Wednesday What We’re Reading (Aug. 14, 2019)

Still just me, keeping the lights on. (Parvusimperator contributes stories here, too, of course.)

I’m trying something new and writing the post on Tuesday night rather than Wednesday morning. Less hurried. [Update from Tuesday night: actually, I wrote the post on Monday night because I got confused.]

In next week’s roundup, I should have another USPSA match video. As an added bonus, I should be running a few stages which I designed.

Defense

History

Science and Technology

Sport

Guns

Grab Bag

Hong Kong Protests

Book Review Review: Secular Cycles

SlateStarCodex reviewed Secular Cycles. Best quote: “I wish I could find commentary by other academics and historians on Secular Cycles, or on Turchin’s work more generally. I feel like somebody should either be angrily debunking this, or else throwing the authors a ticker-tape parade for having solved history.”

As is ever the case for SSC reviews, it goes into great depth and does some analysis of the key claim: that human history follows tide-like cycles. Calamity kills a lot of people, the survivors rebuild and grow rich, the rich society stagnates, stagnation leads to calamity. This seems reasonable to me. Certainly, it looks like it applies to Europe up until the postwar years. Belle Epoque, war then war again, recovery. (Or possibly continued inter-cycle stagnation?)

There’s some question over whether it applies today. A later book by the same author(s?) says yes, but I say you need some qualifiers. First, the calamity cycle only works for a society without outside inputs, as Mr. Alexander notes, and there are very few of those nowadays. None, if you’re asking about those of interest on the world stage. Second, the nation-state is no longer the unit of interest. We operate on the scale of civilizations now: the West and so forth. Third, the calamities aren’t as bad. The potential calamities are a lot worse, but the ones that actually happened are milder. The World Wars killed 15% of Germans, maybe. As a percentage of Europeans, the Black Plague killed a lot more. Fourth, we’re no longer operating in a Malthusian frame. We can skim along the top of the cycle for a lot longer before things fall apart, and they’re more likely to fall apart for ideological reasons than they are because of lack of food.

Anyway, SSC is going to review the author’s (s’?) next book, which makes the pro-cycle argument for the modern age. Maybe I’ll read both myself, rather than relying on someone else to read them for me.

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Aug. 7, 2019)

Another Wednesday, another What We’re Reading post.

Come October or November, once the season for outdoor tasks and hobbies is closed, I’m going to run a wintertime Rule the Waves 2 AAR here, with some room for decision points guided by reader voting. I would start sooner, but I’m not optimistic about my ability to maintain a regular schedule for anything more than this post until I have less on my plate.

Hong Kong Protests

Defense

Science and Technology

  • Stupid ways to implement malloc and free in C++ – Some of which, toward the bottom of the post, get into the territory bounded by the saying, “If it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid.”
  • This Medium post covers some of the same ground – As it turns out, custom memory allocators which reserve a large block of memory up front, getting all the system call overhead out of the way, then parcel it out within the confines of the program in which they run are not uncommon in the game development space, where efficiency is king.
  • Happy Friendly Dystopia Watch: Ring Doorbells edition – Ring (a fully-owned subsidiary of Amazon.com, Inc.) coaches cops on how to ask homeowners with Ring doorbells to voluntarily hand over surveillance footage.
  • Serious flaw in KDE’s file explorer – View a directory containing a .desktop file and you’re hosed.
  • What does it take to get a Twitter ban? – Direct calls to violence targeting specific people? That’s apparently within Twitter’s rules, as long as you’re targeting conservatives. Call reporter/snowflake Jim Acosta an asshole, however, and that’s a 24-hour ban.

Guns

  • Secret Service adopts Glock 19 Gen5 – A bit downmarket for the Secret Service1, you say? I agreed. Parvusimperator says it makes sense, though: “On USSS (or any other agency) piggybacking on a contract, remember that: If they wanted to do something else, they’d have to hold an RFP, accept bids, conduct testing & evaluation, etc. It would cost millions of dollars. If there’s a preexisting procurement program/contract that they can piggyback on (such as the ICE, CBP, or FBI contracts), then they can just pick it and go.”
  • The history of mass murder in the US – Not as gun-heavy as the media would have you believe. It’s more prevalent now, though, because today’s mass murderers are constructing warrior myths in their heads, and plowing a truck into a crowd or burning down an animation studio don’t fit the stories they tell themselves.
  • Analyzing NYC’s brief in NYSRPA v. City of New York – The Truth About Guns is, granted, a source likely to find that the case is looking rosy for the natural-rights side, but NYC, having changed the law following a writ of certiorari, is not on particularly solid ground here. If a child steals a toy from his brother, then guiltily gives it back when his mother notices, he’s still going to get in trouble.

Grab Bag

  • The Moka pot is brilliant – The Moka pot, a stovetop steam pressure coffee maker, does indeed make a brilliant cuppa. It’s my coffee maker of choice for backpacking, given that a three-cup model2 is compact and lightweight. Bialetti, the inventor and main manufacturer of such pots, is in financial trouble, though, so you might want to get one while you can. I’ve owned a few knockoffs over the years, none of which are as good as the genuine article.
  • The Kure Maritime Museum has the most impressive entrance of any I’ve seen – The Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg remains the most impressive I’ve personally been to.
  • The slow death of Hollywood, and the rise of streaming providers – With a bonus note on why Netflix cancels shows early: the best Netflix subscriber from the perspective of Netflix’s financials is one who doesn’t watch anything. So, it’s in their best interests to make a bunch of interesting television, then cancel it after a season or two before the cast starts to demand raises. Of course, this business model requires consumers to have zero memory, and given how mad I still am at Google for killing about 60% of the Google products I use, I don’t think that’s likely.
  • Of course, the slow death of Netflix is also maybe already in progress? – I expect that the Fishbreath household will subscribe to two streaming providers: Netflix and Disney+. We’ll, uh, creatively obtain everything else. I bought into the cord-cutting thing because streaming was convenient as much as it was cheap. A bunch of walled gardens, each with their own apps, quirks, and costs? I’m out, thanks.
  • WW2 movies are played out, so why not a WW1 movie? – Decent preview.
  • Between 1924 and 1976, you had to renew your copyright after 28 years, or it would expire – So, 80% of books published between those two dates are in the public domain. Unfortunately, I expect all the famous ones are not.

  1. On our internal chat, I abbreviated Secret Service ‘SS’ before I realized that typically refers to a different organization. 
  2. That’s espresso cups. You can water the output down to make Americano-style coffee. 

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jul. 31, 2019)

This is an auspicious entry in the Wednesday What We’re Reading series: #42.

Parvusimperator and I both have a few drafts for normal articles we’re working on, but summer is busy. C’est la vie.

9:38 PM edit: I just realized the title of this post said July 24 instead of July 31, and it stood for almost twelve hours. Come on, regulars! You have to dunk on us for unforced errors like that.

Defense

Science and Technology

Guns

  • Yours truly at the other local match – Well, ‘other’ means about one of five within easy driving distance, but USPSA is pretty much a morning sport, and I don’t do sports that overlap with church if I can avoid it.
  • My first attempt at some USPSA stage design – In this revision, four of the six stages are illegal for various reasons. Can you spot them? Check your answers with the spoilers at the bottom of the post. A USPSA stage repository might be a future Many Words Press project.

Games

Grab Bag

Spoiler for Stage Design Quiz Little Hint

Three of the four illegal courses are illegal for the same reason.
Spoiler for Stage Design Quiz Big Hint

The rules being violated are 1.1.5 and 2.1.4.
Spoiler for Stage Design Quiz Answers

Happy Feet, Should I Stay or Should I Go, and Criss-Cross all illegally specify mandatory reloads and shooting positions in the stage briefings. Since they require more than 20 rounds to complete, they’re long courses, and long courses must be freestyle.

Happy Feet and J-Turn are additionally illegal because you can be downrange of some of the targets and still see them.

Happy Feet is trivially fixable by adding fault lines up to the wall and moving the barrel stack to hide the left-side targets from beyond the wall.

Should I Stay or Should I Go can be fixed by adding barriers to the left and right of the start box which form a tunnel pointing at the plate rack, and removing the language in the stage briefing about shooting the plate rack from the box, or by dropping to best 2 on paper to turn into an 18-round medium course, which at Level I matches can specify shooting positions and reloads.

Criss-Cross is easiest to fix by removing four shots to convert it to a 20-round medium course. By adding some walls and converting the shooting boxes to a single fault line, it can be fixed while maintaining the shot count and remaining truer to the USPSA ‘everything is freestyle’ ethos.

J-Turn can be fixed by placing barrels to hide the right-side pair from downrange. A further suggestion was to remove a barrel stack to

I’ll redo the book to show the stages in the long course form, with some setup notes on how to convert them to the easier-to-set-up medium courses.

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jul. 24, 2019)

Parvusimperator hasn’t had much in the way of article fodder lately, but did submit quite a number of things to this week’s What We’re Reading.

Strait of Hormuz Crisis, 2019 Edition

Defense

Science and Technology

Guns

History

Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jul. 17, 2019)

Summer is in full swing, and speaking of things in full swing, I plan to continue my recent superhero kick by doing up a review of Spider-Man: Far From Home.

If the number of articles in this series were years of its age, we would now refer to it as over the hill.

Defense

Science and Technology

Guns

  • USPSA match video: me, last weekend – I bought a camera which clips to the brim of a baseball cap, so I don’t have to mess around with tripods or finding someone to record me2. The resolution is quite poor for an allegedly-720p video, but it does, at least, work.
  • Related to the above, Facebook reminded me of a fun CZ story. When I bought the P-09 originally, I got the night sights version, even though I was planning on taking the night sights off immediately, because it came with an extra magazine and the price delta was less than the cost of one magazine. In the manual, it said that the tritium gas, if it escapes, is mostly harmless, and “[…] in case of its inspiration it is recommended to increase the intake of liquids and eventually to take some diuretic (beer with low content of alcohol) for acceleration of the body water exchange.”
  • USPSA match video: one of the local fast shooters – Shared because he has a super-fancy Max-Michel-branded video app which analyzes your audio to find your shots, then lets you tag the intervening time with various activities, then gives you a breakdown of the result. Very handy—”I spent six seconds on transitions on that stage, but only three seconds on splits” tells you a lot about what you should be practicing. It’s the kind of thing parvusimperator and I might aim to recreate by hacking an open source video editor, so we don’t have to go out and buy an iDevice to use it.

Grab Bag


  1. Granted, the article is talking about a blockade (a piece of wartime strategy) rather than an embargo (a diplomatic lever), but the comparison’s just too juicy to pass up. 
  2. Open-source hardware idea: a cheaper version of those $800 tripods which turn to follow a radio beacon. I can’t imagine a stepper motor, a few circuit boards, and some RF voodoo cost nearly that much. 
  3. Some of the examples in the article remind me of my favorite thing about English: it’s a very easy language—not to be fluent in, but to be comprehensible in. No tones, very little formal grammar, and a long history of interaction with wild accents and local flavors make English a better lingua franca than French ever was. 

Uncharted Questions

A classic question for fans of the PS3 was “What’s your favorite Uncharted game?” Back then there were 3. Of course, we also have a PS Vita entry and the fantastic finale on the PS4. Today, I’ll look at the original questions. I love Uncharted 4 to death, but it has a huge leg up on the rest, being on a newer console with notably better graphics and an improved engine.

Of course, we have engine improvements in Uncharted 1, 2, and 3 as well, but they’re all on the same hardware, so it’s something we can adjust a little better for. Uncharted 3 has the nicest unarmed combat system, featuring attacks, blocks/counterattacks, and grabs. It also lets you throw grenades back. Of course, this ended up leading to a ton of grenade spam fights, and that’s honestly entirely too obnoxious. There are also a number of really frustrating encounters, moreso than in either Uncharted 1 or Uncharted 2. Uncharted 3 also loads up on the gimmicky characters that take away the efficacy of some of your toys. It has the highest number of fights that I found annoying.

From a story standpoint, Uncharted 3 also has story issues stemming from a rewrite necessitated by Graham McTavish, the voice actor for Charlie Cutter, getting a significant role in The Hobbit. This ended up pulling him out of the production of Uncharted 3, forcing a number of story changes. Part of the reason I play the Uncharted games is for the story, and this doesn’t help things.

I really want to love Uncharted 2, because it has some of my favorite set pieces. But it also has a super obnoxious boss fight, and that is some bullshit. And then there’s this guy.

Jeff. Elena’s cameraman. His role in the story is to prove that Nate loves Elena, and then to get out of the way. By dying. After being shot but not before you have to endure an excruciatingly aggravating sequence where you have to carry Jeff through a running gun battle. Have fun trying to play a cover shooter when you can’t use cover. In the finest tradition of Galaxy Quest, we can see that Jeff’s only role is to die to prove that the situation Nate’s love for Elena is serious because he doesn’t have a last name.1 We know everyone else’s last name.

It’s also one of the less well done parts of the game, frankly. I get that Elena is Nate’s true love. And I get that they’re right for each other. Sure. But the way that gets presented in Uncharted 2 isn’t all that great. Honestly, Chloe seems like the better choice for most of that game. It would have been better to explore Elena’s character more. More time building that, less time carrying some idiot who’s going to die in the next scene.

Uncharted 1 has the least graphical polish, and the least nice fight mechanics, but the best story by far. Really the only annoyance is the sixaxis system, which is forced into it as an early PS3 title. While these are annoying, they’re not a huge deal, and it’s the one problem that gets completely rectified in the Uncharted HD Collection. Fixed grenade controls make Uncharted 1 a joy.

And of course, the other reason to leave out Uncharted 4 is that it’s really the best of the lot. Better controls, nice combat, stunning vistas, and a fun story.


  1. Apparently you can find one in the asset files if you dig around in the HD collection on PS4, but those are hardly called out in the narrative/dialog/anywhere you might actually notice. 

Fishbreath Plays: Masks: A New Generation Review

In Tuesday’s post, I promised a review of Masks: A New Generation, and ended up talking roleplaying game1 history instead. Today, there are fewer distracting topics to soak up a thousand words, so I have high hopes that this post will, in fact, be what the headline says.

Masks is a superhero RPG. It is not, however, an RPG about heroes at the height of their powers. Rather, it’s a game about teenage heroes, in the vein of Teen Titans or the Young Avengers.

This is a brilliant move. Superhero stories are fundamentally about human drama, and what’s more dramatic than a bunch of teenagers2? A game focusing on fully-realized adult heroes leaves a lot of storytelling potential on the table, because the story of growing up is one which resonates with just about every human on the planet, and is one which just about every human on the planet is equipped to tell themselves. Not only does Masks pick good subject matter, it has mechanics which help to push the story it’s trying to tell along. We’ll come back to that.

The rules system is the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, one of the first rulesets in the modern narrative tradition, whose terminology is something of a modern standard.

So, the combination of your character class and character sheet is called your playbook, and it contains just about everything you need to play the game, provided you have a reference for basic moves. Moves, by the way, are the things your character can do. They’re little snippets of game mechanics triggered by fictional events. Do the thing in the fiction, and the mechanics happen. It plays naturally. As a player, you narrate, and your narration makes things happen in the rules. In terms of dice, you roll 2d6 and add a modifier, succeeding partially on 7-9 and fully on 10 or more.

To this winning formula3, Masks adds its own wrinkles, as you do. The most important variations are Labels and Influence.

Masks calls your stats Labels. This is not a mere cosmetic difference. Labels don’t represent physical traits. Rather, they represent how a character sees herself, and how the world sees her. Your Danger, say, is how much you perceive yourself to be a bloody-knuckled bruiser, always ready to charge into a fight, and how much the world sees you as a destructive menace. When you trigger the move ‘directly engage a threat’, you roll plus your Danger. Is it strange that your self-conception changes how effective you are in a straight fight? At first blush, yes, but on reflection, it makes a lot of sense. How many superhero stories are there where the hero loses when he faces the villain the first time, gets his head in the right place, and wins the next battle?

Which brings me to my next point. Because Labels represent a character’s self-conception, they move. A lot. When you’re young, what people think about you matters. Masks models this mechanically. Other player characters and NPCs can have Influence over your character, which indicates that your character cares what they think of him. When a character has Influence over yours, they can shift your Labels (one up, one down) if they tell you what you are or how the world works. Part of character advancement (which, in the game’s fiction, represents growing up, or at least growing into your image of yourself) is learning to shut out what other people tell you and to know who you are, which is represented by casting off other peoples’ Influence and by locking your Labels so that they can no longer be shifted.

As is common in narrative games, there is no separate combat mode, just more narration and an emphasis on different moves off of the master list. Conditions come into play more in combat, as well, where they are a possible consequence of taking a hit. (They’re also possible consequences a number of other places throughout the system.) Conditions are negative emotions, rather than physical drawbacks—you might be Angry, say, or Hopeless. Again, this seems strange at first blush, but makes perfect sense given the fiction. Superheroes get back up after they take hits. The way to knock them out isn’t to beat them senseless, it’s to beat them hopeless. And, of course, we’re talking teenagers here. Emotions running wild is the name of the game4.

Character creation deserves some mention too. Masks leans heavily into its nature as a story game, so when you choose a playbook, you aren’t choosing a power set, but a character arc. The Beacon and the Delinquent playbooks are both relatively low-powered, street-level heroes, but they tell different stories: the Beacon as the hopeful kid who has to fight off allegations that he doesn’t belong, the Delinquent as, well, the delinquent, disrespectful of authority at the same time as she plays the trickster or causes trouble to attract its attention. The Nova and the Legacy are high-powered heroes, but one deals with internal conflict over the destructive nature of her own powers, and the other deals with external conflict between himself and those who went before him.

The rules suggest what modern games call a ‘session zero’, where you go through character creation together. By design, the core Masks rulebook doesn’t provide very much information on its setting, Halcyon City. The players get to fill in some of the blanks. At the end of character creation, the gamemaster asks each player a question, found on the back of his playbook, about the incident which brought the player characters together into a team. This does a few things: it gives the PCs a reason to be together, lets every player put her stamp on the world, and elides the origin story somewhat to get the game rolling faster.

Masks does this a lot, using its rules to incentivize forming bonds between characters. Working as a team has advantages. One of the easiest ways to clear conditions requires two characters to have a heart-to-heart conversation—and the other easy way requires a character to act badly with respect to his team, which is a great source of future drama. At the end of each session, each player gets a free move by which they can trade revealing some of their character’s hidden depths for various positive effects.

All of this makes Masks a joy to run. Even with characters thrown together on the spur of the moment5, the systems sing, driving interesting character interactions with very little effort. The section on advice for gamemasters is useful, too, in particular in two places. ‘Ask questions’ is good advice for gamemasters in any system, but it’s especially good here. Players don’t have to rigorously define their characters’ powers or backstories ahead of time, so asking questions helps to clarify and crystallize. It also keeps the focus on the players and their characters, and pushes the game in the action-packed direction you would expect from comic books.

Even better is the advice to narrate not merely according to comic book tropes, but even as though you’re describing a comic book itself. I started my first session by talking about the cover of the issue. I finished it with a full-page, divided-in-three panel showing a slice of life for each of our characters6. In both cases, it rooted the world in its comic book heritage, helped keep the players focused on the same, and finally, gave them a moment in the spotlight to shine and to reveal a bit more about their characters.

There are some downsides, which I’ll hit on quickly here.

First: like all narrative games, it takes a gamemaster with a penchant for rapid improvisation. There’s very little theme written down ahead of time, so you have to be familiar with what your players come up with and quick to build plot hooks. Happily, there’s advice for gamemasters on improvising.

Second: because the game focuses so heavily on relationship mechanics, you all but need three player characters, or at the very least, two characters and a robust cast of near-permanent NPCs. Four or five players is better.

Third: as in most narrative-heavy games, the players have both great power over the world and great responsibility to it7. It’s not the kind of game that stands up well to people trying to win it. Collaboration is key, along with players willing to limit themselves for the sake of drama8.

Fourth: it’s not as open-ended as, say, D&D. If you play for a long time, eventually your characters will advance to the point where they’re left with the choice of retiring from the masked life and going back to being a normal citizen, or turning into a paragon of the city and joining the ranks of Halcyon’s leading heroes. In both cases they turn into NPCs. It’s not the kind of game where you can play the same character forever. The flip side of each playbook having a clearly defined character arc is that character arcs eventually draw to a close.

In the final reckoning, I think it’s obvious that I give Masks the thumbs-up. It does exactly what it says on the tin: generates engaging stories about a team of young superheroes, with clearly-defined beginnings, middles, and ends9. It makes playing out inter-character drama mechanically rewarding, captures the essence of coming-of-age stories, and remains a playable, entertaining RPG.

If you don’t like teenagers, if crunchy combat is more your speed, or if you don’t like what I’ve said in this post and Tuesday’s about narrative games, you might want to give it a pass. Otherwise, I say it’s worth your time.


  1. Over on Discord, Kilo Sierra pointed out that ‘RPG’, in the context of the Soapbox, generally means something else. 
  2. I would apologize to our teenage readers if, according to our analytics, we had any. 
  3. At least, industry awards and player happiness suggests it’s winning. 
  4. I recognize you may be skeptical—I was, too. Playing the game disabused me of my skepticism. I won’t go any further out of my way to convince you to change your mind, but I will at least say it’s worth your time to try a session even if you doubt it’ll work. 
  5. An Incredibles knock-off, a guy who wants to kiss the Stanley Cup before his impending doom arrives, and someone ripped from the pages of a piece of fiction I’m working on. My wife and I were visiting family, and we played with my brother-in-law for two and a half hours one afternoon. You will note there were only three people involved and yet there were also three characters. I ran one as a GM PC, because Masks is iffy with only two players, for reasons I’ll get into later in the review. 
  6. In the upper left: Sam Skipper, a.k.a. the Shadow, my masked darkness-controller, wearing a big smile and asking asking an off-panel customer, “Do you want fries with that?” at his day job. In the upper right: John Zigel, my brother-in-law’s doomed memory-manipulator, brooding on his couch watching hockey. (He’s the one who wants to kiss the Cup.) In the bottom: Jill-Jill Parr, my wife’s acrobatic short-range-teleporting type, ignoring a stack of homework while she works on her original manga and ponders putting a streak of orange in her hair with an illicit bottle of hair dye. 
  7. You didn’t think you were getting out of here without something like this, did you? 
  8. If you want a game of a similar character (but a very different theme) which can better stand up to players who want to win, have a look at Blades in the Dark. It’s similar to Masks in terms of play style and ethos, but has tighter constraints for the players and leaves more power in the gamemaster’s hands. 
  9. Like a lot of games in this genre, it falls down if you push it too far outside its comfort zone. Masks would not make a very good game about adult superheroes, because adults aren’t as malleable as youngsters are. 

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jul. 10, 2019)

Since the long-form articles this week are both on the subject of a superhero roleplaying game, I’ve helpfully separated out the articles for today’s post which are thinly-disguised supervillain plots.

Defense (Other)

Defense (Supervillain Plots)

Science and Technology

  • The sinkhole that saved the Internet – A sinkhole, in this usage, is a server which sucks up traffic that would otherwise be bound for a worm’s command and control servers. In this case, the ransomware known as WannaCry had a killswitch—if it could reach a particular web address, it deactivated itself. A security researcher set up a server there, and prevented something like tens of millions of infections from going active.
  • Einstein and symmetry: the man and the idea behind modern physics – A Quanta article, so have your coffee first and block off ten minutes to read it and half an hour to think between paragraphs.
  • Raspberry Pi 4 has an incorrectly-wired USB-C port – Maybe it’s because I’m not a hardware engineer by trade, but if a datasheet gives me a reference circuit design, you can bet I’m going to copy it wholesale.

Guns

  • Ruger continues the competition push with a custom shop SR1911 – This isn’t new new, having been announced in April, but it’s the first I’m hearing of it. $2499 for a gun suited for USPSA Single Stack. Your choice of Major or Minor—it comes in 9mm or .45, with 10-round and 8-round magazines, respectively.

Grab Bag

  • China 2050: in the throes of demographic decline – The one- and two-child policies in China put its native population growth below the replacement rate. China’s closed nature and impossible language mean it doesn’t get very much immigration. In the middle of the 21st century, it could very well be looking at the same problems Japan is looking at today.
  • The oyster poachers of Connemara – Shared because I quite liked Connemara on my trip to Ireland, and because ‘oyster’ and ‘poaching’ would not have been my first guess in either case if you gave me one word and asked me to guess the other.

  1. to stan: to be an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity, or, in this case, branch of the armed services or aircraft. Evidently it comes from an Eminem song. Since I’m using Twitter lingo already here, don’t at me. 
  2. The only reason to end a headline with a question mark is because libel law requires you to answer it with ‘no’. Otherwise, you just make the headline a statement. Modern journalists ignore this rule, but modern journalists are also, in large part, comically bad at their jobs. 

Fishbreath Plays: The History of Narrative RPGs

But first, a report Fishbreath the Web Lackey: there are some problems with the VPS on which Many Words runs, one of the symptoms of which is intermittent kernel panics on heavy network traffic. Not a great problem for a web server to be having, right? We are, by which I mean I am, working on it. If you notice any instability, blame the kernel grognards. And now, we return you to Fishbreath the Correspondent for today’s article.

You may know us primarily as defense affairs nerds, gun nerds, and occasionally video game nerds, but really, we’re multirole nerds. Full spectrum nerds. Joint nerds. So, on those grounds, and on the grounds that parvusimperator hasn’t scheduled anything for today and therefore has no basis for complaint, herein I will briefly review Masks: A New Generation, a tabletop roleplaying game from Magpie Games (n.b. affiliate link).

Except I’m now about a thousand words into this post and haven’t made it to actually reviewing the game, so we’ll make it a two-parter instead.

Masks belongs to the narrative game genre. To understand what that means, we’ll have to take a little trip through the history of the hobby, and of the tradition that narrative games are distancing themselves from. That’s what we’ll do this time out.

The year is 1974. For some time now, miniatures wargames have been popular. Some enterprising nerds asked themselves, how can we raise the stakes? First among these nerds was Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons1. The answer was simple: what if, instead of controlling a small army of guys with very little detail, you controlled instead a single guy with lots of detail?

D&D was the first tabletop roleplaying game. It was played very differently then than it is now: the older you go in the D&D tradition, the more lethal fighting is, and the less there is to do outside of what is today referred to as the loot treadmill2. There are islands of civilization. You venture outside those islands into a vast, dark sea of uncaring wildnerness filled with vicious monsters, whack the monsters until they yield their stashes of loot, and return to civilization to sell it all, enjoy your wealth, and prepare for another trip. Many of the early D&D adventures don’t make very much sense outside of this framework.

By being first, D&D cemented its place at the center of the RPG ecosystem. Settings grew more varied and left more room for intrigue, the degree of combat-centeredness in the rules ebbed and flowed (and ebbed and flowed), and modern live-play podcasts and web video series pushed the storytelling aspects of tabletop roleplaying to center stage3, but at its core, D&D’s DNA never changed. It’s a miniatures wargame4 with a dash of improvisational theater.

The two aspects, however, don’t always play well together. Oral storytelling has a rhythm to it which is easy to interrupt. Questions like, “How much taller can I make myself with Disguise Self?” or “Am I able to cast Teleport from here, or do I need to be in a teleportation circle?” slow you down at the least desirable time: moments of high drama. If that’s bad, combat is worse. Effectively, it’s a second mode of play, where the roleplaying largely cuts out and the focus switches to fight tactics5.

That’s the tradition narrative games aim to break away from. If D&D and its family tree are miniatures wargames with improv theater shoehorned in, why not write games as improv theater with rules shoehorned in?

Narrative games are in vogue at the moment, but they aren’t a recent trend. Apocalypse World, one of the major English-language trend-setters, was released in 2010. Ryuutama, a Japanese storytelling RPG with many of the genre’s common features (gamemasters with intentionally limited power, for one), came out in 2007. You can even make an argument that old versions of Paranoia belong more nearly to the narrative tradition than to the classic RPG tradition6.

So, what’s the difference? Narrative games are, not to put too fine a point on it, all about narration. Apocalypse World and its rules engine Powered by the Apocalypse are the archetypal examples. On your character sheet is a list of moves. These moves have fictional triggers. When (and only when) the ongoing narration matches the trigger, the move happens7.

Other features you might find include a collaborative worldbuilding process, a ‘session zero’ plan which involves building up the party and its history, and gamemaster moves which limit (or at least indicate the intended boundaries of) GM power.

What’s the upshot? Less staring at character sheets trying to figure out what to do next, more storytelling; less mode-switching to rules-heavy contexts, more natural interplay between story and rules.

Masks in particular does a few things very well. It also illustrates some of the shortcomings of narrative games better than I could describe them. I’ll cover both topics next time.


  1. Trademarked ampersand intentionally left out. 
  2. This image isn’t a perfect fit, but eventually you get to the point where the world itself trembles before you. 
  3. To the point that it’s entirely feasible to play a long and satisfying campaign of Dungeons and Dragons without encountering either dungeons or dragons. 
  4. Whose complexity has varied over the years. You could probably play a fighter-rogue-wizard party in 5e solo. It would be much more difficult in 4e, and you probably wouldn’t even make it past character creation in 3.5. 
  5. Don’t read this to mean that I think crunch or tactical combat are bad. In fact, I enjoy them for what they are, and my own game system, RPJ, uses moderately crunchy rules and combat. 
  6. It’s easy to miss this with Paranoia 2e, because it predates the modern narrative trend by three decades and therefore doesn’t use the same language, but it fits on several counts. Super-simple combat rules which the game more or less encourages you to ignore? Check. A focus on ruling consistently and fairly, within the constraints of the setting where the gamemaster is mostly playing an insane computer, rather than in perfect alignment with a Most Holy Rulebook? Check. (Put another way, it fails gracefully.) Ingenious use of in-character incentives to drive player behavior? Check. (Attempting to rules-lawyer out of character is taken as some expression of treason in-character, and traitors deserve the same treatment as mutants and commies.) It’s not a perfect match, but it’s closer to a modern narrative game than it is to D&D in a lot of ways, 20-sided dice notwithstanding. 
  7. There are variations on the theme. Blades in the Dark, another very popular entry in the genre, gives players a list of broad action ratings (Consort, Prowl, Skirmish…) rather than moves (‘engage a dangerous threat’, ‘assess the situation’…), and gives players more agency both in choosing which action rating they’d like to use and in shaping scenes to make a given action rating fit. 

Parvusimperator Reviews Suicide Squad

Yes, I know it’s old. But I wondered to myself, “Self, how could they screw this up? There are a ton of Dirty Dozen ripoffs out there. This one has Will Smith, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and The Joker. This should be easy to at least get to mediocre.” Well, here at the Soapbox sometimes I watch awful movies so you don’t have to.

And it is just as bad as the critics say. Sometimes they get it right. This is trash. And it’s sad, because this should be lots of fun. Dirty Dozen with comic book villains is a great premise. I’d greenlight that for production. And it’s not like DC doesn’t have any cool villains. So what went wrong? All kinds of stuff.

This movie had a lame plot. Of course, I don’t exactly expect anything wonderful from this sort of movie. The problems run deeper though. The structure is bad. It seemed like the writers couldn’t figure out what tone they wanted, and kept changing the serious/cheesy balance. And they felt the need to put in a lot of badly-structured backstory. It just didn’t work, and it was hard to follow. And it’s unnecessary. This is a superhero movie with relatively well-known villains as protagonists. Give everyone a quick establishing bit with a touch of voiceover and call it good. Honestly, you could probably run the script through a bunch of rewrites and eventually get something good. But you’d have to redo the whole script. I’m told this movie had some reshot sections in order to fix things, but that didn’t help anything.

I want to make note of a few things regarding casting and dialogue. Will Smith seemed kinda wooden and decidedly unfunny, which usually takes some effort. Plus, Deadshot’s fight work hasn’t aged well. We still have lots of jump cuts, and John Wick is just better in every way. On the decidedly positive side is Margot Robbie, who did a great job as Harley Quinn. Really, she’s one of the few who looked like she was having fun in this awful movie.