Many Forged in the Dark games—including the original Blades in the Dark—open their rulebook with a list of influences or touchstones. These highlight inspirations, but perhaps more concretely, clue players in on what type of media you can expect to create with this game.
The new setting in Crossing Worlds is important to me partly because I struggle to list inspirations that most gamers would understand:
But what about genre touchstones? Surely I have those?
Any mainstream touchstone I could point to is steeped in the culture that created it. Sure, let's say the game is like fantasy, but decolonize it: there are no monsters; there is no treasure or loot; you do not get xp for killing others, instead you have to inflict that damage on yourself too; there is no supernatural magic, instead there is the power that comes from relationships and interdependence and the magic of realizing nature is our equal; there is no concept of set destiny because time is not linear but moves in cycles...but unicorns? I mean, I don't care. Animals of mythical shapes and sizes and features are fun; imagination is cool.
But remember if you do have unicorns they have no special connection with virgins, because women are not owned by their male relatives or defined in relation to male sexual appetites.
There is no good vs. evil, only balance vs. imbalance.
But also there are no heroes and there are no nobles; there are people, choosing to add or to take away.
There is no success condition or happy ending; the world will fall into ruin; your job is to make sure it doesn't happen in your generation; your job is to think about the effects on the generations to come.
Okay, maybe fantasy isn't right, let's look at science fiction.
Oh wait. Western Science. There are literal textbooks and degrees deconstructing all of the tension between that genre and indigenous views.
And this is why I prefer to avoid genre touchstones. I'd rather let the mechanics and the experiences speak for themselves.
So...why am I saying anything at all?
Part of me would prefer to sidestep touchstones entirely. I would prefer to not mention the inspiration at all. That's what my grandmother did; she hid her Cherokee identity for decades. Until she went back home, and decided it was time to be honest about who she is, and started talking. It came out slowly. It wasn't until her 70s that the dam broke and she talked about it every time I saw her; it was only with a few people she talked about her traditional spiritual beliefs at all. But she talked.
So as uncomfortable as it is for me, here are my touchstones. I am Cherokee. Some of my family were on the Trail of Tears; some weren't. Some enrolled with the tribe; some didn't. Some stayed in Indian Country; many did not. Some identify as Cherokee now; some identify as white.
The game is about the tension and complexity of that question: "how do we resist when pressured from all sides to be something else?" Importantly, the game is about you defining and exploring what resistance means. Because it can look vastly different from person to person—and still be valid.
I ask my questions through the lens of the Cherokee culture, but I think the exploration is something we can all relate to on some level. Because I think we're all connected. That's part of the magic.
In July I tweeted: "When you've been working on a project for 3 years, are preparing to release the 4th version, and THAT's when your brain is like, 'Oh, THIS is what the game was about the entire time.' Thanks editor brain, glad you finally showed up to the party."
Last summer I was writing an intro to the Mission chapter of the book, and as I described what missions you would be called to do, and why the powers-that-be relied on the desperate, my brain was like, "Oh hey, this feels familiar."
Crossing Worlds is about several things, but the advancement system? The entire concept of doing missions for "more important people?" Starting with a mix of ideals and ambition, then becoming jaded and beat up in the process?
That part of the game is about the military system in the United States.
What do I mean by that? On this Martin Luther King Jr Day, I'm going to turn to his words. From his speech "Beyond Vietnam":
"I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
"Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
"My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
Full Speech transcript and audio. If you aren't familiar with this speech, it is well worth a listen (or read).
Crossing Worlds, in many way, is about the military. Join. Fulfill the agendas of those above you. Conform to the system to find success, or leave the system. Be pulled in by the promise of benefits (healthcare, stable salary, educational scholarships) but pay the price of extreme stress, potential trauma, and existing in an inherently dehumanizing system that refers to you as "bodies", i.e. "We need another body...you can't go on leave, we don't have enough bodies...ok y'all, we're going to be down some bodies over the next few weeks."
I will be the first to admit the benefits of military service can positively change a person's life. My own family has served for generations, and received financial and educational benefits, as well as developing skills of leadership, resilience, organization, discipline, and probably a dozen others from that service. But as MLK Jr highlights, you can't escape the violence inherent in the system, especially with such a disparity between who makes the laws and declares the wars, and who actually serves.
I can't play military-themed roleplaying games personally. Partly because seeing non-service members "roleplay" being in the military based on Hollywood stereotypes is grating, and partly because I don't like my hobbies to remind me too closely of real-life events.
But as it turns out, all along I was making a game about the military. Just in this version there are no ranks or uniforms, and instead we have super-sized magical pets and Inspector Gadget level cybernetics....and I'm okay with that.
"It's a very, very dark world you describe. . . but there are surprising moments of light."
The concept of this game started out very simple: I want to play Shadowrun with the mechanics of Blades in the Dark. That took a sidestep when I decided I wanted to play Shadowrun 1E (my childhood experience) with Blades mechanics. As I began to re-read the first edition rules, then all of the associated sourcebooks, the world design grabbed me in a way newer versions of the game never could.
Shadowrun was about being a SINless, someone who legally cannot participate in society.
Shadowrun was about surviving based on who you knew. . . not your money or gear.
Shadowrun was a mix of being a mercenary and an idealist, outside the system.
Very little of that flavor text translated into game mechanics in Shadowrun, so that became my new challenge: make mechanics that create an experience like the actual world design.
The first version of Karma was the hybrid child of Blades and Shadowrun. The second version started to play with a new idea: making your ideals vs. corruption matter. This third version is intended to be a much stronger step into using specific mechanics to create a specific experience.
This week I finally found myself able to define what that feel is:
You will never be forced by the mechanics . . . only tempted and punished by them.
March 6, 2015: John Harper's Kickstarter project for Blades in the Dark went live. I don't think I'd ever heard of John before then; I'm pretty sure a tweet from Adam Koebel sent me over to the page. I read the description and immediately thought, "This guy read my mind, and decided to fix every complaint I have about playing Shadowrun."
Defined crew types, a flashback mechanic to prevent too much time spent on planning versus doing, an emphasis on team work, high-paced gameplay, factions that react to the PCs, leading to actual consequences for actions...I loved it at first read.
But I have a personal rule, that I never back a project the first time I hear about it. I let myself follow a project, and then when the 48-hours until ending notice pops up, I look back at a project and make a final decision. I've broken this rule twice: my first Kickstarter, the Veronica Mars movie, and for Blades in the Dark. I couldn't stop thinking about the game the next few days. I even tried watching the actual play video, but the use of Google hangouts and generally low production turned me off (itmejp's really spoiled me when it comes to AP production value).
Still... the game kept coming to mind. I loved Dishonored; I loved The Wire; I loved the potential to adapt this game to Shadowrun. I backed Blades three days after its launch.
Six months went by, and in SEP 2015 I decided to start tinkering with a Shadowrun adaption of the game. Some family members were interested in potentially playing a Shadowrun game, but there was no way 5 extremely busy people were going to devote the time to learn 5e. After a month of casual development I had a set of Shadowrun specific playbooks, but I hit a wall: how to adapt factions to Shadowrun? Factions as they stood made little sense to me in the Shadowrun world, because why would big factions like the megacorps know who the PCs are, but if we used only street-level factions, didn't that eliminate the you-against-the-overwhelmingly-powerful-corrupt-corps feeling of the Sixth World?
Work intensified at my day job, and I set the project aside.
I kept thinking about picking it back up, but John Harper mentioned off hand that he might create some unofficial playbooks for Shadowrun and was working on rules for magic. I decided I'd just wait for his version. Months more passed and Catalyst Games announced Shadowrun: Anarchy. I decided to wait for their rules-lite Shadowrun. With either John or CG making something, why should I bother?
Two things changed. First, over the year, I played a lot of Shadowrun 5e. The amount you never mention to coworkers because there's being "the geeky one" and being "do you live in your parent's basement?" pariah level of geeky. As I played, I found myself dually frustrated by the 5e rules systems and the way Shadowrun lore seemed so far away from my 1e/2e memories as a kid. Shadowrun, as one person put it, left the cyberpunk genre for something more transhumanist. I missed the game with a definite political statement about the world and how we treat businesses over people. I missed the focus on empowering indigenous and oppressed groups to fight back. I missed Nerps.
Second, GenCon came around, and with it, the prototype rules for Shadowrun: Anarchy. Once I got a copy, I realized the game did none of what I wanted from an alternative ruleset. This is not to say SR:A is fundamentally a bad game, it just wasn't a game I wanted to play. I listened to interviews and read comments by people in development, and realized that the influence of people like Adam Koebel, Steven Lumpkin, and John Harper on my ideas about game development had moved me in a direction very far away from the SR:A team; we had fundamental conflicts about basic design principles.
In my frustration with SR: A, I decided, "Fine, I'm going to make the game I want to play."
Hundreds of hours later, that game became Karma in the Dark.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.