Technical Issues

June 25th, 2019

I’m having technical issues with the site, so there’s going to be some weirdness with the visual appearance.

Research Blog Antarctica #168 – Mountains of Madness

June 22nd, 2019
The boardgame Mountains of Madness being played.

Boardgame: Rob Davia & Miguel Coimbra: Mountains of Madness (Iello, 2017)

Based on the classic Antarctic H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness, Mountains of Madness is a co-operative boardgame about an expedition seeking to uncover strange remnants and other relics from the titular mountain while avoiding injuries and suffering from madness.

Visually, it resembles the Lovecraft-themed boardgames but out by Fantasy Flight Games, but in terms of mechanics it’s quite different. The core of the game is in a mechanic where the players must resolve a challenge on a 30 second timer while handicapped by communication problems caused by madness cards.

This means that the game has a party game component, with players whispering, singing, speaking in rhyme and so on as mandated by the cards. Each challenge requires communication and as the players get madness cards of increasing severity, the game gets harder.

Fooling around because of the madness cards was the most fun part of the game. Often, the memorable moments were those where communication devolved into total chaos, leading to an absurd loss. Indeed, I started to feel that the game might become less fun if you learned to play it well.

Non-Digital: The Annotated Anarch

June 17th, 2019

Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition won the Origins Awards for Best RPG as well as the fan award. I’m very happy about this. Origins attributes V5 to Modiphius but the original three books of the game were created in-house at White Wolf, before White Wolf was subsumed into its parent company of Paradox Entertainment.

I wrote most of the Anarch book as well as some material for both the core and Camarilla books. I figured it might be interesting to go through some of the chapters I did for Anarch and the creative and design decisions involved.

I’ll write about parts I created here. The rest is mostly the work of Matthew Dawkins, who was wonderful to work with because of his immense knowledge of Vampire.

The cover of Anarch, one of V5’s two setting books. The two characters walking outside on an overcast day refers to the Thin-Blooded, vampires so far removed from the original curse of Caine that they don’t suffer from the full effects of vampirism.

Goal

I wanted to write an entertaining, readable, engaging book. It’s purpose was to explore the V5 Anarch idea of vampires living enmeshed in human communities as well as give ideas and prompts people could use in their own games.

Because Anarchs don’t live apart from humanity like the Camarilla does, Anarch characters, groups and concepts must necessarily connect closely to human experience. Because of this, I sought to bring the material in the book closer to reality than has been customary in the World of Darkness.

In this, I followed the style of my Vampire larp work, especially in Parliament of Shadows. It was a Vampire larp I did with Maria Pettersson and Bjarke Pedersen, played in 2017, about how the Camarilla wields its political power in concrete terms. It was played partially in the real European Parliament and featured two actual MEPs playing themselves.

An in-game scene at the European Parliament. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

In earlier editions, the Camarilla, the Anarchs and the Sabbat have been the main three factions of the vampire world, with the Ashirra maintaining a presence as well. When you read older Vampire books, the Camarilla and the Sabbat come across as strong and distinctive while the Anarchs remain more marginal and the Ashirra a side note.

Since in V5 the main focus is initially on the Camarilla and the Anarchs as the two sects that define the setting I took it as my task to give the Anarchs some punch. The revolution had to feel dangerous.

This was part of the wider project of developing Vampire’s setting to work better for the default character types of the game, meaning Neonate vampires. A resurgent Anarch movement fighting against young Camarilla Kindred who inherited the empires of their Elders is more dynamic than the stagnant setup of earlier editions.

I also wanted the revolutionary politics of the Anarchs to connect more to real-life revolutionary thinking. Reading older Anarch books, I often felt the Anarchs were portrayed as politically mild and ambitionless, beggars asking for crumbs form the table of the Camarilla. I tried to add some rigor.

I can’t really claim to be a political activist but I do believe I’m the only Anarch writer who has broken into a NATO airbase for the purpose of bringing attention to American nuclear weapons placed illegally in Belgium. (I wrote the very first article of my career as a journalist about that experience. It’s here.)

The last time there was a Nazi march in Helsinki on 6.12.2018, I ran five blocks alongside it yelling for them to fuck off. (I had to stop because I’d had dental surgery that morning and was bleeding from my mouth. Also there were Swedish Nazis there, and those guys are genuinely quite terrifying.)

I felt this small real life experience helped bring some new perspective into what the Anarchs can be in Vampire.

The content plan for the book was put together by V5 lead designer Kenneth Hite. My task was to make that plan into reality. This was a challenging task because of the wealth of both real-life material and Vampire lore referenced and I ended up doing a massive amount of research.

Chapters

The individual chapters in Anarch are short, often just a two-page spread. This was a blessing because it made it easier to avoid the verbose word bloat of so many roleplaying game books.

The plan was to make almost all of the book 100% in-game text, so prose style played an important part. I tried to vary this as much as possible to make it more interesting to read, so there are diary entries, chat logs, straight prose, manifestos, and so on.

All the examples from the Anarch book are from the original version, not the current redacted Modiphius version, unless otherwise noted. You can check the differences between the versions here.

Introduction

When I first got into Vampire in the mid-Nineties, I paid close attention to the song lyrics quoted in the books. I literally took down the names of bands and went to the record store to buy the albums. I found a lot of great music this way.

However, there was one quote which I has unable to place, although I tried. That’s the one on the back cover of the first edition of the Vampire corebook:

Detail from the back cover of the original 1991 edition of Vampire: the Masquerade.

Given that my task was to rescue the Anarchs from mildness, I was very happy that the very first Vampire book was defined by such an Anarch-appropriate quote!

That’s why I had to include it in the Introduction to my Anarch book:

Page 5 / Anarch.

What Are We

This chapter presents a collection of jumbled, weird ideas of what being a vampire might mean. In Vampire: the Masquerade, there’s a well established mythology where Caine was the first vampire, cursed by God to wander the night. However, because Anarchs are often disconnected from vampire traditions, they make up their own explanations instead, some of them bizarre.

This is one:

Page 9 / Anarch.

In my family we had a woman called The Aunt, an important figure in my childhood. She was an ardent Christosophist. Christosophy is an offshoot of Theosophy. She tried to teach me some of her worldview and while it never quite stuck, echoes are now on the page of this Vampire book, although I don’t think she would approve of the vampiric insinuation.

Monsters of the Recent Past

Here Anarch activist Rudi talks about trying to understand vampire history. You may wish to apply these same ideas to your favorite news sources. Rudi is actually Gangrel. The mistake is mine.

Page 12 / Anarch.

The City On the Sea

The myth of Carthage is an integral part of the story of the Anarchs. This chapter represents a revisionist take on it, which I’m sure you noticed if you’ve read versions published in earlier Vampire books. The idea is to explore what happens when a modern Anarch vampire applies the idea quoted above under “Monsters of the Recent Past” to vampire history.

What does the history of Carthage look like when you assume it’s Ventrue propaganda?

I did some research into the real history of Carthage and it turns out there is some disagreement among historians about the reliability of the standard account of Carthaginians as terrible baby murderers. In this real-life analysis, the sources for the worst stories are Roman, and Rome was at war with Carthage. Traditionally through human history, lies have been told about enemies. Often accusing them of being baby murderers.

In this analysis, the explanation for why there are archaeological finds with concentrations of the remains of children in Carthage is that they are cemeteries, not ritual abattoirs.

I’m not enough of a historian to know what’s true, but I figured it would be interesting to couple this real-life disagreement about historical sources with the analyses of Anarchs seeking to make sense of their history.

Looking For Tyler

The Movement needs heroes, villains and celebrities, characters who define what it means to be an Anarch. I tried to use existing canon characters when possible, and some of those are pretty great.

One of them is Tyler, one of the very few Anarch Elders present from the time of the First Anarch Revolt. In this chapter, I tried to make her into a mythological figure, an Anarch saint who can appear everywhere and nowhere.

Since she has no Domain, no known philosophy, allies or affiliation beyond that of being the original Anarch you can project whatever dreams of revolution you want onto her. Just like people do with real symbolic figures!

Reign of Terror / ’68

When you read the history of Anarchs in older Vampire books, they sound kinda depressing. A lot of disappointments, not many victories. To me, this is not about the historical events but the emotional tenor of what it means to be an Anarch. I wanted there to be moments of glory in Anarcb history, times when being an Anarch was great.

These two chapters concerning the history of Paris offered a good opportunity for inserting a little revolutionary joy into the proceedings.

24 / Anarch.

I went to art school in France in the mid 00’s. Some of these old men and women who’d experienced the glory days of ’68 were still around.

Personally, the closest I’ve ever gotten to this kind of joy was in my early twenties, around 2000. In Finland on Independence Day, the President hosts a reception for the national elite. This is a stodgy televised event where you can see generals and parliament members shake hands with the President in a long line.

At that time, there was a strong culture of protest around this event. The protest was known as “Kansan kuokkavierasjuhlat”, “The People’s Gatecrashing Party”, with activists trying to get the demonstration in front of the presidential palace and the police doing their best to keep them away.

These are some of the rowdiest demonstrations I’ve ever participated in. (Finnish demonstrations are usually pretty staid.) The police charging the crowds with shield walls, people running the streets to try to outflank the police cordons, arrests. However, the thing I remember best is the camaraderie and feeling of purpose in the crowd. It was not a somber crowd, there was energy despite the December cold and overwhelming police presence.

Being online is often a lonely experience, making you feel like you’re alone in a world of assholes and malign fools. Being physically part of a protest crowd has often made me feel the opposite of that, when I see all these different people around me, all with a united vision.

Of course, since this is a Vampire book and vampires poison everything, the joy of the Anarchs is not quite the same joy as what I experience in a protest.

Ten Nights That Shook the World

In old World of Darkness books, the focus of the setting is on the U.S., which makes sense because it was originally an American roleplaying game. Areas outside the U.S. were also featured, but often their treatment was sketchier. One area where this is particularly noticeable is Eastern Europe and the role of the Soviet Union in vampire history.

This is also reflected in who the game is for. In 1991 when Vampire first came out, Russian roleplayers didn’t have a lot of visibility in American roleplaying game circles. Today, Eastern European countries have large Vampire fanbases.

From where I live, it’s four hours by train to St. Petersburg, so for this reason also Russia is more of a real place to me than it was to early Nineties American roleplaying game writers.

One of the guidelines we had for Vampire 5th Edition was that when it comes to historical events, vampires are parasites riding the current of human events, not secret masters in control of everything. The motivations for this concept are twofold: To make vampires more parasitical and monstrous and to avoid shifting the blame for human horrors onto supernatural entities.

However, in terms of the vampire history of the Soviet Union, this creates a problem, because past books have asserted that a “Brujah Council” controlled the Soviet Union.

This chapter represents my attempt at squaring the circle. How to keep the canon intact while keeping the blame for the horrors of Soviet atrocities were it belongs?

My solution was to focus on the idea that in a totalitarian state, there might not be a big moral distinction between a human KGB boss or a vampire KBG boss. The idea is that the Soviet Brujah were young revolutionaries who became corrupted while the larger human structure around them stratified into a totalitarian state. They didn’t control the revolution or secretly cause it to happen, but just participated in it the same as ordinary humans. Afterwards, they floated to the top because as vampires, they were uniquely suited to survive in this new environment. Yet even then, they didn’t really define the system. They were just another power block among many.

This is the kind of problem you have with working on an established IP. It was important to me to respect the material that came before, but also try to reinterpret it so it would fit the new vision for how Vampire works.

Page 27 / Anarch.

Dee’s Blood Guide to the Anarch Free States

Page 30 / Anarch. Detail from a illustration by Tia Ihalainen.

I read a lot of old Vampire books while I was writing Anarch. I noticed that while especially for an early Nineties roleplaying game Vampire had a lot of women in it, the trend where women are hot and men are cool was still present. For this reason, I wanted to put a little objectification of hot Anarch dudes into this book. In this chapter, it’s present in the text, but more importantly in the illustrations by the wonderful Jer Carolina. We talked about what would be the right look and the conclusion was to go full Tom of Finland.

Walk Among Us

Each new section of the book is introduced by a little dialogue about the themes of the following chapters. In these, I really tried to break away from the previous tradition of Vampire writing and make them light, engaging and contemporary.

Page 35 / Anarch.

This exchange is a reference to Victor Pelevin’s excellent vampire novel Empire V. It has a wonderful moment where two vampires discuss what’s the appropriate way to dress now that you’re a vampire.

Enlightenment in Blood

In V5, the two core factions are the Camarilla and the Anarchs. To give the Anarchs a little more bite, in the new setting material the revolution got into full swing. To make this more concrete, one of the three most important Camarilla cities in Europe, Berlin, fell to the Anarchs in a bloody and chaotic insurrection. This meant that in V5, only Paris remained of the old pillars of the Camarilla. (London fell to the Second Inquisition.)

The Anarch revolution in Berlin was the subject of a major urban larp I did in 2017. It was produced by Participation Design Agency and created with the license and creative collaboration of White Wolf to integrate new setting ideas in advance of the publication of V5.

In Enlightenment in Blood the larp, the goal was to create a full-scale simulation of the revolution on the real streets of the actual city of Berlin. To make this happen, we had a dozen locations in the Friedrichshain area, including two nightclubs and a church.

In-game photo from Enlightenment in Blood / Tuomas Hakkarainen.

This chapter in the Anarch book is a reflection of those same events, of the fall of the Camarilla and the messiness of revolution.

Page 36 / Anarch.

Dawn of Satan’s Millennium

In Kenneth Hite’s original plan for the Anarch book, this chapter was supposed to be about Norwegian black metal vampires. However, in Finland we also have an extremely strong metal scene, so I decided to locate the chapter closer to home.

Page 49 / Anarch.

Much of the specific detail in the chapter is based on the documentary Loputon Gehennan liekki. You might think I made up some of the weirder details in the chapter, but think again…

In this chapter, I introduced the Anarch journalist character Chinasa Adeyemi. I have a background in journalism so I wanted to have a point-of.-view character through whom I could write a few different types of articles. Thus I made the Adeyemi chapters into approximations of Vice, the Economist and other styles. After all, a good journalist can adapt to the idiom of the publication.

The Night Circus

Here’s a fun biographical detail about me: I come from a circus family, in the sense that the circus was the family business for most of my life. My mother is a circus director and I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs from selling popcorn to being a fireguard for when there’s a fire-based number.

The circus material in this chapter is entirely romanticized, though. The one true detail is when the trapeze artist plummets to the ground, and even it’s not really true. When I was in art school I directed an experimental circus performance which ended with the fall of the trapeze artist. The reference here is an echo of that.

Is It OK To Feed Vitae To a Baby?

In the plans for Anarchs in V5, there was an unusual focus on cleavers, vampires who try to retain a human existence to the point of raising families. Of course, this endeavor is doomed to end in tragedy. The reason for this attention on cleavers was to highlight the worse sides of Anarchs so as to avoid making them the “good guys” in a game that has no good guys.

I don’t have children myself so I immersed myself in Finnish baby forums and the style of discussion there. Based on that material, I wrote this chapter as a parody of those forums.

In the Anarch book, this has been the most polarizing thing I’ve written. Modiphius chose to censor it from the current version of the PDF they sell. I’ve also gotten more positive feedback about this than any other thing in the book. Most of these comments have come from parents.

Page 66 / Anarch.

The cleaver theme was also explored in the chapter “Delusions of Humanity” (page 62), about a woman who became a vampire because she was hired as an au pair to a cleaver family.

Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre

The classic slogan in French. It’s also a reference to this:

I’ve been a fan of French hiphop ever since I found a couple of IAM albums from the Helsinki municipal library system when I was a teenager. I wanted to have a little of that in the book so I spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out the references in this chapter, tiny as they are.

The chapter is a lesbian love story between an Anarch and a Camarilla vampire. After reviewing the existing prominent Anarch canon characters, I made a policy decision to make almost all the new ones I created women, hopefully helping a little with the gender balance of the game’s setting.

The Ministry of Love

This is the last thing I wrote for the Anarch book, some time after I’d completed the main part of my writing task in the spring of 2018. It was during this time that bizarre rumors started to circulate on American roleplaying Twitter that Swedish Nazis were sending secret messages coded in the dice roll examples of Vampire playtest scenarios.

I found this quite insulting, and I wrote this chapter in that state of mind. As a result, it has two Ministry vampires talking about the pros and cons of using alt-right people as pawns:

Page 91 / Anarch.

This same theme was explored more thoroughly in the chapter “Build a Better World (For You)” (page 112).

Whatever Happened to the Red Question?

Before this book, there were three setting books about the Anarchs for Vampire: Anarch Cookbook (1993), Guide to the Anarchs (2002) and Anarchs Unbound (2014). The city sourcebook Los Angeles By Night (1994) is also significant because it shows what Anarch ideas mean in practice.

Out of these books, the two early ones, Anarch Cookbook and Los Angeles By Night, informed my approach to the material most because in them, the Anarchs were more politically aggressive.

The last Anarch book before mine, Anarchs Unbound, moved the action from the streets to online, spending a lot of time on Anarch hackers who used their knowledge of modern networks to stymie archaic vampire Elders.

This is something where Vampire essentially did a U-turn when we came to the V5 edition. Instead of vampire hackers, online was suddenly the domain of the Second Inquisition hunting for undead to kill and capture.

In Anarchs Unbound, the vanguard of the vampire hackers is the group Red Question. I wanted to keep the setting material of Anarchs Unbounded as part of the new Anarch book but reinterpreted so it’s part of the Movement’s history. In this case, the Red Question now represents the heady days of online freedom before the Second Inquisition crackdown.

Another detail in this chapter is the question of responsibility for the 2008 financial crisis. The older book suggests that it was caused by Anarch vampires of the Red Question, but following the idea that human evil shouldn’t be ascribed to vampires, I muddied the waters:

Page 93 / Anarch.

Revelations of the Dark Mother

For my money, Revelations of the Dark Mother (1998) is the best individual book published for the first three editions of Vampire. I always felt it was a shame it’s ideas were not really integrated into the rest of the vampire line except in a sporadic, scattershot fashion.

To me, it seemed obvious that the religious ideas of the Bahari would find a lot of adherents among the modern Anarch Movement. I tried to bring that out in this chapter.

Unfortunately I’m not entirely satisfied with my efforts. I don’t think I quite managed to live up to the verve and style of the original book.

Still, I did my best:

Rudi’s Army

This chapter features a group of Copenhagen vampires who are all young antifa types having the kind of semi-formalized activist meeting that I’ve also participated in a few times.

A lot of the basic energy of this chapter comes from the simple: “What would you do if you became a vampire?” -type questions. I mean, Nazis are scary because they can beat you up, but if you’re a vampire…

Page 107 / Anarch.

Electric Vitae Acid Test

This chapter is about using humor to combat the Camarilla. It was hit by censorship in the new versions of the PDFs. Check if you can see the difference:

Page 127 / both versions of Anarch.

Eat the Rich!

This is a book with a lot of different characters speaking in their own voices, but two in particular define the dichotomies of the Anarch Movement: The ideologue Salvador Garcia (a classic canon character) and the killer Agata Starek (created by me).

Garcia wants to build the Movement into something sustainable, yet he’s stymied by the fact that vampires are destructive parasites. Agata Starek is a nihilistic destroyer who can’t create anything of lasting value, yet is very effective in making the Camarilla fear the Anarchs. When Salvador Garcia fails you, Agata Starek is there to destroy those who hurt you.

Both are also featured on Loresheets at the end of the book.

I put a lot of thought into the creation of Agata because I wanted her to fulfill a very specific role: To show the joy and terror of a vampire revolution. Agata is a rarity among vampires in the sense that she’s essentially a happy person, content to Diablerize Camarilla pretty boys while others do the work of keeping the Movement together.

I was also influenced by this article about the limits of female characters as positive role models. I wanted to make Agata into a terrifying wild cannon, a psycho who’s exploits are interesting to read about even though she’s beyond ordinary human morality.

Page 133 / Anarch.

Non-Digital: Writing About the Gehenna War

June 12th, 2019

I worked as a freelancer on Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition, originally put together in-house by the new Swedish incarnation of White Wolf. (Now subsumed into the parent company Paradox Entertainment.) As part of that work, I contributed the chapter “The Gehenna War” to the Camarilla setting book.

The discussions before, during and after the release of the game books have been tumultuous, at one point escalating even to the office of the President of Chechnya. (Here’s an article in Finnish about it, and another one in Russian. Google Translate works for both.)

In the aftermath of the release of the books, control over the direction of Vampire 5th Edition was passed to the licensee company Modiphius, although ownership of the property remains with Paradox Entertainment.

Modiphius has made numerous changes to the already published books, rewriting the original material into more conventional form and censoring entirely some chapters. (Such as one I wrote for the Anarch book called “Is It Okay To Feed Vitae To a Baby?”)

The cover of the Camarilla book.

I was looking over the changes made to my chapter about the Gehenna War in the Camarilla book. They are extensive, the rewrite made by Khaldoun Khelil. What’s extremely unusual is that Khelil also wrote a post on his Patreon explaining his reasoning. It was a fascinating read, and a rare glimpse into the strange project of remaking an already published setting book.

(You can read Khelil’s whole post here. It’s for backers only but that just means you should become backers!)

Inspired by Khelil’s text, I decided to write my own post, detailing the thinking that originally went into the chapter.

Incidentally, the presence of differing versions of the books, including print versions, will surely make for an interesting collector’s market down the line!

A comparison of the original and the edited version of the opening paragraphs of the chapter.

Game Design Ideas

In the world of Vampire: the Masquerade, vampires become more powerful as they age. Young vampires are oppressed by their elders. While this is a resonant setting element, through the years of actual Vampire play it has also created a lot of trouble. The default character in Vampire is young, and a stifling hierarchy makes it harder to find opportunities for character agency.

For this reason, the 5th edition of Vampire introduced new ideas into the setting of the game. A mysterious supernatural Beckoning was calling ancient vampires to the Middle East, where a Gehenna War was being fought between the vampire sects of the Camarilla and the Sabbat, often through human proxies.

This in turn thrust the old hierarchies of the Camarilla in chaos, revealing lots of opportunities for player characters to do something interesting. For example, take over the empire of political power built by an Elder who suddenly decides to decamp to Baghdad.

The idea was to make Elders rarer and more terrifying, empower Neonates while retaining the idea of ancient monsters and their malign influence, and create dynamic story opportunities.

The chapter “The Gehenna War” is in the Camarilla book to make this real and work it into the setting. It’s an in-character view of what it means in practice when both humanity and young vampires get swept in events initiated by those vastly more powerful than themselves.

Thematically, the idea behind setting the Gehenna War in the Middle East was built to mirror the way foreign powers have had their proxy wars in the region. Thus, the local vampire sect of the Ashirra is trying to deal with a conflict fought by two foreign sects, the Camarilla and the Sabbat. As in real life, the war is fought over resources. Because this is Vampire, the resource is not oil but the slumbering tombs of ancient monsters who lived in the region thousands of years ago when this was one of the cradles of human civilization.

Since the core nature of vampires is parasitical, the idea is that they are not the instigators of these conflicts (since human evil is human evil) but parasites exploiting them.

In game design terms, the idea of having a very specific place for the Gehenna War was so that two things happen: Ancient vampires become much rarer in some parts of the world, while concentrating in one part of the world. This would make a game set in New York or Cologne or Helsinki into a playground for Neonates while transforming the Middle East into a unique setting where young characters can interact with ancient monsters all over the place.

In the rewrite, the Gehenna War has been decentralized so it no longer centers on the Middle East. This obviates its original design purpose.

By this stage in the chapter, the differences are significant. Palestine gets erased.

Details

In time of the 2003 Iraq war, I was 23. The war was a seminal event in shaping my worldview. It demonstrated how American rhetoric and power interact, how wars get started, and how media consensus is sometimes spectacularly wrong.

Because of this, I wanted to make the viewpoint character of the Gehenna War chapter into an Iraqi man who had left his country as a human and returned as a vampire. For the personal details, I relied a lot on two interviews I did some years ago with the Iraqi novelist Hassan Blasim, about whom I wrote in Helsingin Sanomat. (I really recommend his novels and short stories, they are wonderfully good.)

Although the chapter I wrote has nothing to do with Blasim, a few individual details in his story stuck in my mind and I figured human detail was necessary to balance the real life stories of war and fictional stories of vampires.

The viewpoint character was also designed to demonstrate the core ideas of the new 5th edition in that he was a Neonate Archon. The thinking here was that with the deepening alliance between the Camarilla and the Ashirra, the historically European Camarilla needed young people who could speak Arabic. Anyone older would be too important to do the grunt work.

I wanted to make the reason the point-of-view character was made into a vampire somewhat arbitrary and impersonal to underline another key setting point: The Camarilla is a society of monsters. Thus, our point of view should reflect that, with an regular guy looking into this terrible world that has taken over his life. This basic idea carries through the whole chapter.

Instead of sending anyone important into the midst of the Gehenna War, the Camarilla makes a refugee into a vampire, dubs him an Archon and drops him into the middle of the horror. Conveniently, this could also be something that might be basis for a game with player characters as the Archon and his entourage.

Palestine

During the chapter, the viewpoint character travels around the Middle East, encountering increasingly horrific things as the nature of the Gehenna War reveals itself. The Camarilla, the Ashirra, the Sabbat, all those Elders and their massive egos in one place.

I placed one scene in Ramallah, Palestine, and introduced a local Ashirra vampire character called Leila for reasons that combine personal and political. In 2012, I traveled to Ramallah to play in the first big international larp organized in Palestine, Till Death Do Us Part. It was a deeply profound experience, and had a lasting effect on my life.

(They are organizing a rerun of the game. The sign up is open right now, and I really recommend it.)

After Till Death Do Us Part, I became part of the organizing group of the Palestinian-Finnish larp Halat hisar, originally run in 2013 and later in 2016. The larp was an attempt to create an experience of the Palestinian political reality in Finland, and it was made by Palestinian and Finnish designers. The Guardian writes about it here, among other things.

Because of these experiences, I learned a lot about the Palestinian situation. I also noticed that Palestinians tend to get erased in American and European media productions, often because their mere existence is seen as “political”. For this reason, I wanted to put in a Palestinian character, to fight in my very small way against this erasure.

Unfortunately, in the rewrite, that section of the chapter has been scrubbed clean of Palestine.

Terrors

In an extremely basic way, one of the guiding principles behind my writing in this chapter and everything else I did for Vampire is that vampires are monsters. They might think that they are good people, but in truth they are poisonous parasites who destroy everything they touch.

In the Gehenna War chapter, the viewpoint character is rescued by one of Vampire’s classic signature characters, Fatima al-Faqadi, an ancient assassin. He comes to believe in her because he falls for the illusion she represents. Yet in the end, she is just another ancient horror. By that point, however, it’s too late to step out of the world of terrors. Once you’ve become a vampire, there are no happy endings.

Reading the rewrite of my work, it often felt like it hearkened back to an older conception of what Vampire: the Masquerade is and how it works. We’ll see how that works out in terms of the upcoming wider slate of V5 material.

You can check out my original take on the Gehenna War chapter for yourself in the first printed run of the Camarilla book or in the earlier PDF versions. The new version is in the PDFs that have been sent out this spring, and probably in future print editions of the book.

It’s interesting to look at the comparisons and consider how they change both the game world, the politics and meaning of the game, and the design functions setting ideas have!

When I and the other writers wrote the three original books, everything we did was interconnected and meshed together. Thus, if you’re not careful, when you change one part it might throw another out of alignment. For this reason, my original Palestinian Leila still appears in the books, as a little shadow of what used to be…

At least until an editor finds her and she gets redacted in the next PDF update.

A Game Per Year: Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. (1990)

May 22nd, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the original American edition of Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. The cover of the Finnish version is almost identical, the only difference a small FGH logo in the lower right corner.

I must confess that I cheated. The game for 1990 is Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. which indeed came out in 1990. However, I read it in the Finnish translation by Joona Vainio, which was released in 1991.

Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. is a seminal roleplaying game for both the artform as a whole and the scene where I originate in particular. It’s also a perfect game to read in the context of this project because having read all the games from previous years, I really appreciate what Cyberpunk does.

Cyberpunk sells its ideas with prose style, with attitude, with visuals. It’s not a cold exercise in tedious game mechanics but an all spectrum assault, using everything you can do in a printed product to engage the imagination. This is a beautiful thing.

It’s also an interesting game because its influence in terms of the cyberpunk genre is so broad. Although cyberpunk was originally defined by movies and novels, I’d argue that few works encapsulate it in such a pure form as does Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0.

For me, the core of the game is the four tenets expressed early on. In the English original, they are:

  1. Style Over Substance
  2. Attitude is Everything
  3. Always take it to the Edge
  4. Break the Rules

The game mechanics of Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. were sidelined long ago. The setting is dated. Yet I think these ideas live on, in the type of roleplaying that’s been going on in my community for over 25 years now. If you look at it right, that could also be a manifesto for a certain type of Nordic Larp.

(The other game that defined my corner of the Finnish scene was Vampire, of course.)

The translation for the Finnish edition is generally held to be the best of any roleplaying game translated into Finnish, and for good reason. It’s rough and ready, capturing the energy and attitude of the source material perfectly. When I was growing up, there were two geek books where the Finnish version was considered better than the original. One was this and the other was Lord of the Rings.

Reading Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. now, with one year to go before we reach 2020, is an exercise in futures gone past. In terms of the setting, the hacking system is bittersweet because it now feels kinda silly with its long-distance phone calls and data fortresses, but its also cool and visual. Online is a fantasy world, not the everyday reality it is for us.

Back in the Nineties when I played this game a few times, we were laser focused on two character types in particular: the solo and the netrunner. The solo is the badass killer in a trenchcoat, a katana and an Uzi. The netrunner is the hacker. Reading the book now, most of the game’s systems are given over to these two character types.

Yet there are others who now seem much more interesting. The rockerboys, the medias, the corporates, the fixers and the nomads seem far richer in experiential potential. I feel like I want to run a game of Cyberpunk just because I think now it would be much more nuanced than when I was fourteen.

Although to be honest, at fourteen the katanas and the cybertech were certainly fascinating enough!

Maa

May 19th, 2019

Last Friday saw the publication of the fourth roleplaying game I’ve worked on in a major capacity. I can safely say that it’s also the most unusual game of my career so far.

Maa (that’s Earth in Finnish; the game is bilingual Finnish/English) got started last summer when the American sculptor Matthew Day Jackson began to organize an exhibition of his works at the Serlachius Museums in Mänttä, Finland. Talking with the curator Timo Valjakka, he decided that instead of an exhibition catalogue, he wanted to make a roleplaying game.

In a wonderful turn of events, both the museum and Valjakka decided to go for it.

A video commissioned by the museum about the Maa project.

The museum brought me in as a roleplaying consultant and to work with Jackson to make the game. The third core member of our team was the curator and arts writer Tom Morton who did world and story design and writing.

On Friday, Jackson’s exhibition opened in Mänttä and Maa the rolaplying game was released alongside it. The exhibition and the game are intertwined, with the exhibition existing as a prelude of sorts to the story of the game.

Maa is set a thousand years in the future, after humanity has wiped itself out. In our absence, the planet has healed and become paradise. Now, the last survivors of our species are crawling out of their antiquated bunkers, blinking into the light.

The question is, will humanity destroy the earth once again, or will we be able to evolve?

The game and related swag at the museum store.

The player characters are Scouts sent out by the Family residing in a Bunker in what used to be Finland. During the game, they can explore the new world, meet its strange inhabitants and eventually meet their destinies on the Moon.

Jackson’s exhibition represents a museum built inside the Bunker, the sculptures strange remnants brought down from the surface by previous generations of Scouts. As you walk into the exhibition, whether alone or as part of a group, you’re asked to take the role of a trainee Scout and see what you can make out of the surface based on what you see.

Although the exhibition and the game are interlinked, the game is also a wholly unique experience on its own. Indeed, we designed it to be played like a traditional roleplaying game, with players and the Seer directing the action.

The contents of the game box.

In the game box, you’ll get two hardcover books, a card deck, a map, character sheets and spherical dice handmade expressly for this game. The game’s system is based on color theory and the affinities, responses and emotions different colors create. In Maa, subjectivity is king as we each react to the colors during play.

Personally, this was a wonderful project especially because of the new ideas that resulted from this cross-pollination of the arts and roleplaying worlds, and also because as an institution the museum threw its weight behind it with such enthusiasm. It’s my hope that the story of Maa will continue, in one form or another.

If you can read Finnish, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat did a wonderful article about Maa. It was also picked up by Suomen kuvalehti and the Finnish roleplaying media Roolipelitiedotus.

Serlachius Museums are in the small rural town of Mänttä, an unusual but beautiful location for such a place.

At the moment, Maa is available as a limited edition of 200 copies signed by the artist. You can get yours from the museum’s shop for 299 €.

A Game Per Year: Ironhedge Manifesto (1989)

May 13th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the Ironhedge Manifesto (1989).

I’ve tried to go for variety when choosing what to read for this project. Games from publishers big and small. Ironhedge Manifesto represents the small.

It’s a tiny indie fantasy roleplaying game published as a little 40-page booklet crammed with tiny type. The 1989 version I was able to find is the 5th edition of the game. The original was published in 1979.

This is the first explicitly anti-communist roleplaying game I’ve read during this project. It says: “This game contains free thought, free trade, low taxes…”

Like in the Arduin Grimoire before it, there’s some editorializing about the state of roleplaying games:

1. In the days before Ironhedge, there were no decent Role Playing Wargames.

2. The wargames of men were overpriced, illogical, complicated, and lacked purpose, meaning, design and True Adventure.

3. The Big Corporations mated with the Media: producing Wargame Whorelords who exploited these ideas over men.

And so on.

As a game, Ironhedge Manifesto follows the classic D&D template. There are character classes, monsters, spells, etc. All the usual things. The game is set on the campaign world of Ironworld, with the attendant other planetary bodies Moonworld and Lunaworld. The booklet also mentions Afterworld and Netherworld.

Underneath the idiosyncrasies, Ironhedge Manifesto is an attempt to make an approachable, low-cost roleplaying game. Despite its anti-communist ethos, there’s something egalitarian about this goal.

A Game Per Year: Bullwinkle and Rocky Role-Playing Party Game (1988)

May 11th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the 1988 roleplaying game Bullwinkle and Rocky.

Originally, I planned to read something else entirely for 1988, but friends wiser than me suggested I take a look at the Bullwinkle and Rocky Role-Playing Party Game. And they were right! This is an extremely interesting example of roleplaying game design, especially for its time.

American pop culture is not distributed to the rest of the world evenly. Some American cartoons were broadcast in Finland, while others were not. We got Looney Tunes and DuckTales but I don’t remember ever seeing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends on Finnish tv. I had to google it when I started reading the roleplaying game.

So, this is a licensed roleplaying game based on a cartoon, published by TSR (the company behind D&D), designed by David Cook and Warren Spector. This is already the second game from Spector I’ve read, the first being Toon (1984).

The contents of the game box itself are quite attractive. Instead of dice the game has spinners unique to each character. Thus, Bullwinkle loses much more often than Rocky. There are diplomas that you can give to players, a stack of cardboard character stands so you know who’s playing who and a deck of cards you can use for randomizing story beats.

Best of all, there are plastic hand puppets of all the major characters. They bring a pleasant air of playfulness to the proceedings.

From the left: Rocky, me and Snidely Whiplash.

Bullwinkle and Rocky is a light, chaotic game which embraces the spirit of communal storytelling. It’s more about coming up with fun cartoon antics than serious engagement with game mechanics. It has a lot of the same DNA as Toon, but it benefits greatly from a specific milieu and characters, as well as the modern design.

Among the features that predate modern storygames, Bullwinkle and Rocky has a rotating Game Master role, where each player takes on the task of the Narrator in turn. It has several game modes, the simplest of which is pure communal storytelling. The more complex ones introduce characters.

There’s even something for the Nordic Larp audience to like, with a strong focus on play to lose. After all, most of the characters are incompetent fools, so it stands to reason everything they try fails. The key is to make it fail in an entertaining way.

Retrospectively, Bullwinkle and Rocky feels like a harbinger of things to come. Its lean design throws revolutionary ideas around so casually, it demands a status as an early classic.

A Game Per Year: Miekka ja magia (1987)

April 27th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the Finnish 1987 roleplaying game Miekka ja magia (Sword & Sorcery).

The first Finnish roleplaying game is The Secret Treasure of Raguoc in the Acirema Dungeons, published in 1986. Miekka ja magia (Sword & Sorcery) is the second one, out in 1987, and the first to enjoy commercial release. Both were designed by Risto J. Hieta, one of the most prolific roleplaying game designers in Finland. Interestingly, the illustrations were made by Tuomas Pirinen, who later gained fame and glory at Games Workshop designing Mordheim and the 6th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle.

Miekka ja magia is a 60-page leaflet, an introductory fantasy game in which you make up characters and go explore a dungeon with them. You haul away treasure, gain levels and try to survive.

This is the third introductory fantasy roleplaying game I read in a row. 1985 was Dragonroar, and in 1986 Tunnels and Trolls. However, despite its modest production values, Miekka ja magia is easiest to grasp and feels most playable. Reading the book, you understand how it’s supposed to be played, not a given in the world of roleplaying games. Even introductory ones.

The mechanics of the game follow the same familiar template of D&D-lite and might be called OSR-style today. Both the Game Master and the ultimate bad guy in the dungeons is called Raguoc, but despite this, the GM is not really playing against the players.

At the end of the dungeon, you can even find the treasure of Raguoc and haul it away!

One of the more unique character classes is that of the cherub. A wizard type, the cherub has the ability to turn insubstantial. In this form, they can’t attack but also can’t be damaged and can still cast support spells.

The best thing about Miekka ja magia is the approachable, conversational tone it’s written in. Reading it feels like having a friend explain how it all works. It doesn’t assume you’re steeped in existing play culture but starts with first principles. For this reason, it’s also easy to grasp by a reader decades later.

A Game Per Year: Tunnels and Trolls (1986)

April 27th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the 1986 Corgi edition of Tunnels and Trolls.

So far, every game I’ve written about has been a first edition. Indeed, in a young field, that’s tended to be the only option available. Now in 1986 there’s enough roleplaying history to pick a new version of an old game, in this case the British Corgi mass market paperback version of the 5th edition of the classic American game Tunnels and Trolls.

Finding copies of the games to read for this project has been difficult at times, so I admit one key reason for this choice was that I had the book sitting on my shelf.

Tunnels and Trolls is a light-weight dungeon crawl roleplaying game, like D&D except less serious. It’s famous for spell names such as “Take that, you fiend!”. The basic game provides rules for character creation and combat, as well as some Game Master tools for making dungeons.

In terms of mechanics, one unusual idea is that each side in a combat adds together the results of each character’s actions into point totals which are then compared. So player characters could get 56 and the monsters 45. The difference between these numbers is used to figure out who won that round, and how much damage must be distributed among combatants.

The standout feature of the Tunnels and Trolls book has nothing to do with the mechanics, however. It’s about the tone. The book has been written in a conversational, informal style that permeates everything right down to specific game mechanics.

Many roleplaying games suggest that the players customize the game to their needs, but Tunnels and Trolls really embraces this, practically forcing the reader to adapt the rules. A combat mechanic might be explained in three different ways, with the suggestion that the reader pick a favorite. Or there’s a note saying that an earlier edition, a specific rule was different, giving the possibility to revert back to it.

The text in Tunnels and Trolls reads less like a rulebook and more a documentation effort capturing what the play community was doing. It even makes references to the “Phoenix players”, who I assume to be the designer’s home community. The book explains how this or that GM in Phoenix used a rule.

This reaches it’s peak in the chapter on expanding the world. Tunnels and Trolls is assumed to happen in a series of dungeons with little to connect them, but the game also gives the option of creating your own fantasy setting. There’s an explanation how some folks in Phoenix did this: “When the question of a continent to put these places came up, Bear drew the dragon-shaped continent of Rhalph, almost as big as all Eurasia.”

This writing style makes the book hard to understand, but it’s also refreshing compared to the way most roleplaying game books are written.

A Game Per Year: Dragonroar (1985)

April 9th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The box cover of the 1985 roleplaying game Dragonroar.

I had a lot of options for the game to read for 1985. The first edition of Pendragon. The cult classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness. However, all of them paled before the allure of Dragonroar!

Dragonroar presents my reading project with a whole slew of firsts:

First non-American roleplaying game. Dragonroar is an early example of British roleplaying game design.

First game to feature WAR HEDGEHOGS, honourable and tough enemies who can savage a warrior by backing into them! See the cover, above.

FIRST GAME TO FEATURE A C-CASSETTE! Also to my knowledge the only game to ever do so.

Back cover of the box of the 1985 roleplaying game Dragonroar.

Dragonroar is an introductory fantasy roleplaying game. The basic elements are familiar: Warriors and wizards, fighting monsters, boardgame-style dungeon adventures.

The uniqueness of Dragonroar doesn’t come through in the basic system or setting. It’s in the margins, the details and the framing. The C-cassette contains an introduction to the game mechanics on one side and a solo adventure on the other. What’s more, it introduces the listener to an in-game prog band, suggesting much more about the nature of the game world than any of the textual setting material. Except maybe the mention of a character called Arkan of Disiboth, “the Textual Pervert”, so called because of his mistranslations of holy texts.

One interesting detail is the section on gender in the chapter “Creating a character”. It’s the second section in the chapter, immediately after character name. It gives players three options: Play men, women, or “hermaphrodites or asexuals”. Today, the framing comes across as transphobic, but I’d still argue that presenting such options at all, especially in an introductory fantasy game, was unusual in 1985.

Gender pops up in Dragonroar in another place as well. The game features three participant roles: The Fatemaster (the GM), the player and the Arbiter. The Arbiter is a member of the player group who’s job is to make final decisions in case the players can’t agree on a course of action. The game says that: “playtests have shown that women make the best arbiters”.

Although most of the system revolves around movement and combat, one flourish is the mechanism for knowledge. Knowledge “specialisms” are divided into categories and you get more if you’re smarter and more experienced. Some of them are typical, such as Magic and Combat. However, Humanities is also a category and features the subcategory of Sociology, with the sub-sub-category of Women.

Thus, if you really squint, in Dragonroar you could play an asexual Women’s Studies major using the core rules. Although you’d still have to decide whether you were a Warrior or a Wizard. In some respects, the binary is inescapable.

Dragonroar is a great example of how the perception of a game changes with context. According to some of the contemporary reviews I saw, Dragonroar didn’t get a great reception. I can understand why: The mechanics are a muddle and the book spends a surprising amount of time bashing players of other roleplaying games for playing wrong.

Nevertheless, when I read this in 2019, I don’t really care about the core of the game because it would have been outdated anyway. I care about unique ideas, and on that front Dragonroar delivers. The experience of listening to the C-cassette on an old cassette player I was able to scrounge up was surprisingly magical, probably more now than when the game was new.

A Game Per Year: Toon (1984)

April 5th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the original 1984 edition of Toon.

Toon is a famous 80’s roleplaying game for a few different reasons. Designers Greg Costikyan and Warren Spector went on to have great careers in both analog and digital games. What’s more, Toon’s subject matter of zany cartoon antics has clearly resonated with roleplaying audiences, perhaps because of its contrast to the serious and heavy systems in fashion in the Eighties.

In Toon, you play a cartoon character having cartoon adventures in the style of Looney Tunes. You live in a four-color world of mutable logic and simple gags. Violence has no lasting consequences and a pie in the face is always funny.

Like in many old roleplaying games, the most interesting ideas on Toon are on the margins, not the core of the system. Looking at the basics, Toon is a routine skill-based game. What sets it apart is framing. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the following rule:

“FORGET EVERYTHING YOU KNOW and ACT BEFORE YOU THINK.”

I naturally love this, as someone who detests the paranoid style of roleplaying where you have to consider every move. Act before you think is great advice for many games, not just those involving cartoon characters!

Toon is the first game I’ve read during this project that clearly defines the game session. It says that you can play short and long games, with short ones being only 20 min. Long games are 30 min for each player. In most games, it seems the players are assumed to have some sort of a cultural understanding of what a session is and thus it doesn’t really need to be articulated.

The game exhorts the Game Master (or Animator, in Toon lingo) to run the game as expressively as possible, waving arms and making sound effects. It says that if your neighbors don’t complain about the noise, you’re playing it wrong. I liked this advice because it also seemed to represent something new in roleplaying, consideration of the style of social interaction the game is about.

A Game Per Year: James Bond 007 (1983)

April 2nd, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the original 1983 edition of James Bond 007: Role Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first roleplaying game, was published in 1974. It’s amazing to think that by 1983, there had been so much development in the artform that it could produce the kind of quality you see in James Bond 007. In less than ten years, roleplaying games went from tentative beginnings to a modern-looking game.

I say “looking” because the first thing I noticed about 007 was that it’s the first roleplaying game I read during this project with a nice, readable layout. Most of the games I’ve read so far have been presented with the graphic vision of an antique phonebook, with endless tiny type and ugly illustrations. Not here! The spreads are attractive and they’ve clearly paid attention to how information is presented to the reader.

James Bond 007 feels like a level-up in many other ways too. It’s clearly focused on replicating the kind of action you see in the movies, with a basis in genre and not realism. James Bond goes to exotic cities, engages in car chases and flirts at casinos. Thus, the book provides the necessary systems and information for all of this.

The basic system is very Eighties in its pointless complexity, but it has some nice touches. Chase mechanisms are a common point of failure in roleplaying game design, and James Bond 007 really goes all in there. The chase system is as extensive as the combat system, designed with the idea that a chase will be intricate, exciting and full of tactical decisions.

Another fun detail concerns character appearance. You buy your appearance level with points, but the twist is that the cheapest option is where you’re the most handsome or beautiful. Being plain costs the most. The justification for this is that looking good makes the character more recognizable, but there’s a strong incentive just to make your character into a hot superspy.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly given the reputation of the James Bond franchise, the game is also more gender-inclusive than some others from this era. It consistently assumes that both players and characters can be men and women. The illustrations show women in action scenes doing cool stuff.

From a historical perspective, James Bond 007 feels like a precursor of design trends to come. If you squint a little, you can make out the beginnings of games where story and style reign supreme.

A Game Per Year: Gangbusters (1982)

February 26th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the rulebook from the original 1982 edition of Gangbusters.

I didn’t know anything beyond the basic concept about Gangbusters when I decided to read it for the 1982 entry in this project. It proved to be one of the most interesting games I’ve gone through so far, alongside earlier favorites like Empire of the Petal Throne and Metamorphosis Alpha.

Gangbusters is a roleplaying game about American crime in the Twenties and Thirties. Cops and gangsters, Al Capone and Elliot Ness. As befits the early 80’s design style, it’s heavy on simulation and light on narrative elements, character immersion or mood.

One of the most interesting core ideas of the game is that players are expected to play against one another, not as a single cohesive team. For example, if the game features two cop characters and two gangster characters, they make up two sides. The wild card character type presented in the game is the reporter who can investigate actions on either side of the law.

There’s two game modes, simple scenarios and a campaign. The scenarios are all about simulating physical reality in classic genre situations. For example, two gangsters are trying to rob a jewelry store. Two cops show up. A shootout ensues. This mode is almost like a boardgame, complete with maps and cardboard figures to represent the characters.

The campaign mode is where the real action is. Its basic unit is the week. Characters make plans in weekly increments and when those plans lead to scenes or conflicts, those are played out in more detail. This is done in an adversarial fashion: If the cop characters manage to suss out the details of the proposed bank robbery, that can then be played out as a fight scene.

This means that the game features extensive rules simulating life on a societal level. There are intricate systems for running bootlegging operations, bookmaking, loansharking, etc. As characters gain levels, they get promoted. At the beginning of the game they’re small-time hoods and beat cops but by the end they run either the local police as the commissioner or a huge criminal empire.

The reporter ends up as the editor-in-chief, of course.

The characters are expected to make money. They have to pay rent and other expenses and if their source of income dries up, they end up on the street. Criminal enterprises are extremely lucrative but also risky. Cops can make money on the side by taking bribes.

There’s something very elegant and purposeful about all these systems for criminal activity. The game focuses on a clear set of actions mandated by the genre and then provides tools for how to make those things happen. There are tables for police corruption and explanations for how the economic fortunes of the country affect criminal enterprises.

This is the first game I’ve read during this project that tries to sell the fiction and the concept to the player. Before, all the game books have pretty much started with: “Here’s a bunch of rules. Make do.” This time, there’s a little fiction piece about a shootout and a foreword written by a grandson of a member of the Untouchables.

In terms of presentation, the game is a first in another way too: Reading it, it’s possible to grasp how to play it. This sounds obvious, but a lot of the early roleplaying games were so steeped in the culture they sprang from, they’re hard for an outside reader to understand. In Gangbusters, the whole setup is clean and straightforward despite the complex intricacies of the simulation.

Gangbusters was a positive surprise with a lot of interesting ideas. The week-based campaign mode is something that might actually be fun to play even now.

A Game Per Year: The Spawn of Fashan (1981)

February 4th, 2019

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of The Spawn of Fashan.

The Spawn of Fashan is famous for one thing: Being really bad. It’s a roleplaying game equivalent to The Room. There are a few games famous for being terrible, such as FATAL and Racial Holy War, and compared to those Fashan distinguishes itself in the sense that its crimes are largely aesthetic.

I wanted to read the game because of its cult status but I was also worried about a trap we tend to fall into whenever we’ve collectively deemed something to be bad. We look for the things that reinforce that narrative and become blind to whatever other ideas the work might have.

So the question is, what’s interesting about The Spawn of Fashan?

Fashan is a fantasy world created by the game’s designer Kirby Lee Davis. At the beginning of the book, he explains the title of the roleplaying game by noting that during play, each group would end up creating their own variation of Fashan, even if they wanted to play scrupulously close to the original.

Because of this, nobody could play on the original Fashan, as all play-Fashans were inevitably partly created by the players themselves in their own imaginations.

So the game worlds they had would not be Fashan, but the spawn of Fashan.

So things get pretty philosophical straight off the bat! After this, I was surprised to find that the book offers only very limited details about the world of Fashan. It’s a fantasy world where Warriors hold sway. Occultists are the hidden masters, opposing Swayers, who sway human minds. At the end, there’s a map of a region called Boosboodle. Apart from a few monsters, this is pretty much it.

The creative goals of the game are explicitly stated. They are to bring individuality to character creation and to make the game more realistic. Individuality is increased by adding tables where you can roll for random characteristics such as bizarre phobias or extra senses.

The main game mechanical innovation for adding realism is a fatigue system that allows for the conservation of effort: The character can decide to hit weaker or harder depending on how many points they want to spend.

I started reading this book on a lark, but in truth it was extremely tedious. It’s a hard slog of confused rules text with interesting details few and far between. For entertainment value, the best part was in the end at the example of play. It’s an amazing little nugget of game writing in that it doesn’t really try to sell the game at all.

There’s a Referee and a player. The Referee is tired and sullen while the player just wants to murder things for no reason. The main action consists of the player character trying to buy various things at the store, all of them unavailable. It reads like an intentional parody of bad roleplaying.