Corporatist Paranoia

One of my professionally GM’d games recently ended, which means I’m firing up the ads for a bunch of different systems, which means I’m looking at Paranoia again. Paranoia XP and the closely related Paranoia 25th Anniversary had a thing where the Computer was switching to a more capitalist economy, in an effort to better parody the rise of corporatist dystopia ongoing in America and Britain even back in 2004. Unfortunately, it was all a bit short-sighted. It is very obvious here in 2019 that a corporatist dystopia can get much, much worse than the US and UK were at in 2004, but Paranoia XP was glued pretty tight to the trends that were already happening, just replacing “you get fired” with “you get fired upon.” “Service firms” sold goods and services semi-independently but were wholly subject to the demands of government bureaucracy, the internet was rife with scammers, and they didn’t even have the guts to replace “communists” with “terrorists” for the 2004 release when that actually would’ve been relevant and interesting.

Side note: RED-Clearance edition gave itself a big ol’ pat on the back for switching from “communists” to “terrorists” in 2016, at which point they may as well have not bothered because the moment had already passed by, like, a decade, and in any case RED-Clearance backed away from all the capitalist trappings of XP and 25th Anniversary, which makes direct comparisons to America more toothless and would have made the double think of a de facto communist dystopia using de jure Communism as their ultimate bogeyman more entertaining.

Anyway, reading back over all of this I began thinking: What would an actual corporatist Alpha Complex look like?

Its Holiness, Computerus III, Your Best Friend

Your friend the Computer is more-or-less a fiction used to keep the IR proles in line. Alpha Complex is still a smart society in the “smart house” sense where every door, vending machine, and CCTV camera is part of a vast network, but that network is maintained by a corporate conglomerate, not all of Alpha Complex. Friendly conglomerates have limited data sharing between their compnodes to allow the Computer to keep track of who’s a terrorist and which clones have what clearance when they move between different sectors, and this makes it appear as though it’s only one big Computer. The truth comes out when conglomerates become unfriendly with each other. They cut their compnodes off from one another to prevent hacking or other sabotage, and suddenly what one compnode sees, the other does not know.

Sometimes the vital information about terrorists and security clearances and so forth will go through a trusted third party conglomerate and the Computer in FUN sector will know about the crimes you committed in NUF sector. If there is no such trusted third party, though (and this is Paranoia, so trust is not exactly common)? Once the conglomerate owning FUN gets into a row with the conglomerate owning NUF, “the” Computer is bisected, with the compnode in FUN totally unaware of anything learned by the one in NUF. If you bomb an IntSec precinct while shouting “workers unite! Praise Lenin!” in FUN sector and flee to NUF, you don’t need to change your identity. The Computer has no idea what you’ve done. At least until NUF sector wins the war, takes over FUN sector, and adds the FUN compnode into their network under their conglomerate’s control (or vice-versa).

The problem is, while the war between different conglomerates is pretty easy to keep track of, on account of all the tanks and bombings, generally speaking no one below BLUE clearance has the slightest idea whether or not things like criminal databases are still being shared through third parties. If you commit your bombing for the glory of Communism and flee to NUF, you may find that actually NUF has been getting updates on such acts of terrorism from the neutral UNF sector and you’re arrested the moment you triumphantly stride into the atrium of a NUF sector hab-block, having thought you’d just escaped to safety.

The Computer can also be thought of as The Algorithm, which should fill a clone with the same sense of superstitious fear that is currently rife amongst YouTubers. The Computer is used to perform background checks and administer ability tests that, together, provide security clearances, which determine both that you are loyal and trustworthy and also that you have a skill valuable to your superiors. In corporatist Alpha Complex, nobody cares how trustworthy an INFRARED is unless they also have skills that necessitate giving them power.

As such, low-ranking (principally YELLOW and lower) citizens desperately want to convince Friend Computer that they are both loyal and competent, and because the Computer is always watching, these low-ranking citizens feel the need to put on an act of both devoted righteousness and total capability at all times. When either facade slips, it is important to immediately push blame to someone else.

Continue reading “Corporatist Paranoia”

Why Does Paizo Spend So Much Time On Backstory That Is Never Expressed?

Knowing a character’s backstory can be relevant to how they’re played. The backstory on the major faction NPCs in Petals and Thorns was given alongside their identity and motivation because that backstory played an important role in shaping their motivation and identity. Part of the reason the Lunatic Court ran on so long is because I was never quite satisfied with the chain of cause and effect that resulted in a Harlequin who is driven by equal parts fear and mistrust of others on the one hand and a general compassion for other people on the other. Things always seemed to be loaded too far one way or the another.

So what I’m saying here is that when I say that Paizo has a weird habit of drowning us in totally irrelevant backstory, it’s not because backstory is somehow inherently irrelevant. NPCs whose decision-making is important to the story and who interact with the PCs need to have a solid backstory informing their current motivations and why they do the things they do. The problem is that Paizo loves to load its villains up with a whole lot of backstory and then have them appear exclusively for boss fights. If the only purpose of a villain is to provide a climactic encounter at the end, then the only thing that matters is their current scheme. “Nualia is an aasimar corrupted by the Runelords’ power who seeks to use that power to destroy the town of Sandpoint.” Bam, done. If we’re never going to have a conversation with her, we don’t need to care why she hates Sandpoint. Her ultimate goal is to raze it and that’s all that matters.

It all feels very cargo cult-y, like, roleplay-driven games have villains with long backstories, so we’ll set aside a page or two for the backstory of each module’s villain and that’ll make it more roleplay-ish! But, no. Roleplay-driven games include backstories because they’re structured such that the backstories are relevant. You actually need to know what the NPC’s motivations are because the PCs can actually influence their decision-making or at least get to talk to them long enough for the NPC to explain their point of view. Without that, background is just an outline of a short story that will never be written and that only the GM will even know about.

Imbolc 2019

Imbolc was actually a couple of days ago, but today is the day when I’m looking at what I accomplished not only since Yule, but since Imbolc clear back in 2018. Back then I was wrapping up the Year of Endless, the first year of this blog in which I committed to post an article a day, every day, no matter what. Having not stumbled across the chapter-by-chapter book review format, this was way harder.

Early on in the year I was heavily focused on writing and completing outstanding projects. I began pushing my professional GMing service in an attempt to provide a creative fund for things like book covers and editing, and then that wound up surprisingly successful and taking up a huge portion of my free time. I never did make it to a million words because it was easier to take the games I prepped for my professional GMing and clean them up for commercial release than to write novels entirely from scratch. I was even able to release a professional quality adventure.

All of this has kept me very busy while still leaving me in a constant state of anxiety as to whether or not this is going anywhere. My professional GMing has built up a respectable income, but that income gets eaten almost as soon as it comes in fueling the illustrations for these adventures that may or may not ever turn a profit. People liked the idea of Petals and Thorns and backed it in the first Kickstarter, but I won’t know until the next Kickstarter if they like Petals and Thorns itself. How many of the people who bought the original will turn up for the sequel?

This particularly makes me nervous because of how totally everything else has been put on hold to make this happen. It’s not just that I tried something and it might not work, it’s that I haven’t been able to put any significant effort into improving my video editing, or into trying to break into writing professionally, or into finishing up my remaining outstanding projects. Most of 2018 was dedicated to tabletop RPGs, and I won’t know until my Kickstarter concludes sometime in late March or early April if that was a good idea.

Last year’s theme was the Year of Burning, the idea initially being that I was going to invest a lot of effort into making my writing profitable, which then abruptly pivoted to making tabletop RPGs profitable when that started taking off. I haven’t settled on what to call it, but 2019 is going to be either the year when this succeeds or else the year when it crashes.

Can We Please Move Cyberpunk Past The 80s

I accidentally posted my Saturday review post on Friday, so you’re getting the Friday article on Saturday instead.

Cyberpunk was invented in the 80s, and it remains horribly mired in that time period. At the time of writing, cyberpunk as a genre explored a plausible near-future, one which has in many ways come true. Although the cybernetic augments never really came to pass, cyberspace mostly did, as did the megacorporations and the cyberpunks who oppose them. The cyberpunks turned out significantly more amoral than a lot of cyberpunk stories wanted, but a lot of the best ones had their cyberpunk protagonist as exceptional amongst their peers for not being an amoral criminal, and in any case the cyberpunks do exist. We’ve reached the stage where the megacorps are winning serious victories against them and it looks like the cyberpunks are probably going to lose, but they’re real. Military drones, not to mention Amazon delivery drones, put us in clear view of a cyberpunk vision of robotics. It’s basically just the cyborg augments that haven’t happened, and even then we have some promising prototypes.

But a lot of details were got wrong, and some of the predictions never came to pass. The Soviet Union surprised everyone by dissolving way ahead of schedule, and Japan surprised everyone by failing to take over the world. Cyberspace went wireless long before we invented even the faintest prototype of a technology that might one day develop into a neural interface, meaning that the future of neuro-cyber interfaces is more likely to be a USB stick you plug into the port in the back of your neck, rather than a heavy duty cable hooked up to a room-filling supercomputer. Flying cars never became a thing, but the cyberpunk stories that posited them had dropped the ball even on 80s tech. Helicopters already existed and weren’t remotely fuel efficient for personal use by the middle class, and the only thing that would change that is a sudden abundance of fuel, something which no cyberpunk author ever predicted (indeed, many predicted a fuel crunch would get worse than the crisis in the 70s, but it never did).

Cyberpunk as a genre seems constantly rooted in being the future of the past, the predictions of what today would be like according to 30 years ago (2019 is a pretty cyberpunk year, although any year in the 21st century was within the cyberpunk-y range). Cyberpunk stories too often remain glued to the predictions that failed. Japan still looms large over the world, wireless mysteriously dies off somewhere between 2020 and 2070, and flying traffic fills the cityscape like it was Coruscant.

And if that’s what cyberpunk is, then sure, whatever, Fallout does the same thing but for the 1950s and it works fine. No one seems to be making the kind of one or two generations hence fiction that cyberpunk originally was, though, even though it seems like the year 2040-2050. Military drones having taken over more combat roles from flesh and blood soldiers, replacing not just planes but tanks, ships, even infantry, corporate dystopia firmly entrenched, and the world full of last generation’s cyberpunks. Hackers and data thieves aren’t a radical new thing, but a dying breed, lamenting the loss of their digital frontier to expanding corporate power. Are these stories happening and I just don’t hear about them? And if not, why not?

Final Fantasy and Philosophy: Judging the Art of Video Games

Alex Nuttall delivers this judgement mid-way through his essay:

Interesting characters, plots, and art design are found throughout the Final Fantasy series.

In his defense, he had no way of knowing at the time how Final Fantasy XIII would turn out.

This essay is an examination of Hume’s belief in an objective method of measuring the quality of art through the lens of the three status effects traditionally inflicted by the malboro monster in the Final Fantasy series: Sleep, Confusion, and Charm. The concept of an objective measure of art likely sounds immediately stupid, and it is. Hume was foolish to take his views to the extreme that he did. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong. Consider the fact that it is obviously true that some pieces of art are more popular than others, and also that it is much harder to make a work of art one way than another. In other words, that an objective level of technical proficiency can be demonstrated by an art piece even if technical proficiency isn’t the final say on the subjective quality of that art piece. And the popularity of an art piece is correlated fairly strongly to its technical proficiency. Sure, the most technically proficient art pieces are rarely very popular, and it’s often true that the most popular movie/game/whatever on the market right now doesn’t have much technical proficiency, but pay attention to the general trend instead of the extremes and the overall pattern is that higher amounts of technical proficiency do correlate to more popular art. People seem to enjoy an impressive performance.

And consider also how near-universal the opinion, even if subjective, that someone who’s seen a larger amount of art in a certain medium or genre is better qualified to judge the quality of that art as compared to someone who hasn’t seen much at all. Everyone agrees that art is subjective and it’s impossible to measure whether one work is better than another, and yet everyone also agrees that a judgement of a work’s quality will be more accurate when coming from someone who’s seen more than just one or two other works in the same medium. Sure, people deride critics for being out of touch, but they also deride people who gush about the quality of the one book they’ve read or the one horror movie they’ve seen. People who read lots of books or who watch lots of horror movies are held to be a better judge of a book or horror movie’s quality than people who’ve only read or seen one, and that statement is only ever controversial when paired with the mutually exclusive statement that art is subjective and can’t be “more accurately” judged at all.

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Someone Else Made Content About Not Making Content So I Don’t Have To

Door Monster released a sketch this week which is about not having time to do a real sketch. This is convenient, because it gives me something semi-relevant to link to after staring at a blank word processor for over an hour and failing to come up with any ideas. I’ve released dumber things while struggling to maintain a daily schedule in the past, like that other time I linked to a Door Monster sketch that was vaguely relevant to my current mood.

Solo Games

I spend almost all of my evenings on my professional GMing business. My schedule is almost always full and all my games naturally take place in the evenings, when my clients have time to play. This means I am never available in the evenings and therefore can almost never play in a D&D game just for the fun of playing in one. My spare time is entirely in the mornings and early afternoons (day job permitting), which means I’m playing a lot of solo games. Let’s talk about which ones are any good.

Avalon Solo Adventure

I backed this one on Kickstarter recently, and it’s…okay. These are fundamentally Choose Your Own Adventure books where occasionally you stop to play a D&D combat encounter against yourself. It’s kind of like Fighting Fantasy, except instead of one character with two stats, you have four characters with full 5e character sheets. And also the branching paths aren’t total fucking bullshit intended to get you to die and restart like eighteen times until you brute force the solution.

Unfortunately, Avalon Solo Adventure isn’t super well designed. I mean, it’s better than Fighting Fantasy, but that’s a low bar to clear. The lethality of many of the adversaries seems to have been drastically underestimated, with a level 2-3 party being tossed in against ten bandits and a leader not once but multiple times with no opportunity for a long rest. This is insane – according to DMG guidelines, such an encounter would be considered deadly until 8th level. Although their scheme of randomly populating a dungeon allows for loops and branches, their dungeons do not actually contain any of these things, and are all strictly linear. Some of the faction systems are bizarre as well. Most factions you join require you to spend 3-4 days out of a week working for them, but many, many quests take 4+ days, which means joining a faction locks that character permanently out of quite a few quests undertaken for any other faction or for no faction in particular.

There’s also quests only available to people who have at least one point of favor with dwarves or elves, but the only way to get that first point of favor is to have a dwarf or an elf in your party, so if you’re playing the All Dragonborn Party then you get locked out of some content completely. Fair enough that there are some factions who don’t want to hand out their quests until they have a reason to trust you, but there should be some way of earning that trust unless it is specifically an element that dwarves and elves are so deeply xenophobic that they trust nobody who isn’t of the same race, something which doesn’t come across anywhere except in quest prerequisites (including the actual quest text). This element is a weird sort of contradiction where it is simultaneously presumed that dwarves never confide in non-dwarves, but also that most adventuring parties will contain both dwarves and other races.

I like Avalon Solo Adventure in theory, but I can’t really recommend it due to its weak execution.

d6 Shooters

D6 Shooters is a series of three different western solo print and play board games. Your goal is to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of turns and sometimes accomplish something specific at point B when you get there. Exact rules vary from game to game, but in the first one, you roll five white and three red dice. You’re hoping to avoid 5s and 6s, which are bad, 1s, 2s, and 3s all do a specific something good (although 2s and 3s also require you to have a set of them), while 4s can be spent on a number of different options, all of which are situationally beneficial, but which generally require more dice to accomplish what a 1, 2, or 3 does automatically. For example, you can trade two 4s to move one space on the board, but every 1 rolled moves you one space forward automatically. You can reroll any amount of dice up to two times on each turn, but rerolling red dice is dangerous, because any 5 or 6 rolled on a red die is locked in and cannot be rerolled on subsequent turns. Rerolling anything that isn’t a 5 or 6 can be dangerous, because it could always get worse, but if you’ve got a stray 3 that you can’t make a set with, you may as well try it. So it’s a little bit like Yahtzee, except you’re riding through the Old West trading gunshots with a bandit gang.

The board always contains some branching paths on it (although, of course, everything ultimately leads to a single destination) and some squares are good to end your turn on and others bad, and some ask you to draw a card for a random event, which will often be “give up X resource for Y resource,” sometimes in the form of “spend X resource if you have it to prevent the depletion of mission critical Y resource.” There’s a lot of randomness in the game and enough decisions to make about resource allocation that it feels like you’re doing something while you play, but really the game is almost purely luck-driven. A good run is one in which you, by chance, happen to get lots of good rolls in the right places and are successfully able to predict which resources you’ll need in abundance and which you can trade away. A bad run is one in which you roll poorly or guess the cards in the event deck wrong. Since the event deck is just a randomly shuffled stack of cards, you can’t really predict its contents the way you could try to with a human.

D6 Shooters delivers on providing enough engagement to make it feel like you’re playing a game and that can make the die rolls and card draws exciting, but it would not be inaccurate to say that it’s Candyland with extra steps.

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Building A Better Alignment System

In Petals and Thorns, I have a knights and priests faction that’s all about law and order, a carnival-themed faction called “the Lunatic Court” who believe in independence, a rangers and druids faction that wants to preserve the peace between the factions instead of going to war, and a vampires faction that’s purely self-interested. Given this, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people eventually started using that adventure or setting in general as an example of how to do alignment well, provided my whole endeavor doesn’t collapse and fade into obscurity before my reach ever expands past a couple hundred readers. Setting aside the pessimistic scenario for now, I want to head off the whole “how to do alignment well” argument off at the pass as much as possible by getting it on record in advance that I don’t think D&D’s 3×3 alignment grid is particularly good for anything but memes. People like to make excuses for alignment, but the fact is everything the existing system does could be done better by another.

Let’s start by looking at the two main factions of Petals and Thorns, that being the Lunatic Court and the Order of the Lion (the knights and priests faction). I anticipate some people will view this as a “Law vs. Chaos” conflict. These people are going to be disappointed by the sequel I’m writing. The Lunatic Court’s disorganized nature is not tied to their ideology of independence and self-governance at all. The Lunatic Court is disorganized because they’re war orphans who grew into criminals who grew into a guerilla army, and their leadership is still mostly making it up as they go along. They have no established traditions not out of opposition to the very concept but because they’re the first generation of their organization and there are no preceding leaders to draw traditions from. Their leader’s title is the Lunatic Queen, and while that was bestowed upon her from below rather than being self-appointed, it signifies that the Lunatic Court is perfectly happy to take orders from an absolute ruler.

Indeed, a major point of the sequel is that Harlequin has extensive control over a large group of violent people and no clear precedent for what the rules are for staying in her faction’s good graces. She can establish whatever traditions and laws she wants (modulo the political maneuvering of intra-faction rivals), and if the party puts in the effort to win her trust, they can have significant input into that. Sure, the Lunatic Court’s current situation is chaotic, but that’s not because they’re opposed to order, it’s because they’re bad at imposing order. It’s a weakness, not a principle, of their faction.

Continue reading “Building A Better Alignment System”

Magignosis

I’m more nervous about this Kickstarter than I should be. Magignosis is a spin-off project of Petals and Thorns containing a suite of new classes I wrote in order to make PF/3.5 NPC stat blocks less infuriating to build, focusing more on having a suite of awesome powers rather than on having tons of fiddly customization options at every new level. It’s good for a certain type of player and also for any GM who’s short on time and needs to make a villain who’s got X levels in Y class and doesn’t care about whether he’s got the Precise Shot feat because this guy is going to be dead in two weeks anyway. I don’t know if people really want this kind of thing and if they do I don’t know if they want it badly enough to pay money for it, but I’m going to find out. Ultimately this thing is just not that important compared to the Petals and Thorns sequel I’m working on, but from the moment I launched the campaign, my subconscious became convinced that its success or failure would be an omen for the future and now won’t leave me alone. Worst case scenario, I at least got a quick and easy Friday article out of the deal, which certainly helps with getting back onto a regular blogging schedule.

Speaking of which, being that this Kickstarter is ultimately unimportant, and that the blog has been derailed badly enough by all the data entry work on the last one, I’m not planning on halting content for this one like I did for the last, so blog updates will continue as normal (except perhaps with more shilling) for the duration of this Kickstarter. Maybe also for the next, more important Kickstarter due to start up sometime in late February or early March, depending on how confident I feel about managing a Kickstarter at the same time as posting blog content.