30 March 2020

Unknown Armies on violence

Unknown Armies is the single tabletop roleplaying game dearest to my heart, not least because the writing is self-aware about how the nasty thrills of the noir horror stories it facilitates are actually ... nasty.

One of the designers, John Scott Tynes, wrote my favorite critique of violence in tabletop roleplaying over a decade before the “murderhobo” critique came along, and I am told that he is responsible for this introduction to the rules for combat in the first edition of the rules:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels, dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Six ways to stop a fight

So before you make a grab for that knife, you should maybe think about a few things. This moment is frozen in time. You can still make a better choice.

Surrender. Is your pride really worth a human life? Drop your weapon, put up your hands, and tell them you’re ready to cut a deal. You walk, and in exchange you give them something they need. Sidestep the current agenda. Offer them something unrelated to your dispute, and negotiate to find a solution.

Diasarm. Knife on the table? Throw it out the window. Opponent with a gun? Dodge until he’s out of bullets. Deëscalate the confrontation to fists, if possible. You can settle your differences with some brawling and still walk away, plus neither of you has to face a murder charge or a criminal investigation.

Rechannel. So you have a conflict. Settle it a smarter way. Arm wrestle, play cards, have a scavenger hunt, a drinking contest, anything that lets you establish a winner and a loser. Smart gamblers bet nothing they aren’t willing to lose. Why put your life on the line?

Pass the Buck. Is there somebody more powerful than either one of you who is going to be angry that you two are coming to blows? Pretend you’re all in the mafia and you can’t just kill each other without kicking your dispute upstairs first. Let that symbolic superior make a decision. You both gain clout for not spilling blood.

Call the Cops. If you’ve got a grievance against somebody, let the police do the dirty work. File charges. Get a restraining order. Sue him in civil court for wrongful harm. You can beat him down without throwing a punch.

Run Away. The hell with it. Who needs this kind of heat? Blow town, get a job someplace else, build a new power base. Is the world really two small for the both of you? It’s a big planet out there.

Oh Well

Still determined? Backed into a corner with no way out? Have to fight for the greater good? Up against someone too stupid to know this is a bad idea? Or maybe just itching for some action? So be it. The rest of this chapter contains rules for simulating the murder of human beings. Have fun.

The rules which follow are rich in scary randomness, by design.

19 March 2020

Public option

This should be handy to have in my pocket: a blog post on the evidence that the Obama administration scuttled any hope of a public option in the Affordable Care Act behind closed doors.

This exemplifies how lefties like me read Obama. He dogwhistled progressive values, but did not actually fight for progressive policy because he does not believe in it — which his boosters attribute to the hard limits imposed by Republican opposition, but which lefties read as him deliberately leaving opportunities on the table.