Game Masters, Chapter One

One. Those Above.

Maise Delores tapped the ‘record’ light hovering midair in front of her, making sure her host saw her do it. She could have set the device to record with just a though, but that would’ve been a violation of her streaming site’s official privacy policy. She almost never did that.

She smiled in a friendly manner, but didn’t really think it was necessary. Her host, Winton Classen, was famously among the calmest men in the public eye.

“Thank you for agreeing to an interview, Mr. Classen. My producer and your PR people will put together all the introductions and pleasantries, so we can skip right to the meat of what people want to know. Are you ready for that?”

Winton gave an easy smile in return, no less practiced or perfect than her own.

“Of course, Ms. Delores. I’m delighted to proceed however you feel is best. You’re the tastemaker, after all.”

“Thank you. All right, let’s get right into it. Your company offers vacations to the masses using ‘manufactured reality.’ So the difference between the neural virtual reality we’re all familiar with and manufactured reality is…?”

Winton’s voice broke into the easy, regular rhythm of someone who had practiced saying something a hundred times. “Manufactured reality is literally adjusting the reality you, personally, are experiencing. You can see, hear, even taste and feel an entirely new world we create for your entertainment. And you can do so entirely by yourself, or with a group of family, friends, co co-workers.”

Maise nodded, as much to show Winton she wanted to interject something as to indicate she understood. “Okay, but how do you do that? How is it possible for someone to experience a different reality other than broadcasting electrical impulses into their brain, the way modern VR parlors do?”

Winton’s smile grew in a way Maise thought looked a bit predatory. “VR is just as you say, an illusion of senses sent to your brain. But you only experience what the VR system is programmed for you to experience. It’s no more than a game, or a movie.

“Manufactured reality actually creates a new set of physical laws, which act and react to whatever you do within that reality. We set up those rules, but don’t control the outcome of how you interact with them.”

Maise switched her smile from “friendly” to “slightly bemused,” one of her trademarked moves. “How does that work? At a layman’s level, I mean?”

Winton spoke energetically, his hands moving to punctuate specific words. “We’ve known that perception influences reality since the old double-slit experiments of the early 2000s. It took time for that to eb well-excepted, but the sciences of quantum attunement and quantum frequency grew out of that. In short, at it’s most basic level, reality is just a state of energy, and conscious minds can impact the form that energy takes. Because we are all at the same quantum frequency, we all experience the same reality, on a macro-scale.

But it is possible to adjust that quantum frequency, temporarily, attuning a person and their perception to a new energy state. With the right equipment, such as our extreme comfortable q-couches, your entire body can be placed slightly out of attunement with the reality we all perceive around us, and attuned with a manufactured reality, created by a q-bit cogitator that can emulate a new set of physical laws. That create the framework of a new energy state that an individual can perceive as real.

“Once the framework of a manufactured reality is set up, a visitor’s quantum frequency is attuned, through entanglement, to a master oscillation which serves as a common reference point. Everyone attuned to the same oscillation experiences one, shared, manufactured reality we design and oversee, but do not control. When something happens in VR, it’s part of a script. When it happens in our manufactured reality, it’s because of cause-and-effect beyond anyone’s control or ability to predict.”

Maise jumped on that. “So, it’s real, not artificial experiences? Then why are people’s bodies still here, sitting in high-tech sofas? If you manufacture a new reality, why are they still present in our reality?”

Winton looked unsurprised. “We keep the quantum amplitude low enough to only impact each individual’s experience of the manufactured reality. It isn’t some naturally occurring alternate universe, though we now know those exist. It is a framework of reality, built to be real enough to enjoy and have largely-consistent rules, but not real enough to impact our perception of guest’s bodies. So as soon as their quantum attunement stops being maintained, they snap back to our perception of them, no worse for wear.”

“But to the guests, their experiences are entirely real-feeling?”

Winton allowed his smile to fade to a friendly grin. The kind of grin your grandfather had just before telling you a bad joke. “Only within the rules of the manufactured realities they visit. We keep some sensations, such as taste, touch, and smell, at full strength. But we have adjusted each manufactured reality to have different expressions of pain, for example. So while being stabbed in the manufactured HeroLand reality hurts, it hurts like a bruise or cramp. Typical sport-activity level pain. Nothing traumatic, for obvious reasons. And we ensure that the bandwidth of the quantum amplitude is taken up with enough other feedback that even the most horrific experiences in our manufactured realities are perceived more like watching them in a movie, rather than experiencing them. We make worlds better than real – nothing too bad is capable of happening within them.

Maise knew there was no chance of catching Winton off-guard, but there were certain questions her fanbase expected her to ask. “And no one can get stuck in a manufactured reality? I understand there were some incidents during early human trials.”

Winton choose to look more somber. “When the technology was young and the applications being explored were all military, yes there were cases where it was not possible to detune a subject from their manufactured reality without bringing back the physical effects of their experiences. And some people were allowed to experience manufactured realities for much longer than current best practices dictate. But our systems literally can’t do either of those things.” The big smile returned.  “Our quantum cores can’t generate manufactured worlds with the amplitude needed to overwrite physical reality, and our transmitters overheat after 40 continuous hours, well short of the 150-hour duration that has been shown to potentially cause physiological distress. We built systems that break before they can put anyone in actual danger.”

Maise had one shot at getting a good sound bite, and she took it. “But the system could, theoretically, be repurposed to create more dangerous manufactured realities?”

Winton laughed. “In the same way you could strap a jet engine to a ferris wheel to make it less safe, yes. But no one in their right mind would do such a thing, and it would take hundreds of millions to create such a thing in any case. Guests to any of our Manufactured Marvels sites have nothing to worry about.”

Maise was prepared to push the point—less because she thought Winton actually ran secret off-the-books manufactured deathsport reality, but more because such conspiracy theories were good for clicks and views—but the magnate lifted a finger to forestall her as she took in a breath.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Dolores.” There was no humor in Winton’s expression now, and Maise could just barely see a tiny flashing red light in the corner of his right pupil. “I’m afraid one of those ‘unexpected emergencies’ my staff must have warned you might crop up has, in fact, raised it’s ugly head. Could we have my staff arrange for a virtual interview to answer any more questions? We have, in fact, had an in-person interview now, so your claim of an exclusive remains legally valid.”

Maise smiled and stood, putting out a hand as she did so. “Of course, Mr. Classen. I appreciate you making any time at all for me.”

Winton stood and clasped her hand firmly. A tiny series of hums Maise felt in the bone of her skull, inaudible to anyone else even if they were adjacent to her, confirmed what she suspected. Winton was receiving a stream of wireless data. Her bootjack system probably couldn’t record it, and even if it managed to she’d likely never break the encryption. But even just knowing how much data he was getting could help her figure out what part of his vast empire was under threat serious enough for hum to cut HER short, in person.

His voice remained eminently calm was he walked her to the door of his office. “Perhaps we can make it up to you/ Allow you to run a stream from one of our Manufactured Marvel facilities?”

Now Maise was surprised. “I… was under the impression that was never allowed?”

“Not while guests are present—privacy concerns and such, of course. But we often have previews for VIPs before we open a facility to the public, I would imagine we could let you stream from one of those before anyone else was allowed to use it.”

“That would be lovely.” Maise let real excitement leak into her voice. “I can guarantee that would get fifty million live views.”

Winton’s very-practiced smile returned. “With you as the streamer, I’m sure it will. My staff will contact you to set something up.”

And then Maise was in the waiting room again, and Winton has smoothly closed the door, blocking her access to whatever emergency had his attention.

Winton Classen tensed his jaw in exactly the way needed to bring up his personal HUD, and a list of options popped into his view, though the ‘URGENT’ light flashing in his peripheral vision remained bright and obvious. He focused his vision on “Lockdown,” and as that option was picked heard the hum of antispying devices turning his office into the next-best thing to espionage-proof.

Not that he believed someone couldn’t break those protections, if they really wanted to. Winton just wanted to make sure such an effort would be so expensive no one would ever bother.

Winton moved past the cozy sitting area he and Ms. Dolores had been at, where he interviewed people he wanted to put at ease, to sit in the massive leather chair behind his immense oak desk. Where he interviewed people he wanted to frighten. With a wave of his hand he brought a section of the wall to light and the image of Cory Mai, his chief of operations, took form on it.

“Who is it, and how badly did they screw up?” Winton’s voice was terse, but not angry. If Cory thought he needed to be interrupted, he assumed she was right. He trusted her judgment.

Her face was calm, but the slightest crinkle by her left eye worried him more than most people would have if they’d been spitting in rage.

“It’s the Morgan brothers. Both of them, at once, I’ll note. And they screwed it about as badly as possible.”

Winton signed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can we get them out alive?”

Cory shook her head. “I’m not sure we can get them out at all. They’re Gamma-6.”

“What?!” Winton rarely lost his reserve, and was immediately annoyed. If anyone but Cory was claiming that. “Okay, Cory. Explain to me why that’s not impossible. My last briefing said Gamma-4 is still as deep as even DARPA has gotten. And we only recently proved Gamma-5 as even theoretically possible. How the hell did a couple of rich idiots get themselves attuned more deeply than any other manufactured reality system in the world.”

Cory visibly shrugged. “We don’t know. David Morgan is a hell of a quantum engineer, even if he’s refused to ever do much with his talent. We’ve just gotten on-site, and it’s obvious he’s made extensive modifications to his oscillator. And as far as we can tell, he hasn’t documented any of it. We’re analyzing it now, but we have to do that while it’s running, which complicates things. We can’t shut it down without losing both Morgans, given the state of their quantum signatures, and David may be the only person who has never managed a G-6 attunement.”

Winton released the bridge of his nose, and let his mind float for a minute. Cory knew he was thinking, but also knew she wouldn’t interrupt him just by giving him more facts.

“Their overwatch team got worried 12 hours ago, when the Morgan’s bodies began to show sign of severe trauma. They don’t let their overwatch monitor of record their manufactured experiences, but there is a tandem rig for each of them. Two security experts settled in and got attuned, with a 5-minute timer. Both came back into native attunement with enough trauma on their bodies to die within seconds. The Morgan’s chief of staff freaked out, ignored house policy, and called me directly. It took time to get here with a team…”

“You’re there, yourself, in person?” Winton interrupted.

“I am,” Cory confirmed. “The Morgans are huge donors and investors in many of our concerns, and we supplied them with the original private oscillator they’ve since modified. Given their influence, and that we already had two dead, I wanted to assess the situation directly.”

Winton waved a hand to indicate he understood. It was an unusual step, but Cory had always proven to have good reason to take unusual steps.

“The Morgan’s oscillation system shows them at Gamma-4, but I wanted to confirm that, so I had our people do an independent sampling. When that came in at G-7, I had them run it again. And again. But it turns out the Morgan’s system simply isn’t set up to show any attunement deeper than Gamma-4, and our results are consistent. I can’t tell you how they managed it, but I can tell you what David Morgan thought he’d done.”

Winton raised an eyebrow, an affectation he’d developed as a child but also an effective way to let people know they had his attention.

“His diary entries are clear.” Cory’s voice was carefully neutral. Unjudgmental. “He thought he’d found an actual alternate reality, which just happened to have magic and dragons and evil tyrants.”

Winton’s eyebrow stayed elevated. “Do you believe that?”

“I…” Cory rarely paused. She was silent for a full two seconds. Then:

“I don’t believe it. But I can’t disprove it either. And whatever they’ve done, it’s going to radically change some dearly held belief of our experts. So as ridiculous as that sounds, I’m not ruling it out of the list of possibilities, though I’m not basing decisions on it, either.”

Winton nodded to himself. That kind of risk-management, and willingness to accept facts over her own view of what ought to be true, was a big part of why he trusted her judgement. “So…,” he let the word linger for a moment. “”What do you recommend?”

“Now Cory didn’t hesitate.” “We need to send a team in after them. If nothing else, we need to talk to David Morgan, even if we can’t extract him alive. I already have new attunement couches being set up. The Morgans only designed their system for the two of them and the two emergency tandem rigs, but the quantum oscillator has the same standard 32-output connections as our standard models. Even so, I don’t think we can afford to send more than 12 people – there’s a limited about of power available, and while the Morgans’ couches are normal, I don’t know what might happen if we overload their oscillator’s output. It looks like the system can handle 12 more without any issue, but after that it might start throttling back the among of energy used for each couch, and since I don’t know how they got to Gamma-7, I don’t know if reducing total power available might impact it.

“As for who to send, obviously we have a number of qualified teams for most of this. But the manufactured reality the Morgans are in was… custom. It’s not based on any of our Manufactured Marvel settings, or any of the common tropes we have explored and trained in for possible setting expansion later. That means we don’t have any internal setting experts. I recommend we hire some from… unorthodox… sources.”

Winton nodded. “Approved. What is the setting based on, and where are you going to get experts?”

Cory sighed. “It’s something called the Grimdarque Roleplaying Game. It’s a paper=and-pencil tabletop game, not computer or VR, with origins in the 1980s. And… there’s a fan convention… “

“Game Masters” is an experiment in serialized fiction. It is supported only by contributions to my Patreon. if you want to read more of the story, go support my Patreon and let me know!

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Writing Basic: DO NOT USE TABLE FORMATTING

This is SUPER basic, and SUPER ignored, but I promise you, it’s true. (And as with most of my writing basics, here I am talking about tabletop game writing for someone else to publish.)

Unless your editor/producer/publisher specifically tells you to?

DO NOT USE TABLE FORMATTING IN YOUR FINAL DRAFT.

It is of NO use to the developer, editor, or layout artist. It is, in fact, a huge pain in the butt.

Yes, MAYBE you need to get things in neat columns to make sure your table says what you want where you want it.

But when you turn it over?

Note what is a table title, what is a column head, and what is table text, and then put ONE TAB between EACH COLUMN ENTRY. (As always, check to see if your publisher has specific or different requirements.) Do NOT use your word processing programs table function.

Like this, but with [tab] replaced by an actual tab.

[Table Title]An Example Table

[Table Column Heads]Writing Level[tab]No. Of Wrong Tables[tab]Editor Cursewords

101[tab]14[tab]14

102[tab]6[tab]12*

201[tab]0[tab]0

*Because a 102 level writer should know better.

Yes, it’s a minor thing.

But getting minor things wrong makes you take more time and more effort, and thus more money and frustration, for publishers to want to hire you.

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Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge different.

Life in Evansville… So Far, So Good

I have heard recently from three different friends who all said three different other friends are “sure” I hate it in Indiana, here in the Land of the Brain Eaters.

I don’t.

I’m actually settling in really well. Yes, I am sometimes lost, depressed, disconnected, moody, or in a black doldrum so dense nothing, not even cheer, can escape.

But… that’s just me, folks. I have civilian PTSD. I suffer clinical depression. I am a socially awkward introvert. None of that was going to stop because I moved to the last place in the US where you can buy a fried brain sandwich any day of the week.

I mean… maybe once I eat my first brain. I’m saving that for a special occasion.

But honestly, I am doing better than I expected, by a long shot. I have only ever lived in central Oklahoma and the Seattle region (well, and one semester in California when I was in kindergarten). Ever time I have moved, even just to a new neighborhood in the same town, it has taken me months to get comfortable. Sometimes years.

Here? I’m already pretty comfortable.

Some of that may be how I moved–for me the most grueling part was packing things up during the 5 weeks I was still in Redmond after Lj had flown out to Evansville. But that meant our possessions, including my bed, were already in place when i arrived. There was a space for me before I got here. Yes, about half of what I own is still in boxes, and we’re still figuring out which kitchen drawer has the spatulas, and the movers lost some of our furniture and ruined more–but none of that is part of Evansville. It sucks, but it’s just life.

Gen Con was shortly after my arrival, and while driving to and from the Con in a few hours was a new experience, the Con itself is familiar. The Con Crud I got was new — just a little sore throat and a tad too much mucus, combined with a fatigue that kicked my ass for three weeks. So some of the vibes people seem to have picked up may have been annoyance with how little energy I had.

The culture here is one I understand. It’s not the same as OK or WA, but it’s similar to both of them in a way. No one looks at me funny when i say ‘yes, sir” or “thank you, ma’am,” most food is fried *or* bar-b-que *or* Asian fusion, there are multiple multiplexes, lots of delivery services, and a dizzying array of test kitchen restaurants.

Roads are largely laid out on a grid with 90-degree turns and packing lots shared between businesses. Things are flat, though not Oklahoma flat. There’s real thunder, so far on a nearly-weekly basis. The sun comes up and goes down at reasonable times.

I miss my Seattle friends… but I still chat with them online. I miss my OK friends… but I just saw them last month. I enjoy being closer to friends who live in IN and adjoining states, and I expect I’ll make new friends. And if I don’t, that’s okay too.

And WOW are things cheaper than Seattle. Like, stunningly cheaper. That takes a LOT of stress off.

My wife Lj and I have begun figuring out what life here is going to be like. We took our first ever yoga class–a chair-based one, for beginners–and I think that’s going to be a huge part of the future. It’s less than 15 minutes from our apartment, we clicked with the class and instructor immediately, and it had an immediate positive effect on us. I have come to think of it as physical therapy for being human. As I claim back strength and flexibility lost to years of stress and sitting, I’ll be looking at next steps, but this first step feels very *right*, and useful, and sustainable.

I’m already in a Pathfinder game, so that’s good. 🙂 I have also already begun to carve out the new shape of my career. I’m the Game Design Expert at Lone Wolf Development, I have a real plan to produce some fiction in a way I never have before, and I have more things as settled deals which just aren’t ready for announcement yet.

There will be dark times ahead, of course. That’s a fact of my life — I am at war with my own brain, and I take that war with me anywhere I go. But I don’t think those battles will be harder here than they were elsewhere. Yes, my support network is more virtual and less direct now, but then my sources of stress are also reduced. Yes, there are some big financial challenges we put off until after the move, but we are in a good place to tackle those. A lot of the things I thought would happen now look like they aren’t going to, but I knew not all of them would–just not WHICH ones wouldn’t. And, at least at the moment, I am sanguine with my prospects.

And for a while at least, there’s a whole city to explore. Will we go to the giant bridge club building? Visit one (or more) of the many minigolf courses? Pick a “favorite” restaurant, or game store? Go back to taking the occasional evening drive in air that cool but not cold?

Find the elusive Red Cathedral? Or Storm Arsenal? Fight the Brain eaters… or join them?

I don’t know.

But I look forward to finding out.

ABOUT PATREON

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Supers Ideas: More Knight Shift

Yet more members of the not-front-page, unusually-themed second-string heroes of Cathedral City, the Knight Shift.

Crimson Kpinga: John “Jake” Jefferson James tried to do everything right, despite growing up in a broken home in Devil’s Avenue, one of the worst slums in Cathedral City. He worked part time to help his mother with the bills, avoid criminal crowds, studied hard, and looked after his younger siblings. But none of that mattered when someone matching his description (“young African American male in a t-shirt and jeans”) hijacked a car four blocks away. Jake was grabbed and beaten by police, including the notorious Sgt. Stoneman, who consistently called Jake a “goddam cannibal, like the rest of you Ni-niams.”

CCTV footage proved Jake was innocent, but not before he spent 48 hours in lockup. Kake tried to bring complaints against the specific officers who mistreated him, only to find the system was designed to favor their word over his. He was told repeated by the people in his community that police did not treat them equally, and that while there were good cops and bad cops, they didn’t look different until one hit you. Or shot you. His community did not trust, or call on cops.

Jake was done trying to do things the way the system demanded. He decided to fill in the role of peacekeeper and justice dealer in Devil’s Avenue. And, guided by the “Ni-Niam” slur, he researched an African people and their weapons to be his inspiration. He researched the Zande and their traditional weapons, the  Kpinga throwing knife. he got a job at an upscale axe-throwing bar that had moved into a bankrupt barbaer shop on the edge of his neighborhood, and at night practiced throwing the weapon again and again. The Crimson Kpinga was born.

He had a few successes, but his career would have run short early except for one fateful decision. While leading a group of drug-dealing thugs away from a residential area, Jake happened to run through the stairs to the door of the 13th floor of an abandoned building. And, it turned out, Tacoma was watching.

Since joining forces with Tacoma, Crimson Kpinga has received a great deal more training, and significant equipment upgrades, giving him armored costumes and high-tech kpingas, allowing him to operate on a whole different level, though his first priority remains the people of Devil’s Avenue.

Tacoma: Tacoma is a ghost building. It’s elevator can access the 13th floor of any building in the world that is 13 stories or higher, and that has a working elevator. Tacoma itself can only be accessed from an elevator with a 14th floor button, and only if Tacoma feels like allowing it (and is paying attention).

The Tacoma Building, and early skyscraper in Chicago built in 1889, was the first riveted-iron-frame building in the world and the first 13-story building in the world. It was home to numerous offices and businesses. One of these was the Beneficient Order of Hieremias, a charity that existed as a cover for the evil-hunting Gileadian champions of peace and life. When the building was destroyed in 1929 by Sfinții Dracului, the public was told it was to make way for a new building.

But the building known as Grandfather Skyscraper had been murdered by magic, and it’s spirit was restless. It existed as a ghost, seen only from the corner of the eye or as a glitch on maps of various big cities. When Sister Celestial staggered out of a 14th floor elevator in 1934 on death’s door after a bloody gun battle with the King of Hell’s Kitchen, she accidentally access Tacoma instead of the afterlife. Tacoma managed to bring a doctor to her (who, despite great confusion, saved the Sister’s life), and then became Sister Celestial’s best friend and ally for the next 20 years of her crusade. After her death in the mid 1950s, Tacoma sat empty and unaccessed until Crimson Kpinga, wounded and leading dangerous men away from innocents, ran through a 13th floor door, and Tacoma noticed. And brought “CK” safely into his own space.

It took time for CK to realize Tacoma was alive, or at least aware, but with Tacoma showing him special 13th floor rooms all over the world — places where supervillains set up special labs that remained secret after they were killed, or that heroes a generation or two ago had used as their bases of operation, CK and Tacoma became a powerful team. When Firecracker invited Crimson Kpinga to join the Knight Shift, he accepted, and brought the considerable resource of Tacoma with him.

Longlegs: Longlegs is Jennifer “JennJenn” Janice James, the younger sister of Jake james, better known as the Crimson Kpinga. When CK was captured by the Kill Klan, Tacoma reached out to JennJenn as she happened to be on the 13th floor of an office building as part of her food delivery job. Tacoma managed to communicate with JennJenn, and urge her to call the Knight Shift for help. She did, but she also insisted on going to help herself. Wishing to keep her from harm, Tacoma took her to an abandoned safe house where the Parole Patrol criminal gang had been planning a heist during a 4th of July parade, but had been captured before they could attempt it. Among the unused gear was a single-purpose tight-fitting exoskeleton with powerful hydraulic stilts, designed to be disguised as an Uncle Sam Tall Man. during the parade. JennJenn too the suit for its armor value, but discovered she had a knack for using it’s telescoping legs for movement, escape, and powerful kicks.

After CK was rescued, he tried to forbid JennJenn from becoming a costumed hero, claiming she was “too young.” Tacoma disagreed, and CK discovered he could help JennJenn become Longlegs, or he could let her do it on her own. She has since become a valued member of the Knight Shift.

Mirror Mirror: When the Villains Alliance attempt to use the Multivexer to slice off alternate realities from the blended alterverse, allowing them to be isolated and eventually drained of all energy, somehow Adam Mason was caught at the edge of the field, and briefly linked to ever version of himself in ever reality. The result of this is twofold. First, Adama has access to every skill any version of him gained in any reality, which mostly runs to a long list of service jobs and hobby-level sports and games, but occasionally includes a real outlier of high degree skill or learning (such as preparing blowfish safely, and speaking fluent Cantonese).

Secondly, Adam can assume the form of an alternate reality version of anyone he touches. Normally this is a very close duplicate, though sometimes there are surprising differences (the alternate reality version of Dexter he once assumed was, inexplicable, a chainmail-wearing swordwoman with a raygun). However, he can maintain this form only until he encounters a high-energy state change, which includes anything as powerful as a good punch. Once he is “knocked back to reality,” he can’t assume an alternate version of that person again until his quantum state bleeds off all related residual vibrations… a process that takes just over seven years.

He has also discovered that some entities, such as the Incorruptibles and the Elders from Before, do not HAVE alternate-reality versions of themselves.

As a result As Mirror Mirror (Em-Em, in the field), Adam tried not to duplicate anyone, especially a teammate, unless he absolutely has to, since doing so removes that option for seven years of future encounters and sometimes it’s no help at all. That said, when the Terminax was prepared to destroy all life in the solar system, Em-Em was able to beocme an alternate version of itself and countermand its every order to the Terminaughts, and then send a shutdown code to defeat the Terminax itself.

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When You Run The Company, Nothing Takes “Just 10 Minutes”

Just coming off Gen Con, which gave me an opportunity to talk shop and history with many of the titans of tabletop, I want to offer some insight on what it’s like to be a manager, owner, or major executive employee at a tabletop game company.

I’ve worked on staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo. I’ve freelanced for a dozen other companies, and know many of their owners and executives very well. I’ve helped start, run, and shut down game companies. I’ve been doing this in different roles for more than 20 years.

This insight isn’t about one company. Nor is it about my own time constraints (in general my role is game creation and NOT these kinds of tasks)

This is about the tabletop RPG industry as a whole, as it has been for decades, in many different capacities, for many different companies.

First–you never have free time, or enough time. There is always an event coming up. Sometimes people have to walk away from one almost-week-long event that took 2 months to plan for to get on a plane to fly overseas for another such even. Sometimes people work 5-6 weekends in a row at events, conventions, sales meetings, open houses, and so on. Sometimes you have to work 30 8-10 hour days in a row.

And the people who do that work also have things that have to be done every weekday, every week, every month. It’s 40 hours of work if you are lucky, AND weekends of work (especially during March-August, the half the year we refer to as con “Season”), AND THEN emergencies that are time-sensitive and cannot wait.

And it’s a rough industry. Most of the game companies I bought things from 20 years ago don’t exist anymore. A lot of the ones I bought from 10 years ago don’t exist anymore. Even those that are still around sometimes suffer layoffs, or long periods where things are so risky that a single bad decision about which license to sign, which partner to anger, which friend-of-a-friend you annoy, which print run to cut back, which book to publish, can sink a company.

It’s high-stakes, high-stress, high-time-consumption, all the time.

I absolutely am not telling anyone they are not allowed to ever feel like a company isn’t giving them enough attention. But when there are serious problems, it’s wrong to think the company owners or senior staff are showing disrespect or proving they “don’t care about customers” because they “won’t just take 10 minutes and discuss some information.”

The people who make the decisions who keep the doors open at a tabletop game company can’t do anything regarding major problems off-the-cuff.

It’s never “just 10 minutes.”

And, again, I’m not currently dealing with any of these huge issues in my role at any company right now.

But I have in the past.

I know when I have had issues with licenses with other companies, when I was in other positions, I have had to not just decide “What do I want to say,” but:

“Do I need to warn my partners, who are also partners of a company i am having issues with, before I make a statement about that company’s issues??”

“Do I need to run this by my company’s owner?”

“Do I need to run it through our legal council?”

“Do we need to have a meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page about what has happened, and what our plans are?”

“Do I need to have editors go over my statement so it is clear and concise?”

“Would I rather take the 2-3 hours of collective time it is going to take to do this, or to sleep at least 6 hours tonight?”

And when the people who run these companies are too harried to make the right business decisions? People lose their jobs.

It’s not just a game, or a badly produced entertainment product for the people who depend on these jobs for health insurance, retirement income, and rent.

The thing you claim will be easy to give you?

Done right, it’s never just 10 minutes.

Done wrong, it can tank someone’s job.

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Tales of the Brain Eaters. Three.

Sometimes, you have to move away from something to get a better view of it. Sitting in E-ville makes it difficult to truly understand the forces swirling around you in the twilight. Coming to Railroad City helps me put context around much of E-ville’s hidden society.

Things only hinted at in Evansville are spoken of openly in Indy… for certain definitions of open. I expected my inquiries to take me down, into the undercity, as they would have in Seattle where the City Below is such a strong part of the Second World. And yes, Indy has the same basement boroughs  as any major metroplex, with stairs and ramps leading down to the places where sunlight can never sear or cleanse. But the Lower tracks of Crossroads are a waystation, not a destination. You can make contact with the true Unigov there, but you can’t hold meetings with them.

That only happens at Skydeck.

Skydeck likely existed before the city was planned and platted 1821, but as with many things the colonizers took what existed and forced it to fit their culture, regardless of the consequences. Originally accessed from rooftops and (amusingly) chimneytops, Skydeck is now formed from the 13th floor of hundreds of buildings, some of which are missing many floors below 13. These are crammed window-to-window and hall-to-hall, making it possible to step over the Dropov to reach a new deck manually, but most transportation occurs with elevators and Skykeys.

In older elevators, you may have to seach for where to place a Skykey, but in most cases it’s the same as the fireman’s access. Most keys access only a few decks, and these are codified as times correlating with the position the Skykey needs to be at for that to be the correct 13th floor. The guide who took me to the common entry point, the 13th floor of the Thomas Building which survives despite the rest of the building burning, has a “Thomas Three O’Clock Key,” which accessed the area known as Ashlands by having the key rotated 360 degrees, and then turned to a 3-o-clock position. The clockface position is believed to have been standardized by the 11th Hour Society in the 1930s, when they served as Stewards of the Skydeck access points.

Ashlands is neutral ground, at least officially, less out of some agreement and more because the layers of soot on every surface and strong smell of smoke makes few people wish to claim it. from there the guide warned me not to go far, and I saw only the Stacks, as expected when seeking a sage, but saw tagger signs directing me to the Wherehouses, Galley,   De-Magiced Zone, and most troubling HighHell. I did not wander.

The sage declined to answer my questions, but even just overhearing others talk of local twilight conflicts told me much. The Kith are strong in Indy, as with much of the continent, but truly weak in E-ville. The BraiN Eating was mentioned more than once, and now I must wonder–are the Brain Eaters just defending themselves against the Kith’s influence? If I am to live here, I’ll need to know.

The Torsions are a new faction to me, and powerful only in Indiana, and their power wanes in areas called the Tippecanoe and the Vincennes, that later being the area of the Brain Eaters. The Torsions are very concerned with keeping a temporal barrier between their dominions in central Indiana, and those other counties, which manifests as a time zone caved from what should rightfully be central, but not for all the state.

But for Vicennes/Land of the Brain Eaters/ There are several factions, many minor or unknown beyond the borders of river and rock that define my new home, but which are apparently ascendant enough that no outside faction dares operate in any but the most clandestine fashion in Vicennes without some local alliance. Of these regional groups, the Red Cathedral seems most powerful, and are strongly tied to the brain eating ritual, but I know little else. The Storm Arsenal is agreed to be smaller and weaker, but otherwise a mystery. Other names–the Old Passe, the Clowder Guild, the Death Wake, the Eastcheap Livery–seemed to refer to Vicenne, but I have no context for them.

When my guide told me the Clowder Guild insisted he give me safe passage back to Railway City, which I had wrongly though was included in his services, I did not question it. I was above my depth, and I knew it.

But these are grand threads for me to follow once I return to Evansville. The Clowder Guild I must seek out, clearly, and the Red Cathedral as well.

There are things I must learn, before I dare eat a brain.

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New Job: LWD’s Game Design Expert

I am pleased to announce I am now the Game Design Expert at Lone Wolf Development. (Sometimes, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting at #GenCon.)

While I expect to still be doing many other things as well, including freelance and running RGG, this position is now a major part of my career.

More news when it’s fit to print. 🙂

Shield Feats for PF 2E

Okay I’m at Gen Con, but I can’t help but want to play with some of the most interesting new rules of the  Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook. Shields!

Here are some new shield-focused feats. I am still trying to decide how I want to present some of the new information PF2 feats need in my blog format, so here’s a first try.

Angle Shield[General][Feat 1]

Prerequisites Shield Block
You can angle your shield to deflect part of the force of a powerful blow. When you use the Shield Block feat, your shield takes 5 points less damage than normal (minimum 0).

Duck Down[General][Feat 3]

[Reaction]
Trigger: When you have your shield raised and are forced to make a saving throw.
You can duck down behind your shield, making it more difficult for spells and special abilities to target and effect you. You gain a +1 bonus to the triggering saving throw. You are no longer considered to have your shield raised.

Knock Aside [General][Feat 1]

When you are wielding a shield, you gain a +2 bonus to the Disarm, Force Open, Shove, and Trip actions of Athletics.

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Supers Ideas: The Knight Shift

Some ideas refuse to leave me alone until I write them up to at least a sketch level. This is one of those. I haven’t even searched for similar ideas and names already in use, yet.

THE KNIGHT SHIFT

When Citadel City’s primary defenders are injured, off in space, or just on vacation, the citizens still sleep safe knowing they remain watched over by the less-experienced, less-famous, but still competent Knight Shift.

The Knight Shift can be B-Team backup for the Player character heroes, or just interesting local color.

The Amalekite: The Amalekite is a powerful champion that appears to be a mighty armor made of stone and metal, marked with ancient sigils and crafted in a mix of Biblical and modern styles. The Amalakite can teleport at sunup and sundown, stand watch ceaselessly, fly, command (but not create) fire, always hear its name if spoken by one who has met it, and is spectacularly powerful and strong. Though the Amalekite can bleed if struck hard enough, no one has ever seen its wearer, who is often thought of as the bravest and most noble of the Knight Shift, and sometimes considered “too good” for the ‘secondary’ team of heroes.

In truth, the Amalekite is not a suit of armor worn by anyone at all, but a powerful sorcerous tool created in ancient times by the last of the Amaleks. It is controlled by the dreams of whoever last spoke the rites of kingship over it. Lost for eons, the words were found inscribed in a table by Clifton Kirk, a famed archeologist in the 1960s. Fearing the power of the Amalekite, Kirk never risked speaking or sharing them. Kirk sadly turned to alcoholism when his career never reached the level of success he felt he deserved for finding the Amalekite (a fact he kept secret), and when he died his possessions passed to his estranged son Steven Kirk.

Steven spoke the words accidentally, while going through his father’s papers, and gained the power to command the Amalekite in his sleep. There is no risk to him, he feels no pain, expends no energy. He has even learned to enter a dreamlike state while waking by smoking various herbs and playing mindless video games. But, of course, if his identity was ever discovered, Steven would be in great danger.

And so the master of the Amalekite lives in his mother’s basement, high and dozing off most of the time, as the resentment that none of the acclaim, hero worship, and less proper offers of thanks and rewards ever filter down to him, a massively obese, homebound, part-time online customer service rep.

Dexter: When Caliburn the NovaGuard used his NovaStrike to slow Voidrox the Sun-Killer, the feedback destroyed Caliburn entirely.

Except for his right hand.

With the last mote of Novadronimum in the galaxy powering it, with just a tiny piece of the Justice Circuit still held within it, that hollowed-out gauntlet followed its core programming, and sought someone most in need of justice, and compatible with its (broken, fragmented) OathCode. It should serve as no surprise, perhaps, that it found at that moment the person with the strongest combinations of a need for justice and the strength to fight for it was a young black transgender woman. And so it configured itself to fit on Samantha Baker’s right hand, and gave her a fraction of the last NovaGuard’s power.

And as Dexter, she has wielded it to oppose every injustice she could find since, fiercely, fearlessly, and relentlessly.

Diagoras: Diagoras is the distant descendant of the famed pugilist and athlete Diagoras of Rhodes, and is the chosen and beloved of Palaestra, goddess of wrestling. His skill and ability are defined as the best that any mortal human (which turns out to mean unpowered human) has ever performed in competition. He is thus skilled with all tools of sport, including javelins, discus, bows, rifles, bowling balls, shot-puts, and so on. He often wears sports-related armor, and carried various sport paraphernalia with him.

As a near-demigod, he is also surprisingly resilient, and though showy, and often willing to do things the hard way if it’ll look more impressive, still honestly wishes to fill the role of hero and make the world a better place.

DefCon: The last of the Countdown Clones, from the Countdown to Calamity event, DefCon was the only one of the clones to reject his programming and work with heroes to prevent the Calamity. He has since become a full-time hero, trying to understand his place in the world as a sapient strong-AI with all the knowledge and intellectual capacity of a mature adult, but only a few years of actual life experience.

DefCon still has a ‘5’ on his forehead, as all the Countdown Clones did. If he absorbs enough damage, he becomes tougher, stronger… and angrier. The ‘5’ then becomes a ‘4,’ and DefCon 4 is a somewhat less kind and patient personality. If the increased resilience of DefCon 4 doesn’t prevent him from absorbing a great deal more damage, the ‘4’ becomes a ‘3,’ and he gains an angrier, more prone to violence personality while turning into someone who can go toe-to-toe with some of the most powerful known superbeings. each state lasts only a few minutes, unless it continues to absorb energy from massive attacks.

No one knows what DefCon 2 or DefCon 1 are like.

Firecracker: Rita Miguel was born in the late 1990s a Booster, one of the rare humans who, apparently at random, inherits a superior mental and physical capacity. Almost a textbook Booster, Rita was able to perform 25-50% above peak human athletic and mental capacity–running a two-minute mile, testing at an IQ of 280, able to deadlift 1,400 pounds, able to go for 300 hours without sleep and still function, and more.

Her parents, second-generation immigrants, knew the US government wanted all Boosters to be registered, and thought this would be what was best for their girl. After all, General Glory was a registered Booster, and a national hero, and with registration came free education and health care. So Rita grew up to be poked, and prodded, and tested, and assumed she would be able to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a costumed hero, like so many other Boosters that went through the program.

The All-American Alliance sponsored most of the pretty white Boosters in her classes as teens. General Glory picked a series of young Boosters to be his sidekick Private Patriots. A few Boosters were adopted by wealthy families who trained and equipped them to be local heroes and good PR for those families, while others got corporate sponsors.

But no own gave any such opportunity to Rita, and at 18, she aged out of the system.

So, she made her own patriotic costume, named herself “Firecracker” for her strong personality, and went it on her own, assuming her success would earn her a slot on the Federal Guard, or the Regulators, or the Heroes’ Alliance.

Six years have passed. Firecracker is one of the hardest driven, most dedicated, most skilled Booster heroes. She didn’t so much join the Knight Shift, as she saved them from biting off more than they could chew, and agreed to help out when they realized how well she understood the independent hero life. She is the ad hoc leader of the Knight Shift, though this is not an official position.

She doesn’t think General Glory will call, anymore. But that’s not going to stop her.

She’s a Firecracker.

Mona Lisa: Mona Lisa is a disembodied psychic presence. She was an innocent bystander slain during the Mind Wars event in Citadel City. For some reason, unlike others killed during those weeks, Mona Lisa managed through sheer force of will to project her consciousness into a nearby classic painting. Her intellect thus survived, and she has come to even appreciate the freedom her new form gives her.

Mona mostly exists on the Ethereal Brane, free of any constraint of the physical or temporal. However, she can use a conceptual gate formed by any image of a woman on the material dimension to look in on and communicate with the mundane world. Thus she can use the eyes of any image of a woman to see, the ears of any image to hear, and the lips of any such image to speak. The better the image, the stronger her power through it. Members of the Knight Shift generally carry both a smartwatch program with a hi-resolution image of Mona that she can easily find and inhabit, and a back-up in the form of a painted coin or picture in a locket.

While Mona mostly acts as a scout and communications relay, she has grown into a powerful psionic force, easily able to engage other mentallists and most supernatural creatures if they are anywhere near an appropriate image, and even able to whisper subtle influences into the minds of nonpsychic brains.

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Convocation of Mages: Day One of Four in Seven

It has been many years since I wrote of my travel to the Grand Convocation of Mages. I became comfortable under the aegis of the Golem Lords, and weary of the endless dream ink such travelogues required.

But now I am a Free Lance once again, and it seems fitting to return to habit of marking my hours as seen through eldritch-tinted spectacles.

In many seasons past, my fair denmate, the Loving Tyrant of Lists, has accompanied me to the convocation, and taken her leisure in the land of Nod while I toiled to earn coin. (An amusement of a phrase, given the hard hours of eldritch efforts she engaged to keep my timeline untangled and productive on such trips.) But now, her keen skills have been taken into service of the Allqueen of Wolves, and her travel to the convocation is driven by grand design.

It is I who come along, untethered and at dangling scrolltips, to support her war against the forced of gnarl and chaos that nip at the Allqueen’s heels.

Untethered, but not unbidden. As we now dwell in the lands of the Brain Eaters, we shall take the land route to the Grand Convocation this season, and travel in numbers for safety. I am up before the sun has awoken, to attend last rituals and bend space to accommodate more portage than its dimensions warrant. But this is a quiet time before the flood. I am to help summon the Wolves’ Den, hurl axes at the foes of the Marquis of Parchment, sup alone with the Grimm Master, enjoy the Monster Lord’s Feast at the Hidden Temple (under the watchful eye of the Grimm Master again), spend time dispensing wisdom next to the Ronin Flags, partake of time with the newly forged Golem of the Law of Stars (and many fine Freestaves, whose number I am once again among), and speak in hushed tones to numerous Keepers of Realms and Ephemera and perhaps even sit with the Kitsune Prince before closing out my time with lunch by the Housewrights, and the Feast of Endless Flesh.

But first, my morning oblations.

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