SPLINTER’d (Kickstarter Campaign Ongoing)

Not gonna lie, I wanted to make an ETG post quick to get the taste of the last post out of my mouth. I certainly don’t regret anything I said, as such, but let me say this: having at-all controversial opinions and a crippling anxiety disorder is a really tough combination to live with. Hell, having an anxiety disorder doesn’t pair especially well with having principles, period. I’m eager to get back to discussing games I actually like, and of course that includes the ones that I invented myself.

So, SPLINTER. Our Surprising Things Kickstarter has been live for about a week now. It will be a full week tomorrow. So far we’re about 30% funded with about three weeks to go. That’s not terrible by any means but of course I’m already worried we won’t make it: see again, anxiety disorder making life more difficult than it should be.

This also has to do with the fact that this KS is very much necessarily our litmus test for the future of the SPLINTER game line going forward. If this KS funds, obviously SPLINTER has enough public interest to support in full. If it doesn’t, that would be a clear indicator that SPLINTER is just too niche and weird a project for the adventure games market. So the stakes are scary high. If you’re reading this and you haven’t backed and/or put in your 20 hours on social media pestering all your friends to back, please help me out and do so. (To those of you who’ve already given, the vast majority of you have given AMAZINGLY generously, so thank you all so, so much!)

Some exciting news, though, in the field of…actual news. I’m happy to report that our KS has been featured on the frontpages of Tabletop Gaming News (TGN) and Roleplayers Chronicle. That’s super groovy and hopefully it will bring us to a larger audience.

When we hit the 50% funding mark, I’m going to reveal some of our stretch goals which I’m pretty stoked about. This isn’t quite a preview, but it verges on one.

So the SPLINTER Core Rulebook is the very first product End Transmission Games ever published (not the first game I designed by a long shot, though, as both Phantasm and Psionics are older than it by five years or more, but that’s neither here nor there). Anyway, as our oldest product SPLINTER is obviously the one I most wish I could go back and change, since I’ve learned so much about this game design business since its release.

Mostly, this is a production values thing. Mikaela has grown by such leaps and bounds as a layout artist that the difference in visible production quality between SPLINTER (her very first layout project) and Psionics is obviously a difference of several orders of magnitude. Likewise, some of the art that we included in SPLINTER is not up to our current standards (although don’t get me wrong, some of it is just as great as anything in Psionics: I really dig black and white art in general.).

But there are also some things in SPLINTER’s rules that I’d like to change. Traditionally, this is why roleplaying games have second (and third and fourth and sixth) editions. It’s too early for a new edition of SPLINTER, though, by every conceivable metric. For one, it simply hasn’t been enough years. For another, we haven’t sold anywhere near enough copies to justify launching a new edition as any kind of sound financial decision. Finally and most importantly, we haven’t received nearly enough actual play feedback to have a truly informed perspective on the issues with the rules that would be needed to make the targeted changes for a new edition.

When it comes to the SPLINTER rules, I’m fairly happy with the rules governing gameplay in the Splinter itself (both the core dice pool mechanic and its particular interactions). But the “real world” rules for “playing your Player” Earthside use a primitive primordial ancestor of the DicePunk System that I’m not entirely proud of. I’d love to upgrade the Earthside rules to use the DicePunk System proper (at the Realistic/Literary Campaign Power Level), since it’s better than its prototypical ancestor in pretty much every way. This would have the added benefit of making our roster of supported coherent games that much more coherent. We’d be supporting DicePunk, Singularity, and Splinter which as one game with two systems would be DicePunk/other, as opposed to not-quite-DicePunk/other, which is even sloppier and more confusing. Fans of DicePunk games like Psionics could logically have their attention drawn to Splinter, and vice versa. Finally, since EarthSide stats influence Avatar stats, using the modern incarnation of the DicePunk system for Splinter’s Earthside play would improve upon that two-systems-in-one-game interaction.

A chance to overhaul the SPLINTER core rules would give me an opportunity for lots of other little tweaks too–while writing this, for instance, I noticed that many of the SP awards in the Subscriber Point Reward table on page 59 are a bit low for my tastes–but I’m not looking to make any major changes to the core “in-the-Splinter” gameplay. Except for the massive influx of new content that’s the entire point of the Surprising Things project.

So, at this point I’ve basically come around to revealing that our first stretch goal will be some kind of overhaul of the SPLINTER core rulebook. Which is an idea that really excites me, so here’s hoping.

On Censorship and Principle

The internet has made the venerable epigraph “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, if you were wondering, but traditionally and wrongly attributed to Voltaire) seem a rather tired and worn-out bit of rhetoric. But overused or not these are words I have always tried to live by, as best as I can.

I disapprove of “Tournament of Rapists” in the strongest possible terms. It is a benighted piece of grotesque wrongheaded filth that should have never existed. I seriously question the character of the people who created it and who sought to publish it. I cannot overstate the fact that I am not a fan.

But censorship is always wrong. When a monolithic distribution channel like One Book Shelf, a self-acknowledged de-facto monopoly, bans a product, that is tantamount to censorship, and they know it. And they very nearly did so, not because it was in line with their principles, but to satisfy the demands of a screeching hate-mob of perpetually outraged social justice harpies who for some reason did not think that not buying the product and/or leaving it one star or less reviews would be enough to let the market sort itself out. This is shameful.

At DriveThruRPG, we trust publishers to upload and activate their own new releases without anyone at DriveThru reviewing the product before it goes public. Because this system worked so well for the past 14 years, we had no need to create an “offensive content guideline.” To avoid anything approaching censorship, we simply adhered to an unwritten policy of not banning any RPG product.

There is, however, a growing problem. Sometimes, RPG creators design content that goes beyond disturbing. For example, we recently — and rightly — received criticism for selling an RPG supplement called “Tournament of Rapists” for four days on our marketplace.
In hindsight, we realize that we should have suspended that product from sale immediately, pending further internal review and discussion with the publisher. For a variety of reasons, we relied on our standing policy of not banning RPG titles, even in the face of a product so offensive that the policy was inadequate. We understand that we were wrong to do so.

A New Policy

It is time to change the approach we have used on DriveThru. Our prior stance, that “censorship is unacceptable,” was tantamount to shirking our responsibility. As market leaders, we are in a position that requires us to be leaders also in keeping the RPG hobby inclusive and safe.

I have actually been hoping to try and strengthen our working relationship with DriveThru RPG in the future. And in the interest of being fair, I will acknowledge that OBS did not actually ban this product. They did ban another product, nearly a year ago, that was far less offensive by any reasonable human metric, for even more tenuous reasons, but that is neither here nor there. In this case, they spoke to the author and publisher who agreed mutually to pull the product, so that is alright. What is not alright is that DriveThru has changed its policy AWAY from a policy of “Censorship is uancceptable”. This is not a good change.

I don’t know a lot about James Raggi. He’s the designer of an RPG called Lamentations of the Flame Princess that I also don’t know much about, but that looks pretty cool and which is, while WAY BIGGER than anything End Transmission publishes, not exactly SUPER-WELL-KNOWN. Anyway, my point is, he recently said this on Google+. And while I’m not a Google+’er, I couldn’t + this enough. I don’t know what political baggage agreeing with him might entail, but I agree with what he had to say:

I checked my stats and according to the ranking function they have in the Publisher tools, I am a Top 2% seller on OBS. (which says more about how small the 98% are more than how big I am) I have done over $100,000 gross sales over the six years I’ve sold through the site, which isn’t nothing.

If one of my products gets pulled, or if the products of my peers are pulled without their consent, I am taking every LotFP product off of that site, which will be something of an economic armageddon for me and a hardship from everyone on my roster getting royalties from sales. I’ll also have pretty much no mechanism for conveniently delivering PDFs to people. (even reinstating PDF sales on my site would leave me no mechanism to provide access to people that do not purchase the title; I have rather cheap software and investing in more sophisticated software will be quite impossible without OBS sales money coming in.)

This past weekend a brainless howling mob showed they were in charge of this industry and have the power to disappear ideas and products they disapprove of. Whether this is the majority or a very vocal minority doesn’t make much difference to me; I consider myself at war with them. That this is within our industry feels like an intense betrayal; I have been literally shaking mad over the past several days. Simply shitting out pieced-together cheap crap POD versions of what I owe people and simply quitting has crossed my mind.

Without the ability to freely create, and freely reach people who might be interested in those creations, participation in this hobby and this industry is simply not worth doing.

Anyone who would restrict that creativity, or make it more difficult to find people who are creating things you might enjoy, anyone who restricts imagination and works of fiction, anyone who works to ban any work, is simply evil.

Evil.

We have lost a great deal over the past several days.

While I appreciate his turn of phrase (“brainless howling mob”), I think he’s going a bit far in calling this impulse to destroy art that offends you, and the business based decision to give in to that impulse, “evil”. But it’s sure as hell not good. A lot of social justice berserkers argue that censoring this product somehow makes tabletop gaming a more inclusive, safer space for women and minorities. That is so much bullshit. Censorship rearing its ugly head in this industry makes the space of tabletop games feel that much less safe for my girlfriend, just as one example. Because fuck censorship.

We are, of course, not actually pulling our products from DriveThru, for the same reason that End Transmission games, if it were a person, would not light a stick of dynamite and then swallow it: it would be EXTREMELY. FUCKING. BAD. FOR US. I am in no position to commit principle-based financial seppuku when we are trying to support our family and we are trying to do so through our games. Above and beyond this, a repulsive shitshow like Tournament of Rapists is not the hill my company is going to die on, thank you very much.

But I do need to shake my head at DriveThru caving to this kind of pressure. Censorship is always wrong. Answer speech you find distasteful with your own speech. Not by silencing it.

Epic Battles In Spaaaaaaaaace

Epic Space Battles is a free rules add-on we’re releasing for The Singularity System designed to make space battles more epic. I mean this more literally than facetiously. The base Singularity System starship combat rules are SO DETAILED and SO INTRICATE that with more than 2-4 starships, things bog down and the lag becomes so great that the game is effectively unplayable. A six starship on six starship combat would take an unfeasibly long time to resolve, like maybe eight hours or more depending on the GM’s personal style and processing speed. This is…less than good. I’ve always pitched the Singularity System as having really fast playing and scalable starship combat, so I wanted to go back and make those things actually true, and release the patch for free.

From a game design standpoint, here’s some of what I did to convert the Singularity Core Starship Combat (SCSC) rules to the majorly simplified rules sytem I’m calling Epic Space Battles:

  • In the base rules, every starship gets at least four or five and as many as ten or more actions per turn at a minimum. One action for the helmsman, the engineering chief, and the infowar chief, plus one action for each bay weapon and each turret. But then each of these roles or stations gets additional actions later in the turn based on its ReAct value, which is based on character attributes (for manned stations) or ship system ratings (for autopiloted stations). This can quickly get a little crazy, with 20 or more actions per ship per turn being not all that anomalous. In the Epic Space Battles rules, this was the first thing to be drastically simplified: one action per ship per turn. (There are now several phases to each turn, however, so for PC crewed ships, each role still gets to do their thing.)
  • In the base rules, every starship role–or at least most starship roles–can use their actions to aid their ship in various ways. The Engineer, for instance, can boost the shields to help the ship’s defenses or boost the engines to help the helmsman perform maneuvers, the Helmsman can perform Evasive maneuvers or change range and facing relative to target ships to line up a shot, the Infowar station chief can give the Weapons bay chief more dice with a target lock or perform active jamming to keep their own ship from getting locked on to, etcetera. We wanted to retain that dynamic and that sense of teamwork and synergy but without all of the extra actions. So what I did is I added an ‘allocation’ phase where each role can allocate dice to one of four dice pools–Attack, Defense, Maneuver, and Initiative–depending on the role’s individual actions. Instead of “rolling to lock on” or “rolling to jam incoming target locks”, the Infowar Chief can now just choose to allocate their dice into Attack or Defense. Because allocating dice into dice pools individually would take too long for NPC ships, you can also just pick a preset ‘Stance’ for your ship which allocates your available roles’ dice automatically into different dice pools to focus on Attack, Defense, Maneuverability and so on. This makes things a lot faster while retaining a lot of tactical depth.
  • This already shaves a lot of time off, but I wanted it even faster, for truly epic space battles. In the base rules, a starship couldn’t be killed or crippled until you’d shot through its shields, then shot through its hull, then destroyed either its bridge or its reactor. Again, I simplified: “Shields” were abstracted into a Defense Pool bonus, and ships were simplified down to just having one pool of ‘Hit Points’, called ‘Hull’, rather than Hull Points and then Hit Points for each individual component of the ship. Some weapons had the partial ability to penerate Shields, so this was converted into an abstract Attack Pool bonus.
  • Finally, individually processes like Point Defense (shooting down incoming projectiles) and launching swarms of fighters for attack runs on enemy ships (to be intercepted by screens of enemy fighters) were heavily abstracted, moving in the latter case from handling individual vessels to handling ‘swarms’ of small craft.

So with the new rules in place, I wanted to do some playtests. I knew it was faster but I didn’t know if it was fast enough. I decided that I’d try for four playtests, doubling the number of ships each time: 4 vs 4 ships, 8 vs 8 ships, 16 vs 16 ships, and finally a clash of vast armadas, 32 ships vs 32 ships. Of course most of the conflicts would include carrier class ships carrying swarms of fighters, to make things hairier and really test the system under strain.

To make things more fun, I decided to make the playtests a game. Mikaela and I each picked a faction from the Systems Malfunction universe and spent an appropriate budget of credits to assemble and arm our fleets before pitting them against each other.

As arbitrary benchmarks, I set a target time I wanted to be able to complete each combat in. For 4 vs. 4 I decided that should easily resolve in under an hour. For 8 vs. 8, I decided 90 minutes. I thought 16 vs. 16 ships should be doable in 2.5 hours and 32 vs. 32 ships should be resolved within 3 hours, which would allow a truly epic space battle with extra time left over for an average RPG session. Like I said, these targets were selected in a pretty arbitrary fashion. One constant was that I set up the names and hull points of each ship in a notepad for tracking, and we had wet erase markets on hand for tracking relative ship positions, but I did NOT preroll the first initiative.

So how’d we do?

  1. The first playtest was easily completed within an hour, with 15 or 20 minutes to spare. I shudder to think how long a simple four starship versus four starship skirmish would take in the SCSC rules.
  2. If I recall correctly, 8 vs. 8 ships took a lot more than 90 minutes but a little less than two hours. I know that we missed the target but not by a huge margin.
  3. The 16 vs. 16 fight I was expecting to run longer than the target time based on how the 8 vs. 8 fight had gone. I wasn’t wrong. This fight was still going solidly after the 3 hour mark, though. Based on this, I decided to reduced the final trial to “only” 24 vs. 24 ships.
  4. The 32 vs. 32 24 vs. 24 fight was the finale. For this one, we decided to pit an armada from the Sol Invictus setting versus an armada from the world of Systems Malfunction. This epic battle took far longer than three hours, and I think we were somewhere between four and five hours of playtime before we thought a winner had emerged. The first initiative took a half hour to roll and set up.  One thing I noticed with this playthrough was that after the three hour mark, things felt more grueling than fun, but that probably has more to do with us not starting the playtest until 10PM than anything about the system itself. I think by that point we were just worn down physically.
  5. Our goal was to determine how long each combat would take, not which side would win or what the casualties would be. With that said, a miscellaneous observation we couldn’t help but making was that the loss of life (and ships) on both sides was, in all battles, catastrophic, a total massacre. Most fights involved so much senseless destruction on both sides of the battle that there was no clear winner. When a winner did arise, it was only the most stringently pyrrhic victory. I think this owed more to the fact that fleets built on the same amount of credits tend to be rather evenly matched, as much as the fact that the ESB system is (for the reasons discussed above) rather lethal. Mikaeala thought this was pretty sad, but I thought it was pretty neat.
  6. Due to the Advent rules, the side with the PC ship on it always fared better than the other side, and the PC ship always survived, a definitely desirable feature for obvious reasons.

Conclusions: The Epic Space Battles rules were hugely faster than the rules they’re designed to (optionally, for larger scale battles) replace, but not quite as fast as I wanted. While I found a few things I could twist and turn to speed them up by a few percent (the first rules for resolving initiative ties that I’d put were just terrible, for instance), in the end I think the times I wound up with can be deemed acceptable. 24 vs. 24 battles in most RPG systems can take quite a bit of time, and when dozens of massive starships are maneuvering in three dimensional space and allocating systems dice to different pools to fire dozens of lasers and missiles at each other, while launching dozens of fighters on attack runs to be intercepted by other fighters and…yeah. I think that the concept of “Epic Space Battles” has a pretty darn high inherent complexity as far as things to faithfully simulate in a game go, so I’m happy to have gotten the running time and complexity for huge fleet-on-fleet space combat actions down from “GM’s head literally explodes” to ” a couple hours”.

If you’re curious about the final product, it will be up on the usual suspects for free once it’s laid out, arted, and published.

I <3 GenCon

Usually I don’t manage these post-con recap posts until around Tuesday or so, after I’ve had Monday to make it home and recover, but this one seems to be burning a hole in my pocket so to speak, so I’m going to let it fire itself off now (Sunday, just sitting down after the con closing). Maybe I’ll go short now and make a more detailed recap later. Maybe.

I love GenCon. For four days a year, my social circle is suddenly four times as big as for the other 352. Everyone is excited and they’re all excited about the same stuff that excites me. People I run into know me and what I do and treat me like they care and it matters. And all around me are geeks and nerds of every imaginable stripe letting their freak flags fly, wearing their colors proudly. It is an incredible high and I am left totally physically and emotionally exhausted and with no idea how to feel now that it’s over.

We got to play a couple of fun games, although we spent most of the con running our own demos in the IGDN room. Not as much Battletech as I’d have liked to get in, and I missed out on a RIFTS game I’d had my eye on, but oh well. Ben Woerner ran his World of Dew for us (I played a ronin based on an amalgamation of the roles Toshiro Mifune is named for: not particularly imaginatively, the character was named Toshiro Mifune, and for name meaning, I facetiously wrote “Toshiro Mifune” in that spot too, then crossed it out and wrote “Japanese Clint Eastwood” which I thought was descriptive enough). I’ve actually owned World of Dew since GenCon of last year or even earlier, but I’ve never gotten to play it. The game he ran was quite nicely done (his ability to spontaneously generate samurai noir characters and places with appropriate names was impressive), but it did get me thinking about why I’m not a fan of storygames/meta-narrative currency in general, so that will probably be a blog post soon where I actually go in depth and discuss some game design philosophy/theory stuff. At midnight on Friday I finally got to play the National Security Decision Making game, specifically the fast-play doomsday clock scenario. I was randomly handed the Presidency of India, barely survived an internal coup from a slighted covert operations director who went rogue, and was minutes away from convincing my cabinet to sign off on nuking the crap out of Pakistan when they were saved by the bell, the bastards. I’ll admit I almost fell for the smooth-talking Chinese diplomat who nearly convinced me to let Chinese troops occupy the Kashmir region as a demilitarized zone. All in all it was chaotic, hectic, heated, zany, high-intensity, preposterously stressful yet almost unbelievably fun two hours. Would definitely play again.

Our six demos (24 whole hours of demos) went great overall. The IGDN rooms were a seriously happening place. By a very idiosyncratic and highly mercenary metric I personally like to use, we had an unprecedented success rate of 65% (the number of players who had fun was over 90%, but that’s not how I’m measuring success in this instance). Mikaela took the bullet on the morning demos of Splinter and Singularity for me. I ran very full games of Psionics on Thursday night and Singularity on Saturday afternoon, eight players to a table! Dan Davenport, the GMShoe, graced us with his presence for the Singularity demo, which was super fun.

The three Psionics demos we ran–Mikaela ran two of them–one on each day, were especially fun and memorable. Many players took off with really fun and interesting interpretations of the pregenerated cast, and there were some seriously unexpected twists and turns that unwound from the demo scenario, especially at Friday night’s game, which got intense. I was happy to see my pal Rusty in attendance at Saturday night’s game. All in all, I got to meet and thank a great big bunch of Psionics backers in person, along with many fans that have been supporting us for years now. You people are super and it was a blast gaming with you and hanging out. Overall, it was a really cool experience.

I’ve kind of lost interest in supplying my games to Games On Demand for them to run. This is the second or third year running that I’ve talked with their organizers about how to go about this and received exceptionally uncomfortable answers. I’m really tired of being stonewalled: there are plenty of other avenues for GMs to run my games at conventions.

We met famous (or at least semi-famous, or nerd famous, or internet famous, or whatever) people and they were nice to us. Yesterday Mik got to meet Trace Bealieu, who was really friendly and approachable, and snagged me an autograph from Margaret Weis. Periodically over the course of the con my mood was dampened by the occasional belligerent jerkass or creepy slimeball (more on the last later maybe), and even if those creepy jerks are far outnumbered by cool dudes and ladies, I’ve always been more sensitive to negative emotions and more inured to positive ones. Still, though, today was really the feather in the cap, though, a blur of awesomeness that left me feeling both dizzy and over the moon.

R.K. Milholland (!!) said kind things about the artwork in Psionics, I bought a print from Metamorphosis Alpha and Dungeon Crawl Classics artist Doug Kovacs, met and bought an autographed book from Adam Scott Glancy over at Pagan Publishing, one of the original creators of DELTA MOTHERFUCKING GREEN (holy crap you guys), talked shop and hung out briefly with Eloy LaSanta, Matt McFarland and various other folks from the IGDN, saw my books on the Studio 2 shelves among the likes of Pinnacle Entertainment (!), Mongoose Publishing (!!), and FASA (!!!!) which made me feel   like I was a ‘real’ game designer more than anything else has, and then hung out for a while with Matt Clements, Brandon Aten, and Kevin Siembieda, all of whom were amazingly friendly and approachable. I happily traded my very last copy of Psionics (!!) to KS (!!) for Palladium’s new(ish) Robotech Tactics RPG, and Kevin actually asked me to sign it as though I was anyone of any importance, or as though he hadn’t been an industry legend for a bajillion years, which is ridiculous, in the best possible way. I also bought a Rifts ballcap, a Chaos Earth mousepad, and Chi-Town Library pencils, and the probably-never-gonna-be-produced-but-anything-is-possible RIFTS Movie Script.

In closing, today I spent way, way too much money on dice, minis, Magic cards, RPGs and Battletech stuff, and I am very, very tired. Fuck yeah, GenCon.

Incoming Niftiness

Crossposty from the End Transmission blog which is to say, also me:

Three things coming up as we’re now about a week out from GenCon 2015. As usual, we will be there, running a bunch of demos and just generally getting our geek on. Please come find us and say hi! Our products including Psionics should be available at the Studio 2 booth in the dealer’s hall. For the third year running we haven’t managed to secure a booth of our own at GenCon, but not for lack of trying. Hopefully that will change going into next year. As for news from the homefront, here’s what’s up:

1) In the next few days we’ll be uploading the DicePunk SRD to the interwebs. If you did not know, DicePunk is the free, Creative Commons licensed core rules system that powers Phantasm(2010) and Psionics. (If you’re reading this, you probably already know this, but you don’t need DicePunk to use Phantasm(2010) or Psionics, or vice versa.)If you like things you can hold in your hands, the DicePunk SRD will also be on sale in a lovely book form from some of the usual suspects, and will be launching as a new product for GenCon 2015. Hardcopies will be available from the Studio 2 booth: those books are being printed now.

2) We’re about to be playtesting new large-scale starship combat rules for The Singularity System, a product we’re calling Epic Space Battles, that lets you run larger space combats with more ships faster. It’s basically a massively streamlined and more scalable version of the basic Singularity starship combat rules. This product will also be released for free (so many free things!) as a PDF here and on DriveThru. Not because we don’t think it’s awesome, but because this is something that the Singularity System promised from day 1 and if you already own the Singularity System you really should get this for free.

3) We want to meet and talk to people who want to run our games at cons and FLGS around the country. We want to give them (even more) free stuff and cool t-shirts and prestige. We want to make it official. We want, in short, an organized play program. So we’ll be reaching out in a big way. Look for news about this over the next month or so. This is something we’ve been talking about internally forever and it’s time to finally turn that talk into action.

Over and out, internets,
– DTO

ALL HAIL KING TORG!

“ALL HAIL KING TORG!”

POST-CON RECAP GOGOGO

For the third year running, Origins was awesome and exhausting. For the third year running our sales showed slow and steady growth, too. This year, just as steady but way less slow. In fact, if you squint, for the first time ever we actually MADE SOME MONEY by going to the con. Shocking, I know. But I think we might be approaching one of them ‘tipping point things. Keep in mind you’re hearing guarded optimism from a dedicated lifelong pessimist here.

21 out of 25 copies of the limited edition Psionics Core Rulebook sold with two more hand delivered to backers. I can confess this is the fastest we’ve ever sold anything. T-Shirts, stickers, and dice were a hit too–especially the design we’ve taken to calling Comrade Octo-Stalin and anything remotely related to Pyrokinesis. It is a pleasure to burn, apparently.

We had great fun running great Psionics demos Thursday and Saturday nights–Friday was a mysterious no-show. On Friday for the first time ever two PCs played by strangers initiated and completed the act of coitus in a men’s bathroom stall during a combat sequence, if I’m not mistaken, IN INITIATIVE ORDER. So yeah. That happened. Much experience was awarded.

On Saturday, the player manning the Firestarter intentionally overloaded, instantly reducing all other PCs to ashes. I was cringing and expecting recriminations for this disaster, when two of the players whose characters had just been immolated bought the book immediately! The most pleasant surprise ever, for sure. And goes to show that there ARE some gamers out there still who share my philosophy about character death.

The sole Splinter demo was a huge success too, sad I wasn’t there to see it but Mik did a bangup job and the number of groups actually playing Splinter might have just increased by a relatively huge margin. Singularity demos were fun too, especially Thursday’s.

On Friday night Mikaela and I got to hop on a game of RIFTS being run by the folks at Amorphous Blob (a gaming club, or so I gather). I played a CS Strike ‘Borg, she played a Dog Boy, the scenario was based on Expedition To The Barrier Peaks (my favorite!) and SOME ALIENS GOT THEIR DAYS THOROUGHLY RUINED. Huzzah.

In the background, I overheard a WWII Champions/Hero System game with Marvel superheroes as the PCs and the Red Skull as the villain, and at one point I heard the GM say “well he has 10 points of Mental Defense, because he’s a Nazi” and that was pretty great, but then I heard the GM say:

Take an extra 6d6 for your Presence Attack, since you just killed Hitler.

And my life was well and truly complete. What an awesome week. Big thanks to John and Allison for helping out with the Booth, the Demos, and everything else.

I bought some stuff. Notably, I got a starship deckplan from Scrying Eye games (starship deckplans, usually from Traveller, are something I almost never get to use but am nonetheless addicted to collecting), the miniatures game Aetherium (if you know anything about the stuff I make, you understand why I had to buy this) and the short story collection Soft Apocalypses by Lucy A. Snider, because as an author who sells my stuff directly, I love to buy stuff directly from authors. I’ve read a few stories in it and I can’t recommend it strongly enough if you’re a fan of really, viciously disturbing horror. I mean, “I Fuck Your Sunshine” is the title of one ‘track’ on this ‘album’. ‘Nuff said, I think?

Now to re-enter my post-convention recuperative coma. Psionics fulfillment will be underway shortly, with the rollout of the PDF most likely leading off.

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)