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Monday, 10 November 2014

Unplug the jackboots

Back in the eighties I used to write a lot of White Dwarf under various pen-names. Scenarios, articles, reviews, columns, you name it. Occasionally there'd be pieces about a role-playing game of the time called Paranoia - "the role-playing game of a darkly humorous future". I didn’t see anything that made me want to play it, but after all if you only glance at the ads you’re going to end up with a vague and probably unreliable sense of what a game is about. (That won’t stop me talking about it, of course.)

I am interested in both dystopian and paranoiac literature. I’m having a stab in the dark there, assuming that Paranoia is set in a future totalitarian state, but it seems a fair bet. On surer ground: I know the tone of the game is meant to be humorous because all the ads for it in White Dwarf were written with a big rhetorical wink, like an invitation to a frat party. It says it's humourous in the logline too - always a giveaway, that.

I suspect that Paranoia has less to do with the likes of Stalin, Big Brother and Pol Pot and more of the flavour of an author like Kafka or Gogol. The bureaucratic rat-maze depicted there can be just as crushing to the individual, but it’s madness without personal malice. The mere idiocy of the system. That can be funny, too, though probably to do it justice you need a Sam Beckett rather than an Adam Herz.

You know what they say about Marmite and oysters. I’m never likely to play Paranoia myself, but if you’re a fan then it’s probably the main thing in your gaming life. So why am I holding forth about it from this position of wilful ignorance? Because there is a Kickstarter campaign to bring Paranoia back in an all-new version written by James Wallis.

Full disclosure: James is a very old and dear friend of mine. But that’s not why I would recommend one of his projects. I don’t plug every project that a close friend works on, do I? What’s germane here is that James is an immensely talented writer and game designer. More than talented, in fact: a genius. (A genius and I don’t hate him? That shows you what a nice guy he is.)

Here’s just some of the proof. James co-created the first storytelling card game, Once Upon A Time. He wrote The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is both a completely original mash-up of role-playing and parlour games and a very funny read. He masterminded publication of the one-of-a-kind game setting Nobilis and a beautiful new edition of Dragon Warriors. He created Alas Vegas, a reinvention of the RPG within the sort of tight story arc structure we’re now familiar with from cable TV drama. He’s an entrepreneur with more ideas than he has time to develop. He’s a teacher and mentor. He’s at the forefront of creative talent working in that interesting space where narrative meets games. Oh, and he has a killer time-travel love story that, when he can clear the time to turn it into a novel or a script, will be the thing everyone you know is talking about. Yeah, remember that tip.

How I'd like Kickstarter to work is that you'd back the creator, not the concept. As long as it's the latter, there'll be a preponderance of mix-n-match X-meets-Y pitches involving any combination of: Sherlock Holmes, steampunk, zombies, Cthulhu, Dracula. Ho hum. There's only so long that can go on before the greatest hits of the past are completely shagged out. But if the funding went to James Wallis himself to create whatever he was most inspired to work on, we'd get something much more interesting than a rebooted '80s RPG. We might even get that time-travel love story. For that, I'd pledge.

Still, the world is as it is. So if you like the sound of Paranoia rebooted by James Wallis, which is the only sort of Paranoia I'd be likely to play, skip over to Kickstarter and get on board. The campaign is 400% funded already and it’s still got several weeks to run. And thinking about it for this post has got me preparing a scenario for my own players involving Benito Mussolini – there'll be paranoia for sure, but that's the least of their worries. Maybe I'll muse more on that tomorrow.


  1. "Yes Friend Computer"

  2. > How I'd like Kickstarter to work is that you'd back the creator, not the concept.

    So, Patreon?

    1. I was thinking of Patreon as I wrote that. I don't know whether in practice it works out as backing the person rather than a given project, though.

    2. For those I know who work on it, it does work out to backing the person, but it heavily slants towards backing people whose output can be made on monthly of faster basis.

    3. Some people seem to have Patreon that is set to give them money for producing a thing (like a youtube video once a month). Others seem to have it as "give me money".... I've seen it described as "hipster welfare" for example.

      There aren't many folks I'd trust to just give them cash indefinitely on the off-chance they'd produce something I'd like... not even the mighty Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson :)

    4. That doesn't mean that if someone said "I've come up with an idea you do like... and it'll take me 6 months to do it. If 100 people chip in £20 a month we'll have the greatest story ever told" that I wouldn't be keen.

    5. If Vince Gilligan said he had a new idea for a show, and he wasn't going to say what it was but he was taking presubscriptions for the series, $40 for the first season let's say, I'd sign up for that. What I don't like about Kickstarter is that he could only raise money there by promising Breaking Bad season 6 - and I loved BB but it's over now. Time for something new.

    6. Yeah, I get what you mean. I suppose it depends on how much you trust the creator. Although "I have a tin can here. I'm not telling you what's in it. Do you want it?" is a bit bizarre :) I suppose if Vince came up with a "some sort of Jack Vance show", I'd be in. But not for a complete mystery.

      Of course, the same issue of trust applies to Kickstarter too... there've been people who've raised much more than their goals and then not delivered at all!

      Breaking Bad was awesome. Apart from that episode with the fly. I count that as the deliberate mistake in the carpet as only God is perfect,

      With yourself, if I'd done the "give Dave Morris money and see what you get", I'd have got Fabled Lands, Mirabilis, Warrior Kings, Frankenstein... who knows what Dave Morris will come up with next? The Shadow knows :)

    7. I didn't care for "Fly" the first time I saw it, but I can forgive it. Those bottle episodes do help the budget.

      I like Vance and I loved Breaking Bad - but see, before BB Vince Gilligan did Wilder Napalm, so he will have had dozens of people in the business nagging him to do another wacky superhero project. And then there will be the producers who say, "Vince, can you do a Jack Vance show with clowns? My kid loves clowns." And Vince will go home and he'll say to his wife, "I'm just doing this piece of shit show to make some money to do the project I really want to do." And it's that other idea in the tin can that might just be brilliant.

      Or, admittedly, it might be Dollhouse season 2...

      At any rate, we back the concept in the tin can (see how I'm loving that image) every time we buy a novel by a non-genre author we like. Pale Fire is nothing like Lolita, Lustrum is nothing like The Ghost, Great Expectations is nothing like The Pickwick Papers, Boneland is nothing like The Moon of Gomrath... Isn't that surprise what we want from a writer?

      But I realize it's never going to work the way I'd like. Look at James Wallis's projects. The Paranoia RPG is trending towards $257,000. James's KS for his own (imo far more interesting) project, Alas Vegas, raised $24,000. That tells you how much originality is valued.

      James will do a great job on Paranoia. And, because he's a professional, it will be exactly the kind of game that appeals to Paranoia fans - which it probably wouldn't be if I got to design it, lol. I hope he gets paid a shitload for doing it, but I still wish folks would get their heads out of the reboot/rehash/recycle model and start asking for new and different things.

    8. Good points as always Mr Morris :) (I've backed Paranoia too). I also backed Outcast as that looked good and had never played the original. And another example of "out of left-field" success would be Follett's Pillars of the Earth book (which I think he just did because he fancied a change). More randomly, I picked up on Kindle a series of Roman Empire mystery novels, edited by none other than the "magisterial Oliver Johnson"... :)

    9. I was baffled for a moment until I realized you mean Lindsey Davis's Falco novels. I'm actually thanked in one of those for providing Ms Davis with a Roman-period joke, though I can't remember now what the joke was.

    10. Boneland is such a good book...

    11. Totally with you there, Tom. Yet Alan Garner gave us a masterpiece and a lot of people hated it. Very strange...

  3. Credit where it's due: the first story-telling card game is, as far as I'm aware, Dark Cults by Kenneth Rahman, published in 1983 ( It was a big influence on Once Upon a Time, though the two games couldn't actually be more different in style and ethos.

    All the other nice things Dave says about me are completely true.

    1. I have no excuse for failing to mention Dark Cults, as I did own an early copy, except to plead the Liberty Valance defence.

  4. OK, so no Adam Ant fans out there I guess.

    No? Oh well, in a few hours I'll be posting the follow-up article on using totalitarian regimes in role-playing. Pray that's the closest you ever get to O'Brien's boot. Bellyfeel the doublethink.

  5. Dave,
    I have to say I disagree with your assessment that the only things you can get on Kickstarter are retreads. Here are a number of successful campaigns where people backed a completely new idea from a well-respected creator:

    While it's true that on Kickstarter the creator has to tell you what he's planning to do, I don't think that necessarily means there's no appetite for the new.

    The reason we see so many retreads, reboots and continuations of old things is because this is the mess left over from the old publishing model. Via Kickstarter, we're finally catching up on all the old projects that were abandoned by publishers in the 80's and 90's. There's still plenty of room for novelty though.
    While it's true many people want reboots of old things, lots of people want completely new things.

    1. Numenera, that's Empire of the Petal Throne mixed with Jorune, isn't it? I'm kidding. I have no idea what's in Numenera, except that Earth one *billion* years from now is quite a proposition.

      There are new things out there, of course. I even plugged The Long Dark and (hooray) it hit its target:

      And we've talked about audience's preferences for the familiar over the new:
      (Me and Conan Doyle both have first-hand experience of that.)

      But I return to the point I made about James Wallis's own original (very original) concept raising a tenth what he can get from rebooting a 1980s RPG. Not that there's anything that can be done about it - in most media you see how the really original thinkers don't get anywhere unless they dial back on the originality. I'd say that EPT and Numenera were perfect examples, if I knew more about the latter. Luckily for me, I'm content to be a hack.

  6. Not to argue with you too much on your own blog (thanks for replying BTW, and I love your work), but I think it has to do with most people not being willing to throw money at someone they don't know (Wallis) to do something they don't know (his original idea). I think for most people to pledge money to a project sight unseen, they have to either a) know the creator, or b) know the product, or both. I think the reason Mr Wallis got 1/10 of the funding for his original idea is because far fewer people know of *him* than know of Paranoia. Comparatively few people have heard of Mr Wallis. I certainly hadn't. However, in circumstances where the creator has significant name recognition (Tim Schafer with Double Fine, Monte Cook with Numenera) people really did throw money at them to do their own original idea. People had no idea what they were getting with Double Fine Adventure. They knew they were getting Tim Schafer though, and that was enough. Likewise nobody understood what Numenera was (I still don't really) but they understood who Monte Cook was, and it was enough.

    If you have that kind of recognition people will throw money at you for whatever, but it seems a fact of this industry is people tend to remember the property far more than the creator. Even with me, if you were to say to me:
    Fabled Lands, do you like it? Hell yes. Ok, smartass, who wrote it? Dave Morris? Jamie Smith? Or was that Jamie Thompson and Mark Smith? No, that was Way of the Tiger I think. And so on.
    But if you were to tell me:
    "Hi, I'm Dave Morris. You may remember me from such titles as Fabled Lands and Heart of Ice. Give me money for this cool new idea I have please?"
    I would be able to shift the name recognition of the series onto the author for long enough to make a decision about whether to back you that was influenced by what you've written, rather than by whether I recognize your idea as similar enough to stuff I already like.

    1. PS - Walls of Spyte soon? I want to complete my collection!

    2. Hey, Michael, argue away! This blog is for us all to say how we feel without fear or favor :)

      You're right about the recognition aspect. In fact, I wouldn't mind betting that's exactly why James (whose motto btw is "Be original or die") agreed to rewrite Paranoia. After this, there's more chance of people knowing who he is.

      It's still a trap, of course. You get stuck in a genre or medium. I can't translate interest in Fabled Lands into backing for my current projects because they're not gamebooks. Good thing I'm not starving in a garret, then!

      I was hoping to revise (= tear down & rebuild) Walls of Spyte but I'm not sure many people share my dislike of it, so I guess I'll just re-release it warts & all, probably in Jan/Feb.

    3. Having not played Blood Sword (but buying your books based on your reputation), I would say this:
      Do it right. Make yourself happy with Walls of Spyte, if you can afford to spend the time on it. You won't get another shot at it, and anyone who's interested in reading it after ploughing through the previous 4 (because no-one's going to start at Book 5) is willing to wait. Including me :D

      Here's a question, and I'm going to ask it as tactfully as I can, and you don't have to answer:

      Why Fabled Lands the RPG? I feel like we've reached peak fantasy world lately. There are so many people turning their fantasy worlds into RPGs, or re-releasing old fantasy RPGs - Fabled Lands, Lone Wolf, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Dragon Warriors.
      I feel like with most of these things, the medium is the message. The solitaire adventure is the thing.
      The cool thing about Lone Wolf isn't the world of Magnamund, it's the way you take the character through 20 books, growing in power, bringing along stuff that is used later, meeting old foes and old friends, and so on.
      With Way of the Tiger, damn but being a ninja is cool! Also, the attraction is similar to the attraction of Lone Wolf. The world of Orb just isn't the highlight.
      With Fabled Lands, the freeform adventuring is amazing, but most of the fantasy tropes are there. The world wasn't that different from the standard (in my view).
      Blood Sword likewise seems interesting because of the innovative party system. The Lands of Legend just happen to be the place you stand while interacting with the book.

      In all these instances, the *experience* is the amazing part, and the experience is a much larger function of the mechanic and the structure of the solo-books than it is a function of the world-building. But when you bring out an RPG, you lose everything except the world-building.

      I guess what I'm saying is that an RPG of Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, Fabled Lands, Blood Sword - it may have made sense in the past, but in today's world where there is a glut of RPGs and a lack of time, it seems like turning these gamebook series into RPGs drops everything that differentiates them from their competitors.

    4. I agree. Roleplaying is dear to my heart, and I wouldn't bother with a roleplaying campaign set in the Fabled Lands. There's a Japanese bit, there's a Greek bit... I think that kind of world-assembly is okay for gamebooks, which are a literary form, and in literature the events described don't have to be literally true. There can be a fairytale logic going on where things don't quite make sense. But I expect the world of an RPG to feel real - there it isn't enough to suspend disbelief, you need to be able to fully commit to belief.

      That's why I am such an advocate for Tekumel. Professor Barker drew on his own degrees in anthropology and linguistics to create a rich and completely credible world. If you see a word like ru'un or kolumejalim, you can see the derivation and you know how to pronounce it. It isn't just the usual mix of Latin, apostrophes, and cool words the designer saw in Lovecraft. That's what RPG world-building should be.

      OK, I say that but my own group do occasionally still run our Legend campaign. Legend is a bit of an exception - it's specifically meant to be the medieval world as medieval Europeans believed it to be. (And btw it's really nothing like the high fantasy setting of Blood Sword.) So there we are suspending disbelief, not committing to belief.

      I only played Orb for one afternoon thirty years ago, so I can't really comment on that. I think it's highly derivative of Tolkien, but far better than a lot of Tolkien swipes in books as well as games. The language isn't thought out (how could it be? Mark was a schoolboy when he devised it all) and I can't believe in names like Anarchil. Even so, it has a unique flavor - or it did until they had to graft ninja into it for commercial reasons. That's just daft.

      Magnamund I know even less about, but it does seem to be a typical D&D campaign world, grab-bagged from various cultures with a good helping of fantasy tropes stuffed on top.

      Ten years back, Jamie and I did think about turning our Abraxas setting (see sidebar) into a full RPG. There was a reason for familiar ancient-world elements (those civilizations seeded Egypt, etc) and we had a coherent and more-or-less unique set of fauna. But now I agree with you that the market is glutted. To get my money, an RPG would have to have something really exceptional - and the traditional gamebook universes of the '80s and '90s were never that.