My Games

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Weird & Wonderful Player Design Patterns (pt.1?)

This post was inspired by, or rather is a distillation of a thread I had started on The OSR Pit: I am a Bad Player, wherein I discuss my concerns about being a Player in a game, as someone who is usually a GM and also as somebody with atypical preferences. I am currently a Player in Semiurge's game Beyond the Bizarre Armoire, although I don't go into many particulars on that game in this blog post. 

This post is more broadly about how I think there are a lot of OSR / Blogosphere type analyses on how to be better at GMing, but not as many about how to be good Players, and even amongst those, I think there are certain particulars lacking, so this is an attempt to address this. The original post was very stream of consciousness, so I'm going to try to break it down after the fact into smaller and more coherent chunks. I may or may not make this part of a larger series of blog posts, but this first one will focus on what I am calling Player Design Patterns.

Here I'm differentiating between Tips & Tricks, vs. Design Patterns, vs. Specific Implementations. This is an abstraction that is intended to be useful in a heuristic sense, and not overly prescriptive. I'm not looking to get into semantics arguments over what counts as a Tip & Trick vs Design Pattern or whatever, you can define the terms differently or use different terms if you'd like, this is just about creating language and tools closer to what already exists for GMs, but for Players, to help them improve in an efficient and non-linear way (as opposed to just intuiting from experience alone, although of course experience is still crucial). 

Given this schema, here is one example from a GM perspective:

Tip & Trick: Don't Railroad
This is generally good advice. Even this shouldn't necessarily be taken as absolute, but generally, most Players prefer to have agency, and it can allow for problem-solving and emergent play and a whole bunch of other nice things. However, in itself, Don't Railroad doesn't tell you what to do, only what not to do. It doesn't tell you how to write an adventure in a non-railroaded way, or what that looks like, or all the myriad benefits that stem from that kind of design beyond just the straightforward explanation that I gave above.

Design Pattern: Modularity
Rather than prepping linearly, like if you were writing a novel, prep in a modular manner. This not only gives players more agency, but if you keep in mind a handful of specific implementations, including but not limited to those below, you'll likely see how it can actually make prep easier and can make you more adaptable to your Players' decisions when they inevitably jump off the rails.

Specific Implementation: Three Clue Rule; Random Generators; Quantum Ogres; Game Modules
The Three Clue Rule is the idea that if the Players are on an investigation, there should be at least three clues in any given scene. That way, the investigation is not dependent on the Players doing one specific thing or succeeding on one specific roll. Random Generators are a good way to create modular content, by offloading the burden from the GM to create every facet of every scenario from the ground up. That quantum ogre link is just for a specific monster, but I think the term originally came from the idea that, if the Players don't know where the monster is, or don't know which road is the correct one, then the monster is wherever the GM needs it to be, and all roads lead to Rome. This is perhaps more like an invisible railroad rather than being truly modular, but can still be a useful implementation to have in your back pocket. And then most obviously, actually game Modules, which can often be interconnected across a larger campaign given some shared setting assumptions.

You can disagree with some of my specific phrasing, or with the effectiveness of the specific implementation examples, I'm just saying in general, this is a useful way to break apart the kinds of concerns a GM may have, and what to do about them.

There are few, if any, similar kinds of design patterns and implementations for Players, besides the character sheets themselves. Most books or blog posts I've seen, not all but most, stop at the Tip & Trick level. That's better than nothing, but I think it would be even more useful to have Design Patterns, which then lend themselves naturally to Specific Implementations. Here is one example:

Tip & Trick: Write Notes
Writing notes is a good idea. It helps you remember things better. It keeps you focused. You can refer to the notes later. It shows the GM and the other Players that you're engaged with the game and you care. There is nothing wrong with this advice. However, it's vague. It doesn't in itself give you an idea of how to do it effectively. It can put a lot of pressure on the Player and even distract them from playing the game. Some notes are better than others and too many bad notes quickly become the same as having no notes.

Design Pattern: Write Event Cards 
These are short blurbs, a paragraph at most, about an NPC, place, event, etc. Any key sensory details, relationships, or significance to other important Events, etc. By discretizing them onto cards (see Specific Implementations for what that might entail) they're easier to keep track of, and by having some schema of what they are for and what goes on them, it's easier to know when and what to write, and less stressful or distracting. It's also something a GM can just as easily do for their Players or alongside them.

Specific Implementation: Aspects (FATE); Flowcharts; Pinned Discord Messages; Physical Notecards; Computer Database
The most straightforward implementation is just physical notecards. You could also do pinned discord messages if you're playing digitally, or make a SQL or noSQL database if you want to be fancy about it. I personally have grown fond of flowcharts, like you'd see in Crime Dramas, for connecting the Event Cards by their relationships like a graph. The game FATE has a mechanic called Aspects, which takes this idea one step further and actually ties it into the core gameplay loop so that they are not only not distracting, but are actively additive to the game.

If people find this interesting or helpful, I may post more Player Design Patterns in the future. I'm still early in this journey of rediscovering what it means for me to be a Player, given everything I've learned over the years about how to worldbuild, GM, and design games. Besides Design Patterns per se, I have some other thoughts, like the role of Players in a game vs. the GM, or the Player/GM interaction, or Player/Player interaction. We'll see where this goes. I'd also like to maybe just discuss my own anecdotal thoughts and experiences from being a Player, and what I want out of a game as a Player, and so on.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Non-Combat Conflict Encounters

One of the things I'm trying to do with Maximum Recursion Depth is design encounters in such a way that physical conflicts and non-physical conflicts can be treated the same way. I decided to go about this in both directions- physical conflicts can be resolved with a Save roll, but the Conflict mechanics can be applied to any kind of conflict, not just physical conflict. I tried to avoid having too many "GM Tip"-style writeups in the book, but I actually do a section of the book to this topic up-front, so I'll hold off on going into too much depth here, but you can get a sense of it from the Ashcan Edition now if you're interested.

This is not to discourage non-mechanical / player-driven problem-solving solutions to conflicts either, it's more about challenging the default assumptions of how to interact with the game when that becomes non-viable, or for that matter, using the default assumptions to even more so blend the player-driven and mechanical approaches.

I had intended for this post to be more of a general discussion, but since I'm framing it in terms of MRD I do have to provide some MRD-specific context, but I hope people find this interesting regardless.

I've still been struggling with the logistics of coordinating a playtest of the Module, but I've tried to apply this general approach to my ongoing MRD campaign and I feel good about the results up to this point. I've had some Kickstarter backers express interest in participating in a playtest as well as some people on the NSR Discord Server (see the MRD channel), but even if you're not a backer, if you're potentially interested, feel free to reach out to me in the comments here, on the server, or DM me on Discord (you can find me on the NSR server ;)).

In short, here are the basics of the MRD Mechanics:
  • The three Abilities are Nature (willpower, effort), Wisdom (awareness, ability to learn), Propriety (social skills, adaptability).

  • Saves involve d20 roll-under an Ability Score + d6 roll-under Karma Score.

  • Each Ability is its own HP pool for characters (NPCs generally just have one single pool), and so Damage dice denote which Ability they affect e.g. Nd6, Wd4, Pd8, Xd10 (where X means it contextual / varies).

Below is one example of a non-combat conflict encounter for the Module in the first issue. The assumed setting is MRD and I'll provide MRD statblocks, but I tried to make the abilities translatable to other systems, and hopefully, many of these can be also be dropped into another setting with only a little bit of conceptual tweaking. Keep in mind that MRD is somewhat of a Mark of the Odd game, so while it would require some tweaking, you could potentially translate these to Into the Odd or Electric Bastionland or other similar games.

I generally take a stance of, try to come up with context-specific and interesting ways for players to face an encounter, and encourage them to come up with their own ideas. If a Save or Conflict is suggested in the text, that should be used in lieu of a more dynamic approach.

Bad Breath Troll (15 HP)
An explosive burst, toxic fumes spread throughout the train. The fumes are themselves a Poltergeist. Each turn, each PC rolls a NAT Save. On full success take no Damage, on Partial Success take Nd4 Damage, on Partial Failure take Nd6 Damage, and on Full Failure take Nd8 Damage.
The Poltergeist was an internet troll and will try to argue with the party on various topics. It will go away if thoroughly humiliated, or the train is vented.
Karmic Attachment Opportunity: Don’t feed the troll. No good will come of it. Accept the Damage it inflicts, accept the taunts, the bait, the insults, and carry on. The troll has a 50% chance of following the party to any subsequent encounter, and must be successfully ignored three times in a row in order to Resolve the attachment. If anyone retaliates against the Troll, it may go away temporarily, but then the counter resets.

In this case, the Poltergeist that the players encounter here is basically a gas cloud. Yes, it has HP, but you're not going to be swinging a sword at it. Instead, the HP might reflect social conflict or dispersion of the gas particles.

The NAT Save on each turn is a fairly basic way of creating tension or danger in that it deals Damage, although GMs are encouraged to come up with more creative situations. In this case, I chose the NAT Ability Score because I generally map physical exertion or other physical effects to NATure, although NAT can also include mental exertion.

I provide a brief descriptive text and some suggestions for how to confront it. It can be humiliated or vented. After discussion with some people on the MRD channel of the NSR discord server, I chose not to overly define what that entails. Depending on personal preference of GMing style, this could just be a player creativity / problem-solving situation. 

If all else fails, arguing with or humiliating the Troll could be handled with a PRO Save or PRO Conflict, where PROpriety entails one's social standing and ability to operate within society; somewhat like CHArisma but not entirely the same, but as a frame of reference.

If it's handled as a Save, you'd be treating it more like a single event, or like an environmental hazard. But in this game, you could also treat it like Conflict, where the mechanics of a verbal jab are no different than a physical jab, so if you have PRO Damage dice you could do that (but expect to take PRO Damage in return). You could imagine a similar scenario for venting the Troll from the train, needing to conceive of some means of opening the jammed train doors and hold out while the Troll slowly vents out.

In MRD, the Karmic Attachment Opportunities are meant to be core to the gameplay loop and incentivization structure, somewhat like XP. In this case, the KAO is meant to create a tension where the players are encouraged to ignore this threat, even as puts you in greater peril, and may compound future threats. And if you attempt to do so and reach a point where it is not viable to continue to do so or are baited out of doing so, you must confront the sunken cost of the Damage you took trying to ignore it.

If you are not playing in MRD, rather than a KAO, you could tie experience to the approach. Maybe defeating the Poltergeist provides no XP or some lesser amount of XP, whereas ignoring it provides a greater amount of XP, so the players are incentivized, but not forced, to take this approach. If you're not concerned with the philosophical underpinnings that I'm going for, you can just do what you want with it and ignore this, of course.

If you've made it this far into the post, thank you :), and here's a bonus one:

A live One (15 HP)
One of the eggs becomes a vessel for a Poltergeist accidentally reincarnated into the Court. It grows into an existentially frightening human-sized balut monster.
Each turn, each PC rolls a WIS Save. On full success take no Damage, on Partial Success take Wd4 Damage, on Partial Failure take Wd6 Damage, and on Full Failure take Wd8 Damage.
KAO: Help The Live One to overcome the horror of its own half-born state and metamorphose into something beautiful, or help it to come to terms with itself as a horror. The Live One will follow the Team until the attachment is Resolved, providing some assistance, but also requiring care and attention from the Team, or else it will intermittently cause existential dread and/or WIS Damage.

You can see here that I took the same default approach to tension via the Save, although in this case, it's WISdom, relating more so to one's existential or general philosophical understanding of the universe. There is a reason why we often choose to use different terms for meat for consumption vs. live animals e.g. beef == cow, pork == pig, etc. (although I realize there's also an etymological reason in English for this as well).

The KAO is somewhat similar here as in the last one, only rather than ignoring the creature, they are encouraged to engage with it, except in a non-confrontational manner. The players are encouraged, rather than treating this creature as a threat, to instead try to accept it, but doing so is effortful, and the players will need to engage with it in lieu of potentially doing other things.

However, they could also choose to face it head-on, and this could mean a physical fight, but it could also mean any number of other things. Perhaps they try a WIS Save or even WIS Conflict to simply overcome the existential threat of its existence. Perhaps they try to pawn off the obligation of caring for this thing onto a passerby (roleplay or PRO Save / Conflict).

I hope that my intentions with this creature are clear and that it's not inadvertently offensive towards the Filipino Community. I'm a vegetarian and often use the imagery of meat in my works, but this is not intended as a criticism of Filipino food or culture or meant to mock their customs or anything of the sort. I hope the KAO in particular makes it clear that this is about something else entirely anyway. But just in case, make no mistake, STOP ASIAN HATE!

Monday, March 22, 2021

Maximum Recursion Depth Factions in a d20 Weird & Wonderful Table

I was inspired by a conversation with one of my players to do a Weird & Wonderful Table of d20 Factions for Maximum Recursion Depth. I was also inspired by a conversation I had on the NSR Discord server about whether or not there is such a thing as a "best" idea or whether or not one might have a finite number of ideas in their career. I remembered how back when I used to do these big d20 W&W Tables, I would get into a creative flow state and ideas would come to me on overdrive, but I just haven't had the discipline for them in a looong time. I've added the Weird & Wonderful Table label to some more recent posts, but the last true d20 W&W table post was just over a year ago! Weird & Wonderful Loot, it was a pretty good one too.

Some of these will be factions I've already discussed on the blog before, but the big twist here is that each faction will receive a writeup of no more than four sentences. Considering how overwritten my old tables were anyway, this is probably for the best. Maybe even four sentences is too much, especially given how prone I am to run-on sentences.

Most of these will not show up in the Kickstarter book, and definitely not this explicitly, so they may change over time, especially those I created on the spot for this blog post, which actually is very few of them, to my surprise.

  1. Seneca Village Collective: Social justice movement inspired by the historical Seneca Village in NYC, advocating for minority groups throughout the world. A collaboration including an African American native New Yorker who performs jazz renditions of K-Pop music, a Korean Japanese K-Pop star, a vigilante with a Minwha motif known as the Seneca Tiger, and an African American Drag Queen with a Ganguro Girl + Japanese Horror-inspired set.

  2. Deseret Avengers: Several loosely affiliated groups whose most prominent members deny their involvement. Started as an internet alt-right hate group of young gamer incels that co-opted conservative Mormonism, but also consists of Uruguayan and Ruritanian Mormons who are largely oblivious to the group's hateful origins. Prominent members include the TikTok Teen Magical Girl Superhero Moon Marine, the poltergeist of a young Ruritanian American immigrant in Queens who started the online social movement before his death, and a prominent Uruguayan American immigrant and wealthy Manhattan businessman with strongly conservative leanings.

  3. Ado and The Court of the Rose-Tinted Looking Glass: Multi-layered kaleidoscopic island, its landscape folds in on itself like pages of a pop-up art book, on a daily schedule, between a massive polluted industrial complex, and glamorous high rise buildings. Due to Bureaucratic Error, it partially bleeds into the material world somewhere in the East River between Long Island City and the southern tip of Roosevelt State Park. Hipsters and yuppies have begun to gentrify the Court, interfering with the sentences of the Poltergeists, leading to an increase in hauntings in nearby communities by displaced Poltergeists, abusive handling of Poltergeists by Devils not equipped for these circumstances, and inappropriate reincarnations. The Arch-Devil Ado has worked admirably to make the best of the situation for everyone but has thus far received salty criticism from those outside her community.

  4. Anti-Sphinx: International "crime syndicate" and anti-fascist group started after World War 2 by Myer Lansky and The National Crime Syndicate, along with Alan Turing, Hedy Lamarr, the Lakota Code Talkers, and others involved in organized crime or crypto-analysis throughout the world. They have gained power through the creation of the dark web QlippothNet, and its metaphysical crypto-currency modeled on the Hell Money of the Numberless Courts of Hell. Their organization is secret, but serves as a front for myriad businesses legal and illegal, especially in the world of gambling. In recent years, they have incorporated more members from African nations such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Nigeria, and also Chinese business elites.

  5. Pepper Pan & The Recess Rascals: Poltergeist Children playing a deadly game of Pirates & Privateers. They are being manipulated by the Arch-Devil Joffrey the Giraffe, self-styled after the toy store chain mascot, who preys on their innocence, grief, and fears. Their base of operations is The Court of Those Who Break Their Toys.

  6. Barsabbas of The Court of Those Who Bet on the Wrong Horse: Styled after Wrongside Racetrax, the tacky sports-bar chain. Once popular for its Karmamare Racetrack and thriving gambling scene, it has slowly withered away to virtually nothing. Unbeknownst to the Arch-Devil Barsabbas, the Court was decommissioned long ago, but due to Bureaucratic Error, he was never informed. Although at a disadvantage, Barsabbas is still a force to be reckoned with.

  7. Court of Gyro Hell: Contrary to the name, it is actually a Numberless Court of Hell-themed fast-food chain, identified by its mascot Poly the Elephant, an indigo elephant with a massive third eye who is the fictional Arch-Devil of this fictional Court. It started as a conspiracy theory / religious extremist group in Crete based on the theory of geocentrism and a nefarious secret world order. After being forced out of Greece for committing numerous humanitarian crimes, the Geocentrists emigrated to China and opened their fast food restaurant, which became a phenomenal success. They use the restaurant chain to propagate their beliefs under false legitimacy, while inconspicuously influencing global geopolitics.

  8. Polterzeitgeist and the Council of Jacks: Rogue Poltergeists advocating for the right to persist in the material world, at least for a time, as opposed to being sentenced to one of the Numberless Courts of Hell to be reincarnated. An eccentric group, whose members struggle to manage their ever-accruing Karma. The Council of Jacks informally lead the Polterzeitgeist movement. 

  9. Doppler Potential: Super-organism distributed intelligence that evolved as an epiphenomenon of the formation of the United States Government, to which it is inextricably linked. It is part of the Karmic Cycle and legally human according to the Celestial Bureaucracy, but seeks to attain godhood. It does not hide its existence, as there is no need to do so. Its existence marginalizes humans as merely nodes of a larger consciousness, which most humans find existentially untenable and so deny it in the face of all evidence or grant it uncritical token acknowledgment.

  10. Doctor Loves-Me-Not and the Hectic Eclectic Erect-ic Freak Show: Wealthy renaissance non-binary person and drag "jack" like rugged attractiveness meets eccentric 27 club. The "freak show" is a place for outsiders to reclaim their identity and dignity, and to express themselves, create art, and advocate for worthwhile causes. Doctor Loves-Me-Not was raised as part of the Doppler Potential but died under mysterious circumstances. They persisted in two forms, as the Rogue Poltergeist Goblin Jack of the Council of Jacks, and as Doctor Loves-Me-Not themself, a living idea, self-propagating like a meme.

  11. The Worcestershire and The Thespian Guild: The Worcestershire is a colorful Nature Spirit with the body of a lemur and the face of an anchovy, and a dedicated thespian "AC-TOR!", showing up randomly and mysteriously with the intent to be helpful. Although useful in some ways, they are often more a hindrance than help. They follow a kind of cartoon-logic, seemingly detached from the circumstances of the Karmic Cycle. The Worcestershire frequently speaks of the Thespian Guild, but no other members have shown themselves as yet.

  12. Aquarian Collective: Anarcho-Socialist utopian coral-humanoid alien species with hyper-advanced science fantasy knowledge and technologies. They study humanity openly, leveraging cognitive biases and other gaps in human cognition to do so largely unnoticed, not unlike humans observing the behaviors of animals in their natural habitats. On occasions where they communicate directly with humans, they may seem cogent, but there is an asymmetry of understanding, like a human talking to their dog.

  13. Deva Underworld: Heterogeneous and metaphysically-attuned species somewhere between proto-human and Nature Spirit. The basis for many mythical proto-humans and proto-gods such as Nephilim, Djinn, Sidhe, Fairies, Vanir, Titans, etc. (any of which are equally valid alternative names for this faction). Most ascended to Heaven long ago by divesting their Karma or using the magitech body modifications of Dharmatics, while a minority remained in the material world as Bodhisattva to guide humans, only to be feared, hated, slaughtered, and forced into hiding.

  14. Metro Daddy and The Court of Those Who Succumb Prematurely to Crippling Expectation: NYC metro-inspired Court of Hell. Amidst the bustling Stations and Cyborg Snake Trains, it has become a hub of underworlds of all kinds. Myriad abandoned stations and train lines litter the Court, where hidden communities of Polterzeitgeist, Deva, and outcasted humans reside, among other secrets. The Arch-Devil of the Court, Metro Daddy, puts on a tough exterior, but has a rather benevolent nature, and tries his best to maintain the functionality of the Court, the metro, and protect the underworld communities that have made it their home.

  15. Fuck Club: The third rule about Fuck Club is you don't talk about Fuck Club. A once-secret and still secretive club of successful and influential "liberal elitists", made up primarily but not exclusively of immigrants, leveraging their skills and knowledge for the greater good. Started by the vigilantes Rock Dove & Wild Turkey to defend immigrants forced into sex work, from which stems the pejorative origin of their name, which they have since gone on to reclaim. While they take some on-the-ground, reactive vigilante action, most of their work is through structural and proactive efforts.

  16. The Hunstman and His Pack: A man of the first generation of humans, the first recurser, and the first Ashura. He is a warlord who has benefited from every act of human colonialism and every advancement of human knowledge and technology while lacking any understanding of its potential. Although He and His Pack have influenced many of humanity's greatest atrocities against itself and nature, He merely leverages, instinctively and unknowingly, the most primitive human impulses, to be exploited just as easily by any other lucky warlord. Today, He operates in public as the Police Chief of NYC.

  17. WORD: World Order of Recursers against Dysfunction, an international organization and the only human organization that reports directly to Diyu, the capital of The Numberless Courts of Hell. Agents of WORD are partnered with Devil or Nature Spirit familiars and are trained in various metaphysical and theological disciplines. They work to facilitate the order of the Karmic Cycle as determined by The Numberless Courts of Hell in the absence of a functional Celestial Bureaucracy.

  18. Einherjar: Secret rebel faction of Gods, Nature Spirits, and ascended humans within the Celestial Bureaucracy working to undermine and overthrow The Monkey King. They have had limited success in the material world and Numberless Courts of Hell infiltrating various organizations. Some agents succumb to the temptation of Karma and lose their metaphysical status, defect or become double agents, or descend to Maximum Recursion Depth and become Ashura.

  19. Diyu and The Numberless Courts of Hell: Diyu is the capital of The Numberless Courts of Hell, the metaphysical bureaucracy tasked with sentencing Poltergeists to a Court and determining their reincarnation based on their Karma. For the last 500 years, they have worked openly in the material world, in order to deal with the consequences of The Monkey King's actions, but as a rigid bureaucracy, they have largely failed in this regard.

  20. The Celestial Bureaucracy: The metaphysical realm of the Gods, and heaven for those who divest their Karma and ascend to Buddhahood. 1000 Years ago The Monkey King fought a war against The Buddha and won. Under his selfish, impulsive, and violent leadership, the dysfunctions of the Celestial Bureaucracy threaten the Karmic Cycle.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Tabletop RPGs as Performance Art

I've got another very incomplete post drafted, didn't get much sleep last night, haven't posted in a while, and had this idea in the meantime. Been really caught up in some work stuff and trying to maintain progress on MRD and push through all the hardest parts. It's where working on the book feels like work, but that's ok, I knew what I was signing myself up for. (MRD being my kickstarted game Maximum Recursion Depth)

So there's all the critical theory stuff people have with TTRPGs like GNS or "does system matter?" and tl;dr few if anybody discussing these theories is making any effort to operationalize their definitions, formalize their hypotheses mathematically, and test them empirically or through some kind of modeling, so at best they're interesting reads and interesting conversations, and at worst their toxic or attract toxic people.

So I will attempt to define my terms, but this is me just talking off the cuff, this isn't good science, and I really have no interest in hearing your bad-faith nitpicks, but would welcome any genuine comments.

All of that being said, I've been thinking about what I want out of games; how I design a setting, or campaign, or even a game itself, and what my interests are as a player, and what I expect from my players, and what they expect from me, etc.

Broadly, it seems like games fall into two camps. There are the "storygames", that are more about character conflict/interaction, and collaboratively telling a story within the confines of a genre. Then there are the "gamey" games, which can be the games that are more tactical and incorporate almost wargame-like mechanics like D&D 3.+, or games that are about resource management, puzzles, and problem-solving like OSR. And what I've struggled with, is that neither of those really satisfy me. 

In some ways, I lean towards the collaborative storytelling, but more so in the sense of worldbuilding than character interaction per se. Also, I don't like how those kinds of systems constrain genre because I don't like to operate within genre. I understand the logic of it- by constraining the game mechanic space to a particular genre, you can leverage that to do some mechanically interesting things within that genre, but that's just not what I want.

So mechanically I prefer games like OSR; rules-light, modular, rulings over rules, can be abstracted away from genre fairly easily. However, I'm not necessarily into the resource management or even puzzle / problem-solving stuff that most OSR people are into. I don't like deadliness for the sake of deadliness, and I don't think things need to be perfectly balanced, but it sucks when random rolls lead to one player being less capable than others. You might think as a software engineer I'd be attracted to the logic puzzles and problem-solving stuff, or to the crunchier theory-crafting tactical stuff of D&D 3.+, but honestly, I get enough of that in my work life, and even if I wanted more, I'd rather get it out of a videogame. I can understand how tabletop RPGs can be uniquely suited for puzzles / problem-solving in particular, but it just doesn't appeal to me.

And what I've started realizing, that I don't know if I've seen anyone formalize in quite this way, is that I like tabletop RPG as performance art. I like to build worlds that throw a million wild ideas at you a minute, that don't always make sense right away, or sometimes ever, but you just have to sort of be along for the ride. I like to break the rules, break expectations, do stuff that's surprising. It's still problem-solving, but less so in the sense of resource management and logic puzzles, and more so in, how do I confront this weird and inexplicable thing? How do I come to understand the rules of this world, and what do I do when they change? It's a Multi-Armed Bandit Problem. It's art, if I may be so pretentious; its very existence is the challenge. It's art when you read it, it's performance art when you try to run it, or when you play in it. It's those interactions between a prospective GM trying to interpret my ideas and filter it through their own sensibilities, and then any players interacting with the setting as presented by myself or another GM.

I had a good conversation last night on the #mrd channel of the NSR Discord Server.

I discussed how to some extent I think of my worldbuilding / GMing style as being like David Lynch, or how I think of continuity in a comic book sense: I like to imagine how a writer comes up with an idea, and then later another writer does something that contradicts the first writer, and then later a third writer bends over backward to try to make sense of the continuity error, and then later still a fourth writer just says fuck it and upends the whole thing. I think I've talked about this before in the context of mythologies, or Lovecraft, but it's these idiosyncrasies, these inconsistencies, that I think make these worlds interesting and authentic.

My favorite moments as a GM are when I make players go "woah...", or "wait, what?". I understand that that's not going to be for everyone, and it makes it especially difficult as I write MRD and try to convey what it is, or at least what I intend it to be. I think other people can run it more straight, taking the premise on-face. Some people might even be disappointed in exactly how far I veer from that initial premise (I think I've been clear about this, but it is definitely not a game about Chinese or Buddhist mythology per se). I can only do so much about that, but I at least want people to be able to read it and feel like it is an effective version of what it was intended to be.

As an example, here's briefly one thing that has happened over the last several sessions of my campaign: I started the players off on a Poltergeist Investigation. I just dropped them in and played it off as a GM fiat kind of thing. I never told them who started them on the investigation, or why.

They never asked.

The next session, I do this trippy thing where I start them off in a different place and some weird stuff happens, only for them then to go back to where they were at the end of the previous session.

I thought this would get them to rethink the previous session but they did not.

It was only towards the end of the last session, that they finally asked how the whole thing had started, and they still don't know, but at least now they know that they don't know. But they're so embroiled in it now, they don't even have time yet to consider how it all started.

Basically, I leveraged their willingness to go along with the GM fiat, to create a genuinely psychedelic moment. It didn't remove their agency, it didn't violate any preconceived notions about the setting, but it did, I suppose, violate their expectations as players in a game.

On the whole, my players know at this point to expect this kind of stuff and roll with it, and I can't speak for them but I'm having a blast and I'm reasonably confident they're enjoying it too. My current group happens to be a very interesting group of both people who lean hard in the OSR direction, and people who lean hard in the storygame direction, and one of the storygame players did struggle with it a bit. I don't think this framing would make them any more preferential towards this style of gaming, but at least it might facilitate their understanding, although again, I think at this point they do understand that that's just what this game is going to be.

But anyway, that's sort of veering away from the main point, which is that, I think it's worth considering frameworks outside of "storygame" or "gamey-game" or whatever, and here I'm proposing "performance art" as another kind of game, and that's what I'm trying to make.

It is about characters' inner struggles, and interpersonal struggles, and societal struggles, and that is broadly encoded in the Karma mechanic, but not by genre. It is about problem-solving, but less so in the sense of logic puzzles and resource management, and more in how you confront these weird and inexplicable circumstances- it's more a creative challenge. I guess it's more of a life challenge, if again I may be so pretentious. Things happen that violate our expectations, there is much uncertainty, there is a balance between the comfort of the known and comfortable vs. the appeal of novelty and danger. The players' actions matter; just as I said I love making players go "woah...", I also love when players make me go "woah...".

So hopefully this newest step in my attempt to explain myself clarifies certain things for you, or inspires you, either to think of your own games or gaming style as performance art or to think of what else gaming may mean to you.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Weird & Wonderful Wavelengths (Variety Show s1e1)

EDIT: I think I should state more clearly (I explain this in my comment Kyana): This is supposed to be like a TTRPG in itself, where the medium is the blog and the RPG is a Variety Show themed around blogosphere stuff. I, the blog writer / GM am the Host, and the readers / commenters / players are the Audience. So you can "heckle", or make a mech character who may get brought up on stage next episode, or you can take this idea and run with it yourself on your own blog and make your own pirate broadcast of Weird & Wonderful Wavelengths. It's sort of a... I dunno, maybe it's pretentious to say performance art, but it's like the blogosphere TTRPG equivalent of performance art.

Hello, ladies & gentlemen & all other folks, welcome to Weird & Wonderful Wavelengths, the one, and only tabletop RPG Variety Show. The original footage has sadly been lost to the dark depths of the multiverse (that's a storyline for another time), so here we'll be transcribing an approximate reconstruction of the show using our trademarked, patented, and copywritten quantum golem learning algorithm (TM, C, etc.)*
*This is an experimental technology, there is a 1% chance this episode induces nirvana, Weird & Wonderful Worlds cannot be held liable for damages.
This is an all-new venture, something a bit experimental. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, but what would be the point of the Weird & Wonderful brand if we didn't try to do new things now and then amiright? We'll see where it goes, I'm open to suggestions and hecklers in the audience. Maybe next episode we'll even bring some people on stage! Anyway, please keep in mind this is just a pilot, but I hope you all enjoy the show!

We're going to be starting off with a musical number by my old friends, Junior Senior:

EDIT: it appears that the video embeddings don't work in mobile mode. Cool! I'll just include links I guess...

What a wonderful performance. I hope you're all getting excited now for what's to come. Let's move those feet towards our first act.

We're going to build a character for Batteries Not Included!

Yesterday you were in a warehouse, processing angry customer complaints. This morning you were on a plane. Five minutes ago, you were falling from the sky. One minute ago, you found a wheel, a taser and a claw amongst the wreckage. Right now, a metal monstrosity with tank treads and a chainsaw is yelling at you: "YOUR LIMBS. GIVE THEM TO ME."

What a dramatic start! I'm really looking forward to seeing how this plays out. This is Mechs and Battle Royale and Tabletop RPGs, and something I've been interested in for some time now.

Core (+P / [H] / +5 modules / cannot be tapped)
Tactical Simulator (TP: "undo" an action you just took, it was a simulation)
Turbine (while in fast flowing water or gas, +PP)
Minigun (A: D / fast)

We start with a default Core, capable of holding up to 5 modules, with +1 Power and a Heat Capacity of 1. Because Minigun is a starting module that requires ammo (A), we start off with two units of ammo. Given the Turbine, which gives us an additional +2 Power in water (if I understand correctly myself) our Mech will likely prefer to operate near water, but since our only module so far that uses Power is the Tactical Simulator (which costs 1 Power and must be Tapped to use), maybe we should focus on gunning down enemies and stealing their modules first!

And that's it, folks! Meet our new Mech: Hydro-Max Platypus! Tune in for the next episode and we'll see how our new Mech fares!

Are there any other Mech pilots in the audience? If there are any pilots, raise your hand! One lucky audience member will be brought up to the stage next episode to face off against the RapidFire Dynamo: Hydro-Max Platypus!

For our next act, we're going to raise the intellectual level of this show, for a discussion on applied machine learning. I know this is a little different than what we usually discuss here, but I think you'll find this interesting. Anyway, I happen to think the first speaker is quite charismatic ;).

Let's return to tabletop RPGs, shall we? Your "humble" host here has been working for quite some time on a little game with a little title: Maximum Recursion Depth, or Sometimes the Only Way to Win is to Stop Playing.

The majority of the content of this game is finalized at this point, but I've got far more ideas than what fits into this first issue. I've made some dedicated blog posts for additional content, but sometimes I have some ideas that haven't fully formed yet, so we'll be discussing one of these ideas today. If this makes it into the game at all, it may take a wildly different form, so this is a real peek behind the curtains. Everyone always talks about breaking the fourth wall, but we'll start easy and break the third wall, heading behind the stage itself (tune in next episode for when we break the fifth wall!).

I find the Four Symbols (even though there are five, kind of...) and the corresponding mythical beings from Chinese mythology fascinating. Black Tortoise (with a snake tail!) of the North; Azure Dragon of the East; Vermillion Bird (Phoenix- sort of) of the South; White Tiger of the West; Yellow Dragon of the Center. There's something very elemental about them, and not just because they correspond to the elements of Taoist Alchemy. The interplay of mythic creatures with all of these levels of symbolism, the aforementioned elements, but also color, and spatial orientation, and more. I've played with the idea of symbolic mythic beings with my Ordinal Beasts of Phantasmos (featuring art by Scrap Princess!), with ordinality being the inverse of the cardinality of the Guardians. I've also played with elements (with a fancy generator!), and missing elements (this one is especially popular), and elemental planes (this one is "smart"), and elements as key concepts of a setting (this one is old and probably confusing!), so in some ways, this is almost like going back to basics for me.

So with all of that out of the way, here I introduce my (dear lord I hope not offensive) sixth element / sixth Guardian Beast to Chinese mythology (if Marvel can add a Tenth Realm to the Nine Realms of Norse mythology, maybe I'm in the clear here...). Please remember, this is very much a WIP idea, so keep this in mind and heckle accordingly. Also I reference a bunch of stuff without citations believe me or don't.

Indigo Cyclops of the Outside, Elemental Lord of Meat
Elephantine body with a monstrous humanoid face, one giant karmic "third" eye, elephant tusks, a long prehensile tongue, one hundred humanoid arms thrashing outwards from its stomach.

Color: Why Indigo? I'm not sure yet if it relates at all to The Indigo Saint's Cathedral, I just think Indigo is an interesting and underutilized color. It's a canonical part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and yet other than one weird Lantern Corps in DC Comics, nobody does anything with it. There's probably some interesting stuff I could say here about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the linguistic anthropology of color, but...

Directionality: Why External? Well, the other Guardian beasts cover North, South, East, West, and "Center" (China- which is I think why it sometimes gets dropped in other interpretations), so there's not much left. I had considered Time, but that seemed too "me". So I went with External. If Center means China, then External means Foreign relative to China. So then I started thinking about things like the Silk Road, and the Buddhist-Hellenistic connections, and that led to...

Beast: Why Cyclops? Why Elephants? I went with Cyclops to reinforce the idea that this is something External; it's a creature from Greek mythology brought into Chinese mythology. One could imagine how this actually could have happened, even though it didn't, I'm making this up. 

One theory on the origin of the Cyclopes (apparently the plural of Cyclops) is that they were actually elephant skulls, with the trunk cavity mistakenly believed to be an eye socket. But also, apparently, there are multiple conflicting kinds of Cyclopes in Greek mythology, and this is where it gets interesting! Most people think of the kind from The Odyssey, which were basically dumb giants, but before that, there was a group of Cyclopes which were the children of Gaia and Uranus, who were like the grandparent-gods of Greek mythology. Why were The Cyclopes and The Hecatoncheires ("The Hundred-Handed Ones") separated from the other children, the Titans, who went on to birth the Gods? I dunno, but isn't that interesting!?

So I have only at this point done a small amount of reading into this, but I did not find any substantive description of these original Cyclopes except for the implication of one eye due to the etymology of their name, so I figured, let's use that as leverage to do our own thing with it, and make them more monstrous and interesting. I decided to make them more overtly elephantine, but with the long tongue replacing the trunk since the trunk is the eye socket, and kind of lean into them being these eldritch proto-gods, and then let's fold in the arms from The Hecatoncheires as well because it seems reasonable in this pseudo-history that that could have happened and you could imagine some interesting psychedelic imagery off of this.

Element: Why Meat? I say, why not Meat? It seems odd to me if we're thinking about the fundamental "stuff" of the universe, from a pre-scientific era, that no culture I'm aware of considers Meat as an element. The Western Alchemical elements are Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, and then kind of also Aether, which is basically the cosmos but also maybe gravity; the Taoist Alchemical elements are Fire, Water, Metal, Earth, Wood, and then kind of also Qi, which is basically life force but kind of also air. And then apparently the Japanese version of the elements adds Void and I think drops one of those other ones but I no longer remember offhand, but probably drops Wood. 

But Meat is something most cultures eat (I should say actually that I'm a vegetarian and have been for most of my life), and it's the fundamental, physical nature of animals, and humans have been wearing or using animal hides and skins presumably since prehistory. Maybe it gets avoided because humans don't want to think of themselves as just a sack of meat. That's why we have souls and spirits and qi, but not Meat.

But Meat isn't just a physical vessel, it's also vital, it pulses with blood or lymph, in many cases (including our own) it metabolizes and oxidizes. It is the means by which we build things. Apparently, part of the myth of Cyclopes, the proto-god ones, is that they were "hand-to-mouth", they were "workers". This is part of what inspired the Meat element, and also part of why I folded the hands of the Hecatoncheires into the Indigo Cyclops's stomach.

So I don't have any specific plans for what to do with this or the other Guardian beasts in MRD yet. For now, it's just a thing that exists in the mythology of the setting as a "real world" pseudo-mythology, not unlike the deviations from canonical mythologies represented in modern superhero comics. Maybe the Guardian beasts show up, or incarnations of them, or maybe a corporation co-opts the Indigo Cyclops for a mascot, or a military names their new fancy mech or power armor after it, or there's a superhero themed off of it, or any number of other possibilities... 

So that got a little long-winded, I hope you're all still with me. 

How about some <creepy> art? I found u/c_o_n_a_r_t on Reddit a while back and was really impressed with their work. There's something very modern about it, in terms of its horrific sensibilities. It feels very 21st century. It's weird, gross, absurd, seemingly full of subtext, and he does some mini-comics and other forms of narrative as well. I'd actually love to get him for one or two pieces on a future issue of MRD, he expressed interest in doing so at one point but we didn't make any hard commitments. Here's Myself:

Moving On.

It's been a while since I've posted a micro-setting. This one has technically been featured before, but it got buried in a dump so I thought I'd feature it again.

(Heckler in the Audience) Why dredge it out of one dump just to toss it into another? *badum dum tss*

Heheh that's real funny, I didn't realize we had a joker in the crowd tonight. Well, all the same, let's take a look at the exotic Gasoline Swamp!

Gasoline Swamp
The Primordial Soup from whence hyperlife evolved. A species reminiscent of fungus covers the Earth, a constant hazy explosion of spores and heavy diesel energy. Animal life in this swamp, if it could be called that, take the adult form of tiny "pixies", full of manic energy. They have no mouths and other than the absorption of some transient energy, they have only the energy they absorbed in their tadpole state. The dominant lifeforms are hyperplants, tesselating undulating monsters that branch, root, fruit, and leaf in real-time. They are not photosynthetic and instead are mainly carnivores (fungi and animal eaters) or predators (herbivores), or some are omnivorous. Their biology is inextricably linked with plastics and microplastics, like if humans wore their microbiome on the outside. Their blood is diesel and most consumption is vampiric; diesel being the most nutritious substance for all hyperlife.

Well, folks, I hope you enjoyed this first episode. We had some fun, we had some laughs, we had some deep thoughts, but we haven't cried yet, or at least hopefully not, but this is a pilot so anything's possible I suppose. I figure, let's give our new psycho-spacetime machine a whirl, and head to another time and place and feeling within the emotional matrix, for our final act of the night, the lovely Julie London. Julie and I had a long talk about this, I practically had to beg her to bridge psycho-spacetime so that you all could enjoy this performance tonight (note that it's always Tonight on the Weird & Wonderful Wavelength). I know it seems weird to end on such a melancholy note, but such is life. So with all that said, may I present to you, Julie London: Cry Me a River.

Did you like tonight's performance? If this pilot gets picked up, the producers say they'd like to have more guests, more games, and more audience participation! They'll even accept heckles, so heckle away in the comments below. And if your station is interested in licensing this show for syndication, all you need to do is hyperlink this episode onto your own frequency; there's no streaming exclusivity here and all episodes are anti-canon including this one!

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Indigo Saint's Cathedral: The Nightmares of Nocturnal Creatures (Ch. 2)

I started writing this quite a while ago, I think late October or early November. The first chapter is here. I haven't had much time for anything besides Maximum Recursion Depth and I've never been consistent about doing "real" writing anyway, but I wanted to swing back to this. I don't know if it'll ever properly finish, but I think it still has places to go.

I worry that this is getting too meandering and I'm not sure how to take it where it's supposed to go, or even where it's supposed to go, but also if you combine these two chapters, at its current pace it's still pretty short even for a short story, so maybe it's ok to let it breathe some more. I hope the general themes I'm going for are coming through and there is a reasonable amount of foreboding for what will come, that it is neither too melodramatic nor too aimless, as I worry it may be. There's a certain thematic juxtaposition I'm going for, that I'd rather not say explicitly even though I don't think I'm being very subtle, and I think that juxtaposition is what makes the story interesting, but also, makes it hard for me to figure out how to fulfill on it without having to give up that thread, so it's sort of a difficult balance, but hopefully, it will come together the way I'm envisioning it.


I love that period in the early morning, that brief window around 5am or so, depending on the time of year, where it's no longer dark, but the sun isn't quite up yet either. There's a gray stillness. It's too late for the late night and too early for the morning hustle. Things are quiet. Nobody fucks with you in that Gray Zone, it's the only real peace you'll ever experience, and most of us sleep right through it. It's more than that though. It's like... it's not part of reality. Society doesn't expect anything from you, it's out of phase with your circadian rhythm, it's a sort of liminal space, like a lucid dream. Once the sun's up, you have to deal with the world. Predators abound, and all that; assholes down the street or on the road, unreasonable deadlines or a shitty boss, family drama, your own fully lucid thoughts. Nowhere to hide, besides maybe the bathroom stall, but then you're still stuck with yourself.

That's one way of thinking about it she says. I can already tell I've lost her. I knew I should have canceled, but I knew if I did it would probably never happen, so here we are, basically the same as if it isn't happening and now I'm that much closer to tomorrow morning. I'm in a mood, it happens.

The night has barely started and I'm already heading back home. Then a motion detector picks me up and then there's a bright light, and I see a raccoon rummaging through the trash, and the raccoon sees me. We stare each other down, that little bandit thinking he's in for it, but what am I going to do? I'm no threat to him, but anyway, he runs off, of course. To a nocturnal creature, the blinding spotlight must be what nightmares are made of.

I've been feeling a little better since I started working at the Indigo Saint's Cathedral. It's some kind of internship or fellowship; it pays to stick around after the seminar after all I guess. It's just about enough to pay the bills at least, and I'm in over my head, but with this on my resume, I should be able to do anything. But that's then and this is now and in the meantime, I'm staring at a screen wondering what to do next.

Not much happened after that. I had a dream... it was interesting, I think. I don't remember. My eyes adjust quickly to The Gray Zone. I'm glad I started getting up early again. Make coffee, take a walk. The sun begins to rise; I just woke up but I'm already tired. Each morning, like trying to race against the rising sun, knowing I can't possibly win, and then just giving in. Psychologists call it "learned helplessness". I swear, as the sun rises, I can feel sparks in my brain as serotonin binds to receptors, opening gates in the neurons, post-synaptic potentials building up to action potentials, setting off a cascading response of sodium and calcium and other things, beads of light turning into threads of consciousness; the tendrils of sunlight squirming through my molecules, an unwanted shove onto the stage for my brain, forcing me into lucidity, forcing all of us into this illuminated state; so many colors and features, and yet we all know we're seeing the same thing. I resent this unwanted feeling of consciousness. Already, I'm thinking about what dreams I will have tonight.

I do look forward to going to the Cathedral, actually. But now that I work there, it's not the same. I can already tell, I'm loading it with so much nervous energy. Already associating this place with the fear and anxiety of the job, of being a part of the world and at its whims. I notice now, how bright the Cathedral is, and how open. I thought I'd have a cubicle at least, but it's an open floor plan. The other engineers seem nice enough, but I can already tell they're sizing me up, or maybe that's just one way, my own insecurities. "Projection", that's what it's called. But I'm here; they could have chosen anyone, but they chose me, they wouldn't have done that if they didn't think I can do it, so I guess I can do it. I can do it. I can. I loop through that for a while and realize I've wasted the better part of the last half hour, well, this whole morning's basically over at this rate.

How's your first week going he asks. Great I say too enthusiastically. I mean it though. I haven't really gotten much done, and I don't know what I'm doing, but it's exciting being here, thinking about what I'm eventually going to be able to do, even if I'm not sure how I'm ever going to do it. But I guess it'll just work itself out eventually. It's still sunny by the time I leave, sunset nowhere in sight. I worked all fucking day, and still, it mocks me, taunting me to keep going but I'm all spent.

A month goes by, and I know they're expecting results soon, but it feels like I've barely started. The Indigo Saint is going to want to talk to me soon. I used to get excited by the prospect, but now, I don't even know what I'll have to say to him. I leave a little early, again. I wasn't getting much done anyway, and I'm stressed out, so what's the point.

It only took until midwinter, but it finally gets dark before I leave the office, even when I leave a little early. I was going to watch that new horror movie tonight, and I guess now I can watch it sooner than later. You know that uncanny feeling, that little tingling sensation, that unsettlingness of good weird horror? That gives you something to think about, even when you're reasonably confident it means nothing, or even when you know exactly what it's supposed to mean but somehow it feels like there's more? It feels kind of good, right? Masochism for the amygdala; gives you fake things to be afraid of so you don't have to deal with the horrors facing you in broad daylight. Horror is always steeped in darkness. Why are the boogeymen so afraid of the light?

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Disk Horse Not-Review

I read Disk Horse a while back, by my Maximum Recursion Depth collaborator Fiona Maeve Geist (who is less famously known for her work on Mothership: Dead Planet). I meant to give it a proper not-review earlier and then got caught up in stuff, but here are some thoughts on the game.

Disk Horse is great. This not-review is perhaps the most NOT-review of any of my not-reviews yet, which is probably fitting for a game so meta. This probably won't make much sense unless you've read the thing, or even if you have, but hopefully, this will pique your interest if you haven't read it.

It is super-duper in-your-face meta at the onset, but it's very cleverly written and genuinely funny. Also, I could totally see myself unironically using this as a setting/module generator even though it's clearly making fun of most of the things it's saying. I actually think if it were presented slightly differently, it could be framed in a way that is only somewhat meta instead of super-duper meta and could maybe gain more traction that way.

It seems like there are at least two levels of meta, but I actually think the more difficult level of the meta is very front-loaded, which I actually think works in its favor. The most difficult level of meta is more intellectually interesting in my opinion, but I don't actually think would be that fun if I'm being honest, whereas the other level of meta, while not as intellectually engaging in my opinion per se, is something that actually seems fun and playable, and the game seems to have been designed more so around that level.

There's this level of the meta that seems to be about juxtaposing the bullshit of the satanic panic with the actual toxicity of people who get way too argumentative about game design theory, that's the intellectually more interesting but less gameable one (again, in my opinion), but then there's the other level that's more about making fun of how games actually tend to play out with real people, and the tropes and pseudo-intellectual or pseudo-original ideas that spring up, or how the players' personalities bleed into the game on every level, and the interaction of the game mechanics and the gamers playing them.

And there's a play report at the end; I don't know if it was actually a real game or if it was fictionalized, but I genuinely wish more RPGs had play reports like that written into them. Even though I'm not that into play reports in blogs (and neither are most people, if the view numbers on my play reports are at all generalizable to others' experiences...), I think within the context of a gamebook, demonstrating how to run the game or the feel it might evoke, when done well they are useful and entertaining. I suspect here it was designed more on the entertaining end than on the useful end, but nonetheless, a worthy inclusion into the book itself.

On the whole, if you're reading this blog, you're probably tapped into the OSR / blogosphere culture enough to appreciate what's in here, and open to poking fun at and criticizing the hobby and the culture while simultaneously reveling in it, and if that's the case, then you should give this a look.