics Harlowe Vanished and the Muse Mentor), Yog Joshi (who has worked for Fantasy Flight Games and Alex Cutri, a colorist who has worked for Marvel and Image.

Download the free game today, and visit us at Pax East in booth booth #19135!

ship_bridge (1)


Compels and Aspects

A character’s trouble serves an important function in both Fate and Return to the Stars, it is designed to be compelled, which means the story gets more complicated and interesting, and also means that the player gets one of those shiny fate points, so they can be even more awesome in the future.

But it’s not just a trouble that can be compelled, any character aspects can serve that purpose.  One way to check and see if your character has strongly written aspects is to attempt to write examples of how they might be compelled.  As a bonus, you can share that list with the GM, so they have an easy reference for the type ways you’d welcome your character getting compelled.

Here’s an example of a 1920’s occult investigator, his aspects, and suggestions for how they might be compelled.

  • High Concept:  Wealthy Daredevil/Industrialist
  • Trouble: Manwe, his ward and sidekick
  • Calculatingly Ruthless Strategist in a Secret War
  • The Darling of the Press
  • Sorcerer of sympathetic magic with an magic amulet engraved with the words ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” and incorporating a bone of from the tip of his finger.

Potential Compels

Because Parker is a Wealthy Daredevil/Industrialist

He might be publicly challenged to do risky things.

He has rivals.

He has responsibilities

It makes sense that he’d attempt a difficult challenge.

He is subject to the jealousy and envy of others.

His playboy lifestyle may have broken the heart of someone the party needs to interact with, or he may have had a liaison with an NPC’s girlfriend or fiancée.

Working class people might assume he can’t relate to them.

He might mistakenly assume that it’s easy for someone else to do something that that requires wealth and privilege.

Because Parker has Manwe as his sidekick

It makes sense that he’d be concerned about what the welfare of her people.

It makes sense that he’d want to investigate what the why the British Fascists From the Future had were-sharks as test subjects.

She would get into some hijinks.

She might be jealous when she thinks he’s paying too much attention others.

She can appeal to a sense of youthful idealism that interferes with his doing a ruthless but necessary thing.

He might be enraged if someone threatens her.

The daughter of the witch king might get dragged into an occult occurrence.

Her enemies are his enemies.

He might decide to provide a good example for her, despite it complicating things.

He might be surprised by how less resourceful “normal” kids Manwe’s age are.

Racists dislike him.

Because Parker is a Ruthless Strategist in a Secret War

The person the party is meeting interacting with might turn out to be a foe he defeated in the past.

He might be asked to confront something that normal people couldn’t deal with.

He might feel compelled to learn what the enemy is up to.

He might go overboard in his tactics.

He might show contempt for people unwilling to confront scary threats to mankind.

Because Parker is the darling of the Press

Crowds of autograph seekers might impede his ability to be stealthy, or chase someone.

The enemy might know he’s coming based on media reports.

People who want to avoid the limelight might be reluctant to interactive with him.

He might be recognized at the wrong time.

Because Parker is a practitioner of sympathetic magic

He might arouse superstitious fears or religious condemnation.

He might have a distracting opportunity to acquire magical power.

He might draw the attention of magical foes.

To the extent his powers become public knowledge, scientists and reporters might be drawn to “discredit” him.

A ritual might have an unintended consequence or side effect.