My Games

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.