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.

Urban Shadows PDF live on DTRGP!

I’m proud to announce that Urban Shadows is live on DTRPG! Huge thanks to Andrew Medeiros, Amanda Valentine, Thomas Deeny, Shelley Harlan, Elizabeth Bauman, Juan Ochoa, Brendan Conway, and Marissa Kelly for making this day a reality. Woot!

We’re working with our printer now to get books, so we will have an update on that shortly. We’ll be including the PDF with a book purchase, so if you want both… we’ll have books ready soon. 😀



So this Saturday is the second session of the Firefly game I’m running for my family! They asked to return to the previous (one-shot) setup: a salvage ship and their particular crew.

Unfortunately, I feel like maybe I’ve painted myself into a corner. So let’s crowdsource this thing.

The corner is that … there aren’t a lot of options when your ride is a salvage ship. It’s designed to do one thing well: salvage wrecks. So, well, they did that last session. Seems kind of boring to expect them to, you know, salvage more wrecks every session.

That got me thinking about how cleverly open-ended Firefly the TV show was in that regard. I’d already decoded the secret sauce of the crew — lots of crossed lines and conflicting loyalties — but failed to notice that the Serenity is a multipurpose platform. They can fly around and land and salvage and carry cargo etc etc. Maybe in my head, “cargo carrier” feels somehow more flexible than “salvage vessel.”

So where is my crew off to next?

Roll for the Galaxy

Sick Day

The best thing about having teachers as friends is that they’ll come goof off with you on a summer workday even if you have a head cold. That shit bounces right off ’em. Honey badger.

I’ve been trying to fill out my sub-hour, non-migraine-inducing not-filler game library a bit this year (yes yes, after I dropped my whole #nonewgames2015  nonsense, never again). Picked up some good stuff! The latest couple were Neuroshima Hex (outstanding little game by the same guy who did Theseus, which has gotten an absurd amount of play here) and Roll for the Galaxy. 

Oh man is this a neat little game. It bears a lot of thematic and structural similarity to Race for the Galaxy but it’s … different. Really different, and really neat.

The overall shape of play is similar to Race: you’ll be choosing phases, then everyone will be doing them, and you’ll be trying to hit the most points by the time the game’s over. To make it a dice game, they upended and reimagined a lot of the underlying stuff of Race. Rather than spending cards to play cards, you have a “citizens” economy to stay on top of, and “credits” with which to get them back to use again. There are a zillion different colors of dice (the citizens!) and they all have their own distribution of faces that match up to the game’s five phases. You are building a tableau out of chits, each with a planet on one side and a development on the other. Choosing which to commit to is devastating!

Despite being totally dice-driven, I often felt challenged to get the dice to fit to what I wanted to do, but never felt completely boned by bad rolls. There’s always something to do with dice, even if you don’t want to do the phase of the faces they show. And with enough dice in your pool, you can be ensured of doing something no matter what the other players pick, since you can cover all the phases with a die or two.

There’s such a pleasure in getting a little engine up and running, as well as the serotonin or dopamine or whatever brain chemical hit of intermittent rewards (i.e. the dice coming up just right). Like Race, Roll for the Galaxy can feel like solitaire for long stretches. But also like Race, I constantly found myself evaluating likely plays by the other players, trying to figure out how to get the most of their choices and give them the least out of my choices.

The fiction behind Race for the Galaxy is also dramatically expanded, with a zillion tiles you’re drawing from a bag to build. Someday, I swear I’m gonna do up an unlicensed, unofficial space opera RPG setting using the RFTG images and fiction.

We played three games (30-45 minutes each for a 2p game) and it is delightful. Highest recommendation.

A bunch of random maudlin thoughts

Man I really thought I’d dodged this summer cold that Iris had a couple weeks back. But here it is, the day my wife got back from another week in Tokyo. The very first thing that happens any more is that I slide into a funk. Borderline depression? Dunno. I’m like for fuck’s sake not this again. I know it’s gonna just be a couple days of yuck, but still. But still.

Here’s what’s in my brain these days. Prepare to mute/uncircle/block.

Con(test) Drop: This was a good year for me Game Chef-wise, since I made it to finalist and IMO it’s a really solid piece of work. Yay me. And now that I’m out of the mix, it’s gotten me thinking about how utterly unsuited I am to this event. I mean I should never do one again. A mix of bad-competitiveness, unrealistic expectations, some stuff other participants got up to that I did not love, the abyss of terrible feedback (terrible as in, it read like everyone loved my thing without qualification, which is nice for my ego in the beginning, terrible for my ego when I lost, and as a practical matter useless to me going forward), and in retrospect kind of crappy ingredients.

I didn’t think they were crappy when I started! In fact the mix really pulled me in for whatever reason. But the deeper I got into the reviews and the contest itself, some things jumped out at me:

* “A different audience” didn’t really do much other than get people to consider their audience. Which, you know, for crying out loud you should absolutely be considering your audience. All the time, every time. 

* Good ingredients are open to many approaches and inversions. So like “abandon” is good because you can flip it over (embrace/abandon), you can use the word several ways (leave something behind, wild abandon, etc.), and so on. It has room to breathe. Excellent. Stillness also. Dream maybe less so; there were a godawful lot of games about dreams and dreamers, not so many about “thing you want to achieve in your life” type dreams. And dragonfly was universally terrible: either you end up with a shitton of games about bugs — which happened — or you play with it and get accused of “deliberately misinterpreting” an ingredient. Which I gotta say, not cool. 

Too Many Games: Since I can’t get my shit together to actually work on work, I thought I’d browse through the list of games at boardgamegeek.com and add rankings/ownership stats. God do I own a lot of games. And not-mysteriously the collection grows when my wife is out of town. New hotness is a way for me to treat myself with something nice when it’s just me and the kiddo, but it might be a borderline problem. I’m going to see what happens on her next big trip, pay attention to my urges and needs. 

Eternal Mediocrity: But going through the list — I made it to around #1500 — got me thinking about other stuff. Like, when I’m ill/borderline depressed I’m like “holy mackeral, can you imagine being the designer of #1500 here? For all time, you’re gonna be associated with this crap that didn’t score as well as Eat Poop You Cat.

But of course I have been exactly that guy. Modiphius has recently released the third edition of Mutant Chronicles RPG. I’ve been reading it and it’s really good. The designers have taken advantage of the past decade of hothouse game design thinking, much as they did with Mutant: Year Zero, and come up with something really good. On the other hand, I also get to read previews and reviews by fans who slag the shit out of second edition.

Which is rough when I’m in the wrong head because I’m the guy who wrote second edition.

I think when I’m in a better mood I can mutter something to myself about standing on the shoulders of giants or whatever, but right now, ugh. Not what I need to read.

It also makes me wonder what the point of releasing so-so designs into the wild even is: Sick Paul turns into a skeptical hardcore capitalist, seeing value only in ROI and not in adding to the creative collective, giving some people a way to have a nice time, self expression, etc. I’ll get over that when I’m not sick. Just an interesting character thing/flaw of mine.

This is the End: It’s gonna be a month between sessions of my Mutant: Year Zero game. Has the fizz escaped the bottle? I think it might have. Semi-glad because my to-play list is long. Mostly sad because FFS I can’t seem to see a game to its conclusion.

This Is The End, part 2: I watched this stupid movie on my little out of town trip last weekend. It is so terrible. Do not subject yourself to it.

So. How’s your week going?