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Population: One

Five Nice Things

This seems like a good game to play. I’ll go!

  1. Miso paste. I’ve been cooking more during the pandemic and because food gets dull, I’ve been making myself branch out from the usual. Miso paste is the latest ingredient I’ve added. It’s just awesome for a burst of umami. I’ve put it in eggs, S. has put it in vegetables, it’s great.
  2. Criterion Channel. I have a lot of streaming services; this is the one I’d keep if I had to cut it down to one. It’s not just classics; they’re running a New Korean Cinema program right now that’s full of great movies. They’re (slowly) getting better at Black representation. And I’ve seen at least two movies on there this year that took my breath away.
  3. My local community Discord. A pal of mine set this up, it’s got something like a hundred active people, and it’s well filtered into categories so I don’t have to pay attention to the Among Us players if I don’t want to. It serves as a social center, link exchange, and support nexus. We’ve crowd-funded a couple of urgent needs for people. It’s great.
  4. Grant Morrison’s Batman comics. I read the first third of these a while back; a month or so ago I noticed that the complete run was collected in those big heavy omnibus volumes. I am in the middle of the second volume now. It’s very Grant Morrison with these jagged edges of sincerity poking through the glossy madness from time to time.
  5. Online tabletop gaming and every pioneer who spent time figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Right now I’m involved in two ongoing campaigns, and I manage to keep a decent stock of one-shots going as well. It’s the only thing that brings me new human faces during the pandemic, plus I love gaming.

BitD: One-Shot

I ran a Blades in the Dark one-shot for some old gaming pals, S., and one person I hadn’t gamed with. Totally fun, unsurprisingly. Ginger wrote up the session here.

There are seven playbooks in Blades, and each of them has five potential friends/rivals. So that’s, what, a 45% chance that someone will choose Slide in a four player game, and then if the distribution is truly random, that someone has a 20% chance of picking Bazso Baz as their rival? So maybe around 10% of the time you kick off a Blades campaign using the book’s starting situation, you’ll get the fun of the crew already hating Bazso Baz? I was an English major, be kind.

But man, it was so great that Michael said Bazso Baz was his brother! That’s a lot rarer.

Also fun: both Michael and S. said that Nyryx was their friend. Except the Slide has Nyryx as a prostitute, and the Whisper has them as a possessor ghost. That is the best plot point right there. If this was a campaign, Nyryx would have pulled all the strings to get the crew together.

Politics, Gaming, Modern Times

In a recent Monster of the Week mystery, I made the Big Bad an incel. I thought about it a bit before making the decision to go for it. I was careful to humanize him; he had family who loved him, and I explicitly didn’t make him a killer. But I didn’t mask his motivations and I gave him a couple of alt-right tropes.

The players were definitely a touch taken aback. Nobody objected, and while they were careful not to kill him, that’s generally how they deal with human threats. I think the momentary uncertainty was more because it’s a pulpy game that got a touch serious all of a sudden — it was the reality of the Big Bad, not the specific fact that he was an Intel.

I also have a Delta Green campaign percolating, set in the PNW, that revolves around white nationalist movements. That feels safer, since most Delta Green players are expecting some dark material.

I think all this is appropriate gaming fodder. I mean, you’re not obligated to stuff political extremism front and center in your games. However, I also think that a lot of these slimeballs get a lot of milage out of secrecy. I’ve had so many fruitless online arguments with people who just aren’t convinced white nationalism is a problem. Gaming is a way to tell stories to each other, and some stories are worth telling.

Conversely, in the same Monster of the Week game, COVID-19 doesn’t exist. That was an explicit decision at the start of the game; we don’t need to be reminded of it and we wanted to escape that aspect of reality. I can easily imagine a modern game in which it does exist, but it doesn’t feel dangerous to avoid it.

Which is interesting, since there are certainly people who deny how serious it is. But I’m not gaming with any of them, and that’s a matter of denial rather than lack of awareness.

Parenthetically, while I was writing this, the back of my brain spit out a campaign frame for Monster of the Week in which the group is an anarchist mutual aid group, and I really want to play in that. So if someone could run it for me that’d be great.

Saint Freeman’s City: Concept & Mapping

I’m really deeply thrashed this weekend. Pets with digestive problems, G1 Climax wrestling tournament, and a fun online gaming convention. Nevertheless.

In my copious spare time I’ve been kicking around an idea for a West Marches style Electric Bastionland game. Short explanation: Electric Bastionland is a deeply weird minimalist urban exploration fantasy game; West Marches is a campaign style in which there’s a large pool of players who self-organize self-directed game sessions, designed to lessen the load on the GM. The driving motivation for Bastionland PCs is paying off crippling debt (oh, so it’s a reflection of 2020!) which works just fine for a player-driven game.

Since I’ve been wanting to play Bastionland for a bit, and since West Marches is an intriguing campaign style, I was pleased to realize I had a good match on my hands. Here’s how I put them together and started fleshing the idea out.

The G1 That Is

My whole week has been pretty much New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Climax tournament for the last couple of weeks. 19 shows in a month, it’s kind of a crazy pace. This is their big heavyweight tournament of the year every year and for a while it looked like it might not happen but they managed to get a few critical wrestlers back into the country and here we are!

New Japan has a streaming service now, ten bucks a month and you get English commentary too. Usually real time although with the pandemic that’s been delayed a couple of days. All good, the Japanese commentary is enthusiastic.

This is my second G1. I watched last summer’s cause I read a couple of previews that made it sound excellent. I’ve been pretty damned haphazard about wrestling since the Benoit murder/suicide, but much to my pleasure New Japan has reawakened my enthusiasm. I’m a bit unhappy about how they’re booking Will Ospreay, but so far I’ve been OK ignoring his matches. I’ll see how it goes; if they’re really going to put a belt on him I may wind up more unhappy.

Anyhow. One major cool thing about the G1: New Japan doesn’t do a lot of singles matches outside title challenges and tournaments. So you’ve been watching all these great wrestlers compete in multi-man tag matches and it’s cool but MAN wouldn’t it be nice to see Tomohiro Ishii face off against Jeff Cobb one on one without all the tagging in and out?

(Yes, it would, they’re both very strong bowling balls on legs. It was a great match.)

That also means the G1 usually has a couple of matches where the wrestlers are facing off for the very first time in singles competition. That’s also cool.

The G1 is made up of two blocks, A block and B block. Everyone in a block wrestles everyone else in the block, 2 points for a win, 1 point for a draw. Winner of A block wrestles winner of B block for the right to challenge for the heavyweight championship at the big New Year’s event, Wrestle Kingdom. The blocks run on alternate nights so that the wrestlers can get a bit of rest. So you get five matches from block A, then the next show there are five matches from block B.

In previous years, they’ve filled out the show with multi-man tag matches using wrestlers from the other block. (Not that much of a break.) This year, because of COVID-19, there’s one match between Young Lions — trainees — and then right into the five block matches. This makes the shows a tidy 2.5 hours long instead of sprawling 3-4 hour things. That’s been really nice.

Plus there are only three Young Lions in Japan who are ready for ring work, so the three of them are just alternating singles matches and getting way more experience than you’d normally see. This is also very cool and I bet it’ll benefit these guys a ton in the future.

But with an average of over 4 shows a week it’s still a lot of wrestling. And I’m off to watch last night’s final.

Automating Unsplash Widget

iOS 14 allows you to put widgets on the home screen, which is very exciting to those of us who aren’t Android users. For Android users, it’s an opportunity to point out that Apple is late to the party. The new capabilities resulted in a wave of widget apps, which allow you to customize widgets and put your own stamp on your phone. I like tinkering, so I decided I wanted to do something beyond the typical “calendar with a photo of my cats behind it.”

New Gamers in the Apocalypse

Editing note: added our experience with Gauntlet-style character keepers.

A few months ago, some friends of mine who hadn’t done much/any tabletop gaming said they wanted to try D&D. I had plenty of free time and felt like it’s somewhat mean to make non-gamers learn D&D in a virtual setting, so I volunteered to run Monster of the Week for them. It’s gone great — we wind up playing about once per month, and everyone seems to be having fun.

I haven’t GMed for new gamers since I was 17 and trying to show my hippie father what those weird books were about. That time I went for Monsters, Monsters. It went terribly, albeit in party because I was only 17. “You want to… just… talk to the human whose threatening you? I don’t know what happens now. Um… let’s have dinner, I guess.” Looking back on it, if I’d been smarter I could have beaten Golden Sky Stories to the non-violent tabletop punch by decades. Alas.

Logistics: we’re using Telegram for persistent text chat, because everyone’s familiar with it. Alas, it doesn’t have video chat for groups, so we’re using Zoom for video and voice. Telegram supports bots and Roll ’em Bot is perfectly good for basic 2d6 + whatever dice rolls. My goal was to keep the logistics as simple as possible; I didn’t want to ask my newbies to wrap their heads around collaborative fictional games and a more complex virtual tabletop at the same time.

A couple of sessions in, I grabbed the character keeper from the collection of Gauntlet play aids. This was the first time I’d used one of those. It’s been mostly useful, although since everyone can see everyone’s sheet, we have a tendency to drop into “who would be best at this thing?”

Simplicity is also why I chose Monster of the Week. (Plus I’d been yearning to try it out.) If you say “it’s like Buffy, X-Files, or Supernatural” almost everyone in the US will understand at least one of those references. The playbooks are stupid simple to pick up and use. Again, the principle was minimal friction and maximum familiarity. And no need for a battle map! I can just drop pictures of Tucson into the Telegram chat.

Quincie Douglas Library, Tucson AZ

A few notes from the experience so far:

I ruthlessly pruned the Monstrous and the Spell-Slinger playbooks from the initial playbook selection for the sake of a) easier group cohesion and b) less complexity. In retrospect I coulda left the Monstrous in there, my players get that they’re responsible for figuring out why the group is a group. Instead of handing out a bunch of playbooks to read, I just listed the character types with a line or so of explanation, to cut down on decision paralysis. I wanted to force someone to play the Luchadore, but I restrained myself.

I started out the first session with the lines and veils safety conversation, followed by an explanation of the X card. Absolutely do this. Always do it, but do it especially with new players, because they are trying something new that has emotional weight and you need to make their experience safe. I checked in on tone after the first session, and I try to keep checking in from time to time.

Be ready for people to want to play themselves, especially in a modern game. A couple of my players did this. Initially I was all “nooo, be someone different,” but that was my gatekeeper speaking. It’s totally fine. Some people may want to branch out later, but who cares if they don’t? Self-inserts are a perfectly good tradition.

I’ve read some claims that new tabletop gamers will immediately understand and leap into the concept of shared ownership over the fiction. This is not true. Some of my players dig the idea that I’m telling the story as a GM. Again, it’s fine; people need to ease into new stuff. Just make sure the choice is there. I say stuff like “Do you think there could be a baseball bat there?” a lot, and that’s working fine.

Going cinematic with descriptions is excellent. I’ve been leaning into the opening sequence / closing credits bit from time to time, and it really sets the stage nicely.

Be aware that new players may be trying to read your face to figure out what you think their characters should do. Tabletop gaming can be nerve-wrackingly open ended and right now there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world! It took a session or two for people to buy into the idea that I was, as the book says, a fan of their characters regardless of their choices. I’ve also developed a technique for giving two possible options when they really want me to suggest something, and over time I think that’s helped everyone realize there’s no bad choice from the perspective of the players.

MotW has more support available than you might assume; I can always be lazy and yoink something out of Tome of Mysteries or the subreddit. Also, shoutout to Zombiefest Double Features which my players loved.

I expect to run a couple more mysteries and wrap the arc. I did not use the full on arc structure described, in part because I wasn’t sure how long we’d wind up going and in part because I’m lazy. I am pretty sure I could retrofit an arc onto the play we’ve done, though.

It’s been a great experience. I’d recommend MotW for new players, and I think probably also for new GMs. As with any good Powered by the Apocalypse game, you just follow the GM principles and make the moves as they come.

2020 Non-Fiction Reading

For all the obvious reasons, I spent some time this year refreshing my knowledge of a rough cluster of subjects centering around the dangers of extremism, particularly on the Internet. I haven’t finished reading all of these, but I’m on course to get them done by the end of the year. It occurred to me that it might be an interesting list for others.

My thanks to Shane Burley, whose article “The Best Books on Fascism in 2019” supplied much of this reading. Subscribe to his Patreon.

In no particular order:

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan. You know how people rightly complain that some journalists don’t make an effort to understand the fringe? Anna Merlan really gets the subject of her work, and she’s even-handed. There’s a great chapter on conspiracy theories in Black America that acknowledges how easy it is to believe that the government deliberately breeched levees during Katrina when you know that the FBI tried to convince Martin Luther King to kill himself.

Key Thinkers of the Radical Right, edited by Mark Sedgwick. Fairly academic in tone but a very good dive into the last century or so of radical right theorists. It was really interesting to learn more about Spengler, given his influence on James Blish’s Cities in Flight series (which I need to re-read now). I also put a mental marker in the chapter on Julius Evola, because I want to think more about Rudolf Steiner’s influence on him (PDF).

William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, by Michael Muhammad Knight. I tripped over this while I was being moody about the Seattle protest zone getting tagged as a Temporary Autonomous Zone. The term was invented by Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, who of course turned out to be a literal pedophile, and while TAZ is a great concept I can’t mentally separate it from the creator. Anyhow, Knight’s autobiographical book turned out to be relevant in a million ways: look, there’s Wilson joining an Iranian religious order arising from the Traditionalist School! Look, there’s Knight coming to some kind of peace with his father’s white supremacism! And really the whole thing is a map to one corner of one hidden culture of the United States. Everyone should remind themselves that the patchwork of our society is and has always been much more complex. I want to read a lot more Knight.

Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, by David Neiwert. This is sort of cheating, I read it in 2017 when it came out, but it was worth re-reading so I did. Neiwert has been working the right-wing extremism beat for a very long time; this book comes out of decades of experience. (If you want a depressing read, go back and check out his blog series “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism.” He called it almost 20 years ago.) There’s some overlap with this book and Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, of which more anon, but I think they complement each other well.

Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, by Natasha Lennard. We’re all the way on the opposite side of the library from the academic shelves now. You need to read this to understand what it’s like being antifa, even if you don’t think those are the right tactics. It will jar your assumptions loose. It’s personal and raw and brilliant and meaningful.

Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, by Alexandra Minna Stern. Whereas Alt-America is sort of focused on effects, this book digs into underlying ideology. It also complements Key Thinkers of the Radical Right nicely; if you start out with that then read Stern’s book, you’ll recognize and have a deeper appreciation for some of the ideological players. By the by, as Burley notes in his recommendation, this book isn’t just about the Proud Boys — that’s a convenient title hook. It’s about white nationalism.

Active Measures, by Thomas Rid. This book is of course not about fascism per se, but it is about the weaknesses in our collective information ecosystem. I don’t think Qanon is a deliberate operation. I do think it accidentally took advantage of the vulnerabilities Rid discusses. I feel like you should read this side by side with Republic of Lies, because Rid’s true stories about disinformation campaigns are exactly the kind of rabbit hole that predisposes you to believe in other wild stories. It’s always a struggle for balance.

Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right, by Graham Macklin. I’m in the middle of this sucker right now. It’s six mini-biographies of six British far right leaders in the 20th century. If for some reason you weren’t going to read all of these books, this is probably a skippable one — I picked it up because I’ve always been interested in Sir Oswald Mosley, or more precisely, the climate that allowed him to do as well as he did. However, it’s still a good exploration of how fascist parties succeed or fail in a country fairly similar to the United States, plus it’s got some really good material on international fascist cooperation.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew. Don’t skip this. It’s about the white nationalist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and it explains how we got here. In those decades, the movement was heavily influenced by Vietnam. These days, hey, we’re in the middle of another set of forever wars that aren’t terribly successful. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing similar effects.

Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, by David Neiwert. Mr. Neiwert gets two books on this list because I’m fiercely hungry for a book that talks about saving conspiracy theorists. (Still looking for more recommendations.) The first two thirds of this one is a recap of significant conspiracy-related violence in the last few years; if you’re up on current events you won’t be surprised. Although he lays out the evidence for Stephen Paddock’s conspiratorial beliefs really well, so that was nice. The last third, though, is a practical guide to talking to your misguided loved ones and it reads pretty solid to me. The quotes from CV Vitolo-Haddad land a little flat these days, but not much to be done about it, and I don’t think they affect the overall value of the book.

Chi to the City (Incomplete)

So yeah, I did a Patreon and then I ran out of steam. I figured now was as good a time as any to finish laying out the writing I completed: thus, I now have a 38 page Las Vegas Feng Shui sourcebook. I think it’s reasonably useful as is, although there’s a lot more to be done.

Enjoy! (PDF, 8 MB)

Hanging In There

If coronavirus isn’t gonna get me to start blogging regularly again, nothing will, huh?

To quote myself on Instagram: We’re doing just fine. We’re self-isolating — shopping once a week, not socializing at all, sane amount of food in the freezer, working from home. We drove down to Magnuson Park this morning and were happy to see it wasn’t crowded. Walked down to the water, admired a couple of ducks, waited for people to pass by on the main path, walked back to the car.

A few coping strategies have worked well for me. I am paying more attention to a couple of Discords I’m in. I figured out how to stream pro wrestling into Discord from my browser, that was fun. Sorry about the copyright, NJPW! I won’t make a habit of it post-pandemic. I’ve gamed online, um, twice now and I need to find a couple of people who want to try out Electric Bastionland. I finally made some sorbets to use up extra farm share fruits.

Stay safe out there, y’all.