Thursday, March 23, 2017

Liking, Sharing, Zealotry, Games

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

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

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

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

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

Well what do people share?

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

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

Zealots share more than anyone. Zealots will share things whether or not anyone cares (though some of their acquaintances always will--specifically other zealots. This is why all forms of zealot now have insane online zealot networks.). Therefore extremism will be disproportionately shared.

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Demon City Character Generation

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

These are:


(CATPACK for short)


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Skills and their associated characteristics are:

Driving (it’s assumed you can drive, this is fancy driving)

Toughness or Agility, whichever is higher
Hand to hand combat (includes using melee weapons)
Athletics (choose a specific sport or kind of training: swimming, triathalon, tennis, mountain climbing, etc)

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

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

Humanities (you get Humanities equal to Knowledge+1 and choose a specific subject—Literature, Anthropology, History, etc—you get that free, at Knowledge+2)
Local Knowledge (this is for wherever you live now unless you specify otherwise)
Other Languages (Pick one)
Science (you get Science equal to Knowledge+1 and choose a specific subject—Biology, Chemistry, etc—you get that free at Knowledge+2)

Perception or Knowledge, whichever is higher

The Rest

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Three Shadows (Escalating Inventions)

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Unsettling Things

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of corpses...

2. The Effects

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

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

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

3. The Menace

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

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


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Getting Things Done In Demon City

More Demon City--donate to the Patreon here. I think I'm doing some new Druid spells for 5e tomorrow.

Demon City will be pretty rules-lite, but I've given some thought to how the rules it does have will be presented.

The rules themselves will be on the left-hand pages of the book, notes on the implications of these rules (asterisked here) will be presented on the facing pages.

As in most tabletop RPGs, Demon City proceeds according to a simple scheme: the Host describes the situation(s) the characters are in, the other players say what their respective characters try to do. When failure might have interesting consequences*, the rules and dice get involved.**

Simple example: Marty might come home late and drunkenly fumble at his apartment door lock before getting the key in, maybe even dropping the keyring in the process. But eventually he'll get it open, so there's no need to roll dice...

...unless (whether or not Marty knows it) Marty's brother is lying on the other side of the door about to bleed out. That's when you'll want to roll some dice.

Task Resolution

Basically, for most tasks, the player rolls a d10 and the Host rolls a d10 and if the player gets a higher roll, the task gets done, if not it doesn't and some consequence of failure ensue.

There are some hitches, though:

-There are many cases where the sides roll multiple d10s. Their official roll for the purposes of deciding the contest is whichever of their rolls is highest. So if you roll a 6 and an 8, your "roll" is 8.

-All character stats are ranked from 0-9 (or possibly more, with no maximum, if the supernatural is involved), high numbers are good. If two characters (player's characters or a player's character and an NPC) are competing at a task (say, in a footrace) then whichever has the higher stat gets to roll an extra die. This extra d10 is called the Skill Die.

-Likewise, for tasks where characters do not directly compete (Marty trying to pick an electronic lock, for instance) all tasks are ranked in difficulty from 0-9 (or possibly more, with no maximum, if the supernatural is involved). If the stat number is higher than the task difficulty number, the player gets to roll an extra die and use the better of their two rolls (the "Skill Die"). If the task difficulty number is higher than the stat, the Host gets to roll an extra die.

-Having the Host roll even for the difficulty of dealing with inanimate objects (opening a lock on time, locating a file, climbing a wall) tends to personify the environment--the electronic lock is programmed by someone and Marty's attempts to crack it are against the skill and effort put in by that programmer. However, when there is no way to imagine any animate force actively resisting--like in the example of Marty drunkenly scrabbling at his own lock with his own key--the Host can just assign a static difficulty number to be rolled over (player must roll over a 3, for instance). Recommendations of when to do this and what the numbers should be come later, but just to nail down the basic system, know that the the opposed roll is usually preferred.

-If a task targets someone who is distracted (pickpocketing someone who is watching a car crash happen, for instance) the perpetrator also gets an extra die (the Distraction Die).

-If a task has some other outside factor introduced that makes it more likely one side will win (if someone has a head-start in the footrace, for example) then that side gets another d10. This extra die is called the Situation Die. You can have up to two Situation Dice representing distinct advantages (ie two advantages that would, individually, still be advantages without the benefit of the other advantage--like a headstart in the footrace plus your opponent is running over uneven ground).

-Generally, external problems which make the task harder (like Marty being drunk while trying to open the door) are worked into the difficulty number of a task, but if there is some reason they can't be or haven't been already, the Host may subtract up to two Lost Dice (down to a minumum of one rolled die) to account for problems.

-In the case of a tie (around 10% of the time, depending how many dice are involved) the Host must think fast: the situation becomes more complex, but not in a way that immediately decides the contest. The task can be attempted again in the new situation. For example: if Marty and the Host tie as he's trying to open his door then the Host might declare that blood has begun to seep out from under the door and one of Marty's passing neighbors has noticed.

-If a character rolls a 10 and wins (ie not a tie), they have a critical success, if their best roll is a 1, they fumble. If both sides' best roll is a 1 when two characters are competing, the situation gets worse for both sides. (Most people reading know what "crit" and "fumble" mean so while the final text of Demon City will give some examples, that's all you need to know for now.)

-This all gets more complicated in situations when different characters are trying to do different things that all affect each other at the same time. Combat is the most common situation like this but it could also apply to, say, trying to fix a radio antenna before a metastasizing Crysoloth destroys the building it's in. Like most games, Demon City has special rules for that...

Action Rounds: Slow Motion and Clashes

Like in most RPGs, special rules are used to resolve action. A footrace isn't "action" as defined here because the competitors usually aren't interfering with each other. A car chase can be, though, because cars can cut each other off, knock each other off the road, etc. And combat is always action.

I'm going to describe combat using some D&D terms here because this is a D&D blog so you probably get it--and it'll be faster than describing it from the ground up the way it'd be written in the final book. Basically, there's no initiative but there are rounds. Action's generally going to be over in fewer rounds than D&D, but each round takes a little longer. If it's necessary to know, rounds take about 6 seconds of activity.

This action system is based on "Clashes"--the most important difference between a Clash and the combat in a D&D round is only one party in a fight can succeed at a time. You shoot or are shot, punch or get punched, etc. Though you could succeed at other tasks: you could successfully pickpocket someone and get punched, if you're shot, you don't get to shoot back until the next round (assuming you live).

This is also one of those systems where everyone announces what they're going to do before the first person actually starts to do it. This is slightly less intuitive than resolving an action as soon as it's announced (the D&D way), but I think there's a payoff in that it more closely reflects the fast-but-tense way combat works in horror and crime fiction.

When the Host announces you've entered Action Rounds:

Slow Motion Phase


Whatever entity involved has the lowest Agility (Ties are decided randomly) announces what they plan to do. This can't be an if-then, they gotta decide. (Actions can normally only target one foe at a time--exceptions will be noted when we get around to specific abilities and weapons.)

The Host can begin to describe everyone noticing this slowpoke getting ready to do whatever they're going to do--as if everyone is watching slow motion.


Second-least Agile creature announces next, then the third-least Agile, etc. until they're all announced.


Any action that couldn't interfere with anyone else's action (ie the order in which it happens doesn't matter) is resolved, using the Task rules above if necessary--and narrated.

(For example: Agents Pfister and Foreman are on a two-story roof trying to punch each other, and Lieutenant Hyder announces he is trying to get away. Since nobody named him as a target and he has no target, nothing Hyder is doing will affect who punches who first or hardest, so Hyder gets away. If Hyder had announced he wanted to escape by jumping off the roof, then Hyder's player and the Host just roll off-Agility vs a difficulty number decided by the Host--to land safely on the ground.)

The Clash

4-Everyone else now collects dice and rolls--this group of competing attempts to do things first is called a Clash. Everybody involved in a Clash rolls d10s at once, as above under Task Resolution, with a few clarifications and special rules:
  • Actions in a Clash don't have to match to be opposed--Pfister can being try to punch Foreman and vice versa, but Pfister can also try to get away from Foreman. In a Clash, everyone involved rolls on the Stat they themselves are trying to use. Foreman can roll on her Martial Arts stat while Pfister rolls on her Sport: Running stat to get away. Whoever rolls best does their thing first.
  • Anyone taking an action that targets a foe that does not resist that specific action (usually because they're dealing with someone else) or against a foe who is not trying to resist all hostile actions in the Clash (by, for example, fleeing), gets an extra d10, the Distraction Die.
  • As with simple Tasks, whoever has a higher stat than all foes they are using their skill to interfere with, attack or avoid gets to roll an extra die--the Skill Die.*** 
  • Anyone with a situational advantage (high ground, etc) over whoever they're directly facing off against also gets an extra die (Situation Die).****
  • Another Situation Die is also available to anyone if the character has a second distinct situational advantage on top of the first one. Like their target is both tripping and is handcuffed. This die is also used if someone is attacking (or parrying) with a weapon that is better in the specific situation than the one their opponent is attacking or parrying with. For example, if two characters are fighting under a twin bed, the combatant attacking with a knife or claws will get a Situation Die against a target using a longsword (which needs more room to maneuver), but in most situations it'd be the other way around because the sword has better reach. And all of them would have a Situation Die over an unarmed combatant. This is the main way weapons are differentiated in Demon City (and in horror films)--by the situation in which they are most useful. 
  • Nobody in a Clash can get more than 2 Situation dice.
  • Anyone who has taken at least one injury during the fight loses a single die (the Lost Die for Injury)--down to a minimum of one die. 
  • Other external difficulties in the situation not otherwise accounted for (by, for example, someone directly opposed already having gained a Situation Die) can be accounted for by Miscellaneous Lost Dice.
  • Nobody able to act in a Clash can lose more than 2 Miscellaneous Lost Dice this way or go below a minimum of one die.
  • So the maximum dice anyone could roll would be 5: A d10 to start + 1 Distraction Die + 1  Skill Die + 2 Situation Dice + no Lost Dice.
5-Whoever rolled highest in the Clash does whatever they were trying to do.

If a successful action involves damaging another character:
  • With most weapons, the attacker rolls damage as follows: They take a number of d10s equal to the target's Base Toughness, roll and take the lowest, and the target subtracts that number from their Current Toughness. At Current Toughness -1 they are out of the fight and roll on the Injury table (that'll be in a later entry). So if you have Base and Current Toughness 3, someone shooting you would roll 3d10, take the lowest, and subtract that from 3.*****
  • Some few weapons (supernatural abilities, high explosives at close range) do Massive Damage. In this case you roll one die for each point of the attacker's stat and take the highest.
  • Kevlar and other protection raises your Base Toughness for these purposes.
If a tie for first occurs, the situation stays mostly the same as it was before the Clash and nobody's action takes, but the Host changes something in the situation that affects everyone in the Clash, like: the roof could begin to collapse from all the weight on it.

6-Any action announced that wasn't made impossible by some previous action in the Clash happens in descending order of the players' die rolls. Anyone hurt in the Clash doesn't get to take their action during that Clash. Any damage is resolved as in 5 above. Later actions in the same Clash against targets who are hurt in that Clash automatically succeed, even if the roll was lower than the foe that got hurt.

Ties after first place also result in temporary stalemates with the Host changing the situation, but only in such a way as to affect the characters that tied and those rolling lower than them in that Clash.

7-Anyone who is present, out of the fight, still alive, and who needs to roll on the Injury table because their last roll wasn't conclusive does.

8-If characters are still involved in Action after all that, start over at 1 above.

Notes I'd put on the facing page:

*Note that failure doesn't have to have predictably more interesting consequences than success--just consequences that are also interesting.

**As in many other games, dice also occasionally get involved when the Host (or even a player) just thinks it would be interesting or more fair to introduce a random element into a part of the game they normally control. For example if a player steals the first car they see, the Host might randomly roll to see what kind of car it is.

***It's possible more than one Skill die gets handed out to opposing sides this way if a fight is sufficiently complicated. For example:


If Alfie (Firearms: 9) is trying to shoot Betty (Firearms: 5), who is trying to shoot CeCe (Alfie's friend, trying to flee with Agility 1)), both shooters have a higher stat than their targets, and Alfie and Betty will both get a Skill Die despite being on opposite sides and despite Alfie being better at shooting than Betty. Alfie will, however, get a Distraction Die (see above).

So if he and Betty try to shoot each other, he gets a Skill Die and she doesn't. If Betty targets CeCe, both Alfie and Betty get a Skill Die but Alfie gets a Distraction Die too, keeping him at least one up on Betty, all other things being equal.

****The value of this extra die means that combat in Demon City will involve a lot of players and Hosts discussing what does and does not constitute a situational advantage. This is good. This is what the players should be doing: talking about the fictional situation as if it were real so everyone is imagining the same events as much as possible and making interesting decisions about how to use the situation. More than one of the entities involved in the Clash can get this Situation die.

*****Humans generally have a Toughness between 0 (feeble pensioner or newborn baby) and 5 (world-class athlete), if you're wondering how long these fights last. The actual negative number past -1 doesn't matter, so any successful hit on someone with 0 Toughness puts them in the Injured box.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Hunter/Hunted in Demon City

There's a clue. They roll, or scan the handout of the crime scene. They don't get the clue.

This is usually presented as a minor apocalypse in horror/mystery type games. Whatever can be done?

Call of Cthulhu, Chill, and their ilk get around it by (in many modules anyway) strenuously advocating railroading or at least the tools of railroading,  Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark and their ilk get around it by deciding you always get the clues if you need to, and Dark Heresy--iirc--does both, and many other games just avoid talking about it altogether.

As far as I am aware, the professional roleplaying game design community has, on this score, failed you.

Demon City won't do that--it's going to have very specific and very detailed advice on ways Hosts can make scenarios based around investigations.

One very useful building block of this is described in the retropost below: 5 years is a long enough time that some of y'all might not have been around so I'm posting this to tide you over while I write up some rules I'll post probably tomorrow.

If you're interested in Demon City, the Patreon is here. Thanks to everyone who helped out so far, with only a few more backers, it'll be done by Christmas.

Hunter/ Hunted

So I was reading through a mostly very good supplement and I came upon the following paragraph in the DM advice...

"Be wary of plot construction that demands characters accept captivity to gain crucial information. Many players would sooner 
have their Investigators trepanned by the fungi from Yuggoth than accept even a brief sojourn in comparatively cushy confinement. Unfortunately, with this player type, you won’t get very far by pointing out that getting captured is a Pulp staple. Their attitude is rooted in a deep-seated desire to maintain emotional control, and is not typically susceptible to argument."
Players do not rebel at the idea of scenarios that "require them to accept captivity" because of some psychobabble.

They don't like it because, after the scenario starts, if there is any situation that they cannot get out of simply because the story demands that they not be able to get out of it (remember they are there "to gain crucial information" not "because they fucked up and logically would not be able to escape") then they are not actually playing the game for the length of time it takes to endure that situation.

It's like a cut-scene in a video game. Fine, have it, but don't make me press "talk" "talk" "talk" until the NPC dispenses the information.

This is why people don't like railroading. It isn't playing, it's listening to the GM tell a story, with maybe a little "Ok, when I say Free you say Bird" going on.

Now many players may like having the GM tell them a story, but it is not, strictly speaking, the activity many of them signed up for, so it is as much an interruption in an RPG as the GM stopping play to juggle for ten minutes. Hey guy, juggle, maybe I'll like it, but if I don't, it's understandable since I showed up to play, not watch you juggle.

This is followed by some not necessarily bad but frustratingly--and all-too-familiarly for GM-advice books--vague language about avoiding railroading…
--Structure can be difficult to achieve in the roleplaying medium. Guide the players too little and they lose the thread, resulting in a loose and sloppy narrative that provides none of the neat, order-making pleasure the genre is meant to provide. Guide them too much and they feel that their freedom of action has been taken away from them, and that they’re merely observers moving through a predetermined sequence of events. (As you probably know, this latter syndrome is known in roleplaying jargon as railroading.)

And then there is the typical cop-out…
--The trick to successfully running investigative scenarios is to strike the right balance between the two extremes.
No, the trick is not to balance. (Secret aesthetic law: balance is almost never the answer to anything.) The trick is to:

1) clearly define the term railroading for the GM, and then
2) provide the GM with tools to avoid it if s/he wants to.
So, how do you know if you're railroading?
Its a long fucking story, but basically it's easier to tell when you're not--here's how:
In a non-railroad the PCs are given choices that result in the PCs encountering substantially different (yet still interesting) scenarios than if they had made other choices--preferably scenarios they could potentially have seen the dim outline of while making those choices*. In a railroad, they are not.

In edge cases, it is best to ask yourself How different could this have worked out if the PCs had made different choices? The larger the difference the less of a railroad you got going on.
Anyway, there seems to be a popular myth that while yeah, it is easy to avoid railroading in a location-based D&D adventure, it's almost impossible to not do it a little in Call of Cthulhu or likewise horrorish scenarios and these things are really more about atmosphere and set-pieces anyway so why worry about that?
Well, honestly, if you're happy with that, cool beans and carry on.
If you are not, I am going to describe a very simple but effective way to totally not railroad people in a horror game (or really, any investigation-based game).
Note this is not the only way, but it is, like a dungeon or a sandbox, a simple, durable structure you can use that has meaningful choice built into it.
I call it Hunter/Hunted.
-The idea is simple and comes from about a million horror and cop stories: sometimes a scene happens because Sam Spade has found out about a baddie and sometimes a scene happens because the baddie has found out about Sam Spade. And, there, aside from a few stops for bourbon and kissing, is the plot of everything from Lost Boys to Blade Runner.
-Most investigative scenarios advise breaking things up into "scenes"--the idea is you have a scene, find clues in it, these clues lead to the next scene. They then usually cover their ass by saying either "if the PCs don't do this or find this clue or go to the wrong place give them a bunch of hints or a prophetic dream or otherwise nurse, nudge, or nullify them until they go to the next scene" or just give some vague advice like "hey Venice is interesting, think of something"
-Not so here. Or not exactly: Basically we keep the "scene chain" structure. If the PCs go from clue to clue in a timely fashion like good investigators they follow the scene chain. However, we also give each scene a twin situation, this twin is what happens if the PCs don't follow a given clue, follow it up the wrong path, or otherwise take too long (in-world game time) to follow the clues. In this twin situation, typically, the PCs have taken long enough to figure out what's going on that the enemy has noticed their efforts and started hunting them.
-In the twin situation, the GM decides how long it will take (in-world) and what circumstances are necessary for the enemy to be able to track the PCs and starts the clock running. The enemy then catches up with the PCs at whatever point it logically would if it was using whatever tracking abilities it has (whether this be psychic powers or enhanced smell or because Twitty says she saw Mac D talking to a cop next to the sub shop). The GM may drop clues as to their hunted status along the way.

-In situation 1, the PCs are investigators of horror or violence, in situation 2, they are victims of it. This matches rather nicely the twin roles nearly all horror and investigator protagonists have in these kinds of stories. So at each stage of the adventure you have an "i" version and a "v" version of each scenario.**

-The enemy has a locus: usually in physical space. Like: that island Cthulhu is under or the gangster's safe house.

-At each "Investigator" stage, you move closer to the locus (or finding out where it is). At each "Victim" stage, the enemy sends someone or something out from the locus to get you.

-IMPORTANT: Usually the enemy comes in a different form at each stage. You don't meet actually Cthulhu or actually Al Capone until the last stage. The first few stages feature their agents or otherwise indirect confrontations.

-Also important: at each stage, a clue is left. The clue leads to the "i" version of the next scenario.


Opening: PCs are on their way to England on a boat to investigating the Proverbial Mysteriously Dead Uncle

1i--the nurse is clearly a disturbed woman (in the cafe) you don't know why
1v--terrifying dreams of faceless people (wherever you are) that might make you lash out at your fellow PCs (dream anagram of a doctor's name)

2i--the doctor's office is full of strange specimens (SAN check!) and tomes
2v--a(nother?) nurse is following you and attempting to drug you(wherever you are) (has distinctive uniform from a certain lab)
3i-the doctor's laboratory is filled with horrific creatures (and the doctor's in here)
3v-the doctor appears (wherever you are), a strange creature emerges from his featureless face (wherever you are) --a decent add on here is a chance that the doctor drugs a victim and drags him/her back to the lab or, if injured, runs back to the lab, leaving a blood trail. Either way the encounter at the lab--if it happens--is significantly different than if the PCs had just gone straight there and surprised the mofo
(this adventure brought to you by the lyrics to Sister Morphine)
-The "victim" role may seem passive, but in a sense the victim has more freedom than the investigator in terms of defining the terms of the conflict. Let's say we have the simplest scenario available--the PCs are being stalked by a werewolf. Even if the PCs are totally passive--they have the entire planet to walk around on. Will the werewolf attack them in a taxi, on a plane, in a hotel room, underwater? Depends entirely on where the PCs themselves go. You could even say to them: "The sun has gone down, according to what you've seen, the werewolf will be active within half an hour…". If the PC is in, say New York City, the number of resources s/he can bring to bear or changes s/he can make to the battlefield are infinite.

-Victim scenes require you to think like the monster: you are an insane doctor bent on injecting people with a "sacred" serum that makes their faces come off. You've discovered a flapper, a librarian and a drug addict are trying to interfere with your plans, What Do You Do? Where are you? What tools do you have access to? What information on them did they--via their actions to date--give you access to? Use it.
-In many adventures, there is no reason this system should not be transparent--making it clear through events and other characters that "it is vital to find Whatsitsnuts before it finds you".
--Broadly, any structure which has meaningful choice works like this: there are interesting choices leading to events, each event gives the players a unique resource or unique problem they did not have before--even if they all lead to the "same" place in the end, players end up there in the Final Chamber with different tools, perspectives, advantages or disadvantages.
-How do you avoid even the appearance of railroading? Just remind them how they got where they are. Go ahead and tell them where they'd be had they done otherwise.
-Another avoiding-railroading tip: include problems that are clear but open-ended, like: this puzzle requires you get us something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue and shove it in this slot. A real-module example is the "tooth door" in James Raggi's "Death Frost Doom"--you need to drop a tooth in a basin to open a certain door. Where you get the tooth from is your business, but the place is fairly isolated. There are a lot of graves around…but also a few other PCs…and that NPC down the mountain...

*i.e. "left door or right door" is little better than a railroad, whereas "left door that, if listened at, reveals a chittering noise or totally silent right door" is definitely a non-railroad.

**Important clarification:
The Victim scenario is not nursing the PCs back on track by doing an ass-pull. In Hunter/Hunted the "Victim" scenarios are entirely logical, predictable-using-internal-gameworld consequences of the PC's failing to find the foe. i.e. if you don't show up at the safe house in 3 days, that's enough time for the goons to track YOU down. No alteration of the gameworld's internal logic or consequence chain is required. Pure cause-and-effect. the villain is not running into you by coincidence, it's because you dawdled and they managed to track you (thus the ticking clock).

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

We Have A Winner! (Thought Eater)

The final-round votes have been tallied and Paul Hughes is the winner of the Thought Eater Essay contest!

Paul's winning essays, voted on by the readers were:

Round one: The first essay about cuteness here.

Round Two:  D&D is Anti-Medieval

Round Three: Mass Combat Belongs in the Monster Manual

Paul, email me at zakzsmith AT hawtmayle to collect your fabulous prize. All others: hail Paul.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Outstanding Questions/The Nazi Games Again

Recent statements by Jessica Price over at the company that makes Pathfinder have sparked some Internet debate about Internet debate.

All I'm going to say about that here is while no you don't have to have a conversation with everyone who wants to have a conversation with you and you don't have to have a conversation when they want to have it, you do have one obligation.

...or at least if you want to publicly claim that something is important you have one obligation.

The obligation is this: you need to have (or do your best to have) a solid, internally-consistent answer for every single question anyone might ask about your important idea even if you are too tired to give that answer to any specific person on any given day or at any given time.

I take this time to say this because there are a lot of questions folks in the mainstream RPG scene don't have any answer for and have consistently avoided by shifting the issue from articulating and weighing their actual values to articulating and weighing how angry they are that the question got asked in a given venue by a given person.

And since this is a Saturday, and since we've been here before, and since this blog has been around long enough that things get lost in the shuffle and since it's very relevant to all the questions about representation in games nobody seems to have answers for, the rest of this is a re-post about some questions that--two years later--still haven't been answered:
The Nazi Games

People get stuck on boring, kindergarten-level questions like "Can art affect people?" (Yes) "Can art be racist, sexist, etc?" (Yes) "Can art be unconsciously those things?"(Yes) "Can fiction be racist, sexist?" (Yes, but it's relatively rare)  "Should we avoid offending people at all costs?" (No) and "Should we censor things" (No) and pretend the argument is about that. Here are some questions which are for adults.

I chose Jewishness as an example because it is a form of marginality (however minor, in the US in 2015) that I can claim by birth--I am not, myself, religious--but these questions are still meaningful when ported to other, considerably more marginalized, groups of people. Feel free to substitute in other forms of marginality and re-ask. So here we go-- the easy ones are first, but they presage the more complex issues that people pretend are already solved:


1. Hitler writes a game. He intends it to clearly reflect his worldview but he's so bad at writing, no-one can understand it and it has no effect on anyone.

Is it anti-semitic? Why or why not?


2. The author of this game harbors no prejudice and is kind to everyone -- this is publicly known and is privately true. Or at least as true as it can be of anyone. No-one has ever even suggested she harbors any bigoted feeling or idea. She has sacrificed a great deal for the well-being of the marginalized.

Her game is rancid with prejudice, Jews are called kikes, every race is slurred and degraded. The imagery and experience system suggests it is heroic to slaughter anyone less well-off than wealthy blonde white men--and it is written at a level suggesting it is for children. Her motives are unclear: perhaps she wrote it as a kind of cathartic exercise to purge herself of wicked thoughts, perhaps simply as an intellectual challenge to write in a voice that was not her own--it's impossible to be sure.

However, this game is unreadable. It is written in a language that was lost forever and will never be remembered or recovered, even by the author. No-one knows anything about it.

Is it anti-semitic? Why or why not?


3. The motive behind the game is repulsive -- it seeks, proactively, to begin a race war. The author is unimaginably racist. No-one knows any of this.

The game is a ridiculous failure in its secret purpose and nobody even notices the racial overtones, they are so clumsily coded and poorly written. It comes across as a charmingly inept kind of Gamma World or Mutant Future.

A prominent celebrity of color is quoted as saying he is a fan. Its odd and accidental charm makes it not only popular but immensely, disproportionately popular among players of color. A statistically meaningful number of people who aren't white take up the hobby because of it. People who do play it generally walk away with a greater feeling of tolerance toward others than they walked in with. Universities where they study games, like UCLA and Columbia -- notice these things and report them. The results are confirmed. This goes on forever. 

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


4. Hitler writes a game. Or maybe Goering or Goebbels. Or the Grand Wizard of the Klan.

Nobody knows they are the author. They die.

The game is discovered later, author unknown. It is published, embraced. It has no content anyone ever accuses of being racist. It seems considerably less ideologically loaded than, say, Pong, to anyone whoever plays it. Let's say: even in these fraught times, it attracts less racial critique than any other RPG ever, though it is popular. The audience is skewed in no particular way. Social scientists can detect no notable change in attitude among people after playing the game. In fact: there is none.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


5. The game is produced with the best will in the world by the most progressive soul imaginable -- but not the most talented. It becomes popular.

Because it is kind of dull or because of the social circles through which it propagates or for some other reason that's difficult to trace, the earnest (and in no-way detectably offensive) game only manages to acquire a very WASPy audience. It changes their attitudes in no way, as it was preaching to the choir. Because it is popular, it actually makes the RPG audience less Jewish and more WASPy than it already was.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


6. A Jewish person produces a game. They harbor no self-hatred. Exactly half the Jewish community finds it offensive and anti-semitic. The other half doesn't and, in fact, hails it as a vital exploration of social issues essential to the community that couldn't have been addressed any other way. It changes the game audience in no way and there are no detectable changes in peoples' attitudes about race after playing or reading it.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


7. A white anglo-saxon protestant produces a game. They harbor no anti-Semitic feeling. Exactly half the Jewish community finds it offensive and anti-semitic. The other half doesn't and, in fact, hails it as a vital exploration of social issues essential to the Jewish community that couldn't have been addressed any other way. It changes the game audience in no way and there are no detectable changes in peoples' attitudes about race after playing or reading it.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


8. A person bearing no prejudices produces a game. It is broad and written for children and relies on stereotypes about people of many ethnicities either because they're oblivious or because they think this is a good way to get ideas across to children. It is incredibly popular among people of precisely those ethnicities and encourages everyone who plays it to learn more about those cultures. It is, in fact, more popular among a diverse audience than an earlier, less stereotype-riddled version of the same game.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


 9. A progressive person produces a game full of progressive ideas about people of all ethnicities, including Jews. It is dull and (measurably, like in a lab) makes people think these kinds of games suck.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


10. 30% of Jews say the game is anti-Semitic and offensive, 70% say it is a vital exploration of social issues essential to the community that couldn't have been addressed any other way.  It has not other measured social effect on the audience or the audience's attitudes.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


11. A person bearing no prejudice produces a game. 10 Jewish people play it and are offended and say it's anti-semitic and never play RPGs again. 10 Jewish people love it and have the best experience of their gaming lives and go on to do a great many game things. It has no effect on anyone's attitudes about prejudice except the offended people--people who like it just say it's fun.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

What if 20 Jewish people love it?



Only 2?


12. A game divides the Jewish community. All the Jewish people you get along with and think are smart consider it a vital and necessary exploration of their identity. All the ones you don't and think are stupid consider it anti-semitic.

Is it? Why or why not?


13. A game is produced by a superlatively progressive person. The game is for adults. It has no measurable effect on the attitudes of adults or on the demographics of the adult audience.

It is not for children, but if children were to play it, they have a chance of adopting anti-semitic attitudes.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


14. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game has only one sociological effect on the audience and it is measurable: people who have anti-semitic beliefs are more likely to take an anti-semitic action after playing.

Is the game anti-semitc? Why or why not?

If so: is beer therefore anti-semitic? Why or why not?


15. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game has only one sociological effect on the audience and it is measurable: stupid people are more likely to be anti-semitic after playing.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


16. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game has only one sociological effect on the audience and it is measurable: mentally ill people are more likely to be anti-semitic after playing.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

17. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. Smart people become less racist when they play the game and understand important issues better and more viscerally, stupid people become more racist. There is no other way to address the complex issues in the game except via playing the game in its current form -- it, for example, requires people to adopt roles of real-life Jewish people who were guilty of banking-related crimes.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


18. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game is old: the game's measurable effect on the audience at the time was to diversify the audience and make it more progressive. No Jewish people at the time were offended. However, now, looking back, there are elements which are not as progressive as the language we use today -- however the style of the game is so dated that everyone who reads it, looks at it or plays it has a level of historical distance or irony akin to when they read the casual references to Jewish bankers in 19th century novels. It is not for children. It has no measurable effect on anyone's attitude now that social science can detect.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

19. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. It offends only extremely, orthodox conservative Jews who have some sexist or homophobic ideas built into their way of doing their religion. But it does offend pretty much all of them.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


20. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. No measurable effect on participants' attitudes or the wider game world's demographics. However, it is written in english and english is a language and so contains inherently racist constructions like "Hip hip hooray".

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

If not--how many Jewish people must claim to be offended before it is?

21. Let's assume you are not Jewish but you hold the purse strings at a company about to give money to the author of game 7 above money for another project. Let's assume that for whatever reasons you need to decide whether their game was anti-semitic or not and back that decision with your money.

Can you? Or do you leave that to Jewish people to decide? And assuming they are split -- how do you decide?