Monday, May 1, 2023

Pedantic Wasteland - Vampire Cruise

Come Sail Away

Vampire Cruise by Amanda lee Franck is a 40-page zine containing a site-based location (the Sea Star cruise ship) for a horror-comedy adventure that unfolds over the course of two days at sea. It acts as a referee’s creative partner in bringing to life an adventure with a unique premise that is simply summed up by the title. It is system-neutral but contains roughly B/X stats for its monsters, which makes it relatively easy to adapt to any vaguely “old-school” system. 

This review is based on two sessions I ran online in February, which is described in more detail in a play report by one of the players on his blog, Benign Brown Beast. I ran the adventure using Into the Odd, which system I recommend pairing with this adventure for two reasons. First, the more modern equipment packages fit better in an adventure set on a vaguely modern cruise than the more medieval European fare you tend to find in other “OSR” rulesets. Second, Vampire Cruise is open to the players being passengers, crew members, or vampires, and Into the Odd provides a neat way to determine who is a vampire if you want a mixed party. In Into the Odd, some starting backgrounds come with an Arcanum, which is a magic item with a random power. Vampire Cruise states that “Vampire PCs have one extra ability (choose from the skills other vampires have or make up your own)”. I had the idea to reskin Arcanum as a vampiric ability. In my playtest, only one character was a vampire (a fact he kept hidden from the other players until he felt appropriate), and when he used his power, it was a nice, dramatic reveal. 

Some Assembly Required

Vampire Cruise has everything to drive a couple fun sessions but leaves the work of putting those pieces together to you. If you, like me, thrive on improv when you are referee-ing, the adventure is more than enough to prompt seaboard shenanigans. If, however, you need everything to be more clearly and fulsomely laid out before you begin your session, this won’t be a pick-up-and-play adventure for you. Instead, you’ll need to do some level of prep to put the pieces together enough for your comfort level. 

The map and itinerary are the two pillars of the adventure. As I said in a post on my own blog, an itinerary or other guidance for what happens over time during the course of an adventure is just as helpful as a map, although it is more often overlooked. There is some helpful scaffolding in the itinerary (which lists 11 things that likely happen over the course of the two day cruise) and the familiar keyed map, but the referee is mostly responsible for choosing when and where the 12 pages of NPCs fit in with respect to time and place. Some NPCs are tied to the lightly keyed locations on the ship (for instance, the 15-year-old unpublished diarist, Kate Kosciusko, is usually found in a far corner of the library or in the banquet hall, while the serial-romantic vampire, Svetlana, resides in a recreation of her ancestral tower. Most NPCs, however, are sort of floating ideas, for the referee to insert as they see fit. And this is, in fact, the best way to use them. It’s even the best way to use the NPCs who presumably have a place they frequently haunt. I had a heavily sunscreened Svetlana beneath a heavy parasol hit on one of the PCs who sat by the pool by themselves, which turned into an ongoing thread in our game, while Kate was seated with a couple of PCs during the talent show at the concert hall as a way to give the PCs the info that passengers (in this case, Kate’s aunt) were starting to go missing.

The map is an engaging and, more importantly, gameable piece of art. There is so much detail in the cutaway map that you get a good idea what the adventure entails just by looking at it. The additional top-down maps of the major decks are just an added bonus, helping you conceptualize exactly where everything is. If you are familiar with Amanda lee Franck’s previous adventure, You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge, then you have a good idea of what this map looks like. Vampire Cruise’s map key is terse and funny, perhaps a bit more terse than the map key descriptions in Garbage Barge. However, the descriptions are typically enough to give the referee a springboard to describe what the PCs encounter. Exceptions are things like the balloon launch, cannon, pools, and engine deck, while are labeled on the map but don’t have any accompanying key. Some stand-outs in the map keys are the The Broadway Experience Concert Hall, which comes with a d6 table of what stage show is happening, the rock-climbing wall that is a to-scale duplicate of the vampire’s castle elsewhere on deck, and the underwater viewing window: “Crew members lower a bag of entrails into the water every few hours to attract a dazzling shark show. More sharks every time! There are getting to be a worrying number of sharks.” Franck strikes a similarly comedic tone throughout, which makes Vampire Cruise a pleasant read (and occasionally tempts the referee to read a choice line or two aloud at the table). However, to earn the “pedantic” moniker in the title of my review series, I will note the slight nitpick that The Ruined Tower and The Box House appear to be switched in the map versus the map key. (These are the types of nits that are probably present in most, if not all, published adventures, and it is probably my anxiety about these type of errors appearing in own adventure, which as I write this post is out of my hands and into my printer’s, that make me more sensitive to it. This small error isn’t actually something that would slow or disorient any reader or referee.)

Because the itinerary and the map are the engines driving the adventure forward, I advise giving players a redacted itinerary and an unredacted map at the start of the cruise. The map encourages the players choose what to do next based on what parts of the map look most interesting, while the itinerary tends to anchor them. My players kept saying things like “okay, what should we do for the next couple of hours before the dinner at the banquet hall begins?” As an example of ways an enterprising referee can assemble the pieces in Vampire Cruise to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, I would recommend expanding the itinerary to three days and inserting the 20 “cruise activities” included as a random table toward the back of the book as new events on board the Sea Star. This would all be much more than the PCs would reasonably be able to do during the cruise, but making some events take place at the same time forces the players to make more decisions about the type of cruise they are on.

But of course, the Sea Star is no ordinary cruise. How does the central conceit of the adventure, that it is a cruise, but with vampires, manifest? Mostly on Deck 13, which houses luxurious cabins for vampiric passengers and fancy recreations of some of the most powerful vampires’ on-shore abodes. The list of vampires on the cruise are an engaging bunch–the aforementioned Svetlana, who I ran like Jennifer Coolidge’s character in The White Lotus, is my favorite, but there is also a pair of rich hipsters and a Dracula-esque count with his spouses (like Dracula, this Count Ratherius is a bisexual icon. Count Strahd, take notes). The best vampire, however, never appeared in my game. It is the vampire shark that can turn into a mist to get onboard ships. 

The vampires are a bit of a red herring. Players who presume an adventure entitled “Vampire Cruise” would feature vampires as its primary antagonist are in for a shock. The real villains of the module turn out to be a cult run by sleazy motivational speakers and dedicated to a horrifying, twenty-foot-tall, 3000-year-old Egyptian deity. This cult will attempt to hypnotize the PCs, unleash multiple monsters on the cruise, and are responsible for the climactic presumed-ending of the cruise, where the deity breaks into the vampire ball and begins killing vampires first, then everything else on board. The vampires tend to be a bit comedic, even campy, so this bait-and-switch injects more horror into the adventure than had the cruise been populated entirely by vampires. 

Some Notes on Genre

“I want them to feel the same marrow-level dread of the oceanic I’ve always felt, the intuition of the sea as primordial nada, bottomless depths inhabited by cackling tooth-studded things rising toward you at the rate of a feather falls.”

- Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise [1]

Vampire Cruise is neither fully comedy nor much of a horror. It may lean towards the comedic by subverting typical horror tropes associated with vampires, gothic and brooding monsters, on board a tropical cruise ship, it also heightens the real horrors present on even mundane cruises. The crew are an ever-present underclass on board cruise ships, and Vampire Cruise doesn’t elide this fact. For instance, when the PCs are passengers, they have the ability to call on crew members for “absolutely anything the players ask for.” There is a little sub-mechanic for these requests, which may result in crewmates “tearfully beg[ging] you not to complain” or “painstaking[ly] recounting” the efforts the crew has taken to satisfy the request, along with “details on how Room Service plans to move forward from the present impasse.” Class is built into the map too: there are 3rd, 2nd and First Class Cabins for the 3rd, 2nd and First Class Passengers. Vampires have luxury suites, if they don’t have their own castles on board. But the cultists sleep in a long hallway filled with bunk beds. Vampires have always been used as class commentary, and the choice to pair them with a location so suffused with class was an inspired one. The Sea Star is a tinderbox and it eventually explodes as the cult unleashes a monster that rises up through the floor to devour the upper class, literal aristocrats during their black-tie party. This was the moment for my group where the adventure finally morphed from slapstick comedy to horror as the PCs fled for their lives, sacrificed one of their own, and rescued the young Kate Kosciusko from meeting the same violent end that befell all the lost souls aboard the Sea Star.

Where to Find Vampire Cruise

Vampire Cruise was written and illustrated by Amanda lee Franck. You can purchase a PDF of the adventure on for $10.00 and in print and PDF at Exalted Funeral for $15.00. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Fantastic Detours - The Country

You know when sometimes there’s something you feel like you should’ve seen on Twitter, but instead you don’t hear about it for days or weeks or months so you feel like you missed out on it? On 2021-04-19, Luke Gearing published a blog post called “The Country”, a lifepath character generator and descriptive list of factions for a World War II-inspired war game setting [1]. One month later, on 2021-05-19, Roz of Two Rats Press released a zine adaptation The Country which includes Gearing’s combat ruleset Violence [2]. Graciously, like the blog post, the zine is available for free online, so that was my first contact with the text.

The Country is an excellent basis for a modern period campaign. It’s giving something like Braunstein or Blackmoor or Boot Hill, except instead of being about Napoleonic Germany or “medieval fantasy” or the American West, it’s about a twentieth-century “Uryupean” town full of liberals, monarchists, fascists, and communists—a familiar situation that could have taken place anywhere across Europe from Spain to Germany. It’s extremely fruitful for a war gaming plus political intrigue campaign, especially with its fleshed-out character generation procedure.

The Lifepath

I thought it was weird, at first, that you roll percentile dice to determine your character’s age. It wasn’t until reading over the different age-category background tables that I felt something click. Maybe I’m misreading or taking away something different than was intended, but there’s nothing wrong with that if it turns out productive. The lifepath works, as I understand it, by rolling for your character’s age and then rolling on each background table representing major years of their life. If you rolled a 100, for example, you’d have an especially full life, with memories from when you were 16-24, and 25-45, and 46-70, and 71+.

The fun part is that, like in Traveller, your character’s survival is not guaranteed during character creation. At each step, there is at least a 1-in-6 chance of dying. This creates a really interesting, morbid perception, something like “This character could have lived to be 100, if they had not died in the War.” That’s compelling when incorporating themes like trauma from violence, which is not just relevant when discussing the World Wars but also pertinent to considering the long-term effects of violence on people in general. Like, gee, did you know that violence is complicated and traumatic even if you’re fighting for the right thing? This is a level of depth which is missing from most treatments of the time period, or from period war gaming in general. In some sense, that consideration may even be the tipping point from war game to role-playing game, where the participants are not just concerned with winning or losing, but also with the personal (subjective) consequences of either outcome.

AHEM! This is future Marcia speaking, oh man, six months from when the above was written! Having reread the text, I think I misread it and the player is meant to roll on just one table corresponding to their character’s age band. This is evident from the instructions as well as the backgrounds themselves, since only young characters have a chance of dying during The War, whereas older characters could have died during The War or The Revolution that preceded it. Mea culpa, but this is not a fruitless mistake. I even think a little bit of Cassandra popped out up there when I said, “…there’s nothing wrong with [misreading] if it turns out productive.” Regardless of the author’s intent or the ‘true’ meaning of the text, my misinterpretation provoked strong feelings in myself and proffered a new way to use and relate to the text. How’s that for an example of the relationship between intent and meaning, especially as it pertains to ‘technical’ texts that are not just read but applied? Characters can still die during background determination, though, so my commentary is not completely null and void.

Something I would have liked to have seen is correlation between a character’s life story and their faction. There is something to be said for leaving the connection up to the player since it gives them the ability to weave things together sensically, or greater freedom to create a more unique character. However, it leaves some (not all) backgrounds feeling disconnected from each other as well as from the setting’s history. The most interesting backgrounds immerse the player in a critical situation (“Your mother told you to never mention the foreign men with coats and money who took envelopes from the garden”); the least interesting serve as character trivia without obvious or interesting motivation (“The War was not your first guerilla campaign”). I think a life path would have been an opportunity to observe a character’s social mobility during their life, whether they survive social crises or come out on top of them, and what that means for their current standing and motivation. Here we rub up against the other pillar of the text, which is how it portrays its setting’s factions.

The Factions

This club has everything: fascists, liberals, Christians, communists, monarchists, lumpenproles, and spies of any aforementioned faction or belonging to a corporation. I’m not a war gamer but I am a drama lover (and someone with an interest in how social movements are motivated and interact with each other), so imagine my delight. Each faction has a description of their ideological underpinnings, their demographic makeup, their members’ typical holdings, and their most common allies. I’ve made a graph of ally relationships below; notice that fascists ally themselves with republicans, but not vice versa. Meanwhile, the communists’ only allies are from the northern countries whose revolutions have succeeded for the time being. And there is no honor among thieves.

This is really neat! You can visualize the sorts of treaties and concessions that might take place. This is a superficial complaint, but I wish that there was a little bit more going on. As it were, the fascists, monarchists, and clergy constitute a single political bloc except that fascists are willing to engage with the republicans. This is not historically inaccurate, at least on a high level, but some entanglement would produce greater intrigue. For example, in both Italy and Spain, the republican movement (which is on some level distinct from the broader liberal movement) enjoyed some cooperation with the communist movements with respect to the Civil War. Maybe it would be worth distinguishing the radical republicans from the liberal government, even if they are ultimately radical liberals. Maybe it should be a distinction between communists, socialists, and liberals. Who knows. The important part is less the lines themselves than the conflicts they generate. Why do people take sides? Put a pin in it.

A deeper issue I have is best exemplified by the following injunction: “You might be a member of any of the following [factions] - except a Fascist. If you want to play a fascist, I suggest you play in traffic instead.” The so-called Olivia Hill Rule usually says that fascists shall not play a certain game; this is almost an inverse, that you shall not play a fascist. Superficially, it makes sense. You don’t want someone to internalize the ostensible values of nationalism and the insurmountable might of the human will while playing your war game. Yet this sentence made me evaluate the stated natures of each faction more closely. The communists are utopians. The republicans are liberals. The fascists are losers with lineage. On one hand, these descriptions seem very much like they belong to an observer from our time period rather than from someone who might be participating in that faction during that past time. Would a twentieth-century communist say they are fighting for a utopia, rather than some shit about historical materialism and class consciousness? Would a fascist call themselves a sore loser?

Related to this and more importantly, however, is that these factions seem to be motivated by abstract ideas more than by the material conditions of its members. It’s very funny and accurate to call fascists losers with respect to their cuck ideology. But perhaps it is more insightful to regard fascism in its social function. Historically, fascists are members of the petite or national bourgeoisie who resist downward social mobility (a handy term: “proletarianization”) as a result of competing with the big or international bourgeoisie. We could maybe speak more generally than their position relative to capital—for example, we can think of racists or sexists who are scared of losing their social privilege. In any case, though, we find a solid motivation: they are scared of losing what they have. The communists, on the other hand, have famously described themselves as having nothing to lose. Distinguishing themselves from the utopians, they characterized themselves as being driven by their own living conditions (notably, a lack of property) and by a scientific comprehension of history—being a Marxist myself, I’ll spare you my opinion. The liberals get away with the best representation of their ideology, and yet don’t have much reason for it. Why not talk about their relationship to international capital [3]? Or why else do they want things to stay more of the same? Anyway, this is all just to say that I think role-playing someone with particular class interests and living conditions might be a productive angle of critique, to understand what choices they make and anticipate what they will do next.

Besides, in the social and historical context of early twentieth-century Europe, what makes a fascist worse than a monarchist or even a liberal, not even insofar as these factions often collaborated in their own countries? I can think of three atrocities at the top of my head—the Bengal famine under Churchill, the Congo genocide under Leopold II, and the Holodomor under Stalin—that were orchestrated by non-fascist governments. Reducing fascism to an ideology elides its social function which yet operated in nominally non-fascist governments, and ignores that such governments very well enacted similar policies [4].

Also, I don’t know, I think there’s some potentially juicy stuff in there if you put fascists on the table. Maybe you know about this or maybe you don’t, but Benito Mussolini up until 1914 was the director of the Italian socialist newspaper Avanti!, whose headquarters the fascists would later attack in 1919. Mussolini left the socialist party and founded the fascist party because he thought that Italy should participate in the First World War against the advanced (i.e. imperialist) countries [5]. His ex-fellow party members, Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci, would also end up leaving and forming a communist party because the socialist party went reformist. At some point, Gramsci gave a speech at parliament against the political acts of violence committed by the fascists—Mussolini would then, condescendingly, quote Bordiga back at Gramsci about the justification of violence for political aims [6]. That’s like a whole angst fanfic right there. Anyway, there’s something engaging about interpersonal relationships mixing with political struggle, or using one to explore the other.

Future Marcia again! I do feel like there might be a difference between "You shall not play a fascist" versus "You shall not want to play a fascist", the latter of which is fair as far as you wouldn't want someone who themselves identifies with fascism to participate. However, I still felt like the former was important to draw out—especially in a historical war game where, if no one else, the referee is likely to play a fascist (or, if you read it as a Braunstein, someone in your group is going to play the baddie). In such a case, how should the participant handle playing as a fascist? Should participants only play as non-fascists but yet still collaborate with fascists, as per the faction graph? That's more the angle I wanted to poke at.

The Braunstein

What do you get when you combine motivated characters, entangling factions, and a war game? You might get something like a Braunstein. Braunstein was the name of a Napoleonic campaign run by Dave Wesley in 1969; specifically, Braunstein was the name of the German city in which the game took place. The players expected to be participating in a standard war game, where you control troops on a battlefield and fight to the death et cetera et cetera. Wesley instead assigned each player a role of a certain individual in the town, with their own motivations and connections and so on. Before long, the players stopped coming to Wesley with ‘commands’ for their characters [7], and ended up interacting directly with each other’s characters on the map. Wesley thought he fucked up, but everyone else had fun. It especially influenced college student Dave Arneson, whose medieval fantasy campaign Blackmoor would lay the groundwork for his later campaign guide Dungeons & Dragons (coauthored by, of course, Gary Gygax). To summarize, a Braunstein is a campaign that tricks war gamers into LARPing or playing with dolls.

Reading The Country as a Braunstein helps contextualize the way in which it elevates its subject matter and formal rules. Despite the ‘system’ only really explaining how to shoot guns at people, the gun-shooting is incidental to the interests of the characters and their factions. Even if your goal is strictly to eliminate a target, that goal is contextualized by individual desire and factional disputes. The outcome is comparable to how Adam Decamp of Chocolate Hammer describes his campaign of Boot Hill [8]:

There was another benefit to not having any social mechanics at all in the game, counter-intuitive thought it might seem for a game about managing adversarial relationships without combat. While combat in Boot Hill is decided immediately and obviously, and is thus very well suited to open dice rolls, the game’s social conflicts created tension by being uncertain. One never knew whether to trust an NPC, whether an NPC trusted them, whether a bluff had succeeded, or whether a threat had landed. They had no reason to expect success because a number was high or failure because a number was low.

It’s for this reason that Decamp calls Boot Hill “the best political intrigue system” he has ever used, and it’s this same tendency that elevates The Country. Perhaps not coincidentally, Gearing’s firearm ruleset Violence takes inspiration from Boot Hill. Admittedly, I think (like Boot Hill) it’s a little bit clunky, but since it’s sort of arbitrary with respect to the campaign itself, it feels easy to substitute with something quicker if one wanted.

I have just one more comment, tangential to the above discussions: the text is somewhat male-centric. We see this in both the backgrounds and the factions’ demographics. Politics is considered by many to be the discourse of men, and it’s not inaccurate to say that women were not employed by many of these factions as foot soldiers anyway. Even if women typically occupied different roles in social movements, though, it is still worthwhile to explore those roles. This is not even to mention that women did, indeed, take on positions in leadership and armed struggle during this time period. Why does it matter? I play nothing straight because I’m gay lol, and because even for things I like a lot there’s always something that I end up adjusting to taste for myself or my friends. Still, although there is nothing stopping myself from playing a character similar to the likes of Rosa Luxemburg or what have you, it’s disappointing that the text lacks this dimension.


The thing about a fire is it burns after being extinguished. Embers glow beneath the ash. The powers beat out the fire, but don't worry about the glow they can't see.

The Country offers a great campaign framework for characters and factions to explore the political dynamics of twentieth century Europe. It feels like a modern take on the Braunstein game and its immediate descendants in Blackmoor and Boot Hill, with its emphasis on character drive, factional strife, and rules-avoidant play. However, for its efforts to model social conflict, it falters by ascribing such conflict to ideologies rather than to the material conditions which give rise to them. It is still one of my favorite playable things I’ve read in the past year. Gearing is an evocative writer without pretension, so that combined with his approach and subject matter is compelling.


[1] Luke Gearing. 2021-04-19. “The Country”, Luke Gearing.

[2] Luke Gearing & Roz. 2021-05-19. The Country.

[3] Yeah, I know this is specific to the government liberals and not the aforementioned radical republicans. Keep scrolling.

[4] Referring to Churchill, Leopold II, or Stalin’s governments as fascist misses the point. Fascism is not a particularly special state of capitalist society, but (w.r.t. its violent repressive function) it is an utterly normal and essential aspect of it.

This is not to say that liberal governments in general are not qualitatively distinct from fascist governments. Liberal governments (at least, in theory) tend to work towards dismantling non-capitalist social relations, such as racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, transphobia, et cetera. Fascism meanwhile relies upon these things to privilege a certain subset of the population and violently repress the rest (notably using often the same techniques as liberal states, only towards its own population instead of or in addition to those of other nations). This is related to the conflict between international and national capital, but has implications for the wellbeing of victimized groups beyond the scope of capital as such. It also impacts the extent to which these domestic groups can seek better treatment within the scope of the government: it is easier for trans people (e.g.) to advocate for reform within liberal structures than for them to take up arms against a state violently repressing them. So to speak, I much prefer Biden over Trump; however, especially in the context of the twentieth century, it is difficult to suppose that the big players are not all reprehensible in practice if not in theory.

Besides, liberal states love a little fascism as a treat. American police have killed approximately 30,800 people from 1980 to 2019, and 1,182,170 people are incarcerated across the country as of 2020 (peaking in 2009, with 1,553,570 incarcerated). Black people are overrepresented in both of these metrics, being 3-5 times as likely to be killed or incarcerated than white people. See "Fatal police violence by race and state in the USA, 1980–2019: a network meta-regression" (The Lancet 398.10307, pp. 1239-1255), and "Growth in Mass Incarceration" (The Sentencing Project, 2020). It’s not inaccurate to say that most capitalist countries enjoy a mix of liberal and fascist policy, often along racial, religious, or geographical lines—and this is to the “benefit” of the country.

Let’s also not forget colonialism and imperialist war, in case you walk out of this long-ass footnote thinking that domestic (i.e. internal) policy is all that matters. If a capitalist state is eating its own babies, you might guess that it’s because other babies are hard to come by. Have I sufficiently qualified all this? Goddamn. This is what I get for running things by our very own Union of Soviet Writers, not that I’m complaining.

[5] Mussolini was, I think, employing the notion of the imperialist stage of capitalism where countries with excess capital flood other (developing) countries and thus take over their economic development. Lenin’s original stance was that such imperialized countries should revolt in order to establish their own democratic (capitalist) states—meanwhile the communist party should also equip the burgeoning proletariat there with the practical and theoretical means to join the international movement, being careful not to treat the democratic state as the end-all-be-all. Mussolini, on the other hand, considered Italy a “proletarian nation”, such that its struggle against other nations superseded the class struggle within itself. Notice that these stances represent the interests of different classes.

[6] My partner said something really funny: "I think I know why Bordiga is in jail, and why Gramsci is speaking at parliament."

[7] In this style of war game, players usually communicated troop orders to the referee who would resolve them on the map.

[8] Adam Decamp. 2019-01-09. “Boot Hill and the Fear of Dice”, Chocolate Hammer.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Mundane Vacations - Cy_Borg

Cy_Borg is a ‘nano-infested’ cyberpunk RPG by Christian Sahlén, based on the rules of Mork Börg, and published in 2022. Layout and art by Johan Nohr, perhaps even more ambitious and out there than in the aforementioned Mork Börg. Let’s not mince words – this book is pretty, but what does it bring to the cyberpunk games and genre as a whole? As a bonus I go on a tangent about character moral choices.

Entering the Cy

Cy is the cyberpunk future megacity where the game takes place. It is divided into regions such as the toxic industries, or the high end hills. It reminded me of Bastionland, in the way that the city is the main focus of the game. Beyond Cy the world is basically uninhabitable.

Each region is provided with half a page of description and a unique illustration. The art by Johan Nohr does a lot to communicate the vibes of each location, but the text also gives some hooks for your imagination to latch on to. For example the region G0 has a music club within its walls that’s tied to a secret society faction. I only wish there were more descriptions like that.

In a way, the setting of Cy_Borg assumes you are familiar with the cyberpunk genre, in the same way Mork Borg assumes you are familiar with fantasy. It provides minimal details for its Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner inspired world, with the idea that the GM fills in the gaps to suit their needs.

As the campaign progresses, the GM will roll on a table of Miserable Headlines, which change Cy in one way or another. For example rolling 6.5 on d66 will cause a solar storm to shut down all communications. When the 7th headline is rolled, the last (and intriguing) headline is rolled. I enjoy systems that provide a way for the world to change, the characters never get too comfortable and have to adapt. The only issue I find in Cy_Borg is that it provides no way to determine when to roll for these headlines. Yes the game says to roll every night, but how many actions do the characters take per day? Can they just never roll if the whole campaign occurs within one very eventful day? The GM will have to think of a way to track time that suits them.

Another theme with Cy is the layering of past structures, commonly present in OSR fantasy settings. Cy is full of ruins, abandoned buildings and maze-like tunnels, waiting to trap unlucky explorers. Overall it’s a great catch-all setting which allows for any variety of cyberpunk action.

System of Cy

The game system chapter opens with this paragraph:

You are encouraged to break every rule in this book except this one: Player Characters cannot be loyal to or have sympathy for the corps, the cops, or the capitalist system. They might find themselves reluctantly forced to do missions for them or their minions. But make no mistake—they are the enemy.

As Ben Milton points out, I get that they are trying to put you into the headspace of a rebel in the cyberpunk world, but it’s an odd rule. I think that (1) it takes away a decision point for players without providing any new ones, (2) it assumes that characters have to be anticapitalist to assume anticapitalist themes and (3) in these ways it is counter to a lot of media in the cyberpunk genre.

Let’s compare it to another cyberpunk rpg. In Cyberpunk 2020 you can get any cybernetics you want in exchange for eternal servitude to a corporation that will give you only the most dangerous and rigged missions (Pondsmith et al., 1990, p. 94):

You don’t have a choice. You just sold your soul. Welcome to 2020, smartboy.

2020 is a game about shopping for cybernetics and the cruel nature of capitalism. It does not stop you from being loyal to anyone really, but it lets you know that it will be a nightmare. In 2020, it is a decision to refuse the perks of corp loyalty.

Dreaming Dragonslayer provides an alternative by giving characters XP for working against the system. I also do not think that it is a solid solution. As Zedeck Siew has written in Lorn Song of the Bachelor (2019, p. 46):

Lorn Song of the Bachelor tries not to prompt players one way or the other. If I offered a mechanical incentive for you to fight colonial invaders, you wouldn’t be making a moral decision, but a mercenary one.

I agree with Siew in that if characters receive bonuses for working against the corporations, it defeats the point of the choice. Working against the corporations in a cyberpunk ultra-capitalist world is the harder alternative, and I think a system should reflect that.

A better way to use an XP system would be to focus on motivations, instead of morality. Cy_Borg has a great motivation table on page 57 (entries such as mayhem, love, freedom, burn it all down). Characters may get XP for actions that align with their motivations. In effect, they still get XP for working against the system, but the characters retain the right of moral choice.

I found another interesting way of tackling working for the “wrong side” in Vultures (Batts, 2020, p.14):

[…] a Vulture’s job is not a good one, and definitely not something to be proud of. And the job of the game is to see how long it takes before the system turns the players into rebels. From there they live outside the rules, as the rules are written by Space Mom for the use of being bounty hunters. What happens when you use those systems against something not detailed in the book. How do you rebel against the system? How do you rebel against the game?

In Vultures, characters start loyal to the system, and they do not have mechanical incentives to do otherwise. However, the game prompts the GM to explore the process of characters turning into rebels. The GM can do that by highlighting the humanity of the bounty hunters’ targets for instance.

To me the cyberpunk genre is fundamentally about making a choice. For instance (the most famous cyberpunk choice of all time) in The Matrix, the choice was between continuing being loyal to the system, or taking a hard path of working against it.

So what do characters actually do in Cy_Borg? Characters start with a debt they have to pay (similar to games such as Bastionland), which will be their primary motivation for completing missions. The character classes have unique abilities, but they are all very focused on fighting. Games in the cyberpunk genre usually include classes focused on social skills, such as fixers, but Cy_Borg seems to be exclusively focused on the slasher aspect. The game is firmly built around combat encounters and does not provide any rules for rebellious activity.

There are rules for combat, hacking and the cyberpunk equivalent of magic which are soaked in flavour. Followed by many pages of foes and corporations those abilities can be used against. However, the game doesn’t provide any tools for the characters to influence the world. There is a table of events for the city and the net, which are superb hooks, but they happen independently from character actions. Mechanically speaking, characters in Cy_Borg are powerless against the system.

I would solve this by using a faction system (such as the one in Mausritter) to advance corporation goals. The corp index in appendix 1 could be used for that. Characters could then hinder corporation progress, or exploit their rivalries to find weaknesses. Then they could actually work to change Cy, instead of aimlessly slashing cops.

Heisting in Cy

Lucky Flight Takedown is an introductory heist included in the book. It is a casino that includes a variety of environments, such a dirty club sort of setting and luxury VIP lounges. I enjoyed how it was described both when it is closed and when it’s open, featuring different encounters and consequences. Since I used a system where every action costs time (akin to clocks), this created an interesting choice; do the characters go in when the casino is closed and safer, but they race against the clock, or when it’s open so they can take it slow, but surrounded by security.

The casino has several entrances/exits, which also allows for heist flexibility. The layout overall is quite open, that is if the players find a way to get into the staff only areas. Most violence will lead to security forces swiftly arriving, so players will have to be sneaky and/or persuade their way in.

The adventure’s aftermath provides some hooks for the players to continue their campaign. I should also note that the PDF is wonderfully hyperlinked and a pleasure to use. Overall it is a great introductory mission with interactive rooms and many consequences. My only issue during play was how it meshes with the rest of Cy_Borg’s system, as the players are geared towards combat, which is discouraged in the heist.


All in all, Cy_Borg will suit players and GMs familiar with Mork Börg (or other rules-light games) who want to play a cyberpunk action adventure. If the group wants to pursue a more social oriented experience, the GM will have to work to adapt the system to their needs.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Ludic Dreams IV - Fresh From the Forge

Conundrums of Old School Combat

Combat occupies a central if ambiguous place in old school games. In many old school games, combat is not incentivized in terms of experience points. Unlike more forgiving versions of the world's most famous roleplaying game, in old school games the risk of death for PCs is very real. This means that there is a strong reason to avoid combat, at least when the outcome is not clear in advance. The use of reaction rolls and morale checks ensure that combat to death is often not the default result of interaction, even with "monsters". Adventure design for this playstyle tends to replace a series of balanced combat encounters against fixed villains on predetermined battlemats with open-ended situations consisting of opposing ambiguous factions with wildly varying power scales. Which is all a great deal of fun. 

And yet, in many old school rule sets, especially those derived from B/X or OD&D, as well as some rules lite systems, combat itself, although risky, can end up feeling strangely boring to some--myself included. There are several reasons. 

One is that these rulesets often do not support very meaningful tactical choices in preparation for combat. Take weapon choice. In the alternate combat system of OD&D white box (i.e. prior to Supplement I), weapons, although costing different amounts, are otherwise undifferentiated, doing a flat 1d6 damage to foes. This abstractions renders meaningless weapon choice.  

This was "remedied" in Supplement I, which veered wildly in the other direction, introducing a system expanded in AD&D 1E, where each individual melee weapon receives its own unique treatment, with elaborate set of bonuses or penalties against each different armor classes, different damage dice (which also vary against different sized opponents!), and in AD&D 1E, also weapon speed, as well as a various other piecemeal special effects for different weapons. Along with restrictions on weapons by class, this introduced a space of tactical choice that operated at a minute level. This system is ungainly. 

I've come to think of B/X derived rulesets as an unhappy medium. Unlike OD&D white box, melee weapons are primarily differentiated by damage dice. When bundled with class restrictions on weapon type, this results in a situation where the main effect of the equipment list is to specify optimal weapon choice by class, in essence assigning a damage die to each class. It is true, there are some choices around the margin for certain classes. Will a fighter or a cleric use a two-handed weapon for a slight bump in damage, or opt to use a shield for a slight bump in AC? It's not nothing, but it's also not much. 

The same pattern holds with initiative. OD&D did not even bother to specify an initiative sequence, unless we count the miniature wargame rules in Chainmail. AD&D "remedied" this problem by introducing a baroque group initiative system broken down minutely into segments (10 per round), with casting times given in segments, and the use of weapon speed factors to break ties, which ensures complicated dynamic rounds in which characters do many overlapping things--at the cost of breathtaking complexity. 

B/X and many rules lite systems operate again in a middle space with group initiative like AD&D, but without segments and so with only one action per character per round. This can lead to a monotonous you-go/they-go turn sequence which consists mainly of moving around a circle rolling dice as each player attacks (or perhaps casts a spell), often missing against high AC opponents (or on an off night), or doing one or two points of damage here or there. When combat is protracted it becomes a kind of turgid round-robin.

Finally, within combat itself, there is sometimes a paucity of actions defined other than attacking. OD&D whitebox has none. AD&D 1E by contrast has many options, including elaborate mini-systems for surprise, charging, overbearing, grappling, and psionic combat among other things. To really play it, some kind of battlemap seems best to leverage the full suite of rules, at least for fights of any complexity. In this case B/X and many rules lite games are less a middle ground and hew closer to whitebox OD&D. There are rules for attack with melee and missile weapons, and casting spells, and maybe a couple of combat actions like defensive fighting, or charging. But nothing else. This means that the game does not especially support or leverage the kind of grid-based combat that require miniatures or VTT tokens to use. Who cares about any of that if all I need to know is which guy you're choosing to lock yourself into combat with? This is connected to the fact that B/X and rules lite games are often designed for theater of the mind style play. This is not a criticism, since I love theater of the mind play, but since there is not any rule support for different kinds of actions, this lends itself to a situation where fictional positioning doesn't matter much. 

In general, what we find is that OD&D whitebox is pleasingly simple, but perhaps too simple. AD&D is very complex, closer perhaps in terms of complexity if not feel to 3E combat. B/X and other rules lite games are in a medium where combat can end up being a slow slog without a great deal of tactical choice or individual character expression beyond the choice of class. For something that can occupy a large swath of time and is very high stakes, combat in B/X and rules lite games often lacks a je ne sais quoi

This all suggests that there is a design space for innovation that either hews to the white box or B/X side of things, maintaining simplicity or elegance, but opening up tactical or more dynamic combat possibilities. In other words, here's a design challenge that various rulesets have attempted to address to some degree: can we make old school combat interesting without going full bore AD&D? There are a variety of things we might explore here, many of which have been developed to some extent in different old school games or supplements. 

These include ways of making weapon selection meaningful without devolving into baroque individual weapon system, either with or without variable weapon damage; the selection of character abilities with interesting consequences for combat, without devolving into feat trees and the like; more dynamic initiative systems; or rules that detach tactical decisions from space and so are more suited to theater of the mind than battlemap play.

Up today is a product that steps into this breach by providing new systems that add more choice, variety, and tactics to old school combat.

Fresh From The Forge

Fresh from the Forge: A Rebalanced Weapon System for Old School Play by Lucille L. Blumire is a 38-page zine presenting two new mechanics for combat, a whole new system for differentiating different weapon types, and a system for creating magical weapons with a broadly B/X or OD&D implied ruleset, like Old School Essentials or Swords and Wizardry. It is available for purchase here for $6.99. 

The idea in this zine is to differentiate weapon types in meaningful ways for old school play by treating weapons as belonging to abstract categories, assigning special properties to weapons of each different type. This provides players with clear and simple choices between different balanced effects. (I once tried my hand at this approach, while eschewing variable weapon damage.) Interestingly, for melee weapons Blumire presents two different axes of abstract features. 

First, the weapon can be one of four types: axe, blade, bludgeon, or simple. And within that type, it can be one of four different sizes: light, one-handed, two-handed, or a polearm. This is a neat framework organizing all weapons by the intersection two sets of abstract properties. 

Weapon types have a base damage die and one or more special effects. For example, an axe type has a base damage die of d6 and has the special property of exploding damage on a max damage roll. Size provides further properties. For example, light weapons reduce the damage die by 1 step (for an axe that would be to 1d4) and can be dual-wielded; two-handed weapons increase the die size by one (for axes to 1d8), and so on. The size also has effects on "combat width", the number of party members who can stand in the front rank. (More on combat width below.) 

As elegant as I find this framework, it is clear that the system either doesn't work, or that Blumire is lured by the siren's song of specific D&D weapons that don't quote fit the molds she's crafted. So, for example, instead of making "throwable" a property of some type or class, she introduces a couple of extra types here and there, e.g. "throwable light blades". At other times she breaks the rules of his own types where it doesn't seem quite right to her. For example, axe types do exploding damage, unless they're light. It also turns out there are no light bludgeoning weapons, and no simple polearms. And so on. So I salute Blumire's effort, but I wish she had been more thoroughgoing and ruthless with his vision, and had figured out a way of making it all work in an exceptionless single system. The whole promise of defining weapon types with two neat categories is elegance!  

The zine also presents a neat system for handling a situation where a party is fighting as a unit in a larger battle. The idea is that the party faces off against waves of foes, with the option to retreat at any time. If they defeat one wave of foes, they can then opt to face a second wave, and so on. Each victory or defeat they have then affects the overall course of battle, by affecting a roll for how many forces are lost from each side in this phase of battle. This makes the PC combats a sort of microcosm of the larger war. Essentially the PCs are asked how far they're willing to push the possibility of losing some members of the party in order to heroically achieve gains for their side. I can see this provided a fun, tense, combat-focused session as a microcosm of a broader war. 

The rest of the zine is less good. The rules differentiating missile weapons are perfunctory. Blumire does not apply the same sort of template that she applies to melee weapons, which seems like a missed opportunity. The rules for enchanting weapons are workaday. "Enhance" them to +1 or more by spending gold. One enhanced they can acquire some potency against a certain foe by killing a lot of them. The weapons produced in this way will be of the most boring variety of magic. There are some rules for having weapons "contain" spells that are a touch more interesting, but in the end it's very bland.  

Perhaps the least well thought out aspect of the zine is a mechanism for handling lines of battle called combat width. The idea is to handle lines of combatants in confined spaces (i.e. dungeons) or in large military battle formations in abstract but meaningful ways. This is a great topic, since "holding the line" and formation seem like a hugely important aspect of combat that D&D ignores. It also presents what cold be in theory a happy medium between a full battlemap and pure theater of the mind, trying to operate in the happy medium space that seems to befit B/X style play. It requires at most a piece of graph paper to scrawl loosely on during combat. 

Combat width tracks how many people can fit in a front rack of a given size to attack and be attacked. If you are large, or have a weapon that requires a big swing than you need more space to operate and take up more real-estate in the rank, so less people can fit in a line and so less people can attack. On the other hand, if you have a long pointy weapon like a spear or polearm, or are smaller, then you take up less real-estate, i.e. more of you can fit. The base combat width is 5'. Here is an illustration from the book showing a party of adventurers squaring off against two orcs and a troll in a 20' corridor (a huge corridor!).   

Although the text doesn't specify, I think the idea is that combatants can attack anyone they overlap with. If your battleline is longer, or if someone on the opposing side dies, and you do not overlap with anyone, then you may attack anyone on either side of the gap with a +1 to hit and damage, or you may push through to the next rank, unless someone steps up to fill the spot or the entire rank reconsolidates to prevent this. 

There are no rules presented for reconsolidating a rank or stepping forward. Can you do it immediately when someone falls? This is a crucial question for this approach, but is never clarified. Furthermore smaller combat width would appear to be a disadvantage for flanking if one doesn't have enough combatants to fill out the entire space. Blumire fixes this by declaring that one is "never punished" for having a smaller combat width, and so someone with 3 or 4 combat width may "expand" to block up to 5 spaces. This is just too fiddly. It also makes less sense for someone with a small combat width owing small size. 

There are also rules about being able to shoot around a rank if it doesn't fill the corridor, but the rule doesn't specify how much space there must be. Another crucial question. In short, these rules are unclear and perhaps unfinished in their presentation. For rules that seem intended to abstract a feature of combat, they also don't seem to bring that much new to the table. It seems like a lot of fiddling around for less gains than we might have expected. 

In sum, Fresh From the Forge is a neat attempt to make combat and weapon choice in old school games more interesting, with some excellent ideas sprinkled throughout. There are seeds of a very interesting approach, but they never quite grow into their potential. 

Monday, February 27, 2023

Fantastic Detours - Frontier Scum

Frontier Scum is a fantasy “acid western” tabletop role-playing game by Karl Druid, published in 2022. The subtitle reads, “A Game About Outlaws Making Their Mark on a Lost Frontier”, a description you might find typical of any classic American Western work. For its part as a game manual, it’s totally serviceable. Character creation evokes the flavor of a weird Wild West, especially with the different tables for characters’ background and equipment; it’s pretty fun! The math is standard for a light-weight game, even if the rules use too many four-sided dice for my liking. There is a spread dedicated to hunting and foraging on the frontier, which I adore since I like having minigames on the table. The layout is stunning, looking like an old-fashioned catalog (update: mistakenly attributed it to Johan Nohr!). All in all, it’s nice. What was I going to write about?

Oh yeah! In my first super duper serious blog post, “Towards Better Critiques of Games”, I said the following [1]:

All sorts of liberal-minded people in this scene can readily accept that the fantasies modeled in games are representations of meta-game fantasies, whether racism or sex or imperialism or whatever else. However, this sort of analysis is always accompanied with the moral obligation to select socially appropriate fantasies, or fantasies which are adequately censored and confined according to the scene’s expectations. For example, the old school dungeon campaign is taken to be an example of racist and colonialist aspirations, and the solution often proposed is to substitute inhuman monsters for rich people who deserve to be burgled or killed.

This analysis is not interesting to me for the following reasons: first, it is a moral analysis which is satisfied with a critique of games only insofar as they deviate from acceptable mores; second, it is a content-wise analysis which is blind to the structures of the games’ fantasy, and so it is satisfied to replace the explicit content without considering its symbolic structure. It is satisfied with the substitution of dungeon crawls with mansion crawls, despite the underlying petit bourgeois fantasy of thriving outside the system. It is satisfied with an uncolonized America composed of indigenous republics and empires, reproducing the same modern fantasy as an eternally pseudo-medieval Europe with the birthmarks of an idealized Wild West.

I have a particular interest in texts which, despite making conscious and unsubtle efforts to avoid certain conclusions, still end up reproducing the presuppositions they’re trying to run away from. This is often because they oppose things on an aesthetic basis, but their underlying patterns of thought and belief align with what they think they oppose. In particular, some texts posture themselves as anti-capitalist or anti-colonialist or anti-this or anti-that, but a superficial understanding of what constitutes those things results in works that are yet stamped by capitalism and Eurocentrism and so on. I find certain aspects of Frontier Scum to fall victim to its own presuppositions about capitalism, turning the Wild West into a monopoly-busting fantasy that puts cowboys back in the protagonistic spotlight.

The Wild Wild West!

The goal of Frontier Scum’s setting, according to co-author Brian Yaksha, is to depict the social circumstances which ran rampant in the Wild West, without depicting the atrocities to which those circumstances led [2]. After all, it would be a downer to adapt Blood Meridian to tabletop theater, or otherwise to depict the genocide against American Indian peoples by American settlers in general. Does Frontier Scum accurately depict the circumstances or motives which might have led to a slaughter of indigenous people if there were any in the setting? Or, to speak more generally, does it offer an alternative weird Western setting which is faithful to the historical reality of the Wild West without being morbid? Does it accurately analogize the Wild West?

The city swells, bloated by the teeming and exploited masses living and dying by the whims of the Incorporation.
This foul profiteer collective leers over the Lost Frontier, avaricious as a buzzard above a field of ripe corpses. Not a single soot-blackened coin is spent in Covett City that they do not profit from. They rule the Incorporation, and the Incorporation rules the modern world. Every building in the city, all industries, all ideas any dare to dream are theirs to lease and to plunder.

All manner of earthly, artificial delights are crafted in their haven of hedonism and endless consumption. This city, Covett City, this factory capital of the world is subjected to countless, untold atrocities and experimentations, both industrial and technological, that ensure the Incorporation’s monopoly and supremacy. Everything can be made here, no tradition is safe from facsimile or counterfeit, and anything not found in stores can be ordered bespoke from an indentured artisan and delivered by debt-shackled courier.
To ensure the endless material hunger metastasizes throughout the Lost Frontier, roiling trains shriek through Cathedral Station like knives in a swine.

Frontier Scum, p. 4.

I don’t think so. Frontier Scum presents a very different social context than can be said of the Wild West. Rather than settler colonists conquering and expanding into a ravaged frontier, the setting lays blame at the feet of an industrial monopoly called the Incorporation. The description of the company city run by the Incorporation, unsubtly, evokes the image of cyberpunk dystopia with a frontier veneer. The narrator snidely comments on the city’s (“earthly”, “artificial”, “hedonistic”, “endless”, “facsimile”, “counterfeit”, “material”) consumerism (p. 4). Although the American South might not be a stranger to industrial projects—see the classic folk song “Sixteen Tons” from which Yaksha likely drew inspiration—mass production is a stranger to the agrarian Wild West as a literary genre and a historical period. Even more anachronistic is mass consumption, especially when historically it has been predicated on a base of consumer-workers with enough revenue and a desire to purchase mass-produced goods. Who is buying “all manner of earthly, artificial delights being crafted in their haven of hedonism and endless consumption”? Likely not “the teeming and exploited masses living and dying by the whim of the Incorporation” [3]! It’s hard for there to be modern capitalism in one city, when it depends not just on a division between the city and the countryside but also between imperialist and periphery markets (to mix up the language of Lenin and Wallerstein).

Even accounting for these differences in specific historical circumstance, what is described is not an adequate analogy for the social circumstances of the Wild West. Most famously, the Wild West was not all driven by industrial monopolies who sought consciously profit over people, but by families and individuals who settled the land to establish homesteads or otherwise create a living for themselves (often escaping the more dire economic situations on the East Coast and in Europe, i.e. to avoid becoming proletarians). Again, without there being mass production, these people were not really employed by industry or slaves to consumerism. They worked their own land—which they dispossessed from American Indians—or became small shop owners or opportunistic gold diggers or bounty hunters or itinerant ranchers. To me, substituting these situations for one ruled by industrial monopoly ignores that the Wild West is a perfect example of how capitalism operates outside of (or prior to) mass industry, instead being composed of self-employers and self-sustainers. A reality where the unconscious dynamics of capitalism are driven by competitive (and unwitting) individuals is replaced by an intentionally evil big bad corporation. Moreover, whereas cowboys are typically the representatives of the American West in all its colonial expansionism, here they are primed to oppose what is supposed to be analogous to the colonial expansionist force. The metaphor seems mixed up, to me, and more importantly it’s just not representative.

The Moral, Moral West

I think this speaks to an unwillingness to view capitalist dynamics beyond some moral code. A moral stance against some notion of capitalism—specifically a notion which is already predetermined to be ‘bad’—is not only often fine with capitalism as such [4], but it is informed by bourgeois moral systems which developed precisely to rationalize and maintain bourgeois relations in society. This is apparent in the snide denigration against the Incorporation for being greedy. Greed is not an economic category, but a moral one which entails stepping over certain social boundaries for one’s own gratification. To charge the monopolists with greed is not to critique anything specific or inherent to capitalism, but to express disapproval at someone or some firm doing it wrong (morally, socially, etc.). Many real-life robber barons indeed took it upon themselves to be big-shot philanthropists to avoid repercussions for their treatment of workers. President Roosevelt’s monopoly-busting policy, likewise, was specifically to avoid anti-capitalist revolts on the part of workers, indicating perhaps that monopolies are destructive of capitalism in general even if they are profitable to themselves. The narrator’s emphasis on the company’s greed and the city’s hedonism, then, is not really a critique of the Wild West or of capitalism in general at all. Yet, perhaps fittingly, it aligns well with a traditional cowboy’s view of an ostensibly decadent modern world, his rationale to go out into the frontier to seek his own fortune.

What I find particularly worrisome in political circles is an inability to not recognize capitalist dynamics unless they are most obviously in the context of mass industry. The Wild West was, of course, a product of an emerging capitalist world order. Euro-Americans settled westward and brought with them a modern ideal of self-sufficiency and homestead economics; they also conquered land and resources from American Indians in order to do this, which might be considered some form of primitive accumulation. How well does this setting map onto a modern industrial one? Let’s be more specific: do the moralist criticisms against unquenchable greed and monopolized power make sense when applied to the American West? Not really. Who’s the centralized, organized power calling the shots? Was anyone at that point in time, in that part of the world, really motivated by “number go up”? Where’s the big corporations and where’s the number-crunching stockholders? How many people in these isolated settlements were engaged in industrial wage labor [5]? We are getting further away from the point but I hope it is clear that there is little similarity between the Wild West and modern capitalism, with respect to anything resembling mass production or mass consumption which constitute the latter. Instead, we’re making up fictional evil monopolies to make unsubtle, snide remarks at, as if they were real criticisms made against real historical actors. There is no connection I see, or at least not one where the stated moral concern against one reasonably applies to the other [6].

There is not much useful about a moral critique anyway. There is no analysis of how capitalism works or how it came to be, often because the perspective of the critique is not by anyone who has anything to gain for themselves from challenging the situation (and articulates it as such), but from someone who sees themselves as above it all. This seems especially like a lost opportunity when developing a setting inspired by the Wild West, which is a transitory period between pre-capitalist indigenous societies (and some pre-industrial colonial societies) and modern capitalist society. Rather than delving into the social factors which specifically made up the American West, Frontier Scum obscures them in a state of eternal industrialism which is deemed immoral by nature [7]. Why not focus the setting instead, for example, on self-motivated gold diggers who manage to wreck the area for their own gain without any organized efforts among themselves? It’s very simplistic, but the ‘unconscious’ mechanisms of a pre-industrial (and non-monopoly) capitalism are at least in play. Players can then observe, participate in, or try to overcome the social dynamics that are bigger than any one individual or firm.

Literary or Political Critique?

A lot of the above sounds more like a political critique of the text, which might as well be in-universe or diegetic, rather than a critique of the literary technique employed in writing it. It is not a fair assumption to make that the text is reflective of any actual political sentiment, any more than it would be fair to say Star Wars is fascist because it has stormtroopers. My goal instead is to show that the text does not meet its own aims, by being inconsistent with its external expectations or with its own internal logic. We have seen the former in discussing how the setting presented does not map very well to the Wild West, lacking any of the specific social (economic, political) factors which distinguish it from other time periods. Why does it matter, then, that after establishing this mass industrial setting, the text reproaches it for greed and hedonism?

The text postures itself as a political-via-moral commentary on the setting; that is, the text makes subjective statements about the world it describes, with the aim to condemn whatever it is creating. This is, on one hand, Yaksha’s stated intent with developing the setting: to try to depict what he views as the worst tendencies of the Wild West without directly depicting its worst atrocities (though I do not think the setting succeeds at this, as discussed). Yet it is also apparent from the text itself, which cannot help but describe the Incorporation as “foul” and “avaricious”, it being a “haven of hedonism and endless consumption”, it having “untold atrocities and experimentations”, it producing “facsimile and counterfeit” goods (p. 4). It uses such redundant language as if to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea. Seeing that the text emphatically denounces its subject, and knowing that we are working with a pseudo-Western setting that is apologetic for being so, we can extrapolate that the text is setting up an antagonist for the reader to dislike, expecting to find common ground against corporate greed and mass consumption.

So, once again: are corporate greed and mass consumption typical associations of the Wild West? Not in particular. However, let’s consider the implications of the attempted association. Both the Wild West and mass industry (including both production and consumption), whatever those things are, are bad. They both exhibit violence and expansionism, whether of settled land or of money. They share capitalism in common, whatever capitalism is—and this is the anchoring point if you were attempting to analogize one thing as the other, since you would need to decide what makes sense to carry over from one form to the other. My hunch is that the common ground, capitalism, was defined in terms of those moral categories (greed and hedonism) and it was on this ground that an analogy between the Wild West and mass industry seemed appropriate. This elides any specific dynamics of the Wild West which distinguish it as a historical period, and also obfuscates the historical development of capitalism between then and the period of mass industry (where, by capitalism, see [4]). This elision causes Frontier Scum to falter as a Western or as a meta-commentary on the Wild West, as genre or time period. Instead, it attempts to be a meta-commentary on mass industry, at which it also falters for the reasons mentioned.


If the stated goal was to emulate the social circumstances of the Wild West, I think the setting is off-base with respect to both intent and product. It is possible to depict the social circumstances of the Wild West without portraying atrocities or having to play as a settler. The attempt in this book just seems misguided by an unimaginative, moralist perspective of what constitutes capitalism in different forms throughout history. Must all critique of capitalism be reducible to cyberpunk stereotypes of big corporations, mass production, and ‘hedonistic’ consumerism? Aren’t there more relevant tropes at hand to deconstruct the Western [8]?

Frontier Scum’s setting tries to have its cake and eat it too, by presenting the dynamics of the Wild West as antagonistic while yet locating its protagonists in the figures of individualist, anti-system cowboys. It gives the impression that rather than critiquing the Wild West as a genre or as a time period, it is trying to find a way to afford the enjoyable parts of the Wild West genre without being ‘problematic’. I imagine that few people will want to spend time playing cowboy in the big cyberpunk city, so it might just not factor all that much into play, but it’s a decision that undermines both generic expectations of the Western and any internal critiques thereof.

I wrote this a very long time ago, maybe one or two weeks after Frontier Scum was published. I did not post it then because I did not want to start negative discourse surrounding its release. None of this is intended to attack (or “call out”) the politics or character of the author. Seeing how texts such as these attempt to emulate, model, or echo history is simply an interest of mine. I think it says a lot about how history is viewed or, even, produced if we take history not as the past itself but as a narrative about the past. In fact, I have a positive review down the line about a historically inspired zine that (in my opinion) better reproduces the social dynamics of its period, or at least puts the players in a better position to explore those dynamics.

Still, as I have said before, these sorts of texts are not really politically impactful anyway. Analyzing them feels like playing with dolls (or whatever you prefer). Maybe it serves as practice to acquaint yourself with thinking critically in general, but I am not writing this for practice—I am writing this for enjoyment. It feels creative and enriching. Isn’t that reason enough? Who knows.


[1] B., Marcia. 2021-05-26. “Critique 1: Towards Better Critiques of Games”, Traverse Fantasy.

[2] Yaksha, Brian. 2022-07-19. “This is also not the real world; this is not some ‘weird west’ where a lot of really bad takes and appropriations are taking place. This is another world which has reached this grim, vicious, brutal period of technology, exploitation, and desire for dominion over the earth.” Twitter thread.

[3] A relevant passage by Debord on the topic of industrial versus post-industrial (consumerist) societies:

Modern economic production extends its dictatorship extensively and intensively. In the least industrialized places, its reign is already attested by a few star commodities and by the imperialist domination imposed by regions which are ahead in the development of productivity. In the advanced regions, social space is invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities. At this point in the “second industrial revolution,” alienated consumption becomes for the masses a duty supplementary to alienated production.

Society of the Spectacle, p. 42.

[4] A working definition: a society in which commodity production predominates over other social relations in the spheres of production and distribution. I know it's annoying to specify, but it can be just as annoying to get the wrong idea across.

[5] The main analogy I can think of is the First Transcontinental Railroad, commissioned by the United States government and carried out by three railroad companies. However, it was precisely this big project which began the modernization of the American West, bringing with it immigrant wage laborers and manufactured goods from the East Coast. It led directly to the end of the cowboy “industry” since cattle began to be transported by rail instead, and they were no longer kept on open ranges. The end of the frontier is not unknown to the Western genre, and yet it is not really referenced in Frontier Scum.

[6] Yet what I find very interesting is that the narrator doesn’t seem to find these outcomes specifically even to the big bad evil monopoly, but he ascribes them to humanity in general. When discussing the Scree Knives:

But humanity’s infinite hubris still seeks to claim dominion wherever it treads. Many religious sects come here seeking Providence and freedom to practice their heresies while gazing contemptuously down upon creation.

Frontier Scum, p. 9.

Was this written in-character? Aren’t we talking specifically about opportunistic adventurers going to a frontier full of “untold treasures ripe for the plunder”? Was it humanity’s hubris that killed the buffalo? Is the Incorporation also an expression of intrinsic human nature? What does this mean?

[7] Keep in mind that mass industry itself is also a product of specific social and historical factors, and that criticisms of certain monopolies for greed came just as often from fellow competitors just as they did from workers and consumers. One of the big instabilities of modern capitalism is between the drive to generate more value and the necessity for free competition lest the economy fucks up (and workers start getting mad). This is one reason why the American government was so invested in union-busting during the early twentieth century, as I have mentioned above.

[8] I recommend reading this blog post (link) on Blog of Holding about how OD&D excels as a western game with its frontier politics, early modern economy, and ostensibly ‘monstrous’ inhabitants. Of course, OD&D relies upon having fictionalized ‘monsters’ against which to exert colonial violence, so it does not meet the requirement of not depicting real-life atrocities or analogs to them; however, the other parallels do more of the heavy lifting anyway.

There is also the Anti-Western literary genre, from which we get books like Cormac McCarthy’s aforementioned Blood Meridian. These books are often written from the perspective of the violent and chauvinistic cowboys (or wannabes), in an attempt to show where such attitudes really come from and where they bring people. However, this is done by exploring the extent and effects of such colonial or fascistic violence, which is not pleasant. Though I wonder if there’s an unwillingness on some people’s part to give up the cowboy as a virtuous or fun figure, such that they will try to find a way to make the cowboy the good guy again instead of taking seriously their own predisposition for the cowboy figure.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A Pinch of Salt: Churn Rate

Author: Ian Yusem
Artist: Sajan Rai
Reviewer: Dan D.
System: Mothership
Run as Referee

General Disclaimer: I share a couple discord servers with Ian and we've chatted on occasion.


Manhunt is a alternate ruleset for Mothership where you play as the monsters, found as part of Hull Breach Vol 01. Four new classes are included: the Broodmother (your classic spawn-producing xenomorph), the Leviathan (gigantic ooze), the Anomaly (weird psychic egg-thing), and the Parasite (a puppeteer worm-centipede). I love these, and their art, and in practice they fulfilled their individual niches excellently.

Instead of gaining Stress, Manuhunt PCs gain Wrath - from killing humans, failing stat checks, and watching fellow aliens die. Hitting 10 Wrath triggers a mutation (some useful, some not), and resets the alien back down to 0. It's a nifty way to get around the general lack of tool usage.


I'll warn you up-front, I messed this one up big time - I was rusty as a referee, I was running it right from the book with little prep time, and I forgot a major component of the adventure. Some other factors made everything more of a mess, but those were mostly external factors without much bearing on the module itself. The players still said they had fun, though I can't say I agreed - or that it was entirely the module's fault.

First, the good.

The premise is great: the alien PCs have been captured by a corpo VIP to be imprisoned as trophies on her private space station, and they've just broken out of containment.

Layout is excellent: the adventure is two pages on a single spread, keywords are bolded, room contents are bullet lists. The map is clean and easy to read.

Now the bad.

Churn Rate involves engaging with a heavily-fortified location filled with well-equipped and well-coordinated enemies. You're stuck in tight quarters, with no means of exit (sans the one you need to the Executive's head to activate), and if any witnesses or evidence last an in-game minute the station goes into high alert.

My players immediately revealed themselves, and didn't manage to kill anyone - there were enough agents that, even if they had, the survivor would have sounded the alarm. An in-game minute seems a bit much to me - these are the security crew, they're going to have walkie-talkies.

So we ended up in a situation where the no alert stage wasn't even part of the session. Maybe this could have been avoided, but I think the root of the issue is present in the premise - these are security staff - they're going to have walkie-talkies. All it takes is one of them to hit a button and scream "security breach in [room name]!" and your cover is blown, immediate high alert.

While in the high alert state, all agent encounters are replaced by panicked civilians and the Executive you're after gets taken to the fortified saferoom with the guards stationed outside. I made my critical error here, and didn't make the agent -> civilian switch - the players had to fight through a near-constant stream of agents. It'd make sense, right? They know the aliens are here, split the crew between the saferoom guards and the squads hunting down the aliens.

An agent's standard weapon is a 1d100 damage chaingun, and they patrol in groups. I reduced them to one chaingun per pod, revolvers for the rest, out of necessity - even with the increased damage output and health-restoration abilities of the aliens, it strikes me as too much.

This got to be a problem when we factored in the party train. It makes a regular circuit of the station, visiting almost every room on a 2 minute loop. It's filled with partying corpos, security agents, and a mounted cannon, and it was an absolute pain in the ass every single step of the way. As soon as it was introduced, the players were constantly asking "where's the train?" Which wouldn't have been an issue if I had remembered to swap the agents out, but since I hadn't it was a major combat encounter that was eternally around the next corner. Gods be praised they never actually had to fight it.

There are a few other minor issues - the location of windows is somewhat confusingly worded (they're supposed to be between rooms, but they're not marked on the map - and that also makes stealth basically impossible and is even more things to track), certain interactives are mentioned but never linked to anything (ie draining the steam from the sauna - there's no sign of how to do this)

Final Thoughts

While my own mistakes as Warden made for a worse experience, and I've kept that bias in mind while writing this, I don't think Churn Rate is a very good showcase for the Manhunt rules - the small arena and tight security mean that you don't really get the xenomorph experience that Manhunt sells you. A more open adventure - picking off humans in an isolated colony while dealing with increasing security measures while you try and find the MacGuffin - feels like it would be more appropriate as an introduction.

While escaping from a containment facility is fun on paper, it's a trickier genre than those plans would imply. Whole lot of rather boring SCP stories about violence in indiscernible hallways filled with generic security mooks.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

A Pinch of Salt: The Drain


The Drain

Author: Ian Yusem
Reviewer: Dan D.
System: Mothership
$4.99 pdf 
Run as Referee
General Disclaimer: I share a couple discord servers with Ian and we've chatted on occasion.

Part 0: The Introduction

I return to this post three quarters of a year after I first drafted it. I had hoped to get a second session of it played, but it was never to be. Say la vee.

Part 1: The Module

The Drain is a 16 page 0-level funnel for Mothership, where the players take the role of prisoners in a Bible-school reform prison tasked with recovering a relic from a collapsing colony habitat in exchange for clearing their remaining sentences. The habitat is presented as a pointcrawl on an inverted cone, which handily makes for a very nice looking map.

Pregen characters, blank sheets, and some mp3 files of creepy radio chatter are provided (alas, I wasn't able to use this last one). Character sheets have art by Evlyn Moreau, module art is Sean McCoy's instantly-recognizable scribble art, and map by Andrew Walter - it's all excellent.

The Vibes are strong here. Prisoners wearing tinsel halos. Horrible fucked-up meat monsters. The feeling of unease when you're driving a country road in mid summer and seeing signs about Jesus opposite houses that you can't ever imagine being new or whole or unrotten.

The writing is what you hope for in a Mothership module - tables, bullet points, bolded key terms.

Part 2: In Play

The opening of the module - unarmed prisoners disgorged from boarding craft into an open battlefield - is effective imagery but it works less well in practice. You're instructed to roll for two gas clouds per stretch of no man's land (three stretches in total), but it's unclear as to whether or not they were to be simultaneous, sequential, or choose 1. I had to fudge the first roll of the session because one of my players would have lost all four of their characters instantly to nerve gas.

I feel the influence of the first stage of Deep Carbon Observatory, but here it's just "You're in a trench, now you're making saves against gas, now you're in another trench, now you're making saves again". One cycle was more than sufficient, and by the third and final I was getting bored with the repetition. Not a good place to be for an opening.

Moving past the battlefield, the players reached an abandoned farmstead, where they found  a remote capable of shaping the nanite-infused soil of the station. Single sentence description, no mechanical interaction.

It swiftly became the highlight of the entire session. In the next encounter (an open field with a sniper up on a billboard) they were building earthworks for cover and raised a tower with a ramp to reach the abandoned VTOL hovering above the field. It was some fantastic tool-based problem solving, the sort of ideal RPG scenario.

The session ended with the players squeezing the surviving prisoners onto the VTOL, and which would allow them to cross the river into the ring. Unfortunately, due to scheduling issues among the players, I was never able to gather folks for the second half (and this post laid fallow nor nine months).

Had I played further, I would likely have started throwing in consequences for the time-cost of using the remote, but even then not too much - folks were having a great time.

As random encounters only occur when moving to a new area, I pre-rolled them and any supply caches earlier in the day, which made things nice and smooth (and was an entertaining enough way of wasting time at work)

Part 3: In Summary

In the time since I've played, The Drain has been expanded to a trilogy (alongside Inferno and Wrath of God). I have not looked into the other two parts (there is so much Mothership stuff out there), but I feel like I would check them out if the mood takes me.

Would I run it again? I would with a revision of the opening sequence - possibly adding some variable or choice for the players. Do you run for the shelled structure, or to the treeline? Something of that nature. But the rest of it was fun, I'd give it a thumbs-up.

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