“In our next episode…” Using horror to explore real tragedy

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A recent school shooting in Marysville, WA is all over the news this week. If I owned a car, I could say it happened only an hour north of where I live in Seattle (if you could drive on I-5 instead of creep along on it like a parking lot). Marysville isn’t a place I’ve ever visited, and before this tragedy all I could have said about it is that it’s somewhere nearby.

My point is that none of this feels personal to me… at least, it’s no more personal than a shooting in Georgia, Connecticut, or Colorado. That’s why, when I read the NYT article describing the Marysville shooter–which I won’t link to because of their paywall–which is echoed in this article, my first thought is This sounds like a terrible episode of a supernatural horror show.

Because at the moment, the killings are inexplicable. The shooter was widely regarded as a popular, successful, and engaged kid. He played on the football team. He was homecoming prince. He was widely liked. As for his victims, they were his friends and family, not people who bullied him.

Bullying and resentment are the default narratives for school shootings now, ever since the media settled on a Jocks v Outcasts frame for the Columbine shootings (never mind that it turned out to be wrong). When a new shooting happens, the first questions people ask are: Is the shooter mentally ill? What petty social slights were they trying to rectify? Did they have a troubled home life?

In the Marysville incident, none of these seem to hold. From the outside, he seems like he was a popular kid with a loving home life who attacked people who liked him. Police have been trying to find a clue to his behavior since last Friday, and whatever they’ve found, they haven’t released it. It’s possible they won’t find anything.

Which immediately makes me think of a horror storyline, where inexplicable violence is attributed to demonic possession or some shit, and the whole thing comes down to Basically Decent People Who Would Never Do Such A Thing.

I mean, consider this io9 post about the upcoming CHILL third edition. The game is organized around a secret society that battles the supernatural, and for this edition they’re regrouping and reorganizing around a capable new leader, as detailed in the article. Pluses for making this new leader a woman, a Muslim, and a soldier in the Syrian Free Army, but minuses for suggesting that al-Assad’s cruel regime is somehow the result of supernatural evil. Sure, the article suggests that maybe creatures are drawn to human evil, but leaving it up in the air isn’t good enough.

Because I’m tired of stories that portray perfectly normal human “evil” as if there must be some sort of non-human explanation. Yes, as a narrative device, the supernatural helps us address difficult or inexplicable aspects of our own lives, but it’s not there to explain them or to reduce culpability. That’s shitty fiction.

As for the real world, I want to offer my sincere condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.

I backed the third edition of CHILL (and so should you)

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When Pacesetter put out the first CHILL edition way back in the ’80’s, I snapped up a copy. For those of you who watched my Kickstarter video from last year (oh, shit, a year? must finish books) you might have noticed that box on the shelf behind me. It’s been 30 years since it came out, but while I have never played in a genuinely good Chill game, I still remember it fondly.

When Mayfair put out a second edition in the early nineties, I started snapping those books up. They were fun to read, for the most part[1], and suggested a great many story ideas, most of which I never got to use[2]. Someday, maybe. Someday.

Still, this was the ’90s, when The X-Files was all anyone talked about. It should have been the perfect moment for the game to break out. Unfortunately, the fear checks never really worked, and the horrors in CALL OF CTHULHU bigfooted all over the traditional monsters in Chill. People were more interested in Deep Ones than haunted houses, apparently. The game never sold as well as it should, and when Mayfair had a break-out hit in SETTLERS OF CATAN, they dumped rpgs in favor of board games and have never looked back.

There was an attempt some years back to put together a third edition; I was part of the crowd reading through the rules and discussing them. Sadly, people suck, and the nasty sarcasm I got when I dared admit that I sometimes ignored a die-roll to make the narrative work, convinced me it was more stress than it was worth. Much later they tried to raise $45k to print the rulebook, but it never happened.

Part of the reason I never quite had a successful game is my own weakness as a GM (excuse me… “CM”). Part was that the game required a certain willingness for players to face an enemy that was more powerful than they were[3] which had to be investigated before it could be fought. Part of it was that the players were unused to NPC interactions that didn’t mimic the might-uber-alles bullying that came with lawless murder hobo fantasy campaigns. Part was just an unwillingness to get in the spirit of things.

An example of that last:

Me: “The last thing you need to do for character creation is think up the first time you came into contact with the Unknown. It can be a haunting, a vampire attack, whatever.”

Player: “Uh, well, okay. I was walking down the street and I saw a werewolf driving a pizza-delivery truck.”

Me: “Dude.”

Player: “What?”

Sophisticated role-players, we were not. Suffice to say, I made several attempts over the years with different groups, but it never really came off.

However, I quite liked the way the rules handled creatures’ powers as though they were spells. I liked that you roll percentile dice for skill checks. I liked the idea of SAVE[4], the organization dedicated to fighting the supernatural[5]. I liked the genuinely scary creatures in the main rulebook. I even liked the weird psychic powers the PCs could access.

It was also nice to see that they broke the “rules” with regard to the creatures. I was raised to color inside the lines, and that attitude extended to pretty much everything, including the “rules” of monster movies: vampires can’t cross running water, ghosts have a task they needed to accomplish, werewolves could be killed with silver. There were boundaries! It was all laid out!

Then came Chill, which offered that sort of monster, along with other kinds. You could have werewolves that didn’t give a shit about silver or vampires that could walk in the sun. It didn’t matter, as long as it was interesting. For me, who had always broken rules on the sly because breaking rules meant trouble, the game was a bit of a paradigm shift, creatively.

Plus, for a guy who loves spooky horror but hated the sadistic pain movies and books of the 80’s (and who still hates modern grimy torture porn), Chill gave me some control. It let me imagine the stories I wanted.

That’s why, yesterday, I backed the third edition of their Kickstarter even though I can’t really afford it. The playtest materials are gorgeous; this is really the best art the game has ever had, and a quick glance at the rules is very promising.

It also looks like they’ve fixed the issue with fear checks.

Anyway, the materials they’ve already made available have me excited for the project. I hope they blow the doors off their goal and start funding a bunch of supplements or whatever.

Hell, I might dig out the adventures I was working on twenty years ago to see if there’s anything salvageable in them.

So, if traditional horror rpgs sound good to you, back them. You’ll at least have a chance to look at the playtest, with plenty of time to change your mind (you won’t change your mind).

[1] I was sorely disappointed by the “monster manual” for the game, called Things, but I’ve read enough horror game supplements to know how difficult it can be to make up a long list of horror creatures that are a) inventive, b) scary, and c) set the right tone.

[2] On Twitter, someone suggested that the playtest sampler for the 3e Kickstarter had a bit of Child of Fire in it, but in truth the influence goes the other way. The idea of a family (a whole community) that can’t remember one of its own comes straight out of the main rulebook for 2e. I read about that creature almost fifteen years before I started CoF. If you back the Kickstarter, you’ll get to see for yourself.

[3] In fact, I converted one of the creatures for 2e Chill (a mist mummy, which is a creature that spreads pestilence) directly into Champions so a five PC superhero team could fight it, and damn if it didn’t have blisteringly high points.

[4] aka Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata or The Eternal Society of the Silver Way, which was explicitly changed from “White Way” in the Pacesetter version because it sounded like an offshoot of the Klan. See also: The Dresden Files TV show changing the “White Council” into the “High Council”.

[5] In first edition, it was an actual functioning society that sent people out to investigate shit. The second, naturally, turned things all grim and dark, because 90’s. The new edition seems to have a rebuilding theme, which is welcome.

Randomness for 9/11

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1) X-men mashed up with The Smiths.

2)
Five Classic Authors Who Hated Their Book Covers (and One Who Got His Ass Kicked as a Result)

3) Scrublands: photographs of people who live off the grid.

4) Rupert Giles plans coursework for an MLS.

5) Everything you need to know about 5th ed D&D.

6) Beautiful animated gifs. h/t @keithcalder

7) “Every year, Americans spend nearly three times as much on candy as they do on public libraries.”

Randomness for 8/11

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1) Gambit’s costume is completely ridiculous, so this guy made one. h/t James Nicoll.

2) If David Lynch directed Dirty Dancing. Video.

3) Black leather dragon backpack. I’d get this, but it would make the toddlers in the Starbucks cry.

4) What your favorite 80s band says about you. This is better than it has a right to be.

5) More dice shaming!

6) Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie: the same movie.

7) Was HP Lovecraft a good writer? Nick Mamatas makes the argument that he was.

Writers inspired by D&D, from the NYTimes

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Everyone’s linking to this NYTimes piece about a whole generation of writers who were influenced by playing D&D when they were young, and they offer a nice, broad cross-section of writers. It’s not just sf/f people, but literary writers and playwrights and plenty of others, too.

It’s a nice article, if a bit fluffy (which, what else would I expect, given the subject). I’ve said before that gaming had an influence over me, especially because it taught me that the characters I was so used to seeing in movies, books, and on TV did not seek advantage as ruthlessly as characters played by actual people who were invested in their success. The old standby is the spy escaping from a holding cell, knocking out a guard, and not taking anything from the guard’s body, not a weapon, communicator, key, nothing.

More interesting to me is that the authors seemed to have a much more theatrical/improvisational experience in their gaming. We spent So. Much. Time. going room to room killing things, with little more story than that. In fact, we’d play so much that it was impossible to make up an actual story, and when I tried I often found the players utterly uninterested in exploring any of it.

By the way, we played “The Fantasy Trip”, not D&D, because we though the armor class rules were incredibly stupid.

Anyway, I continue to believe that, with the right players and genre, an rpg session could be worthwhile art. Not just “I bash the orcs” sort of thing, but an actual exploration of character in a partly improvised narrative, with added random outcomes due to die rolls and an earned ending. They could even do the closeup camera thing for the die rolls, the way poker shows show the players’ hands. The two-part Tabletop episode was a good proof of concept, even if they didn’t take the narrative beyond “I swing my mace at the skeleton.”

If you watch that video (I thought it was interesting) you’ll see that the story is compelling when the players have their characters talk like themselves. When they try to talk pseudo-medieval fake fantasy stuff everything becomes stilted and awkward.

Anyway, I’m a little envious of the writers in that article, because the games I played as a kid never managed to pull together any kind of story. In college and afterwards, things were better, but not in those early formative years.

Five Things Make A Post

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First, my Father’s Day was pretty great. I asked to get no gifts and didn’t receive any but the cards were wonderful. We also went out to brunch. My wife is pretty cool on the idea of going to a restaurant for breakfast–and my son actively hates it–so this is something I sorta love but get to do only once a year. And yeah, I ate more than I should have.

We went some distance to a little place called Mulleady’s, mainly on the rule that we could get things we never make at home, like blood pudding, boxty, scotch eggs, and other things we didn’t order. Sadly, marrow wasn’t on the bfast menu, but maybe another time. One downside of going there is that it really doesn’t many people before it becomes uncomfortably loud.

Second, you may have seen news articles everywhere recently claiming that bike share programs increase head injuries. They’re wrong. Head injuries fell after bike share programs were introduced, but they didn’t fall as fast as other kinds of injuries. Therefore, according to the media, head injuries rose because, among those injured, a greater percentage of them had head injuries.

It’s statistical fuckery. To quote the linked article: “A more critical view would be that the researchers went looking for evidence that bikeshare programs are dangerous, and upon failing to find any, cherry-picked a relatively unimportant sub-trend and trumpeted it as decisive finding.”

My wife rides almost every day and she always wears her helmet. When I rode (back in my office job days) I wore a helmet all the time, too. We also have lights, reflective vests, and all the safety gear that people make fun of. But it’s important to remember that nothing makes the streets safer for cyclists than having a whole lot of cyclists on the streets.

Third, I’ve sent out copies of The Great Way in hopes of getting blurbs for them, and the first two have come back. Both are wonderful and make me feel like dancing around my apartment singing “I Feel Pretty.”

Fourth, I’m currently at work revising my pacifist urban fantasy, and never in my life have I had so much trouble making headway. My revisions are creeping along at a pace barely better than my first draft days. Stuff is difficult, you guys.

Fifth, I bought the first edition of CHILL (by Pacesetter) way back when it first came out. I bought the second edition enthusiastically, and when I made that six-figure deal for Child of Fire, I rewarded myself by buying up all the Chill books I didn’t already own.

Even though the game is pretty much unplayable.

Pacesetter’s first ed. was fun and had simple game mechanics. Mayfair’s second edition improved on things, but still couldn’t deal with Fear checks. You could prep a haunted house, prep the monster that would be there, arrange the clues the players needed to find or the person they needed to save, but what you couldn’t do was predict who would pass a Fear check. If all the players made it, the monster would not be able to stand against them. If only one made it, that player would have to face a villain designed to challenge a party while his compatriots ran screaming into the streets.

It was impossible to create a balanced confrontation, because you could never tell how many players would make that Fear check (the first thing to happen in every encounter), so you didn’t know which would stay in the scene.

And let’s be honest, any time a GM takes control of a player it sort of sucks, especially if you make the run in terror.

So, none of the games I tried to get off the ground ever went anywhere. My friends had no interest in horror games, since they’re pretty much the opposite of jokey power fantasies, and the only truly successful Chill game I ever ran was with my six-year-old son, and it was one session.

Still, it was great fun to read, and now I’m foolishly excited to see that, after a couple of false starts, there’s a third edition on the way. The previous attempt at a third edition got as far as informal play tests, which I took part in until assholes drove me away, but I’m hopeful for this. I don’t even know anything about the game, but I’m foolishly hopeful.

The Full Trailer for DARK DUNGEONS!!!

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It’s not a satire of the original Jack Chick comic! It IS the Jack Chick comic brought to life!

Debbie and Marcie arrive at college unaware of the dangers of RPGing. They are soon indoctrinated into this dangerous lifestyle where they face the threat of learning real life magical powers, being invited to join a witches’ coven, and resisting the lure of Ms. Frost, a vile temptress of a GM. But what peril must the two friends face when they stumble across the Necronomicon and their fantasy game becomes a reality game? Find out in Dark Dungeons!

From the FAQ on their website:

Have people committed suicide due to RPGs?

No cases of RPG-related suicides have been proven in court. However, that does not mean that it doesn’t happen. For all we know, BIG-GAMING may just be very good at covering them up.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeons_%26_Dragons_controversies

BIG GAMING! Click through to learn more.

I am writing rpg gaming stuff now and it is hard

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I’m supposed to be working right now but I’m not, and the reason is simple. Work is hard.

While The Great Way is getting an editorial working over, I’m putting together the game supplement for it. (For those who don’t know, I promised Kickstarter backers a Fate game supplement for the setting of those books.) Currently, it’s almost 10,000 words long, and not even half way done. Turns out that explaining your world-building takes time.

What’s more, writing game stuff is giving me major decision fatigue. With fiction, putting the sentences together is comparatively easy: There are characters who want things, places for them to pursue their desires, obstacles to overcome. That talk. They look at stuff. Maybe there’s a smell. It’s pretty straightforward.

In contrast, game material is all summarizing and making careful decisions on how stuff should work. What invokable aspects suit the capital city of this empire? How best to describe this sort of magic? What’s the best way to portray non-human intelligences without doing the xenophobe thing of giving them all a single personality? What if a player wants to play one of those non-humans?

Everything is as spare as possible, while trying to be as interesting as possible, while being as balanced as possible, while not contradicting anything I put in the trilogy, much of which I made up on the fly because shit sounded cool.

What the hell was I thinking?

Randomness for 2/11

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1) An alternate history of “Flappy Bird” a successful game that was pulled from sale because of the gamers abused its creator.

2) Marvel opens its image archive and api to the public. I’m pretty sure this is cool, and if I were ten years younger I might understand why.

3) Calvin and Muad’Dib. Calvin & Hobbes cartoons with quotes from Dune to replace the dialog.

4) Teddy Roosevelt’s 10 Rules for Reading. Sensible guy.

5) Male artist creates art show with woman’s art, doesn’t feel he needs to name her.

6) An Infinity of Alternate Batmen.

7) Deleted.