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One-Shots: Beyond the Wall

My folder for Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is complete. This is an OSR D&D-like game aimed at super-quick pickup and play. The concept is that the PCs are all friends who grew up together in a small village, and the cool character generation twist is that you work through a four-page story path playbook to figure out your history and your stats.

For example, in the Self-Taught Mage playbook, you get to a bit where you find a tome of magic. Let’s say you roll a 2 on 1d6: the book was written by a famous bard who travelled far and wide. You get +3 Charisma, and add Survival to your skill list. You then roll 1d6 to find out what kind of mage the bard was, and you get a 3 — the bard was a summoner of dark spirits. This means you get +2 Intelligence, and you learned a specific selection of spells.

I love this. It means every characters has a story grounding their stats, and it means you’ve got that random oracle goodness which sparks so much creativity. It also explicitly generates connections between the characters and, in several places, generates the details of the village in which the characters live.

The scenario packs are similar, with the additional twist that you fill out blank spaces on the random tables with details generated while the players are rolling up their backgrounds.

Thus, it was easy to prep this one. I printed out the playbooks and scenario that came with the base game, indulged my materialism by buying a stapler, stapled stuff together, and voila: done.

Building a One-Shot Book

I literally spent half an hour trying to make the phrase “commonplace book” fit this, but I couldn’t, so maybe stop procrastinating and go? Yes.

One of the tabletop gaming things I want to do this year: build a binder full of one-shot games that can be run with minimal prep. In some cases this means building pre-gens and scenarios. Some games make it easy enough to create characters so that you can just pick it up and go. Add in scenario seeds, with the same caveats, maybe system cheat sheets as necessary, and I’ll have a gaming pack.

In the interests of accountability, here’s my initial game list.

I also need something pulpy in here but I’m not sure what yet. Maybe one of the Triple Ace Ubiquity games, or maybe something Savage Worlds-ish. I’ve always wanted to run The Day After Ragnarok.

Happy Public Domain Day

As explained by the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, today is Public Domain Day! Since the copyright term was extended in 1998, old works haven’t been entering the public domain regularly, but we just reached the end of the extension period. Much text, art, and music has been freed.

I cheerfully recommend Carl Sandburg’s charming stories for kids, collected in Rootabaga Pigeons, and P. G. Wodehouse’s first Jeeves “novel,” The Inimitable Jeeves. The latter is comprised of previously published stories but is delightful even if you’ve seen them before.

Wheels & Walls

You have Walls and you have Wheels. It was ALWAYS that way and it will ALWAYS be that way!”

Donald Trump

Who am I to gainsay our President? And I’ve seen worse creative prompts. Thus, I present a one–page RPG: Wheels & Walls. The good mechanics and GMing advice in this game are lifted directly from Lasers & Feelings, a one-page tabletop RPG by John Harper. Everything else I wrote in a few hours before getting back to the business of celebrating the New Year.

This game wears its political opinion on its sleeve.

If you like it, you can find a long list of other Lasers & Feelings hacks here.

Weighty Gifts

As always S and I do a minimal Christmas. This year we were accidentally gravity themed — I got her a Gravity Blanket and she got me Gravity Dice. Since we consulted on these, we elected not to wait till Christmas Day to open them. Items from other people are still wrapped, since we’re not barbarians.

The blanket is really nice. It’s relatively small — smaller than a typical blanket, just 72 x 48 inches. This makes it a bit short for me but perfect for her. Both of us sleep easier when using it, so I will probably wind up with one of my own soon enough.

Gravity dice.

The dice are also awesome. They’re machined aluminum; solid but not too heavy. 3/8th of an inch on a side. The FAQ says they’re carefully balanced and I imagine they’re reasonably close.

I got these twelve as Feng Shui dice. I also have six I’m going to use for Blades in the Dark. I am super-pleased.

We are also grateful for the jams and jellies my lovely Aunt Kathy sent, the gift boxes from S’ family, and everything from my mother.

New Daniel Keys Moran

This is unexpected but pleasing. Fortuitously, I’ve been reading the four extant Continuing Time novels in reverse chronological order. And lo, now there’s a new short story collection including a lot of Continuing Time material! I guess I’m going to pause before The Long Run.

Daniel Keys Moran’s The Long Run was thrillingly exciting to me in the 90s. It fit roughly into the cyberpunk category, and the author was clearly technically savvy. The computer technology rang true. Even today: yep, of course it’s possible to figure out who wrote a chunk of computer code based on their stylistic quirks. DKM is a very good stylist, unapologetic about his quirks, versed in pop culture. I could have mainlined his stuff.

Then in his next book it turns out that this cool near future cyberpunk series is actually a huge future history. Mind-blowing. And he has the whole thing planned out, cool!

And then stuff happened and he went quiet. If you search my blog for his name, I was pretty cynical about it for a while. Sorry: I was younger. I just wanted it to be true so much. Thirty books, millennia of story, huge themes, a completely confident author. It was so exciting.

Now it’s fine. He should be first and foremost happy, except that the Lakers should not win NBA championships. But anything else is just fine, and any more words are gravy. The existing books are good by themselves.

And now there’s another one, so that’s awesome!

Some of the short story collection is previously published stories; “Realtime” and “Given the Game” were both magazine publications back in the day. The Continuing Time stories look to be new. There’s a teeny bit of time overlap — “The Shivering Bastard at Devnet” is dated 2676, which is also when Lord November: The Man-Spacething War was set. “The Shepherds” is set in 2049, which is the middle of the years in which the Castanaveras telepaths were born, but perhaps more interesting is the evocative line “Peter Janssen is shot from Jupiter orbit by a Zaradin Cathedral Starship” from the timeline.

Going back to the 1994 press release on the state of the Continuing Time, “The Shepherds” is listed as a short story set in 2049. “Platformer” is listed as a novel set between 2964 and 3031. The vision has stayed remarkably consistent.

Late edit: “‘Tales’ is more than half new material, btw — more than 175 pages out of the 365 or so. None of it’s ever been collected before.” So there you go.

It’s been a while since I played the reference-hunting game in the Continuing Time. If you want to play it yourself, the old Kithrup archive is still there.

Live-Read: The Mechanism

This post is a cleaned up version of a live-read Twitter thread I posted today; I’ve been doing those as the mood takes me, and it’s a kind of fun, lazy way to review tabletop RPGs. My wise friend Ginger noted that I should be collecting these on the blog. I half-thought I had been but I was wrong! Thus, here we go. (It might be entertaining to compare my speed-written text with what happens after I have a chance to re-read it and wince at my clumsier phrases.)

I just received “The Mechanism,” a Night’s Black Agents convention scenario by Gareth Hanrahan, as a bonus with one of my other Pelgrane Press orders. As I read the first scene, I realized the loosely written approach was interesting to me, so I figured I’d share.

Thread Reader’s Conspiracy Theory Problem

So I’ve been scraping Thread Reader for a month and I think I have enough data to talk about it. Very important: the guy who runs the site and bot seems like a decent dude, I don’t think this is intentional, but there are some actions I think are worth taking.

If you look at the Trending section of Thread Reader as I post this you’re gonna see people angry at Kavanaugh, which is good. Usually, though, you’re probably going to see a lot of Trump fans, a couple of QAnon threads, a random thread… and maybe a progressive thread. Maybe.

Does that matter? Yeah, probably — a lot of us use the site to save off interesting threads, and we link to those threads, and that means a bunch of conspiracy propaganda is one click away from our links, and it’s presented as “trending.” This is a very small scale example of the kind of algorithmic radicalization that Zeynep Tufekci and James Bridle have written about. (Phrase coined by Kim-Mai Cutler.)

I’ve been scraping the trending threads from the Thread Reader front page hourly for a month, along with metadata: who posted them, how many subscribers they have on Thread Reader, hash tags, links, etc. I wanna dig more but I did some quick and dirty number crunching which is worth sharing.

The big dog of Thread Reader is Thomas Wictor. Over the month I’ve been watching, he’s had 42 threads in trending. He’s full of conspiracy theories about how Trump is setting people up — not a QAnon guy but the same kind of themes. He has 1120 followers. The number 2 poster is Stealth Jeff. He credits Thomas with converting him to a Trump fan. Jeff had 20 trending threads in a month, and has 827 followers. Number 3 is a guy named REX. He cites Stealth Jeff and Thomas Wictor often. “Now I can’t prove that this 4Chan prank was a Trump hit, but it wouldn’t surprise me.” He had 16 trending threads last month and 566 followers.

At number 4, we have Lisa Mei Crowley, our first QAnon follower. She had 11 trending threads in a month, 479 followers. Number 5 is Praying Medic, also a QAnon follower. 10 threads, 820 followers.

The first left-winger on the list is Seth Abramson, in sixth place with 5 trending threads over the month. He has 567 followers. After him there’re three people with 3 trending threads, 14 people with 2, and 91 with 1. (Hi, Ed Whelan!)

Generally speaking if you have more than a few hundred followers and you roll up threads frequently you can count on getting onto the trending list regularly. Notable progressive tweet-stormers have lots of threads rolled up — but no followers and thus rarely trend.

I also tracked hashtags and @mentions. Top five used hashtags in order: qanon, maga, fakenews, spygate, and metoo. Most often referenced Twitter accounts: Trump, POTUS, Jeff Flake, Chuck Grassley, General Flynn… and sixth is Thomas Wictor again. Thomas just got banned from Twitter again, by the by.

This is what algorithmic radicalization looks like. It’s the unintentional result of algorithms which highlight popular content. If you’re turned off by the list of trending threads, you’re less likely to make an account. Positive feedback loop.

So: algorithms are easy to game. The behavior we see on TRA may or may not be people gaming the system; doesn’t matter. If you think it would be a good idea to see more sane ideas trending on the biggest Twitter threading platform, make an account at Thread Reader — it’s free. Subscribe to your faves. If they’re OK with it, roll up their threads. The numbers are low in absolute terms; it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference.

Three Billboards and the Moral Rot of Chief Willoughby

I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other night, finally, and then (as is my way) devoured as many reviews as possible and man, my take on Chief Willoughby is different.

Before I hit spoiler territory — yeah, this was a flawed movie. Vox has a backgrounder which is mostly pretty good. I agree that Dixon is not redeemed at the end of the movie, but McDonagh’s black characters are in fact just plot devices. It’s a painful flaw. That said, onward.