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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

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.

Whimsy’s Throne is live on DriveThruRPG!

You can find the first two World Seeds here. If you read and enjoy these World Seeds, please leave a positive review. That would mean a lot to me.

My goal, as I said a little while back, is to continue producing these Seeds for the foreseeable future. If you’d like to see the process in action, learn about how I’ve repeatedly edited out half—or even two-thirds—of the words in a piece, or see the art as it moves from concept to completion, you can do that at Whimsy’s Throne.

There’s still more to do, of course. I want to find another artist to work with next—if you make art, and would be willing to make something like what you can see in those Seeds for $400, let me know. I also want to have more legible covers for the DriveThruRPG store, which will require some tinkering.

And I’m trying to figure out where in the World Seeds (and how) to add a reference to Ginny Di’s video about advice she struggled with as a novice GM. I want these World Seeds to be as accessible as possible, to engage people in as many ways as possible (hence having both art and words). And while I can’t address the audio-preferred crowd very well in my pdfs, I can share videos that fill that gap. And I think her video has a usefully different approach to a lot of the advice my World Seeds give or imply.

It’s not advice that veteran storytellers are likely to need, but these World Seeds are supposed to be accessible to storytellers of all skill levels (ideally without feeling pedantic and overbearing). And while you could (and likely would) reach her conclusion by reading lots of material from The Alexandrian (like this, or this), I think she does a good job of saying it fairly concisely… and in a way that some GMs might understand more readily. I don’t know whether I want to expand World Seeds into a broader “RPG education” tool, or whether I want to do that in some other format, but I keep finding tidbits to add because I want these World Seeds to be a complete package for people at any level of comfort and confidence with storytelling.

Next week I might miss a post, as I’ll be traveling. I’ll be back before too long though. You should see me here again the week after.

World Seeds, Whimsy’s Throne, DriveThruRPG

I’ve made a DriveThruRPG storefront for my World Seeds project (see Whimsy’s Throne for details). I’ll link to that after I’ve uploaded my first Seeds. I knew this step was coming, once I had another finished Seed ready for publication. And now I’m dealing with the intricacies of posting content on DriveThruRPG while trying to figure out how to optimize the PDFs I’ve made for general distribution. I don’t want to publish content that immediately breaks when a stranger tries to open it, after all.

Unfortunately for me, I also don’t want to optimize my published content such that the art turns fuzzy and indistinct. This might be an issue.

My next steps are to upload the two World Seeds I have thus far. I’m making one available for free, and one for cash. Then I need to find another artist I like working with. Meanwhile, I’ll keep chugging along: writing more rough location descriptions and expanding existing descriptions into full-fledged Seeds.

My goal with this project has always been to produce a bunch of these things. And I want them to have notably distinct art styles for each Seed, for the most part. If I can have different artists bringing distinct styles (or experimenting with styles that are new to them), that’s perfect. I’m happy to do repeat work with artists, of course—I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with the artists I’ve worked with so far. I look forward to working with them again—I just don’t want the Seeds to be tied to only one style. The more variations, the merrier.

My hope is that I can have a varied body of artwork and styles reminiscent of the huge variety that was present in early 90’s Magic: the Gathering art. That’s what I grew up with. And while some of it was bad, I loved the way I could find so many totally novel art styles in the same game. During the 00’s MtG homogenized their style significantly, allowing some variation between sets but building a unified “house style.” While I can see how that makes sense for a company managing such a large quantity of content (and a company concerned with consistency in its artistic brand), I feel like MtG lost something when they stopped having such significant variation in artistic style from one card to the next. The individuality and experimentation faded away.

Given that I’m trying to build a product that engages people on as many levels as I can, and which appeals to as broad a group as possible, I feel like changing up art from one Seed to the next is my best option. If someone hates one art style, maybe they’ll love a different one and pick up that Seed. The dream would be for people to love and use every World Seed, but I’ll absolutely settle for catching people’s eye with a few different options.

Worldbuilding: Ephemera & Epigraphs

Reading The Butchering Art, with its record of snarky arguments in medical journals, gave me an idea.

The setting for my stories about Miska, along with all the various Andre & Jerome stories I have, is a complicated one. It’s big, in-depth, and just enough like our own world that it regularly leaves people guessing when I try to explain it. Perhaps I should try to simplify some of the setting, but… I think the perverse complexity and deep similarities to our own world are what makes the setting engaging and exciting. It’s a what-if, a thought experiment, and a sometimes-grim sometimes-hopeful social commentary.

Part of the similarity is in geography and place names. That’s the thing that trips up folk the most, I think, and the thing I’ve considered rewriting time and again. The world is—mostly—our own. The continents are mostly the continents we would recognize from our own Earth. As such, I have regularly used our own world’s historical names for cities that match up with a city’s location in this setting (e.g. Paris and Marseille). At times, when I’m trying to convey that there’s something distinct from our own world, our own expectations, I change a city’s name (as I’ve done with most bodies of water). But I know that’s confused readers even more, at times.

It doesn’t help that I’m not totally consistent about it, or haven’t always settled on names for some places.

But those shifted names still don’t address the shift in social conventions, or the difference in histories. Explaining why I’m using some of our own world’s city names doesn’t give a reader any understanding of the detailed history of this alternate Earth. In some ways, I think it actually makes understanding the setting harder for readers—which wasn’t my goal at all.

Enter my flash of inspiration.

The snarky medical journal arguments presented in The Butchering Art conveyed so much more than their surface disagreements. They served as a touchstone for the culture of the time, and they contained such startling similarity to modern academic sniping—and comment section flame wars—that I immediately felt like I had a better connection to, a better read on the world depicted by the book.

So I started writing in-setting documents for this world. Some were the stiffly polite and horribly condescending disagreements of people writing to various society papers’ opinion sections. Another was an excerpt from a personal letter between two people involved in city politics and what might be called clandestine activity. Every so often I have another idea and try it out.

With this, I think I’ve finally found the way to give readers a window into the setting. This material can preface some chapters or stories, or serve as introduction to a section of a book. What I’ve written so far feels clunky as an epigraph, but I think this can finally give enough context to ease readers into the world. Better yet, I can showcase in-setting struggles and disagreements, political squabbles, and personal opinions. I can reveal information that some of the characters might know, or comment on at some point. And, I hope, I can do some of the world-building work that would otherwise clog the rest of my story with exposition.

So here, enjoy the first idea that came to me a while back. It won’t be nearly enough on its own to show you all of this setting, but maybe you can enjoy peering in through the cracks.


Letter on the latest troubles of the Inner Sea, to the editor of The Parisian, first and finest of the continental ladies’ magazines

Regarding the recent abuse levied against the fine Doctor Gilarien of our daughter-city Marseille, this writer must protest heartily. It is by no means sensible for any to wage too harsh a battle against the natural allies of our fine city, and this is precisely what La Fleur du Sucre proposes to do. Our daughter-city—along with her denizens—is our responsibility to protect and guide, and the true proof of Parisian majesty will be evident in the beauty, grace, intellect and fortitude of her daughters in the face of the dangers of the world. Certainly I would hope that La Fleur du Sucre would not be the type of mother who so admonishes and smothers her children that they never learn to fly from the nest of their own accord. No, what is needed here is not chastising whip-tongue remonstrations, but rather the gentle guidance and support of a mother for her child. We may prune back ill-reason and train the growing limb of intellect to our trellis where we know it will be healthy and bear fruit.

The estimable Doctor Gilarien is entirely correct that our city’s agents operating as they are, along the coast of the Inner Sea, have brought forth suffering amongst the many tribes present there. But the good doctor must recall that these tribes have long allied themselves with the Ones to the East, the very same who sought to maintain “Enlightened” dominion over all of us despite the wishes of the Good Masters. Given these tribes’ warlike disposition and their frequent exercises upon the borders of our allies, it would be insufferable for us to not interrupt their works, lest they grow too numerous and powerful and form once more the armies that they once were. For let us not forget that those selfsame tribes, the ones the good doctor feels such concern for, were once the engines of destruction which drove the burning of Köln, Rotterdam, and even our lovely Paris. Thus it is that one would do well to balance the—admirable, and well-reasoned!—concern for innocent life made more difficult by our own actions, against the cost of allowing such hostile forces to regain their strength and organization to rampage across our continent once again. This writer is entirely certain that the good doctor will agree that the actions of Paris and her agents must, in the greater balance, come out the lighter price to pay.

As to the fine doctor’s points with regards to the treatment of the prisoners of war captured amidst the strife along the Inner Sea, this writer must surrender to their local experience and expertise. It is the doctor’s knowledge of the prisoners’ circumstances which must, clearly, take precedence here, and La Fleur du Sucre would do well to recall that one’s daughters will only grow into their own skills of reason if they are trusted to observe and report their own findings in all earnestness, and assess proper courses of action from there on—with their mother’s guiding hand, of course. Therefore to the doctor this writer suggests that it would be to everyone’s benefit if some documentation could be made of the present circumstances of the prisoners during their transportation. There is no course by which the transportation may be stopped—it would not do to domicile prisoners too near the fighting, nor to leave them anywhere they might escape unsupervised, and as such the verdant gardens of the New Sea must be the best solution—but perhaps the transportation might be made less onerous and perilous to those transported. Certainly there is no need to torture, as the good doctor would have it, those who have surrendered or otherwise been captured. After all, these vanquished foes are not insensate beasts, but merely the doughty and fearsome battle cadre bred and trained from birth to serve in the Enlightened Ones’ armies.

Lastly, this writer must commend the good doctor’s dedication to the ethics of the profession; surely the doctor’s presence in this world is of considerable value to all, and a guiding light for all others of the daughter-city who might seek the health and well-being of their fellows. If this writer lacks any merest atom of knowledge of the arts of medicine, may it nevertheless be that this writer is able to remind the fine doctor of Marseille to think beyond the simpler personal suffering of a vanquished few and to encompass the greater wellbeing of free civilization upon the continent without the dominion of those who once held us all in bondage. It would be a foul sickness indeed were we to squander the freedom granted us by the Good Masters, and fought for by our ancestors, by failing to protect it from the encroachments of those who may wish us ill.

With love and kindness,

A Parisian Mother

The Tower of Péng the Unprepared, and Whimsy’s Throne

I’ve started a Patreon for the Locations that keep coming to me! You can find it here, at Whimsy’s Throne. There’s a free version of my first finished World Seed there, The Tower of Péng the Unprepared. Here’s the cover art, from my friend Worsey.

The Ruins of Ghalburg

Nestled in foothills between the high peaks of the Sefghal Range, the lonely ruins of Ghalburg are only kept company by the wreckage of Ghalburg Keep on the slopes above. Though the burgeoning town was once known as a welcome stop on the way through the mountains, it has been shattered, pulled apart stone from stone, vast swathes of it put to the torch. Here and there, once-mighty timbers still stand as charred skeletons of formerly sturdy homes, memorials to their missing inhabitants.

The keep, perched in the hills above the town, is no less desolate. While it was spared from the same vast devastation, it still was broken open like a raw egg, its innards tumbling down the hill towards the town. The outer curtain wall was shattered in several places, and one whole corner of the central keep is gone, strewn across the grounds and out of the bailey. Like the town below, all the keep’s defenders are missing. No bodies remain to be found in any of the wreckage.

Now, this ruined settlement lies as a fearsome warning and an unanswered mystery. What force laid waste to the castle and its town? Was it some unknown group of raiders from the steep, storm-wracked peaks above? Or did Baroness Ghal set this horror in motion with untoward experiments in her obsessive effort to resurrect her family’s fortunes? Rumors abound, but no story yet bears the imprimatur of truth. The only certain thing is that none of the town’s residents have been seen or heard from since, and travelers through the region now avoid the once-popular town like the plague.

The Lonely House

Nestled in the shadows of the trees, a small hut sits neglected and lonely. Fieldstone walls open around a squat doorway, a lintel of old timber splintering across its top. The door itself sags on cracking leather hinges, drags across the dirt when opened, and its ancient boards creak back and forth in the wind. Like the rest of the house, the roof has seen better days; the thatch has mildewed, and tufts have been lifted up by breezes and small animals until they stick out like recalcitrant cowlicks. What was once a window is now simply a gaping wound, and the hut is dark and musty within. It is not an inviting place.

But more than a few have sheltered there, nestled amongst the tired and rotten furniture within while a storm rages without. Most who do seek shelter move on as soon as their storm passes, thinking nothing of the sad little house someone put so much effort into making many years before. But others, whether because the world outside has been buried in snow, or because a more metaphorical storm of villains still hunts them, make themselves at home. And it’s these people who begin to learn the truth of the place: settling in, fixing small things around the home, replacing what one has used or storing more than one has found… this invites offerings from the house. Sometimes that means dry firewood in a previously covered basket, or the woodworking tools needed to fix a broken stool. At other times, it may mean the clucking of a hen brooding over her eggs out back, or a stand of improbably ripe grain in a clearing amongst the trees nearby. Indeed, the house often offers food, though any food inside the house may disappear, clearly eaten without any trace of whoever ate it. Cautious guests are sure to always make leftovers for someone else, whoever they may be.

There are stories of those who’ve lived comfortably in the small house for a month, giving over their time to repairs and little improvements, making it a better place to live as they clean it and fix its broken pieces. Those who live there for so long often grow nervous, eventually. The house offers up pieces of itself, places which should not have been missed before, until no one can pretend that the house is anything but magic. Some tales of the house swear that doors appear behind fusty old blankets, leading into well-appointed rooms too large for the hut’s exterior, while others speak of finding an old well-stocked root cellar full of marvelously preserved supplies. These new spaces are never as decrepit, but still they exude a lingering age and neglect, as though they yearn for the care of a meticulous and indefatigable housekeeper. Most who live there for long enough to find those spaces lose their nerve, leaving the house as graciously as they can, swearing out loud to whatever spirits of the place may listen that they mean neither harm nor disrespect but simply must be on their way.

Perhaps this is because people who are offered more by the house than they return, or who do harm to what they find, discover things going missing. Belongings they brought with them may vanish—and where once the house replaced such things with objects of higher quality and greater craft, now their things are simply gone. Rooms and passages they’d grown used to using may disappear, along with all their contents, only perhaps found again through diligent work and careful repairs.

There are horror stories shared by some, of people trapped inside the house. These ungrateful guests find their doors no longer lead outside, nor to anywhere else that makes sense. There are whispers of those who’ve fled through the house as though it were a vast mansion, but each chamber behind them disappears as soon as they’ve left it without even leaving a door… until the ungrateful guests themselves vanish without a trace, a small meal for the hungry house.

Of course, those stories couldn’t be true; no teller with first hand knowledge could have escaped to share them. But the little hut remains, lonely or hungry or both, shelter for weary travelers and wary prey, offering hospitality of some strange kind to any who show they’ll be good guests.