Wednesday, December 20, 2023

BREAK!!ing My Silence

Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I officially inform you in an official capacity that Tenebrate Sage Shijin Goodmorning is my first BREAK!! character. Officially.
After I died, they said: "Try doing something you used to do." Okay.

Vagal Syncope, apparently. Something that just happens. Perfect storm of exacerbating factors, probably never happen again, here's 14 specialist referrals just in case though. I'm fine now, I won't be fine for a long time, I may never be fine again, I'm fine just being able to walk around at all, I'm better than ever, F): All of the above.

I forget exactly how far back Reynaldo and I have "known" each other. It'd be the old Google+ days, right? What a blessed little blip. I flatter myself that we admired one another, but I was certainly an adherent of their old blog site. Over time, and as we were able to glimpse only the outlines of one another's ambitions, the shape of his bootprint grew ever-clearer, ever more defined, while my own creative efforts so often resembled sand. Sometimes a sandcastle, sometimes colorful sand art, sometimes a sandstorm, but permanent and impermanent in equal measure. Transient fugue was my only muse. As time passed so too passed much of a chance to become very close, or for me to mooch off of his creative output and his cool friends. You see, I went off the deep end a bit and Rey....well: Rey was busy.

One Sunday in August I started to die. My final creative act in Roundworld would have been trying to put together a passable, parseable introductory scenario for BREAK!! and that would have been entirely on brand.

Partly because it was composed in the same way I so often worked: bash it out, smooth it out, and release it into the wild at the exact point I stopped wanting to fiddle with it. I'm not impressed with myself and I'm not an idea hoarder, but I also don't feel I owe anyone anything with what I make. People who respond to other people's shared content, especially fucking blog posts, with "hey here's what I would have done instead" or "hm interesting but have you thought about not doing that?" are folks I'll never understand. I get it when it's my stuff but when I see people trying to sub-blog some truly great creators out there I have a thing you can either use or not, and if not you have a thousand thousand other things to use instead. The entire worldwide web is not a workshop environment, right? So it was that this scenario was the labor of weeks (at that already more meticulous than I usually operated), not years.

Not a decade, not a decade plus.

BREAK!! has been in development for almost the entire time I've played or run RPGs. People are always surprised at that. I didn't grow up with this stuff, I grew up in a very Jesusy environment with a crippling fear of getting in trouble that has never fully abated. But while I was messing with Gamma World clones, Rey was running BREAK!!....When I was building D&D 4th Edition characters at work, Rey was running BREAK!!....when I made up a new game, or wrote a quarter or so of a dungeon, or dipped in for a max of 3 sessions in some online campaign, or lost my house and had to ditch all my shit, or struggling with whether I could even enjoy the hobby any more or engage with it in the way that felt natural to me without doing some harm or amplifying bad actions and bad actors....while I was trying to figure out what I wanted and who I would be next, the whole time Rey was running BREAK!!

I say running: I've known so many people who are totally working on this new game bro for ten years or more. I saw one of them recently, and another just now when I was shaving. The kind of person who has their own secret project they cling to that will never be finished (more specifically that they will never finish) that they can never reveal lest it be judged in its "not finished yet" state and shatter that person...This is self-indicting and from a place of love, because there's a lot of reasons someone might have need of a life raft even if it's never thought of like that. One of my favorite Marc Evan Jackson jokes: "I've really got to buckle down and win the lottery."

BREAK!! is a game I've pined for much longer than I've played or worked on any single game, campaign, scenario, or DIY. I've perhaps spent as much time thinking about the game as Rey has spent running it.

Again I say: running. BREAK!! does not feel like a game that has been written for ten years in the same way you can spot the long development time in a modern video game or someone's long-suffering first novel. It doesn't feel like it has been constantly torn down and sent back to formula again and again, chasing some new discourse or trend, searching for some new audience or taking on some new message, an abiding concern with novelty expressed not through experimentation but through mimicry. BREAK!! is pretty but it's not a pretty bird, pretty bird, hi there, pretty bird hi there. What BREAK!! feels like is a game that someone's circle of friends has been running constantly and with wild variations for a decade plus, less designed than engineered with stress points shored up where required and room for heat, expansion, shuddering and tremulations, flexibility, and livability accommodated wherever else they had room to run. It both feels and reads like every great game I've been a player in has felt. It's the vibe that a deft DM and a giving table can create together where every roll and role-play serves the other and all the stipulations and edge cases that weren't worth carrying were dropped along the way or transformed through contact like some alien spore.

It feels like a game where the way people use it was more important than any one idea its creators had. It's dismissive to call it the ultimate house-rules document but it's also intended as one of the higher RPG compliments I can imagine. The game feels (and reads, READS) not like the game you played but the game you remembered playing.

This isn't a review, per se.

I use the word "review" because people hear the word critique and think that either I'm offering constructive complaint or that I think a whole lot of myself. I think a lot of reviews in general end up being a bit of a cudgel at worst, and product performance review at best. This ain't Consumer Reports and I ain't Gene Shalit, I don't have the hair for it. Certainly I think that when it comes to a whole game - a whole game system - then a review is only ever going to be describing the elephant as a rope. My recent months with this book have given me some insights but months have only on occasion been years, and I've yet to crack a decade of craft and mill it down to a nutrient-rich slurry. I've generally only "reviewed" things I both thought highly of and felt I had something to say, if only to say that the piece said something to me.

What BREAK!! says to me more than anything is go play. Uninsistent in an almost unique way from the argle-bargle of a gaming scene I dipped on by and large some time ago, BREAK!! doesn't tell me I've been doing it wrong, or that this is the new way to do things, or that things will never be the same. I read enough house ads from Marvel Comics to be inured to that kind of thing before I ever even got to RPGs. Yet from every corner of the scene at times one can see some paraphrasing of "Not that but this," and its evil-bearded cousin "Never that, only this." BREAK!! isn't here to fix any part of gaming, the gaming hobby, the gaming public, the gaming industry, as either eclipse or in answer to some other publication or mechanic's perceived slight of mere existence. BREAK!! is here, this is what it is, hope you like it, go and play: I don't like message-first dialectics but if this game had an over-arching spirit to convey it is the word "Sure!"


BREAK!! is a game that understands that campaigns aren't forever. It's a game that understands that a character who roams the world for 50 levels getting more buff but making few connections cannot be said to have grown or advanced. It's a game where, if you're spinning too many plates or your d20 rolls under a wardrobe or you're on a bus you can just glance at the next page for your NPC's rolls. It's a game whose book is structured with what you do first, how you do it second, and where/why you do it last, my favorite way to most easily use a game book at the table. No part of its layout is really skimpy but there's always rooms for notes, references, exceptions, addendums, et al. 

Shall I review a system, then? Shall I tell you what you can and can't do? Am I your dad? Am I your dad's boss? No, the only thing I'm boss of is a dog kind of. I can tell you that enemy customization is simple, that character creation is quick, that many of the game's systems are really just the base mechanic being talked about in a different way that alters how things work and how you want them to work. I can tell you that the line between forgiving and fatal fights is thinner than one might suppose, and that the most interesting abilities as always are those not geared toward just piling attack and damage bonuses. I can tell you that while there is an implicit extensive story of epochs and demiurges and Connecticut Yankees and Electric Sheep that it is conveyed not through a hundred pages of homework but by the sopping viscous pervasive theming throughout the book at every stage and every page.

Envy, pure triple distilled...

By now I've sat with this game and I've read this game and I've looked at this game and I've showed people this game and I've done my best to sell this game and I've written for this game and I've run this game and I've played this game and I've made plans for this game and now this game is coming, near published, check your local Food Lion, shoppers! There are a lot of things that strike me about it but the main thing most people will react to first is the artwork. Grey Wizard's layout and design are a highlight of the few books I've thumbed through recently to be sure. Their artwork is another matter. I am quite accustomed to ugly artwork if the storytelling in the artwork is good enough. In RPG circles good artwork is flattened and airbrushed into corporate-biting sameyness, and great artwork is considered a luxury. A lot of those games have been cooking for a lot less time than this one, though, and cast a wider net for whomever they could get on budget. The investment of time and effort GW has put into this book is probably steeper than even I'd guess but I think it's all on the page. I have seen so many elfs in games and generally a great drawing might stir me to imagine how they talk, imagine how she fights, imagine his cruelty, and in BREAK!! I can look at any elf just standing around and know how they sit down, how they espy, how they loiter, how they catch themselves from falling.

There's a lot of ways to talk about what is and isn't great artwork in games and beyond but as a DM when a player points to a character and says "I want to be them" that's always a plus. In this game, you can point to just about any person and not only might you want to be them, and have an easy guess as to how to do that with little effort, you might as likely also want to be these characters' parents or children.

Reynaldo can talk at length about this game's many influences but what matters is whether a reader/player/DM can see that stuff in the text and design outside of a fun factoid section under the heading My Influences. If it's not ingrained in every decision and option and line and color and smile and cross-reference and designer note then it's only glorified bibliography, a senior yearbook quote in content's clothing. That burden lies squarely on the shoulders of the visual artists in a project, who also have to convey tone (kids this is library talk for "vibe"), boundaries, life and living, fashion and style, character, performance, humor, and history. There are whole setting splatbooks out there that are worth less than a single image can be, in fact that's probably most of them. Herein I can track an adventuring party's progress through the book, and a wandering merchant, and a series of faction allegiances, and the Pokemon evolution of a skeleton. I can see which Famicom game might have informed this, or what Joe Dante picture influenced that, or which Ghibli picture X was drawn from, but this is not a game of parts whose clashing aesthetics are part of its identity and charm the way the multiverse-hopping Feng Shui might be able to claim, it's a vision as solitary as it is singular.

People talk about this game like it's Rey's forehead baby and I'm as guilty of that as anyone but without Grey's surgical skills not only would this patient be unrecognizable they might not have survived the long road at all.

I'm going to eat this fucking book.

I like the character options presented here. I like messing around with the Battlefield Areas and figuring out fun twists and new combos and ways to further gamify. I like finding opportunities to bolt things on without having to disrupt or ignore a big chunk of the base game. I like how the different subsystems are all treated like different minigames, different phases of play, that are designed to feel different more than they are designed to work differently, the main gripe of most subsystems. I like seeing so many variations on appearance and style from the lifeforms represented in this game. I like being able to look at one big timeline graphic, decide which generational conflict most inspires me, and just dropping my game there. I like that I can drop a fantasy character into the real world as easily as I can do the opposite. I like that the TOC and index are actually pretty good, a personal sticking point with many books not even just most game books.

I like that the game's magic is ubiquitous so it focuses less on obscure and unattainable spells or enchanted items and more on how magic is used as technology without just saying "yeah everyone has magic," because they don't. I like how many consequences there are to fucking around with ancient and immortal powers or just showing your whole ass and asshole to a NPC for no reason. I like how comprehensive the play guides included are. I like the character sheet being short, as I have grown to actively avoid games with huge character sheets. I like the way the various authorial asides are handled and signposted, representing a concrete idea of how things are intended as well as guidance on modifying things further. I love the emphasis on customization and alteration found throughout the options and advice overall. I love the emphasis on regions rather than general advice on climate and overly specific maps full of awful names from 1 tie-in novel 31 years ago. 

I love that everyone has something interesting to do (or at minimum the option of picking up something interesting to do) no matter what kind of conflict is at play, so the question doesn't become "How can I fix this situation or fight to do the 1 thing I do really well" but, instead, "How do we approach this so that most of us have fun stuff to do?" I like the way fights are abstracted. I like how many abilities and options focus on fellow PCs and NPCs as individuals instead of devoting so much of that time and attention to broad categories or situational importance. I like how operating randomly in this game can give you an interesting outcome that isn't total bugshit gonzo. I like that the experience of running the game feels as much like a choice-making game as playing it does, as opposed to arbitrating other people's choices which I DO like and this DOES still require but the game allows more of a "hidden player" feel to DMing in a way that that even games with explicit DM characters like Ryuutama don't quite click for me. I like how hard it is to just die, and I like how easy it is to just die. I like that some people playing this don't know who the Thundercats are and it's still 100% made for them.

I'm so fucking old. I mean clearly. But I get to go again.

I like that the last scenario I ran through had the smoothest moment of everyone acting and thinking together, not just simultaneously but WITH each other and FOR each other....everything flowed so easily and it all worked as both a showcase of about 8 different mechanics as well as showcasing multiple parts of everyone's personalities. It took basically no time to adjudicate and it felt like a magic trick, like all the lions forming Voltron. I have read and played and run so many games that try to engineer that by way of a big list of Things To Do And How To Do Them And Why and instead here is an amateur BREAK!! campaign where everyone just fully knows who they are and fully knows what they can do and that's enough to let them do the rest. Not a fight or even entirely a victory yet weirdly one of my biggest gaming highlights in years. I like how everyone is coming at this from a different reference point - even if one said 'fantasy anime' that conjures up like a million different things without even taking generational divides into account - but people still are on the same page when you say something like "This is one of those times, right?" System alone can't promise any of this entirely on its own but I'll not deny it space on the winners' platform.

I also like the community that has come together in the Discord (even though Discord servers are a poor open forum and marketplace), with the game's creators good-naturedly rubber-stamping people wildest ambitions, a healthy mix of first-timers, recovering Grognards, dedicated makers, RPG expats, and people just here for The Pretty. Reynaldo and GW have been so forthcoming, giving, and helpful, and there's already enough free supplementary material to fill a couple of Dungeon magazines before the book has even shipped.

I didn't always have faith y'know. I think that's frankly fair after so many amazing flameouts. I can't believe I get to play it at all. I can't believe I get to play anything now. What a way to close a chapter, what a way to kick off a new game plus of life (I can now play as Luigi)....

Is this it? Is this the perfect game, the one where no one behaves badly, that repels bad actors, that fixes every little problem you had with your last game, that somehow fixes everything inside of you? That's not real, amigas. That's a fake thing you hurt yourself with. I can say that it's probably a game you wish you'd made? Certainly that's true for me.... But no, nothing's perfect, I just haven't found much that I feel like complaining about in this. Am I too close? Too starry-eyed, too nice and friendly, too romanced by this new toy? It could be the case. I've hardly been some manner of Polyanna in this life but I'm starting to see a way forward for me to even think about playing or running games and not twisting myself up about it and in my crystal ball I foresee this book being a large part in that. Maybe I'm just too happy for that or too happy for the things I can do now....and a little shocked at just how fucking close I came with some of my pastiche paeans over the years; anyone who ever followed along with my bullshit has to know that I'm an easy mark for so much that's here.

When I last made, when I last worked on The Game, the work I was doing resembled a lot of the work to be found here. That could be frustrating for some but it's...affirming. And it leads me to believe that I'd be quite comfortable moving my letter to BREAK!! more or less.

The biggest problem you'll have with this game that I can think of right now is that there is a huge amount of intrinsically Getting It and a huge subsequent amount of buying in that is required to really vibe with this game on its own terms. That's been my biggest issue with a lot of games though, from Perdition to Mothership to Mork Borg to Ryuutama to Lasers & Feelings to Pearce Shea's Monsterparts to CoC to Aberrant to Og to my post-apocalypse DuckTales campaigns. That positions this less as a fun new toy to play with for most than as a gift that a comfortable, dedicated group can give themselves. Mind you, when I've run the grimmest stuff I can think of it still ran minute to minute rather like this. There's plenty of room to dirty this up or make it more conventional or tack on some awful D&D2E psionics so you can still have your fun. I think it'd be doing you and the work put into this book a big disservice but I

cannot imagine being bothered by whatever you're doing at this point.

I've had procedures done and I'm on medicine now and I've got a monitoring thing in my home for now. I've got different stuff to do and different stuff to worry about. Closing a chapter and BREAK!!ing the mold...This website feels a lot emptier than it did, and it felt alone then. But I've done it. So what. So what now. So what's next. Maybe I'll do something I used to do. Maybe I'll do something different. Maybe I'll still do what I've been doing. I'll keep to myself and hope that's the right or better thing to do.


Fuck it.

If I'm gonna carry that weight I may as well have a BREAK!! now and then.