Wherin I Heap Love Upon Blades in the Dark

After reading Austin Walker‘s comments over the weekend (read the whole thread), I dipped back into the tabletop RPG Blades in the Dark. Reading the game, I was struck again at what a fabulous accomplishment it is. Every page and section makes me want to play the game.

As Walker indicates, each chapter has Questions to Consider, and the entire text of the game does a great job of drawing back the curtain regarding how the game fits together. The creator John Harper invites the reader to step up to become a co-designer of Blades in the Dark as they’ll play it. Everyone’s version of a given game is different, and Harper doesn’t shy away from that reality.

You might have heard me talk about Blades before, as I got in on the game early in the Kickstarter and have been a vocal fan ever since even though I haven’t gotten to play the game yet.

Blades in the Dark is set in an industrial fantasy city called Duskvol, a trade city in a world that suffered a magical apocalypse a thousand years ago. That event shattered the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead and now the known world is ruled by an immortal emperor and cities are protected from hungry spirits roaming free across the world by giant magitek electrical fences. The tone and flavor of the setting are conveyed throughout the core book, with hooks abounding and a clear manifestation of the default grim tone of the setting in the writing. The game is designed not just for telling the tales of daring scoundrels, it’s designed for telling tales of daring scoundrels *in this particular world*. It’s very much gothic dark fantasy ala the Dishonored and Thief video games (both specifically invoked as inspirations for Blades).

I prefer more optimistic worlds and games, especially these days (*waves to 2017*), so I’m also excited for the Broken Crown, a playset about trying to take down the Immortal Emperor, and other alternate setting playsets. Especially Null Vector, the cyberpunk playset. Blades is an amazing game for Cyberpunk because Blades is designed to drastically reduce the amount of planning a group has to do for heists. I have a sad memory of spending over two hours arguing with a game group about how to pull off a kidnapping in Shadowrun, and in Blades that conversation would have been five minutes deciding which general approach to take and then we’d have gotten right into the action.

Thinking back to the way tone informs the design, I’m hoping to see these playsets to adjust the mechanics in order to convey the setting’s tone. If they don’t, I’ll need to do it myself, but I’m hoping that the transparency of how the tone is built into the design means that a change in setting comes with an adjustment in the design tone.

I have spent more than a little time thinking about how I’d hack Blades in the Dark to make a Shield and Crocus RPG. I even have a working title: War in the Bones.

Fun Side Notes

  • The game’s publisher, Evil Hat Productions, has given an open invitation to designers who intend to make hacks of Blades in the Dark (new games using the system/design) to submit to them. This is likely to help foster a new family of RPGs the way that Apocalypse World became a games lineage with games like Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week, etc. Blades is heavily informed by Apocalypse World but is, IMO, a full iteration forward compared to the above hacks.
  • I love that hacks of Blades in the Dark are called “Forged in the Dark” like Apocalypse World hacks are “Powered by the Apocalypse.”

I don’t get to play nearly as many RPGs as I want or even as much as I did before I started working at Angry Robot, but I still love delving into new games to see where the discipline of RPG design is headed. Anyone similarly interested needs to be following Blades in the Dark.

Giant Spiders, the Action Economy, and Your Game

Last session, my D&D party had a great RP-driven evening, having just survived a huge throwdown with a fiend-controlled Arch-druid, a humongo spider, and a zillion spiderlings.

That fight is what I wanted to talk about today. I really like 5e’s Legendary action system. I think it’s a great way to address the primacy of action economy in the game.

What’s an action economy?

It’s the idea that in a tactical combat game, having more actions is a huge advantage. In earlier versions of D&D, a 5-person party vs. a dragon instantly had the advantage if the dragon only got one action per round, even if they got claw/claw/bite.

In the recent X-Com games, you want to get the upgrade that lets you bring a fifth squad member into missions as soon as possible, as it gives you more actions per turn. Having a fifth person is an advantage aside from that, but what I want to focus on right now is the actions. Who has them, how many, and when?

In this case, the spider got a Legendary Action (mostly webbing and biting) and the Lair Actions involved birthing new spiders to throw at us (ala spawning mobs/adds in a raid).

The Legendary/Lair Actions made the combat feel much less in our control, systematized the rate of new monsters coming in, and made the boss feel like a Boss.

The last boss we fought before the spider was a powerful necromancer who had been built up over several sessions as A Big Deal. But then, our party totally overwhelmed him, esp. thanks to our Smite-tastic vengeance Paladin and having several spell-casters who could counter-spell and use Dispel Magic. Even with undead minions around, the necromancer just didn’t have the opportunity to really put the pressure on us or keep away from our DPS. Legendary Actions would have changed that a lot. They become less special if every notable enemy has them, but maybe that’s okay?

The Ruler Reactions in the X-Com 2 expansion are a similar system, whereby the Ruler characters (special unique bosses) get a Ruler Reaction after every one of your characters acts. This means they can move around, punish characters that move out into the open, etc. Being able to interrupt and/or act out of turn is a *huge* tactical asset in turn-based games. The Chosen characters in the War of the Chosen expansion don’t get Ruler Reactions, but they do have a large # of actions per turn, allowing them to move in, attack, and then retreat to cover, etc. Some of your characters get similar bonus actions, especially the Skirmisher. Having all of those active at once could get tricky, but it re-shapes the flow of play, making it far less a game of big chunks of “my turn, their turn” and much more of a fast-paced thrust/parry/riposte kind of game.

Anyone else been playing D&D with Legendary/Lair Actions or have stories of Rulers/Chosen from X-Com to share? Or other games that use the same kind of systems?

 

Solipsism and Celebrities

  • The 80s saw, for example: Call of Cthulhu (81), Paranoia (84), Ars Magica (87), d6 Star Wars (87), Cyberpunk 2013 (88), Shadowrun (89).
  • The 90s brings the World of Darkness, Torg, Amber, Underground, Blue Planet, 7th Sea, Aberrant
  • In the 2000s you get the Forge/Story Games movement (Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc.), D&D 3.0, the OGL, etc.
  • And in the 2010s we have Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse games, RPG Kickstarters, Tons of anniversary editions of old RPGs (WoD 20th anniversary editions, 7th Sea 2.0, etc.), Pathfinder’s rise, D&D 5e, Critical Role, Roll20, etc.

Where’s the stagnation in there? I see mechanical innovation, troupe play, bridging across to other genre influences, acting techniques, roleplay theory, scene framing, etc.. And that was just a short thread overview of a way more complicated and nuanced tradition.

It’s okay to say “I got bored with RPGs, but since video games have become so much their own thing, I got excited about RPGs again.”

It’s also sensible to say that technological innovation with streaming and podcasts enabled RPGs to become an outward-facing art form and that Podcasts of Acquisitions, Inc. PAX events, and streaming games like Critical Role turned small group experiences into shared experiences. Yeah, for sure. You don’t get The Adventure Zone or Friends at the Table being A Thing without the rise of podcasts.

Roll20, Skype, & other systems let people re-connect with childhood friends to play across a continent or play w/people they’ve never met. *Raises hand* That’s me. Playing a Roll20 D&D game with old SCA friends and their friends.

There was this trend in confessional gamer memoirs in the 2000s where the white male gamer waxes rhapsodic about loving RPGs as a kid, about how it was this secret only he and his friends knew about and appreciated. But then he “discovered” girls, went to college, and/or “grew up” and cast RPGs aside, only to re-discover his love for them later, returning not just with nostalgia, but with renewed appreciation. Harmon’s bit seems like this, but probably across a different life path. It’s okay to have left and come back, but RPGS were always here.

WoD (World of DarknesS) and esp. Mind’s Eye Theater enabled women to claim space in RPGing that had been largely denied. Women & people from other marginalized populations/identities have always played RPGs, but World of Darkness and its LARPs were a major vector by which even more people got into RPGs, continuing to shift the balance away from the straight white male perceived monolith.

Yes, this is a golden age of RPGing, but it’s not because of video games. Video games & Tabletop RPGs have evolved in tandem, borrowing back and forth from one another, but tabletop is not a symbiote thriving only because of video games.

Do better, Dan Harmon. Like it or not, you’re seen as a major name in RPGs now because of HarmonQuest. Do right by the community people see you as representing. You need to roll better on your Save vs. Be That Guy.

P.S. Shout-out to SF writer John Appel for strong contributions to this original twitter thread.

Light a Candle

Things have been pretty scary the past few weeks, even within the hard year that 2017 has been. We had a family health scare just a little while ago (all better now), plus the ongoing garbage fire that is US politics.

So I wanted to spend a bit of time focusing on things that have been bringing joy and light into my life, in case these things could do the same for you. At the bottom, I list some resources I’ve been using to stay up to date on politics with a minimum of hassle/frustration.

Sources of Joy

One of the things I do to relax is listening to podcasts. I started listening to podcasts over ten years ago when I was out in Oregon doing my M.A. in Folklore. Back then, the only show I listened to was Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing. These days, I’m a part of two podcasts and subscribe to many more. The two below have been particularly helpful for me this summer:

Friends at the Table – A marvelous actual-play tabletop role-playing game podcast with great players, engrossing worlds, and amazing music by composer Jack de Quidt (who is also one of the players). The current season Twilight Mirage is especially engrossing, telling the tale of a far-future utopia in crisis.

Waypoint Radio – The home podcast of video game website Waypoint. They focus less on giving games scores and more on story structure, design, and the political dimensions of games. They sometimes also talk politics (esp. labor and health policy) and are clear and open in their progressive leanings.

When I’m not listening to podcasts, I am often chilling out with my wife watching TV or watching something in the background while I work on this or that. Here are some shows and video series that have brought me joy the past few months:

DuckTales – The original show was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid, and the 2017 remake on DisneyXD is very amusing so far. I am a total sucker for anything that plays in the ‘modern multi-genre pulp’ mode where mummies and vampire and Atlantis and so on are all real.

Breakfast & Battlegrounds – This is a video series on Waypoint comprised of recordings of the game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. Breakfast & Battlegrounds is complete with a (funny, loose) continuity, special music (boat jazz!) and fun special guests. Austin & Patrick from Waypoint play as father & son team Crowbar & Sickle, in search of the elusive Chicken Dinner of victory. The most fun I’ve had watching a video game in some time.

Killjoys – A fun, sexy, space-based action-adventure series which starts with great episodic stories and builds to a cool metaplot. The showrunner is the same as the urban fantasy series Lost GirlKilljoys is about a pair of space-age bounty hunters called Killjoys who travel The Quad (four planet/moons bound together by a corporate-owned government).

And of course, since I’m a gamer, here’s a recent game I loved playing:

Pyre – The new game from Supergiant Games, who created Bastion and Transistor. It’s a cool fantasy combination of a visual novel/choose your own adventure and a magical sports game. The biggest draw for me in this game is the cool characters and their evolving relationships with one another. Also, you can complete a play-through in about 10-12 hours.

Podcasts
Pod Save America
 – Ex-Obama staffers break down the news and snark along the way. Unabashedly Democrat-leaning & progressive, a bit bro-y, though not gross.
Pod Save The People – Activist Deray Mckesson provides a grassroots view on politics, with a strong focus on the impact to and organizing by communities of color.

Website
What The Fuck Just Happened Today? – Trump-focused digest of American political news.

NerdCon: Stories Schedule

NerdCon: Stories

 

Hello, all!

I’m very excited to be a Featured Guest at NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis, MN this October 14-15th. NerdCon: Stories is a new convention (in its 2nd year) celebrating stories and the power of storytelling. I couldn’t imagine a convention more up my alley if I started it myself. I heard great things about the con from several friends, and was eager to be a part of NerdCon: Stories this year.

The schedule for the con is up for all to peruse.

And here’s where you can find me during the show:

 

Saturday, October 15th:

11:00 AM – Room 101A – How To Hand-Sell Your Book

Author and publishing professional Mike Underwood shares lessons from seven years of hand-selling books to readers, booksellers, and sales reps.  Learn how to put your work into a market context, showcase what makes it special, and connect with readers when selling at conventions, festivals, and more.

12:30 PM – Room 101 BCHI – Storytelling in Tabletop Games

Role-playing and other tabletop games are a fantastic catalyst for collaborative storytelling. Creating narrative frameworks and game rules that allow players to have enough control over both story and interaction can be a tricky business. How do game designers do this, and what makes a game truly great?

3:30 PM – Saturday Afternoon Variety Show

Hosted by Paul & Storm

Featuring:

  • A rapid-fire Q&A with Chris Rathjen, Eileen Cook, Joe DeGeorge, Jonathan Ying, Karen Hallion, Kevin MacLeod, Nalo Hopkinson, and Paolo Bacigalupi
  • A talk by Sara Benincasa
  • Daniel José Older and Nalo Hopkinson in conversation
  • Ms. Pacman vs the Patriarchy – a talk by Paul DeGeorge
  • A reading by Michael R. Underwood
  • A lip sync battle with Blue Delliquanti, John Scalzi, Paul Sabourin, Matt Young, Mikki Kendall, and Darin Ross
  • A talk by John Green

 

I’m very excited to reprise and further refine my How To Hand-Sell Your Book presentation, which I’ve given at the Nebula Conference and GenCon.  The other programming looks fabulous, as well. Other than this official programming, you can find me in the Expo Hall all weekend! I’m sharing a booth with fellow author Jay Swanson (check out his cool real-time fantasy blog Into The Nanten). And if all goes as planned, I will have paperback copies of the Genrenauts Season One Omnibus!

You can register for NerdCon: Stories here.

Hope to see you there!

GenCon Recap + CELEBROMANCY deal!

My fellow Geekomancers and Genrenauts,

I write you from a airport brewery restaurant in Indianapolis, having been stranded overnight by weather in Chicago (cancelled the first leg of my flight).

GenCon was, as expected, a glorious time. I was very pleased with my panels and the  Writers Symposium, from the crowds to their questions to my excellent moderators. It was a great experience. I even got to do a tiny bit of gaming, leading me to put a few on my wish (Fortune & Glory, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Fantasy Age, and others).

I was Angry Roboting most of the weekend, but I did get to hand out sampler chapbooks for Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution to spread the word, and met several fans that came up after panels or found me at the AR booth. W00t!

During the weekend, I was a guest/guest host on no fewer than five podcast episodes, which you’ll hear about in the coming weeks.

Another fun discovery during the weekend was that Celebromancy, the second Ree Reyes novel, is on discount right now on Kindle, just $1.99! If you enjoyed Geekomancy  but haven’t moved on with the series, now’s your chance to do so and save some $ along the way. Remember, Hexomancy is just over a month (!) away.

Hermes permitting, I’ll be home tonight and then taking a couple of rest days to recover from the con and wrap up edits on my second Tor.com Publishing novella – Genrenauts: The Absconded Ambassador.

Catch you on the flip-side,
Mike

CONvergence schedule

Hello, all! I’m headed out to the Twin Cities this week for CONvergence, a large fan-run con that’s been running for more than 15 years. I first attended two years ago as part of an Angry Robot expedition with Lee Harris and Emma Newman, and was completely bowled over by how fun and well-run the convention is.

This year, I’m on four panels and an off-site event. Here’s where to find me!

July 2nd

2pm The Smurfette Principle in Marketing (DoubleTree Atrium 6)

3:30 pm Ebooks and the Marketplace (DoubleTree Atrium 7)

July 3rd

11:00 am Storytelling in Comics and TV (DoubleTree Plaza 3)

July 4th

11:00 am The Skiffy and Fanty Show Live: Space Travel and Its Discontents (Crowne Plaza A-E-I-O)

8-9 pm:  “The Skiffy and Fanty Hangout” in the Doubletree Bar Area! — come play games (Sabacc, Koi Koi, and more!), hang with various members of the crew, and have a drink!

And – on Thursday, July 2nd, I’ll be at Source Comics & Games with several other writers for ‘Gaming with Authors’ – as fine an event idea as I’ve ever seen.

 

I also have a few other ideas up my sleeve, so keep an eye on Twitter.

Cool Stuff You Might Like

Here’s some stuff I’ve enjoyed recently that I’d like to share:

Kimmy Schmidt

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – A Netflix original series from the team that created 30 Rock. The show follows Kimmy Schmidt, tricked into joining an apocalypse cult living underground for fifteen years before she and the three other women with her were rescued. But rather than living in victim-hood and work the talk show circuit, Kimmy decides to stay in NYC and start over.

The lead, Ellie Kemper, is the #1 reason to watch the show, IMO. The show takes a tragic character backstory and turns it into the reason for a comedy show. Kimmy is aggressively optimistic, even though the trauma of what was done to her is far from just washed away once the show starts. The show has some questionable representation that isn’t sitting well with me, but if you liked 30 Rock, this show is definitely worth a try.

Silver Surfer: New Dawn

Silver Surfer: New Dawn (Dan Slott, Michael Allred, Laura Allred, VC’s Clayton Cowles)

I have a soft spot for Silver Surfer ever since I read one of the old hardcover collections with his first solo issue appearances from 1968). The character is often shown as kind of flat, the brooding Herald of Galactus. But when well-done, the character is thoughtful and kind. The Slott/Allred Silver Surfer was, for me, a major return to form, clearly influenced by the original Kirby/Lee run. I wouldn’t have thought to tap Michael Allred to echo Jack Kirby’s cosmic baroque art, but it is a great fit. The story is solid, largely for that invocation of the late-60s run.

Blades in the Dark (John Harper)

Blades in the Dark is a Tabletop RPG being Kickstarted right now. It’s funded to the tune of over $50,000, and has a month left to go. Expect major stretch goal action.

The core game does the focused indie RPG thing of presenting a single core premise and game mode – in this case, playing a group of thieves who work together from nothing to build their criminal empire in a setting reminiscent of Video Game RPG Dishonored. The game invokes Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and The Lies of Locke Lamora as comparisons, and it looks like it’d also play well for fans of Among Thieves.

I think this looks really cool, so I’ve backed it, and I figured that I’d share it in case other folks were interested. I haven’t gotten to play any tabletop RPGs in a while, but I like to keep an eye on what’s going on in the form and support interesting projects. Of particular note to me are the ‘build your missions’ idea that looks like it may solve the Shadowrun problem of ‘plan the job for 3 hours, then another 3 hours of combat.’

The completed stretch goals have added extra character archetypes and several all-new game modes (play the City Watch, play fantasy-whale hunters, play a group trying to overthrow the Immortal Emperor, etc.)