Reflective Writing

A brief aside

I met Warren Ellis at a book signing for his novel Normal, which is about an asylum for strategic forecasters who’ve gone insane. At the time, I was working for a firm on climate change research, specifically, you guessed it, scenario analysis and strategic forecasting around carbon pricing and carbon policies. In the book, people in that position snapped within three years. So with my copy in hand, I told him what I did for a living. He put on a grave expression and asked “how long?” I told him I had been working on carbon markets for about 18 months at the time, and he nodded grimly. He told me to take care of myself, and I took my book and left.

I’ve been a subscriber to Warren Ellis’s newsletter. This week, he wrote this:

The weeks are going to keep getting weirder.  But you are trained for this.  Come back and sit with me again next week, and we’ll do it all again.  Hold on tight.  See you soon.

I feel like I needed that. Life has been weird this year, both exogenously and endogenously. I honestly believe that, having read both Transmetropolitan as well as some of his lesser known work, that Warren Ellis is an authority on when things get weird. We both know what politics looks like…and I’m sure after already hearing what I do for a living, he’d get a chuckle out of my personal life.

It’s a comfort to have people understand your weird, or even to think people would.

Reflective Writing, roleplaying games

No rending of garments

I haven’t written here since March? Damn. That’s what the title refers to, by the way…I’m not going to beat myself up over neglecting this space, as it’s for me. And besides, I’ve continued to not miss a beat over at Cannibal Halfling, so I am writing. And that’s really all I’m going for at the end of the day.

As for why, it basically has to do with some serious upheaval in my personal life. While I’ve reflected on and shared many misadventures of mine from the past, my personal life from the present is still not something I throw out on the internet willy-nilly. When I do, like when I wrote about my father’s bike crash, I do it very deliberately and after a lot of thought. He’s doing fine by the way, back to riding on the very same bike.

So that means no drama for you, dear readers. If you really want to know, you can reach out to me personally. I will likely be happy to talk about it if you’re actually interested, but a) not in a public forum and b) I don’t think there are many interested parties out there who don’t already know.

ANYWAY. Still running D&D, still dealing with game ADD. That said, the D&D game is starting to coalesce into story threads, so I’m trying to focus my energy into leading my sandbox towards a narrative. My players are having fun, but it’s not the same depth of engagement as, say, Seamus’s Masks game. That said, that may be why they’re having fun. It’s not like people were being forced to dungeon crawl all these years.

That said, I’m still thinking to the next game, and being reminded that my vision of D&D and how it turned out differed. I’d like to do more fantasy, but the next time around I’d like to use a different system. I’m also itching to return to Cyberpunk, with several possible systems there. I also found more interested Burning Wheel players, though session 1 got cancelled due to attendance…again. One day.

In light of said game ADD and our gradually increasing profile in the community, I’m also looking to potentially participate in Arisia. I’ve never been, but so many of my friends go, so I definitely want to go. But running games or applying to be a panelist…these things intimidate me. I still want to do them. Just might need some cheering on.

Reflective Writing

High School Nerd Diaries: The Internet Archive

Earlier this week I found a large snippet of my old high school Livejournal via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. This has taught me a couple lessons, one immediate and one still developing.

First, the immediate lesson: no matter how strong the language otherwise (“This account has been deleted and purged”), it is impossible to actually delete something on the Internet. In the (likely declining) days of comment sections and Twitter and Facebook, this is important to remember.

Second, the developing lesson. It’s really hard to read stuff you wrote at 17. What I find interesting is a shift in perspective on time when looking at all of this. When I think back about, say, college, it blows my mind that I finished grad school a little under eight years ago and that my 10th college reunion is coming up. When I look back at my high school Livejournal, though, and see things that were written 13, 14 years ago, I want to believe it was longer. When I think about myself in college, I think about the experiences that formed me into a person, for good and for ill. I think about decisions I made…for good and for ill. These things feel recent and relevant, even if it was a decade ago. When I think about myself in high school, I see a confused kid trying to grow up, grabbing onto anything he can. Reading what I wrote makes me feel that acutely, and though educational, it doesn’t necessarily feel good. It makes me want to feel separated from that version of me…by two decades, at least.

The most recent post captured through the Wayback Machine was February 1st, 2005. This means that a good year of my Livejournal is lost to the ages…a year with lots of juicy stuff in it. Though I have no record of my one serious high school relationship and the significant drama it caused (April 2005 – January 2006, that one), I do have a copy of what was probably one of the worst posts I ever made. It was the post which I referenced in an earlier post, and it severely damaged what was likely one of my most intimate friendships in high school. I reread it, and…it means essentially nothing to me. The only reason I knew it was the right post was the ending, which was seared into my brain because it was spat back at me the next day. But other than that, I have no idea what I’m talking about in that post.

Isn’t that crazy? I mean, I wrote a whole post on *this* blog about how dramatic and ugly a shift it was, and I remember exactly what the overarching plotline was. But the actual events that set me off? No clue. And reading the post, the context clues I did get only confused me, as they didn’t point to anything I remembered. That’s actually broadly true about a lot of the posts…they talked about events I either don’t remember or only remembered vaguely. And I was a very buttoned up kid in high school (there’s even a cringe-inducing post about being straight edge in there, and thirtysomething me is just thinking ‘kid, just wait until you discover beer’), so there’s no reason to expect those memories are particularly lost…just that I wrote so much about so many mundane things that everything has started to blur together.

The fact that we cannot possibly remember every waking moment of our lives is why media like Livejournal and Facebook are so appealing. They’re cybernetic implants to memory, giving us insight into our past long after our meat brains have been programmed to forget. It’s why at the end of college I decided that my college blog, even if I didn’t want to write it any more, should stay on the internet. Maybe as a museum to my ego, I suppose, but more likely so that I could go back and read the things I wrote. Doesn’t really matter if anyone else does. I never thought I was any good at forgetting…I still have very good recall, of a lot of things, but retaining information is different that retaining memories of your past. And even if you keep those memories, you still may need something to trigger them.

Sometime around age 25, I became quite sad that I deleted my Livejournal. It was at that time that there was nothing left for me within my old high school, somewhat because everyone I could have possibly known was too old to stick around, yes, but more because the old buildings were being demolished and anything I could have remembered now ceased to exist. It was also after I had moved back to Boston, long enough that the shock of leaving school and going to “real life” had settled, but still recently enough after that I was trying to figure out what the new version of my Massachusetts life looked like. I have not spent the intervening years searching for my Livejournal, I only found it now because I thought of a different URL string to use after talking to my girlfriend about her Livejournal. And then I read about a year’s worth of posts, through all of 2004. And I don’t think I’m sad I deleted it now. Both because I’m now, more than ever, glad I’m not that awkward and confused kid any more, but also because reading it didn’t give me any new insight into myself. It just reminded me that adolescence sucks, is confusing, and that I was not special when it came to trying to claw through it.

I have in the past tried to treat all this writing as an open book, especially as I’ve gotten older and have felt more comfortable talking about poor decisions I’ve made in the past. At 30 I’m still making poor decisions, but I like to think I have a better capacity to own them and learn from them now. Time will tell. Anyways, my point here is that I can’t really write nearly 1000 words about my old Livejournal without sharing it. Here you go*. If you do decide to read it, understand that I was 17. I think that’s all I really need to say to gather at least an iota of sympathy. And for completeness’ sake, my college blog. I don’t know if you can see me growing up in there, but I like to imagine I can.

*The landing page has 5 or so snapshots…among those are three fragments of the old blog. Even if I’m being an exhibitionist, you still have to do some work.


roleplaying games

All the Fantasy, ever

So now I’m running a D&D game, and it’s going pretty well. Four sessions in, level 3, the sandbox has been laid out before the players. All good stuff. Also a strange place to find myself, considering what my gaming history has looked like.

I started my first gaming group in high school running Third Edition D&D. The game went a healthy number of sessions, but eventually we switched to Cyberpunk 2020, which we played for the majority of the time the group was together. After playing in a 3.5 game in college, I began running GURPS and definitively turned my back on the fantasy genre altogether. It was much to the chagrin of at least one of my players, who wanted to play a magical character more than anything, but I was interested in building worlds that were grounded in “reality”.

I was eventually disabused of this notion, partially as my continuing forays into GURPS became more divorced from reality as my players learned how to game the system, partially as I started learning more of what I wanted from my games on a meta level, and partially as I reintegrated into a world of fantasy gaming through a game of Fourth Edition D&D. When Fifth Edition came out, I was ready to give D&D another shot.

Now, I’m running a 5e game which is designed to lean on the design elements of D&D which work and are cohesive: exploration, powerful monsters, dungeons, and a strongly integrated progression treadmill where increasing power is the de facto narrative direction of the game. It is a game which I felt completely trapped by when I first started learning D&D in high school, but when appreciated on its own merits it creates a compelling structure. When I’m done with this campaign, though, I’m going to put D&D away for a while and run something else. I own a fair number of fantasy games, and there’s more than several I want to put through their paces.

Zweihander: As I’ve written elsewhere, I wanted to run my current game in Zweihander, but relented because my players didn’t want random character generation. Of course, once I switched systems and gave my players all the control they wanted, several of them (including the most vocal critic of my Zweihander choice) couldn’t come up with what they wanted to play. I have a great group, but this made me want to strangle them. Next time I want to do a sandbox exploration game, I’m doing it in Zweihander. The dark flavor, dangerous magic and unforgiving mechanics will be perfect for the atmosphere I want.

Torchbearer: Torchbearer would be an amazing game to run, with immense danger and a lot of micromanagement. It deserves a full campaign, though I’d like to have the ability to play out until level 10 (not that any of the characters will necessarily survive that long).

Spellbound Kingdoms: Spellbound Kingdoms is an incredibly neat game that didn’t fit my dark/low fantasy ideas at all. However, it would make for a fascinating Renaissance intrigue game. My current idea is to build up a big 15th century city, and then use Spellbound Kingdoms for all the nonsense that would come out of it. In my ideal world it would be a Musketpunk free-for-all with duels to the death, deception, and derringdo.

GURPS: Even though it would take a ton of work, GURPS is perfectly suited for another one of my ideas where magic is lost to the world and the PCs find themselves trying to find it. With that core concept the actual setting could be a huge range of things, but the narrative arc of trying to find cosmic power is very compelling.

The problem I continually have with all these ideas is that, with one group to play them with, we’re talking years worth of gaming. Now, I’ve already decided my next game with my online group after D&D will be The Veil, and nothing’s going to change that. After that, though, I’d probably pick up another fantasy campaign. Out of these, I’d go either Spellbound Kingdoms or GURPS, since the Zweihander idea is more of a reskin of the campaign I’m already running, and Torchbearer would also be built on similar flavor. Spellbound Kingdoms would be something new, but GURPS is something very ambitious. I clearly have plenty of time with which to think and write, and for both Spellbound Kingdoms and Zweihander there are supplements on the horizon which may change the breadth of options within the game.

It’s refreshing to be interested in more options out in the gaming world, especially as fantasy makes up the bulk of the hobby thanks to D&D and Pathfinder. For now, though, more gaming ideas just mean that I have too many games and not enough time.

roleplaying games

Time Utilization

My girlfriend has proposed a game night this coming Saturday. Our house games (consisting of me, my girlfriend, our roommate, and 1-2 other people) have mostly flopped, but for this game I’m going to build it like a one-shot and provide myself with more contained prep and writing prompts than I’d use if I was trying to start a campaign.

From what I’ve been seeing, “one session at a time” is kind of difficult for me. In the past, this has resulted in some slower “bridge” sessions where I was trying to get a bunch of exposition out without having a strong driving force for the characters. It also did not result in better or more focused games; games like my last Interface Zero campaign struggled to gain their footing and I ended up feeling like the world was left unexplored, without a strong storyline to compensate.

Meanwhile, in my D&D game I’ve been doing (in my opinion, at least) much better. The worldbuilding comes naturally and I drop hints to my players whenever relevant, but they’re free to pursue plots as they come up. The fact that we spent a good 30 minutes looking at expository stuff in our last session while still getting “but we’re going to the crypt now” after all of it was a good sign that I can throw out a lot without necessarily throwing off my group’s focus.

Back to this weekend. If I focus on delivering one fun session and letting everyone explore their characters, it’s going to dramatically increase the probability we return. And whether we return or not, it’ll also dramatically increase the probability that the game will be fun. That is kind of important.

The title of this post speaks more to the end result of running these home games better, as opposed to how I’m going to run them better. I have the time and the people to run games all the time, even if it’s very difficult to run more than one regular group. My gaming time utilization improves if I work to make each session fun, rather than get stuck in a loop about the fact that I’m unable to run more long-form games. Looking forward to this Saturday, hopefully I’ll be able to land a home game better than I have in the past.

roleplaying games

In Spaaaaaaace

So my campaign is underway, and my other backburner project is on hold until the system I want to base it on is actually released. Rather than plan any of this, I stumbled into a completely new project: writing a space sandbox for GURPS.

Space games, specifically GURPS Space games, hold a wonderfully ignominious place in my heart. I had a proto-RPG world I made up with a childhood friend when we were between the ages of maybe 7 and 10, with aliens and giant starships and everything else you’d need for an eight-year old’s version of “Star Trek, but EVERYTHING’S COOLER”. When I got to college, I started writing down everything I remembered of these pretend games. It boiled down to this: there were three human factions and two alien races, and the story of the game involved a group of mercenaries splintering off and forming their own fourth faction. When condensed from the details, it was a solid campaign, and I did my best to extrapolate. Then, I turned to my gaming group and said “hey guys, I’ve run one campaign in GURPS by the seat of my pants that ended up going pretty well, so I want to try this other genre. Here’s a whole load of flexibility in creating your characters so you can help me flesh out the world!” Anyone who’s played GURPS before already knows this was a disaster. The ludicrous power-game aliens and robots my players created broke the game so decisively that the campaign folded after 3 or 4 sessions.

So I haven’t run a space game since. I have run a lot of Cyberpunk, and am broadly speaking a big fan of science fiction. The fact that I’d want to run another space opera is not surprising to me, though the fact that I keep on going back to GURPS is a slight surprise. Given my previous experience one would think I’d go with something a bit more constrained…that said, when looking at other space opera games, namely Traveller and Stars Without Number, neither of them give me what I’m looking for. With my previous space opera disaster, I’m pretty sure I know what I need to do to keep my campaign a little more on the rails.

The other main reason I’m going for GURPS is that it’s the anti-Star Wars in a lot of ways. After playing in three different Star Wars campaigns, I’m pretty done with that kind of pulp space adventure. However, GURPS can do games with a hard sci-fi flair very well, which would help me drag everything way down to Earth in comparison to what the Star Wars games were like. Fact is, I have a desire to run a number of genres in GURPS, even though I know I need to ease my players back into it. I’m putting the brakes on a wholesale return to GURPS GMing at least for now, as I’m running a D&D game that’s off to a very good start, and I still really want to run The Veil. After that, though, my setting experiments in GURPS are likely to accelerate.

Here’s my basic idea: centuries ago, eight generation ships departed Earth for a far-off cluster hundreds of light-years away. Based on Earth-bound telescopes, this cluster had hundreds of stars with planets, and should offer many possible landing sites for the future denizens of the generation ships. While underway, scientists on one of the ships discovered how to control quantum excitation, which would draw sympathetic particles towards each other at speeds faster than the speed of light. Somewhere around halfway through the journey, the designs for a quantum excitation drive leaked from one of the Command laboratories. These designs ended up in the hands of a separatist group, who covertly converted a number of the orbital craft in storage to FTL. On a day these rebels now celebrate as “Separation Day”, about 5000 people exited the ships in stolen craft and engaged the QE drives, zooming ahead of the colony ships. Separation Day caused a furor among the remaining colonists, many of whom did not know that the existence of this technology was being hidden from them.

Different ships had different reactions to the sudden knowledge of QE tech. The game will start on the El Dorado (the ships are all named for fictional cities). The way the El Dorado handled the grumbling about QE was to release the drive designs to those in charge of the materials processing units, with a promise that the drives would be made available to anyone who wanted them as soon as the ship arrived. It was an imperfect compromise, with the remaining separatists unhappy about waiting 30-50 years, and the manufactories unhappy about having to figure out how to build and distribute the craft without losses. By the time El Dorado started its deceleration burn to enter its new home system, the solution which they happened upon involved financing.

After the El Dorado settled into a stable orbit, it shifted into seed station mode, and the commanders aboard began going through the process of shifting from a military-style command polity to a democracy. Along with that, they and the manufactory staff began establishing and releasing a currency and economic scaffold. Part of this, in order to get people colonizing and spreading throughout the cluster, was making loans for spacecraft. This was part of the plan before, but the existence of QE drives complicated things. As the new Orbital Bank discovered, it’s impossible to repossess a spacecraft light-years away. Well, almost impossible.

The PCs will be the first generation of interstellar repo-men, unable to afford a spacecraft unless locked into a contract with the Orbital Bank. Their mission will be to explore nearby systems, place Quantum Communicator beacons, and find, disable, and repossess spacecraft belonging to loan defaulters. Of course, the PCs’ familiarity with the kill-switches and tracking sensors the repo-men use also put them in the best position to themselves run from their loan. And complicating things, the systems are already interspersed with humans calling themselves the Remnant, the surviving offspring of those separatists who fled the ships some 50-60 years ago.

The feel of the game will be on the side of hard sci-fi. Though the QE drives are clearly made up, the design of the cluster and some of the colonization tech will hew slightly closer to the laws of physics. PCs will encounter hazardous planetary environments, power constraints, and the need to establish supply lines. Their stint as interstellar repo-men will be well supplied, but striking out on their own will take planning and supplies. And finally, I’ve come up with some basic ship design ideas that deal with the reality of zero-g as well as atmospheric flight.

What I’ve been doing with this so far is writing out the cluster. From the looks of it, there’s going to be a lot of uninhabitable systems out there, but so long as the planetoids orbiting them have valuable resources, it’s still worthwhile. It also means that jumping to an unexplored system comes with risk, in terms of scarce fuel and food. Once I have an idea of how many systems in each sector (sectors are based on an x,y,z coordinate plane, so there are eight of them) contain inhabitable (or marginally inhabitable) planets, I can then think about what’s in those systems. Another thing to think about is the notion of natural resources, and how to build out a system for mining and trading in this world.

It’s clearly not done, but through the exercises I have done for this new setting, I’m seeing a lot of potential. Even if it turns out I’m still suffering from space fatigue when everything comes around, I’m still learning a lot about GURPS worldbuilding and how it meshes with everything I’ve learned since last running GURPS. This will end up being one of a trio of new ideas I’m going to write out in the future: this, a near-future/Cyberpunk/post-apoc idea, and a fantasy idea centering around lost magic. None are on the actual GMing docket in the near term, but I’m looking forward to getting back into this toolkit and really fleshing out some future games.

roleplaying games, Writing

A project with a fork in the road

I’ve talked about my idea for “Burning Cyberpunk” before. Taking principles and rules systems from Burning Wheel, setting flavor and mechanics from Cyberpunk games, and building a game that would incorporate the character-driven drama of Burning Wheel games with the heavily thematic storylines of literary and aesthetic Cyberpunk, all while making the crunch fun and easier. I started to outline an attempt at this system in Genesys, as I thought there were some interesting ways to port Burning Wheel Advancement into the Narrative Dice System. Then, today, my project slammed on the brakes.

The backer surveys for Cortex Prime went out.

It was a couple steps, actually. The backer surveys went out and I went “huh, maybe I could write Neon Dice (the working title for the project) in Cortex”. Then, I found my notes for porting Burning Wheel to Cortex Prime as I was cleaning out my Google Drive. Then I went “oh shit”. Cortex Prime is likely a better platform for this project for a few reasons: first, the meta-currency rules mean that porting Artha (the part of Burning Wheel that was most vexing me) is much easier. Second, because advancement in Cortex Prime need not hinge on earning traits in-game (Genesys absolutely does, the mere existence of trait trees in Star Wars implies that), porting Traits and Trait voting into Cortex is way easier. Third, all the things that are unique and interesting about Genesys are things I can port myself, save maybe the dice system.

And that brings us to point four, a somewhat self-serving and premature point. I want to make games so people can play them. The Cortex Creator Studio would offer me a good way to distribute this port if I ever finish it, maybe make a little pocket money. Even though I’m adopting a lot of rules ideas from Burning Wheel, I’m not copying anything from the system wholesale, and I’m not going to use trademark-able terms like “artha” in the text. However, if I were to use Genesys, for which FFG has no creator support, the game could never be salable. Use of the dice system would be the basis for a lawsuit, since the dice are either trademarked or protected under a design patent.

I’m eagerly awaiting the final version of Cortex Prime to be in my hands, but I already have the SRD. The one section I’ve done a lot of work with (Contacts) could likely be 80% salvaged; though it uses some concepts from one of the FFG games it doesn’t depend on the dice and could be easily slotted into a Cortex rules schema. The rest of the stuff I’ve done has been more about pulling Burning Wheel Concepts out that I want to use, which is necessary pre-work no matter what system I end up writing this in.

Genesys is a neat system, and wins over Cortex Prime from a subsystem and mechanical depth perspective given the larger amount of detail given to weapons, vehicles, and other equipment. However, writing for it is currently a dead-end. There is a subset of the RPG fandom willing to write conversions, hacks, and other material and release them for free on the internet. There are way more people that, even if they are not writing for compensation per se, are going to be more enthusiastic about distributing new material if they get some recognition and access to an audience. The Genesys ecosystem is going to flounder until they have something akin to the Cortex Creator Studio…something developed for a game that hasn’t even been released yet. And beyond that, I simply don’t feel like putting effort into a project that could get me sued, and many people feel the same way.

I am eagerly looking forward to Cortex Prime. Not only is it a highly modular system (the SRD makes that clear), but it has a publisher that understands the importance of fan support.