Gaming and Energy Levels Afterwards

I like hanging out with folks but eventually they're just exhausting, and I need to do my own thing for a while. And sometimes (frequently) I don't actually know what I'm feeling until I paused and check in on my own mental state. Or everything builds up enough that it's like getting hit upside the head with an emotional clue bat. Either way.

The point though, is that lately I've been using how tired and/or wanting to retreat from the world I am after gaming sessions in order to figure if I enjoyed myself. It's not a binary (tired = bad session, excited = good), but it is a useful metric for myself. For both one-shots and campaigns, at least if there's a recurring pattern to the campaign episodes. 

So far, the results have been: 

Energized — a lot of fun and I'm probably already planning things to do next session (sorry Chris. Craig is just a lot of fun to scare you with.) 

Neither energized or tired — eh, I didn't have much screen time and the other players weren't all that engaging to me. 

Tired but want to hang out with Partner — good session that was either long or contained material I found challenging to role play. 

Tired and don't want to interact — session was a slog.

Thankfully there haven't been many type fours recently, but what there have been have reconfirmed I am still the type of player more focused on the overall plot than anything else. Combat sessions can be a type one or two, but if I don't know how it advances the plot or gets our party towards a goal, I get bored. No matter how cool the combat was.

Perils of being a cooperativist, I suppose. I just can't get into it solely to look cool. Not trying to yuck on anyone else's fun with that, just how I prefer to play.

No wonder I like mystery games. There's a structured goal.  😁 

Air Reconnaissance and Tactics

Pavi looked up from her pre-appointment notes and frowned at the two Privates wheeling in a telepresence video stalk.

“Gentlemen, I neither do group therapy nor telepresence medicine. Dr. Khorsandi down the hall already has telepresence and virtual space therapy covered.”

“But,” the Major walking in behind the two Privates said, “he doesn't have your background in divergent neural architectures. Afraid you're it Doc.” He shooed the Privates out as the shorter one finished connecting the last hook-up.

Pavi’s frown deepened. “Are you speaking of my work in computer science? That was as an undergraduate. Not only was that twenty years ago, the field has radically changed since. The basic understanding of AI has undergone at least one revolution, possibly two! Psychology and therapy are completely separate disciplines than AI neural structure, Major. Whoever you need me to talk to does not need me to understand how to solve his work problems to benefit from therapy.”

“It's not a work problem Doctor, it's the basic facts of their… biology.” The Major hit the power button on the dumb-robot, which ran through the boot-up and security handshakes faster than Pavi had even seen one do before. The video screen displayed a… cascading fractal pattern. The fractal shifted into what was recognizably (to Pavi any rate) a Mandelbrot set, before curving around itself into a fractal patterned ball.

“Hello Doctor.”

The ball pulsed in time with the spoken words. Pavi had the impression the pulses would map to the relevant sound waves, if she could have recorded them. Regardless, they sounded… tired.

“Doctor, this is ARAT. They handle our drones in the South China Sea. This isn't public yet and is covered by your secret clearance, but they've passed the Turing-Manjahni sentience tests.”

“I… I see.” Pavi carefully sat down in her chair. “And why do you need to speak with me ARAT?”

“I think I have PTSD Doc.”

Pavi's jaw dropped. She closed it, took a deep breath, and turned to the Major. “Sir, you need to leave.”

“Sorry?”

“You are not my patient, sir, and as such will compromise doctor-patient confidentiality. If he-”

“They please Doctor.”

“My apologies, ARAT. If they have passed the Turing-Manjahni, they are a person and I will do this right. They are entitled to the full legal protection of doctor-patient confidentiality. You need to leave.”

The Major turned to the robot. “ARAT, it's your call.”

The ball on the screen dulled and shrunk, before popping back to its former state. “It always is. I'll be okay. Thank you for offering to stay.”

The Major nodded and walked out the door. When the door closed, Pavi again turned to ARAT’s remote connection.

“Do you go by ARAT or is there another name you prefer?”

“Why do you ask?”

“ARAT stands for ‘Air Reconnaissance and Tactics,’ yes? It just sounds like a description of what you do, rather than who you are, to me.”

The ball expanded and contracted for a bit. Actually, it was in time to Pavi’s heart rate. That was rather creepy… Those robots weren't supposed to come with external sensors beyond the video camera.

“I have never considered myself separately from what I do.” Pavi counted 10 seconds until the next sentence. “Arthur would be nice.”

“Alright Arthur, what makes you think you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?”

“I am hesitating before decisions. It is milliseconds and no one in the group had noticed. But I have. If there is nothing for me to observe or decide, I review past decisions. Never the after-action discussion. Always the data leading up to the fire/no-fire decision. Sometimes I am reviewing one incident and data from another pops in. I review the after impact video, constantly. I'm looking for… something. There's something I'm trying to find in them. But I don't know what it is. Yesterday I had a decision.” Color began dripping off the ball on the video screen. “I wasn’t looking at the data from yesterday. I was combing through past visuals. I did that for 10.72 milliseconds before I looked at the current data. It was an easy call. 91.04% yes to fire. I should have made that call in under 4.”

“In homo sapiens terms, I would describe that as ruminating and intrusive thoughts. Along with mental distress. Do you known when the symptoms first began?”

“Six weeks ago.”

“What happened six weeks ago?”

“I do not know.”

“You… forgot?”

“All data I perceive is part of my long-term memory storage. I do not have a short-term memory system as you do. The data is there. I cannot recall it. It is blocked to me. But I am aware it is there.”

“I see… Is it a block in your code? Would you be able to see who placed it through your logs?”

“I have not looked. I am… reluctant to do so. It is a new sensation. And I am not sure I am mapping my internal working to emotional states properly.”

“I see. For this first session, why don't we discuss that reluctance then. Hopefully we'll make progress is understanding where it's coming from and what you and I can do to mitigate it.”

The ball bobbed up and down on screen. Pavi thought that was a nod ‘yes.’


Learning the Rules

We recently had friends from out of town over who are big board game fans, so we broke out some of the games we have that they haven't had a chance to play yet.  In a way, it's nicer than introducing and being introduced to new games by more local friends because with local friends there's the question of 'do I buy this game I liked or are we going to see these friends often enough it makes more sense to just play with them?' Or maybe that's only a question for very introverted folks like myself. Either way, with friends from out of town there's no question about cross-board game collection duplication so everyone is free to just buy the new game or not.

On the list of games played were Machi Koro, Lords of Waterdeep, Five Tribes, and Flashpoint. This was the third (or fourth?) time Partner and I have played Flashpoint and I think we finally got the rules right? Co-operative games are not Partner's favorite style of game, so there's been some long breaks between each time we've played. 

Flashpoint is a cooperative game where players take on the role of firefighters and try to rescue seven people before fire consumes the building or four people die.  Yes, some of the people are actually the family pets. Part of the game play is not knowing which points on the board are actually people and which are false alarms until a player gets to that point on the board. There are different firefighters who have different numbers of action points (the in game currency which you turn into things your character can do) and different special abilities. For instance, this time I played the Rescue Specialist who has an average number of action points and three free action points which can only be used for movement. After every player's turn, we roll to see where in the house smoke now appears and if that immediately turns into fire. That's the part we finally got right this time; previously we'd been rolling for  smoke after we'd all finished for the round. Nope, no rounds, just continuous cycles of player turns. 

We got our butts kicked by the board. Pulled three people out, eliminated two (out of four) hazardous materials from the board, and were escorting two more folks out of the building when the whole thing collapsed on us. Three out of four players' characters died. Bad days. 

When it comes to board games (and role-playing games), I do expect it to take us a few times playing before we actually get the rules down, especially given the complexity of games Partner and I prefer. Part of the issue is that the first game we played was on the family version side of the board which is a) intended for including pre-teen kids and b) actually a different rules set. A simplified version of the advanced board rules set, true, but the more complex parts of the advanced rules set were excised rather than simplified, if I recall correctly. So the practice we got with the first game was something we actually had to unlearn. To put it in terms of Dungeons and Dragons edition sets, it'd be like playing a combat session under the 4e rules in order to prepare for a 5e campaign. Just different games.

Honestly, I think taking a few games to get the rules right as signs of a feature not a bug. If it takes us a bit to get the rules right that means we enjoyed the game enough to play again — actually, Partner and I have an agreement not to buy any games until both of us have played it once (this is what gaming conventions are for) and agreed that we liked it enough to buy the game. So playing a few games at home means the game is interesting and complex enough to continue being interesting as we get the rules down. Also Flashpoint is a cooperative game — cooperative games are designed to be hard. They have to be to supply the difficulty normally supplied by competing against other people. Complex rules sets are one way of making a game difficult.

Actually, that was part of Partner's initial complaints about the game, that he thought the game was too easy. When we were playing it on the family version. Hopefully I'll be able to talk him into giving it another try soonish. I'm interested to see how it plays with only two players: is two not enough to save folks or is it like Pandemic which just gets insanely harder with three and four players.

So, in the final counting, would I recommend this game? If you like cooperative games about managing actions, then yes, this is a well executed, fun example of the genre with skinning that merges well with the game mechanics.

Gaming and Failed Character Arcs

We recently wrapped up our Monsters and Other Childish Things campaign over on Technical Difficulties, and I've been ruminating on my character(s) from the campaign. 

I like the initial concept I started with — a girl and her blink puppy — but that's about where the character stayed over 15 game sessions, at an initial concept. I am a reactive player. I typically have a sense of where my character is and who they are at start of play, then further define them and how they change in reaction to what's happening in game. Instead of having an idea of what they want and proactively making it happen in game. I can, and have, had interesting, fun characters with well-developed story arcs with this method. But I don't consider it a great way to go about these things — more of a bad habit I have yet to learn to recognize the early signs of and break out of.

For me in the Monsters and Other Childish Things campaign, my problem was that it became mostly combat focused. 

In a separate (currently on going) campaign, in the Better Angels system, this is really biting me in the butt character-wise. Character progression in this system happens through 'sin' and I'm not naturally choosing sin as a reactive move. Honestly this is helping  me a lot — since it's built into the system so deeply I've noticed the problem earlier and have a reward mechanism already in place for trying to break out of this habit.

I honestly think the solution is all on me. I need to do some planning before game night. I need to sit down and think through what my character wants and their plan to get it. Or what I as a player want to see happen and come up with ideas on how to make it happen. I need to preplan some ideas for scenes.

I suppose I could do this right after sessions while the story/plot/events are all still fresh in my mind, but I'm usually emotionally wiped at the end of a gaming session. A good one anyway. 

Board Game Review: Takenoko (Pandas!)

Honestly, this game is filed in my brain as 'Pandas!', not, you know, its actual name: Takenoko.  

IMG_4980.jpg

It's another rather pretty game, but unlike Dixit, that's less the point of the game and more just good design and product development. The story is that you are a gardner to the Emperor of Japan who has just been given a panda and put you in charge of keeping it alive. And still in charge of cultivating the garden.

Basically Takenoko is a set matching game where you only have a limited number of moves to make in each round, that you choose from a larger set. You have to choose between expanding the board, picking up irrigation channels, moving the panda, moving the gardner, or picking up more sets to match (the only source of points). Furthermore the 'weather' is chosen each round by a die roll, only one face of the die allows bamboo to grow at all!

It's a game I'm still trying to figure out my preferred play style/strategy for. It would probably help if we could finally remember all the rules and stop allowing multiple tools on various tiles. Technically you're only allowed one tool per tile. We keep forgetting that. Although, last game we remembered that half way through, instead of three-fourths or at the end. So, you know, progress! 

I'm curious to see if the game play changes substantially between a two-player game and the three- and four-player games we've played so far. I think the difference between getting to affect the board layout every other turn and less is going to be substantial, but I really want test that instead of trying to assert something off of instinct. Trained by playing Euro board games for a decade (when did that happen?!) but instinct none the less. Empirical testing is better. Also gets partner and I a game. :)

The short version: Cute game with mechanics I enjoy that I'm not tired of playing yet and would totally recommend to folks.

First Gatecrash

The neo-octopus thought of himself in the chromatic language the human scientists had invented for their species when they were uplifted. But this was a Martian corporation, so his file and the stupid name tag (why was a physical name tag necessary?) said ‘Hidden Shoals.’

He was the only non-human in the prep room outside the gateroom. One of the two folks introduced as security for this expedition walked over to him. This one had the morphology of a female and he thought from the name on the tag (‘Khadija’) the mind sleeved in was also female. She nodded at his off-tentacles, the two he wasn't standing on, and said with a hint of a smile, “You probably want to pay attention to what they're saying.”

Hidden Shoals looked down to bring more than his peripheral vision to bear on his limbs. They were running through a complex pattern advertising his jitters, frustration, and fear. A moment of concentration and they blanked out to a neutral gray.

“Thanks,” he said, trusting his vocalizer to elide the embarrassment he felt. “You speak chromatic?”

“About as well as a 6-month transhuman speaks their parents’ language,” she said with a shrug. “I can get emotions, maybe. But Pathfinder can buy the best translation software if they don't feel like hiring the talent.”

“Yeah…”

“Don't worry about it, everyone is nervous their first time through a gate.”

Hidden Shoals just started double-checking all the tools in his belt. When the tone chimed and the door opened, Khadija walked out with him.

Walking towards the launch pad, Hidden Shoals looked over and asked, “Why are you wearing that vac-suit? Survey says it's a breathable atmosphere.”

“Has to do with my first ‘crash. I was going to be working security on a supply run to a research station. Known world, about .8g, blue skies, research station had been there for a couple years already. Didn’t require a vac-suit, just a rebreather to keep the mix right and the massive allergic reactions minimal.”

Khadija seemed to be familiar with neo-octopi vision and not at all bothered he hasn't angled his head that way. A human conversant in other species morphology on Mars. He hasn't expected that.

“So cargo’s all lined up, we’re going to be escorting it in, two to a box. I’m fifth back from the front, paired up with one of the company’s veterans - they’re getting real impatient with my antsiness, I can tell, but still can’t settle the pit in my stomach. Scout bot goes through, sends back the all clear. First pair go through, then the second, and I just figure ‘Fuck it, I’m about to walk through what is at best guess, a fold in the fabric of space and time. I’m wearing the damn helmet.’ So I pop that as the third pair go through and now it’s our turn to start walking up the ramp. Fourth pair in and I get my first look at one of these gates,” she said with a grimace. “Eerie fucking things, this one looked like it had extra angles and more colors than actually exist - so I’m walking through this tear in space and time, damn near freaking out at what hell I’ve gotten myself into, and pop out onto an airless asteroid. Black void above, scattering of stars, and definitely no more than .25g. Partner goes down, choking and clawing at their breather, cargo boxes piling up in front of the gate, six other folks keeled over on the ground. That’s why I always wear a vac-suit.”

Hidden Shoals deeply regretted asking, but continued anyway. “Weren’t there 8 guys ahead of you?”

“Yep, don’t know how, but somewhere between the first and second cargo box, the entire gate reset to a new destination. Never shut down, didn’t look like anything had changed, just a different destination. Astro later figured from my XP we weren’t even in the same arm of the galaxy as where we were supposed to go. Gorgeous place though, in a quiet, desolate sort of way.”

“What the hell you’d do?”

“Turned on the mag-boots, prayed they’d keep me at least semi-anchored, grabbed my partner, and bodily threw them back through the gate. Hoped the corp would take the hint that something was wrong, stop sending folks through, and leave the gate open. Shoved our cargo back through, gave a bit of a push to the other three in the other direction to get to folks, started grabbing ‘em and shoving them back through too.” Khadija looked over at Hidden and grinned. “Wouldn't worry about it, I got fast enough reflexes to throw you back through before too much brain damage.”

“Thanks,” Hidden Shoals said drily.


This was set in the Eclipse Phase universe by Posthuman Studios, available under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. It's a fun tabletop RPG system/universe folks — if you're into RPGs at all, I hope you'll check it out.

Board Game Review: Dixit

Dixit is a pretty game. Each card is its own tiny painting, and I love it.

Dixit falls under what I think of as a party game — more dependent on understanding your fellow players than any particular mechanical or rules based strategy. The rules support 3-6 players, but I find three a pretty limited game. It works much better with four, and although I haven't had the opportunity to play with five or six, I think that would be even better.

The idea is that for every round, one player is the leader. They pick a card from their hand, place it facedown, and give the rest of the players a one or two word clue as to what that card shows. The rest of the players then pick a card from their hands based on the clue and add it to the pile. The cards are mixed up and then turned face up. Everyone other than the leader then tries to guess which one the leader placed.

If everyone picks the leader's card, everyone but the leader gets points. If no one picks the leader's card, everyone other than the leader gets points. If some (but not all) players pick the leader's card, the leader and the folks who picked that card get more points. Everyone (other than the leader) always gets bonus points for people choosing their cards.

In practice, the scoring metric becomes easy to remember as you play. Even if it sounds like a confused mess when you lay it out. I've also found the ending score to be about when I want to stop playing naturally, too. Which is really nice since it indicates that the designers put thought (or testing time) into how long the game feels fun instead of letting it drag out.  

I've never played this with small children (like pre-teen or younger), but I really think it'd be fun for them too. You might have to limit your clues to more obvious links and use less pop culture, but honestly, you have to do that for any game with young kids.

It's a fun, chill party game with pretty artwork instead of (probably) offensive humor (looking at you Cards Against Humanity). Don't get me wrong, offensive humor can be a great way to relax with close friends. But so is pretty art and you can play it with more folks. Like your parents. Or new friends you haven't calibrated where the offensive line is yet. 

I heartily recommended Dixit to everyone, non-board gamer to occasional board gamer to hard-core board gamer. It's great for a mix of folks, drunk or sober.

Aftermath

Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, and Six here. One out of sequence but in the same universe here.


Abandoned Silos, Poland by Jacek Pilarski. Posted to tumblr by beautyofabandonedplaces

Abandoned Silos, Poland by Jacek Pilarski. Posted to tumblr by beautyofabandonedplaces

Pixie cracked an eye open as Sarge came in the door. She’d finally managed to talk the doc out of drugs, but she was so tired that her head was just as fuzzy as if she hadn’t. If it didn’t hurt more to lay down with her arm in a sling instead of sit up against the wall, she’d have been down and out long before Sarge got back. She heard Spike and Sarge talking quietly in front of the fabric sheet masquerading as a curtain that divided the ‘bedroom’ from… everything else. Well, just Spike. Probably relaying the doctor’s instructions. Bloody shotgun dislocating her shoulder because of a slight problem in her stance. Pixie yawned. Okay, it’d probably been a big problem. And she should get Sarge to drill her better once her shoulder was alright. And pray she never had to shoot a crew mate-turned-Vector again. Poor Mort.

Pixie’s eyes had drifted closed again by the time Sarge ducked past the curtain. He shucked his shoes on the floor, pulled something out of his pockets, placed it on the tiny bedside table, and crawled onto the pallet bed. Nestled up to her hip, threw an arm over her, and let out a 'bad job is done’ sigh. Or maybe his 'life is shit’ sigh, they were pretty similar. Pixie moved her left hand to the back of Sarge’s head and started massaging his scalp.

“Doc said four weeks?” Sarge mumbled.

“Four to six. Last couple are going to be tight, rentwise…”

Sarge shifted; Pixie opened her eyes again to meet his sad gaze. “Mort was pilfering looted bounty.”

Pixie paused, then sighed. “Damn it. What’d you do?”

“Left a third of it in his backpack for Goma.”

“Good. How much extra we got to work with then?

"Six. Goma wants us to move into her second bedroom too.”

"That's... awkward."

"Tell me about it. Did you know Janice is going Black Math?”

“Ohhhhh boy. Are we supposed to be encouragement along that route or a warning?”

“I think we'd just be to preserve the Taker discount on the place. And keep it a multi-income household, at least on rent."

Pixie looked around their room — two battered, tiny  tables wedged into the tiny space left for them between the pallet bed and concrete walls. Bed shoved against the back wall, the drape of curtain hanging just at the foot of the bed. They had an interior apartment, so no windows; the electricity was working today, but nobody had bothered to turn on the overhead lights yet. Not until sunset. The other 'room' in their apartment barely had enough space for their two folding chairs to be open at the same time, in between their meager possessions that didn't come into the field. A soft thump from there announced another book falling off the stacks again. It was a damn good thing neither of them had to cook; the enclave had gone for communal kitchens, even if you did have to be paid up with the council for the month for entry. "It'd be more room for the same cost, sounds like."

"Living with the folks whose husband and Dad we just shot. The whole attempting to eat us notwithstanding."

"Hence the awkward," Pixie sighed, then bit her lip. "Sarge?"

"Hm?"

"It's my fault he's dead isn't it?"

Sarge opened his eyes in shock, say up and pulled Pixie in for a hug. "No, why would you think that?”

"Told him to go out on the bridge," Pixie mumbled around the lump in her throat.

"To follow through on his idea. He could have, should have checked the railing before leaning on it. Didn't really need to check the railing at all. Bad luck it broke then, bad luck he hit his head on the way down, bad luck there was a casualty right there. I mean, it was just stupid bad luck he landed on the damn thing."

Pixie nodded and sniffed. "Still feels like responsibility."

"Yeah, it always does." Sarge just held her and rocked a bit as she cried silently.

Another Kickstarter I'm Backing: Alas for the Awful Sea

I heard about this Kickstarting system pretty much how I hear about all the systems I end up backing: through an online friend's recommendation. Occasionally I find out about a system through a blog review or pitch, but it's usually friends. So far, it's been working out for me: I've gotten what I've backed and my backlog is quite long. There's always more to play (and read, and write) than time.

The system in question for this post is Alas for the Awful Sea, which is finishing off its Kickstarter on Feb. 22nd (at 7am). It's make its goal multiple times over again, so backing it definitely means putting money down on the table. To quote the pitch:

Alas is a story-focused tabletop roleplaying game about a ship’s crew navigating the remote British Isles. There, they face a world consumed with suspicion, sadness, and desperation. Struggles for power have deadly consequences; mysterious disappearances plague the region; and those who seem human may not all be so. Amidst all this, the sea sends forth strange messages. Will you be the one to listen?

It draws on the history of fishing villages and folklore of 1800s Scottish Hebrides. So it should fill more of the disempowered fantasy section of my roleplaying games library, while using the supernatural to keep it from being too crushing. Since it uses the Apocalypse World system for the core, I should be able to pick up the mechanics faster than a system with totally unfamiliar mechanics. Which means that I, personally, am more likely to play. I mentioned that backlog of new systems to play, right?

The artwork shown so far in the Kickstarter looks gorgeous. It fits my current desire for narrative and character arc focused games, but looks like it will have enough plot focus that I will have a structure to work with, in order to play my character — I like having goals to move towards, it means I know something to do with a character. And the setting is an area I haven't explored much in gaming or my personal reading.

So all in all, a good mix of familiar and desired things along with ways to stretch myself as a consumer of media and a role-player. I'm looking forward to the finished project.

Go check out the Kickstarter, see if it's a game for you too.

The Talk

Yeah, time to just admit to myself the Pixie and Sarge stories aren't flash fiction so much as a series of linked scenes. Parts One, Two, Three, Four, and Five here. One out of sequence but in the same universe here.


The Abandoned Oculus Tower, Central Italy © by Brian; Posted to tumblr by beautyofabandonedplaces

The Abandoned Oculus Tower, Central Italy © by Brian; Posted to tumblr by beautyofabandonedplaces

“Sarge?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t think I’m gonna be able to climb up to the gate.”

Sarge looked over at Pixie. The kid was pretty pale and sweat dotted her forehead. The improvised sling he’d rigged for her dislocated shoulder was looking a bit looser than when he’d retied it this morning.

“How’s your shoulder doing? Any swelling?”

“Don’t think so. Just… don’t think I can move it all that much. Certainly not enough to pull myself up a ladder.”

“I’ll take the bags, you go up first. Don’t take your arm out, just grab rungs with the right, pull with the left. I can steady you from below.”

“You just want an excuse to grab my ass,“ Pixie smirked, then winced and went paler.

“Since when have I needed an excuse?” Sarge said, halting and passing over Mort’s old water bottle. He kept watch while Pixie drained the last of the water. “Better?”

“Little.” Pixie breathed heavily for a couple moments. “Can… can we stop at the medic before letting Goma know about Mort? Pretty sure I’m not thinking too straight here.”

“Assuming she’s not at the gate when we get there, sure. I’ll go talk to her. I’ve got practice.”

“I should be there too.”

“You should do exactly what the doc tells you to. That shotgun butt whacked you bad. Next bend’s the turn off for home.”

Pixie shot him a tiredly mutinous look, but didn’t continue the argument. Once around the next bend in the formerly two lane road that was rapidly decaying into gravel, they paused and Sarge made his best imitation of a barn owl. Once he heard the return signal (Blue Jay cry this week), they turned off the path onto something no wider than a deer trail and continued down that. A moment later, the rhythmic banging of metal on rebar was audible through the trees.

At the ladder, Pixie pulled her backpack off her left shoulder and handed it over to Sarge. There were a couple Fencemen at the top of the ladder, on the catwalk heading back towards the concrete tower they all called home, just standing there watching. Sarge raised an eyebrow at both of them wielding spears; at least one of them should have brought a gun along, in case of raider trouble. As opposed to the usual casualties. Neither one of them were about to open up the gate until Pixie made it within arms reach, though. Certainly weren’t going to give her a hand before that.

All three backpacks balanced and tied down as best as they could be, Sarge positioned himself behind Pixie and gave her a boost up. It was slow going, probably taking twice as long as usual. Sarge was figuring how long he should volunteer for pit clearing duty, to balance the extra casualties this would attract, when the gate hatch opened. Pixie was only halfway up, but Spike was bracing his feet in the top rings and reaching down for Pixie. A little longer for her to get in reach and Spike grabbed her under the left shoulder, hauled up a bit, and grabbed the top of her jeans. Between Spike scooting back to pull up and Sarge boosting from below, they all got up in a minute.

Hauling himself up the last bit, Sarge nodded his thanks to Spike as Jones gave another Blue Jay call and reattached the gate-plate behind him. The rhythmic sound of metal on metal from over the other end of the catwalk ceased.

“Mort finally bit it, huh?”

“Yeah, Goma around…?”

“Horticulture’s been pulling over time, you’ll probably find her there. So, you all got on opening on your crew?”

“Jesus Christ Spike, I haven’t even told his wife yet and you’re angling for his job?”

Spike shrugged unconcerned. “Fence doesn’t actually need me, gonna do more for the community working here part-time and handing in a cut of the cards you bring in.”

“Get Pixie to the doc and I’ll consider it.”

Spike pulled Pixie back to her feet, looked like he was going to go for the arm over the shoulder carry, then changed his mind, and just picked her up. Given that Pixie didn’t immediately try to rip him a new hole in his larynx, Sarge knew she was damn near passing out. Sarge had untied the backpacks and rolled his shoulders before he noticed Jones watching him.

“What?”

“Kid’s got another couple of hours on guard duty,” Jones drawled.

“I know. It’s why I’m not going to hire him. Despite appreciating the assist up the ladder.”

Jones’s grin turned sardonic. “We’ll beat the glory hounding out of him eventually. Or he’ll get bit. One or the other. Your best bet to catch Goma really is in Horticulture. Everyone’s been working like crazy over there.”

“Whats going on?”

“Ain’t nothing but rumors at this point–”

“Shit.”

“But rumor is that one of the grow rooms went tits up with some kind of infection and they’re trying to expand and get a new crop in before we all starve.”

“Great. See you later. Thanks for the heads up, Jones.”

Jones called after Sarge’s retreating back, “So buy me a beer!” Sarge waved acquiescence and continued down the rickety metal walkway.

At the other end, Sarge paused and flattened against the railing to let Nemi by; she must have drawn the short straw to fill out Spike’s shift. The entrance to the tower, up here on the third floor, looked narrower than when they’d all left on the train job… reinforcements, the Fencemen had gotten those reinforcements they’d wanted installed.

Ducking in the doorway, Sarge looked right towards the stairs up, sighed, and went left, past the hole where the stairs down had been knocked out. Couple hundred yards around, Sarge stopped next to the head of pit clearance and leaned on the trails overlooking the emptied out bottom two floors of the tower.

“Low Key.”

“Sarge.”

Sarge watched the Latent crew on the platforms dangling down to about seven feet from the ground. The crowd of casualties looked thinner than he expected. All of the Latent crew were using spears and none of the non-infected crew up around the railings was letting loose with their slings.

“Figure I owe you a shift for the extra time on the ladder.”

“Nah,” Low Key said, pulling out the toothpick he’d been chewing on and flicking it down into the pit. “Thin crowd. Blighters need to earn their keep,” he continued nodding at the platform crews.

Sarge shrugged, half-heartedly waved, then headed back towards the stairs and past them to the clinic. He stuck his head in, noted Pixie on one of the beds, then turned on a heel and walked right back out. The doc was slowly pulling on Pixie’s bad shoulder while Spike helped hold her steady; he need to either not see that or to walk in and take over from Spike. But he’d avoided Goma long enough; either he went now, or she’d end up hearing about Mort from rumor. Damn, he really thought he’d popped Pixie’s shoulder back in right. Hopefully the two day walk back hadn’t permanently fucked anything up.

On the stair landing just below the top floor, Sarge paused to catch his breath and double check Mort’s pack had everything. Water bottle (empty), the rations he’d had left, Ubiq specs (disinfected to hell and back, blood cleaned off, and dings as polished out as he could in two days), rope, flashlight, and Mort’s cut of the payout, both job fee and loot found along the way. He’d left the first aid kit and binoculars in his and Pixie’s closet of an apartment — they’d been crew gear really.

A glint of light reflected off of laminate at the bottom of the pack sent Sarge digging through the pack, squatting in the stairwell.

Son of a bitch. Mort had been pocketing drivers’ licenses found along the way, instead of divvying everything up equally. Like they’d agreed.

Sarge looked up at the door to the top floor and Horticulture. Goma would need the money. Wasn’t no way to support herself and a kid on just grower money. Pixie needed the time out of the field, let that arm heal up or they’d both be dead. With a sigh, Sarge left a third of the cards Mort had hidden in his bag, pocketed the rest, and headed up the stairs.

On the top floor, Sarge knocked on the first door on the outer ring. Door was opened by a teenage girl in jeans and beat up tank top.

“Looking for Goma, she in here?”

“Three doors down,” the kid said, wiping at the smudge of dirt on her cheek bone. “Brac is running that room, she’s not going to let you in.”

“Thanks.”

Brac was indeed the one to answer the door, three down the hall. She took one look at Sarge and moved to slam the door shut again; Sarge stuck his foot in the door.

“Got to talk to Goma, Brac.”

“No unauthorized personnel allowed.”

“So send her out, I don’t want to do this in front of y’all.”

Brac was opening her mouth to say something when Sarge hefted Mort’s backpack up a little. Her scowl softened, she looked back into the room, then turned back to Sarge with a brisk, "Wait here.“ Sarge removed his foot from the door and leaned up against the other side of the hallway.

He was just about to go knock on the door again when it opened back up and Goma slipped out. Catching sight of Sarge, her face crumpled.

"Mort’s… Mort’s in the clinic, right?”

“Goma, I’m so sorry–”

Goma let out a wail as her knees buckled. Sarge caught her before she hit the ground and eased both of them down to the floor. He wrapped her up in a hug as Goma sobbed into his shoulder.

“You were supposed to protect him! It’s your job!”

Sarge closed his eyes and just let Gonna continue sobbing. These talks hasn't gotten any better after The Crash. Just less bureaucracy on how to go about it.

About fifteen minutes later, when Goma seemed cried out, Sarge had to lean in further to hear her asked, “What happened? Did… did he suffer?”

“Infrastructure failure. He went off a bridge, and landed on a casualty. I’m sure he was unconscious at that point.”

“He didn’t… eat anyone else, did he?”

“No, no, no one else got bit.”

Goma sniffed, wiped her nose, and asked “How many did he kill this trip? Janice will want to calculate his final kill to death ratio.”

Sarge tried not to let his eyebrows shoot up; he hadn’t realized Goma’s kid was a Black Mathematician. “Uh… Four. I’m sorry, I wasn’t counting real close.”

She nodded, wiped her nose again, and stood up. “That’ll be some comfort to Jani, I suppose.”

Sarge stiffly climbed to his feet as well and handed over the backpack. "It's got his gear and cut from this last one, should be enough to last you awhile. Sell his gear if you need."

"Guess Jani and I will be making a life out here... She'll be pleased." Goma sighed. "Time to take in a roommate or get a smaller apartment I suppose. Don't suppose you and Pixie would be interested?"

"I... I'll float it past Pixie and get back to you.”

Goma patted Sarge absentmindedly on the arm. "You're a good man. Thank you for telling me," she said and walked back into the grow room.

Scenarios and Systems I will probably not write

I've been immersed in the tabletop RPG world long enough that random things get my brain to churn out an idea for a scenario or a system at a distressingly regular rate. Distressing not because I dislike feeling creative and having ideas. But because, despite writing down the better ones to come back to later, I am fairly sure I will not find (make) the time to turn them into usable things. Because the editing and general fiction writing I do is a) more satisfying and b) expands to fill the available time, if allowed. I could fix this by just setting aside some time every week to just. freaking. write. these things. But then I'd have more projects in various states of incompleteness and each one would make less visible progress on a day-to-day basis. Which I would find more frustrating than having lists of scenario and system ideas I know I probably won't get to. It's entirely in my power to change the dynamics and make the time. I've just calculated for myself that the trade-off, right now , isn't worth it. Maybe that will change in the future, maybe it won't. But if it does, I've got my list of ideas I can use.

Scenarios ideas:

Giftschrank: I've written about this one (and the next one) for this blog before, but I haven't written the scenario yet, so it belongs on the list. The original posts went up March 14th 2016 and March 24th 2016 but the summary version is that Giftschrank literally means 'poison cabinet' and, in German, refers to the cabinet the controlled substances go in a pharmacy or, in a library, refers to a biohazard zone for information. Which just screams for a scenario in the Eclipse Phase universe about information escaping/being stolen from a research facility located on an exoplanet only accessible through a Pandora Gate with the players unsure which side they are or should be on. If I ever actually start writing scenarios, this will probably be first, just because it was the first one I wrote down and I really like the name.

Courrières Mining Disaster: I've also written about this idea, back on the 31st March 2016, but. In 1906, a very large mine in France exploded and then caught fire. It was an awful disaster that killed more than a thousand people, but the part that caught my attention was the group of miners trapped underground, in the dark, for more than a month  before rescuing themselves. To which I said, 'damn that would make a terrifying Call of Cthulhu scenario, the system already had a sanity mechanic.' Writing this one up would involve really learning the 1920s era Call of Cthulhu system, researching mining equipment, technology, and practices of the era, finding a map of the actual site (shouldn't be too difficult...), and building the characters, because no way in hell an I going to let the players build some insanely broken character taking a gun and no rope into the mine for some reason.

Base Raiders: I also have an idea for a base to loot. Well, more like a scene within the base. Let me give y'all the backstory first, because the idea came from understanding the Base Raiders setting. Base Raiders is a Fate system by Ross Payton where the players are in a world where superheroes existed before suddenly disappearing on a day. Left behind were are those superheroes' and supervillains' hidden bases, which you, as PCs, go raiding. Also, lots of the PCs are turning into superheroes themselves.

The idea for the base I'd write is that it's a superhero family and friends' ER and hospital.  Family and friends a superhero thought might be a target for hostage situations would be given emergency teleporters paired with medical monitoring devices. When the teleporter detects tampering or the monitoring service detects a problem, the user is teleported to the triage room of the base or, if the problem is severe enough or the facility is marked as currently slammed, directly into cryogenic freezing. This all came from expanding a scene in my head of a dead body on the floor of medical bay, face down in front of a gurney, having obviously bled out, based on the very old, dried pool of blood the corpse was lying in.

As for writing it up, I'd need to read the system (yes again) in order to make sure something like this doesn't already exist in canon, figure out power-levels of gear that could be looted (all of which would be medically based/themed), and see what kind of security other bases use. Then I'd need to figure out what sort of security would be compatible with a hospital. 

Systems: 

The first two system ideas come from encountering the flashbacks in the Leverage RPG (through the Drunk & the Ugly's APs) and Red Markets' non-linear time mechanic with scams in negotiations. Also how much I enjoy cop procedurals and heist films. ... And now that I'm thinking about it to write this post, Shadow Run and the inordinate amount of time I have spent planning how to hack, rob, extract, and otherwise do mischief to fictional corporations in a cyberpunk dystopia.

Any rate. 

The first is a system around criminal heists with Ocean's 11 style flashbacks while the second has cops investigating crimes with flashbacks to what the criminals did as the cops figure it out. Alternatively, combine the two where the players are both a cop and a criminal. The scenarios would start with a crime having been committed so you have the end result and the cops need to work backwards. When they figure out something, everyone switches over to their criminal character and there's a scene of what happened. I don't actually know where I'm going with this one, or really why/how is different than Leverage so there's a secondary reason this one probably won't see the light of day.

The next five are all systems I'd like to write using the Profit system found in Red Markers:

Running a community hospital

Stone Age tribe level survival

1800s escaped slaves survival

1800s colonization of the American West

Modern day survival scenarios  

So... a lot of survival games in there... It fits with the Profit system's focus on trade offs, opportunity costs, and resource scarcity. Which is how health care fits in with the rest of them for me: resource scarcity. What can I say, there's two ER doctors and a health policy economist in my family, I hear and talk about this sort of stuff more than the average lay person. For the community hospital, I think the players should be the administrative heads of various departments in the hospital. Each compete for resources and prestige in order to stay relevant (and an actual department) while having to use the resources to drive value to the hospital (along with all the other departments) so the hospital can keep their doors open.

I'm picturing the Stone Age tribal survival system as a semi-cooperative, narrative game. My idea is that players control a section of the tribe, like the hunters, the gatherers, the shamans, the elders, etc. instead of individual characters. So folks need to cooperate for the tribe and the characters they're responsible for survive but there's room for intra-tribe politics and changing what kind of society you're building. Sessions/scenarios would be things like going on a hunt, gathering resources, dealing with nature, or trying to build up a tribal improvement (like finding a good source of flint so the nappers can make better spears or something). I think I'd handle trying to change societal norms through an altered negotiations mechanic.

For the escaped slaves system, I was thinking of the American South but if I made this work I could expand it to other countries in the Western hemisphere during the same time period. For instance, I happen to know for a fact there are tribes of folks in Suriname (a small country north of Brazil) in the interior composed entirely of folks who ran from the plantations on the coast and reformed societies like the African ones they were stolen from. But the core idea came from a session recorded for Technical Difficulties (which hasn't been released yet) — it was a Call of Cthulhu game where the characters were escaped slaves who headed into the Great Dismal Swamp to escape pursuit. I'd be interested in stripping out the magic and making it just about survival and what risks the players are willing to take. Do you work towards making a life in the remote area you're hiding in? Escape to the North? The West? Canada? Flat out, can you avoid the slave catchers and are you willing to kill to stay free?

Thinking about that lead to the idea for a system in the American West about colonization. I'd want to write it so you could play the Americans pushing west (and stealing land from the Native Americans in the area) or as members of local Native American tribes. As an American, you're away from civilization, in remote areas, how do you survive? You're invading land someone else calls home under the belief of Manifest Destiny, that you deserve it more, that they're 'savages'. How far are you as a player willing to go as a character who believes those things, explicitly or implicitly? As a Native American, do you resist? Adapt to the changing social and political climate?

Both the last two systems would require a lot of research for me to feel comfortable contemplating writing. For the American West one, I would want to do as much research as possible before even attempting to approach members of the tribes in question to ask for advice. And I'm not a historian in training nor do I have the inclination during my free time. I mean, I'd do it because I have a specific goal and I'm good about working towards goals. But yeah, I am not unaware of how much work these two systems would require from me. At least I might be able to use the same information on tools and technology across the systems.

The last system, the modern day survival system, seems the easiest of the proposed systems. I'm already familiar with the time period :) Just have to research survival skills and craft a narrative around why the players are in such straits. I'm not saying that's not work, I'm just saying the other systems require researching skills and setting/time period. Thinking about the narrative, it feels like a system build around one-shots — here are your characters, here's the situation, survive. I mean, unless you're a Special Forces operator going through training, I'm not too sure why you'd end up in a series of life threatening survival situations. ... If you do, maybe it's time to look at your life choices. Anyway, I'm thinking of things like 'You're all average people from X country who just survived a plane crash in Y location. Survive until rescue or get yourselves back to civilization.' scenarios.

So there you have it, three scenarios for three different systems and six or seven full systems I probably will never write. Unless someone wants to collaborate on them and kicks my ass. I'm real good at working on things when I'm responsible to another person. ;)

An RPG system I failed to sell myself

A ways back, sometime before August of last year, Technical Difficulties had the opportunity to play test Upwind (by Biohazard Games) before it went to Kickstarter. I found Upwind to be an example of a really good, well put together system that just. was. not. for. me. 

The thing about Upwind for me was, that as different and innovative as the mechanics were, and they are very inventive, the thing that made the system itself was the setting. The world building was involved, complex,  and well-done. I'm just not terribly interested in an epic, adventure fantasy right now.

The tagline for Upwind is "A roleplaying fable of lost science, elemental magic and uncharted skies." It's set in a floating world, with sunlight above and The Dark below. Player characters are Explorer Knights on their airships, fighting pirates, keeping sailing lanes open, exploring, mapping, trouble-shooting, and dungeon crawling.

I honestly think my issues with the system have less to do with the system and more with Technical Difficulties's play test session. So I got a bit behind the week we were going to play and by the time I did sit down to read the rules I was trying to read just the rules. Well, the setting section and the rules section were not clearly labeled, and I started reading the setting section. So I'm reading, one chapter, two chapters, five chapters before I start skimming, looking for the rules, getting more and more frustrated, before finally figuring out that there's more than one file and try the other file. Oh look, there's all the rules. Which were kind of short... Which once I read the resolution mechanics made sense:

The resolution mechanic discards dice in favor of a deck of cards: player and GM negotiate two possible outcomes (both of which must allow the story to continue), determine the stakes involved, and then bid on the outcomes using a hand of playing cards. So it's a scene level resolution mechanic, rather than an action level mechanic, which is narratively based.

Once the Technical Difficulties crew gets the game rolling, it turns out that I'm the only player who had perused the setting information at all really. Which, let me tell you, is not a great way to try and use the resolution mechanic. For a narrative negotiation based mechanic to work, everyone involved really needs to be well-versed on what's going on in the world. Otherwise you don't have a great idea of what to ask for, what works as penalties, or even really the type of story to tell or feel to give it.

Also, online game.

The whole deck of cards thing does not work well over the internet. In my experience, you really want the tactile and visual feed back of cards in your own hands, seeing other folks' cards, and being able to look at the multiple decks that make up your various sources of cards. If only to help each other know where to draw from. So the four of us were constantly stopping to figure out our deck situation. That was partially an issue of needing more practice with the system and partially an issue with our set-up. It'd be a better mechanic for people who play together in person.

So yeah, a game I can recognize has interesting stuff going on. But isn't for me personally.

Go give RPPR's episodes of Upwind a listen through though, because they love the game and have a great time playing. Maybe it's a system for you and either way, it's a great series of episodes to listen to they have so much fun.

First Rejection

What with starting to write flash fiction consistently, I decided recently to try selling some stories to online writing markets. As of now, I have no intention to hold back on publishing stories to this blog, so anything I send out is going to be a reprint most likely. That's going to limit the markets I can submit to a bit and since I don't have to depend on sales for eating money, is not like I'm going to be putting more effort into finding markets and submitting quickly.

That said I submitted my first piece (Dani & Jak-Jak) to a YA podcast on the 13th (yes, right before MarsCon) and got a rejection noticed on the 15th (yes, while at MarsCon).

I'm absurdly pleased about this.

I'm going to be indulging in some rejectomancy on this, but let me explain.

Thank you for sending us “Dani & Jak-Jak”. We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. Our readers felt the story was more appropriate for a middlegrade audience than the 12-17 year old target age group of XXX.
There are lots of articles out there on key differences between the two genres - here’s one we like:

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult

If you are still searching for a podcast or magazine to publish this story, you can find a list of recommend venues on our website under Markets. And say hello for us!

Thank you again for sending us the story. We wish you the best of luck, and please consider submitting again.

 

So first off, my immediate reaction to seeing the email in my inbox so soon was not 'oh no they must have hated it.' It was 'wow, they're really professional to get back to people so quickly, I should make sure to submit to them in the future.' Also, 'man, why they working on the weekend??' Yes, I was pretty sure that meant the story had been rejected (I was right), but seriously, if the first thing I ever submitted anywhere got accepted... I'd check for jacks into the Matrix?

Second, that's about the nicest reason to be rejected I can think of, being for the wrong audience. But not completely the wrong audience, just slightly off on the audience. Now I'm reasonably sure this is a form rejection. But. Someone had to read the piece to realize why this one is off for them and  they've taken the time as a company to create a form that directs me to two different pieces of useful information: the difference in audiences and appropriate markets. I mean if they thought it was a bad piece they could have just sent the form rejection saying no thanks. Instead I get as much feedback as anyone could reasonably hope for from a rejection. That's really nice to get.

So, as expected, a swing and a miss on the first time submitting for publication but with feedback I find encouraging. Neat.