Hobgoblin (from Mike Hutchinson)

Yesterday I played my first match of Hobgoblin. It was a delight, and an epiphany.

I’ve wanted something like this for years. I was in middle school when I got a copy of the core rulebook for Warhammer Fantasy. I read through that book cover to cover, and then I read it again. I bought a faction’s army book (for the Skaven) with all their special rules and abilities, and read through that over and over too. I bought my first box of models. I yearned to play.

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Banality and slow-burn horror

What if horror games are actually driven by banality? Is Call of Cthulhu best when it’s mostly full of the everyday?

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Worldbuilding: leave room for later

Leave yourself room for later. If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing lots of worldbuilding—for my own linear fiction and for the collaborative fiction of RPGs—it’s that trying to fill every last nook and cranny of a setting is a daunting task. And actually filling up everything is choking, stifling. Don’t fill up everything. It leaves no room for the future, and it leaves no room for anyone else.

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Chasing realism is a trap

Chasing realism is a trap.

This might be true of art in general, but it’s video game graphics that keep reminding me of it. Chasing realism is an expensive luxury. Unless realism is a core part of whatever you’re trying to make, it’s probably not worth fixating on it. That’s because…

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Dogs in the Vineyard, moral conundrums, quick thoughts

Somehow, despite a decade of posts on this blog, I’ve never gone in-depth into Dogs in the Vineyard or what I love so much about it. There’s more to Dogs than I could easily cover in a single post: cooperative story-telling and turn-taking, cinematic descriptive and narrative tools, a conflict mechanic that encourages brinksmanship and escalation, a well-articulated method for understanding what’s at stake… all those elements are a delight.

But there’s another piece that Dogs explicitly encourages groups to home in on. That’s the experience of wrestling with moral conundrums, something many modern CRPGs both want—and struggle—to deliver. That’s what I’m focused on today.

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Majora’s Mask, Time, & Consequences, quick thoughts

I’m thinking about Majora’s Mask again.

One of my RPG groups is currently struggling to solve several time loops and their various disasters. I love time loops (see my thoughts on Palm Springs). But at the end of our last run some of my players asked: “Are we actually getting anywhere? Because I don’t want to keep doing this if we’re not making any progress.” And that showed me that I needed to open up a little more, because, well…

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Megacorp Nobility, my cyberpunk + feudalism brainworm

Cyberpunk megacorps are feudal hierarchies… or at least they’re close enough that we can map one to the other. My brain wandered into this realization a few months ago, and now I can’t stop thinking about cyberpunk stories and fantasy or historical fiction through this lens. If I’m stuck with it, I might as well share it with you.

A set of feudal class assumptions are baked into many cyberpunk stories; the corporate elite, the people running the mega corps are just a renamed set of feudal lords. This lends itself perfectly to the preservation of power within the corporation’s systems. Story-wise, this parallel makes the corporate power politicking easier to understand. We can simply hold onto our assumptions about feudal nobility, swap the words in the marquee, and get a rough idea of whatever is going on.

Is the mapping perfect? Not quite. Some power structures are a little different. Some power is passed differently from one generation of leaders to the next than it is / was in feudal nobility. Transitions of power are probably less bloody.

But the same class divide is still there, separating those with rank in the megacorp (nobility) from the have-nots. The nepotism is often still there. The same sense of inbred privilege and power is there. The same social expectations still reign supreme—a scion of the corporation owes their loyalty to the corp, and will obey the CEO their liege. Power flows down through the hierarchy, and the ultimate responsibility of any person in authority is to contribute the power they create to the corporation’s (the kingdom’s) bottom line.

Most of the same caveats apply too. Maybe someone plans to make a power play, attempting to supplant a current member of the C-suite or the Board. They still need to create a strong enough claim to that position, garner influence and support, etc., before they attempt any sort of uprising. People in a cyberpunk megacorp who make a play for a higher position and fail are likely to suffer consequences, from a slap on the wrist to firing to pressing criminal charges (with whatever repercussions those charges might have).

Honestly, I could go further, draw more parallels with other systems: the key, as far as I can tell, is how each system embodies kyriarchy (a power structure built around assumptions of domination). I’ll leave it here for the moment.

As with many other elements of cyberpunk worldbuilding, I think this connection between semi-feudal social dynamics and corporate hierarchy was frustratingly prescient. Advocates for neo-feudalism exist now (usually with ties to one or many of authoritarianism, the Dark Enlightenment, white supremacist movements, accelerationists, and extreme adherents to the Gospel of Wealth-style capitalist meritocracy myth). Our society’s continuing concentration of power, privilege, and access to wealth and its benefits further stratifies the population and creates a new form of aristocracy, breaking down the egalitarianism that strengthens democracy. All this—the way in which our world continues to develop in strange parallel with the dystopian warnings of cyberpunk novels—gives us another perspective on how to map historical or fantasy feudalism and corporate feudalism onto each other.

I don’t have more here at the moment. I’ve just had this brainworm gnawing at my thoughts for a while. That’s why I’ve been dreaming up feudal fantasy versions of cyberpunk stories and cyberpunk versions of classic tales of medieval nobility. There could be something fun done with the Fisher King in a cyberpunk setting, right?

5e is wrong about Charisma

Hot take: D&D 5e gets Charisma dead wrong. 5e only acknowledges a tiny slice of the greater whole: Charisma isn’t about being likable, it’s about being compelling. It’s about being a metaphysical Mack truck on a highway full of smart cars.

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Circles of Belief, Quick Thoughts

I first heard the phrase “circle of belief” as a young teen, and have found it to be a useful mental model ever since. I thought I’d written about it here before, and was wrong. While looking for other sourcing for this post I found a lot of Slayer lyrics and not much else, so… here goes.

Someone’s circle of belief governs what they see as plausible, something they can follow along with, versus what they see as implausible or alien. There’s a lot of overlap with genre expectations or something similar, but they’re not quite the same. The key is that everyone has a circle of belief for any given context. When I’m trying to shape someone’s circle of belief I’m not trying to alter their genre expectations writ large—just their specific assumptions for a given story or game.

Note: this is more or less how propaganda and political messaging works. Here, though, I’m going to focus on fun fiction and story games.

Expected and accepted elements exist inside the circle of belief—they do not require any additional suspension of disbelief from the audience. Working inside a circle of belief is relatively low effort. Inside the circle of belief, you don’t have to convince the audience to agree with you. You don’t risk alienating your audience by including an element that doesn’t fit. Breaking an established circle of belief, however, may push someone out of the story.

When reading a fantasy story, elements like dwarves and elves probably fit inside most people’s circle of belief, while giant killer robots probably don’t. Similarly, a sober spy novel has lots of room within most readers’ circles of belief for skullduggery and betrayal. But if that spy story suddenly featured a goblin going on air and declaring herself a prophet, that might break the audience’s circle of belief and create cognitive dissonance. That cognitive dissonance can lead to confusion and disenchantment. Breaking the circle of belief can break audience members’ emotional investment in a story or their suspension of disbelief,  and a story which had been fun could become too bizarre to enjoy.

This isn’t to say that those examples above would be inherently bad stories. Each of those examples could exist and be done well. The audience’s circle of belief could be shaped to include them. But shaping that circle of belief requires specific work, and it takes more work the further the new circle of belief is from the audience’s existing circles of belief.

That work could involve carefully laying out clues and hints before some surprise reveal, a genre twist. Alternately, that work could require laying out the future story elements as early and blatantly as possible to prepare the audience for later. Tropes and foreshadowing, for example, offer more options for manipulating circles of belief—as does marketing copy. If I describe a story as “Harry Potter but ___,” the audience will probably assume they know large chunks of what to expect.

Each person’s expectations will be a little different, of course. Everyone has their own circles of belief.

In many ways, this laying-out-the-elements is what worldbuilding is about. Every little detail can build context for the larger story, and thereby shape the audience’s expectations. But it’s easiest to do this work at the very start of a story. That’s because, in general, the longer a given circle of belief remains static the more work you must do to change it.

In RPGs, and any time that you’re in a shared narrative space, it’s important to know what is inside and what is outside of your fellow players’ circles of belief. That could be for the structure of the game itself: I might assume that my character could die, or that the storyteller is my adversary, while someone else might assume that we’re playing a collaborative narrative game. It could also be for the fiction within the game: I presume that we’re playing a hard fantasy game, while the storyteller thinks this is a magical post-apocalypse full of the ruins of ancient civilizations. These assumptions aren’t all incompatible with each other, but you can probably see how they might cause trouble if unaddressed.

 The simplest way to handle this is to talk about the story elements everyone wants to play with (or avoid) before you play. You can also check back in about these things, and see whether there are any pieces people want to add or remove after any given session. I recommend checking in every once in a while. You’re less likely to be unhappily surprised that way, and more likely to make stories that everyone finds fun.

D&D & Disease (in 5e)

There are a lot of topics that D&D isn’t ready-made to explore. As best as I can tell, disease (chronic or acute) is one of them.

This line of thought came up for me while talking with my sib about dangerous encounters in a weird fantasy / sci-fi / horror adventure campaign I’m running for some friends. It’s a roughly post-apocalyptic setting, based in The Hub, in which the apocalypse(s) in question took place a variable amount of time ago and in different fashions, depending on where the PCs explore. Some of the perils the PCs face include radiological disasters, and radioactive environments or threats.

My sib, naturally, asked what I’d done on the topic of cancer.

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