This morning, I was ready to release Galaxy XXX onto the world. April 1, 2015. The Playtest Pack was ready to go. I was ready. Getting set to convert my Pages file into a PDF and upload it for the world to look at for the first time.

And then I had a conversation with my co-creator, Jessica Kauspedas… and I stopped.

This essay is about the creative process. You may want to avoid it. Let me tell you why.

The West Wing’s Leo McGarry wasn’t the first one to say it, but the guy who put those words in his mouth didn’t mean it. “Two things you never want people see you make. Laws and sausages.”

The guy who wrote those words, Aaron Sorkin, is lying. He loves process. He loves knowing how things work, how creative endeavors come together. All of his shows are about the people who aren’t on the stage. They shows are about the hours that happen before the camera turns on, before the team gets on the field, before soldiers hit the dirt.

So, when Leo says you don’t want people to see the process, he may be telling the truth, but Sorkin is lying. He does want to see how people make laws and sausages.

Well, there’s a third thing you don’t want people to see you make. Heck, it may be the fifth, sixth or even seventeen thousandth thing. And that thing is games.

But here I am, writing an essay about making a game that’s probably going to be the most controversial game I ever make, letting people look at the slaughter.

It’s a lot like showing someone how a magic trick works. The secret is never as sexy as the trick.

That is, unless you’re like me. For me, the secret is always sexier than the trick. That’s because I’m the guy who’s more interested in how the trick works than the trick itself. The psychology, the distraction, the patter, the technique. These things—all parts of the trick—fascinate me.

I’m completely distracted by process. I guess that’s why I love Aaron Sorkin’s work—hiccups, pimples, re-used cliches and all—because both of us are fascinated by how things come together.

Penn & Teller do this wonderful trick where they encourage the audience to close their eyes. “If you close your eyes, you won’t see how this trick works and you can keep the illusion without us spoiling it for you.” They give the audience a choice.

This is me giving you the choice. You can read on and see something that’s possibly really ugly that might ruin the end product for you…

… or you can keep reading and see how a game designer makes choices that myself and others have called “killing your children.”

Your choice. You decide.

Pulling Knives on Invisible Walls

A while back, I heard someone on a podcast say they wanted to play a game, “Where the only resolution mechanic was epic space battles and sex!”

And I said, “I want to make that game!”

I talked about it with the woman who serves as the default graphic designer of John Wick Presents products, Jessica and she was equally excited. We talked for a long time about how such a game would work.

Sex as a conflict resolution mechanic is ground I’ve tread before. It’s a game called Sexcraft and it’s in The Big Book of Little Games and on Drivethrurpg.com. But it’s one of my “Little Games.” A game you can play once or twice and pull out when you’re in between other stuff. No, I wanted to make a Big Game about Sex.

Something like… Barbarella.

Something like… Star Wars, but instead of “the Force,” you have “the Sex!”

Something like… a soft core porn version of Mass Effect.

Okay… okay… but how do you pull that off?

The first problem I ran into was something I called “The Knife Problem.”

We wanted the game to be light-hearted and fun. If it’s a game about sex, it can’t get too dark. We wanted to eliminate rape entirely

(Fun story. I was at a Vampire larp when another player pulled me aside and said, “Okay, I’m going to mind rape you.”

(I blinked for a moment, unsure of what to say or do. I couldn’t believe I’d heard what I heard. He continued talking. I let him finish and then said, “Okay, number one. Don’t you ever fucking talk to me that way again. And if I find out you talk that way to anyone else, I’ll make sure you can’t walk home. As in, I’ll break your fucking legs. You understand?”

(I was the one who got in trouble. I walked away from that game.)

… and take all the power away from solving problems with violence. Or, perhaps, make violence non-violent. Turn it into something else.

But The Knife Problem kept coming up. Oh, I haven’t explained that. Let me do that now.

No matter how cute or clever you are with game mechanics like this, sooner or later, someone “pulls a knife.” That’s a euphemism for “escalates to violence.”

For example, we have our characters with their sex powers and they confront a bunch of pirates. Our sexy character uses a sex power, and then another…

… and then a pirate stabs her through the chest with a grappling hook.

Kind of takes all the fun out of the sex stuff, doesn’t it?

“Pulls a knife” is always present in every game. Even in games where the characters are pretty much indestructible. Take Call of Cthulhu as an example (again). The Old Ones are kinda tough. Knives really don’t hurt them, guns really don’t hurt them. So, you’d think investigators would find alternative solutions for the problem, right?

Wrong. They use plastic explosives.

No matter how tough you make your antagonists, players always figure out a way to pull a knife.

Blow up their ship.

Blow up their home base.

Blow up their planet.

Blow up the universe.

Think that last one is ridiculous? Have you seen the last two Star Trek movies? Yeah, if you can’t kill Kirk and Spock, just destroy the universe they live in.

And players are practical. “I could put a bunch of points into sex powers or I could just put a bunch of points into Pull a Knife.”

Like The Best Vampire Player I Ever Met once told me, “If you kill your enemies, you never have to worry about them coming back.”

So, the solution to all this is designing a game where violence isn’t an option on the character sheet. There’s no mechanic for it. There’s no in-game way of choosing it as an option.

And to me, that feels like an invisible wall. You know what I’m talking about. You’re in a video game and you’re exploring and you bump into something that isn’t there. It’s an invisible wall. “This is as far as we’re going to allow you to use your creativity.”

Now, there are ways to dissuade players from going “off the map” in a video game, but using invisible walls is just lazy.

I didn’t want to put invisible walls in our game. I wanted in character reasons why people didn’t use violence anymore to solve conflicts. And just making folks tough wasn’t going to fix it for me. Just making it “against the law” wasn’t going to work for me, either.

(Bad guys break rules. Make a rule that says you can’t turn your phaser from “stun” to “kill” isn’t going to stop the bad guy from doing it. Or the player characters for that matter.)

So, we thought a long time about it. How were we going to fix this problem?

One of us came up with a solution. And the more we thought about it, the more elegant that solution seemed. So, we moved forward.

The Game within the Game

Galaxy XXX became the roleplaying game about the roleplaying game “Galaxy XXX.”

In a post-scarcity 40th Century, everyone is bored. Everybody has everything they need or could want. And so, there’s this massively multiplayer live action game called Galaxy XXX. It’s broadcast to every planet. People compete in the game in gladiatorial sex combat, engage in complex story-driven missions and everybody picks sides. It’s like full on sexy time professional wrestling with a whole galaxy to explore.

All the weapons are non-lethal. Stunguns, stunswords, stunwhips, etc. Using a lethal weapon bans you from the game. Took care of that problem.

And we could even go meta on all this. Include a mechanic for scoring points, include achievements that gave you bonus dice and other mechanical benefits, include team tactics as mechanics… it seemed like the perfect solution to our problem. So, I started writing.

But as I was writing, a thought crept into my head. And the more I wrote, the more the thought gained traction. Yes, we solved all the problems we had with keeping the game light-hearted and we solved The Knife Problem and sex would be a primary element in the ga—

None of this matters.

That was the thought. It kept coming back to me over and over again.

You’re playing a character in a game who is playing a character in a game that has no real consequences.

This damn voice kept whispering at me.

You’ve removed any emotional engagement with the characters. And nothing they do will ever make a difference in the universe.

You can quit Galaxy XXX whenever you want. You can play it for a week, a day, a month, ten years. You can just stop playing. Just like World of Warcraft. And the game just keeps on going. As if you were never there.

“And you’ll never do anything that matters.”

It wasn’t the voice anymore. It was me. As I was typing.

And you’ll never do anything that matters.”

I told the voice, “Yes, but it’s the only way to be safe. I mean, we don’t want to pull people’s rape triggers. And the game isn’t about violence. There’s plenty of games out there about violence. This is a game about sex.”

Is that why you have stunguns? And a Trait called “Shoot?”

Fuck you, voice.

Is that why whenever you make a character, you make sure you have a weapon specialty?

Double fuck you.

Just… oh, fuck what am I doing?

The 7th Sea Problem

This woman named Jennifer and I had an idea for a game. Both of us were working at a company called AEG at the time and we pitched our game. I called it, “Machiavelli Meets Tanith Lee.” It was all high politics and sex and intrigue and blood magic. We were both very excited about it.

Problem was, nobody in the office knew who Tanith Lee was.

(When I pitched the name of the 7th Sea CCG, “No Quarter,” people in the office didn’t know what that meant, either. Not everyone. Dan Verssen did, for example. But there were people who looked at me with sincere eyes and said, “Does that mean you take their money from them?”)

But when I explained the idea further, people got into it. I started designing.

And at some point—I don’t know when—someone suggested—I don’t know who—that we make this new game a fantasy version of Europe the same way we made Rokguan a fantasy version of Japan.

I recoiled at the idea. If we made this new world look anything like Europe, we’d be dealing with armchair historians from the very get-go. We’d be explaining ourselves rather than explaining the game.

I objected. I was overruled.

It was the first time the project Jennifer and I proposed started moving away from the original design goal. It would not be the last.

By the time the game came out, only a few of the ideas in the game were mine. Most of them were from others that I had no choice but to put in there. And soon enough, the game called 7th Sea felt like something I like to call “Gamer Gumbo.”

“You like mechs? Our game’s got mechs!

You like magic? Our game’s got magic!

You like zombies? Our game’s got zombies!

You like it, our game’s got it!”

Some things—like the Eisen armor—came about because someone insisted the game allow him to play the “big guy in armor.” I explained this game took place at a technological level where armor was no longer useful, and in fact, a detriment.

“Just make it work,” I was told.

So, I made it work. That’s why there’s plate mail in 7th Sea, by the way. That’s for all the folks who ask me every time I go to a convention.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like 7th Sea. But I see it as a compromise. And that’s because I saw the process. I was a part of the process. And, if you ask other folks who worked on it, I was probably a big pain in the ass part of the process. That’s because the game started out in one direction and ended up going somewhere else entirely. And honestly, I resented the fucking hell out of it. Largely because most of the choices that turned it away from that original design were not my own.

“Just make it work.”

Like a jigsaw puzzle made up of pieces from eight different boxes.

(By the way, if you see similarities between the original idea and that game I wrote called Houses of the Blooded, you get bonus points.)

And, I hope, you can see where this anecdote illustrates where I was this morning.

I was ready to release the playtest pack to the world. I was watching the progress bar convert my Pages doc to a PDF. It was ready.

And while that was happening, I was talking to Jessica. She wasn’t sure this was the right way to do this. She felt the game removed consequence and importance from the players’ actions.

And then, she dropped the bomb.

“I think this just isn’t my game.”

I stopped.

And after all these years, those old feelings rushed up to my head.

Yes, the pieces fit.

Yes, I solved my problems.

Yes, I wanted a game that had a safe environment for people to explore the potential of a game about sex… I created a game that was so safe, it has no consequences.

“I think this just isn’t my game.”

So, instead of releasing the Galaxy XXX Playtest Pack today—on April 1st—we’re going to pause and re-evaluate where we’ve gone. How we’ve gotten to where we are.

I’m still doing the game. In fact, it will probably be my next Kickstarter Project. I hope.

But everything you know about Galaxy XXX may change in the next week. Like, everything.

Just thought you should know.

Now… want a sausage?

Galaxy XXX: Laws & Sausages

8 thoughts on “Galaxy XXX: Laws & Sausages

  • I’m not too fond of the idea of using sex as a _conflict_ resolution. Conflict can be sometimes seen as a metaphor for sex, but do you honestly want to make sex a “weapon”? Would’nt it be just another “knife”? And is’nt using like “orgasm spell” on a kind of violence? In Barbarella nobody seems very dangerous. Maybe create a civilization that simply don’t use violence or it is not an option (like for example everyone is immortal and indestructible but stil want and need a lot of things and can use sex powers to get them)? Anyway, hope you’ll figure it out. Best of luck!

  • John, I wonder if you might get somewhere interesting starting with the idea of sovereign souls and seeing what ends up at stake – the first thing that comes to mind is “information”.

  • Well, the first thought that came to mind, you’ve likely already thought of – does the game itself have meaning or stakes in the outer world? I immediately start thinking about sports and sports-like movies and the stories that are told relating to the interweaving of on-field and off-field action, and sports as a conflict resolution mechanic and groups agreeing to settle differences through a bet or a contest.

    Alternately, this is probably not the direction you’re thinking, but a game where you’re running a con or hustle, and where violence brings immediate scrutiny and almost always arrests but deception and seduction are the tools that work could be a fun game, though it might be a wildly different one from what you’re doing here. A sci-fi-grifters-game where the police protect you from violence but not from your own foolishness seems like an interesting and plausible setting to me. But it’s not the space-opera style that you’re talking about.

    Maybe there are components there that could help. Maybe not! 🙂

  • I can only resonate the first poster, that sex as a mechanic, is not really resonating with me. Yet, sexcraft is a brilliant piece of writing.

    Respect for not releasing a product you are not satisfied with. Few would do that….

    I see the similarities between Houses of the Blooded and 7th Sea, but HotB is about drama and 7th Sea is about swashbuckling. So, when will we see a Swachwickeding RPG? 🙂

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