As a gift to my British readers, I arranged for no comics by me to come out this week, which means there's no need to go outside and deal with the wrath of the Witch Witch before Aslan returns. You're welcome.
Where We Live
I got my comps for the return of The Wicked + the Divine this week which look great.
The fold out cover is especially wonderful, though it nearly killed Jamie and Matt.
Actually, nearly killing the team is a theme at the moment. Just before starting to write this I finished a draft of issue 36, which Jamie needs for Monday. I start most the issues with a letter. This is the one from 36.
I'm referring to the difficulty of the issue, not its contents. Though thinking about it, that's pretty horrible too. Being WicDiv, that's probably no surprise by now. Seeing the dominoes fall with increasing velocity across this arc is a hell of a thing. I'm actually nervous about finally writing 37, which is one I've been thinking about for four years.
Anyway – Mothering Invention. Out next week.
WHERE WE LIVE (the Charity Anthology in support of the victims of the Las Vegas shooting) was announced last year, but it has just been solicited. A huge amount of talent are working it, and I was honoured to be asked to do a story. Go read more.
The Image Expo was this week, and to celebrate Humble are doing one of their Pay What You Want bundles. An obvious way to get a bunch of great stuff, plus mine. Go gets. Also go have a nose at the announcements.
Queen Of Darkness Tia Comixology is doing a new podcast, called This Is Not An Interview. And the hour of us yabbering is certainly not an interview. Abstractly we're chatting about 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank, but it sort of wanders to basically everything.
Marvel have carried on announcing their Fresh Start books. A couple I've been talking to the creators about and are particularly excited about? Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leinil Yu on Captain America. Al Ewing and Joe Bennett on Immortal Hulk. Both are just ambitious, big swing books.
I said I'd do it on twitter, and it's been on my mind, so let's DO SOME CLOSURE.
I mentioned that last year I played more pen and paper RPGs than I have for any year since I was a teenager. Hell, maybe even then. As in, number of RPGs rather than actual numbers of sessions. I got involved in a group of five whose aim was to survey post-00s game design (in the case of three players), get an initial understanding of RPGs (in the case of two players) and to have a lovely time (in the case of one player.) As such, we burned through games in one-offs and short campaigns, plus I played some games outside this context, which I also include. To state the obvious: experience of all the games were warped by the players, as they always are. The group, on balance, did better with things that leaned lighter rather than darker. These are certainly not reviews. You can tell, as there's no mark on the end, and all reviews have marks on the end. That's what metacritic makes us do.
Fiasco: Jason Morningstar's seminal indie-Story game. In short, Coens Brother one-off RPG, where you play characters with “powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” I've played it before, and it worked better than it did this time. We ended up using a non-Morningstar designed playest, which I feel didn't help, but it still managed to perform its magic and generate a narrative that somehow existed at a halfway place between Animal House and Dead Poet's Society. If you know Indie RPGs, you probably know about this and have a take. If you don't know Indie RPGs, I suspect it's still a good place to start.
The Mountain Witch: One of the formative 00s games that led to current indie-RPG design. A bunch of samurai make their way up a mountain to confront a Mountain Witch. Everyone has dark secrets. I'd say its mechanics for trust between the party are a little threadbare now (as you'd hope after over a decade of design) but for the group I think it managed to introduce both traditional D&D mode GM/Player interaction, some player led improvisation and procedural stuff.
Ten Candles: Or, as I like to think of it, Ten Fucking Candles. I ran this one, and while it absolutely reached a conclusion, it didn't run as the designer intended (or as I hoped) and I was depressed over the experience for ages, and not in the way the game of Tragic Horror hopes. (Games always teach stuff about yourself, but the most interesting thing about all of this is making me deal with artistic failure in a way which I haven't for literally years. I am very bad at it.) I've spent more time talking about its (minimal) rules than any game this year (and also gave it another shot as a player) and I'm torn between stuff which I simply think are broken and the nagging feeling that it's just that we've failed to make the machine work – after reading the manual dozens of times I will go as far as “It needs to be rewritten for clarity, ideally with a flowchart”. It's interesting though. The game runs towards the inevitable death of all the players. There's ten candles around the table. Any time the players fail a roll, a candle is extinguished. The more candles, the more agency the players have. The less, the more the GM. When the candles all go, the players die. Conceptually there's so much sizzle it makes this nagging feeling of unease around it even worse.
Feng Shui 2: New edition of 90s hong-kong Gun-opera RPG classic. No, it's not about moving furniture around. At the time of the release, I found it a revelation – it really encouraged player expression in combat like nothing else, with (I paraphrase this VERY ROUGHLY, Rules Lawyers) difficulty being based on effect rather than the difficulty of a task. So taking someone out by just shooting someone is equally as difficult as shooting (say) a statue behind someone so it falls on top of them. As in, it doesn't punish players for wanting to do cinematic set-pieces. In some ways, it foreshadows many of the games we played, but despite its flamboyance, its rules-heavier combat-centric approach didn't exactly gel with the group.
When The Dark Is Gone: Nordic-style zero-preparation game with one player being a therapist and the other players all being adult survivors of a Narnia-esque secondary world. All have psychological issues based on that traumatic experience. The session unpacks all that. I say Nordic-style, by which I mean “there is no OOC chat” and the game proceeds just from the conversation, with no actual rules bar improv's “Always build on what has been said” guide. Obviously, this is one of the most mature of the games we played, and of the mature games, I suspect the one which worked best.
Tales From The Loop: I feel this was the first game which 100% left everyone inspired. It's basically a world based around the retro-futuristic paintings of Simon Stålenhag, and is fundamentally Strange Things the RPG. You play kids aged from 10-15 in the 90s, and going on weird investigations. It works worryingly well, as the archetypes are so strong, players can immediately lean into the role play of it. You know how the Breakfast Club or Goonies or whatever works? Plus, the age means players lean a little more vulnerable in terms of showing their emotions. Plus the simple charm of it. . I actually played it three times (twice with a different group of people) and still want to do it with the Open-World-style mode where you just investigate the landscape and see what you can find rather than a traditional Scenario structure. I suspect this is the best entry game on the list if you want to try something a little left-of-D&D.
Honey Heist: Grant Howitt's 2-page RPG of bears stealing honey from a honey convention. It is as silly as you may expect, and rightly so, it's a game about bears doing heists. Grant's new game is just going to press this week – Spire, which I started reading last night, and enjoyed. Oddly, I suspect fans of the similarly named but unconnected Spurrier/Stokely comic would dig the hell out of it. It's basically grim Dark Elf freedom fighters rebelling against High Elves in a China Mieville mode. So not much like Honey Heist.
Dungeon World: And our group finally plays something that involved beating up some fucking orcs. In the “Show RPGs to people who haven't played D&D before” that felt necessary, and this also let us play a Powered By The Apocalypse derived game. Apocalypse World is basically the most influential system of the 10s, and its fingerprints are over many of these games, even if they don't actually use the system. Dungeon World takes Apcocalypse Worlds design choices and uses it to streamline a close-to-classic archetypal D&D set up – it's got all your Cure Light Wounds and Druids turning into Bears and all that, but with a set of mechanics that are about trying to create genre experience rather than simulation. As in, rolls are always about making something interesting happen. It works well – though there is the somewhat odd sensation that players totally are petrified of rolling the dice, as they feel to blame when they fail a roll and (say) something awful to happen. I was GMing it, and was happy to run a game which basically worked as I hoped it would. It's become my automatic “let's do an RPG” choice if I have to play a game on short notice. Also, how it runs factions is something I'd absolutely steal for almost any game – it mashes with my own systemic and situation based adventure approach well.
Mouse Guard: Based on the Indie Comic, based on The Burning Wheel system which is (I believe) at the heart of the more modern Torchbearer RPG. The one which oddly showed how much a fiction made the game work – the players got the system they were working in (as in, Big Mouse Gives Mission And We Do It). There a lot of charm in almost traditional adventuring with a size shift (Oh no! It's a ferret!) and it worked really well. For me, I've a personal dislike of RPG systems where player decisions impact character ability too much, and the slightly abstracted system the larger challenges run off never quite clicked for me. But certainly was a lot of fun.
Paranoia: Mongoose's new edition of the classic 1980s RPG. To quote the back of the 1980s second edition: "Imagine a world designed by Kafka, Stalin, Orwell, Huxley, Sartre and the Marx Brothers..." It's one of my favourite RPG worlds, and I fear its wry and critical manual was more than a little influence on me. I'd like to give this another shot – we were playing through the scenarios which came with the game, and had only just introduced Secret Societies at the end of our last game before moving on. There's some wonderful thematic stuff in the character creation (specifically, players fucking with other players, so if you choose to be skilled in a skill, the player on your left becomes crap at it) but the card-driven combat stuff never worked well enough to be worth the effort. I suspect if I played again, I may jettison it and run something more akin to a Apocalypse World-derived conversation-combat system.
Night Witches: The final RPG the group played before dissolving. I've only just realised we started with a Jason Morningstar game, and ended with one. That's a narrative structure, right there. Also Apocalypse World derived, so we were familiar with the mechanics from Dungeon World, but infinitely more serious. There's a lot I liked, and there's so much heartbreaking stuff in there, but it just didn't quite gel with us.
Monsterhearts 2: Avery Adler's game of teenage monsters. The monsters are metaphors for teenage alienation and marginalisation generally, so it's all very Ginger Snaps. Caveat: I designed a town for the kickstarter, which is part of the game if you buy from her site. We didn't play this in the group, but I ran it for four people who'd never played RPGs and wanted to give something a shot. It went really well – the two outgoing guardian journalists end up being the emotionally domineering bad guys and the two more shy people ended up being the sensitive good guys. This is another Powered By The Apocalypse Game, so it's probably worth me saying how that actually works, right?
Basically, the core design element is its use of what it terms “Moves”. Moves are rules that interject inside the game's narrative. Rather than an input/output cycle of a trad D&D game (Player: I try this! GM: It succeeds/fails and then this happens) instead play is considered as a conversation between the players and the GM. This continues freely until the trigger for a Move happens, when you turn to the rules to discern how the action forks. This is either a success (the player gets what they were trying for) a qualified success (Where you get what you want, but with complications) or a fail (where things go badly in a way which complicates the drama, often handing control over to the GM who plays their own Moves in response to it). This means that the moves in each game (either general moves applying in all places or specific moves of an individual character) lead to the specific way the narrative is pushed. The moves are what gives a game its fundamental genre character. By way of example, Dungeon World has a move akin to “When a player is engaged in combat”. A success is you do damage to them, a fail is you do damage to them and they do damage to you and a fail is something worse (normally involving them doing damage to you). That's pure D&D. Conversely Monsterhearts has moves like Turn Someone On where a character attempts to do exactly that. Succeed, and that player has to work the fact into their narrative. Both are of the same gender and the target thought they were straight? They've discovered that for them it's not so simple, and now have to work out what it means for them. As such, Monsterhearts is a game with strong themes of the discovering of the sexuality of a character, based on this Move's inclusion. It's also telling that one of the things added to this second edition is rules that take asexuality into consideration. Monsterhearts 2 is just smart, elegant, provocative and considerate, and I love it to death, and considerably further than death if you turn out to be undead.
Anyway – the reason why the Apocalypse is used so often is that it provides such powerful ways to efficiently create tone appropriate for genre (or demigenre) work.
Alas Vegas: What I'm half way through at the moment. Lynch-Does-Vegas game of amnesiacs waking up in a shallow grave, with a system that involves playing Blackjack with Tarot cards. More on this when I'm completed it, inevitably.
One Other Thing: which I probably will talk about soon, but not yet. Winking emoticon, etc.
I've been away a little this week in Berlin, which I've never been to. I got my David Bowie on, and generally warmed up for being very cold in the UK. At the least, it managed to give me a topic to write about in the back of Uber 13, which goes to press shortly. Daniel is half way through issue 15, which is my prompt to get to work on 16.
(I'm also starting to get art from my Thanos story, which is a joy. I forget if the artist has been announced yet, so I won't mention it here. “What about googling to check?” asks the reader. “You're not my real mom!” shouts Kieron, sulkily.)
After feeling a little slack, I'm excited about diving through a bunch of work. I'm cleared to write the next arc of Star Wars, which means my next week and a half will be wrapping up Mutiny on Mon Cala with Star Wars 49, onto Uber 16 and the Eastern Front and then back to WicDiv 37. I may flip them, depending on when I start work, as I don't need to get Uber 16 done until the 15th.
In phlegm news, I have a little cough left, but it's mostly gone. This means I can actually go to the pub tonight, if – for example – all of nature has not conspired to render travel to pub impossible. Growls.
Actually, fuck it. I'm going to don an Arctic survival suit and give it a shot. I may be some time.