Month: September 2013

Roleplaying with kids, part two: The System

Earlier in the year I wrote about roleplaying with kids. My plan then was to run a Middle Earth-set game with a larger group, although that didn’t pan out – mostly for reasons of my own poor planning. With the busy schedule we somehow seem to have fallen into, I didn’t play again with even my own kids until last week.

I talked to my boys about having another roleplaying session when we were on a hike, and they wanted to play again but just not with superheroes.  What they wanted to play was an Animal Agents game, à la Agent P in Phineas and Ferb*.

The Agency

Agents F, G and R observe goings on in the marshmallow factory gift shop

Agents F, G and R observe goings on in the marshmallow factory gift shop

Agent P is platypus who works for the Organisation Without a Cool Acronym (aka O.W.C.A.) and foils the deranged plans of Dr Heinz Doofenshmirtz. Agent P’s cover identity is Perry the Platypus, the family pet of Phineas and Ferb. The dichotomy between Perry and Agent P is that his owners do not know of the agenting, and his capabilities as Agent P are far in excess of his humdrum existence as Perry.

Clearly there is scope for other agents and other villains to defeat.


There are game systems around targetted at kids. Fuzzy Heroes, for example, is based around the idea of stuffed toys protecting all that is good and fuzzy against the depredations of the Renegade Boy Toys. Another good option would be Toon, the cartoon roleplaying game.

I chose not to use either of those though, since I wanted to build my own setting and use mechanics that could be extended into more sophisticated play as my boys grow.

I like Savage Worlds: it is a flexible system with a lot of options to tweak mechanics. I therefore decided to design a simplified version of the system.

  • attributes – Savage Worlds characters have five primary attributes: Strength, Smarts, Spirit, Agility and Vigo(u)r. In this game I’ve cut it to just Strength, Smarts and Agility. There are also secondary attributes including Pace, Charisma, Toughness and Parry. I cut these down to just Pace and Defense (combining Toughness and Parry)
  • skills – there are 24 base skills in Savage Worlds. This is actually on the low end for this kind of game: Call of Cthulhu has dozens of skills, RuneQuest has yet more. Still, that’s too many for a game aimed at young kids. I trimmed those skills down as follows:
    • Knowledge rolls can all be treated as Smarts
    • we only need one Fighting skill, as opposed to separate skills for Fighting in melée, Shooting, and Throwing**
    • vehicular skills are inappropriate, so ditch Drive, Pilot, etc. I added in a “Machines” skill instead, which will also work instead of a Repair skill
    • we only need one Persuade skill
    • Climb, Swim and other feats of prowess become Strength checks
    • replace Stealth, Lockpick and other such “underhand” skills with “Sneakiness”

    In the end, there are seven skills in this version: Fight, Heal, Investigate, Machines, Notice, Persuade and Sneakiness.

  • Hindrances – chose to just not use these
  • Edges – bestow them selectively to satisfy character concept
  • Damage – Savage Worlds uses separate tracks for wounds and fatigue, but there doesn’t seem to be much value in that for a kid game. I replaced both with a single Hurt track
  • combat – actually didn’t change much here. Savage Worlds uses dealt cards for initiative, which is fun and accessible, and players get chips to spend on rerolls if they don’t like a result. The boys grokked that pretty quickly.

The one question I had after this was how to model the amazing things that the agents can do, and then it struck me: treat them as superpowers. The superpower mechanics used in the Superpower Companion are simpler to play than the ones in the core rules so I used those, bestowing powers in the same way I did for edges.


We’d already discussed the characters they wanted to play, so I made up characters with baseline attributes and skills, then assigned edges and powers which would give them the special abilities we’d talked about.

This is an area where it’s all about GM judgement, balancing the abilities of the characters so that they are more or less equivalent. So, I just said that Fred the Python was an Acrobat and had the power of Leaping, while also saying that George the Scorpion had partial immunity to kinetic energy so that he could avoid dying if someone stomped on him. I limited the number of abilities to two – that is, one edge and one power or a couple of powers.

This will be more of a challenge to manage as the characters advance, but I am not going to worry about that for now.

When we sat down to play, the first part of the session was getting the boys to assign points to their attributes and skills. I drew up some labelled grids and then gave them poker chips to spread around – four chips for the attributes, and ten chips for the skills. This is a bit more generous than for the core game, where you start with five points amongst the five attributes and fifteen points to spread across your 24+ skills.

That’s the game system summarised. Next time I’ll talk about how the game went.

[*] which is a Disney cartoon, but one which is accessible and even enjoyable for adults.

[**] combat skills are where the more sophisticated games go to town: Call of Cthulhu has separate skills for Rifle, Shotgun, Handgun, Sword, Axe, Club, Knife, and so on; RuneQuest has separate skills for different kinds of sword and shield.

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Technology That I Use


two of my most essential tools.

I am bit geeky about technology – I’ve been programming computers for more than thirty years, which means that I have collected a broad array of opinions, many of which are still relevant.

The inevitable consequence of this geekiness is that I use a lot of technology in support of my writing practice, and I thought it might be interesting to look at what those technological tools are.


I use Macs. This is not because they are Apple products*, but because they are Unix laptops.

The first Mac I bought was in 2002 when my old Dell Inspiron with its cobbled together Linux install finally became too unreliable to use. I got an iBook because it was a Unix machine, and because it’s sleep/wake behaviour when you closed and opened the lid was so perfect.

I have stuck with Macs because they take less administration effort than the alternatives (we are a Windows-free household for this reason) and because Mac software is generally more thoughtfully designed than Windows**.

So, the machines I use are:

  • a 2009 MacBook – 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4Gb RAM, and 300Gb HD. Recently upgraded to OS X Snow Leopard so I have access to current software, but this has been a reliable workhorse for the whole of the more than four years I’ve had it. It’s just about getting to the point where the battery needs replacing.
  • a 2012 MacBook Pro – 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7***, 16 Gb RAM, and 500 Gb HD. This is my work machine, but when I write over lunch or on the bus then this is what I use.


  • Scrivener – an amazing tool, the most efficient creative writing-preparation environment I have encountered. I’ve said why I started using Macs, but Scrivener is the single largest reason why I won’t be switching to a Linux-based machine when my MacBook finally turns up its toes.
  • vim – Scrivener is amazing, but if I need to apply regular expressions to my text it will be in vim.
  • Gimp, Inkscape, Dia – free software for making pictures. I’m not a particularly sophisticated user of these tools, but I can get things done. Gimp is the bitmap tool (equivalent to Photoshop), Inkscape is a vector drawing tool (equivalent to Illustrator), while Dia is a diagramming tool (like Visio).
  • Evernote – I use this for note-taking and sharing text across all devices. This is the usual place where blog posts get written, and where a lot of the unstructured noodling for roleplaying scenarios happens.
  • Dropbox – a terrific file sharing service. I use this to share Scrivener projects between machines, and to transfer all my writing management freight from one box to the other and back.
  • OpenOffice/LibreOffice – Scrivener is great for text but not so awesome for layout, so I use OOo and its LibreOffice fork**** to setup manuscripts for printing.

Other Devices

Despite my technological comfort level, I am a fan of appropriate technology – we only got smart phones a couple of years ago, for example, although I was one of the first people I knew to have a digital camera. Still, these are the supplemental devices in my life.

  • LG Optimus – an Android smart phone, pretty elderly as these things go since it’s running Android 2.2 but it still mostly works for my purposes. The main thing is that I can run Evernote and Feedly (my preferred RSS reader) on it.
  • Kindle Fire – a first gen device. It’s been a pretty solid tablet for the nearly two years I’ve had it, and the 7″ screen form factor is the right size for me. This early version is missing some features which I will be looking for in any replacement, particularly Bluetooth so I can use an external keyboard, but it is possible to write on this.
  • Synology DiskStation – you do back up your data, don’t you? I’ll write more about this box and how it fits into our backup system another time, but it’s been good so far.
  • pens – I like fountain pens, but what I use all the time are Uni Jetstream ball pens. They are terrific pens: even, reliable, and durable. My arty sister introduced me to them, and they are pretty much indispensable to me now.

Any More?

These are the tools that I use. What about you? Are there any toys I am a fool to do without?

[*] nor is it because I dislike Microsoft. I do, in fact, dislike Microsoft but that dislike is not why I avoid most of their products.

[**] there are exceptions, such as iTunes, but I don’t spend much time in there.

[***] lower clock speed on the newer machine, but far more cores: the Core 2 Duo has two cores, while the Core i7 has four which apparently present as eight because of hyperthreading. Which explains why the newer machine is faster, although the bigger RAM footprint makes a huge difference too.

[****] LibreOffice is a perfect example of how free software is supposed to work. OpenOffice was sponsored by Sun, and when Oracle bought Sun the future of OpenOffice looked doubtful. The response was to fork the code into LibreOffice. OpenOffice is still going, but now there are two good free office suites rather than just the one.

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Why Am I Not Writing?


… fruit flies like a banana.

… or, more precisely: what am I doing instead of writing?

Truth to tell, I am getting some writing done on my novel at the moment, but not as much as I would like despite getting up at five (and doing so more consistently of late, but that is another post) and so I would like to know more about how I spend my time.

I’ve confronted this issue of unproductive time use before, and one technique which I found helpful then was a time card.

What is it

In many ways a time card is a reminder of an industrial past when job performance was measured by time spent at work, but this ancient tool is useful for figuring out where your time actually goes. I have an intuition about how the time is spent, as anyone probably does if they are being honest with themselves, but being confronted with firm numbers can be an eye opener.

The one I made this time is below, and is meant to be printed out and scribbled on. You could also use a time tracking app on your phone or computer, which would help with analysis later, but I find paper works for me because the act of writing things down makes them more real, and having a physical token reminds to do the tracking.

How to track

First of all, take a time card sheet and put the date on it. In the first instance, I would recommend using one sheet per day.

Secondly, write down the time and what you’re doing.

There are a couple of ways of filling in the time card now: sampling, and noting changes*.
Sampling means picking an interval and writing down what you are doing at each interval boundary. I always write down the actual activity at the sample time, but you could record what you’ve been doing for the last period. I like to use a fifteen minute interval, since then it is possible to get something useful done between sample points.

Noting changes means that you make a note when you switch from one activity to another. It’s possible to collect more accurate data with this method since it will capture tasks which take less time than the sample interval length, but you have to remember to do the recording. While this is a less disruptive approach when you are focussing on large single tasks, it can also be more disruptive if you have a lot of task switching in a short time. Also, you need to scrupulous about tracking when you cut across to email for a few minutes.

These methods can be combined by sampling to keep the data fresh, and noting change for short tasks in between sample intervals. This is an advanced approach, though, which I would keep away from until the habit is established.

For myself, I start with sampling immediate activities because it’s a simple mechanical process that I don’t have to think about to make work.

Why track?

If you need to keep track of how much time you actually spend on particular tasks, especially for billing purposes, then it’s very likely that you already keep a time card and it is an ongoing task for you.

For the rest of us, tracking time usage can be a permanent addition to our toolset or just a short term thing to do to collect data.

I get several things out of this kind of tracking:

  • discovering how I actually use my time
  • learning how long tasks really take (which can feed into task estimates on burndown charts)
  • staying on task


This particular round of tracking is still ongoing. It’s been useful to keep me focussed on the tasks I should be working on, as I noted above, but also in identifying some times when I could be productive. For example, there’s a half hour gap in the evening which I can sometimes use to catch up on my word count.

I will collect more detailed results in a later post.

Have you used this technique? What did you learn?

[*] which is like the difference between polling and event-driven handling, for those of us like me who see software analogies everywhere.

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Back to normal

september-launchSeptember dawns, the crisp autumnal air freshening perceptions dulled by months of soporific heat*, while schedules return to normal and I, at least, can hopefully get some writing done.

So it is time to get back to the usual posting schedule for this here blog.

Let me say hello again.

I am Duncan Ellis, an author of code for money and fiction for fun. I write science fiction novels for the most part, and maintain this blog as a way of talking about my writing and the process of converting evanescent ideas into publishable stories.

What you’ll find here are posts about writing: technique, writing books, time management, and notes on where I am with my writing goals. I will also write about National Novel Writing Month during that festival of furious fictionalising. My usual posting schedule is Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Thank you for reading.

[*] or stunted by months of dispiriting rain; it rather depends. I hope your summer had the weather you were looking for.

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