The Black Swan: Gravity is Existential

The other day I went to a children’s museum with my kids. I love these places, cause they have marble machines. I could honestly just sit and watch those contraptions for hours, watching what gravity does to the marbles. It’s hard to remember that gravity is an active force until you see a ball on a track.

And honestly I find good stories the same way. One little (or big) action leads to a series of reactions, which feed back to the characters, who have to make more decisions, creating a feedback loop. The characters aren’t ever in control, not really. Even if they’re proficient (or especially if they’re proficient) characters find themselves caught up in a machine they’ve very little control over. And the harder they push the worse it gets.

Yes, I love Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, why do you ask? Gravity is a metaphysical reality! Gravity should be a mechanical reality too. I want my games to be a response to incoming situations, not a static state that you just push pieces around in.

If you haven’t read my Black Swan post I suggest you go and read it, but a Black Swan is a hitherto unknown narrative in the story unexpectedly intersecting with yours, creating a twist. You’re not just creating a twist, but crafting someone else’s story and how it was parallel to yours… until now. And then things explode. And now you have to figure out what happens next.

So there are two games I’ve implemented some of my ideas in: Crescendo and Adieux, which I’ve not released for people to look at yet. Both games operate on the idea that a Black Swan, a surprise that’s been cooking in the background, is the goal of the mechanics. All mechanics should point toward it. You should always feel that freight train a’comin’! Both games make use of count-down mechanics that are not only easy to track, but serve multiple uses.

In Crescendo there’s two ways of tracking towards a Black Swan: Resilience Points and the CBS counter. Resilience Points measure how mentally strong your character is. Your Resilience Points drop by the margin of failure on your rolls. When your character’s Resilience Points drop to zero there’s a few things that happen, but the one inevitability is The Black Swan. The internal change leads to an external one. The other way you can get a Black Swan is from the CBS, a counter that increases with the margin of success from all successful rolls. Regardless of how you get there, Black Swans in Crescendo push forward the history of the location you’re at. Things were in motion before you arrived, the world didn’t stop moving just because you stopped looking! Plots to assassinate the king accelerate, unhappy peasants turn to riots, and gods who were considering mercy may change their minds. And so the place continues to evolve, sped along by your actions, one way or another.

Adieux is loosely Powered by the Apocalypse, with Black Swans happening on either the “crit success” or “crit fail” entries. But the middle entries (success and success with cost) give you poker chips: +1 or -1 chips. While you have these chips you modify your rolls by the modified total of those chips (so 3 +1’s and 4 -1’s would mean a -1 penalty)… which pushes you towards getting a Black Swan, one way or the other. You can also spend the chips to control the narrative for a short term gain. Once you get a Black Swan you get rid of all your chips, positive and negative. The Black Swan in this case centers around how you’ve changed the story at the location you’re at and how that feeds back at you. It’s a more immediate focus than in Crescendo: someone was hiding nearby and you just took that hiding place from them, the docks are now sinking and everyone is at risk, maybe the senator just got humiliated and is in the mood for revenge.

Moving the weight of the plot to mechanics also takes some of the pressure off the GM, who can now just focus on the present and not worry about where it’s going. With the additional brain space opened up the GM can be more creative as to the immediate problems facing the players, and he gets to be just as surprised as to the twists as the players are! He’s discovering the game, just on a more deliberately meta level. I’ve found that using Black Swans (and adjusting the mechanics to prompt them) has led to me being much more relaxed at the table. Now, granted, that’s a personality thing for me: I really like themes and saying something, and want my game narratives to carry weight behind them. But being overly concerned about this derails games and makes the experience a lot less meaningful. So Black Swans are my way of designing around my own worst tendencies. I’ll admit that. But there’s still something about it that I think is applicable to others. Just challenge the players, and the game will let you know when you need to do more.

Crescendo isn’t finished, by a long shot, but I’ve found that its mechanics have helped me relax and really enjoy the process in a way that I’ve not found in other games. Adieux is being designed around that structure as well, and while it isn’t ready yet, I can’t wait to share that with y’all. If the plot is like gravity then all you have to do is figure out what you’re going to do with what’s being thrown at you.

If you want to see where Crescendo is at come over to the Discord here!

Urth of the New Sun

I have tried to be objective about The Solar Cycle in previous blog posts. I’ve always tried to sum up what the story means to me. I have always failed before, and I failed in my first draft of this blog post to be objective, yet again.I just can’t do it yet, folks. So this is going to be a rambling, overpersonal, dump of a post. You are warned.

If there was ever a book that told me what I wanted to be like, it’s The Wizard Knight, by Gene Wolfe. There’s a level of honor and decency, even amidst the other problems of Sir Able, that I want others to see in me. I hope someday that will be true. I have never consciously asked to be perfect, only good enough. The Wizard Knight is one of the few books that make me feel like I had a hearty steak dinner after reading it.

I start that off because that’s never been the feeling I’ve gotten from reading any of the Solar Cycle books. No, that’s never been my experience. All the books of the Solar Cycle are like holding up a mirror to a leprosy survivor, who hasn’t seen his face in a very long time. It’s a phenomenally painful experience, but there’s a moment of “Oh, so that’s where I’m at, this is what I have to work with”. There’s a horror, but at least (for me) a moment of hope, a moment where I know that, regardless of how bad it is, I am what I am. It’s a deeply personal and harrowing experience, but one that I can either be in despair about or hopeful. The only book I have a stronger experience of this disconcerting and awful hope with than Urth of the New Sun is The Book of the Short Sun. And we’ll get there. Oh, we’ll get there. But, for now, we’re at Urth of the New Sun.

There are books that are good because they challenge you to be different, like Wizard Knight. Or really any classic. I’d no idea there were books that challenged you by just showing you the world as you see it, in the clearest of possible terms, and dare you to actually own it.

Urth of the New Sun is a fever dream of St. Maximos the Confessor, Jewish mythology, and complex PTSD, rammed into a tale of theodicy and hope. I mean, that’s one way I’d talk about it.

But I don’t think that does it justice.

Another way to sum up the book is that it is a practically autobiographical spiritual tale of the healing power of Christ, that Severian is a stand-in for any soul trying to heal and make her way home. When you read about Severian it is your own soul that is being talked about.

That’s still not correct! But y’know, horseshoes, hand grenades, and government work.

Another way to look at the book is an account of what humanity is actually like: grand, evil, good, wretched, but ultimately persevering in the face of its own evil. It is an astonishingly honest appraisal of what the future could be like for us humans.

That one probably stings hard for any liberal or progressive (no, Star Trek will never be our future. Never.), but that’s still not close enough.

Another way to look at Urth is as the admission of a spouse that he was never worthy, and no matter how hard he tries he never will be.

A pretty stinging viewpoint, but again, not enough.

What I see when I read Urth of the New Sun is a frank admission that none of those views are enough. It is a book of unparalleled complexity, weaving in each of the above elements (and more!) into a work that defies them all. It is a deliberate attempt to make the reader look at the opaqueness of the world and see the little trails of thread that let you pull the nailed-down curtain back, just a little bit more. Everything matters, and so therefore nothing can be truly known.

Ultimately, my response to The Solar Cycle is my RPG Crescendo, to answer art with art. I keep trying to babble beyond it, but ultimately the only real response I have to any of The Solar Cycle and The Wizard Knight is a piece of my own making. I have nothing else I can rationally bring forward, but I keep finding myself trying, no matter how foolish it is. These fever dreams of blog posts may not look like they belong on a gaming blog, but I assure you that there is no other point to them. If it wasn’t for space constraints I’d put these blog posts into the book itself.

So you’ll just have to put up with them here. Sorry not sorry.

Yes, I’m ending it on that note. Go check out where Crescendo is at in the Discord!

A Wizard of Earthsea: The Beginning

“Such a simple book,” my father said wistfully after I’d finished A Wizard of Earthsea the first time. “There’s not a lot to get the next time around.” My father and I pride ourselves upon plumbing the depths of books. There isn’t much to Wizard of Earthsea; what you see is what you get.

I did not intend to reread it. I still don’t know why I decided to, tell you the truth. But I’m glad I did. This book is more loaded with what’s not said than what is. Le Guin does not overload the book with lore. What she says is clearly the tip of an iceberg she decided was better hinted at than shown. And she was right. I don’t need the lays and epics of this world to understand Ged’s story. I don’t need all the history. Le Guin’s restraint is mastery itself. Her goal is just to tell the tale. Anything more she refuses to do.

So yes, this is a simple book. It means what it says, and no more. As I reread it a very different question came to me than I’m used to: have I really learned the lesson of Ged, all the way down? Have I really done it yet?

The answer is no, no I have not. Simple doesn’t mean insipid. The contrary, every word of this book is true, and has nothing more than necessary to stand on its own.

Have I really learned that only light drives out dark? That death is defeated by naming it and interiorizing it into myself? That tasks, no matter how badly they begin, cannot be abandoned, only finished differently than the original dark intention?


Not all the way down. Not yet.

The genius of A Wizard of Earthsea is not that it presented me a new take, but an iron-clad reminder that I haven’t fully believed the truth yet. I still have not mastered the basic things. And, while I don’t hear that about rereads too often, I’m not surprised that it’s Le Guin I say that about.

Ultimately, I believe this little book was the beginning of not just Crescendo, but of an era of my life that I can feel is beginning to close. I began it with A Wizard of Earthsea, and now, here in the twilight of tumult and chaos, I return to it. I came back a stronger, wiser, and gentler person than when I first came upon it.

But I still do not believe it. Will I someday? God, I hope so.

And that’s enough for me, for the moment.

Soldier of Sidon: First Reading

I was happy with the ending of Soldier of Arete, the second book in the Latro series. Latro wasn’t healed, but he had a modicum of control, certainly more than enough to be the master of his own fate. I got to the end, smiled for him, and closed the book. I certainly looked forward to rereading the two books, but I didn’t feel a need for more. Wolfe had written a proper eschatalogical ending; I had no issue with ending the story where it was.

Apparently Wolfe disagreed? ‘Cause Soldier of Sidon exists.

Did it need to?

Spoiler: kinda? It’s mixed for me. I’ll definitely reread it (see below), but at the moment I feel more puzzled, in a constructive way, than anything else.

Game-wise, the first two books are a huge influence on the design of Crescendo. While I later found that The Wizard Knight is essentially a prose form of Crescedo game notes, Latro is where I intuited the mechanics in the first place. And it works here too! I’m still shocked that I got the rhythm of these stories correct, as that’s not something you just do, if that makes any sense. But yes, you could totally play out a very relaxed game of Crescendo and have it feel kinda like this book. So mission accomplished there.

Latro had won at the end of the last book, and his story felt done. As I read the story I felt a comfortable nostalgia. Latro is noble, kind, and almost impossibly badass. That doesn’t change here. The nature of Latro’s affliction is put into greater perspective, but I didn’t feel the need for that perspective. The fact that Latro couldn’t remember and there was a way to reverse that was enough as it was.

Now, that being said, the book has this really interesting thematic arc about marriage. It’s not really until the end that it becomes clear that this is really what Wolfe is trying to get at. Why get married? What constitutes it? How honest should you (or can you) be? And what role do love, sex, and general fleshy delights have to do with it? I took great interest in this part of the book, as Wolfe has a very particular point to make, and like all Wolfe things it’s not necessarily a comfortable one. But as I sit with it the book becomes more and more favorable to me. It leaves me with enough questions to where I want to reread it, to peel it back a little bit more.

I’m still scratching my head as to the existence of this book. I’ve never read something something so pleasant, and yet unasked for. I’m not sure it’s an actual sequel to the first two books or just a standalone story featuring the character. The ending of Soldier of Sidon feels like a quaint little campfire: it lights up the dark, but its’ not out there proclaiming itself. Come, huddle round, find warmth, and wait. Oh, and play with clay straws.

Cause apparently that’s a thing.

The Theme Song of Crescendo

Crescendo is a mythological fantasy roleplaying game. Characters play out a spiritual and psychological story like the ones Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, George MacDonald, and Ursula K. Le Guin tell. They must navigate a world of immortals, who are enacting their own schemes and plans, and find who they were meant to be in a world of death, drama, and hope.

Any creative project I undergo there’s always a song with it. That’s probably not atypical, but I especially find that true of GMing. Eventually I’ll find a song (or several) that sum up what I want the game to feel like. But until then it’s kinda like I’m inching along, trying to feel out exactly what I want, as a player.

I’d been writing for months. I’d gotten some playtesting in. But I still hadn’t really nailed the feeling down. It would be a few months before I started playtesting again, I knew, but I always had that nagging feeling in the back of my head, this dread that I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t really have a song I was going to, and man I was missing it.

And then one evening it came crashing in, as Alessia Carey and The Warning released their cover of “Enter Sandman”

Heresy time: I’ve never particularly liked Metallica’s Enter Sandman. The music has always clashed with the lyrics, which I find menacing as hell and badly in need of different music for them. So, on just a musical aesthetic, I vastly prefer Alessia Carrey’s and The Warning’s version. It’s not a night terror, but a sickly sweet beckoning into the unconscious, the dark, the hidden, but certainly not the quiet. And yes, the terror does come, but I’ve never found horrible things approach you roaring. They sneak up. They get your ear first. And then oh God, how they scream after that.

But the thing that hit me the hardest was the video. Folks, that’s Crescendo. That’s fantasy and mythology at its peak. If The Warning is a party of player characters then Alessia is the immortal, singing her tune in the background, augmenting and suggesting and poking and prodding. The two parties may not even be aware of each other, but they’re connected and building something far grander than they could have alone. The arc of the video is very similar to the one I have been intuiting for Crescendo. I mean, I didn’t envision folks winding up rocking out in an abandoned building, but I suppose you could that if you wanted to.

I’ve probably listened to this song, watched this video, hundreds of times since it debuted. Every note, every frame, has defined the text and the game, as a whole. It’s such a part of my thoughts on Crescendo I’ve half a mind to just tell people to watch the video in the actual text of the book. It’s certainly simplier than telling them to read The Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid. Hell, definitely don’t watch most of the adaptations of those three works, you’re better off just watching The Warning’s video, cause that’s much more mythologically accurate.

So, I mean, I don’t have much more to write about this. That video is as close to what I have in mind for a game of Crescendo as you’re liable to get in a consumable format. It’s nice to have something that’s actually viewable.

I promise I know what I’m doing!

If you want to see where Crescendo is currently at, c’mon over to the Discord. Stay and chat a moment. We’d be happy to have you.

The Black Swan: Review

This post is divided in two: the book with what I think of it, and then how this book has impacted my game design. I don’t recommend taking one part without the other.

Part One

There are very few times in my life when I feel relief. Part of that has to do with my emotional baggage; I’ve not been given much to feel relief over, it’s not a muscle I’ve gotten to exercise much. Another part of it is philosophical. I flat out refuse to think things are inherently likely to get better, and find the ideal of progressivism not just needlessly sentimental, but actively destructive to my mind. So I am usually not only not surprised when things get worse but usually have a moment of “Shit, I was right”, when things do go south.

I didn’t say this was a healthy inclination. I am what I am.

But the problem is that I can tell I’m not wrong, I’m just not right. And that’s a more complicated problem than just being wrong. How do you correct what’s lacking while keeping the good part? How do you honor and move on?

The Black Swan was one of those times I felt relief. It’s been a chance to correct my worldview. I keep trying to make it stick. Maybe it will, one of these days.

The Black Swan was written by Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese who can remember what Lebanon was like before it fell. He recounts his experience of the nation before… everything: a prosperous and multicultural Mediterranean home. It had been that way for a very long time. It was perceived as stable.

That changed overnight, bloodily. Taleb and his family had to flee.

No one saw it coming. But, looking back, there were signs. They just so happened to be in that nebulous gray area, where people don’t know they don’t know. And so they don’t look. And so they’re surprised. Kinda like when folks came to Australia, thinking that being white was essential to being a swan.

Hey look, a Black Swan!

Overall, a lot more catchy than “Downfall of the Middle East”

A Black Swan is not a sudden twist. It is something that was there the whole time, but you weren’t aware of it. It’s been developing, outside not just your awareness, but in a spot where you didn’t think to look. Why would you? It’s a blindspot, after all. You either think to check it or you don’t. And Taleb breaks down why he thinks we don’t. He gets a bit into evolutionary biology, probability, and just plain ole human experience.

It’s a generalist work, so it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. And some of those trees are pretty ugly; I don’t have a very arithmetic-based mind, so the chapters where Taleb gets extremely technical flew right over my head. But I think Taleb is right, in a general sense. He’s describing that moment when you realize something you thought was an immutable rule not only isn’t, but never was.

So, at least for me, The Black Swan is an ideal to aspire towards. To go from nihilism to skepticism. To aspire to let go of the emotional baggage of the repeated failure of humanity, and to simply accept what I know, to acknowledge that I can’t know everything, and that my knowledge of what I don’t know is not only the most important but the most difficult thing to grasp. And that I will fail in this most important task. Routinely. Hell, I will probably fail to accept even that much.

But if there’s anything that humans do, it’s fail to live up to what we want to be. I’ve never seen that not be true.

Part Two

So I think Black Swans are essential to describing reality, nevermind that good stories seem to use them all the time. I’m gonna put them in my design. But how? How do you model something like this?

I’ve gone through more than a few iterations, but here’s what I’m currently doing, in Crescendo. Crescendo has a journaling mechanic to it. Players write any action they spent metacurrency on down, as well as Visions and Dreams, as well as previous Black Swans, not to mention their characters’ backstories. There’s a lot of material in these journals, so I just have Black Swans reference your journal: you open to a random page, put your finger down with your eyes shut, and read whatever you selected. Careful what you write! It will come back to haunt you.

But what if you don’t want to journal? That does add work, something that Crescendo is deliberately designed around. Most games aren’t. And that’s fine! Referencing journals was a later part of Crescendo’s design. Originally I just had everyone bring their favorite book, preferably something with a narrative, although someone joked about bringing a dictionary. They didn’t, so I can’t tell you if it works. If someone tries it let me know how it goes!

When do you have Black Swans happen? Critical failures are probably a good spot, hard moves in PBTA, spots where “bad” failures are expected in other games. If you have a moment where everyone winces then it’s a good time to have a Black Swan. Whatever you should decide, I think it should be a matter of public knowledge. You can’t just spring a Black Swan on folks. It’s a mechanic. People should know when it will happen and what they need to do.

Whenever a Black Swan comes up, everyone cracks open their book and puts their finger down on a random part of the page. Everyone reads their random passage aloud. The GM, with the input of the players, then constructs a narrative that was occuring in the background, just outside the players’ perspective. This unknown narrative then comes crashing into the shared fiction, changing things and taking their story in a new direction.

Now, the temptation is to use these as random events as a one off thing that just so happens to interrupt your narrative. It’s easy to do. Don’t do that. Stick with this other story a moment. Build something that’s been happening in parallel, just off-screen. Broaden the scope of your story, jump into someone else’s shoes for a minute, and make something that will enrich everyone going forward. I use the differing prompts from the players to construct a plot, adapting them to the setting and commenting on the players’ story. And then there’s the sickening CRUNCH as both stories collide at a thousand miles an hour. No one thought that would happen. Everyone was focused on their own story, and couldn’t have known the collision would happen.

But it did.

Now what?

If you try a Black Swan in your game let me know how it went! If you’ve got critiques I’d be more than happy to hear them. I’ve been using them for a few months and I’ve found they inject tension into the narrative pretty regularly, allowing you to relax a bit on coming up with twists and when to put them into the narrative. It makes my GMing easier, and the players enjoy having some input on where it all goes, even if none of us necessarily know when they will occur.

If you want to see what a game designed to use Black Swans looks like, head over to Apophatic Game’s Discord server, and download Crescendo’s alpha test! Stay a moment. Chat. We’d be happy to have you.

Crescendo: This is (Not) a Pitch

“Severian” by nathanandersonar

I’ve always had a hard time pitching Crescendo. Maybe there’s some anxiety there, or just my typical “Leave alone” attitude that has epitomized so much of my life. But at its heart, I’ve always struggled pitching this game because of what actually inspired it.

Back in 2011 and 2012 I experienced a series of horrific supernatural phenomena; I was living in one of the most haunted towns in America. My days were filled with the mental equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, a level of anxiety and metaphysical horror that’s impossible to adequately describe. I’d wake up screaming from dreams that would haunt me for weeks on end. Psychologists were baffled. Hell, I went to see an exorcist, and he was just as confused.

And then I read A Wizard of Earthsea. I got to the part where Ged finally catches the Gebbeth. I put the book down. I knew what Le Guin was going to say. I didn’t want her to say it. But I knew it was coming:

“And their voices were the same.”

I wanted to throw up. But she was right. Le Guin hadn’t denied the existence of the Gebbeth, merely pointed out who had made the Gebbeth a problem. And therefore who could solve their problem. The awful screeching in my head didn’t stop, but I could face it differently. My approach had been recontextualized. It didn’t make my fight easier, but I knew who I was really up against. And it wasn’t the ghosts. Or whatever it was making that horrible racket.

Flash forward nine years later. I had found The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. There’s a part towards the end where Severian, the protagonist, hears four stories, told by four different people, which are part of a competition for a woman’s hand in marriage. Severian is expected to judge betwixt these stories, but he’s sent on an errand before he can do so.

When Severian comes back he finds his tent bombed. The woman is the only one left alive… but she’s dying. The woman makes Severian promise that he records all the stories told in competition for her love. And to come back later, because she’s tired and wants a nap. Just a few hours, she’ll feel better! Promise.

Severian kept one of the promises he made that day.

I hugged the book and rocked, sobbing. I’d spent so many years remembering the absolutely tragic story of my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the courage to fully record what I now remember. But that day I heard Wolfe (who had been dead over a year), from acrost time and space: coward. Coward, because I don’t say what I really think. Coward, because I’ve let pain define me instead of defining it, the same way I would anything else.

And I knew he was right. I keep trying, Gene. I know you’d understand.

My first game of 1e Torchbearer I was playing a paladin, with my brother-in-law Kyle GMing. Every time Kyle GMs for me it’s like a revelation: he has a knack for taking games and understanding them in a way that boggles my mind. Much of the tech that Torchbearer 2e would later sport Kyle made up, on the fly, with no effort, as if he had sat with Olavsrud and Crane in the future and was just reporting back what he’d heard. Well, we wound up in a situation where my paladin had to fight a duel. And the way Kyle handled it was infuriatingly insightful. I kept trying to swing and hit and I knew that Kyle was deliberately adjusting the difficulty because of how I saw the problem, and that I had hit this weird emotional wall. And so had my paladin. There was a moment of fusion for me, as I realized that whatever was going on was happening for the character and myself, in an identical manner. We were frustrated and we had to change. And I realized that we were swinging at traumas, not at the problem in front of us.

I took a deep breath. I changed the verbiage, narrated Charlemagne the Paladin stopping, and taking a deep breath, staring the yuan-ti down. Becoming completely still. Observing the snake-man who had wounded us.

The next strike was obstacle 1. Charlemagne cut the yuan-ti in half. We won.

The last anecdote is about a Burning Wheel game I GM’d: The Undertow, which followed the journeys of the elf Mikansia from revenge-seeker to broken to even more broken to leading a charge against the eldritch Nameless with an archangel’s sword… and winning. The lights of Uriel’s Sword could be seen acrost the planet. People changed their calendars to reflect the day that Mikansia, the outcast and supposed traitor, had saved them all. It was 38 sessions of the most painful, raw, honest, and meaningful gaming I’ve ever done. When I close my eyes I can still hear Mikansia laugh with joy as she cut into Nameless after Nameless, held aloft by the friends and family who has died to get her to that point.

There are so many more stories. So many books. Campaigns. Where there was something meaningful going on. I am a better person for having played out those stories.

But ultimately, when I try to legitimately pitch Crescendo I am enveloped in all that, and so much more. I know it sounds trite, but how am I supposed to tell you all the things I want people to be able to experience with Crescendo? I mean, I’ll try and tell you. You may find it strange. But this game doesn’t come from one particular place in my head. Maybe it’s the same way for other designers? I don’t know?

But here goes.

I want you to play and walk away changed, like how I was from so many different stories, whether they be books, games, or movies.

I want you to have fun. To find joy.

I want you to stare down that darkness that always seems to follow us, no matter what we do.

And I fucking want you to win.

And I want that victory to burn bright in your heart, like a torch blazing defiant, full, and hopeful.

That is what I want Crescendo to do. Make of that what you will.

If you want to see where Crescendo is at, click here to go to the Discord.

Crescendo: A Brick Wall

Zac was in trouble. Roisto, his con artist gravedigger, had gotten himself into a bind. He was bewildered, angry, confused, and he could feel fate had turned against him… and he was surrounded by an angry mob. Almeta, Martha’s character, was doing a heck of a lot better… but was still facing the mob as well. Now, in most games this would be a bit disconcerting, but not a problem. They’d power through, it’d be alright!

Crescendo is not like most games. Zac was entirely too beat up, which that makes the game meaner: Crescendo is deliberately built to kick you when you’re down. The harder you struggle the more ribs you break in the process. In the beginning of the game if you try to power through you’re just going to get hurt more and more.

I was hoping Zac and Martha would catch it. They didn’t. They doubled down, and the Conditions began to pile up on Roisto. And I could sense the frustration. It was understandable; most games they’d played didn’t get dramatically harder if you tried to do impossible things, not in the visceral way Crescendo does. If they kept going at the rate they were Roisto, Zac’s character, would die from a thousand cuts.

I paused gameplay. I explained that if they wanted to suicide Roisto they could, but Crescendo’s mechanics were deliberately designed against the tactic they were trying. If they wanted to keep going that was okay, but they would lose Roisto. That’s not a comfortable thing to hear. It’s not comfortable to say it. Zac asked what his options were, given that I’d deliberately made “steamrollering” through Crescendo almost impossible. I said there was, and that it would be fun

Zac and Martha managed to get away from the angry mob and hunkered down. Roisto had a ton of Conditions, including Doomed, which basically removed all mechanical protection the game gave him, allowing me to attempt to kill him at the drop of a hat. Given the nature of Crescendo I wouldn’t have to try hard. It was a grim situation. Zac and Martha were a bit emotionally worn out from the sheer beat down of the game, too. It’s not easy to have a game intentionally kick you in the face, over and over, and not be able to fight back. At least not yet.

I told them all they needed to do was narrate an hour long series of actions to recover one Condition. And that was it. No catches. Just announce your intent and roleplay to your heart’s content. I’m not sure they believed me. No die rolls? At all? But I reiterated one of the central truths of Crescendo: recovery was just as important as anything else. As long as they took the in-game time they could do whatever they liked, so long as it was appropriate to the fiction. Obviously that doesn’t apply to wounds and illness, but most Conditions in the game can be recovered by good narration and time.

Zac and Martha were intrigued. They decided to try it. What followed was some of the most wholesome roleplaying I’ve had the privilege of GMing. Roisto and Almeta, relative strangers, got to know each other, ate dinner, plotted revenge against the mob and its leaders, and summoned a ghost for information. Each of these actions got rid of one of Roisto’s many Conditions. No catches, no gotchas. The lack of rolls for everything but the spell allowed the table to cleanse out the pent up frustration, world build, and start developing a bond between the two strangers. And it played out organically. Because of how stressful the earlier scene had been the relaxation, the catharsis, was genuine. It was wonderful.

Eventually “the plot” came back. Cultists were using the confusion to achieve their own nefarious ends, and only Roisto and Almeta knew it, with most of the town disinclined to listen to them. It wasn’t a good situation. But it found Zac and Martha relaxed, content, and ready for a challenge. They knew it would be harrowing, if only because Crescendo’s dice rolling mechanics made it that way. But now they knew they had somewhere to go, somewhere safe. Dangerous as the game and the world could get, they had a release valve. Recovery, which is frequently skipped or rushed through, was an integral part of the experience. And it was fun.

And that’s exactly what I wanted.


If anyone is trying to find a point to this post you may have a hard time doing so. I’m still working on feeling out this game that dropped out of the sky, into my head. Maybe this will make more sense to you by the end? We’ll see.

One of my favorite things about space opera is how easy it is to spot. You don’t really have a question whether or not something is a space opera, you just look at it and go “Huh, that’s it”. It’s like the difference between art and porn: it’s not hard to see what’s what, but trying to get it defined? Now that’s trickier. I mean, how do you define a space opera? Looking at the above image I can feel that it is.

But you know how many people have the art/porn argument? Tons. I’ve absolutely no idea if that’s true for space opera, but I can have the discussion with myself and you can tune in. Bring popcorn and your favorite beverage. After the type of day I’ve had I know I’m bringing a beer.

So what is a space opera? I mean, if you go by Wikipedia you’ll get this definition:

… colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes

Hartwell and Crame, from Wikipedia

Look, folks, that’s a lot to go through. I mean, it’s all technically correct and all that, but my goodness that’s word salad to me. I’ll tell you what that makes me think, and if you agree you agree and if you don’t please tell me so that way we can have a discussion. It’d be fun!

Basically: the personal and grounded extremely contrasted with the epic and weird.

So let’s break that down then.

In order to have that rich contrast (which I’m going to call wonder), you have to have something grounded going on. We want big and weird in the world set up, so it obviously needs to be the characters that are simple. Folks just wanting to get their stuff done. Simple folks and motivations mean cleaner stories. Not all stories have to be “clean” or easy to understand, but if you’re doing something punchy and short you don’t get a lot of room for complexity. Given how bonkers the setting is supposed to be? Probably should just have simple people. This doesn’t mean that characters can’t have arcs, but you’re not looking for Dosotoevsky here; there just isn’t time.

SPACE OPERA EPISODE VIII’s character creation is extremely simple: pick a background, pick three skills from that background, pick (or make) a Trait, and pick (or make) a Goal. Your background determines what type of items you can bring into the game, as well as how people see you. Skills are simple actions that your character is good at. Skills also imply the type of equpiment you can bring into the game. But Goals and Traits are a bit more complicated.

Gameplay is centered around challenging your Goal, which is what you’re trying to get done before the act ends. Initial Goals are simple and often petty. These are “normal” people: they’re not out to change the world, they’re just trying to get from their point A to their point B. More epic-scale Goals will probably be drafted by the players in later acts, and that shift is an intended part of the game; your characters change and grow, and begin to care about different things. Goals also do some light world-building, drawing you into a conflict or a task in the world. You are involved already. Get ready to make some choices.

Traist are an aspect of your character that shines through no matter what, even in the most inconvenient of times. Players are rewarded for using their Trait to create trouble and suggesting how other’s Traits can get them in trouble too. Whenever you do reckless actions inspired by your Trait the closer you get to fulfilling your Goal, even if it creates some short term tension. But suggesting those reckless actions to others does the same thing, both for them and you! Players then collaborate in making sure everyone gets a good ending, since it’s mechanically better to help other people than to PVP.

Characters are grounded and simple. But the setting? Space opera intentionaly uses bonkers settings. You’re in a world that you’ve never seen before and it’s weird and you might get lost and what’s the next big thing that we’re going to run into??? You should feel lost in the next crazy thing that comes into the story. You should be going “Wow, what is that…. thing???

The settings in SPACE OPERA EPISODE VIII are collaboratively generated, on the fly. You pick the first thing that comes into your head, and everyone else helps modify it. This creates some goofy settings at times, but there’s plenty of things in the real world that are actually pretty goofy when you think about it, why not have fun with it here? We had a game happen on the volcanic planet Filts, where they navigate the lava with sci-fi stilts.

Filts. On stilts.

It was great.

And then right after that the group realized they didn’t have those stilts, and all of a sudden the game got super intense as the players made a mad dash to get some of those stilts, and got stuck as they failed. While it started off goofy it became incredibly relevant, and thus serious in the best way possible.

There’s also an Opening Crawl mechanic. If you don’t know what an opening crawl is:

At the beginnning of each scene you randomly determine which line of the Opening Crawl applies to that scene, and then challenge everyone’s Goals with that line. The Opening Crawl keeps the story super focused, giving you just enough room to play around in, but not so much that you get lost. Unlike Goals, which change from act to act, the Opening Crawl does not change. The changing of Goals allows the table to explore the differing implications of the Opening Crawl.

I still don’t know if I’ve captured the feeling, honestly. I’ve playtested SPACE OPERA EPISODE VIII a few times and it’s getting there, but I still need some more testing to get it to feel like it’s coming from the same place as a space opera. But I think I’m well on the way to figuring it out!

If you want to check out the newest draft of SPACE OPERA EPISODE VIII come to the Discord here!

The Wizard Knight: First Reading

I didn’t think I’d be writing something like this for Apophatic Games. And maybe I shouldn’t? I don’t know? But Gene Wolfe is the primary influece on Crescendo, nevermind my approach to design. Primary. So I figure it’s topical.

When I announced to the Gene Wolfe subreddit my intention to make a game based off of Gene Wolfe’s fantasy works, I was asked if I had read The Wizard Knight. I admitted I had not; I was told to get to immediately. So I got the book for Christmas. I finished my first read-through last night. For those of you who know, the first time you read a Wolfe almost doesn’t count; Wolfe layers his texts so thickly that it takes a bare minimum of two attempts to really start digging into the text. So take these more as “Do I want to reread this or not” notes.

It ain’t gatekeeping if you literally can’t pick up on major plot points until your second or third read-through, nevermind developing a theory about what’s going on that everyone else disagrees with!


What did I think?

Well, while I was reading the book I found myself going “Oh, Wolfe used this mechanic from Crescendo”. I’ve never read the book before, and I could fit my mechanics that well. Reading the book was like reading the session notes of my game. Challenges, Saves, Conflicts, Immortal Interference sessions, hell even Trait Actions, it was all inthere. That is eerie. I’m baby in the Wolfe community, but I found that I was rolling the dice in my head and following along on the two fronts almost seemlessly. And the stuff that didn’t fit I’m changing Crescendo to make sure it’s closer. Make of that what you will. But my God that was cool!

I think the last five pages of this book is one of the most heartbreaking, sincere, tragic, hopeful things I’ve ever read. There’s 900 pages of buildup to an ending that left heartbroken with its beauty. I’ve read hopeful endings, but none that hit like this. I felt that my heart was too small for what was going on at the end of The Wizard Knight…. and so my heart broke, trying to take it all in. I know I didn’t. I can’t. But I was better for failing in the attempt. I think Wolfe would approve of that.

There’s an aspirational feel to the entirety of The Wizard Knight that I’ve not read in the rest of Wolfe (at least so far). Everyone wants better. Everyone wants to be good. Everyone thinks they’re good. And I don’t mean in the modern cynical sense, where you watch a garbage show where everyone is deluded into thinking they’re good and you just watch a misery fest that is spiritually damaging. I mean these people can see the good in themselves and in others, and fail themselves… and know they do. And grieve that they’re not better. It’s just beautiful to read. There’s a lack of delusion here that could only be pre-modern; frequent brushes with death have that kind of an effect on people.

Of all Wolfe’s books I’ve read, this was the most life-affirming one I’ve read. It’s not the simplest one to get through the first time (that’s An Evil Guest, for me), but Wolfe isn’t trying to hide things the way he does when he was younger. I don’t know if that’s a positive or a negative, given that I’ve read the whole Solar Cycle and Wolfe’s earlier obfuscatory methods were part of the point to me. But just the sheer love of life in the face of darkness would be enough to make me consider recommending this book to people as an intro to Wolfe.

God, that ending though. Maybe other people won’t react to it like I did. But, for my money, that was healing. Not cathartic. Healing.

If you want to get the latest draft of Crescendo pop onto Apophatic Games’s Discord, which is here!