My Games

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Maximum Recursion Depth Release!!!!!

Maximum Recursion Depth, or Sometimes the Only Way to Win is to Stop Playing, is officially released on drivethrurpg and!

Between the original conception and Ashcan Edition, through the Kickstarter which took longer than I had intended, I have been working on this game for well over a year. This was my passion project during the insanity that has been Covid, and the culmination of years longer of inspiration and personal experiences.

When I left academia, I told myself that if I could successfully transition into a career in software engineering, that I had to use the opportunities made available to me to publish a book, and now I have. It is by no means perfect, I can already see flaws in it, and I hope in the future that I will grow in my writing and game design abilities even more and the flaws become even more salient. But even so, or even if I never publish another book, I will always have this.

I can say reasonably confidently that MRD is unlike anything else I've seen or read, even if it certainly has inspirations. It won't be for everyone, whether due to my own failings as a creator or simply because it is not something that conforms to genre conventions, but I hope that enough people appreciate it for what it is to justify continuing with this endeavor.

Given the support on Kickstarter, my ongoing year-long campaign, and feedback I've received on the NSR discord server and from other creators who I respect, MRD has already been a success as far as I'm concerned. I don't expect to break drivethrurpg in sales numbers, I'm just grateful to have made a thing that I think is of reasonably high quality, for it to be real and effectively eternal barring the plausible collapse of civilization as we know it but hopefully at least through my life if not a little while longer than that.

I will probably take a pause before launching into anything else immediately, especially since I'm about to start a new job, but if you are happy with this first issue of MRD, know that I have several plans for potential future issues!

PS: I had originally said in a few places that there was going to be a big announcement coinciding with the release, but after discussing with some people, I've decided to hold up on that for a while, but it will come back eventually!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Super Robot Wars-style Mecha

Super Robot Wars is a videogame series of tactical RPGs where a bunch of Mecha anime cross-over, and it's delightful. Many of the recent games have been translated into English for the Singapore and/or Hong Kong regions and PS4 is not region-locked (they're also available on Switch and I believe are also not region-locked), so I finally get to play Ray Amuro / Nu Gundam, Shinji Ikari / Evangelion Unit-01, and Space Battleship Yamato, all together, in one of my favorite game genres. Childhood dreams do come true.

I'm not familiar with all of the series represented in the games I'm playing (so far I've beaten Super Robot Wars V, am working through Super Robot Wars T, and I've already got Super Robot Wars X and OG ready to go!), but even for the series I am not familiar with, by virtue of being a cross-over of All-Stars, even some of the off-hand Mechas I've never heard end up becoming my favorites, and I've since gone on to start watching several of the series I was introduced to through these games.

There's something interesting and understated about it- good design is rare, and it seems like good Mecha design is especially rare, let alone to make a new property where every Mecha feels distinctive, classic, and stands out. But by being a cross-over, where like half the characters are all main characters from their own series, and many of those series are standouts and classics, it makes for an entire game of standout characters and Mecha.

I'm still searching for my ideal Mecha TTRPG (perhaps it will be Get into the Machine, Shinji!), but in the meantime, here's a Weird & Wonderful Table of Mechas. The schtick here is, there is a meta wherein all of these Mecha are assumed to be the star of their own series in some fictional reality, but now crossing over in a series where in-universe they co-exist and in most cases always have co-existed.

One tricky thing with Mecha is that it's hard to describe them, and much of the appeal is visual, which I think is part of why Mecha written fiction is not as prominent as Mecha visual fiction e.g. comics, anime, or videogames, and also part of why it's less common in TTRPG where there are fewer pieces of public domain art for Mecha (in addition to the difficulty of designing rules for Mecha games that allow for in and out of Mecha gameplay, as described in the previous link for GItMS!). I hope I have done a reasonable job here, please let me know what you think!

In addition to these, you can find more entries by other creators (or share your own!) in my Let's Build: Mecha posts on The Cauldron (must be a member of the NSR Discord server to join) and The OSR Pit.

Weird & Wonderful Mecha

Arsenic: Black. Tripod legs on a humanoid core with clawed hands. Its head is a long metallic tentacle with a Tesla Coil at the end of it.

Razzle-Dazzle: Surprisingly mobile "walking weapons platform" with a core that looks more like a tank than a humanoid Mecha. Black and white clashing stripes or other holographically overlayed camouflage make it difficult to track in cluttered environments.

Chimera: Quadrupedal but ape-like, somewhere between a lemur and a wolf, with a long snout. Its high-frequency maw glows with ultraviolet. White with purple trim. Long thin tail tipped with a snake-like "head" consisting of rear sensors and laser beam weapon.

Dogu: Alien craft like if Jack Kirby made a psychedelic Celestial inspired by the eponymous Jomon-era figurines.

Rebis: Neon yellow bio-"Mecha", a genetic hodgepodge of non-human animal, fungus, and bacteria in a humanoid form. Keratin plates that look like sleek near-future body armor. Shimmers with a bio-engineered tardigrade film for environmental protection. A fungal/bacterial microbiome can excrete through the skin weaponry such as sphaerobolus (aka artillery fungus). Retractable silken wings that work as solar sails for space travel. The pilot operates The Rebis via an umbilical cable that connects to their spine like in the Cronenberg movie Existenz.

Matrioshka: A supermassive starship, wherein the command deck is an ejectable battle cruiser, piloted by a Mecha whose cockpit is designed to fit a Power Armored pilot, all of which is entraining on the brain waves of the unborn child of the pregnant pilot.

Psycho Baku: Minimalist trunk-nosed Mecha using sensory-scrambling technology, psychophysical illusions, and even psychoactive gases, to create large-scale illusions, mirages, and hallucinations.

Panic Slug: Wrist-mounted shotgun sprays “slugs”, autonomous AI missile drones that seek to infiltrate enemy Mecha and hack them or physically disable them from the inside. As the slugs infest Mecha, they exhibit behaviors like myoclonic jerks.

Murder Crow: Head like a plague doctor mask. A “field medic” Mecha with two autonomous crow-like drones for surveilling disabled/damaged Mecha or for defense, while primarily equipped for Mecha field repairs or ad-hoc constructs.

Mazu: The rainbow dragon Mecha of Pirate Queen Prismasha, Empress of Space. The cockpit of the Mecha is Platina, a dolphin/sea serpent-esque space fighter craft. Mazu and Platina are demigod/AI from an ancient spacefaring civilization. They each dueled Prismasha in “hand-to-hand” combat for her love and hand in marriage, and in their respective failures, vowed to serve as her guardians.

Mecha-Buster Squad: Wear light power armor and utilize mobility tools such as rocket packs, magnetic grappling wires, and solar sails, weaponry such as RPGs, high-impact "one-shot" sniper rifles, and vibro-lances, and various kinds of immobilizing or debilitating traps, to take down significantly larger and more powerful Mecha.

Gacha: The corporation that makes this series of Mecha sells them exclusively in capsules where the specific model inside is not revealed until after purchase. While an expensive and potentially risky way to build a fleet, one lucky Gacha capsule can justify the purchase of dozens of other overpriced and lower-quality Gacha Mecha. Some are desired solely for their rarity, as a status symbol, or for their value in the speculation market, as opposed to actual combat utility.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

MRD: Reincarnation Ritual Recursion Attachments Generator

With the VERY SOON RELEASE of Maximum Recursion Depth, one thing I knew I wasn't satisfied with in the Ashcan release was the Reincarnation Rituals. I want them to be more than just "get out of jail free cards", they should actually add something to the game.

What I decided was that every time a PC relies on their Reincarnation Ritual (other than for leveling), they have to take a Reincarnation Attachment. These are Karmic Attachments, either randomly generated or they can be custom-made circumstantially by the GM, which do not cause the PC to accrue Karma and do not divest Karma when resolved, but which should add an interesting character-related "plot" element / game-hook, and which must be resolved in order to level.

So this way, if a PC uses their Reincarnation Ritual to escape death, they're going to carry some extra baggage with them, but hopefully, that baggage should at least be gameable and interesting.

This generator is by no means definitive, as is I don't think it has quite enough variability, and some of the wording is awkward. Also, it's better to make Reincarnation Rituals that tie specifically into the PC's backstory or the events of the campaign. This is more just for inspiration / as a point of reference.

Friday, October 1, 2021

MRD Campaign Retrospective up to Present

Although I've written plenty of Play Reports for my Maximum Recursion Depth campaign and they've actually been accruing more views than I expected, I've generally not been satisfied with my PRs. I like the approach I've landed on of doing these very brief summaries, and only expanding in cases where I'm basically sharing my GM Notes as like a Module template, but all the same, they feel more like very sloppy book report summaries than something engaging.

So to be clear, my MRD campaign is still ongoing and to the best of my knowledge, nobody has any intentions of ending at any specific time! But I thought it might be fun to do a retrospective, almost like my "not-review" series of posts. If I'm not prepared to rewrite the events of my campaign as engaging prose, I can instead do so as (hopefully) engaging analysis. This is less so a blow-by-blow of events than even my already summarized PRs, and more me just describing how things evolved over time, what I had intended vs. how things played out, what I think has worked or hasn't, etc.

Last side note, we are very very very close to being done with the MRD Book, and once it releases, I have some exciting news to hopefully coincide with it! But anyway...

Before I get into it, here's another index of the MRD PR posts:

Even though the posts themselves are organized differently, the first two sessions correspond to the same "module", so I'll describe them this way.

Doctor Loves-Me-Not's Halloween Party was basically a murder mystery inspired loosely by the party scene at the beginning of the Russian Doll series on Netflix and Rocky Horror Picture Show, along with other stuff.

I was really happy with the overall scenario design and I think it had some of the modular Social Intrigue stuff which informed the Module in the book, but I definitely did not yet have this Design Pattern fully realized when I wrote this "module" and it shows. I included some sidebars in the Doctor Loves-Me-Not's Halloween Party GM Notes linked at the top, and I stand by those comments and would encourage you to give them a look if you're interested.

The second session ended in the equivalent of a TPK, but The Team was able to use their Reincarnation Rituals, so it worked out basically as intended. As is often the case with a new game, several of the players came and went between the first couple of sessions, but it was as of Session 3 that The Team as it has existed for nearly a year now has been pretty stable.

Unfortunately, because session 3 was effectively a new group, there were leads that developed in these first two sessions that are only just now getting re-integrated. In fact, there were I think 1-3 sessions (would have to double-check) even before these play reports with an entirely different group, which also set up leads that didn't come back until later (that group was in person and fell apart for covid and related logistical reasons).

Tl;Dr While flawed in some ways, these first two sessions / first "module" is a very good demonstration of what MRD is about, and I could easily imagine myself cleaning it up and turning it into something more like the Module in the book and being really happy with it!

Not-Review Sessions 3-6 / "They Did a Mario Kart"

Technically a fair bit happened in these sessions, but it wouldn't quite be accurate to call them a cohesive "module" in the way I referred to the Halloween Party in the last two sessions. However, it does encompass one "story arc" so I'll wrap them together.

While I posted the PRs as 3-5, in retrospect session 6 was when this "arc" wrapped up, but I guess that wasn't obvious until after the fact.

Session 3 was a fresh start with a new Poltergeist Investigation and in effect a new Team. In retrospect the way I designed it was terrible, but I think to the Players' credit we had a good time.

I basically gave them two or so options for Investigations, but they were both nearly identical- being only just different enough to require that my GM Notes accounted for each of them differently. From a software engineering perspective, we call this an Anti-Pattern, and it is something I have since tried to be better about not doing, and I'd like to believe mostly successfully.

It was a fun little adventure, and it set up some future NPCs and future plotlines. The players really liked Shining Ostrich which made me happy.

Session 4 was the "Mario Kart" part, where they went to The Court of Those Who Bet on the Wrong Horse. I was much happier with how I designed the scenario, although the "Mario Kart" part of it, while fun, probably could have been better fleshed out. It's not about going crunch-crazy, but I played it pretty fast and loose even by my standards and while it worked for me, as the writer, if I were to ever try to publish it, I would need to heavily rework it for those who cannot read my mind.

You can see the GM Notes for Off to the (Karmamare) Racetracks linked at the top, which actually includes the GM Notes for session 3 as well. If you do read it, you'll see the anti-pattern I was referring to, but for the actual Karmamare part, you can see how there was still some structure to it, but probably needed a little more structure.

Session 5 Was a bit of a sidetrack, admittedly of my own making. It definitely did set stuff up for the future such as by introducing or further developing certain NPCs, but in itself was more of a "filler episode" lol, not too much more to say about that.

Session 6 was the culmination of events from the prior sessions. To my mind, it was the most successful of the first six sessions in terms of the number of fun things I gave the players to interact with in the scenario and the degree to which they were developed. The actual scenario around sessions 1-2 may be more so to my tastes, but from a game perspective, I think this is where things started to gel.

There was also a really poignant moment at the end of session 6, within an otherwise rather absurdist scene, and at the very least I appreciated it, but I hope my players did as well.

I apparently never posted the GM Notes for the scenario in session 6, which is a shame because I think it was pretty good. Not sure why I didn't do it, maybe I need to do so retroactively, or maybe there was a reason why I did not...

Not-Review Sessions 7-11 / The Hostile Takeover of Anti-Sphinx

These sessions were a turning point for the campaign, and also where a lot of my thoughts about the setting and my approach to design started to coalesce. This was probably also facilitated by the fact that I was designing the book around this time.

Again, even though I posted them as 6-11, in retrospect, 6 should have been in the previous post and this post should have started with 7.

Prior to these sessions, the game had been set up in a more episodic approach to Poltergeist Investigation -> Court Crawl, and this batch starts that way but ends things in a way that completely changes the paradigm which I found very exciting, although I was admittedly uncomfortable with it at first (see the Session 10-11 not-review below).

Session 7-8 Got real weird and experimental, in a way that I loved but my players were a bit more mixed on at the time, although I believe have since come to appreciate. This was part of what I refer to in my post on Tabletop RPGs as Performance Art and must have been around the time those ideas were growing fully formed in my mind.

I did not at the time have as strong of an idea of where I was going as I should have, and I also in retrospect did not do a good enough job giving the players a good idea of what they could or should do. I can't help but look back on it fondly, but it was certainly flawed.

Partway through session 8 The Team developed a more concrete plan and executed it, and it gave the players an opportunity to flex a bit which worked out well. It was basically a heist, and I don't give this session enough mindshare but in retrospect, it was actually a really fun and well-executed heist that was mostly player-driven, couldn't ask for more from it. The session ends with them coming back to where they were in session 7, culminating in a cliffhanger of a big Conflict that was about to come.

Session 9 is the aforementioned Conflict. The Conflict was swift and brutal as any Into the Odd-adjacent game should be, with Fiona using her Reincarnation Ritual in order to help the other PCs escape what were otherwise seemingly insurmountable odds. The rest of the session was also pretty rapid-fire with some big reveals. I did some stuff that is either clever or deceitful depending on your perspective that paid off nearer to the end of this "arc", which I was happy with but which I know one of the players struggled with at first, and which amounted to something ultimately not within my original plans but ended up being significantly better anyway, as I discuss below.

Session 10-11 also were pretty rapid-fire, with The Team running a coup against The Underground Casino which had been plaguing them in the background for some time, only to learn that the Underground Casino was not quite what they thought it was.

I won't lie, I struggled a lot with these sessions. On the one hand, I had repeatedly signaled to the players that they needed to do more investigation, that there were important details they had not uncovered and that they were getting themselves in over their head, and they had been burned on things like that in the past, but they chose to commit to their course of action regardless.

I think, especially from an "OSR perspective", it would have been well within my "right" to be punitive about it and basically punish them in exactly the way one would expect if they knew those things that they had been encouraged to investigate. However, I really didn't feel good about doing that, and I wanted to find a better solution.

Ultimately, I gave them what they wanted, a successful coup of this organization, but I framed it within the context of a Parable, or just as well a Fable- it was ok that they did something implausible, because the Parable becomes something of greater metaphysical weight, greater than the material act of what they'd done. You could almost think of it like "The Law of Surprises", the metaphysical phenomenon that may or may not have real power within the setting of The Witcher and which ends up driving the narrative (as opposed to the short stories it started in).

On The Cauldron, we were discussing Jewish Fables, and I was raised Jewish, and I actually was in a very roundabout way inspired by Jewish fables with this session myself. I remembered this article that I had read around ten years ago, and recently rediscovered and reread and am glad to say it holds up to my memory. The writer discusses the scene in Coming to America, the Eddie Murphy movie of all things, where Eddie Murphy plays an old Jewish guy. You can read my explanation, or watch the clip on youtube.

Or embedded here (but embedded videos on blogger have not always been reliable for me...):

The old Jewish guy tells a story about going to a restaurant and ordering a soup, and the waiter brings the soup, and he asks the waiter to taste the soup, and the waiter refuses. He asks repeatedly, the waiter uncomfortably repeatedly denies, but when the old man does not relent, finally he does. Looking down at the soup and at the table, he then says "there's no spoon", to which the old Jewish guy says, "achaa!". I really like that anecdote.

So that was also part of what inspired this turn of events. Even though this game is nominally about Buddhism and the interplay between Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese Mythology (really as just a metaphor or lens for modern issues), I try where possible to use my own lived experience as a person of Jewish descent or as an American or whatever to inform the game and setting, because my experience is not that of a Buddhist or Taoist in China circa the 16th Century when Journey to the West was written.

Anyway, so as a result, the game stops being about a ragtag group of Poltergeist Investigators, and instead is about a ragtag group of Poltergeist Investigators who overthrew a multi-national crime syndicate/information network/anti-fascist group that is now in a critically compromised state, in part due to their own actions, but also these factors were partially responsible for their success in the first place; capitalizing on Anti-Sphinx's moment of weakness without even realizing it.

Not-Review Sessions 12-16

Despite failing to come up with a name for this "arc", this was the first PR post that actually does reflect the arc as I see it- progress is being made lol. In all seriousness though, I do think this "arc" is where I really hit my stride, I would say I even "leveled up" as a designer. This is as much due to me designing the book at the same time and having to really think critically about how I do things, but all the same, this was awesome. Also by this point, the players have developed a good grasp of their characters and the setting and me as a GM, so they've been empowered to do more, and they've made some really clever and interesting decisions that have informed these sessions greatly.

Session 12 Is where The Team learns exactly how bad the situation with Anti-Sphinx is, but also meets the various agents within the organization and comes up with plans for how to fix things. I was worried at first again about possibly being too punitive, but it helped me to think of it within the context of the Parable, to treat this not as a punishment, not the end of the previous arc, but instead as the beginning of a new one, and that helped greatly.

I literally created a whole set of spreadsheets that are basically pivot tables, in order to map out the Social Intrigue / Domain-play scenario of it all; probably should have just made an actual SQL / relational database for it, but it's been working fine.

Session 13-14 was a bit of a diversion and got very goofy. It also involved me leveraging materials produced for The Module from the book but running it in a totally different context, which was fun to do. It also set up Emil McGinnley / Glass Maiden Pixie, which did move the "plot" forward for this "arc", and actually the "Excuse-Me-Sir!" Karmic malware also sets up the subsequent "arc" which is still ongoing and which I have not posted about yet.

Session 15-16 was a ton of fun. I didn't make a separate GM Notes post but I included the pertinent details in this PR. In terms of an "Action Conflict" this was hands down my favorite yet. It felt very video-gamey but in the best way. I would love to expand on this and turn it into something publishable. It wouldn't be worthwhile to reiterate it here but I would strongly encourage you to go back and read it if you have not already done so and are otherwise finding the rest of this interesting.

Final Comments

So wrapping it all up, I'm extremely happy with how this setting has developed, and this campaign, and this group. I've gotten to know my players well and feel lucky to have such a great group. It's encouraging to feel like the campaign is only getting better and that both my actual skills as a designer and my conscious understanding of design have both notably been improving, and it's also fascinating the ways that growth has been driven at least in part by having written the book. It goes to show the non-linear gains one can make by trying to do things in a more comprehensive, systematic way. Even though we're only a couple sessions into the current arc, the most recent session as of this posting was one of my favorites yet, a very emotional scene, my players probably know what I'm talking about if they're reading this. I genuinely believe that there are things that have occurred in this campaign that I will carry with me for a significant amount of time if not the rest of my life.