Taking PCs’ Stuff: better D&D via Apocalypse World

This post is primarily about D&D’s 5th edition (5e), though it is more broadly applicable. If you don’t know anything about roleplaying games, you might want to read this article first.

This post looks to Apocalypse World (AW) for inspiration on when to take away, use up, or activate the downsides of PCs’ stuff in 5e. Some of these ideas are already present (or suggested) in 5e, but I’ve frequently forgotten to use them. My hope is that this thought-jumble will remind me to use them in the future, and that my ponderings can be useful to other people as well.

Some games are better served by *not* using these ideas. They create a specific tone, more consistent with gritty explorers and dungeon delvers rather than high-powered fantasy adventure or flashy social intrigue.

Lastly, I think it’s important to implement these ideas from the outset, or to introduce them gradually and explicitly. Using these ideas changes the way the PCs’ world works, and might not meet the players’ assumptions. It’s rude to pull the rug out from under the players by making changes suddenly and without warning. I’d want my players’ buy-in before incorporating these ideas into my game, whether that means setting the game’s tone at the start or getting the players’ agreement to them mid-campaign.

With that out of the way… when should we take away the player characters’ (PCs’) stuff?

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

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This book is a delight.

This is one of the most character-focused small-scale stories I’ve read in a while; it feels both literary and feminist in that way, delving into personal moments and paying attention to humanizing (“personizing”? Several characters are aliens after all) every character. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has emotional depth that was often lacking in the science fiction I read growing up, and delivers the wanderlust and quiet tension of venturing between the stars. I love it for that.

This book is a series of well-crafted vignettes that build upon each other time and again. Subsequent layers add depth and import, making the journey of the ship and its crew as much an emotional one as a physical one. I know I’ve just described how most novels should work, but something about this story made me hyper-aware of that fact in a very good way. Let me try to explain.

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Overlord

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Overlord is a pulpy, terrifying thrill ride of a B-movie. It feels like an over-the-top World War 2 Delta Green scenario, and an homage to a genre I learned to love through John Carpenter’s films. Having read more about the movie, and learned more about the practical effects used, I’m even more impressed.

As a B-movie it’s quite good, though it rang a bit hollow for me. I think there might have been a little more to the character development arc for Jovan Adepo’s Boyce that didn’t survive to the theatrical cut I saw, and I would have loved to see that. But it’s probably okay: high tension Nazi-killing historical science fiction B-movies aren’t best known for their character development.

I initially wasn’t sure whether to feel happy or miffed about the movie’s portrayal of the 101st Airborne as an integrated force when it was not. Here’s Wikipedia’s article on racial segregation in the US armed forces.

The happy side has won. It’s very easy to explain.

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Duality and Thematic Tension in RPGs: Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts

I’ve recently been working on a swords & sorcery-inspired Apocalypse World (AW) hack, trying to create something which fits the themes present in Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, Steven Brust’s Taltos novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. In doing this, I’ve had an interesting realization about the construction of AW and the games it has inspired: dualistic tension in the games’ principles drives the dramatic and thematic tension which fuels their best stories.

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The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

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From the end of my reading-log entry for this book: “How the fuck does he do it? Read it again, write in the margins. Buy your own copy.”

What can I possibly say about Seth Dickinson‘s The Traitor Baru Cormorant?

I fear my words will scare you away. This book is painful, heartfelt, and beautiful. I cannot convey the magnitude by which this book surpasses others I’ve read. You’re missing out if you do not read this. Take care of yourself when you do.

I nearly finished it on a rainy day last spring. A twinge of self-preservation made me put down the book with several chapters remaining; I somehow knew to finish it when the sun was shining and I could take time for myself.

I was right. Finishing it, I cried as the book continued to do what it had always done: grab my heart and then methodically twist it into pieces, leaving just enough for hope.

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Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

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With only a little exposure to her work, I’m already a fan of Laini Taylor‘s words. Her evocations of character and place, particularly in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, are sumptuous and possess the brilliant clarity of a portrait etched in glass. If you’re fond of reading beautiful things and you like romantic YA fantasy, this is a good book for you.

There were several pieces of this book that made me bounce, but I think most of them are because I’m not this book’s target audience. For example…

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I return!

Hello everyone. It’s been a while.

I’m revivifying Fistful of Wits, which has (you may have noticed) lain fallow for a while. There are a few ways in which my use of this site will change, and I’ll outline that here.

First, I’m planning to post more regularly again. Probably weekly.

Second, I’m not going to post nearly as much fiction as I used to. I’ll explain that in a moment.

Third, I’m going to post more teaser-y things. I’ll explain that too.

Fourth, I’ll tell you what I’m wanting from all of this. I’ll cover that last.

What will I post? What will I tease?

To start, Fistful of Wits will continue to be mostly about stories, games, and story games. I’ll return to my old habit of occasional reviews. I may also post essays of a sort—their focus and quality may vary, and some of my reviews might transmogrify into essays in the process of writing them. I’m likely to post the beginnings of long-form projects. Since I want to finally publish a few RPG scenarios of mine, I may post pieces of those. I will, occasionally, write about whatever comes to mind… but John Scalzi already has Whatever so I can’t just steal the url and rename this site.

I’ll also use this site to tell you when my work has been published elsewhere.

What about those explanations?

I won’t be posting as much fiction as I used to because (as I may have noted before) anything I publish in full here is nearly impossible to sell elsewhere. I do want to sell my work and have it published to a wider audience. Until this site offers me a broader audience of people who’ve never heard of me before (definitionally unlikely), selling my work elsewhere is the name of the game.

My idea for teasers is roughly as follows: I can post rough drafts of the early chapters of longer stories, and fragments of other kinds of work. My old openings to both Barium Deep and Miska are decent examples of the first option. For the second, I might use the opening hooks and setting elements for a scenario, or the tables and adventure tools I’ve been creating. I would be happy to find other ways to share things here, but I’m not sure what those would be. If you have ideas, please share!

What do I want from this? What are my goals?

I want to share my stories and games and ideas with the world. I want to know that they’re being shared and (ideally) valued. I want to preserve (and grow) my future publishing opportunities, and I want to increase the value of creative work in our capitalist society instead of depressing it. That last bit means I refuse to be a scab or work for free.

My goals here are to (re)grow a community of readers; create new writing, editing, and storytelling opportunities for myself; sell people on the work that I create; and spread the word about the fun, cool things I love. I may create a crowd-funding setup for myself—to share more of my work with you without precluding publishing it, and let you suggest new directions for me to explore—but I’m still reading the related fine print.

If you like the sound of all that, stick around.

Coco

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Feast your eyes.

I’m going to keep this incredibly short, and will avoid spoilers to the best of my ability.

I have now seen this movie twice. I will probably see it again while it is still in theaters. I cannot say well enough how much this movie has affected me. I have regularly teared up while simply thinking about it. After seeing it the second time, I now find it hard to hum the central song because I start to cry. It’s really exceptionally good.

Coco is set in Mexico and the Land of the Dead over the course of Día de los Muertos. It is about a young boy named Miguel, and his relationships with his family and with his dreams. It deals with family, memory, legacy, and death—and the joys and costs of following your dreams. It is also about controlling the lives of others.

I loved damn near every minute of it. And I spent roughly the last third of the movie crying, thinking I was done crying, and then crying some more. Also laughing.

The themes of death, remembrance, legacy, and memory all resonated strongly with me. This may be because most members of my family in my grandparents’ generation are dead, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking of and mourning them. It didn’t hurt that the rest of the movie all sat well too.

If you’re worried about representation and appropriation, I’d like to note that Latinx critics have been relentlessly positive (*SOME SPOILERS IN THAT LINK*) about the film, and that the vast majority of the cast is Latinx (along with significant members of the writing, directing, and design staff). Honestly, it looks like Pixar has succeeded fabulously with this one. I don’t think I can recommend watching it strongly enough.

I have difficulty fathoming why Disney chose to package this film with a 25 minute Frozen short immediately preceding it, which cannot help but suffer by comparison, but I assure you that the short is worth sitting through for the sake of seeing Coco.

In Transit

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This is a documentary by Albert Maysles (and others), covering people traveling on the Amtrak train Empire Builder (which travels from Chicago to Seattle or Portland, OR). It’s really good. Like, emotionally stirring, inspiring-as-a-piece-of-art-and-otherwise good.

Some of my appreciation for it comes from being a writer and knowing the struggle to create believably human people in media with limited resources. In Transit feels like an effortless skim across the surface of many people’s lives, but each one feels real, deep, often emotionally compelling, and always very human. Which in turn means that the editing was spectacular, because they turned disparate piecemeal vignettes into something that feels whole, and they did such a good job that it feels *natural.*

It’s a textbook example of character construction done right. But the team that made this did so many other story construction things right too, and the emotional impact was incredible and… In Transit is overwhelming, but in a good way.

When I say that the film is overwhelming, I mean that there are so many brief moments of intensely believable humanity that feel honest and wonderful and often bittersweet… so many of these moments that it’s difficult to know what to think as you leave the theater. I felt almost stunned as I walked home, and I still feel awe when I think about the movie.

In the skillful ways in which it reveals humanity with such economy of time and focus, In Transit feels like what a storyteller ought to aspire to. I would strongly recommend watching it, especially if you are in the practice of creating characters that you want to feel like real people.

If you are not in the practice of creating characters, I would strongly recommend that you watch it anyway. This movie is marvelous and moving in many unexpected ways.

The film’s site can be found here: http://www.intransitfilm.com/.

Sadly, it seems that Albert Maysles died before this was released. More details on that (and the uncertain future of the film due to rights disputes) here.

Atomic Blonde

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Convoluted, paranoia-inspiring, and extremely violent, Atomic Blonde feels like what a Bond film would be if the brutality of 2006’s Casino Royale met the conflicted and complicated world of *actual* spy fiction.

Actually, that’s a better description of the movie than I’d thought it would be. Atomic Blonde is full of gorgeously choreographed and grimly performed fight scenes (as one might expect from David Leitch, director of John Wick), and it is definitely not a film intended for a passive or unthinking audience. The underlying story is twisty, and nearly every person’s loyalty is deeply questionable, enough so that I spent a good portion of the movie not sure who was on which side; perfect, really, for this sort of spy movie. Not so good if you’re watching this thinking that you’ll have a neatly packaged Bond-esque film, but quite possibly more fun because of that.

I kind of wish that there’d been a little more in the way of clues for me to catch throughout the movie, or that I’d put together the ones that were there faster. If I had, I wouldn’t have been quite as confused in the end. But when I reflect on it, everything holds together, and I only have a deeper appreciation for what’s there.

I won’t give you any spoilers (apart from saying that if you can’t handle visceral uncomfortable violence, you probably shouldn’t watch this movie), but I will say that I rather liked Atomic Blonde. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, and I’m glad that it wasn’t. While I’d happily watch Charlize Theron play Bond in some sly, neatly packaged, thoroughly sanitized version of what current American moviegoers have come to think of as “a spy-action movie,” the gnawing distrust and complicated loyalties of Atomic Blonde deliver an excellent spy movie experience, and a better one than I’d thought I’d find.