Friday, April 21, 2017

So This Art Collector Comes Over... Casa D&D With Porn Stars. He owns some of my stuff, he's been following my work for years.

He says he's bringing his kid, who's 10.

I'm like Do you want me to hide the pictures of naked women?

Nah, he says, He'll be fine.

During lunch at the restaurant that inspired Disneyland, I see why. This child has never seen anything but his phone.

Look: three floors! A giant artificial tree! Phone. A grand arte nouveau ballroom! Phone. A taxidermied bison! Phone. A Peacock! Phone.

He did look up for his chicken strips. Then he looked for an outlet.

I get it--I was a kid. There are games on that phone, and they looked fun.

So then we go back to the studio (this is what you get to call your apartment if you're an artist) and we're looking at paintings and talking and the kid is on his phone and the art collector's like "What are those books over there?"

Oh that's Maze of the Blue Medusa...

Art collector's like Whoa.

I explain how I made the original painting and then gave it to Patrick to decide what the little things in the rooms were and then we went back and rewrote it all to make it a playable dungeon and how it was on Vice's top books of the year and...

...and it becomes clear,  this art collector has rolled.

He's like to his son Hey, look at what this is...

And the kid is like, But Dad my phone.

And the collector's like But Son look D&D!

And they start asking D&D questions: Do I play every week? Who plays? What are the rules like? Do you have to be good at math?

And then I'm like...Hey, do you guys want to just play D&D right now?

So I ran a game of D&D for an art collector and his kid.

Collector got a pre-gen gladiator he named Cavity, the kid rolled up a fighter named YayDaddy! and was pretty excited to hear he could buy a wardog.

Kid completely forgot about his phone--he did ask if he could stick his finger into the dog's sphincter ("sphinx") so he could make him poo and throw it at the goblins, though. Real strategic thinker.

They almost died but had to go to a basketball game. Kid was like "So, do we get treasure?" and dad was like "Ok, so if you were us what would you have done different? Should we have un away from the goblins?"

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Oh The Early Days...

Broadly, two popular views attach to "The Early Days" of collective movements--games, musical fashions, art movements, stock-car racing, whatever: technological and cultural.

The popular technological point of view is nearly unanimous about The Early Days: they were a huge pain in the ass.

To get to the recording studio we used to have to walk three miles uphill in the snow both ways, we used to have to use saves vs death ray in order to decide if you touched the flytrap part of the plant, we tried to paint Jesus but didn't know perspective, before we played we used to have to wait for the internet to dial-up.

So much we know now was not known, so much was utterly avoidably inconvenient and often pointlessly unsafe. We are nearly always better off now.

The popular cultural view of movements is usually the opposite (sometimes, yes, because people who were there romanticize them and people who wish they could live to see new things be born--which is everyone--believe them). The popular idea is that movements explode creatively and then calcify over time.

While, yes, the Early Days were by definition embedded both in the past and actual human history and so therefore were more racist and sexist and homophobic than now, they were--leaving aside the things they shared with the entire rest of human activity in their era--a time which pointed to more freedom rather than less. Things In Those Early Days are regarded as wide-open, inspiring, full of potential and possibility.

Those Early Days at CBGBs when punk rock could be Tommy Ramone playing 16th notes on the drums as fast as was then thought possible or David Byrne just showing up and being weird in 4-4 time or Debbie Harry doing disco all wrong, Jackson Pollock spattering paint when it was new and dangerous and got him accused of being a communist, Buster Keaton making comedy when it could be all about his sad eyes.

The idea isn't that the content was necessarily better (Who would want punk rock without Leftover Crack? Nobody smart.) but that the vibe was, at least for those allowed in: cooperative yet also in exciting opposition to the old and oppressive, disruptive but creative, individualized but still collective, diverse and inspiring.
Looking back, there were several obvious technological problems with early games: having to look up to-hit bonuses on a chart was stupid and could be done with plusses, the saving throw business made no sense, etc. These made the games harder to play to no purpose.

People attracted to Old School Renaissance games and DIY D&D tend to see these technological problems as fairly minor, easy to fix or ignore, and are more interested in the creative atmosphere of the Early Days--or rather what we hope it was like. What we want is not to be like Arneson but to be in Arneson's position: inventing.

People who broad-brush hate OSR tend to congregate on forums and in cliques dedicated to obsessing over specific technological solutions. If you don't trust your group to build a story where your flights of fancy are important you can hang out on RPGnet or Story-Games with people who will recommend Dungeon World, if you don't trust your group to be tactically detailed and realistic enough you can hang out on the Gaming Den where they recommend Pathfinder or 3.5, if you don't trust your group to do anything right you can hang out on Something Awful where they recommend 4e, if you don't trust anyone but Gary Gygax there are pre-OSR forums dedicated to True Oldness for that, too.

These technological solutions work for these people. The mistake haters make is they think the part of the Early Days the OSR is  most excited about is the technological side, that we talk about Old School because we're excited about waiting for the dial-up to work. (There are also, of course, those who claim an attachment to old games comes from people yearning for the social order of the 1970s, which is a bit like saying if you like Mughal miniature painting it's because you yearn for an Islamic monarchy--but the people who say that are psychopaths and unreachable.) No. We get it: Death Ray saves are a pain in the ass, ascending AC is easier for most people than descending AC.

The old Caves of Chaos is a shit module, but the enthusiasm about "Hmmm...people want a module--an adventure in a book?-- That's a new thing--what new thing might you be able to put in it? What might they want in there? What could we do?" drips off the page--and that mindset fuels newer takes like the better presentation in Stonehell and the broader canvas in Veins of the Earth and the genuinely useful beginner advice in Broodmother Sky Fortress.

The old RPG folks could've sat and technologically refined post-napoleonic wargames forever until they had the Perfect Military Simulation One and the Playable In An Evening One and the Good For Children Ages 10-14 One and instead they invented a whole new thing and a zoo of things to support the whole new thing, in the process creating-, but also discovering-, all new problems to solve. They solved them wrong sometimes but that's not important because we're here now.

The actual Renaissance outdid the Greeks and Romans by taking the old Greek and Romans' ambitions to describe the world seriously while not accepting their description. Does the sun go around the Earth or the other way around? What happens if we mix this with that? How do you make a drawn face look like a face?

What's exciting about the old games isn't the answers they came up with, it's the questions they were asking.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Acupressure Mountains of Yoon-Suin

Found an old acupressure diagram while cleaning up Fort D&D With Porn Stars--the names sound exactly like things on a hex map. If you can't do anything with "Crooked Marsh", "Sea of Blood" or "Ear Gate", I can't help you.

There's 80 of them on the diagram I found, I added 20 from a list of acupuncture points to make an even hundred so you can roll some random places.

1, Letting Go
2, Great Abyss
3, Fish Border 

4, Crooked Point
5, Outer Arm Bone
6, Welcoming Perfume
7, Four Whites
8, Facial Beauty
9, Jaw Chariot
10, Breast Window
11, Breast Root
12, Calf's Nose
13, Three Mile Point
14, Severe Mouth
15, Three Yin Crossing
16, Shady Side of the Mountain
17, Sea of Blood
18, Rushing Door
19, Abdominal sorrow
20, Spirit Gate
21, Heavenly Appearance
22, Listening Place
23, Eyes Bright
24, Drilling Bamboo
25, Penetrate Heaven
26, Heavenly Pillar
27, Lung Associated
28, Sea of Vitality
29, Sacral Points
30, Vital Diaphragm
31, Womb and Vitals
32, Joining the Valley
33, Commanding Activity
34, Commanding Middle
35, Supporting Mountain
36, High Mountains
37, Calm Sleep
38, Reaching Inside
39, Veering Passage
40, Bubbling Spring
41, Bigger Stream
42, Blazing Valley
43, Illuminated Sea
44, Nourishing valley
45, Elegant Mansion
46, Crooked Marsh
47, Intermediary
48, Inner Gate
49, Big Mound
50, Active Pond
51, Outer Gate
52, Shoulder Meeting Point
53, Heavenly Rejuvenation
54, Wind Screen 

55, Ear Gate
56, Gates of Consciousness
57, Shoulder Well
58, Middle of a  Person
59, Jumping Circle
60, Sunny Side of the Mountain
61, Wilderness Mount
62, Above tears 

63, Bigger Rushing
64, Crooked Spring
65, Gate Origin
66, Sea of Energy
67, Center of Power
68, Heaven Rushing Out
69, Sea of Tranquility
70, Wind Mansion
71, Posterior Summit
72, One Hundred Meeting Point
73, Anterior Summit
74, Third Eye Point
75, Ding Chuan
76, Grandfather Grandson
77, Heavenly Pond
78, Window of Heaven
79, Reunion of Hearing
80, Travel Between
81, Saliva Container
82, Lateral Spring
83, Jade Rotator
84, Violet Palace
85, Crooked Bone
86, Mutism Gate
87, Gate of the Ordering
88, Gnawed Channel
89, Mound of Ruins
90, Suspended Bell
91, Five Pivots
92, Brain Hollow
93, Window of the Eye
94, Head Governor of Tears
95, Crook of the Temple
96, Suspended Skull
97, Pupil Crevice
98, Dispersing Luo River
99, Palace of Toil
100, Abode of Consciousness of Potentials

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Our Barbarian is Pet of the Month

Charlotte Stokely was a wizard...

...but then The Black Metal Amazons of the Devoured Land cut her arms off.

Then she was a Sea Elf wizard...

...and Chameleon Women mutilated her with their machetes...

Then she was a Sea Elf druid...

...and a blob dissolved her and she rolled up a barbarian... she's Penthouse Pet of the Month for May 2017... good luck with that, Stokes.
This is actually true.

Click to enlarge and see how Penthouse thinks Stokes is "The Total Package" because she's funny, likes football, got a full scholarship to Florida U and "participates in a weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaign".

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Fudging Talk

This is basically how I'd write it in any core RPG book:

Have you been fudging?

I don't know whether you've been fudging AND you don't have to tell me. If you really don't know what it is, I'll tell you: it's when a die result tells you to do one thing in the game and instead you do a different thing.

Now it's traditional at this point to tell you either one of two things:

-Don't ever fudge in this house! We have provided you all the tools to have fun and you don't need to go having extracurricular deviant fun by messing with the rules we gave you. Follow the rules and you will receive the exact amount of fun that is your due and such due which is appropriate to your players.

-Hey, you fudged? That's, like, cool, little pal. If the story is going to come out better if you fudge, go ahead and do it. Fudge all over the table.

Like most traditional RPG advice, these are both terrible--ok, well not terrible but poorly thought out.

The first piece of advice is just straight-up inaccurate: there is literally no game in the history of RPGs which has not been profitably fudged by some group somewhere.

The second piece of advice is just lazy, and leaves the GM with questions: If the rules don't always apply, why are we following them ever? What's the point? Is there a downside?

Well, yes, there is a downside: if you fudge enough then they will realize that certain outcomes--like dying in an early scene if they're not cautious, or escaping enemies even though the plot seems to want you to be captured for a scene or two--are off the table. This means they don't have to try as hard or think as hard as they would if the odds of things happening were what they were used to from using the rules all day. It's like telling the players that they only have to try to make the best choices sometimes. And that makes for a less nerve-wracking--and therefore less exciting--game. There are people who like a game that doesn't make them worry all the time--nothing I have written is for them.

Well what's the good advice then?

First, some clarifications:

No RPG Book is Gospel

This ruleset is very likely not ideally suited to your group's ambitions, just as the items of my game group's wardrobe is very likely not suited to your group's various frames. These rules are a starting point for people who believe their ambitions for a game might be similar to ours--and any RPG author who claims different is stupid or lying to make money off you. Despise them.

This book isn't infallible, it's just the closest I could get to infallible for the version of the game I want to play. That means I might've made a mistake but--even more likely--I probably made a rule that works for the game I want to play but not quite for the game you want to play.

This is to be expected, as humans are different. If you're constantly finding RPG rulesets perfect for your ambitions you're probably a really boring person.

So point is: some rules might not work the way you need them to.

Fudging Isn't The Same As Making A New Rule

Fudging is different than making a new rule (or "Making a Ruling" as we sometimes say).

Making a ruling is: you see a rule is not working for how you want to run the game. You decide to change it, you tell everyone at the table you're changing it (if they are the kind of players who care). You make sure they're all ok with that (if not, don't change it. You need consensus.). You then make a new rule which is better for your group than the one I wrote and use that rule forever after or at least until it fails and you go through the process all over again.

Fudging is just ignoring a rule's demands on the spot, but re-using it after that.

Fudging Isn't the Same As Ignoring A Convenient Randomizer's Result

If there's a table for an NPC's name, and you roll on it and don't like the name you got and pick another--that's not fudging. The NPC name table isn't really a "rule" --it's a tool you use to help think up ideas. The players are not relying on that table to make their own decisions, they may not even know that table exists.

Fudging happens when the rules which determine the way the gameworld actually works are suspended after making a contribution.

(A lot of people ask about random encounters. The question is: is the random encounter table you're rolling on merely the most convenient one to hand--there to provide ideas--or was it specially designed to describe the actual ecology of the area? If, in the Abyss, it's established you have a 1% chance of encountering Demogorgon and the players are in the Abyss, then when you roll that result, Demogorgon better show up. Otherwise you're fudging. If you just used the Abyss table because the players wandered into a summoning circle and you didn't have that area prepared and needed an idea, that's not fudging that's deciding the randomizer you used gave you a result that doesn't interest you.)

So What's The Good Advice?

Treat fudging like declaring bankruptcy: try hard not to, but if you really feel have to, learn something so you don't have to do it ever again.

Fudging means that either:

A-You invoked a rule when it wasn't appropriate and realized too late
B-I wrote the rule wrong for that situation
C-You wrote the rule wrong for that situation

If, for example, you have someone roll on their maxxed-out Local Knowledge and it turns out they don't know what street they live on, that probably means A. You made a mistake--feel bad about yourself, fudge, move on, try to have more discretion in the future about when a task is hard enough to require a roll.

If you have an 8 year old PC from Siberia with 2 Knowledge and they roll high enough to instantly know how to field-strip a WW2 Mendoza 7 rifle and nobody at the table can think of a reason why that makes sense on the spot without feeling the whole game is implausible and so taking it less seriously then maybe my Firearms rule is not detailed enough for the game you want to play and you should change it for next time. (Personally I'd be like "Ok, Olav's grandfather owned a gun-shop and made him strip antique rifles on the cinder-block furniture in the basement and hit him on the head with a ruler if he did it wrong. Cool." but maybe your childhood was less depressing than mine.)

Either way: fudging should be as rare as you can possibly make it, but if it happens, treat it as an opportunity to fine-tune either the way you roll or the tools you use to roll with.
And now, a word from our sponsor (which will include a version of this in the GM section):
Punch, or at least irritate, Nazis.The Patreon for my game Demon City is here.

Sunday, April 9, 2017


More weekend retroposting.

This is an earrrrly actual play from this blog: 

Mandy's sister wanted to learn to play, and she wanted to be a witch. I said alright, roll some dice.

Like most 1st level AD&D wizards, my girlfirend's sister's first character had way more gold pieces than she could spend.

You can't buy armor, you can't buy weapons, so...?

When I last faced a similar problem, I noticed that the cp-sp-gp-whatever conversion rates made it possible to buy a phenomenal amount of beer for, like, 10 gp. So I did. My character was so drunk I didn't name him--I figured he couldn't remember. We called him "The Wizard."

Sis, on the other hand, her eye gravitated toward the "livestock" section.

"I want six pigs--three full size and three piglets."

Hey, it's on the equipment list.

She commenced to name them. She also figured out how to talk to pigs somewhere along the line-I think I was using Fairy Tale Rules for magic-user languages. Wizards willing to forgo Orc or Dragon can talk Pig--why not? There's gotta be some compensation for having the balls to walk around with one hit point.


So it was one of those "You wake up and you don't know how you got here and you don't know where your stuff is" adventures. (Because I am of the Walter Hill* school of DMing.)

"Are my pigs here?"

"Not in this room."

My girlfriend and her sister are funny. Promise them gp, xp, magic items, present moral dilemmas and opportunites for character growth, this does not motivate them particularly--take away 75 gp worth of stuff they bought during character generation, however, and in every room it's like "Is my stuff here? Did that goblin have my stuff? I cut open the dragon's stomach with my bastard sword--is my stuff in there?".

Too many video games I think. Because, like, in video games, if you lose your stuff, this is the apocalypse.

So anyway, in this dungeon, if you got past the baby black dragon hiding in the halfling vampire queen's coffin, the treasure includes "any equipment lost by first person who asks if their stuff is there."

So Sis asks: "Is my stuff here?"

"Why yes it is."

"And all my pigs?"

"Well, one of them,"

"Which one?"

"I don't know, which one do you want it to be?" (Dig the thorough and meaningful integration of Cooperative Narrativist elements.)

"Charles." (or something)

"Ok, there's Charles, he is very pleased to see you. He bats his big piggy eyelashes. Squeee! Squeeeee!"


So there were some adventures, and then the party came to a dark stairwell. Who knows what lurks down there?

"Send the pig down," suggests one fo the boys.

"Ok, I send the pig down."

Now--the stairwell is full of undead birds.

Vultures with skull heads. They were inspired by things called "carrion" in Warhammer Fantasy, and there was a really nice one on the back cover of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #17 by Bryan Talbot. Too tired to google it.

So the predictable thing happened. I narrate thusly:

" Charles is borne pitilessly aloft by the unliving raptor he cries 'Oh, why have you betrayed me? I trusted youuuuu....'"

"Awww..." Horrible look on sis's face.

The party moves on, talks to a sphinx, finds out about stuff, etc. etc.


Play ends.

So then I try to sleep.

I have trouble sleeping.

I keep picturing that pig in those bony claws "Why have you betrayed meeeeee.....?"


Next game starts.

I say Hey everybody, Settle down kids, and I recap last game then I go:

"...aaaand, ok, everybody if you were here last time you get 308 x/.p., check to see if that levels you up and, also, I made a mistake last time, Sis's pig's last words were not actually 'Oh, why have you betrayed me? I trusted youuuuu....' they were actually "It's ok! I regret nothing! I had a lot of fun I wouldn't have otherwise had if I hadn't gone with you on your adventure! I've had a full life, thank you, goodbye!"

*Walter Hill:
"I very purposely--more and more so every time I do a script--give characters no back story. The way you find about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue." --Walter Hill, quoted in David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (New York: Alred A Knopf, 1994)

Saturday, April 8, 2017


After my last D&D game I vomited explosively for several hours. The snacks were poorly managed.

So, on this Retropost Saturday, I give you an old but necessary overview:

Let us not ignore the white elephant at the gaming table: snacks.

All Games Considered knows it.

The default is: many snacks. Excessive snacks. More snacks than can reasonably be eaten.

It's game day, your free time will be taken up by the game, no reason not to just spend the pregame hours at the 7-11.

Fresh mozzarella cheese. Mozzarella cheese is good and goes well with anything, but: you have to slice it and it's moist to the touch. If you're handling paper it gets the paper wet. Plus there never seems to be enough. The amount that would be enough to last the whole game is also too much cheese to eat all at once. Plus you'll want tomatoes--which have all the same problems all over again.

Although perhaps less "mature", a simple cheddar is versatile--and can be sliced thinner without losing coherency.

Salami is a delicious snack, but has the oiliness of mozzarella, and thus many of the same drawbacks. Ham will be eaten if it is there, but is preferred by few. Better to avoid snacking than to snack by necessity on undesirable meat. Sliced coins of deli sausage would appear to be optimal, if money is not a consideration.

Popcorn is excellent, but may encourage simulationism.

Chips: chips are fine and good. The only problem with chips is they cannot be combined into a multi-classed snack. They crumble and fail when stacked into a small sandwich with other foodstuffs. Better a cracker.

A cracker? What kind? The triscuit is undervalued, I find. As is the wheat thin. Less exciting than the Ruffle or tortilla chip--to be sure--yet infinitely more versatile.

The Ritz? Perhaps. A compromise between the baked saltiness of a chip and the stoic healthiness of the wheat thin. The Ritz is the half-elf of grain-based snacks.

The Cheeto is to be avoided at all costs: it is hollow, less tasty than true cheese, and stains exposed surfaces with despicable orange dust.

The Frito is by far a nobler snack, and surprisingly filling.

Gummi Bears are toothsome, do not crumble or quickly melt, and, when properly bitten across the lower extremities to create a smooth surface, can be placed on the tabletop and used as goblins or henchmen. And the related Gummi Worm is truly an imposing beast at 28 mm scale.

Some pine for immersive foods: trail mix, suckling pig on a spit, ratmeat and orcflesh. These people are hippies.

The cheap wafer is an intriguing snack--in strawberry or vanilla flavors. I would not disdain it.

A baguette--a fine long loaf of crusty bread. This is a superior snack! And the French, wisely, eat them with chocolate.

Chocolate should be present in some form, or female players may turn sour and cruel. M&M's, though initially tempting, are difficult to combine, and frequently scatter to the floor, like small dice.

Chips Ahoy or Oreos are good, but the urge to dunk them may be overwhelming, and this leads to twin evils: wet spots on the maps and open-topped glasses of drinks rather than bottles. Should you enlist them, guard your table well.

If, like, mine, your gaming table includes those professionally obliged to remain fit and healthy, you may provide Healthy Snacks. Of Healthy Snacks I know little, and will say less--only this: I have yet to find a healthy snack that is not either too tasteless or too small to distract the players from hunger.

On the other end, the temptations of both the donut and the pastry are well known, and deceptive. A man may eat a single donut, or a man may eat ninety donuts, but either way the donuts will not last throughout the session. Place not your faith in them. Also: donuts cause discord--for who gets the jelly? And who the creme?

Of utmost importance is the heartiness of the snack. If the snack be too hearty, then players may tire of it, and want to stop for a genuine meal. If the snack be not filling enough, players may get hungry, and want to stop for a genuine meal.

The integration of a true meal is the mark of an experienced DM. However, timing is key: a meal at the beginning and the players will be hungry by the end, a meal at the end and players will decide to end the game when they get hungry.

By far the best arrangement is a planned delivery of lunch or dinner in the middle of the session. A mysterious door, the precipice of a terrifying encounter, and then--Thai? Chinese? Pizza? A brief take-out menu interlude, and then back into the fray.

Pizza is traditional, and not unwise. Beware the complexities of half-pies, particularly when ordering by phone, however, and of the lactose intolerant.

The various deliverable foods of the Far East are likewise desirable--but soups at the gaming table are treacherous, and cold noodles are to be despised. Therefore, those who would eat noodles while gaming would do well to eat them fast. Also, gamers are a superstitious, cowardly lot--they may be unduly influenced by fortune cookies.

Deli sandwiches are simple, inexpensive, unsloppy, and can be eaten cold.

Of the dangers of mexican food, enough has been written.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mmmmm...Rich Creamy Vanilla

God damn there's a lot of talky NPCs and things to keep straight in the Maze of the Blue Medusa.

My players are in the Reptile Archive, but they still don't have their Chameleon Woman paladin with them who actually cares about the Reptile Archive.

In addition to cleverly outside-the-boxing past the undead bees and the Scorodron, they re-visited the Laughing Lich and The Guys That Think The Dungeon Is Their Hell, they ran into The Guy That Talks Constantly To The Glass History Golem, The Guy That Plays the Weird Organ of Forgotten Sounds (Acontias Skink--renamed "cunt skank" by the girls after he turned out to be way too self-absorbed), The Guy That Transcribes The Things That He Hears From The Engine That Collects Forgotten Sounds, The Guy Who Wants To Overthrow the Dungeon's "Power Structure", and found The Teapots That Have The DNA of Every Adventurer Who Died Looking For Them, they also heard The Faint Tinkling Noise, The Murmuring Noise and the Strangely Haunting Plangent Music of Acontias Skink but I forgot to include the Moaning Golem Faces On The Bridge...

They also got the ranger's animal companion ape addicted to a Crack Beast and had to save it but mostly they talked a lot--and they were good at it, too. But the best part of the adventure was when they finally got in a real fight:

They walk out onto the narrow bridge, I rolled some Chameleon Women on the random encounters. Everybody failed their perception check.

The first one throws a net over the barbarian, the second casts a version of Web which makes the net extend over the barbarian and ranger, blocking the bridge.

Now Stokely is playing her barbarian for the first time, after having lost two characters in this dungeon already.

"How do we get out of this Web?"

"Well it's a strength check."

"Oh god"

"If only you had some way to make sure you succeeded on a strength check..."

"Oh yeah Rage"

Stokely's barbarian rages for the first time, picks up the nearest chameleon woman, natural 20s to throw her over the edge of the bridge. Then the ranger knocks and arrow, aces Intimidate and scares off the rest.

Then on the way back though the bridge room later, I roll another wandering monster check and get the result that tells you you're getting hungry.

So because everybody's been through the Gallery where time speeds up and food spoils, nobody's got anything. They gotta crawl down there to the bottom of the pit, butcher the chameleon woman and eat her. Then a random NPC party rolled up and they had to share.

D&D is such a good game you guys.

I also got to test out these things that All Rolled Up made (use the links, their website makes the Maze look straightforward):


Monday, March 27, 2017

Jesse, Lester, Wendy

I tested the Demon City character gen rules (mostly the 5 skills plus miscellaneous bonuses system) by trying to see if they reliably produced the kinds of fictional characters I could see running around Demon City.

Here are a few tests I ran:

This is Jesse as he appeared at the beginning of the Breaking Bad...

Jesse Pinkman
Drug dealer
Role: Investigator (There's no horror investigation in BB but Jesse is motivated by money, so ok)

Investigator gains one extra Skill, free.
-The investigator gains one extra contact, free.
-The Investigator gains one extra Skill or contact, free.
-The Investigator's maximum Cash is 3.

Calm: 2 (Average. Jesse flies off the handle but he never really cracks up until he gets heavily addicted later)
Agility: 3 (He manages to climb that fence and steal his rv alright)
Toughness: 2
Perception: 2
Appeal: 4 (Kristin Ritter, dude)
Cash: 3
Knowledge: 2

Burglary/Theft: 4
Driving: 4
Stealth: 4
Streetwise: 4 (Instead of occupational, as a drug dealer Jesse's taken 2 pts in Streetwise)
Local Knowledge: 3
Science: 3
Science (Pharmacy): 4 (Jesse's probably not Chemistry 4 but he probably knows a lot more about drug effects than Walt)

So that's five skills plus one occupational--which has been replaced by an extra plus one on Streetwise and one extra for being an investigator--plus Science (Pharmacy) comes free with Science. Perfect!
I didn't give him Deception or Persuasion because although he does both, he has a decent Appeal so it might be down to that.



Skinny Pete
That girl he hides in the hotel with
That leaves him with 1 floating contact, who is probably one of the people who came to that endless party he threw.

Hey it worked. Solid.


Here's Lester from The Wire...

Lester Freamon

Calm: 5 
Agility: 1 (He's old)
Toughness: 1 (Ditto)
Perception: 5 (Maybe 5--I mean, he's not Sherlock Holmes but he almost never misses anything)
Appeal: 3 (I mean Chardine liked him)
Cash: 2
Knowledge: 4 

Burglary/Theft: 2
Firearms: 2
Stealth: 2 (he does stakeouts) 
Hand to Hand: 2 (he was in the army, he smacks Bird with a bottle)
Occupational (cop): 6
Streetwise: 6
Deception: 4
Local knowledge: 5
Research: 6

So that's 9 skills. 5 skills, +1 occupational, +2 extra for being an Investigator. Leaving us one short. We could argue that "Occupational (Cop)" is covered by Research+Local Knowledge+Streetwise+Burglary/Theft. Also I seem to recall that Lester didn't know that much about, like, surveillance exhaustion arguments etc until the lawyer explained it to them a few times. 

Plus we could bump up his Deception by one if he takes the "add an extra point to a skill" option instead of the extra skill.

So...pretty close.

Wendy Torrance

-Victims max starting Calm is 4
-Victims’ earnestness is manifest—they automatically gain the Persuasion skill equal to their Appeal plus one.
(And they get other stuff not relevant here.)


Calm: 1 (she's a wreck from day one but doesn't crack up)
Agility: 1
Toughness: 1
Perception: 3
Appeal: 3, maybe 4
Cash: 1
Knowledge: 2


Occupational (housewife/mom): 5 (I'm gonna say she put 2 pts here because by any measure Wendy is a pretty awesome mom)
Persuasion: 4 (automatic for victims)
Humanities: 3
Humanities (horror fiction): 4 (confirmed horror film and ghost story addict

Ok, now I could max out Wendy's housewife, or mayyybe add like Driving, but those feel like cheats--she's 3 skills short. She learns how to work a radio and other maintenance stuff pretty well but those kind of happen after the movie start--arguably though they happen during the set-up, so they're "gained" in the exposition. Still "running a frozen hotel" is really only one Occupational skill.

Basically either the system is overestimating Wendy or The Shining movie didn't show us enough of her outside being a victim. Maybe she's got more going on in the book?

Also, y'know, The Shining is 2 hours long and The Wire and Breaking Bad are series.

What's your take?
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Saturday, March 25, 2017

This Robot Makes Accountants

So the indefatigable Ramanan Sivaranjan made an automated character builder for Demon City.

It's fun to make characters and try to figure out who they are, some people on G+ made some...

Accounting Specialist

Calm: 3 Contacts: 5
Agility: 2
Toughness: 3
Perception: 1
Appeal: 1
Cash: 5
Knowledge: 5

Athletics: 4 
Outdoor Survival/Tracking: 2 
Firearms: 3 
Other Languages: 6 
Hacking: 6 

No big surprise how the accountant with hacking 6 ended up with maximum cash...

Furniture Finisher

Calm: 3 Contacts: 5
Agility: 4
Toughness: 4
Perception: 4
Appeal: 4
Cash: 5
Knowledge: 4

Firearms: 5
Stealth: 5
Electronics: 5
Fancy Driving: 5
Mechanics: 5 

Also rich--this dude is like some seventies TV detective and you see him like wrestle a shark and beat a Grandmaster at chess and uncover a conspiracy and then at the end of the day cops are like who did you say you were? and he's like oh I finish furniture.

Alright I gotta go figure out our D&D game tomorrow. Have fun be safe or don't be safe whatever, now a word from our sponsor...
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Friday, March 24, 2017

Distracted From Distraction By Distraction

...that's a line from TS Eliot. He was a well-educated creative genius and a grotesque anti-Semite, back in the days when that combination was still possible. It no longer is--so we'll have to listen to someone else if we want any insight into the job creative people have in times like these. Here's Toni Morrison, talking at Portland State University. She has just finished reading off some racist quotes from eminent Americans:
Nobody really thought that Black people were inferior. Not Benjamin Franklin, not Mr. Byrd, and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that Black people would hear coon songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign, or become one. They never thought Black people were lazy—ever. Not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions. 
And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people whom you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason that you work or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switchblades. They were only and simply and now interested in acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor. Everybody knows that if the price is high enough, the racist will give you anything you want.  
It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. 
None of that is necessary. 
There will always be one more thing. The strategy is no different than bombing Cambodia to keep the Northern Vietnamese from making their big push. And since not history, not anthropology, not social sciences seem capable in a strong and consistent way to grapple with that problem, it may very well be left to the artists to do it.
For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say, not to be confused, [sigh] not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power. [Audience member murmurs in agreement]
I think of this a lot: "...the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work." I am going to go ahead and make the leap that this applies to a wide variety of prejudices.

The Braindead Megaphone

Another novelist, George Saunders, describes a similar situation in his essay The Braindead Megaphone:
Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and — surprise, pleasant surprise — being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way. 
Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. 
But he’s got that megaphone. 
Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing — but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. 
....In time, Megaphone Guy will ruin the party. The guests will stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy. They’ll stop doing what guests are supposed to do: keep the conversation going per their own interests and concerns.
Both the villain and the victims are more broadly defined but again the point of the weapon is the same--distraction: "The guests will stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy." The Megaphone--like Morrison's racist--keeps you responding to the distractor's concerns, rather than building things that respond to your own.

Extremely Important and Massively Uncomplicated

When considering the social issues outside our gameworlds in 2017 we see a series of problems that frustratingly combine the following two qualities: they are extremely important and massively uncomplicated. Should black people be shot by police? No. Should trans people be able to go to the bathroom? Yes. Are illegal immigrants a major threat to our country? No. Should gay people be allowed to marry? Yes.

The only reason the country's discussing these things is the Megaphone. There are adults who think that, like, Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization but they're not intelligent or reachable via games or anything else predictable. These are open-and-shut-cases.

Important but not complicated. Artists and critics--especially in the sphere of games--are not used to thinking with this category. We are used to thinking that the artist who tackles the Real World Issue is doing something deep and difficult. But in reality, the designer or GM who goes "Ok, stop trying to figure out how to beat Tomb of Horrors and consider this: what if orcs are just like you and me and like colonialism is bad?" is lowering the tone of the conversation. They are asking us to stop a complex problem-solving exercise that might actually be helping us sprout neurons we could use later for some practical purpose and instead think about something intelligent people in 2017 cannot possibly disagree on: colonial genocide is bad and orcs are fictional things with no moral reality and if you're a grown ass human who acts racist because they played a game (or drank a beer or lost a bet) the problem isn't games it's you being so impressionable.

What makes social problems thorny for the kind of people that are actually going to read your blog or play your game isn't that they don't know racism or sexism or any other -ism is bad--it's that, as Morrison says above, greed and the struggle for power make people compromise their principles--or refuse to formulate them well enough to know they're violating them. I know several indie gamers who have admitted privately that they are scared to speak out against the abusers in their community for purely financial reasons--or because they know the price of speaking out is the abusers will turn on them. It's the worst version of professionalism.

Saunders continues:
We’ve said Megaphone Guy isn’t the smartest, or most articulate, or most experienced person at the party — but what if the situation is even worse than this? 
Let’s say he hasn’t carefully considered the things he’s saying. He’s basically just blurting things out. And even with the megaphone, he has to shout a little to be heard, which limits the complexity of what he can say. Because he feels he has to be entertaining, he jumps from topic to topic, favoring the conceptual-general (“We’re eating more cheese cubes — and loving it!”), the anxiety-or controversy-provoking (“Wine running out due to shadowy conspiracy?”), the gossipy (“Quickie rumored in south bathroom!”), and the trivial (“Which quadrant of the party room do YOU prefer?”). 
We consider speech to be the result of thought (we have a thought, then select a sentence with which to express it), but thought also results from speech (as we grope, in words, toward meaning, we discover what we think). This yammering guy has, by forcibly putting his restricted language into the heads of the guests, affected the quality and coloration of the thoughts going on in there. 
He has, in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party
We've seen this everyone-must-talk-about-something-stupid dynamic several times coming from inside games: GNS, chainmail bikini prudery, edition-warring, etc. but now there's a new dynamic at work--the mainstream press is noticing D&D.

And--as any freelancer is going to tell you--the articles about RPGs are not going to be well-paid or with long enough deadlines to produce new research. And they are going to be occupied with that thin slice of the Venn diagram where the game-relevant overlaps with general public interest--and the writers will be under tremendous pressure to be...entertaining, conceptual-general, anxiety or controversy-provoking, gossipy, trivial.

Saunders sums up: There is, in other words, a cost to dopey communication, even if that dopey communication is innocently intended.

Educating the Conqueror is Not Our Business

After her speech, Toni Morrison got questions--and they illuminate how having to deal with The Megaphone impacts art and artists:

I love Latin American literature and Russian literature. It never occurred to me that Dostoyevsky was supposed to explain something to me. [Audience chuckles] He’s talking to other Russians about very specific things. But it says something very important to me, and was an enormous education for me. 

When Black writers write, they should write for me. There is very little literature that’s really like that, Black literature. I don’t mean that it wasn’t necessary to have the other kind. Richard Wright is not talking to me. Or even you. He’s talking to some White people. He’s explaining something to them. LeRoy Jones in the Dutchman is not talking to me. He’s talking to some White people. He’s explaining something to them. It may have been very necessary. It certainly was well done. But it wasn’t about me and it wasn’t to me. And I know when they’re talking just past my ear, when they’re explaining something, justifying something, just defining something. [Glass thunks.]

But when that’s no longer necessary, and you write for all those people in the book who don’t even pick up the book—those are the people who make it authentic, those are the people who justify it, those are the people you have to please, all those non-readers, all those people in Sula who (a) don’t exist and (b) if they did wouldn’t buy it anyway. But they are the ones to whom one speaks. Not to the New York Times; not to the editors; not to any distant media; not to anything. It is a very private thing. They are the ones who say “Yeah, uh huh, that’s right.” 

And when that happens, very strangely, or rather, very naturally, what also happens is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result is it’s communication with the world at large....

[Another question]

So the question is “What do you do…?” Well, educating the conqueror is not our business. Really. But if it is, if it were, if it was important to do that, the best thing to do is not to explain anything to him, but to make ourselves strong, to keep ourselves strong.

Sad Unicorns

In times when the worst ideas are popular, when, as Yeats said...The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity there is a pressure on creative people to use their platforms to point out the worst-ness of these ideas. To make their art this:
...but what Sad Unicorn games and the sloganeering that they encourage do is simply allow a degraded culture outside the conversation you're trying to have create a degraded culture inside the work.

You can't do that because (among other things) it doesn't work. When the world is dumb, you don't dumb-down, you smarten up.

You do not go "Well we have to put off the nuanced conversation til later". You do not go "Well this may be valuable but this isn't the time or context for that work". You do not surrender to the Megaphone.

You create a more sophisticated thing--you create an internal conversation that is meaningful to you and to good people, and the internal energy of that will pay off when it's needed, "even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result is it’s communication with the world at large" because you will have made yourselves and your people strong.
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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Liking, Sharing, Zealotry, Games

So I was listening to the Longform podcast and somebody who runs a web magazine was talking about the kinds of nonfiction that were popular on the site.

Those kinds of true crime stories, he was saying, where there's like a few guys out in middle America and they get mixed up in some Cohen brothersy yarn of guns and betrayal and assbackwardsry--people love those. You can read the stats, people read them all the way through, they eat them right up.

But, he went on, they don't share them. They don't go on Facebook and go "Hey everybody read this Cohen brothersy yarn of guns, betrayal and assbackwardsry, you'll love it!"

Because why would you? You liked it, you don't know if any of your friends would. There isn't much to say about it other than "Well that was crazy"""Yeah and the part with the ice and the piano""OMG I know!".

And of course this is our whole economy now: the kind of things that get shared vs the kinds of things that don't.

Well what do people share?

People share opinion--even opinion they don't agree with--because then they can have a conversation about it. And also because their agreement or disagreement says something about them--which they broadcast to people--then people know what they're about (people knowing what you're about attracts like-minded people. And everybody in this life needs like-minded people.)

Women share more than men, that's science. (It's also science that women buy more stuff than men, I've seen estimates at like 70-85%.) A lot of that sharing is quick notes about taste. I like this, these. Again, this says something about you, which like-minded people will notice.

Zealots share more than anyone. Zealots will share things whether or not anyone cares (though some of their acquaintances always will--specifically other zealots. This is why all forms of zealot now have insane online zealot networks.) Therefore extremism will be disproportionately shared. This is why, for instance, Something Awful goons' accusation that James Raggi cavorts with Nazis and I am one are more widely shared than the proven facts that they're lying, he doesn't and I'm Jewish. The accusations excite zealots, boring facts do not.

Which is all to say: things get shared more to the degree that they make a statement, that they have a point. Hell: my "Always Share Kingdom Death" policy is specifically because it helps makes a point. Controversial things become well-known because their mere existence, whether good or bad, makes a point and suggests some discussion of something outside themselves.

There are very good things that get neglected by the sharing economy: often the most evocative and otherworldly game-writing is the least shared simply because it is otherworldly, it isn't immediately and obviously telling us something about something or about the person who is sharing, it just is and is good, like thick coins of pepperoni on a lake of extra cheese. You find Thief of Baghdad or Svankmajer's Alice and go why didn't anyone tell me about this? --well because it makes no point.

This blog entry has one though: be aware of the dynamics of sharing--and especially of what you like but don't share. And consider changing it up once in a while. It is, after all, called "the web" for a reason.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Demon City Character Generation

This is stuff for the new game I'm writing and painting, Demon City, donate to the Patreon here.


This'll all be laid out in a fancier, easier-to-follow way in the final book, and I
m pretty sure I can get it all to be obvious right on the character sheet, like I did with Night's Black Agents, but this'll do for now to get people up and running who want to roll...

There are two ways to make a character: totally random and custom. To make a custom character, simply read down this page in order and follow the directions. To make a totally random character, scroll down to “Characteristics” roll 1d10 divided by two (round up) for each characteristic, then scroll up to Roles—pick or randomly roll a Role (keeping in mind each group can only start with a maximum of one Problem and must include at least one non-Friend), adjust your Characteristics (points over a maximum for a given Role are lost), then follow the directions for Occupation, Contacts, Skills, and The Rest.

Random characters will, on average, have better Characteristics than custom characters.


Roles are kind of like classes in other games, but instead of jobs, they describe what your relationship to The Corruption that Demon City characters investigate when the session starts. Characters can grow out of their original motives over time, but this is why they start.


The Curious character is motivated by fascination. Typically an academic or a former paid Investigator, the curious character wants to know what’s causing this problem, where did it come from? And maybe even…can it be controlled?

-The Curious character’s Calm is treated as 2 lower for the purpose of any test which might allow the character access to hidden knowledge. Make a note.
-The Curious character gains 3 extra Knowledge Skills or 5 extra free points in existing Knowledge Skills.


The Friend doesn’t know what all this is about and doesn’t want to guess. But the friend is loyal to someone else on the case and that’s what counts.

-Every party must include at least one non-friend.
-The Friend gains an extra die when protecting whichever character they are close to from direct physical harm. This can exceed the maximum 5.
-The Friend maintains a sense of detachment and perspective, giving them a +1 to Perception or Calm, free.


Someone wants to get to the bottom of this, and they’re paying the Investigator to do it. The Investigator is typically a private detective, or--up until the supernatural gets obviously involved and the department decides it's bullshit--a cop, but they can also be a journalist, an insurance adjuster, or almost anything else.

-The Investigator gains one extra Skill, free.
-The investigator gains one extra contact, free.
-The Investigator gains one extra Skill or contact, free.
-The Investigator's maximum Cash is 3.


Like the Victim (below), the Problem starts the game having already come in contact with the enemy, only for the Problem, the scars are not just mental, but physical and even spiritual. The Problem is manifesting strange abilities and aversions. The Problem may be possessed, they may have dawning psychic abilities, they may be turning into something more than human. 

-There may only be one Problem per game group
-Problem’s max starting Calm is 3
-Each session, the Problem gains abilities specific to the brand of Problem they are. In the final rules, there’ll be an option available for the kind of players who want to actually choose what kind of paranormal creature they’re becoming, but for now only the option where it’s a surprise is available.


They say victimhood doesn’t define you--well, for The Victim it does, at least at the start of the game. Something terrible has happened to the character or one of their loved ones and it’s left a scar.

-Victims max starting Calm is 4
-Victims’ earnestness is manifest—they automatically gain the Persuasion skill equal to their Appeal plus one.
-The Victim is privy to special information, the victim was there—the Victim gains an extra Perception die when in the presence of any clue associated with the crime or kind of crime they were witness to. This may exceed the usual maximum.
-The Victim gains an extra die in combat with any entity they believe to be responsible for the crime that has traumatized them. This may exceed the usual maximum.
-If the initial crime is solved and avenged--the above bonuses apply to investigating and fighting all supernatural threats.


Characters in Demon City have Characteristics and Skills. Characteristics are broad descriptors, skills are things which require specific training that not all modern humans can be expected to possess.

Some common learned aptitudes like swimming, driving, using a cell phone are so common that they do not have a specific skill associated, but the lack of that ability is noted separately. All of these numbers are called “Stats”.

To make a new custom character, roll 1d10 divided by two (round down, unlike a totally random character) seven times, then assign the characteristics as you see fit.

If you decide your character has a major disability not covered by a low Toughness score—they can’t, for instance, see or can’t hear or can’t walk without assistance or have one arm or one hand—they gain 2 extra points to put into Characteristics of their choice. 

Characteristics for humans are ranked 0-5 
0: Terrible
1: Bad
2: Average
3: Good
4: Very good
5: World class

These are:


(CATPACK for short)


Any modern occupation is fair game in Demon City. In the final game there’ll be a list of jobs you might have for inspiration but other than determining what your Occupational Skill is (see below) and your Contacts, it doesn’t directly impact anything in character generation. So just go ahead and pick something for now.


The number of contacts you have when the game starts is equal to your Appeal or Cash, whichever is higher. 

Contacts are people you know and can ask for a favor. One will be associated with your job, you can assign the rest at the start by randomly rolling on a Vornheim-like chart I haven’t made yet or let them float until you decide you want to have a contact in a certain field.

(If you let them float, when you want a contact you make an Appeal check against a Host-chosen number (depending on how likely your character as-played-up-until-that-point would know such a person) to see if you happen to have one. Once you’ve filled up all of these slots you have to meet new people in-game.)


Skills are associated with a characteristic—they are ranked 1-9 for humans and are always at least one point higher than their associated characteristic score.

New characters start with 1 Occupational Skill at Perception +1, which is a custom skill representing what they know about their own job (things like student and stay-at-home-parent count). If your job already is a skill on the list, like, for instance, you’re a burglar so your job is basically Burglary/Theft, you may choose to take that skill at Perception +2 instead of taking the Occupational skill. 

In addition to any Skill budget provided by their Role, new characters get:
-The Simple Way: 5 Skills at (whatever the associated Characteristic is) +1
-The Complicated Way: 10 Skill Points which work like this-- a whole new Skill at (Characteristic+1) costs 2 points, and adding points to a Skill after that costs 1 point. Maximum of 9. Spend them all now.

If your character can’t swim, drive, read, or use a cell phone/computer, you get 2 extra skills or 3 points to use on existing skills for each of these problems you have.

The Skills and their associated characteristics are:
(purple stuff was added March 25th)

Driving (it’s assumed you can drive, this is fancy driving, and also general car trivia)

Exotic Weapon (this includes pre-modern things not covered under melee or firearms like bows, throwing knives, whips, etc. You have to pick one specifically, but you get it at +2)
Pilot/Drive Other (anything not a car that requires training: motorcycle, boat, helicopter, plane--pick one)

Toughness or Agility, whichever is higher
Athletics (choose a specific sport or kind of training: swimming, triathalon, tennis, mountain climbing, etc)
Hand to hand combat (includes using most melee weapons like swords, clubs, brass knuckles, etc, and knives when not thrown)

Occupational (soldier, student, truck driver, etc—this represents your current job)
Outdoor Survival/Tracking
Therapy (talking other people down from disturbing incidents)

Deception (this includes both ability to disguise yourself, and acting/lying generally)
Persuasion (this is mostly just what Appeal is used for, but it’s a skill because otherwise a character with Deception would always be better at lying than telling the truth)

Humanities (you get Humanities equal to Knowledge+1 and choose a specific subject—Literature, Anthropology, History, etc—you get that free, at Knowledge+2. Additional concentrations cost the same as getting an all new skill but are also at Knowledge +2.)
Local Knowledge (this is for wherever you live now unless you specify otherwise)
Other Languages (Pick one)
Science (you get Science equal to Knowledge+1 and choose a specific subject—Biology, Chemistry, etc—you get that free at Knowledge+2. Additional concentrations cost the same as getting an all new skill but are also at Knowledge +2.)

Perception or Knowledge, whichever is higher

The Rest

Looking at the details you’ve got, tie it all together. Give your PC an age and a name and decide what they look like and you’re ready to go.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Three Shadows (Escalating Inventions)

Fantastic genres usually work via escalating inventions: they show you a star destroyer at the beginning and the Death Star in the middle and a multi-starship fight on the Death Star at the end.

Sci-fi and fantasy settings (and the kind of sci fi and fantasy stories where the whole story is within one of those settings) generally put the inventions right up front. The first scene has something our world doesn't: a wizard, a Hobbit-hole, whatever. The inventions here are often things you could make a toy out of --they are objects, creatures, buildings. They are things.

Horror typically does not work that way. A lot of game masters who are very comfortable with sci-fi and fantasy aren't sure how to do horror and one reason is the inventions are more ephemeral, rely more on techniques specific to the medium they are in (word choice, pacing, lighting, camera angles etc) and depend less on invented things than invented events or situations.

Simply: a dragon puts you firmly in fantasy. A vampire doesn't quite get you to horror without some other stuff.

Horror involves, unsurprisingly, the deployment of horrific inventions, but what makes them scary is the way they're deployed. There are basically three kinds of inventions in horror and they generally appear in a strict order.

When you're laying out a horror scenario, here are some things to plan beforehand:

1. Unsettling Things

The first strange invention in a horror story is usually unsettling, but that's it. It's not gory, elaborate, or necessarily supernatural it's just off.

The camera pans across a burned district, every home a pile of incinerated trestle-work, bent crosses and blackened furniture, and then, somehow, in the middle of all of this, one lone home utterly untouched--green lawn, painted shutters.

The unsettling thing is usually the intimation of a problem (like Jack's manuscript in The Shining), a clue (the way the old Count refers to the wolves howling as music, the lights flickering in Stranger Things) or just moody symbolism (the deer in Get Out), but the players don't know which at the time. The unsettling invention makes you go: what happened here? The ambiguity adds to the mystery.

The more unsettling things you can think of, the more it becomes a psychological horror story (Rosemary's Baby barely moves past The Unsettling, David Lynch's films live there). The more of them actually end up being explained by the resolution the more satisfying it is as a mystery story.

In game-mastering terms: it is good to think of an opening unsettling image. That is--as much as a monster or npc--something you have to invent before you begin running your players through a scenario. If you can't think of anything better, a bizarrely-injured corpse is as durable a standby as meeting in a tavern.

Speaking of corpses...

2. The Effects

This kind of invention is often the Big Moment in a horror movie, and frequently a place for body horror and/or gore. Whatever the menace is, it's gotten to a victim and, more importantly, gotten to them in a distinctive way. The chest-burst in Alien, the head explosion in Scanners, the guy nosebleeding and freaking out in Get Out, the swimming pool in Let The Right One In, the various gurgling lunatics in Lovecraft stories.

The important idea here is: the terrifying display of the menace's effect on the world is in itself a horror and a thing to invent, as much as the creature itself. If you can see it before you actually see the menace, you ratchet up the tension.

You don't need many of these--one good one will get you all the dramatic juice you need. But you can do more--the more you do, the more story becomes a gore or survival-horror type situation. Scenarios which emphasize panic but don't spiral toward any specific monster image--like Suspiria or Carrie--can rely a lot on these.

3. The Menace

This invention is the most similar to what you'd get in any game--this is the monster. It can also be a person, a group of people, a place, even (in the case of Carrie) a special effect, whatever, the point is the whole situation has been building toward this and it better be scary.

The best advice I can give a GM on this score is that the menace at this point has to have some kind of unexpectedness about it. A typical heroic tale can get away with a final showdown with a guy you knew would be trouble all along, whereas in horror there has to be some sort of element of reveal to it. The dad turning out to be a vampire in Lost Boys, the impossible rooms in The Shining, the full scale of the creature in Alien. Save something for that last scene.