vsca catalogue

diaspora cover lulu 441 thumbnailDiaspora

Me, Toph Marshall, Tim Dyke, and Byron Kerr wrote this together over a couple of years in an attempt to bring a Traveller aesthetic to Fate back when it was FATE. Derived from Spirit of the Century but with efforts to deconstruct and modularize. Gold ENnie winner for best rules. It’s about keeping your spaceship running while dealing with the political and trade frictions between a small number of very different star systems. Collaborative world design. You may have first experienced it as Spirit of the Far Future. Print and PDF.

This is a game we still play, though I think that the character and system generation stuff is better by far than the rest of the game. I mean it’s a good game, but the collaborative stuff really sings.

Deluge - Brad MurrayDeluge

I had a bug in my head about post-apocalyptic play and so wrote this little system-agnostic adventure generator that starts from the submergence of your home town. Lots of table-based oracles for creating desperate communities. Simple, fun, and crazy cheap (PWYW). PDF only.

I haven’t played with this in a while. Have you? I keep coming back to the idea of releasing a new edition with better tools and art.

hollowpoint cover frontHollowpoint

Written together with Toph Marshall before my move to Toronto and then laid out and finished amongst the boxes of my move. This is a custom designed system built up from a deconstruction of ORE and built to make face-paced action movie games. It probably first percolated up into my head after reading the graphic novel series 100 Bullets. It’s about being super competent at being bad. Your only options are different flavours of violence. An ENnie nominee for best game. Print and PDF.

This game is huge fun and always has been but suffers from a fatal flaw for my own use: the whole iteration-over-a-dice-pool concept just isn’t fun for online play. It kicks ass at a table with real dice, but the tactile allocation and manipulation of dice is necessary.

callisto-cover-900.pngCallisto

Now living in Toronto and isolated from my gaming groups, I built a game designed to be played by email. While the provided scenario is a sort of fantasy 17th century Europe and Africa, it’s been easily ported to space stations, colonies, and other settings. The idea is simple: you play a personality by writing letters to other personalities you know using email. The ref gets a CC: of all these and periodically publishes a newspaper that synthesizes these letters as current events. I think this game is a gas and it doesn’t require constant attention. I think there’s more to do with this concept. First time I’d use a cover from Juan Ochoa and he’s awesome to work with. PWYW in PDF form.

Haven’t played in a while but I see a game crop up online every now and again.

coverElysium Flare

It took a while to get this one out of my head. I’ve never much liked space opera as a genre but felt like one way to get an understanding of what’s to love would be to write one. This is another Fate rebuild, with a lot of simplifications and an amusing first-person space combat system. This gave me a chance to exercise some suddenly improving artistic skills as well as hire Juan again for some work. It plays lighthearted and galaxy-spanning with adventure cues ranging from stopping a galactic Horror to dealing with a paperwork nightmare on a world dedicated entirely to galactic bureaucracy. Huge fun to make and to run. First time I would use DriveThruRPG for both print and PDF.

I don’t play this as much as I should, but I can’t get into Fate that much any more, especially for online play. The mechanical back and forth places more burden than I want on my time and resources when I’m limited (as I am) to a couple hours a week and entirely playing by text chat. Still, I wish I could play more. The playtesting was great fun and very funny.

Soft Horizon cover minaretSoft Horizon

The Soft Horizon had been brewing in my head since shortly after we released Diaspora. The idea was to build a plane-hopping game that would weave bizarre characters through Heavy Metal style psychedelia, evoking Moebius and Bilal and Voss and all those great artists who were clearly out of their heads. It didn’t turn out to be one game. Instead I’ve been reconstructing the playtest sessions as individual games using the same simple Powered by the Apocalypse inspired engine. Fast and failure driven, the games reliably take the narrative places no one intended. Each game is self-contained, having the setting and the complete system (tuned for the setting) all in less than a hundred pages.

king-machine-cover-alternateThe King Machine

This probably shouldn’t have been the first Soft Horizon game. It doesn’t derive from a known property but instead from an early playtest session brought into being by some random oracles and our own brains. It was initially conceived as a warning about democracy but took so long to make that now it’s just thinly veiled allegory for today’s world. You play intelligent non-human primates in a world of Roger Dean album covers coping with a utopia that suddenly lost its utopic engine: the machine that makes perfect kings. Print and PDF at DTRPG. I think this is one of the best games I’ve ever made.

I’d be playing this now if I wasn’t playtesting…

cover.pngSand Dogs

Coming soon! A dieselpunk tale in a world that’s all desert and studded with tombs full of sleeping gods. A mash-up of Indiana Jones, Roadside Picnic, and the Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius. You can’t buy this yet. I’m playing it. If you’re a patron you can get a laid out playtest package sometime in December.

Patreon

And of course our Patreon is what keeps this stuff coming. It’s been an enormous influence on my productivity — we’ve never had a three-title year ever. We’ve never had a two-title year before. Even just a buck is awesome: it’s one more person I feel beholden to and therefore one more little push to get some more work out the door.

thinks we dislike

I don’t care what you dislike.

I mean, sure, if we’re trying to figure out together what to eat or what to play or how to fuck, then yes, I care.

But if you’re crafting a post on the internet, a broadcast to everyone, about how much you dislike something…well, I don’t care. But moreover I don’t understand why anyone would. And I don’t think they really do. I think posts about what we dislike are mostly attempts to get someone to argue about it — picking an already contentious position (and artificially so because really, just how much negative energy can we really work up about a game aside from straight-up offensiveness) in order to get some fire happening.

In other words, it’s just trolling. Usually low grade and sometimes even not self-examined. It does generate “discussion” but rarely useful discussion.

This should be read as distinct from criticism. Criticism is awesome. But “I hate GURPS” or “I despise rules-light” topics are just self-congratulatory nonsense. Hurray you have a nuanced and emotional negative response to a role-playing game or even a category of role-playing games. Now seriously, think hard about that and wonder if you really want anyone else to know it, let alone engage you on the topic.

Tell me instead what you love.

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I love this fucking robot toy.

Revel instead in what you like to play, like to make, like to run, like to draw for, whatever. Because that enthusiasm, even (maybe especially) when it’s also critical is contagious and productive. It lets other people admit their enjoyment. It lets people know not just what but sometimes how to craft something that certainly gives someone joy. I get far more from knowing a single example of what you love than a single example of what you hate because I am compassionate and want to make you happy — but one negative example is just the start of a list. Do you like ham? Hate it. Do you like turkey? No. When do we get to dinner.

I like blackened chicken. One assertion and we’re off for dinner. No enumeration required.

20180530_174954
I totally love this fish rug.

And honestly I dislike so very few things and like so many things that if you say you love something then there is a pretty good chance I am going to get in on that conversation. Help celebrate it, understand the bits the irk and the bits that work, and maybe even get around to joining you sometime to enjoy it. If you dislike something it’s almost certainly going to fail to affect me at all. Even if you hate (such a strong word to apply to a role-playing game, especially when it’s the funny dice or roll-under that you HATE) something, I’m probably not going to engage. First, having that strong a negative reaction to something so lightweight is a pretty good indicator that no interaction is going to go well. Second, it’s unlikely you hate something I care strongly about, and even if you do, well, see “first”.

Enjoying things and celebrating things, and criticizing those things, from a position of love, is productive. It builds up, it repairs, it extends, it expands.

Hating things just tears something down and makes someone, somewhere, feel bad. There’s enough feeling bad to go around these days, and it’s mostly about vastly more important things.

So tell me what you love.

being inside the machine

There was a time when what interested me about games was the detail of the simulation. This was mostly a time before inexpensive computers, and so we played games where we, the players, basically pushed the bits and found solutions. Now of course there were layers of abstraction to make this practical, but in some cases this abstraction was pretty thin. Take, for example, Avalon Hill’s (thanks, Ian) SPI’s Air War.air war

Hurray, a jet fight wargame, right? Okay, in this game you track your total energy. You track your wing loading, I think I recall. You basically have a dashboard of sliders and dials covered in chit that you manipulate to determine the new vector of your aircraft based on your control inputs and the environment. Including air pressure.

Heaven forbid you launch a missile, because now you need to track that in almost the same detail! I recall trying to fly straight with this game. Then after a few weeks I felt comfortable making a turn. I think we may have played a dogfight once but not finished it because everyone was too afraid to fire a missile and deal with that whole set of rules and there was no way in the world we were going to navigate these planes into gun range.

But we had a gas!

So clearly the top level game, the part that’s about dogfighting and winning or losing, that was a complete bust. We never ever actually played that game to completion. But the game of being inside the simulation machine and being exposed to all the cogs and springs and seeing exactly how our inputs changed the machine state, well that was enormous fun. And it was a great lesson in game design, in how interacting components work. And in how to abstract complexity: I mean, we didn’t have to solve any differential equations but the abstraction, the dials and sliders, were actually doing that albeit in a simplified form. I learned a lot from this and similar games.

Then there was a computer revolution and I could get a flight simulator where I could concentrate on the top level game and not worry so much about what happened inside the machine. This was astounding. I don’t want to paint the inside-the-machine days as being utopic. It was its own kind of fun but it wasn’t this. And so I took up computer programming.

One thing I learned from computer programming and actually building simulations (though not games) was that in many ways the computer version is less authentic than the games were. When you make the mechanism invisible to the user you can get away with outrageous shortcuts. Shortcuts that are fine within the limitations of the scope of the simulation: your user can never tell the difference. In fact a scientist would be hard put to tell the difference in many cases. Because you can take some mind-blowing shortcuts that leave your simulation perfectly intact as long as the bits you cut off are not part of the scope of your output. Anyway, I was disillusioned. I saw through my flight simulators. They were a shame!

So I got back into the machine.

Ad Astra Games makes boardgames for space combat that are hyper-realistic. And you are unabashedly placed within the machine. You have a reticle that represents everything around you in 3D-space so you can figure out what direction missiles are coming from. You have ships that orient on all three axes. You have accurate representation of nuclear weapons in a vacuum. Railguns. Energy weapons. Heat loading. And man are you inside that machine with thousands of things to poke.

And there are elegant abstractions to guide you, clever dials and templates and rules of thumb to simplify what is genuine math. The number of shortcuts are very limited indeed.

Ao I bought Attack Vector: Tactical and gave it a spin. It was everything I remembered

attack vector
That’s not me playing — you can tell because someone has launched a missile I think — but check out how ship orientation is indicated! That ship is on angles!!

about Air War. It took me ages to figure out how to move. I fired a railgun and spent three hours learning how much I missed by. I launched a missile but we had to break for dinner before it could leave the ship.

We never played the game. But we did get inside the machine for a while. I’ve had my fill now. This is not something that engages me fore more than a couple of sessions. I’ll gleefully read the rules. I’ll buy more of this kind of game and read those rules too! But I don’t think it will ever hit the table again. I just don’t have it in me to sit inside that machine any more.

on a lighter note…

Let’s talk about Traveller: 2300.

traveller2300boxsetlaterprt
All this good stuff was in one box.

This was GDW’s attempt to grittify and modernize Traveller, to turn it into something more along the lines of Twilight: 2000 (note the title construction) but in space. This was a pretty nifty idea — plenty of Traveller players were going through exactly the same transitions that we were, feeling like we had graduated from “kid stuff” games about dwarfs and dragons and were really more interested in humans and, frankly, detailed military stories. That felt real. That felt like they took place now but only slightly different.

This was almost that game. I certainly wanted to play a lot of it, and I for sure played with it a ton, making space ships and characters and reading and re-reading the weapons lists. But for some reason I didn’t. I don’t have a good reason for that. I should have played it a lot.

This was the first game I ever read that didn’t have hit points. Injuries were abstracted into categories. No longer could I be slain by a thousand scratches.

The game came with a list of all the stars within some distance of Earth. 50 light years maybe? I forget. But all of them. With X,Y, and Z coordinates. So one of the ways we played with this game was build a 3D rotatable star map. On a 286. I sometimes wish I still had that floppy disk, but then I wonder what I would even do with it. Can you still get drives like that? Doesn’t matter — the disk is gone.

Another way I played with it was making space ships. The ship design system was the usual naval architect model: pick a volume and fill it with stuff, then calculate the stats from mass:thrust ratios and so on. This is a no brainer for any game: add this subsystem and I will play your game (alone, mind you) for years. I may never so much as tell someone else I’m doing it, but I’ll do it. And space combat was along the “submarine” model, hiding from detection, finding range, exposing yourself (lol) and fighting. I seem to recall it used black globe generators straight out of Niven & Pournelle and that thrust was based on “stutterwarp”, a reactionless system of micro-jumps using the FTL technology.

And the weapons lists! The gauss rifles looked cool. The plasma guns, a nascent technology in the games timeline, looked like a cross between a Lewis gun and a WW2 anti-tank rifle. The aesthetic blew me away. So much gun porn. Binary propellents. Integral grenade launchers. The terms! The pictures! I was really into that kind of thing at the time and it still gives me a guilty thrill. I can’t find a decent pic. I wish I had my books still.

So how come we didn’t play the hell out of this?

Well, it came out in ’86. Around that time I was close to done with gaming. My friends were graduating university and moving around the globe, I had moved in with my girlfriend, and the spark just wasn’t there. I’d break it out every now and then and try to get a game going, but really all that would happen is I’d wistfully rotate the star map, leaf through my old notes, and then do something else. Around this time I’d eventually drop games altogether for about ten years straight. Maybe more — I wouldn’t come back to gaming at all until D&D 3e was released.

But I also get the sense that it wasn’t a great game. The lack of hit points set my game design brain on fire (and would eventually become a pretty basic choice for me) but the implementation didn’t seem to work all that well. Abstracted damage but detailed hit locations? It wasn’t working. And it wasn’t clear what you did in this game as a character. With the awesome weapon lists I pretty much just wanted to play military scenarios, but I already had Twilight:2000 and it absolutely did work, firing on all cylinders, and dropping us in the post-apocalyptic meat grinder to boot. And there were plenty of things to do in there.

So this game occupies a weird space in my head. It certainly and heavily influenced how I would eventually design games. It did some novel things I hadn’t seen before. And parts of my imagination were absolutely on fire for it.

But it kind of actually sucked at the table. And that’s where games live or die. And only there.

nazis are bad okay?

It’s that time again when people say game publishers (and anyone really) ought to be disavowing nazis. It’s very disappointing that we’re in a place where one has to do that. But I guess we do.

So look, if you’re a nazi, a white supremecist, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a…hrm, well, let’s try to do a little better at framing. If you lack the empathy such that you can hate or even just exclude anyone based on things they cannot change and did not choose, you’re not going to like my games anyway. And honestly, I’d rather you didn’t play them and certainly I’d rather you didn’t talk about them in public. I do not want to be associated with you. I don’t even want to be associated with nazis second-hand, as with MeWe which seems to be comfortable housing nazis but would like to re-assure us that they aren’t in the club and that if anything bad happens it will be against the rules.

Anyway, bottom line is that I don’t need that business and they aren’t going to like my games anyway. These games are going to be compassionate and not colonial power fantasies. They’re going to be constructive, empowering, inclusive and not…impositional (to invent a word).

So nazis can fuck right off.

And you already knew that.

more quantum communities

Recently someone I think is wonderful decided that they would no longer make games because they found that their community was toxic and in a way that affected them personally. I’m white, male, and apparently heterosexual so things that are toxic don’t impact me much (that’s what privilege is: it doesn’t directly affect me so I don’t have to care (but I can choose to)) and so I need to think about that. A person I like and respect is hurt. That does affect me. A really great creator is going to stop creating, at least in a field that interests me. That does affect me. My world is a little less wonderful.

But I of course map this onto my own experience in order to make sense of it. What if I was part of a community and it was suddenly revealed that I wasn’t welcome? What would that do to me? Would I stop making games?

And then of course I have to wonder, what would that community even be? So for people that are “dropping out of a community”, what is that community? Where is it? Because when I try to map this onto myself I just can’t — I’m not in any communities (apart from the meatspace one I live in) that I can see. Is this community a place? A facebook group? A G+ community? A discord server? It’s for sure some place I have never seen before.

20180710_145112
Wonder, wonder, wonder. Am I missing something or is nothing there?

What if the indie community decided that something about me was intolerable and they shunned me or worse just quietly hated me. What would that look like to me? I mean, honestly, it would look pretty much like it does now: for the most part no one is reaching out to communicate with me about making and selling games. No one’s banging on my door looking to collaborate. Are they all out there somewhere in a sekrit clubhouse that I don’t even know exists?

I did spend some time once trying to find the sekrit clubhouse. I never found it. I found a lot of forums and G+ communities and such but they are all pretty quiet. No one’s banging down anyone’s door looking to collaborate as far as I can tell. So what would it take to get me to quit making games?

I sometimes wonder if it’s about making connections at game conventions. That might be it. I don’t go to conventions as a rule (one I’ve broken a few times) because they mostly make me anxious. I’m not really interested in playing one-shots with strangers, and certainly not with my games which are designed neither for one-shots nor for strangers. Do these communities form out of real-life associations like conventions and then maintain themselves digitally somehow? E-mail chains, mailing lists, sekrit forums? I have no idea. Most of the networking I’ve done at conventions has been perfectly useless as far as building ongoing relationships. But I probably need to do it more to get an effect. And dress weirder. That seems to be a big factor.

So where are these places people are getting chased out of? Take it from someone who’s not in any of those places, someone standing outside them yelling inwards (but of course, failing to identify where they are, I am mostly guessing which direction inwards is): wherever that place is, it’s not a place you need to be in order to make games. People will come to you for your games. And your art. And whatever else you make. Not as many people, perhaps, but maybe, if that community is chasing you away, then there are too many people. Maybe you could trim just some of that, the toxic part of it, away, and still keep creating.

Hydrogen_Density_Plots.png
Quantum because if you look really hard, really closely, really carefully, it’s not there. I probably shouldn’t have explained that.

I’ve always said that I create for me and my close, real friends on a kind of honour system with the rest of the universe: I trust that me and mine aren’t all that unusual. That if we are digging a game then there is somewhere other people that will too. I don’t have a brand to hang on the door so you won’t find them by looking inside, looking into your clubhouse for OSR or indie or whatever. You’ll have to look outside. But we are most certainly a match. So my gaming community is six people with no label. No brand. And you are invited and all you have to do is grab a VSCA game and play it.

So obviously I’m still confused. I’m still wandering in a kind of desert and occasionally I meet people fleeing from something or somewhere. I have no idea what that is. I march in the direction they came from and find more nothing. I am beginning to believe these things don’t exist in a way that I can sense them. That maybe we fabricate community in our heads and then get betrayed by a fabrication.

So here’s my advice: it’s lonely out here but it’s honest. If the positive attributes of a community are entirely in the model you built in your head and not in the actual community, yeah, you’re going to get hurt. Better to be a nomad with some close real friends.

tarot

I used to be really into the tarot.

Let me clarify though. I used to own a few tarot decks. I used to be very interested in the symbology and the methods. I used to do a lot of readings. I have never believed that they have any predictive powers, which is simply part and parcel with my lack of belief in pretty much anything supernatural. The tarot does have many great and entirely natural powers, though.Tarot_MorganGreer2_USMG78

My preferred deck was the one pictured here, a Morgan Greer. It’s colourful, well illustrated, and has fairly good symbology. The detail’s a little light in places but it has a hippie vibe that suits me fine. Anyway, super powers.

I started playing with the tarot at the age of 17 or so. About the same time as I started going to house parties. So let’s be perfectly clear: giving tarot readings at a party pretty much guarantees that you will be surrounded by women and that you will drink for free. As a teenager I really needed very little (none) more advantage from a deck of cards or anything else I might bring to a party. I had similar effect bringing sake to house parties since it was exotic and I had to warm it up in the kitchen and a man at the stove in the kitchen was, at least in the early 80s, a magnet for women. Add exotic liquor and stir vigorously. Anyway this was all fabulously successful and if the tarot had no further power it would still have a warm place in my heart forever. Pro tip, though: readings can only indicate that the supplicant dump their boyfriend so often before it wears thin. In fact once is pushing it — stick to strict readings. It works great without intervening.

Of course the 80s had pretty strong sexist subtext in everything and so this might not work today. I don’t know if you can sub in a modern, progressive human into both the tarot reader and the supplicant and get similar results. But I bet you can: doing a reading is about paying attention to another person in a very intense and emotional way. It’s super personal. There’s a lot of eye contact. Many knowing looks. Some shared surprises. I would bet it remains erotic as hell even in the most egalitarian and pan-sexual of environments. Let me know.

Later I would discover that a competent reading for oneself was a powerful way to trick yourself into genuine introspection. Having a set of oracles that do not so much say “this happened in your past and was influential” but more asked “does this grossly generalized and vague symbol when placed in the context of your past trigger any particular thoughts” is in fact an extremely good way to make you wonder honestly about yourself. It lets you ask questions you wouldn’t have thought of asking in the same way that oracles in games (see how I got us back to games?) like rolling stats randomly or generating random words to seed adventures do. When left entirely to our own devices, starting from a blank page, we tend to ask the same boring questions and tell the same boring stories. External cues kick us out of the rut and these is really, really powerful for spurring genuine introspection. If I had to speculate I would guess that this is because we never really start from a blank page but rather from a set of suppositions. And that might indicate one of the powers of meditation as kind of an anti-oracle: done right it genuinely clears the page.

In addition to those powers, as if one needed more than teenage sexual success and high quality self-inspection, learning the symbology of the tarot has been good for game design.

For example, what can you do with cards? Well obviously you have draw-with-replacement which is a novel randomizer if you’re used to dice. That has power dice cannot easily have. But tarot tells us little here. You have suits and colours and numbers and face/non-face axes to play with. Again, same thing with tarot. But the tarot informs the content of the cards. It adds imagery.

So it wasn’t until I studied the tarot that I learned that hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, mapped directly onto the tarot’s cups, rods, pentacles, and swords. And those suits have all kinds of baggage. Cups (hearts) are about emotion, love, compassion, sharing. Okay that’s an easy one. Rods (clubs) are about spirituality, duty, piety. Okay that’s new and useful. Pentacles (diamonds) are about commerce, wealth, and materialism. And swords, well that’s all kinds of obvious but tying it to spades was not. So suddenly a deck of normal cards is that much richer.

Then I learned that these suits are also tied to the traditional four western elements: water (cups, hearts), earth (pentacles, diamonds), air (rods, clubs), and fire (swords, spades). And these associations are bi-directional! If you want to go all out, your elemental plane of water can take on these features of compassion, emotion, and warmth and now you have this kind of symbological continuity and I think it’s something people can sense even if they don’t know the relationships. And even if they don’t sense it, you can fall back on this to maintain consistency. And consistency is gold currency in fantasy.

Coming full circle, the tarot also make for a great set of oracles to build a campaign from. Even the simplest reading sets up a whole story — a protagonist, a past, a present, a future, a form of conflict, a possible resolution. An adversary. Tarot are really all about story telling and so it would be daft to assume they had no value in building stories in any context. Maybe especially RPGs.

So for a variety of reasons, all of them really exceptionally good, learning and tinkering with the tarot is a good plan. Go get yourself a deck. And a couple bottles of sake.