by Steven Hammond

Well, as we say in the software world, 2020 has passed and good riddance. I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you all the best in 2021!

Transparency is one of our company’s values. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you a summary of what went well and not so well in 2020 and some exciting things we have to look forward to in 2021. If you have questions, reach out to me through the Black Book contact form (https://theblackbook.io/contacts/new). I’m happy to answer pretty much anything.

2020 In Review

We had 3 major goals for 2020, and we hit all three.

Launch the Black Book GM Tools: The first, and most important, goal was to launch the GM tools. The first beta of the GM tools that we rolled out in 2019 didn’t work so well, largely because of some early design choices, including database selection. We spent most of the first half of 2020 completely replacing the database (CouchDB -> PostgreSQL) and the basics of our API (Rest -> GraphQL). The launch of the GM tools was a tremendous success. The Rhode Island Historical Society shared their Lovecraft walking tour as part of our virtual launch party at Gen Con. We had a good crowd and the feedback on the GM Tools was very positive. I am super happy with how this went.

Improve our Integration Story: The most common feature request used to be integration with Virtual Table Tops. Of course everybody wanted a different one, and several of the more popular ones are difficult to integrate with. Also, several people (including a few Pelgranistas) felt that VTTs were too heavy and needlessly complex for GUMSHOE games. Through discussions with our community, we learned that there was one tool that almost everyone uses when they play on line. Discord! And Discord provides a robust set of tools for integration. So we launched Discord integration at Gen Con as well. This has also been an enormous success.

Financial Self Sustainability: Our last goal was financial sustainability. We needed The Black Book to grow to where it covers the technical infrastructure costs for itself and other company projects. We achieved this as well, with a little extra to invest back in the business. Someday I’ll be able to leave my day job behind and focus solely on software to make games better. But it is not this day.

That said, we didn’t get everything we wanted done in 2020. I really wanted to get support for Swords of the Serpentine and QuickShock launched and our bug queue is a lot longer than I want it to be. Finally, even though we met our financial goals, I don’t feel like we’re really getting the word out beyond Facebook. I would really like to take part in the broader GUMSHOE community in 2021.

What’s Coming in 2021

We have some big plans for 2021.

The Black Book

Our overriding goal for the Black Book in 2021 is to make it the go to tool for running GUMSHOE games online. You shouldn’t need a VTT in addition to the Black Book —  we’ll have you covered. Here is a roadmap for the Black Book, roughly by quarters. Note that these are just the major things, the usual steam of bug fixes and smaller features will continue.

Q1: Our first goal for Q1 is to support all GUMSHOE games except Mutant City Blues (more on that later). The second goal is to have robust support for one-shots and con games. This includes GMs creating and managing characters for the players, and support for libraries of pre-gens that can be reused.

We are proud to announce that “game complete” includes Casting the Runes from The Design Mechanism and Quill Media! They have generously agreed to allow us to add their game of Edwardian horror to the Black Book.

Q2: Mutant City Blues and support for QuickShock combat will arrive during Q2. We’ve been saying that for a while, but both are harder than they first seem and both are going to be exceptional!

Q3/Q4: The goals for the last half of the year are to round out the functionality needed to run a great game. This might include sharing image assets with players and integrating with one of the audio tools that are out there. It might also include some special functionality for the more popular games. Things like a Chase Track for Night’s Black Agents. We’ll be reaching out to all of you for help in defining exactly what the Black Book needs to fulfill the vision.

Thank you!

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of our customers and supporters. Without you, we couldn’t do it. 2020 was a tough year for all of us. You certainly helped us through it, and hopefully the Black Book helped you. Don’t hesitate to connect with us on Twitter, Facebook or at https://theblackbook.io.

Sincerely,

Steven Hammond

Founder, Northland Creative Wonders

by Steve Hammond

Whoot! Infrastructure and other problems are behind us, and we are flying. A ton of progress in May and the Black Book is essentially back on schedule.

This month we have a video showing the complete character generation experience for Trail of Cthulhu. In the video you can see how we handle selection of occupations and drive, occupational abilities, languages, build points, and more. Not much more to say, hopefully the video speaks for itself.

 

Speaking of schedule, I expect to wrap up my Alpha test and begin the beta test no later than June 5th. This will involve many more invites going out and hopefully lots more feedback coming in. We will be making improvements along the way, and inviting more people each week. Assuming Beta goes well, I expect to go live 30 days later on July 5th.

You can still request an invitation for the beta at https://theblackbook.io. After June 5th, you will be able to use that link to register for a notification when we go live. As always, questions and comments can go below.

by Steven Hammond

Current Status

Alpha testing continues. The only notable error, so far, was a data issue on day one. Meanwhile, we have added over a dozen users. If you are a current tester, don’t forget to send feedback now that you have been able to use the app for a while.

The next alpha release should push the first week of May. This release will complete Night’s Black Agents character support and notes capabilities (see below). NBA support includes MOS, sub-skills (driving, languages & piloting), cherries, network contacts, covers, and special weapons, besides the basic character info and abilities in the first release. Because of data formatting changes, this release will require a database reset for all users. Once it is live, the next batch of invites will go out. If you haven’t registered to help test, you still can at https://theblackbook.io.

Character Notes

A key features of The Black Book is character notes. Adding your own character notes is an obvious and straightforward feature. However, we can also use system generated notes for things that would otherwise clutter or complicate the main character sheet. For example…

Occupational Abilities in Trail: Each occupation in Trail of Cthulhu offers a special benefit. These benefits don’t affect a character’s abilities, but they do need easy accessibility during play. Therefore, when you select an occupation, The Black Book will add a note describing its associated benefit.

NBA Cherries: Night’s Black Agents backgrounds don’t grant special benefits, but general abilities with scores of 8 or better receive cherries. Every time you raise one of your character’s abilities above 8, a new note will describe the cherry. Additionally, if this cherry includes an investigative ability bonus, it gets added intp that ability automatically.

Network Contacts & Covers: Agents in NBA start the game with high ratings in Network and Cover. The point spends are permanent, so the resulting lists can be long. It sometimes takes more than a word to describe a contact or cover. Notes are ideal for these. They allow an arbitrary amount of information while keeping the clutter off the main sheet.

This video shows system and user notes in action.

Next Steps

I expect two more Alpha test releases in May. The first should complete the functionality needed for Trail of Cthulhu. The second will include character portraits and more flexibility when refreshing pools in play. Another round of visual improvements will appear as well. Each release will coincide with another wave of invitations.
 After the Alpha releases, we will be ready for Beta and more invitations. While Beta is in progress work will begin on the various GM tools. No promises, but my hope is to open for business on July 1.

As always, leave comments below. I’d love to hear what you think so far and what you want to see in the app.

by Steven Hammond

First let me open by saying that https://theblackbook.io is live and taking email addresses for anyone who wants to take part in the alpha or beta tests, or get notified when the new Black Book goes live.

You may recall that during the months of September and October we asked all of you to upload your character sheets — scans of used print sheets, custom digital ones, etc. The idea was to learn where the current sheets were coming up short and use the knowledge to make better ones in the new app. Thanks to your input the exercise was a success. We gave away both certificates —  Alf Joakim Persson from Sweden won the first. The other winner didn’t give us permission to publish their name.

So, what did we learn? First, almost everybody was looking for an easier way to find a character’s abilities in play. A common solution was to only show the abilities their character had points in. Many people wanted those abilities in a single, alphabetical list — not sorted into categories. From this suggestion, we think the app needs to have separate edit and play modes. The categories, seem useful when creating a character so edit mode might look a lot like the current sheets. Play mode would streamline the list of abilities to only those possessed by a character, sorted into a single list. There could be an option to group into categories, or maybe we could indicate the category with some iconography. Reducing the number of abilities shown will be critical to the mobile experience where we can only accommodate a single column of text.

The second most common change was to make Health and Stability more prominent. People achieved this by making larger label and numbers in place of the number grid used in Gumshoe character sheets. Again, I think this calls for separate edit and play modes. When creating your character, health and stability are but two of the many abilities you will need to manipulate. In play, however, they can become larger and more prominent.

Two other reasons people customized their character sheets were to add custom abilities and game specific features like cherries in Night’s Black Agents. We will support these features though perhaps not right at launch.

Which takes me to the final topic I want to discuss this month. I am still not publicly discussing dates, but we should start an alpha test phase in the next few weeks. I expect that the alpha will be basic character sheet functionality for Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents. We will quickly add more GUMSHOE games and additional features and enter beta when we are feature complete for launch — or close to it. I haven’t decided on numbers for the test phases, but we will send invitations out in groups in the order in which people signed up.

How do you sign up? Go to https://theblackbook.io and enter your email address. That is all you need to do. We won’t use that address for anything other than inviting you to join the new Black Book. And while you are waiting for that invitation to arrive, go ahead and answer this month’s poll. We are looking for more information on how you want your character’s abilities listed during creation and in play.

Poll Questions

Our analysis of the submitted character sheets showed that the most common reason people customized their sheet was to make it easier to find abilities in play. Help us find the best sorting methods with the two questions, below. If you have other ideas, leave them in the comments.

When creating a new character, I would like to see the abilities sorted as follows:

View Results

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In play, I would like to see my character’s abilities sorted as follows:

View Results

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by Steven Hammond

Back in 2011, Pelgrane ran its first crowdfunding campaign and the Black Book, a GUMSHOE character creation tool, was born. Since its release the original code has been maintained on a voluntary basis by the very busy Pelgrane webmaster John Clayton. The Black Book has done its job, but it’s now time for a new implementation, which incorporates innovations such as Shock and Injury cards, which are begging for a digital implementation to really shine.

I am excited to announce that Northland Creative Wonders has reached an agreement with Pelgrane Press to take over the Black Book character tool, modernize it and turn it into a product that can sustain its own ongoing maintenance and development. All of the current Black Book features will continue to be freely available to all, with a new look and better support for phones and other small screens. More advanced features, like GM character matrices and Shock and Injury cards, will be available with a nominally priced subscription.

I will talk about some of those advanced features in a future post; right now, I want to talk about our design process and how you can help.

Understanding Users

In order to make good software to solve a problem, you need to understand how users solve that same problem without your software. Asking users how they solve that problem often doesn’t provide the information you need; sometimes users aren’t aware of all of the steps in some activity, they might accidentally exaggerate or deprecate the extent of an issue, and they tend to ask for specific solutions rather than identify problems. And those solutions are frequently limited by the user’s current process or their understanding of what is possible.

So what does a designer do? Certainly not ignore users and assume you know better. Instead, you look for evidence of what they actually do and scour that evidence for ways you can make things better.

If you have the resources you can do focus groups and user testing. With fewer resources, you can do user interviews. But even then, you are hoping to see demonstrations or artifacts, anything to give you more insight than the user can verbalize.

How You Can Help

Fortunately in gaming we have a ready artifact to study — character sheets. We want to see your GUMSHOE character sheets. What we want most to see is pictures or scans of used paper sheets; with all of your marks, erasures, and doodles. We think we can learn the most from those. We also want to see your digital sheets, and your custom sheet designs.

To share these with us you will want to go to https://shammond42.typeform.com/to/gQ3L7s. That form will ask for your e-mail address, any comments you have on the sheet you are submitting and a button to upload the sheet. E-mail address is optional, we will only use it if we have questions about your sheet, send you a prize (see below) or to send you an invite to the new app when it is ready.

Once we have reviewed the sheet submissions, we will contact people with the most interesting sheets to discuss them further.

What’s in it for You

We have a pair of $15 gift vouchers to the Pelgrane Press online store. Every sheet uploaded with an email address will be an entry in the draw. You have to provide your email address to enter – otherwise, we can’t contact you if you win.

The upload site will stay open until October 15, 2017.

What Happens Next?

We will go through all of those sheets and user discussions to see what we can learn. That learning will lead into the design of the new character sheet in the Black Book. We will also share the sheets and our findings with Pelgrane as they think about redesigning their print character sheets.

From there, we will begin the process of building the rest of the app. It is too early to talk specific schedules now, but I hope to be sharing more progress and insight with you as this project moves forward.

The Black Book – The GUMSHOE Character Builder

Thank you so much to all the funders for the Trail of Cthulhu character builder. If your name is not listed here, it is because we think you want to remain anonymous. If we are wrong, please tell us. If you praise them enough, we will open the character generator to everyone. Please give priase in the comments.

First, thanks to Rob Harper, who named the generator The Black Book, a reference to the Black Book of Azathoth into which names are entered.

Next we have Scott Douglas, Andrew Raphael, Daniel Byrne and Ken Finlayson, who sacrificed the whole world; Ben Parks, Sune Nødskou, Nikodemus Siivola, John F Rauchert, Sam Friedman and M. Sean Molley who sacrificed their town.

Then Eric Priehs, Jim McCarthy and James Pacheco who caused the monster to rise; then David Shope, Dave Desgagnes and Steven Marsh authors of forbidden tomes.

Please offer them all your undying and blind devotion.

Next, Niclas Matikainen, John Post, Paul Snow, Fernando Barrera, John Evans, Patrick Barrett and Jeremy Redman, whose characters lived; then Rick Neal, Sasha Bilton, Reto M. KIefer, Dave Sokolowski, John Anderson, Terry Regan and Cameron Paine, whose characters died.

Please offer them your undying and effusive devotion.

David Lai, Reza Peigahi, Steve Moss, Kristoffer From, Damon Dorsey, John Stephens, Petri Wessman, Jonathon Dyer, Neal Dalton, Louis Banna, Matthew C H Winder, John Taber, Shane Mclean and Reverend Dak.

Let their names live on.