Saint-Sebastian Issue 6

Taboos of the zine scene

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Paul Mason at this point for doing wonders with the layout of Saint Sebastian over the last few issues. The worst things about writing a zine are the countless wasted hours spent pouring over layout, grammar, spelling, endless revisions, James Wallis...

One of these dispiriting things is that having written several items it takes four times as long to transform that text into the final zine as it did writing them. Not only that but since my layout is generally awful it seems that the time thus spent is a complete waste. With Paul being kind enough to take the editing burden off me I can concentrate on the far more enjoyable act of just writing the pieces.

In fact I think that everyone should stop doing their zines and start doing Fluxus subzines. Imagine how great your zine would look with a Mason Makeover. Imagine how little worry there would be: type gibberish, email gibberish. Job done! I thoroughly recommend it!

Okay with that in mind let's have a review of the first six issues.

Fractal Rules

I was worried when I wrote my first piece on this that it would turn into panto: "Oh yes it is, oh no it isn't - fractal!". In general I think you should look at the points I was trying to make and apply them to your favourite rules system rather than just throwing more names at me.

For Joshua Kronengold, Random Access #35

You didn't ... cover all the discussed systems; after all, there's always OTE.

Over the Edge: potential fractal candidate, I do not really know the game so what can I say? Would the Death Star have 3 InterSteller Killing Dice or 44459 normal dice? The traits described by the dice have no qualifying features. This implies scaling problems which you admit yourself.

I absolutely disagree with you on "Taglines"...

By the way it is nice to see you absolutely disagreeing with me when you do not even know the detail of what I wrote about (as the rest of your comment attests). The Taglines are random phrases scribbled down by the GM. The player must then incorporate them somewhere in their character's conversation. What you describe in the remainder of your comment would more accurately be called "Catchphrases". Having a GM force a player to make their character say a random statement in the course of a session is dreadful as the character has no in-game reason to say that statement. It is levered in solely by the player - it reminds all involved that the character is no more than a vessel for the player.

I find that the best roleplaying (for me) occurs when the character is portrayed so convincingly that the player might be forgotten. The reverse situation is the same as in a film where some actors are themselves first and a character second, for example Clint Eastwood and Hugh Grant. The film may continue to be entertaining but it fails to convince you that Clint is anyone other than Clint.

The Everway fortune deck, for all its faults, does ... suggest more than success or failure ... a skilled user can usually get a sense of [the magnitude of the] outcome ...

Look at the end of the day you either believe a system is good or it isn't. I am not trying to say Everway is rubbish but essentially since the GM interprets the cards no individual ruling could ever be the same. Drawing the analogy to flipping a coin made for a simpler explanation and is certainly more accurate that your concept of the "skilled user". Since the subtle variations in meaning are being pulled from your unconscious and imagination how is that related to "skill" in any meaningful way? A skill implies that with practice you would improve. A set of coins is certainly more accessible than purchasing an Everway set.

For Brian Rogers

What do you think of my proposed C. Falk system [given in Subplot Kudzu #7]?

What do I think of your proposed system? Or do I think its fractal? I think its very complicated and I do not think I understand it - sorry. I do hope it does what you intended it to do though.

Lisa Padol, "This isn't the zine you are looking for", Issue 121

I am not quite sure I followed the fractal essay, but thanks.

Thank you for your honesty. At least your comment tells me that if I return to the subject I need to take a new approach to it. It was far more refreshing than those who clearly did not read or understand but still felt the need to vent. Perhaps there should be another acronym on the ever-expanding list. "Read and enjoyed but no clue what you were on about". Hmm... RAEBNCWYWOA, it'll never catch on.

Time Bankruptcy

A few zines have mentioned this concept recently. "Time Bankruptcy" occurs when the amount of time required to achieve your goals exceeds that of the average productive lifespan for someone of your background. In way it is a deeply positive thing, for a start the Time Bankrupts expect to achieve their average lifespan. If life was harsher and more unpredictable for them then they might wait until they actually achieved their average lifespan before throwing up their hands in despair. It also indicates that they actually have ambitions and desire to achieve things beyond watch complete runs of TV series and so on.

The Clocks run forward

I have no idea of whether I am Time Bankrupt or not. My father is a great believer in Fate, from his point of view I will never really be able to know. After all I could be killed in one of the numerous motoring accidents that plague developed societies. Given the delay between me writing this and you actually reading it Time could already have called in the receivers. These could be last words of a dead man; and a Time Bankrupt.

But I do not believe in Fate and I am not sure whether I'll achieve my average lifespan or not. When I am depressed however I often look at all the time I have squandered so far. I often look at the thousands of words that I have expended on the subject of roleplaying, the zines, the campaign notes, the character write ups. None of it ever fed a single hungry mouth.

I once tried to give away about one hundred zines. I just about managed it but as far as I know not one was ever read, not a single one. It was just one grandiose conceit among countless others.

The Clocks run back

My biggest time sink though are computer games - I find them massively compelling, hugely addictive, entirely satisfying. From the moment I had my first computer I was in trouble, while I have a computer the external world is optional.

I often feel glad about writing and playing so many RPGs. Compared to the nihilism of my computer existence it seems like something more human and therefore more real in the sense of collective reality.

The distinction though is entirely artificial and that is probably why I don't feel like a Time Bankrupt because I cannot see anyway in which my time can be spent meaningfully. Time Bankruptcy is often seen as a modern refinement of existential angst. In reality existentialism provides freedom from Time Bankruptcy.

Whither Roleplaying

Age of Menace: Issue 42, by Brian Misiaszek

I enjoyed the article, which seemed a good summing up of many points of view in the hobby. I could not help but feel that you took away the wrong conclusion from it. I have argued in Imazine that the RPG community's desire for "mainstream acceptance" is misguided. There are many minority interests in this modern world and I don't really believe that, for example, the La Croix community wastes this much ink and thought on why La Croix isn't "mainstream entertainment".

I will try and go one further this time. There really isn't anything that is truly mainstream as the "mainstream" does not really exist. What you are talking about when you refer to the mainstream is simply a pool of contemporary pop culture. Rewind the clock fifty years, what remains of today's mainstream? Mainstream isn't mainstream at all, it is a flowing, eddying current of shared idioms. A collection of stereotypes, clichés and familiar products forming a medium for communication. How many people discuss American Football outside the US. It is a minority interest in the UK. How many Texans care about the Premier League?

Perhaps you will be able to push roleplaying into this maelstrom for a few years. What good will it do? Roleplaying games were not invented in the Seventies - contrary to popular belief. They acquired a name in the Seventies. Roleplaying is never going to go away, as for these books and rules and companies - I personally do not care whether the go, stay or enter the mainstream - whatever.

I do agree the value in remixing the blood of the hobby periodically though. I feel the best way of doing that is not to encourage newcomers as I do not feel that there is any slacking off in new arrivals to roleplaying at the moment. Instead I feel that we should be reaching out more to lapsed gamers who have given up roleplaying because of time constraints, the feeling that RPGs are inherently childish, lack of contact with regular roleplayers and so on and so on.

Without retention all you have is churn and nothing new is discovered because we are involved in the mad process of reinvention.

How many people do you think really watch ER?

Rhetorical question. I always think it is unhelpful when people suggest that all that is wrong with roleplaying is that it lacks the X RPG. Where X might be ER, James Bond, Oprah, X-Men, the Bronze Age, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy, etc. etc.

Rolegaming Product X will not make you happy, it will not bring thousands of people into roleplaying, it is not a satisfactory substitute for God.

What is needed is for the existing RPGs to address the same themes as ER and Charles Dickens. What do people respond to in novels and television/plays that is so powerful that we continue to read and watch them over one hundred years later? I realise I am making an assumption about ER there.

RPGs should not become more specific, more niche targeted. To be more engaging they should become fatter, trying to tackle wider, more complex, universal themes and ideas. They should, in short, mature and cast their net a little wider.

John Tweet

I would like to take issue with you on the whole business of "showing the players the dice roll" because it seems a deeply unpleasant thing to do. You seem to be making a point of how fair you are but in fact you are highlighting how arbitrarily you use GM fiat.

If I hadn't shown the players the 1, this whole affair might have seemed like a convenient set-up.

If you had rolled a one and then rolled again on the "Satanic Stone Backfire Chart" I might have thought it a strange thing to do but not commented on. But having thrown a die in the first place (and why I have to ask?), to then go and declare that out of all the possible meanings in your imagination that dice might have, incinerating the heir is the one you prefer, seems very disappointing.

I would feel let down if I was a player having that happen to me. If you then proceeded to wave your arbitrary "story making" in my face by insisting that I recognise the fact you threw a "1" (as if it were some kind of achievement) I would be feeling pretty angry.

I also see it as a very crass thing to do that highlights the abstract nature of the game. I bet the player that decided to try and attune to the throne wasn't the slightest be worried about instamatic death as you claim. On the evidence you had given him he should have been thinking "nineteen out of twenty, I'm the next heir to the throne".

Hold on tight

There seems to be a wider moral to draw from this story. I am a dice rolling GM but I refuse to accept dice roll results that would damage the feel or atmosphere of a game or that would disconnect the players needlessly. If I was in the same situation I would say that a critical failure would result in the worse possible outcome for the group. Which might be, say, that the stone corrupts the heir. That way at least the group would not appear short-changed for their struggle through hell and later would be faced with the difficult decision of deposing a legitimate heir that they had themselves installed. Players succeed and have a sense of reward and achievement (hurrah) victory later turns about to be hollow (extending gaming possibilities).

This also applies to your Humakt dilemma, as a player I think I would probably throw a complete strop if the GM said "You are travelling through the wilderness, someone you do not see fires an arrow at you, you're dead". As a good player you put a great deal of effort into portraying your character. As part of that I think the GM has to recognise that in return a player has to be given a chance to play with and explore the character they have created. If the characters are just going to die at irregular and random intervals then you might well as roll up six of them (named Bob One to Bob Six) and treat the game as a skirmish wargame. One of them is bound to have a bit of luck and become powerful - then put the effort into their character, perhaps even give them a real name.

Old style GM'ing

I seem to remember reading an interview you gave where you said that you were happy to be described as an "old school" GM. Killing characters if the dice said so, rolling in the open. So on and so forth.

I have never really agreed with that. I may have rolled openly when I was 14 but even then I felt the game had to be about more than fighting. When I selected the Indiana Jones game as a classic last issue Paul immediately queried it and made a point of re-raising his bugbear that a character could use a stick of dynamite as a cigar and come out unscathed.

You seem to be raising the same objection in a wider context. Of course Paul always implies that the dynamite goes off and the character survives but in fact the game says that player characters cannot die and therefore the dynamite will be a dud or a villain will shoot the dynamite out of the character's mouth and take him prisoner. The whole point is that the whole thing keeps moving in a pulp style. For a character to die it must mean something in a wider context. The heroic sacrifice, the tyranny of evil, the cruelty of man and so on.

With death being decided by the will of the dice alone you seem closer to creating an existentialist RPG. Life truly is pointless and random. It reminds me of something I read in a fanzine years ago. The piece mentioned that if you started writing a scenario but failed to complete it before it was time to game you should just roll a dice every time the group stated something: odds, the statement is false; evens, it is true. The resulting plot would then spiral into a conclusion with a labyrinth of red herrings along the way.

I tried it once but the facts started to contradict themselves and I lost my nerve and smoothed things over with GM Power. It may be fun but it is no way to make a lasting campaign.

The Old Water

Old campaigns are the best. They have more depth, memorable NPCs, in-jokes, familiarity and bones of the world have more flesh. Old campaigns are also extremely fragile. Players and GMs can get together and yak on indefinitely about their favourite campaigns, swapping stories and anecdotes about all the things the PCs did. But dusting off the old campaign is fraught with danger, too often it is like inviting the Huns into the Louvre. They smash up the scenery, abuse the staff and generally ruin a good thing.

I don't generally like to revisit an old campaign "neat". For me the past is the past and it is often impossible to return there. This is even more true for RPG where recreating the "magic" of a good campaign is not merely the task of a GM but is also a question of recreating a mindset within the players. The fact is that whatever volatile set of parameters made the original game good is also what makes it hard to recreate. Even having the same players or even the same characters is not enough. Everything changes.

You can never truly revisit an old campaign, the water has always moved on.

Visual Wordplay

A campaign is a set of game sessions. I always feel that the campaign should be regarded as a discrete object no matter if the sessions were spread over years or there was a revolving door full of players. Its consistency or inconsistency is a property of the campaign, part of the overall atmosphere that makes the campaign what is is. Settings though are difference, many different campaigns may take place within a setting and each one has its own subtle effect on the setting, sometimes adding to it, sometimes mutating it horribly.

Settings are something the GM can return to again and again. That is not to say that they should. I always feel that as a GM I should only revisit a setting if there is something left to say about it. Like TV series that go on one or two seasons too long it is better to walk away from something while it is good rather than string it out to the point where no-one is interested in it anymore.

The Setting is the most important thing and this idea of returning to a setting is one reason while the so-called "culture games" are so vital. Unlike the generic setting the "culture game" is a richer vein. The generic setting is essentially exhausted before it is even played as all its ideas are essentially nothing more that reconstituted creativity. The "culture setting" is like a diamond that reveals yet more facets as you rotate it and look at it from different angles. Sometimes it is the players who reveal a hidden aspect of a game setting and sometimes it is the GM considering a return to their favourite game world.

The way that this theme is phrased "Restarting a campaign" is to me an oxymoron, you can start or continue a campaign. It is impossible to restart a campaign, the phrase even suggests that impossibility. To restart a campaign surely the events that have already happened in the campaign must be unwound and reset.


Advice for continuing a campaign might be interesting but instead I will talk about "returning to a setting". It seems closer to the intention of the theme than the ideas resulting from my semantic foreplay.

I prefer the idea of "returning" rather than "restarting" because the latter has an implication of linearity that most gamers stick too slavishly to. A series of adventures may lead to the characters acquiring political power, the next series might be about the character's children learning how to cope in the political hothouse. Like roleplaying itself events follows event linearly into the future, always developing.

This is only one choice though, concurrent "series" can be placed in a non-chronological order within the setting. The classic "prequel" for example: a set of adventures that deal with the history behind some aspect of the setting. Doing this allows the GM to show rather than explain some aspects of their game world.

More difficult is the concurrent game style I alluded to in my piece on "Reflections". Such a game might be disjointed from an earlier campaign by geography, coincidence or social factors.

The GM when returning to the setting should never feel that they have to affix their next campaign to the end of the previous campaign like cemented bricks. Decide a time frame and then move that frame around the setting's timeline. The new campaign might overlap or be utterly unconnected with the frame for the previous campaign.

Holly Leaf

Every campaign within a setting should have a point that it is trying to make. Beyond that every campaign within a setting should try and make a point about some aspect of the setting.

Sometimes that point might be something as seemingly inconsequential as simply trying a new games system or some trying some aspects of the rules that were never used before. At other times the point might be a higher allusion or allegory about life, at other times it might be about fictionally re-working a real-life experience. What ever the point is there should be one. If the setting is contributing nothing to your game then the chances are that you would be better off with another setting or another game. A setting should never be just eye candy, like everything else it should be contributing something to the experience of the game.

No Delusions

Sometimes when I have dropped into a game with a GM running a few sessions of an on-going campaign setting for mostly new players I notice that the GM seems unhappy with the progress of a session. A recurring expression of this unhappiness is to refer to previous sessions, other groups who have played in the campaign or reveal chunks of game background in an entirely out of character fashion.

I have always felt sorry for such GMs as it always seems that they feel uncomfortable with "their baby" being abused by such unsympathetic players. As a GM I have also had experiences where players have refused to toe the GM line and moved the game into different areas but I have always felt that such "hijacking" is the very essence of what roleplaying is truly about (or is that "fun"? Sorry).

Take as a concrete example your favourite most cherished NPC, what would you do if the PCs took an entirely in-character intense dislike to the character and killed them?

The answer to this problem is not to berate the players and list all the NPCs achievements and noble deeds and so on and so forth. That is to confuse the fact that you like the character, you like playing the character and other players enjoy interacting with the character.

Neither is the answer to invoke the power of GM's fiat and rescue the NPC. That is an a naked abuse of the GM's prerogative and with be seen as unfair by the players.

Remember instead that the setting is your setting and if after a session or two your are unhappy with the events of the game you are entirely within your rights to forget all about these sessions. If something happens which makes the setting less enjoyable for you as a GM - forget about it! But do so after the game is over. If you don't then you will ruin your own enjoyment of the game. Even if you have decided that you will not be keeping all the results of your session you should continue to engage with the players because until the fat lady sings you never know what might happen. An occurrence that you could not bear earlier in the session might lead to a series of events that actually improve the game world in ways you could not have imagined. Perhaps your favourite NPC really was holding thinks back and now thanks to this unexpected pruning of dead wood things are going off an entirely original and enjoyable tangent. Roleplaying is very much a collaborative sport and the players are your equal co-creators.

You are not a genius

You created the game world, the scenarios, NPCs - they are probably all very interesting and well-thought out. You however are not a genius - it is vital to remember this. You are not a guru and the players are not your faithful disciples or even your stooges.

A good game is made up of a good setting, a good GM and good players. To lessen the importance of any aspect of this equation is to skate on thin ice. Sometimes you can get away with it but most times you are simply going to get a very cold bath. A GM may have god-like powers within a game but most GMs remain sadly human.

And finally the players

I would like to end by offering some advice as a player to my fellow players about taking a turn in someone else's long-running campaign. Firstly no-one is holding a gun to your head so if you do not enjoy a game and you can not resolve your issues with the GM do not stay and ruin a game. Bow out gracefully.

Secondly if a GM has produced handouts explaining the setting do the decent thing and actually read it. Similarly if the GM wants to ramble on about their previous campaigns and the history of their setting let them do so and try to take in as much as you can. The GM is trying to invoke the world for you and you will get a lot more out of the game if you can connect to it.

At the same time remember that you can take in a great deal about the game world and still ignore it. If having examined the background you have a different take on the setting feel free to explore it through your character. Your PC is your vehicle in the game world not the GM's pawn. Run with the ideas but don't shackle yourself.