Sprint to the Line: Two Years to Design Onyx Sky!

Seems like only ***checks watch*** two months ago that I was predicting that Onyx Sky would top out at 65,000 words and around 300 pages.

Over the last two months, things have accelerated on Onyx Sky. The words and pages have skyrocketed as I’ve been able to concentrate on filling out the game’s content now that the rules are pretty stable.

At the moment, the content for Onyx Sky looks like:

  • 180 page PDF / 360 page print book
  • Full color illustrations throughout
  • Five main sections: Characters, Game Rules, Game Mastering, Campaign Guide, Adversaries
  • 24 general skills and 54 martial skills
  • 110 encounter and adventure seeds
  • 71 adversaries
  • 86,000 words

I recently realized that I started work on Onyx Sky in April 2019. Looking back through my old PDF exports, Forge Engine took me 5 years to complete!

So I gave myself a goal of completing Onyx Sky in 2 years, which means I’m trying to tie this game up before the end of April.

Wish me luck!

One ‘big’ book, or separate player’s and GM’s books?

My last RPG, Forge Engine, was 65k words. Using a 9pt font, this resulted in a 144 page PDF and a 288 page 6×9 inch digest size print book. In its physical form, the Forge Engine book is near the outer limit of ‘usable’. For reference the Forge Engine book is about the size of the D&D 4th Edition Essentials Heroes of the Fallen Lands book (360 pages), and about the size of the Dungeon World digest book (400 pages). The variation in thickness of these books comes from the paper stock.

So, when I started working on Onyx Sky, I wanted to do a quick and slim RPG.

I’ve kept the same PDF/digest book format (as I do with all my games), but I bumped the font to 10 pts to improve readability.

I’m currently on the home stretch of development, and I’m ALREADY at 57k words, and 141 PDF pages:

Onyx Sky – Playtest PDF – 2021-01-30

It looks like Onyx Sky will end up around 65k words (once I’ve done the Adversaries), and probably around 150/300 pages.

Which leads to the question; as a consumer, would you prefer a single larger book, or one split into two books/products.

If I split it into two books, the Onyx Sky Player Guide would be page 1 to page 78 of the current PDF, giving a 160 page print book. And the Onyx Sky Game Master’s Guide cover page 79 through to the end of the current PDF, with more pages of adversaries, giving a second 160-ish page print book.

Splitting the game into two books also raises a bunch of questions about the pricing for the PDF(s) and for the print book(s), if I decide to charge for the PDF.

What do you think? One chonky book, or two slim-ish books?

Or are the print books irrelevant, and you prefer a single PDF without any shenanigans?

Taxonomy and nomenclature of role-playing game character elements

I've noticed lately the many of us (me included) use different terms for the characteristics of characters in the games we're designing.

I had a look around, and I can't find a codified/formalized taxonomy of these different elements of characters.

For example, Role-playing Game Design Patterns only includes attributes, skills, and traits.

So, in the spirit of creating things that need to exist, here's a quick and dirty taxonomy that I'd love feedback on to help us develop into a resource for all designers.

Different role-playing games use combinations of these characteristics:

  • D&D: Attributes, Species, Special Abilities, Class, Skills (and Feats), Levels, Backgrounds, Actions
  • Onyx Sky: Attributes, Species, Special Abilities, Skills, Backgrounds, Actions
  • Savage Worlds: Attributes, Special Abilities, Skills, Levels, Actions
  • Dream Askew: Class, Aspects, Actions
  • Powered By the Apocalypse: Class, Attributes, Aspects, Actions
  • FATE: Aspects, Skills, Actions
  • FATE Accelerated: Attributes, Aspects, Actions

Character (also known as Avatar, Player Character, Hero)

The player's in-game avatar, comprising some collection of the characteristics listed below.

Example: Steve


Any one of the collections of options that comprise a character.

Examples: Species, Attribute, Background, Skill.

Species (also known as Ancestry, Lineage, Clade, Type, Model, Classification)

The distinct type of the character, whether its species (living creatures) or model (mechanical).

Example: Human, Dwarf, Elf, Robot, Warforged, Tabaxi, Martian, Canine

Attribute (also known as Ability, Statistic)

The set of natural in-born characteristics that are common to all characters.

Example: [Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, Intelligence, Wisdom], [Mind, Body, Spirit], [Lasers, Feelings]

Trait (also known as Special Ability)

Natural/in-born characteristics of a particular species.

Example: Darkvision, Quadruped, Amphibian, Climb, Burrow, Undead

Class (also known as Profession, Template, Playbook, Archetype, Concept)

The specialization of the character, which may allow/disallow/discount/guide/suggest certain skills/abilities.

Example: Warrior, Mage, Sniper, Rogue, Hacker, Medic, Grunt, Archer, Spy, Femme Fatale

Level (also known as Rank, Tier)

The quantified development progression of a character in their class/profession/archetype/template.

Example: Level 1, Heroic Tier, Novice

Skill (also known as Proficiency, Feat, Power, Spell, Feat, Move, Enhancement, Edge, Hinderance)

These are things the character can learn or augment, which may grant benefits (or penalties) when taking standard actions or allow characters to perform unique actions.

Example: Thievery, Fireball, Athletics, Cleave, Diplomacy

Action (also known as Move)

These are things characters can do.

Example: Attribute Test, Melee Attack, Defy Danger

Aspect (also known as Trait)

A short descriptor that can replace any other element of a character.

Example: Smooth Operator, Undercover Agent, The Show Must Go On, Today Is A Good Day to Die

Background (also known as Culture)

The upbringing, former profession, or life experience of the character.

Example: Soldier, Street Urchin, Acolyte, Folk Hero

Game Master (also known as Dungeon Master, Keeper, Referee, Game Moderator, Facilitator, Storyteller)

The person who narrates the state of the world, and describes in-universe responses to the player characters' actions.

Example: Alan

Onyx Sky: Role-playing our way into the climate apocalypse

Whenever I’m not working on Hero Kids, I’m slaving on Onyx Sky.

Onyx Sky combines two great passions of mine, game design and climate change activism.

For the last few years, most of the my RPG gaming has been in post-apocalyptic settings. These games allow me to explore (and inflict on my fellow players) what our world might look like in a future ravaged by climate change and where our global civilization has collapsed.

However, Onyx Sky isn’t some preachy game about plastic straws.

In many ways Onyx Sky is a traditional role-playing game, with characters and goals and adversaries.

But in the background, Onyx Sky explores the ideas of what kind of society we want to carry into the future and what ethical frameworks underpin that society.



The world is broken.
We waged a terrible war.
We destroyed ourselves.
We destroyed our planet.

The parched land is blasted with craters.
Cities, monuments to our past, crumble.
Nature reclaims our cities and towns.
Among ruin, the survivors scratch out a life.

But the wars did not stop when the great powers fell.
We perfected war machines, and sent them into battle.
Autonomous killing machines now roam the lands.
Swarms of self-replicating nanites blacken the sky.

And in our rebuilding, we forgot the lessons of the past.
We still squabble for the spoils of our victory.
The ashes of our defeat.
Yet the spirit of humankind struggles to survive.

A Dangerous World

All RPGs require enough moving parts to generate interesting opportunities for conflict. For Onyx Sky, one of these moving parts is the war machines left over from a global conventional and nuclear war.

The unique setting elements of Onyx Sky are:

  • Nanites: Microscopic nano-machines that consume metal to self-replicate
  • Droids: Autonomous war robots that were compromised during the war to attack any and all targets
  • Freefall: Civilization in freefall after war and the destruction of technology by the nanites

A World of Consequences

Onyx Sky is a world of consequences. Consequences on a global scale, and consequences on the scale of the game’s characters.

The main theme of Onyx Sky is simple:

When you remove the trappings and comforts of civilization and technology, what’s left?

When I’ve been playing Onyx Sky, I come back to a series of questions to explore the world:

  • How do we behave without law, government, and police?
  • How can we keep our hope and humanity in a harsh world?
  • With our modern knowledge, are we better than our forebears?
  • What happens to the world as technology disappears?
  • What does it look like when nature reclaims the world?
  • What parts of civilization do we try to preserve?
  • How do we want to live?
  • What rules do survivors write for themselves?
  • What is the line between barbarism and civilization?
  • What would you do to protect your family and kin?
  • How do we deal with our elders, sick, poor, infirm, young?
  • Would you exploit others for your own comfort?
  • Would you allow the exploitation of others?
  • If you have knowledge, what do you rebuild?
  • How do you allocate scarce resources?
  • Will there always be people who use violence to get their way?
  • Is it acceptable to use power to get something you want?
  • How do we wield power?

Drop me an email if you’re interested in playtesting Onyx Sky.

Onyx Sky post-apocalyptic RPG in development and playtesting now

Since the release of Forge Engine universal role-playing system in 2018, I’ve been working on a new RPG; Onyx Sky.

Onyx Sky is a post-apocalyptic RPG that explores the world after a devastating global war and catastrophic climate change plunge humanity back into the stone age.

Onyx Sky takes the underlying principles of Forge Engine (stats + skills, flexible action economy) and re-imagines them into a streamlined and accessible new system.

Where Forge Engine used d10 die pools composed of the character’s attribute and skill ratings, Onyx Sky uses a step-die pool system.

In Onyx Sky, the character’s six attributes are represented by step dice, so a beginning character may have a d6 in an attribute, while a more advanced character would have a d10, d12 or beyond. This step-die system progresses from d6 through d8, d10, d12, d16, d20, d24, d30. Having a d6 in an attribute represents ‘below’ average capability, a d8 is an average human, and the higher dice ‘steps’ represent greater capability levels.

The dice pools for attribute tests in Onyx Sky always include the character’s attribute die, then they may also include a second skill die if the character has a relevant skill, and finally they may also include a third specialization die if the character has an appropriate area of specialist training.

Each attribute has a number of associated skills, such as Athletics which is based on Strength, Acrobatics which is based on Acuity, and Survival which is based on Acuity. In Forge Engine, these skills could be trained at various rating levels (from ◆◇◇◇◇ to ◆◆◆◆◆), whereas in Onyx Sky, these skills are either untrained or trained. When an Onyx Sky character is trained in a skill, the player rolls a second die using the same die as the attribute.

For example, an post-apocalyptic wanderer making an Acuity (Survival) test to forage for food would roll their Acuity die (d12), a second d12 for their Survival skill, and a third d12 for their specialist Forage training.

These dice pools are then rolled against a static difficulty number for normal challenges, or against the target’s defense pool for attacks. Each die that equals or beats the difficulty number (or the target’s highest defense die) is a success. This generally means that attribute tests and attacks can achieve between 1 and 3 successes. For general attribute tests, these successes define how well the character achieved their task. For combat, these successes each translate into damage, with the weapon’s damage being dealt for each success.

Here are the core features of Onyx Sky:

  • Attributes have die ranks; d6, d8, d10, d12, d16, d20
  • Skills are either untrained or trained
  • Action pools of 1 or more dice are used for attribute tests and attacks
  • In attribute tests, the action pool rolls against a fixed difficulty
  • Action pools for attribute tests include the character’s attribute die, a die for the relevant skill, and possibly a final die for a specialized skill.
  • Attribute tests can achieve multiple successes
  • For attacks, the action pool rolls against the target’s defense pool
  • Action pools for attacks include the character’s attribute die, a die for their weapon’s training, plus dice for specialized situational techniques
  • Defense action pools include the character’s body die, and additional dice for armor, skills, and specialized situational techniques
  • Attacks can achieve multiple successes, and when an attack hits, the weapon’s damage is dealt for each success

Drop me an email if you’re interested in playtesting Onyx Sky.

Hero Kids Creator’s Guild coming soon

People of Hero Kids, in June we’re launching the Hero Kids Creator’s Guild on DriveThruRPG.

The Hero Kids Creator’s Guild is home to community created adventures, translations, monsters, equipment, heroes, pets, and expansions.

Hero Kids Creator's Guild

For game designers, translators, and enthusiasts, the Creator’s Guild is a place to contribute to the Hero Kids universe. Here, creators can build on existing Hero Kids materials or create something new. Creators can publish and sell their work to the growing community of Hero Kids fans.
If you’re interested in participating in the Creator’s Guild program and getting something ready for the launch, get in touch with me at justinhalliday(a)gmail[.]com.

Hero Kids sales analysis

Last week I did a quick and dirty analysis of Hero Kids sales per day of the week to try to work out which day is best to release a new product (the answer is Thursday):

Hero Kids - Sales Per Day of the Week
Hero Kids – Sales Per Day of the Week

I’ve been dreading doing deeper analysis of sales per year, but I finally pulled out my finger to graph Hero Kids sales per week across the eight (EIGHT!) years since the game’s launch:

Hero Kids - Sales Per Week Across Years
Hero Kids – Sales Per Week Across Years

As you can see, Hero Kids started modestly, but I continued to support it with six additional expansions across its first year, and it gradually built its audience.
I think that there were a few step-changes across the life of Hero Kids:
  • Around the middle of 2013, I released a series of Adventures and Hero expansions over four-ish months. These seemed to build on each other.
  • In December 2013, Hero Kids was the headliner in a Friends And Family Bundle of Holding. This – miraculously – was blogged and tweeted by Wil Wheaton, which gave a large boost (http://wilwheaton.net/2013/12/rpgs-to-play-with-your-kids/).
  • In November 2014, DriveThruRPG launched its first annual Teach Your Kids to Game Week promotion, again headlined by Hero Kids.
I consider Hero Kids an evergreen product, so I plan to keep supporting it indefinitely. Each new product I release goes into the Complete PDF Bundle, improving the bundle’s overall value. And I also send out free copies of each new product to people who have already purchased the Complete PDF Bundle.

Hero Kids, adventures, and expansions are available now at DriveThruRPG:

DriveThruRPG – Hero Kids

And you can follow the development and news about Hero Kids at the dedicated blog:

Hero Kids RPG Blog

Hero Forge Games update

Folks, now's a good time to take a moment to check in about what's happening in Hero Forge Games land.

Bundle of Holding

The Hero Kids Bundle of Holding closed several weeks ago, with 1,008 new Hero Kids families joining our community, and $1,700 donated to the Reading Is Fundamental charity.


Recent Releases

By now you should know that I recently released the Forge Engine - Universal Role-Playing System.  In addition to that new hotness, I also just released the Hero Kids core 10 heroes in Danish.

Hero Kids - Hero Line-Up

If you're Danish, you can download them here:

Hero Kids - Fantasy Supplement - Hero Cards - Danish

The Obligatory RPG Podcast

I was recently interviewed by the amazing Boomer Radio Network, so listen in to hear all about the development of Heroes Against Darkness, the ongoing world of Hero Kids, and my latest Forge Engine - Universal Role-Playing System.

Obligatory RPG Show - Justin Halliday - Hero Kids

Hero Forge Games - Todo List

The Road to Ruin

Moving on to something straightforward.  I've been working on the card-only version of The Road to Ruin, which is available through DriveThruCards (this may not be available right now).  DriveThruCards recently released printed tuckboxes, so I've been working on a tuckbox for The Road to Ruin.

However, my first shot at this was... unfortunate (I blame DriveThruCards' shoddy tuckbox templates):

The Road to Ruin tuckbox

So right now I'm waiting for new proofs of the tuckbox. 🙁

Forge Engine

Moving along, let's talk about the Forge Engine - Universal Role-Playing Game, which has been downloaded over 5,000 times from DriveThruRPG (a huge first response!).

And there's a bunch of work to do on Forge Engine, so let's dive in.

First, I'm working on the print version of Forge Engine.  The first proofs are currently on they way to me (in Australia) right now.  While the artwork in Forge Engine is grayscale, I'm experimenting with a colour book so that it has the parchment look of the PDF.  Let's hope this works.

Here's a quick look at the cover layout:

Forge Engine - Cover layout

Second, I need to work up a bunch of pre-gen characters for Forge Engine.  This will go into the core download, and help people get an idea of what Forge Engine characters can look like.

This is a really old fantasy warrior pregen that I worked up:

Forge Engine pre-gen characte

In addition to the pre-gen characters, I'm incrementally working on fillable Forge Engine character sheets, as well as a bespoke fantasy character sheet.

Finally, while Forge Engine is a designed as a system and not necessarily a complete 'game', I feel like I should work up a set of introductory adventures that progressively guide players and game-masters through the core interactions of the system, and introduce them to simple and challenging combat encounters.

Hero Kids

Okay, let's talk Hero Kids.

Hero Kids continues to be the bread-and-butter for Hero Forge Games.  And while the number of releases for Hero Kids has (deliberately) slowed, I continue to support and develop for Hero Kids.  Right now, I'm actively working on several Hero Kids projects.

The first of these is a French translation of the Hero Kids core rules and the Basement 'O Rats adventure.  This is an experiment for me to see what this involves (a lot of work), and whether there is demand for these.

The second active Hero Kids project is a mini-experiment with banner advertising on DriveThruRPG.  I currently run Featured Product Messages on the Family Gaming category on DriveThruRPG.  In addition to these messages, I want to run some A/B tests with a couple of banner ads on DriveThruRPG to see which work best:

Hero Kids horizontal banner

Beyond the active Hero Kids work, I have a bunch of tasks on the backlog for this line:

  • A long time ago I began work on the Reign of the Dragon adventure.  I should finish this...
  • Hero Kids Adventure Compendium II: This print book would collect the hard adventures into a second book.
  • Hero Kids Monster Compendium II: There's always demand for more monsters, and a second Monster Compendium would explore more monsters from across the varld of Hero Kids.
  • Finally, I have artwork and ideas for a set of equipment for the Space Heroes sci-fi setting.

Prioritization and Capacity

My progress through this work schedule is based on my work capacity and various life obligations.  So if there's something on this list that you're especially looking forward to, drop me a comment below and I'll ensure it's prioritized.

Get Forge Engine from DriveThruRPG:

Forge Engine - Universal Role-Playing System