Monthly Archives: March 2021

The Empty Place

Content Warning: The essay includes discussion of death, suicide, self-harm, and the passing of a recently departed person in my life. I am writing it as much for me as anyone else, and if those topics aren’t something you need in your head right now, please feel free to read no further. Please, take care of yourself.

When my father died, I was less sad, and more sympathetic. He had been in so much emotional pain, for so long. And when I had told him he was drinking himself to death six months earlier, he just said “I know.”

I wasn’t glad, or relieved, or anything I could describe in a way that made me happier. But I knew he had decided that a slow, anaesthetized death was the only solution he could find to the dissatisfaction and anger he felt about his own life. His death was just the coda of a decision he had made years before, and while I hated that decision, I had come to grips with it.

My father was a man of great determination. Once I realized he planned to drink himself to death, I knew he would succeed, and sooner rather than later. What grief I felt for his loss peaked then, when he was still breathing, but actively working to not be part of my life anymore. Even then, the emotion was less sadness, and something much closer to empathetic pain. I knew he was hurting, and that the hurt was so great he’d do anything to escape it. That hurt me, but not in the same way grief does.

My father was unreliable for most of my life–at least from my earliest teens forward, and possibly beyond that. So for the 26 years I knew him, I learned I could not rely on him. He was often full of wonderful stories, good advice, and kind words… but he also often was not. I know he loved me and wanted to help me, but as a practical matter, he could not be depended on. I was still a young adult when he died, working to figure out who I was. My father was a big part of that, but a lot of the work of my becoming who I am now happened after he was gone.

I went to work the Monday after the weekend my father died. I was manager of a parking garage at the time. When the people running the associated building discovered I had lost my father, they were shocked I had shown up. They were ready to move heaven and earth to let me go home… but I didn’t. I kept the bereavement days in case I needed them to arrange funerals, or clear out his apartment. And over and over, society kept trying to tell me I should be devastated by my father’s death, and I just wasn’t. Sympathy, not sadness.

At the end of last month, my friend Marc Curlee died of covid. I had known Marc since I was 13, and he was several years older. As you might expect, I was a snot-nosed kid, and our early relationship was not without friction, but we loved many of the same things, and like most of my friends over my life, bonded over gaming. And through 37 years of moves, stretches of years in different states, marriage on my part, career changes, and shifting special environments, Marc and I stayed friends.

Early on, it was Marc, not my father, who taught me to shave. Later, when my father was long since gone, Marc was still a strong presence in my life. As I worked on figuring out who I was, my father checked out of his part in that, and Marc didn’t. If Marc told me he’d do something, it got done. If I was sad, or lost, or drowning in a sea of green-black depression, Marc reached out. Marc was an important part of my support group, and one of the people I desperately missed when I left OK for 6 years. And no matter how long Mac and I were apart, when we managed to hang out again, it was like we’d never had a gap.

While Marc was hospitalized, I called him every day. Early on, we’d chat, and he’d talk about his plans for years to come. He was focused on the future. Then, as he was moved to the ICU, he stopped picking up the phone. I left messages, but he wasn’t in any condition to return them. I desperately wanted to visit, but even beyond the risk to me I live in a house with 2 highly vulnerable people. I could not talk to Marc. Could not see him. Could not be at his side. He had been there for me for decades, and I couldn’t be there for him.

Marc’s passing as hit me like no loss I have suffered before. It’s not just grief, though I have been fighting avalanches of sadness, but an empty place. I had no idea how many times a day Marc entered my mind. When I see a thing I thought he’d like, I’d make a mental note to tell him. When some story or game rule or art reminded me of some even he and I shared in your decades-long friendship, I’d smile. Not just occasionally, but multiple times each day, even when he wasn’t nearby, Marc was part of the core fabric of how I interpret and interact with the world.

And his passing has opened an empty place within me. A place which used to be filled with the things Marc and I would share in the future, and now we never will.

Grief is very much my reaction, but it is more than that. Anger, confusion, and horror sit alongside sadness in near-equal measure, the mix constantly churning on what will come on top. This is the grief people kept telling me I should be feeling when my father died, and I never did. And to be clear, Marc is absolutely not a stand-in father figure in my life. But he was a close, lifelong, formative friend, without whom I would not only be who I am today, I would be a worse parody of the best aspects of my self.

Processing this takes time, and the energy and attention that process demands will not be denied or delayed. I am fragile, veering off into the avalanche of grief any time a tiny pebble of loss is disturbed, when I realize I can’t share something with Marc, can’t talk to him, can’t play games with him ever again. I know that I will survive this — among other things, it would dishonor Marc’s memory not to take care of the people he cared about, and that includes me — but it’s going to take time, effort, and pain to get to a place where maybe I am okay.

Right now, I’m constantly struggling with the Empty Place.

(In memory of Marc Curlee, one of my oldest and closest friends.)

(Supported by my Pateon)

More Models for my Hobby-Only ’49 Setting

I have been working on a “White Tsar” diesel pulp armored vehicle for nearly 5 years now. It’s a major kitbash, using some pretty advanced models beyond my actual skill level, and it’s stalled out more than once.

But our new housemate (a friend of decades) is an avid modeler, and wanted to help. The fact each wheel has more than 100 individual parts (I love pedrails, but they were not simple tech) phased him not a bit. And thus, this monstrosity has finally finished the construction stage, so I can show it off prior to beginning painting.

Comparing it to the original Tsar tank:

More than 20 feet tall? Check.
Triwheel design? Check
Giant weapon sponsons and a turret? Check

Here’s a quick recap of its fictional origin.

“In the ’49 setting, the Crimea remains under the control of the White Russians, loyalists to the Russian monarchy despite losing most of their territory to the Soviet Union. The White Russians are commanded by Anastasia the Great, also known as the “Black Duchess,” the last surviving child of Czar Nicholas II. Anastacia is a military genius with a reputation for ambushes and nasty surprises, a lifetime of conflict, and a cabal of loyal psychic stranniks with mysterious ties to the legendary Rasputin.

One of the things that has allowed the Black Duchess is hold on to ‘Czarist Crimea’ as the last gasp of the Russian Empire is that rather than build walkers (which her tiny empire simply lacks the resources to design or maintain), she depends primarily on the mighty White Tsar rolling heavy armor units. Faster and cheaper than walkers and more reliable than the legendarily finicky tracked vehicles, the White Tsar remains the only wheeled heavy armor unit in the war. Though the original Tsar wheeled armor unit was too heavy to move, by using what Martian-derived technology is available to her on a revised wheeled design for a huge mobile cannon platform, the Black Duchess has created a mobile heavy armor unit that performs very well, and which traditional anti-walker tactics don’t work well against.”

Now, I can turn my attention to the Black Duchess’s primary Romanian Fascist foes.

Pics with Eight-Ball, one of Rosie’s Rebels, for scale.

PATREON
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Worldbuilding with Proverbs

Whether it is because you need something for a character who is presented as wise to say (or to have written, so their wise book can be quoted), or want to represent common values in a fictional culture by showing what they hold as common advice, it can be useful to consider proverbs as an important part of worldbuilding.

Even homilies that are conceptually the same can carry some cool worldbuilding information. You might start with “Don’t complain about the crust on the bread that holds starvation at bay,” and decide it’s too negatively focused, or too plebian. “Vinegar slakes thirst as well as wine, but is much less commonly sipped” has a very similar core idea, but carries a very different nuance.

You can also add callbacks for proverbs. “A dull sword hurts more than a sharp word” is a perfectly reasonable proverb. But if one culture stops there, and a different one adds “But sharp words are more easily whispered behind your back,” it shows both that the two cultures have impact on one another, and that they have different core concerns.

You can go so far as to have proverbs that are clearly driven by political or religious control, rather than folk wisdom. The novel 1984 is a masterclass on this, and I can’t provide better examples than “Ignorance is Strength” and “Slavery is Freedom,” so I’ll just note adding a little George Orwell to your reading list can go a long way.

Of course, putting this theory into practice can also since you down a rabbit-hole of creating entire books of pithy things your different fictional cutlures say and talk about… none of which may ever come up in games you run or scenes you right. I find that kind of thing fun and useful as mental background, but not everyone has the time or inclination. Since many ttRPG-focused worldbuilders are just looking for some fun things to drop in their campaigns, rather than essays on theoretical ways they could spend more time thinking about things to spend time thinking about things, here’s a short list of proverbs you can add to your home game worldbuilding, or use as jumping-off points for creating your own.

“Cursing your wakefulness does not help you sleep.”

“That a tragedy could have been worse does not make it less a tragedy.”

“A novice who will defend you is of greater value than a master who won’t.”

“The fly does not care how complex the web is.”

“Starting a fight is bad, but tolerating an injustice is worse.”

“You need not be the one to build a bad bridge for its collapse to harm you.”

“It is fair to suspect your motives when you tell only one kind of truth, even without accusing you of falsehood.”

“Do not assume those who are paid to smile enjoy your company simply because they do as they are paid to.”

“To complain a cat’s meow is too loud, when the cock’s crow and dog’s bark go without comment, is to show your complaint is with cats, not noises.”

“Increasing the volume of your voice does not increase the wisdom of your words. But it may convey information about your anger.”

“Those blessed with lives that require no labor can most easily be dismissive of the value of work. But their figs still do not pick themselves.”

“We should not call them wise words because they come from someone accounted wise. We should account someone as wise if we find they have offered words with wisdom.”

“Platitudes cannot staunch bleeding, nor return what has been stolen.”

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Mental Health and Suicide Hotlines

I am not currently suicidal. Not even close. I open with that, so people won’t worry about me.

I have been suicidal, even within the past year. I was able to get help, and my support network assisted me. Mental health issues need to be destigmatized, which is why I am often so public about mine.

If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based network that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255.

It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

RPG Table Talk: Session 0

It’s fairly common for people in discussions of tabletop RPGs to mention the idea of “Session 0,” but not a lot has been written about what Session 0 is, what you do during it, or why it’s potentially useful. Since I think a good Session 0 is a huge help in creating a lasting and fun campaign, I thought it was worth a brief article.

For those not familiar with the term, in general “Session 0,” refers to getting the players and GM of a new ttRPG campaign together before the actual gameplay starts, to go over expectations and do some pre-planning. Generally this is something done for a group that are planning on playing a game over a multiple sessions, rather than for one-shot games at conventions, demos, or organized play events. Most people assume Session 0 occurs after a group has decided what game they are going to be playing, who is the GM, what their schedule of play is going to be, and similar other broad topics that need to come before “What characters are we each gong to play” and “Do we have a rule for determining if a die is cocked and needs to be re-rolled?” That’s not to say there can’t be value in gathering as a group to decide what game is going to happen and who is running it, but that kind of “MetaSession” is outside the normal Session 0 process (though it may be worth it’s own article sometime soon).

From my perspective, there are three related but separate kinds of topics that should be covered in a good Session 0. The first is any introductory information the GM can offer players so they know what genre and tone the campaign is going to take. Does the campaign have a theme? Is it urban and gritty, or inspired by fluffy folktales, or a massive mega-dungeon? Is it a single short adventure, a homebrewed sandbox, or a published campaign designed to take two years to play? Is there content the GM wants to warn players might be included? Are there things the players want to warn the GM they don’t want to interact with? In fact, on content and behavior, the entire group can discuss any RPG safety tools, group standards, or safe words being used.

The GM can also go over house rules. My personal preference is for a written record of house rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. And yes, sometimes a GM discovers issues on the fly, that’s part of being a GM. But I have also been in games where the GM revealed a house rule about something major that they’ve used for years, but only in the 3rd session, when it turns out to impact the primary ability of my character. Any social expectations can be discussed as well–if a GM has issues with players using laptops or smart phones as character management, or wants clear signals if a player is speaking out-of-character, this is a good time to talk about those. Even things like what to do if a player can’t make it can be hashed out in advance.

Finally, players can also discuss and workshop character concepts that will mesh well with each other, and with the campaign. Does the group want to make sure it has one mage, one warrior, and one rogue? Is this a good game to play that idea that everyone’s characters are teenagers that got on the Pirate World log flume ride, and ended up in the Pirate City of Freeport? Do any players want to have characters that know each other in advance? Are there roles the adventure is assuming someone will fill, and if so are there players interested in filling those roles? Does someone want to play a morally questionable character, and if so, is everyone enthusiastically on board with that idea?

I also personally like to establish at Session 0 that everyone agrees that all players and GM are all agreeing to try to build a game environment and tone that everyone will enjoy. I know that seems obvious, but I have had people refuse to make such and agreement, and once at a seminar had a participant declare that they always insisted on playing evil clowns (regardless of the game’s genre or rules) that never took anything seriously and actively insulted other characters, and they knew they were “doing it right” if they could get other players to quit, cry, or both.

And making sure THAT isn’t anyone’s idea of doing it right is worth taking one evening of communication before you start playing.

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Why Isn’t GAME COMPANY doing THE THING?

Gamers often wonder why a specific game company (hereafter GAME COMPANY) isn’t engaged in some specific act of licensing, marketing, broadcasting, podcasting, customer engagement, convention support, or new game production (hereafter THE THING).

And while I can’t give specific details on why GAME COMPANY isn’t doing THE THING even when I know them, there are a few generic answers that come up so often, I thought it would be useful to have this response ready to point to whenever I need it.

There are numerous possible reasons why GAME COMPANY is not doing THE THING.

First, it may be a terrible idea.

GAME COMPANY has information you do not. This includes details such as (but not limited to) historic sales of various form factors and product lines, cost to manufacture vs sell-through rates, marketing costs, debt load, budget projections, contractual obligations, warehousing cost, warehousing availability, shipping costs, unpaid obligations, work capacity, unannounced projects, scheduling, and whether or not there is anyone at GAME COMPANY who has any interest in working on the THE THING, given that if its employees get too unhappy, they leave.

Even if they decide to do THE THING, it takes time. Legal agreements must be forged. Asset packages have to be put together. Clear rules on what is and isn’t allowed must be decided on internally, written up, and reviewed. Schedules have to be designed. Outlines have to be created. Budgets need to be projected. Brainstorms need to roll in for the best way to do THE THING without burning out the entire staff or making the same mistakes that 1/4 of the staff know NOW BANKRUPT COMPANY made when they tried THE THING in the 1990s.

All of that that takes work from managers, legal departments, and marketing people. Work that comes in on top of their normal load needed to keep making books and put them out at the highest level of quality and profitability. If you try to do THE THING, and while working on it fail to keep the normal flow of products going to pay the bills, THE THING won’t do you much good even if it is a success.

Often it seems like planning for THE THING should doable in a couple of days, maybe a week or two. But when GAME COMPANY’s staff is already generally already working 45-60 hour weeks to keep food on the table (on top of any freelance work or side gigs they have to make up for the generally low recompense within the industry), and any extra planning/meeting/organizing/budgeting/outlining can only be tackled when there’s a work lull, or people have extra energy, it can stretch out to months or literally years.

GAME COMPANY might love to do THE THING. As the very smart Mike Selinker pointed out in a response to this post, they may even be WORKING on THE THING, and just not want to announce it yet.

But even if they are fast, efficient, brilliant, and focused, they may lack the time, resources, or energy to do THE THING quickly.

#RealGameIndustry

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