Sunday, 29 May 2016

An Interview with Bryce Lynch

On his site Bryce Lynch has read and reviewed probably more D&D adventures than any other human being, which, I imagined would give him a unique prespective on adventure design and D&D generally so I asked him a bunch of questions.

1. WHY are you doing this?

Because I am a fool/for myself.

I've been roleplaying since 78 but in the 90's I moved from D&D to other games, eventually ending up in the narrative/story game space. A pivotal moment happened at Origins, in a Fiasco game, which slotted in to some views that came from running Lacuna. This killed my narrative/story interest, abruptly, and got me back to D&D-ish things. 

Looking about I discovered all of these forums and all of these cool things people were talking about and recommending. This was right before GenCon, so I made a huge purchase at GenCon; like $2000 in adventures. Getting home from GenCon was like Christmas! As I started to go through it the highest Highs become the lowest lows ... I was crushed with disappointment. Almost all of it sucked. 

Then I had a thought: if my expectations were crushed then other folks probably were also ... and a brief perusal showed that there was almost NO negative reviews of ANYTHING. In RPGlandia everything is TEH BESTEZT! I bought a site and started jotting down notes, mostly for me, to refine what I was looking for, and hopefully other folks would find a more realistic view also, when they went looking for opinions.

You mention games of Lacuna and Fiasco that alienated you from Storygames. I found a reference to that here  in your Rise of Tiamat review and a little here in your Death Love Doom Review. have you spoken about it in more depth anywhere else? Would you like to do so here?

I thought it was on FortressAT, in my Origins Con Session Reports. Looks like it didn't make moderation and I eventually posted it on RPGGEEK in my Geek of the Week Q&A. I stuck it at the end. Boy, reading those old session reports brings back some fond memories. "The Queen can't just take our land, It's the Magna Carta baby!" ,"We're sorry for your loss. Please accept this complimentary British Petroleum Slurpee as a token of our regret."

(It's reproduced in full below the cut.)

"I bought a site and started jotting down notes" - you wouldn't, by chance, happen to still have those would you? What did they say?

Alas, no. Very brief though. "This sucks" and "I hate this hook" and "steal this." You can see some hints of this in the August 2011 reviews, some of my first, where I'm still figuring things out. I think I cherry-picked Thing in the Valley because I liked it. You can see me struggling in The Prison of Meneptah (which also has a Melan reply.) I recall asking someone on the Dragonsfoot forum, which was reviewing it, about it. I don't recall the response but I do recall it was less than satisfying. After I posted that one (or another one around that time period) someone said something like "Nice review. At first I thought you were one of those guys who liked everything."  A little validation seems to vastly shorten the time it takes to refine an idea. For better or ill. :)

2. How the fuck have you kept this up without going mad?

The same as everyone else: Hookers & blow.

The only really bad part is Dungeon Magazine. I find everything else interesting, either because there's something to steal/get inspired by or as an example of what not to do ... a validation of my beliefs. I like to look/imagine, especially at the amateur products, at what the vision was and how the writing fell short. This makes most reviews pretty easy

Dungeon Magazine, though ... wow. The worst part is when I buy a series or a lot of product by one author. When the first one is terrible then I know I have to slog through the rest and that can do a lot to kill enthusiasm. Dungeon Magazine was like that for a LONG stretch ... knowing that I had to slog through eighty pages of crap with nothing to look forward to. I try to avoid mass buys these days, where all of the product is from the same author or the same company. In short: variety keeps things fresh, even if it's bad variety. 

3. Has it become strangely addictive?

Hmmmm, I'd use the word 'routine.' Monday morning is a review, Tuesday morning is a review, and Wednesday morning is Dungeon Magazine. There's some applicable rule about how long it takes for something to become habit, I think? 

4. What do you know that no-one else knows?

There is a difference between "I had fun" and "A good product."  Having fun has more to do with your DM than anything else. The product is more about supporting the DM in helping you all have fun.
a.       Have you perceived any deep, long-term patterns proceeding over years or decades that other people might not have noticed?

I doubt there's anything new to learn. I think the most interesting time was the move away from house-rules, like Arduin and Arms Law and T&T, and the codification of official rules that started in 1e. That shift, 35? years ago, is just now being corrected in any serious way.

5. Why are most adventures so bad?

a. Why do people want the wrong things?

I'm not sure that's a good question. No one wants the wrong thing. I would say that it's easy to go with the flow. Adventurer's League, show up on Wednesday night and play. WOTC pushes an adventure to the DM every week, almost no prep. And if you try and run something NOT Adventurers League, or D&D, or the most current version of D&D, then you face additional hurdles. I'm not sure that 'Apathy' is the right word, but a lot (a majority?) of folks are happy enough. I'm guessing that just enough of their sessions have just enough fun to keep them strung along, as they chase the high. It takes effort to seek out something different. It takes effort to get out of your comfort zone. When I'm at my best I want every thing in every day to always be awesome, and everything else isn't worth my time.
b. Is there simply no evolutionary pressure on them to make them better?

c. WHY is there no pressure over time for tight writing, usability or clear layout? Is it to do with the audience, the way adventures are used, the hobby part of the hobby? 

I'm going to write an answer for all three.

The problem has many parts. The good news is that a lot of research has been done on the issue, in the general consumer sciences field. The bad news is that the solutions are not prescriptive. 

The hobby part of the hobby is one aspect. There's a very low barrier to entry, which is both a blessing and a curse, for both PDF and print. The glut of product makes choices hard for the consumer. There's a lot of research on how consumers react in these situations. We see things like mimicking the old trade dress and nice covers that try and combat these, but that's just marketing; putting a nice cover on a crappy product helps the publisher and harms the consumer. Harlan Ellison, I think, has some diatribe in which he touches on the impact of amateurs producing material. While not directly relevant, it is interesting to see how it impacts other fields of writing also. 

Some publishers need a revenue stream. They mouths to feed and bills to pay. A product needs to come out every month and the deadline is the deadline, damn the quality. 

Similarly, the pay-per-word crap sucks ass, and not in a good way. Encouraging bloat and weak editors combine to create unusable product. I'd love to see the big publishers crack down and/or cooperate in this area. Offer a set fee, set expectations, require hard deadlines with lots of time for revisions ... and offer a brand that means quality. But they don't really have to, people keep buying their schlock, so they don't. There's your lack of evolutionary pressure: they make money no matter what kind of crap they put out. 

I just saw something from Finch, and he's right: When you buy something, rate it. 5 stars. 1 Star. Whatever. Rate it everywhere you can. Education, alternatives, that's what will change habits. (I'm a hypocrite; I used to do this more.)

Do you have a link?

The wretched hive of scum & villainy: YDIS

(Bryce provided a link but I am not sending traffic to that river of shit.)


6. What is beauty of interest to you? (This doesn't make grammatical sense.)

Apneatic (I wouldn't google that...)

The wonder of a childlike imagination. Grottos sparkle and waterfalls have caves. Bookcases have secret doors and chandeliers drop. Fields of flowers with fairy dragons who always talk to you. Something out of folklore where animals talk and limbs fall out of chimneys and brave little tailors have belts. Is there a treasure in that knot in the tree? Fuck yes there is! 

7. If you could go back in time and change one thing (in RPG history), what would it be?

I wish for three more wishes. 

1: Tomb of Horrors would either not exist or would only exist as rumors. I understand what it was and it's purpose however it set a bad precedent. I think it encouraged both a linear design element and, more troubling, and adversarial bend to GM'ing. I suppose someone would have done it eventually, but that early publication influenced too much, I think.

2. Those FUCKING skeletons in B2 would not be wearing those FUCKING amulets! Again, I think this influenced design too much. It implies that the game world has a set of rules that the DM must play by. Skeletons turn as 1HD, forever more, unless they wear this bullshit amulet. This has led to monsters wearing rings of protection and so on, not because it's cool or enhancing things but simply for the mechanical effect. It's got an AC 1 point more/less BECAUSE FUCK YOU THAT'S WHY.

3. And this is really my core point of the above two: the 'official' supporting product would have been better. For better or worse, people have taken (and will continue to take) the official product as The Right Way to play the game. If you publish a linear "5 fights" adventure with your edition launch then a lot of people are never going to move beyond that. More care going in to the launch products, at a minimum, would have set things on a different course, I think, and we'd have better design overall. It's weird to see some great advice in the DMG's and then to see the launch product ignore it. 

8. On whom would you bring down the sword of judgement if you could? (You don’t have to answer this one.)


I suspect I know the plan: keep D&D on life support and make money in licensing and internal Hasbro synergy.  That's no excuse for the quality of the product they are putting out. There's an absurd amount of tribal knowledge, or at least should be, about how to do something good. Their official adventure content sucks donkey balls: hardbacks, Adventurer's League, and most of the previous 4e and 3e line. The feedback I've seen is mostly "You don't proofread! Orcs are supposed to have an AC of 12 but they have of 13 in the adventure! " That's lame, and it seems to be the feedback they pay the most attention to. The stat & rules nonsense is worthless, it's fucking D&D, it can be whatever. Their inability to produce content that is evocative and helpful is inexcusable. Laziness, because they know people will buy it anyway, especially if they slap Baur's name on it? Who knows. I can excuse the amateurs who, as a labor of love, create something and their vision doesn't match what they turn out. The product WOTC cranks out for the Worlds Most Popular Fantasy RPG should be better. Fuck their book layouts and fancy fonts. That shit should be the cream and not the core value for a $50 book. 

9. Are there any personalities you would single out as having a noticeable effect on adventure design? Any important names that the audience might not have heard of?

The long line of shitty editors that Dungeon Magazine had? Robert Silvers they were not.

Matt Finch, You, Melan, Benoist, Bowman & Calithena. Zak for his relentless championing of the DIY/gig thing. Jason Sholtis. Stater. But that's really just a subset of people who right stuff I like and not Personalities who had a Notable Effect. 
The early TSR folks established the course that we're still on today. Those small efforts early have influenced everything. The only thing that has made as large an impact is, I think, the OGL. Ryan Dancey, representative as the work of many on the OGL, has put us in the wonderfully optimistic spot we're in today. Without the OGL the landscape would be VERY different. I don't see another person who has had as large an impact since the very early days.

'Baur' is Wolfgang Baur, is that right? Do you want to add anything or contextualise that for anyone not familiar with that situation or person? (Like me)

During the launch of 5e WOTC released a boxed set. The first adventure they published after that was two linked hardback books, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat. Both were done in some kind of work for hire with Wolfgang Baur and his Kobold Press company. Baur had a decent reputation after writing several decent Dungeon Magazine adventures, a stint as an editor for some things, and Kobold Press was decently respected. So WOTC outsourced their launch product so someone they had previously had a employer relationship with, and leveraged the fact that he was moderately popular ... and the end product, Hoard/Rise, sucked ass At least that's what I can piece together. The adventures WERE outsourced to Baur/Kobold, for sure.

Melan - Melan of Melans Dungeon Mapping  and Dragonsfoot? Any particular articles you would like to point out?

That's him. That mapping article appeals to the academic in me. He's written a decent of critical commentary, and his Formhault stuff is pretty good. He's written quite a bit for Fight On! He's one of the few non-native english speakers that publishes in english.

Benoist - Benoist Poire from and this interview  & here? Anything else you would recommend people looking into?

Yup. He's got a nice series on map making on K&K, and also.

Bowman & Calithena - From Fight On! magazine? Any recommendations?

Issue 2: the upper caves (my favorite ever!), issue 3 (crab-men!) and issue 5 (trogs) and issue 6, a monumental work.

Jason Sholtis - From and the Dungeon Dozen. I think my audience will be familiar with him.


Stater - Is that this guy? I don;t know him well. Tell me more about him.

He does a lot. He turns out A LOT of content in the form of hex crawls. Each hex being an little adventure seed. I did a comparison of hex crawl styles in one of my reviews:

10. If you were putting together your prefect copy of Dragon magazine, what would you put in it?

My Dragon looks somewhat like Fight On!

*) I'd have a fluff piece each month, no more than three pages. A campaign world, concept, or something like that. High level, with almost nothing explained WHY. Mystery after mystery referenced once and never again. 

*) I'd have a campaign arc outlined each month, enough to start someones imagination running. No more than a single page, and maybe half a page. Evil Iggy just won kissed the princess and is now the king. He's looking for the Throne of the Gods. Blah blah blah. Not a plot, an outline

*) Half a page each month on how to make a new monster or magic item. Brief, breezy, maybe using one of those random thing web pages to juice the imagination.

*) A con/public game calendar.

*) An Oglaf strip.

*) Something like the Dungeon Dozen.

*) A Dear Abby column on how to handle HARD things. My buddies wife keeps coming in during the game and asking him to take out the trash. My friend stinks. Mike always cancels, and so on. And the advice should always end with "Remember, sit down and talk to them like a real person. There's only drama if you get worked up."

*) I'd have a zonky cover, something completely different month to month. Anyone who's ever had a page at Deviant Art. No two ever by the same person and as much style diversity as possible.

*) A terse village, maybe one page, brief, with a focus on the people and how they relate to each other, that you can drop in. Or a business "rope walk" ,"salt works" or something like that. A touch of realism but LOTS of gameable content.

*) An adventure. That doesn't suck. No more than 6 pages. It will have  some twist or something new to it. Not just goblins in a cave. They better be those goblins made of twigs and leaves and the cave better be a purple worm.

*) A well written industry news piece. Trends,etc.

*) New stuff to check out, or skip, with a liberal definition of 'stuff'.'

*) A DM/Player advice column, tips to run the game, handle traps, etc.

*) Outside your comfort zone. A furry RPG, narrative game, rolemaster overview, something DIFFERENT.

*) Most importantly, a page of DIY Rules. Exploding daggers, Shields will be sundered. Carousing. 

Maybe 16-18 pages. $20. Village & adventure are located so they can removed and used.

11. Have you ever thought about making your own thing?

Only when my ego becomes over inflated. 

I've done some one-page/one-sheet references under other names. I did a players handbook. I wrote a "fixed" chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. My wife and I have talked about working on something jointly, again. We argued, no joke, for three hours over the first sentence in my Hoard rewrite, and thus have tabled that idea for now. I have a lot of hobbies and I would have to give something up in order to do this ... or come to terms with my self-loathing perfectionism. Neither is likely to happen any time soon.

From Q 11 'fixed' "chapter to Hoard of the Dragon Queen" is that the link I have above?

The Tiamat adventure line is a 2-parter. Rise, the link you have, is part 2. Part  is at: here on the blog and here in a google drive.  

12. Have you ever thought about condensing your wisdom or things you have learnt into rules, guidelines, a manifesto? A statement? (Or just a list of rules or guidelines.)

The Grand Moff Tarkin says you're never supposed to talk about what you plan to do, only what you've done.  Jesus H Fucking Christ it's easy to procrastinate writing. 

[ask patrick if I should open source this?]

Open Sourcing creative efforts is a complex issue which can work differently depending on personality and your ability/desire to deal with large numbers of people and processing and synthesising their ideas. I generally wouldn't, but then I am essentially a Morlock so maybe don't take my advice on when to work with others. 

I would be keenly interested to see what you come up with though.


13. When reviewing, how do you think about potential preferences in taste, things that are unique to you vs others? Is this something you think about?

I have some strong reactions to certain things, among them: fairy tales, barrows, gonzo, tinker gnomes and magical ren-faire.  I try to disclose this during a review if I think it's applicable. More importantly, I try to write a review in which my own preferences are not relevant to someone else finding the review useful. "I like this" is not a good review. "I like this because tinker gnomes fly hot air balloons with rappelling kinder special agents" tells you more. Even if I don't like something (or do)  hopefully I explain why so the reader can make their own judgement based on their own preferences. This makes the review useful even to the scum^H^H^H^H folks who like kender, tinker gnomes, and magic technology.

"I liked it" is personal preference. "I liked it because the salmon sashimi was coated in about a pound of kosher salt, each." is actually useful. If you like that much salt, Yum! If you don't like that much salt then maybe that place is not for you. The important part is now BOTH sides can find the review useful. 


14. Culture war bullshit. Gender, race, representation, the gender wars. These aren’t primary interests of mine but it’s possible that you have a deeply held feeling you have been holding on to, something you are anxious to say or an opinion you have been brewing for a while. Is there anything you want to say?

Bryce selected this image specially

My own intolerance is reserved for the cohort of angry old white men shaking their fists at the sky. The kids stay in their room too much. The kids don't know how to roleplay. The kids like grid combat. The kids have no attention span. The kids play with their phones at the table instead of listening to my six page monologue. Those sorts of generalizations upset me the most, maybe because I'm always on guard to ensure I don't fall in to them. I often wonder why ... again, so that I don't fall in to it. Fear of difference?  Some nonsense definition of respect? Bitterness? Their genius & wisdom is not being recognized? I was delighted when you asked me to do this ... do I fall in to the same traps? And now I'm self-centered for bringing a discussion of cultural inequity back to me? Stupid unexamined life.

We live during a time when the world has never been more just and verdant. I have great confidence that the younger and coming generations will ensure that statement becomes even more true. The kids are alright.

 Also: I like succubus boobies.

15. Likewise - edition wars. maybe you have  a mic to drop or something.

Oh, I don't know, it's all personal preference. I prefer the more rules-light stuff in B/X or something like Black Hack. If you want to run Roberts Rules of Order edition then have fun. 

My only gripe is the tendency for folks to not play anything but the most recent rules. I like playing with new people and having new experiences and it's hard to attract players in a store, con, or public game if you're not in the Most Current Edition trough. This makes me sad when I think about it so I'm not going to think about it anymore.

I loathe lawyering and the min-max/DPS mindset, which is probably why I like the rules-light stuff. The focus can then be on the game and what's going on rather than digging through the books trying to find something to give you a +.5% edge. [Shakes fist at sky!] A 90's GURPS foray, and then 3e, is where I first noticed it and then my experiences with GOD DAM I FUCKING HATE YOU  RPGA, both in running games for them at GenCon and now playing with my kids & wife at Winter Fantasy, has perhaps biased me quite a bit. Fuck me, I can't seem to quit a game called "Dungeon & Dragons."

I did have that 4e book burning. The party was more anti-materialist and about "finding" the 5e boxed set in the ashes the next morning. IE: Performance art for the big 5e meetup the next weekend. I disliked 4e quite a bit more than the others (although I did like the way it emphasized special monster abilities) but not enough to go out of my way to erase it from existence. I wanted a big party to celebrate 5e and the giant meetup/party the next week and I thought that finding the 5e boxed set in the ashes would be a fun thing to do. And it was. 

16. What do you think about 'the future of the hobby' whatever that means.

Wasn't it in one of those goofy sequels to Dune where humanity spread out in the galaxy, forever free from being annihilated?  The environment has splintered in to a thousand sub-systems and will continue to do so. (although it could be argued that everyone house-ruled in the early days and so it has always been this way.) The large companies will hunt the lucre in media deals while keeping their systems on just enough life support to sign the licensing deals their shareholders crave ... maybe with guaranteed income subscription models in the middle-tier. I have great confidence that the gig/DIY culture will flourish, in the shadows, and continue to grow and continue to produce an increasing number of wonderful products. 

I'm also looking quite forward to seeing more product from other countries, and in particular those without the Tolkein influence. We get glimpses of these things every now and again, with the work of Benoist and Melan are the immediate examples. I'm quite optimistic that the Internet will allow us to see more from the DIY fantasy crowd in other countries and I think that's quite exciting. There's this small group of people who travel & license foreign boardgames, I sometimes wonder if one could do the same for RPG's/adventures? Imagine an imprint that travelled exclusively in that content! That would indeed be wonderful!

Below the cut you can read, in almost real time, Bryces Dark Origin and the Tragic Accident that turned him against Story Games.

This was in the context of a con report. It's interesting to see where I thought I was back in 2010/2011 and how my memory has played tricks on me in the ensuing years, rewriting the story. Man, was I ever a jerk!

DANGER! Strong opinion ahead!

I generally like to expose myself to new & unusual games at conventions; things that I can't play at home for whatever reason. This usually means I end up with a widely eclectic variety of games. I am CRAZY insane thrilled about Indie RPG's, and since Fiasco has been getting buzz for awhile now, I decided to sign up.

Friday 1p-5p, $4, Bully Pulpit Games, RPG Event 6432, Fiasco

Fiasco is a game about ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control. It is a game about small time capers gone horribly wrong. There will be big dreams and fla3/1/11 execution. It won’t go well for those involved, to put it mildly. In the end it will probably all go south in a glorious heap of jealousy, murder, and recrimination.

I was coming off of a pretty damn good game of Call of Cthulhu, if a little more sedate than my usual Call of Cthulhu fare. Next up was supposed to be an indie RPG, Fiasco. I'd seen Fiasco at GenCon last year and had picked it up several times, ultimately falling back on my "don't buy anything before you play it" rule. But I was close, very very close. Several times. It called to me. Then the game started popping up on several RPG web sites with people RAVING about it. I was through the worst of it though; the "you must mail order it" threshold is very high with me. I can impulse buy all day long, but mail order means I WANT IT, and that's a pretty severe barrier given my minimalist lifestyle. Once the Origins pre-reg catalog came out I did my usual sorting routine. This involves deleting all seminars, all 'spouse' events, all RPGA events, all CCG events, all D&D events, all superhero & furry RPG events, all boardgame events from major publishers and from Gamebase 7, and almost all historical miniature events. I may like to try new things, but I've learned my lessons well. I usually then sort the list by event type and search out three sections: Call of Cthulhu RPG's, PST LARPs, and Indie RPGs. These all go on my 'short list.'

I LOVE indie RPG's. I'm not sure when I first caught the fever, however in looking back it must have been about the time of the first Lacuna release. Or rather, Lacuna Part 1, the Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City. The cover had a spider-man on it wearing a big fat Russian fur hat with a star on it. Pretty cool ey? I thought so. I followed this with DOZENS more indy games. At each GenCon and Origins I would drop several hundred dollars on these things. Agon. Polaris. Run Robot Red. Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men. Shab-al-hiri Roach. Deaths Door. 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights. Best Friends. I had a huge stack of these little folio booklets at home. They are AWESOME. And so I came to Fiasco. My buying policies had tightened up significantly since the banner years of Run Robot Red and Deaths Door. The indie pickings were a little light in the Origins pre-reg book, and Fiasco stood out, both from the leanness of the offerings and because of my previous interest.

I trundled up from the basement Rogue Cthulhu rooms to seek out my new room and discovered four things. First, there was a row of conference rooms BEHIND the d20 Pro table! Well, it was d20 Pro in years past anyway. I had NO idea there were conference rooms shoved back in there. Second, there was a new bagel shop in the center, right across from the mysteriously appearing conference room. Visions of capers & lox began to dance in my head. Yum!. Third, there was a back entrance to the Hyatt! All this time I had been exiting the elevators on 2, walking past the bar and around the corner to get to the convention center. And there was shortcut. Duh .... Finally, my game room was nearly empty. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a a sparsely populated room, it generally means I can get rowdier. AT some point though you have to ask yourself what this means for the future of Origins. Yeah, I've seen the announced attendance figures. It does NOT match with my experiences. I grabbed an everything lox bagel full of caper-berries, cream cheese, and, unexpectedly, onions & tomatoes. Oh, my breath was going to be in RARE form for this next game. The guy shows up and begins to go over Fiasco with me my fellow players.

We now come to the Nature vs. Nurture portion of our musings. Do indie RPG's attract hipster/posers or do they create the hipster/posers who play the games? Or, perhaps, if we go META, do the expectations of seeing hipster/posers in an indie RPG then cause the observer to see everyone else through anti-rose colored hipster/poser glasses? Please debate. But be assured, the game was full of hipster/posers. Rejects, or perhaps winners, or an Elvis Costello impersonator contest. Every. Single. One. Well, except for the infinitely clever, witty and intelligent overweight, balding, older guy. He was cool. Really!

Back to the show. Mechanically Fisco is pretty simple. You need a lot of 6-sided dice and some index cards/markers to help keep track of things. The players sit in a circle and the index card lie between the players. They form a 'bridge' so to speak between the two players, with whatever is written on the card. For example, it could say 'married', or 'in jail together', or something else. In this way each player has two shared commonalities/relationships with the player on their right and on their left. You get these shared commonalities & relationships via a Fiasco playset. A playset is nothing more than setting, or backdrop for use during the game. You choose one at the beginning and that's the setting you are playing in. Modern gangster London, A wedding, or an Arctic research station are all example of playsets. There are HUNDREDS of these things for Fiasco, with a new one coming out at least once a month. Beyond a simple backdrop for the story the playset also contains a series of tables and these are how we form those relationships. At the beginning of the game a number of 6-sided dice are rolled; we'll say two for each player in the game. (The actual number eludes me.) Each player then in turn takes a die and matches it to a chart on the playset. For example, number 2 might mean "personal relationship". That will then have a subchart. Another player takes a die and that number can dictate what kind of personal relationship it is. Let's say #3 is 'marriage.' If you take a #3 die and apply it to that relationship, then you're married. And if there are no 3's left, then it can't be marriage. Thus choices for commonalities & things are easy to make early in the set-up process but pretty constrained later in the process, as your variety of numbers rolled diminishes to one die. Ta Da! Each player now has a relationship of two to the people sitting next to him/her, which he and the other players helped define.

During play each player gets to make a choice between two options: setting a scene or receiving a scene. If you create a scene then the rest of the table will decide what kind of die you get. If you allow the rest of the table to create a scene for you then you get to choose the die at the end of the scene. Dice? Huh? What? Yup, you recall those dice we used at the beginning to create our play framework? Well now we are collecting them. The dice rolled are in two colors, let's say blue and white, in equal amounts. At the end of the game you roll all of the dice you have and subtract the smaller colors total from the larger colors total. The number you get determines the fate of your character. The closer to zero the worse your characters fate, thus in order to get a nice outcome for your character you want as many dice as you can in the same color. So, we've got this giant two-color dice pool in the middle of the table and from that either the table is assigning you a die or you are selecting a die, depending on if you created the scene or the table created the scene. Then, you get to give the die away. You see, the game is divided in to two rounds. During the first round you take the die you were assigned, or selected, and give it to another player. In the second round you keep the die you were assigned/selected. In retrospect it sounds like there's an opportunity for screw-age here, which I am always delighted to partake in. In practice however screw-age didn't seem like that large of a motivator. Which is sad. Because I REALLY like screw-age. Note that there's no GM involvement. This being an indie RPG full of power/hipsters, having a GM would mean that the players options were somehow limited. So no GM, just free-form storytelling guided by the relationships, with the dice involved in the endgame resolution for your character.

The other players expressed a desire to play in Gangster London. This is the playset that describes play like that seen in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and any other movie about small-time inept criminals in London. I expect Trainspotting would fit the bill also. I wanted to play the Wedding playset, but wisely kept my mouth shut. "Oh No! The flowers that were delivered are white roses instead of red! Whatever shall we do!" Seemed like a good idea to me. Ok, so I have relationships with the people on my right & left. On the left I end up with "Married" and "Baby" and on the right "Hoodie" and "WW2 Bomb." Hoodies, for those of you not familiar with true-life Orwellian England, are a generic underclass criminal elements/boogie-man in England. Essentially, they are kids who wear hooded sweatshirts and commit petty crimes, like shoplifting. Yup, that's it. They tend to serve as the generic villein in many English dramas, either real, teleplay, or political. In the British series "Survivors" there has been a worldwide epidemic or horrific proportion. ABout 8 people survived. Oh, and an army of Hoodies that serve as generic villeins to menace them, of course.

Elsewhere around the table my 'wife' was involved in an importing business with eastern european prostitutes and had a house. Another player wanted to gang respect from the players on the other side of the prostitution ring. And he was involved in home burglary ring with my hoodie mate on my right. The game starts. My wife and her business partner are in an AA meeting in a church basement, discussing how they are going to find some new prostitutes to import. I start talking at the same time, as 'Ludmilla', who is new to the AA group, and new to the country. COming the Ukraine where she was a streetwalker, she is looking for a new life. I am total ignored. Not on purpose mind you, the other two guys are just SO involved in their discussion that they are completely oblivious to everyone else. The rest of us are giving incredulous loos to each other. Finally some else decides to play the Pastor hosting the meeting and tells them to be quiet, it's group sharing time again, and hustles them back from the coffee and doughnuts table. Becoming aware of their surroundings they pick up Ludmilla. I had something special in mind for her. Now, once upon a time the girlfriend and I wanted to see a movie, and we were in the mood for a comedy, so she picks out Eastern Promises. Those of you in the know know where I'm coming from. A) Eastern Promises is about forced prostitution rings in Eastern Europe with a naked knife-fight in a sauna scene with Aragorn in it. Second, and to spoil the movie for everyone, Aragorn is an undercover agent. I decided Ludmila was also. She had been coming to the same AA meeting week after week giving her spiel, but the two idiots were so self-involved and inept they kept missing/ignoring her. They finally pick he up and head out. Hilarity ensues as she beats up a trick in a bar, tries to save another prostitute that is the obsession of the players who Wants to Get Respect, turns out to be a man from the home office (English FBI), and eventually gets shot by my wife. Poor Ludmilla.

In the meantime my wife is bitching at me because our relationship has fallen apart since the baby came. It turns out she got pregnant in order to make me marry her. Bitch. The baby doesn't have a name, BTW; I call it 'it.' Turns out it was never given one. My hoodie buddy and I need to hide the WW2 bomb he's found, so I stuff it in the babies carriage and put the baby on top of it. We then proceed over to pub for a few drinks. It is decided that we should pull a job with the bomb. We'll set it off at the end of a row of houses. Everyone will run outside to see what's up, and we'll burgle the houses while they are outside. "Perfect", I say, intending to NOT remove the baby from the carriage when it goes up. We hook up with the Guy WHo Wants Respect and hit the houses. I modify the plan a bit and put the baby in the street, held in place by a manhole lid to keep it from squirming off. I figure the emergency vehicles or the debris will solve my baby problem for me. The bomb ends up being a dud. Salvaging the plan, we break in to an empty house at the end and smash off all of the gas fixtures. *BOOM* off goes the gas, while we three kings make our way to the busstop with a plasma tv and some clear shopping bags full of candlesticks & other assorted goodies. While on the bus some old lady says 'excuse me' to my hoodie mate, and he smashes her in the face, right in front of a bobby that was riding the bus also. He klleaps out while I kick out the window and follow with the shopping bags. #3 uses us a diversion and stays on the bus while the bobby chases me & hoodie mate. He ends up riding back to the apartment, fencing the gear to the other end of my wife's business, and getting away scott free with a decent ending. I run right in to a police gathering at the local 'cop bar' and hightale it away. I make it out, or so I think, because I'm hit by a random passing car and killed. Ourch. Bad Ending. Wife gets the worse of it. Picked up after shooting Ludmilla, but by an ambulance since she was injured in the gas explosion. She is reunited with the baby that was rescued from the scene. Only the ambulance runs over my body in the confusion, the baby falls out, it's head it run over and popped like an overripe Scanners FX, all of which she witnesses from the back of the ambulance. She's then jailed for Ludmilla murder. The guy rolled 'worst ending possible. Worse than death.' Game over man, and the table breaks up while I got find The Pretty Girl and the You Too gan for dinner.

Remember when I said I was crazy insane in LUV with indie RPG's? I misspoke. What I actually meant to say is that I can't STAND them. I LOATHE them and I never want to play another EVER again. This then was the final outcome of Fiasco; it made me realize what a load of claptrap indie RPGs are. There's no actual game in these things. It's just a 3 hour group wankfest of coming up with some bizarre shit and spreading it around. It's not 'free-form & exploratory narrative role-playing', it's telling a story for a few hours in a pointless exercise. The lack of a moderator in these things makes it even more ludicrous; there's absolutely no control at all on what goes on. It's a free-for-all/ It reminds of a 4.0 D&D game at DDXp in Fort Wayne this last year. We had to perform a "skill challenge" or whatever 4.0 calls it, in order to sneak in to a castle. I hate this nonsense, so I used Knowledge-Religion. Making my roll by 20 I declared that it was the holy day of St. Ignantz, and no guard ever looked left that holy day. The "DM" was not amused, but I was. These games are just like that roll: complete silliness with no controls over what goes on. "Oh, let's work together to make an interesting story." That's great. But it's not an RPG and I'd say it's not even a game. It's some kind of activity that one engages in. You want to sit around in a bar and play Baron Munchausen? That's great. Have at thee. But it's not a damn game. There's absolutely no risk in these things, ESPECIALLY those without a moderator/ref/GM. What's the point? Nothing ventured nothing gained, and there is certainly nothing ventured in these little piles of nothingness.

In retrospect I'm going to say that my earlier adoration of these things was tied up in two different things that hit about the same time. The first is D&D 3.5 & 4.0. While 3.0/3.5 cleaned up the rules quite a bit, it also added a ridiculous expansion of the rules in to almost every area of gameplay, which was only worsened by 4.0. The abstraction of large parts of the game in to "die rolls/skill checks" had narrowed the role-playing & narrative element quite a bit. Thus the hidden ennui I was feeling over 3.5/4.0 was taken out on games in which the narrative was king and went wholly in to that camp. And by "wholly in to that camp" I mean I ran a session of Enemy Gods and one of Shab-al-hiri. You see, I never actually played all those damn indie RPG's I bought. I know this is the name of the game with many gamers; you see a boardgame or new RPG and buy it, only to play it once or not at all. Same with these. The indie RPG's I was buying represented in some way the narrative and simple rules that 3.5/4.0 was not providing. This is where Thing 2 comes in to the house. Somehow games have come to represent 'fun' to me, and I use FUN in a traditional sense. Buying games means that I have an opportunity for fun and good times are here again. In the end though, they just sit on the shelf and end up being sad; a shelf full of unrequited fun is a very sad thing indeed. Several times in the past 15 years or so I've gotten disgusted with the mocking looks of my Fun shelf and ended up selling off all of my games. Let a year or two pass and I'll fill the shelf again with more & different games. Only to be faced day in & day out with their mocking stares, and end up getting rid of them also. The root cause, of course, is that games are NOT fun. The Pretty Girl, growing up as an only child, has stated that 'The box lies. It doesn't contain the people you need to play the game.' It's playing the games with people that is fun. Ultimately it is the Party Gamer crowd who are winning and will continue to win, because they recognize the importance of the social element in a game. Having structure in a game allows us to win or lose, but ultimately that is not what the game is about. The game is an excuse to interact with other people. Spreadsheet simulations, as well at 3.5/4.0, go too far in one direction while indie RPG's go too far in the other. This realization was the ultimate outcome of my Fiasco session.


  1. I'm perplexed about how he keeps reviewing titles he hates (like ye olde Dungeon), but doesn't continue with publications he likes (FO). I'd rather learn more about things I should be looking for.

  2. 1) This reminds how hard it is to really review something. I have done a couple of reviews, if you want them to mean anything not only do you have to read the whole thing, you have to understand it inside and out to make your case for/against it's quality. Which means doing a lot of thinking. Takes much more effort than to play it. 2) As a game designer it can be very difficult to express why a game works (i.e., "good"). However, if you play a bad game it becomes apparent in a few minutes exactly why it doesn't work. playing the bad one's helps you understand easier the why's of the good ones.