It hath begun…

•July 5, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Crow’s Feet, by artist Andrew Gillis.

Here’s how the deal with Andrew works: he’s doing illustrations for every Element Card in the game. Some of which he gets to author himself, the rest of which he gets to take from the Elements I write. The art is supposed to feel hasty, sketch-like… like the players are required to breathe that last bit of life into it. Crow’s Feet is the first element he’s sent me, along with this description he wrote for it:

For back story on this one, I’m calling her “Crow’s Feet” and she used to be a little girl, who would make faces. Her mother told her not to, and that her face would get stuck that way. Obviously she didn’t listen. Crow’s Feet wanders the Woods, looking for something.

Sometimes, your decisions turn out to be perfect. I couldn’t be happier with this arrangement.

Keys & Powers, Now Up!

•June 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’ve just finished pages 3g and 3h. Respectively, they are the pages on Personal Keys and Powers.

For those following along rigorously, you’ll notice that Imposter and Outcast have been removed from the pre-made Personal Keys, replaced by Uptight and Investigator. The reason being that Imposter was too similar to Liar, and Outcast created characters who were isolated from the group – obviously so, but then I realized that in play it undermined the dynamic I was shooting for.

Also, I added a new Power to the list of pre-made Powers: Wordkeeper.
It follows:

Anything that is spoken near you, you can replay it later, as if from some invisible radio nearby
(Gain a risk when…) you replay a secret, or when you replay the words of an enemy

Feedback on those two pages would be much appreciated!

Finding the Heart of Ashes

•June 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment


I’ve just written out the rules about recovering the Heart of Ashes – the signature relic that everyone is ostensibly searching for. It is probably the heart of Seven Flames, the last connection his spirit has to this world (horcrux style). Once recovered, it could unify or destroy the land, bring about or prevent the second apocalypse. No one knows the extent of its power, really, they just know that it has power.

Below are the rules about retrieving it. They’re also listed on  Page 3f: Improving.

Finding the Heart of Ashes

If you improve so that you have 3 skills that are at “+4″, you are now able to find the Heart of Ashes. You can do it right away, or whenever feels natural. You don’t need to search for it or anything – all you have to do is declare that you find it, and how.  What is the Heart of Ashes? That’s part of what you decide when you declare it.

It’s fine to say that:

  • You suddenly realize that YOU are the Heart of Ashes, and have the power to welcome Seven Flames into your heart or take your own life to dispel him from the world forever.
  • You stumble across a weird lump of ash, that glows this purple glow. No one else sees it yet, and you’ve got a decision to make!
  • The heart of ashes is actually the left eye of the Scarecrow Statue, and it’s been hiding in plain sight all along.
  • etc, etc

When you find the Heart of Ashes, you choose what to do with it, and what happens as a result. The game doesn’t end there though, nor does the heart protect you from the consequences of your choices. It does, however, count as a new Power (and you choose what it does, and when it costs).


  • When you have 3 skills at +4, you can recover the Heart of Ashes.
  • You choose where it is, how you recover it, and what that means.
  • You choose what you do with it, and what happens as a result.
  • The Heart of Ashes counts as a new Power, and you decide what it does and when it costs.
  • This doesn’t end the game.
  • The Heart won’t protect you from the consequences of these choices.


How do you feel about these rules?
Are they clear?
Would you feel a big burden of responsibility if, after a few sessions of play, you recovered the heart and had to make these decisions?

What would you make the Hearts’ power be?!?!???!?!?!? (I realize that the best answers would be contingent on what had happened in play, and that without context the answers might be less awesome, but I still want to know!)

Pages, Pages!

•June 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Hey, along the right-hand side of this website is the “living rulebook” for Heart of Ashes. Well, it’s starting to come alive, right now.

In the past couple days, I’ve written pages 2, 3a, 3b & 3c. That’s the “stuff that’s permanent in the setting” and some of the game’s rules.

Check it out! What makes sense? What doesn’t? What’s exciting? What’s worrisome?
Post your thoughts here, not there, if you wouldn’t mind!

Where do you hang your keys?

•June 9, 2010 • 1 Comment


I’m thinking a lot about the physical aspects of the game right now: the materials used, the way material components interact. Part of this is because the game currently has lots of physical components, making it difficult to step beyond the prototyping stage without some streamlining.
My big concern is with keys. Let me walk you through how it currently works. You have a character sheet. It’s roughly 5″x7″.
You then have cards for all of your keys. There are Key Cards that are the size of playing cards, and you take a new one and write your key on it every time you buy a new key.
So, you have a character sheet and 1-6 (on average) Key Cards.
You also have Powers, which are also on cards. So you have 1-4 Powers (on average) sitting there, too.

So, next to your character sheet, you have somewhere around 2-10 cards, all laid out.
Too cumbersome?
Is there a way to represent Powers and Keys that’s less disposable?

Thought: Have a bigger character sheet, with room to write them in.
Pros: fewer cards and pieces of paper flying around
Cons: you’ll have to write & erase on the same space, over and over again… it doesn’t look as pretty… it’d require a big sheet. 2 page character sheet, probably.

Re-sparking the Flames

•June 7, 2010 • 9 Comments

Alright, after several successful games of Heart of Ashes at Gamestorm, I suddenly stopped working on the project.

Which is strange, because I was having lots and lots of success. I think the game components didn’t work exactly like I’d imagined they would, and I’d already become married to my perfect little vision of the game. So, perhaps there’s a lesson that I’m in the process of learning, there: stay flexible, don’t commit too heavily, be prepared to give your darlings makeovers as often as necessary.

So, here’s where I’m moving, with some different game components…

Visual: I am going to toy around with a very different visual style, for the character sheet and cards – crisp lines, twisty images, more iconic and solid. I like what I created, but I also want to play around with options, and resist the urge to “lock myself in” to something too early.

Physical: I’m contacting printers about the possibility of printing element cards (the cards that describe setting elements, list their stats and list their world keys). I imagine them being the size of postcards, which means that they’re a much bigger headache than custom playing cards are. Custom playing cards are actually pretty reasonable and affordable to print on POD nowadays. Last night, though, I came up with a neat realization – a 5″x7″ card is the same size as 4 playing cards placed together in a square. So depending how printers lay out and cut cards, doing up some 5″x7″ Element Cards might be feasible/doable. Fingers crossed.

Art: I’m in contact with a friend of mine in Vancouver, who is a wicked guy and a cool artist. I’m hoping that he’ll be able to do art for Element Cards, and for the game in general.

Distribution: I had a fun idea! The main game consists of: a 5″x7″ rulebook, some 5″x7″ character sheets, and the basic set of Element Cards, of which there are 40-75 (also 5″x7″). Then, occasionally develop expansion sets – Undersea Empire, Wizard School, etc. Release them as blister-packs of Element Cards (perhaps 20-35 cards in an expansion). The idea tickles me.

Text: I’m starting to write the living rulebook pages in earnest this evening.

Rules: Shadows need more guidelines and structure, as do conflict generation in general. I’m going to think more about how to structure these things effectively, and post some ideas on Thursday.

Playtesting: Once I’ve got the notes up, I’m going to be calling for playtesters. Expect that call to go out before the end of the month, ideally within two weeks. I’ll provide all playtest groups with phone call check-ins, and I’ll be awarding all of them with some seekrit surprises at some point too.


•March 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

So, I ran Heart of Ashes about 2.5 times at Gamestorm this weekend. That “.5” was for a single-player game that lasted about 2 hours. It essentially felt more like a tech demo than a full on game.

I learned a lot about the game, much of which I am really stoked on.

First of all, I realized that in order to build meaningful Shadows, you need to introduce players to conflict quickly. That means dumping them into a place with lots of potential conflict and opposed factions – like The City, or a Town. The games where I introduced characters in the woods… failed to deliver the same sort of “oomph!” early on.

Second of all, I learned that the difference between a proactive player and a reserved player is that one will take XP, reinvest it into new Keys, and be hella mechanically powerful in a matter of moments. This is also true in Shadow of Yesterday, but it is very pronounced in Heart of Ashes (partially due to the fact that I’ve simplified advancement, and in doing so made skill-creep happen much quicker).

Third of all, I learned that in one session, you won’t be able to hit upon the “meta-plot” of the game (the meta-plot being: Seven Flames is returning to this world, and his second coming depends upon the heart of ashes, and you’ll retrieve it when you have three skills at +4). Which, like, is fine. In a single session, having a single conflict arc is sufficient. In a multi-session game, you’ll want to have that “ultimate goal” endgame mechanic more. So, I think this point is fine.

Fourth of all, I realized that there is still too much writing going on in the game, and that I need to figure out how to reduce it.

I’ll be posting thoughts on the game, and the world… soon.

Right now, I just wanted to debrief. I watched the Labyrinth last night, and am about to watch Dark Crystal. Peace!

Renown, and a bit of source material review

•March 24, 2010 • 4 Comments

So, there’s one component of the character sheet (check the last post) that I haven’t begun to explain yet. That’s the section that says “Renown”.

Renown is a reflection of the role that you are understood to play in the shaping of the otherworld. One possible Renown is “king of the underdogs,” and another is “troublemaker” and another is “the boy who can eat anything”.

Mechanically, it’s quite simple: if you act like an X, or you say you’re an X, or you challenge an X for their role, someone can declare that you’ve just earned the Renown of X. You record it in the Renown section, and whenever it would help you win a test, you get +1 success to that test (with a max of one Renown per test).

So, when you try to fill a social role, someone can declare that you’ve earned the Renown of being that social role. And that’s awesome, because it makes it easier for you to continue to fill that role. It also means people expect you to be able to do certain things, because of your Renown – things which you aren’t necessarily capable of. The “king” gets lots of excellent treatment, but people expect him to solve their problems. The “master of thieves” gets lots of cred, but she’s suddenly expected to protect all of the greasy, grimy thieves in the otherworld.

You can lose a Renown by disappointing the social role, through play. So when someone comes to you with “king-related” problems, you can refuse to help them, or admit that you aren’t a king, and cross off that Renown. But, until you actually fail to live up to your Renown, it’s on your sheet. Someone says it, you write it.

When you’ve already got 2 Renown, you can’t be given any new ones. That means that you have to disappoint the already existing expectations of your character, in order to develop new ones. It’s similar to Personal Keys in that way, but is about role and not personality.

Some more example Renown, plucked from source material:

  • King, from Where the Wild Things Are (especially the movie). Max declares that he is king, as a way of establishing that he shouldn’t be eaten by the wild things. He becomes their king! Everything is really good! And then, he is actually expected to resolve real, deep-seated problems that undermine their community. He has to contend with real relationships, real histories and real danger. Ultimately, he renounces his Renown, and leaves.
  • The Chosen One, from the Harry Potter series. Harry is known to be the one person to have survived Voldemort’s attacks in the past. Now that Voldemort is poised to return to the world, all eyes are on Harry. He faces the impossibly large burden of the otherworld’s hope, despite having just entered that world. He deals with this Renown in lots of weird ways, some of which are pretty problematic.
  • The Teacher’s Pet, Hermoine from the Harry Potter series. This gets played with in interesting ways, a couple times throughout the series, but is a steadfast role that Hermoine feels she has to live up to.
  • Bearer of the Golden Compass, from The Golden Compass (I’ve only seen the movie). Since Lyra holds the Golden Compass, she feels a lot of the weight of responsibility for fighting back against The Magisterium, who’ve tried to silence the truth about dust, as well as her family’s research. Although “Bearer of the Golden Compass” doesn’t seem to mean much at a glance, it implies a host of expectations, needs that others turn to Lyra to fulfill.

The way these work in play is that someone else declares your Renown (in a free, “just say it” fashion). So, Max declaring that he was a King in Where the Wild Things Are didn’t matter until they responded by validating that social role.

Renown differs from Keys in several major ways: appointed by others, useful towards tests, focused on social role, dependent on others validating a social role (initially and ongoing).

Currently, GM’s can declare Renown just like other players.


  • Clearly explained?
  • Any questions or concerns about how it will work in play?
  • Should I make guidelines to how many Renown a GM can declare (ex. 1 of 2 can be given by the GM), or have it be wide open?

Let’s get visual, get visual!

•March 22, 2010 • 9 Comments

The first attempt.

Let’s get physical, get physical.

•March 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment


in preparation for Gamestorm (where I’ll be running Heart of Ashes on both Friday and Saturday), I’ve been preparing the physical components of Heart of Ashes. In other words, I’ve been sinking countless hours into inDesign, even though that’s getting well ahead of myself.

I thought now would be a good time to walk through all of the physical/tactile components of Heart of Ashes, and explain how they work together to make the game run, on a physical level.

The material components of the game consist of:

  • Regular Dice
  • Risk/Authority Dice
  • World Keys
  • Personal Keys
  • Powers
  • Curses
  • Experience Points
  • Character Sheets
  • Element Cards

That’s a long list. Alarmingly long, in fact. Let’s break it down and see how it works.

Every player-character has a Character Sheet. It contains a section for character info (Name, Description, What Are You Carrying?), a matrix of skills for the player to fill in, a spot to record Risk Threshhold, a spot to record Renown, and “slots” to place cards on (one each for: World Keys, Personal Keys and Powers). It’s currently a 8×11.5 sheet.

Each player-character starts with one Personal Key and one Power. There are a collection of 12 pre-made PK’s and 12 pre-made Powers, so each player just has to select one of each. For example, I might select “Brave” and “Shadow Jumping”, pick up those cards, and plunk them down on the indicated spots on my character sheet.

There are the 12 pre-made Personal Keys, as well as a nice thick stack of blank Personal Keys. There are the 12 pre-made Powers, and a smallish stack of blank Powers. Finally, there is a big stack of blank World Keys.

There is a big pile of Experience Points (I’m using little wooden beads, but I’d also endorse glass beads or poker chips) in the middle of the table.

Everyone, including the GM, has 3 Regular dice in front of them. There’s a pile of Risk/Authority dice in the centre.

The GM has a little stack of blank Curses! cards, and a stack of Element Cards (mostly filled out, with a couple blank ones).

So, that’s the set-up at the beginning of the game. It sounds like a lot of stuff, but I think it’s manageable. Players have a character sheet, with cards stacked on it, and 3 Regular Dice (they’ll accumulate XP later). The GM has 3 Regular Dice, blank Curses, and Element Cards. The middle of the table has XP, Keys & Powers, and Risk Dice.


One job for the GM is to introduce the elements of the world. While she is free to make them up as she goes, that’s a lot of work! Especially because the players won’t bite on every one. So, it’s expected she’ll depend on Element Cards. Each includes a group/leader/monsters/location in the world, and gives it: about 50-75 words of description, a block of skills (Adults have: Reason, Control, Attack, Trick), an Authority Index (a range determining how many Authority Dice they get, and what conditions get them their maximum), and the information for their World Key.

The GM takes out an Element Card and runs with it. If anyone wants to, they can buy that element’s World Key. Doing so means they take a blank World Key and copy down the relevant info from the Element Card (25-40 words).

Playing your Keys, as a player, earns you 1 XP for each time you nail a script. So, when you do so, you grab an XP (wooden bead) from the middle of the table, and place it next to your character sheet. You can spend XP (2 for a World Key, 3 for anything else) to get a new Power or Key. Take it, fill it in, and put it on the relevant spot on your sheet.

When a Shadow falls, the GM might put a Curse! on you. If she does, she just fills in the Curse card and hands it to you. You can keep it with your Powers, on that slot on your character sheet.

So, the GM just cycles through the Element Cards that she enjoys. The ones that get optioned, stay out (and the player copies down a World Key from it). The players grab XP from the middle of the table, and trade it back in for Keys & Powers & other advances. Curses might get handed out when a Shadow falls. Playesr accumulate Risk Dice as they gain Risk, and those dice sit in front of them until returned to the centre.

That’s how the game works, physically. Make sense?
I plan to get some diagrams up once I have my lovely, lovely props printed out.