Saturday, March 31, 2018

Game for #TransDayOfVisibility

Roll 5 dice (any size). Choose two of them & add the number together. Now, publicly & positively recognize that many (out) trans, genderqueer, & nonbinary people.

To win the game, put this on a calendar reminder for next year & play it again.


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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Quick Shot on Vintage RPG

I recently found an Instagram account called @vintagerpg, thanks to being tagged in by John. I was immediately enthused by it, excited to see all of the different games showcased there. There's not a lot of interestingly showcased and easily accessible game material history/curation, and the creator, Stu Horvath, shares a lot of great information about the games shown on Vintage RPG. Stu was willing to answer a few questions of mine - check them out!


What inspired you to start your Instagram? What makes you excited to post?

My friend Ken (@zombiegentleman on Instagram) prodded me to start @VintageRPG. Over the last couple years, my collection went from respectable to Serious and, coupled with the fact that my brain somehow got packed with RPG history, it just seemed like a no-brainer to find a way to share it. Instagram seemed like the place to do that.

The excitement, that's changed and evolved a bit over the course of the feed's (shockingly short) existence. I've written about tabletop RPGs in the course of my career, so at the start it was mostly just an extension of that, maybe in the service of some nebulous larger project. A lot of the early entries seem like notes for a book, or something along those lines. Still do, I guess. As the feed drew more and more followers (it blows my mind that so many people are following me - I truly expected a couple hundred folks and for the whole thing to fizzle after a few months), I'd be lying if I said that watching the Likes accrue didn't give my lizard brain some primitive satisfaction. 

I spend a few happy minutes every day rooting for new posts to break my top ten most liked. Lately, though, I've been enjoying puzzling out what folks will respond to and it is always a surprise. I run a criticism site called Unwinnable and we long ago closed the comments sections because they were so toxic. The experience with @VintageRPG has been the complete opposite: almost entirely positive, an outpouring of enthusiasm and personal stories. When communication works on social media, its a hell of a drug.

How do you curate the games, and where do you find backup information for them?

Curation is improvisational. A lot of it comes down to my whims - what I feel like photographing and writing about on a given week. A lot of it is context. I try to not do too much of any one thing in consecutive weeks. If I'm bored, I'll do something from totally left field, like covers of fiction books that inspired games. A lot of it is just plain editorial instinct, too. I try to work four to five weeks ahead to give myself some ability to address what I think my followers want to see. Big name games, like D&D (a mainstay) and some of the big licenses like Star Wars and Middle Earth Roleplaying get a lot of attention and demand a lot of interaction, so I try to cool things down after a big week with more obscure games I am passionately interested in but probably won't generate a ton of comments, like the modern indie I covered last week.

I've been reading, reading about and playing RPGs practically my entire life, so a lot of what I'm writing is stuff I've internalized or my critical impressions of art or mechanics or theme or what have you. I have a near complete run of Dragon Magazine that has contributed greatly to my historical knowledge, as has Shannon Applecline's four-volume history of the industry, Designers & Dungeons. If I'm in a bind, I hit up or just reach out to the creator in question - a lot of RPG designers are pretty accessible online these days. If all else fails, I guess - and if I get it wrong, someone who knows better points it out in the comments, which is always pretty great.

What are a few of the coolest things you have discovered while running the account? What's something that just really blew you away with how unusual or interesting it was?

I am going to answer this two different ways, if you don't mind.

One of the most surprising things was actually discovered by my pal and DM, @JohnMiserable. We had played through a series of classic modules - Against the Slavers and Against the Giants - and, using Vintage RPG, I publicly guilted him into finishing up the drow modules after a long hiatus. In one session, he noticed something in Bill Willingham's art for the D&D module D1-2: Descent into the Depths of the Earth and it just blew all our minds.

[The following Instagram embed includes art from the aforementioned module, captioned: OK, check this out – don’t flip to the second image yet. This is an illustration from D1-2 - Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Bill Willingham. I posted it a few weeks back. We’re playing it in a 5E conversion now and our DM, @JohnMiserable, spotted something super cool in there. Can you see it? OK, you can flip to the second image now. Captain America’s shield and Iron Man’s helmet, in a drow chest, decorated with what some might call Spider-Man eyes. What the hell did the drow do to the Avengers?!"]

Second, a few months ago, I scored a copy of something I have been searching for a long time: the 1983 Imperial Toys catalog. I love it because Imperial Toys sold knock-off D&D toys and just, you know, totally ripped off the art for the cover in a way only a Hong Kong toy manufacturer in the 80s could. It is delightful in every singe way. So I love it for that, but I also love it because no else does. Most people probably have no clue this exists or how weird it is. That I was able to find something so disposable as a dime store distribution catalog feels important to me in a way I suspect few people would understand. And that's OK! That's why I'm here, doing my thing.

[The following Instagram embed includes images from the 1983 Imperial Toys catalog, including a Pegasus and two-headed dragons, and the caption: "This week, I’m talking about knock-offs. First off: one of the crown jewels of my collection, the 1983 Imperial Toys catalog. I have been looking for this for a very long time and finally scored a near-perfect copy last month. The reason for my desire should be apparent from the cover art, which rips off two things I love in dizzying fashion. First off, don’t those dragons look familiar? That’s because they are crude, modified traces of David C Sutherland III’s art from the Monster Manual. Then there’s the Pegasus/Centurion that seems to want to capitalize on Clash of the Titans. 

The toy line was called Dragons & Daggers. It was a blatant attempt to capitalize on the popularity of LJN’s Dungeons & Dragons toys (right down to the sliding puzzles), aimed at the five & dime market. I got the two-headed dragon at my local Ben Franklin (which I just learned was a chain!). Later additions to the line were a variety of cool riding beasts made in for the scale of Battle Cat and Panthor from the He-Man line. Catalogs like this (and maybe catalogs in general) feel special to me. By their nature, they are disposable, so there can’t be that many of them still in circulation, especially in the case of distro catalogs like this that were aimed toward business owners. I suspect not a lot of collectors know about the odd little corner of D&D history this occupies, and likely even fewer care. It is special in another way. The other toys and junk in the catalog are an amazing trip down memory lane. I have zero nostalgia for this stuff and would never have remembered them if not for seeing them here, but I appreciate the chance the catalog affords me to catch a glimpse of those long gone five & dime shelves."]

This week, I’m talking about knock-offs. First off: one of the crown jewels of my collection, the 1983 Imperial Toys catalog. ¶ I have been looking for this for a very long time and finally scored a near-perfect copy last month. The reason for my desire should be apparent from the cover art, which rips off two things I love in dizzying fashion. First off, don’t those dragons look familiar? That’s because they are crude, modified traces of David C Sutherland III’s art from the Monster Manual. Then there’s the Pegasus/Centurion that seems to want to capitalize on Clash of the Titans. ¶ The toy line was called Dragons & Daggers. It was a blatant attempt to capitalize on the popularity of LJN’s Dungeons & Dragons toys (right down to the sliding puzzles), aimed at the five & dime market. I got the two-headed dragon at my local Ben Franklin (which I just learned was a chain!). Later additions to the line were a variety of cool riding beasts made in for the scale of Battle Cat and Panthor from the He-Man line. ¶ Catalogs like this (and maybe catalogs in general) feel special to me. By their nature, they are disposable, so there can’t be that many of them still in circulation, especially in the case of distro catalogs like this that were aimed toward business owners. I suspect not a lot of collectors know about the odd little corner of D&D history this occupies, and likely even fewer care. ¶ It is special in another way. The other toys and junk in the catalog are an amazing trip down memory lane. I have zero nostalgia for this stuff and would never have remembered them if not for seeing them here, but I appreciate the chance the catalog affords me to catch a glimpse of those long gone five & dime shelves. ¶ #DnD #DungeonsAndDragons #ADnD #DandD #AdvancedDungeonsAndDragons #TSR #RPG #TabletopRPG #roleplayinggame #dragonsanddaggers #ImperialToys #ClashoftheTitans #HeMan #fiveanddime #BenFranklin #MonsterManual #DavidCSutherlandIII
A post shared by Vintage RPG (@vintagerpg) on


Thanks so much to Stu for the interview! I hope you'll all check out @vintagerpg on Instagram

Do you have a favorite pre-2000s game cover or piece of game art? Share it on Instagram, G+, or Twitter and tag it #myvintagerpg. 

Feel free to tag me in, too - I'd love to see what you love!

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Five or So Questions on Imp of the Perverse

I am legit delighted to say I've yet again had the chance for interview time with Nathan Paoletta, this time talking about his new game Imp of the Perverse, which is currently on Kickstarter. The game's design has been percolating for a while, and I can't wait for you all to hear more about the project. Check it out!

Note: Images are the collaborative work of Nathan and cartoonist/illustrator Marnie Galloway.

A dark red image with an illustration in black and white showing a monstrous imp wreathed in smoke, creeping behind a woman reading a book. The text reads, "IMP of the PERVERSE: A Psychological Horror Game of Monster Hunting in Jacksonian Gothic America. Quite nice, really.
Tell me a little about Imp of the Perverse. What excites you about it?

Imp of the Perverse is a psychological horror game of monster hunting in what I call "Jacksonian Gothic" America. Your protagonists are members of society in the historical 1830s or 1840s, but with a little extra - an Imp of the Perverse on their shoulders, impelling them to do terrible deeds. Only by hunting down those who have already given in to their Imps, and thus turned into literal monsters, can yours hope to rid themselves of their Imps and regain their humanity.

I've been working on this game for a long time! I recently uncovered my very first files of notes on the first ideas I had, and it's dated 2006. I've always been a fan of the work of Edgar Allan Poe (hence the name of the game, of course) and the compelling nature of his work seemed very gameable to me once I started making games, but it took me a really long time and the experience of doing so many other games (carry. a game about war., Annalise, World Wide Wrestling, etc) to figure out the "in" into the stuff that resonates with me.

So now I'm excited to be so close to done with something that's been on my mind for so long, and just really pleased with how the game has turned out! It reliably does the things that I personally like the most in tabletop - good solid hooks for characters with enough space to develop in play, clear direction in what you do, the opportunity to get deep into your characters head without demanding that as the only way to play, and specific GM tools for developing situations that you're excited about, and then making decisions in play that all build to a fictional climax without depending entirely on personal storytelling skills. In fact, one of the sneaky goals of the game is to subtly teach players who may have never GMed before how to do it (or at least, how to do it in this game). One of the conceits is that if your character gives in to their Imp (a very possible but by no means inevitable state), you build the character as a new monster for the next hunt and take over the Editor (GM) role - I hope that players will be excited to do that when it comes up in long term play and feel like they have the foundation to do it even if they've never GMed before.

Image of the Kickstarter bits - quickplay cards, a clothbound hardcover, and a note on illustrated monsters and custom chapters! All of this is themed in red, dark red, black, and gold. 
I have to ask about this transferable or shared GM role. What kind of powers do Editors hold, and how do they use them?

I think it'll be familiar to most folks as a "traditional" GM kind of role. The Editor is in charge of coming up with the monster, setting up situations that challenge the protagonists, describing the world around them, playing NPCs, all that kind of stuff. This game is not Powered by the Apocalypse, but I absorbed many of the Agenda/Principle lessons from Apocalypse World, and do have a similar charge for the Editor in this game. Your job is to:
  • create monsters and put them in the same social context as the protagonist characters
  • construct a compelling, dark world full of challenge, doubt and wonder
  • engineer specific situations for each protagonist that dare them to embrace their darker self
  • demonstrate the consequences of the protagonists actions with integrity (in this order: integrity to the dark Gothic world, integrity to the characters development so far, integrity to the demands of the unfolding narrative, and ideally all three)
The game also asks the Editor to do specific prep (building the monster and the web of social relationships it influences). The goal here is two-fold: to give the Editor plenty to work with in play, so there's always something to fall back to to keep the story going, and to draw them into investing in the world they're preparing. The game shines when everyone is invested in what happens to these fictional characters, and prep is structured to make it as easy as possible for the Editor to do that.

As a player, you see the "effect" of the prep and the Editor's agenda from the player side, and then when it's your turn the game says "here are the tools the Editor you just played with used to make your game happen, and you saw how it went, so now it's your turn to take them for a spin." Obviously if it's not within the players comfort zone there's no artificial dictate that they MUST become the GM, but (again hopefully) by the time you get through a couple Chapters of play you'll be able to see how it all works and maybe excited to try it out yourself!

How did you build and design the fiction of the game, especially ensuring you could integrate the imps without it seeming negatively garish or absurd? 

The concept of "you play a character with an Imp on their shoulder pushing you to do perverse things" has been the central idea from the start, along with the idea that monsters should be unique to the perversity that spawned them, but developing the rest of the context took a long time. I knew I wanted to keep the realities of the historical time as the counterweight to the fantastical elements, but there were a lot of versions of doing that over the years. I had a key playtest that put me on the path to figuring it out - at the time, the characters were all part of a secret society of monster hunters who were recruited when their Imp appeared, and then kind of sent on a mission to hunt down the next monster. It worked to get everyone in the same place at the same time, but also felt very "you meet in a tavern" in a way that didn't sit well at the table. We spent a lot of debrief time just kind of brainstorming about it, and someone made a comparison to the gravity well of a black hole, and the metaphor fell into place for me. 

A series of symbols illustrated in maroon and white - a rose, a quill pen, a book, a gun, a compass, and a shovel.
A monster is the result of an Imp gaining the most power in the world of the living, and so when it appears everyone else who has an Imp can feel it, drawn to the perverse "gravity" it emanates. Implied by the dynamic of "when you know a monster appears, you know you have to do something about it" is that normal people CAN'T do anything to stop monsters, they're too horrible and powerful, and the protagonists know this. And then, embedding the protagonists as well as the monster in a linked web of relationships gives the context for why they might care about this situation in particular, and have specific people they want to protect or save.

Beyond the basic concepts of Imps, monsters and the Shroud between worlds, one of the long-term mechanics is that the players build up the nature of their own gothic world through play. Between sessions, one of the things players can do is spend resources to establish facts about the Shroud and monsters. I want to provide the baseline fictional frame for "here's what you do and why" and then see how different groups take that through the act of play, rather than build out a bunch of metaphysics for players to learn up front. 

How do you handle a concept where the characters are continually tempted to do wrong, while they are hunting those who failed to resist the temptation? I'm really curious: what does morality look like in Imp of the Perverse?

One of the core rules is this: you are playing a historical character, but you are a modern person. We care about the actual concerns of the people playing at the table, not what we think other kinds of people might be worried about. So, perversity is always relative to something you actually think is wrong - for players, this is something that you should be interested in exploring and (possibly) overcoming, while for the Editor this is something that you want to see the protagonists destroy. The game doesn't make overt moral judgements of what is and is not perverse, in that the development of individual perversities is totally freeform. But there are guidelines - it should be something that actually makes it hard to live a normal life, that the character sees the clear downsides of, but that is, well, tempting. Perversities are not superpowers, but they have both up and downsides. Then the mechanics provide specific moments where you choose whether it's worth the temptation in order to get what you want right then in that moment. The game does give you permission to use whatever means necessary to destroy or deal with the monster, in that they are almost always worse than you, so in that way there is a bit of a moral statement of when violence is justified; but also, the means by which a monster is resolved can be very contextual to the individual monster and the nature of the protagonists, so it's not ALWAYS a fight to the death.

There is also a bit of the morality of the era (or at least, my read of it) in how characters are built. For example, if you make a character who has a child out of wedlock, you'll have the Scandalous Quality, or if your spouse is dead you'll be Bereaved. These reflect the general sense of how people in your social circles view you, and have an equal ability to be used in play as more "positive" Qualities, but they do reflect a certain moral sense that centers on your family as the fundamental important thing in people's lives - an important piece of embedding the characters in the society they're a part of!

The words "IMP of the PERVERSE" in shimmering gold with filigree above and below.
You've been working on Imp of the Perverse for a long time (2006, right?)? What are some of your favorite moments of design and creation in that path that resonate with the game, and with you, today?

This is a great question, and a hard one because the arc of the design has basically been one of long gaps punctuated by short periods of focused progress, so it's all kind of one amorphous blob of experience in my head. I'll try to tease out some moments when I felt most satisfied that I was on the right track, because they stand out to me the most. First, when I decided to cut down the original idea of "play all kinds of different stories with these protagonists" down to "what if it's just about hunting down the monsters in this world" (which was originally going to be one mini-game inside the larger game...) that was key to cutting the design space down to a manageable level. When I had the first playtests of the central die roll mechanic that tempts you towards perversity and saw it work, that was great. The game needed development to support that mechanic and fine-tune it, but I saw players engage with the critical decision point (do I or don't I? is it worth it?) and that's the beating heart of the game. The aforementioned playtest where we workshopped ourselves into the "perverse gravity" metaphor starting pulling the fictional frame together for me. I ran a long-term playtest around then where we got to see a protagonist fall to the Imp and then the player take up the Editor-ship, which worked great and let me go ahead and play on the other side to feel more of the player experience. Recently, I think one of the most gratifying moments I've had was at a convention game, where afterwards the players told me that they felt like they found it very easy to get into their characters and make principled decisions based on those characters. That was nice to hear as a GM of course, but also validation of the design goal of really putting players into the fictional world of their protagonists and giving them clear structure and direction for play through how the characters are made and interact.

And of course it is viscerally satisfying to see players defeat the horrible monsters I make that embody the things I really, truly want to see destroyed in the world!

Cover image, similar to the first of the image in the post: a dark red image with an illustration in black and white showing a monstrous imp wreathed in smoke, creeping behind a woman reading a book. The text reads, "IMP of the PERVERSE: A Psychological Horror Game of Monster Hunting in Jacksonian Gothic America.


Thank you so much to Nathan for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading about Imp of the Perverse and that you'll check out the Kickstarter running right now!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

You Can Talk All You Want

On the subject of Cartel and the disclaimer I put on the interview:

I was enforcing my blog policies. I have a private policy that if I receive a complaint about a post and its not blatant trolling, I  post a disclaimer with what happened. I've done it before. It's never caused a mess before. But hey! You know my secret! I have policies I enforce!

Here's the thing I want to be clear.

I am not saying whether someone is the right person to write anything, but I do think that people it impacts deserve to be heard. I am not saying whether a game should be made, but I do think it's worthwhile to consider the perspectives of the people affected by the game if they are alive and accessible. 

I repeatedly say that we should ask ourselves whose stories we tell, and I've talked about changing games entirely to reduce negative impact when considering social issues. I have absolutely asked whether a game is a net positive. I have asked people to explain how their perspective adds value to the product they're making, and whether they have considered others' experiences. I ask that we look at what we're doing and why we do it. I don't think that's unreasonable, considering how people claim games are so important and impactful and useful for education. 

I have not, however, led harassment campaigns, led my actions with the intent of causing financial or social harm to someone, or bombarded people significantly enough to cause them panic attacks and fear - that I know of. I have not told anyone they're not valid, or said anyone should absolutely do or not do anything. If I have and don't remember, I'm really fucking sorry. I am trying to be better. 

I have no intention to cause harm or upset to anyone involved with this, and that includes anyone who objected to the development of the game.

I'm not saying anyone involved in this has done or is doing these things. I'm just responding to some of the accusations flung my way. I wasn't given any time to investigate what has been brought up before the messages started flying.

When someone says to me that something being created offends or distresses them for a reason I find valid (and yes, "I find the depiction of a current violent and active conflict that is immediately relevant to me offensive" is a reason I consider valid), or if it is relevant to an ethical issue or something similar, I will put up a disclaimer. I notify the designer if appropriate, and investigate what I can to see if it's a deeper issue.

There we go. Final notes:

- I have no responsibility to host debates on my blog.
- I have no intention to ever reveal the identity of a reporting party or to demand that they justify their position. 
- I will continue my policy.
- I will not receive further messages about this with anything further than an archive button.
- I will not be investigating further because the information I found during the multi-platform messaging and searching has resulted in my decision to leave the post as-is.


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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Five or So Questions on Cartel

Portrait of Mark Diaz Truman.
Note: Mexican gamers have messaged me to say that this game is offensive and glorifies murder and the drug trade. I'm following up on it and apologize for not researching better - I'm sorry. The interview is staying up for now, but with this disclaimer. 

Today's interview is with Mark Diaz Truman from Magpie Games, here to talk about Cartel, which is currently on Kickstarter! Cartel is a game about Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, in the complicated moral environment of the drug war. Check out Mark's responses to my questions!


Mexican man holding a large gun, surrounded by crates of drugs. Illustration by Andrew Thompson.
 Tell me a little about Cartel. What excites you about it?

Cartel is a tabletop roleplaying game in which players portray bold narcos, naïve spouses, and dirty cops caught up the drama and violence of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, trying to survive in a dangerous game of narcotics, money, and power. Cartel invokes crime fiction like Breaking Bad, The Wire, and El Mariachi, stories about ordinary people caught up in socioeconomic and cultural systems that push them to desperate places. There are no heroes in Cartel... but perhaps there aren't any villains either. Either way, Cartel creates stories that are alternately tragic and darkly humorous, set against the backdrop of an eternal drug war.

I am excited to publish Cartel for so many reasons, but chief among them is the way that Cartel connects my love of crime fiction to my own heritage as a Mexican-America game designer. After a few years of designing games, I started having conversations with people in the community about representation. And as a Mexican-American designer, I had a terrifying thought: no one could look at my games and know anything about my life or my history or my family. I immediately had another disheartening thought: I have no idea what a Mexican-American game looks like.

Years later, while watching Breaking Bad, I finally got an idea: I wanted to write a game about the drug war from the people who really live inside of it. My people. Mexicans who wake up every day in what is effectively occupied territory, caught in the middle of the war between the law and the cartels. There are many Mexican stories to be told, but this is the one that spoke to me, that unified my love of tight, compelling mechanics with the kind of fiction I loved to watch and read.

But it's also terrifying. Since there are so few "Mexican" games published within our community, Cartel has to do a lot of heavy lifting. I've spent the last three years honing the mechanics and experience, and I'm so proud now that it delivers both on the cultural experience I knew was possible and a gaming experience that I hope keeps folks coming back again and again.

Rear cover of the special edition book with a colorfully illustrated sugar skill on it. Coloring by Brooke Carnevale, Layout by Miguel Ángel Espinoza.
Considering your heritage and background, how have you approached writing those of native Mexican heritage, and intersecting identities like women, queer people, and biracial people? Class would also be pretty significant here, so I'm curious as well how you handled that.

For the most part, Cartel is about Mexican people, not Mexican- Americans. But those lines are blurry for Latinos. After all, the border crossed us. In my home state of New Mexico, for example, the land was colonized by the Spanish before it was annexed by the Americans. Who cares what borders the gringos try to put on us?

But... I also have to recognize my distance from the reality. I live in Albuquerque: 850 miles and a whole country away from Durango, MX, the setting for Cartel. Many people there live with the threat of narcoviolence every day, and I can't expect to really understand their reality from reading a few books. I can do my research and know my own history, but I've needed help from folks like Miguel to get the details right. For example, the first draft of Cartel gave a large role to the local police... which I have since learned is pretty far off from how the world really works.

Issues like queerness and race are even more complicated once you cross the border. Much of my game is about class, the ways that your financial reality determines your available options, but I've tried to create room for folks to bring a variety of characters to the table to engage the systems. Ironically, the cartels can be very egalitarian; they don't care if you're gay or a woman if you're effective at your job!

Image advertising the Cartel Quick Start, which can be downloaded here.
A game focused on drugs and the associated traumas like violence and oppression is pretty intense. How do you handle those topics in Cartel? Do you use any safety mechanics to support exploration of those aspects?

Yes, absolutely. I think that one of the best parts of Cartel is that it demands that everyone at the table take some time to discuss what they want from the game before they sit down to play it. No one signs up for a session of Cartel without some thought about the experience they are about to have! (I hope!)

In the full text, I plan to provide GM's tools for working with safety at the table, ranging from how to have the first discussion to example safety mechanisms like the X-Card, etc. That said, I believe that those mechanics are primarily external to the game itself. Each group needs to figure out what is required for them to feel comfortable with the material, and that line is going to change a lot from group to group. I've found that it's really hard for me to tell folks where that line should be.

That said, I've done a lot to structure the experience within the game's mechanics, sometimes in really subtle ways. La Sicaria (The Enforcer), for example, is a character that I've spent a lot of time shaping to produce a specific experience. One major change to that playbook I made early in development was to make her a retired enforcer who came back to the game after some absence, adding some world-weary priming for anyone who picked up the character. That's helped to structure the fiction in productive ways--way fewer psychokiller sicarias!--without limiting what any player brings to the table.

Character playbooks with stylized layout and illustrations, with La Sicaria in front. Illustrations by Mirco Pagnessi, Layout by Mark Diaz Truman and Miguel Ángel Espinoza. 
What are the mechanical bits that you think express Cartel's narrative and the unique experience of the game?
I think there are three main places that Cartel is expressed through the mechanics: basic moves, stress moves, and playbooks.

The basic moves in Cartel work like any other Powered by the Apocalypse game, but they put a heavy emphasis on the conversation the players are having. There are four separate moves dedicated exclusively to talking or texting (pressure someone, justify yourself, get the truth, make an offer) and several others (size someone up, press your luck) that can be triggered verbally. That makes Cartel a game about conversations in the same way that Pulp Fiction is a movie about conversations: there is violence, but the camera lingers far longer on a good argument.

Stress moves invoke the entire stress engine, the bloody, beating heart of Cartel. Essentially, each player character in Cartel marks stress to avoid problems or keep themselves together in difficult situations. Eventually, that stress builds...and need to be released. It's possible to just lose yourself in a substance to get through the day, but you might find yourself verbally abusing or shaming someone you care about or dishing out a beatdown to someone in a weaker position.Or if things get really bad... you'll end up confessing your sins to a priest, cabrón.

Finally, the playbooks themselves contain a ton of Mexican culture and narrative that each playbook brings to the table. El Halcón has a pandilla (a crew), that comes along with him on odd jobs for the cartel, sort of like Badger and Skinny Pete followed Jesse around. The specific structure of that crew, their features and problems, is absolutely Mexican, rooted in the kinds of close relationships that exist between folks who work the street-level drug trade. I consider each playbook to be a challenge: how can I add a new facet of Mexico to the game with this character?

Cartel cover with large white text on the left, vertically arranged, over the bright pink colored cover. The picture of the Mexican man with the large gun and crates of drugs is the cover image. Illustration by Andrew Thompson, Layout by Miguel Ángel Espinoza.
How does the design of Cartel address challenging subjects - things like race, gender, and intersections of communities and cultures?

I'm honestly skeptical sometimes of my own ability to interrogate my games: I think a lot about what I'm trying to do, but it's hard to simultaneously play the violin and say what playing the violin is supposed to mean! My hope is that, at some level, Cartel asks more questions than it answers about race, gender, and culture. Certainly Reddit threads like this one are a great start to the conversation about what games like Cartel are supposed to accomplish.

But I also think that Cartel issues a fundamental challenge to the gaming industry through its mere existence: it forces a mostly white audience to consider what it means to be Mexican, without the distance of metaphor or time. In many ways, my game design has been an effort to live up to that challenge, to take seriously the idea that white folks who might not have close relationships with Mexican people might sit down and play through a few days in their lives, not as a joke or a farce...but as a compelling drama. I think Cartel makes some white folks uncomfortable because it makes them realize how alien the experiences of their fellow humans can be, that they are more comfortable playing orcs than they are people of color.

To quote Junot Diaz:
Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.
I absolutely see Cartel in the tradition of indie games that includes Steal Away Jordan, Dog Eat Dog, and Monsterhearts, works that strove to expand what's considered "normal" in our spaces by demanding that the narratives of the oppressed be given some time in the spotlight. 

A woman holding a serious firearm looking into the trunk of a vehicle, from which someone's arm is extended, by Andrew Thompson.


Thank you so much to Mark for the interview! I hope you all got a kick out of the interview and that you'll check out the Cartel Kickstarter today!

P.S:Some updates made at 12:03pm on 3/20/18 to correct the names of the artists in the subtitles. Very sorry to Brooke Carnevale, Miguel Ángel Espinoza, Mirco Pagnessi, Andrew Thompson, and Mark Diaz Truman for my errors - it sounds ridiculous but I'm new to doing proper subtitling. I apologize.

Note: Mexican gamers have messaged me to say that this game is offensive and glorifies murder and the drug trade. I'm following up on it and apologize for not researching better - I'm sorry. The interview is staying up for now, but with this disclaimer. 

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Behrend Bernhard, Esq. on!

I have been putting products on my new account at and by that I mean, I have put up three things, it takes a lot of time.

Anyway, I put up Behrend Bernhard, Esq., my performative party game about monsters and lies, and it's post-edits so it's been hopefully improved!
Cover image featuring University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning surrounded by trees full of crows.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Boot 'Em

Today, Paul Stefko tweeted about not playing with people who are problem players. This was in a thread about saying no to your players, which is a thing I've discussed before. I wanted to address the topic, so I tweeted about it! The following is the content of my tweets, but expanded.

I want to talk about booting players - including GMs - from your game.

It isn't the GM or other players' jobs to fix a problem player. The player should be alerted of the problems and asked to fix it, and if they don't fix it and it disrupts everyone's experience, eject the player. Even if they live there. Even if they're your family. Boot. Them.

This includes GMs. It sounds like a mess to do so, and it may be. But if a GM violates player consent, they could go farther. Just like any other player, GMs should follow a standard of behavior that respects others and is ethical, and one that ensures everyone has the most fun. If they don't, boot them. You can play a GMless game, keep your character sheets and continue play without them, or start another game. There may be emotional blowback, or even social blowback.

It's hard and it sucks but honestly, problem players can be a soul sucking experience. They can hurt people. A lot of things like talking over people can lead to bullying, or rude jokes can lead to harassment, ignoring rules to violating consent. Catch it early.
I know this sounds very harsh, but people don't grow and change if we never make them accountable and provide consequences. If a player is ruining everyone's fun and doesn't change after a warning or two (depending on severity), they need to go. If it's severe? No warnings: boot them.

You need to make a decision as a gaming group what behavior and what kind of disruption is acceptable. People who refuse to follow rules can and will harm people. Don't be complicit in that. Don't create more perpetrators of disrespect and harm in games. Be better!

Here are some suggestions on how to address this with your group and set yourselves up for success!

1) Put together a group standard. It doesn't have to be long or complicated, but it needs to be meaningful.

When I was invited to the Indie Game Developer Network (IGDN) by Mark Diaz Truman, I was excited - but nervous. One of the first things I did was create and put forward an organization code of conduct. It wasn't easy, but it meant a lot to me. I wish I'd instituted it in other parts of my gaming world, but I didn't. What I've learned is that even something simple makes a difference. Here is an example of some standards that are actionable and have consequences baked in:

"As a group, we will:
Respect each other's consent and privacy,
Respect each other's personal space,
Ask for consent before we act,
Be honest and trustworthy,
Listen to each other's perspectives, and,
Participate fairly in play and game tasks.

If anyone does not meet these, we will ask them to change their behaviors. If they do not change their behaviors, they will leave the group. If their behavior causes immediateb or serious harm, they will leave immediately."

It sounds silly and formal. So does asking your friend before you take an action that might affect them in game, honestly. But if they protect people and make the game space better? Worth a little formality.

You can also provide these at cons, local game spaces, and so on. If people want to play the game, they can consent to guidelines like these.

2) Use safety and content tools consistently.

There are a variety of content and safety tools, including my Script Change, lines and veils, and John Stavropolous's X-card.
These tools are about guiding behaviors, respecting boundaries, and making sure the game is the most enjoyable it can be. They aren't about shutting people down or bailing, they're about honesty, openness, and trust. This is important to remember.

Choose a tool based on the game you're playing or style of play, or even try a few out over the first few sessions. Once you figure out what works best, always have it available. Get everyone's buy-in, and use that as a habit.

3) Talk to each other.

Be clear about which behaviors are okay, and which are not. Talk to each other regularly about what's working for you in game, and what's not. Tell each other when their behaviors make you uncomfortable, and when they make you happy!

Have group discussions, mediated discussions, or one-on-one discussions, but talk. Be honest. If you can't talk to and be honest with a person in your group, that isn't good, and your game experience will be better if someone changes their behaviors or leaves the game.

Know that sometimes, that person might be you. Be willing to change. If you feel you can't or that others who need to change won't, it's time to find a new place to be - and try to learn from what you've experienced. It's okay to leave a game or group you don't enjoy or you can't comfortably engage with. You just have to make that choice.


This sounds like a lot, I know. Still, you need to ask yourself: does the game matter more than the people?

If your answer is yes, I don't think we're gonna get along.

Be honest. Be caring. Be better.

Boot 'em.

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Friday, March 9, 2018

Five or So Questions on Chernobyl, Mon Amour

Hi all! Thanks to friends on G+, I was able to get in touch with Juhana Pettersson to interview him about Chernobyl, Mon Amour, which is now on IndieGoGo! Chernobyl, Mon Amour is the English translation of Tšernobyl, Rakastettuni, which was published in 2016 by Juhana. The themes of the game sounded haunting and beautiful, and I wanted to hear more! Check out Juhana's answers below.

BCS Note: It's so odd but I never realized how beautiful Finnish is! Lovely to even read over without knowing the meanings.

Cover art of a couple in front of a ferris wheel, with their skeletons highlighted in red. By Joel Sammallahti.
Tell me a little about Chernobyl, Mon Amour. What excites you about it?

It's a very personal game for me, in some ways that are obvious and others less so. I visited Chernobyl with my wife and that certainly affected how I saw it. It was in the early summer, and the quiet, the light were beautiful. At the same time, the history of Chernobyl is horrible. I remember when I was a child, five years old, when the news of the radioactive cloud hit Finland. My parents were watching the tv news. I didn't understand very much, but I sensed the fear and the panic. If you look at a visualization of how the radioactive particles traveled in the atmosphere after the accident, it seems as if they were almost willfully zooming straight for Lapland.

Something in that combination, the peace of Chernobyl as it is now and the terror of the story seemed like it could form the basis of an interesting roleplaying game.There's also a book by a Belarusian journalist called Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl, which had an enormous effect on me. It collects the stories of individuals who were involved with the accident or its aftermath.

I like love stories in roleplaying games, but they seem very underrepresented in the games that have been published so far. The Romance Trilogy of games by Emily Care Boss is obviously a huge inspiration, but I think the roleplaying field could take more than what we have now.

As a less obvious thing, the game is also an attempt to communicate the specific roleplaying game culture in Helsinki, Finland, where I discovered roleplaying and still play. Through international contact I've come to believe that the community has some unique and interesting ideas about roleplaying, and I've struggled to express some of them here, especially relating to very freeform-style character based social play.

Juhana Pettersson
What struck the romantic tone in Chernobyl, and how do you bring it to forefront in the game?

I've always liked love stories in roleplaying games, both as a player and as the GM. I think they're fun to play and very well adapted to the social situation of a tabletop game. A lot of a real life romance consists of talking, and talking happens to be the one thing that we can do in a tabletop game with minimal or no game mechanics.

I played my very first roleplaying game romance scenes when I was sixteen years old and just starting with Vampire: the Masquerade. Because we didn't actually have much real life experience with love and relationships, these scenes tended to be kinda awkward and heartfelt. In retrospect, it almost feels like we were using the game to practice for real life. Later in life, there's been a shift in content on what kind of relationship roleplaying works in the games I play in. They've become more about exploring things we don't necessarily want to experience in real life and fictionalizing actual experience either for fun or to come to terms with it.

Because of this experience, I knew for a fact that romance in roleplaying games can be very good stuff. Since the selection of published material was so sparse, I figured it would work for a game book like this one. However, I also felt that when it came to pushing the theme, subtlety was not going to work. This is why I tried to put romance front and center and have everything orbit around it. The game has two themes, radioactivity and romance. The radioactivity theme is much more perverse, involving an essentially self-destructive impulse. Yet my intuition was that it would come easier to a lot of players.

Aged and detailed map of nuclear zones. By Miska Fredman.
How does the game work mechanically? Does romance interact with the mechanics?

In terms of game mechanics, Chernobyl, Mon Amour is an attempt to broaden the scope of what we consider game design. It has no real mechanics to speak of in the traditional sense. No stats, xp, combat rules. Instead, I've attempted to code the design into the world description, the character creation guidelines, the preparatory workshops and so on.

Fundamentally, I think the goal of game mechanics is to create a definite kind of experience. Following the rules you experience what the game wants to convey. Chernobyl, Mon Amour follows a similar kind of logic in that by doing what the book says you should do, you'll have the experience. It's just not facilitated by mechanics but instead by the other guidelines. In this sense, it shares a lot of the same thinking as Nordic Larp does. Instead of designing a game, the goal is to design a very particular social situation.

Because of this, I suspect that it's also a little harder to run than most roleplaying games, and perhaps more limited in who can play it together. However, I've also found that this style can be appealing to many people who find more mechanics-oriented roleplaying games difficult to approach.

How did you playtest Chernobyl, Mon Amour, if you did playtest? If you did not, what makes you feel confident about the game succeeding?

I ran playtest games before and during the design and writing process. When I first had the idea, I wasn't sure of its viability, so I ran games to try it out. After those, I felt more confident that I was able to make a game out of this. From a playtesting perspective, this is an unusual game. Often playtesting means making sure that the mechanics of the game work robustly, but this time there isn't really any of that. Rather, playtesting is about the ideas and concepts, as well as the functionality of the exercises for creating the right social atmosphere with players. These are much more subjective in terms of whether they work or not, and more prone to confusion created by differences in basic cultural assumptions.

In terms of success, I see this as an experimental game. It's an attempt to convey a culture and style of roleplaying in a format that should make it possible to replicate it. I hope people will find it interesting, good and worth trying but I have a suspicion that I will be surprised by what people will do with it. Which is of course great, and a part of the appeal of roleplaying games in general.

Kuva, a person with long brown hair and dark skin in a hoodie. By Joel Samallahti.
What kind of workshops do you include with the game, and what sort of content and safety mechanics do you have to help players in the intimate scenario?

At least in the Finnish roleplaying scene, using workshops in tabletop games is highly unusual. I'm not really aware of anybody else even suggesting it. However, in Nordic Larp they're routine and extremely useful. I figured that if these social tools work in larp, why not in roleplaying games? And I'm under the impression that in other countries, there's been successful experiments with this.

The goal of workshops in Chernobyl, Mon Amour is get the participants aligned with the subject matter of the game and become more comfortable with each other. Because of Finnish cultural characteristics, the exercises as they are now are pretty talky, and I was planning of adjusting them a little for the English version to take into account the fact that in my experiences, international players are better at this than Finns are.

As for safety, I take it seriously. I've had experiences in tabletop roleplaying games myself where I've felt that my personal boundaries have been crossed in a negative way. Roleplaying based on intimacy and trust is powerful stuff, and it means that sometimes things can go bad emotionally even if all the participants are doing their best to accommodate each others' limits. The game as it exists now has some simple safety mechanics to help with these situations, but this is another thing I wanted to adjust for the international version to give participants more tools.

Perhaps the simplest and most important safety technique, if you can call it that, is to make sure that everybody really wants to play it together, that everybody wants to play a roleplaying game about romance and death in an emotionally raw way. Sort of "enthusiastic consent" of roleplaying games, if you like.
"Valokuva 2," distant image of buildings and industrial structures. Juhana & Maria Pettersson.

Thank you so much to Juhana for the interview! It was so cool to learn about Chernobyl, Mon Amour. I hope you will all go check out Chernobyl, Mon Amour on IndieGoGo and share this post with your friends!

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Loving Your Work

Earlier today I tweeted about a tweet by John Harper on the subject of loving your work and how it impacts others. For ease of access, I'm going to include the thread here, and then write the rest of the post. This is... a long post.

John's post: 
Hey, creative friends. No matter what you feel inside, go ahead and tell everyone that you love your work and you're excited to share it. Lie if you have to. Your enthusiasm will shine though and others will pick it up. Don't do the bs self-effacing shit. It's kind of awful.
My responses:
I don't think that it's best to lie about how you feel about your work. My suggestion, to meet some of this ask, is "I'm working on something that I want to love and be proud of, but I'm struggling with that. Can you help me find good things in it?"
I'm not great at this yet!
As someone with mental health disorders, it's really freaking hard to not speak negatively of my own work, especially when my work rarely succeeds or gets recognition and ESPECIALLY when I try to speak well of it and instead it gets trashed or I lose followers because of that. 
It is far more encouraged for men, typically cis men, to praise their own work. The rest of us can get called egotistical, or have people say we're over promoting/praising work more than it deserves.
I want to speak well of my work but I struggle with it constantly. 
I get what John is saying here and I appreciate the intent, but I also know that lying about your feelings can hurt you so you should work on how you express them more than how to hide them, & that being positive about your work doesn't always bring good returns and that hurts. 
John's method can work for many people, probably. But for me, that would be painful & harmful to me,  with my past luck as example, & would not be successful as an exercise. 
Just saying: nothing bad about John's words for many people, but it's okay if it's not right for you.💜
So, let me get the hard parts of this out of the way:

  • I'm not mad at John. I think he's great and he's been kind and honest with me in the few bits of time we've had together talking. We just don't always agree, which he has always seemed to be cool about. I'm not arguing with him over this because I don't see a point, it's not like he's bad or something.
  • I don't personally think lying about your feelings is healthy. Some people can fake it to make it, and that's great! But not all of us can, so I suggest if you do John's method (which is totally fine!), be careful and respect your own needs. Performing self-love publicly sometimes needs to take a backseat to living and functioning, and I know that's not a popular thing to say. It's still true.
  • I know not all men benefit from the things I'm talking about here. I have many men I care a lot about who have struggled intensely with receiving recognition with their work, who struggle for people to value their work, and who have received negative responses to their promotion of their work. I know and love them, and I am not trying to belittle their experiences. Please understand that.

There we go. On to the meat of this post!

Description: Debbie Reynolds saying "Chins up! Boobs out!"
It's okay to not love your work. 

It's okay, even though it sucks. It's hard to look at your hard drive at your projects, or down at your drawing tablet, or whatever your work happens to be, and feel that sinking disappointment in yourself. It can be related to success, or completely unrelated. It can be in spite of the love of your fans and friends, or it might be related to trying to meet their standards. It's okay.

I'm going to say something that you've probably heard before, and I'm sorry to be repetitive. But let me try.

Your work is not what gives you value. There is no amount of work you can do that will make you valuable. You don't deserve things based on what you've made, and it's not about deserving in any case. You are valuable because you are. You are part of all of this world and your work may never be recognized but you mean something, you matter, and you are bigger in the scheme of things than your work ever could be.

Van Gogh could not have made Starry Night if he did not exist in the first place. You must be for any of your work to be, and you make your legacy, not the approval of other people.

Description: Freddie Mercury saying "Fuck everybody else!"
That being said.

I get it. I do. I look at my work sometimes and I scream inside (or sometimes outside) about its inadequacies. It's failure. I lament loudly on Twitter that no one wants to interview me. I whine that I haven't sold much of my work, and that no one posts about my work on social media or reviews it. I hurt. I hurt so much. I pour hours into my work and I hurt, and my work is no good. Nope. I hate it.

I bet you think that too, sometimes. And that's okay.

The idea that you have to love your work for others to love it is probably not entirely what John was referring to, but I bet some people took it that way. Loving your work is not the only way to succeed and to make others love your work. It's not! But there are things you should do. You know I love questions, so I'm going to give you some questions to ask yourself to make hating your work useful. (click thru for more!)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Holstering Your Concepts

I have mentioned a few times that I'm working on a project that is based on the concept of the John Wick universe with assassins, etc., called Shoot to Kill. It's a pervasive larp that I'm working on an augmented reality app for. I've been pretty excited about it! However, it's being revamped. Here's why.

(Content note: discussion of gun violence and mention of suicide.)

(This will contain my personal feelings on gun use. I honestly Do Not Care if you disagree. *shrug*)


Description: A United States flag over an illustration of ships, with the words "knock knock. it's the United States."
Well, in case you're unfamiliar with the United States, we have a fucking problem with guns. While there are recent events that are particularly notable examples, our incidences of mass shootings are common and significant. I've been thinking about it a lot.

I grew up in an environment with a lot of guns. Like, my dad, pap, and cousin owned probably nearly arsenals and my brother wasn't far behind (I don't keep track of how many they own these days). While my pap was shot twice (by someone else, once when he was a kid - in the eye - and once while hunting small game - in the dick, no lies), in our direct family I only know of one other incident of gun violence in my family, which was a different cousin who committed suicide.

I'm pointing this out because when I was growing up, guns were used "responsibly," as in, we didn't use them in unsafe ways, we were taught gun safety very early, etc. I shot a rifle for the first time when I was like 9. I actually own guns (that may be changing, I'm not sure). So these people misusing guns, they were not us, they weren't responsible gun owners. 

But I totally grew up right next to some of the classic trash bags who own a shitton of guns and want to use them to hurt people. You can be "safe" with your guns all you fuckin' want but when it comes to mass shootings, that's not about how well you can avoid accidentally shooting someone. Like, let's be real. Responsible gun ownership means shit right now. People are electing to go kill people, in public, en masse, with guns. For like, a whole host a reasons that are... okay nah. There's no good reason.

Description: Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta pressing a button to speak to someone who has been arrested, saying "Cool motive! Still murder."
(My official opinion on guns: it would be nice to have strongly regulated gun use for those who hunt and stuff, but otherwise, fuck it, we don't freaking need them. If I'm wrong, you can shoot me later.)

How does this relate to games, you ask?

I was writing a game about shooting people in public.

I have thought about this so deeply. I've been thinking about it for a while. And I can't make a game about shooting people in public.

I especially can't make one that's supposed to be actively played at conventions in-between other games. Like, there's a whole host of problems with pervasive larps that involve finding other people in the first place.

So, the original game was, you're professional assassins like in John Wick and you find people who are also playing the game and "shoot" them (originally just getting in touch with them and marking off their shots). There were gold coins, armor piercing rounds, and armor. It had (still has) varying levels of engagement, both performative and participative, with players becoming NPCs after they're taken out. It seemed like it would be really fun. It also served an important purpose: getting people to meet new people and engage over something.

Still, every time I design stuff, I try to think of ethical issues or any way the game could be misused (this is why there's like an entire two pages in the Turn essays about what you should really fucking not do with the game). This is because people can be stale bagels and also I'd rather not bring further harm into the world. So many people hurt people with games and otherwise already.

Yeah, I'm throwing a little Obamas in here. Description: Michelle Obama saying "When they go low, we go high!"
I'm revamping the game. I'm using the title Headshots because I'm going to try to subvert the violent/game standard use of the term for instead taking pictures of each other - taking "headshots" like in modeling. In this, the fiction will be that you are still professionals, but you're doing reconnaissance instead of assassinating people. You're finding people and identifying them to break their cover stories, and you can use trackers to break cover stories or fake passports to get new ones.

I'm hoping people still like it, and I'm planning to work on it more after I finish school. It sounds fun to me, and it has the elements I thought would be the most fun. I've retained the varying levels of participation, the ability to meet new people and engage with them, and the network of people in the fiction. I'm pretty happy about it, but I feel weird about the fact that some people might think I'm overreacting!

I'm not, tho. So like. Chill for a minute if you were getting those thoughts in your head.

Description: A picture of a parrot with the text "Alas, there is no fruit on my fuck tree."
See, the reality is that game designers have just as much responsibility as every other creator to do their best to make ethical choices in design. I have talked about this before, and it goes beyond cultural appropriation and sexism and all. I don't give a bit of a shit what people's actual political beliefs are. It is very obvious that the use of guns in the US is not handled well, and that the casual attitude towards violence in media contributes to that.

And no, I'm not saying "violent video games and movies cause violent behavior." No. What I'm saying is: if I make a game that could potentially make others (who are not playing a game but are in the place where it is being held) feel unsafe because I don't consider the fact that we live in a society where there are active and persistent threats of violence using the method in my game? I'm not being responsible.

Responsibility is so, so important. We talk about responsible gun owners, right? They can't solve this problem. But as creators, we can choose to be responsible. We can make products that people can engage with without harming themselves or others. We can make products that engage people in the activity that is enjoyable and provide a good fictional backdrop without doing something toxic or harmful.

I'm making this change because I have seen too many body counts, and because I want to be the best I can be. Let's all think of the world and what we can do in it, and for it.

Be better.

Description: A picture of an angry possum with the words "Do no harm, take no shit, beg no man pardon."

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