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New Gamers in the Apocalypse

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.

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.

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.

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 started out 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.
  • I ruthlessly pruned the Monstrous and the Spell-Slinger playbooks 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. I wanted to force someone to play the Luchadore, but I restrained myself.
  • Be ready for people to want to play themselves, especially in a modern game. 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.

Blog Merge: LFR 2010

Most of my hobby time in 2010 went to playing Living Forgotten Realms. I had a really good time doing it, for the most part. As I recall I’d been playing since early 2009; I know I started playing in Boston and it turned into our main gaming outlet once we moved down to the Baltimore area.

In 2010, I decided to try and play 50 LFR games over the course of the year, and further decided to blog them all in one of those occasional fits of organization I have. This was a wildly unambitious goal, as it turned out. I wound up playing or GMing 120 games. I’m pretty sure I pushed through one or two of those in December so that I could hit a round number.

I never did hit epic tier with Reed. I can’t imagine how I would dig up enough players to do that even informally now; kind of a pity. Man, he was a great character, though. I used to start out adventures by hiring a bunch of townsfolk to cheer him and Faral on their way out of town.

Anyhow! For some reason I did all that blogging on a Tumblr, and it occurred to me today that some day that’ll go away, so I spent an hour or so importing them back to WordPress and fixing up the tags. A few of the links will be broken unless I get around to fixing them eventually, but the whole insane year is now captured under the lfr2010 tag. Call it a very very small slice of gaming history.

Boy, either my cell phone camera was really terrible or Tumblr killed the resolution on my photos. Sorry about that.

A Face In The Crowd

I was perusing the Criterion Channel’s themed collections the other day and realized that the Caught on Tape collection was a) smack dab in my wheelhouse and b) mostly unseen by me. So in an effort to get my money’s worth out of my subscription, I decided to work through the whole collection. I’ve seen Diva and The Lives of Others before, but both are well worth revisiting.

The first movie was A Face in the Crowd, which doesn’t actually fit into the collection theme but never mind that. I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned evil American populist movie, mostly because of my Huey Long obsession. This was that.

Andy Griffith was really awesome. Like everyone else in the world I think of him as the down to earth charming guy. His “Lonesome” Rhodes had all the charm plus a huge helping of self-centered evil, so that was great. He’s always just on the edge of over-acting which is a perfect fit for his kinda dumb drifter character.

His downfall is a great exemplar of the myth of exposure, which is particularly poignant lately. “Trump can’t possibly wriggle out of this one… ah, yes. Well. Nevertheless.” We know better than to believe that exposed contempt will strip away popularity these days; it’s wryly amusing to see one of the early expressions of that trope. To be fair the public turned against Nixon, so perhaps Kazan and Schulberg weren’t completely off-base.

They got the rest of it right, though. A billionaire and a Senator backing the populist for their own ends? Yep. Nativist sentiment as a political tool? Yep — and that was the most chilling scene of the movie.

Hexhounds Ephemera: Index

The point of all this isn’t that I did amazing prep. I wanted to push myself towards sandbox style improvised play and using index cards (total: 115) was an excellent way to keep myself from getting too wordy. I offer my illegible handwriting in hopes that other GMs with crappy handwriting will find the example useful.

Here’s the list of posts:

Hexhounds: Letter from Griggs

Almost forgot! I handed the players this letter towards the beginning of the last session. “The individual of whom we spoke” was Etty’s demon-possessed mom. Before Setarra possessed her and before she got engaged to Lord Scurlock (the aged child), she was stuck in Ironhook Prison as a result of the fall of their noble house.