Something Different

You may have noticed that my IGRC output has dropped pretty dramatically.

Some of that is the summer. Most of my regular gaming group has incompatible vacation schedules with families, so we’re not playing. We started a go at The Veil but the game is so vague and hard to get a handle on, I’m already thinking of moving on to something easier. Anyway. Bad scheduling, not really playing much until August.

Some, I think, is this fucking hand injury. I’m in some kind of pain 24/7 and it’s really messing with my head. I can distract myself, but mostly that distraction has come in the form of binging Titan Quest and Torchlight 2. That flavor of self-medication has gotten bad enough that it’s interfering with my normal schedule.

So! I want to try something new. I’m taking requests for Indie Game Reading Club essay subjects.

If you’re new to this collection, please, don’t participate in this unless/until you’ve caught up with what I’ve already gone over. I know that’s a big ask, but if you don’t you either won’t know what my jam is or waste your time coming up with stuff I’ve already hit.

Anyway, I appreciate your help! I’d like to get my writing habit back but there’s stuff in my way. Thank you.

TFW you suspect you’ve over-curated your social media because some kind of hell has broken loose in gamerland and I have nooooo idea what’s up.

I mean I can guess. It seems to always emerge from the same scene about the same issues.

If someone wants to PM me so I can hate-read that might be fun. For certain values of fun.

Oh shoot I think I just hacked out an ideal Coriolis game that’s actually playable:

Johnstone Metzger ‘s Iruvian alt playbooks for Blades in the Dark

And

Stras Acimovic ‘s ship/crew sheets from Scum and Villainy

And probably some equivalent to the Factions stuff in straight Blades for the Coriolis Factions and competitive gangs.

Use the crew patron and rival rules from Coriolis like normal.

And Devil’s Bargains become your relationship with the Darkness Between the Stars.

It probably shifts the game hard toward gig work, which isn’t terrible. That’s kind of baseline Blades on any case.

Mostly I had two thoughts: that crew rules and playbooks seem pretty disconnected, mechanically, at this stage in BitD hacking, and that I can’t believe more folks aren’t talking about Johnstone’s Iruvian playbooks.

Reacting vs Responding

There’s a good bit of parenting advice that lodged itself in my head once a long while ago, that when possible we should respond to our kids rather than react to them. It’s mostly aspirational; parents are human and we totally react to stuff all the time. But it’s a good reminder, at the very least, to take a breath when your visceral instincts kick in.

So of course, parenting being a human activity and pretty much all human activities can map over to roleplaying, I’ve been thinking about how reacting versus responding is one of my major philosophical issues with the (aspirational IMO) “roleplaying is a conversation” thing that indieland has embraced so uncritically.

I know that when I’m facilitating, a lot of my energies are aimed at evoking reactions. I want the players to feel the feels, to act on them, to not sit there with the situation a good long while and math out optimal solutions. I want reactions. But reactions don’t really have a place in a conversation, either with your players or with a kid.

I also know that as a facilitator I frequently myself am reacting. When something excites or angers or otherwise evokes a reaction in a player, I react to that. This is brain-deep stuff and I am in no way a brain scientist, but again this all comes back to parenting as I understand it: when your amygdala and her amygdala are firing off, ain’t nobody conversing in any meaningful way. We’re pushing each other’s buttons and our lizard brains are running the show.

Of course, if you feel like it’s important or necessary, you can simply make the bucket bigger and call literally any human interaction a “conversation.” Personally I feel like that’s a cop-out. If we ignore the fundamental differences between reactions and responses, we’re ignoring a big part of mastering this thing of ours.

Certainly there are stretches of time where play really is a series of responses. I offer up a thing, the player responds to that thing after some thought. I respond to their response. It’s cool and rational and emotionally healthy. It’s also all arms-length. Sometimes, you know, you kind of want to evoke an unhealthy response.

Bear with me a second! I absolutely do not mean we want to foster emotionally unhealthy play spaces. Good grief. Be more charitable than that. What I’m talking about is that unhealthy reactions are super-fruitful when it comes to human drama (if human drama is a facet of the kind of play you like).

Like, just look at the accompanying graphic. All that ugly shit under React is fucking awesome when it comes to drama, yeah? And then also look under Respond. I don’t know about you, but a game full of responding and no reacting feels chilly and, well, not human. Or at least not really concerned with human concerns.

Probably every play instance everywhere is going to be a mix of reactions and responses. This is just me thinking about how to be mindful of what’s actually happening. Are you reacting? Or are you responding? Should you maybe be doing more or less of one of those?

Pick Any Two

Here’s a fun look at how perfectionism has finally, after a lifetime of slow buildup, completely stalled out any designer aspirations I’ve ever harbored.

This morning I was looking over my uhhh rather lengthy list of projects I’ve fiddled with, on and off, for the past several years. Many of them are now in the low-hundreds of pages, as in maybe playable even. But I don’t want them in the world. And I couldn’t figure out why. So I talked it out with my wife, who is happily here at home (unhappily because she’s got a head cold) and is always my best, and kind of only, sounding board.

I think I’ve trapped myself by demanding too much of any given project. Basically I have three requirements, and possibly aiming for all three is either impossible or such a tiny dime-sized target that, no shit, I’ll never hit it (so why bother, wah).

Entertaining/Engaging

This one seems like it should be #1 and non-negotiable, right? Haha you’d think so! But let me proceed with the other two.

Important/Meaningful

This one seems like it shouldn’t even be on the list, right? Oh but it is. A lot of that is because of the segment of indieland I travel in. There’s a nontrivial amount of hype, discussion and celebration of the transformative opportunities of roleplaying games.

Novel/Innovative

This one is probably the product of my endless lifelong journey to learn literally everything there is to learn about this thing of ours. And right now I feel like, honestly, there’s not much left. But it’s also left me sort of struggling to just enjoy a game, because I can’t help but deconstruct it. And that means it’s also a necessary creative agenda.

So here I am, looking at my list of shit. And of course not a single damned one of them is engaging and meaningful and innovative. So my ego and my insecurities say, meh, don’t bother. Throw in the towel. Let smarter/better people aim for that tiny dime-sized target.

Having said all this out loud to an actual human being, though, I’m working on how to unravel myself from this impossible thing. Maybe…maybe I can pick any two. Every combination has some merit:

Engaging + Meaningful but not innovative? Shit man, I’d play that myself. We’re kind of between major innovations right now anyway.

Engaging + Innovative but not meaningful? A tiny bit harder for me to swallow, but also not. I’d put Circle of Hands or Imp of the Perverse in here. I’d totally be proud to have my name on either of those titles. I think I’ve let indie culture embed but is it transformative in my head too deeply.

Meaningful + Innovative but not engaging? That might be a designer ego trap. Or at least it is for me. Maybe I feel like “engaging” isn’t really that hard. But then again my efforts to create more specificity in my more-advanced designs (Monsterknights specifically) has proven far more difficult than I thought it would be.

Yeah. I think that last one trips me up a lot, for indiegame-culture reasons. I honestly don’t hear much hype or celebration on the “is this fun?” front, you know?

Enough navel gazing for now. Just some thoughts about how I’ve let a lot of outside cultural stuff invade my head space.

The Veil
First Sessions Are The Worst But Some Are Even Worse Than That

Hey all. Nice to be back in the saddle. Typing’s gonna be a little awkward with my mummified hand but let’s see if we can make it work.

We finally got to fiddle with The Veil last night. Our first half-night of setup, we picked the most emo of playbooks — The Wayfarer, The Dying, The Empath — and got, oh, maybe half the setup questions answered. Well…I think we got them all done but those questions will beget even more, you know?

The setup procedure produced a really nice setting: an undersea city, overpopulated and starting to collapse, with wandering nomadic seafaring crowds on the surface, just off the coast of a climate-changed Scandinavia. At some unspecified point in the past couple generations, a cloud of nanites “fell from the sky” onto the mainland and began changing the world. The changes were too extreme and ecological collapse was quickened, and everyone fled to the sea. The nanite angle has a very Annihilation vibe to me: the coast is just fuckin’ weird.

In the undersea city, there’s a very small population of folks called Coastals; the Wayfarer is one of them. The open secret is that they’re infected/infested with these nanites, which use the Coastals to consume human memories. Those harvested memories are somehow transmitted back to the coast, where the mainland is starting to reflect them. So the cityfolk are slowly forgetting their own lives but, maybe, their lives are reappearing in fits and starts back on the shore.

The Dying is suffering a malfunction of that nanite infestation; he doesn’t have any of the weird Wayfarer powers, he’s just … dying. The Wayfarer consumed the Dying’s memory of exactly how he came into possession of the disease. I love that so much.

The Empath is just a one-off bit of psychic weirdness. Might be tied into the general Coastal theme, might just be she’s unique. Haven’t decided and it probably doesn’t matter. She’s a consort/companion to a small handful of powerful men: the director of the city’s secret police, Aquatek executives (they’re the big biotech corp with a powerful interest in harnessing the nanites; think Protogen from The Expanse).

So yeah, the setting is terrific. Just love it. The interplay of setting worksheet and playbook questions offered some interesting choices that led us here, in a way I’m not sure we would have gotten to ourselves.

That said, we’re having trouble fighting our way through some stuff. I’ll talk about more positives at the end! Don’t run away!

The playbook questions are super interesting but boy howdy the moves are um…not well designed. They’re written in a very awkward way, confusing you/they type stuff, but also it’s hard to tell what the intentions of these moves are. In the case of the Wayfarer and the Empath, each basically has a tick-tock economy you’re supposed to engage in: the Wayfarer earns Essence by “nourishing your homeland.” In our case, that’s the memory-consuming effect. The Empath earns Flow by engaging with their Burden (a question you answer early about how the Empath relates to all that emotional energy around them).

In both cases, it’s really hard to see how the currencies can be applied. Mostly the moves are just weird, trying to model ideas that are too vague. I get that they need to be vague so the players have some freedom to fill in the blanks. But at least for us, we mostly just shrugged when we looked at the move effects.

There’s a larger idea that I’ve been sitting with for a while, in that a good move needs to provide an affordance. Like, it makes available a choice and invites the player to engage with that. Moves in The Veil, I found, are so weird and vague and, frankly, poorly written that there’s no real invitation to engage with them. I’m hoping this is mostly a matter of settling into the game’s voice a bit more.

Mostly we engaged with the basic moves, which are … okay. Surprisingly not that far afield of fundamental Apocalypse World, which honestly is a perfectly fine choice. Those affordances we’re accustomed to.

I think the big hard struggle I had with our first session came down to the fact that the starting relationship map isn’t very interesting. Like, every playbook has a series of questions that exist largely to generate Obligation (another in-game economy). And they’re nice! They led to some interesting “so just how is it that you saved X from harm?” type pre-play conversations. But they didn’t embed the players into the larger world, if that makes sense. The first session has a rule that each player is supposed to make the Link move (basically, introduce an NPC and roll to see how they feel about you), which I think is supposed to help that out. It didn’t, not really, since making the move kind of requires the players bring a whole lot more direction to their play than the first session can possibly hope to provide.

Ultimately, the game needs the MC to narrow down the overall theme of your particular game: The Question. And then, once that’s sort of settled out, most of my decisions should be directed back at that Question. That’s fine advice and it’ll probably work fine. But I’m not there yet. I’m betting just letting the first session’s stuff percolate a bit will help shake out more direction. It did make for a very not-punchy first session though. I have no idea how on earth I’d ever one-shot it, compared to Apocalypse World (you need to eat, the world is out to get you, there are no status quos, GO) or Sagas of the Icelanders (oh my god look at how fucked up your family is, GO) or even good old Dungeon World (spout some lore, oh hey it’s a dungeon, GO).

Overall, I felt my game-analysis brain bump into the edges of lots of design choices that seem incoherent. Advancement is built on missed rolls (via Dungeon World), which is marvelous when what you want is players reaching for the dice a whole lot, but felt off-tone in the far more speculative/meditative vibe The Veil was feeding me. I mean it works and it’s easy, but I’m not sure it’s serving the right master if that makes sense. The game also has the players write Beliefs, Burning Wheel style, buuut that feels like an uneducated design choice: not only are Beliefs fucking hard to write well and play against/toward, the way they’re implemented in The Veil is just straight XP. They’re missing the larger context of how they work in BW, how bringing Beliefs into conflict with one another is a primary source of tension in the game. We found writing our first Beliefs to be a drag, and evaluating them post-session for XPs was hard as well.

Obligation is another one where it didn’t feel like the underlying idea was necessary or even coherent with the game. Like, back when it was Giri, it lent a kind of Japanese formality to stuff. And I get why they changed it, although the result feels now like it’s trying to evoke Urban Shadows’ Debt economy. But it’s toothless, mechanically. Mostly I have never gotten a sense from cyberpunk media that honor-type stuff is even a genre trope once you get away from Japanese sources. (I have some quibbles with Debt in US as well, but at least in that game there’s an underlying theme of one’s debts embedding you in a community).

We won’t get to play again until late July, and I’m gonna have to love-letter everyone back into this game’s head space. I’m actually kind of looking forward to that, because I think I can preload some momentum that way that we weren’t able to generate on our own.

Some more positive notes:

* The game doesn’t have stats, really. Instead, you evaluate your character’s emotional state and roll that value. I was super scared of this being “gamed” but my players were awesome about engaging with that in an principled way. It’s even totally okay to play it prescriptively: my best stat is Sad sooooo…. sure, yeah, here’s how she’s sad while she Probes you. Totally fine, very pleased, everyone loved the Feels Wheel printout.

* The setting setup stuff really is nice. I love that the setting/situation aggressively accretes around the specific playbooks because of the per-playbook questions. That felt much more on-point than, you know, the generic postapocalyptic tropes you can fall back on in Apocalypse World (well, until the Maelstrom stuff starts showing up).

* The general conceit of The Veil itself — the vast, rudderless augmented reality everyone lives in — makes very a very surreal experience. I super-enjoyed having the Psychic Maelstrom Veil start asking questions of the players. Some pointed, some harmless, always interesting. I think the players felt a little…interrogated, which is a good feeling for them I think. 🙂

* I am ultra pumped about the situation. My suspicion is that the game is really intentionally more plot-driven than character-driven, which I feel like PbtA isn’t awesome at for various reasons. But I’m sure curious to see it play out.