Poetry

Con Men

Grampa Asimov was always very handsy
Great uncle Lovecraft preferred the “master” race
Professor Tolkers was not fond of the swarthy
And Orson knows there are no gays in space.
Dave Sim, he fought the Christian menace
To crush Islam is Dawkins’ holy cause
Mr Miller hates all the smelly hippies
And all three agree that women are just whores

Our Adam has gone and conquered Hollywood
Mister Roosh has taught young men to woo
And Gamergate has brought the two together
Uniting to make sure feminism’s through
The Honeybadgers beaver in the kitchen
While the otaku and the puppies claim the den
To plan their next attack on social justice
And rescue geeky culture for white men

And the cosplayers are asking to be fondled
And the booth babes are asking to be scorned
And gaming must be art, but not political
As long as it is also soft-core porn
And sportsball must be mocked for being mainstream
And furries must be mocked for being weird
And noobies must be vetted at the drawbridge
While hipsters are all hated for their beards

And customers are owed the work of artists
And criticism is how we show we care
And threats of death and rape are just the culture
And we were bullied once, so all is fair
Appreciation is determined now in dollars
We’ll buy any piece of crap that’s badged as nerd
And our greatest calling card is we are different
And thus better, for we deplore the herd.

The Cells Episode Two: Drink To Remember

“I just bring you ideas. I leave the execution to you.”  Agent Quiver

The Citadel at night. A sepia tone tells us it is the past. Young Zak and Umbrito are boosting rundown tenements. A siren rings out and the two burst out of the door of their target. As they run, Umbrito yells “If Mok ever finds out this was you, you’re dead”

Roll credits.

The same street, maybe, but the time is now. A spirit of Carnivale lingers on the streets of the Ditchers, still recovering from the Band-Aid-esque event. “What’s Up, Ditchers” t-shirts wave in the wind – and the face on them is Zak, who walks the crowd with his white suit and his bodyguards. Zak is spreading good will and food tokens, a new system to try and curb the abuses of food banks, and Zak is the perfect face to hand them out to ditchers. But then there’s Umbrito and Joanne on his arm. They embrace and Umbrito says they should go catch up. Zak throws his remaining food tokens into the air and ditches his security in the fracas – the party boy is still here.

Back at Central, it’s also a bleary early morning. Hal and Kate sit in the dining room, having Awkward Pauses for breakfast. If their marriage wasn’t perfect before the war, and before the cells, it’s gone into a kind of shock now. Kate directs the conversation onto the suffering of the city, and how, although Hal has done some good work so far, a city has to do more than just survive but thrive, as Pavani had said at the press conference (before rushing off to find her girlfriend, or something – quick cut to Pavani finding an empty room and a left note). Hal takes this as a personal slight, and decides Kate is suggesting he resign. He ponders a sense of fated failure and stares at the bottle of bourbon on the kitchenette shelf.

Close up on the bottle, now with less in it. Reverse to show sitting opposite is now Quiver, in Hal’s seat (ahem) talking to Kate. Quiver is trying to deal with the PR SNAFU that Hal retiring would cause and asks her if she can change his mind, because their secret could push him over the edge. Kate demands he stop thinking about PR for once in his life and give a damn about her, about their future, and until he does, she will be elsewhere. After she leaves, Quiver slams his palm down on the table and the glasses clink. It’s the first time we’ve seem him anything but worried or oleaginous.

The glasses clinking mixes over to the same at Zak’s impromptu party, which has turned from a reunion of old friends into a warehouse festival. Zak is the returned hero, festooned with women and flunkies. The 37s – as they are known – are flying high: their favourite son is running the city, and there’s talk of them being deputized like other gangs to help with keeping order. On the other hand, this doesn’t look like a very upstanding gangland. There’s an extra roughness to it. We pivot from a 37 tattoo to the same sign spray-painted onto a house perhaps not far away, where Knight-Father Paige is leading a new Citadel Police Force in dealing with gang activity. The dialogue indicates that there’s been a rash of murders turning up in the Ditch and the 37s are believed responsible. Paige dismisses his crew saying he’s going home, looking at a house at the end of the street.

Back at the party, the big black cars pull up and Quiver enters, uncomfortable and unable to hide his anger as he jostles through the crowd. He tries to be polite and get Zak to cut things short before the press turn up but Zak can’t go against the flow of so much belonging. Quiver snaps and tells Zak he’s being a child and he’s sick of cleaning up after a spoiled brat. Zak gives him a push to suggest he calm down and Quiver pushes back. Zak falls off his seat and Zak’s crew respond by jumping Quiver and beating him down. Zak stumbles up, looks at the situation, and decides to go with the flow and let Quiver suffer, suggesting the gang go hoist him up a flagpole. Umbrito smiles and tells Zak to follow him. Zak grabs a drink and does so, only to be jumped from behind and thrown into a car boot.

The thump of the boot matches to the thump of the door of Paige’s house closing behind him. The house is domestic and tidy. Polished. To the point of being unlived in. The pictures on the wall show a family – Roland and his husband Alex and their daughter Joanna growing up together. Then Alex’s ashes. We follow Paige through the kitchen where he grabs a bottle of bourbon into the bedroom where he sits and drinks and pulls a picture from the nightstand and starts to talk to Alex in a broken voice.

From the quiet to sudden noise: a room full of movement and noise. Computers churn, printers bubble and data is mined. The extent of cameras and maps reveals the true extent of which the city is under surveillance. And being given a guided tour of Central Data is Lazarus Moore, who has spent the last few days finding this place, a place kept secret from the five by the General. Who sits amongst it and succeeds mostly in hiding his displeasure of seeing Lazarus. The two trade barbs. Lazarus reveals he is decades older than he appears but the General is not cowed by this and buries Lazarus in pointless data, leaving him to slip off and be briefed about the mysterious vial.

Zak’s kidnapping ends at a danker, nastier, more crime-purposed warehouse and he is dumped in front of Mok, a more tattooed and more pierced 37er than we’ve yet seen. He accuses Zak of killing his brother, but Zak says he loved Mok’s brother much more than he ever gave a damn about Mok, and suggests that Umbrito did the hit because Joanna also loved Mok’s brother. Umbrito spits daggers at Zak but Zak sells it – when his life is on the line, Zak will sell out his old friend to save himself. The gunhands turn their attention to Umbrito and a haunted-looking Zak slips away.

Meanwhile a haunted Hal drinks in a seedy bar – the seediest bar closest to Central, anyway. He finds a one-armed veteran to talk to and tries to reconnect with the city and its people, but they get stuck in the same veteran’s loop of being able to do nothing but share war stories.

Back to Zak, he runs into the street to find Lazarus in a Big Black Car waiting for him. Zak seems changed, subdued now his old life could get him killed. He apologises and confesses to Lazarus, who is playing the confessor and mentor. Zak directs the car to retrieve a bound and gagged with tape Quiver, who is being hoisted by a crowd. Zak tries to connect as the ganger of old but the wind has gone out of his sails and – on Laz’ advice – sends in the government goons to clear them out instead. Desperate for new friends in his guilt, Zak becomes the government man.

Back at the house, Roland hears someone enter and draws his gun reflexively – but it is Joanna and Umbrito, on the run and arguing. Roland dismisses Umbrito and has a big old shouting match with his daughter. He’s trying to make it what it was, but to Joanna it was broken then anyway, because she got the parent she didn’t like raising her and the one she did absent, and it certainly can’t go back now anyway. Roland accuses her of forgetting her values, her religion, her upbringing, and that of course, is her point too: she’s a different person than he wants her to be. She leaves, with no sense she will return.

Back at Central, Lazarus pours Quiver a drink as the nurse finishes his stitches. Lazarus is curious as to why Quiver is tense and offers himself to hear a confession. Quiver tries to hedge around the details but then it all comes out, the truth about him and Kate. And in the end, Lazarus offers no help or absolution, just enjoys the new information. Quiver storms off and runs into Zak. There is a soulful apology and reconnection. Zak says he’s ready to play ball. Quiver says he’s on Zak’s side, that’s his whole job. Zak says there’s a man called Mok who has taken over the 37s and needs to be stopped. Quiver says that revenge by the ex-bad boy looks bad, but suppression by the saintly soldier Roland looks good. Quiver assures Zak that the best story of all is a redemption story, about people who have done bad things but are more than their sins. He’s not talking about Zak.

Lazarus provides – somehow – a lock on Mok’s location. Quiver takes his idea to the bar where Roland has joined Hal to drink. Hal says it has to be done by the book, with a trial. Quiver says “We will make sure we have all the evidence we need” because Quiver loves double meanings. Roland likes it, he wants order. The decision is made. Quickly we cut back to Lazarus working angles, and meeting with the Cardinal (who gets a first name now, Erasmus) – he’s found out the General’s secret. We cut to the General recruiting someone explaining he has a special demolitions job for him.

Back to the operation, which is shot in parallel with Quiver performing another insurgency: a romantic dinner and seduction of Kate. A search light flashes on, and Quiver lights a candle. Roland and others point at maps, Quiver sets the table. Roland gives the “go” signal, Quiver presents dinner with a flourish. SWAT teams move in, one places a finger on his lips, and Kate does the same to Quiver. A 37 goon guard is taken out with an arm around his neck pressure hold, as Quiver moves his arm around Kate from behind. They cut the lights on the gangsters, and Quiver flicks off the light. A gangster gasps as a shot takes him in the chest, and Kate gasps for different reasons. And then an interlude.

Later, Zak stands outside the jail as the perps are led in in cuffs. Zak has moderated his rebellious white suit with an official flak jacket. Mok is the last to walk in, and the two lock eyes and stare. Back at Central, Hal pushes open the door and locks eyes with the man in his wife’s bed.

Roll credits. Zak’s theme here is Sabotage.

Next time on The Cells:

  • Quiver blinded by the flashbulbs of the press, raising his hand in defense.
  • Behind a chain fence, a protest reminiscent of Occupy shouts and marches. A reporter is heard saying “Jason King has galvanized the ditcher community”
  • Quiver arguing with Mr Grey. “Dammit, these are good people.”
  • Zak strutting in Central, in a grey suit, looking at home with power. He comes into his room to find a woman holding a baby and his jaw drops.
  • Mok threatening Joanna across a prison meeting table. “This goes further than you know” he says.
  • A building explodes in fire.
  • Livinia standing at a grave. She says “I’m still going to go through with it”
  • The General stands in a hospital room. “I might have found a way”

The Cells Episode One: When The War Is Over

“Things are chaotic. But chaos can be a ladder.” – Cardinal Templeton

Darkness. Not of night but of underground. Moonlight picks up the tiniest hint of a barred window, metal door.

Caption: The war ended with a blinding flash, and promised to return unless volunteers were found to rule the citadel – after spending a year in a cell with an individual from the opposite side.

Caption: It has been 361 days since then.

With a boom the door bursts open and burning, blinding white light fills the screen. Armed men enter. We flash across five people being escorted in the way that cannot be prevented from dark cells down dark corridors towards burning searchlights and the sound of choppers. Blue, black and white are the only pallets. Four men, one woman. Their clothes not prison-gear but uniform, like from a hospital or asylum. A large black people mover appears ahead and our protagonists are bundled inside. With a slam, silence returns from the shouts outside. Agent Quiver, representative of Global, sits inside in a polished grey suit.

He explains that some events have occurred which required a slightly early release, and the five of them are being taken to Central Operations where they will assume their positions as leaders of the Citadel. As of this moment, they are in charge. Their families and loved ones are being moved to Central as well, which has substantial accommodation facilities. It is approximately 3am. They will have a few hours to sleep and get changed, and at 9am tomorrow there will be a press conference to announce their plans and policies. Everyone is a little nonplussed.

Role credits. Theme song: this version of the classic.

Central Ops is a neo-brutalistic palace with notions of classical style but the whole thing looks like it was built in a week – which it kind of was. In the green room the group are trying to have a moment to take control of their lives, well aware that nobody wants them to do that, certainly not The General who’s been running the city until now, nor Quiver who wants them in front of the cameras quick smart.

Pavani Kota leads the press conference and comes across as a caring mother figure with a passion for returning the city to her passion and a thing forgotten – the arts. It works but then the serious Roland Paige is tight-lipped and when questioned about his faith, Lazarus Moore, umms and arrs and seems indecisive. The General cuts in trying to heighten the embarrassment and Quiver tries to shut it down and only makes it more clear how chaotic things are, how little control anyone has. Luckily the media turns to talk to Hal, the war hero, who is photogenic, which is ironic given that at that same moment Hal’s wife calls Quiver to tell him she’s tired of cheating on her husband and now that he’s out of the Cells, Quiver has one week to tell Hal the truth. Meanwhile the media has turned on the wild card, the ex-gang-banger Zac, but he somehow becomes the hero, turning their attacks on his past into an attack on the media. Now is not time to think of the past, but the future.

Back in the Green Room with the taped up windows and busted fluoro, there is time to ask about personal things. Zac wants smoked salmon for room service. Hal wants to see his wife as soon as possible, and Quiver says he is sure that will happen. Paige says he doesn’t want to live in Central, he wants to go home. Quiver says pointedly “but when you’re here, we can control you. I mean, control the story about you.” Pavani takes Quiver aside to ask about her partner. Quiver says she hasn’t been able to be located due to war disruptions. Pavani starts screaming about it being a priority but Quiver says there are more things at stake and she collapses at his feet, in tears.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Zac’s father the Cardinal has come to pay his son a visit. The Cardinal tells Zac to tow the line and keep the family line respectable and Zac cowers under his father’s presence. He tries to ask his father what is going on “Just answer me straight for once!” His father smiles “Why would I ever do that?”. On his way out Cardinal Templeton runs into Lazarus who insists the Cardinal help him find out more about what’s going on in the city, and hints that the Cardinal’s obedience will be obtained because of something Lazarus knows.

Later that day, Quiver finds Knight-Father Roland in the gym, working the speed bag. Quiver suggests that Hal is volatile and at risk because of something in his personal file, and wants a fellow soldier to watch over him. Roland demands to know more but Quiver says “My job is to protect you. I can’t do that if I tell you everything I know.” Roland talks about the danger of war, suggesting Quiver is a coward and Roland has no need of protection. Quiver says he knew someone whose house got knocked down once. Later, to Pavani, Roland says Quiver has the can-do attitude but cannot in fact do. Meanwhile Hal goes to see the General, and the General tells him to be a good soldier and roll over. Hal reminds him it takes more than rank to be a leader, and refuses.

That afternoon, after lunch, the five meet at the Planning Room around a strange table with seats for twelve. Quiver explains that it’s up to them how they run their meetings and how they make their plans and he will take them to Global to be executed. He also presents them with six issues facing the city right now (again generated by the group, adding one each):

  • Infrastructure is in much need of maintenance it hasn’t had because of the war
  • As a result, levees broke recently and up to 10% of the poorest of the town are without shelter or food due to flooding. This is mostly falling on “ditchers”, people who live in “the Ditch” an old faux moat from ancient times when the city was more medieval in design. Many, perhaps most Ditchers are refugees, who are not considered full citizens of the Citadel.
  • The military proxy police have been unfairly suppressing one particular cultural group over others, regardless of actual crimes committed
  • Some neighbourhoods, lacking in any militia or police have formed their own such units and are rejecting help from official sources
  • Food rations are being controlled by an aid organization, that on the surface is both saintly and vital to the relief effort, but underneath are corrupt and are trading food for political favours
  • A small number of business had made a lot of money setting up contracts with Citadel military or Global direct, and because of the war these contracts are completely unregulated and exploitative.

After a long debate, the group decides the primary issue must be the flooding, and to make everyone as equal as possible. Refugees will be made full citizens without any condition and the neighbourhood groups will be semi-deputized to work as aid workers with the military. The military and the General hate both ideas fearing the first unsafe and the second unruly, and certainly it invites criminals into positions of power. But Quiver talks his superiors and it is decided this can happen.

The five sell it with a benefit concert kind of idea, with washing out the flood depicted as a metaphorical washing away the pain. Roland steps up and his visible pain sells it to the crowd, and by embracing the ex-rebel-cum-rockstar Zac they are a metaphor for a healthy future. Down in the Ditch, there’s hope. But there’s also some who are skeptical, like a girl in a cafe who, watching the concert on the big screen says “Hey, that’s my dad”. Her companion indicates he used to know Zac and he’s going to get back in touch now Zac is in the pink. She replies “shut up and steal me a car like you promised”.

Roll credits. Over this.

Next time on The Cells:

Someone unseen bursts into a dark hotel room revealing Quiver and Kate Turner in bed together.
Pavani finds her home empty, and a single note on the ground.
Roland staring at his partner’s picture with a gun in his hand, and Joanna, his daughter screaming “because I hated him!”
Someone at Fountain corp saying “We’ve got some news”
Analysts in a room pouring over reams of data. The Cardinal is adjacent.
The General talking to someone. “How’s your demolitions training, son?”
Gagged, bound and thrashing, Zac is in the boot of a car. The boot slams shut.

Also: pretty pictures.

The Cells Part Two: Chargen and Worldgen

Prime Time Adventures takes a collegial and co-operative approach to character generation. After everyone agrees on the show you’re making – the setting, the tone, the audience – you all go around and suggest at least two character ideas. Then from the pool of ideas, people take the characters they want. Sometimes characters get combined or altered. For example, there were a lot of ideas thrown around about secretaries and major-domo type characters, including by me. Then somebody said a seer, someone who knew what was coming and my character fell into place. Having just watched the British House of Cards series and loving the character of Stamper I wanted a similarly Dickensian name and chose Quiver –  the nervous, helpful person who also knows more than he can ever say.

What’s interesting though is that I, the player, have no idea what Quiver knows. I gave him a contact, the knowingly-named Mr Grey, the Man Who Knows More But Won’t Let Me Tell, but I don’t know what Mr Grey knows either. We just know there are secrets. And we intend to answer these questions through play, not beforehand.

Similar things happened with other characters. We quickly decided that religion had to have played a role in the war, because it always does. Two players leapt onto religious roles: one chosing a hardened war-vet who served in a religious battle-regiment, with the title of Knight-Father. Another decided to be a man who had lost his faith, and was previously perhaps quite high in the ranks of that faith in some way – and through that had access to intimate details of people’s lives through some kind of confessional role. A third player decided that he was the bad seed of a man seen to be above suspicion, a high-ranked priest known to the prodigal priest. I decided that person would be called a Cardinal. But what was the religion? What were its tenets? We didn’t know.

The good thing about this is understanding that the world building does not have to happen pre-facto. Roleplaying makes us lazy in that regard; we like to think that it is vital for everyone to be on the same page and therefore there must be some sort of universal codex of what is and isn’t true and it must exist before choices are made to be fair. But writing almost never works like that – at least, outside of Tolkein and his emulators. Worlds are built to satisfy the needs of character and plot as those needs emerge. And the work is NOT the world-building, as Brian Clevinger recently said about his marvellous Atomic Robo. Too much world building, however enjoyable, can murder your story before you begin. That’s much more true in writing than in rpgs, but it’s worth remembering also.

More and more games are experimenting with this – with “fate points” and such wired into the game that give equal provenance to creating facts about the scenario and beating the scenario, but it’s rare that lets you define something globally about the setting as a whole (I first saw that kind of equality of mechanics in Mortal Coil). Lots of RPGs do setting creation at the start of the game (like in Fiasco and Durance, for example, and in Gaean Reach where you each list a reason why you hate the central bad guy) but we often then leave it be. Of course, the concept of a published game is to give you all the tools, not expect you to build them as you go, but that is a concept we can also play with. Legacy games like Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy and wacky changing games like 504 have the tools to become different games as they go or each time. The upcoming Shadow of the Demon Lord has modular Demon Lords to choose from, and stages of Demon Lord progression. So it’s something to think about.

We also left a few other blanks – we knew there would be some kind of alien tech because one player chose the Edge (a character power) of “The alien tech that doesn’t work for almost everyone works on me”. Our GM ended up choosing that: a miracle new plant colloquially called “youngberries” that could stop aging permanently, until it turned out that without a regular supply you get cancer and die in days – and after 20 years of the new youngberry economy, the plant died out almost everywhere – and that caused the war. But as for the religion, we went back to the round-robin, with each of us throwing in an element we wanted to be true about it, which gave us a list like this:

  • temporal power in the Citadel (where we live) and the world is not the same as but unavoidably enmeshed with the religious power of the faith
  • the religion is fundamentally slow to change and resistant to change within itself
  • the central teaching of the religion is to seek understanding and acceptance as the path to enlightenment
  • the faith is split informally between those who consider this enlightenment a physical/supernatural one and those who consider it a philosophical one
  • the faith has four concepts or pillars, which are Self and Tribe (opposing each other) and Passion and Reason (opposing each other), but these are not antagonistic oppositions
  • the faith is split formally between the pantheists who consider the four pillars to represent four separate entities who created a world divided by these concepts, and the transcendents who consider the division to be part of the universal laws that apply upwards into how we perceive the god-entity and/or higher spiritual essence.

But before any of that actually hit paper in the second session, before the church had a name or the alien tech had a nature, the characters were formed and fleshed and cast. You can see how that came out in this pdf. I came up with the quotes and most of the casting because for once I’m not the GM so I have free time to do my favourite part of things. Mechanically, in PTA characters have Edges and Contacts that earn them cards, and also an Issue (their central hang-up that causes their drama) and their Instinct (what they do when facing their issue and failing to fight their weaknesses). Both of those ideas are – like so much of PTA – worth adding to any RPG. One or two issues help you know what will squeeze your character and what won’t, and go-to moves help you roleplay and make decisions on the fly. Even in D&D.

So that’s the cast and the world – the willing from the cells, in a world coming out of a war over immortality but still ruled by old religion and distant masters. Next up – episode one.

EDIT: The GM also added his own character, the antagonist, a general who has been running the Citadel while we’ve been in the Cells, and we finally got an actor for the PC we were missing, so there is this addendum to the cast list.

The Cells Part One: Starting Our New Prime Time Adventures Game

So I’m back in the player-saddle for a campaign and it’s time to talk about it here. We’re using the clever (and even better mechanically now in 3rd edition) Prime Time Adventures, an RPG which emulates television shows mostly with a mechanic that focuses everything on “screen time”. If it’s an episode about you, you get to do more. If you’re peripheral you get to do less. Simple and elegant.

The nature of the series though is left open, and our GM has taken an interesting approach to that, above and beyond what the rules suggest. As a result, we’re playing a game with more player input in setting than I’ve ever done, and a setting so obtruse it has an almost anime feel. Also, the process we took to get there has been as interesting as the game itself, so I’m going to record that process as well.

Our GM started by asking us to name one or two stories we enjoy. The focus was on television, or comics because they are also very similar serial media, but could be anything. The list we generated was quite awesome, and I kept it for homework to watch and read all the things on it that I hadn’t yet. The list:

  • Locke and Key (Comic)
  • Ergo Proxy (Anime series)
  • Shade the Changing Man (Comic)
  • I, Claudius (TV show)
  • Rome (TV show)
  • Blake’s 7 (TV show)
  • Firefly (TV show)
  • Saga (Comic)
  • Rat Queens (Comic)
  • Desperate Housewives (TV show)
  • Pleasantville (Film)
  • Dark City (Film)
  • The Americans (TV show)
  • Black Sails (TV show)
  • Vikings (TV show)
  • The Prince (Book)
  • Interstellar (Film)

We also talked about what particularly we liked about these shows, and we developed some key themes that kept coming up over and over again in this discussion, such as:

  • Power of families and cultures effecting individuals
  • Multiple viewpoints on agendas and missions and duty
  • The mundane, human elements brought to the central focus of fantastical or cinematic stories
  • The normal, small, everyday and human becomes critical to larger, epic, superhuman stories
  • The facade and pretence of cultures and environments, which can even extend to brainwashing or near-as
  • Facades to the point of false memories and unreliable narrators, creating great mystery
  • People being caught between two worlds, or travelling from one into another, returning to their home

With that list of seven things (for six players and one GM), the GM asked us each to write one sentence. Not quite a pitch, he didn’t want us to be that specific, but just an idea to explore. Our sentences were

  • With the last chance of humanity in their hands, every decision has the weight of history
  • An OId West town with divided power is thrown into greater turmoil after the discovery of an alien artifact
  • A boy-band is about more than just fame when they are all metahumans
  • Civil servants must maintain the facade under mad or absent masters
  • Teenagers are forced to carve their own path when their parents or mentors vanish
  • After peace is declared, opposite sides must work together to preserve it at all costs
  • People are randomly paired up and forced to share a cell for a year to experience other viewpoints

What happened next was a strange discussion where we tried to jam as many of the ideas together to create an idea. The last idea really captured people’s imaginations, and we were able to combine it with the peace and the weight of history and the civil servants and the lost mentors. The Old West and the Boy Bands fell, but we kept the idea of spooky aliens and metahuman powers. We decided on a political thriller show, not unlike Kings or Homeland – mysteries, intrigue and human foibles in the face of holding humanity together – but in a world very different and very confusing, which makes me think of anime but then there’s stuff like Orphan Black too.

We decided to call it THE CELLS. I went away and made this picture to sum it up. The GM went away and came up with our pitch:

The war ended in a flash of white light. That much we’re sure of.

There was a flash of white light and then everyone on Earth lost a day of their memory. And when they came to, they stopped fighting. They had to. Most every weapon of war in the field had melted. Every piece of body armour had burnt free of its wearer. Every drone and war jet had crashed. There was fire everywhere; the casualties were astronomical.

Some places were luckier than others. Some people fought the fires, even though they have no memory of doing so. Some saved important supplies and infrastructure though they have no memory of doing so. Some pulled wounded soldiers from burning tanks though they have no memory of doing so. Some were heroes though they have no memory of being so.

Then the word came down from Global (the Global Alliance High Command but no one calls it that). There would be no more war or the white event would happen again. The remaining military would enforce order for a period of one year.

During that year, those who wished to contribute to the running of their city-state were required to submit to a year of defactionalisation, spending the year in confinement with members of competing ideologies. From this pool of willing prisoners would emerge a new generation of leaders into a world without war. Or else.

The willing from the Cells.

What Else I Did At Go Play Con March 2015 – Durance and Golden Sky Stories

I’m still cutting together the fun footage of the LARP, and you can scroll back to see how successful the Iron Game Designer event was, but Saturday was RPG day and I played two new games for me: Golden Sky Stories and Durance.

Bad news first, so Durance: As I’ve said before, I really don’t like the way Morningstar designs games. He’s really good at fluff and providing mechanical fluff to kickstart stories and then phones in everything else, as if mechanics are just some afterthought he needs to qualify as a game. Durance is just like Fiasco in this: great set up, terrible mechanics. I believe it works for Morningstar because he and his group know exactly how to phrase cutting dramatical questions that force people and their vows into conflict, but at a con, with strangers, when you’ve never done it before, there’s a lot of flailing. Now this is true of Smallville as well, of course – finding the way that values and relationships conflict is not always easy – but the mechanics drive those conflicts. Durance’s mechanics are “roll some dice, decide what they mean in that situation”. Like I said, I’m sure it works for him, but I write better game mechanics in my sleep. They tell me that Morningstar doesn’t write games about mechanics, but that’s like being a milliner who just makes hatbands. I mean they’re GREAT hatbands, but there’s more to hats.

That said, because Australian convict settlement is rife for power structure tilting and character vows highlight strong conflict, we cobbled together an excellent story by the end of it, but in spite of the mechanics, not because of them. And we enjoyed ourselves once we started feeding our characters gleefully into the woodchipper of plot (although I was doing that in part to drive the game towards an end, which might never happen otherwise – and like with Fiasco, it does not encourage any attachment to character). Story sharing with four other creative geniuses was and always will be super fun, though, and I didn’t want my time back. Durance is just like Fiasco: a good story kicker of random tables.

It didn’t help Durance that in the morning I played Golden Sky Stories which is an amazing RPG in every way. Truly revolutionary in concept and focus, and with some super mechanical strength to back it up. On the surface, GSS seems to be “just” a cute game with a child-friendly focus: you play characters out of an animated show: magic animals who can turn into humans sometimes, and have a few others sweet powers. But like Durance, it’s the laser-like focus on its setting that makes it so much more than that.

This isn’t a big open world to explore, it’s just your Town, and you like it, and it likes you. And you don’t go on great adventures. You don’t save the day. You don’t achieve amazing things. You make friends and help people have a nice day. And you build your whole RPG, mechanics and setting around that concept, you get something unlike anything else. The tight focus makes the things you do feel epic. In Durance I juggled the lives of men on a desperate frontier and it was all very Deadwood-meh, but when I reached out and connected to a girl who wanted to make friends but didn’t know how to do anything but push people away I felt a hundred feet tall. Run superbly by our GM, we also told stories of getting a boy’s soccer ball back from a policeman, and helping the policeman learn to let go of his need to always be working, even on his vacation. Through character interplay and mechanics we probed these dilemmas, and lent our friendship to heal them. And we got to play with a nine year old girl and all be on the same level in terms of story ideas and problem-solving ability.

And the mechanical support is excellent. The only way to do things is by building relationships with your fellow party members and with new friends. If you like people more they get to do more cool stuff, and if they like you more, you get to do more cool stuff. And there’s traps to get in the way of that – everyone likes being an animal, but if you talk to humans in animal form they might have to roll on the Surprise table, and being Surprised makes it harder for them to talk to you and bond. I remember when I first hit Paranoia and saw there were like five skills for fighting and fifteen for bluffing people, and I knew where the focus lay; the same thing is rife in GSS. For example, most games with emotional mechanics let you choose a wide array of ways to feel about people – hate, jealousy, lust, spite – the list of emotions available in GSS are Like, Love, Affection, Admire, Accept, Protect, Respect, Trust and “Family”. Accept is the most powerful, and you have to have special permission for the GM to take it.

Normally things you have to clear with the GM are really powerful ways to hurt people; in GSS the most powerful thing of all is the really powerful way to love someone. Something very few of us can do, a very unique and special power indeed. One thing we can do with RPGs, though, is engage in wish-fulfillment, to try and acquire magical powers like empathy and acceptance, and to achieve incredible things like understanding another’s pain that they hide, and letting them let go of some of that.

That’s what I did in Golden Sky Stories, and I didn’t just learn more about the world, I learnt more about myself.

Iron Game Designer 2015 – The Games

“Home Is Not Safe” was the theme. Chairman Kaga said “I hope it pulls people in different directions…and I hope we see vastly different games that divide the judges”. While filming all the action I didn’t get to play any of the games so I’ve cobbled my descriptions together from observation, interviews and judge comments:

Table Tyrant Games (Dylan Shearer and Aaron Sparke) with After Earth

One of our professional teams decided the home was earth and the solution to it being unsafe was to take to space exploration. Little ships move out from the centre, drawing from a deck of cards to explore the galaxy, most depicting planets with die-roll/result tables on them, and tracking quantities of fuel, ore and food on player-cards in front of them. Familiar mechanics of tile flipping, rolling to produce and resource balancing with added spice of the win condition depending on establishing colonies, but the more you establish the more food you must provide. Judges and players found it easy to jump into and engaging, and it only lost points for a floppy end game that might never come and for not being enough about homes being safe. The Tyrant team were keen to fix these issues and develop this with lots of ideas to come – hexmaps rather than cards, a larger tile deck and random events.

Team Two Games (Sam Piaggio and Jackson Blair-West) with Home Intrusion

The intruders are coming into your house. You’re safe in the panic room but the goal is to stop the intruders with your Home-Alone kind of traps. Players randomly assemble the house on a 9×9 grid around the Panic Room, then work together to place trap components in what they hope will be the ideal places. Traps need a Trigger, a Trap Type and a Modifier and the wrong trigger will prove defeatable by some intruders, and the wrong modifier will depower or even nullify some traps. Spikes work in a pit, but not with a net trap, for example. This virgin game design duo perhaps took too long thinking and picked an idea too big to accomplish in the time left so were nervous at the end but the judges enjoyed the directness of the theme and loved the basic mechanics, even if some of the math didn’t (yet) work. Tagged for great potential and new ideas.

The Die of Horus (Christy Dena and Ralf Muhlberger) with Home Is Not Safe

Die of Horus are super confident!

The Die of Horus are super happy with Home Is Not Safe!

Taking the theme as their title this was another very literal reading. Kids left at home were battling growing threats (in the case of the first and so far only deck, creepy crawlies like snakes and spiders), with the enemies being generated with constant turning decks of cards that get progressively worse. In a lovely twist, however, the kids can’t fight the threat, but only contain it or direct it. Only able to move slowly and open and close doors they need to work together to drive monsters towards each other – and figure out which will cancel out and which will get worse. This is determined by a five-way scissor-paper-rock system which judges feared might be too complicated to solve especially for the family audience the theme suggested. Like Home Intrusion, the designers felt they may have lost too much time to the tyranny of cutting and pasting, but also like Home Intrustion, the literal, immediate and relatable interpretation won points and captured imaginations.

Rule and Make (Allen Chang, Alistair Kearney and Matt Parkes) with Spooky Sleepover

Like Home is Not Safe the kids were the focus here, racing along the upstairs hallway to be first back to bed, despite the floor being covered in lava and such. This professional team focused on making the game small and the cutting out minimal – focusing mostly on a lined piece of paper and pack of regular playing cards, which meant they were able to get three full playtest games in before judging. The theme was there to be added though, and the judges could see the potential for great art to come, and meanwhile the race-lane mechanics seemed different and fairly solid apart from edge cases like an early leader or everyone bogged down going nowhere. Probably the most complete game of the set and people could visualize everything it could be with art added.

Motivated Meerkats (Darryl Greensill and Mungo Rundle) with Motivated Meerkats

Like After-Earth the distance from theme may have cost these guys but it was wonderfully different: here the home was a colony of meerkats. Using a deck building mechanic to collect tunnel cards from a central deck and a worker placement mechanic to move meerkats through those tunnels, players competed to have the most thriving population of desert mongeese. Poor planning will see you run out of food but not all family members can gather because guard meerkats help protect against hawks and jackals. Full of educational value and lovely theme, judges saw potential here but not enough robustness – as it was it was still luck-based and low on meaningful choices. But it could be a strong seller in the educational market if those things were fixed and it moved further along its burrow.

Team Bellpepper (Jason Kotzur-Yang and Brendan Evans and Michael McIntyre) with MegaJustice

Bellpepper included some seasoned game designers (look for Jason’s Ragnaroll on kickstarter soon) and they had perhaps the most playable game after Spooky Sleepover, again cleverly narrowing their focus down to a short beer-and-pretzels card game that had player knock-out but it didn’t matter because it only lasted fifteen minutes. The tongue-in-cheek theme was adored by judges and players alike: players are rival megacorps assuring the world (through owning the media) that your home is not safe, then releasing terrorists to drive up panic and thus sales – more panic justifies more brutality, but too much panic will lose sales just as much as too much brutality. This tied with Spooky Sleepover in third place and probably was the fan favourite of the day because while still too random to have solid choices the theme was unstoppable.

2 Men and A Baby (Sam Macrea and Alex Butterfield) with French Resistance

Again, small focus helped this game be the little engine that could. As one judge put it “it was obviously a Werewolf derivative but it was a Werewolf derivative that brought two brand new ideas to the table”. The designers took the home to be a villa in occupied France and the safety threatened by a mole. WIth only five minutes the loyal resistance (who all know the code word) must figure out who doesn’t know the code word by talking about it in hints…without giving it away. If the time runs out without a consensus, the mole wins, so you must hint fast and decide faster. Finishing mechanics early gave these guys time to develop their theme hard, writing spiels for the first player to read aloud and evoke the strong theme with visuals like the bullet of accusing and opportunities for roleplaying.

Something about French accents and French wine and the clever word-hiding mechanic in this caught all three judges’ minds and in the consulting period they kept talking about what could be done with this. Which is probably why it was the winner! Second place went to Home Intrusion, a big surprise for Sam and Jackson too.

But winners aside, everyone I talked to was happy and even surprised by what they had created, and almost everyone had plans to take their games further, even to publication. People who had never designed a game in their eyes had words like “kickstarter” and “art submission” on their lips. Of course, after two hours of pumping energy, that’s to be expected. The danger now is not to LOSE the energy. I saw some games in 2010 go on shelves and be forgotten – it happens after every contest like this. The chefs faced an incredible challenge in two short hours, but now the challenge begins anew: to keep the energy and carry it forward, and get these games to blind testers, to publishers and to stores!