See What Sticks

I praise the Flag Framing approach to GM prep from Deeper in the Game every chance I get. It works! Some of the best game sessions I’ve been part of have owed their oomph to those techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to pull it off. Sometimes the game doesn’t provide good flags and I’m short on time to do detective work. Sometimes the players’ interests are more scenery-chewing things they want to gawk at in the setting than flags I can challenge them on. Sometimes I look at legit flags and draw a complete blank on how I can stress or foreground them.

In these situations, it helps to have a fallback strategy. Something that’s maybe not the ideal solution, but which can fill in the gaps if you’re failing too hard that day to be optimal.

My fallback lately: throw it out there, see what sticks. Instead of prepping NPCs designed to push players’ and player characters’ buttons, have a grab bag of characters and situations that you draw from when you need a fresh scene–and discard if they prove not to catch players’ attention. All the advice about maintaining energy and pacing from “Flag Framing” applies. We simply replace the up-front flag querying and planning part with a process of experimentation.

You start a scene. You introduce a character from your list. She’s got eyes of night and falling stars, and she’s talking about turning people into clockwork mecha! Weird! Are the players intrigued? Reveal a plot seed you’ve got. The deviant scientist trying to reanimate the dead? Starry Night’s heard a rumor about it and is planning to investigate! Is it something the players feel like getting into? If not, move on to something new!

The players will ignore some things. They’ll find some NPCs annoying or uninteresting. Never bring those up again! But far more often, they will find certain NPCs fascinating, or cook up some theory about the way NPC A relates to plot hook or rumor B. Riff on those! Jot little notes about what made your players’ eyes light up, and use those notes as the basis for your second session. As you go, you’ll start spending more time reincorporating than spitballing, playing your NPCs just like advised in Flag Framing. It’s whenever you’ve got a void of energy or inspiration that you look to your bag of hooks.

This approach works particularly well with games that

  • feature lots of unique off-the-shelf NPCs and story seeds; and
  • don’t require meticulous balancing of challenge levels or encounters.

I’m currently doing this with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. I could see using it with the third edition of Exalted. Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons would work, if you’ve got one of the better setting books from any edition (Planescape?) involved. Dungeon World… you might want something like The Perilous Wilds to help you generate on-the-fly hazards, but the random NPC tables are often intriguing enough to use in this style until you can build a proper Front.

Note that I’m not even considering the old illusions-and-railroads method of plotting stories out, trailing breadcrumbs for the PCs to follow, and yanking them along if they don’t catch on. That just sucks. Never go there.

Is this something you do? Do you have a way to make a Flag Framing approach work even when the material at hand isn’t clicking for it? Let me have it in the comments!

The User’s Guide

While browsing about for Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine resources, I happened upon A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse, a fan supplement of uncommon size and depth.

It is extraordinary.

I haven’t finished reading the thing, but even from partial experience, the layers of meaning in the project boggle the mind. User’s Guide* can, to scratch the surface, be read as:

  • A playable alternative campaign setting for Chuubo’s
  • A reflection on life and relationships while dealing with abuse or the lingering trauma thereof
  • A love letter to/eulogy for a now unraveled online community
  • A codex of or guide to Replay Value, a Homestuck alternate universe
  • Speculative fiction of the cautionary tale variety, exploring the potentially disastrous nexus of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gamification
  • An existentialist parable, grappling with the search for meaning in a universe where, given sufficient time, all things are futile
  • A deconstruction of video game tropes, particularly those belonging to the MMORPG genre
  • An examination of digital addictions to games and discussion fora
  • A sociological commentary on the communities that come and go across the Internet

The author herself lays out the first few I listed; the rest unfold in emergent fashion from the work. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I still had a foot in the educational sphere, to teach this text or write a thesis on it!

Prior to discovering User’s Guide, I hadn’t quite understood alternate universe fandoms, or AUs. The idea of an alternate universe for a fictional setting was straightforward enough, but e.g. Undertale with its Underfell, Reapertale, Flowertale, etc., etc., each with their own fan art and other assorted media, mystified me. User’s Guide, though, made it click. When a fandom grows large enough, like-minded individuals within it gather into sub-fandoms, and one way such a group can coalesce is around a particular AU. The AU itself—whether via the ongoing efforts of a central author, or the roleplay and works of its fandom, or both—takes on a life of its own. It brings back a sense of belonging to those longtime fans of the parent work who feel crowded out by its becoming too popular or mainstream. And it revitalizes fannish activity when the depths of the parent canon might otherwise seem tapped out.

Now I’m in the curious position of becoming a fan of a specific AU’s commemorative project, without any familiarity in the parent work. I know Chuubo’s, of course, but I’ve never made it further than a couple of pages into Homestuck. I’ll take a look again, but it may be that’s how it stays! If that’s how it goes, all the more credit to User’s Guide author Elaine “OJ” Wang for managing to so mesmerize someone who doesn’t even get Homestuck.

* The author tends to refer to the work as “RV Chuubo’s,” but I find that a bit cumbersome for casual use. Not least because it suggests a Chuubo’s campaign involving road trips with really bad gas mileage.

Tactical Fatalism

(Content notes: This post will cover some bleak stuff. Donald Trump, political apathy, plausible apocalyptic scenarios, existential dread, religious belief or the lack thereof, etc. It’s also got an Undertale spoiler. If that’s likely to bum you out beyond your spare cope, might best pass this on by.)

This strange and dramatic election season, combined with my spending a bit more time on social media sites than usual, has prompted me to think hard about my voting decisions. In particular, conversations with a friend of mine, who’s a diehard Bernie Sanders fan of the “Never Hillary” persuasion, have made me ponder justifications for choices that had previously been reflexive.

Back in my days of unflinching Catholicism, I obediently followed the Church’s voting recommendations: vote for whoever would protect the rights of the unborn. A single-issue voter, you’d call it. At first, I took this to mean supporting the head-of-the-pack Republican of the moment. Later, grappling with the fact that Republicans had a love of unjust war, I went with a third-party protest vote like “Average Joe” Schriner. Even then, I knew that such a vote would not put the tiny underdog in the White House–but it felt good to cast a vote whose target compromised as few of my values as possible.

Today, not only have I discarded the narrow “pro-life” agenda, but I’ve come to accept the inevitability, and to some extent value, of tactical voting. I’ve made my peace with choosing the lesser of evils, in other words. I would have loved to see Bernie Sanders attain the Presidency, but given how clear it is that’s not going to happen, I am quite content to support Hillary Clinton instead.

You fool! cry the Sandernauts; By capitulating, you shore up a corrupt and unjust system! If we consent to support a candidate who is merely less horrible than the alternative, we will never see a truly great candidate succeed. And if we are to right the course of the United States and the world, we need a truly great President! Turn back, and cast your vote for the best choice, even if you know it will fail–it will pave the way for the future!

Well. Here’s where it gets bleak.

I’m convinced we don’t even have time to play the long game.

Humanity has always been on a clock. All things are finite. It was only ever a question of how long we had, and what our doom would look like once it materialized. Over the last few centuries, we have chosen our apocalypse, and like Robert Frost, we have held with those who favor fire. Or, at least, slow cooking. I mean, of course, global warming.

There is too much momentum to the problem of greenhouse-gas-driven worldwide temperature increase for us to stop it. For that we would have needed to change course, dramatically, long before I was born. We can perhaps hope to slow the process unto the second or third derivative*, but no more. I may not believe in the worst-case projections that posit the collapse of human civilization within fifteen years; but I would be not at all surprised if at least some members of my generation live to see it happen.

Even if we elected the grandest unicorn ever to grace the political stage; even if, evidence to the contrary aside, that unicorn is Bernie Sanders; the magic horn would not erase countless billions of tons of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. We are fucked no matter whom we put in charge of the United States executive branch.

I do admire the optimists. There is something beautiful about Papyrus, having refused to raise a hand against a genocidal player, saying with his dying words that he still believes in them. It’s one reason I still hold out hope that religious truth might exist, despite lacking the conviction to call myself a believer: I want to think we all have a second chance. For all that it’s hopeless, I support efforts to buy a little more time for Earth via green power, emissions reduction, etc. etc. Confronted with the dying of the light, I am pro-rage.

But for now, I cannot stomach choosing a path of short-term harm for long-term idealism, because I don’t think there’s much “long term” left for it to take fruition in. We may have only a few decades; I want my friends to be able to live with a little less hate, a little more freedom, a little more happiness in that period. I thus cannot cast my one vote, my infinitesimal scrap of democratic power, in such a way that would empower the likes of Donald Trump. Maybe Clinton won’t do as much as Sanders would to slow our inexorable descent into apocalypse, but that’s OK. She will, at least, not plunge us into an immediate maelstrom of xenophobic hatred, and that’s good enough for my conscience.

* That is to say, we can’t stop the world from getting hotter; but we may be able to help it get hotter slower or, failing that, reduce the acceleration of its getting hotter. I credit my older brother, a math professor, for my even having retained this concept from high school calculus.