Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Rebuttal to a Rebuttal

Jase Short wrote, and Jacobin published, a rebuttal to my piece “On Geek Culture”. I think it’s a well-thought out piece and I appreciate the respectful tone. The fact that this happened, by the way, is one of the reasons why I like Jacobin so much. It’s not monolithic, just as the left isn’t monolithic. The editorial staff are willing to get dissent within the ranks even when it’s stuff that they obviously approve of enough to publish. That’s really cool.

That said, I do want to rebut the rebuttal, but here in my own space. I feel as though Mr. Short has misunderstood a bit of what I wrote, not least of which is the notion that I’m defining being a geek as passive consumption of culture. Since that kind of underpins the rebuttal, I think it’s important for me to respond.

Some of this misunderstanding is really about how the piece was written. I was a bit of a victim of my word count, an eminently understandable situation. This forced me to truncate bits of my argument. Some of it is that this is an evolving thesis and, really, two pieces in one. The first piece is trying to shift what we mean when we say geek. If I’m frank, this is the argument that I’m most interested in of the two; I firmly, categorically think that geekdom has nothing to do with what you like but how you like it.

The second piece is how that passion is harnessed by corporations. I think I do a decent job of showing how this happens in the video game industry workplace in my prospective next Jacobin piece without making the argument an outright follow-up. I’ll avoid long spoilers for now, but the tradeoff in the industry is “you work insane hours, you get to do what your subculture considers awesome”.

But let’s zero in on the first piece of that combo. As near as I can tell, Mr. Short and I are in total agreement: the geek is defined by the depth of passion toward the admired object. It seems strange that the rebuttal should center on the “passivity” of the geek when I really argue no such thing.

In fact, I argue something quite the opposite. The passion of the geek toward the object or activity, whether that’s Star Trek or a sports team or record collection, is so great, the interaction so rewarding, that it can and does supplant ties of race, gender, and class solidarity. It’s not enough to both be dock workers; if one is a traditional sports-hating geek and the other is a rabid anime-hating Giants fan, odds are that the casual bonds of commonality which might, say, let them work in opposition to management much more naturally don’t form.

Mostly my piece was well-received, but one of the common counters (and Mr. Short touches on it in his) is that this is really just human nature. That of course you make everyday social bonds around common interests.

Which is absolutely true. The problem, of course, is one which is much broader and that is corporate intrusion and ownership of what those common interests are. And, again, we return to the passion/passivity argument. By exalting those common interests to such a degree, the geek (and, again, I remind readers that I’m using this to mean people very different than the commonly used term) is essentially exalting a corporate brand as identity. It is not passivity which is the problem; it’s the passion and what it does.

But what of reclaiming the properties? What about cosplay and fanfiction? These are, indeed, active forms of engagement with the object. My counter is: reclaim them from what? If a property is created by a corporation, owned by a corporation, there is no way to reclaim it. Its essential nature is corporate. There is no separating out Iron Man from Marvel. Mr. Short brings up Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney; left unsaid is that Lucas was hardly a non-corporate entity. I daresay he’s the poster child for Boomer monetization of intellectual property and that Disney may be kinder to the intersection between capitalism and fandom than he was, though that’s a bit of a side argument.

There seems to be an air that I am dumping on geek culture as low brow or worthless. That is absolutely not the case. I love low brow stuff. I watch almost exclusively terrible movies. I love stupid games with no real higher message. I eat junk food and watch NFL football while obsessively watching my fantasy football scores. I own two Arsenal jerseys. So it is most certainly not that I have a disdain for mass culture.

What I am asking for is merely awareness of where the beloved media in question comes from, coupled with (and I could have done a better job putting this to the fore) a sincere attempt to liberate creators on the part of fans. On the creator front, I have seen so many geeks claim love for creators, whether that’s a running back or a comic artist. When push comes to shove, when those creators are sincerely, unequivocally abused by the corporations which employ them, geeks are largely silent. Not all of them, as Mr. Short is quick to point out, and that’s true, but the majority are conspicuously on the side of the ownership class, not the creator. It is galling, even as a non-comic reader, to see calls for boycotts by bloggers met with “creators will really starve if we join in”. That is passivity and helplessness, a perversion of the usual passion which is deliberately and consciously harnessed by the ownership class in these media industries for poor ends.

One final note on Mr. Short’s piece, one which I think reinforces my premise that geek culture ends up supplanting traditional cultural bonds. Toward the end he writes:

“For many, the act of “owning up” to a label once imposed by oppressive social forces, most often in middle school and high school, is analogous to the re-appropriation of labels by oppressed groups.”

I cannot get on board with this. Being a geek growing up and reclaiming the word is not the same thing as owning up to racial, gender, or sexual preference slurs. He immediately says that it’s not the same scale or type, but by putting it out there at all the equation exists. I admit that I’m taking the least charitable reading, but I see this time and time again with those who have grown up being teased: no, it’s not like being called the N-word, but we were made fun of and we’re taking the word back, so it’s sort of like that in a small way.

I don’t ever want to question the severity of bullying or tell people to get over it, but there are some bounds here which must forcefully be called out when crossed. Being a geek is not something you’re born into. There is nothing set in stone which says that you must wear that media allegiance on your t-shirt or on your mug. Nobody should ever be tormented for those things, but it is not remotely in the same league as racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia.

I sincerely doubt that Mr. Short (who seems like a very sharp, well-meaning fellow) meant to equate these things. Perhaps we need a new language for this sort of thing. Or, perhaps, we should be wary of exalting media consumption and the passion it sometimes engenders to a place where such analogies exist at all, which is really the core of my argument.

Monday, September 23, 2013

It's been an age, hasn't it?

I've left this blog fallow for quite a long time. I think my last post was in June and even it wasn't very long. Status updates, though, are good for the people who found out about Before Iron and ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD through here.

Before Iron: This is still in limbo, despite my having been told that I could talk about it a year and a half ago. It is, I am assured, still a priority. I've received some good news on the Before Iron front from Stewart, but it's not the sort of thing I can share publicly.

It'll be out when it's out. I don't know when that is, but it's probably best to not think of it until I post firm news.

ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD: Always in caps. Always.

As far as I'm concerned, AMW is feature complete for testing. Not feature complete for release, of course, but for testing, absolutely. You can find the latest playtest docs here:


The only reason I haven't been playtesting the hell out of this online (we've done some locally and it's gone swimmingly) is because Apocalypse World derived games are really tough to do properly without playbook pdfs to consult. There's something deliciously tactile about the *W experience, so doing it without those pdfs is both incomplete and lacks a certain ease of use.

The pdfs are slowly, ever so slowly, coming together. Work on them has been turned over to my brother and co-author on Before Iron. But he's started a new job at a new school, which slows things down, and I've started school again, been busy with other projects, and my daughter started preschool, which slows things down even further. Rest assured that our mutual breaks in the action are devoted to things like the playbook and script pdfs. I suspect testing will come in hardcore once the holidays roll around and everyone has some time off. I also suspect it might be ready for release by the end of Summer 14, though that is optimistic.

Release is already more or less settled. My brother and our friend (that's +Peter Williams and +John Cocking, respectively) have a company called Flatland Games which publishes a very nifty and well-regarded OSR titled Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. AMW will be released there when it comes out.

Will there be a Kickstarter? That's unsure. Frankly, signing on with Flatland means that it's not strictly necessary; the infrastructure for printing on demand and having an awesome pdf are already there. That doesn't mean it won't happen, however; I like Kickstarter as a way of helping with lump sum payments to talent and getting the word out.

If we do go Kickstarter (and this is probably a topic for another post), it will be handled quite differently from many others. For one, it won't go to KS unless and until it's fully written. Since it's not necessary to have the operating capital a KS could offer to get it out in some form, I see no need to kickstart it and then write it over the next however many months. This is not least because I'm rotten at time management and I want precisely zero risk that it goes over my time allotment.

We also won't have any stretch goals as they've come to be thought of. It'll be very simple: more money means better art. Maybe there's a hardcover version. Maybe it's in color. The initial goal would be very modest, as well. I prefer things simple and streamlined as much as possible.

Geeky & Genki: I'm proud to be doing some entertainment writing over at Geeky & Genki. It's a bunch of cool folks I respect the hell out of doing podcasts and writing on all sorts of things. If anything's suffered because of my busy Fall, it's really G&G; I hope to write some more for them very soon (I already have my In the Heat of the Night cultural criticism magnum opus written in my head for Fall break).

Jacobin: Being a more or less lifelong socialist of one stripe or another, I've been very excited to be able to write for Jacobin (and by extension Salon) on geek culture. Jacobin is a magazine I really and truly respect, young as it is, and to have my name next to people like Eileen Jones, Bhaskar Sunkara, Connor Kilpatrick, Corey Robin, etc truly, sincerely blows my mind and humbles me.

If all goes well with the draft, I'll have a long read on the political economy of the video game industry in the next print issue. It should hilariously torpedo any hopes I may have had of returning to the video game industry (spoiler: I actually have no desire to return), but I hope it proves a thought-provoking read.

Anyway, keep an eye on here and follow me on G+ for updates. My next focus is AMW, AMW, AMW, at least once midterms are done.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


+Jonathan Reiter was awesome enough to do a playtest of AMW's current alpha rules. Feedback was good. It was very cool because I'm extremely into seeing what people do with the game when I'm not there. I know how I run the game and I know how to explain it. Those two things can cover a lot of holes. So it's always nice to see what happens when I'm not there.
Anyway, I've excised some of the specific feedback for readability, interest, and because I prefer to keep feedback notes (good and bad) in the design talk vault while it's in development. But the play report is below.

I GM'd a one-shot of +Ian Williams' Action Movie World: First Blood for five willing-ish test subjects. Here's what happened.

Brandt Sterling as AGENT JONAH STAIN
Jason Stacy as OFFICER ISAAC

Premise: Jonah Stain is an Irish INTERPOL cop on the case of a transatlantic human trafficking ring. Officer Ford Abrams is the NYPD wunderkind who is mere inches from finding Shadowsmith Sanderson, the head of the ring. Can Stain drive out the snakes on a St. Paddies' weekend in NYC?

Some key moments:
1. The Musclehead (Tila) is undercover with her partner in Vice, The Gunfighter (Isaac). They are infiltrating a strip club that is the front for the ring. Tila is the working girl to Isaac's pimp, and they are decked out in green sequined bikini and crushed velvet jacket respectively. They decide to bring in their informant, and a gunfight breaks out. Tila uses her boiled ham thighs to drag the informant out while Isaac provides slo-mo covering fire. "Next time," Tila says exasperated, "you get to wear the bikini."

2. Our Op (Jonah) is the lead. The Smartass (Ford), is driving. They are hot on the tail of Isaac and Tila's car, which is currently being flanked by two black Hayabusas, riders armed with TEC-9s. They shoot ahead of the chase via shortcut. While Ford t-bones one of the cycles into flames, Jonah throws his cane at the other rider. The riders falls roughly into a heap of garbage. Jonah stands over, uses the cane to flip open the visor, exposing his love interest, Katya, and her gorgeous flowing auburn locks. Smoldering looks are inevitably exchanged.

3. After Ford is kidnapped by the smugglers, everyone at his precinct falls apart a little bit. At the bodyless funeral, The Thesbian (Drake) tries to deliver a lifting soliloquy over Ford's presumed death. Unfortunately, despite the best effort of his NA sponsor, Jonah, Drake has fallen off the wagon. He harangues about how the department is filled with bastards and lectures the shocked crowd about the inevitability of violent death.

4. Isaac drives a shamrock diesel truck into a vacant party supply warehouse in Queens, burning tons and tons of goons and himself in the process. Pathos for Jonah who comes crashing in to the third floor through a skylight, assaulting goons with his cane. "And now you know why they call me Jonah Stain," he says economically, leaving behind a heap of bloodied bodies. Jonah tangles with Sanderson, and they both go out a window, leading to broken bones and Pulp Fiction limp chase. Meanwhile, Tila convinces Katya to get out of the ring through a released captive daughter, an emotional high for the flick.

5. A tank chase in the middle of the St. Patrick's Day parade, as Sanderson threatens the city with a dirty bomb strapped to Miss Delaware's chest.

It was super fun and people had a ton of fun. I initially thought it was going to be very hard work, because 5 players is a bit much for an AW game. But, it turned out fine.

Frirek I (930-962) round two

A time of troubles came to Novgorod, to all Slavs and Norse
Brother battled brother for years
Weakling Frirek was determined, with respect on his mind
Brother Hrodalfr began war anew

Black Suzdal became new brother to Hrodalfr, Yarsolavl joined
Finally Borkvard fought Frirek, too
Frirek jarl again, jarl removed again
To Novgorod and Torzhok, Frirek retired

Love bloomed late for Frirek, lust-cunning Pora captured his heart
Frirek's senses fled him and he took her name
Af Odense as their children were called, a curse on Rurikovich
But Frirek believed naught but his heart

Brother Borkvard remembered Rurik, the promise of Rus anewed
To Setyamka to Rus a demand
"Restore Rurik's throne to me, Rus by right is mine!"
The Muromids met Rurikovich in battle

Blood proved bonding for brothers, thicker than Muromid oaths
Save for Frirek and Pora
Remained in Novgorod rutting, replacing Rurikovich blood with af Odense
Barid died in battle while Borkvard was cast in a pit

Rus-king reigned ruinously, Frirek did not care
His eyes halted upon Pora
Rich as he remained, richer still he became
Lagoda left to Frirek with Narva not far behind

Finally an heir, finally a Rurikovich son!
Concubine-born castoff
Eleven years of life altogether, young Rikulfr yearned for a throne
But Pora believed only in the others and had him killed

Years and years wore on, young af Odenses swarmed Novgorod
Frirek was fraught with terror at what he'd wrought
His love halted years prior, hatred consumed his heart
Too late his loins had stirred

Peace turned pillage again, past foes invaded once more
Sweden came swimming from the west
A Norseman on the throne again, no rejoicing aloud
With Denmark came danger not six years later

Frirek's fate was not happy, rebellions followed again
Damned Frirek's dungeon was not pleasing
Pora's face turned from Frirek, he fainted from stress
Never to stir to awakening again

So the Sons of Rurik were no more

Out of Character

So this is the first game of CK2 I've ever lost. I've played counts, dukes, kings, republics, everything.

Some of it has to do with a possible bug. Frirek got married and it was apparently matrilineal. I'm not discounting the possibility that I might have clicked on matrilineal marriage at all, but this is the second time this has happened with the expansion pack, though the first one was with my female heir in a different game trying to have a matrilineal marriage which just didn't get recognized.

I decided to work it into my story. Frirek was so entranced by his prospective bride that he rashly took her name, meaning no Rurikovich babies. From a game standpoint, once I realized that all of the kids were from the af Odense dynasty, I went nuts trying to get some concubine kids going. And I did! Twins! A boy and a girl. Except Frirek's wife promptly murdered the only Rurikovich son and that was it. My fate was sealed.

The brothers might have hung in there, but they all died in a dumb rebellion after Borkvard took the Novgorod ducal title from me. Two in prison, one in battle. That left just me. I had tons of land, since I inherited all of their titles save the ducal one (the king stripped that one from Borkvard and wouldn't give it back). I decided to wait things out, hopefully overthrowing the new king once the rapidly aging Setyamka kicked the bucket.

Well, Sweden put a stop to that. They invaded in force to subjugate Rus, which they did. That left me with only Narva to my name Then the Swedish king died and gavelkind kicked in, leaving his six year old on an unstable throne. Then the Danes invaded to subjugate the Finnish portions of the kingdom (ie me) and that was basically it.

I ended up in prison in 961, where I died in 962. An af Odense took the throne. There were other Rurikovich folks out there, but none of them had land, meaning they weren't playable. So that was it for the game.

I like this expansion, but it's hectic. The Norse, as I mentioned, can be incredibly powerful. By default, they are. All the pagans are. But the gavelkind inheritance and the massive cliff to climb to get out from underneath it can really, really screw you over. Wars are nearly constant. The more or less permanent casus belli from your other pagan neighbors means that they can swoop in for the leftovers after whatever dynastic struggle du jour wraps up. There's a real sense of chaos to things, particularly when you're over in Russia, which makes for an active game.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Barid I (928-930)

From temple flew Barid, full of wrath and desire
True Norse to the tips of his bones
Whispers filled whole speak-chambers, where Novgorod stood
Blood from blessed Rurik's veins seemed clear

But Frirek, damned Frirek, to fight was his cause
Brother Oleg became his victim
Smothered in sleep, sixth son of his father
Tis how Torzhok came to damned Frirek

Subtlety was scarce, the duchy saw it all
Frirek cared for nothing save the throne
Justice's demanded Barid's deeds, for Frirek had fled
Raising flag in rebellion against brother-liege

Frirek was faster, cunning-fox
Brother fought brothers
Luki and Lagoda, helped lay Frirek's trap
Barid bid farewell and to Scotland sailed

Out of Character

I have a feeling this pattern is going to hold for a bit. Things seemed good! My vassals actually sort of liked me! I could kind of hang in there with Barid. His stats were sort of stinky, but that's okay! He wasn't Frirek.

So here's what happened. Frirek, as eldest surviving Rurikovich brother, stood to inherit whatever titles his other four brothers left behind. Barid had no kids and the other three were 15, 12, and 11, so they weren't even married. So, from way far away in Norway, he offs Oleg of Torzhok. Now, he's Count of Torzhok.

But Frirek is still bad at all of this, so the whole kingdom knows. This is my chance. I have a 71% chance to capture him, strip his titles, and let him rot in prison forever. So I send out the guard to go get him. And fail. Frirek rebels, but all of my vassals join him! Yes, the same vassals who all hated him, including the kid brothers.

Once again, I have a rebellion I can't put down. I relent and Barid is banished to his wife's former court in Moray, Scotland, where Ivar the Boneless' kin rule. Frirek is once again Jarl of Novgorod. I fully expect things to remain incredibly cutthroat and messy.

Frirek I 927-928

While war raged without cease, young Frirek went to Novgorod
Ill-favored, ill-mannered, weak
His favored father's sins forgotten not, for a year Frirek reigned
Young Frirek yet strove to be king

Novgorod's councils never kept near poor Frirek, nearer his brother they were
To Barid's temple blew the message
"Novgorod, oh Novgorod, come newly to Frirek, Barid rescue us!"
So Frirek sought shelter so far from home

Out of Character

Well, this didn't take long. Frirek took the ducal throne while the wars were still raging. He was reduced to a whopping one county for his personal demesne, his brothers taking over the rest of Rurik's former holdings, and everyone hating him. This meant that, once the already raised troops were spent in one of the four(!) ongoing wars, that was it.

Things looked reasonably bright at the start, despite all this. Two of the wars were resolved quickly and the 700 men still left to me tore through the Danish invaders on my west. Unfortunately, they were decimated by a returning stack. I couldn't raise more than 74 troops after that.

Hot on the heels of that, my Spymaster and Steward, both counts, came to me and delivered an ultimatum: my brother Barid was going on the throne whether I liked it or not. Barid, it should be noted, was one of the brothers shunted off to the Norse priesthood in order to remove him from the line of succession. A quick glance of the factions in Novgorod showed that they had ca 200% of my troops. I gave up the throne and Frirek headed west. He'll be okay; I had him betrothed to a young Norse duchess in Norway. Maybe in another 100 years it'll come back to me, the player.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Rurik I 901-905 (King of Gardariki/Rus) 905-927 (Jarl of Novgorod)

(Rurik is the second Rurik I, because he's the actual first Rurik to be King of Rus.)

Rurik born of Rurik's son, Rus-king and reaver
Wily and wise and cruel
The throne bore his thin frame, though heavy it was with doubt
None saw Novgorod's throne as sure

From far to the east, Muromians became foes
Seeking the sacred seat of Gardariki
Betrayal became thick, bastard Kiev did strike
The thunderous tribes of Perm followed

Rurik read tactics, ran forth with his blade
Gardariki's foes were too grievous
Parush Pauper-lord, his people loved him so
The throne of Rus became him

A bargain became Rurik's savior, Parush bore his debts
Rurik remained in Novgorod
Duke Rurik did rule wisely, years of peace to his name
But Rurik remained unsated

Red-haired Ragnarr, brother of Rurik
His home was in Tver
Til Rurik twisted a carriage wheel, sending Ragner to a canyon floor
Tver nestled next to Rurik's breast

Parush Muromid perished, poor child-king dead in his grave
Shkay his brother's brother became Rurik's lord
True truces held in Novgorod, Duke Rurik reigned well and good
Monoliths and monuments to his majesty spread far and wide

Still Rurik schemed and plotted, the throne of fair Rus so far away
With Shkay withering slowly on the throne Rurik wished for
Rurik's loins left no issue, left barren and bereft
Rurik's royal line remained fallow

Til sons sprang quite suddenly, from wife and concubine alike
Six sons in beds sleeping soundly
With succession secured, Rurik seemed pleased
But gavelkind grows ever unkind

Ivar his heir had claim to Lithuania, Rurik had reason to push
Warrior woman Malusha was unrelenting
Thrice the chieftess threw Novgorod back, til the men were broken and bleeding
To an oubliette Ivar was thrown

Jarl Rurik yelled to the heavens, yelled to Odin for his son
Yet the Jarl heard no reply
Stupid and simple Frirek stood to inherit, Rurik sank to despair
Ivar died in an oubliette alone and afraid

Rus, fair Rus, ran red with blood, young ruler Setyamka was spent
The kingdom came crashing around him
Old Rurik assumed command of Rus forces, Asgard and Valhalla in his eyes
He fell in fields of Muscovy as his father's father had before

Out of Character

Apparently it was time for a demotion. As soon as I inherited, Kiev and Perm declared war on me. More alarmingly, the Finnish tribe just south of me, a big one, decided to subjugate Rus. This meant that I was going to be demoted right back down to Jarl of Novgorod if I lost. And I lost. Badly. My vassals hated me, so I had fewer troops to begin with, and it just snowballed from there.

Weirdly, I had really good relations with the Muromid dynasty which took over. They never tried to strip any titles or shove me around, despite my Norse paganism (there was one offer of conversion, but screw that), and generally supported me.

Just as last time, I set up a plot to kill my brother and retrieve the Duchy of Tver. This was a double-edged sword, as I ended up with two civil wars trying over the title with other families. I held out, but they really put me in bad positions elsewhere.

As mentioned in the last entry, Rurik came to the throne at 33 with no wife and no kids. This freaked me out, particularly when I hit age 40 and still had no kids. Toss in a dead brother and a sister (who could inherit) with no husband and I was staring at the end of the Rurikovich line.

So I, of course, freaked out. In addition to my wife, I took three concubines. Must have sons. Well, they started popping up left and right. I suddenly had a problem in the opposite direction: six sons and gavelkind coming up.

This was really not good. To make it worse, the only one worth a damn (Ivar) died in a dungeon after his claim on Lithuania was denied by some vicious defense. We're talking me outnumbering the defenders 3:1 and losing repeatedly. I still have no idea what triggered this.

So Ivar's dead and I'm trying to shunt as many inept sons off to the priesthood as possible to narrow things down. It's going fine until all hell breaks loose for my liege. In my reign, I had lost Rus to a six year old, seen the six year old murdered by his uncle, and had the uncle die, leaving his son. That's four kings of Rus in 26 years, if you're keeping score. This was all too much for the kingdom and basically everyone but me rebels.

I half considered it, too. Instead, like an idiot, I decided that the Muromids had been good to me and it was better than the Tengri kingdom which had invaded on top of everything else. So I sallied forth in support of my king, where I promptly died in battle, leaving my worse son, Frirek, on the throne at age 17. There are honestly seven year olds with better stats than him.


The world. Denmark is a little bit OP.

Helgi I 881-903

Helgi the Hated, first ruler of Rus
His brothers have never risen
Children oh children
One fell off a tower wall, one ate pheasant and turned blue
Away to Asgard for Anlaufr and Ormr

With Swedes wood-swimming, where Ingria meets the sea
And villainous Veps nearing Novgorod
Helgi the Hated gave his land, never to return
Hills and heath never to return

For poor Faste af Ostrov, steward and friend
Peasant-hate pulled him from horse and home
Torn and twisted, Faste's body faltered
Til two pieces of Faste, littered the ground

Thus the rebels came, war never waned
For Helgi the Hated knew no peace
Twenty two turns of the year, he knew no peace
Moskva and Mozhaysk left in cold blood

Still Helgi the Hated bore on, placing crown upon crown-seat
King of Rus the Red
Gardariki the Grey, with great forests and water-roads aplenty
Hail King Helgi the Hated

The new king with crown and cape of ermine, made haste to Smaleskja
There battle was borne to the heavens
Kupala laughed lightly, while new king led his men onward
Smaleskja smoldered as Helgi strove on

An arrow from afar, pierced Helgi's arm
Barbed and bleeding arrow scarring poor Helgi
Rust-water ran from the riven wound, Helgi's health did fester from then
Eleven years ere his death

Smaleskja soon fell, as Norns had foretold
But Helgi the Hated slept in Holmgardr
Weeping was wanting when Helgi passed on, no peasants wept for what was gone
But Rurik returned from away to the west upon Helgi's death

Out of Character

Helgi was kind of a disaster but still ended up being first King of Rus (or Gardarkiki; the names change depending on your ethnicity and maybe religion, which is way cool). From day one, the nascent kingdom was rocked by invasions and rebellions. I'm rethinking that the Norse are inherently overpowered. Some of them certainly are (I'm looking at you, Ynglings and Denmark), but the constant wars really grind your forces down. There were a couple wars which I was forced to yield immediately, since I had to prioritize which places to fight (I was always at war with multiple parties, large and small). In 22 years, Helgi saw 5 of peace.

The first thing I did to consolidate was have my two kid brothers killed via intrigue plot. They were eight and six but they were also the Duke of Tver and the Duke of Belo Ozero, respectively; the game's tough. One of the attempts failed and I was outed, which is partially what started the rebellion spiral; my vassals were not pleased at all.

Weirdly, Helgi latched onto Slavic paganism. My son, Rurik I (he's going to be the first because he's actually the first king of Gardariki, not the legendary Rurik), stayed at his mother's court in western Norway, so he'll be properly Norse. Still, I'm sitting on a barely stable powder keg of ethnicities, religions, and power struggles. Which is, I guess, a lot like the real Russia of the time. Still, I'm eyeballing the upcoming second bout of gavelkind and considering conversion to Christianity just to have stable inheritance laws.

Rurik's coming in unmarried and 33 years old. This could be a big frigging problem, since his brother is, too. Conceivably, due to not having control over their marriages when they were young since they were at a foreign court, this could go very badly for the Rurikovich dynasty if the zygotes don't align properly.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rurik I "The Noble" 862-881

Fire-haired, father, foe
Rurik Ring Giver
Do the stones by his passing, sing his name still?
A man of away west

Battle-bells tolled long and low, beside the Volkhov banks
Norse, Slavs, Finns, scythed low
Oh old Nygardr, oh years past gone
The thane-seat still strains from Rurik's weight

Ravens tell and relate, the wars of Rurik
Ransom and ruin brought down upon the clans
All for fair Rus, Rurik's dream of Rus
A vision Odin's oracles foretold

Three sons he had, three thanes from his loins
Helgi with hair of spun silver
Anlaufr and Ormr, out of lust born
Rurik's burden became, a fear of sovereignty split

But Rus before then, before his sons would quarrel
Winds wailed as the kingdom was won
The dream discharged, Rurik decayed far too young
Rus, fair Rus, drank Rurik's life-water

A man of one hundred, would scarce wane as Rurik
But Rurik's bravery and boldness was too great
Rus, fair Rus, was within Rurik's grasp
Til Muscovy's meadows struck their blow

Meltskaya the Murderer, his name maintains its grasp
Smote Rurick savagely with sword and axe
Rurick tumbled to the turf, eyes closed tight
Meltskaya the Murderer, eye-closer

Olafr Odin-speaker spake Rurik's words
Rus, fair Rus, remained silent for Rurik's life
Wife Ingrjerdr went mad with grief, wailing and gnashing her teeth
Prince Helgi prepared for kingship

A year more Rurik moaned and lingered, Rus in his mind
Til no tomorrows would wake him
Rus, fair Rus, became a ravaged nightmare
Rurik passed too promptly to see his dream come to life

Out of Character

A mixed bag here. Rurik is a beast of a character, but he's in a surprisingly (to me) bad spot. Unlike the Norse rulers over in the British Isles, there is no Norse populace. Everyone is a Slavic or Finnish pagan, which makes all of your vassals crankier than usual. As such, I pumped my tech into Cultural Flexibility, which mitigates it somewhat.

Being Norse, I'm primed for war. So that's what I did. I took the Ambition to form Rus, which gave me a valid Casus Belli against anyone in that de jure kingdom. I expanded quickly as I could, picking off as many one and two county principalities as I could.

Rurik became Infirm at age 45 for no reason I could discern and it lowered his stats by two across the board. This was offset by his Quick trait, but it was still non-negligible. Maybe that's what eventually led to his head being caved in during a battle which I outnumbered my Slavic enemies by three to one. It was a totally freak accident but it screwed everything up; Spymaster Olafr af Pestovo took over, but the gains I'd made were hanging on by a surprisingly slim thread.

This is because I had to form the Kingdom of Rus before Rurik died. Once Rurik was dead, gavelkind succession was going to kick in and two-thirds of the realm were going to end up in Rurik's concubine sired sons' hands. Guess what happened? If you guessed that Rurik lingered as a mental vegetable for a year before dying with a scant month to go before I had the money to create the title, you're right!

Now King Helgi I is going to have to essentially start over to form Rus. He's also starting out at war with a rebelling Jarldom of Chud. It's a bad scene.

The Epic of Rurik and His Sons

About a year ago (almost exactly, actually), I decided to do an after action report for Crusader Kings II. Totally rad game which really lends itself to emergent stories.

It was a lot of fun. To keep my brain fresh over the summer, I'm going to do another one. The (probably) final expansion for the game, called The Old Gods, is out and it adds a lot of cool stuff. It allows playable pagans and is particularly Norse-centric, with lots of very neat events and rules changes involved. It also pushes the start date back to 876. While Dark Ages history isn't really my forte, I've always been enamored of the quasi-mythical rulers of the era. Ivar the Boneless, the Karlings, the Arpads, and (especially) Rurik.

Rurik was a viking raider who set out and founded Russia. The dynasty lasted into the late 16th century. That's the short version; go read up, if it sounds interesting.

Anyway, I'm going to do an AAR of the Rurikovich dynasty, starting in 876 with Rurik and going until I die out. Since the Norse are a teensy bit overpowered right now, I'm probably not going to die out, though the dynastic meltdowns which paganism is subject to should keep things interesting.

The format's going to be different this time, because I don't think I can churn out ca 30k words again. Instead of doing a straight narrative, I'm going to be doing alliterative verse a la the Eddas. I should stress that I'm not a poet and the only thing I know about how that particular form of Old Norse verse is structured comes from wikipedia and a couple scholarly sources I browsed. It's probably going to be brutal but fun.

Following the verse, I'll do a bit of fully out of character writing about how the game is going. Just like my Brittany AAR, each entry will be a ruler, so some will come faster than others.

That's Rurik's starting realm in the dark green. Holmgardr.

Now to go play.

Monday, May 6, 2013


The first real playtest of ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD went extremely well. It certainly exceeded my expectations. A non-zero portion of that is that I was running it for guys that I have gamed with off and on (more off than on after my move to Raleigh) for well over twenty years, but it’s equally true that a non-zero portion of it is just that rough spots I was concerned with weren’t that big a deal.

This is pretty long (about 3500 words) but I want to make sure the first actual play report touches everything important in a little more detail than maybe I otherwise would. Even then, there are still spots which could use MORE detail, so ask questions about rules and where things are going.

The players were John, Peter, and Scott. It was decided at the outset that Peter would get to be the Lead in whatever movie was chosen as it was his birthday shindig that this was all taking place at. Right now, it’s pretty nebulous how Lead is determined; that’s something to firm up, for sure, but it was easy enough for the first test.

Peter opted to play The Yeller, a Reb Brown, screams all the time, beefy sort of actor. John went with The Pugilist and decided  to go a little slapsticky with his martial artist a la Jackie Chan. Scott went with The Gunfighter, a Chow Yun-Fat gun-fu type.

The actor names were as follows:
Peter: Chet Bradford (Yeller)
John: Jack Sprat (Pugilist)
Scott: Chip Kaiser (Gunfighter)

Once the playbooks and actor names were picked, the group chose their moves. Chet picked “Just Yell”, which allowed him to roll +Muscles instead of +Drama for certain scenes, and “Move, Move, Move”, a move which allows him to egg his companions on when speed is needed. Jack decided on “Go for the gut. He’s soft there”, a straight +1 Agility, and “Sting Like a Bee”, letting him roll +Agility instead of +Muscles in close combat. Finally, Chip decided to go for “Gun Ballet”, granting –area to any ranged weapon he uses, and “This Is My Gun”, giving him a +1 to all Stunt rolls while a ranged weapon is in his hand.

These are the actors. You can think of the actors as brands and these moves as calling cards of each particular actor. Using Chet as an example, we see an actor who delivers heavy emotional scenes by screaming his lines and who tends to rely on screaming at his costars to hurry up. So, quite a bit like Reb Brown, actually.

With the actor playbooks chosen, it was time to pick a genre of movie and see what we could come up with. Right now, I only have the Cop Movie and Barbarian Movie Scripts (movie playbooks) ready. I’ve got plenty in the pipeline, but if I set a bar of “all the Scripts are done” as a minimum for testing, then this thing is never going to get tested because, ho boy, it’s practically limitless.

The guys decided to go with the Cop Movie. I was pretty happy with this, since I’d done a one on one with the Barbarian Movie once before.

The first thing you do is sort out what sorts of relationships the characters have with one another. Starting with the Lead and going to his or her left, you roll on or pick from a chart (or make something up entirely) to see what the relationship is. It’s deliberately reminiscent of Fiasco; one of my favorite bits of Fiasco is the way that it forces you to think about what the relationships between the characters mean.

We determined that Chet’s character and Jack’s character had a cop-informant relationship. We knew that Chet was going to be the Lead in this film, so it was pretty easy to sort out which was which: Chet was the cop, Jack was the informant. Jack was next to roll and he ended up with a relationship of precinct buddies with Chip. Problem: we already established that Jack was going to be playing an informant in this film. Easy solution: Jack was an ex-cop, disgraced but still of use to the force as an informant from his new vantage point from the docks. Finally, Chip rolled to see his relationship with Chet and got a 12. They had both seen something terrible.

We paused here. We had a slowly coming into view picture of what the movie looked like. We knew it was a cop movie (duh), that Chet and Chip were cops who had witnessed something terrible, and that Dusty was an ex-cop (and ex-partner) of Chip’s who had fallen on hard times. Nice. Time to drill down more.
Before we went any further, I wanted names of the film characters the actors were playing. This isn’t the same as the actor’s names; actor’s names won’t change, while film character names will change each movie (yo, this is meta: you are a real person playing an actor playing a character). Chet decided to play Sgt. Lance Anger. Chip, his current partner, played Rob Collier. And Jack played poor Dusty, a man who left his last name and badge behind him.

With names done, we returned to the setting. What was this terrible thing that Lance and Rob had seen? After some discussion, it was decided that they saw a terribly mangled body with its fingers snipped neatly off at the site of a diamond heist. Some sort of message, but what did it mean? Going further, the precinct (it was also decided that it was set in Los Angeles) was in a tizzy about the ghastly crime. Dusty, our informant, was a drunk fisherman with his ear to the ground in the dockyards. He’d been implicated in a prior, years ago jewel heist, so some suspicion was coming his way.

Next up were the Script moves. Each player picks a move from the chosen Script, exactly the same as with their Actor playbooks. Script moves only last for the duration of the current movie, however; they’re tightly tied to the genre being portrayed, while Actor moves tend to be more general, pan-genre action moves (experience expenditures can make Script moves permanent, though). Lance went with “Supercop” (+1 all stunts), Dusty with “Corrupt Is As Corrupt Does” (can spend holds to get access to illicit goods), and Rob with “High Speed Chase” (a demon behind the wheel).

The characters  picked their gear (Lance Anger loved his nightstick, Dusty still had a stash of teargas grenades, and Rob Collier had his assault rifle) and then it was time for the final step: picking a villain. In this stage, the Director (me) gets to pick, though the players have veto power. Each Script comes with a list which you can pick from. The entries all have associated impulses, familiar to anyone who’s made a Front for Apocalypse World. I’d heard Dusty talking about drugs with his Script move, so I floated a drug kingpin; the group wasn’t too keen on that and floated the police chief being the big bad guy. I thought that sounded cool, so I named him (Brent McGillicutty) and off we went.

We opened in the precinct office. Chief McGillicutty had a hot tip that Dusty had some information regarding the diamond heist and mutilation; he asked Lance and Rob to head down there, since Rob had a relationship with Dusty dating back a decade. Lance had to go, too; he was Rob’s partner and the best cop on the force. (Peter really played the yelling aspect of things to the hilt; he would yell borderline incoherently at random times and kept it up for around three hours) The partners grabbed their squad car and headed down to the docks.

There was an obvious break in the action so it was time to jump cut over to Dusty. He had an old fishing boat which he lived on now. His cousin, Nick, was fixing the motor for him and was wrapping the job up as we cut over. Nick and Dusty exchanged some pleasantries, with Nick expressing concern for his well-being, when Lance and Rob pulled up. Nick and Dusty greeted the two cops and Nick excused himself, stating that he had his kids for the weekend.

The scene shifted to a bit of heavy pathos, with Rob assuring Dusty that he was a good cop caught in a bad situation, while Dusty, reticent to help, insisted he wasn’t. Lance decided he wasn’t interested in this and decided to convince Dusty to help by making an emotional connection. This is a +Drama roll and varies from the more direct manipulation roll in approach. The emotional connection move is about delivering a stirring speech of some sort and trying to elicit an emotion or memory.

Lance rolled and ended up with a 12; obviously a rousing success. At this point, we ran into a small rules snag. Lance was going to punch Dusty in the stomach to snap him out of it before delivering a speech about how he was still a cop at heart; Dusty decided that he wasn’t going to go along with that and wanted to resist. Lance’s narration was totally valid only as long as the target didn’t resist. He could’ve narrated it differently, with maybe just a speech and no physical contact. The second physical contact was initiated, Dusty had the option to resist and cause a fight to break out. This isn’t currently adjudicated in the rules and was just a judgment call on my part; I’m inclined to keep it that way, as this particular situation strikes me as somewhat rare.

I gave Lance a chance to change the move. He definitely wanted to, as his in-character intention was to snap Dusty out of it, not start a fight. Rob jumped in here and suggested that he stop the punch from behind before it was thrown; Lance thought that was a really good idea and agreed. So Rob stopped the punch, shouting that this wasn’t the way. Lance huffed and relented.

“You’re still on the force to me, Dusty! You’re still on the right team!”

Dusty relented and agreed to help. I asked Dusty what he knew, putting the decision in player hands. Dusty knew that the Pier One Gang (yes, that Pier One) was rumored to be involved in some heavy stuff. He used his “Corrupt Is As Corrupt Does” move from the Cop Movie Script to do this. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but it was something. Before the group could pull off, though, a cop car pulled up and out stepped officers Jane Lillard and Bob Thomas with a search warrant for the boat. Stand up cops and acquaintances of all three of the heroes. They presented the search warrant and said that Lance and Rob could certainly contribute.

Things took a weird turn here. For whatever reason, Lance and Rob decided to knock out the two searching cops. Dusty, for his part, wisely stayed out of it. We turned to some combat rolls, with punches thrown and pistol whippings galore. Dusty opted for a stunt move to get the hell out of there, tumbling over the side and into the water. Bob took a tumble down into the ship’s cabin, while Jane landed in the water. Dusty ended up dragging the unconscious Officer Lillard onto the deck; Rob searched her and found a crumpled note with the address for the Pier One scribbled on it. Lance, for his part, went to go question Bob down below. Bob was coming to when, out of the corner of his eye, Lance caught sight of an open briefcase of crisp, unmarked bills sitting on a table.

A series of accusations broke out between Lance, Rob, Dusty, and the still groggy Bob. A couple of read a person moves established that Bob wasn’t behind planting the money there. Only one person made sense: Dusty’s cousin, Nick the mechanic. Lance and Rob tried to talk Bob down from radioing in what, from their perspective, was a massive misunderstanding. That was obviously the persuade move and it was flubbed, badly. No dice: Bob was getting the still comatose Jane and radioing in backup. With no choice, the two beaten up cops were gently left on dock and the boat roared to life, course set for Pier One.

Rob decided to roll High Speed Chase, netting an 8; he opted to take a shortcut, but either he or the vehicle would take some damage. He narrated ducking between tugboats and eking every bit of speed out of the old boat, while I described the fishing gear getting knocked loose during a clip with one of the tugs. Not particularly crunchy, but it made for a cool narrative moment and was actually one of the most visually striking scenes when placed in my mind’s eye.

The heroes (I use the term loosely after the search warrant fiasco, but it’s also not entirely outside the source material) killed the motor as night fell and headed up to the Pier One warehouse. There’s no real stealth move, or acting under fire, so sneaking around unseen defaulted to a +Agility based stunt move. This brought up an interesting flow of play question: do I want AMW to be the sort of game in which a roll is needed by everyone to make what amounts to a group move or do I just defer to the most competent one? It felt more in keeping with the conversational tone to just ask for the one roll; that may be something I revisit, but it felt right last night.

Everyone climbed up to the top of the warehouse unseen, to a glass skylight. Peering down, they saw members of the Pier One gang unloading military grade weaponry from crates which had just arrived. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, land mines… the whole nine. And who did they see with Teeth (leader of the Pier One gang)? If you guessed Cousin Nick, you were right.

The climax was coming. Dusty decided this would be a good time to go for a Camaraderie move, a sort of abstracted move meant to revel in the friendship that most action movies have as a theme. You actually have a communal Camaraderie score, which goes up and down throughout the course of a movie. Before he did this, though, he decided to go for a killer one-liner move; one of the outcomes of a successful one-liner is a +1 to your Camaraderie score.

Dusty stated that it was “time to get a drop on these guys” as he prepped to toss out hi-fives before diving through the glass to kick some ass. Unfortunately, he missed his one-liner move. In this case, a miss taps into the meta, just a movie portion of AMW. The line elicited laughs mixed with groans at the table. In the movie, Dusty’s buddies were into it. But a miss on a one-liner meant the imaginary audience wasn’t into it; it fell flat. It was lame. It gave Dusty a -1 to his next move which was, of course, a Camaraderie move.

Dusty gave his hi-fives and everyone prepared to go in. He rolled the groups +Camaraderie (which was a 0; that’s where it starts in every film and it hadn’t been bumped up or down) with his -1 from the lame one-liner and missed. The consequences for a failed Camaraderie roll can be pretty dire. In this case, Dusty chose to have the Director make an immediate and very hard move against one of his compatriots (not him; important note).

Teeth glanced up and saw Rob at the edge of the skylight. The gangster whipped a grenade launcher out of his trench coat (the movie was set in 1992 so of course it was a trench coat) and took a blast at Rob. Rob’s body was shattered, near death. He coughed up blood as Lance grabbed him, swearing to return for him, asking him to hang on.

Lance and Dusty, tears in their eyes, jumped through the skylight. Dusty chucked tear gas down into the crowd via a successful stunt roll, opting to give the +1 forward the success granted to Lance. Lance put it to good use, diving right onto Teeth while Dusty handled Nick; Dusty nailed a combat move and opted to hit a whole ton of people in addition to disabling Nick.

The heroes handcuffed their quarry to the boat’s railing before running to the roof to check on Rob. Rob was definitely dying. When a supporting cast member dies, the actor gets two experience, while the surviving PCs gain the option to demand Vengeance; Vengeance is a hold which can be spent to gain a 10+ automatically on a move.

The death scene was great. Rob asked Lance to make sure his family was okay before reaching into his pocket with his last breath; he handed Lance adoption papers for a puppy he was going to get for his wife for their anniversary, along with a photo of said puppy. Then he was gone. Lance and Dusty swore vengeance before returning to the boat.

Once back on the boat, a few more emotional connection and manipulation moves had Teeth admitting that Chief McGillicutty had been behind the operation and that most of the police force was corrupt, while Nick repented and, for family ties, agreed to help out where he could. Sirens were heard.

One of the current holes is what to do with players of dead characters. I opted to try my current first option, which is to assign control of an NPC (starting with the main villain) to such players. Scott (Rob’s player) took over for Chief McGillicutty. I still set the scene as I would for most other NPC centered situations, but I granted Scott a lot of leeway in terms of how McGillicutty acted and spoke.

While McGillicutty and the cops were on their way for a final showdown, we cooked up a quick montage of the heroes and Nick setting a trap. Nick, being a mechanic, wired what was basically a gigantic powder with explosives (action movie logic, don’t ask). Dusty hid in his boat with a rocket launcher. Lance hid out at the door of the warehouse.

I loosely set the scene for Scott so he knew, generally, how to proceed with Chief McGillicutty. I narrated an army of cops pulling up, with him at the lead. He rolled with it, describing the chief getting out of the car with his bullhorn and doing a classic “give yourselves up” line. Lance shouted that he wanted to talk to McGillicutty, one on one, inside the warehouse. McGillicutty shouted back that he agreed, but remained by his car, motioning for the police to surround the warehouse.

Dusty figured this was his chance and he shot his shiny new rocket launcher at the now separated McGillicutty. An intersection of two rules occurred with this. One, the main villain has plot immunity from everyone but the Lead; only the Lead can kill him. Two, Dusty failed the roll. Badly. I sort of cheated here and shouldn’t have (though this did lead to an interesting potential rules change). McGillicutty caught a glimpse of Dusty in the boat and pulled his pistol, shooting poor Dusty between the eyes.

Lance lost it at this point and invoked his Vengeance move. The warehouse blew as Lance jumped out of the blast radius, propelled forward in a mega-tackle of McGillicutty (10+ on his stunt move from Vengeance). Lance bellowed that he was taking the chief in legally. It was time to fist fight. McGillicutty squirmed free after clocking Lance with an elbow to the temple. I gave Scott the option of how to react; McGillicutty ran like hell. Lance took this opportunity to hop in a squad car and run the erstwhile smuggling mastermind down.

The movie closed with credits rolling and wailing guitars. Lance was on the boat, heading out to sea. “I’ve seen enough of the city. It gets to you,” he said. “Time to try my luck out there. On the bay.” The sun was setting and a red sheen on the water paved the way for Lance Anger’s next adventures.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


The playtest documents are done. More or less. I've discovered that Google Drive's formatting is awful when it comes to bulleted lists, but that's okay for an alpha document. I'll shape it up for the next pass.

So, what's it look like?

Structurally, not much has changed. The work was in getting the details in there for a playable document of some sort. There are some things which need to be firmed up, but that's why it's an alpha. I definitely need to detail how a movie is expected to play out, but I also want to see what people do with it now. Plus, I need to run it several times on Hangout or something to help guide me on how I communicate that.

One interesting thing cropped up which reminded me a bit of Pendragon and, by extension, Before Iron. Obviously these are two different styles of gaming, but in both AMW and Pendragon you know how things end.

In Pendragon, this is specific: you know that Uther will beget Arthur, that Lancelot will betray him, that Mordred will slay Arthur, and that the dying Arthur will sail off on his little boat to his little imaginary island and everything sucks.

In AMW, this is more general. The good guy wins in an American action flick. He or she (it's almost always a "he", but I'm very into being gender inclusive in this project, even if the movies aren't; the Cynthia Rothrocks of the world deserve no less) is going to kill or capture the bad guy, get the love interest, and ride off into the sunset.

How do you make this interesting? It's not going to be for everyone. I've had players balk at the notion that they weren't going to wield Excalibur (I mean, you can play Pendragon that way, but I don't find it interesting so I didn't run it that way) or rule Britain. Others (most) thrived on it.

Pendragon took the tack that your knights were equal to the greats but different. The big stories were there as backdrop, but the stories of the PCs were running in parallel. So, no, you were never going to get Excalibur, but you might get Farfar the Axe of Jormungandr in Fairy Land or whatever. You might go to the Battle of Badon knowing that, in the larger narrative, Arthur is guaranteed to win. Which is lame, maybe, until you consider that what's not guaranteed is your PC's survival or glory.

In AMW, by contrast, one character is designated as the Lead. This rotates and you can't do it a second time until everyone else has had a crack at it. The Lead essentially has plot immunity. He or she can't die and is guaranteed to eventually kill the bad guy. I say "eventually" because the Lead absolutely can be beaten up, set back, and generally screwed with to make it hard. But the Lead can't lose.

The supporting cast, of course, can and probably should lose. I offer a mechanical carrot of 2 XP if a supporting character dies in the movie (which really isn't terribly punitive, since you just come back for the next movie), but even there, broad leeway is given to those characters in how and when they die. What drama demands comes first, mechanical doodads and notions of balance/fairness come second.

I like Vincent Baker's maxim that a roleplaying game is a conversation. If I didn't, I probably wouldn't have latched onto Apocalypse World as tightly as I have. So AMW is a conversation, too, but it's shaped differently than AW's conversation. What's going on is that we know how the conversation in each movie in AMW begins and how it ends, but we don't know what it looks like. We don't know how the AMW heroes know each other. We don't know where they are. We don't know how the big villain gets his or her comeuppance or even why it's deserved. That's what you determine in-game.

Interestingly, I feel that this overlaps with another AW engine project I've been testing, +Nathan Paoletta's World Wide Wrestling. It is, as you can probably guess, a pro wrestling game. Pro wrestling matches are scripted (what? NO!) and Nathan's been cooking up ways to acknowledge that while giving the players control of how things look. He's doing a good job of it so far, but I imagine it's challenging; at the least, it's challenging for me.

I'm going into this knowing that this is going to be completely uninteresting to some people. I'm totally okay with that! As my father-in-law says, it wouldn't do for everyone to like the same things. I do think that, because of this difference in what the conversations are like, it's important to be up front about the expectations and zero in on conveying how the conversation should ideally look once the blanks begin to get colored in.

That's really the most challenging part of the project. I'm mostly happy with the playbooks and Scripts. I'm generally happy with most of the moves, though I feel like there's a bit too much overlap in some of their outcomes. It's making sure a movie "looks" like a movie that's tricky.

Monday, February 25, 2013


I'm using my child transmitted flu or cold or whatever to knuckle down on some ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD.

By way of progress, I'm feeling good about getting a playtest document out by the end of March *provided* mid-terms and a busy end of that month (Rafael-con, Easter, my stepmother's retirement party which has me cooking paella for twenty) cooperate. I say that more as a precaution than anything else; I'm feeling good, but I also know that 1/3 of the days in March are spoken for, with another 2-4 days on midterms. That's a not insignificant chunk of time.

Actually sitting down and writing is always clarifying for me in a way that notes and spreadsheets aren't. I like gaming books as a sort of quasi-narrative art form, rather than as instruction manuals. Always have.

Because of that, the difficulty I was having in firming up Scripts (the movie playbooks) just kind of melted away once I sat down, stopped thinking too damned much, and just started making them. Which isn't to say that *any* of this is perfect; it's not and that's what playtests are for. In fact, I see things I'm not entirely pleased with right now but I want to see what other people say before I nix them or alter them. There are times when I am (quietly, neurotically) extremely hard on my work. Not that you'd know, since I don't verbalize it too much, but it's there. My subpar bit of writing or awkward rule is another person's favorite bit of the whole thing.

But Scripts are coming together, which were the real final hurdle to making a playable document. These are the playbooks representing the movies which you play. They're recognizable and consist of several parts:

Background and Relationships - This is something which can be completely done without the aid of charts and such, but I wanted to include some in order to make things flow smoothly in case people were stuck for ideas. The start of a movie feels somewhat tough to me in a vacuum. There's no "what's a typical day for you?" situation as there is in Apocalypse World. While the players will drive all of the intervening points between A and Z, there still has to be an A and a Z.

So, a bit like Fiasco, you go around the table and establish a relationship with the person                    to your left. Everyone does it and, yes, in groups of four or more, not everyone will have a relationship with everyone else. This should grant a base on which to build.

Script Moves - These are exactly like playbook moves. Each Script has five moves related to the genre of action movie you're playing. Each player picks one and has it for the duration of the film. The only catch is that each move can only be picked by two players; if two people pick the same move, that one's off-limits for everyone else.

Extra-bonus: you can spend XP on making the script moves permanent, carrying them from movie to movie. This is where your cross-genre, potentially goofy mayhem comes in. I fully expect this is going to break the fictional tenets of the game, as Arnold Schwarzenegger does a ninja movie, learns the disappear into thin air trick, makes it permanent, and then uses it in a cyborg warfare movie. I'm completely okay with this.

Gear - Weapons, gadgets, and such. This is, of course, Script dependent. Everyone picks a gear package and that's what they have for the movie. So with the barbarian flicks, you can be the dude with the sword, the dude with the bow and arrow, the dude with the spear, etc, etc, etc.

Villains - So, action movies always have a big, bad villain at the end. He or she is motivated by whatever and things revolve around that. This is how to set up Point Z.

The players will pick who the villain is. Initially, the plan was to have this be a typecast actor. Think the group picking Danny Trejo and dealing with Danny Trejo moves for the duration of the movie.

The problem is that this did nothing to help gel the fiction. As work has gone on, it's increasingly clear that this game is about (referencing my earlier sentence) what happens between Points A and Z, not what A and Z actually are. Because A is determined on a per-movie basis and Z is always the same (hero kills villain, crowd cheers) in action movies with extremely rare exceptions. Incidentally, that sets up a very interesting, rather unexpected parallel with my playing of Pendragon and my work on Before Iron which I might write about later.

What will happen now is that each Script will present a list of villains and the players will choose one. This will be sort of like a mini-front. A list of possible motivations and techniques will be listed (I'm trying to thread a needle between too loose and too restrictive), along with a special move which pops up when the villain is active.

So, for the barbarian movie Script (the one I'm working on now), the villains might be a cult leader, an evil monarch, a ravenous barbarian tribe, and a master assassin. The cult leader might have possible motivations of "to conquer", "to convert", and "to lay waste" or something similar. Then, we'd have a move which might make it tough to directly attack him or her due to powers of persuasion. Those are all just examples off the top of my head (most of this Script is done except the villain specifics) but you get the general idea.

My hope, with the Scripts, is that a group will get enough starting and end point help that they can worry about the explosions and stunts in between, while simultaneously giving a heaping helping of player choice about how the beginning and ending work. I expect that how I thread this particular needle is going to be one of the things which shifts most in playtesting.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


With Before Iron, I've been left to dole out information on a completed (minus layout/art) project after the fact. It's been difficult to settle on precisely how much information to give out and when, since I've no real idea when it's going to go out. I don't want to say a whole bunch of stuff when release might be another year away, finding that I have nothing to say when I actually need to promote a real, existing, solid book that's in my hands.

With ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD,  I get to do something a little different, which is talk about things I think are worth talking about as they get formed enough to do so. I'm not inclined to design in the open, but I do like to get people excited. Or bummed out! Whichever. I can feed off of that a bit and it can help solidify certain ideas which haven't quite gelled.

So, notes. Before I get to those, work's been going well. I tend to binge write, leaving things fallow for two or three days before going on a mad, all day spree. This is no different. Since I hit my homework in the same fashion, AMW:FB has meshed pretty well with my current schedule, which is good. I feel good about a preliminary playtest document maybe in March, though I don't want to overpromise. Anyway:


The stats are set at +Muscles, +Agility, +Drama, +Sexiness, +Swagger. The names are subject to change; they're all nouns but I sort of want them to adjectives. And Drama doesn't quite fit the way I want it to, in that the others are things that a person has, while Drama is read differently.

I reached these stats by breaking down what action movie stars do in movies. Stunts and violence, yes, but pathos-filled speeches about personal loss, love scenes ranging from touching to down and dirty, and non sequitur wisecracks left hanging for effect. Plus, not all stunts are performed the same way or for the same reasons; a muscley guy holding a portcullis open in a barbarian movie isn't doing the same thing as a person doing a backflip out of a helicopter.

So Muscles (I'm dropping the plus sign, since it tries to tag people in G+) is for stunts involving strength and close combat. Agility is for stunts involving dexterity and ranged combat. Pretty bog standard stuff but I'm happy with that split.

The other three tie into the meta aspect of the game a bit more. Even though you're never, ever supposed to directly acknowledge it, the conceit is that we're all in the know that this is just actors doing a movie. So it's not just that the actor seduces that guy, it's that the seduction is, ideally, interesting to this imaginary audience. Again, I don't want this to be directly acknowledged, but it affects the way the fiction works as you roll for your outcomes. A better example may be the wisecracks which come with the territory; they make no sense whatsoever in a "real world" situation, but make perfect sense if you imagine that everything you're doing is a scene on a screen, even if the narrative fluctuates due to your actions.

So, Drama is about how good you are at conveying real emotion and making connections with people which go beyond the deliberately superficial relationships in action movies. Sexiness functions an awful lot like Hot and is probably the closest to the AW stats of the five. Swagger is the unflappable sense of cool and humor which folks like Kurt Russell and Han Solo/Indiana Jones era Harrison Ford have.


Playbooks are mostly designed in a first pass sort of way. The mechanics, I'm certain, will change, but I'm pretty content with the action movie actors being represented.

Each has a primary stat and five moves. At least one move is always of the active, roll Stat and make choices type. The playbooks are:

The Musclehead (Muscles): Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno type. Lots of raw power and menace in the moves. Right now bears a (totally accidental) heavy resemblance to the Gunlugger and I'm not entirely happy about that.

The Yeller (Muscles): Reb Brown. Reb's a little obscure and never actually did any "good" movies, but it's my game and, by damn, he's going in. He substitutes yelling for dramatic chops. Or he's a bard, if you prefer. A bard who yells.

The Gunfighter (Agility): Chow Yun-Fat. The John Woo, gun-fu type. I've had to expand the moves to include all ranged weapons, simply because it would be really lame to play a gun wizard in a barbarian movie. Moves center on making ranged combat look completely badass and creating dramatic scenes which revolve around the Gunfighter's weapons.

The Pugilist (Agility): JCVD, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Cynthia Rothrock. This is the actor who got a start in martial arts or boxing and parlayed it into a career. Moves center on hand to hand combat, with one training montage move. Because of course there has to be a training montage.

The Thespian (Drama): Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone. It's really easy to forget just how good the first Rocky movie is. Sly showed some real acting chops, even if his range isn't stellar. This Playbook is that sort of action movie star, one who can drop real moments of drama in things. This may end up being my favorite because, in the course of doing the actual design, I found that I was making Drama for the Thespian function as a real narrative changer. Picture the guy in the movie (any movie) giving a soliloquy about what's going on in the plot or the conflicts driving things. Now, let's pretend that it's a chicken and egg argument, that it's insight of what's already happening but that the observations actually make things happen. A kind of reality bending through dramatic training. That's what the Thespian can bring to the table.

The Wiseass (Swagger): Kurt Russell. This one and the Operator (I need to change that name, since there's an Operator in AW) are my current work and, frankly, the toughest of the seven to get where I want. Unlike the others, the niche is mostly "stuff other playbooks do but BETTER", which is a tougher thing to make interesting than "stuff nobody else does".

The Operator (Sexiness): Sean Connery, Daniel Craig. The sexy Bond type. I feel better about this one than the Wiseass. I settled on some moves to grant some narrative control through romantic interests and making things "sexy".

The Other Stuff

I'll leave things like basic moves, the Camaraderie stat, and Scripts (movie playbooks) for another time. Short version: basic moves are good, though with a surprising amount of overlap with AW's and I'm not happy about that, Camaraderie is sketched out as a communally used stat which goes up and down through group action, and Scripts haven't been cracked yet (plus will probably be the most labor intensive part of the game).

Friday, January 18, 2013


(and yes, it is always, always in caps)

Work is rolling on what I hope ends up being a commercial AW hack. I'm ready to crack the door open a little bit more on it, since it's progressing more quickly than I expected.

Yes, it's about action movies of the 80s/90s variety. I'm aiming to deconstruct the common threads connecting American action movies of the era before building them back up in game form. +Bret Gillan  has been of great help in shoring up some ideas. It was kind of limbo for a few months after we initially dove in, but once I sat down a few days ago and actually wrote at length, it really began to gel.

Now, I know there are plenty of AW hacks out there. I hope some of the ideas pique the interest of people who might be inclined to wander away from "another AW hack". In somewhat brief form, some highlights of what AMW:FB is going to do:

-One of the big things is that there's a bit of a "meta" aspect to AMW:FB. Drawing a bit of inspiration from +Nathan Paoletta's currently in beta pro wrestling AW hack, the action is both real and not real, scripted and unscripted. Players of AMW:FB will be playing in the sort of unscripted fashion you would expect: outcomes are decided at the table, people die, people fall in love, etc. This is just as you would play any other AW engine game; no railroading allowed and player control is front and center. But it's also not real and is scripted, if only in retrospect: the action happens on an imaginary screen in a theater somewhere. Your character might die but your actor won't. It's going to require a dual-track in your head and I need to firm up the language, but that's why it's rough draft.

-Playbooks are going to represent actors in this very meta sense. This is to represent Arnold being Arnold in all of his movies. So if you pick The Musclehead, you are, in a very real sense, picking a brand. The Arnold Brand. Or, if you pick The Pugilist, you're picking the JCVD Brand (before it became passe, of course). That's what you will be throughout your movies. Typecasting is the goal.

This bit is also "genreless". The idea is that there's this larger, super-genre called "action movies" which is an umbrella for the individual types of action movie people know and enjoy. Actor Playbook moves are designed to be plugged into any of those individual genres, rather than tied to assumptions about what type of movie your group is playing.

-What are movies? In addition to the Actor Playbooks, the game will have Movie Playbooks. These contain your setting assumptions. It's expected that the group will play a Movie for four or so sessions before wrapping up and choosing another one. A Movie Playbook (and I may call them Scripts) will have your gear options, charts to help organize a loose plot for the movie, some Fiasco style relationship building help, and special moves. This is where the character/actor distinction really shows up. You can be Barnold Dortsenegger the Musclehead playing Tronan the Beerbarian for the length of the movie. All played by Joe, the real person.

The movie moves. This deserves a bit more explication. Each Movie Playbook will have four or so moves which are tightly tied to the movie genre being played. Each player will pick one. For the duration of that particular movie, he'll get that move, with an option to make it permanent through experience spending later (which leads to some wacky crossgenre potential with enough spending). 

So, going back to The Musclehead, he comes in with two Musclehead moves (we'll say +1 to Muscles and a move which helps him with stunts based on that stat). Everyone decides to pick a Ninja Movie Playbook. Not what big meatheads are known for, but fine. Looking at the list, he decides he really wants a move which lets him disappear in a puff of smoke. For the duration of the ninja movie, he has that move and can use it normally. He can make it permanent at the end, if he wants, and it becomes a sort of calling card, integral to his brand.

The combination of Actor Playbook and Movie Playbook should offer a wide variety of styles of play while both staying under the action movie umbrella and providing a sly wink that it's just a movie.

-Other things will be done to model some of the conventions. Incentives to allow your PC to die horribly (we need high body counts), a rotating lead role capacity which allows a certain level of immunity to death, tying certain GM moves to a player picked lead bad guy role (again, based on actor... pick Danny Trejo OR Tex Cobb analogues), and a stat based on friendship which allows powerful moves on the part of the group. These are more mechanically shored up than I'm communicating here because I've already gone on quite a bit.

Anyway, it's in very obviously rough draft status, but work is going quickly, as I said. I'm glossing over a lot of details above; it's not prototype status but it's not quite ready for public consumption, either. I may be looking for playtesters in a month. Maybe a little less. When the time comes I'll be posting on G+ and maybe here. My hope is that it ends up being something cool that people want to play.