Bully Pulpit Games


Bully Pulpit Games

Syntax & Semicolons: Karen Twelves on RPG Editing

May 15 2017


Welcome back to the ongoing series of conversations between Alex Roberts (our Production Assistant, who you may have heard on her interview podcast Backstory) and various members of the Bully Pulpit crew. After chatting with Brennen Reece about graphic design, we join Karen Twelves, our copyeditor, to talk about the unique challenges (and fun!) of editing and proofing for games.


Alex: How would you summarize your work in games? I have a feeling there’s more to it than checking for typos.


Karen: There’s a lot of different levels of editing I could be doing on a project. On the surface I might just be checking that the terminology is all correct (Is it roleplaying or role-playing or role playing? Is it Start Deck or start deck?) and that there aren’t any formatting errors. Going a little deeper, I’m assessing if the rules are clear enough and if the organization flows well. Deeper still, I might be reviewing a game with an eye towards how engaging the setting is, or if the mechanics are balanced. And the tone should be uniform throughout–some publishers want all their books in a chatty, conversational voice, for example, or it might all be written in the voice of a particular character or setting a certain mood. Whatever the standard is, it needs to be consistent.


Alex: When trying to establish that consistency, are you usually working from a style guide?


Karen: If the publisher has a style guide, that’s great! Often, though, there’s a lot of terminology unique to that particular game, so I invariably build my own style sheet to use as a checklist. For other corrections, I fall back on the Chicago Manual of Style or good old Merriam-Webster. And I might also check in with the author or layout artist to get their ruling on something. It’s a lot of resources to synthesize!


Alex: You mentioned clarity of rules, which of course is important in a game text; how do you establish and maintain clarity? What are the common pitfalls you see when looking at rules texts?


Karen: Game rules often have a lot of conditional sentences–“If X, then Y.” Sometimes those clauses can get a bit unwieldy, so I always look at them carefully. And if there’s any example play, it’s very important to check that it sticks to the rules as written and really spells out what is happening–if someone rolls a die, what is the numerical result? (Not just “a hit?”) Also, sometimes a rule can get revised in later drafts, which causes ripple effects through the whole text. So those are all things to look out for.

This applies more to board and card games, but whenever possible I like to meet with the designer and walk through me giving them a demo, following the rules as best I understand them after having given them only a basic read-through. I’m a kinesthetic learner; I much prefer to walk through a practice round and learn as I go. So I consider myself a good litmus test for how well rules are written–if someone like me can pick it up and play, then it’s solid.


Alex: That brings up an interesting question: at what point do you prefer to be brought in? I guess too early would mean repeating too much work as the game gets refined.


Karen: With board and card games, I prefer to get it when it’s been heavily playtested and the rules are more or less set, because, yeah, otherwise I’m doing lots of revisions on a small amount of text. I love working with Eric Vogel; he’s a prolific game designer and I always know that when one of his games comes my way, my focus is more on the wording rather than assessing the mechanics. I had the pleasure of working with him on The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, and was bringing out my demo set to play all the time with friends well after we’d moved past the editing stage.

With roleplaying games, it depends on if I’m doing developmental editing or not. I got to work on the War of Ashes RPG from its inception; Sophie Lagacé is an amazing author and a lot of fun to work with. We did a lot of planning on the structure of the book, refined what to include in the setting material, and there were a lot of changes to the Fate-inspired mechanics unique to the game. And then Dale Hostman came in with an absolutely beautiful layout, and we had a TON of art from ZombieSmith at our disposal. It was a long and intensive project with many, many rounds of revisions, and the end result was a stunning book and a very good read.

In contrast, I did copyediting on Blades in the Dark, which was already post-layout when I joined the project. Also a fantastic book to read just for the setting alone, but I wasn’t involved in refining the rules. I’d been playing the earlier edition of the game already available online, so it was a real treat to be brought on to something I was already a huge fan of.


Alex: It sounds like you’ve worked on some amazing projects. What, for you, defines a great working relationship?


Karen: I have! One of my first major projects was proofing Carolina Death Crawl; I’m always excited when Steve asks if I’m available to do some work for Bully Pulpit because I know I’m going to want to play the hell out of the game when I’m done (have you seen Goth Court??).

It’s very important for me that the managing editor be very clear about what level of edit they need–I want to budget my time accordingly. Also, having a style guide ready to go saves everyone a lot of time. And if I’m doing any type of edit more involved than proofing, there will likely be more than one round of revisions and some back and forth regarding any questions that may come up. So a great working relationship requires prompt communication between anyone on the project I may be working with. Can you tell that all of these preferences revolve around time management? I know that I will want to see the draft as many times as I can, and Steve can attest to me turning around proofs on The Warren within 24 hours, just a day or two before it went to print (at my own insistence that I change “just one more thing.”)

Once a game is finally printed I get so superstitious–I’m afraid to open it for the first time and find a typo I’d missed. My name is only as good as the quality of work I do, and that’s what’s going to keep me working in games publishing. Right now it’s not feasible to be an editor full-time, though it is something I may start pursuing down the road.


Alex: Ah, yes. This industry is full of talented part-timers. Do you have any advice for people who want to start doing this kind of work themselves?


Karen: I hate saying that you gotta network but… yeah. I started with some tiny jobs that put the “free” in “freelancing” until I had a wee little portfolio, and then sent a lot of polite emails along the lines of: “Hi I’d really like to work with you again please keep me in mind for future projects I’m really good kthxbi!” Then, there were serendipitous meetings of people at conventions and at my FLGS (EndGame in Oakland! It’s the best!). As a naturally shy person I can attest that it can feel very uncomfortable to cold call, but remember that you’ve already got a hobby in common and share a passion to make great games. Now that I regularly work with the same publishers, they know me well enough to pass my name on to others, and that’s pretty awesome.


Alex: That is awesome! Anything else you want to impart, to designers or publishers who might be reading this?


Karen: Keep making games! I look forward to playing them.


If you want to keep up with Karen, and maybe have her fine work on your next project, check out karentwelves.com.

First Ride / Last Ride Now Available!

Apr 19 2017

New from Bully Pulpit Games, FIRST RIDE / LAST RIDE is a short but intense one-player game about living on the edge, pulling heists and driving high performance cars in illegal street races!

This game is a love-letter from Jason to the Fast and the Furious franchise of films. Here’s more from him about the game:

“I love the Fast and the Furious movies for their casual bombast, their relentless dedication to smashing increasingly large numbers of cars with every entry in the franchise, and their endless, superheroic absurdity. They are movies that make sense with the sound off. Theirs is the language of the swollen bicep and the hot ride, and it is deliriously universal.

But I think what I love even more than all this is the emphasis on family — the franchise is predicated on an unshakeable crew with genial, pan-ethnic curb appeal. These people all love each other fiercely, and the family grows with each installment. It’s pretty cool. Inspirational, even, for a series of films where driving supercars between skyscrapers in Dubai is just another day at the office.

So here’s a game that distills that old-school feel to its essentials — family, the crew, and the hard choices a true car wizard must occasionally make. I wrote it as an experiment in privileging tone over substance and, in that way, it is both an affectionate homage seeking to capture that fast, furious vibe, and also a sort of roleplaying poem whose value comes from what you pour of yourself into it. Let me know how your Dan turns out.

One side note: My preferred mode of play is Last Ride and then First Ride. That’s the order I wrote them in, and, like a gonzo flashback in one of the films, there are all kinds of little Easter Eggs you may appreciate if you play in that order. Enjoy!”

Available now at DrivethruRPG!

Grimoires & Garamond: Brennen Reece on RPG Book Design

Mar 27 2017

Welcome to the first of a series of conversations between Alex Roberts (our Production Assistant, who you may have heard on her interview podcast Backstory) and various members of the Bully Pulpit crew. Our inaugural interview is with graphic designer and layout artist Brennen Reece, who shares his thoughts on design, typography, and working in dialogue.


Alex: So! Brennen! You’re the graphic designer here at Bully Pulpit. What games have you worked on, for us and elsewhere?


Brennen: I’ve been working with BPG since I did the pen-and-ink illustrations for Durance. I think I’ve worked on most of the games we’ve released since then: Night Witches, The Warren, Carolina Death Crawl, The Skeletons, Ghost Court, and countless smaller games that are in various stages of existence.

As far as non-Bully Pulpit games, I’ve worked on Blood Red Sands, The Ruined Empire, The Clay that Woke, The Veil, the official card deck for the latest edition of Primetime Adventures, and a collection of strangely popular character sheets for Dungeon World and OSR D&D that look like Swiss tax forms.

In the larp world, I did the layout for Warren Tusk’s Be Not Afraid.

I’ve also done some graphic design consulting, most notably for Graham Walmsley, who is a brilliant game designer and one of my favorite people.


Alex: Graphic design consulting? Interesting! What does that entail?


Brennen: I’ll make suggestions about various aspects of layout and point out typographical errors. Things like font choices, widows and orphans, margins, when to use a hyphen and when to use an em dash.


Alex: Neat! I didn’t even know that was a thing.


Brennen: I’ve been a working graphic designer for 20 years, and I’m still learning the craft. Even if you’re really good at it, there’s always something new to learn or perfect.


Alex: What are some games that stand out to you as being beautifully designed?


Brennen: I can’t think of too many games that are well designed, graphically. There are some competent ones, but those are rare, and those invariably come out of the story games community where there is a culture of innovation and improvement. Those people tend to question, research, and enjoy learning new skills.

The earliest RPGs were horribly designed, because they were put together by people who had no idea what they were doing design-wise, and with very little budget.

The 1983 Mentzer Red Box is one of the best examples of a well-designed game text. My grandmother bought mine for me at a Toys ‘R Us in 1985. They obviously were trying to up their game for that a mass market. They had great (if somewhat unenlightened) art, the brand was well designed, and the book was written and organized so ten-year-olds could teach themselves how to play.

There aren’t any weird typefaces, obnoxious fake parchment page backgrounds, eldritch page borders. The typography is pretty damned competent. I think that is because you couldn’t just decide to be a graphic designer like you can today. There was a period of apprenticeship, that was sometimes accompanied by a design education.



Alex: It’s interesting you mention the Red Box, because that cover is one of the most iconic images in RPGs, and a lot of creators have been inspired by it. Where else would you point designers for visual inspiration?


Brennen: The biggest mistake I see is only looking at other books in the genre. You need an awareness of graphic design history or theory beyond the geek-culture visual vernacular. RPGs are first teaching texts, and then reference texts, so I’d start there. There are some incredibly well designed books for art instruction, bushcraft, cooking, woodworking, knitting, or any kind of crafting or creative hobby.

My first step designing a book is to look at a lot of art and design from that era. For Night Witches, Jason and I spent a lot of time poring over WWII-era and earlier Russian design.

I spent a lot of time looking at old book covers for The Warren. When I was working on The Clay that Woke, I did lots of research on pulp sword & sorcery novels. The cover, the lettering, and even the interior was informed by that research.

I’m a jazz musician as well, so a lot of my work is informed by classic jazz album covers. I find a lot of inspiration in the old Command Records covers, which were often designed by the Bauhaus professors who fled Nazi Germany and ended up teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Also, Reid Miles who designed for Blue Note, and S. Neil Fujita, who was an amazing abstract painter and did TONS of jazz covers, as well as the book cover for The Godfather.


Alex: I can see how keeping a broad base of inspiration is important. Do you collect inspiring images somewhere, like a Pinterest board or something?


Brennen: I live and die by Pinterest.




Alex: Cool stuff! Why would you recommend Pinterest to other graphic designers? I think some people see it and are like “oh no, another social media I don’t understand.” Which is ok (I feel that way about Snapchat) but it sounds like it’s an invaluable tool for you.


Brennen: I don’t even think of it as social media, but more of a nice, convenient way of searching and saving images. Good designers create “mood boards” for each project, which are like “vision boards,” but instead of what you want out of life, they’re what you want out of this design! A Pinterest board is like a virtual mood board, with the added benefit that if you click on an image, dozens of related images pop up. I get turned onto a lot of new (to me) art and design like that.


Alex: Do you follow other users with similar taste?


Brennen: I do. If someone posts something nice, I’ll often check out their board and follow them. My feed is pretty inspiring. Also, I like a lot of different styles, even if they aren’t similar to my own. Jason called me a “mid-century formalist” once, and, while that’s very, very true, I really love the funkier stuff and the more classical stuff. I’m trying to stretch my design muscles lately.


Alex: How would you define mid-century formalism?


Brennen: Well, to me, it’s classical design with a modern aesthetic. There’s a focus on clean, crisp typography, stripped of ornamentation, and big, dramatic photographs or illustrations. It’s concerned with communicating information rather than decorating it.

If you’re interested, you can look up Massimo Vignelli, Josef Mueller-Brockmann, Armin Hoffman, Paul Rand, Jan Tschichold.


Alex: Those are your design heroes?


Brennen: Add in Reid Miles and Bradbury Thompson, and those are my favorites from that era. The most influential for me. And no one has any business doing graphic design at all if they haven’t read The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst!


Alex: Right! I’ve actually heard of that one. What were some key things you learned there?


Brennen: It’s an indispensable reference to all aspects of typographical design. But the main thing is that the design should honor the text, and the reading experience shouldn’t be made more difficult by poor craftsmanship and visual distractions. Most of it is what I’ve heard referred to as “advanced common sense”- stuff that’s obvious once someone points it out to you, but you probably wouldn’t think of on your own.

One of the main questions in any project is that of what font to use. Most designers, especially Bringhurst and Vignelli, use a very small palette of typefaces (we can get into the difference between typefaces and fonts later). There are only a dozen or so type classifications, but thousands upon thousands of typefaces. The professional opinion is that you should only use the absolute best example from each classification, and the rest are garbage.


Alex: Haha! That’s ruthless! But it resonates with what I hear from a lot of game designers – that good design is subtraction, cutting away what isn’t necessary.


Brennen: Tufte talks about increasing the Data:Ink ratio. Anything that isn’t contributing to the signal is contributing to the noise. That’s true for writing, design of any kind, and, in a lot of cases, life.


Alex: Then how do you, as the graphics or layout person, adjust that ratio when you’re generally given text and illustrations that you have no control over?


Brennen: Well, the simple answer is that I only work with clients who respect my input and value my expertise.

I don’t think of myself as a graphics or layout person. I’m a designer and a typographer. Design means solving a problem within a certain set of constraints. My problem is how to best communicate the information to the reader. I have no problem suggesting an edit to fit the text on the page.

Honestly, the most important part of that is making sure the writing is tight. Most of my clients take this very seriously, and if I need them to rewrite something to optimize the pagination, they don’t have a problem with this. They realize that it’s a rare case when a passage isn’t improved by further editing.

It might be more helpful to phrase it this way: If you’re doing the layout and design for your own game, you have all the control you want. But, if you’re going to hire someone, don’t hire them because they know how to use the software. Hire them because they will make your game better. Think of a graphic designer as an editor for the visual presentation for your game, and consider their advice the same way you’d consider advice from a content editor.

If your designer is simply following instructions, that’s a red flag.

If you’re a graphic designer, it’s your job to solve the problem of communicating the message to the intended audience. Don’t be afraid to speak up. You’re the expert here, and if you’re not the expert in your field, you’re in the wrong line of work.

That being said, you’re not infallible, and it’s helpful to ask for lots of feedback. There are a lot of smart, visually astute people in this industry, and they can open your eyes to issues you didn’t notice. The design process is ideally an iterative dialogue between the designer and the client.


Alex: Speaking of dialogues, we should wrap this one up for now! Thanks for your time, Brennen.


Brennen: My pleasure.


You can see more of Brennen’s work at his website, or connect with him on Google+.

A Fiasco Replay Manga!

Mar 3 2017

An artist and gamer whose pen name is Michinaki Michio discovered Fiasco (in English), did her own informal translation, and played it with her friends. She enjoyed it so much she not only illustrated their session as a manga (they played Logan Bonner’s Dragonslayers playset, by the way) but also explained the rules as she went along. Half of the folks she played with were brand new to roleplaying games as well!

The time, talent and energy Michinaki Michio devoted to our game is incredible, and the end result is both useful and beautiful, and all of us here at Bully Pulpit Games are both delighted and humbled! You can read the full comic on her twitter page.

Fiasco has never been cuter.

BPG at Dreamation 2017

Feb 17 2017

Dreamation 2017

The entire BPG team (Steve, Jason, Brennen, and Alex) will be at Dreamation 2017 in Morristown, NJ this weekend! If you’ll be there as well, please find us and say hello! If you ask, we might even give you a sneak peak of something we’re really excited about!

Free Game February: Cloud Bastion of the Dzanetume Peak-Lords

Feb 7 2017

It’s Free Game February, and we’d like to celebrate by sharing a brand-new Dungeon World adventure with you: The Cloud Bastion of the Dzanetume Peak-Lords.

In the remote and forbidding valleys west of the Anchorhold, above a forgotten pass through the mountains, floats a fortress. Since the end of the Age of Magic it has defended the pass, belching lightning, its secrets protected. The strange treasures of the Cloud Bastion of the Dzanetume Peak-Lords are a prize reserved for the cleverest of robbers.

You are not the cleverest of robbers.

This science fantasy aerial dungeon crawl includes plot hooks, traps, monsters, treasure cards, and illustrations by sixteenth-century Archbishop of Uppsala, Olaus Magnus. Gather a party and have fun; you will probably die!

And while you’re at it, pick up Jason’s other newly-released Dungeon World supplement, Juntu’s Floating Ice Hell!

Fiasco Playset Special: The Museum (a Doubleclicks Playset)

Jan 24 2017

Holy Smokes! A brand new playset, based on the music of the Doubleclicks!

We’re delighted to invite you to join us for a night at The Museum:

“Should that statue be moving? Should that skeleton be moving? Should the walls be moving?”

It’s a busy day at the Portland Science, History, Space and Time Institute and Museum. Research projects are coming to a head, important artifacts are going missing, investors are visiting for an important inspection and—of course—it’s time for another one of those darn Campfire Scout lock-ins.

Employees, visitors, and uninvited guests are all part of the mix tonight and, like you learn at those chemistry exhibits, just one wrong ingredient could make the whole thing blow up in your face, embedding shards of glass just everywhere. Metaphorically. (Metaphorically? Yeah, let’s go with that.)

This special release was created by Angela Webber and Richard Malena, hosts of the Gosh Darn Fiasco podcast, and edited by our good friend Will Hindmarch. The excellent cover art is by Matthew Bogart.

The Original Bully Pulpit

Jan 23 2017

Here at BPG HQ in these uncertain times, we find ourselves reassessing many things. We are two old white guys whose corporate mascot is another old white guy, for starters.

We love Theodore Roosevelt not for his faults—he was a man of his time and we’re clear-eyed about what that means—but for his progressive accomplishments. Busting trusts right and left, forbidding corporations from making campaign contributions, placing millions of acres of Federal land under conservation protection, negotiating the end to a terrible war (for which he won a Nobel prize), championing food safety. T.R. left a humane legacy we enjoy today. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to bullies.

So yeah, our name has the word “bully” in it, something that gets less cool every day. T.R.’s “bully” meant “terrific” in 1905 slang, but that meaning is long gone. The original bully pulpit —the amplified voice afforded to whoever is President of the United States— is soon going to be something T.R. wouldn’t recognize at all. So we’ll stick with the old version, thank you very much, and hope that you will, too.

We hope that we can continue to be a true bully pulpit from which to do what we can to encourage cooperation, kindness, creativity, and discovery. We’ll continue to embody the ideals of fair play and the square deal, and redouble our efforts to support those who would be the targets of what T.R. would call “physical and moral cowards”— definitely the wrong kind of bully.

As always, we’re humbled by your support and encouraged by your enthusiastic play. Thanks! Let’s continue to do amazing things together.

Ghost Court Now Available on Kickstarter!

Oct 12 2016

We’re very excited to announce that our new live-action party game Ghost Court is now available on Kickstarter! We’ve been working on this game for more than a year, and many people have played and enjoyed it so far. If you’re interested, back it for $10 or more and get access to the draft rules and playtest files to try it for yourself!

If you’re as hyped about this as we are, please tell your friends!

New Fiasco Playset: Fist City!

Sep 28 2016

Fist City CoverFrom the diamond-hard hands of James Mendez Hodes comes Fist City, a new Fiasco playset that takes you into the secret world of martial arts warrior-idiots. Bowing to no temporal authority and disregarding such mortal concerns as effectiveness, authenticity, and taste, you will clash with one another in underground fight clubs, heavily padded tournament halls, and black-backgrounded forums on the Internet. There’s no backing out now! The gloves are off, or in some cases on, depending on your style. Ahead of you, the road to hell is paved with broken bottles, splintered timber, and the curb-stomped faces of your enemies. Right after that it’s paved with warrants for your arrest.

Welcome, spiritual pilgrim and sublime master… to Fist City!

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