My Games

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Saruri-Man: Midsummer Nights Adventures Not-Review

I was walking down one of those obscure alleys of the internet and saw something that grabbed my attention- a few episodes of some really obscure Mecha anime- I think it was a more recent show but it kind of went out of its way to look older. I can't even find much about it on the internet; maybe the name I found was a fan translation or maybe it's some obscure Japanese web show. But anyway, like many obscure things of its kind, I found it super fascinating and I wanted to give it a little not-review.

So it appears to be basically the world as we know it, with some anachronisms leaning into an 80's cyberpunk / Japanese City Soul aesthetic with other quirks here and there as well, so it feels kind of timeless. However, a core distinction is that a literal monkey ruling class somehow controls this world. Like, they aren't super-monkeys or alien-monkeys or genius-monkeys, just regular ol' monkeys. They're treated kind of like politicians or business executives or gang leaders, which is to say, there's a kind of religious reverence towards them, but the surrounding pomp and circumstance are toned down. It's not clear how or why this is the case, but that's part of the charm.

Oh ya and also, like monkeys banging on a typewriter until they create Shakespeare, these monkeys have inadvertently opened a portal to the Faerie Realm, and so all sorts of monsters and kaiju leak through, like the Pakku (I assume a translation of Puck from Midsummer Night's Dream). One of the Pakku is a kaiju-sized cross-section of a goat's eye in extremely graphic detail, like out of a medical textbook, and it's gruesome and amazing. Another one is a ball of diseased goat flesh and parasites and fur.

Kaiju are usually portrayed as either Bestial monsters, like Godzilla, or Uncanny monsters, like the Angels in Evangelion. Some of the monsters and kaiju fell more into the Bestial type, but the Pakku are more so in the Uncanny type. One thing that I found interesting about them though, is that they seemed curious, and somewhat playful, like toddlers or Dionysian drunks. They were causing damage, but they weren't necessarily trying to cause damage, and it made them pitiable, and it made the conflicts bittersweet.

I couldn't find any screenshots from the show, so enjoy this sheep's eye!

The art design in general is shockingly good. Even the monkeys themselves- it might have been tempting to make them kind of cutesy and lovable, but I think the show makes the right call in making them really uncanny. Again, they aren't monstrous, but they are scary and uncomfortable- both obscured in shadow, kind of like in Princess Mononoke, but where not obscured, uncomfortably detailed and graphic in their depiction.

The Mecha are also really wild. One of them looks like an emaciated humanoid body or skeleton with a tank for a head and is apparently the sexual bonding of a decapitated alien being of an unclear but non-carbon-based nature and an American military-industrial complex super-AI experimental tank that gained self-awareness and went on a journey through space.

Another is still Mecha-sized but looks kind of like Iron Man and is able to spontaneously summon weapons and mods out of energy, but then it turns out actually the whole thing is just a UFO-like craft and a series of drones with holographic projections and various weaponry to make it look like it's a cohesive thing but it's not.

There was one other one that I only got to see a little bit of in the episodes I saw, but it was like a typical humanoid Mecha, except four-dimensional, so when it moves, its three-dimensional representation tesselates, sometimes really elegantly like a Hindu god, other times grotesquely like a Lovecraftian extra-dimensional creature. As it moves, because it exists in four dimensions, sometimes parts of it appear inside-out, and the geometry of it bends in paradoxical ways like a Bethesda videogame.

The action choreography was interesting. While there are classics like Ninja Scroll that have excellent 2D, hand-drawn action, I get the impression that action in 2D animation is just really difficult and laborious to do compared to CG animation. I have generally not been a fan of many of the very low-quality Netflix CG anime, but the ones that had a sufficient budget really demonstrate the value of CG, in how fluid and un-"cut" it can be, compared to much 2D animated action which often necessarily relies on cuts, almost like a motion comic. While I'm reasonably confident that this show was 2D animated (again I actually have no idea when this was made...), I think it's using rotoscoping or something, there's something a little funky about it, but it has that fluidity that you otherwise rarely see in 2D animation. I'm surprised there haven't been other anime that used rotoscoping for their action, or maybe there have been and I am just not aware.

I don't know how exactly to describe what I saw i.e. a hyper-real dissected eye monster torrenting puss and macroscopic parasites onto a four-dimensional Mecha suplexing it through a pseudo-Mecha hologram landing onto and subsequently pierced and punctured by the tank cannon of an alien-AI-cyborg-demigod Mecha... But ya, it was very cool. I believe this show does have cool themes and subtext and whatnot, but if you just want bizarre and over-the-top action, it clearly has that as well, at least in the episodes that I saw.

Anyway, the pilots of the Mecha are all 20-30 something "salarymen"; male and female, but it's a Japanese term, and also the title of the show is a play on words which is a pretty typical anime thing (Saru is monkey in Japanese and the Japanese way to write Salaryman is Sarari-Man). They're all overworked, underpaid, some still have optimism for their future but most are pretty burnt out. There seems to be a bimodal distribution where half of them are just completely incompetent, and the other half are highly skilled and multifaceted and way overqualified for what they're doing, and the whole thing feels like commentary but that's definitely coming from an American perspective.

It's hard to talk about the characters too much further without going into spoilers, but I'll say they kind of reminded me of the anime Aggretsuko, or I guess similarly The Office, but whereas those shows I think fell too in love with their characters to their own detriment, there's more of an edge here, where they're not afraid to commit to these characters being more real and flawed. Granted I only saw a few episodes so who knows where it goes, but I got the impression that they know when to be goofy and quirky, and when to be serious, and I can respect that.

Anyway, ya I would really like to see the rest of this show, so if anyone knows anything about it, please let me know!!!!

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Dharmatics: A Karmapunk "Deconstruction" of Cybernetics

In a multi-day long manic creative fugue state, I came up with this idea I'm calling Dharmatics, which is like a cyberpunk cyborg/body modification concept for Maximum Recursion Depth. Despite originally conceiving this idea >6 months ago, I have not quite completed it, but I'm still fairly hyped up on the idea so I want to share at least a prototype version of it, and explain my thoughts. I allude to it with the Deva and Buddhabrot City in an earlier blog post and in the Module of the book. I like sharing these sometimes not fully baked ideas and then comparing how they evolve over time to the original conceptions.

Also, I put "deconstruction" in the blog post title in quotes because I'm using the term very colloquially but Patrick Stuart did not seem to like it :p.

Jack Kirby's art is somewhat in the vein of what Dharmatics looks like in my head.

So first of all, why would I want a cybernetics-like system in this game? MRD is a roughly "modern" setting but has elements from Weird fiction, magical realism, superhero settings, etc., so I don't think it's totally out of place, as long as it's not too ubiquitous or too core to the setting. Cybernetics is common in Cyberpunk settings, which tend to be more so near-future, and tend to be used as a vehicle for both social commentary and epistemological commentary, both of which are relevant to MRD and the concept of "Karmapunk".

I was also thinking about how cybernetics was explored in the tabletop RPG Tenra Bansho Zero, a game that does something similar for Buddhism in Japan, Shintoism, and Japanese Mythology, as what I'm doing with MRD, and was one of my inspirations for the Karma system in MRD in the first place. In TBZ, and actually to some extent in some other Japanese cyberpunk settings like Ghost in the Shell, cybernetics tends to be a form of body horror and often is also explored as being a more existential threat to one's concept of self and soul. 

While I think that kind of exploration of cybernetics, philosophy, and psychology makes sense and is done well in those source materials and some others, I don't necessarily think at this point there's anything more I could meaningfully contribute to that commentary, and to attempt to do so without some really evocative idea in mind would be kind of trite. Instead, I wanted to think about how I could invert these ideas.

Cybernetics is etymologically based on the Greek Kubernetes, to govern, or to steer. It's an interdisciplinary field involved in the application and design of control systems, feedback loops, and interfaces. It requires the ability to model input and output signals, modulate based on those signals (feedback), and this requires encapsulation in terms of interfaces, in multiple regards, including brain-computer interfacing, program interfaces, and interfacing with the real world itself (the input signals). Specifically, it's in the application of these control systems and interfaces towards the re-implementation or enhancement of sensorimotor functions.

So within the context of Buddhism or at least the very specific and idiosyncratic interpretation of Buddhism I've conceived for MRD, what would it mean to invert this? To me, this means, a detachment from the Material World, divestment of the need for sensorimotor interfacing, and instead co-opting these psychophysical systems for the development of control systems, feedback mechanisms, and interfaces towards a higher metaphysical plane, towards Awakening. While I've avoided too much explicit reference to Dharma in MRD, many of the concepts in MRD that I wrap up under the umbrella of Karma are actually Dharma, Samsara, The Three Marks of Existence, etc., as I discuss in that link above. So I could just call this Karmatics <-> the Karma equivalent to Cybernetics <-> (Kubernetes <-> Control Systems), but I do think in this case Dharma is a better term. It's the phenomenology of Buddhism (the term also gets used in Hinduism and Jainism), and broadly encompasses the idea of pure reality, one beyond the subjectivity of Conditioned Things, almost like Plato's Platonic Ideal of Forms, or Greek Logos. So, Dharmatics.

From a strictly narrative/aesthetic perspective, I really want to avoid having Dharmatics just be Cybernetics by another name. I can live with the game mechanics just being cybernetics by another name, maybe, but it at least needs to be conceptually different, or else I'm just needlessly complicating things for the sake of false profundity. The most obvious thing I can think of is to give Dharmatics a unique and evocative aesthetic. Dharmatics are decidedly not metal, plastic, silicon, and electronic. They're psychedelia, pareidolia, holography, psychophysical illusion, and applied art and color theory, somewhat along the lines of things I've discussed before such as with my Concept of the Positive and Negative Planes.

We had a discussion about the possibility of integrating things like Traditional Chinese Medicine or Chakras into Dharmatics, and I may do so to some extent, but I'm reticent to go too deep into that direction. There are several reasons for this, but in part, it's because as I've said before, MRD is not about being a Buddhist and Chinese mythology setting in the strictest sense, but rather, taking those concepts in a very abstract and idiosyncratic sense, and applying them towards something more within the domain of my own direct inspirations and lived experiences. So in this case, Dharmatics is almost more like saying, what if Buddhism were invented today? What language would we use to describe it? How would we interpret it within the greater context of modern science, philosophy, and technology? How would we apply it? It's Buddhism re-engineered from the ground up (due as much to my own ignorance of the particulars as to any deeper intentions, to be sure).

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Get Into the Machine, Shinji!

Proof of Concept for a Mark of the Odd-based Mecha* game. My design goal for this is to be a game that is rules-light, that is seamless between Pilots and Mecha, but where the mechanics are just different enough to feel like more than just re-flavoring between the scales. It also takes some inspiration from Cypher, and a tiny bit from my "Mechs & Monstrosities" Hack for Tunnels & Trolls.

*Why didn't I call it "Get Into the Mecha, Shinji!"? I dunno, this just sounded better to me...

Ability Scores

Three ability scores, which we're tentatively going to call the standard STR, DEX, and INT, and regular HP. We can call them something else later, but it's roughly these three categories, and they're the same for Pilots as for Mechas.

Special Abilities

Do you want some cyberpunk in your mecha game? Ok, you've got hacking, robotics, AI-assisted mini-missiles for bullets, high-frequency laser swords, etc. Oh is this an Escaflowne-style magitech setting? Ok, you've got magic now too. Whatever you would normally do with Mark of the Odd, you do. They can also just be skills, talents, careers, etc. Let's say you get 3 of them to start.


Pilots and Mecha are separate "characters" / character sheets but character creation is mostly the same between the two. Roll HP and the Ability Scores, and multiply by 10. Damage dice? Multiply by 10. If it's just Mecha-to-Mecha, you don't even have to bother, the 10x is mostly just for scaling Pilot x Mecha stuff. Because there's gotta be some maniac taking potshots with a Mecha-Buster sniper rifle out there...

But peeps are littler...

You are correct, hypothetical person, peeps are littler than Mecha. As a peep dodging a Mecha attack; Dex Save, on Success you take 10x fewer points of Damage (the amount from the roll before multiplying). Mecha are big, peeps are little, so they're harder to target, but susceptible to collateral. Probably not going to satisfy everyone but it's modular anyway, if you've got a better idea go for it.

If you're using a system that allows for partial Saves (like MRD...), you could even do something like Full Damage, Damage/10, No Damage. Basically, if a Mecha really wants to fuck up a peep they can do so, but if a peep stays hidden and/or keeps a fair distance, it should be an option to engage, albeit risky.

Mecha Abilities

Mecha Abilities are inventory-based. You can get as crunchy or as loose as you want with it, but tentatively we'll say there is Head, Core, Lower, Upper x2, Special x2. Generally, they aren't going to add strictly quantitative buffs but you can default to that if you want.

Upper: Held weapons, special arms, or shoulder-mounts, probably at least one of the two providing Damage dice (e.g. Beam Sword, Rifle, Claw Hand, Shoulder-Mounted Missile Launcher), but also things like Repair Kit (restore HP), Extra Arm (for holding extra items, not necessarily full articulation/impact), Special Scanner.

Lower: Types of mobility (e.g. Humanoid Legs, Quadrupedal Legs, Treads, Hoverjet).

Head: Types of sensors (e.g. Radar, Sonar, Infrared, Ultraviolet), Head-Mounted Minigun.

Core and Special: Can get a little fancy, like a unique energy source, a "signature move", atypical things like AT Field from Evangelion or Funnels from Gundam.

You can make these Mecha Abilities require Saves, or just work as-is, the same kinds of decisions you would make designing any other MotO items or abilities. Some of these are a little vague or have overlap but that's a feature, not a bug!

Alternatively, I could imagine stripping all of that out entirely, and just giving each Mecha X number of Special Abilities, and not get hung up on inventory slots or any of that, but Mecha are maybe the one genre where I actually kind of prefer that slightly more simulation-y crunch to it (but only just a little bit).

Pilot Abilities

This is the "secret sauce" of this hack; these are Special Abilities that Pilots have that they can only use while piloting a Mecha. Depending on what you're going for, you could have them be specific to a given Pilot / Mecha pairing, or more flexible.

As before, in some cases, these abilities may require Saves, but more often, they should cost Pilot HP or Pilot Ability Points. So for instance, one kind of boring and straightforward ability might be Ace Dodger: Pilot spends 1 Dex for every 10 Damage to dodge an attack. Must be all or none. So if the Pilot has 5 DEX remaining and that they are willing to spend, and their Mecha is about to take 50 or fewer points of Damage (the opponent rolled 5 or lower on a d6 Damage die), they can do so.

Some more interesting examples might be, if the Pilot is a hacker, they might have a Pilot Ability that lets them remote-hack another Mecha at some cost per turn; if they have magic and some spell that might normally affect a peep, you can spend INT to apply it to a Mecha instead.

And let's assume starting with 3 as well (in addition to 3 regular Special Abilities).

My rule of thumb would be, if it seems like something another Pilot could theoretically do, but they don't have the specific Pilot Ability, they can still do it but it might require a Save on top of a cost, or require a greater cost than normal; this isn't about locking Players into specific builds and being a crunchy tactical game. The Pilot Abilities are mainly just there for a point of reference. Or you can be stricter about it if you prefer, you do you.

You can have regular Special Abilities cost Ability Points as well on a case by case basis, but I think this mechanic should mostly only apply to Pilot Abilities, for reasons I explain below.


There is arguably still an incongruity here like if you wanted a big fighty-type Pilot in a nimble dodgy Mecha, you're working somewhat against type, but since the effect of Pilot stats towards Mecha is only related to Pilot Abilities, and these Pilot Abilities are generally more so about unique things you can do than quantitative stuff, I think that is more so mitigated than in many other RPGs that try to consolidate Mecha and Pilot Abilities in some way.

It's a similar kind of abstraction as with Cypher System, in that you spend points to use Abilities, and you could even imagine something like Edge and Effort from Cypher being applied here as well which I would likely do if I expanded this proof of concept.

Also, while many people seem to dislike the Pool Point system in Cypher, I think that should be less of an issue here, because again, it allows the Pilots' stats to affect Mecha-level play, without overwhelming it, but it also allows for mixed-scale play. While a Pilot may have taken Ability Score Damage by using their Pilot Abilities, since generally, only Pilot Abilities cost points, they could still exit their Mecha and immediately get into a gunfight or fistfight if they wanted to with minimal impact. Unlike Cypher, it is less so the case that Ability points are also HP. This might be more of an issue with MRD but not to an extent that I'm concerned with, especially since MRD spreading HP across the three Ability scores + Karma already makes characters sturdier than in regular MotO.

If you're concerned about things like Ability Damage penalties, I would be inclined to just say it's threshold-based like you take a -X penalty to Saves if an Ability is below a certain threshold, like say -1/3rd of the total, etc.; that way you can still have Ability Damage penalties, but it doesn't penalize players for using Pilot Abilities quite as severely. I'd be more inclined to just remove Ability Damage penalties altogether or implement it in some other circumstantial way.

So I'm pretty happy with this proof of concept. I'm so focused on MRD that I don't know if I'll have time to develop this further, but also, given that MRD is already basically a MotO hack, I actually think this could be bolted on top of MRD fairly easily, so maybe I can have my cake and eat it too...