Introduction: The Tao of Jim
If you’re readying this, there’s a good chance you already know more about how Plan Z worked out than I do now while writing it. I don’t know if it’s more likely that you’re a bored schoolkid reading a dog-earned third edition of a book made from my writing, or another survivor holding a blood-stained copy you pulled out from under my corpse while wondering what hubris lead to my demise, but either way you’re seeing the end result of our efforts, and I’m still uncomfortably near what still feels like the beginning.
But either way, you’re likely wondering how this manuscript, and the place I’m writing it in, came about. And that means you need to understand Plan Z. To understand how Plan Z came about, you have to understand our friend Jim. Which, I mean… it’s not like any of us really understand Jim…
Okay, let me try to explain.
So, first, Jim doesn’t process information like anyone else I know. He has a deep, subconscious need to connect any information he has to a potential explanation for it. It doesn’t matter if that explanation is silly, iffy, or obviously wrong–he has to have some rationale to link to anything he sees, hears, thinks of, or watches. If he can’t, if he runs into anything that doesn’t make sense to him, it eats him up inside until he finds a way to attach a rationale, any rationale, to the unexplained.
If a movie has a huge plot hole, Jim is bothered by it until he (or often someone else) can provide reasoning–no matter how far-fetched–on how it could have happened. If he hears about an unsolved mystery, he has to study and research it until he has a potential solution figured out. If someone does something stupid, he has to theorize about it until he can come up with a theoretical example of what the hell they were thinking that made them do it. It doesn’t matter if he’s learning about a crime of passion, a b-movie full of plot holes, or archeological artifacts found with no context. If he comes across something that doesn’t have a clear, well-laid-out history of how and why it happened, he needs to make one up for himself.
To be clear, Jim knows this isn’t rational, but it’s just part of who he is. It’s actually one reason he got into the University of West Colorado’s Tabletop Game League, where we all met him. Games make sense to Jim — you do things because there were rules, and if a rule is unclear or contradictory everyone agrees it has to be fixed. When he joined the League was mostly focused on wargames and roleplaying games (especially Atomic Age, Glaive 4000AD, NapoleonPunk, and Wyverns & Woodlands), and Jim prefers trading card games and boardgames (due to cleaner and tighter rules I suspect), but he played whatever was most popular… even if he didn’t enjoy it.
By the way, if I’m making Jim sound stupid, I have done him a disservice. Jim is among the smartest people I have ever met. He never forgets a fact, sees how things are interconnected and impact one another, can plan, iterate, theorize, and design at levels few can match. His mind tends more towards concrete systems — math, engineering, things where he can be sure that event x inevitably leads to result y — but in that arena he’s a genius.
Which, sadly, sometimes caused him problems.
Often, Jim will mentally envision complex patterns of events he blames for apparently random events. Someone didn’t just get hit by a car and killed because life sucks. No, if someone was hit by a car, then they weren’t wearing reflective enough clothing. Or they had to walk because they didn’t have a bike. Or the reason the driver didn’t see them was that the car didn’t have tinted directional fog lights. To stay sane, Jim has to blame everything bad on some failure to plan or prepare.
As a result, Jim has spent his entire life building up a mental list of things he needs to be ready for. Whether those things are likely enough that it’s rational to be prepared for them isn’t what matters to Jim. Instead, he preps for whatever he’s spent time agonizing to make sense of, and what steps he can take to prevent a similar “nonoptimal outcome.” Even when I first met him, Jim’s truck was practically a roving emergency shelter and mini-pharmacy for like, 12 people. Jim didn’t just want to keep himself safe from his long list of potential disasters, he needed to be able to protect his friends as well.
And that brings us to point two about him.
Jim is desperate for a close social circle, and doesn’t trust his own personality, choices, or preferences to build it for him. A gaming club was perfect for him, because we’d invite anyone who wanted to play to game days, and if he showed up he was part of the group. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took us to realize Jim was willing to be unhappy in order to be included, but in our defense we were young, stupid, and often drunk. But as long as we didn’t actively tell Jim to go away, he was always happy to hang out. And, as a core group of us became fast friends, we befriended Jim–at least as best we could. Some of us left college to begin careers while Jim got a Master’s Degree… and a second Master’s Degree, and started on a third Master’s Degree. But most of the Monday Night Heroes stayed close enough to campus that we could get together for Monday Game Night most weeks.
And as we dated, married, had fights and falling outs and make-ups and parties, Jim was just always there. For the Monday Nighter’s, Jim became part of the background of our lives. He was invited to celebrations, movie nights, road trips, and he never said no. I suspect Jim was actually really lonely, since we weren’t smart enough to ever think about what he wanted to do. He invited us to do a few things that interested him: camping, hunting, canning, quilting, pressing flowers, Historical Martial Arts practice… but we almost never accepted. And, for whatever reason, he didn’t click with the communities that were interested in those things. So if we did anything, or needed anything, or wanted anything, Jim was there. In short, Jim was a good friend.
The rest of us, maybe not so much.
Finally, and this is crucial to how things panned out, while none of us realized it, Jim was rich. I’m not surprised we had no idea, since he wore the same clothes until they fell apart, drove a 30-year old suv, ate store-brand canned food, lived in a 450-square-foot apartment that was once a garage, and had no interest in expensive things. But his family had owned multiple ranches, and he’d inherited them all. Some had oil wells paying him royalties. Many were leased to other ranchers, or loggers, and one had ended up having a suburb develop around it, so Jim had houses built and rented out an entire small neighborhood. He had a personal banker, a personal lawyer… and I guess we all knew that, but we just chalked it up to his family having lots of professional friends.
But, no. Jim had money. Lots of money.
In a way, I’m glad no one seemed to realize that. I’m not convinced I could have kept myself from taking advantage of Jim wanting friends and being rich, and he doesn’t deserve to be treated that way. I’m only alive today because Jim decided I was a friend, and to be honest I haven’t really done anything to deserve that. But without Jim’s psychological quirks, interest in nerdy things, membership in our social circles, genius intellect, and surprisingly deep pockets, Plan Z never would have happened. And even with all that, it only happened because of a power outage.
It’s true. This all started on a cold, dark night. I’ll explain.
While Monday nights were always for gaming, we often had what we called the “Cheese and Cheese Gathering” on Saturdays. The event was specifically designed to watch a cheesy scifi or fantasy movie, and eat a cheese-based dinner and snacks. Yes, it’s stupid, but we had fun, and Jim loved it. He knew what to expect. He could bring anything with cheese flavor, and it was welcomed as appropriate to the event. Sliced cheese? Sure, gimme a slice. Cheeseburgers from the McClown drivethru? Classic. Novelty cheddar soda? What the heck, we need something to get us through watching Cyborg Cannibal Clowns 3 – the Clownening, pop me open a can.
The night Plan Z was born, we were watching Dusk of the Living Dead and enjoying pizza-topping-nachos and cheddar-crusted chicken nuggets, when the power went out. There was a snowstorm, which honestly was worse than we’d been prepared for, and when everything went dark in the whole neighborhood all at once, we realized no one was going home that night. We had enough candles, and Jim had 4 camping lanterns, a backup generator, weather radio, sleeping bags, and MREs in his truck, so we weren’t worried. But, as we set up a faux-camp in Dana and Dale’s living room and sat up through the night, we got bored.
I wouldn’t have remembered exactly who was there that night, but Jim wrote it down on page 1 of what became the Plan Z Survival Guide. There was Jim, me (I’m Casey), Dana and Dale (it was at their house), Jayden, Liam, Mia, and Sanjay. That was pretty much a full house in those days–Jordan had stopped coming around after Mia quite-rightly slapped him, Nevaeh hadn’t really joined the clique yet, and Roger never came to Cheese and Cheese because he and Dale never got along. So we managed to entertain ourselves for a bit by talking about what we’d each done that week, arguing about politics, religion, and pizza styles, and telling bad jokes. But, eventually, conversation lulled.
Then, Jim asked us why the characters in Dusk of the Living Dead had decided to take shelter in a Giganto-Mart when everyone started turning into zombies. While it had lots of useful stuff, he pointed out that it would be a target for any survivalist groups still around, the front of it was all breakable glass windows, and (as the movie was showing when the power cut out), once zombies got inside, there’d be no good way to keep them from roaming over the whole store.
And so, for lack of any better topic, we began figuring out the best plan for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.
It was a surprisingly Socratic event. Someone would postulate something, like claiming the best place to hole up would be in a cabin in the mountains, and the rest of us would ask questions to test that claim. Were the woods really the best place? Was a cabin the best option? What about an old-style prison, with stone walls and guard towers? But would the prisoners be a high risk factor? Well, not if it was a decommissioned prison. Would such a place be in good repair? It could be, if it was bought in advance and maintained and updated for survival. What kind of updates and supplies? Well, food, weapons, survival gear, maps, a library of how-to books, at least. Farm equipment? Maybe, how many people are going to shelter here? Well, 7-8 is supposed to be the ideal size for survivalist groups. What about repopulation? Okay, you’d need a bigger group for that, but if you start with 7-8 and they form the leadership of a community made up of survivors who find them…
We spent all night doing it, Our smartphones still had reception, so we could look up facts, locations, pricing, storage, shelf life of foods, the most common ammo type in the state, what crops would be best, what skills you’d want people to have, and how would you arrange in advance for people with those skills to join you? Of course we didn’t think there was any chance there’d be a zombie apocalypse, and we certainly couldn’t have predicted what actually killed the world. We were just goofing around.
Jim was taking notes.
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When an influencer has more than 150% more reach than anyone involved in a fandom (even its creator/publisher), badmouthing everything related to that fandom can end up being punching down.
Sure, if the fandom as a whole is toxic, or the IP fascist, that’s one thing.
But if the fandom is genuinely related to things you have identified as part of your interests (such as any ttRPG, if you declare yourself to be a ttRPG writer), and its fans enthusiastically promote it to you, that doesn’t rise to the level of toxic or abusive.
Of course part of the problem is, the minimum percentage of jerks in any group rarely changes, and social media algorithms are literally trained to seek things you’ll engage with. That means if something is worded to annoy you, since most people are more likely to engage with things that annoy or anger them, that version is most likely to be shown to you.
If the minimum percentage of jerks in a group is 5%, and you have a reach that gets you 10 replies from that group, half the time none of them are from jerks. If your reach means you’ll get 100 replies, 5 of them are from jerks. If your reach means you’ll get 1,000 replies, not only are 50 of them from jerks, but there’s a decent change you’ll be exposed to a higher percentage of them by AIs designed to get you to reply… even if that reply is angry annoyance.
And even you ask people on social media not to reply like that? Absolutely no guarantee anyone replying to your posts the next day saw that request.
If you have a lot of reach online, and are dealing with fandoms and groups and opinions, remember Sturgeon’s Revelation when judging them. “90% of everything is crap.”
Yes, by all means protect yourself and your mental well being. And if that means finding a way to use online tools to block certain phrases, by all means do that. Need to block some folks who leap into your mentions too often. heck yes. But the bigger you are, the more careful you should be venting your annoyance in a way that makes an entire fandom look bad to your followers, because the bigger you are the more harm you can do to a whole group by lashing out and decrying them as an entirety. Make sure they deserve that before doing so, especially if you reach is bigger than any of them, or even all of them.
If you enjoy any of my various thoughts, ideas, and posts, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!, or dropping a cup of coffee worth of support at my Ko-Fi (which is also filled with pics of my roommate’s cat).
Before we get to any OGL content, an editorial aside:
You may be wondering why is this tagged as an “Owen Explains It All” post, when that’s very unlike my normal marketing tone? Well, because this links into a show from the BAMF podcast I’m on, titled “Owen Explains It All!“. We do episodes picking new or classic things from the zeitgeek to use as inspiration for game material, specifically the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. This article ties in to the “Owen Explains It All: Independence Day” episode.
The show has a logo and everything!
The main game-rule idea we discuss in the show is that sometimes, for plot purposes, you want to be able to catch PCs in an area of mass destruction (be that a hurricane, carpet bombing, or alien citykiller beam), which places them as risk but can’t kill them. This is splitting the difference between an entirely game-driven event (where standing around as a city is destroyed can definitely do enough in-game damage to kill someone) and an entirely-narrative even in a game (where the GM just tells the players what happens to set up an important situation necessary for the game).
This allows a GM to ensure the PCs end up in the situation needed for the game to move on, and places them at some risk (which their actions and abilities can mitigate), with no chance they’ll be killed.
Plot-Driven, City-Destroying Fireworks
The skies darken as the K’ruel City Killer materializes high above the city center. There’s a moment of silence as the population takes in the sight of the massive starship, it’s hull covered in runic circuitry glowing a sickly yellow. Then, as its dematerializer pylon begins to power up with a thundercrack, the sounds of screaming and panic begin…
So, the PCs have been caught in a massive, plot-driven even that’s going to destroy everything around them. That’s bad, but as the GM you have assured them that they’ll survive… but their actions, characters’ resilience, and the luck of the dice are going to determine in what condition they survive. They’ll be at 0 Stamina regardless (it’s a massive city-destroying effect after all — of their starship exploded, building collapsed on them, interdimensional oozes swept away all corporeal matter into a interdimensional vortex — whatever massive event your plot needs). But their Hit Points and Resolve Points are still up for grabs, and they may be able to do something about those.
This even isn’t supposed to be a gotcha moment — the GM should tell the players what is happening, and how it’ll work. That lets them set their expectations appropriately, and make informed decisions as part of the event, which is an important part of a fun game.
Once you tell the players how this will work, each character gets two rounds of actions before The Event hits them. They can try to get defenses ready, aid one another, take cover–whatever makes sense to them to help their characters come out of this in the best possible condition.
Since there aren’t any game statistics for “Plot-Driven, City-Destroying Fireworks,” you’ll need to have a baseline to make sure your Event is an appropriate challenge for the PCs. So, go to the creature creation rules in Starfinder Alien Archive, and look at a combatant with a CR equal to the character’s average character level. When we discuss the Event having an attack bonus, or skill bonus, we’ll be talking about the values from that line of the combatant character creation table.
After the PCs have all has 2 rounds of actions, the Event hits. It comes in 3 waves, but there’s no time to take actions (other than reactions) between the first two. The PCs are going to be subject to an attack roll in part 1, a saving throw in part 2, and then a skill check in part 3. Here’s how it breaks down.
Part 1: Initial Damage
Make a single attack roll using the Event’s highest attack bonus against every PC’s EAC. If the attack hits, the PC takes 4 HP per level of the Event. If the attack missed by 5 or less, the PC takes 2 HP per level of the Event. If the attack misses by 6 or more, the PC takes no HP damage.
Part 2: Saving Throw
Each PC must attempt a Reflex saving throw against the Event’s ability DC. On a failed save, the character loses half their Resolve Points. If the save is failed by 5 or more, the Resolve Points only return at the rate of 1 per full day of rest.
Part 3: Skill Test
Having survived the first two initial waves of damage, the players then get to take a single action to try to avoid the aftershock of flying debris, collapsing buildings, secondary fireballs, and so on. Each player must describe how they use a skill to protect themselves. Appropriate choices include an Acrobatics check to dive into a narrow crevice for cover, an Athletics check to jump into a trench of other safer location, a Computers check to use a datapad to calculate a gap in the oncoming wave of destruction, a Culture check to know where an entrance to a bomb shelter is, an Engineering check to know what walls or vehicles are going to survive the damage and be a good option to get behind, a Mysticism check to use a spell to mitigate the effect, or a Survival check to take steps to mitigate the damage as if it was a natural disaster and damaging weather. The GM has the final say on whether a suggested skill use is appropriate, but the rule of cool should definitely be considered in these cases.
The skill DC is equal to the Event’s Good skill bonus +10. If the PC succeeds by 10 or more, they not only take no damage, they can aid a number of other targets equal to their level + Charisma modifier. This allows them to save an NPC (who will be at 0 SP, 0 HP, and 0 RP), or grant a +5 bonus to an allies’ skill test check. If the PC succeeds by 9 or less, they simply survive with no further effects. If they fail by 5 or less, they lose 1/2 their Resolve Points. If they fail by 6 or more, they lose 1/2 their resolve Points, and those points only return at a rate of 1 per day of rest.
Unless the PCs are *very* good, and very lucky, after the Event they will be at a serious disadvantage in any combat or resource-intensive encounters (possibly for several days). As the GM you should be ready for this, and may want to focus on things like rescuing other survivors, gathering information, sneaking around, and finding a secure new base or operations before throwing a lot of fights at the characters.
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