Reflective Writing, roleplaying games

Genesys and my search for a do-it-all RPG

First, yes, it’s been three weeks since I posted. I was travelling for work and then had Thanksgiving, so a bit of interruption is to be expected. I’ve been posting consistently over on Cannibal Halfling and writing tons of D&D stuff, so the writing overall is going well.

Fantasy Flight’s Genesys RPG got to my hands this week, and this weekend the roll-out is done and the game is “released”. Seamus wrote the first half of our review here; the game is both not surprising (being a universalization of an existing game) and pretty well done. Next week I’ll talk more in-depth about the toolkit aspects.

And that’s what I’m thinking about as I read through the game and consider what I would use it for. There are some very well-executed expansions to the Narrative Dice system in Genesys, but in terms of its applicability, it falls into a slot which is occupied by Star Wars, the property the system was originally used for. Genesys does fast-paced, story-driven games well, where characters are archetypal but still central and the hero’s journey is reflected across the narrative. The important thing to take away from this is that like most universal systems, Genesys isn’t.

Prior to receiving the book, I was having some anxiety that I’d be driven to convert my upcoming D&D game into Genesys once I read it. Now that it’s in my hands, I can say the desire is completely gone. One of the reasons I picked D&D for the game back when I was outlining the campaign was that it was a game that came close enough to what I wanted to do that essentially all the work had been done for me. As much as Fate would have been easier to tweak (I’m still puzzling over D&D houserules and at the point where I’ll need to test drive some of them), it would have fought me to get to the level of danger and grit I wanted. D&D had some of those levers already in the game, and the rest were either easy to write or existed on one of many fansites and fora. The experience, starting with my campaign planning and culminating in reading Genesys, reminded me that I no longer buy into the concept of a universal game.

I was a GURPS-head for a long time, and I am still very happy to own all of those hardcovers. I still use them for campaign planning, even though I haven’t run GURPS in about five years. GURPS, despite the name, is not a universal system. The best title to actually describe it for me would be an anagram, USRPG; this stands for the “Ultimate Simulationist Role-Playing Game”. What GURPS does extremely well is provide a compact and intuitive system to simulate tons of bits and bobs and circumstances. Want a game of custom-built superpowers? GURPS has the math for that. Want to do gritty war scenarios with sweltering jungles, land mines and hostile villagers? All of those are covered, down to which Armalite variant your PCs are carrying. The ability to simulate anything is immensely attractive, especially for a GM who like to write their own stuff. But when you play, it all comes out roughly the same: a tactical, math-intensive game which can provide lots of circumstances and situations but does not have baked into it a story.

What really drove me away from GURPS in a big way was Apocalypse World, and it was a matter of comparison. I ran a post-apocalyptic game using GURPS for a subset of my online group a few years ago, and it was successful. It also felt like GURPS…it was my first shift away from the Cyberpunk genre in a while, and I was surprised at how difficult it was to introduce atmosphere into the game. At the same time, I had finally gotten practiced at the mechanical aspects…the combats ran great and felt punchy…I remember a PC getting shot in one of the combats and it made a visceral difference in how the session ran. But the system gave me no help in making the world feel post-apocalyptic. Two or three years later I ran Apocalypse World…and damn. Implied scarcity, emotional characters, anger, fear…it just flowed out of me and my players.

GURPS as a game works well when the challenges you want to present are mechanical. It has a great set of tools for modeling almost any conceivable situation, to the point where it can transcend genre (and this is what makes it earn its name). It lacks mechanical support for character narrative and progression, especially compared to D&D. D&D is narrower than GURPS in terms of mechanics, and those mechanics are tuned towards a less realistic mode. D&D, though, provides a rich implied setting, very good progression mechanics (very few games rival D&D’s character arc mechanics), and a much more varied (though at its heart a bit simpler) combat minigame. Compared to both of those, PbtA games are tuned to run a specific subset of character archetypes within a specific genre which gives specific setting assumptions…but the best within that group are simply evocative in a way broader games have difficulty with.

To loop it back, Genesys (and the FFG Star Wars games it’s derived from) is tuned to run dramatic scenarios. It’s for that reason the social combat mechanics were included, and that reason that motivations are both included and boiled down to single word categories (unlike, say, Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, which require much more thought [as is appropriate for their role as plot-driver for the entire game]). Even the dice mechanic is designed around elevating the drama at the table: Wait! add a setback! But no! My talent undoes that! Upgrade this! Downgrade that! Somebody help me, I need the boost! It’s good at what it does (my three campaigns as a player confirm this) but, once again, it’s not a universal system. It’s a great counterpoint to GURPS: GURPS includes thoughtful positioning, planning, and yes, math; Genesys is a much better standard-bearer for “when in doubt, roll and shout” (which is, ironically, advice from GURPS: Campaigns).

So the question then is “if Genesys can’t do it all, what can it do?” I think a lot of larger-than-life campaign ideas could be well-served with Genesys. Steampunk, Mecha, Weird War, Space Opera (though the setting-specific mechanics of games like Traveller and Stars Without Number would have to be at a minimum adapted), games with big concepts that are rolled out across the screen, are all great matches. I’d consider running Cyberpunk in Genesys, though it would heavily depend on what kind of Cyberpunk game (the first complication here is that my next Cyberpunk game would be The Veil, but The Veil only works for exactly its kind of Cyberpunk). Most of my fantasy ideas are built around worlds of darkness and danger…both D&D and Zweihander would be my go-tos, though for different reasons (Zweihander is great at making things dark and gritty, while D&D is great for making your world a dangerous place). Any gritty game idea I have would likely be done in GURPS (still), with the exception that Apocalypse World is simply my favorite post-apocalyptic game and I don’t see much that will change this.

So it’s a good addition to my shelf, and I think it will see some use in the future. Much to my relief, though, it doesn’t appear that it will change any of my immediate plans.

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Reflective Writing, roleplaying games

Week in Review: Motivation Checks

I’ve loved reading fiction for most of my life. I’ve also loved gaming for more than half of it. Through all this, I’ve had both a desire and at least some ability to express myself through the written word, which is ultimately the core reason I put effort into writing regularly. I want to keep writing, keep practicing, and keep expressing myself. I also have a desire to create, and a desire to build. Putting things together like that is also why I work on my cars and bicycles.

I’m not sure where I got the idea that the best way to express myself is by writing fiction. Now, I’ve had fictional spaces I’ve wanted to explore before, and writing Fratricide, as an example, was a good exploration at the time I did it. But ultimately, I don’t have that many ideas for stories. I generally find the process of writing fiction frustrating, and don’t yet have a strong ability to get ideas in my head onto the page.

You know what medium I have tons of ideas for? Games, role-playing games specifically. I have at least three game ideas in my head right now, and notes scribbled everywhere (though mostly contained in Google Drive nowadays) about how to design and adjust game systems. I’ve been hacking rules and writing subsystems for role-playing games forever, and wrote my first standalone role-playing system when I was 15 (note I’ll say it was my first system, I will not say it was any good). I want to design games and write gaming material. Why didn’t I just do that instead?

Part of it is fantasy. Writing fiction, especially a novel, carries with it the fantasy of making it big as a writer and getting fame and recognition. Fact is, you can barely make a living writing games, and your readership will be much smaller. Same is true with writing short fiction, thanks to the contraction of magazines publishing fiction and the general lack of recognition of the short anthologies that exist. But games especially have to be written because you want to, not even because you want people to read them. Even being successful at it doesn’t carry a fantasy with it…the money isn’t there.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that my priorities are probably out of whack. I’m not going to get *any* audience for anything I write if I find it so difficult to put work into writing and actually finish something. Meanwhile, gaming causes my brain to nearly vibrate out of its skull, especially when I’m not running or writing something.

So I went back to an earlier standalone game idea I had and have begun to flesh it out more. If I’m to have a passion project, the passion needs to be there. I’m doing this for myself…regardless of what project I choose the chance of it crossing the finish line into a commercial project is small, but with a game I actually see the path ahead of me. I still may not go much faster than an aggregate 1750 words a week, but I’m much more motivated to complete those words and create a finished product.

So this week I switched gears. I took my outline for my time travel PbtA hack, Paradox, and started to flesh it out. I should have a playable prototype in two to three weeks if I stay motivated.

Reflective Writing

Dear Kat

Dear Kat,

I found the mixtape you made me. Or rather the mix CD. It was the blank CD-R that was in my CD case, the big one I’ve had since high school. I don’t normally touch my CDs anymore but some time around the month of my 30th birthday I remembered that unlabeled CD-R was in there. I took it out of the sleeve, stuffed it into the optical drive in my computer (it’s not really a CD-ROM drive any more, is it? There are CDs and DVDs and BDs now…let’s stick with optical drive), and played it for the first time in 12 years.

If you’ve read any of my various online writings over those 12 years (and I suspect, Kat, that you haven’t), you may have noticed past writings about memory triggers. It may be because I remember things well, or because I have been pretty emotionally sensitive over the last three decades, but there are a lot of latent memory triggers sitting around. And indeed, when I played that CD it was a gigantic memory trigger because every one of those songs was one you told me about at the lunch table in high school.

The songs ultimately aren’t important, though some of them definitely helped me remember who you were as a person. What was more important was the image of not only those lunchtime conversations but in fact the entire year began to sublimate as I listened to those songs. You were one of a cast of many, and yet you’re one of the few who completely disappeared from my life. Starting at that lunch table…Patrick was there, it was the three of us most days. He and I still see each other, maybe not as frequently as either of us would like but frequently enough that I can say we have a relationship. I’ve met his wife (as out of character as you might have found that sentence many years ago), he’s met my girlfriend. We went out for drinks in New York maybe three months ago. He did not disappear. You did.

Timing is a part of that. I packed up for Pittsburgh, and you still had three years of high school left. You might have met my brother…he never mentioned it but then again I wouldn’t expect him to. Still, that’s quite a gulf, at least it was then. And that likely explains what happened on my side, too. Three years seemed like a big difference when I was 17. But now, if I were to meet you again, you’d be 27 and I’d be 30. Those two ages are for all intents and purposes the same.

I admit I looked for you online, partially out of a sense of morbid curiosity and partially because I thought it might be fun to drop a random note, even though there’d be a good chance you wouldn’t remember who I am. No need to chase it further, though I’m not always the best at letting things (people?) disappear. It is kind of ancient history at this point…but in some ways it’s a fixed point in time.

I hope this doesn’t all seem ludicrous or creepy. Fact is, not many people made me mix CDs in high school, so you ascended to a kind of rarefied crowd with that move. And I do remember you and remember you positively, something that can’t be said for much of what I knew and experienced in high school. So forgive this somewhat insane writing…maybe drop me a line some time. Nostalgia is a weird thing, and I’m sure you can accept that.

Best,

Aaron


I did listen to that mix CD, and it was in a rarefied space. Aforementioned Patrick made me a mix, which led me to some great musical acquisitions (Beck, Morphine, Dandy Warhols, Elliott Smith, others). My one high school girlfriend Katy made me one as well…It’s in a jewel case somewhere, which means I may have lost it (I’m sorry!). In both of those cases, I still have the people. Kat I never kept in touch with. I kind of regret that, she was sweet and witty, as well as off kilter in a way that I didn’t know how to deal with in high school but now greatly appreciate. Frankly, I think our timing was off and we met 5-10 years too early. But that was mostly my fault…18-year old me was dumb and pretty impatient.

I don’t have many high school artifacts left. As I alluded to in the “letter”, I blew up a lot of the relationships I had in high school, and others I was either too anxious or too oblivous to nurture. Part of the way I’m learning to deal with this is identifying all the things I had to learn…and clearly, learned after high school. But that evolves into this weird sort of regret, the useless regret where you wish you could be back then knowing what you know now. So here’s the symbolism, a tangible object that represents a friendship I did not destroy, and yet through neglect actually did. It may be totally normal (and even expected) that 18-year old me didn’t know how to value what he had. As useless as it is, I still waste brain space thinking that guy’s an asshole.

Postscript: The day I drafted this post, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park was found dead, a suicide. He was 41. Suicide is a whole other topic for high school me (link here), but more importantly for this topic, I was playing Linkin Park albums while writing this. It added a whole other level to the vividness of high school memory triggers. I hope you find peace, Chester. You did more than you could know for me and probably scores of other angry and aimless 14 and 15 year olds.

I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter…

The song can have a positive meaning if you look at it in the right way.

Bicycles, Reflective Writing

My Dad and the month of July

First, I want to apologize to any of my friends for whom this is news. I have not been shouting this from the rooftops, nor have I been in contact with everyone. For reasons that should be obvious, it’s been a stressful month and I’ve withdrawn a little as a result.

One month ago, on June 20th, my father was struck by a car while on his bicycle. He suffered a brain injury and spent quite a bit of time in the hospital. He’s home now, still recovering but making progress. It’s been a harrowing time, for myself and my brother but especially for my mother, who has found herself conscripted as the key contact for all the doctors, lawyers, and everyone else you get in touch with when there’s a bad surprise in your life.

I was not prepared for this, though for different reasons than most of my family. Like my father, I’m an avid cyclist. Unlike my father, the majority of my cycling mileage occurs in and around the city of Boston, especially in the last five years when I commuted to work by bicycle. I had been preparing for the possibility of a bike crash in the family…but I had been mentally preparing for the day I’d be hit by a car again (yes, again). Pedaling through traffic day after day, you inure yourself to the idea that eventually someone was going to come too close or make an error in judgment and you’d find yourself laid out in the street.

That didn’t happen. My father was riding home on a rural road, less than two miles from home. The road has a shoulder wide enough to ride on, and there were no traffic devices between him and home, not even a stop sign. He was hit by a driver who not only simply failed to regard mixed traffic, but also fled the scene after the crash. Yeah, it was a hit and run. This made everything all the more frustrating. Though I can’t comment on exactly what happened, both the location and the circumstances make it difficult for me to see any reason for this occurring other than a person who simply failed to drive.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. My criticisms can’t undo the crash, and even if the offending driver stopped my Dad would have still been in the hospital and still had the injuries he did. It’s not useful to ponder what-ifs, especially as my Dad is still here, and that’s the direction my energies should go. He’s been talking about the bike he’s going to buy after everything gets resolved. That impresses the hell out of me.

There’s some point in the future this may return to normal. I haven’t been cycling all this month, though I can’t say for certain it’s related to the crash (I’m also fairly busy). For now though, I’m trying as best I can to help my parents while my Dad recovers. I’m very thankful for the support I’ve received from friends, co-workers and family…and here I must apologize again if I haven’t told you what was happening. With everything going on, I stepped back from a lot. It’s only after a recent and much needed vacation that I was able to clear my head and write this. In the long run, I’m sure both my Dad and myself are going to keep cycling…I can only hope that everyone I know does their part and keeps being cognizant of the many types of road users out there. It only takes one careless moment to change someone’s life forever.

Reflective Writing

Restore from last save point

I haven’t really written anything in a week. That bothers me. I know why, of course, but that knowledge doesn’t help me put words on a page any faster.

So yeah, the election threw a lot of people for a loop. My personal political beliefs aside, I work as a policy analyst, so the surprise and uncertainty threw off everything in my life, work as well as personal. I took a break. Drank some beer, played Stardew Valley, took a long drive. Work is still in a bit of a tizzy, but things are manageable.

I also had another block/crisis with Fratricide. I wrote some lead-up to the inciting force and realized my reevaluation of the premise doesn’t make any sense. Again. I have some ideas for re-aligning things, but I’d need to scrap around two thirds of what I wrote. Looking at things soberly, the nostalgia of rewriting my first novel has worn off.

My ultimate problem, and part of the reason I decided to try rewriting Fratricide in the first place, is that coming up with ideas that seem original that I actually want to write is hard. I’m so ready to drop something that seems like it has been done before, while at the same time sitting in a reading list which is re-examinations of themes that have been done over and over. I’m not going to stop reading Cyberpunk science fiction, but it’s nothing but re-examinations…one reason neither William Gibson nor Neal Stephenson write it any more.

I’m trying to figure out what grabs me about media I’ve been consuming recently. On the gaming side, I’m finally entranced by fantasy, which was something I had rejected for years. Meanwhile, I have a group which is suspicious of fantasy because none of us have given it a serious whack since college (my couple sessions of D&D doesn’t really count). On the digital side, I’ve been utterly taken by the small yet completely fantastical stories of games like Oxenfree and Kentucky Route Zero, which exist at this incredible intersection of human relationships and supernatural horror that is in the process of blowing my mind (I haven’t finished Kentucky Route Zero yet, but damn).

The one thing I’m getting out of these games, and it might be in part the medium, is that subtlety is essential, both to incorporate and also to ignore. While there are so many incredible little details that make up the world, the core plot involves things that are huge and wild. Kentucky Route Zero’s title refers to a secret underground highway! There is an enormity in how different the world is portrayed, while a lot of the little things are what tie it together.

I’ve had a lot of trouble in doing the big and the small at the same time. When I figured out the big details in Fratricide, I got stuck on the smaller execution. While it’s frustrating that I’m catching things as a reader that I didn’t as a writer, it does mean that my continual reading and mental exercise is helping me write, slowly but surely. Beyond reading making me a better writer, consumption of media, especially media that wasn’t in my typical circle of interests, is helping me realize what engages me. I have some ideas bubbling up which could be interesting…I think now I need to commit them to paper, rather than worry about whether they’re novel length or entirely original or even “good”. I should be writing, not criticizing the writing I haven’t even done yet.

Reflective Writing

The wagon, and getting back on it

I wrote 500 words last night, which is my first contribution to Fratricide in about a week and a half. It was in all reality probably a good thing that this rough patch came so close to November, because it served as a stark reminder that doing NaNoWriMo is going to take more organization, time, and willpower than I likely have on tap for an entire month. That said, I felt more in the groove with the draft than I have in a while, and am probably going to finish up the first section in another one or two writing days.

At the very least, I have been getting things done outside of writing. I finished reading a book and started another, and have all but finished my project bike, with only pedals, final adjustments and trim on the to-do list…once the pedals are installed the bike will be rideable, and will mark the first bicycle I’ve rebuilt extensively. And beyond that, I’ve written a couple thousand words of random game stuff, play-by-post setup, and GM logging. At the very least I haven’t been sitting on my hands.

Tonight is Dungeon World, and an earnest attempt to regain focus from the haphazard session two weeks ago. And then after that I’m going to redouble my efforts to spend a good amount of my free time doing something productive.

Reflective Writing

Writing prompts of note

Last week messed up my writing pace, and I’m going to have to get back onto the Fratricide train and finish section 1 sometime soon, hopefully before this weekend is over. In the meanwhile, I’m contemplating other ideas I have, and whether poking at a few other ideas simultaneously is a good thing or a bad thing. Some of these ideas need more fleshing out, but my lack of doing anything with them hasn’t helped that one bit.

Idea: Woods in Winter. The protagonist wakes up in a secluded part of Maine after 200 years in a cryotank. Meant to be an exploration of the notion of living after society is gone, kind of a quiet apocalypse as opposed to typical sci-fi and horror interpretations.

Why haven’t I written anything: This one came to me recently, and I plotted the idea of writing this for NaNoWriMo. Even if I don’t participate in NaNo, I’m hoping to explore this soon.

Idea: Egon the Nomad. Egon lives in a village on the edge of the woods. One day, he finds the end of the woods. Of course, the “end of the woods” for his little medieval village is actually a perimeter maintained by a far-flung commune of scientists tasked with preserving the human race.

Why haven’t I written anything: This one came to me at Pennsic, inspired directly by taking the notion of artificial lifestyles to its logical extreme. I haven’t written more about this because as far as I can tell it doesn’t have a plot yet. May be better suited to a short story, based on the limited set of ideas I want to explore.

Idea: Something about high school. I’ve wanted to write a fictional memoir of high school forever, and have tried a few angles.

Why I haven’t written anything: Two reasons. First, I don’t think anyone would want to read it. Second, I have no idea what the angle is. My high school life wasn’t that interesting, what am I changing/condensing/adding to make it a good narrative? The idea, tempting as it is, is still too vague.

What I’m trying to figure out is if I can actually have two writing projects at once. It’ll help me manage the ebb and flow of my engagement with Fratricide…assuming it doesn’t distract me entirely. In theory more angles to approach writing is a good thing…right?

The other thing, realistically, is that if I want to have more writing ideas I need to spend some time on the ones I have, and figure out how to develop them. It’ll help hone my skills for catching other ideas out of the aether when my mind is wandering.

I clearly have the ability to write more. On a decent week I’m putting 2,000 words in this blog. Now I just need to see if I can keep multiple projects humming at once.