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Author Topic: [Deathbird Black] Ronnies feedback  (Read 8138 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: February 12, 2011, 06:40:50 PM »

Deathbird Black by Baxil is priceless! Ever since reading [Middle Earth - home brew] 1st day in July 4 week of play, I've wanted to see a frenzied and fun group-hollerin' game without it being so ... well, here's my take on that: [Middle Earth - home brew] 2nd day in July 4th '06 week of play, fair or unfar as God above may judge. Here, I may have found the functional version I've been looking for, or at least its first draft.

In fact, 90% of the reason this gets a Ronny is because I said, "I have got to try this," and then finding there weren't any actual roadblocks in the explanations toward that end. The other 10% is that the terms fit like a glove. Mephiscawpheles cracked me up, with the direct result that I am already shopping for a fun stuffed bird toy and racking my brain to come up with a pun even half as clever.

Thinking about that older thread helps me clue into what matters most in this design to me. First, in playing, people will know that they're spoofing rather than infantilized nipple-sucking, and so it'll be fun to dance between being ridiculous but also staying with the genre enough to be a genuine spoof. Second, throwing the dice around like that openly flies in the face of * a common gamer mindset which I myself struggle against hopelessly, the fetishizing of dice and carefully keeping every last personal die separate and sacred from every die of different type and color during play, let alone (horrors) touching someone else's die. Throw it? You mean, like, through the air? And finally, most importantly,

Now for the issues. ("Issues, issues, I'm sick of issues!" "Gesundheit.")** Plus my completely unsolicited suggestions.

1. I think the GM's social and creative identity bears deep reconsideration. As I see it, the role is strictly logistic, not overseeing the narrative at all. As GM, I would merely monitor what happens, shift spotlight to keep everyone in it fairly, scene-frame to cut to the interaction and decision points of interest based on what was just stated, and play NPCs with fervor and fun. And bring in the Deathbird. I'd have no responsibility re: outcomes whatsoever! And in line with that, I think all the GM's story nanny rules need to get junked, fast.

- get rid of the GM veto regarding the contribution of the player to one's right
- get rid of judging shifting blame - if the person does it with a straight face, they shift it, period
- get rid of the extra point for most awesome finale

2. There is way too much prep and depth, in story-character terms - let stuff be organic. For instance, get rid of the complication aspect of the goal and let your flaw complicate things. And yeah, I understand how you explain that they're supposed to be different, but I don't buy it. A person I pick to play this game with me will happily integrate his or her character's flaw and goal with at least one other player-character without fail, without the GM having to keep track of who's stated a plan or done whatever for every single other person playing. The characters are potato chips, and the game is for people who get it, so there's no need to lay out formal place settings and light the candles like that.

Remove the hardboiled private eye character! Play already features one, and he does up the Guy Noir Private Eye thing quite brown as it is, even if he is a cop rather than a P.I.

3. The "make the GM laugh" thing for the extra dice AND the voting for best contribution at the end - I hated both of these on reading and still do. However, considering that I laughed out loud reading the rest of the rules, I reconsidered on the former, and I'm willing to see the latter in action before considering it an actual flaw. So they're both issues, but whether for me alone, or on the basis of actual function, is unknown. I can talk more about why I dislike such things so strongly if you're interested, and I'm definitely interested in any practical experience of yours which indicates these techniques might be successful.

Looking this post over, it seems so terse. I'd like to write more. Baxil, let me know if there's anything you want to see discussed.

Best, Ron

* I am funny! Caw, caw!
** Alison Bechdel, Dykes to Watch Out For
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whduryea
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« Reply #1 on: February 12, 2011, 07:27:12 PM »

3. The "make the GM laugh" thing for the extra dice AND the voting for best contribution at the end - I hated both of these on reading and still do. 

This game was full of so many different mechanical bits and pieces, enough for maybe five or ten different games, so it's pretty amazing that there was only one that I didn't like: the endgame voting mechanic. There were two main reasons I'm not digging this mechanic:

1. It seems totally superfluous. The game already has a natural, intuitive means to determine a winner: the points accumulated during play. Turning those points into a voting currency seems to be unnecessary at best, and at worst it undermines the drive to accumulate points during the game.

2. I've seen "vote on who offered the best contribution and they get a reward" mechanics used in games before, and the results in play have been awful. These mechanics can turn a lighthearted, fun game into a desperate grab for personal affirmation or at least it creates the possibility for hurt feelings. Goofy fun and role-playing assessment just don't seem to go hand in hand.

I've also seen laughter based mechanics, and those have actually been a lot of fun, particularly in hectic slapstick games like this one. (I would give examples, but neither of the two games that I've seen use laughter mechanics are available as published games. Both were silly parody games masquerading as serious topical RPGs where staying in character and forcing back laughter were objectives.)
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: February 12, 2011, 07:34:25 PM »

Oh, how ridiculous! I totally forgot to complete this sentence:

Quote
And finally, most importantly,

... talk about your psych-out moment. Sorry about that, Baxil.

"And finally, most importantly, a functional but not parental or patronizing role for the GM, which also rotates among the group."

Best, Ron
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David Berg
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« Reply #3 on: February 12, 2011, 07:51:19 PM »

On the "reward laughter" issue, Super Action Now! is a good test case, as that's it's primary reward mechanism.  In my playtest thread, one player summed up our experience:

"The best parts weren't when we specifically tried to make each other laugh.  The funniest stuff just happened . . . when we just played the characters and used the stuff on our sheets . . . and it was funny in the situation at that moment."

With something riding on deliberate attempts at hilarity, it felt awkward to laugh, and awkward not to.  Other SAN! play reports mentioned no such problems, though, so there must be ways around this.
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Nathan P.
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« Reply #4 on: February 12, 2011, 08:16:12 PM »

A counter to Ron's point 1: Does there need to be a formal GM? I'm envisioning a setup where anyone can bring in the Deathbird whenever they think it's appropriate (perhaps with some kind of hard limit, like each person can only do it once until everyone has done it), and then the player of the murdered character plays the detective in the ensuing scene. Bonus dice could come from making the table as a whole laugh. Simple scene rotation around the table could share the spotlight roughly equally (and if you don't feel like you're getting enough time, bring in the Deathbird!), and so on.

I agree that the GM's role seems largely logistic, so my reaction to that is to recommend abandoning it entirely!
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Nathan P.
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Elizabeth
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« Reply #5 on: February 12, 2011, 08:21:23 PM »

Joshua Newman and I once playtested a mechanic in a (meant to be) humorous game. The rule was that the scene wasn't over until it was funny enough to make someone laugh.

That was years ago, and remains in my top three most painful RPG experiences of my life.
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whduryea
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« Reply #6 on: February 12, 2011, 08:44:10 PM »

I wonder if part of the reason why I enjoyed laughter-based mechanics while others found them excruciating is that I was playing games with mechanics about trying not to laugh while others were playing games about trying to make others laugh. The latter does seem like it has the potential to be very awkward, since nothing kills a joke like self-consciousness and  an audience that is actively analyzing it to determine whether it is funny or not.

That said, I think Deathbird Black might sidestep this problem, if only because it is such a busy game. There is so much going on at any given moment that the GM is unlikely to be thinking about whether or not (s)he should be laughing, which in turn makes spontaneous laughter possible.
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Baxil
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« Reply #7 on: February 13, 2011, 05:04:30 AM »

Wow! A lot of great discussion already.  I'm going to beg for a little patience on everyone's part; my wife's laptop motherboard just melted down, so we're sharing a computer for the foreseeable future.  And tomorrow is gaming night, which means playtesting opportunities but less Internet time.

Before I start responding to any of the points brought up ... I feel like I should start with the gaming background that informs DBB's design.  It turned into an essay and I moved it into Actual Play.

It's kind of necessary, because I read lines like,
A person I pick to play this game with me will happily integrate his or her character's flaw and goal with at least one other player-character without fail
and I'm all "wow, you get to pick who to game with?"  I feel a bit like the guy who's all proud of the fact his first cell phone sends text messages, and you're showing me your iPad.

So I'm really looking forward to other people's playtesting, because I have absolutely no idea how a game like mine would run if five or six of me were to sit down with it.

I'll have to directly respond to the posts here later - it's late o'clock.
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Baxil
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« Reply #8 on: February 14, 2011, 07:46:31 PM »

I'll start with Ron's point 3, re the "reward laughter" and "vote for winner" mechanics, because that's where most discussion seems to be happening.

For over a decade now, my TOON game has had a house rule of, "If stating an action makes the GM laugh, it succeeds."  My (subjective) experience with this has been uniformly positive across three cities and 15+ PCs.*  On reflection, I think whduryea's point is illuminating.  The audience (the other players) does not need to analyze or be self-conscious, because their reaction doesn't produce in-game rewards.  The target (the GM) is playing an adversarial role - laughing hamstrings the GM's narrative response, so analysis needs to go no deeper than "don't laugh unless they break you".

I think that for someone to have that adversarial (instead of analytic) role, they have to be disconnected from the reward cycle.  Which makes the GM a natural arbiter.  Incidentally, that disconnection drove my decision to rotate GMing duties - and because of that rotation, Deathbird Black is more of an edge case here.  I think it will still work, though, and I eagerly await other groups' playtest feedback here.**

It's telling that nobody had the same knee-jerk reaction to Shifting the Blame, which is the same "reward laughter" mechanic flipped on its head.

The rule was that the scene wasn't over until it was funny enough to make someone laugh.

(wince)

To my credit, I specifically mention that Deathbirding should be used to mercy-kill painful scenes.  So, yes, general agreement: forced laughter is bad.  Like, scarring-level bad.  I'm going to file that one under "abusive game design", and hope that - like with Gamism and the worse Hardcore behaviors - people can acknowledge the line between that and its less harmful cousin.

* * *

As for the voting mechanism ...

That was stolen straight from Baron Munchhausen.  I'll note that its inclusion is a very personal thing based on my gaming history and personality; I dig Gamism (as Deathbird Black will show) but am painfully avoidant of people and games who crank up the Step On Up dial.  Nothing kills a game faster for me than turning the results into a statement on player value.  I've got weird boundaries here - I can't stand chess but love Go, for example; and the difference is entirely that Go provides a handicap which allows two people of different skill levels to have an even game.  (Therefore, your metagame is playing against yourself to increase your handicap, instead of getting better than your opponents.  Withholding rant on this now.)

When I've seen voting in operation in Munchhausen, it has been casual and positive - I like that it provides a specific callback to the awesome moments of the game, as everyone lists their favorite memories, and that it forces everyone to say something nice about another player's contributions.  A lot of deserving people get passed over, because you're constrained to giving your votes to a single player, but even that helps reduce hard feelings, because it seems like everyone understands that the rules force all-at-once allocation, so "zero votes" merely means "not first place".  Routinely, players will call out a few people they wish they could have recognized, or highlight the best moments from a player that was otherwise mediocre.  In hindsight, this sounds like good Social Contract to me, and I could see how this might turn sour with a bad Social Contract, so I'm curious for what has happened to others.

In Munchhausen, voting was a necessary component to turn the currency system (coins) into a viable reward mechanic (votes); without it, there was an incentive against engaging in the coin spending that drives play.  In Deathbird, the game functions without it - but at a very different level.

I drew up a chart of the reward system ... please correct me if I got anything wrong, and tell me if there's anything in the design (or the wording of the voting mechanism) that undercuts it.

http://tomorrowlands.org/gaming/deathbird-rewards.gif

Being funny might not be the only influence on receiving votes - but the voting mechanism brings comedy into the reward cycle, rather than having it be a byproduct of play. 

I'm open to arguments that this is a bad thing***, but my instinct is that in a comedy game, that's appropriate.

- Bax

--
* Here's a specific recent example (and for once, I wasn't GMing).  Our TOON characters were fighting a giant robotic space pig.  J., who was playing the Old Spice Guy, invoked a custom Shtick based on his character's concept: "Look down at the ground.  Now back at me.  Now down to the ground.  Now back to me.  I'm piloting a Hyperion-class battlecruiser."  M. cracked up amid cries of "DAMN YOU, J.!", and seeing him laugh, everyone began cheering madly.  That was a crowning Gamism moment in terms of coolness value (and scene Color), but didn't have an outsized impact on character effectiveness (if you haven't played TOON, trust me on this, a bucket of chocolate sauce can have a bigger gameplay effect than a space warship).  Actually, that brings up another point: Maybe laughter mechanics only work when the stakes are small.  In Deathbird's case, having a one-die throwing bonus once per scene seems to me just big enough to make it worth attempting, while not making it so integral that everyone feels compelled to force it.
** Due to various issues, I've had to push back my own testing, but I have a game scheduled Thursday.
*** From anyone, especially Ron, who has already offered.
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Baxil
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« Reply #9 on: February 16, 2011, 06:13:08 PM »

Regarding GM identity and necessity (Ron's point 1):

1. I think the GM's social and creative identity bears deep reconsideration. As I see it, the role is strictly logistic, not overseeing the narrative at all. As GM, I would merely monitor what happens, shift spotlight to keep everyone in it fairly, scene-frame to cut to the interaction and decision points of interest based on what was just stated, and play NPCs with fervor and fun. And bring in the Deathbird. I'd have no responsibility re: outcomes whatsoever! And in line with that, I think all the GM's story nanny rules need to get junked, fast.

- get rid of the GM veto regarding the contribution of the player to one's right
- get rid of judging shifting blame - if the person does it with a straight face, they shift it, period
- get rid of the extra point for most awesome finale

This is fantastic feedback, because my vision all along has been to have the GM be an impartial arbiter and coordinator with a few light Color duties (scene framing, NPCs).  Very similar to what you describe!  The "story nanny" roles that you point out are a product of 24-hour design and vision creep.  Now that you point it out, I agree that "judge Shifting Blame" and "award point for finale" don't fit that vision and I'll be writing them out.

(I'm toying with the idea of awarding points to all survivors of the finale, as a reverse incentive to encourage killing each other.  But the scene would work without it, so, KISS.)

I am not sure I'm ready to let go of the Complication veto, but I need to drastically restate the rule in line with what I meant it to be.  My goal with that rule is, if the Player To Right says "Complication X!" and Original Player says "That sucks!" then the GM plays tie-breaker.  They should not get to overrule PTR (or anyone's creativity) except to resolve disputes.  Is that in line with the GM role you pictured, or do you still think I should remove their judicial powers?

A counter to Ron's point 1: Does there need to be a formal GM?

Nathan, you raise a good point, and given the rules you state, it sounds plausible.  I'm going to take a guess and say that most people on this board could play Deathbird Black GM-less.  But to me it would be tough. 

... Actually, the main objection to GM-less play was covered in my comment above - how do you measure "make the GM laugh" for bonus dice?  If everyone's got a character in play, and there's nobody impartial to target with that rule, then everyone's laughter becomes tactical.  My instinct is that that detracts.

If you think there's a way around that, or don't think it's going to make a difference, I'd love to hear about it.  There's certainly room to put an optional GM-less conversion in the back of the rules.

2. There is way too much prep and depth, in story-character terms - let stuff be organic. For instance, get rid of the complication aspect of the goal and let your flaw complicate things. And yeah, I understand how you explain that they're supposed to be different, but I don't buy it. A person I pick to play this game with me will happily integrate his or her character's flaw and goal with at least one other player-character without fail, without the GM having to keep track of who's stated a plan or done whatever for every single other person playing. The characters are potato chips, and the game is for people who get it, so there's no need to lay out formal place settings and light the candles like that.

I hear what you're saying ... ugh.  I'm on the fence.  I'm going to see how Complications work out in tomorrow's playtest.  The more detail you have to collaborate on, the more play slows down.  But Complications provide a useful option.  In the current rules, in order to roll, you can EITHER team up with someone to get past your Flaw, OR backstab someone to get past your Complication.  (The other one is narrated past when your roll succeeds.)  Without that, if nobody wants to help you, you're in a corner.

And I keep coming back to the "the game is for people who get it" line ... is it really?  That's an honest question and I'd like some feedback.  One of the great strengths of a comedy game should be its accessibility - no commitment, easy rules, sit down and laugh, you don't have to be an expert gamer to contribute.  On the other hand, I'm clueless here - has its existence as an indie RPG already preselected its target market?  Is there anything about it that will keep novices away?

P.S.:
Ron, you'd also asked if there was anything else I wanted to see discussed - I do have another few questions (like the potential comedy/noir mood whiplash, and whether that might be a factor of abashed design), but I know there are a number of other Ronnies threads that still need to be started, so I'll sit on them for now.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: February 16, 2011, 06:16:56 PM »

Hey Baxil,

I'll do my best to hurry back to all this, because I am brimming with responses, but the weekend was pretty tough for completing Ronnies stuff and I feel bad for the authors whose games I haven't posted about yet. I'll be back after I work off some of the karmic burden.

Best, Ron
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Baxil
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« Reply #11 on: February 16, 2011, 06:20:51 PM »

Understood and agreed.  Thanks for checking in.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: February 19, 2011, 11:32:46 AM »

Hi Baxil,

Your TOON house rule has some parallels in games found around the Forge. One is Sorcerer, in which a bonus die is gained for ... well, anything positive concerning the timing or content of the player's delivery. When played correctly, i.e., without premeditation and therefore the GM's job is to spot it when it happens, it works really well. This rule became the basis for Fanmail, a popular technique in the game Primetime Adventures, in which any player (not the GM) can award any other player's input wth a bonus card on an unspecified basis of "I like that."

The core of such techniques, yours included, appears to what I mentioned about Sorcerer and exactly what William said and you agreed with - the second this turns into whoring for bonuses without inspiration or engagement, it tanks. In looking over the texts and play practices with rules like this, I think the distinction that jumps out at me is between, say, "Make the GM laugh" vs. "When the GM laughs." I think the former sucks donkey dick, and I do not think your idea to tell the GM to make them work for it is a good one. I think it's better to say, you know, it's pretty likely everyone will be rolling two dice, most of the time, and this is a great and fun reflection of how genuinely funny we're being, full stop. I don't really think this particular piece of Deathbird Black should be competitive, or maybe a little if it goes that way, but not played strictly competitively.

Your point about the adversarial (I think it's not quite that in this case but OK), but not rewarded role of the GM parallels the role in the two games I mentioned. Humanity changes for NPCs do not have the same consequences as for PCs in Sorcerer; the GM does not get fanmail in PTA. Rotating the GM strikes me as a good idea of allowing everyone's personal standards to be applied at one point or another, and also to take away some of the heat and difficulty of fulfilling that role throughout the game.

I don't think anyone here has posted to say, "Don't do this," but rather to say, "When we did something like it, it didn't work," merely as data and an opportunity to examine when it does and doesn't work.

I think I've answered the question about why I hate such rules in many cases, and also why my final call was to see how it goes before laying that judgment on the design.

I'm similarly willing to see how the voting goes when I try the game. Here, it's a tough sell for me. I happen to think Baron Munchausen (the game) is poorly designed, which I wrote about most recently in [Dreamation 2008] Troublesome Munchausen.  But Deathbird Black is a different game, and I'm interested to see whether your boundaries, and positive experiences with Munchausen, translate into your system design in a way which people like me will find enjoyable after all.

For the record, my hatred for voting rules in most RPGs is simple: it becomes a social shuttlecock to negate the position of the player who's clearly gained more ground than everyone else in the other mechanics of the game. Here I'm talking about winning-type games, but the point also applies to those games in which everyone votes for MVP that session to see who gets the bonus experience point. and not a game mechanic at all. An important exception is One Can Have Her, a Ronny winner from 2005, where the difference is that you're voting regarding a character, not a player, and characters meeting grim fates is part of the fun.

You wrote,

Quote
And I keep coming back to the "the game is for people who get it" line ... is it really?  That's an honest question and I'd like some feedback.  One of the great strengths of a comedy game should be its accessibility - no commitment, easy rules, sit down and laugh, you don't have to be an expert gamer to contribute.  On the other hand, I'm clueless here - has its existence as an indie RPG already preselected its target market?  Is there anything about it that will keep novices away?

I think you've perceived the wrong dichotomy in my point. I am emphatically not talking about expert gamers vs. those new to gaming. I am talking about people who get the humor of Deathbird Black upon very little exposure to the color and rules of the game, vs. people who don't ... and that distinction is entirely independent of experience with role-playing games.

Perhaps that clarification helps. Let's think about any comedy game, especially a non-RPG, especially one with a good fun design, famous for being easily picked up and played. You probably have a list of these in your head, so pick one. One of my favorites are the card games Guillotine and the original version of Give Me the Brain, but we can just as well be talking about certtain mainstream board games. For any of these, I submit that my point still holds. The virtue of these games is not that anyone can immediately get it and be turned on to play, but that (i) the humor is honestly funny enough to appeal to a lot of people, and (ii) if you do get it, it pays off very well both in presentation and also in the first substantial encounter with the rules.

So my statement about people who get it, for Deathbird Black, is in just those terms. Let me know if that seems more sensible to you.

Final thought: if you do stay with the publishing vision for the game, would you consider designing and selling a custom stuffed bird mascot for play? I'd buy it.

Best, Ron
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Baxil
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« Reply #13 on: February 28, 2011, 12:55:45 AM »

Just a quIck note; I had been delaying replying to this until I was able to get my gaming group together for a first playtest. Then game night got snowed out, two weeks in a row. I finally convinced the GM of my other campaign to sacrifice a week, and we played tonight with me + 5.

A lot of the issues from this thread ended up coming up in practice as well - but I'll move that discussion to Actual Play, tomorrow after work. (By far the most major, glaring issue was prep time for new characters; after some initial discussion, we played without Complications, and STILL generating Goals felt like half our play time. Drastic action there is called for. The issue that Complications were designed to address - a character getting stuck trying to work a Flaw in - did occur several times, so I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water.)

I'll reply to the specific points raised here after some sleep. I will also work on revision 3 now that I have some practical feedback on Rules As Written.
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Baxil
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« Reply #14 on: March 03, 2011, 01:26:11 AM »

Just to let everyone know: Playtest post now up in Actual Play.  (Yay!  My next goal is version Alpha-3 to incorporate those revisions.)

Ron, I've addressed most of the current discussion there re: humor and voting.  Thanks for the clarification on "the people who get it" - that is sensible and I have little to reply.

Like you, I'm a little shocked at how difficult it is to find a good crow stuffed animal - I ended up getting a cardinal, on the grounds that red and black is a perfectly demonic color scheme. 

What gives me cold feet about Official Deathbird Blackbirds™ is that ordering and stocking stuffed animals sounds like it's going to require lots of time, money, and salesmanship beyond simply getting the game into publication.  I don't think stuffed animals can POD the way an RPG book can, and I'm not in a position to jump into small-business retail.  (My wife is a caterer, and all our spare cash is going toward her startup.)  Any suggestions?
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