Saturday, November 21, 2015

Supernatural Evil vs. Real Evil: When Reality Bites

As a fan of many varieties of fiction and genre books, films, television shows, and games, I have seen a fair share of villains. Bad guys are, actually, one of my favorite things. Without villains, where would be heroes? Without evil, is there actual “good”? It’s a big question. The one thing that keeps coming back to me, however, time and again is the question of what is more frightening, more evil: supernatural villainy, or villains who could step out of the next corner shop?

Starting with my earliest exposures to the good vs. evil storylines, I watched a lot of cartoons. Cartoons are, for the most part, about unreality. The characters are not supposed to be super realistic or like anything you might encounter. In Disney alone, there are Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), and the Evil Stepmother (Snow White) – they are all frightening to children and adult understanding of their motives definitely show that they are fucked up and evil, but for me, they are not nearly so frightening as Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). There is a supernatural element to the Hunchback cartoon film, but Frollo is all too real. He is a man very dedicated to his religion, who sees beautiful women as vain and condemns their sexuality, and he considers himself better and more pure than those around him (which, imo, is terrifyingly real).

I was around 4 or 5 when I saw my first Stephen King films. Thank you television for doing re-runs, and thank you parents for leaving me alone with the television. I saw, in a sweet double-feature, IT and Carrie. They are both pretty well-done films, and completely compelling for a kid who loved ghost stories. I still have nightmares about those movies, but they are two very different types of nightmares. With IT, it is the standard “holy crap evil clown”, teleporting, monster-morphing scary that is easily expected. With Carrie, it is so much different. For me, the villain of the movie is not Carrie, or even the cruel teenagers. It’s Carrie’s abusive mother. See, in IT, the clown is a scary villain, yeah, but even at that age I knew that those things weren’t real. Abusive parents, though, were something I could definitely imagine (and had been witness to).

Further on we go – scary movies with werewolves and vampires and ghosts, right up next to Law & Order, CSI, and the serial killer shows and documentaries I latched on to. No matter how many nightmares I had about monsters, it never compared to the constant anxiety I felt day after day knowing that there were real people out there who were, from my perspective, far more evil than their paranormal peers.

One of my favorite book stories is, no surprise, Harry Potter. In the books, the biggest villain, the embodiment of evil, is Voldemort (Or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named for those of you who like to use extra words). He’s a torturer, murderer, son of a rapist (love potions are not consent, FYI), and straight up asshole who is willing to murder everyone who doesn’t fit his ideal concept of humanity. There are multiple descriptions of the shitty stuff he does, and the shitty stuff his followers do. And yet, they do not scare me anywhere near as much as Dolores Umbridge. Anyone who has read the books knows how awful Umbridge is. She constantly, as a human who is not supernaturally altered in any way, chooses to do harm and induce suffering on anyone she doesn’t deem worth or doesn’t like. She’s racist (and advocates for awful things against half-human or non-human species), and revels in the pain of others. Torturing children is shown to bring her actual pleasure and satisfaction. She is, in many ways, the perfect example of someone who would claim to have “just been doing their job” when all shit hits the fan, but who secretly really got off on doing awful things in the name of her cause – and the cause, in this case, seems to just be a convenient excuse.

I think that it is easy to see why realistic villains are more terrifying than supernatural villains (in most cases! There are always exceptions!). Bellatrix Lestrange is pretty fucked up and terrifying, but there is no way she compares to the Bitch of Buchenwald (Ilse Koch, from the Buchenwald concentration camp during WWII, Google with great care). Knowing that there are real killers, torturers, and rapists out in the world is way worse to me than the fantastical idea that vampires might suck my blood.

In games, we can always use fantastical monsters. That’s something that is super common in RPGs – hell, in a lot of games we play the monsters! But when running a horror game, the choice between real horror and fantastical horror is a very careful decision. Some GMs might know their groups well and be able to run it without a question. Others might need to really talk to their players and make sure it’s okay.

If you want to run a horror game with a realistic villain, but you don’t want to spoil the whole plot for your players, there are a lot of ways to get the information you need. The first is to have a boundaries discussion. Ask your players, “If you were playing a realistic game, what kind of bad guys, type of violence, and other content are you comfortable with and not comfortable with?” Give them the floor, and then feel free to bring up specific items, including ones you specifically don’t plan to use in the game. Examples of stuff that might come up: rape, harm to children, domestic abuse, torture, sexualized violence, stalking, harm to animals. None of these are things people should feel bad about vetoing, and it's important not to shame players or try to bargain or bribe them. It's more fun when people want to play the game without caveats.

Other options that are great are, like I mentioned in my previous post, using consent and content tools like the X-Card and Script Change. The biggest thing to do, though, is to talk with your players and ensure that they’re cool with moving forward.

It isn’t a bad idea to talk about this with your players when you are using supernatural villains as well. While we have seen that in the Netflix TV show, Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is an amazing villain without any supernatural ability, the new show on Netflix, Jessica Jones, the character Killgrave (known as the Purple Man in comics) has supernatural abilities and he’s simply chilling to see on screen, and his abilities are truly some of the worst.

There is a lot to gain by finding what really makes your heart pound, and your hair stand up on end, and it’s often fun to pursue it. Still, there is no reason that a person should be put in a place in a game where they can’t escape or stop the source of their distress. Players deserve to have a good time, even if that means they’re quaking in their boots!

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Five or So Questions with Meguey Baker on Playing Nature's Year

I was lucky to get a chance to interview Meguey Baker about her new project, Playing Nature's Year, which is currently on Kickstarter

Tell me a little bit about your project, Playing Nature's Year. What excites you about it?

A couple things really stand out for me. I love the old songs and fairy rhymes and little pieces of folk tales that I grew up with, and felt there were games there that could be as sweet and simple and strange. The first game, The Holly & the Ivy, came into my head so complete I nearly shouted at Vincent and Eppy to stop talking because I had to write it all down quick right there in the coffee shop. It felt a little like the magic I hoped to capture in the rest of them!

I loved the constraints I used in this cycle: each player always has ten d6 to start but each game has different mechanics; I had six weeks in which to design and write and find art and a song or poem for each game; each game had to do one thing well and be playable in under an hour.

Beyond that, the biggest thing is the idea of playing games with people you don't really usually play games with. I've played some of these games with my little nephews, with folks brand new to gaming, with the parents of kids in my youngest son's class, and I look forward to playing them with my mother-in-law over Thanksgiving.

Where did you feel you pulled your most valuable inspiration for these games?
Short answer: the earth and its cycles. Longer answer: I grew up in a household with a deep appreciation for the ways nature connects and contributes to our spiritual, philosophical, emotional and creative well-being. Some of my earliest friends were apple trees I named when I was 3, and played in daily. They were real beings to me, and my mother never made me feel silly or dishonest when I told her what they said and the adventures we had. Instead, she handed me books of mythology - Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Native American, and Japanese - and read me fairy tales from the Arabian Nights, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson, as well as the Rainbow Fairy Books. This laid the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with all things deemed "fairy" or "pagan" or "earth-based" in contrast to my grandparent's fundamentalist Baptist faith. As a young adult, I spent a decade or more being fairly active in local pagan circles, and have pretty much incorporated elements of that sense of awareness of the world around me into my life going forward, even though it's not the dominant part of my path at the moment.

What inspired you to use the constraints you did, and how do you think they influenced your design choices?
After the initial game came through so clearly, I was very conscious that the rest needed to be in keeping with the first. I had been laying rather a LOT of Tenzie, which is a wonderful and super-fast dice game, and it was the starting point for all the mechanics in the games - how can I use these ten d6 to do something different? I have this roleplaying story-telling wishing game for midsummer, how do ten d6 resolve in this game?

Also, the songs and poems are important to me. All of them except the Chickadee are ones I knew and loved from childhood, and I think there is an important place in game design to connect back to poems and songs and the ways creative ideas and stores were passed down for thousands of years before the magic of written word. They frame the games, and I hope they give the reader a greater sense of the feeling in the game. The influence of the songs to the games is pretty interwoven. With a few, it was crystal clear what piece I wanted, to the point of licensing "The Garden Song" because the game demanded it. And by the way, licensing music is a nightmare. On one or two of the games, I went looking for a song or poem to match, which is how I came across the Chickadee, which is a perfect fit.

Could you share a story of when you playtested these games that you feel exemplified their concepts?

The first time I played The Holly & The Ivy, I was surprised by the intensity of my own wish. That was quite a rush, because it told me the design was solid and that everything worked precisely as I intended it to, even for me.

I playtested the third game, Bless the Seeds, with my 9 year old son. It's a game about perseverance and gardening, in which you talk about work you are doing in your garden. Tovey described the most wonderful seaside garden, with tidal pools and sea glass and sand dunes and a hammock. It was utterly delightful to watch his imagination unfold and to see him respond so enthusiastically to the structure of the game. The very best part though was after the game ended and he ran to tell his older brother all about the game and his garden in great detail. It had clearly captivated him, and that was exactly the outcome I was hoping for.

I did a final playtest of At the Stroke of Midnight at Metatopia, and two of my players were moved nearly to the point of tears at the end, where there is a conversation with the Beloved Dead. That was really rewarding, to have the ritual of the game support such willingness of emotion in people I had never played with before.

Do you find any special challenges when designing games that appeal to people of all ages and experience?

There are a couple things I keep in mind. I tend to avoid terms like "GM", "PC', and "NPC" that might look like alphabet soup to non-gamers. I aim to keep the mechanics smooth and interesting but not too fiddly, and I use plain six-sided dice which folks might have already even if they are not gamers. I aim for a game session that runs under an hour if I have kids under 10 in my target audience, and under four hours if I have adults who might play board games or computer games or play or watch physical games (aka sports). I avoid swearing in my game text, because I want folks to feel comfortable handing the book to their kids or their parents. If I don't know what my reader's comfort level is with that, I don't need to mess with it. If you pick up Apocalypse World, I'm pretty sure you aren't going to be put off by more vigorous words, and if you read all the way through 1001 Nights and have some familiarity with the source material, the art shouldn't surprise you.

Finally, what do you hope people get out of playing the games in Playing Nature's Year?
First and foremost, I hope they have fun. After that, I hope they are a bit more aware of the season around them after they play. Finally, I hope they are surprised sometimes by the places the games take them, by their own wishes and fortunes and the stories they create. 

Make sure to check out Playing Nature's Year on Kickstarter, and thanks to Meguey for sharing her thoughts and process!

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings: They Are Not What You Think

Content Warning: I'm going to talk about trigger warnings here, so if you don't like hearing about that, click away now.

Hey humans! 

I want to talk about what content and trigger warnings are, and why they are important. Let's first establish what these things are:

Trigger Warnings:

Trigger warnings are related to psychological triggers, like those from abuse and trauma. Triggers are things like sights, scents, sounds, and sensations that can produce flashbacks, painful memories, or anxiety/panic reactions in people who have experienced abuse and/or trauma.

For example: I have been sexually assaulted. When I watch movies, play games, or read books that have sexual assault in them, I can become panicked, stressed, and uncomfortable. This feeling can last anywhere from a minute or so to days or weeks. Some people I know are triggered by scents like smoke, sounds like yelling, or sights like specific violence in media or even something like being on snowy roads in winter.

Triggers are not something of cowardice. They are a psychological reaction to traumatic experiences of someone's past. No one can define the severity of someone else's trauma. Even when it comes to professionals, they can't read someone's mind. When someone is triggered, they can have complex and extreme reactions, or just some stress and a desire to remove themselves from the situation.

Content Warnings:

Content warnings have some things in common with trigger warnings, but they are not the same. We see content warnings all the time - at the movies (Rated R for language, violence, and sex!), on TV (This presentation may contain material that could upset viewers - just like Law and Order), and on video games (Rated M for content). They are not new, and anyone who is surprised by them may have been living under a rock.

Content warnings are not in regards to people's mental health or put together to avoid panic attacks or flashbacks. Content warnings are there so people can prepare, or decide what they should let their kids see. They are not censorship, and they are not any restriction on media. They are there to guide consumers to media they want, or away from media they don't want.

Common Objections:

"Trigger warnings and content warnings are for cowards/babies/wusses/immature people!"
Nope! Trigger warnings are there to prevent people with past trauma from experiencing further trauma. Believe it or not, a lot of people suffer from trauma, and it is not something that you can just "tough it out" most of the time. Soldiers who return from war with PTSD (diagnosed or not) can have trouble because of triggers. People who were abused as children can have triggers. Not just soldiers have PTSD, and people of all ages have experienced trauma in their life. This is why trigger warnings are valuable. When you expose someone to a trigger, it has a psychological impact. In some ways, it is like an allergy. If someone were allergic to peanuts, would you tell them to eat peanuts anyway, because their allergy is just "all in their head"?

"Trigger warnings and content warnings are censorship!"
Nope! Slapping a rating or a simplified list of the content of media on the package doesn't censor anything. The media is still produced, and available for consumption. It might be limited by age, but parents can buy for their kids, so that isn't a significant issue. People who are triggered by the content might be upset that the product exists - and that's okay! They can talk to other people about it and say, "hey, if you don't like this stuff, don't buy this thing!" and maybe other people won't buy it. Maybe they still will. People can make choices!

"If people see trigger or content warnings that have stuff they don't like in them, they won't buy it or consume it!"
Not necessarily true! While everyone, regardless of their issues with triggers, might decide not to consume a product, there are plenty of people who still will. People can, and often will, still consume media that has objectionable material in it, and that has triggers for them. Seeing a trigger warning isn't always "That's not for me!" It might be "I can watch this when I am having a good day" or "Maybe I will save this until when I am not in a depression" or "If I get a friend to watch this with me, I'll be great" or even "Maybe if someone tells me what part to skip, I can enjoy the rest of the thing!" Also, we are not in the business of forcing people to buy things. No one has to buy what you are selling. It's not like creators walk beside people in the store just putting things in their cart and telling them that it's something they should watch, even if they don't like it. That's like forcing people who like action movies to watch Oscar bait.

"People will abuse them to get out of work/school/responsibilities!"
Totally! And you know what? That's okay. It's okay because those people will be few. It's okay because people use excuses to get out of work/school/responsibilities already. It's okay because the people who use trigger warnings and content warnings for their own wellbeing and awareness will, a lot of the time, still take the classes or go to work or fulfill their responsibilities. People abusing systems is nothing new, and we shouldn't put other people through difficult and often dangerous situations just because some people are jerks.

ETA: "You can't possibly list all of the triggers, how am I supposed to know what they are?"
Well, for one, you can't list all of them. That's okay. You don't have to list them all, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't list any. Part of the point of trigger warnings is demonstrating that you are aware of your audience and willing to listen to them. You can try to focus on the common ones: graphic violence, sexual assault and abuse, domestic/child abuse, and rape. From that, most people can get an idea of whether it's their kind of media. Trigger and content warnings are not an all or nothing tool. You can talk to your audiences or potential audiences, you can check around in forums and on social media to see what your potential audiences might have issues with. Even if you don't do that, you can still be considerate even with limited information.

Why are these things important?

A lot of reasons, actually! I have covered a lot of them already, but I'll summarize.

  • Many people have been affected by trauma in their lives, and it is important to provide support for them to feel safe and still able to enjoy their lives in any way we can.
  • A lot of people prefer to consume different types of media for many different reasons. Some have kids, some like to compartmentalize their media, and some people just don't enjoy all types of content.
  • We should respect psychological issues just like we do physical issues. They are valid, and denying people the ability to avoid things that hurt them is, honestly, just rude.
  • Everyone should have choices in their media! Everyone is different, and we shouldn't force everyone to enjoy one thing just because the majority enjoys it, or because not liking it makes them seem judgmental. 

How can this be applied?

In school, it's simple. Put a note on your syllabus about what kind of content will be discussed in class, what materials you'll be using, and how to contact instructors to either change classes, consider alternate materials or assignments, or help to figure out a good way to go through the classes without putting students in a position where they don't feel safe in class.

In media, it's pretty easy. Create what you want, but put a note on it. It can be simple: "This film includes rape, sexual assault, and sexualized violence." It can also be more complex: "This game has mechanics that allow for PC mind control, which are not optional and central to the game's premise." Either of these options are great, and importantly, they are way better than nothing. If you are planning a convention game, you can put notes in your description, or let the players know when they arrive at the table, and offer them the opportunity to step out.

What about in games where we aren't using a script? What if something happens in game that wasn't planned?
This is more difficult! The cool thing is that it's not impossible! One of the first things you can do is establish boundaries with your players so that if there is something completely off the table, you know in advance and can avoid that material. Another thing is that you can provide tools like Script Change and the X Card. These tools give you either the option to skip content altogether, or to back up and go through a scene again with new content, fade to black, or pause for a moment to evaluate players' comfort with moving forward. It gives players more control of the content, as well as helping them to feel comfortable. It is awesome because sometimes it makes players even more likely to try adventurous content they may not have otherwise tried.

I want to emphasize: You can still create whatever you want to create. The key is to allow those who aren't interested in your content to safely avoid it, and give those who want to enjoy your content an easy way to navigate. People have more fun doing the things that they enjoy, and when they are stuck doing things they don't want to, it drags everyone down. Trigger warnings and content warnings help people find content that they can enjoy, and can encourage them to try new things.


In the end, trigger warnings and content warnings are a great way to support other people in trying new things, expanding their boundaries, and exploring, without leaving them with no safety net, and without ignoring the importance of their mental and emotional health. Some people might not care about this at all, and that's okay. However, I think that kind of attitude definitely shines a light on who is likely to consume their media, and whether they are the kind of person those who have experienced trauma are willing to trust. For me, there's no question: I want everyone to have fun - not just the people who don't care.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Women with Initiative - Wendy Gorman

Hi all!
Welcome to my new feature, Women with Initiative! I am hoping to make this a monthly feature, but we'll see as time passes whether the interest is there. Today I've interviewed Wendy Gorman, creator of Still Life, which won in last year's Golden Cobra design contest. 

Wendy shares a little about her here:

My games are mostly WIP right now, but I co-wrote one of last year's Golden Cobra winners, Still Life, and I'm currently working on two games, one called The Things She Carried, which I wrote for the Warbirds anthology contest, which won, and is a game about Japanese American women in the US during WWII, and Shemesh, which is a solarpunk utopia game that I'm working on with Different Play, and that is probably my game that I'm most excited about. I've also written a DramaSystem setting called "Game On" about the women's baseball league in the US during WWII, and I have a million tiny baby game ideas that I'm working on with my favorite codesigner, Heather Silsbee.

Here are some questions I asked Wendy!

You have written some really amazing things. One of the previous cons I attended, many people played Still Life and said it was amazing. How did you find inspiration for such a unique game, and what kind of experiences do you think uninitiated players would have?

It's funny you should ask about Still Life, because it has really been a huge surprise to me. Still Life is a mystery! My friends and I were play testing Jon Cole's larp design work shop, Larp Jam, and our prompt was "pebblestone lifestyle." I desperately did not want to write a Flintstones larp, and we were on the shore of a lake, with rocks surrounding us, so I guess it was easy to run with the rocks/nature theme. As for the uninitiated playing it, I'm sure experiences will differ! It's a very low-key larp, with lots of sitting and quiet time, so if someone went in expecting to run around hitting people with foam swords, it would probably be a disappointment. That said, I'm told it's a great game to play when you're tired, because you really don't have to move around very much at all!

In your work for The Things She Carried, how have you been gathering information and historical reference for it? What made you choose that particular subject?

For The Things She Carried, I was inspired by an amazing memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, about Jeanne's experience with being relocated to internment camps in her youth. In particular, there's a scene in the book where her grandmother is trying to sell some family heirloom plates that the family has had for years, and the buyer is refusing to give her what she considers a fair price, because the market is flooded with similar items from other Japanese American families who are also leaving. The grandmother gets so mad that she smashes the plates, one by one, rather than sell them. It's a powerful book, and a powerful scene that stuck with me, especially since so many of these families lived in Washington, which is where I grew up. It's a side of World War II that doesn't get talked about enough, but it's all I could think about when I saw there was a contest for WWII games about women. I've been reading articles, I reread the first inspirational memoir, and have been looking at photos on historical archives to try and get a better feel for Japanese women in the 40s.

I am so excited about your solarpunk game! I have been delving into it - tell me more about solarpunk, and about Shemesh!

Shemesh is probably the game I'm most excited about! Solarpunk is an emerging genre that focuses on ecofriendly, sustainable living with an art noveau flair. I love the aesthetic, I love the message, and I love the chance to explore positivity and hope. My game focuses on a city, Shemesh, that envisions a new way of living. I was interested in games about utopia, and couldn't find any that I felt really fit, so I decided to design my own! The game is about exploring a solarpunk utopia in a diverse city, with a focus on aesthetics, which I love, and working through differences without resorting to conflict and anger. The question I'm inviting players to answer with this game is "What does it look like to approach misunderstandings in a utopia?" To top it all off, I have a backdrop of a bunch of funky fantasy peoples, including giant rats with a hive mind, human-sized sentient butterflies, fae, humans, and sentient robots, who all live alongside each other. I'm really, really in love with the setting and the game, and I can't wait to release it. It's sort of an amalgamation of a bunch of my favorite things, such as Microscope, the works of China Mieville, and beautiful, brightly colored stained glass. I've had a ton of fun writing it, play testing it, and I sincerely hope that others will enjoy it as much as I have!

What do you do outside of gaming, hobbies &etc.?

Outside of gaming, I'm a cat enthusiast, aspiring writer, and earring fanatic. I'm currently living in Spain for a year, teaching English, which I love. I am a big fan of feminist discussion, and trying to figure out how to make myself a more socially conscious human being. I also love to cook, and to bake, although I lack an oven here in Spain, so it's put a huge damper on my culinary escapades.

Thank you so much to Wendy for sharing with us! You can find Wendy online on Google+!

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Five or So Questions with Dustin DePenning on Synthicide

I interviewed Dustin DePenning on Synthicide, his sci-fi RPG planned for Kickstarter next year. He is currently looking for playtesters to help refine the game, so if you're interested, e-mail him at

Tell me about Synthicide. What excites you about it?

Synthicide is a custom tabletop rpg system set in a violent galaxy where humans are second-class to robots.

You and your fellow players take the role of Sharpers: free agent criminals exploring and looting society’s corpse. By working jobs, you will make friends and enemies amongst gangs, corporations, and pirates. And the Tharnaxist Church, the only thing resembling law, will stay well out of your way. But that’s only if the Church doesn’t catch you killing their pride and joy: a synthetic.

Now that's out of the way, what excites me about Synthicide are two things: it's gritty setting and its player tools. The game world is a combination of all my favorite sci fi themes: cyberpunk missions, societal decay, corruption, and space exploration. Each of these themes can become dominant from session to session. As players interact with these elements, their decisions snowball into crazy situations over the course of a campaign.

The player aids make me proud, because Synthicide's rules are meant to be played, not read. Character battle rules fit on a single page for easy reference, and high speed vehicle chase rules are on a second page if needed. And to help with improvisation, the GM has automated tools to generate NPCs, mission outlines, and even vehicle stats on the fly.

All this makes me really excited to finish development in the coming year.

What would a standard session be like for players as Sharpers?
Sharpers, are constantly losing money to needs like food, fuel, and better equipment. So most sessions start with players looking for a job – anything from assisting a street gang break into a vault, to helping a corporation track down and punish its debtors. The GM is encouraged to provide the players with two or three mission outlines so they can choose what kind of job to run, but most involve shady and violent activity. The real choice is who the players like working with and who they oppose.

As sessions add up, the consequences of player choices make the game world more intricate. Opponents from previous jobs might come back for revenge, complicating the players' efforts to stay on someone's payroll. If the players mess up enough, they lose their friends yet are left with dangerous enemies. They might have to turn tail and start fresh somewhere else in the Galaxy, continuing the cycle.

Tell me something interesting about the Tharnaxist Church. What is scary about it?
The Tharnaxist Church has the most resources and power out of everyone in the galaxy. Their history and influence stretches back to when the galaxy fell a millennia ago, so they alone have knowledge of advanced technology and mastery of robots. None of this power is put to good use, as Tharnaxist Priests aren't concerned with human affairs. You steal from someone? They don't care. You murder someone? They don't care. But as soon as you lay a hand on a robot or priest, they will destroy you.

The problem is that the best jobs a Sharper can get involve attacking priests and synthetics.

How do you make the gritty setting reflect in the rules?
Combat can be brutal. Synthicide uses a traditional HP and damage system, but it only takes a few hits to bring down a warrior. Also, HP levels up slowly, while attack and damage can increase quickly. To crank it up even more, there are optional rules for circulatory shock or suffering mental trauma. There's also an optional system where powerful attacks instantly kill poorly-armored foes.

The game's economy is also gritty. Players are frequently in danger of starving to death, but food is expensive. However, the rules don't track ammunition costs, making violent jobs an easy way to fill a hungry belly.

How does NPC generation work?

NPC generation is the simplest part of the game. The GM uses the automated tool to makes a few selections fitting the concept of the NPC. First choose a type, which is anything from rich man to animal. Next choose a mechanical role, such as a killer or sneak. Finally, choose one unique power, such as extra defenses or an explosive attack. The generator then fills in all the relevant stats and even rolls for loot. You can try the generator out yourself here:

What do you want players to take away from Synthicide?

I want the players to feel invested in overcoming the economic and social challenges they face in the game. They aren't adventuring as a choice, or because they are chosen heroes. They are fighting tooth and nail to justify their existence in the Galaxy. And as they grow in power and experience, I want them to notice what kind of person their character has become. Are they proud of what they have done to get this far? What are they willing to do to go even farther?

Thanks to Dustin for the great interview. Keep an eye out next year for the Synthicide Kickstarter, and don't forget to e-mail Dustin if you're interested in playtesting at

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Five or So Questions with Ian Williams on ACTION MOVIE WORLD!


I had an interview with Ian Williams on his game, ACTION MOVIE WORLD, which is currently on DriveThruRPG for purchase! It sounds like a really fun time!

Tell me a little about ACTION MOVIE WORLD. What excites you about it?

I got the bright idea to make an Apocalypse World engine game about a world where everything from action movies was real. I was working through the skeleton of this idea and my friend, Bret, says that I should make it a game where you're playing the action movie actors, who are then playing the action movie heroes. That was all brilliant, so that's the genesis of the game. I set it up so it was aggressively multi-genre; as an actor, you don't just play one role in your career. You play in lots of movies, lots of characters. So I decided that you would have a character playbook based on what "type" of movie actor you are, a la any other *World game, but you'd combine it with a playbook for your current movie. That would give you moves which lasted only for the duration of a specific movie, 1-3 sessions.

So you end up with what I think it a pretty cool and flexible thing where you can just go nuts with as many genres as you can squeeze into your game. Do ninjas one night, cops the next, etc. So that's exciting, but I also just genuinely love action movies, particularly the bad VHS fodder of the 80s and 90s. AMW is my way of deconstructing what makes them work as a medium before reconstructing it. It's a love letter with a stamp on it labelled "Thinking of You".

How does it work to combine the type and playbook - do you get separate moves or bonuses to stats? 

Your actor playbook is basically like a character from any other Apocalypse engine game. Or, if someone doesn't have that frame of reference, just a character in a RPG. So any moves or bonuses you get there are permanent. They're essential to you, the actor, who translates those moves into a character for a movie.

Scripts (the name for the movie playbook) give you a move. You pick one from a list which is super genre specific. But those moves last for the duration of that one movie, only. Say you're doing a ninja movie. You pick a move which lets you drop a smoke bomb and disappear. That's yours until the movie ends--usually 1-3 sessions. So the combo of these two approaches lets you play both with and against type.

I'm a big fan of team mechanics. Can you talk a little about Camaraderie? 

At the core of action movies, there's this physical expression of emotions. Anger, love, fear, whatever. It's always physical. That's a main theme, that action heroes display their emotions in this physical, primal manner. And another main theme is that these movies are basically about friendships, even if it's a friendship in the past, like with a lone POW escaping from Vietnam or something like that, where the soldier's friends are left behind but are still the motivation.

Camaraderie measures the friendship between the characters. It goes up and down, as you either contribute to or betray this communal bond between pals. And you can use it to make a Camaraderie move, which is basically that moment in a movie where the friends get together and kick some ass while a guitar wails in the background. That move is super powerful and it's not quite as distinctly "this is that and nothing more" as most of the other moves. It's meant to be rolled when you do a cool thing with your buddies, even if it's just a hi-five before fighting the bad guy. If you succeed on it, you get some cool doodads like doing mega damage to the movie's villain or similar.

I love that you have a statement about inclusivity. Who are your favorite lady action heroes, and what do you think they'd play in AMW? 

I love Michelle Yeoh on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" alone, much less all of the other stuff she's done. I think she'd be a Thespian or Gunfighter, in terms of playbooks. Lucy Lawless. I loved Xena. Definitely a Smartass, with a high +Muscles rating. And Cynthia Rothrock, who should be way more famous than she is and probably would be if she'd come on the scene today. Pugilist for her.

The game has leads and supporting characters. Can you give an example of a team with leads and supporting characters from a film, and how they'd play out in game? 

It's really any action movie you care to look at! That system with an invulnerable lead and supporting characters who die in droves is really about the idea that action movies are about the journey, not the ending. The ending is never in doubt: the hero's going to win, most of his or her friends are going to be dead or maimed, serving to make the hero even more badass.

A really good example is "Alien" You've got Ripley and this cast of compelling, strong characters. And, one by one, the supporting cast are killed off. Ripley wins and she looks even cooler by virtue of the fact that her supporting cast was so strong. Textbook stuff, even though it's also a horror movie (horror and action are two flavors which go well together).

In game, that would be Sigourney Weaver as the Lead in the movie "Alien". Everyone else is supporting cast; they get experience when they die. The next movie the group plays is a Tom Skerritt movie. Skerrit's the Lead, Weaver is supporting cast in that one. Eventually, Weaver gets to be Lead in another movie after everyone else has had a turn. The whole table is happy and buys three more copies of ACTION MOVIE WORLD to show their enthusiasm!

Make sure to check out ACTION MOVIE WORLD on DriveThruRPG now!

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