Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I Am So God Damn Mad About Pearce Shea's In The Woods Right Now

I want to get some things out of the way up front.
  1. I forgot about +Pearce Shea.
  2. I hate his game.
  3. In the Woods is not even the kind of adventure I like to run.
  4. If he wants another proofreader to take a pass before he releases another version of this down the line, I'm available.
Even if all of that sounds good to you, I don't think you should buy it.


So there's this phenomena common in the DIY scene that I want to talk about. Common to me at least, I certainly experience it a lot, and it's similar to a problem I had at the comic shop. See I handled every customer's pulls every week and I saw thousands of customers a week, including hundreds of regulars and hundreds of subscribers. Now to make a name up, I knew Dick Longhard's subscription inside and out. I knew when he added series, dropped series, noted when he just wanted one of something, kept him in mind for certain variant covers. I also knew Dick Longhard personally. We had extensive conversations every week and sometimes talked for hours. We liked a lot of the same books and I convinced him to try a few titles with fresh eyes and a new perspective. It didn't take but it led him to something he did enjoy, usually.

What I often did not know is that these two people were the same person.

It happens. I see a lot of people and I'm a busy guy. And, yeah, it's shitty, but I care a lot more about who you are RIGHT NOW in front of me and whether you're interesting, fun, surprising, engaging to talk to than I do who you are, where you're from, or anything at all about your life. Some of that is just guy-ness but even if you tell me your name I'll probably forget it until I've had a couple of interesting conversations with you.

Which is all to say that I know +Pearce Shea from G+ conversations and being one of the stewards of Santicore, praise be his horrible name. He is always watching. Nice guy, smart guy, against all better judgment seems to like me okay which always helps. Like I said, I'm a shitty guy. So when he released In the Woods and I tagged his post to remember to check it out when I got home, he reached out and comped me a copy. It was super sweet and I appreciate it a lot, being broke as a joke right now.

So since I cross my T's and I knew I'd read his stuff before somewhere, I looked him up, and oh goddamn it he's that guy.

Of course I'd read games with others. A lot. Because it's good and I read good things. The only reason I didn't have it on my sidebar is because I kept forgetting the name of the site, too, because I'm a fucking mess. I can't often use his writing for my at times purposefully narrow purposes but his work has a focus mine could sorely use a lot of times. We'll come back to that point.

Basically, I liked Pearce Shea in three different directions before I read this book, but forgot him twice. Hence I feel a public apology is in order.

So given.


One of the most rewardingly frustrating things in our community is when I read something that does a thing I'm doing better than I was gonna do it. It's often not close, just enough for association - to make someone go "Oh like in Fire on the Velvet Horizon" - that I revisit what I've done and readjust until it's a whole different thing and I'm satisfied with it. That's the key to me, not to see a good thing and go "I can do that better" but to see yourself on someone else's path and go "I can do ME better." This is a personal issue affecting The Work and doesn't exactly bear on In the Woods, though, because, after all, In the Woods is the kind of thing I'd love to see and do more of. Again, we'll circle back to that.

So it was upon reacquainting myself with Monsterparts (that problem of mine with names again, I kept thinking this was that Apocalypse World game) that I cursed to myself and immediately made a note to make major amendments to 2 projects, one of which I'd already given up for drunk work and the other of which was a big sprawling DUNGEON MIX post I'd been percolating. This experience is thrilling in a way and came back to bite me.

Billed originally as "attribute-less D&D" on his site, Monsterparts is a game where all the PCs take on the roles of The Kid Who Saw And Was Not Believed. You are not here to save the day. The world does not revolve around your actions. The day cannot be saved. The world is a goner. This isn't expressed through typical King In Yellow language or symbolism but rather the Lynch/Burton view of suburban sprawl as funeral mask, scab on the wound, or, in terms the games protagonists might grok, through Goosebumps sandboxing. You can cheat death and survive the horrors around you....for a time. No one believes you, and even the memory of what you saw, what you heard, weighs on you. Knowledge kills, and you can convince people to help you but you won't be doing them a favor.

The name of the game is inventory management and survival. Its old school D&D roots may show through in play at times more strongly than its Goonies roots.

All of this is shit I want more of, but it's specifically the Endurance rules (and especially those governing the taxing presence of monsters) that had be enviously hurrying to strike through my hard efforts.  My favorite rule in the game is how simply acknowledging the bad things in your life brings the darkness. It's such a kid logic kind of thing, such a part of that post-traumatic coping, the idea that to even express how you're hurting is to make it real, like the Event. I've seen grown ups struggle with this, a lot, sometimes from shit they experienced as kids, sure in the knowledge that this rule were true.

Related is the book's admonishment that authority figures and adults will only believe you at the worst possible time. The rules then go on to explain how to convince someone of something, but I would (and did) add a wandering monster roll triggered by attempting to convince a grown up of the world around you. It seemed super genre appropriate. "Stop it, kid, there is no such thing as bigfoot." "RAAAAHRRR argh gagble!"

There is a countdown in play, a timetable that probably works a lot more smoothly in person. I ran this online, with my camera focused on the Oblivion Clock, which was super creepy and effective when I finally addressed it NOT by describing it but by using it. That's not how it will work at a table but is, itself, a gag I really should have thought of before now, so damn you for that, too.


"Kids in the creepy woods" is one of my favorite anythings and the result of being not just a monster kid but also a ghost kid (and dinosaur kid who taught 6th grade sometimes but that's another tale). I mean I grew up a kid in the creepy woods and manifest has seen fit to put me back smack in the middle of some creepy woods with howly swaying pines on the night I ran In the Woods. This is tailor made for me in concept, but it practice this is a more unusual animal.

In the Woods is also the first time the Monsterparts rules are being released commercially to my knowledge so it kind of ends up working like a Free RPG Day adventure demo, spending a little time saying "Here is the implied setting of the larger world of this game, here is how you play this game, but AT THE SAME TIME here's the setting and background for this adventure and here's the rules information specific to this booklet." Reading through the whole thing is required to get it, I think, but once YOU the guy running the game has it then it's easy enough to explain. I talked players through character creation in G+ and while it took longer than it would have if we had pass-around handouts it still only took about 30 minutes for me to finish setup. (It would have taken longer if I hadn't done some of my bits earlier. Given the online issue I would say resist the spirit of the rules here and do more prep than you're specifically told to, fill out your whole roster, and just replace entries with ones the players make as needed.)

In saying that it feels at times like a Free RPG Day adventure that comes off as a slight, uh, slight. Certainly some people eying this book are doing so with the aim of playing around with a new ruleset, and they might come away miffed because in terms of the game IN GENERAL there's not a lot to tooth on here and very little in the way of tools to run a more general Monsterparts campaign. The tools are mostly focused on creating strange experiences in itself, which means you have to work specifically to adventure content.

I am bad at this because I hate it. With a lot of adventure books I feel like I am surplus to requirement if I run it straight. They lack the invention, surprise, fucked up sex shit and cannibals that fuel the enjoyment I find in running games. I literally cannot resist making changes and personal touches, to the point where (as alluded above) I made up more rules, ignored the advice about crocodile names, and invented another monster. It's a part of me, and therefore when a game actually comes with room to maneuver in its adventure modules it raises my eyebrow.

In the Woods has this room and doesn't has this room which leaves me pretty damn flummoxed. I'd compare it to Better Than Any Man except it lacks some of the open ended anything can happen nature of Better Than Any Man. It shares its sandboxy structure and its no-matter-what-you're-probably-fucked context but otherwise they're fairly dissimilar. I mean if nothing else BTAM is something you can use to begin or continue any campaign while In the Woods is packaged as a complete experience itself. Sure you could tack on a campaign to the end of this but if the same spooky kids keep thwarting the darkness time and time again then the world revolves around them, they are special, and that seems to run counter to the feel of In the Woods.

In the Woods is like....bonsai sandbox, which led me through a unique experience of not Mastering this adventure so much as curating it. So many people writing about story games are very concerned about controlling what the player CAN do or what the GM CAN do to the point where, terrified of anything but ultimate Goat Simulator freedom, they end up sounding a little tyrannical about what you can't or shouldn't do. Instead I found a lot of profit in making my job about gently reminding people they're kids, repeating creepy descriptions, avoiding too much genre awareness, and otherwise constantly reinforcing the CONTEXT and TONE. That doesn't mean that we weren't silly sometimes, kids are silly sometimes, eldritch horror sometimes looks like Zoidberg, but the hex grid is already set up to drive home the notion that this is a situation which must be escaped, not overcome, and my job is to pull a Tom Noonan and work the slide projector shouting "DO YOU SEE?!"

I had a lot of fun with the specificity of that experience. I wasn't their enemy or their friend like a bad GM and I wasn't an interface for the world and a cast of thousands like a good GM. Instead my hands were as tied as if I were a player character by my choice to run this adventure, and I only really played one character, who was The Situation At Hand.

That is praise if it doesn't sound like it. It's not something I'd do every week but I really appreciate when this hobby shows its war game and board game DNA and In the Woods feels a lot like one of the better "bottle experience" board games.

Digression: Cabin in the Woods is great and all and Betrayal at House on the Hill is basically that in board game form. I think throwing everything in a soup tureen and going "haha GENRE, am I right?" can be done well, sure, but I don't think it's much fun to play out in a RPG because you're really playing the game of Spot The Reference. I don't even like that in Feng Shui but if I may say so I've usually avoided that with my games. Say what you will about Friday the 13th but it didn't hinge on your breadth of experience. It was devoted, overly devoted, to delivering its singular experience. I may not like it more than a lot of more modern horror movies, who want to have their cynic and platonic at the same time, but I respect it more.


I can't say whether I did a good job proofreading for Santicore because nobody has called out something I've missed to me yet. But I am rated highly in performance testing and, format issues aside (there are a few clarity issues caused by formatting but none so serious and never so frequent that I think they're worth addressing), there are a few places here and there where it looks like your word processor decided you meant something else. I imagine you've heard about these by now but, if not, I can take a pass at it. It'd be my pleasure.

I've also done up some fan art of a kind for you, visual aids from when I ran this. Use them however you want.

Don't Buy In The Woods....

The basic gist is that you're kids lost in the woods at night and there's horrible monsters. It's a kid's idea of spooky woods and a night that is oppressive and alive. Some notes, then: I don't think they're too spoilery but I'll white them out anyway.
  • I made the badger very pregnant because I'm gross.
  • Lizard Yolanda sounds like an Elvis Costello song.
  • New wave 80s horrorsynth worked well to get me in the very specific mood, and +Dunkey Halton regretted that I shared this with him.
  • I think more that all game theory can ultimately come down to a divide between the kinds of games where players go "There's a reward, let's go after it" and the games where they go "There's a reward, FUCK that, go go go" and never speak of the reward again.
  • Since the party was small and camp was so near the path the players opted to try to Nope down the mountain with little thought toward rescuing their friends. While I know a lot of groups would take a different tack on this, the lure of the nearby trail and therefore steps to be retraced to/in relative safety (one might assume) is one I can see being hard to overcome.
  • I think this is a six hour game, basically.
  • While not exactly breaking kayfabe I let the players know, when asking about reasonable expectations, that a logical supposition would be (and this is why I brought this up earlier) Friday the 13th NES game rules. You know there are specific places where you'll get killed for sure, versus the trails where you could still be killed at any time but it's more spread out and less certain doom, but in the broader context you are definitely fucked either way.
  • The players come from a summer camp associated with their school. That means a mix of ages but there aren't camp counselors, only grown up teachers. Next time I run this I'm going to impose a 30-and-under rule on myself, replace the teachers with shitty college kids, and make the park rangers some in over their head grad students finishing arboreal studies masters.
  • Hunger is basically the best.
  • Getting back to the board game comparison, the grid mapping rules are justly advised as the first rules you should master, as it basically helps tip over dominoes for you.
  • Tim is the worst.
Now Over the Edge was a similar kind of bonsai sandbox and it advised players strongly not to read the whole book if they ever planned on playing the game. The game was built around a specific lore with specific SHOCKING REVEALS!!!

And I know a lot of people ignored that and read the whole thing anyway because some of y'all's contrary fucks, and also some people just read entire game system core books for fun or to pull ideas from.

If either of those describe you, do not buy In the Woods.

At least for yourself.


If you want an idea of what you're getting or you want to pick Pearce's brain for ideas, read these old Monsterparts rules.

If after reading the above you want to RUN In the Woods for your group, buy In the Woods.

If after reading the above you want to PLAY In the Woods, buy this book for someone and ask them to run it for you.

But don't buy In the Woods just to have another PDF. I mean one of your friends MAY end up running it for you down the line, and you'd be doing yourself a big favor right now. Support +Pearce Shea by throwing a buck or two his way, sure, he deserves it, but you know damn well that the PDF sitting in your documents folder will get too tempting eventually and you'll break down and read the whole thing and then be afraid to play the game EXACTLY as much as you WANT to play the game. This is apparently already a spreading phenomenon.

But if you are buying In the Woods buy it here and buy it now, because it's deeply discounted until November only.


I don't finish running a lot of my adventures or dungeons. Schedules are hard to pin down and by the time I have the time to set up another game I've become enamored with some OTHER idea and want to run that instead. It's a sickness, and it leaves a trail of broken toys going back about oh shit have I been playing these games for like six years?! When did that happen....

In any event, I'm finishing In the Woods. And then maybe I'll run it again, if I don't take that time to write my own Monsterparts adventure first.