Estalia Preview 2: Indigo Girls

I can now reveal the book will be called Swords of the South. In our last installment we had a little bit of fiction. This time, I wanted to include one of the very few but very beautiful pieces of art we were donated by the amazing Jon Shai, and the text that goes with:

Prior to the discovery of the amazing indigo plant, purple dye could only be manufactured from certain obscure mushrooms grown in goblin-infested caves, or from the gizzards of the giant sand-clam. Thus until recently (and still very much the case in the Empire), only the fabulously wealthy or highly titled could afford to wear the colour, and it was a clear sign of great power. With ships returning from Lustria stocked with the new purple flower, however, visitors to Estalia will be shocked and confused to see the colour everywhere.  It is particularly popular with young women, always keen to have the newest fashions and styles – and thus also no longer impressed by the traditional overtures of uncultured soldiers or untraveled sailors. This increasing class of more demanding women has been nicknamed “Indigo Girls” for their ubiquitous fashion choice.

Indigo Girl

Adventures at Bezerka Con

I’m not a rich man. I’m not even a not poor man. Which means I ache when I go to conventions: I want to support all the amazing people who create a space of creation and sharing and selling. My grandfather used to go to markets to sell his woodwork and he said one day he’d get his revenge by going to their stalls and walking around with his hands in his pockets – his turn of phrase for perpetual browsers. But what I can do is connect people. My superpower is to be the nexus, to link your needs to the people who can fulfill them. So here’s all the amazing things I saw at BezerkaCon.

  • And first of all, the first amazing thing was Bezerka Con itself! It was held in beautiful Balmain in a lovely venue, the strange layout of which were instantly fixed by excellent dedication to first class signage. It was the Other Kind of Con – some cons, especially RPG cons are places so devoted to quality RPGing and LARPing that the whole event is about sequestering people away in separate rooms for intense gaming experiences. Those kind of cons are amazing for getting the best quality players to the best quality of games, and SydCon and EyeCon do them very well. The Other Kind of Con comes from a different place, where people can get RPGs at home and come for special events, one-offs and a shared, festival atmosphere in a central hall where swag is plentiful and shopping common (so you can see things you’ve never expected like rings which are dice). Bezerka Con had this approach, hence all my links below, but that doesn’t even cover the robot fighting game or the amazing raffles (yes that’s a pillow in the form of Alastair from Dragon Age) or the paint-and-take fun from the ever-reliable guys at Reaper. I missed the cosplay on Saturday but they are better seen in main halls, as are little costume touches and amazing 1980s board games including this He-Man pop-up masterwork.  Can’t wait till next time in July or so.
  • The dice ring is from, by the way, and are amazingly cool, and come in d6s and d100s and many colours. I also saw some precious metal and semi-precious stone dice creations from the amazing people at Level Up Dice – dice so precious they come with a suede-lined box so you can roll them without damaging. That link doesn’t link to their catalogue of merchandise because they prefer to sell in person because who buys jewellery on the internet? It’s more precious than that.
  • That’s dice made of jewellery, but if you want jewellery made of dice like these amazing pieces, you want – yes, guys it includes cufflinks and belt clips. Hannah ran the con too and her grandmother makes crochet and knitted things in the shape of pretty much anything (note the dragons, unicorns and tiny Cthulhus down the bottom) which is why they call her Clever Bev.
  • Over in the artist’s gallery we had pieces like this from the amazing Lyndsay Harper and these (which unfortunately I blurred terribly in the photo) gorgeous anime-style pics and creations from She Bites. Want to do some arting yourself but need some help? Mel Schwarz has you covered with gorgeous colouring books of dragons.
  • If you prefer the written word to the drawn picture, though, Assaph Mehr was selling his new novel of murder mystery and investigation set in a Roman empire powered by magic: Murder in Absentia, from Egretia publishing.

I’ve definitely missed somebody out, so no offence intended to those lovely people! Keep making magical things and I will keep doing what I can to throw them into the faces of people who need them!

An Open Letter To Anyone On A Dating Site

Science tells us that most of our long-lasting intimate associations begin with regular spontaneous interaction in a shared environment, which is why the majority of all our relationships begin at work or in education, with number two being hobbies and activities. Number three is through friends in common, number four is randomly running into people on the street, number five is structured singles meetings in person and number six is, you guessed it, internet singles meeting structures.

You can see why the first three occur: we typically work and play and socialize with people who share our age group, socio-economic and education levels and backgrounds, which does the ground work for you. Theoretically, structures like speed dating and internet dating are designed to quickly identify people with whom you share such things, so you can meet more of them. And yet those things are outperformed by people just running into each other one day at the post office or a night club. Obviously, there are issues with the internet: yes, online relationships are very real but we are biological creatures who react very strongly to physical presence, to sight and smell and sound and the occupying mass of other people, and that reaction is not just about attraction and physicality but also a sense of shared social contract and social realness. If someone asks you in person to do something, it’s much harder to say no then if they ask you online.

But even if we remove the internet, shouldn’t speed dating and single’s nights have random encounters beaten by a mile? Because the kind of people who are okay with dating someone they cross paths with are a hundred times more ready for a relationship than the average person who uses a singles event or website. Because the average person using a singles event or website is poorly placed to actually be able to date someone.

Perhaps not very shocking. It is after all, the path of least resistance, in that a lot of the effort is done for you, there’s a created sense of distance, the risk of failure is shared and you can just kind of go with the flow. But to my eyes I think a lot of the people using these services are like the people who go to every conference about how to be a real estate mogul but never sell a property, or go to every writing course but never write a word, and they’re often similarly shelling out large chunks of cash and huge bits of their life and going nowhere. It’s fine if you want to dream. It’s fine if you want to window shop and play pretend about who you might date. Except of course, you’re wasting everyone’s time, which makes you an asshole. And if you want to NOT play pretend and actually get something out of it, you’re wasting your own time, and frankly, you deserve better than that.

So in the spirit of Chuck Wendig, here is some slightly shouty real-talk about how to actually use singles meeting structures so you actually get a relationship. Chuck Wendig of course provides very shouty and extremely sweary advice on how to be a writer, and this will be less sweary but also fundamentally the same basic advice, which is: you can’t do it if you don’t do it.

Writing and dating are about time. You have to set aside an hour or two a day, or at least a week, to do them. The biggest thing I find with people on dating sites is they just aren’t able to do this. Or don’t want to, or are afraid to. They’ll spend hours and hours on profiles and chats, we’ll make connections, we’ll text back and forth, we’ll share a joke and a flirt but when it comes time to actually doing the dating, they just can’t do it. They are physically incapable of meeting me for coffee.

Granted, some of them might change their mind. Some of them may want to tell me they’ve changed their mind in a way that doesn’t make me turn into a monster, which so many men do. Some of them might suddenly get a perfectly understandable sense of fear of being raped and murdered (but I always suggest meetings in busy, open spaces where the woman has a large selection of knives available, and we exchange no personal information until we decide we’re not murderers). And let’s be clear here: some of them just don’t have the time. Especially women in my age group. When women decided they wanted to enter the work force, capitalism decided to make it impossible for them NOT to do so, and dirtbag men have left a lot of women in my age group as single parents, and as a society we’ve decided that women who stay home with children are lazy and women who work full time are neglectful and women who ask the government for money to try and do both somehow are double-dipping welfare sponges. So it is perfectly understandable that you don’t have time. But if that is the case, understand that is the case, and stop wasting your time and mine on dating sites. It ain’t gonna happen.

You’re only going to be able to form a relationship with someone if you date them. It is literally the only way. You have to spend time socialising with people, in a social setting or in private, until you find out if you can spend time together and if you like the way you each smell. You have to date. And you can only date them if you have time to date. And you’ll only know you have time to date if you check and see if you do.

So here’s my advice: to build yourself time to date, to make sure you have that space in your life, start dating yourself. Pick a night. Once a week is fine. Friday nights or saturday nights are good, but Sunday brunches work just as well, as does a Wednesday lunch. As long as it is at least one hour long. Then, during that entire hour, do something you could do on a date. That could be watching TV on the couch, but if going out is a struggle as well, make it going out. Go to a cafe, a bar, a restaurant. Or a park, to save money. Bring a sandwich. Bring a book or your phone. You don’t have to be bored. You can even bring a friend now and then – but only if it doesn’t then become something that belongs to the friend, because then you can’t shuffle them out of the picture when the dates arrive.

Do it for at least a month, two is better, to make sure it is sticking and becoming habit. If you can date yourself for one hour each week for a month, you have time to date. If an emergency happens, make sure you catch up on another day that week. This is the absolute bare minimum you need to be able to do to date people, one hour a week. If you cannot do this, you will never have time to date anyone, which means you will never have a relationship. And that’s okay. Maybe you don’t have time right now. Maybe it turns out you have other priorities. But you should know that. Understand it. Accept it. And don’t expect any dating site or singles event to change that. No amount of money or technology or advice will produce a relationship until you build yourself the time and space to date.

So find out if you have the time, and if you don’t have the time, then get off the goddamn dating websites, and stop wasting MY time. Because it’s mean, and I’m sick of it.

Estalia Project Preview #1: Never Trust A Monkey

I’m very near the end of my part of the Estalia Project, and about to hand it over to some amazing editors, line editors, proofreaders and layout people. So it’s a good time to give you a preview. This is one of the first things I wrote to get me in the mood for Estalia, all those years ago.

Never Trust A Monkey

The monkey’s tail flicked across the dusty tiles, leaving a trail behind like a snake. It chattered madly, one eye rolling around to view the rabble the filled the taverna. It hopped twice in place, as if dancing a jig. Then with a mad leap it flew onto the game table and began to dance in earnest. Screeching and whooping it ran around in a circle, stamping up and down on the cards, scattering bets, knocking over cups of blood-orange wine. Finally, it circled round into the middle and whooped as it chased its own tail, spinning around and around like a pinwheel, hopping back and forth between feet before at last collecting both of them in its front paws and collapsing into a puddle of fur. Then with a whoop it jumped up again and tossed off its fez and pointed to it, screeching again. The eyepatched elf in the corner laughed and clapped his hands and threw in the first coin. Most knew the game but the tables of La Isla Atalaya were always full of travelers and newcomers and they had never even known a monkey before, let alone a dancing one. When the silver finished falling, the eyepatched elf stepped forward and scooped up the fez, bowing his head up and down in thanks. The monkey, knowing what was next, galloped up his master’s arm and was rewarded with an olive. It chattered with glee as the busker replaced its fez and swept away to find new marks.

With a foetid belch, Alonzo slid his chair back flush with the table and pointed a stubby finger at the elf opposite him. Astaran stared down at the cards he’d been dealt and back at Alonzo. “I’m out this round” he said, waving his hands above his cards like a conjurer. Alonzo smirked, a flicker of drool running from his pudgy lips and angled his finger around the table at the next player, a tall Norscan who kept moving his cards back and forth in his hand as if that would make them transform into better ones. A bid was made, and the wagering continued, Alonzo keeping time with his finger turning like a ticking clock. When he came to bet, he licked his fingers like he always did, and thumbed his cards like the edge of a knife. He licked his lips with greed and called the bet. Another line of drool slipped over his lips, as if he could taste his winnings already. Alonzo rubbed his thumb across his chin, smearing grease into the drool, and when he pulled his hand back, noticed the blackness. By then it was too late – his tongue had already tripled in size and gorged his throat with black sludge. Two more players hit the floor second later, their hands swollen into hideous mitts, the poison working its way greedily up their arms. The Norscan, giant that he was, managed to draw his sword and cross to the monkey trainer, but he had no strength left to bring his weapon down. He did however provide the perfect distraction for Astaran to slide his blade through the monkey-trainer’s throat from behind. The blade stuck out like a bizarre second tongue as the body went limp beneath it. Blood soaked the stones. The puddle quickly swallowed the monkey’s corpse, the poison that it had carried on its feet to the cards now burning its limbs away to a horrid grey dust.

Parasco took the blade from his elven master as always and began to polish it fastidiously with his silken kerchief. “However did you know not to touch the cards, oh maestro?” Parasco asked without looking up. Astaran smiled with only a hint of grimness. “It is as the old saying of the islands goes, Parasco. Never trust a monkey.”

Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Daredevil (Series One)

Part three in a seemingly unending, inescapable series. Part One covered Archer and Part Two covered Leverage but with Jessica Jones hype going crazy I decided it was time to look back at what we learned from Le Homme De Sans Peur. Spoilers for series one herein.

1. Prologues Are Fun

Humans like repetition. That’s why call-back jokes are funny. Playing with timelines allows us to do the pre-call-back where we see something we know is important later, and we love seeing the pattern begin. This is why we love prologues, and a huge part of Daredevil’s fun was seeing him get his billy club, his costume, his nickname and so on. RPGs tend to trade on unpredictability, however, and that is part of their appeal: we never know where the dice and random player choices will take us so the story is always fluid, always unfolding. So how can we have the fun of prequels? The only way is to give up some of the predictability, but as Daredevil proves, there’s a powerful payoff for it, so don’t be afraid to do so. You can actually start your characters at a point in their lives and then run a flashback to how they acquired their stats but an even simpler way is simply to plan ahead. We have a bad habit of designing our characters fully-formed, beginning with all their accessories, abilities, allies and resources in place, because that’s fair and point-balanced and we feel awesome. But what if you designed that character, and then went back in time for the first X sessions? You know at the end everyone will end up equally cool, but now you get to find out how and why those things come into your life. Took telekinesis? Play out the adventure where it first happens and you suddenly can read minds. Wear a costume? Have the scene with a dressmaker (like Edna Mode) discusses options. This doesn’t distract from the plot it becomes the plot – Edna is how Mrs Incredible finds her husband, remember? Over the Edge taught us that every stat should have a visible tic expressing it somehow, but every stat can also have a backstory and it’s better to play that backstory so it emerges naturally and so you experience it. Write it and it’s just a stat. Live it, and it matters.

2. Levels Are For Stories Too

Levels, like classes, have a bad reputation in gaming, and for good reason: they can kill games dead. Too often we think in this theoretical world of gamification where XP is only reason people play and not handing it out would be anathema and then before we know it our heroes have outgrown our campaign and nothing seems to matter any more. You can’t motivate them to save the princess when they could punt the king into the next country with zero consequences. Daredevil shows us leveling done right: it’s subtle because the universe expands around him as he goes. He starts off taking a beating from fairly low level street thugs and ends taking a beating from an extremely tough ninja – which is why his battle with Madam Gao’s men went a lot better than his battle with the Russians much earlier on. Part of this is simply making sure your opponents also level up, of course, but the other part is making sure your story levels up. The ninja isn’t just tougher to be tougher, he’s tougher because he’s the head of the Yakuza, and is one step closer to Fisk. You don’t have to link it directly to the opponent in question, of course; the fight to take down the Russians is hard because Fisk sics the cops on Matt, which makes the fight an equivalent level of how important it is to unlock Owlsley, the next step to Fisk. Every time the difficulty level of the game goes up, they do so in parallel with more being revealed about the bad guy and with the stakes rising. We never get to meet the girl the Russians took but we get to know Mrs Cardenas personally because we’re now another step up – and finally the last victim is Ben Urich is all-but a PC. Daredevil’s 13 episodes are a masterwork on how to structure a plot that unfolds in stages with perfect clockwork, something we’re getting a lot more of now that the new TV lets writers plan their whole shows out in advance (True Detective also does this well). If you’ve got a level system, you have the same deal: a number of discrete episodes which have to happen in order. You must make sure your plot levels up each time the players do.

3. Know How To Lose A Fight

Level-appropriate fights are not an exact science. Especially if you want your game to feel scary, gritty and dangerous. But players tend to see RPGs as a game, and in a game you lay down your forces against the opponent and fight until one person wins. Some games have rules for resigning but most games of chess go to checkmate or stalemate as the expectation. But in most RPGs, our resource at hand is life points and if we fight until we lose we get the dreaded Total Party Kill which is awesome but also kills the fun. But one of the things that made Daredevil great was the sense of cost and difficulty, which meant he got beat down a lot. He lost a lot of fights and those he won he did with the kind of damage that would have ganked the mage in the party for sure. The writers could do this because they wrote in ways for Daredevil to lose without it seeming unbelievable (the inevitable James Bond excuse where they don’t instantly kill him for no reason) or blocking the story from progressing. Clare “Night Nurse” Temple is a character who exists to let Daredevil lose fights and make that interesting and plot-driving, and his deal with the Anatoly allowed him to survive a fight he knew he couldn’t win. Daredevil’s vigilante status also means he has to run a lot, and he’s willing to dive into rivers and sewers and dumpster to hide and catch his breath. If you want your game to be gritty you need the PCs to lose fights and they’re not going to do that just because the odds are against them: you have to build narrative architecture into your story so that losing feels awesome and doesn’t cost them too much. System architecture can also help, like the Hero Points in Mutants and Masterminds that you only get for being beaten, but without fluff architecture (to coin a phrase) it won’t have nearly as much resonance.

4. Bad Guys Have Their Own Issues

The stakes are high, the difficulty immense, the cost enormous. Everything about Daredevil tells us that his task is impossible, which is why it’s so powerful when he succeeds. Watching the Kingpin go from untouchable, godlike shadowy mastermind to a man without allies or empire or standing, broken and bloody at Daredevil’s feet was a hell of a cathartic arc. You also want your players to feel they too have achieved the impossible and brought down the gods themselves, but there is always a risk in overselling your villain: you can stretch believability that he would fall, no matter how someone fights. Indeed, Daredevil hammers home again and again how impossible it is to fight Fisk and win. Yet we never feel it is unbelievable that he falls. Why? Because Daredevil isn’t the only factor in play. Owlsley is a sneak. The Russians are temperamental. Madam Gao is cautious. The Yakuza have their own stuff going on. And most importantly, Fisk has weaknesses. He’s distracted by newfound love. He’s emotionally fragile which causes him to start a war with the Russians when he didn’t need it. His need to stay out of the public eye makes him vulnerable to exposure. He committed a crime and has gone unpunished. He has a mother that can expose him. He’s invisible because he’s a Rabbit in a Snow Storm, and when the snow is gone, his white fur is exposed to owls(leys). You absolutely want to sell your villains to your PCs as unstoppable badasses that they cannot imagine how to destroy. But then you need to give them the hint of hope by giving those bad guys a weakness. Make their lieutenants or goons disloyal or afraid so the PCs get the idea of turning them against their master. Make their base be on an unstable volcano (to avoid detection?) so that they get the idea of making the volcano erupt. This is much better than the villain making a stupid mistake like letting the heroes live or falling in love with one of them or standing too close to the monster cage, or having the PCs be forced to come up with some outlandish deux ex machina. Ghostbusters was a great film, but it would have been better if Ray had realized in prison, say, that the telemetric structure of the building created an unstable vortex, that the very power needed to summon Gozer meant you could overload the circuit. You don’t want bringing down a god to feel like cheating.

5. Puns Are Awesome

Puns have a bad reputation. Mostly this is because they’re the easiest joke for children to learn (and one that helps them learn as they see how the language they are developing can have two meanings or can sound the same) so they’re usually done in a childish manner. But there’s a reason that writers as deft as Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer and Pratchett use puns so often. It’s because puns are a form of subtext, and subtext is the greatest thing humanity has ever invented, in my opinion, which is why I fell in love with Daredevil the moment I saw the title of episode two, “Cut Man”. What’s the use of subtext, though? It’s not just a linguistic stunt to make the writer (and the audience) seem clever; subtext exists so you can send information on as many levels as possible, producing a more nuanced and rich portrait of your characters and narrative. Linking Fisk to a rabbit and his rival to an owl told us about Fisk’s vulnerability both temporally and psychologically. Having him break eggs to make an omelet made him sympathetic as it reflects his grander vision. Having Matt Murdock be blind tells us how important law and justice is to the character. And these things work on you subconsciously without you even noticing them. Are such subtleties worth playing with in an RPG? Depends on how much your players want to listen, but you should never throw away a way to communicate. Warhammer is full of puns but they serve a purpose: the castle is called Wittgenstein so you get a hint they are trying to reanimate the dead (sounds like Frankenstein). A character is named after Margaret Thatcher so you know she’s evil. And so on. These cues tell you how to play the game in the most dramatically and narratively appropriate ways, and can guide you even subconsciously to the most satisfying story and character moments – and make those matters resonate further because they’re hitting two parts of your brain at once instead of just one.

Supers in particular are built on coded imagery and visual subtext, not to mention actual visual and verbal supertexts like having your bad guy called Dr Doom, so they would be bereft without rich visual and verbal puns. But it doesn’t stop with supers. Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson of Daredevil is that supers is now an extremely unfixed genre that tells you nothing about the style of the story, which is why Daredevil felt more like the Wire than a four-colour comic. The point is: great storytelling is never genre-specific. Puns work everywhere. Prequel call backs are fun everywhere. Unfolding villain weaknesses and story structure work everywhere. And every hero gets more awesome if can take a licking now and then. These are your tools. Without them, you’re flying blind.

See what I did there?

The GM Screen is Not Your Friend

Now, let’s start by saying I don’t mind if you use a GM screen. I’ve been known to use one myself at times. Nobody wants to go down the insanity of One-True-Way-ism as they used to call it on RPGNet, the idea that there is only one way to roleplay that is proper or mature or purposeful. The GM Screen is a tool, and if you find it useful, use it, and if you don’t, don’t. But like every tool we use it behooves us to examine how and why we use it, and what unconscious benefits and drawbacks are built into that.

As I previously discussed when I pointed out the character sheet is not your friend, the game space is divided generally into two areas: the personal, where we examine our personal information, our character sheet or player board or cards, which in some games is private, and the shared, where we focus our shared attention and energy. Chess is a game with no personal space, Battleship is a game with no shared space, Bridge is a game where the whole mechanic is based on trying to determine what is in the personal space based on what happens in the shared space.

The GM screen is part of the core dynamic of the traditional rpg which says that the shared space is imaginary (or, if mapped, produced on the go), and is created by everyone using the tool in front of them. The players get single actors in the universe, who uncover the shared space by their actions, while the GM shows what they uncover. That’s why he needs a shield, because there’s the assumption that the game is part mystery. And that’s fine, up to a point. There are definitely cool things to do where you want it to be a mystery and the players to uncover it. The problem is not everything works that way, yet we apply it to everything.

A lot of GMs don’t use a screen and suffer no loss of mystery, because there isn’t much visual to hide and because – and this is the important bit – WE DON’T REALLY LOOK AT ANOTHER PLAYER’S PERSONAL SPACE. We can and occasionnaly we might lean over and go “what have you got?” but this is actually a key element of character-based games: we play them as if we’re playing Bridge and our hands are hidden. It happens in Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill and Dead of Winter and Last Night on Earth and every single board game where you have your character and they have theirs. It’s just how we operate as human beings. If there’s something in front of each person, that’s their thing, and we don’t mess with it and we avoid thinking about it because it doesn’t belong to us. And so we don’t care.

The best example I can show you of this is that there are some cultures in the world (and you’ll have to forgive me for not being able to name them right now) which consider the idea of individual meals on plates to be insane. After all, we sit at a table to share a meal, so why have something sitting in front of you that cuts you off from others, out of the central space? Food is in the centre, and everyone gets a fork.

Even without the screen, we cut ourselves off from other players and their character information. But the screen makes it worse because it encourages it all the more so. It tells us this is a simulationist world where we can only know each other in the shared imagination space. That I can only tell if Sally is playing a Karate Cop if she describes what she does and what she looks like and communicates thusly that she is a Karate Cop.

That. Is. Bonkers.

The GM screen’s typical orientation works the same way: rules on the inside, pictures on the outside. Rules are how we construct something but it is done personally and privately, the shared space is where we reveal that, but using only images and description. There’s a rule suggestion in the original Unknown Armies (no idea if it’ll make it to third edition) which suggests GMs should never tell players how much damage their characters took, so as to simulate the fact that injured people, unless they’re paramedics, have no idea how badly they are injured. The problem with that is that it forgets what numbers are FOR. Yes, they keep things fair but they also add random elements to the story that nobody can predict, and even more importantly THEY COMMUNICATE INFORMATION ABOUT THE WORLD. If you have 12 hit points, being hit for ten feels like a huge damn thing. Being told that your guts are hanging out after a hit may not, in fact, have the same punch – at least, not on its own.

Now, that assumes you think like that, of course. Some people do not think in numbers. And some people do. The point of using both at once is to accommodate both types of thinkers. The real sin, here, though, is the sin that the GM screen implies upon us: that the GM should do all the numbers, and the players should do all the imagining. The pictures are facing the players, the numbers the GM.

Now again, this can be important for some kinds of players. Some GMs love numbers and love doing all the crunching for players. Some players literally cannot take in all the numbers and love that when they play RPGs they just stay in character until the GM tells them what dice to roll and what it means, and they never have to learn the rules – they’ll even describe their character to the GM and get the GM to make up the best mechanical version of that. For beginners, that can be a great model to follow. But it’s not always the answer. If players want to communicate in images, why doesn’t the GM get to? Why do you even need numbers at all if that’s the most awesome way to share information? Why not make a system that’s about talking in descriptions, rather than make a system that’s full of numbers and force one player to use the numbers and everyone else to use descriptions?

It hammers home this idea that GMs are performers. That they are presenting a show to their players, who can move the story in different ways but are still engaging more passively, waiting to be entertained. Where there is less expectation for players to engage with the rules there will also be less expectations for players to engage in storytelling. Sometimes I’ve seen GMs see what the player rolls and then describe for them how cool they look. And again, that’s fine if that’s how you want to play. But understand the assumptions behind it. And if the GM is expected to do all that work, understand that he needs cool pictures inspiring him more than anybody else, so they should not be facing outwards.

For me, when I game, I’m all about energy. Whether GMing or not, I want to feel energy pouring into the table from all sides. Playing with people who show up to watch a show is not my idea of fun because it’s like putting on a Shakespeare play for grumpy teenagers. They lean back, they make jokes, they ask too many questions, they don’t attempt to buy in, they never send forth the energy. But of course they don’t – you’ve built a shield to hide all the energy from them, and you’ve told them they never should and never need to look beyond that shield. And then forced you to try and captivate them using only your ability to tell stories and present imagery. You’re not playing a game with your friends. You’re trying to do Hamlet in a school cafeteria. No wonder people are so afraid to GM, and so easily burnt out.

If you’re using dice and mechanics to build a story, you should consider if everyone should be part of that equation. Players should know the rules and look things up for you. And the information on the inside of the GM screen should be available to everyone, right in front of them. Maybe even in the shared space. And the pictures should be too, of course, because we’re not turning off our imaginations. That’s the opposite insanity, that numbers take you out of your Total Immersion Experience. I get it, you don’t want to break up an incredible dramatic in-character moment with having to look through an index for how to make a charisma check while on fire. But at the same time, your rules should be sitting there saying “do this cool thing with these numbers TO MAKE AWESOME STORY COME OUT”.

Imagine if in theatresports and improv only one player knew the rules, and he had to run around in the background making sure nobody blocked or wimped on an idea, but never used those terms because that would break the illusion of the shared scene for the other actors. It would be a disaster. And it would be massively unfair on that one player. Asking players not to use mechanics is the same idea. If you’re using a game, everyone should be playing the game. And that means rules on the outside, pictures on the outside. Or get rid of the rules altogether and just use the pictures.

Threeforged: Addressing the Critics for “It Is Forbidden”

And now I’m going to respond to people who were kind enough to review my third-stage game.

Adam McConaughey said:

“Genre: Anthropology Experiment” made me chuckle. Adam asks if the game is fun, or just a lecture? I don’t really know. We had fun with the playtest but it is also a lecture. I’m watching racism tear my country apart, I figure we could use the lecture. Adam got the concept though and was first to review so hooray!

it’s a little bit Dog Eat Dog, a little bit Breaking the Ice, a little bit The Quiet Year and a little bit It Was a Mutual Decision.

Dog Eat Dog was sort of an inspiration but more that the two games come from the same rage. Never read the others. Microscope was the main inspiration, and Lexicon games.

Meguey Baker said:

Art and layout! Above and beyond credit for that, folks. Basically, a game of religious zealots clashing against each other. I’m probably not reading it deeply; I can see the fun there, it’s just not for me. The one part that made me pause was the last paragraph, about playing in other scopes than cultures, Talking about micro-societies clashing suddenly makes me take notice. So yeah. this goes on the “I’d play that if I really dug the folks playing'” pile.

Interesting that she says “religious zealots” because that couldn’t be further from the intent – the point is to illustrate that all cultures are somewhat zealotic, we just forget our own culture is. It shows how much we associate the phrase “It Is Forbidden” with religion (and I didn’t help by including pictures of Lot and Adm and Eve). I almost called the game Thou Shalt Not (ala Blake). I agree that the most interesting part is using for non-traditional culture clashes and micro-cultures. I want to run a game of it set in a shared house. Generally, I ONLY play with folks I dig, so I understand that!

Grant Howitt said:

A game about a clash of cultures in the Dog Eat Dog and Chronicles of Skin vein. Very cool-looking, and without a lot of the baggage the other two had so maybe an easier sell on game night?

I was hoping that it might end up being less “dark” than Dog Eat Dog by presenting both sides as neutral. A thought exercise more than a lecture, one hopes.

James Iles said and then later said more:

An expansion and reframing of Dog Eat Dog’s rule-layering system to tell the story of two culture’s increasingly fraught interactions. The system is good, and it’s really nicely organised to teach the game to you.

I deliberately didn’t reread Dog Eat Dog until I’d written the whole game so I wouldn’t overlap. Turns out there’s overlap anyway, because culture works by intuiting rules from narratives. The key difference, as I see it, is in Dog Eat Dog the natives are trying to guess what rules they broke so they don’t suffer again; In Forbidden, the lawmakers will simply tell you what you did wrong. “No, you can’t eat that rabbit you caught because it’s Friday, you stupid savage”. Microscope was a big influence on the teach-as-you-go organisation so I’m super glad it came through.

The game is pretty cynical – there’s no way to deescalate tensions until things are about to break out into open warfare, and the game enforces that all attempts to make reparations will only cause further insult or injury – but so long as your group is up for this kind of downbeat allegory it should work well.

Cynical is an interesting word. It does suck that things always get worse and there’s no hope. Does anyone have any ideas about breaking that up? Maybe once per round you can play a chip to get what you want? Or you can succeed as long as your character is punished for breaking the law?

Charlie Etheridge-Nunn said:

After all the chat at the start about the similarities to games like Dog Eat Dog, it’s good to see the differences right away. ….
It feels quite prescribed, but has a lot of potential, especially for a very large group. One of the things which interests me the most is the alternate settings such as a new neighbour moving in or possibly teams integrating in a workplace. The same tribal concepts as the basic game has, but in a different setting.

Charlie saw the differences. I would love to test it with a large group; it felt to me like something good for a classroom. If you have 12-20 people, please run it for me! And again, pick any setting! I’m going to put something more in the final version (already much enlarged) about different settings to use. Maybe a random table to roll on, or a list of inspiration.

Kirk Dankmyer said:

The rules are clear, and there’s a running example that’s in a fantasy world. The game is very freeform, but what it does establish, it establishes clearly. It sounds brutal, and I really want to play it.

Kirk did an excellent recap of the rules as well so I recommend reading it to get the gist of the game. He used italics in his review which made me do a big fist-pump: success is measured in emotional reaction.

Phill Calle said:

The game’s rules are few, and the few that exist are integral to the game and explained in detail. It is an elegant work.

Thanks Phill! Might be a cover quote!

Ivan said:

No dice, no cards, no randomisers. Perfect party game and handy educational tool about identity and prejudice. Best played with a lot of people and great for social gamers. A brilliant alternative to Werewolf/Mafia. 

Best bit: you’ll always have half the room opposing you and the other half backing you all the way. 

Verdict: Elite.

Very flattering. Hadn’t even thought of it like Werewolf because those games are about secrecy and lying. But it is like them in that you can, I hope (and as Grant also said): get people into it with very little effort. And it snowballs so you become more invested over time, unlike how many story games demand you invest hugely at the start. Makes me think it is worth publishing.

Daniel Lewis PLAYTESTED the game and said:

I had mixed feelings on this one, too. It tells a Dog Eat Dog-esque tale of two peoples, natives and newcomers. Except, in truth, it doesn’t really tell a tale at all. It is closer to the The Quiet Year in that it isn’t really a roleplaying game as much as it is an exercise designed to explore a theme. You can play the game in a more RP-focused manner, but we chose not to play it that way because 1) the rules seemed to heavily imply this was an optional style of play and 2) it looked like it would have a problem similar to Microscope, in which the RP seems disjointed and out of place. 

This one has a set-up process in which you answer questions about each team’s respective people. As I have mentioned before, I love set-ups that involve answering a list of questions, because it forces you to think critically about the setting, and this one is admirable in that way. The actual gameplay is a little less interesting, being played out over three rounds in which each player describes their people taking an action, and someone from the other people explaining how they stop them from doing it and then declaring a law by saying “It is forbidden to do X because . . .” You end up with a series of laws on each side, and then have a discussion as as group about whether the two people will go to war. It works fine, but each individual scene is not particularly exciting because the outcome for each turn is pre-determined, leading to no actual tension. 

In the end, there just isn’t much here. Everything works fine, but it’s all a little underwhelming. It took us less than an hour to play an entire game, but we didn’t really feel like we played a game. It felt more like a really complete set-up process for some other game. Again, nothing offensive here, and everything works ok; it just needs to be fleshed out. 

The transition into roleplaying can be a big issue in Microscope and when playing Microscope I never demand roleplaying, I wait and see if the group wants to. But that to me is okay because with or without roleplaying I find the game works fine, as long as you don’t want it to be an RPG but an exercise in shared creation (which can be used to set-up something else). So a lot of this for me was a success but I will put in a discussion of “to roleplay or not to roleplay”. Microscope does have the edge in that the roleplay determines an answer to the question whereas here the answer is already known. I think for me that’s okay because I’ll be sure to emphasize that since you know the answer, you’re roleplaying to determine the question. I’ve already added some to the game along these lines: you’re not supposed to just go “I make a boat” “No you can’t make boats”, you then need to go “well, why?” “Because travelling on the ocean is forbidden because that’s where the bad people live…” I need to play with this more; my playtests before the submission didn’t roleplay scenes at all (but proved it was an acceptable game for non-roleplayers).

K.N. Grainger said:

Overall I think this has potential, but currently it struggles to sufficiently differentiate itself from Dog Eat Dog. Currently both games share many traits that are distinctive. I like the amendments made so far – the unique roles, the way that the factions are equally represented, and that the intent is to provide a more neutral tone. However, more can really be done to make this game independent and have a little more ‘umph’ behind it.

I’m trying to add umph with a great emphasis on how to use Roles and different ideas of what a culture is but I can’t think of much else! As a lot of people said in the whole threeforged thing, it can be really hard to think of what a game needs. I didn’t feel like the word counts were too big (the opposite) but sometimes you look at something and go “it’s done”. Threeforged was a great way to help designers push past that, so if anyone wants to stage FOUR It Is Forbidden let me know…

Lowell Francis said

Images are clearly older, out of copyright, but probably ought to cite sources? Guides for the questioning process to establish the premises? OK. This is pretty great. Solid, well-written and it deals with questions I had right away. Looks cool and I would definitely play this. 

Do we need to cite sources in a competition like this, not actual publication? I know respect for artists matter, but all my images were public domain, and I’m not even sure they have an identifiable source…but hooray for liking it!

The Gauntlet Podcast said (in a podcast!, the 1:07 mark, and they playtested it!):

-name checked The Quiet Year again. I really should read it

-also talked about the “do we roleplay” question (said the rules assumes no, which is  fair)

-it took 20 minutes to play, feels like a setup. Happy with the set up idea. The speed is…interesting. We also saw that in our playtest but again, the Werewolf thing comes in; the speed is a huge help for making it accessible.

-so quick it becomes dull, empty, not much impact – no tension because outcomes are set – a resolution mechanic might help?
– the third round devolves into “MURDER IS BAD”. This comes up a lot. Insult is actually much more interesting, because nobody likes being murdered. I tried to address this in the stuff I’ve added because every society has conditions under which murder is okay and you want to tease out the specific law. But maybe the whole third round needs to be fixed. Hrm. Maybe we go Annoyance, Insult, Injury instead of Insult, Injury, Death?

So overall it works. I’m not too concerned about the “Microscope problem” because I’ve seen Microscope work well with those transfers and I’m okay with the game being an exercise. I do think maybe the scenes/interactions could use some kind of extra way to resolve so there’s more tension and might provide more of that elusive oomph.