Planet Mercenary – A retrospective?

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Planet Mercenary is a game I helped to write and did a majority of the rules design on, especially the initial engine and concepts.

It’s a game I’m very proud of. Exceptionally so, and I consider it firmly in the “Best Work” category of my career (which while small, is growing rapidly.)

Last night, the Game Chief Secrets PDF was delivered to backers.  That marks the last big item from the Kickstarter owed to backers.

It also marks at least three months of downtime without thinking about Planet Mercenary (the team is taking a break.)

With the looming conclusion of the first round of the Planet Mercenary lifecycle, and the break hanging over my head like the famed Damocles Sword, I find myself reflecting about Planet Mercenary and the journey it set me on.


That’s September, 2013. That’s is the day I sat down with Howard at the Dragon’s Keep (a game and comic store) in Orem Utah, and we talked about how I’d approach a Schlock Mercenary roleplaying game.

He told me a mechanic he had in mind that had been roughly outlined (Mayhem), and basically put me in a on-the-spot job interview, asking how I’d approach the design problem.

Howard has a mind for story telling, humor and understanding what an audience needs as opposed to their wants. It’s these qualities (among others) that make Schlock Mercenary amazing, and it was apparent even in that first conversation, that those qualities were going to be core to how he approached Planet Mercenary.

You all know the phrase: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” That’s exactly what this meeting was. Years of homebrew, entering online adventure and RPG writing contests, and dinking around as a freelancer or consultant made for a fun hobby.

Suddenly, it was a job.

And when Howard sent out those tweets that night after our meeting, it was a job like one I’d never had.

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This was the day I had to sell Sandra Tayler on Planet Mercenary (to the best of my recollection.)

If you don’t already know, Sandra is…sort of the gatekeeper for Hypernode Media. She’s business-minded power behind Schlock Mercenary, and her and Howard handle all of it together.

This was the day where the project would live or die. Kinda a big deal. Sandra has a mind for business and potential I find myself jealous of. She understands what she does in a way I can only hope to approach.

In the Game Chief Secrets PDF, Sandra talks about this day and meeting, so I’ll avoid it. Just one note.

She says I was focused and sharp. All I remember is throwing up on the way to the meeting from nervousness, and the rest of the meeting is kinda blurry.

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This cover mock-up is an older one, and it wrongfully omits Sandra’s name (which thankfully, the actual book has printed on there.) I’m terribly at google-fu. No skill points there.


The Schlock Mercenary fandom is rabid (in a single word.) There’s an active reddit, Facebook group, forum thread, all the pieces. They support Howard and Sandra, and were exceptionally welcoming.

There’s even a whole, very active Facebook group for Planet Mercenary. It’s one thing to make something, it’s another to be able to watch it be embraced, criticized, and commented on.

It’s apparent that Planet Mercenary has a life of it’s own.


At the core of the experience are Howard and Sandra.

At points we were talking once to twice a week, with emails every day in between.

When you work with someone that much, you either learn to appreciate and love them, or you learn to hate and dread them.

Luckily, on my half (and hopefully Sandra & Howard’s), I landed squarely on the love and appreciate side.

Sandra & Howard are wonderful collaborators, among the best I’ve worked with (and I’ve worked with some serious talent.)

They’re supportive, understanding, engaged, and passionate about all their projects and all parts of their jobs. Even the ones that grind on, or drag, or could be considered tedious. They bring the same zeal and drive to everything they do.

I couldn’t have asked for better partners, and I’m grateful that they invited me in to their world and let me play around in their sandbox for bit.

I count myself lucky in some ways I never thought I would.

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One quick note. I often comment on how only a handful of folks know how the popular sophont type of Esspererin got named.

During the Kickstarter, one of the stretch goals was more playable sophont types. We hit it, Howard and I were reviewing the list (at this point, we had something like 30 sophonts prepped for the game.)

Howard sent out an email listing the sophonts we hadn’t included, and some requests for “something robotic”, “something small”, and some other requests. I sent back a something small that became the Queltro (a popular sophont in it’s own right.)

With a wry joke (I’m not funny like Howard or Sandra), I also sent in a bonus small sophont (because “two Something Smalls, make a Regular Sized Sophont.) I had asked my wife for some feedback before I sent them over (as I’m wont to do.) She mentioned the game needed gremlin space fairies.

Below is the original pitch for the Esspererin (dated 5/12/2015.)

Extra Something Small: Extra Something Smalls are tiny little humanoids with 4 wings. They can actually survive in the vacuum of space without breathing, and LOVE mechanics (their home planet never developed technology like that, due to their size). They’re considered bad luck, and tend to act like pilot fish, following ships around space ports and repair station, doing “unauthorized repairs, which usually go horribly wrong.”
  • Gremlins: Anytime a Extra Something Small does a Mechanic, Engineering, or Computer’s check, invert the color of the Mayhem dice. That’s right. The two regular dice are now Mayhem dice. The mayhem dice is now a regular dice. However, the GM automatically gains the Mayhem card before a player can look at it and this card can’t be negated by a player. The Extra Something Small gains a RiPP every-time they make one of those skill rolls. 
  • Flight: Extra Something Smalls can fly. Simply allow them to move in 3 dimensions. No biggie here.
  • Skill Bonuses: +1 Dodge, +1 Computers, +2 Engineering, +1 Mechanic.
  • Skill Penalties: None. 

Obviously it changed. I have to confess, I’m exceptionally proud that the Queltro and Esspererin are such integral parts of the Schlock Mercenary canon, and that I could provide the story seed that Howard was able to take and spin into something wonderful and unique. Every time they appear in the comic or a player raves about them, I smile. Knowing something I helped start is going to last a long time and bring enjoyment to others is a feeling I never thought I’d have.

And since I promised: Esspererin stands for “As Per Erin”, since the base idea of space gremlin fairies came from my wife in a conversation with her.

Howard says: “Small correction. Esspererin is not “as per Erin.” It’s “Extra small something, per Erin.” E.S.S., per Erin.”

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You can buy Planet Mercenary here. And I think you should. Not just cuz I get paid if you do (I do), but because it’s the smart thing to do if you like good, clever, unique games.

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Top Ten RPGs of 2017

Like last year, I’m doing a non-review of my favorite RPG products of the year.

I don’t review RPG products anymore, but I can certainly tell you what I loved. This is simply my impressions and responses to products that have come out.

Consider these recommendations, but there are so many great RPGs out there. It was hard to choose the best of list, and there are many more I wish I could mention.

It’s been a rough year for a lot of folks, and gaming is a great way to cope with life stresses!

I also never put my games on this list. But if you want to buy my games, there’s links in the menu on the left!


RIFTS_PG_Cover_90010.) Savage Rifts: Technically, this was a 2016 release, but I didn’t get my print copies from the Kickstarter until January 2017, so I think it counts. It wouldn’t be a Best of list for me without at least one Savage Worlds game on it!

An update of Palladium’s Rifts setting to the excellent Savage World ruleset, Savage Rifts brings the gonzo and weird Rifts world into an accessible ruleset.

It doesn’t feel like Savage Worlds, instead feeling like Savage Worlds reflected through a funhouse mirror. All distorted, weird and fun.

It’s imminently accessible, the books are a fantastically fun read.


pic3689282_md9.) Starfinder: There’s a lot of Science Fiction on my list this year, which is interesting.

Starfinder is a great book. I’d pretty much gotten off the Pathfinder bandwagon when D&D 5e came out (I preferred the streamlined nature of 5e), but man, if Starfinder hasn’t grabbed the lapels of my attention and stared me down.

It’s got great art, a fun setting, and a strong focus on streamlining some of the crunchy bits of Pathfinder, while still obviously being Pathfinder.

It’s still a bit crunchy for me, but unlike Pathfinder, I can actually see myself attempting to run Starfinder.


pic3537715_md8.)  Changeling: The Dreaming – 20th Anniversary Edition: I missed the boat with the original editions of Changeling, but man, if I am not fully on board now.

These edition is gorgeous. It’s equal parts throw-back to the early editions (which I now have and own), and equal parts advancement.

The art lands, the prose is exactly what I’ve had expected, and this is a game that knows what it wants to be.

I love it.


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7.) Tomb of Annihilation: As long as Wizards of the Coast keeps pumping out great 5e products for D&D, I don’t see  it’s inclusion on this list fading. This year, there’s actually two D&D products.

First, is the Tomb of Annihilation. A modernized homage to the classic Tomb of Horrors, it’s a huge campaign with lots of cool pieces (like dinosaur races), and a fun setting.

It’s got a good mix of the “old-school” feel, while still being squarely the modern D&D we know and love.


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6.) Xanathar’s Guide to Everything: Oh look, the second D&D 5e product.

About three years into the D&D 5e life-cycle, Wizards has released it’s first major “crunch” update, providing tons of options for players to change, improve and differentiate their characters.

Lots of cool subclasses. Lots of cool feats.

Just, lots of cool here. I see this being an essential tome at my table.


pic3340551_md5.) Blue Rose: So I never played the previous True20 edition of Blue Rose, but I remember it catching my eye on the shelf.

This new edition is a massive tome, chock full of content. It’s got a super developed setting that feels very different from other fantasy settings, a complete inclusion of the Fantasy Age ruleset, and a lot more!

I really dug this book, and while we didn’t play a campaign very long, I can see myself returning to it.


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4.) DEGENESIS: The Killing Game: So, DEGENESIS is one of the prettiest (if not the prettiest) RPGs on the market. Period.

The ruleset is fantastic, and The Killing Game is an amazing adventure/campaign for the DEGENESIS setting. It’s just packed with amazing art, stunning layout, and it’s visually, just a work of art that I can’t help but stare out.

The game deserves far more attention and market penetration than it’s getting.


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3.) Paranoia: Red Clearance Edition: Man, I dig Paranoia. Always have. I loved the zany rules, the crazy take on satire.

This new edition is a surprising amount of content in a tiny box. A totally revised ruleset, with lots of new elements, a shift in focus (no longer Communists, but Terrorists), and a lot to love, I can’t recommend it enough.

It’s a steal for what you get at the price point, and we’ve already had hours of fun from it.


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2.) Middermark: So, I’ve not played Torchbearer in the Middarmark setting yet, but hot damn, I love this book.

It’s a work of art. Carefully crafted and an obvious labor of love by the lead writer, Thor, Middarmark pushed my like of Torchbearer into a full-blown love affair.

It introduces new rules, a new class, tons of wonderful world building (tree and weather tables, a throwback to Greyhawk,) with evocative and great art throughout.

I absolutely adore this book, and it is just amazing.


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1.) Star Trek: Adventures: So yeah. This is absolutely the best game of the year. Let me list the reasons why.

I love Star Trek. It’s a two decade long love, and it shows no signs of abating (despite Discovery’s attempt to kill it.)

I love this version of the 2d20 ruleset. It’s a perfect match, and it’s clear the designers of this game are on the same page as I when it comes to what makes Star Trek, Star Trek.

It’s a fun, easy read.

It’s huge. Just packed with stuff. It’s crunchy in all the right places, while simple and fast in the right places.

Yeah. It’s the perfect Star Trek RPG!