Writer. Editor. Leximaven. Game Designer. Vorpal Blonde. Bisexual Brainlicker. Midas's Touch. Schrödinger's Brat.

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The Poison Eater: Singing Cities and Angry Robots

posted on: March 11, 2016
in: Blog, The Poison Eater: A Numenera Novel

Enthait is a city that sings. No. Singing isn’t the right word. The city’s sound isn’t one of mouth or lungs, throat or tongue. It is stormvoice–thunder crack and cloud breath and rain pattering on a bloodied blade. It’s a beautiful and terrible chorus that makes her bones howl in reply. 

Enthait is a city that sings. And every time Talia hears it, it knocks her back.

She hadn’t meant to emerge from the tunnels here, but she also wasn’t surprised to push open the door to Emont’s underground room and instead stumble into the bright daylight and open sky of the athenaeum. She staggered as the song threaded through her–everyone told her she’d get so used to it that she hardly heard it, but that day had not yet come.  

As she stumbled, a hand caught her by the elbow, rings clanking against the metal armband.

“Affah,” she said, nodding her thanks.

It was Burrim’s voice that answered, low and close. 


[new draft chapter, work in progress]


Big news on The Poison Eater this week, and it is this: we’re partnering with a really awesome publisher called Angry Robot to publish softcover versions of the Numenera and The Strange novels! That means that not only will the books get a wider distribution, there will be more of them in the future AND we get the benefit of the really smart Angry Robot team.

I did a Twitch channel? broadcast? show? last night (my first one ever) for a really fantastic sci-fi podcast called Speculate with Monte Cook and Patrick Rothfuss about Torment: Tides of Numenera, and in it I talk a bit about the writing process. It might be of interest to some of you.

That’s all for now.

Finwa, Poison Eaters. Moon meld you.



Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.

The Poison Eater: Double Fisting Your Writing

posted on: February 21, 2016
in: Blog, The Poison Eater: A Numenera Novel

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 11.14.03 AM

I can’t remember if I told you this already, but in addition to The Poison Eater, I’ve been working on the sourcebook for the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera computer game. (As well as thinking about dinosaurs and guns for this other thing).

I’ve always been someone who likes to work on multiple things at a time. I think it comes from my own nature of loving to start and learn new things (I once had someone tell me, “Well, of course you never finish anything. You’re an Aries.”), but it also means that if I get stuck on one thing, I can jump over to something else. That (plus, of course, damn and lovable deadlines) is what keeps me from hitting writer’s block (or, more commonly, writer’s “what the hell am I doing?” inertia.)

I like to have one book that I’m just starting (all these awesome ideas! and I haven’t written anything but ideas so it’s still perfect! WOOO!); one that I’m still in the “I got this” stage (cool. I know what I’m doing. This is going well.) and one that I’m in the “OH NO I NEED A NEW JOB!” stage (Ugh. This is awful. I can’t remember what I wanted to do with this book or my life. I should just tear it all up and start over.”)

Currently, that’s Predation (new), Torment: Tides of Numenera (knee-deep) and The Poison Eater (Ugh. I’m the world’s worst writer).

Having three projects that were all in the same mental space would be awful, I think. Particularly if it’s in the world’s worst writer phase. I might never write again.

On the other hand, I know lots of other writers who like to deeply immerse in a single thing. Anything that takes them from that thing is a nuisance and a distraction. I envy that in some ways. I don’t think I have the focus or patience to sink that deeply in a single thing, but there’s a lot of value in that process.

I think one of the biggest fallacies in writing (beyond: There’s only one way to do it) is the idea that you are going to figure it out right out of the gate. That you’re going to finally carve time and space out of your life and you’re going to sit down and make a single book and you’re supposed to just know how to do it. And that’s just utter bullshit.

It took me years of shame and “I’m doing this wrong” to finally admit that I worked on multiple things at a time, because I’d never heard anyone else talk about that. Worse, I keep trying to do it “right” — in this case, by writing a single thing. And, my god, the time I wasted.

Allowing myself permission to work on many things at a time might seem obvious to lots of people, but it wasn’t to me. It was one of the many blind spots I had in my own writing process. So if there’s something that you do that feels like it works for you, but you don’t think you’re supposed to do it that way, I say: keep doing it. Maybe, in the end, it isn’t your thing. But maybe it’s one of the important keys to your writing process.

Double- (or in this case, triple-) fisting your writing can be weird sometimes, I’ll admit. Today, for example, my task list looks like this:
Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 11.24.05 AM

And there’s a very different tone and sensibility for each book. So I have to figure out good ways to transition. I have talismans at my desk for that process. There’s a dinosaur with bright colors and feathers that reminds me to do good research and make sure we’re representing dinosaurs as they really were. There’s the cover and a map for The Poison Eater. All I have to do is look at Talia striding across the Ninth World and I remember what I’m doing. When I’m about to start working on Torment, I often jump into the beta of the game for a few minutes, immersing myself in the interactive version of what I’m making.

Working on more than one thing keeps me excited about each of the projects. Because I know that if I get stuck on one, I can jump to something else. And by the end of the day, I’ll have words and ideas to move all three projects forward. And that, more than anything, is what I know about what it means to be a writer: What words I have made at the end of the day.




Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.

The Poison Eater: Say No to Say Yes

posted on: February 18, 2016
in: Blog, The Poison Eater: A Numenera Novel

Photo on 2-17-16 at 10.28 PM #6a

How do I say no to thee? Let me count the ways:

  • Sorry, can’t make it to your event/wedding/game/dinner party/awards ceremony.
  • No thank you, dirty dishes.
  • Just walk by the XBox… walk right on by. Fallout 4 will wait for you.
  • “I’m sorry. I’m booked out with clients for the next six months.”
  • I can’t do your podcast/radio program/video blog until May.
  • Oh, puppy. I know it’s a beautiful day for a long hike, but how about a bone instead?
  • What dinner?
  • What shower?
  • Go away, social media. Go away, cute puppy pictures. Go away, trolls. Go away, interesting and informative articles.
  • I’d love to, but I must decline for secret reasons.

Saying no is, for me, the hardest part of writing. I WANT to say yes to all the things (Okay, not all the things, but many of the things). I like people (mostly), I like fun things (a lot), and in all truth, there are days where I’d rather do ANYTHING other than write. Those are the days where I almost convince myself that I like cleaning out the fridge.

But. That’s not my road. My road is the No Road on the way to the Yes Road. In order to find writing time, I have to leave something behind, like so much litter out the window on the highway of life. (Don’t actually litter. Duh. It’s a turn-of-phrase).

When I was 20, I thought I’d have time to do everything. Write all the books. Love all the people. Have all the sex. Eat all the desserts. See all the places. Learn all the things. Watch all the movies and read all the books.

Now I know better. Now I know that every gain is a loss. Every yes is a no. Every recipe perfected is a chapter unwritten.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t want to suck the joy out of my life. One of my oldest, most favorite shirts just says HEDONIST on it in big, bold letters. I want it all, goddamn it. And there’s a part of me that’s still angry that I can’t have it. But the older, wiser (?), more realistic me gets it. It’s a return-on-investment equation. The bigger the NO, the greater the YES.

Today, I said yes to this blog post. I said yes to dinner and watching X-Files and playing with the dog. I said yes to work tasks that can’t be put off.

And then I said no to everything else. Because this novel needs a lot of yes from me today.

What will you say no to in order to say yes?


PS – Did you snag the sample copy of the first chapter of The Poison Eater yet? Grab it here.


Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.

Day 24 The Poison Eater: You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

posted on: January 24, 2016
in: Blog, The Poison Eater: A Numenera Novel

Photo on 1-24-16 at 5.24 PM #3

Here’s the secret to writing, creating, and living life that no one tells you. Or that someone did tell you, but you didn’t hear it or you thought, “no, that can’t be true” or you heard it but thought it didn’t actually apply to you.

You don’t know what you’re doing. AND THAT’S OKAY. It’s how it’s supposed to work.

All the parts of that truth have to go together. Don’t say one without the other two. In fact, I’ll say it again, as a single sentence, in case you didn’t hear it:

You don’t know what you’re doing–AND THAT’S OKAY–because that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Every day, I sit down to do my job. And I don’t know what I’m doing.

Every day, for twenty+ years, I have sat down to do my job. And I didn’t know what I was doing.

Every day, for twenty+ years, I have made a career out of doing something that I don’t know how to do.

And that, I think, is how it’s supposed to work. To be a creator, you have to create. The very act of creation is to make something brand new, to do something that’s never been done before. How could you know how to do it if it’s never been done?

There’s no secret potion. No magic bean or button. No book or class or teacher that’s going to give you the perfect key to the creative door. (And having read a lot of books, taken and taught a lot of classes, I’m all for them–I think they’re great, and they help you learn–but they’re only part of the process). 

If you want to be a writer, a creator, a life-liver, this is the only way I know how:

Be okay with the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing.
Sit down and do the thing you don’t know how to do.

It’s a catch-22, but the very best kind: Because every time you sit down and do what you don’t know how to do, you start to figure out how to do it. Rinse. Repeat.

To do it is to learn how to do it. So, the sooner you start screwing up, the better.

Today, I screwed up 2500 words of this novel. Tomorrow, I will screw up even more.

Go. Start screwing up. Right now. I dare you.




Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.

Day 15-17 The Poison Eater: On Choices (and the End of Choices)

posted on: January 17, 2016
in: Blog, The Poison Eater: A Numenera Novel




Some days, you have to choose between writing a blog post and writing another paragraph on your novel. Or between writing a blog post and working out. Or, on the really rough days, between writing a blog post and taking a shower. The past few days have been like that for me. Blog posts got scrapped for more novel writing, an hour-long walk with the dog along the nearby Cheasty Trail, a shower, and even a little Fallout. This is the trade-off you make, every day between now and the day you die. Every day, small decisions. Do I write? Do I spend time with loved ones? Do I take a nap? Every day, words that you give up in lieu of other things. There’s no right or wrong. There’s only today and choices. Tomorrow and choices. Until all of your choices are behind you. That’s how stories work too, I think. The character makes a choice every scene, and those choices inform the next scene, and on and on until someone (the writer, in this case) says, “Okay, you’re done. You’re out of choices. How do you feel about your life?”

In general, I don’t take much time off. It’s the danger of being driven, of hearing death’s pen coming for me, of owning and running a fairly small, fairly new business where people (both fans and employees) are counting on you, of thinking you can do it all. But on Friday, I checked everything off my to-do list for the day (a rare accomplishment), played some Numenera with the Monte Cook Games team, and then took the rest of the day off. I needed it. My creative sponge was wrung dry, and there was nothing else to get out of it.

I thought I’d jump back into the book on Saturday morning, raring to go. Let me tell you, that was not to be. I was like a school kid who’d gotten the taste of playing hooky in my mouth and who never wanted to go back. “Snow day!” I cried (even though it wasn’t snowing). “But I’m sick…” (even though I wasn’t). “I just don’t feel like it.” (that one, at least, was true). Most of the time, tight deadlines don’t allow me to listen to that whining little voice. I have to wrestle it into submission, lock it in a cage, and refuse to let it out until I’ve done the work. But sometimes I just let it run wild and I listen to it, deadlines be damned (yes, yes, I know that the odds are very good that past Shanna has just screwed over future Shanna in a very big way, but she’s done it before and I know she will give me cookies and I will forgive her).

So I decided to read instead. I am very careful about what I read when I’m writing a novel. I unconsciously steal other author’s voices the way that some people unconsciously mimic other people’s accents. Short stories are okay. Non-fiction. Graphic novels. So I read The Art of Language Invention. I read about the deadliest rocks on the planet. I read a paragraph or two out of every book on the coffee table (it probably doesn’t surprise you to know that’s a lot of books, and if I didn’t love coffee so much, I would call it a book table instead).

And when I had read enough that someone else’s words had filled me to the brim, I put down the books and started writing again. Because the writer that is Death gave me the choice, and who knows how many more I will get before he decides my story is at its end.




Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.

Day 9: The Poison Eater

posted on: January 9, 2016
in: Blog, The Poison Eater: A Numenera Novel


Writing in Small Spaces.

By writing in small spaces, I don’t mean like in a closet or inside a dryer (although I’ve known more than a few writers who sneak off to the bathroom to write, since it’s the one place in the house that they know they won’t be disturbed). I mean in small spaces of time.

I like to write in big chunks. Ideally, a week. I’m kind of kidding, but also not really. My ideal way to work on something is to have a long stretch of time where nothing else is required of my brain. I can do nothing but think about the story. The most productive I’ve ever been was when I lived on a tiny, rural island in Scotland. I only knew a few people. I didn’t have a job. Internet was sporadic. I walked and ate and read and wrote A TON.

But the truth is that space rarely happens. Thankfully, I do have a life where I can often grab two or more hours of solid writing at a time. Not always though. This weekend, I’m a guest at a lovely convention called OrcaCon. I’m doing panels on sex, gender, GMing, spending time with people I adore, and doing some other fun and interesting stuff.

I’m also trying to write this novel. Which means small spaces of time. I’m at a coffee shop now, and have just finished writing for the 15 minutes it took me to fuel up on caffeine and sugar (and to recharge my introvert battery). I managed to get some solid words down, to rework a small section that’s been bugging me, and to jot down the ideas that I had on the drive to the convention this morning. It’s taken me another 3 or 4 minutes to shoot a photo and write this blog post (which probably means there are typos, so I’ll apologize in advance).

Now I’m going back to the convention, feeling like I’ve accomplished something. I’ll probably try to get another 15 minutes in later in the day as well. One of the things I’ve learned is that successful writers are often the ones who find time for what they love. I once had someone tell me, “Everything you want to achieve requires some kind of pain. Choose your pain wisely.”

So here is my pain I choose: that sometimes I don’t have my ideal of long spans of time to write, but I find a way to make the time. Even if it’s just 15 minutes. Small spaces make big things.




Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.

Day 7: The Poison Eater

posted on: January 7, 2016
in: Blog, The Poison Eater: A Numenera Novel

Photo on 1-7-16 at 9.52 AM

Today’s work is going back to the beginning, both literally and figuratively.

The idea for The Poison Eater came about when I was working on a short story for one of our fiction collections. The story idea was really exciting to me, but the story itself wasn’t quite coming together. I realized that part of the reason was because the story was bigger than I could tell in a short piece. It needed breathing room to explore the characters and the situation.

So, when I needed to come up with an idea for a Numenera novel, I dug up the draft of that story and used it as my inspiration. So much has changed since then, but the essence of it and the main character have stayed the same.

My novel-writing process is a jumbly process that I honestly don’t recommend to anyone else. It takes forever, it’s confusing, and it’s a lot of extra work in the end. But it works for me — and if there’s one writing “rule” that I believe in, it’s: Find what works for you.

To start, I write an “outline” — I put that in quotes because I’ve seen other author’s outlines, and they’re beautiful binders full of detailed plot points, chapters, scenes, and character backgrounds. Mine is a sentence. Or maybe two. And then I start writing. Each section that I write continues to add to that outline sentence. It’s very much like exploring the Ninth World in a game. Oh, look, here’s a new character! I should put them in. Look at this crazy place I just made up. I should put that in. Here’s a cool artifact. I should put that in!

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Because each time I encounter something as I’m writing, I have to ask questions: What is the significance of this? Does it mirror the characters’ emotional states, the thematic elements of the book, or this particular plot point? What is its role in the story? Where do I need to “back fill?” (A good example of backfill: I was writing a chapter in the middle of the book and I wrote about one particular character wearing an object. The object just showed up as I was writing (this happens a lot, I think, if you’re open to discovery). And I realized that it was the perfect object for the character, but it needed to show up earlier in the book, so that it had even more emotional significance when it showed up in the middle. So I made a note in an earlier chapter to mention the object there for the first time).

Which brings me back to rewriting the opening chapter. Now that I know so much more about the characters and the story and the objects that matter, rewriting the first chapter is all about adding those elements and giving readers the foundation to understand the story. The opening chapter is a promise of what’s to come–and until I know what’s to come as the writer, I can’t promise it to readers. I’m sure the first chapter will change again, as I continue to write and learn about the novel. In fact, this is pretty early in the process for me to go back and revisit the first chapter, but we’re sending it out to KS backers as a reward soon, so I want it to be as close as possible to its final form before it goes out.

Remember: Poison never lies.



Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.

Bring on the Year of the Motherfucking Heart.

Bring on the Year of the Motherfucking Heart.

posted on: December 31, 2015
in: Blog, Life

2015 was a rough year for so many of us in the world. Private and public heartbreak, hopebreak, lifebreak everywhere. I won’t list all the reasons, because you’re paying attention to the world and you know them already. And you know the way your heart feels bruised, like bad fruit, and how your bones feel heavy, like you’ve landed on the wrong world and the gravity is killing you.

But. But. But. But, 2015 was also a brilliant, bold, and fucking fierce year. 2015 was teeth and claws. Fur everywhere. Scratching and clawing for shit that matters. 2015 was a battlefield, a howling mass of force that wouldn’t shut up, wouldn’t sit down, and wouldn’t go quietly into the night.

Maybe that’s every year. Maybe I’m stating the obvious. Maybe I’m just getting old and I feel my wounds more this year than I have in the past. But I don’t think so. I think we’re on the brink of big change, and that takes its toll. I believe in fighting–getting down in the mud and dirt and blood–but I also believe I can change the world by kindness, human empathy, respect, communication, education, and the fierce beats of my blood.

And that’s why I am declaring 2016 to be my Year of the Motherfucking Heart.

What does that mean? Time will tell, but I already know that it means a few things:

  • More writing. I don’t protest, I don’t yell, and I don’t sign petitions. But goddamn it, I write shit that changes the world. And I will continue to do so this year.
  • More fiction. See above. Fiction fuels my heart, and when I’m fueled, I’m ferocious.
  • More time with and focus on those I love. As an introvert, an overworker, and someone who struggles with social anxiety, I forget to connect with other hearts.
  • More movement. My literal heart–the one that keeps me alive–needs to keep me alive a lot longer. And that means taking good care of it as I move into my mid-40s.
  • More sex. See above. Sex is good for the heart (literal and figurative) and it keeps me connected to my body, my passion, and my communication skills.
  • More kindness and human empathy. To myself, to others. Input and output, both. The world is hard, we’re all broken and wounded and scrambling for some tiny foothold. I have the power to offer a hand, a dollar, a kind word, and I will do so whenever possible.
  • Be the octopus. Adaptable, playful, inventive, original, and gives the best hugs.



Competing With Puppies: Designing Games for Kids (Part 3 of 3)

posted on: April 21, 2015
in: Blog, Games, Gaming with Kids
[This is Part 3 of 3! If you haven’t already read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, hop over here first].

The first two parts of this series looked at the basics of designing games for kids. This segment looks specifically at accessibility, particularly for players with dyslexia, color-blindness, visual impairments, and autism.


Accessibility in gaming, to me as a game designer, means purposefully creating ways for the widest variety of players to play your game to the fullest.

For kids, this kind of accessibility can be life-changing. Studies and personal accounts have shown that gaming helps kids feel more confident, learn new ways to express themselves, and develop important life and social skills.

Accessibility in gaming typically falls into five categories: Vision (color-blindness, blindness), hearing (hard-of-hearing, deafness), speech (speed impairments, language differences), mobility (physical challenges), and learning/cognitive (learning and reasoning challenges, including dyslexia, autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome).

A few of these–namely dyslexia, color-blindness, vision impairment, and autism are particularly challenging for kids and roleplaying games.


Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols. This is especially pertinent (and problematic) for roleplaying games, where the books are often beautifully designed, with elegant, complex fonts, dark or complicated backgrounds, and lots of small text, cursive, and italics. Unfortunately, these beautiful design elements can make it difficult for dyslexic readers to understand the text.

Choosing good font types, sizes, and contrast can all make reading easier, not just for kids with dyslexia, but for new readers or those who struggle with reading for other reasons.

Font Types: A number of studies have explored the best font choices for readers with dyslexia. So far the results vary in surprising ways. One article I read even reported Comic Sans as being the most dyslexic-friendly font. Here’s what a more recent study found regarding potentially good font choices:

Good fonts for people with dyslexia are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana and Computer Modern Unicode, taking into consideration reading performance and subjective preferences. On the contrary, Arial It. should be avoided since it decreases readability. Sans serif, roman and monospaced font types increased the reading performance of our participants, while italic fonts did the opposite.

There are also fonts designed specifically for readers with dyslexia, including Lexie Readable, Open Dyslexic, and Dyslexie.

So, there’s a lot of variability in what the research says makes a “good dyslexic” font, but it’s easier to tell what makes a bad dyslexic font: complicated and extraneous elements, italics, and all caps.

Font Size: Small font sizes and tight spacing between words and characters can make reading difficult. A 12- or 14-point font is recommended for adults. For kids that number is even higher.

Contrast: Dark backgrounds with white text or image-heavy backgrounds can also cause problems. A cream or matte white background with a dark, clear font seems to work well.

Game Elements: A common element of roleplaying games that can be especially problematic is charts and tables. Keeping these to a minimum is best. If you need them, designing them with lots of space and clear distinctions between rows and columns can help.

Diagrams and handwritten fonts can be particularly difficult for those with dyslexia.



Color-blindness is an especially important concern in kids’ games, because many games use symbols and colors to help young readers who have difficulty reading. But if one symbol is a green circle and the other is a red circle, then kids who are color blind might not be able to tell the difference.

Choosing colors with color-blind players in mind, and using a variety of different shapes in icons and other symbols can go a long way toward clarity for struggling readers. The inability to distinguish between red and green is the most common form of color-blindness, so staying away from those colors within the same symbol set can help a lot. Blue-yellow color-blindness can also occur, as well as the ability not to see colors at all. This color-blindness simulator (and others like it) can help you see how your color choices will look to colorblind players.



Visually impaired players may have blurred vision, partial or total blindness, or other concerns that make it hard for them to see text and dice. For those players, having a PDF or other electronic document that can be read aloud by a computer makes a big difference. Adobe has some free online resources for making PDFs accessible and Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System) talking books is another popular option. Braille dice and overlays for accessories are also great for at-the-table use, especially to supplement the read-out-loud text.

For those with limited vision, print books with large, dark fonts on matte (non-shiny, non-reflective) paper makes reading easier. PDFs with the ability to zoom way in without quality loss are also helpful.


Autism and other cognitive/learning concerns, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD, are perhaps the most difficult to design for. We still know so little about them, and every child’s experience is so unique, that saying, “Here is the right way to make a game accessible for kids with autism” is something of a pipe dream.

Accessibility in this case seems to be more about building appropriate options right into the rules. Make sure that games have the ability to be scaled up or down, that rules allow flexibility for a variety of attention spans and playstyles, and that parents and other adults are given the rules and tools they need to help players. But the rules should still have a clear structure; autistic children often need to know what to expect and to be able to anticipate what’s coming next.

Games that minimize loud or surprising sounds, allow for short breaks, and encourage, but don’t require, interaction can help set players at ease and allow them to play the game in the way that makes the most sense for them. Because many autistic players struggle with verbal communication, create rules that allow players to act out what their character does rather than talk about it. (Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the other hand, are more likely to want to talk about anything and everything; allowing them to speak in a robot voice or repeat a favorite phrase as part of their character provides a way for them to use their verbal skills within the context of the game)

Also consider having an ‘opt-out’ concept built right into the rules. If players know that they can say a word or make a gesture that will stop the game any time they feel scared or uncomfortable, it gives them a sense of autonomy and control. Most kids won’t need to use their opt-out; just knowing they have it is enough to alleviate that sense of tension and worry that can sometimes build up.


All of these elements are important first steps toward accessibility, but of course, they’re only small steps and there’s so much still to be learned. Every little bit helps, though. And the more we can do today to make games accessible to those with challenges, the more likely young players will be to grow up to love and work on games themselves. And they, in turn, could use their experiences to make games that are accessible to an even wider group of young players.



AbleGamers (works to make games more accessible)

Game Accessibility Guidelines (geared more toward video games, but still useful)

International Game Developers Association (also for video games, but also useful)

64ouncegames (creates Braille overlays for games and supplements)


Kiss kiss bang bang, s.

Competing With Puppies: Designing Games for Kids (Part 2 of 3)

posted on: April 10, 2015
in: Blog, Games, Gaming with Kids
[This is Part 2 of 3! If you haven’t already read Part 1 of this series, hop over here first].

In addition to the way that age does (and doesn’t matter), I think there are the other two important parts of designing games for kids:


It’s not possible to make a game that everyone excels at because everyone has different skills. Numbers will be the bane of some players, while writing is the arch nemesis of others. As a kid, I failed at any game that required me to stand up and do something in front of people, because I was incredibly shy. Games like Charades terrified me.

But it is possible to make a game that everyone is able to play and have a good time at. For kids, some of the biggest hurdles to game playing are the four “R”s — Rules, Reading, Writing, and Reflection. Taking a close look at these elements during the design process helps young players jump into a game quickly and easily.

The Rules: Rules should be accessible, necessary, and interesting. If a rule isn’t necessary, or takes a long time to explain, consider whether it’s vital to the game (or whether it’s just too detailed). To me, the goal of rules is clarity and guidance. If a rule confuses things, constrains the players for no reason, or stops a GM from saying “Okay!” then I think long and hard about whether it’s necessary.

Sometimes the rule is necessary:

[combat] “I want to swing my sword and kill all the monsters in this room!”
“Well, your sword lets you hit one monster at time but you get to hit it really hard. Which one would you like to try and hit first?”
“That one!”

[driving rules] “I want to drive my race car super fast across the world and come back with that awesome treasure chest right now!”
“Your race car is ten times as fast as walking, but it’s not that fast. Let’s see how far you and your friends can get today.”

Sometimes the rule isn’t necessary, because it would force the GM to say no to something fun for the players, even though saying yes wouldn’t impact gameplay:

[combat] “I want my armor to look like a dinosaur and I want to yell Rawr! while I swing my sword!”
“Great. You put on your dinosaur suit. Which monster do you want to try and hit?”

[driving rules] “I want to drive my race car around in circles next to everyone while we’re walking, since I’m ten times faster than everyone else!”
“Great, that will make sure you’re near your friends in case anything bad happens and you can jump out of your car to help.”

Rules are important, and kids will look for those boundaries and push them. The boundaries that matter should matter a lot. But once players understand those limits of the game, they should feel free to be as creative as possible inside them.

Reading: Some kids are fantastic, enthusiastic readers who will read entire corebooks for pleasure. Others will read the bare minimum for what they need to know right now. Others will do everything possible to avoid reading. This might be because they haven’t picked up the skill, they’re struggling with issues like dyslexia, or they can read but just don’t like to.

Ways to help this are by choosing easy-to-read fonts in appropriate sizes and colors (I’ll talk more about this in part 3, and talk about fonts, styles, and sizes that seem to be most accessible). Symbols, icons, color coding, and shapes are all useful cues for struggling readers. Additionally, using graphic elements to point out the most important elements on the page will help players focus in on what they need to read, and will allow them to skip the non-essential reading until they’re ready.

Charts, tables, and even dice are another important element of this. Lots of numbers, lists, and lines can be overwhelming even to good readers. Dice, especially, need to be easily readable, as there’s nothing more frustrating than rolling and not being able to instantly see whether you’ve hit your goal.

Writing: The same aspects of reading are also true of writing. Some kids love to write. Others hate it. It can be useful to give players the option to write if they want to—or to play the game without picking up a pen. Good character sheets with large and interesting writing and drawing spaces facilitate interaction for those who want to scribble, while easy-to-hold and use tokens, cards, stickers, and other elements provide non-writers with other ways to keep track of things.

Reflection: Reflection is the idea that you see yourself in a roleplaying game. This, to me, has two parts that are closely linked. The first is that you can see yourself as yourself in the game. The second is that you can see yourself as someone else in the game.

Seeing yourself as yourself means that there are images and characters that look like you (or that look the way that you see yourself). This means depicting characters with a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, personalities, and outfits. This is especially true in a game with human characters. Most games that focus on non-human characters, say, aliens, show every alien differently. Blue skin, yellow skin, round, square, stick-like. But when you look at kids’ games with human characters, they’re often thin, white boys. (Not that there’s anything wrong with thin, white boys — they should be able to see themselves reflected in a game too). However, having more options means that more kids will find someone they can instantly relate to. Of course, you can’t make a reflection of every person who’s going to play your game, but making every character truly unique means that there’s a larger chance that kids will find someone they can really see themselves in and feel proud of.

Seeing yourself as someone else is the creative- and empathy-building element of roleplaying games. When you start playing characters who look and act differently than you do, you begin to understand them better, you move outside yourself into a creative space, and you start to develop human empathy that translates into the real world. Games can help players do that by providing a wide range of character options in terms of race, culture, personality, gender, skills and more (within the constraints of the game and the world, of course).

dreamstime_10488229 copy


The number one thing I know about designing RPGs for kids might be this: Don’t be boring. Keeping kids at the table – both in mind and body – will be a difficult enough task for the gamemaster. Don’t make it more difficult with the game design itself. Anticipate that young players will be incredibly creative, incredibly smart, and easily distracted. If something isn’t the coolest, funnest, most interesting that you can possibly make it, then cut it or rethink it. When you’re doing playtests, watch for those moments when the kids get bored (or ask them — they will absolutely tell you, probably in great detail, about all of the most boring parts of your game).

When kids DO get bored and turn away from the game, watch what they do instead. If you’re in the middle of a combat scene, and the kids jump away from the table to act out that scene, that’s not boredom, that’s engagement. If they jump away from the table to start playing with the dog, that’s boredom (and the power of dogs). So just imagine that with everything you’re creating, you’re competing with the power of a cute puppy (or a video game or a TV show) near the table. Can you keep the kids’ attention (or at least some of it), despite the adorableness of the puppy? Is the game flexible enough to incorporate the puppy as a companion or an escort or even as a friendly helper? Does it allow the GM to give the kids some kind of in-game benefit if they spend one minute away from the table as a group to play with the puppy?

Focusing in on the right age group (without talking down to them), decreasing hurdles to play, and never, ever allowing your game to be boring: Nail those three elements and you’re well on your way to making an amazing roleplaying game for kids (and their families).

Come back soon for Part 3, where I look more closely at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.

Kiss kiss bang bang, s.

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