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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Buddhist, Taoist, and Chinese Mythology References for Maximum Recursion Depth

One concern I've had with writing Maximum Recursion Depth is that while it utilizes elements from Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese mythology, I am not an expert on these subjects, nor do they reflect my personal lived experience per se; rather, what I've tried to communicate, is that within the game, these ideas have been filtered through my actual personal, lived experience. I've gone out of my way, such as in my interview at The Hardboiled GMShoe's Office, to make this point, and to highlight elements of the setting that are separate from these influences (such as the NY Factions and Weirder Factions blog posts).

That being said, I think it would be disingenuous to ignore these connections altogether. So I want to talk about some of the ideas from Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese mythology that influence the setting, why I chose to use certain terms but not others, how I'm interpreting those ideas, etc. Again, I want to reiterate, I am not a scholar on these topics, they are not my lived experience, this is not intended as a thorough, scholarly reference; these are just my personal interpretations. This is also a non-exhaustive list. I may add to it or edit it. I will almost certainly forget stuff. There are things I reference here that I have little more to say about at the moment besides "I read this, it probably influenced me, but I don't remember the particulars". Also, the items in this list are in no particular order. There are also plenty of other books of science and philosophy that have influenced me, but here I'm focusing specifically on Buddhism and Taoism.

First I'll do a bibliography, then I'll do an index of concepts.


Journey to the West

It's hard for me to describe exactly why, but I've always been fascinated by this story. I guess in part because of how ubiquitous it is, without many Americans necessarily realizing it. It heavily influenced the early Dragonball stories, and by extension many anime and videogame characters. It's been an influence throughout Chinese fiction. There's something very archetypal about it. It's got the kind of gonzo, borderline science-fantasy stuff that I love about Chinese mythology, although it's technically fiction and not mythology. You've got gods and devils with crazy transformations and superpowers, magic weapons, martial techniques, magic sutras, interesting and morally ambiguous characters; it's good stuff. It also deals with Buddhist themes and is a satire for its era. 

If I'm being honest, I only ever read the first volume of the four-volume translation, and that must have been 15 years ago at this point. The first volume is mostly a self-contained story, basically Sun Wukong's origin story, and near the end, it becomes the prologue for the true journey. I regret not reading the full thing, but if I'm being honest, it's... tough. The problem is that the book really leans in HARD on satire of specific things that I just have no frame of reference for; either linguistically, culturally, or temporally. I can respect in particular how it critiques the interplay between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in China. I think that's the thing that I found most interesting, aside from the gonzo fantasy of it all. While it's unlikely that I'll ever read the full thing, I could see myself one day reading The Monkey and the Monk, an abridged version of the story by the same translator. Generally, I hate to lose that context, but frankly, the context was mostly lost on me anyway, so if it's between never reading it, or reading the abridged version, I think that's what I'll have to do.


One thing that made getting into Buddhism a little trickier for me than, say, Taoism, is that there are many different branches, and even within any given branch, there is not necessarily one single book to turn to, like Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. While I'd read various sutras and scholarly articles and such on Buddhism, I only just recently read The Dhammapada. What's nice is that this version I linked in particular provides a lot of context for the book, why certain translation choices were made or not made, differences between versions of The Dhammapada, differences between different versions of Buddhism, etc. It felt like a good introduction, although I can't speak to that authoritatively. My understanding is that The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings from Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha, and so I guess this is the closest thing to a Source of Truth.

I was worried going into this book, that I would come to realize that a lot of my conceptions of Buddhism were wrong, or that I had fundamentally misrepresented some facets. Fortunately for me, I don't think that is the case. Like many theological or philosophical texts, there's a lot of room for interpretation. I don't necessarily strictly agree with everything. There's definitely a bit of self-confirmation; I'm reading into it a particular interpretation based on what I want to believe. I'll go more into the particular ideas in the concepts index, although a lot of it is just taking stuff from the index in this book.

In brief, one thing that I like about Buddhism is that it's actually kind of nihilist, more in an abstract sense than in the very loaded, specific sense in western philosophy which is its own can of worms. I think a lot of Americans have this very New Age-y, whitewashed idea of it, and it certainly can be interpreted that way to some extent, but actually, a big premise of Buddhism is that the material world is this entropic, dysfunctional system, and true happiness comes only from breaking free of this broken system.

The Awakening of Faith: The Classic Exposition of Mahayana Buddhism

As I said before, it's tough picking out the best primary sources for Buddhism. I was led to believe this book is a good primary source for Mahayana Buddhism, one of the main branches of Buddhism, which was the version that initially spread in East Asia. Given my prior affinity for Taoism, and my appreciation of the satire and interplay of these ideas in Journey to the West, I was more so inspired by Buddhism within the context of China specifically, so I wanted to educate myself at least somewhat on that level in addition to primary teachings from Siddhartha Gautama. 

I'm still reading this book, but so far I'm enjoying it. As with the translation of The Dhammapada above, this one includes much-appreciated context. I already get the sense that Mahayana Buddhism leans just a bit more into the nihilist or almost absurdist, kind of funny aspects of Buddhism that I like. I think I actually laughed a few times while reading this (to be clear, in a good way). If I'm being honest, I could not off-hand articulate the specific differences between original Buddhism and Mahayana or other branches, that's just a level of minutia that I struggle to care about frankly. I'm just concerned with the ideas, I don't care what lines other people draw so much, except to the extent that I genuinely don't want to overstep or offend, which I realize sounds like a contradiction, but so it goes...

Tao Te Ching

Up until maybe the last few years, I would have considered myself more so a Taoist than a Buddhist (I don't know if I'd really consider myself either, but at least on some level). I had read the Tao Te Ching when I was younger, at a really pivotal time when I was going through some things. I've reread it several times since, but even that has been a while, so it's hard for me to articulate many particulars, although I'll try to do so in the concepts index. I've read several translations, and there are some really bad ones. Unfortunately, I don't remember off hand which translation I've read that I most prefer, but I think I've read this one before and thought it was good.

Chuang Tzu

This is another Taoist book. I read this several years after the Tao Te Ching, while I was going through another rough time. I only read it the one time, and while it certainly influenced me on some level, I really can't speak to the particulars at all anymore, the influence is sadly no longer a conscious one. I'll have to reread it someday. Penguin Classics is generally trustworthy in my opinion, as far as translations go.

Vinegar Tasters

This allegory holds a special place in my heart for some reason that I can't totally articulate. I think it just does a really good job of encapsulating the relationship between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. You have Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), Lao Tzu (Taoism), and Confucius (Confucianism) each sipping from a pot of vinegar. Buddha says it's sour, it's bad, we need to start over or move on. Confucius says it's bitter, but can be refined, or sweetened, or fixed in some way. Lao Tzu says: guys it's vinegar, it is what it is. Back when I was more so a Taoist I preferred Lao Tzu's take, and to some extent I still do, but I do genuinely think all three are interesting perspectives. There are too many things about Confucianism, even from my minimal understanding, that I don't like, which is why I haven't read as much into it, but in a very abstract sense, the idea of being systematic, one could extend that to just saying, be scientific. I also like how the bureaucratic aspects of Confucianism influence Chinese Buddhism and Chinese mythology.

Several books on the "to read" list

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation I was not originally interested in this, but I had read incidentally that apparently "Book of the Dead" is actually a pretty gross mistranslation, one that's been kept mainly just because it's taken on its own cultural significance, but actually it's more so a book about Buddhism metaphysics in a more philosophical sense, which interests me much more so.

The Way of the Bodhisattva Another book on Tibetan Buddhism. Several of these books were put on my radar from a list of suggested readings to get started on Buddhism, I no longer remember offhand where I found that list.

In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (The Teachings of the Buddha) Another book of teachings by Siddhartha Gautama. I know The Dhammapada translator provided context on that vs. Pali Canon vs. other things, but again, the particulars just slip through my mind, but my understanding is that these are different.


Unlike the "bibliography", I'm not providing specific links here, just wiki it. For several of these, I focus as much on how it relates to MRD as the concept per se. In many cases, I use more generic terminology in MRD, in part because I wanted to avoid terminology overload, and in part because I wanted to avoid preconceived notions or aesthetics. While someone certainly could use MRD to tell a story more specifically rooted in Buddhist and Chinese mythology, I don't want the terminology itself to impress too deeply on GMs and players at the expense of a broader world.


Karma is a super-loaded term at this point because so many people have this overly simplistic, New Age-y understanding of what it means, and also because it is genuinely a complicated and multifaceted idea that gets interpreted in different ways within the broader scope of Buddhism. Roughly, it is the consequences of one's actions, but whereas most people equate that to "good actions -> good consequences / bad actions -> bad consequences", my take on it, and the take I use within the game, is that Karma is like Mass. It's the quantity of Material "stuff" you've integrated within you. Perhaps Weight would be a better analogy, since it's also the thing pulling you down, deeper into the Material World's "Gravity". And if the Material World is this entropic, corrupted place, then attachment to it is also this corrupting force. Despite how loaded this term is, and I know this will inevitably confuse some people and become a barrier to entry, I do think it is important to use this one word. It's central to all the other ideas in my opinion, and it's at least somewhat familiar, even if I'm using it in a way that's different than many people may be familiar with.


This broadly corresponds to both the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (it's a translation thing, but this is where The Dhammapada gets its name), but also to the phenomenology of Buddhism (although Dharma also exists in Hinduism and Jainism). It seems so broad in its scope, that at least to me, I don't know how useful of a term it is unless you already have sufficient knowledge of Buddhism which I myself lack, so I didn't see the point in including it in the game, but I thought it must at least be acknowledged here.


The cycle of death and rebirth, of reincarnation. This is basically the gameplay loop of Karmic Attachment and Reincarnation within the context of MRD. It's a super important concept in Buddhism, and one of the most fascinating in my opinion, and along with Karma I think is one of the most all-encapsulating. However, I decided that within MRD it would probably be easier to just call it the Karmic Cycle since that's effectively what it is, or at least what it is within MRD, and then it's one less term to have to remember while gaming.


Also translated as Hungry Ghosts, particularly in Chinese mythology. These are the basis for the concept of Poltergeists in MRD. I take a very loose definition of the term, but basically, they're "souls" (in quotes for reasons) that haven't been reincarnated and that have unresolved Karma. The idea that they're "hungry", to me connects to the idea of Attachment, and that's definitely not an accident. By my interpretation, although by no means canon, it's less about punishment for "bad Karma", or at least not entirely. It's a natural consequence of the system of the Karmic cycle / Samsara, independent of right or wrong. I chose the term Poltergeist over Ghost because... in part because I associated Poltergeist more so with the idea of unresolved issues than Ghost, which I see as maybe too generic, but also, it just had a good ring to it. Preta does as well, but then, that's another term gamers would have to remember.


Sometimes translated as Formations, or Conditioned Things. In some ways, this is like the mechanism of what I call Karmic Attachments in MRD. Again, I didn't want to get bogged down in the terminology, especially since I really don't know enough about it and it probably comes with a lot of baggage that people who know more about this stuff than me would inadvertently bring with them. The cognitive neuroscientist in me and the data engineer in me both find this fascinating for thinking about subjectivity, perceptions, and mental models, but I can't really speak to this too authoritatively.

The Three Marks of Existence

Impermanence (anicca), No-self (anatta), Suffering (duhka).

Impermanence I think gets back to that idea I've said about Buddhism being entropic, that everything we construct, literally, mentally, metaphorically, eventually breaks down into chaos.

No-Self I struggle with a bit. On the one hand, and again speaking somewhat as someone who used to study cognitive neuroscience, I agree with the idea that the Self is an illusion; just a useful construct, or an epiphenomenon of our biology. Anecdotally, I've struggled with how to reconcile No-Self with Samsara / the cycle of reincarnation (that's why I put "soul" in quotes in the Preta section), and I get the impression other people struggle with this as well. I think within Buddhism, it doesn't mean that there is no afterlife or reincarnation, but rather that even that metaphysical... "soul", for lack of a better term, is not a true Self, but is also malleable and impermanent. I know that at various points I've had a stronger grasp of this concept, but this is still the one I struggle with the most in terms of its greater implications in Buddhism, even if, as I said, there are other ways in which this makes very intuitive sense to me outside of Buddhism per se.

Finally, Suffering. As I understand it, this Suffering, or perhaps it's argued the root of all suffering, is the discrepancy between how we innately Condition Things (Sankhara) in a world that is by its nature entropic (Impermanence/anicca). This is again where my idea of Karma comes into play in MRD- whatever you're trying to accomplish, whatever game you're playing, it's a losing game; The Only Way to Win is to Stop Playing.


Hell in Chinese Buddhism, combining elements of Taoism, Confucianism, and traditional Chinese mythology, with the original Buddhist concept of hell called Naraka. Most accounts of Diyu I've read do put a finite number on it, but that number varies, and I liked the idea of making them Numberless. I like how in Chinese Buddhism, perhaps because of Confucianism, there is this very bureaucratic, ordered sense of the metaphysical world. It also lends itself well to satirization, as is done in Journey to the West. Importantly, the idea of the metaphysical worlds; Diyu and Tian (Heaven), as being bureaucracies, is not meant in the more colloquial/pejorative sense that one might be inclined to assume, although again, the satire leans into this, rightfully so. To me, it's more a matter of thinking about things systemically. So The Numberless Courts of Hell are an example of rigid, dysfunctional bureaucracy; bureaucracy for its own sake. The Celestial Bureaucracy, at least prior to the ascension of Sun Wukong (The Monkey King), is the idea of a functional, adaptable system- the ideal form of a system. 

Admittedly, this is where I take a very different interpretation from Journey to the West, where in that case, if anything The Celestial Bureaucracy was already being represented as fallible (although not necessarily entirely dysfunctional), and Sun Wukong, though still ultimately more flawed, was in some ways provoked by the system itself. I'm still undecided, if I'm being honest, on what stance I want to take on Sun Wukong and The Celestial Bureaucracy exactly. I am pro-systems thinking, but that is very different than being pro-bureaucracies as they exist in practice. It's like the difference between being a critical thinker or scientist, vs. believing in "law and order".


Pronounced more like Dao, translates roughly as The Way. While it's obviously more so relevant to Taoism, as I've said before, I was actually originally more interested in Taoism than Buddhism, and anyway it's the historical interplay of those two along with Confucianism, that has inspired MRD more so than Buddhism or Taoism per se. It's been too long since I've read the Tao Te Ching (pronounced more like Dao De Jing, as I understand it) to fully articulate all the particulars of it, but I love the concept of Tao. I get the impression that a lot of western thinkers struggle with it, more so than Buddhism which can at least kind of be interpreted in a way more consistent with western thinking. I mean, I kind of think the East/West dichotomy gets overstated anyway, but here I do think it matters.

So as I said with Vinegar Tasters, there's a version of Tao that's more about "the balance of nature / the way of things" that maybe works in a new age-y way, and I do enjoy that side of it. But there's also this side of the Tao that's about reconciling seemingly contradictory concepts, of non-binary logic, of deconstructing conscious thought, of Wei Wu Wei (action through inaction). Within MRD, I think this is maybe the answer to the inevitable question: If the only way to win is to stop playing, why play at all? While ultimately you need to divest your Karma and detach from the Karmic Cycle, because all exertion is Impermanent and attachment is Suffering and true Awakening comes from the acknowledgment of No-Self, there are also real problems in the world that affect people, and even though philosophically we can acknowledge the bigger picture, there's a more literal kind of suffering that it would be nice if we could get rid of in the meantime. From a software engineer perspective, it's sort of to me like how you have to reconcile on the one hand that there are times you need to refactor your codebase, but that takes a lot of time and effort, and in the meantime, you need to maintain and extend the current codebase, and maintaining this balance requires a degree of compartmentalization, and an ability to enter a Flow State. It's a bit more nuanced I think, than a lot of western thought, and requires one to acknowledge different scopes of a problem and how they interrelate and to not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth: Weirder Factions

Weirder Factions

This is the second post on Factions in Maximum Recursion Depth, the first focusing on Factions in New York.

There are still more factions I haven't written about than in this or the prior post, either because I haven't fully developed them yet, or because they blur the lines between Weird and "Realistic". There are also some NPCs I haven't included in either of these posts, either because they don't fit neatly into these factions (such as Doctor Lovesmenot), or because they are cool in a gameable sense, but aren't necessarily "notable" NPCs for the faction- more like videogame minibosses (for instance, Redlight and Greenlight). I'll try to write another post at some point for the stuff that didn't make it into these first two.

On top of that, none of these really formalize in any way The Celestial Bureaucracy, nor The Numberless Courts of Hell, which I realize may confuse or annoy some. I'm intentionally avoiding formalizing those factions, honestly, for several reasons, but when I do decide to take that plunge, if I decide to do so, I may do a post on that as well.

The Polterzeitgeist

Human consciousness is not built to sustain extended periods of immateriality, and especially not the inevitable friction of being an immaterial being in the material world. As such, rogue poltergeists, those who for whatever reason linger in the material world rather than serving time in one of the Numberless Courts of Hell to be reincarnated, are in a vulnerable position. Rogue poltergeists are, in the first place, more likely to have accrued a lot of Karma in their lives, and this Karma is paradoxically both what sustains them, and, in a downward spiraling feedback loop, what destroys them. In the end, most rogue poltergeists, if not returned to a Court of Hell or reincarnated, go insane, and become something more like a Nature Spirit. However, a rare few do manage to find a balance, becoming something no longer quite human, but also not quite a Nature Spirit. These are the Polterzeitgeist.

The Polterzeitgeist is led informally by “The Council of Jacks”, although it is more like a living culture, or a people defined by their oppression, than it is a movement per se. Their only uniting goal is their desire to be allowed to continue to exist in the material world, without being reincarnated. Beyond that, the Jacks each have their own activities and their own personal agendas. They see their relationship more as siblings than as political peers.

Notable NPCs:

Rat Jack: Humanoid rat in appearance and in character. He'll turn on anyone if it suits his interests, but at least he is reliable in his self-interest. He closely associates with Chester, a Nature Spirit and drug dealer, often managing certain logistics of the drug trade. Nonetheless, he is generally not a malicious person, and can actually be quite sentimental, even if it doesn't permeate through his actions.

Goblin Jack: Short, awkward, rugged, mangy looking creature. The type who looks pathetic at a distance, until you realize he's not as scrawny as he looks- it's just lean muscle as tight as steel, with a square jaw, and those teeth do look sharp... An idealist at heart, but also angry, and sadistic, and on the verge of being consumed by his Karma and becoming an Ashura. In his most recent past life, he was raised as part of an organization known as The Doppler Potential alongside Doctor Lovesmenot, who he sees as like a sibling.

Jungle Jack  (In development)
Honeybee Jack (In development; may replace with an ant-themed Jack)
Dragon Jack (In development)
Potentially others...

The Doppler Potential

A distributed intelligence, a living system birthed as an emergent property of the United States government. Its modern name is derived from a combination of the Doppler Effect and an Action Potential in the brain, and as a reference to the sound of a speeding police siren passing one by. The collective actions of humanity can be thought of as a connectionist neural network and by extension, a wave function, where individual humans are to civilizations as neurons are to the brain. This model had been converging nonlinearly towards the manifestation of a superorganism for some time; the crests of the wave function interfacing with the nodes of the network at an increasing rate. With the formation of the United States Government, the frequency of the feedback between the superorganism and humanity reached a critical mass, like post-synaptic potentials in the brain summating into an action potential, setting off a cascade response wherein the superorganism became self-aware, in some sense, if not necessarily as humans think of self-awareness.

The Doppler Potential exists as a living idea, manifesting in jingoism, religious-like reverence towards historical American figures and artifacts, cultural mores, institutions, and the systems behind them. It operates as a meta-governmental, multi-body organization interfacing with all aspects of the United States government.

Through various aristocratic families, housing projects, government orphanages, and similar means, The Doppler Potential has engineered, mostly behaviorally but more recently also technologically and genetically, human agents, corporations, and artificial intelligences, which serve either directly for The Doppler Potential, or completely unknowingly serve its will across the country and even the world.

The Doppler Potential has reached god-like status, although it is formally recognized by the Celestial Bureaucracy and the Numberless Courts of Hell as an incorporated human. It is karmic, although as a superorganism, and a young one at that, it does not necessarily interact with the karmic cycle in quite the same way as normal humans.

While the results of the Doppler Potential’s will may be interpreted as negative, or outright evil, by many humans, it does not see its actions as evil any more than a human would think themselves evil for killing brain cells on a night out drinking. Nonetheless, it’s utilitarian (if we’re being generous), if not outright Machiavellian treatment of humanity, is perhaps net-negative from the perspective of individuals. Even so, it is neither the total cause of nor total solution to all of humanity's problems, and in fact, could potentially be leveraged towards its salvation, if only humanity could understand it and come to terms with it.

The Doppler Potential makes no effort to hide its existence, but in most cases, it is simply too complex, and for many humans too existentially and epistemologically challenging, to even acknowledge, and therefore it is able to operate in plain sight, despite not being recognized in the general public consciousness.

As the United States has descended towards militarism and fascism, so too has the Doppler Potential become increasingly violent and hostile towards its perceived opposition, although its motives are often inscrutable.

It is not necessarily the only of its kind.

Notable NPCs:

Soft Mother: A cartoon humanoid in the form of a voluptuous woman, like a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Betty Boop. She serves as the mouth of The Doppler Potential; her words comforting but without substance.

Wire Mother: A putrid, zombie-like humanoid, naked, seeping noxious milky fluids, held together by a barbwire exoskeleton. She serves as the gut of The Doppler Potential; impossibly disgusting, yet plays a crucial role in its ability to gain sustenance (not so crucial that she cannot be replaced, of course).

Detective Dick ("Fuck Ya") Smashburn: A short, bald, mustachioed, middle-aged, no-nonsense cop who plays by his own rules (or so he thinks), and dreams of “the old days”. He is not aware that he is part of the Doppler Potential, but his actions serve its greater and often arcane purposes.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth: New York Factions

Minwha of Tiger and Magpie. Relevant to one of the factions, inspired by my discussion with Gearoong

Unlike most of my Weird & Wonderful Table-style posts, I want to break down in greater detail my thought process for these factions, and my approach to factions in MRD more generally (don't worry, I'm only writing a few anyway!). This is because MRD is meant to take place in a world that is mostly like the world as we knew it circa 2019, and while these factions are all fictional, they tie into real-world elements (to varying degrees), and so I want to make sure people understand my intentions.

I love New York City. I've wanted to live here for many years, and despite Covid, I am glad to have been here for nearly two years so far (holy crap!). A lot of life goals have been accomplished here, it's been fulfilling in ways that go beyond the scope of this post. Normally, I prefer to play in entirely Weird, unconstrained settings. But in mid-pandemic world, I am finding it cathartic and inspiring to play my campaign in New York City, a version that simultaneously reflects the real place that I love, but tints it with the magical Weirdness that reflects something more authentic to how I actually feel when I walk the streets of New York than the objective reality. There are so many cultures and subcultures either unique to New York or born here; not hiding per se, but drowned out from the sheer mainstream noise. There is a reason why so many stories of Magical Realism are set in New York and other cities- because that magic truly does exist, in a fashion. A MRD campaign does not have to be set in New York City, but my current campaign is set here, and given how much this setting is an expression of my personal beliefs, sensibilities, and feelings, it seems fitting to focus on New York for this setting, at least for now.

New York is diverse, and Weird, in all the best ways. There are cultures from around the world, and those cultures intermix and transform and become something unique unto themselves. It's not a melting pot- a watered-down, dumbed-down, flavorless homogeny of cultures, nor, and I can't stress this enough, is it a "wonderland", a fetishism of the "exotic" and "other", that exists for the amusement of a white American like myself. The factions in MRD are meant to reflect the diversity of New York, in all senses of the word, to play into some of the themes and tropes of New York's history and media representations such as crime dramas, pulp adventures, noir, superhero stories, and so on, to reflect various aspects of the real world as it exists today, and to express the almost magical realism I describe above, but also to express that these cultures don't exist in a vacuum. There is no one Italian Mafia or Yakuza in this setting- it isn't the Black gang in one neighborhood and the Mexican gang in another. There's the faction of Black Twitter - Seneca Village activists - Mindan Korean Japanese Americans, and another faction of TikTok Gamergate White Nationalists - outcast Deseret Extremists - Uruguayan American Conservatives. It's a mix of things that do exist (or a version of them), and things that don't exist but one could imagine existing- that seem strange but have an internal logic to them which is as much due to chance as anything else. They are decidedly fictional but demonstrate how Weird reality and culture can actually be. 

But, again, I'm a white American, so I want to be very careful about appropriation, about misrepresenting real cultures, or being insensitive in any way. So I hope the above sufficiently explains my thought process, I hope it succeeds at expressing the magical realism I am describing, and I hope it does so in a way that is generally reasonable and decent from a liberal perspective.

Also WARNING there are some heavy topics explored in these factions, especially in the links, so trigger warning on that. I personally want MRD to be more of an escapist experience, but also, it is core to the idea of MRD that we have to face the bad things- both in ourselves and in the world. So these factions do reflect that, to some extent, but that doesn't mean that these issues have to be at the core of a MRD campaign.

In regards to the Kickstarter: I plan to do a short series of Faction posts for MRD, this being the first. I don't know how much of this will actually wind up in the book, but much of this comes from developments within my MRD campaigns / playtests. I hope to weave some of these NPCs and concepts into the module for the first issue in some implied fashion, but I don't think these explicit writeups will make it into the first issue. If people appreciate these Faction writeups, cleaning them up and commissioning art for them would be something I would potentially like to do for a subsequent issue of the MRD "Zine".

Seneca Village Collective

This faction began as a Black Twitter movement that formed after an act of police brutality against an African American in Central Park went viral, followed by the mainstream awareness of the historical Seneca Village. A Bronx-based band known as the K-Pop Orchestra, known for their jazz covers of K-Pop music, contributed to the popularity of this movement. The K-Pop Orchestra also shed light on the racism of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and the ways in which the Korean Japanese experience relates to that of the African American experience, which then led to the cross-cultural Seneca Village Collective as it exists today. While the Collective is both intranational and international, The Bronx and K-Town in New York are generally seen as the focal places of the Collective.

While the Collective mostly focuses on awareness campaigns and charity drives, the vigilante Recurser Seneca Tiger, most well known for fighting against police brutality and supporting Black and other minority communities in the city, has spearheaded a more active group within the Collective. While Seneca Tiger generally promotes social activism and volunteer work over reactionary efforts and violence, she states in no uncertain terms that America requires radical change and that radical change may require radical action. Seneca Tiger's true identity is unknown. It has been speculated that the Tiger part of her vigilante identity is a subversion of the Tiger in Korean folklore as a symbol of the historical Korean ruling class, leading some to believe she is of Korean or Korean Japanese descent. Another theory is that she is actually an African American drag queen who performs at the Dromedary Urban Tiki Bar.

Notable NPCs

Seneca Tiger: Rogue vigilante who advocates against, and directly subverts, police brutality, particularly towards minority communities. The Seneca Collective does not acknowledge her as part of the organization for legal reasons, but it is generally understood that she leads the extra-legal operations of the Collective. Her vigilante costume is a form-fitting, full-body leather suit, in the general appearance of a tiger. The costume is colorful and flamboyant and has large, asymmetrical eyes and a stretched smile, like a tiger minwha. It is unknown what, if any powers she has, but she is nonetheless formidable.

Pro-Fane: Popular African American drag queen, primarily located in Bushwick. Her style is like if a Japanese horror girl became a ganguro TikTok influencer. While not technically part of Seneca Collective leadership, she serves as one of several public faces of the group and is deeply involved, to the point that some even believe she is secretly Seneca Tiger. Moon Marine is in a feud with Pro-Fane and attempting to dox her as Seneca Tiger, in retaliation for believing Pro-Fane responsible for "The Platypussy Leak".

Rick Barrett: The founder of the K-Pop Orchestra and also the Seneca Collective. An intelligent, articulate, thoughtful person, passionate, and excellent performer. Very much a renaissance man for the 21st century. Some have accused him of using the Seneca Collective as a means to promote his formerly obscure K-Pop Orchestra, but those who know him understand that this is not true, or at least not so simply.

Baek Yesu: K-Pop star of Korean Japanese descent, who repatriated to South Korea. His music is known for being especially political, dealing with issues of racism towards Korean Japanese, and more recently collaborating with the K-Pop Orchestra performing about racism towards African Americans. He is considered one of the co-leaders of the Seneca Collective, alongside Rick Barrett, and has been spending more time in New York.

Deseret Avengers

The name is somewhat of a misnomer. The movement started as an online White Nationalist hate group proclaiming to be the anti-Zion, a play on the racist and misogynist beliefs present in the redpill/blackpill movements and a reference to the film The Matrix and the Marvel superhero group The Avengers. However, ironically, a counterculture of punk/skinhead Mormons in the Slavic/Germanic European country Ruritania, and conservative Mormons of Uruguayan descent, identified with the movement, in some cases due to a misunderstanding of its roots. As a result, the Deseret Avengers are decentralized and lack any singular goal or leadership. While online they are primarily young male gamers, their New York presence has been more so driven by upwardly mobile Uruguayan immigrants, and separately the Ruritanian immigrant community.

The Uruguayan faction holds up Mateo Silva, an executive of a financial firm with ties to the White Party in Uruguay, as their champion. While he is not believed to be a member of the Deseret Avengers per se, some internet conspiracy theorists believe he has been sending them coded messages in various televised appearances.

The online (and to a lesser extent, Ruritanian) faction has rallied behind Moon Marine, a vigilante Recurser, TikTok and Instagram Influencer, and self-proclaimed anti-feminist gamer-girl. Besides promoting her brand and "recking the libs", it's unclear what, if any, broader agenda she has. She has done actual good as a vigilante, and many of her fans are entirely unaware of her political affiliation, which has been carefully manicured to attract vulnerable individuals who may be influenced by the online conspiracy/hate groups associated with the Deseret Avengers (or in some cases, genuine Mormon missionaries who are themselves unaware of the full breadth of the hate group, but who generally support Conservative values).

Notable NPCs

Moon Marine: Famous superhero who got her start as a viral TikTok star. Despite having marketed herself towards kids, preteens, and teens, some have criticized the not so subtle degree to which she's leveraged sexuality towards her success (made doubly complicated by the fact that her age is not known, as she keeps a secret identity). She has also been criticized on many occasions for casual racism and promoting traditional gender roles, and while her marketing team has largely kept it undercover, she is known to associate with the Deseret Avengers online. Nonetheless, she has saved NYC several times, and she has done advocacy work as a role model for young women. Her costume is like a blue US Marine dress uniform with a platypus theme, such as the bill on her hat.

Mateo Silva: Uruguayan immigrant, ardent Republican, dedicated member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints,  and classic American success story. Despite celebrating himself as American, he has made a point of also advocating for Uruguayan culture and making it known that Uruguay is a high-income and democratic nation, while also condemning (and inadvertently promoting) its social progressivism. Despite his political associations, he is sometimes considered a proponent of Latin American diversity and awareness. Nonetheless, he is also criticized for his religious extremism, as well as his exploitative business practices. He does not directly associate with the Deseret Avengers, but many Mormon Uruguayans identify him as such.

Clara Cocksure: NYPD Detective who is paradoxically a cussing, no-nonsense hardass, and also a wait-until-marriage conservative Christian. After a recent incident of police brutality, it was discovered that she publicly associates with the Deseret Avengers on social media.

Alexei Strauss: Ruritanian immigrant from Queens who committed a mass murder-suicide at his high school. An investigation uncovered that he was deeply embedded in the Deseret Avengers online community under the pseudonym XP, and had expressed extremely dark and hateful sentiments. His surviving classmates and teachers claim that he was socially awkward, bullied, and struggling in school. His Numberless Courts of Hell case record has gone missing and he is classified as a rogue poltergeist. As such, he has become the center of many extremist conspiracy theories within the Deseret Avengers.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Weird & Wonderful Survey (post-MRD Kickstarter!)

The Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter has been funded! As I neared the launch, I was utterly convinced that it would completely bomb, so to have actually succeeded is just immensely validating and exciting and I thank everyone who contributed, either directly by backing the project, or providing advice, or encouragement, or spreading the word. Thank you :)! Even when I started this blog in 2018, on some level I had wanted to eventually publish something relatively big, and it's crazy to see this all finally happening. I mean, I had produced Pixels & Platforms and the MRD Ashcan Edition, but this is on another level!

With that said, I'm wondering what to do now with the blog. I'm definitely not going to stop blogging, but I do think I'll need to slow down a bit, so I can focus more time on all of the logistics, development, and playtesting for MRD. Besides slowing down, I need to think about my intentions for the blog. Do I want to spend the better part of the development cycle writing about MRD? Writing things like play reports, or supplementary content that won't necessarily make it into the book but might go into future books, or be useful extra content? Or, would it be better to use the blog as a creative outlet for things other than MRD? It may be good for me to allow myself to create stuff that is not just MRD, so I don't get stuck. But, sometimes there are going to be tough things I'm just going to have to work through, and writing other stuff might just be a distraction. Obviously, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, but I do need to be thinking about things.

Below is a google forms survey, but if it looks a little funky embedded in blogger, you can also follow this link.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth: One More Week for Kickstarter! (and unrelated info about COVID-19 and vaccines)

 The Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter is in its final week! The campaign has been wildly successful, or at least has far exceeded my expectations, which is very exciting and encouraging. It's currently >200% funded, and all stretch goals have been met! While I don't at this time intend to add more stretch goals unless it makes significantly more money in its final week, additional funds will still help me better understand the market for content like this, and will provide me greater flexibility and potentially more content for this book, if not as a stretch goal per se. As-is, it is looking like the book will still cost me some amount of money out of pocket, which is totally ok, I was prepared to spend potentially much more out of pocket and that would have been without even the stretch goals, but this is just to say, additional backing would certainly still be appreciated. It would be very cool to get >100 backers!

Once the funding period wraps up, I will outline both to my backers and on the blog what my plans are for maintaining both projects. I realize it's been a while since I've posted anything besides updates on the MRD Kickstarter, but I hope to change that soon. I imagine I'll have to slow down the frequency of non MRD-related posts or refocus the blog for a while in some other ways, but hopefully, I will be able to make both work.

On a totally unrelated note, a good friend of mine from grad school, who is nearly finished with his PhD in cognitive neuroimmunology and, if I'm remembering correctly, has two Masters degrees, one in behavioral neuroscience and the other in clinical psychology, has just started a youtube channel, Live Life in Flux. In his first video, COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine Explained, he does exactly that. As someone who is generally skeptical of a lot of pop-sci / science communication work, I have to say, I think he really finds a good balance between presenting the real science, coherently, without dumbing it down or condescending, nor misrepresenting it. It is well-produced, interesting, and has a calming, ASMR or meditative quality to it, and I would encourage you all to give it a look, follow his channel, and follow him on twitter @fluxinflux. Below is a picture of him, because I think it says at least a little something about how awesome he is:

Friday, December 4, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth: All Kickstarter Stretch Goals Reached!

The third and final stretch goal for the Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter has been reached! This means Scrap Princess will produce two pieces of art and FM Geist will produce a Poltergeist Form. At this time, I don't intend to add additional stretch goals. Instead, any additional value will go towards the cost of the game. That being said, if any unique opportunities present themselves, or if the Kickstarter manages to gain significantly more backing by the end of the funding period, I may consider additional stretch goals.

I realize I haven't made a real blog post in a while. Once the funding period for the Kickstarter has ended, I'll share some updates and thoughts about how I intend to continue with the blog while also working on completing Maximum Recursion Depth.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth: Scrap Princess (1) Stretch Goal!

The Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter has met the second stretch goal! This means that Scrap Princess will produce an original piece of art for this issue! Scrap Princess's piece should be a nice accompaniment to Vallinin, who has done amazing work for the game so far and will continue to be the primary artist on this issue. We've nearly completed the fourth Poltergeist Form and it is possibly the best yet (I happen to know it's his favorite...).

Scrap Princess and I have not decided on what exactly her contribution will be yet, but for reference, included below are three pieces of art she's produced for one of my other campaign settings, Phantasmos.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth: Fiona Maeve Geist Stretch Goal!

The Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter has met the first stretch goal! This means that Fiona Maeve Geist will produce a Poltergeist Form for this issue, bringing the total number up to 7! This will also be the first official Poltergeist Form not created by me.

I would generally encourage people to consider creating their own Poltergeist Forms if they feel so inclined, but admittedly, I do not have a specific framework for doing so at the moment. Likely, while discussing with Fiona, I will end up having to create that framework or inadvertently creating it in the process. That may or may not make it into the book in any formalized way, but at least it will be one more interesting Poltergeist Form, with a unique perspective, which hopefully people will appreciate. Maybe I'll share a formal framework for creating new poltergeist forms on my blog, or in a future issue.

In any case, I'm really excited to see what she creates!

Mothership Dead Planet, by Fiona Maeve Geist, Donn Stroud, and Sean McCoy. In my headcanon (and in absolutely no official or authorized sense...) this makes Maximum Recursion Depth the black sheep stepchild to Mothership.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter Funding Goal Met!!!!

The funding goal for the Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter has been met!!!!! Still hoping to get the stretch goals, would love to have Fiona Geist as a guest writer of a Poltergeist Form and a couple pieces of Scrap Princess art, but anyway, this is very exciting, to have gotten fully funded in under a week!

Also, I was interviewed about Maximum Recursion Depth last night on The Hardboiled GMshoe's Office! I think it was a good discussion about the game, and they asked some good questions. I hope people give it a look.

EDIT: I had meant to write some other stuff in here and then completely forgot. Anyway, I have to actually do my job, but this weekend I'll have a follow-up post about some stuff now that the goal for the MRD Kickstarter has been met.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth Interview!

Quick Update, a bit last minute, but I will be interviewed later this evening about my Kickstarter for Maximum Recursion Depth! Details below:

[Q&A] The Randomworlds RPG chatroom welcomes Max Cantor (Maximum Recursion Depth: The Karmapunk RPG) 11/18/2020 7:30 p.m. CDT!

To join:

Log to be posted at:

EDIT: Here it is! Here's my interview with The Hardboiled GMshoe's Office

Friday, November 13, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth Kickstarter!!!!!

I just launched a Kickstarter for Maximum Recursion Depth! It's going to include a ton of new content and revised content, awesome original art by an amazing artist, awesome stylistic layout. This is a preview of MRD becoming what I had always intended for it to be. I've scoped the project so that I'm prepared to fund it entirely out of pocket if necessary, but a successful kickstarter will allow me to do more, more quickly, and will make it more feasible for me to continue to produce more content in the future of this level of quality and with these and other partners. I have a lot of doubts that this will succeed, and it's scary and depressing and a little embarrassing thinking about how poorly this is likely to go, and frustrating to believe this despite how much work I've put into this. But, it was a good learning experience, it forced me to think about certain things more thoroughly, to be prepared to really commit myself to doing this. So it's happening, one way or another, even if the KS fails. But I really hope it doesn't...

Here it is!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth Group 2 Play Report

I've been running a game of Maximum Recursion Depth with a different group while my main group is (hopefully just temporarily) on hold. In trying to prep a new player to join the second session, I wrote for them what was basically a play report, so I figured I'd share it here since I think it broadly reflects the kinds of ideas one should expect for this setting. I'm terrible at writing play reports and there are a lot of details that are probably getting glossed over, but hopefully, it's something. I hope to have more "somethings" for Maximum Recursion Depth very soon.


Pauling Linus (played by Lukas, from my "home" group): An academic with the Poltergeist Form Afterbirth of the Broken Machine Dragon. 

Leon (played by Elias Stretch): Works in arts and entertainment, with the Poltergeist Form Pyramid Shining Brightly.

Nykr (played by Zubin, who will be dropping out for personal reasons): An actor with the Poltergeist Form Ghost in the Mirror.

??? (Fiona Geist will be joining the next session, as a continuation of these events)

NPC index

Rat Jack: An illegal Poltergeist, part of Polterzeitgeist / Council of Jacks. Also, a drug dealer who works for Chester, the Cheetah Nature Spirit. Hired the party to investigate Goblin Jack.

Goblin Jack: Short, ropey/gangly dense muscles, scruffy, rugged, and kind of ugly. An illegal Poltergeist who is accruing too much Karma and is on the verge of becoming an Ashura. Has gotten involved with the drag performer Pro-Fane, and has a personal connection with the drag performer Doctor Lovesmenot. Has gone to war with the Deseret Avengers, a trans-national hate group within the US, Uruguay, and Ruritania.

Pro-Fane: Popular African American Drag Queen. Rumored to be Seneca Tiger. Her style is like if a Japanese horror girl became a ganguro TikTok influencer. Friends with Doctor Lovesmenot and involved with Goblin Jack. Has a TikTok feud with Moon Marine, who alleges she's the culprit of "The Platypussy Leak".

Moon Marine: Famous superhero with a secret identity. Attractive blonde zoomer TikTok star. Costume like a Marine Dress Uniform except colorful, mostly in shades of blue, tastefully revealing, and platypus themed (the hat looks like a platypus bill). Is actually a white nationalist, part of the Deseret Avengers, and she uses her fame to coerce her fans into joining DA and other internet hate groups. The "Platypussy Leak" is the name of her recent sex tape leak, which may have been intended for an onlyfans campaign.

Chester: A humanoid cheetah-like Nature Spirit and drug dealer. His main drug is Dharmafodil aka "Chedder"

Udo Kier: A famous character actor who died in late 2018. Goblin Jack was hired to smuggle him out of the Numberless Courts of Hell bureaucracy, and it is not publicly known that Udo Kier is a Poltergeist. While IRL he is German, in this setting he is Ruritanian, and has a begrudging connection to the Deseret Avengers. He will play Dracula, the lead villain in Marvel's upcoming Blade movie. (I'm pretty sure he is still alive IRL)

Doctor Lovesmenot: Wealthy drag/burlesque performer, the lead performer of Doctor Lovesmenot's Hectic Eclectic Erect-ic Freak Show. Has a long-standing Karmic Attachment with Goblin Jack, and is friends with Pro-Fane. Genderqueer. Is like a cross between Jareth the Goblin King, Ziggy Stardust, and Snake Plisskin.

Soft Mother: A cartoon humanoid in the form of a voluptuous woman, like a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Betty Boop. Has some kind of relationship with Doctor Lovesmenot.

Rob Santos: An Uruguayan immigrant who used to work for Mateo Silva, who is connected to the Deseret Avengers. Was murdered at the party.

Play Report

The PCs were hired by Rat Jack, an illegal Poltergeist Mobster-type, to find his "brother" Goblin Jack, a rogue illegal Poltergeist who has gone to war against the Deseret Avengers, a trans-national hate group, and he is on the verge of accruing too much Karma and turning into an Ashura, a Karma devil.

They learned that Goblin Jack was friends with Pro-Fane, a drag performer in the Bushwick-area who is associated with the Seneca Collective, a BLM-related organization in the setting, and is rumored to be the vigilante Seneca Tiger. They also learned he had some kind of connection to the drag/burlesque performer Doctor Lovesmenot.

They went to one of Pro-Fane's shows at a bar in Bushwick (which exists IRL), where they encountered Deseret Avengers protestors, in part protesting the performers because they are assholes, and in part specifically protesting Pro-Fane, who is in a TikTok / Twitter war with the vigilante Moon Marine, over her sex tape "The Platypussy Leak" (her costume is somewhat platypus themed). Moon Marine blames the leak on Pro-Fane. They convinced a Deseret Avenger who had intended to shoot up the bar to drop his gun and reevaluate his life, befriended Pro-Fane, and got invited to Doctor Lovesmenot's Halloween party.

At the party, they learned that Doctor Lovesmenot and Goblin Jack were "brothers" from even before Goblin Jack became part of Polterzeitgeist and part of the Council of Jacks, who also re-confirmed that Goblin Jack has been going off the deep end. They also met Soft Mother who seems to be tied up in that relationship.

They investigate the non-Euclidean penthouse and find a bunch of weird rooms like a drug den room where they met the cheetah-like Nature Spirit drug dealer Chester who Rat Jack works for, and they also met the illegal Poltergeist Udo Kier, and a room for virgin fuck boys who like Lovecraft too much, and eventually, they bump into Moon Marine. She snuck into the party to try to get dirt on Pro-Fane.

The PCs find a dead body in one of the rooms and believe Goblin Jack killed him. They were going to chase after the culprit but the monster got away from them.

They convinced Moon Marine to watch over the body; saying she can try to frame Pro-Fane, but really they're just trying to stall so they can get to the bottom of all this.

They go into the air ducts to spy on the rooms and find Doctor Lovesmenot talking to someone who seems to match the description of Goblin Jack. They briefly turned off the power and surrounded them, and we left things on that cliffhanger.

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Indigo Saint's Cathedral: There is No Sundown Here (Ch. 1)

Quite a while back, I wrote an article for high level games, a "Halloween special", nominally about making monsters that are substantive, where the monster is designed so as to be an adventure unto itself. It was also about building an adventure that fit the underlying themes of Halloween, without the usual Halloween tropes such as pumpkins, vampires, and ghosts.

I want to do something like that here, as well. I haven't felt very much in the Halloween spirit this year, I think for obvious reasons. I want to build something that is a different kind of horror, something decidedly unthematic to Halloween, like an anti-Halloween.

As much as I was not really a fan of the movie Midsommar, I appreciated the way it attempted to do horror in a superficially different way- in mid-summer, in the sun. This idea has that in common, and hopefully not much else.

I had wanted to finish this before Halloween and that didn't happen, and I realize I haven't posted in a while. I have some stuff I'm working on, and also I've just been busy with work stuff. Let's call this Chapter 1, hopefully I get back to it and get to the juicy parts. But anyway, hopefully, I'll be posting some more substantive stuff soon!


The seasons have been getting shorter, haven't they? Or most of them, anyway. Here we are, late into the Fall, and it still feels like Summer. I walk along the beach, my light jacket awkwardly wedged up my armpit, phone in hand and carrying a bag of sundries in the other. I feel my skin burning in real-time. I am aware that my body is in quarantine, killing itself from the outside to protect what's within. A nagging itch.

From where I stand, I can see the cathedral around the bend and up the hill. It looks like the science fantasy genetically engineered super-baby of Michelangelo and Steve Jobs. I'm more of an android guy. But I have to admit, it's a compelling look. It does this thing- I don't really know how to describe it, it's like, a rainbow shadow, in three dimensions. Not like a hologram, it's like a four-dimensional light shines down on it. The software is open-source, but it's a bit beyond me. And I can't exactly afford the hardware anyway.

I'm only walking along the beach because I was laid off. I should be looking for a job right now. Or working on some personal project, or developing my skills. But it's so nice out, and it's only a matter of time before it starts to get cold. It's the Fall. It'll be cold any day now.

I'm always surprised how many other people walk around during the day like this, just enjoying the weather; the warmth, and the sun shining brightly. Are they all unemployed too? They look happy though. Maybe that's what they've resigned themselves to. Maybe they think it'll just work itself out.

I'm not exactly a church guy, but the cathedral is different. I don't think they're even associated with any church. Maybe they're Mormon. Anyway, they have AC, and I heard The Indigo Saint was giving a talk. He's an interesting guy. Really changed how I look at things. Guy used to be a software engineer, had a near-death experience, came back with some really out-there ideas. I know it sounds like a cliche, but, well, just look at that "shadow".

By the time I get there I'm drenched in sweat, and I'm pink and red like a pig. I smell like one too. And I've got that itch, no, not that friendly smack on the back of my neck from Mr. Sunshine, the other one. The salts in my sweat building up, scraping inside my ass cheeks with each stride, moist and chafed at the same time. I never understood why people call it swamp butt, it's more like wet sand. Or is that just me?

All the women who work at the cathedral are gorgeous and friendly. Genuinely friendly. You'd think you're at a strip club. I know you're not supposed to say those kinds of things anymore, but ever since I started listening to The Indigo Saint, I've learned to be a little more honest with myself, even the uncomfortable parts. So it is what it is, I'm unemployed, I'm anxious, I'm hot and sweaty, and here they've got AC and everything here is beautiful. Besides me and the other schlubs. Gotta be honest, right?

You'd think with a name like The Indigo Saint he'd look all hipster, avant-garde, artiste, or something like that. He wears pastels and metallics, but really, he looks more like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, like the sleeker new version of Dolph Lundgren for the modern era. Even with the rosegold five o'clock shadow over his wide jawline, you can see the definition of his perfect, high cheekbones.

He's got one of those smiles. Light, warm. Confident, purposeful. Like the first man to wield fire and he's just waiting to show you. So when he rises to the podium, we all shut the fuck up, immediately. And he just goes. Like spitfire. He enunciates- it's like synesthesia, like the words beam out of his mouth, different colors for different purposes, like a rainbow. Amateurs talk about reality being a simulation, but this guy's writing a holographic neural network that's going to simulate reality more efficiently and with higher resolution than reality itself. He's designing a new kind of metaphysics just to describe what his model is doing.

So I come out of the talk feeling like I can walk on water if I will myself to do it. But on my way down the hill I trip on a rock that must be invisible because I don't fucking see it, and anyway, then I remember that I never finished his tutorial repo, and I somehow got myself tangled up in a git commit knot that I can't get myself out of, and I decide, well, at least someone out there knows what he's doing. Maybe he'll figure it all out.

The sunburn is only getting worse, I should probably go home. My skin pulses, like it's laughing. Keep laughing while the sun warps you like an eldritch god, mutating you into some dumb unthinking, self-replicating fucking monster, while the immune system goes to town on you like a SWAT raid. You'd think evolution would have come up with a better solution than to just let half the body bumble around laughing while its world burns down around it because some trigger happy psychos would rather burn it down than try to fix it.

I've worked myself up over nothing, again, and decide to turn around. I've never stuck around after the talk. The crowd disperses, people go back into the sunshine, it's just what you do. So I figure, I dunno, what's it like there when they're just going about their normal business. Maybe I can see if they're hiring. I mean, I am a software engineer, and The Indigo Saint can't be doing all of this alone. I don't really want to go home yet, and... I just can't deal with the sun anymore.

I head back in, trying my best to feel confident, like I'm supposed to be here. I'm not not supposed to be here. Anyway, I just sit back in my seat and pull out my phone, and put on that sort of look, like I'm waiting for something, like this is just some plan gone awry and that's why I'm back and just sitting here, and please leave me the fuck alone. I hear some music in the background, you'd think it would be church organs, gregorian chants, or maybe, this place being what it is, something more like muzak or lounge, or some basic pop. But it's more like an ice cream truck or carnival jingle. One of those ones that's nostalgic, but also kind of depressing. There's probably a German word for what I'm talking about. Both unassuming and deeply moving. So I should probably go before I get swept up in whatever this is that I'm feeling now, I can feel myself spiraling down, I need to go home.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Saker Tarsos: Weird & Wonderful Interviews

This is an interview with Saker Tarsos of Tarsos Theorem. He was one of the first people in the OSR blogosphere I became friends with, and I've always been a big fan of his. He's bringing some really interesting ideas to tabletop RPGs, particularly through his use of coding tools and generators, but also through various other kinds of alternative mechanics (which in retrospect we did not discuss as much as I would have liked, but goblin's henchman has also discussed one of these). Also, we talked about some heavier and more personal topics in a few places, and I really appreciate Saker opening up to me and being willing to discuss these things for this interview.

Max: You and I started our blogs around the same time, I want to say around Spring or early Summer 2018. We've had conversations of this kind at various points, but for the sake of this interview, I'd be interested to know how you think the TTRPG scene has changed since we started blogging? And I guess as part of that, can you explain where you think the TTRPG scene was a couple years ago?

Saker: I think the TTRPG scene has constantly had to adapt. We arrived on the scene right before G+ went down, so we've never really been around in a long period of normalcy. We've had to find new social media homes. Social justice in our TTRPG circles has come a long way. Technology is being integrated into our TTRPGs due to social distancing. It's all very overwhelming to be honest. And, to be honest, it's hard for me to think back to how the scene was a couple years ago, I'm always so preoccupied with what's next.

Max: I hadn't necessarily thought of it that way before but you're right, I guess there's never really been much of a status quo for us.

Saker: It feels like right when we get settled down, something big happens that gets us up out of our seats again. And a lot of innovation and change comes out of it. This time it's the pandemic, and it's spurred an increased interest into online/socially distanced games.

Max: Are there any settings, or systems, or other aspects of TTRPGs, that you think have specifically become more prominent as a result of these changes (e.g. the pandemic, the increase in social justice and awareness of social issues)? Or less prominent, for that matter?

Saker: I think online and socially distanced environments favor simpler systems. The energy needed to engage with a game system gets magnified the more distance (physical or informational) that lies between the players. A lot of my thought recently has been towards how to make games easier to engage with, and specifically, how can I use coding automation to achieve that.

Max: I knew we were going to get to that topic eventually :).

Saker: I could see the increase in social justice awareness affect game settings and premise. One think that has stayed on my mind for years is changing the narrative of domain play away from the player being some kind of king or hegemon fighting with other rulers over scarce resources. It's a struggle because that schema is very deeply coded into the genre of domain play, and because that situation, though colonialist, can admittedly lead to situations that my mind finds very engaging. I've been thinking of creating domain games around community survival in very harsh environments, which I hope will foster a sense of the players needing to overcome differences and work together in order to succeed. And ideally, that situation would have players look at other communities as potential allies against the harsh environment rather than potential foes to be "othered". I think the idea still needs a lot more refinement... I am very interested in how social justice awareness will affect changes in game systems and game mediums, but that might be a whole nother discussion in and of itself xD

Max: No I agree, violent conflict and those kinds of colonialist / dominance values are very deeply rooted in, not just TTRPGs, but all media, but I think especially in games (including videogames), and it can be hard to break from that. Personally, I think that's why I've tried to find ways to use what are traditionally combat mechanics in non-violent conflict situations, to sort of blur the lines between violent conflict and other forms of conflict, and normalize that.

Saker: It's made me think on how dependent RPGs (both tabletop and videogame) are on the concept on violent combat in order to work, thematically and systematically. Killing is the (mostly) unquestioned means by which new loot and advancements become available to the characters, and by interfering what is essentially the big progression pipeline, the designer causes sweeping changes throughout all aspects of the game. You're doing good work, and fighting an uphill battle, by subverting that. I think it's going to prompt stepping back further and rethinking the entire premises of RPGs. I think one promising direction change is to tie progression to exploration and discovery, (for example, research and discoveries in Zoa of the Vastlands). There's still some colonial themes in the whole exploration of uncharted lands concept, but it's a huge step in the right direction.

Max: I'm actually not familiar with Zoa of the Vastlands. I don't know if this is where it's from, but I think post-G+, it seems like you've gotten involved in RPG Twitter and certain other circles that I'm just totally oblivious to.

Saker: It's a sort of follow-up module to the Ultraviolet Grasslands by Luka, I think you'd get an absolute kick out of it! And its creature generator gets an A+ in my book.

Max: Oh ya, I haven't sunk too deep into UVG but Luka does good stuff. I'm definitely a sucker for a good creature generator...

Saker: I used it for ~80% of the creatures in Interdimensional Voyages

Max: Want to talk more about Interdimensional Voyages?

Saker: I think so. it's been so hard to put to words in a blog post. Every time I sit down to write one, I end up ADD'ing off somewhere else.

Max: Oh I get that, the struggle is real. It requires a really deep focus to write effectively, at a broad level, about real projects of that scale. Maybe it would help to focus in on a specific aspect of it then. We already brought up coding, let's swing back around to that. I've said before that I think the way you use coded automatic character creation is unlike anything else I've seen, and really interesting, and a great demonstration of the unique value that coding can bring to TTRPG beyond just as a convenience tool or simulation tool. Can you talk more about that?

Saker: Gotta give Spwack credit here, the prototype of the Interdimensional Voyages character generator is based on his INCREDIBLE Die Trying character generator. It then metastatized through several evolutions to become the monstrosity it is today! On coding in TTRPGs: for me, it is definitely a convenience tool. I got into coding TTRPGs because I wanted to make tools that would allow me to continue to run TTRPGs as my free time and energy dwindled for various reasons. Me and my friends back home, who were my original audience, are very busy, and stressed, and don't always have physical spaces available for us to play games. Coding these tools is a means to try and make games more accessible to people who are short on time, energy, and space.

Max: Oh that's true about Die Trying, and I even interviewed Spwack as well lol. Well in any case though, I do think you've carried that mantle alongside him.

Saker: I think there are, indeed, times where coding in TTRPGs can have inherent value in and of itself. Modules in mothership, for instance, have the unique opportunity to become immersive objects in the fiction itself. But I do think trying to code for its own benefit can miss the point, which is that it should be making peoples lives better, easier, or more accessible.

Max: I like that idea with Mothership. Speaking of moving away from violent combat, you could imagine a TTRPG where the game mechanics are basically just light coding- like even stealth-teaching people how to code. I agree that the coding should serve some purpose, but I do want to kind of push back on the idea that it should just be a tool of convenience. Again, I think even what you're doing with it, it's more than just a convenience tool, I really think it allows you to do things that wouldn't otherwise be possible, or wouldn't otherwise be fun. I do think it can actually change the nature of a game.

Saker: I could see that game being very helpful. The initial learning curve for basic coding concepts is... not optimal. But unfortunately I think such a game would be rather complex in nature (compared to the games I play, which are very simple and thus I have a very high standard of simplicity) and hard to introduce to new players.

Max: Ya... I do think it can be done, but would require some thought. Cryptomancer does that, to an extent. Kind of a tangent, but speaking of social justice in games, their game Sigmata is also worth checking out.

Saker: You are absolutely right to push back there! I would not be coding if it didn't provide me some sense of wonder that defies its utility. And when coding is capable of doing things that otherwise wouldn't be possible, it becomes very valuable. In my recent projects, I've been using coding to try and bypass a lot of the busy work in games, and to save a lot of time by performing calculations that would otherwise be done by the DM. This, especially, allows me to make games that are more complex than I could on paper, because the players will not ever witness the complexity itself, only its results. But, now that I think about it, I do think these cases still provide utility and usability above all.

Max: Well, it's sort of both, right? It's utility/usability, but as you say, it allows you to add a level of complexity that normally I would not find palatable for TTRPG, but do enjoy, but because it's automated, it works.

Saker: Pretty much, my project at the moment is to code a discord bot that will be able to replace a DM in a simple but detailed TTRPG.

Max: I've actually recently developed an interest in Solo RPGs. Haven't done much of them and only just begun to think about them, but I think there's potentially some shared logic between those two ideas.

Saker: I love me some complex games in theory, I just don't like running or playing them. Automation allows me to enjoy the fruits of complexity without having to actually labor for them, heh

Max: Absolutely. I really like the conditional logics in Interdimensional Voyages character creation, for instance, but I would not necessarily like to do that by hand.

Saker: Oh yes, that would be a nightmare.

Max: I found when I was making my character for IV, I'd just keep clicking the generate button to see what weird combinations I'd find. Those conditional logics felt like easter eggs. Then I just ripped your source code lol. But it didn't ruin the magic, if anything, it only enhanced it.

Saker: It's my hope that in future renditions, there will be even more of those easter eggs and conditional logics. My hope when tuning it was that things in the character sheet loop into themselves logically, making the character as a whole make thematic sense. I think the nicknames do a lot for that specific experience: the first thing the player sees is the character's nickname, which foreshadows one of their life path events. Then they see the life path event and go aha! and the connection is made that ties up the character. The more of those little tricks exist, the harder it is to see the character as a procedurally generated jumble of words, and the easier it is to see them as a fictionally realized being.

Max: Ya, on the one hand, with combinatorials, you can exponentially increase the number of possible unique results, but... for a character in an RPG, it's not necessarily the case that all combinations will be interesting. By adding conditional logics that tie certain parameters together, you do lose some possible combinations, but you gain in coherence.

Saker: In the book "Procedural Storytelling in Game Design", one of the essays (I forget which one) describes a sort of spectrum of procedural generation. On one end there are very focused generators, with relatively small design space to work with, that generate very consistent results. On the other side of the spectrum, you have very wide, wild generators that cover large swathes of design space and can output results with extreme variance. The goal is to find that sweet spot in the middle, where the results will be focused enough that they are useful, but varied enough that they can still continually surprise you. Conditional logics can be time intensive to program, but can help you stay in that sweet spot. And so the interesting thing is, I'm a Lit major. Not exactly the person you'd think would be coding, but all those writing and narrative skills come into play in weird areas in the coding process. Like working with combinatorial word generators. Or being able to tune a generator so it more consistently outputs results that make narrative sense.

Max: I'm a software engineer with a psych degree so I get that. My favorite peers tend to be those who also have atypical backgrounds like that, we're weirdos!

Saker: Yes! And that's a great example for people who might be interested in coding, but feel intimidated because they didn't come from a compsci background (aka me in early 2018)

Max: Oh I look back now on the kind of coding I was doing back then compared to now, i don't know how I was able to get anything to work back then lol.

Saker: Saaaaame!!

Max: Eh, honestly my understanding is that many people coming out of compsci don't necessarily actually understand the principles behind software engineering anyway, but that's a whole other conversation. But I do think, people who have both a liberal arts or basically non-STEM background but also know STEM... I think there's a sort of non-linear gain on that. The things I've learned about statistics, machine learning, and software engineering, have actually enhanced my ability to talk about, think about, and act on, my views towards cognitive neuroscience (my former work), but also society, literature, and all sorts of things.

Saker: Agreed, it feels like, rather than learning new things taking up limited brain space, that they expand the things you already know exponentially.

Max: I would really encourage everyone who can afford the time and effort, to really try to learn at least a little coding and stats. I really don't think it can be overstated just how valuable it is on every level, even if just intellectually, and you really don't have to be a genius. I barely passed my math classes even in college lol.

Saker: I'm actually going back to take a stats class once the current semester is over. It feels Necessary (in a good way). I've pretty much hijacked my library science degree into an information science degree so there are so many missing holes in my knowledge to shore up xD, stats being one of them.

Max: That's awesome! I'm really excited for you. Getting off the soapbox though, and maybe back on track, I think we should wrap things up soon, but do you have any other RPG-related topics you still want to talk about?

Saker: Hmm let's see, I think I did my Technology Is Good, Do Not Fear It soapbox.

Max: lol ya but if we reinforce each other on that we'll bore everyone away pretty quickly!

Saker: I guess talking about my current place in the scene? It's been hard to consistently post because the projects I have been working on have been difficult to describe in blog posts. Honestly ADD makes it really hard to keep consistent lines of communication through social media, and to be consistent in projects as well. That's something I've always struggled with when it comes to being part of an online community, and I'm starting to identify its source.

Max: I can imagine how that would be difficult. I've been trying to focus in on a smaller number of projects but going deeper and doing bigger things with them, but it is not easy to do even without ADHD.

Saker: As such, I feel like a comet. Occasionally coming back into orbit after long periods of time then hurtling off again.

Max: That kind of outsider-ness, of being like a comet, I think like we were saying with being someone with both a humanities background and an interest in quant, I think that gives you a unique perspective. I don't know if it's too personal, but when you say you're trying to identify the source- that's a sentiment I strongly agree with, when it comes to tackling any kind of issue, really. Maybe I'm not so much asking what that source is specifically, but I guess a better question is, how, if at all, do you think ADD and the struggle to overcome it, and so on, has affected how you approach TTRPGs or your creative efforts? For instance, you've talked a lot about wanting tools to make running games more manageable...

Saker: Yes. Absolutely. I would say it has always subconsciously defined my entire approach to TTRPGs. All my automation efforts could be seen as attempts to reduce the breadth of cognitive load that I would experience by running games. Let the computer take care of these certain areas (the computation, the details), so I can focus more on the stuff that matters to me (ideas, dialogue, having fun with my friends). And hopefully, by extension, other people with ADD and just other people who are busy and stressed in general.

Max: I just handwave those complexities ;), but your approach is perhaps a more rich and fulfilling one in the long run.

Saker: So far, ADD has proven a serious obstacle in my attempts to be a productive member in this community, but because of that, being part of an online community has helped me identify the ways it was, and is, affecting my life. And this community is providing me with the motivation to tackle it. So, thank you for being a very positive aspect of life!

Max: Well, that's probably a genuinely more worthwhile accomplishment than anything else I've done with my blog, and I don't mean that self-deprecatingly, so thank you very much! And likewise, my blog has been, and continues to be, a real source of personal accomplishment and value to me, and it has helped me through some hard times. Early on, when I was struggling to get the ball rolling and having real doubts and confidence issues around my blog, you were a very early source of support, and I can't thank you enough for that.

Saker: You're very welcome, and likewise! Seeing your blog was the inspiration that got me to start mine!

Max: Ya, wow, ok... I think that's a good place to end this interview haha, but thank you very much for your time and for the conversation. It's been an interesting couple years, I hope we have even more to discuss a couple more years down the line!

Saker: Indeed!