Maybe Comedy Was the Problem All Along

It’s only with great pain, and after long consideration, that I would write something like this. But I’m coming to the conclusion that comedy, which I once saw as a force for good in the world, and which has been literally life-saving for me in the past, might in fact be a huge contributor to the political horror-show we see in the United States right now. The misuse of comedy is without a doubt a problem, but it is such a pervasive smokescreen for genuine bad behavior that I really have to wonder.

The Heady Days of Jon Stewart

When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show, it was a revolution. Before that, fake news comedy shows were almost unheard-of. He created a whole new major genre in entertainment and news. Millions of people tuned in two watch The Daily Show for years, and for many of us, it was our primary source of news. I can’t count how many times I learned about something going on in the country, or in the wider world, that I would have never known about without The Daily Show. Probably hundreds of times. And I laughed every time I watched, and it made me not want to die the way normal news made me want to die.

The Daily Show felt like something was happening. Something Important. Maybe the Fool could truly rein in the False King! Huzzah!

The Rise of Colbert

The Colbert Report was not like anything else. Nothing I’d ever seen, anyway. The guy got parts of the international space station named after him. He became a cultural phenomenon – for educated liberal types, anyway. He was like Jon Stewart 2.0, simply eviscerating conservative hypocrisy night after night. The problem was, the conservative hypocrisy only got stronger. They only grew in power. At the height of Colbert’s popularity, the GOP took over 3/4 of state legislatures and a majority of the governor-ships as well. 2010 happened, they got to gerrymander district lines, and we’ve been suffering ever since.

See, the problem is we thought that conservatives were capable of shame. We have since learned better.

Now Nazis are Comedians

This is one of the most common defenses I see deployed on behalf of white nationalist and professional trolls in places like YouTube and specifically the Joe Rogan Experience – they’re just being funny. It’s comedy. It’s irony. Why is everyone so upset? What about free speech? Blah blah blah Nazis. “I was just being funny” is a classic attempt at justifying awful behavior – that’s nothing new. What seems to be relatively new is that it is being used to excuse public behavior that is bigoted bullshit.

Milo Yiannapoulos is not a fucking comedian. Alex Jones is not a fucking comedian. Trump is not a fucking comedian. The alt-right is not a comedic movement, it is white supremacy and Fascism. They aren’t joking, and we should never treat them as if they were joking.

Dammit John Oliver

One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen in a while happened on Last Week Tonight a few months ago. First off, in case it wasn’t clear, I don’t find Trump the slightest bit entertaining. He was a boring piece of trash as a reality TV “star”, and a boring piece of trash making his cameo appearance in Home Alone 2, and a boring piece of trash on Howard Stern. He is boring and stupid and crass and a towering, self-satisfied ignoramus – the very worst kind of ignoramus.

As a result, I genuinely don’t understand people who otherwise seem quite intelligent, like John Oliver, who find him entertaining. But John Oliver recently had a bit where he talked about how Trump consistent gets us by being funny, mostly unintentionally, in the midst of all of his ignorant and bigoted rambling. At the end, a banner comes down, and balloons, and the banner reads “You Got Us.” Because, according to John Oliver, Trump does get us, again and again, by getting us to laugh at him while he says and does horrific things.

But by just presenting this as a fact, John Oliver is doing more harm. No matter how funny someone’s abusive spouse is, you don’t point that out while the abuse is ongoing. Even if a hijacker cracks jokes, it doesn’t matter until you escape. Trump is a monster, not a comedian. He’s taking hostages, not taking a bow.

It Happened Again Just Now

As this draft has been languishing, Trump had yet another racist tirade, and this sycophantic commentary came from Dear Leader State TV:

Of Course, Fox News Delighted in Trump’s Racist Tweet

Trump is the “comedian in chief.” Ha ha ha white supremacy and death threats. Comedy gold.

Another Coda: Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones

We get distracted by treating monsters like comedians, and we also get distracted by treating comedians like monsters. Where do we focus our energy? Because the time and attention we have isn’t infinite. So do we focus on Dave Chappelle once again making jokes about trans folks? Or focus on the increasingly genocidal concentration camps in which we are now indefinitely detaining people? Do we work to cancel Chappelle, or do we work to cancel Trump? And the dozens of white supremacists he’s put in power? And the dozens of others he’s put in charge of needed programs solely to destroy them? Sure, take a moment to vent on Twitter about what you think is Chappelle’s bullshit – but remember that he’s not a Nazi. The real Nazis are rising to power, and many of the people comedians make fun of, Nazis just want to exterminate.

Genius Advice for Mega-Rich Douchebags

Hi Mega-Rich Douchebags

You don’t wanna be kind and generous and reasonable, changing the world for the better quietly and doing what’s right for it’s own sake. You’re a moron, and  you want to be Batman. Well, you can’t be Batman. No one gets to be Batman, not even Batman.

But it’s even worse. People think you’re a piece of shit just because you’re a mega-rich douchebag. They look at your nesting-doll yacht-within-a-yacht and think “What in God’s name is wrong with you!?” What a bunch of complainers. Can’t they find their bootstraps? So now you’re super sad and money is causing you all of these problems, and you’re too stupid to just give the money away which is guaranteed to bring you joy and satisfaction. You want some ROI, some bang for your beaucoup bucks.

Well, I’ve got your back. I’m going to make you famous. Famouser.

Famousest.

Genius Advice

Instead of being famous for being a mega-rich douchebag, you could be famous or being a hero. Instead of the guillotine, you could have standing ovations in your near future my friend. And you can do this without having the slightest impact on your quality of life. Watch as competing mega-rich douchebags writhe with jealousy on their nesting-doll yachts while you earn the acclaim of millions of plebs and mensch. Let the salt of the earth enhance the flavor of your lifestyle!

You Can End Malaria

It costs about $20 to send a mosquito net to a third world location, and a whole family can sleep under that net. This does a huge amount to prevent them from contracting malaria, which kills almost 2 million people a year, and also protects them from things like dengue fever and any number of other tropical, insect-borne diseases.

According to the CDC, about 216 million malaria cases occurred in 2016, so let’s do some math. 216 million times 20 bucks equals about $4.32 billion dollars, give or take millions of dollars.

According to Forbes, there are 2,153 billionaires in the world with a combined wealth of 8.7 trillion dollars. (I just threw up in my mouth a little) So, for about 1/2000th of that wealth, you could end malaria on Earth, saving millions of lives a year. Some of you could end malaria by yourselves, right now, and still have billions of dollars left over.

Can you imagine how many guillotines you would not be dragged to if you did that?

People Need Water

According to UNICEF and others, the highest estimate of the cost to provide clean water to every human being on Earth is $175 billion, and it could be as low as $10 billion. But let’s go with the higher number. About a third of people on earth do not have access to clean water, and it causes…literally innumerable health problems, immeasurable suffering, millions of needless deaths, etc.

Where you mega-rich douchebags could collectively end malaria 2,000 times over, you would only be able to provide clean water to every human being on Earth about 50 times over.

So for 1/50th of your collective wealth, 1/3 of all humans living on Earth would owe you their lives. After that, you still have 98% of your wealth, as well as the undying gratitude of pretty much every person ever to live. Not a bad ROI if you ask me, mega-rich douchebags.

End Medical Debt

This one is local, to the mere 585 billionaires who are citizens of the United States. As you may know, crushing medical debt is a huge driver of bankruptcy in the United States, and all over the country people are making daily health decisions driven by the fear of debt rather than on their own merits. It’s a big enough issue that it comes up in pretty much every Presidential debate. Remember Obamacare? That sure took a lot of attention, didn’t it? That’s in many ways because of medical debt, which drives maybe 800,000 people into bankruptcy each year (again, the numbers are hard to nail down).

The total wealth of all US billionaires is somewhere around 2.2 trillion dollars. The total of medical debt in the US is difficult to figure out, though 49.2 million Americans were in medical debt themselves as of 2017. The good news is that, because of the system that you mega-rich douchebags have created, it is possible to buy other people’s medical debts and cancel them. And because the system is entirely created to benefit investors and punish debtors (Isn’t it always? Am I right? High five!) you can buy that medical debt for about 5 to 10 cents on the dollar.

So, if you really wanted to go out with a bang, you could cancel 22 trillion dollars of medical debt, or almost $70,000 for every American man, woman and child. Of course that’s way more than they’re likely to have, so we can tone it down. Let’s say you put a tithe (10% you heathens) toward cancelling medical debt – that would still cancel far more medical debt than currently exists in the US. Even 1% of your wealth put to debt cancellation would enable you to cancel a minimum of $220 billion of medical debt and possibly up to $440 billion. And, come on. You can’t tell me you’d feel a 1% loss. (For a sense of scale, that’s half of the entire Pentagon budget and, again, only 1% of your wealth)

The Point

Look, mega-rich douchebags – we only admire you when you’re looking. The overwhelming majority of us think you are all pieces of garbage who are hoarding resources that any idiot could find better ways to use. We see the fleet of Lambos and then the starving children and think, deep down in our guts, fuck you.

So this is some genius advice for you – you could spend just a fraction of your wealth and change the world for the better.

And if you don’t, then our worst opinions about you are completely true, and every fall of a guillotine blade will be justified. Shunk! You could have ended malaria, but didn’t. Shunk! You could have rescued millions from misery, but didn’t. Shunk! You hoarded resources and made the world worse and there’s no justification. Shunk!

Your move, douchebags.

If you would like to find out my secret methods for avoiding the guillotine and clearing the miasma of greed that chokes you even now, I offer a full suite of consulting services for only 0.1% of 1 billion dollars. A steal!

Save Against Fear 2019

Save-2019-Logo.jpg

Once again, I’m headed to Save Against Fear, The Bodhana Group‘s annual convention. As I’ve said before, if I can only make it to one convention in a year, it will be this one.

I’m going to be busy there, but hopefully not too busy. I’ll be running two demos of games I’ve designed and helping with two panels during the event.

First Game: Reckoning

Reckoning is a diceless horror game that my friend Aric and I have been working on for…years now. Maybe 10 years? What happened was that Aric runs awesome horror games for Halloween. He found that there just wasn’t an existing horror RPG that suited him well. We tried All Flesh Must Be Eaten and other D20 systems, as well as others I can’t remember at the moment. But nothing seemed to fit quite right. One problem we ran into was that dice gave players a way out – it meant that every moment was potentially hopeful, and allowed some goofy possibilities.

The core of Reckoning is in character creation, though, more than the resolution system, which is a pretty standard number comparison with cards to modify. But our thinking, or focus in design, was how could we simply portray psychologically plausible characters on the one hand, and how could we represent the things that enable characters to survive horror stories.

Second Game: Iron Pax

Iron Pax is my OSR hack that is honestly just a OSR version tuned for the Midnight setting, or a similar setting. It is a colonialist dystopia as written, and the published version is more of an OSR rules-set engine with a chassis made of random tables for setting design. Players roll dice for all tests, similar to how Dungeon World does it, and the basic system is a roll-under D20 system. One original element is Heat, a combination of the effect of spellcasting being exothermic and also ‘heat’ in terms of negative attention from the authorities.

So far I only have one player signed up, and she’s a friend of mine, and I’m wondering if I maybe have the wrong title or description for the game, or maybe there just isn’t much of an audience for OSR. No worries. If I only have the one player, I’ll let her level up her pregenerated character a bit and see how she does rescuing this halfling from the Iron Pax.

First Panel: Game Designers

This year, we have a total of at least nine game designers who are special guests, and they are going to be part of a few game design panels over the course of the con. In the past I’ve helped facilitate the discussion on behalf of Bodhana, but honestly I don’t think that’ll be needed this time around, as these folks have been on more panels than I’ve run.

Second Panel: Spirituality in Games

At GenCon, I met this cool Rabbi named Menachem Cohen who uses games in spiritual direction as part of his practice. We came up with an idea to run a panel/workshop on spirituality in games, but without necessarily using the word “spirituality”, as that word can give people a wide variety of impressions that might not be correct. I think the way we talk about it is that we will look at how you can use games, design games, and hack games to access deeper elements of life. I’ve never done this kind of thing with Rabbi Cohen before, but I’m looking forward to it because he seems like a really interesting person who is knowledgeable about games.

You Should Join Me

Seriously.

Altered Backgrounds for D&D Villains

I’m putting together house rules and players guide type information for the Evil campaign I’d like to run again sometime in the future. Maybe it’ll even be the next game our home group plays – get some things out of their system so to speak. Briefly, it is a campaign inspired by Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward, where the BBEG has been defeated by the Heroes of Legend and the world made right. Then 100 years pass, and the PCs are some of the last villains in the world. They have to band together (because no one else will put up with them) and save the world from itself. It’s a lot of satire and is aimed at tongue-in-cheek rather than delving into the heart of darkness.

One of the things that I realized I’d need are altered backgrounds for the player-characters. When I went through the backgrounds in the PhB, I found that most of them would work with some slight alterations. For some background, this setting includes the idea of Rehabilitation Camps where criminals (what few are left) and ‘evil’ creatures are sent to be taught to be good citizens. I just mention that because it comes up in some of these backgrounds. The main thing I felt needed a change was the Feature for each. As a house rule I’m fine with players choosing any proficiencies that makes sense, whether listed or not.

Evil campaign needs subverted backgrounds. Also maybe start level three as well

Cult Initiate (Acolyte)

Feature: as with the Acolyte, but it applies to other members of the secretive cult you have joined. Have fun defining the cult with the DM. Maybe it is dedicated to the corpse of one of the old gods, or to the teachings of a mind flayer.

Rehabilitated Charlatan

Feature: unchanged, but you have a probation officer with whom you need to check in. The officer works for the Ministry of Rehabilitation, and functions a lot like any probation officer – making sure you are gainfully employed, have a place to live, etc.

Rehabilitated Criminal

Feature: as above, you have a probation officer. Maybe the same one if another PC is also recently Rehabilitated.

Questionable Entertainer

Feature: Grudging Patriotism. You can always find a place to perform as long as you play songs approved by the Ministry of Rehabilitation. When you do so, you roll with disadvantage.

Variant: Sports Hero. You can find welcome wherever there are official games, expos, or heroic feast-days being celebrated.

False Hero

Feature: similar to the Folk Hero. You have a reputation in the area, except in your actual hometown, where they know you’re a fraud.

Guild Traitor

Feature: You no longer have the Guild connection – in fact,  you have the enmity of a Guild. In exchange, you begin the game with a stolen masterwork worth a few hundred gold – determine what it is with the DM.

Escaped Quarantine

You spent time in Quarantine, under even higher security than a Rehabilitation Camp. You were seen as a significant threat, and kept in isolation for a long period of time. You were released because you were determined to be harmless to the Empire. In Quarantine, you could have crossed paths with any number of powerful evil creatures, consigned to remain long-term.

Feature: Discovery. You learned something you were not supposed to know while in Quarantine. Determine what it is with the DM.

Disgraced Noble

You have embarrassed your blue-blooded family for the last time with your behavior. You have a stolen signet ring, and might be able to impersonate a member of the family somewhere where they are not known well. You made off with a family heirloom worth a few hundred gold – determine what it was with the DM.

Migrant (Outlander)

You are not from around here, and live on the fringes of society. You and your family are viewed with suspicion, which makes them even more eager to prove their loyalty and patriotism to anyone and everyone.

Feature: Plausible deniability. If you are caught for a minor crime or infraction, you can argue that you didn’t know better, and expect lenience, especially the first time.

Variant: Scavenger (Wanderer). You are able to scrape up food and relatively clean water for you and five other people each day by scrounging, begging, and so on. You won’t starve, but you won’t be happy either.

Refugee (Sailor)

You have come to these shores from a far-off land, though not so far that you haven’t heard of the fall of the Dark Lord and the rise of the Empire. Your family and friends are currently being processed and some have been moved to Rehabilitation camps until they can be reintegrated into society.

Feature: Passage. Because you are a refugee, you aren’t expected to have the same papers and references that others would need to travel from place to place. Just remember to be obsequious.

Deserter (Soldier)

Feature: Military Intel. You have of course lost your military rank, and there are some who would love to have you in for a court martial, but you did learn how the Empire functions, and know more about the military than any others (who aren’t part of it).

Runaway (Urchin)

Your family (or orphanage) is still seeking you, but you have lived on your own for a long time now. Pretty much the same as Urchin, though, otherwise.

 

Re-Skin, Drift, Hack

There are a few terms used to describe changes made to a tabletop game. Sometimes they’re used interchangeably. I just wanted to mess around with definitions – at the very least, to explain how I would use these terms to describe the various things I do to games.

Re-Skin

A re-skin is when you don’t make significant changes to the actual mechanics in a game, but change the “color” – that is, the descriptive text or “fluff” that surrounds the mechanics and gives them meaning. The dice rolled or cards drawn don’t significantly change, but what the player or GM describes in the fiction changes.

Example: games like Savage Worlds and BESM invite re-skinning their various abilities, so that a ranged attack might be a jet of flame, a magic missile, or a thrown spear, all with essentially the same mechanics (dealing damage at a distance).

Drift

A drift of a game is a change to the mechanics, kind of an intermediate step between a re-skin and a hack. A drift is a departure from the apparent intent of the original writer/designer(s).

Example: using Mouse Guard to play Jedi traveling a galaxy far away, or Rangers in the North of Middle-Earth. In a way, many Powered by the Apocalypse games are drifts of one another.

Hack

A hack is a new version of a game when the game’s history can still be recognized. Most of the mechanics are retained in some form, but they are adapted, and new mechanics might be added. It is common to take mechanics from one game and put them into a hack of another game.

Example: I just wrote up a hack of the Clockwork: Dominion initiative system for use with D&D 5E.

So, designers and gamers, what about you? How do you use these terms? Do you think they’re just synonyms for each other, or are there significant differences?

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #13: Call of Cthulhu

Start With A Bang

A house rule for Call of Cthulhu – at character creation, you can reduce your starting Sanity to increase your starting Cthulhu Mythos rating. Maybe 2 Sanity for 1 Cthulhu Mythos, and definitely for a limited amount. But in listening to APs, I feel like rolling against a 5% Mythos rating is less interesting than, say, 15% or 20%.

You could even have a situation where an investigator thinks of themselves as something of an expert. Of course, this will just invite greater disaster. They might become more likely to seek out elements of the Mythos because it is slightly more likely, though still not very likely, that they will understand what they find. Which, of course, is horrifying.

Brush With the Occult

One thing I liked about character creation in Kult (in a previous edition, anyway) was that part of it was describing a brush with the occult. This is a chance for the player to be evocative, and also a chance to add details or threads to the world that could grow into something greater. Leaving little gifts for the Keeper.

Driven By Need

I has occurred to me, running Call of Cthulhu and playing a bit and listening to APs, that investigators so often lack the motivation to do what they do. Sure, they’re curious to an unhealthy degree, but at a certain point, running away and ditching the case is what almost anyone would do.

So what I thought is that in designing a Call of Cthulhu character, a player should name something that the character desperately needs. Money is an easy one – and Mythos lore and artifacts would of course be incredibly valuable out in the world. Or perhaps the seek a way to resurrect a dead loved one, or get revenge on someone otherwise unreachable. It has to be something  you need so much that continuing on even as you learn of greater horror will seem like a reasonable choice.

OSR Call of Cthulhu

I’ve been thinking about the OSR, and how that design mentality could be applied to games that aren’t D&D. Other older games also had different sensibilities from more modern games, or even more modern incarnations of those games.

That being said, Call of Cthulhu hasn’t changed that much over time. It is still, in some ways, an old school game. I think the design goals of OSR could be applied to Call of Cthulhu, however, as it is a game that would benefit from some simplification, some rulings over rules, and even a clearer focus on player challenge in addition to character challenge.

I have a few thoughts sketched out which I would like to expand later, but here we go:

  • Spend Sanity to push a roll, in contrast to the Pulp Cthulhu mechanic. This should also drive characters to be on track to die or go insane at around the same time. The justification is you do crazy things to avoid dying, pushing yourself closer to the horrors of the Mythos.
  • Combine Strength, Constitution, and Size into something like Body or Fortitude. Then you just need Dexterity, Luck, Psyche (to replace Power), and Education. Leave out Intelligence because you’ll be relying on the player’s intelligence more, while the character can still know things the player doesn’t know, or have skills the player doesn’t have (Education).
    • Magic points, if you are using them, are Psyche/5
  • A shorter and simplified skill list. A problem I see with Call of Cthulhu in every variation I’ve played is that overlap between skills is ignored and the skills given are highly specific, easily leading to characters who should be experts appearing less so because they don’t have one particular skill.
  • Antiquity, Athletics, Charm, Coercion, Credit Rating, Dodge, Fighting, Firearms, Languages, Occult, Physical Sciences, Profession (Art, Drive, Repair, Pilot, Law, Photography…), Psychoanalysis, Social Sciences, Streetsmarts, Weird Science
  • Use a stress system similar to that used in Mothership. Separate insanity and mental illness. In brief, you take Stress, and then make periodic Panic checks instead of Sanity checks. I prefer this, just to avoid the language of sanity/insanity in describing what happens in a CoC game, which tends to overlap mental illness in problematic ways
  • Hit Points are equal to Body/5

 

Parsec Revised

I’m thinking of revising Parsec and re-releasing it as a PDF. Probably with the same wonderful art; hopefully with similar layout and graphic design, just wrapped around the new and updated text. I’m thinking of this for three reasons:

Errata from the Original

Because I was the designer, writer, and primary editor of the original, there were a number of mistakes. I’m proud of the work, but at the same time it could have been better, and in a way should be better. The game deserves an edition that I can look to and say “That’s pretty much what I wanted it to be.”

I’ve Learned In the Last 12 Years

When I started writing Parsec, it was the second half of 2007. The game design landscape was significantly different then, and in the 12 years since then I have learned more about writing, editing and game design. I can make a better game today than I could then.

Parsec is also now entirely mine. The rights to the property, as it were, have reverted back to me entirely. A few years ago, actually. I got great advice, and had it written into my contract as we negotiated that the rights would revert to me if the game was out of print for a couple of years. It has been out of print for a while now. This means that, for better or worse, I can write and design exactly the game I want to. I can update the setting, add elements that interest me, etc.

Therapeutic Use Through the Bodhana Group

Parsec could be really useful for therapeutic gaming. If nothing else, name a hard sci-fi roleplaying game. Even 12 years since I wrote Parsec, there aren’t that many out there. Parsec still does things that no other game out there does, and includes some elements like player-defined goals and obstacles, secrets and scars, that have obvious, powerful therapeutic applications. I’d like to revise Parsec with input from Bodhana this time around, not as Therapy: the Game, but to perhaps include more elements they would like to see that makes it a better therapeutic tool.