New on Desk #3 — Subsection M3

As I described last week, Subsection M3 is this in-development cyberpunk crime drama rpg that I’ve been working with on and off in a kinda-sorta unauthorized way over the last decade. I visited Oulu last weekend to touch base with game designer Tuomas Kortelainen, to play and talk about the project. Because I’ve mostly idled away a flu this week, I might as well take the opportunity to write a bit about the game; Subsection has not been discussed much in public, and frankly it’s high time for somebody to put up a succinct explanation about it.

Intro to the Subsection

Subsection M3 is a tabletop rpg about procedural crime investigation drama. Player characters are crime detectives in a futuristic city, trying to balance their work and their values, their life goals and requirements of the job. Each session of play depicts one particularly grueling night shift at the department. The premise, setting and aesthetics are heavily informed by the classic scifi movie Bladerunner, to the extent that I personally just set the game in the Bladerunner setting, replicants and all.

(There’s immense potential for other settings here, by the way: we’ve yet to advance far on that, but I’m totally interested in using the Subsection chassis to run any and all of Judge Dredd, WH40 Dark Heresy, an Untouchables-style prohibition era cop drama or even, dare I imagine it, Delta Green. A fantasy version set in Lankhmar or Ankh-Morpork would be excellent, too.)

What makes Subsection unique in its field is the game’s aggressively anti-Aristotlean storytelling stance: instead of striving for well-formed stories, the game puts its everything into creating a dense, chaotic soup of urban crime imagery that only becomes story in an emergent manner in the minds of the players. The effect is very similar to reality television — the closest comparison would in fact be one of those “the camera follows police officers through their work shift” tv shows.

Subsection achieves its “anti-story” by having the GM prepare multiple bare-bones crime stories for each session of play. Each “crime” is essentially a small traditionally railroaded rpg adventure insofar as the prep is concerned: a list of sequential scenes that occur as the detective follows leads, revealing the crime and the characters involved in it along the way. The actual magic happens during play as the prepped story material is fed into the rather boardgame-ish sandbox the players operate in: because each individual detective can only be in one place at a time, the players are forced to prioritize between crimes in a dynamic decision-making matrix that waits for no man. Some crimes will fall through the cracks and remain unresolved. The overall effect is to make a single session of Subsection into an anthology of criss-crossing, misshapen stories that all too often lack beginnings and ends. A cast of thousands floats in an out of the subjective viewpoints of the detectives, and if players wish for human conclusions to the little tragedies their characters witness, they’re forced to explicitly commit to their curiosity.

The above would already be a game worthy of recognition, but Subsection also involves significant slice of life dramatic sandboxing: detectives accrue resources such as wealth and social recognition through success in their work, and there’s a sort of dating sim aspect to the way you maintain and develop personal relationships as the campaign matures. Essentially you do your job, which is solving crimes, so as to improve your lot in life and achieve personal goals. Further campaign-arc drama ensues as the personal and professional inevitably intermix in the way you’d expect of crime drama over say half a dozen sessions of play. The scope is both surprisingly wide and efficient in terms of mechanical weight: a few simple processes enable you to quantify and pace complex processes such as characters trying to save up for an off-world travel ticket, or develop long-term viability for a near-dysfunctional romantic relationship, or whatever. A bit like Apocalypse World fronts, except with more teeth.

The way the game structures player action is particularly exotic, so I’ll just put a few words into describing that in particular: as each session of play concerns a single work shift of a ridiculously overworked cyberpunk police station, action naturally begins in the evening and continues for a full 12 hours, only stopping as the morning sun greets the smoggy city. The players collectively track the passage of time, with individual detectives taking action hour-by-hour in a somewhat boardgame-ish fashion. The clever bit is that although the detectives are probably spread out in singlets and working pairs around the city, each working their own cases, the collective focus of the group can only be in one place at a given time: each hour the players choose one “active scene” that will actually be played through fully. Anything else that might be going on, whether NPC activities or other detectives doing their own things, is relegated into “shadow time” — you can still accomplish things even when the “camera” is not present, but as the off-screen resolution process is minimal and lacks all detail, it’s best reserved for boring maintenance activities such as travel and rest periods. Choosing the active scene at any given time is the choice about what parts of the given detective’s night carry human significance.

The interest in the emergent storytelling structure created by the interplay of shadow time and active scenes cannot be overstated: the players are confronted with a rich choice matrix as they are in control of not only of their character priorities, but also the dramatic focus. The exact same events carry entirely different implications and consequences depending on where the collective attention of the play group stops hourly, as the work shift progresses.

Subsection M3 is an unique combination of narrativistic creative agenda, mechanical formalisms and an ambitious sphere of play that can only be described as a cyberpunk sandbox. I’m a big fan of narrativism-without-dramatism, and Subsection is to my knowledge relatively unique in the way it approaches the challenge. The closest comparison I can think of is the ambitious Poison’d by Vincent Baker, with the understanding that the latter is notorious for being difficult to bootstrap, while Subsection goes down smooth as milk, with very clear and effective play procedures through-out.

Hmm, I probably should get Vincent to take a look when an English-language manuscript finally happens. He’s clearly my closest comparison here insofar as the design headspace is concerned.

The state of the project

At this writing Subsection M3 is at the tail end of its development cycle. The game hasn’t changed significantly over the last several campaigns, we’re mainly just polishing the details. The big question for a while now has been how, exactly, it’s going to be productized: the people involved in the development and playtesting generally agree that the game’s much too delightful to not make available to the public in some way, but Tuomas, the designer, hasn’t really had the time — or the inspiration, perhaps — to sit down and type a manuscript for the actual game text. As things stand, Subsection mainly exists in the heads of three fully-trained GMs and a a playtest rules draft I wrote a couple years ago for reference. It’s an interesting situation.

As I mentioned earlier, I made a point of visiting Oulu last weekend specifically to push the project forward in some way: both Tuomas and I are somewhat eremitic as gamers go, happy to work in our own local circles, so we don’t really end up meeting each other anywhere. I’ve barely corresponded with him over the game over the years, so a face-to-face meeting was much overdue after what, eight years. My idea was that I’d demonstrate the current state of the game to Tuomas, after which he’d be so inspired by it that he couldn’t help but start writing a product out of it.

The meeting was pleasant; we really should hang out more, it’s just three hours one-way between Upper Savo and Oulu, and there are several gamers after my own heart in the area. No reason to not visit there now and then to see what they’re up to. Meeting Tuomas’s beautiful children (the number of which has tripled since 2012 or so when I saw him last) certainly explained a lot about why he hasn’t been active in game development recently. Too busy developing humans, I suppose.

My Subsection demo proved less revolutionary for Tuomas than I expected, probably because I’d already sent him an up-to-date rules draft in 2017, and apparently he’s actually played the game himself since then, meaning that he’s actually relatively well-versed on where we’re at. The good part was that we don’t seem to have any meaningful disagreements about the nature of the game, or about the general roadmap of what needs to happen next. I’m still not sure if I’m disappointed that the meeting was so straightforward; on the one hand I could argue that I clearly didn’t need to visit because the team is more in line than I thought, but on the other hand this is the best result you possibly could have from a development meeting like this. Or I guess Tuomas could be more foaming at the mouth about finishing the game, but that’s not something you can control, so whatever.

One thing I suggested to Tuomas at our development meeting was looking into committee authoring via Google Docs or similar cloud service. I am not enthusiastic about hijacking the game and finishing it myself, but I think that some closer, more concrete cooperation might finally get this show on the road. In my experience writing can be much more immediately rewarding with some oversight, so if I need to set weekly goals to get Tuomas to start writing, then let’s examine that option next.

My Subsection plans for the spring

Our tabletop campaign is already in its latter half now, around session 8, so we’re probably wrapping up this particular weekly exercise over this quarter. Subsection is a pretty sausage-y game in that for the most part you just crank out links from the sausage machine until you’re satisfied; it’s not that the game doesn’t have dramatic arcs, but rather that it has so many of them going on at all levels all the time that it’s somewhat arbitrary where the campaign begins and where it ends.

One of the fun little things I’ve been doing in our campaign is my own newspaper. The December issue provides a rough overview of the electoral situation in the City.

I suppose that I have some mild preference for finishing my great Election Arc that’s been running ever since the first session of play: the game started in November 2019 (in the in-game timeline of the retro-futuristic Los Angeles familiar from Bladerunner), and we’re in the summer of 2020 now, so in not too many months we’ll get to elect a new mayor to the city, come election day. My core conceit for this particular story arc is that the crazy satiric cyberpunk politics of the City at this time just so happen to replicate the US presidential electoral situation of year 1972, so the election is, assuming no player character interference, shaping up into a clash between the ersatz Richard Nixon “Tricky Dicky” and ersatz George McGovern “Lady Deirdre Skye”. The player character detectives have been surprisingly Dicky-loyal (or perhaps not so surprising considering the kind of wretched hive of scum and villainy that the Subsection M3 seems to be in this campaign) so far, so I’m interested in seeing if that holds true as the electoral drama intensifies.

My personal Subsection heroquest won’t end with the tabletop campaign, though: I promised last spring to some friends at the RPG Refuge (a Discord chat play group) to arrange for an online Subsection campaign. I’ve been generally inefficient about actually getting around to that, but it really is on my to-do list for as soon as I manage to translate enough play material for it! (If you want in on this, let me know and I’ll hook you up when the campaign is ready.)

Gentlemen on the Agora

Selected discussion points from this week at my virtual gentlemen’s club of choice, whatever happened to come up when I was online:

  • A contributor has been reading King of Sartar, the centerpiece work of Glorantha world-building fiction. His godlearnerish questions inspire fun little debates on all kinds of matters no doubt familiar to Glorantha veterans: the problem of many suns, the implications of the three worlds cosmology, and so on. I attacked the HQ II magic theory in particular myself, having long felt that “spirit magic is something you own” does not correctly reflect the situation, leaving the entire all-too-neat motto more harmful than useful to exegesis of Glorantha.
  • I got some feedback on the blog in the form of a mock-irate contributor complaining about my “two cornerstones of cyberpunk, Gibson and Pondsmith” — where’s Bladerunner? Well yeah, but did you expect middle school Eero to actually know his stuff? Nowadays I would probably just suggest a few Norman Spinrad novels and the Warren Ellis Transmetropolitan in lieu of all of the above, anyway; less edgy strutting, more angry postmodern politics.
  • What’s the difference between D&D B/E and BECMI? Some contributors apparently can’t get enough Basic D&D without reading multiple editions, which thankfully means that we managed to explain the publication history of Basic D&D well enough when the question arose.
  • Is video streaming of rpg play a sensible form of entertainment? Seems pretty obvious in the world of Critical Role, but not all contributors at the Agora were so convinced. As regards rpg theory of broadcasting, it was pointed out that creating a tv show out of rpg play may constitute a distinct creative agenda mode (in the Forgite theory sense of those jargon terms) or not depending on how the production process is set up. Either way, a rpg show could approach either sports entertainment or a kind of reality-drama depending on the nature of its content.
  • Trad ’80s style game design, who even cares anymore? As many contributors on the Agora are frustrated traditional gamers turned into dirty storygame hippies or OSR fanatics, the complaints about the awfulness of old-fashioned games recur regularly. The discussion this time revolved around what I like to call “boondoggle game design”, a form of pathological design where the mechanical system design detaches from the practical reality of how the game is played as the designer digs into a mental foxhole and falls in love with a weird and pointless mechanical construct, all without realizing that said construct is not usable in real play. AD&D might be the first significant boondoggle design, being filled with non-functional rules as it is, but of course it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
  • What’s the best one-shot story game that runs in under 4 hours? The question is relevant for your average work-night game group wishing to sample a new playstyle without committing to an on-going campaign. The interesting bit is that many one-shot games are still too long, taking 6-8 hours in practice. Many titles were named, obviously enough, although not too many newer games; our collective knowledge of the scene is somewhat dated.
  • Star Wars got another round of discussion; it’s slowly replaced the Jackson LOTR films as Agora’s Hollywood geek complaint of choice, it seems — I don’t remember when we last debated LOTR movies specifically. (The Christopher Tolkien — RIP — character assassination this week doesn’t count.) Although there are dyed-in-the-wool SW fans among the contributors, nobody seems to seriously entertain the idea that the new movies would actually be good; we’re clearly too old for this shit.
  • Related to the above, an interesting question was fielded: assuming a SW roleplaying game, how do you actually make “temptation of the dark side” work in a meaningful way? Why would a player character ever go there? I presented two theories on this myself, the “Force actively brainwashes sensitives, so you might not get the choice” model and the “have Sith philosophy be less cartoonishly evil, and the Jedi philosophy less cartoonishly good” model. Although I feel that I could run solid SW jedi drama built on these two cornerstones, they admittedly do nothing for you if the game’s supposed to be a trad adventuring troupe thing in space; the party can’t withstand the alignment conflict, and my “solution” does nothing to fix that, so prepare for party in-fighting.

Second week of the Poll

The polling experiment has started well, it seems that I’m attracting enough of your attention to make the poll worthwhile. After the first week it seems that while we technically have some leading candidates, the race is so even that it’s practically a tie — anything could happen, so remember to vote. (This is no doubt caused by the approval voting technique we’re using. No worries, I’m happy to know that there are many potential topics for interesting articles here.) I had a few dead-in-the-water candidates withdraw in favour of fresh faces, and interviewed the current top three:

If The RPG theory of storyboarding wins, I’ll be writing an old-fashioned, dry RPG theory article on a surprisingly common rpg technique/phenomenon that will nevertheless seem crazy to people who don’t do it themselves or stumble upon others doing it. “Storyboarding” is an old Forge theory name for it (named by Ron in mid-’00s), and I don’t have a particularly heterodox take compared to old discourses, but my intent is to try for a more affirmative look: although the practice is poison to some types of gaming, other groups engage in it for good reasons. Understanding those reasons is the first step to creating games that actually address the creative impulses behind storyboarding.

If Cyberpunk 2020 Redux wins, I’ll be writing an overview-slash-first-draft for my Cyberpunk 2020 fixhack that I described shortly in last week’s newsletter. It’ll be one part literature review (on the original game text, of course), one part rpg theory on how this particular (unlabeled by rpg theory as far as I know) subtype of trad rpg works, and one part concrete design choices. I’m not going to finish the hack in one sitting, but it’ll be a start for something that might become playable later this spring if we grow interested in working on it some more.

If Review the D&D Immortals Rules wins, I’ll be writing a review on Frank Mentzer’s Immortals box for Basic D&D. I say “review”, but what I’m imagining is specifically technical review for practical gaming purposes, not a descriptive summary of the text (for that you can just read it, I don’t need to do that for you). The game (for it is a stand-alone game for most intents and purposes) is interesting and provocative, and I want to explain to you which parts I find useful for my modern day D&D gaming, and how. This’ll be most useful for old school D&D gamers with some prior subject familiarity and a desire to do cosmic (or xianxia, I suppose) D&D without Planescape.

My intent is to run the poll until the end of the month, and add some more topics if anything interesting should crop up. I’ll look into writing up the most popular one or two topics next month. If that goes well, we can do more polling in February on some new topics. Feel free to offer suggestions if there’s something you’d like to discuss in particular. Also, if the poll doesn’t seem to work the way you’d expect, let me know.

[January 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • The RPG theory of storyboarding (21%, 18 Votes)
  • Cyberpunk 2020 Redux (21%, 18 Votes)
  • Pointbuy game design (14%, 12 Votes)
  • Xianxia old school D&D (13%, 11 Votes)
  • Subsection M3 (12%, 10 Votes)
  • Review the D&D Immortals Rules (12%, 10 Votes)
  • Boondoggle game design (5%, 4 Votes)
  • Doing something worthwhile with Star Wars (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Something or nothing else (specify in comments) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 31

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As you might have already noticed, the poll settings should allow you to vote again even if you’ve already voted last week from the same IP address; feel free to do so. I won’t encourage outright stuffing the ballot box — that’s no fun, and technically trivial besides — but if you’ve decided to come back after last week and still have an opinion, you deserve to vote again. Maybe get some more distance between the top candidates to help me pick which one to make reality later.

2 thoughts on “New on Desk #3 — Subsection M3”

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