You can always dream

I woke up this morning wishing I had a complete library of Fading Suns sitting on my library shelf. 

I don’t necessarily want to pay for the whole thing but damn I had a lot of fun back in the day with it. Wondering what it would take to hack it into something more modern (Cortex Plus, PbtA, whatever).

Anyone have a library of Fading Suns books taking up space?

Setup and first thoughts
First contact with the enemy

When I folded my MYZ game it was largely a combination of lots of little dissatisfactions with the long game, pushed over the edge by wanting to try something new. It’s a short list (which is about to get longer as soon as Kickstarters start delivering), and Motobushido is high on the list. I talked about it at some length in May ( but that was based only on a reading.

You know how some games are very, very different in practice than how they read? Holy mackerel, it’s never been more true than with Motobushido!

Some of this is my fault. I pitched several games (Moto, Urban Shadows and The One Ring are at the top of my try list), then we played some board games that evening, then I thought, hey, I’ll bet setup isn’t hard, let’s go ahead and get rolling so we can play next week! 

This was at about 8:45. At 11:45 we had barely rushed through step 7 of 10. Jobs and families, they’re why we can’t have any fun.

Some of the 3+ hour setup is my fault. Maybe most of it. But I also have to talk about how the book is organized.

My fault: Thinking that completely new characters could not possibly be that hard to doodle up. Thinking they could doodle up completely new characters without really understanding how the procedures work. Thinking I could skip over the tutorial and prequel stuff. Mostly just thinking dumb thoughts.

As written, the setup for Motobushido is good but also very precise and fussy. RAW, you will play through the “first founding,” a scene from before the bike gang was a gang, at the end of this mysterious War that you’re all about to lose. It’s a combination of world building (everyone offers up one notable “detail” about the War; ours: Civil War, Thermonuclear (!), Robotic Government Warfighters, Dreamscape Insurgency) and mechanical demo set up around a set scene. 

Well, dumb me. I’m like “We can hash through this, we’ll get going way faster if I skip all this demo shit.” No. NO. DO NOT SKIP THE FIRST FOUNDING. No. 

About 9:30ish I’m like, fuck it let’s do what the book says. There are unfortunately no easy-to-download versions of the First Founding template characters, but there are some pregens online that worked just as well. So I picked four, passed them out blind, and did the thing.

Very helpful! And now there’s all kinds of neat details to use going forward. The demo scene is great: your military unit has been ordered into a final suicidal attack by the Emperor (yeah I have no idea), now what? You randomize who supports or rejects these orders, then cut ’em loose. We had three “run like hell” and one “for honor!” so they had an argument. Which escalated to a (nonlethal) clash. The dueling thing is hot, can’t wait to see it in play and I want to talk more about that later.

But man…organizationally, Motobushido does itself no favors. 

I thought it was a fun and engaging read when I first hit the text, but now I’m thinking my brain played a trick on me: when I didn’t understand the context for something, I’d just skip over it. Whatever, I’m sure it’ll get explained later, right? And then another and another. I have mentioned before that the game is mechanically intricate. There are lots of detailed procedures, lots of terms of art, lots of Japanese. So honestly? I think I just started blurring past that stuff, and then whole sections of stuff comprised mostly of Japanese/terms of art folded into procedural explanations. And that gave me an inaccurate take on things.

Play through the First Founding is all I’m saying. Again.

Making the characters from scratch honestly isn’t hard once you’ve done it. There are lots of little confusing things, though, mostly in that terms aren’t defined when they’re used the first time. Like how your Pack Tech(niques) are derived from your Role, and your Sword Tech from your fighting style. Oh it is covered! But only when you get to the chapter about advancement, which is the chapter after character creation (where you need to understand it). The rules for custom-building a character happen before the rules for adapting templates, but you have to read the rules for adapting templates because there are explanations in there as well. The whole chapter is very messy.

We still have, probably, two more hours of setup left. But I mostly don’t mind, because the reason Motobushido setup is so damned long is that it’s mostly narrative. Like, every player has to come up with a little historic vignette three times (once for the player to the right, once to the left, once for themselves). That’s 12 vignettes in a four player game! And then they all have to come up with their Hate, Hope, Love and Doom (none of which I think has any particular mechanical significance, which caught me by surprise because everything else does). AND THEN there’s additional little Pack culture things to work out: what kind of masks, how do you wear your hair, what are the pack’s taboos, who else is in the pack? 

I feel like if you went with the pregens, you’d still have 2 or 3 hours of talking and setup left. Juggling numbers and making decisions about abilities is the smallest bit.

Final note: Beautiful character sheets but don’t have space for the Hope/Hate/Love/Doom stuff. May not matter at all, but I would hope that it does at least narratively. I like that all the techniques are on one side of the character sheet — I was worried about that tbh.

Mutant: Year Zero

The tl/dr; goes like this: I have no really good reason to stop playing, but lots and lots of pretty good reasons that all added up.

First off, I really like Mutant: Year Zero. I think it has a hell of a lot going for it, and has provided a lot of fun time for us. Eight sessions, I think? And I wouldn’t even necessarily say we’re never playing it again. But I know me, and odds are against returning to it (about on-par with us picking up the Great Pendragon Campaign again tbh).

But every session, small doubts and problems kind of crept in. 

* The lack of social conflict support was the first one. I’ve talked about this at some length, no big surprises here. But it definitely cut the legs out from really pursuing the interesting Ark-internal politicking that I think the game’s setup wants.

* The speed of advancement was an even bigger issue, though. An every-session bump is sweet! They like it, I like it. No problems there. But there are a couple issues: for one, the characters get hypercompetent. For another, you just never know when they’ll mutate again. I felt like we got to a place where mechanical competence reached a point where there was no longer narrative uncertainty. They wanted to do something, it got done. Only Zone expeditions continued to be (mechanically) challenging, but tbh it’s kind of boring on the GM side to run those as purely procedurally generated incidents. It’s easy, but easy =/= fun. Not by itself.

* The mutations are all over the place. I get that they’re random and that that’s part of the secret sauce. Buuuuut you also have mutations that are objectively terrible. And you have mutations that synergize in surprising and maybe broken ways. 

* Too much to track, after a while. The big one here is that everyone in the Ark is a mutant. Well goddamn it. That means every single conflict means me either looking up the mutation (for an existing NPC) or drawing something from the deck. Then remembering to use it. This is a minor thing, really minor, but it added up.

* I kind of wish there was a better/easier way to track the Zone stuff. I ended up deploying my Endless Roll of Butcher Paper to create our epic zone map, and it’s like 3′ x 4′ and it’s still not big enough. They’d doodle everything they could but still left out details. And I’d furiously doodle stuff into my own notes — remember, we were generating the Zone on the fly — but like… just coordinates (B11, C10, A10, etc.) do not convey nearly enough context. I don’t have a solution to this. It’s a lot of paper/information handling and it accumulates every session.

Boiling all this down, I think the main deal in the end was that whole “mechanical certainty killed narrative uncertainty” thing up there. They got too good, to the point where there’s even precious little niche protection so they can enjoy being good at the things they’re supposed to be. Example: the ex-slave-turned-stalker was always a better fighter than the enforcer. That’s what the enforcer does! So he was left, more often than not, getting punked early in a fight and then waiting for the real warrior to come along and clean up. Blah.

The whole thing feels like it is not built for the long haul, but the baked in campaign demands that you play probably 15ish sessions before you’re within striking distance of finishing.

There’s so very much to love about this game, though.

* The resource grind is great. I love it. You kind of need to gloss over some stuff, like how “and time passes” time needs to happen narratively sometimes but you can’t be grinding through water and grub.

* I really like the rich dice. I kind of wish they’d gone even further, Edge of the Empire style, but it works well. I think it works a bit too well at a certain point, though. Some tipping point of die pool size where you’re not actually rolling to see if you won/lost but to see how well you won by. Which, you know, it’s fine. That means the skills need more things to spend successes on, though, and except for combat those opportunities are spotty.

* The playbooks/classes are good. I wish there were more of them, and more to explore once you got into them. More niche protection. This is one place where stealing the playbooks but not the moves from Apocalypse World show the weakness in that approach: when everyone can “know the zone” or “comprehend” or “move” at a very high level, everyone acts the same. The single playbook special talent is not nearly enough to differentiate them.

* The ark/zone split is genius. Best in class. I want to see many more games do this. Spend some time in acrimonious angry interpersonal mode, then spend some time in tactical dangerous murdergrind mode, and see how those modes interact and inform one another. The best session we ran was where the PCs worked out their differences with an NPC gang they ran into in the Zone. Gloves are off, no witnesses, let’s get this shit sorted oh no it’s rot worms ruuuuunnnn…

Next up: Motobushido.

Radical Transparency and Noobs

Had a chance to process some more of how our Firefly game went down Saturday night. So here’s an interesting thing, mostly due to debriefing with Karen, my favorite new player.

K: “You know in the game where you told Emily (my 14yo niece) a bunch of secret stuff?”

Me: “Yup.”

K: “And then at the end you said Now, this is all stuff that only your character knows. How much of this do you want to share with the other characters?”

Me: “Yeah. I do that on purpose.”

K: “But why? I think it was confusing to her.”

Me: “You think? It’s important she get the difference between players and characters.”

K: “But I thought the fun part was pretending you’re someone else.”

Then we talked a while about immersion, bleed, and author/actor stance stuff. Which to a noob? Holy shit, really really obscure high-level considerations. 

Once upon a time, I looooved using all the actor-stance immersion tricks. All of them! I’d pull off players to give them secret information, I’d pass notes, I’d encourage players to secretly discuss stuff. Secrets secrets secrets. I’d coordinate with players to give an unreliable account to a player whose character was “insane” or drugged or in VR or whatever. Pull out all the stops. Huge fun. Hugely problematic.

Karen is sad that I don’t do that stuff any more. She thinks it sounds awesome. And here I am, more than 3 decades into this experiment, thinking nooooo…

Right around my time tearing apart Burning Wheel, we flipped the script and went for total, radical transparency. GM shares the “secret” stuff with everyone, treats the players like adults who can separate fantasy from the people at the table, rely heavily on dramatic irony, very firm author-stance play. Hold your terrible flawed character out there at arm’s length and play as true to them as possible. Advocate for truth, not for effectiveness.

Now, talking through this stuff with brand-new players, I wonder if that entire radical-transparency approach only works once you’ve gotten immersive actor-stance play “out of your system” (pejorative I know!), or seen the problems that can come out of it, or whatever. I wonder if the normal default reflex is for total immersion and close character identity, and arms-length authorial play is just mental gymnastics we’ve invented to create a layer of safety (one interpretation) and/or a way to dig more directly into the story-stuff of theme and clear lines of conflict (another interpretation, not necessarily incompatible with the first). 

I just thought it was interesting. Given literally no other instructions, the assumption is that you should “be” your character. And that doing otherwise is less fun.

Hello friends and enemies,

We made a small thing. Hope you like it. 

In 1648 and 1649, Paris was riven by strife.

To say that is simple, but it is a complex picture to paint. Because the trouble doesn’t begin there. You see, Louis XIII is dead. His eldest son, soon to be Louis XIV, is too young to rule. His mother, Anne of Austria, rules as his regent. And her rival, the great Cardinal, is also dead. So the Queen’s right hand is the Cardinal Mazarin, the Minister of France.

In 1648, France participated in the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War—a war about dynasty, territory and the right to practice one’s religion. France also watched the United Dutch Republics and the Spanish Hapsburgs signed a treaty to end the Eighty Years War (a signal of weakness, the beginning of the end of an empire…). 

But these treaties and agreements were but a temporary reprieve. With France surrounded by her ancient enemy, Mazarin plotted war to break the chains that stretched the Spanish rule from Madrid, to Rome, to Burgundy and Belgium. 

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1648, Parlement demanded certain rights regarding taxes. Queen Anne and Cardinal Mazarin pretended to agree to the terms, but quickly had members of parlement arrested.

The arrests had an unintended effect: Paris went into revolt. Barricades were erected. Chains were dragged across the streets. Residents of all types protested against the government’s corruption and wasteful spending. 

Anne, Mazarin and the young Louis fled the city for Rheims. But never one to trifle with affairs, Anne set about cowing the people of Paris: She forbade the mills and granaries surrounding the city from providing bread to the rebels (who were now called the Fronde due to the tell-tale slings they used to smash the Cardinal’s windows). 

Broadsheets called Mazarinades spread news, rumors and gossip among the people besieged by their own Queen. And it should be pointed out that though they were furious with the taxes and poor administration, they blamed the Cardinal and the Queen. They loved the young king and were deeply wounded when the Queen took him from their midst.

Paris starved that winter, while the young king watched from afar. 

In the countryside, rebels attacked Intendants and other government officials. Robbers hid themselves in the chaos and preyed upon the weak and the strong alike. 

In the city, the sharp-tongued residents contested with the skyrocketing price of food, thieves and cloak pullers, soldiers down on their luck, frustrated nobles and drunken students.

In war, pike and musket stood alongside one another on the field, holding ground against the charges of pistol-wielding cavalry. Armor grew simultaneously heavier and more useless—musket balls could perforate the sturdiest cuirass. Artillery bounced balls across the field, ripping soldiers limb from limb. 

In religion, Protestant and Catholic eyed each other warily across the negotiating table. Treaties were signed, but the past 80 years were soaked in the blood of massacre in the name of God. It was only a matter of time before the ink of these agreements ran red with blood once again.

In art, the human consciousness burst forth on the canvas, stage and in song as it never had before. Shakespeare had entered the stage only a generation ago. Velazquez, Rubens and Rembrant’s brushes evoked a lambent glow from their subjects. Monteverdi and Frescobaldi composed haunting madrigals to transport the soul.

It was a brutal, magical, fascinating time to be alive…

A time of adventure for the bold, willing to seek their fortune among the miseries and misfortunes of the age.

Miseries and Misfortunes is a 54-page supplement for Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It contains six new classes, as well as weapons, spells and equipment for playing D&D in the first half of the 17th century. Rules describe fighting with rapier, pistol, pike and musket in small formations, hiring servants and exploring strange and forgotten places.

We will have 22 zine-format copies available for sale at Gen Con.


I was chatting with Mark Diaz Truman​ about Urban Shadows, trying to get a bead on when all those stretch goals might get delivered. But of course I don’t actually care about the city guides. I care about the playbooks.

I don’t know what it is about fucking playbooks! AW, MH, every time and I’ll bet I’m not alone: I get antsy about completing the collection. Even when I know I’ll never use them all. Even when I don’t especially like them.

Totally the same way about boardgames, but it’s much more expensive because it usually involves chits or cards. If I know there’s a promo or expansion or extra whatever available, I won’t be settled until it’s in hand. Even for games I don’t pay any more. It’s the big reason I got out of CCGs, honestly.

Isn’t that crazy? Some borderline OCD or hoarding impulse at work I guess.