Mail Order Apocalypse — Design Diaries

I can’t quite believe it, but it’s been one and a half years since I started writing my own RPG, Mail Order Apocalypse.

On the upside, it is mostly done by now. What is left is a lot of editing and layout, both things that will mostly be done by people better at these things than me. Looking back to the past 18 something months made me realise quite a few things though:

  1. Commissioning artwork for your prospective new game is a neat thing to kick yourself in the butt and get going, but it is no cure all. I commissioned mine from Alex Mayo — that man is a pleasure to work with.
  2. MOA started out as a „powered by the Apocalypse“ game. I wrote a all the basic moves and a lot of the class-specific ones, but eventually hit a dead end. My main problem was that I had nifty ideas for a „Desperation“ status, which never quite came together.
  3. So, when Paolo Greco mentioned Into the Odd to me, I got me a copy (thanks Harald!) and things immediately clicked. This is the simple basis I was looking for.
  4. Simple“ means that MOA is a great pick up game. A new character is made within a few minutes and the rules are super easy to grasp.
  5. Providing simple stats and a randomized but eclectic starting equipment also means, that players have just a handful of things to grab on to when starting the game. But these things are evocative and inspiring. Every player I had so far did something interesting with the starting equipment within the first hour.
  6. The loot and encounter tables started out as an exercise of coming up with „silly, but believable“ stuff. But in the end, they have constantly created a set of loot that felt rewarding enough and also inspired players to, again, do something interesting with it.
  7. One leftover from the games PbtA roots are found with the referee instructions. Adhering to them ensures that the game coasts along the fine line of forcing the survivors to constantly do something, but never made them succumb to desperation.

I look forward to finishing this, and who knows, maybe more than a handful of people will buy it.

hacking Into the Odd

Life is full of coincidences: As I am reworking Mail Order Apocalypse into an Into the Odd hack, Norbert is tinkering with the same rules too: He is adding active parry to the game.

The rules he adds are pretty straightforward, but while I wouldn’t go as far to call them heresy, I won’t adopt them. It’ll make a „roll once to determine damage“ thing into three (the number gets significantly higher if you add initiative) rolls with a bunch of arithmetics.

I can understand what Norbert wants to achieve here, but it is way too much dice rolling for my taste. One of my core tenets for a good roleplaying game is that it should be fast. The faster I know what is happening next, the better. And this bogs things down. Still: Hooray for tinkering. Tinkering is what brings us forward!

Playing Mail Order Apocalypse

Yesterday evening, I spontaneously joined the monthly RPG night at our friendly local game store Otherland. Without any real preparation I offered to run a game of Mail Order Apocalypse and actually got 5 players. To cope with the minimal prep, I again used the simple „let’s rob a train“ starter scenario that I also used at the last LasagnaCon. This is what happened:

A Barn Rodent, the Equity Scion Baron Monsanto-Unilever, his court Genealogist, a Preacher of the machine cult and one daring Post Robber faced the ugly truth that their small settlement only had enough cans of mediocre Chili con Tofu to last them over the next three days.

Being thoroughly sick of the stuff anyway, as this was the only food option they had for the last month, they decided to get proactive. The Post Robber got onto his motorbike to scout out the train tracks, and check if they could use the same ambush spot as last time.

The spot still looked useable enough, but there was also a squarish looking droid working on the tracks. The Post Robber made a daring jump from his speeding bike onto the back of the droid. There he could see the stencilled logo: „Grip-Master-3000“. Apparently, the box was busy making the tracks more „grippy“, so trains wouldn’t have to slow down on this slope — foiling just the thing the Post Robber used to exploit on past heists!

So, the decision was made: This droid had to die. Or at least be stopped! So he took his trusty halberd and smashed it right into the control panel — stopping the Droid dead on the tracks.

This apparently triggered some emergency notification system: For the next few minutes, signal flares got fired from the Grip-Master-3000, undoubtedly calling for more droids to help it.

Thankfully, this was also seen by the rest of the merry gang, who soon joined the Post Robber. Together, they soon came up with a plan: Use the Genealogists blowtorch to cut the tracks, make the grippy tracks extra slippery with the hydraulic oil from the damaged Grip-Master-3000 and thus make the next freight train run off the rails.

It wasn’t too hard to enact this, but in the middle of all the cutting and oiling, the Barn Rodent heard an electric whine of an armed surveillance drone coming closer steadily…

In the end, the group managed to defeat the drone, derail the train, disarm the trains self-defense mechanism, use dry ice to create an impromptu bomb, blowing up the second surveillance drone while hiding from the blast in king-sized fridges and made off with 144 cans of spam, barrels of light beer, half a ton of frozen peas, and novelty bow ties for everyone!

The players had a great time. Shifting the underlying rules from PbtA to the really simple OSR-rules of Into the Odd enabled me to get the players started within a few minutes with minimal introduction. My new random tables to pick archetypes and their gear gave everyone just enough things to have a feel for their survivors and the varied equipment made them come up with quirky solutions to the problems they faced.

I did realize though that the loot table needs to be seriously expanded to be not too repetitve, and some extra notes on how to create more complex scenarios need to be included too.

Nonetheless, I am very pleased about yesterday evening.

Small-scale pods as moderation advantage

Yesterday, I had a lengthy discussion with a proponent of big centralised social media platforms. Not because they have a particular love for big companies, but because moderation is actually one of these issues that are hard to do right.

The numbers I could find say that about 20% of all content posted in social media needs to get removed from moderation. Most of this is probably automated spam and similar, but there is also a fair amount of graphic violence, outright porn and, because humans are terrible, abuse and hate.

Moderators who have to sift through all this have the worst life, not few of them have to get counseling after a while.

So if you do moderation, you have to have the infrastructure in place to deal with large volume of content, the wellbeing of your staff, all the hassle of dealing with complaints about your moderation plus whatever regulatory requirements are needed.

Typically, this calls for a large scale operation.

Now, one of the reasons this happens is because people behave differently in a large-scale corporate environment than within their smaller circle of friends and acquaintances. If your social media pod is run by someone closer to you, you tend not to shit the bed so to speak. Because you know that your behaviour will possibly reflect poorly on your host.

If you federate the system, good moderation will still be needed, but it is entirely possible that one won’t have to deal with that many bad things, especially if there is an option to cut off whole pods from the federation if they behave too badly.

Of course, that last bit needs to be very carefully tuned, lest it results in censorship.