Writing Comics in Ulysses

Ulysses-Mac-1024x1024So I’ve just recently switched to the Ulysses writing app. I’ve been using Scrivener for a few years, but the ongoing lack of iOS support is killing me, so I’m trying out Ulysses. My initial project on Ulysses is a six-issue comic script I’m writing on spec. Not the simplest project from a formatting perspective, but it’ll let me try out a number of the neato features in Ulysses.

Like Themes! And Filters! I needed to set these two features up properly in order to create a workable script-writing environment in Ulysses. Here’s how I did it.

Themes

Ulysses is a mostly plain-text editor. That is, it doesn’t allow you to set fonts or sizes or anything like that in the writing environment. Instead, you define different text elements using markup — simple text indicators that can be read in order to infer format and structure. So you start a line with a specific symbol in order to indicate a special heading or whatever, and then the system is able to output that line in whatever format (in theory) you desire. You don’t answer questions of font and format until you’re outputting a version of the piece for someone to read.

The idea is to ignore formatting and concentrate on the writing, but Ulysses does give you some visual indicators as you write. It does this using themes, which enable you to vary the colour and font weight (though not family or size) for various formats. As you type the necessary markup, Ulysses applies this tiny bit of formatting.

There are many available markup commands, with seven levels of headings, bold, italic, block quotes, lists and even links and images. But when I write a comic book script (I more or less follow Nate Piekos’ advice on script format), I only need a few:

  • Page Header
  • Panel Header
  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Bold/Italic
The Theme Editor in Ulysses

The Theme Editor in Ulysses

That’s about it.

So my first step was to create a simple Theme that included just those elements. I just duplicated the standard Markdown theme and then deleted almost everything. Page Header got an opening symbol of PG, Panel Header got PN, and Dialogue got DD. Description is just the default format so it doesn’t need anything.

ScriptSampleScreenshot

What my script looks like as I write.

So now when I start a new page, I just type “PG” and then “Page 3” and it appears as a bold header. Same thing with each new panel: just type “PN” and then “Panel 2” and there it is. Dialogue is just the same, with the added bonus that since I established Dialogue as a paragraph style instead of a structure style (like Page Header and Panel Header), a single return after a line of dialogue defaults to another Dialogue paragraph. A double return drops to regular text, ready for me to type PN and go on with the next panel.

Note that in the editor, it doesn’t display the dialogue indented or numbered. That will happen in another step I’ll need to figure out before this is fully completely ready to go — when I want to output a final draft I’ll need to develop a custom Style. Styles are the output “instructions” that Ulysses uses to produce its output. One problem at a time!

Filters

Workflowy, the best outlining tool anywhere.

Workflowy, the best outlining tool anywhere.

Now, my outlining/planning process works outwards: I start with a single sentence that sums up the whole story, break that out into a sentence per issue, break THAT out into five sentences per issue, and then write four pages per sentence, for a total of 20 pages, or however many I need. This idea comes from Randy Ingermason’s “Snowflake Method”, although I adjusted it a fair bit for comics (and my brain, which is not Randy’s).

I start any project in Workflowy, my dependable and simple outlining tool. List-making and nesting is effortless in Workflowy, so it’s easy to dive in and out of creative hierarchies. But once I’ve got the 5-sentences-per-issue stage done, Workflowy is no longer useful. I can’t write a script as a set of bullet points!

So I take that outline and copy/paste it straight into Ulysses. Dead simple. Ulysses also has a great “Split Here” trick that allows me to easily divide up the outline into separate sheets. What I want is a sort of hierarchy, where I can go from the single-sentence summation to a given page of comic book script effortlessly. So I put each sentence for the issue into its own sheet. I labelled all those outline sheets with a “snowflake” keyword, and then created a filter called “Outline” that only shows such sheets.

The outline transferred to Ulysses.

The outline transferred to Ulysses.

For each of the five sentences for a given issue, I then go ahead and create four sheets, one for each page that’s supposed to support that sentence. This is where I get to see if my story will actually operate properly — if I’ve created something that has the right number of beats, if I can get from point A to point B with sufficient ease. For each page I just jot down a quick sentence or fragment to indicate what’s going to happen on that page. It’s usually quite simple at this point; I’m just expanding each sentence out into four beats, and then I have a completely-outlined comic book! Heck, if I had a sufficiently ambitious artist I could just ship right now!

I wouldn’t do that. Promise.

But now I can just go page-by-page and create my panels and dialogue all that. If I’m stuck on a given page, I can just skip over it and go on to the next. I’ve still got a complete script, just at various levels of detail. I can now follow my immediate excitement, develop aspects I’m interested in, and be confident I have a full script that works beat by beat.

I keyword those pages with “page” and now I can create a filter that only shows me the actual script pages. If I want to check against the outline, I just hop over to the other filter and there it is. Ulysses does make tagging super-easy so thus far it seems like a winning system.

That’s It

I love simple structures so this is pretty exciting for me. Just a few formatting options and a keyword/filter system that keeps me on track and works for my methodology.

Next up, I’ll have to define a custom Style, so I can get Ulysses to output the final product for sharing with others, but for now this works great.

Table to Page 3: Perspective

The enigmatic smile is one of my best GM tools. When my players start asking questions I don’t have answers for, I just lean back and smile.

Then they start tossing the question amongst themselves, and usually they come up with a pretty good answer that I can use. When they discover that their hypothesis is close to the truth, they feel clever. Everyone wins.

As a GM, I am forever beset by the need to answer the question “What next? What next for our heroes?” The players and their characters have to be the focus of every scene, every moment. My real job, my top priority, is to engineer thrilling confrontations for the players so that their heroes can do big exciting heroic things. Sorting out every answer to every question is much further down the list.

Because my heroes ARE my audience, I never have to reveal anything they can’t see for themselves. So when they ask, “How come this dead bad guy didn’t even use this magic fireball wand,” I don’t have to have an answer. They don’t ever have to find out. In fact, I have learned that if I just lean back with that enigmatic smile and say, “Yes, indeed, why DIDN’T he?” my players will run with that ball through the endzone and right on out of the stadium.

Heroes ≠ Audience

This is still kind of a hard lesson for me. In a story, I can’t leave big mysteries lying around for my audience to solve for me. I have to provide those solutions for them.

This happened to me recently. The aforementioned fireball-wand-wielding bad guy didn’t use his fireball wand until the last minute, aboard the heroes’ ship. In a game, this would play out great: they’d get him aboard, he’d unveil the wand and then it’s roll initiative, here we go. Big fight. Thrilling confrontation. Good times. And if somebody asks, “Hey why didn’t he pull that out earlier and just sink us before we got to him?” I could just lean back with my enigmatic smile and say, “Indeed, why DIDN’T he?”

The enigmatic smile. Works every time.

Works in a game, anyway. It didn’t even occur to me that it was a hole in the story, because in GM-head it sets up the requisite thrilling confrontation.

But of course in a story, the reader gets to that moment and asks the same question, and I can’t lean back. They can’t see my enigmatic smile, and if they do hear me ask “Why indeed?” they’re just going to throw the book against the wall.

I spent days agonizing over this after my early reader pointed it out (always have an early reader to catch this stuff for you). How could I fix this? Could I somehow explain that the fireball wand needed special circumstances? Could I come up with a different sort of weapon that wouldn’t work at long range (but also didn’t just pop out of nowhere)? Walking to work, I thought about it. Lying in bed trying to sleep, I thought about it. Nothing.

Whatever I came up with, however I tried to spin it, I couldn’t come up with any way to gracefully show it to my audience. Sure, I could decide the wand didn’t work at long range, but then I’d have to find a way to explain that to the reader, and that just felt stupid. Awkward and inelegant. I had no idea how to accomplish this.

Audience ≠ Heroes

I sat down in front of the blank screen and started typing (sometimes that works better than thinking for me). And suddenly I wasn’t typing stuff about my heroes, but rather about the villain. And I realised how WRONG the GM-based point of view had been. I realised that I’d allowed my GM brain to limit my approach to the problem, without my even recognizing it. I’d actually been worrying about how to explain things to my HEROES, not my audience.

In my GM brain, they’re the same thing, and I had totally overlooked this false equivalency when writing.

Writing from the villain’s point of view, it was easy to explain to the audience why the villain didn’t use his weapon until it was too late, because I could just SHOW them.

So I did, and it worked.

*enigmatic smile*

Meet Your Captain!

Captain Li

Captain Li is not the most cheerful woman on the seas. But her crew loves her.

My brand-new serial adventure, THE SEVENTEEN EYES OF JUSTICE, has just launched, with four episodes ready for you to download today! I thought I’d introduce you to the hero of this ongoing tale: Captain Li!

A Hard Woman in a Hard Place

Captain Li Ying is a woman in trouble. Captain and owner of the disreputable, and HAUNTED BY DEMONS, cargo ship Seeker, she needs to find a new evil soul every few weeks, or else the seventeen demons – the EYES OF JUSTICE – bound into the ship will be freed to enact their idea of JUSTICE on the world.

It’s not her fault. She inherited the ship from her father upon his death, and all she knows is what he told her, and that wasn’t very much. She knows how to keep the demons satisfied, but she doesn’t know where they came from or what they really are. So she sails from port to port amongst the tropical islands of the DINO-PIRATE seas, looking for jobs to keep her ship afloat, and bad, bad people to turn over to the waiting Eyes of Justice.

Starting In Tragedy

When we first meet Li (as she’s mostly called, “Ying” to close friends like her lifelong first mate, Anarayat), she’s trying to find a new evil soul she can hand over to the Eyes. This isn’t a straightforward process at the best of times. The Eyes have proven discerning in their taste for evil and if she hands them someone they don’t consider “tasty” enough they are not satisfied. Which means Li suffers, and the Eyes are that much closer to escaping the prison of her ship. And of course, evil people, by their nature, are kind of hard to just TALK into coming aboard her ship for a three-hour tour, so Li needs to get creative from time to time.

It’s that creativity that earns our first episode its cheerful title, “Ending in Tragedy”.

And Then Getting Worse

Her life is a tough one. Tracking down evil people is certainly a dangerous sort of hobby, and when the Eyes get hungry they can take it out on Li, so she doesn’t have much time for a personal life. She does her best to look after her sort of loony crew, but what she really needs is a way to deal with the Eyes of Justice once and for all. In order to do that, she’ll have to somehow get her father’s old logbooks back from the man who has them — the slippery self-styled Lord Evanisk of Seagaard, who always hated her father and only wants the power of the Eyes for himself. And Evanisk has no intention of handing them over, not unless Li dances to his sadistic tune.

As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, Li finds herself falling kind of hard for the handsome, well-dressed scholar Lord Evanisk has put to watch over her. Arunza is everything she’s not: elegant, educated and effortlessly graceful. Having him around is no end of distracting for Captain Li, even though she knows he’s working for her hated enemy.

Captain Li can’t keep going on the way things are. The Eyes of Justice are after her soul, and sacrificing people, even terrible people, is no picnic. Her only hope is to somehow hope she can trust the charming Arunza long enough to steal her father’s notes back from Lord Evanisk, and that somewhere in those scribbled pages lies the clue to sending away the Eyes forever.

You can buy the first seven episodes of THE 17 EYES OF JUSTICE right here on this site, or grab them for your Kindle on Amazon!

Announcing The 17 Eyes of Justice!

17 EYES Desktop

Come sail the DINO-PIRATE seas on a demon-haunted ship!

I am embarking on a new sort of venture: a serialized story. Each month, I’ll be publishing a new episode of THE 17 EYES OF JUSTICE, a pulp adventure tale about a desperate captain and her haunted ship.

Each episode is meant to be a more-or-less standalone story, another thrilling adventure featuring Captain Li and her intrepid crew. They battle sorcerers, gangsters and ninjas, all the while searching for a way to free themselves of the soul-eating demons that possess their ship. But if you read them in order, you’ll find an epic tale of a woman’s search for her father, and answers to the mysteries of her past.

What Is It?

17 EYES isn’t exactly a novel, and it isn’t just a collection of short stories. It’s more like a season of a TV show, like Spartacus or Deadwood, where each time you tune in you’ll get a satisfying, complete tale that nevertheless fits into a larger narrative. You’ll be able to read an episode in an hour or so, and I think you’ll find it fun to go back some times and look for clues and hints that were planted earlier. I hope you tune in, and that the story keeps you engrossed — but not too frustrated.

I’ve always loved this kind of story-telling, and it’s really how my brain normally conceives of tales. As a DM, I think of an “episode” like a particular adventure that goes into making up a campaign. There are connections from one adventure to the next, and mysteries revealed in one adventure may not get solved for some time afterwards, but each adventure is a complete quest in its own right.

That’s the plan, anyway.

There are a dozen episodes planned, and the first three are already written and available for you to read today right here on the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND website. Or you can buy them on Amazon for your Kindle.

Join the Crew!

I’m very excited about this project, and I hope you’ll join me in this experiment. Remember that if you sign up for my email “story-letter” not only will you get free stories every week, set in the same world as 17 EYES, you’ll also be able to download the first episode of THE 17 EYES OF JUSTICE completely free.

Table to Page 2: Blow Up Your Scope

Being a GM isn’t EXACTLY like being a writer, but I keep finding lessons from the one that help me with the other. I wrote a piece previously about how a solid GMing practice led me astray in my writing, but this time I want to share with you how a GMing problem revealed a useful tool I’ve used to blow through some kinds of writer’s block.

I ran a game where part of the plot turned on having the heroes win over the old sushi chef so that he would lend his super ninja powers to their cause. Things ground to a halt when the player trying to accomplish this gave up when their first effort didn’t seem to succeed. Player and GM locked horns and the story started to flail.

Narrative Scope

Of course, both the player and I wanted the same thing: for the sushi chef to join up. Where we differed was in our understanding of the scope of that story beat. In the player’s head, this was just one scene, one objective among many in the course of the story. In my head it was a big shift in the nature of the tale, a slow transition as the heroes rose to a new epic level. To them, the scope was small. To me, it was big. That disconnect in scope made for frustration.

This happens in my writing, too. That heavy, dragging feeling as I push one word after another out onto the screen, typing with agonizing sludgeriness. I like the story. I think the scene should work. And yet, I find myself grinding, struggling to push through, losing faith and thrillsiness with every line.

Sometimes I’m wrong and the scene is just no good and my story needs a major rethink. But often I find I’ve misunderstood the appropriate scope for the scene — and changing that can blow the scene right up.

Insufficient Scope: Not Enough

I’m working on a pulp adventure serial, and in planning out a recent episode, I detailed three scenes as:

  • bunch of dudes show up to fight, bring demon
  • hero punches demon to death, dudes reconsider
  • dudes figure ROI isn’t there, bail

When I got into writing that sequence, I realized what you probably already noticed: that’s ONE scene. Writing ground to a halt as I struggled to keep the fight going without descending into pointless detail, just to pad it out to a length suitable for three scenes. But in terms of the story outside of the fight, only one thing happens: the hero causes the dudes to run away. Not enough scope for three scenes.

At first I didn’t realize what had happened. All I knew was that I was struggling, that I wasn’t even ENJOYING the process (which is strange for me — normally I really enjoy the actual writing, when I can manage to make myself sit down and do it). I grumbled and groused and did everything except write. I told myself what a terrible, terrible writer I am and why do I even bother and nobody’s reading this anyways and hey here’s a glass of whiskey how did that happen.

But I recalled the episode with the sushi chef, and took another look at my outline, and realised I didn’t have enough story here. Instead of finding a way to grind out more words and try to fit my pre-conceived word count expectations, I realized the thing to do was to adjust the SCOPE of the scenes.

This fight was really one scene. Reducing its scope, while retaining the basic structure of the fight, worked great, and the resulting scene was once again fun to write. And the change in structure opened up another plot possibility, and I made up my word count with much better material. The new tale moves better, and has a more satisfying structure.

All because of scope.

Excessive Scope: Too Much

My example of the sushi chef above was a case where I had put too much scope into the scene. I was imagining this chef becoming a major character, and the relationship he formed with the hero would become an ongoing thing. But honestly, the game at that point was about tracking down a gangster and stopping his plot, and adding all this stuff with the hard-to-impress sushi chef only bogged us down.

Fortunately, sitting at a table makes for easy rejigging. We realised what had happened, agreed to move the scene along and reduced the scope. Play went on, and we had a memorable game session.

Using Scope To Clear The Path

Comparing writing with GMing has proven a fruitful way to get some perspective on issues in story-telling. If we hadn’t had that moment with the sushi chef, I might not have been able to solve the problem with the demon-punching. Thinking on these experiences lately, I realized how often I can find solutions to difficult story issues by stepping back and changing the scope of a moment. Even if it doesn’t lead directly to a solution, I find the exercise shows me where I’ve blinded myself in the story, and points to how I might get out of the grinding struggle.

I’ve spent a lot of my life at the game table, running games. It’s good to know that experience can pay off as a writer, too.

(if you liked this article, check out Table to Page 1: My Secret Technique is Killing Me)

Free DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND Adventure!

Okay, now it’s time for an example. Here’s how you put all the pieces from my “3-List” method together.

FREE THE FLAME GOD

FREE THE FLAME GOD is a free adventure for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. It’s ready to run, and you’ll note it doesn’t require all that much reading. Let’s go through the document page by page and make sure we understand it.

First up is the cover, which hopefully provides enough explanation that you can use the adventure (even without reading this blog post). Every DINO-PIRATES adventure will have this info. You don’t need to print this page.

The second page is for the players. There’s a quick description of the Concept — the problem the heroes will have to solve, as well as a sketch map of the adventure locale. It’s not a very detailed map, and there aren’t any further detailed maps, since the whole idea in Old School Hack is that you draw the maps yourself at the table. This is just to give the players a bit of a mental model they can hang the encounters off.

Then comes a page of tables: Adventuring Goals and Random Events. These are two of the lists that I use to create a DINO-PIRATES adventure. Print this page off and lay it out for the players to look at. If they want to choose an Adventuring Goal, that’s great, but it’s also okay if they don’t. You’ll use the Random Events table whenever you feel like shaking things up for the players. It’s a great way to pull in a player who’s been a little sidelined lately; just point at them and say, “Roll on ‘The God Awakes’!” Suddenly they’re at the center of attention.

That’s it for player material. The rest of the document is for the GM.

Next there’s a page that outlines the adventure — this is the list of Locations. It’s followed by three pages of Location Sheets detailing each one. Have the Location Sheets at the table and you can use them to keep track of the situation as the battle proceeds, and make sure you don’t forget any important clues or bits of knowledge you meant to give the heroes.

Finally there’s a page of NPC sheets with more details on a couple of the key bad guys in this adventure. These characters might show up in more than one location, so you can have their details at hand without flipping through pages.

And that’s it! Eight pages of thrilling adventure, totally free! I hope this enables hours of fun for you and your friends. Let me know how it works for you in the comments!

Prepare an Awesome DINO-PIRATES Adventure!

Prepping for a DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND game is actually really easy, but the key elements are not at all obvious. Here’s my system for ensuring game sessions full of crazy adventure.

Having run probably more than a hundred of these sorts of sessions, I have a pretty tight system now for developing them. It really isn’t that much work, but it’s very different than the sort of prep work I do for other games.

Instead of describing a location in detail, or setting up an elaborate plot, this system starts from a high-level idea — the Concept — that’s quite simple to come up with. Then I create three lists of loosely-related and not-very-detailed items, which work together at the table to produce a fun and satisfying adventure story.

Here’s How It Works

I always start with a Concept. It doesn’t have to be very fancy. Once I have that, I build three lists: one of Locations, one of Goals and one of Randomness. Those three lists will form the basis of the adventure. How they get combined is up to the players and myself as we play the game.

Concept

Why do you THINK they call me “Heart-Eater”?

So the first thing is a simple, obvious Concept for an adventure — like “Stop the evil sorcerer from enslaving the volcano god!” or “Destroy the SLAVE QUEEN’S mind-controlled army!”

A good adventure concept describes an ACTION to be taken by the heroes. This action needs to be about opposing some evil scheme (like mind-controlled armies, or whatever).

I can come up with this sort of evil scheme just by playing around in the setting, and generating “what if” sorts of questions to myself. “What if an Imperial Sorcerer decided to go undercover and take over a ninja clan?” Even the simplest idea can work.

Once I have the evil scheme in mind, I think about how the heroes would get involved to stop it. I don’t mean “They meet an old wizard in a tavern who tells them where to go”. That’s way too much detail, and who cares about all that crap? This is about choosing a VERB. Do they STOP the scheme, or DESTROY the hidden base, or RESCUE the prince? That’s it. One word does the job.

So that’s my Concept — an evil scheme undone by a verb.

Now I’ve got three lists to create. The order in which they get created isn’t important — actually I always build them in bits and pieces, letting ideas for one inspire entries in the other.

Add the Random

I learned this trick from Kirin, the designer of the original Old School Hack, and it always works great.

It’s surprisingly powerful to supply a random factor that might interrupt heroes bent on saving the day. For the volcano god adventure, obviously I decided geologic activity would be the thing, so the random list includes lava, earthquakes and so on. For an adventure in which a bunch of heroes have to get a little baby to a distant fortress, the baby itself became the random trouble-making element.

I make a little table for a d12. 1 – 6 is always “no result,” so that not every roll causes trouble, and then I come up with six other possible results for 7 – 12. Here’s an example I used for the volcano god adventure.

So there’s six possible results — each with a different in-game consequence. I always make 12 the biggest, craziest one, just because, well, it’s 12. The players have the table in front of them and every so often I’ll just say, “Okay, somebody roll on the volcano god table.” Then there’s a tense moment while they await the result, and then the game carries on.

Provide Some Motives

Another table I create is one full of Adventuring Goals. I try to come up with 12 of these. This is a great way to seed the adventure with possibilities. Keeping in mind the Concept, I dream up reasons why somebody would want to do the ACTION described there. When creativity flags, revisiting the Concept often helps to get me going again. I’ll let my mind wander and go a little goofy, allowing unrelated names to suddenly emerge, like in this goal from the volcano god adventure:

“Master Nobitsuna of the Dragon’s Eye Clan has disappeared, leaving only the word “Tuloanga” carved on his cell wall.”

Who is Master Nobitsuna? Who are the Dragon’s Eye Clan? It doesn’t really matter at this stage. These details might inspire entries in one of the other lists, or they might not get referenced anywhere else. If a player picks this goal, we’ll figure out how it fits into the adventure together.

It might seem like a strange thing to focus on, since in any given session, most of the supplied adventure goals won’t even be used. But I’ve always found it a great way to generate ideas that can feed into the story, even if nobody picks the goals. Thinking about the adventure from the point of view of the heroes, and why they might get involved, is a powerful way to sort of trick yourself into creating a really hero-centered adventure.

And that ends up being more fun for everyone!

Locations

Meanwhile, I grab some location sheets and jot down whatever notes come to mind about scenes I might have. I try to think of fun locations for a fight, or crazy bad guys, or some clue that needs to be given to the players. I can play off ideas that came up on the other two lists, and as I flesh those out (or come up with all-new possibilities), I can develop all the different pieces together. And again, I can always go back to my simple Concept to renew my creativity.

For an adventure meant to last a few hours, I usually find four to six scenes is about right. What I normally do is come up with four “required” scenes and then a couple more “extras” — sidelines or flavorful moments that aren’t essential to getting the heroes to the big bad guy.

Structuring Scenes

I know my first scene is always going to be a fight — an immediate threat the players need to deal with in order to survive. But it must do two other things: it must lead the heroes into the adventure — there must be some clue or threat that draws or pushes them along. The first scene cannot be self-contained. It must present a mystery (“Why are these flying lava monsters attacking us?”) or force them into immediate action (“Well, the ship is sinking and there’s an island over there.”). Or both!

I used to spend a lot of time setting up the adventure, providing the heroes with “hooks” to draw them in, but in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, that’s really pointless. I’ll just start right in the middle of the action, and can just tell the players, “Well, you decided to check out Captain Red-Eyes’ secret warehouse, and you got in okay, but now these pistol-packing lizard people are attacking you.”

Other details can (if anyone cares) get fleshed out in later scenes.

And I know my final scene will be a big set-piece battle, preferably involving lava, dinosaurs and maybe some shotguns. My other two key scenes might be more sneaky-around scenes, or get-someone-to-tell-us-whats-going-on scenes, although often they’re just more fight scenes.

I use the location sheets not only because they allow me to note down all the necessary details on a scene, but their small size prevents me from putting down too many details. This is a LIST of locations I’m creating, not a guide book.

Putting It Together

Locations, Goals and Random — three very different lists, each contributing something unique to the Concept upon which the story of the game will be built. Because they’re so different, when I get stuck on one I can easily jump to another, and usually my brain lights up again. And because they each need players to bring them to life, I know the game session is going to be spontaneous and creative for everyone.

One of the real joys of running games, for me, is seeing a story emerge from something that wasn’t a story before. It’s really magical, especially when it happens from something like this — with just a basic concept and three lists of disconnected items. I have time and time again seen how a group’s imagination will take off and make a story happen right in front of us all.

I’ll be publishing a sample adventure using just this format very soon — stay tuned! In the meantime, please share your adventure prep ideas in the comments!

Location and NPC Sheets for DINO-PIRATES!

So many bad guys

Here at Scratch Factory we’re big fans of making the DM’s job easier; that’s one of the key reasons we picked Old School Hack as the foundation for the new DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND role-playing game. You really can’t beat Old School Hack for super-easy game mastering.

But we also really kind of sneakily LOVE filling out forms. We’re addicted to character sheets, and have spent many long hours poring over how to fill out every field in our Campaign Planning Guide, and other such treasures. It’s one of the things we’ve always cherished about tabletop role-playing games, and we wanted to make sure that the new DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND provided some of that love for the DM, not just the players.

So check out these fantastic Location and NPC sheets

Easy-to-print, half-page forms that help you keep your notes organized, even if you’re making them up during play! Keep track of minions and bad guys, potential treasure or secrets to be discovered. Have your bad guys easily statted up before the big combat, or make them up on the fly and keep track so they’re consistent for next time.

You never know, your players MIGHT notice.

Anyway, you’ll have fun filling them in, and hopefully the process of doing so helps you think through your next encounter so you’re better-prepared than ever!

Download now!

In upcoming weeks we’ll show you some complete DINO-PIRATES adventures using these forms and a few other key ideas that make a DINO-PIRATES adventure special. Stay tuned!

New! DINO-PIRATES Basic Game!


Okay, this has been in the works for quite some time, and now here it is.

An all-NEW version of the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND roleplaying game! And it’s free!

This game is based on (well, actually, just kind of copied almost wholesale from) the tremendous Old School Hack game by Kirin Robinson. It’s super-simple, and designed for running off the top of your head, with very little prep required. The full rules are posted on the DINO-PIRATES website, and are available for you to copy and reproduce any way you like, under a Creative Commons license. We’ve created a great downloadable PDF that turns into a bunch of handy-at-the-table miniature rulebooks, as well as the class and character sheets needed for Old School Hack.

A complete RPG! Free!

There’s nothing else you need, except a few friends and a lot of imagination! Well, and dice, and paper, and all that sort of stuff. In the days to come we’ll be posting more materials, tips for getting the most out of a DPoNI campaign, and other great stuff.

The sharp-eyed among you will note that this is subtitled “Basic Game” — that’s not random. We are working on a more detailed sort of game, but it’s a ways out yet. In the meantime, enjoy the new Basic Game!