early gmless gaming

There is one game I can think of that’s really purely gm-less. That is, there is (usually, when it’s done right) no single source or mediator for the story. There is no pre-planning. There’s no session zero developing characters or setting. Rather a narrative develops straight from a group of peoples’ brains with no particular mechanism for scene framing, risk, or conflict resolution and everyone is totally equal in participation.

When I was a kid, my mother and her sister and their friends would gather around the table with a wine glass and some strips of paper. My father would be absent — he wanted nothing to do with this though whether the event originated because he was out playing poke anyway or whether he played poker so as to not be there for it I can’t say. I never asked him about it and I can’t now. Or can I?

Anyway, a table, an inverted wine glass and a circle of paper scraps with letters and numbers, a yes, and a no. Yup, a “ouija board”. I don’t think I found out you could just buy one at the store for years. And I doubt that the timing with the release of The Exorcist was a coincidence.

So my other and my aunt and sometimes myself would settle our fingers on the base of the inverted wine glass and it would stutter and eventually move. When this gag works there is no sense that anyone is moving the glass–it feels completely emergent, as though the source is somewhere else entirely. But it’s certainly not necessarily one person doing the moving — we gather this story together by a subtle form of consensus, letter by letter.

Ghosts! Goblins!

And the stories were weird. Sure there was the usual appearance from the recently dead and related, but far more often the story was a pastiche of people and places and times and movies and novels and bullshit that bears a striking familiarity to me now. The stories were closer to soap opera than literature. To myth, perhaps, or folklore anyway. So we’d speak with long dead highwaymen who missed their dog and gather together amongst us the bizarre tale, which would meander improbably and end nowhere in particular. We’d speak with South American smugglers who met a bad end, family members who we always just knew were up to shenanigans during the war, and queens of lands not really accurately recalled who met tragic composite ends stitched together from imagination, historical novels, and Charleton Heston biblical sagas.

They were stories told by us to each other as a group with no real leadership nor mediation. And we creeped ourselves out a good deal. Were they role-playing games? Sorta. Were they story games? No question.

out of my comfort zone

I keep trying to up my art game. I’ve been playing around with improving my shading skills, trying new brushes, and generally just trying to more…gooder. When you practice at this you constantly get better, but you get better slower and slower until you suddenly get a lot better and then the curve starts over getting slower again.

You can force that reset.

IMG_0621One way to force it is to try something outside your comfort zone. Now I’m normally all about pencil and ink. When I first started drawing it was with technical pens. Straight from blank page to ink on paper. I was not very good, but I got a little better. Today I still love ink; I love line work. I love an outline for making an image concrete.

IMG_0618One day Juan Ochoa showed my a trick. At first tricks seem like cheating but tricks are not cheating. Tricks are ways that a decent artist gets better results faster. Anyway, Juan’s trick is this: do your ink. Then create a new layer under the ink and paint your values. Your grey scale. Your shading. Very cool, this lets you do some shading and looks swell. But that’s not the trick. The trick is, when you want to add colour, add another layer between the ink and the values and set the layer to multiply. What this does is add the value of the lower layer to the current layer. What that means is that you can paint flat colour and the shading layer will come through, shading your colour. This gives you the illusion of having mixed a bunch of colour shades when in fact you just did the grey scale in one pass first. It’s not perfect but it looks good and it’s fast. It’s a trick. A very valuable trick.

Anyway, I needed to force the plateau again and what I’ve been doing feels half way to, well, painting.

It’s not.

I grabbed some new software for this — I love using the Adobe Sketch app for ink and values illustration but it’s limited for painting. So on a recommendation I got Procreate. It’s solid. Good brushes and a good blender. And I started painting.

IMG_0623.pngIt’s not the same. It’s a much more interesting problem to mix shades but the side effect is that you get some hue variation as well just because you’re imperfect. And that’s actually better. It’s more real. Things reflect all kinds of different colours and your eye notices even if your brain doesn’t process it analytically. Consciously. It matters.

And there are tricks. And they are not cheating. I swear it. For example, I used a fair amount of cut and paste in this one so far. But it’s far faster to cut and paste and then correct colour, change up texture with the blending tool, and so on than to repaint identical objects identically. I can barely draw a straight line let alone the same one twice.

So now I’m on that upward slope again, learning new tricks. Even if it is, at the moment, just to go back to Elysium Flare ships.

nerd family

This might not be popular right now because the reflex is going to be to start hunting witches.

For good or ill our little communities are a lot like gangs. Not in their mandate, but rather in what they provide below the surface of their stated purpose. People join to find some family. They join to be seen, to be supported, and to generate the comradery of the herd. They feel good. Even if you already have lots of great real family, having a family surrogate online is still great.

So when a gang is poisoned as has happened recently, we are going to have a lot of family members trying to save themselves. Trying to keep some sense of family. There are a lot of different ways they will try to handle this problem.

Some will stand by their existing family no matter what, even if it means swallowing the poison.

IMG_20160603_104159.jpgSome will abandon the toxic horror and set out on their own. They may find new family. That may be easy or hard depending on how they handled the horror. But it’s going to take a little work at least because they will carry the smell of it or, maybe worse, believe that they do. And noses are pretty twitchy right now.

And a lot will want to leave but believe they can’t. Especially if we are telling them they are witches and that witches must burn. And what they will do, generally, is stay where they are and suffer and support the toxic space.

I think that’s horrible for everyone.

So, for a while at least, I’d like to set aside the details of grievances with others that are not The Principle in this tale. Just for now and just the details. And for people earnestly seeking a new space, at least consider their needs. Keep your policies, even armour them up: please please eject all assholery. There’s no need to be soft on actual behaviour as it occurs. But give an earnest application the benefit of the doubt so that there’s at least somewhere to go.

If there are tons of awesome places to be other than the Toxic Horror Show and the only bar is that you can’t be an asshole, that will make it a lot more attractive to leave and to change.

There will be bad actors. But let’s not slam the gates closed from fear of them. There are real refugees incoming. Refugees from horrible regimes deserve a chance to start over.

more apocalyptica

Last entry I wrote about the impact of living on the brink of apocalypse though, in keeping with the theme here, mostly about how it impacted my gaming. My gaming was atypical even in the apocalyptic crowd though, it seems.

metamorphosis alpha coverFrom a young age I cared inordinately about science. My first “mutants” game was Metamorphosis Alpha and it was silly. I recognized it as silly. I knew mutation didn’t work that way. But it was also encapsulated — the story was that this was a kind of radiation in a particular place (maybe a particular universe) where this kind of mutation happened. That was fine by me. Internally consistent. There’s a vast generation ship (based at least in part on the classic SF novel Orphans of the Sky by Heinlein, but there were other similar novels and short stories) and it goes through some kind of radiation event and thousands of years later you are a possibly mutated person on this ship but with no idea that it’s a ship. It’s a whole game with one built-in wonder gag (WE LIVE ON A SPACE SHIP?!) that only pays off once, really. It’s a cool concept, a classic game, very familiar mechanisms mostly about how mutation affects combat, and an opportunity to draw space ship floor plans. Fun stuff. It’s also, at its heart, comedy.

mad maxBut my apocalypse was fucking serious. It was the real thing and I pretty much knew, if not what that would mean, at least what the plausible parameters were. And so my apocalypse in gaming never had mutants. I never even bought Gamma World — it held zero interest for me. In fact I was kind of offended by its frivolity (as 14 year old no less): I was facing extinction here. My apocalypse looked like something between Threads and Mad Max, using a sliding scale depending upon my mood (we called depression a “mood” back then).

And I think that this is why my apocalyptic gaming became community-oriented. I never once bought into it as an adventure playground, a fantasy of a future with irradiated others to dominate. If there was violence or even plunder, it was because of scarcity and because our heroes had to choose to favour their community. They were protecting and preserving something and in so doing also had to recognize that so was the other side. We could certainly invent villains, people that were making immoral choices in order to survive, but also that they were dealing with a very bad fucking day as well.

I just wasn’t going to get onside with anything that made my apocalypse a sweeter pill to swallow: part of the horror I wanted to confront (that I was confronting, in some ways, already with the perfect certainty of impending disaster) was that everyone was going to be desperate. This is probably the origin of my interest in the moral quandry of everyone in a conflict having some kind of moral position to defend. Evil was not interesting. Desperation was interesting and to be desperate you must be trying to preserve something. So in my apocalypse the predominant theme was trying to claw back enough society to feel safe again (because I felt profoundly unsafe). And that makes arch moustache-twirling villains unappealing. And it makes the reconstruction of other survivors as monsters (mutants) whose needs can be ignored especially disgusting. My reaction was very visceral. Gamma World was off the table.

So I think that’s the path I travelled in that period, the reason why we wound up doing little desperate violent community studies. And also why we had Asskickers — the only way I was interested in violent dispatch of monsters was as comedy. And my apocalypse wasn’t comedic, so I invented something for the comedy.

I’ll talk about my Traveller games another time because they are something else entirely.

terror of the scientific sun

I think I was about 13 when I realized I wasn’t going to live to see 20.
I recall a vague terror of nuclear war before that and I recall thinking about fallout shelters and what to do if those sirens went off, but it was at the age of 13 when I sat far from home in the house of a friend of my social studies teacher playing D&D with the two of them (playing with adults! I was pretty fucking proud of that) and the air raid sirens did go off.

It was a test, of course, or a mistake. There was no warning that reached me.

I nearly pissed myself. Before that I had thought about post-apocalyptic gaming and toyed with “what would you do” scenarios but after that everything changed. Because I instantly realized that all my super-heroic ideas of post apocalyptic survival were entirely and perfectly bullshit.

What went through my mind when that siren went off was first, will I be close enough to just die outright? I sure hoped so.

Then, if not, where will I go? Who will I connect with to deal with the next days? For sure Mark and his pal here would do but I was already evaluating them and was pretty sure they were not going to be survival heroes. Nor, and I was increasingly becoming aware that this would be more important, did I feel that they were the kernels of a functioning post-apocalyptic community. Maybe Mark.

For many years after that, at least until I reached the surprising age of 21, I waited again for that siren. I heard it when it wasn’t there, heard it in the wind, heard it in the traffic. For at least eight years I was on tenter hooks waiting for that siren to indicate my life was over and the best I could hope for was to be at ground zero. Second best would be to be with people. Lots of good people.

During those eight years my gaming completely changed. D&D was phased out in favour of Traveller and then Twilight:2000. Throughout we mashed up every game system we contacted to do one of two things: either we played in an immediately post-apocalyptic world (which is to say that the session started with the sirens) or we played in a desperately stupid comic world of my own based on Jim Stenstrum’s Asskickers of the Fantastic comics. My responses in leisure were either preparation or escape.

My post apocalyptic gaming evolved from out-of-the-box Twilight:2000 to something other in very short order. The first games were war-porn survival tales during which I learned a startling amount about weapons. Enough that years later when I first fired a pistol and then an auto-loading rifle, I didn’t require any instruction. That’s pretty creepy, I think. I can still field strip a Walther P-38 I bet. But then they began to focus on us. On modeling us and what we would do and how we would do. I recall many wonderful (though short) games that involved establishing island communities. Creating sustainable locations. Thinking about logistics as well as defense. And above all, eventually, thinking a lot about people helping people get by.

When I thought I was going to die my “politics” were of a punk anarchist. When I realised I wasn’t (and started reading politics in college) I would have to align myself with socialism or even further left. Societies that protect themselves earnestly, practically, and down to individual needs were the only societies I wanted to explore.

asskickBut the other side of my gaming is harder to understand. Given that I was basically in a state of terror 24/7 we have to imagine almost anything I did was poisoned by that terror, so what do we make of the Asskickers of the Fantastic?

These were almost entirely ad libbed (and maybe the debut of my ad libbing successes). They all started with one image.

The Werewolves of BC Place started after a Michael Jackson concert. The team of Asskickers (kind of Ghostbusters crossed with the A Team) are contacted by venue management and show up at their office in the stadium. It’s a big office and it’s filled with body bags. He wants to talk about what happened at the concert and hoe it can be cleaned up — and kept quiet. Hijinks ensue.

The Shadow Over Ambleside begins with the shoe department at Woodward’s contacting our heroes because some of the shoes are being replaced with footwear clearly designed for no human foot. Antics (and failed sanity rolls) traversed the offices of podiatrist Dr. C.T. Hulu, the beaches of Ambleside (where Paul managed to rig an autowinder and flash to the action of his M-60, allowing him to take candid photos of startled Deep Ones in time to the gunfire), and the caverns under Woodward’s itself which, had anyone chosen to map it, would reveal a portrait of Bill Vander Zalm, the right wing loonie in charge of the province at the time.

ally zombieAnd finally, another traumatic event in my childhood surfaced as the New Coke Zombies, which were finally defeated by my friend Glen’s character, badly wounded but strapped into a motorized wheelchair armed with seltzer bottles full of 7-Up. Clearly no New Coke zombie could stand before the Un-Cola.

So essentially my gaming response to imminent doom was to oscillate between planning and panic. For eight years. Massively creative and desperate years.

It’s little wonder then that my gaming since then has become about building, about saving, and about repairing. And yet somehow still essentially, no matter how light the rules, very traditional. I really want to prod a traditional structure into becoming about these positive things rather than deeply encode these into the rules. I want players to discover that that’s what they are interested in and not just be compelled by the rules to address them, to have only those options. Partly that’s because choice really really matters, I think: to have many options open to you and then choose to repair a community is most meaningful to me. You could align yourself with the bad king. Nothing stops you. There’s no mechanical disadvantage in doing so. I trust, however, that when you develop your character and your organization and confront your first real problem, that you will choose to repair and to heal.


The King Machine is available in print from Lulu, in PDF and print from DTRPG, and in PDF only (50% off until March 2019) at itch.io.

doing well

mood.pngSometimes I am doing what I’m good at but not having any fun doing it. Now my father would tell me that sometimes it’s not any fun, any of it, but it still needs to get done. But what I’m good at should be fun. Right?

But maybe sometimes it’s just the case that nothing’s fun and that’s a brain problem not a fun problem.

I am fortunate, however, in that there are at least three things that I’m good at and when one is not fun it’s often the case that another is. My craving for novelty is so shallow that the other thing is novel enough.

I’m good at making games. At least, I’m good at making games that I like to play (and that’s good enough for me). And so when the other two falter I can often get in the groove and write and lay out that game. Since I now have several games in the pipeline I’m no longer in a situation where I am wondering what to do. There’s plenty to do.

When that’s dragging (like when I have a ton of tables to typeset and fuck that) I can still lean on work. At work I design software systems — multiple components that communicate together to solve a problem — to ensure the security of a safety-critical infrastructure. That’s pretty exciting. There are a lot of similarities with game design, actually, and not just because there’s a crapton of writing that needs to get done. It also involves problem analysis and breaking out solutions that work together to meet those needs. It involves finding components that work together without being so coupled to each other that changing one destroys the other. It involves finding a method to turn a complicated issue into a series of executable and explainable solutions. And it involves a lot of explaining. And math.

And when all that’s dragging I draw. I’m not a great artist (not fishing here — I know enough about illustration to know my limitations) but I love doing it. It requires little to no initial analysis. It needs no words. It’s just a matter of moving an image from inside my head to outside my head. And while it happens I get to enjoy the media I use. Drawing is simple, tactile, emotional fun.

Interestingly, when I fall back on drawing, when nothing else at all is fun, it breaks the barrier. Not always but often. When the drawing is done something plugged is unplugged. The other things seem fun again.

So thank you joyless paladin, unable to be excited by the heroic swing because of the burden, the loss of momentum, and the inadequate rewards. You summarized the mood and invalidated at the same time. That’s heroic.

What this means is that Sand Dogs layout is back on track.

Postscript: yesterday The King Machine was the deal of the day at DTRPG. We sold a lot (relatively I mean) of copies. It was marked up so hard that not a lot of money got made but far more importantly there are more eyeballs on the pages. If you got a copy, I hope you dig it. If you dig it I hope you shout out about it. I hope you play it. I hope it brings you joy. It was a joy and a relief to make.


super vigilantes

That I have trouble with superhero as a genre is no secret. And I do not think less of you if you like it. Really. If you like it and read the rest of this you’re going to get the feeling that I think less of you. I don’t. There is an escapist element and an element of hope that people need, perhaps, and that’s enough.

But not what I want to talk about.

Soft Horizon was almost a super hero game at one point but I diverged.

Recently I was tangentially exposed to a discussion of The Punisher and gun control. That discussion felt to me like a specific discussion of a more general problem with supers, and one that is existential for the whole genre. That is, the question was about whether the Punisher should have a position on gun control and whether it should be anti- and all the good stuff that goes with that (like demonizing those who want gun control or making them seem effeminate or obtuse). But the big question here is, who gives a fuck what the Punisher thinks? He’s a murderous vigilante. He’s off the rails. He already has no ethical ground to stand on so why listen to him at all on topics like that? And why would you, a reader/viewer, imagine that the writing was ever going to be nuanced when at its core it must somehow support vigilantism and therefore profoundly unethical behaviour? The most nuanced it can get still can only be about peripheral issues. The elephant in the room is undisturbed. And even when you poke it (Civil War) you still have to do it in a useless fashion.

Supers are about vigilantism and that’s not okay.

There might be supers who are not vigilantes. I’m not aware of them and not talking about them. But even those that work against cosmic threats (Silver Surfer might be the purest) ultimately have to engage with the mundane for context (otherwise it’s not so much supers as science fantasy) and when they ignore or override existing organizations of security and defense, they too are vigilantes.

In order to support their vigilantism it is essential that writers paint the relevant organizations being superseded as inept. This is strictly an ethical dodge, framing the scenario as “vigilantism is fine if the organizations can’t or won’t do the work”. But in reality, however flawed they often are, these organizations do in fact do the work. And in a credibly (or at least charitably) story they would do whatever they need to do in order to keep up with the fast paced world of super-villains and galactic threats. They would hire the best skills. And those would be super-heroes. Even in administrative roles, they would certainly have supers with that (sadly underexamined) skill set.

They also have legitimacy of a sort. Certainly moreso than a superhero saying “trust me”. That’s harder to swallow today I know. But no matter how bad our institutions are, they are better than trusting a powerful stranger.

Let’s pause here and exempt the X-Men, at least in principle. Since the subtext there is about an oppressed group with special skills using those skills to protect themselves from a hostile world, it’s not necessarily about vigilantism. But it often is. And the institutions that would mostly reasonably respond to threats are painted with a black and white hostility and ineptitude. I don’t find these so much ethically vacant as simplistically defined. And then plenty of the stories are about them acting as vigilantes anyway, whether or not it’s because the rest of the world “just doesn’t understand”.

I cannot get onside with vigilantism just because however flawed the appropriate organizations are, they were at least designed with some semblance of checks and balances. Elected positions, oversight, public exposure. Of course they work against those checks and balances to protect themselves, especially when they act evilly. And of course the couch those efforts as necessary for efficiency and safety. They are imperfect and in many cases deeply imperfect. But they rely on a mutable and exposable institution to function. They aren’t a person. They are an organization, and the inner workings of an organization can be examined.

Not so for the vigilante. They operate according to their own motives, they select their targets based on their own calculations, and they are not beholden to anyone for their choices nor actions. There may be better ways to operate than existing institutions of security and defence, but trusting to a vigilante (no matter how super) is just a benevolent dictator in disguise and has the same problem: reproducibility. Even given a perfect vigilante, how do you guarantee that they are “good” in the future and how do you pick a new one when this one goes away? Vigilantes lack structure for reproduction. The very best are only good enough right now and in the past. Next week is up for grabs.

So supers are a no-go for me right out of the gate. They all operate unethically as an axiom of the existence of their stories and so within those stories their ethics are already undermined either within the text (they are vigilantes) or without the text (the writers must craft a universe in which vigilantism is somehow necessary because of implausible defects in the existing systems).

A world without supers. You play a brain coral.

This is not okay for me. I would love a supers story that genuinely confronts this (Civil War was definitely not it — that was fundamentally about supers who wanted to retain their autonomy, firm in their belief that they knew best: paternalistic horse shit). Maybe a story about an organization, complete with checks and balances, that represents what we might actually build if there were citizens with these extraordinary skills. Organizations that didn’t raise plot-necessary doubts and skepticism in a universe that has already demonstrated plenty of zany problems to solve. Organizations that function as organizations with behaviours that allow both mutability and reproduction of function. But maybe that would suck because maybe it’s actually the vigilantism that’s desirable. Maybe that’s the bit people love and since I don’t get it, the genre is forever beyond me. The individual hero who operates without oversight, the saviour, the prophet. That’s the super and that’s who I cannot come to terms with at all.

So why must any interesting stories about this problem of vigilantism ultimately be useless, underexplored, and ethically trite? Because it’s an existential question for the genre: without vigilantism the genre does not exist.

Postscript: as I went out for a smoke to think about this I realized that there is a supers show I like. The 60s live action Batman series. So why does it work for me? Superficially it might just be that it’s comic and does not demand much scrutiny. It’s just goofy and hilarious and never tries too hard to be taken seriously. But more deeply, look at the relationship between Batman and the police department: sure, the police are (comically) inept but they know it. And when they are over their head the first thing they do is call Batman. And Batman’s efforts are always to put the villain (back) in jail. Batman, in this incarnation is weirdly only barely a vigilante (I say weirdly because he’s sort of the canonical super vigilante) — he actually works largely within the institution however informally. He’s invoked by them and he delivers to them. He’s the most lawful vigilante we’ve got!