Unreview: Halloween (2018)

Let’s review the Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to like it,
  2. I have to pay for it,
  3. I try my best to use E-Prime.

See that first rule? Read it again.

All right. Let’s talk about Halloween. I mean, the movie that scared me witless when I was ten years old.



See that frame right above here? See it?

That’s the first time I ever stood and screamed while watching a movie. I saw it in Ames, Iowa. That theater was in a mall and had only two screens. The one on the left was generally G and PG rated films. If there was an R rated film, it was in the theater on the right. A friend and I paid to see a movie on the left screen, but we snuck into the right screen to see Halloween. And let me tell you, that film scared the bejeezus out of me. I wasn’t right for days. Weeks. And when something scares me, I want to study it. I want to know why it scared me. Also, looking at it with a clinical eye tends to reduce the fear. 

As the years went on, I kept watching that movie whenever I could. When it came on HBO, I’d watch it. Late at night with the TV turned down real low so my parents wouldn’t hear me. Sitting in the dark, all alone, I’d study every frame of that film. I also watched the other “slasher flicks” that followed. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine…all the rest. And I’m sure it isn’t flying in the face of conventional wisdom to say that none of them matched up with Halloween. But it’s clear to me a lot of people don’t understand why. This evening comes to mind. Here, let me explain why horror works.

Let’s take a movie like Alien. You’re sitting in the dark theater and you know there’s an alien on board. You just saw it rip out of some guy’s chest. What does the crew decide to do? They split into teams, arm themselves, and have a plan for getting the alien off the ship. Sounds like a solid plan. But it doesn’t work. One of the crew gets killed (you think) and the rest of the astronauts have to figure out what to do next. They come up with a plan. They split into groups, arm themselves, and…oh well. Now the captain’s dead. Dammit. That plan didn’t work, either. Okay, new plan. Let’s get the hell off the ship. We’ll get into the escape shuttle. Screw the alien, we’re outta here! Oh, that didn’t work? Well, crap.

See a pattern here? Everything they do is smart. It’s exactly what you would do if you were in the situation. You sit in the theater and watch smart people do smart things with a smart plan…and one of them dies. And in your head, you’re saying, “If was there, I’d go along with that smart plan and…oh, crap. I’d be dead.”

And that my friends is why horror works. Because you sympathize with the people on the screen. You empathize with the people on the screen. They’re doing what you’d do…and they end up dead. Not because they did something stupid, but because they did something smart but the killer—the alien, in this case—was one step ahead. That’s why horror works.

When you watch the 1978 Halloween, you’re with Laurie Strode. She’s smart, she’s capable, and most importantly, she’s babysitting kids. You see her talk to the kid, be on the kid’s side. She talks him down from being afraid of the Boogeyman when the other kids try to terrorize him. She says, “I’m here, and I’ll protect you from the Boogeyman.”

And you know what happens? THAT. That happens. She protects him from the goddamn Boogeyman. We’re on Laurie’s side because she does smart things. Not only that, but she’s protecting a child.

Now, if you make your movie full of stupid people doing stupid things, I’m going to stop caring about them because I know they’re gonna get killed. And when I stop caring…well, my friend, you just broke one of the oldest rules of storytelling: Never lose your audience. And that’s why the subsequent slasher films just don’t work. You don’t give a single turd for any of the kids at Crystal Lake. Not one of them. In fact, you want Jason to kill them all. You hate them because they’re pretty and stupid. And the film makers go out of their way to give them qualities you’ll hate so when Jason shows up with his big goddamn bladed thing, you’re cheering for him to kill the kids.

And that’s why Halloween is different. You’re not cheering for Michael Myers. You’re terrified of Michael Myers. And you want Laurie to make it. Just survive. And protect the kids.

For example, if I was making a sequel to Halloween, the very last thing I’d do is put stupid people in the movie so the audience clearly knows ahead of time these people are doomed. Like showing a father and his son on their way to a hunting trip and they come across a prison bus with prisoners wandering around. Just wandering around. And you know what else I wouldn’t do? I wouldn’t have the father leave his son in the truck as he gets out to investigate. And to make things even dumber, after you just told the audience, “These two are on a hunting trip,” you have the father wandering around without a weapon. Then, after the son freaks out because his dad hasn’t come back to the truck, you have the 12 year old boy leave the truck and go looking for his father, shouting “Daddy!” at the top of his lungs until the killer snaps the kid’s neck. Yeah, snaps his neck. You see and hear it, right there on screen. I’d never do that. And it’s a good thing this is a hypothetical scenario and not a spoiler. Because I’d sure hate to spoil a good horror film for you, Faithful Reader.

Did I mention it was a twelve year old boy? And his neck just snaps.

Anyway, one of the small details most people miss about the original Halloween film is the lack of gore. There’s almost no blood at all in the film. The only blood you see is a gash on Laurie’s arm from a knife wound, and it’s clear its painted on. I mean, clearly painted on. The movie works not because it tries to gross you out, but because it uses mood, atmosphere, lighting and music to fill you full of dread. When the kills come (and there’s only 4 in the whole movie), they are sudden. It’s over in a moment. And the first half of the movie let you get to know the characters. Well, some of them. Some of them you don’t know, and yes, that’s a weakness in the original film. But Carpenter kept the body count low, so each death counts.

If I did a remake of Halloween, you know what I would not do? Throw in more than a dozen deaths. And make them as brutal as I could make them. Because that would be reducing Halloween to its shallow imitators who didn’t understand the original to begin with. Because each person you kill makes the audience care less. I mean, fourteen deaths would be a lot. Like a Friday the 13th movie a lot. Way, way too many. But who would do that? What kind of writer or director would throw in 14 or so murders knowing that each one has less of an impact, so by the end of the movie, the audience is so numb, they stop caring? I’ll tell you who would do that: someone who didn’t know what they were doing when they were making a Halloween sequel. That’s why wouldn’t do it.

But if someone asked me to make a Halloween sequel, you know what would be really cool? I’d do a flashback to the original with Laurie sitting in class while the teacher talks about a particular story. She’s distracted by a shape standing halfway behind a tree, watching her. The teacher asks Laurie a question and she answers it, looking back out the window to see the shape is gone.

Now flash forward to the present day. Laurie’s granddaughter sits in the same chair with the teacher talking about the same story. She looks out the window and sees Laurie standing in the same place the Shape stood, watching her from halfway behind a tree. The teacher asks a question, the granddaughter answers, and when she looks back, Laurie’s vanished.

You know what that tells me? Especially after you establish that Laurie has been preparing for Michael Myers to escape and return to Haddenfield? That she’s set up her house as a huge death trap? That tells me that the last act of the film is going to be a complete reverse of the first. It’s going to be Micheal wandering around the house while Laurie haunts and hunts him. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Wouldn’t that put so much power into Laurie’s character after she was nearly killed by this guy forty years ago? Watching Micheal become the victim as Laurie hunts the sonofabitch room by room? And there’d be a bit where he threatens the granddaughter or you could have Michael hurt Laurie so bad that the granddaughter has to pick up the plan and…

…yeah, that doesn’t happen. Don’t worry. No spoilers.

Come to think of it, this hypothetical sequel…you know what else I wouldn’t do? Have Laurie explain to her daughter and granddaughter the different qualities of each shotgun she has stashed in the house. “This one is for stopping power…this one is for accuracy…and this one is tactical.” The last example is a snub nosed shotgun, perfect for going room-to-room. You know what I wouldn’t do? After explaining that to her family, not five minutes later, she goes room-to-room…with the shotgun with the longest goddamn barrel she can find. Because that would be stupid, especially after explaining that the short barrel shotgun is the one you use for that kind of…

…yeah. I’m glad that’s only a hypothetical example. Because that would be a huge spoiler if it actually happened.

Halloween (1978) works because it’s the story of ordinary people facing off against unstoppable evil. And remember me talking about that moment I stood up and screamed? That moment right there in that picture? I stood up and screamed nobody knew it was going to happen. We thought Michael was just a lunatic. We didn’t know he was “pure evil.” Laurie just didn’t count on Michael Myers being what he is and neither did we. Who would be? The first time you watch the film, you have no idea what he is, so when he does his famous sit up, you scream. Because that’s when you realize exactly what she’s up against. It’s the Boogeyman. For real. Not a crazy guy in a mask, no. The honest to God real and walking talking goddamn Boogeyman. And that’s the moment when I was so afraid, I couldn’t sit still. I was trembling in my seat. Because this young girl who is protecting a ten year old kid—just like me—was in the same room as a real monster. A real monster. Not Frankenstein or Dracula or Wolfman. They were fake. This was a real monster. He could be in my closet, right now, waiting for me to come home. And the worst possible thing you can do when you make a horror film is fill it full of worn-out cliches from the original’s predecessor because that makes it something you never want a horror film to be: boring.

That’s why Halloween (1979) works. And that’s why…

…sorry. Rule #1.


Santa Vaca: “Fun Happens Between the Rules”

(From the introduction to the Santa Vaca Companion—coming soon.)

Photo on Foter.com

I have a lot of respect for James Ernest. We tend to hang out at conventions and spend a lot of time talking about games and everything but games. We agree, we disagree, we argue, but there’s always respect. I have never felt as if James was talking down to me and I do my best never to talk down to him.

And here’s something that everyone should say about someone else: James is a better game designer than I am. Like, way better. I can patch together some rules for a game, but James can put together ten or twelve solid games in as many hours. But there’s one caveat to this truth. James doesn’t get roleplaying games. It’s not that he doesn’t understand them, or even that he couldn’t design one, but there’s just something about RPGs that eludes him. He’s said this to me more than once. And I think it’s part of the mutual respect we have.

Just recently, at RinCon, he told me about a Pairs Deck game he made that was, in essence, an RPG. A card draft tells you who your character is and what they can do, establishing race and character class. Then, play proceeds to tell the story of your characters running through a dungeon crawl.

(“Running through a dungeon crawl.” Oh I could go on and on about the irony of that.)

James explained to me that his regular playtest crew was having fun, but there was a problem with the game. Whenever they were bantering and roleplaying their characters, they were having fun, but as soon as they engaged with the mechanic, the fun fell apart. And a little prideful part of me likes to think that he was telling me this story because he wanted my opinion about it. That one little thing that I knew, that little trick he hadn’t mastered yet. He was asking me. That’s what I like to tell myself. Anyway, he told me the story and without missing a beat, I said something that completely took me by surprise.

“In an RPG, the fun happens between the rules.”

I was shocked after I said it. But I said it with such confidence, I’m sure James thought it was some kind of profound RPG Buddha wisdom that I kept secret except for those who were truly worthy. But that isn’t the case. I just kind of said it. And after saying it, I thought about it for the rest of the weekend.

Is that really true? Does the fun really happen between the rules?

As a matter of coincidence, I ran The Name of the Game is Wrestling, a pro wrestling RPG Dan Waszkiewicz I have been playing around with for almost half a decade. The game started off as a straight RPG, then changed to a card-based RPG, then changed into something else, then something else…and we’ve given up about a dozen times trying to figure out how to do it.

Well, we figured out how to do it. We threw the damn rules out.

Oh, there are rules. It’s just none of them involve any dice or cards or conflict resolution.

The way it works: We have everyone get together and we explain for about 15 minutes why professional wrestling works as a storytelling medium. We explain how a match works, breaking it down to its five component parts, then ask everyone to come up with a character. Not everyone makes a wrestler, but that doesn’t matter because they can be part of the crowd. (In wrestling, the crowd is a character who has a role to play in the story.)

Once everyone has a character, we put together a wrestling TV show and divy everyone up into pairs, telling them how much time they have to tell the story of their match. Then, we run the show. We have only two explicit rules when telling the story of your match: no touching and no bumps (no falling down). That’s it. Just those two rules. Other than the rules of what makes a wrestling match work, those are the only two explicit rules we demand.

And you know what? It works. It works so damn good that people come in either not knowing or not caring about wrestling and leave fans. They cheer, they boo, they stomp their feet. They even make signs. They create cheers for their favorite wrestlers. It’s such a romping good time, we’re typically asked to either close the door or keep the sound down.

And there are no rules. Just two safety restrictions.

When Dan and I tried the game with rules, it all fell apart. People got too focused on rolling dice or playing cards. They weren’t telling stories, they were playing the game.

And that’s the thing that’s been bugging me most about RPGs these days. They’re too focused on the rules that they forget the goal here is to tell stories.

Combat heavy games like D&D, Shadowrun, or Vampire (yes, it’s a game about fighting; look at the list of Advantages) give you hundreds of pages of rules for mediating combat. And as soon as someone draws a sword or fires a gun, you know what happens: we all spend hours sorting things out. That’s because we’ve stopped telling stories and started playing the game.

And don’t get me started on “story games.” They’ve got the same problem. Just as combat games present you with heavy, intricate, elaborate systems for moderating fight scenes, story games give you heavy, intricate, elaborate systems for telling stories. So much so, I’m more upset about story games than I am about combat games. Combat games have the implication, “You know how to do this, so here are the rules for it.” Meanwhile, story games have the implication, “You don’t know how to do this, so let me hold your hand and show you.”

(Took me a long time to figure out why story games made me feel like I was being talked down to. I finally figured out a way to articulate it.)

Is it no wonder we talk about the game sessions when we rolled no dice as magical moments? The three hour game session of Suicide Squad that Rob Justice ran for me, Mike Curry, Eichlos and Chris Colbath comes to mind. We got a simple assignment: KILL THE BATMAN. Simple. We spent three hours talking about that. The first half was whether or not we could do it. The second half was whether or not we should do it. And that session was magic for me.

Rules in an RPG should always help us to tell stories. Not create an authentic tactical situation. And the RPGs that try to force story down our throats forget the best rule of storytelling: the best stories break the rules. It’s like someone hovering over my shoulder yelling at me, “You’re in the seventh stage of the Hero’s Journey and you haven’t met the goddess yet! And stop trying to Cross the Threshold! That isn’t until The Return!”

Maybe I’ve had a rough year. No, that isn’t a maybe. That’s a truth. I’ve had a rough year. But as I look through everything I’ve done as an RPG designer, I’m constantly asking myself the same question: “Did that help the players tell stories?”

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always, “Yes.”

Play Dirty: DemonXBunny

(This is a slightly edited version of the Play Dirty episode published in Wicked Words #11, which you can get a copy of here! Support my Patreon for only $2.99 per issue. Your subscription also includes ALL back issues. Every issue of Wicked Words contains one Play Dirty episode plus additional gaming/fiction stuff!)



You’re about to enter a new world. No, scratch that. You’re about to enter a new multiverse. And we’ll answer three very important questions.

1. What happens when pro wrestlers are geeks instead of jocks?

2. And what happens when women tell stories about women in the world of pro wrestling?, and

3. How do I apply this to my table top GM tool box?


from @demonxbunny (twitter)


Professional wrestling is weird. I mean most people really don’t understand how weird it can get. And that’s one of the reasons I love it. I love weird.

Now, most people think of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage when they think of pro wrestling. They think of huge, muscular, chemically inflated jocks with serious masculinity issues. And to be honest, they wouldn’t be wrong. That’s what 90% of pro wrestling used to be.

I say “used to be” because that isn’t exactly what pro wrestling is anymore.

Now, before I go any further, I should probably take a step back and say a word or two about what pro wrestling is: it’s theater. It’s a particular kind of theater that specializes in telling stories with violence. Stories of betrayal, revenge, honor, dynastic feuds and loyalty. That’s what makes (good) pro wrestling awesome. Ancient stories retold for a modern audience.

Until recently, this theater has been firmly in the hands of men. Women have had parts in pro wrestling—even as wrestlers—but typically, women have played the roles of trophies and objects of desire. As I said, until recently.

Over the last couple of decades, women have made strides to change their roles in this vicious, physical theater. No longer simply valets, they are the lead actors in the performance. WWE’s NXT has made huge strides in putting women wrestlers in the forefront and the promotion’s main shows (Raw and Smackdown) have taken…well…stumbling strides forward. (At least in this humble reporter’s opinion.)

However, there are places in pro wrestling where women not only hold significant roles, but primary roles. Promotions such as Shine and Stardom feature only women wrestlers. And they aren’t promoted as simply titillating spectacles in small clothes, but as real athletes telling real stories.

And my favorite story in wrestling right now—more than any other—is the story of Rosemary and Allie: the Demon Assassin and the Bunny Slayer.

Right about now, my Faithful Readers are probably wondering, “John, WTF does this have to do with running a roleplaying game?!?!” Well, my friends, it comes back to the most basic game mastering trick in the world:

Give the players something to love, then set it on fire.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, you have to know a little bit more about Rosemary and Allie. See, I have to get you to fall in love with them. And that won’t be hard. I promise.

Now, as we progress, I’m going to get parts of this wrong. Some of it will be out of order and some of it will be simplified. But that’s for the purpose of brevity. If you want the full story—and yes, you do want the full story—you can follow the links I’ve provided below.

Rosemary (Holly Letkeman) and Allie (Laura Dennis) are friends, but their characters have not always been friends. They’ve fought together and against each other in multiple wrestling promotions all over the US and other parts of the world. They’ve wrestled under different names because that’s how wrestling works: you go to a different promotion and they want you to play a new role? Generally, you say, “Yes.”

Recently, they’ve taken on the roles of Rosemary—a demon assassin who has sworn her heart to a mysterious force she calls “the Darkness”—and Allie—a demon hunter who has all the sweetness of a Joss Whedon creation without all the self-inflicted tragedy and melodrama. The two of them couldn’t be more different. After all, one of them is a creature of darkness and the other is an avatar of light. And they’ve fought against each other many times.

However, during the Impact wrestling program, we discover Rosemary has received instructions from the Darkness to protect Allie. And when you hear Rosemary explain why…it makes…sense? At least, about as much sense as a demon assassin can make.

(Watch Rosemary’s explanation here.)

And so the friendship between Rosemary and Allie begins. The two of them engaged in different feuds and storylines on Impact, but both coming to each other’s aid when needed. It’s a strange relationship, and at first, we’re not really certain if Rosemary is sincere. She is, after all, a demon. But whenever Allie is in danger, Rosemary is there, throwing herself between Ally and physical danger.

Now, wrestling is full of double-crosses and betrayals, so we fans are always skeptical when villains come to the rescue of heroes. And make no mistake: Rosemary is a villain. But it really seemed Rosemary’s actions were sincere. And because Allie is a babyface, that means Rosemary was making a slow, dramatic turn from villain to hero.

You know what that means? That means us fans started cheering for her. When she shows up to protect Allie, we cheer. We get invested.

We want to see the two of them become friends. We want Rosemary to be on our side.

Wrestlers know that screen time is money. The more time you have to tell your story, the more convincing your story becomes. Wrestlers have very little time on TV. They have to share it with other wrestlers. Now, if only there was a way for Allie and Rosemary to give more depth to their story…if only there was a medium they could use to get the fans more involved with their characters…

Welcome to Youtube.

In early 2018, Allie began documenting the Rosemary/Allie relationship on her Youtube channel, Allie’s World. The videos tell the story of Allie introducing Rosemary to coffee, donuts, and Swedish Fish (the candies, not actual fish, which is something that confuses Rosemary). They’re short, charming, and delightful. And they introduce the concept of the multiverse: the explanation for why Allie and Rosemary are friends in some wrestling promotions, enemies in others, and even have entirely different personalities. (This plays a huge role in Season 2.)

Did I also mention that both Allie and Rosemary have held the Impact womens’ championship? Rosemary held it for over a year. Both of them are capable women who can defend themselves, and don’t need men to do it.

And to me, as a wrestling fan since before I can remember, I can say that this is a great wrestling story. It has everything I want. It has friendship, loyalty, and danger. There’s a possibility of betrayal, but I’m certain that isn’t going to happen. Because that never happens. And when it does happen, I’m going to be heartbroken. I’m going to want to see the fight between these two, because I want to see the betrayer get what’s coming to her.

But more importantly, it’s a wrestling story told by women about women. Let me say that again:

It’s a wrestling story told by women about women.

And for all my feminist friends: yes, it sure as hell passes the Bechdel Test. At no point do the women ever talk about romantic relationships with men. The story is about their friendship. And in the testosterone filled world of pro wrestling, that’s a fantastic breath of fresh air.

And did I mention pro wrestling is weird? Yes, it seems Rosemary has some sort of limited magical ability. She can turn off the lights in an arena and appear and disappear at will. She can spit a magical spray of mist that blinds her opponents. And because both of them are professional wrestlers, they can endure a tremendous amount of pain.

But the “magic” elements are kept vague and subtle. Well, “subtle” as subtle can be in the world of pro wrestling. We don’t know if Rosemary’s powers are supernatural or just coincidence. Maybe she paid off the production manager to turn off the lights. Maybe that mist spray is just really harmful chemicals she’s somehow learned to keep in her mouth without harming herself. And maybe all that damage the two of them take is because wrestling is a choreographed action thea—

NO! It’s real! Dammit! It’s real! Rosemary really is a demon assassin and Allie really is a multidimensional demon slayer doing her best to be Rosemary’s friend!

So, hopefully by now, I’ve sold you on Rosemary and Allie’s relationship. Hopefully, you’ve checked out the Youtube links I’ve provided. Hopefully, you understand why I adore these two and admire them for their devotion to a demanding, physical craft that’s been largely dominated by men for more than a century. And hopefully, you give a shit about their friendship.

I hope so. Because they’re about to set it on fire.

* * *

Not too long ago, Holly Letkeman injured her ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament). She needed surgery to make sure she didn’t have long-term damage, but like most professional wrestlers, she worked through the pain. Worked through the pain until the moment was right for her character to get written off the show for a few months while she recovered.

So, how do you do that? How do you create a circumstance where a character as insane and seemingly impervious to pain as Rosemary gets taken off the show?

You know the answer to that question. You know it. Come on. Think. Rosemary is a demon. Seemingly impervious to pain. Indestructible.

You know the answer. You’ve been reading this article long enough to know. Ah, I see you’re starting to get it. Remember the first thing I told you about playing dirty as the GM? Remember?

Hurt them in ways their character sheet can’t help them.

Think of your biggest munchkin player. Someone who went through the rules and found all the loopholes. Made a character impervious to pain, impervious to acid, impervious to fire, and everything else. They’re indestructible. Nothing can hurt them!

That’s fine. That’s absolutely fine. As the GM, I’m not going to hurt you.

I’m going to hurt her. I’m going to hurt Allie.

Enter Su Yung, the ghost bride. Another supernatural character with powers very similar to Rosemary’s. And just as dangerous. While Rosemary has been eating donuts and Swedish Fish with Allie, Su Yung has been destroying opponents in the ring. While Rosemary has been having delightful adventures with Allie, Su Yung has been destroying opponents in the ring.

See what we’re doing here? We’re establishing the destructive power of an enemy while humanizing our new friend.

And instead of going directly after Rosemary, Su Yung sets her sights on Allie.

Rosemary’s character sheet cannot protect her. Because we’ve made her fall in love with Allie. And because of that, we’ve fallen in love with Allie. And because of that, Rosemary is going to suffer.

Of course, all of this pays off in a wrestling match because that’s how wrestling works. A showdown between good and evil. Well, maybe not good, but less evil than Su Yung.

Nah, let’s stop quibbling. Rosemary is dark, but she isn’t evil. Not in the same way Su Yung is. And when the two of them face off in the ring…

…I’m not going to tell you how it turns out. You’ll have to watch for yourself. But remember, this was a way to write Rosemary off the show so Holly Ketkeman could recover from ACL surgery.

And while I won’t give you any spoilers, I will say this: it’s gonna get dusty in here.

* * *

Without talking about spoilers, let’s talk about what just happened. And yes, that means you have to go watch the video. Remember the basic principles of playing dirty: give the players something to love, then set it on fire.

In this case, the player characters can either be Rosemary or Allie. Or both. But let’s explore Allie as PC and Rosemary as NPC.

A beneficent but evil spirit who finds some kind of connection with the player characters. Yes, it’s plainly evil, and absolutely insane, but it turns up when they’re in danger and helps them out. It uses its dark powers for good. She’s a fantastic example of an anti-villain (from TV Tropes: “a villain with heroic goals, personality traits, and/or virtues; their desired ends are mostly good, but their means of getting there are evil”).

But then, Rosemary must face a terrible power. And what happens after that? What happens when the players watch their best friend, their demon friend, face that power and… what can the PCs do then?

DemonxBunny is more than your standard pro wrestling storyline. It’s a story about two friends (Holly and Laura) telling a story. And if you watch carefully, you’ll learn how they apply the simplest narrative rules to get great results. Specifically, they do what all pro wrestling is trying to do: get their fans to care.

Watch them. Learn from them. But more importantly, enjoy the show.

from https://impactwrestling.com



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The Grey Crane

The Grey Crane and I. Gencon 2016.

If you play roleplaying games, you owe Greg Stafford. You may not even know it, but you do.

Greg was brilliant. He was ahead of his time. You know the Stafford Rule? Every game designer knows the Stafford Rule:

“If you believe you’ve come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it.”

You know how brilliant Greg was? Let me show you how brilliant he was.

In Runequest, one of the things your character can do is sit with a shaman and take a spiritual trip to the God Realm where your character walks in the footsteps of an ancestor or hero. You have an adventure, then return home transformed by the experience. Your character lives the story of the hero, and having that experience, and being changed by that experience, returns to the real world a better person. That’s one of the things you do in Runequest. That’s 1978. While Gary was making sure his falling rules comported to reality in his little tactical simulation game, Greg created the perfect metaphor for what roleplaying games could be: a mythological and transformative experience.

You go into the God Realm, walk in the footsteps of the hero, and come back transformed. Can you come up with a better metaphor for roleplaying games? No, you can’t. Nobody can. And Greg did it in 1978.

Greg didn’t just write about being a shaman, Greg was a shaman. Remember the solar eclipse of 2016? At the end of Gencon, I was able to tell this story without making up a single word. I went to the Chaosium booth to say goodbye to Greg. Unfortunately, I missed him. He was in the air, flying to a secret location to perform a shamanistic ritual during the solar eclipse. I am not making any of that up. It’s the absolute truth. Not a word of what I wrote is fantasy or fiction. Greg was part of a magical ritual during the solar eclipse. I like to tell people that the reason the sun returned to the sky is because of Greg. And you know what? That part of the story is true, too.

He created Glorantha, the greatest fantasy world ever. Yeah, I usually try writing in E-Prime, but I’m not today. Glorantha is the greatest fantasy world ever. You can have your Middle Earths and Narnias and Krynns and Rokugans or whatever else you got. If you don’t know Glorantha, you are missing out. Middle Earth is a fantasy world designed by a linguist. Glorantha is a fantasy world designed by a mythologist. You go get the newest edition of Runequest. And I mean right now. You’ll see what I mean.

And hey, Legend of the Five Rings fans: you owe Greg, too. You know why? Because the original L5R RPG was just me cribbing from Pendragon. If there was no Pendragon, there’d be no L5R RPG. And you also owe him for something else. You recognize this guy?

Yeah, that’s Kakita Toshimoko, the Grey Crane. The mentor and sensei of Doji Hoturi, the Crane Clan Champion. You know why he’s called “the Grey Crane?” Because that’s my nickname for Greg. Greg Stafford is Kakita Toshimoko, mentor and sensei. My mentor and sensei. It was my way of tipping my hat to Greg, letting him know how important his influence was on me. When I published Orkworld, I dedicated the book to him. It seemed only fitting.

And speaking of Pendragon

I love Glorantha. I love Runequest. But Pendragon is, without question, the most important RPG I ever read, played or ran. Not Call of Cthulhu (my first RPG), but Pendragon. It showed me how a game could embrace themes and reflect them as mechanics. Every mechanic in Pendragon invokes an element of Arthurian myth and puts it right on your character sheet. You know how knights sometimes go mad, throw off their armor and run into the woods, vanishing for a year? That’s in the game. You know how knights fall madly in love at first sight and do stupid things because they can’t control themselves? That’s in the game. You know how a knight seems to go stronger because of his fame? That’s in the game. You know how the sons of knights take on the traits of their parents? That’s in the game. And you know how women seem to be playing by a different set of rules entirely? That’s in the game. You name an important part of Arthurian myth and I can show you—on your character sheet—how it’s a part of King Arthur: Pendragon.

KAP showed me the kind of game designer I wanted to be. I didn’t want to make rules that accurately reflected the realities of combat so I could create authentic tactical situations. I wanted to tell stories with my friends. Greg’s games are about giving you mechanics that help you tell stories. And he was doing it before the whole “story game” movement came along.

I look at games like Mouse Guard and I see the influence of Pendragon. (And I know the influence is there because I’ve talked to Luke about it.) And I hear gamers talk about how new and innovative and different it is. Yeah, see the Stafford Rule above. Greg was there first.

I see games like Apocalypse World and hear people talk about how it revolutionary its approach to task resolution is. See the Stafford Rule above. Greg was there first.

He was there ahead of us all. Making games that threw away notions of “game balance” or “simulationism” or any of that crap. Greg was a shaman. And he knew the GM’s job was to take the players’ hands and lead them to the God Realm where they could walk and talk with heroes, then come back transformed by the experience.

I am who I am because of Greg. The Great Shaman of Gaming took my hand and led me to the Hero Realm.

Then, he let my hand free and said, “Go play.”

I was never the same.

I owe Greg Stafford. We all do. And it’s a debt we can never repay.

Ten Years Ago: Santa Vaca & Game Balance

I wrote the following essay ten years ago (2008). I reprint it here without edit or revision. The first time I ever mentioned the phrase “santa vaca” in conjunction with D&D.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was on the verge of release and after hearing so many people talk about “game balance” as the primary design consideration, I thought I’d talk about how little I consider “game balance” when I design roleplaying games. Chiefly because it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, on with the essay…


* * *


Listening to people talk about the fourthcoming (intentional) edition of D&D, I hear a lot of the same thing: balancing out the classes.

I hear the fighter will deal out the most amount of damage up close while the thief (I will not say “rogue”) deals the most amount of damage from behind while the magic-user deals out the most amount of damage from a distance and yadda yadda yadda.

I console myself with the knowledge that the new D&D design team is finally giving up the ghost. D&D isn’t a roleplaying game; it’s a very sophisticated board game. This is a bit of a paradox because D&D is the first roleplaying game. Yet, it isn’t a roleplaying game. Like being your own grandfather, this takes some explaining.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “What is a roleplaying game?” question. Thinking in the same way Scott McCloud thought about “What is Comics?” in his absolutely brilliant Understanding Comics graphic novel. I’ve been thinking about it because something about the new D&D struck me sideways strange.

I think it’s important to note that any game can be turned into a roleplaying game. You can turn chess into a roleplaying game by naming your King and giving him an internal dialogue. You can turn Life into a roleplaying game the same way. In fact, you can turn any board game into a roleplaying game that way. But you have to add something to do it. You have add the character and his motivations.

I’d also argue you have to add another element. The “character” must make choices based on personal motivations rather than strategic or tactical advantage. This is the “My Character Wouldn’t Do That” factor. The correct move in chess may be Queen’s Pawn to Pawn 4, but if the King decides, “I want to protect my Queen more than I want to protect my Bishop, even though the smart move is to protect my Bishop,” then we have a roleplaying game.

It isn’t that you play dumb. You could make every smart move put before you. But if you actively consider your character’s desires and motivations first, then I think you’ve got what we’re talking about.

But a game like chess doesn’t reward you for making choices that don’t directly or indirectly lead to victory. In fact, no board game does. That’s what differentiates a board game from a roleplaying game, I think. A board game rewards players for making choices that lead to victory. A roleplaying game rewards the player for making choices that are consistent with his character.

Likewise, most board games don’t have a sense of narrative: a building story. Now, please note that I said “most.” Some board games certainly do. And I don’t mean a story in an abstract way that’s up to interpretation. I mean a real story complete with everything we expect from stories. Plot, narrative, exposition, the third act betrayal. The whole kit and caboodle.

Now, some board games have a sense of narrative, but players are not rewarded for moving the narrative forward. On the other hand, the whole point of a roleplaying game is to do just that: move the narrative forward. It has mechanics that assist the players in doing just that.

Therefore… “A roleplaying game is a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.”

(At this point, I predict Faithful Readers to point out that this is not the definition most people understand as a roleplaying game. I will pre-empt this retort by asking them how the majority of Americans misuse “I could(n’t) care less,” misunderstand evolution, and mispronounce the word “nuclear.” Including the man sitting in the White House who fucks up all three.)

This is a working definition. It is far from complete and I’m not entirely happy with it, but it’s a good starting point. Notice the distinct lack of miniatures or dice as necessary to playing a roleplaying game. Some roleplaying games use miniatures and some roleplaying games use dice. Not all. The chief question is: “Can you play a roleplaying game without dice and/or miniatures?” My answer is, “Yes. I have. And I’ve been doing it for at least twenty years.”

(It is at this point I reminded how a certain individual very important to the origin of the RPG told me–to my face–that I wasn’t playing a roleplaying game at all, but I was just a “wanna be community theater actor.” But we shall not speak ill of the dead.)

Dice and maps and miniatures are not neccessary to play roleplaying games. (Yes, Matt. I’m using the word in that sense.) Some players prefer them, but others do not. It is also not neccessary to play a game without them. Do they add to the experience? Yes, they can. They can also detract from the experience, inhibit the experience or limit the experience. But they are not necessary.

What I feel is essential for a roleplaying game–what defines a roleplaying game–is that players take the roles of characters in a game that has mechanics that enable and reward story and character choices. That is a roleplaying game.

And with that definition in mind, I look at what D&D 4 is going to look like and I’ve come to a conclusion: it will not be a roleplaying game.

You can make it a roleplaying game, but in order to do so, you’ll have to add elements that do not exist in the rules. If you play the game by the rules, it is not a roleplaying game.

D&D has mechanics for rewarding you for making the best strategic and tactical choices, but it does not have mechanics that help the players move the plot forward. It has mechanics for movement and damage and healing and everything else Talisman does, but it does not reward a character for making decisions that aren’t focused on winning the game.

At the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy gives up “treasure and glory” to heal the village. He surrenders the magic stone to the old man, completing that transformation from greedy, selfish bastard into the hero we knew from the first film.

In D&D4, there is no advantage in the choice to give up that treasure. Hell, in D&D3 there’s no mechanical reason for him to do it, either. No strategic or tactical reason. He should take the magic stone, add it to his current stash of magical treasures, and go on to the next adventure. Likewise, he shouldn’t have turned over the Arc of the Covenant to the US Government and he shouldn’t have stopped to heal his dad. He should have run out of that temple as fast as his little feet could carry him and cash in on finding the cup of Christ. That’s the only way to get experience points. That’s the only way to “win.”

That’s how you win D&D. More treasure to kill bigger monsters to get bigger treasure.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post in the first place. Game balance.

D&D3 was obsessed with obtaining game balance. The fact that stats are randomly generated demonstrates what a Great and Massive Failure this is. (If we add up our stats and you have even one point more than me, our characters are unbalanced.) What kind of damage can a fighter do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a wizard do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a thief do before he falls down… all of these questions are missing the point. Especially in a roleplaying game. Addressing the symptoms, but not the disease. Hacking at the limbs rather than the roots.

“Game balance” in a roleplaying game doesn’t come down to hit points or armor class or damage or levels or feats or skills or any of that. Game balance in a roleplaying game comes down to a simple question: “Is each character fulfilling his role in the story?”

D&D addresses this issue in a small tactics mindset. The fighter fights, the theif steals, the cleric heals and the wizard is the artillery. Make sure each character’s role–as D&D sees it–is filled.

But what about motivation? What about personal stakes? Let me show you what I mean.

One of my adventures in the RPGA involved a first level thief. He was the son of a tavern keeper who had gambled himself into deep debt. My character learned how to be a theif because he was the bruiser at the tavern. He knew how to pick pockets because he had to look out for it. He knew how to hide in shadows to keep himself out of sight. And he knew how to backstab because he needed to move quietly up to a troublemaker and hit him hard enough to knock him out without starting a fight. That’s my thief.

(I should note that the game itself demands I do none of this. There is no rule or mechanic that requires it and there is no rule nor mechanic that rewards me for it.)

I went on the adventure with my little thief. As we walked, I chatted with the other characters. I was chatty. They chastised me for slowing down the adventure. Not my character, but me. They chastised me for roleplaying. Obviously, I was playing the wrong game.

We killed some kobold bandits, gathered some treasure. The other players were not playing as a group well (despite my suggestions) and argued and bickered the whole time.

Meanwhile, I stole as much of it as I could. When I found something in private, I kept it. I was going to save my father’s tavern and it didn’t matter who stood in my way. Again, acting in character but against the group goal of sharing the treasure. As far as Tav saw it (his name was Tav), these people hired him to do a job. They were rude to him and did not go out of their way to protect him.

At the end of the adventure, I had a large chunk of silver, gold and treasure. I even got a +1 short sword. The fighter didn’t want it. And when the adventure was done, I said, “I retire!”

They all looked at me with disbelief. I reminded them that the only reason I did this was to save my father’s tavern. I got a bunch of gold and a magic sword worth thousands of gold pieces. I was set for life. A peasant sees 1 gold piece per year and I got a few thousand. I was done. I filled my role.

Now, my story about Tav helps me illustrate a lot of things. Almost every choice I made with him was based on his backstory–right up to his retirement. All the choices were based on things that weren’t on my character sheet. The things that, as far as I can tell, are the most important things about a character.

Game balance isn’t about hit points or armor class or spells per day or any of that. Game balance is about helping the player tell his character’s story in such a way that he doesn’t eclipse the other characters. Mechanics that reward and assist players in doing just that.

At least, that’s how I see it.

And I’m still not entirely happy with the definition.

Unreview: A Simple Favor

Unreview Rules: 1) I must like it, 2) I had to pay for it, 3) I do my best to use E-Prime.

I love a movie that refuses to fit genre stereotypes but uses them to its advantage. I also hate genre. Movies that defy genre with a unique and compelling voice always bring me to the theater. That’s one of the reasons I love the Coen Brothers. They own their own genre. “Coen-esque.” And, of course, as a fan, I’ve watched The Big Lebowski about a billion times. The gimmick always makes me smile: a film noir with the most unlikely detective. In Lebowski, our detective—”the laziest man in Los Angeles”—smells like white Russians, has no job, and seems obsessed with bowling. Lebowski has so much character and absolutely does not belong in the noir detective story unfolding around him. The premise still makes me giggle.

Now take A Simple Favor. In many ways, the same premise. Let’s make a classic film noir complete with a femme fatale, a wife in trou…I mean, a husband in trouble, and let’s throw in the world’s most unlikely detective. In this case, a single mom.  But not just a single mom, oh no. Instead of “the laziest man in Los Angeles,” let’s make her “the craftiest crafty woman in the world.” You know the one. The woman who has time to get her kid to school, bake brownies, sign up for every school activity, maintain a daily mommy vlog, and has her own helium tank because “kids love balloons.” Yes, that woman. You know her. She can knit together a hat or a pair of socks or a scarf while you’re wasting time on the X-Box. She owns killer Excel sheets and keeps track of everything. Now, let’s put her in the middle of a film noir mystery and see what happens.

As I sat in the dark theater watching the story unfold, I was laughing. Because watching Anna Kendrick play the craftiest crafty woman in the world delighted me beyond belief. I’ve known more than a few (and yes, I’m living with one now) and just thinking about tossing her blindly into this elaborate game of charades got me giddy. “Remember moms, do it yourself.” Remember that. It’ll be important as you watch.

But Kendrick wasn’t the only marvel on the screen. I’ve suddenly become a huge fan of Blake Lively. She killed this role. Can she play every femme fatale from now on? Please Hollywood? Please?

The twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat. I’ve usually got my writer hat on when watching mysteries, but this time, the film had me so entertained, I took that hat off, sat back with my popcorn and Coke Icee, and just enjoyed the show. I don’t think there was a single moment I didn’t have a smile on my face.

Finally, Santa Vaca

So, I did a hack. Begin the jokes now. “A hack did a hack.” There, I beat you to it.

When I say, “I did a hack,” I mean I did a hack of the world’s most famous RPG. This has been years in the making. I had the…wait. Stop. Let’s start over.

Just below, you can read the introduction to Santa Vaca: A Hack of the World’s Most Famous Roleplaying Game. I’ll be releasing the “DIY” version as a PDF next week. The introduction goes through some of the why’s and wherefore’s of how this whole project came to be and gives you an idea of what this monster looks like.

And when I say “DIY,” I mean Do It Yourself. I wrote the thing, I laid it out, I edited it, I got art for it, the whole kit and kaboodle. Once you read the intro, you’ll understand why.

Santa Vaca will be on sale via my website and Drivethrurpg next week.



Sacred cows make the best steaks.

— The Tao of Zen Nihilism


This all started as a dare. A dare I made to myself. Actually, it started a lot earlier than that, so let’s jump all the way to the beginning, back to 1999 when the folks at Wizards of the Coast gave permission for other game designers to play with their toys. I’m talking, of course, about the d20 SRD, or “Standard Reference Document.”

Now, most folks see that and say to themselves, “Hey, I could make a few new feats!” or “Hey, I could make a new prestige class!” or “Hey, I’ve got a few spells I could throw in there.”

I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as an invitation to come in and mess things up. You want me to play with your toys? Fine.

I’ll take the heads off all your dolls and put tinker toys in their place.

I’ll switch the voice boxes on your G.I. Joes and Barbies.

I’ll take your Legos and some superglue and make laser sights and other accessories for your super powered squirt guns.

If you tell me I can do whatever I want with your toys, when you get them back, you won’t recognize them.

Like I said, most people see an OGL as permission to write adventures and add on more features. I see it in a completely different light. I see it as permission to really screw things up.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s the whole point. Experiment. Don’t just think outside the box; throw the damn thing out the window.

* * *

The idea for this book first came to me in the place where all good ideas happen. I’m talking about the shower.

For some reason or another, I was thinking, “Could I change the core resolution system of D&D without changing the character sheet?”

(Don’t ask me why I was thinking this. I honestly could not give you an answer.)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized, “Yes. Yes, I think I can.”

I jumped out of the shower, sat in front of my computer and recorded my thoughts. When I was done, I posted them on my Youtube channel. You can even watch my wet hair slowly dry as the video progresses.

It was a challenge that caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go. Held on with the grip of a maniac crocodile. Then, I started wondering, “What else could I change without changing the character sheet?”

Could I change alignment? “Yeah, I could.”

Could I change the magic system? “Yeah, I could.”

Could I change… dare I think it?… combat?

After a short while, I said, “Yeah. I could.”

Not make them “better.” No, no, no. Change them to something else. Make them say something I wanted to say.

How much could I change without changing the character sheet?

That was the question I first asked. And from that, I got this book.

* * *

I feel it’s necessary to say this again: I’m not “fixing” anything. Nor do I think my ideas make D&D a “better” game. But, as a game designer, I often putz around with game systems after I get done reading them. I fool around with them more when I’m in the middle of running them. I even think about ways to change them when I’m not running them.

These are ideas I’ve had while reading, writing for and playing D&D. If you ever played in one of my games, these are the house rules I’d make.

They change the game in fundamental ways. You cannot play the game the same way if you implement even one of these changes. The whole game transforms. Takes on a different feel. It means something different.

Also, each of the ideas in this book are modular. That is, you can take one of them and leave the rest. You could use all of them if you like. (You’d be playing a very different game, but maybe that’s the point.)

* * *

So, I wrote all this stuff down. Then, I forgot about it. This thing called 7th Sea showed up and smacked me in the face and stole all my attention, saying I wasn’t getting it back until I was done. So, I forgot. Until recently.

See, I’ve been fascinated by the OSR (old school revival). Something pinged in my heart and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was enthralled. And it wasn’t until very recently I understood what it was.

These little black and white books with black and white art and very little layout and they were only a few pages and they…

…holy @#$!, these were the games I was doing back in 1999. When the original OGL popped up. They were full on DIY punk rock. The stuff I loved when I was in high school. The attitude, I mean, not the games. The “@#$! you, I’ll make the game I want!” attitude. I finally figured it out.

And when I finally got it, I got to it. And now, you’re holding it.

No fancy layout. No fancy art. Not even any fancy editing. Just the game the way I’d play it. But with some of my own rules. Not the game rules. I mean, game design rules. Anyway…here they are.

Rule #1: Keep the Cows

If I’m gonna do this, I have to keep the “sacred cows” of D&D. I have to keep the stuff that’s remained through all the editions, the stuff that’s appeared on every edition character sheet. In other words, I have to keep:

  • The Six Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc.)
  • Alignment
  • Armor Class
  • Character Level
  • Experience Points
  • Hit Points
  • Spell Levels

Rule #2: Slaughter the Cows

However, I do not need to keep the mechanics. I can change the mechanics to anything I want. But I have to keep the nomenclature.

Rule #3: Separate the Cows

I have to make each system independent of itself. In other words, if you want to take my idea for hit points and put it in your game, and just the idea for hit points, my mechanic has to work.

Rule #4: Ergodic Cows

Back in the day, when I first bumped into roleplaying games, they could be defined as ergodic literature. That is, text requiring non trivial effort to traverse. In other words, you had to figure things out on your own. The author didn’t give you everything you needed. And sometimes, it seemed the author was intent on making things difficult.

I’ve done that here. There are references to rules that don’t exist. Sometimes I use two different terms to refer to the same rule. I’ve even taken the effort to leave out an entire page. But if the point of all this is to make this feel like “the early days of roleplaying games,” I felt those steps were necessary to make the game feel authentic.

And you know, when my friends and I discovered that the rules we bought weren’t exactly “complete” (there are no healing rules in 1st Edition Call of Cthulhu, for example), we were forced to make things up. And that lead me to game design. So, maybe you’ll follow the same path. You can thank me later.


* * *


It’s an experiment. I don’t imagine it will change the game industry or anything dramatic like that. I got inspired, I did a thing, and it’s done. And now, I want other people to have it. Play with it. Mess around with it. You know, like we used to do. At least, like used to do.

So, enjoy it. And let me know if you use any of it for your home game. I look forward to hearing from you.


Take care,



Unreview: Adjustment Day

Normally, my rules for an unreview include an attempt to use E-Prime. In other words, I try my best to avoid using any iteration of the verb “to be.” Let me start this unreview by breaking that rule.

This shit is mean. I mean bleak. I mean if the Red Wedding got you to throw a book across the room, this one is gonna make you head out to the garage for the gas can and start a bonfire. I mean this shit makes Fight Club look like Club Med. In an interview, Chuck said, “My parents are dead. I can write what I want.”

That’s your warning. Your last warning.

When I started reading Adjustment Day, I felt like I was reading Fight Club, Part 3. That’s how I felt at the start. That feeling didn’t last long. I quickly grew to understand this was something different. Something meaner. Palahniuk has always been a satirist, but not all satire has to be mean. This shit is mean.

It’s mean to the identity politics of the Left. It’s mean to the separatist movements of the Right. Like the “protagonists” in the book, this book has a List. And you’re probably on it. I’m on it.

Talking heads who are too busy making millions commenting on the system rather than trying to fix it. They’re on the List.

Politicians who are too busy making millions abusing the system’s loopholes rather than trying to fix them. They’re on the List.

Conservative pundits who scream about globalists, Jews, and Libtards being responsible for all their problems. They’re on the List.

Liberals who weaponize identity politics to make sure they can point blame in all directions. They’re on the List.

Separatists in Texas, Alaska, California and The South who holler about bringing about the next Civil War. They’re on the List.

We’re all on the List. Including me. Including you. Really angry men with guns are tired of our shit.

And Adjustment Day is coming.


I read through the book, laughing all the way. When I laughed, Jessica looked at me curiously. I told her what I was laughing about and she did not laugh. She winced.

I’m laughing because I’m wincing.

This is Swift’s A Modest Proposal on Percocet. And unlike science fiction, this shit ain’t about what could be, it’s telling things the way they are.

People don’t care who the leader is so long as there’s a leader. That may as well be a quote from the book—and I mean the book inside the book, the book called Adjustment Day that’s being passed around by really angry men with guns. And two years ago, I would have scoffed at that thought. Not here. Not in America.

Yeah. I was wrong. I was wrong about a lot of things. Like saying “Adjustment Day is coming.”

Nah. It’s already here.