Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I AM Mental

A slight diversion from our normal content, here. It's semi-political, if my mental health is political. 

Content/Trigger Notice: mental health, depression, bipolar, and similar illnesses are all discussed/specific mentions of binge drinking, suicide, and self-destructive behavior. 

I was going to write about Are You Mental? and its Kickstarter when I got home today. I don't need to, because there's this excellent post by Kate Bullock, who is wonderful. I'm going to say shit anyway.

I know I do problematic things in relation to mental health and representation, I totally do, but I'm also extremely aware of how my literal crazy is heavily misrepresented by media and fiction crazy. See, here’s the thing. I live my crazy in public. I don’t think there has ever been a day when someone has asked me about my mental health and I’ve denied them an answer. I joke about it, occasionally, but not often. Often, I’m too busy with it. 

For reference, I have bipolar disorder, anxiety (generalized and social), mild obsessive/compulsive behaviors, issues with seasonal depression, a history of emotional abuse, and have many panic attacks.

Somewhere around 2013ish, I’m not sure when, I started a spiral into an incredibly tragic and damaging mixed/manic episode in which I destroyed friendships, professional relationships, had abusive relationships and may have been abusive myself, wasted more money than is reasonable, experienced massive physical health issues in part because of the irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, and I did a lot of wrong things, including some things that other people would never admit to.

If you ask me? I will try to tell you honestly what happened. There are some times I don’t really know. The funny thing about being so crazy is that you don’t always remember the worst things. Or the best things. Like, I remember drinking an entire bottle of vodka after my then-partner screamed and shook the dinner table for half the meal and tried to hit me. That was not my crazy, nope, but there it was, nestled in the situation my crazy put me in. I don’t remember seeing some of my best friends at conventions where I was so manic, so close to breaking, that I didn’t really sleep for almost 72 hours, and barely ate, and talked so fast I don’t even remember how I managed to talk. I crave those moments. Those moments, at a gaming con, as a gamer, where I was crazy.

I am well medicated, doing therapy, and thankfully with access to good healthcare to keep those things. (No worries, potential employers!) Not everyone has that. Even having it doesn’t mean you’re safe. Everyone who watches me on social media sees these ups and downs of my moods, my bleak moments of depression, my hypomania. Lithium is great, but it does not cure me.

If you sit down and play a game, and you play a mad character, a crazy character, oh, it’s so exciting, isn’t it? To be crazy? To be INSANE? You can do whatever you want! No matter what you do, it’s okay, you’re crazy! Hahaha OMG NOT REALLY.

My freelance career is mostly in tatters. I couldn’t do the work. I couldn’t’ focus. I got nothing done. I have some work – thanks to some very, very generous people – but I’m not a professional. I burned that flag to ashes and dust. I was not a nice person. I wasn’t respectful. Hell, I honestly feel like I lost tons of social relationships alone on this, in part because everyone thought I made someone cheat on their wife,* because that’s totally something I want on my resume.

I am very honest about my mental illnesses so that people can see, in reality, what crazy is. It is not laughing enthusiastically because things are so, so funny, it’s laughing because you actually can’t stop and you don’t know what’s wrong and if you stop you might die. It’s not feeling morose and sad, sitting at a windowsill dripping with raindrops, it’s sitting on your kitchen floor crying because you almost killed yourself, again, you might do it again, you might die. It’s not being nervous around new people you’ve never met before, it’s being afraid to go to your best friend’s house and if they see how much of a goddamn mess you are, you might die. Some of these are figurative. Some of them are extremely not.

Are You Mental? may be super fun and exciting and make a lot of people very happy. All I can say is that I am, actually, mental, and games like that make me feel like I should fucking die.


Small addendum: 1) I am not asking for this to be paid via Patreon. That feels weird. 2) I did do consulting on the essays for mental health representation in the Lovecraftesque game by Becky Annison and Joshua Fox, and I'm available to do that for other games. Just comment and tag me and we'll go from there.

*I literally have no desire to deal with people's defenses of this or justifications. Just leave it alone, it's better off dead.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Whose Stories We Tell

If you are making a thing about people who are not like you, you should talk to people who are like that.

I can't count how many game ideas or fiction ideas I've dropped completely because I couldn't do the research, didn't have the time to interview, or couldn't read accurate accounts. People's stories matter so much. We should not fly off the cuff. We should not make assumptions based on media.

If you're working on something about people other than you that those people could be emotionally affected by,* pause and 

Consider whether you should do it at all. 

If you're still determined to do it, look for the people you are writing about or people similar to them. Ask them if they will share their experience. If they will not,

Consider whether you should continue.

If you're still determined to do it, look for accurate and complete personal accounts. If you can't find them, or they seem unreliable, or they are confirmed to be inaccurate,

Consider whether you should keep going.

If you're still determined to do it, review the available media regarding those people or their experiences. If you can't find them, or they seem unreliable, or they are confirmed to be inaccurate,


That's right. Stop. Take a break, return to it later. Think about why you want to tell these stories.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you willing to tell stories without people's permission?
  • Are you willing to tell stories without accurate information?
  • Are you willing to tell stories that could be inaccurate or misleading?
  • Are you willing to tell stories that could damage reputations, risk people's jobs, or their lives?
  • Are you willing to tell stories that ignore people's identities, stereotype them, or marginalize them? 
  • Are you willing to lie?

If you answer yes to those questions, I say to you: Look at your life. Look at your choices.

Walk away.

*Sex, wars, religion, gender, queerness, identities, trauma, politics, etc. - all of these are important. Imagine if someone wrote a story about something you consider personal and emotional, like about your life personally, and told it wrong, and maybe even lied or misrepresented you in a way that stereotyped you or made you seem dangerous, evil, or just simply wrong. If it's a topic like that? Think about it.

Note: When you consult people, compensate them fairly for their time and experience.

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Five or So Questions with Monte Cook on Invisible Sun

Good news everyone! I've been lucky enough to interview Monte Cook of Monte Cook Games about his new game on Kickstarter, Invisible Sun. Invisible Sun is a new tabletop RPG with a flexible play function and some fun bits and pieces that can round out the experience, which promises an escape to surreal fantasy and secrecy. Check out Monte's responses to my questions below!
I love this piece so much, the colors and structure are so good.

Tell me a little about Invisible Sun. What excites you about it?

Invisible Sun is a new RPG of surreal fantasy, where player characters use magic to discover the secrets of the world, and the world beyond the world. There are many, many things that excite me about the game. If I had to pick, say, two, I'd say the surreal nature of the setting--a place where not only can anything happen, but does--and some of the new gameplay elements. In Invisible Sun, we have something called Development Mode (as in, character development), where players get time away from the table to really focus on their own, personal story arcs. Everything in the game is story-based, and even a character's advancement is based on progress through one or more story arcs that they player has set up. Development mode gives players a way to interact with the game and with each other even when the whole group can't meet. It's great for everyone, but particularly for those of us who sometimes struggle to make our schedules all mesh.

Both of these aspects of the game are really about the same thing: escaping the demands of the real world to escape--at least for a time--into a realm of imagination and wonder. Invisible Sun is about escape in both setting and mechanics.

I really like combining nature and humanity, so this image is right up my alley.

For Development Mode, outside of the flexibility, what do you think about that option really opens up the experience for players - is it just lonely fun, or do you think it's more of an exploration, or more?

I'm not sure what you mean by "lonely fun." Development mode allows a player or players to interact with the GM--either indirectly or directly, as they desire and as is convenient--to play out side-scenes involving only some subset of the group. So the GM and players can have personal storylines going as well as group stories, or a single character can break off and do their own thing in between sessions. Or maybe the side-scene is a flashback, and just enriches a character's background (or, like in good fiction, maybe something that happens in that flashback then directly affects the present storyline). It's also a great way to give players who are a bit quieter in a large group a way to shine on their own--that is to say, it's great for introverts.


Invisible Sun has a lot more going than just a book. What components come with the game, and what do they do? With that, what do you personally enjoy about integrating them into Invisible Sun's play?

Now that we've unlocked the "Whole Box Upgrade" stretch goal, the game comes with dozens of player handouts, in-depth 4-page character tomes, a pad of grimoire sheets for keeping track of spells and secrets, a GM notebook filled with creative prompts and ways to manage all the various story arcs in the campaign, hundreds of tokens (some specific to certain character orders), and over a thousand cards, ranging from spell and artifact cards to the 60-card divinatory Sooth Deck that figures into every aspect of play. And that's still not everything.

The point here is that Invisible Sun is a game that recognizes the challenges of getting the group to gather around a table and so it celebrates it with all sorts of fun visual and tactile enhancements to play the game. For example, Vance characters manage their magic in a way that restricts the number of living spells they can have ready in their mind at once. They will have cards that have their spells written on them in different sizes and shapes. If they can fit some combination of those cards into the diagram that represents their mind, they can ready that many spells. Weavers, however, use magic in an entirely different way and have game bits that help them keep track of that.

There are all kind of board games with glorious boxes filled with fun stuff to help play the game. I think RPGers should have that option if they want it too.

The little curlicues in here and the snail are so cute but spoopy.

Escapism is a huge part of tabletop RPGs, and it often seems like there's more to escape than ever. What do you think about the surreal setting of Invisible Sun makes it compelling, and accessible, for people who have so many realms to dive into already?

The stranger and more surreal a setting is, the easier, rather than harder, it is to escape into it. Because in a setting like that, you don't ever have to say no. You never say, "no, that can't work," or "that's not realistic." You don't have to be a history scholar or a science expert or really know anything other than how to use your imagination. It's not a free-for-all, of course. It's still an rpg, and rpgs have rules, but it takes away restrictions that would be purely setting-based. It's a deep-dive into fantasy, to be sure, but it's appealing to people who maybe sometimes want something beyond the standard genre tropes. The game, of course, will come with all manner of creative prompts (first and foremost, the aforementioned Sooth Deck) to help generate ideas for all of this. Sometimes "anything is possible" is hard, at least at first. So the game gives you a hand.

Multiple eyes like that freaks me out but I still like the kitty.
What have been some of your favorite parts of designing and playing Invisible Sun, the kind of moments and concept realizations that you really found valuable as a creator?

For more than two years now, I've kept a set of notebooks of just every weird idea that I came across. Things too out there for anything else. "A thief who literally steals ideas." "Armor made out of protective words and a weapon constructed of dangerous ones." "A monster that feeds on the concept of starvation." Things like that. That's my favorite part. In the end, I read, I watch television and movies, I play games, and I write all for the ideas. Ideas are my passion, and the freer I am to let my imagination soar, the happier I am.

Beyond that, I'm really enjoying thinking about the things that keep us from playing games and trying to overcome them. There's where Development Mode came from. That's why Invisible Sun treats character death in a way that doesn't force a player to stop playing. That's why there are specific aspects of the game to handle both introvert and extrovert players. That's why player absences are worked right into the conceit of the setting. And so on.

As an rpg designer in 2016, I think we need to start thinking about these things. Playing a game as adults in the modern world isn't like gathering in the basement back when we were 13. It's simply harder now. Some other designers will come up with different (and possibly far better) solutions to these issues, but it's something we need to be thinking about.

Thanks so much to Monte for answering my questions about Invisible Sun and his experience designing it! Check out Invisible Sun on Kickstarter!

Note: for others unfamiliar with the term "lonely fun," it's typically referring to solo roleplay or the game time spent creating characters and setting elements for group games that is done alone or away from the group. Lonely fun is essentially self-propelled roleplay and creation or design. 

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

I love you and I adore you: A letter writing game

Hello all!

I wrote a game that I'm hoping you'll enjoy! It's a queer love letter writing game inspired by the love letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lenora Hickok, and it's very simple and hopefully easy. It's fully story based, but has some rules on communication. This is a Version 1 document so please excuse any flaws for now. 

I hope you like it! Feel free to play, and if you'd like to offer feedback, let me know.

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Five or So Questions with Eric Simon on Rockalypse

Hi all! I have an interview today with Eric Simon of Four-in-Hand games about his upcoming game, Rockalypse (quick start on DTRPG here!), which is currently on Kickstarter! It sounds really cool, but I'll let Eric tell you all the details! He talks, too, about system choice and how it's important for how a game plays. Good stuff!

Tell me a little about Rockalypse. What excites you about it?

I'll start with my usual tagline: Rockalypse is the post-apocalyptic game of musical conflict. The quick high concept is "Scott Pilgrim meets Mad Max," but it is every movie, comic, or TV show you've ever seen where someone pulls out an instrument or takes to the stage and fights someone with nothing but the power of music (or dance). One of the things that continues to excite me about this project is just how many inspirations keep showing up in media. Just this week I've watched The Get Down and Kubo and the Two Strings, both of which present different but equally evocative representations of the musical-battle motif. This is a concept that is ripe for play. It seems to be something most people can wrap their minds around fairly easily, simply because of how much source material is ingrained in our pop culture.

Tell me about the system for Rockalypse. What are the basic mechanics, and their inspirations?

Rockalypse is built on Fate Core and is specifically designed to tap into the strength and uniqueness of that system. In particular, collaborative combat and non-physical damage are essential to the feel of the game, and Fate does those things better than just about any other system. The first thing you'll notice is that I've removed Fighting, Shooting, and Provoke, and added in Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, and Rhyme. Melody and Rhyme are now the two main attacking skills, Rhythm and Will are the two main defending skills, and Harmony is an especially powerful support skill. I've also built in a bunch of new stunts for those skills and for many of the regular skills for use in combat. Athletics has a stunt that allows dance to be incorporated into the conflict just like the other musical skills, Crafts becomes the main representation of offstage technical work, and even Stealth and Deceive have uses within a performance.

The other key difference is how combat is structured. I really wanted to emphasize the collaboration, so I broke initiative into different "counts" divided by types of actions. The first count is for Overcomes, the second for Creating Advantages, the third for Attacks, and the fourth for any Defends that happen because of those attacks. This encourages the group to really talk through and plan how they're going to approach each round (or "phrase"). Cooperation is heavily encouraged by the structure and by the stunts attached to the various skills. For instance, a sound and lights technician can use Crafts to create advantages that provide a +3 instead of a +2 when used by their bandmates, but only if they themselves are not performing on stage. Meanwhile, a Rhythm player with the Perfect Time stunt can defend on behalf of her bandmates when they are attacked.

All of the new mechanics are designed around the idea of getting people to engage first with the things that make Fate awesome - aspects, collaboration, narrative positioning, and so on - and second with the fun of describing a musical performance spectacle. Because of the way everything works together, it also makes the Attack and Defend rolls much higher than those in most other Fate games once you get a few phrases into a combat. That helps to give it even more of an epic feel that's appropriate to the themes.

What would a typical session of Rockalypse play out like?

I strongly recommend a solid session zero at the beginning of your campaign, but assuming you've already created your game and you're into the story itself, Rockalypse resembles many other roleplaying games in how it plays. There's still adventuring to be done with the usual amount of exploring, talking, and puzzle solving. But when there's any kind of throw-down, it happens with music instead of fists or guns. I generally aim for a 50/50 split between conflicts and story-driven adventuring. Like most games, that exact balance will vary from session to session, but overall that should be about where you end up.

How did you come up with the concept and what made it fun for you?

This game emerged out of a thought experiment I started a couple years ago. At the time, I was working exclusively on my Steamscapes setting for Savage Worlds, and every once in a while people would ask me if I planned to convert Steamscapes to Fate. My answer was and still is no, because I feel that Savage Worlds is the right fit for that game. But those conversations got me to ask the question, "If I were to design a game that HAD to be run in Fate, what would it be?" After a few months of thinking, I hit on the core idea for Rockalypse, and I've been developing it ever since.

Part of the fun in development has definitely come from the great players I've had in all my demos and playtests. I love seeing all the different approaches they take to their bands, their characters, and their settings. Both Fate in general and Rockalypse specifically help to bring out the creativity in players, and it's been a joy to be a part of that.

The other thing that's been entertaining about the process has been the research. I always enjoy my historical research for Steamscapes, but Rockalypse has allowed me to approach research from a very different angle: watching cheesy movies from couch. And while some of that has still felt like work - I am much more familiar with the Camp Rock oeuvre than I ever wanted to be - I have still managed to find some surprising gems. My more obscure recommendations would include Bandslam (probably the most emotionally genuine teen band movie I've seen), Wild Zero (J-Pop stars vs. zombies with a trans-positive romance), and Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks (some may scoff, but it has even better band battles than Scott Pilgrim).

One last thing - you said that this game fit for Fate and that's where you started. What did you do research-wise to design a Fate game, and how do you think your experience designing Rockalypse has influenced your design style?

When I first started, I did a combination of reading, listening to actual plays, and playing a few pick-up games with people who know the system well. I am also very fortunate to live in a city where I can meet up with other prominent game designers such as PK Sullivan and Tara Zuber, and I get to have conversations with them about the things that they have done with Fate and seen others do with Fate. PK in particular came on very early to help me playtest Rockalypse and give me feedback on the mechanics. He really helped me work out some of the early kinks.

As far as my own design style goes, one of the things I did with Rockalypse was to pull myself away from the heavy setting focus of my other work. Steamscapes is extremely setting-dependent, but I knew I wanted more flexibility with this game. I have enjoyed the challenge of writing a game where the setting is created by the players every time you play, and it has been very rewarding to see that pay off. Otherwise, I really feel that Rockalypse has been a good test and example of my overall design philosophy, which is to always look for the right match of theme, setting, and mechanics. I think the best games are the ones where all three of those things work together to support a cohesive play experience. That's what I'm always striving for.

Thanks so much to Eric for the interview! Rockalypse sounds like a fun game that can definitely hit some flavor buttons for a lot of people. Check it out on Kickstarter!

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jay Sylvano, Game Chef, and Making Simple Games

Y'all know I love me some simple games.

I make games that are hella simple a lot of the time - little written games, question games, lonely games, those kinds of things. So I love hearing about people making games that are simple, but do more. Ask bigger questions. Challenge assumptions. Push harder.

Jay Sylvano has done that.

I met Jay at a podcast recording for the IGDN (Indie Game Developer Network) in November 2015, for Metatopia 2015. She was a recipient of the Metatopia Designer Scholarship. Her work thus far has been really interesting, and I'm always excited to see more.

Her 2016 Game Chef submission is an examination of a dystopian authoritarian high school, where questions of mind control and propaganda. It's a live-action game, which is really cool, and I think that it has a lot of possibilities for play that are thoroughly fascinating. 

I've put together some of Jay's words on her project further on, but here's some background from her:
I'm from South Africa and have been living in Portland, OR for the past 4 years. I'm a full time graphic designer by day and an analog game designer by night, with a specific focus on story games and freeform larps.

I've created a number of games now including Shame, a freeform game about "honor" violence and patriarchal killings, Into The Gale, a tabletop story game about differently abled animals coming together to solve mythical problems, and The Illustrious Magnolia Hotel & Spa, a roleplaying game about a group of highly incompetent hotel staff trying to keep their crumbling establishment afloat.

I'm also on the board of the Portland-based nonprofit Games to Gather that focuses on inclusivity and social consciousness through play. My pride and joy is my main monthly gaming event "Ready, Set, Game: Womyn's Night" that is all about womyn coming together in a safe space to play games, talk about game design and offer support and advice about participating in the typically misogynistic universe that is analog gaming.
This year I also launched the analog game design challenge Vernal Star, which encourages new designers to make games about obscure topics and research the lived experiences of others. The results of this year's challenge will be announced at the end of July.
Jay obviously has a really nice set of qualifications, and the depth of thought put into her Game Chef submission is pretty great. Game Chef, for a little more context, is a game competition with simple elements that has a very brief turnaround for submission. I've tried it, and I was awful at it, but there have been some amazing games submitted, and some have even progressed to full development. Totally worth trying if you're into it!

When I first asked Jay about her submission, she said:
The ingredients for this year's contest were Sun, Dance, Alarm and Sketch, and the overall theme was Technology, with particular interest in how technology can influence and be used in analog games.

I was so excited about this theme and immediately wanted to create a game that would combine the isolation we associate with using technology with the in-person interaction and teamwork usually seen in larps. I've also been itching to create a game in a dystopian setting.

My final submission is called Intellectual Property. A game that deals with an authoritarian panopticon in a near future dictatorship. It is a freeform game that can take up to fifty players and engages with the trend of dystopian coming of age narratives found in stories like The Hunger Games while using the omnipresent technology on our bodies (and in our smart phones) to create a space for engagement.

Essentially, players take on the roles of high school students going through their first day of government training to protect their minds from terrorist attacks, during recess. The game requires players to make no overt attempts at communication and relies on audio and recorded propaganda to keep players distracted, occupied and frustrated, while still trying to be teenagers and connect with each other. The game was designed to explore the subject of government propaganda and subliminal messages and the effects these have on the ideas, creativity, relationships and sense of safety of the young citizens of a county.
Sounds pretty cool, right? Jay's integration of technology into analog design with the propaganda being played is something that really piqued my interest. I love technology, so much, and I love the idea of literally influencing thought while playing a game. That's really freaking awesome, and I wanted to know more about Jay's concepts and purposes for the game.
I was particularly intrigued with Game Chef's theme this year because of conversations I've been having in my own game groups about incorporating technology into analog games as a way for further conveying a message or reaching a desired goal. There is so much room right now to expand what an analog game is and how it works, and with American freeform being such a new and largely unexplored form of interactive, in-person gaming, I think we're barely scratching the surface of play as an engaging art form and I can't wait to see where it will go from here.

The ingredients, sunlight, alarm, dance and sketch were also something that caught my eye and struck me as "happy" words. I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the value in creating a sense of shared joy or euphoria in a group of players - especially considering the trend of freeform games that are considered to provide impactful play experiences being dark, brooding and designed with the intent of evoking sorrow. There's a sort of in-joke in my Portland freeform community about "waiting to die" games and how every freeform we play is secretly just that. I hope to see more games exploring a spectrum of emotions and themes, and these ingredients looked like something I could utilize to make one that does.
The term "'waiting to die' games" is hilarious and terrible and I love it. What kind of experiences do you have designing a Game Chef game? Well...
I'm a notorious procrastinator with a full time job who's also co-directing a positive action gaming non-profit with 9 monthly events, so as much as I wanted to enter this challenge I was 98% sure I'd fail. It came down to one sleepless night of writing it all, creating an hour long audio track, mapping out the layout and designing a decent cover. I managed to submit it a few hours before the deadline and I was pretty thrilled to have just managed that. It's not quite the grand vision I had started off with, but Game Chef encourages participants to go back and polish their entries, and Intellectual Property is getting a lot of finishes touches right now. I'm actually hoping I'll get to run the final product at Metatopia 2016 in November.
What's the game really about, though? 
The game itself, when it's really boiled down, is a weird attempt on my part to convey what it's like to have your voice silenced and your thoughts and sense of identity policed, and then to have to move through the world and interact with others with a smile plastered across your face and no outward signs of rebellion - something women come to accept as the norm from a very young age. This game is an extreme and warped scenario of what patriarchy does to us and the ways we adapt and learn to rebel, often quietly. The constant assurances from the audio track that these measures are in place to protect you, that violating the rules will hurt not only you but those you attempt to enlist in your rebellion, that you aught to be policing others and punishing them for stepping out of line, all of this is a very focused, exaggerated example of what living within a patriarchy is like. Coupled with the highly sexist, exuberant radio commercials that bombard players at intervals, I hope the game will manage to convey this message subtly in the guise of control of the people by the state.

Most of my games are overtly feminist and tend to drive home a very specific point about oppression without metaphors or veiled mechanics. They're very "on the nose" I guess you could say. While I want to use game design as a platform to raise awareness about things that matter to me, theses games look like serious business to the average consumer and can be pretty intimidating to jump into. I'm generally all about not pulling punches in that sense. This time, I wanted to make something that could convey this message more subtly. I wanted it to be fun and weird and open to interpretation in the hopes that people wouldn't be terrified of playing it and hopefully didn't have to fear for their emotional well-being. Men often have trouble in my games with feeling like they have a right to fully participate when themes are so overtly feminist and about the lived experiences of women. That or they avoid the game entirely thinking it's not "for them". Hopefully a scenario that's more subtle and open to interpretation will dispel some of that hesitation and enable everyone to participate freely.
When Jay talked about what she wanted people to take out of the game, I was really happy with her answer:
I hope people will come away from playing Intellectual Property with a sense of camaraderie, since its core mechanic is forming emotional bonds with others in a world where you're not supposed to. I also hope it will stir up thoughts about how our government and media shape the people we become and how we regard and treat others. If people can walk away from something fun and uplifting and still retain those ideas, I'll have contributed in a tiny way to making the world a happier, more inclusive, respectful place.
This is excellent. The game itself is a simple concept: kids in high school in a dystopia, with propaganda playing. The questions? There are so many, so many good questions. And the intentions outlined by Jay, to form "emotional bonds... where you're not supposed to," and questioning the media and government? I love it. 

Thanks so much to Jay for the interview, and I really hope you all enjoyed reading!

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Shadowrun: Anarchy Gen Con Prototype Review

Check out a review for the final product here!

Note: Lots of pictures! Lots of words! Sorry!

Hi all!

As mentioned in my previous post a friend picked me up a copy of Shadowrun: Anarchy, Prototype at Gen Con. The book is not long, but features a lot of basic rules and information. I was pretty happy with it, honestly! I started out in more traditional games, but now often fall into games based on basic rules and simple mechanics.

I love Shadowrun, but getting my friends (when I can ever get them together!) to sit and build characters for as long as Shadowrun takes and then play through? Not as easy as I'd like it to be. When I was at Origins earlier this year, I had a brief discussion with someone about the possibility of a rules-light Shadowrun coming out, and since I'm pretty out of the loop, I was surprised and interested. There was little to be found online, and my attempts at contacting Catalyst directly were denied by their email system (though I doubt getting through would have made any difference, even if I was offering promo). Anyway, I had given up on seeing it when Adam Koebel took a picture of the cover and posted it to Twitter, and I lost my shit, so he kindly sent me a copy.

I have THOUGHTS and FEELINGS, so be warned. With a few notes, though: I have only played 3e Shadowrun, while I've read the 5th and 4th sourcebooks, I haven't played (time investment & lack of interest in a priority character build, not many people to play with, etc.). Nonetheless, I'm a fan of the setting, I loved playing 3e possibly too much, and I actually enjoy a lot of the mechanics. I get so excited when I get to roll a handful of D6s (I think I hit 30 once, playing a drugged up elf archer... I don't know, he was based on Iggy Pop) that the idea of doing it again really got me amped.

Note: This post will discuss the book and rules presented, but will also include some of my general feelings on Shadowrun, cyberpunk, and how the rules matter. I won't be evaluating it through what's already available in 5e, as I don't feel like lugging books and comparing page by page. My bad. Please excuse the cell phone pics, my energy wasn't here for a photoshoot right now, I'm so sorry.

Everything has a price. That's a sexy phrase to kick off with. And it's true - it's super appropriate to Shadowrun, because the reality of the setting is that money does run the world. Corps run wild with access to power that sounds scary even in the fucked up modern world, and governments are a hot mess. One of the things I always like to note about SR3e is that it does actually address class. Really! Like, class imbalance is something rarely given genuine attention in RPGs, and in SR3 (and I believe other editions of SR) there are costs of living - essentially, whether you pay money for your livelihood or not matters, from luxe high level apartments to literally squatting. It is something I think is often missed, tbh, and something I miss being a vivid element in Shadowrun. I'm wondering if we'll see that.

I love cyberware and bioware. In spite of being someone who cringed at doing basic math for D&D, I have spent hours building characters in Shadowrun, trying to get that Essence score as close to 0 as possible without becoming just a chassis. It's good to see this recognized in the text even in this smaller book, because this book could be someone's first book and that's a core element that needs to be recognized - that your body is not promised to be whole just because you can get replacement parts.

This is a shitty cell phone picture, but deal with it. This is here in part because I just wanted to point out how great and dynamic the art in here is. I always LOVE Shadowrun's artwork, but for such a small piece (though they may have reused art) I thought it was pretty great.

Speaking of art... as you all know, I'm big on representation in art. As I mentioned in my previous post about this, I was pretty happy about the art representation! Three of the 6 offered characters are women, and I enjoyed all of the badass art in the rest of it as well, especially this. Ork ladies are amaaaazing and totally underrated. One thing I'll note is that pretty much all of them have cleavage showing, but I'm not super bothered. Considering there is not one identifiable woman listed on the entire credits list I'm not surprised, either.

I'm being forgiving in part because of those abs, though. 

Here's where we dig into the actual meat of things. The first things the book notes is that the GM doesn't have sole responsibility for story elements or narrative, and this is considered to be different. That's actually pretty cool, as someone who prefers to contribute to the story, and I think that the new functionality of the gameplay supports it. In the book, they detail new scene play - which is after some of the basic rules and character build instructions, which can be confusing, but hooray! games with lots of stuff to cover have organization issues! - based on turns and narrations, within scenes. Simplified: Each Contract Brief (basically, campaign or scenario, multiple of which are included in this prototype) includes a number of Scenes. The scenes have varying levels of detail and I think that is a little wobbly, but a GM could probably make good decisions based on the material there.

Turns are called Narrations, which are basically player actions. Every turn starts with the GM, then rotates moving to their left until everyone has the chance to take a turn, then a new turn starts. Basically, the GM starts, and they move around the table to address actions. This may sound terrible to a lot of freeform and indie gamers, but I actually love this. One of the problems with games like Shadowrun for me is that so many players are so into it, which is great! Unless you want to get a word in edgewise without shouting. It directly gives the GM control of the scene, but ensures everyone gets a move in, and it also, from what I can tell, removes the complications of combat initiative entirely.

They further discuss things like plot points (points you earn and can use to alter other players' rolls, your own rolls, situational modifiers, etc.), etc., and cues.

Cues are a part of character generation and also used in Contract Briefs. They're basically short phrases or quotes to give players or the GM information that can help them push the story along through Narrations and plot. I like the concept - they're similar in some ways to Fate's aspects, but not quite. There are also Tags, which are basically markers for what your character is (hacker, elf, etc.) and Qualities which seem to me to be the equivalent of 3e's Edges and Flaws (one of my favorite things), and I was so excited to see them included in this, I can't even tell you.

Character Creation includes your standard stuff: the aforementioned Cues, Tags, and Qualities, as well as Attributes (Strength, Agility, Willpower, Logic, Charisma, Essence, and Edge), Skills, and Shadow Amps, which is the catch-all for spells, talismans, cyber and bodywear, adept powers, critter powers, cyberdecks, programs, etc. There seems to be a lot of flexibility for these Amps and what they do, which increased my enthusiasm, but watch me go and be wrong. There are also still Weapons (addressed later in the book, including details on carry limits, no ammo counting, and similar stuff), Armor (which functions, from what I can tell, kind of like damage absorption and gets wiped off before you start taking hits), and Gear. Gear has no stats. I KNOW RIGHT? I think the way they frame gear in general in the text is pretty cool, as they function very narratively, and this is the one area where the GM might have to apply some pressure to keep it somewhat realistic, as much as that matters in Shadowrun. It also includes Contacts under Gear.

Teamwork tests seem pretty cool! I like teamwork mechanics a lot, and in a game with such high capacity for PvP style behavior and play (which I have seen a lot of), it's awesome to see this kind of mechanic. They actually function hilariously similar to a mechanic John and I were using for Blockbuster, which is you choose the leader who does the main work, then others roll the skill tests, and their successes are added as additional dice to the roll for the original player. It's a good mechanic, in my experience.

There are also glitch dice which, honestly, when I read about them in 5e I cringed and kind of moved along. However, written here, they sound better. I don't know if it's a matter of who wrote it, how they wrote it, or changed context, but I'm more favorable towards them here than I expected.

I'd like to note that around here in the text (page 26), they have a section called "Troubleshooting" where they discuss how to deal with situations where players are struggling with the narrative-focused play and who are new to improv, and it's good advice and I liked it a lot. Super glad to see it.

Just in case you thought it was sounding too simple for Shadowrun, here's the "basic dice-rolling mechanic for all combat," which, as you can see, is like four different things against four different things. It's pretty awesome. I mean, it's really just a bunch of D6's? Which I probably will never complain about. It's still your standard 5s and 6s are successes, unless you have an Edge die, which can make 4s eligible, or you can reroll those failed dice if you spend the Edge after the roll.

This might sound silly, but the note in the Attack Limits section about what counts as an attack action: "Want to debate the meaning of Attack action beyond that? Have fun, and we'll be here for you when you're ready to play!" just made my goddamn night. This is totally a huge discussion had at many a game table, and their specific note that an attack action is "An action that intentionally and directly damages another living being..." sums it up pretty clearly. Nice.

I like the option here for making the game more or less lethal. While most times I want to go and drag myself through the mud to kick some ass, it's occasionally nice to have a way more chill session or two when things are busy and I just want to feel like a hero. I actually discussed with Morgan Ellis and a few others today on Twitter why Fate doesn't work for me for cyberpunk and specifically Shadowrun, and that's because it's too heroic, too successful! This option here gives people who waver in preference, or just lean one way or the other, the choice! And that's super great.

There are quite a few more details I didn't cover. Like, there's a section on character death that was interesting. The Spells, Spirits, and Astral Combat section was pretty cool, talking about using your Sorcery test (based on your Skills) with the Shadow Amp spell effect to do your thing. Most of this stuff seems pretty standard issue in regards to damage, etc., from what I have read in previous books. The Condition Monitor section is a little confusing and could definitely use some rewording, and I think they need to clarify their +1/-1 etc. modifier wording, as I - someone coming from 3e and used to using target number modifiers was super confused at first, after having read 5e previously.

I mean, I still miss my exploding D6s, but I suppose I can settle for my handfuls of dice.

My general thoughts? I'm in. I'm planning on picking up whatever official, final book Catalyst releases for Shadowrun: Anarchy, and I actually might bug some friends (PAUL STEFKO) to play with me. 


I was really disappointed by one specific part of the book. What's this becoming a legend nonsense? I know that a lot of the Shadowrun canon and surrounding media make a big deal out of being The Coolest HaXX0r, and that getting nuyen is awesome, but man, that's not at fucking all what I'd be promoting in a Shadowrun book - especially one called Anarchy - right now. Extralegal individuals who are dangerous, powerful, and able to pit Corps against each other should be doing a lot more than getting excited over some expensive junk and sitting in hell beside The Smiling Bandit. Making it about notoriety, in my opinion, takes the "punk" out of the pulp.

At heart, for me, Shadowrun has always represented people who have nothing taking something, changing the narrative, and resisting the system. Honestly, in the world we currently live in, I can't imagine taking a look at the world of Shadowrun and saying that these characters would just give up their bodies for a cool name & some money, when instead they could be dismantling corrupt systems of power while on their payroll. 

That aside, I just want to share below my two favorites of the six offered characters, and I hope you like them too! This is Ms. Myth who is a fucking TROLL FACE which is one of my favorite combos EVER and should ALWAYS HAPPEN. You're welcome. Also, Strider, who is a Dwarf Parkour Adept, which is fucking aces. Her outfit gives me liiiiiiiiiiiiiife. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Shadowrun: Anarchy Preview First Thoughts

Got the Shadowrun: Anarchy preview book, shipped from Gen Con for me by the wonderful Adam Koebel!


1) This is the first game text in a damn long time I've sat down and read in a night, even including super short ones. I realize this is in part because I am a sucker for Shadowrun, but it also was easier reading than many have been, which is awesome.

2) I am guaranteed to pick this up in full form. I think it's doing some interesting stuff to encourage character-focused play while still maintaining some of the more dice-heavy mechanics I personally really enjoy.

3) 50/50 for gender representation in sample characters, and not all of them are white. I did note that the majority of the women characters featured in the art have cleavage, but it didn't bug me, tbh, because they weren't posed sexy or anything, really. I have always, always loved Shadowrun's art, and it's often been far more inclusive than people seem to realize. I really value visual representation, so this is super important to me.

4) There are some things missing! There is no indication about how many boxes there are in condition rows, number one. I might note some more stuff later.

5) There are literally zero women, from what I can tell, on the cover credits. This is, imo, a huge problem. I want to see more Shadowrun products with women working on them, and while I know there have been some (including Monica Valentinelli's work on Court of Shadows), seeing none on here really disappointed me. Get to work, Catalyst.

I'm planning on taking the tons and tons of pictures I took while reading tonight and doing into detail on my thoughts soon, but figured I'd share a first look. :)

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Friday, August 5, 2016

Five or So Questions with Jason Godesky on The Fifth World

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Jason Godesky on his game, The Fifth World, produced with Guilianna Maria Lamanna. The Fifth World is currently on Patreon as an open-source shared universe, and Jason had a lot of interesting stuff to say about the game! Check out his answers to my questions below.

Tell me a little about The Fifth World. What excites you about it?

The Fifth World takes place 144,000 days from now -- one b'ak'tun in the Maya Long Count calendar, or just shy of 400 years. Civilization has collapsed, but humanity thrives beyond civilization. Most of the problems we face today have disappeared. Instead, they have to navigate a tangled web of kinship that binds them to a more-than-human world, where people you love and respect may want completely opposite things from you.

I got started with this by combining two things that have excited me for quite a while: creating an open source shared universe, and creating neotribal, ecotopian, animist realist fiction.

Many people have argued before that shared universes like Marvel or DC, Star Wars or Star Trek, Doctor Who, or the Cthulhu Mythos constitute our modern-day mythology. Unfortunately, we've also seen what happens when our mythology constitutes a corporation's intellectual property. They don't always handle it with the care we'd want them to. We still bring all of our enthusiasm to it and create these wonderful and amazing fan art and fan fiction, but we run into limits with that, too, again because our mythology constitutes a corporation's intellectual property. What if we could change that, though? What if we could have an open source shared universe, where that mythology doesn't belong to a corporation, but to the community who loves it? What could we do with an open source roleplaying game designed to explore an open source universe?

That idea actually got into my head first, starting with an excited discussion my brother and I had about what could happen if you took the Open Game License beyond a marketing ploy and instead really ran with it. My wife helped me connect it to the other half, reminding me of something we'd long wanted to explore more deeply that we couldn't really dig into in any other way.

Giuli and I had both studied anthropology, and that had stripped away a lot of the common misconceptions about life beyond civilization for us, but it was really artist Michael Green's "Afterculture" project that helped bring it all together for us and really see it. On the project's homepage, he even describes it as "a return to the rich 'cultural biodiversity' that has characterized the human species for most of its sojourn here," and challenges us "to imagine other versions, other tribes." Michael Green has amazing talent and creativity, but ultimately he has only his own brain. I can add a bit more to it, but I only have my own brain. Giuli can add a bit more to it, but she only has her own brain. As an open source shared universe, though, where we provide people with tools to imagine life in a neotribal, ecotopian, animist realist future in their own bioregion, we might begin to glimpse what such an incredible, diverse, beautiful, vibrant world could look like.

I think those both speak to things that a lot of us deeply need right now: a mythology that we can really make our own, and a hopeful vision of the future that we can really believe in.

What kind of shared mythologies have you been building, and do you intend to build?

In a world like ours, we can talk about "world history," because we live in a time of globalization, where the individual strands of local history become more and more entwined, like strings forming ropes, and ropes forming cords. The Fifth World takes that in reverse, letting the big cord of world history unwind into hundreds of thousands of local histories. We want people to join in with local, bioregional histories of the future. I read a lot of indigenous authors who say things like what Joe Sheridan and Roronhiakewen "He Clears the Sky" Dan Longboat wrote about their own experience as Onkwehonwe that "[o]ld-growth minds and cultures mature, emerge, and encompass the old growth of their traditional territory." Mythology comes from our specific place, and binds us to it. We can't tell someone in Tasmania or Johannesburg or New Orleans or Taipei what stories that place tells. Instead, we try to make the Fifth World a way for a group of friends to listen to what a place has to say, try to tease it out, and have fun doing it.

That said, of course, the Fifth World does have some lasting legacies from our world. My wife, Giuli, is working on a novel set in the Fifth World called "Children of Wormwood," which deals with the effect of nuclear waste four centuries in the future. It starts with an idea that Thomas Sebeok proposed to the Human Interference Task Force in 1981, formed by the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel to start exploring the problem of how you can establish protocols to protect nuclear waste, when nuclear waste remains dangerous longer than any human culture or language has existed before. Sebeok had the idea of establishing an atomic priesthood that would use ritual and myth to preserve knowledge of the locations of and dangers associated with nuclear waste. The idea has its problems, and when the novel begins we soon learn that these Vulture Priests pay a terrible price to slow the march of an inevitable problem. Without giving too much away, the novel tells the story of how they find a lasting solution by forming an alliance with a very different form of life.

My favorite stories in the Fifth World usually mix hard, mundane science fiction with animist realist sensibilities in just this way. That combination creates stories rooted in the real world, but look at it from a different perspective.

How does the game function mechanically and narratively?

Actually, I really owe you for my biggest breakthrough on that. I believe you had just started this interview series, and Epidiah Ravachol recommended it on Google+, and he said that questions offered the most innovative, powerful tool in roleplaying games today, and pointed to you at the forefront of that. That got me thinking. Today, questions really form the core of the Fifth World RPG.

Your character has some points of awareness (starting with five, but things can happen to change that), and you spend those points on a few things, but most prominently, asking questions. You spend a point of awareness, you ask a specific other player a question from a limited set available to you, and they answer. We talk freely during an encounter, but we don't know any of those things for sure. We might discover later on that we misunderstood or misconstrued. When you spend a point of awareness and ask a question, we know something for sure, and the knowing creates one new constraint.

I think this really puts exploration at the heart of the game, and it makes the open source nature of the project fit right in with the game's rules, as the wiki becomes a repository to all of the answers to the questions you've asked. Even with this, where we always learn more about the world, we never run out of questions to ask. We always find new corners to explore. One playtester once told me that he appreciated how the game made the familiar unfamiliar. Part of that comes from this focus on questions, because it pulls you in to explore deeper and ask more questions about places you thought you understood.

The other major breakthrough that helped me put it all together came from reading about the relationship between people, places, and awareness. I made awareness a pool of points, rather than a skill that you have, because that better models what we know now about how awareness works. You've probably read about decision fatigue, for example. Awareness works the same way. Even without a bunch of psychological research, just thinking it through, when you pay attention to one thing, you can't pay attention to something else. It turns out, though, that while some environments drain our awareness, others replenish it. Specifically, those places where we have the most exposure to other-than-human life do the most to restore our awareness.

This helped me close the loop on the game's mechanical cycle, and figure out how people, places, and awareness interact. Awareness accrues at places. People go from place to place and act in accordance with the spirit of the place (e.g., at a sacred place you can gather awareness when you perform a religious ritual, at a melancholy place you can gather awareness when you express your sadness, and at a creative place you can gather awareness when you create something). They spend that awareness to explore the world and pursue their dreams -- including, sometimes, their dreams of changing the world, their family, or themselves.

How do you avoid cultural appropriation in such a mutable environment?

I've thought about this a lot. You know this: in roleplaying games, we rely heavily on genre. Getting everyone at the table to imagine the same thing doesn't always come easily, and genre helps a lot. With the Fifth World, we don't really have a genre to point to. I always end up saying that this book fits except for these parts, or watch the first 30 minutes of this movie, but I find I can't really write a Fifth World mediography, only an annotated mediography. That can cause a problem, because even if it doesn't fit, players may turn to stereotypes about native people and use that as the thing to lean on.

We only have four policy pages on the Fifth World website at the moment, but one of them addresses cultural appropriation directly. We cite Susan Scafidi's "three S's" -- significance or sacredness, source, and similarity. Ultimately, we look at cultural appropriation as really failing to fulfill the project's goal. We want to imagine a neotribal future. If you imagine a family that has stolen Anishinaabe culture but doesn't actually descend from modern-day Anishinaabe with the right to use that culture and the knowledge of how to do so, you haven't done a very good job of imagining a neotribal future. These people come from a different background and face different challenges, so how would something stolen from others help them? I think that alone helps keep us away from anything too similar, and by keeping away from that "s" we can also avoid the sacred. Sweat lodges have a sacred place in the traditions of native nations across the Americas, and with good reason, but why would the descendants of Scandinavians in Wisconsin copy the Anishinaabe madoodiswan and not the Nordic sauna?

We take that approach to questions from the game and extend it to the rest of the project. As an open source project, we expect that we'll get contributions of questionable anthropological integrity. Usually it happens because of the gaps in anthropological knowledge generally. A lot of the things we know about traditional societies can seem really shocking to people. A lot of people won't even believe it when you show them the evidence, because it contradicts their beliefs about human nature (I've almost finished "Stand on Zanzibar" now, and quite enjoyed how this very kind of thing tripping up the god-like supercomputer Shalmaneser). We don't treat it as an error, though. Instead, we ask questions. We point out what makes it seem so unlikely, and then we ask, "What do you think happened here, to make such a bizarre thing happen?"

We haven't had enough contributions from others yet to put this to the test to see if it will work, but I expect it will happen sooner or later: when we get that really shallow, culturally appropriative contribution, I'll ask more questions about it. I'll ask about how it developed, where it came from, and what it means. For the moment, at least, I expect questions like that to drive it further and further away from existing traditions, meaning less and less similar, and I would hope less and less sacred. If necessary, we won't mind altering a contribution, though. Another of our policy pages makes clear that our community works together to make the best Fifth World we can together, and cultural appropriation doesn't help us do that.

The established power dynamic has a lot to do with what separates cultural appropriation from cultural exchange. Right now, the Fifth World mostly comes from me, a cishet white American man, and my wife, a cishet white American woman, but I don't want it to stop there. I don't want to take from other cultures and exclude the people. I want other people to join in, and tell me how they imagine their culture living and thriving in a neotribal future. I can't tell those stories, and neither can Giuli, and I often worry that people might mistake the lack of stories that we have no right to tell to mean that we don't want to hear them. I want to see Indigenous futurism and Afrofuturism in the Fifth World. My biggest hope for guarding against cultural appropriation lies in the open source nature of the project, again. I hope it means that we'll have voices far beyond the one I can offer, telling the stories we each can tell, woven together.

What do you want to see people do with the game beyond just building materials?

I started with the roleplaying game because a roleplaying game provides such an incredible engine for creating setting. It makes our worldbuilding collaborative, which fits in well with our open source nature, and it starts to fill in the world and make it more real. From there, more people will have ideas to do new things with it.

I mentioned Giuli's forthcoming novel, "Children of Wormwood." We plan on releasing that as serial fiction, releasing each episode in text and as an MP3 podiobook you can subscribe to. We've toyed with the idea of serial audio drama in the form of a podcast -- something like "Welcome to Night Vale" with the aesthetics of "The Memory Palace," but with neotribal, ecotopian fiction instead of surreal comedy. I'd love to make a Fifth World LARP once we have the RPG in a more established place. I'd love to start something like a Renaissance Faire, but with the Fifth World. I've mentioned how much I'd love to see a Fifth World play some day. I'd love to see a web comic. I'd love to see people steal any or all of these ideas and run with them.

I can't tell you what I hope to see most, though, because I most hope to see the thing that will totally take me by surprise, the thing that will make my smack my forehead and question why I never thought of it. Sure, I could've claimed to own the Fifth World, that I put these ideas together and so now it belongs to me, but really I'd much rather have the thrill of seeing the amazing things that other people might do with it. I'll trade intellectual property to take part in an active community any day.

Thanks so much to Jason for the interview! Make sure you check out The Fifth World on Patreon and see what this unusual and fascinating world has to offer, and what you can contribute!

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