Archive for March, 2008

Lions in the Snow Mountains

2008 Mar 27

This is a hack of Dogs in the Vineyard for exploring the contemporary unrest in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and surrounding areas. All the players play Tibetans and the majority should be young people under 30 but old enough to willfully commit violence in full knowledge (otherwise the game lacks a moral “fruitful void” to explore). One player can be a monk or nun, if they like, and one player can choose to have a position in the Party (including the Youth League), government, or military, but the rest should have non-clerical, non-state jobs or be students.

Each character should have an “I am Tibetan” trait instead of the standard “I am a Dog” trait. This can take many different forms, as usual. Consider how different is to say “I am a Tibetan nun” or “I’m secretly working for the Tibetan Youth Congress” or “I am a Muslim Tibetan” or “I am a Tibetan cadre” or “I am a Tibetan security officer.”

Instead of a coat, you have a traditional Tibetan knife. This starts as a standard d6 object, but you can describe it however you like and give it dice accordingly for being high quality or big or crappy or whatever. Yes, you can totally roll your knife dice in conflicts.

You cannot escalate to gunfighting without a gun and live ammunition. None of the Tibetan characters start out with loaded guns, not even soldiers or security officers. It’s possible that soldiers and security offers have guns that are issued to them, but they cannot check out live ammo to use with them unless authorized by the appropriate authorities. In most situations, they will not even be allowed to carry guns, as the Chinese government is decidedly uninterested in arming Tibetans. The GM’s NPCs, however, can certainly have loaded guns, especially if they are Chinese soldiers or security forces.

Characters can feel however they want to about the situation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, the “Middle Way” (the non-violent approach of the Tibetan exile government), the Chinese state, the Communist Party, etc. Like Dogs in the Vineyard, this game isn’t pushing a particular agenda or point of view. That’s the fruitful void. Instead, the game is about personal choices related to the use of violence and the consequences of those choices.

As such, the GM’s role is to keep escalating things, both inside and outside conflicts, exploring under what conditions the players will, for example, choose to draw their knife and use it, because, even for people committed to non-violence, violent action always seems to be an attractive and effective option. Once violence has been committed, by one side or another, the GM is then tasked with following the consequences of that violence, guided by Fallout. The GM’s other role is to continue to complicate black-and-white situations and ask the players to reconsider previously accepted truths. “All Chinese are bad? What about this poor shop owner from Henan who’s just trying to feed his family? Okay, not him? What if he distrusts Tibetans? Now he’s bad? What if he’s Buddhist, just like you? What happens when you have to choose between saving him or yourself?” Etc.

The goal of the players, as in any game of Dogs is to try to fix things, drawing on their limited resources. Unlike in Dogs, the characters aren’t free to move to the next town. This is where they live. Characters can leave the game, temporarily or permanently, by leaving for college or a job in the eastern provinces, going abroad somehow, going to prison, or being killed. Or the game can simply end when you reach a suitable point.

I suggest reading up a bit about the recent violence if you’re planning on actually running it. A good source is China Digital Times.

China’s Response

2008 Mar 25

Time for a break from games to deal with the real world.

This article makes me really frustrated. It also, I suspect, represents the feelings of a sizable portion of the Chinese population, not just the government. But what it really symbolizes to me is a lack of any real communication, which is what is likely to continue if China’s Olympic year keeps going in the direction it’s been sliding down for the past few weeks. Protests and condemnation, especially from outside China, do not generally lead to any change of heart on the side of the Chinese government. Instead, it rallies the people and the state together against outside meddling. There is a persecution complex here, one that has developed over many centuries of outside abuse and internal weakness (and embarrassment about internal weakness).

China, as a couple of scholars have recently pointed out, is becoming a world power in the 19th century model. It never had a really colonialist or imperialist era of its own. It hasn’t suffered from massive military defeats due to its own over-reaching ambition (like the British or the Japanese or the Russian or the United States in Vietnam and Iraq). Nationalism hasn’t given way to jaded cynicism.

What this means: things will have to get much, much worse before there is much hope of them getting significantly better, since that would require a total restructuring of the current order. That means a lot of human suffering. (There will be no peaceful Color Revolution to democracy in China. That moment passed in 1989.) But, if the last month is any indication, the suffering may be beginning.

Zhang Wang Brings It

2008 Mar 22

There’s this Chinese comic artist Zhang Wang who’s getting a fair bit of buzz on the internet. It’s easy to see why. He’s mastered the art of traditional Chinese linework, useful when illustrating flowing gowns, chainmail, and long hair, but he also takes it somewhere different, something clearly influenced by Western comic art and Japanese manga. Check out his takes on Ox-Head and Horse-Face the head demon jailers of the underworld, the hunting god Er Lang, and a demonic judge.

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Geiger Working Draft

2008 Mar 21

You remember back when I posted a draft of the playtest draft of 108 Bravos? This is like that, except for Geiger Counter. Blame that John guy (jenskot), who mentioned liking how I try to design in public over on Story Games. I’ve been working on Geiger in private for a bit, and I wanted to show the really ugly prototype draft, so other folks might be inspired to put one of these together for their game, in whatever state it’s in.

This ugly beast of a Geiger prototype (PDF) will eventually be a list of accessible instructions for running the game, rather than the current hodgepodge of notes. This will probably be the format I stick with for the ashcan version I’ll be giving away at GenCon, and maybe for the final version as well, we’ll see. I’m hoping that writing it in this format may make it easier to play successfully and maybe means it sees more play than most games released for outside playtest.

I’ve already gotten some good feedback and questions on this draft from Justin Jacobson, Paul Tevis, and John Harper, who I sent this version to a few days back, so hopefully there’ll be a better one up by the end of next week that’s more suitable for outside playtesting. This is really just meant as a peak of what my working draft looks like in process. Comments, questions, and suggestions are most welcome.

Addressing Conflicts from Multiple Angles

2008 Mar 21

In all the games that I can think of that are about human conflicts – Carry, Grey Ranks, Steal Away Jordan, Bliss Stage, Night Witches, Sign in Stranger – none of them, with the notable exceptions of Shock and Cold City, are set up to allow you to look at a conflict from multiple competing perspectives, representing different sides of the conflict and understanding better how such a painful knot of opposing interests came into being and sustains itself. Even in Shock and Cold City, that element is not quite as strong as I would like.

Shock is terrific at running games where you play members of competing interests who may not even be directly aware of each other, but that’s not what the game necessarily encourages you to do. Plus, the stated goal of using the game to tell science fiction stories is unfortunately limiting, since Shock, as a system, is terrific for handling all sorts of historical and contemporary settings. But I worry a bit about the potential for the praxis scales to oversimplify complex situations, especially when I think about using Shock to address the Angolan Civil War or the current unrest in Tibet.

Likewise, the setup of Cold City, where you play members of a multinational task force tasked with hunting down Nazi monsters, is a bit too unrealistic to allow for a really intense examination of Cold War issues, in most cases. Additionally, the system doesn’t really have the right emphasis for the kind of educational, explorative play I have in mind. The trust mechanics, adapted from The Mountain Witch, simplify something that I think would be better left to the “fruitful void.” The split between personal and factional goals, though, might be something worth borrowing, to make characters both exemplify their faction, but also be real human beings underneath.

Emily’s A Day in the War, an adaptation of Eero’s Zombies at the Door intended to educate people about post-invasion Iraq, is the closest thing I’ve yet seen to a game that is set up to illustrate how different groups of people with competing interests create or perpetuate humanitarian disasters. Characters are explicitly drawn from multiple competing factions and are not quantified in any way, aside from a general description that doesn’t even need to be written down, necessarily. They are only measured by how far they are to achieving their goal and, in the JiffyCon playtest, these were always personal goals, but influenced by the larger goals of your faction. Additionally, there was an independent marker measuring the general level of chaos and conflict in which the characters operated.

There are a few things about the game that could be adjusted, though it really depends on what the overall purposes is.

Currently, the level of chaos only goes up, not down. While this is good for showing how terrible things can be, it’s not necessarily reflective of how conflicts actually work. Sometimes, the peaceful times between stages of violence can feed the cycle, because people return to their lives or gather resources only to have both stripped away when the violence returns. Also, it seems like people aren’t always unable to achieve their goals because of the level of chaos and violence around them. Sometimes, the situation could be relatively okay, but the competing interests of those around you and one’s own bad luck could prevent success from being achieved. So perhaps this could change a bit?

Conflicts are also a zero-sum gain. If a character wants to get closer to their goal, they have to push another character further away from that character’s goal. I really like many things that this mechanic indicates: that competing goals often mean someone loses out or at least appears to lose out, even if that’s not what anyone intends. And this is really great if we’re mainly interested in educating people about conflicts and not many any statements about, for example, how people can take productive action to make conflicts not zero-sum for the parties involved. That might be the best approach to take, honestly, since suggesting, for instance, that the Israelis and Palestinians can easily solve their conflict by compromising and working together is more than a little presumptuous. Better, I think, to leave potential solutions to post-game conversations than suggest them through the mechanics of the game. So I’ll probably push for this to stay the same.

Luke & Vincent Share a Difficult Conversation

2008 Mar 20

I’m not sure if I can do this conversation justice, but it’s a very important thing to listen to, since it gets at many of the major issues at the heart of indie roleplaying’s current period of self-reflection and adjustment: mutualism, money, egos, feeling supported by your fellow designers, quality, being the prettiest or the best, social circles, regionalism, punk-rock do-it-yourself style, talking shit on the internet, retreating from the internet, blogs vs. forums vs. face-to-face, hurt feelings, looking backward, and looking forward.

Education is Activism

2008 Mar 19

Just something I’ve started talking about with Eero Tuovinen and Emily Care Boss, based on games they’ve previously worked on.


If this ever starts rolling, I want to talk to Julia Ellingboe, Gregor Hutton, and Jason Morningstar about it to, among others, as we consider using roleplaying to spread awareness about and better understand important bits of human experience. The Angolan Civil War is near the top of my list, after contemporary Tibet. What’s on yours? What global conflicts and issues could be better understood through game of Shock: or A Day in the Life?

A Day in Tibet

2008 Mar 16

I’ve been thinking about writing up brief guidelines for playing Emily Care Boss’ A Day in the War, but set during the riots currently going on in Tibet and nearby provinces. There are so many horrifying-and-yet-important stories to tell, many of which will not get much airtime in all the focus on the larger “Tibet vs. China” issues. But games can do small-scale, personal stories better than the news media, I think.

You could play a Tibetan monk or nun who was involved in the early peaceful protests, trying to figure out how to react to both the harsh crackdown by Chinese security forces and the violent ethnic nationalism and race riots of your fellow Tibetans, wondering how what was supposed to be a peace movement suddenly became so bloody and dangerous.

You could play a Han security officer from a middle-sized city on the east coast who agreed to move out to Tibet because the pay was better. You’d be surrounded by an environment in which any situation involving Tibetans (and, in Tibet, most situations do) is viewed as inherently dangerous, because almost all male Tibetans carry ceremonial knives. This is a big deal in a country where policemen often go unarmed. Maybe you could even be Buddhist and not be sure how you feel about using riot tactics (tear gas, clubs) against monks.

You could play one of the growing number of Hui (another Chinese minority) Muslims in Lhasa, struck by a chunk of concrete thrown by an angry Tibetan mob, watching, bleeding as your mosque is burned down, even though you have nothing to do with Chinese policies in Tibet and may not like Han people much either.

You could be a poor Han shopowner, recently arrived in Tibet because your family was starving in rural Gansu, but here you could get a loan to open a store selling instant ramen, bottled water, and sunflower seeds to Han tourists in the old Tibetan quarter. Maybe one of your children was burned to death when rioters set fire to your shop and you struggled to get everyone out alive.

And, of course, you could play a rioting Tibetan youth, sick of the Chinese government’s oppressive policies in Tibet, sick of Han immigration into Lhasa, angry at the growing number of Hui Muslims in the central city of Tibetan Buddhism. In one hand, you have a chunk of concrete; in the other, a can of petrol. You left your knife at home, so no one would get hurt, but you do think that it’s time someone scared these invaders a bit…


2008 Mar 14

Trailers are an essential part of the way contemporary people experience movies, especially movies in the genres that Geiger Counter seeks to emulate. Most people, I suspect, don’t go see survival movies unless they have been enticed by the trailer or liked previous films in the series. And trailers do a great deal to set up audience expectations. The audience has seen images and knows a basic outline of the plot.

Take the trailer for the new movie, The Ruins. After watching it I know: it’s about a group of teenage American tourists getting attacked by an infectious plant monster in an abandoned Mayan temple, where the locals won’t let them leave, probably because they want the tourists to be fed to the monster. Also, I have in mind a couple of the disastrous things that will happen. At least one of the kids gets the monster’s tendrils inside of them. It looks like one kid gets shot with an arrow (an arrow?!) by the locals. And I have a few key images in mind, most clearly that gaping stone maw at the top of the temple. All of these build my expectations for the movie before I go see it (if I go see it).

I’m trying to figure out how to implement these in Geiger Counter. I remember that when I played in my first Primetime Adventures game, Dharma Thieves, one of the strongest parts of play was “Next time, on Dharma Thieves…” where each player described one image from next week’s episode. At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure how we’d make sure those images actually happened (or if it was even necessary for all of those “predictions” to turn out to be true), but it was sure exciting. We never had a second episode, so I’m not sure how it would work. That’s the kind of thing that I’d love to have in Geiger Counter, as part of the pre-game.

One idea I’m toying with: every player comes up with a kind of general image / tagline that they’d like to have happen at some point in the movie. These get described as part of the “trailer,” written on index cards, and are placed in a row next to the map. These images / lines can then be grabbed by players at any point in the game and narrated in as appropriate, making them act as little narrative waypoints that the players play connect-the-dots with. I almost think this kind of thing could even replace the Fateful Mistake rules I came up with in the last draft (though Orthogonal Goals would stay), since I imagine most Mistakes are prime trailer content (“The electric fence is down!” “We’re trapped in here!” etc.).


PDF Playtest Draft Coming

2008 Mar 13