The Glorious Past, Depressing Present, And Questionable Future of Systems Malfunction

This blog post is not going to be all that up-beat. It might make a few people sad but I definitely am not trying to make anyone angry. What I do want to do is give the handful of people who have been invested in Systems Malfunction for years–and anyone who might be reading this who might not even be familiar with Systems Malfunction–a succinct explanation of its current status, exactly how we got there, and what we might be able to do about it. And for that to work I need to speak candidly.

If you have any interest in Live Action Roleplaying, and in what it actually takes to run a LARP for a decade, you should definitely read this. Even though it is long. But with that said…I should say up front that this is not a comprehensive history of the Systems Malfunction LARP. Not even remotely close. That would take hundreds of thousands more words to write out. I also say, this is not remotely a “ra ra” advertising or promo for why Systems is awesome (TV Tropes Link). Systems is awesome. But this blog post is not about why Systems is awesome. It is about why Systems is dying…and about me wracking my brains for any conceivable way to save it.

Introduction

To begin with the most basic facts, Systems Malfunction is a costume-optional science fiction boffer-combat Live Action Roleplaying Game (LARP). Being an unapologetically science-fiction focused LARP that also has a strong focus on boffer-combat already makes Systems Malfunction so unique in the world of LARP that it is basically a unicorn (I can’t think of five more ongoing sci-fi Boffer LARPs off of the top of my head, and I can’t think of even three more that run in the US). Add in the wildly experimental ideas of costumes being optional, rather than mandatory, and we’re talking a cyborg wizard unicorn level of uniqueness. For even more reasons that I will get to a little bit later, Systems Malfunction really is nothing like (the vast majority of) other LARPs: the differences outnumber the similarities, to the point that Systems Malfunction is almost completely one of a kind.

I am having a very difficult time not coming to the conclusion that everything unique about Systems Malfunction has helped lead to its ultimate lack of success from a marketing perspective. And that is a very sad conclusion to make.

I started running the first “season” and first edition of Systems Malfunction ten years ago, in 2005. (The game is now on its Fifth Edition, but because the first three editions of the rules iterated and evolved so quickly, over just three years, it might be more appropriate to think of the current edition as the game’s third real edition.) Since then, we have played Systems Malfunction during both scholastic semesters of 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, and during the Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014. In 2012 we got a late start because I had to undergo fairly major surgery in March of that year. Not since 2012 have we not at least made plans to play our first game of Systems Malfunction by this late in the calendar year. Never before in the game’s ten year history have I considered so seriously not running Systems Malfunction. As a matter of fact, to be perfectly honest, one of the only factors I can think of in favor of trying to run Systems Malfunction or ANY LARP this year is that the weather is getting nice and I need to get regular exercise, and I’d much rather run around the wilderness swinging a boffer sword than try to go to the gym.

The average live boffer combat LARP has weekend events during which about a hundred players attend a camp ground for a weekend. Some of those players pay to PC, while others can pay less (or nothing) and volunteer to NPC. Smaller, less popular LARPs might make do with half this number of players. Larger, more popular LARPs might have twice as many attend an event. LARPs in certain parts of Europe, where LARPing is almost like a national sport, can have five times this many players or more.

For about five years now, Systems Malfunction has struggled desperately, mightily, and ultimately failingly to maintain an average attendance of even ten players per game. The basic problem we’re up against is a fairly classic Catch-22 situation. Without a decent-sized player base with good attendance, it is not economical to rent a camp site. Without a camp site, it seems impossible to attract a decent-sized player base. But of course, the issue is more complicated than that–the better part of a decade is a long time to try, and fail, to build a following–and it might be good to start at the beginning.

Part I: The College Era (Fall 2005 – Spring 2008)

From Fall of 2005 through Spring of 2009, Systems Malfunction was a Campus LARP run almost exclusively at the campus of SUNY Purchase. From Fall of 2005 through Spring of 2008 I’d actually call Systems Malfunction a very successful campus LARP, albeit not at as wildly successful as the LARPs that came before it on the campus of SUNY Purchase. I’d heard tell that Tales of the Dreaming, by NERO showrunner Dan Comstock, where I got my very first taste of LARPing, once had sixty-person wave battles throughout the campus’s fields and academic buildings. Awesome even to imagine. But by the time I got to SUNY Purchase even as a freshman, the school had already begun its transformation from a haven for nerds, weirdos, and artsy types into more of a mainstream party school. Over the years I was in college, the stigma against LARPers and LARPing only grew and grew.

But in spite of that stigma and in spite of frequent harassment by the jack-booted thugs of the campus police, I count the SUNY Purchase phase of Systems Malfunction, while certainly not entirely without drama and disappointment, as a big success. With a weekly or bi-weekly attendance of anywhere from as little as half a dozen to as many as two dozen players per game, and averaging maybe a dozen players or so, we got a TON of LARPing done and we had a ton of fun doing so. In many ways, it is not an exaggeration to say that these were the best days of my life. It is absolutely accurate to say that it was the Golden Age of Systems Malfunction.

The major reasons for this success during the college phase, as far as I can identify them, are as follows:

1) The LARP was geographically centralized. Nearly all of the students, except a few exceptionally loyal “commuters”, lived on campus within walking distance of where the game was played. Getting to the game was a total non-issue. This enabled us to play twice a week, typically something like Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10PM after classes were over, fitting a HUGE amount of story and roleplaying into just one semester.

2) In spite of the protestations of Campus Police, several buildings on campus were open all night and as students we had every right to be there doing whatever we wanted, including LARPing. The campus grounds and buildings provided an awesome LARPing venue that we all had free and easy access to.

3) School work and classes, in general, were much easier to blow off for College Students than actual paying work would be for us all later in life, as broke-ass 20-something College Graduates in desperate need of money. So yes, we skipped the occasional class and ignored the occasional homework assignment and sometimes that was because we were out until 3AM or 4AM LARPing once or twice a week. I can’t speak for everyone, but I managed to graduate on time in spite of giving more of my time to Systems than anyone, and being less than a pefect student as a result.

4) Finally, the LARP had enormous “social gravity”. It reached a threshold were people were really sucked in, and enthusiasm for the next game and the next and the next became almost feverishly contagious. Everyone saw all of their friends at the LARP. So going to the LARP was what you did when you wanted to see your friends which of course you did. And because everyone who played the LARP were friends and saw each other around campus and were hanging out together all of the time, the LARP was virtually all they talked about, even when they weren’t LARPing.

In the late Spring of 2008–can it really be SEVEN YEARS AGO now?–I graduated from SUNY Purchase and naturally moved off campus. Because most of our players had not graduated yet, I tried to keep the LARP going, commuting nearly an hour at least once a week during the school year to sneak on campus and keep the game going. But this was not a system that could work, attendance problems and other drama quickly piled up, and by Spring of 2009, it was clear to me that Systems Malfunction as a SUNY Purchase based phenomenon could not continue. Which was a shame, because a lasting legacy on campus for the LARP was in many ways the only legacy I had wanted. I had never planned, starting out, for LARPing to be not just a collegiate phenomenon but a lifelong pastime. However, for my closest friends and I, our commitment to the LARP remained strong, and in August of 2009, Systems Malfunction moved into a new era and a new model, now in its Fourth Edition and undergoing not its first major transformation, nor its last.

Part II: Failed Recruitment Drive and The Croatoan Campaign (2009-2012)

At ICON 2008 I played my first ever “parlor style” or “theater style” LARP event, an alternate history L.A. noir offshoot of Gordon Dean’s stellar and impressive Threads of Damocles (now defunct, apparently, which is sad). You know the kind, driven not by external “plot hooks” but by intricately interconnected and conflicting PC goals, and resolved not by direct action but by dialogue, politicking, and scheming. In other words, a true *roleplaying* game where your character’s objectives were “won” or “lost” solely on the strength of your roleplaying. I was pretty enamored of the idea. Playing this kind of game made me realize something about my own three-years-in-the-running LARP.

The first three years of Systems Malfunction were really the very epitome of a “plot-driven” campaign. This meant that external NPC actors (often captivating and charismatic) and situations continuously forced the players to react by struggling to survive, making hard decisions, and taking sides, often against each other (carefully encouraged PvP gameplay has always been a strong component of Systems Malfunction, more on that later). This made for awesome gameplay, but it was insanely exhausting to the staff to continuously create and craft increasingly elaborate NPC-driven plot arcs and adventures. Also, it had resulted in players that were almost completely reactive, and I wanted players who were proactive.

What I wanted and misguidedly tried to implement was a campaign-style live combat boffer LARP that would operate essentially the same as a single “theater style” LARP event: PCs would have their starting goals, those alone would drive the story, and naturally and organically, conflict and drama would thus ensue. As I learned, it is incredibly difficult, and possibly outright impossible, to work with players to create PC goals that will a) drive inter-player conflict, action, scheming, and drama, b) be possible to advance every game session and c) not be possible to actually complete within a handful of game sessions or less.

The Fourth Edition of Systems Malfunction–the most cohesive and coherent edition of the game yet, albeit excessively complex mechanically for a LARP–first launched in Fall of 2008: I had graduated in the spring of the same year. I was still struggling to translate from “plot based” to “goal based” narrative techniques in 2009 when Systems finally made its leap away from the SUNY Purchase Campus, as the passing months and years lead to more and more players graduating and moving away, and lead me to feel more and more acutely my status as not a student, but an alumni randomly lurking and lingering on campus to stay close to LARPing. At this point, I had become influenced by “theater style” LARP and had done a bit of research on how “real” live-combat LARPs operated, out of campsites for weekend long events. My original instinct in 2009 was not entirely dissimilar from what we eventually wound up doing in 2013 with the launch of the game’s 5th Edition. I wanted to play at the public Croton Gorge Park, an impressive LARP venue to me, lying in the shadow of the imposing New Croton Dam. The in-game location to correspond to this venue–since the drama of the Systems Malfunction universe played out across many of the hundreds of planets and space stations in the galaxy–would be Castle Clinton, a Camp David like diplomatic resort on the capital planet of AA-001 “Avalon”. Because it was not possible to “rent” Croton Gorge, I decided we would play there “guerilla style”. After all, it was a public park, and for the entire history of Systems Malfunction, it had been played in spaces where we arguably weren’t supposed to be, but couldn’t reasonably be kicked out of. Because we couldn’t sleep at Croton Gorge over night like we would with a “real” LARP campsight, we rented rooms at a cheap motel nearby for the overnight stay between Saturday and Sunday’s game days. The first game was actually an exhilarating experience, as we arrived at the park, roleplayed all day in character, went out to dinner in character, and then went to the motel to sleep, scheme, and attempt arrests and assassinations in character (the motel definitely did not feel like an area that LARPing was supposed to happen, so it was a bit anxious, but we got away with it). It was kludgy compared to having an actual campsite, but I thought it might work.

But before the very first game using the new off-campus model was planned and executed, I was already thinking about adding a second setting, because while Castle Clinton was great for scheming and politicking among the diplomatic elite of various factions, I also wanted the plot to tackle high intensity Great House warfare on the toxic jungle planet of Arcadia. For that, we added a second venue, another public park, this one in Connecticut, with a nearby hotel. For the year of 2009 (SEASON 5 of Systems Malfunction by my reckoning), we alternated between “just” the two locations, although we soon abandoned the idea of staying at hotels overnight between Saturday and Sunday as too expensive and too complicated. Most players lived nearby, so we began just going home overnight and then showing up Sunday morning. This provided none of the sense of “sleepover continuity” of a monthly camp site based LARP event, but one weekend a month, even without the overnight stay, seemed like an acceptable compromise. At this point and for the next few years, as I struggled to create a “goal based” narrative model, something I had initially wanted to take pressure off of plot staff, ironically the workload for the plot staff grew to huge proportions. We needed to create, for each game, a short precis describing the situation at that game, a schedule of the game’s events, individual goals for every single character that attended (most of which had multiple factions assigning different goals), stats and roleplaying notes for all NPCs that attended, both enemy “mobs” and named characters, and also create any handouts or props needed. It was an insane amount of work. Nonetheless, we managed to sustain this model for several years.

Starting 2010  completely dissatisfied with my LARP’s level of attendance since I graduated college (and to be honest, since even before then), we began an extremely intensive recruitment campaign. We set out to visit all of the local cons in our area to advertise Systems Malfunction by running a demo game. This recruitment campaign, which lasted throughout the next few years, was an almost unmitigated catastrophic failure. One of the problems, of course, was that at the conventions we went to, insurance made running a boffer LARP impossible. This left us to “advertise” a ongoing, campaign-based boffer LARP where you create your own character by running a one-off theater-style LARP where you are cast as a pregenerated character. But there was an even more fundamental problem than this, of course. The cons that we attended, that we brought Systems on the road to, were conventions like Genericon at RPI in Troy, NY ICON at SUNY Stony Brook in Long Island, and Dexcon/Dreamation in Morristown, New Jersey. These were the largest cons remotely within commuting distance of our area: we did not find time to visit Lunacon, right in our backyard, until 2013 when we had virtually given up on recruiting for Systems Malfunction, but that would have been a smarter choice (even though Lunacon draws an older crowd and is definitely not very LARPing focused).

The reason, of course, that we had failed from the start is that RPI at Troy, NY has a vibrant, active local LARP scene. Long Island has a vibrant, active local LARP scene. The vicinity of Morristown, New Jersey has an outright BUSTLING local LARP scene. There is no sane reason for anyone who lives near any of these places and who wants to start LARPing to commute two hours to Westchester to play Systems Malfunction. Most likely, anyone at any of those places who was remotely LARP inclined was already playing one of their local LARPs. We did somehow gain two players from our recruitment drive, two exceptionally loyal players who helped keep the game going against the attrition we suffered in our later years. But the recruitment drive cost us thousands and thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of work and travel and stress. And of course I did not realize at the time the simple geographic facts that made our advertising and demoing game at cons a futile endeavor. At the time, I simply blamed myself and grew resentful.

If there are people in or anywhere near Westchester County, NY who would want to join our LARP, I do not know where to find them. At least certainly not enough of them to make a difference. Anyway…

Over the next three seasons and by 2012, the game’s story had expanded to include no less than SIX MORE recurring in-game settings, as well as THREE additional “one-off” in-game settings, for a total of no less than eleven in-game settings, EACH OF WHICH corresponded to a different real-life game venue, each of which was a different public park or trail location. Meanwhile, for every game, precis, schedule, individual PC goals, NPCs, props, handouts, and anything else needed were carefully constructed by the staff, a staff that was almost never more than two or three people. This geographic and narrative scale were completely out of proportion to the game’s continuously dwindling attendance. The staff team would often complain that there were more in-game factions than players to represent those factions, and this was literally true. It was clear at this point that while the current model was producing extremely engaging and fun gameplay, the initial objective of shifting to a goal-based system to make the staff’s workload lighter had completely backfired. Staff was working harder than ever before. The only difference is now it was entirely “prep work” being done before a game, rather than an even mix of that with heavy and free-flowing improvisation during the game, as I’d done in college (one of my major skills as a GM is that I am a good improviser).

Anyone who has had any part in running a “real” boffer LARP, the kind with monthly events at a fixed camp site with dozens of people, with a couple dozen plot staff, tech staff, and cast to keep things running smoothly, should be in a good position to understand how utterly insane what I’m describing is: a game with only three permanent staff members, with only twelve players (INCLUDING those staff members), operating “guerilla style” at eight different in-game settings/venues with tons and tons of NPCs, an intricate network of competing in-game factions, and personalized goals for every player, at every game. Total lunacy! It makes me feel exhausted just to think about it. Simply getting players to RSVP prior to game so we would know which characters would be present and plan around that was an ongoing nightmare, an unwinnable uphill battle. Stress levels could get very, very high. But still, with that said… when I think of the Croatoan Campaign, which the years 2009-2012 of Systems Malfunction comprised, I feel a great deal of pride and satisfaction. Again, as we had during our college days, we all worked together to tell an incredible, epic story, one that resonated and lasted with all of us. Somehow, I managed to find exponentially more time to actually PC during the Croatoan Campaign era, and it was lovely to be able to actually play my own game for a change. The Croatoan Campaign contained many of the best roleplaying experiences I’ve ever had, was one of the greatest stories I have ever witnessed, let alone taken part in, and was an enormous amount of fun with the best of friends.

Since then, I’ve gotten a lot smarter, more reasonable, and more realistic in what I expected from the LARP. I’ve grounded us at only one game venue and only one in-game setting. I’ve simplified the rules to the best, most accessible form they’ve ever been in, with only a quarter of the complexity of the old fourth edition rules. I’ve written ongoing and persistent faction goals instead of personalized PC goals to be re-upped every game: they do the same thing with less work, and leave me more room to improvise and run the game in a casual and off-the-cuff way.

In spite of all of this, I can’t deny that the game is now actively dying.

Part III: The Era of Attrition – Difference Equals Death (2013-2015)

By this point, it is clear that Systems Malfunction is a LARP with a lot of problems. For starters, we have been hemorrhaging players for years and years and years now. Of course new players join, in dribs and drabs, consistently enough. But they almost never stay around for good, or show up in the numbers needed to replace the old players who are leaving.

As Jimmy Darmody of “Boardwalk Empire” would oft toast: “To the lost.” Let’s name some names, and restricting myself only to the most loyal core of our player base, I can easily think of more than ten that we’ve lost to the sands of time and the forces of attrition that govern the universe.

Sara moved back up-state shortly after I graduated and has effectively disappeared. I haven’t spoken with her in at least five years.

One of our 2008-2009 era GMs, Rob vanished from the scene before he graduated Purchase. Moved back to Massachusetts, I think.

Ethan, former staff member and GM and technically the game’s co-creator, had a major falling out with the game some time during the Croatoan Campaign and we haven’t spoken since. So now that’s definitely a social loss as well, as is often the case.

Marisa I can scarcely blame for leaving, since she’s the only person who ever actually broke a leg playing the game. Of course, I don’t think that’s why her attendance wound up dropping off in the end.

Stefan made his last appearance some time in 2013 or maybe 2014, but has been mostly gone since before 2012. Don’t blame him, of course. Life happens.

Evan moved to Texas a couple years ago now, but seemed too busy working to do much LARPing even before then.

Brendan was a player godsend for almost exactly one year, then he vanished to Florida or someplace.

Matt moved to Maine and came back in the last couple years, and still can’t find much time to play.

Emily, another former staff member and GM, has moved to Brooklyn, which might as well be New Zealand for how many games she can make it to.

Rachid, another former staff member and GM, player since day one, lives in Brooklyn too now. And his attendance is even shakier, being busy with Grad School.

And in the most recent blow to the game’s survival, Josh, a player since 2006, just moved to California, presumably for good.

Over time, everything falls apart. Things fall apart, you dig? The center cannot hold. Entropy is the most powerful force in the universe.

I think we might have lost more regular, core players than we ever had at any one time. We’ve certainly lost more regular, core players over the years than we have players now. Again players come, they don’t just go, but the gains don’t make up for the losses, let alone outweigh them. For a game and a community as tiny and self-contained as Systems Malfunction, a game mightily struggling to have an average attendance of ten people per game, the loss of ten regular, core players seems almost impossible to survive.

I’ll be honest: it’s not just how few players we have left that is the problem. I’ll be brutally honest: when people are so self-absorbed and inconsiderate that they can’t be bothered to tell is if they’re going to show up to game or not a few games in advance, it pisses me off. When people actually say they’ll attend and then no-show on the morning of the game–I don’t mean because of a medical emergency or a broken down car, I mean because they had a late night the last time and couldn’t be bothered to show up on time or at all–that makes me furious…and very very sad. Particularly because of course we have asked these people time and time again to show a little bit of consideration and respect for our time. Last-minute drop-outs mean that the GMs have wasted their time and energy planning content for a game that won’t even have enough players in attendance to happen (a very low bar for us). I’ll be clear, pretty much all of the players we’ve had over the years, including nearly all of the players we have right now, are my friends. And this kind of bullshit doesn’t just damage the game, it damages that friendship too. And I’ll be clear about this, too: there are good players too, who are consistently conscientious and considerate. Who represent the game and who evangelize it. And you know who you are, and I won’t forget the loyalty you’ve shown for years.

Real talk one: it is pretty impossible to understate the importance of Systems Malfunction to my life. Systems Malfunction, in a very real way, has been my life for the last decade. Probably most of all, if not for Systems Malfunction, I never would have met Mikaela. Technically, it is correct to call “Mikaela” my girlfriend, but that term is woefully inadequate to describe the nine years we’ve been together. If the entire idea of marriage and adulthood in general didn’t fill me with the utmost paralytic terror, we’d probably be married by now. Without Systems Malfunction, and without Mik, there would never have been any End Transmission Games. And there certainly would have been no Psionics Kickstarter. In a very real way, I owe every good thing I have in my life to Systems Malfunction, to the dark world of intrigue and adventure that some friends and I built together in college, for fun.

So yes, I do not want Systems to die.

Real talk two: since 2012, and maybe earlier, the stress of running Systems Malfunction has very literally been ruining Mikaela and I’s lives. I’m not talking about the creative work of statting NPCs and planning out game plots: that is very manageable with the current model. What I’m talking about is the stress of constantly trying to wrangle an increasingly tiny handful of uncommunicative and rude players into confirming attendance, or at least into giving some kind of reasonable, advanced warning of non-attendance, not a bullshit plan-ruining day-of no-show, well…the phrase “herding cats” adequately conveys the futility, but not the pain.

Again, some players were part of the solution, not part of the problem. And we love them for that. But they were not enough.

This constant stress of pressuring people into attending games, of haranguing people over and over to get a straight answer about whether they would show up or not, it has caused screaming, and crying, and worse. It is intolerable. It was clear by the inauspicious end of the 2013 season that Systems Malfunction could not go on like this. The process of trying to handle basic monthly attendance was making Mikaela and I hate each other, our friends, and the game.

Real talk three: based on the above two points, I desperately want Systems Malfunction to survive, but I have no idea how that is possible. I do understand the challenges facing us, and I can enumerate them. But I don’t know how they can be overcome.

I don’t expect all of our problem players to change over night into considerate and polite people. If that was going to happen, it would have already. Even if they did, we really just don’t have enough warm bodies at this point to support any kind of LARP. Even a micro-LARP, which is what Systems Malfunction has intentionally become.

I have no idea where or how to recruit new players for Systems Malfunction at this stage. I’ll enumerate the reasons why now. We’ll start with very pragmatic stuff, and then get into some more lofty stuff, built on guesswork:

  1. The basic Catch 22. To attract a large number of LARPers it seems like you need a camp site. To afford a camp site, you need a huge number of LARPers.
  2. There are tons of LARPers in Long Island, New Jersey, and up-state in Troy near Albany. All of these LARPers have extremely robust LARP communities they’re already a part of. In spite of how awesome Systems Malfunction is, I have no idea how to convince any of them to commute two hours to Westchester to play a LARP they’ve never heard of/to save our dying LARP. The same goes of course for people even further away.
  3. If there are people in the Westchester area who want to LARP, I don’t know how to find them in any great number.
  4. The experience that people who play live-combat boffer LARPs want seems to differ from the experience that Systems Malfunction is offering. For starters, these LARPs are very popular for offering an experience that can essentially be boiled down to “live action World of Warcraft”. PCs group up into little bands, are approached by NPCs with plot hooks, and go on little quests to solve puzzles and slay monsters: self-contained adventures that are largely fungible. This is very unlike the basic gameplay of Systems Malfunction, a nuanced kind of encouraged-PVP where PCs are constantly forming alliances, scheming, and backstabbing amongst themselves in a way that dynamically shapes the game world itself.
  5. Additionally, your average boffer LARP player seems to have the understanding that compared to a PC that has existed for five or ten years, a new PC is basically irrelevant. Without months and months of accumulating experience points, a new PC can’t hope to have a meaningful impact on the story or beat an older, established PC in a fight. Systems Malfunction honestly doesn’t truck with this kind of “seniority” even a little bit. A straight-out-of-chargen starting PC can absolutely beat the oldest and most powerful characters in the game if they have the right in-game abilities and use the correct strategy.
  6. Of course, the main selling point of nearly every boffer LARP I’ve ever seen seems to be the production values. The quality of the costumes, props, even makeup and lighting. It is photos that look like something out of the Lord of the Rings movies all over their websites that seems to help them very successfully draw in new players. Systems Malfunction simply isn’t about production values. We are more than happy to use our imaginations first and foremost, and that is a somewhat alien mindset in the “mainstream” world of LARP. I have gotten some seriously weird looks for even suggesting it. “Costume optional” has been a basic tenet of Systems since our earliest days as a college game, attempting to “keep it casual”.  Besides that, when we do costume (and most of us do), the clothes of the future aren’t as immediately visually arresting as the clothes of the medieval fantasy that never was. Short of going to the painstaking effort of full makeup and prosthetics for our Xel aliens and the like (which seems like a huge pain in the ass), it’s hard to imagine taking photos that would convey as much of a sense of “look at us, we are LARPing”. But even if you discount all of these things, it’s another Catch 22. If these kinds of production values are necessary to attract players, how can we afford them without many more player donations in the first place?
  7. To synthesize three of the above points, historically, Systems Malfunction is a LARP that has appealed almost entirely to non-LARPers. For nearly every player we have had over the years, Systems Malfunction has been their first and only LARP. Our players don’t look like LARPers, in or out of costume. Most or all of them could easily pass for non-gamers, even for non-geeks. It seems like people who do self-identify as LARPers don’t want Systems. Self-identifying LARPers already have their own LARPs, maybe. Or maybe they’re looking for something different from Systems, something more focused on production values and combat modules and not on intricate factional conflict and plot in an envolving world. I’m sorry if this all comes off as “everybody hates us cause we’re so great”, I don’t mean it that way at all. Just that different people want different things from LARP. But here’s the thing…if Systems is a LARP that has always appealed primarily to non-LARPers, it has suffered from that, because LARPers are nothing if not loyal to a fault. We’ve seen too little of that unstoppable staying power in our player base.
  8. Finally, over the years I have observed that parlor-style/theater-style LARPers, who the in-depth roleplaying and factional intrigues of Systems Malfunction would certainly appeal to, seldom have any desire to truck with either boffer combat or ongoing story campaigns. Let alone both.
  9. To synthesize all of the above points, Systems Malfunction is drastically different from every other LARP. And it is in part as a result of this that it is dying.

Conclusions And A Cry For Help

So where does that leave us? Well, to review, Systems Malfunction the LARP started at SUNY Purchase in September/October of 2005.

It should be turning ten years old this year. Some time around this September/October should be its glorious Ten Year Anniversary. Instead, the game is dying. It is dying because we are losing too many players too fast, because too many of the very few players we have left make our jobs suck too much of the time, and because I have no idea how to recruit new players, either pragmatically speaking or from a marketing perspective.

I don’t want Systems to die but I am a loss for how to save it. Therefore, at this time (April 29th, 2015) there are no concrete plans for a 2015 Season of Systems Malfunction

We’ve had a great run, and everything has to end eventually, but I don’t want it to end like this.

If you are an old former or current player and you have any ideas at all about how the game can be saved, please contact me when you can. At this point, Mik and I are both willing to try some fairly crazy shit to save our baby.

And if by chance you are looking for a new LARP in the Westchester area–especially if you have like a dozen friends who are also down to LARP–please contact me.

A Little Bit Of Good News For A Change

I’d like to remind everyone that the enormous, epic Systems Malfunction Campaign Setting for The Singularity System by End Transmission Games was published just last year. This means that whatever happens to the LARP, in at least some small way, Systems Malfunction should be able to live on forever on your tabletops and in your hearts– and in ours.

– DTO (Ossining, NY, 4/29/2015)

Marsha Marsha Marsha

It is slightly amazing, at this moment in time, the degree to which Psionics has become my life. For instance, right now, I am working on the Psionics art notes, while talking to Mikaela about Psionics, because the work I am doing on the Psionics art notes is based on the work she did on the Psionics art notes today, yesterday, and the day before. In another window I am switching between my two Psionics themed Pandora stations while in yet another window I am making a list of tracks to include on the months-in-the-making Psionics playlist.

Meanwhile, I have sent John an e-mail about my Psionics character which I would guess there is an about even chance he is not presently answering because he is even now actively GMing his Google Hangouts based Psionics campaign for the bewilderingly large and ever increasing number of Psionics players he is somehow handling. He wanted Mikaela to play in his Psionics campaign tonight but she couldn’t because she was too busy working on Psionics. And I just notice I have gotten an e-mail from my dad, offering his critique of my Psionics story, but I am too busy working on Psionics to ask for that critique right now.

In summation: Psionics, Psionics, Psionics, my life is Psionics.

Shut Up And Keep Running

The introductory fiction for the Psionics rulebook was going to be called “Shut Up And Keep Running”. Those words are definitely gonna appear all over the Psionics rulebook. Going to be “a thing”, even a big thing, in Psionics, that phrase. Words to live by, certainly, but an attitude, too. Now it’s called “Tomorrow’s Starlight”. Or maybe “The Paranoid Style”. We’re not sure. But either way we go, the story will be named for the fictional post-punk rock band that acts as a front for the Zodiac Order, and as a bridge between them and pop culture.

The story is written and that’s a big deal. I agonized over it forever before starting it. As a writer, I never do that. “Perfection paralysis”, Mikaela called it. I never have that problem. Generally speaking, I just disconnect myself from the critical part of my brain that cares about “making something good” as a necessary first step to enable “making something” at all being a possible thing. This has worked so consistently well in the past that  I’d actually recommend it, were I to write a book of advice on writing or something. But not this time, this time I really had a very specific idea of what I was wanted and I was scared shitless I wasn’t capable of meeting my own standards. I blogged about this before, as part of a procrastination process that lasted honestly since September and included the entire length and breadth of the playtest campaign. But suddenly, and rather inexplicably, the inertia was overcome and the story was written. I’m not entirely sure why but after six months of intense dread and impenetrable procrastination, I buckled down and fired off 22,000 words in two evenings.

I am very, very happy with it. Maybe more than is politic. I generally speaking have always held the vague impression with every other writer I’ve ever talked to that you’re not supposed to like your writing too much, that’s what the whole obligatory tap dance of humility and self-effacement is about. And generally, I support that. But I’m loving this shizz. Fo realz.

Over on the Psionics Kickstarter, I’m gonna share this good news with more of a focus on what it means for the march-to-completion of the Psionics rulebook, which is now thankfully back on schedule. But here let me share some fiction excerpts. One is the actual opening scene of what I’m presently calling “Tomorrow’s Starlight”, the opening fiction that I finally wrote. The next is a vignette from a cool-ass story Mikaela wrote, currently untitled, that will almost certainly appear in the rulebook somewhere, in some form. In fact, full versions of both stories will be available to you, reader, when our nearly-one-year-in-the-offing Kickstarter odyssey reaches its conclusion and the Psionics core rulebook is published. Enjoy!


Eight or so Black Russians having had a deleterious effect on my sense of balance, I wind up hitting the floor and sliding after I shoulder ram-my way through the rusted metal fire door at the back of the alley. Judging from the smell of frying MSG and the bushel of Asian guys in grease-stained chef’s whites looking up startled at the door I crashed through, I’m guessing the brown tile floor I’m currently sprawled on belongs to a Chinese restaurant.

A fall like that should probably be hurting pretty bad, but Did You Know? The popular party drug codeine has this weird side effect where it deadens pain.

Footsteps and shouts from out through the door, in the alley I came from. Coming after me. No time for takeout.

Quick now, pick myself up, dust myself off, smile apologetically at the shouting Szechuan chefs, and I notice Scott sitting comfortably on the burners of a big gas stove, his unlaced Converse sneakers dangling and knocking together, smiling like a loon.

“You used to be so good at getting out of things, Scott. How come you never taught me that goddamn trick?”

Not waiting for an answer, I’m shouldering aside kitchen staff at a run and away into the restaurant proper: lush red carpets, gold scrollwork, gleaming turquoise aquaria swimming with a rainbow of brightly colored fish. Weaving between tables at a jog I snatch a couple of 20s that some unwise waiter hasn’t collected yet as I pass.

From behind me comes a shouted “Hey!” and other yells of Cantonese anger but fuck it sideways, today clearly ain’t a day for making friends.

A very pretty coat check girl dives out of my way and with what I must look like right now I don’t blame her. I hit the front doors of the restaurant like a linebacker and I am oh so thankful that those push-bars were in fact push-bars and not pulling handles disguised as same, or I’d have felt pretty stupid.

I guess that’s why they call me Lucky.

Out on Canal Street, somewhere between Bowery and Broadway I guess, I foolishly take a moment to look behind me. According to the flashy neon sign, the restaurant I just came crashing out of is actually called Big Wong. My uncontrollable giggles at learning this tell me that the time I lost in exchange for this information was totally fucking worth it.

Look left and I see the angry mob has gone around the restaurant, lacking the agility to go through. A bunch of strapping dudebros in sports jerseys and muscle tees are pointing and shouting in my direction. Only if I was a sleeping coed would I be more worried about their intentions towards my person.

Look right, and I see a bunch of parked cop cars menacing the street around them with their aura of flickering red and blue light. No idea what that’s about, but I want no part of it.

I run straight as a swarm of enraged Asians erupts from the Big Wong behind me (Ha! Ha!). Straight, across the street, ignoring the furious honking of a taxi that has to stop short to avoid hitting me. Straight, across the street, to the mouth of another fucking alley. This one has been blocked by one of those heavy construction fences, topped with wire, and plastered with posters for restaurants, bars, strip-clubs, and shows, and Chinese graffiti spraypainted over that. I risk a quick look behind me, and I see that after some confusion, the pissed off Chinese waiters and the enraged white sportsfans are coming to an accord, merging their angry mobs into one multi-racially harmonious angry mob.

United in wanting to do bad things. To yours truly.

Oh, the humanity.

Scott, standing next to me now, hands in frayed jean pockets, sizing up the fence through his coke-bottle glasses.

Am I going to get over that thing?

“Don’t suppose you could give me a boost, Scott?”

Takes his left hand out of his pocket, shows me his left middle finger, looks nonchalantly over his shoulder as more honking horns herald the angry mob crossing traffic.

“Helpful as ever.”

I throw myself at the fence and make it nowhere. It’s chainlink but the chainlinks are covered in some plastic tarp shit so you can’t get a good grip on them with your fingers. The whole thing rattles angrily and I slide down the moist plastic. The fence has made me angry, so I glare at it really hard, and a little dagger point of bright flame appears at the center, and spreads rapidly outwards, the plastic burning and melting away until the chainlinks are exposed, naked and glowing with heat.

I scramble up, not thinking about how hot the metal is. As long as I don’t think about it, my fingers won’t get burned. Then I fling myself over the not-quite-barbed-wire on top like a lifetime of running from the cops has taught me. I land in a heap in a puddle of what I try not to think of as hobo urine, where soggy cigarette butts float like charming little islands. My good blazer is ruined. Pick myself off the ground and I’m running, Scott running ahead of me, laughing and looking back over his shoulder.

“This is another bizarre and thankless situation you’ve gotten us in,” Scott says.

“Oh, like you’ve never been in a fight before? Like you’ve never caused a scene? Anyway, shut up, Scott. You’re not even really here.”

And like that, he’s gone. Sulky little bastard.

For a ghost.

This alley is a dead end, of course, the narrow back of an apartment building latticed with construction scaffolding, the metal beams of the scaffolding covered in green tarpaulin wet from last night’s rain. I pull up short, panting raggedly, bent over my knees, trying not to heave. Looking behind me, the angry mob seems to actually be tearing down the fence.

Now, I have always had a gift for pissing people off, but this is just ridiculous.

I start climbing, telling myself, chin up. Remembering something I read in the Book, like a mantra, but less tedious than most New-Agey hippie bullshit.

This ain’t the worst we’ve seen, we’ve been through much worse than this, and we will live to laugh at this so shut up and keep running.

A hundred feet of monkey-climbing up the side of this building, and I’m sick of this scaffolding. I pull myself up to the lip of the roof, panting. Scott looks over at me from where he’s sitting on the edge of the building, legs dangling down. He flicks a cigarette butt down at the angry mob swarming below.

“I’m sick of it Scott, running,” I gasp, pulling myself up onto my side. “Sometimes win, sometimes my jaw needs icing.” I pause, spit some blood, self-assessing. “I do think that I’m funny, but one day it’ll be a bon mot too many.”

“You are so full of shit,” Scott says. “Giddy from all the trouble you’ve gotten yourself in, like usual, talking like anything will change. If you get out of this, you’ll just wind up pushing your luck again. And you know it.”

“And that’s why you love me,” I say.

The tender moment is interrupted by a shout from below.

“We’re gonna get you, fucker!”

The assholes are climbing the scaffolding. I feel like a cat, trapped his dumb ass up a tree. I run around the roof looking for a way out. There’s an access door—rusty and scarred with decades of scratched graffiti on the rust, exposing bright bare metal—but some charming young wit has taken it upon his punk ass to put gum in the lock. I wish as hard as I can that whoever did it was here so I could punch him right in the dick. I mean, gum in the lock? Really? That’s just annoying. Not to mention irresponsible. People need to use this door.

Honestly, it reminds me of something I would do. So yes, Scott, I guess you’re right, it’s difficult not to see how I got myself in this predicament. I go against the advice of everyone in the world when I step up to the edge of the roof I came up and look down. I count only about eight figures that are climbing the scaffolding after me, a mere fraction of the angry mob churning below—some of them looking for things to throw. But it’s still… slightly… more than I can take in a fight.

I briefly consider setting the scaffolding on fire. It’s the same wet plastic tarpaulin that was covering the fence, so I know that even I can burn it. And I don’t exactly burn with the best of them. Actually, I could use more practice. But ultimately, I decide against it. It’s a bit too much “mass murder”, a bit too little “wacky hijinks”. At least for this situation.

In other words, not my style.

But options are not in good supply just now. I fantasize about a giant, invisible hand pushing the scaffolding loose from its moorings and tipping it over backwards. That probably wouldn’t hurt anyone too seriously, and it would buy me time to figure out a way off this roof. But this is nothing but a flight of a fancy.

I can’t even move fucking marbles with my mind, let alone mountains.

I run the other way. This being Chinatown this rooftop is actually the roofs of numerous buildings which are mashed together without an inch of space between them. But I do eventually come to a gap where a street, almost as narrow as an alley but not quite, breaks up the buildings. Across on the other side is another rooftop, maybe twelve feet below me, and maybe eight or nine feet across.

If I was possessed of the cool dry wit of an action hero, I’d turn my running start into a running leap. Preferably in slow motion. But the fact of the matter ladies and germs is that jumping roof to roof is scary. I stop short, back up, check my shoelaces and hike up my slacks and try in vain to still my racing heart, which is a jackhammer in my chest. It’s not my first rodeo, as far as urban acrobatics is concerned, but some things don’t get easier with practice.

As much as I’d like to be, I’m just not the goddamned Batman. And I can see that beyond this jump will be a series of more of them, from rooftop to rooftop, to freedom, to safety.

“I really don’t know if I’m gonna make all those leaps,” I gesture up and across the street. A figure in a lit window waves hi. People are gathering at the window to look at the scrawny guy in the filthy suit jacket running around on the roof. Enjoying the show.

Next to me now, Scott furrows his brow, purses his lips, and says:

“There has never been a time when brains have not won over brawn, and we will live to see the dawn.”

It’s uncommon to hear him say anything, since he died, and rarer still that he say anything that’s not sarcastic. Something actually uplifting? Unheard of. For a moment I’m heartened, and then I remember he’s dead and my face falls.

“But Scott, you’re still not really here.”

I look behind me and fancy I see the concrete ledge on the opposite end of the roof sprout its first set of hands, hairy and white-knuckled, or so I’d imagine. It’s dozens of feet away and my night vision isn’t all that good. Either I run back over and start kicking faces one at a time as they appear (and again, y’know… murder), or I jump.

So I back up to give myself room for a running start. And I take a deep breath. And I launch myself forward, arms pumping, legs shortening the distance to the ledge at a truly alarming rate.

And I jump.

***

I’m screaming, flailing, sailing through the air. After I land, before I black out, I look up and see Scott smirking down at me, smooth arms pale against the black of his Dead Kennedys t-shirt. He finally asks me, almost in the manner of a by-the-way:

“What’d you say to make those guys so angry?”


What indeed? And now a thingy I ripped from Mikaela’s story.


Let’s talk about fire.

Everyone’s fascinated with it. I have a few theories about why. Bear with me. I’m going to be cheesy.

One: Fire is dualistic.

It’s the source of life and warmth and hot food and safe water, and we’d be fucked without it. But it’s scary as hell because as much as we need it, that shit can kill us and all the animals and the forests, and it leaves ruin and ash in its wake. It’s a concept that’s perfectly illustrated in nature. There are trees that can only grow after a huge fire that wipes out all the other trees; the heat causes their cones to open up and their seeds to sprout.

It’s power that we think we have completely mastered. It’s all these huge, sweeping concepts like life and death, and humans put it inside a palm-sized plastic container that you can buy at any gas station for two bucks. We use it and harness it. But it still has all the power in the world to completely wreck our shit. It’s under our control, and it’s completely out of our control. We’re drawn to it, and terrified of it.

Two: Fire is defiant.

I don’t exactly mean that literal fire is literally rebellious. Fire, being a force of nature and without will or mind, does not make a conscious decision to revolt – though, like I said before, once we make a fire, it can do things we never wanted it to. Start a gas cooking fire, maybe end up burning to death in your house. No, what I really mean is that fire is an emblem of defiance.

Think about it. There’s a story about an authoritarian sky-god that withholds fire from mankind; it’s too powerful for lowly humans, and it will bestow them with strength that will allow them to rise up from the muck. Enter another god, some tricky bastard who decides to revolt; he sneaks in and steals the fire, and brings it to the humans. It’s a huge fuck-you to the big dad in the sky.

The funny thing about this story is it appears all over the planet, from cultures that never interacted with each other in any way. Prometheus, Raven, Coyote. Ancient human beings from everywhere independently decided that this is how humans got fire – its genesis was an act of insurgence.

Three: Fire is beautiful.

Remember what I said about duality? This is kind of like that.

Take, for instance, the security guards in this room. Most of them were ugly fuckers before we rolled in: muscles they had in their prime of life transmogrifying into fat with the advent of their middle age; short hair cropped to hide the balding; lines on their faces drawn from years of hating their miserable fucking lives. Now they look even fucking worse. You ever seen a burned body before? Their tendons and muscles tightening up, balling their hands into fists, curling their arms into their chests. Flesh sizzling away – no noses, no lips, no eyelids. Everything bright, screaming red and char-black.

This is ugly shit.

But look at the fire. Burning hot blue, glowing red and orange and yellow and white. And the way it moves – it’s dancing, rolling, reaching toward the sky. People today, they’re blinded by their screens – Instagram and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or whatever’s the next new crappy thing. But back in the olden days, we humans used to sit around and tell stories and just watch this. It’s not just, you know, captivating because it’s dangerous or because it represents our autonomy as a species. If you don’t pay attention to all the people and things it’s eating up… man…

It’s fucking dazzling.

SPLINTER and the IGDN Bundle of Holding

Hey everyone! It’s Mik again, with some ramblings and some cool news.

I know everyone’s been pretty excited about Psionics, which is still set for release this summer. But I wanted to take a brief moment to talk about our first release, SPLINTER.

Recently, we’ve become involved with the Indie Game Developers Network. A while back, the network began talking about doing a Bundle of Holding that would include some of the games by some of the IGDN members; some of the money would go to the designers, and some of it would go to an awesome charity. Well, after some behind-the-scenes work, that bundle has now come to fruition. And SPLINTER is a part of it!

As of this writing, the bundle has made nearly $6,000.00, which is awesome. Also, we’d like to give a shout out to “A Vryx Avatar.” We don’t know who you are, but we saw what you did there :D.

Now, I want to mention that the End Transmission team didn’t actually take part in choosing the charity for this bundle, but we were very happy to see that the chosen recipient of the charity money will be the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. I’ll let you explain what they do in their own words:

Shanti Bhavan’s mission is to adequately develop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children of India’s “lowest caste” by providing them world class education and instilling globally shared values to enable them to aspire to careers and professions of their choice.

We provide a holistic, high quality focused education to children on a beautiful boarding school campus. For these communities, Shanti Bhavan is a beacon of hope that shines a path of opportunity for their children. It is an oasis built within the confines of crushing poverty supported by a devoted administration and global network of volunteers. Our children see that a better world isn’t just an idea but a real possibility.

The reason I wanted to mention that we didn’t have a hand in choosing this charity because of the weird synchronicity it has with the themes of SPLINTER. For those of you who have already played it, this will probably be old information – but for those who haven’t picked up a copy yet, I’m going to explain what I mean.

To start out, it’s important to mention that SPLINTER is inspired by, among other things, the fantastic “Acts of Caine” series by Matthew Woodring Stover. (If you haven’t read it yet, go do so now. Seriously. It’s right here.)

In SPLINTER, you engage with two separate worlds. One is the titular Splinter, an endlessly-changing and infinite “dungeon”, which is where most of the gameplay takes place. The other world is Earth – the Earth of 2471.

In this Earth, culture has been homogenized and taken over by a single monolithic company. This company controls life and society, largely because it controls The Game. The Game is all that matters – those who do not play, watch. Those who do not watch, well, there are consequences for not watching. Namely, being arrested. After which, it’s likely that you will be forced to play The Game anyway.

It is because of this system that the society of 2471’s Earth has been divided into castes. If you’re born into a high caste, great – the world is at your fingertips. You can pretty much live a life of leisure as an investor, or be a controlling party in the world around you. If you’re born into a low caste, well… it’s technically possible to rise into a higher caste, but usually, again, this can only be accomplished by playing (and winning) The Game. This social system isn’t derived from any religious ideology, save for the God that everyone mostly refers to as “money.” All other cultural devices – theology, philosophy – have been systematically done away with.

Our latest release for SPLINTER – the Superstar Profile of Kade Merek – tells the story of Mumbai native Ronald Singh, a man who would do (and did) just about anything to escape his caste. It tells the story of a system that turned a young boy into a hardened man, whose only path to freedom lay in the blood sports of The Game.

Now, it’s easy to talk about these dystopian scenarios as a narrative device, used in fiction to provoke a discourse for real-life socioeconomic issues. It’s also easy for Americans to espouse concern that our western society is spiraling toward a plutocratic model. Being born a 1%-er pretty much means that you’re going to remain a 1%-er; doors open for the rich that are closed to the poor. But it’s also important to look at what’s actually happening elsewhere.

India’s caste system has been traditionally thought to have started with traditional Hindu beliefs in reincarnation. That those born into the lower castes – especially the Untouchables – were born there because of the deeds they had done in previous lives. But modern scholars theorize that the caste system became more rigid, more important, as a result of the British colonial regime, and that the caste system was much more flexible before the time of the British Raj.

Now, independent India has made a lot of reforms in regards to the caste system. While the Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that social caste is hereditary and cannot be changed, the lower castes (historically disadvantaged groups in India) have been ruled as Scheduled Castes, given Reservation status, which guaranteed political representation to these historically disenfranchised castes and tribes. India’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on caste, and has declared the practice of untouchability to be illegal. The affirmative action measures that were implemented in regards to the lower castes have resulted in many lower-caste Indians to be able to rise to political power, such as K. R. Narayanan, a member of the historically untouchable Dalit caste, who was elected to the Presidency of the nation from 1997 to 2002.

There have been a lot of changes for the better in India in regards to the Scheduled Castes, but the lowest castes still suffer the effects of a history of oppression – lower literacy rates, lower vaccination rates, less access to clean drinking water, and higher poverty levels. More to the point, the enrollment and graduation rates for Scheduled Caste children and teenagers are lower than those in the upper caste. It’s important to mention that these gaps are closing, but these inequalities are still present.

Initiatives such as the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project are a huge part of the progressive changes for India’s Scheduled Castes. Shanti Bhavan gives children born into poverty the chance at a higher-class education and support, opening doors to great opportunities for the future.

In SPLINTER, characters are forced to kill and die for the entertainment of the masses in order to have access to education and comfort. We’re pleased to be able to help those, even in a small way, who work to ensure that a future even remotely similar to SPLINTER’s Earth of 2471 does not come to pass.

The Bad End

(Guest post by Mik)

There are a lot of differences between (most) video games and tabletop RPGs. One of the biggest differences is that, in most video games, if your character and your entire party get wiped out, you can go back and try again. Get a better ending. In (most) TTRPGs, if your character and your entire party get wiped out… that could be the end. Excluding games like Eclipse Phase that have built-in save points. Sure, a kindly GM might bend or break reality to keep that from happening. But sometimes, a final boss fight is really, really final.

This is kind of a contentious issue in the TTRPG circles. Some GMs believe that a total party wipeout should not happen. That relying on the dice can create an antagonistic relationship between the GM and players. Or that the reliance on random number generation can result in bad storytelling. But even a “bad ending” can be literary or cinematic – plenty of books and films get downer endings.

Devon’s mentioned before on this blog that we were finishing up the Psionics playtest – which, as previously stated, was amazing. But it ended a little sooner, and a little differently, than we had anticipated. We knew the opposition in this session would be tough – really tough! – and our team went in a bit stupid, a lot underprepared, and pretty cocky too. But we were already at the end of the road, so when things didn’t shake out our way, that was how it ended.

The gig – our small terrorist cell doing their part for the big Easter event – started out well. With no guidance, we found our way to London and into the home of an important board member for an evil pharmaceutical company. We carried him out, obliterating bobbies on our way. We got him to take us to a boarding school in the country that was really a front for capturing and testing psionic children. Our plan was to liberate the kids and flee the country.

But we were coming from the US of A, and hadn’t found a way to smuggle our firearms or our body armor through the airport. And when we arrived at the boarding school, my character took the big-pharma bigwig inside as a hostage, while the others waited outside. What should have been an op with no shots fired went distinctly downhill when we found ourselves surrounded by the SAS, not to mention a special field operative from MI5, as well as a team of psionic badasses from the pharmaceutical company. We put up a good fight, but we were disorganized. I let my hostage escape into a saferoom. Our hardest-hitting team member took a sniper bullet to the face after taking out an armored vehicle full of SAS in the first few rounds of combat. The rest of the combat was reminiscent of headless chickens. Every team member was knocked out or bleeding out or dead by the end of the lengthy scuffle.

Playing through the “bad end” to our team of psychic terrorists, I didn’t feel upset. In fact, I found the ending to be pretty powerful. And fair. So it made me wonder what can make a “bad end” into a good ending? What makes a total party wipeout feel like an anticlimactic and stupid screwup, and what makes it feel like a justified and literary finale?

Part of it, I suppose, must be the timing. A PC cast getting obliterated halfway through a campaign is disruptive. It interferes with the total narrative. So the GM may have to pull a few storytelling strings to keep things moving forward, and put the game back on track. Or maybe the campaign just ends. Players and GM move on to a different game. But if a team of PCs lose, unequivocally, at the tail end of the campaign – going up against the main opposition as a climax to the narrative – it’s no longer a disruption.

It could also be the tenor of the characters. If you’re a heroic paladin-type trying to save the world from something that is absolutely evil, a failure could be devastating. It would mean that good lost and evil triumphed. But our Psionics characters weren’t exactly sterling people. We cared about them, we thought hard about our actions and motivations, and we tried to be “good.” But we killed a lot of human beings. Sometimes innocent ones. Sometimes a lot of them. By accident, or because we felt we had to. In out of game discussions, I mentioned to my fellows that violence had become a crutch for our characters. That we would need to move away from it, before it consumed us as a party. Sure, the folks we were going up against were doing evil things too. But we’d passed a moral event horizon a while back. We might have found redemption, one day, but then again, we might not have.

But a big factor in what makes the “bad end” good, is the dynamic of the group. We were sitting down to play a game together, to tell a story together. Maybe we wanted to win, but we all knew that the chance of “losing” was out there. We accepted it together. We understood that the odds were steep, and no one at the table wanted a Deus Ex Machina to save us. We were going to rise or fall on our own merits. I do think of TTRPGs the same way I think of other games – sports, board games, poker, whatever; the chance for success means something more special to me when there is a chance for loss.

It kind of made me think of Super Bowl XLVII. I’m a longtime Broncos fan, and my mother was always a Colts fan – so in February of 2014, I was watching Peyton Manning screw the pooch with a big frowny face. But my Psionics fail reminded me of him – I wasn’t mad at the game, or the opposition. I was disappointed in myself, but ready to get back in there and do better next time. Why play at all if a win is guaranteed, anyway?

And we were fortunate to have Devon as our GM, who – in spite of my teasing him for his George R. R. Martin-esque propensity for PC death – had never had an ending like the one we got for Psionics. In spite of his talk to the contrary, he does kind of go in for the victorious ending. With heavy losses, maybe, but an uplifting denouement and a chance for hope or a feeling of success. The Psionics campaign ending didn’t really provide that. But what he did do was make it cinematic. Once everyone was down and out and surrounded by SAS, he didn’t just say, “alright, that’s it, the end.” We got a denouement. Not, perhaps, one that left us all with a feeling of hope. But it did give us all closure. I think, when players see their characters defeated, that’s what we’re looking for.

Each character that still had any breath or life left in them got a scene. The first two were offered a chance to work for the pharmaceutical company, which was unwilling to let good Espers go to waste. One accepted the offer. One declined. One ended up on the payroll; the other was executed. Then, the only character who had survived through the campaign from its beginning got his turn. He had a particular beef against this company, since they’d killed his entire family. My character was locked up in a different room, readied for “extremes testing” and death, and my friend’s PC was confronted with a choice – he could beg the man who murdered his family for my character’s life, or he could keep his pride and let me die. He swallowed his pride. He was shot in the head. My character was spared and given a hefty paycheck in exchange for working for these monsters. All loose ends were tied up, for good or for ill, and at least one person was given a shot at redemption (and isn’t that what we all want?).

We don’t get closure in real life. We lose people all the time. To accidents, illness. Sometimes people walk out of our lives forever, or drift away unceremoniously. It’s left open and hanging. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, to have something just end, with no glimpse into the why or the what-happens-next. When we read a book or see a movie where the main character dies, it’s tempered by the afterword. We get closure on that ending, a closure we don’t often see in the real world. Which makes it a story, and not an accident.

The Distant Future – The Year 2015

New Year, new layout, new name!  And a slightly belated Happy New Year to you! A New Year, a new blog post. Or so has practically been the rate of output in the past. But not any more! This blog is in a real “chicken/egg” conundrum. I can’t tell if it’s got almost no followers because it’s got almost no content, or if it’s got almost no content because it’s got almost no followers. Well no more! This year I pledge to turn around at least the content problem with a minimum of ONE NEW POST PER FORTNIGHT. I know that’s not exactly record-breaking, but it is an output pledge I think I can keep (with Mikaela’s help). As for whether readers will follow, who can say. But at least I’ll be writing/ranting/babbling about the philosophy and politics of game design.

Psionics is on the cusp of doneness! The meat of it anyway. The art and fiction are another matter, but we’ve got plenty of time for that. To paraphrase my latest update in case you’re not in a clicking mood:

It is the new year, and as discussed, the psionics playtest period is over.

I am finalizing the first complete draft of the Psionics Core Rulebook (!!) today i.e. I am putting on the finishing touches as we speak. From this complete manuscript we will assign art briefs to artists (any pro artists who’ve been following this project, now isn’t a bad time to start contacting us), begin the final proofreading stage, and finally send it on to be laid out and made into a book complete with art and fiction. For the curious, the current manuscript clocks in somewhere around 179 pages in Microsoft Word (without art or fiction) and weighs in at somewhere around 74,416 words, plus or minus today’s edits.

Now is as good a time as any to announce–sorry for not announcing this earlier, I’m not quite sure what happened there–the results of our Book Format Poll. Of the backers polled who responded, an overwhelming 150 (about 83%) voted for an 8.5″ x 11″ hardcover, while just 30 backers (only about 17%) voted for a 6.5″ x 9″ softback. So our initial print run of the Psionics Core Rulebook is going to be exclusively 8.5″ x 11″ hardcover. .

In the meantime, I am just now finishing up my own local Psionics playtest campaign. It has been a high intensity experience, an epic success, and I think for many of my players, one of the best and most engrossing roleplaying experiences of their gaming careers. We have just three sessions left–the first of them is tomorrow–to bring the story to a close. The playtest campaign has focused heavily on the Zodiac Order and the likelihood exists that I will tell you more about it here–or perhaps let my players do the talking–when it has been brought to a close.

Over the next two months or so, my biggest challenge will be creating the introductory fiction (I’m still more than a little terrified of this prospect, not gonna lie) and then coordinating with our literary hired guns David A. Hill, Eloy Lasanta, and Russel Zimmerman to get their fiction assignments in for the final manuscript. Concurrently, the process of creating all of the awesome art to fill out the Psionics Core Rulebook will be ongoing, directed by Mikaela. But the game’s rules in their more-or-less final form will be done by the end of the day–barring unforeseen tragedies–and I could scarcely be more excited. : D

That’s it for today, but hopefully there will be lots more updates to come in the future! Call it one part of an ongoing and totally not overreaching New Year’s resolution to “fix absolutely everything wrong with my disastrous wreck of a life”.

Mining For Inspiration

Sorry Phantom Followers, it’s been a while! As I think I’ve talked about here before, I’m terrible at updating.

Nonetheless, here is a reasonably timely update for the Psionics Kickstarter! This update actually contains a lot of the stuff I want to talk about here, so I’m just going to post in a chunk of it in.

[Our local playtest group] has been struggling with some not entirely unexpected scheduling difficulties but nonetheless has managed to log three playtest sessions (six hours in length) since the playtest period began. We have our next one scheduled for tomorrow, and hopefully many more between now and January 1st 2015, when the playtest period officially ends (although we may keep playing after that). Local playtest experience has already yielded a few solid handfuls of rules corrections, tweaks, and ideas.

As I said previously, the priority between now and the start of 2015 is finishing the manuscript and incorporating actual playtest feedback into the final manuscript. What I am doing first is the “meat and potatoes”, all of the rules, mechanics, and procedural advice necessary for a game that feels entirely complete and able to support many robust campaigns. What we’ll shift focus towards going into the new year once the nuts and bolts are in place is the “candy coating”, all of the pretty stuff. This means first embellishing the manuscript with flavor, quotes and of course awesome fiction (which you generous people have paid for), and then embarking on the journey of securing the awesome art that you generous people have paid for and letting Mikaela work her layout magic, perhaps going into the later stages of that process in March or April (too early to say now for sure). Until then, I’m letting my actual play experience serve as both a continuing stress test of the rules and mechanics and as a groundswell of inspiration I’m currently storing up as the basis for the thematic and aesthetic trappings that my fiction and the fiction of other contributors will imbue the game with as the final coat of polish before the art and layout phase. This process is, fittingly, happening side by side with the painstaking “training” of the Psionics Pandora station.

It’s the last few sentences that I want to expand on here. So I did, although I didn’t expand on the music part much. Let me just say either listening to music is an inseparable part of your creative output or it isn’t, and either you know the uniquely frustrating experience of hammering a Pandora Station into the shape you want, or you don’t. : )

Basically speaking, this unusually lengthy playtest process is fascinating to me and I’m really enjoying having the time window to leisurely unpack the process and take my time with it. My past games have been written and published with much less time for playtesting and almost no time for REFLECTING on that playtesting. While I think the games we’ve already published came out pretty great (I’m biased), I’m finding both the playtesting and the time to reflect to be really invaluable. If nothing else, I’m catching mistakes that I never caught in past projects until the book was already published.

To be blunt, by no later than early next year, I need to write some fiction for Psionics and also write some evocative hooks and guidelines for the Fiction we’re going to pay other talented people to write. This prospect scares the everloving shit out of me. There are a lot of reasons of varying importance for this. The fact that I’m rusty at writing fiction-qua-fiction and I know I’m rusty at writing that kind of fiction (gosh, I think it’s been years since I’ve done it anything resembling regularly) isn’t the core issue, nor is the fact that I’ve never been a “manager” for other writers before.

The issue is more that my standards and expectations of the quality of the Psionics fiction–my own writing not just included, but especially–are enormously high. But even that doesn’t get at the heart of it, because I don’t just want it to be awesome, even more than I wanted the fiction associated with the Singularity System and SPLINTER to be awesome.

The real stumbling block is that for me there is a certain seemingly ineffable, seemingly unnameable, emotive, philosophical attitude, literary quality, aesthetic, and most of all style that I want the Psionics fiction to have. What I want, in my head, is so evolved in style from earlier versions of Psionics as to be almost unrecognizable when compared to the 2007 and 2002 incarnations of the unpublished game.

I hate things I can’t say in English, but the French have a better phrase for this. It is a very literal “je ne sais quois. I’m not being clever or coy here, because “je ne sais quois” is French that literally translates to “I-DON’T KNOW-WHAT”  and I DON’T FUCKING KNOW WHAT. Or more saliently, more accurately, I do know what, in my heart, and my mind, but so far I’ve been totally unable to approach putting that quality and style into even the most rudimentary words. Which is a very problematic thing because putting it into words is literally my most important job.

Never fear, though. I’ve got time, I’ve got a burgeoning playtest campaign to mine for inspiration, I’ve got books to read, and I’ve got music to listen to while I do it. So I am going to sais quois this je ne sais quois, come hell or high water. Mainly by playing Psionics.


In other (enigmatic) news…invisible drama (if I’ve talked to you face to face in the last month or so, don’t worry, I’m not talking about you) continues to be more or less invisible, against my fundamental instincts, as I try to focus on productive things rather than my mounting thirst for absolute destruction.

I hope to make a more general update on our company soon. But since aspirations don’t always align with reality as far as blogging goes, here’s the short version in case I disappear for a few more months. We’ve got an exciting distribution deal with Studio 2 Publishing and that might allow us to actually have a reasonable presence at GenCon next year, hope to God.