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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Entries in penny (7)


Two Years On

Wes Otis asks:

If you could go back, is there anything you would do different with A Penny For My Thoughts?

The short answer is “not really.” The long answer is in something I wrote recently for the Afterword of the Italian edition of Penny, which I just realized hasn’t been posted anywhere in English. So here it is:

It’s been almost two years since I finished writing the original edition of A Penny For My Thoughts. The publication of the Italian edition gives me the opportunity to look back at the book and the game with the additional perspective the passage of time affords me.

I think the book does what I want it to. There are few things I would change if I had to do it over — some of the steps in chapter two are too long and should have been broken down further — but enough people have been able to play the game without having me at the table that I’m happy with it. The comments I’ve read about how easy the game is to pick up and about how other games should aspire to the same clarity reassure me that I reached my goals as a writer.

I have been surprised by how many people have played the game and enjoyed it. Each story I have heard has reminded me why I wanted to publish it, rather than simply setting the design aside after Game Chef. I admit that I haven’t been able to support the game as well as I would like, particularly on places like RPGGeek.com. I’m grateful to a small group of dedicated fans has that stepped up to promote and support it. They’ve taken what I designed and made it their own. Every mention of Penny on a forum, on Twitter, or on Facebook makes me smile.

And now a story: A few months after Penny was published, my sister got married. While I was at my parents’ house for the wedding, my mother asked if we could try it out. So my mother, my father, my mother’s two sisters, and I played A Penny For My Thoughts around the kitchen table. Now, my family is about as far from being a group of gamers as you can get. But at the point where, at the beginning of the “pleasant” memory, my aunt Lynne asked her sister Hilve, “Was that just before you walked out into the street, were hit by a car, and lost your arm?” I knew the game worked. (She asked immediately afterward, “Are we supposed to make it hard for them?”)

That reinforced in my mind one of the underlying ideas in Penny, one that I didn’t see as clearly when I originally wrote it. We are instinctive story-builders. The natural pattern-matching process of our brains can’t help but assemble narratives out of events it encounters. It’s not just gamers that do this. That’s why Penny works when my parents play it with their friends. Non-gamers sometimes have an easier time playing Penny than gamers do, because they listen to this instinct with letting letting ideas like character ownership or “winning” get in their way. Penny works best when you trust these instincts.

Penny has exceeded every expectation I had for it. I never imagined winning the Indie RPG Award for Most Innovative Game. I couldn’t possible have believed a game I wrote would be translated into another language. It’s been a tremendously cool experience. Thank you for being a part of it.

On the subject of thanks, there are few I want to give. Thank you to Renato Ramonda for being one of the early supporters and playtesters of Penny. Thank you as well to Guilia Barbano, Flavio Mortarino, and the rest of the Janus Design crew for your interest and promotion of the game. Sorry I wasn’t able to make it to Milan last summer. We’ll have to try again. Thank you to Fred Hicks for continuing to handle the business side of keeping Penny in print. Deciding to work with you on this was one of the best publishing decisions I could have made, and I’m happy to continue to ride Evil Hat’s coattails. Finally, thank you to Ryan Macklin, my occasional partner in crime. This wouldn’t have happened without you. We should commit more crimes together.

Enough of my blathering. Go play!


Fitness: Rest day
Writing: 427 words, 277 average

For the Non-Italian Readers Out There

I’m extraordinarily humbled that the Italian edition of A Penny For My Thoughts is premiering this coming weekend at PLAY in Modena. As a lead up to this, Gioconomicon published an interview with metoday about it. Lest you think I speak Italian, here’s the original questions and answers:

  • Tell us something about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

I’m a thirty-something software engineer living and working in Santa Barbara, California. In addition to playing RPGs and board games, I love to cook, I’ve taught wine tasting classes, I’m a cycling fan, I used to do triathlons, and I’m getting back into running after a prolonged absence. My wife and I love to travel, which upsets our cats.

  • What’s your gamer history? How did you came to game design?

I started roleplaying with Red Box D&D, though I didn’t do a lot of playing in the early years. I read a lot gaming books, particularly the Dragonlance ones, but it wasn’t until after college that I started playing a lot. I was working at a software company when D&D 3e came out, so it was a great opportunity to get back into RPGs. From there I started going to conventions, working on the demo teams for Atlas Games and Steve Jackson Games.

In 2004 I attended GenCon for the first time. That was the year My Life with Master won the Diana Jones Award. I’d been a semi-regular reader on the Forge for a few months, so I bought MLwM and a bunch of other games at the Forge booth. That was really the gateway to game design for me.

  • Why did you write this game?

A Penny For My Thoughts was originally designed for the Game Chef 2007 competition. I hadn’t done Game Chef before; the timing and my enthusiasm for it just happened to coincide that year. I was actually on a ski trip with my wife’s company when the ingredient lists were announced and I didn’t have Internet access, so I had to call my friend Josh Roby (designer of Full Light, Full Steam; Sons of Liberty; and a primary contributor to the Smallville RPG) and have him read them to me. Many of the initial concepts were worked out in the back of a bus heading up to the ski resort.

  • Why did you choose to write the game as an “in-world” artifact? What challenges came from this decision? What rewards?

The root was probably a playtest for Ben Lehman’s The Drifter’s Escape that I was involved in. My friend Roy said that what he liked about that game was the sort of choices he had to make as a player were exactly the sort of choices his character had to make. I liked that idea, and I wanted to do the same sort of thing in Penny. Once I made the decision to make the procedures something that the characters in the fiction would be doing, it seemed natural to make the book an in-world artifact.

Executing it was tricky. The best choice that I made was to use Dr. Tompkins as my mouthpiece. By creating a character to write through in the active voice — rather than write a generic manual with unclear authorship — I made a lot of my job easier. There were, of course, things that I couldn’t have Tompkins talk about, so I compromised and put those in the last chapter. I think the book benefited from that decision; it’s much more compelling and sinister than it would be otherwise.

  • How did you develop the internal currency?

One of the ingredients from Game Chef was “currency” (the other two I used were “memory” and “drug”), so I knew I was going to have to use it somehow. The title was actually one of the first things that came to me (playing on the English expression “a penny for your thoughts”), which sparked the idea of using pennies.

Conceptually, I was thinking a lot about how the Fan Mail mechanic in Primetime Adventures makes other players’ approval of your actions concrete. I was also thinking about a game of The Mountain Witch we’d played recently. We’d used poker chips to represent Trust in the game, and when players wanted to increase their Trust in each other, I made them physically hand over the chip. I was interested in design something where most of the mechanics involved appealing to the interests of the other players, and the pennies provided a way to make that real.

  • Who did you write this game for?

I wrote it for myself. Game Chef was an experiment; I just wanted to try out some ideas. I got enough positive feedback from that process that I decided to try publishing it. Getting the book into print was another experiment. I learned a lot about designing, about writing, about publishing, and about myself, which was my real goal.

  • How was your development process? Has playtesting changed some fundamental part of the game?

It was long, mostly because I wrote slowly and I procrastinated a lot. The fundamental mechanics didn’t change during development, so they’re almost exactly the same as the Game Chef version. What playtesting did point out was a need to get people on the same page when starting out. Some playtests had a problem with everyone coming in with different and contradictory ideas about what sort of world they were in. That’s where the Facts & Reassurances document came from. It was a way to establish a few ground rules to keep things coherent. Of course, once my editor — Ryan Macklin — and I decided to add that element, we realized we could use it to do alternate settings. It let us turn a weakness into a strength, which made me quite happy.


Humorous Tales of OrcCon, Part 1

It's Friday. I'm trying to wrap up a few things at work before I head down to LA for OrcCon when I see that my friend Judd has IM'd me a link. I click on it and see this on Twitter:

wilw: @ptevis are you running Penny For My Thoughts at OrcCon tomorrow? Can I play if you are? Please please please pretty please?

Now, a bit of history: Wil and I were both Guests of Honor at RinCon last fall, and we ended up spending a reasonable amount of time together1. Wil was interested in Penny because there was a game of it going on2 during a D&D game he was running, and "it sounded like they were having a lot of fun." Sadly, our schedules didn't mesh that weekend, so he wasn't able to play in the game I ran3. He did buy a copy, however, and asked me to sign it for him4.

Back to Friday. I see the Tweet in question and reply in the affirmative. I had planned on stopping at home before I headed down to the con, which was a good thing, as I didn't have my demo kit with me. I finally got out of work late, made a quick stop to pick it up, and drove to Los Angeles. Saturday morning, however, I wasn't quite sure when Wil would be there or how we would meet up. Fortunately, I ran into Andrew Linstrom, who had seen the exchange on Twitter and came to the convention to meet me and for a chance to play Penny5. I ended up demoing a game design I'm working on for him, and when I was done, who should appear but Wil and his friend Cal. We made arrangements to meet after lunch and play.

So, we sit down in the lobby, and Wil says (roughly): "I emailed Andrew Hackard to figure out how to get in touch with you, and he suggested I just post something on my Twitter feed. So I did. Then I pulled up your feed in a tab and kept hitting reload to see if you'd reply. It was weird; I felt like some sort of Internet stalker."

We all just let that hang in air for a moment, and then we played6.



1 This was aided by the fact that I was rooming with Andrew Hackard, Wil's friend and editor, whom I had met through my past association with Steve Jackson Games.

2 Run by the incomparable JD Corley

3 Which actually turned out to be three separate games but I digress.

4 Cue the cognitive dissonance.

5 Yes, my ego is going just fine at this point.

6 The game turned out to be insane, full of hunchbacks, and a lot of fun.


Giving Penny And Giving Thanks For Penny

I've been overwhelmed by the number of positive mentions of Penny I've seen recently:

  • Jim Crocker, manager of Modern Myths in Northampton, MA, calls A Penny For My Thoughts one of his favorite games of the year. I know Jim doesn't praise things lightly, so this means a lot to me.
  • The Ogres over at OgreCave found room for Penny on their annual Christmas Gift Guide, in the Stocking Stuffer (i.e. less than $25) section. For the last seven or so Christmases, I've looked foward to this list. Finding my own game on it is an unexpected present.
  • There was at least one game of Penny at MACE in High Point, NC, that sounds like it was both gonzo and fun. Later on in that thread, Andy Kitkowksi talks thoughfully about his experience of the game, using words that make me happy.
  • And finally, the day before Thanksgiving, my mother called me and asked me to send her a PDF because she'd forgotten her copy at home. My parents were visiting friends in Plainview, TX, and on Thanksgiving Day they played Penny together and had a great time. This is pretty much the definition of win.

Dreamt Of In My Philosophy

Robin Laws posted on his Livejournal that he (along with several other folks I've met) played A Penny For My Thoughts on Wednesday night, and that in said game he played a fictionalized version of Paul Tevis, the author of A Penny For My Thoughts. My mind boggled at the idea that arguably the greatest roleplaying game designer working today not only played my game, but played me. There are stranger things Horatio, indeed.

Once I got over the initial disorientation, I thought about what Robin had to say about the game. To wit:

The game follows the common indie approach of asking a GM-less group to weave a story in response to a very specific and detailed series of rules structures. We experienced some confusion in identifying and following the structure. It might have benefited us to more strongly bring to mind the game's fictional framework of its memory-challenged group therapy session.

I've talked with Robin before about story structure and games, so I see where he's coming from with his observation about "the common indie approach." One thing his comment made me realize is that I've thought of Penny as different from most indie/story games in that its techniques of play aren't intended to create story. Yes, story can (and hopefully will) emerge from the process of play, but to me the focus it puts on the moment-to-moment interactions between people at the table is more important. When I was designing Penny, I thought of it more in social terms than in narrative ones. I suppose once the book is out my hands, it doesn't really matter what I think; what matters is what people get from it.

The other thing that I discovered from Robin's (quite valid) critique is that I'm worried about being judged as a game designer solely on Penny. It was a deliberately experimental game. I wanted to see what it would take for me to put a book together. I also wanted to see what would happen if I made certain bold design choices and stuck with them. The result wasn't anything like the way we normally play on Tuesday nights, at least structurally. As I'm slowly working on More Questions Than Answers (the system we're using for our Delta Green game), I'm rediscovering how we play together, and for some reason I'm anxious to show it to the world and say, "See! This how I really play!" What I'm not sure at all about is why that is.

Stranger things indeed.