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Stark, iron, smeared, bleeding, charred, and cruel - perfect! Now let's make this game gorgeous.
Stark, iron, smeared, bleeding, charred, and cruel - perfect! Now let's make this game gorgeous.
278 backers pledged $9,586 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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The game

Circle of Hands is a stark, mud-and-dung Iron Age fantasy role-playing game. I don't mind saying that it features the most brutal, jarring, fine-grained, frighteningly playable combat I have ever seen at a role-playing table. At first, the game looks like a fairly traditional tabletop RPG build, with GM, players, dice, and so on, but I've knocked every turnbuckle of this sort of play sideways with extremely consequential mechanics twists.

A Circle knight (art: Amos Orion Sterns)
A Circle knight (art: Amos Orion Sterns)

You play members of the Circle, who defy both sides of the destructive war between Amboriyon (blinding inhuman virtue) and Rbaja (reeking demonic corruption), by using both kinds of magic in balance. Some details:

  • A thrown spear, or charging into one, goes right through mail, so look out.
  • Brace yourself for human horror. It's a time when torture is ordinary, power is almost entirely determined by immediate ruthlessness, food and shelter are more important than money, and no one knows the first thing about hygiene, long-term agriculture, geography beyond the immediate area, or history besides vague legends.
  • Black magic is called Rbaja, and in its extreme form, taints and scorches the landscape into stinking pestholes filled with undead.
  • White magic is called Amboriyon, and in its extreme form, gathers in clouds from which angelic beings descend and lead people into what looks like virtue – until it "enlightens" them into amorally perfect form or even erases them from reality.
  • You play characters who've banded together to support the young king in Rolke, who opposes both kinds of magic, and you are not only a bad-ass trained fighter no matter what your social background and prior life, but you use both kinds of magic at once. This group is called the Circle – it's the only one.
  • In a culture based mainly on personal confrontation and immediate connections, one might commit murder and grin one's way out of retribution, but there's no way to stop a mob from killing you, outside of magic.
  • Fighting and other dynamic conflicts are organized by "clashes," a system that emphasizes simultaneity yet preserves individual, make-or-break actions.
  • A killed Circle member becomes a wraith and still participates in the current adventure, but is gone after that adventure's conclusion.
  • Most monsters are manifestations of Amboriyon or Rbaja. Creatures of Amboriyon are unbearably pure avatars or destructively wise eidolons; creatures of Rbaja are foul, all too cunning undead or insane, disturbing demons.

Click on the image for the entire list of everything about the game in one insane data-dump. Please read: this game is exceptionally harsh in its setting and in its presentation. I acknowledge here that the text may trigger trauma. Play itself is not directed toward this end, nor are the setting's nastier features obliged to be included or depicted during play at all. As this is a playtesting draft, I am still developing the right way to discuss both the setting and the procedures of play. This writing (3-22-14) has undergone the first steps based on reader feedback, but it has a long way to go. Your thoughts are welcome.

Emblem of the Circle (design by Amos Orion Sterns)
Emblem of the Circle (design by Amos Orion Sterns)

Funding

This project is about getting Circle of Hands into exquisite shape. The playtest PDF is available right here and now for free, and with no special effort, I could produce and sell it as a rather plain book tomorrow. However, with funding in hand, the book will be full-sized (8.5"x11," 200+ pages) and gorgeously illustrated by Phillip Simpson, Juan Ochoa, Tony Dowler, Amos Orion Sterns (Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown), and Dyson Logos - over 40 pieces of outstanding original work. You can pledge to get it as PDF or PDF+book, softcover or hardcover, and there you go.

An old fortress in Rolke (art: Dyson Logos)
An old fortress in Rolke (art: Dyson Logos)

 There's also the one and only stretch goal, as described to backers in Update #6 at $6000 and unlocked at $7,500.

But there's a lot more you can participate in, to be part of the process instead of just ordering a book. If you're a backer, you can be a final-stage playtester for Circle of Hands, using the basic document right here. No extra pledging required, just play & report. I'll acknowledge you in the book, where it applies, right there at the rule that you've influenced.

If you want to suggest more extensive material to include and don't mind doing some good work, pledge at the Inner Circle level, and we'll do a hangout or phone conversation to hash out the details - your work will enter the text directly, acknowledged both in that spot and in the main credits as a contributing author.

Concept sketches (art by Juan Ochoa)
Concept sketches (art by Juan Ochoa)

A hobby of equals

In my weird little mind, Circle of Hands is part of a larger Heartbreaker Redemption effort. I coined the term  "fantasy heartbreaker" in 2002.They used to be really common: games bursting at the seams with naive ambition and vision, but hamstrung by limited assumptions. To read more about that, check out my two essays here. Circle of Hands is itself re-imagined and re-designed from my early 90s manuscript called Gray Magick. I dug it up, played it again, discovered what I was excited about, embraced it, and re-designed it to make that happen. I've changed everything, but somehow, only brought that much more of Gray Magick into the spotlight. You'll see this yourself because the original manuscript is scanned into the book, and some of the best stuff was already in there.

Other game designers have embarked on their own redemptive projects, perhaps to be published someday as well. I'm offering a friendly, non-binding imprint we're all using, with the only requirement being to include the original work.

Heartbreaker Redemption logo draft by Nathan Paoletta
Heartbreaker Redemption logo draft by Nathan Paoletta

You can help by adding $25 to your pledge. This money goes toward a webpage at Adept Press featuring the following games, interviews with the designers, playtesting, a promotional venue for them, networking for professional production help, and promotion of the imprint.

And! If you look at these and say, "Hey, I wrote a thing like that! It's in that cardboard shirt box!" then this same additional $25 also adds you to the list! Send me a message to let me know; it must provide a link to material we can see.

Being on the list carries no obligation. No one is promising anyone a finished game, merely the fun of playtesting and designing among like-minded individuals with some dedicated webspace. If you do publish, though, and include the original work, then the Heartbreaker Redemption logo is available to you.

Risks and challenges

It is sad to see sour endings to well-supported crowdfunding projects. Meltdowns, silences, admissions of vanished funds ... it makes me feel bad for everyone. Making sure this doesn't happen is serious business.

Since 2001, I've published, myself, with no venture capital and without relying on creative outsourcing, twelve books for seven games. I know a thing or two about successfully getting games designed, printed, and into people's hands. For me, crowdfunding isn't about whether the book is published, but how nicely and with how much community enthusiasm and input.

I think crowdfunding requires special commitment to the backers. I'm being most tactical about production choke-points this time. I'm committing to playtesting and writing until August 1, then entering final layout and production until printing in mid-November. Both deadlines are intentionally generous based on my prior publishing history for a project at this stage. Layout delays are always the biggest hurdle, so I've set up the template first, and that's done as shown in the playtest file. Slotting the finished text into that template solves that problem.

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  1. Select this reward

    Pledge $12 or more About $12

    ONE STRONG GRASP. You get the finished and detailed Circle of Hands PDF, and you're acknowledged in it.

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    Pledge $30 or more About $30

    CIRCLE KNIGHT. The Circle of Hands PDF + the paperback book and you're acknowledged; you get the book before anyone else.

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    Pledge $45 or more About $45

    HARD CORE. As the $30 pledge but in hardcover. This is the only time a hardcover version of the game will ever be available. For higher-tier pledges, add $15 to upgrade the book to hardcover.

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    Pledge $60 or more About $60

    INNER CIRCLE. As the $30 pledge + hangout with me to develop your own contribution to the game text - credited in full. Subject to my final approval, but I am feeling open-minded. (deadline for discussion is July 1, 2014)

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    Pledge $101 or more About $101

    METAL SOUL. As the $30 pledge + a 9"x9" steel Circle emblem, suitable for wall hanging or framing. Throw the horns!

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    Pledge $117 or more About $117

    FULL CIRCLE. As the $30 pledge but three paperback Circle of Hands copies, shipped together - this is intended as a cost-reducer for shipping overseas. Hardcovers add $30 (total); no mixing paperback/hardcover.

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Funding period

- (18 days)