Saturday, August 29, 2020

RIGHTEOUS BLOOD, RUTHLESS BLADES: DARK WUXIA AND SIMPLIFYING THE COMPLEX

I realized I hadn't quite made an official announcement about Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades. I have commented about it here, posted about some of the design goals, but I haven't provided a clear announcement. 

Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades is a dark wuxia RPG, written by myself and Jeremy Bai. Our aim was to capture the feel of the style of wuxia in Gu Long stories and Chor Yuen movies. We wanted something that was more gritty, dealt with weightier themes and presented an unflinching view of the Jianghu. 

RBRB is fast, lethal, and dark. It will be released December 10th in the UK, and December 8th in the US. It can be pre-ordered HERE

You can listen to our podcasts about the design to get some insight into what to expect. 

Our aim was to make a game was light enough to fade into the background, but deep enough to emulate the intricacies of the wuxia genre (particularly the martial abilities). I think we achieved our goal and am proud of the final result. 

A few years ago I made a game called Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, my first attempt at a wuxia RPG. It is a good game, but mechanically on the heavier side (which I felt was necessary because I wanted to capture all the kung fu and swordplay I could from the genre). During the years I ran Ogre Gate, I had been thinking of ways to simplify without losing the flavor. What we tried to do was keep the core idea of selecting martial abilities, and codify the counters better (making them a whole separate category). This worked well. We also tried to make many of the abilities broader in application. 

One lesson I learned from Ogre was that because the core system was deep on its own, some of the residual depth in the system elsewhere could bog down play. So I wanted a much less extensive section on combat rules. We have key rules in there, but we set a bar that it really has to be necessary to be a part of the game. There was a point for example where we considered not having guidelines on restraining (in the end we reluctantly decided this was needed). Every mechanic was seen as a potential drag on the game, something the GM had to remember and keep in mind during play, or something that would necessitate look-up. And we wanted to reduce all that. 

The design became about streamlining and simplifying our ideas as much as possible. But again without losing the emulation. 

I also made a point of measuring things. It is easy to say "quick character creation" or "speedy combat". But I timed them both whenever we play-tested. We were particularly interested in combat speed (whereas when I made Strange Tales of Songling, my interest was in very quick character generation). Because we were drawing a bit more on Gu Long stories, many of those feature more efficient combat scenes than Jin Yong stories. There is a bit of a gunslinger or samurai vibe to how Gu Long handles duels. There is often a suspenseful buildup, then the confusing flash of weapons, followed by quick dismemberment or death. It is stylish and fast. And we wanted to capture that. 

One of the key ways to make sure this was in the game was to time the combats, and I think we succeeded. Obviously when dice are involved, and different mixtures of characters are in play, you can have much longer fight sequences. But I think the fights play out quite fast on average and this is aided by the fact that the game is theater of the mind (I do not ever use miniatures for my wuxia campaigns). 

Another key thing that helped this was how we handled turn order. We placed a talking phase at the start of combat. This is called the "Talking and Analysis Phase". It can be used to simply say something dramatic before the fight begins, but it can also be wielded cleverly to manipulate a foe, get in their head, or decipher something about their skills, so you gain an advantage or edge in the battle. It isn't always a required phase (it can be skipped in instances like ambushes for example). But it is a very good tool. 

This is also a gorgeous book. I am very impressed with the color artwork, the maps and layout design. 

As we get closer to the release date I will post more thoughts and ideas. In the meantime, check out the preview at Osprey Games


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

LUNDO: THE VOICE OF CRIME NETWORK

Crime Network was all about the voice. Of all our games it has the most personality, and is meant to sound like a conversation rather than a rule book. The text is brash and colorful, and written with a Boston accent. The narrator of the core rules and the Gangsters Guide to Organized Crime is a character from the game named Lundo Lipioni, and he was based on my grandfather, Orlando "Lundo" J. Fanti. I made him a hitman, which made him happy because he liked mafia movies, and I channeled his style of speaking into the writing. 

The writing style in the Crime Network books was the most fun for me personally. I was able to employ lots of humor using his voice, and really helped bring things to life. I remember when I first showed Bill the manuscript (I had written a draft of the rules before we started Bedrock), he commented that it definitely had lots of personality. 

The real man was obviously not a killer, but the book reflects how he spoke, and he worked for the character and the game setting. The image to the right is my favorite one of him in the book. Getting his hair right proved a challenge (he had curly hair like me and that doesn't always show up in art great). The picture below is a real photograph of him. This was probably taken shortly after the married my grandmother (who died a year before I was born). 

In real life he was a brick layer. In fact he was born in the Brickyard in Lynn (basically where the Italians lived at that time). He had been an amateur prize fighter before turning professional, but WWII cut his career short (he injured his hands in a jeep accident after the Battle of of the Bulge). He worked other jobs as well (for many years he had a job in the tunnel in Boston for example). But stone and bricks were his trade. The house where I live today is surrounded by the stone walkways and patios he and his brothers build ages ago. 

He always had a boxer's personality in my opinion, and you could still see it in his movements, even after he turned 80. And he was the kind of person who couldn't remain idle during the day, he had to be working on something. I remember when I lived in California, he came to visit for several weeks every year, and he would spend all day working our yard (he would trim all the foliage, and dig giant holes to bury the trimmings). I was always amazed to watch him dig what looked like 10 foot by 4 foot holes, several feet deep. At his house he was the same, endlessly mowing, shoveling leaves to burn in his brick furnace, then going to his brothers and sister's houses and doing their yard work (he was the youngest sibling, so this was apparently his duty).

He was also an extremely tough man. I heard stories of him ripping doors of old refrigerators with his bear hands, for example. And he once got stung by a swarm of bees and swelled up, but refused to go the doctor (he also had several heart attacks and didn't go to the doctor for those either). 

But he was very family focused and loving. For him, family was the most important thing. Nothing ever equalled family. He was not the type of person to turn his back on a family member, and he was always close with his brothers and sisters (they lived next door to each other until they died, in four adjacent houses). 

Like I said, he liked mafia movies. I remember listening to him and my aunt Lily laughing at the violence in them when I was a kid: there is a humor to how mafia movies handle violence. That is probably where a lot of my interest in the genre comes from. I think because of the way they would laugh at the hits, I realized early on that there is more going on than just violence in most of these films. 

I should say, while I channeled his voice in the material I wrote for Crime Network, we had other writers on projects at that time. So if you detect any fluctuations in the style, it is due to that (I was the only one who knew how my grandfather talked and I would basically write hearing his voice say these words in my head). If we ever revisited Crime Network, one thing I would do is make sure the voice is consistent through the whole line, and I would probably want to revise some sections as well. For some the style of the books may be a bit on the corny side. Personally I like how they came out. And I it was a wonderful opportunity for me to immortalize a family member like my grandfather. 



 

Monday, August 24, 2020

RIGHTEOUS BLOOD PODCAST EPISODE SEVEN: JADE DAGGER NINJA

Today on the podcast, Jeremy and I talk about the movie Jade Dagger Ninja and try to explain how it reflects some the design of Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades. We discuss many things in this episode, but I want to focus now on character clusters, because those are a key thing to understand about the game. 


The NPC section of Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades is large. We have dozens of NPCs and they all form clusters or networks. Most of the NPCs are affiliated with other NPCs, as enemies, allies, etc. Unlike Ogre Gate, where the chief focus was on Sects, this game takes an approach that is more character focused, like you find in Gu Long. The sects are still there, PCs and NPCs still can and do belong to organizations that matter, but the focus is on the characters and their relationships. 

This was our aim as we organized our characters. Rather than come up with a list of sects, and then group NPCs into them, we started with characters, their backgrounds and their connections. In many ways this was more complicated, and it proved a much bigger challenge because it is harder to track. But it resulted in something that works great at the table. 

We took to calling this "character clusters". These clusters can be quite extensive, but to use a simple example to illustrate the point, there is Hua Yin, also known as Little Raksha. He mastered his Crazed Raksha style by deciphering a manual rendered on the wall of a Pagoda, which he destroyed so others could not learn his martial arts. He is a minion of Eunuch Zhang, often doing his dirty work, but is being chased by the monk, Purity, who seeks justice over the destruction of the pagoda. In addition to serving Eunuch Zhang, Little Raksha has secret goals of his own (described in his entry). The idea is every character is almost like a walking adventure depending on how the PCs encounter them. We wanted them to all be gameable, not just scenery for the setting. An encounter with Little Raksha could just be a random meeting or fight, but it could lead to more interesting developments if they are drawn deeper into his orbit. He is a doorway to intrigue and conflict with Eunuch Zhang or Purity. It is a bit like chemistry, when you drop an NPC into the mix, depending on what the player characters goals and personalities are, it can lead to all kinds of unexpected directions and works very well on the fly. 


However a more planned approach can work too. You can build adventures around NPC clusters. It is very easy for example to take a character like Zhu Fei the Crimson Stargazer, who has many more connections to other NPCs. She is the wife of The Golden Bowl Chief, who left the martial world and abandoned her for the Halls of Tranquility, and she is the leader of Screaming Zither Sect, which she uses to ravage the Jianghu, hoping to attract her estranged husband's attention. She also has a conflict with a man named Tranquil Scholar Hua Shiyi, who stole her sect's Screaming Zither. This provides the GM with lots of avenues for hooks, adventure goals, etc. An adventure centered around the Screaming Zither could work, but so could one focused on settling the conflict between Zhu Fei and Golden Bowl Chief to bring peace to the martial world. 

Some of the clusters are much more extensive, while others, like Little Raksha's, are more simple. It is one of the guideposts we encourage GMs to look for and utilize when they run Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

THE HORROR EXPRESS EPISODES 2-3: HELLRAISER AND THE HORROR OF DRACULA

We continue, full steam ahead, with the Horror Express. First stop is a return to Barker country with Helltraiser (1987): 

Then we make our way to the lands of Hammer Films, and enjoy the Horror of Dracula (1958):


Hopefully we will have time to remain here and watch other Hammer gems like The Curse of Frankenstein and The Vampire Lovers, perhaps even The Lost Continent

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

SERVANTS OF GAIUS: A GAME ABOUT CALIGULA

Servants of Gaius was probably my most inspired concept. It came about for a few different reasons and everything in it gelled almost perfectly. When I was young I had a profound interest in Ancient Rome. I had a strong interest in the early empire more than the republican period (though Spartacus is one of my favorite movies). I read a lot of Roman history but also fell in love with a series and book called I, Claudius (and Claudius the God).

After we made Horror Show I was interested in doing something I, Claudius inspired, but I didn't know how to make it gameable; and gameability has always been a foundational principle of Bedrock Games. Our original motto was: Plausibility, Gameability and Personality. I tried to think of what we did well, and I also thought about what made I, Claudius so compelling to me. At the time, the answer to the former seemed to be "Investigations" and "players belonging to organization, often of a clandestine nature", and the answer to the latter was: the relationship between Claudius and his Nephew Caligula. That portion of the story, where we watch Claudius balance the desire to survive and loyalty to his family was both the most terrifying the most warm-hearted aspect of I, Claudius. So I decided to set the game in that environment. 

Initially I was going to make Caligula the bad guy. But this had all kinds of problems, in terms of being a gameable setting. Also, because Horror Show had suffered from my stint in the hospital,I wanted the concept to be something really special. I came up with the idea that Caligula was never actually mad in the first place. It really wasn't much of a stretch. It is a central question that plagues Caligula throughout the I, Claudius series (is he really a god or just mad). So if the answer was, no he was really a god, that could both explain his eccentric behavior, while opening up all kinds of potential for him being misunderstood. The historical consensus is that Caligula was a bad person, but there are a handful of books with more sympathetic takes. And I drew a bit on these, to help explain some of the forces working against him. However the chief antagonist I took right from history and from I, Claudius: Caligula would be a god waging a war against Neptune and his forces. 

I quite liked this concept once it crystalized, and it worked amazingly well in play. The players would take on the role of members of a secret organization headed by Caligula's uncle Claudius. Their role was to protect Rome from the threat of Neptune. To make it more interesting, Neptune would operate through a mystery cult and through impersonators who could assume the identities of influential romans. This really helped push the game in the direction of mystery and adventure. And this was important because there is a whole genre of historical fiction about Roman mysteries which also had a very big influence on the game (I was particularly influenced by Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco series, and by Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series).

The game worked great once we had all those pieces in place. We were still trying to make games of roughly 100 pages so that limited some of the content. In the end though, I think that does often make for a tighter game (which is why I shifted back to smaller books with Strange Tales of Songling). 

Servants of Gaius is one of our gems, and not a lot of people know about it. It does have some rough edges. I wasn't as consistent as I should have been obtaining art for this one. So some of the formatting of the weapons and NPC images contrasts sharply with the feel of the book. This is a book that I have actually thought of redoing the art for at some point. I do not know the feasibility of this, as it might need to be laid out again as well. But it is a project I hope to eventually return to touch up (not revise, just give it a new cover, more art, and more visual refinement to reflect the content better). 

In the meantime, it is one of the games from our back catalog I strongly recommend checking out. 


Saturday, August 15, 2020

GRIM WORLD: SECRET NEW PROJECT

I am working on a secret new project called Grim World. Very excited about the core concept and have been developing material for the past month or so. It is too early to go into details about it, but here is a hint of what is to come: 


Thursday, August 13, 2020

ORIGINS OF GAMANDRIA

 I found this map the other day. It is the original hand map I made of southern Gamandria (couldn't find the northern portion), which was the basis of the hex maps in the Sertorius rulebook. 

As you can see, resources played a big role in figuring out the overall sense of the world. I love historical atlases, and especially love when they provide details like natural resources, trade routes, etc. I wanted resources and trade to be important. 

Gamandria was based on a lot of different things. The ancient setting, the pre-sertori era, was based on Thai history and culture (which carried forward with the elves and ogres). While the present day era of Gamandria was largely based on classical and late antiquity. A lot of the big ideas were already formed before I sat down to make the map. One of the big ones was the language groups and the people who spoke them. I charted out their development over a rough sketch of the continent over time periods, to get a sense of what the language landscape would be in the present. You can see this in the names on the map.  

Everything in Gamandria was kind of a thought experiment. I tried to think through all the implications of the cosmology and the way magic worked, the history and let the logical conclusion be the results. 

When we sat down to work on Sertorius, we gave ourselves 2 years. There was actually plenty of discussion and material leading up to that (at least since 2010 between me and Bill (with some of the content even going back to things I had fiddled with in 2007 in personal campaigns). But for the most part the things we settled on keeping were the gems, and everything else got junked. So when we got together with Dan Orcutt to design the game, we settled on a two year period to write it. This was the start of a big change, where we began focusing on releasing books less frequently so we could spend more time working on them. 

When we first established the concept of Sertori, they were really more like glass cannons. They had powerful magic but we didn't imagine them being physically powerful. This changed for a few reasons. I think Bill was always a little skeptical of the glass cannon idea (I remember him saying how can we describe them as powerful if their bodies are so weak). If I recall, Dan raised the initial objections to this concept in the meetings that ultimately led to reworking. Because Sertori were essentially magic wielder's whose magic came from divine energy inside them, it actually made sense that their bodies would be more powerful than a normal mortal's. We also decided to truly focus on Sertori as the only viable character type. You can play Ogres or Mortals, but those have caveats and are not the expectation. Initially our plan was to do a more classic fantasy set-up with wizards, warriors, etc. However the Sertori were so exceptional and powerful, it became clear the setting would revolve around them. A Sertori being present in a city for instance, had big implications. 

Everything in the setting largely became about how the cultures responded to the presence of Sertori, and how Sertori responded to one another. In most places, some kind of order or tradition would arise to at least mitigate their ability to destroy and control. In some places, where the conditions were right, they would be persecuted (but this required a lot of thought because the idea that people this powerful could be so easily hunted down, required explanation). 

One of the big developments in the design of Sertorius was the Followers system. Once it was clear how significant the divinity of the Sertori was, the possibility of them becoming minor gods was obvious as well. So we devised a followers system that, in my opinion at least, is quite solid. Creating systems like this is tricky. One big issue is they can deviate from what is actually happening on the ground in the game. I ran into this with the crime system in Crime Network (which is why it went through a number of revisions over the years). Here I feel like we managed to make a system that didn't fight the details of campaign. It fit in easily with what was occurring in the game world as the characters interacted with it. 

A major influence on the way we approached followers was the movie Agora. I cannot understate how influential this movie was in general. I love movies set in the ancient world and in late antiquity. Rome is a particular interest of mine. But Agora stands out. There are a handful of movies and media that rise to that level for me. The original Spartacus, I Claudius, and Agora remain my favorites in this genre. 

Agora, with its depiction of early Christianity and religious conflict in Alexandria during Roman rule, helped set the tone for religious movements surrounding Sertori. If you have never seen Agora, I highly, highly recommend it. It is about Hypatia of Alexandria, a philosopher, who was brutality murdered by a Christian mob (the film downplays the violence of her death). It perfectly balances being a movie about characters and their interpersonal drama and the forces that take over their lives. It works on both the large and small scale. 

Agora helped give a foundation for the kinds of conflict Sertori cults could produce (even for the Sertori who are leading them). 

I have only gone back to Sertorius indirectly since we release Beneath the Banshee Tree. When Bill died, I don't think me or Dan really wanted to do much in the setting. I ran a campaign after he died (effectively taking over the play group he was running) and it was a very, very dark series of adventures. After that, it never really felt comfortable working on it further. So all of our returns to the martial have been using it as a source for other settings. Ogre Gate originates with an event that occurs in Gamandria for example. And I am working on another project that has a similar genesis. 

I will try to post a part II to this in the near future. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

BODY HORROR AND MEANING BEHIND THE GAMES

I mentioned elsewhere that I left twitter a while back, and was talking about how that decision vastly improved my ability to focus, read, and remember information. These days I am just at facebook, very occasionally on Mewe, and once in a while in a forum or two. And of course I am here at the blog. But somehow none of those are as demanding of time and attention as twitter was, and the simple removal of that platform from my routine has made enormous changes for the better. One area I see a noticeable difference is my desire to write. Normally I do a lot of game design and game writing during the day, but since I left twitter I found myself writing all kinds of things and wanting to blog more (which is a much more natural state of things for me: people may remember I used to blog about all kinds of things here in the past). Today I want to talk about body horror in our adventures and explain why I find the genre so appealing. 

There is a story I have told before but haven't in a while, and many people following me were not here in the early days of Bedrock (back when all this happened). I want to begin here. 

In 2009 I started Bedrock Games with William Butler, and about shortly after I got married. We didn't have a lot of money so I had to take a couple of jobs. I was working as a stringer for a news paper at the time, doing delivery at night and in the late evenings/early mornings writing, doing layout and learning the ropes of publishing. I was very active in combat sports too at this time, so I was generally healthy and energetic. But I started noticing some problems.

If I recall correctly, midway through 2010 it all began. About midway through writing Horror Show (many have observed there is something a little disjointed about a few parts of that book and this is the reason). My energy level dropped tremendously. I like to read and one of my favorite authors has always been Mark Twain. He was the sort of author I would go to to relax and recharge. And I distinctly remember sitting down to read Letters from the Earth and struggling to make it through even a single paragraph at a time. Lethargic, I couldn't get past a page without needing to fall asleep. Not wanting, but needing. 

I started noticing other things as well, skin rashes that wouldn't go away, and even more troubling symptoms. I also started having extreme pain, like my body was being split in two. And my mind felt on edge. I always loved horror, and as I was working on a horror game I was watching a lot of it, but my nerves felt shot whenever I tried to watch something intense. I would go to cover stories for the paper, and have bouts of bleeding. I was training at a san shou gym at the time, and I would have the same problems there. Eventually the pain got so bad, I found myself on the couch, where I could do nothing but scream. I had to scream. It wasn't even a choice the pain was like being torn in half at the legs and radiant through my whole body. 

I went to several doctors and the problem was misdiagnosed about three times over the course of a month. It wasn't until December that they finally gave me a scan (a process that involves drinking tubs of iodine mixed with ginger ale, until you inevitably vomit). They found an abscess, a perianal abscess. I was told these were known for being particularly painful, and that you needed to treat them before they lead to septicemia. This explained the pain, so it was a relief. I had been through months of mysterious symptoms and the news was welcome. 

I went in for surgery. This was my first surgery. I had never had or needed surgery before. I made a point that I wasn't going to make a big deal of it, that I wasn't gong to be nervous or anxious. And that first time, it worked. I went in, got rolled into surgery and spent the night delicious in the hospital watching Monk (they must have been having a marathon because that is all I remember watching). 

When you have that kind of surgery they give you heavy pain medication, which I took (at least I did for this surgery). The next morning I was called back to the hospital, but because I was medicated, I had to get a ride from family. My grandfather, who had been ill and losing his mind, passed away the Sunday I got home. 

That year he had been staying at my parents house, growing weaker. I would usually go there early to make him some food. He was a hard man to cook for. You had to cook his pasta till it was mush because he had false teeth and no longer took the time to seal them to his gums. I remember towards the end, he was having visions of bears at the window. These sights would naturally make him very anxious. He would look at me and ask "Is that bear going to be a problem?". I found the best response was to accept the reality of the bear and just tell him "That bear is fine, he is just minding his own business." My grandfather, who we all called 'papa' for some reason, would turn over and go back to sleep (he slept most of the day at this point). 

I remember vaguely seeing him about a day or two before my surgery, but I was in so much pain all I remember is him asking what was wrong with me, then commenting how much he liked my wife. That she was a good woman. But the rest is a blur. 

After I saw his body and the hospital and we all said out goodbyes, I spent the next week at his funeral, serving as pall bearer (not advisable after surgery but I was particularly close to him and felt this was an important role to serve), and just being with family. It was naturally all a bit surreal given the surgery and the pain medication. The service was held at his church, an Italian Church along the city line. We then hurried him in Lynn. Like most men his age, he served in World War II (he was at the Battle of the Bulge) and I was surprised that the military sent two people there to play taps and hand my mother a flag to put on his coffin. After the funeral we went to eat at an Italian restaurant (all my grandfather's children and their children).

My grandfather had also been a boxer. In fact early on in the war he boxed to help provide entertainment. He had a long amateur career (nearly 100 fights I believe and he won all but 1 as far as I know). And he had a professional career which was successful but cut short when the war started (and a jeep accident ruined his hands for boxing---he could still train people, but he told me between that and losing all his conditioning during the war, going back to box professionally wasn't in the cards for him). Later I would discover just how good of a boxer he was when I was working on a boxing history project in my local area and was contacted by people who remembered seeing him fight, and I regularly heard the same thing: that he wasn't just a good fighter, but an amazing one. This was something he and I connected over, and also the reason for my interest in martial arts. 

After he died, I spent the next week focused on recovery. And the recovery went well. I went back to work when they told me I was able (I think the doctor told me to take 1-2 weeks off). I didn't notice any problems when I worked for the paper in the day, but at night, I noticed pain while I was driving for delivery. Soon the bleeding started again. And this went on. I went to the surgeon and he said my recovery was fine, that the pain would fade. But the pain persisted, the bleeding increased, and things generally got very bad. 

Fevers and chills were a frequent symptom (they had been from the start) and they got so bad my whole body would shake. At this point, my work on horror show was thoroughly interrupted and put it on hold. I found myself back at the hospital for tests. The abscess was back. They gave me more pain pills. The rest felt like a dream. I slumped in the couch and watched 70s crime films all night. 

My surgery was scheduled at night. That felt ominous. It is different going into hospital at night, rather than the day, especially for surgery. The old woman at the desk told me she had a perianal abscess and I had all her symptoms (she described it as the worst pain she ever felt in her life). Thankfully she just had that one incident but I was subjected to it twice, which was why she felt so awful. 

They rolled me in, and started the I.V. I had a new surgeon. The second I.V. is when the body horror of this story begins. They always ask you if you've eaten or drunk anything hours prior to the surgery (you are supposed to fast). I had some coffee which I told them about. They will sometimes give you a drug to clear your stomach. They said they were going to give me something. I felt it flow into my veins, and instead of cold liquid, everything felt prickly. My blood felt wrong. My brain instantly panicked. And I wasn't given to panic. This whole time, I'd been calm through it all. I don't remember much else. The surgeon was convinced this was an early stage of sepsis and insisted I go in. I was convinced I was having a reaction that needed to be addressed. They resolved the disagreement by taking any power I had to make a decision away from me. When you put down family members as contacts on those medical forms, apparently you also give them power to make decisions for you if you can't. And the doctor decided I couldn't make a clear decision now. My mother was the only person there at the time, and she was on my form, alongside my wife, so they told her I had to go into surgery right away, no delay, and, understandably, she okayed it. I still felt like my blood was hot and fuzzy. I think I was still screaming at people. It is all kind of a blur. 

This surgery did not go as well as the first. I woke up and couldn't empty my bladder (this isn't uncommon after anesthesia). The struggle to empty it produced pools of blood at my feet. I remember feeling the blood under my foot on the tile. They tried everything, but I ended up needing a catheter for a week (I won't go into details on that, but I do not recommend them). 

When I got home my personality was visibly different. I remember passing the time reading Dracula, Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These are books I had read many times before, and I was immersed in them like I always would be, but there was something gnawing at me this time. The fear felt a lot more real, not just escapist. I was uncomfortable deep in the pit of my stomach. When I returned to work this feeling persisted. Just a vague sense of doom hanging every where and realizing all the cars around me could crash and people could die in an instant. Each moment on the highway felt like it could go catastrophically wrong with one bad choice or mistimed turn. This was definitely not how I normally felt in the world. 

A lot happened after this. I won't go deep into the details. But one thing to understand is I needed a total of seven surgeries in the next year. And each of these surgeries, produced fistulas, basically wounds or tunnels leading from my bowels where the abscesses stated to the outside of my body. And there were a lot of fistulas. The fistulas were all fitted with setons, which in my case were flexible blue strips of plastic, almost like hard string, to keep them from healing over (the fistulas need to remain open so they can drain). The problem seemed to be that no matter how many abscesses they removed, they would come back or appear in other spots. It just kept coming back, and by the end of the year I was barely functional. 

I had somehow managed to finish Horror Show, to the point that I remember reading a review of it the day I went in for my fourth surgery (there was a months long gap between my 3rd and 4th procedure). But I was going in so regularly it felt routine. However once home, I wasn't able to do much. The fistulas took a long time to get used to, but it wasn't just the fistulas that were the problem. They were creating other problems themselves and I frequently ended up in the hospital because of those symptoms. I lost a tremendous amount of weight. Before it all began I was 170 to 180 pounds, with a healthy amount of fat and muscle. I was in the low 120s by the second round of surgeries. 

The doctors knew they had to do something to keep me from getting abscesses. They decided to put me on two antibiotics long term. This isn't something you normally want to do all the time (antibiotics have all kinds of side effects and they are not good for you body if you take them too long, but there was not other choice). They eventually discovered the problem was crohns disease. They also found that I had vasculitis which explained a number of the other symptoms (though the vasculitis was pretty perplexing for a lot of reasons). They found celiac as well, which was at the bottom of my list of concerns (though it did mean not more Italian restaurants or eating pasta at family gatherings). 

They decided to put me on immune suppressants. My mother has immune issues, and had been on suppressants, but I was wary because she went septic once as a result. But I tried them, and my body reacted very poorly. Infections started right away. I was getting them all the time. And I was getting all kinds of other reactions that made life hell for several weeks. We decided to stop the immune suppressant. I tried another with another doctor but it didn't go well either. So we stopped them and just stuck with the antibiotics. 

One lingering effect was some kind of psoriasis. My skin had never been much of an issue for me (except those rashes when the abscesses first started). But immediately started having red scaly patches. Not really a big issue in light of all that had been going on, but just more changes to the body. 

As a product of all this, my work options were becoming extremely limited. The best I was able to do was focus on Bedrock and make what I could there. I did some additional work as a stringer but this became an enormous challenge for me to pull off. Eventually it was just Bedrock, and as is widely understood, there isn't often a lot of money to be had in gaming (unless you come into with resources, or work for one of the big tier companies). With the fistulas, for the first five years at least, writing proved a huge challenge. I couldn't sit for long stretches. And sitting is how you normally write. I had to either write standing up (which was excruciating for the fistulas) or laying down. I wrote all of the game Slayers (published by Avalon) standing up for example. And I wrote almost all of Sertorius laying down (a set up that required tremendous innovation and open-mindedness on my part). Eventually I found ways to write sitting down, but it took me a long time. Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate was the first book I wrote from a seated position for many years (though this possibly began with Beneath the Banshee Tree). There isn't exactly a handbook on how to do this kind of thing when your body has undergone these types of alterations. And the doctors and nurses don't give much in the way of advice (though it is possible I was in such a haze, they gave it and I didn't notice). You just have to figure it out. 

Exercise and martial arts were a whole other thing. I couldn't do martial arts anymore. It was important to keep my muscles healthy, but building muscle around a fistula can make them more active and lead to problems. So it was a balancing act. Occasionally I would get it into my head I could do more. Sometimes I was right, sometimes wrong. I spent time last year testing how far I could go by getting back into martial arts with full contact sparring. For a time it seemed like things were good, but malabsorption and fistulas have consequences you can only ignore for so long. Eventually they reassert their dominion over you. I had to stop, because of an injury and because was aggravating my symptoms. But I am hoping I can return when things get back to normal, even if it is on a much lighter schedule, because I really felt alive again sparring and training. 

The last part is important because two things two things happened to me creatively during this time, and you can very much see them in our books like Sertorius, Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, House of Paper Shadows and Strange Tales of Songling. The first I have spoken about before, where I suddenly found myself, always a martial arts movie fan, watching much more wuxia than I normally would have. I liked wuxia, but tended to favor more kung fu and less flying swordsman stuff. But suddenly unable to do martial arts myself, I found the idea of swordsman who can defy gravity enormously liberating. The other thing was I had a new appreciation for body horror. I always liked stuff like Barker and Cronenberg. But I had never experienced body horror first hand. And I felt like I got the full range, from a sense of being mutilated to the dread of a creeping disease overtaking your body and changing you. 

You see it in a lot of books I've written. In Sertorius you see both the wuxia and the body horror influence for instance. But House of Paper Shadows is almost all body horror. And it was my way of coming to terms with everything I had been through. Body horror is a reminder of the body's fragility and our mortality. It is also a reminder that your body, and the world, are not constant they are always changing. Sometimes that realization is good. But other times, like when you look down and suddenly see a part of you is irreparably changed, it can be horrifying. 

This is also why I developed a fixation with 'maimed swordsman' films. Early in my recovery I was watching films like the One Armed Swordsman over, and over again. Because I identified with the protagonists. And I think maimed swordsman movies are a kind of body horror. The realization that no matter how healthy, how heroic, you can still just be meat and body parts can be lost. 

A lot of these themes are evident in our art. Every book has some kind of emotional foundation. I won't go all the way back to the beginning with this, but most of them deal with my experiences of bodily transformation, fear of death and grief in some way. When we started Ogre Gate, William Butler passed away suddenly early on, and that whole book became about the venting of our grief. That is why midway through the book, the art shifts from idyllic and bloodless, to bloody, filled with lost limbs and heroes dying. I was still coming to terms with Bill's death and so were the other writers. 

By the time I started House of Paper Shadows I knew I wanted the art to reflect the fragility of the body, in a way only body horror could achieve. Those were part of the conversations we had around the art. The end result is one of our better looking books in my opinion. And if House of Paper Shadows dwelled on the shifting and dying nature of the human body, Strange Tales focused on the decay of spirit that brings (again this was part of the discussion surrounding the artwork). 

Don't get me wrong. These are games. I am not a big believer in the notion that games will change how people see the world. But I do think they can help enrich peoples lives and give them an emotional experience. So I have always tried to bring emotional weight into the art, the creative process and setting material. That is why listening to music before I write is so important to me. While these are still games about exploring worlds, being another person and defeating foes (or dying at their hands), each game still has a lot of personal meaning to me, and an emotional foundation that I think lends some weight to the settings and adventures. I am the furthest thing from a literary minded person. I do, however, invest a lot of thought in what I make, and treat it with the same awe I treated writing music. That only intensified after all my experiences with surgeries and fistulas. 

I left a lot out of this account. Too much happens in ten years (or even in just a year or two of surgeries) to condense into a single blog post. There was an incident after anesthesia, involving a green dancing gremlin on my chest as I tried to sleep (which I realized was just my mind playing tricks with the glow of the AV light at night). There were countless trips to the emergency for symptoms I'd rather forget to be honest. Your mind definitely slips under those circumstances as well, so there ended up being a lot of work to do there. But the big thing was the body horror and the grief. Those shaped me in ways I couldn't have anticipated when Bedrock started. And the death of Bill Butler was an enormously unexpected development as he was not only my good friend but played a critical role: he was our mechanics maestro. 

I am writing about this because sometimes I just need to write, and also I want people to understand that even thought these are still just games, they do have layers to them. This might be me giving too much of a window. I am a very private person. At the same time, I am not someone who enjoys the artificiality of being out there online and marketing. That is why I don't edit my podcasts for example. It is why I left twitter. I don't want to lose myself in the process of trying to promote the games I make. I don't want to create a glossy version of me that isn't real. I see that happen to people and I don't want to go down that road. And returning to these events, is a helpful way for me to remind myself of important lessons of my imperfections. 



Saturday, August 8, 2020

THE DOOM THAT CAME TO BEDROCK


I like all types of music today, but when I was young, I was deep into heavy metal. I played guitar, joined a band, got hooked on Iron Maiden, Ozzy and Megadeth. One of the songs that resonated with me most when I first found heavy metal music (which would have been sometime around 7th or 8th grade--in the vicinity of 1989 or 1990), was the song Black Sabbath. It was instant love. I adored the way it built atmosphere, the haunting tritones (which at the time, I didn't understand), and that crushing riff midway through. It was really that more uptempo riff that got me the most. It is a riff I think all guitar players should learn because it helps build rhythm and groove. Tony Iommi is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, riff makers in music, and that one to me is definitive. After I heard that, I wasn't the same musically ever again. It helped pave the way for a future interest in something called doom metal. 


Because I played guitar in a heavy metal band, and because we wanted to write as many of our own songs as possible, I tried not to be too narrow about the metal music I listened to. Metal can be tribal, and it isn't unheard of for fans to limit themselves, especially back then, to a particular niche within the genre (for example I had friends who only listened to Death Metal or only listened to Thrash Metal). But my love of metal was shaped by a lot of different bands, and chief among them, and in direct competition with Black Sabbath for me, was Iron Maiden. They were melodic, uptempo and in many ways quite opposite of the thrash and death that followed (I remember many of my bandmates finding them 'too light' for instance). But I did favor bands with a theatrical streak: Iron Maiden, Queen, King Diamond, etc. 

Back then, it was pre-internet and information about bands was not always consistent or widely available. You often had to pick albums based on the cover alone. Which was another reason not to narrow your taste too much because if you picked something, and it wasn't the genre or subgenre you thought it was, you were stuck with it. This is how I learned to love the Lizzy Borden Album: Visual Lies for example (which turned out to be a good thing because I learned a lot listening to it). And this process is how I found an album called Beyond the Crimson Horizon, by Solitude Aeturnus. At the time, I was interested inmysticism and still very religious. While I listened to a lot of death metal and even occasional black metal, because of my upbringing, some of the content was a little uncomfortable for me. I would still listen, but I was hoping to find bands who were more interested in the things I was interested in. The cover and the song titles, seemed a little more in line with my way of thinking. 

 

I bought Beyond the Crimson Horizon and listened when I got home. I was a very focused music listener. I remember the first track, Seeds of the Desolate, struck me in a similar way to that original Black Sabbath song. The vocals were clean and grand, but still had an edge to them, the guitar was astounding, and the lyrics seemed almost biblical. I didn't understand that this album belonged to a genre of music called Doom Metal (which traces its lineage directly to Black Sabbath) but I knew I wanted to find more of this band's music and more bands like them. Unfortunately for me at the time, they only had one other album, Into the Depths of Sorrow.

Over the next several weeks I looked for bands mentioned in the album sleeve. Unfortunately I no longer have that sleeve, but I believe this led me pretty directly to Count Raven, Saint Vitus, and Cathedral (though it is possible I simply discovered Cathedral in a way similar to how I discovered Beyond the Crimson Horizon). When I showed the album to my singer, he was equally excited by it and told me it reminded him of a band called Candlemass. Within a few minutes he put in a Candlemass tape called Tales of Creation and I was equally blown away. The first song he played was At the Edge of Heaven. Again, we didn't have the vocabulary yet to call it Doom (though this was a term at the time, we just didn't know about it), but the operatic vocals and the slow, heavy riffs, was just everything we wanted in music at the time. With Candlemass there seemed to be a classical influence as well, which appealed to me because I was learning a lot of Bach at that time. 
 
Slowly we came to know this was a whole genre of music, and all these bands were part of it. I picked up all the bands I could that were mentioned in the sleeves. Sometimes it was impossible to find them, or you would have to order them special. But I did manage to obtain Saint Vitus (who I quite liked) and Count Raven (who I was less enthusiastic about as the singer sounded too identical to Ozzy Osbourne). I also discovered Cathedral, through their first album, Forest of Equilibrium. 

 
Cathedral was a unique band, particularly on that debut album (they would change their style in later records). They were slow. Really, truly slow. To this day I haven't heard anyone play as slow as cathedral without boring me. But Cathedral wasn't boring. There was a lot more going on with the guitar than it sounded like (something I painfully discovered when I attempted to learn to play their music). And they used a lot of interesting harmonies. This album had a very big influence on how I played. I never played as slow as they did, but the way I used power chords, and the types of power chords I played, started to resemble Cathedral. 

My drummer's sister introduced us to My Dying Bride with their album As the Flower Withers. The song Sear Me had me, the singer and the drummer in awe. Up to that point, power chords had kind of taken over in metal (in Doom Metal too), and to us it seemed like that would just escalate, as things got heavier, and heavier, but a bit like the British New Wave, bands like My Dying Bride showed me that there were other ways for genres to grow. They still used power chords, but in many ways, at least on key parts of that album, they took a backseat to melodic riffs, and counter point. And they had a violin (which not something we expected at that time). Make no mistake, this was still a very heavy album: it had death growls, rolling power chords and aggressive drums, but these were spread among a lot of other things. 
 
Paradise Lost was even more of a surprise when I first heard them. My drummer introduced me to their album Gothic. They were almost rock, and had a real interesting sound, including a female backup singer. They were not afraid to go light, even a bit poppy while still retaining a sound that would bristle against gentle ears. Genres are much more codified now, but at the time, I heard them labeled death rock, but we just called them doom. Paradise Lost was for me, again a lesson in growing a genre. 
  


Keep in mind a lot of these albums were released around the same time. Gothic came out in '91, Beyond the Crimson Horizon came out in '92, etc. I am not trying to paint the chronology of their release but talk about the order in which I discovered them myself. It also leaves out important bands I was less aware of until later. For example, while I had heard of the band Trouble, who had a big influence on Solitude Aeturnus (and by some accounts Metallica as well), I wasn't able to get any of their albums till much, much later. 

The reason I bring all this up on the blog, is I've become very aware of how much this music has influenced my GM prep and game design. Also my experience of discovering the genre has influenced how I approach developing lines and growing concepts. It wasn't just Doom Metal of Course. Lots of metal and other music have big influence on me. There are a number of things in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate influenced by Dio for example. And the starlit inkstone adventure for Strange Tales was inspired by his line "Don't write in starlight because the words may come out real". 

I never listen to music when I write. I think that is a habit that leads to errors (at least for me). But I always listen to music before I write. And that often gets me into the right frame of mind for whatever I am working on. 

Music is always a big influence, and it isn't just music from heavier genres. When we made Sertorious I was influenced by all kinds of music, including pop. For me what is important with music is it moves me emotionally and inspires further ideas. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

A SCIENCE FICTION RPG?

Is it time for Bedrock to finally do that science fiction RPG I've been meaning to all these years? 

My first genre loves were horror and science fiction, and the latter was particularly influential in shaping my life. I was a late bloomer as a reader (reading was actually difficult for me early on), but once I overcame that difficulty, I devoured books, and obsessively read 100 pages a day. I was a slower reader, I never mastered skimming text and always read it out loud in my head. But I think this had its advantages and the sounds of words and sentences became very important in my appreciation of books. 

The first science fiction book I remember reading was the City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. I had already fallen in love with Frankenstein, but at the time it never registered as being science fiction (it always felt more like horror to me). My father has a large cardboard box in the basement filled old science fiction and social fiction novels. This is where I found City and the Stars. It was a very early edition (possibly from when it first came out) and barely intact. But it hooked me from the start. I was soon hunting down every Clarke book I could find: Rendezvous with Rama, The Songs of Distant Earth, Childhood's End, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fountains of Paradise, etc. And he was still writing when I discovered him so I consumed books like The Hammer of God and The Final Odyssey when the were released. 

The box in the basement yielded more authors: Robert A. Heinlein, Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Frank Herbert, and more. The thing I liked about these kinds of books was they often felt like thought experiments, or long form dialogues exploring an idea or concept. I tended to gravitate toward stuff like Ringworld, Dune and Foundation. 

However, I've never made a science fiction RPG. I think part of the reason is they seem daunting to run. You have the whole universe potentially as a setting (obviously this could be more constrained depending on the concept). Also I have no real scientific background. I love science, and enjoy reading about it, or watching documentaries on space. But my brain is more comfortable with things like history and music than numbers and formulas. So one thing I'd want to do when I do science fiction is bring in someone with that background. 

I have given some thought to the the of science fiction setting I would want to do. It would have to be something as close to Clarke as possible, as that was my biggest inspiration growing up (ideally something related to a City and the Stars like concept). 

I'd also want it to be a line with the potential for more than one type of setting (so there may be a 100 page book that feels like Ringworld, another that feels like Dune, etc). 

I still have a lot to think about in terms of system. I know I want something like, yet deep enough to handle the crunch of a hard science fiction setting. 

If and when it is time, I will keep folks updated. 


Thursday, August 6, 2020

HORROR EXPRESS EPISODE ONE: NIGHTBREED

In these dark times, we delve into the great classics of horror cinema. Join Adam, Joel and myself, as we talk about our favorite horror movies. We begin with the cult classic: Nightbreed. This was the movie that introduced me to Clive Barker. I remember seeing it after school on VHS with my friends shortly after its release, and it had a profound affect on my tastes in horror. The version I watched was the theatrical release. Today we talk about the director's cut. We also talk about the novella it is based on, Cabal (also by Clive Barker). 

In Nightbreed, a man named Boone finds himself drawn to Midian, a world where monsters live. His journey begins in the office of a strange therapist named Decker (played by David Cronenberg), who convinces him he is guilty of murdering several families. After he tries to kill himself, he is hospitalized, where he meets a man who tells him the way to Midian. Wanted for murder, and hounded by Decker, he flees, following the man's directions till he reaches Midian's gates. There he joins the monsters, but is soon torn between Midian and the world of man. 

Join the Horror Express to learn more and hear our take on the film (spoilers ahead!):