Friday, September 18, 2020

Wonderful News!

Life can be weird for Demon City contributors, but The New Yorker has reported that Vanessa Veselka has The 2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Fiction for her new book The Great Offshore Grounds.

Vanessa wrote about just a few of the weird corners of the real world she knows about for Demon City, including The Flower Sellers and the Industrial Core in the Sketches section.

Here's the bit she wrote about the FBI for us, all laid out, click to enlarge it:

FBI Files by Vanessa Veselka

Field Offices and Files


The FBI has field offices in many towns where someone can walk in and ask to speak directly to an agent and make a complaint. All agents of a certain rank are required to do one desk shift a month. It’s about as loved a shift as KP duty in the armed forces. Even though all reports are recorded, the agent at the desk has full power to decide if you’re basically a “5150” (slang for ‘crazy enough to commit’ that comes from a California code) and note that on your report.

Who has records of unsolved murders?

In the public imagination, there is a great and perfect database tracking all unsolved murders with DNA matches, MOs, and the signatures of killers. There is not.

The part of the FBI that deals with serial murders is Kidnapping and Missing Persons. Traditionally the department is also grouped with Bank Robbery, perhaps because of the potential for hostages and repeat behavior. The problem is that when a missing person report is filed in one state, while a photo may be circulated, details are often not. Moreover, most reports are teenage girls who ran away so unless the girl comes from a family with money, access to news media, lawyers or social power, little attention is paid. This means if someone is killed in one state, and the body dumped in another, it’s unlikely to appear on anyone’s radar if the family doesn’t have connections or the story doesn’t attract media.  


The national homicide database (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program or ViCAP) is supposed to close this gap, but the database has always been a bit of a sham. Initially, the FBI asked local and state agencies to enter thirty years of unsolved homicide data. But entering the data is non-compulsory and the initiative came without extra funding for the hours needed or staff. As a result, many agencies never added their unsolved cases. There are other reasons data might not be entered.

1)    Detectives have to triage their cases and might be overwhelmed with current murders. They might want to see the data entered but can’t waste time on history right now.

2)    There are also turf wars between agencies. Local agencies might not want to share with state agencies and neither might want to deal with the FBI. They might fear that if their data goes in the FBI might get the criminal first and credit for the collar, which might affect promotion and career advancement opportunities.

3)    In urban centers, data might not get entered for political reasons. Police chiefs often don’t like the number of unsolved homicides a department may have made public.

4)    In rural areas or government-phobic backwaters, data might not get entered because of a general mistrust in any federal program.  As a result, the database has major holes, often in the places where most crime occurs. For many years the Texas numbers, for instance, did not include the Houston (as well as 28 other counties).

 The national DNA database, whose DNA gets entered and how, is also highly political.

In general…

City Police have jurisdiction over cities. Mayors usually appoint police commissioners so they are prone to behind-closed-door local politics (unions, special interests, favors etc).

Sheriffs have jurisdiction over and highway and rest areas. Sheriffs are often elected so prone to external political optics.

FBI has jurisdiction over everyone. Everyone hates the FBI.


Most states have an established time limit for keeping files. Once that time passes, a file that wasn’t linked to a homicide can be destroyed. The problem is that many files remain in missing person limbo because the body was never linked. Theoretically these records are digitized and stored in some way but many never made it out of paper form. Between 5-7 years most records that don't result in connection are at risk of being destroyed. 

In other news, a new Cube World is out--that's #23--and LotFP default-setting adventure called Screaming Lake 

It's 10$ and has evil priests and living sound. Enjoy.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Inside-Outside Dungeon

 You can get killed outside or inside...

29 pages plus. 15 bucks. Lots of art. Now available in The Store.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Right To Suck

So here's a thing a game designer said. It's a simple line of reasoning so I'll just quote it:

The first obvious conclusion here is that if this incredibly elementary idea wasn't even brought up, these game design circles this designer hung out in weren't exactly great or productive places to hang out and someone smarter should've been around.

But more importantly it's mind-blowing that "Do it if you can do it well" is presented as a conclusion to a train of thought rather than an easy second step. Because, of course, whether you did it well is subjective.

It's subjective not just in the sense of one snarky english major will argue that, say, Blood In The Chocolate is an effective satire of the perversity and brutality of colonialism and another snarky English major will argue it isn't and it just feels racist, (and the same dynamic is true for sex in Hot Guys Making Out, or Bliss Stage, or fascism in Warhammer 40k, or any other difficult issue in any other game) it is also subjective in a second and more important way:

Two actual people actually picking up the actual book or playing the actual game and dealing with actual (let's assume) totally valid trauma can have two different actual responses to the edgy art based on their lived experience. For one it may be therapeutic and for another it may be retraumatizing.


1. How the fuck does any adult end up with a platitude like "Just do it well"? How is that remotely acceptable as the cutting edge of thinking on whether you get to morally condemn a fellow human being for their art or not? 

2. And, subjectivity aside, how does anyone learn to "do it well" without doing it poorly a few times first?

Put your answers in the comments.




Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Demon City Coming Along

These just arrived from the graphic designer (yes, there are typos). Click to enlarge.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Unlimited Spellbook Rule

Somewhere, in all these dusty RPG books, a great idea got lost--that spells are for wizards, and wizards should have to look them up.

This is also a nice option for those of you who don't like Vancian magic's whole "out of spells for the day" thing.


Basic premise

A wizard can use literally any spell from any book they can find, including ones for higher-level wizards. Another edition, another setting, Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer, Shadowrun, Sea Dracula whatever. They can even use spells from non-gamebooks like the Lesser Key of Solomon or whatever. It doesn't even matter how many spell slots you have left--you can just keep going at 0 if you're crazy enough.

How this isn't as good as it sounds:

Base chance to succeed is 60% plus or minus modifiers below. Misfires are nasty.

(Minimum chance, no matter what modifiers are applied, is 5%)

Interpreting the spell:

To start with, the casting player reads the spell aloud, stopping whenever the spell refers to a number (5' or level-number of targets or 3d6) or a game mechanic that doesn't exist or work the same in the native system (referring to saving throws or a dice pool in a system without them, for example).

The player then must translate the spell, as follows:

-Each time the player reaches a number they can propose the number remains the same or they can propose an alternate number or range that they believe is an approximate local-system equivalent of that number (for example, if a spell from a 2d6 system says +2 the player could propose a +3 for a d20 system).

-Each time the text refers to an alien game mechanic, the player must propose an alternate way to account for that feature of the spell. For example, a spell which reduces an enemy's Dodge Pool might instead reduce their armor class and saving throws in a system without a Dodge Pool. If the spell costs Magic Points and the native system has no Magic Points then the player might propose a loss of hit points or a save vs a loss of hp. Numbers again must be provided.

If the GM agrees with the translation of a given change or thinks the change makes the spell less powerful than it is meant to be in the original system, it is applied to the spell description.

If the GM doesn't agree with a change because it seems to make the spell more powerful than it is meant to be in the original, the change is still applied but the caster subtracts -10% from their chance to successfully cast the spell.

Ritual actions or components from the original still must be performed/used.

Other Modifiers

Modifiers based on the caster

For every point of wizard's intelligence +1%

For every level the wizard has +1%

(What if the system doesn't have D&D-style stats and levels? Then GM estimates caster competence and experience on a scale of 1-40 within that system and applies that as a lump sum modifier.)

Modifiers based on the spell

The book the spell is from is not an RPG book: -40%

Same basic game (all editions and retroclones of D&D are "the same basic game", for instance) but a spell level the caster's not normally able to access: -5% per level differential

Different basic game (or not a game) and the GM thinks it's more powerful than the caster's normally able to cast, that is, it looks like a "higher level" spell: -20%

This spell has already been successfully cast by this caster: +2%

Different era of magic: -5%
The eras are
-70s-80s and modern retrogames
-21st century

Succeeding in the Roll Means...

The spell works as described. Succeeding in the casting roll does not mean you get to skip any other die rolls that may result in success or failure within the spell description.

Failing The Roll Means...

The spell is cast in a way counter to the PC's goals and the more powerful the spell, the more powerful this backfire will be. Most backfire dweomers will simply take a choice that the spell gives the caster and make a different choice. Usually this is a choice of target: a Power Word: Kill spell miscast will, obviously, kill the caster, a miscast healing spell will heal enemies, etc. but this can also apply to other choices--a wizard using a Minor Creation spell to create a bear trap might instead create a foul-smelling mushroom that attracts monsters, or a wizard trying to change the weather to create rain to kill a fire elemental might summon a hurricane, unless that's also fine with the caster, in which case it might result in boiling heat.

Since magic cares more about will and intent than physics, attempts to game the system won't work--a caster who is immune to flame who botches a fireball will be struck by an ice ball, a caster trying to fail a healing spell on purpose in order to heal enemies and make peace will end up inflicting wounds on their allies, etc. Trying to take advantage of the "cast this spell before" modifier by making lots of low-risk Wishes for instance ("I wish for more toothpicks") won't work because the backfire is as powerful as the spell itself, not the way the caster chooses to use it.

A miscast should create a problem approximately equal to the expected benefit but, more importantly, the fear of a miscast sending the spell into the hands of the GM should act as a self-balancing mechanism on the power of spells chosen.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

An Unrepeatable Test Of A Theory About Games

The Problem of Tests

Theories about the impact and function of tabletop RPGs games are notoriously difficult to test. Playtesting--that is, testing whether a game can be fun for some people or whether they can understand the rules--isn't so hard, and testing whether people will buy a bunch of copies is easy enough so long as you can get the game out, but theories about, say, whether a game genuinely teaches people things or makes them act a certain way require a degree of scholarship and funding rarely pointed at tabletop.

Once in a while, though, chance can provide an opportunity to test a thesis that USC won't ever get around to.

We are in such a position right now. For about the last 15 years a bold thesis has been frequently been bandied about, one that is, roughly, the inverse corollary of things like "video games cause violence", and that thesis is: certain games can make you a better person.

People who want you to be less racist, less sexist, less homophobic, less prone to violence and unnecessary harm, and just plain more empathetic have been making games, and many have made great claims for this approach.
Andy Kitkowski, importer of Maid and Ryuutama, and the founder of early home to many empathygamers

I don't think anyone ever expected this to be very easy to test. How would you track all the people who played these games, much less the changes in their attitudes toward the suffering of others?

You can't do a survey: people want to be good or at least present themselves as such. The only way to test morality is when there's something at stake. Goodness is much less about identifying what's right than it is about what thing that you want would you give up for what's right. Everyone is good when there's no cost to it.

The vast majority of moral decisions people face aren't "Is it bad that a baby dies in a fire?" or "Is it ok to stab a dog?" they're "Would you run into that fire to save the baby?" or "Would you stab a dog for a dollar?". Even assuming you had the money, it's difficult to ethically test such questions--the days of the Milgram Obedience To Authority Experiment (where we discovered that people would willingly shock an unseen person to death just because someone in a lab coat told them to) or the Stanford Prison Experiment (where we found out that if you gave a bunch of college kids a summer job acting like prisoners and prison guards they would soon end up acting exactly like worst-case-scenario prisoners and prison guards) are long gone. Many people now would say it's ethically questionable to put a test subject in a position where they were even tricked into thinking they'd kicked a dog.

Lucky Us

Despite all this, there was a surprisingly thorough and unusually clean test of whether games that wanted to increase empathy actually did last year: the designers, boosters and most enthusiastic proponents of the most well-known empathycentric tabletop games were given a test of empathy and they all failed. Like, a lot, to a degree you might be tempted to call "hilarious" was this experiment not carried out--with Mengele-like unrepeatability--on a living person.

Here's what happened: a person in their community was accused of a felony none of them had personal knowledge of. The news reached nearly everyone online in that community. No proof was presented and the main accuser had been diagnosed with BPD, a mental illness heavily associated with false accusations. In a word: there was ambiguity.

The only two remotely morally acceptable things for anyone to do in this position would be:

1) Investigate (or advocate for and then read a thorough investigation) before taking any action. (We might call this The Activist Morality approach.)

2) Say and do nothing and if asked go "Not my circus not my monkeys"--which might not be great but is, in effect, what every one of us does every time we walk past a homeless person and don't immediately give them as much of our income as we can possibly afford. It's what you might call the Pragmatic Morality approach. (This is the one the majority of people who didn't know the subjects involved chose.)

The prominent empathic game advocates chose neither option. Not only that, every one of them decided to actively avoid and advocate against investigating in any way. Which is a bizarro level of anti-morality you expect out of like crazed Pharoahs in bad pulp fantasy or, like, the president. ("Information, you say? Speak not!")

And by "investigate" we don't need to have a high bar: literally not one game designer or gadfly asked anyone involved even one question about the details before making a decision. 

To top it off, the number one actual real-life witness and authority on the situation was exactly the kind of person held up as most in need of Being Heard in empathy circles: a queer woman of color--and one who openly stated that she was available to talk to-, and provide details to-, literally anyone who wanted to investigate and had personal knowledge of the facts behind all the important accusations being made. And she wanted to. Still wants to.
Michelle waiting for you to call her. 

At the bare minimum, the empathic, moral, intersectional, suffering-minimizing thing to do when the stakes were felony-level-high would be to maybe not say shit if you hadn't done any homework. 

None of the game designers who were so exercised about the case did anything to try to figure out more than they did before making a judgment. Within the week, they'd all immediately taken action under the assumption the claims were true, while everyone outside tabletop had done the opposite. The test was done: tabletop games designed to teach people compassion and empathy apparently don't work. They do not have it.

A Few Specific Examples:

The award-winning designer of a game about the perils of rendering uninformed judgment and escalating too fast based on it (Dogs In The Vineyard) immediately rendered judgment and condemned the subject for contacting him privately in repeated attempts over the years to find a way to de-escalate internecine tensions with all the Empathetic Game Designers.


The designer of a game about how rebellious kids have to fight authority while avoiding falling prey to vanity or pride or any of their own worst instincts while doing so (Misspent Youth) appealed to every authority they could find to condemn the subject. When asked why he assumed this was all true, he couldn't say--though the subject had once given the author's game a bad review. 


The advocates of SWORD DREAM-- a supposedly more woke and empathic take on old school RPGs, which declared "We call people in before calling them out" did not call the subject in. They then spent the following year accusing each other of harassment and abuse, removing the "no lying about people" and "make every effort to resolve disputes" rules from a major OSR forum mostly because the subject was the one who proposed them in the first place and driving the moderators over the forum to literal tears and resignation over disputes where nobody got called in, nobody was treated empathetically, and nothing got resolved.

Great boosters of trans-friendly gaming like Monsterhearts (whose creator dogpiled the subject years ago, apologized, then dogpiled again) gleefully ignored trans game designers, trans artists, trans models and trans consultants on the subject's games to repeat white cis dude's claims about them.
A variety of advocates of inclusive gaming, who took special pains to include a rainbow of genders and skin colors and sexualities--when not getting nailed on video (as Adam Koebel was) for freaking out their own female players with graphic descriptions of sexual violation--immediately assumed the crying white woman who was simply too distraught to take questions at this time was telling the truth and the black woman and the latino woman and all the other less-famous-in-gamer-circles-because-less-like-gamers women were straight up lying.

Those responsible for bringing Ryuutama--the soft, cute morally ungrey fantasy game championed as a less conflict-driven alternative to D&D--from Japan to the West, took special care to repeatedly spit random vitriol on the accused, and Ryuutama-playing game developer advocates of "Soft D&D" did the same, then started accusing each other of being racist or too mentally ill to talk to without even, like, a short conversation via DMs to see if maybe that could be sorted out like adults.

Even the whitebread morality of authors of games like Marvel Heroic RPG got tested: authors of games all about narratives where someone stands up for what's right even if its unpopular, where even Galactus and Magneto get a trial, did not grant that maybe it would be best to wait for someone to actually make sure before unleashing hell on them. 

An author of a famous video game about understanding mental illness, who was herself a victim of a vengeful ex's weird sex claims to an internet mob joined an internet mob dedicated to carrying out what the major queer black woman witness explicitly stated was the revenge fantasy of an angry and mentally-ill ex.

An author of a game about the terror of not, as a woman, being listened to, did not listen to the witnesses. Who were all women. They didn't even read the women's statements carefully enough to realize they'd done that.
And, probably needless to say: all of these authors' most vocal fans joined in--which included each other. These folks not only wrote supposedly-empathic games but enthusiastically played and boosted one another's games. If the thesis of empathy-gaming is true: these people, having experienced so many empathy-expanding games, should be champions of compassion, understanding, and willingness-to-consider-deeply-before judging.

They, objectively, aren't.

Possible Objections to the Conclusions
and Avenues for Further Research

While I feel safe provisionally saying that the empathy games thesis is wrong, there are some reasonable objections to the thoroughness of last year's test.

First this a test mostly of the creators and online advocates of such games. One might claim that compassion is like a muscle, and the person who realizes a need for a new kind of barbell might be the person who finds themself most in need of exercise. In this model perhaps the creation and advocacy of such games is a semiconscious realization that one is unusually lacking in such virtues. So its possible that while these games are morally improving, they just have an unusually hard row to hoe when confronted with someone so unempathic as a person who believes they need a game to care about other people.

Second, since we're going only on secondhand reports from people who exist in an environment where there's social advantage in performing goodness, we don't really know how much they're playing these games versus any other. Maybe their souls are so degenerated by years of playing Warhammer and Vampire and Shadowrun that a few hours of The Watch and Animal Crossing is not nearly enough to relieve their eternal turpitude.

Third, maybe they're lying when they say they like or play these games. An unusually large number of them do have a looooong and provable history of lying to seem better than they are.

Fourth, maybe the compensation offered was so great that it would be expected to overpower morality. Just as we all go around eating McFries and otherwise unethically consuming under capitalism, maybe they were convinced of the profitability of doing the wrong thing (this is certainly the case with Satine Phoenix and Ken Hite, who explicitly said they were doing the wrong thing for the sake of their careers). Note, however, that since most people said and did nothing and thus performed better than these folks, this compensation must have been specific to creators and vocal advocates. That is, we have to conjecture that the expected clout and/or expected monetary remuneration and or ameliorated feeling of possible loss of such was so subjectively great that they experienced more pressure to be evil than the average person would have. 

Fifth, maybe they just suck at game design. Like: perhaps its possible for a game to teach empathy, they just haven't created that game yet, and these are merely rude and shambling first steps. Maybe someone more talented or intelligent needs to step into the field.

Another objection someone might raise is unusual ignorance: that is, these people not realizing silence was an option or investigation was possible or that a person's ex and their friends might lie on Facebook. I would counter that realizing these things is a form of intelligence known as moral imagination and would have to be included within any functional definition of "empathy" or "goodness" and so I'm not sure that objection applies. One might as well say a Nazi didn't realize a Jew could be, genetically, a person. Not realizing it is not having empathy.

A last objection might be the subject was just so terrible that any wrongdoing could be believed. But if that were true surely after all this time someone would've found some proof of the subject (well: me) doing something bad? A moral person wouldn't pin such a certainty on a thing they couldn't even describe, much less document, on subjects they inevitably dodge when asked to discuss.

Anyway--its nice to have a datapoint. We can at least say that current creators and advocates of tabletop games which attempt to be morally improving made an objectively worse moral decision than the majority of people even after play-exposure to such games.
So Soft, so Snuggly, so devoid of Suffering

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Hey, You Want To See Something Heartbreaking?

If you don't follow gamer drama, lucky you--here's a free dungeon by many of the most well-known authors in Old School gaming, and it's pretty good, too.

If you are up on gamer drama then most of the names will be familiar so, like I said in the title, heartbreaking.

Original post from 2016...

So here's what we did:

You know that old TSR module Palace of the Silver Princess?  Y'know...

When she came it was as exile, descending from tempestuous night in a silver ship. She fled the collapse of her shining principality in the Immeasurable Abide, an implausibly vast agglomeration of paradisiacal cosms beyond the outer void. All she loved of her glittering homelands was consumed by the tyranny that lurks behind all tyrannies: by the Manifest Density which waits at the end of time. An agent of that creed, the Hegemon Ankylose Dysplasia , driven by colossal lust, sought pursuit beyond the Abide but was prevented by his preposterous gravitas and the girth of his pride from passing through the furled dimensions and on to the lesser cosms where the world hangs.

...that one?

Anyway, I farmed out every page to a different DIY D&D Blogger and we rewrote it--I'm shocked with how well it came out. You can use the old maps, but the key has been completely renovated with all new stuff.

Tom Middenmurk wrote a brand new freaky princess legend, Kelvin Green gave us some sweet picture map rooms, Stacy Dellorfano made the Princess' chambers seriously fucked up, Raggi dreamed up some incredibly elaborate ways to screw (or at least frustrate) your players, Humza invented some classy ghouls, James Mal made one of my favorite new trick rooms, and a whole lot more.

Free of course.

So check it here:
Princess of the Silver Palace
Tom "Middenmurk" Fitzgerald
David "Yoon Suin" McGrogan
Zzarchov "Neoclassical Geek Revival" Kowalski
Barry "actual Cockney" Blatt
Natalie "Revolution in 21 Days" Bennet"
James "I invented the phrase Gygaxian Naturalism. Sue me" Maliszewski
James Edward "Lotfp" Raggi IV
Trent "New Feierland" B
Humza "Legacy of the Bieth" Kazmi
Ramanan "I make all those cool online generators" S
Reynaldo "Break!" Madrinan
Kelvin "Forgive Us" Green
Daniel "Basic Red" Dean (thanks for picking up the slack on the folks who didn't have time to finish their pages)
Anthony "Straits of Anian" Picaro
Jensen "I talk to Paizo" Toperzer
Logan "Last Gasp" Knight
Kiel "Dungeons and Donuts" Chenier (thanks for the layout!)
Stacy "Contessa" Dellorfano
Patrick "Deep Carbon Observatory" Stuart
Scrap "Fire on the Velvet Horizon" Princess
Ken "Satyr Press" Baumann
and me a little bit

Oh and ps: the ghouls in Trent's last room were invented by Humza, the credits are a little wrong.