In which a trend is noticed

“Kill each other or we’ll kill you all” said the evil disembodied voice.

There was a pause.

“Oh god another fucking trolley problem nerd” sighed the every man, sitting on the floor..

“LIKE OH MY GOD” said the girl pretending to be brave who might in the third act turn out to be a psycho, “Could we have a lunatic puppet-string-puller who for once moves beyond simplistic utilitarianism?”

“Or someone not reducing philosophy to Hobbesian simplicities?” screamed the old woman who was more hardcore than she appeared. 

“Maybe you could just have a youtube show and yell at liberals?” suggested the quiet disabled man who would almost certainly be used as a metaphor for society’s dark Nietzchean tendency to worship the superman. “Or watch Saw and masturbate? I mean it’s much cheaper.”

“WE DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR SAW FAN FIC” they yelled in unison, then sighed as they realised this was the inevitable early act unification against the oppressor which would soon be replaced with self interest, if experience was anything to go by.

“And Saw was pretty bad anyway!” said the funny one, and they all agreed. A few made jokes about insanely complicated traps and people who jerk off to Rube Goldberg.

“It’s not just bad philosophy,” said the smart immigrant who had not yet spoken. “It’s bad science. A brief psychological questionnaire could predict within 90% how we will all behave in this scenario. And we’ve got studies showing these thing in action.”

“Nor does it stand up as art,” sighed the brave girl who was clearly artistic because she had dyed hair. “We’re all cliches stuck in a cliche revealing a cliche”

“Well actually,” came the spooky disembodied voice, “I’m making a point about enslavement to corporations”

“No you’re not!” shouted back the old woman. “First of all, you don’t get to decide what your point is, the author has no singular authority. Second of all, by reinforcing that humans are monstrous and selfish, you’re just convincing them more and more that they deserve to be enslaved. You are doing the work of any force you might be hoping to criticise. And that’s being generous, and assuming your theme is visible through your endlessly recycled jetsam of stolen tropes.”

“Look,” said the voice. “I spent all summer setting this up and I could have been about doing the sex with hot ladies. So you’re going to shut up and play my game”

“I have a question” said the smart immigrant.


“Is this about ethics in games journalism?”

“Nice work” said the funny one.

There was some swearing on the intercom and the sound of something being knocked over. Probably he should have taped this earlier, the hostages thought to themselves. By the time the intercom came back on they had agreed amongst themselves to radically resist the oppressor by refusing to act, while of course recognising that it would lead to greater misfortune in a utilitarianist sense, yet reconciling that with an act of love and political resistance that might in fact have greater resonance and healing to the lives of countless others.

The disabled man did some shadow puppets and they ate the icecreams in the snack machine and generally, it was a pretty good film for once.

The sinister voice on the intercom wrote in his blog that the experiment was a complete success, because he actually meant to inspire people to work together, but nobody believed him or cared. A lot of the hostages had dogs and cats waiting for them, and they got to go home and hug them and that was awesome. Especially for the dogs.




So I wrote a game about culture clashes that is a little bit DOG EAT DOG (now in a shiny new edition) and a little bit DIALECT (holy crap it got $100,000 wtf how do I get that kind of cash?) and a little bit Microscope (actually a link to Ben Robbins’ latest game which has just a few hours to go on Kickstarter) and some people think it’s cool.

At PAXAus I got to play it for the first time since its release (which raised a bunch of cash which helped me out immensely). We didn’t have time to roleplay very much or let everyone have a scene in each era, but it’s a very expandable and compressible game. In 25 minutes, we told the story of these two cultures, presented here to preserve them and tantalise you about this exciting game that is only available under special circumstances.

The original culture call themselves the Boomiputra. Their land has very bountiful soil, but is troubled by floods. They are confused by the newcomers because their blouses are too flouncy. Their culture has no priests, for they find religion strange; their ways are kept by a rule of law and the stories of culture, not some mumbo jumbo about sky gods.

The new arrivals call themselves the New Romantics. They find this land full of beauty and are horrified to see the Boomimputra tearing it up to plant seeds. The land lacks cafes, however, which is quite disappointing. They find the Boomiputra odd because of their unreasonable superstitions about werewolves (ie that they are no big deal). The New Romantics have no low born in their society as they are very big on equality and let none go hungry or be denied beautiful landscapes or delicious coffee.

The Laws of the Boomiputra are:

It is forbidden to remove the soil from one’s skin or one’s possessions, for it is life.

It is forbidden to tamper with the soil, for it is life.

It is forbidden to besmirch another person’s reputation unless a crime is proven.

The Laws of the New Romantics are:

It is forbidden to make non-picturesque landscape.

It is forbidden to cut down trees, for they are pretty.

It is forbidden to do science that may cause autism in children.

The New Romantics laws prevent the Boomiputra from farming and caring for the land, and the laws of the Boomiputra make having a clean cafe and a nice view impossible. Eventually, the Boomimputra try to create a new kind of plant that can survive in soil without trees, but soon the New Romantic press accuses them of causing autism in children. This is libel against the good name of a Boomiputra citizen – so the newspaper is closed by an act of force. Protests break out. War is prevented, but a Boomiputra farmer suspected of having these dangerous seeds is killed by a New Romantic activist.

Is that a crime, or a necessary act to save children’s lives? And under whose law will the criminal be prosecuted? Those questions had to wait as time was up.



PAX 2016 Jetsam: In No Particular Order

My biggest impression of the con was that board games are huge (basically half the show) and growing, the barriers between the two are evaporating and Australia is leading the way in both. We’re not the 200 pound gorilla but the world has noticed that we are entering that nascent period of hyper-innovation that comes when everyone catches on to a great idea at once. This is THE scene to watch, internationally, because it’s where the exciting new vibe is right now. We aren’t just getting that games are huge and commercially viable and culturally important, but that they are something we can excel at uniquely as Australians and – most importantly – that they are an ART FORM. Melbourne International Game Week and GCAP inspired an art display at the State Library which wasn’t just about games, but took for granted that games were important, and was looking at fringe games with artistic and political radicalism. To borrow a comic metaphor, this is our Watchmen moment (let’s not screw it up).

Indeed, Philip Minchin was walking around trying to get support for a government body about games – like the AFI is for movies. It’s going to happen eventually, it needs to start now. Find out more about what he does at his website or the Australian Play, Imagination and Learning Institute (hoping to be the AFI equivalent) or the Australian Play Alliance. He’s also a game consultant which I want to be. The TGDA were kicking ass with their booth as well, and the example of their work was the proliferation of Aussie games around them. Alex Wynnter is a powerhouse for the TGDA and ran a great booth.

Thanks to twitter I’m not going to report everything wonderful I heard and saw but I have a bucket of stuff to go through and report on and link you to. I tipped out my big bag of handouts, remembrances, business cards, tweets and notes and I will share them as I pick them up. I like sharing things. This is a huge part of why I like cons and game events: a place where my skill set, values and bliss meet is a place of teaching and connecting. I’m the guy who loves nothing so much as telling person A that booth B contains everything they ever wanted, to the benefit of A and B.

Notes and Phrases

Sometimes I just write down phrases I like that I’ve never heard before. Here are some of those from the panels I attended and appeared on:

“Radical inclusion”

“Velvet Rope” – not a wall, but just the right to say who can and can’t come

“The Missing Stair Metaphor” – a problem everyone is familiar with so isn’t fixed until the person unfamiliar with it falls victim

“Penguin Herders” – people employed by a space/event to link new people to other people

The three components that make people break the rules and do “bad things”, regardless of their morality are Anonymity, Scapegoating and Peer Acceptance. We often forget the middle one – you need someone to be mad at. Making out that there are enemies encourages bad behaviour.

That said: “Asshole is not a protected category” and doesn’t deserve to be enshrined or protected.

“The Oregon Trail generation” – a US nickname for the people between X and Millennials, who have seen the computer/internet world grow, and can act as a bridge for Xers who don’t get it but might not also get how immersed the Millennials are, that they cannot possibly “unplug” because they live there. And expect the constant connection it provides as normal.

“Pervasive games” – the meeting of AR games and place games like Pokemon, games that become part of life/the environment

Solid Vertical Slice – a computer game term for showing a bit of all parts of a game/project

The Door Problem – a way to think about the intricacies of game design


Larpwright – someone who writes LARPs.

The world is generally isolating and crushing, millions times more so when people are being attacked online. Send hope and connection as often as possible; a million times more when people are being attacked.


Checkpoint – a group connecting mental health with video games. Which makes sense: in a gaming future where EVERYTHING is games, everything should connect with games.

Syrinscape is an ap that provides awesome background sounds for RPGs and tabletop games and LARPs. Free with in-ap purchases of suites. Heavy memory cost but a brilliant idea.

Alchemist’s Refuge in Melbourne is a bar that sits under a game store. Play space above, play space below. Also a physical example of how gaming is cross-culture now. I saw two old leather-clad barflies talking about Magic The Gathering power curves.

Also, Brisbane has two awesome new game cafes – Cafe SoSay in Paddington and Vault Games on Charlotte Street (which is freeeeeeeee).

The TGDA now has a magazine called the Campaigner. Well it’s already up to Issue 17 so I’m very late. Is a print zine useful still? Yes, because it can go into game stores and cafes and bars. Plus they have a great website. I talked to editor Matthew Lee about contributing but honestly there’s so much gaming going on I’m not sure I’ll have time…

Australian Games

At the TGDA booth Savage Yeti were playtesting a brain-burner area-control tile game called Cows and Sheep, and Karl Lange of Ark Angel Games had an amaaaazing game about mowing the lawn, which has that instant appeal of things that we all understand. Plus I’m a sucker for pun names – Mowtown.

A great game for families is Remarkable Rhymes of the Traveller’s Times from Humblebee Games, which is a simple idea: combine progressing fairytale telling with the Apples to Apples mechanic. Speaking of Kickstarters I got to help out on the Kingmaker booth, a seriously fun little bluffing and prediction game which was an INSANE success at the con. Look for it in KS next year. People were all but shaking us down to get pre-release copies.

Soon to come from the same scene is The Brigade from Red Genie Games and Reign from Garage Games and Illuminatus from Dark Mushroom Games I didn’t get to play any of them because there wasn’t ANY TIME. I also got a flyer for Wayfinder Live, which apparently is a free Augmented Reality game about running through the Melbourne Laneways. Also did not get time to play.

Mothership is an awesome looking not-whole-day-taking space wargame. Not for me but pretty as hell and skill trees for daaaays.

Because I’m a hideous nerd for games about medicine, I jumped on the Kickstarter for VAXCARDS a game about diseases. Not to be confused with the other game about diseases, the one where you are awesome anime style fantasy heroes but also antibodies. I can’t even find it now. I search and find all the other games about diseases OH GOD GAMING SINGULARITY.

I had no real time to go look at the computer games but two quickly caught my eye: Mini Metro which is about building a metro system efficiently (fun for map nerds) and Brief Battles which is another pun name – the battles are quick and involve hitting people with underpants.

And what better sign is there of a gaming golden age than a game about hitting people with your underpants?




Starting Something at PAXAUS

Fun fact: I have a box in my garage full of stuff from GenCon 2002. I can’t throw any of it out because it was such a transformative and emotional experience for me and every business card and freebie and prize I got felt like a precious treasure.

Somewhere online is my emotional, poetic reaction to GenCon Oz in 2008 where I talk about how I felt like a fisherman who spends his whole life in a mountain village where nobody eats fish and then one day travels to an ocean nation where his profession is the highest calling. My discussion of what happened at that con is this enormous diary. Also, as you will see, extremely emotional.

PAX was something similar. It was an assault on my senses and invigorated me in every part of the six health categories – physically (walking exercise), mentally, emotionally, socially, societally and spiritually. I am now going to try to make my attendance regular. I want to talk about the panels, the exhibitions, the trends…I may get to them in time. But the most important thing that happened was this:

Ben Scerri and I were discussing that while the TGDA (Tabletop Game Designers Australia) was going great, providing a real tangible service and community for its many members (and an amazing booth concentrating and displaying those benefits), the RPG design community of Australia had stopped talking to each other somewhat, at least compared to where we were at Gen Con Oz. Then we decided to do something about it. With incredible speed Ben gathered a meeting of RPG designer souls and we decided that this was a problem and we should do something to fix it. We had a guerrilla panel on the carpet and set up the RGDA.
Right now all we have is a Google+ group and a wild agenda to

Reduce the atomisation of the Australian RPG design community so as to share knowledge and work together in the pursuit of greater artistic output and greater commercial success

If you’re an Aussie game designer who wants to be part of this, join the group or otherwise get in touch. The first link has been forged, the chain begins.

Why I Didn’t Go to Art School

I am three years old and at my sister’s pre-school. I am quietly reading books to myself. I am discovered to be “gifted”. The next year I cannot go to kindergarten because I started screaming when the threat of parental separation looms.

I am five years old. I am at preschool. I have special lessons with my teacher, alone, where I do advanced work. We write a story together about a bird. The attention feels good. In the playground, nobody pays attention to me. I eat orange skin and everyone reacts. My nickname for a brief period is “garbage”. Maybe just a day. I like having a nickname.

A teacher from the primary school tells my mother I will be put in a gifted program. Years later I remember my mother ruefully saying that it never happened. I get the sense she hoped they would do whatever she couldn’t think to do.

I am six years old. I tell my mother I want to be a zookeeper. Later, she brings me out in front of her friends to repeat it. She says I am wrong. I want to be a zoologist. Zookeepers just sweep up monkey poop. I don’t think I am wrong.

I am in seven years old. I am sent to the headmaster over and over again. Only decades later, as an adult, do I discover why: I am throwing a tantrum every morning, terrified of going to school. The headmaster is trying to figure out why. I do my best to describe the stress of unrelenting standards I have developed in my head, but I am six, I don’t know what that is. I feel like I am being punished.

Nobody knows what to do with me – about me. I am sent back to my regular class. The regular teacher tells me, at six years old, that “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”.

I am nine years old. The class is divided into people who can work without supervision and people who work the old way. Without structure, I don’t know how to work. I deliberately play up to get busted down to regular work again. It feels right. The same year I am supposed to do a project. about olympic athletes. My mother teaches me how to cut corners and pad my word count.

I am ten years old. I am so strange my parents send me to drama school. I hate it. I throw a tantrum every time it is time to go. Eventually they send my sister with me to make me go. I win the lead in every single play, without trying. I still hate it. I don’t remember the applause, I remember the girl who beat me up back stage.

I am eleven years old. I am forced to enter a fiction contest. I envision a grand story about a boy meeting a grizzly bear who treats the boy like a wounded cub and saves his life. I imagine a long, complicated story, a story that gets away from me, that lives too much in my head and becomes hard to get down by the deadline. I go to my other in tears. She berates me. I tell her my story idea. She says it is stupid and cliche and childish. She tells me to go away and write something better. I write a story about a boy and his dog. It fits the bill.

We are choosing sports. I choose life saving because my friends like it and we get to go to the pool and I love the idea of helping people. My mother berates me. She tells me I should take tennis, because tennis is what people play with each other in society. Tennis helps you Get Ahead.

I am doing scholarship exams to get into important rich schools. To prepare I am doing previous exams. One of them stresses me out so much I get a headache and start crying. My mother berates me. She says I’m being stupid and childish. She tells me to go away and grow up.

I am offered class captain. I turn it down. I am offered school captain. I turn it down.

I am twelve years old. I am at the important rich school. I have a diary where you can write a secret. I write “I HATE SCHOOL”. I tape it shut. It is the worst thing I have ever written. It is the biggest sin I have ever committed.

The school has a magazine. I don’t work on it. My parents make that face. I have embarrassed them in front of nobody – just in front of themselves.

The school magazine comes out. As I have seen in films, I ask my class to sign it. They write rude insults all over it and draw penises. My parents berate me. I am forced to buy another one. They want one they can show their friends. The two are kept on the shelf in my bedroom. The one to show to their friends. The one that is real.

The worst thing I can ever do is embarrass my mother. That makes her go cold and dark and stare at me like she hates the very idea of me.

She stares at me like that all. the. time.

I do the science and maths prize competitions. I get high distinctions. One year I only get a distinction. I tear it up. The same year I get a C in geography. I tear up the marksheet.

I don’t do the maths olympiad or the physics olympiad. Parents and teachers wonder why. I drop out of computer club. I stop doing the prize competitions.

I am told to do theatre, after all I am “artistic”, probably. I compromise and go for backstage. I end up doing nothing but putting costumes in a box after the performance. I am invisible. I never go back.

I am told to do choir. I am artistic. I go to one performance. There are hundreds of people standing around. I slip away.

I join the chess club. I am generally terrible. I am in the E level team. The pressure makes me sick. I stop playing and start organizing the tournaments. I can get a “colour” for that, a thing that goes on your blazer to show off all the School Achievements you have. I have two things on my blazer. Most people have over ten. But organizing is easy. You stand to the side and you can’t win or lose.

I don’t go to the writer in residence. I don’t go to the poet in residence. I don’t enter my fiction into the school fiction collection. Teachers cluck their tongues. There’s this particular sound I know so well that people make when they believe you are wasting potential. My parents make that noise all the time.

There is a trip to the university to learn about careers in science. I decline to go. My very kind teacher says there is extra space, I’m not taking anyone’s opportunity away, and it will be okay just to go and miss out on class.

I bring home a pamphlet covered in shiny fake people. I tear it to pieces.

I am choosing my courses for university. My mother picks the ones I will be doing. I snap and scream that maybe I just want to drive a van. Then I choose the courses.

My mother says to join a society designed solely to network with rich people, because that’s what people do in society. That’s how you Get Ahead.

I get straight 7s the whole way through. I get first degree honours. I win a gold medal and a scholarship. I am invited to go and work at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I am given a pamphlet covered in shiny fake people. I tear it to pieces.

I spend all my time in maths class writing bad fiction and even worse RPGs. I am published – PUBLISHED! – in arcane magazine.

I don’t go to my graduation. I’m too embarrassed because I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything or done any work.

Instead of submitting work to other magazines to be judged and found failing, I start my own magazine. Organizing is easy. You stand to the side and you can’t win or lose.

I go into a PhD. I drop out because I am spending too much time writing a webzine on RPGs.

I spend ten years trying to work in statistics and hating every single second of it, and wondering why every moment I sit at work is a living hell, an agony of hate and despair. I try to kill myself several times.

I go to GenCon and am welcomed as an equal. I go to DragonCon and James Wallis admires me writing as first class. Patrick says I am a natural journalist. For the first time in my life, praise doesn’t cut like a knife. The rain falls down after that day and I feel like I might be good at something. The child prodigy, the genius, the medal winner…

but none of that was mine. It was to please someone.

And art is tainted too, somewhat. I was SENT to drama school. I was SENT to theatre. They screamed at me to go to writers camp. (Friends berate me to write novels, write RPGs, make games, get it out, get it published. Their words are knives in my heart.)

I don’t join anything because nothing is mine.

Everything I did belonged to them.

And at the same time, art wasn’t real, even if I’d wanted it. They pushed that, even as they never understood it. Even when I was writing, when I did the magazine, I was supposed to be an accountant. You had to make money. You had to Get Ahead. Or if not, at least be SMART, for god’s sake. A zoologist, not a zookeeper. You didn’t go to ART school. You had to Get Ahead and Be Smart.

When I first tried to write a book I wrote it down in secret. I didn’t tell anyone at all. I wrote it in the secret box and taped it shut and it was the biggest sin the worst thing I had ever written.

Because when everything belongs to someone else, success at anything feels like betrayal of yourself. And wanting things is impossible. And trying is a weapon to your demons.


Things change.

Very very slowly.

This month I took a dog that has never known love and taught it the world was safe. I am a zookeeper.

And now,

I am forty years old

and I think maybe I could think about going to art school. Which is something people who like art do, I am told.

And want to do.

And nobody makes them.

That can’t be right, can it?



PAX AUS – Where I’ll Be

To find the Steve, seek out the Steve. I may do what I used to do at GenConOz and give prizes for those who do find me. But also, I have some big gaps in my schedule, so if you want to play something with me or if you want me to run/demo your game for others, then you know what to do. Otherwise in the big gaps I will be hanging around the tabletop areas, teaching people games and/or running my own games. These days I’m moving into the dev style of things so I’m going to panels to learn stuff and pimping stuff for others (this time).

UPDATE: If you find me and say the magic password – STEVE TRAIN – you get a MESSAGE badge for freeeee!

I will probably live tweet most of the panels I’m listening to, so stay tuned to my Twitter for hashtag fun. I really should be a journalist given it’s what I do anyway but PTGPTB is finished now.

If you want me to run something for you that I wrote, or buy a hard copy of a game that I wrote off me you need to TELL ME NOW so I can plan/bring one.

Thursday Night I will likely be at this event at the Melbourne Library  showing off some of Australia’s hottest new game designs for play.  Cancel that, I’ll probably be at the Tabletop Dev meet up, schmoozing. Oh who knows!


Morning – pretty much empty, I’ll be milling around going WOW at everything. Find me in the tabletop section or at a tabletop booth.

12:30-1:30pm A Panel about becoming an “influencer” which sounds interesting, at the Wombat theatre


3-4: Jobs in Video Games Panel for those who can’t draw or code – Gamespot Theatre

5 – 6: What would you tell yourself about getting into the gaming industry 5 years ago – Kookaburra Theatre

6:30 – 7:30 Creating safe gaming spaces, which the MESSAGE needs to know more about! – Kookaburra Theatre

7 – 9: Meeting tabletop game designers, maybe, and chatting with them. Not sure what this event is totally? – Tabletop Area.

9 – 10: Whose Panel Is It Anyway, Gamespot Theatre. Honing my improv comedy skills I hope.


10:30 – 11:30 Kickstarting Panel, Dropbear Theatre. Tips for the future, although I know this stuff pretty well I think. If anyone wants to game this morning again, buzz me.

12:30-1:30 Surviving Online Harassment Panel, Galah Theatre. Because as a man it’s my job to fix this problem.

2pm – 3pm: I am a guest on this panel about Diversity in Tabletop Gaming, Kookaburrah Theatre. Come hear my exciting stories about sexist jerks I’ve worked with… (not really). We’ll be taking it as read that diversity matters and looking at how to make it better, with real strategies we can take away.

3:30 – 4:30pm: The Great Debate: Will the Golden Age Bubble Burst? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last year as mainstream acceptance has changed gaming incredibly. I don’t get to debate but I’ll be listening intently. Kookaburra Theatre.

5pm – 6pm: My Friends Keep Leaving, how tabletop gaming is hard in an age of increasing social dislocation. Another topic close to me heart. Galah Theatre.

7:30 – 8:30 pm: Game Dev Explained With Sock Puppets. Because I need to learn more about how computer games are made. Gamespot Theatre.


10:30am – 11:30am The amazing Jimmy Reilly is running Starchildren, the first game I wrote for, on stage at the Dropbear Theatre, should be fun. Will be taking photos for Rich.

Then I’m pretty much free, so I’ll go back to skulking in the tabletop area and playing games. Again, if you need a body, ask me now. Like the journalism thing, I’m already going to be running around telling people how great games are and explaining why and teaching them to play, so somebody might as well be harnessing that for their gain.

UPDATE: The lovely people of Kingdom of Aer (makers of Kingmaker) have acquired the Steve Services. I also maybe hovering at Cosm Games’ booth. But you know, I’m open to offers.

Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Overwatch

It’s been a long time between Five Things. Sorry about that, I was getting some games published and setting up a patreon and trying to fix my website. Website still coming. Also, writing a game about the Old West, which came out great (pledge to the patreon for your copy) and a supplement for Daughters of Exile, which would by the way make a great game for playing Westworld, if you’re into that. But enough about me. Let’s talk about Overwatch. Because it’s not just films and TV shows and novels we can learn from…

  1. Recapitulation

Overwatch uses a trope that is well worn, but like most well-worn tropes, it’s well worn for a reason. Once upon a time, things were good, then they got all messed up, but maybe, now, they’ll be better. Once there was Overwatch, then it broke into pieces, now it’s back. This is a lovely combination of ideas because it produces instant nostalgia, paired with the beginning of the new, which are the two strongest forces of attachment there are. We ache for the past, we long for the new. (It’s the pattern of security and adventure.)  In sonata form, this is called recapitulation. Sonata form was developed during the Classical period of music, when people tried to hone music down to a science, to pick out the mathematically perfect elements of what made the emotions soar, without completely losing the complexity of Baroque music that came before. In sonata form, a harmony is exposited, then it is developed, then comes the recapitulation. Basically, the tone is set, then the harmony is broken, and we ache, at a primal level, for the harmony to return…the development holds us in this ache…and then gives us the release as it resolves to the original harmony and restates the exposition. Mozart is really good at this – listen as he sets you up, leaves you hanging, then brings you back.

It sounds ludicrously simple but the best tricks always are. And apart from the obvious human need for closure, it’s useful to understand why it works so well. How it combines our love for the old and the new, and how that provides a sense of history. Before we’ve even played a single game of Overwatch, we feel like we’re stepping into something old, yet something also about to start, at the same time. That familiarity makes it feel comfortable, which makes it much easier to learn all the new things. How can you use this in your games? It’s not just enough to have a big epic setting behind the scenes, you have to wire people into it. You have to craft scenes where players get connected to that history. We saw in the trailers Winston missing his friends, the two kids marveling at the museum. You have to put your players in the museum. Let them feel the weight of history. Then have history come crashing through their ceiling, and into the future.

2. Unity Over Division

The theme of Overwatch is “unity”. That is what the recapitulation is all about. They had unity, then they lost it, now they’re bringing it back. Well, sort of. Reaper and Widowmaker don’t want to come to the party, but unity is still the big calling card. You could see this as simply a nod to the fact that it’s a team game, but so was Team Fortress 2, and it divided the world into a Road Runner/Coyote battle between red vs blue. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s certainly better for comedy, for starters, but it is less emotional. Overwatch made us care, and not just through nostalgia. Competition is simple and fun but it doesn’t really hit us deep down in our values. Unity does. And that gave the game more heart, the kind of heart that sucks us in and makes us write fan fiction. The stuff that woobies are made of. Other powerful emotions rock through Overwatch too – betrayal, loss, loneliness, betrayal, shame, confusion…and it’s a good rule to put these kinds of things into your games too, to help people connect to the setting. But it’s tricky. Some emotions are just harder to build in a collection of chuckleheads rolling dice around the table.

But one emotion that isn’t hard to build is unity. A lot of RPG design and play focuses on difference and differentiation. Much of traditional roleplaying is built on how character A and character B have different skill sets and power sets that can compliment each other. It’s standard to see a party with halflings, elves, dwarfs and humans all on the same quest. So it’s important in all this division to lay strong grounds of unity. Most rule books suggest parties should have some cohesive overarching narrative to stick together but we’re so used to Random Bunches of Wandering Murderhobos teaming up because they’re next to each other we forget to do it all the time. And games often devolve into shouting at each other and arguing about the plan until everyone gets unified into a combat scene because they can all agree the goal is to kill the orcs. Apply the same structure there is in combat OUTSIDE combat: everyone has different skills but they need clear goals and reasons to unite. Build it into the setting and even the mechanics if you have to. Too many games have died at their birth when the players have gone “wait, why do we hang around each other then?”. Stress unity so this doesn’t happen.

3. The Victory Lap

Blizzard is not a game that innovates a great deal. Their strength is in looking at what innovations other games are doing, and then taking the best of that. And arguably, perfecting it. One example of the latter is the way every game of Overwatch ends. First of all, we get the team pose. That’s more important than it sounds. Old arcade games used to do that too, and it mattered. It made us feel cool because there we were, on screen, being cool! It’s a small thing, but it actually matters a lot. So does the play of the game. Not so much for who wins it but just because it’s reminiscing. It’s instant nostalgia (see point one), right after instant unity (point 2). Then we have the bit where you vote for who was awesome, and you can vote for the other team! Hello sportsmanship mechanics, plus also a way to share energy. Creative theatre and improv sessions I’ve worked in encourage group energy building by sharing what we liked of other people’s activities and performances. It builds nostalgia, and it builds memory as you replay in your head the best moments and all the feels you created, helping you lodge them into long term memory.

How do you do this at the game table? You already do, I bet. Everyone likes to talk about that great die roll when the orc’s head came flying off. But you probably don’t do it enough, and you might not do it the right way. We all know that nobody wants to hear about your awesome character, because outside the game it doesn’t mean anything. And that’s the problem – you’re pushing the energy out, when it needs to go in. Take time to talk about what was awesome, at the end of the session, in chats between sessions, and at the start of the next one. Recaps tend to suck, nobody wants to jump in and explain, and all that people remember is the BAD things, usually (because that’s how our minds work). Don’t do that. Start – and END – every session not just by summing up the plot (and all the other organising trivia): take a moment to recap (short for recapitulate, seriously) the highlights. Strike a pose. Count coup. Upvote your favourites.

4. Character is Made From Contradictions

Overwatch punches above its weight in the character and story regard. In tiny little portraits it connects us to characters and gives us all the feels about them. How? With contradiction. With the break in the harmony, that has no recapitulation, and thus leaves us aching to heal their pain. What am I babbling about? Everybody’s got two sides. Winston is a big gruff killing machine – who we first saw as a tiny baby, showing off his keen mind and curiosity, which made him a great scientist. Tracer is upbeat and positive, despite her life being wracked by the tragedy of her time accident. Genji is a mechanical monster murdered by his brother, but has a good heart. Hanzo is a killer, haunted by his crimes. Bastion is a killing machine with a heart of an innocent. Reinhardt is a killing machine with the bad back of an old man. Even the villains have it: Widowmaker was brainwashed. Reaper was a good guy driven bad by jealousy. Every one is a one-two punch.

They sound familiar, but again, they’re familiar for a reason. The one-two punch is really good for instant character generation. Not only does the disharmony tug at our heartstrings, it gives them an immediate appearance of depth. We can see inner conflict, which we recognise in ourselves, and which will naturally drive stories. The way to use this in your games is to use it, if only as the initial sketch, for all your characters, PCs or NPCs alike. Come up with a one-two contradiction punch. And just because it’s familiar and simplistic doesn’t mean it can’t be subtle, deep and meaningful. A vengeful son who hesitates to strike is the one-two punch of Hamlet, and he’s famous for being complicated. Having two heads to your character also makes it easier for you to go along with whatever the story hook (and you SHOULD go along with it) – if one side won’t, the other side probably will find a reason to.

5. Don’t Be Afraid To Be Silly

Someone reminded me recently that the silly option is often the best one. Or at least, should not be off the table. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re going for, humans are silly creatures and if we don’t find something silly we will add it ourselves. So yes, you look at Overwatch and go okay I buy the gorilla and the robot but why is there a World of Warcraft dwarf and a cowboy? The answer is because they’re fun. This isn’t just the Rule of Cool though, but the Rule of Silly is worth adding to that one – the very silliness of the concept helps sell it, and silly is an important steam valve we welcome a lot more than we think we do. And we also like cool, too, which cowboys and dwarfs certainly are. Blizzard could have played it safe and cancelled those characters as not really fitting their hyper-modern almost-SF anime stylings, but they didn’t, because they recognised that players are players, and players like certain things. Cowboys and dwarfs, for example. And you gain as much in fun involvement, probably much more, than you lose in any break in “atmosphere”.

This doesn’t mean that atmosphere is worth nothing; Tobjorn has been adjusted to fitting with the weapons designers of the settings and McCree doesn’t look like Jack Marston. Tone and style matters. But as GMs we can all at times be guilty of not getting how a players idea fits with tone or style and we so want to make a deep emotional impression we pump the brakes. But the cowboy option is powerful for two reasons: One, because its player-facing, because it appeals to the kind of player who wants to do this so badly, and will love you forever for letting them, and will love their character all the more for being “allowed” to do it, that extra sense of permission and “rules breaking” adding extra fire to their connection with their character. Two, because as mentioned silly is a valve we all need, and it can make your game feel stronger in all sorts of tiny ways. It can heighten the darkness when set against it, and release the tension when it gets too much, and it helps the players feel that anything can happen. Silly is a key fuel for suspension of disbelief, in other words. Don’t count it out.

It’s a tool, like all the others, that lets players feel connected to their characters. That’s what Overwatch did in a few short strokes: made you fall in love with the characters. The rules help, but they punched out from the get-go with characters you want to ship, who have punchy contradictions, who are silly fun but cut with sorrow, hitting all our buttons at once. Plus the story combines nostalgia with excitement and hits our value centre by focusing on our loyalty to the tribe strand – and helps us connect to each other by sharing the love. You wish your games leapt out so quickly to engage our sense of fun, wonder, sharing and tragedy in a few splashes. But don’t just wish: take notes, and make it so.