Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The Future of Through Ultan's Door


Two Problems

Although I haven’t exactly been quiet for the last few years—I’ve created a supplement about downtime and a launched a first season of a podcast on megadungeons—I have been stuck on releasing new issues of Through Ultan’s Door. I’ve been flummoxed by two things.

The first was that my Zyan material is a tightly integrated weird setting designed at each step to pull players deeper and deeper into exploration. This makes presenting material in an episodic fashion a nightmarish question of information design. The ideal solution to this problem would be to release single giant version of the setting in book format. Then you could get it all at once, and have everything you need to run an entire 5+ year campaign in Zyan.

But the issue is that I don’t have the time to do that. It would take even longer than it took for BREAK!! to come out. Working in smaller chunks is how I make progress. The small scale of the zine format is a huge stimulus to my productivity. It gives me a timetable, forces me to think about how to present information, and gets me writing. Just as importantly, the zines also fund my purchase of art, editing, and layout. But I’ve faced a lot of decision paralysis, and flip-flopping, about what to tackle first and how to carve up the material.

The second issue is that fulfillment for the Kickstarter for Through Ultan’s Door 3 burned me badly. It ate up a larger portion of my life than I can afford to give again. Since I’m not a full time game designer, my other commitments put uncomfortable limits on how much time I can afford to devote to my hobbies or (when money is involved) “side gigs” like rpg publications, even where these are labors of love that bring me joy. This didn’t stop me from running a Kickstarter for, and printing and fulfilling Downtime in Zyan. But that was an intentionally scaled back project: a single zine, possible to ship with minimal packing in a single rigid mailer. The thought of publishing and fulfilling multiple zines, along with reprints of past issues, has been paralyzing.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to surmount these problems so that I can, at last, develop and share my Zyan material with you.

Two Solutions

Solution 1: Move to Patreon

I’ve considered two possibilities, neither ideal. I’m genuinely torn between them. If I moved to a Patreon format, this could motivate me to release things in bite-sized pieces in the same way that zines do. In fact, since less work would be required for each release, it might work a lot better than zines for this. I think I could release a nice chunk of Zyan material once a month. Since no physical printing is involved, it would allow me to set aside logistics until we arrive at the final printing of the actual project.

The model here would be Luka Rejec’s Ultraviolet Grasslands, or Miranda Elkin’s Nightwick Abbey. They both have used Patreon to good effect, supporting longterm, ambitious dream projects. The support here would be both financial and social in terms of building an enthusiastic base of supporters who helped to take the actual physical launches over the top. The modern social media landscape is very alienating and fragmented, and I do worry a lot about reaching people and drumming up support for my projects. While not solving all problems, Patreon would give me a leg up.

I could use Patreon money to commission editing, art, and layout for the posts I release as I go along. So people would get real value, and I would make real progress towards what I hope would be a jaw dropping final physical release. I could involve a graphic designer for layout, and some artists, on a more regular basis and just get working. As you’ll see below, I probably already have almost a year’s worth of material that I could get into shape to share in (say) bi-monthly posts starting as soon as next month.

Solution 2: Continue with Printed Zines in Batches

One problem with Patreon is that people have connected with Through Ultan’s Door as a physical object. I’ve worked really hard to fuse the physical quality of the zines and the luxurious imaginative content into a single unique package. What buzz they have created has, I think it would be fair to say, been in no small part because of their quality as embodied artifacts. My suspicion is that there are a not insignificant number of people who would buy physical zines, but who would be disappointed by the digital format of a Patreon. I would potentially lose momentum by moving into a purely digital format on an entirely new platform. Although it involves a lot more work, and the zines cost so much more to print than other people’s zines, I still suspect I could better financially support the project, and build buzz, by just getting on with printing more zines.

If I stay the course with physical zines, to overcome the first problem, I will need to release them in batches. Where a zine needs more context to actually use, the idea would be to release multiple zines to provide that context, to the extent possible. My standard in general will be to give people enough to actually begin playing the new material. It won’t ever be perfect, since anything published will always point towards further unpublished material. But it will be enough so that each new release can be profitably used.

As for the problem with logistics, I will need to run Kickstarters, so as to know how many physical copies I should print and to raise the money for printing. I will also need to partner with a warehouse that can do Kickstarter fulfillment for me. This would free me from the most agonizing and unmanageable portion of the process: packaging and shipping the zines.

At one point Matt from Exalted Funeral offered their warehouse for this purpose, as has Andy Action, so I’m hopeful that one of those two might provide a solution. I’ll still be printing the zines locally, so I’ll also have to figure out how to package them securely and ship them by freight to the warehouse in question. They also have a lot of separate parts, including encounter cards and so on, so I’m a bit nervous about having a warehouse do it, as it would be an ungodly number of pulls for each order, unless I did some pre-packing. I’ve never worked on these kinds of logistical difficulties before! But it will be well worth it if I can outsource fulfillment. In truth, there’s no other way I can move forward with the project if it remains in physical form.

Given that physical zines are a formula that I know works for me if I could just solve the logistics problem, I lean in this direction, although the Patreon option is veeerrrrryy tempting.

The State of the Zine

There is so much in development, it’s almost comical.

Republishing Downtime in Zyan

Since Downtime in Zyan is out of print, I have plans to republish it, hopefully by the end of July. I should be able to put it back up for sale in my store by late August. So that’s good news!

New Issues of Through Ultan’s Door

Temptations to switch to a Patreon model aside, I have been working productively on the zines this summer. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m inching up on four or five zines worth of content. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s in the hopper.

Through Ultan’s Door 4

This issue of Through Ultan’s Door takes you to the threshold of the White Jungle, presenting the hanging merchants, a launching pad for exploration of the White Jungle that lies just beyond the harbor that ends issue 3. It’s a jostling set up, full of Vancian shenanigans, with writeups of four backbiting merchants from the city of Zyan, and a few other notable NPCs, their wares, rumors for adventure in the White Jungle, possible otherworldly patrons who might sponsor jungle exploration, and more. It also shows how I would use the downtime system presented in Downtime in Zyan to build what I call a “basecamp”, a way station or home away from home, where one can engage in downtime activities on a smaller scale. It also shows one way to integrate that system with a table of campaign events and rising threats that keep the pressure cooking, while bringing a medley of strange visitors to the merchants, along with many opportunities for downtime and adventure. In some ways, although the issue is constrained to a single location, it’s also the most ambitious of Zyan materials I’ve penned to date.

The rough draft of this issue is 90% done. So it’s pretty close!

Through Ultan’s Door 5

This issue presents rules for exploring the dreamlike environment of the White Jungle that hangs from the bottom of the flying island on which Zyan sits. The White Jungle consists of four stacked hex maps that allow movement in 8 directions (the normal 6 hex faces plus up and down between maps) in a giant wilderness exploration hexcrawl where falling is a constant danger. This issue also presents the first level of the white jungle, the Brambles, a nighted level filled with hanging mossy isles, bramble thickets with wilted albino roses, and many strange locales. This issue includes a massive d100 encounter table for this level of the jungle, a hex map, and a hex key with entries for each of 51 numbered hexes for this level.

The rough draft of this issue is 50% done. Right now I’m working on expanding encounter tables and further developing the hex key, one bloody hex or encounter entry at a time. It’s grueling, but I’m making progress! (This is what I’m currently working on.)

Through Ultan’s Door 6

This issue presents three adventure locations from The Brambles in greater detail: The Cenotaph of Shirishanu, The Tower of the Golden Spore, and The Cages of the Empty Witch. Think of them as three 1- or 2-shot location-based adventures that can be found on the hexmap from issue 5. They integrate deeply with factions from the level, intimate significant lore for the setting, and give characters a crack at getting some wild magical objects with campaign altering significance. Having run each of them now several times, in several different dreamlands campaign, I think they’re a lot of fun.

The rough draft of this issue is 80% done. The work that remains here is much less grindy than on Issue 5, since it mainly involves polishing, expanding, and perfecting already existing material.

Through Ultan’s Door 7

This issue presents the second level of White Jungle: The Depths. The Depths are the beating heart of this vertical jungle. They present a fever dream of rich beautiful and dangerous flora and roaring fauna. It also hosts some of the farthest out hex locations imaginable, including Lake Yannu that hangs like a teardrop in the jungle; a holy dungeon in the body of a giant snake; and the wreck of a ship that once traveled the Oeneiric Seas and is now leaking the Id of its former crew into a corrupted portion of the jungle. This issue also introduces some otherworldly factions that have only been hinted at in earlier issues, like the Phantamorians, beings from the dreamlands of the dreamlands, and the spirits of the air, demons of the Endless Azure Sea.

The rough draft of this issue is 50% done. This is the level that has seen the most play in my campaigns, so it needs less grindy filling in than issue 5, as more hexes and encounters already exist. But I also haven’t polished it at all yet, so there’s a lot of work to be done here.

Pale Echoes

Finally, when I published Through Ultan’s Door 3, I promised to pull together a new line of zines called Pale Echoes that would explore different campaign premises, set in different versions of the waking world.

Pale Echoes 1

Pale Echoes 1 presents an alternate campaign frame, called “Elspeth’s Letter”, where the players travel to the dreamlands through the memories of a dead adventurer, the titular Elspeth. The party inherits her estate along with a host of problems. I have been play-testing this campaign frame with a full campaign for the last 3 years, and it is working just splendidly. This issue showcases a tight integration of local setting in dreary waking world, downtime actions, campaign events, and a campaign calendar, where most of the tension comes not so much from the waking world as from Elspeth’s past itself. It’s a premise designed to work less with an open table and more with a dedicated stable party of 4-6 characters.

This is 75% done. I’m still trying to crack the best version of campaign events, which are a devil to design with enough detail to be interesting, while also being flexible enough to support half a decade of play. I’m getting there, but there’s still some distance to cover.

Pale Echoes 2

Pale Echoes 2 presents in much greater detail the campaign frame that I originally employed, called “Ultan’s Door”, where the adventurer’s travel to the dreamlands through a door that has recently opened. In this issue I present the waking world setting of which Through Ultan’s Door 1 provides only the slightest glimpse. In this issue, expect writeups of the fickle Chatelaine of Storms, her seven colorful wizard apprentices, the state sanctioned religion of sleep and dreams, and the quaint customs of this ancient city. This setting is dominated by the fact that this is not the first such door to open, and that the last time it opened it brought the Chatelaine and prevailing religious order to power. This premise can be run either with a dedicated stable party, or with an open table. Most of the pressure comes from the fact that the campaign begins with a very unstable situation that threatens the involvement of many possible rival adventuring parties, and eventually the Chatelaine herself. The integration of downtime actions and campaign events is tied to the pressures that arise from this unstable starting situation.

This is 20% done, so quite unfinished. While I look forward to working on this, it’s definitely been on the backburner.


So that’s my exhaustive update on everything in development. I would love to hear your thoughts on this situation. While I don’t make decisions by consulting polls, I do value your opinions. What are you most excited about seeing published form? How do you feel about Patreon vs. physical zines? If you are a publisher how have you navigated fulfillment headaches?

Monday, June 3, 2024

Group Downtime Activities: Remembering the Dead

The system of downtime actions I created is individual by design, built as a counterbalance to OSR games where the action is focused relentlessly on cooperative exploration, so that characters might develop as individuals and chart their own path between adventures. (If you are unfamiliar, for an illustrative downtime activity, see here.) However, I have come to believe that it is desirable to incorporate some group downtime actions into this system in cases that involve the need for group buy-in or where the experience is inherently collective.

Group downtime activities differ from individual ones in that they require a quorum of at least 3 participating characters all of whom must spend their downtime action performing the group activity. If they are unable to form a quorum, then the action is not available. Having formed the quorum, in some cases each player rolls separately for the outcome of the action where the relationship to the group activity is more personal. In other cases, where the upshot is more collective, a single roll is made for the entire group. As usual, these rolls are 2d6, subject to a base modifier and a situational modifier with a result of 6- a failure, 7-9 a mixed result, and 10+ a success. What the follows is the first of several group downtime activities I have been working on. More to follow soon.

Remembering the Dead

Howard Pyle

To lose an adventuring companion is no easy thing, especially having shared many hazards and tight spots. Rites of remembrance give communal form to grief. They take many ritual forms from the bright dancing flames of a funeral pyre to the return of a corpse to the dark earth; from solemn visitations when sitting shiva to the boisterous celebrations of a wake. These rituals provide a way to commemorate and honor the dead so that the living may carry on without forsaking the memory of those who are gone.

All that is required for a humble rite of remembrance is the gathering of a few friends to share some memories over a libation, or a few words spoken before a hastily assembled cairn. But a proper rite of remembrance, befitting the individual’s achievements and stature in the community, respectfully planned and resourced, is more fitting for both the living and the dead. Thus, the base modifier is set by the collective expenditure on the funeral, which may come from any source.

Once the funds have be secured, the group should describe the rite of remembrance, where it occurs, according to what rituals, and which NPCs if any are invited. Before rolling each player character may opt to say some words commemorating their fallen comrade: sharing a memory of the character or saying something heartfelt about what they appreciated about them. This provides a further situational modiferOnce this is completed, each player rolls 2d6, adding the following modifiers:

Base Modifier

0         GP                     -1
250     GP x Level         + 0
500     GP x Level         +1
1000   GP x Level         +2

Situational Modifier: 

+1 for words commemorating the deceased character.


6-      No Closure: The rite of remembrance leaves you cold.
7-9    Mourning is Hard: Roll on the Memories table and take the Unresolved Mourning condition.
10+   The Dead Live On: Roll on the Memories table.

Memories (1d6)

  1. An Example to Us all: Gain XP equal to deceased character’s level x 200. 
  2. Unexpected Inheritance: The player of the deceased character may specify what remarkable item they have bequeathed to the living character. If no such item exists, the GM may invent one that no one knew the deceased character had.
  3. Carry on the Work: The player of the deceased character may specify which downtime project to bequeath to the living character, transferring the associated downtime tracker, but decreasing it by one step (to a minimum of 1). For example, the living character might pick up a relationship with one of the friends of the deceased, or acquire steps towards mastering a martial technique, skill, magical research, or spiritual exercise, or inherit an institution the deceased was building alone.
  4. Channel their Memory: Taking inspiration from the deceased, the living character can perform one extraordinary feat. The GM in collaboration with the player of the deceased character will devise a one-use power that is a tribute to the character’s achievements or endearing features. For example, if the character did some great fast talking, the one-use power might be used to persuade any NPC of one thing.
  5. Protection of the Dead: The character is watched over by the spirit of their fallen comrade who will intervene to a replace the results of any single roll with the best success possible (e.g. the highest roll on the die). The player may declare they are spending this one-use power after they see the results of this roll. There is no expiration on this power.
  6. Visitations: The character may declare that they have been visited by the dead, receiving vital information of a helpful nature in a dream. The GM will provide real, vital intelligence, of great help to the character on the topic they have selected, even if there is no way for living to know about it.

Unresolved Mourning

Mourning is messy. The rites of remembrance have stirred up unresolved feelings for your character. The GM and player should agree on the form this unresolved grief takes. Perhaps the character feels guilty about the death of their comrade, or angry at someone responsible, or are afraid of suffering a similar fate. The GM will determine what effect the condition of unresolved mourning has, drawing from the following list as examples.

  • Progress on one downtime tracker is stalled.
  • Use of one class power is impeded.
  • -4 on saving throws.

The GM will inform the player what adventuring goal they must achieve to remove the condition, such as getting revenge for the character’s death, or achieving some adventuring objective that would be meaningful for the character or somehow honor their memory.